Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Basic Human Nature. Good or Bad?

The other day I read an article in Harvard Business Review titled Leadership, Managing In A (Permanent) Crisis. When I reached the end, I thought, "here's yet another basic toolkit for leaders." The problem is great tools only work for those who can truly embrace their utility. Leadership is about who, not just what. A leader will never use tools effectively, for very long, or rely on them during a crisis if the tools don't fundamentally align with you they are.

So let's put it in the context of client service. When we talk of client service, we are referring to people serving people. This blog, or any other resource for that matter can offer all the ideas and tools you could ever need. In the end though, your fundamental beliefs about people and basic human nature will serve among the biggest influences on your behavior. It occurred to me that between CSI Season 1 and Season 2, I 've written about 500 blog posts related in some way to client service.

While I've consistently advocated adopting a client service mindset versus a more prescriptive approach, I've never once talked about the most basic question: How do you really feel about people in general? Are they basically good, or do you always have to watch your back? Or is it a simple case of yin and yang - "seemingly disjunct or opposing forces that are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn."

I'd like to explore this concept in my next few posts. In the meantime, I plan to post the question on LinkedIn, and I invite your feelings on the subject as well. Thanks!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Can't Ghostwrite A Blog? Why Not?!

I received an e-mail morning from Ragan Communications regarding a Blogging Desktop Learning Series. The title of the first tutorial is: "You can't ghostwrite a blog—and other rules for launching a senior executive blog that employees will read AND respect." As much as I love the work Ragan Communications does, I'm afraid that unless the content of tutorial #1 offers some leeway on its "can't" ghostwrite a blog stand, then I'll tell you what I told them:

Regarding your description of tutorial #1, I completely disagree. As a CEO, you can have your blog ghostwritten, as long as you're upfront about it. There's nothing wrong with a CEO stating that (s)he is being assisted in the writing of the blog in an effort to engage with company stakeholders on a consistent basis - that the content reflects the CEO's position and that (s)he reads all comments and responds personally as time allows. It's not only acceptable, but even more transparent than the typical CEO speech. When was the last time you heard a CEO give a speech and preface the remarks with, "I didn't write this!" Teaching communicators that there's a no ghostwriters rule for blogs would be a disservice.

Granted, I'd prefer that the CEO, or other senior leaders in the organization, author their blogs personally, but what's so wrong with a ghostwriter as long as there's full disclosure? Thoughts?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Winning New Clients In A Down Market

About three months ago, I had a lengthy phone call with a friend of mine who'd been charged with growing the client roster for a struggling PR agency. The firm is not located in the city where it wants to expand the client base; the agency offers no unique skill set or industry expertise (at least one it's willing to stand behind), and had no particular plan for how to help anyone. It's an agency that wants fees (fairly steep ones I might add) upfront in an effort to ensure its own survival. I remember listening to this, offering some suggestions (which I was quickly told the agency president would never consider), and wishing him good luck.

Yesterday, I got a call saying that he hadn't picked up one new client. Surprise, surprise. In fairness, my friend agreed with me upfront and knew he was fighting a losing battle if the agency wasn't willing to face up to the realities of the marketplace. Despite the lack of new business success, the agency is still not willing to change its approach, and it's likely my friend is done fighting with the agency leadership.

Well, just because my friend's agency is intractable doesn't mean I shouldn't share some perfectly plausible strategies for others during these difficult times. None of this is necessarily new (or rocket science for the matter) but have a look and introduce your own thoughts as well.
  1. Approach prospects in a vertical industry segment with which you've had proven success. Study your prospect's business and offer some specific ideas for helping them achieve their near-term goals.
  2. Approach prospects with a very specific communication expertise that you believe differentiates you in the marketplace among other competitors and has demonstrated tangible business benefits for other clients. It not only offers the prospect a reason to hire you, but should optimize your chances for earning trust and providing other services down the road.
  3. Approach prospects with a short-term plan, not a longer term engagement. Be willing to help them with the situation at hand. If you're successful, you'll earn the longer term gig.
  4. Approach prospects with ideas, not qualifications. The only thing that will truly differentiate you from the thousands of competitors who do exactly what you do (either just as well or possibly better) will be your thinking against a prospect's specific needs. Look at the client service excellence quote at the top of this blog. You don't have to be superhuman or even better than your competitors, you just have to be willing to do what others could be doing, but just aren't.
  5. Borrow a page from David Maister, Marshall Goldsmith and the other uber-consultants out there who actually stand behind their work. Present your ideas, set near-term goals, and tell the client that you don't expect them to pay you upfront in the hope that your approach is successful. Explain that they'll only have to pay for your time if the goals are achieved, or as David Maister structures it, "pay me what you think I'm worth." If you really believe you can help the prospect, then have the courage to stand by your work.

