"I'm sorry." Simple words with powerful impact. But many businesses seem tongue-tied when trying to utter the phrase.
Bad stuff happens. People can be forgiving — if you are forthright in admitting you screwed up.
Saying you are sorry shouldn't be that hard. An online order gets mixed up. A store clerk is rude. A public water source is contaminated. Own the problem. Fix the problem. Say you are sorry.
The more difficult exercise is actually being sorry. If people think your apology is mere lip service, they won't take it seriously. However, if you back up your apology with appropriate action, they will see your apology as sincere.
Like so many other forms of communication, the apology is best expressed by showing you are sorry. When faced with a botched order, many businesses follow Starbucks' example by giving customers a free drink card. But sometimes that's not enough.
I overheard a recent conversation in which an unsatisfied consumer described how the offending retailer sent him coupons for more product, but he refused to use them. The consumer wasn't just upset at the product problem; he had a more fundamental problem with the company itself.
Remote-control apologies and free product offers didn't cut it. What would have helped is talking directly to the consumer. He still may not have used the coupon, but his respect for the company would have remained intact.
In a fast-moving world driven by financial metrics and volume, expressing a genuine apology isn't easy. But taking the time to say "I'm sorry" and asking someone how to make amends can be a reputation-builder.