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.’”

Aug 09

When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine Bennis, running low on contraceptive devices,
Nytimes1 had to decide which boyfriends were and weren't sponge worthy?

The episode came to mind recently when we were fired by a client CEO whose story, despite our very best efforts, was found by reporters at the 'old, gray lady' not to be New York Times worthy.

Never mind that we had scored tons of superb placements in outlets such as Fast Company, general business press, vertical industry and trades. The narcissistic CEO felt his epic tale should be splashed across the front pages of the 'print' edition of The Times. Aside from feeding his Mt. Everest-sized ego, the Times hit was uber critical to the CEO because the other power players in his social circle also routinely appeared in the paper. So, he HAD to be there or else.

Unfortunately, the Times editorial staff disagreed (no matter how many angles we tried). And, since we failed to produce the seminal Times hit, we were summarily discharged.

The CEOs self-aggrandizing misbehavior reminded me of the stereotypical typical dotcom founder who, armed with a freshly-minted Stanford MBA, a me-too business model and millions of dollars in venture capital seed money insisted his mug be front and center on the cover of BusinessWeek. His CMO henchwoman (they were almost always henchwomen, BTW) would nod her head vigorously and add, "How could they not put Halsey on the cover?" Well, nine times out of 10, the professional journalists laughed off the pitch as not being cover worthy and the henchwoman would discard us like yesterday's newspaper.

All of which reminds me of a superb observation the legendary Manhattan PR wizard Howard Rubenstein shared with a PRSA audience many years back. When a prospect or client CEO demanded to be on the front page of The New York Times or the cover of Fortune, Rubenstein said he'd let out an exasperated sigh, lean over, pull open his desk drawer and produce a toy gun. “You want to be on the cover of Forbes? Fine. Go murder someone and I'll get you on the cover of Forbes.” I think that sums it up beautifully.

Stanley Bing's book "Crazy Bosses" contains a hilarious chapter about the care and feeding of self-absorbed, narcissistic maniacs who believe the sun rises and sets with their every move. My only addition to Bing's pearls of wisdom would be to determine expectations BEFORE a relationship begins. If you run into the next George Steinbrenner who needs his ego stoked with one front page feature after another (and you believe the actual news value akin to what Lindsay Lohan was served for breakfast in the L.A. County jail, walk away). Tell the prospect he or she isn't client worthy.