How Setting Realistic Expectations Prevents Crises

Erik Bernstein Crisis Prevention Leave a Comment

Clashes create conflict

One of our challenges as a crisis management firm is helping clients have realistic expectations about what we can accomplish for them. For example, if a situation can’t be “fixed” but only balanced enough that the lasting damage is limited, we’d be asking for trouble if we promised the mess would be forgotten in a week’s time. And, if setting those realistic expectations means some prospective clients look elsewhere for help, that’s okay.

Now take a moment and think about your own business – can you remember a time that a clash in expectations sparked a problem? If you answered “yes” you’re not alone, more than anything else reputation management issues are created by failing to meet the expectations of key stakeholders. The tough thing about expectations is that they’re built all kinds of ways. It’s a big blender full of mixed inputs like your own marketing and image, street buzz, culture, and whatever goes on inside each individual’s head. It’s a challenge, but understanding what expectations your stakeholders have, and making certain they don’t stray into the realm of the unrealistic, is an important part of day-to-day crisis management.

Real-life scenarios

Look at the majority of headline-making crises and you see a clash of expectations. Our experience demonstrates Jonathan Bernstein’s principle that crisis severity is inversely proportional to public expectation.   There may be no better example than Volkswagen, whose image as an environment friendly, straight-talking car manufacturer slid into the breakdown lane after the diesel cheating scandal broke. The sudden revelation to stakeholders that their expectations weren’t aligned with reality resulted in damage so significant that the company is still dealing with the fallout nearly two years later.  And as this blog post was being written, Equifax is demonstrating how poor communication can play a huge role in the public’s reaction to already-bad news.

Let me give you an example that’s a little closer to what most businesses might see.

Have you ever visited your local doctor’s office for a simple procedure, only to feel a sense of outrage when you see the final bill come across that front desk? We frequently work with medical clinics and other small service providers who are facing online reputation and review issues as a result of pricing confusion. Often, they are completely mystified as to why the individual making negative comments is upset. After all, in the business owner’s mind the process was clearly explained and the customer should expect there are additional charges for materials and other sundries. Because of this assumption, and because the expectation of what the procedure (or repair, or whatever the service may be) will actually cost isn’t explicity set up front, these businesses take serious damage – on average 22% of potential clients lost per negative search result and 5-9% of annual revenue missed for each rating star lost. Keep in mind this is not because of any shady behavior, but rather failing to anticipate customer expectations and head off related issues.

Prevent or regret?

A contrast between expectations and reality is a predictable crisis, and an easily preventable one, but it won’t resolve itself. Make being aware of what expectations your stakeholders have a part of your regular crisis management routine or risk taking unnecessary damage to your good name, and your bottom line.

Erik Bernstein




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