Despair, Inc. makes posters and tchotchkes that satirize motivational sayings (you know, like “Tradition: Just Because You’ve Always Done It That Way Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Incredibly Stupid.”). And like any other business, they screw up. Unlike other businesses, their apology is self-deprecating and funny.
Here’s the email a friend of mine got from Despair yesterday:
From: The Wailing List
Subject: Sorry About That Website Failure (But It’s Back)
Well, this is embarrassing.
Only a few hours after sending the email below, Despair.com completely ground to a halt. People discovered they could no longer add any items to their carts. As a result, online orders ground to a halt while trouble tickets exploded in volume for hours. (This would be hilarious had it happened to someone else, but since it happened here, it was nothing short of a tragedy.)
We eventually isolated the problem. One of the applications installed on our Shopify store had crashed from the sales volume, and in so doing, it disabled “add to cart” functionality for nearly every item in our store. That application has since been removed.
We are re-sending the prior mail below for those of you who may have been prevented from ordering during the outage. We do apologize for any frustrations you experienced and assure you, the blame is rolling downhill as you read this, and powerless people here who really had nothing whatsoever to do with the screwup will be held to account. It is the way of the world.
Thanks for your patience with us,
The Despair Team
This email tells you what happened and why, takes responsibility (sort of), explains the consequences for customers (messed up “add to cart” functionality), captures the satiric tone of the site, and slyly allows Despair to resend the marketing email, which follows this apology. And it’s short. Except for the repeated “ground to a halt,” which is probably a mistake, it was refreshingly different from the apologies you usually read.
Could you do this? Maybe. But use some careful judgment.
Corporate apologies are usually pusillanimous, serious, awful, and too long. They don’t take responsibility and they don’t actually apologize. They generate anger.
This one generated a smile.
Should you do a funny apology when you screw up? Maybe. But consider a few things:
- Serious companies shouldn’t suddenly joke around. I’d be upset with an apology like this from Fidelity or my health insurance plan. Could Nike or Whole Foods do it? Maybe, but it would seem a bit weird. I could see Comedy Central, T-Mobile, or Southwest Airlines sending this kind of email. If your relationship with customers includes humor, a smiling apology is possible; otherwise, probably not.
- Don’t make jokes to angry customers. If T-Mobile’s service were offline for a day or it had sent excessive bills, it wouldn’t be appropriate to joke about it. Similarly, Southwest Airlines isn’t going to joke about flight delays or grounding 737 MAX planes after a crash. And if Despair had had a data breach rather than a site outage, you wouldn’t see a funny apology. Rule of thumb: if your screwup generated angry customers, don’t make it into a joke.
- Humor should be self-deprecating. Despair screwed up. So it’s okay for Despair to make jokes about its own incompetence (in fact, that’s the theme of what they sell). It’s not okay for anyone to make jokes about customers’ inconvenience or losses, layoffs, or anyone except the company itself. “Ha, ha, you’re screwed,” isn’t funny.
If something trivial happens and you need to apologize for it — and if you’ve got that kind of relationship with your customers — go for the smile. We could use a little less seriousness in our lives. Just think a bit first about how your customers will receive the message.
Programming note: I’ll be posting a few more examples of my horror fiction on weekends. If you’re not interested, just ignore the site updates on weekends.