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How to Apologize

Even the best-run business screws up now and then. The correct response is the simplest: apologize. But how do you do so without digging yourself in deeper—or creating a legal liability?

What to say: Start with, "I'm very sorry for what has happened." Acknowledge the mistake, and skip the sarcasm, deep sighs, and eye-rolling. "Body language and tone of voice matter in an apology," says Lydia Ramsey, an etiquette consultant in Savannah, Ga. Give only a brief explanation for your error. If you launch into a speech, you'll sound like you're making excuses.

When to do it: Right away. Or else you'll invite more grief for not providing a timely response.

Make it right. Offer something meaningful. If the nature of your work is such that you seldom have repeat customers, offering a discount on the next sale won't help. If you're not sure what to do, ask the customer, "What can I do to make this right?" If you can't comply, use the request as a starting point. If she wants three months of service free, offer one month instead.

Verbal or written? Consider a written apology if a longtime customer is extremely upset. A typed letter should be signed by hand. A handwritten note is appropriate if you're especially close to the offended party. But if the other party is threatening to sue you, or you're afraid he might, do not write a letter. Otherwise, go ahead.

But what if it's NOT your fault?Even if the blame lies elsewhere, apologize and make amends. Ditto for customers who blame you for their own absentmindedness. Resist the urge to say something such as, "Next time, be more careful." This is about playing nice, after all.

Return to the BWSmallBiz August/September 2009 Table of Contents

Lee is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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