What to do when you stuff up

Elton John: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (1976)

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. 1

Imagine it, your almost-client spends almost $1000 to take a ferry and petrol costs to drive for hundreds of miles to attend a workshop they booked and paid for online at your well-known eco institute. The irony of the petrol use is not lost on them, but your cause is one they really believe in with information that could benefit them and many others.

From the start it was a bit of a Micky Mouse outfit: they asked lots of questions about accommodation options via email and their phone messages did not get answered until a couple of follow up emails were sent; the 10% members’ discount code (members pay an annual fee to support the work of the institute) was not working on your site, so a promise was made that the 10% would be returned to the credit card used to make the purchase. This took quite a bit of follow up and reminding by them before it happened. Can you see where this is heading?

Disaster could have been averted

There was no reason for this to have ended as disastrously as it did. The online shop seemed to work efficiently, and newsletters were emailed using world-renowned automation system Infusionsoft, which does not come cheap but is a learning curve all of its own.

But the website was not fully utilised as a means of contact or information dispersal. Fair enough that you chose to not use Twitter or Facebook, to build some kind of online community and information sharing place – social media is not everyone’s cup of tea. But since you were using a website to solicit paying customers, you should at least have used your website to serve the customers you sold to.

Also the web page which advertised the particular workshop should have not got taken down until no longer needed, preferably after informing the public that the workshop in question had been cancelled; and even if the workshop had not been cancelled, it could have remained live retrospectively, to use client testimonials and images from the event. But more importantly, it really should have been used to notify participants of a cancellation. It could have had a message on it when advertising the workshop, such as CHECK BACK HERE IN CASE THERE IS A WEATHER-RELATED CANCELLATION OF THIS EVENT.


So, you guessed it, this is based on a true story – after travelling hundreds of miles over a couple of days, the event was cancelled without notifying all the participants*. Apparently the office lady only works part-time and the cancellation was decided two days before the event and before a major public holiday! So an email by the hopeful participant the day before (the day after they had decided to cancel) checking that it was still going ahead, remained unanswered because the office lady had not been into work to see it.

* Despite all the previous to-ing and fro-ing by email discussing onsite accommodation and the refund of the members’ discount from the cost of the course, the office lady had not enrolled your almost-lifelong-fan-of-a-client into the course they had paid hundreds of dollars for, so almost-client would not have been informed of the cancellation two days beforehand anyway.  Yikes!

With the help of google maps (instructions on how to get there could also have been useful on the website), your client/student arrives in the middle of unknown rural nowhere just after nightfall to complete darkness. By some coincidence, a couple had arrived just before them, they had been knocking on the door of a house on the property which remained unanswered, until a lit up window around the back was discovered and a young man stumbled to the door, who seemed to not know a thing about anything.

A sorry situation

The couple your client/student came across were not fellow workshop participants, but new volunteers who had been to this place before and know to trudge across paddocks of long grass and mud by the tiny lights of their cellphones to find the guy in charge of accommodation. He laughed when your client told him they were here for the workshop – he actually laughed. He laughed! Apparently the participants of the workshop were notified of the cancellation but this did not happen by email or cellphone.

For your unlikely-to-ever-be-client, the drive back to the nearest city (almost two hours away on a dark, winding, unfamiliar road) knowing it is a public holiday weekend and accommodation is scarce would not have endeared your company to them.

I guess it is lucky for you that you do not use Facebook and Twitter – it would be filled with complaints about you. On the other hand it could also have been used in the build up to the event, to discuss accommodation options, how to get there, what to expect, and of course, let everyone know if unforeseen events cause a cancellation.

Three take aways

It is lucky for you and I, that we have an insight into online business and how NOT to use the internet. So let’s consider, that if you are privileged enough to reach the paying public with a website, what responsibilities come with that?

Firstly, you must be able to be contacted, and people expect responses to happen within 24 hours, if not within an hour. Being based in the wop wops and wanting to live an off-the-grid lifestyle is no excuse. If you are using this fandangled modern technology to earn money, you have to go all the way and be reachable. Otherwise your online venture is as good as an online scam, and that is a terrible thing to have associated with your brand.

Secondly, if you call on the public to support you financially and there are a list of benefits, like discount codes etc, then those codes should work without having to chase them up. Yes, it is nice for people to support a cause without any reciprocation, and many people will be happy to do that, but whatever you offer should be given willingly. To have to follow up on member benefits makes them appear to be offered begrudgingly which could undo years of goodwill.

Thirdly, if you are counting on volunteers to do your internet work like managing your responses and process your business transactions, you have to find some who are dedicated enough to actually do it when it occurs, not just when it suits them or during business hours. In fact, caring for the reputation of your 24/7 online venture is such a big ask, that it is probably worth paying someone to do it and having the importance of responding to customers as an essential task.

These are a few worthwhile lessons for anyone who wishes to make the World Wide Web a sweet place not just for themselves as business owners, but for their paying customers.

Damage control

Word of mouth happens in a nanosecond online. We really can not be this casual with an online reputation as most are more than happy to “name and shame” as they share experiences like the one above, which everyone agrees, is simply unacceptable and a terrible look for a brand, or in this case, a really important cause.

Without question, if your business is ever unfortunate enough to have a stuff up like this, a refund for the full content of the course is not just a given, it is the law in New Zealand under the Consumer Guarantees Act (1993) besides calling or sending an email apologising profusely.

You could also offer a free place on a similar course but obviously make sure it goes ahead next time, and transport and accommodation costs would also go a long way towards building a bridge considering the amount they would have spent getting there in the first place.  If you are going to offer freebies, do make sure that they actually reach the people you have promised them to. Hollow promises will do much more damage than good under the circumstances.

  1. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word by Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, was covered by many other artists.  Elton John and Bernie Taupin had a unique songwriting process which began when they both answered an advertisement in NME (New Musical Express).
    The official music video demonstrates the quintessential style of the 1970s.