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:
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.
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”.
Josh Catoneon 13 Jan 09
I won’t say my intention here isn’t to be an ass - because on some level I am sure that it is (hey, just being honest). But mostly, I just thought it was funny to compare this post to the language used when 37signals suffered and outage due to a problem at Rackspace (I can’t remember how long ago this was - awhile, though):
“We deeply apologize for any inconveniences this may have caused.”
JFon 13 Jan 09
Josh: Yup, we’re guilty too. Trying to be less guilty moving forward.
Josh Catoneon 13 Jan 09
Just one more thing—I guess you did sort of acknowledge having used that in the past (though my link was to a Jason post), and then broke down why it was wrong for you to say.
I just thought it was funny that I remembered 37signals using this same language in the past that you now find so reprehensible. Maybe not that funny. I dunno. I need a nap.
Serious question: What WOULD be a better way to communicate with customers after downtime in your opinion? You didn’t offer and alternatives. I know you said stock responses should never be used… but I’d love to see some examples of what you think works..
Dan Gebhardton 13 Jan 09
I’d recommend using a website monitoring service (we use Pingdom) to provide public accountability for your uptime. This not only proves that uptime is as important to you as it is to your customers, it can also help customers see any particular outage in the context of your overall service record.
Garyon 13 Jan 09
Well said – My wife calls them non-apology apologies. “We’re sorry IF we may have caused you any pain”. These things reek of insincerity.
It’s all about accountability…
Steven Fisheron 13 Jan 09
I think part of the problem is the apology itself is going to get people madder. Everyone wants to know you had a problem and fixed it. They want to know what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again.
But by the time you’ve given all the information - and you’d better give all of it - people are divided into three groups: those who get it, those who are angry but will accept an apology, and those who are angry and will get angrier when you apologize to them. The perceive it as you taking away their right to be angry, and that’s just going to make them madder.
“We know you’re probably angry about this, and we’re working to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” is probably a better outline than “Sorry, sorry…”
BJ Neilsenon 13 Jan 09
Thing is, apologies are bogus anyways. No matter what. Unfortunately, apologies are the defacto way to remove yourself from the consequence of responsibility for the given action. You say your sorry, and all of a sudden the responsibility is gone. I don’t buy it, in fact it drives me crazy. Here’s an example:
So I punch you in the face and break your nose. All of a sudden I realize that that was a horrible idea and I tell you “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that”. Doesn’t quite work does it. My sorry doesn’t change the fact that I just broke your nose. What I should do is offer to take responsibility for the action I just committed, which could look a number of ways. 1) You punch me to make yourself feel better, 2) I pay for all your medical bills, etc.
Accept responsibility. It’s the only usable choice.
Bob Sawyeron 13 Jan 09
Hehe, channeling George Carlin today? Nevertheless, spot-on advice we should all heed.
Nivion 13 Jan 09
I think Gary Vaynerchuk cracked the nut on apologies.
I don’t know if he actually apologizes in the video, but the learning is to personally apologize on video.
It’s easy to get mad at words on a page, no matter how well they are written. It’s hard to get mad at someone you can see, who is personally apologizing to you. See the positive responses to Gary’s “apology”.
Johnon 13 Jan 09
OK I am supposed to track down ownership so you can “feel” good? Sorry I am busy, if you ask me I will try, but as a canned response I am not going to do so, so we it is.
Apologize? OK how about this for a response, that crappy code you uploaded last week took the GD site down and now I have you and half of the company crawling up my but because you don’t know what testing looks like. Don’t buy it come look at the logs, that’s right I am tracking the changes. So if you are inconvenienced then write better code!
OK so I know am a therapist and a psychic? I don’t know what level of urgency you have, you may never have know it was down, or you could have been the jerk calling every 30 seconds while I was on a war room call trying to figure out why the server went down.
If you are truly whining about communicating generic concern over a outage, then you need therapy.
