Students, parents, employees–even the most well-intentioned of us screw up occasionally. And when others are affected, those moments are a perfect opportunity to build your reputation rather than to break it.
Yesterday, Basecamp, the project management software used by hundreds of thousands of people, including me and my team at Collegewise, went down for five hours. Basecamp allows users to do everything around a project, from posting and editing files, to communicating with team members, to assigning and tracking to-do’s. Used as intended, you don’t have to rely on other services for file sharing, for group chat, or even for email. Basecamp does it all. That’s their sell. If you used the tool exactly as they encourage you to do, five hours is a long time to be without it, especially if you have a lot of people working on an important project. It also turned out that the malfunction was entirely avoidable.
And yet, by the time the problem was fixed, Basecamp’s reputation as a tool and a company appeared to be even stronger than it was before. How did they pull that off? I saw five components to their approach:
1. They alerted all of their users right away. They didn’t wait for people to reach out to their help lines just to learn that software was temporarily down.
2. They continued to update their users with information and estimates about when the problem would be fixed.
3. Each of these updates was detailed and shared seemingly all of the information available at the time of the posting.
4. They never said or wrote that truly awful phrase, “We apologize for any inconvenience.”
5. Their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, stepped up and took personal responsibility for the problem. Here are some excerpts from his post after the problem had been fixed:
“All in, we were stuck in read-only mode for almost five hours. That’s the most catastrophic failure we’ve had at Basecamp in maybe as much as a decade, and we could not be more sorry. We know that Basecamp customers depend on being able to get to their data and carry on the work, and today we failed you on that…We’ve let you down on an avoidable issue that we should have been on top of. We will work hard to regain your trust, and to get back to our normal, boring schedule of 99.998% uptime…It’s embarrassing to admit, but the root cause of this issue with running out of integers has been a known problem in our technical community…We should have known better. We should have done our due diligence when this improvement was made to the framework two years ago. I accept full responsibility for failing to heed that warning, and by extension for causing the multi-hour outage today. I’m really, really sorry.”
The steps are less important than the overarching approach. They cared. They communicated. They empathized. They brought a human to the forefront instead of hiding behind company layers. And most importantly, someone stood up, took responsibility, and sincerely apologized.
After Hansson posted his explanation and apology, the comments and social media feeds filled with users’ expressions of forgiveness, encouragement, and even praise for both Hansson and Basecamp. Here’s a screenshot:
You’ll screw up (or do so again) one day. It happens to everyone, often in spite of the best efforts or intentions. When it happens, run towards—not away from—the responsibility. Apologize to people who were affected and acknowledge that you understand what the mistake meant for them. Resolve to do better and mean it.
Whether you’re just one person who let down a friend or a company who let down thousands of customers, forgiveness will almost certainly be forthcoming if you handle the mistake correctly.