Saturday, May 30, 2009

Client Service And The Offsite (Part 1)

One can hardly engage in a meaningful conversation about client service without taking a hard look at topics like leadership, listening, relationships, and trust. Angie Chaplin was kind enough to send me a copy of Robert H. Thompson's book, The Offsite, A Leadership Challenge Fable. I'm proud to call Angie a colleague, as she and I serve as members of the Instructional Team for Seton Hall University's MASCL program. Angie is also a certified facilitator for Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner's time honored Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, first introduced in The Leadership Challenge 25 years ago (now in its fourth edition).

Thompson's fictional account of an offsite meeting uses Kouzes & Posner's five practices as its foundation. The book not only offers a terrific illustration of the five practices, but also reminds us of the importance of finding greater meaning in our lives both personally and professionally. It makes me think of the story of the two stonecutters who were asked the question: "What are you doing?" The first answered, "I'm cutting stone." The second stonecutter replied, "I'm building a great cathedral."

Thompson offers us Gordon MacKenzie's line from the book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, "You have a masterpiece inside of you and if you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it...only you."

So it may be fair to ask yourself, "Am I working on that masterpiece or not?"

Clients and customers can always tell the difference between people who are painting their masterpiece and who regard the significance of their work as greater than the task at hand, and those who are just doing what they've resigned themselves to do. They can smell it a mile away.

I encourage you to read Thompson's book. Take a few hours to enjoy the fruits of an offsite meeting in the comfort of your own home. (When was the last time you got to do that?) And reflect on how you can take the lessons from the book and implement them in your own life.

You'll most certainly identify with the characters who participate in this offsite meeting. I'm sure you've met many of them. In (Part 2) of my look at The Offsite, I'll recount one of the many profound stories Thompson's characters share with us.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


When people typically talk about being inspired, it's often in the context of a powerful vision and about the rewards of reaching a lofty goal. Well, along the journey, singularly looking forward and pursuing the goal, regardless of how appealing, is not always going to be enough to get you there. Sometimes you have to look behind you for inspiration. Let me share a story with you.

Several years ago, my two teenage daughters asked me about climbing a peak in Crested Butte, Colorado. My wife and I took them to Mt. Baldy. We left the house by 6:00 am to begin what would be about a three hour climb. (The reason for the early departure is about adhering to a rule of thumb that you want to be off the mountain by noon in the event of a summer afternoon thunderstorm. The last place you want to be during such a weather event is on a big rock!)

As we began the climb, the girls were very enthusiastic. After about an hour, I started hearing comments like, "the view looks pretty good from here" and "should we be concerned about those clouds coming in?" You could see the exhaustion on their faces. I suggested, let's give it another 20 minutes and see how you feel. (In fairness, the climb was not easy by any means). Twenty minutes later, the summit looked no closer and the climb was getting even tougher.

I thought I was fighting a losing battle in terms of leading them to the top. Then I had an idea; I asked them to take note of where they are and climb for 20 more minutes. They reluctantly agreed. After the 20 minutes, the summit didn't look any more attainable, but when I asked them to find the spot we just came from, they were astonished at their progress. It sparked a sudden surge in their march to the summit. We never heard another complaint.

When we all reached the top of the 12,000+ ft. peak, there was a collective euphoria. The lessons are several fold:
  1. The importance of trust. I may have had an advantage being their father and all, but in the end, they had to trust that the goal was attainable and that the rewards were worth the effort.
  2. It helped that my wife and I were with them every step of the way.
  3. They learned that looking back can be as important as looking ahead.
  4. Since that day, they understand that fighting through adversity can reap amazing rewards.
  5. Finally, they learned firsthand that there's nothing quite like the view from the summit.
Overall, a very good day! Next time you become discouraged during your personal/professional journey, look behind you for inspiration!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Patience And The Untold Story

There's been a great deal written lately about the power of storytelling. Most of it in terms of how great stories can help us connect with our audiences or more clearly illustrate our point. But I believe we should be mindful of the stories we may never be told as well.

I've found myself looking at people through a different lens lately. For every person I see, I try to imagine for a moment what brought them to live where they do. How they chose their job or whether their job chose them. I think about the influences in their lives (the stories) that have shaped how they view the world. I realize I know nothing about who they are.

Compound that with not knowing what may have happened in their lives on a particular day - events that may cause them to be either jovial, indifferent, or angry at the world. And in fairness, those people do not understand what's happening in our worlds either. These powerful, untold stories impact our interactions with everyone we meet, each and every day.

What does any of this have to do with client service? Well, a great deal actually. If by realizing the power of the untold story, we can show a bit more patience with one another, then we'll be the richer for it. Before reacting impatiently ourselves or responding negatively to what you interpret to be a terse remark, take a moment to consider what you may not understand.

