Thursday, June 30, 2011

VOC: Social Media, You're Doing it Wrong

An acquaintance of mine called attention to a blog post about the grave mistakes that companies are making in social media - largely because it's a sentiment that resounded with her as a customer, but those of us on the other side of the customer-supplier relationship would do well to heed it.

The Post by Jen Lancaster, "Much Ado About a Suit," speaks for itself - not much I can do to make the point more powerfully or eloquently - but in case it disappears, here are her key points:
  • There is nothing a company can do to "make" the customer post a rave review: "If I genuinely like something, I tell everyone."
  • Neither should companies rush to react to a customer who's less than delighted. "Sometimes I just want to be heard," Jen writes, to determine if her situation is unfair or if the company is being honest about the excuses they're giving for the service failure.
  • If a company has served a customer well, they will ultimately be forgiven for a single bad incident
  • A customer has to be extremely irritated to post in the first place: "I don't seek out reasons to post negative comments ... frankly, Idon't have that kind of time." It's a sign of a serious failure.
  • Offering coupons or discounts as an incentive to get someone to retract or modify a negative review is insulting and manipulative and only irritates a dissatisfied customer.
  • Attempting to overwhelm the customer with the reasons for the service failure is likewise ill-conceived: the condescending tone of "you don't know the trouble we went to" doesn't substitute for the fact that the company ultimately failed and "you have no right to expect any better" is even worse.
  • Customers don't like to gripe about being disappointed by companies - they like to NOT be disappointed.
  • Customers are not so gullible that they do not recognize you are merely trying to clean up the PR damage and have no intention of fixing the problem.
  • The bottom line is: the customer doesn't want an apology, and the customer doesn't want a gift. They want you to live up to your promises. And there is no substitute for that.

It's a point well made, and a point that should be well taken, by a company that takes a long-term perspective on success. Much of social media and PR in general pertains to smoothing over the customer who is irate over broken promises - but what customers really want is for you to keep your promises in the first place. The company that does so has little need of expertise in the practice of making apologies.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Employee Pathways

Some of the ideas expressed in a few recent posts have collided with a workplace incident that leads me to a few observations about effective resource management and employee empowerment - it's not a topic I consider very often, but worth jotting down a few notes to bring things together should I shift my interests in that direction:

The workplace incident is a coworker who is struggling to get the equipment and software that he believes will enable the design staff to be more efficient and effective in their work. This is more of an ongoing situation, as I've run into the same issue before where a request for software was declined or obfuscated to the point where I've given up trying and come to accept that the culture of my current employer is a night-and-day difference from my former one. I think we would disagree on the exact number of times a person should bash their skull against a brick wall before accepting that it's not going to give - and I do try to be supportive than discouraging of his efforts, as my naive streak of optimism hasn't quite been crushed by the corporate machine and I'm genuinely hopeful to see someone else succeed where I have failed.

This takes me back to a previous meditation on the notion of the ethics of a person who purchases goods for use by others, and the degree to which they seek to use their power of decision to compel the ultimate user of a product to accept an option that's not quite sufficient for the sake of saving money. The satisfaction that a user derives from the consumption of a consumer good is highly subjective, and easily dismissed as being unimportant - the person who expects better quality is merely being unreasonable and fussy and should be happy with what they get.

But when translated into the context of an employee who claims a need for tools to do his work, it would seem to be a more objective case - that the benefit of having better resources is not merely the personal satisfaction that can be gained merely from using them, but in the satisfaction that comes from a job well done - having the right tools to do things the right way results in a better outcome for employer and consumer alike.

And yet, the authority of those who control corporate budgets places them in a position to decide what tools others "need" to do their jobs - without any understanding of the work that they do, and an understanding only of the cost of the tools. It doesn't help that people in such positions are often encouraged to cut costs and do things as cheaply as possible. But such is the nature of things.

