Category Archives: Marketing & Management

Warning: Innovation isn’t Comfortable

Nearly every organization I have worked with, either as an employee or as some form of consultant, wants to be known as “innovative.”  Organizations want to produce innovative products or services, or they want to be on the leading edge of <insert area here>, or they want to be innovative places to work such that they draw the greatest talent to their doors.

So nearly every organization wants to be innovative, but truly, very few ever achieve innovation.  Why is that?  Why is it so difficult for an organization, of any size, to be “innovative?”  After years of working with and for several organizations, I finally have seen the recurring patterns that thwart innovation.  I believe I finally have found the answer.  Are you ready?

Innovation isn’t comfortable.  Innovation doesn’t follow the process.  Innovation is chaotic.

That’s it.  No need to read further.  Okay, for those of you with time on your hands, a bit more explanation, by way of example.

When it’s time to hire in new senior level employees, organizations are often inclined to hire “outside-of-the-box” thinkers.  These individuals are energetic, hard-working, and have an internal passion for the business, whatever it is, that no typical worker can understand.  They tend to come into an organization with a bombastic flair and go forth breaking all the rules.

For the first few years, the typical workers who manage the processes tend to “chuck it up” to the short tenure of the innovative-driven hires.  These innovators simply don’t know the processes.  Why in no time at all, think the process workers, the innovators will conform and fill out the paperwork and wait in line just like the others.

As the process workers tire of the unprocessed innovators, the apple cart upsets.  The process workers refuse to move forward unless the process is followed strictly.  The innovators refused to move backward to processes that worked well for the last generation of customers, but that won’t work for the next generation of customers who too, are beginning to tire of the old product or service and looking for whatever is new and exciting.  Internally, the process-driven are at odds with the innovation-driven, and someone must win.

Along comes executive management.  What do they do?  The most common reaction I have witnessed is that executive management continues to shout “innovation” while holding tightly to the reigns of process.  What follows are closed-door meetings and sensitivity training and team-building exercises.  And in my experience, it never works.  The end result typically finds the highly-mobile innovator moving on to the next organization where the executive management there is also courting innovation (and the scenario often repeats itself).  In addition, the departing innovator leaves behind legions of supporters who got excited and stuck out their necks in the name of innovation wondering what the repercussions will be.  Will the process workers punish the innovator-supporters?  Or will the process workers simply relish their victory and go back to dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” leaving the innovation-supporters to grieve the loss of their innovator?  And how will executive management react?  Will they again seek an innovator or will they find it more comfortable to put their heads down and just follow process?

The morale of this story?  Executive management – it is up to you to turn the dream of innovation into a reality.  You’re either for it or against it.  In this case, there is no middle-ground.  If you truly desire to be an innovative organization, beware.  Innovation is uncomfortable, and by definition, it upsets current processes.  In fact, sometimes, innovation turns processes upside-down.  It creates chaos and if your organization is not set up to be comfortable supporting and managing chaos from the top down, innovation may not be your thing.

Not every organization needs to be an innovator.  Arguably, most are not, yet non-innovative companies can still be profitable by exercising whatever the competitive advantage is that they maintain.  Non-innovative companies can still be good places to work.  It’s exciting to be an innovative organization, no doubt.  They get all the press in the trade rags and their employees are often on the conference speaker dockets held in exotic places.  But it’s more comfortable adopting innovation slowly and tweaking processes.   So what’s it going to be –  comfort or chaos?  Pick one.

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Market Research Survey Silliness

I’ve spent more than a decade working in market research, both quantitative & qualitative research, and still more years working with market research data in one form or another.  So, I’ve seen maybe not it all, but a whole lot.  I have managed and analyzed hundreds of surveys conducted by mail, on the phone, and online.  I’ve attended and moderated hundreds of focus groups.  I’ve managed segmentation surveys, discrete choice surveys, and I’ve randomized this and that and versioned that and this.  I’ve applied the unknowledgeable-management consultant’s favorite – conjoint analysis – and regressed and forecasted.  I’ve observed natural consumer behaviors, stimulated behaviors, and followed people while they operate cars, computers, and cell phones, and while they dined.  I’ve talked to people about death and dying and about surviving.  I’ve talked to people about how they shop, why they shop, and why they don’t like to bend over to pick up items on the bottom shelf when they shop.

My career gave me a fascination for consumer behavior, from the little decisions they make to the big, life changing decisions.  People are fascinating, and what makes it even more interesting, they very often don’t do what they say they do – imagine that!  Yes, consumers are captivating and indeed, understanding them and catering to them is the product’s best route to success.

