Thursday, August 28, 2008

A question for the readership--please help!

Hi, all,

We're approaching 1000 posts on Shop Talk, and I'm reflecting on the mission and approach of this blog. I'd like your help.

Please post comments about the blog on any of the following:

There should be more of (fill in the blank).

There should be less of (fill in the blank).

I wish this were discussed: (fill in the blank).

Get rid of: (fill in the blank).

...or anything else that would make the blog more interesting, useful or entertaining to you.

Thanks, John

A competitive advantage: employees who "spend most of their day talking to people"

I recall a number of years ago dialing 411 (Information) and asking the operator for a phone number for a store a few miles away in Boston. In a thick Dorchester accent, she corrected the name of the store for me. "I think you mean this one," she said, and she was right.

Old school customer service has been in decline for some time now--pushed out by the costcutting allure of self-service, offshoring, IVRs, etc.

Impersonal customer service works in some cases. Shopping for a known commodity like a book, or CD, for example, or putting a vacation stop on your newspaper delivery. But companies have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, because if it's really important to understand what a customer needs, a trained, empathetic person is the best resource a company can have. These folks, as John Kotter writes in "A Sense of Urgency," help "bring the outside in"--in other words, they provide insight from a vital outside constituency--customers--into the organization.

I've talked before in this blog about how data about customer interactions will be captured and mined for insights about customer perceptions of products, service and the company that provides them. Today, surveys and focus groups attempt to paint this picture. Tomorrow, the real, raw data will be used. Stories from customers, and the stories from the people who serve them directly.

This will provide a new value proposition for customer service. As opposed to a replaceable part hired at the lowest hourly rate possible, front-line staff will be well-paid and well-trained. Their insights will be carefully collected and utilized, and products (and the customers that buy them) will be better off for them.

Shifting customer service to a different location to save $1.00 a call will be unthinkable.

It's possible that Best Buy's Geek Squad is an early prototype of this mindset. In an article in today's New York Times, Matt Richtel depicts a power struggle between computer manufacturers who install application craplets on their PCs, and retailers, who are responding to customers' desire to buy a PC free of craplets. This section was notable:

Mr. Stephens of Geek Squad says he agrees with H. P. that the future is in allowing computer buyers to choose and download what they want. But he said he believed Best Buy, not H. P., was in the best position to help people choose what works for them because, he argued, the in-store technicians are in closest contact with them.

“Geek Squad agents have one thing over Apple and Microsoft engineers. We spend most of the day talking to people,” he said.

Related posts:
Businesses need "A Sense of Urgency"
Time to start listening to front-line employees

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why don't businesses change and adapt? No "Sense of Urgency"

John Kotter is the change guru. His article "Leading Change" from Harvard Business Review is a classic I've recommended to a number of people. His newest book, "A Sense of Urgency," focuses on the one area where companies most often fail the change test--establishing an organization-wide priority to, using Kotter's words, "move, and win, now."

It's a terrifically-written book, with lots of stories of organizations succeeding at or failing the urgency test. Kotter points out (as I've experienced) that many organizations in trouble foster a sense of "false urgency"--an inwardly-focused, fearful level of intense activity (wall-to-wall meetings; sound familiar?) that harms the organization, perhaps as much, or more than, old-fashioned complacency.

By contrast, "true urgency" engages employees' hearts; focuses outwardly on customers, competitors and the industry environment; and is practiced by everyone in the organization, most especially the leaders. It also requires understanding the true priorities of the company and purging activities that are not connected with those priorities, thereby opening up time for reflection, experimentation, and immersion in the world outside the company walls.

Here's my favorite snippet from "A Sense of Urgency":

We call this a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, an organization where people up and down the hierarchy, and systems throughout the organization, help pull the outside in through
  • Sending out people
  • Bringing in people
  • Bringing in relevant data in an eye-catching manner
  • Listening to customer-interface employees
  • Creating video about the outside
  • Widely sharing what is learned instead of shielding others from possibly troubling news
  • Changing the visuals
Nearly everyone in an organization can use these tactics to create more urgency among peers or their bosses. Imagine what would happen to complacency if many people at many levels did so. (p.100)

I can't think of a better book for today's business environment, when so many companies are struggling to reinvent themselves, while companies clearly in deep trouble continue to be surprised by the outside reality (example). " A Sense of Urgency" is a must-read.

