“Hey customer, are you talkin’ to me?”

October 19, 2010

A relentless focus on customer experience has guided the rise and rise of Apple to the point where it is now poised to become  (by market capitalisation) the most valuable company in the world. According to CEO Steve Jobs: “You have got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology – not the other way round.” The marriage of an enjoyable user experience with a series of sleek, super-desirable products has turbo-charged the fortunes of Apple over the last decade, which is today worth north of US$274 billion.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Travis Bickle needed work on his telephone manner.

I could not help comparing Jobs’ words with my recent experience as a customer of Sky. (Rest assured, I do not intend to risk extreme somnolence in my kind readers by detailing my many calls to Sky’s customer care team, their inability to resolve the issue or even offer a satisfactory explanation of why the matter was taking so long). But the problems with customer service begin, in my view, with the disconnect between what companies promise and what they deliver. This is what Sky says about itself…

Because we never forget that Sky is a choice, we put customers first and work hard to earn their trust. We make our products affordable so millions can join in. And we back it all up with a commitment to exceptional customer service.

‘Working hard’, ‘trust’, ‘putting customers first’ and ‘a commitment to exceptional customer service’. Such platitudes are the hyperbolic furniture of web welcome pages and marketing materials of most modern companies. Unfortunately, they can ring hollow when set against a disappointing customer experience.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the terms “emotional labour” to describe how employees working in face-to-face roles (Hochschild considered flight attendants) or in contact centre settings are required to cultivate a warm and empathetic persona which is intended to create a positive emotional state in the customer. Such employees should “speak as if you are smiling” and to ‘act’ out an engaged, cheerful and helpful manner. They are expected to do so while remaining thoroughly professional at all times. Sociologists distinguish between ‘surface acting’ (the affectation of empathy) and so-called ‘deep acting’, which uses techniques similar to those employed by method actors, such as Robert De Niro, and is more emotionally draining.

I do not know whether Sky customer service people employ surface or deep acting techniques but, whichever it is, they failed comprehensively to evoke a positive emotional state in this caller. But at least I will know to remain polite at all times should I ever have need to call in the future. You really don’t want to make Travis Bickle angry.


How many people work here? About half.

January 22, 2010

I was recently asked what I thought the ideal length was for an article on the web. It reminded me of a quip a previous boss would routinely trot out when giving prospective clients the red carpet treatment around our offices. To the question “How many people do you have working for you?” he would casually respond: “Oh, about half of them.” The point of his joke, and one answer to the question, is that efficacy is not a simple numbers game; if an article is good enough it is long enough.

Of course, it is rarely as straightforward as that and a writer for the web needs should be conscious of the way people read online. According to MediaCo’s David Mill most readers ‘skim’ and ‘jump’ online articles, enter via different points in the text, don’t like deep scrolling and find reading on screen more difficult than reading print. The corporate writer needs to be aware of all these considerations and additionally weave a business narrative that draws in and engages with a reader who is “already 10 minutes late for my next appointment, so if you could kindly get on with it and tell me what your point is…” Well, you get the idea.
It is a truism that writing for the web and for print is different. Michael Kinsley, reflecting on the differences in The Atlantic, argues that one reason seekers of news are abandoning the printed word in favour of the internet is not the convenience of technology but is a consequence of style. Printed news is, he says, too long and is filled with unnecessary verbiage, opinion and scene setting that correspond with a series of outmoded conventions that are “traditional, even mandatory”. These conventions have implications for online writers (avoid them at all costs) and publishers who when they recycle long articles from print to the web may be improving their bottom line but are doing very little for user readability. And when web publishing begins to resemble a Ford production line – you can have any sort of news you want so long as it’s cut a paste job from our morning edition – readers can rightly feel short changed.

It is impossible to talk about writing for the web without also considering how technology is challenging and shaping readers’ expectations. (And than you to those Twitter-conditioned readers who would normally drift away after 140 characters but have generously stuck with me this far). The launch this year of next-generation mobile communication devices, including the new Google phone and Apple’s keenly-anticipated iTablet, could change the rules again for how we want to receive and view news.

Emily Bell, writing in the MediaGuardian, says the emergence of such technologies could move us so far away from the page-centric world we grew up reading and writing for that “it raises the question of how long it will be before even the concept of a website becomes old hat”. Writers will need to acknowledge and adapt to these innovations so they have the answer to the next big question, whatever it is.

Virgin: Happy to be different

November 21, 2009

Virgin companies pride themselves on being different: thinking differently, acting differently and encouraging individuality among their people. The equation is a simple one – happy people equal delighted customers.

But it’s not just the company that thinks it’s doing something special. Virgin Media was recognised recently at the VMA Internal Communications Showcase Awards for its approach in encouraging people in all parts of the business to have their say and for taking notice of what was said. As someone working in internal communications, I wanted to understand a little more about how Virgin Media achieved this success. How do Virgin Media walk the talk?

For Alexandra Smith, Head of Internal Communications at Virgin Media, ‘people engagement’ is not corporate wrapping paper or tokenism, it is a core part of who Virgin is and is wired into the company’s DNA.

Virgin Media“Wherever we can, we ensure that our people are able to contribute their views and influence opinion,” says Alexandra. “The strategy is based around treating people as adults, meaning that they take responsibility for what they say and respect other people’s views. Very few of our channels are anonymous, so people have to stand up for what they say if challenged. Openness and honesty is part of the Virgin culture.”
Virgin Media has designed a number of tools to connect with and build networks among its approximate 15,000 workforce spread across a number of sites and in the field who are engaged in a range of activities (e.g. call centres, customer services, sales and technicians). So people can comment on every story on the company’s intranet, post questions and air their views. There are discussion forums and a wiki tool for people to build content that is relevant to their part of the organisation.

