Jan 16

Making the customer feel like a king

Next to the actual product or service itself,
customer service is arguably the most important Arrow
component in an
organization’s image, reputation and success.

Case in point: While I’ve used the same local car
service for years, I’d never thought too much about them until last
Friday night. That’s when I connected with Kelley, a reservationist who
made me feel like a king.

What did she do? As soon as I mentioned my name,
Kelley broke in to ask if I was the same Steve Cody who wrote the
Repman blog. I admitted that, yes, that was me. Well, Kelley went on
and on to tell me how much she liked the blog, looked forward to
reading it each day, etc. To say that Kelley made me feel special is an
understatement.

In fact, Kelley’s extra special customer service accomplished several things:

– it made me feel great

– it reinforced my loyalty to her car service

– it will help offset any negative feelings the next time the service should make a mistake with a reservation.

An organization is only as strong as its weakest
link. Reaching out to, and connecting with, customers and prospective
customers, and taking the time to make them feel special may be the
only thing that separates one company from another. And, how well an
organization’s "points of contact" treat or mistreat its customers will
determine both its short- and long-term viability.

I hope Kelley’s employer values her services. As far as I’m concerned, she earned her paycheck with that one call.

Jan 12

When the rules no longer apply

I was talking with Michael Goodman, Ph.D., who runs the Corporate Communications Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University, when the conversation turned to leaders in the PR industry. With a few notable exceptions, we agreed that most are incredibly gracious, laidback and relatively ego free.

Gene Colter, who joined our firm after 16 years with The Wall Street Journal, said much the same thing about CEOs in general. Most ‘powerful’ individuals are very engaging, down-to-earth, warm and honest, says Colter.

But, then there are those who seem to think the rules of business and social propriety simply don’t apply to them: Barry Bonds, Donald Trump, NFL/NBA players and your average rapper comes to mind.

So, too, does, Steve Jobs. Why else would he deliberately take on Cisco with his new iPhone? As was773ls_1   the case when he originally named his company and knowingly ‘took on’ the Beatles from a legal standpoint, Jobs knew Cisco had a product by the very same name. So, what goes through the mind of an uber-successful, uber-rich executive, sports star or entertainer when confronted by the rules of society and propriety? Did Jobs simply not care about the obvious lawsuit he’d trigger with his product naming? Did he think the negative publicity would build additional buzz? Or, did he see himself as simply being above the rules that govern mere mortals?

I see this sort of hubris at a much lower scale in everyday business, especially in terms of client-agency relationships. Ted "Ludicris" Birkhahn told me about one "mega client" who, upon being informed the agency would be closed on MLK, Jr., Day responded by saying, "Oh, no you’re not." And a group of us just met with a "powerful" new business prospect who ignored us for the first 20 minutes as she sent and received Blackberry messages.

Boorish behavior reflects poorly on the individual and the institution. I can’t speak for others, but I wouldn’t want to work for, or with, someone who thinks he’s too high and mighty to play by the rules. As Ed Moed likes to say, "Life is too short."

Thanks to Gene Colter and Deb Brown for their insights.

Jan 11

It’s not all about you, it’s about them

In our new, disintermediated, 24X7 all information, entertainment and news world, it’s critical to reach target audiences in the mediums they, not we, choose.

Yet, stubborn traditionalists in advertising, direct mail, medical supplies and, yes, public relations, continue to cling to such ineffective and costly tactics as mass mailings, 30-second TV spots and billboards on bridges. But, the times they are a changing…

Yesterday, we played host to 20 University of Richmond students. The Spiders (school nickname) Bbmdos came to us to learn PR’s specific role within the marketing mix and overall function within a business in general. But, this wasn’t just about us talking "at" them. Rather, we saw it as an opportunity to learn how "Generation Next" likes to receive its news and information, make purchasing decisions and communicate with one another.

While there were no "ah ha’s" or surprises in the findings, the Spiders’ feedback helped substantiate a few premises:

1.) 100 percent obtain news from the Internet, not newspapers or other traditional media. Most visit NYTimes.com.

2.) They use Facebook as opposed to MySpace, because of perceived confidentiality issues with the latter. Additionally, one of the advisors who accompanied the group said he uses Facebook as a key communications tool since it’s the best and fastest way to reach the students.

