Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ramblings on the use of experts

I was thinking about the use of so-called experts in retail environments. Some are a huge positive, but often it may be helpful to have someone a little more clueless but with a great attitude in customer support.

There used to be several local bookstores under the Duthies name. They were a Vancouver institution. One was located right below the DDB offices where I used to work. They only hired people who were really into books and had read most of the works that came through their door. There was no one more knowledgable to talk to if you had a specific question about books. They were also incredibly intimidating, with an elitist air. They were book snobs. So, while they might have the right answer to your question, you didn't want to deal with them.

Just down the street from Duthie's flagship downtown location was the new Chapters. Their staff didn't really know that much about the books in the store, but they were cheerful and eager to help. If they didn't know the answer, which they usually didn't, they'd go try to find out. And they'd do it with a smile.

Guess where I usually bought my books. Now Duthies is down to one niche location.

Service 1 - Experts 0. Hiring people that are super knowledgable doesn't help if they scare your customers away.

Apple has their Genius Bar. Where I can go get a hand from a pretty helpful person who really knows their stuff. Personally, I don't mind asking someone pointed questions about my laptop, but you've got to admit that the Apple Stores do have a hipper-than-thou feeling to them. And do people really feel comfortable going to talk to someone whose job title is "genius".

Microsoft has come out with their very unimaginitive "gurus", to be based at retailers like Circuit City and Best Buy. While I can imagine that those gurus might be less intimidating to some, simply due to their more low end locations, I also imagine that the actual interactions will be far more befuddling and frustrating. I'm picturing a lot of "Well that's not Microsoft's problem, you've got to talk to HP." discussions with these Gurus.

One of my favourite places to shop, Mountain Equipment Co-op (the REI of Canada) tends to hire very knowledgable employees. They pick people with a love of the outdoors. But in MEC's case the knowledge can be a little hit and miss. Sometimes the staff has moved to another department that they don't know much about. Sometimes they just aren't that knowledgable in the first place. And other times, as often happens in areas where people have varying levels of passion, they can just be a lot more hardcore than the average user, which can be very intimidating. I've had some amazing customer experiences at MEC, and I've had terrible ones, and I never know which I'm going to get.

I believe that hiring experts can be a great benefit for any service based business. But I believe that the attitude and approach of the service staff is even more important than their core knowledge. In an ideal world you'd want to be in the top right quadrant of great service and expert knowledge but, if that's not realistic, then a great attitude, an eagerness to help, and the ability to find information is a better solution than surly experts.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Customer Service - So Close

It happens all the time. An employee is empowered to provide great customer service, and then finds a way to make it a bad experience anyway.

Colleen was planning a camping trip the other day. She bought a bunch of pre-packaged meals at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, then realized she'd bought too much. So she went back to the store to return them.

This was MEC's opportunity to provide a great experience. They're not supposed to take back food, and it would have been OK if they hadn't since it seems like a fair policy. But instead they did take it back, which would have been a great experience, except for the fact that the employee that accepted the return did so in a very unpleasant manner, almost making us feel guilty that she was doing so.

If you're going to go above and beyond for a customer, don't try to make them feel badly about it. Instead, show them that you're glad to help them. Make them feel that the extra effort is a pleasure, simply because you appreciate your business. They'll appreciate it a lot more, and are far more likely to spread the positive word.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


My last post was about a Consumer Packaged Goods client that I used to work with, also commonly referred to as a CPG.

In the UK, and in parts of Canada, CPG clients are often referred to as FMCGs, which stands for Fast Moving Consumer Goods.

I’ve always found this to be a funny term. Who got to decide that they were fast moving? How fast moving do they need to be to fit into the FMCG category? And, if they’re so fast moving, do they really need an ad agency? Should the business objective in the brief state “To make them faster moving”? Could I call Ferraris FMCGs? Lots of silly thinking there…

Isn't it a bit ironic that FMCGs tend to be the slowest moving marketers of all.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Non-working Budget

I used to have a great big Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods client when I was with Tribal DDB in San Francisco.

