Writing Tips

Leap Before You Write That Letter Of Apology – Guest Post By Brad Shorr

A while back I ran a post offering some technical tips on writing letters of apology.

Technical tips are all well and good, but Joanna’s February focus on taking the leap got me thinking.

Writing a good business apology really does require a few psychological leaps. Make those leaps successfully, and the words in your letter will quickly fall into place.

# 1 Take the leap and admit you made a mistake

Few of us like to admit a mistake to ourselves, let alone in writing to a customer or business partner. Business is competitive. We don’t like to lose. We don’t like to admit weakness. But have you ever heard a politician or famous sports figure make a public apology that didn’t sound like an apology at all?

How did it make you feel? Resentful? Frustrated? Aggravated?

That’s exactly how a customer will feel if he or she reads a letter of apology that doesn’t apologize. (Let me add that it is not wise to accept responsibility for a mistake that was not yours. That, as my earlier post explains, can lead to trouble.)

#2 Take the leap and explain what happened

People are more likely to accept an apology when they understand why the problem or breakdown occurred.

Yet companies are reluctant to offer details, not only because they are fearful of being viewed as disorganized, inattentive, or incompetent, but because they are uncomfortable revealing the inner workings of their processes and procedures. Get past it. The more transparent you are, the more forgiving customers will be.

# 3 Take the leap and ask for forgiveness

I wish I could say it’s enough to admit a mistake and explain how it happened, but it wouldn’t be true.

Just as sales people must ask for order in orders to receive them, you must ask for forgiveness in order to receive it. It’s a hard thing to do, to ask for forgiveness. But I do believe that in business, as in life, ask and you shall receive.

# 4 Take the leap and give freely

Companies typically offer customers a discount or some other form of consideration to make up for an error – this is good.

However, if the company slips out of apology mode and into negotiation mode in the process – this is bad. Making a gesture of apology in exchange for another order is not much of a gesture, and could have the opposite effect of what is intended.

# 5 Take the leap and do make changes that prevent it from happening again

In many organizations, “change” is a four letter word. But mistakes offer an opportunity for improvement, so embrace them.

Remember – those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Problems apologized for but left uncorrected will be repeated as well, perhaps until they drive customers into the arms of a competitor.

Don’t let it happen to you! Customers are too hard to find these days.

How do you get ready to write a letter of apology? And how do you feel when you get a letter from a business that didn’t make the leap?

Let me introduce you to Brad - although I think a lot of you will know him.

Brad Shorr is a sales and marketing consultant who lives near Chicago, Illinois. His company, Word Sell, Inc., provides strategic consulting, sales training and coaching, and business blog and other online marketing services. His blog explores issues of interest to small and mid-size business - sometimes quite seriously, but often with a touch of humor.

Brad’s also a long-standing reader, commenter, supporter and friend of Confident Writing - and now the first person to guest write here twice! His first post was on 9 Steps to Clear Business Writing.

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

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15 Responses to “Leap Before You Write That Letter Of Apology – Guest Post By Brad Shorr”

  1. On February 25, 2008 at 12:53 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad, thanks again for coming back and writing a guest post for us. I really like the way you take practical business issues and explore the nuts and bolts of what needs to change to make them work.

    I can really identify with this post having just been on the receiving end of a ‘non’ letter of apology from my bank. They had clearly learned some of the principles of pacing client experience, but ended up just repeating back to me what I already knew (because I’d told them!) “I understand that we inadvertently closed your account…” and then saying it was down to a clerical error that did not live up to their normal standards. I had at least three of these clerical errors in the one letter and guess what - it doesn’t make it all right, and it didn’t make me feel any better.

    They did also offer me some compensation which I’ll take but has done nothing to change my sense of grievance or dissatisfaction with the way I’ve been treated as a customer. They most certainly did not make any kind of leaps to see things from my point of view - or offer anything that sounded like a genuine apology.

    Phew, rant over! And that was the edited version!


