After a long hiatus from posting to Explore Comms, we are finally back!
It was an article published just over 30 years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald that inspired me to write again. I came across the piece when I was doing some background research on Craig Elias – my business partner in a sporting venture that we are currently working on together.
Back in 1987, Craig was a promising new recruit who had just been signed on to a three-year deal with the Sydney Swans, one of our country’s leading Australian rules football (AFL) clubs.
(For those reading this outside Australia who don’t know the game, there’s a great explainer video on the AFL website.)
Unfortunately for Craig, serious injury cut short a promising career, but he’s managed to forge a successful business and family life post-footy.
In his younger days, Craig would have been the perfect candidate for a reality TV show concept that I think would be a huge hit if done the right way. In it, promising young sportspeople who have had their careers affected by injury, life circumstances or poor choices, are given a second chance to succeed in their chosen field. It would make great television to see these young people overcoming their challenges to rise back up to the top.
That idea only ever stayed at concept stage – but now we are developing something that will bring things full circle from a sporting perspective for Craig. We are approaching an exciting moment in the development of our venture, so watch this space for more news in the coming months!
Today ‘officially’ marks my 20th anniversary in the IT industry. I had been doing some freelance work for an IT company for a year or so already, but it was 30 September 1996 when I joined Com Tech Communications in Sydney as Online Marketing Manager.
My job involved looking after the website (my handiwork, c.1998, sans graphics), taking responsibility for PR, producing whatever collateral was needed for the business, putting together the content for events and even working as a billable resource – I remember being part of the team that built the first-ever intranet for one of Australia’s big four banks.
We’ve seen some incredible change over 20 years. Back then, Amazon just sold books. Google didn’t exist. I toggled between AltaVista, Yahoo! and infoseek, and got excited when Ask Jeeves launched. IMDB.com was one of my favourite sites – and it’s great to see it still going strong today. We could buy an entire encyclopaedia on disc (well, it was Microsoft Encarta) which at the time seemed incredible. Now, I can go to Wikipedia and check that I used the correct quote for this post’s title (and finding out that it’s actually a translation of an epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’).
For our website, I used to hand code the HTML, using Telnet to edit the live web pages and FTP to upload new files to the web server. To build an e-commerce website, you needed a six-figure budget at a minimum and, if you were using Netscape Enterprise Server, that was just for the software. Now you can set up your own site to sell stuff for a few hundred dollars.
In 1996, I was at the launch of Fairfax@Market, when the Australian media company launched its first online classifieds. Then part-owner Conrad Black beamed in live on the big screen to welcome the event guests via videoconference (back then, also something pretty amazing). However, within a couple of years, eBay pretty much gobbled up that market. And videoconferencing is an everyday occurrence. You can even do video from your mobile phone, a device I didn’t even have until 1998 or 1999.
So, what hasn’t changed? Client case studies are still one of the best ways to market your business. Back then, I was writing about rolling out Windows NT 4 and Windows 95 standard operating environments for some government department, upgrading Freehills’ network from Token Ring to Ethernet, and the University of Melbourne’s network to ATM. One of my early masterpieces was an in-depth study on Kellogg’s deployment of Lotus Notes, which unfortunately was never approved so never published. I poured my heart into it, and it still hurts to this day.
Back then, we got excited about technology and industry “firsts” – the first IP telephony deployment, the first surgery completed using videoconferencing (that was a bit scary). Now. people still want to know how technology is making a difference to their business, but the technology is no longer the headline.
As an industry, we are still talking about the ‘next big thing’. Back then, it was ‘IP on everything’, now it’s the ‘Internet of Things’. Everyone is talking about digital technology, which is odd. For my generation, ‘digital technology’ was all about digital watches, which had their heyday in the 1980s (my Pulsar quartz is tucked away somewhere, still in its original box). Now it’s all about cloud, mobility, IoT and analytics.
Twenty years on, there’s still plenty of room for innovation and creative thinking. The opportunities to promote your ideas are almost overwhelming. Everyone can publish their own blogs, post their opinions on social media and crowdfund their artistic projects, commercial products or business ideas.
It’s still an exciting industry to be a part of.
(Pictured above: my office fax machine, a relic from the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Still in – very occasional – operational use.)
It’s hard to think of a more difficult task than a police officer knocking on someone’s door to deliver a death notification.
