Delivering Bad News – Rubbing Salt into the Wound

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017 by Simon Morton

I’m one of those hapless souls who got caught up in the whole VW diesel emissions scandal. I won’t bore you with the details but outside of the inevitable sense that you’d been duped and the inconvenience, it’s not been a great customer experience.

Throughout the process, Audi (part of the VW group) have attempted to communicate with their customers through a series of letters. This sensible approach allows them to apologise for inconveniences, assure drivers that their vehicles are legal and safe and generally atone for past sins. The problem is that, in my view, the communication, has spectacularly failed.

Each letter has become increasingly verbose.

Each letter has got more technical.

Each letter has sounded like it was written by backside-covering lawyers.

And each letter has helped kill off, bit by bit, any spare goodwill I had for the brand…

As business communicators, we need to realise the impact of every touch point we have with our customers. I have no doubt that Audi had the right intentions with every letter sent but they fell into the trap of letting the corporate speak/legalese/backside-covering get in the way. The net result is that they’ve taken a bad situation and made it worse in the eyes of the most important people in this whole saga; their customers.

The same rules apply for presentations when communicating bad news. It’s very tempting to go into battle armed with technical data, analysis and forensically detailed reports detailing why the bad stuff happened but the reality is that your first consideration must be your audience. How are they feeling? What information do they need from you to help them move on? What do they want to hear from you?

I’m reminded of a time we were asked to help a management team communicate a series of redundancies to their workforce. This is a horrible but important type of project – no-one wants to be involved but everyone recognises how vital it is to get it absolutely right.

As is so often the case, it all starts with the audience. At this visceral stage of proceedings, they frankly don’t give a damn about the market changes that led to this tough decision. They also don’t much care about how management is feeling about it.

What they do care about is what it means to them and their families. They care about what the company can do to support them through the process. As such, the first thing we did was clear their presentation of all the backside-covering content and focussed on the message…

We want to help make this as painless for you as possible.

The reality is that delivering bad news is never fun. Your audience will be emotional so it is vital that you recognise and embrace this and craft your message accordingly. Attempting to counter this emotion with a carefully crafted factual argument will, at best, fall on deaf ears, and can often inflame an already sensitive situation (ref. Audience Heatmapping).

But while delivering bad news is never fun, it does provide the opportunity to be open with your audience, demonstrate empathy and ultimately form a foundation for more productive engagements going forward.

Just ask the management team we helped – when business picked up, they were able to re-employ many of those they were forced to make redundant. There were no hard feelings or repercussions, in part, because of the respectful way they handled the bad news.

That’s good business, no matter which side of the ‘fence’ you sit on.

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