Why Saying Sorry Matters in Business

December 28, 2011 Public Relations 1 comment

BP Former CEO Tony Hayward’s Apology came too little too late (courtesy of Infinite Unknown)

Recently, everybody in Singapore has been talking about the spate of SMRT train delays and breakdowns in December.  Numerous netizens have called for extreme measures to be taken, including the resignation of the CEO, granting of free rides to commuters, andother actions to be taken.   

As an aftermath of the incidents, we learnt that the CEO Saw Phaik Hwa has apologised soon after the incidents.  The SMRT Board has also apologised for them, and has commissioned a committee led by NTUC Dy Sec Gen Ong Ye Kung to look into the matter.  Separately, the Government is also investigating the incidents as part of a formal Committee Of Inquiry.

SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa apologising for the incidents (Courtesy of Channelnewsasia)

Honestly, SMRT is doing whatever it can to prevent this incident from escalating further. While the issues are grave, especially with passengers trapped in the tunnel, the transport company has  is working around the clock to address them.  

The question, however, is whether there is a sincere, honest and “correct” way to apologise. What can one do to truly make amends for a mistake? 

Thanks to a story in Church of the Customer, I learnt that FedEx had to swallow this bitter pill recently when a courier threw a customer’s computer monitor over the fence. This was caught on video and circulated on Youtube for all to see:

While some damage to FedEx’s reputation has been done, its quick and unwavering response to the incident has helped it to salvage the situation somewhat.

Back in 2007, JetBlue has also set a good example of how to say sorry. When dozens of JetBlue Airlines’ passengers were stranded for more than 10 hours on the tarmac without taking off, JetBlue’s CEO David Neeleman issued the following statement soon after the incident:

Through efforts like this, JetBlue managed to get the JD Power & Associates Award for #1 Customer Satisfaction for the airline industry that year.

Of course, while some companies get it right, others have come across as being insincere despite their pleas for forgiveness. Check out these examples of the most famous/infamous corporate apologies.  Some of the companies like Johnson & Johnson (of the Tylenol poisoning deaths) have gone on to grow from strength to strength while others (like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s apology) have left a bitter taste in the mouth.

How can one say sorry in the right manner then? Using JetBlue’s example, Myra Golden shares the following 5 steps for consideration:

1. Outright apology. Start out with a clear and direct apology. eg JetBlue’s “We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.”

2. Explain what happened and why. Taking the time to explain to a customer what might have caused the problem helps organizations re-establish trust.

3. Acknowledge the customer’s “pain.” Make an empathetic statement that responds to the customer’s emotions.

4. Explain steps you’re taking to minimize problems going forward.

5. Humbly ask for forgiveness. Make a request for your customer’s continued business.

What are your views on corporate apologies?  How far should companies go to say sorry?

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

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