Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's Be Marketing Cardiologists...

Happy Monday!

I hope all is well with you and you had a restful weekend!

As I was running around last week, a friend of mine (Hi R.S.!) pointed me to this HBR piece written by Scott Anthony and I'd like to share it with you.  The premise was that we often don't encourage or permit ourselves or employees to really use competitors' products.  Here is a good nugget:

"At most companies, it is a mark of shame to use anything other than the company's product.  I doubt that you could see many tubes of Crest at Colgate-Palmolive.  Try bringing a Coke product into Pepsi.  Steve Ballmer from Microsoft famously berated an employee last year for using an iPhone at a company event."

It's true.  When I was trying to develop a PayPass concept at Citi, there was a little buzz of surprise when I showed everyone my American Express ExpressPay fob and chip embedded Blue card.  Sure, I was using AmEx products while working for Citi but how else could I explain look/feel and functionality to people who had never physically seen a fob or a chip up close?  How else can you stimulate thinking/creativity?  How else can you demonstrate or understand customer experience?

Why did people find it so odd?  I'm still at a loss.  We talk about SWOT, we talk about strategy and we talk about the competition.  We shouldn't be talking about these theoretically -- we should be talking about these based on personal experience.  Really, it comes down to this:

"Some companies have people who focus solely on competitive intelligence, but the simplest form of competitive intelligence is to encourage employees to act like "regular" customers.  Pick whatever solution gets the job done better than anyone else.

Intentionally try the competitor's products to see what works and what doesn't work.  Don't consider it a mark of shame.  Tell your boss that you are spending every minute doing market research to try to identify the competitor's weaknesses -- or your own."

I've been thinking quite a bit about why we don't do this and it seems to me that the answer is fear of failure.  I suggest we embrace failure wholeheartedly.  Is it something that you consciously seek?  Do you know what failure would look like for you or your business at 50% or even 100% level?  Do you know what failure looks like for your competition?  Do you have an idea for what you would do if, when stacked up against competitors, you would fail?

It's not such a bad thing to ask these ugly questions.  Understanding your weakest points is how you go from failure to success.  Testing for failure is to be applauded.  Testing for failure happens all the time except for marketers because we're too vain to admit where we might have gone wrong.  There's nothing wrong with seeking failure.

Incentive: other people happen to make quite a comfortable living from measuring failure and the potential for failure.  Have you heard of cardiac stress tests?  A cardiologist administers a stress test to measure blood flow to the heart during physical exercise and compares it to blood flow to the heart during rest.  The test shows how much or little blood goes to the section of the heart that does the greatest work pumping blood, etc.  It's essentially a test of physical fitness.

It's essentially a test of how much your heart fails.  It's a test for cardiologists because they love that kind of information.  It's good to know levels of heart operability, right?  We rather enjoy the life we're living and perhaps would like to maximize it, right?  Maybe the good doctor will prescribe more tests, a diet regimen, drugs, etc.  The point is that based on test results, corrective action will be recommended and (if you're a good patient) taken with the result being a better, healthier and longer life.

What's wrong with that?  Not a thing.  Before people write in about contraindications and special limitations of the cardiac stress test, let me just say that I know there are exceptions and the stress test doesn't capture everything.  I also know this subjects my point to failure risk but I think the underlying message is still pretty intact.

Recommendation: let's all be marketing cardiologists and look for the stressors in our branding, messaging, products, service, customer experience and the like.  Let's figure out where we are at our weakest vis a vis our own standards, vis a vis customer expectations and vis a vis the competition.  Let's write our own prescriptions to strengthen our position and make considerable improvements where needed.  Let's also figure out where our competition is the weakest and write strategic prescriptions to leverage those weaknesses.

There's nothing wrong with failure but what's wrong is ignoring the warnings...  let's seek failure out and beat it at its own game.  We'll all be better marketing and business patients for it.  To paraphrase the title of a famous movie, let's stop worrying and love the failure bomb.

Until Next Time,

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been @BudgetRAC


 I figured the title would be catchy enough to pique your interest.  Before anyone asks, no I'm not a Deadhead -- not even close.  It's just that there have been so many funny twists and turns to my Budget story (including an interesting tidbit from just yesterday) that this title seemed to be fitting.

