Editor's Page -- Learn from Bridgestone/Firestone

Whatever happened to 'I'm sorry'?

Of all the lost arts of customer service, the one I miss most is the ability to apologize for a mistake. I don't expect everything I purchase to be perfect. But I do expect that if a mistake is made -- if a deadline is missed, if a product doesn't work -- the offending party will acknowledge that he or she made a mistake and then fix it. I expect this kind of plain dealing not because I read it in some business tome, but because my mother taught me -- at the age of three, I think -- that plain dealing is what honorable people, and honorable companies, do. Yet at more and more businesses, the adage about the customer always being right seems to have been rewritten as "Don't ever let the customers even think they're right." More and more companies seem to think that the answer to a quality or service problem is to deny that the issue exists. Callous disregard for customers and candor might be just another irritating aspect of modern life if it weren't for the fact that this kind of reflexive stonewalling can cost lives. Witness, for example, Bridgestone/Firestone's recent troubles with tires whose treads could separate from the rest of the tire, causing potentially lethal accidents. A legion of attorneys is lining up to allege that the company compounded a deadly mistake in product design with a prolonged effort to conceal the problem -- even as injuries and fatalities mounted. No matter what the final resolution is, Bridgestone/Firestone likely will spend years in court and millions, if not billions, in legal fees and damage awards. As my mother might say, sticking your head in the sand about a problem isn't just bad management and stupid customer service, it's just plain wrong. So for those executives who have forgotten what their own mothers taught them at the age of three, here's my five-step program for dealing with mistakes:

  • Tell the truth: Everyone around you will be offering versions of the politician's favorite strategy: "Deny, deny, deny." Don't do it. Admit your mistake as soon as you recognize it.
  • Tell it now: Every minute you wait is another minute your customers will learn to hate you. Don't give your competitors any more ammunition by delaying.
  • Tell everything you know: None of this malarkey about "we will provide full details at a later date." If it's important enough to tell your customers, tell them everything.
  • Apologize: Don't make excuses. Don't blame your partners or, even worse, your customers. Don't point out everything you've done right in the past. Say you're sorry, say it's inexcusable, and shut up.
  • Make it right: If you can fix it, do so. If you can't fix it, compensate your customers for their time or trouble or loss. And make damn sure you never make the mistake again. Because if you don't, your customers -- and their lawyers -- will make damn sure for you.

    John R. Brandt is publisher and editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek.

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