Feb 25

You aren’t what you say you are (unless the customer agrees)

Shout out to Emily Yellin for suggesting this idea.

image from farm4.static.flickr.com It’s interesting to think about brands that have touted their strengths or points of differentiation in taglines only to have the customer experience turn out to be the polar opposite. Consider just a few examples:

  • BP’s ‘Beyond petroleum.’ There’s no need to recount how many journalists, pundits and comedians lambasted the initials and tagline in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.
  • Merrill Lynch’s ‘thundering herd’ of financial advisors were a breed apart. They sure were, especially after the firm experienced a massive meltdown as the real estate bubble burst and the markets collapsed. Today, what’s left of the thundering herd is corralled inside parent company, BOA. 
  • Toyota’s ‘Moving forward’ which, after a series of highly-publicized accidents caused by acceleration pedal problems, became a nasty, daily reminder of the automaker’s crisis.
  • And then there’s the perpetual bad boy of branding: Comcast. Thanks to its horrific customer service, Comcast’s ‘Comcastic’  boast may be the gold standard for never living up to a brand promise.  

There’s an amazingly simple way to avoid these disconnects: put yourself in customer’s shoes before ever attempting to frame marketing messages. 

Ian Wylie, a Forrester analyst, tracks customer service and blogged about a rare, best practice in Fast Company. In the text, Wylie profiled David McQuillen of Credit Suisse, who continually places himself and his C-suite bosses in the shoes of the customer (note: McQuillen has moved on since the 2007 blog was written and is now with OCBC Bank in Singapore). For example, he’s made the top brass visit local branch banks, stand in line, exchange foreign currency and ask customers questions. He’ll then take them back to the office, have them surf the company’s web site and attempt to check interest rates and fill out application forms. He brought a meeting of the bank’s 200 top managers to a complete standstill when he pulled out a speaker phone and dialed the customer service line. McQuillen said he saw ‘…fear in their faces, because they didn’t know what the experience was going to be.’ McQuillen said the bank has five million customer interactions a month and questioned how many, if any, managers had any clue about the quality of those interactions. 

McQuillen is one of the few visionaries in an emerging field that recognizes inside-out marketing no longer works. Time Magazine may have declared you and me (the consumer) as ‘person of the year’ a while back, but the vast majority of marketers don’t get it (we recently surveyed 75 CMOs and found that 75 percent had never experienced their brand as a customer). For the most part, marketers still craft campaigns that tout their best-in-class product or service without ever experiencing said product or service from the customer’s point of view.  

We’re digging deep into this yawning gap and are slipping into the shoes of CFOs, moms and other ‘consumers’ to experience a brand online, on the phone and in person. We’re also determining exactly where a purchase consideration is being made. 

We’re not nearly as street smart as McQuillen who, in an attempt to make his bank do more to help customers with disabilities use its branches, offices, web site and call centers, made each member of his team spend a day in wheelchair. They also wore weighted suits to re-create what it’s like to be 70-years-old and had them eat lunch in the dark, courtesy of local Zurich restaurant called the Blind Cow (where all the waiting staff are visually impaired). What a superb way to understand the customer before making the necessary tweaks to better connect with them! McQuillen’s even gone on the speaking circuit to explain what it was like to be wheelchair-bound for a day. 

I’m no McQuillen, but it’s pretty easy to see what he’s seen: You aren’t what you say you are unless the customer agrees. So, paraphrasing the Hippocratic Oath, ‘marketer, heal thyself.’”

Dec 09

An executive assistant is an underappreciated asset in any organization’s image

I’m not wild about the new monthly edition of PR Week, but I am positively addicted to Don   I_love_my_gate_keeper_mug-p1682737315052565782obaq_152 Spetner’s column. A former agency and corporate guy, Spetner today serves as EVP of corporate affairs at Korn/Ferry, the big international recruiting firm. His columns are always insightful, often funny and, in the most recent instance, a catalyst for today’s blog.