Marcus Blankenshipon 13 Jan 09
How about, “HOLY CRAP! We know we’re screwing up your life, and are working as fast as we can to fix it. We hate it when people do this to us, too…”
Mark Weisson 13 Jan 09
While a personal well thought out apology is nice. As a user I want to know when things are going to be working again. I want to know if I should go for a quick walk in the park or if I have time for some food, drinks, and then possibly a nap.
Just keep me informed so I know how to manage my time.
I think Flickr holds top honors for the best down time strategy and message. http://blogs.zdnet.com/Burnette/?p=147
ctaggon 13 Jan 09
Even worse than those is the passive aggressive response to complaint such as the one I got from Amazon a couple of weeks ago, “I’m sorry that you don’t feel we lived up to your expectations” following something they admitted was their screw-up. Way to piss off regular customer. Why is it so hard just to say, “I’m sorry we made a mistake”.
Nathan L. Wallson 13 Jan 09
@BJ Neilsen: An apology isn’t a “get out of jail free” card. If it’s wielded as such, it isn’t an apology.
A good apology accepts responsibility. It’s not scapegoating. It’s saying, “the buck stops here, I’m sorry.” You take the lumps, you fix the problem, you move on.
Jeremyon 13 Jan 09
For the ultimate in bad apologies, how about the companies that make spelling or other grammatical mistakes in their outage notices, e.g. “We apolgize for the incontinence.” That way, the statement is not only empty and trite, but it shows they couldn’t even take the time to spell check the message :)
david paulion 14 Jan 09
I personally find this post amusing coming from 37signals. Why? Not being an ass here either although it may come off that way. My company owns and uses basecamp…37signals over the years that I have been with you guys has one of the worst customer service departments or methods for handling customers. I have received more then one reply to a problem where I get some snotty reply back that offers no assistance what so ever. Personally any company that offers a product and does not have a phone number clearly able to be used by the very people paying for the product is BS. I used to not think this way but I do now.
Anyway just think it is a joke seeing a 37signals person commenting on bad customer service.
Itinerant Networkeron 14 Jan 09
Empathy’s not enough. Service providers should reveal details about why an outage happened, what they’re doing to make it not happen again, and should clearly communicate with customers (frequently) on the ETA of the outage. The most frustrating thing I hear is “we don’t have an ETR [estimated time to recovery]”. That is not acceptable in a service business – give me an ETR and then an estimate of how reliable the ETR is. This goes for even the lowest cable modem user calling $provider – the tier 1 guys should have at least some clue.
JKon 14 Jan 09
We can transfer ownership of this account to another user, but first you’ll need to verify the current owner’s name, email address and the last 6 digits of the credit card being billed.
We’re sorry for the formality of these requests, but account security is essential so we need to make sure the proper people are making the proper requests.
What’s that? Why, it’s the basecamp support rep, not helping me figure out how to change the account owner on my account after the previous owner was let go from their company!
Totally agree with David Paull and Josh Catone. You guys really need to look outside of your insular group of fanboys and realize that your products are hard to use and your customer service is awful.
Markon 14 Jan 09
I agree in general that more customer facing empathy is good. However in the case of an outage where many are affected to differing degrees, and the main point is to get as many back online as soon as possible, I really just want to know that as a help desk person (or first-level support) that you’re capable of understanding my issue and recording (or escalating it) for those who are actively trying to fix the problem. If I’m being all that affected, your half-baked or sincere apology isn’t moving us forward toward a resolution.
However, if it’s just me…then we can get all soppy about it.
Finally, I do think that IT support teams should visit service groups from companies in other industries and areas like luxury hotels, ER units, high-end retail and restaurants….in order to learn how to deal with customers and crisis.
pwbon 14 Jan 09
37s, next time you guys have an outage (if ever), can you come back and report how you communicated it? I think it would be great to get some good examples.
Charles Christolinion 14 Jan 09
I always prefer active communication when a problem comes up.
