Showing posts with label customer service. Show all posts
Showing posts with label customer service. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 14

Forgetting Flights: Virgin America

On most flights, Virgin America has it all. Its mission is to make flying good again — with brand new planes, attractive fares, top notch service, and innovative amenities. It's the kind of reinvention that has passengers clamoring to board the plane even if it means waiting 15 minutes or an hour on the tarmac.

Or is it?

While anyone flying out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) might know that fog or rain frequently set departure times back as it did yesterday, no one anticipated that Virgin America would forget to notify passengers that their flights would be delayed. The first notification came 25 minutes after the scheduled departure time.

Sure, most passengers had a hunch that the flight was delayed, given it had never been assigned a gate. Some learned about it while hovering around the departure screens scattered throughout the terminal, partaking in a surreal event as their scheduled "on time" departure came and went without so much as a gate notification, actual departure time, or service agent update. A few checked the Website on smart phones and laptops. A handful turned to passenger service agents boarding other flights.

"We don't know. Watch the terminal monitors."

It was the most common answer before busy passenger service agents would take off for parts unknown. Less common was asking delayed passengers to empathize with other passengers who were also delayed. Those passengers had to wait an hour, one agent said, pointing to the group he was about to allow to board.

Unfortunately, any empathy for others eventually eroded as it took a full 2 1/2 hours before Virgin America would have any direct communication with passengers again. All the while, British Airlines and JetBlue updated their customers, offering apologies for the briefest of delays, which only seemed to add insult to injury for those left in the dark by Virgin America.

Even after Virgin America finally assigned the flight a gate, it took another half hour before the team provided updates with any sense of clarity. Shortly after, they attempted to infuse fun into the situation by offering free drink vouchers to the passenger who could produce the oldest penny or guess the singer of a song playing over the gate intercom.

While the games did temporarily take the edge off a bad situation, one wonders if Virgin America took too long to find its groove. Are leather seats, in-flight video entertainment, and mood lighting enough to keep passengers coming back for more?

It mostly depends on the unique perspective of each individual passenger and whether previous experiences make the mix-up an exception or the rule. Otherwise, it seems Virgin America learned a valuable lesson. If you don't deliver on your core service, no amount of reinvented amenities, services, or selective apologies can make up for it.

There are, after all, only two core services for every airline. Deliver passengers and their luggage to the destination on time, and communicate with them when you don't. Added values — ranging from comfort to humorous onboard educational videos — only count when the first two services are met.

In this case, Virgin America didn't break guitars. It only broke an opportunity to turn more passengers into advocates or evangelists.

Thursday, September 10

Creating Crisis: Consumer Experience

Last month, Maytag faced some fallout when it recalled about 46,000 refrigerators under the Maytag, Magic Chef, Performa by Maytag and Crosley brand names, due to a fire hazard. The recall comes on the heels of about 1.6 million similar refrigerators being recalled in March, according to one Associated Press story.

In the wake of the latest recall, Heather B. Armstrong was having a problem with another Maytag product, as she described in her colorful post about life in general. For the most part, and this is not a criticism, it was the kind of post many social media experts or public relations professionals operating in social media would have dismissed (at a glance, unless they have had some experience with mommy bloggers, especially influential ones).

It might have remained dismissed despite Armstong being a popular author and one of the most influential women in the media, but then Armstrong took her complaint to Twitter after a customer service provider shrugged off the warning. On Twitter, she has 1.2 million followers. And on Twitter, Maytag listens.

Every customer service issue is a potential public relations nightmare.

While there are many ways to view the story, ranging from how customer service yields better results or never underestimate who might be on the other end of the phone line or even the concept of "blogger blackmail," the broad based lesson has very little to do with any of that and much more to do with communication integration.

While it used to be companies could assume that customer service calls were private and celebrity/media push back was recoverable by knowing who was placing the call, information is seldom isolated to a single experience. On the contrary, any experience can be shared in real time with hundreds or thousands or millions of other consumers.

Right. That person standing in a long line as two clerks chat up the weekend? There is a near equal chance that they could be tweeting or posting the experience as they wait. Sometimes they do it to kill time. Sometimes they do it to be heard. And sometimes they do it to lead a charge against companies for no reason at all.

This isn't a new challenge as some people claim (investigative news used to do all this for us), but it is growing with frequency and ferocity, even when some claims are unfounded.

Take the recent Feedburner outcry. A small computing error resulted in hundreds of bloggers speculating that Google was no longer counting Friendfeed subscribers because Friendfeed is now owned by Facebook. Or the hype from social media and media coverage about a "massive" boycott against Whole Foods. It's safe to call it hype given that the group has long since puttered out. If anything, it's helped Whole Foods find new customers.

The real questions to be considered are threefold.

Companies might consider that customer service and frontline communication is bumping up against public relations more and more often. Public relations professionals might rethink cheering this direction on because as it will eventually make their service a mere commodity (if everyone is responsible for social media/public relations, then what value will professionals bring to the table as opposed to the call center/online teams that are being developed at some companies). And, long term, consumers might eventually lose as the credibility of orchestrated mass movements occur with enough frequency that tweeting "bad service" becomes as mundane as fire drills at public schools.

None of this is meant to suggest that Armstrong wasn't justified in sharing her experience. (She was, though it might have seemed more genuine had she not warned the company that its lack of action would result in an action.) But just as post-Jericho and -Veronica Mars show cancellation protests lost steam, there may be a day when customer complaints and public outcry become so commonplace, they just don't resonate.

Who knows? That might already be becoming the case, given the outcry over Ikea fonts.

Friday, July 10

Breaking Guitars: United Airlines

United Airlines might have already contacted singer/songwriter Dave Carroll to "make things right" after it carelessly broke his Taylor acoustic guitar, but given the extent Carroll and the Sons of Maxwell had to go to find justice is virtually unforgivable. Four days ago, Carroll had introduced a music video about the band's experience. In four days, the video has captured 1.5 million views (one million since yesterday) and shows no signs of slowing down.

Dave Carroll: United Breaks Guitars

Propelled by coverage by the Consumerist, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, ABC News, CBS News, and others; Carroll may eventually have the first customer complaint to go gold and the 13,000 plus passengers who file claims against United Airlines may have a permanent rally cry against broken customer policy.

Inept Customer Service Followed By Bad Public Relations Pun

After the first known acknowledgment from United Airlines' Twitter account, the airline issued a statement that reinforced the pun — "This has struck a chord w/ us and we've contacted him directly to make it right." Here is the extended statement:

This has struck has a chord with us. We are in conversations with one another to make what happened right, and while we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave Carroll’s excellent video provides United with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us.

Since, the tone of the tweets have changed from pithy to tempered, with United Airlines offering apologies and promising to use the video for training purposes. Ironically, the consumer crisis is indirectly helping the airline earn more followers on Twitter. We suspect they might not know that 50,000 followers is an empty goal if half sign on to keep the Carroll story alive until changes are implemented. Much like we suspect they didn't realize their statement would fuel more Carroll coverage.

At the same time, United Airlines is also being fined $80,000 by the federal government for not telling consumers which other airlines it has code-share agreements with. United is part of the Star Alliance, which partners international carriers. Other members include US Airways Group Inc., Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Air Canada. Incidentally, US Airways is not known for customer service either.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned regarding customer service and communication inside this humorous take on airline travel, but the one that resonates the most is that companies might get used to the idea that they have two opportunities to listen to unhappy customers — either on the phone when they first call or online with the whole world watching as judge, jury, and, sometimes, executioner.