They used to refer to their marketing allocation as being broken down into “working” and “non-working” budgets. The idea was that production costs and agency fees would fit into the “non-working” budget while all media would fit into the “working” budget.

This terminology always disturbed me. The implication was that money put into “non-working” areas was essentially wasted, since it wasn’t doing anything, whereas the only thing that had an impact was “working” dollars. The end result of this thinking was the idea that investing in a great idea, or in your agency, would be frowned upon, and in general a waste of money. Today that thinking would imply that a dialogue with your customers would be all "non-working", with funds far better spent on a big TV campaign.

Like so many things in this business, Bill Bernbach has a quote that I have always loved that responds to this type of thinking:

"Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Small budget, Big idea

I discovered these spots the other day on a planner’s blog.

The entire series is fabulous. The writing is incredibly amusing. This particular spot, with its repetition of “Bring on the trumpets”, is so quirky that it continues to make me smile even after a dozen viewings. And who doesn’t love the gummy bear with bravado, until the dinosaur comes along, in one of the other spots. But the thing I love most about these is their incredible simplicity. It’s just shots of gummies and a voice over. I’d love to know what the budget for this was. I do hope that the agency kept it low.

Watching these spots made me think about the campaign that was done for the Honda Element a few years back. That was the campaign that featured an animated Element in conversations with, if memory serves, a mule, a platypus and a crab. The crab spot was my favourite of the bunch, with its question “Why no pinch?” While they probably did cost more than $100k each, they really shouldn’t have.

Thinking about these spots makes me think about the power of having no budget. None of us likes having no money to work with. We get so used to spending at a certain level, that we begin to think it necessary to develop great work. But something amazing happens when you challenge a great creative team, give them the freedom to do what they do best, but without the funding that can be a crutch.

I’ve personally had the good fortune to go through this process. My client at the time, a restaurant called Bogart’s, had no money. We took them on as a client because we really liked the guy who ran the place and we thought it was a good opportunity. But his money had to go to media, not production. Fortunately, I was working with a great creative team at the time, Lara Palmer and Paul Little. The two of them came up with a way to turn stock imagery of a cow, chicken and bison into an entire campaign with a final production hard-cost of way under $50k. That little campaign won a boat load of awards, was short-listed at Cannes, and also built the client’s business very nicely, thank you very much.

There are loads of other examples of low budgets driving great ideas, particularly in secondary markets like Vancouver. Film festivals. Charities. Fairs. These things are often seen as award show fodder, but I wonder if their success is more a result of low budgets forcing great thinking. After all, if you’ve got no money, then there’s nothing else to fall back on but the craft.

addendum - I posted this the other day, then sat back and thought about it some more. I love these fruit gummy ads, but is there an "idea" behind them, or are they just well written good spots? I supposed it depends on your definition of "idea", but I might argue that they're just very good executions. Is there anything wrong with that?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Doogie Howser

I saw someone write the other day about George Orwell being the original blogger. Maybe, but really he’s more a diarist because his thoughts weren’t published for the world to see.

I’d like to nominate Doogie Howser instead. Remember how at the end of each episode he’d write a little bit on his computer about the life lesson that he’d learned that day. Who knows what happened to those postings? Maybe they made it into the blogosphere.

OK. Maybe not. But I think that it would be cool / super-dorky to do a new blog that featured the many postings that Dr. Howser wrote. I’m sure there weren’t that many episodes, so it would be limited. And they weren’t that smart.

OK. Maybe not such a good idea.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I’m Too Nice

A couple of months ago I didn’t get a GM position that I was interviewing for. I thought I was perfect for the role, but it didn’t come through. They didn’t pick me, but nor did they pick anyone else. They started their process over again. I was surprised and confused at the time, but I just let it pass.

Last Friday I realized that I had missed out on a great opportunity. I had never asked the final decision maker what had happened. So I gave him a call.

I’ll admit that I was a little nervous to make this call. No one likes to get negative feedback, regardless of how constructive it is. So I stammered a bit when the gentleman (I’ll call him Jim) answered and I asked my question.

