How to adopt a value-led approach to handling a brand crisis

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Part two of a new series from Smith+Co exploring business value, communication and empathy. For part one, click here

As a Communications and PR Consultant in B2C and B2C markets, I have always been conscious of what can happen when a poor customer experience is the precursor to poor communications. It happens across the board - from the giant brands to the SMEs. Whether it's a technology failure or a human error, most customers have experienced unsatisfactory communications from brands that they've parted cash with and subsequently been let down by.

Airlines, car manufacturers, train operators, insurance companies, internet providers, online retailers, delivery companies... they all fail occasionally. And the typical responses to said failures are often robotic, in some cases entirely silent, or worst of all, destructive to the brand. Their communications strategy manages to dig an even deeper hole for the business.

Last month, I was flying back from the Netherlands to the UK to make a meeting. I'd allowed myself a couple of hours of potential delay time, naïvely hoping that a flight that takes around 50 minutes shouldn't have too large a margin for error. But as we sat on a motionless plane in Amsterdam, we were all none the wiser why absolutely nothing was happening. After half an hour, customers began to sound their complaints to the cabin crew.

One older gentleman summed up the atmosphere wonderfully: "If they just tell us what is happening, I don't think we'd care about why it's happening." In a second, this flat-cap wearing Yorkshire pensioner had nailed one of the biggest challenges facing companies when they fail to deliver; they compound the error by failing to communicate effectively.

The truth is that customers expect and even accept that things can sometimes go wrong. However, it is how and what a brand communicates to their customers during this time that lives long in their memory.

Navigating the chaos

In my previous personal example of being stuck on a static plane, we were finally told that a 'typo on the passenger log had caused the delay', a delay which ultimately stretched to almost two hours. I missed my meeting. The airline barely apologised for the typo, which was never fully explained to the passengers.

Ideally, using their brand values as their guide, they could have delivered communications that not only calmed our frustrations, but possibly increased advocacy as well. Customers are used to things going wrong, what they are surprised by is when the situation is handled brilliantly.

For this to happen, communications strategies have to be reimagined with different goals in place. The current status quo too often sees brands stay very 'hush hush' about what's happening during a product or PR problem. News broadcasters regularly refer to brands 'refusing to comment', and when they do comment, it's usually a three-line statement that says absolutely nothing.

The reason is that they are more concerned with limiting liability than communicating with customers. There is so much more room for value-led communications that not only explains problems well, but also keeps core customers on board in the process.

Values in action...

Way back in 1982 Johnson & Johnson set an example of a value-led approach to handling a crisis that became a textbook case of how to do this brilliantly.

Seven of its customers had been randomly murdered by poison being injected into bottles of its painkiller Tylenol, while still on the shelves of supermarkets. Following this, a ransom note was sent to the company explaining that the poison was also in a number of other bottles, which would only be identified after a multi-million dollar payment.

Johnson & Johnson recalled 31million bottle of its most profitable drug and explained why this was being done and how they proposed to protect the safety of consumers.

While the crisis was still a secret, the board struggled to come up with a response until one of their members pointed to the founding values of the company; a hierarchy of interests, with the safety of customers at the top. This clarity of values and purpose made their response very obvious.

Johnson & Johnson recalled 31million bottle of its most profitable drug representing 17% of its profits from every outlet and explained why this was being done and how they proposed to protect the safety of consumers.

Its reputation stayed intact and was in fact enhanced as their market share grew due to the packaging being modified to fit a tamper-proof top that dramatised their brand values even more. A year later, its share of the $1.2 billion analgesic market, which had plunged to 7% from 37% following the poisoning, had climbed back to 30%.

Here are some lessons I've learnt (some the hard way)...

1. Don't say sorry without explaining why you're sorry

Let's go back to my delayed flight experience caused by the ominous 'typo'. Here's how the conversation played out between the cockpit and my brain: "Once again, we are sorry for your delay".

