The Call Center Launch Pad

All call centers are not equal.

I’m not just talking about the quality of customer service. I’m talking about the opportunity a company’s customer service department offers to its employees.

Sure, some call center gigs are dead-end jobs. Let me give you an example of what happens when the people who work in customer service know they are an afterthought to brand loyalty.

I recently had one of the worst experiences ever with a brand I have loved for decades. That brand is Hewlett-Packard, once arguably the single most shining icon in all of Silicon Valley history. The second HP printer I had purchased in three years died. Although I suspected HP had devolved into more of a subscription ink factory than a technology innovator, I bought the second printer with a two-year warranty to make sure it lasted two years. It did not.

When I called for support, I was handed off dozens of times from one failed interaction to another. Their technical training was all over the map, but no one could solve my problem. They put me on hold without setting time parameters. They dropped calls and didn’t call me back as promised. I invested hours in this runaround until my wife asked me what I thought my time might be worth to continue being poorly treated.

My case was escalated with the eventual offer of a “refurbished” printer because they did not have a record of my two-year warranty, even though I sent them documentation supporting their brand promise. The escalation manager had a broken headset and couldn’t complete our phone call, thus redirecting our negotiation to email spread over days. Finally I gave up and now own a competitor’s branded printer. I will never again own an HP printer. The HP Way is no more. That is a customer tragedy.

This got me thinking about all the product managers, software engineers, and information technology professionals I have hired or promoted out of customer service over the years. I don’t think of customer service as a cost center; I think of it as a profit center. Customer service is a place we invest in our brand and invest in our people. When we do that, our customers benefit and our employees benefit. That is the definition of a win-win.

If you are reading this today in an executive marketing role, ask yourself how you categorize the expense of customer service. Is it a necessary evil where unappreciated, low-paid people might be severing ties with your customers? Or is it a gateway for talent to join your company where well-trained people do their best to bond customers for life and in doing so ready themselves for significantly greater career opportunities within your enterprise?

For those of you currently in a customer service job, the question you might ask yourself is how you can transform your current day-to-day, sometimes thankless complaint handling into a launch pad that puts you on a path to be considered for your boss’s job and later your boss’s boss’s job. It happens, I promise you, but only if you position yourself to make it happen. Here’s a simple framework.

Choose Wisely

Look for an emerging company where promotions are frequent rather than a legacy behemoth where you’ll never got out of the boiler room. Don’t envision the call center where you work as a windowless dungeon, even if you are working at home, but instead see yourself in a trend-setting pool hall where you are setting up your next shot. If you are so remote and isolated from corporate management that no one who can promote you will ever know who you are, then you probably are in an inescapable place. Since you’ve chosen to do the work, do it somewhere where you will be noticed and appreciated.

Learn Every Day

The work you do today answering emails, chatting, or talking to customers on the phone is just that—it doesn’t have to be the work you do forever. Ask yourself: What did you learn from your last customer interaction? What did you learn about the product technology when you searched the database to address a customer’s problem? What insights about the next-generation product features have you gleaned from the thrashings you endure listening to the gripes of unhappy customers? One of these days you are going to bump into a company leader in the hallway who might ask for your opinion on something. Do you have an opinion that is built on valuable learnings that make you unquestionably promotable when that opportunity surprisingly emerges?

Do More Than You’re Asked

You were hired to do a job the person to the left of you and the right of you can do. If you do just that job, you will get paid as promised, rinse and repeat. If you want to do more, ask to do more. Volunteer for special projects. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. Go to your manager and say you’d like to write a white paper on why returns are so high on a current product in market. Maybe your manager says yes, maybe no. If they say no too many times, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. I tell every manager wanting to be a director and every director wanting to be a VP the same thing: Find a way to start doing the job you want before you have it. Those are the kinds of people companies want to retain. A customer service associate who knows things becomes a company leader who can fix things. Claim your own success.

