‘Sorry’ is a useful word to say. In our personal relationships, it helps smooth over rough edges and put out flames. But where does it belong in a business relationship?
During the past few weeks, “sorry” has been said to me on a few occasions, from a supplier, an insurance company and a colleague. It made me wonder: In the context of trying to maintain the highest level of service and professionalism, does “sorry” have a place? When is it okay to apologise in business?
According to dictionary.com, an apology is:
“A written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another” or
“A defence, excuse, or justification in speech or writing.”
Our business relationships are partially personal, but they are mainly based on the exchange of goods and services. Expectations are more clearly defined than personal relationships, with much firmer boundaries and more significant ramifications for non-delivery.
Let’s look at my experiences from the last few weeks:
Case 1: I enquired about a new product from a supplier, but I didn’t get a response for five days. The opening line in the reply email was, “I’m sorry for the late reply…” If he had not apologised I would not know whether five days is fast or slow, but it suggested that he didn’t think it was good enough. Why not just reply faster? Or if there is a delay, send a short message sooner to say so, but he’s working on it. The outcome? I don’t believe the apology was genuine, and that what he was really saying was, “I know I’m slow but I still want your business.”
Case 2: A co-worker habitually submits paperwork late, and even though we have spoken about it every month for the last year, there has been no sign of improvement. In this context, their apologies are just pleasantries, void of meaning. The outcome? I have even less respect and confidence in their performance.
Case 3: I called my insurance company to sort out some account issues and, after waiting on the phone 30 minutes, I was glibly treated to a bored, nasal voice that said, “sorry for the delay”. Quite frankly, after that time I didn’t care about her apology, nor did I believe she even cared. The outcome? I am exploring other companies that have better service.
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Let’s be honest: in business, apologies are often used as excuses for not doing what is expected or what we promised. They’re a cover for not stating what actually happened. They’re an easy way out, because when you say “sorry”, no one usually dares respond with: “Well, is that good enough?”
Apologies do have their place in business, but they must be used only when absolutely necessary or you start to lose credibility. “Sorry” should only be used when there has been a genuine mistake or a problem that is not caused by poor performance. Apologies in business only have meaning if you plan to never do it again, which means working hard to build better systems, tighter measures, more proactive communication and a culture where everyone does what they say they will do.
Imagine if apologies were banned in business. People would have to be honest and up front every time something went wrong. It would change the game because admitting mistakes forces accountability. If my co-worker had said “I’ve been slack with my paperwork” or my insurance provider said “you weren’t a priority in the last five days”, they would be forced to change their behaviour rather than copping out with “I’m sorry”.
Apologies in business are a warning sign – a warning that your client’s expectations have not been met.
What to do:
- If you genuinely can’t do something, or can’t do it on time, tell the other person before it happens. Don’t stay quiet and appear indifferent when you don’t deliver.
- Do what you say you will do. Start with the standard you want to achieve and work backwards to make it happen. Every time.
- If you need to apologise, use “sorry” sparingly.
- Change your habits promptly and don’t apologise twice for the same thing.
- Discipline yourself and your team so you don’t need to apologise.
- Be honest if there is a problem.
When is it right to say “sorry” in business? Do you find yourself saying it more than you should?