Simplest words also the hardest: ‘Sorry about that’

Officials deep inside Verizon, sprinting blindly along the path blazed earlier this year by their peers at Bank of America, decided it would help the $15 billion-a-quarter revenue picture to charge wireless customers $2 each time they pay their bill on-line.

The BoA blowback took a month before it admitted you can’t coach stupid and rescinded its idea to impose a $5-a-month fee for customers’ privilege of using a debit card for purchases.

Verizon backtracked in 24 hours. That was smart and cut its losses, ending the immediate crisis. But it did nothing to change Verizon’s image as an insensitive behemoth so out of touch with its customers that it would consider such a face slap to begin with. What were they thinking?

We’ll never know the answer. So what’s worth addressing here is the art of the apology.

This, according to the New York Times, is what a Verizon spokesman said Friday about the reversal:

“The company made the decision in response to customer feedback about the plan, which was designed to improve the efficiency of those transactions.”

Where I hang my coat most days, we teach Talk Human. Let’s start with translating this dry, unfeeling statement from a company that just alienated thousands of its customers into something sensitive and helpful. It might go like this:

“Verizon made a mistake. We apologize to our customers who were rightfully offended or angered by this decision, which was made in the company’s best interests and those of our shareholders. We did not, however, take into consideration how unfair this would appear to our customers. We value our customers, understand and accept their feedback and therefore moved quickly to kill this fee. We now plan to work hard to regain our customers’ trust and allegiance.”

Not perfect, but at least you can hear a heart beating inside.

Everyone makes mistakes. Smart companies admit them, publicly smack themselves in the forehead with their palm, apologize, and move on. This will not be a major setback for Verizon. The company can monitor its contract renewals over the next few months and measure the effect. It might offer a few rebates and discounts and start an ad campaign to make amends.

But, most important, the failure to apologize represents another company’s failure to benefit. Handed, admittedly by its own misguided decision-making, an opportunity to lead, to stand tall, it instead slouched behind a mealy-mouthed statement of PR double-speak.

When you shoot your customers in the foot, apologize, take responsibility for your reckless stupidity, offer help and compensation, institute rules preventing such foolishness in the future — and do it publicly. That way everyone sees your blush, not your bluster, and you communicate your humanity and sensitivity, not your robotic defensiveness.

If you do, customers might even like you on Facebook and defend you in 140 characters or less. Your choice.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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