Friday, September 14, 2012

Someone asked me for advice earlier this week about where to go to create a blog. I of course suggested Blogspot, but then had to quickly point out to them that my own site was woefully out of date, but that I had every intention of reviving it shortly. Funny how time passes. My last post was in February. What? February? How could seven months pass by without at least one post? What has been so important in my life that I haven't found time to write, and we all know that I love to write. Hmmmm. I am going to need to sit down and think seriously about my priorties because I do enjoy writing and I had every intention in February to follos that post with frequent updates. Anyway, I'm back and I will be updating you on the past seven months shortly. A lot of good things have happened since I left that "Customer Intelligence" firm last year. Lord, it has been a year, or at least it will be on the 30th of this month. I can't believe it. I wonder if they miss me? I suppose everyone wonders that for awhile before you finally put it all behind you and move forward. I think it is mostly behind me, except perhaps for the people. I really like the people in that company and I truly enjoyed working with them. But now I've got a new company and a whole new set of challenges, which I will share with you over the coming weeks and months. Let me start with a teaser. "Every day, billions of people and tens of thousands of businesses go about their digital business - sending files, making purchases, banking online and sharing valuable, private information - in the belief that their data is safe and secure. ---------------"They are Wrong"

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

What's Up?

I realized this morning that I have grossly neglected this blog over the past six months, which is sad given how much time I currently have available to write. I suppose part of the problem has been finding the energy to write. Not that physical kind of energy, but rather the mental kind. You know! Getting intellectually geared up to write about things that matter; to me, to my family and to my friends. So much happening in the world today. Sometimes it's a challenge to sort out what's really important versus what is merely interesting. So where to start is often a dilemma.

Today, let's start with my departure from my last position. As many folks know, I was the SVP of Sales for a rapidly growing Market Research firm that focused heavily on Customer Intelligence. A wonderful company, filled with amazing people. So why did I leave? Well, the short answer is my particular usefulness had come to an end. I think we all recognized it, but it wasn't until the Board decided they needed a sales executive with substantially more experience growing VC backed firms from $70m to $100M to $150M that we decided to do something about it. Could I have stayed in a different role? Perhaps. But in my experience it is always better to make a hard change when it comes to Sales Leadership. "There Can Only Be One", my favorite line from the movie Highlander, applies to real life as well. The new leader needs to develop his or her team without interference, intended or otherwise. Loyalty to the former leader is hard to shift when that former leader is still hanging about. Plus, frequently the styles of the former and new leader will often differ, sometimes dramatically. So in the interest of the firm, and my equity in the firm, it made sense for me to exit stage right. That was accomplished without rancor or harsh feelings in late Fall and for the past four plus months I have essentially been on a sabbatical, which leads me into the next paragraph.

So what does one do on a sabbatical? Well, at first there was a fair amount of just doing absolutely nothing. Getting up late, staying up late. Enjoying being in the kitchen, cooking, drinking some lovely wine, catching up on my reading, hanging out at Starbucks, etc. Then comes the "OMG", I don't have a job and one starts to polish one's CV, start combing various job sites like "The Ladders", "Six Figure" - plowing through one's contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites. Then comes the breakfast meetings, the lunch meetings, the networking events. Eventually, you start blasting the market with your CV, knowing full well the chances of it ever reaching anyone of significance are slim to none. But you do it anyway because you never know when you might hit the lottery.

Of course, you then realize that you did all of these things last time you were in this position and none of it produced anything meaningful then either. Finally, you return to your strength, which is being an independent consultant and suddenly, things fall back into place and opportunities surface because all those years you spent being a Sales Leader did in fact result in meaningful connections and valuable experiences.

I suppose what I'm saying is that from my perspective, the key is to not panic or get overly depressed by the process of landing a new position. I read somewhere that "the key to success is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances." Yes, I have the luxury of having a few dollars saved, which means I can take a bit more time than the average chap in the same situation, but not so many that I can retire, at least not yet. Having two teenagers, one who will turn 14 in April and the other 16 about ten days later ensures that I will be working in some capacity for quite some time to come.

So what have I have been doing during the past four months and eight days? Well, getting healthy has been one major accomplishment. I joined a gym, engaged a personal trainer, and have been working out at least four or five times a week on average. I'm trimmer and I'm certainly stronger than I've been in the past several years. One positive aspect of being an independent consultant is that you have some leverage over your hours.

I've also been trying to help my daughter Ellisa with her homework, especially her English Literature homework. She has weekly writing assignments and while she is a gifted writer, she suffers from an age old malady called procrastination. My role therefore is to be her coach, the person who gets her motivated and eager to write. It doesn't help that her teacher finds Ellisa a bit of an odd duck. I suspect it has something to do with the stories she shared early on that focused on blood and mayhem. I don't think he would have done well with Stephen King!

Finally, I'm still teaching religious education at Holy Spirit. We recently changed formats and I'm still adjusting from having my own group of 6th graders every Sunday morning to an evening format where we have all the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders together. We went from a classroom setting to more of an auditorium environment and I have to admit it is a lot like herding cats at times. Still, many of the local parishes are adapting to this new format in an effort to make the program more flexible for the kids, or at least that is the party line. We'll see if it succeeds by the end of the school term.

