As a freelancer or small business owner, you always do your best to keep your customers happy. After all, your livelihood depends on it. Unfortunately, when you are a freelancer or a sole operator, your service is only as good as the day you are having. Sometimes things go wrong for reasons that are completely out of your control; sometimes, you make a very human mistake. All you can do is write a heartfelt apology and hope your client is willing to give you an opportunity to redeem yourself.
In this article, we'll show you how to write an apology email for those days when things just go wrong. We'll also share a few apology email templates you can adapt and utilize when it's appropriate.
When should you apologize to customers?
You may have gotten some advice from other business owners never to apologize because it could be seen as an admission of guilt. Depending on the circumstances, an apology email could be seen as accepting legal liability, but there's another risk to consider.
Refusing to apologize when you are clearly at fault is infuriating to customers who will likely take their business elsewhere. It could even make the situation worse.
A New York Times article that looked at the rates of legal action taken against medical doctors found that the best way of avoiding lawsuits was for doctors to candidly admit to and own their mistakes. Another study found that customers are far more likely to forgive a company that apologizes than one that offers them cash.
If you are worried about being held responsible for a customer's loss of revenue or other damages due to a mistake you or a representative made, you can still apologize without admitting fault by using statements like "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I apologize, I'm sorry to hear that you've had this experience."
Not every apology will hit the mark. Most customers hate hearing the phrase "Sorry for the inconvenience" and other terms used that fail to express empathy or regret.
Have you ever heard of "anti-apologies"? Sometimes, you may think that you've expressed your apologies, but instead, you've shifted blame or made excuses under the guise of an apology.
Examples of anti-apologies include saying, "I'm sorry, but...", "I'm sorry you feel that way," or "I'm sorry you took it that way."
How to write an apology message
No one likes admitting that they are at fault for something, but when you are in business, you have to own your mistakes and apologize when you are in the wrong. This will help you build relationships, foster trust with your support, and improve customer satisfaction. A simple "I'm sorry" may not be enough to avoid losing a customer for good, so we've compiled a list of tips and templates to make your apology email more effective.
1. Apologize sincerely
This may seem obvious but apologizing sincerely is the key to a successful, professional apology email. We may think that our words alone will resonate and come across sincerely when we apologize, but making amends takes more effort than that. If you get defensive or try to pass the buck or make excuses, your apology email will come across as insincere or forced.
You could damage the relationship with your customer more if you come across as insincere or unempathetic. Listen to your customer, put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of a terrible mistake caused by a trusted service provider. Acknowledge how they feel, own up to your part in the situation, and offer your sincerest apologies.
If you need to take a few minutes to get into the right frame of mind, take a walk or grab a coffee until you feel calmer and ready to address the issue in an apology email. The best way to come across as sincere is to make your apology email personal. "We apologize for the inconvenience caused" is far too overused to come across sincerely. Instead, say "I'm sorry" and tell the customer why you are apologizing:
- "I apologize for the delay in my response."
- "I apologize for the error made in calculating the shipping cost."
- "I apologize for the poor quality of work delivered."
- "I apologize for missing the deadline."
2. Owning the mistake
Admitting that you were at fault is probably the hardest part of any apology email or apology letter, but the most sincere apologies should include an admission that mistakes were made that led to the current situation.
Most people hate admitting they were wrong, either because of their own egos or simply because they are afraid someone will start scolding them. The opposite is usually true—it's hard to argue with someone who acknowledges that they've made a mistake. Your client will no longer view you as infallible, but they will gain respect for you as someone who has integrity and takes responsibility for your actions, good or bad.
- "I acknowledge that we agreed to deliver the project by Tuesday, and I should have alerted you earlier that it would no longer be possible."
- "I'm sorry that you've had to deal with the added expense as a result of the mistake in my calculation."
- "I'm sorry that I neglected to take the holiday into account when I planned the delivery schedule."
Don't shift the blame by using vague "we" statements, and tailor-make the apology to each customer. You should also resist the urge to justify your actions at this point (although you can explain yourself at a later stage!). Taking responsibility for your actions will go a long way toward rebuilding trust.
