Apr 18

Press Two for Frustration

I must admit to being torn as to which advanced technology causes me more angst: robocalls from Uzbekistan or becoming hopelessly lost in voice mail hell.

Since I was recently contacted by Clutch and asked to blog about the findings of their recent report on “phone menus”, I’ve opted to address voice mail hell.

Here’s their report.

Since the research told me what I already knew, I asked Riley Panko of Clutch what insights were gleaned from the findings.

She shared three:

1.) Keep phone menu options to three or less.

2.) Consider more creative ways to personalize phone menus without taking up a customer’s time. Kin Insurance, for example, routes an incoming call to the appropriate resource BEFORE the caller even speaks to someone. Good for you, Kin.

3.) Always include the option to speak to a living, breathing human being.

Pivoting quickly as we communication pros like to say, I wondered what the corporate purpose of the technology companies responsible for selling phone menu technology might be?

– “Making the world an even more intolerable place in which to live”

– “Further fanning the flames of an already furious consumer base”

– “Playing our bit in helping Big Pharma sell even more anti-anxiety meds”

Robo calls and getting lost in voice mail hell are just two of the more unfortunate realities of life in the year 2019.

Three cheers to Clutch for trying their best to ease our pain.

Now please press one if you’d like further information on anger management. Press two for the name and location of a stress management program near you. And don’t bother pressing three because there is no live person handling incoming calls at Repman.com.

Jun 25

You can check in, but you can never leave


It strikes me that more and more brands are promising one experience but delivering a very different one. Take United Airlines. Please!

My business travel experience has gone to hell in a handbasket ever since United absorbed Continental in a recent merger of equals (to which I reply, 'Ha!' There never has been, nor will there ever be a merger of equals). And, to pour salt in the wound, United is running a multi-million advertising campaign touting such achievements as the industry's newest fleet of aircraft, the most destinations of any domestic airline and, yes, Virginia, a solid on-time performance record. Choke me with a spoon!

In the past few weeks alone, I've suffered back-to-back, three hours delays flying to, and from, Manchester, NH, from Newark Airport, a nifty four-hour delay from Logan and yesterday's cancellation of a flight caused by what a Manchester gate agent described as, 'Weather, or a mechanical problem. It's Newark Airport, so we never really know.'

The world-weary United agent then asked if I'd be willing to fly on another airline to LaGuardia. 'Sure,' I responded. She checked the screen, shook her head and snapped, 'Nope. That flight's already over its weight limit.'

Then, my United experience morphed into an act from the theatre of the absurd. 'I'm going to try and get you to Boston!' the gate agent declared. I was stunned. 'But, I don't want to go to Boston,' I replied. 'I'm not going to risk changing planes with your airline's shoddy record.' She then clapped her hands together and said, 'Well, chop chop. Make up your mind. What do you want to do?' She demanded. I canceled my flight, rented a car and drove six hours to get home.

All of this wouldn't matter if United wasn't bombarding me with ads and airport posters containing such, feel-good headlines as:

– 'It's time to fly!

– 'Life is a journey. Travel it well.'

United is a Janus-faced organization, talking out of both sides of its mouth (or cockpit, if you prefer).

If I were prostituting myself by writing completely false copy about a godawful airline, I'd riff on the classic Eagles tune, Hotel California. With United…..

'You can check in, but you can never leave.'


Oct 26

One is the loneliest number

One of the immediate outcomes of the just published IBM Institute for Business Value's study of 1,734 chief marketing officers is a collective sigh of relief among CMOs who have reviewed it, says Carolyn Heller Baird, director, Global CRM Research Leader at the Institute.

GBS_IBVhero_930x300“The CMOs with whom we've shared the results tell us they're relieved to know they're not alone in helping their organizations cope with the fundamental shifts we're seeing in business,” observed Baird. “While we're still sifting through the data on an industry-by-industry basis, the CMOs are remarkably similar in terms of how they manage data, deliver value, foster lasting connections and measure results. In reviewing what their peers say, the CMOs feel validated and inspired.”

I can relate to that. As the CEO of an independent, midsized communications firm, I often feel alone in making decisions. So, I can empathize with the pressures that must weigh on the CMO of a Fortune 500 company.

And, while Baird says there are no dramatic differences between CMOs in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business spaces, she does see distinctions between chief marketing officers in emerging markets (i.e. Kenya, Croatia and Peru) vs. those in mature ones (i.e. The U.S., Germany and Japan).

“CMOs in emerging markets have fewer legacy issues and more flexibility. In many ways, they're starting from scratch,” Baird says. As a result, they can wear multiple hats and make multiple decisions. And, that has to be liberating.