The Chinese word for patience is phonetically pronounced as ren. It's expressed with a combination of two characters: the blade of the knife and the heart, symbolizing how difficult it can be to demonstrate true patience. "Patience is the strength of the mind and heart." Imagine a world where everyone was just a bit more patient. Consider how this may be relevant to your life and share your story with us.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Focus On Commmunicating

Last week, Edward Boches wrote a great post about a speech he attended in Boston given by Colin Powell. Boches offered six observations about the way Powell engaged with the audience that are worth thinking about. But after reading his post, it reminded me of a video clip from presentation training expert Toni Louw. Toni reminds us that being attentive to various communication practices is helpful, but once someone focuses on truly communicating, then effective use of these practices often comes naturally. Listen to what Toni has to say about communicating and how some people are taught to picture their audience. Let us know what you think.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Communication Planning And Bridging The Gap

Over 20 years ago, a senior exec from BBDO introduced me to the concept of developing a strategic considerations and conclusions section as a way to flag key points in a situation analysis and identify insights that will set the stage for the recommendations/action items when presenting a communication plan. It's one of the most valuable lessons I've ever received.

Most strategic communication plans (written or spoken) do a poor job of creating real relevance between SWOT, cultural analysis, trends, competitive reviews, etc. and the action plan itself - often leaving the audience unclear about why the recommendations presented serve as the best course of action.

As you present your recommendations, you should be looking at faces that are saying "of course" as opposed to "where did that come from?" You should not leave your audience wondering why they had to endure 30-60 minutes of upfront data and pre-ramble if there's nothing in the plan that clearly demonstrates its relevance.

This exercise not only helps create a stronger link between the set up and the plan itself, but also challenges us as strategic communication planners to uncover insights that will impact our recommendations, both in terms of tools and messaging.

Give it a try. Bridge the gap.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Apple Of My Eye

On Sunday morning, as I started to check messages on my iPhone, I couldn't get anything to come up on the display. I quickly realized that no matter what I did, there was nothing that was going to fix my white screen with the disturbing lines running through it. The great thing about the iPhone is that I can use it for everything, but when it malfunctions, it quickly becomes the worst thing. While the white screen may have worked as an adequate flashlight, it clearly needed a repair.

Since I was traveling, and there wasn't an Apple Store within 100 miles of my location, I visited a local AT&T store. It was a waste of time - not entirely their fault mind you, but a waste of a trip nonetheless. After calling Apple Technical Support, I learned that my iPhone was still under warranty and that since I didn't have an Apple store nearby, I could mail them the phone and receive a new one. Seemed like a reasonable solution, but since I was going to be on the road awhile and moving from place to place, there was no reliable mailing address for me. It would not be the quick fix I needed.

Without any form of mobile communication, I had no choice but to fill-up the tank and drive to the "nearby" Apple Store 123 miles away. As Sunday drives go, not too bad really. When I arrived at the Apple store just in time for my 3:00 p.m. Genius Bar appointment, I was greeted with a smile by an Apple employee standing at the front door.

It reminded me of visiting a bicycle shop or ski store. These independently run specialty stores are usually staffed by people who LOVE what they do. They understand their sport and the equipment like the back of their hands and always make you feel at home whether you're an expert or a novice. They have a palpable enthusiasm for their job, and it's always a great customer experience.

The Apple store in Des Moines, Iowa was no different. Everyone was terrific, from the greeter at the door to "Luke" the Apple Genius, who repaired the display on my iPhone in all of about 6 minutes. Best of all, when he handed me the phone, I felt like he was even happier than I was. He got real joy out of my satisfaction that the phone had been fixed so quickly.

The people at Apple, both on the phone and in the store, don't want me as a customer, they want me to be their client. They're about building the relationship versus facilitating the simple transaction. The iPhone may have malfunctioned, but the people behind the product could not have performed more brilliantly.

The simple reminders for me are: 1) if you handle adverse situations well, you strengthen relationships; and 2) we should all approach our jobs with the energy and enthusiasm of the Apple employee or specialty store worker.

Quick note: Luke's T-Shirt sported another reminder, "Not all superheroes wear capes."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Modeling The Way For Client Service

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner identify five principles of leadership in their book, The Leadership Challenge. The first is to "model the way" or as we also say "lead by example."

In a recent BusinessWeek piece titled: CEOs Who Use Twitter, the writers note that in August of 2008 they reported 18 CEOs using Twitter. Less than a year later, they're featuring 50 CEOs who are tweeting to their personal and professional delight. The trend is worthy of discussion for a number of reasons.

First, it speaks to a CEO willing to explore new ways to communicate with stakeholders. You set an example by showing your people that you're a curious person rather than a fundamentalist as defined by Seth Godin. To paraphrase, a fundamentalist considers whether a fact is acceptable to their faith before they explore it. A curious person explores first and then considers whether or not they want to accept the ramifications. Great CEOs challenge their people to be curious.

