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Go Ahead and Apologize, Just Don’t Turn it into a Marketing Campaign

Mea culpa, I’m sorry, I would like to apologize (Don’t tell me about it, just go ahead and apologize. I’ll wait.). Yes, we are a society of apologizers. Personally and in business, that hypersensitivity to the feelings of others that, over the last 30 years, has been crowbared into the national mindset by the effete political correctness crowd has us admitting the errors of our ways and begging forgiveness at heretofore unheard of levels of both volumes and frequency—not, as Seinfeld once said, that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem that I have is when those heartfelt—OK, maybe not-so-heartfelt—mea culpas are used as a calculated part of a PR and marketing effort.

Apologies are supposed to do three things: acknowledge guilt, demonstrate a full and complete understanding of the nature of the wrongdoing, and to express both remorse and a willingness to accept the consequences. It’s a bonus if you can also throw in a pledge to behave better in the future. That is it. When done with dignity and thoughtfulness, an apology can be a beautiful thing. If, however, the so-called apology is underdone; or if you throw in too much sniveling and begging—especially over matters of little or no import—it becomes rather tiresome very quickly. Going overboard on either side of the spectrum, from too much to too little feeling, kills the sincerity and begins to smack of apology marketing. 

Apology Marketing
Apology marketing is the art of screwing up—perhaps it is unintentional, perhaps not—and then trying to sell you while apologizing for the gaff. This kind of marketing usually works like this:
  • The company in question may or may not have done something to warrant an apology, but someone in the organization—or some computer somewhere—decides it is time to pony one up. 
  • A letter, e-mail, or member of management is sent out to offer the apology. 
  • A bribe—er, gift—is given to the supposedly injured party as an inducement to forget about the whole embarrassing thing and remain a loyal customer. This gift is usually some sort of discount on future purchases, a gift card or a coupon—nothing that would impact the bottom line too much. 

Now, I understand that many companies feel the heat of competition and know that there is no such thing as brand loyalty anymore, but there has to be a better way to do things than by trying to sell me after messing up. That is as insincere to me as the uninterested, monotone, dismally insincere “sorry” mumbled by some fish-eyed U.S. Airways luggage agent when I come in to report lost bags.

It isn’t just me. Remember when Bill Maher called the Pope a Nazi and then “apologized?” Here is what one viewer had to say about it on 

I watched HBO and Bill Maher tonight
That was the whole entire point of his apology marketing campaign - to boost his numbers.

Everywhere you looked yesterday, you were told that he would be making an apology to the pope on his show that night. Drudge had it, the news nets had it, everybody ran that story. And you, along with a lot of other eyeballs, watched his show last night.

The so-called satirist said something hateful and then turned his apology into a marketing gimmick. Why? To spur ratings. In other words, he used the apology to sell you. The fact is that people are getting very tired of the tactic. Celebrities and companies have overplayed the apologetic hand and have left people wanting those in the public sphere to have considerably less to apologize about. In his article on, “Sorry We Screwed You Up, So Here’s Ten Bucks,” Herschell Gordon Lewis writes:

And that's just what they [Apology Marketing from Budget Rent-a-Car] are — samples of corporate-think in which the letters CRM (customer relationship management) already are largely discredited because they're mindless, thoughtless and managerially casual. My son Bob (who writes the online column “Keep the Joint Running”) and I have dubbed this approach CEM — customer elimination management. That, in effect, is what so many of these “Send that guy our standard Apology Marketing e-mail” messages, decided and implemented on a minor bureaucratic level, accomplish.

Personally, if I have been burned once by a business, I don’t give them a second chance to do the same thing to me without seeing some real changes. To have coupons to the same restaurant that made me sick (Yes, that did happen) makes as much sense to me as a mugging victim scheduling a second meeting with their mugger in the hopes that next time it will “go better.” If this has happened to me, it has happened to others and if it is still happening, then no one has been paying any attention.

Apologize and Take Action
When your company or staff screws up, that is exposing a weakness in your organization. There is no shame in this; every company has its strengths and weaknesses. Progress is eliminating the weaknesses while enhancing the strengths and a customer complaint or some self-evident mistake that may not have been the source of complaint is an opportunity make progress.

Apologize, yes, but in that apology ask some questions about what went wrong. Make the customer feel as though they are part of the solution and not some nuisance to be fobbed off by a couple of laser-printed coupons and a form letter. Let the customer know that their information was instrumental in dealing with the problem. Then, once the issue has been dealt with, invite them back to see how things have changed. That is the time for free gifts, when you are offering your customer something they may genuinely want.

The Bottom Line
Anyone who has ever watched TV, listened to radio, surfed the Net or opened e-mail (or snail mail for that matter) understands that there is some unseen marketing person with dark desires for the contents of their wallet out there trying to sell them something. That is part of the price of getting up in the morning and we all accept it. What is not acceptable is attempting to turn even the poorest performance or most offensive act into a selling point. Have a little pride and a little dignity. Treat the customer right, mitigating any problems you might have caused, and then fix the problem. Once that has been done, and you have something real to sell, then get the customer back.
If you do it right, it shouldn’t be very hard.