I’m in a bit of a different professional position these days.  I use market research data, but it is of the most basic kind.  I currently conduct and use some customer satisfaction and general feedback data with a few qualitative interactions thrown in for good measure.  Yet as a supporter of market research and a consumer myself, I continue to complete surveys whether it’s a phone call at night, an online survey, or one in the mail, provided it is a legitimate survey and not someone trying to disguise themselves as a survey and then sell me a product or a politician.  I continue to respond as a fiduciary duty to my former profession and just to be helpful to the organizations out there attempting so dutifully to figure out their customers.  I continue to support data collection, even when it is excruciatingly painful.  And that brings me to this post.

Earlier this fall, I received a survey invitation via email for the purposes of providing feedback on school supplies.  What timing!  I had just completed purchasing school supplies for my son, and I will be in the market for the next 16 years by the time my youngest gets through high school.  This survey, I thought, would be interesting.

I go through the normal procedure of following the link.  I answer several demographic questions about my age, gender, household make-up, age of my kids, and income levels.  I answer these questions without hesitation because I know that I am one of probably 1,000+ answering these questions and that the 25-year-old analyst reading this data is not going to care about who I actually am (nope, not even my income level) for I am just one of a thousand.  (Just so you know, analysts care about percentages of the total sample; they don’t care about individuals in these instances.  Yes, you are special, but so are the other 999 people completing the survey.  It’s okay to let people know your household income and that you are a boy or girl, and etc. – trust me!  Now if they ask for a social security or credit card number – that’s different:  shut the survey down and/or hang up the phone – that’s not market research, that’s a scam.)

So I’ve now answered the demographic questions, and indeed, I am one of the target customers from which feedback is desired.  I am asked to continue with the survey.  I then answer several questions about which products and brands of school supplies I bought, which ones I considered, and from what stores I purchased the school supplies.  I was asked about how much I spent and how much I had intended to spend.  It was a nicely designed survey and I felt like I was really cruising through it and helping out.  And then it began – I fell into survey hell.

First, there was a battery of questions for every single product I bought and every single brand I considered.  Then there were batteries of questions for impressions of brands I had not considered.  The batteries were endless and included statements where I was to rate my agreement with things like:  “I feel like a leader for having brought this brand.”  “Others will admire me for buying this brand.”  “This brand is like me.”  “This brand is the only brand for my child.”  “This brand will make my child more successful.”  “I talked to friends and colleagues about this brand.”  “I encouraged others to buy this brand” – and many more questions along those lines.   Multiply these brand behavioral questions times the brands I considered and/or was aware of, times the number of back-to-school supplies I ticked off the list that I bought.  This was in fact, a survey that I may be completing for the next 16 years!

Yes, I was in survey hell, and not just at the surface.  I was in the hottest most uncomfortable level with no hope of getting to the surface anytime soon.  It is now several weeks later and having taken some time to recover from this experience, I have some advice to offer those of you developing surveys for your product or service or working with organizations that are doing so.

First of all, good market researchers/questionnaire designers realize that you never, I mean never, put people through endless list of questions on everything they did.  You randomly select a number of products for someone to evaluate.  Why?  Because I felt committed to answering the full survey, but by the end, I was clicking answers just to get through it (sorry about that – I still feel the guilt of providing bad data, but I just couldn’t take it anymore); others will just simply exit the survey.  There are several questionnaire programs that will randomly select a handful of items for a consumer to evaluate if it is the case that a typical consumer has purchased or considered more than 5 or 6 items and these programs will ensure that you have enough sample to analyze each item.  Ask consumers to evaluate more than 5-6 items with associated statements, etc., and your data will be flawed.  Good researchers protect the validity of their data and the sanity of their respondents.

Secondly, let’s think about the behavioral and brand leader issues related to buying a PENCIL!  Buying pencils and erasers are much different than buying, for example, a car, or apparel, or kitchen appliances or major electronics.  The latter are big ticket or emotional purchases that consumers may use to define themselves and that they may talk about with friends and colleagues.  If I’m going to be a brand leader or influencer, it’s going to be with these types of ego-type purchases – a pack of standard #2 pencils?  Not so much.  You might do some brand loyalty and behavioral segmentation on back-packs or on PDAs or other higher-profile supplies, but on pencils?  I’ve no clue what brand I even purchased for goodness sake!  But, I still was presented the battery of questions because I was familiar with some pencil brands.  Whoever designed this survey somehow believed that it was legitimate to apply brand and behavioral attributes/measurements used to describe the purchase process of a muscle car ($40,000) against the purchase of a pencil (40 cents).  Does that seem logical?  Remember that analogy:  the clock-builder will know how the clock is built, how it keeps nearly precise time, how the gears (now chips) work together, and about when it will need repair.  The consumer will know – what time it is.  I’m guessing that same analogy can be applied to the #2 pencil.  Good researchers question their logic and the logic of their clients who often get so caught up in their product they don’t understand its role and importance in the lives of everyday consumers. 

