Customer relationships are valuable, fragile, and not to be taken for granted. It takes time to build trust with a customer; destroying it can happen in just a few incompetent minutes. 

Bob Schultek Author of The Gauntlet

Relationships are intimate. People, not organizations, create them – by listening with empathy to one another, and then connecting to resolve a problem or achieve an aspiration. When something goes wrong, these human connections make the difference – it’s when they’re needed most. But too few organizations have trained, empowered or rewarded their employees to invest the time and emotional effort necessary to leverage them. 

A business naturally worries about being held responsible when things go badly, but when this happens, it’s already too late for such concerns. You’re already being held responsible. The question is what to do about it. Avoiding the problem, or delaying a response, only aggravates an already negative situation. 

The best option is to accept responsibility and contribute to the relationship by apologizing -not to make those who are harmed disappear, but to leverage your human connection with the customer. Your relationship can be strengthened by directly and promptly acknowledging your customer’s concerns and expressing regret for how your failure may have hurt your personal relationship; and then by acting to resolve or improve the situation, i.e. collaborating to refine the defective system that caused the problem. Your apology builds a bridge that enables you and your customer to move forward together. 

An effective apology includes:

  1. Acknowledging to yourself why you’re apologizing – to strengthen a human relationship, to fulfill a promise, to improve a bad situation, in a way that a form letter or text can never do. WARNING: if you cannot accept this rationale, to leverage a human connection in a moment when it is most needed, then the authenticity of your relationship will evaporate and you’ll be left trying to financially compensate which will be insufficient to save the relationship.
  2. Hearing the aggrieved customer’s story and sharing yours as well – to demonstrate human vulnerability that makes your relationship genuine, and helps them feel “seen” and valued.
  3. Engaging with the person who was harmed – to discover, beyond being seen, what would help them move forward, while acknowledging that it’s impossible to make complete amends.

How often does your organization apologize 
for a problem it caused?

What parts of the effective apology process could strengthen your customer relationships?