The University of St. Thomas

Service with a smile… no, a request

Let me begin by making it clear: Nancy’s service to us was excellent. Bear in mind, we were a couple who marched into a major retailer knowing full well we would be walking out with a receipt for four major appliances. From our first words, Nancy knew she wasn’t going to be wasting time on window shoppers, for whom she appears to have developed the patience of a biblical character. All things considered, we spent more time at the register trying to get all the coupons and discounts straight than committing to models and handle styles (if you have ever experienced true love or a kitchen remodel, you know about the struggles of commitment).

As the 36-inch register tape was stapled into the little folder containing our assurances of delivery and extended warranty information, Nancy slipped in THE request, as she circled a URL on the paper. You know the question: “Would you mind taking a few minutes to visit this site and provide an evaluation on your experience today?”

Then Nancy added the little hook that landed her story here. “You know, anything less than a 10 is a failing grade for me.” 

First of all, on what planet is 9 on a scale of 10 “failing?”  Second of all, and more importantly, what is the value of the data gathered if the call to action predisposes the participant to only give the highest rating? Third, what is the likelihood that Nancy or her colleagues remind customers to complete the survey if it seemed like the sales process was less than stellar?

This isn’t an uncommon or even new situation. I get the same comments from my service advisor at the car dealership. Having worked in the late ‘80s with dealers on “CSI ratings” (Customer Satisfaction Index – common to all the leading brands), I know the evolution to Nancy’s request began a long time ago. That doesn’t make it sensible or right.

The real irony is for service people like Nancy. She would have gotten mostly 10 scores from us without the request. Assuming her colleagues make the same plea, this only serves to mask the really excellent performers – clouding and/or lowering the bar of expectation overall.

Not sure that’s what the people analyzing the data had in mind.

Published on: Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Etiquette for fun and profit

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I did my first hiring of people while still an undergrad and was trained to regard all the candidates with respect.  That meant the ones that were clearly not qualified, but especially those with whom we had interviews that did not get selected for positions.  We sent letters to people as soon as possible once a decision was made, regardless of whether the outcome was positive or negative. 

By 1986 I was responsible for hiring, training and managing nearly 350 people – including 15 supervisors.  Again, that process included respectful and prompt handling of both those we wanted to hire and those best suited for other employment (sometimes elsewhere in the organization).  So everyone got letters regarding outcomes, and in hiring supervisors, those who did not get promoted learned of that fact in face-to-face meetings. 

In the decades since, there has been a marked decline in the respect afforded candidates.  During periods of my own job search in the 1990’s, it appeared to be the poor behavior of certain firms at which I interviewed.  Unfortunately, it seems to have been a trend across all organizations.  Whether facilitated by the advent of email and the Internet, legal counsel advising against some forms of communication, or other cultural factors, the net result remains saddening.

The worst part of this situation stems from the fact that while managers and HR people at organizations large and small attempt to be insulated from having to personally or even electronically give people bad news, their organizations suffer diminished reputation in the process.  Interviewing people and then never communicating again, with a “they’ll figure it out” attitude, deeply changes the perspective of your 2nd, third and other level candidates.  Certainly each ignored candidate represents only one stakeholder of the many thousands or millions the organization serves, but how much might it truly cost the firm for managers to act in this cowardly way?

Imagine your firm is a service company that survives by conducting a dozen or more major projects in a year.  After interviewing candidates for a project management position, you choose to hire one of five candidates who came in for interviews with three or four people at the firm.  In the old world I knew, the day the position was accepted we would send letters informing the other four candidates.  Today, most people just ignore the other candidates and hope eventually the rejected folks stop making inquiries about the process.  The assumption appears to be that these people are low level workers and have no influence or status that warrants the courtesy of an acknowledgement that a decision has been made.

What if one of those individuals goes on to work for a company that your firm will likely pitch in a few years?  What if another one has a family member who is a decision maker or key influencer at one of your prospective customers?  Maybe a third has a grandfather who golfs with one of your current clients?  What if the last one has nothing to lose and starts a social media barrage against your firm?

Only one of those potential pains will ever appear on your radar, but all could cost your firm money.  If you are absolutely confident your current customers will always be sufficient to meet your income goals, or you don’t plan for the business to grow in the future, none of the potential issues mentioned will matter.  Otherwise, investing a few moments to complete and send an email form letter in timely fashion seems like a pretty good communication investment.  Especially if you are among the minority of firms that continue to treat people as important.

Published on: Thursday, March 13th, 2014

And the survey says…

The long running game show “Family Feud” has long made entertainment out of survey data. Businesses, organizations and students attempt to make sense from similar data. The problem facing researchers: too many researchers.

