Monday, August 27, 2007

A Client Complaint Can Sometimes Be a Gift

The reality of any great relationship is change and imperfection. As in a marriage, great client relationships require a lot of hard work to achieve longevity. At Makovsky + Company, we put a premium on building client loyalty by aiming to do everything right. Despite a client satisfaction program that has historically produced an amazing client retention rate, we take nothing for granted.

One of the philosophies of our Quality Commitment program based on years of experience - - is to solicit complaints that, some clients - - unless solicited - - will not tell you about. They are usually small problems, but not always! The aim is to put them on the table. This is executed either through a client questionnaire or our independent auditor who periodically calls clients for performance reviews.

In fact, we see client complaints as an opportunity to bring us closer to our clients and meet even higher standards.

We all know the rule of thumb: the customer is always right. Do you remember supermarket mogul Stew Leonard’s legendary quote?

Rule #1: The customer is always right.
Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, go back to rule #1!

This principle was so essential to the foundation of his business that Leonard had it etched in a three-ton granite rock at the front door of his store.

For me, Leonard’s rule rules the day. It’s almost irrelevant whether our clients are right or wrong about what they are concerned about — whether it’s a perceived strategic or executional failure, interpersonal problems or simply a lack of chemistry — it’s my belief that every problem is a colossal opportunity in disguise.

Why? Because if there is an issue, and you address it openly, quickly and effectively, you are demonstrating, in a really meaningful way, that you’re willing to go that extra mile. By achieving consensus, you’re changing rough waters to smooth sailing and engendering warmth and gratitude in clients who might have been only dimly aware of the problem before you gave them license to recognize it. Of course, for the complaint to serve as a gift, however, what went wrong must never go wrong again.

If there are occasions in which the client is genuinely wrong, is it worth getting the client to admit it? Or do Stew Leonard’s rules still apply? Where there is one-sided or mutual culpability, most clients are frequently willing to admit it. This is a plus and tells you something about the integrity of the client and his or her desire to strengthen the relationship.

Depending on the complexity of the issues and the personality of the client, you have an opportunity to bring in an outside auditor to hear both points of view and deliver an objective solution. Or a frank meeting between the leaders on both sides may solve the problem. For the complaint to be a gift, however, the turnaround must introduce — and resolutely adhere to — new, higher standards of performance.

I’ve had a few of these experiences in my career where the result has been, indeed, a gift: “a client for life.” What better payoff could you want?

Technorati Tags: relationships, client loyalty, client satisfaction, Quality Committment program, complaints, Stew Leonard, business, communications, public relations

Monday, August 20, 2007

The "Tongue-Tied Factor"

Have you ever been in a meeting where you wanted to make a point or ask a question but for some reason couldn't? You might have been anxious, for example, about any of the following:
  • You're low man on the totem pole in your organization and are uncertain how your question or opinion will be received.

  • You're bored, your mind is drifting and you have no idea if the point you want to make has already been made.

  • The guy running the meeting is shooting down everyone's ideas.

  • The facts being discussed are complex, and you worry that requesting clarification might imply that you're out of your depth.

  • You're just plain shy.
I've met many otherwise smart, capable, engaged individuals who have confessed that, at least sometimes, they find themselves tongue-tied at meetings. In my estimation, the "tongue-tied factor" is a problem that's largely ignored by both meeting leaders and participants. Most folks are content to let a few acknowledged "experts" at the meeting dominate the discussion, but involving everyone is critical to getting the best thinking at any gathering of people responsible for coming up with new ideas or breakthrough solutions to a given problem.

What can discussion leaders do to neutralize the "tongue-tied factor"? First, they have to be aware of the syndrome and set an inviting tone by engaging everyone in the meeting, not just the most facile communicators. They may even need to overtly state: "We need your best thinking today. It doesn't matter whether you're are an intern or an EVP, everyone has a perspective that brings value to our discussion. If you have a question, ask it. Don't censor yourself or each other. There are no dumb questions, no dumb ideas. What you might think is a stupid comment can lead someone else to a creative thought. I want to hear from each and every one of you!"

Meeting leaders are responsible for helping to bring out the best in the participants. Compliment those who have contributed to the discussion. Describe how tweaking a particular idea might strengthen it. If someone asks a question that was answered earlier, rather than become impatient with the questioner, dig more deeply to get behind the question. Clearly something needs to be clarified!

People in a meeting who are afraid to speak up must work on freeing themselves from their fears. One way to build confidence is by learning as much as you can, in advance, about the topic under discussion. It will boost your courage, lengthen your attention span and the increase the likelihood that what you say will be both memorable and helpful in achieving the goals of the meeting. Surrender your ego. If you participate fully in the meeting, the potential rewards will always be greater than the risks, even if someone should react critically to one of your ideas or questions.

Neutralizing the "tongue-tied factor" is everybody's responsibility. It's a prerequisite for us to find the best, most creative solutions to our clients' - and our own company's - most pressing business problems.

