Written Apologies Are Worthless

A reader showed us a letter he was going to send to AT&T. At the end, among his demands, he listed, “a written apology.” We told him to get rid of it. He asked why. He said the apology would actually be worth more to him than the refunds for which he was asking.

We said, for one thing, you’re not going to get an apology. That’s an admission of wrongdoing and legally that’s a bad place to be for a company. Secondly, it has no place. You’re having a dispute with a business about a business transaction. Inserting a request for a written apology just elevates your letter to “probably crazy” status, encouraging them to ignore it.

Let’s say you did get a written apology. There’s no guarantee the company meant it. There’s a story about a business exec who sent a complaint letter after bedbugs ate him up all night on a train trip. He received a moving letter from the rail company, saying how sorry they were, and the steps they were taking to ensure it never happened again. His original letter was included in the envelope. Across the top was written, “Send this jerk the bedbug letter.”

All you should be concerned about is that you’re getting the goods and services for the price you paid. If you want someone to care about your feelings, get a dog.


Edit Your Comment

  1. MENDOZA!!!!! says:

    wow, tough love.

  2. JKinNYC says:

    Did he also ask for a hug? Sheesh.

  3. DrGirlfriend says:

    I agree. Besides, you know they’re not sorry anyway. What does it matter, or how does it help? If they want to throw one in out of the goodness of their cold, black, corporate hearts, then fantastic. But only after they’ve satisfactorily settled the dispute.

  4. vaxman says:

    @JKinNYC: Can i have a hug?

  5. ElizabethD says:

    You guys have it right. Never ever let consumer complaints or disputes get personal or emotional — if you do, you’ve given up control of the situation.

    Just the facts, ma’am (or sir).

  6. Shaggy says:

    It’s kind of sad that wanting to be treated like a human being rather than a commodity can be considered “crazy”.

  7. Sherryness says:

    I’d be curious to know what sate the reader wanting an apology lives in.

    I’ve recently moved to Iowa from Washington state (don’t ask why, I regret it and I’ll be fixing that mistake) and have found a huge difference in the people and companies where customer service/concern is, well, concerned.

    In Iowa they are all about “make it right” if something was done wrong. And that’s pretty much it.

    In Seattle, it was very touchy-feely, feelings-wise. “We’re so sorry for the inconvenience.” “I apologize for taking your time.” “Here’s a coupon for a free item on your next visit.” I even had one manager say, “*I* want you to leave here genuinely happy.”

    I’ve found this attitude is not just in customer service, though. It applies to workplace, interactions with cashiers, interactions with neighbors. Oddly enough – Iowa is a LOT less friendly and down-home than Seattle. Very surprisingly so, really.

    I’m guessing your reader is from somewhere like Seattle or California or somewhere where people just relate to each other quite a bit differently than the midwest, for better or for worse.

    He is used to companies wanting him to feel happy, so he takes it as poor customer service if they don’t apologize for the time and aggravation they’ve cost him.

    Anyway, it can probably just be summed up as regional and what he’s used to as far as being made whole, and not his being a cry-baby. Nevermind me, I seem to have hypergraphia today or something.

  8. emona says:

    That end line is fantastic.

  9. @Shaggy: My thoughts exactly.

    “Hey, you spilled your drink on me!”
    “So apologize.”
    “OMG, yur crazy!”

  10. mantari says:


  11. flairness says:

    Well this is certainly a change of front-page material. A little insulting to the ‘reader’…who is probably a loyal Consumerist fan. Good job – call them out and make them feel like a dumbass.

  12. niccernicus says:

    I requested one from AT&T or Dish Network a while back.

    I got it too…..

    Dear Nic,

    We’re sorry for whatever we did.


    Big Business

    …….Didn’t even have a company logo. However, it was a tad bit satisfying that someone actually took the time to hand sign the stupid piece of paper. Sometimes, it’s the small things.

  13. Will Clarke says:

    IANAL but apologizing does not necessarily mean an admission of guilt. You can easily word it to state that you’re sorry for an unintended result while making clear that you’re not legally responsible – any minimally competent customer service person should be able to pull it off.

    Also – that was pretty harsh. I don’t think an wanting an apology makes you a crazy person at all (depending on the problem of course) and it shows the company is willing to work with you. Anyone can refund some fee, actually writing something down expressing some sense of empathy takes work.

  14. DrGirlfriend says:

    I once got a one-and-a-half page letter of apology from Citibank, after they held my savings account hostage for 2 months. I didn’t even ask for it. I saved that letter, because I knew it was a rare item indeed. One day it may even have monetary value as a relic of another time — a time when corporations sometimes, but only sometimes, gave a crap.

  15. hollerhither says:

    That’s simply not true. The line “we’re sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused” is routinely a part of customer service letters or emails. Is that not a written apology, if it comes along with whatever restitution you’ve asked for?

    Why is it wrong to expect some sort of acknowledgment of responsibility for shitty service/attitudes?

  16. JKinNYC says:

    @DrGirlfriend: That’s different. The apology you didn’t ask for actually means something.

