Spinning a story, finding a fix and keeping a smile on your face
[Image courtesy of Robert Sharp at Flickr Creative Commons]
I’ve almost finished Call me Dave, the unauthorised biography of David Cameron that came out last autumn. You may remember it caused quite a stir at the time, relating as it did the dodgy initiation ceremony he was supposed to have been involved in at Oxford, quickly dubbed ‘pig-gate’.
But it wasn’t the porcine pranks that caught my attention (or at least, not only).
It was the picture that emerged of Cameron as a slightly wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road type who has no strongly held political beliefs. By the time he was elected leader of the Conservative party, he’d only been an MP for four years.
So what accounts for his success? Some will say it’s his public-school charm and his privileged background, combined with an address book to die for. Certainly there is an element of that, it seems to me.
But it’s also his relentless focus on solutions, his attention to detail and his positive, can-do attitude. Even as a special adviser (or ‘spad’) back in the 90s, he mastered briefs faster and better than anyone, and always came up with a definite course of action.
His years spent in PR at Carlton didn’t do him any harm either, as he learned how to spin a story and always focus on the upside.
As I read, I thought about how presentation is so important. You may not be the best, or the brightest, or the fastest, or the cheapest. But if you make the right moves and send out the right signals, you can streak ahead.
Here 10 Dave-like things you can do today to change how people see you:
- Laugh at yourself. Recently I was buying something in Holland & Barrett. I gave the chap my loyalty card, then paid using my debit card. As I was putting in my code, he asked me if I had an H&B loyalty card. “Yes, I said,” slightly shortly. “I just gave it to you.” “Sorry,” he replied with a smile. “Memory of a fish.” We both laughed and my irritation disappeared.
- Admit your mistakes. Last weekend, I got an email from Pure Gym telling me about restricted access to my club at Canary Wharf. Just one problem – I live in Cambridge. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. And then, an hour later, came a self-deprecating email apologising for their error. Just like the Fish Man, they’d won me back.
- Say it like you mean it. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” said somebody to a friend of mine by way of apology for a customer service #fail experience. He told me this actually made it worse – as if she wasn’t really sorry. It was almost as if she was minimising the problem and throwing in a meaningless apology to appease him. “If only she’d just said ‘I’m sorry’, that would have made all the difference,” he moaned.
- Be unprofessional. Nobody likes corporate speak, and yet we all use it. And the bigger the organisation, the worse the problem. And yet they’re the ones that most need to connect with their readers, users and prospects. So drop the corporate mask, and be yourself in everything you say and do. Challenge the stereotype, just as Dave did, detoxifying the Tories, rewriting the right-wing script and connecting with voters.
- Go off-message. “It’s crazy,” said the meter reader to me a couple of months back. “It’s Health & Safety gone mad.” He was talking about the rule that says he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to take off their shoes before entering a customer’s house. Which means sometimes, they’re refused access. As he joked about the rules-is-rules craziness, he kicked off his shoes and read my meter. Off message, but on form.
- Communicate enough – but not too much. Cameron knows all about getting your message out and making sure it’s heard. But it’s a fine line to tread between communicating regularly and bombarding people. The frequency and detail are the two major challenges. So do it regularly, but not too regularly. Include detail, but not too much. Make sure you have something valuable to say, and do the heavy lifting for the reader by summarising ruthlessly.
- Stop talking, start listening. “I need to work on my listening skills,” said a business coach to me at a networking event. No kidding. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to me why they were important, and how they worked, and how most people get the balance wrong between listening and talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,” he said, clearly pleased with himself, “and we should use them in proportion.” I tried to agree, but couldn’t get a word in.
- If you ask for feedback, take it. Politicians are often very bad at this. They have a pet project, and they look for any and every piece of evidence that will back up their scheme. If they don’t find it, or find something to the contrary, they simply carry on regardless. Just last month, I heard of somebody who asked for honest feedback on their website. When they got it, they exploded – and yet it was sound advice. We all have blind spots, and feedback is vital to the process. But you have to take the rough with the smooth.
- Give reassurance at every turn. “All my work comes with a guarantee,” said the bicycle shop guy to me. “And the saddle comes with a 30-day comfort guarantee.” It was one guarantee after another, and I could feel a warm fuzzy feeling as he laid it on thicker and thicker. I didn’t need all that reassurance, as his work is always impeccable. I know it’s guaranteed, but he says it every time. And every time it works. It just does.