Instead of “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused”
Say “We are experiencing difficulties and are working towards a solution. Please feel free to contact us.”
This way your users know you are working towards it. And if you don’t know about the problem there is a large chance someone is going to contact you about it.
SHon 14 Jan 09
@JK, As the person who sent you that email, I’d like to apologize that transferring ownsership of your account was not a pleasant experience. Not because you’ve commented and we’re trying to save face, but because we know the process is frustrating. We take the security of your data very seriously, and that means we have to approach it with the same formality as any other high level company would.
I don’t think the language in our apology to you was disingenuous, nor was it neglecting the gravity of the situation, which is what this post is all about. If you’ve got suggestions fir our customer service, we’d love to hear it over email.
Mortenon 14 Jan 09
Kyle A. Christophersonon 14 Jan 09
Nice insight; it also started a dialogue in my head that went something like this…
“I am terribly sorry for the outage in the service that our customers experienced . I know that the vast majority of our customers depend upon our service and when it fails to perform as promised many things, if not everything, grinds to a halt as a result. I am writing to share 3 things with you.
1) I am very sorry.
2) All paying customers will receive a prorated credit on their next bill for the duration of the outage plus one day, rounded to the nearest day (6 hour outage = 2 day credit).
3) I ordered an immediate investigation into the cause of the problem. I believe we know what caused the issue and we are addressing it now, in the hope that we can radically reduce the risk of it ever happening again.
Again, I am very sorry for any and all problems this has caused and hope that you will give us a chance to re-earn your trust and continued business.”
The most important part of this kind of response is that it be given quickly and that everything in it actually be TRUE.
Markon 14 Jan 09
disclaimer: this is a general thought, not reflective of Sarah’s response
If the desire is to be less blanket approach, more transparent, real and empathetic, shouldn’t the apology or sincere sentiment always be handled on a verbal or some other personal basis?
Sarah’s comment only reminded me of how I’ve been reminded myself how certain things (generally speaking) such as apologies, condolences, arguments…are better handled in person. If nothing else, it shows an extra amount of effort was made to reach out and solve the issue. Sort of the difference of running in to someone in the subway, saying you’re “really really sorry” and then hustling off versus apologizing and at the peril of your own schedule, finding some paper towels to help this individual clean himself up of your coffee, and then insisting to let you buy him one instead of replacing your own in his presence.
Doesn’t apologizing via email or some other online method, no matter how sincere, provide the same blanket of protection as a generic “we are sorry for any inconvenience…”?
James Con 14 Jan 09
Those signs used to be all over the place on the M-25 in Surrey: “We apologise any inconvenience.” Inconvenience was sort of the default on the M-25 in any event.
Jon Mosson 14 Jan 09
Great post, and looks like one that is really going to benefit you guys too, as well us readers!
It is very timely – I’m starting some work for a client looking at exactly things like this, and this is a great help.
Using the web a lot, we are all aware of downtime, outages, etc and we have probably seen a whole load of ‘sorry’ messages. I think the big one is to offer something in return, so you DO think / feel you are getting value for money, and something to make up for your loss of value.
Iain Broomeon 14 Jan 09
Ahh, just another lazy phrase that has somehow become part of everyday language. And, unfortunately, been adopted on the web.
We have the power to stop these things and set new trends!
panics and goes to check own 404 page
Judson Collieron 14 Jan 09
Not exactly on target subject-wise, but totally worth reading on how to apologize; Hulu recently removed all the It’s Sunny in Philidelphia episodes as asked by FX: http://www.hulu.com/its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia
Gregon 14 Jan 09
Not specific to networks, but from the customer service angel: Back in the day, when i managed fast food, the policy was to “I’m sorry.” Nothing else, no excuses, no trying to convince the customer that you know how they feel, just “I’m sorry.”
If it was something we could make right, we would, if we could not, we would tell them.
