In marketing, we all make mistakes. So much of our work is automated that it’s really easy for them to happen. Nevertheless, it’s not about whether you do or don’t make a mistake, but how well you recover. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Not all mistakes were created equal

I think it helps to separate mistakes:

  1. There are simple mistakes, things like, “Hi Firstname.” Frankly, we’ve all done it. It’s embarrassing when it happens and awful when you do it for a customer – as we did a couple of months ago. It just feels terrible and so amateurish.
  2. Then there are bigger mistakes that affect people – regarding access to something or the information they’re using. For instance, you might have miscommunicated the price, the availability, or the date. We want to do something about these errors.
  3. The next category is big, horrid mistakes. For these, we need a deeper and more sincere approach.
  4. And finally, we have personal mistakes.

Let me explain all of these in a bit more detail.

1. Small Slips

Let’s talk about small slips first. These are the “Hi Firstname” or “Hi F-name.” We’ve all done it before. I’m confident I’ve done it many times. You may have even done it yourself. How should you respond to that? The answer is, don’t. You’re tempted. You’re embarrassed. You feel like you want to look human and accepting of your errors. But frankly, don’t communicate.


  • Firstly, if you had an open rate of 20%, which is an average, then 80% of your audience didn’t even see it. Of those who had the opportunity to see it, I’ll bet only a third even noticed. And of those, I’ll bet a half even cared. If you go out to your entire list and recommunicate two messages where one would have been enough, that’s annoying.
  • Secondly, you’re highlighting an error that most people didn’t even notice.
  • And thirdly, it honestly didn’t matter. People know you’re human. Let it go.

2. An Error that Affects People

On the other hand, we do need to respond to the second type of error which is when we have miscommunicated information. For example, say we made an offer meant for only part of our market, but we sent it to the entire market. Perhaps we said it’s only available in this location or for these kinds of customers.

That’s pretty embarrassing. You’ve now told a group of people about something they can’t have. Or maybe it wasn’t so much a geographical or a segment type issue. Maybe you just got the facts wrong; for example, providing an incorrect date or some other important detail. That does matter and it needs to be corrected.

To correct it, follow these steps:

  1. Communicate quickly
  2. Apologise
  3. Explain what went wrong
  4. Give them a reason to forgive you

You might have to provide them with a little extra discount or maybe you can broaden the offer. It’s going to be very situational and depend on the relationship you have with your market. Whatever the case, give them some reason to forgive you.

3. A Horrible Error

The third kind of error is a biggie. This error is where somebody has done something really foolish and really impactful. In this instance, we need everything that I mentioned before: you need to communicate quickly, you need to apologise, explain what went wrong, and give them a reason to forgive you.

But, we also need to do some different things. We need to make sure the change we’re telling our market about is radical and permanent. If you’ve made a big mistake, make a big correction. For real, not just in words.

The next point is that it needs to come from the CEO – not from Marketing – and it needs to be really personal from the CEO. For example:

“We made an error. Buck stops with me. I am so, so sorry we did that. Here’s what we’ve done to fix it. Here are the actions we’re going to take.”

Go above and beyond on fixing the issue. These big mistakes are such a unique kind of problem and a different response is needed. Don’t get them confused with smaller errors.

4. A Personal Error

The final one is the personal error. This is where you have offended somebody or you have personally made a mistake. You’ve really only affected one person, so you need to go directly to them. Do it face-to-face if you can or do it over the phone if you think they’ll accept your call. Recently, I did a blog about using video for personal communication, and in that, one of the cases I used was a personal apology.

In case you haven’t heard the story, we did something wrong and I needed to get the apology to this customer very quickly. It needed to be heartfelt, genuine, and authentic. They lived in a different state and I couldn’t get there fast enough to see them.

I decided that using the phone in this situation wouldn’t have been enough. They may have been very guarded in the conversation or wanted to unleash to let me know how unhappy they were – and I knew they were unhappy. So what I did was produce a video.

Personal mistakes need a personal response. For these errors, where you’ve only affected one person and it was obviously your mistake, be personal and authentic. Whatever method you choose, remember that face to face is great, use the phone if you can, and don’t forget to consider video as an option.

Never lose a chance to recommunicate your mission

My fundamental point is that you need a different type of response for different types of errors. To do that, you need to split all problems into one of these categories:

  • Small problems
  • Problems that affect (problems of fact and those that affect multiple people)
  • Big problems
  • Personal problems

And respond appropriately depending on the type of problem.

But we also need to separate good problems from bad problems. Bad problems are the ones you cause and now need to fix. We’ve dealt with bad problems above already. Good problems are the problems that you have nothing to do with creating, but your customers pay you good money to solve for them.

For example, if you sell backup software, you probably solve the problem of “the high cost of losing data”. Clearly you don’t make them lose data – that happens all on its own. Your job is to get them back up to speed if they do lose data. This is the problem you want to tell the whole market about. That’s what I’m calling a ‘good problem’.

So let’s tie good problems and bad problems together. It looks like this:

When you are telling a part of your market about a bad problem – one that you created – remind them of the good problem – the one that you solve – and how well you solve it.

So we’d say something like:

“Hey, we really care about helping you to avoid the high cost of losing data. And, of course, we are always seeking to serve others, too. In the process of doing that, we recently screwed up. We told a few too many people about a special pricing test we were running in Latin America. We were hoping to learn a bit about the appeal of price bundling and to apply those learnings once we’d digested them. Anyhow, we sent that offer to you even though you’re not based there.

“We found the switch that we flicked the wrong way in our marketing system, and it won’t happen again. BUT, given we made you the offer too, we want you to know that we’re good for it. If you liked what we sent and want in on that deal, we’ll honour it. In the mean time, we’ll stay focused on keeping your data safe.”

Every piece of communication needs to reinforce the core problem that you’re in the business of solving. You’re amazing at it, you’re focused on it, and you know that it matters. You want to remind your audience that it matters as well, so tie in any episodic or spontaneous response back to your core.

Not sure what good problems you solve or what your core is? We can help with that.