Say “Thank you” not “Sorry”
After a service failure, use appreciation (“Thank you for your patience”) instead of an apology (“Sorry to keep you waiting”) to improve satisfaction, repurchases, and word-of-mouth.
New to Ariyh? Join 7,223 evidence-based marketers for 3min insights 💡 based on research 🎓 to grow your business 📈 If you find these insights useful please share them with your colleagues and friends, Ariyh grows thanks to you!
Today’s insight is brought to you by… Storyblok
Make your content easy to manage and publish across all your digital channels.
Join Storyblok for the fourth edition of Stories from the Blok to learn how to transition to a highly efficient headless CMS.
Want to sponsor Ariyh? Here’s all you need to know.
US companies lost $1.6 trillion in 2016 due to customers switching after poor service, and 44% of unsatisfied customers vented on social media (according to Accenture data).
So any improvement in recovering after failing a customer has a big impact.
An elaborate study used 12 experiments to show us how to do that.
P.S.: If you’re interested in tools and systems to stay productive, I’ve been subscribed to Dan Shipper’s Superorganizers for a while now.
He interviews CEOs, content creators, and best-selling authors to learn how they structure their calendars, take notes, read books, get through their inbox, and manage their emotional lives. Check it out if you might find it useful!
Use “Thank you” instead of “Sorry” to better recover from a failure
Impacted metrics: Customer satisfaction | Customer spending | Customer retention
Channels: Customer service | Marketing communications
For: Mostly B2C
Research date: December 2019
After a mistake or service failure (e.g. a long wait, wrong product delivered), thank the customer for their understanding (e.g. “Thank you for your patience”) instead of apologizing (e.g. “Sorry to keep you waiting”).
People will be more satisfied and less likely to complain.
If the failure is severe (e.g. waiting 60min to order at a restaurant), you need to accompany the “Thank you” with compensation (e.g. a free drink, a discount).
Thanking or apologizing before the failure is more effective than doing it after (e.g. when you know the service will be slow).
Thanking people after a service failure, rather than apologizing, is more effective at restoring their satisfaction and reducing complaints. Either method is better than not saying anything.
For example, people in experiments were:
15% more satisfied when they received a reward below their quality expectations and were told “Thank you for understanding” rather than “We apologize”
31% more likely to complete a survey after initially being given the wrong one when the lab researcher thanked them rather than apologized
The effect is strongest for narcissistic people (those with a strong desire to boost their self-esteem), who tend to be younger and heavy users of social media. It disappears for those with a low level of narcissism.
(People’s reactions when asked to imagine a plumber that arrives 1 hour late - Click to zoom in)
New here? Subscribe for the latest marketing research 💡 from top business schools 🎓 in 3min practical insights 📈
🧠 Why it works
When we apologize, we shift the attention to ourselves:
Acknowledging our failure helps forgiveness
But it also makes it clear that it’s our responsibility
This encourages negative thoughts about us to linger
When we thank, we shift the attention to the customer:
Highlighting their merits and contribution (e.g. patience, understanding)
And people like being told they have good traits (e.g. a good, patient person)
It still implies that we’re at fault (since we recognize their sacrifice), but in a softer way
The effect probably backfires in extreme situations. A valet that crashes a client’s car and then says “Thank you for your understanding” probably won’t go down well. However, this was untested, we don’t know what exactly counts as serious vs extreme failure.
We don’t know if there are long-term risks to this technique. For example, thanking customers could make them feel that they’re entitled to preferential treatment in the future (e.g. no fees for a late payment because they were patient during your previous failure).
🏢 Companies using this
The idea of saying “Thank you” instead of “Sorry” has appeared in popular media (e.g. Buzzfeed) in recent years.
It remains rare and inconsistent in customer service teams and company communications. Just like using “I” (I’m happy to help you) instead of “We” (We’re happy to help you), it does not seem to be part of company guidelines yet.
⚡ Steps to implement
When you fail your customers (e.g. break a promise or expectation), thank them for their patience or understanding instead of apologizing.
If the failure is big (they had a pretty bad experience), you need to also offer them a form of financial compensation (e.g. a free gift) if you want to recover their satisfaction and loyalty.
If the failure is extreme (it was a disaster), thanking them may backfire. Stick to a timely, empathetic, and elaborate apology to limit the damage.
🔍 Study type
Lab and online experiments. United States and China
You, Y., Yang, X., Wang, L., & Deng, X. (December 2019). When and why saying “Thank You” is better than saying “Sorry” in redressing service failures: The role of self-esteem. Journal of Marketing.
College of Business, New Mexico State University; Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina; School of Management, Zhejiang University; and Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University. United States and China
Remember: This is a scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
Rate today’s insight to help me make Ariyh's next insights 🎓 even more useful 📈
Want to sponsor Ariyh or ask a question? -> Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t have time to study all the latest marketing science in depth? -> You can ask me for Personalized Recommendations. I will analyze your business and tell you exactly what research you should apply.
New to Ariyh? -> Subscribe below or read other 3min marketing insights here