In the restaurant business many years ago, I was taught to practice the three A's early on, and thought I'd share them with you now.
To me, these are the most difficult lessons a small business can learn. The three A's are for when you mess up—and that's why they're so hard for most businesses to swallow, because business people tend to like to avoid the hard part: apologizing. But here's where you get the magic formula, and it goes like this: acknowledge, apologize, act.
The first part of a good apology is acknowledging that something happened. "We were 40 minutes late bringing your order to the table." In doing this, be really clear on what went wrong, without any kind of editorial. Note that I didn't write, "We were 40 minutes late bringing your order to the table because we had a shift change and because Luigi can't keep his order forms straight." Blame no one in this. Just acknowledge what exactly happened. Don't fall on your sword, exactly. Instead, just be really clear that you understand what might make the person upset.
Be very very very clear on this. "I'm sorry for any inconvenience our actions may have caused." Again, add zero qualifiers. Do nothing to diffuse anything. Just put out the apology. "I'm sorry that we didn't get this food to you faster" (to continue my example above). Apologize. And use the exact words: "I'm sorry." Anything else are weasel words. "We are sorry" really doesn't cut it, either. And neither does, "Mister Ross is very sorry for your problems." Never use any kind of "they" to perform your apology. You're there. Say "I." Even if it's not you who did anything directly. Just say "I." It solves everything much better.
Depending on the situation, be very certain to explain how you will take action now, and in the future. "I'm taking this meal off your bill, and in the future, I'd like you to show this card to your server, to ensure that you get excellent service." And that just continues my scenario from above, but truly, should you want the best customer service around. Give everyone one of those cards. It would change everything if every customer were treated like the VIP that had something done wrong to them.
In the "act" stage, also take the time to explain how you'll fix this in the future. If you've missed a delivery time frame, explain that you've added a new process to fix this (and make sure you have). Sometimes, this part is tricky. If you've spilled wine on someone, it's unlikely that you can say, "In the future, I won't spill wine on you." You probably didn't mean to do it in the first place, so it's just not necessarily useful to say. If anything, you could just say, "I'll be more careful next time," because it's something we've all heard a million times from our moms.
And that's the magic
Few companies are good at this, yet it's so utterly basic. I could have explained it in even half the words, without the examples. And yet, so few companies can do this well. So few choose to do it at all. To me, this is like burning money. You might as well pay even more for your advertising. Give your marketers an extra few thousand to spread around. Because you could save some of that money by doing the very simplest of acts: apologizing when you're wrong. And you know what else? Sometimes, and I don't mean always, you can even apologize when you're right. Don't make it a lose-lose all the time, but if you have to take the fall every now and again, do it.
And those are your Three A's. What do you think? Would YOU do it?