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Every doctrine has to start somewhere. Even this one.

Want to boost your repeat business, get tons of free referrals, acquire bunches of new customers and get lots of positive buzz for free? There’s a pretty simple way to do it that doesn’t have to cost you a whole lot. Can you guess what it is?

Simple: Purge your company of assholes.

In fact, let me share item #1 in my Better Business Doctrine with you real quick. Are you ready? Here we go:

The customer-facing organization with the fewest assholes wins.

That’s it.

A simple example, from the friendly skies.

Does this seem like common sense? Of course it does. And yet here we are, routinely forced to endure a passive-aggressive or plain argumentative jerks who would rather exercise their “authority” than provide customers – even stressed out customers – with pleasant experiences. Why is that? Let me answer that question: Because companies are still hiring assholes.

Let me give you a few personal examples:

1a. The Continental flight I was on a few months ago

Flight Attendant (sternly) to a passenger in the process of turning off their iPad, just not quickly enough: “SIR! I need you to turn that off right now!” (Stares angrily at passenger until the device is turned off, and walks away, visibly annoyed.)

This probably happens to flight crews 20+ times per day. Every time a plane pushes off from the gate and prepares its approach, passengers in the middle of a song, of a paragraph, of a game of Angry Birds or Brick Breaker take an extra 10-30 seconds to “comply” with the “please turn off your electronic devices at this time” announcement on the PA. I get it. It probably gets annoying after a while. But guess what: You’re a flight attendant. Asking people to turn off their electronic toys comes with the job. You don’t have to be an asshole about it. Case in point:

1b: The Delta flight I was on the following day

– Flight Attendant (with a smile, jokingly) to a passenger so absorbed by what he was reading that he missed the “turn off your electronic devices” announcement and kept his Kindle going: “Good book?”

– Passenger, sensing that he was the object of the flight attendant’s attention, looks up from his device: “I’m sorry?”

– Flight Attendant, nonchalantly points at the Kindle: “Good reading?”

– Passenger, smiling back: “Yeah. Very!” (Gets it. Laughs. Starts to look for the “off” button.)

– Flight attendant: “You can turn it back on as soon as we’re on the ground.” (Walks away. Stops. Turns around.) “The book. What is it?”

Passenger answers. Flight attendant repeats the title as if to remember it, nods as if interested, and returns to his station.

The difference between the two isn’t training or pay. It isn’t corporate policy or procedure. It isn’t even company culture. The difference between the two occurrences is this:

One of these flight attendants, at some point during the course of her day, week, month, year or career, decided to let her asshole flag fly. The other one didn’t.

The basic impact of an asshole on your customers

How every asshole on your payroll affects your brand equity and impacts your business on a daily basis.

The impact of just one asshole’s behavior in a customer-facing role doesn’t stop with the one customer they treat poorly. Ten rows of passengers witnessed the exchanges on both flights, and I can guarantee that the ten rows on the Continental flight (30 passengers) were not impressed, while those on the Delta flight surely were. The ramifications of this are simple:

Whatever shot Continental had at influencing these 30 people to develop a preference for flying its friendly skies, for being more loyal, for looking to book future flights with them first, just flew out the window, not because of price, not because of delays, not because the plane was dirty. The price was great. The plane left on time and was impeccable. Continental did everything right except one thing: Someone there allowed an asshole (and probably more than one) to take on a key customer service role. Delta, on the other hand, scored some points.

And just to be fair, I’ve run into my fair of assholes working for Delta too. Few domestic US airlines seem immune to this phenomenon these days, except for perhaps Alaska Air, whose service and hiring practices, to my knowledge are still impeccable.

That said, my experience with Delta flight crews recently has been stellar, and not just because of this little anecdote. (Expect another post about what else happened very soon.) The difference between the two airlines for me was limited to my experience, as it is for all of us. Before the recommendations and the word-of-mouth and the marketing, our own experience shapes our bias.

Every positive experience creates positive associations with a brand, while every negative experience creates a negative association with a brand. More positive than negative = positive bias, preference, even loyalty. Consistent negative experiences (especially those that repeat themselves, like frequent delays, rude employees, apathetic managers, or being talked down to by an unprofessional asshole) = negative bias, preference for your competitors instead of you, and cynicism towards your brand.

The wheels of this mental equation – more emotional than empirical – start turning every time the thought of your brand comes up, and you need to understand it isn’t linear. The way we process the negative and the positive isn’t as balanced as you might think. For whatever reason, until you have grown into a loyal fan of the brand, the equation tends to be heavily weighed towards the negative: What you did right six months ago – or for the last thirty years,- doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you did wrong yesterday or just last week. That’s part 1 of how the mental math of brand experiences work. Part 2 is this: People will easily forgive incidents and accidents: Lost luggage, no available upgrades, long lines at the counter, mechanical problems, etc. Those things are out of your control, and once the anger and frustration subside, they’ll get it. Those negative impressions will evaporate. But one thing customers won’t forgive of any company: Being deliberately treated badly by an asshole.

