How often do you hear those words in the food business -- or in any business? You can probably count the number of instances on one hand.
Companies go off course and change managements, but you rarely hear apologies. Lawsuits increasingly conclude with settlements that lack admissions of guilt. No one seems to take responsibility or show remorse these days. It wouldn't be business-like.
That's why last week's Ahold shareholder's meeting speech by Chairman Henny de Ruiter was refreshing (See story, Page 1). De Ruiter delivered an apologetic and empathetic address to very angry shareholders that was reminiscent of Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain approach." It came in the wake of all the problems that have hit the company since news of its accounting crisis broke on Feb. 24, a day in which Ahold lowered its projected earnings and announced its chief executive officer and chief financial officer were resigning. Consider the following speech excerpt:
"A well-known saying in business is: 'Investors can take a lot of bad news ... but they hate surprises!' As shareholders, you knew Ahold as a dependable company, year in and year out. You knew that Ahold delivered -- and of course that is how it should be. And still, as supervisors and executives of this company, we have not been able to spare you surprises. Unfortunately, I must add, very unpleasant surprises. Let me tell you that everyone, including the members of the Supervisory Board and the Corporate Executive Board, was equally shocked."
Now for the clincher. Referring to the events of Feb. 24, de Ruiter said: "We can well imagine the ensuing feelings of anger, frustration and incomprehension resulting from this painful message. (I say 'we' because I say this on behalf of all Ahold executives). Feb. 24 was an all-time low for each and every one of us, and I offer you my sincere apologies."
An actual apology! When was the last time we heard that? I plugged the words "apology" and "sorry" into the SN electronic story archive for the past few years and came up with very little.
The most notable recent occurrence was Safeway's very public apology last year to Philadelphia-area shoppers of its Genuardi's chain over merchandising changes put in place since the chain was acquired in 2001. Many shoppers seemed to feel Genuardi's long-praised specialty approach had been compromised. "Despite our best intentions, not all of the changes we've made recently have gone smoothly, and we're sorry if your Genuardi's experience was affected," read the copy from last year's Safeway newspaper ad campaign.
Safeway and Ahold recognize that an apology is the first step in trying to make things right. Granted, it took major problems to create that recognition. But managements should also understand that any benefits from apologies are short-lived if the words don't lead to action. In Safeway's case, it's the merchandising follow-up at Genuardi's that really counts. In Ahold's situation, angry shareholders will wait to see if there are more surprises and how the company responds.
But let's not downplay the fact that apologies are useful and actually show leadership. They enable companies to begin to practice the type of behavior they preach to store associates: Show understanding and empathy to patrons who have had a bad experience, and try to make things better.