Third, and this one is important, good market researchers need to understand how the purchase is made prior to measuring and interpreting actual purchase.  The survey should have asked me how I made decisions about the purchase of school supplies.  You see, my school district, and all the ones around me (I talked to other parents, yup, I’m an “influencer”), gave me a list of supplies for my elementary-aged son.  They asked for specific brands and sizes and colors (emphasizing “washable” products, of course) because what happens is that we give the entire bag of supplies to the teacher who puts them in community bins.  The kids, when they need it, just get their pencil or marker from the bin.  Then they return it when they are done using it.  It’s a great idea – things don’t get lost, no need to label, there are not equity issues (all the same brand and size and color) and for the kids who cannot afford supplies, they are not left without.  So all this “brand leader/influencer” stuff the surveyor forced upon me?  Unfortunately, it’s all bad data.  If this bin trend for elementary students is a wide one, the individuals that should be surveyed are the teachers who are making the brand decisions, not me.  Good researchers do some research before they do the research.

So if you are a product manager or a market research consultant, I beg you, please consider your product, the product purchase process, and your consumers.  Make it easy for us to provide you good quality data.  Fewer and fewer people are responding to surveys, so please don’t push away those of us who still do respond.  And I should also say, lest I receive emails from pencil managers, I’ve nothing against the #2 pencil.  Why I am one of the few adults who still uses a pencil – not a mechanical pencil that breaks every time I use it – a real, sturdy, old-fashioned pencil that requires a sharpener.  Hmm, I wonder what type of consumer-segment that puts me in. . .

Customers Don’t Care about your Processes

A few years ago, I opened my credit card statement to find a huge late fee and interest charges.  Being neurotic about avoiding such fees, I tend to take care of my payment expeditiously after it is received.  Immediately, I called to check whether the check had been cashed, and indeed, the automated banking system indicated it had cleared some time ago.

I then called customer service at the credit card company.  After making me listen to content I had no interest in hearing (my balance, my next payment due, my cash forward balance, and a few other things I never use), I was put in the queue to speak with a representative.  After a short hold, a live voice came on and asked for the card number, holder name, and a few security questions.

Having made it through the security process, the representative politely asked me how she could help.  I described the problem and reported that my check had cleared, etc., etc.  I heard some typing and she reported back that her records showed the check had cleared their system the day after it was due and therefore, that these charges were legitimate.

I informed her of the date the payment was placed in the mail which from my recall was one to two days after I received the bill.  I heard more typing, and indeed, she was able to find another date indicating when the envelope arrived to their processing center.  I of course informed her that the arrival date was well before the posting date and the due date.  She then went into the description of the process of receipt, posting, and clearing in their process.  It takes two days for this, and two-three days for that, and you should allow seven to ten days for the mail, and another two-three days for this.  I politely informed her that the number of days she just articulated would indicate that I need to mail in the payment before I receive the bill.  She then informed me that in addition, there was a hiccup in the processing system during this cycle as there was a note in her records.

After hearing this, I suspected that she would immediately take the charges off my bill.  But the offer did not come.

I informed her that the only part of the process I can control is my ability to receive the bill and promptly put it into the mail.  As for the rest of the process and any internal delays, I have no control and cannot be expected to be held responsible for it.  In short, “I don’t care about your process.”  And, I need you to take the late charges and the interest charges off this bill and any interest charges you might be thinking about charging me in the next cycle.

She warned me that I get only one “grace” removal of charges per year and if I used it now, I could not request another for a year.  My urge was to inform her that if this happened again, I’d be removing my business entirely.  It wouldn’t be hard as I just need to open one of the three credit card offers I receive in the mail each day.  However, I refrained, knowing that she was simply following the script in front of her, and the script did not allow for the insertion of common sense or problems with the processing system.

Now this isn’t an uncommon problem in business, with either external or internal customers.  Having been in a few organizations, there isn’t one where I have not experienced a failed process that has impacted my ability to get my job done.  And in each organization, I receive the narrative about the functioning of the process, how it is supposed to work, the forms I need to fill out (often with some indication that I’ve filled out an outdated form and I need to fill out the new form to really make the process hum), and of course, I’m informed of the value of the process to me.

And though I deliver the message, most times, with some tact, the message is still the same: “I don’t care about your process.”  What I care about it is that my expectation was not met.  The promise you made to me as an internal/external customer was broken.  The deliverable has not reached my desk, is not working or it is causing me extra, unplanned work.  It is compromising a deadline for the clients I serve or is further stretching my resources.  I don’t care about the forms or the fact that a box wasn’t checked because the software didn’t recognize my click on the box and the individual decided not to contact me to ask about the box, but rather to let the project sit until I checked in to see why I saw no progress or wasn’t receiving my deliverable (again, no insertion of common sense).  I don’t care that now there is a new form or about the hours of committee meetings it took to develop the new form or about the position of the form in the newly revised process flow chart that took still more hours of committee meetings to rearrange.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.

