Never Apologize (unless you want to build relationships)

Never Apologize (unless you want to build relationships) by Dwayne Castle

"...someone ought to belt you in the mouth. But I won't. I won't. The hell I won't."  John Wayne as "McClintock!" just before he decks the cowboy who caused him a problem. If you've never watched this classic I highly recommend you check it out from the library and make some popcorn, and enjoy. Trust me on this, you'll thank me.

His characters are known for many notable quotes but there is one that I really dislike from another of his classics "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." His character tells a soldier "never apologize mister, it's a sign of weakness."

I saw the quote this past week on a large print of John Wayne and the phrase proudly displayed as if that is a motto we should live by. That ranks right up there as one of the dumbest movie quotes of all time. It's right next to "love means never having to say you're sorry."  I love my wife a great deal and I have to tell you, I find myself saying I'm sorry on a fairly regular basis.

Generally speaking, we have forgotten how to deliver an appropriate expression of remorse. That is, if we even deliver one at all. I've received plenty of poorly executed apologies (and probably delivered more than a few). Let's talk about some of them.

There is the overly sarcastic "I'm sooorrrrrrryyyy!" which makes clear that you are anything but. Then there is the "I'm sorry but I'm not sorry" apology where you justify your actions thereby eliminating the actual idea that you are remorseful for your part in the offending words, deed, or misunderstanding.  

My favorite is something along the lines of "I'm really sorry I said that horrible thing to you. Now, do you have something you'd like to say to me?" We tend to put conditions on our apologies. We indicate that we will show regret as long as the other party assumes some responsibility for their role as well. "If you're not sorry, I'm not sorry either."

These poor excuses for apologies are typically reserved for our personal lives. However, the mindset carries over into our business life. If we can't bring ourselves to deliver a genuine mea culpa in our personal lives then we probably aren't real skilled at it as we work with our customers. Mea culpa is Latin for "my bad".

A properly executed apology can not only help restore relationship (with customers or friends and family) it can have the added impact of making the relationship even stronger than it was before.  Here is a list of do's and dont's when it comes to apologies on the job.

1. Be sincere. When you are in the habit of saying you're sorry, you can begin to say it so casually or robotically that there is no reason to believe that you mean what you are saying. It can sound as if you spend all day long apologizing which translates to the idea that your business is so poorly run that mistakes and problems are the norm.

Every apology should be genuine and should be delivered as if you are truly concerned that an incident happened and that you are making it your personal business to resolve the matter.

2. Change your wording. Often times we are sincere in our apologies but we don't really appear to be sincere. Remember, the customer or other party is the one that was offended and what they perceive matters.

To aide in appearing sincere, practice saying you're sorry differently: "I'm really sorry that happened to you. Will you allow me to fix this for you?", "Please forgive us for the error. We will do everything we can to make it right for you." "On behalf of our store, I apologize for the oversight, what solution would work best for you?" 

3. Engage the customer in the solution process. In point two, you can see that we moved past the problem and into solution mode. Too often I have seen customer service reps jump to offering refunds to customers when all the customer wanted was an acknowledgement of an error and the order redone correctly. I've seen customers get happy with an apology and a coupon for the next visit.  

We err when we try to apply a cookie cutter solution to individualized problems. There are usually many solutions available when it comes to resolving a customer concern and we miss out on delivering excellence simply because we didn't involve the customer in the process.

Ask them what they want or what best meets their needs. There are some who will take advantage of your willingness to please them but most people are reasonable and many will be won over as permanent customers with this type of approach.

4. Don't make excuses. This is the "Sorry not sorry" apology. When you say that you are sorry about a problem but explain it away as to why it isn't your fault, it's not really an apology. People want solutions not excuses. 

5. Don't blame others. This really is under the category of making excuses but it happens frequently enough that it deserves its own listing. When you tell a customer that you are sorry, but that the "numbskull in shipping got it wrong", or that "those people in accounting made a mistake", you are adding insult to injury.

Basically what you are saying is that not only was a mistake made but incompetence is common place in your business. Simply and sincerely assume responsibility on behalf of the company. "I'm sorry we got it wrong. Would you allow me to make it right for you?" 

6. Apologize even if you don't think your customer deserves one. People can be jerks. Some will do you wrong or take advantage of you. It happens but that isn't the majority of people.

Most people who have expressed dissatisfaction are sincere in their belief that they were wronged. What does it hurt to apologize and to go out of your way to meet a customer's expectation? I guess that depends on the worth you place on long-term customer relationships. 

BONUS: Don't preemptively apologize. My sister owns an auction business. She shared with me that one day she was legally required to do something that she doesn't normally have to do. Since it was abnormal, she apologized to each of the customers that she came into contact.

The thing is that she recognized the abnormality because that's her business. The customers had no idea that this was abnormal until the apologies were flowing. Then they got agitated.

I've seen this happen when cashiers apologize for delays in the line when the customer was completely satisfied waiting on the single mom with 5 kids and a coupon book. We should be in tune with our customers and if they haven't given you reason to suspect that they are unhappy, don't inform them that they should be. 

For a great take on the power of a personalized apology, check out this post by Shep Hyken.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What are the best and worst apologies that you have experienced? If you found this post helpful, would you consider liking, commenting, and sharing? Thanks. In the meantime, "take er easy there pilgrim." (John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) 

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