I suppose that is all for now folks. Promise I will try to write more often over the coming weeks and months. We have an election headed our way and my creative juices always seem to get flowing during an election year. Next post will be an update on the family and the past year in reflection.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jerry Leiber

With the passing of Jerry Leiber yesterday, I thought I would share a paper my son Joseph authored (with a little help from Dad)last year for a language arts project. I read the book "Hound Dog" along with my son and learned so much about these two wonderful artists. Of course, my hat is also off to Nick Ashford, who also passed yesterday............"Ashford & Simpson" - what a wonderful pair of artists they were and boy did they ever influence my musical tastes? Who knew that they wrote "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Joe Cocker?

“Hound Dog”
Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
By Joseph Gaul

I was struggling to decide how to approach this project when my Dad asked me about it and made a suggestion – “you are a British citizen by birth and have spent more than half of your life living in the UK and Europe, so your cultural orientation is as much British as it is American.” Then he suggested I read a book called “Hound Dog”, an autobiography by two Jewish kids out of New York City who moved to Los Angeles at roughly the same time and became famous for writing in the black genre for groups like the Coasters, the Drifters, Sam Brothers 5, DiMaggio Brothers and Dion and the Belmonts. They also produced songs for the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Ben E. King, Charles Brown, Melvin Sparks and a host of other musicians during the 60’s, 70’s and on up to today. But it all started with Hound Dog, performed first by Big Mamma Thornton and later Elvis Presley, who truly made the song famous.
Okay, so I know what you are thinking. How on earth is this lad going to link his cultural heritage to two Jewish songwriters from New York/Los Angeles? So this is where it gets interesting. You see, my Dad did not recommend the book just because he thought I’d enjoying reading Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber’s life stories, but also because the music that they had written had deeply influenced his life. My Dad was born in rural North Carolina and had it not been for the radio and “Cousin Brucie”, a DJ out of NYC who hosted WABC’s teen-oriented evening shift in the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot, he may well have ended-up a Country fan for life. But this particular DJ played a mix of diverse musical genres of the time (late 50’s and 60’s) including Motown, soul, pop, hard rock, and surf music. Then, in August of 1965 he introduced America to the Beatles during their historic Shea Stadium concerts.
My Dad was hooked, and that may very well explain his vast collection of Cassette Tapes, Compact Discs (Nearly 4,000 at last count) and Vinyl LP’s, some dating back to the late 60’s, and all in pristine condition. My Dad loves music and while he can’t sing a lick, he does appreciate multiple genres, especially the groups that came with the “British Invasion”. Starting with the Beatles in 1965 and closely followed by groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Troggs, Donovan, Chad & Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark and lots, lots more.
Okay, okay. Still looking for the connection – right? Well, who do you think influenced those chaps from the British Isles? Yes indeed! Mr. Mike Stoller and Mr. Jerry Leiber, whose music had reached across the sea and deeply, impressed the likes of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Mick Jagger, just to mention a few key players.
So my link to Hound Dog, as a loyal subject of her majesty, the Queen, is that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller helped to start the British Invasion, which hit my Dad like a ton of bricks and gave him an intense desire to spend some serious time in the United Kingdom, which he did in the 1990’. And while living in the UK, my Dad met my Mom, who is rather younger than my Dad, but also a person who loves music and that may have been one of the biggest attractions for both of them as they started the process of dating in the summer of 1992. Dad’s musical collection, which had grown substantially in the five years before he arrived in the UK (Dad lived in Tokyo during those five years and spent a ton of money building out this CD collection) fascinated my Mom and my Dad very much enjoyed introducing her to the R&B sounds of the 60’s as well as Motown, which is undoubtedly my Dad’s favorite genre.
Interestingly enough, my Mom’s Dad and Mom, who are about fifteen years older than my Dad, also remember the British Invasion and how the Beatles changed the musical landscape in England. Remember, before the Beatles, we were happily listening to likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Perry Como and Tony Bennett, just to mention a few. And they were all wonderful singers. But they weren’t the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five or the Stones. Music changed forever with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and my Dad changed from a kid listening to Eddy Arnold, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Hank Snow, Ferlin Husky and other Country greats, to a kid who was desperate to go to New York City and see the Beatles live, a dream he almost realized one evening while visiting his sister in Brooklyn in August of 1965, but alas, it was not to be. But that’s another story for another day.
The key here is that I would not have been born in the West Midlands of England in April of 1996 had it not been for my Dad’s intense desire to live in the UK, which stemmed in large part from the British Invasion, which was influenced by the music of two kids raised in New York City who met by chance in Los Angeles in 1950 and ended-up being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Their roll call is staggering – from Elvis to John Lennon, Leiber and Stoller created a wonderful portfolio of timeless music that endures generation after generation.
As for this kid from the West Midlands – well, I’m just grateful that they inspired my Dad to put England on his “Bucket List”. Oh yea, I’m also very grateful for his musical collection as well, which will be mine one day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What is Customer Experience

For the past 2.5 years I have been gainfully employed as the SVP of Sales for Market Force Information, a firm that provides customer intelligence solutions to business-to-consumer companies, giving them the business intelligence they need to delight their customers. We enable our clients to SEE their business through their customer's eyes; to ACT with confidence and make the right decisions to GROW the bottom line.

So how do we do all of this? Well, we evaluate the customer experience from two viewpoints: first, the customer's perceptions and second, the operational realities that create those perceptions. (Remember these two because we are going to return to them shortly.) Finally, we identify actions required at the store level to improve customer loyalty and financial performance.

