Archive for the ‘News Analysis’ Category

Pret A Manger Customer Service Relies on Communication

Monday, August 8th, 2011

It’s hard not to blush green with envy. A company that really seems to “get” communication as a business process rates a Sunday business feature story in The New York Times once in a few blue moons, and British sandwich shop Pret A Manger sounds like a great place to work. Read Stephanie Clifford’s story here, but here are a few highlights.

Five things Pret A Manger does well

1. Foster Teamwork: The pay is not high, the working conditions frantic and stressful and the turnover huge in fast food. But Pret A Manger puts cash behind teamwork, rewarding teams rather than individuals with cash bonuses. Even when  individual workers do really well, they get cash that they have to share to those who helped them excel. This team attitude means that everyone pitches in, and the communication process in the stores supports that effort through daily kick-off meetings and peer-support culture. This isn’t a high-tech solution, just an effective one.

2. Establish Strong Processes: Making sandwiches isn’t hard. Making them consistently well is art. Pret features recipe cards with photos so that people can see how the food is supposed to look, step by step. When you train on how to make a sandwich, your peers support you along the way. Plus, there’s a process to move up — and your peers help you get there — that’s clearly communicated. Communication isn’t something being done to employees, it’s intrinsic.

3.  Leaders Lead: Store managers and kitchen supervisors know what food needs to be ready when, and peer communication supports the effort. The managers encourage their charges continually, even when issuing correction. They also train — and the trainees’ final exam? Training someone else. You have to know your stuff to train someone. It’s further evidence of how managers and staff “own” communication.

4.  Customer Focus: The store is staffed to reduce customer wait times, not maximize revenue per employee. That’s a liberating decision for the workers, who are hired at least as much for their cheerful attitudes as anything else.  No one is really overworked in  a Pret store — there might be as many as nine cashiers on duty in the morning there, as opposed to the one or two at your average Starbucks.  Starbucks has a great reputation, but standing on line there is legendary. One barista, one cashier isn’t going to cut it at Pret.

5.  No Say-Do Disconnect: This is an essential business maxim — your behavior as an organization tells a lot about your real priorities. If there’s too great a disconnect between behavior and rhetoric, trust evaporates. Pret doesn’t just communicate about its priorities, it appears to live them.  Its employees seem to like that — their turnover is orders of magnitude lower than its fast food competitors. That means satisfied customers, lower costs, and better performance.

What’s not to like?


‘Change Agents’ often get changed

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Allstate Corp. announced the departure of Joseph Lacher, the head of its home and auto insurance businesses, and the Wall Street Journal blames comments Lacher made about company CEO Thomas J. Wilson.  According to the Journal story, Lacher used a multi-syllabic phrase with lots of F’s and K’s and S’s while complaining about the company’s financial results.

Apparently Lacher has been under scrutiny for a while — the second-largest U.S. insurer pointed to less than-expected results in Lacher’s unit for his abrupt departure, which the Journal says came a couple of months after the vulgar commentary.

Why is this worth discussing?

A Wall Street analyst said that Lacher had been brought on board as “an agent of change,” with an eye toward revamping the company’s culture and improving operations. This is familiar.  Large, older companies often have proud histories and well-established cultures that can be (well, nearly always are) resistant to change, particularly if the change is coming from “an outsider.”

I have no idea what sort of leader Lacher was (or is) — but I know of several cases where external talent is brought to a company to shake things up and change the status quo, and the status quo rebels. We know that senior leaders can be a little, well, arrogant.  They’re here because someone thought enough of them to pay them the big bucks and hand them a bunch of responsibility, that mostly, they earned via a track record of accomplishments.

Confidence isn’t in short supply, and many believe they’re fixing something that’s broken, especially in companies with recent operational and performance issues. That can lead to abrasive personalities and griping managers.

But who cares if they gripe? You hired this person to make change, and nobody likes change. What winds up happening is that the reactionary forces inside the company overwhelm the change forces. You can’t get things done and the regression to “what’s always been done before” drags down performance.

In most cases, the conventional wisdom says that a new leader needs to establish a specific plan for his/her first 100 days. Many say that outlining priorities for change during that time is essential, but I disagree.

The first 100 days should be spent asking questions and listening.

What are the main issues that hold down performance? How have you addressed them in the past? What was most and least effective? Who are your stars? What makes them successful? How do you and your team work together? What are your personal strengths and weaknesses?

Describe a time when you’ve had to make a difficult change to your work, your life or your team? What did you think you did well during that time? What would you do-over if you had the chance?