It kind of puts things in perspective when you consider Dropbox’s latest security breach concerns. The breach back in 2012 may have exposed users’ credentials, and Dropbox issued a note to users last week asking users to update their passwords: “This is purely a preventative measure, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
The Dropbox Help Center note about this (I’m being asked to create a new password on dropbox.com—why, and what should I do?) buries the reason for the message way down the page, and even then feels the need to couch things in positive terms:
“Our security teams are always watching out for new threats to our users. As part of these ongoing efforts, we learned about an old set of Dropbox user credentials (email addresses plus hashed and salted passwords) that we believe were obtained in 2012. Our analysis suggests that the credentials relate to an incident we disclosed around that time.”
In marketing, we are often asked to help craft messages to deliver bad news. Typically the request is for us to put things in a more positive light. That can result in the news you are trying to convey being lost, misinterpreted or evoking such an adverse reaction that you end up doing more damage.
Can you imagine what would happen if marketers were asked to deliver a death notification?
“Hi – did you know that the local funeral home is offering a 20 percent discount this month? By the way …”
I was asked to review a piece of communications recently that was going out to notify users of a service that it was to be discontinued. The main purpose of the news was to ensure users had time to migrate to another service – preferably an alternative service offered by the same vendor. The first draft I saw was so focused on talking up the virtues of the alternative service offered that most customers wouldn’t have realised that the current service they were using was shutting down in a month’s time.
There’s a perfect analogy of this in a 2010 Police and Security News article, under the subhead ‘Bad News Delivered Badly’:
“A police wife from New Jersey traveled two hours in a cruiser with two officers to the hospital where her husband had been taken after being shot. During the entire trip, she was told her husband would be fine. When she arrived at the hospital, she was told he had died at the scene of the shooting. She resented being given a false sense of hope.”
– “Death Notification: The Toughest Job in Law Enforcement”, Police and Security News, March/April 2010
Instead, the final communication about the service discontinuation ensured the key message – and action required to be considered by the customer – was clearly and sensitively delivered. We were clear on what was happening, when migration needed to take place, and emphasised that customers would be supported through the transition, there would be minimal disruption, and that they had a number of options open to them – the best being to migrate to the vendor’s alternative (and better) service.
There’s good advice we can follow from the law enforcement experience. This from Denny Hayes, who worked for 15 years as a chaplain for the FBI’s critical response team, personally delivering more than 500 death notifications:
“During that time, he developed a code for his ominous duties: Always deliver bad news in person. Always bring a partner (“95 percent of them defer to me to do the actual speaking of the words—nobody wants to experience sad”). Skip the euphemisms—they comfort no one except the person speaking them. Never abandon anyone until they have someone else to hold onto.”
– “What It’s Like to Deliver Bad News for a Living”, by Carrie Seim, The Atlantic, 4 June 2014
Taken from the same article in The Atlantic above, this really sums it up best:
“You can’t make it better,” said Dr. Nancy Davis, former chief of counseling services for the FBI. “But you can definitely make it worse.”
We had a very poor customer service experience recently, which culminated in one of those delicious Freudian slips that we always enjoy here at Explore Communications.
When the office coffee machine broke down last month we reacted immediately, contacting the manufacturer to find the nearest service agent for a repair under warranty.
To cut a long story short, there was a significant lack of response to our website queries and emails, and some less-than-ideal interactions over the phone as well.
We finally shipped our coffee machine off for repair and sent through an email of complaint to the manufacturer, who will remain nameless to avoid embarrassment.
This was part of the response from the Customer Care Team Leader, Brendan (see if you can spot the accidental/deliberate little ‘slip’):
Thanks for your email and apologies for the poor customer service you have received over the past few weeks. I have already raised the initial issue of your “missing” email with our IT department but haven’t had an explanation yet.
We are currently severely understaffed in our customer contact centre and in the middle of recruiting new personnel. I understand that this doesn’t alleviate the disappointment of the poor customer service you have received and is just an explanation as to the reasons of the substandard service.
I can ensure you that <redacted> is working tirelessly to restore the premium customer suffer we offer.
A couple of weeks ago I worked on some surprising findings from international research on meetings conducted by unified communications vendor ShoreTel. The online survey that ShoreTel used for the research is still live, if you want to try it out for yourself.
One of the people I spoke to while analysing the results was Bob Selden, an international management and training expert based in Australia. I’m currently reading Bob’s latest book that has just been published, Don’t: How using the right words will change your life, which is all about how to avoid the negativity in your life and your relationships – both in corporate and personal settings. For me, the biggest value in the book is how I can apply some of Bob’s concepts and approaches to content marketing and corporate writing. The use of positive language and the avoidance of the negative is a great way to create more effective case studies, press releases and other marketing content.
