When A Storm Comes To Town

Wall Street loves “events”. An event in their context might be a CEO saying something incredibly stupid that affects the stock price, gets the CEO fired, or both. A good example is the Lululemon CEO’s yoga pants comment back in 2013.

If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.

Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.

Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.

Dealing with the aftermath

No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.

Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.

Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.

In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.

Which truth is that?

Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.

Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.

Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.

The truth is for everyone else.

Recovery and Communication

When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.

If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.

If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.

What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.

Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.

If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.

A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.

Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.

Assumptions are dangerous

For the last month or so, I’ve been working on an all-consuming project. Yesterday, during a conversation with the recipient of this work, it became obvious that both of us had made some assumptions about the work that overcomplicated the project in the short term. In the long term, no time was wasted on this large, multi-phase project but in the short term – the assumptions were stunning.

Despite hours of phone conversations and emails, detailed technical specifications (geeks: think WSDL but newer), we still managed to have a rather large gap in the workflow of this project. Fortunately, there wasn’t any damage done and the situation merely juggles the position of a few tasks on the timeline, but we didn’t have to be that lucky.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

The root of assumptions

The root of assumptions, at least in this case, was both groups of people thinking they had properly and completely described the project. Bear in mind that there are mindmaps and API calls and a bunch of other technobabble. Still, this happened.

But why?

Not enough questions?
Not enough diagrams?
Not enough workflow description?
Not enough conversation?

Perhaps all of those, but there have been plenty. What ultimately caused this was quite simple: there was a fundamental asset involved in this project that I was unaware of. They knew it would be used. I didn’t know it existed, so I was planning to use a similar asset under my control.

I speak vaguely about these things because the details really don’t matter and I don’t want the technical jargon to distract from the meat of the discussion: assumptions are dangerous.

The project will come in on time and it’ll be good for both parties, but it might not have worked out as well had this discovery happened a week later. It wouldn’t have broken anything, but it would have wasted some time, or at least caused work to be done that won’t be needed for a month or more and that would delay work needed soon.

There are many ways that assumptions can endanger your projects. The key is to have a process that does as much as possible to eliminate them.

Eliminating assumptions with a third party

The most dangerous assumption I made was that the technical documentation and the mindmaps would effectively communicate the project’s details to a technical audience. At a granular level that was true. Where this assumption got me was at the 10,000 foot level – the level where you break down a ton of technical workflow to 10 sentences (step 1, step 2, step 3…) in plain old English that anyone would understand.

Didn’t happen. Six weeks went by without this critical message climbing out of the technical documentation – and even then, it didn’t. It came out when those 10 sentences were written to clarify something that suddenly became confusing.

Many years ago, I was involved in an exercise along these lines where two people with experience in a field had to explain something to each other. Once they reached agreement, they had to explain it to a third person who had no background in the subject.

A fascinating thing happened.

The two people who thought they were describing the same thing were still far apart. When each of them described the project to the third party, they were stunned at the assumptions each of them had made – not big ones, not project killing ones, but differences that could create drama, friction, additional cost and so on.

Watching these two people realize they were not talking about the same thing was illuminating and stunning at the same time because the audience was made up of people with similar experience to the two ‘explainers’.

Of course, the exercise was designed to set them up to some extent and the whole idea was communicate to all involved that communication is real work and that it is breathtakingly easy to make a few small assumptions that can take two parties on substantially different paths even though they think they are talking about the same thing.

Getting two people (or two groups) to understand each other and agree that they are talking about the same thing requires great care.

Next time you have a project to deliver, involve a third party with much different skills. Describe the project to them and see where the conversation goes. Maybe you can avoid dangerous and potentially costly assumptions.

Hat tip to @ClayForsberg for the Asimov quote.

Communicate when nature threatens

Last week I said “Allowing perceptions to percolate in our guests’ minds without updates is dangerous not only for this year’s success, but for future years as well.

Part of your job is to set guests’ minds at ease by giving them the advice they need to make considered decisions during situations they’re unaccustomed to.

They want to protect their investment, their vacation and their families. It’s safe to say that your local, regional and/or state tourism groups, media and attractions will put effort into this. What isn’t safe to assume is that your guests will see their message and understand it as you do.

