The Importance of Being Human – Effective Brand Apologies in Social

The promise of social is also the problem with social.  Social wasn’t created for brands, it was created for users.  By definition the users of social are humans, so perhaps the best way for brands to engage on social is by being more human.  And therein lies the biggest promise of social for brands.  You can have a personality, you can act like another human being and you can be more than this faceless tower to your consumers.

With Great Power …

Your brand can take on all the trappings of a person, which will allow greater engagement.  You can be just like that trusted friend who is ready to give advice, and to help when necessary.  But that trusted friend understands what it means to be human and what is expected of them.  Well, some of your friends may.  What I am talking about is the social contract we all signed up to by being born.  If I say hi to you in the hall, you are expected to say hi to me back, right?  If you don’t fulfill your side of the contract, you are ostracized and marginalized and generally forgotten.  I think the same can be said for brands in social.  The more you don’t fulfill your side of being human, the more your users take away their permission for you to engage with them.

Comes Great Responsibility 

One of the ways that most brands fail in this social contract is how they apologize.  There is generally a good correlation between companies that apologize well in general and companies that apologize in social.  If your brand does a good job with customer service they will do a good job in social.  They understand the science of apologizing and how to do it effectively, regardless of channel.

Effective Apologies

As children we are all taught how to apologize, but we generally forget as we get older.  I use the example of the child who breaks a neighbors window with an errant ball.  We are taught to go over there, admit it was us, and offer to fix or make it right.  As we grow older, we tend to do more of an analysis.  Did he see me do it?  Does he know whose ball it is?  And so on.  In the business world, this is the purview of the lawyers.  If we admit fault, that will come back to haunt us, they say.  If your brand is in social and your customers are having problems, or your brand has made a mistake, you need to apologize like that child.

A full effective apology has these features:

  • The words are focused on what you did, with no but words.  “I am sorry that we shipped your new flat screen TV to Alaska.”  Not, “I am sorry we shipped your new flat screen to Alaska, but when you called in you gave us the zip code for Anchorage, even though you told us you lived in Atlanta.”
  • Do not seek forgiveness in your apology.  Don’t say “I am sorry that we shipped your flat screen TV to Alaska, we hope you can forgive us.”  That consumer may be missing the live broadcast of their team’s first championship.  They will never be able to get that back.
  • Acknowledge their feelings, but do not make them part of the mistake.  “I am sorry we shipped your flat screen TV to Alaska.  I know how frustrating that can be.”  Not, “I am sorry that you are frustrated that we shipped your flat screen TV to Alaska.”
  • State in clear terms how you are going to make it right.  “I am sorry we shipped your flat screen TV to Alaska.  What we are going to do is ship one out today from our distribution center and send it overnight to you.  We are going to refund you the shipping cost, as well.”  Yes, this is going to cost you money, but if you turn this detractor into a delighter, the ROI is there.
  • Make it right.  This is a no brainer, but focus on getting to the solution not just getting the customer off the phone, out of the channel, etc.  Have someone assigned to make sure that the resolution was made.  In my example, someone needs to confirm that the TV was shipped out, checking on the shipping status in the morning, and reaching out to the customer to see if they got it.

Apologies for Lawyers

A full effective apology may actually be impossible for companies who deal with sensitive customer data.  A full apology that admits fault will include data that you cannot send out over an insecure channel.  “I am sorry that your purchase of the Firefly boxed set was declined, but your credit card ending in 7845 is over its credit limit,” is probably not the thing that your customer wants to see on their wall.

You need to craft an apology that focuses on the things you did, though.  I think a decent compromise is something like, “I am sorry that we haven’t lived up to your expectations, but we want to make it right.”  Then you need to channel shift them to a private, non-public channel.

If you are not dealing with sensitive (legally or personally) information, I recommend you go the full route, though.  If this is hard for you, go look at case studies on brands that do customer service on social (the ones who have been doing it the longest is a good place to start) and see how they deal with customer complaints.

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