"Really? Well that's a relief you're not a bloody sociopath that finds pleasure from people's misfortune. Why are you sorry? What has caused this delay? Is it a regular problem and can we expect it to pass quickly? Do you know what is happening or are you basically a pre-recorded message that gets rolled out regardless of the problem? What are you doing about it? Saying sorry is worthless unless you explain why you're sorry, and demonstrate real empathy and desire to make it right. We teach this stuff to kids. And if a six-year-old gets it, then you have no excuse."

After my Celtic fury subsided, I saw with clarity why so many of us were getting agitated as the minutes skipped by. Unless you want to increase anger and frustration amongst your customers, don't keep repeating empty robotic statements.

2. Never get high and mighty

If customers are becoming agitated, it's often for a reason. Don’t attempt to shame them just because their anger is an annoyance for you, telling an irate customer to ‘calm down’ is like trying to extinguish a fire with a firework.

Your job is to walk in their shoes, understand them, help them with the consequences of your error and reassure them. But most of all, to keep the conversation going. For that to happen you have to listen to them.

If you cannot give customers the 'why' details of the problem, make sure you communicate the 'what' details. What is happening, what is your response, and what should they expect to happen next.

3. The mushroom treatment no longer works

The advertising revolution of last century gave some brands almost a god-like platform to decide what and when to communicate to their customers, regardless of what was happening on the ground. As market competition expanded and digital media smashed up the storytelling limitations, customers are now expecting more honesty and transparency from brands.

The mushroom treatment, which some leaders still cling to, is where customers are kept in the dark and fed bullshit. This is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, as Toyota discovered to its cost some years ago when it kept denying that there was a problem with accelerator pedals sticking on some of its models leading to a number of alleged fatalities.

Engaging with a 'human' is ironically becoming more important to customers as brands flood markets with digital solutions.

Marketing Magazine called into the Toyota Customer Service Centre purporting to be a worried customer to test their response. They reported their experience awarding a rating of two out of ten for Toyota’s handling of their question.

Engaging with a 'human' is ironically becoming more important to customers as brands flood markets with digital solutions. Research shows that even the younger generations like ‘Millennials’ who prefer to self-help and engage with chatbots rather than people, prefer to deal with a real person if they need help with anything more complex than a straight transaction.

With technological domination comes a growing want for customers to know there's a human nearby when things go wrong. It is, after all, hard to believe the sincerity of a robot. PR and pre-recorded messages need to be reimagined to deliver a vulnerable and honest response to customer experience problems.

4. Use brand values to influence your communications strategy

Team leaders should be fluent in a value-led communications strategy, and trusted to cascade these principles to their staff. Annually review your crisis/problem communications responses with appropriate team leaders to reimagine the sort of communications that could increase advocacy amidst customer frustrations.

It is easy to brush off a brand failure with jellyfish rhetoric; spineless and slippery. However, this can only ever be a quick win, if it can be called a win. To win the long game, each technical hitch or human error should be seen as an ideal opportunity to deliver a hallmark customer moment with empathy-rich communications that increase trust.

Have you ever been to a restaurant for a meal for that ‘special occasion’; your anniversary, first date or dinner with the boss perhaps? And when the food comes, your guest’s meal is the wrong order, or the food is cold? You complain; the waiter apologises sincerely, (if you are lucky) and whisks the offending plate away.

Some while later it is returned with the problem corrected. So the problem is solved – but is it? They may have fixed the problem but they haven’t fixed the experience, because in that time you have been staring at your own food not knowing whether to start or wait. So your special occasion has been spoiled by a tension created by the brand.

Now if the waiter is smart he will turn that situation around by apologising for the mistake and offering a complimentary dessert as recompense. This decision would most likely see you and your partner talking more about the crème brûlée rather than the incorrect entrée. This result requires people who are empowered to go beyond scripted communication and actually engage with customers in an authentic and empathetic way. The golden rule is ‘fix the experience not just the error’.

In short, when the chips are down, keep it real, not robotic.

 

About Alex Willmott

Alex Willmott

B2B and B2C Communications Consultant specialising in communications strategy, social media alignment, PR and internal communications. Massive fan of disruptor communications and story-led marketing. 

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