Customers care about the product or service they are receiving.  How it goes through your system and the quality of your system, not so much.  They care about quality of the end-product or service and the deadlines explicitly or implicitly implied.  They want their expectations managed, and if you fail to do so, customers will defect.  External customers will find different suppliers; internal customers will outsource.  And they should.

So the next time you are putting together or refining processes, I recommend two “reminders” during your development phase.  First, articulate what the customer expectation is and write that as your “purpose.”  Is the purpose of the process to efficiently process a payment, develop a technology, receive an order and ship a product, receive a repair request and get a technician onsite?  Secondly, articulate what the cost of failure of the process is to the customer.  Is it unfounded exorbitant charges, late delivery of a gift, no power or phone service, loss of a sale, or loss of a customer?

And as you develop or refine that process, refer back to the purpose and the customer cost repeatedly.  Further, constantly remind yourself that the customer, external or internal, doesn’t care about your process or your forms, the customer cares about the purpose and the cost.  Don’t let the process be your purpose; make the process serve the purpose.

I can almost guarantee that when your focus is the purpose for the customer and the cost to the customer when failure occurs, the process you design will be efficiency-focused (fewer layers and fewer forms), and in addition, it will also include the opportunity to insert common sense.  Now that’s what I’m carin’ about.

I Used to be Sensitive and Then I Went to Business School

Growing up, I was an extremely sensitive child.  My feelings were hurt very easily, but I wasn’t a crier or a tattler (though my brother would tend to disagree).  Self-confidence wasn’t something I had either.  So in an effort to make people like me, I worked hard, particularly in those early years, in school.  Now while the teachers appreciated this hard work and rewarded me for it, it wasn’t exactly popular with a particular group of my classmates.  And this group of classmates would make life pretty miserable when the teachers, the adults, were not around. 

During my grade-school years, back in the 1970’s, bullies were defined largely as those who physically hit other kids or who stole lunch money.  And it was clearly known who these individuals were and their actions often got them sent home from school.  What wasn’t recognized was the harassment bullies – these were the individuals who harassed others in a passive-aggressive non-physical manner and always out of sight of adults.  These were the individuals who while we were waiting for the teacher to get back to the classroom, would mess with my work and threaten me with physical harm if I said anything, or who would chant awful things at me as we walked from building to building without adult supervision.  These were the individuals that would call my home, sometimes several times in an evening, and either hang up or say something nasty and then hang up – anonymous as these were the days before caller ID.  And these were the individuals who had a sense of who was sensitive and quiet and went after the sensitive personalities like dogs on a hunt.  I wasn’t the only sensitive one they attacked, but it sure felt like it.

Now as I got into high school, the bullying wasn’t so in my face.  The early years of keeping my head low and studying hard and practicing music and sports in the same manner began to pay off.  The bullies were still there, but I didn’t pay much attention as I kept busy.  And for a bully, harassing someone who doesn’t pay attention isn’t much fun.  So they move on.  But, I was still sensitive and strived for perfection in all areas I could.  I wanted people to like me for doing things well as I strived to gain some confidence.  This would be something I’d carry on into college and into the workforce – I was the ultimate carrier of the banner:  “Work hard.  Play hard.”  And as I moved into my twenties, I gained some confidence and the bullies, and they are in college and the work environment too, took a back seat.

And then I went to business school.

Now business school is a different world.  Imagine putting together 300+ largely Type-A people who have in the past, been pretty darn successful in their undergraduate studies and in their early careers.  These individuals have always achieved high marks, some of them quite easily, and most of these individuals are pushy and opinionated and book- and some even street-smart (as in Wall Street).  You put these individuals into a class and they now must compete against each other for grades and jobs.  It’s really quite an interesting experiment and is repeated year after year in business, and law, and medical, and many other professional schools.

So I went to the Fuqua School of Business, at Duke University.  I entered business school thinking it was going to be a two-year conference where we would exchange ideas and think big thoughts.  In reality, it was two years of grinding work, no sleep, no money, and for me, stress about getting a job to pay off the enormous debt I was accumulating to pay for tuition and living expenses.  Business school is not something I would really want to repeat in my lifetime, but it was critical in overcoming my sensitivity and achieving a bit of self-confidence.  (I should also say that I met some of my most cherished friends and acquaintances there!)

