Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

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Three Ways to Get Your Team Excited About a Boring Product

Guest post by Guy Ascher

It’s hard to get amped up about selling razor blades, but somehow Dollar Shave Club has pulled it off. It’s one of the most successful new startup companies and it sells items that most people couldn’t give two hoots about. The secret is in the marketing. If you sell a boring product – toilet paper, pens, razors, water bottles, fishing supplies – you need to figure out a way to excite your employees. If they’re not excited, they can’t sell your company. If they can’t sell your company, you’re going to be out of business in short-order.

Tell A Story About Your Product

One of the best ways to breathe life into a boring product is to give it a story. It doesn’t always work, but most products do have one. Maybe your company started out of your parent’s basement. You were tinkering with your bedroom fan, and you figured out how to get those blades to spin 30 per cent faster.

You blew up a few test fans in the process but, at the end of the day, you had yourself the coolest room in the whole house. Later on, you decided to see if you could create massive fans for other people that would replace expensive air conditioning units. After several years – success.

Sound like a silly story? Maybe it is, but it’s the kind of thing really does exist out there. By the way, there is a company out there with an interesting fan story – it’s called “Big Ass Fans.” They make industrial and residential fan units that are unlike any other fan you can buy. Are employees excited about selling the company? You bet they are.

Create An Emotional Experience

Part of selling involves getting your prospects emotionally committed to your marketing message. If your prospects aren’t invested, they won’t care what you have to say. Creating an emotional experience can be tough, but one of the best ways to pull it off is to personalize your marketing messages.

Use surveys as a barrier to your email list. Make users fill out a short survey. Why? So you can provide customized advice about their problem. Most people are comfortable with answering a few questions, especially if the payoff is personalized service. No one wants to be “just another number.”

Another way to connect emotionally with your audience is to use high-quality video. Try to communicate your message with music and stunning visuals. Usually, this will win out over an obvious sales pitch. For example, the “embrace life” promotion is an ad that shows the benefits of wearing your seat belt.

The visuals are stunning and, even though there’s no dialog in the video, the message is crystal-clear.

Create a Personality For Your Company

How do you create a personality surrounding your company when you sell something as boring as contact lenses? The same way Apple creates its personality when selling something as “boring” as a computer. In the 1980s, no one used computers the way they do now. Apple was a key player in getting the marketplace excited about a hunk of metal, some plastic, and a keyboard.

The same can be said of Zappos. Who gets excited about shoes? These people do. Find something that you can use as a point of differentiation. Maybe you offer premium-quality products that are visually stunning. Maybe you have the best customer service in the world – and can prove it.

Whatever your angle, create a personality or “gimmick” surrounding your products and your company. It’ll make it a lot easier for our employees to get jazzed up about something that’s otherwise not very exciting.

Guy Ascher studied Marketing at the University of Newcastle in the UK. After years of working for marketing firms in Manchester, London and then eventually New York, he moved on to consulting small businesses on a their marketing needs. His articles focus on helping smaller businesses compete with well-established brands using new techniques or technology.

The Product Management Perspective: The key to making your product exciting is to make sure it’s the best product in the market. Focusing on sound product management principles will help you focus on this goal.

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Why do nice companies finish first?

In a recent post we found out why nice companies finish first. Throughout the book the author quotes successful leaders that show how companies (and people) that are nice experience more success than their less kind counterparts. Here are a few of my favorites:

 “We feel customers are our friends, and we talk to them like friends. What you hear is amazing.” –Nazim Ahmed

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” –Walt Disney

“Frankly, you can’t be a jerk and be successful in the service business for a long period of time. When you’re in the service business, reputation is everything.” –Kenneth Chenault

“Superior customer service has always been and always will be the cornerstone of our brand and is a cultural attribute that differentiates us from the rest of the pack.” –Chris McCormick

“The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.” –Henry Ford

“Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” –Warren Bennis

“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” –Oscar Wilde

And from the author himself:

“Lesson number one: it pays to be a nice guy. Second: always stand behind a pompous ass whenever possible. Your niceness will be thrown into dramatic high relief.” –Peter Shankman

“There’s no way to institutionalize or ‘corporatize’ niceness—your HR department is never going to come up with a management structure that magically creates a collegial atmosphere. It has to come from the top, and from there it will filter down through managers, supervisors, staffers and so on.” –Peter Shankman

The Product Management Perspective: Do nice product managers finish first? I’d love to know what you think; please leave a comment.

