The actions that you take after making a mistake can be broken into three parts. We’re going to deconstruct these actions and examine them more closely to create a framework on which you can build policies and procedures for your business. This frame work includes:
- the apology — acknowledging the mistake, taking responsibility and expressing regret
- the restitution — actions that ameliorate the damage done
- the intention — actions that prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future.
The first step is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an apology for it. An apology is exactly what you think it is — an admission of guilt. It should include both a description of what went wrong as well as an acceptance of responsibility. But understanding what went wrong does not mean excusing it. At this early point in the process, don’t say, “This went wrong because….” Just say “This went wrong and I am sorry.” There will be time to describe how the mistake occurred, but the initial interaction is not that time.
The way you handle problems is a significant aspect of your brand. Customers won’t separate their personal experiences from your advertising and your products and your website — they see all parts as a cohesive whole. Creating policies and procedures to deal with negative events is as much a part of building a brand as designing a marketing campaign or creating an attractive window display.
People want to be heard. This is an important thing to remember when you begin making an apology. A great deal of anger can be dissipated simply by listening. When people get to express their feelings, the energy behind those feelings can dissipate. Listening doesn't fix the problem, but it can significantly decrease tension.
Once you've allowed your customer to speak, let them know that they’ve been heard. Repeat back what you understand and ask for clarification: “Do I understand the situation correctly?”
Listening provides you with advantages for handling the situation. You may be surprised to find out that you don’t fully understand what happened. It may be that the situation is far more fixable than you originally thought. It may be the that the whole situation was the product of a simple misunderstanding — lots of arguments are. Once you listen, you will be armed with tools you can use to repair the relationship.
Then, Just Say You're Sorry
It's so easy to get emotional in these situations. For some people, defensiveness is second nature. But when you recognize that this isn't a personal issue and that your simple apology can have real bottom-line effects on your business, it can be easier to turn off the emotional response and turn on the intellectual one. But regardless of how easy or difficult this is for you, now is the time to suck it up and apologize.
Once you are certain that you have fully understood the emotional and chronological context of the events, just apologize. Don't say, “I'm sorry you feel that way.” Don't say, “I wish you had….” Just say you're sorry and acknowledge that you — the business owner — take responsibility for the events that transpired. You'll have plenty of time to go over the details later.
It's Always Your Fault
Entrepreneurs hate to hear this. It's so much easier to just blame employees. But if your business fails you’re going to sink with your own ship. An employee can just go get another job.
If an employee mistreats a customer, you either hired the wrong person or did not train that employee effectively. You may not have put the right policies and procedures into place. Or, if you did, you may not have ensured that each employee fully understood them. Taking responsibility is hard. So is being a leader. The two are not separate — one defines the other.
Once you acknowledge this, it's much easier for your apology to be authentic. If you have taken responsibility for the business you’ve created, you will automatically feel some degree of guilt or blame. Acknowledge this. It does not make you weak; quite the opposite. Taking responsibility for what happens in your business is a sign of strength. It says,”I understand that I am not perfect because I, like everyone else, I am human and fallible. I am not spending my time worrying about how people perceive me and I am not judging myself. I had enough self-confidence and faith to open this business and I have the strength to take full responsibility for the way this business operates.”
This is the very definition of authenticity.
Mistakes are little cancers. One small mistake, left to its own devices, can quickly become a much bigger problem. When a situation gets big enough, it can kill a business. The best thing to do when you recognize a mistake is to eliminate it as quickly as possible.
Most customers don’t like to complain. When a customer brings a problem to your attention, it’s already reached a significant threshold. Waiting until a customer complains is the worst thing you can do.
Of course, you may not always know when a customer is unhappy. But if you can see a situation developing and act quickly, you will save yourself and your company from more serious consequences.
In the past, business owners couldn’t hear customer conversations. But today, much of what people are saying about your business is recorded online. If you monitor social media while you watch the interactions between your staff and your customers, you’ll be more likely to catch problems before they become serious. (Google alerts are a quick way to get started.)
And when you see a situation developing — or even after everybody's blown it — look at the failure as an opportunity. This is a chance to train. This is a chance to learn. This is a chance to go above and beyond when serving your customers. Mistakes can be wonderful. If you see them from a practical perspective, mistakes can become some of your best business opportunities.
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