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Archive for the ‘customer experience’ Category

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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SMC Greenville, Olivier Blanchard

Hey look, it’s me! And a fully stocked bar! (Thanks to Jim O’Donnell for the awesome photo.) More photos from Richard Peck here and here. Awesome.

So… A quick recap: This presentation took place at Greenville, SC’s 2nd monthly Social Media Club meeting early Monday morning.  About 150 people from the Greenville-Anderson-Spartanburg area showed up to enjoy a great breakfast provided by our host (Soby’s Restaurant/Table 301) and hear me talk a little bit about what social media is and isn’t. (Probably more the breakfast, but that’s okay.)

I will be posting the presentation soon, but for now, here are some of the main takeways fom my little show:

It is easy to get bogged down with tools and platforms and technologies when it comes to Social Media. Relax and take a big step back: All we are really talking about here is people talking with people. Remember that.

If we dig a little deeper, we don’t have to go far to see that people are using Social Media to (re)connect with one another, create communities on their own terms, and share what they are passionate about.

Social Media as we define them today may be new, but people have been connecting, creating communities and sharing their interests for thousands of years. We are deeply social creatures. We love to share experiences – food, entertainment, art, stories, etc.

But the complexity of our lives have forced us to disconnect from one another. Greater distances separate us. Our busy schedules make it difficult for us to connect with each other regularly through traditional means.

But we NEED human interactions. We crave them.

Social media help us reconnect in spite of our busy lives.

The relationships people want are meaningful. They are based on affection and trust, from parents at an early age to friends and extended family as we grow into adulthood, and eventually outward still to our community.

Compare these meaningful relationships with the relationship you have with an outsourced cstomer service rep or a disengaged salesperson. Sharp contrast, right? Question: Can meaningful relationships be created through outsourced labor?

Question: If – as a business – you understand the importance/value of creating meaningful relationships with your customers, why shove your customers away to call centers and disengaged employees? How does that work?

What if you could turn angry customers into your greatest advocates? What if you made it your mission?

What if you invited these customers to call you back regularly to let you know how things are going?  (Start a conversation with them. Engage with them. Foster a relationship. Twitter is good for that.)

As a company, ask yourself what role you play in your customers’ lives today:Are you their partner in crime (in a good way) or are you just selling them stuff?

Communities: Knowing where we belong is as important as knowing how we belong.

Individuals are hard to hear. Communities are much louder.

People want their opinions to matter. They want to be heard. When companies refuse to listen, they build walls between themselves and the communities around them.

Not listening (to your customers) is expensive. It makes you ignorant and isolated.

How can you know what people are saying about you outside your walls if you aren’t out there listening?

How are you monitoring you reputation?

Listening makes you relevant.

Listening makes you part of a community. (So listen!)

Not Listening = Disconnected. Listening = feedback, insight and metrics (use tools like Radian6).

As people grow increasingly connected (via social media), companies are losing their ability to influence behaviors via traditional means and media channels.

The era of the monologue is dead.

In the US alone, people are exposed to 500-3000 commercial messages per day. PER DAY!!!

And the ROI of the most obvious advertising channel (TV) is estimated to be 1-4%. (Not exactly stellar.)

Meanwhile, recommendations by family members, loved ones and peers are extremely sticky. People turn to people they trust to help them discover products and make purchasing decisions. In other words:

People are increasingly tuning companies out, and tuning in to each other instead.

Traditional Media alone increasingly expensive and less and less effective. Social media can complement traditional media: Add relevance, authenticity and stickiness.

Q: What is the most important thing a business can do for itself? A: Create happy, loyal customers.

Engagement is not a campaign.

This conversation is not about Social Media adoption. It is about transforming the way you think about your business: You are not a B2B or a B2C company. You are a P2P company (people to people).

You must create ways to enhance or improve your customers’ experience in a way that matters. One way to put this into action is to ask yourself how do I get my customers to want to recommend us to their mother or child or best friend?

Ask yourself: How would you do business if your CEO suddenly decided that you could no longer advertise? What would you do? How would you engage with your customers?

More notes from the presentation tomorrow. 😉

You can also follow some of the Twitter threads at #smcgville and #smcgreenville.

smc-greenville

Thanks again to SMC Greenville for having asked me to speak at their event this month. It was truly an honor.

I want to send out a very special thanks to Richard Peck, Table 301 and the awesome staff of Soby’s restaurant for being such gracious hosts.

Kind thanks also to Business Black Box for covering the event with their video crew.

And most of all, HUGE THANKS to everyone who got up at the crack of way too early on a Monday to come listen to me speak. I was truly overwhelmed by the interest, kindness and enthusiasm you all brought with you. Pretty unreal. I’m glad to have met even more incredible folks this week, as well as seeing so many familiar faces. Orange Coat’s Bear Gautsch was there (did I also see Jimmy C?), Brains on Fire’s Robbin Phillips, Geno Church and Spike Jones were there along with Bounce’s John McDermott… Bobby Rettew, Doug Cone, Jon Evans, Amy Wood, Trey Pennington of course… And I hear that someone even drove all the way from Columbia! (Whomever you are, shoot me a note. I definitely want to meet you next time you’re in Greenville.) The list is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long for me to go on, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for coming, everyone. 🙂

What a great way to start the week!

Greenville Social Media Club - Olivier Blanchardphoto by Doug Cone (@nullvariable)

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pho4me-desert

The story of your relationship with your customers should read like what’s going on in Pho’s photo (above):

You found each other in the wilderness.

You connected in some way.

You liked where things went from there.

You made music together.

You had a great time.

You became part of each other’s worlds.

If you and your customers aren’t dancing, if you aren’t making music together, if you aren’t truly part of each other’s worlds, you should probably be asking yourself why.

Fact: You may be selling to customers, but you are still not connecting with people.

Reinvent the way you do business.

Get back to basics.

Get back to handshakes, smiles and conversations.

Get back to knowing your customers, not just knowing about them.

If your business isn’t touching people’s lives in a meaningful, memorable, deeply human way, your resources are being wasted on ineffective “business processes” – and the only thing you are developing is your own expensive demise.

Banks. Hospitals. Grocery stores. Software companies. Equipment manufacturers. Airlines. Retail spaces. Taxi cabs. Wireless providers. Repair shops. Restaurants. Hotels. PR firms. Universities. Manufacturers. Distributors. It doesn’t matter what industry or type of business you are. This applies to each and every one of you.

Tear down the walls, walk out into the world, and dance.