You might be the only one in the area with their name and contact info. You might be the only one who develops a relationship with them. Your business is the one that will pay the price if they get off a plane in Minneapolis and see an airport gate “if it bleeds, it leads” style news video with an uninformed announcer from 2500 miles away saying “Glacier Park is on fire“.

They don’t know what you know. You’ve seen all of this before.

Make sure they understand that and that you are giving them time-tested advice based on your knowledge of their visit and their family. YOU need to contact them and make sure they have accurate information, otherwise, their next flight might be toward home.

Details protect your business

Last time, I added a lot to your plate:

Segmenting guests into groups. Collecting emails. Collecting cell numbers. Writing emails. Sending emails. Documenting the various communication processes so anyone can do it, even if you’re tending to a sick parent. Producing templates for the emails you might need to send. Producing templates for the text messages you might need to send. Producing a fill-in-the-blanks script that a staffer can read when calling guests who are in transit or in the area. Documenting the process so that anyone on site knows who is responsible for starting the process, which one to start, who to notify and what to say.

This isn’t about creating more work for the owner/manager. This is about putting a trust-building, by the numbers, automated where necessary system in place so that it can be handled by employees who never dealt with it before.

You won’t have time to do any of this when a fire blows up in the park. You won’t have time to manually send 300 emails or make 100 phone calls while deciding what to say on the fly.

This is about creating time to deal with critical high-season work when you least want to be “messing around with emails”, even if your place isn’t directly threatened. These tasks need to be organized, tested and ready to implement before the season starts.

Fine tuning the message

When you sit down to build this system, you’ll have a lot to think about. For example, the urgency and means of contacting them is as different as the message for each group and situation.

What conditions that merit separate communications and (most likely) separate messages? What groups should be split out of “the entire list of guests”?

A number of situations will expose themselves as you think it through. Go back over prior years and think about the times you handled this well and not so well. What did you learn after the fact that you didn’t consider when things were unfolding? Your own experiences count too – How was this done when you were on vacation and unexpected problems occurred?

Two examples:

  • If evacuations or cancellations are necessary, will evacuated / cancelled guests get priority booking for a substitute stay at your property?
  • As the situation unfolds, it will become more clear what to say to your guests with reservations a month or more out – but you need to communicate the plan now so they know what to expect. What will you say?

Your business may not be affected by fire season but nature threatens your business somehow and when it does, “fire season lessons” apply. Your area might be subject to drought, low (or high) water in rivers/lakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or a damaged bridge instead of a forest fire.

No matter what happens, send the right message to the right guests in a timely manner in the right way. Build trust. Practice, automate, document, delegate.

 

Talk is cheap, conversation is priceless

How we talk, write, stand, sit or hold our hands and arms plays a huge part in how effective we are in helping others understand what we have to say, much less keep their attention long enough to finish the message.

If they don’t get it all, at best you may as well have said nothing. Worst case, the other person could misinterpret your message and think or react the opposite of what you want.

Imagine that you make a trip to an Eastern European country.

You arrive by boat and step onto the dock with your bags in your hands.

A young Lithuanian man standing on the dock looks at your feet and says something to his friend. By the way his voice rises at the end, you’re sure he either asked a question or made a joke about your legs. Too bad he isn’t speaking your language. If he was, you would know that he was telling his friend that a camera fell out of the unzipped side pocket of your bag.

If you don’t understand the man, you might keep walking without paying attention. Once the man realized you didn’t understand, he would take another step to let you know what he was saying. He might make eye contact with you, repeat his comment and point at the camera.

As with the Lithuanian man, your business communications – from marketing messages and press releases to ads to fill staff openings – will be ineffective if they don’t use the right language and the right context, much less speak to the right person.

What is the right language?

The man’s effort to make eye contact and point is no different than speaking in a language you understand. By establishing eye contact and pointing, he brings context to the conversation – a context you care about.

The language and context you bring to conversations with your prospects and customers is equally important. The right language provokes your audience to think, act, react, remain attentive, follow your instructions (or advice) and believe in your message.

Or not.

