Service, Thy Name is Customer

Hello to you, the service person. It’s a service world out there. And, this essay will use the word service many times. But, it’s a curious word that has had more than a few vacillating meanings—when someone says “I’m servicing” another, I immediately think something dirty. Yeah … But what does it mean to work in a professional service business? If you’re like 75 percent of the country, you’re genuinely in it for the customer, and your product is your intellect or your ability or something that you “do” for another—a pretty abstract concept. The morass of information about service seems to show what’s right and wrong for those who toil daily for the demanding yet worthwhile customer; but it becomes more complicated when you need to figure out how to DO a service and RUN your own successful company—because you have so many people telling you how to do your job, including the customer.

So what’s with customers? Well, they pay the bill—they’re pretty much the key component to the business, right? But they’re not always right about the business. In fact, they’re usually not right unless they’re highly educated or expertly trained in precisely what the endgame is. And if they are, well, why would they need you? Your job is to instruct your clientele on how you do what they can’t on their own (while not giving away any proprietary goodies), and to show them why, since you’re The Expert, you need to be given the BOTD (benefit of the doubt).

I work in PR and we’ve discovered that most clients don’t really know how PR works or how it’s successful. Let’s just say they haven’t a clue how to judge our work or gauge PR success. We live on the theory that resolving to tell folks what’s right for them—whether they agree or not—is how to be a true service professional nowadays. Because, when you think about it, no matter how the customer feels about you when you tell him he is dead wrong, if you succeed, all the bad feelings go away quickly.

Keep in mind: Is this a popularity contest? Or are you there to get a job done? The good news about being resolute is that people respect you for it even if they won’t admit it. Respect from those who buy your services is tough to get. I’d like to tell you a little secret I learned about 10 years ago at the beginning of the tough-to-manage dot com revolution: Your clients like to be told what to do. They’re actually slightly submissive and want you to take charge, push them into a corner, stand proud, thump your chest and say, “This is me and this is what I’ve got to offer.” They just won’t admit it.

Most of the people I know in various PR and marketing industries slap me down when I go there. “Gosh, Richard, I have to do what the client wants.” But that’s exactly how you get into trouble. What makes you think someone who doesn’t have a clue about PR has good advice? Because he reads David Pogue’s column once or twice a month?

Customers, I’ve decided, don’t really like being asked what they want, because they don’t know! Henry Ford said it many years ago, and it still holds true: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have told me, ‘a faster horse.’ ” (Yes, I owned that horse in the form of a Fiesta.) What’s the point of asking a question to someone who doesn’t know the answer? Tell them what they need to do! Get the buy-in from them by non-lazily and passionately explaining why you are the person they paid to do it. Yes, an Expert.

Sounds like common sense and still most folks will ask the client “Do you have the time to …,” which makes me shake my head feverishly. What’s time got to do with it? Cue Tina Turner. So, here’s what you need to tell them if you really find the idea/request/pattern/next step worthy: Tell them why. Tell them precisely why. Get them to see what they’ll get FOR doing it and what they will get FOR NOT doing it. If the former is better, then make ‘em DO IT.

Remember how I learned a lot about pushing people around in ‘97? See, back then there were so many minor players managing businesses who should have been selling shoes (funding was everywhere; “dumb money” we called it aptly). These little people had a fondness for telling PR pros that he or she “deserved” to be on the cover of Red Herring (circ. 50,000). We would point out, firmly and simply, that even if their self-importance were to spread in that direction, they’d most likely GET NOTHING from it: the business they were growing would not get a lot of new business from The Cover since said company was too incomprehensible and without a fully developed message (or product). Being on the cover of a magazine would in fact do a good turn toward confusing the readers! We pushed back again and again. They pushed back again and again. But we eventually won because the piece we painstakingly placed in the quasi-reputable Silicon Alley Reporter (circ 10,000) got them more partnerships and wannabe customers than anything they thought they, uh, deserved. From that moment on, I resolved to never let anyone boss us around unless they did PR. Because otherwise, our service would just be … a disservice.

Twitter @laermer

Am I Off ? Who Can Tell, Really?

I called in and immediately got hit by “I thought you were off …” Naturally, I responded with the knee-jerk “What does that mean?”

In a time of nearly impossible quality control, how could a CEO of a midsize PR firm actually go away and be away? I mean, I love my staff and all (all being the key word) but I’m a realist: What place on earth would AT&T not make my BlackBerry go buzz?

