Stop Dropping the Ball

MittBallI get called frequently to help companies with their brands. Usually this involves helping identify the competitive advantages in products and services, articulating the unique selling proposition around innovations that constitute a customer promise, and then devising a sustainable communications strategy around that promise. That’s the hard part.

There is also an easy part. At the potential obviating of substantial advisory services going forward, here is an exceptionally simple way to solve half your problems. Ready? This applies equally to your personal life and your professional life. Copy and paste the following two words on the palms of your hands so you can see them every hour of every day:

Follow through.

Yes, it is that easy. A brand is a promise. There are three potential paths that follow a promise: (1) you fulfill the promise, wherein you satisfy and keep a customer, at least until someone leapfrogs you; (2) you exceed the promise, wherein you create an evangelist who markets for you; or (3) you violate the promise, wherein you create nasty noise in the marketplace that speaks ill of your offering at every possible turn.

When you break a business promise, you undermine the brand. When you break a personal promise, you undermine your own credibility. This is not negotiable. This is as hard-core real and irreversible as it gets. You need to follow through.

Here are several recent examples of broken brand promises:

  • My wife left her mobile phone on a plane. We went to baggage services. They couldn’t find it. They said they would call us the next day. They didn’t.
  • I went to pay my health insurance bill online as I do every month (I’m told recurring billing is for some reason not available on my plan). This time the system was broken. After on hour on the phone, I got a customer service representative who said she saw the problem in their system, that it would be fixed in 24 hours, and she would call me back. She didn’t call me back, and it wasn’t fixed. A week later I called again and began the process anew. This time another rep gave me entirely different instructions and said he had no idea why the previous rep had instructed me as she did.
  • We hired a contractor to do some work at the house. He didn’t show up. He didn’t call. When we rescheduled and he did show up the next time four hours late, my wife asked why he missed the previous appointment and was now four hours late. He said, “Well, I’m here.”
  • I filled out a time sensitive form online with a state agency. About a week later, I received a personalized letter via snail mail acknowledging my inquiry, conveying that the signer of the letter would get back to me promptly with an action plan. I never heard from him again.
  • A journalist for a high-profile financial periodical contacted me by email to conduct an interview about my book. I agreed and suggested a time. She asked if I could change that to a time that was more convenient for her and I agreed to that time. I gave her my mobile number. She did not call me at the appointed time. After 15 minutes I emailed her and asked if we were still on. Two hours later she emailed and apologized for missing the call because of an emergency. She asked if she could email me the questions. I said yes and she said she would send them. She never did.
  • A producer from a media company emailed me an inquiry to help his company launch a new venture. I said I would be happy to talk about it and suggested some times. I never heard from him again.

Yes, I know, everyone is busy. It’s completely normal to leave loose ends open in our fragmented, email overloaded lives. It can happen to anyone. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave people hanging if you have a good excuse. They will forgive you as soon as the words “I’m sorry” cross your lips.

Baloney! You’re living in a fantasy world if this is what you’ve convinced yourself, no matter if you are a rookie or a veteran. And you’re not as good as you think you are. Not even close. Otherwise you wouldn’t have left me blowing in the wind to be picked off by a competitor.

Winners say what they are going to do and then do it. I don’t care if you have to make lists of your lists. If you aren’t going to do something, don’t tell someone that you areand you’re scot-free off the hook. If you say you are going to do something and then you don’t do it, you lied. Yes, you lied. Or your company representative lied. And by transitive logic, your company lied. To a customer. That is the customer’s perception.

Think you can buy a big bubbly bag of advertising to win back the trust of that customer? Have fun calculating the ROI.

Think you can apologize and win back my trust? You can’t.

Maybe I have choices at the moment, maybe I don’t. If I don’t have choices now, I will soon. That’s what creative destruction is all about, old failed systems being replaced by better ones. Constraints on distribution are lifted from entrenchment every day. No matter what you have to offer, no matter how good you are at what you do, if you don’t show up as promised, you will be replaced. No one will feel sorry for you. No one will bat an eye when you crumble under your own incompetence or arrogance.

