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Just The Tip: The Final Formula For Writing An Effective Apology

In: WTF Do I Say?

You're going to fuck up.

Or at the very least, at some time in your life, someone's going to think you did.

And while each apology is going to require its very own dollop of attention, these three steps will get you started in the right direction, (which everyone knows is due North).

1. Keep it brief–not to be confused with showing them your briefs, which might make things worse.

Get in, get out, and get over it. The longer you ramble on, the bigger risk you run of seeming overly dramatic–therefore insincere–or saying something else that might accidentally offend and escalate the problem. Keep it to five sentences or less, which is enough space to convey your regrets and offer a solution without losing site of the situation or adding in fluff.

2. Don't focus on what went wrong. Focus on how you're going to fix it.

They know what the problem is. You know what the problem is. And there's no reason to dredge up the details of the scenario that's going to make both you mad all over again. Think about the last time you had a fight with someone you've dated–give it five minutes of reliving what happened, and I'm willing to bet $57 and a can of Spam that you're just as mad now as you were then. Avoid reigniting the situation. The apology is about soothing and smoothing. About fixing, not fixating.

3. Pick your poison–and your words–wisely.

You've got limited space and a lot to talk about, so you need to curate your words in order to cultivate a conversation that's going to defuse the pissed-off frenzy. The single most effective phrase to whip out during war time? “It's essential you know how sorry I am.” By starting an apologetic phrase with “It's essential you know,” you're cuing the reader's brain to accept anything that follows the statement to be absolute fact. Your sincerity won't be questioned, because your words are silently signalling them about just how authentic you are–even if you're not feeling particularly genuine.

So, what does an apology look like?

(Strikingly similar to Jean-Claude Van Damme.)

That depends on if you're at fault or not, since that's the next piece of the (peach) pie.

Let's say you've actually done something wrong–like scheduled them for the wrong time slot on your calendar and accidentally stood them up for a meeting.

You'll want to write something like:

Client!

OH MY GOSH. I have you here on my calendar for the 11th–not the 4th–and I've put you in a week later than I should have. It's essential you know how mortified I am about the situation, and I'd love the opportunity to make it up to you since this is simply unacceptable on my part.

Can I volunteer to offer you two free weeks of email coaching in addition to our consulting call?

You

Or, if we want to make it universal, the formula would look like:

Client,

OH MY GOSH. <Reason mistake occurred.> It's essential you know how mortified I am about the situation, and I'd love the opportunity to make it up to you since this is simply unacceptable on my part.

Can I <offer up consolation prize to rectify the situation>?

You

Why it works, sentence by sentence:

“OH MY GOSH.” Opening with an all-caps expletive conveys urgency, (because you want to fix the problem as soon as possible), and surprise–letting them know that you don't typically make a mistake, and that this situation is well outside your norms, which is great when preserving brand image, (and your ego).

“I have you here on my calendar for the 11th–not the 4th–and I've put you in a week later than I should have.” By offering up a reason for why the mistake occurred, you're stating that you acknowledge the error, meaning you can avoid it in the future. So instead of just saying, I completely accept the blame, and this is totally my fault–which might decrease their trust in you and your business, you're saying, Hey, I know why this happened, so I can promise it won't happen again, preserving their trust and encouraging future business.

“It's essential you know how mortified I am about the situation, and I'd love the opportunity to make it up to you since this is simply unacceptable on my part.” It's essential you know is sending out the subliminal messaging about authenticity, and when paired with powerhouse trigger words and phrases, (mortified, make it up to you, unacceptable on my part), you're asserting your submission. You're forcing them to feel in a position of power, cluing their brain to show you compassion and understanding. This immediately removes all tension, not to mention does a considerable amount of repair–all in one sentence. (Crazy, right?!)

“Can I volunteer to offer you two free weeks of email coaching in addition to our consulting call?” Everyone loves presents–especially if it's a functioning shrink ray, because yes, I would like to carry New York City in my jean short pocket.  And thank you for asking. But seriously? Offering up a little bonus goes the longest way.

