Monthly Archives: September 2018

A Foundation Of Trust

Bruce Springsteen wrote about trust on his “Magic” album:

Trust none of what you hear (trust none of what you hear)
And less of what you see

That’s good advice these days but it’s far from a current issue. In far, The Boss was only echoing Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote in the short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”:

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

I don’t think Poe, however, envisioned the dramatic lack of trust that most consumers have in the very people upon whom much of their digital lives rely. We see it in the reports that Pew stated that over 40% of Facebook users between the age of 18 and 29 had deleted Facebook from their phones in the past year. While Facebook disputes that number, there’s no doubt that even one user choosing to avoid your product or service on the basis of trust is a huge problem.

How do we solve this? As is my style, I tend to dumb it down to a very simple thing. Don’t do anything to your customers that you wouldn’t want to be done to you or to a member of your family. If you’re OK with your spouse being surveilled and his or her data sold to the highest bidder than be my guest in doing so to your customers. If that notion gives you pause, however, maybe you ought not to be considering doing so to anyone, at least without their full knowledge and consent. That means what you’re doing is front and center and not buried in a 3,000-word terms and conditions clickwrap agreement.

Once trust is lost, it’s extremely difficult to rebuild. You might have experienced this on a personal basis with a friend. As difficult as that might have been, it’s even harder for a business where there is generally not a human face on the brand or service nor an individual with whom to speak. The best solution is never to jeopardize trust in the first place. It’s a foundational issue. Your customers need to trust you and all of what you say. Don’t prove Bruce and Poe right, ok?

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Burritos On The Brain

This Foodie Friday, it’s all about the humble burrito and what it can teach us about business and life. I’m sure you’re familiar with the burrito. As we know it here in the USA, it’s a rather large tortilla filled with meat, beans (usually refried), cheese, sometimes rice, sour cream, guacamole and often more. You need to be a “little burro” to carry all of that!

Here’s the thing though. Burritos in Mexico are a totally different matter. They generally contain one thing, usually a protein. Maybe it’s shredded pork that’s been cooked for hours in a mojo. Then a sauce of some sort is added and the meat is placed, with or without refried beans, into a tortilla, usually flour (corn tortillas are generally smaller and better for tacos or flautas). It’s much simpler but this simplicity does a few things.

Each ingredient must be perfect because the flavors of each is a point of focus as you’re eating. You can’t hide bad meat behind a lot of cheese and sour cream. Your seasoning must be aggressive or the dish will be bland. After all, it’s wrapped in a bland tortilla that can tend to deaden its contents. In short, the Mexican burrito mirrors some of the world’s great dishes – simple ingredients but complex flavors. Think cacio e pepe – pasta with cheese and pepper. Like the burrito, it’s not about difficult techniques or hard to find ingredients or even complex timing like a souffle. Instead, it’s about having the patience and skill to bring out the best in your materials and the confidence to present them to stand on their own.

That’s a great lesson for those of us in business. Too often we hide behind buzzwords or present materials in a way that hides the basic thoughts we’re trying to convey. How many powerpoints have you seen with 50 words saying what 5 could have said? We try to make what we’re doing exceptionally complex instead of trying to simplify it. We add the unnecessary toppings – not guac and cheese and sour cream but hard to read contracts and user agreements or black-box systems that add nothing but cost and marginal improvements.

The next time you’re in a meeting, think of the humble Mexican burrito. Keep it simple but make each piece spectacular. The ingredients of your business – the people, the business model, the systems – must all be the best and you’ve got to combine and season them to make them better. Not more complicated and not hidden behind unnecessary glop. Make sense?

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Teshuva 2018

It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  This was a post from several years ago.  As I read it over, looking for inspiration for something to write on the subject of change and business based on the holiday, I realized that I had expressed my thinking pretty well in the earlier post.  Those of you who celebrate the holiday are probably not reading this until sundown (I scheduled this yesterday in keeping with the spirit of not working on the day). Whether you do or don’t celebrate, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. For those of you unfamiliar with the holiday, it concludes the 10 day period at the start of the Jewish calendarRosh Hashanah – head of the year – during which all Jews are supposed to reflect upon the past year and examine how they’re going to change their lives going forward. One also seeks forgiveness from those against whom he has transgressed – both those of this earth and higher powers. There is a lot of other imagery connected with the period – inscription in the Book of Life being a big one – but I think there’s something each of us can take as a business lesson in a non-denominational way.

