Kickstarter Lesson #224: How to Apologize Better Than United Airlines

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:

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

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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.

Also read: Kickstarter Lesson #132: The 6 Core Philosophies for Great Customer Service

21 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #224: How to Apologize Better Than United Airlines

  1. Agreement with all your points – great post!

    To your point about not apologizing when you’re not sorry:
    Another situation that can be tricky is when something is neither your nor the customers direct “fault”. I’m thinking of things like delays or damaged goods that are clearly caused by, say, a courier dropping the ball. Although the steps to an effective apology (empathy, solution focus, etc.) are the same, feeling sorry can be hard when you didn’t directly cause the problem. What’s worse, usually (at least for me), defensive thoughts are the first things that jump to mind in some subconscious effort to save face in my own head.

    The things that have helped me in these situations are A) understanding that I am truly sorry they didn’t get the product as intended and B) that ultimately, I am the one who promised them an item in exchange for their hard-earned money and trust. If a package is late, the problem only arises because I convinced them that standard shipping would take 3-5 business days based on the service I chose for the price they paid. From there, I can move on to communicating/understanding/resolving their problem in the way that I’d want a seller to do for me. It’s not shocking that empathy is key, but often a shift in mental framework helps me to remove the barriers to effective empathy, apology, and resolution.

  2. I like the way you said that, Adam. A shipping delay is a great example. I generally try to find a way to take responsibility, even if it’s indirect. Like, sure, a shipping delay may be out of my control, but as you said, it was in my control to set the timeline, choose the fulfillment company, etc.

  3. Fantastic. And great reminder for me.

    Something I struggle with in modern culture is how we are over-easily offended or insulted. I feel like I have to tread on eggs and find myself clarifying or apologizing because I’m hoping not to offend. :(

    I wrote an article a while back where I used a “click worthy” headline (I modified a phrase that was being used across the country – something that many major publications were doing as well, from sports, to news, to pretty much everything). I got so much flak from that single headline that I kept going back and forth on the headline: Should I retract it. Should I apologize. Am I completely blind? Are a small group being overly sensitive?

    While I don’t want to offend… I also don’t want to live my life on eggshells. And on the flip-side… I try very hard not to have the people around me feel like they are on eggshells.

    I still haven’t figured all this out. Obviously.

  4. Growing up my mom always said, “If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.” Obviously, this doesn’t apply to EVERY situation (and she knew that as well), but she was trying to get us to think about our actions before we acted upon them. That saying has always made me re-evaluate every action, email, text, instant message, etc, that I think could be perceived as negative to make sure that I’m not saying/doing anything that I will regret. I have, of course, failed many, many times at this, but it has also worked and saved me, and others grief. I use it with my kids today to hopefully spur a thought in the back of their mind to make sure what they’re doing/saying is the right thing to do/say.

  5. One other point I forgot: Prepare for these situations ahead of time.

    Much like United could have solved their fiasco before it started with an extra $2000 voucher to another passenger, any business can plan for problems. Even if you can’t prevent the problem, you can often drastically improve the customer interaction by planning ahead.

    For example, there are ALWAYS issues with shipping physical goods. As such, having a percentage of refunds/reships/upgrades built into your pricing or expected profits helps to A) take the sting out of things when situations do arise and B) helps you to focus on making the customer feel valued, rather than that transaction’s financial impact. Obviously you can’t plan for everything, but having thought about commonly expect situations ahead of time can make the world of difference when in the heat of a problem. It’s not like United didn’t know they were overbooking flights…

  6. I’ve often found that if the first words of an apology are “I’m sorry, but…” then the words that follow the “but” are more important than the apology. I have to check myself to be sure I’m not saying “I’m sorry” just so that I can follow it up with a justification of my own actions.

  7. Excellent post.

    You said in your post, “Empathize with their plight”. It’s important to remember the difference between empathy and sympathy. With a sentence like “I would be frustrated too…”, you’re asking the other person to care about your feelings. A customer who’s really upset is very likely to give you a response starting with “I don’t give a…”.