In business school, 30%-50% of one’s grade is based on “class participation.”  In short, that means that you speak up or you fail.  Now I’d done my fair share of “speaking up,” but it was generally after all others had spoken and/or I was invited to add my perspective.  Being the first or second person to get my opinion or analysis on the floor was not my thing, but failing wasn’t either.  The first term was hard, but I survived.  The second term wasn’t as hard, and I survived too.  And then I realized that I was surviving and even thriving in some cases in the midst of a pool of some really aggressive personalities.  And while I could never out-shout them and still don’t, I could quietly keep up by offering opinions based on facts and data and experience.  And what is amazing, facts and data are a lot like having an adult in the room – it quiets the bullies quickly.  Moreover, bullies don’t like bullying individuals who bring facts and data.  It’s just not as much fun for them.

On occasion, in the workplace, I challenge my colleagues.  I hope that I do it respectfully, but my fear of being wrong or being bullied back for challenging is largely gone.  If I have data or information or experience that conflict with their opinions or plans, I feel a fiduciary, if not personal, duty to press them for how they arrived at their decision.  Oftentimes, I can’t disagree with their approach, and even if I don’t agree with the approach, I feel the need to support it anyway – more fiduciary duty there.  And I don’t take disagreements personally.  I don’t believe that a difference of opinion makes one of us wrong or right or one of us less intelligent than the other. 

And that is what business school did for me.  It gave me confidence to push my opinions, but even more confidence to support opinions different than mine as our team grades or company survival depends on it.  Business school stripped me of my over-sensitivity – it made me numb to it, thank goodness. 

And while I still cry easily at movies, or when I see my young children accomplish something, or when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner or Amazing Grace, I don’t cry or fret about bullies in the work place, in politics, on the road, or in our own community.  I respectfully face up to the bullies with data, facts, and questions, whether they are testing my bully-tolerance or that of others.

I still haven’t fully figured out how to help my children with bullies, since elementary bullies aren’t impressed with data or facts.  And Nicholas has received the sensitivity gene handed down from his grandmothers, so he is ripe for harassment and has already received some as the bullies test each Kindergartner for their bully-tolerance level.  We talk about it periodically and in addition to advising him to make teachers aware when it happens or if he feels unsafe, we talk much about how to react, which is really quite simply, not to react.  We even practice – I tease him, and we talk about how he should respond and how he should not.

It’s working for now and we’ll see how it goes.  And I suppose that in the worst case scenario, if I simply cannot help him overcome his sensitivity in these early years, there is always business school.

Silos, Ladders, and Customer Feedback

On the drive into work recently, I was listening to an automotive dealer lauding his company because it had the intestinal fortitude to kill a product that customers clearly told that company they did not want and would not buy.  Ironically, later that morning, I received an email from a former colleague who is still in the business of consumer research.  He sent me a link to the Detroit Free Press article on the subject, accompanied with a comment stating his amazement that an organization would actually kill a product that customers were already heckling before it was ready for sale.  While many would think this a common sense approach for all companies who depend on customers to buy their products, it is not uncommon for corporations to well, “dismiss” the customer.

My colleague and I have spent years “listening to customers” and reporting their opinions to countless organizations.  Our successful clients were those that took customer messages, incorporated them into their product design, retail environments, customer service centers, and even their parking lot design and made changes quickly.  Our less successful clients were those who told us that we obviously recruited the wrong customers to our focus groups, or we sampled the wrong 1,000 respondents when we were conducting quantitative research, because of course, these organizations knew their customers and they knew the customer would like what they built.  Why they were just completing the consumer research because they had to check the box on the product development flow chart that said they had to do research with the target audience.  Consumer research was just really a formality to moving forward.

In fact, we had one organization that scheduled what seemed like endless focus groups in two cities for the purposes of the evaluation of a new product idea.  We recruited carefully to insure that we had the right customer – the customer that this product was to target.  Group after group declared the product ugly, pointed out several problems, and advised the organization that they would not buy it.  They threatened to leave the brand and explore competitor products.

The message was clear.  Don’t produce this!  However, our client informed us that we must have recruited the wrong people.  The 100 or so people that evaluated this product couldn’t have been the right people.  “We know our customer and these people are not our customers.”  The solution was to conduct several more focus groups with several hundred more people in three more cities.  And in the last city, the reaction to the product was “take-it-or-leave-it.”  The customers weren’t as vehemently negative.  And while we cautioned that the region of this last city is known for more “polite” communication, the absence of absolute negativity from the customers in this city was all that was needed to give the client the permission to proceed.  They did and the product, unfortunately but predictably, failed.

