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How to Admit to Your Customers That You Messed Up

December 5, 2018 Stephanie Fisher

SW-mojo-blog-header-How to Admit to Your Customers That You Messed Up

One of my biggest weaknesses is getting defensive when I make a mistake. Big or little, my instinct is self-preservation. It's not my fault! 


Or, I might try to ignore it and hope it goes away. Like this guy.

When we royally screw up, in life or in business, it's important to admit it and take responsibility. How do you do that, especially when your screw up is embarrassingly public and you have a lot of people to apologize to?

While the following best practices fall under "PR and Crisis Management", these lessons can apply at a personal level as well.

Recently, HubSpot issued a press release and email to customers with an update about a series of unfortunate events. There was an outage in service which affected many of their customers. It was inconvenient, to say the least. HubSpot's response is a case study in "How to Apologize To Your Customers." 

Here's what they did, and what you should do if you need to make a big public apology.

1. Apologize.

Don't save the apology for later. Don't mumble it under your breath. 

Lead with "I'm sorry." 

In the example, HubSpot says in the first paragraph -- "We're sorry we let you down." It helps to hear a clear apology right up front. They also end the letter with another full-throated apology, "This week, we failed to deliver that — and we are truly sorry."

2. Admit your mistake and take responsibility for it.

Don't try to get away with deflecting, or explaining what went wrong, or pinning the blame on someone else. You may not be completely to blame. Maybe it was an honest mistake or an unforeseen disaster. Still, admit your part in the snafu and accept responsibility for making it right.

3. Empathize with your customer.

You know your customer or client is frustrated, angry, hurt, or feeling some other emotion connected to your mistake.

Reflect that feeling and let your customer know that YOU know how they feel.

In the example, HubSpot did this throughout the letter:

"It’s been a tough week here at HubSpot, but even a tougher week for you, our customers."

"...leading to significant downtime and frustrating outages for many of you, for much of the week."

"...we let you down."

4. Explain in detail what went wrong.

This is probably the easiest part of the apology. Once you've apologized, taken responsibility, reflected the emotions of you audience, then you can go into the details of how it happened.

I say this is the "easy part" because at least now you have a chance to explain the mistake, how it was either an accident or lapse of foresight or a rogue employee. Whatever the problem, here's your chance to explain yourself. Try not to sound defensive, though. If you strike the right tone in your intro, the explanation will go down easier.

Perhaps you feel a lengthy explanation is unnecessary, and it may be. If there are extenuating circumstances that might help your customers understand your situation better, details are good. If it feels like you're just digging the hole deeper, you might choose to leave it at a sincere short apology. 

5. Show how you will prevent it from happening again.

Reassure your customer that you have the situation under control. Outline the steps you are taking to make sure this doesn't happen again. What have you, as a company, learned from this experience? Don't try to paint a rosier picture than you should, but a positive tone is good. It isn't the end of the world. You aren't letting this get you down and you'll do better in the future! 

"I'm sorry" won't make all your headaches go away. But, a thorough apology with the proper tone will go a long way to maintaining a healthy relationship with your customers. 

Have you ever had to admit to a big mistake? How did it go? Share your story in the comments below.


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Stephanie Fisher

Stephanie Fisher

Steph leads our client delivery team and is obsessed with delivering quality work, creating an efficiency machine, and mastering the tools and disciplines to achieve success for our heroes. At home, she loves listening to true crime podcasts, playing with her daughters and two pugs, and singing in a local rock band with her husband.

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