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.