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How to give bad news to customers

Os vários estados da empatia

As a trained anthropologist and dreamer in principle, I have always believed that we should be as transparent as possible in how we conduct our lives and our work.

Over the course of my professional career, like everyone I know, I have come across questions that have oftentimes left me uneasy, namely the camouflage of what I was finding in the research I was doing.

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Join us or jump off

This seems to be the motto of typical consulting firms, and less experienced professionals end up admitting that the results of research may be disingenuous or undervalued, in order to succeed in a job market that still sees anthropologists as those who walk around the middle of the jungle talking to natives.

For this reason, the feeling of discomfort in not being able to convey the message, of not having the “power” to tell the customer exactly what has been observed, is something highly present in the memory of those who still have not grasped the rules of the game.

As such, we end up with the following question: is work done to the benefit of consumers/users, however painful it might be, or does it serve simply for consulting firms to get pats on the back from their customers?

Putting things into perspective

Looking back today, I think about how naïve I was, and I also think about how unprepared we are to enter the job market when we leave school. It is always good to question what makes us uncomfortable, showing that we have not lost our essence. However, an inexperienced professional can get into wars because of their innocence.

With experience comes a better understanding of the business world and of companies, and we see that, in fact, anything can be said from the time that there is respect, both on the part of consulting firms and the customers who hire them.

Furthermore, starting at the time that we begin to pre-map the problems we may have with a given project, everything becomes easier and, in just a few months, it all comes naturally.

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It all begins with the research plan

When a customer awards a project, in most cases, they receive a proposal with a brief presentation from the consulting firm (in the case of a new customer), the goals of the project (adequacy of our interpretation of the challenge shared in the debriefing meeting), the methodology, outputs, team and finally the quote.

In other words, there is never any mapping of what is expected from the customer, nor their engagement over the course of the project. In summary, the people who truly know the company/brand and the product/service are not involved in certain phases of the project.

This exclusion creates a point of tension with the customer whenever it is necessary to give “bad news”. In most cases, the customer feels excluded, and interprets this sharing as an attack on the work that has been done in recent months, or even years.

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Involving customers

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Why do most consulting firms fail to do this more frequently?

Why does someone have to be the know-it-all, and think that only specialists know how to interpret information gathered in the field?

The first step is to grasp that these people, more than anyone, are familiar with their company/service/product, and we have everything to gain if we use their information to the benefit of the project. We must allow them to participate at various times, and let them see with their own eyes the difficulties faced by their consumers/users.

In all phases of research, whether interviews, times of observation or tests with users, we must request that someone participate, at least once, on the part of the customer.

Of course, we must clearly explain what is expected, since we want to avoid any information bias. For this reason, we must also know how to choose the right people for this involvement. As such, it is essential to have a good communication policy between the consulting firm and the customer, since our goal is to not alarm them when we have yet to consolidate all of the information being gathered.

This has been my motto these days, i.e. bad news has never been a surprise, since it is usually not necessary to talk about it, because the customer has seen the problem and has participated in solving it.

After mapping the “bad news” and offering solutions, it is recommended to follow up on any progress made in solving the problems found. It is important for the customer to understand that, after recommendations have been given, we are there to get feedback on how the solution is working.

https://www.businessmodelsinc.com/best-practices-for-design-thinking-with-remote-teams/

Customers are human too

Another point I believe is important is that we can never forget that we are talking with people. People who, like me, report to someone; people who, like me, have a family, and that managing these two worlds is not always easy on certain days.

Above all, we must see the customer as someone who needs our help and our work, which is also understanding how we can materialise this. Everyone talks about empathy these days, but in the business world, this seems to be an exercise that gets left behind, and people forget that it can be a differentiating factor among the majority of consulting firms on the market.

As such, the customer needs to understand the impact of the suggestions/recommendations we make, such as how many customers they will bring and how much money this represents, whether in savings or revenues, since someone will certainly be asking for this information.

The information may not always be encouraging, but at least the customer can explain, to whom it may concern, what is happening and what to do to remedy the situation.

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In closing…

This is not an article with right or wrong rules, but instead a sharing of experience on how to address this issue. Is the method perfect? No, it is not, but at least it helps us to structure the next attempts. The most incredible thing is that all of this seems so obvious.

Since this is not a new issue, it is remarkable how many consulting firms do not promote this customer engagement, which is always justified by a lack of time or that they will “get in the way of our work”.

Above all, it is important for the customer to be aware that we need them for the project to be successful, and to this end, we do not need to extend its duration… we only need to be available. The next step comes from the awareness of the customer.

Although the focus of this article is on the customer, we must never forget that our commitment is also to users/consumers, since we want them to be satisfied when using a product or service. Therefore, the importance of telling the truth cannot be stressed enough.

International UX-PM Certification addresses various topics involving UX, including the incentive to involve customers in the research process, an extremely important phase when talking about the User Experience.