Perhaps it is because I started my career as a copywriter. Or maybe it is because of situations I’ve found myself in recently. For whatever reason, I want to make a public appeal to my fellow marketers and communications professionals to strike the word “inconvenient” from their commercial lexicon.
I’m sure you’ve encountered the use of this word. Perhaps more often than you’ve realised. It is usually delivered by a business to its customers, typically in an impersonal, sometimes flippant manner, usually following a problem or error for which the business is responsible; as in “we apologise for any inconvenience”.
A few months ago I was waiting in an airport to board a flight. Then, over the speakers came the distorted sound of an airline employee;
“Due to ‘blah, blah, blah’ the flight has been delayed for another thirty minutes. We apologise for any inconvenience”.
As I scanned my fellow waiting passengers, I thought, “inconvenience”?
I imagined one woman thinking “I’ll miss my sister’s wedding”. Someone else thinking “I’m going to be late for my job interview”. I was thinking, “I may miss my connecting flight to London.” I would not describe any of these as simply an “inconvenience”.
In fact, whether something is inconvenient or a disaster, is not for the inconvenience-or to decide, but the inconvenience-ee.
When companies or brands attempt to belittle the problem with this expression they are really saying “OK, we know this isn’t good, but it’s not THAT bad. It’s only an inconvenience, if that”.
I’ve seen this this phrase used after:
“No Credit Cards”
“Trains have been replaced by busses this weekend”.
And dozens more.
When Target in the US recently had a security breach that exposed 40,000,000 cardholders to potential credit card fraud, they said “We’re deeply sorry for the inconvenience…”
I think the most egregious example comes from the UK in 2007. CDs containing the confidential personal details of 25 million child-benefit recipients were lost by the Department of Revenue & Customs.
The records contained the names, addresses, dates of birth and National Insurance numbers of the entire child benefit database, which also includes the bank account details of more than seven million parents, guardians and carers.
This, it seems to me, is pretty serious.
How did Prime Minister Gordon Brown respond?
“I profoundly regret and apologise for the inconvenience . . .”
There are three major problems with using this language to apologise to customers;
1) It is presumptuous. It asserts that you know the customer’s situation. In almost every case, you don’t.
2) It is disingenuous. There is really only one person who can decide how a customer feels or know the consequences suffered by that customer. That is, of course, the customer. Unless you’re really good at it, faking sincerity usually doesn’t work.
3) It is counter-productive. It does not ‘settle the crowd’ in the short term nor build your brand in the long term.
So, what can you do?
Be honest. Don’t apologise if you’re not sorry. For example, if you’ve decided not to accept credit cards, don’t apologise. If you were really that sorry, you’d just accept credit cards.
I suggest that the best approach is to simply shorten your apology.
From “We apologise for any inconvenience” to “I apologise”. Examine the two similar, but very different sentences:
“We apologise for any inconvenience”.
We – This attempts to spread the blame. “We” is less personal than “I”. “We” is ambiguous. Who after all, is included in the “We”?
Any – This implies that there may not have even been an inconvenience. The apology only applies if an inconvenience was caused.
Inconvenience – I’ve covered this point above.
I – Personal, genuine, disarming.
Apologise – Good
Period, Full stop – Nothing needs to be added. Yes, it is a bad situation. I’m sorry. Now, let’s move on.