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Book Review: The Pursuit of Something Better

Pursuit of Something BetterAccording to Jack Rooney, “Eighty percent of the failure in business is because of leaders. Yet 80% of the brunt of the failure is felt by the people who can’t do anything about it.” If you look at its opposite, this declaration clearly demonstrates the importance great leadership plays in creating successful companies. In the book THE PURSUIT OF SOMETHING BETTER: How an Underdog Company Defied the Odds, Won Customers’ Hearts, and Grew Its Employees Into Better People, the authors Dave Esler and Myra Kruger detail how Jack Rooney turned US Cellular into a company known for great customer service.

Jack Rooney realized that the main influence on how front-line employees treated customers was the way their leaders treated them. Prior to assuming CEO responsibilities for US Cellular in 1999 Jack had created a “virtual organization” where he and other executives provided leadership to the company; he empowered their employees to make decisions and run the business. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the word “virtual” became associated with outsourcing jobs to other countries, so Jack changed the name of his program to “dynamic organization” and implemented the program at US Cellular. To Jack, “the culture is not a separate entity that has to be brought in line with the business–our culture is our business.”

The Pursuit of Something Better describes in detail how Jack Rooney created a great organization where the employees provide excellent customer service and enjoy the work environment so much they want to stay at the company. In a world where many executives cut corners and provide scanty people leadership, “US Cellular has proven that adhering to high ethical standards is a competitive advantage in a marketplace that is starved for a little basic human decency.” Elevating employee fulfillment in their jobs greatly increases customer satisfaction, which leads to higher revenues and overall company success.

If you are searching for practical, actionable approaches to improving your leadership you need to read The Pursuit of Something Better. It will help you find new ways to help ordinary people achieve extraordinary results.

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Real-world examples of customer service

customer-serviceWorking as a product manager has at least one interesting side effect: you become keenly aware of customer service in nearly every aspect of your day-to-day activities. At the end of the day, happy customers spread the word about your products and services and you get more happy customers. So when you go into a store you can’t help but gauge the level of customer support you receive. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Last month my family had an experience that tested the level of customer service at several companies. More than six months ago we booked a trip to Orlando to have a long overdue family vacation. We had the flights, the hotels (yes, plural…I’ll come back to that) and six days of fun planned at Universal Studios and several other theme parks. The winter had drawn on and the weather in Orlando was looking great. Then, four days before we were going to leave, my son — who was at his first baseball practice of the season — was struck on the bridge of his nose with a baseball. A few hours and an X-ray later we learned that he had broken his nose in three places. The prognosis: surgery on Friday, the day before we were to fly to Orlando.

Without holding too much expectation for positive results, I started calling the different companies through whom we had booked our trip. The first was the company who months earlier had called us and convinced us to take a “fully paid” 4-day, 3-night vacation in Orlando — Hilton Grand Vacations. After having already paid around a $100 to get a room big enough to hold my family, they wanted to stick me with a cancellation fee. After talking to people at several different levels they finally agreed to only charge me $20 to cancel. “But,” they said (with a smile I’m sure), “when you’re ready to rebook, just call us and we will get you back into the [third-tier] hotel and we will reschedule your appointment to sit through our painful presentation on why you should spend a lot of money and buy into our resort” (my emphasis added).

Next I called the Marriott hotel. We had booked four nights with them and by the time I called them we were about two hours past the “no cancellation” deadline. When I explained the situation to the customer service agent, she immediately called another person who, without any questions beyond what was necessary to understand our situation, immediately approved the full refund of our points with no obligation to rebook with them. Two days later, all the points were back on my account.

I then called Delta Airlines to cancel our flights. I spoke to a guy who said that if we could get a letter from our son’s doctor stating that he cannot fly because of his injury, they would refund our tickets. What surprised me even more was that they agreed to refund money when I had paid for the tickets with miles. He told me it would take about a month. I called them two weeks ago to see how things were progressing and found out the first guy I talked with had not sent request through to the refund department. The lady I spoke with was very kind and told me to fax the ticket numbers and a copy of the email I received confirming the refund and they would take care of it. About a week later I received an email from another customer care agent saying he regretted to inform me that Delta would not send me a refund as refunds for the type of tickets I had purchased are only offered in the case of “death or imminent death of an immediate family member.” However, for this one time, he said, Delta will give us a credit towards another flight. I called today and confirmed I can rebook an equal or lesser fare at no charge. Not bad.

Finally, when my wife called Universal Studios to tell them about our change in plans, they were very accommodating. They asked her if we were planning to come later in the year; when she told them that was the plan they said we could use the tickets later with no fees. They reimbursed us for all the date-specific upgrades we had purchased. They have simply made me a happy customer.