Just as being an asshole  is a choice, – especially when dealing with a customer – hiring an asshole and keeping them on staff is also a choice. Because of this immutable fact, every company bears its part of responsibility in the hiring and promoting of assholes. Customers instinctively understand this, which is why when they run into one of your company’s assholes, they don’t blame the asshole for treating them poorly, they blame you. They blame the brand. The negative association they take home with them isn’t with that person (whose name and face they will forget inside of a week), but with you. Your assholes are faceless. All customers remember is the context: You. Your company. Your brand. The asshole just goes on being an asshole day after day, happy to have a job that pays him – even rewards him – for being a complete raging asshole all day long.

At the end of their shift, what you have to understand is that assholes in your employ don’t lose customers. You do. You spend your resources bringing them to the cash register, and every asshole on your staff spends all day making sure they never come back.

For this reason if none other, choose and evaluate your employees carefully.

The impact of just one asshole - amplified by social media

The real cost of letting assholes poison your brand from the inside.

If you are in business and have employees, let me be VERY clear about this: You are always only one asshole away from losing your best customer. The more assholes you have on staff, the faster and more often this will happen.

Not only that, but assholes tend to turn off, not only the one customer they happen to be unpleasant to, but everyone within earshot as well.

And today, ladies and gentlemen, “within earshot” isn’t just the ten rows on the plane or the ten people in the store waiting to check out. It is also potentially the hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users who might get a glimpse of that negative experience and be turned off in turn. Even millions, for that matter. (See previous 2 images, inspired by David Armano’s “Influence Ripples” theory (Edelman), below:)

David Armano's "Influence Ripples" (Edelman)

Let me give this a financial angle for you: Over the course of a year, one asshole on your staff, just one, can invalidate every dime your company has spent on advertising, marketing and PR. That’s the real liability of assholes. For small businesses, an asshole might only cost you $10,000 in wasted marketing, messaging or brand positioning. If you’re a bigger company, the same asshole (or a whole army of them, which is more likely) could cost you hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted marketing and brand management dollars.

That was part 1 of that equation. Part 2 is measured in lost revenue from disappointed customers taking their business elsewhere (your competitors thank you), lost revenue from all of the net new customers delighted customers would have recommended you to (but didn’t, because your assholes chased them away), and so on.

As a result, the higher the proportion of assholes to caring professionals a company has on staff, the more likely it is to have to spend more and more on marketing (with increasingly diminishing returns), while customer retention falls flat and even starts to dip into the red. Assholes aren’t just bad for customer service or your brand’s image. Assholes are bad for business. They are a counter-current to your hopes and dreams. They are the cancer that first weighs you down, then eventually makes your brand begin to fail, then wither, then die.

So let me repeat today’s lesson: The customer-facing organization with the least amount of assholes wins.

Don’t believe me? Ask Zappos. If you have never heard of Zappos, they sell shoes on the internet. That’s it. Well… LOTS of shoes. So many in fact that Amazon bought them for a pretty penny. Not only that, but Amazon decided not to make any major changes to Zappos’ leadership or culture. They left Zappos alone because the model works well just as it is. What’s Zappos’ secret? The customer experiences they create are stellar. Why are they stellar? Because Zappos pretty much has a “no asshole on staff” policy. Their hiring practices focus on this, and for good reason: They know that a happy customer is a loyal customer.

The simple truth (and we all know this) is that happy customers are good for business. In fact, no. They are GREAT for business: The happier a customer is, the more likely it is that they will come back, spend more, spend more often, and recommend you to all their friends. This is what you want. This is what makes businesses insanely successful. This. You don’t have to invent the iPad to be a huge success. Zappos just sells shoes on the internet. Virgin Airlines just flies people from airport to airport. Intercontinental Hotels (disclosure: client) are basically just… hotels. We’re not talking space walks or time travel, here. Your favorite restaurant, your favorite coffee shop, your favorite mechanic, none of them necessarily reinvented the wheel, right? They didn’t win a Nobel prize for revolutionizing their industries. No. What they did was this: They figured out that a happy customer is good for business, so they focused on that. They earned your trust, your respect and your loyalty. Want to know how they did that? By giving you theirs.

Let me let you in on a little secret: An asshole doesn’t think that way. An asshole doesn’t think about happy customers. He doesn’t care about happy customers. An asshole only thinks about himself: His own mood, his own frustrations, his own personal dramas, his own power trips. An asshole doesn’t give anyone their trust, respect or loyalty. Assholes just don’t think that way. And that is precisely the rub: No matter how well you pay them, you can’t make assholes give a shit. And that is bad for business. Very bad.

A fork in the road for every organization:

Do you know one way to make sure your customers are always happy? Only hire people who want your customers to be happy too. People who want to be helpful, who want to fix problems, who take pride in making someone’s day better instead of worse. People who genuinely want to see the company do well. People with pride and self respect and ambition beyond their own bank account or advancement. Do you think this is too hard? It isn’t. Just hire better.

Want to guess how to guarantee that your customers will not be happy? Hire assholes to take care of them. (It works every time.)

That’s your choice: Door A or Door B.

Door A: Hire super nice, helpful people and your business will soar.

Door B: Hire assholes, and your business will forever struggle to stay afloat.

Every time you run into one of your employees (or candidates) and he or she acts like an asshole, I want you to think about that. I want you to think about how much harder you want to have to work to make your business successful once they start pissing off every customer and client they come in contact with.

