Caring Trickles Down

You know that moment when you approach the counter and the employee is indifferent or, even worse, rude to you? Who do you blame for that? Is the employee at fault? Perhaps they’re having a bad day and taking it out on the customer? How about the manager? He is supposed to be ‘managing’, no? What about the supervisor? Didn’t they hire and screen the manager with the expectation that they would provide excellent customer service? What about the executive in charge? Aren’t they responsible for quality and level of service for the entire staff? And on it goes…

The problem is one of caring. In general, if the boss doesn’t care the employees certainly don’t. Caring trickles down. Every level of employee cares slightly less than the level above. There are anomalies, sure, where every now and then a single employee really wants to make a difference but if that behavior is not rewarded quickly and loudly, it will disappear.

Not caring is expressed in a lot of ways. I once worked for a guy that gave Friday morning pump-up speeches about how much he appreciated everyone’s efforts and he understood the staff’s sacrifices in staying late… just before grabbing his briefcase and heading for the door hours before the office closed so he could beat weekend traffic. Memos, speeches, emails and praise mean nothing compared to actions. And it is the actions the staff is watching; they’ve already learned the words are empty.

So, why doesn’t the girl at the counter treat the customer with respect and regard? Because the manager is hiding in the office. He says he cares -heck, he teaches the customer service course- but his actions say he doesn’t. And why doesn’t the manager care? Because the regional manager only stops by once a quarter and when he does it is for a pre-arranged appointment, when everything is cleaned up nice for his arrival. He never pops in on his free time, never takes the manager to lunch on his own dime, never knows the employees names without asking his assistant. Quick aside: I worked for one executive who literally had name cards printed out by his assistant in advance of meeting with his staff that he would look at before answer a question, “Yes, um… Joe, that’s a good idea that should be fully implemented in your department which is… um… IT.”  I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been offended if I had a similar card with his vitals printed on it so I could remember his name and role. The inference was that he was important enough to remember but, we the staff, on the other hand, were not. Did he also do that when meeting with clients or other executives? Probably not. It was clear who he cared about and was certainly was not his staff.

Caring is caring. Doing is doing. If the goal is to build a successful business, start by taking care of your staff and expecting them to perform at the same level as you. Set the standard and do so with your actions, not your memos. And do it soon before your customers start wondering why they care more than you do.

The Next Smash Hit

With the advent of digital media, on demand services and social integration, is a break-through smash hit, the one show, act, book, movie or song that “everyone” talks about, still possible in any form of media? Can any one piece of content still captivate a majority audience share across multiple niches? If so, who will create the next “must see” experience? In what format of media will it be delivered? How will it be distributed?

As we have expanded the means through which we consume media, and as the spectrum of available media continually widens, it becomes much more difficult for any one piece of content to rise above the niches into which consumers have segmented. There are many examples of this change in consumer behavior happening now. In the days of only four channels, it was easy to proclaim one network and one show the clear winner in the fight for audience share.  But what about when there are hundreds of television options? A recent report from Nielsen points out that, while radio remains the dominant form of music discovery, teenagers are increasingly listening to YouTube as their primary music source. Is it still a hit if it generates millions of YouTube views and sets a new world record of ‘likes’ but does so long before it hits the traditional Billboard singles charts?

Niches Become Markets Unto Themselves

The markets for consumption of media have fragmented to such an extent, with consumers focused so intently on specific niches, that the complete domination of society by a single entertainer or piece of content is now a thing of the past. The issue is compounded by the vast reach of media, and our access to media, in the digital era where information has grown to such an extent that consumers are no longer starved for information, but rather, they have to make tough decisions as to what information to deliberately ignore.

Is there a popular television show that you want to watch but haven’t yet? Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Homeland perhaps? Why haven’t you watched it yet? Because these things take time and (some amount of) effort to consume. You have to selectively decide what is important enough to invest your time in. This is vastly different than the era of Dallas or the M.A.S.H. series finale when everyone tuned in and everyone talked about it for days. In the digital era, does society still care who shot J.R.? The opportunity cost of entertainment choice has never been more expensive than today where we have so many options. With this wide of an entertainment spectrum, some things simply have to be ignored. And if something is being ignored by some portion of the audience that would have traditionally tuned in, does any one piece of content still have the potential to be talked about by “everyone”?