Regardless of whether they find themselves in the Czech Republic or the United Kingdom, though, I have to believe every CMO wants to avoid the gaffe just made by their peer at Netflix. In fact, The New York Times says the corporation “…made a classic business mistake. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVD's inside.”

IBM confirmed that managing what they call 'the data explosion' was the top concern of CMOs and that many “struggle to develop customer insights because they primarily focus on understanding markets rather than individuals.”  I believe far too many marketing and corporate communications executives depend solely on data to drive their decisions. The smartest ones know a mix of gut instinct and intuition are just as important in deciding their marketing mix; as is the elementary, but often overlooked, solution of simply putting oneself in a customer's shows and experience the brand from the outside in.

I don't know if the Netflix CMO felt alone when he made a huge decision relying solely on data and yesterday's strategy, but he'll most certainly be alone in resurrecting his career. Before he starts the journey, though, he might want to read the IBM report. It may prevent a similar mistake down the road.

Oct 21

The Sixth Question

Silverpop, which says it provides 'e-mail and marketing automation that's complete, not complex,' just sent me an unsolicited, 15-page report entitled, '5 Questions Keeping Marketers Up at Night — and 5 Experts with All the Answers'.

For the record, the five questions are:
– Are you as social as your prospects?
– Are you as strategic as you want to be?
– Can you automate the tactical?
– Do you wish you could do more with less?
– Can you prove your value?

ImaghhhhesIn quickly scanning the document, it became readily apparent that Silverpop's experts forgot to add a sixth, more fundamentally important question that pre-empts the others:

– Have you placed yourself in your customers' shoes and experienced your brand as they do?

A marketer really shouldn't bother addressing Silverpop's other questions until she's experienced her own brand.

But, far be it from me to wax poetic on the importance of what we call Audience Experience. The IBM Institute of Business just published a highly readable, in-depth study of the wants and needs of 1,700 CMOs in 16 countries.

In it, the IBM experts said, “…look at the organization through your customers' eyes, as they progress through the full relationship lifecycle. While you may believe you already capture this information (take note Silverpop types), all the data in the world cannot replace the personal experience of walking in your customers' shoes.” To which I say, amen.

This outside-in way of thinking now pervades Peppercom's go-to market strategy (as well as the way in which we now think about client relationships and business development).

Yet, far too many marketers remain content to stay sequestered in their corner offices and have a Silverpop tell them what the data means. Considering most CMOs have the lifespan of a May fly, one would think they'd take The Sixth Question more seriously.

Oct 20

Humor is a strategic business weapon

I was shocked, but not surprised, to read a recent CommPRO guest blog authored by Robert Geline of 144 Media entitled, 'When, if ever, is the right time to use humor in a presentation?'

Slide1The author said he thinks it's “…O.K. to go for a laugh, but the joke or story you're telling must have a direct connection to the major point you are making. Even if the material is relevant to the content of your talk, you are still taking a potentially unacceptable risk.” To which I replay, 'Balderdash!'

In fact, Geline's antiquated, stultifying POV is precisely WHY so many business presentations are as dull as dishwater.

To support his 'funny as a crutch' viewpoint, Geline cited the case study of a cardiologist who addressed a group of peers and used a highly inappropriate joke that bombed and undermined his credibility. Fair enough. It is absolutely critical to understand one's audience before injecting humor but, when properly applied, it's a game changer.

Here's a case in point: I just shared an Inc. Magazine panel with two other successful entrepreneurs. We were speaking in front of 75 or so other entrepreneurs and asked to address the subject: Creating a great workplace culture.

Not surprisingly, the other panelists cited the usual perks such as spot bonuses, extra days off and holiday parties. I spoke about similar topics, but also admitted I'd shamelessly stolen a great idea from Google called Dream Day. Not only did the audience appreciate my honesty and laugh at what Geline may call a joke, but they began listening much more intently to what I had to share.

Later on, one panelist boasted that he plied his troops with liquor each and every week. That, he said, sure seemed to improve their morale.

Because I embrace humor and use it as a strategic business weapon, I immediately escalated the conversation. I interjected, “You think that's cutting-edge? We've converted our kitchen to a crystal meth lab. You wouldn't believe the increased productivity.” After a second or two, the audience roared its approval.

So, Mr. Geline, guess which of the three panelists was besieged by audience members afterwards? The question’s rhetorical of course, but my use of humor made me seem more genuine and approachable to audience members. And, that’s a huge advantage in business.

I'm glad there are so many marketing and PR executives like Robert Geline who take themselves and their work far too seriously. It makes it that much easier for cool, casual and collegial firms such as mine to build rapport (and win business).