To its credit, at least United Airlines has some semblance of a fledgling social media program to answer some consumer questions direct. While a quick review reveals it's less than perfect by any measure, many companies facing a similar customer-driven crisis communication challenge would have to rely exclusively on the media to tell their side of the story. Sometimes that's what it takes for organizations to finally understand you don't have to engage in social media to be engaged by social media.

This story bumped our third installation of the SyFy branding debacle, now slated for Monday. Have a nice weekend!

Monday, June 22

Serving Bert: Lessons In Customer Service

"Always remember that what might seem like an annoying inconvenience can often be the platform for a long-term positive experience." — Richard Becker

When my daughter requested that Bert, from the long-running television show Sesame Street, join us for breakfast, I had a choice. I could grumble away the request with all sorts of "good" excuses. Or, I could accommodate by setting the table for three instead of two.

I chose the latter, propping up the miniature Bert on a chair twenty times his size. And why not? Bert didn't need much more than a place setting, silverware, and a paper napkin.

As strange as it may sound, minimal effort can produce maximum results. Instead of reinforcing proper table manners, imposing some meaningless rule like "no stuffed toys at the table," or working to hurry my daughter along without "distractions," the novelty of having Bert join us for breakfast set a positive day in motion. It changes the conversation.

It made her happy, and happy children are much more likely to finish breakfast quickly, easily, and neatly. More than that, her happiness was infectious.

It's also a lesson in customer service. Consider the Kinkos employee who invested his time in telling us how couldn't help while my team member and I stood waiting in line or the OfficeDepot employee who seemed put out after he had brought out an office chair. While neither incident is really worth going into detail, it does provide a subtle and all-too-common contrast.

Neither employee risked losing anything, other than a few seconds to service. The first could have looked behind the counter to see if the order was in rather than take an equal amount of time to explain why he couldn't help. The second could have been less concerned about whether I had chosen the wrong retrieval card (it turned out that another employee had mixed two sets together). Instead, their inconvenience was infectious.

Not so much for me, as much as other customers, especially at OfficeDepot. One of the other customers waiting in line chimed up that "he might need to sit in a chair for as long as he has been waiting for one." Then another customer was also quick to express how she felt pushed off while the employee finished with me. And with each passing comment, the employee seemed less happy to be there.

As for me, I had no complaints. Bert, earlier, had finished his pretend breakfast. And my daughter ate all her Honey Nut Cheerios. It goes to show you, customer service is like that. We often have an opportunity to decide which moments in life are annoying inconveniences or opportunities for a long-term positive experience.

Thursday, June 19

Confusing The Issues: The Consumerist

The Consumerist recently asks whether a CVS/pharmacy is discriminating against teens by only allowing two teens to enter the store at a time after the local high school lets out. The student who wrote in to The Consumerist called it ageism and has vowed to avoid the store from now on.

While most comments seem to defend the CVS/pharmacy policy as did many on SpinThicket (some even suggesting the letter writer ‘chill out’) based on the knowledge that stores around high schools have been employing similar tactics for years (even when I was in high school), most are wrong. Customers are allowed to express their dissatisfaction with a poor customer service policy and the best way to express that displeasure is to write a letter or shop elsewhere.

While I have a difficult time classifying this as ageism or legally forcing CVS/pharmacy to change its policy, I do think it’s beneficial to encourage teens to peacefully express their dissatisfaction with what amounts to poor customer service policy. And, in doing so, it might remind CVS/pharmacy (or any store with such policies) that shopping there is not privilege. On the contrary, it’s a privilege for the store to enjoy the after school rush crowd.

If the students boycotted the store for a few weeks, it seems to me that CVS/pharmacy would to have weigh the risks and rewards of a policy that doesn’t seem to be working for their customers, regardless of age. Not to mention, the security personnel who allegedly sneer at the students might consider that these students are probably the only reason that position exists.

Where this applies to communication is simple enough. Sometimes people tend to overextend their arguments (eg. ageism) when a simpler, less emotional statement might just be enough. And that is where the letter writer could have benefited. Conversely though, those who rose to defend CVS/pharmacy might consider reacting less and looking to the root of the problem. It’s a customer service issue.

You know, it really doesn’t make sense to teach students that they must accept disagreeable customer service simply because they happen to attend high school. On the contrary, learning how to communicate as a consumer early on will help them far into the future. All companies have to be reminded from time to time to time that companies and customers have choices.

Do you want them as a customer? Do they want you as a vendor?

For CVS/pharmacy, which invests millions in CVS Caremark All Kids Can to be kid and family friendly, I suspect they might be able to come up with a better solution that meets their needs of young customers. Likewise, I hope the student who wrote the letter learns that we don't need to scream discrimination when poor customer service is enough.


Tuesday, June 17

Making Lazy: Passive Customer Service

When it comes to communication, the most impacting miscommunication almost never appears on the news, in print, or anywhere near the marketing department. It happens on the front line, and the people impacted are customers, one at a time.

The two most common causes of miscommunication for larger companies is trending to be passive communication (eg. expecting customers to stay up to date on the company Web site) and scripted employees (eg. requiring representatives to work from scripts even in non-script circumstances).

There are plenty of examples that we’ve helped several companies resolve recently, but I thought it might be fun to share some personal examples to illustrate the point.

Passive Communication.

Cox Communications Inc. recently implemented a new e-mail filtering program to block a specific Internet port. The only mention of the service change is on their Web site.

The reasoning behind the implementation was a good idea, but they did not notify their customers of the change in service beyond posting to their Web site. In fact, we may have never known there was potential problem had it not been for a small number of clients and contacts using Cox as their primary e-mail provider. For some reason, our Cox service provider was disallowing our POP e-mails to Cox customer clients.

Their customer service representatives are now investing time to research the problem and provide a solution. To their customer service department’s credit (once the script questions were ruled out), they immediately upgraded their level service, even calling back with updates rather than leaving us on hold.

While the person-to-person customer service was great, I’m still wondering if better front-end communication might have prevented any service interruption.

Scripted Employees.

It works in reverse too. Not all companies are so fortunate to have proactive employees willing to research the impact to their customers. Some customer service representatives seem too lazy to move off script. This recently occurred when one of our last payments to Volkswagen Credit disappeared in the mail.

We were notified of the missing payment, first by receiving our next payment coupon, which required a double payment, and then by an automated call from the company on the same day the double payment went out. (Again, these are passive communication solution as opposed to a letter or live person phone call). Regardless, my wife called immediately about her car.

Despite learning the payment was likely lost in the mail, the first customer service representative insisted she answer personal questions, without explanation, including about her employment status. Not only did it seemed overly intrusive for a lost payment call, the representative informed her that the missing payment would be reported because the company had allegedly made numerous calls to notify us. Knowing that was not true, she then asked to speak to a supervisor.

“No, you may not speak to anyone else. I’m handling your account.”

For real? As unbelievable as it sounds, yes. She took his name and number and then promptly ended the call. She called back to speak to someone new. The difference was like night and day.

“I see you’ve never missed a payment. I’ll clear this up right now.”

As for those calls? They never happened. The first representative made it up. As for the general ill-tempered representative? The second representative was left having to apologize. As for the personal questions? Volkswagen Credit has recently created a program to save people who are struggling financially from defaulting on their payments. It’s a great idea, but it didn’t apply to our circumstance nor did the first representative mention “why” he needed to ask.

Mixed Messages.

