Reconnecting with Customers - Mavericks at Work comment #3

This is the third of four commentaries on the new book Mavericks at Work by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre.

Reconnecting with Customers

“Three thankless realities define the state of competition in industries from automobiles to airlines, movies to mutual funds: oversupply, overcapacity, and utter sensory overload. Companies are selling too much of everything; they have the wherewithal to make more of what they’re already selling too much of; and they are unleashing too many marketing messages on customers who can’t begin to process all that they’re seeing and hearing.”

What this tells me is that businesses have lost focus. Not just a loss of focus on the customer, but also a loss of focus on what their business is.

Recently, I spoke with a fellow who had just left his corporate sales job to start his own business. One of the reasons he gave was that the business had broaden its marketing scope so wide that it was impossible to continue to service their customers well. It was no longer about servicing their customers, but about selling more and more people more and more products and services. 

Every day I am acquainted with businesses that understand what Taylor and LaBarre describe, and many more that don’t. Why is it that some businesses get it and others don’t? It seems common sense.

I think it goes to a notion that has grown over the past century that business is a scientific enterprise consisting of technical tasks. As a result, my job is to faithfully and efficiently complete those tasks everyday.

The shift that Taylor and LaBarre note, as have many other business writers, is the one to a customer-centric business model. It really is about how relationships form. In this instance, it is between a company and a customer. It is more than an economic exchange, a transaction. Rather it is an experience that envelops the customer in a world that touches their lives.

Taylor and LaBarre offer five principles to consider in reconnecting with customers.

1. There’s always a demand for something distinctive.

How are you distinguishing yourself and your business from your competitors?
How is your business different than it was a decade ago? How do you describe that to people?

2. Not all customers are created equal.

Who is your ideal customer? Who fits your product or service better than anyone else? What can you do to create a stronger bond of experience with them?

3. Brand is culture, culture is brand.

Do you know what your business’s customer experience culture is like? What do your customers experience when they interact with you and your employees?

4. Advertising to customers is not the same as connecting with customers.

How dependent are you on advertising to make each month’s cash flow projections? What does your advertising say about the experience that your customers have with you?

5.When it comes to creating brand value, dollars-and-cents thinking doesn’t always make sense.

How much do you invest in the experience your customers have with you? When they call, do they talk to a real person or an answering machine?

Just as innovation has become an open-source collaborative enterprise, so too, the connection to customers has become a much more open experience of interaction and relationship formation with customers.

Here again it requires leaders to reconsider how they lead. To create a personal experience requires leaders to be a real human being with the customer.

How do you become a real human being?  Sounds silly dosn't it.  Well, it is more than breathing in and breathing out.  It is more than showing up every day.

Here's how?

First of all become absolutely clear that you can't be the answer person for every question.
This means that you firmly grasp in your mind the need for humility.  This doesn't mean you don't have confidence, and you aren't courageous in your performance as a leader.  It means that you don't enter every situation with a preconceived notion that your way has to win, and that you already have the answer that you have to force down everyone's throats.

Second, push as many decisions as far down the organizational chart as possible.
  What's the impact?  Three changes.  One is that many problems will begin to get resolved by the people who understand the problem best, the people responsible.  Two is an environment of team work that elevates people's satisfaction of work.  Three, and this has to be intentional, a higher quality of communication that releases you the leader from the fear and doubt of not knowing what they are doing down there.

Three, change the ideas that you use to understand who you need to be as a leader and a person. This begins with ideas about human nature in the context of business.  Let me suggest three by author and philosopher, Tom Morris - True Success, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and his latest, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric. Read through these books, and you'll develop a fresh and inspiring persective on what it means to be a leader and a human being.

Lastly, incorporate these changes, using The Circle of Impact, of Ideas and Relationships into the Organizational Structure and operational practices of your business. This is true of all the ideas that you pick up in reading Taylor and LaBarre's book. 

An Idea that does not lead to action is eventually lost. Relationships that lack core values and ideas lose their purpose. Organizational structures without purpose or healthy relationships, decline.  Therefore, whatever idea you recognize as valuable, whether from Mavericks at Work or any of Tom Morris' work, you have to incorporate them into your relationships with other people and into the structure of your organization. 