In my last post, I told you about my mini Twitter experiment as well as the email exchange with A.R., Budget's social media specialist.  I also told you about the delicious quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson which was part of A.R.'s email signature:

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

As I said yesterday, Emerson applauds being distinctive and independent -- anything that separates yourself from the rest of the pack to make your own way is laudable.  So, JetBlue's Jetitude or Zappo's four week training program would apply here.  I don't think Emerson meant to distinguish yourself in bad ways.  

And, to be fair to A.R., very few people mean to distinguish themselves negatively.  I think a larger and more serious issue is that she doesn't work within a team or for a company that encourages ownership of the customer relationship, regardless of your role within an enterprise unlike Jetitude.  Another larger and more serious issue is that of strategy: customer servicing, branding, marketing...  all of it.  Budget doesn't have it unlike Zappo's approach of strategy, training and discipline.  These two grave issues are things over which she has zero control.

Why do I say there is no ownership or strategy?  Well, it took a whole week of tweeting to get a response.  And, as I mentioned in the last post, she never said how it was that she found me.  I knew it had to be either the posts, maybe LinkedIn or Twitter but I was curious nonetheless.  All she had to do was answer the question.  It might be Twitter because she started following me after yesterday's post (hi!) but then my @parissab is part of my email signature.  Still a mystery!  The point is that she's not allowed to have a conversation: either due to cultural or structural reasons.

The other reason why I sense ownership isn't encouraged and there is no set social media strategy is that A.R. said that someone would reach out to me quickly and as soon as possible.  The sad thing is that the rest of June 11 and all of Monday June 14 passed without a word.  I reached out again to A.R. on Tuesday June 15 asking when I could expect to hear from someone.  She didn't respond but I did receive a call from R.O., a customer service supervisor who agreed that "The machine did it" is not an ideal response, accepted my feedback and offered a 50% credit for the inconvenience.  R.O. did tell me that he did not receive anything from A.R. until mid day June 14 and that they are still trying to figure out social media.  So, in his mind, he was addressing something within 24 hours.  

The ideal situation: for her, as the social media specialist, to have received some training and guidance so that she embodied the answer and the Budget brand to me, for her to have been the only person I ever would have interactions and for me to say, "Wow.  She's allowed and encouraged to be on top of her game."  That would have been impressive.  Instead, she didn't answer emails and could only give me non committal information about someone reaching out to me.

If you recall, I showed you data from a JD Power and Associates survey that showed Avis and Budget had below industry average scores and contrasted that with the scores from JetBlue.  I also contrasted 2009 AvisBudget performance with that of JetBlue (losses versus profits).  Those are some powerful differences, right?  

Let's step away from the anecdote and talk about the two larger points that I think causes Budget to suffer: ownership and strategy especially as they pertain to social platforms.  It's clear that regardless of how one may personally feel about Twitter, Facebook or other social media that most of us are forced onto the playing field.  If you have to accept your role on the playing field (happily or not), you've also got to accept the ownership of the social relationship as well as of the strategy.  These days, being on the playing field is like turning the lights on or answer the phone.  

The presence is not sufficient.  There has got to be something in place like a Jetitude where employees are encouraged to "be the answer" (really, owning the customer relationship) and there has to be strategy in place that shows how the social media presence aligns with customer service, aligns with marketing, aligns with product management, aligns with sales.  We all contribute to profitability and we all have to understand how everything we do, even if it means pushing paper, gets the company to accomplish those goals.

As I said last time, there's something to be said for strategy, there's something to be said for discipline and there's something to be said for the process -- all the while operating under the auspices of the brand identity which all customer facing functions should incorporate in the "how" and "what" of their interactions with customers.  Like Tony Hsieh said and I mentioned in my Zappo's posts (here and here), we are our brand's cultural ambassadors.  

 I must share with you that Bruce Temkin has just released a customer experience survey report.  I've not seen the whole document but he kindly shared the following in one of his posts:
  • Only 31% of those surveyed analyzed conversations in social media sites like Facebook and Twitter;
  • 95% want to improve profitability but only 43% want to improve the work environment for employees;
  • 71% said that other competing priorities as obstacles to improving customer experience;
  • 16% believe they delight customers getting customer service online;
  • Companies do very little brand marketing inside the company versus outside the company.
Sharing this puts the Budget anecdote in context and it shows us how far we need to go to catch up with JetBlue and Zappo's.  To bring back Emerson, they clearly don't go where the path leads and where they do go leaves an impressive trail.

