Experts scrutinize 2009’s most notable IT apologies

Perfect Apology team weighs in on Apple, Amazon and others’ mea culpas

We asked the team at Perfect Apology to rate the quality of the apologies issued by top tech companies and executives this year (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, among them) for their assorted mistakes and misdeeds. And yes, we did this BEFORE Tiger Woods issued his apology today.

We asked Peter Goolpacy and the team at Perfect Apology to rate the quality of the apologies issued by top tech companies and executives this year for their assorted mistakes and misdeeds. The following contains their reviews of the apologies and their ratings of the apologies on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best.

(Here are links to our original article on the "Year in IT Industry Apologies," which includes the complete apologies' text, and a slideshow featuring abbreviated versions of the apologies.)

Amazon Kindle apology. Perfect Apology (PA) rating: 8.5

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' apology for deleting illegally sold books from customers' Kindle devices, without any warning, was pretty impressive. Of course, his second apology to those whose copyrights the company abused by illegally selling these books is still pending -- no doubt for several reasons tied to ongoing litigations. The initial apology issued by Bezos was reinforced by additional apologies on the main Amazon web site -- together they satisfied many of the key ingredients we recommend throughout our site: acknowledging the stupidity of the error, taking full responsibility for the mistake, establishing new procedures to prevent unauthorized deletions in the future, and a refund to those who purchased the copies. Perhaps the most impressive part of this apology was the decision to change Amazon's deletion policy "so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances." Presumably, they continue to reserve the right to remove books from Kindles under different circumstances.There are two problems with the apology. First, Bezos could easily have conveyed a clearer appreciation of the harm done beyond simply acknowledging Amazon's stupidity -- the unauthorized deletions raise important issues tied to corporate control over personal property and privacy rights that must have seriously damaged the trust many Kindle users have in the company. Taking the books back was not the real problem (most users understood the importance of returning the 99 cent books) -- what really hurt was Amazon's decision to do this without any warning. The irony that one of the books in question was Orwell's 1984 was not missed by many.

Second, the apology certainly satisfied the important prerequisite of expressing regret and taking responsibility, but excessive self criticism (e.g., stupid, thoughtless, painful, self-inflicted, etc.) produces diminishing returns if not followed by some form of restitution -- in this case an immediate and "reasonable" refund. The question is whether the 99 cent refund was considered reasonable by most of the customers directly affected by the deletion. Once purchased (especially for only 99 cents) a book like Orwell's 1984 is far more valuable to the owner than the original 99 cents, so losing it was much more costly to them. Amazon's refund could have included a credit to defer at least some of the $9.99 cost to repurchase a legal copy of the book. This would have represented a more significant cost to Amazon and a clearer measure of responsibility and regret. However, judging by the responses on the Amazon blog, Bezos' apology seemed to hit the right note -- the replies were very positive.

Apple iPhone apology (Shaken Baby App). Rating: 7 for Apple; 0 for Sikalosoft

Apple's apology was brief and largely effective, because it probably controlled some of the damage. But its overall quality was affected by excluding any critique, warning or reprimand directed at Sikalosoft, both for the original app and then for the abysmal apology Sikalosoft issued in its defense. Apple could also have included at least some reference to correctives designed to prevent the inclusion of offensive applications in the future, or a commitment to monitor companies like Sikalosoft that continue to produce offensive apps. Simply deciding to drop the product, rather than issuing a threat to drop Sikalosoft, might appear insufficient to those who were offended. Now, in direct contrast to Apple's apology, the one issued by Sikalosoft made things worse by virtually dismissing the mistake with a joke -- "Okay, so maybe the Baby Shaker iPhone app was a bad idea….No babies were harmed in the making of Baby Shaker." Apple missed a good opportunity to improve its apology by slamming the one issued by Sikalosoft.

Pepsi iPhone app apology. Rating: 1

Pepsi's apology for its iPhone app, which offered advice for picking up women, received one of the lowest ratings by the PA team. The Twitter apology read -- "Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go2 get women. We apologize if it's in bad taste & appreciate ur feedback." This was an impressive 99 character long apology. Ironically, the problem with this tech apology was the limitations tied to the very technology used to send it. The app obviously offended some people, so it required a decent attempt at an apology, but it deserved much more than a tweet. Judging by this tweetology, the Pepsi PR guy is obviously not a Twitter genius capable of crafting the perfect 140 character mea-culpa. Twitter is probably not the best approach for sending business apologies, for many of the reasons we cover on our website -- if an apology is easy and painless, it's probably not heartfelt or credible. We're not saying it's impossible to use Twitter to say sorry; it's just much harder to do it well. But there was a far more serious problem with this apology, one that probably made things worse -- Pepsi made the common error of including the word ‘if' in an apology -- "we apologize if it's in bad taste." In other words, the apology applies only if we were too prudish or pompous to appreciate the humour. Telling those who were offended by the app that they screwed up, because they missed the point, is never recommended. So, for content, style and substance we give this one a 1 rating for at least including the following 11 characters "we apologize".

T-Mobile and Microsoft Sidekick apology. Rating: 8.8

The T-Mobile-Microsoft apology was among the strongest of those reviewed by the team. The strength of the apology was related to the time and effort devoted to carefully explaining how Microsoft was going to fix the problem for Sidekick users, followed by a detailed list of the steps already taken to avoid the same problem in the future. Data breach apologies are particularly damaging because clients have assigned so much faith, trust and confidence in Microsoft and T-Mobile to save and secure their personal data. Any failure to protect that data inevitably damages the trust required to retain customers for their product. The rapid restoration of personal data certainly helped, as did the measures taken to enhance future security measures and backup plans, but a few more words conveying at least some appreciation for the effects of lost access to personal data would have gone a long way towards personalizing the apology.

