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Brand messaging and customer loyalty: why @Staples should fire Its Marketing department

I'm a long-time customer of the office supply store, Staples...or I was. Because I'm not any longer - and it's their Marketing Department's fault. There are two very specific reasons why - each of which is a laudatory tale for anyone looking at 'growing' their business at their customers' expense and without taking their customers into consideration.

The Bait and Switch Rewards Program

When Staples first established its customer loyalty program (because that's what rewards programs are supposed to be), they gave customers a 5% discount on each purchase. Immediately. At the cash register or online.

The money stayed in your pocket.

Somewhere along the line, someone (undoubtedly in the Marketing Department) got the bright and (short-term) money-saving idea that they could switch their Staples Rewards program so that instead of money, customers could get points.

Points! What an excellent idea! Customers would, I'm sure they thought, be just as excited about earning points as they were about seeing an immediate discount. And they'd just love to go through a remittance process - printing out coupons or showing their smartphones - once they got 'enough' points to warrant a reward.

Especially if the rewards were time-sensitive and the points disappeared if there weren't enough during any given rewards period.

Now that's putting the customer first, right? Yeah, right.

Which takes us to today's coup de grace:

Scaring the S**t Out of Customers That Their Credit Card Data Has Been Stolen

This one was a new one on me - and one for which they should be particularly ashamed in these days of stolen credit card information and identity theft.

Last week I made a purchase for which I undoubtedly got some points (see above) and, as part of my Rewards program 'membership,' received an email receipt. (I got a printed copy at the time, too, but we won't talk about that now.) Usually, that email marks the end of the transaction.

Not this time.

This morning, after having not made another purchase, I got an email from them with the subject line:

Thank you for your purchase! Open for More Great Products.

Their marketers may have thought they were being wise and witty, thanking me again, but they were wrong. Because when I saw that subject line, my immediate thought was, 
"Oh, s**t! Someone hacked Staples and got my credit card information. S**t! S**t!! S**t!!! Don't those f****rs know what they're doing?!?"
And I promise you, I'm not the only one who reacted that way. After all, any one of us can go through the litany of companies - from Target to Home Depot to JPMorgan - that didn't protect their customers' information adequately.

Based on that subject line, all it looked like was they joined the group.

Clearly their marketers weren't thinking about timing and what their message actually said. Otherwise, they wouldn't have sent it.

For my part, it put quite a pall on my morning - and no vendor is worth that.

For your part, it's worth taking the time to look at how you're creating and, hopefully, supporting your customers' loyalty - reward programs or not - as well as how you're communicating with them. As you can clearly see from my example, you may get one pass, but you won't get two.

And with that, I'm saying bye-bye to Staples and taking my business elsewhere. The saddest part for Staples is that I'm not at all sorry.

Uber's tax problems: advocacy, adversity and society

Uber is having problems with its drivers and the US tax code.

Without going into too much detail, what it comes down to is that Uber wants to consider all its drivers contractors and the drivers (and IRS) want to consider them employees.

The benefit to Uber of 'their' way of looking at their business model is that they don't have direct responsibility for anybody. That keeps their costs low, their liability lower and their shareholders happy.

The benefit to the drivers and IRS to 'their' way of looking at the work that's being done is that Uber has to pay toward their taxes, provide benefits and generally give back more than simply an opportunity to make money for themselves (and even more for Uber and its shareholders).

Uber is part of what's being very prettily called the "sharing economy" - a $30+bn market that's only going to get bigger.

To be fair, this model began long before it was called the "sharing economy." In fact, it started in the late 1980s when companies started laying off their people in large, large numbers...only to hire them or others like them back as contractors.

Back then, it was the early days of "outsourcing." Standardized functions that weren't considered to need a proprietary approach (or company loyalty) all got handed off - from travel to accounting to HR.

The logic was exactly the same: The company's expenses and liabilities lower when they use contractors rather than hire employees.

And throughout that time, the same battle that Uber is fighting has been waged.

You'd think that by now - and with this level of 'sharing' being done between employers and contractors and the IRS - that someone would have realized that there's an easy fix: Modify the tax code.

All that's really needed is a means for companies to maintain their independence and manage their costs while contractor/employees get some of the benefits of being an employee with the full understanding that, as contractors, some things need to remain their responsibility.

In fact, if Uber and its sharing brethren would take some of those billions and point them toward their corporate and tax attorneys and accountants specifically to advocate for change rather than fight exclusively for the status quo, the problem would be solved quickly and easily.

This is a societal problem. We've changed the way we do business. Now it's time for businesses, their advocates and government officials to catch up with each other so that everyone - and I mean everyone - in society wins.

Accountability: are you willing to put your name to it?

It's an interesting thing.

If you watch footage of demonstrations - no matter the country - you'll see hordes of people wearing anything from scarves to balaklavas to cover their faces. They don't want to be known for their beliefs.

Or...

From Twitter to comments on blog sites, pseudonymous names are used so that the person commenting doesn't have to be held responsible for what he or she is saying.

In organizations, the way this plays out is that someone says something really, really smart but isn't willing to take it to the next level. As a result, someone else - who overheard the really, really smart thing - does take it further and gets the credit...at which point the original someone with the original really, really smart idea gets angry as hell and feels that they've been cheated.

No they haven't. They didn't put their name to it. They didn't take the risk - so they don't deserve the reward.