I look forward to your comments on these five points and to receiving other ideas you may have on the topic!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What's Your Mindset?

It's an extremely important question because your mindset serves as the foundation from where you operate. It's your guide for how you view the world. It helps you shape your priorities and values, and it drives your actions both personally and professionally.

In a video I posted recently from Toni Louw, Toni explains that as a presentation trainer, he doesn't teach voice modulation, gesturing, making eye contact, etc. Why? Because if you're communicating, you'll do those things naturally. Once presenters care more about their audiences than themselves and truly want to share through communication, they become better communicators. Toni teaches mindset, not bullet points because bullet points are just illustrations of what you should do, mindset is an expression who you should become.

Among the most popular blogs posts are those that offer 10 ways to do this, or five ways to accomplish that. While the tips are often helpful, it's the mindset driving these recommendations that is more important. If the mindset is not evident, challenge the author to offer it.

Most recently, I wrote a post titled, Want To Be A Better PR Professional?, and I offered five recommendations for how to better serve your clients. The five points are admittedly incomplete (as is the case with most such lists), but I hope the core principle is clear. If you want the client to see your value, then be passionate about being valuable. Once you do that, you'll naturally seek ways to do so.

I received some great feedback on this post, not only in the comments, but through e-mail, Twitter, etc. While I took a swipe at APR accreditation, the larger point was to get people thinking about their clients rather than themselves. And they did. I received some wonderful additions to the list such as the importance of listening, the critical role of creativity, and the value of understanding communication disciplines other than PR.

By understanding mindset, you will naturally build on specific recommendations in a manner that will help you improve - not just in the moment - but for the long haul.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

Then spend your time focusing on subjects other than PR.

I've been reading quite a bit lately about people preparing for their APR exam, as if that's going to magically transform them to become better PR professionals. Newsflash: It won't. It's the equivalent of Scarecrow receiving his diploma at the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Scarecrow's transformation had nothing to do with the piece of paper.)

That said, while I don't dismiss APR preparation as being a valuable professional development tool, the credential is meaningless. We've all met great APRs and incompetent ones. We've also worked with professionals without the initials who are brilliant at their craft. Great PR professionals, with APR training or not, are those who view their profession as larger than themselves. They are educated well beyond the limits of public relations.

As much as most PR pros don't want to admit this, PR in and of itself, is not complicated. I could teach the fundamentals of PR to anyone in a day. Knowing what to do is the easy part. Knowing what to do depending on your client, industry, and audiences is where the rubber meets the road. It's what separates the PR greats from the wannabees. So before you embark on APR preparation, or if you're already an APR, here's a few thoughts for you if you want to be excellent at your profession and offer real value to your clients in good times and in bad:
  1. Take time to truly understand your client's values and priorities. If you don't really crawl inside where your clients are coming from, then you'll never be able to help them connect with their audiences. Moreover, you'll be useless during a crisis. The great responses to crises have not been situational in nature. Great responses to crises come from core values - from who they (your clients) are, not simply how they contrive a response in the moment. Unlock this key, and you'll have a better relationship with your client and be a far more effective advocate on their behalf.
  2. Become an expert in your client's business beyond the topline. Those who are not experts in their clients' business typically resort to measuring PR on PR terms, not on business terms. This is the fundamental reason PR pros cry about being underappreciated. If you want a seat at the table; if you want to be respected as a business person, then take time to understand your client's business. Your client's trade pubs should be your Bibles. This will not only help you connect the dots regarding the value you bring, but also open up a new world of PR opportunities for you to explore.
  3. Be fanatical about staying attuned to your audiences' hot buttons. Consider tracking polls in political campaigns. Public opinion can shift like the wind. Client centric messaging that doesn't connect with the changing attitudes of customers, shareholders, employees, civic leaders, etc. can cause much more harm than good. Become THE authority about your client's target audiences.
  4. Become an expert in the legal matters that pertain to your client. How many of you have been in the room when an attorney takes command of the conversation because (s)he understands the relevant legal issues of the day. If you want to take the attitude that you're not an attorney, then you'll have to live with being run over in front of the CEO. Don't allow it. Understand the law. You don't have to go to law school to acquire this valuable knowledge.
  5. Take time to study the fundamental challenges of leadership. I don't believe you can offer real counsel to leaders without understanding the fundamentals of leadership. I'd recommend reading The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner to get you started.
For the PR profession to be regarded as truly valuable in the marketplace, we need to focus on adding value, not initials. During tough times, clients have to believe that they're better off with us by their sides than on the sidelines. To do so will require knowing much more than what APR can teach you.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sam Arthur, The Perfect Character

