Apologizing like a pro (and not like Apple)

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Apple's been making a lot of headlines recently over problems related to the antenna of the new iPhone 4. Perhaps bigger than the problems with the phone itself, however, has been the way they've dealt with the problems. Despite fixing the problem to a large degree (by providing free cases or returns) Apple's half-apology left many people unsatisfied.

Customer service is hugely important for every business, and it's one area where small businesses can really distinguish themselves. Now, obviously, Apple is a wildly successful company and I'm not really in a position to criticize them. That said, Apple's handling of the iPhone 4 antenna highlights a few things to avoid when dealing with customers who identify problems. Every company is going to make mistakes, and the way you deal with them can be crucial.

Characterize the problem - The first step to dealing with any problem brought up by a customer is to make sure you understand it as completely as possible. Often times that means getting more information from the customer, but it's important to keep the tone in mind when doing this. Start from a position of assuming that the mistake is yours, and not user error. Collect information in a way that is consistent with this so that you are never put in a position where you give a customer the impression that they were wrong. Even if the problem turns out to be largely user-error, that may ultimately be a failing on your part to adequately educate your customers.

Admit, explain, and apologize for the problem - Having determined what went wrong, be sure to not just describe that you've identified the problem, but also to admit that the "problem" was a "mistake" on the part of your company. Don't try to dance around the issue, even if there are real mitigating circumstances. Just own up to the problem and explain why it occurred in a way that is meaningful but not overly technical. Too much detail in the description can come across as an excuse instead of an explanation if you're not careful. A waffling apology may turn out to be worse than no apology at all.

Fix it - The best apology is to make sure that the problem never comes up again, and if you're lucky enough that you can address the issue immediately, be sure to take advantage. If the problem has an easy solution, that should be your top priority until it is fixed, even if the consequences of the problem aren't that big.

Showcase your customer service - Having a customer notice a mistake is never an ideal situation, but in classic lemon-to-lemonade thinking, it can be a chance to impress that customer with your customer service. People understand that mistakes happen, and by quickly and helpfully fixing that mistake, you can leave a positive impression that overshadows the mistake itself.

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