Robert Collier famously suggested that writers “join the conversation already going on in the prospect’s mind”. Collier wasn’t encouraging you to be creepy and spy on your prospects and customers. He’s encouraging you to get to know and understand them, including their needs, desires and fears.

The right language…like the empathy that the video gets across so well… requires listening, paying attention and understanding what’s going on behind the face they put on.

Until you make the effort to learn, listen and observe these things, how can you begin to join their conversation? How can you engage with them in a conversation they care about? How can you understand what they lose sleep over? How else can what you say begin to address what’s critical to their decision-making process?

All of these things help you use the right language and the right message, whether you’re on the phone, writing an email or composing text for a billboard.

You wouldn’t walk up to a few people who are actively chatting at a gathering, interrupt them and start talking loudly about something they don’t care about – yet that’s exactly what most marketing does.

It helps me to imagine that I’m speaking directly with a single person who is exactly the type of person whose needs, desires and fears my message will resonate with in the strongest possible way. Notice that I didn’t say “the group of people my message targets”, or that I said “speaking with” rather than to.

Think about how important the positioning and context of your message must be in order to move from broadcasting like someone yelling at passersby on a random big city street corner, to that of a personal conversation with a trusted advisor.

Hippity Hop

If you overheard just a nibble of a conversation about hops, you might guess that someone was talking about the communications via the internet, frog jumping competitions or rabbits.

On the other hand, they could be talking about craft beers or microbrews. You’d have to listen to more than just one word (hops) to figure out the topic – and that’s the key.

Listen. Observe. Develop empathy and understanding. Join the conversation.

Disclaimer: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

Amanda Palmer 1, Naysayers 0

Concierto Amanda Palmer and The Danger Ensemble, Sala [2]
Creative Commons License photo credit: alterna2

An ideal guest post for America’s Independence Day, Tech Dirt’s coverage of Amanda Palmer’s use of Twitter for grassroots marketing of her music (and other stuff). I hadn’t heard of her until reading the article.

Note: This is not a G-rated article, but it is instructive all the same.

The point of this is to think, much less think unconventionally, consider the resources you have available and most importantly, to communicate with your fans (even plumbers have fans, so don’t think that your business doesn’t).

Regarding naysayers: There will *always* be people who tell you you can’t do it, you can’t sell for that price, you’ll never make it, etc.

They might be partly right: perhaps they couldn’t.

The question isn’t what they can or can’t do, it is…  Can you?

Is real-time fast enough for you?

I thought I’d provide a few Twitter stories for you today – call it Twitter Thursday if you like.

First, a baker who uses Twitter to notify people what’s baking, what’s ready, etc. Customizable via the BakerTweet website, it takes a twist of a knob and a push of a button and you’re done.

Obviously you could use this to talk about your daily special, what beans you’re roasting and so on. Whatever the fanatic wants – tell them about it.

Only 3 million dollars

Dell has stated publicly that their @DellOutlet Twitter account has earned them about $2 million since they started issuing Twitter-only promo codes and other deals. Dell Outlet uses Twitter as a way to message out coupons, clearance events and new arrival information to those looking for Dell technology at a discounted price

But then, one of the folks responsible for the tweeting did a little more math, researching where those Twitter followers go after chasing a promo code for a refurb machine.

Some of them go to the regular “Buy a New Dell” part of the store. Another million in sales from “some of them”.

609,000+ people following the @DellOutlet account.

Wouldn’t you like to be able to send a special offer to 609,000+ people who might be in the market for whatever you sell?

That’s what @DellOutlet gets to do all day long.

Another story offers some ideas about using Twitter for business.

On a more serious note

While the mainstream news was largely useless (if not ignoring) the stories breaking during the early hours of the Iran election demonstrations and violence, Twitter was one of the few tools that people in Iran could use to tell their story.

Cell phone networks were being blocked, internet access was cutoff or filtered, all in an attempt to cut off Iranians from the outside world and vice versa.

But the internet finds a way. Soon after, people found a way to access the net, often through hidden proxy servers and dial up connections.

If you were on Twitter a few nights ago, you were able to witness what was going on through the eyes of those experiencing it.

Not a reporter, but students hiding in dorms and others trying to avoid being beaten or killed.

Via Twitter.

