How to Say You're Sorry with Apology Languages

Do your apologies sometimes get rebuffed?  Do you know what to say to be heard when you apologize? Lessons from a recent customer service experience that went horribly wrong. Lisa B. Marshall explains how to apologize when things go wrong so that you can be forgiven.  

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #345

Here's a true story of poor communication and how a better apology could have made things better. A lot better.  

First Event that Deserved an Apology

On a recent trip I was booked by my client at a Hilton property hotel. Upon arrival, I was put into a room that was located in the corner of the building.  Since I was presenting the next day, I wanted to review my slides and get a bit of work done. I attempted to log into the internet, but the connection was "spotty."  Well, more than spotty, it cut in and out every 20 seconds or so.  This went on for a few minutes (which seemed like an eternity) so I called down to the desk to ask about the internet connection.  Sometimes rooms in the corners of hotels have difficulty getting signal, so I asked if this room was known to have difficulties. The clerk told me that it didn't and that she would contact the person to reset the internet and then call me back. I waited, and waited, but there was no phone call.  

So I went down to the lobby to find out the status. She hadn't even contacted the person yet!  When I asked her about it, her response was, "Oh, no one else in the hotel is having problems. Every other room is working." She then suggested I work in the business center with a direct connection if my internet wasn't working. I explained that it wasn't possible with my laptop, and asked if she could just give me another room since I really needed to get some work done. Without saying a word, she responded by handing me a new key card.  I then asked, "Can I get a rolly cart? She replied, "Do you mean a porter's cart? They are over there!" and pointed to carts that were accumulated in the corner of the lobby.  

Wow!  Clearly I had annoyed her by asking for a new room and I was shocked that her response was basically to ignore me. With absolutely no help from the hotel staff, I settled into the new room. Later I  set my alarm to wake up at 4 am (which sounds really early, but I was in California and my body was still on East coast time, so it was really like sleeping in!).

Second Event that Deserved an Apology

In the morning, I turned the water on for my shower and began to brush my teeth. This is my daily routine at home—I always wait for the water to get nice and hot. The problem is the water never heated up! It was ice cold! I waited 10 full minutes and still no change in temperature. So I called down to the desk and said, "I think there might be something wrong with my shower." The response was surprising: "Is your hot water not working?" I thought, hmm, she must have already known this was a problem, since I hadn't said anything about the water; so I asked if she was already aware of the problem. She explained that they had known about the problem for two days and that it was limited to certain rooms. Then she asked if I wanted a key to another room to go get my shower. I didn't have a robe and I was already ready to jump in the shower, so I ended up just taking a cold shower. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly a happy camper. Since I was returning to the hotel that evening, she offered to move my room during the day.  

Pathetic Attempt at an Apology

I returned to the hotel after a long day of training (8:30 pm my time). When I arrived, the clerk already knew who I was and asked if I had my new key yet. I said no, so she made me a new key. I was expecting her or a manager to apologize, but all I got was the new key. I went to the room and I heard a very light tapping coming from the hallway. It was so light, I thought it was for the door across the hall. So I ignored it. I heard the tapping again. Again, I ignored it.  But the third time, I realized it must be someone knocking on my door.  So I answered the door, and it was room service. Of course, I hadn't ordered any room service, so I said to the woman, "I"m sorry, you must have the wrong room."  She said, "No, it's for 310," and she pointed to the door number. Again, I repeated, "But I didn't order anything."  Again, she said, "It's for room 310." Then I looked at her tray and noticed a plate of fruit and cheese, along with a small can of cookies in a gift bag. I realized that this must be an apology.  So I asked, to confirm, "Is there a bill for this?"  She looked at the paper and said, "No."  

That's it—that was my apology!

I was shocked.  Although I was hungry and the fruit and cheese were quite tasty, gifts are not my apology language. You see, apologies only work if you make them in a way the receiver wants to hear them. 


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.