I have only one thing to add to this

Techdirt has a great (yet horrifying) piece from the “how not to connect with customers” trenches.  I agree with it pretty completely, but I would also add to this statement:

At some point or another everyone screws up. Everyone makes a mistake. Customers recognize this. But if a company never makes a mistake, then customers may still wonder how they’ll be treated when that future mistake comes. However, if the mistake has been made, and the response was good, the customer is confident that future mistakes will be handled well also.

Screwups are also memorable interactions – and how you handle them is memorable as well.  Not to skew too far into the territory of silver linings, but a single screwup handled well can be more memorable than 100 mediocre-to-satisfactory experiences and might translate into good word-of-mouth.  I would argue that a customer may not spend much time wondering about how a fairly competent company might handle a screwup, but that company may just not be very top-of-mind.  You wouldn’t recommend them, because you just might not think of them at all.

Extraordinary service is memorable.  A screwup, handled badly or well, is memorable.  Reasonably competent service or an experience that gets you where you need to go without any great highs or lows (barring any extraordinary expectations from the consumer)?  Not very memorable.

How many examples do we need?

Briefly noted: the United Airlines broken guitar public relations fiasco.

I have one quibble with the linked article, which says, “Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quickly right wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control.”  While this is true, it is also often too late by the time it gets to the social media stage.  The cat is out of the bag, and the company has lost control of the opportunity it once had to make things right.

Doing the right thing at the management level early on would have been smart.  Training and empowering employees to do the right thing at the customer service level would have been even smarter.

Related posts: Now hiring: Corporate Spokespeople, Your brand is your brand

Now hiring: Corporate Spokespeople

As a follow up to my post Your brand is your brand, I thought I would address a few additional points.

First, among the many hits that post generated, I got  at least six visits from nat1.jo-annstores.com.  Actual direct outreach from the company?  Nothing.  No use of my contact page, no comment on the blog, nothing.

While this didn’t surprise me, it does allow me to make a collateral point, which is well known to many people in relationship management:

When your customer knows you are listening and you do not respond, they will assume you do not care.

Not caring about your customers or service may work in the short term if you are a monopolist selling a necessary product with high barriers to entry.  In that scenario, you basically have a captive audience until someone gets clever enough to surmount those barriers and compete effectively.

So what does Jo-Ann’s competitive landscape look like?  They carry sewing supplies (fabric, thread, notions, sewing machines, etc.), craft supplies, and some knitting/crochet materials.  The bricks-and-mortar options in my local area are thus: there are at least two other mass-market fabric store chains in my area with multiple retail outlets for each within 25 miles of my house.  There are also at least two stores that carry craft and hobby supplies and a great wealth of independent knitting/crochet shops.  There are probably also additional specialty niche shops in a variety of areas that could compete in areas where J0-Ann plays.

On the Internet side of things, there are also several large players and I don’t even want to begin to count the number of boutique players (including eBay sellers) who can compete with Jo-Ann.

So, the market is anywhere from very to intensely competitive and the Internet makes the barriers to entry exceedingly low.  Not caring about your customers is a really bad idea in this instance.

Second, in not responding to my original post (which generated quite a bit of commentary and interest – at least by the traffic standards I usually go by), Jo-Ann basically ceded the conversation about their brand to me, which cedes a bit of control over their messaging.  It is madness to chase rumors, but it is smart retail brand management to reach out to a customer you know is disgruntled and to try to fix the situation.  Any person has the capacity to be your unpaid corporate spokesperson – you can either work with them and help them to be a source of positive brand messages, or you can ignore them (or worse yet be antagonistic towards them: see the recording industry for too many examples) and make them a font of negativity.

My third point is is also about who some of your other corporate spokespeople are.  In retail operations, your store employees are your spokespeople — they are the face of your brand.  “Corporate” may not recognize it, they may pay lip service to it, or they may embrace it.  Not recognizing or ignoring this fact will not help you, because the people who come face to face with your customers every day are the ones who are creating impressions, building (or destroying) loyalty, and making your store a destination or a place to be avoided.

It is fashionable to be disdainful of retail as a career.  There are exceptions: specialty shops are often repositories of knowledge, some large retailers (Apple, for instance) are known for their well-trained and enthusiastic staff.  But for the most part, we have low expectations that are often disappointed — which only lowers our expectations further, and the next time… swings and roundabouts, ever downward.