Over the next day, the mainstream media struggled to catch up. Photos eventually showed up on the Boston Globe site 24-36 hours later, but those watching for posts containing “iran” in them had been hearing the story in real-time from people experiencing the violence and uproar – for more than a day.

Real life in real time.

Twitter has turned out to be such an important communications tool for Iranians that Twitter moved a major network upgrade from the middle of the night U.S. time (when most upgrades like this are done to avoid impacting U.S. users). They shifted it to 1:30am Iran time, solely to try and mitigate the downtime’s impact on those who are using it to try and survive, much less report what’s going on there.

The same kind of thing happen during the Mumbai bombings.

If you still don’t get it, try this

Think of something that is really, really important to you.

Maybe it’s your market, industry or some such. Maybe you’re into Forex trading, Tiger Woods, the NFL or fantasy baseball. Maybe it’s your faith or your favorite breed of dog or one of a million other things. Might be serious as cancer, might be something silly like Britney.

Google it, but add site:twitter.com to the search. Or just go to twitter.com and do a search.

See anything there that interests you. I’ll warn you, not all of it will be high-quality stuff.

Here’s the secret: See if there are people there who do or know things that provoke you to join their conversation because they know the topic that interests you. You might find experts who you would never be able to reach otherwise.

Think back to my story about swapping messages with Robert Scoble as he toured Ansel Adams’ studio at Yosemite with Ansel’s son, answering my questions in real time.

Real time is prime-time

What’s real-time about your business? What do the fanatics in your market do when they need more info about what you sell – or just more of what you sell – RIGHT NOW?

They might just be on Twitter.

Another way to talk to your community

OK, I’m still not over the small number of folks using the news in your marketing like 7-11 does, so here’s another way for you to talk to your community of clients if that type of thing doesn’t feel right.

You can create your company’s own custom browser toolbar for your clientele at http://www.conduit.com.

While I know there are umpteen zillion toolbars for your browser out there, the ones that get used are the ones that truly provide value.

What a surprise, right?

It’s a big deal for most computer users to give up half an inch or more of their Internet Explorer or Firefox  screen real estate to yet another toolbar, so you’d better make it worthwhile if you create one for your users.

What can you include on your toolbar that is so important or so valuable to your clientele that they’d give up an inch of their screen for it?

If that doesn’t give you some motivation to communicate value, I’m not sure what would:)

I’m still investigating how to merge this tool into the mix of tools I use to communicate with clients and prospects, but I thought you’d want to know about it as soon as possible.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how this tool (or ones like it) have improved (or could improve) the business relationships you have.

Don’t make it hard for people to give you money

Emergencies of all forms seem to come at the worst possible times.

How your business manages day to day transactions quite often makes the emergency worse for your clients.

Bear with me, this story – and the lesson that goes with it – requires a bit of background discussion.

Last week was crazy for me. On Friday night, I drove my son to Plains for a swim meet. The next day, we had a baby shower to attend before taking off for a week of Scout camp early on Sunday morning.

The camp is located a few miles from Harvard Idaho, which isn’t what anyone would call a metropolis, and that’s a good thing. See, the more remote a Scout camp is, the better. If the internet doesnt work and cell phones get no signal, it makes for a better week of camp for everyone. And that’s one more reason why Inland Northwest Council’s Camp Grizzly shines.

However, this post isn’t about camp, it’s about an experience I had with Hy-Tek, Ltd., a (if not the) leading swim meet management software vendor, while I was at camp.

When I arrived in Plains for the swim meet, the guy in charge of the touchpad timing system for that team asked me to take a look at the system for them. Each of the teams in our league use a setup owned by the league, and each town has someone who gets to set it up and run it that weekend.

Out of 23 towns, there are 2 geeky people like me who are involved. Me and a guy about 400 miles east of here. Everyone else in the other 21 towns drew the short straw.

Here’s what happened: Recently, Hy-Tek required that we upgrade the meet management software due to a licensing conflict (another story for another time).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t involved in that transaction, which might possibly have avoided this. Turns out that the sales-prevention-department at Hy-Tek didn’t do their research when selling $7000+ worth of meet software to the 23 teams (who buy as a group).

