How to write an apology – and why you should

apology,writing,business,reputation managementWhat’s the best thing to do when you screw up and upset someone? Defend your goof loudly and make the other person believe that somehow they were in the wrong? Pleasantly breeze over it and say it must have been a misunderstanding? Blame it on somebody else entirely?

Tempting as it might be, I hope you don’t. Not only because it’s not a very nice way to behave – whether in business or your private life – but also because by writing or otherwise communicating a proper apology in a business
context, you can turn the apologizee into a loyal customer for life.

There are many customer service and customer experience stories circulating about the way a company turned a customer complaint into a big brownie point by going overboard to put things right and compensate the customer until s/he was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. It’s well known in reputation management circles that for a company to spend quite substantial sums of money to appease an unhappy customer is worth its weight in gold both from the point of turning that person back into a loyal customer again, and also from the viewpoint of very good PR.

Reputation management consultants get paid large sums, too, for digging their clients out of the doo-doo when a customer of theirs has a bad experience, and they orchestrate the apology, compensation and ensuing PR. The compensation and PR elements of such an exercise aren’t rocket science and should this problem happen to you, you won’t need a reputation management consultant to tell you how to manage those elements unless you’re Coca Cola or General Motors.

But the apology must be written, and written carefully

I’m sure there are hundreds of articles and book chapters about how to apologize, going back to Victorian times and written by elegant lady etiquette experts in long dresses and corsets with 18 inch waists. However, as the modern-day veteran of quite a few goofs and consequent apologies that made people love me again, I’m sharing my own way of doing it here and hope it works as well for you as it does for me.

Be honest. It doesn’t matter how sorry you say you are, if you do and then immediately go on about all the mitigating circumstances you can dream up, it will rather negate what you want to achieve. I think it’s OK to say that you were shocked when you discovered that the delivery had turned up late, as long as it’s true, but don’t exaggerate how shocked you were or how devious the logistics company had been or how awful the traffic was that day. That’s for two reasons: one, your apologizee won’t believe it, and two, s/he doesn’t care why it happened anyway.

Get to their point, not yours. Much as you were absolutely hopping mad when you found out that the delivery was late and threatened castration or worse to the driver and all 10,000 meandering motorists who caused the delay, understand that the apologizee is only  interested in how the incident affected his/her business. Keep that in mind at all times when you’re writing the apology … so focus on thoughts like “as a business person myself I know how annoying such a delay can be when your customers are waiting for their goods” rather than “you’ll be pleased to know that I am investigating the incident and will let you know further details about the delay as soon as possible…”

Say what  you’re going to – not if  you’re going to – do something about it. The more positive you are when writing what compensatory action you’re going to take, the less likely the apologizee is to think about dumping you and moving on to one of your competitors. Keep him/her busy, too. Outline what action you’re going to take (and make sure it’s worth a significant amount to them, like free deliveries for one month) and say you’re going to call them tomorrow to discuss the details. Keep in close touch with them from here on.

Don’t ask them what they’d like you to do. That sounds a bit pathetic and desperate, and makes you look indecisive. All bad news. So make sure you research and think through your compensatory offer, having researched this particular customer’s business and requirements carefully, so your offer is bang on target to make them feel properly compensated.

Sum up apologetically, but no excuses. Think “Although the problem is being rectified as I write this, I know that’s of no help in what went wrong for you yesterday. I’m only sorry that we can’t turn the clock back. But you can be confident that it will not happen again, and I hope you find our free delivery service for the next 30 days will help compensate your company for the difficulties you experienced.”

Sometimes when I have used this approach I’ve even found that the client comes back to me saying words to the effect of “don’t worry about compensating me with free (whatever) – I just appreciate your honesty in apologizing and making the effort to help me.”

So there you go: the StMoo approach to apologizing for business goofs.

What experience do you have in handling business goofs and apologizing if/when you and/or your organization commits such a crime?

And how do you feel about businesses which have let you  down, in the way that they do – or don’t – apologize and extend a compensatory olive branch?

Please share your views!

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. Some comments from the article as it appears on LinkedIn…

    Marcus Cauchi
    Sales Trainer/Sales Management Training/Business Coach at Sandler Training Reading/Thames Valley
    Thanks for this Suzan. Good blog. Remember someone is always talking behind your back, they’re just not necessarily saying what you want them to. One of the most endearing, attractive and essential qualities in people, is our ability to be vulnerable and demonstrate empathy. Your apology structure does this well and I particularly appreciate: Get to their point, not yours.
    Suzan St Maur
    Best-Selling Author | Business & Social Media Writer/Blogger | Editor | Writing Coach | Founder of HowToWriteBetter.net
    Thanks, Marcus – glad you found this useful. In my humble observation the quickest way to spoil an apology is to start reeling off excuses when the customer couldn’t care less about your problems! Yet often that’s a knee-jerk reaction. Best avoided!

    Neeraj Kumar
    Enterpreneur,Blogger, Author at 87android
    A perfect apology to customer is the best way to handle any business. Well written article Ma’am !
    Suzan St Maur
    Thank you, Neeraj.

    Cendrine Marrouat
    Social media journalist, blogger, coach, curator, author
    I love all your ideas here! Owning up to one’s mistakes and taking up extra steps to mend the relationship is the best way to win hearts!
    Suzan St Maur
    Absolutely, Cendrine. Unless you’ve done something truly terrible, most customers can accept you’ve made a mistake because they’re human too. But it’s how you deal with that mistake that’s critical and, correctly handled, it can even make the customer more loyal to you than s/he was previously.

    Vinil Ramchandran
    President – Cost Recovery Consulting Firm
    Great points! It sounds like common sense, but its surprising how many companies butcher up their PR when responding to a crisis. I won’t name any names, but can someone forward this article to Donald Sterling?
    Suzan St Maur
    ROFL Vinil … so pleased you found the article useful. However I suspect it’s a bit late now for Mr Sterling…!

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