This friend of mine went to Mexico for a week and didn’t bother to check his email–fool. He returned to the bad word: “You won the contest of a Free Weekend in Amsterdam–Flight Included,” but only if he wrote back by week’s end. Which he couldn’t have. When my foolish pal begged in to say he was away, they scoffed, “Was there no copy shop/Net café/hotel center/person-with-computer where you were?” I mean, you’re a guy who checks his email once a week?

I can turn off like the best of them. And it is, however, in your better interest to not tell anyone you’re on, off, or in between! Who would know? I’m here, I’m there, I’m used to it. If I run away for a few hours on a workday, or reschedule a meeting here and there, who’s questioning where I am located?! Or–who cares?

These Out of Office pronouncements (OOFs) are badges we wear like the “Sent from my iPhone” banner that reads more like I-got-one-do-you! We chuck so much information onto our bounce-back responses that I am waiting for John Carpenter’s new scare-flick about the girl chased by knowledge picked surreptitiously by an errant email responder. Lately I’ve been sending returns to OOFs with my own: “But please come back.” It confuses people.

[I use “Sent from a good old-fashioned desktop” on outgoing emailsl.]

So, we covered email. When it comes to phones I’m all set because I screen, like you, and get the details via voicemail. Do you want people to hear the live sounds of your vacation spot? Way too revealing. Now I’m in the market for a good sound machine so I can put in New York-style traffic noises while lounging poolside. (”That splash? That was all Carrie Bradshaw!”)

Then there’s the infrequent in-person meeting we have to miss since we’re actually away. You could send someone in your place, but that would be rude and questions arise. Lately, I’ve been making excuses for not showing up in the vein of I stubbed my toe, because I wonder if taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness in these fantastically-connected times.

What difference does it make if you’re calling, writing, jotting a note down, sending a FedEx, Twittering, or tossing a quick text to check the heck in. When I am on mars, they will have 4G I’m sure.

Naturally, I’m as self-important as the next guy. I have to wonder if The Vacation has any meaning. It’s either a proclamation you are way too busy to think about the sender; or the ability to say, Look, I have an assistant, dude! What would happen if everyone took a deep breath and said, “I’m not in; I’m lurking.” Then you’d know how important you were ’cause someone responded to you when they were a little bit away.

And the funniest part of this rant was as I write it, on the beach during a week of speeches in a lovely location, I am starting at a not-skinny older man with his Blackberry left waiting for vibrations on his belly while he sunbathed. What a mark that left, for sure! Explain that to your mistress, bucko.

In this year of “vacationots” I bet you can be in office pretense mode…and you are fooling no one. I went to see my parents a few weeks ago and turned everything off except for conference calls, but told no one except Twitter followers. My assistant let it slip to someone in my office, who told a client; that guy in turn asked me how the dunes were in a call I was assumed to be in the office for. It’s a game that only real fakers can win. I’m exhausted having to describe it. You know what? I think it’s really time for a…

(Twitter @laermer)dsc00644.JPG

The NBC PR Disaster & End of Corporate Speak

conan-heller.jpgI would have thought that all conglomerates have learned how quickly they can be damaged by “not checking in” with their customer base. Doesn’t anyone remember a year ago when Tropicana disastrously changed their carton without asking if anyone loved the old one? But no one at NBC Universal Comcast GE Microwave got a whiff of the orange-flavored catastrophe so they stepped right back into shit with their heads in the air. And no matter how they paint this pig, the last-place network has lost a huge swath of TV watchers (and we all watch TV, no matter who says “Not me”) by telling us how the Leno drama will end up.

It’s as if they thought we would somehow accept their final answer.

A statement along the lines of “Don’t worry, we’re fine moving Jay into Conan’s slot” was a classic that worked great before we became our own TV networks. That is, we are now the people who make the news. Water coolers are no longer where the action is–it’s on our handheld Black-i-Pres where we wouldn’t dream of quoting a major news story we didn’t have an opinion on. And yes, there was a time when we might be swayed by the machinations of an evil (but persuasive) newsmaking machine.

Back in the days of The Cosby Show being moved opposite Magnum P.I., a powerful media corporation could dictate a success by aggressively shoving a plethora of ads down our shrugging throats. (Even in 2005, when Grey’s transferred to Thursdays, it worked because “Choose Thursday” was plastered behind every toilet!) But now we do the shoving. We are the tweeters and status-updaters and IMers and G-talkers who make opinionated decisions based on how we feel about the deciders. Zucker & Co. will find their unsubtle ways emulated by the people as we take our fight to the well-oiled Internet.