You can’t assume that the changes you plan to make are right for the new organization. You need to learn and tailor your recommendations to your new company.

Joe Lacher had been at Allstate for a while, two years this fall, and the Journal cited sources that claimed he was getting frustrated with his boss’s style.  It could be that Lacher used his first 100 days wisely, or perhaps he got everyone peeved and wore his ambition on his sleeve.

Change can’t be imposed, it has to emerge, and it needs the right conditions to thrive.  You won’t make change by telling your team that the CEO is a F’ing A$$.


Employers shocked, shocked, that morale is low

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

In what can be described only as a stunning command of the obvious, a MetLife study shows that workers are growing restive as the economy rebounds from three years of struggle, and that employers are oblivious.

A story in the 28 March edition of USA Today quotes a psychologist saying that workers are stressed after watching co-workers get fired, being told to take on more work for the same pay, and longer hours. The MetLife veep is quoted (nice pop, MetLife PR!) saying that business’s understandable focus on financial matters has led to it ignoring human factors. It is pretty easy to be a “best employer” when the tide is in and Wall Street rocking.

There’s even an indirect from Towers Watson saying that companies are having a hard time “attracting employees with critical skills.”

How can any company say they’re surprised by these results? Add in a healthy dose of capitalist excess in the form of higher executive pay and you have a combustible mixture of anger and envy alongside the feeling that you need to leave to be appreciated.  During a downturn, people are OK with making less money — they indeed are just happy to have a job. After their sacrifice (which is how they see it), when the picture turns better, they expect to make up lost ground — the 3% raise isn’t enough — they didn’t get a raise for two years, so now they want 9% to pick up the slack. But Wall Street will punish any company that lets its fixed costs leap up like that!

Where’s a leader, though, who’ll redirect his or her whacking huge bonus to throw a bit more on the regular employee pile? How about a one-time 401(k) contribution? Maybe a small bonus to show the boss notices the dedication of the past few years?

If they can’t see how the tough stuff hurt loyalty and morale, they don’t deserve to be in business.



Random Reflections on IABC’s 2010 Research and Measurement Conference

Saturday, November 20th, 2010
Working on the post

Sean and Shonali toiling in the service of communication

What happens when you get a roomful of communicators listening to a speaker on measurement? It’s not what you think. In this joint post, Shonali Burke and I sat atop the ivory tower after Day 1 of the Conference – and issued what Shonali’s husband would call “grand pronouncements.”

Shonali: Coming down in the elevator, I chanced upon a conversation between a gentleman attending an event hosted by The Gates Foundation, and an attendee of “our” conference. She said, “[Your conference] sounds so much more interesting. I doubt mine will be as riveting as yours.”

On being asked, she said, deprecatingly, that it was a communications conference. At this point, I couldn’t resist. I said, “You mean you’re not overwhelmed with excitement over the IABC Research and Measurement Conference?” She looked at me as if I was crazy. Just before she found out I was a speaker.

Was I mean? I don’t think so. Naughty, perhaps. Not mean. Heck, if you’re going to say whatever you like in an elevator, so can I.

Sean: Several people seemed quite taken by the morning sessions, though one person I encountered less so. She hemmed and hawed when I asked what she thought of the conference so far, never a particularly good sign. But in the end, she didn’t seem to have a clear set of objectives for attending the conference.

This is a huge theme in my teaching: Objectives are everything. If you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve, you don’t have much of a shot at achieving it.

Shonali: A common editorial comment I keep hearing from attendees at measurement conferences (or presentations related to measurement) is: “It doesn’t seem like the basics have changed… so what do I take away from this?” It drives me a little crazy. No, the basics haven’t changed. That’s because they’re the basics.

How can you not grasp the importance of measuring numbers that matter instead of numbers that make you look good? What part of, “measure [what] has an impact as opposed to simply focusing on the tools,” isn’t easy to understand?

Sean: Angela Sinickas is a treasure trove of case studies. I have to remind myself to call her for research fodder. I saw Angela at PRSA’s 2010 International Conference, and suddenly realized I’d seen her presentation before. Some of that, no doubt, is that she boasts 23 of the Forbes worldwide list as clients. Maybe it’s rank envy! I love the fact that she represents for measurement, and I wonder what she might do with Dr. Don Stacks and Dr. Don Wright nipping at her heels on projects.

Shonali: What was really interesting about this conference was that it wasn’t the usual [measurement expert] suspects presenting.

Well, not all the usual suspects.

Well, not two-thirds of the usual suspects.


