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Not Discounting Apologies

Andrew Mason is sorry. Very sorry. Consider some of the recent comments from the 30-year-old CEO of the coupon website Groupon:

  • “We featured a deal in Tokyo recently that we really messed up.”
  • “We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted.”
  • “We’re really sorry for any confusion this deal has caused.”
  • “I used to watch people doing like what I just did on TV and be like, ‘what a corporate [edited] , I’m never going to be like that.’ And here I’m doing it.”
  • “So what I really want to say is how terribly sorry I am.”
  • “I plan to be stupid throughout my career”

In the last month alone, Mason has issued apologies for at least three separate gaffes committed by his multibillion-dollar company. First, was the Japanese Incident when the Groupon’s excess supply of coupons for a New Year’s meal overwhelmed a Tokyo restaurant. Customers received meals late and in “terrible condition” and Mason released a video apology.  Next, was the Super Bowl blunder where Groupon’s “Save The Money” campaign appeared to mock a variety of charities including The Tibet Fund and Greenpeace. After initially explaining that the company was in fact raising money for the causes, Mason apologized and pulled the ads. The next day, Mason released another apology and refund to customers who participated in a Valentine’s Day promotion for flowers. Over three thousand people bought discounted flowers with a Groupon coupon before discovering that inflated base prices negated the savings. A very sorrowful month indeed.

Conventional wisdom would say Mason belongs in a book on leadership bloopers. His company is committing rapid fire mistakes and the buck certainly stops at the CEO. However, this assessment discounts the coupon executive’s artful efforts at penance. Many leaders collapse from the weight of swollen egos and bravado. Refusing to admit fault, they spin negative feedback and defiantly blame external factors.

Mason bucks this trend and embraces a self-deprecating and approachable management style. In frequent lighthearted posts on the Groupon blog, Mason pokes fun at his “quirky” company and its occasionally clumsy operations. He advertises the company’s eccentric promotions including the Groupon Addiction Hotline and the “ancient Wintertime Holiday” Grouponicus. His posts work to develop a comfortable relationship with his consumers and grant him credibility and legitimacy. It is this credibility that then enhances the power of his recent apologies and should earn him at least a footnote in a textbook on leadership success.

Ultimately, Groupon must strike a better tonal balance between blithe sarcasm and mature sincerity. The company must correct coupon issues and exercise greater marketing discretion. Inevitably, though, more mistakes will be made and when they are, Mason should maintain his witty, humble tone. It will serve him well through future struggles. But, of course, apologies if we’re wrong.

Pic credit: So gesehen



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