And so this will be an unwinnable public fight that an old-fashioned conglomerate will regret.

It only gets worse for NBC who has to wince as side-show celebrities take sides in an ugly, unfettered way. The slot winner (Jay) has a single star in his corner–and Mr. Seinfeld is already on the payroll cause NBC’s committed to his tacky reality series soon to be renamed Jerry Is a Whore. Rosie O and Jimmy K have been nastily telling Jay to do “the right thing” so Conan can retain the throne–Kimmel went so far as to say “We have children–you have cars.” Alas, NBC has become so righteous and indignant that if Leno did say I’m out of here there’s simply no way NBC could keep the 11:35 brand from dom. Really, this is a circus created in less than a month that should never have gone this far.

chill.jpg

NBC played it too close to the chin–er, vest and did not look our way. It’s a corporate error still mass-produced by many media companies as they leak news to same-size media companies and believe we will accept the verdict because it’s all business and nothing is personal. But NBC chieftains (like those orange dudes) are not cognizant of how much personal time we spend laughing at the disasters powerful people make every day. We laugh at the news–we laugh at the way it is covered–we laugh at the tone. Our thought is always, “As if we don’t already know what’s going on.”

We already know NBC is scared witless they made a mistake. And they never bothered to come to us for advice. And that is PR 101.

NBC Universal needed to concoct an online forum using the requisite tools–Twitter, Facebook, a popup micro-site, Linked-in, even colorless NBC.com - to gather ideas given them by a few who care who hosts what. If they had, they’d be in a powerful position to say “We got this data from knowledgeable, helpful participants.” The results might have surprised them.

What we have here is a unique dilemma. Two big players on one network is normal–but one is always more popular by far. Jay Leno is the handy standby that luckily signing a decent contract allowing him to work until he drops dead. Conan O’Brien is the risky business decision–quirky, unbalanced, nervous-to-a-fault, freakishly tall–now being thrown out like yesterday’s omelet because his early show didn’t rise to hit levels by usual standards. These are two separate stories that should not have competed for public attention. Leno should have been put on hiatus–isn’t that word that everyone uses for cancellation anyway?

I’m surprised, too, that GE has such a short memory about Tonight. Doesn’t Zucker have copies of memos about how poorly Leno performed post-Carson? NBC stood firm with carefully crafted press statements until Leno started winning. The holders-of-the-pink-slips did same for an unknown O’Brien when he took Letterman’s 12:35 show with little notice. [NBC was always the evil empire. They started the Irishman with 26-week contracts.]

In 1993, remember that Letterman was god, but the notion that of canning Leno after seven months and playing musical time periods was unfathomable. It’s insulting to the host and the well-honed staff that has just gotten going; still, but it would have been seen as a slap to viewers who may not be watching but waited to see what others thought about the change.

In 2010, anyone who reads knows O’Brien ratings are low, granted, but Nielsen is only a part of the story today. The “viralness” of some of the current Tonight stunts have been gaining ground and people began to talk…which always leads to an increase on TV and a lot of sponsored Hulu hits. Simultaneously, NBC ruined Jay Leno at 10 by forcing him to be a PR guy whose guests were network stars of their own troubled (read stale) programming. Zachary Levi is colorful on Chuck, but come on!

Now the online/offline/phone-addicted public has their arms firmly folded (and will remain that way) because NBC drop-kicked the redhead and never checked with 24/7 tweeters to ask how would you feel about a switch.

Doesn’t NBC know anyone over at Tropicana?

Funny thing is–asking people (”in an Internet chat where we discussed our problems”) gives these suits an ability to claim, say a year from now, that O’Brien was paid out because the viewers spoke up and said it was time for a change. Key word: time.

And the current big-rating monologues are silly (”Guess what,” murmured O’Brien, “I’ve been offered a role in a porno…and I’m considering it!”) and are helping no one. It’s fun like a poke in the eye! Keeping the fisting skit that Conan did about NBC on its own ad-supported Hulu isn’t a sensible strategy. It’s also not funny for new owner Comcast who has to clean it up.

Don’t you find it uncomfortable watching two corporate stooges poking fun at one another while competitors use their public fight to bring viewers in? (Seth Meyers on SNL: “This week you didn’t need Cinemax to see someone get screwed on TV.”) The pit bosses know the two Tonight hosts’ careers have been irreparably blown and still neither’s camp has done anything but cower–and bitch. “Team Conan” concept is a tween-era marketing boon for the Twilight set that won’t mean more people turning in after he moves to E!.