3. Empathize and validate your customer's feelings
You don't need to agree with everything a customer has said, but you should acknowledge what they are going through and how they feel. It's important that your customer knows that you've listened to them when you draft an apology email to customers or a specific client.
Sometimes an irate customer has blown up over an issue that you wouldn't be rattled by in the slightest, which makes it harder to empathize. Let's say that you work as a wedding planner, and a bride becomes emotional because peach-colored roses arrived instead of the exact shade of coral she pictured. You may have been fine with a substitution or even delighted that the peach shade was cheaper than the coral. For her, however, it was a disaster and ruined her special day. If she's telling you that she can't bear to look at her wedding photos, you can't tell her that's over-exaggerating or that she'll "laugh about it someday."
Instead, put yourself in the customer's shoes and imagine their goals or vision in leveraging your company's products or services. They may have counted on the brochures you designed to meet an important sales deadline or needed the items you were delivering to impress new shareholders at a critical AGM.
If a mistake you've made prevented them from carrying out their goals, or if you've impacted their progress, you should acknowledge that and validate their feelings.
Practice the art of reflective listening, and repeat back what the customer has said to you before offering a sincere apology. The most sincere apologies start with the words, "You're right."
- "I know how important Black Friday is to your business and how much this missed opportunity meant to you."
- "I understand how frustrating it must have been to get held up like that when you were under pressure to get the job done."
- "I'd be upset too."
4. Offer an explanation (not a justification)
Now that you've shown empathy, owned your mistake, and made a sincere apology, your next step is to offer an explanation of what went wrong. Note that there is a big difference between explaining and justifying your actions. Again, blame-shifting or excusing your behavior isn't the right way to approach apology emails.
Instead, show that you've taken time to think about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how it will be rectified in the near future (but we'll get to that part later). When explaining, don't lose sight of your role in the whole ordeal. Your own actions (intentional or not) led you to this moment, so keep leading with empathy and avoid excuses.
- "The courier company let me know that there may be a delay due to the strike. I didn't let you know, which was poor service on my part."
- "We were experiencing technical issues due to a power failure in the area, which led to the delay. I realize we should have hired a backup generator, but I was concerned about the additional cost. In hindsight, I should have explained the situation and given you the option. I sincerely apologize for the oversight."
- "There was an influx of orders due to Black Friday weekend, and I didn't have a system in place to prioritize orders at that stage. I've since taken action to ensure this doesn't happen again. Please accept my apology for the delay."
5. Present a plan of action
You've highlighted the problem in your apology email, but why would the customer come back if nothing is going to change? When you send an apology email, you should always include a solution or plan of action that demonstrates that you won't make the same mistake again.
Before you write your apology email, figure out a clear plan of action to undo any wrongdoing on your part. Showing how you intend to tackle the problem will build trust and show customers that they can move forward with you, having learned a valuable lesson and taking full responsibility for your actions.
It also shows your customers that you are committed to delivering a better customer experience in the future.
You may also want to—if appropriate—offer a gift voucher, discount code, or reduction on their next purchase as part of your apology to mitigate any damage caused.
- "As a result, we've already spoken to our security provider and implemented a new alert system that will send a direct message to our customer service team in emergencies."
- "As a direct result of your bad experience, we've changed vendors and evaluated their contingency plans in great detail. Rest assured that this will never happen again."
- "I've since entered into an agreement with another freelancer who will take on excess work should the same situation arise again."
6. Leave the door open for customers to respond
Up until this moment, you've had a lot to say. Now, you need to give your customer the opportunity to respond and give you some feedback. Don't assume that your apology email has resolved everything in the customer's mind.
Give your clients a channel of communication to share their thoughts or express their opinion about the improvements you need to make. Remember, sometimes, when someone has been wronged, they really just want to be heard so they can get the experience off their chest and move on.
If you are part of a larger team, don't direct them to your customer support team to continue communications. Instead, provide your personal email or phone number so they can get in touch, or give them the number of your manager. If they still feel the need to vent, let them do so.
- "I completely understand why you wouldn't want to continue doing business with us under the circumstances, but I would love to explain things in more detail in person. Are you available for a Zoom call next week?"
