Why I refuse to hide
Have you ever had to tell a child that Santa isn’t coming? What about a thousand children?
That’s what it felt like as I picked up the phone to inform our customers that their Future Talent Sports Cards weren’t going to arrive that weekend.
It was one of the most horrible feelings I’ve experienced in business. I’d discovered that an issue had occurred during distribution, and the impact meant the cards wouldn’t arrive in time, and whilst technically they would still arrive within the stated timeframe, I’ve got no interest in running a business that hides behind technicalities.
A huge part of me just wanted to hide. To delegate. To email. To turn off the phone. To tell the full story and pass the blame. But I knew this moment would ultimately shape our culture and put our mantra to the test — we make promises, we keep them.
The reason this moment is so relevant now is because as I’m exploring the rebuilding of our website and the entire experience for our customers, I have the opportunity to build a system that allows us to hide when things go wrong.
We can remove our phone numbers, introduce email forms, build chat bots, delegate to call-centres and build the infinite loop we’ve all experienced which ultimately leaves you talking to the toothless tiger.
However, what I discovered during this experience is that I refuse to hide, and it might actually become the most powerful part of our strategy to future proof our business.
As I called each customer, I just spoke as honestly as I could. I offered a refund to those who were impacted, and would reprint the cards and deliver them at our cost. Many of these customers didn’t actually need them for another week but were very grateful for the call, but it was the response from those who were affected that was most incredible.
As I spoke to each person they were clearly disappointed, however receiving a call and an honest insight into what had happened, meant we shared the pain. We were just as shattered as they were, and they knew it.
We weren’t trying to point fingers, or regurgitate fine print, or present them with a line of credit they had no use for, and most importantly we gave them the chance to speak to a person, and not just any person, THE person who can actually admit they made a mistake and make it right.
This was so powerful, yet this has become so rare.
Why is this? How is this possible when so many companies obsess over their customer-journeys, human-centred design frameworks, and value proposition design workshops, and yet every insight will tell you how horrible this experience is for any customer.
I believer it may be because, with greater technology than ever before we have become obsessed with scale as the key to growth. We observe every touch-point and try to see how lean we can make it, to ensure consistency of experience which will allow us to grow and deliver that same experience time and time again, removing the potential for human error or intervention, as we expand our experience as far and wide as we can to maximise profits.
But what I’m questioning is, is this experience actually any good in the first place?
On the same weekend my girlfriend had her flights cancelled through a major airline. She was advised of three options — take the next flight which was over a week away, forfeit the flight, or accept a generous offer of an equivalent voucher for a future flight. But in short, any benefit of this was completely useless as buying a replacement flight was so much more expensive.
I’ve had similarly horrible experiences with so many big brands, but what is becoming more disturbing is how many small brands are trying to replicate this and I believe are actually missing a key part of what has made their small business so desirable to loyal customers — accountability, honesty, transparency.
In theory this is what social media should enable, but again so many businesses are resorting to treating this platform as an advertising tool and focusing on beautifully polished content about how great things are going, and then complete radio silence or excuses when issues occur.
It’s been a topic of enormous interest to me as I explore how to shape the future of our business, balancing the need for growth and scale, with a need to remember what got us here in the first place.
Sounds easy, but it’s a much harder internal battle than it may seem I can assure you.
To provide an insight, we have the perfect model to scale. A largely automated, print-on-demand, extremely high-quality final product at a very reasonable price. It could be set up anywhere in the world in a very short period of time, and many analysts would say you’re mad not to focus on making that happen and automating as many touchpoints as possible — immediately.
However, whilst we certainly have aspirations to scale, our strategy is so much more heavily focused on depth, over breadth.
I would much rather deliver an incredible experience to 300 clubs, than an average one to 3000. I have no desire to become the next Officeworks, because ultimately we won’t win. Our greatest strength is that through our interactions, our care, our genuine desire to help our customers (even when it means we do so at a loss), are actually building our greatest asset — a level of trust, integrity and loyalty — that will mean we aren’t in a race to the bottom to retain customers because they see us as more than just a product.
It’s a battle that so many small businesses are grappling with, as they fear being gobbled up by the retail giants, and whilst we are in quite a different position as a niche e-commerce business, we also are well aware of the competitive landscape we work within.
So as we embark on this next phase of our journey, this was an insight I wanted to share and to which I certainly would love further opinions, as we are not blind to the costs and man-power required to retain this genuine human touch — but one thing I am certain of is that no matter how much we scale I refuse to hide behind technology.
The impact of a hand-written letter, the emotion when you receive an unprompted thank-you, or the honesty when a business says we made a mistake and we will fix it, have become so rare.
As we obsess over data, and optimising the experience to stay that little bit ahead of our competitors, it makes me wonder if so many small businesses are measuring the wrong metric. The more you remove the human experience, the more you are fighting the game of millimetres, tweaking widgets and sales funnels in a race for conversions against the big boys.
For many this is not a race you will win.
We are no different. So as I explore our business I’m faced with this challenge. We can reshape our entire experience leveraging every technology at our fingerprints, and part of this is deciding how we will respond when something goes wrong, and the temptation to build a wall to hide behind is so great.
But I’m determined to use technology to build a company I’m proud of, and for me that is one that doesn’t only bask in the glory, or boast via social media, but actually picks up the phone when things go wrong and looks to make things right.
Please share your experiences, as a customer, a small business owner, a marketer, and most importantly as a person. I’d love to hear whether this story has resonated with you, and hear about the times when you’ve experienced a business that is hiding, and even when you’ve even done so yourself.
Together we are all just learning as we make our way through this journey, but I believe one of the most critical lessons I’ve learnt along the way is how rewarding it can be to put your hand up when you make a mistake, and as hard as it is at the time, your customers will certainly respect you for it.