Category Archives: Diary

Get out of your bubble.

I was once asked by a group of university students for advice on pursuing a career in marketing communications. Beyond studying, embracing creativity and landing a job at an agency, what did I feel was a valuable lesson for success?

“Get out of your bubble.”

The idea is simple. As communicators, it’s important for us to understand the diversity of different markets and audiences—to engage with vibrant communities that are different from our own status-quo. The more experiences we have—the more alternatives we understand—the more valuable we will be as marketers. (I’d argue that we’re more enlightened as humans, too, …but I digress.)

I am going to add to that advice. Don’t just be open to the idea—we need to make a point of breaking out of our bubble on a regular basis. In fact, you should probably schedule it just to be 100% sure you don’t fall into a routine.

I stepped out of my own bubble last month. I spent 21 intense days with 23 smart people who rattled the boundaries of the world I am immersed in daily; a world I thought was already pretty diverse. The ages ranged from 19 to 50, with the majority being below 30. It was a mix of men and women from different social and educational backgrounds.

If I am to believe my current bubble, social media—digital literacy in general—is desired and embraced by everyone, especially young adults.

Pop.

I was the only one who had a blog, knew HTML, or had an active Twitter account. I was the only one who was on Foursquare (I became the campus mayor in a few days). Two people had Instagram accounts, but wanted to switch to SnapChat because it’s “safer and temporary” [sigh…]. Even though we were all advancing our careers, people were more interested in connecting on Facebook than LinkedIn (they didn’t realize there was a difference). In fact, a few in this group were unaware of LinkedIn. Everyone knew YouTube; no one knew Slideshare. I was the only one who had ever knowingly watched a TED talk. No one wanted to do a Google Hangout, even though that would have been very, very helpful during our time together.

No one understood a business plan or marketing strategy, let alone how to define a good plan from a pipe dream. (To be fair, I didn’t expect them to. It wasn’t that kind of work session.) Many had business ideas, though, and it seemed everyone in this group knew what it took to be a billionaire, even though none have reached the first million.

I share this to show that everyone has their bubble, even those of us who are aware of bubbles.

In my bubble of brands, business, communications and customer experiences, it’s easy to imagine the whole world engages on Social Media and understands the basics of business strategy. I was, ultimately, thrilled to have my bubble burst, and to once again remind myself that each of these new friends personified a valid target audience.

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“David” fails at the core brand promise.

Three emails. One mistake. Zero chance.

One of the rules of brand strategy is that you must excel at the core promise. Cafes must serve good coffee; cameras must take good photos; hotels must have a comfortable bed; airlines must get you and your luggage from A to B. There are lots of optional touch points that add to the mix and elevate an experience, but when a company fails to deliver on their basic offer it calls into question everything about the brand. It’s not rocket science (unless your brand is NASA).

Like most people, I get plenty of unsolicited emails. Not spam, but the professional generic mailing list kind with offers for legitimate services. Since most of them are misguided, such as offering to support my IT department, the emails are impersonal and I ignore them. In fact, I don’t even respond to 90% of the mailing list emails—even a simple “no thank you” for all of them would end up taking too many minutes out of my day. Delete.

A few do get my attention, though. I will read at least the first few lines of emails addressed to me by name and offer a service I might consider.

That’s what I did when I received the following email:

SAG_CC Email Blunder_01“Hi David,
 
My name is C____ C____ and I am a V_____ Chair here in Atlanta. V_____ is a worldwide CEO Organization with over 15,000 CEOs internationally (blah, blah, blah)….”

The rest of the email is irrelevant. It’s for a peer coaching group, and I am not interested. So I ignore the email. Two weeks later I get a brief follow-up, which we all know is an important and smart sales move.

“Hi David,
 
Do you have time to speak next Tuesday or Wednesday after 2pm to discuss if our group would be a good fit for you? Alternatively, I can have my assistant contact you to set-up an appointment at your convenient time. – C____ C_____”

I’ll give points to him for a good, direct follow-up, but I’m still not interested. I am about to hit delete for a second time and I realize something. (And this is where it hurts.)

My name is not David.

My name is Stephen. The name of my company is Stephen Abbott Group. Both are in the email address he used. This blog, stephenabbott.com, is mine, and I am pretty sure Stephen, not David, is in every bio about me on the web, everywhere. To quote the cool kids, this simple mistake is a true #fail.

Using a wrong name is a silly error, but one that we’ve probably all made at some point. I’ve even been called David in person (Kevin, Jim, Sean and Mike, too) by people who should know better. Usually we just laugh it off and move on.

