I get it, as a small business owner, you hate that you’ve let a client down or worse, that you could potentially lose them as a client; so you pepper them with explanations and excuses. But that’s the problem. You appease or find a way out of the guilt or shame you feel in an effort to continue to please. Because even though you say you don’t believe that the customer is always right, there is an acknowledgement that they should feel as if they are.
As a recovering people pleaser and high-achieving good girl, I have been known to offer extensive explanations. To be fair, even though I’ve spent a lot of time trying to become a reformed apologiser, I have had clients ask if I am asking for permission to do something. I think that’s the highest level of explaining; when people call you out.
As I write this, I think about what my psychologist would say. It’s clear. Kara, explaining yourself and apologising kept you safe. She’s right. In fact, in our household, we were often challenged with “Explain yourself” or “Apologise right now”. It was an expectation. As the overachieving good girl, I learnt that sometimes this was the easiest course of action, even if I was not involved (remember, good girl).
Any of this sound familiar?
Not familiar with the good girl (or good boy)? A good child, in my day, was seen and not heard. Did not talk back. Did what they were told. Was thankful, even if they didn’t want or ask for what was given. They certainly did not stand up to people who were perceived to hold all the cards or power. They put the needs of others before themselves. They knew “their place”. They were respectful and had impeccable manners.
Early on in my public service career, a manager taught me the saying: Don’t complain, don’t explain. There’s no great surprise that they didn’t explain what they meant and it took me over 10 years for it to actually sink in. I believe that part of the reason it took so long is that I believed that I had no right to make someone’s life harder than what it was. So to ensure that, I would explain. Then I had to also reprogram my childhood conditioning that an explanation and/or apology was expected, regardless.
Small business owner explaining and excusing behaviour
As a small business owner, we believe that our livelihood is dependant on doing what is asked of us. So when we can not do that, or fall short, or come up against obstacles that prevent us from achieving what we set out to achieve – we explain and excuse.
I looked for definitions of explanations vs excuses and I found this one on Psych Central:
Explanations allow for responsibility to be acknowledged, and the situation to be explored and understood. Excuses come from feelings of defensiveness that pop up when someone is feeling attacked. Explanations occur when someone wants to be understood.
We apologise for the mail not arriving, even though it’s outside of our control. We apologise for not taking the call on a Sunday night, even though it’s not core business hours and no big business would be expected to. We apologise for the late reply to the email, even though we needed time to gather the information for the reply (or they emailed at 10pm). We even apologise for having to pass on material or other cost increases to ensure we stay viable. We do this in the hope to be understood.
We offer many excuses too. We explain and offer excuses around why we need to put up our prices. We offer excuses about why we didn’t reply right away. We explain and excuse why we needed to close up early or take time off. We offer excuses why we had to make changes or substitutions.
You may not see any problem with explanations and excuses as a small business owner, but as a customer, I see many. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that a pre-emptive explanation is often welcome and can avoid later upset. The problem arises when it’s too little too late, not at all, or becomes over-explaining. These are actually the most common ones I see as a business consultant and honestly, they are the most unnecessary and annoying as a client. I would rather a brief explanation when an issue is detected, rather than a drawn-out list of excuses and explanations when called out (it’s as bad as ghosting a client).
What is the problem with explanations and excuses as a small business owner?
It doesn’t change the situation
Quite simply, offering explanations and excuses doesn’t change the situation. What’s done is done. It may appease your guilt but the client has still has not had their needs met in some way.
Clients don’t care
Ok, not all of us and it depends on how we experience the process of working with your small business. At the extreme, and remember it’s the client’s perception and not yours that matters, we can get to a point where we just don’t care. Not only do we have little empathy for the circumstances that you detail in the excuses or explanations, but we can also get to the point where we are so over them and the whole process that we are flat-out “done”.
Some clients just don’t care because they’re not interested. Not because they are fed up or frustrated, just because it doesn’t change the situation. Some don’t care because they value their time, I often fall into this category, and because of this, they aren’t interested in putting any more time (or energy) into a situation that won’t change.
Opens you up for criticism
This is one of the two reasons I do not recommend excuses and explanations to my clients. If we go back to the Psych Central comparison, an explanation opens up for the situation to be “explored”. More often than not, when a small business owner offers excuses and explanations they will offer a lot of information (and emotion). There is a certain type of client who will use this information to then criticise you. Sometimes the client sees it as an opportunity to educate you on your business, which often comes across the wrong way or meets you in a place where you’re just not receptive to feedback.
Opens up an avenue for negotiation
This is the second reason why I don’t recommend excuses or explanations for small business owners, certain clients will use it as an opportunity to negotiate. I saw this a lot when I was working in the public service and had to deal with lawyers. Any deviation from the facts towards excuses or explanation opened the door for not just criticism but also negotiation. I have seen my clients badgered for future discounts or free services, expecting unrealistic service levels, just because they were backed into a corner by their people-pleasing behaviour of explaining and excusing.
What is better than explanations and excuses as a small business owner?
I do understand that not explaining or giving excuses can be confronting. It has taken me a long time to reset the good girl programming and adopt more of the “don’t complain, don’t explain” perspective. So what do I do or what is a better way than offering explanations and excuses?
Set expectations early
More often than not, clients find themselves in these situations because they have not set expectations early, have not clarified understandings, and/or that not maintained expectations through the process. What happens is that the situation often ends in a ‘he said, she said’ scenario of competing points of view and expectations. This can quickly lead to a client feeling disappointed, a small business owner feeling taken advantage of, and a situation that needs clearing.
Manage situations as they arise
Many of us dislike difficult conversations, I still dislike them. What I have is a practised set of skills that I use. When I know that expectations are clear and understood, managing changes as they arise is just part of maintaining the expectations. I find that when I tell a client of a change or unexpected situation, as they occur, they are grateful for my honesty and the early warning/information. No one likes to be kept in the dark or surprised at the last minute.
Kept to the facts
One of the best lessons having lawyers as clients taught me was keeping emotions out of conversations and sticking with the facts. I would, and still do, make a timeline of the facts of a situation (generally from correspondence) and use this to form a reply when situations get messy and a situation needs remedying. It also helps to clarify the situation from the client’s perspective.
Get a fresh perspective
For my clients, I am often their fresh perspective. Because I’m not emotionally or otherwise invested in the situation, I can offer a different point of view. Yes, it takes some delicate conversation with my business owner clients to see a different perspective, but I tend to find keeping it to the facts (and the emotions out) really helps.
I understand that sometimes an explanation is needed. Keep it factual, relevant, and timely. I understand that reprogramming the “good child” persona can be confronting. It does not then mean that you’re not a good person, it means that you’re not going to sacrifice yourself for someone else. Remember that clients don’t actually expect perfection and they do expect that things won’t always go to plan, let them know as soon as you’re aware of it. Explaining & excusing can be tiring for the person giving as well as receiving, and generally unnecessary. People appreciate truth, honesty, and the vulnerability it takes to owning up. These qualities form the basis of a long-lasting relationship and a profitable business relationship.