The principal problem is that virtually no one has every been trained to do this.  So, if you need help just ask.

Read the book.  Put the ideas in action.  Don't wait for a convenient time. Just do it and do it with your people.

Don't Think Relationships Matter? Read this!

USAToday has a story about research conducted at Duke University that "Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago — a sign that people may be living lonelier, more isolated lives than in the past."

This is not surprising to me at all. I have beeen aware of the relational decline of America all my life.  I think the study's numbers are conservative. 


Because our standards have lowered, and as a result what is acceptible today, was not a generation ago. 

Is this dire? Yes. Is it a hopeless situation? No.

Remember when the
The Cluetrain Manifesto came out?  You don't?  Then you better get in touch with one of the conceptual benchmarks of the 21st century.  You can read the entire book online here. The Manifesto  begins with the now familiar statement

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

 Here is one of first statements to reintroduce the human element into discussion about business.  The idea is that relationships matter, and that internet technology makes it easier for relationships to form and function. I agree.

As Ron Burt points out in his book, Brokerage and Closure, our social capability has not caught of with our technological capacity.

Now, the problem the Duke University study describes really isn't technological.  It is easy to blame, as Robert Putnam does, this prevalence of loneliness and isolation on suburbia.  Suburbia can't fix it.  Suburbia is an intellectual construct.  It is an idea, and inanimate idea. It is also a type of technology, a tool that people use to achieve certain goals.  As with any technology, there are assets and liabilities, benefits and problems.  Suburbia is a technology that makes relationships more difficult, but that doesn't mean that they are impossible.

We live, in the words of Christopher Lasch, in a culture of narcissism.  If you have never read Lasch, you should, especially The Culture of Narcissism: Amercian in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.  We live in a culture that rewards people for gratifying their own desires first.  Other people are tools, mechanisms, technology, means toward that gratification.  If the tools fail, there is no introspective reflection that looks within for the cause.  The problem is always external, and the solution is too. This is the thrust of the Arbinger Institute's fine book, Leadership and Self Deception.

Unless the individual has become totally emotionally stunted, the need for close, intimate, caring, mutual relationships grows in magnitude.  The problem, and here is where putnam is correct, is that our institutions are not organized for the support of those kinds of relationships.  As a result, people  journey through the social experiences of their lives in organizational ill-equipped to deal with people's loneliness and isolation.

Just so we don't miss this point.  I am not talking about those socially inept, misfit souls that pass through our lives.  I see this issue in the lives of leaders who have excellent people skills, but are emotionally alone in their role of leader.

Ultimately, the issue gets resolved on a personal basis.  You have to determine in your mind and heart to make the commitment to change.  If you expect others to change for you, then you'll be disappointed. You have to take the initiative. And those who are also taking the personal initiative will find you. 

What is Trauma? - The Moral World of Leaders - Part 2

First Posted April 25, 2006.


What is Trauma?

Trauma is all around us.  Warriors experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  New mothers experience Post-partum depression.  Workaholics experience burn out.  Families break apart.  Businesses fail.  Tragedies, like natural disasters, strike communities.  Violence intrudes in our lives through crime and terrorism. 

We live with the effects of trauma.  Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam describes what Vietnam Vets with PTSD experience on a daily basis.  Here's a portion of the transcript one veteran's life with PTSD.