- "I can understand that this may have been a deal-breaker for you, but I'd love the opportunity to work with you again. Can we possibly discuss the way forward in person next week?"
7. Closing the book with an apology
Once you've sent your apology email, the ball is in the customer's court. Whether they come back to you or not is up to them. If they don't respond, give them some time. If you've made radical changes to your business and would like to work with them again, you can always do so at a later stage when the dust has settled.
Occasionally, you may come across a customer that insists on milking your apology for their own benefit, e.g., insisting on free products or large discounts. Retaining a customer is important, but not if it damages your bottom line or sets an unhealthy precedent. Try to meet the customer halfway by offering to replace damaged or unsatisfactory goods or by giving them credit for a set amount of hours that can be used on future projects. Don't give away more than you can afford to, however.
- "We acknowledge our mistake and can afford a replacement cake to rectify the issue, but I'm afraid we cannot offer both a replacement and a refund at this stage."
- "I appreciate how difficult this has been for you. We've already shipped a replacement at our own cost, to be delivered soonest, but I'm afraid we cannot secure the exact same item for the reasons detailed in my previous email. We remain committed to rectifying the situation as best we can."
Apology email examples
We've explored all of the points that make for a great business apology email; now, let's take a look at some examples of apology templates you can use in practice.
Mass apology email template
If there has been a large-scale issue impacting a number of customers (e.g., incorrect billing, a data breach, a service outage), you may need to send a mass email to everyone. You can still use the same tips and structure we shared above to apologize in an email written to a larger audience, but adjusted slightly:
"To all our valued (Company Name) customers,
We'd like to sincerely apologize for the recent accounting error which may have led our customers to receive erroneous billing information. We've recently migrated to a new bookkeeping system, which may have led to the error. We are working with our service provider to investigate and correct this error as a matter of urgency.
We know how frustrating it feels to wait for a resolution, and we can only apologize for the frustration and distress you are experiencing as a result.
Delivering excellent customer service means everything to us, and we've let you down. We are doing a full analysis of this issue to ensure it doesn't happen again. We've also set up a dedicated email hotline for those who have experienced the issue to facilitate the necessary refunds.
Please accept our apologies and commitment to rectifying the situation as quickly as possible.
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Managerial apology email
Sometimes an employee has made a mistake, and you need to step up as their manager to show a customer that you take their complaint seriously. Acknowledge that your team has prevented them from achieving their goals, even if the issue was caused by a third-party vendor or contractor. Ultimately, you are the responsible party.
Dear [Customer Name],
I'd like to apologize for the incident that occurred on Friday that resulted in the late delivery of our catering. From my understanding, our employee went to the wrong address and failed to call the contact person listed to locate the correct venue.
I understand that this delayed your celebration by nearly an hour and caused considerable distress. I can only apologize for this unfortunate incident and have addressed it with the employee in question. We've updated our delivery policy to avoid this situation from occurring again in the future.
We hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to customer service, and in this case, we have fallen woefully short. Again, I'm so sorry for the experience you've had. Should you choose to entrust us with your next event, we will strive to make it up to you.
Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.
Personal apology email
If you are directly accountable to the customer in question, you need to use a personal apology email template to make amends, whether you are an account executive, sales rep, or freelancer.
Dear [Client Name],
I'm so sorry for missing Friday's deadline. I take full responsibility for my actions, and I deeply regret the confusion and delays this caused in executing your sales campaign.
Regrettably, I upgraded the software on the computer that I use for design work which caused it to malfunction, and it had to be sent for repairs. I should have informed you earlier that this may lead to delays. I've since purchased a backup device to avoid this situation from happening again in the future.
I enjoy working with you and your company, and I hope we can continue to work together again in the near future.
Please feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss the matter in person or if you have any further questions.
Writing professional apology emails can go a long way toward keeping customers happy after a bad experience. Everyone makes mistakes, but very few professional mistakes are unforgivable. You can use our list of 7 actions to help make any future apologies easier to manage. If you take the time and make an effort to apologize sincerely and offer a plan of action, you can get your relationship with a disgruntled customer back on track in no time.