How to turn challenges into opportunities for your organization

Your organization isn’t judged when everything is going well. There’s a service level that’s simply expected. It’s judged by how you respond to challenges. That’s when people pay attention, and it’s what they’ll talk about.

Challenges are opportunities to build credibility, strengthen relationships and demonstrate your values.

Challenges can seem major or minor,but consider they’re all major to the person or people who are affected by them.

If your organization regularly acts in a way that undermines its stated values, then credibility and trust will decline over time.

3 types of challenges brands face

Challenge 1 – A problem the organization caused (a mistake)

Mistakes happen. It could be a crisis, like inappropriate and public comments by a representative, food contamination or oil spill. Or it could be an error that caused pain or loss for a customer (e.g. child let off at the wrong bus stop and left wandering the street, or a garbage collection contractor carelessly throwing bins in a residential area).

In these situations, the best brands respond like humans. This means apologizing when needed, empathizing with the individuals affected and taking whatever corrective action is necessary.

In a crisis situation, the crisis communications plan would kick in. In general, you would follow these steps:

  • Make the situation your priority. Pull your team together and identify what the issue is and who is affected.
  • Determine what can reasonably be said about the issue and who the spokesperson will be. Draft the initial response.
  • Make sure staff (regardless of whether they work in the affected area) and other key stakeholders (e.g. volunteers/partners) are informed about what’s happening and what is being done about it since they will receive questions, including outside of work. They should hear from the organization, not the media or grapevine (this is also a chance to build trust and credibility internally).
  • Share factual information openly through multiple channels. Avoid speculation. Make sure to correct any misinformation already circulating. Commit to regular communication.
  • Express remorse, concern, empathy — whatever the appropriate human emotions are for the situation. Avoid defensiveness and blame (these are red flags that your response won’t work in your favour).
  • Offer and/or provide support to help those affected.
  • Once appropriate, demonstrate how you’re using this situation to improve your practices and to learn in order to prevent a similar situation in the future.

A great case study for this type of response is the Maple Leaf Foods’  handling of the Listeria outbreak in Canada.

Challenge 2 – Something people don’t like that the organization is doing

Sometimes organizations aren’t messing up, but decisions are being made that some people don’t like (this could be internal or external). An example from my past work in education is a decision to change the attendance area of a school. In municipalities, it could be increasing tax rates. These are things that are necessary (from the organization’s perspective), but that a portion of your customer/client/employee/stakeholder base does not support.

In these situations, the following decision tree can be applied:

Flow chart showing questions to ask in a situation where stakeholders aren't happy with a decision.

Was it a logical decision based on the best available information?

Were people consulted?

If not, is there a good reason why they weren’t?

Organize and present the information so people understand the facts, the reason the decision was made and how it will work. Communicate openly and clearly. Allow questions and share responses publicly.

When you respond in a logical, positive and calm manner, you have the best chance of converting people who are logical but not supportive to come to your side of the issue. You want to avoid becoming overly emotional about the topic.

Image showing the issues spectrum from emotional or hostile to emotional and positive.
If you’re looking for media training, At Ease With the Media is a great option.

Challenge 3 – Problems we didn’t cause but can help solve

This is my favourite type of problem. These challenges can generate great media coverage or viral content, but that’s not why you respond as you do. You respond the way you do because it’s an opportunity to help, and it’s the human, compassionate thing to do.

I once had a director who talked a lot about empowering our staff to provide wow service. To do this, you need to trust your team, keep them engaged and informed, and not create a culture of compliance and fear. You want staff to act from their compassionate hearts to help someone when they’re able.

I received a start-of-the-year email from my daughter’s teacher that was personalized, clear and warm. It was above and beyond because most of my friends didn’t get the same treatment. It built trust right away. She recognized my problem (anxiety about my child starting JK). It wasn’t her problem, but she could help solve it and did. I shared my experience on social media — good news spreads.

Here’s an example of a West Jet employee going above and beyond to help a customer get to his dying sister. The fact that he couldn’t afford a ticket wasn’t the company’s problem, but the employee recognized the opportunity to help and felt empowered (trusted) to do so.

On the flip side, I recently saw a post on social media about a food delivery service that said the company wasn’t helping a customer after their home was damaged by one of their drivers (who are independent contractors). This immediately made me wary of using the service.

If your employees say things like, “if we bend the rules for one, we’ll have to bend them for everyone” or, “it’s not our job” or, “we haven’t done it like that before”, then there’s a good chance your current culture won’t allow for this type of brand-enhancing, helpful and human behaviour.

Make it about one person

Try this trick: Think of all communication, good news or not, as though you’re talking to one person.

What would say or do if it were one person sitting in front of you? What is the human response? How are they feeling? How can you help?

Generally, organizations have stated values that are similar to values individuals hold. Things like honesty, integrity, caring, creativity — since these values are inherently human, how they come to life in our work should be too.

When you let policies, fear, politics or legalese strip the human from your communication, you’ll limit your ability to build meaningful relationships that will help you achieve your goals.

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