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Businesses spend millions of dollars every year to create bigger, louder, and more unique and memorable marketing experiences to attract new clients. They work to carefully and painstakingly plan out touchpoints and client journeys, engagements and events, with the goal of hitting just the right note at just the right time when they’re trying to win you over to their brand.

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But while that’s all fine and good – for us and for them – it’s only half of the equation. The other half is how your brand responds after a messed up a client interaction.

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A significant part of your brand’s reputation is built on what you do after you’ve made a mistake.

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Not long ago. a financial services company came to us wanting to become more of a customer-focused organization. They wanted everyone in the company to put the customer experience first on their to-do lists every day. On a teleconference that connected teams in New York and Minnesota, one executive stunned the group by telling the simple story of how he became a lifelong fan of an online shoe store only after they had sent him the wrong size shoes.

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How could a company blow an order and still come out winning over a customer for life? They made resolving the error as simple, inexpensive and hassle-free for the customer as they possibly could. They provided customer service reps who were knowledgeable and reachable by phone, without the need for the equivalent of an online anthropological dig to find the phone number on the web site. They also provide easy-to-follow return instructions, tracking numbers and packaging, as well as options for store credit or free shipping.

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They made it so easy for the executive to replace the shoes that he walked away with faith and trust in the brand, and ultimately recommended them to family and friends.

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What we call “experience brands” know that aligning employees to deliver exceptional experiences means creating a dialogue with them on the brand’s purpose and mission. It’s about giving them the flexibility they need to meet unexpected customer needs, and properly rewarding, recognizing, incenting and celebrating those who provide great service.

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Whatever you think of its complex coffee concoctions, it’s clear that Starbucks is one company that gets this right. Twice I’ve had baristas unexpectedly give me my drink for free – once when an employee thought I’d simply waited too long for my coffee (it was 5:30 a.m. and the staff was running late); another time when the register was down and she couldn’t ring up my drink. In the latter case, the employees didn’t do what you might have expected – close and bar the doors until the register was fixed. Instead, they just continued giving early morning customers their daily fix for free.

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Roadrunner Sports, an online running store, didn’t even wait to make a mistake before doing something about it for their customers. They recently had a communication outage and so didn’t know how many customers might have been trying to get through to them for a specific three-hour period of that day. So, instead of popping up an “Under Construction” sign with a cute yellow hard hat and waiting for things to come back online – essentially doing nothing – they sent an email to all of their members with a message that apologized to everyone who might have been trying to get through. On top of that, they gave everyone a 20% off coupon that was good for a limited time.

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Their fast action not only turned a negative situation into a positive one, it very publicly sent a signal to all of its members and regular shoppers about how they handle mistakes even when no one is looking. The result? More goodwill and brand loyalty instead of less. And, while making a mistake is not something to make a habit of – we all know “to err is human” – what really matters is how you handle it when the one doing the erring is you.

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Joe Panepinto, Ph.D. is VP, Senior Strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experience brand agency that connects brands to the people most important to them. He is also an adjunct professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. You can reach him at

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