Sunday, January 26, 2014

Are First Impressions That Accurate?

Maybe it’s just me – but I’ve been amazed at just how wrong first impressions actually can be and how judging people by them can often get you into a heap of trouble.
In the consulting space it’s a known fact that those employees who are most helpful when you first start a project are, more often than not, being helpful for their own hidden agendas, which mostly revolves around you ‘praising’ their support, dedication and ‘hard work’ to senior management – which helps make them look good. Where more often than not you soon find out these are the employees who are actually part of the problem on the ground.
And at the other extreme in those early days of a project, those employees who are your biggest detractors and who don’t accept the ‘consultants’ on face value, and really challenging your practical experience and what you can really do to help the organization – are more often than not the ‘projects champions’ at the end of the day.
This is just one of many instances when first impressions are the direct opposite of the ‘real’ person – where one is playing a game to appear supportive when they’re not; and the other is so committed to their organization that they are simply checking that you’re not going to waste their time (and the company’s time and money) in some ‘head-in-the-clouds’ venture.
Yet the first time you meet these people it’s easy to be fooled by the first impressions and get their personal commitment completely about-face.
Richard Branson, for example, in his book ‘losing my virginity’ stated that “in the same way that I tend to make up my mind about people within thirty seconds of meeting them, I also make up my mind about whether a business proposal excites me within about thirty seconds of looking at it. I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.”
Yet the alternate view suggests that; “I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong. You can look at a painting for the first time, for example, and not like it at all, but after looking at it a little longer you may find it very pleasing. The first time you try Gorgonzola cheese you may find it too strong, but when you are older you may want to eat nothing but Gorgonzola cheese. Your initial opinion on just about anything may change over time,” (from Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning).
It has been long asserted that people make up their minds about people they meet for the first time within two minutes. Others assert that these first impressions about people take only thirty seconds to make. But what’s interesting is that there seems to be little research and feedback on just how accurate our ‘impressions’ actually are.
It’s worth remembering from a psychological perspective that “the exaggerated impact of first impressions is related to the halo effect, that phenomenon whereby the perception of positive qualities in one thing or part gives rise to the perception of similar qualities in related things or in the whole. The halo effect is powerful, but it is questionable whether it matters much in long-term relationships, such as that between teacher and student, for example. While dressing up may predispose students to think the teacher must know his subject matter because he creates a professional first impression, the effect wears thin if the person turns out to be a poor teacher after all.”
Arthur Dobrin wrote that “first impressions matter but substance has the final word. If you had never seen or heard of Einstein, the first time you saw him your impression would most likely be negative. Now his face is associated with genius, not madness because he is the person who has come to define what genius is.”
As much as first impressions are important if you are sincere in giving them – as a receiver of a first impression you must be open to the fact that this first impression may simply be a cleverly crafted show made to impress – and not a true reflection of the person in front of you at all.
In business this is something you always need to be aware of.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is 'Good' Service a Myth or an Opportunity?

The concept of experiencing good customer service seems to have taken a nose dive in the last decade. Where people who have a good customer experience, often seem to respond with ‘surprise’, more than anything else, as good service seems to be something most people simply don’t expect to encounter anymore.
When you ask people about customer service these days they normally reply with horrendous stories and cynicism. This is especially true on social media sites where anyone expecting good service these days seems to be labelled na├»ve and out of touch with reality. 
Speaking to a colleague recently about customer service, he relayed an experience with a company in New York that he phoned for a quote – in fact their advertisement encouraged potential customers to phone for a quote. When he was given the price, he replied that he was looking for something a little cheaper than the price quoted; and the reply from the ‘shop’ was; “then why the f..k are you phoning me then?”
Unsurprisingly they didn’t get his business – and one has to wonder how the company survives. We also don’t know if the person who took the call was the owner or not; but that just opens up more questions and concerns.  If it was the owner then one assumes he makes so much money he doesn’t care who he upsets and how many clients he loses; or how many people hear about his approach to customer service. If it was an employee then the owner isn’t blameless, as they have put them in this front-office role and one wonders if this approach is part of the employees training.
