What to Do When Your Company Screws Up

In my last post I talked about how to provide good customer service when the customer himself/herself is wrong or makes a mistake. In this post I’d like to focus on what to do when your company screws up.

The public is never at a loss for examples of high-profile company screw ups. The one that really hit home for me has been the recent Southwest Airlines debacle regarding maintenance issues. I’m a huge Southwest fan and was disappointed that they compromised their reputation by falsifying records and then trying to cover up the deed. It looks like the matter was perpetrated by a few individuals in the company as well as some FAA officials (it’s still under investigation), but the company received a serious black eye.

Some companies handle mistakes very well. The Tylenol tampering scare in the early 1980s was handled immediately by Johnson and Johnson and to this day is recognized for its excellent response. Others companies have created huge problems due to the poor handling. Firestone Tires and Ford handled the situation by pointing fingers at each other when some of their tires were tragically defective.

So, what do you do when you make a big or even a small mistake? No matter the size of the problem, there are steps you can follow. The complexity of each step will depend on just how big the mistake it is; but the steps are the same.

1.Admit to the mistake quickly – Trying to cover up a mistake will come back to bite you. Someone is going to find out and it’s best to assume they will find out sooner rather than later. When we come forward ourselves to admit a mistake, customers are more forgiving.

2.Accept responsibility – Neither Firestone nor Ford accepted responsibility for the problem, and both companies were fried by the press. Accepting responsibility may seem dangerous in the short run (lawsuits, etc.) but the organization comes out stronger because of the willingness to own up to the problem. In fact, costly lawsuits can be even more likely when the company takes a belligerent stance.

3.Apologize – We all appreciate a sincere apology. Saying you’re sorry that the situation occurred can take the sting out the mistake. Sometimes a sincere apology is all the customer really wants!

4.Say what you’re going to do to fix the problem – If the wrong meal was delivered, say how you’re going to make it up to the customer. If the phone bill is wrong, say how you’ll handle it. Clearly communicate that you are taking ownership of the issue. If the tires are defective, tell us how you’re going take care of the situation and don’t waste time pointing fingers.

5.Explain what you’ll do so the problem doesn’t happen again – This step may not be necessary for some errors – you don’t really need to explain to the customer how you’ll make sure to deliver the right meal in the future. Bigger issues, like the Southwest Airlines maintenance problem, seriously erode customer trust. In that case, customers want to know that you are putting in processes to ensure the situation doesn’t happen again.

If more companies and employees would follow these steps, customers and companies would be better off. Everyone screws up and most of us can accept that as long as the organization handles the screw up well. Most of us are willing to give a second chance; maybe even a third. But if the situation is handled poorly, it may be one strike and you’re out.