Designing the experience of getting it wrong


What happens when a problem occurs, or when something out-of-the-norm disturbs the carefully honed service proposition? Or if a customer is just plain unhappy with the outcome, whether it was supposed to happen that way or not? Rather than react to problems ad-hoc, we advocate designing apology management directly into the experience. However, our work has taught us that automating an apology just doesn’t cut it with customers, so ruling out some of those mass delivery email apologies that are easy-to-send but hard-to-impress. Here are three audit themes we’ve used to help design the delivery of apology:

  • Action Announcements – public apologies almost always fail our most basic test of helping to fix a problem. A rail company advising of a cancellation by saying “We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause” is simply washing its hands in public. Its pre-recorded, uniform, insincerity demonstrates a lack of care, not customer care, and a complete lack of responsibility. 

At the very least, information of the next available train and the time difference between arrivals could help passengers action a phone call advising of their new arrival time. Alternative routes or other modes of transport are further information options which help passenger take action. The guiding principle should be "we’ve messed up and we’re genuinely sorry. We’ll do all that we can to help you out."
    • Culpable Language

– acknowledging personal responsibility has a very different impact upon the customer, compared to an observation statement of what has happened. For example, a fashion store website announcing that a searched-for item is “out-of-stock” is an observation, not an apology. 

Instead, by saying “We’re sorry – this item is out-of-stock. Click here for how we have resolved this problem for other customers” is both a personal acknowledgement and points towards resolution. The ‘solution’ used an algorithm to show similar items that shoppers had already found and chosen as replacements. This both saved time by offering proven suggestions to shoppers, and also constantly updated as stock positions changed.

  • Use of Escalation – I recently complained to Apple that one of my iTunes song vouchers had expired without warning, before I could redeem it. 
The first response was timely (<24hrs) but simply restated the expiry date and suggested I read the small print in future to avoid a recurrence. This demonstrated that, in Apple’s view, there was no problem, just an ignorant customer! 

I replied by saying that I had expected a brand built on Apple’s reputation for simplicity of design to have made any voucher expiry easy-to-see. 
One day later, I had a (branded) email from the Team Leader in California, thanking me for helping Apple improve their iTunes experience, apologising for the lack of care…and refunding all my vouchers. 
Crucially, he asked me to accept his apology and to rate his problem resolution at the Apple feedback site. 
The outcome gave me faith in the way escalation was handled at Apple, and highlighted that a problem isn’t fixed until the customer agrees that it is. It also showed how email can work as an apology mechanic, but is best when the response is personalised to the recipient.

With appropriate metrics and targets, companies can both budget for and track the benefits of designing apology handling into their customer experience. Some metrics are obvious – the future lifetime value of a customer is directly impacted by problem resolution, as is the company cost of fixing it. But others are more subtle – employee recruitment, morale and turnover metrics can be impacted by how a job is positioned, as much as the tasks it requires. Imagine choosing between a role which “handles complaints from dissatisfied customers” and another which requires “troubleshooting for the brand on behalf of customers” – I know where I’d rather work...


Interested in how to design the experience of getting it wrong for your business? Contact us here.