Taking a step back so you can see your entire business now, how many assholes do you really want on your payroll, and how many customers do you want to put them in front of? Pull out a piece of paper and write down a number. Do it. Write it down. How many assholes do you want on your payroll?

Next to that number, write down how many assholes you have on your payroll now. Go through your mental org chart, and start counting them in your head. When you’re done, write down how many assholes you know are in your company right now. If that number is higher than the first number you wrote down, you have some cleaning up to do.

In closing, let me leave you with the top 5 ways to make sure that your company starts becoming asshole-proof.

Top 5 ways of asshole-proofing your company:

1. Don’t hire assholes. They are bad for business, and they breed inside organizations like weeds.

2. Don’t promote assholes. The only thing worse than an asshole is an asshole with authority (including the authority to hire and promote assholes when you aren’t paying attention).

3. Give your current assholes the “opportunity” to go work for your fiercest competitor. Do this immediately. Make sure the door doesn’t hit them in the ass on their way out.

4. Once removed, replace your former assholes with nice, smart friendly people. (They’re out there and they want to work for you, but your assholes probably already turned them down. Go find them and invite them back.)

5. Reward all of your employees for NOT being assholes.

That just about takes care of it for today. Any questions?

Inspired (in a good way) by conversations with Julien Smith, Geoff Livingston, Keith BurtisChris Brogan, Kristi Colvin, Tyler Durden, Jeffrey Jacobs, Peter Shankman, among others.

*          *          *

And in case you haven’t picked one up yet (or your favorite client seems to be having trouble figuring out how to bring social media into their organization), you can pick up a fresh copy of Social Media ROI at fine book stores everywhere. If you have sworn off paper, you can also download it for iPad, Kindle, Nook or other e-formats at www.smroi.net.

Tip: Leave it sitting conspicuously on your desk when your boss does his rounds. It seems to be a good conversation starter.

(Click here for details, or to sample a free chapter.)

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Judging by the close to 200 pages of comments left by readers on my last post, I guess we’ve hit on a pretty hot topic this week: That of “social media certifications.” (Who knew?)

So okay, let’s talk about it.

1. Do we even need Social Media certification?

To be completely honest, I hadn’t really given the subject much thought until a few days ago. To me, it seemed far too early in the game, not just from an academic standpoint, but from a practical one: Even if we happened to need certifications or accreditation for social media practitioners, there are no standards as of yet. No agreed-upon best practices for every business function and specialty that touches Social Media. There are no PhDs in the subject. No twenty-year veterans to teach anyone the ropes. In other words, there exists today no mechanism through which a social media “practitioner” might find himself or herself truly “certified” by anyone in any truly legitimate fashion, like, say, a PR professional, attorney, nurse, or even a hairdresser are able to be certified.

Part of the problem at hand can be summed up in the following two questions:

A. A “social media certification” would certify you in what, exactly? Your ability to create a Facebook fan page? Basic blogging techniques? Twitter usage? Social media measurement? Optimizing a LinkedIn profile? I could go on and on. So the question again: Certified in what, exactly? Some kind of general “Social Media expertise?” What does that even mean? (We’ll get back to that in a bit.)

B. Who would offer these certifications/accreditation and how? Accredited universities? Business schools? Professional organizations? Guilds? Private certifying companies? State boards? Software vendors? Consulting firms? Anybody with the ability to sell an online webinar? And who would develop and teach these courses? Academics with no practical social media experience? Internet consultants? Superstar bloggers? Who decides?

Check out this video and we’ll get the conversation started afterward:

If the video doesn’t play or open for you, go here.

2. A training certificate and a certification are not the same thing.

So, first of all, it’s important to understand the distinction between a Social Media certification and Social Media training. While training is… well, just training, a certification tends to be more structured. Standards have to be applied. Testing administered. Certification is a little more complex than just sitting through training. More often than not, certification is synonymous with accreditation.

To keep things simple, I hopped over to wikipedia and find this about the word accreditation:

Accreditation is a process in which certification of competency, authority, or credibility is presented.

Organizations that issue credentials or certify third parties against official standards are themselves formally accredited by accreditation bodies (such as UKAS); hence they are sometimes known as “accredited certification bodies”.[2] The accreditation process ensures that their certification practices are acceptable, typically meaning that they are competent to test and certify third parties, behave ethically, and employ suitable quality assurance.

One example of accreditation is the accreditation of testing laboratories and certification specialists that are permitted to issue official certificates of compliance with established standards, such as physical, chemical, forensic, quality, and security standards.[3]

The whole purpose of certifications and accreditations isn’t for social media practitioners to learn how to be social media experts. (You aren’t going to learn that by sitting in a class.) Rather, accreditation/certification is a process by which you are tested against specific industry standard and either proven capable/qualified or not. It’s a weeding out process.

And kids, that process has nothing to do with self affirmation. What it has to do with is separating professionals (with experience that can be demonstrated through an accreditation process) from people with no experience, no skills, and lacking the necessary qualifications to take on a social media management job, no matter how many fans they have on Facebook.

In other words, if certification/accreditation truly is needed in the social media world, its purpose is solely to help companies with very little understanding of the space get some notion of whether a consultant or job applicant has a particular skill level required for the job.

