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How Should You Apologize to Customers on Twitter?

Mike Schneider
By Mike Schneider on Apr 22, 2014 2:23:21 PM

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You’ve probably read scores of studies analyzing the performance of brands resolving customer issues on social. A new report from the Journal of Pragmatics takes a very different approach by completely ignoring whether brands resolve customer issues. Instead, Saying ‘Sorry’: Corporate Apologies Posted on Twitter focuses on the types and patterns of language used in 1183 apologies gathered from 30 celebrities, 30 ‘ordinary’ members of Twitter and 40 corporate accounts between 2010 and 2012.

Here are three key points discussed in the research, as well as related observations and best practice recommendations.

1) It’s important to have process, but avoid a strict formula for responses

Compared to individual Twitter users, Brands said the word ‘sorry’ 8.6 times more,  used the word ‘apology’ 7.4 times more, and expressed ‘regret’ 37.5 times more. The primary goal of companies apologizing, the report said, was to “save face” and protect reputation. As a result, most companies followed a formula consisting of greeting, closing, the use of the customer’s name and often a personal signature of initials. The researchers assert that while this structure might appear personal on the surface, repeated use of responses near-identical in structure actually signals social distance.

The main reason why agents repeated words and structure of Twitter responses was likely efficiency, not laziness. Traditional agent SLAs and KPIs are built around speed of response and resolution, not creativity. There is also no basis to say that what the brands analyzed are doing is not working.  Ultimately, it’s up to each company to consider factors such as audience, brand voice and industry in order to find their correct mix of prescribed and off-the-cuff language. On one end of the spectrum, automated responses can infuriate customers. On the other end, lack of a uniform brand voice can provide customers with a inconsistent customer experience. The public nature of social means that everyone can see when a company has replied to someone else with similar or, even worse, identical messages.

2) Actions speak louder than words
According to the research, companies tend not to restate the offense that led to the apology, and are also unlikely to provide face-damaging explanations of why it occurred. Ordinary Twitter members offered an explanation 27% of the time, compared to just 10% from companies. Rather than restate the offense, companies tend to make offers for repair; 30% of apologies posted by companies, compared to 10% of apologies posted by individuals, contained an offer of repair.

It’s also worth stating a somewhat obvious point to consider when looking at this data: consumer expectations for brands and individuals are very different. It would seem a little strange if a friend were to offer you a 50% discount for something mid-apology, while an airline making an emotional appeal in response to a complaint about a twice-canceled flight might not satisfy customers.

While the worst possible behavior for a brand is to not respond to a customer query or complaint at all, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for whether explanations are more effective than offers for repair, or vice versa. Ultimately, a brand’s obligation to provide good service is so strong––and the risk of making a public misstep is so great––when compared to an individual that it makes sense for brands to aim for swift resolution over simple apology.

3) Resolve in-channel
The research found that companies tended to embed apologies within longer interactions, evidenced by the inclusion of questions and imperatives in the messages containing an apology (common imperatives were things like "please call", "stand by", etc).

Asking customers to direct message — or even worse, email — means tasking an already disgruntled customer with another step to take. While certain issues require private resolution, taking social conversations private should be a last resort verses a first response. Even when you are not able to solve a customer issue publicly on social media due to privacy issues, you should follow up with post issue resolution on that given channel. This not only shows you still care, but allows for issues to be resolved in the public eye, showing bystanders that you provide great service. Even just a simple thank you to the user for their time and patience can suffice.

Want to learn more social customer service best practices? Download our Definitive Guide to Social Customer Service.

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Topics: Twitter

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