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The Art of the Apology

Let’s face it – making an apology can be hard. We’ve all (hopefully) felt the sting of swallowing our pride to say, “I’m sorry”. It requires humility, but sometimes it’s necessary to save a relationship that we value. Turns out that sometimes corporations and small businesses need to apologize too, and for the same reasons.

But not all apologies are created equal. We’ve seen some high profile apology fails, and some great apology victories. Maybe you’ll remember these examples:

  • CEO David Neeleman showed a good example of how to win back customers with an apology. When Jetblue had to cancel hundreds of flights due to poor planning, he took stock of the problem, and posted a YouTube video addressing the issue directly. He shares how JetBlue invested in improving their logistics as a result of the incident.  This response seemed credible and sincere, and may just have saved the company. 
  • On the other hand, CEO Tony Hayward made an appalling remark about the massive BP oil spill that killed 11 people in 2010. He said, “I’d like my life back”.  The collective response was, “Oh really? What about the 11 people who actually died?” Needless to say, he had to apologize again for his bad apology. 

So how do you find the right balance to maintain your brand image (or in some cases, save your business)? Let’s start by talking about why corporations may need to apologize.

Why apologize

If your corporation has breached trust with a customer, an apology can repair the relationship, and make it even stronger. Here are a few apology fun facts:

  • A well-placed apology can increase customer retention rates by 17%. Plus, these customers are also more likely to become an advocate for your business.
  • 88% of customers are less likely to purchase from a brand again if their complaints are left unattended on social media. That’s massive!
  • Apologizing can reduce the likelihood of litigation, at least in the medical profession (and medical malpractice lawsuits are nothing to sneeze at). At one time, doctors were advised not to apologize to their patients. However, one study showed that when a hospital permitted apologies, patients were less likely to take them to court.

Now that we’re on the same page about the value of a good apology, let’s discuss when it’s necessary.  

When to apologize

Most Def

If a customer has been harmed, or the corporation has failed to meet its obligations, an apology is in order. An accounting error, product failure, harassment claim, or negligent service are all clear reasons to apologize.  

Microaggression is a comment or action that has had the effect of making someone from a marginalized group feel excluded.  If someone calls you or your company out for microaggression, that’s also a clear-cut time to apologize. 

Could Go Either Way

If a violation is not core to the business, whether or not to apologize is less clear. It can depend on the level of public response to the incident.  For example, if a manager or senior leader makes an offensive statement, and there is a public outcry, it’s wise to apologize. This shows that you care, and would like to serve the offended group of people in the future. 

Probably Not

Sometimes in our zeal to retain the customer, we can over-apologize. In this case, the apology calls attention to something that was not even a real issue. For example, a study compiled for a food delivery service tested customers who had received their food 15 minutes late. Surprisingly, those customers that received an apology were less satisfied with the service. And less likely to order from that company in the future. 

How to apologize

An apology should cost you something, especially since the violation cost the customer something. It’s not genuine if it doesn’t come with a sincere commitment to do better, or a way to ‘make it right’. And if you’re not authentic, you can’t win back trust. 

The level of apology depends on the level of violation. A person who received a defective product can receive an individual apology from customer service. Don’t forget the speedy replacement (throw in a freebie/discount, and you’re golden). However, if the offense affects a large number of people, it’s appropriate to make a public response. That’s a good time for a senior representative of the company to issue a statement on social media.

Seven Elements of a Great Apology

  1. Timeliness – Silence can speak louder than words. Saying nothing can communicate that you are trying to downplay the situation – or worse, ignoring the customer(s) entirely. 
  1. Display of regret – Say the words, “sorry” or “apologize”, and mean it.
  1. Willingness to take responsibility– Don’t throw the blame on someone else (that actually makes you look worse) or downplay the problems caused by the violation.
  1. Clarity – State the problem in plain language to show that you understand what went wrong. No need for flowery speeches or additional commentary. 
  1. Amends – Give compensation, discounts, vouchers, or free products, as appropriate.  And if you need to make an organizational change to properly address the problem, show how and when you plan to implement those changes. 
  1. Request for forgiveness– Share that you value them, and you’d like to retain their business/working relationship.
  1. Customer focus – It’s important that you don’t make it about you.  Apologizing is about showing the person or group that you’ve heard them and you’re fixing the problem. It’s the worst time to try to show how good you usually are, or express your personal feelings about the incident.

When you apologize well, you show integrity, empathy, vulnerability and transparency. All traits for which many people would pay a premium.

Published by Kara Hoholik

Kara Hoholik is an impact entrepreneur and writer living on a farm outside Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband and 3 children. When she isn't washing muddy feet, you can find her reading, with a cold cup of coffee still sitting in the microwave.

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