This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.
It started as just an innocent oil change, the kind that’s supposed to take 30 minutes. It had been a long day and like I always do whenever I’m due for an oil change, I debated whether to go ahead and pull in or promise myself to take care of it later and just drive home.
It looked like a short line, so I decided it was as good a time as any to just get it done. It was about 6:30 p.m. when I made it into the garage. The nice mechanic behind the counter told me they would be closing in about a half hour and said they would be done with my car in a jiffy.
About 15 minutes later, as I sat in the waiting area answering emails on my phone, I noticed some commotion and heard a faint “Oh no.” As I looked up, I saw the three mechanics were huddled together much the same way football referees huddle when they are debating a controversial call.
Jerry, the guy who I met earlier behind the counter walked in and said, “We have a slight problem.”
Apparently, one of the crew had broken a bolt off of one of my brakes while inspecting it and unfortunately, they didn’t have a spare one in stock to fix it. The only nearby auto parts store that had the broken part in stock was an hour away. He explained that it was too dangerous to drive until they got it fixed.
I’m generally pretty easy going, but this really stunk. I had a work trip planned the next day and suddenly being car-less was going to mess everything up. My 30 minute oil change had turned into a major inconvenience that was going to throw off my entire week.
Jerry must have sensed my stress when he said, “Listen, I’m sorry about this.”
And that’s all it took. With those two magic words, “I’m sorry,” spoken with a tone of sincerity and compassion, Jerry had made me feel much better. He said that it was their fault, that he felt bad for messing up my day, and that he would drive the two hours round trip to get the part. If I could wait, he’d be back by 9 p.m.
On top of that, he ordered a pizza for me and his two employees and offered me his desk to use if I wanted to work on my computer while I waited.
We’re all taught from a young age to say, “I’m sorry” when we do something wrong. But in a business context, apologies are rare. Whether it’s apologizing to a customer or co-worker, standing up and admitting a mistake somehow feels risky, especially at work.
Taking a risk takes courage. So, it’s ironic that many of us avoid apologies as they are often perceived as a sign of weakness. But when done well, an apology can turn a negative experience into a positive one.
When it comes to the “business apology” I have found that following a few rules always helps:
- Make sure your apology is sincere. You should only apologize when you know you’ve made a mistake and you are committed to owning it.
- Back up “I’m sorry” with specific actions to remedy the mistake.
- Be humble. Accept that no one is perfect, and mistakes are part of life.
Whether it’s Coca-Cola apologizing for changing their formula back in the ’80s, Apple making amends to Taylor Swift when they reduced artist royalties, or Jerry driving two hours after closing time to fix my brakes, the end result of a good apology can actually enhance the loyalty of the customer you have wronged.
I now go to Jerry’s shop whenever I need an oil change and refer my friends to do the same. I never told him he already had me at “I’m sorry,” but the pizza sure tasted good.