When I called today to rebook our trip, which hotel do you think I called? You guessed right: Marriott. The service agent took extra steps to make sure I was able to get the room I wanted. It was so easy! Seven nights at the Marriott; no third-rate Hilton and definitely no painful presentation.

My experiences with these companies highlight the importance of having solid customer service. They illustrate the significance of showing leadership in improving customer service. I have highlighted specific examples of how companies treat their customers — for the whole world to read no less! And I’ve seen many other bloggers do the same.

In today’s social media driven world, it’s more important than ever to treat your customers well and provide excellent service. If you do not, a negative message will get circulated and it will hurt your business.

So no matter whether your customers are looking for four star hotels in Niagara Falls or a resort in Orlando, the experiences people have with the brand through various touch points such as advertising and most importantly the people working for the brand effects the perception and emotional feeling of your customers.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers have many customers, both internal and external. You can’t please them all; however, if you will be diligent in communicating openly and honestly with them you will find they trust you, and even though you may not put that key feature they need in the next version of your product, they will stick with you. It’s one of those intangibles in the business world that’s difficult to describe but easy to see. The more you genuinely strive to serve your customers, the more they will buy from you.


Five leadership practices for improving customer service

customer-serviceMany blog posts have been written about customer service. Add those to the many magazine articles and books, and it’s safe to say there is no shortage of advice on quality customer service. Serving the customer is an important topic, and given the importance of keeping customers engaged, it’s amazing how many organizations still don’t get it. Too often the sales agents and support engineers taking the calls either are not empowered to make decisions, they are too lazy or they just don’t care. It’s sad to think that a companies with great products would not make customer service their highest priority.

In almost every case, when customers (or worse, potential customers) feel they received substandard customer service, they automatically blame the person across the counter or on the other end of the phone. However, the culpability ultimately rests on the leaders of the organization. What happens at the customer ‘touch point’ is the responsibility of upper management. If they want to keep customers they need to lead out in the efforts to elevate customer service.

Following are five leadership practices for improving customer service:

  • Decide to create the culture: The leaders of an organization must decide that customer service will be a top priority. They need to establish this culture at all levels. The decision will come from the top of the organization and permeate through all levels. It must be done on purpose.
  • Hire the right people: The leaders will hire people who know how to work with customers. They will look for people with experience at helping customers understand the products and get the most value from their services. Leaders will look for people with a proven track record of doing the right thing for customer (which occasionally might mean referring them to another company’s product). Leaders looking to hire the right people will do thorough background checks and ask a lot of questions.
  • Coach them: As you establish a culture of customer service and hire the right people, train them to effectively work with customers and teach them how to handle difficult situations. Identify a few of the top performers and put them to work coaching others in the company. This infuses the service culture more deeply and promotes a more unified approach throughout the company. If you do not yet have people in-house who are capable, hire a coach to train your teams, and work with the coach to identify people within the organization who can extend the right principles throughout.
  • Inspire them: Motivate the people in your organization — at all levels — to want to serve others. Establishing the right culture is key. Financial incentives and career advancement only go so far. When the leaders of the organization place customer service as one of their top priorities, they have the prerogative to expect everyone to do the same. Let your actions and behaviors inspire others.  As Ralph Nader said: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
  • Empower them: Finally, grant people — at all levels of the organization — the authority to make decisions. The scope and magnitude of decisions will vary by title and responsibility. However, every person at any level should be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organization. Start by asking leaders at all levels to make a list of five things their people can do without having to escalate to their supervisor. Place appropriate guidelines around the actions that can be taken, and trust your people to make the right decisions. Provide a “back door” in case they get into a tight spot. The “back door” should instill confidence that the organization will back people at any level in their decisions. When people know they work for a customer-focused organization they will give much more to their individual efforts.
We live in the information age and quality customer service is becoming more important as time moves forward. Each of these steps is critical for true customer service. It must come from the top and permeate the entire organization.

Let us not take the attitude portrayed in this classic Dilbert cartoon:

Dilbert on Customer Service

Dilbert on Customer Service

The Product Management Perspective: Customer service is at the heart of product management. Whether gathering customer inputs, writing problem statements or creating requirements the next product or release, the customer is (or definitely should be) the focus of what product managers do. While they may not hire people into the company, they have an influence on the people who get hired. Furthermore, product managers are in a key position to affect the culture of the company. The interactions with both internal and external people provide excellent opportunities for product managers to spread the culture of customer service.