I haven't really slept for twenty years.  I lie down, but I don't sleep.  I'm always watching the door, the window, then back to the door.  I get up at least five times to walk my perimeter, sometimes it's ten or fifteen times.  There's always something in reach, maybe a baseball bat or a knife, at every door.  I used to sleep with a gun under my pillow, another under my mattress, and another in the drawer next to the bed.  ... So it's like that until the sun begins to come up, then I can sleep for an hour or two. ... I worked a lot of overtime and also went to school and had a second job.  I didn't sleep any more then than now.  Maybe two hours a night.  But I sure made a lot of money. Workaholic.  That's me - no, that was me.  ... I don't deserve my wife.  What kind of life is it for her married to me?  She says, "Let's take the kids out for dinner."  And I say, "Sure, let's go.  So we get to the restaurant and we walk in the door and I say, "Whoa!"  when I look around and see all those people.  So the hostess shows us to a table right in the middle, and I say, "How about there in the corner?"  and she says, "There's people there," and I say, "We'll wait."  Meantime my wife is looking at me and there's sweat running down my face.  I can't sit with my back uncovered.  If I know you're back there covering me, it's okay, but a bunch of strangers, and some them Gooks - no way.  I sit in the corner where I can see everyone who comes in and everyone who leaves.  So after we wait thirty minutes for the table in the corner we start walking through the restaurant to it and my heart's pounding, pounding and the sweat's rolling off me and I say, "I gotta go."  So they sit down and eat and I stand up in the parking garage, the second floor overlooking the entrance to the restaurant where I have a really good line on everything going on. ... It still makes me mad the way nobody understands what we did over there. When I first came back it was like I was living under a toilet and every five minutes somebody had diarrhea on me. There's nothing I can do. I feel like a complete freak, maybe like the Elephant Man - that's me.  Nobody can understand, 'cept maybe another 'Nam vet.  If only I could cry like I cried that day _____ had his face shot off.  I haven't cried since then.  Never.  Well, I guess it's something that I can even talk to you like this, and you not even a 'Nam vet and all.  Remember how long it took me to say anything?  I just had to watch until I could trust ______  and ______ and you.  It was almost three years till I started to open up.  The people who read this book ain't going to believe any of this s***.  And you better look out.  Nobody's going to believe you when you tell them, and you'll end up an outcast like us.

This man's experience in the extreme is not what most of us experience. The fear, the paranoia, the hypersensitivity, the inability to trust are aspects of the human experience that for most people never reaches this level of dysfunction.  Yet, as a leader and as a consultant, I see these behaviors at work in the lives of people.

Trauma is a universal human experience.  The psychological pain that a PTSD sufferer feels is extreme.  But if you look at Shay's book, you'll see that what lies behind this psychological damage are experiences that break a normal functioning individual.  It is part the betrayal of the moral order, part the extreme violence of seeing your buddy killed and dehumanized in that killing, part the constant, relentless stress of warfare that is hidden and always present.

After reading Shay's book, I've reached the conclusion that trauma needs to be addressed.  It is part of the responsibility as leaders to create environments for collaborative work that do not create trauma, but build trust. As leaders we are to be healers.

Trust is the product of relationships and environments that are predictable, safe within boundaries, and affirming of your place in the setting.  For leaders to act as healers, first means creating an environment of trust.  I'll explore that in another posting.  For now, it is important to own our trauma, and to be compassionate, and non-judgmentally identify with those who have experienced trauma at the extreme.

Brand Autopsy's take on Whole Foods Market

Read John Moore's 10 point description of Whole Food Markets. He is reacting to an article in Business Week.
Here's the list:
1 | Maximum Freedom. Minimum Governance.
2 | Small Pieces Loosely Joined
3 | Getting Bigger by Acting Smaller
4 | Food as Theater
5 | Shoppers as “Brand” Ambassadors
6 | Education Leads to Appreciation
7 | Everything Matters
8 | Price to Value
9 | Profit is a Good Competitive Game
10 | Team Members Make the Difference

What impresses me about this company is their commitment to decentralized leadership.  In essence, it means that the closer the decision is made to the customer, the better.  My question is whether this is a trend or an anomaly?  If it is a trend then we will continue to see large, complex, top-down bureaucratic structures changed to what WFM has developed.  If it doesn't work, then we'll see a chronic internal confict between the past and future in organizations.

Starbucks Tribal Knowledge

If you know me, you know I like coffee, and you know that I like the way Starbucks runs their stores.  So seeing former Starbucks marketer and current Brand Autopsy blogger John Moore writing about what he calls Starbucks Tribal Knowledge really piqued my interest.  There are seveal postings here, here, here, here and here.

