“Bad Boy, Fido!”

This week, Jon Tierney reported in the New York Times on several studies that suggest animals feel genuine regret when they miss an opportunity and remorse when they do something wrong.
So when Fido looks up at you with those big sad brown eyes, tucks his tail, and whimpers in sorrow after you say something like, “How could you do that to the Karastan rug again?!”, he may actually be feeling, well, bad inside.
Maybe it’s not surprising that dogs can take on what we assume to be human emotions – after all, they’ve been hanging out with us for thousands of years. If they can wear sweaters and attend daycare with TVs on the walls, why can’t they also pick up a little human guilt?

Not Just Dogs

But other species also appear to have regret hard-wired into their systems. Monkeys who incorrectly guessed the location of a large prize of juice showed brain activity that registered the missed opportunity. They appear to be fretting about “what might have been.”

Psychologists have known for a long time that learning capacity increases in humans when emotions are heightened. So it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, for an animal who learns something “the hard way” to reinforce that new information with a strong accompanying emotion.

Pick the wrong tree to look for fruit too many times, and kiss your chances of passing on your genes goodbye. Better to feel bad and learn quicker than to be totally happy-go-lucky and perenially clueless.

Love is Having to Say You’re Sorry

Another important element of feeling bad is demonstrating to those you’ve offended that you’re sorry. Animals who rely on their social groups for survival can’t afford to be ostracized. So when a coyote pup bites too hard in a rough and tumble play fight with its mates, it needs to show the others that it won’t do that again.
Janine Benyus, in her remarkable book Biomimicry, suggests that one of the most important benefits of animals forming social groups was shared risk. When a troop of monkeys came to a new plant, not all of them would immediately start munching. Instead, one or two of them would take a few tentative bites. If the intrepid testers didn’t keel over, or start retching within a few hours, the rest of the troop would start nibbling as well. That way, the whole group could benefit from new food sources while minimizing the danger of ingesting poison.
So if you don’t say sorry, you don’t get the benefit of the myriad protections and group intelligence that comes from social living.

When’s the Last Time a Business Showed Remorse?

While we’re working so hard to find “human” qualities in animals, has anyone noticed it’s getting harder and harder to find those same qualities in human online businesses?
The dream of the online entrepreneur is that we set up fulfillment systems, write good sales letters, and never have to deal with actual people. We pay attention to our numbers and methodically seal off the profit leaks. And we automate and outsource and create an efficient machine that produces value by virtue of its design, independent of the qualities of the human beings working within it.
As my friend Lanny Goodman points out, this business management model is about 100 years old, and based on the industrial “human as cog in the machine” assumptions about how to maximize efficiency.
And while it can succeed at decreasing uncertainty and messiness, that efficiency comes at a cost: it discourages the human beings who work for us from bringing their full selves to the work.
It’s a great way to demotivate our employees and free-lancers. To squeeze all the emotional juice out of the people we rely on to delight our customers.
And the chief symptom of this pseudo-efficiency is the absence of real remorse in customer service.

“I Understand How Frustrating This Must Be For You.”

Yesterday, after selecting a laptop at Best Buy, I gave my credit card to the Geek Squad member who had been helping me shop. After running the card, he discreetly directed my attention to the screen that was saying, “Card Declined” in big bright red letters.
For anyone with any residual hang-ups about money, that’s embarrassing. In fact, while I appreciated his discretion in not announcing, “Sorry, dude, that card’s obviously stolen or maxed out or something,” I was mortified to need to be the recipient of his mercy.
(Mr Geek Squad was actually a very sweet guy. When he was telling me about a cool feature in Google Chrome where I could cover the tracks of my web surfing, he used the example of someone shopping for a gift for a family member. “Oh, you mean Porn Mode,” I replied, causing him to stammer and blush for a moment.)
So while he was ringing me up on a different card (thank heavens I’m an American ;), I called the number on the back of the offending credit card and tried to get to the bottom of the problem.
Turns out the $928 charge from a Best Buy less than 20 miles from my home was deemed suspicious. So it was declined. And this sort of thing happens all the time with my Chase Business Visa card. I buy a round trip ticket to Germany on the card, and the first purchase I make in Germany leads to account suspension on fraud charges.
So I rant a bit about how inconvenient it is to have a credit card that’s totally hit or miss. And the person at the other end – at a call center in India, I’m guessing – is saying all the right things. How they understand my frustration. How inconvenient it must be for me.
And yet – there’s not a hint of genuine feeling behind any of the words.
I don’t feel understood. I don’t feel cared for.
Please understand, I don’t blame the poor fellow on the phone. He spends all day dealing with people whose only reason for calling is that they’re pissed off about something. And many of them are even less polite and reasonable than me.
The real villain is the cost-cutting genius at Chase who figured out that paying minimum wage to people rewarded for getting me off the phone as quickly as possible without actually helping was a smart investment.
What I want – what all of us want – is to speak to someone who’s rightly horrified at the state of affairs.

Southwest and JetBlue: Getting it Right

At a recent Media Relations Summit in New York, I heard from the chief Twitterers at JetBlue and Southwest Airlines how they personally reply to angry customers venting on Twitter while stuck in grounded aircraft. Even in 140 characters, they can communicate real caring. Here’s my recollection of the spirit of the communication:
Customer on Twitter: On Southwest plane on the ground for an hour. Why do they put us on the plane if it won’t take off? Where’s the luv?
Southwest Chief Twitterer (monitoring Twitter in real time for mentions of Southwest Airlines, replying 20 seconds later): Oh, really sorry to hear that. Make sure you ask for an extra water bottle from the flight attendant.
Customer: Hey, thanks for writing. That’s so cool that you replied. That’s why I love Southwest!

What About Your Online Business?

It’s really easy to find examples of corporate stupidity and apathy and fake concern out there. But what about your own business? Do the folks on the front lines of your customer service really feel remorse when your business screws up, or are they just punching the clock?
Do your employees feel empowered to admit mistakes, their own and yours?
Do your customers feel respected and heard?

The Dirty Secret of Screw Ups

Here’s something I discovered shortly after launching my business in 2001: in terms of customer satisfaction and loyalty, it was better to make a mistake and apologize than to do it right the first time.
Luckily for me, I make lots of mistakes, so that gave me a constant opportunity to provide great “I’m really sorry” customer service.
Here’s what I discovered: up to a point, people don’t really mind when something goes wrong. What drives them batty is when they complain and nobody cares. And when you make it clear to everyone in your organization that listening to customers is the Number One job of your business, you can turn the inevitable screwups into opportunities to build loyal customers and passionate fans.
After all, we still love our dogs even when they poop on the rug. It’s that sad eyes and tucked tail look that gets us every time.

Today’s Offer

Every month in the Ring of Fire AdWords Coaching Club, I offer live group coaching on a variety of topics. One of my favorite calls is the monthly Chess Club, in which members bring their keywords and discover how to write “Checkmate” ads for those keywords. Here’s what a first-time Chess Club attendee had to say:
I wasn’t going to get on the Chess Club call this week. I’m a newbie. I don’t have a PPC campaign running and didn’t see what value I’d get from the call. Besides, I’ve read tons of PPC ads and they look easy enough to write. 

Wow, was I wrong! Not getting on the call would have been a huge mistake. In just a few minutes Howie taught me how to REALLY read and analyze PPC ads. Now I know I’ll be able to create ads that will stand out from the competition.

If you haven’t been on a call you’re missing out. Howie rocks!

Jackie Davis


Right now, the only way to get on a Chess Club call is to join the Ring of Fire.

Find out more about the Ring of Fire (starts at $20/month).

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