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How does a nice gal like Flo end up in a nasty fix like this?
Flo is Progressive Insurance’s TV fictional character. Flo’s twitter handle (come on, you knew Flo has to tweet) is @ItsFlo and “her” bio reads, “Progressive’s always-happy-to-help insurance expert. Lover of discounts, unicorns and tacos. Plays a mean air guitar.”
So this headline had to be a bit of an image hit for Progressive:
Yes, you could say that. Click the link for the long, sad tale: the (very) short version is that Progressive insured a woman killed in a car accident. Progressive refused to pay her family a claim of $75,000 on the grounds that it had not been proven she had not been at fault – even though the other driver’s insurance company did not dispute fault.
Through some bizarre twists of law and amazing judgment on the part of Progressive, the woman’s family was forced to sue the other driver – and the woman’s brother claimed that Progressive’s legal team had, in fact, actually ended up working for the other driver. Get that: the dead woman’s insurance company, in court, on behalf of the driver who killed her.
That story got legs on FaceBook, Gawker et al. Progressive responded with a tweet, saying they’d investigated and were “within our contractual obligations.” They tweeted the identical message to dozens of complainers. Of course, the carbon-copy tweets then got put together on another site, making Progressive look even more ham-handed and insensitive.
Progressive then explained that, in fact, “Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case.” Rumor quashed.
Except that, one hour after that posting, the internet sleuths came up with court records showing a Progressive attorney had been granted an allowance “to intervene as a party Defendant.” It depends on the what the meaning of the word “defendant” is, I guess.
And then Progressive lost the case anyway. And it all ended up on the “real” news too.
What Not To Do
Ah, where to begin. Let’s start with the easy stuff.
- If you’re accused of doing something bad, and in fact you’ve been doing something that looks like bad, walks like bad, and rhymes with bad – for heaven’s sake don’t try to get off on a technicality. Don’t do it anyway, but especially don’t do it at a time like this.
- Don’t confuse the law with ethics. “But it’s not illegal” is the last defense of the morally lame, and will never win in the court of public opinion. How well does “I’m not a crook” go over? Does “within our contractual obligations” sound any better?
- Don’t think you can outrun the internet. You are naked out there, and everyone’s waiting for you to deny the truth. Simple answer: don’t do bad stuff, and if you do, don’t lie about it. Karma has a deputy these days called “search,” and it’ll getcha.
- Pay attention to backlash, for heaven’s sake. You pay good money for market research to give you feedback. When you get it for free in the form of bad publicity, look at what the optics are telling you! D’ya think defending your client’s killer might not play too well? D’ya think that robo-tweeting might not be a great social media strategy? D’ya think that doubling down against a viral human interest story might suggest a little more PR sensitivity?
I’m a firm believer that we learn more by failure than by success. If this hasn’t happened to your company, go knock on wood, and then go to school on Progressive. Such clumsiness shouldn’t go to waste: someone should learn from it before it happens to them.
It was five months ago, but I remember it like yesterday.
I had given a speech for an important Fortune 500 client. The event had about 300 attendees, and I was one of several speakers.
The person preceding me overran his time, cutting 15 minutes into mine. That is rude to other speakers, and to the audience, who have the right to view an agenda as a promise. I never do that to others, and don’t like it when someone does it to me.
I let it throw me off a bit; I didn’t give my worst speech, but it wasn’t my best either. This bothered me for the next two days.
A Turnaround Impression
Until, that is, I received a card in the mail. It was from my client’s senior-most person in attendance, the host of the meeting I’d attended. The card was hand-written, and clearly written by him (at least, that’s what I think).
It was personalized, gracious, and thoughtful. If it was scripted, my compliments to the staff writer, because it felt very genuine to me. I was floored.
3 Minutes to Impact
It can’t have taken my client more than 2 minutes to write the card, perhaps less—though clearly he’d given it more than a moment’s thought. Let’s say he gave it a minute. That’s a lot of thought; and yet only a grand total of 3 minutes.
And remember, this was a client, sending me, the speaker/consultant a thank you note—I should be the one sending it to him!
Again—I was floored. And very touched.
Can You Find 3 Minutes Per Week?
How often do you encounter opportunities to send someone a note? Let’s be conservative and say once a week. At once a week, that feels like a pretty special event—there are only 50 or so per year.
That’s about one-tenth of one percent of your weekly time. What other three minute weekly activity could generate that kind of personal impact, make somebody’s day, reach out and touch someone so powerfully?
