To subcontract or not to subcontract, that is the question

Hand drawing network

Are you one to work alone or create networks to share projects?

I’ve been wrestling lately with a question that all self-employed people face at some point: to subcontract or not to subcontract. Is it better to retain the business you have, or should you farm some of it out? It’s a question that touches on issues of control, management, income, philosophy and lifestyle.

As your little business grows, you soon realize there only so many hours in a day. All of a sudden, you’re juggling multiple projects with overlapping deadlines. Do you call in reinforcements, or do you buckle down and get the job done? I think it depends on your personality, your reasons for going into business in the first place, and how comfortable you are collaborating and sharing work.

In the public relations field, it is very common for solo practitioners to subcontract work, especially if the scope of the project extends beyond their area of expertise. For example, I am not a graphic designer or a web developer, but I have contracted these services for my clients.

The conventional wisdom about subcontracting is that it is generally a good thing. It’s how you get through busy periods, satisfy clients who need specialized skills or grow your business.

Pick up any book on management, and you will find a chapter on the importance of delegating work. It frees you up to be more strategic and to spend time on projects that add value to your firm.

Mike Michalowicz, author of “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur,” says it well: “As an entrepreneur, it is your job to identify what you are great at and do those few things to your fullest. Surround yourself with people who are strong where you are not. Great companies are built on the foundation of exploiting a few strengths, not on trying to be masters of everything.”

I tend to agree, but deciding to subcontract is not always a black or white decision. As Michalowicz says, you need to recognize where your talents lie—what makes your services valuable and unique. Those are your crown jewels and ought not to be outsourced. On the other hand, trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout—and mediocrity. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and ask, “Am I really the only one who can do this?” Often you can find someone who is better than you to do the job.

There is also the issue of control. Many sole proprietors are happy working by themselves. They enjoy the one-on-one relationships with their clients and the freedom to set their own schedule and call their own shots. Subcontracting their clients’ projects to someone else may not appeal to them. They don’t want to lose control of the process and may view the extra time required to manage subcontractors as a burden.

Setting business goals and reviewing them periodically can help you decide when subcontracting is appropriate. While subcontracting can free you up to develop more business, that may not be your goal. Perhaps you prefer to stay small, nimble and singularly focused. If that’s the case, you may only want to subcontract occasionally or simply reduce your client load if things get hectic.

Remember, there is a reason why you decided to go into business for yourself. Don’t lose sight of it when things get busy.

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Strunk & White’s little book on style still packs a punch

The Elements of Style

My 1972 edition of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” The blurb on the cover still rings true.

It’s been 95 years since William Strunk Jr.’s guide to style was first published by Harcourt. In the years prior to its publication, Professor Strunk circulated his “little book” to English students at Cornell University, one of whom was a budding young author named E.B. White.

“The Elements of Style,” a slim, concise guide to writing that lives up to its own rules about clarity and simplicity, has gone through multiple editions and influenced English usage for generations. White would later revise and add to Strunk’s original work for a 1959 edition by Macmillan that became known simply as “Strunk & White.” Since then, there have been other editions, including my own copy that was published in 1972.

When I began writing seriously after college, there were four go-to books on my shelf: Webster’s New World Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, Stunk & White and the AP Stylebook. Now all of those are available online, and you can search any number of excellent grammar and usage websites.

Still, Strunk & White is what I return to, and I prefer my paperback copy.

I’ve taken on a writing project this summer that requires me to produce two to four news items every afternoon. They must be brief and to the point—no more than 250 words each. Most of my writing for clients consists of longer-form articles, white papers or speeches, so brevity has been a welcome change-up. It’s also been a challenge since the deadlines are fixed. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark about a hanging in the morning, nothing focuses the mind like a deadline!

So Strunk & White has come down from the shelf. The rules are timeless, and they remind us of our duty as communicators: to choose words carefully, to use the active voice, to be precise and accurate, to not overwrite or overstate, and to keep ourselves in the background.

