How to Say You’re Sorry

It happens even to the best client services teams. Eventually you’re going to fail a functional test or break a build. And when you do, you’ll need to apologize for missing the mark. Here’s how.

Decide whether you’re actually sorry.

Clients sense insincerity right away. If you’re not actually sorry don’t fake it. Instead, respectfully listen to your client’s position and look for a way to address her concerns. But you can’t say you’re sorry when you’re not.

Say the words:

“I’m sorry.” If you agree you’ve fallen short of the mark saying the words “I’m sorry” makes it clear. Don’t be ambiguous.

Express sincere remorse.

Never issue a politician’s apology. Tip: if the first word after I’m sorry is if, you’re doing it wrong:

“I’m sorry if your perception of relationship boundaries diverges from mine. I understand that for some sensitive people this divergence can cause angst.”


“I’m sorry I made a pass at your sister and I won’t do it again.”

Do it in person.

While most client management can be conducted remotely, kickoffs, launch parties, and apologies all happen in person.

Issue the apology forthrightly and move on.

Groveling makes people suspect you want their pity, which never breeds respect. Instead, be specific about what you got wrong and how it hurt your client.

Invite your client to vent.

While you must show up with a plan to cure, don’t move to the cure too quickly. Invite your client to express frustration, and don’t let it get under your skin. Remember: you let them down, they’re human, and they need to vent.

Share your plan to cure.

After the words “I’m sorry” your plan to cure is the most important component of the apology. It shows your client not only that you understand where you fell short, but you also have identified the behaviors that led to the shortcoming and understand how to change those behaviors to fix the problem. Be detailed: what will you change? When will it happen? How can the client measure the change with interim milestones? But…

Don’t over-promise!

This is the hardest piece of advice to follow when issuing an apology. You let your client down, you feel terrible, and you want to move heaven and earth to make it right. But when you over-promise on the heels of an apology you’re just feeding your own narcissism instead of trying to fix your client’s problem. Promise only what you can deliver and no more.

Fix the problem and don’t let it happen again.

Clients are just like you. 99% of your clients are smart, hard working, care about what they do, and don’t relish conflict. Don’t embarrass your client or yourself by finding yourself in the same conference room eight weeks later issuing the same apologies and making the same empty promises to cure. Virtually every client you encounter will give you a second chance. No one will give you a third.

Have you had a tech company apologize to you? What was it like? We’d love to hear from you.