How Accountability Can Be Your Competitive Advantage
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What are the two most powerful words in the English language? I’m sorry. In an era of low corporate accountability, those two simple yet powerful words are a leader's competitive advantage. So is holding your brand to a higher standard. Both actions can serve to gain and retain clients.
On October 21 the internet suffered the largest outage in history. Dyn, a New Hampshire-based company that routes internet traffic, was the victim of a large-scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. As a result, customers couldn’t access popular sites such as Twitter, Amazon, Spotify, PayPal and Netflix, among many others. Of the 18 services I personally subscribe to, which were down as a result of the outage, only one sent any kind of explanation and used those powerful words, I’m sorry. That brand was Geniuslink, an intelligent link platform.
It wasn’t a blog post or an email from a generic corporate address. It was a personal note of apology sent directly from the personal email account of CEO Jesse Lakes. He explained what had happened, how it had impacted Geniuslink's service and how it had been resolved. Then he added this…
“I wanted to reach out and sincerely apologize for any problems you faced. Although it was out of our hands, we know you trust us to help serve your links and how important it is to keep those links running. We are going to do a post-mortem on the issue with Dyn and see what steps Geniuslink can take to prevent attacks like this from affecting your links in the future. Thanks for your understanding, and for bearing with us through the issue.”
-- Jesse & Team Geniuslink
It was a genius move on the CEO's part. I didn’t have to call there, or email or otherwise complain; his note took care of my complaint because it was a proactive apology.
And, being proactive is a simple but powerful competitive advantage.
There’s a lot entrepreneurs can take away from his response and apply to their own business when mistakes happen. When I spoke with Lakes, he commented that: “The web is a dynamic environment and things do go wrong. There was nothing I could do from a technical perspective, so I issued an apology. Even if it wasn’t our fault, it was our problem, and as a result, our accountability.”
What he said was a genuine, human response in what can be a very impersonal wired world we live in. Interestingly, Lakes credits a lot of his leadership style to his past experience as a rafting guide. "As a guide," he said, "your goal is to give your customers what they want. What they want varied from passenger to passenger and trip to trip, so you had to be able to flex your style and tailor your approach.”
Sound a lot like entrepreneurship?
The river, like the web and entrepreneurship overall, is a very dynamic environment. Things do go wrong and you need to adjust accordingly. Some of the best rafting wisdom Lakes imparts to his team at Geniuslink is the philosophy that you “never step in the same river twice.”
What that means in the raft scenario is that no matter how well you think you know the waters you’re travelling daily, that river is ever changing and you need to be present to navigate it effectively. This is a powerful metaphor for our work as entrepreneurs.
And there are other similar lessons all around us if we look. During the internet outage, Geniuslink took the position that "Even if the problem wasn’t our fault, it is our problem." And that's a lesson to consider.
Sometimes our problems are our greatest opportunities. The DDoS attack highlighted a vulnerability and made Lakes and his team want to make sure that this would never happen to Geniuslink again.
Now, some might say, "It’s easy for an 11-person company like Geniuslink to be ultra-responsive, but we’re too big for that."
Well, sorry, "too big" isn’t an excuse. Johnson & Johnson is a massive company and has been for decades. But that didn’t keep it from being responsive and accountable 34 years ago in October of 1982 when someone outside the company tampered with Tylenol bottles in Chicago, lacing them with cyanide.
Technically, that horrible act wasn’t Johnson & Johnson’s fault, but like Lakes, the company made itself accountable. Johnson & Johnson responded instantly by pulling every bottle off every shelf in every location the product was sold. Then, when it brought Tylenol back to market, the product returned with a new and improved triple-sealed, tamper-resistant package.
It was a promise Johnson & Johnson made to the customer, like the one Geniuslink more recently made to its customers. The outage that impacted those people clearly pained Lakes and his business partner, Jesse Pasichnyk, that day because, according to Lakes, their brand is that promise to their customers, one exhibited through the blood, sweat and tears they expended in building the company.
Your brand is a promise, too.
Lakes' personal apology was so remarkable that I struggled to recall another time I’d ever had a similar experience. The only other one I could recall took place in 2010 when I purchased web-hosting through GoDaddy. I received a customer service phone call from the company to inform me that the server hosting my website had been down intermittently for about 72 hours and GoDaddy was crediting my account for the down time.
The agent’s exact words were, “When you made the decision to purchase with us, you were purchasing excellence. For a short period of time, you received less than excellence; for that we are sorry and are crediting your account.”
Wow! Talk about a brand promise, I've loved GoDaddy ever since. If you’re similarly responsive, you may well find that through adversity comes competitive advantage. Remember, there’s often no playbook or manual for handling crisis because you never step in the same river twice.
The best thing you can do is own it and apologize right away. (For more game-changing strategies to turn your potential into performance, join my free weekly newsletter.)