This really isn’t hard. In fact it’s as easy as it can possibly get. Make a promise, keep a promise. Follow through all the time. Do that and call me for the other half of your brand problems.

Public Service Made Customer Service

Earlier this year on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked Nancy Pelosi a rather awkward question: In effect, can our government still do big things? She never really answered the question, which was also kind of awkward. I don’t think she saw it coming. He was really probing into the nature of government competence and our ability to trust elected, appointed, and civil service employees to be great at their jobs and exceed our expectations. It was not meant to be a partisan question, but somehow that’s where it went, which sort of ducked the broader concern, which sort of reinforced his critique.

Like I said, it was awkward, and it got me thinking, why should the output of government services–or public service–not be subject to the same expectations of for-profit customer service? I have been chewing on this for weeks, and I can’t come up with a decent response. I serve in a volunteer role in local government, so I guess that makes me part of the problem, but it also drives me to be part of the solution.

The obvious retort will be that absent the free market and competition, any single point option will more than likely descend into mediocrity as a result of monopoly and entrenchment. I don’t think it’s that simple, because for-profit and non-profit enterprises are both constantly under attack by creative destruction, which when ignored is an equally powerful remedy to mediocrity. Improved methods will obviate the obsolete; it is only a matter of time and catalyst.

Global EntryThis past month I experienced a pleasantly opposite case, where public service did exceed my expectations–with expedience, practicality, and cordial handling. I applied for Global Entry, the Trusted Traveler Network administered by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. I went to their website, filled out the form in less than half an hour, was promptly notified online of conditional approval, and asked to sign up for an in-person interview at LAX. I quickly discovered there was a three-month wait for an interview, but the site suggested I check back frequently online for a cancellation. I got one within 48 hours for an appointment the same month, went to the interview, was promptly welcomed upon arrival (I was early and they took me when I got there), and ten minutes later I was fingerprinted and done. I was approved online that afternoon. Perfect.

This was exemplary customer service in action. It was almost as if Border Patrol had set out to prove that customer service was still possible within our government where there is an expressed commitment to make it so. They have my applause. I don’t know if I can award them my future business or ongoing loyalty given their scope of offerings, but just like writing a positive restaurant review on Yelp, I am giving them the loudest shout-out I can in as public a forum as I can, which is how the customer service game pays back winners with referrals.

I couldn’t help but compare and contrast that with several other recent observations of public service that simply haven’t embraced that ethos:

HealthCare.Gov – I usually focus on the broader issues of healthcare, which matter more to me than a broken website, but like Jon Stewart in the Nancy Pelosi interview, let’s focus for a moment on the website fiasco. Not only didn’t it work, not only was it impossible to navigate even when it did work, those in charge of deploying it allowed themselves to get fleeced by private-sector contractors. When you run a business with customer service in mind, you are compelled to keep your costs low and be a subject-matter expert before you offer service paid for by your customers. We are the customers of HealthCare.gov. We overpaid and we got a poor experience. Not good customer service.

Jury Duty – It makes us shiver, but it should make us proud. Anyone who gets the notice in the mail immediately starts to hedge, not because they don’t want to perform public service, but because our historic experience of this form of public service is that it is wildly inefficient. How long ago was this antiquated system designed, where you sit in a room all day doing nothing, waiting to be called or released? Yes, it has improved modestly with online registration and log-in, but when I recently spent a full day in a room of 125 people doing nothing of value, and fewer than two dozen of us were used at all, I wondered how it was possible to justify the lost productivity of 100 people times 8 hours, or 800 person-hours gone up in smoke in just the room I sat. It’s so wrong that no sustainable business could ever tolerate it, nor pay for it. If you want me to provide public service, start by seeing me as your customer and commit to process engineering so that my participation is truly of value.

