Thursday, September 30, 2010

What a customer-driven manager looks like

Yesterday my supervisor reminded me to finish a task she's been gently asking me to finish for months now. It involved designing a web page in Sharepoint, an internal catalogue of outreach publications that our field offices can use to find what's available and get copies. When it's live, it will save them and us a lot of time. They'll be able to see what's available and order it quickly rather than making phone calls back and forth till they get the answer they need.

On the surface I had valid reasons for the delay. It's true that I had been pulled onto other projects and the system wouldn't easily do what she wanted.

But on reflection there were other things going on too. Things that were blocking me from moving forward, but that I wasn't addressing directly. Instead I chose to avoid the task. They were:

  • Fear of looking incompetent by trying and failing - after all, "I have a rep to protect" as the technical expert in the office. 
  • Ego about the possibility that I might have to do less-than-perfect work - I didn't want to leave a legacy of a home-made looking page behind me
  • A fixed idea that my approach was "right" - I had decided that we "had to" have a database with a clean interface, so that we could enter the publication data once and once only. The customer "would just have to deal with" the fact that it might not be pretty. Her vision, in contrast, was that the interface be right for the customer, and that we would have to create a separate database if necessary.

Of course all of the above left me unable to move forward, and every time I tried to work something up I ended up scrapping it because it just wasn't right.

So yesterday she asked me to just hunker down and do it. She was getting a request from higher up and it was time to finish this thing. 

Along the way, in the email, she offered a simple sketch of what it should look like.

We met in my cube to go over next steps. I am a bit hardheaded but after a few minutes I got the message. Make it look the way it's supposed to look even if you have to bend Sharepoint to do it. Even if it's not the best practice, the elegant solution, or the prettiest thing on earth. Get it done, 80% is good enough, and let's finish this already.

So I made up my mind to attack it. It didn't hurt that I had gone to the gym and for the first time in probably 25 years, actually run on the treadmill instead of walked. Even though it was only for maybe 30 seconds before I had to go back to walking. I ran until I couldn't breathe.

There I was in front of the screen. What the heck was I going to do? The system is so locked down you can't change much of anything.

Eventually I saw something on my right. "Edit source code" or something like that. Voila! Magic! I could actually go in and use HTML coding!

So I Googled HTML code for "insert horizontal bar" and "align image" and 6 hours later, we had something. My boss was smiling! She was happy! She said, "This is perfect! This is just what I wanted!"

I wasn't so sure. I mean, don't get me wrong, I liked the page too. But it wasn't aesthetically perfect. On a scale of 1 to 10, somewhere between 6-7. 

But it didn't really matter. My boss was happy. My boss was the customer. And she wasn't being homemade about it. She works with designers and our customers all the time. And her filter is not - "What do I like?" but rather "What will THEY like?" She has an uncanny ability to get out of her own head, and think like the user.

So yesterday my boss helped me break through a wall. It was a spiritual experience. She helped me to break through the things in my mind that were inhibiting me from serving the customer.

The resulting lessons for me -

  • Take a sword to your fear, ego, and preconceived ideas - focus on the problem not your ability to fix it
  • Let somebody else guide you sometimes - there is more than 1 way to skin a cat!
  • Discard assumptions or preconceived ideas that you may be treating as "rules"
  • Remember that you always have 2 customers at least - your internal leadership, and the actual user - you have to please both
  • Visualize the result - have an image, literally - and do this together so that you don't go far down a path and end up spinning your wheels because it's not what's wanted 

At the end of the day, here's what I came away with:

All of us are really in the business of serving the customer. This isn't just a FACET of our jobs anymore - it literally is the entirety of the job. You can be the most brilliant person in the world, you can invent the greatest widget the world has ever seen, whatever. None of that will get you anywhere if you don't know how to please your customer. And unless you are living off of family weath or just gifted at buying and selling investments all day, it's a skill you must learn in order to be successful.