Before getting too deep into this tirade, for context you should know that my first job out of college was as a field interviewer conducting surveys for Burke Market Research. I believe audience research represents a core element of any viable communication strategy; I sit on the advisory board of Quirk’s Publishing, which serves the professional market research community; and since coming to the UST MBC, about half of the nearly 200 final research projects I have supervised included survey research. In short, I am a fan of good survey data.

In recent years, my email seems to attract at least one survey request a day (often more). Every grocery and restaurant receipt includes an invitation to participate in a survey. Most purchases online offer the same, and some even force some level of participation. Many use incentives from discounts to drawings to induce engagement.  There are only so many times in a day when people can justify “…a few minutes of your time to complete our survey, so we can better serve you.”

Add to this deluge of click-button information gathering the most potentially damaging genre of survey research: homespun surveys made “easy” through tools such as Survey Monkey. To these well-intentioned inquisitors I have only to suggest that simply because I can wear a bikini on the beach does not mean it has the same impact as when a Sports Illustrated model does so.

The result of this over saturation becomes progressively lower engagement rates.  While this is of no concern to the monkey-shiners, professional and academic researchers have reason for concern. Poor participation means poor data or increased cost in order to get sufficient samples to assure data quality.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a panacea to offer that will make your next survey participation rate skyrocket. I do have a thought on the “quality” issue, however. Even though qualitative interviews will never provide data generalizable across large universes of individuals, from an applied perspective the activity may offer a general idea of what quantitative measures might show.  Plus, interviews often provide new insights beyond the perspective of the researcher.

Pulling together enough participants to conduct good interviews can be fast and fascinating. If nothing else, it can reduce the number of survey questions you ask and help refine those that are left. Case in point: I had planned to include a link to a survey about your satisfaction with this blog, but after asking a few people around the office, decided I didn’t really want to know.

Published on: Monday, February 17th, 2014

Did you get that? Oh yah, you betcha.

Most people talk to themselves, regardless of whether the intended audience is a family member, neighbor, co-worker or the dog.  In other words, the golden rule of human communication tends to be: speak unto others as you would have them speak unto you. 

That’s great if you never go far from the street on which you grew up, but that bias works progressively less well the further one gets from “home.” 

For the professional communicator, the luxury of assuming everyone receiving a message is “like me” never resonates as reality, but the truth today goes almost beyond comprehension.  Whether an announcement to the press or a 140-character social media post, the world could be listening (or at least the NSA).  So what does that mean to the creator of the message?

First, it means knowing your “real” audiences. That takes identification of the multiple stakeholders critical to the strategic purpose of your organization, and then thoughtfully building a hierarchy of those people for the message in development. 

Part of that message content prioritization depends on the channel via which the message travels. For instance, perhaps your primary audience doesn’t use Twitter much, but the secondary audience lives by it. Time to lean in to the second string.

For each audience, the thorough communicator wants to know as much as possible. A significant part of that knowledge should entail not only how the individuals consume information and via what platforms, but also what “language” they use. Are these people using street slang or techno-speak of their own?

If this sounds like work, consider that much of the real effort comes next, because it requires change on the part of the writer. A great communication professional must become fluent in the language of each key audience. While it may be impractical for the strategic leader to actually craft content across these nuanced iterations, as the decision maker, that individual must engage support personnel who can and learn to discern the differences.

What if the language is literally different than yours? Who can you get to assure an absolutely accurate translation of your meaning from Minnesotan to Swahili?  It may take time and energy, but if that African audience is critical to reach, the effort will be well placed.

Published on: Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Lurking or Working?

Some time ago, I wrote a case study about the UST MBC program and submitted it to an academic journal. One of the reviewers took issue with the idea that this program aims, in part, to develop advisers to C-suite leaders. The reader angrily asserted that it was terrible to be “limiting” the prospects of students by implying that they would not be qualified to be in the C-suite themselves. 

The assumption in this argument boils down to the idea that every graduate business student should aspire to hold the most senior roll in the firm. While it might be imprudent of me to speak on behalf of all communication people, the vast majority of MBC students and my colleagues over 30 years do NOT hold such aspirations.

Again, I can’t speak for all professional communicators on the subject, but can assure you that I have never wanted to be the CEO of a large organization. I do, however, gain great satisfaction from advising those who act in that role. I also miss the days of ghostwriting articles and speeches – playing my part in the shadow of others.

