by Gael O’Brien

As with any mistake, what is owned and corrected quickly helps determine how leaders and their companies rebound from self-inflicted wounds. What is harder, but incredibly important for the long term, is to uncover the mindset or way of operating that enabled the trouble-making decision to be made and supported in the first place.

Image converted using ifftoanyWhile there is no shortage of examples of mistakes from trial and error to PR nightmares that comprise the lexicon of case studies of what not to do, Intuit’s aggravating one million customers (according to company estimates) with seemingly sneaky product changes seems at odds with its CEO’s prescription for good leadership.

In January 2015, Intuit tried twice to move beyond a mistake angering customers using TurboTax Deluxe 2014. Customers found in starting their 2014 taxes that the software was missing the schedule forms included in previous versions and could only be gotten if customers anted up for an upgrade. In response to complaints, president and CEO Brad Smith  at first called the mistake a failure to communicate enough. He titled his January 23rd LinkedIn apology “In Business Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry” and presented a solution that didn’t satisfy. Customers continued to express outrage in email complaints, social media and to the call center.

A week later Smith was back on LinkedIn with “Sorry Wasn’t Enough. Here’s What We Are Doing” that acknowledged the problem wasn’t communication; it was about the software changes themselves and how customers felt about the company for making changes the way it did.

Embedded in his post is a three-minute video where Smith makes the case he has listened to customers. To prove it, he reads excerpts from complaint letters, including one that accuses the company of making “a money grab.” He details additional fixes, pledging the problem will disappear with the 2015 tax-year product because the software will go back to including the desired forms. Smith ends by saying “You matter to us. You always have” in what, under the circumstances, would seem fodder for a Saturday Night Live parody except for the sincerity he projects.

What is telling about this forced upselling or “bait and switch” is it meant spending additional time and $30 more to get what customers needed for a product designed to save them both time and money.

Mistakes happen. However, nearly a year ago, in a company blog (also posted on Smith’s LinkedIn and Twitter accounts), he outlined things every leader should do that speak to: creating focus (an inspiring vision that draws people to something bigger than themselves); falling in love with the problem, not the solution; leading with questions, not answers; unpacking the “why” a decision has been made; and walking the talk so your say/do ratio is in balance. The danger when a CEO espouses that  customers matter and “customers are at the heart of everything we do”  is that it creates expectations that the “why” of decisions supports the company walking the talk.

Mistakes happen to all of us all too often. Intuit’s falling out with a customer segment is being addressed — and as with most mistakes, the human cost of countless people hours to correct a problem is as wearing as the need to earn back the trust that needn’t have been lost.

Whatever the lessons for the Intuit team, the take away for me is spending enough time on the “why” of decisions – what the focus is and the questions that flow out of that and especially those that get at the potential for consequences that undermine the very things leaders and companies want to stand for.

Unpacking the “why” – it is a powerful deterrent to mistakes and a key asset in keeping trust.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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