The Art of the (Business) Apology

Several years ago, I found myself outside a vendor’s home, glancing at my watch, and wondering if I had read the date and time of our appointment correctly. The minutes ticked by…5….10….15, and still she wasn’t there. Assuming one of us had the wrong time and place, I heaved a sigh and drove back to my office.

That very afternoon, I received a call from the vendor, apologizing profusely for her error. No harm done, I said, knowing sure enough it could have been me.

The next day, a package arrived. Inside was a handwritten letter from our vendor, apologizing for wasting my time, and a book: Time and the Art of Living.

Now, let me me just say: I know darn well that it could have been me who were late, and I certainly held no grudge for her forgetting our appointment. And I’m not sure it even crossed my mind that an apology was necessary. But I can tell you this: the book and letter acknowledged that my time was valuable. It was a sincere gesture that made me feel appreciated. It was a gesture I never forgot, and the business relationship was repaired.

Let’s face it: as business owners, it’s highly likely that at some point an “oops” will come between you and a client. While your gut may be screaming to blame the error on Bill Keane’s Not Me, a more prudent approach is to apologize. The goal: repair the business relationship and restore good word of mouth to your business.

So, for the next time you royally mess up, here are some tips to master the business apology:

  • Don’t play the blame game. Even if you believe you’re right, you must acknowledge your client’s perception of the situation, and allow for the possibility that you may be in the wrong. Listen carefully to your client’s concerns, and reflect back what you hear to ensure you understand the issue. Focus only on the issue at hand.
  • Be prompt in your apology. Prolonging an apology may cause your client to doubt your ability to handle the situation, and make any subsequent attempt at a mea culpa seem insincere.
  • Take personal responsibility. A study published in the Journal of Management found that people respond most favorably to a sincere apology when the person apologizing takes responsibility for the situation, versus blaming outside forces. Acknowledge your role and the hurt or damage that was done, and take responsibility.
  • Ask for forgiveness. The frightening thing about giving an apology is that you relinquish control. The enlightening thing about an apology is that you demonstrate a commitment to that business relationship.
  • Take steps to make things right. Provide a refund, credit, or revision as needed.

A legal caveat: some apologies have legal implications. You may consider speaking with an attorney for mistakes of a serious nature or that involve contractual obligations.

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3 Responses to “The Art of the (Business) Apology”

  1. Tim Motzko says:

    I’m sorry.

  2. Tim Motzko says:

    It was all my fault.

  3. [...] for pointing this out, I’d like to point out that we all make mistakes from time to time (see my previous article about apologizing!), and in the world of newspaper publication—when turnaround times are quick—a mistake here and [...]

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