An undercooked pizza triggered a memory of a rather unexpected brand experience from five years ago. In January 2010 I was returning to London from Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, flying first class. I will take money out of the equation, because first class experiences are meant to be expensive; let’s just assume that for whatever sum they represent the best experience a brand offers. One could argue that the key benefits and distinguishing features of first class treatment are increased personal space and comfort, a premise applicable to a variety of industries from airlines and hotels to retail and hospitals. So when I realised that I will have to spend a 13 hour flight in a lovely pod with a broken table, it was a little upsetting. What did Cathay Pacific have to say about the matter? Nothing could be done in the air. After leaving a complaint on their website, I received one of the most formal letters of my life, dryly stating that relevant agents had checked the cabin before my boarding and found it in adequate condition; as a gesture of goodwill, the company offered to upgrade my next flight one level in one direction at check in, provided there is availability. Obviously, doing something crazy, like offering the upgrade at the time of ticket purchase would be stretching the airline’s generosity too far. I didn’t really expect anything material, but a heartfelt apology would seem appropriate; if nothing else, because the best service offering in a company’s portfolio failed to provide me with basic comfort. Needless to say, I never considered flying with Cathay Pacific again.

As I was on my way home the other week, somewhere between Baker Street and Regent’s Park, I suddenly felt like a hot slice of pizza. Catching brief sparks of WiFi, I got on the Firezza website (consciously impractical as I wouldn’t want to make ordering a pizza a matter of 3 clicks through an app). Out of all the establishments delivering pizza, I have always preferred Firezza – stone baked and thin, their product feels relatively superior and somewhat… healthier. Although I am certainly not an expert, I knew enough to recognise that half of the pizza delivered suspiciously fast was uncooked to the extent that I didn’t risk eating it. I didn’t have time to argue and wait for another delivery, so I just emailed the pizzeria a grumpy message and forgot all about it. Next morning I missed a call from Firezza’s operations manager. The gentleman left a polite message in which he apologised profusely, adding that the company had credited my account with a number of loyalty points equivalent to the amount of money I had spent on the pizza I didn’t like. Again, I didn’t care much about the £17 wasted on a pizza I couldn’t eat, but the brand’s reaction is crucial for the fairly fragile relationship most of us have with companies that operate in highly competitive markets.

The relationship between a brand and a client is not dissimilar to a romantic union: as brand managers, we get to say “I am sorry” a lot.

The relationship between a brand and a client is not dissimilar to a romantic union: as brand managers, we get to say “I am sorry” a lot. You may not always believe you are in the wrong, but this is utterly irrelevant; even clients with irrational expectations deserve an apology. Consider it a compliment – they expected more of you, because you seem so awesome. Awesome brands, confident brands (like people) are, at the very least, polite. It shouldn’t matter whether the conflict arose in public or behind closed doors. And not because these days there is no such thing as closed doors, for both brands as well as couples. It shouldn’t matter, because awesome partners don’t care about appearances, they care about relationships.

To help yourself appreciate the extent to which your communications need to be accommodating, imagine your brand as a physical space, say – an awesome store. People come to it; some leave smiling, some unable to find whatever they were after, some expect expensive freebies for the privilege of their attention. But even addressing the most annoyingly irrational customer, someone, looking for, say, a flying broom, a good attendant should say: “I am sorry, but unfortunately, as a bakery, we have a rather narrow product offering. Would you like a cheddar sandwich? The bread is fresh from the oven and the other ingredients – from the local market; it will provide you with some extra energy should your search take a little longer than expected.”

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