Until Next Time,

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My @BudgetRAC Tale of Woe


It's a glorious Tuesday in Chicago!  The skies are blue, it's already quite warm and I can see the swimmers getting their morning workouts at the East Bank Club rooftop pool.

So, remember that ludicrous Budget car rental story I told you about?  Brief synopsis: I rented a car, returned the car with the tank full but was charged $14 fuel charge.  I mentioned the billing error to the person on duty and the answer I got was "The machine did it."  I was also told that he could not undo the charge and that I would have to go speak to an agent to request a fee adjustment -- not necessarily something you have the time for when trying to catch a plane.  All in all, the whole experience was textbook example of what not to do when managing customer relationships.

What I haven't told you is about my little experiment that I was conducting while this was going on.  See, I was tweeting @BudgetRAC quite a bit during the week of June 7.  I would try different ways of getting their attention with and without the link to that first post.  When I didn't get a response to the first one, I wrote another one about accountability with @BudgetRAC in the title (here) with broad hints that I would write about positive customer service oriented enterprises like JetBlue (here) and Zappo's (here and here) in subsequent posts -- which I clearly did!

I know I don't have the following of a Kevin Smith or of a Dave Caroll so I wasn't expecting an overwhelming or even gracious response.  But, I was expecting some sort of generic response after the first tweet or two.  After all, if you are @BudgetRAC on Twitter, you must want to engage on that platform.  Silly me.

Friends, if you can believe it, I did not receive one comment from Budget until Friday, June 11 or after a whole business week worth of tweeting and two blog posts.  Below is the email I received (I'm blocking the full name and contact information) including a nice little quote from Emerson:

"Dear Ms. Behnia,

I'm A.R., from AvisBudget Group.  I am very concerned about your recent experience with us.  Can you please provide me with some information so we can resolve any issues you are having:

-Full name on the reservation
-Location in which you picked up the vehicle
-The date of pickup

Please forward the information and I will have someone contact you as soon as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you,

A.R. Social Media Specialist

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. - Ralph Waldo Emerson"

I was torn.  I was glad that someone finally paid attention but there was no acknowledgement of the personal experience I wrote about in my post and tweets.  It made me wonder if this "social media specialist" read the post or the tweets.  Also, this answer of "someone contact you" is different from other companies who empower their employees to fix issues as they see them (e.g., JetBlue, Zappo's, etc.) or in other words, ownership to act as company ambassadors.

Nevertheless, I responded to this person's email that same day with the answers to her three questions.  This is what I received in response fairly quickly -- I've underlined the typo:

"Thank you, Ms. Behina.  I have forwarded your information to our customer service specialist and you should receive a call shortly."

I forgave the typo because she got the name right in the first email and because I had a more pressing question.  I thanked her in a reply email shortly thereafter (around mid day on Friday, June 11) and asked how she found me.  My question posed to the "social media specialist" was met with silence.

What?  Yes, silence.  I never did hear an answer to that question of mine.  And it makes this tale woefully even more comical than before.  Even more so if you consider two things: that she is Budget's social media specialist and the Emerson quote that is used as part of her email signature.  That quote is essentially about being distinctive and independent but the behaviors from Budget at the airport and the silence from its social media specialist makes them distinctive and independent in bad ways.

This speaks to the importance of strategy.  This speaks to the importance of process.  This speaks to the important of ownership of one's role and acceptance of a great existential role as brand ambassador regardless of one's role.  This speaks to why and how it is that JetBlue and Zappo's both get it right and just "get it" in contrast to what my interactions were with Budget.

And yes, like all good stories, this one does continue.  In my next post, I'll talk about what happened next in my interactions with Budget.  In the meantime, please do send me your comments.  I enjoy reading all of them!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Living and Dying by the Zappo's Values Sword


Lots of great feedback from many of you!  Thanks and keep it coming!  I know I've got to tell you the rest of the Budget story -- and I promise that I will -- but the values conversation is something I find gripping at the moment...  Trust me, there's relevance to Budget and it will all tie nicely together in the end.