Considering how many companies lean toward intrusive marketing to push products and services (I even had a mortgage company come to my door yesterday), it’s equally amazing how many become passive once you become a customer (I hope you know that periodic calls to your credit card and insurance company almost always result in lower rates).

As for the examples above, proactive communication seems like it could have been the best answer to keep everyone happy. And, once we, as customers, were forced to take proactive steps, the outcome was tied to how empowered the representatives were to make decisions.

Sure, some executives think scripting employees helps representatives stay on the same page. In reality, scripting employees only leads to one-way communication, which we already know is no communication at all.

The solution is somewhere in the middle. Proactive post-purchase communication and strong internal communication can help develop a consistent, and not overly scripted, level of service that empowers employees and reinforces to the customer that they have the right company.


Wednesday, June 11

Defining Relationships: Three Degrees Of Clients

Seth Godin once pointed to Stew Leonard’s unwritten rule 3, which states “if the customer is wrong, then they’re not your customer any more.” In other words, if it's not worth making the customer right, fire them. And, he has a good point.

While we have some pretty simple guidelines, it’s not always black and white. We listen carefully to the client and then deliver some degree of what they need or what they want. Usually, we know which degree of customer they want to be long before they become our customer.

The Three Degrees Of Clients

• We work with the client to deliver what internal and external research suggests they need in the marketplace.

• We work with the client to deliver what they want, sometimes suggesting what they might need in the marketplace.

• We deliver exactly what the client wants, until they don’t like it and as long as they don’t blame us for the results.

Of course, we usually don’t have to ask which degree of service they prefer. The answer tends to come up in other ways.

“We want a brochure like this.”

“We need two fax numbers on our business card.”

“We showed a bunch of people and they had opinions.”

If there is any uncertainty, we might ask them why they need a brochure, why they need two fax numbers, or who were the people they asked. For some, light bulbs go on. Others, the second degree, has explanations.

“Our competitor has a brochure like this.”

“It would make it more convenient for me.”

“I really trust their opinions and we always listen to them.”

Sometimes I’ll ask if they think it’s smart to be the same as the competitor (thereby surrendering any competitive advantage), whether they’ve considered the inconvenience to the customer (never knowing which number to fax to), or if any of the collected opinions come from someone in marketing, with tangible market research, or a prospect (not an existing customer) at the very least. For some, light bulbs go on. Others, the third degree, has explanations.

“Yes, because they seem successful.”

“Yes, they can always call me to find out.”

“I’m not going to tell you, but I really think they are right.”

When we hear these answers, the next question we ask is to ourselves. Can we afford to give them what they want or are their wants better served elsewhere so we can focus on those clients who have entrusted us to find out what they need? I usually make the decision based on whether the client will be happy with what they want or if they require us to be happy with what they want. The latter cannot be our client.

After all, as Alexander Kjerulf said last year — “some customers are just plain wrong, that businesses are better off without them, and that managers siding with unreasonable customers over employees is a very bad idea, that results in worse customer service.”

I tend to agree. Our customers are always right. Or, they aren’t our customers.


Monday, February 4

Missing Targets: Target PR

Last week, the public relations department at Target learned something about new media: it’s interconnected with old media (if there is such a thing anymore) and the links and lines between the two are not always clear.

The New York Times followed up on a post by ShapingYouth, a blog about the impact of marketing on children. The apparent conflict arose over an advertising campaign that has been criticized, as The New York Times describes it, because it “depicted a woman splayed across a big target pattern — the retailer’s emblem — with the bull’s-eye at her crotch.”

Personally, I never made the connection. But there are plenty of advertising folks and consumers who did.

But this post really isn’t about that, despite having years of research that relates to sexually suggestive advertising as well as cognitive thinking by consumers. Nor is it really about ShapingYouth author Amy Jussel’s approach to contacting Target or Target’s ill-advised response, given that it wasn’t even true.

“Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets … This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.”

There are a number of public relations and social media-related blogs that have already weighed in on the subject, most of them recognizing that Target may not have needed to respond to Jussel’s aggressively assumptive inquiry, but delivered an inappropriate response. Here’s a sampling:

“So, let the lesson be loud and clear: Bloggers are media too!” — Speak Media

“…despite the ridiculous sentiments of Jussel, Target’s response was even more out-of-line.” — The PR News Blog

“In an ideal world, PR pros should always strive to enter into a conversation with any journalist that submits a reasonably legitimate media query. In reality, however, it's not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” — The Flack

Answering Social Media Inquiries Is A Function Of Public Relations

While scalability to address social media seems to be an issue for many public relations departments (even at larger companies like Target, apparently), it doesn’t make sense to me that any company would dismiss a blogger’s inquiry given that they wouldn’t dismiss the same inquiry by an average customer. And therein lies the real rub.

Companies are becoming too hung up on a definition of “blogger” as a noun and not considering that “blogging” is best described as a verb. Unfortunately, when it is applied as a noun, everyone gets a bit wacky and dismisses all the other nouns that might apply.

Case in point: Jussel is not only a blogger, she is also a consumer advocate and Target customer. I doubt Target would have dismissed either of these definitions as readily as they dismissed Jussel as a blogger, regardless of her approach.

Jussel is not alone. Most “bloggers” have multiple labels that emblazon their name badges. (I have several dozen; take your pick.) Let’s consider that.

Some bloggers are journalists; some are not. Some demonstrate at least some semblance of being one, even if it is more op-ed commentary as opposed to objective reporting; some do not. Some want to be engaged by companies; some do not. Some … well, you get the point. But among all these titles and monikers and definitions and styles, there is one thing every company must consider.

All bloggers are consumers and possibly customers. Period.

Given that most companies would not brush off consumers the same way — “We are unable to respond to your inquiry because we do not address the concerns of customers because it’s not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” EGAD! — it doesn’t make sense that a public relations department would brush off bloggers, consumers who may publicly write about it.

So what’s the solution? Pretty simple, really. At minimum, even if the company has some erroneous anti-blogger policy, public relations departments need to be able to identify who is making the inquiry and then route the call to the appropriate department if the appropriate department is not public relations.

That’s not a social media policy. It’s common sense.

And if Target had applied even some semblance of it, they may looked like heroes instead of something else. It takes far fewer words and follow up to simply send out something along the lines of … “Thank you for your inquiry. The advertisement is not meant to be sexually suggestive. However, we have forwarded your concern to our [insert department].”

Sure, as a 3-second solution, it’s not perfect. But then again, I wasn’t shooting to be interviewed by The New York Times or irritating several thousand customers. I was simply considering what the lowest level of response might be, assuming the company wants to pretend that social media doesn’t exist.


Monday, January 14

Employing Social Media: Del Monte Foods

According to The Wall Street Journal, Del Monte Foods employed social networking while considering a new breakfast treat for dogs. It sent out a note to its private online community of dog owners called “I Love My Dog," asking them what they most wanted to feed their pets in the morning.

The consensus answer was something with a bacon-and-egg taste, which led Del Monte to introduce its Snausages Breakfast Bites. They are flavored like bacon and eggs, and contain an extra dose of vitamins and minerals, which the dog owners said was also important to them.

"It is not just a focus group that you see for three hours; you are developing a relationship with these pet parents," Gala Amoroso, Del Monte's senior manager of consumer insights, told The Wall Street Journal.

As far as I know, Del Monte Foods doesn’t have a blog, but it is exploring social media in other ways. As Emily Steel points out in her article, using the Internet as a tool for consumer research is spreading to diverse companies such as Coca-Cola and Walt Disney.

