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The nature of an apology: An experimental study on how to apologize after a service failure

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Extant service recovery research treats apology as a dichotomy, in that it is either present or absent, but how it is conveyed is neglected. Based upon social psychological research, this study argues that an apology comprises three different components: empathy, intensity, and timing, which make each apology unique. It is shown that how well an apology is delivered across failure types (outcome vs. process) drives service recovery satisfaction, not its mere presence. Empathy, intensity, and timing separately impact satisfaction. The more empathic and intense the apology is given, the more satisfied respondents are. A late apology decreases satisfaction ratings. Effect sizes indicate that empathy has the strongest impact on service recovery satisfaction followed by intensity and timing. The effect of empathy is stronger for process failures than for outcome failures. Interestingly, the apology’s overall effect size is comparable to that of compensation in case of a process failure.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In case of perfect manipulation, the value of the control group would be 0.00. However, few respondents haven’t marked this option, albeit their responses indicate that they received no apology. Obviously, they just have not recognized this option or accidentally marked the wrong answer.

  2. 2.

    Cohen’s d is calculated by \( d=\left( {{{\overline{x}}_{{_{{_1}}}}}-\left. {{{\overline{x}}_{{_{{_2}}}}}} \right)} \right./{\sigma_{{_{\mathrm{pooled}}}}} \), with \( {{\overline{x}}_{{_{{_1}}}}} \) denoting the mean value of the dependent variable in group 1, \( {{\overline{x}}_{{_2}}} \) denoting the mean value of the dependent variable in group 2, and σ pooled denoting the pooled standard deviation of the two groups.

  3. 3.

    A cautionary note for the effect size comparison between apology and compensation seems warranted. The overall effect of compensation is an assessment across failure types. Under the assumption that resource exchange principles hold true for compensation as well, it seems likely that the effect of compensation should be weaker for process failures (d < 1.02) and stronger for outcome failures (d > 1.02). Hence, an apology has possibly more impact for process failures. And for outcome failures the difference in effect sizes between an apology and compensation may be even larger in favor of compensation.


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Correspondence to Holger Roschk.

Appendix. Text of videos

Appendix. Text of videos

It is evening. Some ambient music is playing, guests are chatting, and the couple enters the restaurant. The couple has a reservation and the waitress shows them to their table. She hands the couple the menus and asks if they already want something to drink, but the guests prefer to have a look at the menu first. She recommends the steak and leaves the table. The couple takes a look at the menu and decides about their meals and drinks. Both agree that the various steaks sound tasty and that they will have some red wine and water.
The couple is chatting while the waitress approaches. She asks for their orders. The woman takes the steak in red wine sauce, whereupon the waitress asks if she wants her steak well done, bloody, or medium. The woman orders hers medium. The man opts for the steak in pepper sauce cooked medium and orders two glasses of red wine. The woman reminds him about the water, which he then adds. The waitress repeats their order, thanks them, and leaves the table.
[Failure occurrence—process failure] [Failure occurrence—outcome failure]
The couple talks about their upcoming meeting with their friends after dinner. Both are looking forward to see Maria and Michael again after a long while. They are happy that their friends are coming to visit their city, so they can show them around. The waitress serves the drinks. The couple is talking. They look forward to their steaks, are already hungry and realize that it has been a long time since they had their last steak. Hence, it would be a good idea to cook steaks at home from time to time. The waitress serves the drinks.
Approximately 40 min later: Approximately 20 min later:
The couple is surprised by how late it has become. They realize that they will have difficulties making it on time to their meeting. They decide to call the waitress and ask if there is a problem. She promises to check where the meals are. The waitress serves the steaks. Both start eating and the woman suddenly realizes that her steak is overcooked. He points out that she may have just bitten into a thin edge-piece, but she discovers that the whole steak is overcooked and also is too salty for her taste. When the man tastes his steak he experiences the same. The steak is overcooked and not juicy.
Approximately 15 min later: Both are disappointed since they were really looking forward to their meal. They agree upon that the steaks are almost inedible and decide to complain. They call the waitress, who comes at once.
The couple is still waiting for their meals. Both are not happy about the situation since they have an appointment with their friends who have come to town. They decide to write a text to Michael pointing out that they are waiting for their meals and that they will be late for approximately 30 min. The couple point out that the steaks are not the way they had ordered them and that they are also too salty. The waitress says: “Thank you for your comments. I will pass them on immediately” and leaves the table.
5 to 10 min later:
The waitress serves the steaks. The couple complains that they waited too long and also had to postpone their date. The waitress says: “Thank you for your comments. I will pass them on immediately” and leaves the table.
[Timing condition 1]
Shortly afterwards:
The waitress returns to the table and says “I forwarded your complaint,” optionally she apologizes according to Table 1 and continues with “Is everything else to your satisfaction, do you have a wish?” The couple does not desire anything else and she leaves the table.
[While eating—process failure] [While eating—outcome failure]
The couple is eating and both agree that the steaks taste very good. They are exactly the way they ordered. Once again the waitress asks if she can bring something else, which is not the case. The couple is eating and both agree that the steaks do not taste good. Once again the waitress asks if she can bring something else, which is not the case.
When the couple finished their meals they ask for the check and the waitress takes away the empty plates. When the couple finished their meals they ask for the check and the waitress takes away the half-empty plates.
[Timing condition 2]
The waitress approaches the table and while putting the booklet with the check on the table she says: “Your check,” optionally apologizes according to Table 1 and continues with “Have a nice evening, Goodbye.”

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Roschk, H., Kaiser, S. The nature of an apology: An experimental study on how to apologize after a service failure. Mark Lett 24, 293–309 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11002-012-9218-x

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  • Service recovery
  • Apology
  • Failure type
  • Consumer complaints
  • Consumer satisfaction
  • Complaint management
  • Compensation