I'd like to start where I ended the last post with another great doozy from Tony Hsieh, Zappo's founder:

"Many companies say they have core values but they don't really commit to them.  We believe that it's important to come up with core values that you can commit to.  And by commit, we mean that you're willing to hire and fire based on them.  If you're willing to do that, then you're well on your way to building a company culture that is in-line with the brand you want to build."

Theoretically, all companies hire and fire based on core values but practically that doesn't always happen.  We have all worked with "so and so's" who don't live up to some (or any) corporate value or other.  Yet, these people survive because of other "value" they bring to the corporation which really makes one question the sincerity of corporate values in the first place.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, I congratulate you!  For everyone else, I feel your pain.  I've been there, too.

So, for me, saying that Zappo's is willing to fire based on values is a "walking the talk" manifesto.  It shows that despite obligations to keep shareholders happy in the near term, you'll likely make them very happy in the long term if you're hyper disciplined when you set and maintain your corporate identity.

What are these Zappo's values that mean so much to them that they're willing to fire if violated?  They are: deliver "wow" through service; embrace and drive change; create fun and a little weirdness; be adventurous, creative and open-minded; pursue growth and learning; build open and honest relationships with communication; build a positive team and family spirit; do more with less; be passionate and determined; be humble.

What's significant about these ten values?  Well, like my view on JetBlue's Jetitude: everything!  What particularly resonates with me is identical to my view on Jetitude as well.  If you look at the verbs in the values, you quickly see that Zappo's is about accountability.  Is about responsibility.  Is about ownership.  Is about the setting and achieving of goals.  Every single Zappo's employee has permission to be better than they already are and deliver service beyond the expectation of the customer.  These are encouraged and rewarded behaviors.  And everyone from the top to the bottom understands this.

This would never be an environment where Budget's "The machine did it" would be a reasonable answer let alone an answer that would pop into someone's mind.  The reason is that "The machine did it" is antithetical to those values that they clearly screen people for during hiring and also reinforce during training.  "The machine did it" is beneath them -- and probably worthy of being fired if someone were to utter those words!

I (most serendipitously) came upon a great blog post by Rosabeth Moss Kanter about corporate values the other day thanks to our friends at HBR.  It's a quick read but here's a good excerpt:

"'s not the words that make a difference; it's the conversation.  Frequent discussion about organizational values can be engaging and empowering.  The organization becomes a community united by shared purpose, which reinforces teamwork and collaboration.  People can be more readily relied on to do the right thing, and to guide their colleagues to do the same, once they buy into and internalize core principles."

Zappo's hasn't just delivered the core values and left it at that.  Zappo's has constant dialogue all the way through training and clearly beyond such that it becomes part of every employee's corporate DNA.  It's not an easy thing.  It's not a cheap thing.  But to them, it's a vital thing.

It's vital not only for the touchy feely employee aspect of it but consider some hard facts, too.  By employing what Tony Hsieh call "high touch" versus "high tech" they've accomplished the following (read the rest here here):
  • Amazon purchased Zappo's for about $1.2B. 
  • 75% of daily orders come (on average) from repeat business.
  • In the first quarter of this year, Zappo's saw 50% growth from one year earlier.
  • People pay $5K each for Zappo's Insights, a two day workshop on corporate culture and customer experience.

The funny thing about Zappo's?  They are sometimes more expensive than online competitors.  And yet, they are surviving and thriving.  All in all, a great lesson how the "Golden Rule" can actually be sustainable and profitable!  I'll talk about Budget in my next post...  In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts!  Send them my way!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

You Are Your Brand's Cultural Attache

Good Morning!

I hope all is well!  In my last post, we talked about JetBlue's Jetitude and how you could correlate their 2009 financial performance as well as their high quality scores to their commitment to Jetitude.  We also contrasted their customer approach with that of my Budget anecdote and looked at AvisBudget's 2009 performance: losses and below industry average customer satisfaction scoring.  We'll talk more about Budget in a subsequent post.

Today, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of culture.  We've touched on it the last few posts and now it's time to dig a little deeper.  We all know about Zappo's history and its path to success.  And we all know that its success is borne of its customer service.  And we've all either raved to our friends or vice versa about how great Zappo's is.  So, for me to restate that in a different way would not be useful to you in the slightest.

