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Your tone of voice can shine when you say sorry

Picture it: some friends without kids have invited you round for a lovely grown up birthday party. You’ve brought a present, but the real gift is two hours minus Pokémon and plus wine. Red wine. Which you promptly spill all over their beautiful white sofa.

You turn to your horrified host.

‘Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused,’ you say. ‘The accident was due to the increased slippage on the glass after my hands being in contact with the party refreshments. As a gesture of goodwill, if you can send me your details your cleaning costs will be refunded.’

Except, of course, you don’t. So why does the average customer service response sound so baroque? The words are longer than necessary. It’s a touch defensive. At least one bit is in the passive voice.

It comes from a good place, but it’s bad writing. Worse still, it’s bad service. So it’s time to let it go. And no, even those with a more distinctive tone of voice don’t need to adopt an awkward poker face – any more than you stop being you when you’re dabbing at that wine stain with a dishcloth.

Take Innocent. The marketing team were guilty of a PR faux pas with their ‘conker milk’ joke. The swift apology that followed addressed all the serious points it needed to (namely: don’t eat conkers), but maintained the cosy, chatty, witty voice the brand is famous for. And if your tone of voice is far from Innocent’s, it probably still isn’t ‘be as formal as possible’. Even the Queen doesn’t demand that.

In short: to deliver good service (and good writing) we have to get over ourselves a bit. Here’s how.

The art of the apology

  1. Use everyday words

I’m sorry.

It won’t fix everything, but it’s a good start.

  1. Be actively personal

I’ll pay for the cleaning.

The cleaning won’t just ‘be paid for’ – you’re going to pay for it. So say so. Using the passive voice sounds evasive.

  1. Get to the point

Send me the bill and I’ll settle it right away.

If you need the injured party to do something, tell them. It’s the fastest way to a resolution – which is more important to them than awkward grovelling.

Notice there’s no explanation. If you’ve been asked for a reason - or it’s legally important - by all means include it. But if you haven’t (or it’s an unhelpful one), feel free to give it a miss.

One last thing: don’t be tempted to mirror. A lot of people put on their own most official voice to complain, and it might seem right to speak as you’re spoken to. It’s not. In most cases, the brand is the one that holds the power to solve the problem. That means anyone writing for the brand has the power to diffuse the tension. So don’t fight fire with fire.

Convinced? It’s time to set yourself (or your customer service team) free from the constraints of carefully-worded templates. But if that’s proving easier said than done, let us know if we can help.