The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: When Good Data Delivers Bad News

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Posted Jan 23, 2012
Kathryn Korostoff

One of the most challenging parts of being a market research project manager is having to deliver bad news to your audience. No one wants to be in the position of having to say, “Ma’am, the truth is you’ve got an ugly baby”, but it’s critical that bad news — when it occurs — be delivered honestly and promptly.

Bad News Happens

Perhaps you’ve done a customer feedback survey or you've been testing some new product ideas, and suddenly you’re staring at notably negative feedback. People hate that new logo, tagline or ad campaign? It happens.In market research, we sometimes get bad news. It's our job as market researchers to report this information as objectively as possible. Sugar coating bad news can only lead to disaster. You don't want to dilute the results, whether they’re positive or negative.

Telling it like it is

Having bad news to deliver isn’t pleasant, but luckily how you deliver that news can have an enormous impact on how it’s received and how it’s used. Here are some tips to make sure that when you do deliver bad news, it’s received as constructively as possible.• Anticipate — Before you even start a research program, think carefully. Is there a chance that this project might yield bad news? If you are doing a product testing project, do you think there’s a possibility that some of your ideas are going to get panned by your target population? If you see the potential for unpleasant surprises, set the expectation with your clients so they won’t BE surprised.• Give fair warning — Nobody wants to feel like they’ve been mugged by market research. If you have negative results from a project and information that might affect certain people in particular, it's always best to meet with those people one-on-one, ahead of time. Do it before you distribute a report, before you start announcing results and certainly before any sort of major presentation. Nobody likes to be told that their baby is ugly, but basic decency dictates that such news be delivered first in private.• Support your Conclusions — Whenever you can, have related data available to back up your negative assessment. It's easy for people to dismiss a single study, so if you must deliver bad news, it's good to have additional sources of data to refer to. Let’s say you've done a study to understand emerging customer needs in households with young children. You might not have access to any other research that's on the same exact topic, but you may find census information, anecdotal data or case studies that support the general trends revealed by your study. Look for correlations in related areas and use that information to support your findings. Even if you don't have identical data from a secondary source, you can have related data that helps explain the bad news.

Half Full, or Half Empty?

When we do deliver bad news, we want to show that there are different ways to react to bad news. If you do a market research study and nobody likes your new product concept, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't develop it. There’s good news in identifying likely sales objections. Maybe we didn’t describe the product well, maybe our research format wasn’t right or we missed our target audience — these are all valid “glass half full” interpretations of the results. If the market just isn’t ready for your product, you’ll have a long customer education cycle ahead, but isn’t it good to know that up front?

That’s the Good News

In the final analysis, having “bad news” isn’t really bad at all. Good data is almost always useful, even if it isn’t “good news.”

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