Monday, September 27, 2010

MASCL: Communication AND Leadership

I thought I'd bring CSI out of retirement (which I may do from time to time) to make a brief announcement that Seton Hall University's Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership (MASCL) program launched a new Twitter site over the weekend which you can access @MASCL.  The purpose is to bring together professional communicators and leaders to share content about communication and leadership.

Why should you care?  Well, since graduating from the program and enjoying the privilege today of serving as a MASCL instructor, one of my many "aha" moments is that the more one understands leadership, the more one is equipped to provide valuable counsel to leaders.  It sounds simple and obvious, but it's very true.

So if you're a leader who's interested in being a better communicator, or a professional communicator who wants to learn more about leadership, then @MASCL on Twitter is for you!

Monday, July 12, 2010

CSI Winding Down, But CEO Confidence Is Up!

I started Client Service Insights (CSI) back in 2006 while at Hill & Knowlton and picked it up again independently on Blogger.  I began blogging shortly after attending a client meeting that touched on social media - a subject about which I felt uncomfortably ignorant at the time.  After taking a few months exploring the various platforms and reading posts from other prominent bloggers, I took the plunge and have since tried my best to learn how to engage in the social media space the only way you can - by doing it!

Over the years, I've written more than 500 blogs posts pertaining to client service excellence and related topics.  I interviewed industry leaders including Colleen Barrett, Jonathan Tisch, David Sifry, Richard Edelman, and the list goes on.  I created The Client Service Autospy, shared lessons about client service excellence from the master himself Uncle Rico (from the movie Napoleon Dynamite), and collaborated with Todd Andrlik to raise awareness about how to be a pirate!  I've done a great deal of work with students and professors and have enjoyed every minute of it!

Best of all, I became acquainted with countless professionals and academics whom I never would have "met" if not for social media.  You offered your comments, tweeted about my posts, and generously shared your insights.  I can't thank you all enough!  I only hope you feel I returned the favor from time to time.

That said, I enjoy blogging too much to stop.  So starting soon, I plan to write weekly posts for Vistage International - The World's Leading CEO Organization.  I look forward to writing on topics about strategic communication and leadership on our Vistage Small Business Blog.  I sincerely hope you'll join me and the other bloggers who comprise our team!

In the meantime, we're releasing the results of The Vistage CEO Confidence Index this (Monday) morning, where you'll find plenty of terrific insights from more than 1,600 CEOs of small to medium sized businesses. 

See you all at Vistage Small Business Blog!


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Creating Confidence

Back in July of 2008, I shared Shep Hyken's entertaining story of a Texas cab driver. It's one of my favorite client service related videos of all time, and I invite you to watch it again. The other day, I discovered that Shep Hyken is now following me on Twitter, and it prompted me to look at some of Hyken's work including his book The Cult of the Customer and his many videos on YouTube. Regardless of what kind of client or customer we're talking about, Hyken offers smart, practical advice for any type of business.

If you're not familiar with Shep Hyken, then you're in for a treat. If you are already acquainted with his work, then do what I did - rediscover some terrific content and reap the benefits of his sound advice. For now, follow Shep Hyken on Twitter @Hyken and enjoy this video on the art of "creating confidence!

Thanks for the follow Shep!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Client Service & Team ClustrMaps

Well, it's that time again! Time for my annual ClustrMaps refresh. While it's fun to watch all the red dots accumulate over the course of the year, the refresh helps make the map readable again. Otherwise, if a blog gets any kind of traffic at all and the map is never refreshed, one would be left with a big red blob which wouldn't be much help to anyone. More importantly, however, is the helpful information a blogger receives with this year-to-year snapshot. For example, I've learned that my blog traffic is up 57% over last year with 11,261 visitors representing nearly 130 countries. While these figures pale in comparison to so many other blogs out there, it's still pretty amazing to have that kind of reach by posting content into a laptop and not spending one dime on travel. I know it's not a big deal to those of you who've grown up with this capability, but I can't help marvel at it from time to time, and I certainly never take it for granted.

My heartfelt thanks to those of you who visited CSI over the past year. Starting in the next few days, you'll see a far less populated map, signifying a fresh twelve months ahead. If there's any content you'd like to talk about, I welcome your suggestions! Thanks to ClustrMaps for your outstanding communication and terrific client service. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Kids' Table

It pains me to have to write this, but I've noticed a recent spike in posts, articles, etc. about the PR profession written by PR people. Unfortunately, they have not been productive articles; in fact, they've been the extra-whiney kind. Without naming names or linking to the articles, it's been the same fare we've all been served for years - How many different roles we play (appetizer), how under-appreciated and overworked we are (entree), how CEOs just don't understand what we do (dessert), and so on, and so on (and as much Kool-Aid as we can stand to wash it down).

Articles like these are the reason most PR people remain seated at the low, collapsible table eating Mac & Cheese with plastic forks on paper plates. The voices you hear are PR people shouting at the grown-ups table to see if anyone will so much as turn in their direction; since after all, they're interrupting adult conversation.

I have one request: STOP! Stop writing about your insecurities and start writing about creating abundance for our clients. The faster we start engaging in adult dialogue, the more quickly and easily more PR people will get invited to the grown-ups table. Now if you enjoy the kids table, I understand that too, just try to keep the whining and screaming to a minimum.

