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Suddenly, Everyone’s Apologizing.

Is it the era of the mea culpa for marketers? Could it be that, forced to start a conversation, some marketers have learned that they have some apologizing to do?

In rapid succession, McDonalds, American Express Open and J.C. Penney have all joined the mea culpa trend.

Here’s the story, and a few thoughts on where, when, how and how not to apologize.

J.C. Penney just launched this video on Facebook, under the theme JCP Listens.

It was a good idea to start the conversation, a good idea to listen, and a very, very bad idea to go beyond the first couple of lines of this treacly video.

Changes. Yes.

You liked some and didn’t like others. Good!

Listening to you. Fantastic!!!

The thing about mistakes… Oh, there you go making another one.

Is that you learn. Oh, please stop. Please, please stop.

OK, so some folks at J.C. Penney were a little too ready to go out with the, “We kicked the bum out” spirit. But, that’s not really relevant.

What is relevant is that they are not just listening but responding in real time, with real news that real J.C. Penney customers care about.

Let the apology end and the conversation continue.

American Express Open.

Here, Drew Neisser of Renegade reports from the recent CMO Summit that Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP, Consumer Marketing and Engagement, American Express OPEN, attempted to persuade her fellow marketers to conduct “customer engagement with a new sense of humility.” In fact, she admitted that American Express had let down and angered many of their most loyal small business customers during the recession.

“It was important for us to say we’re sorry,” she explained, adding, “We created a customer advisory council to look at complaints after that.”

Wow, that’s a pretty big admission. We’re the company that’s supposed to look after and take care of small business, yet when the times where really tough for our customers, we let them down.

A couple of thoughts:

1) Apologize in private. Unless your company committed a sin against society, keep apologies private. The direct channel is ideal for one-to-one and targeted communications and conversations. The social channel is a great place to deal with comments in a differentiated manner. Some public, some more private. Have some meaningful conversations. Overcorrect. Create some brand advocates. When DiGo client Netflix introduced a wildly unpopular new pricing model in an insanely unpopular way, the company quickly backpedaled. There were some more ineffective communications that followed. Then, they got back to work on the experience. A year later, their stock is up over 300% and Netflix has surpassed even HBO in audience and subscribers.

2) Identify the systematic issues and correct them. If your customer service people are rushing off the phone, for example, look into and change their incentives. Address issues of culture. McDonald’s got it mostly right when they put their managers on public notice that they were committed to turning around deteriorating customer service.

3) First, fix the customer experience. But what am I supposed to communicate while I’m doing that, Mark? You communicate what you can, knowing it’s less important than fixing the customer experience. If you have something to sell – and I hope you do – you keep selling it. Decades ago, when Ford realized that the quality standards in their industry had long since left their products behind, they went to work on changing that. A year ahead of launching new product, they couldn’t say much so they got people ready with, “Have you driven a Ford lately?”

4) Remember the dream of the brand. There’s a positive side to disappointing customers. You can’t do it unless they have expectations to begin with. When we took on The Plaza Hotel account more than a decade ago, several years of Trump ownership had left the place in need of a massive renovation. The new ownership assumed that our first campaign out of the gate would be an apology. With our client, Tom Civitano, we determined that apologizing would actually be disrespectful to our most important customers. These people had paid a lot for the privilege of staying at The Plaza. When they flew into town, they didn’t say they were going to New York City, they said, “I’m going to stay at The Plaza.” To publicly apologize would have undermined their experience and their bragging rights – things they’d paid good money for! Instead, we ran a campaign celebrated the dream that is The Plaza, while we went to work improving the customer experience. In the first year, long before the renovation even started, the Plaza Hotel rose to the top of its class in Rev-Par, the industry’s key metric, and stayed there for the next seven years. The campaign one the HSMAI’s Platinum Award as the best of the year.
There is a dream that is your brand, an experience that your customer is trying to create with your help.

1) Identify that experience. Get to know it intimately.

2) Learn how to leverage it to create action and advocacy. That’s what we call Brand Direct.

3) Now make this experience the measure of every touch point.

4) Do a POE – a paid, owned, earned inventory of your touchpoints with your customers and prospects.

5) Every day, infuse at least one of those touchpoints with more of the core experience.

6) Use the media and materials of today to stay one step ahead. That’s what we call Modern-Day Marketing.

7) Finally, apologize along the way, and overcorrect. Fixing things creates advocates. Staying in touch every day will go a long way toward making sure that no big public apologies are necessary.