Gut It Out

When your boss is unhappy with your performance, don’t quit on the spot because your feelings are hurt. Find out why your boss is displeased. If you ask and get a candid answer, listen to the critique calmly and internalize it. If you don’t get an honest answer, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. If your boss suggests you are dialing it in and not living up to your potential, maybe this is a wildly constructive moment. Accept the feedback, up your game, and try even harder to do the best job you can. Leaders in companies do not give up because they have a bad week, a bad day, a bad hour, or a bad customer interaction. If you can hang tough in customer service, you have a shot at hanging tough when you are promoted. Grit matters, not just because of what it teaches you about resilience, but because of what it says about your commitment to exceeding expectations.

Love your brand, love your customers, love the opportunity hiding behind the door that is not yet open, and when you nudge that door open, your entire life might change in an instant. How sure am I? I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. I’ve also seen too many times what happens when a company doesn’t get this right and spirals into oblivion. Taking your customers for granted as you grow is a clear path to the dead brand graveyard. A culture of aligned incentives that secures customer engagement is the rocket fuel that resists inertia.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Many Lessons of Andy Grove

Time 1997We lost a great business leader earlier this year. His name was Andrew S. Grove, known to many as Andy Grove.

He survived Nazi-occupied Hungary as a child, then Soviet-controlled Hungary, immigrating to the United States at the age of 20 in 1956.

He received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from U.C. Berkeley and became a star engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor.

He left the stability of Fairchild Semiconductor with Silicon Valley legends Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore when they co-founded Intel. Together they later entirely reinvented Intel from a manufacturer of memory chips to the dominant producer of microprocessors.

He was Intel’s CEO from 1987 to 1998, the famous “Intel Inside” years when personal computing exploded from the hobby to the consumer market.

He wrote the legendary book Only the Paranoid Survive, published in 1996 and still a must-read for anyone who wants to understand innovation and the power of creative destruction.

For many years he co-taught a course in strategy with my dear friend Robert Burgelman at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

If you think everyday people always had the internet, email, streaming video, and smart phones, you have a loose grasp on current events, let alone history. Andy’s leadership at Intel took us from the 8086 to the Pentium chip, from monochrome to color displays, from floppy to CD disks, from no hard drive to software that could be installed.  If you didn’t live through the transformation of the universe from analog to digital, from buying hardware and software at Computerland and Electronics Boutique to Best Buy and Costco, it’s hard to explain the magnitude of this growth cycle. Andy is one of those guys who really changed the world.

Okay, you get the point, about 0.001% of mortal beings have a resume close to his. You can read his full bio on Wikipedia. I want to share something more personal about him, the key takeaways from the few times I met him in person during roadmap briefings at Intel in the 1990s. Among the many lessons I learned from Andy Grove, here are five that continue to guide me daily:

  1. Creative Destruction Is Real – Whatever product you ship today is already obsolete, no matter how well it is selling. If you are not working on the replacement for it, someone else is. That is why you have to be paranoid. You will always be correct if you presume you are about to be outperformed in the marketplace of goods and service. Never get comfortable, never rest on your laurels, or you will be gone in a heartbeat, wiped off the map while you are collecting your awards for last year’s success. I learned from Andy that almost every startup that presumes it is built to last is almost certainly on a crash course with obsolescence, that the vast majority of even robust corporations today last about half as long as a human life. Companies don’t reinvent themselves, they are reinvented by courageous, visionary people.
  2. Beware the Strategic Inflection Point – By the time a market has fully morphed at scale, it’s way too late to react. You can’t see a strategic inflection point coming, you can only acknowledge it in hindsight while confessing your memoirs. Sorry, Monsieur Business Plan, the landscape changes in real time! Because you have learned to be paranoid, you are going to figure out one dreary morning that something you are doing in your company is hugely wrong. Some product you are readying for release is going to tank no matter how much you spend on marketing. Remember when Bill Gates discovered the internet? Remember when Mark Zuckerberg discovered mobile? Those were Intel-inspired moments. They turned their companies on a dime the same way Andy helped turn Intel on a dime when they realized the market for memory chips had commoditized and microprocessors were the way forward. I learned from Andy to always remain nimble, that sunk cost is always sunk cost, eat it and move on. Achieving competitive advantage before others see it coming is where your investments must be all the time.
  3. Science Is Inescapable – No matter what your market cap might be, you can’t fake math. Pithy slogans don’t make better computers, engineers do. For Moore’s Law to work (roughly twice the computing power will be available every 12 to 24 months for the same cost) staggering volumes of calculations have to take place on a tiny silicon chip without the transistors melting down. If you want to win at the engineering game, it takes the boldest and brightest team of advanced engineers you can assemble. They need the time to do the math, which is why Intel was already designing the 486 chip while shipping the 286. You can’t predict when the equations will be solved, you can only form a thesis and test your working models until they clear quality assurance. I learned from Andy that there are no sustainable shortcuts in quantifiable outcomes, the minimum viable product be damned! If you try to cheap your way through a poorly constructed algorithm, science will have its way with you and the result won’t be a proud moment.
  4. Constructive Confrontation Works – A lot of people who didn’t grow up in the Intel culture found it an impossible place to survive. Intel was a place where undisciplined, random conversation was never the norm. Almost anything anyone said could be challenged directly and aggressively by anyone in the hierarchy. Even when you were visiting Intel as a channel partner, anything you said could get shoved down your throat as instantly as you said it. Was this nice? It wasn’t meant to be nice. It was meant to improve products, driving ceaselessly toward unattainable perfection. That was how Intel maintained design and manufacturing leadership for a generation, by always challenging assumptions, never accepting compromise or forging an unholy consensus simply to move on. It isn’t the right culture for everyone, but at Intel, you bought into it or got your walking papers. I learned from Andy that in constructive confrontation, it’s always the idea that gets attacked and never the person. You might feel that you are being attacked, but you aren’t. Your ideas are being made better or mercifully eviscerated.
  5. Resilience Is a Mandate – Imagine a guy who made it from the Holocaust to the highest level of American thought leadership—all the obstacles, all the challenges, all the knock-downs, all the reinvention. To embrace the example of Andy Grove is to embrace the notion of resilience as the single greatest motivator available to anyone at any stage of emergence. You don’t give up, you don’t give in, you don’t quit. You always expect more from yourself. You learn from your mistakes, you study your failures, you learn from your adversaries. Want to survive? Want to triumph? Want to leave a legacy? There is no other way. I learned from Andy that you stay in the game, you look forward at opportunity, and you try again—only harder. Resilience isn’t a nice-to-have. Resilience is fuel for the soul.

Andy was a living example of realizing possibility through discipline. It is extremely rare to find an innovator with startup DNA who can personally evolve into the CEO of a multinational corporation. It is equally rare to find a top-notch engineer who embraces consumer marketing as a key strategic initiative. Andy championed the “Intel Inside” campaign as a branding mechanism that made an otherwise invisible component a necessity for personal computer manufactures to tout. When the consumer press seized upon an obscure failing in a sample of Intel microprocessors, Andy accepted the criticism as a byproduct of his brand promise. He insisted his team correct the deficiency with renewed quality assurance rather than defend the company’s position with arguments the consumer would never understand. He was book smart, business smart, and street smart all at the same time. He gave back way more than he ever took off the table in every way imaginable.

If you ever worked on one of my teams, I probably bought you a copy of Only the Paranoid Survive and quizzed you on it a week later. Andy’s words, thoughts, and ideas remain that important to me. He was an industry icon and a human being impossible for me to forget. I hope none of us ever forgets Andy. He remains a truly one-of-a-kind inspiration.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Time Inc.

About This Book of Mine

Pre-Order on AmazonI have mentioned now and again that I have been working on a novel for a few years.  It’s time to share a few more details.

First of all the title: This Is Rage.  You will discover why I called it that if you read the sample excerpt on my teaser site and other fine channels we will be utilizing in the coming months, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, where you can currently place your pre-order that will be shipped when the book is officially released on October 8, 2013.  Shameless, I know, but I am officially in the pull marketing business effective immediately.

There are two protagonists in the story, who are also both antagonists, at least to each other.  They are each hero and villain in the broader context of economic turmoil, which they aspire to improve, but not surprisingly mess up on high-octane, mostly by accident.  Kimo Balthazer is a disgraced radio talk show host, who seeks redemption in the obtuse netherworld of internet webcasting.  Daniel Steyer is a venture capitalist at the top of his game, looking to go out huge with the deal of a lifetime, but market forces have other plans.  That’s not the order in which you will meet them, and you’ll find out why.  At the outset they don’t know each other exists.  They don’t even know each other’s world exists.  But they soon do.  And they don’t like each other.  At all.

