How to Apologize in a Sales Environment

Apologizing when something goes wrong is the best way to ensure a company can continue to do business with those affected by the situation.

Whether caused by market conditions, a blunder within the company, or random chance, many events will put companies on the defensive. An effective apology can make the difference between a retained customer and a lost customer, so keep these tips in mind the next time you have to approach a client who’s been wronged or let down.

The Anatomy of an Effective Apology

Though apologies can vary structurally, most excellent apologies have a simple, straightforward formula that’s easy to remember.

  1. Apology. Sometimes, this can be as short as “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” but the actual apology has to be there. Don’t bury it in other words; in a robust apology, this should get some space all to itself. Those who want an apology are looking for this first and foremost. Don’t take this opportunity to deflect blame or present excuses. There are times where these are important considerations, too, but at this stage in the process, “I’m sorry, but…” will sabotage the apology. Stick to “I’m sorry.”
  2. Admission of responsibility and understanding of the situation. If there’s any component of the situation you or your company could have handled better, start here. Tell the lead, client, or team leader what went wrong, and what your role in it was. Even if the nature of your responsibility is secondary to a chance element, mention it here. If the stakeholders you’re apologizing to have a different understanding of the situation, this gives them an opportunity to make it known, and can give you ideas for how to make it up to them.
  3. Reassurance. Here, the stakeholders want to know that the problem won’t happen again, or that measures are in place to mitigate the effects of whatever it was that went wrong. This can also include ways in which you intend to mitigate the damage. If a product is coming late, for example, a discount or credit for the inconvenience may be the right move.
  4. Request for forgiveness. This may sound like a return to the apology itself, but requesting forgiveness gives the other party control over the situation. By requesting forgiveness, you reassure the party that you are interested in continuing to do business with them.

Picking the Right Channel

Apologies should come at the right time in the right place. Depending on the severity of the situation and the urgency of the apology, what constitutes the right place can change significantly. The effected stakeholders can also affect the appropriateness of a given medium, as a younger set of clients is more likely to be reached by a social media apology than an otherwise identical older set.

Apologies should be offered on as close a channel to the one in which the related incident occurs as possible. If you let a client down who primarily contacts you over the phone, an email apology will seem insincere.

Apologies: A Chance to Build Your Brand?

In some cases, an apology can even present the chance to strengthen a customer’s loyalty, especially if the situation is one in which your company is not exclusively at fault. A simple apology can suffice, but giving the lead or client more than they expect can leave them more satisfied with the company than they were before the incident.

This will often require a gesture of good will on the part of the company, such as a service credit, a discount, or a product replacement. These gestures, however, often ensure that when things return to business as usual, the client will stick with the company, and even generate new leads through referrals.

Further Reading For Inspiration

I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust, an interesting study on the effects of consistent apology by Alison Wood Brooks, Hengchen Dai, and Maurice E. Schweitzer

What are your thoughts on the topic?

If you’re looking for tips on how to gain new clients rather than retain current ones, check out this article on email marketing and how it can help grow your business. Have you found apology strategies that work well for you? Tell us your secrets in the comments.

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