Here are a few gems from the little book. See if they strike a chord with you.

Put statements in positive form. “Make definite statements. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as means of evasion.”

Use definite, specific, concrete language. “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”

Omit needless words. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, only that every word tell.”

Avoid fancy words. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

Be clear. “Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh…Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point: the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.”

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Social media’s growing influence with consumers

Social media iconsAn article in the latest McKinsey Quarterly by Jacques Bughin, “Getting a sharper picture of social media’s influence,” describes new research involving European consumers and the growing impact of social media on their buying decisions. While these findings are based on consumer behavior “across the pond,” they provide insight into ways marketers and public relations practitioners here in the U.S. can harness the power of likes, tweets and posts.

Bughin’s team, based in Brussels, examined the purchasing decisions of 20,000 European consumers, across 30 product areas and more than 100 brands, in 2013 and 2014. Respondents were asked how social media influenced their decision journeys and about instances when they themselves recommended products.

According to Bughin, “We found that the impact of social media on buying decisions is greater than previously estimated and growing fast, but that its influence varies significantly across product categories. Moreover, only a small slice of social influencers are creating the buzz.”

Social recommendations, Bughin writes, led to 26 percent of purchases across all product categories, substantially higher, he notes, than the 10 to 15 percent others have estimated. He also found that roughly two-thirds of social media’s impact was direct (it played a critical role in decision-making) and the remaining third was indirect (it created an awareness of the product or helped the buyer evaluate product attributes).

What’s interesting, and it makes sense to me, is that the influence of social media varies across categories. As you might expect, at the low end, only 15 percent of consumers reported using social media in choosing utility services. But for categories such as travel, investment services and over-the-counter drugs, 40 to 50 percent of consumers looked to social media for recommendations.

Here are some other interesting findings gleaned from the article:

  • Product categories tend to have their own set of influencers on social media, and they don’t cross over very much to other categories.
  • Analog media remain important. The research showed that about half of recommendations were made offline (in person or by phone).
  • Influencers account for a disproportionate share of total product recommendations. For example, in fashion categories, 5 percent of recommenders accounted for 45 percent of the social influence generated. Overall, 10 percent of active influencers accounted for 24 percent of total recommendations (tweets, likes, etc.) across all product categories.
  • Online articles written by journalists are prompting consumers to seek social media to further inform their decision-making. Bughin says that “public-relations spending to generate such stories may be a worthwhile investment.” He also writes, “Companies that spend effectively on search-engine optimization (to move their product mentions to the top of search results) can expect to benefit from a greater social-media impact, as well.”
  • Television advertising acts as a substitute for social media rather than complementing it. Relatively few customers, he says, were prompted to seek out social influences after viewing a TV spot.

Bughin says that marketers should consider ways to encourage would-be customers to engage more in social media and inspire more influencers to express enthusiasm for a company’s products.

He also notes the growth in data analytics to amplify positive recommendations and gain greater understanding of product preferences and purchasing behavior. Sophisticated recommendation engines, he notes, can identify potential customers and send them messages at key points along their decision journey.

“The pathways of social influence are shifting constantly,” he concludes. “Looking ahead, better mobile devices and more robust social applications will make it even easier to share experiences about products and services. Companies can’t afford to fall behind this powerful curve.”

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Great leadership, like storytelling, answers ‘why’ not ‘how’

Child learning on a computer

When we stop asking “why,” we stop having vision.

Several years ago, I attended a Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership seminar. Ever since then, Dave (or more likely someone on his staff) has been very good about emailing me with business tips and info on his latest offerings. If anything, he’s a good marketer.

Most of the time I ignore his emails (sorry, Dave), but recently I opened one that contained a link to a 100th episode celebration of the EntreLeadership Podcast. Given that I had never listened to episodes 1-99, I thought maybe I should see for myself what the party was all about.

About 32 minutes in, after the obligatory self-congratulation about what a great success EntreLeadership has been, I discovered some golden nuggets from previous podcasts. What caught my attention was a brief clip from Daniel Pink, the author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” (To hear the interview, go to the podcast and then fast-forward to 40:40.)