That is all. 😉

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fun in Publix

Sometimes, the secret to crafting memorable customer experiences is simply to build environments that allow customers to create their own positive experiences.

There are no neutral experiences: Only great ones… and the rest.

What kinds of experiences are you crafting these days?

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mardis-gras-08

Okay, so… you need to go here and read this.

If what Guy writes is news to you, welcome to a whole new world of happy customers and business bliss. Really.

If what Guy writes describes what you’re already doing, then you are on the right track.

Either way, your business will be a whole lot better off in 2009 if you follow those simple recommendations.

🙂

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twitter-reality

It hadn’t occurred to me until late last week, but most major brands still haven’t figured out that Twitter is the fastest social media network (dare I say channel) in existence today. Not LinkedIn, not Facebook, not their own website or corporate blog, not anything else: Twitter is it. The conversations may start or end on blogs (corporate or not), but the conversations themselves, the dialogues, the real connections happen in real time on Twitter – which is to say that more and more of the discovery, recommendations and value-building that drive incremental transactions (basis points of growth for you MBAs out there) are taking place on Twitter.

Why are these conversations important? Why should brand managers care? Because the folks currently using twitter – the folks currently recruiting the next 100 million users – are the connectors, influencers and mavens of the social media world. They don’t have to be Social media superstars like Scoble, Brogan, Kawasaki or Lemeur. They don’t have to be high profile brand spokespersons like Ford’s Scott Monty. This is the long tail, we’re talking about. This is grassroots. The same grassroots web of networks that Barack Obama’s campaign leveraged to win the 2008 US Presidential election. And that is precisely the importance of the long tail: It’s about networks and relationships. It’s about dialog and trust. The long tail is simply the digital vehicle for word-of-mouth, the stickiest limb of the marketing world, where transactions are really born. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Twitter is quickly becoming the most effective long tail platform in history. More so than Facebook. More so than any other single digital Social Media tool.

To put the importance and effectiveness of Twitter in perspective for you, take a step back and stop thinking about it as an internet tool. In other words, stop thinking of Twitter as something people interface with on their laptops and PCs. Twitter is on people’s mobile devices as well. That’s right: The conversations and interactions continue outside of the office. They take place at the mall, in the car, at the coffee shop, on the sidewalk and at parties. Twitter isn’t just on a desk, it’s literally in people’s hands. 24/7/365.

The billboard, folks, is now in people’s pockets, on their belt, in their purse, and it gets to ask them questions and make suggestions all day long.

Yet, there still seems to be some discussion as to whether or not “brands” should start using Twitter at all.

Fascinating.

I find the question as elementary as “should soldiers be taught how to fire a rifle?” or “should lifeguards be required to be good swimmers?”

Read Mark Drapeau’s Do Brands belong on Twitter? and Jeremiah Owyang’s Why Brands Are Unsuccessful on Twitter.

The answer to Mark’s question is “of course.” The answer to Jeremiah’s rhetorical question is “because most brands aren’t even there yet,” although he seems to cover that quite well in his own post.

The thing is, some brand have embraced the Twitter “experiment” and are doing quite well. Several of them are listed below, and by clicking on their name, you will get a chance to see exactly how they are leveraging the tool. Will some make mistakes? Maybe. Probably. But that’s okay. Live and learn. At least, they are engaging us, their public, which has a dual effect: Broadening their reach, and deepening their connection with us – the consumers. As a Twitter user, just knowing that The North Face has a genuine Twitter presence makes the brand more appealing to me. Somehow, it seems to fit in with my lifestyle a little better than before, when I saw it simply as another drop in the brand name ocean. Same with Jet Blue. Same with Whole Foods. Same with Starbucks.

Locally, Liquid Highway has managed to market itself so well to Twitter users that they in turn used their influence to give their business a hefty boost outside of the twittersphere. The cost of recruiting the same amount of net new customers and then retaining them somehow through traditional media marketing and promotions would have been hefty and probably short in returns. Their Twitter strategy achieved in weeks and for almost no cost at all what a traditional media strategy would have taken months and tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps with less success.

Fact: Brands that tweet – large or small – have an advantage over brands that don’t. Period.

Even without the Twitter kinship element I just mentioned (The whole North Face thing), the very act of using Twitter as a channel to inform the public as to press releases, events, news stories and promotions would be better than not being there at all. Social media purists may shake their fists at CNN and WSJ for broadcasting rather than engaging, but in the end, Twitter can be used in a variety of ways. Not every brand needs to generate buzz of “engage”. I wish it were so, and in an ideal world, yes, all brands should strive to seek a deeper connection with their audience, but that isn’t always the priority.

In light of this basic realization, simply standing on the sidelines of a channel of Twitter’s potential magnitude without at least testing its waters seems completely absurd, especially when all data points to the fact that traditional advertising channels are losing their effectiveness.

And especially as marketing budgets are getting serious buzz cuts. (No pun intended.)

Twitter, along with other key social media platforms and channels, thus makes sense. Yet here we are, with only a small fraction of major brands actually getting involved. Curious. To illustrate the state of things, I have put together a quick list of some of the most obvious brands I could think of and went on Twitter to see if they were there. The results may surprise you. This is what I found:

Major Brands which have picked up on the importance of a) Twitter and/or b) customer engagement as a whole:

A sampling of major brands with a presence on Twitter:

Whole Foods

Starbucks

The North Face

IKEA (Not actually an IKEA-managed account. Evidently, this little project is 100% fan-created. Even more impressive on so many levels!)

Jet Blue

The Wall Street Journal

Trader Joe’s

Ford (Ironically, Ford is also in the highjacked category. Look for the “*”)

Correction: Ford’s Scott Monty explains how Ford is getting into the Twittersphere a little more formally in the comment section.

Triathlete Magazine

Fast Company

CNN

Dunkin Donuts

Zappos

The Home Depot

Kodak (Just added. @Kodak looks like it is occupied by a squatter but @kodakCB is live and rocking it. Also browse the comments section for more Kodak execs’ Twitter info. Thanks, Jenny!)

Southwest Airlines (Just added.)

WOMMA (also just added.)

Hertz (also just added.) This is not Hertz’ main brand connector though, but its new ‘Connect’ service. Pretty cool concept.

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team in the US and in Australia, for starters.

Baskin Robbins (late add as well.)

GM Trucks (Brand new. Still has that new truck smell.)

Molson (the beer) has a whole team of Tweets: @Moffat, @MolsonFerg, @toniahammer, @molsonbryan.

