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In a call center environment, sorry is the default setting. It’s only natural that agents will apologize to customers when they have a complaint and, in many cases, an apology is completely warranted and necessary. 

However, despite its ubiquitous status in the call center world, sorry isn’t always the right thing to say. In fact, a recent article from the Harvard Business Review found that over-apologizing can actually backfire and have a negative effect. The research suggests that, “an apology that extends beyond the first seconds of an interaction can reduce customer satisfaction.” With this in mind, it’s important to have alternative options for when sorry just doesn’t cut it. 

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word 

More often than not, a sincere apology is the correct way to begin a customer service conversation, but there’s no need to keep repeating it. Call center agents can say it once, genuinely mean it, and move on to solutions. In the end, it’s unlikely that a customer is reaching out just to hear an apology—they’re reaching out because they want their issue resolved. Indeed, research cited by the Harvard Business Review suggests that “continuing to apologize after the first seven seconds of such a conversation will most likely backfire.” 
 

An over-apologizing agent may have good intentions, but after a while it can begin to wear thin and come across as insincere. Leadership studies have actually identified a somewhat unusual phenomenon in customer service, where employees projecting a lot of warmth are perceived as less competent by customers. Generally speaking, customers are more concerned with solutions than apologies, reporting higher levels of satisfaction when agents offer a variety of approaches to resolve their issue. 

Saying sorry will always be an important part of a call center agent’s job, but it’s not a fix-all. It’s important to know when and how to say it and, as we’ll discuss now, when to opt for a different approach. 

7 Alternatives to Saying Sorry in a Call Center 

Sorry is suitable in some scenarios, but it's not the panacea that many agents think it is. Whatever your views on the benefits of apologizing to customers, there are some cases where you’ll need to see beyond sorry and take a different approach. It’s important to have a few more strings to your bow. Here’s what to do instead of saying sorry over and over again. 

Listen 

Active listening is an essential feature of any successful agent-customer interaction. Agents need to accurately assess the situation to ensure that they can provide the correct solution and, if they do need to apologize, do so in a genuine, understanding manner. An apology may be necessary, it may not be, but the most important thing is for the agent to have a clear picture of the problem. An agent cannot effectively navigate an interaction and solve a problem without active listening. Ask the right questions, don’t interrupt when the customer is speaking, and never get defensive. 

Show Understanding 

In customer service, understanding is multi-layered. Agents have to understand the customer on an emotional level, as well as understanding the intricacies of their problem, in order to have a productive conversation and find the right solution. Each customer is different and will require a personalized approach, so it’s vital that agents make the effort to understand each customer on their own terms and give their full attention to every new interaction. 

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Avoid Generic Templates 

It can be tempting for agents to fall back on a script and go through the motions, but customers are extremely perceptive, they will notice if an agent isn’t fully engaged. Simply reciting policies or working off a script will come across as robotic, presenting both the agent and the company as uncaring in the eyes of the customer. An agent working in this manner is likely more concerned with saying something for the sake of it than they are with doing their actual job, solving the customer’s problem. 

Take Responsibility 

We’ve all heard the “sorry-not-sorry” apology before, when somebody “apologizes” without taking any sort of responsibility and distances themselves from the issue as much as possible. An agent might (but shouldn’t!) say, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. This is a defensive non-apology, implying that it’s the customer’s problem for feeling that way, not the company’s fault for making them feel that way. The implication is that the agent isn’t actually sorry about the issue, they’re just sorry that it’s come to the point where the customer is complaining. Be genuine with your apology, take responsibility for the problem and explain what you will do to fix things. 

Show Sincerity 

Humans are perceptive. If someone isn’t being genuine, we pick up on it and, in a call center scenario, sincerity is key to a positive interaction. Typically, customers are already coming into the interaction with a complaint, so you don’t want to give them further cause for frustration with insincere apologies and disinterested conversation. This is why saying sorry again and again is a mistake, it wears thin quickly, leading the customer to question if the agent really means it. 

Acknowledge the Customer Issue 

It’s important that customers feel heard. An agent must not only understand the customer’s issue, but make the customer aware that they understand the issue. If they fail to do so, the customer may leave the interaction feeling that they weren’t listened to. Repeat the key points of what the customer has said and speak about the steps you will take to resolve the issue. This assures the customer that you have been listening and establishes a productive path to resolving the issue. 

Show Empathy 

Empathy is important in all areas of life, but especially so in the contact center, where understanding forms the basis of all successful interactions. By putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, you can better relate to their issue and find the appropriate solution for their specific problem. Certain complaints may be common, but all customers are unique, so it’s essential that agents treat them as such. An empathetic approach makes the customer feel heard, improving their service experience and strengthening their relationship with the company. 

Final Thoughts 

In a contact center, it's easy to say sorry at every opportunity, but this isn't always the best approach. In fact, it’s become clear that apologizing too much can actually backfire and negatively impact customer experience. Rather than saying sorry repeatedly, agents should personalize their approach and try to form genuine connections with customers. An approach founded on empathy, understanding, and active listening will yield far greater results than getting stuck in the sorry cycle. 

 
With Scorebuddy, you can use scorecards and analytics tools to gain a better insight into the prevalence of “sorry” in agent-customer interactions and take action to refine your contact center’s approach. To see how these features can enhance agent-customer interactions, request a demo today. 

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