Now lest you think that this occurs only in large organizations:

  • From a 24-year-old technology developer during a focus group on search engines with baby boomer women who couldn’t see benefit in the proposed technology:  “I know search engines and I know baby-boomer women (perhaps his mother?), and what they want.  These women in this group just don’t understand the technology enough to understand how much they need it.”  Ah, if the customer can’t understand your product grasshopper, it’s dead in the water.  And yes, the technology, whatever it was, lost its venture capitalist funding.
  • From a youngish consultant in social media marketing:  “I tell all my clients to throw away their traditional marketing methods.  There is no reason to conduct direct mailings or run broadcast advertisements.” Hmmm, I just hope his clients are all targeting moderate to high-end urban audiences that can be and want to be connected all the time by voice or Internet technologies – and who will opt-in to receive marketing messages.  That’s everybody, right?  I’m not betting on a lot of repeat-clients for this gentleman consultant.

Leaders in organizations, big and small, just like celebrities and politicians, tend to surround themselves with people who work well together and thus, tend to agree with each other.  And the group begins to drink its own Kool-Aid.  Product development groups are often put together because they are high functioning as a group – to start.  It would seem, however, that they quickly become isolated.  They become silos on their own farm isolating themselves from those whom they are serving.

It also goes, that those who have had success in the past tend to climb that corporate ladder accompanied with some legendary success stories.  These climbers gain more power in the organization and colleagues with less power tend not to want to report things that are not in agreement with the dude on the top of the ladder.  I recall a conversation with a brand consultant on a flight home from NYC.  He told me he had gone to the city to deliver some bad news to a corporation regarding some customer feedback.  The process was to present to the product team and the product team would then either have the consultant re-present with CEO in the room or the team would deliver the message themselves.  The team’s response to his findings:  “We can’t tell Mrs. Johnson that.  She would be furious.”  So, the product team decided to pretend that the findings were never collected and the consultant was heading home a day early and a bit dazed.  We laughed as we predicted that he would not be hired again by that organization because it is easier to shoot the messenger rather than deliver the message (or pretend the message never happened).

It’s hard to listen to customers.  They are needy and always looking for something better, and for the most part, in most cities, they tell it like it is.  They aren’t very loyal anymore either.  It takes guts to listen to the customer.  And it takes still more guts to deliver the customer’s message to those who need to hear it, to those who have the power to pull the plug on a project and either make modifications or start all over.  And those with power don’t make it easy to deliver negative feedback, particularly when it’s a “pet project” that Mr. Power has wanted to develop for the past 20 years.  And it’s hard for me to advise people climbing the ladder to keep delivering the real truths to those at the top of the ladder.  The more successful customer-driven organizations of course embrace delivery from all rungs; but still too many just kick the messengers off the ladder and send them home early.

So for those of you at the top of the ladder (and those of you climbing the ladder, when you get there), be sure to embrace dissonance.  Invite employees and your over-worked consultants, particularly those focused on consumer research, to disagree and to deliver the good, the bad, and the downright jeered.  If you rarely hear disagreement or every idea you present is met with, “That’s a great idea, the customer will love it,” you’re probably living in a silo and you’re likely thwarting honest feedback.  When presented with unexpected customer feedback, take action to make sure the findings aren’t an anomaly, but if you continue to hear customers jeer and threaten to leave your farm, it’s a good bet it’s time to plow up the crop and replant.  And congratulations to General Motors for plowing up the field on the Buick crossover that customers said they would not buy!  I think I just heard a silo crumble!

A Commitment – Not a Guarantee

Several years ago I had made a run to the post office at lunch time.  The post office nearest me was always busy, and I considered myself lucky if I was somewhere around the fifth to tenth customer in line.  As a rule, I would take work- related reading material with me just in case the wait was too long for my short patience.

 

The line on this day was relatively short, so I didn’t bother to bring out the reading.  Since customer satisfaction research was a good part of my job at that time, I noted with amusement a rather large, nicely designed sign on the wall referring to the post office’s stance at that time on its two-day priority mail.  It said in relatively large print (I gave them points for not hiding it) that two-day delivery was “a commitment, not a guarantee.”

 

I of course have borrowed that phrase now for several years in situations, at work and now at home, where the deadline is ambitious.  Now I find myself using to describe the current state of minds of many a working mother – or perhaps what their state of minds should be.

 

A colleague of mine who has been through the process of raising small children while working and now is on the other side with her last a senior in high school was attempting to counsel myself and another on scheduling time for ourselves – particularly in the area of working out.  We were both commenting on how we need to work out since not that long ago, we did so regularly and as we all knew, we had more energy, more patience, and really felt better all around.  However, regular workouts are just not in the cards.

 

Our children are all five and under.  We and our husbands get up & get them to daycare & preschool.  We work all day and then pick them up and feed them, prepare lunches & projects for the next day, do some playing and bathing and go to bed.  To incorporate a workout routine, it really needs to happen with a wake-up somewhere just before 5:00 a.m., and I’ve had some limited success with that prior to child number two; however, child number two, at almost 22 months, is still not a consistent sleeper.  I’m up at least once a night to re-settle him.  That awakening really throws me off since I often don’t go right back to sleep – after all, I can use that time of alertness just prior to dozing off again to think about work or what I need to get done that day.  I don’t intend to lay there planning in my head, the thoughts just come, un-welcomed as they are, and the dozing back to sleep sometimes happens just before Alexander needs another resettlement.  And the process starts again and dozing off tends to happen just prior to the alarm clock ring.