What I learned in that shade was that sometimes the person in the spotlight can only see so far in front of the stage. As an adviser, the presence of the leader in the limelight afforded me the ability to see some things beyond the glare, and the chance to call attention to the issue off stage. This perspective often contributed to change, although in subtle ways and rarely with any acknowledgement. That comes with the role.

In advisory roles, one must nurture personal satisfaction that can be sustained by self-acknowledgement of contributions and successes. This type of role is not for everyone, but neither is that of CEO.

 

Published on: Monday, December 16th, 2013

Who made this cookie?

In a recent discussion in my Strategic Writing course, we considered a company called Mondelēz International.  Actually, we started by looking at a snack-sized package of Oreo® cookies.  The point of the dialogue was to consider what  “corporate” messaging  means to a copywriter in the marketing department asked to develop material geared to sell snack-packs? 

Now, you may not have heard of Mondelēz International, but if you took the time to click through on the link above, many of the brands featured in the animation will prove familiar.  And there in the midst is Oreo®, a product that still bears the Nabisco logo on the package (which ends up being a brand between other brands).  Further, if you look at the current packaging (which we did, and somehow the cookies never got back to me…), one can find the Kraft brand logo on the back.  This parent brand logo on the back wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if not for the fact that Kraft spun off its snack brands into a completely new and separate company in October 2012 – Mondelēz International.  So either the cookies we were working with were pretty old, or Mondelēz is taking its time working through the old packaging stock. But I digress.

Without taking time to dig deep into the online presence of Mondelēz, I asked the class to decide what underlying corporate message seemed evident from the one page we viewed and how it should impact the writing of cookie copy.  Someone noted that the type treatment of the corporate name looked European, and others noted the unfamiliar brands in the mix.  A quick look at the “Company Facts” yields the knowledge that 80% of Mondelēz sales are outside the U.S.

What this means to the cookie promoter writing for the domestic market is it may be in the greater interest of the company to infuse a tone that acknowledges this broader corporate identity.  While this may take the form, eventually, of a tagline (“Part of a world of snacks from Mondelēz International”), it may also be less obviously enforced in the choice of characters and storyline used (International travelers picking up familiar Oreos at U.S. airports). 

The ultimate point of course, is that even in the most granular product marketing message, there are elements that should be considered regarding how that message connects back to the image and brand positioning of the corporation.  Certainly we can sell cookies without acknowledging the parent firm, but that would be missing an opportunity.

Published on: Monday, October 28th, 2013

Clients, connections and creativity

Greetings from our guest blogger, Glenn Karwoski:

It’s not only the agency world that has clients – if you’re in a marketing communications function within a company, you have internal clients, and that’s a good mentality to have when it comes to producing great work.

A big part of doing great work is making meaningful connections. Connecting with your clients, whether internal or external, to make certain you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problem/challenge.

Great creative work is always rooted in great strategy, which begins with solving the right problem/challenge. The classic example being the railroad industry approaching strategy from a perspective of being in the railroad business, not grasping that they were in fact really in the transportation business.

People often ask if creativity and innovation are skill sets that can be taught and learned, or are people born creative or not. It can be taught and learned, and a significant factor in being more creative and innovative is the ability to be open to possibilities, and the ability to make connections.

The “sidewinder” missile system was developed when a scientist walking through a desert area saw a “sidewinder” snake, Crotalus cerastes, which senses its prey based on heat. The ability to connect the sensing physiology of the snake and apply it to a delivery mechanism of a missile led to a new, creative innovation. 

We become more creative when we can get beyond the obvious – beyond the obvious utility of things and see the different connections that are possible.

Research shows us that the most creative and innovative people have diverse networks of friends and colleagues – they connect with a wide variety of people and that enhances their ability to be creative and more innovative. The networks that students develop at St. Thomas helps them expand their life experiences and facilitates them being more creative and innovative individuals.

Glenn Karwoski

Karwoski & Courage

Opus college of Business, Adjunct Faculty

Published on: Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

T-shirts and Tattoos

The license plate frame on my car reads “Alumni” at the top and “University of St. Thomas” at the bottom.  The metal looks a bit shabby, since it previously adorned at least two other cars, but the purple letters seem to be surviving.  I’m proud to hold a couple of degrees from UST and own a fair number of items emblazoned with its name and logos.  However, the limit of my brand loyalty falls short of a purple shield tattoo.  

It’s fascinating how we manage loyalty to the brands in our lives.  For instance, while I purchase and eat exclusively Skippy® Superchunk peanut butter, there are no t-shirts or other memorabilia in the house to affirm this bias.  Further, this post represents the only public or private admission of this behavior.  So, even though absolutely loyal to the brand in use, I am a pretty crappy customer on the referral side.  My kids don’t even eat the stuff.

