Like people, companies make mistakes. It is part of the territory. But it is not the mistakes that define them; it is how they respond to them. It is in whether they clean up those mistakes. In the age of social media, a time when news about blunders travels fast and far, a poor response can make or break a company in the public's eye.
If you operate a business that means you need to take steps to fix any mistake you commit -- and do it fast. Otherwise, you might find yourself and your company facing a customer rebellion, public backlash and even legal troubles.
Do you believe me? Take a look at the experiences the following companies had after brushing off, or completely ignoring their blunders. Events that might have remained secret 20 years ago were quickly seen and commented on by millions. While reading, ask yourself, "How easily could this happen to my business?"
The problem started in 2005. A man named Jeff Jarvis purchased a laptop from the company to use in his work as a media consultant. It almost immediately malfunctioned. He called Dell's support line and was told that he'd need to send the machine back for repairs. Irritated, Jarvis did so. Next, he blogged about the experience and his frustration on BuzzMachine.
The post generated hundreds of comments, most of which were posted by similarly frustrated Dell customers. Other popular blogs picked up the story and ran with it.
When Jarvis's laptop was returned to him, it was still broken. He took to his blog again, coining the term "Dell Hell" to describe his experience with the company. His anger was on full display as he posted emails from Dell's support staff that showed embarrassing levels of apathy and ineptitude.
The result: Dell finally offered Jarvis a refund, but not before he bought an Apple computer, and not before tens of thousands of people got wind of the story and passed it along to friends.[i]
In 2011, the following remark was posted on Twitter:
"I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f$%king drive."
The fact that someone is annoyed by another's lack of road skills is unsurprising. Millions of people have made similar comments about other drivers. But the person who posted this gem wasn't just any someone, it was an employee for the agency handling social media for Chrysler. Worse, he posted it on Chrysler's Twitter account.
If Chrysler had immediately apologized for the tweet, fired the employee and made amends with the public, all would have been fine. They got two out of the three correct.
They apologized (good move!).
They had the employee at the social media agency fired (nice!).
Then the company initially said its account had been hacked (boo!). Chrysler tried to distance itself from the faux pas. Whether the claim was true or not is irrelevant. It left a bad taste in the public's mouth.[ii]
Fixing problems related to cable reception and connectivity is tiring work. Who hasn't wanted to take a nap after a few minutes of tinkering with protocols and packets? So, that's exactly what a Comcast employee did after trying to troubleshoot customer Brian Finkelstein's internet connection.
Unfortunately, the employee didn't wait until he returned home. Nor did he lumber off to the Comcast break room to catch a few winks. Fixing Finkelstein's connection required him to visit the customer's house. To the Comcast employee, Finkelstein's living room couch looked too tempting to pass up.
Unbeknownst to the employee, the customer had installed a webcam to record the episode. The result? The video of the sleeping Comcast technician was posted to YouTube, where it was seen by nearly two million people. Making matters worse, Comcast took far too long to respond. It eventually fired the employee, but the damage had been done.[iii]
Rebounding From A Mistake, The Right Way
Let's now take a look at an organization that handled a potential social media nightmare with finesse. In the process, it turned a potential PR disaster into a humorous event that generated chuckles, goodwill and donations.
On February 15, 2011, a post appeared on the official Red Cross Twitter account. It read:
"Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer... when we drink we do it right. #gettngslizzerd"
An employee of the well-known charity had posted the above tweet on what she thought was her personal Twitter account.
Boy, was she wrong. (Red Cross has nearly 1 million followers).
As far as social media blunders go, this one is relatively tame. It was an innocent mistake made by an employee who was simply looking forward to relaxing with a friend and a beer after a tough day. No harm, no foul, but it still warranted an official response, one which the Red Cross delivered perfectly. It quickly posted the following on its Twitter account:
"We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."
Nice. The response generated fans and even resulted in a joint marketing campaign with Dogfish Head. The campaign produced a flow of new donations while news agencies from CNN to Time covered the story. Home run![iv]
To recap, it is not the mistakes your company makes that can seal your fate with customers and the public on social media. It is how you respond to those mistakes. Remember, this is the age of the super info highway...news travels fast. Blunders do not remain hidden, nor do poor responses. Instead, both are shared among friends and networks on Twitter, Facebook and even Pinterest, where they spread like wildfire.
If you fix your mistakes, openly and transparently, you can win fans and customers that remain loyal for years.
[ii] The Associated Press, NBCNews.com, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/42132041/ns/business-autos/t/man-fired-over-obscene-chrysler-tweet-sorry/#.UYlBiCs4Xw4 (accessed May 7th, 2013)