Dear Etiquetteer: I am late. Woefully late. Inexcusably late.
I am about a week late on returning an e-mail and about three weeks late on returning a phone call. Most frustrating, I am about a month and a half late on returning a corrected item to a customer. As you may have assumed, I am self-employed.
I have reasons for these delays largely surrounding a family medical emergency. However, being late is still impolite and unprofessional. At this point, I am afraid even to interact with these people out of embarrassment.
Better late than never is the refrain, isn't it? How exactly does one approach, apologize for, and move on from the lack of any semblance of propriety?
Fear makes everything worse. A dear friend of Etiquetteer's once asked the question "Well, what's the worst thing that could happen?" He would walk himself through an exercise of the worst thing that could happen if he did or did not take a particular action or respond to a particular problem. He would deliberately bring this chain of circumstances to an end at the point where he was living in a box underneath the stairs of a busy subway station. This usually brought home the absurdity of his reluctance to take action.
What is true is that any further delay will compromise your professional reputation. Make the decision to respond to the customers in question today, adding only, "A family emergency has taken me away from my work. I apologize for not letting you know about this sooner." It is not necessary to provide additional information about the emergency in question. If asked for specifics, you need only say something like "Everything's been taken care of" or "The situation has stabilized. Thank you for your concern." Then give them a deadline when you will respond to their requests, and be sure to honor it.
Most people do tend to be sympathetic in such circumstances. Now go forth in confidence!