Thursday, May 15, 2014

Avoiding the Firing Squad

Everyone has heard about “not shooting the messenger,” but when the rubber hits the road, few tend to actually remember it. When someone comes to you to discuss a problem—whether he is alerting you to a situation, confessing to a mistake, or simply in all-out venting mode—never make him feel personally responsible for the mess.

This can be harder when you’re alerted to a problem that’s developed due to a decision that you’ve made. It’s easy to unload on the messenger in self-defense. Instead, take a breath and savor the fact that someone actually trusts and respects you enough to come talk to you about it. Remember that we as managers are not always right! Having folks out there acting as real-time barometers is a good thing. And the minute you jump down someone’s throat about a problem that isn’t his personal doing, you can be sure he won’t be coming back to you with similar alerts in the future.

In fact, you need to go out of your way to praise him for his act:
“Hey, thanks for coming to me with this. I know it wasn’t something you did. In fact, we both know that if anyone’s at fault for this, it’s me. I don’t know if it was hard for you to come point this out to me, but I appreciate it. If we’re going to succeed, we have to quickly adjust anything that’s not working, even if that thing was created by me. Then we all look better in the end.”
Now, that guy won’t hesitate to come to you again when he needs to.

Finally, when you announce a change you’re making as the result of this kind or information, say something like, “Jeff pointed out that my decision to such-and-such wasn’t working so well. So now we’re going to…” Acknowledging the “messenger” instead of shooting him will help get the word around that you appreciate that kind of feedback.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

As seen on TV!

Yes, the PR folks at iUniverse are doing their thing, and last Friday I appeared on The Dee Armstrong Show, a local talk show on the NBC channel in the Columbus, Georgia region. It was a lot of fun, moreso than I thought it would be.

Because it was quickly scheduled, rather than have time reserved in the regular local TV studio, they asked that we do the interview live over Skype. My wife and I had to create a makeshift studio in our home -- incredibly challenging as we are about done moving out of it. Although in the way everywhere, the boxes made for nice tables. We cobbled together some lamps and tried to get a halfway decent lighting look. I put on a nice shirt over my moving-trashy-cutoff-shorts, and we stacked a few books and plants behind me to make it look "officey."

During the commercial break right before going on, Dee and I chatted for a couple minutes, though not about any questions she was going to ask -- she wanted to keep it real and spontaneous for the actual show. The actual format was much more of a discussion than a pure "Q&A" session.

It didn't come out too bad, other than I had no live view of my own camera, causing me to wave my hand around a little too much. I also had no live view from the other end, so I was just talking into the little green light at the top of my mac. I have to figure out why my monitor view disappeared so I can keep tabs on my own hand waving.

Here's a tiny version of the segment, though I recommend you go HERE (starts at about 31:35) and watch it there.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Guest blogging

In a week or two, I'll be guest blogging at Here's a free preview. :)
For most of us, talking is a heck of a lot more fun than listening. And when managers speak with their subordinates, the instinct to inject comments or answer questions before they’ve really been asked can be powerful. What better opportunity to show off your hard-won skills and knowledge?
But too often when you think you’ve been helpful, you’ve actually thrown away the opportunity to develop a great new idea or gather some useful feedback. The most effective, respected managers realize that what they have to say is almost always far less valuable than what their subordinates have to say to them. At best, doing too much of the talking can quash the opportunity to build a trusted bond with a team member. At worst, it can be disastrous.
In my book, Shutting Up!, I discuss numerous situations in which it is imperative for managers to let others do the talking… plus techniques to help you actually do the shutting up. For example:
1-on-1 Talks. Bite your tongue… literally. Sit on your hands. Do anything to stop yourself from talking. Let the other person get it all out. And understand that even when you think they’re done, they’re probably not! Wait for it. Or ask a probing question. Then see what happens. Chances are, the real meat of the matter is a lot different than what you expected.
Assigning Tasks. When you delegate, don’t dive into the what, how, when, and why of the job before asking your workers what they know about it. If your team already understands what’s up, you’ll save everyone time and build mutual respect.
Responding to Questions. Don’t let your workers off easy by feeding them all the answers. Instead, ask them, “What do you think we should do?” and guide them as they figure out the answers themselves. You’ll be amazed how fast your people grow into more effective, self-sufficient workers.
Don’t Hijack Meetings! Ask for everyone else’s thoughts before you inject your own. When you speak first, it’s too easy to push your team into going along with your ideas. But the best idea just may not be yours.
Making Estimates. Instead of telling your team how long they have to get things done, ask them to tell you how long they need. When your people make the estimate, they own it. And they’ll do everything in their power to come through as promised.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Giving powerpoint presentations, or not

Man, if I have to sit through one more presentation where someone is reading the entire presentation right off the slides, I'm just gonna lose it. Whether in a large group setting or just in a meeting with a few folks, this type of thing shows a complete lack of understanding for how to effectively communicate, and how to connect with the audience.

First off, unless you are presenting on a stage (or similar conceptual location), don't use powerpoint or keynote if you can possibly avoid it. You will spend way too much time trying to figure out how to format what you have to say, rather than thinking about WHAT YOU SHOULD BE SAYING. As one who knows, I will tell you that taking some concepts and putting them into a formatted presentation is incredibly tedious. If you're just going to be talking with a few folks, find some other way of presenting the info. Hand out a diagram. Walk up to the whiteboard. Speak off the cuff. Something. Anything. Just avoid wasting time on powerpoint.

Another great benefit of not having a structured presentation is that it gets your audience in an immediate dialog mode, rather than what they will assume is supposed to be an extended monolog on your part. Again, per the title of my book, the more you can personally SHUT UP and let others participate, the more valuable the meeting will be.

Actually, this concept has been gaining great popularity recently, with many companies (including Amazon) banning powerpoints entirely. You can, and should, become one of them.

But, when you are giving a presentation to a significant number of folks, it's almost impossible to do without a real powerpoint or keynote slide deck. You can still pull this off, but PLEASE have mercy on your audience and follow some rules:
  • Use short bullets and not full sentences. If anyone could deliver your talk by simply reading the slides out loud, you have bad slides. And you don't want your audience being completely transfixed on reading your slides and missing anything good you have to say. Keep it way short and simple.
  • People get confused very easily. Don't try to convey more than one basic point with each slide.
  • Rehearse your talk, fully, in a standing position, EXACTLY as you would do it to your audience. No matter how many times you pseduo-rehearse it, you will never get the timing right. Even then, you will probably underestimate it. Talks always take longer when they're for real, and everyone hates it when you go over your allotted time.
  • Pick your jokes carefully. They will never go over quite as well as you think they will. You will go down in a nuclear pile of slag if you tell a joke and get no response.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Apocalypse never

So, unfortunately, a situation with one of your customers has "gone south." They are unhappy over the quality of your products, the speed of delivery, the handling of some support issue, the overall value they're receiving, whatever... Maybe you should have seen it coming sooner (see some earlier blog entries), but you didn't. Or it got out of control quickly.

Now is the time to bear down and get things positive again. In situations that continue to go sour, do whatever you can to salvage them. It costs so much more to attract a new customer than it does to retain one, it makes sense to go the extra mile. When you factor in the pyramid affect of your departing customers notifying all their friends, coworkers, neighbors, and relatives as well, the damage can be immense.

So, you apply some of your best people to the problem. You set up regular communications (since it's likely that your customer is not located near to you). You may even setup some kind of "war room" to track all the issues. You're going to be thinking that you're doing everything within reason to deal with the issue. And, at some point you’re going to ask “What else can we really do here that will help?”

That’s a good question, but don’t limit yourself to things that are "within reason". Sometimes you need to go a little further – to things that don’t seem logical on the surface. I've mentioned before about how TV news channels throw helicopters at news stories that don't really demand them. Yes, here's one car that has rear-ended another car. You know that dozens happen in your city every single day. But, when we here at TV 7 decide to hover a copter over the top, now that's really exciting! Yeah, everyone's fine... no injuries, and the damage isn't even that great. But we've got this copter and we're sure as heck gonna use it to show you what's important (or ratings-generating) to us!

Well, you can do the same. Go hover a copter. Send one of your best guys, or send yourself, out to the customer’s site. Talk to them in person. See their problems. Feel their pain. They will really appreciate it. It may not do any more to really solve the issues, but the increased personalization will buy you credibility and time to get things right.  Past workmates of mine know that I call this, “putting the helicopter on scene.”

And here’s something I’ve experienced repeatedly upon helicoptering. More often than not, while you are visiting, you will see something new – something the customer hadn’t reported, or an additional clue to whatever was making their lives unpleasant. You’ll be able to funnel information back to your team that will help get this customer up and running quicker than you otherwise would have. You’ll also have a chance to let them, in person, tell you everything that’s on their mind. That will further improve your relationship and probably help the product out in the long run, as well.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Getting direct customer feedback

So, we were chatting about keeping customers happy, and proactively collecting information about how they're feeling.

One large company I was at had links on all the web pages for each of the products that said, “click here to submit a comment, suggestion, or complaint regarding this product.” Given that there were literally millions of customers, those links got clicked quite a few times a day. As the head of some of the products there, guess who actually got to read and respond to those clicks? That’s right. The comments weren’t sent to some front-line support or marketing person... they were targeted directly to yours truly. And that turned into a one or two hour a day job in sorting through comments and responding to those that really needed it.

But that was a truly eye-opening experience. Direct customer feedback. No filtering applied by any other company channel. A direct pipeline from the customer to me. I certainly saw my share of complaints, but some of the suggestions that came in were fantastic, and they helped us improve the products even further. And, as I said, the complaints were an opportunity for us to salvage a bad experience.

I remember one situation where I had messaged back and forth a number of times with one Australian customer that had started out very unhappy and was now getting happier. I had given him lots of help, comp’d him a few items, and given him feedback on his suggestions – even committing to him that we would do some of them in the next release.

It is important to note here that nowhere in the “make a comment” links did it indicate that the customer would be corresponding with the Vice President in charge of the product group. In my messages with the customer, I simply signed them with my first name – no title. After a few days, as our exchanges were coming to a close, I actually called him on the phone and we had a conversation that went pretty much like this:
Customer: Thanks so much for all the info. You are cool. And when you get a chance to talk to the man, tell him you deserve a raise!

Me: Haha. I appreciate that. But so you know, I am “the man.”

Customer: Huh?

Me: I’m actually the VP in charge of this stuff. I handle these comments directly to make sure we’re getting all the information.

Customer: That is really cool. I thought you were just some customer support person. That’s cool that your company feels we’re that important.
I was paraphrasing above, but he did say “cool” a lot. We had saved this guy, and gotten some great future product direction to boot. Again, you can bet he told his friends about the experience. We'll cover some additional things you can do to try to salvage a bad situation -- next time.

As a side note, I'll be speaking at the IntergratED Portland education conference next week. I'll be covering some technology future stuff, as well as some management topics from my book. If you're in the Portland area, stop by!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Turn that frown upside down!

So we were talking about dissatisfied customers. It happens. As much as you'd like to only speak with folks who love what you're doing, you'll have to deal with some who are a little less in love with you. But you can use some good technique to get that guy back into the good zone.

First, go out of your way to try to contact the customer to have the initial conversation. Don’t make your customer come looking for you. Especially if you are part of a company with any reasonable size, locating the right person in charge may be dang near impossible for your customers. By the time they get lost in your support voicemail hell, or try to push something up the line through your sales channel, or whatever, they may give up on both you and your company. You know they’ll be happy to tell their friends all about it.

I actually got my first lesson in this back when I was in college and supervising one of our city’s swimming pools. One woman was unfortunate enough to receive a car wash from a poorly aimed lawn sprinkler. Problem was, her car windows were open. I thought I did everything right. I apologized. I sent a crew of lifeguards to her car with towels. And I gave her the names and phone numbers of everyone to call at the city offices the next day (it was a weekend). Later that day, when describing the situation to my manager, he responded with, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to take her information and then we would have the right city folks call her?” Duh. I put the onus on her, when I should have left it in our hands.

You need to be on the lookout for customers that are getting into trouble and might need proactive contacting. Ensure that your service and sales folks know that you need to be kept in the loop as early as possible on customers that might be degenerating. Maybe you can get a weekly report on “hot customers”, or maybe you have some sort of CRM system that will allow you to automatically generate notifications or reports of big issues out in the wild. Whatever you do, do something.
 Hi Joe, this is Ed with XYZ Systems. I noticed that you had filed a number of problem reports recently, and I just wanted to talk with you about your business, what you're doing with our products, and any suggestions you might have for what we could change or do better.
Seeing something going wrong, and proactively contacting the customer about it will leave your customer absolutely amazed.