Second, CEOs who are exploring Twitter's possibilities send a powerful message to customers and other stakeholders alike that they want to engage directly with their audiences. In today's world there are two kinds of companies - the ones that want to promote a dialogue with their clients/customers in an effort to build true relationships, and the ones simply trying to drive transactions. I choose to do business with companies who exemplify the former.

Finally, in the communication business, clients want to believe you understand all the communication tools available to them. For my money, social media can't be taught, it has to be learned. Agency CEOs who aren't participating and leading their own people in this arena will never be able to provide competent counsel to yours.

Achieving an all new level of client service excellence will mean the difference between thriving and surviving in the coming months and years. We'd be wise to pay attention to these CEOs as they model the way.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Client Service And Team ClustrMaps

This is what my ClustrMaps map looked like last week. Below (down the right side), you'll see a map with noticeably fewer dots. It's all part of ClustrMaps' archive program designed to prevent one's map from looking like one massive red blob.

I received an e-mail from the ClustrMaps team prior to my map being refreshed, thanking me for being a loyal user, explaining their process, and reassuring me that I'll always have access to my archived map.

A few months after I restarted my blog, I added ClustrMaps because it not only promotes the reach of a specific blog, but also serves to remind us all of how easy it is to create and share content with colleagues around the world. Today, we take it for granted. We shouldn't, and I think the visual depiction from ClustrMaps offers us a small reminder not to do so.

While I've always loved the service, I was really impressed by the company's communication with its clients. Team ClustrMaps illustrated its priorities through a straightforward, proactive, and personalized communication. Nicely done!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Client Service: Mud Season Style

For retailers on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado, it's bad enough that the economy is negatively impacting sales, but during mud season there are virtually no tourists and many locals leave town. These retailers are both hearty and ingenious. They prove that you don't have to look to global corporations for lessons on creatively reducing operating expenses while simultaneously improving upon a reputation for client service excellence.

One retailer, Cottonwood Tees, is among several on Elk Avenue who are closed for the "off-season," but who post a sign like this on the door:

"We're currently closed for the off-season and will reopen (at a date specific). In the meantime, if you have a T-Shirt Emergency, please call me anytime, and we'll open the store for you."

I asked the owner of Cottonwood Tees about this approach. She stated that (like many retailers in town) she lives just a few blocks from the store. Opening the store on an as needed basis not only helps reduce operating costs, but when you open the store as a special favor to the customer, you win positive word-of-mouth and a customer for life.

As you think about cutting costs (regardless of your business), take a page from the retailers in Crested Butte. They send the message loud and clear that we may not be here at the moment, but make no mistake, we'll come when you need us.

Those are the kind of people we like to do business with, and they're the kind of businesses that will still be standing when the economy turns around.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mud Season

I went for a morning run yesterday, and as a distraction from my labored breathing, took note of my surroundings with a different perspective. We're all familiar with the symbolic significance of the seasons in literature. We understand Winter to mean death and Spring to signify renewal. Here in the mountains, we have a short season that falls between Winter and Spring - Mud Season.

It's a fitting metaphor for what we experience in life because none of us moves seamlessly from Winter to Spring. We enter our personal mud seasons where all that was once so beautiful appears ugly for a time. It's during these brief periods that we reflect, rejuvenate and forge ahead. We do so with the confidence that Spring is just around the corner.

I hold great hope that the coming months mark a time of renewal for our global economy and the many people who have lost their jobs. It's time to reflect, take stock of our lives personally and professionally, and forge ahead. Spring is coming!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Control Versus Leadership

In my last post Are CEOs Playing Chess?, I compared the game of chess to the challenges CEOs face in running their organizations. I suggested that chess is far easier because you can control the moves of the pieces. In chess, knowing what to do is enough to win. In running an organization, inspiring your stakeholders to achieve your goals requires more than just knowing what to do. It requires true leadership skills.

Ed Lee agreed that playing a game of chess where you only lead your pieces versus control them could be very entertaining and challenging. Howard Steiger (fellow MASCL grad) hinted that people can operate successfully outside the rules if given the freedom to do so. In the initial post, I looked at how control may quell individual mistakes or rogue behavior. But you also have to concede that control also limits an organization's true potential.

Leadership is harder, but the rewards can be far greater. Control may be enough to win at chess, because let's face it, the best you can do is win. In life, the possibilities for success, growth, and relevance can be far greater than a simple "win." Because of this, the last thing a leader would ever want to do is control his/her employees. A great team can help you realize the unimaginable - exceeding a CEO's greatest expectations.

That's why great leaders don't try to control their people; they create environments that unlock their limitless potential.


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