The Power of “I’m Sorry”: Why Service Recovery Matters Deeply In Healthcare–and How to Help Your Employees Find the Right Words

December 11, 2008

If you or your staff have ever been surprised by a patient complaint–and who hasn’t?—you know how easy it is to say the wrong thing. Well standardized key words can defuse tension, create positive patient perceptions of care and, ultimately, create better patient and organization outcomes.

You know your employees care deeply about their patients. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be working in healthcare in the first place. Yet, mistakes do happen. Conditions aren’t always ideal. Patients get upset. And no matter how sincerely a staff member wants to “make it right,” sometimes she just can’t find the words. And this is where service recovery training comes in. You can teach your staff to handle complaints and field tough questions the right way–a way that doesn’t only solve the problem, but also reduces patient anxiety and improves patient perception of care.

The way a single employee handles a single complaint–whether the problem is caused by her own mistake, someone else’s, or just the reality of 21st century healthcare–determines how that patient feels about your hospital or practice. When all employees respond to that complaint in the right way, well, it can have a powerful impact organization-wide.

We know there is a strong connection between a patient’s state of mind and her clinical outcome. When we say the right words to a distressed patient we not only increase the likelihood that she’ll give us a high satisfaction score, we actually help her heal. And both factors are critical to an organization’s long-term prosperity.

Here’s the thing: when most of us are surprised by a complaint, we can’t come up with a good response on the spot. Perhaps we get shut down, or get defensive, or toss out an automatic answer that the patient (mistakenly) perceives as arrogant or condescending or indifferent. The patient gets more upset and the situation escalates.

What to do?  Leaders can teach employees the right words for tough situations—apologies that defuse tension without assuming or casting blame. Have your team members come up with the common complaints they get.  Develop great responses to these complaints that put the patient at ease.  Most importantly, practice.  Role model responding to the complaints with the appropriate answers.  You’ll feel the difference.

The newly published “I’m Sorry To Hear That…”: Real-Life Responses to Patients’ 101 Most Common Complains About Health Care by Susan Keane Baker and Leslie Bank ,offers great sample answers. It helps leaders teach employees the right words for tough situations.

For example, let’s say a sample patient complaint is about food: The food is tasteless! The tea is never hot, the cereal is too thick, and the toast is soggy! Baker and Bank’s book offers the following selection of apologies for such a situation:

I’m sorry to hear you’re not enjoying your meal. I’ll check your nutrition orders and ask the dietician to visit you. She may be able to suggest some alternatives. Shall I make you a cup of hot tea right now?

I’m sorry. Good nutrition is important to your recovery. We have some snacks on the unit. Is there something I can get you? I could make you some fresh toast or a sandwich.

Even though some special diets are very strict, our Food & Nutrition team strives to provide tasty food. I’m going to ask your nutritionist if there are spices we can use to add flavor to your meals. What do you use at home?

The idea is for an organization to standardize these responses across the board, so that all employees are singing from the same “service recovery” choir book—and so that all patients in all departments have the same positive experience.

Teaching staff members how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and say it the right way, is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a strategic business tactic that pays off in tangible ways. Such training helps employees do their jobs more effectively and gain more satisfaction from their work, which results in higher productivity and less turnover.  And of course, it results in happier patients who feel genuinely respected and cared for.

Words are more powerful than most people realize. An empathetic apology takes only a few seconds and costs nothing, yet it can completely change a patient’s perception of care. In hard economic times, especially, that’s no small matter.

Yours in Service,


For more service recovery resources including information on the book “I’m Sorry to Hear That…” click here.


4 Responses to “The Power of “I’m Sorry”: Why Service Recovery Matters Deeply In Healthcare–and How to Help Your Employees Find the Right Words”

  1. Shirley Waits Says:


    Thank you for your message. I totally agree that hardwiring the comments for service recovery helps the employees respond correctly. Another important factor in this communication tool is body language. Just repeating a group of words that are used as a template can be ineffective if the employee does not convey a body language of sincerity. Rushing out of the door speaking the words would not convey that a true sense of empathy is being shared.

    When we prepare to leave the patient’s room we have learned to ask if there is anything that we can do or get for them because we have the time. This statement should be made at the bedside using eye contact and not as we walk hurriedly out of the door. So, when using the tool of service recovery we should remember to make that eye contact, stand comfortably near the patient and speak in a relaxed and slow voice. Actions often do speak louder than words.


  2. Tina Cummings Says:

    Role playing is an excellent way to prepare healthcare workers to respond in an appropriate and professional way to situations involving patients and other customers of healthcare. I’m in health care education (allied health) and have incorporated a strong communication and ethics base into my Surgical Technology program. The surgical department has a long reputation of strong personalities who often forget how to communicate with people who are not anesthetized. I believe communication is a fundamental skill to teach students entering healthcare. When we are around others such as patients, coworkers, physicians, vendors, family members, members of the press or media or students, (and I could go on and on) the odds are great that they can hear what we say, see our expressions and interpret our mannerisms. Often times these forms of communication are misinterpreted. I have found that communication skills are not difficult to incorporate into a healthcare curriculum and have great benefit to the future of healthcare and healthcare facilities.

  3. Carolyn Tuttle Says:

    This is so true. Being honest with your customer, be it a patient, physician or staff is very important. It shows them you are real and you care not to just give them an excuse. It’s also not difficult to do or train. – CT

  4. toni guthrie Says:

    I have been taught to use the words “I apologize” as opposed to I”m sorry. What are your thoughts?

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