We all get off track.  Sometimes it’s in little ways like eating badly or drinking too much.  Sometimes it’s in big ways like alienating our families or hurting friends who love us.  The concept in Judaism of repentance is called Teshuva which means “return”.  I love the notion of coming back to one’s self as well as to the basic human tenets that are common to all religions and peoples.

We can take a period of reflection and “return” in our business lives as well.  The most obvious way is for us as individuals. Who have we alienated this year?  What client have we taken for granted?  But it a bigger opportunity.  How has the business diverged from the mission?  Why have we stopped getting better and are just marching in place?  What can we be doing to grow our people but are ignoring?

We ask those kinds of questions from time to time, but I guess I’m suggesting that it become a more formal process.  Set aside a period every year for “return” thinking.  A period of repentance?  Maybe, in some cases.  But in all cases a chance to change.  A chance to regret past bad actions and to vow not to repeat them.  Most importantly (this is true in the religious sense as well), to correct the transgression.  To apologize.   To make restitution.  Whatever is right and lets everyone move forward with a clear conscious and a vow to do better.

Sound like a plan?

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You’re The Customer Too, Dummy

We haven’t had a screed in a while in which I point out the on-going silliness of many of us in marketing, so let’s start the week with one! There was an article in the eMarketer newsletter about a recent study. I’m just going to quote it directly:

In an August 2018 survey of 103 ad agencies, publishers and marketers in North America conducted by Pressboard, 27.2% of respondents said they use an ad blocker to block ads on the websites they visit. These figures are similar to those found in the general population. According to eMarketer forecasts, 25.2% of US internet users will use an ad blocker in 2018.

Pressboard’s research showed that advertising professionals are more likely to rely on their friends than on ads when they decide whether or not to purchase a product. Nearly eight in 10 respondents (78.6%) said that word-of-mouth from friends influenced their recent purchase decision. Just fewer than 16% of those surveyed reported making a purchase after being influenced by banner ads.

I hope you can see immediately why this precipitated my response. It’s might be easy to shrug this off. I mean, what does it really say? Marketing and advertising professionals are humans too? How is that a surprise? Well, it’s not, but it does point out a fundamental problem. Apparently, when they put on their business hats and get to work they forget how they feel as consumers. After all, if they react badly to banner ads and rely more on word of mouth, why do they persist in figuring out how to invade the consumer’s website use in as many ways as possible? They use ad blockers because, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan, in their hearts, they know it’s right. The state of web marketing is akin to that of an Arabian bazaar or a NASCAR driver. Ad blockers at least make the web tolerable.

The message to any of us is that we’re customers too. We need to think like customers and not as marketers when we’re figuring out the best ways to interact with our audiences. How can we solve their problems? How can we deliver information that’s useful to them and not just scream at them? Keep that in mind and not only will your customers be better off, but you will be as well. Make sense?

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Everyone’s Got A Deal

A very wet Foodie Friday here but that won’t deter me from posting a few thoughts about what I think is a post-value world. What I mean by that is that value seems to be more of a given today that it did a few years ago. I also hope by now you’ve learned the difference between value and cost because your customers certainly have.

In the food business, you see this playing out in spades. Everyone has a deal, whether it’s $1 menu items or $5 foot long subs or free cheeseburgers from using an app to order. I suspect that many of these items are loss leaders. They certainly can’t be maintaining the margins which are already slim in the restaurant business. They’re designed to build traffic and that traffic will buy other, more profitable items.

