community engagement

Contracting out your reputation – 5 questions you must ask

We’ve seen a sobering example this month that should send a shudder down the spines of any company executive that contracts out customer sales or service to a contracting supplier.

Energy company AGL was ordered to pay $1.55 million in fines thanks to just one dodgy salesman working for a contractor in South Australia.

We are not talking here about a series of events – the case that’s spun out into major reputational damage and negative publicity involved just one encounter with a householder about switching his retail energy contract. 

Beyond the financial pain, just consider the damage to the company’s brand and reputation. 

Don’t even get me started on the whole idea of pushy salesmen doing the old door-to-door routine. (Yes, I know some sales pointy heads will tell me they do it because it works – but at what cost?)

Incidents like this one highlight the need to ensure any contracted out service includes significant control measures that guarantee the people acting on your company’s behalf live up to your brand promise. 

I strongly advise my clients to look closely at any arrangement they have in place that involves the contracting out of services to third party suppliers and ask these questions:

  1. Does the legally enforceable contract include a requirement that people employed by the contractor understand and will comply with your customer service standards, values and expected brand behaviours?
  2. Does it require that any new employee working for the contractor undergo an overt training program to ensure they understand what is expected of them?
  3. Are you regularly auditing the performance of contractors in relation to employee compliance with your customer service standards in both the letter and spirit of the law?
  4. Are there financial penalties in place where employees contracted by your service supplier fail to meet the standard?
  5. Are you prepared to terminate the contract for repeated contraventions of your service standards?

If you can’t answer “yes” to every one of these five questions, I’d say you are carrying a significant risk that needs to be addressed post haste.

For all full details on the ACCC case click here.

The long or short of it

I am not a big rules guy when it comes to successful communications.  You know those people who will present you with the magic formula.  Every message needs to be delivered in less than three sentences.  Or the opposite – staged delivery where you trickle feed the audience over a much longer period of time.

Who is right here?  The truth is…it depends.  There are occasions when people need, even demand, detail.  When a company needs to take a new direction, for example, that is going to result in significant disruption to people’s jobs, a three paragraph email is simply not good enough.  You need to tell me why you are doing this and how the final decision was made.  What’s likely to happen next and how will that affect me?

On the other hand, there is a risk in going too far the other way.  Sometimes I need you to get to the point quickly.  For example, if you are announcing a highly anticipated result.  This is where the selection of the communication medium can also be important.  For example, the 15 minute video that sets the stage might be great for delivering detail in an engaging way, but when it comes to specific results, it can frustrate the audience who will, if they can, fast forward through your critical scene-setting.  On the other hand, a short, snappy email can ensure the key information and critical context are delivered much more effectively.

I am a great believer in what I call “glance communications” and newspapers are the best example.  We all know the way most people read print media is to scan for the bits that interest them – and so headlines and sub-headings are crucial.

As with just about everything in communications, it comes down to getting inside the heads of your intended audience.  What is likely to be their mind set and mood when they come to view, read or listen to your message?  It’s not about what you want to say – it’s about what they are prepared to hear. Long or short?  It’s their choice. 

The danger of distance

Wars are fought at a distance; battles between families are often fought at a distance.  In fact, in my experience distance is always a factor when relationships breakdown between individuals and organisations.

Of course, there is a time for respecting someone’s space and nothing can be gained by aggressive confrontation.  However, while our nature is to separate ourselves, for companies and corporate entities that often just makes things worse.

Distance isn’t just about physical separation.  It can be the perception of mental distance, a sense that you simply are not prepared to come into my mental space and see or feel things from my perspective.

The mining company executive who sits down in the dirt with a group of tribal elders is far more likely to succeed than one who stays in his city office tower and sends out letters via his legal team.

Bridging distance, reaching out, shows respect.  You may never agree, you may never be able to reconcile your views of an issue or the world in general.  But reaching out shows respect and is likely to significantly lower the risk of your separation turning into a damaging conflict

How often have you based your opinions on someone from hearsay?  You build up this image of a cold, disinterested, hard-hearted individual.  Then you meet. The warmth of the handshake, the look in the eye, the nervous first meeting, realising you both have hopes and fears.  There aren’t always fairy-tale endings, but stepping towards rather than away means far less chance of a nightmare conclusion.

Don’t get trapped in the media bubble

When it comes to investing most of us believe the sage advice of good financial planners: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

And yet, when it comes to communications, I am still seeing many organisations doing exactly that. In particular, I am amazed by the fixation with media relations as the “be all and end of all” of their communication strategy.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying media relations is unimportant – it is very important.  And, I am NOT, saying journalists and news outlets are no longer hugely influential – or that media relations is a waste of time. 

What I am saying is that the influence of journalists in shaping public opinion can be over-stated and the role and dominance of traditional media is being eroded. 

This means companies have to think very carefully about planning their communications – in particular thinking about building relationships, as opposed to running into the street and blurting information into the crowd.

I am also not advocating throwing all your eggs into the online media basket.  The digital world is crowded with a lot of dodgy claims and fleeting trends – this week’s new app (that you absolutely have to be part of) will quickly be overtaken by something else (probably being developed in some 14 year old’s bedroom right now!).

By all means look at Facebook and Twitter – but as part of a broader suite of communication channels that are relevant to the audience with whom you want to connect.

For me, the focus should be on thinking about how people want to be treated and acting with respect and integrity.   As a customer, stakeholder or voter, I want you to tell me the truth.  I want you to provide information that is balanced and helps me understand.  I want you to give me options.  I don’t want you to shout at me, or call me up when I am in the middle of dinner.  When you are wrong, admit it, tell me what you are doing to fix the problem and move on. 

There is a risk of communications people living in a media bubble – where they get fixated on a world inhabited by journalists, politicians and the veritable industry of stakeholder groups and wannabe advocates.  

Most of the people you need to influence are just getting on with their lives.  Forget the headlines, they’re far more worried about what they forgot to put in their kid’s lunchbox today than about criticism of your company or the latest scandal.   Way back in my news producing days, I remember getting home from work one night after a particularly big day on the newsfront.  I think the Berlin Wall had come down overnight.  I got home to my wife and one year old son.  Forget about the Berlin wall, my wife’s focus that night was (rightly) on two things– bed and bath for the child.  Perspective is a marvellous thing. At times communications professionals need a heavy dose. 

Is sponsorship worth the money?

Maybe it’s just me ... but has the world gone sponsorship mad?

It seems these days just about everything or anything has a logo on it.

In fact, the placement of logos in the right spot to maximise coverage has become an art form in itself. I take my hat off to the person who thought of having AFL umpires sponsored by an eye-care company.

But does associating your logo with a sports team or individual start really make that much of a difference? Or to go straight to the accountant’s version of that question: Is it really worth the money?