business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

The sad truth is that not everything in business is wonderful and not every day is a sunny day. Frequently there are all manner of problems and many are beyond any one company’s control.

The corollary to that sad truth is for the most part shoppers don’t really care about your problems because they have enough of their own. Yes, you may be out of a specific item because of a food safety issue or a water shortage at a farm thousands of miles away and far out of your control, but the only place they can assign blame is at the very display that is suddenly empty. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is.

Recently I got an unusual note from the medical practice my wife and I have been using for more than 20 years. The note - actually, an e-mail - informed us that the practice would start routinely charging patients $50 to deal with assorted costs. It was direct, nicely worded and completely impossible to understand.

It was hardly surprising when just a few days later we received another e-mail announcing that the previous policy was being rethought thanks to significant blowback from patients. The second e-mail would have gone better by simply referencing an old “Saturday Night Live” routine and just saying, “never mind.”

But here’s the thing. I know we live in the real world and I know that the medical practice would have gotten complaints and bad feedback over this policy no matter how they worded the first e-mail. However, I have to believe things would have gone a whole lot better had they actually tried to explain the new charge.

They could have easily blamed the incredible paperwork involved in medical insurance, the rising costs of labor, rent or especially malpractice insurance or even the cost of bringing state of the art equipment into the practice. In nearly all of those cases I would have been irritated by the new charge, but I would have understood why it was being levied and I might have even supported it.

But instead they said almost nothing and the negative reaction was loud and quite well deserved.

I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us. We live in a world of non-stop communication both true and phony, which means that more than ever we need to make sure we advance our own messages and do so with credibility and clarity. It isn’t always easy and some messages - whether on price increases or product availability - won’t always be welcome. But anything beats silence and the confusion that silence leaves.

For example, I have been in many stores that have taken interesting environmental steps such as using freezer and refrigerator cases that go dark when no shoppers are nearby. It’s interesting that some stores post signs on the cases explaining how the cases work and why they are important. It’s a small bit of communication that may turn a shopper into a supporter.

Increasingly we see shopper concerns about plastics and it is interesting to see restaurants posting signs that they no longer give straws or lids unless asked and they explain the reason. Yet again, communication makes the point.

Lastly, as a shopper and fan of Wegmans I am always impressed at the signage in my store and how it explains the absence or poor quality of a product, connecting folks in my suburban area back to the real life issues on the farm. It probably doesn’t change our behavior at all, but it gives us an explanation and frequently turns disappointment over the lack of a product into understanding.

Again, the reality is that there is always bad news and always some problem that might result in a disappointed shopper. So let’s talk to them and explain it rather than suffer, as the classic movie Cool Hand Luke reminds us, “a failure to communicate.”

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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