10 Tips for Writing a Corporate Apology Letter


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So you messed up. How do you explain your company's misstep to the public? This short document will give you several reasons why you should write an apology letter, and offer suggestions to help you write a good one. Companies are composed of people, and people make mistakes. It's often easy to forget: companies – even the world’s best ones – can get it wrong sometimes. And their mistakes will be there for all to see, because nowadays social media like Facebook and Twitter enable customers to quickly and easily make their voices heard, loud and clear. The proper thing to do then is not to sweep such a “negative” situation under the rug. Instead, you should analyze it, reflect upon it, address the complaints, and issue a public written apology. And you should do this swiftly, do not wait long to do so. Should you find yourself in such a situation, here’s a brief guide for writing a sincere corporate apology letter.

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10 Tips for Writing a Corporate Apology Letter

  1. 1. How to write a sincere corporate apology Introduction So you messed up. How do you explain your company's misstep to the public? This short document will give you several reasons why you should write an apology letter, and offer suggestions to help you write a good one. Companies are composed of people, and people make mistakes. It's often easy to forget: companies – even the world’s best ones – can get it wrong sometimes. And their mistakes will be there for all to see, because nowadays social media like Facebook and Twitter enable customers to quickly and easily make their voices heard, loud and clear. The proper thing to do then is not to sweep such a “negative” situation under the rug. Instead, you should analyze it, reflect upon it, address the complaints, and issue a public written apology. And you should do this swiftly, do not wait long to do so. Should you find yourself in such a situation, here’s a brief guide for writing a sincere corporate apology letter. Rather than dwell on the mistake, however, you should take quick action to remedy the problem. An effective letter of apology is an important part of that process and can help turn "lemons into lemonade" and actually improve customer relationships. TIMING. Write the apology letter as soon as you get the full facts in front of you. ACTIONS. Rather than focusing on the damage you have caused, write about things you will do to rectify the situation. BRIEF. Keep your apology letter short and to the point. SINCERITY. No one wants to read overly dramatic language. Choose your words carefully and express yourself clearly and simply. And above all, be honest. TONE. Remember that you are trying to rebuild a damaged relationship. Don’t be too defensive, as this will add to the problem. BLAME. Take responsibility for what happened. Do not blame customers in any way. FOLLOW UP. Try to set up a time when you can apologize in person, then back up your apology with considerate behavior in the future. Talk about your next steps. Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  2. 2. Structure of a sincere corporate apology letter Knowing how, when, and why to issue a sincere apology can make the difference between a public-relations hiccup that can be smoothed over, and a firestorm that could end up dragging your company into the muck. An honest and sincere apology is one of the best tools to save your reputation. Here are some tips on crafting a sincere apology letter. Make it swift, personal and authentic The format of the apology depends on the relationship you have with the client or customer, but most apologies are issued via writing, whether it is in an e-mail, a formal letter, or a message on a company website. This is not the time for form letters, re-used templates or pre-recorded messages. You should be personalizing it as much as possible to describe the exact nature of the incident. That way, the recipient will not feel like a nameless, faceless cog in the wheel but rather, will appreciate that someone took the time to find out what happened. This ties in directly with the precept to be authentic and sincere. You can engage the recipient further by asking them to accept your apology. Some companies even go an extra step and follow up an apology letter with a phone call or e-mail to check back. The worst thing you can do is to wait too long and let your customers get angrier – and tell friends about it, or recruit other customers to support “the cause” via social media. Therefore, you should be sending out an apology as close to the incident as possible to minimize damage, preferable within hours or at most within a day since the controversy arose. That way the bad feelings won't be able to foment or go viral in any way. Apologize right away A letter of apology without an apology is really just an excuse. Make sure you express your crucial words of apology at the beginning of your letter. Some companies are averse to issuing apologies or even using the word "sorry" because they worry about implicating themselves in guilt or admittance. But erring on Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  3. 