This also calls to mind a more recent post about user pathways, in which I reasoned that a better user experience could be achieved not by restricting consumer behavior, but by accommodating it. This also seems to have some relevance to the employee who seeks to do his job in a different way than the employer prescribes it should be done. In effect, by preventing a user from choosing his own path, the company is forcing them to take a less efficient route. When a customer comes in contact with a vendor with such an attitude, they generally are frustrated by the experience and are likely to seek another vendor. When an employee comes into contact with an employer who takes the same attitude, they are likewise frustrated - and while, in times where the labor market favors the employer, such employees must be content to middle through, they will eventually consider the possibility of finding another employer that encourages and enables them to do their work.

Ultimately, the consequence of "employee experience" has a significant impact on customer experience - especially in cases such as this one, where the workers in question are those who design the user experience. The employee who lacks the tools and resources to do their job well necessarily does a poorer job for want of them. Because the employee is seeking to be more effective and efficient in his work, greater consideration should be given to the possibility that he is not seeking personal satisfaction from a consumer good, but to achieve benefits that would have a positive effect on the company, as the efficiency and effectiveness of the worker yields a better product for the consumer.

All things considered, I don't see that this meditation offers any valuable insight as to what to do as an employee of an organization that takes a "make do with what you're given" attitude toward resources needed to be effective at one's work - but it does, perhaps, hold a lesson in leadership and resource management to be less dismissive of the expressed needs of employees.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

User Pathways

Lately, I've been plagued by calls soliciting donations from my undergraduate college - though in truth, I suppose it's more accurate to say that I've been constantly plagued by them, it seems to be more frequent and annoying of late. I suppose the administration are looking for a productive use of the staff's spare time in the summer, and the fact that I've donated in the past has only encouraged them to pursue me more aggressively. But I digress, even before I've begun ...

What comes to mind every time I see the school on my caller ID, is something I observed at the university when I was a student there: while the classrooms were in disrepair and the library's collection was pathetically inadequate even to undergraduate studies, the maintenance crews were laying brick pathways everywhere the students had trampled a trail on the lawns. This annoyed me to no end, and still does, but it does call to mind a metaphor for user experience.

In many public places, the rule is "keep off the grass." There are signs posted, and fences and obstacles erected to discourage people from walking on the lawns and wearing bare patches in the grass. The choice made by my alma mater was significantly different: to let the students walk where they will, following the most convenient and direct route by their own choosing - and then by observing the wear patterns in the grass, to determine where pathways should be built.

That seems like a lazy approach, but it also seems quite brilliant: accepting that people will choose for themselves the best course of action to accomplish their goals, then providing the tools they need to accomplish them, is likely more effective and provides for a more pleasant user experience than attempting to herd them onto a pathway that is inconvenient, for the same of preserving a sense of order that has nothing to do with the needs of the people who use it.

The application of the principle to user experience design should be obvious, though it's likely that the nature of technology is less of an open field through which users can find their own path and more in the nature of a labyrinth in which users are forced to choose from a few defined methods of navigation, hemmed in by barriers to choosing their own path.

So it's likely not possible to observe the paths users take through a pre-defined process to find where they are making their own way, because the barriers prevent it. Though I do wonder if some useful information can be gleaned by examining where users attempt to step off the path - to click a link that takes them outside the conversion "funnel" and, rather than attempting to herd them back onto the desired path, to consider ways in which such "missteps" might be suggesting an alternate course, and consider ways to build a path that will get them to their destination.

In the end, it's just a meditation - some paltry fruit borne of one of life's little annoyances - but I definitely think it's something that bears consideration - and, if nothing else, is a handy metaphor I can refer to when I find myself stuck in a conversation with one of those small-minded types who insists that there's only one path the user ought to take and that the focus of the designer is to keep them out of the weeds, and off of the grass.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Evolution in Product Quality

I'm still stewing on the notion of price and quality, in the classes of product and the decision of a producer to manufacture a product that is lacking in quality as a choice that is made and perpetually reaffirmed by the continued manufacturing of that same product. I still have the sense it's a matter of ethics, but that it can waiver over time - and that there can be no generalization about the choices companies make in the aggregate, but I do have the sense there are two distinct tendencies in the evaluation of product quality:

A healthy company gets sick

My sense is that most companies start out with the best of intentions and may at times go astray. It is not always thus, as there is a second section below to address the exact opposite, but I tend to be optimistic in this regard. A company starts off small, with a single idea: they recognize a need that is not being met, or notice that the predicts to serve the need are not particularly effective, and recognize that here is a better, cheaper means of serving the needs of consumers.

