I’ve founded three companies and at some point each one necessitated that I apologize to a customer that we had disappointed. Early stage media and technology companies are especially prone to error. It’s a time when you have more vision than code and a team that is still figuring things out.
At my last startup, Pictela, there was a period when we were screwing up so frequently that I renamed our conference room the “I’m Sorry Room” because that’s where I went to call and apologize to our customers. Fortunately, our product matured and we were able to turn things around.
Founders hate admitting that their company—their pride and joy—did something wrong. We want to believe that our company will make the best product the world has ever seen. Having to admit that something went wrong is hard to do because it conflicts—at least temporarily—with this belief.
But apologizing for mistakes is an essential skill. Here’s why:
Customer service. A good apology, done at the right time, can head off much bigger problems down the road. The worst thing you can do is ignore the issue and hope it goes away. It won’t!
Relationships. It may seem counter intuitive, but when a customer blows their stack it may actually be an opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with them. Great customer relationships can be forged in difficult situations.
Improvement. Nobody is perfect, especially not with the minimum viable products (MVPs) that most tech companies ship today. Sometimes the quickest way to make something better is to put it out there and take your lumps.
Leadership. A well-executed apology shows your team that you have their back and that you care about the business. Being proactive and attentive during a customer crisis also shows your employees how they should act in similar situations.
Humility. Once in awhile you have to apologize for something that isn’t actually your fault. Perhaps a customer made an unreasonable demand that led to a mistake? Even in these situations it makes sense to suck it up and apologize. Think of an apology as the high ground in a business relationship: if you get there first any reasonable customer will respect you for it.
It happens. The advertising industry screws ups so often that media companies have formal “makegood” policies that provide additional impressions when their customers’ ads run in the wrong place. Everyone makes mistakes.
What have I learned about apologizing? It’s never easy but always necessary.