Last year, Southwest Airlines, which does have a blog, did something similar when it asked its readership whether assigned seating would be a welcomed change. Their readership provided a mini-focal group, which overwhelmingly provided Southwest with an overwhelming “no.”

All of this adds up to some interesting approaches on how companies are employing various techniques and tactics with social media, some of which are not transparent but a step in the right direction. Consumer engagement is alive and well online.

Sure, there may be wrinkles at times. For example, the makeshift online input employed by the producers of the “camptasic” Snakes On A Plane didn’t necessarily help the movie with their experimental approach to engaging future fans. But that’s the way it is with focus groups, formal or informal.

Consumers and brand evangelists are great, often providing insights never conceived by those closest to the product or service. However, like traditional focus groups, they can also lead companies in the wrong direction for any number of reasons, including influencers who intentionally or unintentionally hijack a group, advertising rule number 5 (people sometimes lie), and my personal favorite, “developed by committee.” (Many of us know what that is like).

As with most things, objective reasoning provides the potential to carry the day. Somewhere in between the qualitative and quantitative research from consumers and individual experience and analysis is the truth. In other words, sometimes consumers know what they want and sometimes they really do not.

For Del Monte Foods, they seem to have a leg up on hitting the middle. Selected participants provide input, and then the company accurately translates it into a product that makes sense for everyone. Pretty smart, not to mention some interesting evidence that suggests companies are more engaged in social media than “blog counting” might lead some to believe.


Tuesday, January 8

Missing Customers: Verizon Tries Distress

While most cellular phone customers are savvy to text messaging, some are becoming all too familiar with distress messaging. Specifically, anyone who makes up the 27 percent of the smart phone market captured by the Apple iPhone, especially if they were a Verizon customer.

These folks, like me, are probably receiving distress message mailers. The latest from Verizon, sent about two weeks after I become an AT&T iPhone windfall customer and about a week after Verizon’s letter that claimed “I made a mistake,” tells the real story:

We miss you already.

• Free BlackBerry Pearl with GPS Navigation
• $100 off any phone of your choice
• Free activation

Call today!

While I’m not privy to the response rate, my best guess is that it’s flat. It might also be causing some brand damage to what once was the network of choice among 1 million subscribers, at least those who recently made a switch.

Messages such as take $100 off, come back and save, and come back to the network you trust are emblazoned on almost every panel of an 8-panel direct mail piece. Most of them, if not all of them, are misdirected, clearly reinforcing that Verizon has no idea why it has to send a “miss me” mailer anyway.

It’s not the network, it’s the phone. But now, looking back, maybe there is something questionable about the service strategy at Verizon anyway. As a former customer, why did I have to quit in order to get offered the best package perks ever?

For all these efforts, they were four months too late. That was the beginning of the end. Four months ago, my second-to-last Verizon phone was damaged during my ”never fly US Airways unless I absolutely have to again” flight.

Naturally, once I returned home, the first order of business was replacing my broken phone. The choices were slim without a contract. So, my company made a Band-Aid LG phone buy. It was the worst phone I’ve ever owned.

Contrary to the mailer’s claim “Your phone is only as good as the network it’s on,” $5 more per month for an iPhone opened my eyes up to what I was missing, starting with unlimited data, something Verizon never wanted to talk about until now, assuming you’re a lapsed customer (ie. unlimited data is now available on select phones, for new and returning customers, with one- and two-year contracts, for about $5 more than AT&T offers with the iPhone). They don’t get it.

“The best time to start missing a customer is before they stop being your customer.”

Sure, no one can say that Verizon is dead, but it’s very telling when a once perceived market leader does more following than leading. While they did pretty well launching the LG Voyager concept copy, a phone that Today’s Paul Hochman called the only viable competitor for the iPhone (I’m less convinced). However, the plan still lacks where AT&T came through. Customers don’t want 2-year contracts because technology is changing too fast to commit.

More to the point, Verizon would be better served by revisiting its marketing strategy from the ground up. They need to invest more on existing customers, recognizing that the recapture rate seems thin if you wait until after a lost customer already signs another contract or are unlikely to use their iPhone as a paperweight. Besides, it costs more to recapture a lost customer than attract new customers. Why? Lost customers already made up their mind once.

Here are a few quick tips for the Verizon marketing department:

• Improve your marketing to existing customers before their contract ends
• Re-engage customers who fulfill their contract with new customer perks
• Keep existing customers engaged, offering opt-ins on new customer perks
• Stop playing games with location rates; a national price plan is long overdue
• Verizon is a prime new media candidate; a presence last year would have went a long way, especially if you could have hinted at Voyage 9 before people bought iPhones

But above all, fix your messages. Touch gets more stylish? Come on. Honestly, the best thing Verizon has going is the geeky phone guy. He’s become a great icon on television but everything with text falls flat. It doesn’t connect to the smart phone market, which by all accounts, is the new market. Even Citigroup knows that. And they’re not even in the phone business.


Tuesday, December 11

Dropping Customers: PacifiCare

Ike Piggot’s Occam’s RazR is a blog to watch for many reasons. Just one of many standout posts tells the story of how Citibank erased the last dime due from his account rather than force him to send a .10 check with a 47-cent stamp.

It’s a great customer service story and a fine example of how social media can catch people doing good. It can also catch them doing not so good.

My customer service story is a bit different, with the amount right around $1,000. That’s right. Our health care provider doesn’t want our payment for November, possibly saving us a grand.

There is catch, of course. PacifiCare would rather drop us. We found out yesterday after my partner was prompted by a past due statement that claims we did not make a payment in November.

We did make a payment in November, just without a payment coupon because PacfiCare was slow to send a new book with an adjusted rate after I moved into the 40-something column. She knew it was going up and even called to find out what the adjusted rate might be. They weren’t sure so she sent a payment anyway.

After she received the past due notice, she called again to let them know that she had sent a payment, but it apparently had not posted. In fact, she even sent yet another payment priority mail once the coupon book arrived, just in case.

The customer service representative thanked her for the call, but said it didn’t matter. According to PacifiCare, we were dropped six week ago (we just didn’t know it). So now, even if they found the payment (or both payments), our only option is to reapply, which is impossible because PacifiCare longer accepts applications from Nevada.

In other words, we were dropped six weeks ago because of PacifiCare policy and were never notified. Or perhaps more accurately, we were slowly dropped starting two years ago, ever since PacifiCare merged with UnitedHealthcare (UNH). Originally, we thought the merger might be a good thing, given the promises emblazoned on the company’s Web site.

“The health care system isn’t healthy. At UnitedHealthcare, we’re committed to improving the health care system. We aim to take what’s wrong and make it right.

We know. That’s a bold statement. But no one is better prepared to lead a heath care revolution than the strongest, most committed health care company in the nation.”

We get it. UnitedHealthcare means that if they cannot service you properly, like sending adjusted payment coupons promptly, they will drop you. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will even find out. Amazing!

Am I upset? Not at all. Thank you PacfiCare, UnitedHealthcare, and UnitedHealth Group. Your lack of customer service has prompted us to find a better health care provider with a better plan at half the cost. We appreciate it.


Thursday, August 23

Bridging The Gap: Where Social Media Can Miss

Only one question keeps coming to mind when I read about the anti-critic sentiment expressed by the MyRagan team, the lack of communication and customer service that underpins Facebook, and (in contrast) the sending of flowers and the power of forgiveness. Is there any room for ‘high touch’ customer service in the rapid-fire world of the Internet or social media?

