I was meeting with a client and had a familiar conversation: Our organization is going through major changes, so we hunkered down to execute, and now that we’re done, we need to start to control communication flow.
I work exclusively with second stage companies, and the very nature of these companies is that they’re in operational upheaval. They are trying to do big things with limited resources. Many of them are making a major business pivot in operations, market, product, or sales channels, and are doing so with legacy systems and structures. As almost all my clients say: I’m trying to build the car while I’m driving it.
Usually by the time they are talking to me, it’s a little late, but if I could give the leadership team of second stage companies some advice, it would be: Create a communication strategy at the same time you create your change strategy.
Everyone asks: How are we going to do this?
Few ask: How and when are we going to explain this to people?
Unfortunately, poor communication can kill a change strategy. This includes both talking to both your employees and your customers/suppliers/industry, and doing both consistently and often.
I recently worked with a company going through the high-risk process of merging two brands, both with decades of equity built up and very loyal client bases. The fear was pervasive. How can we possibly navigate this merger without some significant customer backlash?
We started the process the way we always do: with intense listening to employees and customers. When we did, we didn’t hear a reason to be fearful. We heard an opportunity: customers who believed in the two brands, and wanted to make sure that the brands valued them as customers. Would they be forgotten? Dismissed as small fish in a bigger pond?
If the company stopped communicating with these customers during the merger, they would certainly create that very narrative in their customers’ minds. Instead, we immediately put into place an aggressive, multichannel communication strategy and established opportunities for customers to ask questions and express their own fears of potential loss so that they could be addressed directly.
The result? I got a note of thanks after the merger that referred to the final official notification as a “nonevent” for their customers. “They were completely supportive.”
This was an inflection point that could have gone in a totally different direction. Instead, we applied a simple but highly effective recipe: Be consistent, be transparent, be aggressive.
In the absence of a credible story, people will make up their own. So don’t let there be a time when there isn’t a story offered.
Five tips for communicating a change initiative:
- Start the internal conversations early, at every level of the company.
- Let employees know how they should answer tough questions from customers/suppliers/partners. (Over-prepare them. Their fear is always way worse than the reality, but you want them to feel like you have their back.)
- Talk to customers as early as possible, and do it in multiple ways (in person, in a letter, in an email, on the phone, in a postcard, on social media).
- Give people a chance to talk back and ask questions. Listen to them and respond as a fellow human, not a corporation.
- Be consistent, internally and externally. The level of detail and focus should be different, but the message should be the same.
Make sure that you have clear steps, roles, and accountability for each of the areas above. If you can make a communication plan and stick to it, you can avoid spending a lot of money, time, and effort trying to salvage relationships and reputation.
Your brand and your story are a company asset. Protect them.