Sep 23

Image goes for a ride

I always wear jeans and sneaks when I fly. To me, comfort trumps appearance, especially in today's unfriendly skies.

September 23 - business_travel

It wasn't too long ago, though, that the very thought of dressing in jeans and sneaks on a business trip was verboten. My CEO at JWT always dressed in business formal wear, even when we were traveling on a Sunday. 'You never know who you might meet,' he admonished me, after spying my open neck polo.

On another occasion in the late 1980s, I sported jeans, cowboy boots and an unshaven face on a Sunday night flight to a client off-site. I figured I'd be flying alone, so why worry. Ah, but my client was also on the flight. We shook hands after landing, and then he offered me a piece of advice. 'There's casual and then there's casual. You represent your firm wherever you go. How do you think your CEO would feel if he saw you looking like this?' Duly noted.

That was many moons ago, of course. Today, there is no dress code for business travel. In fact, any code of airline comportment has been blown to smithereens. Nowadays, the typical fellow traveler is a morbidly-obese man dressed in a track suit, flip-flops and carrying two Double Whoppers with cheese on board. In fact, spying a passenger in suit-and-tie is akin to a sighting of Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman.

I knew the times had truly changed when I recently spied the always erudite, always neatly coiffed Bill Heyman in a pair of jeans at O'Hare. If the Bill Blass of PR search consultants is ok with jeans and sneaks at the airport, then it's ok with me as well. I just hope Mr. Heyman doesn't lapse into the track suit and Whopper mode any time soon. If he does, then we will have truly reached the end of days.

Aug 19

Loose lips can indeed sink ships

I was minding my own business at breakfast recently when a team of salespeople sidled into the booth next to me.

August 19 - orig They were dressed to the nines and clearly prepping for a major presentation. But, they were also projecting a distinct air of frustration and resignation. They then began a conversation loud enough for the entire room to overhear:

'We need to dial down the net prices on the dials or The Widget Company simply won't buy from us,' stated the apparent group leader.

'If we do that, say good-bye to any profit for the home office and any commissions for us,' lamented a second.

'We have no choice,' chimed in a third. 'I get the feeling that if we don't come back with a sale to Widget, we better not come back at all.'

'Damn recession!' said the leader. The others nodded dejectedly and tore into their waffles.

I found the conversation fascinating on a number of fronts. First, it vaguely reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, my all-time favorite movie about the business world. Second, it reinforced how brutally difficult it must be to sell a commodity such as a dial. I'm sure it's difficult in the best of times. But, try selling it when there are no value adds beyond price, quality, and service, and the prospective customer is gouging prices across the board. Talk about grim.

The conversation also got me thinking about the dangers of a public discourse. Suppose I'd been a member of the Widget Company team that the breakfast club would be pitching later on? Odds are good I would have tipped off my bosses about their complaints and suggested we select a competitor instead.

Just such a scenario happened to me long ago and far away. I was the junior person on a team that had just pitched and won a consumer product from one of the largest companies in the world. We were celebrating on the flight home and reminiscing about the presentation. One thing led to another, and we soon started mimicking some of the client-side characters and criticizing the way they spoke, the way they acted, the clothes they wore, etc. It got ugly.

Fast forward to the next morning. The pitch team was summoned to the New York general manager's office. He lit into us and said we'd just been fired by the brand-new client. We were shocked. What could have happened? Then, our boss began reciting verbatim some of our in-air mocking of the client team. Apparently, another employee had been sitting nearby, overheard our remarks and fed them back to the soon-to-be-former clients.

We were stunned, to say the least. It was a great, if painful, learning lesson as well. I now always make a point to withhold any comments, pro or con, until I'm positive I'm out of ear shot.

I wish the breakfast club guys well in their dial sales pitch, but they need to learn to dial down the bitching and moaning in public settings. The account they save may be their own.

*Thanks to Michael Dresner for the idea behind this post.

Jul 23

Mandals should not be part of a business casual wardrobe

Mandals Mandals should not be part of a business casual wardrobe

I am trying my best to keep today's breakfast where it belongs: slowly winding its way through my large and small intestines. I say 'trying' because the man sitting next to me on the good ol' NJ Transit 7:28 to midtown is sporting mandals. And, it's grossing me out.

Men's feet are disgusting. Period. They do not deserve to see the light of day in a work setting. And, yes, the 7:28 to New York is a work setting.

This commuter is otherwise beautifully attired, though. He's sporting a mauve polo shirt. (I love the word 'mauve.' Who comes up with a word like mauve in the first place?)

“Hey Isaiah, that's not purple. But, it's not red either. What the hell?”
“Easy, Esau. I know. We'll call it mauve!”

