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Change Is Inevitable. Communicating It Well to Customers Isn't.

How to handle business changes and come out ahead
As I've noted over the years in this blog, I learn lessons that are usable for entrepreneurs from every conceivable corner.  My most recent one comes from an unlikely source - my brother, John, who has been operating and programming radio stations for multiple decades in markets all over the country.  

Recently, he was faced with an extraordinarily difficult business decision - to make a major change in the staffing of one of his stations' longstanding shows, a popular duo who had been on the air for more than a dozen years. Knowing that he would be getting some real negative response and potential backlash, he took the initiative and, using Google Hangout, allowed listeners to ask and force him to answer, hard questions about the change, directly (http://www.allaccess.com/merge/archive/20956/to-be-truly-unique-you-need-a-truly).  No hiding behind a press release or a simple announcement on a website.  He fielded the brickbats and the compliments alike.  But more important, he was honest in his response and stayed on the air for an hour, answering any and all questions.

The result?  He took a potentially incendiary situation, caused by a necessary business change, and turned it into a "high touch" opportunity to both communicate and bond with his customer base.  Too many companies, especially small businesses, don't realize that change is inevitable if a company wants to grow.  And that change, often, involves making hard business decisions that, just as often, impact customers.  And not all change is easily embraced by customers. But how that change is communicated to them is critical and, frequently, either overlooked or poorly done.  

What my brother did was to go right into the "eye of the storm."  That didn't make the negative reaction any more negative, but gave his listeners an opportunity to deliver it, have it heard and feel respected.  Ten days after this major upheaval he still has his critics, but he has more positive feedback than ever on the station's Facebook page.  Plus, he has established a future platform to periodically communicate with his customer base.

So what are the lessons here?  Here are five critical things to consider when you are planning to, or have a need to, make major changes that may seriously impact customers:

Get out in front of it.
Most change occurs after some thoughtful planning...but not always.  Sometimes, market conditions or internal organizational issues dictate sudden changes.  If it's part of a plan, make sure how you deal with the customer is a major task in that plan.  If it's a more sudden change, get to key customers as soon as possible and the rest of the market, quickly thereafter, communicating the change as succinctly as possible.

Be honest about how it will affect them.
If it will negatively affect them, don't sugarcoat it.  Tell them what you are doing (and why, if you can).  Explain how you will implement the change (new hire, new product, etc.) and how it will affect them. Communicate what you will be doing to ensure that you minimize any short-term negative impact it might have on their business and/or emphasize the long-term positive impact it may have.

Listen to their reactions.

Give them an opportunity to both "vent" and give you feedback. You will need both.  Typically, even with the best-planned change, there's always something you didn't think about that customers will. Give them a platform to communicate, whether that be by email or a series of periodic meetings or visits.  Or do your own Google Hangout!

Provide an incentive to accept the change.
Even if it is good for them, few folks like change.  We are creatures of habit.  To get customers to change habits, you need to provide incentive.  If it's a new product you're introducing that replaces an older, longstanding one, major discounts or concessions sometimes work.  If it's an organizational change, invite them to a lunch or dinner, at a great restaurant, to meet the new team.

Use the change as an "excuse" to get ongoing feedback.

Once customers get used to a "high touch" way of communicating they will be more responsive to it.  Once the change has been implemented, provide a forum for them to communicate back to the company, how they perceive the change for their organization, what you can do to improve on it and what else you can do to improve service levels to them.

As I've noted in the past (http://bit.ly/1DapkVQ), change is inevitable if a company is to grow.  But how you communicate that change to your customers will dictate how well that growth can be achieved. Let change help drive better communication with your customer!

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things.  He's been there.  May success be with you!

Have you had to make a major change that dramatically affected your customers? How did you deal with it?  Please share your thoughts in your comments.  It can help another entrepreneur.

If you like this post, by all means, share it with your networks and colleagues.

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