I maintain that this is a "healthy" state of commerce that is mutually beneficial to both producer and consumer, and a state that any producer should strive to achieve and perpetuate. But a healthy company can become sickened in one of two ways:

The first, which is likely more rare, is in earnest pursuit of the original goals. It's a general observation that the greatest flaws of a man are an excess of his virtues - one who is too honest is indiscreet, one who is too trusting is gullible, etc. - and that an organization such as a company can suffer from the same flaws: in an effort to make a product "better," it becomes too expensive for those who need it to be able to afford it; or in an effort to make a product more affordable, compromises are made that make it less useful.

The second, which is likely more common and more sinister, is the pursuit of profit for its own sake: the producer seeks to increase the price of a product without increasing its quality, or maintain the price while decreasing the quality. I have a sense this is a widespread practice, and lauded as being "good business" - but it is the acceptance of an ethical flaw for the sake of a short-term profit, at the long-term consequence of degrading the perception of the product and the reputation of the firm that produces it.

Of particular importance to the notion of evolution is that this can occur at any time: a company may step from the right path of producing a serviceable product at a fair price to the misguided practice of producing an inferior product or charging a price that is disjointed from the value it provides.

I also have the sense that this is likely to occur as a company experiences growth - which gives some support to the otherwise irrational fear of "big" in business. The founder of a company is more likely to be focused on the goal of producing a first-class or second-class product, and as a business grows, it loses its way, and places profits before the mission.

A sick company heals itself

I would prefer to think it rare, but do not discount the fact that it may be more widespread, that the initial decision to produce a given product is based on a desire to reap a profit. In pondering "how can I make money?" an idea arises for a product that people will buy, or can be convinced to buy, at a price that will produce profit to the producer.

In such an instance, the producer seeks to deliver as little quality as he can while charging as high a price as he can, and if he can deliver very little quality at a very high price, so much the better for him. Even firms that do not start with that motive often fall to it, by the process described above, and end up in a state of sickness, for the love of money.

But this may also be regarded as a phase of evolution: even the stingiest and greediest of companies will, in pursuit of market share, be compelled to improve the level of quality of their product, reduce the price they charge for it, or both. Except in a monopoly situation, customers will turn to other providers for a better value - and while deception can sucker in some number of buyers, you can't fool all of the people all of the time, and it's not economically sustainable.

Even so, my sense is that an unethical company seeks to heal itself in a slow manner, begrudgingly "giving away" more value to the consumer and constantly seeking a rationale to do less and charge more. I don't expect many companies that fall into the third or fourth class can rise to become first-class providers, though I suppose that anything is possible however unlikely it may seem.

Constant Fluctuation

My sense is that if a company survives long enough, its history will reflect it has fluctuated between the two tendencies over time, likely with changes of top-level leadership that values one approach or the other. A healthy company becomes sick, then tries to heal itself, then recidivates to profit seeing, then back to a concern for delivering value.

It's further my sense that this is highly affected by market forces. The competition of other firms causes companies to re-evaluate heir choice in terms of quality (how much quality the customer requires, and even the very things that the customer considers to constitute quality) and price. The overall economy may lead more consumers to make smarter buying decisions given more limited resources, seeking to obtain genuine value for dollar, and likely compromising on value for the sake of stretching their budgets.

And over the long term, the companies that survive are those that come closest to getting the balance right, and the newcomers that come to dominate various industries, pushing aside more established firms, are seizing upon an opportunity to embrace the values that older firms have forgotten ... and continue to dominate until they become neglectful and abandon the righteous path to those who would seek it - or even stumble upon it.

The State of Things

As to the present state of things, no generalization would be accurate. Some choose a pessimistic view, that the majority of companies are "sick" and dysfunctional, others choose a more optimistic view that most companies seek to take the right path.

