January 05, 2009

How Saying "I'm Sorry" Can Help With Client Relations

I recently flew down to Florida for the holidays.  The day was unrushed and rather enjoyable. However, we flew Jet Blue and after we boarded our plane I heard one of the flight attendants say, "I don't know when the pilot is going to arrive.  We have no pilot."  I calmly used my cell phone to call those who were going to pick us up and told them we'll probably be delayed.

Shortly thereafter, the flight attendant made an announcement saying, "We expect to have at least a 45 minute delay due to our flight crew still being en route.  If we are longer than 45 minutes we will permit you to deplane."  Naturally, many passengers started to gripe, speculating as to why there was no flight crew, none of which was positive and reflected poorly on Jet Blue.  It was all speculation but tempers were flaring and the passengers were loaded for bear planning ways to complain, get a free flight, etc. 

Within the 45 minutes the crew arrived and immediately the Captain got on the loud speaker and said, "I'm sorry for the delay.  I could lie to you and make up all kinds of reasons for my delay but the truth is I screwed up on my schedule.  This is not Jet Blue's fault but mine alone. I'm sorry. I'll will do everything possible to get us there faster."  After that he cracked a few jokes about not knowing where we were headed, the passengers laughed and the mood lightened considerably.  He told the truth and apologized and sought to make amends. His open and honest and immediate admission of responsibility for the passengers' inconvenience and a true apology worked wonders in mitigating backlash against the flight crew and the airline. However, the story about the Captain's apology made a powerful impression and was retold in a very positive way.  The delay was secondary and proved inconsequential. The airline also comped everything normally charged during the flight including premium drinks and earphones.  A few days after the delayed flight I received an e-mail from Jet Blue apologizing for the inconvenience I suffered which included a $25.00 credit voucher towards my next flight.  There were at least 150 people on board.  You do the math.

This was a powerful lesson.  How often do we feel compelled to protect ourselves from possible rebuke from our clients by not offering up an apology for a mistake we made for fear that owning a mistake or apologizing for that mistake will diminish us in the eyes of our client or worse, set us up for a grievance or malpractice claim?  After all, being a solo you have no one covering your backside professionally or financially.

"I'm sorry." Why are those two little words so difficult to say? Perhaps because they hold such power. An honest apology can mend relationships, dissolve anger, soothe shattered pride or heal a broken heart. And a study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that apologizing can even have health benefits, such as lowering stress levels. Meanwhile, avoiding an apology makes relationships more strained -- and it can reveal something negative about you. Being incapable of apologizing can be a real character flaw."

There are three keys to a successful apology: regretting your actions, taking responsibility for them and being willing to remedy the situation.

Studies have shown, especially in the medical profession, that an apology and showing regard for the individual who is impacted by mistakes reduces the risk of malpractice claims.  

While most studies discuss litigation within the medical profession there are lessons we as practitioners can take away from this.  States are starting to adopt "Apology" Laws. So read more from the Sorry Works! Coalition site.  Would it be too much of a stretch to see this very 'human' concept applicable to the legal profession to help with grievances and malpractice claims?

But why wait for the profession to put it in place.  Have you considered creating an "Apology Law" practice within your own firm for client upsets both large and small, real and imagined?  Should the future find you embroiled in a situation, your office policies and an accounting of genuine remedial steps for a mistake may favorably impact the outcome of any grievance or malpractice claim as well as your reputation going forward. (Of course, if you are grieved or sued this should not take the place of seeking out legal advice from an attorney who handles such matters.)

Just typing out loud.

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

If you enjoyed this post, why not subscribe to my RSS! If you would like to be part of a new educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students why not subscribe to the RSS for Solo Practice University.

And you can always follow me on Twitter :-)