run a business

At some point in your business, someone will be unhappy with you.

They might not like a product you put out. Perhaps they are unsatisfied with some service. Or maybe you have made a public remark that is unpopular. You could have even made a mistake.

You can’t avoid it.

How you respond, though, can be a big deal. You don’t want to be in a position where you lose trust with most of your customers because of the way you handle a tough situation. Whether you’re facing questions about a major change to your top executives, or whether you need to recall a product, it’s important to be as straightforward as possible.

Here are some of the evasions that set of your customers’ (and the public’s) B.S. meter — and that can make a less than ideal situation worse:

Putting the Blame Elsewhere

We don’t like being wrong, or making mistakes. It’s even worse when we feel like we’ve been caught out. The tendency can be to blame someone else or even blame a process or a circumstance.

It’s natural to try to find fault anywhere else.

However, this can ruin the trust others have in you.

Rather than trying to put the blame elsewhere, accept responsibility for the situation. Acknowledge that you were wrong, and that you made a mistake. People are more likely to be forgiving if you are honest and show that you are at fault.

While not everyone will forgive you, there will be a larger number of people willing to give you a second chance when you admit fault.

Be up front about where you went wrong, and then take steps to fix the situation. Let your customers and the public know how you intend to make things better — and then actually work to make things better.

A Non-Apology

While you’re working on owning up to the problem, you also need to make sure that your apology is sincere.

Sometimes when we slip up and say something in public, we are tempted to through it back on others. “I’m sorry you got offended” and “I’m sorry you didn’t use the product properly” are examples of non-apologies.

These are ways of trying to sound like you are sorry, but you are subtly making it clear that the whole thing is someone else’s problem, not yours.

Instead, it’s important to make a real apology.

Show that you understand why others might be upset, and make it a point to show empathy. Your customers and others need to feel as though you really do understand what went wrong, and that you are truly sorry.

This is part of trying to make it right when things go wrong.

Avoiding the Question

At some point, you will do something unpopular and you might have to answer questions about the situation.

Trying to avoid it will only ruin others’ perceptions of you and your business. People can tell when you’re trying to avoid the question. It seems shifty, and they don’t like it.

The perception is that you have something to hide when you try to avoid a question, or when you don’t want to talk about what others feel they need to understand.

Instead of avoiding the question, try to answer as honestly as possible. This doesn’t mean that you should give out information others shouldn’t have, though.

If you honestly can’t answer the question, say so. Perhaps there is some legal reason you can’t disclose information. Let that be known. Maybe you don’t have all the information you need. You can say that, and then assure your customers and the public that you will share what you can later.

But only follow these tactics if you are telling the truth. Don’t lie about your inability to share information. You will be in even more trouble and lose even more trust if you deliberately lie in an effort to avoid a question.

Your best bet is to be as honest as possible and answer questions or share information when you have it.

Focusing on a Different Agenda

It’s tempting to try to change the subject and instead try to bring the focus back to an agenda you have. Maybe you want to draw attention to a different point or bring up a product that has a more positive perception. It can be tempting to pivot away from the issue at hand and instead try to steer the message.

This approach encourages people to think that you are hiding something important and that you are trying to use other means to distract them.

While you might want to bring the focus back to something good or to a message that you prefer, the reality is that you can’t get to that until after you deal with the current issue.

So, instead of trying to veer the conversation away, consider addressing the problem first. Be straightforward and honest about it, make sure most of your customers are satisfied with the response, and then think about how you can change the conversation.

You don’t have to change it immediately. The important thing is to retain trust with your customers by being as honest as possible rather than trying to push a different agenda.

Immediately Denying the Problem

One of the biggest issues is when you immediately deny the problem. This destroys trust because your customers know there is a problem. Telling them there isn’t a problem makes you look like a liar. Or even as though you’re incompentent.

As a business owner, you need to know when there are problems. You need to identify them, and the work to fix them. Denying the problem makes you seem delusional or dishonest. Either of these things can cause you to lose the trust of your audience.

Instead, look for problems and acknowledge them when they crop up. Address them, and then move on. As you get used to this, you will show your audience that you deserve their trust. They will be more willing to come back later.

You Have a Chance to Show Leadership

Setbacks are a chance for you to show leadership, and for your business to grow. While none of us enjoy failure, the reality is that failure can be a great teacher.

If you show leadership during a tough time, your customers will be more likely to give you another chance — and could become even more loyal.

You also have the chance to show leadership in a way that leads to positive recognition from the public. It’s counter-intuitive, but in some cases you can actually increase the trust between you and your customers in the wake of a mistake.

If you address the issue head-on, and if you are honest and offer a sincere apology, you can gain a reputation as a straight-shooter who is willing to make things right. When you take responsibility and then work toward a solution, you are more likely to be seen as someone to trust.

Before you respond to a crisis, take a step back. Think about the situation, and what you know. Then approach your customers and the public thoughtfully, with as much information as you can share and willingness to accept responsibility for making it right.

You might be surprised at how many customers stick around — and how many new customers you can attract.

I'm Miranda and I'm a freelance financial journalist and money expert. My specialties are investing, small business/entrepreneurship and personal finance. The journey to business success and financial freedom is best undertaken with fellow travelers.

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