Okay, so let's talk customer perception. Not too long ago I was visiting our local GameStop, which is located in that small shopping complex just off of Roswell Rd. by Atlanta Ballet and Public's. You know the one - the one right between Papa John's and Starbucks. I was with my 12 year old daughter (Ellie) and she was looking at the "SIMS" line of games, but unfortunately at the ones that were age inappropriate. Brian, the store manager, helped me to convince Ellie that the games she was looking at were in fact not appropriate and confirmed that no other parent was buying those games for their 12 old daughters, or sons. He aligned with me and was my partner in helping me to keep my daughter aligned with the right level of games for her age. What do you think my perception of Brian and GameStop are as a result of that experience?

Another example: I walked into my favorite Panera Restaurant this morning at 6:30 a.m. to purchase a cup of coffee and a pastry. Pretty early in the morning, but I was met with the biggest smiles and hello's that you could ever imagine. Now I go in there on a fairly regular basis and I can tell you that this morning was no different than the first morning I walked into that restaurant over two years ago. They simply choose to be extraordinarily friendly and as a result I always find myself walking out of there with an equally huge smile on my face. What's that customer experience feel like?

You see, I've become very aware of what happens when I walk into a store, a restaurant, even my Doctor's practice. Let me give you an example of a retail store where my experience is often driven by one single individual. Joesph A. Banks on the corner of Weicua and Peachtree is a pretty typical men's retail clothing outlet where bargains and discounts are often the order of the day. I don't purchase a lot of things there, but I really like this one chap who always treats me like an individual, who always takes the time to chat and catch-up on family and how things are going with business. Yes, he is there is make a sale and he can always depend upon me to purchase from him, exclusively. I walk out of the store if he is not working at the time I visit. Two years ago during the Christmas season I purchased a leather jacket for my son Joseph. The jacket was $700 marked down to $450. I also purchased a couple of casual suits for myself, but when I went to check out I discovered the bill was significantly less than I had anticipated. Why? Because my favorite retailer (let's call him Andy) had slipped in an extra 50% off coupon on the leather jacket. Did he have to do that to close the sale? Was I even expecting him to do it? No, but in exchange for being a "loyal" customer (another term we need to examine)Andy took the hit on the sale. Guess where I still go today for my casual suits, and who I still exclusively deal with when I go into the store? An exceptional customer experience is what Andy strives to provide to every one of his customers, and believe me when I say that there are a cadre of customers who only deal with Andy when they visit that store.

So customer experience is both personal and emotional. It's that feeling you get in the bottom of your stomach when you know that you are being treated exactly as you want and expect to be treated when you frequent an establishment. It's the person in Starbucks who knows what you typically order when you walk in the door. It's the bartender who knows your favorite drink. It's that guy at the Marriott Courtyard in Louisville, Colorado who always remembers your name and always has the room you like to stay in reserved for you!

Notice I haven't mentioned any unpleasant experiences. Why? Because we all have them and they are just simply too easy to focus on. I would rather you focus on the outstanding experiences and think about how you nurture those experiences. Do you fill out the web survey and tell the company that you had a great experience? I do, every chance I get. I look for names and try to write them down so I can specifically call out an individuals extra care. We live in an "Experience Economy", but we often fail to appreciate the extra attention and care it takes to make an experience exceptional. Interestingly, we are equally reluctant to take the time to articulate unpleasant experiences as well, as least not to the stakeholders that care most about understanding what happened. Instead, we post to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Linkedin, etc. We tell our friends and business associates, but we don't complain to the landlords.

So at Market Force we help the landlords understand what is happening inside of their retail stores, their restaurants, their banks, their petrol stations and their motion picture theaters - we evaluate the customer experience from the perspective of the custoemr and then we examine the operational realities that created those perceptions; for example: were the toliets clean? Were the staff smiling and helpful? Was the popcorn hot? Was I offered a receipt? Did the young woman walk me to the asile that contained the product I had just inquired about? How long did I wait in the queue? Was my food hot when it arrived? How long did it take for a server to appear to take my order? Was my favorite ice cream in stock? Was the water clean when I went to clean the windscreen on my car? Operational realities!

So why am I rambling on about customer experience? Because it's important that we don't dismiss postive expereinces as being unimportant. You are loyal to certain businesses because of the experiences you enjoy when you visit those establishments. Why do people stay with the same Doctor for years? In fact, the reason that I go to Holy Spirit Catholic Church instead of the Catholic Church that I first attended when I arrived in Atlanta is down to the fact that my family and I find the "experience" at Holy Spirit more satisfying. It's not a spiritual thing, but the sense of community and belonging at Holy Spirit is powerful, and that is the experience that makes it more comfortable for us. And that sense of loyalty we feel towards Holy Spirit is something we share with every new Catholic we meet who is moving to our community. The same goes for you because loyalty drives word of mouth as well as return business. That is why it is such a powerful driver in business today. As Jeffrey Gitomer said in his book, "Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless!"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson

Listening to President Obama last evening was an interesting experience, especially since I was surrounded by my British wife and her parents, who are visiting us at the moment from the West Midlands of the UK.
On first reflection, I thought the President did an amazing job of keeping the focus on the victims and those around them that displayed remarkable courage under fire. He could have taken the opportunity to point fingers, to assess blame, to campaign for gun reform, etc. Instead, he spoke like the leader that this nation wants him to be. Marcus Buckingham wrote in his book, “The One Thing You Need to Know”, that “Great leaders rally people to a better future”. I believe that is exactly what President Obama attempted to do last night. He spoke about this country in terms that resonate with me and I suspect many Americans. We are a much better nation than we have acting over the past few years and we can raise the bar again if we collectively decide to put the rhetoric and divisiveness aside.
I remember as a child listening to President Kennedy’s inauguration speech. As he addressed those nations “who would make themselves our adversary”, he offered not a threat, but a request that we all look for “what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us.” He said that “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” It is a speech that transcends time and one that I keep printed and close to me because I believe Jack Kennedy demonstrated extraordinary leadership that day in setting out a course for the future with a clear vision around what he believed this nation needed to do over the coming years.
Barack Obama is not Jack Kennedy – but that isn’t the point. Our President attempted last evening, under the most tragic circumstances, to reset the tone. To ask that we all take a moment to pause, to reflect on the dialogue, and to move forward with conversations that heal and not wound. Can we do it? Are we willing to take a step back and look at what happened in Tucson and agree that we don’t want to ever raise the discourse to a level of violence?
We don’t know what caused that young man to go off the deep end – to reach a mental state of mind that motivated him to purchase a gun and then randomly kill and wound a dozen innocent bystanders. I can’t point my fingers at Sarah Palin or anyone else and say that person was responsible for this horrible event. Nor can you, although many of you will try.
The point is not to dwell on what occurred, but to think seriously about what can be done to prevent another occurrence; i.e.: how do we as a nation raise the bar on how we engage one another? Throughout the history of our government, people have disagreed, and yet they found ways to communicate. Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Bush Senior, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton are just a few who come to mind. These are/were men who believed that compromise was not a sign of weakness, but the normal “give & take” expected of a government leader. What drove us to the current environment of “take no prisoners?”
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the issue of guns; especially given I was surrounded by folks who long ago gave up the right to own handguns to ensure the safety of the majority of Brit’s. Yea, I know the argument. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But when over 14 million plus guns are sold in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than 21 of the worlds standing armies combined, and over 14 billion rounds of ammo are purchased and stockpiled, you got to wonder if this is exactly what our founding fathers envisioned when they wrote the Bill of Rights!
Amendment 2 of the Bill of Rights, which was written at the same time as the Constitution, reads that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I certainly understand the context at the time the Constitution was written – we would fight another war with the UK in 1812 and it was won by citizens bearing arms. The West was won by citizens bearing arms. Jessie James and his gang were defeated in the streets of Northfield, Minnesota by citizens bearing arms. In fact, our history is filled with stories about courageous men and women who defended their homes and the homes of their neighbors. Guns are part of our history – no doubt. But do they have a place in our current history, especially when millions of them are finding their way into Mexico and literally arming the drug cartels there?
I don’t pretend to have the answer. I grew up with guns. I got my first single shot .22 cal when I was 11 or 12 years old. There were four boys and we all had rifles and shotguns and there always seemed to be plenty of ammo on those occasions when we actually fired our weapons, which actually wasn’t very often. We will spend hours in the woods or down by the river, but mostly guns were just something we carried because it was sort of cool to do so. We played lots of war games when we were kids and sometimes we would remove the bolt and use our rifles as our war guns. Don’t forget, I was born just 5 years after WWII ended and there was lots of surplus army gear to be had at the local Army Surplus Store. We had helmets, uniforms, tents, first aid kits, c-rations…………the store was like a warehouse and you could buy just about anything there for a buck or less. The guns were just part of our playtime, although we had all attended gun safety courses and would get our ears boxed severely if we did anything to violate the basic rules.
Vietnam and nine years in the Marines eventually took their toll and I lost my fascination for guns. I don’t own any today and haven’t since the day I got out the Marines in 1976. I can’t say I’ve ever missed them or felt a need to have one. Just not part of my personality I suppose. When I used to take Joe to the annual Scout camping trip where the kids got to shoot all sorts of older weapons, I never had an urge to participate. The old timer who used to bring the guns to the river for the Scouts to fire once asked me if I wanted to shoot a few rounds from an M14 he had on the table. He had heard that I was in the Marines in the late 60’s and knew that I would have qualified on the Rifle Range with the M14. I just smiled and said no thanks. He looked at me for a few moments and then moved on the next adult in the line. But I think he knew what was swirling about in my head and he understood.
If it were up to me, we would ban the sale of all handguns starting yesterday, and we would require all rifles and shotguns to be maintained at gun clubs. Not practical of course and it will never happen. Still, it would be nice to see some tighter regulation around the requirements for acquiring a handgun – things like requiring a permit, requirements for gun safety courses, background checks, registration of the serial numbers, etc. I would also like to see a requirement that anyone who purchases a handgun must first demonstrate that they have a secure place to maintain once it gets to their home or office. And finally, only folks with a need to carry a gun would be given a permit to do so, and carrying a gun without a permit would result in a significant fine and jail time, depending upon the circumstances.
Okay, enough of that rant.
Back to Tucson, and what we are going to do to raise the level of discourse. How would you suggest we get back on track? Love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 - A Year in Review

