The art of saying sorry

Caroline Pic | 28 August 2016

Every so often, hopefully rarely, you will screw up. Your company twitter account will send a joke that’s a little too risqué, your website will go down at a crucial juncture, one of your employees will make a mistake, one of your systems will fail. And then you will have to apologise, on behalf of your company and your brand.

So here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re doing it.

Actually apologise.

It can be tempting to try and get out of admitting any fault on your part while still offering a kind of sorry. It’s very easy to slip into the language of ‘fauxpology’ – “I’m sorry you were offended” is the classic. The customer service version of that is “We’re sorry your expectations were not met.” Rather than admitting any level of fault, the blame falls somewhere around the person’s expectations, not anything your company did or did not do.

But people are rather good at spotting this kind of linguistic blame-dodging. And when you get called out on it, it just makes your original mistake look worse.

Instead, actually say sorry. Admit fault. Explain what you’re sorry for and why you’re sorry for it. And generally stay away from any apology written in the passive voice – that’s where blame-dodging lies.

Offer explanations (not excuses).

If the reason for your screw up was beyond your control it can be tempting to offer that as a get-out-of-apology free card. It wasn’t your fault! Your supplier hadn’t alerted you that they were out of stock! Well… That’s not your customers’ fault either. And they’re still your supplier. Own it – apologise and explain what caused the problem, even if it was out of your control. If the mistake is definitely your fault – still explain what happened, even if that explanation is something embarrassing. By offering an explanation you offer people a chance to empathise with you.

Make it up to people.

This doesn’t always have to cost money. Sure, throwing a coupon or free product at the people your mistake has affected is one way of saying sorry, but it’s not the only way. Even just showing the steps you’re taking to fix the problem can engender some goodwill. At the very least it shows that you accept there’s an issue and it’s your responsibility to address it.

Don’t make the same mistake twice.

The public will forgive almost anything once, especially if you’re genuine about apologising for it. However, if you find yourself saying sorry over and over for the same problem, people are rightly going to question the sincerity of your apologies. Offering an apology is only the start of addressing an issue – and while it’s a good start which can mitigate some of the damage to your brand’s reputation, don’t mistake it for the actual work of fixing the problem.