Governor Christie’s Off-the Ranch-Staff – There’s a reason the obscene obstruction of a New Jersey bridge continues to ride the headlines, and it’s not just politics as usual. I use the word obscene purposefully, because using any position of public authority to harm rather than help a constituency goes against everything our democracy represents. When a public servant forgets that his or her salary is paid by the people and not the political party, all bets are off. Maybe there should be a slightly tweaked Hippocratic Oath in government: “First do no malfeasance.” If you go to work with full acknowledgment that you are in public service and your job is to provide customer service to those forking over the dollars for your gig, you couldn’t pull the trigger on anything like this, look yourself in the mirror, and say. “I did what I was supposed to do today.” When you do harm for personal gain, you add no value. You make a mockery of the privilege of serving those who trusted you.

When I was kicking around some of the themes for this post on my Facebook page as I often do before writing a new article, someone posted on my news-feed that it was a silly use of my time to write about stuff like this, because it never changes. Private-sector contractors will fleece the government, no one in the court system cares if they waste our time, and politicians will always use their power to reinforce their authority. I don’t think that’s true, and my experience with Global Entry is proof that we can do better if we make it a goal.

If we refocus the orientation of public service to be around customer service, it de facto has to improve. Perhaps more importantly, if we don’t keep tabs on the kinds of small to medium items called out here, how can we possibly have faith in the really big stuff entrusted to government: national security, fiscal solvency, social justice, and the like. There has to be a service model underlying all these tasks, subject to scrutiny, objective benchmarking, and listening to the customer. No, we’re not going to vote on what constitutes a valid TSA safety post or police DUI checkpoint, but we should always expect to be treated with courtesy when authority is surrendered for the greater good. Authority should be enacted with reason, humility, and respect so that it wins our buy-in and loyalty. Our aim should be to inspire all contributors to do their finest work all the time, to demand it of themselves as an absolute, to seek constant improvement of systems, teams, and individuals.

Think about it: virtually every customer-facing business now asks you to rate every experience you have with them, and the smart ones deploy this feedback almost in real-time to win competitive advantage. Start rating your experiences with public-service agencies, whether they request it or not, and not just at election time. Demand better and we will get it, maybe not in real-time, but sooner or later creative destruction does its job and washes away the ancient with one flavor or another of much celebrated reform.

And don’t forget to say Thank You when you catch someone doing something right. Everyone likes to get a thumbs up when it’s earned!

Brands in Memoriam 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a spectacular impact recently when he went on 60 Minutes the day before Cyber Monday and gave us a glimpse at the future—a fleet of small delivery drones he branded Prime Air. It was a bold statement, and whether intended or not an incomparable public relations move that got much of the nation talking about his online retail company at precisely the most important time of year for consumer purchasing.

Yet I might be in the minority thinking that was not the most interesting thing Bezos talked about on television and in the zillions of video clips that got sent around the digital world in the days that followed. What I latched onto in the Bezos appearance was this little exchange with Charlie Rose:

Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans, Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?

Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it ’cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?

Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.

Well, if Jeff Bezos who is currently sitting on top of the business world knows that sooner or later his company is toast, I think that is about as telling a tale of creative destruction as I can imagine! With that, here is this year’s short list of additions to the Dead Brand Graveyard:

BlockbusterBlockbuster: Aptly named for its status as the big bust of this year, Blockbuster is a sad loss for me. Harken back to the early days of video home rental and there were thousands of mom and pop stores in neighborhood strip malls. It seemed inevitable that these shops would fall victim to industry consolidation to achieve buying power and scale where margins were thin, and Blockbuster came to rule the day. My experience of Blockbuster was that it somehow held onto that mom and pop feel of a local video store, and at least where we rented they always were friendly, helpful, movie nuts, and the checkout line moved pretty quickly. Then as VHS gave way to DVD, along came the startup Netflix to reinvent the space, and Blockbuster went to sleep. By the time they woke up and decided that Netflix was onto sometime with their mail order subscription programs, Netflix was already reinventing itself as a digital distributor, and Redbox had figured out how to pick up the kiosk business with zero personnel vending machines. Blockbuster was two generations behind the innovation curve, and when Dish Network bought Blockbuster ostensibly as a storefront competitive tool in its battle with DirecTV, it was too little cavalry too late to justify the ongoing operating costs.

