How a CEO should apologize when their company fucks up

Almost simulteously I had witness to 2 sets of CEOs apologizing for their company fucking up and delivering customer service significantly below their customers expectations.

Only 1 in 2 got the tenor of the apology right.

The first was apology was from Groupon‘s CEO Andrew Mason.

As a serious Japanophile I watched with dismay as Groupon failed to deliver on promises by overselling offers on Oeschi bento, effectively ruining many peoples new year celebrations.

Then I read today that Groupon’s CEO had made a personal video apology for his companies fuck-up and he promised not to make the same mistakes again. [Video below]

He comes across as very genuine and honestly embarrassed by the whole incident.
You can really connect with him.

The second apology was a joint email from the Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon and KLM CEO Peter Hartman.

At the end of last year unprecedented snowfall caused widespread transport chaos in Western Europe.
It left many people stranded and struggling to get home.

In such a situation airlines, including AirFrance/KLM, could not keep up and seriously fucked-up many peoples lives and holidays.

But read text of the apology below;


When travelling recently on our flights, you or a member of your family may have been affected by the consequences of the exceptionally adverse weather conditions which disrupted operations for several days at all the main airports in Northern Europe, including Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam-Schiphol.

All airlines found themselves obliged to cancel many flights in order to adapt their flight schedules to the ability of airport authorities to clear the snow from runways and de-ice aircraft. Many of you waited for hours before your flight took off.

In these very difficult circumstances, we were unfortunately unable to meet all your needs. We are very sorry about this and would like to present our most sincere apologies.

AIR FRANCE and KLM staff did all they could to limit the consequences of this crisis, especially for all those who were travelling home or on vacation for Christmas.

Hundreds of volunteers came to assist their colleagues at the terminals in Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Schiphol. We booked about 50,000 hotel rooms for our passengers with connecting flights. Our call centres and ticket offices received five times as many calls and visits as usual. Close to 350,000 information messages were sent by e-mail, text or telephone to inform customers of the changes to their itinerary. We provided real time information on our websites, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Measures were taken to enable passengers to postpone their trip or to refund unused tickets. Staff from both airlines worked round the clock to sort baggage which had been delayed and ensure it was delivered to its owners. Finally, we did all we could to return to a normal flight schedule as soon as the weather conditions improved.

With authorities and airports, we will further work on limiting the effects of such situations in the future and on improving the services you have the right to expect in the case of operating irregularities.

We thank you for your loyalty and your continuing trust in our airlines and would like to wish you a very Happy New Year.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Hartman

Pierre-Henri Gourgeon

It does not sound genuine at all.

I emphasized the bit that is apologizing for the fuck-up.
I did this in case you missed it.
It makes up a tiny portion of the email, most of the email is explaining the situation that travellers found themselves in, which I am sure they were well aware of, and the rest is nothing but self-aggrandizing hagiographic prose.

Saying “we will further work on limiting the effects of such situations in the future” does not tell me WHAT they are actually planning to do to ensure that.
It sounds too much like they are dismissing the whole thing.

This brings me to the advice that I think CEOs should follow when their company has just fucked-up royally;

  1. Apologize in person: A video explaining the situation is a wonderful way to show you do not live in a platinum mansion drinking unicorn tears out of diamond goblet and actually do understand the travails of the “little people” [AKA. Customers] .
  2. Explain what you did wrong: Explaining the circumstances is not enough. Explain what you did wrong, not what happened. People already know what happened.
  3. Describe the specific steps you will take to ensure it will not happen again: Just saying “we will never do this again” is not enough. You have to describe a plan of action to ensure this does not happen again in future.

It is so disappointing that the CEOs of a major established airline can get a heartfelt apology so totally wrong but a CEO of a start-up who is half their age can get it so totally right.

8 thoughts on “How a CEO should apologize when their company fucks up

  1. Martin Graney says:

    I DO NOT have the email address of either the KLM or AIR FRANCE CEOs.

    I thought it quite self evident from the body of the post that the email was a pro-forma email sent from a do-not-reply PR department email address to a MASS of people who had complained via their website… myself included.

    The email address was but this is just a PR email and I doubt you will have any luck with it.

    I used the website to contact and complain.


  2. RS Holmes says:

    I recently wrote a letter to the KLM CEO in Manila about a major stuff-up in January. The long and short of it is that I had to do a round-the-world trip to get to Brussels from Manila instead of the more direct Manila-Amsterdam-Brussels route. The way that the KLM people handled the situation was abysmal and they certainly have a long way to go with their crisis management capability. I am still waiting for an acknowledgement of my letter and have not seen any thus far. I have a feeling I will not receive any at all!


  3. Patrick Kanne says:

    I don’t think what you just did was completely fair.

    The big difference between the two “fuckups” is that one is a genuinely human error (overselling your stock) whereas the other one is pretty much an ‘act-of-god’ kind of thing. It’s not like the KLM or Air France are responsible for either the extreme weather or the airports inability to respond to such weather. I doubt the latter is even possible, considering what we, as humans, are generally wiling to pay for things that only happen every so often. But still you insist THEY fucked up.

    Further, you state that they failed to explain what exactly they did to make up for it. Which part in the bit about the hundreds of volunteers coming to deal with the aftermath, the bookings of hotel rooms, the update messaging on Facebook and Twitter and the sorting of the delayed baggage didn’t you get? Wasn’t that enough? Should they have carried you to the hotel and subsequently to Japan?

    I understand your disappointment but I don’t think that you can say that KLM nor Air France ruined your, and other peoples, vacation. The weather did. The inability of the airports to deal with it did. The people who grounded the airplanes did.
    And really, if the CEO’s had decided to put the planes in the air, against everyone’s better judgement, THEN you would have had something to complain about. Only, chances are you would be very dead and not in a position to complain.

    I understand the general tenure of your article and do agree with it. You example is terribly flawed though…

    Lastly.. When was the last time you (all of you) wrote in a letter to write about how good an experience you had when all went as planned? If ever? I do this quite often and the reactions I normally get from those make it clear to me these are unique experiences to most people. Complaining is easy. It doesn’t really add to your karma and it rarely solves problems.


    • Patrick Kanne says:

      Oh, on the usefulness of sending in praise: I got, for instance, a direct number of Lego customer service to call when something is wrong with the Lego I bought and twice they send me a replacement without even asking for the original box. I got several of these kind of contacts now.

      How many contacts do you have for complaining about stuff…?


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