Peer pressure, virtuous robots and the reputation economy
[Image courtesy of Facebook(Let) at Flickr Creative Commons]
I recently read an article by Brett Easton Ellis that set me thinking about the social world we live in and the effect it has on how we communicate in business.
Ellis, you may remember, shot to fame back in the 1980s at the tender age of 21 with his international best-seller Less Than Zero, chronicling the lives of privileged youngsters in LA. But he’s best remembered for the cult novel American Psycho, which came out in 1991.
He’s no stranger to controversy and has been familiar with the concept of ‘reputation economy’ since before the term was even coined.
But now, he says, the whole thing has gone too far. Everybody is rating everybody and everything, so we’ve all become reviewers.
That might sound like a good thing – crowd-sourced opinion is probably more reliable than marketing messages, after all – until you realise that it’s a two-way street. When reviewers are being reviewed themselves (think Airbnb) they’re less likely to say anything negative.
Or Ellis puts it, “Now all of us are used to rating movies, restaurants, books, even doctors, and we give out mostly positive reviews because, really, who wants to look like a hater?”
Not me, that’s for sure.
So instead, we become ‘virtuous robots’ who ‘Like’ everything, for fear of being branded negative – or even reviewed unfavourably ourselves.
If you’re a Facebook user, even an occasional one like me, you’ll have experienced the pressure to be positive about everything. Even Facebook themselves realised that a ‘Dislike’ button would be counter-productive and sow discord among users, so they quietly dropped the idea.
The result is a bland rush to the bottom, as everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the Like stakes. So what started out as something positive ends up just a saccharine mess of sweet platitudes guaranteed not to get us into trouble.
Dare to be different
All of this has a direct effect on how organisations interact with their customers. And on how they communicate with them. Just as people don’t want to be seen as haters, or even mildly negative, so companies want to be seen as the good guys.
So they play it safe by playing the game.
The thing is, that makes it very difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you’re going to innovate, you need to make mistakes. But then you run the risk of not being liked – or worse, not being Liked.
Ellis says the reputation economy’s real crime is “stamping out passion” and “stamping out the individual”. The same is true of corporate passion and corporate individuality.
Because making mistakes can often be hugely positive. Another article I came across this week at Lifehacker.com confirmed this idea, this time in connection with a summer programming course:
By the end of the summer, the stronger students were those who had made more mistakes: they’d tried more things, compiled more bad code, hit more runtime errors, and confused the REPL more soundly.
REPL just stands for read-eval-print loop, by the way. It allows you to check a chunk of code to see if it’s OK or needs revising.
The point here is that the ones who tried hardest made the most mistakes – and the most progress. Just imagine if there had been a ‘Like’ button at each stage of their journey. Or reviewers constantly picking apart their efforts and rating it out of five stars.
Treading a fine line
Now I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind here and put out any old message written any old way. But there’s a huge pressure when to marketing to be like everybody else. And that in part is driven by the tyranny of the ‘Like’ button. And for marketers, it means we:
- don’t do anything controversial
- hide our weaknesses, or play them down
- pretend we can do everything (even when we can’t, and shouldn’t even try to)
- over-promise and inevitably under-deliver
- use bland language, devoid of any passion
- don’t demarcate ourselves from the competition
The most important one, of course, is the last.
Because in a market where price and product – and sometimes service – have become commoditised, setting yourself apart is no easy task. You have to dare not to be liked, and that takes guts.
To take a current example, just look at Donald Trump.
His hugely controversial comments have brought a chorus of disapproval from the political class, press and bloggerati across the globe. And you know what? He doesn’t care. He’s raised issues – albeit in an outrageous way – that have touched a nerve with people. He can’t be dismissed as a complete irrelevance, as he’s streaking ahead in the polls.
And he more he’s criticised, and the more he responds, the higher his poll ratings go. He’s blind-sided his opponents, who don’t know how to handle the political hot potato he’s lobbed their way.
Now we can’t – and shouldn’t – all go shooting our mouths off and offending people across the globe, but we might just think what positive take-aways there are in this mostly negative story.
And here, I think it’s that if you really, truly believe something, you should just go ahead and say it. (It does help if you’re armour-plated by unimaginable wealth, but all the same, the principle still stands if you’re an ordinary mortal.)
Winners and losers
So are there any upsides to the reputation economy? Of course there are. Not everything is as black-and-white as Donald might imagine. Here are some:
- Companies become accountable to their customers.
- Bad service is exposed and eliminated.
- Standards are inexorably forced up.
- Openness and transparency become integral to business.
- Potential customers can get a balanced, impartial view of companies, products and services.
But the cult of Liking shouldn’t stop you daring to be different. You don’t need to do a Donald, but you might consider revisiting your marketing communications to:
- Modify your tone of voice so you sound distinctive and stand out from the crowd.
