Apologizing to a Customer: Write it Like You Mean It
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Apologizing to a Customer? Write It Like You Mean It

Apologizing to a Customer? Write It Like You Mean It

Recently, I received an email from the company that hosts my website, which I'll call "ABC Web Host." While the intent of this email was to apologize for an outage, the writing didn't sound genuine, and the order of information was all wrong:

Subject: Further explanation regarding outage on May 20

Dear ABC Web Host Clients

(You are receiving this message because you have a current or past helpdesk account with ABC Web Host.).

We've assessed the circumstances around the db connectivity issues ABC Web Host experienced yesterday. Apparently, the server farm has misconfigured a block of IP addresses; something that went undetected until we ran out and requested a new block. The new block was configured correctly and this revealed the issue and broke sites using the problematic configuration.

XYZ Server Farm, Inc. (the world-class service we employ to host our servers) has admitted culpability in this issue and given us their assurance that maintenance to check the current state of affairs as well as to put in place a tighter monitoring system so any similar outage will be discovered sooner, will be put into place today.

The total outage was approximately 20 minutes. We regret the inconvenience and understand there is no worse time to have an outage, of any kind, than at noon on a workday. If you'd like further information or to discuss anything additionally please respond to this message and it will be directed to my attention.
Regards,

Jane Doe, CEO
ABC Web Host

Four Reasons Why the ABC Web Host Outage Apology E-Mail Just Doesn't Work

1. It's been sent to too many or the wrong people. If you have to explain to me why I am receiving the e-mail, should you be sending it to me?

2. The tone is off-putting. When I read phrasings such as "assessed the circumstances around the db connectivity issues" and "admitted culpability in this issue," I feel like a hyper-technical lawyer is writing to me. I certainly don’t get a warm, fuzzy, apologized-to feeling from the wording in this e-mail.

3. The empathy is buried in the last paragraph: "We ... understand there is no worse time to have an outage, of any kind, than at noon on a workday." If you really feel my pain, let me know up front.

4. I can't e-mail the CEO directly. How sorry can CEO Jane Doe be about the outage if my e-mail will merely be "directed to" her attention?

My Rewrite of the Outage Apology E-mail

Subject: Apologies for May 20 service outage

Dear ABC Web Host Clients,

We'd like to follow up on and apologize for last Wednesday’s brief service outage. We regret the inconvenience and understand there is no worse time to have an outage than at noon on a workday.

Here's why the outage occurred. The server farm we use misconfigured a block of IP addresses. This error went undetected until we ran out of IP addresses and requested a new block. The new block was configured correctly, which revealed the issue. Sites with the problematic configuration suffered the outage. XYZ Server Farm, Inc. (the world-class service we employ to host our servers) has taken responsibility for this misconfiguration. They have assured us that today they will put a tighter monitoring system in place, so they can discover outages sooner. We're really sorry your site was down. If you’d like more information or want to discuss this, please contact me directly at JaneDoe@ABCWebHost.com and 800-555-1234.
Regards,

Jane Doe, CEO
ABC Web Host

Four Strategies for Writing an Apology That Soothes Customers' Feelings and Builds Rapport

1. Use the B.L.U.F. principle. Put the bottom line up front. The purpose of this e-mail is to apologize, so I did so in the first sentence.

2. Use concrete, familiar words. I omitted waffle words like "apparently" and "approximately." I wrote that XYZ Server Farm had "taken responsibility" instead of "admitted culpability." After all, your apology can’t do much good if people don’t understand what you’re saying or think you are browbeating them with your vocabulary.

3. Use personal pronouns. I made my apology rich in words like "we," "us," "me," and "you." These personal pronouns support the feeling the apology is coming from a person who is sorry to one who was wronged. The personal pronouns convey that feeling: “we are responsible for and sorry for what happened to you."

4. Write in active voice. Writing in active voice makes very clear who did or will do what. ABC Web Host wrote, in passive voice, "…any similar outage will be discovered sooner …" Here's my active voice version: "…so they can discover outages sooner."

All companies make mistakes. But if you follow up with customers by sending a well-written, sincere apology, you can often undo the damage and strengthen your bond to your customers, a bond you'll hope is strong the next time you need to apologize.



Topics: Customer Experience, People Management, Technology, Site Operations, Learning & Development

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Rose Polchin — 5:36PM on Sep 8, 2011

Thanks Leslie for insightful, actionable, impactful advice and guidelines.

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