It's hard to escape the irony that we work in a field where we help shape the reputation of others while doing such an abysmal job of managing our own. Maybe if we start getting better at it, more PR people will finally be in the position to say, "Please pass the salt."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Feeding The Beast

As part of my post on Organic Growth, I provided a systems model that offered a different way to look at growing and building one’s PR business. In this post, I’d like to support that model with a common scenario you may be familiar with.

Consider a typical, successful PR agency start-up. The principals sign their first few clients and treat them like gold. They are often directly engaged in each client’s business and everyone is happy. Word spreads about the new firm that helps attract more clients – even larger clients. The more business that comes in the door, the larger the agency becomes. Getting addicted to winning and growing becomes an understandable outcome. (Of course the addiction is not confined to start-ups, but I digress.)

Eventually the forces of the marketplace take hold, and this relatively new firm will go through a period where their rapid growth begins to wind down. There are no longer as many prospects in the new business pipeline anymore. The response? Redouble new business efforts of course. Principals respond this way because they are wired to believe that:

The greater the new business effort, the more new clients, the more the agency grows.

So principals become obsessed with adding new clients, and because of this, employees learn all too quickly that success in business development is the fastest and easiest way to achieve stardom and claim a more senior leadership role in this growing firm. Unfortunately, with the attention of the principals focused on the next new prospect, the emphasis on existing relationships becomes compromised just enough to result in some client losses. Remember, these clients signed on because they were being treated like gold – silver or bronze may not cut it for most of them for very long.

Now do agencies typically respond to these client losses by examining what may have happened and what they can learn? Not usually. The firm collectively brushes it off by convincing themselves that it’s the client’s loss." “Look at how much new business we’re winning? We know we’re good, so it has to be them.”

Now the agency finds itself in the position where winning new business isn’t just about growing, it’s about maintaining and surviving. Principals quickly become familiar with the concept of “net” growth, or new business growth minus client losses. So now the bar has been raised even higher, and it means the pressure to win more new business just increased. Time to double-down on the agency’s new business effort. You have probably already surmised that this agency is going to struggle, and it will do so for a while unless something changes.

So What’s An Agency To Do?

  1. Think about your firm as a whole system not as a linear growth equation

  2. Make your current clients your top priority

  3. Celebrate organic growth with as much exuberance as a new client win

  4. Recognize and promote your great practitioners, not just your strong business development people

  5. Create a client service culture supported by a sustained initiative that‘s at least as robust as your business development program.

By seeing your agency as a complete system, you can avoid becoming addicted to business development at the expense of serving your client. Feeding the beast is not unlike feeding ourselves – if you do so in excess and without proper exercise, it might make you grow but not typically in the way you want.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Organic Growth

Earlier in the week, I suggested that there are three sources of growth for your public relations firm: 1) New clients 2) Organic Growth 3) Client Retention. In my last post titled: Why Did You Lose A Client?, I offered a blame-free, open approach to exploring why some client relationships go bad. The primary objective of such an exploration is to learn - to learn how to pick clients who are a good agency fit from the start; how to identify signs of eroding trust; and how to provide the level of client service excellence that inspires clients to stay with your firm. Winning new business is important, but if you are just replacing revenues from lost clients or shrinking client workloads, it can make the hamster wheel look inviting.

I've been reading quite a bit of Peter Senge's work lately, particularly about Systems Thinking, which he defines as "seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains; and seeing processes of change rather than snapshots." A linear thinker would tend to look at agency revenues/growth as a linear equation:

New Business +Organic Growth+Client Retention = Agency Revenues/Growth

I put "New Business" in bold because most agency leaders regard it as the primary driver of agency growth/revenues which is why business development/prospecting receives so much attention. One can't miss the linear cause and effect; it makes perfect sense. Right?

Using a systems model, I might look at it this way:

Rather than invest so heavily in business development (prospecting) initiatives, I would focus primarily on Client Service Excellence. When one looks at how most PR leaders think about agency growth (linear thinking), they don't see client service as a growth driver - which is why in most agencies it receives such little attention and why a systems model can be so illuminating. The cause and effect of investing in client service is neither as obvious nor as immediate as traditional prospecting. In this diagram, you not only see the relationship, but also you discover its reinforcing nature. Client service excellence will lead to better client retention, more organic growth, a reputation that will attract new clients, and strong revenues and growth that will allow you to reinvest in your client service program...and so it continues.

Since organic growth is arguably the strongest metric you have to measure client service excellence, then think about one change you can make tomorrow. Celebrate the expansion of an existing account with the same exuberance as you do when a new client joins your agency roster. Show your team that organic growth not only matters, but serves as the ultimate compliment to your effectiveness as a firm.

To be clear, I'm also a huge proponent of prospecting as a business development tool - but just imagine if while you were prospecting, you were doing so for an agency which enjoyed a reputation for delivering the world's best client service. For my money, it wouldn't even be a fair fight!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Did You Lose A Client?