A quick and true story that illustrates: 

I've been raving about Aldi lately because as a grocery store concept they are truly knocking it out of the park. Good, cheap food and a quick and hassle-free shopping experience. But I saw something there the other day that you don't usually see in stores that advertise themselves as the low-cost alternative. I was waiting on line at the checkout and there was an elderly gentleman ahead of me. He was impatient, shuffling from side to side and grimacing. The line wasn't long, but I could see that he just didn't want to be on it.

Finally, he yelled out to the cashier. "I'm an old man, I'm tired of waiting here on line, and I just don't want to be here anymore!" 

I couldn't help but laugh because most of the time that's how I feel about grocery shopping too.

The manager walked over to him, murmured something respectfully, and I didn't stare but do you know that about two minutes later he was out the door?

That's what customer service is. You can't always give them exactly what they want - but if you put people first you will make them happy.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Best Grocery Store In The World Doesn’t Exist – For These 10 Reasons

My grandfather, may he rest in peace, opened a small grocery store in Toronto after the Holocaust. To hear my dad talk about it, "everybody" in the Jewish community who passed through town saw the sign, frequented the store, and many met my grandfather there too.

Zayde's store was nice because it was small, homey, tasteful, and completely focused on its audience. If you were a Jewish mom doing her weekly shopping before the Sabbath, everything you could possibly need would be on those shelves. Not a million brands, but at least one of each thing.

The store also worked because my Zayde was a rabbi. Not that he blessed the food (you could die from the liver knishes) but he was part of the community and the lifestyle that the store supported. It was about money of course, but it was also more. Without his store it would have been harder to be an observant Jew in Toronto.

Because I loved my Zayde, I loved his store. It’s long since closed, but sometimes I think about it, especially considering that I go to grocery stores fairly frequently, including the kosher ones nearby.

So I spent a few minutes the other day thinking: If I had endless money to create my own dream store, what would I build? Here’s what I came up with:

1. Build a brand, not a store
• Anyone can sell food. What sets you apart is how well you associate yourself with something larger – an idea or a concept that translates into and enhances every product you sell.
• If you build a brand, you can go beyond your core product into related areas and weave everything together with a similar message.
• Focus the brand on something I am passionate about – the pursuit of health in all its forms so as to live life to the fullest and do the most good while we’re here

2. Focus on health
• Minimal health standard for all items in store, such as no more than 5 grams sugar per serving
• Everything labeled to display sugar, fat, chemicals, etc.
• Internet kiosk for more information on any product (like Au Bon Pain)

3. Focus on savings
• No lower prices available
• Not an extra penny spent on anything – like Aldi
• Small enough portions that you won’t waste your money buying extra
• Sales listed aisle by aisle so the viewer can find them easily

4. A teaching approach
• Communication materials (fliers/brochures), staff, and computers guiding you to useful items – somewhat similar to Trader Joe’s
• Cooking classes for adults and children
• Cooking equipment

5. A lifestyle approach
• Mindfulness classes, such as meditation and yoga
• Exercise classes
• Coffee area with couches and chairs

6. A community orientation
• Wi-fi
• Community gathering rooms – for parties, meetings, and so on – at low/no cost
• Good, open childcare or secure play area - like IKEA
• Online/offline social network based around a transforming your lifestyle into a healthier one

7. Help for busy workers
• Ready-made food pre-packaged in lunch and dinner portions – like Pret a Manger
• Range of price points for ready-made food – budget meal, medium, a big of a “splurge”

8. Convenience
• Extended hours
• Shuttle from nearby apartment buildings, for those who don’t have a car or can’t drive
• Close to train or bus
• Sufficient parking
• Delivery service
• Forgiving return policy, like Costco
• A quick checkout

9. A pleasant atmosphere
• Nothing in the store should smell bad
• Aisles sufficiently wide
• Good lighting
• Shopping carts with wheels that work, and cupholders
• Soothing d├ęcor and music – not overstimulating

10. Attention to ethics
• Return of a portion of profits to those in need
• Online store with delivery, for those who can’t make it in
• Shopper assistance for the elderly and/or disabled
• Strong, environmentally responsible shopping bags for purchase – and no disposable plastic bags
• Stance against cruelty to animals – no meat or animal-based products

We spend so much of our lives in grocery stores. They should be a nice place to be, rather than a badly-lit place that symbolizes drudgery and dreary chores. There are a lot of new ideas floating around out there when it comes to buying our weekly food…I’m hoping someone will combine them and bring us a lifestyle brand that incorporates a great place to shop.

