Embrace Critics to Drive Business

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Ron Loch

“Like clockwork.” It’s a phrase used to describe a smooth operation, one that is consistent and reliable. But look inside a timepiece and you’ll find that for the hands to move forward, they must engage a gear that moves in the opposite direction. Likewise, businesses must proactively engage critics and dissatisfied customers to keep things running smoothly and even enjoy greater success.

Use Fire as Fuel
For most company executives, negative press and comments historically have been viewed as fires to be put out, often with the overwhelming force of reach and frequency. However, with the dominant role social media play in society today, disgruntled customers or concerned citizens can match the reach and frequency of even the largest Fortune 100 companies, as long as they have a compelling story to tell. More than ever, corporate executives must adopt a new mindset; one that embraces adversaries as key stakeholders.

That’s what Domino’s Pizza did in 2009. Despite being the world’s largest pizza delivery chain, its executives decided to embrace critics to help improve the product. They invited focus groups of disgruntled customers to voice their grievances to the company’s leaders. Criticisms ranged from the most common, “tastes like cardboard,” to the sublime, “there’s no love in Domino’s pizza.” As the market leader, the company really didn’t have an immediate need to change. Being the leader in convenience and price was more than enough to make it successful. But, rather than ignore the criticism or combat it with positioning, the company changed its signature pizza recipe, from crust to toppings.

Here again, Domino’s Pizza could have just promoted its new and improved product, communicating the positives without acknowledging the critics, but it chose a different route. The company built its entire campaign in 2010 around its “pizza turnaround,” with television ads featuring focus group critics expressing their dislike for the product. The reworked recipe and self-deprecating communications campaign fueled a 14.3% jump in same-restaurant sales in the U.S. Domino’s Pizza used the power of online interaction, where transparency and authenticity are rewarded. In kind, the pizza giant was rewarded for its candor and attention to consumer input.

Make Peace, Not War
Of course, engaging dissatisfied customers can be easier than inviting criticism from organizations with an opposing agenda. At least former customers see the potential value in what you have to offer. However, even with NGOs and activist groups, who seemingly oppose the very existence of your company or industry, engagement has value. NGOs, in particular, are adept at helping companies research and explore solutions to complex business-specific environmental and social issues, and their organizational strength can help to mitigate risks and reach new customers.

Costco learned this the hard way last year after becoming a target of Greenpeace’s “Carting Away the Oceans” campaign. The ongoing activist program is designed to create awareness about retailers that sell endangered species of seafood or those caught via methods that result in the death of nontarget species. As one of North America's largest seafood retailers, the company lacked a sustainable seafood policy and was an obvious target.

The Greenpeace campaign consisted of a dedicated Oh-No-Costco informational website and an activist tool kit that resulted in Costco’s CEO receiving 12,000 emails in a single day, encouraging him to eliminate “red list” seafood from Costco shelves. The campaign also involved Greenpeace members handing out flyers and “surveying” shoppers in Costco parking lots, while the Greenpeace airship circled the discount giant’s headquarters with the message: “Costco: Wholesale Ocean Destruction.”

At first, Costco’s strategy was to ignore the NGO’s questions about its seafood policies and to refuse to comment publicly about the campaign against it. However, after eight months of being subjected to the relentless campaign, Costco acquiesced and worked with Greenpeace in designing a seafood policy that the NGO heralds as a “major win for the oceans.” In fact, once Costco publicly announced its sustainable seafood policy, Greenpeace became one of its largest megaphones in getting the word out about its policy and concern for the oceans. Greenpeace subjected Trader Joe’s to the same-type of campaign just a year earlier and with the same results. This begs the question of why Costco didn’t seek to engage Greenpeace before becoming the subject of the NGO’s ire. Embracing that counterclockwise cog would have made for a much smoother transition to a sustainable seafood policy than being wrenched there by brute force.

Learning from “Insurgents"
Domino’s head chef summarized his company’s reason for embracing its critics and completely retooling its signature recipe: “It’s not about us being right; it’s about us having great food.” Understanding that you don’t have all the answers is a hallmark of good leadership. In the book, The Gamble, Thomas Ricks recounts how General David Petraeus and other U.S. military leaders revised the army’s approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq. One critical aspect was the inclusion of dissenting voices. In fact, the operational commander of U.S. forces, General Ray Ordiemo, went as far as to hire a British pacifist dedicated to getting the U.S. out of Iraq as his key aide, because she was willing to voice oppositional views to senior officers. He referred to her as “my insurgent.”

Digital media have certainly made finding a company’s insurgents easier. By mining Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms, companies can quickly identify common trends of criticisms or concerns to probe further through market research. Increasing interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a core business strategy has also made it easier to connect and communicate with NGOs and advocacy groups that offer a contrarian perspective of corporate efforts. For example, CERES is a non-profit organization that brings companies together with environmental and social issue experts and public interest organizations in face-to-face discussions about sustainability challenges.

Empathize to Realize Success
Regardless of how you discover and connect with critical voices, communicating productively requires an understanding of their motivating world view, which may differ from your own or your organization’s. According to John Marshall Roberts, founder of Worldview Learning and author of Igniting Inspiration, a world view is “a specific habitual way of looking at the world, which drives day-to-day behavior and dramatically influences how a person makes sense of sensory data (i.e., communications).” You must communicate differently with a satisfied customer or industry insider than you do with a contrarian, as it is likely their worldviews are quite different. Roberts recommends developing an understanding of “situational goals or pains,” which are automatic objections contrarians might use to dismiss your message, based upon their own personal or organizational goals. Then you are in a better position to have a constructive dialogue that results in shared objectives being met.

In the competitive world of business, it can be especially difficult to open up to stakeholders who are willing to bare their teeth and demand change, but it is important to remember that a clock with a toothless counter-gear is successful only twice a day.

About the Author(s)

Ron Loch is Managing Director, Sustainability Consulting Practice, Gibbs & Soell Business Communications . For more information, visit: www.gibbs-soell.com