‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’

I wouldn’t usually open an article by quoting Elton John. I am today, but only so I can immediately disagree with him. That’s because I think sorry is actually one of the easiest words. Allow me to demonstrate: ‘I’m sorry’. There, simple.

Not only is it simple, it’s sincere. In fact, sorry is the most sincere word you can use to apologise. You can add ‘really’ or ‘extremely’. But no other word says sorry better than sorry.

No regrets
Given the power of the word sorry, I’m amazed that businesses and governments seem to willfully avoid it. Like this:
‘We sincerely regret that this incident occurred.’

Ah, regret. Nothing says ‘I’m being forced to write this’ than regret. This line could have been taken from a letter about a cancelled flight or an incorrect bill. In fact it was issued by the controller of public accounts in Texas, when it was revealed that the names and social security numbers of 3.5 million people had been published on their website. A good time to use the s-word, you’d think.

Customer communication...how to get it right

When I’ve asked people in writing workshops why they use regret instead of sorry, the usual defence is that it sounds more appropriate (i.e. formal) in a letter. In the 1940s, maybe. But these days it just sounds reluctant and stuffy.

I’ve also heard the argument that regret avoids liability, whereas sorry will land you in court. I won’t go into the legal technicalities, suffice to say that it’s very hard to get sued for saying sorry in a customer service letter. And besides, there’s a simpler way to solve this dilemma: if you’ve made a mistake (you the individual or you the company), you should apologise. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you shouldn’t apologise. And if you’re not sure, check with someone who is. Just don’t fob your customer off with regret.

Empty apologies
There’s one apology commuters hear all the time: ‘Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused.’ The word apologies is more sincere than regret. Just. But this line still doesn’t sound sincere. Not least because it’s become the standard announcement for pretty much any company whose job it is to get you from A to B. There is only one word that can make up for this lacklustre apology. And I think you know what that word is.

The First Word’s checklist for saying sorry

Here’s some sound advice for saying sorry like you mean it, starting with a rather contrary rule.

1. You don’t always have to say sorry (bear with us on this one)
A recent Channel 4 documentary, Undercover Bosses, gave us a behind the scenes look at nPower’s call centre in Durham. Inside, a sign on the wall read: ‘Say sorry to show empathy’. As a result, the teams at nPower’s call centre say sorry to placate angry customers, regardless of whether they deserve an apology or not. Which, of course, undermines their apology altogether.

Empathy is not a way to say sorry. It’s a way to show you understand how the customer feels. Like this:
‘I can understand your frustration about…’
‘I realise how distressing this has been for you…’
‘I was sorry to hear…’

You can use the word sorry to express empathy, as in the last example. But that doesn’t make it an apology.

Top tip. Before you write anything, first of all decide whether the customer deserves an apology. If they do, offer a sincere and unequivocal apology. If they don’t, show empathy.

2. Be upfront
When someone feels they deserve an apology, they want to see one straightaway. And if they don’t, they’ll usually skip through the text until they do. Which means there’s no point trying to defend the mistake before you’ve said sorry. You’ll only make your customer more angry.

Top tip. Deal with the emotion first by saying sorry. Then move onto the rational bit – the explanation.

3. Be specific
There’s nothing more annoying than an apology that reads like a standard response. So if a customer writes this:

‘My family and I flew with you to Barcelona on August 12th, where you managed to lose our checked-in luggage. It then took you a full four days to recover it. I have three sons and your mistake cost us a day of our holiday because we had to go and buy new clothes for them. That’s not to mention the considerable stress the whole incident caused to the start of our trip to Spain.’

It would be insensitive to write this:
‘I regret you were dissatisfied with the recent flight you took with us.’

This apology is bound to fall flat because it lacks any specific details. It sounds cut-and-paste.

Compare it with this response:
‘I am very sorry we lost your bags when you flew with us to Barcelona recently. I understand how frustrating and stressful this must have been, especially as you had to spend a day of your holiday buying clothes for your family.’

Top tip. Be specific by reflecting back what’s important to the customer.
At least you don’t have to apologise for this…

It’s not easy having to apologise to customers all the time, especially when you personally haven’t done anything wrong. So the next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself, watch this. It’s possibly the most (in)famous public apology in history, by one of the greatest public speakers of all time. It’s a masterclass in the art of saying sorry. It’s also a reminder to the rest of us that, when we apologise, at least we don’t have to do it on TV. In front of millions. About our sex life.
Take it away, Bill.

By Neil Martin, Creative Director, The First Word
www.thefirstword.co.uk

Business writing which improves your customer experience

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