Lately, it appears that brands are coming out more to publicly apologize for their mishaps, mistakes, and outright screw-ups. Due to the rate at which we now consume information, consumers are beginning to hold brands accountable to those mistakes in social media environments. As consumers become more demanding with their need to be heard and create change, brands need to rethink their strategy on how to apologize. The wrong choice of words, the wrong TV ad, or the wrong response to a post on Facebook could create its own backlash with a different set of loyal consumers. Here are five steps brands can take to win back loyal fans and even create new customers.
Understand the size and scope of the issue for which you are apologizing
Companies make mistakes all the time. It happens, and there is no way around it. Mistakes can range from small typos that create some confusion to large manufacturing issues that can cause consumer deaths. Before running off in a panic, brands need to take a step back and truly analyze the situation and whom it affects. Using the wrong subject line in a promotional email very often just needs a follow-up email that corrects the typo, explains the situation, and apologizes for the confusion. When your customers die because of a brand's mistake, it must pull out all of the stops to tackle the apology -- including national TV, social media, print, and radio -- while being tried in the court of public opinion as consumers and the press wallow in the aftermath. One only has to look at the Toyota manufacturing issues, the TEPCO nuclear debacle, or the Chinese dairy industry disaster to see the lengths to which brands will go to issue an apology.
It's a given to call in the big guns such as your legal and PR teams for large-scale issues, but it's also important to understand the difference between a big issue and a small issue that could become a big issue. What might be small to a brand could mean a lot to consumers. One brand recently sent out a coupon in error. Instead of owning the response, it posted on Facebook (and nowhere else) that the coupon couldn't be used in conjunction with any other sales. Two things occurred as a result of this: The company lost customers, and it got sued. The companies' customers were outraged and posted thousands of disgruntled posts to the point where one fan helped to start a class action lawsuit for coupon fraud. If the brand had just owned up to the mistake and taken the financial hit from the coupon redemptions, it would not be fighting a class action lawsuit now. It's a bad economy -- something as small as a $2 coupon could mean the world to a person who is out of a job.
If it truly is a small issue, then still take the opportunity to handle it with care. Millions of calls are made daily to customer service lines about lost packages, website functionality, or rude sales clerks. I recently had an issue with Neiman Marcus' email program. Quite simply, I couldn't get it to unsubscribe my email address, and I was receiving multiple emails a day from the company. It happened for about six months until I finally got so annoyed I used the Neiman Marcus website and LinkedIn to track down the email addresses of the CEO and SVP of digital marketing at the company to shoot off an email explaining exactly how it was in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. In less than an hour, I received a personal email from both the CEO and SVP of digital marketing. In fact, the CEO offered me a $100 gift certificate for the inconvenience. When I politely told her "thank you, but no thank you, "she insisted on following up the next week to make sure that there were no further problems. I received two phone calls the following week from the director of marketing at Neiman Marcus double-checking that my email address had been removed. It had been, and I was a happy camper. Something like an email unsubscribe is miniscule to a brand like Neiman Marcus, yet it treated me like a rockstar -- and as a result, I am now I'm telling all of you about it. Brands like Neiman Marcus realize the power of the pen, especially when put in the hands of a big mouth like me.
Choose the right medium and use it the right way
Once you understand the scope of the issue, choose the right medium to address the issue. If the mistake was made in a recent email to your consumer database, email the database. However, if it was a segment of your database, then only email that segment. There's no need to alert all 10 million consumers in your database if only 100,000 were affected. If the error was large, like the pet food recall in 2007, it is absolutely necessary use all media vehicles necessary to get the word out. When lives are in danger, human or otherwise, spare no expense. Social media is a great way to get the word out immediately. For example, if your website goes down over the weekend, it is incredibly easy to post a "please be patient with us" notice on Facebook. It is not appropriate to only use social outlets when it is a larger scale issue. A brand cannot expect all of its consumers to check its brand's fan page that day to get the message, even if a brand has 10 million fans. Social media is powerful, but it is not the be-all end-all. A brand may have to use TV, radio, press conferences, digital, and the good old-fashioned customer service line if an issue is big enough. Brands spend millions of dollars on proprietary and syndicated research to plan their media buys and to understand the motivations of their consumers. Leverage that knowledge of your consumer. Be just as thoughtful when planning the apology delivery medium as you are in your planning your brand media.