They neglected to look at prior purchases by the same organization and observe that the league purchased a version of the meet software that supported the scoring console that drives the digital scoreboard and collects athlete swim times from the touchpads at the end of the lane.

Bottom line, that means that when I got to Plains, they couldn’t get the meet software to talk to the timing console, the touchpads or the scoreboard. So I dig around a little and find that the licenses sold to each team did not include the ability to use the scoring console – something that should have been part of the sales script / checklist or whatever when any of this software is sold.

At 11pm on Friday night, this isn’t going to get fixed.

I call Hy-Tek on Saturday morning and get voice mail for someone’s cell phone.

Not long after leaving my message, a friendly guy named Bob calls back (Hy-Tek’s support Bob is universally appreciated from what I hear) and tells me that he cant fix it and I have to deal with sales because he isn’t allow to use the software that creates the license file that resolves the problem, much less take our money.

So we use manual timers for this meet, which isn’t the end of the world.

I tell my MotoQ to remind me on Monday morning (when I will be at camp, where there is no cell service) to call the swim league big cheese, explain the situation and then call Hy-Tek sales and get this resolved.

So Monday comes and I manage to drive 30 minutes to find about half a bar of cell service and reach the swim guy, who isn’t home and thus doesnt have the info for the sales call in front of him. We decide to talk on Tuesday so he can get the info from his home and then I can call Hy-Tek.

My call on Tuesday goes off as planned (after another 30 minute drive to get cell service) and shortly after gathering the necessary info, I reach someone in Hy-Tek sales.

I explain the situation and almost get the impression that I am interrupting someone’s day. But we move on, because I have to get this done and return to camp (thankfully, I have 2 other adults in camp to help the boys in my absence).

After explaining the situation to the salesperson, I am told that I should go online to order the upgrade. Isn’t that what a toll-free sales number is for?

Sales 101 – When a customer tries to hand you money for something they clearly want or need, do not tell them to go somewhere else.

I explain that I am in the middle of rural Idaho, have no internet access (not even with my phone, which is rapidly burning battery talk time due to the analog connection) and cannot do so. She tells me they are not setup to take phone orders.

Say what?

Anyhow, she says that she can take my order by entering it for me on their website (credit card merchants everywhere are cringing by now) as I read it over the phone. As I have no choice, we do that and the order is placed.

When delivery is discussed, I ask for email delivery of the license file (which is small enough to email) due to the urgency of getting this fix to the team hosting the meet next weekend, particularly given my limited ability to call/no ability to email this week.

I am told company policy forbids it because teams change computer people and coaches too often and they would have to re-email the software. Even downloading it from a secured area on the site is too much trouble, apparently.

Is it 1988 or 2008? Hmm.

IE: they wont allow email delivery of license files because they dont like issuing license files too often and more likely, because there is no process for doing so – since there are never emergencies in the swimming business, I suppose.

I begin to wonder to myself if they dont like taking money, but I know better than that:) I should note that I’ve been the swim team’s geek for 8 years and will be for at least 3 more. That is of no concern to the salesperson, because her hands are tied by company policy.

Clearly, there is no process in place to email this small file in an emergency.

If there isn’t a process, so be it, but blaming this on the *standard behavior of clients* is dumb.

Thankfully, the CD goes out as promised, gets picked up by the right person and installs without incident, all without me being around:) This is a good thing, since I arrived at the meet at 130am between days 1 and 2 of the meet.

So why this long, wordy bluster?

Simply to ask you to re-examine a few things:

  • Take a look at how you are setup to accelerate the delivery of your product in the event of a client emergency. Is your sales and support staff trained and enabled to make things work for the client, or simply hamstrung by policy and process issues, and thus forced to make your clients sit around and wait?
  • As you know, I’ll be the first to suggest automating what can be, but make sure that your processes allow for emergencies.
  • Take a look at how your sales and support team communicate company policies (smart ones and dumb ones) to your clients. It isn’t their fault your policies and processes are what they are, but they have to communicate and implement them, presumably without torquing your clients.
  • Check your sales process and make sure that your salespeople are not sending clients somewhere else to complete a sale. Obviously, creating work for clients when they are handing you money is not wise.