Pink was being interviewed about leadership, motivation and vision when he made a key point that should be stamped on every communicator’s forehead: Storytelling works best when it answers “why” rather than “how.”

As Pink noted, storytelling has a great deal of persuasive power: “Human beings see the world as a series of episodes, not necessarily as a series of logical propositions contained on a PowerPoint deck.”

I’m sure you’ve sat through your share of underwhelming PowerPoint presentations. Despite all the data presented, they never really get at the heart of the matter. Rarely do they motivate or inspire.

“One of the things I’ve seen in leaders,” Pink said on the podcast, “is that they tend to fixate on the ‘how.’ They give short shrift to the ‘why.’ There is a huge amount of research now showing that if you want to persuade someone, explaining why they are doing it in the first place is unbelievably powerful.”

Further, Pink said, “‘Why’ is connected to vision. If a leader doesn’t know why people are doing something that is evidence that a leader doesn’t have a vision.”

An organization’s vision answers the fundamental question of why it is in business or why it serves its members or the public. One of the best guides to creating a corporate vision remains the classic 1996 Harvard Business Review article by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “Building Your Company’s Vision.”

As Collins and Porras explain, the core purpose of an organization is its reason for being. “It doesn’t just describe the organization’s output or target customers; it captures the soul of the organization,” they write.

“One powerful method for getting at purpose is the five whys,” Collins and Porras continue. “Start with the descriptive statement We make X products or We deliver X services, and then ask, Why is that important? five times. After a few whys, you’ll find that you’re getting down to the fundamental purpose of the organization.”

We’ve come to expect the best consumer brands to answer “why,” and it seems elementary to us that their advertising should hit on a basic human need for purchasing their product. Why should we buy toothpaste? Because it whitens our teeth. Why should we own a BMW? Because it’s fun to drive.

So why do so many leaders fail the why test? It’s a good question. As communicators, we should always be circling back to the whys and putting less emphasis on the hows. It’s just good storytelling.

Advises Pink: “One of the best things a leader can do this week is have two fewer conversations about how and two more about why. That simple, simple technique can make them more effective leaders.”

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Are you the Duck tape or Allen wrench of your organization?

Allen wrenches and duct tape

Duck tape and Allen wrenches both serve a purpose. Which one are you in your organization?

Many years ago, when I first moved to Washington and started working in communications, an older and wiser colleague gave me some sage advice: “Jay, you can be a generalist or a specialist, there is no set path to success in this business. You just need to decide which way you want to go, then pursue it.”

In my world, a specialist might be a web developer, a speechwriter, a graphic designer, a copywriter or a media relations specialist. A generalist is more likely to be an editor, manager, director, communications strategist or a PR consultant.

It’s been said that we specialize early in our careers, then, as we gain experience and perhaps move into management, we become generalists. That was the case in my career, starting as a reporter and editor, then public affairs director, vice president and ending up as a senior vice president.

Frankly, these last few years have been refreshing after many years in management. Now I work from home as a solo practitioner, and I’ve enjoyed rolling up my sleeves to produce client work that I once delegated to others.

My advice to those seeking a management slot is to keep up your specialist skills and stay current in your field. That expertise may prove invaluable. For example, I believe that my ability to demonstrate to my staff from time to time that I actually knew what I was talking about helped build trust and made me a better leader. It also gave me the insight to more accurately judge performance and determine staffing and resource needs.

Having a reputation for knowing how to get things done is also a wonderful insurance policy against being let go when times are tough. This is exactly what happened to my boss when an association we worked for cut its staff. He lost his management job, and I inherited what was left of the department. The scuttlebutt was that he was of less value in a downsized environment, and I was spared because of my skill set. I admired my boss a lot, so that is not how I would have liked it to have gone down, but at the time I was relieved to still have a job and be able to pay my mortgage.

There is danger, too, in being too specialized. As Vikram Mansharamani writes on the HBR Blog, “Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.”