4 consciously-crafted sentences are all you need, (shamelessly quoting my bottle of Pantene), to smooth and repair up to 100 blow drys worth of damage the situation.

Now, let's use the formula for something that's not your fault.

Imagine a client has emailed you on a Friday night with an “urgent request”–and since you're trying your damnedest to stay out of your email outside of working hours, they've sent you 17 more emails in 48 hours, growing increasingly agitated and aggressive until you open your email on Monday morning to a line of text that simply reads, “I'M GOING TO GET YOU. AND YOUR LITTLE DOG, TOO.” (Just kidding. The Wicked Witch doesn't typically send emails.)

Nevertheless, your response is going to read along the (dotted) lines of:

Hey Client,

It's essential you know just how sorry I am for any inconvenience this has caused. Unfortunately, we don't typically answer emails outside of business hours, (which are the industry standard of 9-5, Monday through Friday), but I completely understand why you might be frustrated.

Just to keep you in the loop, I'll be able to fully address your request for the new revisions on Thursday, May 15th, and I'm so thrilled we have the opportunity to work together. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any other questions and concerns, okay? Whatever it is, I've totally got you.

You

Or, if we want to make it universal, the formula would look like:

Hey Client,

It's essential you know how sorry I am for any inconvenience this has caused. Unfortunately, <reason why they have been inconvenienced>, but I completely understand why you might be frustrated.

<Consoling phrase that directly addresses why they're mad>, I'll be able to fully address your request for <insert their request> on <insert date>, and I'm so thrilled we have the opportunity to work together. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any other questions and concerns, okay? Whatever it is, I've totally got you.

You

Why it works, sentence by sentence:

“It's essential you know how sorry I am for any inconvenience this has caused.” We're busting out the It's essential you know, and following it with an apologetic statement that does not take responsibility. Remember, this isn't your fault, and you don't want to wrongfully roll over if you can't permanently solve the problem. (Like, in this case, you'll never be answering requests on weekends, so all you can apologize for is the way the client is feeling.)

“Unfortunately, we don't typically answer emails outside of business hours, (which are the industry standard of 9-5, Monday through Friday), but I completely understand why you might be frustrated.” You're letting them know that there's a reason for your lack of responsiveness, and acknowledging their feelings without offering a solution–since the solution doesn't exist. Again, you can't promise immediate responses on the weekends since it's company policy to have a Sunday picnic. (<–Actual future TMF policy.)

“Just to keep you in the loop, I'll be able to fully address your request for the new revisions on Thursday, May 15th, and I'm so thrilled we have the opportunity to work together.” You're opening with a statement that directly calms their worries. In this instance, they're feeling left in the dark due to waiting for a response, so just to keep you in the loop is like smearing a liberal glob of cooling aloe on a blistering sunburn–it's soothing, and counteracts the damage. Throw in the fact that you're setting up realistic expectations for the future, (so they know when to hear from you next), and tossing a bone to their ego, (because you really are thrilled to be working with them), and you're almost out of the–albeit accidental–doghouse.*

*Pun absolutely intended. 

“In the meantime, please let me know if you have any other questions and concerns, okay?” This perfectly positions you as a person who is supportive, responsive, and most importantly, invested in their happiness and satisfaction. By ending the first sentence in a question mark, you're encouraging them to respond, fostering future interactions and reinforcing that you're there to address any other problems that might pop up. Reinforcing that you're there for them. (And arguably, all we all ever want is to feel like someone's got our back. Or our front. Wink.)

“Whatever is is, I've totally got you.” How placating and comforting is that? Apologies, when you've done nothing wrong, are more about calming them down than fixing the problem, because calming them down typically does fix the problem.

So, the (rock) bottom line?

Apologizing doesn't have to be agonizing.

Instead, focus on delivering concise, conscious, and hand-crafted concessions to get on their good side and handle any hurdle with grace.

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