First off, I’ll say that Jim was terrific. He didn’t try to be too nice to me, he just let me know where he’d been coming from. That was what I needed. Like any good feedback, he started with a couple of nice things, but then he let me have it.

The problem with me for him was that I was too nice. He thought that I’d be a great person for running lots of his business, and that I’d make a great Director of Client Services for his agency, but that I was too nice to be his GM. He felt that for someone to run his company that person needed to have a harder edge and to be a little more cut-throat.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. The first is that I appreciate this feedback. It’s good to know how I’m seen and it’s good to know the concern he had. It’s also not the first time I’ve heard this, as I also received this specific piece of feedback from one of the agencies I met with in San Francisco. (The nine-interview place I mentioned in a previous posting.) So clearly I’m coming across as a good guy, but perhaps not strong enough. I will definitely take that into my future meetings.

My second thought on this is – What a load of crap! Jim thinks that he can tell whether I’m tough enough to run his team from sitting down to interview me over a cup of hot chocolate. Come on, that’s just a little bit ridiculous. To think that since I come across as a nice guy in an interview, which I try to do, means that I can’t make the hard decisions when required, or that I don’t have the drive to move business forward, is pretty stupid. I think that a brief discussion with those who have worked with me in the past would be a far better means of evaluating this “trait”. Or, he could have just asked me a question about this outright.

Also, who wants to work for someone who appears “tough”. The external appearance of toughness is, in my humble opinion, not necessarily a positive in the agency business. It's probably not helpful in the business development side of things. It’s internal toughness that counts. I’ve spent most of my career working, in one manner or another, under a guy named Frank Palmer. Frank’s not tough. At least, not when you initially meet him. But, put in a difficult situation, there are few others that I would want more on my team. Toughness is a situational trait, not a permanent feature.

I’m glad I made the call to Jim. I learned something that may help me moving forward. I’d encourage anyone that’s reading this particular posting to comment on their thoughts on this. I’d be interested in knowing what others think.

Jim – I hope you read this. Thanks for the feedback. It was helpful. You were wrong.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why I don’t blog more often…

Friends have asked me why I don’t write my blog more often. Apparently some people enjoy reading my ramblings, and that makes me pretty happy. It’s nice to have your work appreciated. But they would like more.

I’m a pretty big fan of Seth Godin’s blog. He doesn’t have a lot of breadth, but he writes well on the few topics that are important to me. He writes about treating people well, about treating your customers well, and about growing your business in ways that are honest and organic. I believe that that is a great focus. But it’s what he thinks about all the time.

That blog and the others that I read tend to be about what other people do with their time professionally.

These days I spend the vast majority of my time either doing contract work for others or in trying to find my next permanent role. The contract work I enjoy, but it tends not to be the type of thing that inspires original thoughts. (Maybe it should. But it hasn’t yet.) And trying to find one’s next role isn’t the kind of thing one blogs about.

Why not? I guess there are two primary reasons. The first is that I have no idea who is reading this blog and I’d hate to shoot myself in the foot with them. There have been really interesting and insightful experiences in this process. For instance, one place had four meetings with me, nine interviews, and flew me back and forth from Vancouver, and then I didn't hear anything further from them. Another time a recruiter was straight-out dishonest with me. But you don’t want to write about these experiences, because who knows what’s going to happen. The place where I had nine interviews is also going through a major new business cycle, so they may just have had other priorities at the time. As my friend Mike said when I told him that story: “We tend to focus so much on what’s urgent that we forget what’s important.”

The second reason is why I don’t write more about these experiences is that it’s a little too personal for public consumption. Any time you don’t get a role that you were hoping for it’s embarrassing. It shouldn’t be, but it is. You get your heart into the role, and then you don’t get it, and it’s not a happy experience.

So those are the two big things that prevent me from blogging more often. I’ll continue to try to keep posting, and maybe overcome these obstacles, and I’ll ask for patience in so doing.