Patsy Cline was sorry – so were Britney Spears, Madonna and Tracy Chapman. Chicago found it hard to say sorry – and Sir Elton John found it the hardest word to say. Singers have been saying – or trying to say – “sorry” since popular music was invented.
Some have found the words – some haven’t.
It’s not just individuals that find it hard to say sorry – so do governments, politicians and churches.
In business it can be just as hard.
I recently came across a publication from the NSW Ombudsman called “Apologies: A practical guide”. The second edition was published in March 2009, and it’s a great little booklet. It’s well written, easy to read and extremely useful as a reference when you find the need to say sorry – but aren’t quite sure how.
One of the realities of professional selling is that we make mistakes, we say the wrong thing and we let people down. Just like our customers and colleagues – we’re human and we will all find ourselves at some point in our career in a position where we need to say “sorry”.
How do we do it? In this article, I’ll give you some insights from this excellent publication. But – as the guide itself recommends – don’t take this advice by itself. If there’s any possibility of legal implications, make sure you get the professional advice you need. Download the full guide from the Ombudsman’s web-site (www.ombo.nsw.gov.au). It’s free and it’s a handy booklet for everybody’s bottom drawer.
Before we look at the Ombudsman’s guide – let’s have a quick think about what causes most of the reasons salespeople need to apologise.
Although major issues requiring well crafted and thought-out apologies do arise, most of the hurt and inconvenience we inflict on others as salespeople comes out of our own sense of urgency, and, often, a well-intentioned desire to give customers what they want. The following three simple rules will avoid most of the “silly” reasons we need to apologise:
1. Sell authentically with genuine concern for your customers, your colleagues, your community – and yourself.
2. Do what you said you’d do when you said you’d do it.
3. Know your products, your organisation, your customers, your industry, your market – and yourself.
They cover a lot of things, don’t they?
Now think about how you approach your sales activity; think about your customer interactions over the last few months; think about your internal relationships, and then answer these questions about yourself – honestly:
- I’m always on time, or early, for meetings – both with clients and internal meetings.
- I always ring back when I say I will – to internal colleagues as well as clients and prospects.
- I always deliver proposals, or additional information, before it is expected – ie, before I said I would.
- I answer all correspondence in a timely and prompt manner.
- If I don’t know about an aspect of my product or service, I say “I don’t know” and get back to the client within 24 hours to answer the client question.
- I never use language, make gestures or wear clothing which may offend.
- I don’t talk negatively about my clients, prospects, colleagues or competitors.
- I treat all my internal colleagues with the respect I would expect in return.
- I know my products/services and my industry very well, and can provide informed professional advice to clients on almost every occasion.
- I never embellish any aspects of my products or services.
- When I know that my products or services won’t do what my client or prospect wants, I tell them so.
- If I know I can’t deliver my services/products to the client’s schedule, I tell them and try and reach an acceptable agreement.
Did you give an unreserved “yes” to each question? If so, congratulations, give yourself a pat on the back, and go and do some work – you probably don’t need any help here.
If you had to stop and think about any question – then it’s perhaps time to think a little more about the point (or points) that concerned you – and think about what you can do to be able to say “yes”.
Sometimes it will simply be to focus on the positive aspect of each of the above points. Sometimes it may be a little harder – but it will almost certainly be worth the effort, not only in terms of your sales results – which will improve – but you’ll also have better personal relationships with those who you meet in your business life.
But – despite our best efforts – things will go wrong and we’ll probably need to apologise for something.
So – what is an apology – and what are some key points about apologies we should be aware of? According to the Guide, an apology is “an expression of feelings or wishes that can include sorrow, sympathy, remorse or regret as well as an acknowledgement of fault, a shortcoming or failing. It communicates a message that may pave the way for reconciliation.” The following points are taken directly from the preface to the Ombudsman’s Guide referred to earlier, and provide an overview of what an apology is – and isn’t:
- Apologies are not magic potions that work in every case, but they can be remarkably effective in addressing the key needs of people who have experienced harm. There will be some circumstances where an apology will serve no good purpose, but these will be the exception, not the rule.
- If a mistake or error led to harm, an appropriate apology is often seen by complainants as an essential prerequisite for, or part of, the proper resolution of their complaint – an appropriate apology is often the main thing they want.
- The greater the harm, the greater the likely value of an apology to the harmed person.
- Crafting and delivering an appropriate and effective apology can be affected by a range of variables – the more complex the situation or the more reprehensible the action or inaction that led to the harm, the more care that is likely to be required.
- The more an apology addresses the needs of the person harmed, the greater the likelihood it will be effective in reducing anger, restoring a damaged relationship, and helping the person to “move on”.
- An effective apology must usually include an express acceptance of responsibility or fault for the actions or inactions that caused the harm – that is, a “full” apology. Even if a full apology may not be justified or warranted, a sincere expression of sympathy, sorrow or regret for the suffering of others may still be the right thing to do.
- Where a problem has caused harm, a “full” apology will consist of a “package” of actions including admissions of responsibility, explanations of cause, actions to put things right (where possibly) and expressions of sorrow and remorse.
- Where a problem has caused harm, a “full apology may also be the culmination of a process of communication, investigation and negotiation.
- If an apology fails – for example because of a failure to accept responsibility ( a partial apology) or because it is not seen as sincere – it is unlikely that any further attempt at apologising will be effective , so try hard to get it right the first time!
- A partial or otherwise inappropriate apology can do more harm than good.
Thanks again to the NSW Ombudsman for such good advice.
So – the message is fairly clear:
- Sell with authenticity and genuine concern for others.
- Know your products, your organisation, your industry and your market well. Applying this knowledge will help you to avoid saying the wrong thing or misleading others.
- Be organised and do what you said you’d do – when you said you’d do it.
- If you make a small mistake, apologise quickly and sincerely – and don’t do it again!
- If you find yourself in a situation which requires a more considered reply – use the Ombudsman’s guide as a starting point in your response.
Do these things and you will often avoid Elton’s problem, and not have to find the words to say “sorry”.
Find out more by downloading the full Ombudsman’s Guide. You’ll find it here:
Go to the publications section – or search the site for “apology” + “guide”.
Thanks for reading this post – Paul Sparks, Sales Effectiveness Australasia.
“Taking you beyond sales training and keeping you informed about the latest ideas, trends, innovation, research & best practice in professional selling and sales management”
If you would like to connect with Paul Sparks please email paulsparks [at] saleseffectiveness.com.au