Entrepreneurs wear many hats and hold a huge responsibility to keep clients happy. You’re usually on top of things, but nobody’s perfect. You may miss a deadline, forget an appointment or communicate too brusquely with someone. In other words, everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes your mistake requires apologizing to a client or customer.
“I’m sorry” may be two of the hardest words in the English language to say. It’s human nature, we don’t like to admit fault; partly because it hurts our pride, but also because we fear it will lower our status and hand the other person something to hold over us. But if you want to keep that client or customer, you may have to admit your faults and shortcomings.
The art of apology is simple in theory, but difficult to master in reality because interpersonal dynamics are complex and different people have different expectations about what constitutes a meaningful apology.
To help you make apologies count and improve client relations, here are three ways to say, “I’m sorry."
1. Accept responsibility.
It takes two to tango, and in many conflicts, both parties play some part. While it’s important to recognize the other person’s role in the situation, focus only on what you could have done differently to avoid or defuse the problem. This shows you sincerely thought about your actions and are mature enough to own up to them.
2. Decide how to deliver your apology.
Every person and every situation is unique, so think about how to present your apology in a way that best fits your relationship with a particular client. A telephone call that allows the client to hear the genuine sincerity in your voice might be correct, while in other cases, an email will suffice. A handwritten letter is even better—in all cases. If you work in the same city or town, you could also invite your client to coffee or lunch (on you) to apologize in person so you can look them in the eye as you say “I’m sorry.” You can also use these methods in combination: for instance, an email or phone call along with an apology and an invitation to coffee or lunch.
3. Gift your product or services.
Gifts can go a long way towards mending the fence between you and your client. The type and size of the gift depends on both the seriousness of the situation (the more serious the situation, the bigger the gift) and what your client would like. For example, if you can correct your mistake, offer to do so free of charge—along with a freebie like a future discount, a rebate, or extra services. If you have a long-term relationship, you might consider giving an apology gift that matches their personal interest, such as tickets to an event or a restaurant gift certificate, following a letter or call of apology. This shows that you value them as a client. Be sure to check the client’s company policy, as many cannot accept gifts over a certain value. Besides, you don’t want to look as if you’re trying to win favor.
The silver lining of apologies is that, when done right, they can actually improve client relationships and boost your business. Accountability strengthens trust, so generous gestures may make people want to work with you more, and maybe even recommend you to others. So don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry.” Those two little words can be your partners in success.