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SWOT Team: Damage Control During Difficult Times

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Managing customer relationships can be a challenge even in the best of times, but what about when a business is struggling financially? As humans in crisis, our tendency may be to avoid the situation, be less than direct with customers, or try to smooth things over until a solution has been reached.

These tactics can do more damage than good, making an already-difficult situation worse. SWOT Team, this issue's dilemma is the use of PR for damage control. Can PR pave the way to recovery for a company coming out of financial difficulty?

If you've encountered tough financial times (as many businesses have), let us know how your company dealt with the situation. Or perhaps you've been a customer of a company facing financial challenges. Share with us the benefit of your hard-learned lessons. Sensitivity, integrity and damage control in the face of financial difficulty are things we should all carry in our repertoire.

Revisiting our previous dilemma—maintaining loyalty through a transition—read below your peers' best advice.

If you've been fortunate enough to escape the financial pitfalls of business, let us know what keeps you up at night. What dilemma do you take with you when you leave the office? Your peers would love to help. Write to us and ask our SWOT Team about your dilemma. Tapping into the collective strength, wisdom and experience of this group works. You could win a free copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.


SWOT Team, unite and make a difference!

• Give advice about this issue's dilemma.

• Read your peers' responses to the previous dilemma (below).

• Submit your own dilemma.

This Issue's Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

How can we use PR to correct bad management decisions and inferior customer service during financial difficulty?

This past year, a young retail store (three years old) that I work for was facing some real financial difficulty. As a result, along with poor management of how the situation was handled, customer service was severely jeopardized (customers felt like they were getting the runaround about their orders). The damage has been done and bad publicity spreads faster than good publicity.

How do we fix this dilemma? Can your readers help?

—Anonymous, General Manager

Previous Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

How do you maximize loyalty during a transition?

Here's my dilemma: My nonprofit organization will be expanding its building. The new space will be great, but during several months of construction some programs, such as day care, will need to move off site, and other programs will be disrupted or put on hold.

We plan meetings with current clients/patrons to let them know what's coming, how we will accommodate them during the building project and to get them excited about the prospect of new facilities.

Beyond good communication, what else might we do to preserve loyalty during the transition, so that our patron base and revenue stream remain in place?

—Anonymous

Summary of Advice Received

To anonymous… your peers came through for you, offering their best advice to your marketing dilemma. They agree that you are off to a good start with your plans to meet with your clients. Your obvious commitment and concern for the wellbeing of your clients and their children, balanced with the opportunities for growth and expansion offered by the new facilities, will provide a strong foundation for continued loyalty throughout the transition period.

During this transition, your peers believe that the importance of good communication cannot be underestimated. They encourage you to extend communication beyond the initial discussions throughout the entire project, particularly if things do not go according to the original plan (as they often don't).

The SWOT Team recommends that you take these actions:

1. Form a transition committee.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

3. Prepare for unexpected delays and unforeseen events.

1. Form a transition committee

Creating a transition committee made up of members of your internal staff as well as your clients' can help to bridge any communication gap and ensure the flow of information during the transition.

Beth Bressman, Membership Chair of Temple Emanu-El, suggests that achieving buy-in and ownership from those affected is the first step:

We just went through this, and truthfully communication was the key—regular letters and emails outlining the progress and sometimes the lack thereof!

The other key was making as many people part of the process as possible, forming a transition committee, so people not only bought in, but were able to claim part ownership as well.

Robin Helfers of Norton Healthcare offers further tactical advice on the implementation of a communications plan and transition team framework to help ease the process:

Develop internal and external communications plans to inform employees and customers about the need for the change, the benefits they will enjoy once the change occurs, and some of the inconveniences that may be experienced. Make alternative arrangements to provide disrupted services wherever possible. Provide a number and person customers can call if they have problems. Empower that person to solve any customer problems that arise directly.

Provide incentives for teamwork in making the change happen. Hold department heads accountable for being positive role models, communicating the need for the change, keeping their employees apprised, and solving problems as things evolve. Build a team to address and resolve issues. Communicate and celebrate solutions! Recognize and reward good customer service.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Be prepared to communicate early, communicate often and respond promptly to communications or concerns you receive from parents/clients.

Barrington Treymaine, Marketing Manager of Chiltern Mills, adds that communication is the key ingredient to maintaining trust and loyalty; added sensitivity is especially required when dealing with situations where children are involved:

Customer Loyalty is like loyalty between any group—it is reliant on trust. It is important to communicate well and early any changes that you will be making to your service to your customers in time for them to give you feedback as to the best way to handle the situation—you may even find that your customers come up with the best solutions for you.

To maintain the trust of your customers, simply make sure that once you have decided the best course of action during the construction work that you stick to that course. Otherwise, you may create confusion and distrust. There is nothing more annoying than being told a time or a place to drop off your child for daycare, only to find this has changed at the last moment. With the promise of improved facilities, a well organized construction period will even increase the loyalty of your customers as they see the ability you have to handle change.

Meryl K Evans of InternetVIZ adds to this the importance of keeping the channels of communication open. She recalls a transition experience where communication was not handled as well as customers would have liked:

A company I work with just redesigned its Web site and newsletters and made a HUGE mistake of not notifying our readers beforehand. But this wasn't on purpose. Because of the unforeseen problems we experienced, we ended up not delivering an issue for over two weeks and shocking people with a new design. Boy, did we ever hear it from them! Let's just say the email box was not a happy camper.

You're off to a good start in planning meetings with clients and patrons to let them know what is coming. When holding these meetings, explain the reason for change and how it will benefit them. Many readers still don't understand the reason for the change and keep urging us to go back to the old, outdated style. Yes, the old style did us a lot of good, but we had to change for the sake of making our site easier to navigate. In a nutshell, this is what I learned:

• Communicate before the change.

• Explain the reason for the change.

• Keep communication channels open.

• Listen to feedback and respond to this feedback.

3. Prepare for unexpected delays and unforeseen events

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."

—John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy," Double Fantasy album

Taking on a project of this size usually means that despite best efforts plans will change, and adjustments will have to be made. The reality is that some aspects of any transition are always beyond your control. Better to be upfront about the possibility (likelihood) of adjustments and let your parents/clients know what to expect in the event of such a change.

G. Yagiz makes this point by emphasizing that what you communicate is critical, particularly in the case of any unforeseen events:

Good communication is important; however, what you are communicating is the most critical. While it is good to communicate what is coming and how you plan to sort out the transition, you should also give your commitment to the customers that in case of any undesirable events, you are ready to compensate by offering x,y,z—although you are doing your best to keep everything in line.

Your loyal clients will most probably appreciate the difficulties you face during transition. However, they won't forgive you when they are actually the ones badly affected. They need to be offered something real in addition to the professionalism you demonstrate regarding your communications. This will also show that you really care about them and are doing your best to keep them satisfied. The implications of the compensations you offer on your revenue stream should be negligible in the long run, when compared with the gains on the client side.

Way to Communicate, SWOT Team—Thanks Again!

We did our best to provide a thorough overview of your responses to this timely topic. All of the advice we received was insightful. Thanks for your participation. We appreciate it!


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Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.

Yvonne is a “customer engagement coach” and President of EVE Consulting, helping companies achieve sustainable market leadership through the power of customer engagement.

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