In January 2020 consumer electronics manufacturer Sonos ignited outrage when it announced a plan to discontinue software updates for its older products starting in May. Owners of these “legacy” products were naturally incensed, believing their smart speakers would become overpriced paperweights come spring.

As a relatively early adopter of the company’s products, I was a member of the angry mob.

The two options Sonos initially laid out in its missive to loyal customers can only be paraphrased as, 1) do nothing and you’re screwed, or 2) send your perfectly good speakers to a landfill and we’ll let you buy new ones from us at a discount. It smelled like an obvious money-grab and felt like a giant middle finger to the very people who helped bootstrap the company.

Yet despite its botched announcement, Sonos managed to successfully sidestep a full-blown crisis. Its CEO, Patrick Spence, simply apologized.

Done properly, an honest, straightforward mea culpa like the one Spence issued two days later can soothe tempers, correct misunderstandings and steer angry conversations to more constructive ground. Done poorly, it can inflict more damage than not apologizing at all.

You only get one chance to get it right. That means observing four cardinal rules.

1. Say the Word

The key to an effective apology is, not surprisingly, to actually apologize. Hearing the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” signals that the individual or company is taking ownership of what’s happened and is genuinely seeking to set things right. Qualifications, caveats and wishy-washy constructs (think “we regret if anyone was hurt”) will instantly be seen as trying to minimize responsibility.

Spence got this out of the way quickly, saying, “We did not get this right from the start. My apologies for that.” He asked customers to “forgive our misstep,” vowing that Sonos would “work harder than ever to earn your loyalty every single day.” Spence spoke directly to his customers, saying, “without you, Sonos wouldn’t exist.” Acknowledging that it’s a company’s customers who have the ultimate say in its reputation and long-term success is a message all consumers ought to hear when their brand loyalty is being tested.

2. Be Clear

When it comes to delivering difficult messages, ambiguity is the enemy. By default, anything left open to interpretation will be interpreted negatively. The original announcement on Sonos’ blog failed not just because of what it said, but because of what it didn’t say. By not anticipating and preemptively answering customers’ likely questions, the company practically begged them to jump to the wrong conclusions.

A good apology leaves nothing to chance. People want to know what happened, how it happened and what is being done to keep it from happening again. Describing exactly where things went off the rails and how shows that the organization understands precisely what it did wrong and how its actions affected stakeholders. This is the time to clear up any misunderstandings, defuse rumors and give people the information they need to put their minds at ease.

Spence ended speculation about the fate of older devices by stating unequivocally that all Sonos legacy products “will continue to work as they do today” and would still receive bug fixes and security patches even after feature upgrades ended. He answered the questions he knew were on people’s minds clearly and succinctly, promising, “We are not bricking them, we are not forcing them into obsolescence and we are not taking anything away.” From his language, there was no doubt the company had heard the concerns of its earliest supporters and was committed to addressing them.

3. Say What You’ll Do, Do What You Say

A company builds trust by consistently delivering on its promises. When it repeatedly fulfills stakeholders’ expectations, trust accumulates. When it doesn’t, trust is broken. In addition to promising that older products would continue to receive bug fixes and security patches, Spence announced that the company’s engineers were already working on a fix that would allow users to “split” their systems to enable new and legacy products to peacefully co-exist.

Vague platitudes about redoubling commitments and putting customers first are meaningless to people holding torches and pitchforks. Spence’s concrete promises were critical stakes in the ground. They told customers exactly what to expect going forward, and whom to hold accountable if their expectations aren’t met.

4. Be Fast

Apologies are like seafood. They need to be served up quickly or they start to smell fishy. Stakeholders don’t care that it takes time to gather facts or run things past the lawyers. (In fact, if begging your stakeholders’ pardon requires legal review, chances are it’s more alibi than apology and you may want to rethink your priorities.)

Had Spence waited one more day to respond, in all likelihood the situation would have escalated past the breaking point and the apology would have fallen on deaf ears.

Let Values Be Your Guide

Sonos could have avoided the debacle and associated heartburn altogether. One of the easiest ways for an organization to avoid controversy is to turn to its values as touchstones for decision-making. Asking, “Is the direction we’re about to take in line with our values and who we are as a company?” is a good way to make sure everyone involved has thought through the possible risks and ramifications and is comfortable with the decision reached.

Sonos lists three values on its website under the heading “responsibility”: collaboration, accountability and trust, which it defines as “Build[ing] stakeholder confidence through transparency.” Clearly, nobody gave these tenets so much as a passing thought as the ill-fated announcement was being formulated. Next time, with any hope, someone will take responsibility for doing so.

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