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When you screw up … make it positive for your users

Yesterday I was caught up in an interesting SNAFU at my local Supermarket.  All of the checkout registers shut down, thus making it impossible to pay for groceries.  Later on Twitter, the company apologized as we discovered it was actually a nationwide outage!



News of the outage spread like wildfire through the media:

TL;DR – people were forced to abandon their shopping trolleys and had to leave the stores. 

Needless to say, consumers vented loudly and forcefully at Woolworths, and the negative press naturally struck a chord with the general public, because we all feel empathy for the parent in front of the television cameras lamenting their inability to feed their family that night.  (For the record, my boys had meat balls and salad last night that we made with the leftovers we had in the fridge Smile)

In a perfect world, IT system updates should never cause pain for the users of those IT systems, but no matter how careful the testing and planning, I think it is reasonable to assert that we can never eliminate totally the chances of a major problem during an upgrade, our aim is always to shrink the probability to a close to zero as possible.

That brings me to the point of this post – and this perhaps slightly controversial stance.  I don’t think IT outages really matter that much from the perspective of the customer. For example, a while back Amazon had a huge outage here in Australia due to storms in Sydney.  Delta Airlines had a big outage in late 2016.  But last time I checked, people are still flying Delta and still buying stuff they didn’t need from Amazon Smile. Customers will forgive an outage but only if you prioritize their needs over yours during the crisis.  People are still ripping into Woolworths today because a Twitter apology doesn’t really get consumers any closer to taking groceries home. 

So this is what I would have done if I was Woolworths…. Make an announcement in each store that the store needs to close unexpectedly and customers to take your trolley to the nearest checkout (even though I know that the checkout’s are not working).  At that point, simply let people take what they have accumulated so far in their trolleys for no charge.  The news articles above already mentioned that the stores had security staff on hand to assist with closing the stores – so there is protection against a “looting mentality” being created.  Yes, there will be still be some negative press for those customers that could not get into the stores once they closed, but I contend that ultimately this would have turned into a positive result for Woolworths.  Yes you take a hit on the bottom line for yesterdays revenue, but the media attention becomes the mums and dads walking out of the stores smiling about the free shop they just got, rather than swearing they’ll never shop at Woolworths again.

Outages don’t matter.  Meeting the customer need is what matters.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not claiming that any and every company I have ever worked for, or worked with, has a glowing record of understanding how to meet customer needs during times of crisis.  My point is that it should be something to always strive for – when you inflict pain on your customers due to the information technology solutions you build, then do your best to own the problem, and bust a gut trying to make the experience as bearable as possible for your customers, or even a win for them. 

Whether you turn bad into good, or bad into worse, rest assured your customers will remember you for it.