    A better line is “I understand that this is frustrating.” You’re acknowledging the frustration without shifting the focus to you. Also, note the difference in “I understand your frustration.” The last thing you want is to accuse a customer of being frustrated.

  8. Joseph: I’m sorry you had to go through that. I actually had someone say something similar a few days ago about a headline where I asked a question, and I was caught off guard by the vitriol in his statement. This is just my opinion, but if you’re creating quality content and not misleading people through the way you present it, you have nothing to apologize for. If someone else wants to harp on a few words instead of gaining value from the effort you put into creating the content, that’s on them.

  9. Craig: That’s a keen observation. I think I’ve done the same thing–as soon as I say “but,” I realize that what I’m saying has stopped being an apology and has started being a justification.

  10. Phil: I appreciate you sharing your perspective! Though if a customer tells me he/she is frustrated, I much prefer the method of empathizing with them by putting myself in their shoes and saying, “I would be frustrated too.” I prefer that to “I understand that this is frustrating,” which is akin to what I was saying above about “I apologize” (vs. “I’m sorry”).

    Now, if the customer hasn’t told me their feelings, I agree that imposing a feeling on them isn’t fair. Like, if someone says, “Help! My game is missing the wooden tokens,” I would reply, “I’m sorry about that! Please fill out our replacement parts form and we’ll send you the missing parts ASAP.”

  11. Apologizing is a tricky thing. I hate that “if you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place” saying. It’s stupid, and what they are really saying is “I’m angry, and I don’t care if you are sorry. I don’t accept your apology, regardless of whether or not you meant it.”

    The other side of the apology is forgiveness. And that can be even harder (especially when you’re hurt).

    The “perverse incentive” comments in the Scythe kickstarter were an odd lot – I saw them go through, and what happened was you saw the word “perverse”, and took it as an attack on your character, when it was actually a specific phrase explaining a known phenomenon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perverse_incentive – an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers). That whole issue was one of misunderstanding, and so you responded in pain, but the commenter was thinking “but I didn’t even attack you”, so they didn’t even see the need to apologize.
    Getting clarity on exactly what has happened is helpful (United need to do this), but there’s still an initial apology needed to start winding back the aggression (United seriously stuffed this bit up). If you get the first apology wrong, then it’s going to make life even harder for you (says the man married for 14 years – I speak from much experience).

    I thought you handled the situation really well once the initial miscommunication was cleared up, and your true apology definitely shows you have a lot of integrity.

    I hope you have a Good Friday!

  12. Great article and topical given the UA incident which I felt the same way about as well. I work in health and in recent times there has been changes when medical errors occur with the patient being involved and complete honesty regarding what happened. This, as opposed to historically not doing so and hospitals being accused of cover ups and denials. This isn’t about admitting fault and liability. Rather it is about the patient feeling like the organisation cares about them as an individual and that something is being done to prevent the same issue in future. Sometimes there is legal action. But in my experience often when the patient is included in the outcome of the resolution, when they know exactly what happened and why, when they are part of the solution and know what’s being done to prevent it happening again the situation often resolves for them.

    My point is that sometimes some humility, honesty, openness and inclusion of the individual affected by your stuff up can be the solution in and of itself. I think this is something that sets SM apart in that this is how you conduct yourself. It’s obvious on your comments, actions and the way the company runs. Because of this you have a high level of respect. Just the fact that you said sorry on an open platform is evidence of that. The way you openly admit when problems are occurring and you are struggling to fix them. Rather than say nothing you include your customers in knowing what the issue is. This is most times enough. They also feel like they are a part of what you are doing. This is awesome and part of what makes SM great.

    Just a foot note: medical errors are complicated issues and not easy to resolve, I tried to make it simple to make a point. I could write for pages on dealing with the issues. I’d rather. To be called out for over simplifying it. I know it’s often not that simple. Just before other commenters chime in on it. The point I’m trying to make though with reference to it is valid.

  13. Dave: There’s a lot of quotable lines in your excellent comment, so I’ll highlight two of them:

    “it is about the patient feeling like the organisation cares about them as an individual and that something is being done to prevent the same issue in future.”

