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August 28, 2007

I'm sorry

I knew it was going to be an interesting day when my morning news alert said that I had been mentioned in a Denver Post article about Lindsey Lohan, Mel Gibson and Michael Vick.  I had lunch yesterday with my friend Mike Gellman, CEO of SpireMedia in Denver, and he emailed me later to say that he had given my name to Al Lewis, a columnist for the Denver Post who he said was doing a story on "the value of apologizing" in business.

I probably don't do it enough, but I try to say I'm sorry when I make a mistake.  Being a CEO means I also sometimes get the opportunity to say I'm sorry when my company makes a mistake too.  I vividly remember my mom explaining to me when I was very young that saying "I'm sorry" also means you will attempt to be better in the future.  So I try to tie saying "I'm sorry" to some action or commitment to avoid having to say it again in the future.  It isn't easy though.

I've been frustrated as a customer myself seeing how a lot of businesses, small and large, just will not say "I'm sorry."  It either doesn't occur to them or they are afraid that they may be admitting liability for their mistake.  When I say "I'm sorry" to a customer, I often will see a complete change in attitude and I think it is because they just don't expect it.  They were prepared for a fight and they didn't get it because if I screwed up, I am really sorry, and because a fight never helps to fix a problem.  Sometimes it turns out that I apologize for something that turns out not to really be my fault.  That's the nature of big, complex software systems and when it happens I just feel really good to have helped solve the problem.  When it turns out it actually is my fault, I'm glad I didn't waste a lot of energy and credibility pointing the finger at other people.

I once read about a study that a major hotel chain did regarding guests who reported problems with their rooms.  They found that if a guest had a problem,  they reported it during their stay, AND had it resolved to their satisfaction, then they were actually MORE likely to return to that hotel than a guest who didn't even have a problem.  How cool is that?  I know it's true for me.  I placed my first Amazon.com order almost eleven years ago.  I don't remember the details now, but at some point an order didn't arrive as I expected.  I contacted Amazon.com, they apologized, took responsibility and jumped through hoops to fix the problem.  As a result I'm a loyal customer who's even more tolerant of future glitches that will inevitably happen because I feel like they will stand up and fix any problem that I have in the future.

When Al called to interview me about "the value of apologizing in business," I was enthusiastic.  I thought I had maybe even written a blog post about this before so I used the built-in search tool in Vista (which I love) and discovered that the phrase "I'm sorry" appears on my computer over 500 times!  I told Al that there were a lot of duplicates in that number and that I have a large archive of emails going way back.  (If you have to say your are sorry in an email, it's often part of a long string of emails, so one "I'm sorry" might show up 10 or 20 times.)  Also, some of those emails were people saying "I'm sorry" to me.  Still, that seemed like a big number and I joked that there was probably a curve where apologizing too much is probably just as bad a sign as not apologizing enough.  (Note to self:  Don't joke with reporters.  Everything is fair game to be quoted.)

As Sharon Linhart said in the column, "People are pretty forgiving."  Thank goodness! 

August 28, 2007 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink

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Comments

I'm sorry to hear that!

Posted by: Richard Sprague | Aug 28, 2007 6:05:41 PM

When I was very young and newly married, my husband told me I apologized too much, and you know what I said? "Oh. I'm sorry."

Posted by: Verna Wilder | Sep 2, 2007 9:04:32 PM

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