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Hello there. Judi has kindly invited me to do a guest post on her blog. I have my own blog at Lectrify.ca, but my primary focus is on anything that electrifies our lives. For me, that means entertainment, and so I frequently post on movies, music, books and art. That said, today’s post is about the shift we are seeing in relationships between corporations and customers. This has been prompted by the natural changes in society, and is being lived out on the social media stage. I encourage Judi to pipe in with her own comments, given she has direct experience with this topic. So, Judi, allow me to set this up and then, take it away.


Sorry – so sorry

When I started my career, the alpha dog in our company frequently said “Never apologize.” It seemed like good advice at the time. I took it to mean confidently standing behind your decisions. But I quickly came to realize that it also means never admitting error, even when an error has been made. A lot of companies still practice this, refusing to admit to customers that their product is faulty when they know it is, or that their service is lacking. They’ve had a nice run of it, but with the growth of social media, bad behaviour is no longer tolerated. Nowadays, it’s outed. Through mediums like Twitter, Facebook and blogs, injustices big and small are reported, discussed and condemned. For the consumer, it’s a fast, inexpensive and invaluable way to draw attention and get results.  For the companies that are not ready to evolve, the bad press can be devastating.

Remember back in 2009 when Canadian Dave Carroll’s guitar was broken on a United Airlines flight to Chicago? He tried to get the airline to pay for repairs, but was ignored, refused and then told to stop bothering them. So with his band Sons of Maxwell, he recorded the song “United #1” and posted the video to YouTube. In the first day it reportedly had 150,000 views. By the next day it had also prompted a response from United. The statement read:
“This has struck a chord with us. We are in conversations with one another to make what happened right, and while we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave Carroll’s excellent video provides United with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us,” (click here for more)

Dave Carroll also went on to record United #2 and #3. To date, United #1 has had close to 10 million views on YouTube.

In August 2010, a terminally ill child named Tanner Bawn flew Air Canada for a fundraiser in his honour. Upon arrival in New York City, his family realized that his wheelchair had been damaged.  His aunt, blogger Catherine Conners and author Scott Stratten reported the incident on Twitter. Air Canada was slow to respond, but the internet went nuts. The next day Air Canada released the following statement:

“We are deeply sorry that Tanner’s personal electric wheelchair arrived damaged at La Guardia airport, and we are investigating this. Despite several attempts to replace it temporarily throughout the day yesterday, we know that the only one that could do the job was Tanner’s own. We found an all-night repair service in New York, and are pleased to report that it has been repaired and delivered in person by one of our managers to Tanner this afternoon.”

Air Canada has since also offered the family a trip to Disney World, which is one of Tanner’s wishes.

In these two incidents, the proper channels did not work, or did not work quickly enough. Dave Carroll spent months trying to get acknowledgement of liability from United. When he got louder, through the megaphone of YouTube, he became unignorable and within days after going public with his story, he got results. Although Tanner relied on his wheelchair, the airline initially told him that it would be days until he could get a new one – long after the fundraiser was well over. Once the outrage spread across Twitter, however, the company found a way to help.

Although United and Air Canada staff may have followed corporate protocol, this was a blinders-on approach that made things worse.  Why does it take bad publicity to force a more human response? We all know what happens in personal arguments: If you have to yell to be heard, you have twice the amount of things to be mad about–and will need twice the amount of response or retribution to be satisfied.

These cases were big, but there are small examples of this every day. We see it when a company ignores our concerns or responds with a form letter from an unidentified staff member. Perhaps they mean to “frustrate” us into abandoning our complaint.  That’s not acceptable. It never has been, but now the customer has a method to fight back. Companies need to pay heed. As Laura Fitton, CEO of One Forty said in the MIT Technology Review, “Face criticism. Be apologetic if you need to be. People want to see you engaging with stakeholders and listening to their concerns.”

Apology alone is not enough. “Sorry” mumbled insincerely doesn’t mean sorry. If anything it means, “Sorry that I don’t look good in this situation” or “Sorry that I got caught”. When companies react quickly in a crisis, respond like a human being instead of a machine, respond directly to critics and respond maturely by taking responsibility, apologizing sincerely for the error and correcting what needs to be corrected….then customers will be happier and the company will potentially be stronger than ever before.  Ignoring issues or denying them just won’t work anymore. Times have changed and they are not going to change back.


Photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelatedheart/3366734058/