A few years ago, when I asked Curtis Nelson, president and CEO of Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, he certainly hoped so. He saw technology as a way to enhance guest expectations and the high touch service provided by hospitality employees.

“Information is an advantage, but informed decisions will depend on how much you know about your customers and how strong of a ‘high touch’ relationship they can establish,” Nelson said. “People make decisions (including purchases) based on emotion,” which is why customer service plays an increasing important role in terms of value and the profit of repeat customers.

In the hospitality industry, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Virtually every executive I spoke to had the same message and similar warnings despite the fact that the hospitality industry was investing as much as 3.4 percent of its total annual revenue in technology at the time.

“Always remember, no amount of technology can provide guests an informed opinion,” offered Nicholas Mutton, then senior vice president of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

Consistently, they all pointed to simultaneously increasing guest services and technology because they viewed such investments as a critical part of their and strategy of the operation. Now, a mere five years later, is it any wonder why hospitality continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

Not only did hospitality have an ideal environment—one where more governments assist their tourism industries by consolidating efforts and collecting vertical and geographic buying patterns, trip motivations, and psychographic profiles (information made increasingly available because of technology)—but the best of them always remembered what so few seem to remember in the world of social media.

“Some things must remain very, very human,” said James Brown, then president of Rosewood Hotel & Resorts. “The last thing I would ever want to see at a concierge desk (for example) is a guest asking for a good Italian restaurant and someone looking it up on a computer. A concierge should know it — serving as the buffer between the technology.”

Given the advent of technology with social networks and various social media platforms, I can only imagine that those who remain vigilant in bridging the gap between high tech and high touch will be those left standing two or three years from now. In other words, once the excitement of something new erodes, the rush of new members begins to flatten, and the initial purchase based on emotion gives way to logical review, all that remains is the collective impressions created by the individual, firm, or company.

In the lead above, only one seemed to get it. For the other two, they might remember that as big as some companies or social networks might get, none is exempt from losing ground as fast as they gained it.


Tuesday, August 14

Surviving US Airways: Social Connections

“…the surprising ease in which our brains interlock, spreading our emotions like a virus.” — Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

As a writer and creative director, especially in the fast-paced profession of advertising with always urgent deadlines, I've understood the general concept of what Goleman calls social intelligence for some time.

I sometimes use it to remind account executives and others that negative reinforcement might teach mice to press bars for cheese, but it never did anything for creativity or teamwork. The designers will beat the deadline, I tell them, provided you stop asking them if they’ll meet it.

Emotions are like viruses. And communication is the way it spreads.

Being keenly aware of this, long before reading the first page of Goleman’s book (I picked up at the airport, where I was stranded, the morning after), perhaps it was easier for me not to succumb to the plague of negativity — worry, fear, anger, rage — that swept through the terminal the day before.

Instead, I focused on making alliances with like-minded people who seemed unaffected by the social disease caused mostly by US Airways employees. While I could have tuned it out as an observer, I opted for an inoculation of sorts, creating positive social connections that can make all the difference when you are destined to perform a mini-repeat performance of Tom Hanks in the movie The Terminal.

“That’s based on a true story,” insisted Stephan (from Sweden), who was stranded on his way to Dallas. (I didn’t know it, but he was right).

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Christina (from Germany), who was on her way home after studying at Duke University. “I never saw the movie.”

While our group originally numbered five in line, it was the three of us who spent the most time together, passing the evening hours in an airport bar that was packed with marooned passengers. For a few hours, communication was effortless as we traded observations about our respective cultures, ranging from Christina’s choice to study law in America or Latin in Europe and how the Seventies-spun infamy of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders is ever-present abroad to the growing Swedish presence in American hockey and why some Europeans think Baywatch exemplifies the American experience.

I’m thankful for these spontaneous friendships. It proved helpful when we waited in line together and even more so before heading off to find our respective sleeping arrangements — some empty terminal benches (some passengers flipped them on end to make temporary beds). Sure, there are plenty of tips I could pass out to help people deal with such a crisis, but the best advice is to seek out positive people (not those who want to focus on the horror of it all).

Had the US Airways passenger service agents known this, they too may have been better equipped to face the long line of rightfully concerned passengers who heard that the airline would offer no redemption whatsoever. Hmmm ... imagine how different it could have been had US Airways personnel at least understood that their communication had a greater impact on the passengers than the cancellations. Or that even the simplest service plan could have helped.

Demonstrate Empathy. When you have a 40 percent delay rate and 4 percent cancellation rate like US Airways, it might seem easy to shrug it off as another “here we go again” situation. However, passenger service agents need to appreciate that cancellations are not ordinary to passengers.

Draft Consistent Messages. Even my partner, who attempted to connect with the 1-800 number from home, noted that after speaking with four people, each of them had conflicting messages and none of them were told what I was told on scene (which was different from what other airlines told passengers for that matter). A consistent message — we will get you to your destination and, more importantly, we care — would have went a long way.

Create A Crisis Team. Two or three people serving stranded customers in a bank line model does not work. US Airways could have used personnel who were obviously not checking people in on these flights to assist. Even a 4-person team could have provided a better structure: two on the counter; one to assist off counter (calling for updates, gathering hotel availability, etc.); and the one to handle special needs, eg. parents who needed their baggage, which contained their baby’s formula (baggage could have tracked the bags before the family went down to claim them).

Offer Pre-Counter Service. Rather than allow a passenger service agent to walk the line and discourage passengers; the employee could have told passengers what to expect, letting them know that they were being booked on the next available flight; that it might be late tonight or tomorrow morning; that if they want to change flight plans, need baggage, or have other needs, fill out a form so they can assist expediently; and for those spending the night, they would receive an updated list of hotels ready to accommodate them.

Provide Real Guidance. Given the frequency of cancellations due to, um, "weather" in Philadelphia, US Airways could have easily produced a working list of area hotels based on rates, proximity, and availability, making it easier for passengers (even if the airline refused to pay for them).

Expedite the Line. Four-and-a-half hours (some waiting even longer) is too long when the "return on wait" is negligible or negative. Studies prove long waits are more bearable only if customers can see superior service ahead of them. Since our plan already provides passengers information before they reach the counter, passenger service agents could have fine-tuned their communication, saying “we have booked you on this flight, which means you may want to stay at this hotel tonight at this rate. If you want to change your plans, need your bags for medical or other reasons, or if you have additional special needs, this agent will assist you over here.” Move them forward. Put them at ease.

Simple. Easy. Effective. Empathetic. At minimum, it would have been better than. Instead, the only communication besides a few discouraging employees was a fifth generation photocopy that began “The entire US Airways team sincerely apologizes for this disruption to your travel plans.” It was disingenuous at best and communicated the exact opposite at worst. Frankly, the letter US Airways passed out last week created more negativity than no letter at all.

If anything, it reinforced the only semblance of a consistent message that US Airways seemed to have for the passengers stranded in Philadelphia: “Ha ha! We’re blaming the weather for the cause of every cancellation tonight. You are on your own and I wish you would just deal with it on your own because I’m going home in an hour, and you're not. We just don't care.”


Monday, August 13

Stranding Passengers: US Airways

You can always tell the true quality of a company by how it handles a crisis, big or small. I learned a lot about US Airways, which became the fifth largest carrier in the United States after merging with America West this year, while I was stranded in Philadelphia on my way to New Haven, Conn. last Thursday.

