October 23, 2017

How To Apologize Professionally

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It is one of the most uncomfortable things you can do as a professional speaker. You call a client at the last minute to say you can no longer do the job you had agreed on because of a double booking.

A double booking comes about when you mistakenly book two jobs on the same date and time. Unless you can manage to be in two places at the same time, it is impossible for you to execute both jobs. You will have to disappoint someone. How do you go about it and still maintain your credibility? How do you say sorry in a professional way?

Last week, I was guilty of only my second case of double booking in the past five years. During a meeting last Friday night with a client who had engaged my services months ago, I took out my phone to confirm the date of the event. To my horror, I realized that a fortnight ago, I had booked another client for an event to be held on the same date and at the same time.

Immediately I knew that I would have to use the ‘first come, first served’ principle and go with the one I had agreed with earlier. That was the easy bit. How to break the bad news to the affected party was what I began to dread. How would you go about this unwanted task?

Should you text?

My initial thought was to send a text to the person who had contacted me for the soon-to-be-cancelled job. I would type a message along the lines of “Sorry, something came up. Can’t make it to your event.” I reasoned that since the guy had been communicating with me by text, why not use the same method to express my regrets? After all, people have even been fired by text before!

Even as that option flashed through my head, I knew it was not the right thing to do. What if the shoe were on the other foot? How would I feel if I were treated in this way? Would I have anything good to say about someone who dealt with me this way? Would I recommend him or her to a friend? What I was doing was taking the easy way out. Which is not always the right way to go about your business. So I resisted the urge to text. It was late anyway, I thought. Why not sleep on it and deal with the matter the following day?

What do you say?

The following morning, I took my shower - which is where my ideas flow - and came out of the bathroom with a decision. I would call and apologize for my impending no show. But first I had to plan the call. I took out my phone and typed out the following words:

Bad news. Double booked with other event booked in May. Apologize, my fault. Suggest alternatives

I was going to call up my contact and tell him I had bad news. I would explain why I had to cancel on his event, take full responsibility for my decision and suggest a few people who could step into my shoes. It sounded easy but I did not relish making that call. So it was a relief when I could not get through to him on both lines. It felt like a stay of execution. Still the event was just a week away and I needed to act fast before official brochures were printed with my name on them.

I sent texts and WhatsApp messages saying it was important that he called me. After two hours, he called back but by then I was driving and so I could not speak on the phone. Another reprieve. When I got to my destination, I called back. As soon as I uttered the words “I have bad news” he actually told me why I was calling and thanked me for letting him know in time! In the end and after three attempts, I was able to get someone to stand in for me and the story ended on a happy note.

If you have to apologize for your ability to honor a business meeting or event, here is what to remember:

  • Don’t text your regrets
  • Plan what to say
  • Get to the point
  • Be honest.
  • Take full responsibility
  • Offer alternatives
  • With apologies, it is often not about what you say but how you say it. Never forget it.