Sean: Shel Holtz said you have to measure something, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. I always say that getting your objectives right is the single best start to a measurement program. You’ve got to measure something, and starting with progress on attaining objectives is a great place to start.

I also loved that Patti Phillips went 100 percent professor on the crowd, demanding us to calculate.

Shonali: Represent. Ruminate. Calculate. Especially when it’s way after hours.

What else is a conference for?


CEO Transitions Need Employee Attention

Monday, June 14th, 2010

When you’ve worked most of your life in big companies, as I have, it’s easy to forget that major change is a huge employee issue regardless of the size of company.  Big company complexity can be daunting to contemplate, and I’ve heard people pine for smaller firms with the idea that big change would be easier. News flash: It ain’t necessarily so.

Central Federal Corp and CFBank — a four-branch bank headquartered in suburban Akron with 66 full-time employees, according to Yahoo! Finance — is going to find out how easy it will be, now that former kahuna Mark Allio stepped down. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, Allio offered his resignation at the company’s annual meeting, and now the firm is searching for a new leader, with General Counsel Eloise Mackus steering the ship in the meantime (and “indicating interest”, per the Crain’s piece).

During any big change process — and a CEO transition is usually a big one — employees get distracted; it’s human nature. There are at least 65 people at that company wondering 1) Who’ll be the boss? 2) What will he/she change? and 3) What will it mean for me. It won’t help matters that the company’s financial performance (as with many banks) has suffered during the recession. Now the boss quits and there’s going to be a “process” to replace him.

Employees are ripe for worry, and worried employees seldom give great service, which ostensibly is the raison d’être for community banks.

The tendency of the board and leadership team is to look inward to themselves and the shareholders. Yes, they have a fiduciary responsibility to those owners, but they must not ignore their wider team. I don’t know that they have or have not — but they will need to ramp up the contact with the ordinary employees and be sure they’re equipped with the right tools to manage the customers and prospects.

Here are three “must-dos” —

1.  A note to employees with a draft customer letter — explaining the change and next steps, including a basic timeline.

2.  Questions-and-answers document anticipating what customers, community leaders, friends and family will want to know about the change.

3.  Commitment to a weekly email note and a twice-monthly conference call for managers updating everyone on progress.

It’s not a hard thing to do at all, and following these steps can make it a whole lot easier to glide through the transition.


Crisis Analysis, SocMed Use, Get Globe/Mail Attention

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Canada’s outstanding The Globe and Mail has two stories today worth noting.  Vancouver, B.C., retailer Lululemon is using Twitter to gather intel from its customers about what sizes and colors to stock; British Petroleum gets second-guessed in its crisis communication strategy under the headline, “Lessons in Leadership Spill from BP.”

BP’s feckless communication strategy, especially demonstrated by company CEO Tony Hayward’s frequent gaffes when speaking off the cuff, deserves to be pilloried. Hayward and company were obviously led by lawyers in this regard, minimizing the potential impact of the disastrous gusher, appearing too rarely in public and pointing blame to subcontractors. Hayward’s “I’d like my life back” rang especially tone-deaf in the wake of 11 deaths and the potential for catastrophic wildlife impact (not to mention the economic peril for the gulf fishing industry.) Several communication experts get quoted in Wallace Immen’s excellent piece, including Michael Stern (Michael Stern Associates), Prof. Julian Barling (Queen’s University School of Business), and Guy Beaudin, (RHR International).

Lululemon sells athletic ware, and by all accounts does a bang-up job of it. Some of the success, according to CEO Christine Day, is due to its use of social media — Twitter and Facebook.  Reporter Marina Strauss quotes Day: “We learn more about [which items are in demand] on Facebook and social media: what are the guests really screaming for, and so we use [the feedback] to get a little bit more indication.”

Keeping an eye on its 127,000 Facebook fans and 32,000 Twitter followers gets Day and company a faster view than its store performance metrics (and offers perspectives from people who are just thinking about going to the store, rather than having bought something there — that’s an interesting view on potential demand, the pipeline, some call it.)

The social media use has two purposes, according to the article — to gather information, and to drive traffic to the company website. When we’re looking for ways to measure the effectiveness of social media, website traffic is more often cited than the research value, which is a pity.  Going back to the ROPE method of communication planning (Research, Objectives, Programming, Evaluation), you don’t have anything without the research.

If social media served no other purpose than market intelligence, it’d still be worth the investment, no?

{P.s., my Canadian sojourn is nearly complete – back to a more regular schedule next week.)