The media, in general, and social media, in particular, have made it easy to hide. The problem is - and it is a problem - the people who get used to hiding find it harder and harder to come out from behind the curtain. They'd rather be an anonymous 'influencer' than a clarion call that others can really trust.

The saddest part of all of this is the number of ideas, thoughts, innovations, opportunities and possibilities that get lost - for the organizations, the people they serve and, not least, the person who had the idea in the first place.

You may not want to be a star - but you should be willing to put your name to your own thoughts. If you're not, either keep them to yourself or, when someone else gets the credit, suck it up and deal with it. You made that happen.

The sad state of truth in organizations

Truth is evidently in short supply these days - both from political and business leaders. Here's how I know.

Ben Horowitz wrote:
"Once I stopped being CEO, I was granted a freedom that I did not have before. As a venture capitalist, I have had the freedom to say what I want and what I really think without worrying about what everybody else thinks. As a CEO, there is no such luxury. As CEO, I had to worry about what everybody else thought. In particular, I could not show weakness in public. It would not have been fair to the employees, the executives, or the public company shareholders. Unrelenting confidence was necessary." (The Hard Thing About Hard Things, page 274).
Bob Spink, former Member of the UK Parliament, said:
"I'm not a politician. I'm not up for election anymore so I can speak honestly." (BBC Radio 4 interview, September 6, 2014)
Not a pretty picture. And you wonder why your employees don't believe you when you tell them things - whether about their jobs, the company, its direction or how they can impact and benefit from doing more and better for the enterprise?

Frankly, they have no reason to believe you. They're surrounded by people showing them - over and over again - that the truth isn't out there. At least not anyplace that they can get their hands on it.

And that takes us to yet a different form of truth: "Your" truth versus "My" truth.

Too often, the response to arguments is, "Well that may be your truth, but it isn't mine."

That doesn't work. Truth is truth.

Facts change or can be interpreted differently over time with more information. Beliefs change all the time based on new and different experiences.

Truth doesn't change. Truth is truth.

On a survival level, we're told, trained and experience that truth isn't convenient or easy. Our business and political leaders even say so. You have to be fearful of the truth...or at least of speaking it.

That's wrong. Truth is clear and simple. It's not obtuse or veiled or difficult. Just ask Seth Godin. He wrote:
"A common form of complexity is the sophistication of fear....I'm more interested in the sophistication required to deliver the truth. Simplicity. Awareness. Beauty. These take fearlessness. This is, "here it is, I made this, I know you can understand it, does it work for you?" Our work doesn't have to be obtuse to be important or brave." (Seth's Blog, September 30, 2014).
Be fearless. Speak the truth. More important, live, demonstrate and model it in every aspect of your life every day.

That's when the truth really does set you free.

Are all leaders now "she"?

I'm not sure, but I think it started with Seth Godin's writings (which I love). Unfortunately his decision to use the feminine when he talks about achievements is actually not a good thing. Or at least it turned out that way.

Somewhere along the line, it became a near-requirement by editors that business writers - particularly men - use "she" as the generic - rather than what had come to be considered the sexist "he."

I'm not sure if anyone realizes that they've done the same thing - only in the pejorative - by 'standardizing' the "she." Now "she" is the sexist term.

Read business blogs, books, magazine articles and you'll find the same thing: When something 'good' is done, it's done by a "she." When it's a bad thing, it's the 'he' who did it.

Neither is right - but having standardized to "she" is the worst thing of all. Just as the generic "he" wasn't actually (or meant to be) descriptive, it's the meaning that's assigned that's the problem.

This is a socialization thing. For men, it becomes an unconscious competition. For women, it's the pressure of expectation.

Granted, everyone wanted to get away from the ungainly "he/she," "him/her," "his/hers" or the next stage "she/he," "her/him," "hers/his" that had been adopted - but at least that was trying to create a balance. No one's even trying anymore.

It's a funny thing. Fifteen years ago when I wrote my book, Executive Thinking*, I used what I considered to be the generic throughout. That meant I used "he."

The editors and sales folks had a fit. They hated it. They told me that I had written a sexist book, that women wouldn't buy it and that men would use it as an example and excuse to continue their sexist ways. (They were all women.)

Their solution was that they wanted every "he" to be turned into a "he/she" or its necessary equivalent.

I said no. As I explained to them, all the he/she did was break up the reading experience. It didn't send a message either way - except to their bosses that a lot of extra paper and ink was going to be needed and that that would up the cost.

Instead, they allowed me to edit the book for sexism myself. (Does it occur to any of you - as it did to me - that the fact that they were accusing a successful woman of being a male chauvinist is far off the mark?) As a result, the book is evenly divided. The key executive role described shifts back and forth between the sexes so that, ultimately, equality is created.

Interestingly, the first question I always receive from anyone who reads it is whether that was intentional. It was and it still is.

As a result, as you see in my writings for this blog and other pieces of mine that are published, I don't do either the 'old' generic "he" or the 'new' generic "she." That's because I think they're both self-indulgent and affected.

Instead, when I'm telling a story about a person, that person is going to be a person - without assigned gender - unless absolutely necessary. You get to use your imagination.

On the other hand, if I'm giving direct advice, I'm going to be talking to you. Yes, you.

Why? Because you know who you are. You don't need me to tell you whether your gender is going to impact your success. You're creating it for yourself.
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*Executive Thinking is currently out of print but you can still get copies here.