3 keys to apologizing to your customers

From a minor product flaw to a major data breach, some problem is bound to hurt your organization. Here’s what to do and not to do in writing your mea culpa.

How to write an apology

Apologizing is more than just saying “sorry.”

To analyze a real-world example, let’s consider the response below from a company that has experienced a data breach:

Overnight we discovered a potential breach of some of our customer data stored on ***** (the company used to manage our email list) which may have led to some customer names and email addresses being accessed.

Our security team is aware of the issue and we are currently investigating to assess how many email addresses have in fact been accessed, but I’m writing to warn you now that it is possible that yours was among them.

The only personal data of yours we store is your name and email address, and, after rigorous investigation of our systems, no other personal data of any sort has been compromised.

As soon as we became aware of the potential breach we suspended access to *****, and began working to understand exactly which email addresses have been accessed, and how exactly these people managed to get into our ***** account.

The practical impact of this is likely to be that you receive a few more spam emails than you usually do. For almost everyone, especially those using modern email systems like Gmail, Yahoo and Office 365, those spam emails are likely to just end up in your spam folder and never see the light of day.

Obviously that doesn’t make this ok—it’s not ok and we’re extremely upset about it—but I hope the additional context is helpful.

Even if you are using a modern email system with a good spam filter, please be especially vigilant over the next few days. So far we’ve seen two types of spam email being sent—one purporting to be from ***** and asking you to update your billing details, and the other claiming to be from the UK government asking for personal details to check whether you are due a tax refund.

Both of these are very convincing, so please do be careful, and don’t click any links in any email unless you’re sure they’re valid. It’s very easy to get caught out.

I’m incredibly sorry that this has happened, and for the stress and inconvenience it will no doubt have caused.

Please bear with us while we get to the bottom of it, and if you have any questions or concerns please just respond to this email.

Great, isn’t it? Here are three things to do when you need to smooth things over after a screwup:

1. Ditch your first paragraph.

When faced with a difficult message, it’s tempting to try to soften the reader up before you hit them with the cold, hard facts of your failure. Notice, instead, how this writer gets straight in there with this opening line:

Overnight we discovered a potential breach of some of our customer data…

No bushes being beaten around here. A lesser organization would have started an email like this with a load of mealy-mouthed corporate chest-beating along the lines of:

At GloboWidget, our customers are at the heart of everything we do. What is more, our success is dependent on maintaining our customers’ trust in our business, which is why we are committed to upholding the integrity of the data we hold on you. As part of this commitment, I am writing to inform you that…

Ugh! If you’re crafting a tricky message and your first paragraph looks like that, ditch it now. Your reader doesn’t have time for a load of bland, we-focused corporate throat-clearing—and they can sense the inevitable being delayed.

So, cut to the chase. Especially if, as in this case, you need your reader to take steps to minimize the harm you’ve caused.

2. Write like a human being, not a robot.

The response posted above is just so beautifully human. You get a real sense of a living, breathing human being behind the words. This extract, for example, paints a picture of real-life, flesh-and-blood people taking action (including, it has to be said, the hackers):

As soon as we became aware of the potential breach we suspended access to *****, and began working to understand exactly which email addresses have been accessed, and how exactly these people managed to get into our ***** account.

Uneasy with delivering a tricky message, our GloboWidget writer would have drained the life out of a passage such as this by stuffing it full of passive verbs and abstract nouns, like this:

On discovery of the potential breach, access to ***** was suspended and immediate investigations were instigated to facilitate the identification of the email addresses that had been impacted, and how the aforementioned accounts had been accessed.

Notice how, completely devoid of people this bloodless, lifeless, gutless—and entirely typical—bit of prose is?

Discovery of the breach happens. Investigations are instigated. Identification of email addresses is facilitated. But no actual human being is shown doing anything at all. The message? “Not our fault, mate.”

It’s hard to fall in love with something so impersonal, don’t you agree?

Ah, I hear you say, but isn’t GloboWidget’s style more professional? Wouldn’t the style of the original be considered insultingly familiar in a business environment? Well, professionals are people too.

3. Sorry seems to be the hardest word? Get over it.

Don’t you love the way the company accepted the blame for the breach? The openness of the mea culpa is combined with the writer’s acknowledgement that the customer is entitled to feel peeved by what’s happened:

I’m incredibly sorry that this has happened, and for the stress and inconvenience it will no doubt have caused.

Isn’t this apology all the more genuine for its eschewing of that most unapologetic of words, “apology”?

No doubt our GloboWidget writer would have tried to wriggle out of taking responsibility with:

Apologies for any inconvenience this might have caused.

Note, too, the hedginess of “any” and “might,” the suggestion being that such apologies are, in all likelihood, unnecessary. Possible other subtext? You, the customer, are the cause of the inconvenience.

Have you received any good (or bad) examples of business writing? If so, share them in the comments below.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie. Follow her on Twitter @DorisandBertie. A version of this article originally appeared on the Doris and Bertie website.

COMMENT

2 Responses to “3 keys to apologizing to your customers”

Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.