Ultimately, any given person's perspective is based on their individual experience: those who make poor decisions and find themselves surrounded by inferior products for which they paid too high a price are likely wracked with regret over the decisions they have made likely seek a source outside themselves to lay the blame. Their cries of woe are heard more loudly than the quiet contentment of those who are satisfied with the decisions they have made.

But on the other hand, there is a certain level of smug self-satisfaction in the consumer who publicly proclaim their satisfaction with past purchases, such that the reported level of customer satisfaction is likely to be exaggerated.

In the end, the assessment is likely subjective, and the opinions of the majority, while of greater interest to those who would seek to increase their market base, mean very little to the individual consumer.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Product Quality as a Function of Ethics

Reflecting on my earlier post about the classes of products, it would be naive to assume that every company sets as a goal to provide a first- or second-class product, one that delivers benefits that are well worth its price; but it would be equally naive to assume that every company seeks to fall into the lesser classes where customers have to be tricked, pressured, or forced to purchase an item whose price-for-benefit is disadvantageous. There are options in a range of classes for virtually every product, and buyers and sellers gravitate toward one or the other tendency.

The motivations of the buyer are fairly easy to identify: a buyer seeks to find an acceptable product for an acceptable price - even when a buyer is not deliberate in his decision, this remains a consideration. That's not necessarily "the best" product, as people have different opinions about "the best" and a product of lesser quality may be adequate to their needs, or a person who desires the best but cannot afford it can often get by with a second-class product.

The mistakes they might make are related to ethics: in most instances, when buying for their own consumption, any harm is inflicted upon themselves. In instances when the purchaser and the consumer are two different individuals, there is the problem of one person deciding what is "good enough" for someone else, and mistakes can occur where they are wasteful of money in purchasing a product whose quality is more than necessary, or irrelevant to the aspect that makes it serviceable to the user, or when they are conservative of money and furnish the user with an unsuitable product for the sake of price.

The motivations of the supplier are more difficult to identify, and are far more subject to ethical scrutiny because the choice is more deliberate and perpetual. That is, a buyer who makes a poor choice can remedy the problem with their next purchase, whereas the producer of a product (not necessarily the seller, as a retailer has greater flexibility in inventory management) who makes a poor choice often continues to turn out the same product, over and over, insistent that their original choice was appropriate.

If the producer is right in their decision, and the product they produce represents a good value to some (but not all) buyers, then the choice to continue turning out the product is entirely ethical. In this instance, their intentions are honorable (to provide for buyers who haven't the means to obtain the very best some acceptable level of quality at a price they can afford, or perhaps to serve a different set of values as to which product features are important and which are inconsequential).

If the producer is wrong in their decision, and the product they produce does not represent a good value for the price to any buyer, then the choice to continue turning out the product is clearly unethical. In this instance, they realize the inferiority of the product, and must turn to sales tactics to apply pressure or deception upon buyers who would, on their own, recognize the poor value of the product, and convince them to buy it anyway.

My sense is that all three of these situations may bear further consideration, but even so, I have the distinct sense that this brief consideration strikes at the heart of the matter - and that further meditation may elaborate on these basic principles, perhaps uncover a few exceptions, but not likely lead to their contradiction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wealth of Nations

Smith's Wealth of Nations still amazes me, in that a book written nearly 250 years ago retains so much relevance to economics of the present day. Situations we presume to be entirely unique to our age, never before encountered, are merely echoes of history, and the principles that held true at a time when civilization was taking the first timid steps out of the agricultural age remain valid, entirely worth considering in the assessment of the situation in the information economy of today.

I've stumbled on this notion multiple times, and each time it intrigues me: that while the incidental details of interaction have vastly changed over time, its fundamental nature remains the same. The gimmickry of the platform can be a distraction from the essential nature of the interaction, and too much focus on the gimmickry of the "new" can lead us astray, such that we neglect more fundamentally important considerations, and end in failure.

If, in building and managing an e-commerce operation, the essence of the interaction is obscured in favor of the gimmickry, it will fail. If, in leveraging social media, we fail to consider the essence of human interactions, we will fail. The technology layer is merely a veneer.

