Writing a letter of apology is one of the toughest assignments in business correspondence, maybe the toughest.
Since every situation is different, generalizing is difficult. But here are some points worth keeping in mind.
1. Lead with an apology. It puts the reader at ease, letting him or her know up front that the letter is not going to be a stonewalling exercise.
2. Keep it simple. Apologize, recap what happened, explain corrective actions that will prevent a repeat, offer compensation (when applicable), and apologize again. Briefly.
3. Be careful about assigning or accepting blame. On one level, the customer is always right. But what happens when the customer blames you for a problem that he partially or completely caused? What happens when responsibility is shared or unclear?
Most of us, myself included, tend to become defensive and argumentative when composing a letter of apology. If that tone seeps into your letter, you will succeed only in further inflaming your customer. Far better to write your letter in this frame of mind: Something bad happened, we’re extremely sorry it happened, and because we value your business, we want to put things right.
Yet this does not mean that you should blithely admit blame. When possible, it’s better to say, “We regret this problem occured,” than to say, “We regret we caused this problem to occur.”
Similarly, when offering compensation, it’s better to say, “To preserve our good relationship … ,” or “As a gesture of good will… ,” instead of “Since we caused your factory to shut down … .”
4. Avoid legalese. If the issue is serious, consult with your attorney before writing an apology letter. But if the letter sounds like your attorney wrote it, the customer may react in any number of ways, none of which will be warm and fuzzy.
5. Be sure of your facts. The “ready, fire, aim!” method of composition does not lend itself to letters of apology. When you investigate a problem, you’re likely to get several versions of what happened. It’s crucial to hear all sides before formulating a response. Otherwise you’ll find yourself apologizing to everyone for jumping the gun.
Any other suggestions for apology letters? It’s a tough subject and we can’t have too much advice.