Aug 31

All the thought leadership in the world can’t overcome shoddy service

August 31 - wallst_full This business-to-business specialist cum blogger has long admired the thought leadership programs of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Challenger, Gray is one of the world’s top outplacement firms. And, to me at least, it seems as if they’ve positively ‘owned’ the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Hardly a month seems to pass without some Challenger, Gray workplace survey being trumpeted on the Journal’s front page. If there was a B-to-B firm that ‘got’ thought leadership from the get go, it was Challenger, Gray.

So, imagine my surprise when Challenger, Gray and a few of its outplacement firm peers were absolutely skewered in a recent Journal front-page articleThe Journal’s Phred Dvorak and Joann S. Lublin absolutely pummeled the outplacement firms for not keeping pace with, well, outplacement. The Journal charged Challenger and its ilk with providing bogus, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ for the  victims of the current recession. Rather than working closely with a downsized client, Challenger, Gray would, instead, send out mass form letters. They’d also provide such bizarre mock interview advice as telling one job seeker to ‘….not order diet soda because it suggested immaturity.’ Another was scolded for ‘….not following his coach to the restroom to continue a conversation.’ Puh-leese!

Challenger, Gray and other outplacement firms were painted as having placed quantity over quality. In effect, said the Journal, they’d become little more than telemarketing call centers, whose representatives were instructed to field as many calls as possible and to keep advice to a bare minimum. The Journal summed it up by saying, ‘With so many people looking for work, services increasingly have become standardized.’

Surprisingly, Challenger, Gray didn’t handle the Journal article very well. John Challenger, its CEO, responded to the paper with a written statement (I would have advised a sit-down with one or both reporters). In his note, Mr. Challenger admitted that ‘clients will get angry’ at poor service. No, really? Do tell. And, in defending his firm’s use of mass form letters for job-seeking clients, Mr. Challenger wrote ‘While the introductory and closing paragraphs are similar across many cover letters, the meat of the cover letter is individualized by the client.’ For me, that’s a smoking gun. Any marketer worth his or her salt knows the first sentence of any letter, be it to a prospective employer, reporter or would-be paramour is absolutely critical. I can spot a form letter a mile away and, when I do, I hit the delete button.

The Journal article is the first real blemish I’ve seen on an otherwise spotless Challenger, Gray thought leadership campaign. But, it strikes me that John Challenger & Co., better improve their service in a hurry. All the thought leadership equity in the world won’t overcome shoddy service.”