The ones you can’t trust

Recently, we have seen a number of high profile ethical issues pop up in global companies, U.S. companies and if you look around a little – you will probably find one in the news in your city. Most recently, this would include the Volkswagen EPA mileage situation.

Stop it.

No, I don’t mean stop doing it. I mean stop putting up with them. Stop encouraging them. Stop tolerating them. Stop teaching your team and your managers to ignore them through your inaction, or less than substantial action.

What exactly do I mean?

It isn’t like this is a new phenomena, but it’s quite clear that it’s one that needs some attention from businesses – including yours.

Why do I point my crooked little finger at you? Because you, like other small local business owners, are the one who often give people their first job. You are probably also the one who first sees poor choices or ethical lapses – call them what you will – and then don’t send the right message in how you handle them.

Before we get to far into this, I want to be crystal clear that I am not saying that young / new employees are the problem. What they are is impressionable. How you and other employers handle ethical failures is the problem. The actions that young and new employees see set the stage for how these things should be handled.

How will you use these teachable moments? What is the normal result they need to see? What normally happens when you encounter something like this?

Perhaps the results look something like this list – and you may know of a few other reactions:

  • It’s ignored as if it didn’t happen. Think about the message that sends to other staff members.
  • It’s recognized as a problem, but nothing substantial happens.
  • It’s recognized as a problem and someone’s pay is docked.
  • It’s recognized as a problem and someone gets fired.

Most of these responses don’t send the right message. They certainly don’t set the tone for new impressionable employees and current / future managers. Instead, they make it clear that these kinds of things are usually ignored, so they must be OK.

Do you think former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was ever fired for unethical behavior? Do you think he ever fired anyone for unethical behavior?

People don’t make decisions like the ones that happened at Volkswagen without a history of behavior encouraging them.

What message does it send that Winterkorn gets to keep his $32 million pension? Who else at VW keeps their job, benefits, pension and perks, despite the fraudulent actions they took?

Where were the roots of this behavior planted? These people didn’t magically change from ethical to unethical when EPA testing started. The people central to this situation likely have a history of increasingly unethical behavior. They didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this on their own. To involve engineering and manufacturing at this scope, management approval has to be involved.

Where was it learned that this behavior is acceptable?

Preventative measures

You might be in a situation where you’re concerned about how to get rid of a problem employee – and yes, a problem is any employee you can’t trust. What you don’t want to create is a legal problem that’s worse than an untrustworthy employee. Fix that by working with an employment law expert. Yes, an attorney.

Do whatever your attorney says. Every time, every dotted I, every crossed T.

When you have a bulletproof employment agreement that empowers you to deal with an unethical employee without concern for repercussions, then you’re ready.

Almost.

If you make changes, you must communicate them both to existing staff and new employees. Leave no doubt that there is no defense for the dark arts and that any action that threatens the ability to trust any employee will result in their immediate termination.

No warnings. No meaningful chats with the big boss. No waiting until the end of the day or shift. No mercy.

Show them the door immediately – and so I reinforce this: be sure your termination process has been vetted.

It can be stopped, but it will take action from all of us.

What message do your actions send? Take the wrong action, or ignore them, and your people will remember it for years to come.

Help Them Buy Better

Nap @ Västra hamnen
Creative Commons License photo credit: bjaglin

A few days ago, Seth Godin asked why ethical marketers wouldn’t be “eager to have aggressive, clear and well-defined regulations” (about marketing).

He set the context by talking about the lies used to sell sunscreen, noting that lobbyists kindly helped the FDA water down proposed sunscreen regulations.

To quote Seth:

Why aren’t ethical marketers (of any product) eager to have clear and well-defined regulations, creating a set of honest definitions so that they can actually do what they set out to do–make a difference and make a living at the same time? If you’re busy competing against people willing to cut corners, I’d think you’d want the rules to be really aggressive, clear and obvious.

Yes, clear and obvious regulations would be great, but the assertion that we need more regulations to deal with them requires that I call BullSeth.

Enforcement and Influence

The enforcement of existing regulations in a fair and consistent manner is the primary issue.

Selective enforcement of these regulations is sometimes used to send a political message to some industries while others are left to their own honor or lack thereof.

At times, the agencies responsible for enforcement find themselves taking direction from elected officials who often take direction in the form of campaign contributions. At other times, these agencies do whatever they like, regardless of regulatory boundaries created to manage their work.

Before the everything-is-one-party’s-fault types weigh in, keep in mind that this ISN’T a (R) problem or a (D) problem. It’s universal regardless of the animal you represent.

A healthy business / consumer / economic environment doesn’t require oppressive business marketing/advertising regulations like Germany’s, we need those who represent us to use the existing regulations in a fair and consistent manner AND continue to improve them.

