Photo by Alice Feldt

I wrote this article for the Mondo Learning Solutions newsletter.

Many years ago, a sappy book declared, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” A lot of otherwise smart managers took this a step further, deciding that business and apologies don’t mix. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Customer service has become an essential part of all business these days. We recently did a multi-session awareness-raising project for the IT department of a major university focusing on customer service – although these highly skilled folks rarely deal with anyone outside of their own organization. Even those who never ring a register or shake hands with a client need to know how to fulfill the expectations of everyone they encounter in the workplace.

And when – occasionally but inevitably – those expectations aren’t met, you’ve got to make it right. Good relationships, quality, reputation, and customer loyalty demand that you do something. And the first thing you should do is apologize.

Your employees might resist. “Why should I admit I might have done something wrong? Wouldn’t I open myself up for blame, attack, maybe even liability?” you might hear. Here’s how to explain to them what a real apology is all about.

What an apology isn’t.
A real apology has nothing to do with accepting blame. It doesn’t assure the customer you’ll pay for repairs. It doesn’t even mean you’ll take responsibility for fixing the problem. (If you do take responsibility, that’s another statement that comes later, after you apologize.)

What an apology is.
A real apology is nothing more than a sincere acknowledgement that your customer isn’t satisfied. It’s a statement that you recognize your customer’s feelings, and that you wish he or she felt better about the situation. That’s all.

Examples: “I’m sorry you were inconvenienced.” “I’m sorry you feel you aren’t getting enough information.” “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time.”

Another word for recognizing the other person’s emotions is empathy. You don’t have to join in the emotion or even agree that it’s justified. But you should let your customers know that you’re aware of their frustration, anger or disappointment – and that their trouble means something to you.

Customers love it.
An apology shows your customers and colleagues that you care about how your work is received – that you want them to have a good experience working with you. Above all, that you’re on their side. So rather thanaccepting blame, a sincere apology helps defuse blame. The customer stops seeing you as the problem, and starts seeing you as an ally in finding a solution.

It’s how you say it.
Make sure it’s sincere. Remember that apologizing actually puts you in a position of strength: it takes a big person to respond to criticism by being open rather than defensive. So take a moment to look at things from your customer’s point of view, and then speak with empathy.

Watch out for the “non-apology.” (We hear politicians make these all the time.) Those run something like this: “If anyone was offended by what happened, that wasn’t the intention, and the entire situation has been blown out of proportion.” This attempted apology fails on all counts: no acknowledgement of feelings, no openness, and no personal connection.

An apology is more powerful if you put yourself into it. Use an “I” statement, such as, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a frustrating time with this,” rather than, “These things can be frustrating.” Remember, people want to feel that you’ll work with them to help resolve the situation. Impersonal statements won’t create that trust.

First apologize, then investigate.
As soon as you hear a complaint, apologize. Don’t wait until after you explore what happened, who did what, and what the solution might be. You’ll get the information much more easily if your customer knows that his or her feelings are acknowledged and respected.

Just do it.
So give it a try! You’ll find that you end up with better communication, more effective problem solving, and, best of all, more satisfied customers.

The best way leaders can teach employees to apologize is by example. Recognize that an apology is a sign of strength, and give them yourself when circumstances demand it. You’ll create trust and good will – and you’ll also jump-start a culture of responsibility, kindness, and excellence. Big return for a few small words.


photo by Alice Feldt

An article we recently published in ASTD Links magazine.

Your clients meet you at the door of the conference room.  You can see in their faces that they’re looking forward to the meeting.  So are you.  When you work on projects together, you can feel the energy in the room.  Everyone sits up, leans forward, and laughs.  Ideas appear out of nowhere.  Everyone feels that they’re an important part of the process – and they’re committed to your success together.

For the independent consultant, one of the most important skills (and greatest joys) is collaborating with clients.  When you and your clients can truly work together, you’ll strengthen your relationship with them and produce the best results.

How can you create dynamic collaborations with your clients?  Here are some dos and don’ts, drawn from our many years of experience.

DON’T come in with a ready-made answer.

When clients have a hand in creating a solution to their problem, they value the result more.   Plus, they know things about their company or situation that you don’t:  things that can make or break your project.  Don’t close the door on important discoveries.

DO leave your ego at the door.

It’s tempting to want to assert yourself as The Expert – after all, isn’t that why they hired you?  But focusing on yourself gets in the way of creativity.  You can’t hear a great idea coming from someone else if you’re busy thinking up your next wise pronouncement.

DO acknowledge others’ needs and ideas.

Even if you don’t see the relevance, it’s important to them to be heard.  Make sure you listen, and thank them for their contributions.

DO express your opinions frankly but diplomatically.

They’re consulting you for your knowledge.   It’s your task to deliver your considered view of things, even when your clients aren’t sure they want to hear what you’re saying.  Make it easy to take, if you can, but make it honest and clear.

DON’T defer to clients when you know they’re wrong.

We learned this the hard way!  A client we were working with wanted a particular interactive exercise to last a half-hour.  Our guts and experience told us we couldn’t push it longer than about 15 minutes – but we overrode our instincts and prepared the material.  Sure enough, the participants became restless about halfway through.  We squirmed, but we learned to trust ourselves and stand our ground.

DO use the power of the outsider.

Because you’re NOT part of the company, clients often feel that it’s easier to confide in you.  So you can get valuable information that can help you find the best solution for them.  Go gently as they gradually drop their guard.  Show them that they can trust you.

DO speak from the client’s point of view.

Describe your ideas in terms that will make sense to your clients.  Avoid using your own professional jargon.  (And work to learn theirs.)  In making a case for a solution, always explain what’s in it for your clients:  how it will meet their goals and appeal to their motivations, not yours.

DON’T be all business.

You’re professional, of course, but be sure to let a bit of the personal in as well.  Showing your true self builds relationships, especially when you make it comfortable for your clients to be real, too.  And the more of yourselves you all bring to the table, the more creative your interaction will be.

DO be the enjoyable break in their day.

We’ve noticed that when people meet with us, their eyes get brighter.  The energy flows between us.  Why?  Call it creativity, playfulness, fun.  We try to be a breath of fresh air in the middle of an ordinary working day – an opportunity for our clients to free up their creative juices.

At one client’s offices, people often come up to us as we’re walking in the halls.  They ask us if we’re doing a workshop there that day, or they just say hi.  They associate us with fun; one client even told us, “having you here is a pleasurable experience.”  We consider that part of our job, and one of the ways we create quality results for our clients.

DO share the success.

After a project goes well, remember how everyone had a hand in it – and be sure to celebrate it together.  As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  Don’t worry, they won’t forget you!  And they’ll be even more eager to work with you at the next opportunity.