Current TV: It is hard to argue that Current TV ever acquired much momentum as a brand unto itself, although it’s hard not to draw a certain amount of attention when one of your masthead investors is former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, coming off a nail biter contested single state vote count that almost made him President of the United States. If you poke around the web for remnants of Current TV’s brand strategy, it was to be something like a news network for ages 18 – 34, where much of the content would be user-created, uploaded to a destination online site, and then curated for television cable audiences. I think the notion that I have to say something like denotes that the ill-formed brand strategy never got much resonance, which might have been reinforced when the strategy suddenly shifted to hiring high-profile former ESPN star turned MSNBC darling Keith Olbermann—at a big salary, with even bigger expectations. The concept of building a line-up around a tent pole Olbermann anchor also never resonated, so when Al Jazeera America came knocking with a monster payday for the founders of the 60 million subscriber reach network, it was an easy call for our former VP to call it a win and walk off the field. Not surprisingly, Olbermann went back to sports.

MetroPCS: Remember when we could look forward to airwaves of virtually unlimited choice and price competition due to the wonders of telecom deregulation? No, you forgot, too? MetroPCS is another brand that probably didn’t leave behind a lot of emotional longing with customers, but it is interesting to note that its founding dates back to 1996 and it came to position itself as a carrier with unlimited wireless communications for a flat fee and without an annual contract. The company was a pioneer in 4G LTE rich communication services, and with more than 9 million subscribers grew to become the fifth largest carrier in the United States—both good reasons for it to be acquired by T-Mobile which cemented its position as the fourth largest carrier in the nation. Still feeling good about all the many companies out there fighting hard for your smart phone bill?

What are the key takeaways from this year’s exit crop that might inform a Bezos-like objective of bolstering your brand to outlive your own era? First, speed is everything in the digital age, rest even a millisecond too long on your laurels and it will probably be too late to catch up with that company that leapfrogged you (Blockbuster). Second, a confused brand strategy results in a confused product strategy (and vice-versa) and swinging at that with pricey tactics doesn’t clear the confusion (Current TV). Third, an undifferentiated commodity without sufficient scale will not stand solo long in a consolidating market (MetroPCS).

Last year in my Brands in Memoriam post I went out on a limb and called Blackberry dead. I took a little heat for that, what I probably should have said was RIM (Research in Motion), the holding company for Blackberry was dead, and Blackberry was on deathwatch. Honestly, I feel okay about calling Blackberry dead, to me it’s spiritually dead, and while some loyals are still pounding thumbs on their mini-keyboards, it’s hard not to believe the clock is tick-tick-ticking to Final Jeopardy on this one. Slammed by creative destruction and inexcusably poor management—a very tough critique because it was a visionary company much beloved that lost vision—it is today a zombie brand at best.

Going out on less a limb this year, I don’t think I would be alone in calling for grave concern around the survival of Sears, J.C, Penney, and Radio Shack. I will climb out a little further and hope that Dell finds a fruitful path soon, as it is hard to believe the PC or laptop business is on the mend, or there is much room on the shelves for another flavor of tablets or tablet/keyboard combos. U S Airways is also likely to evaporate when its merger with American Airlines is completed. I hope I am wrong about all of these because we are talking an awful lot of jobs at risk in our too fragile economic recovery if we lose any let alone all of these. Let’s hope management is inspired with some leapfrog ideas for reinvention and revitalization.

Did I miss any for this year or in the near term gun sights of creative destruction? Feel free to chime in below and add your assessments, predictions, and prognostications. Just remember, if you tiptoe out on the limb, forward judgments of demise have an excellent history of being proven wrong!

