Apologizing...it's a skill that no business school or business book has included. So what's the best way to do it so you can salvage and repair what's left of the business relationship (or any relationship)?


Recently my business had gotten into a dispute over a supposed referral fee we owed to a business acquaintance. The request for a referral payment came via a phone text, and I vividly remember staring at the text as my mind skimmed through every possible recollection I had in my memory of offering a referral agreement. At the peak of our business' high season, it was near impossible for me to remember much of anything that has happened beyond the last seven days.

It was a delicate situation because the acquaintance is someone I would like to maintain relations with as our business circle is small, and since I couldn't find past emails or recall conversations where I had agreed to a referral payment for the said specific client, I went ahead and sent them a Finder's Fee agreement as a sign of good will. At that moment, from my end, it was a sign of good will - where I acknowledged that they had made a connection for us, but the sales pitch, deal closing, and handling of the client from the point of the initial connection with their gatekeeper had been by our team.

Let's say they didn't take it so well. 

A day later I received an email back with various accusations and statements of how disappointed they were in my business conduct, along with a screen capture of a single text I had sent outlining potential referral payments. Though it was less than 15 words, I did acknowledge that it was my wrongdoing for forgetting about the text from last year, and decided I would honour the agreement to pay them a referral fee.

That evening as I debated how to issue an apology, I had trouble sleeping, felt guilt-ridden, and found excuses for myself such as 'who would've remembered a text from months ago?' I realized that I was never 'taught' how to apologize properly in a business setting. 


Here are the 3 steps I would recommend to apologizing professionally:

  1. Walkthrough the scenario and pinpoint what it is that you should and are willing to take the blame for. While I was at fault for my poor memory, there were other ways we could have prevented a heated exchange of emails, such as if the acquaintance had simply asked for a written agreement at the out start.
  2. Choose your words carefully. Apologizing is not a sign of weakness, and your choice of words should not indicate as such, so choose your words carefully. State that you are sorry for the scenario and how it unfolded, and then lay out what you are willing to do professionally to render the situation and get things back on track. It's only a bump in the road, and your job is to outline for them how both parties can get past it in good faith.
  3. Appeal to their business needs/wants. When dealing with any sort of apology, whether apologizing to your kid for being late to pick them up from school, significant other for forgetting an anniversary, or business mishaps, the other party always wants something in return to soothe their emotions - because every misunderstanding triggers emotions whether we want it to or not. So take a long, hard look at the other party's needs and wants to see what can smooth over your relationship. Whether it's an action you must perform or a gift you deliver, these actions show the other party you are ready to reconcile and move forward.


If it's beyond repair and the other party refuses your act of apology, then I suggest you still issue an apology expressing your sincere regret, and let them know the door is always open if and when they decide it's time to move past the issue. 

The key is to do what you can, and not be caught in an act of fear or worry of what might happen to your reputation if you admit you are at fault. Often times, the courage to admit fault is a rare characteristic found in too few businesspeople. So keep a clear mind, get over your fear, and write that apology.