Networking and the Internet

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Next week I will be speaking at the Jamaica Employers Federation Convention 2007 on the topic of networking in the Caribbean region.

As I prepare, it has struck me that this kind of networking is based on some fundamental differences that all professionals across the region must come to terms with.

The first is that there is absolutely no way to network across the region without using the internet.

The second is that internet-based networking is actually happening whether a given professional is actually actively involved or not.

How so?

Imagine that in five years or so your name will be all over the internet. Today, a Google search done on a professional’s name probably picks up some small scrap of the total content that will be available in 2012. who will be creating this content that will be picked up the search engines?

Good question, but I can’t really know the answer. I can say with full assurance that a working professional who is committed to either growing their business or rising through the ranks in some company is going to find their name mentioned in the press, on their employer’s website, in meeting minutes of conferences, in their friend’s blogs and at their cousin’s myspace.com website.

In other words, if they do nothing, then others will be defining who they are to the world. More specifically, they will be defining them to the rest of the Caribbean region.

What is the professional to do?

One approach is to stick one’s head in the sand and hope that all this internet nonsense will just go away.

A better approach is to start today to create a profile of oneself on the internet, by engaging in the following kinds of activities:

  • set up a myspace.com page
  • start a blog
  • have conversations in chat rooms, message boards and mailing lists
  • speak at conventions and conferences
  • author papers and columns in ezines
  • upload videos to YouTube
  • write letters to the online press
  • post up a bio to the company website

These are just some of the ways in which a professional can create content that demonstrates who they are to a global audience. Sharing interesting ideas is probably the most effective way to become known in this, the information age.

Not so long ago, only 15 years in fact, there was very little understanding about this new thing called “email.” Today, email is a staple of doing business, moving from complete obscurity to the kind of ubiquity that makes not having an email address a kiss of death.

In the future, putting one’s head in the sand about their “internet brand” will be just as deadly. A good time to start to build that brand is right now.

Ideally, a Google search on our own name should yield a combination of items that we want our fellow professionals to see, rather than some random smattering of stuff other people have decided to say. It is critical that our region’s professionals take the task of managing their online brand as an essential one — as essential as deciding what to wear to work each day.

Throw Away Customer Service Training

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Yes, that’s right. Throw away Customer Service Training.

That’s the new mantra of companies that are thinking seriously about delivering a particular brand promise to their customers.

The truth is that companies have become chained to a vague commitment to “better service” without this “better service” being defined in way that ensures that definite progress can be made. Instead, “bad customer service” is used as an accusation that is used to blame companies at all levels for not providing service… at all levels. Yes, that’s right…. companies are blamed for not providing service at ALL levels.

Small companies are blamed for not providing the consistent service of larger companies.

Large companies are blamed for acting as if they do not care.

Low-priced companies are blamed for being cheap, and not supplying the luxuries that people want.

High-end companies are blamed for charging too much.

What’s going on here? Are customers being unreasonable to ask for so much? Are the complaints just a matter of the impossibility to trying to please everyone?

In Port of Spain, should the doubles vendor on Long Circular Road be asked provide the same level of service as Hot Shoppe? In Kingston, should the pan chicken vendor on Red Hills Road be asked to provide the same level of service as KFC up the road? In Bridgetown, should Jus’ Grilling provide the same levels of service as Champers?

The vague quality of these questions leave us all in a quandry, that pushes most of us to nostrums such as “You get what you pay for,” implying that the issue has something to do with the price that the consumer is willing to pay.

These kinds of vague non-answers seem to let companies off the hook, but they are just a mistake on the part of companies that refuse to do the much more difficult work of defining a brand experience for their customers that is precise and clear.

Clarity and precision have nothing to do with price. They also have nothing to do with the size of a business in terms of total revenue, or profit.

For example, the pan chicken vendor on Red Hills Road is not providing the consistency of KFC, and he (or she) should not try to. Instead, he should focus on the brand experience that he wants his customers to have — one that consists of:

  • a home-cooked taste that changes with people’s tastes
  • the pungent smell of the chicken that pervades the air
  • all-night availability
  • friendly and fast service and gets better with repeat purchases
  • the convenience of not having to leave the car
  • the low cost that comes from buying on the street in an “unsecured” environment

Instead, the drum-pan chicken vendor should seek to provide an experience that is uniquely the “Red Hills pan chicken experience” …. and nothing else. The same principle applies to KFC, which should also try to provide a unique experience.

Neither outfit should try to provide “good customer service.” In doing so, they hold themselves hostage to customers’ (and employees’) complaints that only come about because companies are insufficiently courageous enough to define unique service that is clear. The emotional challenge comes from the fact that when a company defines itself in a unique way, then they immediately must define themselves as “not-everything.”

