Case study: Communicating through a sensitive topic

In business, it’s easy to communicate the fun stuff. “Great news! We’ve increased the your bandwidth!” or “Great news, that airplane seat actually costs less!”

But there are times when you need to deliver bad news to a client… and that’s when clients call me.

In the recent past, I’ve had 3 separate clients ask me to help them communicate bad news to their clients.

  • One software client was changing how their warranty period was charged and measured, which ultimately resulted in higher costs for customers.
  • An insurance client was asking its vendors to adopt a new and highly complex piece of software.
  • A client that sold online services was increasing their rate structure, even though they had already increased their rate structure earlier that year.

I always start by trying to understand both sides of the relationship. The party delivering the bad news has their reasons for having the bad news in the first place. (In my experience, businesses rarely try to screw with their customers and vendors without having a good reason!). And on the other side of the table, the party receiving the bad news brings their own set of biases and goals.

This is where most businesses fall short. They might want to do what’s right for all parties but their own goals are so embedded in their thinking that it’s hard to consider the other side. Perhaps that’s why they bring me — an outsider — in to help.

After thinking about what both parties want, I try to find something good. Something. Sometimes it’s hard but it’s never impossible.

  • In the case of the software company, there were aspects of the warranty that customers could customize.
  • In the case of the insurance company’s vendors, the software allowed for faster communication between the vendor and the company.
  • Even in the online services client, there was something good — although we had to create it: Rather than simply increasing the company’s rates across the board, we changed the conversation by creating new service tiers. The prices increased but so did the service and the perceived value.

The result? I was able to communicate through the sensitive issue for my clients and they came out the other side with customers and vendors intact and happy.

On goal-setting: Activity goals are better than achievement goals

I love setting goals. But it’s so easy to fall short of achieving them.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that I’m building goals around an ideal end-state. That end-state looks very specific in my mind.

But how often do we actually achieve that end state? It may end up looking somewhat different (although that doesn’t mean we failed). And in many of the end-states I envision and work toward there are external factors that can influence what that end-state looks like.

Take the example of a sales goal: A sales goal might be: “I want to close a sale this week.” At first, that seems like a decent goal but it’s based on an end-state… and one that is not entirely in your control. As a result, you run the risk of not achieving the goal in the way you want. (Perhaps you close a sale but not a very big one; or perhaps you laid the foundation to close a massive sale the next day — either way, the achievement is different than the end-state you worked towards). And, the success of this end-state goal is only partly determined by you but it’s also partly determined by an external factor outside of your control — the person or organization you are selling to.

A better goal is one built around an activity. Something you do; something that is entirely up to you. There are no external factors. The measurement of success is easy. You gain so much clarity.

To use the same example of a sales goal: An activity-based goal might be “I want to make 10 sales calls today.” I like this better because the success of this goal is based on you, not an external factor. And, it’s much easier to determine whether you were successful than if you used an end-state goal.

As an added bonus, activity-based goals also give you a better sense of how much time you have available to complete them.

Again, to use the sales example: Closing one deal a week may take many hours in the week… but how much? It’s hard to be accurate and therefore you open yourself up to over-committing. But the activity-based goal of making 10 sales calls a day is much easier to estimate the time required.

So rather than sitting down at the beginning of the week and thinking “I need to close a sale this week”, you’re instead sitting down at the beginning of the week (and each day that week) and thinking “I need to make 10 sales calls today.”

That’s a huge, clarifying, freeing difference.

This concept ties nicely into the GTD methodology: When I create Next Actions to be completed during the week, I fell into the trap of creating Next Achievements… of creating mini end-states that I would work toward. So I need to remind myself of the importance of Next Actions and to build activity-based goals to achieve each day.

When service runs cold, so does my patience: Two water heater companies compared

(This post is an unsolicited, unpaid review of two hot water companies in Winnipeg, based solely on my negative experience with one and my positive experience with the other).

While I was a real estate investing conference in Columbus Ohio recently, my hot water heater broke. Fortunately, my brilliant wife caught it right away, turned off the water going into the tank, and started looking into what needed to be done to fix it.

First, she called Superior Reliance, a company that advertises widely here in Winnipeg. We were willing to explore the possibility of buying a new hot water heater and this company’s advertising had put them at the top of our mind. She called the local (Winnipeg) number on a Friday and gave her information and was told that she had reached the Ontario office and they’d send the information to the Winnipeg office and they’d get back to us in 24-48 hours. Since it was the weekend, this wasn’t a huge surprise.

She’s a trooper and she endured cold water for the weekend. I returned home Sunday night and the water was still cold and we had not heard from Superior Reliance… in spite of their name or their 24-48 hour call-back promise.

On Monday morning at about 9 or 10 in the morning, I called them back. Again I called the local (Winnipeg) number, assuming that perhaps Janelle had called too late on Friday to catch anyone in this office. I gave my address to the person who answered and once again they said “oh, you’ve reached the Ontario office. We’ll send your info to the Winnipeg office and they’ll get back to soon.”

I waited another hour or two, wondering why a company would offer service like this? It’s crazy.

Then I decided to call someone else: City Wide. They had an informational sticker on our water heater that they had mailed to people. I stuck it on and that kind of value-added advertising worked because I called them.

The guy on the phone listened to our explanation, made a recommendation of the potential problem, and sent over a service rep within the hour. The rep had our hot water tank repaired within minutes of arriving. He was polite, professional, and extremely helpful. We talked about the condition of our water heater (pretty good — just needed a small repair) and he made some recommendations about what to consider when it was time to get a new one.

With one water heater company, we got the run-around: Inefficiencies and empty promises. A 24-48 hour call back (that was ultimately broken)? Who calls a hot water company and can wait 24-48 hours (or more)? People who call hot water companies are usually doing so because water is GUSHING out of their tank! Interestingly, we were willing to drop a couple of thousand dollars with them to buy a new hot water heater.

With the other company, we only spent a fraction of what we were willing to pay because we only required a repair… and along the way we received prompt, courteous service… which is EXACTLY what you want in a water heater company when water is gushing out.

If you live in Winnipeg, hire City Wide Water Heater Service to help you. They’re awesome.