Sorry seems to be the hardest word in the resolution of complaints but it shouldn’t be that way.  One small word can lead to a fundamental shift in how an individual views the outcome of a complaint and their treatment within the complaints process. In this blog I examine the power of ‘sorry’ and why it is a word that should be used more often.

At the heart of every complaint is a person who believes they have been wronged and wants that acknowledged. The complaint may be straightforward and easy to resolve.  It may be complex and impossible to ever redress completely. It may not be upheld following investigation. But none of that changes the core fact that the individual wants their feelings and experiences acknowledged.

So why are apologies not more forthcoming?  Why do they seem so difficult to obtain? Inevitably the answer varies, but in general people who are responsible for handling complaints often think that an apology:

  • creates an expectation that the complaint has merit/will be upheld (if given in the early stages), and/or
  • is an admission of liability – either personally or for the organisation.

Neither of these points are correct because a meaningful apology can be given without doing either of those things. It is about how you apologise, the reason for doing so and when you do it that counts.

In almost all cases I believe that an apology at the start of the process can be very powerful. This isn’t about whether or not a complaint has merit – it is about the individual who has reached a point where they feel they need to make a complaint.  “I’m sorry you find yourself in the position where you need to make a complaint”. This is something that a manager in any organisation should want to acknowledge.  In no way does this suggest that a complaint has merit, or that it will even be accepted for investigation, it simply acknowledges the position the individual finds themselves in.  This acknowledgement can help to shape the dynamic of the complaints process in a positive way because let’s face it, no one wants to make a complaint, but they often feel they have no other choice. So the best way to get the process off to a good start is to acknowledge that.

But that should not be the only time an apology is offered. If there is a delay in resolving the complaint or if a mistake is made in the process along the way, then a full and frank apology should be given. This doesn’t expose the organisation to further scrutiny or liability – in fact, it can prevent both! Apologies in this context are about being transparent and accountable.  They are about acknowledging that there has been a problem in the handling of the complaint and that this is being dealt with. Because an apology is often a complete redress, when errors in the process are acknowledged and apologised for as they occur, it can remove the need for an individual to seek external review of the handling of that complaint.  When they do seek external review it can remove the need for the external body to recommend further redress if the apology is considered sufficient.

Those apologies should be given as and when they are required throughout the process and also repeated in the decision letter.  This is not only important for the complainant, but it creates a clear record for any external review that may take place in the future.

Where a complaint is upheld, I would expect the decision letter to offer an apology. Even where the decision has been taken not to uphold the complaint, a decision letter could recognise the fact that the individual felt aggrieved and that you are sorry that they felt that way. Just because you aren’t personally responsible for what has happened doesn’t mean you can’t say “I am sorry that xyz has happened to you”.  This isn’t an admission of liability – it is an acceptance that either something happened that shouldn’t have or an acknowledgement that someone feels that something has happened that shouldn’t have. This is a fundamental element of good complaint handling.  It is a demonstration that you have heard what the complainant has said and felt.  Sometimes that is the only form of redress the individual wants – even if you don’t uphold their complaint, it could be enough for them.

But an apology at the right time alone will not bring about these benefits if it is not sincere.   Offering a genuine apology can bring maximum reward for everyone involved without any risk.

Of course there will be occasions when an apology is not appropriate, but I would suggest that this would be rare and that the default position should be to apologise rather than to look for reasons not to.

In short, don’t be afraid to apologise – the power of “sorry” is overwhelmingly positive and can transform the entire complaints process.