B2C business tends to steal most of the customer complaint oxygen, with players often making headlines for failures small and not-so-small. But failures can hurt B2B organisations more acutely.

If a customer rebuffs a consumer brand, they take their business, they might tell their network about why they’re leaving, and in extreme cases, may post their reasoning to social media or review sites.

For a B2B company a single customer loss could translate to hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, as that customer account and contract for delivery walks out the door.

Lessons from failure

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) earned worldwide fame for all the wrong reasons when this year’s inaugural online Census went into meltdown.

#censusfail was trending globally for several hours, as millions of people logged on to complete the questionnaire only to hit a brick wall in the form of an error message, and unsettling warnings about the quality of the website’s security.

Conflicting reports began to emerge that the ABS had been targeted by Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and simply bowed under the weight of unexpected load.

So why the lack of sympathy for the ABS plight?

The former is a commonplace occurrence for most websites, and part of standard website launch and maintenance. Oh, and the ABS invested a small fortune in load testing to avoid a crash on the big night.

It’s genuinely hard to believe how those involved got it so wrong, and harder still to watch the communications failures before, during and after.

It remains to been seen which heads will roll for the series of screw ups that led to #censusfail, but there are important lessons we can learn from the mess.

Read more: How should B2B organisations approach innovation?

For a B2B company a single customer loss could translate to millions of dollars. Click To Tweet

Bank trust early

Compounding the fallout for the ABS and its B2B suppliers were cumulative months of concern and suspicion about data gathering overreach, privacy risks and a lackadaisical attitude to vulnerability.

If the ABS, the government and their suppliers had done a better job of nurturing trust early – and keeping it – they’d have more leeway when things went pear-shaped. But trust had been eroded after more than a year of boastful claims and cavalier dismissing of expert feedback.

Earn and bank trust with your users and customers from the start by doing what you promise. Don’t wait until you need to rely on it.

system failure


Businesses need to own our failures. Smoke and mirrors, subterfuge and spin are immediately obvious and can do more damage than the issue itself.

Communications need to be swift, honest and humble. With every tweet, press release or TV appearance, the ABS appeared cocky and defensive. This wasn’t a knee-jerk; it was the continuation of disdainful and occasionally smug marketing campaigns in the lead up to the ‘big night’.

Communications need to be swift, honest and humble. Click To Tweet

A more respectful and reflective attitude wouldn’t bring their website back online, but it would have begun to repair their damaged relationship with stakeholders. The ‘I can’t hear you, it wasn’t me’ approach was disastrous.

Don’t improvise

Be nimble, yes. Listen and respond to what you’re seeing, hearing and learning, yes. But don’t make it up as you go along.

Have a plan in place to manage issues and incidents that includes communications to your networks and customers and the public (and practice that plan before you need to use it).

If the ABS and its suppliers had such a plan, it wasn’t obvious, and it wasn’t drilled. Any plan to put out a fire clearly didn’t take into account the size of the fire, and their role as calming meditator while smoke filled the room.

Listen & engage

It really should be a no brainer, but while the Census website was in flames and users nationwide were whipping up a social media frenzy, the ABS continued with automated social media posts and mechanical sounding responses to complaints.

It’s an organisation that has a level of governance, so unfettered freedom to engage isn’t a reality yet (though it ideally should be). But the operators on the front line needed more flexibility to drive and re-orientate the conversation. They needed to actually take in what’s being said and respond in real-time.

Automation is core to marketing, but when crisis hits, press pause. Click To Tweet

They didn’t, and the narrative got away from them fast, driving huge negative sentiment and corroding their digital footprint in ways it will take some time to undo. Automation is core to marketing, but when crisis hits, press pause and summon the humans.

Failure is always an option

If you’re in business, you will fail. Something will go wrong, at some time, and you won’t be able to deliver what you promised. Always plan for the worst.

If you’ve built a strong, transparent relationship with your customer community over time through regular communication and a commitment to helping vs. selling, you’ll be amazed what you can overcome.

Not sure how to build that relationship? Get in touch.

What can B2B learn from the #censusfail?

Shawn Low
Shawn has more than 15 years of content and marketing experience, working both client- and agency-sides. His diverse career has seen him work across both the B2C and B2B segments, as well as with start-ups. As Head of Content and Social for Green Hat, Shawn will drive effective content in order to meet strategic, commercial and business needs.