Honey v. Vinegar: Do Your Error Messages Build Your Customer/Prospect

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

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

* 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

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

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/35299262 ibid3
“Do Your Web Forms Show Good Form?, Part 3.” Bryan Eisenberg. ROI
Marketing, ClickZ. May 28, 3004.

This article was originally published in GrokDotCom.com [
http://www.grokdotcom.com , a newsletter published by Future Now, Inc. Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg the co-founders of Future Now, Inc. are also the co-authors of New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller book “Call To Action” and “Persuasive Online Copywriting.”