The leadership team is put on the spot using regular live online Q&A sessions and at roadshow events, and a voicemail and text system keeps field staff in the loop about hot topics and enables them to leave a response to information messages and rate how useful they found them.

The use of Twitter is encouraged to build employee communities and foster collaborative working while a series of ‘summits’ allow employees working in the company’s different product areas to share best practice or just simply get work issues off their chest.
Reaction among Virgin Media people to greater empowerment has, in the main, been enthusiastically positive. One member of staff said: “I would like to say I am impressed that you have listened and acted positively on the feedback. Excellent.” While another effused: “OMG! We were listened to 🙂 Good stuff!”

While Virgin’s open and people-focused culture has been a factor in the success of this approach, Alexandra admits that there have been challenges along the way and there remain pockets of resistance in the organisation.

“Just because we’re a Virgin company doesn’t mean it’s been easy and there’s a lot of education still to do at all levels in the company. But the benefits of doing it are clear and there is a strong business case for all companies to engage in new and interesting ways with their employees.”

David Cameron shoots from the lip

July 30, 2009

David Cameron has been forced to make a swift apology for his choice of gynaecological language while talking about the social networking service Twitter during a live radio interview.

Asked by the Absolute Radio presenter Christian O’Connell whether he used Twitter, the Tory leader said politicians that used the service risked appearing like (look away now if you are of a delicate disposition) “twats”.

“The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it — too many twits might make a twat,” he said.

Cameron was attempting to explain why the immediacy of the service, which uses regular bulletins or ‘tweets’ of 140 characters, fails to allow enough time or space for profound thought.

He went on to say the soundbite culture was, however, still relevant. “In the media age, you have to work at communicating something complicated in a simple way, otherwise you are not going to take people with you,” he said.

For communicators, be they politicians, company bosses, football managers or anyone else trying to get their message across, this is an important skill and one that, indeed, needs to be worked at.

The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal understood the importance of reflection and deliberation when communicating. He wrote in preface to one of his letters: “I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one.”

Cameron may not yet be a member of the Twitterati, but I’m sure his media handlers will be advising him to take more time when saying less.

Jargon: the war of the words

June 17, 2009

A new initiative has been launched to clean up British politics, not of sleaze this time, but of jargon.

The argument runs that if the political process is to be more understandable and accessible to the public, then impenetrable town hall-speak must be consigned to the communal waste vessel (dustbin to you and me).

The targets of this purge are not those politicians who use language as a kind of kids’ building set to be arranged in any order and without reference to the instruction booklet. Here we could include those celebrated masters of the malapropism George Bush and the former Deputy PM John Prescott, who, according to the Daily Mailsketchwriter uses “the English language like a novice customer in a spaghetti house”. My favourite example of Prescott wrestling with his verbal linguine came when briefing parliament on an explosion at a fuel depot near Hemel Hempstead in 2005. He explained that the resulting plume of smoke was non-toxic and was a mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and “hydrocardigans” (even the spell checker on my PC is blinking in disbelief at this one).

No, the target of this latest campaign is that brand of management-speak which most people in the business world will have come across at one time or another. Helpfully, the BBC has compiled the ‘50 office-speak phrases you love to hate’.

The call for clarity comes as the Plain English Campaign celebrates its 30th year waging war on gobbledygook and misleading public information. The group, which trains government departments and other officials, awards its Crystal Mark stamp of approval to organisations that communicate clearly with the public.

At this very late point in my blog I must put my hands up to using the occasional piece of management-speak. A quick look at the homepage of this site will show that I’m not averse to ‘engaging’ with people, or sending out messages to ‘stakeholders’. In the business world, such phrases are a form of shorthand, the general sense of which is understood even if a precise meaning is difficult to pin down. I stand admonished and, going forward, promise to positively impact my non-verbal communication.

Authenticity and how video killed Gordon’s star quality

May 17, 2009

As if Gordon Brown did not have enough worries, what with MPs’ expenses and that little matter of a global economic recession/depression/ice age (delete as appropriate), it seems the PM has also revealed himself to be a television flop.

In case you were busy sorting your receipts that week and missed it, Mr Brown was appearing on Number 10 TV to talk about his regret at young people’s reluctance to go into politics and his proposals for sorting out the thorny issue of MPs’ allowances.

Many unkind things have been said about his clear physical discomfort in front of camera, and his feints, fidgeting and facial tics, especially when trying to smile, are curious. (To me, he looks like an earnest headmaster auditioning for a part in the school play). Unfavourable comparisons have, naturally, been drawn between his awkwardness on television and the chirpy showmanship of the previous occupant of Number 10 who was able to work the camera to his advantage. History has taught us that television can be a harsh judge. Viewers watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 felt that the tanned and relaxed looking Kennedy got the best of the arguments, while radio audiences thought the outcome was much closer. We are left to wonder how Abraham Lincoln would fare in the YouTube age (perhaps his media adviser would suggest he blog his address at Gettysburg), or whether Jesus’ teaching in The Sermon on the Mount would pass muster if had to do it in front of Simon Cowell.

For communicators – and not just those working in television – there is something instructive in all of this which we would do well to learn from. Gordon Brown’s failing was not that he couldn’t tell his autocue from his sound boom but that he let himself be poorly advised and strayed into a world that is demonstrably not his metier. His message was lost in all his phony bonhomie and clumsy cheerfulness. We want to believe Gordon Brown is a serious politician, not a warm-up man for the church raffle. The authenticity is missing.

Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin man, understands this and compares Gordon Brown with the Scottish chanteuse Susan Boyle. Speaking on his blog he says: “If there is a lesson from her success for politicians, it is authenticity. It is the only communication that works.”

So, the lesson for everyone whose job it is to communicate: if you are a fish, stay in water.