I've always been perplexed by a PR agency's often "over-the-top" emphasis on finding new clients and keeping the new business pipeline as full as possible. Not because it's not important, but because it overshadows two other critical aspects of agency growth - client retention and organic growth. Focus on all three and you'll grow your business exponentially. Just imagine how impressed prospects might be by your agency's stellar client retention and organic growth numbers. They may conclude that you can actually deliver on what you promise. It's hard to imagine a more powerful value proposition.

This week, rather than focus on finding new clients, I'd like to address the other two legs of the stool. For today, let's start with client retention. Now there are a number of reasons client relationships go bad. The problem is most agencies don't take the time to really sit down and talk about what happened. Several years ago, I developed what I believe to be an appropriate CSI tool - The Client Relationship Autopsy - a blame free, open approach to looking at why you lost a client and what you can learn from the experience. Here's a basic outline that I suggest you adapt and adopt at your own firm:

The Client Relationship Autopsy

The client relationship autopsy is a delicate process and not for the squeamish, but it may be one of the most valuable exercises you'll ever undertake as a communication professional.

Why?! Why?!

Learning from the failed relationships of the past can be invaluable to building successful ones for the future. The more you know yourself and the dynamics of your client interactions, the healthier it is for everyone. The process will help you choose wisely when it comes to adding new clients, and it will help you glean insights for improving existing client relationships.

The Event

For whatever reason, at whoever's initiative, a client relationship dies. It could have been triggered by one or a combination of things: a mistake, misunderstanding, change of personnel, new agency infiltration, differing expectations, boredom, difference of opinion, billing dispute, definition of success, and the list goes on.

Step One - Talk To Your Team

Explain that as of today, the agency will no longer be working with Client X. While there may be an obvious cause of death, it would be a serious mistake not to look deeper. Remind them that this is a client the agency spent a great deal of time and money trying to secure - that when the team won the business, they cheered as if their country had just won the World Cup. Ask how they feel about how such a once celebrated relationship that had so much promise ended before its time - and possibly in such a gruesome fashion.

Cause of death isn't actually so much about the cause, as the reason. A person may have died from a virus, but how did he catch it? That's what we want to understand.

Let the team know you plan to more clearly identify what, if anything, about the relationship could have gone differently. Was it a bad match from the start? Did we not meet their expectations? Did they not meet ours? Where did it start to unravel? And if we recognized and acknowledged that moment of unraveling, could we have done something that would have made a difference? Explain that you look forward to their honest insights. Clearly underscore that this process is not about placing individual blame for the past, but helping the agency reflect and make improvements as necessary for the future.

Step Two - The Investigation

The former client isn't dead, only the relationship. That means you can call and ask to set up a meeting. I would wait a few weeks to let tempers, disappointment, and some measure of reflection find their proper place. Be clear about your intentions and the mutual benefits that may be gained by talking about your past working relationship. It may assist your former client with selecting a more appropriate agency in the future and help you improve your processes. If it has to happen by phone rather than in person, then it's better than not at all.

Use this meeting in large part to gather a sense of expectations versus results. Your notes from the meeting should be combined with employee interviews and a thorough review of the work product and associated client correspondence, including all billing letters. Only after reviewing all the forensic evidence can you begin the process of drawing conclusions and filing the autopsy report.

Step Three - The Autopsy Report

The autopsy report should include answers to the following questions:

Time of Death (When was it really over, not time of notification)

Day the Relationship Was Pronounced Dead (Notification/Death Certificate)

Genetic/Historical Influences - Chronicle of past client behaviors such as bad credit history or a pattern of burning through agencies. Quite frankly, issues you may have (or in many cases should have) known before engaging the client in the first place, but either ignored or minimized.

The Match - Were you ever really meant for one another to begin with? It’s important to know yourself and to carefully assess your new prospect, regardless of how much you may believe you want the business. If during the new business pitch, the prospect team members offer disturbing information regarding what they are like to work with - believe what they're telling you!

A Review of Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Team - In large part, look at this in terms of how certain team members matched up with the client contacts, both in terms of personality types and industry sector. It's possible that personalities played a role, or you have a staff member who’s terrific in some industry sectors and not as enthusiastic and arguably less effective in others; it may be helpful to take note.

A Review of Processes - Many agencies can be very specific regarding how they like to work and are often “less flexible" in dealing clients who may want to work differently. You either find a way to be more adaptable in your processes or, if you find it crucial to function in a very specific manner, you should clearly articulate the benefits of your working relationship style and make sure it's a good fit from the beginning.

Cause of Death - Did internal issues make the relationship susceptible to external influences? Was there any possibility of resuscitation between TOD and Notification? Identify the root causes of why the relationship went bad.


Once you've examined all the evidence and determined the cause of death, develop a set of strategic considerations and conclusions, and take action as appropriate. Develop your own version of the client relationship autopsy and make it part of your routine. Collect these reports and watch for recurring patterns over time. We all lose clients, but we can lose fewer of them if we choose wisely from the start and pay close attention to the relationship. Finally, don't wait until the relationship dies to evaluate it, but if it does, don't miss the opportunity to learn from it either.

