As the Marketo screw-up shows, you can’t apologize in the passive voice

Marketing automation company Marketo had an oopsy last week — they forgot to renew their main domain name. This caused a day’s disruption for their customers. The CEO’s passive apology fails to be direct and honest. Why is this so hard?

Let’s take a look at the CEO’s email to customers. In what follows, I’ve marked passive in bold and weasel words in italics. My commentary and translation follows:

From: Steve Lucas <ceo@marketo.com>
Subject: Marketo.com Domain Access Issue

Dear Marketo Customers and Partners:

Today, for a number of hours, our main web site, Marketo.com along with a small number of other Marketo domain properties were rendered inaccessible, preventing log in to our application. While the issue is now largely resolved, and I can assure you that the core Marketo application continued to operate in the background and your data was never at risk. I want to sincerely apologize to you and on behalf of the entire Marketo team as we take any disruption to your service very seriously.

Commentary: The subject line sets the weaselly tone: it’s not a “Domain Access Issue,” it’s a service failure. And the opening paragraph demonstrates that Lucas and Marketo treat treat this as something that happened to them, rather than something they did (or failed to do). Its site was “rendered inaccessible.” Who rendered it inaccessible? Whoever didn’t renew the domain name. And of course they take service disruptions “very seriously” — when you deliver your service through the cloud, a service disruption means you’re not delivering what people paid for.

Translation: We screwed up and a result your service wasn’t accessible for a while. It’s back now, and it continued to record data while you couldn’t get to it.

I also want to be completely transparent with you on what happened and assure you that it won’t happen again.

We renew thousands of domain name properties we own every year with precision, yet the auto renew process for registering our main domain, Marketo.com, failed. This catalyzed a cascading series of issues, but ultimately human and process error are to blame and again, we take full responsibility.

Commentary: The only thing customers care about is what happened and that it won’t happen again. We don’t really care that the auto-renew process failed, nor that there was a cascading series of “issues” (there’s that word again). And “human and process error” really means “we screwed up.” Lucas gets points for “we take full responsibility” but should have said this earlier in the note.

Translation: Here’s what happened: our process for renewing the domain failed. That’s our fault. We’ve fixed it and it won’t happen again.

While our global support team in Ireland was working with our DNS registrar in the very early morning hours, members of our customer and partner community helped pinpoint specific issues that aided us significantly. While this does not absolve Marketo of responsibility for this serious situation, I would like to thank the individuals who assisted us. We greatly appreciate your support during a trying time.

Commentary: The place to recognize the support team’s heroics is in an internal email, not in the email to customers. And this is a good place to point out Lucas’ writing tic: the says what he’d “like to” do, not what he’s doing (“I want to sincerely apologize,” “I also want to be completely transparent,” “I would like to thank the individuals.”) This further distances the CEO from the problems and actions. Don’t say what you’d like to do, just do it.

Translation: The support team in Ireland and some of out customers and partners helped us fix it. Thanks.

For our global customers, please note that domain name resolution issues can take up to 24 hours in some cases to fully resolve – i.e. propagate across the internet.

Translation: It might not be fixed yet for you depending on the location where you are connecting to the Internet.

I personally have commissioned a detailed review of our internal operating procedures on a number of fronts to ensure we have fail-safe protocols in every area of the business.

Additionally, I’ve addressed the company internally and while the issue with the registration is largely resolved, I have nonetheless emphasized the gravity of what occurred and extended a call to action for more precision in our operation.

Commentary: This is intended to sound resolute. But words like “emphasized the gravity of what occurred and extended a call to action for more precision in our operation” may be part of the problem. This is business jargon that obscures exactly what he’s doing. Do you really trust someone who “extends a call to action”?

Translation: I asked our teams to improve their processes and backups to ensure we don’t mess up again. This is pretty serious, so I yelled a lot.

My deepest thanks to you, our customers and partners, for your support and understanding as we reaffirm our commitment to always deliver world class service to you.

Steve Lucas
CEO
Marketo

Commentary: How much is a commitment to deliver world-class service worth if you don’t actually deliver it due to a domain-name glitch?

Translation: We’ll do better, I promise.

How to write a direct and clear apology for a simple screwup

It’s emotionally hard to say “we messed up something simple.” But as far as writing goes, it’s easy. Start with what happened and don’t say what you “want to” do, just say what you are doing.

From: Steve Lucas <ceo@marketo.com>
Subject: I apologize to our customers for the Marketo service interruption

Dear Marketo Customers and Partners:

Marketo.com was down along with some other domains for a while today. I know you count on access to the service and I apologize. While the site was down and inaccessible, the Marketo application continued to operate in the background and your data was never at risk.

Our processes for renewing the domain name failed, which led to other problems. We’ve updated those processes to avoid this specific problem. I’ve also told all our teams to build fail-safes to minimize the likelihood of failures like this in other areas of the business.

For most of you, your service should be back to normal now. In some geographies it may take up to 24 hours for the domain name system to propagate fully. If you’re in one of those areas, I apologize for the extended disruption.

If you’re one of the customers and partners who helped us pinpoint and fix the problem, you have my personal thanks.

I’ve done everything I can to make sure disruptions like this don’t happen again. I humbly appreciate your continued support.

Steve Lucas
CEO
Marketo

5 responses to “As the Marketo screw-up shows, you can’t apologize in the passive voice

  1. Thank you for addressing one of my pet peeves: “I would like to [fill in the blank].” When I read this or hear this, I think “what’s stopping you from doing it?” Because if you’d like to do something, just do it, or don’t tell me about your intention. I care about your action, not your intention.

    BTW, do any of these CEO’s contact you to train their staff in how to write clearly?

  2. Julie beat me to it. “I wanted to reach out to see if you are evaluating [products].”

    Aside from the obvious “I want something from you in return for nothing”, it screams “I wanted to, but then got scared, but maybe I’ll send it, no, not yet, OK here goes! “

  3. Your reply is better (duh!), but still not good enough.

    Split the first paragraph and move the apology front and center.

    I’m not sure your processes failed, you did.

    Kill: “in other areas of the business.”

    For most of you, your service should be back to normal now. In some geographies ***(THIS is not a proper use of the word, change it to what you really mean)***. it may take up to 24 hours for the domain name system to propagate ***(again, this is not the proper use of this word, what do you really mean?)*** fully. If ***(no IFs.)*** you’re in one of those areas, I apologize for the extended disruption. ***(Interestingly, the original is better and, I would guess, closer to the truth)***

    If ***(no IFs)*** you’re one of the customers and partners who helped us pinpoint and fix the problem, you have my personal thanks. ***Just thank who helped you, if they are from outside. And a broadcast email is not a personal thanks, but any stretch of the imagination***

    I’ve done everything I can ***(I doubt it, just say what you did and why you think the problem is unlikely to repeat)****to make sure disruptions like this don’t happen again. I humbly appreciate your continued support. ***(I’m not supporting you, I’m paying you! (unless this is Bartles & James))****

  4. Something that stands out to me in the original letter is the use of “a small number”. For those customers, this was a potentially huge issue. That phrase feels minimize-y (it wasn’t everyone! just a small number!). On my first read I wondered if the letter was supposed to be informative in nature and geared at everyone else who might have heard about this, but didn’t experience it.

    Basically it’s a hot mess.

    +1 on the “… would like to …” pet peeve. Stop wasting words and my time! Own your action!

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