These are the companies that get it. They tend to fall into two categories: The first (Whole Foods, IKEA, Jet Blue) actually engage with their followers/customers/fans on a personal level. These companies use Twitter as a true social platform. They talk, their audience listens. The audience talks, they listen. It’s nice and it works.. The second category (CNN and WSJ) use Twitter purely as a broadcast channel. While purists will frown at broadcast strategies being used in social media, it works for these types of outlets. (One more channel is one more channel.) What might get missed via overflowing RSS readers might not via an active channel like Twitter.)

Take some time to monitor the flow of conversations happening at The North Face, Ikea and Jet Blue. This is the model most companies should hope to adopt.

A very small sampling of major brands with a footprint on Twitter but not much activity:

Harley Davidson

Apple’s iPhone

GU

Air Canada (just added)

West Jet (just added)

Zellers (just added)

At least, some brands appear to see the value of claiming their Twitter footprint, even if they haven’t quite figured out what to do with Twitter yet. Not great, but still way ahead of the curve. You have to start somewhere.

Major Brands which, strangely, have yet to hop on the Twitter Train:

And now, the really scary part of this post. Below is a sampling of major brands with no active presence on twitter (or at least none that I could find as of Dec 14, 2008):

Coca Cola

Pepsi

NBC

Colgate

Chevrolet

Gatorade

Visa

Mastercard

Sears

3M

Kodak (See the ‘good’ list above for Kodak’s real Twitter info.)

Home Depot
Update: My bad – The Home Depot actually has a presence on Twitter. Look for them in the “good section of this post (above). 😉

Mitsubishi

Toyota

Audi

Microsoft (though some teams dohave twitter accounts – see “good” group above)

Lysol

Windex (Come on!!! No Windex? Didn’t you guys see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”)

Verizon

Jeep

Kenneth Cole

Adidas

Budweiser

Jiffy Lube

Crocs

Land-Rover

How many millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on marketing and advertising, on pull and push strategies, on websites and microsites and blogs, on promotions and coupons and direct marketing, on sports sponsorships, on the brightest and the best marketing minds money can buy, only to completely ignore Twitter? Really? What happened to customer engagement? What happened to connecting with your audience? What happened to Word of Mouth? What happened to common sense? You mean to tell me that no one at any of these companies thought it would be wise to at least take a look at Twitter? To – perhaps at the very least – claim their brand footprint and establish an official presence, if only to make sure that no one else will usurp their brand?

Speaking of which, below is a sampling of major brands whose Twitter footprints have already been hijacked (voluntarily or not) by individuals or companies which have nothing to do with them. This is a total and utter brand management FAIL. Disney, instead hiring an online community manager tasked with creating a Twitter presence for fans of its parks, cruises and other properties allowed an enterprising young lady by the name of Cheri Thomas to use the Twitter handle @disney to promote her website: cheridreams.com. (Great for Cheri, but not so great for the entertainment giant.) How things like this happen is beyond me. Some of the examples on this list are more entertaining than others:

Disney

Nike

Snickers

Sharpie

Levi’s

Crayola

Tropicana

Nivea

Hummer

Ford* (http://www.twitter.com/ford is obviously not Ford. Curious since @ScottMonty, head of Ford Social Media is one of the most followed accounts on Twitter. Oversight?) As mentioned above, check out the comment section for an update from Ford’s Scott Monty. Good stuff.

McDonald’s

Burger King

Evian

Casio

Wal-Mart

Kmart

Staples

American Express/Amex

Mattel

Nikon

Yamaha

Reebok

sony

DKNY

Nokia

Doritos

Vicks

Ironman (Triathlon)

All of these brands have had their name taken over by a person or other company on Twitter. Most probably don’t even realize it. Those that do probably have their lawyers scratching their heads trying to figure out how to deal with the problem, which probably won’t be cheap to resolve – and in turn won’t give these companies much incentive to enter the Twittersphere. Well played.

The damage being done to brands on Twitter via these “hijackings” may not ever overshadow the breadth of missed opportunities, but either way, being an absentee brand landlord on a wildly popular and exploding community platform like Twitter doesn’t look very good. “Asleep at the wheel” is the image that comes to mind, and that, my friends, is not the type of reputation I would like to build for myself as a brand manager.

Is it truly so difficult for major brands afford to pay at least one person to manage their digital presence? A community manager? An “online” community manager, even? A head of social media of some sort? If my realtor thought to do it, why not Pepsi? If the church down the street thought to do it, why not Nike? If my local news channel thought to do it, why not Nikon, Nokia or Canon?

The questions that I leave for all of you to ponder – and hopefully answer here today – are where do we go from here? How do we help major brands get into social media properly, meaning in a way that benefits us all (them and us alike)? And ultimately, should we even try? Many of us tend to focus on smaller, savvier, hungrier emerging brands because they move faster and truly embrace the potential of social media. If major brands can’t figure out for themselves that they should get into the game, is our time really best spent trying to talk them into it?

What do you think?

Have a great Monday, everyone. 🙂

Update: Check out this fantastic post by Erik Heels which outlines the problem of cybersquatting as it relates to Twitter, and also provides a further list of which of the world’s Top 100 brands are on Twitter as of 8 January 2009 (or rather which 93 haven’t yet caught on). Click here for the post.

Update: Check out this post outlining the same problem in Australia: Click here.

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imgmainiconsallb

Great observation about design on Presentation Zen (hat tip to What’s The Beef?):

Design is about many things. Above all, it’s about clarity, and intentions and about putting yourself in the position of the end users (or the customers, students, audience, etc.). When designs are not well thought out, even though it may all look good from our point of view, users get frustrated, confused, or even angry. Anyone who has used a poorly designed user interface on a mobile phone, for example, or gotten lost while following the signs on the freeway in a new city understands these feelings. And anyone who is squinting to see a figure or read a quote on a PowerPoint slide is experiencing a bad design of sorts. I always say the lessons are all around. I love examples of poor design, even for the simplest of things, because they are occasions to learn.

When you first sit in the driver’s seat of a car, push the ON button on a computer for the first time, check into a new hotel, look for information on a website, make your way to the cash register, connect a new media player to a laptop, snap a new lens onto an SLR camera, or lace up a fresh new pair of running shoes, it doesn’t take long to figure out how much time the designers actually spent using the type of product they designed.

When I get behind the wheel of a BMW, I know immediately that the team that designed it loves to drive. And I don’t mean just drive to work and to the store. I mean drive. As in… for fun. For thrills. Thirty seconds into using a Mac for the first time, the Apple design team’s passion for great user interfaces is also pretty obvious. Clip into a Look pedal, slip on a pair of Rudy Project Rydons, Squeeze yourself into a pair of Hincapie Sportswear bib tights or pull the cap off a Mont Blanc pen, and you will immediately feel the same thing.

