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It's important you deal with a minority of unhappy stakeholders - not just the happy ones.

Why you should worry about the unhappy two per cent

Telstra chairman John Mullen touched on a variety of issues when he spoke at the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Rottnest Forum recently – covering everything from the attainability and practicalities of work-life balance to the limitations of the minimum wage.

But the subject that struck the biggest chord with me was the damage that can be done to a business’ reputation by a small percentage of unhappy customers or stakeholders.

As Mullen highlighted, a business doesn’t have to deliberately do something wrong to create significant reputational issues. Equally, the potential damage from that wrongdoing has little to do with whether or not it affects a majority, especially in this modern age of social media.

The high-profile example Mullen focussed on was the recent Royal Commission evidence that some major banks and financial institutions had charged fees to dead people. 

It’s hard to imagine the proportion of customers being impacted by this being any more than a few per cent (if that). But that’s not really important. What matters is that it happened at all and that there can be no rational or adequate explanation for it.

Mullen explained some of the lessons he’d learned during more than a decade as a director of Telstra, including close to three years now as chairman.

You might have 98 per cent of your customers satisfied with the service you are providing and never hear from them. But it’s the other 2 per cent who aren’t happy who have the capacity to be the loudest.

“Don’t tell me about the 98 per cent, I want to hear about the 2 per cent – and how we are addressing their issues,” was the message Mullen said he often relayed to Telstra executives.

There are important learnings in that for pretty much any business: around not being satisfied with being “mostly good enough”, drilling down to the smallest details and obsessing about getting things right.

Understanding the needs and situations of a wide cross-section of customers and stakeholders was another theme Mullen put in the spotlight.

As he emphasised, the average Australian wage is $80,000 and if you earn more than $109,000 you are in the top 10 per cent in the country.

How many corporate board members would earn less than that? Not very many, would be my guess.

As businesses (and their executives and boards) strive to both develop and demonstrate social awareness, it’s integral that they also seek to understand the needs, fears, hopes, dreams and pain points of our communities. 

As Mullen put it, you should “never forget what it is like for the majority.”

Simon Corrigan is a Director in Cannings Purple’s Corporate Affairs team and an expert in community stakeholder management and Indigenous engagement. Prior to joining Cannings Purple he was BHP’s Head of Community and Indigenous Affairs. Contact Simon.

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