Great Apologies Product Managers Can Learn From (Plus, One Of My Own)

Last time we looked at three truly terrible ways businesses have apologized to customers.

Today, we’ll discuss the elements of truly great apologies–with examples. And see what we can learn from the experience I had recently apologizing to thousands of confused, angry, and irritated customers…

Apologies Ranked

Seth Godin’s blog ranks corporate apologies on a 1-10 scale, with #1 being “You can always take your business elsewhere” (ouch) to #10 being “We’re so sorry… we’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again… how can we make it up to you?”

It’s a good list, although I think some core elements are missing. Saying you’re sorry isn’t enough. Neither is correcting the problem. You also need to take responsibility and offer concrete next steps to regain the customers’ trust.

Core Elements To A Great Apology

What are the core elements to a great apology?

Sincerely Apologize

So many businesses seem afraid to say “I’m sorry” because they’re afraid of the liability of owning the mistake or of potentially damaging their brands. Maybe that’s a legitimate concern, sometimes. Other times, the best policy is sincerity.

When Amazon removed copies of 1984 by George Orwell from Kindles across the land, there was no hiding it, and people complained. The response from Jeff Bezos was quick and apparently heartfelt:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO
Amazon.com

This may not allay consumer fears about digital products or satisfy every affected consumer, but the gesture went a long way to assuaging customer opinion.

Explain What Happened

In September, Gmail suffered an hour+ outage. Google posted an entry in the Gmail blog acknowledging the problems and, later, a post explaining what went wrong and what they intend to do about it.

Gmail’s web interface had a widespread outage earlier today, lasting about 100 minutes. We know how many people rely on Gmail for personal and professional communications, and we take it very seriously when there’s a problem with the service. Thus, right up front, I’d like to apologize to all of you — today’s outage was a Big Deal, and we’re treating it as such. We’ve already thoroughly investigated what happened, and we’re currently compiling a list of things we intend to fix or improve as a result of the investigation. Here’s what happened…

Acknowledge The Customer’s Feelings

When Apple slashed the price of the iPhone just a few months after it went on sale in 2007, early adopters were irate. Steve Jobs offered a personal note that doesn’t exactly exude warmth, but does acknowledge his customers’ feelings, explain the reality of price cuts in consumer electronics, and promise a $100 store credit to affected early adopters.

Even though we are making the right decision to lower the price of iPhone, and even though the technology road is bumpy, we need to do a better job taking care of our early iPhone customers as we aggressively go after new ones with a lower price. Our early customers trusted us, and we must live up to that trust with our actions in moments like these.

Offer Appropriate Compensation

Last month, T-Mobile Sidekick customers suffered a week-long data outage–and, on top of that, potentially lost data stored in “the cloud”. As part of its apology plan, T-Mobile offered affected customers a $50 credit plus a $100 customer appreciation card.

When the Men’s Wearhouse in Portland ran out of stock for a certain item, the manager ordered the item at the sale price on behalf of a customer trying to take advantage of the last day of the sale. When the item failed to arrive on the appointed day, the manager hand-delivered the item to the customer’s house that night, no extra charge.

Sometimes, compensation means money. Sometimes it means blood, sweat, and tears–or, at least mileage.

Promise To Do Better

When wild winter weather helped disrupt JetBlue service, the airline could have apologized for the inconvenience and hid behind the stormfront. Instead, CEO David Neeleman went public with a video apology where he promised to do better–even offering a new, official commitment to customers explaining how JetBlue will handle operational interruptions going forward. They promised to do better, and meant it.

Of course, if you can’t promise to do better, maybe you can make a custom 404 that develops its own cultlike following and eases customer complaints. (Maybe. But not likely.)

And Now… The Rest Of The Story

As we all know, I have a spotty record when it comes to customer apologies. Early last week, I was given a new opportunity apologize to thousands of people affected by a lengthy overnight outage at the product I manage.

Here’s what I said:

We’re deeply sorry and embarrassed about the service interruption many of you experienced last night, into this morning.

Starting at around six o’clock eastern time on October 26, the Gamesville database entered an unstable state. No data was lost, but Gold status was not properly recognized across the site, GV Rewards values were incorrect or missing, and game rooms were no longer available for anyone (free members or Gold members) to play in. Internal monitoring failed to alert us to the situation so the problem persisted into this morning. Once the problem was identified, we immediately began working to fix the problem, and posting messages on the Gamesville Blog to update you on our progress and answer questions. Gamesville was fully functional by nine-thirty this morning, but that’s little comfort to people who wanted to play in the hours before then and couldn’t.

There aren’t words to express how sorry we are for the frustration, concern, and disruption that we caused. At Gamesville, odds are great, you’ll have fun time — relaxing, hanging with friends, winning a prize you’ve always wanted. Last night, we failed to deliver, and that needs to change. That will change.

We are taking immediate actions to regain your confidence. More comprehensive monitoring is being installed to better recognize and alert us to problems, and help mitigate or prevent such outages in the future. We are also working on a more extensive communications plan to provide timely information to you, in a more convenient way. As a result, Gamesville will prove to be more reliable and responsive to you than ever before.

You deserved more than what you got from us last night. Everyone here at Gamesville hopes you’ll give us the chance to welcome you back into our game rooms again and provide you with the positive experiences you’ve come to expect.

If you have any comments or questions about what happened last night, or anything at all, please feel comfortable posting here or contacting me at my personal email address.

Sincerely,
Chris Cummings
Manager, Gamesville.com

I’m hesitant to lump this in with “great business apologies”, but the response to what I said was pretty outstanding–and, for that, I’m deeply appreciative.

I know some of my peers at other companies would probably fob all this off: It’s just games, after all; it’s not like anyone’s lives were actually affected. And that attitude drives me batty.

Between emails and phone calls and social media, we received literally thousands upon thousands of messages about this outage. I listened to those calls, and personally read and responded to the many messages in my in-box. I could feel what my customers were feeling. This service is important to them–more important than even I realized–and we owe it to them to make sure it’s there.

We’re lucky to have a strong community on the site to help us get through events like this. Now, we must live up to the commitments we’ve made to make things better. Despite our–or any business’–best efforts, outages and mistakes will happen from time to time; our job is to make things right, and make sure we prevent those same mistakes from ever happening again.

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