I almost wrote a post yesterday entitled "i'm a search chump." In it, I was going to complain about some poor communication between microsoft's search team and the "Search Champs" group regarding this week's launch of the new MSN Search beta.
But before I posted it, I called Robert Scoble--one of the few people associated with the Microsoft side of the Search Champ group whom I genuinely trusted--and told him what was going on and why I was upset. A few hours later--perhaps because of Robert, perhaps because of some email that was exchanged between the "Champs" and the project team--I had three extremely gracious and constructive apologies in my mailbox (one from Robert, and two from MSN team members). All my indignation evaporated in the face of such a positive response.
It got me thinking about the art of the gracious apology. It's an art that's practiced by too few, but which often yields amazing rewards for those who master it. So this morning at breakfast I mentioned to my husband that I was going to write this post on the power of a good apology. He looked at me, startled, and held up the front page of the local paper that he was reading--where there was an AP story about the value of doctors' apologies. (It's in today's Salon, too...) The author, Lindsay Tanner, provides a graphic example of the financial value of an apology:
The hospitals in the University of Michigan Health System have been encouraging doctors since 2002 to apologize for mistakes. The system's annual attorney fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year, said Rick Boothman, a former trial attorney who launched the practice there.
Unfortunately, many of the people I deal with personally and professionally haven't figured this basic bit of relationship management out. They spend far more trying to explain or excuse their actions, and end up making situations worse.
I overheard a smaller-scale example of this on my way home from Chicago. I was camped out near a power outlet in the Newark airport, waiting for my delayed flight home, when a man sitting across from me answered his cell phone. I could only hear his side of the conversation, but it was easy enough to extrapolate the rest of it. I've added (in italics) what I was thinking as I listened...
said with some obvious pleasure. clearly someone he likes talking to.
"What? Oh! Well, I looked for you, but you'd disappeared."
"Well, I went on to lunch, I assumed I'd see you there."
uh-oh. you know what they say about assumptions, right?
"What was I supposed to do? I didn't see you anywhere."
"Oh...I guess I had my phone off because of the presentation."
dude! this is obviously the part where you APOLOGIZE! get a clue! i am so not surprised there's no ring on your finger.
"I don't see why you're so upset!"
oh, no. you're making things worse! you don't have to see why she's upset to acknowledge that she is. would a simple "i'm sorry" kill you, here?
uh-oh. that was abrupt. he's screwed.
He put the phone away with a bemused and frustrated look on his face.
Odds that he's been forgiven by the woman he was talking to? Close to zero. (No, I'm not assuming; somewhere in there he referred to her by name.)
Chances that he has any idea how badly he handled that? Equally close to zero.
The words of Elton John's classic song came immediately to mind:
It's sad, so sad
It's a sad, sad situation
And it's getting more and more absurd
It's sad, so sad
Why can't we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word
At any rate, I'm glad that Microsoft still seems committed to working with the impressive bunch of people it brought together for the Search Champs meeting. It's a smart and interesting group, and it would be a shame to see them lose the goodwill they gained so quickly. And if they're half as good at building products as they are at crafting apologies, I'd say Google should be getting worried right about now.
Oh...and if you've made a mistake yourself? Don't just say "oops." That's not enough. Own up to your actions. Acknowledge what you've done wrong, so the person knows that you're aware of the problem. And then say what you'll do differently in the future, so they know it won't happen again. Trust me on this. It works. Really.