You Can’t Write an Insincere Note
And don’t tell me it’s insincere. I defy you to sit down and write a thoughtful thank you note to a business connection and tell me you did it with a greedy scowl. I don’t believe you’re that cynical (and I don’t even know you!). And if you’re sincere, then the odds are very good indeed that your sincerity will come through.
I used to get occasional handwritten notes from the folks at Continental Airlines’ One Pass organization. Were those notes part of an organized plan? You bet. But insincere? No way—someone sat down and hand-wrote a note to me; that is an act of respect, and I felt it. Are you listening, United?
Try it. Plan on writing a 3-minute note to someone next week. Who will be the lucky recipient? And how will you feel about it?
Write and tell me—I’d like to hear about it.
Story 1: Don’t Do This
I got one of those broadcast email solicitations from a very reputable organization that hosts executive roundtables. Brian (a stranger to me) wanted me to attend an informational meeting. To his credit, he “had me at hello” with the very first lines of his email, which were both personal and complimentary: “Andrea, let me first say I LOVE the name of your company and the genesis of it…the ‘new beat’ story. Outstanding!”
“Wow,” I thought, “He’s taken the time to find out about BossaNova and make a personal connection to me. He gets me! He likes me! I like this guy!”
What followed was a directive to “Read on” with a photo of a jubilant baseball team and the assertion that “There are lessons you learn in Baseball that can apply to business leaders like YOU once you understand their importance and their impact” (with a bulleted list of those very lessons). His call to action at the end of the email was aggressive and impersonal.
Brian had me right off the bat and lost me soon after. I have nothing against baseball—not at all. I’m just not much of a sports enthusiast and, truthfully, get tired of the male-oriented metaphors. Brian’s very personal appeal followed by his very impersonal (and misaligned) form letter was a particularly lethal combo. Now, not only am I a “no” for the information session I was invited to, but I have an attitude about both Brian and his organization to boot. Three strikes, you’re out.
Story 2: An Approach to Emulate
A few weeks ago I was surprised by a knock at the door—an unexpected delivery of baked goods from a local sweet shop. The package included a hand-written note from Kacy, the office organizer I had hired exactly one year before. The sweets were to commemorate my first anniversary in my new home office, with a reminder that she was available should any lingering piles be in my way, and a request to tell others about her services if I was so inclined.
I immediately logged onto Facebook (well, by “immediately” I mean right after I had a cookie) and posted kudos for Kacy, along with a link to her web site. I sent her an email to thank her for the unexpected treat, alert her to the free Facebook advertising, and acknowledge her for the lesson in great marketing. She wrote me right back to thank me, saying, “I’m so glad you like them! I never know if someone’s going to be out of town or unavailable, but it always works out. In my client list, I have a column where I note the dates of our last sessions. Once a month or so I run through those and send the goodies out!”
The sweets hit the sweet spot, for sure, far more so than being hit over the head with a baseball bat. Maybe Kacy got lucky with her choice. Although it seems to me she could have sent me anything (even one of those giant foam fingers) and the good feelings from the unexpected personal acknowledgement would have prevailed.
A Plea to Marketers
The two anecdotes aren’t apples to apples—different relationship histories, different communication media, different calls to action. That said, I find them both illuminating.
To all marketers out there (including myself), here’s my plea:
- DO make it personal
- DON’T use a personal tactic to get someone’s attention and then switch to a more generic approach
- DO find creative ways to appreciate the people who have given you business in the past
- DO use the element of surprise
- DON’T be afraid to ask for more work or for referrals.
The moral of the stories: Intimacy is a powerful tool in business. Use it wisely, especially with strangers. Mix it in with a little unexpected generosity and you’ll hit a home run.
You may have missed it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a clinic in communications, public relations and sales. It was in late August–perhaps that’s why you didn’t hear of it.
Of course, it was also cleverly disguised as a critique of the US government’s communications policy with respect to the Muslim world. But no matter, it was a clinic nonetheless. Here is Adm. Mike Mullen:
"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate…
…most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all," he wrote. "They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."
What constitutes good communication? According to Adm. Mullen:
"…having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves. We shouldn’t care if people don’t like us. That isn’t the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time.
[our messages] lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises."
Clearly Mullen is confusing his skillset with that of a communications expert. What else does he think good communication requires?
"It’s not about telling our story," he stated. "We must also be better listeners."
You may think Mullen is out of his league. Then again, if you are reading this blog, you probably recognize his wisdom. But let’s pile on some more anyway.
Communication is a Two Way Street
The heart of influence lies not in our fancy powerpoints or elegantly crafted talking points. Ironically, paradoxically, it lies in listening before we talk.
