Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let's Get This Party Started: Winning the War for Customers

I’m officially declaring the Gloom and Doom funk over! I think we’ve all spent too much time examining the lint in our own navels and have found it much too interesting. Maybe it’s the minute-by-minute access to disasters or the endless shouting by talking heads that has us paralyzed but we won’t get better if we don’t get busy.

Business always has been tough, even when everyone said we’d never had it so good. Finding good people; finding great customers; finding terrific ideas: haven’t these always been our challenges? Sure, the pace of change is much faster and there are a lot more consequences to our global business network. There’s always something so why not acknowledge that it is what it is and let’s get going to find new customers and keep those who have selected us as their provider of choice.

So, what’s on our To Do list? I can think of a few positive things to perk up our customer focus:

Paint a Picture: what is your vision of your ideal customer experience and how are you measuring up? Gather information and insights directly from customers and employees (who are very good predictors of how things really are with customers) and indirectly from web searches. There is a lot of comment in cyberspace and some of it could be about you. Ask your customers about all aspects of the experience including, for example, first call resolution, ease of self-service and access to information on your web site and so on.

Get a Plan: close the gaps between what you want your customer experience to be and what your audience says it is. And, execute it! A plan is not action and hope is not a strategy. You might be surprised at how galvanizing it is for your employees to experience the momentum of putting ideas into action.

Tell a Story: current and prospective customers are more engaged by success stories than by product features, brochures and fact sheets. Buying is an emotional experience and stories tap into that reservoir.

Give Them Something to Talk About: Engage in authentic conversations in ways that your customers prefer: social media, your web site, guest blogs, anywhere. Ask them to write reviews and participate in online focus groups. People are flattered by the invitation and most of the time, are happy to provide feedback (note: just don’t overdo the frequency) IF it’s done in a personalized way.

What else should be on our To Do list? Let’s get busy and start the party. End of funk.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Done Here, Felt Everywhere: Behavior Matters More Than Ever

The Gulf oilrig explosion and its aftermath is an example of how what we do (or fail to do) impacts others we don’t know in ways we haven’t even considered. Did the relentless push to drill, baby, drill faster to save money and to get the oil (revenue) flowing as quickly as possible compromise BP’s values? Lives have been lost; livelihoods are endangered; ecosystems and economies may never recover. Even my condo in Hilton Head has seen an increase in rentals because vacationers don’t want to risk a holiday on the Gulf coast. The ripple effect will be felt globally through many channels in very quantifiable ways.

We are so intertwined and so connected, thanks to technology and the Internet; we are so darned global that more of us have the power to impact other people’s lives than ever. So, how we behave; how we treat others and how we build trust with employees and customers have an exponential impact on them, on others we can’t even identify and on our own businesses.

Leaders: this is where you come in.

The CEO of BP can hug all the fisherman in Louisiana he wants but if he put profit before ethical behavior (by short circuiting safety for example), what does that say to his employees in terms of their own behaviors? How should customers react? What has this done to BP’s prized Brand? Judging by recent loyalty scores for Toyota, for example, customers and would-be buyers take time to recover when confidence is shaken.

BP’s Values are Progressive, Responsible, Innovative and Performance-driven. It looks good on a web site but do they influence behaviors and decisions? Time will tell and the whole world will be judging.

As a leader, Tony Hayward needs to demonstrate how he and his company will rise above PR, litigation and playing the blame game to behave in a way that inspires confidence and trust. That behavior will ricochet around the world in social media channels and news outlets as fast as the bad news is traveling. His recent performance on Capital Hill suggests that this is not a lesson Mr. Hayward has learned yet.

Dov Seidman, author of the book, How, says that we all now live in the “Era of Behavior”. He argues that too many of us are behaving by situational values or whatever the situation allows. Sustainable values on the other hand inspire us to do what should be done in every situation; they strengthen relationships for the long-term and reinforce our reputation in the global networks that drive our brand performance.

If how we behave doesn't match what we say on web sites, in annual reports or corporate communications, how successful do you think we will be with issues like employee engagement, customer commitment or organizational culture change? Behavior matters. End of story.

Monday, May 10, 2010

We Don't Own the Customer Relationship and What We Can Do About It

Ah, those halcyon days when companies owned the customer relationship and decided what the buyer needed to know and when she needed to know it. When advertising on television or in newspapers were the only way to capture the attention of a rapt audience. We built it, however indifferently, and they came.