I want to talk about Zappo's because of their level of commitment to the customer service philosophy and how "walking the talk" is essentially their motto.  I read a very interesting article by Tony Hsieh, Zappo's founder, and it really speaks to what sets them apart from the rest of the pack -- regardless of industry or channel.  It's the attention to the structural and attitudinal components of culture that matter most.  Here's what he says about that:

"If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff -- like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers -- will happen naturally on its own.

A company's culture and its company brand are really just two sides of the same coin.  The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.

Your culture is your brand."

In other words, you are your brand's Cultural Attache.  So how does Zappos get the culture right?  And how is it that the culture is infused in all of its business processes?  What structural and attitudinal components are necessary to make this business, or any business, viable in the long term?

The answer is twofold: people and how they invest in people.  Care is taken in the hiring of people who both display the required functional skill but also have approaches or personalities that are consistent with its culture. I'm going to go out on a limb by guessing that they err on the side of the attitudinal components...  After all, you can help improve someone's functional skills but it's harder to change the softer skills.

We all remember the first day of any job.  It's typically filling out a lot of paperwork in HR and maybe a bit of an orientation session.  After that, you're left to fend for yourself trying to figure out the vibe, decipher the unwritten dos and don'ts, learn the dialect, etc.  It can be a lonely, exhaustive and exhausting experience.

At Zappos, every new hire, regardless of position, is required to go its cultural attache training which is comprised of a four week program identical to what their call center reps experience.  Curriculum includes history, importance of good customer service, the long-term company vision and philosophy on corporate culture.  The new hires also field live customer calls for a two week period.

A neat little trick: at the end of the first training week, an offer is made to the entire class: $2,000 plus wages representing time worked to quit and the offer stands through the end of training.  This is to ensure that it's about more than the paycheck -- the new employees have to "buy in" to what Zappo's offers to its customers beyond products.  It makes sense...  you can't be a brand cultural attache if you believe in neither the brand nor the culture.

It's a put your money where your mouth is kind of moment and it's admirable.  They'd rather take the loss in terms of time spent hiring and the compensation to ensure their success in the long run.  But they needn't worry -- because they are precise in the way they interview and hire, less than 1% (on average) quit.  I'll take that kind of percentage!

This is all well and good...  but about about the overall longer term commitment to your values?  We'll talk more about this quote from him in my next post:

"Many companies say they have core values, but they don't really commit to them.  We believe that it's imortant to come up with core values that you can commit to.  And by commit, we mean that you're willing to hire and fire based on them.  If you're willing to do that, then you're well on your way to buidling a company culture that is in-line wiht the brand you want to build."

Now that is "walking the talk" in my book...  We'll chat about their core values and this level of commitment in my next post...

Until Next Time,

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Big Fat Greek Customer Service Manifesto


We've spent a couple of posts (here and here) talking about my funny Budget car rental experience -- more to come on that -- as well as the notion of accountability and responsibility.  I'd like to talk about live examples of companies that "walk the talk" and how they are reaping the benefits.

So what's with the Big Fat Greek Wedding reference?  Well, there's a scene in the movie where Toula's mother comforts her and explains to her that the man might be the head of the house but the woman is the neck.  We may think that our fortunes ultimately rest with us but it's truly the customer with whom we have to move to survive in the long term.  They are our neck... and if we do not do right by them, they can strangle us.

We can't bend to every impossible whim and I'm not suggesting that we try.  My point is about our orientation and what informs our business goals and strategies no matter what role we fulfill in our respective companies.  From the top of the chain down, do we act with our customers in mind: solving a problem, delivering value, providing good service, etc.?  Or do we act in ways which benefit us primarily with nary a thought towards how we might be inconveniencing others?

In other words, are we truly walking the talk or are we just saying that we are walking the talk?  There are two very good examples of walking the talk which we've heard about quite a bit lately: JetBlue and Zappo's.  I'd like to touch a little on each in a couple of posts...  I was going to put them together but they are too good for just one!

