When Should Brands Apologise to Their Customers on Social Media?

By Grazel Gueco

Everyone loves a responsible brand. We like brands that design safe products and eco-conscious brands that make green business choices. As a whole, we also like brands that “take responsibility” when something goes wrong. When it comes to handling your social media reputation, being ready to take responsibility is an essential part of being an empathic brand that stays connected to your audience. In fact, it can be the key to avoiding PR disasters and can even bring unhappy customers back into the fold.

But when, exactly, is it the right time for brands to apologise to their customers on social media? It’s important to know just the right response when a customer raises a complaint, especially in a public forum.

To Apologise or Not to Apologise?

Knowing when to apologise is critical – but so is knowing when not to apologise. An apology at just the right moment shows compassion and appropriate remorse. This is, naturally, most appropriate when a mistake has been made and the brand is truly at fault. However, not apologising can show integrity and strength; expressing confidence in the brand’s consistent well-chosen actions even in the face of social media abuse.

If your first inclination is to apologise, you may be apologising too early or too often, which can come off as insincere. If your inclination is not to apologise, this may be your ego working to protect you, an important psychological function, but you’ll want to truly assess the situation before deciding that not apologising is the right answer.

It’s important not to let a habit of over-apologising or a swell of self-protective ego guide you in the wrong direction.

Apologies that Make a Difference

For a good apology, one that feels genuine to the person who was wronged, you need three things:

  1. Genuine Remorse

People are judged on how they apologise. A person who’s had a bad experience or been slighted doesn’t want to “go through the motions”, they psychologically want to see that the wrongful party is truly sorry. It’s important to word and frame your apologies in a way that shows genuine remorse for the wrongdoing or mistake.

  1. Evidence of Change

An apology has little meaning unless there is a clear plan to avoid that problem in the future. People want to hear what’s so different that the problem can’t happen again. “We’re so sorry there was mold on your product” is not the same as “We’re so sorry you received a mold-affected product. As a result of your complaint, we found the malfunctioning cooler and here’s a picture of us scrubbing and repairing it so this can’t happen again. Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention.”

  1. Paint a Better Future

Studies have shown that the most effective apologies don’t just explain the problem’s source, they paint a better future where the problem cannot happen again. Often, explaining the problem’s cause can sound more like an excuse, where genuine remorse should spur a person (and brand!) to make overt efforts for a better, problem-free future. When you apologise provide both evidence and assurance that you won’t let it happen again, to the original customer or anyone else.

So When is It Appropriate to Provide an Apology on Social Media?

Brands should use apologies when they are the most meaningful – when something has truly gone wrong where remorse is appropriate and solutions are being put into action. It can be tough to tell exactly when these moments are, considering that there are many shades of customer dissatisfaction and brand responsibility. So here is a helpful reference for the best and only times for a strong brand apology on social media.

When  Customer Has a Bad Experience, Offer Your Deepest Apologies

Customer experience is essential. Your brand creates responsibility for that experience by running a website, offering services, and shipping products. When an error on your end results in a bad customer experience, it is appropriate to offer a sincere apology with an action plan to prevent that bad experience in the future. 

To maintain integrity and trustworthiness with your customer base, it’s important to match the severity of the customer’s bad experience with the weight of the apology. Along with your apology, consider ways to achieve customer satisfaction, like allowing them to return the product for the correct size or granting loyalty points for the frustration of technical difficulties.

A complaint about receiving the wrong colored item might receive “You’re right, the color doesn’t match your order form. That’s our bad and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. Here’s a free return label and 3 drop-points near your house. We’ll send you the right color product right away”. Where a complaint that a customer was double-charged on the website might more appropriately receive a “We are deeply sorry that our website’s failure resulted in financial trouble for you. We have already refunded your order and our dev team is working right now to make sure that the glitch you experienced can’t happen again.”

When a Product Fails, Tale Responsibility

Of course, an apology is even more important when a brand’s product has clearly failed to meet quality or performance standards. When a product fails or is defective, apologise immediately. Most people (and especially your broad social media audience) will understand that factories aren’t perfect and sometimes a button is sewn wrong or a line of glue doesn’t sit right. Make it clear to your customer that you absolutely do not represent low-quality products.

Apologise for their receiving a defective product and thank them for bringing it to your attention so you can make it right. Then send them a replacement or a refund to make it clear that one broken product is the opposite of the best your brand has to offer.

Not only will the unhappy customer get a better product and know that you care, but your general social media audience will also be comforted to know this is how you’d handle any defective product, should they happen to receive one.

When There Has Been an Ethical Shortcoming, Apologise with Genuine Remorse

The most vital time to apologise, however, is when the company has made a serious moral or ethical mistake. This is often the actions of one or a small number of people. Maybe one of your scheduled social media posts was insensitive – or a disgruntled employee posted something offensive on purpose as an act of revenge. Perhaps it was recently discovered that one of your business partners was harming local wildlife with unlicensed practices, or there’s a scandal involving an employee’s misconduct.

Whatever the moral or ethical shortcoming, allow the brand to show your whole team’s genuine remorse. Use language that conveys how embarrassed and sorry you are that this – whatever it is – happened in your company. Then make an effort to share and outline the changes being made to make it right internally and with your entire audience.

Know Your Trolls: How to Apologise Without Falling Into a Trap

Last but not least, know how to apologise in a way that doesn’t “feed the trolls”. We all know that some people complain just to stir the pot or get free stuff. First, it’s better to be kind to all customers and audience members than to be seen as hostile, so an apology is always better than hostility even if you suspect a scam. 

Second, apologise for non-faults (and provably wrong statements) in a conciliatory manner. Say you’re sorry the customer is unhappy and offer reasonable remedies. If a complaint is provably wrong, you can also politely provide counter-evidence as they disengage. For example “There is no one named Sally at our Bampton shop. You must have confused us with another shop.”

Any account that wants to spew negativity more than they want satisfaction, however, you are free to disengage by inviting them to take their complaints to a private (and more personalised) customer service line. Either they call or they don’t.

Not Sure How to Handle a Potential PR Apology Situation?

The right response to a social media complaint can be tricky. Not sure if you should apologise and, if so, the right apology for the situation? We can help you make the best overtures for both the complaint account and your audience as a whole. Contact us to make sure your PR responses are always on the right track.