The Elements of a Good Apology

After a negative customer experience on a recent fishing trip an old friend of mine said, “I judge people by the quality of their apologies.” Interesting idea, I thought.

This led to a discussion about the apology given to us by the proprietor of the ranch at which we stayed, roughly summarized as: “this only happened because it’s the end of a long, hard season, and there are things — things I can’t tell you about — that took a lot out of me.”

I, being something of a sucker, bought it — pardon the expression — hook, line, and sinker. “Oh you poor man, I hope you get through this.”

My friend, who is somewhat more skeptical, responded differently: “He didn’t really own it. He literally blamed it on something that he declared secret and couldn’t tell us about. And does that really matter anyway? Do we really care why something undesirable happened? Or do we want him to just own the mistake and apologize for it?”

This led to a conversation where I came up with these simple elements of a good apology.

  • Hear it. Let the customer talk. Hear what they say. Don’t interrupt. Don’t get defensive. Listen. When they’re done, repeat it back: “I understand that the door flew open, Fluffy flew out, and that terrified everyone.” Or, “I understand that the software repeatedly crashed and was basically unusable during your end-user onboarding session and that was horribly embarrassing for you personally and a waste of time and money for the company.”
  • Own it. Admit the mistake and say it was your fault. “I didn’t attach the schmidget properly and because of that the door flew open. It was my mistake.” In a tech context, “I’m sorry that the release was not adequately tested and caused the software to crash repeatedly during your user onboarding session.”
  • Apologize for it. Say, “I am sorry.” Don’t ask anyone to accept that apology as it feels you’re asking for absolution. You’re not. You’re apologizing.
  • Avoid deflection or transference. Don’t say, “I’m sorry that you didn’t notice the schmidget was not attached.” Or, “I’m sorry that you chose to hold your training the day after a major, new release.” Doing this is the opposite of owning it. Avoid at all costs any apology that starts with, “I’m sorry you were offended by.”
  • Optionally, say how you feel about it. “I feel terrible that your cat flew out the open door (but was happily uninjured).” Or, “I feel terrible that we hung you out to dry in front of your end users, especially after you went to bat to help us win the deal.”
  • Optionally, tell them what you’re doing about it. Some people will care about this and want to know how you’re preventing this from happening to others. Some won’t. Read the room. “I’m going to revise our departure checklist to add schmidget attachment.” Or, “I’m going to fly to India, show the team your picture, tell them how much you did to support us, and then tell them how this impacted you.” (This, by the way, is a real example and I did fly to India the next week and do precisely that.)
  • Don’t quibble over details. If it’s an online product review and it says, “the schmidget was not attached on the 20-foot vehicle,” do not reply, “our vehicles are 19 feet.” If you worry that failing to do this concedes incorrect facts, then say, “Some details notwithstanding, the important part here is the cat flew out the door, and we are deeply sorry about Fluffy and the trauma she endured.”
  • Optionally, offer compensation. Not everyone wants compensation. For some, it’s about principle. For others, it’s about ensuring future clients don’t have the same problem. For others, it’s all about compensation. For others still, it’s about putting some wood behind the apology arrow. Read the room. Ensure the compensation matches the problem: “I’m offering you a free day with our top guide on your next trip out.” If you’re unsure, you can offer in the hypothetical: “would it help if I were to offer you blank?” Avoid proposing illogical compensation: “I’ll give you two free days from the same plumber who misinstalled the pipes that flooded your house in the first place.” (No thanks!)
  • Finally, thank the customer for their business. “You are important to our company, that’s why I wanted to make this apology to you personally. And thank you for being a customer.”

I worked with a sales VP who began every customer conversation by saying, “thank you for being a customer.” It’s not a bad way to end one, either.

2 responses to “The Elements of a Good Apology

  1. The personal anecdotes make it relatable, and the clear steps are a great blueprint for any professional looking to make amends. It’s a reminder that in business, saying ‘sorry’ is just the start – it’s how you say it and what you do next that really counts.

  2. What a thought-provoking perspective on the art of apologies! Your friend’s skepticism raises a crucial point – the authenticity of an apology lies in owning the mistake rather than attributing it to external factors. It’s like you said, we’re not seeking elaborate explanations; a genuine acknowledgment and apology speak volumes. I can’t help but empathize with your experience at the ranch. It takes a certain sincerity to admit fault and express a heartfelt sorry. Maybe the ranch proprietor could take a page from your friend’s book – owning it with transparency goes a long way. In the end, we all appreciate sincerity and authenticity in apologies. It’s about acknowledging the impact, taking responsibility, and showing a genuine commitment to making things right. After all, a good apology can mend more than just a momentary lapse – it mends relationships. Thanks for sharing this insightful conversation!

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