If you want to distill this down to its simplest form, think of this simply as third-party testing: Having a reputable certifying body vouch for the fact that you actually know how to do something. Period. That’s it.

Note my emphasis on the word “reputable” because this is an important point we will revisit.

Note: A certification/accreditation is not a substitute for real experience, demonstrable results or professional references. But it can help validate a candidate’s skill-set, which isn’t all bad. And it can also help ensure that an individual has sat through x hours of best practices training and demonstrated an ability to apply their training to the experience they’ve already acquired in the real world.

3. Social Media Generalist Certifications vs. Professional Certifications: Rebooting the model.

Where things get a little iffy is with the structure of a social media certification. What exactly should it look like?

Currently, many “certifications” tend to look at the social media “profession” as a form of general mass of quasi-expertise ranging from how to manage a blog, start a facebook fan page and customize a twitter account to how to measure ROI and manage online communities. (Pretty big and dangerously amorphous range, from my perspective.)

What seems more logical is a slightly more operational approach to both social media training and social media certifications/accreditation: Instead of looking at Social Media as some sort of broad ranging field of study with an endless list of applications, look at Social Media as a skill-set that applies differently to each function within a business. In other words, give social media training and certs specific professional focus.

Consider that a Public Relations professional and a Customer Service professional will probably use social media (professionally) in radically different ways:

While the PR professional will probably want to be trained in online reputation management, digital brand management, online monitoring, digital crisis management and some assortment of publishing best practices, their customer service counterpart will want to be trained in online keyword monitoring, digital customer relationship management, crisis management and some light community management. Will there be some overlap? Sure. But what we are looking at here are very distinctive tracks, leading to very distinctive certifications. In other words, a social media certification for a PR professional shouldn’t look at all like a social media certification for a customer service professional, or an IT professional, or a business development professional.

The specific nature of the jobs dealing with social media requires both specific training, and specific certification/accreditation – both in specifically relevant sets of social media competencies.

No more over-arching cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all social media certifications, please. If we’re going to get serious about this (and we should), let’s get serious about it.

4. The difference between established, reputable certifying bodies and… well… the other kind.

Okay, so in light of the fact that a certification process could now be geared towards specific types of roles as opposed to some vague “social media specialist” notion, let’s look at certifying bodies that might (at some point) be able to offer these types of certification for professionals. Is it possible that perhaps an organization like PRSA might be better equipped to certify Public Relations professionals in something like digital public relations management, maybe? As opposed to, say, a newly assembled social media certifying body trying to adapt its general certification to the PR profession? Something to think about.

Something else to think about is the fact that a certification/accreditation from a reputable organization or institution is pretty crucial here. Organizations like PRSA, AMA, and others of their caliber can’t afford to do this poorly. They HAVE to take it seriously in order not to tarnish their reputations. In sharp contrast, the social media space is filled with opportunistic individuals who would have nothing to lose and a lot of potential cash to gain. All you need to start certifying unsuspecting marks is a website and a Paypal account. Just create a social media certifying body out of thin air, create a series of webinars about whatever you want, charge a registration fee, and you’re in business. These types of operations are rampant in the US already.

So the point I am trying to make is that it would be great if the AMA, PRSA and other established and respectable professional organizations that already offer certifications for their members started moving in this direction – if only to ensure a pattern of legitimacy and accountability in the social media certification/accreditation process.

We could go on and on and on with this, but this is a good place to pause and get some feedback from you guys. The comment section is officially open. Agree? Disagree? Somewhere in the middle? Let’s hear it.

Cheers.

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roby's war

photo by Roby DiGiovine

Solid piece by John Bell over at Digital Influence on the relatively new and ever evolving PR discipline of digital crisis management this week. This is pretty timely as I keep running into PR departments and firms just now starting to get comfortable with the notion:

It’s almost a joke amongst communication pros. The first step isn’t the YouTube video response. It isn’t evaluating whether the Twitter uproar is gaining velocity or dying out. It isn’t even pulling your comms team together for a crisis meeting internally to figure out what to do. The first step is, of course, preparing for the crisis before it ever happens.

Bingo. John goes on to list a simple 4-step plan to get your organization (or client’s organization) up and running:

1. Get a Listening post program in place immediately. If you are not listening to your public across the entire Social Web – blogs, Twitter, Social networks, opinion and review sites – then you are at risk.

2. Get the C-suite smart about social media as a communications phenomena and channel. Any significant crisis is going to bubble up to the CEO of President to make decisions. Sure, s/he will look for advice from the VP of Communications, legal teams and more but that CEO will want to make their own decision. If she doesn’t understand the power of the social Web, then s/he may make a bad decision.

John suggests creating a training session specifically designed for the top executives, setting up an RSS feed for them and reviewing it weekly (showing them how to add and remove feeds on their own won’t hurt), and inviting them to your regular Social Media training sessions and discussions.

Great advice. PR and Social Media shouldn’t be treated by executives as some distant dominion of legal and coms. Today more than ever, executives need to learn to take ownership of this particular skillset, particularly CEOs. Business leaders are expected to comment and intervene in times of crisis, and waiting until the proverbial fit hits the shan to get a C-suite exec ramped up on all of this is ill-advised, to say the least. Start a program now, make it digestible and convenient, and plan to help your C-suite’s practical grow over time. This doesn’t stop with introductions and cursory overviews. This is monthly training for the rest of their tenure.