3.) They turn to Google, CNet, and Edmunds for product information/reviews before making a purchasing decision. Corporate Web sites and brochures have little credibility in their eyes. They want to hear from consumers who tell it like it is. And, yes, Internet research is a fundamental part of their overall purchase decision process.

4.) I.M. is their preferred way to reach out to one another, followed by text and email.

Like all consumers in the Web 2.0 world, Generation Next students decide how they’ll receive information. The sooner we marketers figure out it’s not about us, our company or our product but, instead, the wants and needs of the end user, the better we’ll connect. So drop the hyperbole, the superlatives and the inward-looking corporate speak. If we want to spin a yarn that will connect with Richmond Spiders, we better first understand how their information-gathering "webs" work.

Jan 11

Penn Station security guards should make weight loss their number one New Year’s resolution

I’m not sure if it’s the plethora of New Year’s resolution stories, the pantheon of reality TV shows or such provocative Discovery Channel fare as "I was a 687-pound teenager," but it sure seems like Fat City for the overall subject of weight loss.

Which may explain why I’ve been so weighted down by the sight of portly security folks at Penn Donut_2 Station. Today alone, I espied one weight-challenged security/military type after another waddling around the bustling train depot. As I did, I thought to myself, "Hey, what’s going on? Are we securing our city’s most vulnerable transportation hubs with the creme de la creme of our nation’s guards and soldiers? Or, instead, are the morbidly and grossly obese among the rank-and-file simply being posted to seemingly ‘out-of-the-way’ venues?"

Regardless of the reason why so many obviously out-of-shape security people are at Penn Station in the first place, the real concern is this: if an untrained eye like mine is picking this up, what must our enemies be thinking?

One would think our nation would want an image of a fit, lean and mean fighting machine, both here and abroad. Yet, the exact opposite is the case, at least at Penn Station. Instead of thinking "Army Strong" when I saunter past these ladies and gents, I’m thinking "Army Slow," "Army Ponderous" or, worse, "Army Vulnerable." It’s time for the Penn Station guards to shape up or ship out. And, here’s hoping a serious diet and exercise plan is on the New Year’s resolution list of many, if not all of them.

Jan 10

Every now and then the system works

 

Mark McGwire’s near unanimous rejection by baseball writers voting which
players should be named to the uber prestigious Hall of Fame is a victory for
fans everywhere.

It shows that, in this case, words sometimes speak louder than actions. The
‘words’ were McGwire’s Congressional testimony a while back when, asked directly
if he’d ingested steroids, said, "I prefer to not look at the past."

Fans knew McGwire’s prestigious home run records, which seemed so amazing at
the time, were achieved via his bulking up on illegal substances.

Now, baseball writers have made McGwire pay the ultimate price. He’ll sit on
the bench while two902
somewhat lesser luminaries, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr,
scoot into the Hall.

If he is to ever be inducted into the hallowed Hall, McGwire needs to embark
on a significant image and reputation rehab program forthwith. I’ve suggested in
the past that he consider a grassroots Little League program aimed at educating
kids on the dangers of steroid use. Whatever he does, McGwire better act fast.
His chances for future induction rest on his ability to admit fault, ‘find’ the
right pitch and then launch it out of the park.

In the meantime, it’s nice to know that, for once, the system worked as it
should.

Jan 09

The Cody curse has gone national

Anyone who has had the misfortune to travel with me knows that, when it comes to delays, cancellations, bizarre mechanical malfunctions or whatever, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In fact, my business travel problem has become so regular that it’s entered the Peppercom lexicon and become known as the Cody curse.

Now comes news, though, that the Cody curse has gone national. According to a front page WallBb82lw_1   Street Journal Weekend Edition story (subscription required), airline flight delays have increased dramatically since 2000, the incidence of mishandled bags is 68 percent higher than 2002 and consumer complaints have increased in each of the last four years.

The Journal article is peppered with one horrific case study after another that, if they weren’t so terrible, would be hilarious. As for me, some of my classic problems have included:

  • Being stranded overnight in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by a massive snow storm ("lake effect stuff" as the locals like to say) and having to shop for basic necessities at a K-Mart
  • Being stranded overnight in Norfolk, Virginia, after my flight from Palm Beach to Newark was forced to land because of inclement NJ weather. We subsequently lost our departure ‘slot’ and, because they had already logged too much ‘work’ time, we lost our flight crew as well. I was stuck familiarizing myself with the Norfolk Airport’s comfy lounges.
  • Being diverted to an abandoned Air Force facility in Newburgh, NY, after that ever-present inclement Newark weather caused problems. That one cost me about six hours.

