Retailer Mishandles Complaint Over Black Model; Lessons Learned

"Standard responses" are bad for customers AND for the business.

Brian Cantor

Fewer than 5% of customers consistently receive satisfactory responses to their feedback.  About 42% rarely or never do.

One of the most common issues concerns the use of generic, impersonal language.  In today’s age of customer centricity – one that considers personalized, relationship-oriented engagement to be a top priority – the “form letter” is simply unacceptable.  It reflects a lack of appreciation for the customer – the same customer that the business is supposed to treat as a king or queen.

The harm is not, however, strictly limited to the customer with whom the business is interacting.  As a recent incident with Australian department store chain David Jones reveals, it can also impact the public’s perception of the brand.


The cover of David Jones’ Summer Beauty issue features Adut Akech, a black model who was born in South Sudan and moved to Australia as a child.

Insofar as the teenager is a rising star within the international modeling community, her placement on the cover seemed rather logical.

It did not, however, receive unanimous support.

In a since-deleted Facebook post, Elizabeth Ballard expressed “disappointment” with the cover.

“Although I think your use of the beautiful black model is very attractive, I don’t feel it represents the general population of Australia,” wrote Ballard.  “How on Earth am I expected to relate to this cover?  I can’t wear any of her makeup, I don’t know anyone who looks like her…she could have been used on the back page.”

Ballard’s post also references the supposed “irony” of featuring Akech on the cover of an issue that also includes a “whole section on fake tans.”

“You people have really missed the mark here, and I’m pissed off and sick of big companies going for the minority feel good.  Please think about your shoppers next time.”

[For the purpose of clarity, we have edited the typos that appeared in Ballard’s original post]

In response to Ballard’s rant, the official David Jones account offered what sure seemed to be a stock, generic response.

“Hi Elizabeth, we are so sorry you feel this way.  We have passed our feedback on to our Marketing Department for their information and consideration.”

The problem is that this was not a stock, generic issue.

Bad for everyone

When criticizing “form” responses, we are typically advocating on behalf of the customer.

The customer, whose satisfaction is supposed to be the business’ #1 focus, articulated a specific issue into which they have a personal investment.  That customer accordingly deserves more than a “thanks for the note, we’ll pass it along” from the business.  It deserves clear confirmation that the business understands the issue, cares about its impact on the customer, and is doing everything in its power to resolve the situation.

By that standard, David Jones did not provide Elizabeth Ballard with an acceptable response.

The ramifications of this particular response, however, ran far deeper.  David Jones’ reply troubled some who disagreed with Ballard’s stance.

Some critics specifically focused on the fact that David Jones apologized to the customer.

These critics view Ballard’s stance as racist.  By apologizing, they argue, David Jones essentially dignified that racist position.  It sent the message that the store was potentially remorseful about using a black model on its cover – and that the customer was fully justified in complaining about the decision.

The response even confirmed that the organization had passed the feedback along to the marketing team.

In fairness, the “apology” criticism may be a bit dramatic.  David Jones said it was “so sorry” that Elizabeth felt “that way.”  It did not say it was “so sorry” for making her feel that way.  It did not say it was “so sorry” for featuring a black model on the cover.

And while David Jones did admit to sharing the feedback with its marketing team, it gave no overt reason to believe it would ever consider acting on said feedback.

There is nonetheless a broader, more irrefutable criticism associated with David Jones’ response.  The retailer failed to defend its decision.  It, moreover, failed to condemn Ballard’s stance as incompatible with its commitment to diversity.

One can certainly debate whether David Jones’ response truly “dignified” Ballard’s position.  One cannot, however, claim David Jones repudiated her stance.

By not doing so, David Jones forfeited an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to diversity.

Admitting the mistake is only half the battle

David Jones accepted the criticism – and quickly issued an apology.

“We have not, and will never, apologise for representing the diverse make up of the Australian community in our marketing materials or campaigns,” said a David Jones representative in a statement quoted by The New Daily.

“The initial response to this Facebook post was a standard response, given by a customer service representative without enough thought as to how it could be misinterpreted, and we acknowledge this response was not appropriate in this context.

While I personally agree that critics misinterpreted David Jones’ apology as an endorsement, I dislike the fact that David Jones referenced the potential misinterpretation in its apology.  Apologizing for a potential misinterpretation is similar to “apologizing to those who may have been offended.”  At best, it is an apology for a lack of foresight.  At worst, it is an exercise in victim-blaming.  It is not an apology for the action itself.

A real, appropriate, admirable apology is simple:  “I’m sorry for doing what I did.”

That is just a gripe on my part.  At the end of the day, David Jones ultimately said what critics wanted it to say.  The retailer acknowledged its initial Facebook post was problematic – and vowed its commitment to diversity.

There is still a fundamental problem with the comment.

David Jones acknowledges it was wrong to use a “standard response” in this particular context.   The response provides no assurance that the retailer will cease using form responses in other contexts.

That is a problem.  Outside of the most barebones transactional matters (which are increasingly being handled in self-service channels), a “standard response” is never ideal.

Offering a stock apology to a customer who complains about a certain product being out of stock or certain garments only coming in certain sizes would not be as controversial as it was in this case, but it would not be ideal.  It would not make the customer feel valued.  It would not ensure the customer that he or she was heard.  It would not present David Jones as a customer-centric brand.

“Conversational” channels (social media, live chat, voice, etc) are not closed-ended “feedback forms.”  There is often an expectation of legitimate engagement.  When a business offers stock responses, it is not delivering on that expectation.

When it does so repeatedly, it reduces the value of that channel.  Customers will start to view it as a closed-ended feedback form, and in turn devote less time to providing meaningful feedback.

The business, in turn, will lose a valuable source of customer intelligence.