How NOT to market bad news…


Making bad news sound happy is not good marketing

I had a recent experience with Starbucks that got me thinking about how marketing organizations can have a tendency to think that their job is to make everything sound like good news — and how sometimes that is such a very wrong approach.

The bottom line here is that if you have bad news for your customers, the goal is not to make the bad news sound happy. The goal is to take care of the customer.

My Disappointing Experience with Starbucks

Here is a recent example.
I got a Starbucks “reward” (an electronic certificate or a free coffee) for my birthday. Nice.

I’m a regular at Starbucks. They have loyalty program that for every 12 coffees you buy, you get a “reward” for a free coffee. The “reward” lasts for a month before it expires.

On your birthday you get a special, extra “reward” for a free coffee.

Thinking this reward also lasted a month like the others, TWO DAYS after my birthday, I went into Starbucks, with a smile on my face, happy to extend my birthday cheer by getting my free coffee, but this was not meant to be.
–The birthday reward had already expired.

So I took to twitter…

First here is my tweet on thisstarbucks

And here is their response:


The wrong happy-sounding response!

This is a great example of a marketing person trying to turn bad news for the customer into happy sounding news instead of serving the customer.

Do they really think that “celebrating with me ON my birthday” is a perk for me? They get me to come in pretty much every other day of the year — Do I really have to go there on my birthday too, when I might have some special plans that don’t involve Starbucks?

But the issue here was not merely the stingy expiration period. It was the marketing response.

Pretending that this is great news for me, with a cheerful sounding message does not make me feel cheerful. It is just offensive.

Marketers, don’t lie to us. Don’t spread cheer when what you really need to convey is bad news.

So what is the right response?

Remember, in this moment when there is bad news to share, you have an opportunity to make upset customers more angry or to use the unfortunate situation to build loyalty by using the following basic strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

How about this, Starbucks?

I’m sorry we surprised and disappointed you. We recently had to change our policy so our birthday rewards now expire the next day. Click here to get a free coffee. Next year, if you have a chance to come in on your birthday, we’d love to treat you to your favorite coffee.

That would have been both true and would have provided actual service. They could have used my disappointment to win me back.

When you have bad news to share

In business we sometimes do need to communicate bad news. We need to cancel products or programs, or tell a customer that we can’t help them in the way or the timeframe that they expect.

Here is an example that happened in a business I was running.

As a General Manager I needed to discontinue a product line that several enterprise customers had invested in. They expected it to be available and supported for many years to come.

When I started in this role, I had found that we basically had two of the same product in our business (a double investment to create 2 products competing with each other and confusing our sales channels and customers). We had to choose one, and make that one a great product.

So we made a choice. The problem was, that although the new product would be better than either one of the existing products, many customers had already invested in the one we needed to cancel. The initial news to those customers was bad news no matter how much better the consolidated product would be in the future.

What should our message be to those customers?

Hint: the right message was NOT: Great news everybody! We are moving to different new product that’s going to be better than the one you have. You’re gonna love it!

I see companies do this type of thing all the time. Bad news is bad news. Trying to sell it by making it sound like good news does nothing to help the customer.

Let’s go back to the basic strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

In this type of situation, it’s helpful imagine that one of these customers is your very best friend in the world, and he had made a bet on your company and invested in this product, maybe even against the guidance of others in his company because he knew and trusted you. There was a time when you told him specifically that this product had a solid future. So he not only made the investment but put his career on the line with this choice.

When you need to communicate bad news, don’t think of your audience as an anonymous group of customers. Think of your best friend. How exactly, would you communicate the news then?

The right conversation. Step 1. Tell the Truth.

You might say something to your friend like…

You: I’ve got to tell you, we needed to make a choice to cancel this product line. I know this will cause a problem for you, so I wanted to tell you personally and try to help.

Friend: : Are you kidding me? I told everyone that this product was the best choice. I might lose my job over this. Even if I don’t lose my job, this will kill my credibility and will set my career back. They trusted me. I trusted you. This is really bad. I don’t know how I’m going to recover…

You: :

Just stop and imagine for a moment that given that this is the genuine, actual response of your best friend….How awful would it have been if instead of this conversation, he was the recipient of a mass email saying, “We are discontinuing this product line. But good news, we are transiting to one that will be even better. Stay tuned for the transition plan. Thanks. Your business is very important to us…”

How betrayed would he feel by your happy sounding news?

As a business leader, it’s important to take the time to think about how your “happy news” is going to land with actual people.

So let’s continue the conversation in a productive way. Remember the strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

Step 2. Help the customer

You: : I know this is a shock, and it seems like really bad news. I know you bet your career on this. So I promise you. I’ll make sure we do everything we can to protect your investment and protect your credibility with your company.

Friend: Like what?

You: (Now you roll out the elements of a good communication plan)
Tell me what you think of this…

First we will provide the transition support for free.
We’ll also provide people to come to your site to help you deliver this news to your colleagues. We’ll help you show your stakeholders that after the transition is complete, this product will be even better. So it won’t just be you saying this, we’ll be standing there with you, and committing to work with you until we make it right.

I think that will help maintain your credibility because your company will see that even though this specific product will no longer be available, that you bet on a company who stands behind what they deliver.

We can also help you have discussions with your stakeholders about how we are managing the risk of the transition and eliminating cost.

We know this is a big change of plans for you, and that in itself has a cost, so we want to eliminate your support costs for 2 years to offset the trouble we have caused with this change of direction.

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

All businesses at times have changes in direction or pressures that create decisions which customers will at least initially see as bad news.

If you get this wrong, you can make the customer really angry.

But if you share bad news in the right way, you can develop even stronger relationships and more loyalty with your customers.

What do you think?

What choices to you make that make your happier and more successful?
Join the conversation about this on my facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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