In a few short weeks the dust is sure to settle. Leno will pop back up at 11:35 (wistfully, with his lips smacking); Conan will get a million viewers who can locate him after Chelsea Handler or Wanda Sykes; The Late Show host will be crowing like mad and winning, I guess; and no one will care. By then Charlie Sheen will be jailed, hospitalized or dead and we’ll all be jawing about the new laugh riot Toby Maguire on 3 and a Half Men.

After the Vancouver Olympics no one will be talking about NBC–a boycott will be underway–and I’m sure young Fallon will be blamed, tarred and feathered. Those pride-filled peacockers will have a big hole to fill. It will be their mouths. Because no one in our networked world wants to be told who is good or bad. And as far as numbersl, in the DVR Culture world Nielsen no longer holds the cards to what succeeds.

We have them. We deal them every single day.
******
Twitter @laermer

My List (Is a Very Very Very Fine List)

optimism.jpgIs this the worst economic hardship we’ve suffered through? It’s bad, that’s for sure. And yet… Let’s Imagine a Worse Year! Sorry 2009 was ugly but it could get yuckier if we’re not careful. I’ve hereby devised scenarios to make this bright Christmas seem like the best yet! See,in the next 12 months who knows: you could find everything you ever believed in suckered-punched sideways.

Everything has truly hit rock bottom if:

…The World Famous Magnolia Bakery converts to The New York Breadline.

…Black Friday is a holiday when no one buys anything.

…Tiger Woods opens a self-defense school

…You’re forced to get that new Shareable PDA, smarmily branded as 2010’s PartyPhone!

…Stouffers sells frozen dinner called LeftOvers.

…Jeff Zucker transfers to Golden Light Bulbs at GE.

…An internship replaces a regular job…..for CEOs.

…An email comes offering “Provides New Stamina,” and it refers to your mind.

…Airplane seats are auctioned off at SalvationArmy.com. I mean the chairs–not chances to fly.

…Someone famous dies and instead of going “Wow I can’t believe this,” and spending time emailing/statusing our friends, we just go on with the day.

…The only no-reunion-ever band Talking Heads reforms with David Byrne for a cover album of Sinatra cover ballads; guest hosts Regis, then does a daily drive-time show on talk radio. Finally, Byrne embarks on the Whenever-I-Call-You-Friend tour with Stevie Nicks.

…A town known as Off The Grid pops up; it’s geographical equivalent of the train’s Quiet Car. That is: nothing can be done between people but talking–and sex.

…Jake and Reese officially split up — and admit that the whole thing was a sham and that Taylor and Taylor are following in their footsteps LA publicists commence hunger strikes!

… The NY Post and NY Daily News merge–and reemerge as Entertainment Weekly. Ultimate mashup!

…NBC dumps the whole of prime time for That Leno Show (third hour hosted by Kathie Lee)

…But no one notices.

…SiriusXM Satellite Radio changes into White Noise Inc.

…A much loved, decades-old magazine ceases publication –and no one tweets about it.

…Google can’t close a deal! Google files for, well, no one knows.

…Taxes are lowered across the board. Schools are shut, parks close down, highway medians remain half-built. Oh, yeah right, that’s California now.

…Without a new gimmick on deck, Glenn Beck and Beck duet on a CD. (And, in times of direst straits, Martha Stewart and Jon Stewart are combined for a gig on LifeSucks channel.)

…Having a meal at your parents’ is not obligatory any longer since you need the sustenance.

…We rent our homes by the hour to couples. Thousands of highway motels go under.

…Sappy Web videos do not cheer you up (sorry, ukulele-playing kitten!).

…It is unlawful to dub yourself “talent” or “talented” unless it’s true.

…Trump & O’Donnell are the new Sonny & Cher. (Cher sues. Cher pouts. Cher marries Donald, Jr.)

…Popular Wine Clubs replaced by even more populated Whiners Anonymous.

…Legal betting on which celebrity will be forced into exile is the newest national pastime. Results from this are mandatory. No ifs or buts.

…Wal-Mart has a hissy-fit when a chain called Smears opens. [You know, the new Sears and Macy’s combo.]

…IHOP runs out of batter! Japanese restaurants run low on rice! Hooters runs out of… you know!

… Newly-freed Katie Holmes is slated to star in Mission: Impossible 4 - A Woman Scorned!

… Janet Jackson starts seeing Bubbles on the down low..

… Palin joins Real Housewives. Does anyone notice?

…NotAGuru.com becomes a hot 12-Step Program.

