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COMMUNICATING PROBLEMS IN APPAREL SOURCING - A PRACTICAL GUIDE

By Margie Bross | 25 February 2019

In last month’s extract of When Things Go Wrong by Margie Bross, we focused on the fundamentals of managing common problems in apparel sourcing and the practical advice on how to overcome them; chapter one - Evaluating the Impact. This month, we’re learning about how to deliver the bad news in times of crisis.

When disaster strikes, it’s all too easy to apportion blame, feel angry, and become upset. So whether you find yourself finger pointing, or on the receiving end of a grumpy email, face-to-face or phonecall conversation, this report examines how best to communicate and accept responsibility for a situation, establish a speedy and precise solution, and ultimately agree the best step forward.

Remember, if the sourcing team slips up it’s your mess to sort, and honesty is ALWAYS the best policy.

1. Evaluate the impact

2. Deliver the bad news

3. Fix the problem

4. Learn from the experience



 

2. DELIVER THE BAD NEWS

Decades of being on the receiving end of the wrath of merchants, designers and even some CEOs has revealed a predictable sequence of response from the injured party. The emails (formerly the telex and fax) generally progress like this:

#1 I’m shocked and dismayed!

#2 How can this happen?

#3 Why wasn’t I advised?

#4 It’s your fault …

After the stakeholders are allowed to vent a bit of justifiable surprise, outrage and finger pointing, everyone can settle down and focus on addressing and resolving the problem.

Accept Responsibility: Control The Message

Like the stages of grief, the realisation that things have gone wrong on your watch often starts off with denial which then gives way to anger, bargaining and depression, and finally acceptance. A lot of aggravation could be avoided by going directly to the acceptance stage and devoting energy to how to deliver the bad news, factually and unemotionally.

The first step is to take responsibility, personally. At the end of the day, the sourcing team is responsible for getting the product made correctly and shipped on time by factories that comply with the brand’s policies. When that doesn’t happen for any and all reasons, see #4:

It’s your fault …

Explanations are certainly in order, but go easy on the excuses and blame. It is your job to anticipate production problems and if you and your team slipped up, admit it. Accept responsibility, absorb the criticism, apologise and acknowledge the impact of the problem.

Admitting to mistakes, poor judgement, carelessness or sheer stupidity is painful, but refusal to accept responsibility will make it harder to get the stakeholders to collaborate on fixing the problem.

Speed, Clarity, Honesty: The Cover-Up Is Worse Than The Crime

Move quickly on making contact with the impacted stakeholders. Again, keep the emotional volume turned to low. You’ll want to get a statement out immediately that reflects your grasp of the severity of the situation and your understanding of the brand’s priorities. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but if the situation is still obscured by a “fog of war”, reserve the right to delay a full explanation until you’re certain your information is accurate.

Damage control may make sense in politics and public relations, but it’s a non-starter in apparel production. The brand’s stakeholders will expect precise and complete information on the status of their merchandise. Any attempt to spin facts to cover up supply chain missteps will come back to bite you later. Eventually the truth will bubble up to the surface, and if you tried to pass along fallacious explanations or flimsy excuses, you’ll end up with two problems – the original one and your handling of it. Better to stick to the truth from the beginning, than to have to correct or amend your account later.

If you face the situation head-on, over time your reputation for honesty, even in an uncomfortable situation, will serve you well. Though their initial reaction may be intense, managers understand that occasionally things will go wrong. They may express frustration harshly at first, but if provided with clear and honest information, will deal with the problem professionally. How you respond to adversity says everything about your character and competence, which will be remembered long after the specific production problem is forgotten.

Assess The Problem: Calibrate, Investigate, Communicate

Not all production problems are created equal. The scope of damage is variable. The problem may only have short-term ramifications or its impact may be long-lasting. It may have visibility high up the leadership ladder or it may only affect the lower rungs. Your evaluation of the impact of the problem on your stakeholders’ priorities should be used to calibrate your response.

Keeping the bad news at the lower strata of your company’s hierarchy may be the least painful approach, but if people or a brand’s image are at risk, elevate your response to the highest level of the organisation. Bad news has a tendency to filter up, and the delayed reaction may be more severe than if you had contacted the boss directly in the first place. (See #2: Why wasn’t I advised?)

In gathering information, take time to peel back the layers of the onion. Be aware that the first input you receive may be inaccurate and that facts may emerge slowly. Your team and suppliers may withhold incriminating details out of fear or embarrassment. Ideally, you will have already established a trusting relationship so that they won’t feel the need to stonewall or whitewash. Good people and good factories make mistakes. When they do, they need to feel comfortable bringing problems to you knowing that you’ll offer solutions, not recriminations.

Get a variety of perspectives and probe deeply. Present your initial assessment of the situation simply and factually, neither overly optimistically nor overly pessimistically. What you want to get across is “This is what happened and this is the current status of production. We’ll come back to you shortly with our recommendations.”

Catch-up with us next month when we highlight the third chapter of ‘When things go wrong’ and discuss the best route to fixing the problem, and eventually learning from the experience.





 

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