Communication Important in Change Management (Shocking!)

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

A professor from San Francisco State used three quick cases to show that when employees are dealing with difficult change initiatives, leaders have to talk with them.  Stunning, eh? OK, I’m feeling snarky today, I admit it!

Professor Mitchell Lee Marks writes in the 24 May issue of the Wall Street Journal (in the MIT/Sloan Review section) that empathy, making the business case and getting employees to think about the future are essential to getting them to let go of the past and move on. It ain’t brain surgery, but for many business folks, the fact that there are actual people hiding under the numbers on the income statement can be a bit of a shock. Here’s a quick rundown of Dr. Marks’ thinking, and my two cents.

  • Dr. Marks likes empathy, because employees often feel that no one understands their pain. He calls for leaders to acknowledge the feelings of fear and resentment. My Take: That’s an oversimplification. You run the risk of insincerity– remember President Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain…”? You will have to demonstrate that you care — and it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll be believed. You have to try, but it’s not a certainty that it will work. Nor is it certain exactly what kind of demonstration is most likely TO work. It’s trial and error. A bit of venting IS healthy, but not too much and not too often.
  • Making the business case is the hardest dictum to follow, because the most persuasive facts and data from the leader’s perspective are often not-so-much for employees. My Take: Don’t make the business case into a pie-in-the-sky employee benefit if there is any chance of downsizing, layoffs, firings — whatever you want to call it. Making the business case is like the flip side of empathy, because it’s much more a left-brain activity.  Facts and data eventually win the day, but have some pity for these folks.
  • Looking to the future — the visionary leader sees the next objective, then the next and so on, and is supposed to keep us focused on the future. My Take: I don’t think you can get people to focus on how great the future will be until they exit the “anger” stage of their mourning. The world is changing fast. Talk about customers to move from problems to solutions.

I think what set me off was Dr. Marks’ tone (probably the editor’s tone, now that I think about it). It was as though all of this was brand spanking new.

News flash — every leader should know this backwards and forwards. It’s part of leading.


Big Banks Get Whipped: 2008 News Coverage

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Think back two years. The financial crisis hit its gallop around this time in 2008, when the U.S. government sold Bear Stearns to JP Morgan Chase before its wrecked hull could breach and take the global economy down to Davy Jones’ Locker.  But that was just the beginning of a wicked huge bear market brought on by inflated real estate prices, preposterous mortgage loans, complicated and unregulated investment vehicles, and a collapse in confidence by everyone from global investors to your local school custodian.

Those of us who watched from a courtside seat (and wished we were in the bleachers, one bank CEO said) remember it all too well.

That’s why I thought twice about hearing University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s David Remund, a doctoral student, present his paper, “Crisis of Confidence: News Coverage of America’s Largest Banks During the 2008 Financial Crisis” at the 13th Annual International PR Research Conference.

Remund did a content analysis of news releases and national and local newspaper coverage of the 10 largest American banks for the second half of 2008, looking for some kind of systemic understanding about how these banks used crisis communication techniques to spray some pain-killer on the daily parade of negative information marching down Main Street.

Two crisis communication theories applied: Image Restoration Theory, which holds that if you’re at fault, you admit it and share the steps you’re taking to address the situation and prevent it from recurring. Situational Crisis Communications Theory says that you need to show concern for people who’ve been hurt by your crisis. Remund’s hypotheses offered that banks that acknowledged the financial crisis and showed concern for consumers in their media relations efforts would enjoy a higher proportion of confidence-building news coverage as a results.

Whoops. Remund’s findings were the exact opposite, with neither hypothesis supported.

Instead, the media pretty much held that banks’ actions contributed to the financial crisis, and the quietest banks got the greater proportion of positive coverage.  So, what happened?

As I wrote in my own research covering one company, the crisis had so many contributing factors, was so broad and so extensive that we got to the point where facts and data simply didn’t matter. It was a mob, running headlong down the street screaming, “Run! Run!” Everybody had to run, even as they asked what what happening. Secondly, Remund’s research drew from a rather small batch of news outlets and from only the largest banks.

Finally, by the third quarter of 2008, the news media wasn’t about to trust pretty much anything that banks had to say. Washington Mutual raised capital and swore up and down that it was solvent, even as its capital dwindled away toward federal seizure. Lehman Brothers didn’t think it had any problems in the summer and was dead by September. IndyMac, Countrywide, Wachovia, National City… all positioned themselves as in good shape — but what else could they say?

