Communicate Early and Often

©2002 Naomi Karten,

Have you ever had an experience where you gave your all for your customers and still they were unhappy? One possible reason for their reaction is that you implemented a major change without preparing them for it. In the absence of information about what they can reasonably expect, customers form their own conclusions about your motives.

In two organizations I visited, I came across situations which aptly illustrate how the failure to communicate with customers can have serious repercussions for the reputation and credibility of the provider. Unfortunately, these situations are far from unique.

Situation 1: Doing to customers, rather than with them

This first organization embarked on a technological upgrade that entailed replacing a significant amount of the desktop hardware and software that employees (internal customers) had grown accustomed to. Not a trivial transition, to say the least.

For many people, mandated change from the familiar to the unfamiliar is unsettling, even when the change will ultimately yield many benefits. Given the magnitude of the upgrade, information for customers about the upgrade and how it would take place would have been wise.

Unfortunately, however, customers received no explanation from upper management to prepare them for the upgrade. As a result, they had no basis for understanding its purpose, scope, or business benefits. To make matters worse, they lacked an appreciation of the steps they could take to contribute to its success, which only made the job harder for the technical staff. In short, those most affected were unprepared for the change.

Is it any wonder that customers reacted with intense negativity when technical staff arrived to “tamper” with their computers? And since many customers experienced an unanticipated period of degraded system performance, they saw the upgrade as a colossal disruption. Their widespread reaction was, “Why are you pushing this down our throats?”

Customers often complain that they don’t understand the reasoning behind the policies and standards imposed on them. After all, no one has communicated with them, prepared them, or involved them in the effort. As a result, they perceive the efforts “on their behalf” as arbitrary, thoughtless, and in some cases, even malicious.

Under such circumstances, customers understandably lose trust in their service providers, and providers face an overwhelming challenge and invariably, much more time that they anticipate to build back that trust.

Situation 2: Keeping customers in the dark

A Network Support Group concluded that the network in a particular customer area faced looming problems and needed to be taken offline for maintenance. The technical Wizard-In-Charge scheduled this maintenance during work hours. A thoughtless decision? It sounds like it, but his decision was based on sound financial thinking: Network maintenance was handled by an outside firm which charged A Big Chunk of Money for daytime work, and A Big Chunk and a Half for after-hours work.

So sure was the Wizard that the more cost-effective daytime maintenance was the right thing to do that he didn’t think to tell his customers the reason for his decision. Neither did he ask for their input. In his view, they were just a bunch of complainers, always grousing about one thing or another. Besides, this was a technology matter, and what did customers know about that? As a result, his customers were kept in the dark and so, during peak hours, was their network. All his customers knew was that the network was done and they couldn’t do their work.

Penny-wise and pounds of foolish

When efforts are undertaken on behalf of customers without keeping them in the loop, the affected customers often see the effort as yet another hare-brained scheme by those #$%!@& people who want to sabotage their productivity and complicate their already complex lives. The offending party, meanwhile, doesn’t understand the customers’ negativity. The sad part is that customers can sometimes offer options that provider staff might never have thought of.

And so it was in this network situation. The customer manager contacted the Wizard to ask why the network was done. The manager’s confrontational attitude puzzled the network maven, but he was certain that his explanation about the Big Chunk and a Half would impress the manager. Instead, the manager became even more upset, and said: “If I had known that was the situation, I would have gladly offered to pay the difference between the daytime and after-hours rate so that we could have kept the network in operation during the day.”

How often do you make decisions that affect your customers without considering their perspective, communicating your plans, explaining your rationale, and inviting their input? What changes do you need to make so that your answer to this question is “Never”?

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