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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Apology and Customer Relations Letters

“PR letters can build good customer relations”

A carefully written apology can create goodwill”

“'Letters from a Nut' test customer service

PR letters follow 5-part formula


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PR letters can build good customer relations

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

We had just finished discussing a five-step formula for writing customer relations letters when Greg Johnson, a participant in a seminar I was teaching in Minneapolis, said, "I just got a letter from Dayton's Department Store that I thought was well written."


Greg explained that he had gone to the Coach department during a sale when the store was very busy. The Coach department sells leather goods—very nice leather goods, which is why most of the items are kept behind glass. The only problem with keeping merchandise behind glass is that customers can't buy anything unless someone is there to unlock the case for them.


After waiting for more than 20 minutes, Greg went to another department and asked for help. Before leaving the store, he filled out a complaint card.


A day or so later, the Assistant Store Manager called to apologize. At the end of their conversation, she mentioned that she would be sending a letter.


We had been discussing hypothetical approaches to business writing and here was a chance to look at an actual example, so I asked Greg if I could have a look at the letter.


"Sure," he said. "In fact, I have it in my briefcase."


We made copies and passed them around.


The group was mightily impressed. The letter follows the five-step formula almost to a T:


1. Goodwill greeting. "Thank you for sharing your feedback with us regarding the unpleasant experience you had in the Coach department at Dayton's Southdale. I also appreciate you taking a few minutes to speak with me by phone."


Well, that's friendly enough. "Thank you" is always a good opening, and the author knows the trick of using personal pronouns (you, your, us, you, I, you, me) to create a personal tone.


2. Apology or empathy statement. "Please accept my sincere apology for the poor service afforded you."


This too is well done. Although no empathy statement is offered (such as "I understand how annoying it was for you to waste your


time waiting"), the apology is personal and direct.


3. Explanation of the problem. "We pride ourselves on convenience and strong customer service at Dayton's and the service you received certainly did not reflect our standards. Be assured, Mr. Johnson, that we will continue to make improvements in our staffing and service levels."


Actually, no explanation is offered, but what the author does (and does well) is recast a negative situation in a positive light. Note too that the earlier negative point ("the poor service afforded you") was stated in the passive voice, while the positive points ("We pride ourselves . . . we will continue . . . ") are stated in the active voice, which is more direct and emphatic.


4. Good news/bad news. "I have enclosed a gift certificate for Dayton's as an expression of our thanks and goodwill."


Well, a little money never hurts. Actually, the certificate was for $25, which is more than just a token.


5. Goodwill closing. "I sincerely hope you will allow us the opportunity to serve you in the future at Dayton's Southdale. We value you as our customer."


With a closing as sincere and straightforward as that, how can you lose?


As a result of this episode, Greg told us, Dayton's has installed a motion detector that shoots a beam of infra red light in the direction of the Coach counter—just to make sure that during times when the department is unstaffed no customers are left languishing at the counter.


But what the participants in my seminar really wanted to do was visit the store and find something to complain about so they too could get one of those $25 gift certificates.



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A carefully written apology can create goodwill

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Two of your most powerful tools in sustaining and increasing your business are quality and goodwill. They go hand-in-hand.

But what do you do when things go wrong?

Let’s say you failed to deliver a product by a promised deadline, or you delivered the wrong product, or you delivered the right product on schedule but the product was deficient – well, you get the idea. It’s a typical Monday morning.

Your customer calls to express displeasure in language that is neither diplomatic nor tactful, and now you feel obligated to write a letter of apology.

Where do you begin?

Well, you don’t have to begin at the beginning. Most successful customer relations letters are written according to a five-part formula:

1. Goodwill greeting and reference

Open your letter on a positive note. Use a personal tone. "Thank you for your phone call . . ." or "Thank you for taking the time to explain your concern regarding . . ." are good, standard openings. Make specific reference to the problem and to any previous communication. Indicate that you understand the problem and that you are committed to correcting it.

2. Statement of apology or empathy

Offer a straightforward apology ("I apologize for the inconvenience. . ." or "I’m sorry that . . ."). Use language that acknowledges the reader’s perspective ("I understand how frustrating it must have been to . . .").

3. Explanation of the problem’s cause

Explain what went wrong, but do it briefly. If you go on for too long, your explanation may begin to sound like a lame excuse. Keep your focus on what is relevant and important to your customer, not on what prevents you from meeting your customer’s expectations or what makes your job difficult or challenging.

4. Proposed solution to the problem

Be clear and specific about what action you have taken or will take to correct the problem. Offer assurances that might restore your credibility. Consider a goodwill gesture – a gift certificate or a reduced price on the next order – to offset negative feelings. If you are unable to resolve the issue to your customer’s complete satisfaction, explain why.

5. Goodwill closing

Close by reminding your reader of your respect and goodwill. You may want to repeat your apology ("Again, I am sorry that . . ."). Stress your desire to preserve a good relationship. Your wording here can be simple and direct, as in "We value your business" or "We want to continue offering you the quality service you expect from us." Because the reader expects this customary tag, closing without it may seem abrupt.

In addition to following this five-part formula, beware of three common errors in writing letters of apology. As Rosalie Maggio advises in How To Say It (Prentice Hall, 1990), here is what not to say:

Do not inadvertently imply that your reader is at fault. Sometimes an "apology" can sound like an accusation.

Don’t write in a begrudging tone. Apologize wholeheartedly.

Do not acknowledge that you or your company was negligent. If negligence is an issue, consult with an attorney regarding the wording of your letter.