Who is Sam Arthur you ask? He's my favorite character from Robert H. Thompson's book, The Offsite - A Leadership Challenge Fable. I'd like to tell you about Sam, but my leadership challenge is to do so without giving away too much about the book or revealing what we discover about Sam as the story progresses. Suffice it to say that Sam is the gardener, or as he would call himself, "the groundskeeper" at Tucson, Arizona's La Mariposa Resort & Spa - the location of the offsite meeting which brings together hi-powered teams from two competing pharmaceutical companies.

So of all the colorful players featured in the book, why do I like the gardener? Consider for a moment that the author could have given Sam any job at the hotel - manager, bellman, concierge, etc. Sam's the gardener because Thompson offers us a perfect metaphor for leadership. Sam sees to it that the soil is healthy. He makes sure the plants get enough water and sun, and that their environment is free from weeds and pests. The plants are given everything they need to succeed on their own. Sam knows that if he creates the right conditions for growth, his gardens will flourish. One would hardly imagine Sam yelling at the flowers to grow faster or fuller. While that kind of behavior is clearly not Sam's nature, he also understands that it doesn't work. Sam's approach to nurturing his garden is the same approach great leaders use to build and grow successful enterprises.

(Don't get too caught up in being compared to a plant. If most CEOs treated their employees as well as Sam tends to his garden, you shouldn't mind at all.)

But Sam is not simply defined by his job or the associated leadership metaphor. Sam teaches us about jumping to conclusions about the people we meet in all walks of life each and every day. He reminds us of the importance of having real passion for whatever we do because, more than pay, the joy we bring to others should serve as the true reward for our life's work. Sam also redefines the meaning of the word "perfect." Interestingly enough, it's not about perfection at all.

Pick up a copy of The Offsite. Find out how Sam uses the word perfect and discover your own favorite character. There are some great ones, but to me, Sam is...well...perfect.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Client Service And Being Human

I read two terrific posts recently. One from Chris Brogan titled, How USAir Turned My Grumpy Mood Around, and the other from David Mullen which leads with the lines, You Made A Mistake. Is This How You React? I was struck by their similar theme: The importance of just being human. Simple right?

Simple maybe. Common, not really. The reason is a bit ironic if you think about it. We try to preserve an image of perfection in a world where everyone knows we're not perfect. It may sound silly, but it happens every day. People who fear what they regard as public humiliation or legal liability eschew the practice of admitting error. (The "apologizing is a sign of weakness" crowd.) They fear bad press and adverse jury verdicts. But neither the general public nor members of a jury will typically punish people/companies for being human. They punish them for being just the opposite.

Consider this simple exercise I often conduct during crisis communication workshops. I ask the group to give me list of the attributes that separate their very best friend in the world from all other friends and acquaintances. They typically respond with thoughts such as trustworthy, there when I need them, good listener, etc. I've never had anyone say that "perfection" should be included on the list. There are two pieces of good news here. First, people don't expect perfection even from their best friends (so they certainly don't expect it from others). They understand we all make mistakes. Second, if you want to know what people do expect from you, just look at the list offered by the group.

The fact is, relationships aren't weakened by adversity, they're strengthened by it - as long as we step up in a manner that reflects the best in our human nature. Chris Brogan likes USAirways more than he did last week, and David Mullen has gone up a notch in the eyes of his client. How about that?!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Focus On The Customer

As a follow-up to my post about How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, I thought I'd share a more personal story. How many of you remember a discount retailer called Bradlees? Operating stores from Maine to Virginia, Bradlees was the "Target of the northeast" in its day. With attractive stores and a solid reputation for its apparel, Bradlees leadership was convinced it had a winning formula.

