As a million advertising and sales gurus will tell you, ‘instil fear in the customer and you’ll create demand’. Whether you find being given the hard sell intimidating or an imaginary audition for QVC, this sales technique doesn’t float our PS Programmes boat anywhere near as much as a company building a relationship with a client, finding out what a client needs and bringing our experience to bear on solving their business problem.

Fear is a dangerous genie to let out of the bottle. One place you’re likely to hear a hard sale is in the tumble drier section of your local white goods showroom. As we know only too well, the mistakes at the top of a company are often felt by the people facing the customer: when your take home pay depends upon your ability to sell a product, a bad news story about that product can have a serious impact on the monthly figures. And that isn’t good for the salespeople, the retail company or the manufacturer. For all these reasons, the Hotpoint washing machine and tumble drier scandal that is currently unfolding in the nation’s homes spells bad news for the company.

Hotpoint is one brand under the Whirlpool umbrella: other brands include Indent and Creda, but we’re going to stick to referring to ‘Hotpoint’ to keep things straightforward.

This is not just another ‘communications gone wrong’ story – goodness knows that at PS Programmes we not only have our own extensive collection that we use as the basis for our crisis media management workshops and talks on the subject, we also hear informal tales of ‘near misses’ from clients. There are plenty of narrow escapes, could-have-beens and stories that managed to skim under the radar.

The Hotpoint situation demonstrates clearly why good communication and good business are two sides of the same coin. It should also serve as a warning that a mistake, badly handled, can have big implications at all levels of an organisation.

A problem with communicating with the public

We can play ‘Bad Comms Bingo’ with this situation. Disgruntled customers posting on social media? Check. Unrealistic promises made to smooth things over? Check. A general sense that the last people to see and respond to the problem were the leaders of the organisation that caused it? Check.

Hotpoint is a national, well-established and highly respected brand. While much of the news happens to ‘other people’, many of us have a product in our home with the Hotpoint logo on it. When such a news story hits, it triggers a nasty feeling that you may have a potentially lethal machine quietly sitting in a corner in your own home. How many times have you chucked something in the drier before you go out for the day? Or nodded off to the sound of tomorrow’s outfit rolling around in the machine? This is precisely the taint of mistrust that could be seriously affecting the company years from now.

Indeed, for a brand the road back from a moment of misjudged media management to restoring its reputation is a long one – just ask Skoda, whose brand renaissance may be thwarted in the wake of the VW emissions debacle.

Communications are vital, especially if they are multi-channel. Or, in plain English, deliver your message using your people who talk directly to your customers as well as using an official company spokesperson to speak to traditional media and on social media. Remember, when a crisis hits, customer services teams are the front line, and they are often under a huge amount of pressure. They will be the first port of call for many of your customers in a crisis, so it’s imperative that they are briefed and prepared so that they understand what to say to customers and how to say it.

The Daily Mail story about the Bettridge family whose Hotpoint washing machine exploded, destroying their kitchen, highlights the role and the importance of a customer service team in a crisis. The last few sentences in the Daily Mail article are particularly damning of Hotpoint. Mr Bettridge is quoted, saying: “I’m so annoyed because I’ve gone down all the right routes to try and get help.

“The lady on the phone said there was nobody I could talk to, and when I got annoyed she put the phone down on me.

“I feel like we’ve been fobbed off.”

Some serious red flags for Hotpoint here:

• Mr Bettridge comes across as a lot more reasonable than one might expect considering the circumstances
• He has done all the ‘right things’ and feels as though Hotpoint has washed its hands of his concerns.
• Hotpoint is perceived as careless and indifferent in concern about the safety of their machines once they have left the company warehouse.
• All Hotpoint customers who own a machine – whether it has exploded or not – are now feeling the pain and are being hung out to dry by the company that is at fault
• Perhaps worse than the news story itself are the reader comments beneath the story in which other Hotpoint customers air their grievances against the company.

As the story unfolded, things got worse for the company when a whistleblower from Hotpoint spoke out after quitting her job, saying, among many things, that potentially lethal tumble dryers were being ignored by Hotpoint.

The moral of this story is: however expensive you think it is to fix a problem (such as a faulty product) when you first discover the issue, it’s a lot less expensive than it will be to fix it once it has metaphorically burst into flames in a customer’s kitchen.

Fixing the problem

Arguably, the horse has already bolted here, but Hotpoint can still claw back some goodwill – though it will be difficult and expensive.

Getting the problem sorted quickly is going to have to be a priority, and clear communication on timescales is going to be an issue. It should be clear that reliability of the mechanics and technicians is going to be a factor – none of this promising to be there at 10am and then turning up at 3.15pm nonsense.

Hotpoint should start by making small promises that it can keep. This could be something as straightforward as saying ‘We can’t confirm when we will have an engineer for you, but we will give you an update tomorrow,’ and then give the customer the update – even if the update is ‘no further news’. Hotpoint needs to start building relationships with customers, and those relationships begin with going back to the basics of establishing trust.

Ultimately without trust, a brand like Hotpoint will be less worried about profitability and more concerned with survival; Hotpoint is rightly proud of its long history in the industry, but it could very easily go the way of Woolworths, Chrysler and Delta if they don’t fix what is clearly broken.

Time and again at PS Programmes, we work with organisations that question us about whether crisis media management training is time and money well spent. We rarely have to look further back than a few weeks or days in the news to provide examples of companies that have got it seriously wrong and – if you’ll pardon the hard sell – regretted not implementing crisis media management training sooner.

Finally, back to Hotpoint: what will be the conclusion? Will customers hang Hotpoint out to dry for good or will the stain simply come out in the wash? Only time will tell…

This article appears on PS Programmes website as well as Nadine Dereza’s website. Nadine is the co-author of the best selling Insider Secrets of Public Speaking