From a small mistake that inconveniences a customer to a gaffe of epic proportions, errors will happen despite our best planning, preparation and procedures. As recent headlines show, a customer's bad experience can quickly go viral and create widespread problems for your business. The way you handle it may either douse the flames or throw fuel on the fire.

Some companies have an integral reluctance to apologize, whether from a desire to avoid legally conceding guilt or to simply avoid taking the blame. But when it comes to moving past a mistake, there's no substitute for a sincere apology acknowledging your business accepts responsibility, expresses regret, explains what happened and how they intend to fix the problem. A well-worded mea culpa will not only wipe the slate clean but may also build customer loyalty when you've made a genuine effort to make it right.

The speed of your recovery will greatly depend on how you handle the gaffe. An insincere apology can make the situation far worse than the initial problem, while a well thought out response can lead your stakeholders to quickly forgive, forget and move on. Here are six must-do principles for creating a successful public apology.

1. Listen

This first step is the most critical one. When a customer takes the time to provide feedback, you owe them the courtesy of listening. Sometimes all frustrated customers need is to feel heard and understood. Listening to a customer's complaint will help you understand the problem so you can effectively deal with it.

2. Take Full Responsibility

Once you are aware of the problem, admit it and own it. This means no denials or finger-pointing. If it happened within the scope of your business, you are the public face of the problem. If your website crashes, but it's really your hosting company's fault, don't try to pass the buck. You chose that host, and while you can let complaining customers know you are working with your service provider to solve the problem, an apology for the disruption to their service needs to come from you.

3. Show Empathy

This is one of the key ingredients to a sincere apology. Put yourself in the customer's place to understand where they are coming from, then show you get why they're upset: "I'm sure you didn't want to spend your morning on the phone with tech support," acknowledging the mistake is causing a problem. Never try to downplay the issue or make it seem like it's no big deal. To somebody, it is a big deal.

4. Avoid the Resentment Builders "if" and "but"

It's better to not apologize at all than to include these two little words that void any actual regret on your part. When you say you are sorry "if" a customer had a problem with your service or product, you are implying there must be something wrong with them. You come across as humoring them even though they are obviously the ones with the problem. Saying "I'm sorry, but..." deflects blame away from you and sends the message that their complaint is not valid for whichever other reason. Either way, you shift the blame off of yourself and back onto the customer - who probably won't be doing business with you much longer.

5. Talk About What Happens Next

Explaining how you are fixing the issue and letting them know the steps you are taking to prevent it from happening again are the final piece of the well-crafted apology. Even if you don't yet fully know how you will fix the problem, let them know you are actively working on a solution and will keep them updated on next steps. Then, of course, do both.

One final word on apologies: use your social media platforms. Bigger companies often have teams of PR people to tackle this job, but it can be tough for those operating small businesses to closely monitor their social media for complaints or negative comments (and even harder to effectively deal with them). If a customer posts a grievance online, address it, including all the previously mentioned components of a strong apology.

In most cases, a well-worded reply will solve the problem. If it doesn't, take the discussion offline and keep working to resolve it. Some complaints are best responded to in-person. If you feel this is best, ask the person to private message you with their number so you can handle the problem personally.

Most people understand mistakes are a part of life. It's how you handle them that will show others what kind of business they are dealing with. Make sure in the aftermath of error, your words and actions reflect positively on you and your company.