  17. INconsumer says:

    a written apology may be worthless, but at the same time is also priceless.

  18. Paul D says:

    If you want someone to care about your feelings, get a dog.


  19. JKinNYC says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation:

    An apology you have to ask for is meaningless. BS. That’s why it is silly to ask

  20. Canadian Impostor says:

    My gigantic bank that most of you hate regularly sends me apology letters for things I’ve screwed up.

    It’s sort of embarassing.

  21. Canadian Impostor says:

    I’d also like to add how much I hate it when you call customer service on the phone and they apologize constantly. I know they don’t actually care just get on with it.

    “We’re so sorry you didn’t enjoy blahblahblahblah”

  22. rdm24 says:

    Dude, if our goverment can’t apologize for slavery, why should AT&T apologize for @Shaggy: Craziness is a distinctly human characteristic.

  23. magus_melchior says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: My thoughts exactly, except the “OMG, yur crazy” is often expressed as “Boo hoo. Did I make the baby wet?” Not only is a person rightly looking for an apology nuts, they’re pathetic and ridiculous to some people. Unbelievable.

  24. Buran says:

    I don’t think apologies are worthless. If they were, why is apologizing (and being honest about it) one of the best ways to patch up a misunderstanding?

  25. DallasDMD says:

    @rdm24: Uh, our government has apologized for slavery numerous times.

  26. iamme99 says:

    I got an apology letter, hand signed (and a complete refund) from American express via their Executive Complaint group for the shoddy way their customer disservice reps handled a complaint of mine a few months back. I was also told that the reps were going to be, umm, how should I put this, “reducated” :)

    Made me satisfied.

  27. Paul D says:

    “The Canadian government has apologized for Bryan Adams on several occasions!”

  28. Nately says:

    I hate to actually quote/paraphrase a mediocre John Travolta movie, but in “A Civil Action” they put it best by saying, “Money is how corporations apologize.”

    Thank you, late night cable reruns.

  29. alhypo says:

    It actually might be stupid for them to not apologize. There have been many studies suggesting people are far less likely to sue if they are treated politely and given apologies. Of course, if a person actually is more likely to win a law suit having received an apology, then I guess the company would need to analyze the expected consequences of each approach and use the cheaper one. Losing one really big law suit might make up for all the smaller ones they avoided by apologizing.

    I’m just not convinced there is much precedent suggesting an apology is akin to an admission of guilt. One of the most common responses to a death in the family is “I’m sorry”. Obviously, this is not an apology, but it sounds the same. So, if the company finds itself in court, all it has to do as claim their apology was really just an indication of empathy.

  30. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    If I remember correctly, the bedbug letter was written by the head of the New York Central RR. way back in the 1950’s.
    The NYC RR also ran a number of trains with Pullman cars but wouldn’t sell any tickets for the Pullman cars.
    That was so they could go to the Interstate Commerce Commission & tell them no one wanted the Pullman cars & then discontinue the Pullmans.

  31. chili_dog says:

    “If you want someone to care about your feelings, get a dog.” Bahahahahahahahahahaha

    But seriously, that’s harsh, I guess Gawker Media is busting chops over lack of book sales.

  32. JKinNYC says:

    @Buran: Apologies are not worthless. Apologies you have to ask/beg/make threats for are worthless.

  33. ThePopOversAreDone says:

    My dog couldn’t give a shit about my feelings.

  34. Omir The Storyteller says:

    @GreasyThumbGuzik: That may have been where YOU heard the story, but I seem to remember reading that story in one of H. Allen Smith’s collections that was published back in the 1940s, about an episode that happened well before that. But you know how memory is, when you get old it’s the second thing to go.

    IIRC, the tag line to that version was something like “Joe: Send this broad the bedbug letter. — J. W.”

    My guess is that it never really happened, and it’s one of those urban legends that gets spread because, well, it sounds like it should have happened.

  35. Omir The Storyteller says:

    Ha! I should have looked at snopes first. Turns out the story goes even farther back than that.

    The Bedbug Letter: [www.snopes.com]

  36. Jesse in Japan says:

    Or, you could buy a significant share of stock in the company, go to the shareholders meeting, and demand a public apology or you’ll dump all your shares at below value right then and there.

    That’s what I’d do.

  37. Trackback says:

    I wonder if this is a good or a bad thing. Tuesday night there was an magnitude 5.6 earthquake in Alum Rock, CA near San Jose near midnight EST. I learned about it at around 12:05. You might be wondering if I sit by my computer hoping to catch the first news of the day, well I don’t.

  38. @JKinNYC: Yeah, wanting to be treated with respect is silly. Some of us are goofy that way, wanting people to acknowledge that they’ve wronged us.

    @magus_melchior: True. I was just referencing the part in the post about how requesting the apology puts your letter in the “probably crazy” category.

  39. JKinNYC says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: That’s not what I said, and you know it. Apologies you have to ask for are bullshit. If they don’t respect you enough to give it to you off the bat when you deserve it, they don’t respect you. In fact, if you ask for one, and they give you some half-assed apology, they show they respect you even less.