John makes the Starbucks method sound so simple.  Maybe it is.  As he quotes Howard Schultz, "it’s nothing more than greeting customers in a friendly manner and making a drink exactly to their desires."

There is obviously something more intentional about this than what Schultz suggests. 

Where I live we have three Starbucks operated stores and two licensed stores.  The difference between them?  Not the coffee and not the price.  The locations and settings are different for all five.  The only appreciable difference are the people who work in these stores.   The three company owned stores are warm, inviting, friendly places.  There are differences between them, but nothing that is remarkable. 

However the other two stores, one a kiosk in a grocery store, and the other a part of a larger food operation in a Target are different.  They are different because the people are different. The talent level is different.  I went into the grocery store kiosk one day and asked for black iced tea.  They didn't have it.  I went in another time, and the clerk didn't know what to do.  She was filing for someone who had not shown up.  She was at a loss as to what to do.  Can't imagine that happening in a company owned store.

John offers an important insight regarding why Starbucks has been successful in establishing their brand.  He says that it is because they focused on their business, not the creation of a brand.  This makes a lot of sense.  In doing so, it keeps them from trying to be too clever.

Buried within that business focus are some principles that are innovative.  One is being high-touch with each customer.  In essence, the Starbucks partner's job is to create an experience for each customer.  I know this happens for me.  It is simple, not contrived, and rarely insincere.

In essence, attend to business, staying focus on the personal experience of customers, and the rest will take care of itself.  Sounds simple.  At least it is some we can all learn from.

Update: New Starbucks Tribal Knowledge posting by John Moore.  This selection focuses on Starbuck's real estate focus.

Update: Two new postings by John Moore on Starbucks Tribal Knowledge here and here.  Here he speaks of the meetings that are held.  Excellent advice. Hard to do because most people lack the discipline to make meetings work like he describes.

Real Life Leadership: Celebrating "Dear Abby for leaders."

My latest Real Life Leadership column is online.  Today's column celebrates the first anniversary of the column and my blog.  When I began both, what I sought to do is create "Dear Abby for leaders."  By answering the real leadership questions that people have, it moves them a step or two closer to the confidence they need to be at that best.

In the column I point to three conclusions or trends that I've seen through the responses to the Real Life Leadership column.  Let me share those trends and ask a question for response by readers.

One trend is business leaders' interest in ideas about passion and emotional connection. My sense is that for a long, long, long time, the emotional side of business has been suppressed.  But as competitive pressures increase, creating experiences for customers, not just serving them has become a competitive edge. 

Question:  What is the secret to making passion, emotional connection and customer experience something that is genuine and real?

A second trend I note in the column is "the questions you have are not clear to you. They exist as some strange unease or sense of discontinuity."   We need to learn how to ask questions.  Too often our gut response is built on assumptions that are untested or are counterproductive to our interests.

Question:  When you are confronted with that knot in your belly that says something isn't quit right here, do you have a method for framing the question so that you can get at the answer you need?  If so, what is your method.

By even articulating your method, you begin to understand the role that questions play in how we problem solve and make decisions in our organizations.

The third conclusion is that we need more time to ask questions.  That maybe an impossible expectation given most of our lives, but by asking questions, we are forced out of our lock-step drill of repeating the same actions and decisions over and over again. You've heard the adage, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."  Regular, systematic questioning break us out of non- productive, or worse, destructive, patterns of behavior.

The key to having more time to ask questions is having a group of people from whom you are constantly learning.  All these trends inevitibly have a social component to them.  We need to be with people with whom we can raise questions, learn different approaches to the solution, as well as offer our own insight. 

Question: If such a social group of question-asking leaders was to gather for an after-busines social event, would you attend?  Would you come to both offer your questions and your own experience?

If there is sufficient interest, I will host such an event.  You raise the questions, and the gathering of leaders provides the answers.

And we can begin with the most simple question, "What's on your mind today?"

Design-driven Innovation or User-center innovation

Hans Henrik at CPH127 offered a comment on my posting Why Creativity and Innovation are not enough. He points to a posting at his site by Magnus Christenssen where he discuss the difference between design-driven innovation and user-center innovation.  He is responding to a presentation by Roberto Verganti where the distinction is made.