*Image from

Friday, April 16, 2010

Client Service and Follow Friday

Chris Brogan recently offered an excellent suggestion for the Twitter practice called Follow Friday (#FF) - the weekly ritual of recognizing others on Twitter.  It's one that allows us to do a more thorough job of thanking those who provide such great value and insights and introducing these fine people to Twitterers who may not already follow them.   Since Twitter limits us to 140 characters, I have taken Chris' advice and listed many of this week's Follow Friday favorites right here on my blog post.  Since there are so many people to whom I owe so much for their many contributions to me and the Twitter community, it may take me a few weeks to #FF everyone, but here's my first installment:

@chrisbrogan, @edwardboches, @dmullen, @arikhanson, @TDefren, @strategicsense, @JKWLeadership, @angiechaplin, @bnjacobs, @johnhurst, @bcarroll7, @ThePRDoc, @almcfarland, @maggiesthinkin, @PRSSASDSU, @PRSrbija, @BiancaPuopolo, @lpverzosa, @remund, @sherrilynne, @BitaEhsanipour, @rlcandey, @pdncoach, @DannyBrown, @ruthseeley, @Gema_Maria, @KristinLoe, @ccduong, mandyboyle, @msebastian, MarkRaganCEO, @jonathanvolk, @LIW3, @karamlm, @CommAMMO, @prblog, @profgalloway, @PhilReinhardt, JKWinnovation, @vedo, BarbaraNixon, @rdfrench, @ScottMonty, @PhilipTater, @PROpenmic, @chipgriffen, @Will_Lukang, @shonali, @stuartfoster, @BrendanCooper.

A big Follow Friday to the 50 people listed above!  Have a great weekend!

*Image from

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beware Of Geeks Bearing Tips

Today's title is a reference to the line, "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" which comes from the story of Troy and how the Greeks used a wooden horse to trick their way into the city. Sophocles described it as, "foes' gifts are no gifts; profit they bring none."

While I don't believe everyone who writes an article that offers 5 tips for this or 10 tips for that is necessarily a geek or one's enemy, I would argue that we should read such articles with caution. They typically address symptoms and almost never crawl inside underlying causes. Worse yet, they rarely ever transform how we practice our profession over the long term.

Can they be helpful from time to time? Sure. Do I read these articles just like everyone else? Of course, (heck, I've written a few, although I try to avoid it). It's hard not to. I'm an avid reader - the undisputed king of the "tips" article! Let's face it, any headline that promises a simple, numerically organized way to address a timely, complex issue can be hard turn away from. That's why writers write them and readers read them.

That said, even when we read a tip that really connects with us, its utility is too often short-lived. As good as the advice may be, we can't help but resume our familiar ways of doing business. Because I understand that "tips" articles will continue to be written for many decades to come, I only suggest that we balance our "tips" fascination with a deeper dive into underlying causes and the mindset that drives our basic assumptions. Only then do we stand a chance of converting short-term tips to life-long best practices.

Hmmm.....Sounds like a good article:
Five Ways To Convert Short-term Tips To Life-long Best Practices

Monday, April 12, 2010

Client Service Champions Or Just Measurers?

Spring is a good time to undertake a client service survey. You're far enough into the calendar year to evaluate agency and client performance, and it's early enough to take stock of your relationships and make adjustments (even course corrections) if necessary. If you plan to conduct your own survey to measure client satisfaction, then don't just look at it from a standpoint of asking for data. Use the fact that you're conducting the survey as a means to strengthen your client relationships. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

· Thank your clients for their business. We don't do so often enough.
· Send the message that client service excellence is a priority for your firm. Don't worry about overpromising or raising expectations. Clients want to know you care and that you're trying your very best on their behalf.
· Keep it brief. The fewer the questions the better. You don't need to ask 50 questions to demonstrate your priorities and engage in a meaningful conversation.
· Don't be afraid to ask. Sometimes agencies get bashful about asking for client participation, making the excuse: "my client is too busy." Rubbish. It's like saying you won't invite someone to a party at your home because you determine that they may not be able to make it. People like being invited and can get really offended if they're not. Be sure to ask; they'll appreciate it, even if they are too busy. This is also where keeping it brief helps.
· Involve all your client contacts. Don't just ask your primary client contact. Ask everyone who works with your firm - on all fronts. Also remember that the secondary contact of today may be the primary contact tomorrow. Talk to everybody.
· Share the results. Let your clients know that you'll share the results with them. Do not make the mistake of asking for their opinions without follow-up. If you have already done so in the past, I can better understand why you'd be afraid to ask again. This time, promise to share the results, and be sure to follow through on that promise.
· Develop an action plan. Regardless of how good the results, develop an action plan, or at the very least a communications plan. Revisit the plan and discuss progress once a quarter.

Show your clients that you're not just client service measurers; you're client service champions. By doing so, you'll strengthen your client relationships beyond measure.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Brighter Future For Client Service?

Clive Thompson wrote a terrific piece in Wired Magazine in August 2009, citing a five year study conducted by Dr. Andrea Lunsford at Stanford. The Stanford Study of Writing was a substantial undertaking where, between 2001 and 2006, she led a review of more than 14,000 student writing samples - everything from academic papers to Twitter updates. The results not only dispelled fears among many about the evolution of our language, but also provided illuminating insights about the future of client service.