Even though we all have some unshakable brand affinities, other brand connections seem to be more chameleon-like.  Personally, the colors change on the alumni front, depending on the company being kept.  When chatting with undergrad friends, the Beaver hat figuratively comes out (Just making sure you don’t think I actually have a rodent for my head.).  Most of the time, I’m a Tommy.  Not a traditional Tommy perhaps, because the diplomas aren’t undergrad, but a card carrying graduate school Tommy.  It helps to believe in the quality of education here, but the affinity also contributes to defining me in the context of the business community, in the same way the Harley-Davidson eagle on my leather vest distinguishes me from a sport-bike rider.  Not good or bad, just decidedly different.

My “biker” merchandise tends to stay in the closet until the bike comes out of the garage, to avoid being confused with those other brand affinity types – the wanna-be’s.   You know, people like the guy in a Harley shirt I saw in Key West who couldn’t balance the Vespa he was test riding.  The wanna-be syndrome cuts across all demographics – think, the kids who do farm chores sporting urban chic brands.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with these behaviors, in fact without our logo infused lifestyles, entire product genres might disappear.  Whole shelves in your cupboards would be vacant without imprinted coffee mugs and travel containers.

So, embrace your brand affinities, even promote them, and if you are a UST alumna and catch me without purple on Tommy Tuesday, I owe you coffee.  What do I get if I catch you?

Published on: Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Bash Bash Bash!

On August 22, the Alphabet Bash will turn the Aria into a temporary Mecca for the movers, shakers and wanna-bes of the Twin Cities message machines. The evening, while formatted as a loosely scripted mix and mingle, takes a tremendous amount of organization and planning, particularly coordinating the efforts of the dozens of associations and sponsors now involved. The “Bash” always promises and delivers great food, a fun atmosphere and, most assuredly, the best networking on the professional marketing communication community calendar.

I’m not just touting the event because the UST Opus College of Business is one of the two primary sponsors. We are engaged because this event brings together local business communication professionals from multiple disciplines on one night. It’s imperative that we are there, and should be for anyone interested in building a network of like-minded professionals – for fun and profit!

For those who don’t feel like they know many people, and worry about meeting new folks, here are a couple of tips. First, find someone you do know who has been in the market a while and ask them to go with you;  you won’t have to be alone and, with a wing-person, you’ll meet people they know.  When you meet those folks, break away from your “buddy” to follow the new acquaintances to the buffet or bar – you might meet some of their friends. Most importantly, if you don’t know anyone, talk to people who look like they are in the same boat. Next year, you will at least know each other.

Plus, the great thing about Alphabet Bash is that everyone has some connection to communication work and at least one of the organizations behind the event. So you have a conversation starter with everyone:  “So, in which organization are you a member?”  Not a member of any of these organizations? No worries, you are welcome at this event, and now you have a mission – to interview strangers about why they belong to the organizations in an effort to find which one(s) fits your needs.

Hmmmm, got any excuses left?

Published on: Friday, July 26th, 2013

Event High Jacking

This week a pro-gun group informed the media and area law enforcement that its members would be out in force at community events organized by another organization, pushing the limits of the state carry laws (See http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/212085201.html ). 

This is a classic guerrilla marketing and communication tactic – to co-opt the activities or space of others, without permission, to carry out some level of promotion for your own agenda.  Of course, there are degrees of this behavior. It is certainly common, and potentially legal, for a marketer to appear on a public walkway offering product samples. The co-opting begins when that walkway is adjacent or central to a public event, such as the Uptown Art Fair or neighborhood gathering as noted in the article above. When done unobtrusively, such activity is effectively harmless.

On the other end of that spectrum, for a guerrilla group to invade another’s event with the intention of overshadowing the efforts of the actual organizers represents unfair play. Plus, in cases such as the one cited, the invasion has real potential to escalate tensions and impact safety. Since the interlopers have not participated in arranging the event, how can they know whether their activities present real danger or not? They can’t.

In this case, the group has already successfully generated increased visibility for the cause, but not without costs. Before I could finish this blog things evolved, with the group rescinding its intention to party crash.  Their plan seemed an easy path to getting attention, but when one’s actions are inflammatory, the party holding the matches often gets burned.

While the event organizers may not have been receptive to partnering with the gun group, and it would have taken significant effort and time to develop a mutually beneficial arrangement, the outcome would have been better for both organizations. 

So, while it may be easier and cheaper to ask forgiveness rather than get permission, don’t forget to weigh the costs of cleaning up any mess you may create in the process.

Published on: Monday, June 24th, 2013