As a connoisseur of apologies and one of the co-founders with Nell Minow of the Apology Institute of America, I have long-written here about apologies, usually from public figures, and analyzed them. So many tend not to be apologies at all, with no recognition of the problem caused and no real regret or explanation for how (or if) the problem will be fixed. "If I offended anyone" tends to be the limit of what we see so often.
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
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.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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