Wednesday, August 05, 2009


“If only we’d listened to that boy, instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.”
-Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons

I once found myself sitting next to a physician in an auto repair shop’s waiting room. I don’t recall how it came up, but when I mentioned that I used to run a market research company, he brightened, saying, “We started using customer comment cards at our office.” Knowing that early research results can be startlingly helpful, I asked what he’d learned so far. He smiled and shook his head: “We don’t read what people write. The girls just throw the cards away. We only have them out because someone told me that if people have a complaint and can write it down, they’re less likely to file a formal complaint.” Makes you want to write a customer comment on your hand and deliver it straight to his ear-hole, right?

What got me thinking about doctors and customer service was talking with Angie Hicks, of Angie’s List, the consumer ratings service. Her firm’s three-quarters of a million members rate local businesses, and starting last year, they added doctors. Some of those doctors have objected and actually created a waiver for patients to sign stating they will not comment publicly on the doctor’s care. Angie calls this “the equivalent of a gag order” and it certainly tests the gag reflex. I mention it because the waiver is actually a convenient customer service, alerting you upfront that the person you are about to meet is the worst order of creep – the one who knows he or she is a creep and has refused to do anything about it except try to keep word from getting out.

But there are other important things to learn from Angie Hicks, one of the few who is successfully getting people to pay for content on the web. How does she make her service that good?

She keeps a blog at and in reading some of her entries I found this note: “If you’re in the Columbus, Ohio area, stop by Cup o’ Joe in German Village tomorrow between 1 and 2:30 for a cup of coffee and a chat. I’ll be waiting!”

When we spoke, I asked Angie about that little invitation and she explained that she has such meetings three or four times a year, in different cities, usually in coffee shops, with all local members receiving an email invitation. These events don’t draw large crowds – 20 or 30 people is considered a nice turnout – but perhaps that’s better, because she doesn’t go out to speak, but to listen. And listening may be the primary customer service skill.

One of the things Angie hears from members is how to serve them better. Angie said, “For instance, one person explained that she was caring for elderly parents in Florida and wanted information on services in that city. So we added an option for members to add a city, at a discounted rate.”

Was the member with the elderly parents complaining to Angie? I suspect that she thought it was, but that’s not what the wise executive hears. And that brings us full circle, to what the doctor who threw away unread his customer comment cards did not understand: A complaint is a present in homely wrapping paper. Tear off the wrapping and there’s a suggestion inside. Unwrap that and there’s a market waiting to be served. Unwrap that and there’s a check with your name on it.


© 2009, King Features

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


”Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
-Steve Jobs

The English literary critic, John Collins, once opined that you should “Never trust a man who speaks well of everybody.”

When it comes to organizations, I’d like to propose a related standard: “Never trust a manager who likes everything you do.”

What got me thinking about creative standards was reading the charming, lively and useful biography of David Ogilvy, The King of Madison Avenue, by Kenneth Roman, a former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather. What impressed me most about Ogilvy’s involvement in the creative process was not his own copywriting – Roman tells me that Ogilvy had a dozen years of generating solid ad copy, but then took to calling himself “an extinct volcano” – but how he became the yardstick of quality.

Roman encountered the Ogilvy & Mather agency’s standards of excellence within a few months of starting work there when he was called away from dinner by a phone call from one of the agency employees who was working on a two-page magazine ad. Roman was told that the pages were too far apart, leaving an eighth of an inch of extra white space between them. The problem could be easily remedied, but doing so would cost $300 for new printing plates. Roman describes what transpired next:

“I agreed that the fix made sense but pointed out that this was not the main campaign, only a coupon ad, and this was just a test market. The change could be made later. ‘And the client has already approved it,’ I added.

“The reproving response was swift. ‘David says (pause) it’s never too late to improve and ad – even after the client has approved it.’ ‘Spend the 300 bucks,’ I agreed. Like the Church, the agency had standards.

Roman’s biography is replete with instances of Ogilvy’s standards lifting the organization. One former employee who went on to become a best-selling author, Peter Mayle, recalled getting his ad copy returned by Ogilvy heavily marked with red pencil including this bit of marginalia:

“Quack-quack. Belles lettres. Omit.”

