Skip to content

How to write an apology email that will save the relationship

Saying sorry can be hard! Many people shy away from difficult communications (particularly when they know they’re in the wrong).

But an apology is actually a prime opportunity to save and even improve the relationship your business has with its customers.

The opportunity

Remember, many unhappy customers don’t complain. They just leave and never come back.
So if a customer has complained, they’ve given you a gift – the chance to make it better.

A complaint is an opportunity to:

  • Interact personally with your customers
  • Look at what went wrong and prevent it happening again
  • Improve your product/service or business processes
  • Show professionalism and customer care

What’s more when you successfully resolve a customer complaint, the odds of them doing business with you again are higher than if they had never made a complaint in the first place.

So with that in mind, how should you actually respond?

First things first. Before you even start writing, you need to:

  • Check the facts. Find out exactly what happened and how.
  • Define your purpose. What outcome are you aiming for?
  • Analyse your customer. What do they want to hear?
  • Convey your information. What do you need to say?

Once you’re clear on those points, you can start writing a reply that is sure to leave the customer with a good impression.

To do that, make sure your reply is…

  • Prompt. Don’t make them wait.
  • Understanding. Show empathy for their disappointment.
  • Helpful. Provide a solution.
  • Personal. Don’t send an automated reply or use a template.
  • Appropriate. Use a polite, respectful tone but do NOT be overly formal.

Here are three important pointers to bear in mind once you start writing:

Firstly, use your reader’s name!

Using a term such as Madam / Sir / Valued Customer is too impersonal and makes your response look like template. Receiving a response that looks pre-prepared will only further antagonise the recipient.

Secondly, consider the passive voice.

While we’d normally recommend using the active tense in business writing, there is a place for the passive tense when responding to complaints. For example, it works better when you want to avoid sounding accusatory. Instead of writing “you didn’t make the payment on time”, which will immediately make the reader defensive, it would be less antagonistic to say, “Your payment was not received on time.”

Finally, avoid old-fashioned, overly formal words and phrases.

They are not personal enough and make you sound unfriendly and insincere. This can be critical when the relationship is hanging in the balance.

Look at the difference in tone between these phrases.

Dated and formal Warm and personal
Please advise… Could you let us know…?
We are in receipt of… We got… your earliest convenience… …as soon as you can…
Please accept our sincere apologies… We’re very sorry…

The phrases on the right are more likely to make the reader feel they’re communicating with a human who genuinely cares.

Now let’s look at exactly what to include in your email.

  • Start by thanking the customer. It took time and effort for them to notify you. Their feedback is valuable.
  • Apologise immediately. Be honest. Acknowledge the impact on them.
  • Then explain what happened. Be factual without making excuses.
  • Offer a solution. Tell them how you’re going to fix the issue moving forward, and perhaps consider some kind of compensation.
  • And end on a positive note. Provide something to look forward to.

For example, take a look at this email.
Your company sent Ms Smith her order but an item was missing.

“Dear Ms Smith,

Thank you for your email and for letting us know about the missing charger. It must have been frustrating not to be able to use your new phone immediately.

I’ve looked into the issue and I see the items got separated in the warehouse, meaning they were not packed together. We’ve fixed the problem now so it doesn’t happen again.

A charger has been sent to you by express courier and I’d also like to offer you a 20% discount voucher as compensation.

Thank you again for letting us know and we look forward to helping you with your future orders.

All the best,”

This email has a very good chance of turning a disgruntled customer into a loyal follower. It’s a great example of how a difficult situation can be turned around with a positive outlook and some well-chosen words. So embrace the challenge – it’s an opportunity in disguise!