Related post:
Time to start listening to front-line employees

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The power of "anecdotal evidence"

We have a bike rack on our 12-year-old Isuzu Trooper that fits into the trailer hitch. I mentioned to my wife the other day that perhaps next year we should add a hitch to our 6-year-old Acura MDX, so we can use the bike rack on the MDX after the Trooper gives out.

She laughed. "What if the Acura dies first?" she said.

My wife holds the perception very firmly that the Isuzu is a highly-reliable, trouble-free car, and that the Acura is a fragile thing, constantly in need of expensive maintenance.

Statistics say otherwise. JD Power gives Acura four stars for reliability (out of five), and Izusu only two stars--tied for the worst rating.

But looking beyond statistics, at the stories, the Trooper has a bunch of ardent fans. Some people have had terrible problems and hate the car, yet many others, a larger number, love it. (See this group of epinions posts for an example.)

And the MDX's reliability has some detractors as well (see reviews from, with many complaints about transmission problems (writer crosses fingers).

What's most amazing is the firmness with which the reviewers--positive and negative--hold their opinions. It demonstrates the "tyranny of the mean," in which a lot is lost by averaging ratings together. A car is an emotion-laden product--expensive, used daily, inconvenience-causing when broken. Opinions then vary dramatically based on personal experience. The stories are arguably more important than the statistics when evaluating this type of product. And product managers, as well, should be especially attuned to the stories customers are telling about their products.

The lesson here is that "anecdotal evidence" should not so easily be dismissed, and that statistics can be useful but, just as when buying a car, you should look under the hood for yourself.

It might help you figure out why your wife thinks the old Izusu kicks the newer Acura's butt.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

A meeting in Boston goes awry

From The Mistake Bank.

This happened to me some years ago, but the unpleasantness of the encounter still is fresh today. And aren't all great lessons like that?

You can download the podcast here (5 minutes).

Please consider rating and reviewing The Mistake Bank for the Forrester Groundswell awards by following this link.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Mistake Bank would like your vote

I've entered The Mistake Bank in the Groundswell awards for social media. Please visit if you have a moment and rate the site or write a review. I'm sure there will be lots of great contenders, but the M-Bank has proven to be a very nice learning experience for me and hopefully for others. If you feel the same way, please visit the awards site here and weigh in. Thanks.

Power of story

For men (this one anyway), sports stories are incredibly resonant. Just saw this Visa advertisement about the Derek Redmond story from the 1992 Olympics. I remember seeing that live. It still made me cry sixteen years later.

Stories engage the heart, essays engage the mind. See how two minutes of moment-to-moment narrative can inspire hours of conversation:


Thursday, August 14, 2008

DOPPLR - a fascinating tool to enable serendipity

In 1996, I was wandering down a street in Kansas City when I unexpectedly ran into an old colleague of mine. It was a delightful encounter. We spent ten minutes or so catching up and reminiscing about great concerts we had attended together. I remember it now as if it happened yesterday.

This story may explain why I am in love with a new website called DOPPLR, which connects you and friends/colleagues and allows you to share information with them.

(I can hear you already. What, another social site? I'm already on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, seven Ning networks. Enough!)

DOPPLR's unique twist is that it allows you to share travel itineraries with your circle--something of exceptional utility if you travel much, and if members of your circle travel as well. It lets you know when members of your network are traveling to your town, or (coolest of all), when you and an acquaintance just happen to be traveling to the same place at the same time.

For example, even though I have a small circle in my DOPPLR network, I already learned of two folks who will be traveling to the same conference with me in San Francisco next month. This piece of information spurred me to email them and set up get-togethers.

I've discussed the benefits of networking again and again in this space. The new social tools allow you to keep up with a much larger circle of acquaintances. The catch is, since they're all virtual, they don't help much in actually getting together with members of your network if they're not in the neighborhood.

But DOPPLR does exactly that.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Time to start listening to front-line employees

I have a colleague who runs a small outsourced contact center in the Pacific Northwest. I told him of my project to find and use stories from call centers to get more useful customer input. He said, "It's a great idea, but nobody listens to the reps."

Then, as I wrote about last week, a bank that is renowned as a great place to work told me that an idea to have tellers share via internal blogs customer interactions they found interesting was a non-starter: "We just put into place a policy to limit the access our employees have to the internet."

Well, it's time to start listening to the reps. It's time to let tellers blog about what they experience.

We generally accept that having happy employees at the front lines can help revenues, because happy employees convey good feelings to the customers they meet, making those customers feel better about who they're buying from, etc.