At least 20 flights were cancelled for “weather” and US Airways in Philadelphia quickly buckled under the strain of wayward passengers. It didn’t help that the customer service line was staffed by only two or three people to assist a line that spanned several city blocks.

Adding to the confusion was one US Airways passenger service agent who, instead of assisting passengers, attempted to convince them to get out of line and rebook their own flights by calling a 1-800 number.

“I’m not telling you what to do,” he crowed, attempting to relieve himself of any and all accountability. “I’m telling you what I would do.”

But then he would return every few minutes, berating those passengers who took down the 1-800 number in desperation or politeness but were still unwilling to relinquish their position. (Some didn’t leave the line, simply because the agent lacked credibility.)

For me, there was only one reason to stay. While leaving Las Vegas, the Transportation Security Administration agents had mishandled the tray that contained all of my personal electronics. While my laptop and camera survived, my cell phone was less fortunate — split at the seam, with all audio functions rendered inoperable. Text messaging my way out of being stranded proved futile beyond notifying those expecting me that I might not make it.

As it turned out, staying in line for more than 4 and a half hours proved to be the wiser decision anyway. I was given a new boarding pass, allowing me to enter or leave the airport (other passengers were less fortunate the next morning). And, while waiting in line, the airlines had booked me on what they said was the next available flight to New Haven (about 9:30 a.m. the next morning), arranging for my baggage to be checked through on the same flight.

I also to learned that all the airport hotels were booked full, making it futile to do as the agent suggested. So rather than spending the night at the very accommodating Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale as planned, I would be semi-sleeping in Terminal F at the Philadelphia International Airport.

“If I were you, I would give up on alternative flights and make plans to stay in Philadelphia,” the customer service agent had said. “Get out of line, get your bags at baggage claim, and find a hotel. You’re not going anywhere tonight and there are no guarantees that you’ll be getting out tomorrow either.”

There was another benefit to not listening to him or several other customer service agents who may have had the fa├žade of knowing what to do, but proved just as confused as the passengers.

The 1-800 number they handed out was overloaded with calls and frequently disconnected. If you did get through, there was a possibility you would override your status on the next available flight. And, there was another 4-hour mass of people attempting to retrieve their bags in baggage claim, ranging from parents who ran out of formula to seniors who packed enough medication for a delay but not enough for what could be a day or two.

Even more perplexing was the sheer lack of empathy for passengers. Some service agents taunted them with looks of amusement, noting to each other that they would be headed home in an hour or thank goodness they had to check in departing flights that were apparently unhindered by “weather.”

Given that 34.14 percent of all America West dba US Airways flights were delayed and 2.29 percent were cancelled in 1997 (39.07 percent delayed and 3.08 percent in Philadelphia), weather is often the explanation for the airline, but seldom the cause. More likely, US Airways has adopted the America West approach to air travel, which means it lands and takes off at the airport as “space is available.”

In fact, the US Airways crew was so used to delays and cancelled flights, they handed a pre-written letter to passengers after the first three hours. While it might have read “Once again, we wish to extend you our sincere apology, and trust that you will consider the unforeseen nature of the cause of this travel interruption and understand our team will work as quickly as possible to assist you with your new travel plans,” the real message was the medium: it was a fifth generation photocopy with a 1-800 number written in by hand. It also said, though not in writing, don’t expect credit, hotel accommodations, or meal per diem tonight.

I did not, but what I did expect was some semblance of customer service. And since US Airways seems incapable of mapping out an appropriate plan of action when such instances occur almost 40 percent of the time, I’ll post what they could have done tomorrow as well as how I, as a passenger stranded overnight in an airport, managed to avoid succumbing to the chaos and growing negativity caused by not the passengers as much as US Airways personnel.

Yes, I managed to maintain a smile even when my luggage wasn't waiting at the New Haven baggage claim as promised. My cousin's wedding, the only reason to be in New Haven after everything other reason had to be cancelled, was now only six hours away.


Friday, July 6

Gambling Impressions: Disneyland

Disneyland. It's the happiest place on earth; and the place I'm writing from today.

But is it really the happiest place on earth? Or maybe, Disneyland is simply very, very good at messaging. After all, the welcome packages are sprinkled with pixie dust, and come with a commemorative coin.

If negative impressions are eight times more impactful than positive impressions, then it takes 80 positive impressions to erase a negative impression. So the question is: will I have enough positive park experiences to forget the two hours I waited in the hotel lobby at check-in because my room was not ready? Hmmm... probably. There are a lot of positive impressions to be found; some of which almost seem too good to be true — like being told the wait for breakfast will be up to an hour (it was three minutes).

Don't get me wrong. We're having a great time. And at the end of the day, we will have fond memories of the visit. That's the point. Very few places can gamble impressions like Disneyland and live to talk about it because so very few have 80 positive impressions around every corner or in their red back pocket. But Mickey, well, he's one smart mouse.


Friday, June 1

Digging Jericho: Jericho Fans

This is an unplanned post, but I really want to give shout out to the fans of Jericho. On Tuesday, I wrote a post entitled "Marketing Jericho: Season Two" and the fans decided to digg it. They are not the only ones.

Since, the original post has popped up on some pretty unexpected places, including the wildly popular, which is a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site. Every day Fark receives 2,000 or so news submissions from its readership.

Since I'm no power blogger by any stretch, I've found the results of your efforts pretty impressive and amazing. The one aforementioned post has been viewed 10,000 times since Tuesday. And that does not even count any other post related to Jericho. Considering the average blog reader shares what they read online with 3-10 people offline ...

More importantly, many of these 10,000 unique visitors were not Jericho fans, per se, so you've done a tremendous job continuing to promote your efforts to more people. It certainly lends well to Solution 2 in yesterday's post. It also demonstrates the sheer power of the fan base beyond the numbers we usually round up: almost 34,000 pounds of nuts (from NUTSOnline); almost $10,000 for Greensburg, Kansas; and 100,000 signatures. If you're new to this story, visit Jericho Lives.

With all these numbers, one might expect Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., to pay attention and perhaps read my post on Frontline Communication to brush up on his reflective listening skills. But no matter. As I said yesterday, it's not the job of the fans of Jericho to convince CBS to want them, it is the job of CBS to convince Jericho fans to want CBS. Nuts!

Thanks again for all your comments. Just remember I don't think for a minute that I'm a hero. It's the opposite — you're the heroes and I'm your fan. Without all your hard work and countless hours invested, there would have been nothing about Jericho to write about (something I wish more journalists would keep in mind). Tomorrow's post will reflect that. Until then, all my best — Rich


Blogging: Frontline Communication

While I was working on a new blog for one of our clients, it occurred to me that social media (and blogging) is really a new form of frontline communication. If this is true (unless your company's blog skews more toward journalism or op-ed as a model like we sometimes do), then business bloggers might take more care to apply customer relations. Or maybe, the better term might be social media relations. Social media relations?

Sure, I know what some people might be thinking. Anytime businesses see "relations" after a term (eg. guest relations, customer relations, public relations, and certainly social media relations), then they think that the return on investment must be qualitative. And because quantitative results — anything with numbers — are always given more weight than their qualitative counterparts, "anything relations" will once again be dismissed or underestimated.

I wrote about this subject a few years ago, hoping to give more weight to customer relations as applied by concierges. Much of what I learned then still applies today. Yes, we know that direct response offers (or Nielsen ratings for that matter) are easily tracked: the number of redemptions equals success. However, as I said then, companies that neglect the integrity of their communication can also mistake such results as an accurate forecast of the future. They are not. Great offers and "spiked" show ratings only provide temporary fixes, not brand loyalty.

