Best Way to Apologize? Starbucks, Business Experts on the Art of Saying Sorry

Understanding the benefit of a well-meaning apology, and how to best craft one, can help you become a truly great leader.
March 18, 2013

Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world's leading executive coaches, said, "I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make." In his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, Marshall lists the refusal to express regret and to apologize as one of the top 20 transactional flaws performed by one person against another. These apply equally at work and at home. Unfortunately, most people don't understand how to apologize effectively. To be a great leader, it's important to understand not just why you should apologize, but how and when to apologize as well.

Benefits of a Sincere Apology

More and more today, we're seeing the value of moving away from the Teflon-type of leader to a leader who can summon the courage to say "I'm sorry." Leadership is fundamentally a relationship, and an apology, when it's warranted, is an investment in the future of the relationship—whether it's with a co-worker or a customer, a superior or a subordinate.

If you view apologizing as the equivalent of swallowing a bitter pill, consider the benefits. Apart from it being the right thing to do, apologizing increases customer loyalty and retention. The Nottingham School of Economics studied the effect of an apology on disgruntled customers after they were let down. They found that more than twice the number of unhappy customers are willing to forgive a company that issues an apology over one who offers them a monetary compensation. Other studies show that malpractice suits, for example, drop when doctors apologize. Even in bankruptcy situations, those who apologize to the judge fare better financially. The benefits of apologizing are evident in all spheres of our professional and personal lives.


The 5-step Apology Process

1. Say you are sorry.

2. Clearly state what you did wrong.

3. Acknowledge how the receiving party must be feeling.

4. Express your sincere regret.

5. Promise not to repeat the behavior.

Here's an example of how this might sound: "Bob, I am so sorry I abruptly cut you off at the director's meeting. This was very rude on my part and I know it angered you. You have every right to be angry with me. I regret this. I assure you that this will not happen again." Spoken from the heart, this type of apology can go a long way toward repairing a relationship that might otherwise be irretrievably broken.

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Apology Tips: Do's and Don'ts

Eliminate the word "if." We have all heard, and made, these types of apologies: "If I have offended you, I am sorry." We might as well say: "I don't see how I could have offended you, but if you are so sensitive to have been offended, then let me be a big man (or woman) and issue an apology." This is most likely to be received as a second insult even though this is not your intention.

Don't give any excuses. Much as it's tempting, refrain from giving an excuse for the offending action. Excuses dilute the strength of your genuine regret and shift the focus away from the needs of the aggrieved party to your own need to save face.

Make it brief. Belaboring the apology is a natural effect that stems from our anxiety in having to confront an unpleasant issue. Be aware when this happens so you can stop yourself. When you express genuine regret, you don't have to use too many words. The longer you talk, the more you're likely to weaken the impact of your apology.

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Don't delay an apology. Apologies have a "best-before" date: delaying an apology spoils its positive impact. Those who apologize even before a situation is discovered, boost their authenticity in the eyes of others. Transparency is a trustworthiness meter, especially in our low-credibility zeitgeist.

Find out your apology quotient. In Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, author John Kador asks 10 questions that will rate your apology quotient (AQ.) The test and the book will help you develop this critical leadership skill and aid you in crafting apologies that can improve your relationships, both at work and in your personal life.

Do a cost/benefit analysis of an apology. Sometimes, our need to be right may cloud our decision-making process. Consider the price tag of being right in relation to its effect on the relationship. Is it worth it? In that regard, one of the best definitions of what an apology is comes from Kador. As he puts it, "I define an apology as a willingness to value the relationship more than the need to be right."

Institute a policy for handling apologies to customers. Train your employees to understand the value of effectively dealing with angry or disgruntled customers. Take an inspiration from Starbucks LATTE Method for dealing with complaints. As reported in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, Starbucks' baristas are trained to respond to complaints by listening (L), Acknowledging (A), T (Taking Action), Thanking (T), and Explaining (E). Note that the emphasis is first on listening and only lastly on explaining what happened. Can the LATTE method, or a variation of it, help you ensure that a disgruntled customer will want to continue to do business with you?

Apologizing is the simplest of skills to acquire, and yet the one that is rarely taught. It's about learning and practicing emotional literacy, which should rank high in importance with financial literacy as prime training for everyone.

For more tips, check out these leadership and management articles.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Goldsmith