Monday, June 30, 2008

Honestly communicating big screw-ups

Early in my career our for-profit subsidiary had a really bad roll-out of a new but important program in a part of our state. We arranged a forum and the president participated to get local feedback. It was all bad. He came back to my office and said we needed to immediately send out a "we screwed up" letter saying we were sorry, acknowledging that we knew exactly what went wrong, and what steps were being taken in the future. It actually didn't matter that it "wasn't our fault" - if the end user has a really bad experience they deserve the apology and then the organization can decide what to do about the fault part.

Members are far more forgiving if there is really honest communication about screw-ups - especially if they're already aware of it ...

I recently got this email from organizers of a convention: [emphasis and identifying deletions mine]

"The convention had many successes ... We had 288 participants under the age of 25. Our check-in/registration process was one of the best ever, especially in the face of record turnout. We had record participation by advertisers in our program book. We had a record number of exhibitors. The hospitality suites on Friday night enjoyed great attendance ....

The convention also had a number of shortfalls. First and foremost, we made a mistake in [X] .... Second, when a system error caused a delay in the [X], we did not have a back-up approach ready to turn to immediately. Neither of these mistakes will be made again and I can only say I am sorry for these decisions. We also know that there are many other areas where we have room for improvement. For example, communications from the [organizer] to [attendees] were not good, the lunch distribution process did not work well, the [organizer]-provided shuttle bus process produced some unfortunate upsets and off-site [attendee] facilities were not properly secured. All of these, and others that will likely emerge, will be corrected through our convention debrief process.

We know you have other comments and suggestions and we want to hear from you. Your input is greatly valued, and your dedication to the [organization] is what will make [X] successful in 2008. Please help us by sending your comments so that we can make future conventions more enjoyable for you. You can email your feedback to [email] .... Thanks in advance for your help."

Had I attended this event, this communication is exactly what I would want to hear. Anytime an association annoys or inconveniences members who participate in our programs or products, this is an example of the right way to apologize and improve.

Separately ... they had encouraged first-time (and repeat) attendees to send posts for their blog, and a few were really quite brutal (including one who used the "f word" several times) - and they posted all of it.

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