Great design delights. Great design triggers smiles and compliments. Great design invites repeat business. Great design generates great word-of-mouth recommendations, endorsements and reviews. Great design is ALWAYS a win for everyone.

And bad design sucks.

For the third time in a week now, I found myself in a checkout line at my local Target store, and experienced the destructive power of bad design. Target painstakingly designs its stores and advertising to be inviting, upbeat and cool. I love shopping there because I know I’ll find something cool and inexpensive to buy for my house. So from ads to store design to product selection, Target is 100% conscious of the importance of great design, right? But then you get to the checkout, and it all comes crashing down. Here’s how: For some reason, a good deal of items at my local Target seem to come without bar codes. (As impossible as it may seem in this day and age.) And without a bar code, the cashier is completely helpless a checkout. If the item can’t be scanned, the purchasing process grinds to a complete halt. To get it started again, you need a price check: The cashier has to put on her blinking light and call a supervisor. The supervisor then has to stare at the product for five minutes to confirm that there indeed is no bar code anywhere on it. The supervisor then has to call someone on her little radio. That someone has to go to the back of the store to find the item, copy the bar code numbers from the shelf tag, and radio it back in – or write it down and walk it back to the front of the store. Meanwhile, the six families standing in line behind you are ready to beat you over the head with their $19.99 welcome mats and seasonal plastic tumbler sets. If you were in a hurry, forget it. What seemed like a simple, convenient little “oh hey, I’ll just buy it while I’m here” purchase turns into a “damn, I could have just gone to Wal-Mart instead” swell of regret.

A month before Christmas, your impromptu purchase of a $19.99 Michelin windshield wiper has caused a ten minute gridlock at register number nine on a busy Saturday afternoon. Because someone forgot to apply a bar code to a product, and also because the cashier and her system aren’t set up to identify the product without the precious bar code. In that one simple omission, every bit of great design that Target has spent millions of dollars to integrate into its brand evaporates. Not only for me, but for the six families standing impatiently behind me.

The lesson: Design thinking isn’t limited to products. Systems also require great design. And everything is a system. Your entire company is a system. Your customer service department is a system. Your warranty department is a system. Your checkout area – whether physical or electronic – is a system. Great systems are based on great design, and great design is based on observation: Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. Understanding what they like or dislike. Finding ways of delighting them, or at the very least, fulfilling their specific needs.

If you’re a CEO or other C-level executive, how often do you look at your own company’s processes from a customer’s point of view? How often do you call your own 1-800 number with a problem or question?  How often do you go into a store to buy your own products “incognito” or try to return them through normal channels when they fail?

How much time does your company actually spend walking in the shoes of your customers?

Great design doesn’t start with a cool creative type sketching ideas in a posh studio. It starts with real world insight, out there where your customers and users live.

Want to be a great executive? Want to understand great design? Start by joining your customers.

Happy Thanksgiving week, everyone!  🙂

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obama-speech-b1

Republican business owners and managers, read this post. (Democrats too.)

Whatever side of the aisle you may be on, the die is cast. The democratic process has worked. Americans have elected the next President of the United States of America. #44, by last count.

Many of you are probably pretty excited that your guy won today. Many of you are probably also angry that your guy didn’t. All of you are probably worried about what will come next: The simple “okay, now what?” question. Will I still have a job in six months? Will my company continue to prosper in the next year? Will I be able to hire new employees this spring, or will I have to let people go? And on and on and on.

My advice to you: Chill.

If you are among the Obama/Biden supporters, I am going to guess that your outlook today is pretty positive. You’re looking at a bright 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the best time to start a new business venture, to travel abroad, to partner with great people and companies.

If you are among the McCain/Palin/Joe The Plumber supporters, your outlook is probably pretty gloomy. You’re looking at what may be disastrous 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the worst time to start a new business venture, travel overseas or partner with great people and companies.

Funny how your perceptions – and ONLY your perceptions – affect the way you envision your business’ outlook in the next few years.

So my advice to you again: Chill. Take a deep breath. Seriously. What happens next in Washington won’t affect you all that much at all. Relax.

Unless you’re big like Exxon, Walmart and at&t, whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office really has zero bearing on your business’ success. None. You may think it does, you may have come up with a list of reasons why McCain would have helped you be more successful and why Obama will kill your profits, but you’re wrong. The success of your company depends entirely on you: The CEO. The CMO. The salesperson. The customer service rep. The franchisee. The cashier. The designer. The IT guy. The PR manager. The product manager. The greeter. Success or failure are entirely yours to own.

Likewise, if you voted Democrat, having Barack Obama in the White House won’t make your business successful either. His presidency won’t miraculously cure the ills of our society and restore the market to its pre-crash bubble days. The truth is, regardless of who sits in the White House and who owns the Senate and House of Reps, we have some rough terrain ahead. We’re all going to have to be smart, innovative and resourceful if we’re going to be successful. Neither Obama nor Biden will do anything to help you make payroll, attract and retain customers, or launch the next game-changing product. They have bigger issues to deal with than you – even if you’re the coolest, smartest, hardest working person on the planet.

Reality vs. imaginary dragons: Focus on what you know, not on what you don’t.

What the next 4 years have in store, nobody knows. Higher taxes? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Best case scenario: Our taxes won’t change much. Worst case scenario, they will increase incrementally. As in: Not enough to make much of an impact on anyone, rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle. Even if I were in the $250K+ bracket (which I am clearly not), watching my taxes increase a little more to help ease our embarrassing trillion dollar deficit would be a small price to pay. What’s done is done. Let’s fix our mess, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

I only mention this to point out that whatever happens with taxes next year… or the year after that – or whenever – should be the least of your worries right now. Possible tax increases are not threatening your business right now, and won’t anytime soon. Get your mind back on the present. On what obstacles you are faced with today. There will be plenty of time to worry about next year’s challenges twelve months from now.

In other words, before we start speculating about the next four years, we might all want to start thinking about the next six months. What problems are you really facing between now and next spring? What are the immediate problems you need to find solutions to? These are the real questions you should be focusing on.

You may not be completely aware of it, but your emotional outlook impacts your success. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m spewing self-help bullshizzle right now, but it’s a fact: Believe in success, visualize it, map it out, and you will have a much greater chance of making it happen than if you instead convince yourself that your business will fail. Positive attitudes win races, win deals and win business. Positive attitudes win.

