When a good apology does come along, it deserves notice. And this here is an excellent apology. As Ms. Minow graded it an A-plus.
It's not an apology by a public figure, though. Well...okay, it's from American Airlines, so that does sort of count. But it's made in private by someone in the Customer Service division. It comes in reply to a customer complaint. In this case, that customer was...me.
The short version of a long background. Earlier this year, I had a gnawing problem on an American Airlines flight, and wrote in about it online. I received an auto-reply that i'd get a personal response soon. Months later, none had come. So, I wrote back to explain this. Same thing. Then, on my return flight from Chicago, when I was there for a month dealing with his estate after he'd passed away, I ran into a tumbling series of problems related to the return flight. That's what problem a long letter, not online but written to their head of Customer Service.
I began by explaining, as I always do, that I understood the most important thing about flying was landing safely, and that arriving near the schedule time was important, too, and everything else was minor in comparison. But most airline do the first two things, and it's it's all the minor matters which differentiate an airline. And then I laid out all the problems.
The letter was passed to one of the staff members who wrote the following reply.
July 1, 2016
Dear Mr. Elisberg:
Thank you for contacting Customer Relations at American Airlines.
I'm going to begin by disagreeing with you. There is no concern that a customer is willing to take the time to write to us about, that is insignificant. Your first paragraph captures the airline business perfectly. All airlines operate similarly with regards to safety and (relatively) on time performance. What makes one different, or better than another, is the bonus. And, frankly, we are not providing those bonuses to you.
Let's start with your original correspondence submitted to us on March 30, 2016. Your concern was addressed and a response was emailed to you on April 9, 2016. Clearly, you did not receive it. I have retrieved that original file and resent the response. I have also copied it and pasted it to the bottom of this email.
Now, I would like to address the concerns you have brought forth in your recent letter. I am very sorry for the poor treatment you received from one of our reservation agents. We expect all of our colleagues to extend polite and considerate assistance to our customers. There is simply no excuse for rudeness. In view of your comments, I've shared the details of your experience with the appropriate management personnel. We take these matters very seriously, and our Reservations staff will be reminded how important it is to treat our customers with kindness and professionalism. By contacting us, you've given us the chance to improve -- thank you.
I was a little surprised when you reported that we no longer offer a classic music channel as one of our audio options. Our menu is changed regularly and your comments will be documented. I can't promise that the channel will be brought back but we do appreciate your input.
Thank you for your comments regarding the changes being made to our AAdvantage® frequent flyer program. We are constantly making changes to the program, although rarely are the changes as significant as the most recent ones. Your feedback is important to us, especially with regards to this program.
We regard every single customer contact as a welcome opportunity to improve. Your comments serve as a reminder that our responsibility to our customers to provide quality service is a major priority, one that we can't overlook. In appreciation for your constructive criticism and as a gesture of goodwill, we've added 7,500 bonus miles to your AAdvantage® account. This mileage adjustment will be reflected in your account very soon.
Mr. Elisberg, please reply to this email so that I know you received it. As promised, I have included below a copy of the previous response that you never received. Thank you for giving me this chance to address your concerns. Please travel with us again soon and we will do our very best to provide the level of service that you expect and deserve.
(Copy of previous response, dated April 9, 2016)
Thank you for contacting American Airline's Customer Relations.
We are very sorry to hear that the entertainment system was not functioning properly on your recent flight. We know this entertainment is a welcome diversion and regret it could not be repaired in flight.
As a gesture of goodwill, we've credited your AAdvantage® account with 3,000 bonus miles.
We hope to welcome you aboard again soon.
Thank you again for contacting us, have a great day Mr. Elisberg.
That simply is an excellent apology.
I will add that there is a skill in writing letters of complaint, which -- while not remotely guaranteeing that you'll get a good response -- at least give you a better chance of it. And I am a long-time chronic letter writer. I know that you don't just relentlessly slam the recipient, since no one likes getting yelled at, even if deserved. And besides, usually, you're using the product or a service because you have liked it in the past, so it's valuable to mention that. It not only is nice to say, which the other will appreciate, but it shows you have a relationship with the company, which is the very kind of person that companies want to nurture. So, though my initial letter was long and critical, I think it was polite and thoughtful. And helped get a good response. It helped, too, that there were problems. And helped most of all that the person writing back simply did a wonderful job.
That said, in addition to being an analyst of apologies, I am also a strong believer that if you complain about something, you should also offer praise when things are done especially well. To me, it's hard to justify complaining when you don't equally send praise when deserved. This fits into my larger belief of saying nice things behind a person's back.
Here was my reply --
Thank you for your note. (And thank you, too, for asking that I reply so that you know I received it – and I don’t say that facetiously: lost email actually is an issue I write about a lot. Among other things, I write a tech review column for the Writers Guild of America and Huffington Post, and when people don’t reply to emails, which is common, it’s such a big problem because email actually does get lost in the ozone a LOT, but without a reply, you don’t know if it got through or simply wasn’t responded to.)
The point being that, no, I never received that initial email from many months ago.
Also, a topic I write about occasionally on my own personal website is “apologies,” and from time to time a friend and I will analyze public apologies that public figures give, usually which are awful and non-apologies. So, as a “student” of apologies who takes them seriously, you got an A-plus. Something I rarely see. And I appreciate it – and mean that. It was thoughtful and addressed the concerns. So, thank you for that, and for the bonus miles. (I do hope, though, that returning the one, lone classical music channel is more than a random hope, and instead becomes a requirement.)
Just so you know that my letter(s) were not a case of “I will never fly American again” – I recently signed up for an AAdvantage Citicard. I can’t swear I’ll fly American on every flight – problems do have a way of opening up one’s options, even with truly-gracious apologies -- but clearly it not only hasn’t been removed from The List, but remains hovering around the top…
Thank you again for your thoughtful, excellent reply, and if I’d had the address of your supervisor or head of the department, I would have “cc’d” them on this. In lieu of that, I hope you will forward it to them – and when they read it, they should know that it wasn’t self-serving of you to have forwarded it on your own behalf, but because a customer asked you to send it to them.
Thank you again.