Anyway, back to mandals. The guy's mauve shirt is beautifully accented by sharply-pressed khaki pants and an obviously well-cared for Coach leather briefcase. So, why mar an otherwise natty ensemble by putting the dogs on display? Why are this obviously well-heeled guy's ragged toenails and hairy toes front and center? Sorry. But, it's beyond being just wrong. It's heinous.

During the dotcom days, Peppercom's workplace was befouled by not one, but two, mandal-wearing employees. We mercilessly pilloried the more senior of the two at our regular management meetings and he sheepishly discarded what I called his Yasser Arafat-branded mandals. (They had a certain Palestine Liberation Organization look to them.)

But, the other offender reveled in his flip-flops and wore them rain or shine. They beautifully accented his laid-back, tropic shirts, torn blue jeans, and overall Jimmy Buffet approach to life, ladies and work. I did everything I could to raise the inappropriate dress code awareness level, even awarding him 'Best Male Feet of the Month' at a regular staff meeting. But, nothing worked, save winter weather.

Happily, the mandal-sporting staffer solved the problem for us by deciding to pack up and head South (presumably for year-round mandal wearing weather conditions.) With his departure, life returned to normal. Male toes were tucked back inside shoes and regular business could be transacted without nausea or vomiting.

I'd really hoped mandals had become a vestige of the dotcom era and, like mullets, jump suits and suspenders before them, had been placed on the 'men should not be caught dead wearing these things in the office' fashion scrap pile. But, apparently not.

As a result, I'm thinking of bribing one of the brain-dead train conductors and asking him to make the following announcement:

“NJ Transit apologizes for yet another interminable delay this morning. We do appreciate your patience but, hey, after so many of these delays, you should be used to it. We'd also like to remind passengers not to place their feet on the seats. This applies in particular to those moronic male passengers who are grossing out their fellow travelers by sporting mandals. Get those dogs off my seats now! Thank you once again for riding New Jersey Transit. Have a pleasant day and be sure to bring shoes and socks if you'd like to ride with us in the future."

Guys: do us all a favor. Save the mandals for the beach.

Jul 21

Today’s hero is often tomorrow’s road kill

Discarded-old-computer-1 I tossed on an old t-shirt before heading out for my five-mile run Sunday morning. It wasn’t until I’d come back and taken it off, though, that I noticed the writing. It featured the slogan of a long gone Web 1.0 client. This wasn’t just any Web 1.0 company. It was the first-to-market in its field. Remember first mover status? Ooooh. It was soooo important.

Anyway, this dotcom had raised millions of dollars from top venture capital firms and its Israeli-led management team believed they walked on water. I remember their unbelievable hubris when they’d descend on our office. When not brow-beating our account team in the conference room, they’d stroll up and down our hallways screaming into their cell phones at some administrative type or banker on the other end. And we permitted it because, well, these were dotcom gods, that’s why. I think they went belly-up in 2002.

I remember another Web 1.0 CEO and his henchwoman who thought they, too, walked on water. Their business model had something to do with being on the edge of the Web and, like the Israelis, they were first-to-market with their business model. They’d raised tons of money, hired hundreds of people and demanded that our account team work 24×7 just like they did. I still remember their ‘coming out’ party at Lotus. It was a ‘must attend’ event for anyone who was anyone in what used to be called Silicon Alley. I also remember the CEO acting like some sultan from “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”and holding court in a back room. That company imploded two or three months later.

I also recall a gaming company whose head of public relations had the foulest mouth this side of a Bayonne longshoreman. She, too, thought she walked on water and regularly browbeat our team. I think the worst moment came when an industry trade publication named her ‘Young PR Professional of the Year.’ I remember thinking at the time that either some judge hadn’t done her homework or the industry was now including verbal abuse as a key component of the successful, young PR pro. Happily, it turned out to be the former and this horror show and her firm soon disappeared from the Web 1.0 landscape.

I bring all this up because I’ve noticed more and more hubris of late from Web 2.0 CEOs and their in-house marketing communications types. Hopefully, what I’m seeing is an exception to the norm. Even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be running one day soon in a  t-shirt from a company that went very quickly from being today’s hero to tomorrow’s road kill. That’s because there seems to be a direct correlation between short-term abuse and long-term failure.

Jul 16

Are brand image and customer service intrinsically linked? You can bank on it

July 16 A new J.D. Power retail banking survey shows that image is more important than proximity, products or service.

A bank's image is based upon a customer's unique experience. And the customer experience, in turn, drives his or her recommendations: both positive and negative. So, a bank literally lives or dies based upon how well it treats customers. And that is as it should be.