We PR people are always recommending the most transparent approach — the article of crisis communication faith seems to be , “Tell it first, tell it fast and tell it all.” Aside from a recent study, all the literature calls for that type of approach.  I believe it’s far more situational — once you’re in a systemic crisis that reaches past you and your world, your ability to affect its course gets a lot more difficult. Sometimes, you just have to wait it out.

The Remund study reveals more about the limits of crisis communication, than about bank public relations in a crisis.


Two Important Reads

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Will all that’s been going on lately (teaching class, presentations, conferences, client discussions) I’m a little behind on my reading. Good thing Google Reader keeps stuff around for me.  Two pieces from the Harvard Business Review website (AP Style says that’s OK now) bear a close read, one on the use of Twitter-type tools for internal communications, and the other summarizes several new perspectives on business strategy.

Tools such as Yammer have brought Twitter capabilities (microblogging) into the enterprise. Authors Jeanne C Meister and Karie Willyerd cover the cases of LG Electronics and Meredith Corporation in using Yammer and Socialtext to reduce the lengthy process of designing training programs and communicate speedily and across silos, respectively. Use Microblogging to Increase Productivity is worth your time.

In Strategy By Any Other Name, Walter Kiechel notes that speakers who usually discuss business strategy have been shoved aside by economists and journalists talking about the global financial crisis. He finds, however, that strategy has just gone a bit underground — it’s showing up “all over the place in contemporary management literature, albeit sometimes under different cover.”

Kiechel covers a lot of ground, with links to many resources. One that looks particularly interesting is The Power of Pull, by John Hagel and John Seely Brown.  Their core thinking is that the old economy “was based on ‘push,’ forecasting what would be needed or what would sell and then mustering resources to fulfill that demand.   The new world is one of ‘pull’ — find people and resources exactly when you need them, attract them to you even before you know they exist, and then pull the best from within them, and yourself, to achieve your potential.”

Certainly Hagel and Brown’s idea has history — we communicators have been trying to puzzle out the push vs. pull argument for a really long time (at least as long as I’ve been in this career, anyway.) I’m eager to add the book to my summer reading list.

In the meantime, check these two pieces out — and if you’re not reading HBR in some form, get on it.


Why Vitrue’s Facebook Fan Value is Poppycock

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Vitrue, a social media marketing firm founded in 2006, snagged an AdWeek article this week when it announced that it had caculated the value of Facebook fans. It’s $3.60 per fan.  What’s behind the valuation? A rash of assumptions, according to a piece on the company’s Web site.

Why do I think this is wrong? Let me count the ways:

  1. Their data is proprietary. The company says it manages 45 million fans and drew the data from a sampling across industries, but they don’t specify the amount of the sample, the specific firms involved or any other information that might provide clarity as to the methodology. No one can cross-check the data.
  2. They make several assumptions: They say they looked at the ratio between wall posts and number of fans — asking how many fans have the potential to see a post. This is similar to using circulation in a print pub. Fine. But unlike circulation (audited) or even Nielsen Ratings, we’re assuming that all fans have an equal opportunity to see, and we’re assuming that a wall post is equivalent to an ad. Then, they say that multiple posts have equivalent impressions — two per day totals 60 million impressions on a one million fan page.
  3. They then say that these impressions are free, “similar to earned media.” But we know earned media is not free — someone had to do some work to make it happen. This is one of the insidious problems with ad value equivalency — there certainly are costs associated with generating earned media, and they must be accounted for.
  4. Next assumption, cost per thousand impressions. They settle on $5 CPM, based on nothing — wouldn’t this number depend on the specific outlet?  How about some science instead of conjecture? Multiply it out using their figures and it totals $300,000 in monthly value for the two post-a-day million fan page.  They show it like this:

1M impressions x 2 posts x 30 days = 60M impressions >>> 60M impressions / 1000 x $5 CPM = $300,000

But what I believe is most egregious is the idea that engagement on Facebook is really just a game of increasing advertising impressions. This is totally contrary to how social media is designed to work. It’s push-focused instead of relationship-focused. It’s shouting from the rooftops instead of talking to your neighbors.

Look, everyone has to make a living — advertisers are pretty comfortable in their “metrics every marketer is familiar with,” as Vitrue’s article says.  But marketers need to wake up — measure something meaningful!  I don’t know, but perhaps the fans are actually doing something that increases their intent to purchase? That improves their understanding of the product? That makes them have a more favorable attitude toward the company? That they bought something?

Surely any of those is a better metric than one based on made-up numbers, bad methodology, weak assumptions and false equivalencies.