Remember my JetBlue posts from last November (here and here)?  In those two posts, we talked about JetBlue's disastrous 2007: customer service provided bad information, passengers were stranded on planes and there was a general state of operational confusion.  Many of us never thought they could rise from the ashes of such a miserable experience.  But, then CEO David Neeleman issued an unprecedented apology along with clear steps of how they would improve.  It bears another look, really.  Here you go:

As I said previously, this has helped the airline to stay in business.  That said, you can't rest your fortunes on a mea culpa video.  You have to commit yourself to constant improvement all the way down to day to day transactional interactions.  In a recent Experience Matters post, Bruce Temkin shared JetBlue's values and "Jetitude" which includes: Be in Blue always, be personal, be the answer, be engaging, be thankful to every customer.  Jetitude defines the customer experience and is what envelopes the customer as they go through every touchpoint with the airline.  

What's significant about Jetitude?  Well, all of it.  The reason is that it's action and goal oriented but in the form of how the customer is treated by every employee.  It is about living and delivering company expectations in a form of the "Golden Rule" or similar.  They are all great but I think my favorite is "be the answer" because it's specifically about accountability.  It says, in a nutshell, that the employee has the trust of peers and management and is empowered to take care of whatever customer need that arises.  Like Southwest, it means that employees are trained with the brand promise in mind and encouraged to live and breathe the brand promise.  Contrast that with "The machine did it" answer that I got from Budget the other day!  Night and Day.

What does Jetitude mean for the shareholder?  Puh-lenty!  JetBlue recorded profits in 2009 and ranked third on the 2009 Airline Quality Report.  The report includes things like on time performance, customer complaints, lost baggage and the like.  JetBlue just announced that, for the sixth year in a row, they have been awarded highest honors in airline customer satisfaction by JD Power and Associates.  These high rankings show that Jetitude works.  And, as we know, happy customers are loyal customers!

Curious about how AvisBudget (Budget's parent company) did in 2009?  Losses.  We could blame the economy for hampering travel but then, as JetBlue is in the same industry, there's got to be another story in there as well.  Voila: Avis and Budget brands ranked fifth and sixth respectively (out of nine) in a JD Power and Associates survey published late last year.  Both of them scored lower than industry average.

Certainly food for thought, no?  We're going to talk about Zappo's next...  In the meantime, thanks as always for sending me your comments!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Branding and Cultural Accountability: @BudgetRAC, Listen Up!


Yesterday, I told you my sad Budget car rental story.  Truly a customer experience nightmare!  Katie Ayoub, one of my readers, shared in the comment section a recent weird customer experience with Budget as well.  In the middle of all of this, Gary Gertz (@ggertz) shared with me some of his customer experience horrors.  Gary's story as well as some strategic implications will be covered in an upcoming 678 Partners interview so stay tuned for that!

My Budget story didn't dramatically alter the quality of my life in any form or fashion.  At its worst, it's laughably bad customer service.  If we look past the "ha ha" of it all, we see something that's a little more insidious: a cultural problem both structural and attitudinal.  The structural problem is mechanizing the fee so it automatically gets added.  The cultural problem is "The machine did it" answer with neither yielding a basic "sorry" to the inconvenienced customer nor fully understanding what the inconvenience might mean confusing, missing a flight, lost of money and ultimately, loss of business/loyalty.

"Sorry" makes a difference.  As Jay Baer pointed out in this post, we've seen two extreme instances of late: Umpire Jim Joyce and the BP mess in the gulf.  To be clear: sorry is more than just a throwaway word.  It doesn't absolve you.  Rather; it's the acceptance of responsibility and accountability.  It's about understanding the gravity of the situation (small in my case and devastating in the gulf's case) and acting in ways that befit the situation.

Accountability and responsibility can only drill down if you "walk the talk" with your employees.  It's all well and good to put up a poster about accountability somewhere but that's like turning the lights on and unlocking the doors of your business.  Really, it's at your peril if your employees don't have a stake in the success of your business.  If you remember this post, I quoted data from Maritz that show that 43% of customers defect because of poor service.  77% of that 43% defect because of poor employee attitude and 83% of that 43% tell other people their horror stories.

