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How To Turn A Screw-Up Into A Screw-Opportunity

A couple of months ago, an email from Buffer appeared in my inbox with a subject line that started with, “We got this one wrong.” It explained that, after adding a new feature to their existing plans and receiving negative feedback about said feature’s availability, they realized they “messed up” and were changing the plans around to make things right. 

To be honest, I wasn’t even aware they had released this new feature. And definitely wasn’t one of the people who complained (obviously). Nonetheless, my first thought was: “Buffer, you LOVABLE GENIUSES.”

It probably helps that I already really like Buffer’s product (and love their blog), but the fact that they could admit they made a mistake, be transparent with their users about it, and then actually change things accordingly pushed me from like to love. Which made me think — can screwing up be a good thing?

Turns out, it can be. 

How not to get screwed by your screw-up

As traditional marketing becomes a thing of the past, many of us are turned off by the idea of “faceless corporations” and want to feel like we’re being treated and spoken to like humans, by humans. You know, because we’re all humans.


Image courtesy of


A company slip-up can actually create a great opportunity to connect with your users and audience on a human level (what’s more human than messing up?) and establish the kind of trust that’s essential to building a relationship with them. 

This, of course, has to be done in the right way to make it work for you and not against you. People are savvier now than ever before — they can sniff out BS and know when they’re being “marketed” to. Which is a good thing! The more authentic you are with your customers, the better you can understand and deliver to their needs, and the more loyalty, customer satisfaction, and revenue you’ll see in return. But I digress. Win/win, Kumbaya, let’s all hug it out and get back to the point.

Here are some general rules for getting an apology email right:

  • Be sure the instance in question is actually worthy of an apology. If you’ve done something that could result in real confusion or misinformation, like sending an email about a promotion that’s over, or to the wrong people, or if it’s something bigger like in Buffer's case, addressing the issue makes sense. However, if it’s a mistake that only you’ll notice and doesn’t really affect your customers, like sending an email with a typo or even to an extra list that’s only slightly off your intended criteria, it’s probably not necessary. 
  • In larger situations where further steps need to be taken to rectify things, make sure you’re actually willing to follow through. Don’t bother sending an email saying you’ll make things right unless you make good on your promise to the full extent — otherwise, that trust you’re looking to build will be shattered completely.
  • Send the apology as soon as you can. Your words and actions means less if it seems like you sat on the decision for too long, didn’t realize the mistake until well after, or were pushed into apologizing by a slew of customer complaints and finally relented. (Even if none of these are the case, the more time passes, the greater the chance is of it being perceived that way.)
  • Make it clear in the subject line that you’re apologizing. 
  • Be as authentic as possible, as mentioned above. Now is not the time for PR or marketing speak that dances around or glosses over what really happened. If you messed up, just admit it and address it directly.
  • Give a reason for what happened, but not an excuse. Your message should convey that you’re taking accountability instead of placing blame. If you read over the email and sense that you sound a even bit whiny, you probably do. 
  • Be brief. This goes for most emails in general, but get your message across as succinctly as you can. The more words you cram in there, the more chance of your message being completely lost and your apology efforts being moot. 
  • Give your customers a reason to forgive you. Depending on the severity of the mistake, a discount offer or clear outline on how you’re fixing the situation may be in order. But if you know a simple “we’re sorry” will do, any superfluous extras can seem like overkill and backfire. Put yourself in the position of your customer and think of what it would really take to get you to feel “right” about the company again.
  • When in doubt, use humor. You’ll know when trying to be funny or cute is inappropriate (like when people’s money has been messed with, or if the mistake is related to another serious event). But in most cases, having a little fun with your apology can soften the blow and humanize your brand. 

A few great examples to inspire you

DJ Waldow wrote a great piece for Marketo on an apology email he received from Pet Supplies Plus following a promotion they sent about their Black Friday deals — after Black Friday had passed. 

“Unless the mistake involved sharing sensitive information or was potentially harmful,” DJ said, “I’m a big believer in sending an apology email that has a human – and humorous – side. That’s one of the many reasons I love this next email from Pet Supplies Plus.” 

Also, dog pictures. Dog pictures never hurt.



This example from EmailDirect was, as author Katie Tucker puts it, “so well put together that I had to reach out and congratulate them on this particular campaign.” If you can’t make out the text (the image was a bit small, so I went for blown up and blurry over too tiny to see), here’s what it says:

“You may remember the super secret meeting room from the message we sent you yesterday. Well, we screwed up, and the codes were not working right. We’re embarrassed about the whole thing and want to make sure you get a chance to save some cash.”

They then go on to offer 3 separate discounts, with an extra one on top that you can receive with the code “FACEPALM”. Facepalm! How could you still be mad at them after that?



And of course, the Buffer email that started this whole post! Sure, it doesn't look fancy, but this email is direct, sincere, clear about how they’re making up for the mistake, and shows that they truly listen to their customers.  Go team Buffer. 


Have you had to send an apology email before? What tips do you have for doing it right?

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About the Author

Hayley is a former Uberflip Community Manager. If you have followed Uberflip on any of our social media channels for the past few years, you may already be familiar with Hayley's past work.

Profile Photo of Hayley Mullen