I hear people lament the demise of the English language all the time. They speak to how texting, tweeting, and other such practices are contributing to poor grammar, marginal spelling, and an inability to express oneself "properly" in the written form. Lunsford disagrees. She claims, "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization." And as Thompson points out, "For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."
*Image from

Friday, April 2, 2010

Top Five for Client Service

Ever since I started writing my client service blog, I've always paid attention to where Client Service Insights (CSI) placed when the words client service were typed into a Google web search - not a blog search, but a web search. The first time I ever found it, CSI was listed in the middle of page 26. I can't even believe I was still searching at that point. I guess I just became curious as to how far down it would eventually appear.

Over time, I watched it move up to the number one unpaid listing on page one. This was at a time when I was posting practically every day. Now I post an average of once a week, but remain in the top five on page one - today CSI happens to be listed second. I raise this issue for two reasons: 1) It speaks to how easy one can associate their organization with key brand attributes; and, 2) it's interesting who appears in the top five for client service. Let me review the top five:
  1. - a collection agency
  2. - a blog about client service excellence focused primarily on PR firms and other professional services firms
  3. - an interesting service because it's actually kind of a Better Business Bureau that offers info to firms about potential good and bad clients
  4. - a book said to contain 58 things every advertising and marketing executive should know
  5. - one of the premier management consulting firms in the world
It's a mixed bag for sure. Client service should be known by the company it keeps, and for your firm to be known for client service, it may be time to take ownership of the term (and other terms that best describe your brand). If it's good enough for McKinsey, I'm wondering which PR firm will be the first to crack the top five.

*Image from Olympic SEO Blog

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Client Service and Changemaking

Among my favorite iPhone apps are HBR's Management Tip of the Day and HBR Stats. It probably seems a little nerdy, but between the two they provide nuggets of valuable information each and every day.

On March 25th, the tip of the day addressed the fact that we live in a world that's changing fast, and to be successful, we need to know both how to adapt to change and how to drive it. The six core skills, adapted from "Rodrigo Baggio's Persuasive Leadership" by Bill Drayton and Valeria Budinch, are very relevant to those who are trying to build their business and distinguish themselves through client service excellence. They are:
  • Bring people together who aren't connected
  • Design new business models by combining players and resources in new ways
  • Persevere with an idea until you achieve success
  • Don't rely on your credentials, but on the power of your ideas
  • Persuade others to see the possibility of your ideas and join them in that pursuit
  • Empower others to also make change
I don't know of one PR firm that wouldn't benefit from revisiting these core skills. How many of these skills are you employing now? How can you lead positive change in your organization during these challenging times?

*Today's template is one of many I'll be trying over the next month or so using Blogger's new Template Designer. Great new tool!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kudos to Blogger & LT 25!

After a three-week blogcation, I'd like to use this post to offer my congratulations to two deserving groups: The team at Blogger and Seton Hall University's recent MASCL graduates, otherwise known as Learning Team (LT) 25.

I think I speak for many of us who use Blogger that we've been hoping and pleading for new templates for a long time now. Blogger has devised a terrific system that offers the flexibility and ease of use we enjoy as "Bloggers." It only took me a few minutes or so to discover the possibilities, figure out the system, and transform my blog template from something ordinary to something much more inviting. I plan to experiment with a new template every few days or so just to showcase some of my favorites. If there's a particular template you enjoy, feel free to share in your comments. For more information about the Blogger Template Designer, please read the post from Blogger in Draft. Blogger: Thanks for listening and responding!

As many of you know, I serve as an adjunct professor for Seton Hall University's MASCL program. I teach the capstone module, Strategic Communication Planning. Our graduating class, Learning Team 25, served as a stellar example of how working as colleagues rather than competitors provides for a richer learning experience for everyone involved. It's a rigorous program that I regard as the "MBA for Communicators." I extend my congratulations and best wishes to LT 25 and offer an invitation to any communication professional seeking an advanced to degree to check out MASCL and see if it's right for you!

I look forward to getting back to my blog in earnest next week!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Customer Service Champs

Last month, BusinessWeek announced its annual list of customer service champs. Jena McGregor looked behind the results and wrote: "When it comes to customer service, one might have assumed 2009 would have dealt a massive blow. Amid a brutal recession, companies slashed inventories to the bone. They cut back sharply on employee hours, benefits, and pay. Many stopped new investments in technology and store upgrades. But a funny thing happened on the way to the recovery: Customer satisfaction didn't sink like a 100-pound stone. The average score for the 25 brands that received our fourth annual Customer Service Champs award, which rates what customers think about the quality of a company's staff and the efficiency of its service, rose slightly in 2009."

I find the assumption about customer service quality suffering a "massive blow" interesting and not at all surprised it was wrong. For enterprises with a time-honored commitment to customer service, they don't typically abandon their efforts during difficult economic times. It's not only an integral part of their DNA, but they understand how it sets them apart, especially during lean periods. When customers need care the most, they can depend on these organizations to provide it. Other companies tend to step up their service initiatives in an effort to keep the customers they have. 2009's solid customer service performance makes perfect sense.