But, in many cases, a person chooses a specific retailer to work for because they have a passion for the subject and knowledge in that area.  Art shops draw artists to their payrolls.  Fabric shops gather seamstresses.  Fishing shops lure anglers (okay, I’ll stop).

Give that employee the opportunity to create bonds with your customer.  After all, these two people already probably have something in common.

Will every customer coming in for a $2 spool of thread become a customer for life?  Of course not.  But they are far more likely to if they are confronted with an employee who is engaged, knowledgeable, and empowered to help, rather than hinder.

In this way, you create not just employees but spokespeople who are ambassadors for your brand, instead of apologists for your policies.

Does this really happen?

Today on Language Log, Mark Liberman points to a recent study regarding the somewhat dodgy intersection of science, academic PR, and the press.  I have never worked in a university public affairs office,* but I spent several years working in communications for various biotech and healthcare firms.  So this passage surprised me:

But Woloshin et al. do conclude that investigators should “review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)”. This is certainly good advice, though it’s not much more likely to be followed than any other good advice that runs counter to its recipients’ interests.  [Emphasis mine]

The title to this post is an honest question: do university investigators really not review releases before they go out?  Where?  I have never worked anywhere where press releases were not reviewed by just about everyone involved with the project.  I have had to try to rein in investigators who wanted every name on the publication to review the press release. For those of you keeping score at home, that can be up to about an even dozen, many of whom have only worked on a small corner of the project and don’t have the requisite big-picture experience to review a two-page (double-spaced) press release with anything like objectivity.

I have also never worked with (or talked to) anyone who has worked in science PR who did not sincerely try to balance the demands of precise scientific language with the layperson’s need for simplicity and clarity.  It is a very difficult juggling act — no, it’s more like trying to pack a car for a vacation.  The scientists want to throw everything in, so they are prepared for every eventuality from the beach to the ski slopes.  The PR person is desperately trying to winnow things back, because they are pretty sure there is no need for wooly hats and ski pants when you head for Florida.

It is true that investigator quotes often do start out “enthusiastic” — but that is usually the first draft.  The PR person throws something against the wall that sounds sunny.  Then the scientists get to it and try to insert so many disclaimers that the quote ends up sounding like, “Well, we may have done something moderately interesting here, but don’t get too excited: it probably won’t work at all.  In fact, I don’t even know why you’re reading this.  Never mind — sorry to have bothered you, please carry on with whatever it was you were doing,” and you’re back to packing the car for a winter trip to Park City, only to find flippers and wetsuits in the trunk.

So if the university press offices of the world really are working in a vacuum without investigator input, this is certainly something that needs to be fixed.  But is it the case?  I know that sometimes getting investigator input can be difficult — scientists understandably would rather be in the lab or clinic, and they sometimes view a press release on their work as irrelevant fluff: something that will take valuable time away from their “real work.”  But that is a different problem than the one articulated in the quote: you don’t just need to get the investigator to review the release in that case.  You need to ensure that they are aware of the collateral effect good press has on their projects.  Funding doesn’t come from thin air, after all, and press is a pretty logical thing to point to when you are talking about how donors view the institution.

In that case, we’re back to relationship management. The press officers need to ensure that they have good relationships with the scientists and need to ensure that the scientists understand the value of their work.  We can’t control what the press builds with a press release, but with a good working relationship with the scientific staff, we can give them a better foundation to start from.

*I’ve worked with them, but my data set is too small to draw any conclusions.  All of the university press officers I have worked with were even more conservative than their scientists.

Yes, do sweat the small stuff

Five years of my career were spent in high-level relationship building (mostly at the C-Suite level), and one of the biggest things about relationship building I learned was that it is not about the big stuff.  Grand gestures are nice, but being there day in and day out is really what a business relationship is all about (I am sure devotees of romantic relationship self-help would agree with me here).  Part of this is because opportunities for making a grand gesture naturally are somewhat rare, but it is also because trust and understanding are qualities that are built over time, not made in a flash.

Relationship building is also not just about serving the client.  Other vendors, nonclients, and even honorable competitors are valuable sources of relationships, because all of these people have the potential to influence those who may become your clients.  A good word from an influencer can go a long way toward swaying a potential client’s decision-making process.

My brother Brian knows a lot about this: he’s a professional wedding photographer who also owns a wedding photo editing service.  Here, he explains how and why his editing service can help wedding photographers build relationships with their fellow vendors:

EditTeam: building vendor relationships, one wedding at a time from Edit Team on Vimeo.

Smart guy, my brother.