The problem with this is the restaurant business is one where the supply has outstripped the demand. Chain restaurants are growing faster than the overall population and there aren’t enough hungry folks out there to support them all. Because deals are so prevalent, it actually frees the consumer to decide if they place more value on the price of the meal or if they value higher quality ingredients or better service or just the overall dining experience an establishment offers. More often than not these days, the price is less of a concern. Why? Because everyone’s got a deal!

What does this mean for your business? It means you’ve got to continue to get beyond thinking about cost in terms of how your customer values your product or service. The health of the business depends on more than a lot of customers. Fewer, more profitable customers seem better to me than a lot of slim-margin ones. Ask K-mart, whose profitability peaked in 1992,  if the low-margin, high volume strategy can work over the long term. Someone can always compete on price (Walmart).

The “deal” I try to offer to my potential clients is the highest level of value. That value is defined in THEIR terms, not mine. If all they’re after is a low price, I’m probably not going to be working with them. If what they want is a profitable result that advances them to their goals, well, that’s my deal. What’s yours?

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There’s No “I” In Storm

One more bit of thinking today as Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas. While it’s easy to see the eye of the storm in the satellite photos, the message here on the ground is that there is no “I”. Let me explain and tell you why it’s relevant to your business as well.

Riding this thing out seems to be a communal effort here. My neighborhood has a closed Facebook group and it’s been overwhelmed with offers from neighbors offering to help one another with everything from cleaning up yard waste to clearing storm drains to fixing generators. There are constant reports of where there is bottled water or gas available to buy (both are hard to find) as stores’ stocks are replenished. In short, while everyone is looking after their own storm prep, they’re doing so with an eye to the community as a whole.

That’s something that gets lost in business sometimes. Each of us is very focused on our own success and we sometimes lose track of the whole. I don’t just mean the entire enterprise (how well is the business doing) but also of our co-workers (how well are the people doing). Too many of us are selfish. We spend time self-promoting. We try to climb over others on our way up the ladder, not recognizing that doing so creates the envy and resentment that can poison an organization.

The truth is that while of course business is competitive, at its best it’s also collaborative. You can’t succeed, either as an individual or as a business, without the trust and support of others.

We’ll get through this storm just as we did the last one. That, in part, will be due to good preparation and help from one another. As with the storms that happen in business, it’s much better than trying to ride it out alone, don’t you think?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Hurricane’s Comin’

I went to bed last night after watching my favorite weather forecaster give a rather dire outlook for this week. When I moved to North Carolina I opted for hurricanes over blizzards, I guess, and now it appears that one is headed right for us.

I ran out earlier to pick up a case of water bottles just in case the forecasts are accurate. The local Walmart had nary a bottle anywhere, and the long aisle of empty shelving reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who had this idea four days ahead of when this thing is supposed to pay us a visit. I’ve got lots of ice to hold the food and lots of wine to hold me so I think I’ll be fine.

On the drive home I thought to myself that it was pretty cool how everyone is going about their business and preparing. There weren’t any D batteries at Walmart either and there were lines at the gas stations I passed. People are trying, as we were constantly told in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.” Which leads me to today’s screed.

There is a hurricane headed for your business. It might not be on your radar yet or you may have red flags raised over your beaches, but you can rest assured that at some point a massive, devastating storm will hit you. The thing is that you need to have a disaster place in place and preparations made long before that time arrives. Was Chipotle ready for the massive e. coli outbreak? It almost destroyed them and they still haven’t recovered. What if the power grid fails for whatever reason and all of your refrigerated inventory must be thrown out? What’s the plan to deal with that and are there financial plans in place to recover?

You need a crisis response team and a disaster plan. Your key players from all your relevant business functions – operations, public relations, marketing, quality assurance, legal, etc. – have to have been briefed on the plan long before it’s executed. I’ve written before about how my organization’s web servers failed after 9/11 due to a lack of dust filters that forced the shutdown of the emergency power we were careful to have at our disposal. When the crisis had passed, we rewrote the disaster plan to account for yet another “just in case.”

Hurricanes happen. The question isn’t how to prevent hurricanes but how best to prepare and recover from any damage they cause when they do. I’m ready for this one. Are you?

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