Not everyone says the right thing at the right time all the time. I learned the hard way at age 12 never to ask a woman directly if she’s pregnant. And I know the always-correct answer to the proverbial question, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
But while painful, the consequence of the bone-headed statements in those situations is limited to me and perhaps one other person — ok, then maybe all of her friends too — but you get the point.
The stakes are quite different for a corporate executive or other high-profile individual who represents an organization. In those cases, it can be difficult to separate statements made on behalf of the organization from personal statements — which inevitably become part of the customer experience. And then what do you do?
I Can't Believe You Said That
As a result, the best approach with public statements is to err on the side of caution. A handful of recent high-profile cases illustrate how bad public statements make bad customer experiences that translate into a short list of what not to do:
1. Don’t alienate your customers
In a now-infamous 2006 interview with Salon magazine, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries made it clear that he only wanted the “cool kids” to wear his clothes. Together with size charts that specifically exclude large sizes for women while offering XL and XXL sizes for men, it’s clear that Jeffries and his company equated being slender (especially for women) with being “cool.” Even as it applies to men, a closer look at their size charts reveal that even men’s “XL” size for pants is 2 to 4 inches smaller than its competitors, such as American Eagle, The Gap and JCrew.
On the issue of size, Jeffries has described the brand as “aspirational” and that it could not possibly make clothes for everyone. Then, this past May, Jeffries offered a tepid apology (nearly seven years later), which was not well received by the public. In November, the retailer announced it would be adding “plus sizes” to its offerings in 2014 – a development reported in the media as a response to the company's financial difficulties.
I understand branding and positioning, as well as the need to differentiate among competitors and the idea that you can’t be all things to all people – even the idea that a brand could be “aspirational.” What I don’t understand is how any company executive can justify deliberately alienating more than two thirds of a potential market as a good business decision. According to recent reports, 70 percent of women are overweight (and presumably the same proportion for men). That means a skinny-customers-only business strategy focuses on a mere 30 percent of the market and your value proposition is that your customers can smugly wear your clothes as a public proclamation that they’re NOT overweight. Really?
2. Don’t blame your customers for product issues
Lululemon is a maker of high-end women’s athletic clothing. It’s expensive and generally high quality. As a result, it’s reasonable that people might get upset when they discover their $98 yoga pants are transparent enough to show their underwear. This kind of thing happens frequently to celebrities on the red carpet — often with black dresses in camera flashes. But we’re talking about non-celebrities and their expensive yoga pants.
So the issue arose from the response the company's ex-CEO gave in an interview with a Bloomberg reporter. Chip Wilson basically said that the fabric pilling up between the thighs of his customers had to do with the size of said thighs and not with any fabric issues. Specifically, he stated, “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it."
Boom! Really? I can’t image that type of response being acceptable coming from a customer service rep, so why would it be okay for the CEO to say it in an interview with a national news organization. Well, Wilson was relieved of his duties by his board. Good for the board members.
3. Be true to your brand.
I did not move to the South until adulthood and it took me a long time to appreciate the almost cult-like following enjoyed by Chick-fil-A, largely because I was not in the habit of eating at Chick-fil-A. But then one day I ate there and understood. It’s not a typical fast-food experience. The chicken is truly delicious and the shakes are amazing. But what really sets the chain apart is the experience.
In the words of company COO Dan Cathy, every life has a story and he believes Chick-fil-A should give each customer a little grace. Chick-fil-A should be like an oasis for customers who may have a lot going on in their lives — struggles of different sorts that may make it nice for them to find a small vase with flowers on their table. Or a helping hand to get them to their table with their food tray. It’s really nice. Unless you happen to be gay or believe that gay people deserve the right to marry as much as their straight counterparts.
Unfortunately, Cathy made a series of statements in interviews in mid-2012 opposing gay marriage that became so controversial that they’ve been graced with their own Wikipedia page. The controversy prompted boycotts, which in turn prompted others to rally around the embattled fast-food chain executive’s right to free speech. Well, of course he has the right to free speech! But what happens when your public statements reveal hypocrisy in your company’s values and positioning — what purpose does that serve?
In each of these cases, customers were angered, hurt or insulted — and all these people have friends and relatives that care about them. In our circles, my teenage children and their friends refuse to eat at Chick-fil-A or shop at Abercrombie & Fitch. Have all teenagers responded in that way? Apparently not, because both of those firms are still in business, but even for a privately held firm such as Chick-fil-A, it’s never a good business move to abuse your customers.
Title image by Everett Collection (Shutterstock).