"It would seem a satisfied customer with an emotional bond would be worth more than one driven by other motivations, but some businesses forget to distinguish between the two," said Keith Sheldon, ABC, APR, a professional in residence at the University of California, Chico (when I interviewed him then). "A much more global view is to deliver high-touch service, recognizing the messenger is the message."

Today, years later, frontline communication is still the most important instrument to ensure customer satisfaction. So why not social media? When guests speak to employees (or bloggers engage an audience), the customer's perception of the company still becomes confined to that interaction. The results are the same. Scripted, rushed, uninterested, or negative employee responses create neutral or negative impressions even when their intent is to expedite traffic.

In contrast, customers have a high patience threshold while waiting in line as long as they see that the person in front is being treated extremely well. Employees who practice active listening—eye contact, smiles, and emotive statements—demonstrate such satisfaction because the waiting customer knows they will receive the same service when it is their turn.

"Reflective listening is always the next step in face-to-face communication," says Sheldon. "It goes beyond active listening by offering emotive statements and clarifying responses that demonstrate you understand the customer's needs. Asking questions beyond the immediate needs shows that you really care."

High performing companies have always recognized employee-customer relationships are emotional capital. It can be even be measured in terms of patronage, brand loyalty, and reputation beyond tangible results. Immediate measures can be identified in comments or response cards. Long-term measurements can be included in comprehensive evaluations.

In fact, with adequate measures, all "relations" can be shifted from an expense column into a business development column because they solidify trust, encourage repeat visits, and increase referrals. Just a few years ago, Waston Wyatt, a global consulting firm, launched its Human Capital Index, a study that included 400 publicly-traded companies to determine the relationship between human capital and shareholder value. The study revealed human capital can increase shareholder value by 30 percent.

When I wrote the article, Robert Bacal, CEO of Bacal & Associates and the Institute for Cooperative Communication in Canada, also told me that motivating employees to increase customer contact and satisfaction, or human capital, is critical to the success of any company. To do it, he suggested that companies invest in providing employees skill sets to make jobs easier and enjoyable. Skills that I think can be applied to social media.

"Some managers make the mistake of telling employees that customer service training benefits the company," he said. "It will ... but they also have to explain how it will benefit the employees on an individual level."

For example, teaching employees or bloggers how to deal with angry customers/comments might benefit the company because to reduce instances that have a negative impression on the company. But teaching employees these skills can also reduce the negative impact on the employee. I think we all know one angry customer can ruin our day (if we let it).

"When you tell people customer service techniques will make their job easier, it's more meaningful for them," said Bacal. "I also teach them a sequence of events they can remember called CARP."

CARP is one of several frontline communication techniques that I think can be applied to social media. CARP stands for Control, Acknowledge, Refocus, and Problem-solving. It reminds employees to take control of a situation by accepting responsibility, acknowledging the customer's anger, refocusing from a problem to a solution, and probing for ways they can help the customer.

By employing such a technique, it has been proven frontline employees can even gain a higher level of customer satisfaction with an angry customer than they can with the average customer. (Of course, for social media, this only works with "real" customers and not those that leave anonymous comments. They require a different approach.)

More importantly, as long as such communication is measured beyond numbers, it can demonstrate quantitative and qualitative results that move "relations" away from voodoo economics and more toward applied science.

For social media, that can be great thing because when you boil it all down, customer interaction is customer interaction. It does not matter where that interaction occurs: on the frontline of the checkout counter, on a customer service call, or on the Internet.

Thursday, May 31

Saving Jericho: Seven Solutions For Rangers

After seeing “low tech” Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., dismiss Jericho with The Wall Street Journal, I realized something. While I wrote up early solutions that CBS might have considered in handling their show cancellation crisis (even if they are in denial), I’ve seemed reluctant to provide any tips for the Jericho Rangers (fans of the show). Why?

Mostly because the fans have more than proven their mettle by producing the biggest show cancellation protest in history. In fact, watching the nuts total exceed 31,000 pounds over at NUTSOnline is only one measure of their wildly successful campaign. Within hours, they raised almost $8,000 in disaster relief for the tornado ravaged town of Greensburg, Kansas (ending claims that Jericho Rangers could put their time to better use). They are also a chip shot away from reaching 100,000 signatures.

Yesterday, upon learning I wrote about a controversy in my hometown, they sent me a “thank you” for the day before — thousands of visitors in the course of two hours. This kind of movement really makes me wonder if CBS recognizes that the Jericho Rangers are adding numbers faster than any are getting tired out (and even those that are tired do not seem willing to give up, much like they won’t be discouraged by negative posts that are beginning to pop up on the CBS Jericho message boards).

What CBS is also missing is that this movement is much bigger than the CBS Jericho message board. If it continues, I don’t know how long Jericho Lives will be able to contain it and that would mean all bets are off for Moonves. Still, since all of this has taken on a life of its own, some of my team members started kicking around what would happen if we did toss over a few solutions for the Jericho Rangers. After all, fair is fair …

Solution One: Tighten Your Message. Everybody “diggs” the nuts campaign for its novelty. And it continues to generate buzz at various news bureaus. But what is sometimes missing are those clear, crisp speaking points about the show: tell people why this isn’t just another sci-fi serial with diehard fans (it’s not). Reinforce your doubts that Nielsen accurately captured the show’s ratings.

Solution Two: Expand Your Base. When you think your Ranger growth is slowing, round up friends, family, and neighbors to your cause. Sure, they might never have seen Jericho, but they will support the show if you ask them: sign the petition, buy some nuts, or mail a pre-stamped pre-addressed postcard. This could tip the balance, keep it in the mainstream, and engage more people.

Solution Three: Local Speakers. Several times throughout the campaign, Jericho Rangers have come close to missing in-person interviews with local broadcast companies, especially CBS affiliates. It would be advantageous to locate and identify speakers before you need them in mid-sized and major cities across America.

Solution Four: Affiliate Buy-in. Probably because CBS affiliates are much closer to the fan base, they seem eager to report on the protest. I can only imagine, but part of the reason is associated with the local affiliates being able to sell the show. Besides, if they cover it, other non-affiliated stations might follow suit with their own spin. Local stations borrow stories all the time.

Solution Five: Star Power. Sure, the fans have kicked around star power for some time, but they have yet to make it connect. The secret is to secure celebrities not affiliated with CBS or any other network. Designate a team (but don’t overwhelm them) to contact publicists who want their client on the front cover of Star Magazine saying “nuts to CBS” or simply something nice about Jericho actors, writers, or producers. The reward: 8-9 million moviegoers.

Solution Six: Forget Rumors. If anything distracts this fan base the most, it must be the constant buzz of rumors. Just the other day, on Shaun O Mac’s online radio show, Stephen Scaia mentioned the Jericho set is still standing. Look, we all know the fans already secured a wrap-up so a working set only makes sense. Enjoy these rumors but stay focused until CBS says “yes, season two.” Then celebrate.

Solution Seven: Reporters Rock. Don’t get me wrong. The first rule in media relations is appreciating that the media is never your friend. They will report your missteps as quickly as your successes (it’s their job). With Jericho fans, however, there is a bit of a twist. You’ve won most of them over. So please, don’t dismiss or ditch them when a story doesn’t go your way. They’ll respect you for accepting a setback and be more willing to consider a follow-up.