Here’s more:

3. Build a list of likely scenarios. Chances are your communications team already does this. What if our product or service fails and injures people? What if an executive is caught doing something shady? What if a video portraying some terrible act in our stores is published to YouTube? What if a growing collection of customer bloggers start talking about a customer service-nightmare together? What if detractors organize online and begin to use social media to attack you or your client? You can’t imagine every scenario, but if you identify the most obvious ones including the platforms online where they could manifest you can start to imagine the responses necessary.

4. Create your digital crisis management procedures and integrate into your larger playbook. Two simple ideas here: A) Plan your use of social media to respond and B) make sure you integrate with your other means of response (e.g. traditional media, outreach to stakeholders, internal communications).

The idea being that having an actual plan, having run your department through crisis response drills even, and establishing a procedural framework will help you respond faster and better than not having a solid plan at all. Common sense? Sure! But how many companies have well-thought-out, current crisis response plans in place today?  Quick: Whose responsibility is it to manage your social media channels? Do you know who the influential bloggers are in your industry? Which ones can you reach out to for help and which ones will turn on you? How will you respond to conversations and questions on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere? Who does what and how?

This isn’t something John suggests in his article, but consider running your communications team and your organization through drills. You know, like fire drills. Create a mock crisis scenario and test your company’s response to it via traditional media, social web, internal communications, HR, IT, customer service, etc. Observe, find out what works and what doesn’t, note how disruptive (if at all) responding to a crisis is to the organization (as this is good to know) and conduct a post exercise debrief to help everyone absorb all of the lessons learned. Then make the necessary changes and repeat until you are satisfied that your crisis management procedure is tip-top.

Drafting a document that clearly outlines crisis management procedures for your organization – defining roles, steps to be taken, channels, tactics, timelines, etc. – will be extremely helpful in the event of a real emergency. Best practices in this area may warrant recruiting representatives of all departments and forming a crisis response committe that meets regularly to review crisis response planning, division of roles, internal training, and interdepartmental collaboration. (Companies that place the full burden of crisis management – digital or otherwise – on their PR departments usually find out pretty quickly that a PR department alone cannot handle most crises on its own. Companies that plan for crises, however, rarely have to worry about them when they do occur.

Why is this relevant to Brands? Because some day, your taco or soft drink might make someone sick. Your car may have faulty wiring that will cause injuries and deaths. Your delicious nougat chocolate bar or seasoned potato chips might cause unexpected allergic reactions in children. Your dog food will kill thousands of family pets. Your laptop batteries will explode and start house fires. Your yard chairs will collapse without warning. Your medication will turn out to cause severe internal tissue damage when taken with alcohol. Your product will become the principal target of environmentalists. Your CFO will be arrested in Argentina with tens of millions of your investors’ dollars. Your principal supplier will be featured on 60 Minutes for operating illegal sweat shops in thirteen countries.

The impact of these types of situations on a brand, your brand, can be severe. Not having a plan in place (and a solid plan at that) puts you in a terribly vulnerable position, and could sink even the most respected company’s image. (Think back to Tylenol scare in the 80’s, Nike’s sweat shop allegations in the 90’s, and Taco Bell’s decision to remove certain food items from their menu when e-coli and salmonella outbreaks in the US threatened to undermine the public’s faith in their food’s safety.) So take another look at these four steps, and put together a crisis response plan that involves digital media and the social web. The benefits may not be immediate, but someday, you will be glad you took the time to do it.

For John’s full article, go here.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 🙂

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nov082001gh

I was chatting with a friend about budget-conscious brand revitalization strategies, the importance of creating employee-friendly corporate cultures and how to drive more passionate employee engagement today, and I was suddenly reminded of something John Moore – over at Brand Autopsy – wrote on his blog back in 2007:

“Astonish employees and they will, in turn, astonish customers.”

Simple enough, right?

Yet so rare.

Most companies have fallen into a little bit of a rut when it comes to doing something special for their employees, except around Christmas time or when they’ve had a decent quarter. And even then, we are talking about a $25 gift certificate to The Home Depot or your choice of a company pen, T-shirt or flashlight. Nice, but not exactly stunning.

The term John used is “astonish,” which implies a little more effort and attention than just giving your employees an empty token of “gratitude” that is as bland as it is… (well, let’s say it) kind of insulting.

Note to all department managers: If you’re going to reward your staff with T-shirts, make them the types of T-shirts that you want your employees to actually get excited about. (Hire a hot local graphic designer to design something unique or fun or cool . It’s cheaper than you think, and the impact will be pretty phenomenal.)

But enough about T-shirts. We’re talking about “astonishing” your employees – not merely giving them a perfunctory nod, which is exactly what the folks at Macintosh did a while back when they surprised all of their US employees with a brand new iPhone.

In John’s words:

“Giving every full-time employee a $600 (retail value) iPhone is an astonishing act that will only help to feed the already vibrant evangelical corporate culture within Apple. (…)At Starbucks, we would also spend marketing money on employees. We knew if we could get Baristas jazzed, they would get customers jazzed.”

