Over the weekend I read through the current issue of Inc. Magazine. Several stories caught my eye, but I wanted to call to your attention the one about how to deal with things when you have a real, honest-to-goodness-company-killing problem. The article in the magazine is titled, How to Ride a Storm, (re-titled on-line How to Turn Disaster into Gold) by Jason Fried and it describes a serious problem that the author’s company, 37signal’s had with a key product, named Campfire. If you have an entrepreneurial company…or if you’re planning to launch…read through the article and see what they did because at some point or another, you’re going to have to say to your customers or stakeholders…that you’ve messed up. And you’ll also have some fun reading through the author’s comments about how some companies go about “apologizing” when they screw up.
Here’s a section from the article:
So here's what we did when Campfire went down. First, we posted regular updates on the status page of our company's website. We let people know we were working on the problem. As we figured things out, we shared the results. And if we still didn't understand something, we admitted as much. That's OK with us. What isn't OK is leaving people in the dark. Everyone's afraid of the dark when their data are involved.
We also took to Twitter. My business partner David Heinemeier Hansson responded to more than 100 tweets from customers. "We're battling demons on all fronts and losing. It's pathetic, I know," David tweeted to one customer. "We're spending the goodwill we've built from years of reliable service like it's going out of style." "So sorry for the disruption," he wrote to another. "You can only say duh! so many times before people just think you're annoying. We're way past that," he wrote.
We responded to every complaint and took the blame every time—even when people went overboard and launched into personal attacks. There was no fighting back, no attempt to save face. We messed up, we knew it, and we let every customer know that we knew it.
And our customers responded with enormous goodwill. "37signals has been giving a free lesson in customer service and honesty the past few weeks," one customer tweeted. "Way to go on being awesome and communicative to your customers," said another. Such expressions of support were really heartwarming—and evidence of how honesty, openness, and personal attention to a difficult situation can turn the darkest moment into one of the brightest.
We decided to give every Campfire customer a free month of service. We were down for only a few hours, total, but the downtime was spread out over multiple days. Besides, we didn't earn our customers' trust in December, so we didn't earn their money, either. We have thousands of paying Campfire customers, so this wasn't a cheap or easy decision. But it was the right thing to do.
Finally, once we figured out what went wrong and took steps to make sure it wouldn't happen again, we wrote a full post on our product blog detailing exactly what had happened. We started with a general overview that could be understood by everyone. Being in the software business doesn't give you license to speak in code. Yes, some of our customers are technically gifted. But most of them aren't, so speaking in tech jargon can cause even more confusion. That said, we also delved into the technical details for those who care about those kinds of things. And we added a link to the announcement inside Campfire, so all our customers would see it. You can read the product blog post at productblog.37signals.com/products/2010/12/campfire-outage-explanation-and-service-credits.html.