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Apologizing for Mistakes is Good for Business–Here’s How to Do it

In times of tragedy, companies should learn to write more empathetically to their consumers and clients.

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BY Ken Sterling - 07 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When a barrage of hurricanes made landfall in Fall 2017, we all learned--and relearned--lessons on how to be empathetic to those in need. While the federal government and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have become better responders to victims of natural disaster, many leaders still need more practice with learning to communicate empathetically to clients and partners (Hint: disaster is not a marketing opportunity, no matter how great your hurricane proof vest is.)

Our company, like many others, operates on both a national and international stage. More by circumstance than by choice, I have become practiced in writing empathetically to clients and partners. Here are a few tips for reaching out whether you are apologizing for a company mistake or consoling those who have experienced tragedy.

1. Take responsibility for errors.

One of the first casualties of our litigious culture was owning our mistakes. Lawyers consider an apology an admission of guilt rather than what it is--an expression of empathy. But apologizing for a mistake is not only the decent thing to do, it's the right business thing to do.

In the book, Yes!, social psychologist and influence expert Robert Cialdini has shown that companies that admit to controllable failures--and do not put blame on external factors outside their control--have higher stock prices than those who don't.

2. Write a personal apology note.

First, when it comes to asking for forgiveness, it's better to write "Please accept my apologies" rather than "I'm sorry."

When you write "I'm sorry" it puts you first and doesn't give the receiver the option or choice in the conversation. When you reframe your apology to ask the person to accept, this gesture gives the recipient control of the process.

Second, and more importantly, always accept responsibility and take accountability for your actions--right away. Don't wait until your mistake goes viral on social media to apologize.

Research by Cialdini has shown that when you admit a mistake (and that it was under internal actions you or your company could control), followed by an action plan, you and your company will be perceived as capable and honest.

Warren Buffett uses this method each year in his letter to his investors. He always admits to errors made in the previous year and how he will address those errors going forward. Admitting to an error is a great method to show your honesty, according to Cialdini.

3. Do something proactive to show you care.

Writing condolence letters is similar to apologizing. It's a genuine way to express your empathy to the people that matter the most. As I get older, sadly, I have had more practice with writing these letters. Some of the same principles apply for writing condolence letters to a friend over the death of a loved one as reaching out to all your clients who have suffered the effects of a natural disaster.

When there's a hurricane or other natural disaster, companies always send out these mass emails--spam really--that go something like this: "Our thoughts and prayers are with our friends, just let us know how we can help."

Instead of writing this vague statement of sympathy, do something constructive and proactive to show you care. Find a local, on-the-ground charity and make a donation.

Then send out a more empathetic email that goes like this: "We can't imagine what you are going through but from what we see on the news...it looks awful. We've taken up a collection at the office, made a donation, and earmarked it for your area."

4. When you write, put the other person's emotions first.

It's never good to write: "I understand how you feel." That's not empathy. Avoid equating your experience to the experience of others. The use of "I" also puts the focus back on you and not the person you're writing.

To be more empathetic you should write: "We don't know exactly how you feel, but we understand this is challenging." That's more empathetic.

Finally, when you write your letter, use the pronouns "we" and "us" when expressing empathy. When you use the pronouns "I, me, and you," it puts the focus back on yourself instead of the person you should be empathizing with.