You can stop a broken supply chain from breaking trust
You’re in charge of many aspects of your business. Like making decisions about the products or services you offer. Choosing your branding. Creating a positive customer journey. But one thing you can’t control: supply chain disruptions.
There are so many situations that can derail your supply chain. Commodity fluctuations, geopolitical conflicts, labor shortages, climate change weather events, pandemics… The list goes on and on.
No matter what contributes to the breakdown, it can burn your business. According to company leaders polled in “The Business Costs of Supply Chain Disruption”, the biggest consequence is a “tarnished brand reputation.” And even more bad news: Supply chain disruptions aren’t going anywhere. Another survey in 2022 revealed that nearly 96% of respondents felt their networks are either “usually, always, or sometimes” a problem.
Credit source: Baltimore Sun
That sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true that you can’t prevent a raw materials shortage or clear a blocked trade route. But you can control your response, including how you communicate a supply chain delay to customers. And that can enable you to preserve your reputation and relationships when disaster strikes.
Let’s start by looking at one company that did things right and one that did things wrong.
How to communicate a supply chain delay to customers — and how not to
Two popular brands had two very different approaches to supply chain message strategy.
The chicken couldn’t cross the road, so KFC pivoted
In 2018, KFC closed more than half of its 900 U.K. restaurants for about a week. They had recently chosen a new delivery partner to cut costs. But DHL had only one distribution center serving the entire country. Chicken deliveries became bottlenecked.
KFC lost millions of dollars, but they could have lost so much more: their customers’ trust and future business. Instead, they jumped on social media to respond to customers’ questions and complaints. They updated their website with open locations while still paying staff at closed restaurants.
And finally, KFC issued an apology that was both honest and clever. Their ad in the Sun and Metro newspapers featured an empty KFC bucket with the letters rearranged to spell “FCK.” It won a silver and three gold Lions in Cannes International Festival of Creativity, which is a pretty big deal.
Credit source: Adweek
So even though KFC couldn’t offer their signature product, their attention-grabbing and empathetic messaging softened the blow.
Pedaling on to a message strategy fail
At the beginning of the pandemic, Peloton became insanely popular. As gyms were closing due to COVID, people were snapping up exercise bikes and treadmills in record numbers.
But because Peloton sourced its parts from overseas, supply chain breakdowns wouldn’t let them meet the demand. COVID-related shipping snarls at seaports led to long delays. As customers complained and canceled orders, Peloton released vague messaging around disruptions and extended wait times.
This did little to appease customers who had spent $2,000 on a piece of exercise equipment. And instead of addressing comments on social media, Peloton ignored them. Even the Peloton Facebook group was overwhelmed by a rush of disgruntled consumers.
Following Peloton’s supply chain fail, demand cooled as gyms reopened. Two product recalls didn’t help, either. In May 2023, Peloton stock had plummeted 95% from its all-time high in January 2021.
Credit source: Reddit
If you get the message right, you safeguard your business. Get it wrong, and there may be no recovery. As we dive into our 4 Cs approach, you’ll better understand how KFC’s messaging was compelling and controlled. It was emotional, relatable, and shocking! On the flip side, Peloton’s messaging was vague, clichéd, and definitely not customer-centric.
– Stephen Hawking
How to avert a crisis with a supply chain message strategy
Life doesn’t always give us lead time. When your supply chain is disrupted, you need to move fast to turn your communications into results. The good news: Our 4 Cs still apply to a shorter-term supply chain message strategy.
1. Be customer-centric
It’s natural to feel defensive during a supply chain disruption. Or to want to lean on your accomplishments. But it’s a mistake to focus on your company or brand. It’s not about you. Think about how your customers feel, and be empathetic. Always make the message about your audience, and how you can solve their problems. Here’s an example:
We are currently experiencing delivery delays. We’re facing logistics issues that are causing a backlog of orders. We take pride in delivering outstanding customer service — and have for the past 35 years. We will be back to normal as soon as possible.
Delays are frustrating, and you deserve better. A global lumber shortage is causing production problems. But please know we’re vetting alternate suppliers to resolve the issues as fast as we can. Your order should ship in 3–4 weeks, so stay tuned for a shipping notification. In the meantime, you can browse similar products below. To cancel, contact us.
Notice the subject of the sentences in the first one. Who’s it talking about? You! Now look at the second one. It makes the customer the star of the show.
2. Make your messaging clear
Your customers can see right through jargon and buzzwords. I think about how many times I read “unprecedented global event” during COVID. I got so tired of seeing that phrase that it stopped meaning anything to me.
Let’s say you’re experiencing an environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-related disruption. Maybe it’s a shortage of natural resources or a labor strike over poor working conditions. Because you choose more sustainable suppliers, your products are now delayed.
This could be an ideal time to educate consumers about your sustainable supply chain. With clear, direct messaging, your eco-conscious customers may be more forgiving of a delay. And you may even increase customer loyalty.
Be careful to avoid greenwashing, which is making exaggerated claims about your impact on the environment. Stick to the facts, not lofty statements like “Saving the planet” or “100% environmentally friendly.”
Here’s how you could communicate a supply chain shortage to customers: “Our products are sourced from sustainable suppliers. While that means reduced emissions and waste, right now it means a delay. Due to a copper shortage in Peru, your cookware will be delayed by 5–6 weeks. We understand that may be unacceptable to you. If you’d like to order something else, contact us. We’ll provide you with a free online personal shopper who can help you pick out a comparable product.”
3. Tell a compelling story
It’s Marketing 101 that you want to emphasize the benefits of your brand and products. You also want to evoke emotions in your customers. But don’t overpromise, like guaranteeing an item will arrive in two days. (Unless you’re confident it will, of course, then go ahead!)
Here’s an idea. If a supply chain disruption leads to product shortages, can you turn scarcity into an opportunity? Scarcity is one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion. In his research, he pointed out that limited availability makes consumers want something more. If you’ve ever been on a hotel website and seen “Only one room left at this price!” you’ve experienced the scarcity principle at work.
Try to build excitement around coveted items while promoting similar in-stock products. You could also create an email waitlist when inventory runs out, then find ways to engage customers who sign up. Consider sending newsletters with useful how-to blogs or designing a fun brand awareness campaign. You’ll stay top of mind while you’re getting back on track.
4. Keep your communications controlled
Undisciplined messaging can wreak havoc on your reputation and bottom line. Imagine that three people are running your different social media accounts. You haven’t defined your brand voice, so nobody has any guidelines. The result is a mishmash of posts in various voices, and none really resonate with your target audience.
During a supply chain disruption, share consistent updates across all your marketing channels. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, train employees how to respond to questions so there’s no mixed messaging.
Is your business getting the 4 Cs right, or do you need a counterpart? Find out by taking our free 4-point message assessment.
Say it right with a supply chain message strategy
Supply chain disruptions are a risk of doing business, especially when so many companies rely on global partners. While data and industry trends can help you increase visibility into your supply chain, there’s no way to predict or prevent interruptions.
But you can be proactive in how you communicate a supply chain delay to customers. That includes creating a message strategy that helps build trust and defends your reputation. With the right approach, you may even reach a new level of customer loyalty.