But C_____ is pitching executive excellence. He’s promising me ”access-to-the-best-of-the-best” kind of stuff, yet the second word in both of his emails was wrong. I don’t know how the mistake was made—database, cut-and-paste, dyslexia—but it’s sloppy, and a perfect example of not paying attention to details. Not exactly in the authentic spirit of executive excellence.

So this time I decided to respond.

“Hi C____,

I appreciate the offer, but I am not seeking executive coaching or peer mentoring at the moment. I already connect with a strong local group.

You should also know that my name is Stephen, not David, as clearly indicated in every aspect of my contact details, website, blog and social media. While it’s just a simple error, it does call into question the calibre of excellence your group prescribes.

I am not being mean about this, but perhaps take it as feedback to always stop and take a moment to make sure the little details are accurate. It’s not the reason I am not interested today, but it’s likely the reason you’ll have to work much harder for me to consider it in the future.

Respectfully,

Stephen”

To add insult to injury, it’s many weeks later, and I haven’t heard a response. It annoys me that C____ didn’t even take the time to say, “Thanks. My bad.” I could respect that. Ignoring me is not exactly in the authentic spirit of peer group mentoring.

Mistakes are human, forgivable, and can be overcome. Apologies are acceptable. But you have to try. Especially if you want my business.

Why does this matter for your brand? Well, any of the 14,999 other CEOs who brag about being part of this network have just lost any credibility the association affords them—with me, and possibly, with anyone who reads this post and can connect the censored blurs. They can offer all the bells and whistles they want to support their program, but at its core promise, the brand didn’t deliver.

The core promise for your brand is everything, perhaps even the only thing. Great brands always deliver on the core promise. No exceptions.

The Curse of Exceeding Expectations

The concept of Exceeding Expectations is charming wisdom that hijacks good strategy.

If your brand sets up the expectation that you will exceed my expectations, then you must consistently jump over a bar that you’ve set impossibly high, and keeps getting higher. It’s a vague promise with no true meaning—the ultimate failure of brand strategy. Good luck with that.

Trump Hotel Toronto expected to exceed my expectations. Since it was also their promise to me, I expected to have my expectations exceeded. So when they exceeded my regular hotel expectations, they actually only met my expectations for their experience. They didn’t exceed my expectations because I expected them to exceed my expectations.

Confused? Here’s another way to look at it. They bought into the mantra without respecting our relationship.

How do I know they know the mantra but lack the understanding? They are so desperate to have me say they “exceed my expectations”, that anything less than exceeding my exceeded expectations—I gave them a 7 out of 10 on a couple of comment points—was deemed an operational disappointment.  Promising and delivering world-class luxury service isn’t enough. They took the time (three times, actually) to apologize for merely meeting my exceeded expectations.

SAG_Trump Hotel Truffle_01Here’s the run down of the issues: 1) One staff member, whom I assume was a manager, wasn’t smiling at one time and was more concerned with the buffet he set up than taking a moment to say hi. 2) One morning I ordered breakfast to my room, and the omelette was slightly less cooked than I prefer. 3) I asked a staff member for directions within the hotel, and she didn’t know—it was her first day on the job. She asked a colleague and I was promptly on my way.

None of these were serious, but on a post-experience guest survey—and because of the specific questions they ask in the survey—it drops the my perspective from flawless to a more human excellent.

On the comment card, anything less than a 9 gets the attention of the GM. That’s right, a 9. Practically flawless execution of an exceeded expectation—an ill defined benchmark if there ever was one—is the only pass. I’ve struggled with my thoughts and comments.

Perhaps it comes back to my preference for a more casual experience; I don’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony within Five Diamonds. But that’s not it, because one of the things I loved about my experience was how easily staff respected and responded to my casual style within the delivery of their elegance. Perhaps it comes back to my simple requests; I didn’t really put them to the Five Diamond test. But that’s not it either, because they handled even the simplest requests with genuine grace and skill.

So I suggest it’s because excellence is arbitrary. The only promise was to exceed, but what they were exceeding was left to my imagination (which I assure you can run wild, especially around customer experiences). The questions and standards by which they asked me to judge them didn’t reflect their clear promise. And that is what I expect from a brand—a clear promise. Excellence needs a benchmark by which it’s judged, and as a customer, I expect the brand to lead the way.

Brand Strategy—and the experience you commit to deliver—should define the expectations you promise. And then it’s okay to exceed those.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” is wonderful little tidbit of wisdom to encourage good staff who could use a reason to try a little harder. It’s the goal of empowerment—a great way to offer your team permission to use common sense in uncommon situations and put the customer first. It’s a great way to think about adding value to moments.