Negative attitudes don’t.

Have you ever been around someone who is just soooo negative? The sky is falling, nothing is going right, the world is coming to an end? After a few minutes, you start to feel the same way. Their negativity starts to affect you. It’s a natural thing. We all feed off each other’s moods and dramas. In the same way, as a CEO or business manager, if you’re negative, that mood affects everyone you come in contact with, starting with your employees and ending with your customers.

Consider this: Your positive attitude can infect your customer touchpoints in such a way that one short encounter with them tomorrow morning could set the stage for an afternoon of wonderfully positive interactions with hundreds of customers. Like the happy cashier at the checkout who makes you feel great about your shopping experience, because their day started with a wonderful experience at work. Likewise, your negative attitude might affect your customer touchpoints in such a way that a brief, negative encounter with them tomorrow morning might make them worry about their jobs, about whether or not they are seen as valuable employees and whether or not they even enjoy working there. What kind of interactions do you think they will have with the hundreds of customers they touch that day?

Your attitude affects the direction and success of your business every single day.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, positive an negative attitudes are entirely self-created. The world around you is the same from day to day. You make the choice to see it either in a positive light or a negative one. Whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office, the world essentially is the same today as it was yesterday. Only your outlook has changed. If you have concerns about your business, if you have real problems to solve, then focus on finding solutions for those specific concerns and problems. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about “what if” questions that may never turn into real issues for you. Even if you are a hard-core Republican, understand that President-elect Obama’s policies, beliefs and actions will not have a direct impact on your business anymore than if you had voted for him. Unless you are a Fortune 100 company, the who the President of the United States happens to be has pretty much zero impact on your business. Your fears in regards to what Obama will do in office are still in the realm of imagination. Until something actually happens to affect your business, you are worrying about nothing.

It’s kind of like this: You’re a knight and around you is a small band of foot soldiers looking to you for leadership. Ahead of you is a dark forest you have to cross. You’ve heard that the forest is teaming with enemy soldiers and ambushes, but your mission is to get to the other side. What do you do? Do you figure out the best way to deal with the problem at hand, or do you sit there and worry about other things that may or may not come to be someday that have zero bearing on your immediate situation? You’re letting dragons and ogres (imaginary creatures) distract you from your real issues. Pretty silly when you look at it that way right?

Focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect now: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail.

There will always be obstacles in your path. The odds will always be against you. The world will always conspire to make you fail. Cheaper imports, bigger competitors, better tools somewhere else, better tax breaks across the river, lower rent down the street… There will always be dark woods ahead filled with unseen enemies. Get used to it. It’s just how the world works. New elections, the economy, competition, new technologies transforming your industry, all of these things are part of the game. Your attitude will determine whether or not these obstacles and challenges help you build the next chapter in your company’s fascinating success story, or its sad conclusion.

Leadership Lesson: Taking the initiative always gives you a tactical advantage. The alternative (letting someone else decide your fate for you) is no alternative at all.

Great leaders aren’t usually characterized by uneventful tenures and comfortable lives without challenge. Great leaders are people like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and Susan B. anthony, who in spite of overwhelming odds, in spite of the entire world conspiring against them, in spite of being faced with very dark moments of self doubt and despair, managed to embrace the impossible challenges of their times and come out of the woods transformed, cleansed of their fears, and most importantly: victorious.

As a business leader, you will be tested in the coming months. No question. The coming year will probably be the most trying of your entire career. You may work harder than you ever have before, risk more than you ever have before, and want to quit more often than ever before. But you know what, as long as you keep your wits about you, keep your focus on addressing your immediate challenges and keep your eye on making it through, you will. Not only that but you will come out ahead of your less focused and enthusiastic competitors. When you’re old and gray, you’ll be able to look back on this time and understand how it helped define you as a human being and as a leader. And chances are that every ounce of success you enjoy once the economy recovers will lead straight back to the decisions you made during this challenging time in your career. This moment in time WILL define you. How is up to you.

Now that the election drama is over, it’s time to get your head back in the game and give some serious thought to how you can turn immediate challenges into serious opportunities. If you didn’t vote for Barack Obama, don’t let yourself be distracted by negative thoughts and irrational fears. Your future and your company’s future are 100% in your hands. Not Washington’s. Let’s all put politics aside now and get back to the business of getting the economy back on track, starting with you.

So tell me: What is the biggest problem facing your business today?

How can those of us who know how to help businesses grow and prosper (my blogroll is only the tip of the iceberg) help you get through thee challenging times? Come on. Talk to me.

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UK-based cScape has just released the results of their 2008 online customer engagement survey. Fantastic data and insight from people who obviously know what they are talking about.

Per Richard Sedley, director of cScape’s Customer Engagement Unit:

A starting point for any online customer engagement strategy is gathering data. It is crucial to find out what your customers do when they visit your site – and not base it on guesswork. So how do you know what to look for? The first step, before measurement and analysis, is to identify which data you can act on in a way that will actually benefit your customers and yourself.

Many businesses suffer from ‘metric paralysis’; they collect too much data which they just don’t have the time or know-how to learn from. While this mass of data can look impressive, it is hardly ever used effectively to improve the customer’s online experience, or overall business performance.

Metrics should be actionable. They should give you specific insights into your visitors’ behaviour so that you can take appropriate action based on that information. But even metrics that are actionable don’t do anything in and of themselves to improve a site. They simply bring out positive and negative indicators. To change things for the better requires an organisational structure whereby appropriate measures can be taken.

Even if you don’t have the time to read the entire thing, you will at least get some great insight from the many charts used to illustrate some of the study’s findings. Some examples:

Be sure to read and share this thorough, insightful and infinitely valuable report here. (Or click on the top image.)

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Okay, so while the Dow hangs out at around 10,000 points, here’s some advice on how to give your business a serious boost without increasing your marketing expenditures (and maybe even reducing them): “Perkonomics: Why perks and privileges are the new currency” over at TrendWatching.com (hat tip to AdPulp) is a pretty interesting take on how to increase customer loyalty and create a buzz for your brand even in tough economic times.

“What in blue blazes is perkanomics,” I hear you cry? Hold your horses there Tonto. We’re getting there. According to the folks at TrendWatching.com, perkonomics can be explained thus:

“A new breed of perks and privileges, added to brands’ regular offerings, [which satisfies] consumers’ ever-growing desire for novel forms of status and/or convenience, across all industries. The benefits for brands are equally promising: from escaping commoditization, to showing empathy in turbulent times. One to have firmly on your radar in 2009.”

