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Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word


In Dale Carnegie's pocket-sized "Golden Book," he advises:

If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

In our experience, a lot of people don't listen to Dale. Whether it's personal insecurity, company policy, or fear of legal liability, saying "sorry" is out of fashion. As marketing communications people, we usually approach customers and prospects from a position of strength, not weakness. But, there are moments of marketing truth when honesty — and, quite frankly, humility — are your best weapon.

Remember the tainted Tylenol of 1982? (All right, many of our readers probably don't, but it's relevant.) Someone tampered with Tylenol capsules, lacing the over-the-counter analgesic with potassium cyanide. Seven people died in Chicago and several more were murdered in what police call "copycat crimes." Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's parent company, immediately recalled the products and worked closely with the Chicago Police, the FBI, and the FDA — not only to try and locate the criminal, but to ensure that packaging and distribution would be enhanced to avoid future incidents. Most importantly, they came forward and accepted responsibility (even though they certainly weren't the perpetrators of the crime itself). Market share dropped from 35% to 8%, but rebounded within the year and continued to grow, as Johnson & Johnson — leading the entire industry — developed tamper-proof packaging.

Lesson learned? (See Dale Carnegie quote above.)

When Zoom crashed this week, no lives were lost, but millions of children who had just returned to school were left hanging out in cyberland. The volume was simply too much for the web conferencing service to handle. As employees scrambled to get the service back up, a simple message was sent out:

We have resolved an issue that caused some users to be unable to start and join Zoom Meetings and Webinars or manage aspects of their account on the Zoom website. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience.

Polite, succinct, but whether customers thought it was sufficient probably depended on how inconvenienced they were and what the ramifications were (if any). Schoolkids getting an unexpected reprieve from Algebra 2 were probably fine with it. A sales team missing out on an important presentation, probably not so much.

But, Zoom — which has become so valuable and ubiquitous that it's become a verb — didn't leave it at that. Once the capacity issue was solved, an email was sent by the company's President of Product and Engineering Velchamy Sankarlingam. It read:

We always take very seriously our responsibility to keep you connected, and we know that you are relying on us during this particularly challenging time. We deeply regret this incident and sincerely apologize. I'm personally disappointed that we have let you down and I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused. 

I am proud of our dedicated team working to enable our customers' work, schooling, and social lives during the global health crisis. We are intensely focused on scaling our collaboration and cloud technology to help Zoom reliably connect the world now and in the future. I'm here to get this right and will personally do my best to prevent disruptions like this from happening in the future. Zoom's availability and reliability is a top priority and we appreciate all of your support.

The acceptance of blame, conviction of message, and personal touch here all strike the right chord. Zoom is an exciting, dynamic brand that has helped many people through the communications challenges of the past six months. A mistake — provided they address it the right way — won't be a permanent setback. In fact, research has shown that customers who have an issue with a brand, but are satisfied with how the brand deals with the issue, become even more loyal customers.

Remember, if you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

That's "how to win friends and influence people," including customers.

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