Erica Dhawan is the CEO of Cotential and a keynote speaker driving innovation across generations and cultures to prepare the global workplace for tomorrow. Her forthcoming book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, co-authored by Saj-nicole Joni, is available for pre-order.

Remember the empty apologies you used to give your siblings back in grade school when forced by your parents? You'd mutter the words, then more often than not you'd retreat back to doing what got you into trouble in the first place. It was not so much an apology as it was an utterance of words.

For quite a while, businesses took a similar approach. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.

Customers, not brands, get the last word

The popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter gave us a great example of a real, heartfelt apology this past year--one that breaks the apology habits businesses were formerly embracing. When a man started a sexist and offensive campaign to fund a 'seduction guide,' users were, naturally, outraged. Many wrote to Kickstarter and asked them to shut down the campaign. They initially refused, but when enough people complained and even threatened to boycott the platform, Kickstarter acquiesced.

Kickstarter realized what their users had known all along: When it comes to the Internet, the network of users has the final say. What was even more important than this recognition, however, was Kickstarter's public apology. This sincere apology humanized the company. It transformed Kickstarter from a faceless, corporate entity into a group of people who made a mistake and were willing to own up to it.

In 2011, 100 JetBlue passengers were stranded at the wrong airport on the tarmac for seven hours without food, water or functioning bathrooms. Understandably, the incident made national news. The CEO of JetBlue publicly apologized, saying that there were operational problems at the destination airport and he hadn't wanted to compromise the safety of the passengers. He said "We know we have let some of you down ... and for that we are truly sorry."

Most recently, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo were introduced to Sarah Kavanagh, a high schooler in Mississippi whose petition gathered thousands of signatures. Her petition asked that these companies to remove brominated vegetable oil--a controversial ingredient that has been patented as a flame retardant and is not approved for use globally--from their products.

The complaints worked. Coke and Pepsi publicly stated that they are working toward eliminating brominated vegetable oil from all of their products and are looking to use a less controversial ingredient its place. Kavanagh states, "It's really good to know that companies, especially big companies, are listening to consumers."

Apologizing is no longer an option

Apologizing to your customers is no longer an option; it's a necessity. Connecting to customers with humility is not only a strategy for changing the status quo and eliminating a problem, but it also promotes courageous conversations and appeals to consumers. Both Kickstarter and JetBlue used social media to quickly reach their customers, dissatisfied or not.

The power of connection in our digital world is a tool unlike any other. The Internet allows for instantaneous connection that reaches virtually anyone, anywhere. It helps companies stay nimble and respond to issues at a moment's notice. So how does a company harness the power of connection to respond in real time to customers? Here are three ways to keep abreast of issues your network might be having with your business, and how to best respond:

1. Scan.

Create an "internal SWAT team" to watch social media feeds for you and your brand. Scan what conversations are happening and how they might relate to the issues that you are facing. Create an emergency on-call team for accountability and to consistently monitor the brand.

2. Build.

Create a trusted network from your customer base. By finding and engaging with your most loyal customers via social media, you can leverage their influence when an unfortunate situation comes up. Brand loyalty is priceless.

3. Focus on humility.

Be real; be human. You can't change what happened or how your customers will react, but you can show them that you hear them and that you care.

Think of public apologies on social media as an opportunity to make a personal connection with your customers. This type of public interaction will show the rest of the world how you deal under pressure. And if you act with humility, you will only strengthen your brand.

Published on: Jan 21, 2015
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