When Life Gives You Lemons: How Good Business Apologies Can Turn Customer Experience Mishaps into Social Media Lemonade

It starts with a simple mishap. A customer receives a defective product in the mail. A subscriber has a bad experience with your service department. Mistakes happen millions of times a day at firms around the world.  But this time, something is different. The disgruntled customer takes his complaint to social media. Something about his situation strikes a chord, and hundreds, thousands, millions join his protest. Suddenly, you’ve gone from a routine mishap to a public relations disaster. How can you stop the virtual mob? How can you save your brand and keep your customers?  After observing many social media disasters unfold in real time, I’ve come to realize that if you want to turn social media lemons into customer experience lemonade, you need to start by crafting the perfect apology.

The Science of Apologies

Neurologists have found that receiving an apology actually changes the brain. When an offended person receives an apology, it triggers a reaction in his brain which leads to an increase in empathy. The increase in empathy encourages him to offer forgiveness to the apologizer.  However, this reaction only occurs if the injured person believes that the apology is genuine. Simply including the words “I’m sorry” in an otherwise off-target letter won’t trigger the empathy reaction.

Effective apologies share three key traits. An effective apology must include an expression of empathy for the injured party, acknowledge that the apologizer has violated social norms, and include an offer of reparations. Without these three elements, the apology won’t trigger empathy or lead to forgiveness.

Apologizing on Social Media

Apologies for viral complaints are especially tricky, because the apology needs to placate the social media mob as well as the original customer. Does this mean that your company needs to offer reparations to everyone who liked or shared a post about your mistake? Of course not. Reparations matter most to the person who was actually injured by your company. What the social media mob wants is empathy and validation. To disperse the mob, your apology must sound like it comes from a human being, not a legal or public relations team. Your apology must also clearly state which expectations you violated and give a plan for how you’ll avoid violating them in the future.  Once a customer service complaint has gone viral, you might be able to send a single apology to both the original customer and to angry social media users. However, it may be more effective to write two carefully tailored apologies: one for your customer, giving a clear offer of reparations for harm suffered, and one for social media, focused on accepting responsibility for violated expectations and a promise to do better.

A Tale of Two Business Apologies

Recently, Clarks Shoes and Comcast Cable both faced viral customer service complaints. However, the firms approached the complaints in very different ways. As a result, Clarks continues its reputation for excellent service and customer experience, while consumers hate Comcast more than ever. How did their apologies fit the requirements for empathy, acknowledgment, and reparations?  

Exhibit A: Clarks’ Triumph

Clarks had to respond to a customer who’d purchased new shoes for his son. When the family returned home, they found that the store had sold them two left shoes. The father wrote a complaint that was partly righteous indignation and partially humorous, and it went viral.  Clarks responded by empathizing with the father’s situation. Because the disappointed young boy was a Transformers fan, an artistic employee drew him a picture of a Transformer to include in the apology. The customer service department also included a letter, written in the voice of Optimus Prime, blaming Decepticons for the mistake. And, of course, the company sent a replacement for the defective shoes.

The apology went viral, and even reached a larger audience than the original complaint. Why? First of all, the apology satisfied the customer. It showed empathy by recognizing his son’s disappointment, and by offering a personalized attempt to console him. It acknowledged the mistake and replaced the shoes. The original customer was satisfied with the result of his complaint.

People on social media also appreciated the apology and added forgiveness. In this case, it was the letter from Optimus Prime and the drawing that really caught their imaginations and triggered forgiveness.  The drawing and the letter humanized Clarks. Denizens of social media suddenly saw the company as a collection of fallible but lovable human beings instead of a faceless corporate entity.  Clarks response was unexpected, entertaining, and heartwarming, and so it earned forgiveness, even accolades, from the social media mob that had been ready to attack them days before.

Exhibit B: Comcast’s Foibles

In contrast, Comcast excels at the “non-apology apology.” The company has experienced several viral complaints over the past year. In each case, the customer tries to resolve and issue, is rebuffed by customer service and then records his bad customer experience and places it online. These failures go viral because they resonate. Comcast is known for its poor customer experience, and people share them as if to say, “Look, it’s not just me. They hate everyone!”

However, Comcast never issues a true apology for their actions. They allow customer service situations to escalate until they make the national news, and then eventually an executive appears, blames the mishap on low-level contract employees, and disappears from sight without acknowledging any wrong done or making a plan to improve. As a result, the firm attracts further ill will, and only succeeds in areas where it has a virtual monopoly.

Comcast won’t be able to pacify the social media mobs until it improves its customer experience by learning to make a real apology. Angry customers will have to feel like they’re dealing with a real human, not just a tool of the bureaucracy mindlessly following a corporate flow chart. Comcast must begin to acknowledge that it violates customer expectations when it raises fees without a warning or ignores requests to cancel its service. And finally, the firm needs to come up with a plan to prevent these situations in the future and to compensate those whom it’s wronged.

Comcast isn’t likely to change, since the corporate leadership doesn’t value customer experience. However, most American businesses can’t afford (and don’t want) to be like Comcast. They have to follow the example of firms like Clarks or lose customers to companies that know how to apologize for mistakes.  Does your company know how to apologize to customers? Do you have a plan in place for times when a customer complaint goes viral? Develop your strategies now so that when the social media mob gathers, you can douse those torches and turn lemons into lemonade.

Interested in keeping in touch? Sign up for our newsletter.