Apologizing as a business is an art form. You cannot simply say, “I’m sorry.” The absolute worst thing you could say would be, “I’m sorry, but…” Placing the “but” in there (no matter how you phrase it) is reducing the impact of your apology. By learning from the successes of business giants such as Apple, Johnson & Johnson, and JetBlue, you strategize how to turn an error into a triumph. There are several factors that will add power to the apology:
- Make it personal
- Owning the issue
- Clarify what happened without excusing it
- Outlining the course of action planned
Sincerity must be the first aspect of any apology. When JetBlue made a huge miscalculation in weather which resulted in about 1,000 flights being cancelled in less than a week, founder and CEO David Neeleman sent on of the best examples of a sincere apology. You can read more about this effective apology in this University of Waterloo article (Source).
Neeleman started off stating how sorry and embarrassed the company was. He did not excuse, clarify, or explain in the introduction. He simply and sincerely expressed their apology, starting the entire letter off on the right tone. Going deeper into the letter, the CEO admits they let customers down and apologies were again expressed throughout the clarification of what went wrong. In closing, Neeleman states that the customers deserved better and that they could only hope that customers would give them the chance to regain their trust. The absolute sincerity that came through helped JetBlue recover from what could have been a company-closing event.
When Johnson & Johnson had a shortage of the O.B. line of tampons, customers were furious. They admitted to underestimating the degree of loyalty for the product and worked hard to get it back on the shelves as quickly as possible. In the meantime, they created one of the most personalized apologies ever by sending out over 65,000 emails to women in their database, apologizing to each by name in a personal video! One example can be viewed on YouTube here (Source).
These videos gained a huge amount of attention, with almost 60,000 unique views in just ten days. It showed the women that Johnson & Johnson was not only concerned with losing customers in a general sense, they were concerned with losing EACH customer individually. The ability to create a personal connection to so many women ensured that the brand loyalty remained despite such a huge error.
When Apple released the iPhone 4, problems with the built-in antenna created immediate issues with customers. Apple initially went with the solution to deny, deny, deny. When they released a statement that customers should just avoid holding the phone a certain way, customers viewed that as arrogant and felt that Apple was not taking responsibility for their oversight.
Finally, Steve Jobs held a press conference in which he admitted there was a problem and he apologized for it. Though he initially downplayed the issue, the end result was that Jobs said, “We care about every user. We’re not going to stop until every one of them is happy.” He then outlined the plan to reduce the problem in the future. By finally taking accountability and showing customers that they were going to work on fixing the issue, Jobs was able to save much of the customer frustration that had been created by the initial denials. Owning the problem was much more effective than trying to deny or downplay it.
Customers do not need or want excuses when things go wrong. A company may feel compelled to explain why it was not their fault or what was going on behind the scenes that led to the issue. However, that makes customers feel that the company is trying to get out of any responsibility. Apologizing does not necessarily mean admitting you did anything wrong, It is sometimes about admitting responsibility to the customers.
Taking from an old, but very effective example, in 1982, some people died from taking Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. While the investigation into what had happened was still in progress, and while experts were predicting the downfall of Tylenol completely, the company’s chairman, James Burke, immediately and decisively put reparative efforts into place. He accepted responsibility though the company was found to have done nothing wrong and created tamper-resistant packaging to ensure it did not happen again. Thanks to Burke’s quick thinking and sincere accountability, he saved the company from ruin and instead helped it turn into a billion-dollar business.
In all of the examples outlined here, the apologies included information as to how the company planned to proceed with fixing the issue. A company cannot simply state, “Oh, gee, sorry about that!” without providing follow-up information that it will not happen again. Otherwise, customers will feel that the company is not going to back-up their apology with action. This does not simply mean throwing money at the problem or issuing replacements. It means a change in policies, procedures, training, or anything else that will ensure the problem has been eradicated.
JetBlue took this a step further and issued a Customer Bill of Rights, while also providing more resources for their crewmembers to manage future operational difficulties. Johnson & Johnson increased production on their O.B. tampons and investigated distribution issues to make them more logistically effective. Apple investigated the antenna issues and fixed them in future models. Tylenol eliminated the option to sell products in capsule form that would be made directly available to consumers and they implemented tamper-resistant packaging. Each company not only offered sincere apologies, but also concrete plans to fix the issues, showing that they cared enough to ensure it did not happen again.
Mistakes, glitches, technical and operational problems WILL occur. For any company of any size, you must be prepared for how you handle those mistakes. By taking the time to create an honest, informative apology, you can turn a problem into a solution.