Need to apologize? Speak plain English.

There are good ways and bad ways to address a customer service fiasco. Courtesy of Southwest Airlines, here’s one of the bad ways:

“We are working directly with the family after sincerely apologizing and issuing a full refund for their less-than-positive travel experience,” Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said Sunday night. “We certainly will take away any potential learnings from this experience in our constant evaluation of how to provide the best possible customer service, which is second only to the safety of every passenger.”

Setting aside the situation that led this (the short version: Chris and Heather Dainiak, parents of a terminally ill boy, were told their son could not fly sitting in his protective chair, even though he had used it on another Southwest flight just days earlier), I have to ask: what makes people talk this way? A “less than positive travel experience?” “Potential learnings?”

Rule Number One of corporate apologies is: Never spin. Acknowledge the situation as honestly and objectively as you can.

Mr. Hawkins may be a fine, compassionate fellow, but when he uses phrases like “less than positive travel experience,” he sounds like his number one concern is minimizing the damage to his company’s image, rather than offering a heartfelt apology to the Dainiak family and doing everything possible to make amends.

What is “less than positive?” Neutral or negative. Nobody would say the Dainiaks’ experience was neutral, therefore, it was negative. It was bad. So cut the crap, ditch the spin, and admit what everyone already knows.

I have no idea who added the “potential learnings” locution to this statement (I’m betting that it was the product of a committee), but they should have been smacked with a dead mackerel. “Learnings” is bad enough, but to tack on “potential,” as if the management and workers of Southwest might not actually learn anything from this situation is staggering.

Everybody screws up. Everybody needs to apologize. When it’s your turn, try to sound like a human being, and speak or write in plain English, not in corporate speak.

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This entry was posted in Business writing, Plain Language and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Need to apologize? Speak plain English.

  1. Elaine Swift says:

    Nice post Roy and I couldn’t agree more. Apart from the hideous management speak language (I loathe the term ‘learnings’ – whatever happened to good old ‘lessons’?) the apology does seem to miss the point whether intentionally or not.

    I just wish businesses could find the confidence to be more human and less robotic.

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