Did you catch that part about escaping commoditization (not falling into the BOGO trap)? Good. Let’s continue.

TW continues with this:

“Consumer infatuation with perks and privileges isn’t new. For years, airlines, hotels, credit card companies and private banks have been cleverly rewarding their most valuable customers with surprises, status symbols and convenience.

But as we move towards a consumer society that’s based more on experiences, on status stories, on the ephemeral—and in which, for many, time is now the only true scarcity—expect perks and privileges to become an integral part of every B2C industry and sector.”

Perks you might already be familiar with: Frequent flier miles, preferred customer clubs, discount cards, special pricing, express delivery, concierge service, complementary XYZ, free upgrades, shorter checkout lines, convenient parking, etc. Essentially, the perkonomics idea takes the simple concept of “loyalty rewards” to the next step: Brand-related social elevation (however ephemeral it may be). The dot-connect end-to-end: “My loyalty to Brand ABC makes me more special than people who don’t share the same relationship with the brand.”

The result (if done right):

  • Perks bring much-needed love (if not FREE LOVE), in upturns and downturns, potentially leading to more ‘brand love’. (I hate to call it brand loyalty, but at the very least, it encourages a very strong brand preference.)
  • Perks help commodity-like industries stand out by conferring a (renewed) sense of uniqueness. Adding perks often requires the ability to partner with other products or services, so brands with the best partnering skills—and therefore access to the best exclusive offers—will win.
  • Perks can give you the leading edge when it comes to attracting first-time customers.
  • Perks can make for great if not invaluable PR [and positive WOM]; customers will tell others—perks are excellent conversation starters—while the media (trend watchers included) love a good perk story.
  • Perks can help make boring companies interesting again, and thus more desirable.
  • Perks can help cultivate more desirable brand perceptions and associations—think anything from showing you actually care about your customers (gasp!) to showing you care about the environment, offering eco-perks.

From a business opportunity standpoint, focusing on perks can absolutely give you an edge when it comes to differentiating your brand from others even if your products are not superior, and by doing so may be the only way to elevate a brand without actually making improvements outside of “delighting” loyal customers. The trick is to do it in such a way that doesn’t come across either as a ploy to get more information out of them, and two, in a way that doesn’t require them to jump through hoops. Perks are perks. If perks start to become hassles, they stop being perks. A “delight the customer” mentality and focus across all touch points is absolutely vital to the success of such a program. The second a customer expecting a perk gets the runaround from a disgruntled or less-than-ready-to-serve company brand ambassador, you’re done for. (Managing human touch points well is one of the trickiest aspects of delivering on the promise of perkonomics.)

Additionally:

PERKONOMICS is an aspirational trend; i.e. a trend that generously offers you—marketer, entrepreneur, brand manager—the chance to be a trendsetter, especially if you work in a sector or industry not yet big on perks.

And as perks are about delighting and surprising consumers, you should have no trouble coming up with a few quick ideas that can be implemented immediately and cost-efficiently. Talking about costs: as perks are an integral part of your marketing strategy, shifting a part of your mass-advertising budget to get some PERKONOMICS innovations off the ground is more than justified.

Check out the entire report here. And please, please, please, when you start looking into ways to incorporate some of these ideas into your marketing plan, don’t end up settling for 5% discount coupons and dime-store “prizes” with your logo printed on them. (Trade show giveaway pens, decals and buttons don’t even come close to perks.) Take this as seriously as you take the success of your brand.

If you need help figuring out how to do this, give me a call or shoot me an email. I’ll be happy to help or hook you up with someone who can.

Have a great Tuesday!

Photo by Chris Wray-McCann

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Via community Strategist Connie Bensen comes this great little list from Tish Grier that outlines the seven core traits of a great community manager:

  1. Commitment to “the cause”. It’s very important for your community manager to believe in your cause. Their communications need to be transparent & authentic. The job has many challenges so they need to inherently believe in their work & the brand.
  2. Love people. The position is about connecting & communicating. There is interaction with all types, so a community manager needs to enjoy it. (This is why it’s a great position under marketing).
  3. Must enjoy technology. It’s a web 2.0 job. Technology is changing quickly. The tools are constantly shifting & evolving. One has to thoroughly enjoy being immersed. And if your product/brand is technology oriented then it’s natural to be involved in product development & providing feedback.
  4. Must understand online culture. Did I mention this a web 2.0 job? Working online is a bit different than face-to-face. A person needs to maintain a sense of humor & not take things personally. Working online requires a level of perceptiveness so that you can interact with all types of people.
  5. Powers of Observation. I just mentioned being perceptive but it’s more than that. Providing feedback on trends, monitoring brand & being ever present require one to be ever watchful. As a metacustomer the community manager is the eyes & ears for the company – all teams – and responsible for providing feedback from the customers.
  6. Flexibility. Community work is 7 days a week. Checking in on my communities & responding to their needs isn’t a 9 – 5 job. (I do sleep though). But I’m cognizant of the time zones when I add people to teams. It’s nice to have people providing assistance from around the world (so I can sleep! 🙂 ).
  7. Life experience trumps youthful energy. Tish’s point is to not entrust this important job to an intern or someone who is a short-timer. The more life experiences a person has, the more they have to offer the community.

I like that “commitment to the cause” was #1 on the list. If I could add a few more, they would be:

8. Coupled with #2 (love of people) is the need to be a solid communicator. Even a great one. In any type of management – especially community management – understanding the value of communications (and being a natural communicator) can have a tremendous impact on the success of that community. (Note that the description of #2 is 100% about communication.)

9. Connectedness. Natural community managers tend to be active in a number of communities already. Look for a diverse socio-professional network on their LinkedIn and Myspace accounts. Also look for telltale signs that they are social media power-users (Blog activity, Twitter, Plurk, Seesmic, etc.) The ability to mesh social media tools with their propensity to be an active member within their chosen communities is a sign of good things to come. Also in the connectedness vein, great community managers tend to be natural connectors: They see the synergies between communities, organizations and individuals. They are often the folks who will provide the types of introductions that will strengthen bonds within communities and organically recruit new members.

Also picked up from Tish’s original piece:

“Your potential community manager should be open, congenial, and can handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy (not like a cop or Marine sergeant).”

“Don’t confuse liking technology with loving it beyond everything else.”

Remember (per Tish) that “a lot will be riding on this person – more so than which tools are used. Your community manager should understand people well and be good at creating and maintaining relationships and ability to create relationships, regardless of which tools are available.”

