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How NOT to announce bad news via marketing – and how to do it properly!

August 24, 2010
Norton Dominator 88 Deluxe

"I'm glad you bought the bike sir. Now for the bad news, it'll cost extra for the footrests..."


When skilled marketers announce bad news (merged products, price rises etc), they know just how to do it – by explaining what’s happening. All the more surprising then to receive a letter from BT, the UK’s largest phone company, with an envelope marked “Important News about your Telephone Connection” or some such. 

OK, so the envelope teased enough to get me to open it but, inside, was a letter telling me my line rental charge was increasing. There was a load of other stuff about BT”s service and conditions but the missing component of this letter was “why we need to increase the price”. 

This sort of approach comes straight out of the ark of state-run monopoly businesses: never mind the customer, just feed in the attrition rate calculation and run with the hit. Complacency rules OK! 

Well no doubt they’re right in some ways. But what does it take to make the process better and avoid bad blood and subscriber attrition? Explanation! That’s what! It’s all about message. 

In Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns , author Professor Anne Gregory states: 

Messages are important for two main reasons. First of all they are an essential part of the attitude forming process. If publics play back to the originator the message that the originator has initiated, it is a clear indication (a) that the message has been received and (b) that the message has been taken on board and is in some way being used … The second reason messages are important is that they demonstrate the effectiveness of communication … if messages are utilised directly by the press, or they are repeated in research such as attitude surveys, that clearly shows the messages have been assimilated.” 

Professor Gregory here is referring to PR of course and not customer communication but the process is EXACTLY the same but potentially much more damaging. The message that BT is sending to its audience is that they expect their customers to obey the command and accept that prices are increasing. By instilling in customers the expectation that prices are increasing they create a perception that nothing can be done about it. 

Well that may have been the way to do it in the bad old days of the 1970s when the only choice in telephony was the colour of your phone… 

But today is different. BT – and large monoliths like them – can no longer afford complacency. They need to engage their customers and make them feel valued. If they don’t, it’s off to Talk Talk or some other provider. 

Here’s the process as defined by Drayton Bird in his all-time classic book How to Write Sales Letters that Sell, published by leading independent publisher Kogan Page: 

“The correct way to write such letters is simple: 

  • Be honest and straightforward and get to the point
  • Where appropriate, apologise, and explain why the changes are necessary
  • If you can, announce improvements in your product or service (unless that was the purpose of your letter in the first place)
  • Give the name of someone people can call or write to with questions or complaints
  • Sign the letter and ensure that the name of the person/contact is clear”

The last bullet, I have paraphrased from what follows in the book, but it is relevant. 

No one likes bad news, so it’s important always to go about things the right way. Customers are not fools and, crikey, they have been acquired at great cost – so the last thing you want to do is have to acquire new ones when it is easier to renew existing ones. 

In a world of web-based messaging and social media where increasingly communication is in writing rather than face-to-face, correct communication of bad and good news will repay itself many times over. 

Image – a brand new Norton Dominator Deluxe taken from an image purchased from the Reflections archive of Liverpool life. Check it out for yourself.

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