Typos in a business context are generally considered benign—or, at worst, a little embarrassing. In the wrong situation, however, a typo can lead to disaster. In 2017 a typo in some debugging code caused a crippling server disruption for Amazon Web Services, costing its business customers an estimated $150 million.
Of course, computer code is a special case; most of us aren’t in a position to bring down a vast network of servers with the slip of a finger. Typos can be just as destructive in other business settings, however. From dropped decimals that create an inadvertent fire sale to transposed letters that spawn a PR nightmare, small mistakes have cost companies millions in lost business, legal damages, and tarnished reputations.
This article offers some startling examples that demonstrate the scope of harm a single error can cause, along with tips for avoiding problems.
Check your contracts
Number-related typos are dangerous because they often directly involve money. Business contracts are a hot zone for these errors. Lockheed Martin once notoriously inked a military aircraft deal that included a cost-increase formula with a decimal place error. The mistake ultimately lost the company $70 million.
Employment contracts also warrant special attention. While a Comverge executive who was promised $87,500,000 to relocate was OK with the intended $87,500, a currency trader on the receiving end of a similar mistake in a J.P. Morgan contract sued the company for nearly $1 million.
A court challenge when a contract goes awry may or may not help. J.P. Morgan won its case, but courts often side with grammar nitpickers if there’s any question about the contract’s intent. Either way, a disagreement over mistyped terms can lead to a protracted legal tussle and lost business.
Proof your prices
Pricing typos are a huge source of trouble, especially in online forums, which may reach tens or hundreds of thousands of customers at a time. Although pricing errors usually involve smaller numbers than contract typos, they can have an outsized impact.
In one high-profile case, Alitalia accidentally listed business-class flights from Toronto to Cyprus at $39 instead of $3,900, losing $7 million before pulling the deal. In a less drastic but still painful example, Macy’s catalog listed a $1,500 necklace as being on sale for $47 instead of $497. The dropped digit reportedly cost the retailer tens of thousands of dollars before it caught the error.
Acknowledging the mistake at the time you correct it can limit the damage from a price typo. Good communication in these cases is critical. When Macy’s cancelled pending orders for the mispriced necklace without explanation, the affected customers were vocally furious. A full explanation—along with an apology and a coupon or discount code—may not salve all wounds, but it will certainly play better than a simple cancellation notice.
Numerical errors aren’t the only costly mistakes. Even something as tiny as a misplaced comma can turn into a huge loss, especially if it’s in a legal document. Examples from across history demonstrate the need to look carefully not only at your own contracts but also at any laws or regulations that govern your business.
An early example of a punctuation disaster occurred in 1872, when the U.S. Tariff Act specified “fruit, plants” as tax-exempt items instead of the intended “fruit-plants.” The comma cost the U.S. government the equivalent of $50 million in taxes.
Fast-forward to 2017, when Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy, facing a lawsuit from its drivers for back overtime pay, lost on appeal because of a punctuation glitch in the state law. A missing comma made it unclear whether the list of overtime exemptions included distribution. The appeals court, citing the errant comma, sided with the drivers. The cost? An estimated $10 million.
Mind your p’s & q’s
Typos that lead to misspelled or misused words are ubiquitous. Fortunately, these mistakes are mostly harmless. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for harm.
In a strong reminder that it’s essential to proofread information about your company in materials produced elsewhere, a California travel agency lost 80% of its business following publication of a Yellow Pages ad offering “erotic” rather than “exotic” destinations. In a further reminder to proof anything your own organization produces, Yellow Pages ended up paying a $10 million settlement to the agency.
Even seemingly innocuous errors can come with a hefty price tag. Both Old Navy and H&M have discovered typos on their graphic T-shirt lines only after the shirts were manufactured and distributed. (A misspelling of “genius” as “genious” was particularly mortifying.)
Depending on your business, a spelling or grammatical error can hurt your credibility as well as your bottom line. While signs touting “10 billion severed” or “presitigious homes” may not cost much beyond a little discomfiture and the price of replacement, an ad for “leteracy instruction” or education software that promises “they won’t even know their learning” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Other errors take a heavy PR toll. In one of many political examples, Mitt Romney’s “Better Amercia” iPhone app brought critics together in a bipartisan show of derision. The University of Texas at Austin similarly went viral in the not-good way when the commencement booklet for its School of Public Affairs left out the “l” in “Public.” (The latter is a surprisingly common error—enough so that you should check this word every time you use it.)
Don’t forget the big picture
In proofing information by or about your organization, it’s important to see the forest as well as the trees. Some of the worst mistakes come from a failure to think carefully about the content or context of the message.
Content mistakes happen when organizations lose track of the purpose of the information they’re trying to convey. A few years ago New York City’s Transportation Authority had to trash 160,000 maps and posters that announced a price hike from $5.00 to $4.50. The numbers were correct, but the point of the message—which was to inform travelers that prices were going up—got lost.
A particularly egregious content mistake came from a January 2017 Washington Post Express cover story devoted to the women’s rights march. The idea was to depict a large group of women forming the female symbol. It looked great, with one problem: the cover actually pictured the male symbol. The Post was quick to apologize and to send out an image of the cover as it should have looked.
Context errors come from not paying attention to the setting of a message. Packaging seems prone to these errors. One company packaged its “My Dog” picture frame with a preprinted photo of a cat. Another sold a toy gun in a bag labeled “Musical Instrument.” (At least “instrument” was spelled correctly.) A party goods company printed “It’s a Boy” on sparkly pink banners, which did start a conversation about gender stereotypes, although probably not intentionally.
Context is particularly important when it comes to ad placement. It’s imperative to check placement with regard to other ads, any surrounding text and images, and the medium and physical position of an ad. A mistake here can torpedo a campaign. For example, twin billboards pairing a Burger King ad with a public health message about heart disease probably didn’t have the desired effect on sales. (For more unfortunate examples, just Google “ad placement fails.”)
It’s not nitpicking, it’s smart business
Why should you care if you’re not running ads or writing contracts worth millions? Even in today’s social-media-driven environment of lax standards, many readers find typos in business communication offensive. Moreover, studies have shown that errors can affect how others view your conscientiousness, intelligence, and trustworthiness.
Care is warranted in all of your communication. A typo in the subject line of a newsletter or email marketing piece can exile your message to spam; customers who do see the message are less likely to open it and more likely to unsubscribe. Spelling or grammar errors on your website will damage both your credibility and your search engine rankings.
Tips for avoiding costly errors
There’s no avoiding the occasional typo. Everyone makes them; even we make them. Fortunately, you can take some easy steps to minimize the occurrence of costly mistakes:
- Proofread everything, from emails to ad copy.
- Look especially closely at dollar figures, dates, and proper names. These are common—and often harmful—sources of error.
- Don’t skip over prominent text. Areas like headlines, links, and phone numbers often suffer from “surely someone else checked that” syndrome.
- Get fresh eyes on content in high-impact areas such as your website, newsletter, signage, ads, and contracts. The more time you’ve spent with something, the less likely you are to catch a mistake. A second reviewer can make all the difference.
- Don’t rely on Spellcheck. Spellcheck might have allowed the Trump administration to avoid the “covfefe” furor, but it wouldn’t have helped with the Twitter post about “lasting peach” in the Middle East.
- Beware of autocorrect. See above: That’s probably where the peach came from.
- Keep the context in mind, including the overall message, its audience, and the surrounding information. This includes placement; don’t be the company that put a “come a little closer” poster on the opposite wall of a subway tunnel.
- If you do make an error, own up and correct it as quickly as possible.