01/05/2014

By Claire Wilkinson, writer and trainer at The Writer, the UK’s largest language consultancy

I’d like to say I’m sorry. But I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to say a breakdown in the contract between reader and writer has occurred. You satisfied?

Well, if you’re one of the 44% of people who took part in a recent study into customer complaints, the answer is probably a big fat ‘no’. They told the Ombudsman’s Services’ Consumer Action Monitor that they’d be happy if a company just said sorry when things went pear-shaped. End of story. No escalations, no endless email chains and no letters fired off to the nationals signed Outraged, Lancashire.

‘What are you thinking?!? They’ll sue us if we say we’re sorry,’ is the usual refrain. Not according to the Ombudsman. Their research found that only 27% of people think that companies should cough up after they’ve cocked up. What’s more, it suggests that a sound apology can go a long way to repairing broken bridges; half the people surveyed said that they thought better of companies who handled complaints well.

The problem is that it’s easier said than done. At The Writer, we often find that while saying sorry in person is pretty straightforward, doing it on paper is surprisingly difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are five practical tips to help you get more heartfelt.

1. Scrap the clichés
Write a list of every stock phrase you can think of. Then bin it. You know the worst offenders already: we regret to inform you; unforeseen circumstances; events beyond our control. We trot them out like boring relatives at a wedding. And just like tedious attendees, no one pays a blind bit of notice of them. They talk, we turn off.

2. Apology versus sorry
There’s a big difference between being sorry and offering an apology. An apology is an act. You can give one without feeling a shred of remorse. Whereas sorry is a state. It suggests empathy, regret and honesty. It’s always more powerful. So don’t be afraid to use it.

3. Make it personal
As far as the person complaining is concerned, you represent the company you work for. So use personal pronouns like ‘I’ or ‘we’ instead of ‘the company’ when you say you’re sorry. It’ll make all the difference between whether people believe you or not.

4. Make it yours
‘The ministerial code has been found to be breached,’ said Liam Fox during his resignation speech. But breached by whom? Definitely not by Liam. This is a prime example of someone using the passive voice to try and dodge a bullet. But it doesn’t really work. It confuses the reader and makes the writer seem, well, a bit shifty. Stick to the active voice by making it clear who’s doing what. So say ‘I made a mistake’ instead of ‘mistakes were made’. You’ll score big points on the sincerity scale.

5. Tell me why
Keep people in the loop and they’ll be less inclined to keep coming back. So don’t just tell them what went wrong; tell them why it happened. No concrete reason you can put your finger on? Tell them that, then. They’ll know that you’ve done your best by them, and they won’t feel like you’re keeping them in the dark deliberately.

So that’s how it works in theory. But does something stop your people from doing it in practice? Plenty of things get in the way. Processes, people, crises of confidence, and misconceptions about what counts as professional language (and what doesn’t).

At The Writer, we help all kinds of companies tackle customer complaints. So if you’d like some help with saying sorry, there’s no need to suffer in silence. Just ask.