There you have the do’s and don’ts of writing customer relations letters. Remember: The key is to write from your reader’s perspective. If you re-establish goodwill, and the rest is easy.



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“Letters from a Nut” test customer service

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that you have fun at someone else’s expense, as Ted Nancy does in Letters from a Nut (Avon Books, 1997). But I find Nancy’s bizarre requests and suggestions so delightfully absurd that I can’t help laughing as I read them. Out loud.


In addition to great entertainment, Nancy’s collection offers important lessons to anyone whose job it is to respond to customer requests, whether those requests be reasonable, absurd, or downright wacky.


Take every request seriously.


Reading the letters and responses, one might naturally ask, “How could anyone be so gullible as to take this guy seriously?” But I commend the people who responded to Nancy’s nonsense. You never know when you might convert an eccentric complainer into a loyal customer.


For example, Frito-Lay takes Nancy seriously when he describes his dismay at discovering that the contents of a package were not only “curled” and “hard and crunchy” but also “salty.” Frito-Lay acknowledges his “interest in our products and our company,” includes a list of their other snack products, and tells him, “We hope you will always look for Frito-Lay products whenever you are looking for great-tasting snack foods.”


Likewise, when Nancy writes to Nordstrom asking if he can buy a mannequin that bears an uncanny resemblance to his deceased neighbor (“In every way–nose, cheekbones, hair, etc. Look at it from any angle.”) so that he can present it the family, Bruce Nordstrom himself responds: “Yours is one of the most interesting requests I have ever received. Candidly, I can’t imagine any family who has lost a loved one wanting to see a mannequin that resembles that person.” But Nordstrom also explains how Nancy can make the purchase.


Know when to say no to special requests.


There are, however, limits to what a company should do to make a customer happy, and Nancy delights in testing them.


When he asks the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas if he can gamble in his lucky clothes (“I will be dressed as a shrimp. That is a reddish veiny body outfit with a brittle curved fantail. The top of my head will be hardish and crunchy and have tarter sauce on it. [Not real!] I will wear orangish foam shoes that match the rest of the outfit.”), the Hilton declines, fearing that “the high level of activity created by the outfit . . . might be too distractive.” Nevertheless, it invites him to visit and “gamble in street attire.”


And when he asks the Woodmark Hotel on Lake Washington if he can bring 2,200 red ants (“These ants ARE NOT pets, so your NO PETS rule should not apply. I travel with these ants for a reason. I watch them. It calms me down. . . I like watching them moving about the room. They carry a crumb across the room and I watch this. It has a very calming effect on me and helps me with my business.”), the Woodmark turns him down cold.


Answer humor with humor.


Of course, when you are reasonably certain that someone is pulling your leg, you might want to join in the game, as the American Seating Company does in responding to Nancy’s quandary about the proper way to face the people who are sitting down when you exit your seat in a stadium (“Rear to them or crotch to them?”):


“Alas, we have no good answer. . . The only suggestion we could come up with is for you to come early before anyone has arrived, stay in your seat for the entire time, and wait until everyone else has gone before leaving.”


Then the writer observes wryly, “This, of course, could cause an even more embarrassing problem.”


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PR letters follow 5-part formula

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Well, it happened again. Another apology letter – this one from Northwest Airlines – and, like most well-written apology letters, it followed a five-part formula:

1. Goodwill opening

2. Apology for empathy statement

3. Explanation of the problem

4. Good news or bad news

5. Goodwill closing

The author was Kristen Shovlin, Director of Customer Care and Refunds. (What a title! Reading her letter, I did in fact feel well cared for.)

Like most effective customer relations and PR letters, this one had a carefully worded opening and closing. It defined and affirmed relationship between the writer and me, the reader.

When you are writing to apologize – or to deliver any message in a delicate situation – your goal in your opening is to create goodwill. Your goal in your closing is to affirm relationship.

See what you think of the letter, written in regard to a two-hour delay that caused some travelers (though not me) to miss their connecting flights in Minneapolis:

"On behalf of all the employees at Northwest Airlines, I would like to take this opportunity to offer you our immediate and sincere apology for the disruption of your travel on July 25, 2006."

Combining goodwill opening and apology, Ms. Shovlin creates an effective tone by invoking the name of the organization while also addressing me in the first person ("I"), thus lending credibility to her personal-sounding voice. Not a bad start.

"We recognize that travelers want dependable and convenient service and we realize that we did not achieve that standard for your flight. We thank you for your patience and understanding."

Again, well done – a great example of empathy, or seeing a situation from the other person’s viewpoint. I did feel affirmed, but to be honest, I actually hadn’t been all that patient and understanding. Still, I appreciated the ploy: It’s standard practice to state the desired behavior and then thank the reader for exhibiting it. So far, so good.

Now for the explanation of the problem:

"On July 25, a problem developed with a computer system that facilitates communications between Northwest’s main distribution system and some of our airport computer systems" – then some detail about bringing the system back up and using redundant systems and manual back-up plans "to minimize the impact on our customers."

Enough. If Ms. Shovlin had gone on much longer, her explanation would have begun to sound like a lame excuse. The trick here is to say enough, but not too much.

Now for the good news: 7,500 miles added to my WorldPerks account. OK, I accept. And, yes, I do feel better about the delay.

The self-congratulatory tone of the goodwill closing was tempered by a second admission that a problem had occurred:

"I pledge to you that we are dedicated to providing good service. Our on-time record speaks for itself. Unfortunately, in this situation, our reliability suffered.

Thank you for your support as a WorldPerks member and for flying Northwest Airlines."

My pleasure. Now, what to do with those 7,500 extra miles. Hawaii in November?




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