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Running an eCommerce Business

Embracing Failure: What eCommerce Stores Can Learn from Their Faults

Embracing Failure: What eCommerce Stores Can Learn from Their Faults

by John Larkin

John runs the blog here at eCommerceLift and is a verified Shopify Expert. Interested in an initial growth consultation? Click here

3 years ago


Embracing Failure: What eCommerce Stores Can Learn from Their Faults

In any eCommerce business, things are going to go wrong. It’s a fact of life. Stuff just happens - shipping errors, payment delays, website failures... the list is endless. There are millions of cheesy business books telling you how you should “embrace failure” and other such mindless guff. 

Until fairly recently,  “Fail harder, fail better” was a part of a fairly obscure Samuel Beckett quote, but it is now maybe the most-overused phrase in tech talks nowadays – used by the likes of Elon Musk at the Summit in Dublin last year and Richard Branson in one of his regular sermons. (Mark O’Carroll at Slate wrote a brilliant article on this entitled “How Samuel Beckett became Silicon Valley’s Life Coach.)

Truth is you shouldn’t really go around embracing failure. You should try everything you can to avoid it. Winning football teams don’t go on open-top bus parades after they fail... only when they win. While your business shouldn’t actively go around courting failure, you do have to face the fact that some parts of your business will fail occasionally. 

Every business has failures – Apple is the most valuable brand in the world right now but it still invented the horrific Newton in 1993 – a mishmash of a pocket-sized personal organiser / address book. As critics at the time said “Apple replaced a perfectly good $5 notebook with a $700 computer.

While the Newton was a complete and utter disaster at the time, Apple’s engineers were perfectly and uniquely skilled a decade later when the company decided to revisit the idea of a pocket-sized computer. The result – the iPhone. 

“Learn from your failure” is another one of those phrases spouted by self-appointed business gurus but there might be a certain amount of truth in what seems like a fairly trite phrase. Steven Johnson wrote a book (and gave the ubiquitous Ted Talk) entitled “Where Good Ideas Come From” and his theory is that good ideas come from the fragments of other ideas and failed ideas that we all have. 

He uses the incredible story of Timothy Prestero and his organisation called Design That Matters. 

“They decided to tackle this really pressing problem of... infant mortality rates in the developing world. One of the things that's very frustrating about this is that we know, by getting modern neonatal incubators into any context, if we can keep premature babies warm, basically -- it's very simple - we can halve infant mortality rates in those environments. 

“So, the technology is there. These are standard in all the industrialised worlds. The problem is, if you buy a $40,000 incubator, and you send it off to a mid-sized village in Africa, it will work great for a year or two years, and then something will go wrong and it will break, and it will remain broken forever, because you don't have a whole system of spare parts, and you don't have the on-the-ground expertise to fix this $40,000 piece of equipment. And so you end up having this problem where you spend all this money getting aid and all these advanced electronics to these countries, and then it ends up being useless.

“So what Prestero and his team decided to do is to look around and see: what are the abundant resources in these developing world contexts? And what they noticed was they don't have a lot of DVRs, they don't have a lot of microwaves, but they seem to do a pretty good job of keeping their cars on the road. There's a Toyota Forerunner on the street in all these places.”

“They seem to have the expertise to keep cars working. So they started to think, "Could we build a neonatal incubator that's built entirely out of automobile parts?" And this is what they ended up coming with. It's called a "neonurture device." From the outside, it looks like a normal little thing you'd find in a modern, Western hospital. 

“In the inside, it's all car parts. It's got a fan, it's got headlights for warmth, it's got door chimes for alarm - it runs off a car battery. And so all you need is the spare parts from your Toyota and the ability to fix a headlight and you can repair this thing. Now, that's a great idea, but what I'd like to say is that, in fact, this is a great metaphor for the way that ideas happen. We like to think our breakthrough ideas, you know, are like that $40,000, brand new incubator, state-of-the-art technology, but more often than not, they're cobbled together from whatever parts that happen to be around nearby.”