With unique insights gained over 30 years of experience in management and corporate training around the world, Bob made some great observations on ShoreTel’s survey data – which challenges a number of assumptions about the role that meetings play in the corporate world.
One of the biggest assumptions overturned by the findings is in people’s perceptions on the productivity of meetings. Only 11 percent of survey respondents found meetings a “waste of time”. Eighty eight percent of all respondents reported meetings were “productive” or “sort of productive”. Overall, Baby Boomers were the most likely to think meetings were productive (47 percent) as compared to Millennials at 34 percent. However, Baby Boomers and Millennials were virtually identical and the lowest in calling them a waste of time (9 percent and 11 percent, respectively).
Here’s what Bob (pictured left) had to say about attitudes towards meetings and productivity:
“People have an inherent need to be involved, included and to know what’s going on. Apart from the grapevine, meetings fill this need.”
He also explained some of the generational differences.
“Compared to the other generations surveyed, Millenials are likely to see meetings as less productive because of their formalised structure and the pace of meetings as ‘too slow’. Generation X’ers, on the other hand, were born in the era where meetings were seen as the basis of gaining employee involvement and have grown up with them, hence the ShoreTel research shows us that they spend more time in their ‘comfort zone’.” (The results showed that Generation X’ers were more likely than the other generations to spend more time in weekly meetings.)
Bob also had some keen observations on cultural differences uncovered by ShoreTel’s research.
“Asian meetings are top-down, information giving with little or no involvement of the team/group in decision making – hence their short time span – everyone listens to the leader. European meetings are more consensus-oriented with the aim of involving all to reach a decision shared by all; hence they take longer. Australian meetings are longer because there is more talking and questioning of decisions. They may aim for consensus (which takes longer) but rarely achieve it – decisions are often made outside of the meeting.”
“North American meetings have a greater emphasis on hearing the “wisdom” from people with status (leaders and participants) hence the need to be seen and heard by the “right” people rather than to be productive. This explains the difference between European meetings (52 per cent seen as productive) versus North American (40 percent seen as productive).”
“There’s also a further point of difference in the type of meeting that is run in different regions. European and Australia meetings for example are more likely to be “problem solving” type meetings whereas Asian and North American meetings are more often “information sharing” making the former seem far more productive.”
I haven’t had anywhere near Bob’s international corporate experience, but I have noticed significant differences between meetings conducted in Australia and in North America. Australian meetings tend to get to the subject matter quickly, and conclude the meeting as soon as a resolution is made or the next steps are established. In US-led meetings, I find there is often the push to use up all the time scheduled for the meeting, even if a resolution has already been achieved. The meeting organiser usually makes sure that everyone in the meeting has the opportunity to talk, while in Australian meetings there isn’t that same need. That might go some way to explaining why North American respondents recorded the lowest percentage in finding meetings to be productive.
Pictured above: just another opportunity for me to use one of the cheesy stock photos released to promote the movie “Unfinished Business” last year.
An article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald about corporate culture in the banking industry (‘How bad behaviour gets overlooked in banks’) reminded me that I needed to write Part 2 of my post on sales and marketing in the digital age. (If you haven’t read Part 1, you can read it first here.)
The SMH opinion piece covers the recent trend of illegal and unethical behaviour in the banking sector and cites research from Macquarie University conducted anonymously with more than 30,000 staff from Australian and Canadian banks. Employee payment structures were seen to “encourage a short-term focus and even unacceptable behaviour”. The author concludes:
“That suggests banks need to put less emphasis on paying their workers by how much revenue they bring in, and more on how customers are being treated. Sounds like common sense, really.” (‘How bad behaviour gets overlooked in banks’, smh.com.au, 14 April 2016)
That’s a great sentiment, but rewarding staff for customer satisfaction and service is difficult in this digital age where face-to-face and human interactions are being driven down to reduce the cost of service.
In fact, there are very few opportunities for me to experience what we once knew as customer service with my bank. Most of my day-to-day banking is done online, and my local branch was recently converted into a series of ATMs, completely closing down over-the-counter teller services.
Companies harp on about customer retention, cross-selling and up-selling, but that’s very hard to achieve when the level of service in many industry sectors is hard to differentiate from the competition.
My bank and my telco both call regularly wanting to talk to me about the service I am currently receiving, which is a thinly veiled attempt to cross-sell and up-sell. Instead, maybe they should be focusing their efforts on keeping me as a customer.