Putting the phrase into your strategy and messaging is reckless. It’s a vague promise that says I can expect nothing specific, and yet anything is possible. And putting the onus on your customers to assess random expectations as exceeded shows you’re not in control. A brand strategy of Exceeding Expectations demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how a brand strategy supports your vision and values, and how it should drive your culture. It shows that you are desperate to please—to give in at any cost—rather than honouring the relationship and promising an experience. It’s terribly vague while pretending to make a promise or set a standard.

Exceeding expectations isn’t the benchmark you strive to reach; it’s the passion that drives your culture of service and your innovation behind the experience you’ve promised.

Twitterchat: Ensuring Planning Converts to Action

On Monday, January 7th I have the privilege of co-hosting a Twitterchat with Ken Rosen (@Ken_Rosen) and Joseph Ruiz (@SMSJOE) in the popular #usguyschat. We’re talking about ensuring planning converts to action.

The timing for this chat is no accident—the experience of personal New Year Resolutions is a great analogy for organizational plans failing to convert to actions. We know from personal experience that good intentions and simple action steps aren’t enough to change well established habits.

In organizations, it is well understood that good planning requires that clear actions be identified and managed. Think of SMART. However, we are all too familiar with the challenge of good ideas which have fallen victim to the poor execution of the plan.

Being in the business of recommending and sometimes leading organizations through change, I am well aware that effective planning is harder than it sounds. Sometimes, just having a plan feels like success, and gives the impression that change has already occurred. There are many steps in effective planning to reach our goals—from blue sky ideas to specific activities—and planning takes constant leadership and management.

Why is there a breakdown in converting planning to action, and how do we make sure we set up our plans for success?

Join us in the discussion at 12pm (PST) on Monday Jan 7th, or feel free to have more discussion here.

Here are the proposed questions for the chat:
Q1 What are some of the signs that a plan is failing to convert to action?

Q2 Other than results, what do you look for to confirm that specific actions supported the success of the plan?

Q3 How do you ensure leadership’s desire to have a flexible plan doesn’t result in a lack of accountability and action?

Q4 When faced with unexpected outcomes, how do you know whether to adjust the goal, alter the plan, or correct behavior? #usguyschat

Q5 How often is the inconsistency of our team’s actions simply due to a lack of communication? #usguyschat

Q6 As a leader, what is the one thing you look for to know that your plan will convert to real actions? #usguyschat

(Bonus Question) Can good plans fail, or is failure just an indication that it wasn’t a good plan in the first place?

(Bonus Question) If we desire a corporate culture that encourages failure within processes, what are the repercussions when plans fail? #usguyschat

Twitterchat, Exploring ROWE Leadership

On Friday, Nov 9th at 12 EST/9 PST I am co-hosting #kaizenbiz, a popular twitterchat community talking about businesses and organizations that embrace continuous and incremental improving. This week, our discussion focuses on the ROWE theory of management; Results Only Work Environment.

ROWE shattered the traditional expectations of some work environments—the place and style of work—and productivity, and the results have shown both success and failure. Is ROWE a viable management theory, or simply a passing fad? Please join us in the 1 hour discussion, and share your thoughts.

I am not an expert on the subject—more of a passionate advocate and self-imposed practitioner. From my framing post, Exploring the Value of ROWE Based Leadership, I summarize it like this:

[ROWE] is as much as reflection of your organization’s culture and processes as it is about value and competence. Are you truly giving each member of your team the best possible opportunities to deliver great work in the pursuit of shared goals, or does a shared environment override individual preferences in the pursuit of team goals? How does ‘workplace’ inspire and pull excellence from your team?

Following the chat I will update this post with what I learn. I hope you will share in the conversation.

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

And we begin…

This blog is for anyone who appreciates the diverse world of brands, branding and brand strategy. Rooted in a fluid mix of art and science, passion and function, brand strategy is a topic that is often misunderstood, and those who discuss it at length seem to have many different definitions of what exactly a brand entails. The irony of that isn’t lost on me.

I am coming at this with over two decades of experience in business. I’ll share my insights into the ways famous (or not-so-famous) brands tell their story—the ways that I find unexpected and interesting—and I’ll share my philosophies for why it works. I will challenge some conventional wisdom, expose silly expectations, and call-out those who try to over-think the brand.

Most of all, I am going to have fun. I hope you enjoy reading my blog, and I would love to hear what you have to say.