Congratulations to the top 25: Ace Hardware,, American Express, Amica Mutual Insurance, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Branch Banking & Trust, Charles Schwab, Dell, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Jaguar, L.L. Bean, Lexus, Nordstrom, Panera Bread, Publix Super Markets, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, The Ritz-Carlton, True Value, USAA, Wegmans Food Markets, and WestJet.

Pivot Point Solutions
offered a terrific post that highlights which companies invested in their employees, their customers, and in technology in 2009. The writer also reminds us that regardless of our business, we can learn a great deal from the best practices of these organizations. I encourage you to take a closer look and share your thoughts!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How Much Do You Care?

This may sound a bit trite, but the more I learn about client service excellence and great leadership, the more obvious it is that it's all about caring. Combine all the practical experience with all the scholarly theories one can assemble, and it comes down to who cares the most.

When I say caring, I mean caring about everything and everyone - results, relationships, employees, clients, vendors, media, etc. Caring fuels passion and an indomitable will to win. Sometimes when I watch attorneys preparing and defending a client's innocence in a court of law, I think about the stakes. It's often about whether a man will spend the rest of his life in prison or go home to his family. The stakes don't get much higher than that, so if you're not prepared to do the work it takes to prevail ( to care enough), then the defendant needs another lawyer. In the communication business, it's when the client needs a new agency.

A few years ago, I worked for Mullen for a brief time. I participated in a new business pitch one day, and the CEO Joe Grimaldi closed the presentation by stating to the prospect: "You won't come across another agency who will "care" more than Mullen about your business and your success!" I'd had been at the agency just long enough at the time to want to stand up in that moment and say, "he's right, you know!" I had worked for a number of agencies over the years, and it was the first time in my life I had ever heard those words from a CEO delivered with such sincerity. What's more, I knew the words were backed by a culture that he, Edward Boches, and others had built over the years that could actually deliver on such an assertion.

At Mullen, everybody cares! Fortunately, the client was astute enough to believe him and Mullen won the business. I would imagine the agency continues to serve that client today with the same level of caring that was demonstrated during the pitch. That's because it's who they are.

We're still in the midst of a difficult economy, where the stakes for most enterprises are higher than ever. If you believe in the premise that whoever cares the most wins, then it may be time to ask, how much do I care? And is it enough?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Strengths And Weaknesses

Last year, I read Tom Rath's book StrengthsFinder 2.0. I highly recommend it. Small book, big impact! It essentially provides readers with a means to discover and focus on their assets rather than their liabilities. Rath correctly asserts that we're a society obsessed with identifying and improving weaknesses when we should be building on our strengths.

It's true isn't it? All these tools that help us identify weaknesses, all so we can develop plans which (if we're lucky) will result in only marginal improvement. As a lifelong Celtics fan, I try to imagine what it was like for KC Jones to coach Larry Bird. Can't you just see KC telling Larry to focus on improving his dunking ability rather than his three-point shooting or passing game - just a few of the strengths that made Bird among the best to ever play the game. Of course not. In fact it sounds kind of silly when you think about it that way, but Rath would argue that that's our mindset.

It's not only more fun to work on improving areas that come easily to you, but the rewards will be greater as well. I recall working with a colleague years ago on a project where we implemented communication strategies to help improve retail sales at low performing stores. While we achieved some success with these troubled locations, we also learned that most of these stores were in bad shape for a reason. We discovered quickly that by focusing our efforts on moderate performers and highlighting their strengths, that the return on investment for the company was far greater.

As public relations professionals who aspire to offer the best possible service to their clients or companies, it's far more important to focus on getting better at what you already do well, than trying to improve in areas where, compared to your competitors, you may only hope to be average.

Does that mean we should just ignore our weaknesses? Probably not. But if the three-point shot is your strength, then you may be best served by staying late after practice to shoot a few hundred more!

*Image from

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Telling Clients They're Wrong or More Right Answers?

At the end of last year, Ruth Seeley asked that I read an article by Sam Barnes that appeared in Smashing Magazine titled: How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong. She asked that I "take on this topic in 2010." Fair enough. If the title of the article were framed as a question, my short answer would be: "You don't!"

That said, I encourage you to read the article. You'll find references to the importance of objectivity and humility (which I agree with), and suggestions such as how one should "Establish Yourself As The Expert" (which I do not agree with). If your expertise in the client's mind isn't already established, then it's not likely to emerge positively during a dispute.

I agree with much of Barnes' advice, I just think he's talking about having the wrong conversation. The moment you sense you're about to be drawn into a positional negotiation with your client should be the precise instant when you reset the conversation. It's not about you being right and your client being wrong; it's about working together to reach the best possible solution(s) for the organization. There's a big difference.

When it comes to serving the organization, you and your client should work from the same side of the table. The "I'm right, you're wrong" conversation is unnecessarily personal and essentially irrelevant. Not to mention, prevailing in such an argument may result in the quintessential definition of winning the battle but losing the war. Whatever you do, don't take the bait! Your client is an ally with whom you may disagree, not your opponent.

