5 Tips for Small Businesses to Avoid “the Apology”


Photo Credit: Mashable.com – Tim Cook Apologizes to Chinese Customers for Apple Warranties

Building credibility is a lengthy and challenging process for any organization, but especially so for lesser known entities.  However difficult it is to establish credibility, and it can be lost in an instant.  For example, Tim Cook apologized to Apple’s Chinese customers after the company’s second largest market was put at risk due heavy criticism over Apple’s warranty policies and procedures.  Then Rutgers University Basketball Coach Mike Rice apologized after he was fired for behavior so outrageous it must have made Bobby Knight cringe.  Cook and Rice are hardly breaking new ground apologizing only after their indiscretions became public.  For small business and emerging company leaders, this is turf to be avoided at all costs.


Photo Credit: GlobaPost.com – Former Rutgers Scarlet Knights’ Head Coach Mike Rice (AL BELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Emerging companies have less margin for error to begin with and rarely ever recover from diminished credibility with customers and employees.  Because so many small business/emerging company executives feel compelled to manage in the moment they occasionally stray from credibility’s righteous path.  Unlike Apple, Rutgers, Mr Cook or Coach Rice, less-established organizations and people don’t have the benefit of apologizing after the fact as the first step in rehabilitation.

More often than not, small business/emerging company leaders make their mistakes by either (a) taking short-cuts, (b) giving into immediate pressures, or (c) believing nobody will notice.  Under any of these 3 scenarios I find these executives start by making a small exception which, unfortunately, is either not noticed or accepted.  Without exception, executives pushing the bad behavior envelope are aided and abetted by a staff that is either too timid or too lacking in integrity to not jeopardize the company’s credibility.

It’s incredible to think that Apple, a driving force for liberalizing information flow, would ignore consumer complaints or offer inadequate customer service for their expensive products that have an almost cult following.  It defies logic that a major college basketball coach would hurl gay slurs, throw balls at players and shove them around in an era when every team tapes its practices.  Small business/emerging company leaders operate in a greater vacuum that can create a false sense of security about taking liberties.  If the executive loses a moral compass unless staff steps up with active checks and balances there is apparently less threat and danger than either Apple or Coach Rice had to have known they’d face.

Though I have worked with many who did, I have yet to encounter any executive who ever set out to undermine a company’s credibility.  As common as the circumstances might be, prevention is surprisingly easy:

1.  No Monarchies.  Even in the most tightly controlled privately held business, it is essential to let all employees know leaders are neither kings nor queens.  More than humanizing ownership, by continually reinforcing this notion it sets the foundation for uncompromised integrity.

2.  Define & Cultivate Best Employees.  Who do you consider to be the better employee: one who challenges conventional wisdom to continuously improve results or one who does what s(he) is told without ever asking?  If you covet employees pursuing excellence then you will make sure they know there might be boundaries to what can be challenged but no limits–including challenging the boss.

3.  Integrity-Based Open Collaboration.  Your best employees not working for a monarch can then effectively collaborate to solve problems and create policy in a way that will not merely protect the company’s credibility but they will extend it.  Creating a collaborative culture is the best remedy against short-cuts.

4.  Institutionalized Checks & Balances.  Inter-departmental audits, periodic quality inspections, periodic policy reviews can all be conducted without draining resources.  I’ve even appointed customers to serve in these capacities for companies I’ve worked with and the results have been spectacular.

5.  No Apologies.  When a small/emerging business has to apologize it’s usually too late.  By engaging the right culture and implementing the right procedures you can leave the apologies for those who didn’t care to do things properly in the first place.

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