Smart businesses can’t sit around and wait for that to happen.

Don’t Wait, Educate.

Waiting for these changes isn’t going to cut it. Smart businesses educate prospects and customers about the quality choices they have.

That doesn’t mean your marketing has to be boring (far from it). It doesn’t mean your marketing can’t be compelling, entertaining, motivational and most importantly, effective – but it can be all those things without breaking existing laws, much less new ones.

In the meantime, we have to do our part to eliminate the slimeballs. Yes, I absolutely mean put them out of business, even if it means a game of Whack-a-Mole as they close one and start another.

Ethical business people don’t do enough to call out the slimy behavior of their competitors. Neither do consumers.

Buy Better

Meanwhile, people continue to take it from the cretins Seth referred to, rewarding these “businesses” for their behavior.

If folks keep buying from them and media outlets keep accepting their advertising, do you really think they are going to change?

Have you ever contacted a media outlet about the advertising they accepted from vendors advertising one thing and delivering another? Sure, it’s your word against the vendor’s. And yes, the media outlet will likely claim they have no responsibility for what appears in their paper, on their station or on their website.

I think you’re smarter than that.

The power of the customer to deal with these vendors comes simply: STOP BUYING FROM THESE IDIOTS.

It’s Just Word of Mouth

Businesses can help them do that.

Customers have lots of resources that enable them to take control, including Yelp, Urbanspoon, Angie’s List, Trip Advisor, etc. These services help people find businesses that deliver what they say and avoid the ones who don’t.

In a perfect world, we shouldn’t need any of them. Until we get there, we all have to help each other by calling BS when it’s warranted and giving kudos as well.

Too few businesses pay attention to those services. If you think no one is using them to make daily purchasing choices in your little town, you’re dead wrong – particularly if your area is frequented by tourists. You need to be monitoring them, addressing issues, “claiming” your business so people can find you, and encouraging consumers to share their thoughts there.

Encourage your customers to use tools that help them buy better. Provide them when you can. Help them stop buying from the wrong people.

Don’t waste a single interaction

Unreal.

Last week I had to get on the phone to cancel an online service.

Not because I wanted to use the phone to cancel, but because it’s a requirement.

You see, you can sign up for this service online, but you can’t cancel it there. And you certainly won’t be doing it easily.

Yes, you read that right. You can sign up online, but canceling requires a phone call.

That’s so “Business can do no wrong, 1999” kind of thinking.

It reminds me of the old America Online (AOL). This is how they used to act. Butâ?¦

There ARE good reasons to require a call

I could see good reason for the call if they truly wanted to check to make sure that I couldn’t use their service. Obviously, that assumes that they’d put effort into making it a pain-free process to find out my situation.

Possible situations:

  • Maybe I couldn’t figure it out.
  • Maybe I found something better.
  • Maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was or didn’t do what I really needed (that vague thing called “merchantability”).

If I’m the vendor interested in improving my offering, I’d want to know those things when my service is getting cancelled by someone.

Why? Because that info will help me do a better job of selling my service in the future. It will also help me adjust who I market the service to and what it does.

A quick call for stuff like this is often faster and more productive for everyone but you have to make it fast, easy and pleasant. It’s a good time to leave a last good impression in a relationship that just didn’t work out (for now), and if time permits, ask what kind of changes would provoke the person to sign up again at a later date.

Hassle your customers

But that isn’t why I had to call them.

I had to call them because they intentionally designed a process to be more difficult than it was to sign up. They wanted it to be “work”, in hopes that I wouldn’t cancel and would just blow it off.

I know this because of what happened when I called.

First, I spent 12 minutes on hold. Overall, that’s not a huge deal because I put my phone on speaker and sat it on my desk, but it does indicate the importance they place on these calls. Or it shows that a TON of people are cancelling. Or both.

During the cancel process – in fact – during the very first interaction with the phone agent, I was asked if I wanted to purchase a “buy one, get one free” airline ticket.

I was so stunned by the out-of-context request, I had to ask him to repeat himself. I just couldn’t believe it.

Rest assured, there’s no relationship *at all* between air travel and what this online service provides. So why are they trying to sell me an airline ticket? Dumb.

Remember, all this lameness happened after 12 minutes on hold.

But they weren’t done. After all that, a six question survey about my satisfaction which should have been done by the agent, who didn’t even ask why I was cancelling. Otherwise, why make me call?

3 of the questions follow:

  • Would I recommend them? No. (An agent could have asked “Why not?”)
  • Rate the call wait time. (Your phone system knows how long I waited. Common sense will give you all the rating you need. It’s a feel-good question to allow me to vent.)
  • Do I feel valued as a customer? No. No. No. (Sorry, the airline ticket question failed to cement our love affair.)

Just in case there’s some doubt about how I feel about this kind of behavior: If this is how you treat your clients and this is how you do business, I hope your competition hires me to relieve you of those pesky customers you treat so poorly. I’ll enjoy every minute of it.

The lesson

Every interaction you have with a customer – no matter how trivial – is an opportunity to reinforce their impression of you (positively, I hope).

Don’t waste ANY of them on stupid, wasteful interactions like this one.

Situational Ethics: Don’t go there

She sells seashells: the extended inventory
Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

The probably not-so-old joke goes something like this: “There are two kinds of people: those who break people into two groups and those who don’t.”

When it comes to business ethics, there’s usually a pretty clear definition of the line between these two groups: the unethical and the accidentally unethical.

The accidentally unethical will stumble now and then and make a mistake that, in many cases, they didn’t even realize was a problem.

These folks are the reason why even the most jaded person needs to start by giving these situations a second look or a benefit of the doubt prior to dropping the hammer. Sometimes, you’ll find that easing into these situations will work to your advantage. You can always get serious about things after you gather more information.

The Wild West

I had just that situation occur a few years ago. Back in the wild west days of the internet, I found out that a competitor was using my product name in his web site’s keywords – something that no ethical website designer or business owner would do.

This is a problem for the same reason that I can’t put “Goodyear tires” on a sign in front of my tire business if I don’t sell Goodyear tires. It’s misleading and it uses someone else’s trade names to attract business to my business. Not only is this unethical / wrong / slimy, but in most cases it’s illegal.

Plus it really ticks off customers who pull in wanting a pair of Goodyear Eagle GTs only to find that you sell nothing but Chinese-made retreads.

Back to the story. When I first found this website, I was angry about it. This was back in the days when website keywords mattered a lot more than they do now and I was in the middle of the “climbing to altitude” phase of my business – fighting for every inch and not interested in giving any of it back to a thief.

But…something inside told me to tread softly, so I called the guy in Michigan and explained the situation. He sounded sincere when he explained that he didn’t know that it was illegal to use my business name and product name in his website keywords.

Note: In most countries, it’s ok to use a competitor’s brand and name when comparing your product / service to theirs. It’s not cool to use them in ways to “game the system”. We’ll skip the details and geeky stuff for now.

The twist

As I explained the problem to the guy using my trade names, he got it and agreed to remove the terms from his website…and then a funny thing happened.

He offered to sell his business to me.

At the time, he was my biggest competitor. If we lost a sale to someone at that time, more often than not, it was to this guy.

And yes, of course I jumped on it. Not only was it a chance to take over a sizable chunk of the market, it made us that much stronger.

The gravy: the guy was well-liked in the business, so his enthusiasm about getting out of the business and selling it to someone who would treat his customers properly gave us a nice word-of-mouth boost.

The other kind

I don’t mind competitors. You shouldn’t either – they make us all better.

In fact, several of the local ones are friends and we refer business to each other.

Unfortunately, a couple of them – and one in particular – has shown that he is the other sort of unethical person. The kind that knows it and doesn’t care if you catch them at it.

More recently, I came across someone locally who was using the byline of this blog to advertise his marketing business.

When I called him on the fact that it was uncool to use my byline (he’s copied my business slogan to promote his business), he was unapologetic and refused to stop, claiming he somehow randomly arrived at the same slogan despite never seeing my blog or hearing of me.

Yeah. I got that same story from the Easter bunny and Santa too.

Kinda makes you wonder how he treats his customers, doesn’t it?

The Genie

You find these situations in business, politics and your personal life – and they seem to become more prevalent as a situation becomes more challenging / desperate (like the tough economy many are experiencing now). Almost without exception they will come back to bite you. Don’t let tough times tempt you into doing something like this.

A friend of mine has a saying that fits these situations well: “When you move on, the only thing you leave behind is your reputation.”

That’s a genie that you can’t get back into the bottle.

Feedback. Courtesy. Try it. Accept it. Use it.

Today’s guest post comes from Barry Moltz, who talks about those people (euphemism) who don’t return calls or emails.

While I’m sure none of us ever do that, all of us know someone who needs a little advice about this – or maybe just a reminder.

Check out “Feedback is a gift“.

3 ways to destroy a vendor-client relationship

If this video from Scofield Editorial wasn’t so annoyingly accurate regarding how some businesses operate, it’d be funny.

Ok, it’s funny anyhow – until it happens to you.

Try not to be on either side.

Some businesses operate this way as a matter of course. With some people and some businesses struggling these days, it’s easy to find someone trying this.

Just don’t do it.

If nothing else, keep in mind that you will meet them again, probably on your way back down.