A Good Business Apology

This blog usually reviews public apologies that fall short of the mark, but here’s one that has been praised: it was by Andrew Benin, chief executive of Graza, a small startup that sells olive oil. Graza started just a year ago, and this was its first holiday season. Apparently some gift packages arrived late, or poorly packaged, or with damaged labels. So Mr. Benin sent an email to everyone who had ordered Graza’s olive oils in the previous 60 days to apologize.

The subject line of the email was, “Learning from our mistakes.” This is a promising start, indicating that the writer knows that he made a mistake, and that he has ideas about how to prevent future mistakes – two critical elements of an effective apology.

He went on to acknowledge that the gift packaging was inadequate, that the company did not communicate well, and to say that he was sorry. A good apology lets the recipient know that the offender knows what they did wrong, and how that affected the recipient.

The final element of a good apology is some form of repair or restitution. In this case, the email offered a small discount on future orders of olive oil.

It landed well in the eyes of many recipients. One was Ben Cohen, whose shipment of Graza olive oil leaked and was poorly wrapped. He wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal that he was won over by Mr. Benin’s apology. Apparently hundreds of other recipients wrote Mr. Benin to thank him. “Thanks for your honesty,” one wrote back. “These messages go a long way,” another wrote.

The article notes that business apologies are tricky; research shows that repeatedly apologizing is actually worse for a business than not apologizing at all. Research also shows that the most effective apologies cost the business something, so a coupon or discount can be even more effective than an apology.

Mr. Cohen notes one of the ironies of a good apology: it can make the relationship better than it was before the unfortunate incident happened. This is true of inter-personal relationships, and it can be true of business/customer relationships too.