Christenssen raises the question about the difference and how it fits within a business. 
He says that

Mr. Verganti answered that he believes the design-driven approach are more suited for radical innovation while the user-centred approach being more suited for incremental innovation. He continued saying that companies working with products which rely more on function than aesthetics  benefit from the user-centric approach and vice versa.

The question that comes to mind is whether the times that we are in require attention to both in coordination.  I know that the business of leadership development has changed dramaticall for me requiring me to look to "radical innovative" measures. But that those radical innovations can be difficult for client to absorb.   Therefore a soft touch with clients is needed when going beyond what is standard practice from ten years ago.

How does user-centric innovation work?  It has to be about concrete development, not just reflection on some new fangled abstract notions.  It has to have an emotional connection that elevates the relationship about merely an abstract transaction of goods and services. 

That is why I also talk with my clients about "impact."  And by impact, I mean change.  What needs to be changed?  What can wait, and what needs to change right now in order to meet your goals.  In this sense, being customer-centric and design-centric, in broader terms go hand-in-hand.  In fact, I am trying to understand precisely how to bring the element of design into my work.  My cilents will be the ones that will lead to that undestanding, I suspect.

Thank you Hans for noticing, and Magnus for pointing to an important distinction related to design.

Why Creativity and Innovation is Not Enough

Creativity, Innovation and Design are the new mantras.  That is good.  But not enough.

FastCompany's June issue was on the Power of Design.  Now BusinessWeek goes them one better, not only an issue on Creativity and Innovation, but an extension of their webpresence focused Innovation and Design.

These reports point to changes taking place in business. All this represents a greater awareness of their customers.  Design is not an end in itself anymore.  It is a new communication device.  It is about making connections with consumer needs that were ignored in the past. 

There are two things to say about this.

1.  "Customer-centric innovation" is a nice idea, but it has to be rigourously practiced.  Customer imput needs to be more than a survey or a suggestion box at the door.  It has to be a real conversations in a real context of innovation.  Old patterns of neglect easily can return as competitive pressures constrict bloodflow to the right-side of the brain.  It can't just be good intentions spontaneously expressed.  "Customer-centrism" needs to be systematized into every aspect of a business's work processes. 

What I think that businesses and their marketers often ignore or don't understand is that their perception of their product and its value may not be the perception of the purchaser.  And its is vital to know why people buy.  I know marketing research is always at work testing ideas.  But the point is that if you want a design to work, it can't because you think it is a good idea.  It has to be something that touches people. 

What many of the companies featured in the BusinessWeek report understand that what they may view as a product, their consumer may think is a "lifestyle enhancement."  So, how the product relates to the whole scope of the acquisition experience matters.  That is what it means to be "customer-centric."

2.  It is not enough to just say we are going to focus on design.  It has to good, no, beautiful, design.  I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  But there are timeless attributes of beauty that are classical in nature that connect with the deepest resonances of people.  Spend any time in the hill towns of Italy, and you'll get the picture.

I hope that we are finally beginning to emerge from the design doldrums of the past 50 years.  Where beauty was tossed aside as a cost savings for a market of sameness.  Invest in beauty, and you are investing in the total experience of your client with your company.  That is the message that also needs to get out with this new design focus.

Thanks to John Moore at Brand Autopsy for pointing to the BusinessWeek report. Read his take.

Starbucks Talking Walls and emotional connection

John at Brand Autopsy posts on retired Starbucks executive Howard Behar's practice of listening to the walls in Starbucks stores.  This is a going beyond the numbers sort of assessing the environment that exists for customers.  It is about getting in touch with the "emotional connection" that the store establishes with customers.  I don't listen to walls, but I certain watch and observe what is going on.  And where the staff really enjoy their customers, the place is always packed, and the atmosphere is electric.

John points to a Seth Godin posting on his experience at a Starbucks recently where three employees from the fast food shop next door were complaining about everything.  He goes into the Starbucks and ethusiasm is a stark contrast to the cynicism of the people he just overheard. 

