Would your organisation have the will to withstand public backlash?


The plastic bag fiasco of Coles and Woolworths provides lessons worthy of a business school case study. There are lessons to be learned here about how to communicate and implement change, how to support staff, how to align commercial and social interests, and how to plan programs so they don’t collide.

And also, that large-scale behavioural change is hard. Companies need a strong backbone. Complaints are always going to happen. Customers are weaned on a diet of ‘I’m right’ entitlement, and are always going to pounce on the inconvenience and trumpet their displeasure across social channels and into the ears of waiting media.

People didn’t like using seat-belts either, and now few would get in a car without wearing one. It took legislation and enforcement to drive the shift, but we got used to it. Let’s face it: a wholesale change of entrenched behaviours will always be uncomfortable. So pretending there’s a way to neatly avoid what you simply have to go through isn’t helpful.

So I’m not going to dissect the ins and outs of what Coles or Woolworths could or should have done. I do encourage them to stick with the current plan and get rid of all plastic bags at the end of the month. People will get used to it, and they have too much people want for them to go elsewhere.

Behind the issue sits a different takeaway. When the small things can cause an uproar, the stakes for the big things are even higher. So make sure your decision is deeply rooted in what’s most important to you or the will to withstand will falter when the winds of public opinion howl.

To learn more about why customers and company’s should be kinder to each other, click here.

I wonder how many of us would have the fortitude to withstand those howls. When customers are berating your staff, or when social comments and media are beating on the door of your decision, would you?

It’s easy to sit and throw stones when organisations don’t, and I often demand they think harder and do better on this kind of stuff. The demand fronts a need for some deep work to understand their organisational identity (purpose and values).

“We do what we care about,” says Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. This is something they amply demonstrate and I’ve observed as true too many times to count. On the other hand, if you really don’t give a damn one way or the other, it’s too easy to flip and avoid the friction.

Absent that grounding, capitulating becomes a valid option. But you can’t please everyone and sometimes you can barely please anyone no matter what you do. This is exactly the situation the supermarkets have found themselves in. Berated by customers, their flip led to a reverse hiding from proponents of the plastic bag ban, leading to another flop. Unmoored, they couldn’t avoid the battering, with Coles taking the brunt.

If you have any stories about a time you stuck to the hard road of something you believed in despite unhappy customers, I’d love to hear them.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Three scenarios that show businesses should sweat the small stuff

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