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