Don’t apologize in the passive voice.
As a startup founder, I guarantee you’ll need to apologize for stuff. Do it properly, to avoid burning your customer relationships to the ground.
It would be great if your company ran so smoothly that you never had anything to apologize for. But let’s face it: In the world of startups, we’re all flying by the seats of our pants. Occasionally, we’ll spectacularly fuck up. That’s a given. What isn’t a given is how you deal with the fallout. Doing that badly can have a negative impact on your company. Getting the apology right can actually work in your favor. Take Kickstarter’s back-pedaling effort, for example, for a masterclass in “hell yeah.”
Bad apologies make things worse.
The problem is the passive voice. It’s a linguistic curve-ball that distances the speaker from the statement in a disingenuous kind of way.
“We apologize for any offense that may have been caused” and its similar cousins (“Mistakes were made”… Oh dear) are some of the most insidious phrases in the English language. The problem is the passive voice. It’s a linguistic curve-ball that distances the speaker from the statement in a disingenuous kind of way.
Don’t say “mistakes were made.” Of course mistakes were made — by whom? The first step of a good apology is to take ownership of the wrongs that were, er, wronged. “I made a mistake.” says exactly the same thing — but does something valuable: It shows responsibility.
Don’t say “We apologize to anyone who may have been offended.” This one is even worse — in this instance, you’re placing the blame for being offended on the person who was wronged. It is as if they weren’t just wronged, but if they were sensitive to be wronged by whatever happened, it’s on them. That’s utter bullshit, and does the exact opposite of apologizing. Instead, try “I’m sorry we made a mistake, and I apologize for offending you.”
The point is — if you’ve gotten to a situation that warrants a public apology, then do it properly. Own the problem. Explain what you’ve done to prevent repeats of similar problems. And apologize like you mean it. Anything else is just half-hearted PR bollocks. You’re better than that.
How to apologize properly.
- Show that you know what the problem is. Make sure you’ve 100% understood what the grievance was, and re-state it as part of your apology. If you’re not sure, figure it out before you say anything.
“I was hoping to have product X in your hands by Christmas, but due to a mistake in our ordering processes, we ran out of stock before we were able to ship your item.”
- Show that you’ve taken steps to prevent it from happening again. Otherwise, your apology is useless: There’s no point in saying you are sorry, but then allowing the same thing to happen one more time. It shows a basic lack of respect for your customers.
“It turned out that we had a mistake in our ordering system, which made it possible for customers to place an order for items that weren’t in our warehouse.”
- Take ownership. Mistakes are a team effort, but your customers want to see your CEO/person in charge to own the mistake and apologize properly.
“I’m sorry that this happened, in particular for those of our customers who were hoping to get their Widgets in time for Christmas. This isn’t good enough, and I’m doing everything in my power to ensure it can’t happen again. Taking orders when we didn’t have stock shouldn’t have been possible, and I’ve asked my team to ensure that the bug is resolved within the next three weeks. In the meantime, we are being extra conservative with the numbers of orders we are accepting, to ensure this cannot happen again.”
And finally, be honest. Be genuine. Your customers deserve that much.
Haje is a pitch coach based in Silicon Valley, working with a founders all over the world to create the right starting point for productive conversations with investors — from a compelling narrative to a perfect pitch. You can find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.