 

So our wiser colleague tells us that we still need to do this – even if it’s just one night a week.  Sign up for a spinning or yoga class & find a high schooler to come hang out just for an hour or so.  And I agree.  We should do it.

 

However, I found myself explaining my current state of mind to which my other working mother colleague agreed.  In my current state, I cannot commit to anything, whether it’s working out, charity events, networking, anything.  I cannot commit right now because anything that hangs outside my normal survival mode of “wakeup-school-work-dinner-prepare for tomorrow-play-sleep” stresses me out. 

 

We signed Nicholas up for swim lessons and now soccer on Saturdays.  It stresses me out.  If someone is sick, which has happened countless times this year, getting him to these activities is stressful.  If we want to go visit the grandparents, he has to miss and my goodness, what message does that send about committing yourself to the things you’ve signed up and paid for (and yes, I realize he’s not even five and this is absolutely neurotic on my part).

 

And this stressful state is also present in the workday.  There are several networking and training lunches that I could simply walk to and each week, one is on my calendar.  In the past two years, I have made a total of ONE!  As the lunch time comes, I start to panic.  For the past couple years I have used lunch to get a bit more work in.  Why?  Because it’s always on my mind that one of the boys could be sick – the phone could ring at any moment with the teacher indicating that I need to come collect one of them.  And what would happen?  My commitment to delivering what I intended would be compromised.

 

Some folks live life with “Eat. Drink. And be merry for tomorrow you may die.”  Me, I live with, “Work.  Clean.  Get the groceries and diapers bought for tomorrow you may be tending to sick kids.”

 

Thus, to add another scheduled commitment to my schedules is a tipping point..  I have a monthly commitment to my church where I am trying to help work on external communications issues.  It’s one night a month for goodness sake, but I worry.  Can I make the meeting?  Will I be prepared?  Will I be late?  Will I have some sort of unidentifiable goo on my shoulder from the quick hugs and dinner before the meeting that I don’t notice until later when I change into my pajamas?

 

Neither my colleague nor I can seem to live our lives with a “commitment not a guarantee” mantra.  We seem to need to guarantee that to which we commit.  Some would say we are too tightly wound (my husband actually would say that, but not out loud).  But, this is who we are.  And as our wiser, almost empty-nester then advised us, “this time will pass – just don’t wish it to pass too quickly.”  For now grasshoppers, attempt limit your guarantees just to those things that really need guarantees.

 

So as the sun rises just before 7:00 a.m. (I awoke this morning at 4:30 a.m. and realized no more sleep was coming – it’s SATURDAY), and as I turn forty-two today, my goal is to embrace that post office mission where possible and pick my guarantees, in work and at home, more selectively.  And today, I will take my very first run of my forty-second year (and spend the rest of the weekend in pain).

Blurbs for My Boys – Be nice to clerks. Treating them poorly does not make you a powerful or admirable person. Rather, it demonstrates quite the opposite.

It’s been a while since I posted a blurb, but having witnessed some inappropriate behavior by an aggressive customer recently, I’ll get back on my pulpit and do some preaching!

Much of what I have to share on this topic is related to unfortunately, repeated experiences I witness or somehow find myself entangled.  A sad, but recurring situation is with respect to the treatment of sales clerks.  From retail to fast food to dry cleaner clerks, it seems that many in our population believe that as a customer, they have the right to treat clerks poorly – that somehow being on the cash-paying end versus the cash-receiving end, that they have the right to insult, degrade and demand loudly as if the rest of the clientele within an ear’s shot are their audience.  While you will often hear the phrase, “the customer is always right,” let me introduce you to the notion that sometimes, “a customer isn’t worth the trouble.”  Moreover, the angry and demanding customer often isn’t profitable, if that makes it easier for the business person, especially in these times, to agree.

I believe that every individual should be forced to work as a clerk for several months and will encourage you, my sons, to do so.  Only then perhaps, will you really appreciate the sometimes humiliating and challenging work that these individuals are forced to endure.  My experience was as a fast food clerk.  During my second summer as an undergraduate student, I was able to work at Wendy’s for three months.  I had a particular knack for timing fries to ensure that even during rush periods, that our customers did not have to wait in line for the fries to complete cooking.  This was key to guest satisfaction since a wait of even thirty seconds is somehow unbearable to the common fast food customer.  So, I spent most of my summer bent over a hot bat of oil frying, salting, stuffing, and distributing fries.

