“Now tell them you’re sorry.”
“Ugh, Mom….do I have to?!”
One of the first things we learned how to do as children was to say we’re sorry. When we did something bad or disobedient, whether or not we actually regretted it, our moms and dads taught us to apologize and to at least seem sincere while doing it (anybody with siblings remembers those begrudging apologies). Maybe you didn’t put a whole lot of thought behind your “I’m sorry”s back then, but as a person involved with a small business, it’s important to take apologies very seriously when your business makes a mistake.
Since no business is perfect, you can expect that yours will do something either on a widespread or individual basis that will warrant an apology to the customers affected. A bit unlike a personal apology, an apology from a business must be strategic, with the ultimate goal of either retaining or recapturing the customer. Along with that, smart apologies are critical to successful public relations, or what we at Primm like to call “reputation management.”
A good way to go about crafting an apology is to cover all the bases of the five “W”s: Who, What, When, Why and Where? Your answers to these questions will inform your apologetic strategy.
To whom do you need to apologize? Whether you are talking to a single customer or your whole customer base can make a huge difference in execution. No matter what the size of the offended party, however, the more personalized the apology the better.
What happened to cause the problem? Make sure you have the fullest understanding of the customer’s perspective in the conflict and spell out that understanding in a detailed way in your apology.
When did the incident happen and when should you respond? Depending on the nature of the problem, the timing of your response is more or less crucial to its successful landing. No matter what, time is of the essence and there is such thing as a “too little, too late” apology. That being said, never rush to issue an apology, lest it seem insincere and knee-jerk instead of thoughtful.
What do you want to communicate to the customer or customers affected along with basic regret? A few suggestions include, 1) That you care more about the customer whose needs were not met than your own ego or business situation, 2) That you are taking responsibility for the problem, and 3) That you are willing to provide some kind of reparative incentive to help mend the customer relationship (if applicable).
Through what channel should you issue your apology? Over the phone? In an email? Perhaps in a handwritten letter? Those are certainly not your only options, and one way to decide on the best apologetic channel is to consider where the misstep occurred. You might remember the incident a few weeks ago when hackers got in to Burger King’s Twitter account and posted a few unsavory tweets. After shutting down their Twitter account for a time and issuing a direct apology on their website, Burger King issued a cheeky, tacit apology on their Twitter account. Burger King’s tweet as quoted in the linked article:
“Interesting day here at Burger King, but we’re back! Welcome to our new followers,” came the account’s first legitimate tweet of the day, acknowledging the thousands of followers it gained during the hack. “Hope you all stick around!”
In your apology, do offer an explanation of the company’s side of the misstep but don’t make excuses, for those neither keep nor win back customers. Accordingly, avoid using statements like “We apologize if something we did offended you,” or ” We are very sorry if you feel as though we failed to take your feelings into consideration.” “If” statements like those seem defensive. Emotional tone and attitude are important.
Lastly, relish the opportunity to connect with your customers through sincere apology. They’re human, so are you, and humans make mistakes. A clear and well thought out admission of wrong puts a face on your business and when done right, enhances trust between you and your customer.