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Study: Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘Sorry’ to Unhappy Customers

A new study suggests that showing appreciation (saying “thank you”) may be a more effective strategy than apologizing (saying “I’m sorry”) when it comes to restoring customer satisfaction.

For the study, researchers from New Mexico State University, University of South Carolina, Zhejiang University (China), and The Ohio State University examined strategies for restoring customer satisfaction after a service failure.

Business leaders around the world report that consumers’ expectations of service quality are higher than ever. It is therefore no surprise that customers report interactions with service providers as often rife with failures.

For example, a large proportion of consumers in the United States are dissatisfied with various aspects of their restaurant/dining experiences, with 60.8% complaining about slow service, 29.4% about inadequate food and beverage quality, and 21.6% about inefficient staff.

In general, service failure consequences to businesses include considerable financial loss and negative word of mouth (WOM). For instance, companies in the U.S. lost an estimated $1.6 trillion in 2016 from customer switching caused by poor service with 44% of unsatisfied customers venting their frustrations on social media.

In their initial recovery efforts after a service failure, service providers need to decide what to communicate to their customers to restore their satisfaction.

The study focused on two symbolic recovery communications commonly utilized by service providers: appreciation (saying “thank you”) versus apology (saying “sorry”). For example, when there is a service delay (e.g., a plumber shows up later than the scheduled time), the service provider could either say, “Thank you for your patience,” or “I am sorry you had to wait.”

The findings suggest that appreciation (saying “thank you”) is often a more effective strategy than apology (saying “sorry”) at restoring consumer satisfaction. That is, in the case of service failures, when service providers redress such failures with the appreciation (vs. apology) recovery communication strategy, consumers are more satisfied with the way service providers redress the failure, report higher overall satisfaction, form higher repatronage intentions, are more likely to recommend the company to other customers, and are less likely to complain.

The research team reasons that a shift of focus in the interaction between service provider and consumer — from emphasizing the service provider’s fault and accountability (apology) to spotlighting the customer’s merits and contributions (appreciation) — can increase consumer self-esteem and, in turn, enhance post recovery satisfaction.

Interestingly, using appreciation over apology seems to be most effective among consumers who are narcissistic and when it is communicated after (vs. before) the service failure.

The appreciation strategy’s superiority over apology also holds when material recovery needs to be provided in severe failures (e.g., a server provides a free drink in addition to expressing appreciation or apology).

Overall, what service providers ultimately say — “thank you” or “sorry” — should be tailored to certain situational factors (i.e., timing of the recovery, severity of failure, and presence of utilitarian recovery) and individual traits (e.g., consumers’ narcissism).

For example, service providers should use appreciation in their service recovery for consumers with a higher narcissistic tendency, but should be aware that appreciation is not necessarily better than apology for those low in narcissism.

The paper, published in the Journal of Marketing, is authored by Yanfen You, Xiaojing Yang, Lili Wang, and Xiaoyan Deng.

Source: American Marketing Association


Study: Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘Sorry’ to Unhappy Customers

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Study: Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘Sorry’ to Unhappy Customers. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Mar 2020 (Originally: 28 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Mar 2020
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