This is entirely a diversion from Smith's work - which itself is too extensive and detailed to summarize in a quick blog post - but I think speaks to the essence of the experience of re-reading it in the current day. I appreciate the irony of that.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Your Marketing Says About Your Product

An observation: companies that provide consumer goods can be considered in the context of a few "classes" according to the value of their products and the way in which they market them - and it's possible to assess, without knowing anything at all about the product itself, the level of quality you can expect by the methods used to market it.

First-class companies that make first-class products barely need to market at all. Their products offer an excellent product at an excellent price, and they can be very successful without spending very much on advertising because they get repeat business and word-of-mouth from highly satisfied customers. Very few such companies exist, or perhaps that they don't come to mind readily because they don't have a strong media presence - but if you think about the brands you've owned for long periods of time, and for which you don't see much advertising, you can probably identify at least a handful.

Second-class companies that make second-class products that aren't at all bad, but have some deficiency in their value - either price or quality - that require a bit of extra effort to get customers to buy. I'd estimate that the majority of "good" companies are second-class, and sometimes by design: only one can be the very best, the rest are inferior by comparison, and generally require the customer to make acceptable compromises.

The communication of price and quality show the ways in which a company is second-rate: if the claim is to be "better than the leading brand" they offer a worse price but better quality, and "cheaper than the leading brand" is a better price but worse quality. Most customers have to accept this, and are willing to do so - any my sense is that "best" is highly subjective: each customer will decide for himself which company best suits his own needs, desires, and budget.

Companies that make second-class products market aggressively, but generally market honestly. They're very straightforward about the qualities they think the customer will prefer their product, and may communicate, if only by omission, those qualities in which they don't measure up.

Third-class companies that make second-class products that are not competitive in terms of quality and price. It's not merely a trade-off of one for the other, but a product that cannot be demonstrated to be the "best" at anything. It's on this level that companies begin to market by using details that are utterly unrelated to the price or benefit of the product.

Marketing of third-class products involve something other than their objective value to the consumer, and generally turn to psychologically needs that are not directly related to the use of the product: using their product will grant you social esteem or sex appeal, or five you the self-satisfaction of being mindful of the environment. It also tends to be dismissive of the benefits that most customers seek to obtain by purchasing better products of the same kind.

Many, though not necessarily all, "prestige" brands fall into the category of third-class products. Some are expensive because they are well-made, but others are expensive simply to give owners a sense of exclusivity, a non-functional "benefit" that is the hallmark of a third-class product.

A fourth-class company makes a product that people simply would not seek to buy on their own, and would likely not buy even if they heard it was available. Companies stoop to deceptive advertising and below-the-belt sales tactics to get the customer to make a purchase, even though they know it's a bad deal.

A good example of this class of product would be a company that uses a door-to-door sales force or telemarketers, though the practice of door-to-door sales is (thankfully) virtually extinct and telemarketing has been functionally illegalized. Another might be companies that rely on people to sell to their friends and acquaintances, which is also become rare. Companies that offer a "free" vacation or seminar are likely seeking to sell fourth-class products.

Arguably, there might be said to be a fifth-class product that can't be sold at all, but is forced upon a person who has no interest in purchasing it. Government services would fall into this category, as would any product that a person is compelled by law to purchase. I'm not sure that promotion of such a product could be classified as "marketing" at all - but then, the tactics used to sell fourth-class products might be so low as to be beneath consideration as well.

My sense is that a savvy consumer will recognize the marketing tactics and form an opinion of the product, without even considering the product itself, according to the way in which it is marketed. "Don't buy anything over the phone" is common wisdom, though in some cases it may be spread to suggest that withholding sales will discourage the tactic, it does recognize that goods that aren't sold in stores are not good enough to be sold in stores.

Could a company create a better impression of the quality of its products by using different marketing tactics? Possibly, but I don't have the sense it would be sustainable: companies gravitate toward sales tactics that work best to move their merchandise, and away from those that don't. If the seller of a third-rate product attempted to cut off their advertising in order to be perceived as being first-rate, chances are their sales would plummet and they would earn little success.

