Honey v. Vinegar

My neighbor to the right shakes his head and informs me, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." He does this whenever the topic of my neighbor to the left comes up in conversation - it's his way of saying my neighbor to the left is lacking in the interpersonal communication skills department.

Far too many Web sites serve up a nasty dose of vinegar when it comes to the language of error messages: "Somewhere in the transition from offline to on-, we lost the mantra, "The customer is always right." Online, most Web sites treat users as if they're always wrong. At least, the error messages on Web sites make it seem so."1

Frankly, I don't think customers are always right. But, as they are in control here, I absolutely believe you have to give them the appearance of being right. Call me a short, green Machiavelli if you will, but in this case, I'm one hundred percent behind the idea that the ends justify the means. Swallowing the blame for those times when things go wrong - at the very least, finding a way to deflect blame from your visitor - eases the persuasive process and goes a long way to improving your image.

It goes like this ...

A Sampling of Error Messages

Time Out. Your browser was left idle and lost connection. (Can you see the finger wagging at you?)

Can you please modify your search? (Can you hear an extra emphasis on "please" as a foot taps in frustration?)

Invalid code! (Can you hear the sirens going off?)

Unknown login. (More sirens!)

Errors have occurred during the process of your form. Please make the following corrections. (Can you hear the exasperated sigh?)

Error: Phone number cannot contain dashes. (Now you tell me?)

One or more required fields were not filled out correctly. Red = invalid. (Is that a ruler poised over your knuckles?)

I like to imagine error messages are more often than not composed by techie types - folks who are perfectly happy to call a spade a spade and scratch their heads when you suggest the label might not sit well with all spades. Techies code stuff that will process provided you follow the process correctly. A form doesn't submit because you overlooked entering your zip? Well, that's down to you. The error message tells you so. End of story. Wanna go get a cup of coffee?

The thing is, any error message that implies your visitor is an idiot, careless or poorly informed about how you have set up your system is a bad error message. It's a bitter pill to ask your visitors to swallow. Throwing in a "please" doesn't really make the pill taste much better - "Please correct your error" plays little better than "Correct your error." Nor does adopting the "passive-aggressive" angle, as in "We're sorry, but you didn't do this correctly."

It doesn't matter whether your visitor was actually wrong; the last thing you want to encourage them to feel, at any time in their online experience, is testy. After all, they may be about to do you the favor of helping you meet your goals.

In Search of Honey

One of the primary goals in interpersonal communication is to minimize the offensive edicts that breed defensive reactions. The second I tell you "You made a freaking mess of this", you're immediate reaction is, "I did not!", after which you proceed to justify what happened. Defensively.

I'm not suggesting you resort to these sorts of classic therapy-speak phrases: "When you do [fill in the blank], I feel [fill in the blank]." I am suggesting you find a way to change the perception of where the blame for an online errors lie. And then offer a solution. In other words, serve up a dose of honey.

Friendster turned a hideous error message ("Error: You've been logged off due to inactivity") into a thoughtful favor: "Sorry! We thought you left, so we closed your Friendster session for your security/privacy. Please log in again!"2  Not only does Friendster accept the blame for the situation, they turn it into a virtue, so instead of huffing away, you're much happier to log in again.

The Basics

  • In announcing the problem, use "I" or "We" statements: "We can't find that login" or "We can't find an exact match"

  • Instead of heavy-handed "Correct this" commands, opt for the "Please try again" variations

  • Write your messages in the active voice. "One or more required fields were not filled out correctly" is passive. It doesn't directly blame your incompetence, but you most certainly are the implicit idiot. Why not say, "Oops! We don't understand the zip code. Please try again."

  • Head off error messages at the pass. If your system can't cope with something, say so up front: "Please leave out the dashes in your phone number" or "Please use the two-letter state abbreviation."  Better still, extract the format you need from the information they provide.

  • Offer options. If you are speaking with a registered customer, don't berate her with "You have entered an incorrect address." Ask her, as does Amazon, "Could one of these be the correct address?" When logins go awry, provide a help solution.

Your Mission

... should you choose to accept it. Head out into the wilds of your Web site and start making every mistake you can think of to generate one of your error messages. Muck up a form. Select an invalid quantity. Forget to fill in an entry field. If it can be done, someone will find a way to do it. (You can, of course, just get a print-out of all your error messages, but this isn't nearly as much fun.)

Now, read the language that confronts your good-willed, unsuspecting visitors, keeping in mind it doesn't have to go to "you stupid moron" lengths to offend. Never reprimand your visitors or leave them hanging on the wrong end of an online problem. Swallow the blame (it is, after all, a system you created), phrase the situation so it doesn't generate a defensive reaction and offer considerate solutions.

My buddy Bryan Eisenberg revealed this interesting observation in one of his articles for ClickZ,

Bear in mind this strange but true irony: Customers who do experience problems that are handled well by a company often rank their experience with that company higher than customers who don't encounter any problems at all!3

When things go wrong online, the quality of your response is a clear indicator (think bull horn on max volume) of your customer focus. Heed my neighbor to the right: when it comes to cultivating relationships, honey works much better than vinegar!

1 "Error? It Wasn't My Fault!" Jack Aaronson. ROI Marketing, ClickZ. August 26, 2005. http://www.clickz.com/experts/crm/traffic/article.php/3529926

2 ibid

3 "Do Your Web Forms Show Good Form?, Part 3."  Bryan Eisenberg.  ROI Marketing, ClickZ. May 28, 3004.  http://www.clickz.com/experts/crm/traffic/article.php/3359741

Volume 117: 9/1/05


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