Anyone who has witnessed corporate bungling of major customer service snafus realizes that not all apologies are created equal. Anyone even remotely interested in their customers should read HBR’s article titled “The Organizational Apology.”

This excellent article made me think of T-Mobile’s response to revelations that user data had been hacked via their relationship with Experian.

t-mobileTo start, the article suggests companies examine four key questions:

  1. Was there a violation?
  2. Was it core to our promise or mission?
  3. How will the public react?
  4. Are we committed to change?

I do not know whether T-Mobile reviewed this article as they considered what to do but my assessment of their response is favorable.

  • Acknowledged the problem and addressed it in a straight-forward and believable way.  T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere began with the idea that being honest was important both in good times and bad times.
  • Responded in an honest and personal way – HBR suggests that effective apologies should include candor, remorse, and commitment to change.  Examples from T-Mobile, “I am incredibly angry about this data breach” and “I take our customer and prospective customer privacy VERY seriously. This is no small issue for us.” (Bold emphasis from T-Mobile.)
  • Provided a remedy – Legere offered “two years of FREE credit monitoring and identity resolution services.”  In essence, we got you into this situation and we’ll get you out.
  • Avoided potential supplier landmines – Unlike the finger-pointing between Firestone and Ford, T-Mobile involved Experian in the solution by linking to Experian’s response.  In doing this, T-Mobile balanced placing responsibility where it belonged (with Experian) while demonstrating a willingness to continue working with Experian.  If they had decided to sever the business relationship, it is unlikely they would have provided Experian with a communication vehicle.

Regarding the act of apologizing, T-Mobile gets a passable grade.  On the remedy itself, T-Mobile continues to expose users to risk.  Until someone figures out how to check credit-worthiness without using and accessing personal information (seems unlikely) we’ll still have a system where the remedy is, to quote Om Malik in The New Yorker, “an offer of a credit-watching service in the wake of a hack is sort of like getting an alert after a fire has burned down your house.”

Let there be no doubt – problems will occur with your service.  The pivot point occurs at the moment your company decides how to handle these situations.  The relationship with your customers depends on your honesty and your ability to help mend the situation. Miss those marks and the damage could be irreparable.

(For a slightly different take on apologies, read this Fortune.com article.)

T-Mobile Case Study: Apologizing Effectively
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