The Right Way to Admit You Made a Mistake in Business

This isn’t my typical “how to” marketing communications article; but it does have to do with business communication and it happens to be especially relevant to me at the moment.  Mistakes: we all make them – right?  Yet who hasn’t run across people in business who find it impossible to admit when they DO make a mistake by deflecting blame elsewhere; don’t know how to properly apologize and offer assurances that they will work on the issue that caused the mistake; or simply out and out lie in order to avoid taking responsibility?  I know I certainly have.  In fact, I once “fired” a customer that was in the liar category.  She not only lied when things went wrong – she pointed the finger at my company and its employees.  Life is just too short to lose sleep over people like that. . .

I was recently reminded of the RIGHT way to handle a personal business mistake when I had ads that went out with uncorrected errors for a client.  The uncorrected errors were the result of both my own and my graphic designer’s carelessness.  For me personally, it was a case of too many deadlines crashing in at once (I was about to leave on vacation), too much distraction (children visiting from out of the country), and relying too heavily on my graphic designer to get it right.  I’m not blaming my graphic designer.  I’m the account executive and art director;  I’m the one directing the designer; and I’m the one who should ensure that every communication that goes out for my clients are exactly what they expect.

I knew before the magazines hit the streets that the ads contained errors.  There’s always that moment when you realize you’ve made a mistake and this is the moral turning point.  It’s the time when you either pull up your big girl (or boy) panties and proactively address the situation; start looking around for a scape goat; start working on the cover up lie; or just plain stick your head in the sand and hope nobody discovers what happened.  (Of course, I chose to take the proactive approach.)

Regardless of whom the mistake affected (customer; your employer; co-worker, vendor, etc.) or what the consequences were as a result of the mistake, here are some steps to follow the next time YOU screw up royally in business.

Act quickly. An apology seems forced when your mistake becomes known to the entire world.  Take the high road – as soon as you realize the mistake, communicate with those who will be affected by it.

When possible, apologize in person. Someone very wise encouraged me to do this many years ago when I was in a similar situation.  It’s a lot harder than sending an email; but it will speak volumes about the sincerity of your apology and the strength of your character.  When the people you need to apologize to are not within close proximity, a phone call is better than email.  However, if you need to apologize to a large group, sometimes email really is the best solution.

Explain what happened without blaming others. The full explanation is important, because we can’t make positive change unless we understand what truly happened.  Try to stick to the facts, especially where other people are concerned.  Sometimes the actions of others play into a situation that was ultimately your fault.  Accept full responsibility and resist the temptation to point fingers.

Make assurances that you are taking steps to prevent the mistake from happening again. No Mistake is a bad thing if we learn from it and it brings about positive change or growth.  If safeguards or systems need to be put into place to minimize the risk of reoccurrence, explain that you have recognized this and are taking action.

Apologize! This seems to be the hardest part for some people.  They can explain their mistake and take action to prevent it from happening again, but saying “I’m sorry” is taking off the armor and opening up to . . . what?  What is the worst thing that can happen?  Why is it so hard for some people to admit they’re not perfect, when everyone knows that NOBODY is perfect?  Just say it: I screwed up.  I’m so sorry.  Please accept my apology.  Will you please forgive me?  However you choose to say it, you must make yourself vulnerable.  I have found that most (not all, but most) people respond graciously to a sincere apology.

If appropriate, make restitution. This is especially important if your mistake affected a customer.  You may have personal relationships with long-time customers, but your relationship is still based on doing business together.  Perhaps you can’t afford to fully recompense your customer the way you would like to; but any gesture is better than none at all.

Ultimately, the act of apologizing – whether in your personal life, or in business – is a healthy dose of self-awareness: awareness of your actions and the effect of those actions on other people.  When you can be honest in your assessment of what you did and the undesired effect it had, you will naturally be much less likely to repeat the mistake.  Abandon the need to be all knowing and infallible, and you make yourself more available for more genuine relationships and communication with the people you do business with.

Author: Kerry O'Malley

Marketects was founded in 1999 by Kerry O’Malley, a proven marketing communications professional in international, manufacturing companies. Working on the “other side of the desk,” she hired ad agencies to manage her employers’ advertising and P/R programs. Frustrated over the lack of attention and level of enthusiasm she was looking for in the marketing agencies she worked with, Kerry realized that there was a definite need for a full-service marketing firm that specialized in working with industrial companies. She resolved that her clients would always receive the highest level of service possible and never feel like the last kid chosen for the team.

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