Apologies Really DO Work



Have you ever annoyed a potential customer, or made her angry? Before you decide to ignore the faux pas and press forward with the pitch, or write her off and move on to greener pastures, try this simple technique: say, “I’m sorry.” That’s likely instinctive behavior for many of us, but at times it may seem easier to call no further attention to your words or action that aggravated the prospect. Doing nothing is the wrong call, research shows.

In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted to gauge the change in behavior for people who had been treated rudely. The setup involved “hiring” coffee shop customers to perform a simple task for $5, and then (apparently accidentally) overpaying them. Some subjects were subjected to rude behavior by the experimenter, who appeared to take an unimportant cell phone call in the middle of explaining the task. The subjects who experienced the rude behavior were much more likely to pocket the overpayment.

Ariely then tweaked the experiment by repeating it but having the experimenter add a simple apology, stating, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken that call.” The apology completely offset the effects of the rude behavior. The subjects who experienced the rude behavior but then got the apology were just as likely to return the overpayment as the control group.

The neuromarketing takeaway is that apologies really do work. Of course, “sorry” may not completely negate the effects of major failures or even repeated small ones. But Ariely’s work does show that for one aggravating incident, an apology is the perfect remedy. So, don’t let your miscue slide – suck it up, and apologize!

Amazon Link: The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
Kindle Link: The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

  1. Page says

    How about when there are repeated problems, the apologies get kind of tiresome. Right now i am trying to buy and on-line item on sale. I am expecting my second and third apology shortly and still have not complete the transaction. The third better be pretty big. It is clear to me, as a sometimes developer that they launched the sale without testing it.


  2. Roger Dooley says

    Repeated problems and apologies will result in the credibility of the apologies decreasing and the impact of the problems increasing, in my opinion. The experiment showed that people would forgive one rude act with an apology. If the rude behavior resumed, though, more apologies wouldn’t work.


  3. Chester Butler says

    Thank you! I’m sorry! And a sincere smile. The Holy Trinity of salesmanship.
    Toss in a little reciprocity. Apply consistently and before you know it you have sold something or made a new friend. Damn, life is so complicated!

  4. Page says

    Apology 1

    “Hi Page, if it was the medium halter that you were trying to purchase there was an error on the site that has been corrected. The medium halters are in stock, we have lots! Thanks and I apologize for the confusion. Happy trails!”

    Apology 2

    “Hi Page, you need to add the fly mask to your shopping cart along with the halter so that the PROMO code can deduct the $19.95 price of the fly mask. You can always place your order over the phone at 1-877-818-0037 if you prefer. Thanks and happy trails!”

    Not an actual apology. They did test it but they NOT use naive testers. Marketing implication: people do not read instructions. Make error unavailable. When a buyer has a problem it is always the sellers fault.

    Apology 3

    “Hi Page, I’m sorry you’re having problems with your order. As stated in the email you need to add the fly mask to the order which would make the price 39.90 before discount. Thanks, Lesley”

    What’s wrong with this apology? “…you are having problems…” turns the blame partially around on the customer. Should have been something like. “We are so sorry we our instructions were unclear. You need to add the fly mask to the order. Better yet make error unavailable.

  5. Chester Butler says

    I agree the apologies are not well executed. But I think it may have to do with communication skills. It does come across as insincere. After the second one, a phone call would have been in order or a little gift. It takes a lot of skill to apologize correctly. It also means you have to set your ego aside so you can make a trip to the bank!

  6. Page says

    They are very sincere and they are good people. This was just going on during the beginning of this discussion and I decided to use them as a little “case study”. When I read the instructions, it worked fine.

    If you are an on-line retailer (or anyone else, dealing with people on-line) you can expect people to not read instructions, particularly when the instructions are separated from the actual task, in this case in an email when the customer is going to be at your selling site.

    It would have been better if I could have just clicked the button in the email and they put together the deal. They used a promo code and could have the input right when they put together the deal. I think the only purpose of the promo code is to make their “friends” “feel special”. I think a button in the email would have been sufficient.