3. the side of caution and issuing a prompt apology can save you headaches down the road. As long as you apologize well, it doesn't mean you are admitting guilt. The really important thing to recognize about apologies is that they are a very smart thing to issue. In order for the client or perspective customer to get over the bad feelings, we have to issue the apology. It helps the other person release their anger about it. An apology letter should open with a salutation and a warm greeting, which helps humanize your company image. Then you need to write a paragraph which includes the words "sorry," or "regret" at some point to really hammer the point of the letter home. You have to have those words so it can be a true apology. In the cases were someone requests and apology that you don't agree is deserved, you're left with two options, you have a decision to make. You can both take the high road and smooth over the bump in the relationship, or you hold your ground, defend your action, but know that problems will probably persist. It’s better to be humble. Acknowledge what happened Be specific about what happened and be clear about what you’re sorry for. Then, you should acknowledge the issue you're responding to straight on without hedging too much. What matters is coming clean right away, being a grown up. The most important thing is to own up to own up to the mistake or to acknowledge the issue which the customers feel strongly about, so you can acknowledge the issue without immediately getting into the gritty details of what went wrong. You're taking the blame for what happened and you want to show you want to make things (even) better. This will show that you are being sincere. It will also provide reassurance to the offended party that you won’t do it again. (You won’t, will you?) Talk frankly and transparently about what you will do about it Whatever form your apology takes, you need to tell the recipient what corrective action you will take. It could be something as simple as promising better communication or something as elaborate as free gifts. Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  4. 4. Avoid putting the blame on the customer, even implicitly: for instance, don't say, "You didn't order the product correctly," but instead say, "Sorry for the confusion over the product order process." Talking about what corrective action you plan on taking lets the customer know you are aware of their concerns and want to improve. Of course, even the best, timeliest apologies might be nothing more than a learning experience for next time. You have to be willing to accept the other person may not forgive you. Therefore, always ask how you can make things better, ask them for suggestions. Conclude End the letter on a positive note and express your openness to discuss what happened. Also, summarize the next steps that will be taken. What to avoid when writing an apology Sincerity is the key to writing a good apology letter, and if you don't have that then your missive will come across as more of a letter of obligation. If you can't drum up sincerity or actual apologetic feelings, you should at least know what to avoid. If you don't want to offer someone a backhanded apology, take this at heart: No “But” Excuses Once you've written your apology, try to avoid the temptation of adding the "but" paragraphs. While you may think you're just trying to explain the circumstances that contributed to your poor behavior, it actually sounds as though you are trying to shift the blame away from yourself and avoid taking responsibility for your actions. No "If", "May", "Might" If you're apologizing for something, you probably know what you did and the effect it had. If you preface the consequences of your behavior with "if" you question the necessity of the apology. Don’t say "I'm sorry if I made you upset." That makes it sound as though victim had a choice in their emotions, and was overly sensitive. Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  5. 5. No Generalizations Always be specific about the behavior for which you are apologizing. If you aren't specific, the recipient won't know if you're aware of what you're apologizing for. No "That You" Never apologize for the way someone feels; it makes it sound like their response to your behavior requires the apology, rather than your behavior itself. Avoid phrases like "I'm sorry that you were offended" or "I'm sorry that you feel that way." The Word "Apologize" Avoid anything that causes distance between your words and the actual sentiment. Don't say "I'd like to apologize," just say "I'm sorry." It sounds more sincere. Example: Airline apologizes for significant flight delay Dear Mr Jones, On behalf of our airline, I would like to apologize to you for the inconvenience, frustration and cost that our delays caused you on {date}. You deserve smooth, uncomplicated service when you fly with us, and the wait that you were put through was unacceptable. I believe you deserve an explanation for the confusion. {Explanation of what went wrong with the plane/baggage/flight}. I'm sure you know that human error and technical problems are aspects of any large business, but that does not change the fact that your schedules and plans were irreparably altered. We have fixed the problem by {how we resolved issue} and expect no further issues in this area. I appreciate your continued business with us and apologize once again for this unfortunate event. Sincerely, {Name} Example: Apple CEO apologizes about Apple Maps app failure http://www.apple.com/letter-from-tim-cook-on-maps/ Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  6. 6. Here's Tim Cook's letter and our analysis of it: To our customers, At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers. With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better. Opener: It's good, but not great. Note the pronoun "we" instead of "I," and "our customers" instead of "you." He's distancing himself from the product failure, and not taking full responsibility for it. This weakens Cook's argument. Saying "I am extremely sorry," and "I am doing everything we can for you," would be more direct and personal. We launched Maps initially with the first version of iOS. As time progressed, we wanted to provide our customers with even better Maps including features such as turn-by-turn directions, voice integration, Flyover and vector-based maps. In order to do this, we had to create a new version of Maps from the ground up. Explanation: OK, the paragraph confronts the reality of what went wrong and we sort of get a