Monday, June 6, 2011

Gas to the fire: how not to respond to angry customers

Sometimes companies gamble on a product or idea, whether they aware of it or not, and the results can possibly backfire. At those times, you have to suck it up and admit you may have been wrong, and here's how you will fix it for the immediate future. It's crisis communications 101.

Here is a story of a publisher who rolled the dice on a very sensitive topic, felt the backlash, but bungled the response.

Westchester magazine, a beautiful, slick suburban publication which I regularly read, did the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of an angry bull last month: it published a cover story on the "21 Best Looking Residents."

Before I even cracked the first page, I thought to myself, "Uh oh."

My gut reaction was: we have enough shallowness in our towns, much less the world... do we really need this when adults and children are battered with self-image issues from the media and peers... middle school kids go through the anxiety ringer with cliques and cyberbullying -- is this something they should see... how the heck can you pick 21 people out of a county of 955,000 and say they are the "best looking?

According to the article, here's how they picked those 21 best-looking people: "We asked dozens of beauty pros, put out a call for nominations, queried our neighbors, friends and family to come up with this bevy of beauties of all ages, from all walks of life. Yes, we know that true beauty comes from within, yada, yada, yada -- but sometimes you just have to take these things at face value. Enjoy the scenery."

Who are these beauty pros, how many nominations were sent in, were they of themselves, who are the friends and family -- nobody knows. Thankfully, the youngest person profiled was 25 and not in school. While I'm not expecting Pulitzer-nominated investigative stories in my county magazine, you could see from 100 miles away that this was not going to go down well.

The next month's letters section of Westchester magazine bore that out. Here are excerpts:

  • My jaw dropped when I saw your May cover. Are these 21 people really worthy of being singled out from the nearly one million Westchester residents, or is this simply an exercise in flattering a few connected individuals? Have we in Westchester become so shallow that we are actually interested in who your editorial staff deems to be beautiful? I’ve thrown the issue in the trash so that my children don’t get the wrong impression that who is or who isn’t “beautiful” is worthy of this sort of attention!
  • Given Westchester’s great diversity (one of our most valued strengths), I was eager to see how your team would celebrate this great attribute. Now, I am stunned, having just thumbed through the feature’s 16 pages and seen not a single African American woman! Not one! Depending on your source, African Americans represent between 13.3 percent and 14.4 percent of the county’s population... I have a 14-year-old daughter who is beautiful by any standard. Unfortunately, I cannot let her see this issue because, by the standards of the editors of Westchester Magazine, which comes into our home each month, she isn’t beautiful at all. Or at least no one who looks like her is beautiful enough to be so recognized. And that’s a shame.
  • Your May issue is why the suburbs are considered soulless, vapid, and uninspiring. Westchester County is rich in history and natural beauty, although anyone who reads your magazine would be hard pressed to find little more than articles dedicated to shopping and advertisements for cosmetic surgery. I’m canceling my subscription.
  • Your magazine has reached an all-time low. What’s with your feature story about “21 Best Looking Residents?” Who cares?!!!

There was not one letter published in favor of the cover story.

Here is your classic scenario of a company gambling on something a bit edgy with distinct possible pitfalls, and getting whipped by some of its customers for it.

What would you expect as a response from the editor? An apology of some sort, right? We all make mistakes, and even if you didn't think this was one, you want to make some kind of amends with the offended customers. A little humbleness, perhaps?

But this was not the road taken in the editor's response (which I have to reproduce entirely here because of its breathtaking scope):

To think we were worried about engaged readership…Okay, you got us, Westchester: we’re suckers for a symmetrical face and expressive eyes.

We feel good admitting that, though, because we know we’re in good company. After all, the nominations for the article came from you and local experts in the beauty biz. That’s right. We may not be able to promise that these 21 lovely people are the absolute best-looking Westchester residents, but you certainly seemed to think so.

Frankly, we would have gone crazy if we’d had to make the list ourselves. We think you’re all so darn hot and wouldn’t imply for a second that anyone who wasn’t chosen is anything less.
Of course, beauty isn’t everything. So, like a lot of the beautiful residents profiled in our pages, we urge you to “look under the surface,” i.e., our Table of Contents. In just the last two months, you’d find stories on the history of Westchester’s bridges, profiles of barrier-breakers like Dr. Yvonne Thornton (the first African American woman to be board certified in maternal-fetal medicine), a feature package on our LGBT community, not to mention a nod toward the natural beauty of our county’s common fish. You’ll see references to Malcolm X, Stravinsky, Yves Tanguy, Nabokov, and Shakespeare, who certainly never turned up his Elizabethan nose at “beauty too rich for use.”

Yes, Westchester is rich in history and natural beauty. It’s also rich in creative designers, restaurants on the cusp of environmental movements, and, yes, a gaggle of people fairer than a summer’s day. We love it all; we want to celebrate it all! And that brings us to diversity.

Our 21 beautiful residents (who run the gamut, Leo, of five different decades in age) and included one Puerto Rican, one Pakistani, one Irishman, one Siberian, one Chinese-Jamaican, one Dominican, one Indian, one African American man, and, yes, and one African American/West Indian woman. In striving for broad diversity without adhering to strict quotas (which don’t always capture the realities of our increasingly mixed heritage), we do hope that—unlike so much contemporary media—we communicated our firm belief that beauty flourishes in each of our communities.

So take a look at yourself in the mirror, Westchester: you’re lookin’ good.

I don't know how this editor's response is going over with the readers, but to me, this is what's known as a textbook excuse, not an apology. In the editor's mind, this seems to resolve the controversy, but perhaps in the minds of the readers, I'm not sure it did, and it could have possible made it worse.

There is no resolution, no "peace pipe," and no humbling.

I sent an e-mail to Westchester magazine Esther Davidowitz, asking her why there was no apology in her response, how many nominations were received as part of the voting process, who were the local beauty experts who voted, what kind of feedback did she expect from the story, and would she do the story differently the next time around? She did not reply.

Companies face irate customers all the time, sometimes more than others. Take a good look at that editor's reply because this is exactly what not to do.

1) PUTTING THE BLAME ON THE CUSTOMERS: Let me get this straight -- you're blaming us, the readers, for voting these 21 people in? Again, who did the voting? Who are the beauty experts? How many votes did you get out of the 955,000 residents of Westchester County? How many times did your friends and neighbors vote?

2) DIVERSION FROM THE CORE ISSUE: We admire you published articles about many different ethnicities and gender preferences in the past. You name dropped Shakespeare, Malcolm X and Stravinsky. OK, so you went to college and can refer to those people in the magazine. But what does that have to do with a dubious vote for the 21 best-looking people in the county? Those people and your other articles have nothing to do with this article.

3) TREATING THE TOPIC TOO LIGHTLY: "Take a look in the mirror, Westchester, you're lookin' good?" Put the pom-poms away. I don't know if anybody is laughing. If we're all "lookin' good," why are you singling out 21 of us? This kind of cheerleader talk is as plastic as the notion that there are 21 people who look better than the other 955,000 in Westchester. Good way to add fuel to the fire.

4) NO APOLOGY: Customers are ticked. There are some unhappy people and they've written in to tell you how they feel. As a matter of fact, there is not one positive letter published. Even if you think you are right, you owe an apology to those angry readers. You don't have to make a big deal about it. At least say "if you felt our story offended you, we are sorry. It was not our intention." You save face, you don't seem above it all, and perhaps you don't lose customers.

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