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The Art and Science of the Online Apology

Companies have learned over the decades that customers can be mollified for just about any sin it might commit - except perhaps outright negligence - with a forthright apology. This rule still holds true for online communications and channels, in fact, doubly so. Indeed, as such channels proliferate and the conversation between companies and customers becomes every more interactive, so must the apology.

An Email Unsubscribe Mishap Leads to Multiple Calls Backs

Exhibit A comes from Jen Samples at iMedia Connection, who tells of an issue she recently had 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."

Less than an hour later, she says, both CEO and SVP emailed her back, along with an offer for a $100 gift certificate for the inconvenience. Samples politely refused, and went on to receive several follow ups from by the SVP and the director of marketing at Neiman Marcus double-checking her email address had been removed. "It had been, and I was a happy camper."

A Daily Deal Offer Gone Terrible Wrong. Still Fairmont Steps Up

Sometimes an apology is not enough: to retain face with its customers a company must simple man up to a mistake and swallow the cost. Sears did not do this when it recently ran an erroneous ad advertising the iPad for $69. It didn't honor the mistaken price, to the fury of many customers. (via Digital Life).

Earlier this year the Fairmont’s San Francisco luxury hotel on Nob Hill found itself in a similar quandary though, when a daily deal offering made through Living Social advertised lifetime VIP status with the entire Fairmont chain for $2,000 or $10,000. Some 117 people snapped up this lifetime bargain, according to USA Today before the mistake was realized and the offer pulled. The hotel says it will honor those 117 sales.

The Non-apology Explanation

Sometimes a company has nothing to apologize for, but finds itself having to make some kind of statement. JetBlue, for example, had to navigate this scenario last year when its former flight attendant Steve Slater made international headlines after he cursed out a passenger on the plane's intercom, grabbed two beers from the cart and then activated the inflatable evacuation slide to exit in grand style. His purported reason? A customer had cursed him out, caused a head injury with an overstuffed bag and then refused to apology.

There were doubts about this story. Even if his account had been completely accurate, authorities noted he could have seriously injured or even killed a worker on the ground if he or she had been in the way of the chute, which activates very quickly. JetBlue was silent immediately after the incident - even as Facebook and Twitter were discussing it nonstop. Then it released on its blog a non-statement acknowledging what happened and then declining to comment further as the investigation unfolded.

It was funny ("Sometimes the weird news is about us" it began), it acknowledged the reaction ("plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter. Like the entire Internet"), and it even took the opportunity to toot its own horn ("while this episode may feed your inner Office Space, we just want to take this space to recognize our 2,300 fantastic, awesome and professional Inflight Crewmembers for delivering the JetBlue Experience you've come to expect of us").

A Significant Payoff

Such finesse pays off, as a study by RightNow Technologies shows. Namely it found that consumers will pay more for a great customer experience. RightNow estimates the US airline industry could make an additional $10.6 billion in revenue this year if they could guarantee a superior customer experience. The consumer electronics industry could earn an additional $16.5 billion in 2010 revenues by providing a great customer experience.

And if customers don’t get that experience? 79% of respondents that had a negative experience told others about it, with 97% using word of mouth as their preferred method to share their experience. However, 92% of consumers said they would go back to a company after a negative experience if they received measures such as an apology, (emphasis MarketingVOX) discount, or proof customer service would be better.

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