    “humility, honesty, openness and inclusion of the individual affected by your stuff up can be the solution in and of itself.”

    Also, I should note that my instinct was to send a private message to the backer–that was my first instinct. The reason is that I didn’t want to make it about my saving face in front of other backers. Rather, it was me going to him, man to man, and saying I screwed up. He then posted a comment instead of replying privately, so I thought he wanted to have the conversation in public, so I posted a public apology to him to. As it turned out, he just hadn’t checked his messages yet, and he replied privately too.

  14. As a business owner I’ve spent a lot of time on both the company and customer/client sides, fighting the sense of entitlement that I’ve grown up around and that we as a culture have grown so accustomed to.

    I’ve found that people may not remember the details of a transaction…they may not remember your name, the place, or the situation clearly. They generally will, however, remember your face and how they were treated. From both the company and customer side.

    It’s innate to want what’s best for ourselves. Being mindful of the the other perspective is a learned skill.

    This topic is a good example of the kinds of discussions we need in our society as a whole, as well as our crowdfunding efforts. My thanks to you for being transparent and going there.

  15. Marc: “They generally will, however, remember your face and how they were treated.”

    That’s a really interesting observation about human nature. And it’s so true! Like, I may have a wonderful meal at a restaurant, but a few months later I won’t remember what I ate, but I’ll remember if I had spectacular or subpar service.

  16. This is a great post and an even better comment thread.

    There are two non-apology statements I detest. I’ll never use them, and if I ever hire help, I’ll train them to never say these statements. They are…

    1) “I apologize for the inconvenience.”

    No human being talks like this. This is the lexicon of the unfeeling, mechanical company. It has no empathy or emotion. No one should ever say this phrase, especially small companies that rely on a human connection.

    Instead, the first two words should be “I’m sorry.” Those are human words. Real people say them. The rest of the sentence should be “…that XYZ happened” (or some variation). Like, if a customer didn’t get their product, “I’m sorry your product never arrived. Let me make sure it gets to you ASAP.”

    Or if a customer got a defective product: “I’m sorry that there’s a problem with your product.” I’d even say something like: “I’m sorry your product got screwed up. Let me send you another as soon as I can.” The second sentence is less formal, but more human, and that’s where I think good customer service lives.

    2) “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

    I have a lot of thoughts on “offensiveness” and whether being “easy to offend” is truly a negative character trait, but that’s beyond the scope of this conversation. Instead, let’s focus on this unpleasant scenario: we said something insulting, and people are calling us on it.

    In this case, we have to make it very clear that we know we screwed up. We have to prove that we understand the impact of what we said. “…if I offended you” is insincere because it doesn’t directly address the people we’ve insulted. We need to be speaking to them directly.

    Instead: “I’m sorry I compared your parents to pig entrails.” (Or whatever.) Here’s we’re acknowledging what we said, and we’re proving that we are trying to understand the damage we caused. We’re not hiding behind a conditional; we’re making it clear that we know that we made a mistake, and we’re making a sincere attempt to correct it.

    Apologizing is hard work. Anne Shirley claimed to be good at apologizing. It’s a skill that’s as important as it is uncomfortable to use.

  17. Jamey, I like the four elements you list at the end of the article. In particular, I think the last two, “take responsibility” and “form the foundation for a solution” help to reinforce the first two, “empathize with their plight” and “show that you understand the problem”.

    I think most of us recognize that none of us are perfect, and are willing to offer grace to others when they make mistakes just as we would hope others would do for us. But an important part of that is seeing that people have learned from their mistakes, and are taking steps not to make those same mistakes again. I think that is the key to demonstrating that one is truly sorry.

    In the case of United Airlines, not only did they not offer a good apology for the particular situation, but they did not address the fundamental underlying problem, which was ending up in a situation where they forced customers out to make room for their employees. That’s wrong on so many levels from bad planning to not putting the customer first that I don’t even know where to start with that. And then to apologize for “having to re-accommodate these customers” as if they had no control over their own policies that led to the situation in the first place was completely ridiculous.

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