We all get busy — or even sometimes lazy — and forget to return a call or answer an email. This often leads to problems and can even ruin a good opportunity. Here's how to repair the damage next time you drop the ball.
We receive a lot of emails at Lifehacker, and we're not strangers to phone calls either. It's pretty much impossible for us to get all our work done and respond to every message we receive. Even so, I am especially bad at answering emails and calls. For better or (more often) for worse, my brain prioritises communication last. Part of the problem is that I know it's important to respond, and (just like William S. Borroughs) I often put too much effort into a response. I'll spend a long time writing a thoughtful letter or preparing myself for a call so I'm well-informed. In my brain's sparkling, romantic view of communication — in which people still wait two weeks for a letter — I am a magnificent communicator. In reality I just suck, but that has lead to one major upside: I have a lot of practical experience in effective apologies.
When You Drop the Ball, apologise Responsibly
When you forget to respond to a phone call or email, chances are you're going to have an angry, or at least disappointed, individual on your hands. While you'll rarely get someone waiting by their phone or computer until you respond (or until old age claims them), they're likely counting on you and you let them down. While you can make excuses like "it ended up in my junk box" or "the call didn't show up on my phone", you can only use that method so many times. Because I actually do not receive calls on my phone the majority of the time and I have, on occasion, actually found someone's message in the junk box, I don't like to use those excuses unless they're true. First of all, when you make a mistake you kind of owe it to the other person to be honest. Second, you run the risk of sounding like a liar when you use these excuses whether they're true or not. They're just too commonly known as the sneaky way out of a communication error. This is why you need to be honest and take responsibility for your mistake.
You need to make an honest apology, but it's not always as simple as saying "I'm sorry I took 10,462 days to respond." In the eyes of the recipient, you're not terribly responsible. By taking responsibility for your actions, you can show that you're not as bad as they may think. Here's an example:
First of all, I want to say that I'm really sorry I am only replying to your email now. I can get a little scatterbrained when life gets busy and lose track of even more important things. I'm sorry for leaving you hanging when you've already been so nice and helpful.
This example does four things: 1) apologises for the error, 2) notes that the apology is the most important part of the message, 3) explains the situation without making excessive excuses, and 4) ends with a compliment for good measure. A message like this shows that you're taking responsibility for your error and that you genuinely care about the recipient and your correspondance. What you say and how you word it will depend a bit on your situation, and you don't want to say anything that isn't actually true, but this is the essence of an apologetic response that'll get you back on the recipient's good side after a long period of radio silence.
When Possible, Apologise Preemptively
Of course, it's better to just respond in a 24-hour period whenever possible or you may miss out on an opportunity. For example, a late response can take you out of the running for a job. It would be nice if we lived in a world where there wasn't such a premium placed on immediacy, but that's reality. If you feel like you're going to have trouble keeping up on calls and emails, respond as soon as possible to just let someone know that you're overwhelmed and that a proper response will be a little later than usual. If you set expectations, you'll buy yourself additional time. When all else fails, however, just keep the above apology ready to help get you out of trouble.