My observation is that executives of Caribbean companies (with whom I have the most experience) are downright scared to define their companies as “not-everything”. Declaring that your company is a unique “something” actually defines it as “not-everything” when it’s done well. Sticking to your guns and defining yourself as “not-everything” takes courage and are not for the faint of heart, especially when contracts and business opportunities seem to be abundant in the areas that are outside the defined zone of expertise.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take my own company down this path. In 2005 we made the decision to use the tagline, “High-Stakes Interventions.” One of my partners-in-crime (but not an employee) shared with me that the tagline made him feel as if he were a CEO, that he would not want to give the company a call. He was right, and I knew it in the moment.

I gulped, and after thinking about it for a minute I realized that CEO’s would only call me when they needed to, not when they wanted to. In this sense, my firm was willing to create a brand experience that is similar to that of surgeon or a skilled mechanic — someone that you call for help when you absolutely needed that particular kind of expertise (and not just for a good lime). This little interchange helped make my company’s brand just a bit more clear and precise, and it grew into the truth that I now have embraced and included in my marketing copy, which is that “High-Stakes Interventions are not for Everyone.”

The downside of failing to define the company as “not-everything” is a kind of superficiality that creates a blurriness in the mind of the customer that is the very opposite of a brand experience that is clear and precise.

The upside is that a company that sticks to its guns can do the following differently:

  • distinguish the branded experience at a deep level, and define the experience in way that makes it clear when the experience is present, and when it’s not
  • define in depth the unique combination of People, Processes and Products/Services that together provide the experience
  • decide how much to invest in making the experience real, and also what the costs are for not committing to an alternate experience

For the customer, this only helps. I go to KFC when I want one kind of experience, and I can choose a different kind of experience by visiting Cheffette, Royal Castle, Pollo Tropical or Island Grille. Rather than being told that I get what I pay for, I can make my choice based on the brand I choose to experience.

The job of the proprietor is to ensure that they have accurately defined their own brand experience, and have the internal brand to deliver it over and over again.

In this sense, generic customer service training needs to be thrown away, and replaced by very specific, clear and precise brand-oriented “experience training.”

Internal Branding

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I’ve had the fortune of working with some very bright people, one of whom happens to be an expert in both HR and marketing. He introduced me to the idea of an internal brand, which is quite different from what is called an external brand.

To illustrate, imagine that you are a marketing executive of a company that manufactures and sells track-shoes, like Puma. This is a good example for me as I’ve fallen in love with the Puma brand, buying my first pair in maybe 30 years. My blue Pumas with the yellow stripe have become my favorite shoes, and to think I only bought them because the store did not have any available in Jamaican colours!

Incidentally, my wife also bought a pair, in green and black felt.

Why the sudden interest? I was travelling in Austria late last year and walked by a window of a shop with all these different color Puma track-shoes. They were beautiful to the eye, with wonderful colors and a great shape, molded to the foot. They looked very different from the heavy-sole, white running shoes I had become accustomed to wearing as a runner — in fact, it was obvious to me that these shoes were not designed for actual training, but instead were made for fashion.

From that moment, I wanted a pair.

As an outsider to the Puma company, it’s clear to me that at some point someone had the bright idea to invent a new brand of wearable track-shoe that would be every different from anything that already existed on the market. But the problem that that person faced was the following; in order to truly create a new external brand, the company needed a company culture, or internal brand, to support it.

I could imagine a moment when the strategists for Puma gathered around the drawing board excited by the idea of this new brand, until someone said “But how the heck are we going to get the designers we want in the company who think like this? How will we get the permission to hire them? How will we get the factories to change what they’ve been doing so that they can make these kinds of shoes? How will customer service be changed to give the customer this kind of feel for our products? How will our salespeople be trained to sell a very different kind of shoe to a very different kind of shop??

“In other words, how can we build an internal brand to support the external brand that we want?”

Obviously, internal brands are critical to the success of any company. Customers quickly realize the truth when reality does not match the advertising. I remember visiting a “theme park” as a boy on the state line between (if memory serves me correctly) North and South Carolina. The billboards along the way were frequent and enticing (if you’ve ever driven in Central Florida and seen the Ron Jon advertisements you’ll know what I mean).

By the time we all got there, both parents and children were salivating at the bounty of fun, excitement and thrills to be enjoyed at “South of the Border.”

When we got there we called it “a dump.”

We were so disappointed at what turned out to be little more than a truck-stop, with a ride or two and some half-dead Mexican food. We drove back bitterly complaining.

Often overlooked, however, is the impact that a lack of internal brand work has on employees.

A former client of our firm, an airline, once launched a program promising that their customer service lines would require a wait of 15 minutes or less. While sometimes it’s not a bad idea to set a stretch goal, it’s often not a good idea to launch initiatives like these without informing those who will be most impact i.e. the customer service agents.

They literally woke up one morning to discover (via advertisements in the press) that their customers were now expecting to wait less than 15 minutes to be served, which the employees knew to be impossible.

The predictable result was a drop in morale, trust and confidence.

And of course, the customers did not receive the promised shorter waiting times.

While marketing professionals are not trained to develop internal brands, neither are HR professionals, although the latter might be best equipped to lead their development.

One of the most interesting sites on the matter of internal brands is the Audacity Group: http://www.audacity.co.nz/what.asp

Francis