How to get ahead in communicating bad news

By Dominic Ellis
Sam Wallace, Utilities and Telco Manager at Quadient, outlines some positive ways to deal with bad news

As the world slowly but surely begins to open up, we’re taking stock of societal changes caused by the pandemic. However, one thing will remain constant – at some point, all utility companies will need to break bad news to their customers.

Whether due to their own decisions – or because of circumstances outside their control – price rises, discontinued services, service outages, and leaks are inevitable. Look no further than the recent fuel price crisis as a case in point. If communicated in the wrong way, these issues will result in ruined reputations and lost customers, leaving us to ponder the question: what does good communication of a bad circumstance look like? 

It’s up to you how the news gets out

As with any other form of communication, the recipient – in this case the customer – needs to be front of mind. Taking a customer-centric approach will help utility suppliers understand their customers better and reach them with the right message, over the right channel, at the right time.

For instance, customers don’t like to be taken by surprise with bad news – they want to hear it from a company’s own mouth, not the media. The more proactive a business can be, the better. Advance warning gives suppliers the opportunity to frame the conversation in their own terms, with less chance of customers being caught off guard. However, for this to succeed, understanding customer preferences is vital; a timely message is no use if it’s over a channel the customer never reads. Resources such as customer records, and a clear understanding of media use and attitudes, can help utility providers develop a clear strategy to increase customer trust and avoid negative publicity. 

A key component when building a communication plan is adaptability. For instance, with pandemic restrictions loosening both in the UK and abroad, more families are booking extended holidays for the first time in months. However, this runs the risk of them being away when their utility provider tries to share crucial news. If customers miss a letter informing them of pricing hikes, for instance, and only hear the news through friends, family or the media, they will be much less likely to stay with their provider. But if the supplier still has a way to keep them informed over other channels, such as social media or email, unpleasant customer surprises are avoided.

Presenting bad news, the right way

When you know you can reach customers at the right time and over the right channel, the next step is to ensure you’re delivering the right message. There might be no way to disguise bad news itself, but it’s certainly possible to sweeten the pill – which is increasingly necessary as customers have more options than ever to switch providers.

For instance, price rises or other changes in service shouldn’t simply be presented with an apology. Customers should be given options and decisions, to help make them feel like they still have control.  Guides on how to reduce energy use, or how to switch to a more suitable tariff, will go a long way to taking the sting out of price increases. Similarly, offering alternative payment plans or even “breathing space” to adapt to new tariffs will make the customer feel that they aren’t simply a profit centre.

While it’s harder to develop a full communication strategy for unplanned events, such as service outages, the same principle applies – more information is better for the consumer. Progress updates on when services are likely to resume are always welcome. However, service providers should also consider supplemental information; for instance, public buildings nearby that might still have services during an emergency.

Guiding customers in the right direction

When you have engaged your customers, the final hurdle is making sure they can complete their enquiries. For instance, if a customer is being offered new tariffs, or further information on a leak, they need to be able to find the right information with ease. Utilities companies must guide their customers to the right destinations, making sure that their entire customer journey – from initial contact to a hopefully satisfactory resolution – is as comfortable and stress-free as possible.

This isn’t something that can happen in the heat of the moment. Instead, companies need to fully map out potential issues at all times, identifying sticking points and modifying communications to remove bottlenecks or dead-ends. Waiting until customers are dealing with bad news to try and improve the customer experience is a sure-fire recipe for disgruntled service users and lost business.

The issues may be unavoidable, but the consequences aren’t

Ultimately, customers will be more willing to bear bad news if they’re contacted at the right time and over the right channel. A message that lays out next steps and potential solutions, which customers can then follow up with clear, simple action is also essential. In a post-pandemic world, customers expect a certain level of trust. Utility companies that can keep this trust, even if they are letting customers down, will find it much easier to keep customer loyalty.

Sam Wallace is Utilities and Telco Manager at Quadient


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