13 April 2017
Earlier this week, United Airlines informed passengers on a flight in Chicago they needed 4 seats for their employees. Because they had booked every seat, they offered monetary compensation to passengers who would wait for another flight.
When no one accepted the offer, they randomly selected the passengers, and 1 of them didn’t comply. The result is a compilation of startling videos and images depicting a man being bloodied as he’s dragged off the plane.
When the images went viral, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, offered the following on Twitter:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Even as someone who isn’t particularly adept at corporate apologies, I can say that’s not an effective apology. It’s not sincere, it doesn’t convey empathy, nor does it even identify or admit the problem.
As crowdfunders, we have daily interactions with dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of customers. We have ample opportunities to apologize. The question is: Can we apologize better than United Airlines?
The Purpose of an Apology
The purpose of an apology is not for you to save your public image, nor is it to make you feel better. Those may be your motivations, but the purpose is different.
The purpose of an apology isn’t about you–it’s about the other person (or people). The purpose is to show the affected person that you understand your actions had a negative impact on them.
When Not to Apologize
Opinions may vary on this, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments. Here’s my take on it: Don’t apologize if you’re not sorry.
The reason I say this is because when you’re not actually sorry, the apology you construct is going to hurt you (and them) more than it helps. Just look at the United Airlines statement. There’s nothing contrite about it.
The most common non-apology I see (and that I’m guilty of) is when we use an apology to blame the customer. For example: “I’m sorry you didn’t update your address in time.” That’s not an apology! You’re not sorry, and that’s okay.
Just because you’re not sorry doesn’t mean you can’t respond. Here are some suggestions:
- “I’d be frustrated too if…”
- “How can I make this experience better for you?”
- “Can you tell me more about the situation?”
How to Apologize
During the Scythe Kickstarter, I lashed out at a customer in a comments thread. I remember it clearly: He used the word “perverse” to describe the stretch goals, and I misread it as “perverted.” Instead of not saying anything, I responded harshly.
When the customer replied, my stomach turned. Even though his original comment was still harsh, it wasn’t out of line. I felt terrible for calling him out in public. I knew I was wrong.
So I wrote him a private message, and I followed up in the comments with an apology. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like this: “I’m really, really sorry. I was completely out of line in speaking to you that way. I feel terrible, and I will be much more careful about reading and responding to your comments in the future.”
It wasn’t me trying to retain a customer. Rather, on a human level, I screwed up, and I wanted to express it to him. It was a sobering, vulnerable moment for me, and it really meant something when he accepted the apology.
I don’t think there’s some magical template for all apologies. In fact, I don’t think there should be–a real apology isn’t a template that can be filled in with a few proper nouns.
But there is one thing I would universally suggest: Say, “I’m sorry.” Don’t say, “I apologize”; it separates the contrition from yourself like it’s some third party entity. “I’m sorry” comes from the heart. It’s a feeling–it’s raw and vulnerable.
Here are a few other common elements of an apology:
- empathize with their plight
- show that you understand the problem
- take responsibility
- form the foundation for a solution
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, as it’s an area where I have a lot of room to learn and grow.