While these findings may elicit a 'no duh' from most marketers, it's shocking to see how many organizations still get it so wrong. Airlines and cable companies are classic examples (so are NJ Transit and my buddies at the TSA. But, that's another blog for another day).

While the airline and cable industries are making positive strides, they continue to suffer from what I've been calling the 'other' digital divide. On the one hand, airline and cable company marketing teams are champing at the bit to ramp up their social media efforts so they can better engage with customers. On the other hand, their peers in customer service are being incentivized to disengage from customers as quickly as possible. Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing!

T.D. Bank, which earned top Power scores in the Mid-Atlantic region, gets the connection. They ensure brand and customer service are intrinsically linked. 'Before we hire someone, we see if they smile at us during the initial interview. Then we continue to measure and monitor their attitude to customers,' said Linda Verba, EVP of retail operations and service. A smile? So simple, but so utterly lacking in so many retail experiences.

Public relations can, and should, be playing a lead role in aiding airlines, cable companies and any consumer-facing organization improve their image. But, the best image work in the world can't overcome a horrific product or service experience. That's a C-suite responsibility that too many C-suites have abdicated. Maybe they should smile a little bit more?

*Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea behind this post.

Jul 06

A new digital divide

July 6 - customer service Most large organizations today are living a lie. On the one hand, their marketing communications staffs are rushing pell-mell into the blogosphere to learn the rules of social media and how best to 'engage' with customers and prospective customers.

Simultaneously, though, these very same organizations are pushing their customer service departments to 'disengage' with customers as quickly as possible. Customer service is a quantity game, so the more customers that can be handled in the shortest period of time leads to the greatest profits.

According to Emily Yellen's 'Your call is (not) important to us,' the approximate cost of offering a live American-based customer service agent averages somewhere around $7.50 per phone call. Outsourcing calls to live agents in another country brings the average cost down to about $2.35 per call. Having customers take care of problems themselves, through an automated response phone system, averages around 32 cents per call, or contact. Guess which option more and more companies are choosing?

Is it any wonder why American business is so dysfunctional? The organization is in a constant state of civil war. The answer may seem obvious: an enlightened CEO should simply mandate that marketing and customer service huddle up and find a win-win solution. Sadly, solutions take time (and lots of money). And, with the change of pace measured in nanoseconds and the economy continuing to slide, the average CEO, CMO and head of customer service instead adopt a 'Let's make do with what we have' mentality.

Ah, but the consumer is king and, if we rant and rave loud enough, or, better yet, buy a competitor's product, corporations will have no choice but to close their digital divide.

Until then, please press 'one' for a service disruption, 'two' for a service disruption of one hour or more, 'three' to ask about our new service offerings, or 'four' for recommended methods of committing suicide when caught in voicemail hell.

Jun 17

It’s Time to Reinvent the Cold Call

Guest Post by Melissa Vigue

June 17 I was recently reminded of the Jerry Seinfeld method of dealing with unsolicited sales calls – ask for their number to call them back – when a prospective vendor called my cell phone after hours on a Friday night. While I did not resort to that – and was afraid the vendor might oblige – this did spark heated discussion at the agency and we did a bit of research.

According to the National Sales Executive Association, 80 percent of sales occur between the fifth through 12th contact.  So it’s no wonder that as the AOR for a number of Fortune 500 clients, we receive an inordinate number of cold calls and emails each week from newswire, database, monitoring, and tchotchkes vendors, among others. Yet being on the receiving end of these calls has made us wonder… is there a better way?   

The issue at hand is that many of these are not targeted directly to our or our client’s needs.  Many are very aggressive, and in some recent cases, contain errors in the communication, such as the names of other agencies they have sent the same email to.  Here are just a few recent examples of how these types of communications alienate and infuriate the very account managers companies are trying to sell to.

  • One contact calls the same two people (who sit next to each other!) each week on the same day at the same time with the same pitch – and gets the same result. “Thanks, we’re all set.”  It is important to note that most of us have been receiving calls from this contact for nearly 10 years. A most recent gaffe involved referencing a past project that happened to be a fiasco and almost resulted in litigation. Does anyone wonder why we don’t engage in his pitch?
  • A production company specializing in video news releases, satellite media tours, etc. was recently asked to no longer contact our staff. Why?  Because in addition to making broad assumptions about shrinking budgets, he was calling every Friday from different phone numbers to lure unsuspecting account people into picking up the phone.
  • A recent email from another distribution outfit opened with, “Pardon me for being so direct…” Need I say more?

