For Patty Laushman, it didn't get any worse than this. Laushman is CEO of the Uptime Group, a Denver-based IT consultancy that pledges to keep its clients' computer networks up and running. Unfortunately, a major client's system had crashed. The customer, a software developer called Maverick Systems, was in the midst of a major Department of Defense contract. "For six hours, they had no e-mail, no Internet access," Laushman says. "They could not operate their business."
As Maverick project manager Marjorie Allison watched the billable hours slip away, she grew increasingly frustrated. Laushman knew she had to apologize. With butterflies in her stomach, she picked up the phone and made an appointment for the next day. She had 24 hours to figure out how to make the most artful apology of her life.
No one likes owning up to mistakes, and many business leaders resist it. But mastering the art of the apology is crucial. Business relationships depend on trust. Violations of that trust--a missed deadline or a faulty product--can cause serious damage, putting entire relationships up for renegotiation. But making amends is not as simple as it seems. At least one thing is clear: Simply uttering the words "I'm sorry" and tacking on an excuse does not constitute an effective apology. Ohio State University professor Roy J. Lewicki, along with Edward C. Tomlinson and Brian R. Dineen, examined the components of an effective apology in a study published in the 2004 Journal of Management. The researchers asked 90 business students to imagine they were running a company and that another business owner had caused their company to take a financial hit. They then varied the type of apology the offending party offered and compared the willingness of the injured party to continue the business relationship.
Their research found that the least effective apologies are those in which people shirk from truly taking responsibility for their errors and instead try to placate the wronged parties by shifting blame and offering some kind of compensation (say, offering a discount on future purchases). Apologies, they found, are most effective when the offending parties accept full responsibility for their actions, explain why the violation happened, demonstrate how they're planning to address the problem in the future, and offer, where appropriate, some form of reparation along with the apology.
In fact, if you fail to include each of those elements in your apology, you may do more harm than good. Jennifer K. Robbennolt, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, polled 145 professionals on their reaction to different kinds of apologies after a hypothetical accident in which a pedestrian was struck by a bicyclist. She found that 73 percent of the victims who received a full apology ("The accident was all my fault. I was going too fast and not watching where I was going.") were inclined to accept a settlement offer. Only 35 percent of those who received partial apologies ("I am so sorry that you were hurt. I hope you feel better soon.") were willing to settle. In fact, victims who received no apology at all were more inclined to settle than those who received a partial apology; 52 percent of those who received nothing but the settlement offer said they'd definitely or probably accept. "The partial apology can be interpreted as you saying, 'I'm sorry that you think I should apologize," Robbennolt says.
The Uptime Group's Laushman, for her part, was considering just such a strategy. On the day before her appointment with Allison, she thought of little else besides the apology she had to make. After reviewing the situation, she learned that Maverick's system crash wasn't really Uptime's fault; the server had problems long before Uptime had taken on the account. Still, she struggled over how much responsibility to take. Should she do as one friend advised and duck full responsibility?
Laushman decided to stick to her principles. She and the technician who worked on the account arrived at Maverick's office and sat across the desk from Allison. Laushman and the technician explained exactly what had happened, said they were sorry, and accepted responsibility. Then Laushman offered a credit for 10 hours of service, worth about $1,000. She also told Allison she'd be happy to assign a new technician to the account.
Allison, who had entered the meeting thinking about giving Uptime its walking papers, had never heard anything like this from a vendor before. "I was surprised by her candor," Allison says. The thorough explanation, the complete apology, and the refund convinced Allison that Uptime was on top of the situation--and had good ethics. She kept her business with Uptime and even chose to continue working with the same technician.
Laushman's apology hit all the right notes. And the time that it took her to make it--48 hours after the incident--also probably helped it go over as well as it did. Apologies are most effective when the wronged person believes that the apologizer has truly considered what he or she has done, says Robbennolt. Call it the suffering effect. Yes, waiting too long can backfire, but showing that you've had a chance to reflect on your errors and feel guilty about them will likely make your apology fall on more receptive ears.
Before you start making amends for every perceived transgression, there are a few points to keep in mind. If you're facing a situation that might become a legal matter--for example, if you've failed to deliver on a contract--an apology might actually work against you. "Apologies can be construed as an admission of responsibility," says Robbennolt. (See "The Sorry Laws") And whether or not the law is your worry, sincerity should be. If the trust-violating behavior continues, people will no longer put any stock in your apologies. "You can apologize a few times, and then there's a point where the apology is insufficient," says Denise Spatafora, co-founder of the Handel Group, a New York City-based consultancy. If that happens, it's very hard to dig yourself out. If you really don't intend to change your behavior, you're better off skipping the apology. Save your credibility--and your apology--for a time when you really need it. And make sure you mean it.