sense for how and why Apple messed up, but why doesn't Cook just state the obvious: 'We wanted to do too much.' Users would appreciate that kind of straightforward honesty. Like the preceding sentences, it lacks personal conviction and – importantly – twists the mistake into a promotion of product features. There are already more than 100 million iOS devices using the new Apple Maps, with more and more joining us every day. In just over a week, iOS users with the new Maps have already searched for nearly half a billion locations. The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get and we greatly appreciate all of the feedback we have received from you. Gratitude: Essentially, Cook is saying 'Don't give up on us!' And 'We're responding to your feedback!' But he's also taking the opportunity to spin the failure into a rollout success story. And that insincerity is obvious to anyone who's tried Apple Maps and had a bad experience (or just read his letter). While we're improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest, and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app. Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  7. 7. you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard. Closer: This is the best part of Cook's letter. He knows customers will be downloading other map apps and figuring out hacks to avoid using the native Maps app so he's helping them out. Stating the obvious – even if it means directing users to Apple Maps arch rival Google – is a positive. (He's also slyly making readers aware of an array of options, so they don't alljump ship to Google Maps at once.) Example: Buffer CEO apologizes because of a privacy breach http://open.bufferapp.com/buffer-has-been-hacked-here-is-whats-going-on/ Buffer security breach has been resolved – here is what you need to know Dear Buffer Friends, I wanted to post a quick update and apologize for the awful experience we’ve caused many of you on your weekend. Buffer was hacked around 2 hours ago, and many of you may have experienced spam posts sent from you via Buffer. I can only understand how angry and disappointed you must be right now. Not everyone who has signed up for Buffer has been affected, but you may want to check on your accounts. We’re working hard to fix this problem right now and we’re expecting to have everything back to normal shortly. I am incredibly sorry this has happened and affected you and your company. We’re working around the clock right now to get this resolved. We’re posting continual updates on the Buffer Facebook page and the Buffer Twitter page to keep you in the loop on everything.The best steps for you to take right now are posted there too. If you have any questions at all, please ask in the comments below or email me at privacy@bufferapp.com. Understandably, a lot of people have emailed us, so we might take a short while to get back to everyone, but we will respond to every single email. Sincerely, Joel Gascoigne, CEO, BufferApp Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  8. 8. Example: Netflix CEO apologizes about price changes http://blog.netflix.com/2011/09/explanation-and-some-reflections.html An Explanation and Some Reflections I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation. It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. I’ll try to explain how this happened. For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly. When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong. In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success. We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication. Inside Netflix I say, “Actions speak louder than words,” and we should just keep improving our service. But now I see that given the huge changes we have been recently making, I should have personally given a full justification to our members of why we are separating DVD and streaming, and charging for both. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but communicating openly with our members about it would have been the right thing to do. So here is what we are doing and why: Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD, plus lots of TV series. We want to advertise the breadth of our incredible DVD offering so that as many people as possible know it still exists, and it is Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be
  9. 9. a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection on DVD. DVD by mail may not last forever, but we want it to last as long as possible. I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We feel we need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolve, without having to maintain compatibility with our DVD by mail service. So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). Members who subscribe to both services will have two entries on their credit card statements, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as the current charges. Some members will likely feel that we shouldn’t split the businesses, and that we shouldn’t rename our DVD by mail service. Our view is with this split of the businesses, we will be better at streaming, and we will be better at DVD by mail. It is possible we are moving too fast – it is hard to say. But going forward, Qwikster will continue to run the best DVD by mail service ever, throughout the United States. Netflix will offer the best streaming service for TV shows and movies, hopefully on a global basis. The additional streaming content we have coming in the next few months is substantial, and we are always working to improve our service further. I want to acknowledge and thank our many members that stuck with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, that we treated thoughtlessly. Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions. Respectfully yours, Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix Paul Van Cotthem | paul@turnleaf.be | www.turnleaf.be