After having seen what travelers in Denver have had to put up with over the past month, the Cody curse seems somewhat tame in comparison.

The point is, though, things are getting worse and, in my opinion, the airline industry couldn’t care less. Forced by Wall Street, the powers-that-be are so intent on squeezing every penny out of operations that the basic services have gone to hell in a handbasket.

So, I ask: how does one improve the image of an industry that really isn’t incentivized to care about it? As you ponder that question, thank your lucky stars you that you don’t have any upcoming travel with me (unless, of course, you do). The Cody curse is a very real phenomenon.

Jan 08

Ever wonder where your Sunday Church donation goes?

As a former Catholic Church altar boy, I well remember the drama that was the high holy mass every Sunday. In addition to the incense, pomp and circumstance, there was also the collection of money from the parishioners. As a matter of fact, I even remember the competition between school kids to see who would put the most money in the collection baskets.

I also remember our parish priests tooling around the ‘hood in state-of-the-art Cadillac convertibles, and wondering how they could afford such status symbols.

Now comes confirmation from a Villanova University study that parish priests are looting the H9992321 collection boxes. In fact, 85 percent, yes 85 percent, of U.S. Roman Catholic parishes discovered embezzlement of Church money in the past five years, with 11 percent reporting more than $500,000 being stolen. In one Del Ray Beach, Florida, case, two priests spent $8.6 million on trips to Las Vegas, dental work, property taxes, and other expenses over four decades. Nice.

This is yet another example of the Church’s basic infrastructure being badly broken. And, no matter what sort of smart public relations program the Church enacts, it needs to address underlying structural faults first (i.e. celibacy, women’s roles and, in this case, fiscal responsibility).

In my book, the Catholic Church’s image and reputation is right up there (or down there, as the case may be) with those of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and other ‘bad boys and girls.’

The Church’s only response to this latest farce came from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said they had seen the study and were considering ways that parishes could tighten their financial controls. Give me a break! It’s time for the Church to admit fault, admit the system is broken and invite impartial, respected experts from the private sector to come in and help them sweep house.

As my partner Ed likes to say, "Where there’s smoke, there’s fire." And, my seeing those St. Francis Church priests cruising through Ridgefield Park in luxury wheels way back when was the smoke. Now, it’s time for the Church to admit "Rome’s burning" and find someone or some group to help them put out the fire.

Thanks to Tom Powers for this idea.

Jan 05

It’s simply not cool to be this warm

When I leased my way cool Z3 convertible in August, I never imagined tooling to the local Lincroft Dunkin’ Donuts with the top down on January 5th. But that’s what I did this morning.

How cool is that? Answer: it’s not.

Whether it’s the jet steam, the El Nino effect or global warming, something is seriously amiss withGlobalwarming5  our environment. Duffers are golfing in Chicago, flowers are blooming in New Jersey and women are wearing flip-flops on NYC streets.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE this weather. But, at what price? Having just rented and viewed Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth," I have a totally new perspective on, and appreciation of, global warming.

I realize that other parts of the country, particularly the Plains states and the Northwest, have been hard hit by foul weather, but c’mon. Based upon what I’ve seen and heard, Denver may have more snow right now than the polar ice caps.

What scares me is the continuing inertia from Washington, DC. As is usually the case, Congress doesn’t seem to be able to get its act together in terms of passing new, smart and comprehensive energy and environmental standards. Sure, individual corporations are doing their part, but mostly because they see sustainability as a smart business move and not an investment in our children’s future.

It’s a real conundrum. On the one hand, we revel in record-setting temperatures. On the other, we know that, deep down, something is rotten in Denmark (and everywhere else for that matter). There’s a meltdown in effect and if we don’t start taking it more seriously, the implications will be apocalyptic.

So, here’s hoping the President’s state of the union address will suggest new legislation and that the Democratic-controlled Congress will agree on some of the measures good old Al Gore has been advocating for years. If nothing else, the smarter politicians (oxymoron?) should realize that advocating for the environment is no longer considered "dangerous and wacky." The proof is everywhere. And, if the more cautious pols want to "test the waters," all they have to do is put the top down on their convertibles and cruise over to the local coffee shop.

