Early in my hospitality career (which to me is a gentler opening than “Many years ago…”) I served as an administrative assistant to a regional manager of a franchise company that operated several dozen roadside motels flagged by a famous chain.  It wasn’t my first job in hospitality – I’d already been a desk clerk and night auditor for a chain of two vacation hotels on San Diego bay. But I was looking for the next rung on the ladder of advancement in hospitality and this was billed as a golden opportunity by the guy who hired me.  My initial learning moment from that experience: don’t believe everything you hear in a job interview.

The second learning moment came when I received one of my principal job responsibilities, which was to answer the complaint letters generated by the guests who had stayed at properties in our region. Their complaints had been sent directly to the chain’s world headquarters, and from there were routed to our corporate headquarters. Those letters concerning our western U.S. locations were forwarded to our regional office, where, in turn, the guy who hired me dumped them on my desk for reply.

Today, if I have an aptitude for using the English language with any precision, I chalk it up to that job assignment. My second learning moment there: writing a corporate answer to a complaint letter is not so much a task as it is an art. Each letter had to be faithful to three unbreakable commandments.

First, regardless of the situation, the guy who hired me – over whose signature these responses went out – had to register utter surprise, shock and dismay at whatever appalling circumstances had transpired. 
Second, my manager had to be clearly repentant – some sort of personal incapacitation due to disappointment and regret needed to seem imminent. 
Third, and perhaps most importantly, his sorrow needed to convey a sense of torment with a tiny hint of an apology but with absolutely no guilt.   
I don’t blame that chain of motels, our franchise organization or the guy who hired me for the zero tolerance for responsibility policy. The truth of the matter is that in these litigious times and in this particularly litigious country, a written admission of negligence or liability is an invitation to have someone else come own your business. The prevailing thought at the time was that you didn’t make any sort of gesture in the name of service recovery; it was the same as admitting to screwing up big time. You can feel bad for your hapless guest, just not too bad, and never in a way that implies participation in, or any advance awareness of, anything untoward in the offing. The ability to be sorry but blameless is an exercise in very careful wording.

So now I can parse a sentence with the best of them. As I guide you through a thoughtfully crafted example, remember that I write as a professional apology-maker emeritus; please don’t try this at home unless you are no longer interested in home ownership. 

We can serve the three commandments in just that many easy steps. Step one: surprise and amazement, the apology letter equivalent of shock and awe. “We cannot begin to explain the kind of circumstances you described in your letter.”  [Note that there is no admission that the circumstances actually happened; they’re just circumstances you described and therefore could have made up, especially if we can’t explain them.]   

Step two:  abject bad feelings. “These are not the high standards to which we hold ourselves; we regret that we failed to meet your expectations.” [We don’t regret the incident, we just feel bad because you do. Our failure was that you seemed to be expecting too much.] 
Step three: the diving save with a hopeful smile. “We look forward to the opportunity to redeem ourselves in your eyes and to welcome you back to one of our locations in the very near future. Most sincerely, The Guy Who Hired Me.”  
The years have moved on since then; so did I, and so did the guy who hired me. My instinct toward the hollow apology has lain dormant these many years, but suddenly, watching the morning news this past November 11, I realized that that torch had been passed to a new generation when this headline crawled across the bottom of my television screen: "Delta Airlines loses passenger's dog. Offers $200 flight coupon in compensation."

Move over and let a grand master deconstruct this 21st century attempt at a corporate apology. First, 'loses' is an unfortunately active verb that seems to shout ineptitude. The news service must have chosen that word because an airline would never lose a valued passenger, be they traveling in business, coach or the cargo hold. Delta simply misidentified little Muffin’s current itinerary, and sincerely hopes to rectify this temporary condition in very short order.  That’s their news story and they should stick to it.

Far more challenging is the issue of the $200 flight coupon offered in compensation. I’m not certain how far $200 goes toward assuaging the loss of a family member, even if it was one that was checked through as luggage. If you’ve experienced pet ownership, you know that $200 isn’t even a drop in the water bowl, but we must be sympathetic to Delta’s position. After all, a major airline can’t just go around handing out big money for every piece of unidentified flying livestock they launch.  If they did, everyone would start packing and checking some nondescript Pekinese in an unlabeled tote with a faulty zipper, hoping it or its contents would go missing so they could cash in on Delta’s misguided largesse. Let’s recognize this token payment as what it is: a heartfelt apology roughly equivalent to the residual value of a lost piece of used luggage that may or may not have had a dog of undetermined value in it. After all, who knows when or where little Moon Pie  – who was probably in questionable health to begin with – actually went missing?

No, money isn’t the answer, but then again, a flight coupon isn’t really money. A flight coupon is merely the promise of a small discount on a future opportunity for you and your replacement pet to travel to some exotic location where at least one of you is almost certain to arrive. I know this seems like not much to offer in exchange for an emotionally wrenching loss, but that is only because it isn’t much to offer. If Delta had thrown in a couple of drink coupons, the bereaved could have at least gone to the bar (assuming they were a club members) and hoisted house-brand cocktails in memory of Mr. Wiggles, who once flew with Delta… and presumably is still doing so. (It was Delta’s advertising department that advised us to “Keep Climbing,” but I don’t think they meant for their slogan to be taken so literally.  Down, Ubu, down!)   

In retrospect, I don’t feel so bad about my side-step responses back in my days as Apology Captain for the western region. Sure, we offered you nothing – if you don’t count our semi-heartfelt condolences – but our nothings were truly and genuinely nothing.  There was more sincerity in our 'diving save with a hopeful smile' than there is in a $200 flight coupon. Our indifference didn’t seem so automatic and off-handed back then; at least we had the decency to downplay our hubris.

Who could have foreseen that I was to play such a pioneering role today’s era of corporate citizenship? The only person who may have glimpsed the future – and truly understood what dodging responsibility would come to mean – was the guy who hired me.  This one goes out as a tribute to him – most sincerely.