What’s the Right Way to Apologize When You Screw Up?

Screw-ups. We all have ‘em. With friends, family, and yes, with our commercial writing clients. But, how you deal with it can be far more important than the screw-up itself. This subject may be a bit off the mainstream of commercial writing, but thought it was worth knocking around, and certainly has relevance for our copywriting businesses.

Last week, one of my copywriting colleagues stepped in it after sending out a note about a coaching client and a niche that client had developed, and sent a link to a YouTube video featuring that client prominently on one side of contentious political issue.

Later that day, once realization dawned (no doubt spurred by some angry notes), out went the mea culpa, saying, in essence, “I didn’t mean to promote a political point of view, and have been so busy lately doing this and that that I neglected to ‘consider the content’ of what I sent out.”

In the wake of that, I got an email from a reader, saying, “Upon reading her apology I unsubscribed from her list” (having just subscribed a few days earlier). She went on to point out that, “not ‘considering the content’ showed little respect for one’s recipients, which, in turn, ends up losing, not gaining interest and goodwill.”

Finally, and most importantly, she took offense at my colleague’s apology, which was less of an apology and more of an excuse, citing “busy-ness” with this and that unrelated task and, as a result of that preoccupation, not thinking it through.

As my friend explained, “When we make a mistake, don’t we have an obligation to own it? With a different sort of apology I might not have unsubscribed. Something like: ‘Today I distributed a video featuring one of my clients. I regret sending it. The video did not demonstrate the point I was hoping to make, and in fact contained a political message many of you may have found inappropriate and offensive. I apologize. Please be assured that nothing like this will happen again.’ But instead she made excuses.”

Which made me think about the nature of apologies. In follow-on emails, we both sympathized with my colleague’s compounded error. You make a mistake, and in trying to apologize, it’s only human to want to make yourself look good (or less bad). You’re faced with a) frankly admitting no-excuse cluelessness, or, b) claiming the excuse of distracted carelessness (who can’t relate to being too busy?). In this case, my colleague chose the latter. And perhaps it worked on some, but certainly not on my friend.

I bring up this episode NOT to gang up on my colleague anymore (who no doubt took themselves to the woodshed several times), but to use it as a discussion starter about the nature of apologies. I’ve certainly apologized in the past like my colleague did, so I can’t throw stones. But now (perhaps based on the results of that approach), I put myself in the second camp. If I screw up, I’ll throw myself to the wolves – no excuses.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years on earth is that, overwhelmingly, people are just looking for reasons to forgive you. Do a soft-shoe, deflect and dissemble and they’ll pound you doubly hard. Perhaps because they’re punishing you for that same slippery quality they hate in themselves.

But, come to them with a clear-eyed admission of guilt, hat in hand, no excuses, and they’ll fall all over themselves to offer you absolution. Perhaps, because, by the same token, they’re rewarding you for showing the same flawed humanness they share with you, a humanness they know takes courage to reveal. And they’ll not only forgive you, you’ll grow in stature in their eyes. Sometimes irrationally…

Caught a news item last week about Lt. Calley of My Lai (Vietnam) massacre infamy, who, 41 years after the fact, finally apologized for his role in the cold-blooded murder of 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians – mostly women and children. He did it at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus, Georgia, where afterwards – you ain’t going to believe this – the assembled attendees gave him a standing ovation.

If that isn’t proof that people love to be magnanimous (and will actually think better of you no matter what you did), whether or not they should be, I’m not sure what is.

Can you share a time you apologized to a client in a no-excuses manner and how did it turn out?

Can you share a time you apologized to a client by making excuses and how did that turn out?

Any other thoughts on apologies?

Kickbutt Writing Skills Still One of the Most Effective Marketing Strategies…

Was updating the customer testimonials on my commercial writing site the other day, and came across this one (excerpted):

“Not only does Peter intuitively grasp where we need to go with a project, but his writing truly inspires my design. Bottom line, Peter’s spoiled me with his talent and he’s always my first choice.”

Now, I don’t include this to preen, but simply to underscore what happens when you’re a good writer (and you’re not the only one who thinks so…) – one who, in this case, enhances the quality of a graphic designer’s work. When that happens, they’ll go out of their way to bring you in on projects whenever possible. And why wouldn’t they? You make their portfolio stronger and their clients happier, and both lead to repeat business and referrals – for BOTH of you.

Which makes solid writing skills, arguably, one of the most potent marketing strategies commercial freelancers have going for them. Good commercial copywriters who craft effective copy make their clients’ lives easier and their businesses more profitable. Do that consistently, and you’ll get invited back again and again, and steered to other work.

And unlike other marketing strategies (i.e., cold calling, direct mail, email marketing, networking, social media, etc.), being a good writer “markets” you without you having to do much other than what you do naturally.

Sure, you still need to do your own marketing campaigns to let the world know you exist, but all those outreach efforts end up turbo-charged when your skills are a few cuts above. Till eventually, you may not have to do much marketing at all anymore. It happens all the time to good writers. The world starts coming to them.

A good analogy? A really good book will have a long shelf life (literally) because it’ll benefit from strong reviews and powerful word-of-mouth advertising, while a mediocre one – with few or no “champions” – will struggle to find an audience, and will likely quickly sink into the nether regions of the bargain bin.

Obviously, however, not all commercial writers are created equal. I feel fortunate to have innate writing ability (though, yes, I still cringe at some of the copy I wrote in the early days of my business). Others’ skills may not be as strong or natural. And let’s face it. While the commercial writing field – like any – certainly rewards those with superior skills commensurately, it doesn’t exclude those with modest gifts. Given the staggering amount of gruesome writing in the business world, those who can simply provide solid (if unflashy), coherent copy can find their niche.

So, what makes someone one of the better writers? Well, for me, a very partial list would include, for starters, a lot of technical things: writing like you talk, telling stories in your writing, avoiding $50 words, making sure your writing has the right cadence, and more. It also means understanding marketing fundamentals like audience, features/benefits, and USP (Unique Selling Proposition); being a good listener so you give your clients what they want the first time; and being able to quickly visualize how copy for a particular project needs to be structured and flow in order to maximize its effectiveness.

And a ton of other things. But I want to hear from you (I’m doing a teleseminar in a few months on the subject and would love to use your comments and observations – with attribution, of course).

If you (and/or your clients) consider yourself an excellent writer, what skills, gifts or talents contribute to that reputation and have them coming back again and again?

How has being a top-notch writer made your marketing easier?

Have you always had natural ability, or have you honed initially-less-impressive skills over time?

If you’ve demonstrably improved your writing skills over the years, what books, resources or ideas made the difference for you?

Any other comments or insights?