2010 – A Year in Review
Just a few days remaining before we put a lid on the year 2010, the first year of my sixth decade running around this planet in this body, which seems to be holding up remarkably well given the abuse it has taken over the years. I will remember it as the year that my Ellie started her transformation from a young girl into a young woman, and the year that my Mom made her transition from life on earth to what I sincerely believe is a peaceful and joyful union with God. Suffice it to say that I miss my Mom and I think of her constantly – last night I was having a snack with Joe and Ellie at the food court in Phipps Plaza before we entered the movie theater to watch “True Grit” and Ellie said something that created this tremendous visual image of my Mom. But as I tried to explain it to them, they just looked at me with puzzled faces because they could not grasp the image that sat so vividly in my mind’s eye. Oh well, I suppose that is natural given how much longer I had spent with my Mother over the years. I just hope the kids don’t think I’m having some weird flashback from the 60’s!
Anyway, back to 2010. So much happened this year across so many spectrums – geographical, political, financial, ecological, religious – where to start? I suppose the key player from my perspective has been the continued financial meltdown for so many people across the globe. People have lost their jobs, their homes, and in many ways, their very identity. So many of us think about ourselves in terms of what we do for a living, who we work for, how much money we have invested and what’s going on with those investments – where our kids go to school today and where they will go to school tomorrow. We create these identities that are tied to money and material belongings, and suddenly all of these creature comforts are removed from our lives. People are living with relatives, with friends, in their cars and on the streets. People are reduced to worrying about where they are going to find the next meal for their children and all the other worries that used to keep them up at night have evaporated along with any concept of stable employment or a right to work. Companies are sitting on hoards of cash, not hiring…………..just sitting on the sidelines waiting for some financial miracle to occur, some sudden recovery of the housing market, the job market, the global market. Just sitting and watching instead of being the initiators, the creators of that miracle. As I’m sitting here writing this missive, I received a note from a friend in NYC who has just been turned down again – a brilliant young woman who well educated, is well traveled, who has incredible experience across a multiplicity of disciplines, and yet she can’t get a job! What’s does that say about our future when an extraordinarily talented thirty-four year old woman can’t find a position in NYC? What part of Economics 101 don’t people get? If we don’t create jobs that create paychecks that get spent in the economy that create jobs that create paychecks, then this thing is never going to get kick-started! Hell, you don’t need a PhD in Economics to know that people have to work to survive and if corporate America doesn’t stop sitting on the cash and start investing in our national future, then there will be no national future. Don’t even get me started on China and how far ahead they are in so many areas, but especially Education.
We continue to fund two senseless military engagements that are bleeding us of essential funds needed to help launch a nationwide recovery. We just reconfirmed a tax concession for the wealthiest one percent of the national wage earners who allegedly create employment, which is why we reconfirmed the tax concession for them as well as others who could have easily withstood the reinstatement of the Clinton era tax rates. Remember the Clinton era – the one where we had a significant budget surplus and the unemployment rate ran in the mid-four percent range. The impact on me would have been around $7,000 on an annual basis, which isn’t a small amount of money – about $136.62 a week, but a tax rate that I would have gladly accepted if it would help the country get on track.
What happened to the concept of “asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” Isn’t there anyone left who still believes that this country represents the best possible form of government available to us today? Are we all so jaded and so insular that we can’t see that there are times when the needs of the many outweigh our own individual concerns?
I know, I know – you think I sound like a bleeding heart liberal, or worse, a socialist who wants to divide everything equally regardless of personal effort. But folks, I’m not either. I’m a moderate conservative and what I trust with all my heart is my faith in God, my faith in my family, and my faith in this country.
These are serious times folks and we need serious measures if we are going to pull ourselves out of this misery. We need corporate America to take those cash reserves and invest in America. We need government leaders who have the courage to stand up for what is right, not just what is politically expedient. And we need to take this year and put it behind us – far behind us!
I don’t know if we have elected leaders with true courage. I guess only time will tell, but hopefully these new leaders along with those leaders returning for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and longer terms will understand that time is not on our side at the moment. We need decisive action and we will be evaluating every move, every decision, and every vote.
In 2012 we will be electing a new national leader or reconfirming our faith in President Obama. Two years is a very short time, but we can do some much as a nation if we make up our minds to turn this situation around. What are you willing to do?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Customer Experience Matters