On another occasion, when Ogilvy feared the entire agency standards were slipping, he wrote a series of memos under the heading “Escape From Dullsville.”

Roman tells me that he is often asked if working for such a demanding legend meant that Ogilvy was “scary.” His response: “No! He was fun and he was funny.”

So Ogilvy was charming… AND demanding. A lovable tyrant. Like many of the best leaders, he was feared in the best way – the employees didn’t fear him, they feared letting him down, feared failing to live up to his standard’s and the agency reputation.

We all need that fear, especially in an economy that is so bad it can scare the good fear away. It’s tempting for managers to try to make up for tough times by being soft, by being cheerleaders. But the best bosses understand that this is no time to go smiley-facing mediocrity. If you have a quality tyrant where you work, be grateful. If you don’t then it up to you to ask yourself the hard questions and to know when the right answer is that you’re wrong… Quack, quack.


© 2009, King Features

Thursday, March 12, 2009


“The point of living is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come.”
-Peter Ustinov

Assume for a minute you are the Guardian Angel of the Economy. It’s your job to guide the economy the way a film director guides a movie – you aren’t in the movie, but it’s your movie.

So along comes 2008: you’ve directed scene after scene, year after year, of economic expansion. So what is it time for? Something bad. That’s how plots work – hey, that’s how the world works. The garden must have a snake or there’s no story.

“Why,” we whine, childlike, “can’t our movie just go from jolly scene to jollier scene?” Because at some point we must test the characters in the movie, anneal them in a confrontation with disappointment and failure and in so doing, reveal their strengths and weaknesses… reveal them, which is to say, reveal character. (Notice the wisdom of the language here – “characters” and “character” both derive from the Greek “kharakter,” which is “a stamping tool.”)

Sure, the economy looks bleak. The stimulus package was old politics and, sigh, not all that stimulating. And that means no easy solution. So, ready or not, it’s character time.

Which brings us to the notion of making 2009 a great year. The very idea comes across as happy talk, but no, what I want to talk about is being handed the opportunity to separate “net worth” and “self-worth.”

Recently I spoke to a convention of Florida real estate agents. These were people who have faced one of the worst markets in the country, and for years they have watched their incomes plummet. I asked them this question: “How could this be your best year yet?” It took awhile to get past defining “best year” strictly by income – nearly no one could anticipate winning a game played by those rules. However, we soon had developed a marvelously robust list of ways to turn a dreary economic run into a time of triumph. For instance…

- 2009 is the year in which I started taking care of myself, and that while my youth is gone, my youthfulness isn’t.

- 2009 was the year I put time and energy behind my belief that it’s family that really matters – this is the year that we became closer than ever.

- 2009 is the year that I created the time to do volunteer work – I couldn’t contribute as much money as I have in the past, but instead I gave of myself, and discovered how much I have to give and how much remains to be given.

- 2009 is the year in which I began to experiment with how I do my work – I became more open-minded, made myself more tech savvy, and experimented with innovations, all making me more valuable to my employers and customers.

- 2009 was a time to re-examine my relationship to “stuff,” letting me peel away the materialism of the past decades, to discover the “joy of getting rid” as an antidote to acquisitiveness.

- 2009 was a chance to test my inner resolve and my spirituality – I learned that, given the chance, I can stand up to a bad economy, smile, and ask, “What have you got to teach me?”

Help yourself to a few of the above, add a few of your own, let me know how it goes.

2009 is the year of character. It’s as good a movie as you make it.


© 2009, King Features

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Works Better Than Layoffs - The Speech I Wish More CEOs Would Give

"It's a great time to be Cisco."

That line came from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco. Despite declining sales, Chambers told CNBC that his company had no plans for layoffs, but rather, had moved $500 million into a fund to pursue new growth opportunities.

(For a similar, more recent interview:

The same day that I saw Chambers interviewed, I interviewed the CEO of a billion-dollar company who had just announced layoffs. However, unlike Chambers’ Cisco, this CEO’s company was booming, with sales up nearly 20%. So why the layoffs? Because they’d projected an increase of sales of more than 25%, so 20% was a disappointment. Talking to the CEO, I believe that layoffs actually cost MORE than letting the company grow into the larger staff, but the CEO felt the need to react and layoffs have become the knee-jerk reaction of executives everywhere.

