Monthly Archives: February 2018

Cranky About Commas

Maybe I’ve always had tendencies to be a cranky old man but as I’m turning into one I find great schadenfreude when the universe punishes those who are lax about grammar and spelling. It could just be my history as an English teacher but I find my already elevated blood pressure spiking when I see people misusing punctuation or not particularly caring if they’ve mistaken “your” for “you’re” or “to” for “too.”

It cheered me up, therefore, when I read that a lawsuit over an Oxford comma was settled. An Oxford comma, as I’m sure you recall, is an optional piece of punctuation used just before the coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “or”) in a list of three or more things. I think its use provides clarity and I suspect that parties to this suit – a dairy company in Maine and their delivery drivers – now realize the importance of clarity. The comma was omitted from a list of circumstances which would not qualify for overtime payments. Because of that omission, the drivers argued that they were entitled to overtime since the words “distribution of” were connected, without a comma, to “packing for shipment,” making that a single activity that wasn’t eligible for overtime. The drivers said they were only engaged in distributing the product which is NOT on the list.

I think there is an important point for any of us who provide written communication in any event. It bothers me, probably more than it should, when I read something from one of my connections that misuses language. I’m not talking about the vagueries of punctuating parenthetical statements or comma use for multiple adjectives. I mean simple things such as the examples above or “it’s” as a possessive. It’s worse when a company does it since you know multiple people looked at whatever was being produced as a piece of marketing or a social media post.

The settlement of the suit cost the dairy $5,000,000. That’s a lot of cheese. Sloppy proofreading can cost you just as much in how your customers and others feel about your brand. It’s not just the lawyers who get concerned with vague meanings and incorrect language. There are a lot of cranky old men and women out there who know the difference, and many of us are actually not so old (ask my kids who are bigger sticklers on this point than I am!). Is all that clear?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Back To The Bar

(Only cropped, no other editing.)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’m inspired by something the folks at Bacardi are doing because it’s something every company ought to be doing in some form. In the case of Bacardi, they’ve called it “Back To The Bar” and the reason for what they’re doing is nicely explained by their CEO and reported by MediaPost:

“Back to the Bar is our version of ‘walking the factory floor,’” said Mahesh Madhavan, CEO of Bacardi Limited. “It puts our people in touch with what’s happening in our business in real life and real time — something you can’t truly understand behind a computer screen, sitting through a presentation, or dissecting a spreadsheet.”

What every employee is being encouraged to do is to go hang around bars. In fact, they’re shutting down the company to allow employees to do so. While they’re in those bars, they’re to connect with customers and encourage them to try cocktails made with Bacardi. I imagine they’ll also get a lot of feedback on the product, consumer approaches to drink selection and other information which, as the CEO says, you can’t get behind a computer screen. It’s a fantastic idea.

Think about your own business. First, I hope you’re eating your own dog food – that you’re a regular user of your own product or service. If not, why not? As an example, over the years I’ve worked in sports with a few people who didn’t really watch sports or know a heck of a lot about it. How they got hired baffled me. I also worked with a TV executive who said he didn’t ever watch some very popular shows because he “wasn’t the demo.” I get that but I think if your job entails marketing to a particular target you need to understand the target and that includes their likes and dislikes even if they don’t mirror your own.

Next, Barcardi is getting first-hand feedback. They’re talking to people who are in a relaxed environment, probably a cocktail or two down the road, and the chances of getting uncensored feedback are excellent. It’s not a written survey or a focus group. It’s way better than those. Most importantly, it’s first hand. I have always loved the old United Airlines commercial from the late 1980’s in which Ben, a senior executive whose company lost a long-term client that morning, is handing out airline tickets to his managers and tells them to go visit clients. Ben himself is going “to visit that old friend who fired us this morning.” It’s a spectacular reminder not to lose touch with people. Don’t rely solely on email and telephone. You probably see this issue even in how your own office works if you still work in one. People don’t visit – they communicate via email or Slack or some other messaging service, even with the person in the next cubicle.

People thrive when they connect with other people. Your business thrives when it really connects with customers. When was the last time you went back to the bar?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

My Uncle’s Poetry

My uncle passed away last week. He was married to my mother’s sister and, obviously, wasn’t a young man. Still, a loved one’s death is never easy and due to a lengthy illness, this one was especially hard. I flew to Florida to attend his funeral and to offer love and support to my aunt and cousins. If you’ve ever sat with folks who’ve experienced a loss, maybe you’ve had a similar experience to what went on. There was much talking and reminiscing about my uncle and many old family memories were shared with a mixture of laughter and sadness.