I recently made arrangements to rent a car from a second tier agency; i.e.: not Hertz, Enterprise or National. The rate seemed particularly appealing and given I needed it for a week during one of my jaunts to Denver; I figured I would give them a try as I’m always trying to save the firm a buck if I can.
I arrived at Denver International on time having been upgraded to first class by my friends at Delta. My bag was on the carousel by the time I had navigated the train to baggage claim and so I walked to the rental car bus island in a pretty chipper mood.
All of happiness slipped away however as I listened to the rental car agent describe the terms and conditions for the car I had arranged. First, I was “upgraded” to a mid-size although I had reserved a compact. There was no conversation or rate adjustment – I was simply told that I would be in a mid-size and quoted the rate, which was of course higher than the rate I had arranged through our corporate travel agency. I was then asked if I need to take the toll road. I replied that I did and was told that a toll pass was $32 for the week, even though I would only be on the road twice during the week. The cost for a one-way journey from Denver to Boulder is $8.00, which means they were charging me twice the fee. Enterprise by comparison charges a tiny admin fee plus the cost of the toll and adds the charges to my credit card after they receive the bill from the state.
I was then provided a multiplicity of terms and conditions, all designed to add to the overall cost of the rental car. For example, I must provide a receipt for petrol from a station no further than ten miles from the airport or incur incremental charges. If I return the car more than a day early or a day late I incur an additional charge of $25. If I do this or do that, then there are incremental charges. It was the most incredible dialogue and for a moment I thought that surely Ashton Kutcher was hiding behind the wall and I was being “punked”.
As a Senior Vice President with Market Force, a firm that focuses on helping some of the world’s largest Business to Consumer companies identify the most important issues associated with customer experience, I am constantly tuned in to my own experiences, and this one truly rates high on the all time worst customer experience list.
So what is the recipe for a good customer experience? How do you ensure you provide an experience that encourages your guests (notice I did not say customers) to not only return and do business with you again, but also tell their friends and colleagues to engage your services, purchases your products, etc.?
Well, I'm fairly certain that it does not begin with an agent who is paid a minimum wage and could care less about your experience. It also does not begin with policies that are punitive and designed to extract the maximum amount of cash from the unsuspecting guest.
After my own experience, I went into Goggle and explored the number of complaints against this firm and wasn’t surprised to find that there were a fair number registered. From overcharging for insurance coverage that wasn’t requested to insane charges for petrol, this firm has done it all.
The Business-to-Consumer environment is extremely competitive, especially the rental car market. I am especially fond of Enterprise because of their focus on the customer experience – I can honestly say I have never had a bad experience with Enterprise. Their prices are always the most competitive however and so like any consumer I shop around from time to time to find the best rates. Unfortunately, this time I managed to shop myself an unfortunate set of circumstances, but I can correct this next time by eliminating Dollar Rental Car from the list of companies that I will engage going forward.
Bottom Line – Customer Experience is the only thing that matters if you want to stay in business in the B-to-C world. How you measure and manage it is critical to customer loyalty, and customer loyalty is critical to your financial success. It isn’t rocket science, but some firms just don’t get it!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Comcast Experience

Most folks who know me also know that I work for Market Force Information, a leading Customer Intelligence firm headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. Well, actually, the headquarters is in Louisville, which is just outside of Boulder, but Boulder always seems a tad more impressive. A good deal of Customer Intelligence is wrapped around the customer experience, and the customer experience is based on the customer's perception of the experience and the operational realities that create the experience.

I want to share a story about my customer experience with Comcast, including my perceptions of the experience and the operational realities that created those perceptions. It is fundamentally a story about gross incompetence, which may or may not surprise you depending upon how much interaction you have had with Comcast. For those folks that I have spoken with who have Comcast as their Internet, cable television or telephone service provider, this story is not particularly surprising. For folks who have not engaged Comcast, they are mostly amused by the comedy of errors that have beset me and my family as we have struggled to finalize our service installation. I suppose when I think about the overall experience I also have to laugh at the comedy, but I can assure the frustration is not funny and the time that I have had to invest with Comcast trying to sort out the situation has also not been amusing. Still, when you are dealing with the Three Stooges you have to laugh a bit even though it is painful to watch them.

So my story begins nearly six weeks ago when I decide to cancel my DirectTV contract and move to Comcast cable TV and VOIP to go along with the Comcast High Speed Internet Service that I'd been enjoying for several years. I made the call into the sales department, spoke with an absolutely delightful young lady by the name of April and arranged for three television points to be installed along with the VOIP service. It was explained that porting the existing home telephone number from AT&T with take a couple of weeks, but we found a Saturday that worked for my schedule and finalize the arrangements. So far, so good.

On the Saturday in question, the service technician who had been scheduled to visit my home called me to ask me what he was actually going to be doing when he got to my house. Okay, I said: "Don't you have a service order?" "Well yes sir, but I just wanted to confirm with you." Okay, I thought.....this isn't that strange and so I explained what he was supposed to do. He then explained that there were no VOIP modems available and therefore he would be unable to install that service. Okay I said, how about coming over and installing the television cable service. "No problem, be there in 30 minutes", which he was, but of course without the right equipment or tools, so he ended up doing a rather terrible job and it was obvious he was in way over his head. Of course, it didn't help that he could not get his supervisor on the phone or that his dispatch kept calling him wanting to know why he had not checked-in, what happened with his previous visit, and when the hell he was going to make his next appointment. The net/net is that he left without finishing the job, but promised someone would call me to set-up another appointment to address the gaps. Oh yea, and he also managed to un-hook our Internet service while he was in the garage, which he freely admitted when he returned much later that day after I spent over two hours on the phone with Comcast fighting to have someone return to address the Internet outage. He said he was never told there was Internet service at our location - of course I had told him that morning, but it clearly wasn't on his service order, which he shared with me. In fact, there was nearly nothing on that service order, which is why he called me to begin with; i.e.: he really didn't know what he was supposed to do when he arrived at our home.

Days go by and no one calls, so we call back and to make a very long story short, we have now had two additional service calls and we still don't have the VOIP service and the cable is still running across the floor in the den and the cable point in the home office still doesn't work and no one at Comcast seems to be able to sort things out. I have written to their VP of Customer Service, and his message reader appointed an "Escalation Person" to my case. He/she sent me an email asking me to contact him/her, which I attempted to do about 30 minutes ago, but without success. Voice Mail rules at Comcast and he/she had not updated his/her voice mail since June 18th, which gave me considerable confidence in this person's ability to fix things.

