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Six Keys to Successful Apologies

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in Remarkable Leadership with Kevin Eikenberry

We are going to make mistakes when dealing with and serving our Customers. In recent weeks, we’ve made a couple pretty big ones. On my blog, I recently wrote about how, as a leader, to handle the failure itself. (You can read that here.) Beyond that though, a mistake, especially with an important person like a Customer, requires an apology.

What follows applies for apologies in any part of our life, in any relationship, so please read it personally and professionally. Some of the embedded examples are each — but the steps apply broadly.

I’m defining a successful apology as one that is received by the receiver as intended by the sender. To do that includes the following 4+2 strategy — the four things you do during the apology conversation and the two things you do afterward.

During the Apology Itself

1. Admit it. Too often people want to shade the situation or side step it in some way. A mistake was made. An oversight occurred. Or perhaps you did something with unintended consequences (or was unexpectedly perceived by others). Whatever the case, how the other person feels is how the other person feels. If you want the apology to be successful, you must hear their concern/anger/worry (or other emotion) and admit your role in it.

2. Own it. An apology with a “but” in it, isn’t very successful is it? “I understand what you are saying, but that wasn’t my fault.” Not much ownership here! Even worse is when we try to switch the blame back to the other party! “Well if you would have … then we wouldn’t have this problem. There is no room for blame in a successful apology.

Maybe someone else played a role in it too. Maybe another department messed something up too. If part of the outcome was your responsibility, or you could have influenced it, own it. In an organizational setting, remember that you are the face of the organization to the Customer in that moment. Even if it wasn’t “you” personally, it was the collective “we” of the organization. When you take ownership, it changes the perception of the other person instantly and significantly.

3. Mean it. If you don’t get this part right, you have very little hope for your apology. A successful apology requires you to be genuine and authentic. “I’m sorry” may be the words, but they must be true. Be very clear in your own mind about this before you even start.

4. Fix it. Sometimes there is no next step, but there will always be the chance to ask the other person what the resolution is. So whether there is a next step after the apology or not, there is always the question to ask to find out. The question itself will vary based on the context and the situation, but it all comes down to this — now that we are here, what can I do to make it right to fix it or what can I do differently next time?

Remember that the fix will be most effective when the other person has input into it. Find out what they want now. If you can deliver that, great (if you can deliver even more, make a mental note of that and deliver it — this is called creating delight!). If you can’t deliver that exactly, work with the other party through conversation to determine what you can do and how that will work for them.

Remember too that this “fix it” part of the conversation might be the most important part. Your earnestness in wanting to find a solution or resolution is very powerful (and “proves” that you mean all the words).

After the Conversation

1. Deliver on it. Once you have determined with the help of the other person what to do next, the apology conversation is over. Now the rubber meets the road. If a fix has been determined, now it is time to deliver on that fix. Send the new product. Write the letter. Refund the money. Whatever the fix is, the apology can’t be successful until you have done what you have promised.

2. Learn from it. We all say we have learned from our mistakes. So, remember to do that in these cases. What does this situation teach you to do or not do in the future? What steps could you put in place to keep this situation from occurring again? What processes might need to be changed? While these insights may come to you through this process, make sure you take action on these too.

Mistakes will happen. The apology is critical to the long term cost of those mistakes.
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