Well, that was then and here we are now. I came across again a great book published ten years ago, titled “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and its preamble struck me as more true now than when it was first published. “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings – and our reach exceeds our grasp. Deal with it.”

In thinking about how our companies can change the conversation with customers, I believe it’s the whole company that engages and creates the moments of truth. Frankly it amazes me that I can still come across stories as I did last weekend in the New York Times about the complete failure of a major airline to deal effectively with a reasonable request for a refund. It wasn’t just the unbelievably difficult voice mail navigation or the lack of a human to speak with or the conflicting information provided by different departments but also the arrogance of a senior employee who blamed the customer for not being able discern the difference between a Customer Refund Department and a Customer Relations Department (huh??). Oh yes, we still hold our customers hostage, but those opportunities are fewer and the more often these stories are repeated online and the dinosaur company that still doesn’t get it is named, the more the customer manifesto gains strength. Did this story just make you sit up? Remind you of your own company? Uh oh.

Here are a few thoughts in the context of engaging the whole company to create effective human networks:

Strategy: How do you define your market? It’s a human network of conversations that are smarter and more informed than ever. If you aren’t providing information and support, your markets are finding it among themselves and making you irrelevant.

Leadership: Are you having a conversation with your markets or providing talking points, corporate communications and PR? Markets can move quickly – away from you.

Culture: is it command and control you seek or hands on knowledge and respect?

Employees: This group is remarkably like your markets because they, too, are human beings who want information, support and conversations. Are you building networks for them to have meaningful exchanges? If you think your intranet fulfills this requirement, look at it again. Or, read about what Proctor and Gamble did to build its very successful networks for employees and customers.

Customers: They have a voice and they want to use it. You have a voice and they want to hear it. Not in brochures or web sites that have no substance. Not in the scripted “dialogue” with your call center. As the Manifesto summed it up, “You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.”

We can invest in all the technology and processes our CFO will allow but if we don’t build in the human desire for connection and conversation, we will be talking to ourselves.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Five Things I Learned From the Men on a Submarine

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about customer (no)service during a recent buying experience and it prompted some interesting discussion with Adrian Bashford in Ontario. People who responded to the blog were unanimous in their agreement that leadership is accountable for the customer relationship. That led to the question: where do leaders learn skills other than finance, marketing and operations? Adrian suggested that the lack of military training in our leadership ranks over the past few decades might be at the heart of the problem. My first reaction, was “heck no” but it got me thinking about an experience I had a few years ago when I spent two days with the officers and men of the USS Nebraska at the King’s Bay Nuclear Submarine base in Georgia. Adrian might be on to something.

Values Guide Every Decision: every man knew the Navy’s core values and the expectation that behaviors and decisions were guided by those values.
It’s About the Mission: The purpose of each 3-month trip under the ocean was well understood by all men on the boat; it was the plan of execution.
Train to the Mission: training was embedded in every task during a voyage and was reinforced during dry dock periods. Every training session included an After Action Review. Nothing long or drawn out, just What Happened? What Was Supposed to Happen? What Accounted for the Difference? What Will We Do Differently Next Time? During those days and nights at sea, the men were engaged in learning and studying for their exams to move to the next position.
Only Warheads Exist in Silos: the men worked in cohesive groups, teaching their jobs to others and learning new jobs from more experienced men. The most dangerous element of a voyage is fire and each man not only knew what he was supposed to do but how to do another man’s job if necessary.
Every Man is a Leader: rank did not preclude a man speaking up if he felt that a decision by a superior went against either the Navy’s Core Values or the Mission. This was an expectation that was constantly reinforced by the Captain and the Chief of the Boat.

It's a lot easier to run a business or manage one when people know what the expected behaviors are and act accordingly; understand why they are doing what they are doing; cooperate to achieve common results and are confident that if they speak up, they will be heard. If you’re aligned with Mission and Values, everyone is a Leader and everyone understands the accountability piece.

Isn’t it better to build the foundation at the front end instead of trying to fix things in the organization that should never have broken? Is your mission inspiring? Have your values retained their meaning over time? What do you do to learn the hard(er) skills of leadership?