The good news is that for those looking for a unique competitive advantage that will make them stand out from the crowd of competitive offerings – then good customer service is one influencing factor that is just ‘out there’ waiting to be utilized once again. Once you get beyond the rhetoric, everyone responds well to good customer service – whether they are cynical about the concept of service or not. It isn’t just a basic competitive advantage, but it is a key influencing factor that will encourage the customer to repeat purchase and even to become loyal over time, assuming the price and quality also meet their expectations. 
Though we must remember that customer service includes the whole package – it’s not just the ‘buying’ experience, but the ‘functionality’ of the purchase and the fact that it also meets and/or exceeds the customer’s expectations.
In most cases good customer service doesn’t cost an organisation anything -  as it’s mostly about attitude and values, and it’s something the organisation either instills in its work ethic or it doesn’t, ensuring it recruits the right people and then trains and develops them in the right way.
So if it’s so easy, why don’t organisations, from the small family business to the large corporate, spend the time developing a customer centric culture? And the answer seems to be that they simply have a lazy approach to business and a feeling of entitlement around their position or status. It’s a sad reflection on many leaders who represent and instil the culture of their organisations, that they don’t see service as a key function of their business offering. Appearing to consider customers as ‘things’ or ‘throughput’ rather than individuals – where these short-sighted organisations are simply interested in the ‘purchase’ – where they seem to believe that the “are you going to buy, if not don’t waste our time” approach will somehow miraculously lead to sustainable business growth.
In the next few years there will be a definite change in the business environment across all business sectors – where some ‘smart’ organisations, looking to increase their market share and wanting to influence their sustainable growth, will see that customer service is a simple win-win scenario for them to embrace and implement. They will appreciate that if leaders and employees can get over their own feeling of importance and concentrate on giving the customer a ‘great experience’ then the organisation will earn a sustainable benefit and a special place in their market segment.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Is Technology Making Us Better Communicators?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This quote is attributed to Stephen Covey (and multi-million dollar training programme), the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
Though, to be honest, I’ve always had a feeling that this concept has been around for longer than Covey, and goes way beyond just listening to include how we read words on a page, especially now in the world of social media, and how we see things as well.
Covey believed that “communication is the most important skill in life. You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being?”
But there are many detractors to Covey’s thinking and as one critic, Art Petty, mentions “listening with intent isn’t a technique, it’s a personal value backed by behaviors that cause us to shift from the movie about ourselves running in our own minds to focusing on the movie or picture being created by another.”
Covey’s underlying premise is that “if you're like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you're listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen?
Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Do any of the following sound familiar?”
This desire to respond has gone way beyond listening and can be seen on a daily basis in social media, like on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc – where many people make comments without first trying to understand the topic under debate and/or understand the comments already made. They just want to make a point – any point – as long as it’s their point. 
There is a danger for society with this behaviour as it’s encouraging people to focus on their ‘intent to reply’ rather than their desire to first understand – and this potential ‘shift’ in behaviour can have very serious consequences for civilization in general, both from a business and personal perspective – as how we engage with others has a significant impact on the ability to build relationships and trust. 
One of the key points in Covey’s thinking is that we must first spend the time trying to understand the other person or people – since if we don’t, what follows has no synergy to what is going on either in the verbal or written communication.
History is full of disasters built on misunderstanding - but it doesn't have to stay that way, since in today's modern world we have the tools and the ability/intelligence to communicate much faster and more effectively than ever before.
So it does come down to desire, personal values and personal choices – do we want to engage in meaningful conversations where we first really want to understand the debate, and the thoughts behind it and then contribute to it in a meaningful manner – or do we just want to be heard – hoping that someone somewhere will like what we have to say.
There is a real danger with social media that we will forget how to listen, read and see things with a real intent and desire to understand – often learning something in the process; and that we will instead become people who just want to reply, regardless of how irrelevant that reply might be – and in the process fail to learn ourselves.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Is Business Really All About Trade-Offs?