So I just don't get it! An initial problem or two is not the end of the world, but this has to be the most incompetent group of people I have ever encountered in over 30 years of working in the technology sector. They can't spell Customer Service and to give anyone at the firm a title that suggests they actually understand the concept of customer service is simply self-serving and ultimately stupid because they don't have a clue about what it takes to serve customers. And the sad part of all of this is that I don't even know any anyone really cares. The service technicians slam customer service who slam sales who slam the whole eco-system. I had a technician stand in my house and tell me that he completely understood my frustration with Comcast because he was equally frustrated with their lack of process and quality management. Wow! A service technician slamming the firm really gave me tremendous confidence in my decision to switch to Comcast.

So, the saga continues and eventually I'm confident that either the service will be sorted or I'll cancel everything and start over with another service provider. But I'm still baffled that in today's economy companies like Comcast still don't get it.
Can anyone explain Comcast to me?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"A Sense of Urgency"

A couple of years ago, John Kotter published a book entitled “A Sense of Urgency”, which I recently found on my bookshelf and managed to read over this past weekend. I was particularly struck by the relevance this book has to the current debate around a National Health Care Program. Mr. Kotter describes true urgency as a “gut level determination to move and win, now.” He describes the enemies of true urgency as complacency and a false sense of urgency, which is typically driven by anxiety and anger. He also notes that a sense of complacency results in avoidance, and a false sense of urgency drives a lot of unproductive activity; i.e.: busy work that usually results in frustration and resentment.
Like many Americans, I tuned in to President Obama’s Health Care Summit held in Washington last week, and I must admit that I was equally unimpressed with both sides as the “conversation” evolved during the course of the day. My primary reaction to the debate was that I felt there was a genuine absence of “true urgency” as defined by Mr. Kotter. There were indeed many references to various data and so-called facts, but both political parties failed to tell a compelling story that reached out to all Americans.
Instead of looking for the compromises that could deliver some immediate wins and begin to establish credibility for a broader program designed in the spirit of what serves the national interests over the longer term, both parties held to their ideological self-interests and ultimately gained very little, except perhaps to reinforce their helplessness and inability to advance the national interests, which is ultimately why they were sent to Washington.
I suspect Mr. Kotter would find an interesting case study for his book by dissecting the Health Care debate – complacency by those who would do nothing, and a false sense of urgency by those who would follow the path towards measures that would frustrate the masses and accomplish little in the sense of true Health Care reform.
Americans face an impending crisis with Health Care increasingly absorbing more and more our GDP. But as Mr. Kotter points out, there are upside possibilities in every crisis, but one must be selective and apply great care to avoid creating a false sense of urgency, which ultimately sends people running about doing things that produce limited results.
In the final analysis, it’s incumbent upon all Americans to communicate their dissatisfaction, and their real priorities to the folks that represent us in the Senate and the House, as well as those that sit in the Executive and Judicial branches. How do we most effectively help them to understand that we want them to assume a “true sense of urgency?” First, by communicating where you want them to focus, and second, by directing your political contributions only to those elected officials who demonstrate they are listening by behaving accordingly. Campaign contributions speak volumes to those who wish to remain in office come this November.
The technology community in Georgia have had to find a true sense of urgency over the past two years as we have weathered this economic storm. Hard decisions have been taken in the wake of financial realities – priorities have been carefully reviewed over and over again. Some firms have assumed a bunker mentality while others have been more aggressive, seizing opportunities as they have surfaced. But all understand that making the wrong decisions could result in financial disaster.
Perhaps it is time for our national leadership to follow our example. Perhaps it is time to set aside party ideologies and focus on a select list of national priorities, because the decisions made over the coming weeks and months could very well dictate the financial health of this nation for years to come.
Assuming a “true sense of urgency” that creates a national determination “to move and win, now” must become the national agenda and I urge everyone to join me in communicating that message today.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reflections on a Winter Day

I was sitting in the West Midlands of England just before the New Year, enjoying the tranquility of my wife's parents home, and was drawn into a period of reflection about the year that had nearly finished. Overall, it was a very positive year, especially with respect to my career, which has improved dramatically since I joined Market Force in the Fall of 2008 as a Sales Consultant tasked with improving the sales environment and driving significant improvement in the acquisition of new business and the retention of the existing base of customers. In April of 2009 I accepted a full time position as the SVP of Sales along with what I perceived at the time to be a fairly stiff sales target, especially given the team's 2008 performance and the changes I had made during the previous six months.

Well, we blew through the Board target before Thanksgiving and the Team target in early December. The final numbers put us significantly over target for the year with a very healthy pipeline of new business opportunities entering 2010. All in all, it was an amazing performance turned in by a very talented group of professional sales associates, ranging from young and relatively inexperienced to highly seasoned. There are of course a few superstars, but what would a sales organization be without some superstars?

So how did I manage this stunning turnaround? Good question! Unfortunately, there isn't a simple answer. Is there ever? Changing the fortunes of a sales team that has experienced several years of less than stellar performance coupled with a number of changes in the Sales Leadership position doesn't happen overnight. Change takes a subtle mix of aggression and patience; knowing when to makes moves related to personnel, compensation, sales targets, metrics, and all the other swirling pieces of the sales puzzle.