- Experiment with new channels and new approaches.
- Admit your weaknesses upfront (“we do this really badly, but we do that really well…”).
- Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time by staying firmly in the middle ground.
- Narrow your focus to talk directly to your prospects or…
- … expand your focus to talk to new people.
- Do something without constantly worrying what the reaction/reception will be.
Once upon a time, I went on a course, the content of which has slipped through the sieve of my mind, all except for one frightening and thrilling challenge.
Do something every day that scares you.
In other words, push back the boundaries and live dangerously. It’s something we should all try now and then – whether we ‘Like’ it or not.
In the end, customer experience is all that matters
[Image courtesy of Alpha at Flickr Creative Commons]
You know how it is when you hear a word for the first time, and then it keeps popping up everywhere? It happened to me a few months ago, when I saw dob somebody in.
It’s Ozzie slang for informing on somebody (he dobbed me in to the teacher), which explains why I wasn’t familiar with it. And the writer wasn’t from Down Under, so he was using it for the novelty value.
And it was certainly novel to me.
But then a strange thing happened. Dob in started appearing in more and more articles I was reading. Either it had gone viral, or I simply hadn’t noticed it before.
Whatever the case, it’s now firmly on my radar. In fact, I found myself using it to a friend last week, whose look of utter bafflement told me that the virus hadn’t become that widespread.
Not yet. Unlike customer experience.
Now you CX, now you don’t
Customer experience is nothing new, but it’s recently moved front and centre (much like the expression front and centre has). In fact, I was waxing lyrical about it over the summer, as I undertook a big project on customer care, and its close relation customer experience.
And now, just like our old friend dob, it’s all over the place. Everywhere I turn, I see something about customer experience. You may remember that my earlier research suggested that by 2020, customer service (and experience) will have overtaken price and product as the ultimate differentiator.
Well just last week, I came across a compelling survey that doesn’t just talk about customer experience in a nebulous, feelgood way. Instead, it slaps cold hard figures on it, suggesting that an improvement in CX at a $1bn company could lead to an $824m increase in revenue over three years.
Stop and read that again. It’s enough to make anybody sit up and listen, isn’t it?
The survey by the Temkin Group is based on 10,000 US consumers and 293 companies across 20 vertical markets, so it’s pretty thorough. And the findings concur with all the others I was poring over in the summer. The bottom line is that customer experience matters – and it directly affects your bottom line.
Cards, coffee and customers
But it’s often patchy and unpredictable. I was reminded of this again recently by two very different examples of CX.
The first was at Three, the mobile phone operator.
I’d got a new phone – not through them, as it happens – and needed a SIM card cut down from micro to nano size.
On the face of it, everything was against having a good experience. It was a Saturday afternoon, it was a small job, and to be honest, as a pay-as-you-go customer, I’m small fry. I phoned up my local store to see if they could help.
I was blown away.
My new best friend Tom told me to come around whenever I liked. They were open till 6pm, and it would be a a pleasure to help. When I got there, Tom wasn’t available, but his equally friendly colleague smiled and said she could help me out. In fact, everybody was smiling – customers and assistants alike.
Five minutes and nano SIM later, I left the shop marvelling at what a wonderful (and free) experience I’d had. I’ll never look at Three in quite the same way again. And since then, I’ve been telling everybody what happened.
I then went for a coffee at one of the big chains to play with my new phone. And there, it was quite the opposite experience: sullen staff, tables overflowing with trays, and slow, grudging service.
Now the thing is, it’s not normally like this at the other branches I go to. But this one experience has coloured my whole perception of the chain. That’s the power of customer experience.
And whether it’s a £2.50 cup of coffee or free SIM cutting, it all adds up – sometimes, to hundreds of millions in lost, or gained, sales. The companies who get it right will reap the rewards, and the ones that don’t will pay the price.
By the way, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention the coffee chain by name, it’s because I know that we all have bad days, so maybe it’s just a blip on the radar. I’ll leave it a while and go back to see if things have changed.
And if they haven’t I’ll dob them in. Defo.
Why it pays to scare yourself every now and then
[Image courtesy of Pete at Flickr Creative Commons]
A few weeks ago, I caught up with a friend whom I haven’t seen for many years. We’ve sort of stayed in touch on Facebook and Skype, though it’s been mostly fleeting IMs, which aren’t really the same as face-to-face conversations.
So when we did get together in person over a coffee, we finally had the chance to fill in all the details of the intervening decade.
My friend has turned his life upside down, changing careers, relationships, countries and outlook. He’s starting all over again, and putting the past behind him. I was excited and just a little scared on his behalf.
“But what about…” I found myself saying over and over again. What about money, prospects, the future, the disruption and the uncertainty of it all?
“All that stuff is in your head,” he said to me with a sweep of his hand and a broad smile. “It really is.”
