If you want your customers'  forgiveness for when your company messes up, science says you have to buy it. Wait-- I know that sounds like the last thing you want to hear, but let me explain.

A recent study by University of Chicago economist and former chief economist at  Uber John List says that people best respond to an apology when it actually costs the one apologizing something, especially in business.

According to an article about the study, List says he was inspired to study the science of apologies after he experienced a particularly bad ride with Uber and was disappointed that he never actually received an apology for it.​

To study the science of apologizing, List recruited Ben Ho, an economist at Vassar College who proposed the theory that all meaningful apologies come with the apologizer having to acknowledge they've suffered at some kind of cost.

Ho identified two different types of apologies that come with some sort of social cost:

1. The Status Apology: Where someone admits to an incompetency that has caused some kind of harm.

  • Example: "I'm sorry. What I did was so stupid."
  • Cost: A hit to your reputation.

2. Commitment apology: Where someone commits to doing better so an infraction won't happen again.

  • Example: "I'm sorry. I promise to try and do better next time."
  • Cost: The cost of being held to a higher standard -- and therefore having to put in more effort -- than before.

But, it turns out in the business world, customers prefer businesses to have a more literal cost when it comes to their apologies.

The team of researchers analyzed data from 1.5 million people who used Uber and arrived at their destinations late. They divided the riders into several groups and emailed each group a different type of apology on behalf of the company or offered no apology. Half of the groups received a $5 coupon with their apology email.

The groups that received the coupon-- regardless of what type of apology they got-- spent more money than usual with Uber over the next few months while those that received only an apology or no apology spent less than usual with Uber over the next few months.

In the article, List says it's important that businesses show consumers that there is a cost to their wrongdoing when they apologize, preferably a monetary one.

Let's look at an apology formula from sociologist Karen Cerulo that comes from the same aforementioned article that your business can follow when offering an apology to make sure customers not only come back, but come back ready to forgive, forget and maybe even spend some cash. 

1. Be direct with the customer.

When you say sorry, you're not tossing an apology into the ether. You are directing it at a specific person. Even if you are directing it at a group of people that is too big to address individually, you should put in some second person "you" language.

I always tell my employees that when something goes wrong with a customer, they should lead their apology by acknowledging the potential impact for the customer. In our case, if a customer's shipment of instant drug tests arrives late, it could potentially impact their hiring process.

2. Express remorse in an accessible way.

To put it as simply as possible; just say you're sorry. Take responsibility, own up to your mistake, let the person or people know that you genuinely sorry and refrain from channeling your inner celebrity or politician and turning it into a non-apology.

At my workplace, we try to keep things informal during an apology because too much formality can make it seem sterile. Also, we want to make sure the focus is on the person being apologized to. While not an official rule, we try to encourage employees to count the "yous" they use. As a general rule of thumb, for every "we" or "our," we use in an apology message, there should be two "you" or "your" to make sure we are concentrating on what really matters. ​

3. Make restitution.

If possible, make some kind of restitution. How egregious a person was wronged by your business should dictate what type of restitution is offered. It could be a coupon or some other type of money saving device or free gift. Or, it might just be an admission of wrongdoing and a promise to do better.

We prefer to give a refund that is commensurate to the mistake before the wronged customer even asks for one because it is more immediate and addresses the current situation. A coupon, while still a good idea, is only useful if the wronged customer spends more money with the organization, which might draw even more ire from them.

Published on: Oct 31, 2018