Think back to an experience you’ve had recently (or not so recently) when you walked into a store or dealt with someone who was absolutely in love with either their job or the company they worked for. How was your perception of that company affected by their enthusiasm? (How likely were you after that experience to a) recommend that business to friends and peers, and b) do business with that company again?)

Now think back to your last experience with a bored, apathetic grocery store cashier, or with an unqualified telephone customer service rep, or with a passive-aggressive waitress who REALLY needs a vacation. How different might your perception of that company be? How likely is it that you will make that business your first choice? How likely is it that you will speak well of this business and recommend it to friends?

All things being equal: Pricepoint, quality of the work or food or product, product performance, cool packaging, etc. – the quality of the experience surrounding human touch-points becomes primordial.

Two average grocery stores can have a radically different image or reputation based SOLELY on the way their employees behave. The same is true with any business in which people (employees) interact with other people (customers): Restaurants, banks, retail establishments, medical offices, auto mechanics shops, etc.

Employee behavior can be radically impacted by their managers’ positive or negative treatment.

Therefore, customer experience can be radically impacted by the way a company treats its employees:

Average treatment of employees = average customer experience.

Good treatment of employees = good customer experience.

Great treatment of employees = great customer experience.

… And so on.

So rather than tossing the occasional cheapo bone to your employees to maintain morale (or whatever,) start thinking of ways that you might make them feel special. Think of ways of rewarding them, or of saying “thank you,” or making them feel truly appreciated that kind of… well, stand out. Get them jazzed about working for you. Make them feel proud and excited and vibrant.

The point here isn’t to bribe them or buy their loyalty with expensive gifts. The point is to show genuine, profound, unmistakable appreciation for what they do and for the importance of their daily contribution. If you don’t have a budget for something like this yet, get creative. Give them Friday off, out of the blue. Give them an extra vacation day, on the house. Mail them a thank you card with a real message inside, not just some cheesy drugstore quotation. Offer to introduce them to people they don’t normally have access to. Bring them into projects they aren’t senior enough to have a voice in.

Though fancy electronics like iPods, Zunes, Flip cameras and the likes usually do the trick as well.

This isn’t “team building,” mind you. This is just saying thanks. This is just giving them a hug and a pat on the shoulder, looking them in the eye and saying “We’re really glad you’re here.” And meaning it.

Every once and again, you have to stop what you’re doing, put off fighting your daily little fires, and remember to make your employees feel that they aren’t just easily replaced pawns. (And if you’re hiring intelligently, they are most definitely not easily replaceable pawns.)

Make your employees realize that you truly understand their value to the success of the brand they help shape in the public’s eye every single day.

The way you treat your employees is the way your customers will be treated.

Perhaps this should be the very first rule of management.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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giant snowball, by olivier blanchard 2009

Today’s bit of Marketing, Customer Experience, Design & Product Development advice comes from Kathy Sierra‘s awesome old blog:

“Your job is to anticipate… To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it – to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.”

Walter Murch

iPod wasn’t designed by users. It was designed for users. No… wait… it was designed to be loved by users.

This seems really basic and simple, right? Just plain old common sense… Yet how many companies do it? Very few. So until every single company figures this out, it is worth repeating, even if it seems like a no-brainer.

If your job deals with customer experience design, (product, web, retail, customer service, touchpoint ideation, advertising, etc.) print either the sentence that came just before this paragraph or Walter Murch’s bit of wisdom, and pin it to your office wall. Either one can (and probably should) become your new mantra.

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engagement by the brandbuilder

Above and below: Some revamped slides from Monday’s presentation. These two companion messages (Engagement and P2P) seem to have resonated with the audience, so I thought I would elaborate on that topic a little.

First: Should companies continue to launch and drive  marketing, advertising, promotional and other types of business development and awareness campaigns?

Yes. Absolutely. No question.

Traditional media “push” strategies and tactics, when developed by the right people and used properly, can be extremely effective. I am a big fan of great campaigns, so keep creating GREAT push campaigns.

But “engagement” – and by that I mean customer engagement (even if those customers are not technically customers yet) – is not a campaign. It isn’t even a strategy. It is a commitment to a being the kind of business that people will want to be a part of and whose products and community people will want to share with friends and family. The kind of business that people  will naturally want to support proactively for years and years.

What we are talking about here has its basis in culture. Call it company culture, corporate culture, management culture… it doesn’t matter. The point is that if your company still refers to itself as a B2B (biz to biz) or a B2C (biz to consumer) company, you are missing the boat. Thin about every great experience you’ve had with a business: Fantastic service at a hotel – where the folks at the desk (and the rest of the staff) makes a point to remember your name. Think of the same kind of service at a restaurant or retail outlet. Think about how you feel about a physician with fantastic bedside vs. a physician who acts like spending any time with you is the chore from hell. Now ask yourself which you would rather be: The business that makes people WANT to come back and recommend you to their friends, or the business that will either fail to be memorable – or worse, give people a reason to find a better option than you next time.

It doesn’t matter if you are a hair salon, car rental company, commercial lender, real estate agent, architectural firm, coffee shop or IT distribution company: Create great experiences based on building relationships with your customers (and your community) and your brand will quickly find itself on the rise.

Fail to do so, and your situation will NEVER improve. No matter how much you lower your prices, no matter how much money you spend on advertising, public relations, call campaigns and promotional incentives, you will still be struggling to get past 5% annual growth (once the economy recovers, that is).

