How to write an apology

Why is complaints-handling so important? Here’s some of the latest thinking:

By talking back when they believe they have not received their money’s worth, consumers give businesses a chance to correct the problem and restore goodwill. Experience shows that consumers who complain continue to buy the products they complain about, if the complaint was resolved fairly.

Research into complaint behaviour reveals that only a fraction of dissatisfied consumers complains and, thereby, enables the company to correct the problem.

There is evidence that some consumers do not complain because they are skeptical about business’s willingness/ability to resolve disputes. They simply withdraw their patronage and criticise the company or the product to others.

Careful complaint management can save business unwanted costs. For example, negative word-of-mouth publicity from dissatisfied consumers means lost revenue and necessitates additional investment in advertising.

Source: The Ideal Customer & Their Behaviors, February 27, 2011

So you know that effective complaints handling can be a goldmine, because it generates greater loyalty than before. But how do you access the goldmine?

Here’s my thinking

Count to 10 and then:

  1. ‘Listen’ carefully to the problem. Ignore (as best you can) any foul language, insults or threats. Just because the complainant is behaving like a ^&{7aef4e5c6853be3cc4d057a807069aa9f2ae8fd184061eb63ea53e14fedec9bd}$, doesn’t mean you can.
  1. Agree with the truth in the complaint and be sure to stick to the facts when responding. You should be as specific as possible and your apology should be focused on the particular event – don’t expand the apology by linking it to any other issues aside from the issue/offence at hand.
  1. Where the client is already enraged, acknowledge the hurt or damage caused. Show that you understand the situation and legitimise the complainant’s reaction. Make sure the apology conveys that you recognise not only why but how much the person was injured by your actions.

Saying ‘I know you were disappointed’ is not the same ‘I know how incredibly insulted and angry you were…’

  1. If the client is furious with you personally, take responsibility for the situation. Without offering excuses, let them know that you understand that the event and your actions did cause them harm.

Say ‘I’m sorry I was rude’, not ‘I’m sorry if I was rude’. ‘Sorry if’ is one of those potentially costly qualifiers that can turn a good apology into a really bad one, so be careful. Words really matter. ‘I apologise for insulting you’ is much better than ‘I apologise if what I said seemed insulting or offensive’.

  1. If you agree that there was a mistake or error, fix it immediately or do what you can to satisfy the client. BUT! For a more complex issue, research the problem before you make any decisions. Find out what actually happened.

A nice touch:

Before things are resolved, while you’re still investigating, drop the person a line to say…Just a quick note to let you know that my team leader and I are looking into this matter. I am sorry to hear that you have not been getting the service you deserve. I will deal with this urgently for you.

  1. Re-educate the client when necessary. Help the client to understand the process now, to guard against future misunderstandings or similar problems. Then, explain your action plan to the customer.
  1. Give the client a choice of possible resolutions. How can you make this right? Negotiate a way that works for both of you. Sometimes just fixing the problem is sufficient. At other times the client is looking for something else.

Tact and diplomacy are skills centred on an understanding of other people and being sensitive to their opinions, beliefs, ideas and feelings. Together, they enable you to assert your ideas or opinions without causing any offence.

Effective use of the two skills means responding so as to avoid bad feelings or awkwardness, while reflecting your ideas and feelings (or, to be more accurate, your company’s position) back in a well-meaning fashion.

Please note: It’s best not to use writing as a stage for conflict, because it’s a poor channel for confrontation. Phone calls and face-to-face meetings are more effective. But if you have to put the issue in writing, use my tips.