The Art of (Not) Saying You’re Sorry
This morning, Netflix subscribers woke up to an email from the company’s co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings. “I messed up,” he wrote. “I owe you an explanation.” But those hoping for an explanation for the terrible mess Netflix has made recently of its subscription policies were destined to be first disappointed, then mystified. For not only did Hastings make the case that his decision to split the subscriptions between DVDs and streaming was exactly the right thing to do, he then compounded the matter by announcing that the DVD service will be spun out as an entirely different business, Qwikster.
As a business decision, the split probably makes sense. We know from disruptive innovation theory that core businesses can become a liability if you’re not prepared to make bold decisions to keep evolving. As Hastings pointed out in his note,
Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want.
Absolutely right. But, man oh man, does Hastings need some lessons in how to manage relations with his customers, who have been treated horribly in recent months. This is the apology of someone who’s actually apologizing for his customers’ stupidity. As I tweeted a quick translation of the note on first reading the letter,
I messed up. You didn’t understand the wisdom of my decision, which was absolutely correct. Love, Reid
I dubbed this a “humble nonapology.” On further reflection, it’s even worse than that. Seems to me, he’s really saying:
I messed up. I’m sorry you are slow in grasping all of this, but the great thing is that I was right all along. So stick with me while I make things even more confusing by announcing an entirely new brand that’s unrelated to Netflix without really telling you how this will affect you or your service. You won’t have to pay any more (silly old us for mucking that up, eh?!) but there will be a new website that won’t be integrated with the one you use now. Oh, and there’s a video games component now too, because for some reason I have decided that’s important to discuss right here and now.
Thing is, this isn’t merely a question of playing nicely with customers for the sake of appearances. Paying customers should always be treated with a great deal of respect and deference—but that’s doubly true when unsubscribing is a matter of clicks away. Of course, consumers can’t be allowed to paralyze a business, and change is necessary. There are doubtless a whole host of negotiations going on in the background that have led to this decision. But this arrogant tone does Hastings no favors at all. Netflix is a great service. Surely the clever people there can come up with better, more coherent, more convincing ways of communicating their decisions to their equally clever and (up to now) supportive audience?
[Images of now-retro Netflix DVD service, which will now be rebranded as Qwikster, c/o Netflix.]
[For another amazing nonapology, see journalist Johann Hari’s piece repenting for plagiarism. Then see The Economist’s beautiful evisceration of the same.]