How do you know when to push one button versus another? Sorry, I can't give you a blueprint because Sales Leadership is an acquired skill - acquired after years of getting it wrong more often than right; after working with the best and sometimes the worst; but most often you're surrounded by people who are completely out of place........people who simply don't have the talent or the passion to "carry a bag" (sales speak for being a quota-bearing sales person)...........why do otherwise very talented people allow themselves to fall into jobs that they dislike and can't ultimately get their minds around?

Okay, back to the original thrust of this dialogue; i.e.: how do you create a successful sales organization? I'm not being coy when I say that the answer is complex and the details of each success are as different as the fingerprints on your hand.

You start with talent.....everything follows talent. Like the man said: "you have to have the right people on the bus." Don't underestimate the importance of securing the most talented team you can find, keeping in mind that not all talent comes fully baked on day one. At the same time, some folks need to be helped to understand that a bad fit is a bad fit and change for them is an immediate priority, both theirs and yours! Don't spend a lot of time fighting your intuition....make the changes that feel right and move on with all the other important issues that lie ahead.

Once you've selected your team, lay out the metrics. Metrics are the key to building any successful team. Measuring every aspect of sales performance from the outbound activities through sales closure - what we affectionately call the "Waterfall" - is the next most critical step in shaping the team. Establish standards for performance, coach the team to those standards (the entire team), and track and measure relentlessly. Good things come out of metrics! Trust me on this one. There isn't one successful Sales Leader out there who doesn't apply standards for sales performance, establishes metrics to track those standards, and drives his/her team towards exceeding those standards each and every day.

Okay, so you have the folks in place that set the have established solid metrics and have the tracking mechanism in place to consistently and accurately gauge performance. Now is the time to find a training partner, someone who will work closely with you to tailor a training curriculum that focuses on your team's performance needs, and not some off the shelf program that's designed for the masses. Establishing standards of performance requires a framework that the entire team understands and adopts. What's the best sales performance training program? It's the one you select, you reinforce on a daily basis, and you embed in your organizatinal stick with it when everyone wants to introduce their favorite training partner to you.

I'm quite fond of a firm in Dallas, Texas - Acclivus Corporation - and one of their top independent consultants, Charles Gottenkieny. I've been working with Charles and Acclivus for over twenty years and I've established a relationship based upon trust and results. We've worked across multiple organizations and we've had various degrees of success, but our results thus far at Market Force certainly rank at the very top. I won't go into the details of everything we've done over the past year, but suffice it to say that finding your trusted training partner is another critical element in building a successful sales organization.

Let's see: A talented team; Standards, Metrics, Tracking; a well laid out sales training curriculum.........what else is needed?

For me, it's the environment, or what many folks fondly refer to as the "Sales Culture." Building a sales culture that celebrates success, that is geared towards success, and fundamentally leads the business every single day is the most important role for the Sales Leader. Sales professionals operate at maximum efficiency when they are placed in an environment designed to support their success. The sales compensation plan needs to be an integral part of that environment; i.e.: you pay people to be successful and you don't begrudge them those earnings. This is one area where don't want to be frugal. Fairness and honesty are also equally important. The key is establishing a reputation for paying for success, which will serve the organization in multiple ways, but especially in your new talent acquisition efforts.

Recognition is another massively important element in the mix. Sales professionals are by nature egotistic. They crave recognition and it is the Sales Leader's role to ensure that recognition is forthcoming. People often talk about the sales hero's within their firms, but how often do they, or you, treat them as hero's?

This brings us to another key point. What is the role of the Sales Leader? First and foremost, the Sales Leader is charged with creating the Sales Culture. He/She is primarily responsible with creating an environment wherein selling happens and is celebrated. It is not his or her job to assume the role of the hero. The best Sales Leaders that I know are relatively modest folks. They shamelessly promote their superstars, quietly coach their under-performers, and constantly strive to stand between their team and any organizational issues that might impede the ongoing success of the team. It's surprising how many organizations create sales barriers! The Sales Leader needs to be the filter that screens the sales organization from all the noise and distractions and allows the sales professionals to focus on closing new business, which is what they are paid to do. A bit of advice here - if you find that your sales team is spending less than 90% of their time engaged in core sales activities; i.e.: prospecting, business development, and closing, then stop what you are doing and reassess everything. Sales should not be doing the marketing function, nor should they be editing contracts or writing operational briefs. Focus your sales professionals on selling!

Beyond these four foundation strategies there are an endless array of collateral strategies and tactics that can be applied depending upon your individual circumstances. But get these big four right and you exponentially increase your opportunity for creating a successful sales organization.

So, let's recap:

1. Start with the best talent.

2. Set performance expectations by defining the right metrics, establishing measurements and a mechanism for consistent and accurate tracking.

3. Find a solid sales performance training partner and create a tailored program for your team. Then implement that program with commitment and enthusiasm.

4. Finally, establish a sales culture that rewards performance and keeps the sales team focused on selling and pushes everything unrelated to new business acquisition to one side.

This folks is my recipe for success. Thus far it has served me well. Market Force has just experienced a banner year and if January is any indication, then 2010 is going to continue down that path. Oh there will certainly be new challenges, including the higher expectations that follow any successful year. We will also want to continue to find new ways to delight our existing clients, ensuring that they not only remain with us in 2010, but also grow as we continue to innovate and develop new methodologies for measuring and understanding the discipline of "Customer Experience"