Sure, there are situations where layoffs are inevitable, but I believe many could be avoided. Here’s how I wish executives would think about layoffs, expressed as The Speech I Wish CEOs Would Give…

[Speaking to all employees] As you know, our sales revenues are down. I know that you must be worried – fear is a rational response when the media are full of images from the Great Depression. Indeed, everyone is expecting me to announce layoffs – stockholders and other investors want me to do something – anything -- to help keep profits from declining, and layoffs are tangible evidence that a CEO is responding. However, I am announcing today that we will NOT be having layoffs anytime soon.

When companies proclaim that they are going to cut staff, here’s what usually happens. Some of those “cuts” are merely positions that were put in the budget and have yet to be filled, so eliminating them doesn’t actually reduce current spending, just future budgets. Next, and more importantly, the cuts tend to be among the least expensive employees, especially entry-level employees. Thus, should you succeed in reducing the headcount by 10%, you’ve actually cut the spending on personnel by less than 5%, perhaps only two or three percent.

Further, total spending on salaries is just a fraction of overall costs; in our case, one-quarter of total expenses. So if you announce a ten percent lay-off, you reduce one-quarter of expenses by a few percentage points, meaning that you succeeded in cutting costs by one or two percent.

And what is the cost of that cost savings? You have fearful employees, hunkering down, devoting much of the internal conversation organization to worry. That’s not what we hired you to think about.

So today, instead of announcing staff cuts, I am asking you to do join with me in doing the cutting – cutting waste out of our system. My goal is that we find ways to reduce costs by 10%. This will have a financial impact five times greater than cutting the staff by 10%. Further, I want you to find new efficiencies that allow us to take out expenses while better serving our customers. In other words, I’m asking you to be creative, and for that I need confident, bold employees.

If we do this right, and do this together, we will become a better, faster organization. Together we can go without layoffs. Instead of worrying about who will stay and go, I invite you to join me in worrying about how we will become even more useful to each other and to our customers. Instead of getting rid of some of you, I’m counting on all of you – now go out and prove me right.


©2009 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

"I Walked Away From An Easy 2K"

”For those of you with a strong, charismatic personality, it is worthwhile to consider that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset.”
-Jim Collins in “Good to Great”

Picture this: You’ve completed your first week of training for your new job when the HR-ers running things announce that you are now eligible for a $2000 cash bonus. You brace yourself for the daunting list of goals you must reach to qualify, but no -- to get the money you need to do just one thing: quit. Give up the rest of the training, walk away, and you get two large.

That’s how they do it at Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer that will do a billion dollars in business this year. The CEO, Tony Hseith says of the invitation to quit, “We started at $100 and keep upping it. Only 2-3% take the offer and that’s not high enough.” But get this – the offer comes with FOUR MORE WEEKS of training to go. I don’t know if this matches your experience, but facing four more weeks of corporate training, most people are willing to grab the “just shoot me now” buy-out.

Still, Zappos makes the offer, not just to get rid of the least committed trainees, but to add to the commitment of those who remain: As Hseith put it, “They will say to friends and family, ‘I walked away from an easy 2K.’”

Hseith certainly knows something about walking away with cash. In 1998, at age 24, he sold his internet start-up company to Microsoft for $265 million. He sold out, he insists, because “the culture went downhill.” When I sat down with Hseith I asked him what went wrong: “I ended up surrounded by people I wouldn’t hang out with.”

Hseith explained that “culture and brand are two sides of the same coin,” and so he wanted to be part of a hang-out-with culture. If you go to YouTube, you can see the employees having fun – there’s the “HR Dancing Queen,” shaking it in ways that would make the typical HR person merely tremble.

Speaking of trembling, do NOT watch the video called “Slap our CEO” with people from HR – they will explosively vomit at the point where Hseith not only gets slapped, but then slaps an employee, apparently for showing up late for work. The people in the video were being playful, but nothing is fun to watch when there’s vomit on your shoes.

All of which might lead you to believe that the CEO would be a Robin Williams sort, bouncing about being wacky. But Hseish resembles a Buddhist monk in blue jeans – he’s not just of Asian descent with stubble-cut hair, but he has a moving stillness that makes you think he’s doing a walking mediation.