In the mid 1980's, I worked in the public affairs department for The Stop & Shop Companies (Bradlees parent company at the time). Among other things, I was charged with helping the operating companies with store openings and new market entries, and writing all the speeches for the corporate CEO and the various company presidents. Interestingly enough, there was probably no one else at corporate who spent more time in stores talking to customers and front-line employees, while at the same time thinking and writing about the business on a macro scale. It's an experience that forever shaped how I approach my work. But I digress...back to the story.

I spent a great deal of time with Bradlees' senior leadership team, especially its president. As I remember it, Bradlees financial performance, regardless of how impressive, was always being compared to Wal-Mart and it really steamed the Bradlees leadership team. Gross margins was an especially sore subject, as Wall Street analysts kept asking why Bradlees couldn't achieve Wal-Mart's impressive results. The dilemma of course is how does one achieve Wal-Mart like margins when operating stores with expensive real estate and higher labor costs?

Tired of the monthly badgering about its margins, Bradlees leaders believed the quickest way to improve margins was to raise prices. And that's exactly what they did. The problem was, the customers responded by flocking to competitors Caldor, Zayre, and Ames. And for all intents and purposes, thousands of Bradlees customers simply left and never came back.

While Bradlees hung on for a number of years, it never fully recovered from the wound, going bankrupt in 2000 and closing all of its stores the following year. (Ironically, when Wal-Mart eventually opened stores in this part of the country it took over many of Bradlees former locations).

The poisonous combination of arrogance and lack of customer focus sent the company into a death spiral. Imagine going out of business because you tried to compete with another retailer that didn't have a store within 500-1000 miles of you? Hard to imagine, but that's what happened.

The next time you think about taking your focus off your customers, even for a second, remember Bradlees.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Collins And Client Service

Let me start by saying I'm a big fan of Jim Collins. Built to Last and Good to Great are both terrific books. We use Good to Great for our graduate students in the capstone module of Seton Hall University's MASCL program.

I will have to say though that Collins' latest book, How The Mighty Fall is a smaller book in more ways than one. It comes off as a hastily written defense of his first two works. You need only to flip to page four before reading a highlighted page titled: Why The Fall Of Previously Great Companies Does Not Negate Prior Research. As a result, the 123 pages of primary text falls well short of his first two books, but to be fair, he had a pretty tough act to follow.

Anyone who understands the fundamental principles of Built to Last realizes that while an enterprise may be built to last, it's not guaranteed to last. If you've read Good to Great, most readers get the concept that moving from good to great doesn't ensure eternal greatness. Despite the fate of Fannie Mae, Circuit City, et. al., the fundamental principles of Collins' first two books are rock solid.

But dismissing this new book as simply an act of Collins just playing defense would be unwise. Based on his research, both new and old, he offers "five step-wise stages of decline." Understanding these stages, particularly in today's business climate may come in handy. That said, I believe layered in those stages appears to be a lack of disciplined focus on the customer and on "having the right people on the bus." It seems to me that once a company shifts from these priorities to others, even slightly, it can spark its demise.

Consider this, I've asked several people to name one company for me, that was truly focused on the customer, in need of bailout money right now. You know how many names I have on the list? Zero.

In my next post, I'm going to share a story of a retailer (for whom I worked many years ago) whose road to failure began by paying too much attention to a competitor that wasn't even in its operating area, while paying too little attention to its own customers. It's a lesson I'll never forget.

How The Mighty Fall offers us a framework about decline. If you're like me, you believe there's more to be learned from our failures than our successes. For that reason, I recommend you read it. Just realize of course that following the principles in this book are no more a guarantee for survival than Collins' previous works could guarantee long-term greatness. Collins provides the framework and principles, the ultimate results are up to you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Shameless Link/Subscription Drive

As I've ventured back more actively into the blogging fold, I thought it would be a good time to ask you this: If you enjoy the content here at Client Service Insights...(CSI Season 2) then I ask you to consider one or all of the following:
  1. Post a link to CSI Season 2 on your blog
  2. Subscribe to my RSS Feed
  3. Follow me on Twitter
  4. Connect with me on LinkedIn
  5. Recommend CSI Season 2 to your friends!
I will gladly return the favor! (You may be in my blogroll already.) If the content on this blog is not your cup of tea, no worries. Feel free to stop by anytime. (You never know, you might find something that floats your boat.) Also, if there are topics or issues you'd like us all to talk about, then please let me know.