Geline is right about one thing, though. It is fundamental to first understand the audience and, second, to 'read' their non-verbals the way a comedian or actor trained in improvisation would. I'd never use the crystal meth line in a meeting of, say, CFOs, CMOs or even cardiologists. But, it was spot-on for the high-flying, take no prisoners mentality of the average entrepreneur. And, how did I know that, Mr. Geline? Because I understood my audience.

So, have you heard the joke about the marketer who took himself too seriously? He cried all the way to the bank.

Oct 11

Drowning in data

The following is the first in a two-part series analyzing a first-of-its-kind study of 1,700 chief marketing officers from 64 countries and 19 industries by the IBM institute for Business Value. I'd like to thank IBM for providing this blogger with access to the study's lead researcher, Carolyn Heller Baird.

ManDrowningInData A global study of 1,700 chief marketing officers in 64 countries shows the majority share one common trait: they're drowning in a sea of data.

Conducted by the IBM Institute of Business, the CMO survey confirms that while marketers know data holds the key to customer insights, some 80 percent still rely on such traditional sources of information as market research, while an astounding 68 depend on sales campaign analysis to make their strategic decisions. Ugh. Talk about yesterday's news!

The 'marketer as Luddite' findings come at a time when the lifespan of the average CMO varies from between three and four years (less than any other member of the C-suite). And, to add even more stress to an already tenuous existence, IBM says CMOs and their bosses, CEOs, both identified “getting closer to the customer” as one of three key prerequisites to success in the 21st century. So, if the CMO knows her boss wants to get closer to the customer, but she's still living in the past when it comes to embracing ways in which to do so, it might be time to update the old resume.

Carolyn Heller Baird, IBM's lead CRM researcher and director of the global study, says CMOs ‘get’ that they have to do a MUCH better job interpreting all the data, but still cling to “…tracking markets and not individuals, and transactions rather than relationships.”

Why? Because finding the best new analytical tools is easier said than done, says Baird. “For one thing, CMOs are incredibly time pressed. For another, they're limited by budget and, in some cases, culture. So, change can't happen overnight.”

Where change IS happening, though, it's producing dramatic results. IBM featured Kraft Foods' Oreo Cookie as a case in point. Kraft had been struggling to take a bite out of the vast consumer pocketbook in the world's largest market for nearly 20 years. Then, finally, after LISTENING and ENGAGING with living, breathing human beings and not relying on data, Oreo struck gold (or cream, if you prefer). They made the cookie smaller and less sweet-tasting. Sales have since skyrocketed by more than 80 percent and in-store sales in some regions have more than tripled. Man, that's a whole lot of cookies!

To duplicate Kraft's success, says Baird, CMOs need to foster greater collaboration across the enterprise, especially with the chief information officer. They also need to build a staff with new and different skill sets all aimed at understanding the critical emotional connection a product, brand or organization must build with a customer.

Last, but not least, the best CMOs need to leave their ivory towers and personally walk the walk. “Look at your organization through your customers' eyes, as they progress through the full relationship cycle. Be a customer. Drop in on stores and sites. Go to your call centers and sit with randomly selected customer representatives. (Ask yourself) how easily can customers interact with your organization – before, during and after the sale?” says Baird. The best CMOs know the only true key to success is listening to individual customer wants and needs.

As Repman readers know, that's what I've been preaching for at least the past year. My awakening came after I suddenly woke up one day and realized I'd never experienced my own brand. Then, after surveying CMOs and PR managers, I found that most had never put themselves in their customers' shoes either. Now, I'm born again and proselytizing to the best of my ability.

Embracing new and dynamic forms of data research and building tighter bonds across the organization are two critical steps a CMO must take. The third, and perhaps most important, is both the easiest and hardest: finding the time to slip into a pair of customer's shoes and as Kraft did with Oreo Cookies in China, living the customer experience first-hand.

For more information about the IBM study, entitled 'From Stretched to Strengthened,' e-mail iibv@us.ibm.com. Tell them Repman sent you.

And, stay tuned for part two of my report on the IBM CMO study. I'll be speaking with Ms. Laird about which industries are leaders and which are laggards, and why.

Oct 06

Experiencing the brand before creating the plan

I had the good fortune yesterday to address an audience of cable industry communications 

It was a panel discussion whose goal was to identify best practices for client-agency partnerships, understand the fast-changing media relations landscape and predict what's next.

BrandExperience I saw the panel as an opportunity to once again ask the marketing and PR types in the audience if they had ever put themselves in their customers' shoes and experienced the brand from the outside in. About half had done so.