Thomas Friedman articulated this well in his commencement address at Williams College a few years ago:
The most important part of listening is that is is a sign of respect. It’s not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important…
Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard, and once you have given them that chance they will hear you.
The Psychology of Communication
Communication is a dance, not a diktat. The establishment of trust requires communication, in an ascending exchange of reciprocal acts of listening.
Being right is an overrated virtue. In fact, being right too soon has the effect of pissing people off. There is a time for every season, including stating opinions. And that time is after you have listened.
Not all truisms are true, but this one is:
–People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.
That simple little sentence, phrased in an intentionally corny manner so as to increase the odds of remembering it, is very sound psychology.
Communications, influence and trust have a few very simple rules: one is, first you listen.
- Shrinks know this.
- Good salespeople know this.
- Good diplomats know this.
Apparently, so do Admirals.
Thanks for the clinic, Admiral.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend. He asked me what I thought about a marketing piece he sent me the day before. After our conversation,which was tedious, we analyzed it. Here is part of the conversation we had, and the same part of the one we didn’t have:
Sam: What did you think of that piece I sent you yesterday?
Subtext: I’m looking for your big picture thoughts
Me: I liked it
Subtext: Uh. Oh. He wanted me to give him comments.
Sam: Well – what did you like about it?
Subtext: Please give me a little more – your big picture comments.
Me: I didn’t read it that carefully – I did think it looked good
Subtext: I feel really badly. He looked at something for me and gave me exactly what I asked for. I should have done more.
Me: [getting defensive] – I didn’t realize you wanted me to provide comments – I can do that. Isn’t it out already?
Subtext: I really would like to fix this – and I still feel badly – maybe he’ll give me another opportunity to make it right.
Sam: Yeah – it’s out already. Never mind.
Subtext: All I wanted was a couple of thoughts, and he’s trying to make a whole project out of it.
After another couple of minutes of this conversation that went nowhere, we stepped back and I asked what he really was asking. I asked him for the subtext. And I told him mine.
We quickly reached an understanding, and avoided further misunderstanding. He didn’t care that I hadn’t really read it. He just wanted a little more of the big picture comments.
I had felt badly that I hadn’t read it and given him deeper comments, and he didn’t even want them.
How much easier it would be if all our conversations were the subtext, rather than the text. If we were simply transparent and said what
we really meant.
When I do role plays in workshops I facilitate, I often will stop the action and ask: "What do you really want to say?" That gets to the subtext.
Instead of texting each other, maybe we should start subtexting.
Quick: in your sales and internal presentations, do you use too much humor? Or not enough?
Your first reaction may be, “probably not enough. Then again,” you might think, “ I’m not too great at jokes—and the last thing I want is to have some lame attempt at humor fall flat. My clients are serious about their business, and I wouldn’t want them thinking I was being cavalier about it.”
That reaction puts you square in the middle of most presenters I’ve seen. The claim that “business is serious” masks a deeper truth—what if I fail? And heaven forbid we fail.
So we take the low-risk route.
Result: pandemic boredom.
Enter author Adrian Gostick and humorist Scott Christopher, in their new book The Levity Effect They argue that:
Some salespeople mistakenly worry…that humor dilutes their message, makes it less urgent and torpedoes credibility. Nothing could be further than the truth. Sending a message with levity demonstrates a clear understanding of the principles of effective communication. It also shows the audience you value their time enough to want to entertain and connect with them and make it worth their while.
They give the delightful counter-example of Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO Kaplan Thaler agency, who was pitching Panasonic about a shaving product.
As the business meeting began, Kaplan Thaler and her team sat around a conference table with the executives… The Panasonic brass was expecting a formal presentation, but instead Kaplan Thaler smiled and said, “Pretend I’m one of the guys.” Then she proceeded to sing, “Shaving sucks, shaving sucks, like a Band-Aid getting stuck, why does half the human race tear the hair out of their face …”
After sitting through days of drab pitches, the executives were very quickly snorting and hooting in appreciation of the zany song.
“They loved it, and we got the business. They said, ‘You didn’t have the best strategy, but you had the most entertaining way to do it. So we figured you guys are going to be a lot of fun and more entertaining to work with.’”
Next time your firm does a win-loss analysis, include three variables on the survey:
a. Did the winner, whomever it was, have the lowest bid?
b. Did the winners rate higher on relationship, or on value?
c. Did the winner seem more fun to work with?
(Probable answers: a. no; b. relationship; c. yes)
I am hardly the first to note the application of PR principles to politics. Nor is it a new observation. Kennedy and Nixon had their communications advisors; Lincoln read books on rhetoric—ancient Greeks wrote them.
