(This post appears on ReputationOnline)
Vodafone has suffered a massive blow to it corporate reputation in recent days. A security error on their site allowed anyone to find customers' email addresses and phone numbers. It's still unknown if any accounts were compromised due to the flaw - nor is it known if there was any wholesale plundering of the sensitive personal data.
Mistakes happen - even to companies who can afford the very best consultants. The way in which a company responds to its mistakes can help mitigate their customers' negative reactions.
There are two important factors in redeeming your reputation after a serious error.
- The first is the speed at which it is corrected.
- The second is the human reaction to the problem.
This piece is entitled "at the speed of fright". Customers see a terrifying mistake and want it corrected instantly. Many customers don't understand that the CSR they're talking to probably isn't in the same building as the decision makers. In most small businesses, a mistake can be corrected instantly. In a large business with thousands of employees, it may take days just to find the person who has responsibility - let alone the person who actually understands how to correct the mistake.
Your customers and CSRs need a "Big Red Button" option. You need a way to escalate serious problems so that they are dealt with in hours - not days.
Take a look at the Vodafone website - or indeed the site of any other major company - can you spot the link which says "Click here to report a serious security flaw"? I doubt it. At best, you'll see a form which allows you to type a message of no more than 500 character which may, or may not, be answered within 48 hours.
On the Internet, that's just not good enough. A single tweet can spread through the community like wildfire. Forums and blogs will fill with rumours, speculation, and bile before you know it.
The only way to stem the tide of negative sentiment is through a swift and decisive response.
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
Take a look through the thread on the Vodafone forums complaining about the security issues. There's one question being asked again and again which is never answered. That question: "When are you going to apologise?"
There may well be legal consequences to admitting liability. But the consequences of failing to apologise will be devastating. Customers can accept that you made a mistake. But refusing to acknowledge your mistake exacerbates the problem. It sends the message that you do not care about your customers.
There is psychological evidence that shows the very act of apologising is beneficial in helping to heal wounded relations. Take some time to see the world through your customers' eyes - let them know you understand why they are upset and show contrition for what is, after all, your failing.
The best part about apologising? Customers prefer apologies to monetary compensation!
Terence Eden is a freelance mobile consultant. You should follow him on Twitter.