With so many companies turning to user/customer community engagement to strengthen their brands, this little primer is worth its weight in gold.

Incidentally, Connie will be speaking at the Social Media Strategies Conference in San Francisco (October 29-30) with fellow Marketing 2.0 contributor and social media expert Francois Gossieaux, Jive Software CMO Sam Lawrence, and a very solid panel of other (hopefully) familiar names. Check your calendars.

Cheers.

Image source: TID

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Social Media blogger extraordinaire Shel Israel interviewed my friend and Marketing 2.0 co-blogger Francois Gossieaux earier this month about the Tribalization of Business study he and Beeline Labs conducted earlier this year that looked into the way that companies incorporate communities into their business model.

The basis of the Tribalization of Business study:

We wanted to understand how companies leverage communities as part of their business processes and how they measure the progress and success of those efforts.

We quickly realized that for those companies who were doing it right we were looking at something that was transformational. We were tapping into an age-old human behavior, which we came to recognize as “tribalism.” Halfway through the project, we changed the title because of that observation.

The interview is fantastic, but I find these portions particularly important to the discussion:

What do you think makes us tribal by nature and why should a business strategist care?

People want to hang out with like-minded people and want to help and be helped by people who care. By providing a massive platform for participation, social media has allowed that tribal behavior to return to the forefront. Whether you like it or not, there is probably a good chance that your consumer tribe already hangs out in some corner of the online world. While at times a bit dense, you can find a collection on the most recent research Consumer Tribes.

Your survey showed the five most frequent goals of a corporate online community were close to tied: (1)insight, (2)idea generation, (3)loyalty, (4)word-of-mouth and (5)marketing. Did you find communities do better when they serve multiple purposes or a single purpose?

Communities can start out with a single purpose, but inevitably, they will end up serving multiple purposes. You need to prepare for that. If you start a customer support community, for example, people will eventually give you new product ideas. If you are not set up to execute against those product or service suggestions that the community finds important, they will lose interest and leave – it’s as if you are not listening to them. They don’t care what your internal goals are for the community. They care about having a better complete life-cycle experience with your product.

Your study seems to indicate that engagement is a more valid goal of an online community than say, revenue per customer. How would you measure either?

I am not sure that we found engagement to be a more valid goal of an online community, but it is what many companies try to measure. I assume that much of the reason why companies are looking at engagement as a success metric is because many of them are building their communities in partnership with their agencies.

What we did find is that those companies who were most satisfied with their community efforts were those who measured the effectiveness of their communities in the same way as they would measure the effectiveness of the business processes that the community was intended to support. For example, if you measure the success of your customer support call center in a certain way, then measure the impact of your online community-based support program in the same way.

The same is true for new product innovation-focused communities or co-marketing communities. Whether the original measurement framework is the right one or not, it is one that the department heads understands and which tends to be institutionalized across the company.

It was amazing to see companies, who normally measure all their marketing programs based on increased sales, all of sudden measure community efforts based on page views and time spent on the site – even when the community interactions were happening mostly through email and text messages. These are all clearly signs of an early market with lots of customer confusion.

Read the entire interview here.

Additional reading:

ROI and the scalability of social media.

Online Tribalism + The Future of Social Media.

photo credit: ecowordly.com

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Those of us who have been using Vista pretty much since the start already knew this, but there has been so much bad publicity around it that it’s hard to separate myth from reality anymore. Well, Microsoft recently decided to try a little experiment to see if Vista haters and skeptics really, truly didn’t like Vista, or if they were just being dragged along by the anti-Vista bandwagon. (Thanks in great part to Apple’s brilliantly executed Mac vs. PC ad campaign.)

The experiment was simple: Invite a group of Vista skeptics to test drive a new OS code-named “mojave,” without telling them that mojave was actually… you guessed it: Vista.

As it turns out, over 90% of the testers (who thought Vista sucked before coming in for their mojave sneak peek) LOVED Mojave. You can check out their reactions when they are told that Mojave was in fact Vista.

Wow! Vista actually rocks! Who knew.  ;D

The blind test is nothing new in marketing circles, but what sets this apart from the old Coke vs. Pepsi blind test ad campaigns is that the question here isn’t one of preference. Coke isn’t better than Pepsi, and Pepsi isn’t better than Coke. People prefer one over the other because of their taste buds, mostly. As powerful an ad campaign as it may be, you might as well have folks do blind tests comparing Methodist and Presbyterian doctrine. Which do you LIKE better? Which do you PREFER? The “Mojave” experiment doesn’t address preference or taste: It addresses perception vs. reality. Vista had (and to some extent still has) a pretty poor image in the marketplace because very few . This is in part due to a) driver incompatibility issues early on in the OS’ release, b) the fact that many “legacy” PCs aren’t powerful enough to run the OS, and c) a very aggressive campaign to discredit microsoft by its longtime rival Apple.

Fact: The driver compatibility issue is pretty-much ancient history.

Fact: Computers are pretty cheap these days, so while some businesses may not want to allocate the funds to upgrade their hardware or consider virtualizing their PCs, consumers should be able to upgrade their laptops and home PCs to a Vista system without too much trouble.

Fact: The Mac vs. PC campaign may have been fresh and cool and based in truth a year ago, but it has now slipped into the realm of disinformation. In addition, many of the so-called “crapware” that bogs down new computers has nothing to do with Microsoft or Vista. (If your new Vista PC is loaded with stuff you don’t want, the system builder installed it on your machine, not Microsoft.) Sony recently released a crapware-free PC that actually allows users to enjoy a pure vista experience right out of the box, and it pretty much rocks.

Anyhoo. The Mojave experiment is clever, honest, simple and effective. It is what it is: A series of videos showing real people being blown away with how great Vista actually is, after having so brainwashed by 21 months of negative messaging.

Kudos to Microsoft for having taken this approach to bringing the reality of Vista forward with people like you and me rather than an expensive round of corporate messaging. Very clever. You can check it out for yourself here. Hat tip to Steve Clayton for the link. Other articles on the subject at Microsoft Sherpa here, here and here.

have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

 

Transparency: I manage US Microsoft distribution for SYNNEX, a global distributor of IT and Business processes. Though the job doesn’t skew my opinion of Vista one bit, it’s worth mentioning.

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Beeline Labs, Deloitte LLC and The Society For New Communications Research recently partnered to conduct a first-of-its-kind study of how more than 140 organizations are employing online communities dubbed “Tribalization Of Business.”