    As far as apologies are concerned, a seller should figure out a way to assume all blame, even if it is somewhat absurd, unless you want to get rid of the customer, something that we consultants sometimes want to do.

  7. Chester says

    Well done and well taken. I truly am shocked that customers do not read! 🙂 I sell insurance, want to guess how many read a policy?

  8. Wes Man says

    on Page’s topic,

    There was similar discussion in this topic with a friend of mine, some time ago. We were analyzing why some people almost don’t apologize and it feels effective and yet, some don’t stop and feels it’s weak.

    Apologies tend to have “marginal utility”, based on the person (with his “perceived value”), the situation that needs apology and the frequency of usage. It can even make it worse in some situations.

    Or, the more the person apologies, the lesser effect it has. The worse the situation is, the less effect an apology might have.

    I believe big companies can utilize the apology well, but only if used sincerely.

  9. Roger Dooley says

    Agree, Wes. If I’m rude once and immediately acknowledge it with an apology, I’ll be forgiven. If I’m rude often, I’ll confirm my status as a jerk and apologies will be viewed as insincere.


  10. Page says

    You might be interested in knowing that I sent the on-line marketing manager to this discussion and had a thoughtful reply basically agreeing with out points. She is dealing with an old, limited, shopping cart function which, I suspect, really limits her ability to construct deals the way I suggested, so she has to use kluges.

    From a neuromarketing (or just human) perspective, this, of course, really cements my loyalty as a customer.

    As a “public service” I run a really complex figure skating competition registration site. I do a lot of apologizing, although I have done my best to make the process as simple as possible. I also try to follow my own suggestion that I assume all blame when there is a problem, even if it arising in Paypal’s credit card processing, but it is hard when the “customer” is so clearly in wrong. In some ways the whole process was much more customer friendly when we had paper entry forms but my wife and I would spend 100s of hours translating the weird crap that people put on paper forms into a reasonable entry record by hand.

  11. David Brains says

    I used to have a lot of trouble being confronted with my own wrong-doings and apologizing for it, but as soon as you let go of such ego-based mental constructions, life becomes a lot easier!

  12. Page says

    It is even harder to let go of ego-based reactions when it is not your own “wrong-doing” but the person you apologizing to’s “wrong-doing”. When the thing they messed up with was your own creation, it is very easy to slip into apologies like:
    “I am so sorry i failed to anticipate just how stupid a user could be…” which is worse than no apology at all.

  13. Safarijack says

    I feel like this is a very limited example.

    I feel like there is quite a clear link between saying sorry and being blamed for something. If something is partially your fault (lets say 10%) and you apologize for it you will be allocated a 100% of the blame. In that case apologizing results in negative outcomes.

    I might start apologizing a bit more after this study :). It highlights when it is good to say sorry!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m not sure I agree, Safarijack. If you’ve ever had an argument with a spouse or significant other, you might find it wise to apologize even if you think the other person is mostly to blame. That can work in other social and business situations, too. Your apology can disarm the other person rather than serve as confirmation that you were wrong. Similarly, there’s the philosophy of the customer always being right. Argue, and you lose the customer. Apologize and fix the problem, and you may have a customer for life.


  14. Danielle says

    I think the idea behind apologies is that you are genuinely sorry – if you’re not, don’t say apologize. If you are really sorry for whatever happened it is a lot less likely that the same situation will arise in the future.

    Saying I’m sorry isn’t a get out of jail card, being sorry is the ticket to longer and strong relationships.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      While a patently false apology is meaningless, Danielle, I think in business situations most apologies are real. Even when much of the problem is the customers fault, as when the customer didn’t pay attention to what he was buying before the purchase, an apology like, “I’m sorry the product didn’t meet your expectations,” can be totally honest. Business apologies have less emotion than personal ones, but simply acknowledging the customer’s concern and apologizing for the outcome can make a big difference.


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