Everything is Fragmented

50 Shades of Grey, arguably the most popular book of the past few years, started as fan fiction. If you were looking at the New York Times best seller list to find the next smash hit book, you wouldn’t have seen it there. More than likely, you weren’t looking at The Times anyway- too many other choices. Similarly, Justin Bieber was born of YouTube fame long before he graced the stages to the adoration of thousands of screaming teens. Here again, the Billboard charts and radio playlists would have been useless in identifying this pop star early in his career.

This is hardly an anomaly. Rather, it is a trend. If we look at the worldwide highest grossing movies of all time we see that a few recent releases top the list. However, if we look at the same list adjusted for inflation, it becomes clear that the must-see blockbuster is a thing of the past. You have to look all the way down to number fourteen on that list to even see a single movie from the past decade. There are simply too many movies, theaters and, perhaps more importantly, entertainment alternatives to the movie theater, for any one cinematic release to dominate the social stratosphere. The history of popular television tells a similar tale. Some of the most popular television shows of today are Game of Thrones, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Mad Men and Homeland. But when we examine the most watched television broadcasts of all time we see that in the U.S. there is not a single broadcast from the past twenty years in the top ten. Eliminate sports and current events from the list and it becomes clear that “must see” TV ended as soon as we had more than three channels to choose from. There are too many shows, too many channels, too many options for any single broadcast to rise above the noise.

Is a Smash Hit Still Possible?

Ultimately, there will be another smash hit. Much like 50 Shades of Grey or Psy’s Gangnam Style, something will come along and captivate culture across multiple consumer niches but we might not notice it happening if we are looking in the wrong direction. If the industry experts are all staring at Neilson reports and Billboard charts, how will they identify it? The simple answer is that they won’t. In the age of social media, market fragmentation and hundreds of thousands of entertainment options, it is the people who will decide the next big thing. Times have changed and if you find yourself in this industry still relying on the same old tricks, chances are you will be left behind by the next big thing. It will be old news by the time it is in the news.

The Thing About Disruption…

…is that it requires a team to do.

The more ostentatious the disruption, the bigger and more coordinated team you’ll need. This is to say that if all you want to do is to go into your local sandwich shop and demand a new type of mustard, you could probably accomplish that on your own. If you wanted to stage a coup at work, and get your boss fired for some reason, it would most likely require the endorsement of several colleagues to even be taken seriously. Whereas if the disruption is something as auspicious as, say overthrowing a government, that would probably require thousands of well-coordinated revolutionaries.

Building disruption is not building chaos. It is building teams of people fed up with the status quo with the willingness to do something about it.

The 10 Most Common Articles on Business and Technology Sites

  1. The Shocking Headline That Sounds Fascinating but Really Our Article has Very Little to do With (We’re talking about you here
  2. The Three Things Killing Your Business RIGHT NOW! (click through for details, after watching the ad, sign up to read full article)
  3. The Smart and Snarky Article that you Would Never See on a Mainstream Media Site
  4. The Rewrite and Repost of the Same on a Different Site with Very Subtle (or no) Source Attribution
  5. ‘My Bad Day’- Re-titled and Written as a Metaphor for Common Business Challenges- cat bites and difficult travel experiences are all game
  6. The Gushing Evangelistic “Review” of the Latest and Greatest Thing from Apple
  7. What Company X MUST do to Save their Dying Business Written by a Someone with No Experience Saving Dying Businesses
  8. The Business Equivalent of, “Does this make me look fat?”- Personal Stories of Business Challenges Overcome so Readers can Marvel at that Thing I Did and Respond with Nice Comments
  9. The Story that has very Little to do with Business or Technology but Allowed me to use Photos of Semi-nude Women or the Word ‘Sex’
  10. Big Name Person Says Shocking Thing (when taken out of context of course)

The Wrong Customer and the Real Customer

How is it that the same organizations consistently get ranked as the “worst companies” by consumers? How come some businesses never seem to ‘get’ their customer but still exist? The answer is that they are focused on the wrong customer. The surprising part is that this is pretty easy to do.

University website venn diagram


Who Do We Serve?

The person that pays the bills of course. But, in many cases, this person is not the same as the paying consumer that gives their money to a brand in exchange for a service. Instead, the person that pays the bills is the person directly above the employee and the two or three people above that. Consider this: A guy works in the marketing department of a large organization that sells furniture. He crafts ads and writes copy in his office at headquarters. Occasionally, he visits stores for photo shoots or to discuss new campaigns.  During one of these visits, a customer approaches him and asks, “Do you work here?” What to do? Let’s say he decides to help the customer as best he can, while pointing out that he’s not a retail associate but, nonetheless, he wants the customer to be satisfied. Well, that’s just great, and that is pretty much what every executive would advise and what the training manuals would say to do. And that is exactly what most employees will not do (including the training manual authors and executives). The reason is that it won’t count. Our hapless marketing department guy can serve the customer until the cows come home but it won’t affect his situation one bit unless his boss notices. And, even so, the marketing department’s annual employee evaluation form doesn’t even include a section for customer service.  Even if it did, it would be focused on serving the “internal customer”. Stakeholders trump consumers in almost every corporate project.

