on February 03, 2020 Change Communications

Learning from Sonos' Recent Change Communications Failure

Sonos, founded in 2002, has long held a reputation as a quality leader in smart home sound systems. Calling themselves “pioneers of wireless audio” on their website, Sonos majorly disappointed its customer base in a recent email outreach, when they referred to products introduced between 2005 and 2011 as “legacy.” Sonos told customers that legacy products were soon to be ineligible for product updates, and offered buyers a trade-up program for their existing equipment for a 30% discount.

While the decision to make its older products obsolete was undoubtedly a long time in the making, the communication experience was a failure and led to a barrage of negative feedback on Sonos’s community board, social media and news outlets. In fact, an apology email signed by Sonos CEO Patrick Spence was sent two days later

Let’s take a look at how Sonos could have better handled this move from a communications perspective:

Keep the customer’s perspective in mind, from the beginning

Sonos products are pricey. Many customers have invested thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art Sonos sound systems with an expectation of quality and support. The email that Sonos sent its customers very matter-of-factly explains that many of its products are products are reaching the “End of software updates,” which, “will affect your listening experience.” The email then explains that the customer has options - either continue using legacy products as-is without future updates, or trade up and save 30% on new products. Receiving this message can seem like a flippant “sorry, not sorry” to the customer and their investment.

Utilize a different communications medium

Sonos would have done well to consider the end user’s feelings upon hearing the news of the end of software updates. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the subject matter, Sonos would have done well to enact a more personal approach. Video would have been a great option for this announcement, during which Spence could have led with a compassionate thank you to his valued customers, asserting that he appreciates their trust, investment and support. He could have gone on to explain the justification for the eventual sunsetting of products, while assuring customers that Sonos will continue to support their products for as long as possible. Even better, customers could have been offered a more personalized, incentivized trade-up program at a steeper discount if their products are soon-to-be legacy.

Use a more personal, carefully worded email  

It’s interesting that the original email announcement was a generic HTML mass email with no signatory name at the end. After receiving backlash from frustrated customers, Sonos appeared to backpedal in the email they sent two days later. That subsequent email was in a plain text format and signed by Spence. The second email gives a much more personal approach, beginning with, “We heard you. We did not get this right from the start. My apologies for that and I wanted to personally assure you of the path forward.” Sonos should have anticipated customer responses and utilized a more sensitive tone from the beginning, coupled with a personal medium like video. 

Make apologies more effective

While the second email from Spence had all the pieces right – acknowledging that they heard their customers, letting them know that they were working on making it right (finding a way to split the system), etc. – the message still didn’t come off quite right. The text and ordering of the thoughts seemed disjointed. As mentioned above, this is where a medium like video can be compelling. It affords the opportunity for the customer to look you in the eyes while you admit sincerely that you messed up, but you're going to make it right. This can go a long way to earning back that trust that is mentioned in the text of Spence’s apology email. If the audience can see you, look you in the eyes and read your body language, you can convey empathy.

Tread lightly on bolded or highlighted phrases

The second, more personal email includes a couple of bolded phrases, “when we end new software updates for our legacy products, they will continue to work just as they do today.” and “We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features.” While it’s safe to assume Sonos was likely attempting to call attention to or emphasize answers to some of the larger concerns it was hearing from its customers, tone can be difficult to convey in email, and bolded phrases can come across as snarky, aggressive, or demanding. 

Avoid “no-reply” email addresses

Both emails were sent from “Sonos <no-reply@email.sonos.com>”. As a general rule, companies should never use a no-reply email address. Any feedback on a message could be important, and someone should be reading it. While the emails had a “contact us” link within the body of the email, for sensitive matters especially, it should be easy for a customer to send feedback, i.e. hitting reply to the email they received.

While product decisions require careful navigation of the path ahead, companies like Sonos would be well served to give careful attention to its customer communications. With thoughtful planning and delivery, difficult messages can be absorbed more easily. Check out our blog for more on tactfully delivering bad news and utilizing empathy in communications.

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Laura Fox

Having held marketing roles at AOL, Millennial Media, and T. Rowe Price, Laura has extensive experience in product, content, email, and brand marketing. She has a passion for developing communications collateral, integrated marketing programs, positioning, and messaging. Her strong collaboration and project management skills allow her to provide value to clients and the Craft Impact team.

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