Experience Proves: You Never Know

I was lying on the beach with my wife a few years back when a client buzzed through my cellphone, declaring in a sorrowful voice, “I’m going to have to apologize to all of them. In fact, I am writing the apology letter now.”

“To who? About what?” I asked.  We had recently designed a planned giving brochure to be mailed to over 22,000 of his prospects, and the first thing that came to my mind was that we screwed up the piece. My stomach was in a knot.

But luckily (for me, anyway) it was his mail house that had actually screwed up. They had addressed the cover letter that went out with the brochure with the salutation “Dear Mr. and Mrs.” rather than “Dear Dr. and Mrs.” And, yes, as Murphy’s Law would have it, this was a solicitation piece for graduates of a well-respected medical school.

Oops. End of the world all over again. At least this fundraiser thought so.

So I responded with sympathy, a fresh margarita, and some advice:

“Don’t apologize.”

(My friends will tell you I have perfected the art of not apologizing. Actually, maybe the people who say that are not my friends…)

I could understand this guy feeling he should follow up on his goof with a wimpy “Gee, I’m soooo sorry we disrespected you with our salutation” letter. But as I explained to him, most of the people that receive the flawed letter will not care about the error. Another large group will not notice it. So all his apology would do would be to point it out to them, with the net effect of maybe creating more pissed-off prospects.

“Don’t do anything,” I continued. “Just wait. If some prospects complain, make your apologies directly to them.”

So did some hypersensitive prospects complain about this fundraiser’s botched salutation? A few did, yes. But you know what’s funny? Three of those who wrote to complain included donation checks in the envelope! Checks for two, four, and six thousand dollars.

Who would have guessed?

That “error” earned him an additional $10,000. And what is really bizarre is that the entire mailing got a great response – 26%.  To this day I do not really understand why it happened that way.

In case you think this is a special case, consider another fundraiser who sent out a mailing that was to contain a brochure. Unfortunately, the mailing went out without the brochure. Disaster? No. This “mistake” caused many of those on the mailing list to get in touch with the development office asking for the brochures. So the fundraiser actually ended up making more personal “touches” with her prospect base than she would have if she’d included the brochure in the first place. It almost makes you wonder whether you could start making a few mistakes like that on purpose.

I wish this kind of thing were reliable, comprehensible, and repeatable. But it’s not. The next time you think you’ve goofed so bad your career is doomed, just remember: You never know.

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