In an interesting article back in 2009 by Kevin Keller and Frederick Webster, they wrote that “one of the realities of modern brand marketing is that many of the decisions that marketers make with respect to their brands are seemingly characterized by conflicting goals, objectives and possible outcomes. Unfortunately, in our experience, too many marketers define their problems in ‘either/or’ terms, creating situations where one idea, one individual or one option wins out, (p.13).”
In this scenario opportunities are potentially missed as the ‘organisation’ doesn’t look at optimizing the branding options through synergies between the ideas or looking at completely new ideas.
Keller and Webster also highlighted that “conflict and trade-offs are inherent in marketing decision making, and are the most fundamental challenges of marketing and brand management;” and highlight four broad categories for these trade-offs, “strategic, tactical, financial and/or organizational, (p.13).” But trade-offs are a key part of business, not just marketing management. 
Anyone who has been through a strategy development process will know that trade-offs are being considered all the time and what the best organisations do, is to look at the optimization of their future growth and see ‘trade-offs’ as opportunities to optimize ‘all the potential, positive, outcomes’ for their business; i.e. they turn the perceived ‘trade-off’ into a ‘new’ winning formula for success.
Where organisations miss potential growth opportunities, is when their operational philosophy encourages their employees to choose between potential trade-offs like, for example, setting performance targets that look at quantity, but don’t consider quality.
Keller and Webster highlight how “to understand the nature and extent of marketing trade-offs, some key questions must be answered: How severe are they? Are they unavoidable, inherent in the nature of the decision problem and situation? How have they been dealt with before? And of particular importance is to recognize whether the trade-offs result from internal organizational considerations or external structural issues inherent in the marketing environment where management has less control, (p.15).”
The key to dealing with trade-offs, not just in the marketing function but throughout the organization, is how you approach them and whether you see the process as ‘creating’ a win-lose or compromise result; or if your organisation seeks to create the ‘best’ outcome for the organisation.
At least Keller and Webster mention that “one compelling way to resolve potential marketing strategy trade-offs is through product or service innovations. For example, Miller Lite became the first successful nationally marketed light beer through an innovative brewing formulation that was able to retain more of the taste profile of a full-strength beer, while still having a lower calorie count, (p.15).”
As another example, when BMW first made a strong competitive push into the US market in the early 1980’s, it positioned the brand as being the only automobile that offered both luxury and performance. At that time, American luxury cars were seen by many as lacking performance, and American performance cars were seen as lacking luxury. By relying on the incomparable design of their car, and to some extent their German heritage, BMW was able to simultaneously achieve (1) a point of difference on performance and a point of parity on luxury with respect to luxury cars and (2) a point of difference on luxury and a point of parity on performance with respect to performance cars. The clever slogan, ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ effectively captured the newly created umbrella category - luxury performance cars.
Dealing with trade-offs is as much about ‘effective decision making’ as it is about the ‘culture’ of the business. If employees are debating the pros and cons of a trade-off because they want to ‘win’ then the business is very likely going to miss out on some real synergistic multi-dimensional solutions. 
Keller and Webster conclude that “achieving marketing balance requires penetrating insights, shrewd judgments and a knack for arriving at solutions that go beyond the obvious. Creativity, the combination of previously unrelated ideas into new forms, is often the inspiration to achieve marketing balance,” (p.17).
What is clear is that effective marketing is a key function of business success and organisations will always be presented with ‘trade-offs’ if that is how they wish to view their marketing opportunities. The ‘smart’ business will not see trade-offs but will see a set of ‘factors’, where some are opportunities and some are ‘limitations’ and they will work with these factors – not to choose one over and other – but to create the most effective marketing-mix of solutions at the micro level, for their range of products and/or services in their respective target markets, both for ‘today’ and the foreseeable future.
Keller, K.L. and Webster, F.E. (2009). The Branding Sweet Spot. Marketing Management, Vol. 18, Issue 4, p.12-17.