"United Breaks Guitars" or How to Deal With Mistakes

You broke it, you should fix it. You’re liable, just admit it.
— Dave Carroll

One of the problems affiliate program managers often face is that of not knowing how to deal with the mistakes they commit. Many believe that admitting their mistakes equals admitting that they are lousy at what they do. In reality, things work the other way around. It is failing to admit one’s mistake that makes one a bad affiliate program manager.

John Heaney published a good article on the lessons to learn from (a) the “public viral humiliation” that United Airlines have suffered “with the release of YouTube sensation United Breaks Guitars” and (b) his own recent experience with Continental Airlines.

The whole situation with Dave Carroll vs United Airlines reminded me personally of two things: (i) of how powerful the word-of-mouth really is these days, and (ii) how important it is for businesses to promptly admit, and correct their mistakes.

Speaking of dealing with mistakes, Heaney boils things down to 4 steps:

  1. Accept responsibility
  2. Apologize
  3. Explain how you will correct the mistake
  4. Correct the mistake

Let me emphasize something one more time: there is nothing wrong with admitting and owning the fact that a mistake has been made. It gets wrong when you fail to admit one.

In contrast with United, there’s an airline company in Germany that does do it the right way. It is called Lufthansa. Both of these companies belong to the Star Alliance, but one is significantly more star-worthy than the other. Just fly over the Atlantic with United and return on a Lufthansa flight (probably won’t cost you a penny more), and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Besides their impeccable service, Lufthansa also deals with their mistakes beautifully. Last year, they did not let us (my wife, my daughter and myself) board the plane because of some technical issue, and we had to wait some 4-5 hours for the next flight; but Lufthansa (i) accepted the responsibility, (ii) apologized, (iii) put us into a business lounge to wait for our new flight, and (iv) paid us a total of some $1,500 for the inconvenience we incurred. Needless to say that Lufthansa is now our preferred airline when it comes to routes where they are competing with other airlines (even if it costs me a bit more than what their competitors are charging). No, not because of the cash they pay to correct their mistakes (that too, but there’s more to stellar customer service!) They care, and this is extremely important.

7 thoughts on “"United Breaks Guitars" or How to Deal With Mistakes”

  1. Geno – I appreciate the kind words about my post and just wanted to reiterate the importance for each business to admit it when they’ve made a mistake. All of us can deal with bad news and a little adversity, as long as we’re informed and know that steps are being taken to remedy the mistake. As a matter of fact, I followed up yesterday’s post with one today exploring how your mistakes can be transformed into brand building moments if you deliver a memorable response.

  2. Geno,

    Your article also relates to affiliate marketing. I know first hand how you respond to your affiliates in a timely fashion. Many affiliate managers and merchants don’t take their responsibilities seriously. This compounds the issue and many times they are outed on blogs, forums, etc.

    The problem is you can’t teach an AM, merchant, retailer, etc to be responsive or customer service skills. They either get it or they fail miserably.

  3. @ John: Thanks for chiming in. I enjoyed your follow-up article too. Any error (and as Orlando A. Battista put it “an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it”), when corrected, can build up a brand in the eyes of the customer. If, however, it is simply ignored, it does exactly the contrary.

    @ Anthony: Yes, it does relate to affiliate marketing in general, and affiliate program management in particular (cf: first paragraph). And I think you can teach them to become better AMs, merchants, retailers, etc — precisely by bringing the errors up to their attention, and helping them see how these hurt their affiliate program. I also do not believe that the public stoning method (critiquing affiliate program managers and merchants in public forums) is best in all scenarios. It is a good technique to apply to the stubborn AMs and merchants that refuse to learn. In situations when errors committed by new AMs/merchants are condemned as mistakes (without initially bringing it up to the attention of the AM/merchant; i.e. without giving them a chance to learn and correct their mistake) such an approach is more destructive than constructive.

  4. Geno,

    Excellent point. I usually try 2 attempts to bring an issue up to an AM for resolution or inquiry. If there’s no response then I must admit I air it out on ABW.

    I will also say that AM’s usually respond, especially new AM’s.

    This shows that communication definitely is a 2 way street.

  5. Kudos to you, Anthony. Your two-attempts-before-outing-them strategy is fair.

    You’ve mentioned that it is “especially new AM’s” that respond to you. Are you finding that the larger (or more established) the brand, the slower (or less detailed) the response from their affiliate program manager normally is? I see a tendency like this being reported by other affiliates. Wondering what your experience has been.

  6. I can’t say that is true with all big programs. As an example, you manage multiple programs but are quick to respond. Maybe you have the management piece down to an art or you treat small fish like me with respect.

    I think some big programs have grown so big with tens of thousands of affiliates with only a couple of AM’s. It’s nearly impossible for them to keep up.

    That’s why with my forum (The merchant forums) that I had emailed a couple of your programs a few months back, I offer free forum management. It’s my way to alleviate the daily stress of managing one more platform.

    I’m not sure what the answer is either. I know AMs have to balance the costs of managing a program with top notch customer service to their affiliates.

    As I said, that’s why I try to be patient with AMs.

    I also know that as an affiliate I’ve been trigger happy to join many programs. Is that fair to individual programs? No. So now I’m more careful.

    Sorry my answe was wishy washy.

  7. Reading through this post and subsequent comments has brought back memories of the issues I have dealt with as the AM for AWeber Communications for a little under six months now.

    There are situations I certainly could handled a bit better, but I can honestly say I am impressed with the progress we have been able to make because of my direct involvement with our affiliates. This involvement isn’t limited to monitoring/policing, etc… but extensive education and personal attention as well. …and lots of listening 🙂

    Before I became manager here, I worked in our customer solutions team, which is known for it’s warm and personal approach with our customers. I also take the same personal and respectful approach with all of our affiliates, whether they are bringing in a tons of business or only have one sale (or none).

    Reading your post has reinforced my dedication to always extend the maximum respect and consideration I can to our affiliates, right down the the last phone call, email, postcard or handshake.

    See you at the Summit!

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