How to cure apology allergy and own up to mistakes

Not. My. Fault. Kids use these three words all the time, especially when standing next to a crayon-stained wall. The heavier the guilt, the stronger the declaration.

Do you know what “not my fault” means to listeners? “It’s my fault.”

Unfortunately, Ja Rule didn’t get the memo. After the much-hyped Fyre Festival went up in flames, the rapper who helped organize the Bahamian-music-weekend-that-wasn’t tweeted a pathetic apology that ended with “this is NOT MY FAULT.” You could almost confuse him with Silkk the Shocker.

Instead of taking control of the situation and delivering a sincere apology, Ja Rule perfectly illustrated our apology allergy culture while throwing gasoline on the bonfire of his own creation.

The apology allergy antidote

Online vitriol triggers a “fight or flight” reaction in our brains’ amygdalas, with “flight” taking the form of a half-hearted apology.

Sometimes, businesses make bad situations worse. When a customer posted a negative review for connected garage door opener Garadget, founder Denis Grisak took matters into his own hands. Instead of addressing the customer’s criticism, Grisak rendered the man’s Garadget inoperable by severing his server connection. Talk about harsh.

The cure for the apology allergy is to acknowledge our fears by answering complaints boldly and transparently. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but this head-on approach can dramatically increase customer advocacy.

While writing my latest book, “Hug Your Haters,” I worked with Edison Research to survey more than 2,000 American consumers who had filed complaints about companies in the past year. When companies addressed customer complaints, our research found, advocacy and loyalty jumped by as much as 25%; when a company answered a complaint and solved the problem, advocacy and loyalty increased by up to 75%.

In other words, we should see mistakes as powerful opportunities to win over haters. We just need to be brave and smart enough to take the heat and seek forgiveness.

Crafting the perfect apology

Corporate leaders should see mistakes as powerful opportunities to boost advocacy. Unhappy customers made happy are catalysts for incredible word-of-mouth marketing and revenue growth. We just need to be brave and smart enough to take the heat and seek forgiveness.

Here are the four necessary ingredients to the perfect mea culpa:

1. Acknowledge each complaint, noting the venue

On social media, 42% of consumers who complain expect a response in as little as 60 minutes. No pressure, right? If you wait too long to respond, people will feel ignored. You wouldn't let the phone ring forever without answering it, and you shouldn't ignore online feedback.

A quick acknowledgment of the situation should take just a few minutes. Whether you're talking to one person or an angry mob, start by saying that you’ve seen the feedback on the platform where it was given.

“I have seen your tweets/Facebook posts/emails…”

2. Embrace the complaint.

Remember that negative feedback is a gift. Few customers take the time to tell you they’re ticked, and you can glean valuable insights about your company operations. When people lob criticism your way, take the time to thank them for this thoughtful offering.

“I have seen your tweets/Facebook posts/emails, and I thank you for reaching out. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to feel that way…”

3. Apologize with empathy and action

We’ve reached the tipping point of any apology: It’s time to either give your complainant meat and merit or slip into lip service. Choose the former. Try to sound empathetic, and offer credible, meaningful solutions or remediation.

“I have seen your tweets/Facebook posts/emails, and I thank you for reaching out. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to feel that way. We have completely failed you, and I am so sorry — as is everyone at Company XYZ. Customer satisfaction is our top priority; we will refund you within 10 days…”

Extend the conversation

Finally, the apologist should offer complainants an official avenue to continue the conversation. This extra step is rare, but it gives you a unique opportunity to continue learning and engaging. It also allows you to corral complaints and follow-up communication into a dedicated channel. It’s a veritable gold mine.

“I have seen your tweets/Facebook posts/emails, and I thank you for reaching out. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to feel that way. We have completely failed you, and I am so sorry — as is everyone at Company XYZ. Customer satisfaction is our top priority; we will refund you within 10 days. I plan to post a video tomorrow on CompanyXYZ.com, and I will answer every question and concern in the comments. Thank you for being a loyal customer. We will make things right for you.”

You might not become the next Emily Post, but a genuine apology can help you avoid losing customers and making enemies. Conflict and criticism are never fun — whether it's on social networks or in person — but they offer a petri dish for improvement: They allow us to create new life and order for ourselves, even in the face of catastrophe.

 

Jay Baer is a renowned business strategist, keynote speaker, and The New York Times bestselling author. He is the founder of Convince & Convert, a strategy consulting firm that helps prominent companies gain and keep more customers through the smart intersection of technology, social media, and customer service. His latest book, "Hug Your Haters," outlines how to embrace complaints, put haters to work for your company, and turn bad news into good.

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