Specialists often get too immersed in their own world, oblivious to what is happening in their organizations and unable to see the forest for the trees. Put another way, the generalist has a frame of reference that provides context and nuance for the content the specialist is expert in. It takes a generalist to connect the dots, bridge departments and create a vision for the future.

Still, I have found that every company has extraordinary specialists who are able rise above their insular domain, step out of their cubicles and make positive contributions for the betterment of the organization. They are the ones who volunteer to be on cross-functional teams, contribute at staff meetings and suggest new ways of solving old problems.

It is often specialists who do groundbreaking work, invent new things or make startling discoveries. When I was in school and played the trumpet, Miles Davis was one of my favorite musicians. You could say he was a specialist because he played the trumpet and continued to play it throughout his career. But later Davis wrote music and led bands. He pioneered the bebop and cool jazz sound and then pushed jazz into new territory with jazz fusion, influencing music and artists for generations to come.

If you are looking around your organization and wondering where you fit in and how you might contribute, think about your area of expertise and compare it to the items in a toolbox. When management needs a tool to fix a problem, who do they turn to? Do they reach for the Duck tape? Or search for an Allen wrench? Duck tape can fix many things, but only an Allen wrench can turn recessed hexagonal bolts.

If you’re the Allen wrench of your organization and hex bolts are crucial to its future, lucky you! But if hex bolts are a rarity and your talents are underutilized, perhaps it’s time to broaden your horizons. Duck tape comes in many colors, maybe there’s a roll, er role, that suits you.

 

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On rereading ‘Walden’ and the seasons of life

Walden and notes

My 85-cent copy of “Walden” and notes from 44 years ago.

Midway through my vacation last week, I opened Thoreau’s “Walden,” the same paperback edition I first read in ninth-grade English class. I still have all of my old notes. (How neat my handwriting was back then!)

I remember Mrs. Smith saying that “Walden” was a book that should be reread every summer. So every summer, I at least think about “Walden.”

One summer, I read it on the tiny screen of my personal digital assistant (remember those?). It was a Dell Axim, and you could synch it with your PC. This allowed me to transfer files, including eBooks. I liked the fact that I could highlight passages and bookmark pages. It reminded me of my first encounter with Thoreau and wanting to underline nearly every sentence.

Of course, the first time I read “Walden,” I was a teenager, so you might expect that I highlighted passages about how most men lead lives of quiet desperation and that you should step to the music that you hear, however measured or far away. Then, too, the early 1970s seemed tailor-made for Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism, nature philosophy, self-reliance and individualism. Among other things, Thoreau was an environmentalist, abolitionist and a model for future acts of civil disobedience by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Riverside Editions printing of “Walden,” first published in 1957, was edited by Sherman Paul, who wrote an introduction that I’m sure most high school students for generations found tedious and boring. I suspect most skipped over it and headed straight for the work itself. Not me. I have dutifully reread Sherman’s essay each time I pick up my dog-eared copy, battling yawns and the urge to flip through his fairly dense analysis.

It’s good preparation for what lies ahead, I tell myself. With each reintroduction to “Walden,” I marvel at Thoreau’s audacious experiment. I think about him actually living in a hut in the woods for two years. Was it really out of principle? Was he worn down from all his efforts at teaching and publishing? Was he in mourning for his brother’s death? Was he tired of making pencils (yes, he did work for a while in a pencil factory)? Or was he just a weird guy? There is something both heroic and sad about a man in his prime living alone, planting beans and writing poetry.

In my latest excursion, I am reminded by Paul that Thoreau’s book uses the seasons as its literary framework. The chapters correspond to the seasons, mirroring Thoreau’s time at the pond and his spiritual growth. The spring is a time of rebirth when Thoreau is at his most exuberant and freshest, followed by the close living and natural beauty of summer, the gathering of fall and the solitude and turning inward of winter.

It’s been over four decades since I first read “Walden.” I am entering the fall of my life, I guess, and some of the passages that excited me in the spring of my youth no longer move me like they once did. Now is the time for my gathering and reflection.

