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Make mistakes | Thursday, 24th September 2015

That Escalated Quickly – The Power Of Apology

Written by Ed Muscat Azzopardi



Your brand rocks. You’ve clearly established its purpose and its values and you have shared these with everyone around you. Now, every person involved with the brand is doing so in a consistent voice, supporting your products or services as they skyrocket to popularity and profit.

Then something goes wrong. A mistake slips through the gaps in your safety net and a client is upset. What can you possibly do in this situation? There are a couple of easy routes, and we know that the easy route is probably the wrong one.

Consider these:

Easy route A

Ignore the whole thing. It will probably blow over in a short while anyway. And if not, it is just one client (so far) so to hell with it.

Easy route B

Blame the client. They have probably misused/misunderstood/abused the product/service and they should have known better.


I’m guessing you’ve decided against the easy route. The better way is to do all you can to turn the issue into a positive experience. Let’s take this step by step.

Understand the issue at hand. Obtain context and history as quickly as you can. Make sure you know every possible detail and a little more. The last thing you want is to apologise for something other than what the client is upset about, leaving the real problem unaddressed.

Pick the most appropriate communication channel. If you’ve been made aware of the issue via a publicly accessible channel, then use this to open communication and then take the rest of the conversation to a private medium, such as email or private messaging.

Communicate with the client as quickly as you can. Even if you don’t yet have a solution, let them know you’re aware of what’s going on. The more time passes without showing you’re tackling the problem, the higher the likelihood of unnecessary and emotional escalation.
Using the appropriate language, explain all you know about the issue, take responsibility for it, and apologise. Offer full compensation without going overboard – you want to be fair to your client and fair to your brand.



Appropriate language


What constitutes ‘appropriate language’? First of all, you ought to be true to your brand’s tone of voice. If your brand maintains a serious tone, cracking jokes at this point might sound inappropriate. On the other hand, if your voice is usually informal or humorous, make sure to keep this going throughout what is essentially corporate communication. Resist the temptation to be drawn into the communication style of the person or entity that has registered their disappointment, particularly if the language has been rude, overly passionate, or downright offensive.


Keep your communication level


You don’t want to talk down or patronise because this sounds like you’re sneakily shifting part of the blame onto the client and this adds insult to injury. Neither do you want to be self-deprecating. You work with the best of intentions every day and are treating this incident as an isolated slip in service. If the problem runs deeper, address it honestly and show that you’re working to sort things out, that you and your team are working hard to restore the levels of quality/service/product that your brand is known for.


Choose words wisely


There are words that turn your communication into nonsense. Consider the word ‘but’. “We’re terribly sorry that your experience was negative, but we…” The word ‘but’ effectively negates everything in the sentence that precedes it. In this example it very quickly turns your sentence into “We’re not really sorry.”

‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ – Yoda, a long time ago. You are taking action and your words should reflect this.


Consider the difference between:

“We are trying to remedy the situation without delay”


“We are working on a solution and will implement it without delay”

The same applies to words like ‘could’ and ‘should’. Use these carefully because all they do in this context is limit your potential liability and indicate a lack of certainty.

Finally, don’t claim honesty. If you want to be trusted you need to earn it so using phrases like ‘in all honesty’ or ‘honestly’ are nothing more than an attempt to gain trust you clearly don’t deserve.


Turn it around


When possible, find a way to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Reacting quickly and in the most appropriate manner to a negative experience can, unsurprisingly, turn a disgruntled client into your biggest fan. There is an internet full of examples of terrible situations that clever brands turned into gold. Feel free to link to your favourite examples in the comment section below.

Don’t push this too far though. Be sensitive to communication that indicates that a client wants resolution and then severance. The last thing you want is to be pushy with a disappointed customer.


Ed Muscat Azzopardi

a little more about

Ed Muscat Azzopardi,

Ed was born in 1977 and, much to public annoyance, is still alive. He is passionate about food, the written word, brand, design, and a host of other activities that don't involve physical activity. In no particular order he is a pharmacist, a geek, a bad drummer and an even worse cook.