(All opinions my own. Permission granted to repost with author attribution.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What do you do to be more efficient?

I know this isn't the most spiritual resolution in the world, but this Jewish New Year I resolved to become more efficient even though I actually have a reputation for being pretty well-organized. Still when I looked carefully I saw a bit of time bloat going on. Here are some things that I decided to do, that I think I actually can do. Keeping in mind that if you don't have time to do great things in will never do them.

1 - Food prep at night

Let's face it, eating out is expensive and when you stop keeping track you can end up buying a breakfast sandwich, a lunch salad, and a dinner that you don't even like all that much just because you feel crunched for time. Plus if you have kids in school you hassle over what they're going to eat because even if they can buy lunch it won't be all that healthy. By preparing (not cooking; I can't cook) the next day's food the day before, all I have to do is spend half an hour in the a.m. nuking it and packing it up. Everybody has wholewheat bread, a cut up bag of carrots or whatever, some rice chips...healthier and cheaper.

2 - Bundle tasks together

Do work things in a bundle; personal errand things in a bundle; food prep in a bundle; reading in a bundle; blogging in a bundle. Don't go from thing, to thing, and then back to the other thing. Just transitioning from one to the next wastes time.

3 - Leave the TV off unless you're exercising

TV is mostly a waste of time. And by saving it for exercising (download a TV show onto the iPod for example) you get yourself to do something healthy when exercise is usually boring, at least for me.

4 - Exercise when you first wake up

This is a time saver because otherwise (for me) I end up wasting time thinking about the fact that I should exercise, not exercising, and feeling bad. All of that is just dumb. Truth is it's not hard to exercise, you just have to make the commitment. And that's a lot easier to do when you first wake up than when you're tired after work. (Related tip that saves money and time shlepping drink bottles: Drink water with ice and lemon. Cheap, healthy. I put mine in a Starbucks plastic cup so it looks fancy.)

5 - Stop blabbing

Random chitchat, phone calls, gossip...the fifteen minute introduction before meetings start...waste of time. Get going.

6 - Shop on the weekends only

I was running around shopping unnecessarily and it was eating away at my time. I am going to shop on the weekends only and just keep a list during the week. Shopping is a fun activity but not only is it a time sapper (because you end up looking around), it's also expensive (as you end up looking around and not just buying what you came for.)

7 - Aldi

Aldi is small, cheap, and I can get most of what I need there. I wasn't sure about it since Costco was the big name, but when I went there and saw how fast I shopped and low the prices were for really good food - I was sold. It's not perfect (the plums were no good and I would like to see more truly healthy health food) but overall I was happy.

8 - Eliminate distractions

What do you really care about? What really has to get done? Do those things. Forget the rest. Not everything in your email inbox is important.

9 - Clean out your email daily

Before you leave the office every day, file or delete everything in your inbox.

10 - Write down your schedule and then look at it

Oh my G-d. When I saw my daily schedule I could not believe how busy I am. Including all family and work activities, including every day...I am booked solid. It's a real eye opener. When you do that, you will resolve not to do things that waste your time.