  2. On February 25, 2008 at 1:02 pm Karen Swim responded with... #


    Like Joanna I have certainly been on the receiving end of non-apologies. In my business I am quick to own up to mistakes and try to correct the situation with clients. Mistakes will happen and they can teach us so much about our business. Sometimes a mistake will cost you business but other times it deepens the loyalty. I always do the right thing without thought of the outcome because in the end if I blew it and I own up to it, I may have lost something or someone in the short term but I the long term gain is immeasurable. Thank you so much for sharing with us and helping us to grow in our business.


  3. On February 25, 2008 at 1:04 pm Karen Swim responded with... #

    Oops, tried to catch that typo before it went out, but buttons would not cooperate.


  4. On February 25, 2008 at 1:08 pm amypalko responded with... #

    Couldn’t agree more with your post, Brad. A heartfelt apology and a genuine request for my forgiveness, and I will, in all likelihood, continue to do business with you. However, I think in this day and age, we are so used to the apology-that’s-not-an-apology, that we find it replicated everywhere. Having the guts to offer a sincere, honest apology gains respect, and is a sure-fire way to ensure continued customer loyalty.

  5. On February 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Hi Joanna, Karen, Amy. I imagine it’s tough for big institutions (banks in particular) to take those leaps and stay out of the non-apology apology mode. Letters are probably written by committee, with heavy input from the legal team. But your comments are right on, and reinforce my belief that the non-apology just doesn’t cut it. Joanna, thanks again for allowing me to share my ideas on your blog!

  6. On February 25, 2008 at 5:43 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad, it’s my pleasure :-)

    I like the idea that’s emerging here about focusing on the long-term relationships rather than short term resolution - so when you sat down to write you’d set maintaining loyalty as the intention, it might make a big shift to the tone.

    (I’m starting to think ahead to next month and my Is, so intention is in my mind… though I haven’t fixed on the theme yet)


  7. On February 26, 2008 at 10:06 am Jackie Cameron responded with... #

    Like everyone else I have had a non apology from my bank. I think Brad hits the nail on the head when he mentions the input from the legal team! I am not sure how true this is but it is a common belief that saying sorry admits liability in insurance terms (especially it would seem if it involves motor vehicles..


  8. On February 26, 2008 at 12:04 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Jackie, I think you’re right, there are times when it’s not possible for a company to apologise because of the ramifications - but isn’t that then a good reason to get clear what they can say and why, and make that the aim of their writing, rather than pretending to apologise and not mean it.

    It seems to be one of the deceptions that readers are most adept at spotting - we can spot it a mile off if an apology is not genuine. Politicians are another prime example of this genre of course!


  9. On February 28, 2008 at 1:01 pm Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Jackie, legal issues must sometimes be handled delicately, for sure. That’s when writing skills become so critical. Even when statements have to be made carefully, it is possible for the writer to convey a sense of concern and understanding, don’t you think?

  10. On March 3, 2008 at 6:26 am Jeanne Dininni responded with... #

    Wonderful post, Brad!

    Sorry I’m so late reading it! I’m just so swamped with work! I love reading and commenting on all my blogging friends’ blogs-and guest posts!

    Hope businesspeople will take this post to heart. An apology is so important-in business just as much as in life!


  11. On March 3, 2008 at 9:29 am Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Brad knows how to get to the heart of business writing doesn’t he Jeanne? I’m glad you enjoyed his piece :-)


  12. On April 3, 2008 at 5:19 pm E, Mutt responded with... #

    I offended one of our top clients yesterday (not the first time…sigh.) and now I’m doing damage control again today. This makes me feel better about my personal letter of apology I’m writing; I worried that perhaps it wouldn’t be as professional as the legalistic apology, or that maybe it would sound like excuses. This post reassured me that I’m doing the right thing…thanks!

  13. On April 3, 2008 at 6:14 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi, I’m glad you found what you were looking for! Hope the letter does the trick




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