You’ve probably read “Good to Great,” and so you know that Jim Collins described the leaders of great companies as “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” Tony Hseith goes much further: When I commented on how different he was from the typical pump-you-up entrepreneurs I meet, he merely said “I’m an introvert,” and that was that.

So an introvert created a company full of extroverts so outgoing that the company’s brand is built on playfulness. What does that say to leaders about “set the example”? It says this: The company isn’t who you are; the company becomes who you hire and fire, and who you promote, and in this case, who you pay to leave training and go away.

(This is the final installment of a series featuring speakers at my favorite annual conference, the Compete Through Service Symposium held each fall in Phoenix. The previous discussions can be found at


©2009 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Boss at a Loss

Whenever I send out E-luminations, I get wonderful comments in response. I decided to open up the comments for everyone to see by turning E-luminations into a blog. I'll also be upping the mailings from monthly to once every week or two. Let me know what you think.

It was over a decade ago that I wrote a corporate version of "The Cat In The Hat" called "The Clerk With The Smirk" (You can read it at, under "Columns".} Now it seems fitting to turn Suessian with the managers who have only one response to trouble – laying off employees. So, with a nod to the late, great Dr Suess, here is…


The sun did not shine
On the boss and his staff.
The rain came to stay
For a quarter, a half.

"We're in this together,"
Said the Boss At A Loss.
We ten must work smarter
To make it across.

The staff they were eager
To try something new:
"Just give the OK and –
Your team will come through.

"We'll all get creative.
Instead of despairing,
We'll shake things up
With plans that are daring."

"Whoa, no need to get wild,"
Cried The Boss At A Loss.
"We need to drill down
And cut, cut, cut costs."

But cutting and cutting
Turned into a spiral,
The bad news kept coming,
The decline went viral.

"I've got to do more,"
Thought the Boss At A Loss.
"We have to cut staff --
I'll weed out the dross."

"We're in this together"
Said the boss to the six.
"We've got to spend less
To get out of this fix.

"We've got to work smarter
In this econo-mergency,
We all have to feel
A sense of urgency.

"No more sales trips,
No more buying of bagels.
We need to cut service,
On prices finagle."

"We're in this together,
It's up to us three.
I'll be here for you…
Well… no guarantee."

And The Boss at a Loss
Got into a rut –
Tut, tut, and cut.
Cut, Cut, and tut.

The lonely last employee
She said with a sigh,
"We can't keep doing nothing,
Let's give something a try."

"You're the only one left,"
Said the Boss At A Loss.
"One more expense --
The last item to toss."

Then the Boss had a plan
To turn things around.
He shouted for help,
But no, not a sound."

"I thought it was lonely,
When I was on top;
But nothing like bottom,
The last shoe to drop."

So he locked up the door,
And still holding the knob,
Swore he'd get creative...
In finding a new job.


©2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What Management Really Wants

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
- Dorothy Parker

Walt Disney once pointed that the key to success was to do something so well that people will pay to see you do it again. So, using that as a standard, here’s the question: When was the last time you saw a business presentation that you would pay to see again? OK, that’s too much to ask. How about this: when was the last time you saw a presentation that you’d want to sit through twice?

If you’re a corporate employee, wouldn’t be grand if your management actually looked forward to having you present instead of just pretending to look interested (after announcing just before you begin that they’d love to stay longer, but have an important conference call in fifteen minutes)?

One reason that presentations have become exercises in forced concentration is the dumbest advice ever offered to presenters, the old Keep It Simple, Stupid. This leads to The Lucidity Paradox, where you make your points so clear that they disappear.

Another piece of classic advice to presenters is the old What’s In It For Me principle, where your remarks address the audience’s self-interest. That would seem to be good thinking, but the fact is that most people have their self-interest figured out before you begin and come not to learn but defend. So, instead of KISS or WIIFM, I say the best advice to follow comes from the people who know audiences best, the ones whose livelihoods depend on knowing audience: the folks in the entertainment business who say, “Leave ‘em wanting more.”

Let’s face it, the typical PowerPoint presentation is an exercise in leaving the audience wanting less. So how is it possible to cover a topic thoroughly and still leave the audience wanting more?