Francois Gossieaux (Marketing 2.0 and Beeline Labs honcho) sent me this pretty killer summary of the report last week, and I am just now getting to it. Fantastic stats and insights for any company, large or small, looking to incorporate community interactions into their business model. (Customer communities, user communities, thought leadership communities, etc.) You really owe it to yourself to click on the links and read up on this. It won’t take a lot of your time, and you will learn some pretty interesting (dare I say actionable ?) stuff in the process.

The report and summary also include some pretty killer best practices, so take note.

The summary: http://www.beelinelabs.com/files/TribalizationStudyrelease.pdf

The Tribalization report’s web page: http://www.beelinelabs.com/tribalization/

Additional reading:

Have a great Tuesday, everyone!

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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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So instead, I will just post this haiku:

GM US sales dropped 18% in june.

Toyota US sales dropped 21% in June.

More imagination is needed.

Source: CNN

With every car and truck and van in the US looking essentially the same and absolutely no effort whatsoever by major car manufacturers to create sexy, well-designed, fuel-efficient, compact cars to give the overpriced mini Cooper and gender-limited VW Bug a run for their money, we are left with a sea of cars no one wants.

Problem #1: Wallet share is tight. Buying a new car in the current economy is already a tough proposition.

Problem #2: Buying a car is an investment. Resale values of vehicles with weak mileage efficiency are dropping fast. Investing in a car today with gas prices looking the way they do (+ market insecurity) means consumers aren’t likely to fork out big bucks for a new car anytime soon.

Problem #3: Our “bigger is better” supersize-me attitude needs to change. The days of the macho-by-horsepower association are coming to a close. Deal with it.

Problem #4: Auto manufacturers are not reacting quickly enough to the oil crisis. (As if it wasn’t always coming. Didn’t anyone have a Plan-B? Really?)

Problem #5: Most cars don’t have a purpose or an identity. Nissan’s X-Terra’s success 8 years ago was due to the fact that it had a very clear place in the pantheon of vehicles. Same with the H2, the Mini Cooper, and the VW bug. Today’s contenders are Toyota’s FJ Cruiser and to some extent the H3, but that’s about it. Every other SUV is just another copy of a copy of a copy. Ford’s Mustang GT fills the muscle car void fairly well, but we aren’t exactly talking middle of the bell curve here. Crossovers are a nice concept, but I have a tough time getting excited by any new design – they’re all the same. Ergo: I’m bored just trying to think of an interesting or unique car i am jonesing for under $30K.

There is a clear absence of imagination in the auto industry, at least in the US. derivative designs create an “also-in” design culture that offers no clear value to anyone. Sure, I can get excited about Aston Martin or Bugati’s latest supercars, but when I look at cars I can actually afford – the middle of the bell curve – what am I left with? Where is the sexy, smart, well designed sub-$20K car with great gas mileage and suite of electronic interfaces I have been asking for? Where are my power outlets for laptops and media player recharges? (Real outlets, not cigarette lighter outlets.) Where is my built-in hands-free system for my phone? Where is my media player plug-in?

I’m not saying that we should all adopt the euro supercompact-car concept (although if you live in the city, don’t have any kids, and absolutely need a car, perhaps you should consider one), but there is a healthy compromise that can be met. Why is it that we aren’t seeing it yet? Every compact car on the market that isn’t a mini or a bug is manufactured on the cheap and designed on the quick. This needs to change.

Cars should always be cool. They should always be more than just a set of wheels to go to work or to the store. I’m not sure when the industry shifted to a zero personality model, but auto makers need to turn this around. Cars with personalities sell. Period. They sell because they stand for something. They help their owners express who they are. Identity development needs to become part of every new car design – not just at the brand level (a BMW is a BMW /a Mercedes is a Mercedes) but at the level of the individual model. Scion has adopted the concept 100%, but its designs look like someone got a hold of ten-year-old early concept drafts from 2-3 automakers and actually turned them into production cars without making any changes. (Right idea: Unique models for unique uses, but horrible execution: Not a whole lot of curb appeal, and heinously derivative designs.)

Is it really THAT hard to get this right?

Here’s what the next big auto hit looks like:

1. It has so much personality, it could be a Mac. (Sorry, I’m supposed to be the PC guy, but we all know where “cool” lives these days.)

2. It looks GREAT. Not just good, but GREAT. People want to rent it from hertz and budget and Avis. Your friends want to drive it when you show it off at your next together. People on the street stare at it when you drive by.

3. The interior is a mix between the cockpit of a 1930’s rallye speedster and the cabin of a brand spanking new custom Leer jet.

4. Real power outlets. Media player interfaces. Hands free wireless interface. Just do it.

5. MPG superstar status. Make it part of the car’s identity. Not an afterthought, but at the very core of the car’s purpose.

6. $12K-$18K is the sweet spot. It’s a compact.

7. But make it look, feel and perform like a $30K+ car.

8. Invent something smarter than a cool cup holder. Like a built-in passive cabin ventilation system for really hot summer days. Or a slot for a portable hard drive inside the dashboard. Or a fully insulated trunk compartment for laptops, cameras and other electronics. Or accessible + concealable storage compartments for passengers. Or a new seat adjustment interface. Or yeah… a better cup holder.

Europeans have been designing very cool, high performance compact cars for decades. Look to Renault, Citroen, Opel and Peugeot, for starters. Even mercedes sells compact cars in Europe now.

Think, guys. Dream a little. Invent something that brings value to the market. More importantly, make your brand, your designs and your every conversation with us, the people who should be dreaming about driving your cars, stand for something. Give us something to desire and crave and get excited about.

A 20% drop in sales might be great for your car lease units, but that isn’t where you want to be. Wake up and do something.

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“The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

– William Pollard.

That’s worth framing and hanging in every meeting room from Portland to Tahiti (via Paris).

Also, via Tom Asacker:

“Over time, unchanging relationships can turn into shackles that limit an organization’s flexibility and lock it into active inertia. Established relationships with customers can prevent firms from responding effectively to changes in technology, regulations, or consumer preferences.”

– Donald Sull (Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad an How Great Managers Remake Them.)

Do you see where I’m going with this?

So… your new mission every day is to keep things fresh. That’s it. Whether you’re in the business of designing ads, repairing engines, selling shoes or answering calls from angry customers, don’t ever, ever, ever let routine set in. Try different things. Learn something new from every customer. From every sale. From every design challenge. From every product launch. From every commercial you hear on the radio. From every movie you catch on cable. From the games your kids play. From magazines you’ve never picked up.

Keep things fresh.

And go read Tom Asacker’s post on that very topic. It’s very good.

Have a great Monday, everyone.

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