The good thing about “Walden,” and perhaps why Mrs. Smith told us we should reread it throughout our lives, is that its predominant theme is renewal. “Walden” reminds us with each reading why we began our own journeys, how we found our own place in the woods, and that each season has its time, its own lessons to teach. Even in the dead of winter, life goes on at the pond. Spring is our eternal hope, the longing we hold onto during the dark, cold night. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” Thoreau says. “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning-star.”

In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” Thoreau writes, “I learned this at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

This time when I revisit “Walden,” I will look for new clues about where I am now, how far I have come and where I am headed. There is still time to think about new vistas, new horizons and new dreams.

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‘Attraching’ and other portmanteau words

Humpty Dumpty and Alice

Humpty Dumpty explains portmanteau words to Alice in “Through the Looking-Glass.” Lewis Carroll is credited with first using “portmanteau” to describe blended words.

I’m a big fan of portmanteau words. These made-up words combine elements of two existing words to form a new one with a blended meaning. You might call them verbal mash-ups.

A portmanteau is a trunk or suitcase that opens into two equal parts, one side to carry folded clothes and the other to carry garments on hangers—an apt simile for these linguistic amalgamations. I could say meld, which itself is a portmanteau of melt and weld.

As Humpty Dumpty explains in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” (when Alice asks him about those strange words in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”), “You see, it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Carroll coined quite a few whimsical portmanteaus such as mimsy (flimsy + miserable), slithy (lithe + slimy), galumph (gallop + triumph) and chortle (chuckle + snort).

Many neologisms that began as portmanteaus have become accepted and commonly used words in our lexicon. Among them:

  • smog (smoke + fog)
  • brunch (breakfast + lunch)
  • advertorial (advertising + editorial)
  • motel (motor + hotel)
  • jazzercise (jazz + exercise)
  • infomercial (information + commercial)
  • infotainment (information + entertainment)
  • pixel (picture + element)
  • guestimate (guess + estimate)
  • webinar (web + seminar)
  • tween (teen + between)
  • smash (smack + mash)
  • spork (spoon + fork)
  • Eurasia (Europe + Asia)
  • stagflation (stagnant + inflation)
  • bromance (brother + romance)
  • pulsar (pulsating + star)

And so for a long time now, I have been in hot pursuit of a new portmanteau that I can call my own. Just when I think I have coined a new one, I discover from a Google search that someone else has thought of it before me. But, now, I think I have one:

Attrach (attract + attach).

Ingenious, don’t you think?

It’s the dream of every marketer to attrach new customers. It’s not enough to simply attract customers; we want them to attach to our brand and never let go. We long for that elusive stickiness that keeps them loyal to our products purchase after purchase. Attract + attach = attrach.

Attrach can also be used to describe relationships. We might say that someone is attrached to another person. They’re not just attracted. There is an instantaneous connection, an immediate bonding or pairing. It’s the Super Glue of relationships.

Attraching conflates into one action or result several traditionally separate steps that occur in the buying process or in a relationship. In marketing literature, we often see the steps to a purchasing decision defined as 1) awareness or interest, 2) research 3) evaluation, 4) decision-making,  5) purchase and 6) post-purchase. But why bother with this orderly process when you can just attrach your customers in one fell swoop!

I’m hoping attraching catches on. I see no reason why it shouldn’t.

Then again, some portmanteaus never gain acceptance. For example, did you know that in the 1890s the word blunch was a portmanteau for breakfast and lunch? Hmm.

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‘Blend their sweet music to my ear’

Trumpet

Trumpet was the first instrument I learned to play. Now I’m trying my hand at guitar.

Just before Thanksgiving, I had my last guitar lesson at the Music & Arts store in Springfield, ending a six-and-a-half-year run that had been frustrating, delightful and inspiring.

My teacher Matt taught me many things during the time we were together. I mastered chords, learned music theory, picked my way through songs and, along the way, gained a deeper appreciation for the guitar, which dates back to classical times and is an immensely rich but difficult instrument (for me) to play.