You must learn to become a P2P (people to people) company. Period. There is no other option for you. Not anymore.

Starting with the way you treat your employees – from the way in which you hire, train, mentor and manage them and the words you choose to use around the office (do you refer to your team members as “headcount”?), to the type of relationship you build with the people you do business with.

You are a P2P company, by the brandbuilder

Have a great Weekend, everyone. 😉

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Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Deconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products, business improvements, and creative work.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Chew on that. Have a great Friday. 😉

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Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

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That the always brilliant David Armano recently wrote yet another thought provoking post on his Logic + Emotion blog isn’t exactly front page news. He has a habit of doing so pretty much weekly… but what is particularly cool about this post is the fact that one of his graphic looks identical to a community engagement model I sketched out almost a year ago for some colleagues (who, back then, looked at me like I was speaking Chinese).

Check this out:

The first graphic shows a typical brand-as-a-broadcaster model, in which a company essentially fashions a messaging strategy and then uses various channels to broadcast it down to its buckets of potential customers and existing users (market segments or the more cynically named demos).

Note how the second graphic takes a much more organic, communal, non-directional approach to customer/user community engagement. In this model, the brand isn’t an external entity connect with individuals and communities through rigid vertical channels. In this model, the brand exists in conjunction with the communities. It’s hard to see where the brand ends and the communities begin. Marketing communications cease to exist as a product to be distributed, and become instead a living, breathing dialogue. This is exactly the model of community engagement that I sketched out, right down to the influencer/friends tags (though Dave’s version is much prettier than my improvised chicken-scratch). This is the community engagement model for brands whose products are important enough to scale in this way AND create users so passionate that they would give up valuable time to be active in these communities. Examples: World of Warcraft, Harley Davidson, the Microsoft Partner Community, Fiskateers, Comicon, Star Trek, BMW, WOMMA and the New York Yankees, for starters.

Note: Best in class companies typically manage to juggle both models simultaneously. Ideally, you should strive towards that balance as well.

Good to see Dave Armano come to the same conclusions I have. (I feel 100% validated right now, and I like it.)

Nb: Community engagement and brand building aside, it isn’t every day that I run into a graphic that is so precisely like mine that it makes my jaw drop. If we were talking about prehistoric cave paintings instead of marketing sketches, anthropologists would have a serious mystery on their hands. But this being the internet age, I’ll just chalk it up to Dave and I being in synch about a topic we both write (and sketch) about a lot. Still, I think it’s pretty cool that without having ever met, Dave and I have managed to tap into the exact same visual interpretation of two different concepts born of a single root idea.

Check out Dave’s otherwise not-weird-at-all post here.

Have a great, completely normal Tuesday!

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Finally getting caught up on my blogroll reading, and found this gem of an interview with Tom Fishburne on Church of The Customer. Tom recently published “This One Time At Brand Camp,” and Ben McConnell had a few great questions for him about the state of the marketing world today. Here are some choice cuts from Ben’s post:

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in being a brand manager today?

Remarkable thinking. Then shepherding that thinking through the organizational gates.  Too often the edges of a great idea get sanded, eventually launching as a pale shadow of the original idea.

I love this quote from Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad: “Advertising is a tax you pay for unremarkable thinking.”

Q: What’s the biggest trap most brand managers stupidly fall into?

The mass market trap. Chasing market size. Trying to appeal to everyone and avoiding alienating anyone. By trying to appeal to everyone, no one gets excited.

In my past brand lives, we joked that our target was “a woman, age 25–39, with a pulse.”  Instead, if you cater to a passionate and vocal niche, you become more meaningful. Consumer loyalty follows. Niche marketing isn’t just for small brands.  General Mills does a great job of training marketers to find and truly understand your niche’s brand champions. You create your products and marketing just for them.  When you do, much of the mass market will follow, too.

Q: How serious is the disconnect when brand managers work 12-16 months on product then, because of the nature of the employment game, move on to a new one? How can you build customer loyalty with such a short timeframe?

It’s like that game of telephone we all played in kindergarten.  A departing brand manager whispers their insights and brand plan to the replacement, much of which gets lost in the transition.  Often the replacement brand manager starts from scratch with research and navel-gazing.  As soon as the replacement brand manager gets a feel for the job, they move on, and the telephone game continues.

Q: Who typically has the more insanely inflated ego: marketers or professional wrestlers?

Most of the marketers I’ve worked with have been down-to-earth. That’s why I think ego inflation comes from hierarchy.

For instance, when I was at General Mills, all of the executives worked in a separate wing that even had its own parking garage we called the Bat Cave (where all the Jaguars went to park).  They had a different dress code in the executive wing and there was very little mixing.  The hierarchy was reinforced at every turn.  As you progressed in marketing, you moved from a cubicle to something called an “officle” to eventually an office.  You could tell the seniority of someone with an office by counting the number of ceiling tiles. I remember an official memo that stated that marketers above a certain level were entitled to leather Filofax binders. Everyone else received pleather. I swear I’m not making this up.

All of this resulted in a medical condition I call Title-itis, where it was assumed that the more senior the marketer, the better their ideas.  It’s tempting to start breathing your own exhaust in an environment like that.

