How to Craft an Effective Apology Email to Your Customers

No business is perfect. Despite your best efforts, you’ll likely need to send an apology email to your customers at some point. Perhaps your products arrived damaged, you missed a deadline or two, or you didn’t respond to a customer’s concerns as well as you could have. 

It happens! It’s never too late to apologize for your mistakes. There isn’t one correct way to apologize, but there are many wrong ways to do so. Your business’s reputation and customer relationships hinge on a satisfactory apology. 

Skip to our apology email templates or our infographic with science-backed ways to apologize to your customers, or keep reading to explore the essential elements of a business apology. 

Here’s how to write an apology email to customers that’s sincere and effective

  1. Determine who’s giving and receiving the apology
  2. Describe the issue and acknowledge the negative impact
  3. Prioritize creative problem solving  
  4. Put your money where your mouth is, if possible 

1. Determine Who’s Giving and Receiving the Apology 

First, you should decide who will send your apology email. It may be tempting to have the person who committed the mistake send the apology. However, according to business management experts, you’re often better off having the CEO or another senior officer send the apology.[1] 

Remember that perception is everything. A senior officer of your company apologizing for a mistake shows that you’re taking the situation seriously. Meanwhile, a lower-level employee issuing the apology might offend your customers. 

After you’ve determined who should send the apology, you’ll want to lock down the correct recipient of the apology. This may seem obvious, but it’s not always carried out effectively in practice. 

apology-email-Lululemon

For example, in 2013, Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson apologized for comments he made suggesting that some women’s bodies “don’t actually work” with yoga pants.[2] The only problem was that he didn’t apologize to the right audience. Instead of apologizing to the customers he offended, he apologized to his employees. 

“I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my actions,” Wilson said. 

If you apologize to the wrong person or offer a vague apology, you’ll likely lose credibility—and maybe even business—with your customers. 

2. Describe the Issue and Acknowledge the Negative Impact  

In writing an apology email, specifics matter. You should describe the issue, mistake, or disruption in detail and acknowledge the inconvenience your customers have faced. If you use general language or don’t seem to understand your customers’ woes, your apology will come off as insincere. 

Let’s look at some more examples of botched apologies. In 2017, Dove apologized for a video clip it posted on Facebook in which a black woman removed a shirt and appeared to transform into a white woman.[3] The company released a statement on Twitter saying that it deeply regretted that it “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”[4]

Dove’s apology rang hollow because it was too vague. The company should have described what it had done wrong in its own words and acknowledged the harm that its video caused. 

Or take United Airlines, which apologized for forcibly removing a customer from his seat on an overbooked flight. In his apology statement, CEO Oscar Munoz said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”[5] 

apology-email-United

The word “re-accommodate” left a bad taste in many people’s mouths since United opted for a vague description of the incident, instead of acknowledging that the customer was dragged off the plane in a very public spectacle. 

As a good rule of thumb, try to limit the number of times you say “I” and “we” in proportion to the number of times you say “you.” Customers want to know that you care about them and understand their troubles. 

3. Prioritize Creative Problem Solving 

Saying “I’m sorry” is always important. However, research in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that many customers value creative problem solving more than they value excessive apologies or empathy.[6] 

The study looked at customer interactions at service desks in airports across the U.S. and the U.K. Customers tended to respond more favorably when customer service associates demonstrated that they were trying to solve their problems creatively and efficiently.

Meanwhile, customer service associates who drew out the apology and went out of their way to express empathy and concern, instead of getting to the problem-solving phase quicker, tended to frustrate customers. The research suggests that apologies should not last beyond the first seven seconds of an interaction. 

apology-email-Facebook

That means that you should say you’re sorry in your apology email, but don’t drag it out. Make sure that you quickly explain the steps you’re taking to troubleshoot and solve the problem. 

For example, in a 2006 statement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for privacy concerns on the social media platform and quickly added, “We have been coding nonstop for two days to get you better privacy controls.”[7] 

4. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, If Possible

Finally, to signal that you’re serious about your apology, consider offering some form of compensation to your customers, if possible. 

A recent large-scale experiment in the U.S. offered apology emails and $5 coupons to Uber users who had been inconvenienced by a late pickup.[8] The multi-month study found that offering a $5 discount, in addition to an apology, increased the demand for future trips. In fact, even when the researchers offered the $5 discount to inconvenienced customers without an apology, demand for future trips increased. 

apology-email-Uber

On the other hand, an apology email without a $5 discount had no effect on future demand in some cases and a negative effect on demand (fewer people riding with Uber) in other cases. 

That means that many customers want to know that you’ve paid a financial cost before they accept your apology as genuine. 