In his December column, Spetner waxes poetic about the important role executive assistants play in the health, well-being and productivity of the corporate chief executive officer. He’s 100 percent right. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with quite a few excellent executive assistants over the years and have always been amazed at how effortlessly they handle the most complicated schedules. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Spetner also shares strategies for winning over an executive assistant in order to gain access to the coveted C-suite. Again, his advice is spot on. What he doesn’t touch on, though, are examples of executive assistants from hell, and the impact they can have on an organization’s image and reputation.

For example, I’ve sometimes returned the call of a corporate bigwig only to be given a serious cold shoulder by the palace guard. She’ll (typically, the guard is female) ask what my call is in reference to (they always use that phrase “What is your call in reference to?” Why not a simple: “What up?”). When I say that I’m returning “Don’s’ call,” (I’ll be sure to use the bigwig’s first name to let the assistant know I’m a player), and she’ll ratchet up her attention a tad and ask, “And what organization do you represent?” I typically respond by saying, “Peppercom. But I’m also a friend.” That usually works pretty well. Seconds later, the executive assistant will return and be just as sickly sweet as can be, “Oh Mr. Cody, I am sooooo sorry for making you wait. Don will speak to you right away.”  Not that it matters in this particular instance, but Don doesn’t know his executive assistant has not exactly endeared herself to me. And, in a different set of circumstances (say, an important prospective customer call), her attitude could have been damaging.

Then there’s the power trip move by the CEO and his executive assistant from hell. I remember when one CEO in particular was courting me, he’d always have his secretary call on his behalf. I’d answer the phone by saying, “Steve Cody.” There’d be a pause and then the palace guard would announce in a deep and dramatic voice, “Please hold for Mr. Hugebottom.” Naturally, I’d have to wait a good 20 or 25 seconds before his nibs would deign to join the call. And, naturally, he’d always have me on speaker to further underscore his importance.

I’m blessed to have an executive assistant who does an incredible job of fending off office space brokers (leave me alone, Scott Brown) as well as the boiler room guys with stock tips and the suppliers who just need 30 seconds of my time. Dandy also knows how and when to apply the personal touch with clients and prospective clients. And, when it comes to family and friends, she’ll bend over backwards to make things work. In short, just like Ray Carroll, our superb receptionist, Dandy is a critical component to our overall image.

I’m not sure CEOs think about organizational image and reputation when they hire executive assistants. But, they should. As it turns out, I never succumbed to that CEO’s myriad job offers way back when. Thinking about it now, I believe his executive assistant’s boorish behavior was one of the factors in my turning thumbs down.

Jun 20

When push comes to shove, the bottom-line is still the bottom-line

I attended a fascinating panel discussion Wednesday night at Manhattan’s Penn Club. The event was co-hosted by the Arthur Page Society and the Council of PR Firms, and focused on the former’s recent white paper booklet, entitled: ‘The Authentic Enterprise.

The Authentic Enterprise should be must-reading for every PR professional. It addresses the emerging role of the chief communications officer and includes interviews with 31 chief executive officers (a superhuman feat in, and of, itself).

The findings point to the CCO’s emerging role in a world of social media and transparency. The panel included such luminaries as: Harvey Greisman of Mastercard, Paul Jensen of Weber Shandwick, Valerie DiMaria of Willis, Roger Bolton of APCO and Maril McDonald, who runs one of the sharpest communications consultancies in the country.

The group believes we, as an industry, are better positioned than ever to help the corporation ‘interact’ with each and every constituent audience. They also believe CEOs ‘get’ the importance of social media, are concerned by its lack of control, but turn to the CCO for guidance (which is a big win for the industry).

For me, though, The Authentic Enterprise panel/white paper discussion literally lacked a bottom-line component. Sure, the CEO will turn to the CCO in times of reputation crisis and, perhaps, to engage with Web 2.0 audiences in new and more meaningful ways. But, the CEO’s 24×7 world revolves around one fundamental issue: satisfying the Street.

