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How Not to Apologize

 

ApologizingYou messed up. It happens to the best of us. And now your business needs to apologize to a customer, a supplier, or even the public. So here is something you probably never realized:

Your apology is often more important than the actual transgression itself.

To err is human, but to give a stilted, insincere apology means possibly being branded forever as a conceited ass instead of a remorseful corporate citizen. And you only get one chance to do it. Here are some ways to avoid the deadly apology:

Don’t put it on them. The most infuriating phrase in all apology-dom? “We are sorry you felt this way.” Let’s translate this one into plain English: We are clueless about what we could have possibly done wrong, but we would be more than happy to question *your* state of mind. Don’t go there.

Lose the platitudes. The most common – and stupid – phrase in most business apologies? “At Our Precious Company, we strive to do exactly the opposite of what you just told us we did.”

For example, one major food company brilliantly added a new ingredient that I have a food allergy to. I and others posted our concerns on the product’s Facebook fan page. Their response? Something to the effect of “we try to make our products available to as many consumers as possible.” Um, no you didn’t. A good test is to try having a six-year-old caught in the cookie jar say the same thing: “Mother, I strive to only eat cookies at proper times and maintain my dental health, so I appreciate your feedback.”

Don’t defend yourself. No one cares about your glorious past. So don’t say things like, “Normally our Ferris wheels run without incident.” I’ll give you a small mulligan on this one, but only if you put it in future tense (“In the future, we will do everything we can to make sure our Ferris wheels run without incident, instead of stranding people for three hours like we did last week.”)

Own it. This is the most important part of apologizing to people. Repeat after me: “We messed up. We shouldn’t have done it. We apologize. And here is what we are going to do to make things right.”

Here is one of the more fascinating sidelights of the wave of corporate scandals of the past few years: compare the prison sentences of people who completely owned up to what happened, versus those who made excuses or trumpeted their innocence. I believe there are literally people spending years in jail for the lack of knowing how to show genuine remorse.

If you find the mechanics of how to apologize as fascinating as I do – including a structured process for how to recover from even very damaging situations – pick up a book entitled Effective Apology by John Kador. It’s twenty bucks or so well spent. In the meantime, learn to use apologies as a tool to make things better with people, not worse.

What do you think? Does this make sense? Do you have other techniques you use? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Article written by
Rich Gallagher is a former customer service executive and practicing therapist who heads the Point of Contact Group. His books include two #1 customer service bestsellers, “What to Say to a Porcupine” and ”The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Your Worst Customer Situations,” both released by AMACOM. He has taught over 25,000 people what to say in their worst customer and workplace situations.
8 comments
TheRelationshipInsider
TheRelationshipInsider like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Rich, I agree with all your points on apology.  I would like to add one point for small business owners. If a mistake occurs and a client/customer complains to an employee, the employee should inform the business owner...and the business owner should express the apology (correctly, of course).  It makes a difference "who" is expressing the apology, too.  It sends a genuine message to the customer/client that you (the business/business owner) really care about making them happy and satisfied.

RichGallagher
RichGallagher

 @TheRelationshipInsider Good point Sheryl, and one that has an important cultural context as well: in some parts of the world, having a senior person present the apology is considered an necessary sign of respect. Thank you!

writeahead
writeahead like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Ha! I just dealt with a company that messed up, and they said all of the things your article says not to do. So timely and humourous. Thank you!

marylynn3
marylynn3 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Rich,

 

This is such an important topic! It reminded me of a hotel chain that messed up our reservation. Someone reached out to us to learn more about the situation, then blew off our scheduled phone call, and never followed up. As you can imagine, we will never book with them again. Not so much over the messed up reservation, but how they handled the "apology". 

 

I realize people are busy, but you can't win in today's world if you don't treat people like you care.

 

Thanks for the work YOU do, Rich, to help us all experience better customer service!

 

Mary-Lynn

RichGallagher
RichGallagher like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @marylynn3 That's horrible! Travel is often the worst offender, because it is so stressful to begin with - and sadly people aren't always trained to do good service recovery. I would react exactly the same way. Thank you so much for your kind words!

PointA_PointB
PointA_PointB like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is brilliant, Rich! So many companies piss off their customers when they should be trying to help. I was laughing as I read this. Thank you so much for calling out these #worstpractice responses. 

RichGallagher
RichGallagher like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @PointA_PointB You're the best Catherine! And it never ceases to amaze me that there are people out there who get paid to write these stilted, infuriating apologies. One of my favorite topics. Thanks!

 
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