How to Deliver the Bad News

Ten tips for managing the delivery of bad news in an environment that craves positive thinking


Do not fight. There are countless examples of organizational battles in S&OP and other such meetings where a negative presentation of results brings out a highly defensive position either by Sales or Marketing. Let them have their say. Do not put yourself in the role of defending a negative result or plan. I simply say, “Let’s compare facts/numbers offline, and we can bring them to the next meeting.” Stay calm. These are not your numbers or results – they are the organization’s. Sales and Marketing are on the hook and compensated for hitting those numbers. It is natural for them to spin and or defend their optimism.

Do not fudge, fake, guess or have an agenda. In order to stand as the beacon of reality, do not deceive, hide results, gloss over or carry a personal agenda into the discussion of any business results. There may be times when you do not like a supply planner or a brand manager. That should have no bearing on your presentation. If you are the person responsible for presenting results, metrics and forecasts, you need to maintain the highest possible level of professional integrity.

Certainly some of these suggestions are common sense – and some may just be good reminders. But these tips and techniques should help supply chain leadership remain positive, focused and reality-based when the results are unfavorable.

Advice for Sales and Marketing

After completing the above article, I asked a former colleague of mine, Glen Fossella, to comment on the article as written. Glen is a highly successful sales executive specializing in software and technology sales. During a layover at Hartsfield Airport, Glen layered in his own advice to Sales and Marketing professionals. These are not meant as a counterpoint to the suggestions above. Rather, they are his own suggestions for how sales and marketing professionals can work effectively within the S&OP process when the news is less than positive.

Accept that one of two things broke badly. Either the plan was wrong or the execution was poor. Didn’t get the support? Crybaby. Bad economy? Wimp. Bite down and start chewing; it’s broken and you need to get on with repairs.

Do NOT pre-circulate content. A little counterintuitive here, but unless it’s part of your standard S&OP process, pre-circulating a response to the bad news in the S&OP content may be perceived as defensiveness or an attempt to head off a tough meeting. There’s bound to be plenty of hallway talk; use that as an opportunity to socialize initial reactions and potential course corrections. But don’t step on the S&OP lead or attempt to dictate outcomes; there’s plenty of work ahead, and you’ll need support and collaboration to get through.

Get under the hood with S&OP. Numbers are our friends. That’s how we make the big bucks when things go well, right? Enlist the S&OP lead to gain a full understanding of the results, and get a head start on the post mortem. They’re staring at the numbers every day; ask them what they think went right and wrong.

Leave the pig lipstick on the dresser. Spinning, deflecting or avoiding facts at this point helps neither the organization nor you. Keep your language neutral and impersonal. But remember that the results stink — not you. Is there a beat-down in your future? Maybe, but that’s short term. Your job is to figure it out and fix it. Attend to that.

Focus on the “why.” The S&OP lead gets paid to deliver the “what.” Then it’s your job to provide the post mortem. Analyze the data, work to ascertain what went wrong, deliver a dispassionate presentation, and then begin the process of developing a new plan or remediating the existing one.

Create a “good news sandwich.” You didn’t just wake up to this mess; you’ve been making adjustments and taking steps along the way. Wrap good news in the layers of bad news. For example: “The EMEA rollout gained traction faster than expected. Early successes are helping us focus resources on our strongest partners and verticals.” It helps the team maintain a balanced view of the situation and stay constructive.

Do not fight. If you were hung out to dry by Operations, Finance or even your boss, it’s fair game to discuss execution problems — if they are documented and measurable. But take the confrontations and acrimony offline. There’s seldom any profit in battling things out in public.

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