One doesn’t realize the skill and stamina needed to work in this environment.  For the financial reward of minimum wage, you are on your feet for hours, and when you are not preparing or serving food, you are cleaning.  Your skin is covered with a slimy layer of grease, you run through a fine vapor of heat and humidity spewed out by the cooking machines as you rush to fill orders, and the smell that permeates your clothes is one that will not come out even after several attempts at washing.  You look forward to collecting the trash and taking it to the large dumpster hidden behind the wood fixture in the back of the parking lot, even though the aroma of decaying leftovers turns the stomach.  You look forward to it because it is a chance to escape the stale restaurant air and capture some fresh, exhilarating air while walking to and from “the dump.”  Indeed, everything is relative.

So, all that glory as a fast food clerk and cook, and then comes, “the customer.”  While there were several interesting experiences, the most memorable was the “overbearing grandma takes granddaughter out for lunch” episode.  The finely dressed little girl must have been about age five or six.  Grandma, immediately recognizable as the overbearing kind, proceeded to order her granddaughter a cheeseburger.  The register clerk kindly inquired whether she would like a kid’s meal since it had a special toy.  Grandma barked that “all she wanted was a cheeseburger, fries and some milk” – no kid’s meal was necessary.  Of course, overbearing grandma also was sure to announce this loudly enough that all those in line heard her orders to the lowly clerk.  Grandma had an audience to impress.  She was in the power position.  The register clerk, again having multiple experiences with the desires of young children made grandma aware that the cheeseburger, yummy as it was, came with catsup, pickles, onions and mustard – would the young customer just like catsup?  To that question, overbearing grandma loudly exclaimed that she just wanted a cheeseburger – just get her hungry girl a cheeseburger and stop asking questions!  Just take the order!  All in line were impressed with velocity and volume she used – that’s why they were all looking at their feet I suppose.

The manager, overhearing the interaction, whispered to me that she would like to bet five dollars, well over the hourly wage we were making, that when the cheeseburger was opened in the dining room, that the sandwich would be coming back.  This was one of my rare occasions at the sandwich-making station, since fries were my specialty, and I made the cheeseburger, as requested, no questions.  Just as the manager predicted, within a few minutes, overbearing grandma was back at the counter.  It would have been bad enough had she just came back and yelled about our incompetence as citizens in the US having put more than just catsup on the burger.  But it was worse.  While screaming about how her granddaughter was now in tears because she only wanted catsup on her cheeseburger, overbearing grandma had mashed the cheeseburger up within its wrapper and then proceeded to throw it across the counter.  I must give her credit.  She had a good arm and good aim.  To this day, I can visualize the mangled cheeseburger flying down the counter starting at the register, completing its trip down the counter and nearly hitting me at the sandwich preparation station on the other end.  There were bits of burger, cheese, catsup, pickles, onions and mustard from the point where it landed to the point where it came to rest.  It looked like a mangled cheeseburger buffet.  She had made her point.  She was the customer and ruled the moment.

And what was our response?  We quietly prepared a new cheeseburger with catsup only, provided it to overbearing grandma free of charge (see, not a profitable customer), cleaned up the counter and continued serving.  All in a days work, and the manager won her imaginary bet, since I could not afford to bet over an hour’s worth of pay.

I learned much that day.  First, my own personal restraint, physically and verbally.  It was difficult not to reach across the counter, grab overbearing grandma’s arm and advise her what a horrible demonstration of human behavior she was for her granddaughter , for all those in the restaurant and for greater humanity.  Second, I learned patience as a customer.  Never would I become the impatient, downright nasty customer overbearing grandma represented, and in the scheme of things, is waiting a few minutes for service or answering a few simple questions, particularly if clerks are being responsive, really that much trouble?  And third, and most importantly, I learned that no matter how stressful college life seemed at the time, that I was going to finish it and escape the need to finance my life by making sandwiches and timing fries that just might come flying back at me!

So my boys, be nice to sales clerks and practice the Golden Rule with them.  Generally, clerks do not control much.  They don’t have the power to ensure that all spots come out of your clothing, to stock the specific size you’re looking for, to make the gasoline cheaper, to make the food spicier or less so, to fix the mechanical problems with the airplane, or to increase the number of lanes that are open for check-out at the grocery store.  Beating them up verbally is not impressive or admirable, nor does show you are a powerful person.  They don’t give out rewards or money or fame for rude and boorish behavior (unless of course you are a socialite and sons, your parents aren’t in that socioeconomic class).  And those waiting in line behind you aren’t going to congratulate you on your rude behavior – usually they just look at their feet.  And certainly most importantly, you’re mother wouldn’t be proud of you (See “Making Good Choices” post)!