My uncle was a man I’d known my entire life and yet during the time spent chatting I learned something I’d never known. There was a book on my aunt’s table. In it were poems that my uncle had written over the years, mostly to her. It turned out he had also written a play. I was very surprised by this since my uncle was a rather vocal prognosticator on whatever topic happened to be at hand. Sports, in particular, was something about which he was never at a loss for an opinion. He was in an odd way a less knowledgeable Howard Cosell and although he was frequently wrong he was never deterred from speaking his mind. The fact that he had written love poetry to his wife was not exactly something that I thought he’d be doing.

The point of this is to remind each of us that no matter how well we think we know a topic or a person we need to keep an open mind and a readiness to be surprised. If someone had told me that my uncle was a playwright I’d have thought they were joking. That fact that I saw his poetry reminded me how little I really knew or understood about him.

Be willing to be wrong. Accept that there are things you don’t know and seek them out. Get as many facts as you can. Oddly, my uncle would often opine without having some key facts at hand. Even so, it’s his last message to me as expressed through the existence of his poetry that was probably the best thing he ever said to me. Does it resonate with you too?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

A Not So Super Formula

Super Bowl Sunday is not only a celebration of the NFL championship. It’s also a day celebrating commercialism is in its glory. While some forms of it are heinous (think of the price-gouging going on in and around the stadium), I think most of us enjoy checking out the commercials each year. Some are funny, some are just dumb, but all of them are selling us something.

Photo by Andrae Ricketts

The commercials got me thinking about another form of selling that made news this weekend. You’ve probably heard about the memo released by a member of Congress concerning the investigation into how Russia interfered in our election. Putting aside the politics (we don’t do them here), it provides a very instructive thought about marketing.

Much like the release of a new movie or any other product, the memo was preceded by a campaign to raise awareness of it. There was a hashtag used to build that awareness along with demand and various friendly outlets promoted the fact that the memo was something all Americans should see. That’s where things go off the rails a bit since the reason given why we should all see this document was that it contained new, critical information. The promise was that once we all saw this information, our perception of how the investigation was being run or even its entire existence would be called into question. That, dear readers, is the lesson.

The memo was released and while to some it was a big deal, the general response to it was that it’s a big dud that contained nothing new and was somewhat misleading. In fact, some of the folks who were hyping its release are now backing away. What it shows us is the problem with overselling.

Overselling in its simplest form is selling more than you have to offer. If you’re an airline or hotel, you sell more seats or rooms than you have because there are usually cancellations or no-shows. It another form, overselling is going well beyond the substance of what you have, teeing up the consumer for disappointment when they find you’ve underdelivered. It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do.

Isn’t hyperbole part of selling? I don’t think so. In fact, I think great selling is about helping a prospect gain clarity about their situation while hyperbole is about obstructing reality to a certain extent. Overpromising and underdelivering, whether in releasing a report or running an ad in the Super Bowl, is a formula for failure in my book. Yours?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Building A Better Filter

I came across something this past week that I knew immediately would have to be our Foodie Friday topic because in a flash my reaction went from “duh” to “brilliant” to “life-changing.” It is a coffee filter. That’s right: the thing into which you put the coffee as you prepare your morning cup. It actually can remind us a lot about business.

I was visiting my sister and went to make the morning coffee. As I opened up a filter to place it into the conical thing that holds the ground coffee, I saw something on the white paper of the filter that I’d never seen before: lines. That’s right – pre-measured markings to delineate the levels of ground coffee, much as you probably have on the coffee pot itself for water. I literally giggled with glee. No measuring spoon to wash nor losing track of how many scoops I’d counted out. Just hit the same line each day with the water in the pot and the coffee in the filter and get the same brew, no matter how sleepy I was as I made the pot.

What does this have to do with business? A few things. First, coffee filters are commodity items. Not much distinguishes one filter from another and anything which can do so will remove price as the only variable. In this case, I don’t see evidence that these filters even cost any more than those without lines.

Second, this is clearly a change made with the consumer in mind. After all, it must cost a little something extra to print the lines on the filters as well as to implement a step in manufacturing that wasn’t there before. Based on the filters without measure lines, I don’t think anything had ever been printed on them, so this might even have involved purchasing new equipment to provide a customer benefit. It would have been very easy to say let’s charge more to maintain our margins or to forget the “new” product altogether but some smart manager didn’t.

Finally, it shows us that even something as simple as a coffee filter – literally a folded piece of paper – can provide room for innovation and a better product. All that’s required is to keep the focus on customer benefit and to think outside of the box (or inside the filter!). Those are things any of can and should do.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints