Monday, September 19, 2016

Customer Experience: Marketing's Pull to Balance Its Push

Blatant manipulation of reader's emotions using a push/pull
image featuring pullies.  Source: Pixabay
The key to building a healthy brand is to balance marketing's push with its pull. Push strategies drive immediate financial benefit by pressing messages, offers, and products at customers. Customer experience pull strategies build satisfaction, loyalty and word of mouth that draw customers to the brand. Wells Fargo's recent headlines offer yet another cautionary tale of what happens when push and pull are imbalanced.

Recently, Wells Fargo was in the news because the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) fined Wells Fargo Bank $100 million for the "widespread illegal practice of secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts." Employees opened more than two million accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers.

The costs to the bank went beyond the CFPB fine; it must pay full restitution to all victims, an additional $35 million penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and another $50 million to the City and County of Los Angeles. In addition, Wells Fargo must now invest in communication and other strategies to convince disappointed customers that it is "committed to putting our customers’ interests first 100 percent of the time." The fines and negative publicity also impacted Wells Fargo's stock price, which has fallen almost ten percent in recent weeks.

What went wrong can be seen through the lens of push versus pull. Former Well Fargo employees--some of the 5,300 that were fired as a result of these practices--tell stories of a company that prioritized short-term results. Its "Gr-eight initiative," which sought to sell at least eight financial products per customer, created a "pressure cooker environment" that pushed employees to deliver. The bank suffered from “pervasive inappropriate practices,” such as "pinning," issuing ATM cards and assigning PIN numbers without customer authorization, and allowing employees to input false generic email addresses like to ensure transactions were completed.

Of course, Wells Fargo is far from the only organization to be tripped because its push and pull strategies were unequal. Two years ago, the former head of Engadget attempted to cancel his Comcast service and found it nearly impossible. The last eight minutes of the roughly 20-minute call went viral, with the customer determining "the only sufficient answer was 'Okay, please don’t disconnect our service after all.'" Former Comcast employees recounted that what "started out as a carrot — bonuses for frontline employees who made sales — turned into a stick, as employees who failed to pitch hard enough or meet their quotas were chastised, or worse."

Hindsight is 20/20, but the problem here is clear to see. These companies prioritized sales over happy, loyal customers, and both companies acknowledged that their incentives were part of the problem. In the wake of its PR headaches, Comcast's chief operating officer conceded the company needed to "take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors," and Wells Fargo eliminated their sales quotas less than a week after the CFPB announcement.

To learn why sales quotas are not really the problem, how leaders can balance their push and pull strategies and to evaluate how your favorite brands pull your loyalty and business, please read my complete blog post on

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Four Ways Marketers Can Stop Damaging Their Profession

Marketing has a marketing problem.

In 2012, an Adobe study found that advertising/marketing was one of the least valuable professions to society--just 13% of survey respondents ranked it as valuable. In 2015, a 4As study found that only 4% of Americans think the marketing industry behaves with integrity, ranking it below Congress and cable news. This trend is not recent; in the four decades Gallup has surveyed Americans about the honesty and ethical standards of different professions, no more than 14% have ever ranked Advertising Practitioners very high or high. Currently, Advertising Practitioners share the bottom of the list with car salespeople, telemarketers, and lobbyists.

And if consumers don't trust us, they certainly cannot trust our work. A recent study from Experticity found what every other study has about consumer trust in advertising and marketing communications: Less than half of consumers—47 percent—trust or believe advertising, and the same is true (49%) with social media campaigns. By now we've seen so many of these studies that it hardly needs to be pointed out that family and friends, along with online reviews, earn 50% more trust than the output created by marketers.

And if you think the issue is only with consumers, guess again. A 2012 Fournaise study of CEOs found that "80% of CEOs admit they do not really trust and are not very impressed by the work done by Marketers — while in comparison, 90% of the same CEOs do trust and value the opinion and work of CFOs and CIOs."

If only there were a profession to which marketers could turn to influence public perception and impact consideration of the profession! I'm not sure what it says when the discipline responsible for promoting and selling cannot promote or sell itself, but whatever it is, it isn't very complimentary.

What can the marketing industry do to begin to have a positive impact on its reputation and trust? I suggest four courses of action:
  • Action #1: Champion the difficult
  • Action #2: Stop celebrating the meaningless
  • Action #3: Embrace your inner geek
  • Action #4: Adopt customer experience
To learn more about each of these action items and what it will take for the profession of marketing to rise to the same level of respect and trust enjoyed by pharmacists and accountants, please continue reading my complete blog post on 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Writing (and Thinking) Without Bullshit

Before I recommend Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean by Josh Bernoff, I should disclose that Josh mentions one of my blog posts in the book. While I'm pleased it is a positive mention, I will further disclose that I am the writer with a bad habit in a tale Josh recounts. I can think of no better way to start my review than to share this story, because it demonstrates why I can wholeheartedly recommend this book: Josh Bernoff made me a better writer and thinker, and now he can do the same for you.

To land my first job as a research analyst, I went through a grueling process that involved writing a complete research report. I landed the job, and my first assignment was to turn that pre-hire writing sample into a published document. "No sweat," I thought, "I wrote a killer report that earned me the job offer, so this should be a slam dunk." Then I received my edited document back from Josh, and I have never seen so many edits in my life. I'll let Josh take it from here: 
"I once edited a very smart analyst who didn't realize how bad his passive habit was. After marking up the first two cases of passive voice in his draft, I added this comment, 'I'm going to ask you to slap yourself each time you write a passive voice sentence.' For the rest of the document, I just marked each passive sentence and added the comment 'Slap.' In a five-page document, he needed to slap himself about 30 times. Since then he's become highly sensitive to the unconscious use of the passive voice in his writing."
Each time I read "slap," it stung, and I spent a day convinced I was going to fail at my new job. Twenty-four hours later, I took a look at Josh's feedback with fresh eyes, and I saw something different. Josh wasn't criticizing my ideas; he was strengthening them. The edits he made weren't just grammatical; Josh was helping me to communicate the messages I intended.

I am far from the world's best writer, but I can look back over the years and see the sharp line that separates the quality of my writing pre- and post-Josh.  Wouldn't it be great if you could have that same mentoring experience? You can, for just $11.99 (Kindle price). 

The conceit of the book is that it is about how to write, and it certainly will help you to communicate better via email, social media, and other "containers," but the book is really about how to sharpen your thinking. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that this work is about the many ways your writing tells people how you think, for better or worse. 

Your bad writing habits may have implications beyond poor grammar or even ineffectively communicated ideas. Josh notes that every bad writing habit you've learned is "tied up with your own psychology at work." Every single thing you write tells people if you are logical, value others more than yourself, are interested in the truth, are industrious and are brave enough to be candid. 

Josh quotes a friend who succinctly sums up the unspoken power of your writing: "If you can't write clearly, you can't think clearly." Every email, post or comment is a mini-resume in ways you may not appreciate, and Josh's book can help you recognize the problems, adopt better habits and improve your career. 

Writing without bullshit brings many benefits, but it also carries risks. Josh makes this clear from the start, with a disclaimer that reads: 
"If you follow the advice you are about to read, it will have a powerful impact on your career... While I hope these words will help you, you alone are responsible for the consequences, positive or negative, of writing without bullshit."  
If this sounds threatening, that's because it can be. As Josh notes, "Clarity can be dangerous because people who read what you wrote might disagree with it." But the risk is worth it.

Josh is not interested in teaching you about sentence structure or when to use a colon versus semi-colon. Instead, he wants you to be cognizant of when you are afraid, because "fear generates bad writing habits." When you're afraid to deliver bad news or make a tough call, you equivocate, use weasel words and bury the lede. In short, your fear shows, and your readers see it. Or, as Josh eloquently puts it, "If you plant daisies around a pile of poo, it still stinks. Why not just point out the poo so we know not to step in it?"

Writing Without Bullshit shares many positive examples that illustrate his advice, but part of the fun of the book is that Josh doesn't hesitate to offer bad examples, as well. For example, Josh shares a painful article written by a technology CEO, and he notes "not only does this passage say nothing, it marks the CEO as a man who can't marshal facts to defend his perspective. It's worse than no statement at all." If that sounds brutal, ask yourself if someone may be thinking that about your writing.

Some of the advice Josh offers is quite simple, such as visualizing your audience. Not only does that help you to avoid jargon that your audience may not understand, but it also helps you to write directly to them using the word "you." Josh notes, "You can't write 'you' unless you have a clear idea of your audience. If you don't know who you're writing for and what you want them to do, why bother writing it all?"

Another practical tip is how to frame your writing project at the beginning. If you cannot fill in the bracketed sections, you are not ready to start: "After reading this piece, [readers] will realize [objective], so they will [desired action] and think of me/us as [desired impression]."

Josh not only wants you to change what you write, but he also recommends better habits to improve how you write. For example, good writers are prepared, or as Josh calls it, "being paranoid early," He notes, "Any piker can be paranoid when up against a deadline, where any little thing could destroy weeks of work. It takes a professional to be a paranoid at the start of the writing process."

Josh had a tremendous impact on my writing and my career. I treasure and use his advice every time I sit at my keyboard. I'm just a tad disappointed his coaching is now available to everyone in a compact 251-page book, but my disappointment can be your gain. 

If you write and care about the way clients, peers and bosses perceive you (and who doesn't?), you will find Writing Without Bullshit a worthwhile investment. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Avoid the Uncanny Valley When Automating Customer Experience Interactions

Source: Pixabay
I wrote some months ago that marketers trying to improve their brands' customer experience can make the mistake of attempting to manufacture emotion rather than evoke it. Emotion is vitally important to build strong customer relationships, but the secret is to evoke positive emotions within your customers, not manufacture it at customers. Nowhere has this difference been more evident to me than in the way some brands stumble into the "uncanny valley" as they automate customer interactions.

If you are not familiar with the concept of the "uncanny valley," it describes the way humans can experience discomfort and even revulsion at robots that appear almost, but not exactly like, real human beings. While this term is typically applied to robots, you can see this effect at work in the way brands automate their customer engagement. Research suggests that automation must balance humans' awareness they are interacting with a machine with the functional and emotional cues provided by that machine. Attempts to make robots too human can create small incongruities that result in oversized negative reactions.

As brands adopt more automation in their social media, bots, IVR systems, marketing programs, and customer care systems, they must be careful that the desire to seem more human doesn't inadvertently cause negative, brand-damaging experiences. Just as a single incorrect line of code can cause an entire application to break, the smallest of missteps into the uncanny valley can damage customer relationships.

The danger to brands of the uncanny valley came to mind recently as I interacted with two brands' automated systems. In each instance, the brand attempted to inject emotion into their automated interactions in a way that created a negative rather than a positive response.
A Virtual Trainer Tries to Bolster My Ego

An online training program "hosted" by an imaginary virtual trainer provided positive feedback to a quiz response, telling me, "I'm proud of you." My reaction was profoundly negative for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this pre-programmed, artificial being has no ability to feel anything, much less pride. The program designer stumbled into the uncanny valley, ascribing human emotion to a computer program. I know the system isn't human; the instructional designer knew the system isn't human; only the system seemed not to know this, and that felt creepy.

Another factor was that the level of praise was not appropriately matched to my action. The question I was presented was painfully obvious, and answering it correctly was no challenge. This level of effusive praise for such a simple behavior felt condescending, as if someone told me how proud they were I was able to tie my own shoes.

For another example of the uncanny valley, an examination of how brands stumble with this in social media and three tips to avoid the issue, please continue reading the complete blog post on my Gartner blog.