For some reason, Rob wants to apologise.

Needing a bit of a challenge, I asked my Twitter followers to suggest topics I could blog about. Rob responded with:

@benlocker A blog about writing concise apologies that sound genuine and aren’t too poncy.

A great idea, but there was a sting in the tail.

With several examples I can copy and paste

I know a request to do someone else’s work when I see one.

Anyway, pushing on, I asked Rob why he wanted to apologise. He said:

@benlocker I’m writing apology templates for various customer service issues. It would be good to see how someone else approaches it

My advice would simply be to chuck away any idea of a template. I’ve got a story for you instead.

All about a banker

Cast your mind back to 1993. In those days, Scottish supermarkets would mark the Sabbath by sealing off their drinks aisles with blockades of empty trolleys. The SNP was as likely to handle the levers of power as a Lilliputian in a junction box. And it was almost impossible for English people to do their banking north of the border.

This was a problem. I was planning to go to university in Scotland. I banked with Barclays. The nearest branch I knew of was in Edinburgh, 60 miles or so from where I’d be studying. It struck me as wasteful to buy a train ticket with the bank’s money every time I wanted to ask for more of it.

So I decided to become a customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In Peterborough. Ten miles or so from where I lived. I figured that if there weren’t a few branches of RBS in Scotland itself, then there was something very badly wrong.

I got on a train, found the branch and spoke to an account manager. I handed over a cheque for more than £500 (an astonishing amount of money for this 18 year old). And I opened my account, with promises that my cash machine card would be with me within a week.

The days passed. The weeks melted. I rang up the branch once or twice to check where my card could have gone. I endured the sulks of my then girlfriend as I asked her, week after week, to cash me the odd cheque. I suffered the inconvenience of getting a train every time I wanted to withdraw money. And then, one day, someone at the bank told me my card hadn’t been ordered.

It was my defining moment as a writer. I hammered out a type-written letter to the manager that had the punchline: “I will not be lied to.” I sent it for his personal attention.

That did the trick. In quick stages, these things happened.

  1. The next day I got a phone call from the person who opened my account. He couldn’t apologise enough. I believed him.
  2. I got a personal letter from the manager, apologising for what had happened. It was about two or three lines long and signed by hand.
  3. I got a small sum of money credited to my account, more than covering the train tickets I’d bought to visit the bank.
  4. I’ve been a customer of the same branch of the same bank ever since, even though I have lived nowhere near it for over a decade.

Indeed, I couldn’t recommend the Peterborough branch of RBS highly enough. And that’s because they did the right thing when I complained, and have treated me well ever since.

So, when it comes to writing apology letters, here’s my advice.

1. Don’t write one if you are the person who should be apologising

At least, don’t write one straight away. It’s amazing what a conciliatory call will do.

2. Get a ‘real’ person to write a letter

Templates will not do. Send a personal letter that apologises for the specific issue, explains the action that has been taken, and offers some sort of kindness – whether a ‘thank you’ or compensation. And keep it short: it draws a line under the matter.

3. It’s cheaper to…

Make sure your service is good, rather than investing in massive, impersonal systems for ‘apologising’.

Not the best news for copywriters perhaps, but excellent news for customers. That’s the right way round, I think.