Technorati Tags: tongue-tied factor, discussion leaders, communicators, meeting leaders, confidence, courage, ego, fear, business, communications, public relations

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Value of the Intern

While I was still in university, the Association for International Exchange of Students in Economics and Commerce enabled me to work as an economics intern for a large shipbuilding company in Gothenburg, Sweden. I will never forget the fantastic international business experience I gained, as well as the hospitality and generosity of my colleagues. So it’s no wonder that I am so passionate about Makovsky + Company’s Intern Program. Some wonderful young talent has been developed through it.

This week I am happy to introduce the special writing talents of one of our summer interns, Travis Ferber, a recent graduate of Washington University, in St. Louis, who describes his experiences here …

There are few people who have not, at least once in their lives, held an entry-level position in one business or another. Be it that first job in high school, a part-time post during college or the first “real” employment out of college, most of us know what it feels like to be on the bottom of the totem-pole. And there is rarely any other title which so strongly evokes the image of being squarely at the bottom of the pecking order as that of intern.
The word “intern” was, in my mind, associated with long hours spent photo copying documents, getting coffee and running to Staples to pick up paper for the printer — basically, the stereotypical stump on which the rest of the proverbial totem-pole rested. This view, however, was not altogether representative of reality.

This summer I had the opportunity to intern at Makovsky + Company — an experience which redefined my view of the word “intern.” At Makovsky I was given the opportunity to learn a great deal about the public relations industry from within a firm that treated me as a respected member of the staff. I was encouraged to ask questions, do “real” work, and become a member of various client teams; and while there was the rare occasion when I had to complete so-called menial tasks like scanning, data mining and binding, there were no races to Starbucks nor chains binding me to the copier. And even those tasks which are deemed menial are not without value, for, as I have come to learn, a business cannot function successfully without them.

It is lessons such as these which demonstrate the beauty of an internship — it is a golden opportunity to learn a field from the inside out. Interns can immerse themselves in a real-world, working environment, finding out not only if the prospective field is really right for them, but also what it takes to run a successful business. Yet, the benefits of an internship are not simply one-sided.

Companies can, and do, take advantage of interns, not as a bunch of cheap lackeys, but as additional (oftentimes tech-savvy) employees with distinct points-of-view who can contribute to the bottom line. And face it: we interns are the next generation of employees. There is a big incentive to find out which of us are a good fit for a company before anyone actually is hired, and an internship is a great way for an employer to do just that. Furthermore, once a decision to hire has been made, the transition from intern to employee is much easier than that of inexperienced grad to employee. Ultimately, those who have internship experience are more satisfied with their job and demonstrate a higher organizational commitment, so both the employer and intern benefit.

My internship has been terrific! I worked on client projects, helped with new business presentations, wrote some press releases, and actually got to call some reporters. Moreover, I come away with a greater understanding of the value of clear, conscious communications in business as well as life, and with the belief that an intern, like many starting positions, can be a valued member of a company despite being the at the bottom of the totem-pole.

To those employers who are contemplating or already have internships available: remember interns can be an asset to you, so do not treat them otherwise. For those students who have never thought of completing an internship, I would strongly recommend you consider it. My internship has been a great experience! And guess what! All the hard work paid off, for I was hired in mid-August — moving up one spot on the totem-pole from intern to employee!

Technorati Tags: intern, internship, Association for International Exchange of Students in Economics and Commerce, Gothenburg, Sweden, totem-pole, intern program, Washington University, business, communications, public relations

Monday, August 06, 2007

Is Sorry a Strategy?

I could not have said it better. I credit the following to Robyn Greenspan, Senior Editor of Execunet, an online networking and career site for senior executives. The links, however, are my own interpolation.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is the latest apologist for his role as an anonymous Internet user who posted negative messages about competitor Wild Oats on financial stock forums. It may seem like a MySpace prank at first — an impulsive action from a high schooler who didn't get a prom date — but Mackey routinely posted on these message boards for eight years.

Mackey's actions were certainly opaque, and his apology seems to represent transparency. But with a recent wave of public "sorries" from visible figures — Paris Hilton, David Neeleman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson and a growing list of politicians — these megawatt mea culpas may no longer suffice. In many cases, the apology seems less about reprehensible actions and more about "I'm sorry I got caught."

While the antics of drunken celebrities, corrupt politicians and greedy corporate executives (Enron, Tyco, etc.) may not surprise us — and may sometimes be expected — Mackey's actions are more disappointing. Whole Foods, like Neeleman's JetBlue, are supposed to be the good guys — socially conscious, friendly, customer-centric companies that care about their employees, the earth and doing what's right.

They both issued very public apologies, but Neeleman's and Mackey's downfalls are decidedly different. The former faced a customer service debacle while the latter deliberately deceived stakeholders; Neeleman absorbed the blame for issues where he may not have been directly responsible and Mackey's consistently poor judgment put his company — and especially its brand — in jeopardy.

There are many lessons in Mackey's story: the myth of Internet anonymity, the economic influence of user-generated content, managing bad PR and repairing brand reputation, the psychology of forgiveness, etc. But the most important is about the interrelationship between leadership and trust.

Technorati Tags: Robyn Greenspan, Execunet, Whole Foods, John Mackey, apology, JetBlue, Wild Oats, Paris Hilton, David Neeleman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, business, communications, public relations