When You Should Say I’m Sorry Instead of Thanks


When you hurt someone’s feelings at work, it’s too easy to try and smooth it over with an attoboy or platitude.  But is that really a relationship booster or just a band aid? 

Most of my keynote talks are about how to create and maintain strong business relationships.  Most discussions focus on customer or teammate relationships, but often, I’m reminded that we all need to spend time thinking about our partner (vendor/supplier) relationships as well.  When they go wrong, we lose a lot of traction and face steep replacement costs. 

Last week, I was caught in the cross fire of a customer-vendor disagreement.  I introduced them, which keeps me in the loop of their day-to-day progress.  The customer was unpleasantly surprised about a cost overrun, so he expressed it (laced with some profanity).  The vendor CEO was appalled at having his employees being treated that way, and responded by calling me to vent and discuss terminating the relationship.  

The customer had already realized that the relationship was on the rocks and called the vendor CEO owner to make amends.  Here’s the problem: He didn’t offer up the right olive branch.  He called to express his gratitude for all the great work and extra efforts the vendor’s team had contributed to his project.  While appreciation can go a long ways in a relationship, it is not an antidote to a venomous outburst. 

“He’s just worried that he’ll have to replace us and start over again,” the vendor CEO told me.  “He’s not sorry for the verbal abuse, and that means it will happen again,” he concluded. He’s right too.  I promised to call the customer and see what I could do. 

The customer’s point of view, unfortunately, was more ego-based than relationship based.  “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he spouted.  “They changed the rules in the middle of the game, surprised me, and I expressed that I was a little pissed off.” After thinking for a second, he added, “I might have used a little french to express myself.”  

I gave him this advice: If you want to work with them, you must sincerely tell them how sorry you are for the way you made them feel and how your reaction created more negative emotions than necessary.  Whether they were wrong by action, your reaction made them feel bad, nervous and hurt.  You should NEVER make a partner feel bad in the normal course of doing business, and when you do, you should show empathy and be contrite about it.  If you value the relationship, then you’ll value their feelings.  Then I showed him this post from my facebook page that resonated with my tribe…just to illustrate my point in social terms.

While he was trying to make a deposit in the “emotional bank account” with his vendor, it turned out to be in the wrong form of currency.  I’m hoping he can suck it up, say he’s sorry, and move forward with the project.  Time will tell.