I am going to do the right thing and not toss out any spoilers, but I can say that you will spend some time in Silicon Valley, some time in Los Angeles, and some time in Washington D.C.  You will be introduced to the world of Investors, Bankers, and Operators, the three points of an ever-forming triangle that comes with its own hierarchy, rule set, chaos, and politics.  You will also meet a curious politician with a tangential agenda, a conflicted movie studio boss, the co-founders of one of the most successful tech-start-ups ever, and a pair of would-be entrepreneurs turned criminals whose interpretation of thinking different is not quite what their families had in mind.  You will be invited into board meetings and venture partner meetings.  You will hear the voice of Kimo in your head.  You will see what happens when ego and presumption run amok, and the notion of control spirals into hyper normalcy, where random boo-boos add up big time, and the consequences are strangely real and familiar.

My key influence for this book is Tom Wolfe, whose first novel Bonfire of the Vanities blew my mind in ways that still shake me to the core.  I didn’t know what a bond trader was the first two years I was in college.  Then I saw a bunch of guys my age lining up in blue suits to be interviewed to become one.  They went to Wall Street and became extraordinarily wealthy selling paper promises to their clients.  Then came the broad implosion of junk debt.  Michael Lewis, whom I also tremendously admire, made his debut as an author writing about this phenomenon.  I saw the impact on my friends, I saw the impact on New York, and I felt the impact on our economy.  What I admire to this day about Wolfe’s work was how he wove storytelling through the observational narrative, migrating the educational lesson to character development, and burying the polemic in a moral tale for the ages.  I was studying theater at the time, without notion of how I might fit into the business world, or even if I could make a living given what I valued.

A quarter century later we seem to have forgotten the fall of the junk bond kings.  The miracle of Silicon Valley has replaced the lustre of Wall Street and the allure of Hollywood.  I have played my whole career in this fantastic environment of innovation, the arranged marriage of technology and media brokered by the matchmaker financiers, and the output had been invigorating.  We have created jobs, opportunities, and a good deal of wealth — but not for everyone.  In the same way that Wolfe and his New Journalism looked beyond the restaurants and clubs and luxury high-rise suites, I have seen the scary trailing the good.  Where there is big money there are big personalities, and where there is a win-lose battle fought daily, often those who lose are the secondary foils who play by the rules without insight into the eccentric ecosystem.

That is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s why I wrote a business novel instead of a non-fiction set of adages.  This was something I needed to do, part of the continuum of my journey.  I started my career in storytelling, then helped bring storytelling into computer games, then found my way into profit and loss, and now I come full circle.  I needed a way to bring these elements together, to find a synthesis of my passions, which include the theatrical, the financial, the philosophical, the hope of justice, and a touch of dark humor (hopefully more than a touch!).

In the coming months I will tell you more about the publishing journey, but I cannot conclude this project announcement without a sincere thank you to my brilliant editor, Lou Aronica, under whose independent imprint The Story Plant my book is being published.  Lou is a Mensch in every sense of the word (Google it if that’s unfamiliar to you).  He has been a steadfast believer in This is Rage since we met each other last year on Twitter.  It’s not just the notes that he gives me, it’s the way he communicates his viewpoint that makes me want to rewrite a fourth time when he is only asking for the third.  I think Lou, a bestselling author himself, is at the forefront of New Publishing in the same way Wolfe wanted New Journalism to embrace the opportunities of Creative Destruction as a positive force for change.  Wherever this journey takes us, I am delighted to be paddling alongside a friend on this whitewater river of 21st century digital publishing — with a paperback to boot.

So that’s the introductory story of my novel.  It’s my first, I hope not my last, and I welcome you to come along and share the journey with us.  It’s for you, and it’s about you.  I hope to entertain, and maybe share an idea or two as the whitewater rises.

This is Rage.

Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.