What to Do When Everyone’s Mad at Your Business

Does your company have a crisis communication plan? Most consumer services companies, especially franchise businesses, have at least some sort of business continuation or disaster recovery plan. These are usually very good at cataloging resources to keep your company operating, but what happens when the crisis is not with your operation, but with the brand?

At some point, every organization will face an angry, frustrated or just disappointed audience. Knowing how to take responsibility and reassure customers and the community in the middle of a crisis is not the sort of thing you want to make up on the fly. And no matter how well your home-improvement company or fast-casual restaurant treats customers, businesses are run by humans and sooner or later, somebody will do something wrong.

How to Respond

Obviously, we can’t run around wildly like a bunch of cartoon characters offering a heartfelt apology for every unfortunate circumstance. Operators in food service, home improvement and other consumer-facing businesses know there’s always a squeaky wheel. But when our own action or inaction clearly led to an unpleasant outcome, an effective apology can help you (as the neighbor, the spouse, the anthropomorphized brand, etc.) regain trust.

Customers in general are open to forgiving a brand that takes responsibility and expresses regret for its own actions or failures—and it certainly beats blaming somebody else on this score. However, it’s only effective when done properly. These are polite norms that we all kinda, sorta know intuitively, but behavioral scientists Steven Martin and Joseph Marks codified them for us in their book Messengers.

They explain that an effective apology:

  • Must be delivered quickly;
  • Must be expressed sincerely; and
  • Must demonstrate a commitment to change.

Most of the public apologies we encounter these days fall short on at least one of these criteria. So, where do these less timely, insincere or noncommittal apologies go wrong? Often, it’s a matter of completeness. For example, the apologies lack any tangible or expressed commitment to change or to prevent the offense from happening again.

More often, the person apologizing allows his or her personal pride to get between the expression and the whole point of the exercise. They know they need to apologize, but they don’t want to actually take any blame for anything personally. The result is usually some sort of excuse or qualified apology, which is to say, not an apology at all.

  • I am sorry if my words were misunderstood.
  • I apologize to anyone who may have been offended.
  • I didn’t know you were going in there when I left my shoes in the middle of the room.

That sort of thing.

Knowing when and how to offer an apology can be the difference between regaining the trust of your customers and the public, or turning disappointment into rage.