In the spring of 2008, I didn’t know a thing about the guitar. I just wanted to learn how to play. More than anything, I wanted to be able to create music. My music. In the beginning, my music consisted of playing a G and a D chord. Funny thing is, that is the basis of many songs. Add an A minor, and you’ve got the chords to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” one of my favorite songs.

But mastering the guitar—as with anything new—requires more than a weekly half-hour lesson. I needed to practice and learn some things on my own. In the beginning, I embraced the challenge with gusto. However, my zeal began to taper off, and I found myself less inclined to pick up the guitar.

It got to the point where my weekly lessons had become a pleasant diversion, but I wasn’t really putting in the effort anymore. I realized that lessons alone would not get me to the next level. I needed to work on some things myself. That’s when I pulled the plug on my weekly excursions to Music & Arts.

This past Sunday, I had the good fortune of seeing musical ability at all levels at Annandale UMC’s annual talent show. From kids who are just learning to play instruments to young adults who are already accomplished singers and musicians, we were treated to a rich display of talent and skill.

One high school student casually announced, “I play the guitar,” and then proceeded to amaze us with a virtuoso performance. If I had a tenth of his talent, I thought…

While I will never grace a stage or bowl over anyone with my ability, I do continue to play the guitar. I haven’t relegated it to the closet just yet. Watching those young people Sunday reminded me of when I struggled to play the trumpet in elementary and junior high school. I know that practice and persistence can pay off because by the time I was a senior, I was first chair trumpet in the Woodson High School Symphonic Band.

If you have never taken up an instrument, I highly recommend it. Study after study shows the intellectual, emotional and health benefits of playing and listening to music. It’s a proven fact that music can reduce stress, even lower your heart rate.

For me, playing the guitar is therapy, wonder and exercise wrapped up in one beautifully fashioned piece of wood and six stretched, metal strings.

So I salute the talented young people at AUMC. May they keep inspiring old guys like me to practice and stay young.

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Content marketing, Star Wars and customer service

Star Wars logo

Star Wars logo from Wikimedia Commons.

If you want to see content marketing in action, the Microsoft Dynamics Blog is a pretty good example. I spend a lot of time on the Microsoft Dynamics and Azure websites for one of my clients. On the Dynamics site, they are always loading fresh content on CRM, social listening and ERP. And they do a pretty good job of keeping it informative, lively and not too sales-y.

Good content marketing not only stays on topic but also ties into the calendar, current events and popular culture. So recent Dynamics postings have given a nod to “Star Wars” (May the Fourth be With You!) and Mother’s Day.

And speaking of “Star Wars,” Tricia Morris (no relation) gives some great lessons on customer service from Yoda in her “7 Customer Service Lessons From a Jedi Master.” Here are four from her blog that have application across any enterprise and are frankly good words of advice for all aspects of life:

“Do or do not, there is no try.”
Entrepreneur magazine highlighted some of the phrases customers are most happy to hear and none of them include the word “try.” Instead, customers want to hear: I can solve that problem; I will find out; I will take responsibility; I will keep you updated, and I will deliver on time. Do or do not, there is no try.

“Help you I can, yes.”
Never send the customer somewhere else or tell them to call back at another time. Thank the customer for giving you the opportunity to address the matter, and to the best of your ability, address it then and there for much-appreciated first contact resolution. “Help you I can, yes.”

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”
No matter how much experience we have accumulated, there are always new or different things we can learn from experts, peers, mentors and our customers to enhance, adjust and revolutionize the customer experience. Keep an open mind and be open to continued change and learning.

Luke: “I do not believe it.” Yoda: “That is why you fail.”
Many a company can say or write that customer service is important to them, but if there is no real belief behind customer service’s power to change an organization for the better, the proverbial ship will never rise out of the stagnant complacency and disaffection holding it down.

Create a customer service culture, you must, filled with true believers. May the Force be with you…

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