What’s wrong with “I’m Sorry”?

by Rob Waldeck | January 10, 2010

An excellent article in this weekend’s NY Times about corporate America’s reticence to apologize for its errors and actions. The article mostly focuses on healthcare and I thank Paul Levy at BIDMC for blogging about it and bringing it to my attention.

Upon reading I had two thoughts:

First, isn’t it ironic that in the business world we have such a hard time saying we are sorry to our customers, when, the truth is, beyond the fact that it is the right thing to do, it is also an excellent act of customer service? It diffuses tough conversations. It aligns interests. And assuming we have previously earned the respect of the customer and that the need for an apology is the exception and not the norm, it can actually build greater respect and lasting relationships.

Second, and on further thought, it’s really not so surprising we struggle to apologize to our customers when we rarely if ever apologize in our professional lives. When was the last time a co-worker offered a simple apology for a missed deadline, an inappropriate comment or an error in judgment. More often than not, apologies are veiled within an excuse . . . “I had lots on my plate, but I can have it tomorrow” or “I was up all night with the kids and didn’t have a chance.” An apology is inferred but never truly offered. The Times article points out that how we apologize is more than just semantics. A real apology is about taking responsibility and taking responsibility adds real value to any relationship. Anything less, I would argue, is self-serving and not about teamwork or service or camaraderie.

So if we all agree that we desire stronger bonds with our clients and more effective relationships with our co-workers, might a simple apology be an authentic means to that end? Ask yourself, have you ever had any meaningful relationship in which you haven’t been wrong and needed to say you were sorry?

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