Recently, I was part of a GreenOrder team working with a client partner that is a home and property care service provider. Despite employing industry-leading integrated pest management techniques, this partner was struggling to communicate the safety of their products to their employees and customers. They’re not alone. Even for highly responsible companies committed to transparency when it comes to their stakeholders, communicating product risks effectively is a challenge. Why?
Facts don’t speak for themselves
Having science on your side isn’t enough. In the past, our partner cited many studies that supported the safety of their operations, but these studies had little impact on public perception. This mismatch is common. Study after study has shown that we all struggle to interpret facts about risk. Even when we “know” the risks, our feelings and actions often don’t align with the facts. That’s why we continue to fear plane crashes more than car accidents, or shark attacks more than drowning. For these reasons, placing the burden on customers to seek out and sort through facts and data about product safety isn’t going to increase trust or improve sales. A company must actively address specific customer concerns in order to ease their nerves.
Nix the mumbo-jumbo
Given the thorny legal issues around the use of the term “safe,” many companies offer confusing and overly technical answers to questions about product risks. The CFL industry has struggled for years to figure out how to handle the debate over heavy metals in its light bulbs. The first hit on a Google search for “Philips CFL safety” brings up a list of material safety data sheets. These sheets contain sentences like “The Phosphor Powder materials are ceramic phosphors. The ceramics are Barium Aluminate and Yttrium Oxide.” That’s hardly tangible or reassuring.
Straightforward and clear language is critical to promoting accurate understanding. Third-party standards, labels and verification can serve as useful shorthand for communicating a rigorous approach to product review. Energy Star uses a label on efficient washing machines that indicates how much energy the product uses and its associated annual operating cost.
Promote proactive communications
There are a variety of communication tactics that help put risk in perspective, such as using easy-to-understand analogies. These are important tools, but they can’t exist in a vacuum. Below are a few key ways you can orient your organization around proactive communication:
1. Be responsible. Your company must have an authentic, clear and formalized commitment to offering safe and effective products in order to be seen as a trusted source of information. Vague claims and wishy-washy language will not promote trust and can leave you vulnerable to charges of greenwashing.
2. Educate employees. Your employees are the ones fielding questions from family members, friends, potential customers, and the public about the products and services they have a hand in creating. Employees need to hear frequent and clear answers about product risks that align with the company’s overall ethic of responsibility so that they can accurately relay that information to the customer.
3. Make time for customer concerns. As with employees, it’s important to actively communicate with customers about product risks and listen to their concerns. Effectively assuaging customer concerns will likely require frontline employees to engage in longer and deeper conversations with customers. Leveraging nontraditional platforms, like social media and email messaging, can help create adequate time and space for these interactions to occur.
4. Monitor changing perceptions. New concerns about product safety can crop up and spread quickly. The furious debates over Bisphenol A (BPA) and smart meter safety come to mind. Monitoring perception trends and crafting early responses can save a lot of headaches further down the line. Again, keeping an eye on reviews and conversations posted on social media platforms will prevent false or negative information from spiraling out of control.
A proactive approach to risk communication isn’t just about retaining customers. It can also reduce employee turnover, improve your company’s image, and lower the risk of new regulation.
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