A blog is only as strong as the participants who spark its lively conversation, so by all means add your comments to posts that most interest you. I look forward to your joining and driving that conversation in the months ahead. For those of you who have already posted a link on your blog to CSI Season 2 thank you and spread the word!

Here's a representative list of those who have contributed to our conversation here at CSI Season 2 or on other social media platforms. My many thanks!

Todd Andrlik, Gavin Heaton, Gerry Riskin, Darryl Ohrt, Drew McClellan, Kami Huyse, Michelle Golden, Tom Kane, Becky Carroll, Angela Seits, Kristen Victory, Will Lukang, Karen Miller Russell, Doug Simon, Chris Abraham, Martin Lynch, Little D, Alpha Mom, Dara Jester, Leanne Heller, Jonathan Yarmis, Ampatzis Panagiotis, Danny Brown, Joseph Wilburn, John Koetsier, Jyotsana Saha, Ruth Seeley, Mark Harai, Jason Whitmen, Edward Boches, Eric Montague, Michael Bourne, Larry Bodine, Tom Kane, More Partner Income, Rjon Robins, Patrick Baird, Jenny Love, Robert Thompson, Kevin O'Keefe, Jim Calloway, Jack Kempers, Dr. Alan Freitag, Shel Israel, Staci Stringer, Eric Eggertson, Marc Rapp, Liza Jones, Dan Hull, Maria Palma, Patti Dragland, Amanda Chapel, Ruth Hickok, Marla Federman, Kate Robins, SCartierLiebel, Howard Steiger, Matt Kucharski, Ben Waugh, Rich Sandford, Dr. Kent M. Keith, Shel Holtz, Katie Paine, David Alston, David Maister, Laurie Wilhelm, Rodger Johnson, Geoff Livingston, David Mullen, Chris Brogan, Jose Teixiera, Jeff Davis, Scott Baradell, Sherrilynne Starkie, Lara Kretler, Lynn Crymble, Susan Iskiwitch, Angie Chaplin, Walter Stevenson, Sharon Bond, Joyce Lofstrom, Heather Yaxley, Tyler Hurst, Kristen Smith, Terry Morawski, Phil Gomes, Richard Rinyai, Robert French, Josh Morgan, Barbara B. Nixon, Todd Defren, Paul Ritchie, Timothy Parcell, Boyd Neil, Claire Celsi, Laurent Pfertzel, Debbie Weil, Catharine Montgomery, Rodger Johnson, Jason Keeling, Michael Kolowich, Patrick J. Lamb, Brian Keith, Kelli Matthews, Shannon Paul and Ed Lee.

If you're so inclined, you're welcome to Twit this!

*The RSS graphic posted above comes from Creative Nerds. Visit their page, and you'll find about 1,500 additional RSS related icons. Very cool!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Client Service And The Offsite (Part 2)

The more I think about (Part 1) of my review of The Offsite, the more I realize that while I covered one of the major threads found in the book, there are certainly many, many more.

For today, I want to share my favorite story as told by the fictional, but admirable CEO Gordon Murphy in the chapter titled: Embrace the Struggle.

"One day when I was just a kid, I found a cocoon dangling from a small tree limb. I was going to cut it down and put it in a jar so I could watch it hatch, but then I decided to go back and check on it every day instead. I did this for a few days and nothing happened. But one day, I noticed a small hole at the top of the cocoon and I was so excited because I could see the future butterfly wiggling around a bit inside. I tried to be patient to wait for the bug to emerge on its own, but curiosity got the better of me and I thought I would help him get out, so I used my pocketknife to cut a bigger hole. It seemed to be working because the butterfly moved around even more. So I got excited and cut the cocoon all the way open. I couldn't wait to see him spread his wings and fly. But then the saddest thing happened. The butterfly flopped out of the cocoon onto the dirt below, and as it struggled to open its wings, it just gave up and died. Do you know why?...It turns out that the struggle to emerge from the cocoon is actually part of the growth process for butterflies...If they don't push against the boundaries of their casing, their wings don't develop the strength they need to fly."

The message is crystal clear. (And no, it's not "never give a young boy a pocketknife!") It's of course a powerful metaphor for our own struggles and just one of several wonderful stories shared in this book.

Read the book and discover your own favorite story and favorite character. You've read my choice for story, and my favorite character is Sam. You'll learn that of all the jobs he could have had at the hotel, it's no accident that he's the gardener.

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