The Good Business of Owning Your Mistakes

Lucky passengers booked almost free airline tickets which United Airlines agreed to honor, despite a computer snafu, snatching a business win from a bonehead mistake.United Airlines announced today it will honor tickets purchased Thursday between $0 and $10 as a result of a computer glitch, proving it is smart business to own your mistakes.

Travelocity faced a similar situation a few years back involving $51 tickets to Fiji, which occurred just as it was pushing out a customer bill of rights. The CEO of the online travel agency made an identical decision to honor the low-cost tickets as a sign of her company's integrity.

As painful and expensive as such mistakes seem, they can wind up as relatively inexpensive marketing opportunities. Your company becomes more than a ticket vendor. You become a trusted brand.

United Airlines declined to say how many lucky shoppers snapped up low-price tickets. But chances are there were quite a few and certainly more than enough to scuff up a social media dust storm if the airline tried to weasel out of honoring the tickets.

Instead, United Airlines monitored a lot of tweets and Facebook posts, like the woman who posted she booked a vacation for her son and herself to New York City for $15.

The airline person responsible for the computer glitch probably wasn't smiling, but the marketing department was. It would be hard to come up with the cash for a campaign that authentic and effective.

Travelocity CEO Michelle Peluso milked the situation by going online to announce her decision, validate it was consistent with her company's brand promise and chat with customers. She was rewarded by positive earned media, a wave of happy customer comments and a Business Week case study.

Owning a mistake may not be your first instinct. And you may get contrary advice about not admitting your culpability. But most people understand mistakes occur. They make their judgments about you based on how you respond. There is no better way to earn respect than to be a stand-up brand that takes the blame without punishing its customers.

Call it a business transaction in which you win by losing.