So good ideas can come from the failure of others? That seems like a pretty obvious statement. But a major part of becoming a success in the world of eCommerce depends on how you deal with your failures.

Postal strikes, shipping delays, power outages, server failures... these are all things that can and do go wrong for any eCommerce business. They happen every company, from the Mom&Pop start-up to the global behemoths like Amazon and eBay. It’s how you deal with them that determines whether these things can become fatal for your business.

In October 1994, a college maths professor called Thomas Nicely told Intel that their Pentium chips were producing inaccurate results and hampering his work. Intel quietly replaced the chips he was using and just ignored the issue (despite admitting to Nicely that they had been aware of the problem for a few months). In actual fact, the bug was one of the most harmless bugs you could imagine – for the ordinary user – it had no issues whatsoever – it just affected people like Nicely – who were working on incredibly complicated mathematical models. Byte Magazine later estimated that the bug would affect one in every nine billion calculations. But that didn’t matter – it was the way Intel handled it that made them suffer. By ignoring the flaw and not owning up to it  - it made them look like they had something to hide.  Just three weeks later – the Pentium FDIV bug made international headlines when outlets like CNN started covering the issue. A month after that, Intel was forced to issue a recall that cost the company some $475 million.

Obviously, Intel is still thriving today – but it is because they vowed never to cover-up their mistakes again. Indeed just a year later in 1995, the company gave keychains to their engineers containing the flawed chips (they had quite a few of them lying around after the recall) with an engraving on the back that said contained a message from the CEO at the time Andy Grove; "Bad companies are destroyed by crises; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them." 

This message is one that was shared by Twitter. In the early days of the company, Twitter users messages kept failing to send. Founder Biz Stone explains their approach in his new book “Things A Little Bird Told Me”.

“It was up to me how to decide this internally, and with our users,” said Stone. “I wanted people to know that we were doing our best, but I didn't want to try to hide or downplay our flaws. I decided that we would own our many imperfections.

“In an early version of the system, when you sent a text, a “success screen” came up. On most websites, that screen would read “Thank you, your message was sent”. On Twitter, our success screen read, “Great that might have worked”.

Eventually, in order to soften the blow of Twitter’s outages, I poked around on a stock photo website and found an image of a whale being lifted up by a bunch of birds. Perfect! I put it on the Error page.

The Fail Whale, as it came to be called, was a happy, positive image, and it portrayed us as a small but committed group of birds managing, as a team to carry the weight of an impossibly huge whale. We were small, but we were determined to succeed.”

Indeed such was the success of the Fail Whale that it became a meme and one guy even got a tattoo of the symbol

Obviously, as stated above, you should try to avoid failure at all costs. But when failures inevitably occur – then you should bite the bullet and admit where your company went wrong and address not just the problem, but how you are fixing it. As Albert Einstein once said “Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”

A step-by-step guide of how to deal with a failure or mistake is pretty hard to come up with – as each situation will demand a new framework – but here are the five basic steps that your eCommerce company should take should you identify an issue that is affecting your customers.

1 – Monitor all the ways customers can talk to you... email, phone, social media. Have everyone that works in these departments know that as soon as any customer reports a problem – then everyone in your company should know about it.

2 – As soon as an issue is identified then your top employees should meet/talk/email about what the problem is, why it occurred, how it can be resolved and how it can be prevented.

3- As soon as step 2 is completed, then you need to contact all customers who are or could be affected by the issue. Be calm and let them know how it affects them and, most importantly how soon the issue will be resolved. 

4- Don’t blame “suppliers” or “server issues” or whatever other excuse you can come up with when you are talking to customers. The customer isn't dealing with your suppliers or servers – they are dealing with you. Acknowledge your mistake and then deal with it.

5- Follow up. Once the initial panic of resolving the mistake is over – don’t forget to reassure the customers affected by the problem. Reach out to them – give them exclusive discount codes or special offers... whatever you can do to get back in their good books – do it.

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