Being WrongNo one like to realize that he or she is wrong. It’s hard for individuals to do it and sometimes even harder for organizations.

Customer Satisfaction is about ensuring customers are happy with your products and services. But sometimes things don’t work out right and need to be fixed.

If an organization and the people within have difficulty accepting that they are ‘wrong’ and the customer is ‘right’, they fall into a trap of trying to blame the customer.

In a Video from the Ted Conference, Kathryn Schulz talks about the kinds of rationalization people and organizations go through when they are ‘wrong’.

1. Error Blindness: The inability to see that something is wrong from the customer’s point of view.

2. Incorrect Assumptions related to the fact that something is wrong:

a. The Ignorance Assumption: The customer just doesn’t understand and when we explain it to them, they will understand and there is no problem.

b. The Idiot Assumption: The customers are intellectually inferior, or dumb, or blind and cannot understand so there is no problem

c. The Evil Assumption:
People understand but are distorting the facts for their own gain. (An example of this could be to attribute negative reviews on the internet as coming from competitors or disgruntled employees) so there is no problem.

Using these erroneous assumptions, organizations perpetuate error blindness, continue with practices, policies or product defects,  leading to customer dissatisfaction and in many cases, customer defection.

Here’s the Kathryn Schulz video from the Ted Conference about how it feels to be wrong.

Companies like individuals do not like to be perceived to be wrong.

Ford Pinto Example

The Ford Pinto , a 1970s  subcompact  is a classic case of error blindness. According to a Newsweek site, “Because of the placement of the car’s gas tank, the Pinto had a tendency to burst into flames when rear-ended—even at moderate speeds. Even worse, Ford had apparently realized the problem but decided it would be cheaper to settle claims for damages than it would be to fix the problem, as Mother Jones reported based on an internal Ford memo. Dozens died in fires before the company finally agreed to recall the car in 1978. This 1973 Pinto was used as evidence in a 1980 court case.

An extensive investigation covered in an article by Mother Jones …found these root causes:

  • Fighting strong competition from Volkswagen for the lucrative small-car market, the Ford Motor Company rushed the Pinto into production in much less than the usual time.
  • Ford engineers discovered in pre-production crash tests that rear-end collisions would rupture the Pinto’s fuel system extremely easily.
  • Because assembly-line machinery was already tooled when engineers found this defect, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway—exploding gas tank and all—even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gas tank.
  • For more than eight years afterwards, Ford successfully lobbied, with extraordinary vigor and some blatant lies, against a key government safety standard that would have forced the company to change the Pinto’s fire-prone gas tank.

In this case, the Ford Executives appeared to be guilty of another erroneous assumption: We can hide it.

Lessons Learned

We all need to be conscious that we can be wrong. Each of us individually can be wrong and organizations, as an accumulation of individuals, can be wrong. Error blindness can take place at all levels in an organization and there are common rationalizations we use to justify our beliefs and actions.

Customer satisfaction professionals need to ensure that the customer’s voice is heard and work diligently to overcome Error Blindness with their organization. Watch for the erroneous assumptions trap.

What is your opinion of these ideas? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Adele Berenstein

Adele Berenstein is an Experienced Customer Satisfaction Executive, recently retired from a Large Global IT Organization after a long productive management career including Sales, Marketing, Services, teaching and education center management and most recently, 19 years in customer satisfaction management. She turned around divisions with customer satisfaction problems, implemented measurable improvements and management systems, and implemented programs to prevent problems from ever affecting customers.

5 Responses to “The Embarrassment of Being Wrong”

  1. Anne Cauley Says:

    Great article Adele…

    It also reminds me of another supporting point: people may hear/see/believe what they want to because they may ‘filter’ information. Susan Weinschenk provides an example as compelling as the Pinto. Here’s the link:

    Having said that, my corporate training (as a project manager) taught me that you need to swallow your pride and identify the problem (as soon as possible) and then try to fix it. If you project is falling behind it is easier to fix a few months before the due date (vs a few days).

    Great point that it is always tough to admit you were wrong whether personally or professionally.

  2. Adele Says:

    Thanks Anne. Great comments. Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out.

  3. mFred Says:

    Not sure when your article was posted, but it repeats a myth about the Pinto that was debunked a long time ago by a study published in the Rutgers Law Review–see

  4. Adele Berenstein Says:

    Thank you for your interesting link.

    I think the law review was designed to review the issue of Risk vs Design law and both sides of the issue.

    Customer satisfaction is perception. It may or may not have to do with fact. In the case of the Pinto, the perception of Ford’s balance between design and cost was brought forward in the trial and rightly or wrongly, the perception of the public was that what they did was wrong. It’s ethics and emotions that carried the public opinion to blame Ford. Legally they may have had the right to do what they did, but from a customer satisfaction and trust perspective, they failed, big time.

    Thanks again for your reference article.


  5. mFred Says:

    Thanks for your response. I agree with you that customer satisfaction is often a matter of perception and not fact. However, this can’t be used to overlook the presentation of less-than-accurate information, especially in an article entitled, “The Embarrassment of Being Wrong.” Indeed, your article repeats a common misunderstanding about the Pinto: “Ford… decided it would be cheaper to settle claims for damages [for exploding gas tanks] than it would be to fix the problem.”

    The Rutgers Law Review article shows this view is not correct. Ford NEVER compared the cost of improving gas tanks in rear-end collisions to those of potential tort actions. Ford’s comparison concerned ROLLOVER IMPROVEMENT STANDARDS (sorry for the caps, I can’t italicize here) under consideration at the time by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Further:

    1.) Ford’s comparison concerned costs to the ENTIRE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY, not Ford alone and not the Pinto alone.

    2.) Ford is often faulted for using a human life value of $200,000 in its cost comparison. (This is not brought up in your article, but it attends to the discussion.) However, the RLR article makes clear that neither this figure nor the model that compares it to product improvement costs were created by Ford; they were created by the NHTSA. As the author writes, “…Ford employed the same datum that NHTSA would be using in deciding whether to promulgate the standard” [again–“the standard” was protection in rollovers, not rear-end collisions] and that “the Ford document has been assigned an operational significance that it never possessed.”

    I don’t mean to beat up on you over all this, and in no way do I wish to defend the attaching of monetary value to moral questions. I only ended up here because I had to confront these very errors in my understanding of the Pinto while conducting research for a book last year. Too, when I first saw your article, I thought, “Great! Someone is using the Ford Pinto case to show how easily we promulgate inaccuracies, and how slow we can be to acknowledge them.” Instead, the article furthers the inaccuracies.

    All that said, NHTSA data indeed indicates that the Pinto was more dangerous in rear-end collisions than the average car. However–rather remarkably, I think–the Pinto was slightly above average in overall safety for subcompact cars of its era and was about average among all cars. None of which makes me want to ride in one…

    Best regards,

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