I congratulated those who had and suggested that those who hadn't done so do so immediately.

I've come to believe it's impossible to create an effective communications plan unless you literally walk the walk and experience what your customer experiences.

For a cable industry communications executive, that would mean experiencing, say, The History Channel through each and every one of its online and offline touch points. And, it would mean putting oneself in every constituent audience's shoes.

Then, and only then, would a cable executive be able to craft the precise plan with which to engage in a conversation with each and every audience on THEIR terms. That's critical, because it's all about being where they are. "They" being the customer.

Too many organizations still rely solely on quantitative data to inform their branding and messaging communications. That's not only yesterday's approach, it's taking the easy way out.

Smart communicators are beginning to realize the nuances and insights to be gleaned from experiencing the brand BEFORE creating the plan. It may involve some heavy lifting but, trust me, the pain will be worth the gain. I should know. We put ourselves in our customers' shoes and, while the overall experience wasn't bad, we identified areas for improvement and have  tweaked our communications program accordingly.

If a PR firm can do it, so can a cable company. Or, any company for that matter. The longest journey begins with a single step.

Sep 14

It’s the customer, stupid

What-the-customer-actually-wantedTwo separate opinion pieces in two separate industry trades agree on one basic principle:  agencies and marketers alike are overlooking the customer in their rush to do the right thing.

Let's begin with Rose Gordon's superb editorial in PR Week. Fresh from a year-long stint as editor of Direct Marketing News, Gordon's POV on PR's role in marketing has expanded faster than a Burger King patron's waistline. She's spot on in admonishing the PR industry for not having “…a firm grasp on the customer.” We really never have. Instead, we're content to rely on market research, feedback from sales forces and other second-hand sources of what the customer REALLY wants and needs. And, when it comes to results, we get high on such warm and fuzzy things as image, transparency, reputation and total media impressions. That may have worked in the past, but it's not enough in today's 24×7 customer-driven, bottom-line focused marketplace.

All of which leads me to the Ad Age opinion piece. Authored by Jonathan Salem Baskin, a global brand strategist, it analyzes the various reasons why CMOs “…are fired TWICE as often as every other C-suiter.”

Baskin (or, is it Salem Baskin?) explains why the average CMO's professional life “…is going to be short and not so sweet” and sums it up by saying the bottom line MUST be the bottom line. Pressured by analysts, institutional investors and the board, CEOs need sales results. And they need them yesterday.

CMOs, says, Baskin, are too caught up in soft results and one step removed from the customer. (Indeed, we surveyed 75 CMOs a year ago and found a shocking 75 percent had never personally experienced their brand. Imagine trying to market a Lexus without ever having entered a dealership to see what the sales experience is like?)

Gordon's and Baskin's articles are warning shots across the bow of every marketer's ship. We MUST start going directly to client's customers and experiencing the brand the way they do (or obtaining their permission to accompany them on their journey).

It's no longer enough to sit back and wait for a client or a market research firm to tell you who the customer is and what she wants. The smart CMOs, ad agencies and PR firms will INSIST on experiencing a brand, a product or a service first-hand before formulating a communications plan. That way, we'll be assured the brand promise is in line with the customer experience.

Too many ad agencies, PR firms and their clients are caught up in winning awards, believing such accolades equal success. They don't. At least not in the CEO's mind.

In fact, the winning formula in the future will have NOTHING to do with website traffic, media impressions or brand favorability. Instead, it'll be all about “…sell(ing) stuff” as Baskin writes.
So, here's a note to friend and foe alike. Do yourself a favor and experience your brand as your customer does. See where they go and to whom they speak to make buying decisions. Find out where and when it makes sense for your brand to enter the conversation. Then, and only then, begin building your marketing plan.

As Gordon says in her piece, “In the end, there is one stakeholder and that's the customer.” The marketers and agencies willing to do the heavy lifting now and follow the advice of Gordon and Baskin will be the ones still around to read AdAge and PRWeek in five years.

Aug 02

Peace in our time

BratI'm glad to see more marketers responding to the righteous indignation of folks like me who  despise the offspring of others for ruining an otherwise great meal, trip or experience.

I speak, of course, of brash, bratty and ill-mannered kids; the kind who will race up and down a restaurant or airplane; the kind who will scream and cry at the top of their lungs because daddy refuses to take them out of their high chairs; the kind who throw their stuffed animals at each other and repeatedly pummel the back of your plane seat for, say, three hours in a row.

Recognizing that repeat customers such as I are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, Ryanair has launched child-free flights. Malaysia Air announced it would institute a baby ban in first class (Sigh. It makes me want to book a flight to Kuala Lumpur just to enjoy the solitude). And, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are also reportedly considering no kids policies.

