When things go awry, what’s your first instinct? To cover up? To pass the buck? To dole out some cash? Or to come clean with a sincere apology?
Recent research from the Ombudsman shows that to keep your customers happy, ‘sorry’ is the one word people really want to hear. This reminded us of our own research. Back in 2012 we surveyed 2,000 people about the impact writing alone had on the way customers think about a company. To do it, we blind-tested messages from three major airlines – all apologising for a cancelled flight and giving refund instructions. We tested these alongside a made-up sample from us. Then we asked how people felt. We found that airlines could have increased retention by an average of 12 per cent, simply by writing more naturally.
So, how do you do it? If, like so many businesses, you’re struggling to pen a sincere apology, here are five tips to help you hit the right note.
- Think about how your readers feel, not how you feel
Remember the BP oil spill back in 2010? It was never going to be good for BP’s PR, but it certainly didn’t help when their CEO gave a statement saying, ‘There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do; I’d like my life back.’ He forgot that this story wasn’t meant to be about him. It was meant to be about BP saying sorry and explaining how they’d begin to put things right.
Of course, none of us really like admitting our mistakes. But no matter how awkward you might feel, try and push any instincts not to apologise to one side. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and think about how they’re feeling instead. Gallup research shows that your customers will genuinely like you more for it.
- Mean it
It sounds obvious, but your readers will spot it a mile off if you don’t. That means no resorting to your childhood tactic of just repeating any apology your mum gave you, parrot-fashion. Everyone could tell you didn’t mean it back then, and they’ll be able to tell now.
- Really mean it
Don’t use linguistic tricks to squirm your way out of sincerity. That means no hiding behind passive language. How many times have we heard politicians say ‘mistakes were made’, instead of the active ‘I made a mistake’?
If your apology includes an ‘if’, it’s probably not that sincere, either. ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ suggests that it’s somehow the reader’s fault that they were oversensitive enough to take offence. If you’re truly sorry, take responsibility – without passing the buck to anyone else.
- Admit it
If you’ve made a mistake, it’s best to acknowledge exactly what it is you’ve done wrong. Rupert Murdoch infamously apologised in all the national papers for ‘serious wrongdoing that occurred’. Yet he failed to mention phone hacking anywhere. If you want your customers to respect and accept your apology, be honest.
- Don’t spin it
You’re apologising, not writing a new PR campaign. So don’t make your apology sound like a press release. Tesco fell foul of this during the horsemeat scandal with an overly copywritten apology that neatly shifted blame away from them and on to ‘the whole food industry’. Resist the urge to sugar-coat, too. If you’ve got some good news to share, your readers will probably be in a better mindset to receive the news in a separate message.
Hang on, won’t saying ‘sorry’ land my business in legal hot water?
This is the argument many of our clients give for not wanting to say sorry. But there’s actually lots of research to show that, far from increasing lawsuits, organisations and individuals who apologise tend to reduce their chance of ending up in court. In fact, when the University of Michigan health system allowed their doctors and nurses to say sorry if things went wrong, their legal expenses dropped by almost 50 per cent.
Often, far from admitting liability, this kind of apology simply shows that we’re human. And when you’re trying to build bridges, a bit of empathy really does go a long way.
So, no more excuses. If you need to say sorry, say it. Your customers will thank you for it.
Hannah Moffatt is a writer and trainer at language consultancy, The Writer. This basically means she’s a serial word nerd. Over the last two years she’s travelled the globe, running workshops with managers, marketers, accountants, regulators, salespeople and lawyers as part of The Writer’s mission to rid the business world of corporate nonsense.
In her previous writing life, Hannah helped charities raise funds, graduates find jobs and M&S sell just about anything on their website.