Belkin apology for commissioned reviews. Rating: 8.5

Belkin's admission that one of its employees actually commissioned positive reviews of one of its network products offers another good illustration of a strong apology. The President (Mark Reynoso) clearly acknowledges the importance of the error, and addresses the potential harm this caused -- "We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction. We regard our responsibility to our user community as sacred, and we are extremely sorry that this happened." This was followed by a description of the solutions -- "We've acted swiftly to remove all associated postings from the Mechanical Turk system. We're working closely with our online channel partners to ensure that any reviews that may have been placed due to these postings have been removed." Reynoso's apology was noteworthy not only for acknowledging the damage to the company's reputation, but for appreciating the implications for the larger online community and the credibility of web-based reviews of tech products. Accepting this additional measure of responsibility was impressive.

Rackspace apology for cloud outage. Rating: 6

The Rackspace apology to thousands of customers for yet another outage was certainly lengthy, but there are diminishing returns, even for strong apologies, if the same problems recur. A promise to avoid the same mistake in the future carries less weight each time. Unless the outages stop, subsequent failures, no matter how minor, are likely to produce a more significant and negative backlash from customers. Repeated apologies, no matter how detailed and sincere, will be less and less effective over time. In this case, it would have helped to add a few more details about what caused this particular outage if only to distinguish the events. The effects may be the same, but differentiating apologies will help avoid the impression that the problem can't be fixed.

Major League Baseball Web video apology. Rating: 4

MLB's apology for technical problems with its fee-based game video-streaming service was not great -- "Apologies for the lack of communication. There were many fires and we were off working on them and didn't man the blog." The apology was about as close as you can get to saying "s--- happens." The "lack of communication" was really only one small part of the problem, but it was unintentionally reinforced by the apology itself. The MLB video team failed to communicate the nature of the problem, failed to convince users they understood it, and failed to provide any indication that they knew how to resolve it -- "We have a lot more to do still to get the [media] player to perform in a more stable manner across the board." There is no clear indication of what "a lot more" actually means, or what measures they plan to take to manage the recurring errors (e.g., instant blog updates; specific tech fixes; some form of compensation or credit for down time; etc.).

VMware exec apology to Microsoft. Rating 4.5

Scott Drummonds' apology for anonymously posting a misleading (and excessively optimistic) YouTube video praising a Microsoft product failed on several levels. He apologizes for damaging VMware and Microsoft's credibility, but he implied in his apology that only "some" people may have found reason to be concerned about the company's credibility. The practice of fabricating positive reviews to exaggerate the quality or performance of any product would be viewed by anyone with a conscience as a serious mistake. Yet Drummonds seems to be apologizing only to those few, with ethical higher standards, who may have been offended. He should have taken full responsibility for a much larger breach of trust. Instead, he simply describes the error without ever addressing the more important issue of the credibility of online reviews -- Drummonds should take lessons from Belkin's 8.5 apology. Keep in mind, Drummonds was not aggressively pushing a product because it was good and deserved the exposure; he was exaggerating the quality of the product by claiming a level of performance it could not meet. This is a more significant breach of trust that should have been acknowledged in the apology.

Dancer "Woz" apology. Rating 9

The PA team was surprised by its decision to assign the highest rating (approaching perfection) for the apology delivered by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- he mistakenly criticized Dancing With The Stars producers for fabricating audience voting results. In addition to clearly conveying honest regret and remorse for his actions, Woz managed in his apology to elevate the respect people have for those he hurt, while simultaneously establishing a higher measure of credibility for the technology used by DWTS to tally results. In other words, the apology left the situation better for those he hurt and improved impressions people have of the show he originally criticized. The heartfelt endorsement by Woz, a widely respected and incredibly successful technology expert, went well beyond anything the show's producers could have accomplished on their own. In sum, this brief letter accomplished more ‘good' than the ‘harm' created by the original insult.

Google apology for Gmail outage. Rating: 8.5

Google's apology for the Gmail outage was another in a long line of apologies Google seems to be issuing lately. The apology certainly acknowledges the impact of the two-and-a-half hour outage -- "We know that for many of you this disrupted your working day. We're really sorry about this, and we did do everything to restore access as soon as we could….We know how important Gmail is to you, and how much people rely on the service." But a slightly more detailed description of some of the effects would have helped to personalize the experience for tens of thousands of users. Saying "We're really sorry about this" is a little brief. Of course, Google is in a class by itself given its expanding complex of varied products and services. But there is a concern that the apologies are become standardized -- repeatedly issuing very brief "outage" or "delay" apologies will do little to convey sincerity or a commitment to deal with the problems. Customer retention strategies tied to effective business apologies are essential for the survival of any company, even giants like Google. Standard Operating Apologies are never likely to work for very long.

Radisson Hotel apology for data breach. Rating: 7.8

This was a strong, proactive apology that managed to get right to the heart of the matter by accepting full (and early) responsibility for the data breach. The company also clearly acknowledged the effects on clients' trust and rights to privacy. The apology goes on to list several very specific correctives to avoid similar errors in the future. However, the PA team thought the hotel could have provided a token gesture by offering some form compensation for anyone clearly and directly affected by the breach -- credit towards their next stay, for example. Very few of the guests were likely affected by the breach, so this small (inexpensive) offer would have gone a long way.

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