Lessons from The Brady Bunch
by Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Successfully blending companies takes communication, teamwork and a touch of humor
For the majority of us, our company is our family (or at least a big part of it). That makes sense, because so much of our time, attention and finances are expended during the 10-12-14 (or more) hours a day spent building the business. When it comes time to consider a merger or acquisition, we are blending two professional families, each with its own culture, traditions, inside jokes and operational strategies. And then there are the “children” to consider!
Employees need to be on board with the changes, and just as importantly, customers need to feel that the new company values and respects their needs. The sad truth is that when a company undergoes a merger or acquisition, the new entity can lose a significant percentage of its customer base. There are many reasons customers leave, from previous experiences with the new owners or service issues during the transition, to price/policy changes or even because the merger freed them of any personal loyalty to the former company.
Thankfully, there is a workable blueprint to managing these real-world situations, and it includes that heart-to-heart conversation that saves the day at about minute 27 of a 30-minute sitcom. Facing difficult M&A issues with honesty, open communications, teamwork and willingness to compromise can smooth many a rough patch as you move forward.
The Best Laid Plans
Standard fare for sitcoms are convoluted, implausible plans that go terribly awry, or plucky protagonists jumping into situations without any planning at all. And while “all’s well that ends well” works on TV, your M&A strategy must include careful, realistic strategic planning to ensure that all the moving parts work together.
We strongly recommend that you include your marketing partner in your strategy and planning sessions with the attorneys, accountants and leaders of both companies. We understand that discretion and confidentiality are required in many instances, and all parties should be willing to agree to non-disclosure. But a professional marketer will be able to advise you with regard to messaging to employees and customers, branding options, and timing and methods for public announcements.
Your planning should look at several transition phases:
Build-up: including defining your internal and external messaging, company name and branding, communications strategies, staffing issues, customer outreach, website and social media campaigns and advertising plans.
Launch day: by now every employee has been brought onboard with the transition and provided with talking points and FAQs about what the change means to the company and the customer, and when these changes will take effect.
First quarter: when you will spend a good bit of your time listening and adapting to what the employees tell you about new policies and procedures, where your operations are succeeding and failing, and what the customers are saying about it all. If your plan is faltering, you can change it, but only if you are part of the conversation. Honest feedback from your CSRs, active monitoring of social media and review sites, and direct interactions with customers are necessary to get the information you want to make the changes you need.
First year: this is when everything gets completely integrated: your branding, website, signage, trucks and corporate materials should all be uniform, your back-end systems merged, and your marketing consistent.
One for All!
Even in the idealized world of The Brady Bunch, there were issues blending the family in the early episodes: how much one side needed to listen to the other parent, which doctor to use, who got the bigger room, and how to learn to trust each other. As you combine two companies into one for all employees and customers, comparable issues will arise: questions of seniority and hierarchy, staffing and duplicate positions, branding and naming the new entity, and getting the staff to embrace the ‘new.’
It is important to remember that while the owners and leadership of both companies are “all in” with the M&A, the staff may not be. Your employees might fear losing their jobs and autonomy, having to learn new procedures, relocating, and working under new leadership. These individuals can be your best customer ambassadors through the transition and beyond, but if they are anxious, unhappy, or uninformed, that negativity will quickly find its way to your customer base.
To allay these fears, you need regularly scheduled, ongoing “family meetings” where the owners of both companies speak to the staff. The goal is to explain where you’re planning on taking the company and what benefits the change in ownership will offer them. How will duplicated positions be managed? Will benefits and salaries change? Will organization and operations processes be clearer? What programs are you adding, removing or changing? The bullet points for these discussions need to be about staff first, operational efficiency second, and customer benefits third.
These “family meetings” can and should take a multitude of forms, from formal meetings and training webinars to one-on-one hallway chats, and the conversation should be extended with emails, posters, FAQs, special intranet forums, payroll envelope stuffers, brochures and more. While you’re at it, bring the new “siblings” together with informal breakfasts or after-hours events, where they can get to know each other. Casually necessitate cross-company interactions and collaborations, with team-based icebreakers and competitions. In every instance, be open and let communications flow in both directions. These employees need to be heard, and answered honestly. They have boots-on-the-ground knowledge on how things “really” work and can offer suggestions about how they could work “better.” They also know your new customers more personally than the data points in your CRM, and that will be priceless as you launch your new company.
All for One!
It’s time to launch. The legalities and formalities have been completed. You’ve decided what to do or not do about branding. Operations have been integrated. Staff is on board. The only thing left to do is …
Tell the customers.
Communication, again, is key. The websites of both companies should have a warm, welcoming announcement posted. Press releases should be sent to local media and trade publications. Newsletters, email blasts and social media accounts should also announce the merger and track the transition. If the owners of the acquired company are staying on in any capacity, they can help smooth over rough spots and personally introduce the new owners. If there has been a name-change, invest in print and digital advertising, letting the community know that “Mike & Sons Oil is now Carol’s Energy Company!”
Every employee (yes, everyone) should have been trained on the new customer FAQs and talking points, so they can confidently answer any concerns. While you don’t want to insult the previous owners — who are probably working through the transition, at the least — you need to promote the ways the new company will offer “even more.”
Here’s where all the work you did to bring the staff together pays off. The same reps with whom Mrs. Jones has chatted for 25 years can reassure her that “of course, the driver will know not to walk through the flower beds.” This friendly voice can also tell Mrs. Jones about your new service plans and loyalty program, and gently explain that the budget program is being changed to a 10-month schedule. Your confident, happy and informed reps will ease worrisome customers’ concerns and get the biggest returns from that new customer list.
Customer service needs to be even more exceptional than usual during the transition. From the CSRs answering the phone to the service techs entering a home to the new managers and sales teams – any error or perceived slight will be seen as “the new company policy.” Poor customer service is the number one reason customers leave. Just a decade ago, they might have quietly jumped ship, never to be heard from again. Social media, though, gives them a platform. Several, in fact. Online reviews and comments can sway potential customers toward or away from you as strongly as any personal recommendation. This makes it vital that you monitor these platforms and respond quickly to every comment. We have seen, many times, a negative comment be updated with a rave review after company leaders personally responded to an issue. Multiple poor reviews can also help you identify and correct any transition issues.
Your communications partners should be well equipped to monitor multiple social media accounts and the universe of review sites. Furthermore, they can ensure you take the right tone when speaking to employees, shareholders and customers, and that your messaging, mission and branding are consistent across all conversations.
That’s a Wrap!
At the end of every 30-minute episode, the Brady family has learned a valuable lesson about trust or teamwork, shared a laugh over everything that had gone sideways in the process, and was optimistically looking forward to their next adventure.
It will take a bit more than half an hour to complete your M&A journey. But, as with our blended sitcom family, with honesty, communication and more communication, your story can have its own happily-ever-after.
PriMedia has been assisting energy industry companies with their M&A marketing and communications strategies since 1993. For more information on marketing through a merger or acquisition, call 1-800-796-3342 or contact us online at goprimedia.com.