It's about the alignment of internal and external branding.  I have previously mentioned David Holmes, Southwest's "rhythmic ambassador" and rapping flight attendant as a prime example of how he lives "the freedom and empowerment" of the Southwest brand promise.  He can live it easily because of consistency and because Southwest "walks the talk" with employees.  Some long time readers have seen this before, but for my new friends, this is what I mean:

Oh sure, there are more examples of brands that successfully "walk the talk" and thrive because of it.  In my next post, we'll talk about Jet Blue and Zappo's which are two great examples of success borne of service and attention to detail.

Thanks always for the emails and comments!  Keep them coming!  I enjoy reading them.  Also, join us on our Facebook page!

Until Next Time,

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why Do We Hate Our Customers?


We're back in Chicago and already super busy. We're celebrating milestones, throwing together vlogs, doing fun stuff on our Facebook page and catching up on some long overdue reading.

Speaking of reading, I came across an interesting Wall Street Journal article about increased investment in customer service to help drive sales, market share and, generally, growth. Businesses are closely examining which activities can drive the most revenues to get a quick hit in the short term but also successfully differentiate themselves from competitors in the long term.  We also generally know that consumers are savvier and will switch if they are not satisfied. The article quotes an Accenture survey which showed a whopping 69% of respondents saying they had switched at least one provider in 2009 because of poor service.

So if investing in customer service to make it expand beyond the transactional and into the consultative, why do some companies revert to old (and bad) habits? If we are trying to find a loyal and evangelizing base why do we make the customer confused? Why do we enact policies and engage in behaviors designed to aggravate?

Case in point: we rented a car from Budget to get to the airport. The agent explained the extras which I declined. He also mentioned that if I drove less than 75 miles, there was a fuel fee of $13.99 but if the car was returned full with the receipts to show for it, I wouldn't be charged.  I said no thanks to the charge and was on my way.

We all know the adrenaline rush when you get to an airport. You're thinking about returning a rental, maybe checking a bag, getting a boarding pass, going through security where you're removing all extra items of clothing AND where they might open your bag, grabbing a bite to eat, using the facilities, etc. It can make you a little antsy so you're hoping that if you follow the rules, others will as well like a social contract.

So, keeping the adrenaline and the checklist in mind, try to live through my car rental return experience: 
  • When I got to Budget returns, it took a bit of time for someone to show up. He turned on the car, looked at the mileage and confirmed that it was full.  He printed my receipt and I saw the extra $13.99 fuel charge!
  • I asked about the charge and when I showed the receipt he said, "The machine did it."  When I asked if he could undo it, he said that I had to walk to the rental desk to talk to an agent.  I had to ask where that desk was located.
  • I found the Budget desk in the terminal and waited for someone to appear.  Someone at the next desk over said, "Oh, if you're waiting for Budget, you have to walk the other way to Avis."  Huh?
  • At Avis, I explained that I was charged the $13.99 though the car was full and I showed the receipt.  The agent said that it didn't matter, I automatically get charged.  I then explained that I said I didn't want it when I rented the car.  The agent again said that it didn't matter, I automatically get charged.  I then told her to remove the charge.  She grabbed the receipt, mumbled something under her breath at me and walked away to adjust the charge.
Friends, this is all sorts of customer experience wrong:
  • There was no acceptance of responsibility or "Oh, sorry about that" in any of these exchanges but there was a lot of defensiveness.  Saying "The machine did it" is likely accurate but something best left unsaid.
  • If you are in the car rental business with an airport location, you must know that people are dashing to catch a flight.  Confusing them about the final bill, making them waste time they might not have and making them undo the charge they never wanted does not endear them to you nor does it motivate them to give you repeat business (let alone recommend you).
  • If "The machine did it" why was it programmed in this way in the first place?  The only answer a customer can come up with is that this is a cynical revenue play.  And it lends the impression that these companies think they can get away with it - a big no no.
  • If someone doesn't have time to speak to an agent in the mad dash to check in and go through security, will they circle around after the trip is over, find the gas receipts and scan/fax them over to reverse the charge?  Maybe many will.  But many will also lose the receipt or forget to adjust the charge as they go back to everyday hustle and bustle of life.  The sum may be a pittance to many, but the aggravation and some sense of injustice will remain.
This anecdote makes it glaringly obvious that Budget does not train nor empower employees to deliver superior experience despite the WSJ article and despite the data that supports this type of effort.  In this post, I shared with you Bruce Temkin's data that for every 10 point increase in a firm's Customer Experience index, there was a +$284 Million benefit per $10 Billion in revenues.  Good service = higher revenues.  It's simple.

