“Sorry?” where does it belong in business?

Customer Retention

“Sorry?” where does it belong in business?

During the past few weeks the word “sorry” has been said to me on a few occasions, from suppliers, an insurance company and a colleague. It’s a very easy word to say. In our personal relationships, it smoothes over rough edges and overcomes small annoyances. But where does it belong in a business relationship? In the context of trying to maintain highest level service and professionalism, does it even have a place? When is it OK to apologise in business?

According to dictionary.com, apology is “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another” or “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing..”

Our business relationships are partially personal, but they mainly exist around the exchange of goods and services. Expectations are more clearly defined than personal relationships, with much firmer boundaries and more significant ramifications for non-delivery.

Lets look at my experiences from the last few weeks.

Case 1. I made an enquiry for a new product from a supplier, but I didn’t get a response for 5 days. The opening line in the reply email was “I’m sorry for the late reply…” If he had not apologised I would not know whether 5 days is fast or slow, but it suggested that he didn’t think it was good enough. Why not just reply faster? Or if there is a delay, send a short message sooner to say so, but he’s working on it. The outcome? I don’t believe there was a genuine apology and what he was really saying was “I know I’m slow but I still want your business.

Case 2. A co-worker habitually submits paperwork late, even though we have spoken about it every month for the last year without any improvement. In this context, the words “sorry” are totally empty and are clearly an excuse, with no intention to change. The outcome? I have even less respect and confidence, with their word meaning even less.

Case 3. I called a call centre to sort out some account issues and, after waiting on the phone 30 minutes I was glibly treated to a bored nasal voice that said “sorry for the delay”. Quite frankly after that time I didn’t care about her apology, nor did I believe that she even cared. The outcome? I am exploring other companies that have better service.

Let’s be honest, in business apologies are mostly used as excuses for not doing what is expected or what we promised. They are mostly used as a cover for not stating what actually happened, because no one asks any more when you say “sorry”. Is that good enough?

Apologies do have their place in business but must be used sparingly, or you start to lose credibility. They can only be used when there has been a genuine mistake or a problem that is not caused by poor performance. Apologies only have meaning if you plan to never do it again, which means working hard to build better systems, tighter measures, more proactive communication and a culture where everyone does what they say they will do.

Would it be possible to even create a business where apologies are banned? Imagine that you or your team had to be honest and up front every time something went wrong. It changes the game because admitting a mistake forces accountability. If my co-worker had said “I have been slack with my paperwork” or my supplier said “you weren’t priority in the last 5 days” they would be forced to change their behaviour rather than copping out with “I’m sorry”.

Apologies in business are a warning sign – a warning that your client’s expectations have not been met.

What to do:

  • If you genuinely can’t do something, or do it on time, tell the other person as it happens. Don’t stay quiet and appear indifferent.
  • Do what you say you will do. Start with the standard you want to achieve and work backwards to make it happen. Every time.
  • If you need to apologise, use it sparingly.
  • Change your habits promptly and don’t apologise twice for the same thing.
  • Discipline yourself and your team so you don’t need to apologise.
  • Be honest if there is a problem.

Warren Harmer

at Crecer

Small, fast growing and entrepreneurial businesses are my passion. I like to write business plans for them, grow them, advise them and write about them. My experience now spans over 17 years, including 3 businesses of my own. My objective is to offer instructive, hands-on, ‘how to’ information to make business ownership easier, less stressful, more successful and more enjoyable.

Comments (3)
John Belchamber

John Belchamber, Owner & Senior Consultant at Invoke Results

Interesting article Warren. I'm impressed that you've actually had people say sorry to you! It's my experience that 'Sorry' is a word that isn't used enough these days and many problems would be solved by the correct usage of the word and demonstrating accountability (I can almost hear the lawyers beating their foreheads). I totally agree that saying sorry alone is not enough. What needs to be added is a statement as to what one is going to do to try and ensure that the problem does not happen again and, what you will do if it does. None of us is perfect and problems will always happen but in my experience when one takes responsibility for one's mistakes in life, apologises for their impact and demonstrates that one has (a) learned from them and (b) taken reasonable steps to ensure that the same mistake will not be made again, then better relationships are built. Today's most dissatisfied customer is tomorrow's most loyal one IF they feel that their problems have been heard, understood, learned from and dealt with.

Wendy Huang

Wendy Huang, Full Time Blogger and YouTuber at A Custom Blog in 4 Minutes

Hi Warren, I also do feel sometimes sorry feels like an empty reply to tick off the box of "politeness" vs. actually being sorry. I also never really thought much about it. Thanks for promoting more integrity in the business world :D!

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