Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Be Accountable: How to Deliver an Authentic Apology to Your Clients

When. Not if. There will come a time (probably several times) in your career when you make a huge mistake. You’ll drop the ball on a client project, blank on something important, or hand in work missing essential parts. A project will be screwed irreparably. You’ll feel the weight of your boss’s scepter. You will let someone down.

Sarah Bray knows the feeling. She runs A Small Nation, a company that helps other businesses attract an engaged audience and build their own small nations. I asked her about a time when she had to apologize to a client.

During coding on one of her projects, Sarah’s client was “really frustrated with the experience they had had with one of my employees…the client was actually holding back on communicating what they really wanted because they felt like a nuisance.” In the end, the client felt they were treated poorly and didn’t end up getting the work they expected.

“So I got a really long, fiery email that had obviously been simmering under the surface for a long time,” Sarah continued. “They didn’t want a resolution. They wanted to be heard, and maybe a little bit of revenge.”

Client communication can be tricky. There’s no method to completely eradicate miscommunication or mistakes. We strive for excellent creative work. We seek productivity and close relationships with our clients, but problems will always arise. It’s wise to learn this skill early: how to say, “I’m sorry.”

The good news is that we see public examples of apologies every day. Pop stars and athletes and CEOs are constantly apologizing for their transgressions.

The bad news is so few public apologies feel genuine, but rather carefully weighted PR moves to brush aside negative attention. An apology doesn’t work unless there’s a dose of humility attached to it.

So what’s the best way to approach a blunder and apologize for it?

First remember, your mistake probably feels bigger than it actually is. Any tough conversation comes with a fear of the unknown. Mulling over your mistake has probably magnified its importance. Relax.

Apologize personally, with humility, respect, and honesty. Don’t bullshit. Speak as a humble person, preferably face-to-face and using personal language. It’s important to actually say the words “sorry” or “apologize” and provide a clear, succinct indication of exactly what you’re apologizing for.

In the case with Sarah’s client, she says she apologized right away: “My immediate response was to email back and say that I was so sorry, and then I scheduled a phone call. Once we got on the phone, they were actually really nice about the whole thing — they felt bad about sending that email.”

Wording your apology plainly helps. Here’s an example: “I know I really screwed up here, and I know I made you and your team look bad in the process. I want to apologize personally and figure out a way to turn it around. Are you open to talking about that?”

An apology doesn’t work unless there’s a dose of humility attached to it.

Don’t make excuses. There’s probably an excellent and valid reason for your mistake. Now’s not the time to explain it. Take full responsibility without caveats. It’s the only way to begin to build back trust.

Try not to pay the blame forward. Speaking of responsibility, how many apologies have you heard in your life that start, “I’m sorry that you feel…”? Blaming your client, or anyone else, for an emotion they’re having just puts the onus of the problem on them. Start to repair the situation by shouldering the full blame for your part in making the other person feel a certain way.

Be explicit about a solution. Sarah offered her client “ten hours of billable time for free, and to personally take care of any of the changes they needed.” Once you’ve admitted culpability and taken responsibility, it’s time to do what you can to fix it. Come up with a swift and actionable solution that you can undertake now.

Being a responsible person means taking accountability when you screw up, even if it tarnishes your reputation in the short term. The bright side is that everyone’s fallible; you might even come out of your mistake with a closer and more meaningful relationship.

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Over to you:

What mistakes have you made, and how did you apologize?

More insights on: Office Dynamics

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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