Service operators generally suck at saying they’re sorry. I should know, I’ve had to do it plenty of times and it’s always hard. There’s really never a great way to say it, but there sure are plenty of terrible ways.

One of the worst stock dummies that even I have resorted to in a moment of weakness is this terrible non-apology: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused”. Oh please. Let’s break down why it’s bad:

“We apologize”
You say “I apologize” to someone when you bump into them on the subway, not if you spill your coffee all over them. Then you’re “really, really sorry!”. If your service is important to your users, it’s a lot more like spilling coffee all over them than it is like bumping into them when you go down.

Also, you should find someone willing to take personal responsibility. Even if it’s not directly their fault. There’s always someone who’s in charge, someone who stops the buck. Hiding behind a faceless “we” is weak.

“Any inconvenience”
First of all, if I depend on a service and can’t get to it, it’s not an inconvenience. It might bloody very well be a full-on crisis. An inconvenience is when I can’t get my flavor of milkshake at Potbelly’s or if there’s line at the grocery store. This ain’t that.

Using the word “any” makes it even worse. It’s implying that you don’t really care what bucket my frustrations fit in. Every feeling I have about this will apparently fit the “inconvenience” header. Wrong.

“This may have caused”
Again, this is slighting the very real experience that I am actually having right now. If this didn’t affect me, you don’t really need to say you’re sorry. If it did affect me, it didn’t “may have caused”. It caused! Stop wavering.

So what’s the perfect way to say that you’re sorry? Well, if I could come up with such a generic way, then it would probably sound pretty hollow pretty fast. There’s just no relying on a stock answer for these situations, but I’ve found the number #1 principle that helps me: How would I feel about it?

The most important part of saying you’re sorry is to project some real empathy. If you can’t put yourself in your users’ shoes, then it’s going to out wrong. So I try to pick a tone that’s proportional to how I would feel about the outage. Which is very situational depending on the length of time, the response, the updates, etc.

Oh, one more thing. Never, ever call an outage an “availability event”.