Tim Jahnon 14 Jan 09
This says it all right here. Think about it from the customers perspective always. How would you like to be treated if someone “may have caused” you “an inconvenience”?
I’m passing this one around for sure.
Bradeon 14 Jan 09
I don’t think apologies are necessary, just a clear statement of the next course of action. Do you think companies responsible for the outages wanted the outages? Probably not, so simply explaining themselves is a good move. But regardless of that, if the service continues to be unreliable, you just need to move on no matter how honest they are about it. A good example is dreamhost, which a lot of pro-standards designers used to pimp for web hosting. They had a bunch of crap go down, they wrote honestly about why on their blog. It made me hang in there a little bit longer, but when the outages continued to be a major problem, I just switched hosts. The bottom line is that quality/reliability is the most important thing-customer service ranks somewhere behind. A lot of these same fancy web-designers are now pimping mediatemple, who themselves are having serious speed issues with their cloud-hosting service, which is more expensive and crappier quality than many of their competitors (for a list of presumably superior options, check http://webhostinggeeks.com ). What does all this tell me? Web designers are not good judges of what goes on behind the scenes. They see a pretty site for a web hosting company, assume that the same level of quality exists for the actual service, and worst of all start recommending a substandard product to all their fans. What does this have to do with the original post? Good question. Maybe that opinions and recommendations are a lot like apologies-utterly pointless most of the time. What matters is QUALITY.
John Allspawon 14 Jan 09
Communications during an outage is paramount, and that should be obvious to those sites that have any real community.
However, concerns about the language of apologies I think is missing the point. As pointed out, 37signals.com has apologized in the past about an outage in the same way you have issue with. Was that apology disingenuous, or otherwise full of shit?
I’m guessing no. I’m guessing that the person who wrote the apology was genuinely sorry that it happened, because you have a decent report with your users. So, I think you meant it. In my experience, the person posting communications about an outage isn’t exactly happy about the situation.
The bigger point concerning outage communications isn’t the apology or its sincerity. It’s the information you provide to your users about:
- what caused the issue - what does it mean for the site (down, degraded, etc.) - what’s being done to fix it - any updates on the ETA of things being “all-clear”
I’d say the real challenge is to sprinkle enough detail so that users are felt in-the-loop, but not so much that reading the communication is cumbersome or difficult to understand.
David Hobbson 14 Jan 09
Notices to clients about service problems is tough (one problem not mentioned above that is harder than it seems: when to even send notes in the first place—what if know you had a thirty second outage?). I was hoping to see The Answer to how to word these, but at the root this is tough. For one thing, downtime might not even affect anyone (for instance, if a particular feature is down, but you know it is only used at the end of the month for bulk upload into another system let’s say). As many folks have said above, one key is to actually tell the user something informative. Ideally, if you know there’s a precise problem, you can state something specific like: “Fancy Feature is currently intermittently available. If you are not using this feature, you should not be affected. If you are, please note that you will not lose any data. We will send an update when the feature is available again.”
Justinon 14 Jan 09
I think the big key here that is missing is to simply be straight with your users. You know what they want: They want their service back. They want to know when they can expect their service back. They don’t want your apologies or empathy, except if it somehow helps them with their problem.
The way to look at this, is that it is a problem to your users. And it’s fairly obvious, once that viewpoint is taken, what needs to be done. If you ignore your users problems, as opposed to when you take responsibility for them and keep open communications about resolving them, you’re going to lose your users.
CJ Curtison 14 Jan 09
Dreamhost had a horrible meltdown a couple years ago which lasted weeks if not months. When they were finally in the “recovery” phase, they spoke about it very publically, explaining what had happened, why things got so bad so fast and so on.
I don’t know how they’re doing these days, but you have to respect that approach.
Nothing pisses me off more than when my email or web server goes down. But in reality, there’s no good way to apologize for something like that, because no amount of “I’m sorry” gets the thing running again.
This discussion is closed.