Sorry seems to be the hardest word


“What do I do when lightning strikes me?”. That’s a lyric from the Elton John song “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. It came to mind when I read VW had installed devices on some cars to cheat the emission tests.

They had known about this for some time (and not disclosed it). And, they then messed up how they responded to the publicity.

How a business responds when things go wrong is key. It can mean the difference between a swift resolution and making the problem a whole lot worse. It’s all about being open and good communicating. That means being quick to respond, with a clear message, and direct to your customers.

A lack of consistent messaging and a failure to reassure customers has done VW few favours. The value of the firm has plummeted and their reputation is now in tatters.

And it’s not just VW. Malaysia Airlines failed to respond fast following the tragic disappearance of Flight MH370.

It waited almost 13 hours after losing the plane before holding a press conference.

Then it upset relatives by poor communications about the missing passengers in later days.

When the firm finally told them to assume “beyond doubt” no one had survived, it did so in a text message.

So, all businesses need a plan in case something similar happens to them:

  1. It should be the most senior person in the business that communicates – that shows you see it as important.
  2. Always start by expressing care for those affected, and then explain how you plan to solve the problem
  3. Don’t start by trying to reassure customers that they can trust you. This just comes across as defensive. You have to earn trust through actions so it’s about what you do not what you say.
  4. Make sure you communicate in the most suitable way for all customers. Also, make sure they can communicate with you.
  5. Make it clear you will provide a solution that leaves customers unaffected wherever possible.

Here are 2 more examples of how not to do it:

Eileen Downey, a manager at Britannia Hotels, appeared on Watchdog on the BBC in 2011. It followed criticism of Pontins holiday parks. The show got more than 100 complaints over issues such as stains on bedding and mould in apartments. But Ms Downey was defensive. She argued that “99.9%” of Pontins apartments were of a high quality, and refused to say sorry.

It was a master class in how not to deliver the message that you care about your customers

In May 2015 Thomas Cook finally apologised to the parents of two children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It happened at one of its holiday apartments in 2006. But they only apologised after an inquest found them liable.

Chief executive Peter Fankhauser later said delaying the apology was his “biggest mistake”.


Keep in touch for regular advice and practical examples about customer experience.

Get in touch to see how we can help your business.

Ask an expert if you have a specific question about customer experience.