Small business owners have the natural instinct to ensure their employees and customers have the best possible experience working for or doing business with their companies. Of course, that experience won’t be positive for everyone. A negative experience can result in a complaint from an employee or customer, or, in extreme cases, a lawsuit.
Whether they’re facing sexual harassment allegations, workplace injuries or customer service complaints, small business owners should choose their words carefully and map out a strategy to deal with apology-inducing situations.
Here are tips owners can use to handle apologies and help avoid a lawsuit.
1. Empathize with the affected party.
Avoid admitting guilt to a particular situation by issuing an apology.
“A better approach is to empathize with the person,” says Richard A. Dezio, an attorney in Alexandria, Va. [For example, say,] ‘I’m sorry to see you got injured.’ Be helpful with the person. Be empathetic. But don’t say, ‘This is our fault.’”
2. Focus on solving the problem.
Business owners often subscribe to the adage, “the customer is always right.” So if a customer calls with a complaint, it’s human nature for an owner to apologize for the alleged mistake or error almost immediately, says Jim Balthaser, partner of Thompson Hine LLP in Columbus, Ohio.
Instead of apologizing, Balthaser says owners should focus on the issue and find a way to solve the problem. He advises owners to shy away from statements such as, “I made a mistake,” or “Something was done wrong.” Instead, they should say, “How do we address the situation we now face?”
3. Avoid confrontation
Owners should pay attention to the way they communicate with the affected party after an incident occurs or a complaint is made. If in handling the situation your tone is confrontational rather than positive and customer-service oriented, the individual is likely to react in a negative way—possibly by threatening to sue.
If you make the customer feel better about the situation and let them see you’re trying to help them, you’ll get less of a negative reaction from that person, Dezio says.
Related Resources: So You’ve Been Sued—What Now? and NFIB’s HR Questions and Employment Hotline