Love the haters

One day, a French-speaking client went onto the French-language section of our Web site and the first tab he got was the English, “I’m a Client, let me in!” which is standard for our sign-in page. Admittedly, it should have been in French.

Our technology team had made an overnight change and a mistake happened. The client was very upset and he vehemently let me know. I responded to his email within 30 minutes and told him I was very sorry. His email response was, I’m fucking leaving. I apologized again and took some time to explain the problem and how we had fixed it. Why? Because I viewed his dissatisfaction as an opportunity to turn a good customer into a great one by telling him honestly that we’d screwed up. Confessing our errors makes us human, vulnerable and accountable.

A brand is, first and foremost, what people think and say about you. They’ll make their judgments based on their interactions with you. They base their views on your marketing, their first interactions with you, their last interactions with you, their worst interactions with you or how you handled a problem. Which gives rise to the question, How does something imperfect improve brand value? In two seemingly opposite ways.

First, if something isn’t perfect then technically it under-delivers. It becomes the opposite of exceeding expectations; this is true of a service, a product, or a personal interaction. If people have an expectation of our brand and we disappoint them, whether it’s because of pricing or service, or because the process wasn’t easy or it was confusing, or it just doesn’t work (say you deposit a cheque, and the money doesn’t get put it your account)—that damages the brand. But here’s the other way of looking at imperfection: if you screw something up, admit the mistake and fix it. This can be even more powerful than getting it right the first time.

In any service industry people are so used to things going wrong and the disappointing way they’re responded to afterwards. They’re conditioned to expect the worst because that’s often what they get.

Of course we make mistakes too. And our customers absolutely point them out to us and not always in a very nice way. But our customer-facing employees and leaders admit our errors and they are able to repair them for the customer with empathy and urgency. I personally get involved here, responding to calls, emails and social media communications. I have observed that an angry customer can become one of your best ambassadors based upon how you resolve their problem. If they come to understand that you listen, that you care and that until their problem is repaired they are all that matters to you, they will love you and tell the story to their friends and family.

In my personal life, some of the closest relationships I have are with people I went to see after pissing them off and asking for a private word. What is it this time? they might ask. I want to apologize. I made a mistake. I’m just really sorry, I’ll say. Admit your mistakes and people will love you more. They’ll defend you. And when other haters take action and attack you, you won’t even have to defend yourself. The people who love and understand you will jump to your defence. Yes, even your customers.

By the way, the frustrated French-speaking client didn’t leave after all. And I’ll bet he’s told at least five people how we fixed the problem. So we love the haters. Thanks to them, our army of lovers grows.

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