8 Lessons on Fixing a Mistake

April 16, 2013

By Rick Knecht

On Tuesday, April 2, the public web-based secure digital file delivery service YouSendIt lost access to half its functionality: files couldn’t be downloaded. Users got error messages. Work couldn’t be completed. What happened? How did the company handle it? Is YouSendIt about to be YouEndIt?
Mistakes happen. Things will go wrong — it’s not a matter of if, but when. No matter how you try to foresee all fail scenarios, or create backup plans, you’ll never anticipate every possible contingency. What’s important is how companies cope with challenges when they occur, so they don’t turn into brand-destroying disasters.
YouSendIt’s business was disrupted for part of the day, which in turn inconvenienced their users. But it’s likely that there won’t be much fallout, because the company responded in the right way.
YouSendIt apologized, within 48 hours. They sent out a public apology, signed by a high-level staffer. It was clearly and plainly worded and took responsibility for the problem. They explained what happened — a database table could no longer accept new information — and reassured users that their files were safe and undamaged. The company followed up by saying they’d fixed the problem, so it wouldn’t happen again, and finished with another apology and a personal invitation to contact a senior staff member with any concerns.
YouSendIt was faced with what was nearly an existential failure in a critical system, and came out with continued customer goodwill.
There are eight important lessons to be learned here about how to handle a potentially significant stumble so that it doesn’t blow up the brand you’ve spent so much time and effort carefully crafting.

  1. Apologize.
    The key part of this apology is to say, “We’re sorry.” The word sorry is non-negotiable. Without the actual apology, apologizing is useless. And you can’t go the passive-aggressive route of saying, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” (or inconvenienced, frustrated, etc.). Assume that your customers are offended, inconvenienced, or frustrated, and act accordingly.
  2. Apologize in a timely manner.
    “Timely” is dependent on context. A rude tweet posted to a corporate account should be removed immediately upon discovery, and the apology should follow right on its heels. Conversely, in the face of a disaster like a database collapse, you may need a day or two to figure out what happened, but no more than a few days. Apologizing weeks or months later looks forced, no matter how sincere the regret is.
  3. Explain what you’re apologizing for.
    This may be the hardest part: own the mistake. Go into detail about what occurred. Acknowledge that your clients were inconvenienced or hurt. You aren’t going to cover yourself by trying to deny or downplay anything. Don’t make excuses or try to shift blame. Take responsibility and say what happened, in plain language.
  4. Have the apology come from one person.
    That person should be someone high up in the company food chain. “WidgetCo is sorry that we shipped defective widgets to our Minnesota stores” is insufficient. There needs to be a spokesperson attached to the apology, because that helps to humanize your brand. The vague corporate WidgetCo isn’t going to catch much of a break, but Jane Smith, CEO of WidgetCo, sending a personal email to all registered widget owners apologizing for shipping widgets which weren’t waterproof, will be looked on much more positively.
  5. Consider the tone and wording of the apology.
    Being straightforward will go a long way toward earning back business. Today’s consumers, particularly millennials, value authenticity and honesty. Don’t lie; it will only make things worse when the truth comes out (and it will). Owning up to the error and telling your customers that you recognize their pain can help engender their sympathy and loyalty — after all, everyone makes mistakes.
  6. Fix the problem.
    You have upset customers. How are you going to make them whole? A refund, a credit, free shipping, replacement goods? You must offer something to the customers who were hurt by your mistake.
  7. Ensure the problem doesn’t happen again.
    Sometimes the fix for the past is also the fix for the future, like a software upgrade. Sometimes you need to change policies or methodology, like requiring that all social media posts are screened by a senior staffer, or more thoroughly vetting a product with beta testers before releasing it to the public. But you need to reassure your customers that this was an anomaly, not SOP.
  8. Apologize again.
    It’s not about your brand; it’s about your customers. You failed them, so they need a reason to forgive you and come back.

Brands can survive blunders (Apple Maps giving people bad directions), miscalculations (O.B. tampons going missing from shelves for a few months), and even poor product itself (Domino’s) if you play it straight.

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