It’s commonly accepted that the cost of acquiring new customers is far more expensive than retaining existing ones. I’m not sure what sort of research has been published around this, and it would vary industry by industry, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cost difference is up to tenfold.
Why then does there seem to be such a focus on acquiring new customers? I’ve been a customer of both my bank and my telco/ISP for more than 20 years, but I’ve never been rewarded let alone even recognised for my loyalty. Instead, what I see from these companies are offers to the market to entice new customers with contracts, interest rates and terms that are often far more attractive than mine. So the only thing tying me to my current providers is a combination of contract terms and sheer laziness.
That said, the icing on the cake with regards to poor treatment of loyal customers has to go to the unnamed software provider from Part 1. An offer for 10 free stock photos popped up in a notice from one of its products that I was using, which I thought was a nice touch to reward me as a subscriber. What I discovered instead was that it was conditional on me signing up for a one-year plan (the ‘free’ offer being the first month refunded once you signed up).
Now this is a perfect approach to acquiring new customers, but what sort of impact does it have on existing customers of its other, linked products? How hard would it have been to put together a ‘no strings attached’ free offer for existing subscribers?
To me, it has devalued the relationship that I thought I had with the company, a feeling that has also been replicated in most of my recent dealings with my bank and my telco.
When the vast majority of human interactions are sales calls not customer service, your company has a problem. And that’s becoming a reality for many organisations now that so much of their service process is online and automated.
So what’s the answer? We’ve achieved too many productivity, efficiency and convenience gains to return to the days of old-fashioned customer service. (Who wants to go back standing in a queue at the bank to transfer money?) Instead, we have to do something that makes our customers feel good about us. We could just start recognising and rewarding our customers for their loyalty. We do it for long-serving staff, so why not for long-serving customers? It could be something as simple as sending a nice pen and thank you note in the mail, a gift card, or a special discount rate or bonus on an existing service.
Whatever it is, it needs to be seen as authentic, generous, unsolicited, spontaneous or altruistic. Then your customers might actually start loving you again.
“I am pleased to inform that we are running an EXCLUSE Black Friday promotion where I can help you upgrade … Would appreciate if you could let me know a convenient time to speak with you with a call back number.”
This is an excerpt from an email I received that appeared to come from a representative at an existing supplier, offering me a discount to upgrade to a new software package. To save embarrassment, I won’t name the company or individual behind it.
The email was riddled with spelling errors and poor grammar, and there were no contact details provided for the sender. Given the number of spam emails I have to deal with every day, I suspected that it might not be legitimate.
After investigation, it turned out that the email was legitimate – and it’s a great illustration of the difficulty companies are facing as they increasingly automate or outsource their engagements with their customer base. I am an existing subscriber, so there was every opportunity for the sender to demonstrate they knew a lot more about me than just my name and email address.
The problem was further compounded by the supplier automatically renewing my software subscription a few days later without my consent, and without giving me the opportunity to apply for the special discounted price that was offered to me in the dodgy email. (It’s another story, but I did get that discount in the end.)
Then, a few months later I received two calls on the same day purporting to be from one of my financial services providers and from my telco. I’ve had a relationship with each of these suppliers that dates back well over a decade, but each call ended in a stalemate.
Despite calling me, both the bank and the telco wanted to know that they were talking to the right person. To do that, both asked me to verify who I was by giving them my date of birth.
My response to each of these callers was: why should I give you private information about me? How do I know who you are?
Now, we live in a world where phishing scams, identity theft and hacking have become increasingly sophisticated. In fact, social engineering – such as asking people for their personal information – has become one of the most effective ways to crack security (read John McAfee ‘joking’ recently that he will use social engineering to help the FBI hack into a dead terrorist’s Apple iPhone).
I raised my concerns with both the bank and the telco. No response at all from the bank (typical), but I did have an interesting conversation with the telco. They had no record of the call, so it could have been malicious. I was also told that they only ask for personal information in exceptional circumstances. When I pushed, it turns out that’s any time that they need to confirm the identity of the person at the other end of the line.
When I explained to the telco’s customer service rep that the practices they are using is normalising insecure behaviour and making it easier for its customers to be compromised, my feedback fell on deaf ears.
So why are these companies persisting with insecure sales and marketing practices? In this digital age, face-to-face and human interactions are being driven down to reduce the costs of customer service. However, that has left companies with fewer opportunities to differentiate themselves from their competition, and for cross-selling and up-selling … but more on that in Part 2 coming soon ….
In the meantime, I’ve got a simple solution that will solve the problem when my bank or telco calls me in the future. If you want to find out, give me a call. 🙂