Good Marketing Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

Yesterday, at 4:55 pm, Eastern Standard Time, I received the best apology e-mail I have ever gotten.

No, no, it wasn’t from Jon Stewart, apologizing for not yet having me as a guest author on The Daily Show. But thank you, you’re very kind to suggest that.

What it was, was an apology from the company that hosts the Blue Penguin web site: DreamHost. It was so good, in fact, that I reproduce the entire thing here for your benefit:

“Hi Michael!

“Ack. Through a COMPLETE bumbling on our part, we’ve accidentally attempted to charge you for the ENTIRE year of 2008 (and probably 2009!) ALREADY (it was all due to a fat finger)!

“We’re really really realllly embarassed about this, but you have nothing to worry about. Please ignore any confusing billing messages you may have received recently; we’ve already removed all those bum future charges on your account and already refunded the $119.40 charge on your credit card.

“You should get the money back on almost immediately, within a day or two max, and there’s no need to contact your credit card company or bank for the refund.

“Thank you very very much for your patience with this.. we PROMISE this won’t happen again. There’s no need to reply to this message unless of course you have any other questions at all!

The Foolish DreamHost Billing Team!”

What made DreamHost’s e-mail so good? At least three things that I can think of:

  1. They took responsibility for their mistake. They didn’t hide behind some vague “administrative error” excuse, or sidestep blame with a “mistakes were made” approach. They just stood right up and said “We got it wrong.”

    So what? When you say unequivocally that it’s your fault (not an easy thing for any of us to do), you completely diffuse customer anger. Your customers are not unhappy (generally) with your mistakes, they’re unhappy with your attempts to gloss over them.

  1. They spoke in plain, friendly English. So plain, in fact, that they spelled “embarrassed” incorrectly (oops). And while I’m certainly not encouraging typos, most “official communications” from most companies have been so massaged by legal, marketing, PR and anyone else who happened to attend the “circle the wagons” meeting, that they lose the feeling behind the words. DreamHost made a deliberate effort to write something authentic.

    So what? When it comes to communicating — particularly in the case of an apology — feelings are what it’s all about. When you speak plainly, you poke holes in the wall that separates your company from the outside world.

  1. They sent it immediately and to everyone. Until I received the e-mail, I had no idea there was a problem at all. And who knows, I may not have even noticed when my credit card bill arrived.

    Lots of companies in this situation would have taken a wait and see approach, only responding to complaints/questions as they came in. (“Why shine a light on our mistake?”) DreamHost proactively told everyone.

    So what? (“Is he going to do this ëSo what?’ thing for the rest of the newsletter?”) When you admit your mistakes before I find them, I learn that I can trust you. Not just in this matter either; in all aspects of the way we do business.

Here’s the bottom line… When it comes to providing whatever services we provide, we all do our best to get it right. And yet, ironically, how we fall down reveals a lot more about who we are. DreamHost, in the open and honest way it broadcast its apology, earned itself more than a few customers for life.

As for me, I hope that the next time I make a mistake, I won’t overlook the golden marketing opportunity I’ve just been handed. Until then, I’ll be in my office, looking for things to screw up (should make for an interesting afternoon).

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