Communication Mistake: Telling Customers You Can’t Deliver

While I was at Fairfax County Public Schools, I was part of the development of the district’s award winning opt-in e-mail system, Keep in Touch. The system allows parents and others to sign up to get routine and emergency (snow closing) messages from the district.

Keep in Touch has been cited as a national model on numerous occasions. In 2006 when I left FCPS, the subscriber rate indicated that 80 percent or more of district families participate. Honestly, I count the program as one of my greatest contributions to FCPS.

Imagine my dismay when the district started sending a series of messages that basically said the system is broken, don’t count on it. Here’s a quote from one of several messages sent (using Keep in Touch): “In the event of a weather emergency (e.g., a snowstorm), Keep in Touch messages may take an hour or more to be delivered. E-mail should not be your first or only option for receiving emergency closing information.” The messages go on to name the vendor who provides the system and lay blame at the vendor’s feet for the poor performance.

Huh?

When your communication tools give you problems, it is not the time to shrug your shoulders and blame the vendor. Just as you take credit for effective communication, you need to take responsibility when it does not go well. Parents don’t care about your vendor management issues, they just want to know if schools are closed.

Taking the knocks for things that are not 100 percent in your control isn’t easy, but it is the professional thing to do. Try this message: FCPS parents, we are not getting these messages out as fast as we would like, here are other ways you can get these messages. . .We are working to fix the issue.

And, while you are standing on the firing line for issues that aren’t completely in your control, make sure you write down all those wonderful hindsight thoughts that help you understand how to avoid being in such an uncomfortable place again.