How NOT to write a professional apology letter
United States Army veteran Ernest Walker just went to Chili’s restaurant for the promise of a free burger.
The restaurant showed its “appreciation” for his service by confiscating his leftovers, questioning his service credentials and ejecting him from the Cedar Hill, TX location. The restaurant chose to disrespect Walker on, of all days of the year, Veterans Day–the day Americans dedicate to showing appreciation for the service of veterans like Walker.
The restaurant manager accused Mr. Walker of not being a “real” veteran and even questioned whether he could legally bring his clearly-marked service dog into the restaurant. (American law allows Mr. Walker to bring his service dog into restaurants and forbids restaurants from barring his dog.)
Chili’s humiliated and dishonored Mr. Walker on Veterans’ Day. How did the restaurant chain react to their terrible behavior?
Judging from their CEO’s apology letter, they didn’t respond well at all. In fact, you could argue they made the situation worse. Below is Chili’s CEO Kelli Velade’s tepid response to her company’s terrible behavior:
Since we opened our doors, we’ve had one passion – to make people feel special. At Chili’s, it’s more than just about the food; it’s more than just about a meal. Every day we strive to create a great experience for you, your families and your friends. There are more than 100,000 of us working together to take care of our Guests, like no place else.
However, on Nov. 11, one of our restaurants failed to live up to our expectations and in doing so, we let down a valued Guest. Last week, Mr. Walker, a veteran, came into our restaurant to participate in our Chili’s program honoring veterans and active military with a free meal. Unfortunately, Mr. Walker was not treated in a manner our veterans deserve. On a day where we served more than 200,000 free meals as a small gesture of our appreciation for our veterans and active military for their service, we fell short.
Today, we personally apologized to Mr. Walker for the unfortunate experience in our restaurant on Veterans Day and thanked him for his service to our country. We also thanked him for taking the time to speak with us and he appreciated our apology. We took swift action and immediately removed our manager from the restaurant. We are now in the process of working with Mr. Walker on a resolution that promotes trust and healing.
We are committed to making this right because this is not representative of what Chili’s stands for, where every day, in every restaurant, we connect, serve and give to create the best life.
On behalf of our Team Members, I want to thank you for listening, acknowledging our apology and we look forward to making you feel special in our restaurants.
Sincerely, Kelli Valade
Did you notice what was missing in this letter? Ms. Valade never apologizes to Chili’s patrons for behavior that even she admits let down a “valued Guest” and failed to treat him “in a manner our veterans deserve.” The next-to-last paragraph mentions that the restaurant chain apologized to Mr. Walker, but Ms. Valade never apologizes to Chili’s patrons within the letter. So if you were offended by the chain’s behavior, they assume you’ll eventually get over it.
Another thing I noticed is that the entire first paragraph is a brazen advertisement promoting Chili’s supposed values. Pardon me, but I don’t want to hear an advertisement from your chain after you’ve admitted to letting one of your customers down. You prove your values by what you do, not what you say, and all I have to do is search on the internet for “Chili’s manager” and see for myself how you really care about your customers.
Also, notice the tone of the letter–it was clearly written by someone in the public relations or legal department. Those of us in the business know why the letter was written this way and that the person writing the letter (clearly not the CEO) is just doing his/her job. But when you mess up this bad, you need to sound human and this letter is too carefully-worded to be genuine. Granted, you save the chain further embarrassment by carefully writing the letter this way, but you also sound like you don’t really mean it when you say you’re sorry.
So is all forgiven? Search for #BoycottChilis on Twitter and see for yourself.
If you’re going to bother writing an apology letter on behalf of your company make sure you 1.) Actually apologize for unacceptable behavior you clearly identify, 2.) Don’t include marketing jargon, slogans or other self-promoting content and 3.) Sound like a genuine human with feelings.
If you can’t manage those three simple requirements, you’d be better off not writing a professional apology letter at all.
This post first appeared on The Good Idea Exchange, a blog about leadership and self-improvement.