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“Bad News Delivered Badly”

August 31, 2016

18820225526_884e6b752d_zIt’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.”

(Pictured above: “Bad News“, by Steve Davis [Photo credit: Dialysis Technician Salary] licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Slipping Customer Service Standards

August 3, 2016

little-girl-talking-on-phoneWe 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.

Surprising research: meetings are productive

July 13, 2016

UnfinishedBusinessA 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).

Bob Selden - emailHere’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.

To find out more, there was an ANZ press release issued on the findings and ShoreTel has also published an e-book that discusses the ten common misconceptions about meetings.

Pictured above: just another opportunity for me to use one of the cheesy stock photos released to promote the movie “Unfinished Business” last year.

A software company, a bank and a telco walk into a bar … (Part 2)

April 14, 2016

angry_girlAn 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.

(Pictured above: “Angry Girl“, by jasonippolito licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

A software company, a bank and a telco walk into a bar … (Part 1)

March 11, 2016

little-girl-talking-on-phone“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.🙂

Adopting Private Cloud

January 28, 2016

photoAt Explore Communications, we recently invested in a NAS (network attached storage) device to back up our data. It has some nice cloud-like properties. There’s a web-based user interface to configure folders, to access files, and to set up users and permissions; and our data can be accessed by users on the network or remotely, even from mobile devices.

Sounds good, but why didn’t we just go for a public cloud storage option? It probably would have been cheaper and less of a technical risk. However, I wasn’t comfortable with pure public cloud. I didn’t want to be using up our precious (and still quite slow) broadband quota to upload and download data, especially large video and graphic files. Also, I’m still not comfortable with entrusting a third party with my sensitive data. And it’s not just my generation that feels that way – Millennials are also very aware of online security risks.

Globally, that view on security is shared by the majority of enterprises. Technology Business Research (TBR) this week reported that 71% of private cloud users view private cloud as superior to public cloud based on security. That view holds true especially for the largest enterprises that tend to have the most stringent governance, risk and compliance policies in place. As a result, TBR estimates the private cloud market will grow to US$44 billion by 2020.

OK, so our NAS device is not true private cloud – it’s still a physical device that we have to look after ourselves and the storage capacity is fixed rather than flexible – but it does deliver the cloud properties that our small business needs right now.

TBR also cites this growth in private cloud as part of a corporate transition to hybrid IT environments (a mix of on-premise with public and private cloud). Explore Communications is currently not big enough or complex enough to take advantage of hybrid cloud, so for now it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The collective unconscious of online corporations

November 6, 2015

Bollingen_TowerIn the last few pages of ABC Radio presenter Richard Glover’s book about building his own mud brick house in the NSW Southern Highlands – The Mud House – Glover quotes the psychologist Carl Jung who felt he had been “reborn in stone” as a result of the experience of building his own house. Glover concluded that building his own place had defined him too. “I made that house and the house made me.”

Earlier on the same day that I was reading Richard Glover’s book, I saw that Amazon was opening its first bricks-and-mortar retail store (‘Amazon opens first physical bookstore in Seattle’, 2 November 2015, Engadget) and I was struck by the thought:

Maybe companies like Amazon that have defined the digital economy with revolutionary online business models are struggling to truly define their own identity? Maybe a logo, a website, a slick business model, and a bunch of data centres and warehouses are no longer enough for these corporations born in the Internet era.

The famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who coined the term the ‘collective unconscious’ first built his own house, Bollingen Tower, on Lake Zurich in 1923.

Based on Jung’s ideas, there’s an interesting perspective on how architecture defines us in an International Association for Analytical Psychology paper from 2004, which I think is just as relevant to corporate identity – especially large enterprises that have grown from an ‘online-only’ base:

“Houses express our individual character. Whether visiting Bollingen or Graceland, Mt. Vernon or Anne Frank’s house, unique places such as these draw us to them through their promise to tell us not only about their owners, but about ourselves. Architecture is a subjective language that expresses the people and culture from which it derives, just as Jung’s tower reveals a great deal about both the man and his time. “From the beginning,” he wrote “I felt the tower to be a place of maturation – a maternal womb – in which I could become what I was, what I am, and will be. It gave me a feeling as if I were being reborn in stone. I built it in a kind of dream. Only afterwards did I see how all the parts fitted together and that a meaningful form had resulted: a symbol of psychic wholeness.” (Jung, 1963, p 213-214).” (‘Mystical Emergence: An Architectural Journey Through Jung’s Tower’, IAAP)

Amazon is not alone in expressing a need to express its identity through physical architecture, even if it flies in the face of business sense. Gizmodo, for example, doesn’t see the new Amazon Books store making money:

“Amazon’s got a lot of stick for causing the demise of physical bookstores, so it’s a little strange to see it opening up a store — even with the big-data approach to inventory, it’s difficult to imagine Amazon Books turning a profit.” (‘Amazon’s First Real Store Opened Today’, 4 November 2015, Gizmodo Australia)

Then there’s that widely-shared paragraph from TechCrunch about the latest ‘sharing economy’ darlings which, funnily enough, hasn’t stopped them from investing in their own fantastical architectural expressions.

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” (‘The Battle Is For The Customer Interface’, 3 March 2015, TechCrunch)

Airbnb went to town converting an old warehouse in San Francisco into its global headquarters, complete with eight replica iconic Airbnb listings:

“Any of the company’s 200 employees can schedule a team meeting in Bali, or camp out for a few hours with a laptop in Milan. They also restored the building’s former president’s office from 1917, when the warehouse was a battery factory. And, perhaps most audaciously, the Airbnb team converted a pre-existing cylindrical room into a model of the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove.” (‘Inside Airbnb’s Whimsical New Headquarters’, 9 December 2013, Fast Company)

And Uber is building its “first wildly ambitious, kind of ridiculous, and generally stunning headquarters to accommodate a ballooning headcount as growth explodes.” (‘Uber reveals plans for a giant glass headquarters in San Francisco’, 29 May 2015, The Verge)

However, it looks like Google has decided not to open its first ever retail store, despite reportedly spending “$6 million renovating the space” (. You can see the psychology behind the original retail plans – wanting something bigger and better than two of its competitors Microsoft and Apple – who have been opening lavish retail outlets all around the world.

It’s good to see there is still some common sense prevailing.

(Pictured above: “CG Jung’s tower in Bollingen, Swiss”, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licence.)

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