Jan 04

Sorry, but I only return voice and e-mails during peak business hours

Wal-Mart, that bastion of progressive, worker-friendly policies and procedures (not), just took its innovative ways to a new level by announcing that in-store staffing will now be based on actual store traffic.

So, all those happy-go-lucky Wal-Mart employees who have suffered for years because of low Walmart_logo wages,  little or no health benefits and abusive management, now have to re-structure their personal lives around the ebb and flow of local store traffic.

So, instead of knowing that, say, I have to work 9am-5pm from Monday through Friday (and structure my personal schedule accordingly), I now have to realize that, if store traffic ebbs, I may be sent home at 11am and not asked to return until 5pm. Or, I may not be called in at all. Or, I may have to work extra shifts and extra hours because of increased store traffic. What a way to live!

This new approach is right in line with Wal-Mart’s maniacal focus on maximizing profits each and every quarter in each and every store. They are a textbook example of the big business that will do whatever it takes to grow the top and bottom lines. Their abuse and bullying of employees, steamrolling local mom-and-pop competitors out of business and squeezing every last penny from vendors and suppliers is legendary.

Say what you will about Wal-Mart but their new in-store staffing strategy is perfectly consistent from an image and reputation standpoint. As a certain U.S. President once said, "You can love me or hate me. But, you know where I stand." The same can be said for Wal-Mart. Love them or hate them, those guys sure know how to maximize profits and will do whatever it takes.

Will Wal-Mart’s new bizarro flex-time work program become a model for others? Will we drive up to a McDonald’s at an off-peak hour and have to wait because there’s only one employee working at the time? What about checking in at an airport terminal at, say, 5am? That’s an off-peak hour. Will Southwest ticket agents still be at home, waiting for the big morning rush hour crush? And, what about me? Should I only return voice and e-mails during peak business hours? Would that maximize my productivity?

While Wal-Mart’s productivity program is a big winner for the organization, it has to be a nightmare for employees and their families. Will little Johnny have to get used to mom not showing up after school because, oops, that’s when the store traffic picks up? And will Little Mary’s starring role in the grammar school play be seen by everyone but dad, because his Wal-Mart store has increased traffic flow at 5pm?

I hope the in-store staffing program fails. But, knowing how many people are out of work and willing to do almost anything for a job, I’m sure Wal-Mart will find replacements for any workers who find this latest insult way over the line.

Jan 03

People quit bosses, not organizations

Florida State University’s College of Business just published an interesting survey of some 700 people working in a variety of jobs, asking them about their bosses. The results:

1) two of five bosses don’t keep their word

2) more than a fourth bad mouth their employees to co-workers

Others said their supervisors took credit for work done by the employee, blamed others for mistakes made by the supervisor or gave the employee the ‘silent treatment’ at some time or another during the past year.

The survey confirms what I’ve always believed: people quit because of bad bosses, not bad organizations.

When I think of bad bosses in my career, I recall:

**one who had selective memory and simply ‘could not recall’ specific promises made to me and others

**one who trashed literally every employee in the firm that I had just joined, but told me it was my problem to either ‘fix them or fire them.’ Talk about a rude welcoming.

**one who demonstrated his displeasure with my writing by setting a newsletter on fire with his cigarette lighter (talk about seeing one’s career going up in smoke)

**one who screamed and yelled at me in the hallways right in front of co-workers (that was fun)

**another one who routinely dropped assignments on my desk with impossible deadlines and little or no direction

**still another who pulled together the senior management team and told us we should be ashamed that none of us possessed an Ivy League education

And so on and so forth. The FSU professors urge unhappy workers to hang in because, they say, no subordinate-supervisor relationship lasts forever. They say it’s important to demonstrate one’s abilities to the overall organization in the hopes the next boss will be impressed and more supportive.

Perhaps. But, I believe life is way, way too short to be unhappy in any relationship. Our organization is far from perfect, and we’ve had our share of bad bosses. But, over the years, we’ve tried to impress upon people at all levels of the organization to speak up if there are issues. We also provide regular training on the best ways to manage up, down and across the organization.

A bad boss can have a long-lasting negative impact on the image and reputation of a company. I’d advise any employee at any organization to speak up about a bad boss. In the long run, it’s better for the employee, better for the boss and better for the organization.

Thanks to Greg Schmalz for this idea.