After we parted, with a promise not to leave it so long next time, I found his words swirling around in my head. The same head all that stuff is in. Could it be true that all the things I think I know are actually just impressions, which I could change as easily as flipping a switch?
And I’m not just talking about the personal sphere now. It applies equally to the professional one. What could I change? What could you change? What would the results be?
Here are some ideas I came up with, or have recently heard about, or have even put in place myself (perhaps unconsciously betraying my desire to turn everything on its head):
- Forget about SEO. In the age intelligent search and natural-language processing, this is actually a no-brainer. Gone are the days when you simply dropped in keywords and phrases and the algorithm worked its magic. Now more than ever, you have to write for the reader, not for the search engines. But what if you forgot about them completely? It’s like doing a high-wire act without the safety net. An acquaintance of mine recently took this approach, and though he dropped in the organic search-engine rankings, his content was shared far more, leading to lots of new leads – and a big chunk of business.
- Do something different. Speaking of safety nets, I decided earlier this year to turn off my pay-per-click advertising for a while. The quality of the leads had dropped, so I decided to try an alternative approach. Instead, I sent out an email blast, and repeated it at regular intervals. The resulting business was much more rewarding – in every sense – than the PPC leads I’d been getting. But it required a proactive effort on my behalf, and a leap of faith as the advertising went dark.
- Connect with everybody. I’ve always been a bit choosy personally and professionally about who I connect with. But a few months back, at the suggestion of yet another friend, I resolved to drop the barriers and connect with anybody who wanted to connect with me. And I started proactively connecting randomly and frequently myself. The result has been astonishing – new friends, new business, new horizons.
- Stop hiding and get personal. A client of mine is a serial coffee-drinker. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except he rarely does it alone. As soon as he connects with somebody local online – on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter – he suggests getting together for a latte, cappuccino or americano. He tells me he got the idea from online dating, where endless chat rarely leads anywhere. He says that in life as in love, the direct approach is best, which is why he suggests a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity. And he’s found just what he’s looking for (business, I mean) on many occasions.
- Feel the fear and do it anyway. “How on earth did you get so many amazing referrals?” I said to a client recently. They looked too good to be true, but each and every one was genuine. “I just asked for them,” he said, looking at me as if I were very slow on the uptake (or very cynical, or both). And that’s exactly what he had done, over and over again. I’ve done it too, of course, but not often enough to get through the pain barrier. He, on the other hand, does it so regularly that he feels no embarrassment whatsoever. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Indeed.
- Don’t make assumptions. We all do this, and we know we do – but that doesn’t stop us. I assumed my email campaign had failed, and then it miraculously paid dividends. I assumed that I’d never do business with a particular client, and then he popped up on the radar two years later. I assumed that I’d offended an unresponsive client, until I discovered that there was a personal crisis that swept everything else aside. I assumed that PPC would constantly bring in high-quality leads, until it stopped doing so. If you can take a step back and realise you’re making assumptions with no real basis in fact, you’re on the road to recovery. Think of it as mindful marketing.
The list of things to turn on their head is potentially endless. Write in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Give away valuable content without asking people to register first. Make that call (the one you’ve been putting off – because there’s always one). Stop trying to create the perfect sales email, and just send what you’ve got. Admit that you do some things badly, or not at all – and either live with the consequences or change.
Stop endlessly polishing your blog post. Hit ‘publish’.
Then do something else that scares you.
Time to clear the decks and make a new start
If I hear one more person badmouth PowerPoint, I think I’ll scream. In fact, I already have, in anticipation of the next criticism coming my way, which is only a matter of time.
A poor workman blames his tools, I want to say. But I never do, because I’m far too tactful and diplomatic.
But seriously, are people saying that PowerPoint serves no useful purpose at all? That they could stand up there and do a presentation like Dave, note-free and happily rapping for an hour without corpsing?
I doubt it.
And quite apart from live presentations, what about slide decks that are just read and never used for presentations. Don’t they have a part to play in your marketing armoury?
Of course they do. And used well (I’ve seen this done on rare and pretty spectacular occasions) PowerPoint can be incredibly effective. So what is it that gives the program such a bad reputation?
Here are some of the mistakes I’ve seen in slide decks I’ve recently been working through:
- Distracting transitions and animations. Slides that dissolve and text that flies in from one side of the screen move attention away from what you’re saying and on to how you’re saying it. Most transitions and animations are gimmicky and unnecessary.
- Too much information on one slide. A slide is no different to a paragraph or a section of copy. It should be long enough to convey the essentials, but not so long it loses the audience. If it’s too long, you’re probably trying to cover too much ground, so split it into two slides – or even more.
