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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

Bad News Can Spur Positive Change

Suppose that complaints have spiked at your company--broken parts, poor service, late technology--and that you decide to survey customers to find out what is happening. Whether you conduct the research internally or engage an outside vendor, what do you do with negative findings? How do you convince colleagues or superiors or customers--if you are a market research firm--to accept negative findings? More importantly, how do you convince them to take constructive actions?

We find that it is important to deliver unfavorable news promptly and backed up with specific information derived from research. When possible, it helps if you can provide recommendations for fixing the problem.

Here are some tips from Isabel Gautschi and Sean Campbell on delivering bad news "while motivating clients to act on research findings."

  • "Be direct." Report what you learned. Perhaps customer service returned calls promptly, but the service reps were surly.
  • "Develop a thick skin." Overcome denial and resistance to the bad news by providing facts and data.
  • "Acknowledge sample bias." People typically write product reviews when they are very satisfied or very dissatisfied. Market studies can have similar biases, the authors say.
  • Focus on the findings, not how you feel about the findings. The customers' or the users' feelings are important, not yours.
  • "Tell [your audience] why the status quo must die. "Someone suspected the company had a problem, commissioned the project, and research confirmed the existence of the problem. Clearly, something must change, or the problem will persist and even grow.

Finally, you must deliver the bad news promptly and in a way that suits your audience. Some will insist on just the facts. Stories and examples are more likely to move other people. When possible, provide solutions or recommendations, as well. The reason for the project was to confirm the existence of a problem and then to solve the problem. If rude reps caused the problem, you should suggest that the company re-train the reps or replace them. But be sure to report good news as well, such as "easy to use" or "good product documentation."


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