I believe, of course, that despite your sharing the same organizational goals, you will disagree with your client as to how to achieve them from time to time. I delivered a presentation at Seton Hall University's Learning Leaders Symposium in 2008 called Truth to Power. It was originally aimed at providing truthful counsel to your CEO, but the same holds true for counseling clients: Here are my ten tips for speaking Truth to Client:
  1. Trust yourself. You have a great deal of value to bring to your client. Listen carefully to all perspectives and have the confidence to share your own.
  2. You owe it to your client to be heard. You're hired to draw from your expertise and bring your outside viewpoint to the conversation. Consider it your responsibility to share your professional judgment.
  3. Know your audience. Consider the best manner in which to frame and deliver your thoughts/ideas/concerns to ensure they are received favorably by the specific recipient.
  4. Be prepared with supporting data and anticipate questions. Come to the conversation with more than your self-proclaimed expertise. Be armed with data and be prepared to address perceived drawbacks.
  5. Make your case succinctly. Use your communication skills to state your thoughts succinctly and powerfully. Don't ramble.
  6. Advocate your case in the broader interest, not self interest. It's critical to the credibility and motives of your position that you're not perceived to be advocating a personal or agency agenda.
  7. Persuade (don't take ceremonial positions). If you believe in something strongly enough to mention it, then be sure to advocate it. You don't want to be the type who offers a thought in passing as a means of "personal/political cover."
  8. Be patient (let the information sink in). Once you've made your case, stop talking. Allow your client to process what you've said.
  9. Don't be afraid to share bad news. Understand that bad news or pitfalls are better coming from you now, than from the outside later on.
  10. Trust your client. Once you've been heard, the resulting course of action may be different from what you've advocated. Keep in mind that the client understands the information from which you are basing your recommendation, but you may not always be aware of all they know - and they are not always at liberty to share. Trust that the decision reached is in the best interest of the organization and join your client in moving forward.
I believe if you are working side-by-side with your client, it's never about who's right or wrong. Instead, it's about what renowned photographer Dewitt Jones regards as a mutual search for "more right answers."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Is Your Purpose?

Last year, I shared a story about United Way to make a point about being helpful. The story is worth repeating to introduce a new conversation about purpose!

Many years ago, United Way produced a video that cleverly poked fun at itself, while at the same time making a powerful statement. The scene was set in an elementary school classroom where a student brought her Dad (A United Way Exec) to talk to her classmates about what he does for living. As Dad launches into his "United Way speak," the kids quickly look confused and bored. The daughter immediately senses the problem, stands up, and proclaims, "He helps people!" Fortunately, Dad picked up on the cue and began engaging the class. The confusion and boredom quickly gave way to comprehension and smiles.

Crafting a clear statement of purpose matters. Why shop at Wal-Mart or Best Buy? For customers, there's no ambiguity regarding why these stores exist or the reasons they shop there. Can you say the same thing for your customers and prospects? How well do you communicate your purpose in a single sentence? It can be more challenging for some businesses than others, but its importance cannot be overstated. You may deliver value on several fronts, but on closer examination, you'll usually discover there's a primary purpose, with supporting value propositions.

If it takes you several minutes (or even longer) to explain to a friend or relative what your company does, then take a moment to a write statement of purpose. It will not only offer the simple explanation you're looking for, but also serve as the foundation for even the most sophisticated of communication programs. Being part of an enterprise without a clear statement of purpose is tantamount to being in a boat without a paddle.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Need An Alignment?

When I think about the term alignment, it usually conjures images of letting go of the steering wheel while driving along an open road. If I'm aligned properly, my car will stay straight. If not, it will veer to one side or the other in a manner that without correction, would yield catastrophic results.

Last week, I attended a terrific presentation by Edgar Papke hosted by Vistage International on the topic of alignment. Essentially he offers a model that stresses the alignment of purpose, leadership and culture in order to win in today's hyper-competitive climate. It's not only great advice in terms of leadership and business strategy, but also essential with regard to communication.

While there are many companies which are criticized for saying one thing and doing another, such disconnects are often either intentional or victim of what I would regard as priority hierarchy. In such a case for example, a multi-national PR agency may exclaim the virtues of collaboration, selling clients true global capability because of its seamless cross office collaboration. Unfortunately, when times get tough, individual offices can become stingy with their revenues. General managers don't want to give up revenue to another office and, as a result, seamless collaboration takes a back seat. It doesn't mean the agency isn't committed to working together, it's just that collaboration falls down the priority list during lean times.

More problematic however is misalignment that's more subtle. It isn't that your car has a mechanical problem, it's that you as the driver get distracted reading a billboard or changing a radio station, only to discover how quickly your path has changed. It may be unintentional, but just as dangerous.

As a communication professional in your organization, how do you make sure everyone's keeping their eyes on the road? We'd love to hear your thoughts?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

So Who Is Responsible?

My post today offers a valuable communication lesson that comes from an unlikely source - an unfortunate chapter in my life at Broad Meadows Junior High School. In the ninth grade, I ran track for only that one year, largely because back in those days I hated running. I only did it because our rather large phys-ed teacher at the time made me do it. (This was back in the day when teachers/coaches could cause you bodily harm without any repercussions.)

