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Seven Tips for Forging an Appropriate Online Apology

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How to effectively apologize to customers after you've made a mistake
  • Crucial elements needed to regain trust in your brand

Today's online small business customers demand nearly infinite catalog product selections and options. With all this newfangled complexity, it's inevitable that your small business will make an online misstep sometime, such as incorrectly pricing a special, offering the wrong product, or messing up a specification.

That's the time when you need to not only apologize but also engage in a massive email and social media mea culpa that leaves no question that the error was inadvertent and that you realize that you were wrong. Applying the following seven tips will help convince your customers that although you're only human and capable of making mistakes, you're still worthy of their trust, confidence, and respect.

1. Typo? Start typing

In the rush to keep up with online marketing demands, a typo could sneak in that'll turn your Buffalo Technology TeraStation III from a $999 special to a $99 bank robbery. As soon as you realize what you've done, run (don't walk) to your computer, and start drafting your contrite apology to send via email and social media.

Most of your customers will understand that they can't get a Mercedes-Benz S-Class for a Tata Nano price, so they will likely forgive you.


2. There's no easy way out... so grovel

Don't think for a minute that you can adopt a supercilious attitude in your email and social media apologies. Your customers don't want to be formally informed that you're such a high-and-mighty corporate super e-tailer that they should just placidly accept the occasional inaccuracy from you. Instead, they want to see the human side of your business.

Try to strike the proper tone—one that maintains your dignity while amply communicating the four "R" words: remorse, repentance, regret, and ruefulness.

3. Stop the buck here

Even though you might be able to make a good case that the error was not directly your fault, but rather, the fault of your advertising agency, your Web database company, or your dog who ate your homework... trying to direct blame elsewhere will defuse your apology faster than telling your customers to take a hike if they don't like it. The essence of an apology is to own up to your error and show responsibility, not to engage in schoolyard finger-pointing.

4. Don't leave anyone out

In the pricing error example (see item No. 1), it wouldn't be enough to inform only the customers who actually ordered the product at that impossible price that you entered the wrong price. You would have to tell everyone who is even remotely likely to have seen the error. For every one customer who jumps to the checkout to grab the "impossideal," a hundred will see the price and expect it to be a scam.

Your entire online small business reputation is at stake, so swallow your pride, and broadcast to the Internet that you fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line.

5. Have the top dog sign it

Whether or not your owner, president, or CEO drafted the apology, it's imperative that it come from them. Customers associate the chief executive as the face of a company, so if your apology email or social network post comes from some faceless middle manager, it will not carry the weight of having the top dog take responsibility for the gaffe.

6. Compensate

It's obvious that you can't sell products at 10% of the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) and expect to stay in business long. But you can compensate your customers by providing a limited-time offer to purchase the specific product right at cost, or even just a few dollars below. That'll cost you a bit of money, but consider it a customer confidence-instilling marketing expense.

7. Encourage communication

Never send an apology from a "noreply@" email address. Make sure that your apology comes from a real person who will actually reply to each and every incoming email.

* * *

Remember that despite your best efforts, mistakes happen to every small business at some point. The key is not to panic, but to implement the seven tips in this article to quickly and efficiently restore credence in your brand.


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Denise Keller is chief operating officer of Benchmark Email, a global email marketing software company.

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  • by Founder & CEO Thu Jan 5, 2012 via web

    Very timely in a time of so many small business launches. However, I strongly disagree w/ point # 2 (Groveling).

    Rock band Squeeze puts it best in their 80s hit "Up the Junction": "I' d beg for some forgiveness, but begging's not my business."

    Apologize ONLY if you're within reason:
    I guess it's the eternal Mother in me that conducts business as not excusing the customer when they're wrong... just because they're the customer. I don't stand by my own child when she's wrong, so I'm not likely to treat my customers the same way.

    You really DON'T reward bad behavior. (I'm certain you heard of the exhibitionist, er, I mean, the nursing mother, who single-handedly gave the Target store franchise a nasty black-eye last week, because some employees with a moral compass and a sense of human decency POLITELY suggested she use their dressing rooms or bathrooms to nurse her baby.)

    I truly am humble, and I'm certainly not above apologizing. Though I go so far to follow the biblical principle of taking the lowest place so I'll be exalted in due season, I have to say I truly resent how Target caved under public & media pressure, but hey, they did what THEY felt was right....

    Thanks for letting me vent, and keep up your excellent blogs! Simply love this site. :-)

  • by John Bassler Thu Jan 5, 2012 via web

    I'll bet Ms. Keller wishes she had used the word "creating" rather than "forging"!

  • by Mark Holdener Thu Jan 5, 2012 via web

    To Ms. Keller's points, I might suggest acknowledging the mistake in clear terms, perhaps even identifying the known ways in which customers, potential or actual, have been impacted.

    Further, as long as one restricts the commentary to the particular incident in question, it would serve long-term relationship purposes to inquire about any other negative effects stemming from the mistake, from the perspective of desiring to make them right to the best of the organization's ability. Yes, there will likely be a resulting "bitch session," but the opportunity to redress grievances previously unknown might save more than a few relationships.

    @Founder & CEO: I recognize the need to vent from time to time, but I think your comments related to the Target incident are a bit off-topic.

  • by Ken Richards Thu Jan 5, 2012 via web

    Also, I might add that one should always craft an apology with a positive spin. Make this an opportunity to reinforce, to the customer, you are one of them.

    Ex: We found this exciting deal on Buffalo Technology TeraStation III and in our haste to quickly pass the savings to you we did not adequately proof our advert...

  • by Chris Stiehl Tue Mar 18, 2014 via web

    I suggest that you should ASK the customer what they think appropriate compensation would be, rather than simply offering a future discount. For some, that may not matter much. Give them something meaningful to THEM. For some business clients, the cost may not be the issue, but customer service, delivery time, quality, performance, etc., may be more important. You have to ask them what they feel fair compensation for their problems and inconvenience would be, either in discounts or other services.

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