Apologies and Non-Apologies to Clients and Customers

Every business has to deal with unsatisfied clients or customers. At times, customers are irate and spewing all sorts of words, which they often regret, and at times the client just quietly finds another provider and moves on.

As a consumer, I tend to take the latter approach; if a business does me wrong—at least in my mind—I tend to avoid that business in the future, and if I’m really upset, I’ll tell others about my experience (hoping that they will do the same).

Recently, a Muslim woman was flying an American Airlines flight and became quite upset when the flight attendant would not give her an unopened can of soda. The particulars are not that important, other than the fact that she felt it was because of racial discrimination.

American’s apology was a classic non-apology: “we spoke with Ms. Ahmad on Saturday to get a better understanding of what occurred and to apologize for not delivering the service our customers expect when traveling with us.”

So the “apology” was an apology for not meeting the customer’s service expectations, not an apology for bad service or racial discrimination.

This non-apology often manifests itself in the words, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
At Kona Impact, we take three approaches to unsatisfied clients: 1) genuine apology, 2) non-apology apology with a how-to-avoid-in-the-future discussion, and 3) a we’re-not-the-right-provider-for-you statement.

When we screw up, we admit it. Simple. If it is our fault, we will admit our mistake, offer a solution and try to avoid the same thing in the future. We never try to make our mistake a cost to the client. If we print something with a mistake that is our doing, we reprint, expedite the turnaround time as much as possible and offer a genuine apology.

Several times a year, we’ll encounter an unsatisfied customer due to production times. Most clients want things now or yesterday. That said, many jobs require design time, ordering specialty materials, and a wait time as we complete other projects that come in before particular clients. We do what we can, but many things can’t be done immediately, and since we work on a first-in, first-out principle, we won’t always shuffle projects for a demanding client. We’ll do it on occasion, but we don’t like it to become a habit, as it makes other clients wait.

When we experience a client that’s not happy because something takes longer than he or she would like, we offer a non-apology apology: “I’m sorry you are unsatisfied with our turnaround time.” After that, we go one step further and give the client some ideas on how she or he can avoid last-minute stress in the future. We’ll talk about turnaround times, give some guidelines and suggest ways to make sure the client can get his or her work done by the time he needs it. While we want to dissipate the frustration, we also want to educate and help our clients not encounter the same issues again.

The third thing we do when we have an unsatisfied customer is to help them find a more suitable provider for them, or in extreme cases, we explicitly “fire” them. Not all clients are a good fit for us, and we’re not a good fit for all our clients. We had a client a few months ago who seemed to want unlimited revisions on a business card at our expense. We can deal with that, but when the client became verbally aggressive and demanding, we decided this was someone who is not a good fit for us. We fired him.

Apologies in the business world, in my opinion, are given out too generously–“I’m sorry for any and everything”–and too infrequently–“It’s always the client’s fault; no need to apologize.” At Kona Impact, we take a nuanced approach: admit when we mess up, hold our ground and educate when a client is unreasonable or misguided, and get rid of clients who are overly rude, demanding, or aggressive.

Kona Impact | 329-6077