Is this really how these vendors want to be perceived? In order to succeed on behalf of their clients, agencies need partners, not vendors. We get it, we really do. Targeting potential clients for new business and pitching a story to an editor requires that initial call too.  Here are a few things we try to consider before a pitch, cold call, follow-up call, etc.:

  • Be courteous and respectful of the recipients’ time. Ask if it’s a good time before launching into a pitch.
  • If they say “No, thanks. We’ll call you if a need arises,” they probably don’t have a current need. But if you respect it, they will really call if the need arises!
  • Do the research first.  Learn about the company and person you are calling, and think about how you can add value.
  • Be a resource and be able to offer insight into the industry landscape and trends.
  • Uncover the pain. What unmet need does your prospect have?
  • Bring some ideas to the table (or at least offer to try), not just “We provide XYZ.”

Finally, in a slumping economy – or for that matter any economy – we all need each other.  It is crucial that we forge win-win relationships and work together to provide solutions; otherwise you might be on call 112 before you realize it’s just not working.

Jun 15

What’s $146 million among friends?

June 15 - pocket-money How'd you like to be owed $146 million and be asked by the debtor for even more? That's exactly the situation Publicis finds itself in with General Motors.

Not only does the automaker owe the advertising holding company $146 million but, get this, GM's asked Publicis to continue working on the account during and after its bankruptcy case.

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. What would you do? The Ad Age article reporting the mess doesn't indicate what Publicis will do. But, how could they continue to go even deeper into debt? I'm all for showing good faith and investing in a client's business. But. The GM business model is completely broken and will take decades to fix (and I doubt it can be).

This is a serious image and reputation challenge for Publicis (not to mention a brutal drain on cash flow). Clients, prospective clients, the Street and investors have to be mightily concerned about the company's financial future. And, employee morale has to be at rock bottom. In fact, I can just imagine the water cooler discussions at Publicis agencies:

Shimmerwitz: 'So, with all the money GM owes us, do you think we still have a shot at year-end bonuses?'

O'Hara: 'Of course we do. But, I wouldn't count on a replacement for the water cooler when it's empty.

Jun 09

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Guest Post by Anonymous

June 9 Once upon a time, people relied on this cool invention called a telephone to remotely communicate with others. Then, e-mail came onto the scene and people practically forgot about this nifty communication device. While e-mail can be a time-saving method for getting messages out, it can also be unreliable ― an aspect that can be a reputation killer in today’s fast-paced business world.

For example, a reporter recently sent me a request via e-mail, which I gladly would have replied to if I had received it. However, due to the mysteries of e-mail servers and fiber optic cables, the message never reached my inbox.  Instead, it ended up in that black hole known as “cyberspace.”

Now, you may think this seems harmless, but this reporter was extremely offended by my lack of response (mind you, I was completely unaware of his request). Rather than pick up the phone to determine if I received his message, he decided to email the head of my company and bash my PR skills. Thankfully, my boss knows I would never be so unprofessional so he did not take this to heart. However, if I did not build this rapport with him this email could have completely damaged my reputation. 

All that said, my advice to everyone is to remember that e-mail is not always reliable. So whether you are managing your reputation or others’, if  e-mail is not getting the job done, take AT&T’s advice: “Reach out and touch someone.” 

Jun 05

California Dreamin’ – When Good Customer Service Happens to Good People

June 5 - CustomerServPrior2J Guest Post by Sandy Pfaff

Recently I had a trifecta of positive customer service experiences – yes, it seems like an oxymoron to put “positive” and “customer service” in the same sentence. And to make it even more surreal, these experiences were with some of the biggest retailers who can often be the bane of our shopping existence. Has the economy finally given our retailers the wake-up call they needed, or was I just lucky on a sunny Saturday in San Rafael?

First, a stop at my local Comcast office to pick up a DVR. With the new digital transition, I had to give up on TiVo – or pay a steep upgrade charge for a new box and more pricey service – when Comcast’s solution seems like it will do just fine, and for a lot less. After a brief wait in line, my customer service rep got me on my way in no time – with a pleasant attitude, helpful advice and some movie tips. Shocker #1.

Then, on to Verizon where I needed a mobile antenna for my new netbook. Not only did I need the device, but I needed help installing the software. The boys at the Verizon store were exceptionally helpful – from the greeter at the door, to the happy salesman who set up my computer, I was out of there in 30 minutes or less. As good or better than Dominos. And less fattening.

Last stop and with the potential to blow my perfect score – a trip to Best Buy. I needed a portable DVD drive for my netbook so I could download all of the programs that don’t come with my new computer, of course, but that’s a different story. I didn’t know what the “thing” that I needed was even called. Thankfully, the concierge greeter at the front of the store was there to help decipher my lame attempts to sound like I knew what I was talking about, and he pointed me in the right direction. I got the item, with the help of the consumer electronics specialist, and had a quick and painless check-out. I had a nice chat with the same greeter on the way out which completed the day. Three for three and batting 1.000.

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