What got me thinking about that question was a presentation by Mike Figliuolo (fig-lee-OH-lo), a former corporate guy who’s now consulting on how thought processes influence communication via his company, thoughtLEADERS ( Here are three of his suggestions:

1. “An individual’s compensation is inversely proportional to the number of PowerPoint pages he or she will tolerate before having a stroke.”

2. “If it’s two pages, it’s not a summary.” (Figliuolo quotes one executive commenting on the readability of written reports as saying, “If it has a staple I won’t read it.”)

3. “When people start thinking, bad things happen.” (The advantage of moving quickly through a presentation is that, done properly, you guide management to the conclusion you want to reach before they have time to let their minds wander off onto another agenda.)

You can see where he’s going here – right to the point. Seems easy enough, but it isn’t. Why? Figliuolo points out that the person giving the presentation yearns to impress the boss and the way to do that has always been by working hard. Thus, if you’re a typical corporate employee, you believe at some level that showing management all the research and data you’ve collected will impress them. Alas, it only impresses them that you think like the little people.

So you keep it short but NOT simple – you keep it big and fast and leave them working to keep up. You have the details available, should they want to see them. They won’t. But, with some luck and skill, they’ll want to see you present more often.

(This is the second of three reports on presentations at my favorite annual conference, the Compete Through Service Symposium in Phoenix. If you missed my first report, it’s available at The final installment will appear in two weeks, following a special holiday column.)

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2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

I Can't Think of Anything Else I'd Rather Be Doing

“All glory comes from daring to begin.”
- Eugene Ware

If you’re like me, you go to the typical professional conference and you end up listening to commonsense advice and well-worn platitudes till you want to scream, “Tell me something I don’t already know!”

There’s one conference I attend every year where that does not happen, and that’s because the only speakers are people doing something new and interesting. It’s The Compete Through Service Symposium, put on in November of each year by Dr Steve Brown of the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State.

There were a dozen presentations worth telling you about, but I’ve picked three, ones so good that I followed-up and interviewed the presenters. Today, the first of a three-part series, we begin start with Dr. Gary Bridge, Senior VP with Cisco Systems. He offered a glimpse of how Cisco uses technology internally, which I am guessing is also a glimpse of what will be happening around your office.

It’s about to get cloudy. A new technique that had conference attendees buzzing was the “tag cloud.” You put a document into a free program at and it returns a cloud of words, out of which, by employing various type sizes, the most common words jump out. (My guess is that this is just a fad; if I’m wrong, this may be the death of the complete sentence.)

The weekend CEO. You’ve heard that expression for second-guessing sports decisions “Monday morning quarterbacking.” Well, second-guessing CEOs is catching on – maybe the parallel to “Monday morning QB” should be “the weekend CEO.” Bridge suggested that the easiest way to find out the negative gossip about your company is to put your company name into Google, followed by the word “sucks.” (He suggested you also try “sux,” because younger generations will save a couple letters wherever they can. Perhaps this suggests that the complete word will be buried next to the complete sentence.)

Doogling. There was a pair of ideas that came out of the Bridge’s presentation that struck me as especially useful and readily implementable. First, Cisco has developed what they call Ciscopedia, where they capture the internal knowledge of their employees. Second, they have what they call Directory 3.0, resembling a corporate version of Facebook, where employees list their preferred ways they be contacted, availability and skills, both at work and outside of it. Bridge explained how the social networking aspect was useful to him when first working on a new client in the casino business: he did a search of Directory 3.0 and discovered an employee who loves poker and recruited that employee to coach him. This ability to do an internal directory search resembles a Google search – a Doogle? – and is something that has to catch on, and once it does, I suspect it will spread to searchable directories of suppliers and customers.

ETC… Bridge also described a technology called “telepresence,” with life-size video images of remote attendees at meetings, and later described how an employee, returning to the office with a Blackberry full of new e-mails, can simply make a throwing motion and that activates the Blackberry to update the desktop computer with the latest emails.

I like to think that such technologies, both useful and playful, will make their way through the economy. And I can only hope that they will help more people feel about their jobs the way Bridge does: When I spoke with him, he summed up his worklife with a remark anyone could aspire to, saying, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. Every day there something that makes me glad for that day.”

* *

2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.