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Sears Travel Averts Email Disaster

Having recently attended a few conferences such as the Visa E-Commerce summit and “Mesh”:, I’ve realized the speakers I liked were ones who discussed how they dealt with disaster. So here is my turn in the confession booth – Let’s hope no one from “work”: is reading.
Last year we sent an email for a St. Patrick’s Day promotion. ‘Leave the New World for the Old World’ with great travel deals to Ireland. All our i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed. We clicked send and the message went off into cyberspace.
Later the same evening I got a panicky call. *Every one of the over 50k subscribers on the list got the email 8 times.* One of those ‘oh crap’ moments in my career.
After heart palpitations and fear of black-listing by ISPs, it was damage-control time. First we stopped sending email. We then met first thing in the morning to figure out what went wrong. Prior to the meeting, my inbox already had messages from my boss and SVP asking what had happened.
At the meeting the IT guys were expecting a public execution. There was a bug in the email system that caused the problem. They apologized for the screw-up. Rather than finger-pointing we looked at fixing the situation. (Yes, I did have to restrain myself at first.)

Once we were 100% sure the system was fixed (imagine sending _eight apology messages_ to each person) we sought forgiveness from our customers. We moved quickly since any response after 24 hours would be too late.
We came out straight with our customers and said we screwed up and explained why. Our opening sentence was along the lines of “Pardon our enthusiasm but we got a little carried away.” We reassured them that their privacy and security were important. An IT guy had a great subject line “We didn’t quite have the luck of the Irish…”
The reaction from customers stunned me. We got email thanking us. They appreciated our honesty and humour. The total unsubscribe rate was less than 1% despite a very high open rate. There were even sales inquiries for Irleand! (No I do not advocate this as a marketing tactic.)
So from an email disaster a good scenario came about. It wasn’t that we screwed-up; it was how we dealt with each other internally and our customers to fix it. That and a little luck of the Irish.


  1. Michael Seaton
    Michael Seaton May 24, 2006

    Takes guts to come clean like that Sulemaan. My team has had a few moments of panic like yours. Restraint is a excellent attribute to get through the initial phase 😉
    I’ve also found that when we have owned up to any such errors with our subscribers, they embrace the fact that we admit to a mistake, apologize and hope to do better next time.
    It is incumbent upon us as marketers in this space to continue the conversation even when we wish we could run and hide.
    Responding to issues with honesty and transparency with our customers/consumers (on the rare occasion when this happens) demonstrates leadership inside and outside the organization.
    The market is a conversation, especially when we mess up and seek forgiveness. Can you imagine if a legal note was sent as a CYA tactic?

  2. June Macdonald
    June Macdonald June 1, 2006

    I had a similar situation early on at with a coupon campaign. Turns out a portion of the list had no coupon number included in their message. Like the examples above, we reacted very quickly, I think within 4 hours, and sent a sincere, but also light-hearted apology, and even found a good way to reinforce the sale we were promoting. Results were strong and I don’t remember any complaints over the second email.

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