Customer Disservice

Why do companies with big brands and tremendous momentum go out of business? One reason often discussed here is lack of innovation, which is often opaque, quite difficult to grasp when it is happening because you are in the midst of it, even enjoying a final gasp of success. Another is much easier to understand and very definitely within control—when you stop loving your customers.

Here is a summary of a recent actual customer service call with a well-known company in which I was the very real customer.

ME: But the replacement knob you sent me does not fit the appliance.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: It’s the one you ordered.

ME: No, not exactly, I called and gave you the model number of the appliance and told you which knob was broken, and this is the one you sent me.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Well, it should fit. Did you push hard on it?

ME: It does not fit, so pushing harder will only break it.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Maybe you don’t know how to install it. Would you like us to send out a technician? I need to advise you we bill on site service visits at a minimum $95 per hour.

ME: I don’t need a technician. It’s a $4.75 plastic replacement knob to turn the appliance on and off. It does not fit on the metal stem.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, if you don’t want me to schedule a technician to come to your home, there is nothing more I can do.

ME: Yes, you could send me the proper replacement part. I actually looked up the appliance online and have the serial number for the part I need. It differs from the one you sent me by two digits.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: That’s not possible, they are all the same. If you are not able to install the one we sent, how do you expect to install another one?

ME: I’ll take my chances that the right part will fit. Can I send this one back and get a replacement please?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t refund parts you ordered incorrectly that become open stock. You can order another one if you want, but you’re still going to need a technician to install it.

ME: You do understand this is a $4.75 part for an appliance that cost more than $1000. How do you expect to stay in business when you treat customers like this?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, we’ve been here for a hundred years and we’ll be here for a hundred more.

Then he hung up on me. Really. Somewhere there is an actual recording of this call, for training purposes.

Just so the damage is clear, we have a house filled with appliances from this retailer. As these need to be replaced, none will come from that retailer. The next house will also have none. How much did that $4.75 part and the mishandled call cost the seller? The future lifetime value of this customer. I know from having told this story to more than a dozen friends that I am not alone.

One of my very best former senior executives used to start each morning in our customer service department with the kick-off mantra: “Remember, our business would be so much better without all those pesky customers. Never forget that, how happy our days would be without them.”

No Service Is Not ServiceOf course he was kidding, but just saying those words aloud every morning to our trusted heroes on the front lines reminded them how important they were to our success, or how much pain they could cause if they forgot what they were there to do—help keep our customers our customers. We would consider every inbound call a gift, an opportunity to repair any aspect of our relationship that might have been violated. Without our customers, we could not exist, and without the opportunity to hear and fix their problems, we knew we would lose them.

No one in a customer service role likes to get yelled at all day, but what’s the alternative? When the phone stops ringing and the emails stop coming, it is seldom because you are doing everything right. It is usually because the customers have been trained not to contact you or they simply aren’t there anymore. Not exactly a great alternative to customer complaints, is it?

Recovery, or “the art of the save,” is the process by which a negative becomes a positive. Every downside event experienced by a customer offers the single best opportunity you have to show your love. When you empower the people on your front lines to transform any possible negative experience by a customer into an opportunity to bond with them forever, you not only keep their business, you have a shot at recruiting an uncompensated evangelist. Solve a customer’s problem and exceed their expectations, lifetime value continues and they might even go to bat for you with their friends. Ignore or insult them with as many alternatives as there are in the marketplace, the tar pits of antiquity offer your final resting place.

Beating back the challenges of creative destruction is hard enough work. Is being nice to the people who pay your bills really that hard? If it is, get ready to join the march of obscurity and obsolescence. There are so many ways to lose what you’ve built and so few ways to win in the long run. Take heed and don’t lose the game for the things you can control.

Any presumption that a company will last forever defies logic and history. Don’t give your employees reason to think that perpetuity is ordained or soon enough you’ll sink together in the ooze. Love your customers, every single one—those who complain the most are probably the ones who control the keys to your survival.