OK - no more time on this post - please comment and share your ideas. Thanks!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Psychotic Rats Don’t Build Great Brands

I heard a good lecture the other day on the importance of integrated communications (a.k.a., branding). It reinforced what I knew, but I enjoyed hearing it anyway.
The speaker emphasized that you should make sure everyone in your company, no matter who they’re talking to, says the same thing about what kind of organization you are. The consistency, and the repetition, helps to create a strong positive identity that serves as a kind of photo frame for your everyday communications. Otherwise, it’s like you’re starting from scratch every time you reach out to the public. Or, worse, you confuse them with contradictory messages so that you start from zero.
In the federal government, a good example is the contrast between the FBI and the CIA. They have each done a good job of defining themselves, so that you pretty much know an FBI-type when you see one and you know that the CIA-type is the complete opposite. All other differences aside, for me the key is the approach to mission – “inside the box” vs. “outside” it. Like in the movies “Miss Congeniality” (FBI) and “The Recruit” (CIA).
When a representative of the FBI says something, and the CIA says the same thing, the facts may be identical but the way you understand them will be completely different because you understand that not only are the missions of the two agencies distinct but so are their ways of doing business.
This is just common sense, really. But if this basic idea of communication is so simple, why do so many organizations get it so wrong?
In my view, frequently the problem is that double-bind organizational dynamics undermine the communicator’s ability to perform the basic tasks of their job. For example:
  • The communicator is tasked with providing facts to the public, but can’t seem to get clarity on where to get them
  • Documents must be approved, but the list of approvers for documents is unclear, ever-changing, or ever-growing
  • Documents must be well-written, but untrained writers who are subject matter experts in positions of authority edit for style, not just fact
  • The communicator is told to provide good customer service internally as well as to generate positive results externally, when frequently good communication is not necessarily understood or approved by the internal audience
  • The communicator is told to ensure consistency of voice, but people outside the communicator’s span of control, outside their office, and frequently higher in pay grade, have the ability to communicate on their own without restriction
Communicators aren’t magicians and they also need to eat. If you tie their hands behind their backs and then send them off to fight the war of public opinion, they will be defeated.  If they live in a chain of command, they are going to respond to authority and will not go to the mat for communication excellence at the risk of jeopardizing their job. Both of these issues, in my mind, are what really prevent organizations from building great brands.
Bottom line: If the organizational dynamics underlying communication are faulty, the communication will be faulty as well. It’s not just that you can’t dress up a bad policy. If the organization is dysfunctional, the communication will be too.
Looking at it from the 10,000-foot level, why do leaders set up their communicators to fail? Here are a few ideas:
  • Time pressure. They have operational problems to worry about, and communication is “nice, but there’s no time for fluff.”
  • Misconceptions about what professional communication is. E.g., that it’s “not a real profession,” that “the truth speaks for itself,” that “they’ll just figure it out and get it done” (with no resources, input, discussion, etc.).
  • Extreme thinking about communicators – either that they’re idiots (e.g., not worth wasting time or thought on – “just tell them what to do”) or magicians/geniuses who can do anything, because “all you need is an ad or a website.”
  • Resistance to communicating – they know that communicators are “like reporters” and will ask tough questions, and they have too much on their plate that would be uncomfortable to talk about. So they avoid dealing with them. Silence is the best policy anyway, they think, because “all this will blow over.”
  • Hierarchical thinking – the belief that communicators should just say what they’re told and not think; the belief that what the public says in response to the organization is irrelevant.
  • Organizational politics - there are so many forces inside the organization each wanting their own say that it would be politically impossible to rein them in. 
All of these are understandable – but the problem for the communicator is that they are tasked with a job but end up in a double bind. If you’re not familiar, in the workplace this is where boss tells employee to do something; employee sees a contradiction in the request; they can’t broach the topic with the boss due to the threat of punishment; and the employee can’t leave or escape. (In addition, the double-bind tends to be repeated with frequency.)
Somebody told me about an experiment with rats done decades ago, where the rats were given an electrical shock when they did a certain thing. Then they were shocked when they did the opposite. The rats went psychotic. I couldn’t verify this experiment online but it sounded like something that would happen if you did it to rats, or people for that matter.
Communication is the same way. If you want a good brand, support your communicators with a clear and achievable set of goals and the resources to achieve them. If you don’t care about the brand, then spend the money elsewhere. But either way, it doesn’t make sense to drive a good rat up the wall.
Copyright 2010 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.
(All opinions my own. Permission granted to repost with author attribution. Originally posted to my blog,

Posted via email from Think Brand First