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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’,, 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.)

Google becomes Alphabet … well, not really

August 11, 2015

alphabetOvernight, Google announced that it is changing its name from Google to Alphabet – but only as the name of its listed entity on NASDAQ. On the face of it, that seems a crazy move given Forbes’ estimate of Google’s brand value at US$65.6bn.

As it turns out, there’s really not much to the story. Google is hardly going to jeopardise its brand equity. In fact, the new Alphabet brand is deliberately as far removed from a logo as you can get. It’s a plain, sans serif font (Arial?), the name is as common and generic as it can be, and the only concession to design is that it’s in red, not black.

Instead, Alphabet is Google’s way to create some structure and “transparency” for its underlying businesses, creating Alphabet as a holding company. Cynics will be looking to other angles for the decision, such as potential tax minimisation opportunities and avoidance of future potential anti-trust actions. Maybe it gives Google the opportunity to distance itself from its “don’t be evil” motto – Alphabet is a new corporate identity, after all. (See further, ‘Google is now Alphabet: making sense of a crazy corporate announcement‘, SMH, 11 August 2015).

What it does do is allow Google (Alphabet) to separate out its profitable core search and advertising business from its other more speculative  investments and incubator projects, such as Google X research labs.

However, corporate identity has a way of developing its own brand and persona regardless of best attempts to suppress it. The prime example of that working is Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway – its corporate website is the epitome of anti-brand.

Funnily enough, the media has already made the connection between Alphabet and Berkshire Hathaway:

In recent years, Page has been pushing the company to operate like Berkshire Hathaway, as a constellation of companies tied together through investments.

(‘Google Renames Self Alphabet, Gives Sundar Pichai Better Title‘, re/code, 10 August 2015)

It will be interesting to see what happens to Alphabet’s brand over time. I’m guessing it will develop a life of its own.

(Pictured above: “Plastic alphabet 02”, Martin Abegglen, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.)

Losing Touch with Reality

June 29, 2015

Great_Barrier_reefAt the end of May, we heard the ‘great’ news that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had escaped an entry on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

However, any connection with reality and the dire environmental implications of a UNESCO ‘in danger’ listing were lost in the marketing and PR efforts that followed.

In a joint statement from the Federal and Queensland State Governments, it was announced that UNESCO had ‘recommended against the Great Barrier Reef being listed as “in danger”’ and that ‘Australia and Queensland’s efforts have been praised.’

While not called out in the joint press release, the key marketing and PR message was pretty clear – both in the lead up to the decision and immediately afterwards – an “in danger” listing would have been a threat to the region’s tourism industry.

“An in danger listing could have been disaster for the tourism industry”, says the reporter dutifully in the Sky News broadcast piece after the UNESCO decision was announced.

The accompanying story from AAP expands on the point: “There were fears tourists would stop visiting the reef, which contributes about $6 billion to the national economy each year.”

(‘Ministers say Great Barrier Reef on the mend’, Sky News, 31 May 2015)

The ABC was a touch more circumspect, but still swallowed the same line:

“It is a significant reprieve for the Queensland and Federal governments, with an adverse listing being potentially disastrous for the tourism industry.”

(‘Great Barrier Reef: UNESCO recommends world heritage site not be placed on ‘in danger’ list’, ABC News, 1 June 2015)

A week or so after the announcement, it turns out that reporting of water quality improvement – one of the things that “saved” the Reef from being listed – was “not necessarily true”. (‘Great Barrier Reef: Public reporting of water quality ‘misleading at worst’, Queensland auditor-general says’, ABC News, 11 June 2015)

“In Danger”

So what exactly is the List of World Heritage in Danger? There are currently 46 properties around the world, and the criteria for “in danger” is laid out under Article 11(4) of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (my italicisation below):

“…threatened by serious and specific dangers, such as the threat of disappearance caused by accelerated deterioration, large-scale public or private projects or rapid urban or tourist development projects; destruction caused by changes in the use or ownership of the land; major alterations due to unknown causes; abandonment for any reason whatsoever; the outbreak or the threat of an armed conflict; calamities and cataclysms; serious fires, earthquakes, landslides; volcanic eruptions; changes in water level, floods and tidal waves.”

We are talking about some really serious consequences, and in their defence both Sky News and the ABC did cover UNESCO’s ongoing concerns:

“Outlook for the Reef remains poor, with climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal developments a major threat to its health.” (Sky News video)

The grim irony is that by linking an “in danger” listing with a threat to the tourism industry, we are missing the point entirely.

UNESCO’s “in danger” listing is a threat to the tourism industry and not because it “could cause reputational and ‘brand’ damage to the reef” (yes, that’s exactly how SpiceNews reported it).

No – we could lose the Great Barrier Reef altogether, and where would that leave the tourism industry?

(Pictured above: “Coral Outcrop Flynn Reef”, Toby Hudson, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.)