We now see it in mind-numbing three-word phrases printed, Louis Vuitton-like, on backdrops behind the Presidential podium; in the evolution of “talking points” from a novelty phrase during Monica-gate to commonplace today; and in the devolution of the Cabinet from advisory body to vehicle for staying “on-message.”
Many call this a failing of George Bush or of a Republican administration (though the Clintons know this material well too), or a misapplication or perversion of business principles.
But that’s not quite right. Politicians haven’t misappropriated business lessons—they borrowed directly, main-lining their Big Brother 1984 lessons from the very heart of what has come to be called business best practices.
The problem isn’t cynical politicians twisting business ideas; it is cynical business ideas themselves, granted mainstream legitimacy by business opinion leaders—the business media, business schools, industry associations, and business leaders themselves. Politicians are just following.
Take four common terms: “on message,” “brand,” “alignment,” and “communication.” Now think Marketing 101 (or any CEO’s speech), and see how familiar this sounds:
In this consumer-empowered, media-cluttered age, the company that understands customer needs and communicates its message the best is the one that will survive in this hyper-competitive market.
Consumers have less and less patience and attention span: companies need to develop a coherent branding message—the same on the web, in stores, and in ads—about who they are and what they can do for the customer.
A company not completely aligned around its core value proposition and the message it communicates about that proposition will fail. Sales collateral must be on-message with marketing’s branding; incentives must align with company strategy; measurements must track missions, aggregating to sustainable competitive advantage.
Even marketers—professional cynics—are taken aback by the success of a current ad campaign. You’ve seen it / heard it:
Apply directly to the forehead—apply directly to the forehead—apply directly to the forehead.
Blunt force repetitive trauma to the brain. Think Orwell. Goebbels. Big Brother. The Big Lie.
From there, it’s a quick trip to “we’re in Iraq to stop Al-Qaeda from invading Kansas,” with flight jacket and aircraft carrier backdrop.
Massive repetition works. Better than we like to admit. “Brainwashing” is just a value-laden term for what politely passes as “alignment” and “on-message” in the corporate setting. Even “shared values” brushes uncomfortably close to the same territory.
Reggae rapper Shaggy parodied this angle a few years ago in the song “It Wasn’t Me.” Seeking advice after having been caught in flagrante by his girlfriend, he’s told, “Just say ‘It wasn’t me’.” Repeat it often enough and you can get away with anything. Was he being ironic? Or just astute? (Did he help Larry Craig and OJ come up with “I’m not gay” and “it was my stuff”?)
Mainstream marketing and business 101 teach companies to simplify, refine, and focus on one message and mission, then design the whole organization to apply massive force to the fulcrum point of the customer.
The result is called “tuned,” “focused,” “aligned, “and—most chilling—a perversion of “customer-centric.” Apply directly to the marketing. Apply directly to the marketing. Apply directly to the marketing.
There is nothing “wrong” with these techniques per se—the means, in this case, are value-neutral. It is the ends to which they are put—the motives—that matter.
Unfortunately, Roger Ailes, Turdblossom et al didn’t have to translate the business play book to politics. They copied directly. Both have become about winning against other competitors/candidates—not about helping consumers/voters. Bombardment of the consumer/voter with simple messages is good for quitting smoking or announcing emergency traffic routes. For selling pharmaceuticals, wars and presidents? Not so much.
In business, it’s reach and frequency—in politics, it’s being on-message. Tax and spend. Support our troops. Apply directly to the amygdala.
The problem in business and politics is identical. Both have become all about competition and winning—not about consumers and voters. Both have turned the legitimate concept of “customer focus” from a goal into a tactic, linking it tightly to quarterly earnings and the two-year election cycle.
Business has turned "customer focus" into a codeword for tweak, massage and manipulate.
Modern marketing practices flaunt the dictionary, Shaggy-like, when they turn "communication"—formerly defined as "exchange of information"—into the one-way megaphone of "apply directly to the forehead."
At root, this is a failure of belief systems. We are teaching an ideology of short-term me-me-me-ism in business, and our politicians are drinking the same Kool-Aid. For those who think this brand of “competition” is what makes for a successful economy—take a look at the falling US dollar. A focus on commerce, not on competition, is what makes an economy great. We’ve gotten it backwards.
Don’t blame George Bush, Republican; blame George Bush, MBA President. Until the B-schools start preaching networks, collaboration, transparency and commerce in their strategy classes instead of in their so-called “ethics” classes, we in business have no right to complain about the politicians.