Should we be amazed that more businesses don't have this relationship with customers?

I don't think so.  Why?

Human relationships are not as mysterious as they may seem.

The personal maturity required to be open, honest, caring, and outwardly focused doesn't come overnight, or without practice.  It requires inner confidence, peace of mind and the ability to put aside one's own fears, inhibitions and, yes, cynicism.  It requires a service mentality, or, more, a servant mindset, that exhibits itself in caring for the other person first, then one's self second.

Starbucks is successful becasue they created an environment that attracts more outwardly focused "people-persons".  They figured out to manage a business this way, and as a result people come to them who want to work in that environment.  It is simple, and yet, extremely difficult to pull off.

Real Life Leadership: Emotional Connection II

My Real Life Leadership column - Creating trust is the foundation of a successful emotional connection - is online.

It follows up my previous column on Howard Schulz' Starbucks CEO and his thoughts on emotional connection in business.

The response from various people to that column suggests that it is more important and less explored than we all may initially imagine.

There is a connection to a number of topics important to leaders regarding emotional connection.  It is customer relations, attitude at work, the whole experience that customers have with your business, the nature of relationships in business, ultimately coming to focus upon the leader's own personal character. 

More than anything the ability for leaders to establish an emotional connection with their clients and customers is their emotional maturity. 

In a practical sense, emotional maturity is a number of simple things.

1.  The ability to look beyond your own needs to the needs of others.

No matter what you do, if you make your business about your own ego-gratification, you'll have a difficult time in sustaining an emotional connection with clients.  If all you do with clients is talk about yourself, you are projecting a belief that all that matters is what is happening to you in your business.  Your customers may need your product or service, and may be satisfied with it, but it also establishes a vulnerability that a competitor can exploit.  Self-centeredness is not a winning strategy.

2.  The sensitivity to perceive what your customers truly need and want.

Leaders have to be aware of more than just closing a sale or completing a transaction.  Every human interaction comes with implicit signals from the other person about what is important and where they are in their own emotional life.  Picking up on those signals is essential if we are to serve our customers well.  Their emotional state may have nothing to do with the business interaction, but it has everything to do with that customer feeling like you are intuned with them in a broader context than just the strict business need at the moment.

3.  The capacity to live in the moment, without worry, even when things are tough.

People under pressure become emotionally fragile.  That fragility, especially when exhibited in anger, is distructive to the business relationship.  An emotionally mature leader understands how to not let that stress interfere with the business relationship.  It really is about living in the moment.  Right now all that matters is our relationship as merchant and customer, as service provider and client, as leader and follower.  Living in the moment requires leaders to be able to maintain a focus on the big picture at each interaction during the day.  It the leader lacks confidence, is fearful, under extreme stress, living in the moment is more difficult because every moment becomes burden with the expectation that undo urgency.  An emotional resilience is essential for living in the moment.  This is cetainly behind Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence work.

4.  The ability to not personalize business interactions.

An emotionally immature leader personalizes business interactions.  As a result, they develop grudges that place a barrier in the way of a positive emotional connection between the business and the customer.  Business is personal because it should be a calling to provide the best possible products and services to customers.  When a customers purchases a product, they typically are not doing it because they want you to feel good.  It isn't about us.  It is about the needs of the client.

5.  The freedom to live your passion.

Leaders who are unsure of themselves or lack confidence have a more difficult time communicating their passion for their work or business.  Emotional maturity liberates the leader to be fully him or herself.  In this sense business is personal.   In fact, discovering this freedom to pursue your passion may be the most important developmental focus that a leader has.  When you as the leader get fully engaged in the fulfillment of your passion, it creates an atmosphere of acheivement, of permission to reach beyond the expected, and a joy the life of your work.  This personal emotional connection provides a basis to connect emotionally with customers.  As a result, you become a real person to your clients and customers, a person worthy of trusting.

Becoming a leader who can personally connect with others is essential for long-term growth and success.  It is also a source of our peace, contentment and enjoyment of our work as well.