An Apology Done Right!

Last night on the train ride home I was sitting across from a woman who was clearly dealing with an unhappy customer on the phone. It sounded like unhappy enough to be leaving for another service provider.

The way she was handling this difficult call (at least from my end) impressed me. Based on her willingness to be held to account, vocalising that she heard her client and expressing empathy, I assumed she must own her own business and while not wanting to be a snoop my ears perked up to see how this would go . . ..

Despite what turned out to be my incorrect assumption that she was a business owner, it occurred to that we entrepreneurs and business owners often fall quite short of the mark when it comes to apologizing.

When running our business we are often working insane hours (not quite the margarita sipping beach side dream some left their 9-5 jobs for), we’ve given up much in in our lives to chase this dream and we are managing everything from the actual projects, our teams (if we have them), bookkeeping, finding new business, building the systems in our business even cleaning the toilets. This can often mean we feel tired and a bit harassed so that if a client expresses dissatisfaction we may not have our A-game on.

For those times when we may not be our usual fabulous selves in expressing contrition, I thought I would take note of what this fabulous woman was doing when making amends (and trying to save her client) so that we could all check back prior to taking that difficult phone call or meeting.

First, she took absolute responsibility. I learned through the course of her call that not only was the work and subsequent mistake not her doing but that she was a new employee with the company. This didn’t matter. She started out by flat out agreeing that the ball had been dropped, the client should be able to expect better and apologized with not “but”.

Second, she reflected back to the client what she understood the problem to be and then further agreed that the client should be able to expect a higher level of service.

Third, she expressed her own frustration that the client was feeling this way. Now this is a delicate piece. This is not telling your client “I’m so unhappy you feel this way” as this is telling your client you’re unhappy with them. Rather, it’s expressing empathy. “I am so frustrated right now that we’ve let you down and put you in this situation”. Expressing our mutual frustration communicates that you understand the importance of your clients feelings.

Fourth, identify where things may have gone wrong. Again, this is a delicate area. This is not a blame shifting space. Stating to your client that it was the manufacturer, your staff, the post office etc. is deflecting; you client doesn’t care “who” caused the problem. Your client hired you to take care of the project and your team (whether it’s the manufacturer or your staff) have let them down. This is a time to further clarify where the breakdown occurred so that you can fix it. “It sounds like x just completely missed this part of the report, this shouldn’t have happened and going forward we will put y process in place to ensure it doesn’t” or “when I get to the office tomorrow I will problem solve this with x to find a solution so that these things are not missed going forward” or some variant: you get the idea identify and suggest solution.

Fifth, moving forward and keeping your client. Regardless of what you are going to do in the future there is likely an immediate problem that needs to be fixed. The woman asked quite clearly, “ok, so how can we move past this, what can I do?” In her case it sounded like a report that was full of errors and she immediately jumped into the immediate fixes that needed to be done. Each time her client tried to revert to discussing unhappiness about the problem (I’m assuming here based on her end of conversation) she empathised and then re-stated “I want to figure out with you how we can get this fixed for you right now and hopefully move forward together.” No matter how much any of us want to sit in our pity party – the reality is that all of us want to move forward. It’s your job to help your client move forward; even if in the end it’s with another service provider.

Sixth and finally, reflection; she reviewed the fixes they had agreed to and actions she was going to take the next day to implement permanent fixes and finally sincerely apologized.

I have no idea whether her apology worked or not at the end of the day; but I will tell you that if she was my employee or service provider she would have kept my business.

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