…Microsoft and Apple join hands: iPod and Zune become IZod, a strangely compelling the line of musical clothing.

…High school and college reunions are the only networking events left.

…The words “on sale” are automatically cut-and-pasted by “please buy this.”

…Kirstie Alley loses a whole bunch of weight through hunger. Food markets in Beverly Hills close.

… Government certifies the donut crumb as a vegetable for schoolkids.

…Congress passes The 2010 Say Something Act, whereby useless phrases are taken to the woodshed: “Sounds Good,” “Booyah!” and “No Problem” are first. And “Game Changer” added at last minute.

…At the same time, lawmakers tell drugstores to sell, you guessed right, pharmaceuticals and that’s it.

…Home-free families create habitats in zoos.

…Ryan Seacrest, sensing attention-to-him deficit just as E! folds and American Idol finds a knowledgeable music biz host, finally admits he’s–happy.

… Nigerian scammers pay us.

…Some idiot who writes lists as blog posts is roundly ignored.

…Paul Simon calls Garfunkel to see how he’s doing.

NY Times promises it will never ever publish another of those 2000 stories on how social media is the saving grace for brands. No one….yep.

…Joe Biden makes some sense.

…All remaining newspapers -4!–are purchased by fifth graders. They recognize their reading level.

….Kissing is named new Olympic sport. (Say it together now-: Awww.)

…Aability to marry yourself passes in 47 states and Guam to portray the true meaning of equality.

…Zac Efron, lost without screaming teens to support his entourage, is forced to make High School Dropout

…You read this long, unadulterated list and go “Wait. Shit - really. That could happen.”

——–Twitter @laermer and @howtofame

Bandwagoning: Lazy Way To Success

You know how we’re always being told to do things better, to try harder, to reinvent, to reengineer, to break the rules, to innovate, to make a difference?

You know how “good” is never good enough? How we’re made to feel guilty for doing what’s been done before, for taking the well-trodden path? Just look at some wow-selling book titles: Good to Great; First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently; The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.

Well, maybe there’s just a chance that it’s okay to follow in others’ footsteps.

Not to reinvent the wheel, but instead to roll with it. Maybe we can live better, saner, even more successful lives by jumping on the bandwagon, not sitting at the reins trying to blaze the trail ourselves. I call it bandwagoning. It’s succeeding in your goals in a way that feels more natural… some might even say a “lazy” way.

Here is my definition of bandwagoning: it’s the lazy person’s way to success. But don’t let the “lazy” part put you off. I don’t mean lazy in a bad way, or, rather, I don’t necessarily think that being lazy is bad. In fact, I think that being lazy can be positively good for you. There is pseudoscientific evidence that being lazy not only is beneficial to the spirit and to our general well-being, but can actually make us more successful. Successful according to all the usual criteria such as wealth and happiness!

So please justify all things that are the path of least resistance in life, whether at home or at work, that feel right for good reason. Demonstrate to everyone that taking naps, bucko, is good, nay, a brilliant part of everyday life and leads to greater productivity. Watching TV opens your eyes to the world and provides undreamed-of moneymaking opportunities — those Ginzu knives must be making someone real cash! We’ll give you tips on how to avoid unwelcome social contact and how to survive when you’re traveling away from home.

Recognize that, as a bandwagoner, you’ll be ahead of the curve, and not everyone will be accepting of your new stress-free way of life; you can now proudly cover up so as to appear suitably frenetic and driven.

The above is a reference found inside 2011: Trendspotting, from McGraw-Hill.

Twitter @laermer112305im-so-lazy.JPG

TrendSpotting Tips For Marketers

playworkstuff.jpgOn the 1-year anniversary of the launch of “2011: Trendspotting,” I have decided to ponder a variety of trends to look forward to in business:

    Out with the bad customers.

These days, businesses generally subscribe to the theory that it

That Thing You Don’t

Thing thing thing thing. Things. Thingamabobber. Thingamajig. Thingery. Thingy thing.

Possessing sophisticated skills of communicating is elementary when you want people to notice you. Your spoken words have to convey a level of

Think

think.jpgThings are tough.

Good. Make time for self-examination. Companies should view the recent rough economic times as a gift. The slower pace of activity is allowing companies to take a step back and reevaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it. This break in frenetic action is important because

GM Kills Saturn, Oldsmobile & Its Own Spirit

I got called a downer back in February when I

Kanye Swift: A Marriage Made In Heaven

Wherefore art thou, decorum?

Let

Buy the Book - 2011

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