How to Write an Effective Apology Email — 2021 Email Response Guide

Mistakes happen. Sooner or later, you will have to send a solid apology email. Here's how to write one, and a template to get you started.

No matter how they happen, mistakes are a fact of business. Sooner or later, you will have to send a solid apology email. 

There are myriad reasons why you might be writing and sending an apology email. A customer might have contacted your company. Perhaps you, a colleague, or a subordinate messed up — and the situation requires a written, professional apology. There can be late orders, damaged products, billing problems improper behavior, service outages to a site or app, data breaches, product recall, a canceled event, or a request your company can’t accommodate.

You name it, there’s a reason you may need to write an apology letter. That’s all the more reason to have a solid apology email template on hand, so you can react comprehensively to these situations.

Why email is the best method for apologizing to customers

A formal apology email can mitigate damage and begin repairing the relationship with the affected customer, prospect, or colleague. Done well, it can keep the door open for future business and referrals.

After all, 70 percent of a consumer’s purchasing experiences come down to how the customer perceives they are being treated—and a solid apology can go a long way toward leaving that person with a positive impression.

Effectively apologizing via email can be the best option when addressing a mistake. By starting with an email, you can diagnose the problem, attempt to alleviate it, and potentially move to a different communication platform if necessary. 

Email keeps everything in writing, and everyone gets a date-stamped, time-stamped record of the correspondence. Since it doesn’t depend on setting up a meeting or someone answering the phone, email can also be quick. 

How to write an apology email

At heart, a professional, sincere apology email template needs to show:

  • Your organization understands the problem
  • Accepts responsibility for where you went wrong
  • Acknowledges the emotions of the person needing the apology
  • Is making the situation right

The apology needs to be comprehensive, but that doesn’t mean that you need to write a book of an email. It’s best to keep it as succinct and simple as possible. After all, you’re trying to apologize and rectify a problem, not make things worse by forcing a customer to parse through a lengthy email.

That being said, every organization is different. The situations where you need to apologize will be different too. But a solid apology email can be broken down into these nine general components:

1. Subject line — we apologize

The subject needs to be clear yet show that you also understand the problem. No excuses or prevarication. You don’t have to fall over yourself with regret here. A simple “We apologize” can suffice, with the body of the email providing details.

2. Address the mistake and apologize

A simple sorry immediately, simply, and sincerely communicates to the customer that your company is taking responsibility for the situation. It can diffuse potentially hostile or tense emotion, and set the tone that you are going to make things right.

3. Outline your understanding of the situation

Depending on the situation, you may or may not need this area. If you do, then clearly outline via bullet points or a short paragraph your company’s understanding of the situation. Especially when the customer has initiated contact, you may have some sense of the emotions involved and can speak to that as well.

This section can be key to the entire apology email. It demonstrates both authority and empathy. The customer should know that they are being heard and understood, and they can gain confidence that you are taking steps to make things right.

4. Explain how you’ll make it right

Apology is good. Action is better.

Spell out the steps you are taking to make things right for this situation. That doesn’t mean list out every nuance and detail, but tell the person enough so they know that a resolution is in progress.

5. Ask what else you need to know about the situation

After saying what you are working on to resolve the situation, also ask for input. It’s possible that you’re missing important information, or maybe the company has a mistaken or incomplete understanding of the issue.

Give the person at the other end the opportunity to be part of the resolution. They will feel control over the situation, and can also gain a sense of being part of the team. That can further help you in your efforts to apologize and make things right.

Especially in the case of someone upset, it can help to directly ask what in their view would make this right. Their response doesn’t determine the course of action your company has to take, but it does give you a sense of what’s important to the person so that they can feel the situation is resolved.

Requesting this reinforces that sense of control and involvement we mentioned above.

And, you never know. What the person needs to make things right could be simpler than you realize.

6. What questions do you have for us?

This is a section you may not need, but it can quite useful. At the least, it shows the communication channels are open both ways, and that you are listening. Often, just knowing they’re being heard can help you diffuse a tense situation.

7. Outline how you will avoid this issue in the future

When merited, add a short paragraph or a few bullet points to illustrate that you are using this situation to also improve your overall operations. It can demonstrate that your company saw a flaw in the process, and is taking steps to improve things on an ongoing basis.

8. Provide a date, time, and follow-up information

Lastly, state a reasonable, realistic timeline. If it’s going to take up to 24 hours, don’t tell the person it’ll be resolved in an hour.

Also, let them know when they can expect an update from you via email—and above all, stick to it. If you mess up the follow-through or don’t reply when you say you will, then all that work on apology and resolution becomes insincere and meaningless.

That’s not to say that timeframes have to be set in stone. If a timeframe needs to move, be proactive and tell the person involved. As long as they know a solution is in progress, you are likely to keep their trust and confidence that things are being worked out.

9. Personalize the email sign off and signature

This email has to be coming from a real person. Not a team or a faceless group. If you are the point person for the issue, it comes from you, your email, and with your name in the email sign off and signature. When needed, have the email come from a team email, such as support or customer service, but with the name and title of a higher-level manager or executive.

Email apology template

Now that we’ve broken down the different components of a solid apology email, let’s combine them into a copyable, customizable template that you can save and tailor to specific situations:

Subject: We apologize

Dear <customer name>,

We messed up and we’re sorry.

Here’s our understanding of the situation and how it’s affected you.

[Add bullet points or a short paragraph]

Here’s what we’re doing to make things right:

[Bulleted or numbered list of steps]

If our info is wrong or we’re missing something, please tell us right away.  What else do we need to know about this situation? Please reply to this email, or call my direct line at [add phone number]

What would make this right for you?

What questions do you have for us?

Here are the steps we’re also taking to prevent this in the future:

[Bulleted or numbered list of steps]

Here’s when we expect to have this resolved, and we will keep you posted with hourly/daily updates via email:

[Realistic timeframe/estimate]

Again, we are sorry this happened, and we will make it right. Thank you for your business, and we’ll be in touch again soon with an update.

[Email sign off and signature]

Make an apology email a positive experience for your customers

Nobody wants to make mistakes or have situations that require apologies. Nonetheless, situations will come up where someone has to step up and say sorry. And that’s okay.

Mistakes happen. But when you make a solid apology, the person on the other end is more likely to get what they need and retain a good impression of your brand. And that can be a net positive for your business.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated for 2021.

Posted in: Email

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.

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