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Why companies apologize (and how to be ready to do it)

4 min read


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The last thing any company wants is to need to send an apology email. It undermines the company’s brand credibility, and it’s a little humiliating. But no one is perfect, so every company will send one eventually.

Apology emails are less painful when you’ve prepared. But before we talk preparations, let’s consider the main reasons companies apologize:

1. A website outage blocked users from accessing information or completing transactions. This reason is most common, particularly among retailers and other consumer services companies.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, Neiman Marcus repeatedly suffered site outages. The retailer integrated apologies into two promotional emails, but after continued problems, it wisely sent a dedicated apology email signed by the CEO.

2. An email contained a significant error. Errors sometimes require standalone apologies, although often these emails are more like corrections. Reserve these for errors that either impair subscribers’ abilities to act on the message or that annoy, anger, or offend them.

My company, Litmus, emailed a “save the date” last May for The Email Design Conference we produce. That email contained a dynamic live Twitter feed that included our #TEDC15 hashtag — only it didn’t work the first time we sent it. Thankfully, we recognized this in time to halt the send quickly, then we fixed the problem and sent a correction.

3. A public relations situation arose in another channel. For example, Lands’ End sent free magazines to customers who spent more than $100 between July 9 and 16, 2014. However, some customers didn’t appreciate the racy cover photo on their editions of GQ. In response, Lands’ End sent an apology email to the magazine recipients.

Prepare for that inevitable mistake

Because companies almost always decide under duress whether to send apology emails, and those emails are (hopefully) rare, most don’t get much practice apologizing. Yet apologies are vital to the brand-customer relationship because they represent opportunities not only to fix your relationship, but also to improve it.

But that’s difficult to achieve without laying the required groundwork for smooth responses, so make these preparations:

Create and maintain an “apology email” template. Laying out a template will help you respond to mistakes quickly and keep the focus on the message behind your apology. This template should contain your usual email header and footer that includes a link to unsubscribe and a postal address so it’s compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act.

The body of the email should be formatted and styled for HTML text so subscribers who have images blocked can still read the message. Keep the focus on the apology by refraining from adding images — even if it’s a headshot of the executive who might be apologizing. That said, it’s good to have an executive “sign” the message to demonstrate that a specific person takes responsibility.

Because inbox providers render emails differently and change their email code support sporadically, it’s important to test your template routinely. Ensure it displays correctly across all major desktop, webmail, and mobile app inboxes. Don’t let a rendering glitch undermine your message.

Arrive at a consensus on what’s worth apologizing for. Team members might have different ideas about what requires an apology. Revisit past apology emails you’ve sent and scrutinize apologies you’ve received. While every situation is unique, you can respond more quickly if all team members agree.

Everyone will have to apologize at some point. But if you know the common reasons, settle on a consensus and prepare a template, making amends will be much less painful. More important, your apologies will be quicker and better crafted, so you’ll be more likely to regain your customers’ trust.

Chad White is the research director at Litmus, a web-based email creation, testing, and analytics platform. He’s also the author of “Email Marketing Rules” and thousands of posts and articles about email marketing.

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