Archive for July, 2010

An apology is not an admission of guilt

When does poor customer service turn into a crisis?

I had wanted to eat in a near-local tapas bar for years. But, in the way that we eat out these days – round the corner or miles away – it was just that little bit far from on my doorstep but not distant enough to make a special journey. Going with a friend, I’ll call her Sarah, gave me the impetus I needed –  her flat is half way there so the extra journey was a shortish walk.

It was all going swimmingly. The menu was everything we hoped for; the prices were keen; Sarah didn’t want to drink much wine so, with half bottles on the menu, I could add a glass of chilled Manzanilla without feeling profligate. Ordering was a bit of a struggle as the non-English speaking (and non-Spanish speaking) waitress couldn’t answer questions – but she was charming and cheerful which added a bit of balance. And the atmosphere and decor couldn’t help but lift our spirits.

And then disaster struck. Twisted into a succulent piece of squid in its own ink was a long, dark hair. It wasn’t in my mouth but in Sarah’s. She struggled to pull it out, so entwined it was amidst the squid, and, naturally, was not keen to eat any more of it. She wondered whether to leave it or say something; I felt we should raise it – if only as neither of us now wanted to eat the rest of the squid and we’d both chosen it enthusiastically.

The waitress was confused about what to do so we nudged her into saying she’d ask the chef.  A chef duly came upstairs. You’d imagine he’d apologise, wouldn’t you. But no. His first comment was to say, robustly, that he couldn’t see how it could have happened as everyone in the kitchen has short hair and wears hats. Wrong answer. Wrong approach. Immediately, a simple customer service mistake risked becoming a crisis. Why? Because in a part of London where local gossip travels fast – several community websites bristle with bitterness – we could have posted a negative review which could have triggered others’ gripes and groans … one small local restaurant could lose a large number of local supporters: its core customers.

As a passionate-about-local-independent-restaurants-foodie I was determined not to cause trouble so suggested that, although I could see that the kitchen was vigilant (his hair was short, he was wearing a hat), perhaps the fault arose at the fishmonger or at any point along the supply chain. The chef remained implacable but, when he realised we were resolute, offered a free tapa and a new bowlful, much more generously filled, appeared.

Many people involved in managing a crisis confuse apologising with admitting liability. They are not the same. Where there is a fault, an accident or a failing, and whether the cause is a mystery or clear, a simple “I’m sorry it has happened” is what is needed. Until facts are known – and never speculate about them – no one needs to say “we did it, we are to blame, it’s our fault” or anything like that. But you should be sorry about it happening. Denying its possibility, when it has happened, makes you look churlish, at best, and devious and dodgy – or worse – at worst.

People tend to take apologies for granted, when they are granted. If what you are looking for, by apologising, is plaudits that boost your own ego you will be disappointed. It’s the other side of the coin you should worry about – being cavalier or insensitive, as that could destroy your reputation.

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Buckingham Palace, the BNP and the oxygen of publicity

So, Nick Griffin has had his invitation to today’s Buckingham Palace garden party withdrawn. As an MEP, his invitation will have been routine: there are protocols about who gets invited and his name would have been included automatically.

That, of course, does not mean that everyone on the list should remain on it. Careful double-checking is a must; consulting others if there are any doubts is also essential. Whether the list was provided by the civil service and the lack of nous was there, or whether his name wasn’t spotted by palace courtiers, is irrelevant. Both missed chances; it happens. We are all human and it’s a fact that most crises are caused by human error. Minimising their effects depends on avoiding more human errors.

There is a case for Griffin being excluded from the invitation list before it saw the light of day. It would have been an awkward decision to make and there was bound to be a fuss whenever it became public, as it surely would have done given the person and the political party involved. Griffin is no fool when it comes to exploiting opportunities for publicity even if many think he is more than a fool for the views he holds. He’d have known he could have expected to be included and he’d have announced the fact that he hadn’t.

But the hardest part would have been justifying his exclusion from the list at that stage. HM The Queen is prevented from becoming involved in party politics; she can’t be seen to take sides. What reason could possibly have been given? None was good enough.

The question then is: if not then, when?

If it had announced the decision at some point between his invitation coming to light and today, it would have given Griffin and the BNP publicity then as well as now – you can be sure he would have turned up anyway, having tipped off the press. Media snappers and scribblers would have appeared en mass to create an even bigger story – with him on the spot providing great photos, taking over the story, leading the headlines.

So, announcing the decision today, on the day that Griffin was due to attend a garden party, was a risk but a calculated one. And it was the right one. Yes, the story is one of today’s top headlines but it will soon fizzle out. Yes, it has given Griffin and the BNP the oxygen of publicity on which they rely but any other time would have been worse.

Plus the palace now has sound, plausible reasons for excluding him. He has, indeed, used the invitation for party political reasons and that’s not on. That sort of behaviour does not need to be spelled out on invitations; we just don’t do it. Plus, as most garden party guests know -and as Griffin must have known – only a few people have the chance to talk to The Queen, or any other royals there on the day. Griffin had no chance of being one of them so canvassing constituents for questions to put to The Queen is blatant self-promotion and party political publicity and nothing else.

Finally, Griffin is now responding to the news, not making it, and today’s garden party will be the talk of the town (the nation and perhaps beyond) for the right reasons. It’s a sensible shift in the balance of power, putting the palace in control.

As anyone who has been to a palace garden party knows, it is a very special day. There is nothing else like it. Those who have been relive it in their minds’ eyes every summer – it’s a powerful memory and building that sort of positive thinking among so many is an important part of the palace’s long term PR strategy. It’s impossible to know whether Griffin would have disrupted the party once he was on the lawn but, even if he had been a model of decorum, his presence would have created a stir. That would have changed the memories of the others there – and the palace must be keen to avoid that, every time.

It’s worth remembering that the palace is not noted for moving swiftly. Its response to looking at its role in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was to set up a group that meets every six months. Every six months! But, as was explained at the time, when you’ve been around for 1,000 or so years, every six months is fast enough.

Yes, crisis management consultants often argue for swift, decisive action but there are times when pausing and reflecting make better sense. Leaving the decision until it had found a credible reason for excluding Griffin was the wisest thing for the palace to do.

Measured, paced, calm – it beats knee-jerk, every time.

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