- Don’t focus on the problem. This is one I struggle with. I can see why: often, dissecting the problem is far more fun than finding a solution. How could I have done that? I ask myself. Look what a mess it is! I say. This will never be right, I predict with grim certainty. And yet where does that get me? Or you? Nowhere. So do what Cameron does: tell yourself ‘we are where we are’, and come up with a solution, however imperfect. In the long run, it saves time, effort and heartache.
Dave’s not perfect, but he’s good at what counts – mastering the detail, spinning the story and finding fixes. Maybe if I follow in his footsteps – initiation ceremonies (alleged) aside – I’ll be unstoppable too.
Just Call me Kevin.
Blitz marketing, lateral thinking and a revolutionary seed-tray
[Image courtesy of Matthew Wynn at Flickr Creative Commons]
In the spirit of New Year, New You (a jaded old cliché, but one that works unfailingly every year – at least for me) I decided to sign up for some courses in early January on Udemy.
One of them was tantalisingly entitled Become a SuperLearner 2: Learn Speed Reading & Boost Memory-learning.
Isn’t that just irresistible?
Not only the promise of reading faster and remembering more, but the reassuring ‘2’, which suggests it’s better than version 1. I signed up immediately, encouraged by the $10 promotional price. It was a no-brainer (so to speak).
So far, it’s proving very interesting indeed.
I’ve learned how we learn, why we forget, and how we can improve our retention. Plus the importance of creativity, imagination and visual imagery. And I’ve discovered a whole galaxy of memory champs like Joshua Foer (you must watch that TED talk) and Nelson Dellis (thanks to whom I can now name the 10 highest peaks in the world).
But it’s not all about memorising decks of cards and other party tricks. There’s a serious purpose to all of this, which is to tap into the incredible power of our brain, and use it to the full. Or if not that, at least a little more than we currently do (not 10%, by the way – that myth’s been busted).
Mind the gap
The SuperLearner course gets you to do all sorts of weird things to expand your mind, so you can step outside the limitations you imagine your brain has.
Suddenly, I found myself remembering 20 random words, or random images.
Or taking a household object and listing as many uses – practical or zany – as I could think of. I chose a framed print in my living room.
Apparently kids come up on average with 20 uses for any given object. Adults are lucky to think of half that number – unless they ‘unlearn’ what they know and open their minds up to unexpected possibilities.
My list came in at 16, which means I’m more child than adult, I suppose. Or more creative. One of the uses was as a seed tray, as the frame is deep enough to fill it with earth, and germinate flowers. I was particularly proud of that one.
The great thing about all of this mind-bending is that it has a knock-on effect on everything else. Freed from the bounds of conventional thinking, you suddenly start making connections.
And those connections start happening faster.
It helps if you can combine this left-of-field approach with the one-minute rule that I talked about last year. If you can do it right now, in less than one minute, do it. And if you can’t, start anyway and see what happens.
No time like the present
What’s the one thing you’re putting off today? The thing you just know you won’t have accomplished – though you should have – by the end of the day?
Chances are you think you need just a little more: time, reflection, information, feedback, evaluation, research and so on.
You don’t. Because when you’re under pressure, you can produce great things fast. Or even good things fast, which most of the time is perfectly adequate.
Just this week, somebody I often work with asked me if I could contribute to a marketing proposal he was putting together. It would involve branding, design, strategy and content marketing. The thing is, the proposal had to be submitted in a couple of hours, and I was already under pressure on another job.
My contribution didn’t have to be long, but it did have to add value. It couldn’t just be waffle.
I grabbed a pen and paper, and went into seed-tray mode.
Fifteen minutes later, I had a top-level marketing outline, with 10 strategies, an activity calendar, and over 20 articles spread across three categories.
When I finished, I looked at this list in wonder and amazement. How had I done that?
The answer is simple: when you have to, you can. Strip away all external distractions and let your mind run free.
Just like I did with the framed print. It was a fire-guard, a drinks tray, a draught excluder and a sunshade. A fan, a blackout panel, a seat and an umbrella. Not to mention a seed tray.
It may sound like a frivolous exercise, but all this lateral thinking helps you see things differently and come up with truly novel ideas.
Which in marketing terms is pure gold dust.
And what about my super-learning skills? Well I can’t memorise a pack of cards yet, or read read War and Peace in an afternoon. But I can come up with marketing plan (or an outline for one) in under 15 minutes.
So that was $10 well spent.
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.