Consumer activism in the age of the corporate apology

Liz Larvin. Oct 25 2018 4 minutes read

Saying sorry has become popular currency in crisis communications, but if it’s unmatched by action consumers will vote with their feet, and their cash. 

Whether it’s unreliable online banking services, late-running trains, grounded flights, or leaked personal data, the UK business stories of 2018 have largely been dominated by companies that sell to people like you and me – with consumers at the heart of their business.  

Increasingly, issues affecting commuters, shoppers, and households rarely stay within consumer affairs news pages, and can quickly become prolonged, mainstream news stories, perpetuated by our social media feeds. 

Companies regularly find themselves grappling with the kind of moral hazard issues that a few years ago might have seemed clear cut. Causing offence has never been so easy, and consumers have little appetite for a legal defence when they think a company is behaving in the wrong way. 

As consumers we believe that if we shout loudly enough, we can force companies to change positions – whether that’s recycling coffee cups, paying staff a Living Wage, or changing how our personal data is traded.  When we believe that a company has done something wrong, we want to know how they are going to change. 

The rise of this kind of consumer activism has been largely attributed to our use of social media. It’s true that a complaint aired on Twitter can create a flurry of media enquiries within hours, but the reasons are much broader than this.

Consumer trust, we’re told, is falling. Our once beloved retailers are struggling as consumer loyalty becomes an outdated notion. We’re acting more like political voters – with many of us looking to buy from firms that we believe are doing the right thing, or from those offering us something novel, more innovative, or just plain better than we’re used to. 

It’s down to choice. In many industries, consumers face a huge amount of choice between products or services, and providers. If we’re fed up with our bank, it’s easier to change it; if we think our energy company is ripping us off, we can change that too; if we don’t like a retailer’s hiring policy, we can make our feelings known by shopping elsewhere. 

So companies have quickly learnt the art of saying sorry. Social media teams and customer service staff are trained in the art of apologising a hundred different ways, often a hundred different times a day. Media statements no longer avoid apologising, and a full-page newspaper advert has become de rigueur when things get really bad. 

Encouragingly, we’re seeing companies adopt a “customer first” approach when it comes to communications in a crisis. Social media teams often lead the charge when things go wrong, and communicators understand the need to use language that is simple and easy to understand, not just designed to assuage shareholders. Crisis preparation exercises also consider a broader range of risks, including isolated incidents of poor customer service filmed on a smartphone right through to widescale boycotts. 

The realisation that poor consumer communications during a crisis can affect sales, investor sentiment and even share price, means that as communicators we have become more focused on saying sorry to dissatisfied consumers. We’ve won the argument with those who banned us from apologising for fear of admitting liability and opening the floodgates to legal action. 

But in the age of the corporate apology, “we’re sorry to hear that” is beginning to sound increasingly hollow. Restoring customer confidence during and after a crisis requires more than hearing senior management sound remorseful.  We want to know why the issue happened in the first place, and how a company is ensuring that it won’t again. Have staff been retrained? HR policies reviewed? Technology systems updated? Suppliers changed? 

When a crisis hits, communicators need to be able to investigate, explain, apologise, and crucially, show that action is being taken – often within hours. Consumers might be willing to trust a company that loses their confidence once, but an increasing number want to know what has changed, and why they should come back – and it’s the role of communicators to tell them.  

Media headlines will move on quickly. But you can bet that as consumers we’ll remember the queues of delayed passengers next time we’re hovering between a £40 and a £60 air fare – and we’ll make a choice for ourselves, because we can. 

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