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When things go wrong: communicate!

The quality incidents of Toyota, the service interruptions of RIM and the theft of personal date from Sony’s PlayStation network. You probably agree in these cases that informing customers early and with sufficient details is crucial in limiting consequential damages or losses due to lost customer confidence. Incidents however, happen all the time and no company is without them. What makes a difference in is how and how quickly one acts.

This article in not about what companies can do, but about what you can do, when issues happen.

After many months of hard work, you and your team finally closed the deal. Everyone is still in the celebration mood when disaster strikes. It could be a delay in an agreed deadline. A commitment that cannot be kept, regarding the delivery of a project, product or service. It could be a quality issue, a bug in the software or a nonperformance to specification of the product. Many things can go wrong and as Murphy said, it will.

Most sales, marketing or in general anyone that works with customers, do not like to be the messenger of bad news. It is uncomfortable, unpleasant and it drains time and resources away from new opportunities. Admit it; you like to procrastinate or hide, don’t you?

Why early communication is necessary

Not informing them early on can, and you have to assume will, backfire. This may not only put your current opportunity at risk, but also any future opportunity, revenue or profit. Let alone, undermine your company’s brand name and your personal credibility and reputation. What happened to the trusted adviser role you have played so diligently?

Moreover, as much as business is about taking risks, it is also about avoiding risks. Many functions in an organization are there to avoid risks. Some of them are the likely your main key contacts like the purchasing manager, the quality engineer, the project leader etcetera. Starting an early communication on possible issues is a challenge, but it leaves you in control of keeping the damage – in whatever form you can measure it – to a minimum.

What to do

If confronted with an issue that affects your customer:
  1. Stay professional. Do not get upset or hide. Remember, competitors have similar issues. Here is a chance for you to show you are better
  2. Seek the dialogue and communicate as early as possible. The preferred sequence is face-to-face, telephone and then mail. If it is a difficult topic or language issue, you may want to send a mail first followed immediately with a face-to-face or conference call appointment.
  3. Pro-actively work on solutions. Both internally as with your customer. It is in the customer interest to help you and most of them will. If possible and needed, provide alternative products, services, added features or functions etcetera. Give something in return.

How to communicate

Before communicating anything, prepare yourself and get sufficient information on what the actual problem is and how that will affect the customer. Take time to create a clear message based on key points of the issue. Whatever the case, do not:

  • Cook up stories or explanations. It will further undermine customer confidence if found to be incorrect. Be frank and tell them what you will do to get the information.
  • Blame others in the company. Customers are not interested in who is at fault. Blaming reflects badly on your company and yourself.
  • Hang out the dirty laundry. It may be tempting, but there is no need to talk about all the other things that go wrong or how the company is (mis) managed or why you can not do your job.
  • Overcommit. Customers will pressure you to get a solution in the shortest possible time. It is better not to worsen the situation by giving another promise that can’t be met.
 Your communication should contain:

  • Clearly explain the problem. If possible tell the customer the cause. Stick to facts and make it clear if you are not sure about certain things.
  • How it affects the customer. The more details you can provide the better.
  • What are you and your company doing to resolve it. It is best to give timelines here. Initially you may not have this information so in that case you provide the time and date, you will come back.
  • Offer solutions. If you can immediately offer an alternative, great. In most cases though you will need to work closely with the customer, before you can offer a solution or alternative.

Final words

If your company is perfect and does not have any issues with its products or services, then the above is not for you. For the other 99% confronted with occasional customer problem, to act and to communicate early is always the best strategy. Every company has issues. It is what you and your company do with it, which sets you positively apart from competition.

(c) 2011 - EnFeat Singapore