- Not tailored to the audience. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to slide decks or any other copy. Maybe you need a sales deck, a marketing deck, a partner deck and lots of other variations on the theme. And you know what? If you’re presenting live, you don’t need a whole slew of decks. You can simply create custom shows within the same deck.
- All or nothing. This is related to the last point, but is slightly different. When you’re doing a presentation, you often want to react in real time to the audience, based on their input. So you may not want to go sequentially through from slide 1 to 100 (and you really shouldn’t have 100 slides, by the way) but branch off at slide 10 depending on your audience. Branching is really easy, and saves your audience sitting through endless slides that aren’t relevant.
- Written for the writer, not the reader. This is a basic mistake that applies to all copywriting. If you turn the tables and ask yourself whether you’d read what you’re writing if it were somebody else’s work, you might be in for a shock. Most slide decks are too long and too heavy on detail. So flip it round, and you’ll soon see where the problem is.
- Not tailored to the medium. Some decks are used for live presentations and others are emailed as an attachment or downloaded. So which is yours? They serve two purposes and need different levels of detail: a live presenter can always fill in the gaps and add more detail, but an emailed/downloaded deck should be free-standing.
- Cobbled together and hard to change. Somebody recently asked me to edit a slide deck, and when I looked at it, I realised to my horror that they didn’t know how to use the software properly. Now I’m no saint, but in a former life, I was a bit of a PowerPoint whizz. And you know what? Slide Layout is your friend, and Slide Masters will watch your back when you need it most. You’ll be able to edit more easily, move text around quickly, and have slides that are consistent and easy to read. As with most things, you need to take the time to save time. Which means reading the manual (ouch).
Remember, your slide decks are just as much part of your marketing collateral as your website, brochures, blog or tweets. Each and every slide sends out a message: too long (we don’t respect your time), too complicated (we don’t make things easy), too gimmicky (we focus on what’s not important), too detailed (we don’t cut to the chase).
So what message are yours sending out?
Omnichannel or omnishambles? Time to join up the dots.
[Image courtesy of Dave Gray at Flickr Creative Commons]
Life used to be so simple. You wanted something, so you went to a shop. Either they had what you wanted, or they ordered it in. Maybe you phoned ahead, or maybe you just took a chance.
And then came the internet.
You could have anything you wanted, whenever you wanted it. Or almost. Because if you had to have it right now, you still had to go to a store. But the good thing was that most had an online presence, so you could check what they had in stock and save yourself a wasted trip.
Well so goes the theory. The practice is quite another matter, as I found out last week. Not once, but twice.
I checked the website of Boots the chemist to see if they had a box of strips for glucose testing kits at my local store. They had not only one, but lots. So off I went.
When I got there, I scoured the shelves but couldn’t find what I was looking for. No problem, I thought – it’ll be behind the counter. So I asked the assistant, and she went to check with the pharmacist. The confab lasted longer than it should have, and she came back with that look on her face. You know the one.
No, they didn’t have what I was looking for. They had bigger boxes of the strips, but only on prescription. So I’d have to go to a doctor – for something that in theory was available over the counter.
Just not that counter.
Or I could order on Boots.com, said the assistant. But she said it as if it was a separate company to the one she worked for. When I pointed out that I’d specifically checked that store’s stock online, she gave me a look of blank incomprehension and said, “I don’t know anything about that”.
So much for joined-up service.
Computer says no
The second experience didn’t happen to me, but to a friend of mine.
Here’s the quick version: PC World, a monitor, stock levels that looked fine, a reservation number and confirmation email, and a wasted trip to the store, when they told him that the monitor he’d reserved was actually on display, and so obviously not for sale.
Add in an assistant who was new and didn’t know what he was doing, a call to his manager that wasn’t returned while my friend waited in store and much confusion, and you get the picture. My friend couldn’t wait any longer, so he asked the assistant to call him once he’d heard from his manager.
He got the call – six hours later. By which time, he’d bought the monitor on the PC World website and paid £10 for next-day delivery.
Customer care everywhere
You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you? It shows how complicated it is in practice to link the online and offline world. And how it should work in theory: integrated systems, trained staff and a consistent message.
Not to mention a consistent customer experience.
As part of the humungous project on customer care I’ve been working on recently (nearly there) I’ve found out lots about how companies are trying to pull together the disparate strands of their service into something coherent and consistent.
It’s not easy, but it is possible.
Automation and artificial intelligence have made great strides in recent years, and systems have been simplified to deliver a similar experience whether you’re on a website, social media, chat or a voice call. But somewhere, somehow, that all needs to be linked to the offline experience.
And that’s not just systems but training too. Put a monitor on display, tick it off the system. Customer complains about glucose strip shortage? Report it to the online team.
None of this requires artificial intelligence. Just a little bit of old fashioned human intelligence, basic initiative and common sense. Because that’s what will make the omnichannel truly omni.
And keep blood sugar levels down.