leadership

The power of saying sorry: Why one business owner spent Christmas Day penning apology emails to customers

Kirsten Robb /

Jake Nickell, founder and chief executive of popular US t-shirt company Threadless, wasn’t spending last Christmas on a yacht in the Bahamas.

Instead, the boss of the $30 million fashion business was bunkered down at his computer, sending personal apology emails to 30,000 customers who didn’t get their Threadless t-shirts on time for Christmas Day.

Nickell mused on the events and the power of apologising in a LinkedIn post this week, titled Why I Spent Christmas Day Apologizing to Hundreds of Customers, One by One.

“As anyone who works in the retail industry knows, the holiday season is stressful, grueling, and nonstop,” said Nickell.

“However, this season presented us an entirely unforeseen predicament.”

Threadless had brought on a new printing vendor in September, when the retailer was hit with massive demand during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

“Even though our vendor had assured us they’d be able to meet holiday capacity, they couldn’t keep up. We found ourselves with tens of thousands of orders our vendor could not fulfil,” Nickell said.

“Orders continued to pile up, and customers, understandably, were growing increasingly frustrated. It was time to own up to our mistake.”

But despite getting on the front foot by emailing customers regarding the delays, Threadless continued to fall behind on orders.

“On Christmas morning, I woke up knowing I’d let a lot of our customers down; the very people to whom I owe much of the success of my business,” Nickell said.

“I sat down at my computer and decided to speak directly to those affected by the situation.”

Penning what he calls an “honest” and “transparent” email explaining what happened, Nickell apologised and offered the 30,000 affected customers a code for a free t-shirt.

“Replies began streaming in immediately, by the thousands, and I took it upon myself to reply to them personally,” he said.

“It wasn’t my ideal task on Christmas Day, but because of our mistake, many of our customers didn’t experience an ideal Christmas Day, either. It was the least I could do.”

“There is an extreme power in the words ‘I’m sorry’, and we voiced them often. Own up to your mistakes. We all make them,” Nickell adds.

Psychologist and SmartCompany blogger Eve Ash is a strong advocate for owning up to your mistakes and says Nickell’s blog is an example of how social media has changed the landscape of interacting with customers.

“No one can hide anymore – there is no lag time, something gets out faster now than someone can cross the floor and discuss it in the office,” says Ash.

Ash says apologising for your mistakes rebuilds trust and can even create brand advocates.

“There was a stupid methodology many years ago where companies would teach staff not to apologise, because it would mean admitting liability,” says Ash.

“But a negative experience can actually turn people into being advocates for you, if you handle it correctly. Apologising shows you’re not only open to receiving criticism, but that you are actually acting on it.”

Fittingly, Nickell’s LinkedIn post has since been seen by more than 130,000 people in three days and liked by more than 600 people.

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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