I Hate Saying “I’m Sorry”

I’ve done customer service in a lot of different jobs and in every one, a typical exchange goes like this:

Angry Customer: I need you to do [something completely unreasonable]!

Customer Service Rep: I’m sorry but I can’t do that.
I’m sorry but that’s against policy.

For a long time, every time I heard a customer service rep say, “I’m sorry but…,” I cringed. I hated hearing it. I tried never to say those words. Why?

Because I’m not sorry. Because I haven’t done anything wrong. Because my employer hasn’t done anything wrong. We’re not at fault.

Most policies exist for a reason. The limits to what my position is empowered to do exist for a reason. And no, we can’t make an exception for you.

I feel wrong saying “I’m sorry” to someone when I don’t mean it.

Saying “I’m sorry” sounds like I’m agreeing with them that the policy is unreasonable or that we should make an exception for them (if only we could.) It feels like I’m throwing my employer under the bus, making them the bad guy so I don’t have to be.

It sounds like I’m tacitly approving the customer’s (usually) selfish and unreasonable behavior. I’m not OK with that.

So one day several years ago, I was kvetching about this with a coworker and he asked me a question:

When you’re dealing with a frustrated, angry customer, is it your job to prove a point and be right? Or is it your job to deescalate the situation and try to find a useful resolution?

You can’t win an argument with an angry person. You can’t have a rational discussion about the purpose of policy with someone who’s being irrational. You have to defuse the customer’s anger before you can do anything else. No matter what, that’s always the first goal.

“I’m sorry” can be a powerful tool to defuse someone’s anger. And the damnedest thing is that it works (most of the time) even when the customer knows you don’t mean it. It signals a willingness to listen, to avoid confrontation, and meet them as best you can.

That, then, lays the groundwork for a better outcome for the interaction. As much as it galls me, saying “I’m sorry” to an angry customer frequently works. Even if the customer is clearly in the wrong. Even if the customer knows you’re not a bit sorry.

There are some concerns about liability and legality: customer service reps can’t say anything that a customer could reasonably construe as an admission of fault or responsibility. Companies don’t want to inadvertently commit to something they can’t do, or put themselves in a position where they have to violate their own policy. But I doubt any court of law would conclude that “I’m sorry” constitutes an admission of guilt, so I consider this an overblown worry.

Some people use “I apologize” to address this issue, which is less personal and doesn’t commit me to agreeing with the customer’s complaint. It offers some protection to the customer service rep and the organization. But it’s also less powerful in its effect precisely because it’s less personal.

As someone else pointed out to me: empathy is what matters most in these types of situations. It’s about building a relationship. Reverting to impersonal language can get in the way of that.

Working in a public library, this aspect is far and away the most important: we need to build relationships, make our patrons feel accepted and seen and listened to. We need to let our patrons know we care about them and their needs. We must provide empathy.

It still galls me to say “I’m sorry,” though, when someone is being unreasonable. It still chafes to say when I don’t mean it. But it’s not my job to be right. It’s my job to help this customer and the organization have the best possible interaction.

Me being pompous about principles isn’t going to help.

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