So there you have it: seven solutions for Jericho Rangers. I could float a dozen more because grassroots campaigning comes pretty natural for someone who has worked on a few political campaigns and community causes. But these seem to fit best with your most pressing needs. Most will simply move you to the next level, which reminds me…

Never turn off a fundraising effort when it is working. If you are raising money faster than you can spend it, there is always the next advertisement in the next publication. If the campaign ends before CBS comes to its senses, then you can always donate the proceeds to Greensburg, Kansas, or wherever you wish. Who knows? Maybe some can be slated as seed money for the convention or, even better, help fund Rangers to make more group appearances. You need some.

In closing, always keep faith in your friendships, even when the numbers don’t seem to add up in your favor. If I had a nickel for each win that I was told couldn’t be won, I’d be ready to retire.

The bottom line: all of this comes down to CBS making a choice, just not the one that you or they think. It’s not the show; it’s the headline: CBS Saves Jericho … or CBS Says ‘Nuts’ To Customers.

If I were a shareholder, I would hope they’d pick the former and not the latter, because the latter is a loss. Even Mr. Moonves would have to agree with me that shareholders like to pick winning decisions, not losing ones. Or maybe not. To each his own. But if CBS were one of my investments (it’s not today), I’d be voting someone off the island.


Tuesday, May 22

Shipping Nuts: NutsOnline For Jericho

After most New Jersey businesses had long locked their doors and headed home yesterday, NutsOnline was busy filling orders and fielding e-mail questions from social and mainstream media at midnight. Its total volume shipped was up 15 percent in three days.

Sudden surges in orders, especially around holidays, is nothing new for a third generation nut company founded by “Poppy” Sol, a hard-working 22-year-old with a can-do attitude on the brink of the Great Depression. But today, and for the past several days, nothing is business as usual for Jeffery Braverman and his family-owned business.

“On Friday we noticed a few orders coming in that looked kind of weird,” said Braverman, about the sudden run on nuts for CBS. “But then we Googled around and caught wind of some “NUTS” campaign and a few blogs had linked us as a place to buy them.”

If you are unfamiliar with the “NUTS” campaign, it is one of several grassroots efforts by the fans of the recently cancelled CBS series “Jericho.” Although Braverman was not a fan of show, he was curious about what seemed to be a growing movement across America. So he posted a small entry on his company’s blog and thousands of fans quickly demonstrated their appreciation.

“Then, the fans said they were looking for some kind of discount,” said Braverman. “So we decided to come up with a mechanism for Jericho fans to pool orders and get the most bang for their buck.”

Since responding to Jericho fans as part of the company’s long-term commitment to enthusiastic customer service (the polar opposite of how fans say they view CBS), large pooled orders being shipped to CBS have doubled and doubled again. Some customers place specific one-pound orders, but many are opting for an inventive $5 contribution.

Braverman also added a dedicated Jericho page and provides fans regular updates and a total accounting of all orders shipped to CBS.

What started as 1,000 pounds of nuts per day has steadily increased to 2,000 pounds. Today, Braverman anticipates that total might double. Given NutsOnline isn’t the only shop shipping nuts to CBS, it’s anybody’s guess how many nuts just might be stacking up in the CBS mailroom.

“We weren’t fans (of Jericho), but we are now!!!” adds Braverman enthusiastically, saying that he intends to start watching it as soon as he has a chance. “My cousin just watched a show online and he says it is great!”

Like Braverman, our team has been amazed how handfuls of fans quickly put together the largest show protest in television history. These fans are loyal, smart, self-funded, and increasingly organized. In addition to drawing from the 8 million strong Jericho fan base, they are securing fans from other shows, appealing to how those fans might feel if Heroes, Lost, or similar shows were let go like Jericho.

Within days, they’ve demonstrated better media savvy than most working public relations professionals, capturing write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, MediaWeek, and a growing number of mainstream media outlets dazzled by their commitment to save the show (not to mention the novelty of the NUTS campaign and other ideas). They’ve even raised eyebrows among some political consultants with their ability to pull together a highly motivated campaign team and employ social media better than many presidential candidates.

They’ve exhibited tremendous show loyalty, investing money that may have gone to former advertisers had the show not been cancelled. And, they are quickly learning how to organize everything from in-person protests to pricing full-page advertisements in Variety Magazine and USA Today. They’ve even encouraged some of the show’s stars to add comments on the CBS Jericho message boards — first Michael Gaston (who plays Mayor Gray) and then Brad Beyer (who plays Stanely Richmond).

In sum, there are dozens of lessons to be learned from this living case study: from the power of customer service as exhibited by NutsOnline (give customers what they want with nothing more than the hope NutsOnline will be remembered) to how social media might make an impact in an all-digital media age.

The bottom line: Jericho fans might be sending nuts to CBS, but they are hardly nuts themselves. For dozens of links to various spontaneously generated fan sites, check out our other Jericho posts here and check the tally the online petition created to save the show.


Sunday, April 17

Employing Service Essentials

A few years ago, I published some paraphrased service philosophies from Holly Stiel's workshop article ''Duh! A No-brainer Guide to the Essence of Service'' for a hospitality trade publication that our company managed for five years.

If you are unfamiliar with the name, Holly Stiel is a renowned author, speaker and trainer who has assisted some of the world's best companies and organizations strive to provide their guests with the ultimate service. Duh! is one of her favorite acronyms: Deliver service with Understanding and Heart.* It includes 11 customer service points:

1. Caring. Care about others and you can provide a high level of service.
2. Empathy. Apathy never leads to empathy in difficult situations.
3. Willingness. Do whatever is possible to get the job done right.
4. Patience. Listen without taking it personally; respond with empathy.
5. Love. Reach the minds of your audience and operate from the heart.
6. Understanding. Know your products, services, and customers' needs.
7. Attentiveness. Pay attention to feelings; think before responding.
8. Follow through. Always do what you say you are going to do.
9. Organization. Have information readily available and updated.
10. Laughter. Find humor to serve the public with a positive attitude.
11. Appreciativeness. Always say 'thank you very much' and mean it.

These 11 points came to mind while I was mulling over some teaching evaluations last week. After reading the dozen or so positive evaluations, a few of which offered constructive criticism such as spending more time on possible employment (food for thought), I focused in on the one very critical evaluation. What struck me most about it was that it offered very little in terms of improving the class and much more in terms of character assassination.

Several years ago, the personal jabs may have struck a nerve, but nowadays I'm more concerned that one of the students walked away feeling like she didn't learn anything. Since I really do care, I sent her a quick e-mail to open up an empathetic dialogue. All I received back was more of the same: how she wanted to improve her writing in one paragraph while defending her writing in the next ''I know I can write--I worked for an esteemed CA State Senator (sic) for three years and wrote speeches, leslative (sic) and policy analysis, letters, and lobbying strategy.'' (Her typos, not mine.)

I thought about taking another stab at opening a dialogue, but then decided against it because somewhere between the conclusion of the class and the day she responded to my e-mail, our roles had changed. I was no longer the vendor as her instructor, but the customer as someone who could provide her a few job leads.

This brings me back to the opening. In an industry such as communication, communicators will often find themselves in a position where customer-vendor roles are reversed. As a result, it is always worthwhile to consider HOW we communicate as much as WHAT we communicate. There is nothing wrong with offering suggestions or sharing a difference of opinion (people have them all the time in this industry), but there may be consequences if you don't know the difference between a fair comment and a personal attack. After all, everyone is a potential customer.

* Holly's full article is available at Holly Speaks

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