Could a company create a worse impression of the quality of its products by using a different marketing tactic? My sense is this is more common, though I tend to doubt it is intentional. A second-class product could use fourth-class selling tactics, but it would likely damage their reputation with consumers who prefer second-class products, which would be an unwise decision.

I also expect that a company would need to adjust its tactics over time, if it let the quality of its product slip, or when competitors enter the market with better products. The position of a first-class company is probably very difficult to defend, and it may be an easier choice to cede leadership to someone else and seek to compete on a lower level. On the other hand, a third-class company might undergo a significant effort to improve the quality of the products, and rise to the second-class.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Above-the-Belt Salesmanship

I've been looking for a good reference on salesmanship, and not having much luck. In general, sales is regarded the greasy underbelly of the marketing profession - so much so that anyone who speaks about marketing tries desperately to avoid the topic, or uses euphemisms such as "promotion" for the practice of getting a prospect to take the last step toward making a purchase. So far, I've not had much luck in finding an author who keeps his punches above the belt.

And yes, that's rather a vulgar metaphor, but it suits the vulgarity I've seen in browsing a handful of books on the topic of sales, in both the sense of physical conflict and the specific act of hitting another person in the genitals.

The general tone of sales is combative. Some authors borrow, for a time, the more gentle language of marketing - helping a customer obtain a product that serves their needs, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship - but after a couple of chapters, and sometimes right away, the attitude changes to that of a mugger or a con-man: beating down a customer until they give you their money, or using deceit to get it out of them. The notion of mutual benefit is a veneer, thin to the point of transparency, to cover some very nasty practices.

And the specific metaphor of striking below the belt is entirely accurate. The "tips" and "tactics" are clearly intended to deceive the mark, who must be regarded as a "mark" rather than a "customer" in this kind of situation, or to exploit psychological vulnerabilities in order to move a product that is clearly inferior, not worth the price on its own (lack of) merit, or clearly a worse choice than alternatives. As such, the authors who write on the topic of sales degenerate quickly from high-minded talk of helping the customer to seeking the fastest and most effective way to overpower them, which as any self-defense expert will tell you, is a sharp attack below the belt - it's not honorable, but it works.

I'm reminded of an acquaintance in college who was on the wrestling team who, any time his sport was mentioned, compulsively defended himself against the kind of wrestling most people are familiar with. He'd say that he was involved in "Greco-Roman wrestling - not that [stuff] rednecks watch." But the metaphor doesn't quite fit, because what I've seen of salesmanship doesn't rise even to that level of respectability, and I never have seen a sport where the competitors simply face off in the ring and try to kick each other in the sack.

And so, I'm still searching for a good reference on salesmanship, but losing hope that I'll find a source that is worth studying. If anyone who stumbles across this post knows of one, use the "contact" link at the bottom right of the page and let me know.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Always On

I've uploaded reading notes from Brian Chen's Always On, a book about the impact that smart phones are having, and could potentially have in future, as a mobile communication devices that provides the user with the ability to be constantly connected to information, resources, and other people. Having just finished reading it, I'm not entirely sure that it was time well spent.

The author doesn't bring a broad perspective, or a deep one, or a particularly insightful one. The book skips along the surface of a handful of topics, revels in extended anecdotes and general observation, and ultimately fails to make much sense of things. It merely dredges up information and spits it at the reader in amorphous chunks, more like a series of blog entries with commentary on news clippings than a proper book. So in that sense, I don't think I've gained much by taking the time to read it.

But at the same time, even a bad book can be a good exercise - when an author barely scratches the surface, an interested reader seeks out additional information from other sources; when he makes a specious or statement, the reader must seek a more reliable source of information from other sources; when he makes a specious of obviously biased conclusion, the reader must seek the truth from other sources.

So in the end, reading this book was a worthwhile endeavor - though not for the sake of anything contained within it, but rather as an exercise in assessing the sufficiency and veracity of information and doing research to amend and augment its shortcomings.

I do wonder how many readers actually do such things - and worry that some might take whatever they read at face value and investigate no further. But then, that is a form of intellectual neglect that will ultimately avenge itself.