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How to Apologize

At some point, every business will have to apologize.  As long as business is a human activity, businesses will make mistakes.  This post shows, by way of an example, how to apologize to your customers when you’ve hurt them.

 On December 2nd of 2013 Target department stores experienced every online retailer’s nightmare; hackers penetrated the company’s servers and stole the credit card data of tens of millions of Target customers.

 Target followed the security industry’s best practices to seal the breach, start investigations, and contact both the credit card companies and the affected cardholders.

 Then Target did one more very necessary thing… and did it well.  The president of Target personally apologized, in print, to Target’s customers.  Here’s the letter, published on Target’s blog and in full page newspaper advertisements across the country.

Apology Ltr
Target’s letter has some lessons for all of us.  Suppose something horrendous like this had happened to your business?  What would you say to your customers?

The Good Apology in Six Steps

1.  First, summarize what happened.  The summary can be short, but must be specific:
“As you have probably heard, Target learned in mid-December that criminals forced their way into our systems, gaining access to guest credit and debit card information.  As a part of the ongoing forensic investigation, it was determined last week that certain guest information, including names, mailing addresses, phone numbers or email addresses, was also taken.”

In a connected world, you probably won’t be the first to tell your customers that you’ve made a mistake.  While some suggest that you should “get out in front of the issue” with “full disclosure”, my experience suggests that it’s better to wait just a bit, until you know what actually happened.  “Just a bit” means a few hours to a several days.

 2.  Next, say what you did wrong, and explicitly apologize:

“Our top priority is taking care of you and helping you feel confident about shopping at Target, and it is our responsibility to protect your information when you shop with us.

We didn’t live up to that responsibility, and I am truly sorry”

Those words “sorry” and “apologize”, when spoken honestly, are two of the most powerful words in any language.  If your communication doesn’t include those words you’ve missed the point… and your customers will know it.

 3.  It’s your responsibility to correct the matter.  Tell your customers what you’re doing:

“Specifically, we have:

  1. Closed the the access pint that the criminals used and removed the malware they left behind.
  2. Hired a team of data security experts to investigate how this happened.  That effort is ongoing and we are working closely with law enforcement.
  3. Communicated that our guests will have zero liability for any fraudulent charges arising from the breach.
  4. Offered one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection to all Target guests so that you can have peace of mind.”
If you know how to make things right, then tell your customers how you’re going to do it.  A general statement simply isn’t credible.  It invites your customers to be skeptical and adopt a “wait and see” attitude.  That’s bad for you, because they’ll stop buying.

4. Often, a bad mistake causes more than material damage.  Empathize:

“I know this breach has had a real impact on you, creating a great deal of confusion and frustration.  I share those feelings.  You expect more from us and you deserve better.

We want to earn back your trust and confidence and ensure that we deliver the Target experience you know and love.”

Trust, that most powerful glue in a relationship, has been broken.  The apology should be a step in mending the relationship.  If it’s not, then you’ve missed a powerful opportunity.

5.  Make a a commitment to your customers:

“We are determined to make things right, and we will.”

One apology isn’t going to turn back the clock.  However, you’ve started a process that will make your business better, and repair your strained relations with your customers.  They’re waiting to see you make good on your commitment.  You can show them by keeping them informed about your progress.

 6.  Finally, do it yourself.  It’s your business and your responsibility.

“Sincerely,

[signature of Gregg Steinhafel]

Gregg Steinhafel, charman, president and chief executive officer, Target”

This is a responsibility that can’t be delegated.  Like the captain of a ship, a business owner, president or managing director is ultimately responsible in the customer’s eyes.

I hope your business never needs to apologize, but business involves people and we’re all fallible.  I’ve had to apologize to two customers.  Each time it was painful.  However, each time my customer  respected my willingness to admit I was wrong and my commitment to get it right.  We kept doing business together. If you say what you mean and mean what you say, right away, you’ll keep your good customers.

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2 Comments

  1. Carol Orris says:

    This is an issue that requires tactful and thorough resolution. The steps you outlined above, as well as the reasoning behind them, are invaluable. Upset customers are a businessperson’s worst advertisement. Negative comments can undo months of marketing and quality service.

  2. Chris Chadbourne says:

    There may be situations where fewer steps are needed, but I think it’s better to use all six steps. Here’s why. When someone has been wronged, it takes extra effort to repair the injustice or injury and then convince others of your sincerity. It takes time to rebuild trust.

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