I typically ran the mile, but at the last track meet of the year I was also asked to fill-in as the third leg on our undefeated one-mile relay team. (You've probably already guessed where this is going.) No problem I thought. Well, to make a long story short, I ran the third leg, starting slightly back in second place. By the time I was ready to pass the baton I had taken the lead. Our anchor leg was the fastest kid in the city. No way we could lose. As I was passing the baton, I felt a brief moment of excitement, until of course the baton hit the ground. So much for our undefeated season.

After the race, I was searching for answers as to how this may have happened. The coach offered me some clarity by telling me in no uncertain terms that it was my fault. The rule is that you don't let go of the baton until you're certain the receiver has grasped it.

It's hard to miss the relevance to our business. Like it or not, the responsibility lies with those delivering the message, not those receiving it. We can't just say, "it was in the e-mail" or "sure, it's right there in paragraph 8." We as communication professionals should never let go of the baton until we know that our target audiences have received the message. It's only at that point that we can relax and let them run with it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First Who...Then What

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the concept of considering who before what. To paraphrase, he states that leaders of good to great companies understand three simple truths: 1) If you begin with who before what, then you can more easily adapt to a changing world. Employees are there because of who is on the bus, not because of where it's going; so if changing direction becomes necessary, it's OK with them; 2) The right people are self-motivated and want to be part of something great. 3) If you have the wrong people, you'll never be a great company - even if you ARE headed in the right direction.

So during this year of client service excellence, I suggested in an earlier post that to get off to a good start individuals should look at themselves and think about what education, resources, or relationships they will need to raise their game - to explore ways they can provide even better client service than the year before. Likewise, PR agencies and major corporations should consider operating on the "first who...then what" principle if they aspire to raise theirs.

Today's employment market is a sea of riches. The problem is that most agencies and companies are squandering this opportunity because they tend to embark on hiring strategies designed to eliminate people rather than engage them. It seems counter-intuitive, but here's the dynamic: The more applicants in the job pool, the more specific the agency/company becomes in its selection criteria. Unfortunately, that means HR people review resumes based on specific qualifications of "what" and often fail to consider people whose experience is different from their pre-set criteria. By eliminating "who" because of "what," they fail to consider some of the very best people for their organization. As a result, lots of great people who are hard working, smart, creative, etc., don't even receive the courtesy of a return phone call, let alone any serious consideration for an open position.

Consider the expression often spoken the day an employee quits or gets fired, "Well, (s)he looked good on paper. Not sure what went wrong." I suggest this approach: Hire people, not paper.

I have a number of brilliant, hard-working friends in the job market that any organization would be honored to have as part of their team. (They can't even get an interview). These are the kind of people of which great companies and agencies are made. Executive recruiters and hiring managers should embrace the current job market as the sea of riches for which it is. Finding the pearl involves something more aggressive than an elimination strategy. That means coming up with ways to include and consider rather than segregate and discard.

By taking a look at the person behind the resume, even going so far as to interview everyone, which I discussed last year, you'll discover the kind of people who won't just fill a slot, but will make your organization great!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

To Counsel Leaders, It Helps To Understand Leadership

I spent about 20 years searching for a master's degree program that would meet my needs as a public relations professional. Having worked in PR all my life, I wasn't interested in a straight PR or communication graduate program, and an MBA just didn't seem quite right for me either.

One day, I discovered Seton Hall University's Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership (MASCL) online program. The university has delivered this program to 25 Learning Teams in just over 10 years, and Seton Hall's experience in providing a rich and rigorous learning experience really shows. For me, it represented the perfect combination of strategic communication, leadership, organizational change, and a host of other disciplines that are so crucial to my clients' success. Now that I've completed the program and serve as one of its instructors, I would without hesitation recommend MASCL as an ideal master's program for the professional communicator, regardless of industry sector.

That said, I'm a firm believer that you can't be at your best counseling leaders if you don't understand the dynamics of leadership and the many challenges they face today. Since I've declared 2010 The Year of Client Service Excellence here at CSI, I thought: What better place to start than to explore what each of us can do to raise our respective games? How can we take our skills up a notch so that we can provide an even higher level of client service excellence in the year(s) ahead?

The best news is that you don't have to wait. Check out the MASCL link and learn how you can be part of the next Learning Team. I also invite alums to share their experiences with MASCL and for others to share programs they would recommend as well! A prosperous 2010 will begin with you!

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010: The Year of Client Service Excellence

Let me start 2010 with a brief but important reminder. For many of you, today is your first day of the new year back in the office. What better time to commit to client service excellence and its critical role to growing your business.

Back in 2006, Frederick Reichheld of Bain & Company reported:
  • Over a 5 year period, businesses may lose as many as 1/2 of their customers.
  • Acquiring a new customer can cost 6 to 7 times more than retaining an existing customer.
  • Businesses who boosted customer retention rates by as little as 5% saw increases in their profits ranging from 5% to a whopping 95%.
The math is fairly simple and the disruption of client churn is often much greater than just the hard costs incurred. In reviewing various sources, the cost of acquiring new clients ranges from 5 to 10 times more than keeping the ones you have. What's more, new clients want to work with agencies that will serve them better than their predecessors. Starting today, make client service excellence the centerpiece for your growth strategy. Make 2010 the year of client service excellence!


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