How to Lead Well When Bad Things Happen

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After the fallout from the G.M. ignition switch debacle—and most recently with VW’s emission issues—clients have contacted me asking for suggestions on how to handle the adverse publicity, for how to keep their team focused, and on how to prepare them for customer’s questions and concerns. Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy; and, while what I’m suggesting in this piece is far from the final word on the topic of crisis management, you may find some ideas to help you deal effectively with adversities like G.M. and VW. If your organization isn’t burdened by bad publicity at the moment, file this away for when the day comes. If you’re in business long enough, it’s likely to eventually show up; it could be triggered by a financial institution you represent, a supplier, or as it has been lately, a manufacturer.

1. Maintain focus on what’s controllable:

      Don’t allow the negative publicity and its ensuring burdens to become a crutch for under-performance. Managers should be reminded to focus on what they can control, and to coach their people to do likewise. They can’t control conditions, but their good daily decisions to do what’s right can marginalize adversity. Here are a sample dozen things people can largely control every day by making the right decisions, and not getting distracted by out-of-their-control conditions:

      • Their attitude.
      • Their work ethic.
      • Their level of discipline.
      • Their character choices.
      • Where they spend their time.
      • With whom they spend their time.
      • Whether they’ll plan their day.
      • Whether they’ll prospect.
      • Whether they’ll practice.
      • Whether they’ll work on themselves.
      • Whether they’ll follow prescribed processes.
      • Whether they’ll follow up.

That’s a fairly substantial list of areas people can execute to impact results daily. It’s all about coaching them to focus more on what’s before them, than on what’s around them.

2. Project robust enthusiasm and attitudes: If customers bring up the issue to personnel, each team member—from the receptionist to the CEO—should be prepared with a consistent and concise answer or explanation. In the case of an issue like VW, something along the lines of:

“It’s sad that decisions made a continent away can bring negative attention to such a great brand. But that only enhances our commitment to you at our dealership—which is to create the best car buying (or service) experience you’ve ever had.”

Then take control of the conversation by asking questions more relevant to the issue at hand: the car or service they’re looking for, and the like.

If your front line team members act down-in-the-mouth or worried about the issue, customers will sniff it out immediately. They’ll also just as quickly pick up on their positivity, enthusiasm, and bright-side outlook—all of which will minimize negative publicity, while it settles down and uplifts customer emotions, allaying their concern that the sky is falling.

But make no mistake about it; your front line team members will pick up on the same emotions—for better or worse—as they trickle down from management. The leader’s speed during a crisis becomes the team’s speed.

3. Be strategic with apologies. Remember, if the crisis involves an entity you represent, you haven’t done anything wrong. Thus I discourage apologizing, except for their inconvenience, concerns, or frustrations. Don’t make a bigger deal out of the issue than is necessary.

4. Change the dialogue: Acknowledge the issue, express empathy for their inconvenience, concern or frustration, and then move on. Change the course of the conversation away from the problem and to moving forward and solving their automotive needs.

In the case of service issues, create the perception that you and the customer are in this together, and will work through it collaboratively. Get on their side, without disparaging the troubled entity you represent, which could make you look both foolish and unprofessional.

5. Don’t give the issue energy publicly: Don’t enlarge the issue by addressing it in a public way. This just refocuses people on what’s negative. People have short attention spans today, so use that to your advantage. In the case of a VW-type situation, stress and sell the “’Our dealership’ experience” more in your marketing and limit VW in your advertising vocabulary for a while: “A great deal on a Jetta” or on an “AutoNation Jetta,” not on a VW Jetta, etc.

6. Deal positively with the press:
Don’t pull the “no comment” nonsense with the press because it can make you look guilty, aloof, and as though you’re part of the problem, when you want to present yourself as a solution to the problem. If the local press calls wanting feedback on how the crisis is affecting business tell them: “We’re fortunate to represent a brand so strong that no single adversity can set it back for long. For XXX years, our team members have sold the ‘Your dealership’ brand, service, and experience as a priority over any particular make of vehicle anyhow. It’s worked very well for us and we expect it will in the future.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s actually easier to lead during a crisis because alertness and urgency is heightened, and you have people’s attention. A crisis can unite a team and give them a special identity and purpose. Astute leaders will also leverage a crisis as an opportunity to redefine expectations, trim expenses that should have been cut long ago, and implement changes that are more difficult when things are rolling along and all the seas appear calm.

William Arthur Ward said it well: “Adversity causes some men to break, and others to break records.” When the stuff hits the fan in your dealership, it will ultimately be your leadership that determines which side of his quote you end up on.

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Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson, “Mr. Accountability,” is a leading international speaker on personal and corporate performance improvement. The author of 14 books and host of the wildly popular podcast, The Game Changer Life, Dave’s message has impacted leaders in nearly 70 nations. His “in-the-trenches” background of starting and running world-class businesses, coupled with his relatable non-academic approach, creates an unmatched connection that resonates with audiences and moves them to action. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveAnderson100