When disaster strikes

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This post originally appeared on Communicate Online.

As people, while we often strive for it, we can never be perfect all the time. So brands that rely on people and technology in delivering an experience are, from time to time, going to get it wrong. Often it affects just a few but then sometimes things go really bad and it becomes headline news.

We’re all used to experiences with a brand not being up to scratch, due to human error, tech fails or something occurring beyond anyone’s control. But even in these times, it’s when a brand can take a moment to bring a little delight or moment of lightheartedness into a customer’s day-to-day, or be able to escalate with an immediate response that really makes the difference.

At the small end of things, many will be used to busy cafes that at their peak times have lines out the door, their service struggling to keep up. This is offset by pass-rounds of food for customers to try, turning an annoyance into a moment of delight and understanding.

UK train operator has customer representatives on some of its services that hand out small ‘tongue-in-cheek’ presents that make light of the notoriety of regular disruptions caused by ageing infrastructure, poor weather conditions and signaling malfunctions.

Social media is awash with customer complaints, and it’s gotten to the stage where people are forced to complain online, as problems aren’t being addressed through call centers filled with un-empowered employees. If you read through many of the complaints posted, they’re from customers at their wit’s end, frustrated at the lack of response. If organizations were more agile and acted either before a problem escalated, or as soon as it became known, they would avoid a loss of brand value.

The recent United Airlines incident illustrates where this went wrong. The CEO failed to demonstrate empathy for the passenger dragged bloodied from the plane so that a staff member could take his seat to make it for a scheduled flight the following day. The airline was slow in its response and this ultimately wiped $225 million off its market value. No tangible value had been lost, but brand value had.

JetBlue serves as a good example of where a brand responded well to a customer crisis and has actually become the better for it. In 2008, on Valentine’s Day, during poor weather 130,000 passengers were unable to fly, and a flight was stuck on the tarmac for more than seven hours with passengers stranded onboard. The leadership was highly visible in the response, admitting that they had let passengers, employees and their friends and families down. This set about a massive turnaround for the organization. Once organization-wide reform was in place, they focused on promoting their renewed promise to directly addressing the issue. And while tactical PR and advertising are required for immediate responses such as this, it is the long-term strategic brand stewardship through crises that has a multiple-year time horizon.

Virgin Atlantic, often spies the opportunity where other brands fail to adequately respond. Gifting an American Airlines passenger who had their knee injured by a runaway food cart on one of their flights an American Airlines survival kit, complete with flowers and kneepads should he fly with AA again. It did wonders for Virgin, but made AA look cold and uncaring.

In the times we live in, there is always something new competing for customers’ attentions. And depending on the switching costs, customers are increasingly open to leaving their incumbent brand to trying a new one.

In the UAE increasing competition will only necessitate organizations to undertake a more formal approach to protecting the value of their brand and acting swiftly to avoid isolated customer complaints snowballing into crises.

Careem is one brand in the region that has been largely getting it right. Always acting in favor of the customer, they are quick to refund for poor service, or provide credits for future trips. As a start-up they know they can’t always get it right, and are open to their customers about their fallibility.

If handled well, proactive response to customer issues will generate favorable perceptions of the brand over time, increasing positive word of mouth and customer acquisition. If an organization responds to a major crisis in an effective way, in time it can provide a watershed moment, where the organization changes from within and not only wins back the hearts and minds of its own customers but attracts new ones to the brand too.

Following any tactical response to a crisis, the organization should look to the following to rebuild brand value:

  1. Develop a long-term perspective and plan for brand recovery.
  2. Focus on deeds and actions to win back credibility. Stakeholders require acknowledgement and evidence of specific change to earn back trust.
  3. Develop an “inside-out” approach to brand building. Make decisive improvements in operations, culture, people and then amplify the change through communications to share and reinforce the changes.
  4. Define a brand purpose to inspire and guide future behaviors. Customers and team members who remain through the crisis need a compelling reason to stay and a reward for their loyalty.
  5. Act boldly. A crisis of this magnitude creates a “new normal”. While brands recover, the story is never exactly as it was before.

Ultimately, it is essential that brands gauge the customers’ perception of the crisis correctly. Crises can be complex and dynamic, these starting points help to refocus and make sure you’re asking the right questions. The key to rebuilding brand value is also regaining trust. Getting to the root of how you came to lose trust in the first place, consumers aren’t looking for perfection, they’re looking for decency and straight-talking simplicity. Simple, jargon-free language; clarity of product offering and design; a seamless experience and transparency. Brand simplicity is the direction to go to increase your brand value.

To keep your customers, keep it simple.

Tom Warden is a senior strategist at Siegel+Gale. Follow him on Twitter:@teWarden

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