And, it's not just airlines that dislike other people's kids as much as I. The Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City has been kid free since '03. And, Celebrity Cruises has declared sections of their cities on the sea strictly off-limits to anyone under 16. As Larry David would say, "It's a good thing! It's a good thing!"

There's a reason marketers are finally waking up to the havoc caused by poor parenting and their run-away freight train-like offspring. There are more and more empty nesters every day. What's more, 20 percent of American women NEVER bear children (that's a 50 percent increase since 1970). And, the cost of raising a kid now averages $230k. That's simply too much for many cash-strapped couples in this never-ending recession of ours.

There's even a website solely devoted to helping people like me find kid-free destinations. It's called LeaveThemBehind.com. I love it! Another site called NoChildrenByChoice says more and more brands are getting past their fear of alienating America's long-standing love affair with baseball, apple pie and kids and, instead, promoting child-free vacations.

No matter what your fear or phobia, it helps to know you're not alone. And, baby (pun intended), I'm not alone by a long shot when it comes to disliking someone else's snot-nosed child ruining my experience.

I may even reconsider my future retirement plans (which had called for hanging onto my New Jersey home for weekends and buying a pied-a-terre in the Apple). It turns out there's a city in Scotland that has a village rule preventing households from having even one child! Dogs, however, are welcomed. It's called Firhall. I'd call it Nirvana.

Jul 20

From ambassador to vigilante

When United and Continental merged, the move was accompanied by the usual marketing hoopla.  AaaaaaaaaaaaE-mails promising 'increased efficiency,' 'greater service,' and 'expanded routes' were routinely pushed to this long-time Continental customer.

But, almost immediately, I noticed a slow, but steady, deterioration. First, my long-time Gold Elite status simply disappeared with no explanation whatsoever. Then, my regular routes began experiencing far more delays than before.

But, the real clincher occurred over the past few days as I attempted to fly home from Portland, Maine, to Newark.

My original flight was scheduled to depart at 1pm on Monday. At about 6pm Sunday evening, though, I received a trip alert e-mail notifying me the flight had been canceled. No explanation was provided. A second e-mail followed shortly thereafter. It provided a URL and 888 number for me to call "…with any questions." I had a question all right, "How the hell was I supposed to get home?"

We dutifully called the number provided and, after the usual 15-minute wait and countless bilingual prompts, we reached a live person. She told us she'd book us on the next available flight from Portland to Newark. The scheduled departure time was now 7pm on Monday night. Oh, she said our original flight had been canceled because of weather. Yeah, sure.

Once I arrived at Portland airport on Monday afternoon, the Continental trip alerts began pouring into my blackberry. They said the originating flight was late departing Newark, but would only be delayed by five minutes. No, make that 35 minutes. No, wait, make it a full hour. Oh never mind, the plane just arrived. We were told by a gate agent to board immediately so as not to lose our departure slot. Yes ma'am. Will do, ma'am.

The pilot apologized for the delay, but promised the flight would be '….a very short 59 minutes.' About 90 minutes later, the pilot sighed and said, 'Ah, ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed we've been circling for the past half hour.' Damn straight I'd noticed. I was tired and hungry and wanted to get home pronto. The pilot explained that '…weather at Newark had deteriorated and that we had about 20 more minutes of fuel.' Now, that was comforting to hear. What would happen when the fuel ran out? Would be asked to flap our wings?

The pilot came back on the P.A. a few minutes later to tell us we were being diverted in order to re-fuel. Nice. So, now, instead of being home at, say, 3pm Monday afternoon I was, instead, parked on the always scenic Albany, NY, tarmac at 10 pm.

We eventually arrived home at midnight, some nine full hours later than originally planned.

As I deplaned, I noticed the countless placards and banners boasting about the United/Continental merger. They all said the same thing: 'It's not who's merging that's exciting, but what's about to emerge.' Ha! I can tell you what's emerged: a third rate airline that can't get its act together.

Sadly, Continental is just the latest in a long line of brands that promise one sort of experience but deliver a totally different one. As a result, I've gone from being a brand ambassador to a vigilante.

So, caveat Continental. I'll be gunning for you, or United, or whatever it is you're now calling that steaming mess of a merged airline. Keep messing with me and I'll keep spreading news about your delays, disingenuous explanations and diverted flights.

Epilogue: when we met our driver at Newark Airport, he asked what had happened. I told him Newark Airport had been closed because of severe weather and we'd been diverted to Albany. 'Severe weather?' he asked incredulously. 'It hasn't rained a drop here all day long.'"