People have the habit of complaining about products and services online. When the complaints are relevant and an apology is needed, company representatives often post them on the blog where the initial problem was revealed. While some are great and solve the problem while both gaining the support and admiration of the blogger in question, others fail. After looking into a few of these apologies and trying to understand where people most commonly go wrong, I have rediscovered the art of writing effective replies to people’s problems.

But before I start, if you’re wondering why you should apologize in the first place, it’s because news travels fast online, if the problem is significant, there are great chances more people will complain and all that negativity will pop up when potential customers look you up online. You shouldn’t apologize for nonsense and give credibility to shady bloggers and nonexistant issues, but when the problem is real, you need to solve it, apologize for the inconvenience and let people know it has all been taken care of.

Here are a few tips for writing apologies that will help your company and not worsen the situation instead:

1. Recognize the problem and give it due consideration

Some apologies fail because while they say the “I’m sorry”, they fail to focus on the problem and the discomfort experienced by the customer. Instead, they rush through the apology and the unpleasant situation and focus on what the customer should have done, the proper channels to report the problem and how they can solve future problems. This is all wrong because if you’re replying, it’s clear the online piece of posting has reached its goal of making the issue known. Writing an apology that says this is not the right way and you won’t do much about it makes you look bad!

Instead, show sympathy for what they went through and recognize there was a problem on your side. Don’t try to cover it up with procedure mambo-jumbo.

2. Carefully explain what’s being done to solve the problem

Make sure your reply statement focuses on what you’re doing, not what should have happened when the customer noticed the issue. You may say it’s an unusual behavior, but focus on how you’re going to fix it, not how this is not typical for your company. The person in question won’t care, and those reading or following them won’t either. They will sit quietly and wait to see how you handle it and what you plan on doing.

3. If there’s a better way to report issues, express it while showing empathy

Don’t rush into listing 5 ways in which the customer should have reported the problem. Yes, it’s important for them to know they could have solved things faster, but make this part a side note and ask them nicely to follow your procedure in the future, never try to force it on them. They need to see why they should go through the trouble of doing as you ask rather than publish an angry status on Facebook, for example. Focus on the benefits of complaining to you directly and not to the world – quicker replies, professional assistance etc.

4. If you’re offering free stuff, don’t make it look like a bribe

Some freebies might seem like a good idea for a quick getaway. But if it looks like you’re trying to buy them, it will backfire. Make it sound like what it really is: compensation for the trouble they’ve been through, for the time they’ve wasted, etc. It has to be clear that this isn’t just a way to make the problem disappear, you will still deal with it, solve it and make sure it won’t happen again.

And here comes the most important part:

5. Write it like you mean it!

You might follow all my prior suggestions and you might still fail because you can’t make the person you’re addressing feel like you really mean what you say. They need to feel you really are sorry, you realize they are pumping money into your company and that you need them, while they can choose someone else, and that you actually are going to look into the issue and get it all sorted out. The apology needs to sound personal and genuine, not a cold piece of corporate writing that gets posted as a reply to all online complaints.

Have you written or received apologies? What’s your take on the subject and which are the tips and tricks you’ve discovered?

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