CSM from the Trenches – 5 Keys to an Effective Customer Apology

Sam Feil

Customer Success Manager

Being on the CSM frontline allows us to directly influence the success of our clients. I love that; as our clients are successful, we’re successful.

We’re lucky to have this week’s frontline Customer Success Manager (CSM) best practice come from Mieke Maes of Intuo. Mieke has been a Customer Success Manager for Intuo since August 2017, but brings with her nearly 3 years of Customer Success experience!

CSM from the Trenches Best Practice – How to Make an Effective Apology
Company: Intuo
Location: Belgium
From: Mieke Maes, Customer Success Manager

Best Practice: Make an Effective Apology

By nature of being a CSM, we’re often the face of our company to the outside world. Usually, it’s pretty awesome…except when something goes wrong. You can never be 100% prepared for such an appearing disaster, but a genuine apology afterward can really help you move forward on a positive note.

Why It’s Important to Make an Effective Apology

At Intuo, we work with a very agile engineering team. This flexibility is great, but also means that priorities can change at a moment’s notices and changes to such priorities can be difficult to communicate.

Looking to my own book of business, I had one customer who frequently asked for status updates and I found myself relying on a few classic CS explanations, such as “the bug fix is planned but we can’t foresee when” or “it’s somewhere on the long-term product roadmap…” Expectation management goes a long way, but there is a point where we aren’t communicating clearly (or just not at all). In the case of this customer, they simply weren’t having it

With this client in mind, our team took a step back and realized that some internal processes weren’t well-adjusted to our growing customer base and that this particular customer had a point: in cases where your company might be in the wrong, making an effective apology can actually build trust for your client.

5 Keys for an Effective Apology – More Than Just Saying Sorry

  1. Acknowledge your responsibility. Express that you know you were wrong and explain what happened. In our case, this sounded like “We know you logged bugs and requests recently and we know we weren’t able to give you a lot of answers to your additional questions. At the moment we’re still figuring out how to optimize this”.
  2. Express regret. Pretty obvious, but explicitly say sorry for the inconvenience you are causing. Tie it back to your responsibilities, don’t fall into the trap of making false apologies like “I’m sorry you feel that way”, which implies you haven’t done anything wrong.
  3. Offer repair. Explain what you are going to do to prevent this will happen again. You’re building long-term relationships so you want to move forward positively. In our case, Customer Success attends the Product Team meeting, where we’ve made a neat overview of everything the customer has logged so we have a full overview and we moved from quarterly calls to monthly ones to keep in close contact, even though this isn’t one of our larger customers.
  4. End with a question.  Any relationship is a two-way street, so you want to have the customer’s buy-in with how you’re going to move forward. The question can be as simple as: “Are you okay with this?”. If they are not, be open to suggestions and try to work something out together.
  5. Thank them. Every team has their blind spots. If a customer steps up and respectfully shows you certain shortcomings, your entire customer base will benefit from it in the long run. Feedback is a gift. So when the dust has settled, thank them for their openness and honesty.

Footnote; elements of apology based on research by Roy Lewicki (2016), but tested and tweaked to perfectly fit a Customer Success context.

Key Takeaway

Even when a difficult conversation arises that requires an apology, including the 5 keys for a successful apology can help end the customer interaction on a positive note. In my specific example, I feel the customer was relieved we weren’t sweeping their issue under the rug and they appreciated how we were going to change the process. A negative experience and a difficult conversation can turn out great if you handle it gracefully and execute thoughtfully..

Intuo is a platform people trust to grow their career, and support each other and the organization they work with through the power of feedback, knowledge and leadership.

Join the CSM from the Trenches Community

You can become involved in two ways:

  1. Guest blog posts: Have a frontline CSM best practice you’d like to share? I want to hear from you! This is a great way to share your unique perspective and thought-leadership. Example – this post is a good example
  2. CSM shout-outs: Do you know a CSM who goes above and beyond the call of duty? Have a team member you’d like to give a special shout-out? This is what CSM from the Trenches is all about – celebrating the frontline CSM. Example here

Here are other customer success resources:

Customer Success eBooks:

Customer Success as a Culture: Customer Success Leaders Edition

Ultimate Guide to SaaS Customer Success Metrics

Other CSM from the Trenches Posts:

Priscilla Zorrilla, 15Five – Asking the Right Questions to Challenge Customers

SoapBox Team Shout-Out

4 Segmentation Strategies for Frontline CSMs

Why Product Usage Isn’t Always King & 3 Lessons Worth Learning Early

2 Techniques to Avoid the ‘Overpromise and Underdeliver’ Temptation

My Purpose as a Customer Success Manager

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