Of course this isn’t limited to retail brands either. Distance from The Real Customer is relative to the employee’s passion for serving that customer.  Large organizations are even more at risk for this sort of employee disassociation than smaller ones.  Many companies also have to focus on keeping investors happy. In these scenarios, who is being served? It begins at the top. If the very highest levels of leadership in the organization are beholden to share owners, banks or anyone but The Real Customer, why would the employees under him focus their attention differently? Not that anyone in the business environment would ever say this aloud… that would be corporate sacrilege.

Bonus Success vs. Business Success

So, what to do when the boss suggests we serve a stale bun with the burger, or hide that bad trade on the books until next quarter or smudge the budget numbers so they tell a better story or create a website based on ego instead of service? Bonus or business, who wins? Something to remember anyway the next time you are on the consumer side of the fence and you’re treated by an employee as though you don’t matter.  The reason they are treating you that way is because, in their world, you really don’t matter. Or, rather, you matter, but you matter a lot less than the guy that signs the pay check.

The needs of the boss should serve the wants of the consumer at every level in the organization.  Lasting businesses are built by groups of employees with a passionate focus on The Real Customer and the consumer’s experience with your brand. Promotions and bonuses are built by groups of employees with a passionate focus on gaining the boss’s approval. Are these values aligned in your organization?

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BlackBerry has Jumped the Digital Shark

Heard on the train a few days ago, as two interns in their early 20’s discussed their co-workers:  “He is so old and creepy. Even if I liked him, what is he gonna do, text me from his BlackBerry? Who even still has one of those?

Research In Motion, makers of the mobile BlackBerry device, recently announced terrible quarterly numbers and further delayed the release of the next version of their phone. As just one in a string of recent misses for the company, media pounced on the financial news and many outlets proclaimed it to be one of the last nails in RIM’s coffin. In response, the recently appointed CEO made several bold statements pointing towards a bright future for the business and the next version of their device, the BlackBerry 10.  Despite being derided as delusional, the CEO pointed out that the organization does have several things going for it:  They have zero debt and plenty of cash, a well-established user-base and plans to reduce operating expenses.  Of course, he’s not likely to come out saying, “Hell, I don’t know, I only just took the job and things are pretty messed up,” but he makes some good points.

Moreover, he seems to understand the company’s struggles.  He stated, “…RIM has missed on important trends in the smart-phone industry…” and further pointed out that they were keenly aware of the position the BlackBerry device once held, “With BlackBerry, RIM created the framework that gave people their first taste of an untethered yet completely connected life.”  That last bit might not sound like a big deal now, but it was at one point.  In the early days of the emergence of the device, it truly was liberating to be able to stay current with work while not physically at work. For the first time, with a single portable, corporate-approved, secure email device, early adapters (and, eventually, seemingly everyone in the corporate world) could finally stay connected when not in the office. Crazy as it might sound now, there was one point when having a BlackBerry was considered a status symbol.

I am not going to debate whether the company is still viable or not.  Personally, I believe they do have the potential, and resources, to succeed and the willingness to do so.  Change is always uncomfortable and this might simply be that period of discomfort.  However, since I heard the statement on the train the other day, I’ve paid much closer attention to who I see using BlackBerrys. And darn it if every single person I saw using one wasn’t over 30 years-old.  It is a small, hardly-scientific and incidental observation, but the next time you see someone using a Blackberry device, take a guess how old they might be. I’d wager not a recent college grad.

Jumping the shark is a term used (generally in TV) to indicate the exact moment when a series started going downhill and is no longer considered fresh, hip or relevant. I think, despite RIM’s potential, they are going to have to overcome a huge market perception that they are simply not cool.  In today’s age of digital devices, becoming cool is a long, uphill battle and, resources or not, that might simply be one that is unwinnable for the BlackBerry device.

Increasingly, we are being defined by our technology choices, whether is it identifying as a PC or a Mac or defining your budget by your device, judgments are being made about you as a consumer.  When you whip out your smart phone, are you sending the social message that you intend to send?