Need the Perfect Business Apology?
Extending the perfect business apology can be more complex than apologizing in our personal life. There are strategic reasons and sometimes even legal issues that require consideration.
Regardless of how the apology is delivered, through a business apology letter or verbal communication, the basic principles are the same. However, the content of the apology itself, the timing, and the manner in which it is delivered really depends on the parties involved.
In business, there are simply more factors at play.
Although moral reasons exist equally for both personal and business apologies, strategic reasons for extending an apology are more common in business and are based purely on business decisions.
Remember the old saying... The customer is always right...
This is a time tested customer service philosophy that virtually every successful company adheres to.
What's the end result of such a policy?
A series of business apologies that are extended by a company (or its representatives) regardless of who's at fault.
These types of apologies are offered for rational strategic reasons with an end goal of a positive overall customer experience, and are often part of a master plan involving customer acquisition, customer retention and loyalty.
However, when carefully crafted, that same end-result can be achieved with an apology even when the company has made a mistake.
On the other hand, a poorly crafted, badly timed or non-existent apology will lose this, and many other customers.
Business Apologies 101
Business apologies are most often the result of a business oversight or mistake, human error, an indiscretion, inconvenience, or something your company failed to do, prevent or anticipate. e.g. poor service, billing issues, shipment delays, missed deadlines, computer glitches, defective products, unsatisfactory services, and misplaced or mixed up orders.
Some of these errors could be preventable while others aren't. Regardless—APOLOGIZE!
There are obviously dozens of other potential reasons why a business apology may be appropriate—don't avoid them, look for them, analyze them and USE them.
And when faced with a mistake that is overlooked by clients do NOT view them as a close call but INSTEAD as an opportunity.
The most important takeaway when it comes to business apologies is that instead of viewing an apology as an unfortunate part of the job that forces you to acknowledge a weakness, view them as a valuable opportunity to solidify and build your business relationships.
Business Relationships & Apologies
Business is all about relationships—relationships with new customers, old customers, clients, vendors, and with the community-at-large.
For example, we know of a major airline carrier who has one of the most proactive apology systems in business that distributes frequent flyer miles to customers who have experienced delays or other problems BEFORE getting a complaint.
The letter is sent out to all customers, even those that understood the circumstances were out of the carrier's control and were never intending to complain.
By doing so, not only are they solidifying their relationships with their customers but also building on their existing loyalty program. It's a win-win situation for them and makes perfect business sense. We've posted a sample of the proactive business apology letter they use to illustrate the point.
To understand how you can tailor an apology to strengthen or rebuild your business relationships you need to look at your particular circumstances. And to do this well, the following three strategies will come in handy.
No. 1 Look at the reasons behind the business apology and who's been affected.
No. 2 Determine the most appropriate way and time to apologize.
No. 3 Ask and answer the following four basic questions:
What are you apologizing for?
Who are you apologizing to?
How do you apologize?
When should you apologize?
Your answers to each of these questions will determine the perfect business apology for your situation, like “Vendor B” did in this sample business apology letter.
Guidelines for a Perfect Business Apology
As for the apology itself, the guidelines for any perfect apology remain the same.
→ acknowledge the hurt or damage done
→ take full responsibility
→ recognize your role or the company's in the situation
→ include a statement of regret
→ ask for forgiveness
→ promise that it won't happen again
→ provide a form of restitution if possible
When giving an account of the situation, only include the details of the specific event. In other words, don't talk about broader related issues.
Remember that the apology is all about the recipient and the damage they've suffered, and not your business situation.
Don't make excuses or include any comments that could elicit a "that isn't my problem" type of response, as in "it couldn't be helped" or "I never saw the memo".
One last important note, don't forget the importance of timing when delivering an apology AND beware of the common traps that many small businesses fall into.
In some cases it's exceedingly clear what the problem is and who the apology should be directed to. However, not all situations are black and white.
Take the following example:
'Employee A' breaks a confidence and reveals to office personal information about "Employee B" leading to the resignation of 'Employee B', what does "Employee A" apologize for and to whom?
It goes without saying that 'Employee A' needs to apologize to 'Employee B' for breaking their confidence which led to the eventual resignation. But is that the end of it? What other factors, if any, are there to consider?
When properly thought through, 'Employee A' will realize that the company now has a human resource issue due to the sudden departure of an employee because of their indiscretion—an issue that also needs to be addressed.
So the perfect apology in this situation should include a letter of apology to their boss for the inconvenience that the resignation of 'Employee B' has caused the company.
Business Apologies & Customer Experience
To understand how apologies play a role in the overall customer experience, read this case study on an amazing series of coincidences and events that lead to a sincere apology and an example of a good customer experience.
For another great example of how apologies play a role in the customer experience we look at Walt Disney's former head of customer service who was dubbed Disney's Chief Apology Officer for seeking out any opportunity to apologize in order to fix the problem, build loyalty, and turn what could have been a bad story shared by an unsatisfied customer into a positive one.
In many cases, especially in regard to customer complaints, the perfect apology letter can help retain customers and presents you with an opportunity to build loyalty by providing a great customer experience regardless of who's at fault.
Finally, take a look at this masterfully crafted sample apology letter sent to us by one of our readers—we long ago deemed it one of the best business apologies we've ever come across.
Legal Issues & Business Apologies
Legal considerations come into play with many business situations so we stress this one important note:
If the incident could result in ANY form of legal action or liability with ANY party then delaying a response to seek the legal advice of an attorney is VERY prudent and likely necessary.
Learn more about the legal implications of a business apology.
Business Apologies are Part of Doing Business
Problems and mistakes are, well, a part of doing business and being human. And, as much as we and those that we deal with in our business life, would like them not to happen, they do.
What's important to remember when trying to determine a course of action is to analyze and assess the situation from different points of view.
Business apologies can be more complicated than personal ones because there are often a host of affected parties. Appreciating how others have been affected by an event and understanding what repercussions surround that event, is an important part of delivering a business apology.
So make sure that you take into account all of the parties involved and see things from their perspective. By doing so, you'll quickly realize who you should be apologizing to and reap the benefits of a perfect apology.
Check out our sample business apology letters to see how to implement some of the strategies outlined on this page.
Still looking for more? Our apology research section includes several case studies on corporate and business apologies and check out our Q & A session on corporate apologies from our interview with TheStreet.com.