Roger, Valerie and Harvey did a good job in addressing my questions about how The Authentic Enterprise connects to an ROI-driven C-suite. But, frankly, I was left wanting more. So, here’s hoping the Page Society commissions groundbreaking research on an ongoing basis. I’d love to read a follow-up entitled, ‘The authentic, bottom-line focused enterprise.’

Jun 05

PR Pros may have access to C-suite, but their digital message isn’t getting through

USC’s Annenberg School for Communication’s GAP V survey is a timely and helpful measurementCsuite_2
substantiating PR’s rising importance within the corporate infrastructure. The main findings show that 64 percent of the 520 senior corporate communications respondents report directly to the C-suite. As a result, they are more likely to have more resources than those who don’t. OK, so far, so good.

Jerry Swerling, who heads the school’s PR studies program, says the question is no longer whether or not PR has a seat at the table, but what to do with it. No argument with that point either.

But, here’s where the Annenberg findings fall short. We’ve participated in two recent (and fairly extensive) surveys of PR pros. Both showed a huge ‘digital’ gap between the PR/communications function and the C-suite. In fact, PR pros are incredibly frustrated about the C-suite’s lack of understanding and support of digital. Respondents to our survey overwhelmingly ‘get’ digital’s importance, but cannot get the C-suite to get it. As a result, PR executives report little support to properly their fund digital initiatives.

I’m not suggesting there’s a gap in the Annenberg Gap V survey findings, but I’d love to see next year’s Gap VI probe more deeply into what I see as one of the biggest, and least well understood, pain points facing PR pros today.

May 01

Cable executives struggle with same C-suite fears of digital

I was fortunate to be among the panelists in a recent CableFAX webinar. The subject was digitalCf
communications and, as was the case with my recent PR News webinar, the topics ranged from best practices and budget spends to lessons learned and ‘digital ownership’ within the organization.

CableFAX leveraged the webinar to release the findings of an industry survey on the subject. Interestingly enough, the results were almost identical to the one we’d conducted six weeks earlier with PR News (note: our sampling of 500 marketing communications respondents represented all sorts of corporations, agencies and non-profits. CableFAX’s reflected opinions from within the cable industry).

CableFAX respondents said digital was still a relatively small part of their overall PR budget (56 percent said it accounted for between 11 and 25 percent of the total). Less than one-quarter expected the budget to increase slightly in the next year. The remainder saw little or no budget increase whatsoever for digital.

That said, forty-four percent of respondents believe their digital efforts to date have been somewhat or moderately successful. And, a whopping 58 percent identified a ‘lack of funds’ as the number one hurdle to advancing digital’s use within their organization.

Continue reading

Apr 23

Don’t look back. Someone may be gaining

A recent PR News-Peppercom survey of 500 communicators showed that two-thirds were concerned theyLooking
were parallel to, or behind, their competitors when it came to digital communications.

The finding is scary in a number of ways. It tells me that communicators are either unable to convince their management to make a strategic digital spend or they simply don’t care. While the latter statement may sound glib and superficial, it may also be true. I suspect there’s more than one Fortune 500 marketing executive who simply doesn’t want to worry about digital communications. He or she isn’t comfortable with the new, Web 2.0 world, finds it impossible to control and nearly impossible to explain to the C-suite. So, why not let the next shift worry about it?

If, however, the survey finding indicates an inability on the part of marketers to ‘sell’ digital to the c-suite, then I suggest a competitive audit is exactly the way to do so. Most CEOs move like greased lightning when shown clear evidence of a competitor’s strategic maneuvering. And, what better way to get Avis to move, for example, than by showing the CEO what Hertz is doing in Web 2.0?

Digital is not only a game changer that’s here to stay, it’s a game changer that can help you stay ahead of your competition.