Change Communication: Can a single email make or break an organizational change?

The Email

In October 2018, AbeBooks, a marketplace for antiquarian books owned by Amazon, sent an email to booksellers in five countries.

The message?

"Effective November 30, 2018, AbeBooks will no longer support sellers located in certain countries. Your business is located in one of the affected countries and your AbeBooks seller account will be closed on November 30, 2018. We apologize for this inconvenience."

How big a deal was this? In the world of Amazon, we can imagine it was barely a blip. But for the booksellers receiving this email, it was huge.

AbeBooks provided access to a significant marketplace for these sellers of rare and antique books. As one vendor shared, losing access to AbeBooks would mean cutting five jobs…saying goodbye to five employees.

Understandably, if he was going to need to fire people — and lose access to a significant market — he wanted to know why. The problem was, accordingly to these sellers, AbeBooks wasn’t telling, even when they asked the company directly.

The sellers then contacted the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) for assistance. The best explanation this group could get from Abe was an opaque statement:

“We sincerely regret having to take this action, but it is no longer viable for us to operate in these countries due to increasing costs and complexities."

Oh, of course…costs and complexities!

If this had remained a conversation between this small set of vendors and this giant corporation, we likely never would have heard about it.

But it didn't.

The news of the email spread...and infuriated sellers worldwide. The antiquarian book world is small but tight. Even those who weren’t directly affected resented what they viewed as the “high handed” behavior of AbeBooks. They were particularly incensed by the “cavalier” attitude the company seemed to have toward their livelihoods. They understood, if Abe could do this to sellers in South Korea, Hungary or Russia, they could do it to them, too.

The seeds of a strike were planted.

The Global Strike

One bookseller announced he would “take a vacation” from selling on AbeBooks as an act of solidarity with sellers in impacted markets. Eventually, over 600 sellers in 27 countries joined the strike, which they branded “Banned Booksellers Week.” All in all, the strike removed over 2.5 million items from the AbeBooks marketplace.

And…the story made news all over the globe. It was surely driven, at least in part, by the popularity of any David versus Goliath tale. Nonetheless, what started as a few line email ended up an international news story covered in the US, Russia, Britain, France, and Sweden.

Now AbeBooks was not just fielding questions from its vendors, but also the international press. In a statement to the press, AbeBooks shed a bit more light on its reason for ending service in these countries: “Our third-party payment service provider is closing at the end of the year. We regret that we cannot continue to serve all sellers.” Still, this justification puzzled some. Amazon was selling items and processing payments in these countries, why couldn’t AbeBooks? Was locking these vendors out of the market the only or best option?

After a few days, the strike was over. ILAB reported that they had reached an understanding with AbeBooks. They said that the CEO had apologized for Abe’s “bad decision” and assured the group that sellers from all countries could continue to participate in its marketplace. Essentially AbeBooks was saying, “On second thought, we’ll find another way to solve the payment processor problem.”

So, can one email make or break an organizational change?

Probably not. Usually we aren’t given one and only one chance to communicate during a change. It’s an ongoing conversation. If we screw up, we have other opportunities to make it right. The question, of course, is whether we’ll make the most of our second chances…or as in the case with Abe, third or fourth chances.

Even so, an email or any communication about a change can amplify issues. If you don’t understand the dynamics at play, if the purpose of the change isn’t clear, if you haven’t thought through the impacts, it will become evident once you start “talking.”

It may be tempting to feel a bit smug when reading the AbeBooks case — that would never happen to me! But in reality, this kind of thing happens in different forms at all kinds of organizations. Leading change is not rocket science, but it can seem like it if you are ignorant of or lack skill in the unique demands of the task.

Although it may not make the papers in London or New York, failure to effectively communicate during change always impacts people. So, why not learn from others’ mistakes? Keep the following in mind when planning communications for your next change effort.

(Mis)Reading Your Audience

What information is communicated, and how and when it is shared offers some insight into the priorities and values of the communicator. These may not be the priorities and values of the receiver. In such cases, change communicators need to acknowledge or bridge that divide. That means they need to care enough to understand their audience and ensure their message addresses what’s important to both the sender and receiver.

In the AbeBooks case, several booksellers interviewed by the press noted it wasn’t so much what AbeBooks did that infuriated them, it was how they did it. The impersonal and “need to know” nature of the email from AbeBooks, which seems to be indicative of the communication culture in Amazon, was a poor match for the relationship-based culture amongst the sellers.

Additionally, AbeBooks seems to have overlooked a critical audience — booksellers not directly impacted by the change. In any change where there are winners and losers, even winners or those not directly involved may feel threatened. Particularly when those who are negatively impacted are perceived to be mistreated — it sets expectations and fears. If it can happen to them, it can happen to me, too.

Finally, it’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street (at least). Abe may have underestimated the ability of the sellers to find their voice in the conversation. When people feel threatened or disrespected they often talk — and act. Perhaps, in ways you least expect. (Global strike anyone?)

(For)Getting Fairness

As I have written elsewhere, perceptions of fairness or “justice” can have a significant impact during an organizational change. We often think about the winners and losers (distributive fairness) in a change. However, it turns out people also really care about procedural fairness— how decisions are made — and informational and interpersonal fairness — how information is shared and how people are treated. Explanations — sharing why something is happening, why it’s necessary, why this option was chosen — are one way to demonstrate fairness.

Would the outcome of the AbeBooks case have been different if the company had included an explanation for its decision, and a respectful acknowledgment of the impact this would have on these sellers, in that original email?

(Not) Anticipating the Obvious

Yes, change can be complicated — so many stakeholders, how could you possibly plan for everything!?! The thing is, it's not a complete mystery. There are questions you can anticipate.

Research on change readiness highlights five key topics that are a good starting point when communicating about a change.

  • The Need: Is the change necessary — how do we know? What are we trying to achieve?

  • The Right Solution: Is the proposed change the right solution to our problem? Is it a good fit for the need, culture, and resources of the organization? How do we know?

  • Change Capability: Is the organization capable of implementing this change? Am I?

  • Support: Does the organization support this change? Does my leader?

  • Impact: How will the change impact my team and me?

If you don’t have an answer to any of these questions, or the answers are muddled, that’s a good indication you have some issues to tackle before you start communicating.


This article is part of the #ChangeBlogChallenge on the topic of Change Communication. Click here to see what other change thinkers say about this topic.

References

AbeBooks closes accounts and withdraws from several markets. (2018, October 29). Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://ilab.org/articles/abebooks-closes-accounts-and-withdraws-several-markets

Rafferty, A. E., Jimmieson, N. L., & Armenakis, A. A. (2013). Change readiness: A multilevel review. Journal of management39(1), 110-135.

Streitfeld, D. (2018, November 07). After Protest, Booksellers Are Victorious Against Amazon Subsidiary. Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/technology/amazon-bookseller-protest-strike.html

Streitfeld, D. (2018, November 04). Booksellers Protest Amazon Site's Move to Drop Stores From Certain Countries. Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/technology/abebooks-amazon-protest-booksellers.html

Wide Media Coverage - Rare Booksellers send their books "on vacation". (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ilab.org/articles/wide-media-coverage-rare-booksellers-send-their-books-vacation

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