In my next post, I'll talk about accepting responsibility and how that can make a world of difference to your customers.  In the meantime, I'd like to hear your customer experiences gone horribly wrong.  Please send them my way!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ode to an 18 Year Old @MercedesBenz -- A Social Media Primer


I've been in Naples, Florida catching up with family and old friends - hence radio silence interrupted by sporadic tweets and emails. While I've been here, I've had the use of a 1992 Mercedes 300E. I'm not going to lie - it's got some scratches, it's lacking A/C and one of the rear windows doesn't work so to call this pristine would be misleading. But, everything else on this car works. And works incredibly well. I would even suggest that it runs almost as well as it did 18 years ago and that's saying something especially considering that the window and A/C are fixable. So, as warm boiling hot as it's been here, I'm willing to forgive both of those automotive age spots. And that's saying something, too.

After some Googling, I found this glowing, may I say reverent, review of the car. As you can see, I'm not the only one who marvels at all things four door and early 90s boxy. Setting aside the Mercedes idol worship, I thought this sentence was significant:

"... it was one of the most complete Mercedes-Benz cars to incorporate everything that is the Mercedes-Benz brand -- and that encompasses a lot. It's about solidity, longevity, safety, luxury, engineering excellence and of course, prestige."

Why all of these superlatives and why is this car still ticking after all of these years? Well, we have Italian Bruno Sacco, Mercedes' design chief for 24 years, to thank for this piece of German engineering confection. During his 24 year tenure, he was responsible for every bus, car and truck that rolled off a Mercedes assembly line. His point of view on design was different from most: the car product lifecycle should be 30 years. And, he placed equal weight on design as well as function when he considered longevity. I'll share his words:

"The development cycle for a new vehicle is typically three to five years ... This is then followed by a production life of about eight years. The last car off the assembly line will have an average life expectancy of twenty years. That adds up to a product lifecycle of approximately 30 years!"

"But for us, there is no primacy of technology over design or design over technology. The aesthetics of a product can never hope to make up for poor-quality technology."

Folks, as business people (function agnostic), this is a creed and commitment to high performance we should live by. Every time we put pen to paper to devise new products or strategies, we should be thinking longevity and not the quick hit. Living proof: the words solidity, longevity, safety, luxury and engineering excellence in that glowing review exactly reflects what Bruno Sacco wanted you to feel not only when the car rolled off the line but also twenty years later despite scratches and maybe, in my case, no A/C.

I saw a question in a user forum the other day about whether social media is a tactic or a strategy unto itself. I keep seeing variants of this question, it's a fair one to ask and is something that everyone loves to answer. Sometimes, that's not the point. Sometimes, we have to think of the larger picture and the time and discipline required to achieve the big picture. What our products are or aren't and what our brand does or does not represent. This 18 year old car, Bruno Sacco and that social media question remind me of this post that featured a Mitch Joel interview. As he said:

"Marketers want everything ... and they want it fast. ... Yes, you can make fast decisions, but optimal results take time. ... It takes time to build your content, find your voice, develop a community, and earn trust and respect. ... There are no shortcuts to success. ... You become the go-to-person by adding value and building real relationships."

As we develop brands or products, we have to consider the relationship with the customer as well as how they will feel about our brand or product. I've said this before but the relationship can only be developed and solidified based on earning trust and delivering respect both of which are derived from the value that's embedded in the brand or product. How we use channels and dealing with the existential questions of which channel to use (Facebook, Twitter, foursquare, etc.) are meaningless -- simply being present "socially" is the cost of entry these days.

It's the advanced thinking of someone like a Bruno Sacco that's needed to survive in the long term and to still earn accolades even if we are like an 18 year old car with a busted window. How do we apply something like his thirty year product lifecycle to our frame of reference? How do we take the "aesthetics of a product" and ensure that it's backed by features and benefits that are meaningful to our customers? Similarly, how do we ensure that the aesthetics or the "feel good" aspects match up with the features and benefits? 

The short answer is focus.  It's a skill that we could all stand to sharpen regularly.  What's your take?  Feel free to send your thoughts or leave a comment below!  I look forward to hearing from you!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef