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broken eggIncreasingly brand savvy customers are more wary than ever of insincere corporate apologies issued by emotionless commitee, and thanks to social media they're more able than ever to make your first strike count against you.

However, if you simply apply a little humility,  making a mistake can actually lead to a better long-term relationship with your customers.

Now that we all live in a Jetsons-style future, with robot butlers catering to our every whim and personal jetpacks to shuttle us effortlessly work, it’s always reassuring to know that the technology driving our lives and economy will never let us down.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we all have to deal with technological hiccups on a daily basis.

It could be our iPhone reception; it could be a server exploding and taking most of our account information with it. We all know that somewhere along the line something will go wrong.

In the past, Murphy’s law was a huge problem for PR departments, but it seems that a new wave of acceptance may be sweeping the public and producing an entirely new way of building a good relationship with your customers, by failing them.

In the past the general rule for business was to promise that never, ever, under any circumstances, would your product fail its owner, and if it did, then may god have mercy on your soul. Customers wanted to scream, to hurl abuse (and occasionally heavy objects) at these brands, so certain were they of the pure corporate evil that had caused their toaster to catch fire.

Thankfully it seems that in the modern era, customers have a more evolved sensibility, and thanks to greater general knowledge regarding the nature of branding, slightly more realistic expectations.

This doesn’t mean that people will put up with bad service though. Ruin your customer’s day through nonchalance, arrogance or barefaced lies and they and their nearest social network will come down on you like a ton of tweets.

But if you happen to make a mistake, the signs are that they’ll understand. In short, customers have a much more accurate bullshit-ometer these days. So you can’t get away with a colossal idiocy followed by an apology letter from your MD that’s been carefully passed around the legal department and had any sincerity removed.

Instead, it’s an intuitive and ongoing process, but if handled the right way your mistakes can actually strengthen the relationship you have with your customer.

It does of course require something that may worry some traditional marketers: Honesty.

In the new market, transparency is king. Customers will put up with mistakes providing you furnish them with a few key pieces of information:

  • You’re doing your best to fix this, and you tell them how it’s going. Email them, put notes on your website or blog, announce it on Twitter.

    Most importantly don’t wait until you’ve solved things, and don’t rely entirely on a generic Fail Whale image. Inform all your customers that you have a problem in a specific area and you have a team working on it. Crucially, let them know that there will be more information as you get it and follow up on that.

  • Let them know that you have great, clever, talented and physically attractive staff who worked hard to fix the glitch, but ultimately, they’re human. 
  • Unfortunately people occasionally make mistakes, but this one wasn’t down to you hiring nonchalant buffoons, it was down to random chance/someone forgetting to unplug things. Won’t happen again sir. Sorry sir.
  • Let them know you’ve learned lessons from the problem. Explain clearly what went wrong, and which steps you’ve taken to guard against a repeat performance. These things happen, but you’ve done your best to stop it happening again.

In short: To err is human. If you respond in earnest and work hard to fix something then customers will excuse a little occasional cack-handedness, and may even feel more positively about you afterwards.

Mistakes like this do happen, but if they prove that you’re an honest, decent group of people who listen to customer complaints and act upon them, then messing up could be one of the best things you could do for your company.

Just don’t let it happen again.

Matt Owen

Published 16 July, 2010 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

203 more posts from this author

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Bangalow Accommodation

Important to recover from a mistake. Equally important to take steps to fix anything wrong. The humanisation of companies is a good trend forward.

about 6 years ago

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