Q: Is branding dead and if so, where do we bury the body?

I don’t think branding is extinct. It’s evolved. I used the evolution metaphor to play with a couple stereotypes in the noble profession of marketing.

Doctors have Hippocrates. Lawyers have Atticus Finch. Ask most consumers what archetypes there are for marketers and the snakeoil salesman comes to mind. That’s because much of the history of marketing and branding has been about concocting a story consumers wanted to hear, even if the story was a wee bit phony. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, famously quipped: “In our factories, we make cosmetics. In the store, we sell hope.”

Nowadays, consumers are often in the marketer’s seat.  Consumers have always been the best source for what your brand means.  The power used to be with the marketer to sculpt and shape that message.  The question to ask now is no longer how your consumers play back the message you told them.  It’s what message are they spreading to others.

The key is to tell an authentic brand story (but careful that you don’t overdo that like the authenticity hawker in the cartoon). Then find ways to help your consumers advocate on your behalf.

Instant fan. Just add water and stir.

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Found on Francois Gossieaux’ Emergence Marketing blog today:

Most breakthrough innovations happen at the edges or at the intersections of various disciplines.

Yep. At least half of that statement goes hand in hand with the cross-pollination I have talked about in previous posts and presentations. Cross-pollination usually happens when two worker bees with completely different backgrounds and experiences meet, learn from each other, and start applying the new insights they have learned from each other to improve the way they work. Cross pollination doesn’t just introduce new ideas and methodologies into otherwise rigid systems, they transform them. In this transformation is the catalyst of any organization’s evolution.

Take this simple process as an example:

Same methodology + same methodology + same methodology + same methodology = same methodology.

This type of closed model creates no opportunity for innovation. Companies who get stuck in this type of monotheistic mentality remain the same year after year. The world around them changes, evolves, moves on, but they trudge along. Their occasional innovation play involves acquiring smaller companies with once innovative products, but their timing usually misses the mark. Symptoms: Eroding market share, eroding margins, difficulty in recruiting and retaining top talent, and growth by acquisitions rather than market penetration. Nothing wrong with that model, but it just isn’t the best way to go about building a truly solid brand in any industry.

The alternative process looks more like this:

Same methodology + new methodology + infusion of cross-cultural/interdisciplinary insights = transformation + evolution.

Bring a design engineer from the automotive industry and ask him to work with a mobile phone designer and watch what happens to mobile phone designs within six months. Also watch what happens to dashboard designs when the automotive designer goes back to his car factory.

Pair a brand planner from the fashion world and a marketing honcho from the IT world (yes, they do exist) and watch how their cross-pollination of ideas and insights transforms the way they approach their work.

Cross-pollination gets companies and individuals out of their routines. It expands their horizons. It opens new doors, new possibilities, new directions for companies willing to embrace proactive change – the kind of change that yields results, not only on Wall Street, but also in the hearts and minds of the people who will either embrace their brands’ fresh new energy, or eventually reject their inability to remain relevant in an increasingly commoditized and fickle world.

I have heard it said that going through the same motions over and over again and expecting a different result every time (or every quarter, as it were) is the definition of madness. Fair enough. The question that begs asking then is: How is this different from companies with repetitive strategy syndrome expecting improvements in market share, revenue growth, brand relevance and customer loyalty?

Most breakthrough innovations happen at the edges or at the intersections of various disciplines.

Fact: People outside of your industry have the solution to the problem you can’t figure out how to fix.

Fact: You have the solution to the problem that someone in a completely different industry is struggling with.

Fact: Without cross-pollination of some sort, neither problem is likely to be solved anytime soon, especially not by you.

Without cross-pollination of ideas, innovation takes longer, or doesn’t happen at all. Innovation isn’t about inventing the wheel out of divine inspiration; innovation is about finding the principle of the wheel outside of your normal environment, and applying the insight gained from this somewhat random experience to addressing the problem at hand.

Neither cross-pollination of ideas nor innovation ever happen in a vacuum. Companies which actively foster cultures of innovation will always see tremendous growth. Companies which instead favor cultures of assimilation will continue to churn and puff and trudge along until their bloated carcasses are pushed out of the way by yesterday’s “little guys.” It’s just the way of the world. Evolution is inevitable. Evolution doesn’t care how relevant you were yesterday. Evolution happens because some entities adapt to change while others prefer to exist in a state of denial, thinking that what has worked for the last ten, twenty or thirty years will continue to work ten years down the road.

Jack Spade once said “Never believe anything you have done is successful.” Solid advice if you ask me.

Inject some cultural diversity into your workforce: Recruit creatively, across various disciplines and industries. Internally, create multi-discipline work groups to work on special projects or design concepts. Revamp your customer service. Question the effectiveness of your packaging or messaging or web design. Engage with your customers. Embrace and foster their communities. Create better means of listening to what they needs are, and find renewed purpose in delivering on their requests. Leverage diversity in every layer of your organization to do this. Whatever needs to be changed, change, especially if that change is difficult. Rip complacency and old habits to shreds, and upgrade every aspect of whatever methodology or system you have pounded into a stalled routine over the course of the last five to ten years.

“Change the world or go home” starts with you and your organization.

😉

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Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. 😉

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

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