Business Apology Email Templates

Copy and paste these apology email templates for just about any tricky situation, from a poor brand experience, to a missed deadline, to a subpar product.

Poor Product Experience Apology Email 

apology-email-example

Subject: I’m sorry about your recent purchase of [description] 

Hi [customer name], 

I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed in your recent purchase of [product name]. 

We want to make it right. Here’s what we can do for you: 

  • [solution #1] 
  • [solution #2] 

Just let us know which option you’d prefer. 

Additionally, please accept this [description of compensation] as a representation of our commitment to striving for excellent service. 

Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns. 

Respectfully, 

[your name] 

Subpar Customer Service Apology Email 

apology-email

Subject: Please accept my apology for [description] 

Hi [customer name], 

I’m sorry to hear about your experience with [description of the situation]. I, like you, am disappointed in our performance. 

Here are the steps that we’re taking right now to fix the problem: 

  • [list the steps you’re taking to position yourself as an ally of your customer] 

Additionally, please accept this [description of compensation] as a representation of our commitment to striving for excellent service. 

Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns. I’m also happy to chat with you more about ways we can improve our service. 

Respectfully, 

[your name] 

Missed Deadline Apology Email 

apology-email-3

Subject: I’m sorry for [description of missed deadline] 

Hi [customer name], 

I’m sorry that we missed our deadline on the [description of project]. I’m particularly disappointed because I know that this sends a negative signal to you that we’re not being as careful as we should be, and I know that we can do better. 

Please know that I’ve investigated what went wrong on our end and found that [explanation of went wrong]. Here are the steps that we’re taking right now to fix the problem: 

  • [list the steps you’re taking to fix the problem] 

Additionally, please accept this [description of compensation] as a representation of our commitment to striving for excellent service. 

Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns. 

Respectfully, 

[your name] 

General Business Apology Email 

Subject: Please accept my apology for [situation description] 

Hi [customer name], 

I’m sorry to hear about your experience with [description of the situation]. I can only imagine you felt [connection with your customer], which is unacceptable and not a representation of our commitment to quality. 

Here are the steps that we’re taking right now to fix the problem: 

  • [list the steps you’re taking to position yourself as an ally of your customer] 

Additionally, please accept this [description of compensation] as a representation of our commitment to striving for excellent service. 

I hope that you can forgive our mistake and that we can continue to grow the strong relationship we’ve developed. 

Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns. 

Respectfully, 

[your name] 

When You Shouldn’t Apologize to Customers 

Of course, if you’re not truly sorry for something, or if you have no willingness to make a change, you shouldn’t send an apology email. Otherwise, your apology will come across as weak and forced. 

apology-email-BP

A now infamous example of someone who wasn’t truly sorry for his company’s mistake is former BP CEO Tony Hayward. He “apologized” for BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 in a way that angered and upset many. In the most notable line of his apology, he said, “I would like my life back.” [9]

In many cases, no apology is better than an insensitive one. 

Check out our infographic for a closer look at the art (and science) of apologizing to customers.

apology-email-how-to

Infographic Sources:

Harvard Business Review | Journal of Marketing Research | National Bureau of Economic Research | Management Science | Vox | Inc. | The Hill | Business Insider | NPR | CNBC | Forbes  

Article Sources:

  1. HBR.org. “The Organizational Apology
  2. BusinessInsider.com. “Lululemon Founder Apologizes for Blaming Women’s Bodies for Poor Yoga Pant Fit
  3. NPR.org. “Dove Expresses ‘Regret’ for Racially Insensitive Ad
  4. Twitter.com. “Dove on Twitter
  5. CNBC.com. “United CEO Says Airline Had to ‘Re-Accommodate’ Passenger, and the Reaction was Wild
  6. ResearchGate.net. “Frontline Problem-Solving Interactions: A Dynamic Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues
  7. Facebook.com. “An Open Letter from Mark Zuckerberg
  8. AmazonAWS.com. “Toward an Understanding of the Economics of Apologies: Evidence from a Large-Scale Natural Field Experiment
  9. BusinessInsider.com. “BP CEO Tony Hayward Apologizes for His Idiotic Statement: ‘I’d Like My Life Back’

Sally Lauckner

Sally Lauckner is the editor-in-chief of the Fundera Ledger and the editorial director at Fundera.

Sally has over a decade of experience in print and online journalism. Previously she was the senior editor at SmartAsset—a Y Combinator-backed fintech startup that provides personal finance advice. There she edited articles and data reports on topics including taxes, mortgages, banking, credit cards, investing, insurance, and retirement planning. She has also held various editorial roles at AOL.com, Huffington Post, and Glamour magazine. Her work has also appeared in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan magazines. 

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