But it's now clear that in addition to courtesy and helpfulness, front-line employees also know more about what customers want, what they like and don't like, how they feel about the company, than anyone else. Because "the reps" hear it, every day, direct and unfiltered.

Back in the day, the only way an executive could access this insight would be to visit stores and talk to employees and customers him/herself. This still happens. But with cheap, ubiquitous data-sharing technology like blogs, RSS, wikis, social sites, etc., there's nothing standing in the way of systematically gathering and immersing oneself in detailed, rich information about customer interactions--even if you're the CEO.

And don't you think getting the chance to communicate, and being listened to, might increase the job satisfation of the front-liners?

An executive at a large US insurer told me that at their quarterly management meetings they listen to selected recordings of customer calls. "It's always a shock when you hear what customers say directly. We're so far removed from the customer."


Related post:
Enterprise use of 2.0 collides with restrictive access policies

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cognitive bias trumps intelligence

I always felt being smart was one of my major advantages in business--and there's no doubt that being well-informed and full (perhaps over-full?) of ideas helped in getting promotions, raises, etc.

What I've learned in the past couple of years has shaken that belief to the core. In particular, the writings of Dan Gilbert, Malhotra & Bazerman on negotiations, and Dave Snowden et. al. on complexity in management and business, have had a particular impact in revising this viewpoint, to the point that I won't take an important decision without reviewing it, at minimum, with the Vice President of Common Sense.

Central to this thinking is the idea that cognitive biases can cause us to overestimate our ability to make sound decisions, routinize complex situations, fail to see threats and weaknesses in our reasoning, and personalize conflicts. All leading to poor decisions, and sometimes decisionmaking disasters.

The way to overcome these dangers is to work with others, to consult, carefully listen (especially to dissenting viewpoints). In short, to shelve one's own learning and accept others' input with an open mind and heart. And in something that goes against my nature, to slow down and be patient.

For me, serving on a nonprofit's board of directors the past two years or so has been a signal lesson in the benefits of humility and collective thinking. Sharing monthly meetings with people possessing important skills that I lack utterly--knowledge of fundraising, city politics, risk management and others--but yet being able to contribute nonetheless through listening and inquiring has been revelatory. I am still learning, as you might guess, to listen hard to the "non-experts" on our board on subjects I know something about.

(Photo by Max Brown via stock.xchng)

Related posts:
Malhotra & Bazerman
Senior Leadership Teams

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Friday, August 08, 2008

It's 08/08/08, and dates are STILL arbitrary

This 2007 post is still relevant a year later, even down to the day of the week...

A Friday-afternoon rant

The Beijing Olympics are opening on 08/08/08 at 8:08 pm. An auspicious date, according to this horoscope writer.

And 07/07/07 was a very lucky day--ask Tony Parker and Eva Longoria--no? Well, no!

What about 06/06/06? Wasn't that supposed to be the devil's day? No again.

When will we realize that each of the numbers that makes up a date is an arbitrary creation of man, lacking any consistency or objective meaning?

AD 2000 wasn't 2000 years after the birth of Jesus (various sources place the date between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C.). And if you don't follow Christianity, what meaning would that number have even if it were accurately counted from Jesus' birth?

The month/day numbers have changed as recently as 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted.

It's time to stop worrying about what's going to happen on a specific date. Truth is, if there are fateful dates out in the cosmos, we wouldn't be able to pinpoint them anyway. So savor the present moment.

(Picture by shadowkill via stock.xchng)

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pilots learning by studying mistakes

Dave Stein took a break from writing about his core subject, building sales effectiveness, to discuss how pilots study the circumstances around crashes to learn what situations to be careful of. This kind of learning from mistakes can save one's life.

Dave is an experienced pilot. I don't think I knew that before reading the post. I like when people inject their personal passions into their blogs. I don't mean navel-gazing, but unveiling parts of their life experience that aren't visible in their professional profiles.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Does your business suffer from the "usual suspect" syndrome?

I've seen it at several places. It usually strikes fast-growing startup companies and becomes particularly painful as they grow past 200 employees. A small group of people emerges with either (1) authority or (2) key subject matter expertise. As the company grows, the group is stretched thinner and thinner, such that they appear to be invited to every meeting and involved in every decision of consequence. Without their input, nothing happens.

The usual suspects then are so busy that they don't have time to delegate or train people so that they can share the workload. Meanwhile, the company continues to grow, decisions stagnate, excellent people leave for lack of opportunities or simply out of frustration. Finally, there's an agonizing resolution, frequently as a result of a forced management change or sale/merger.

The suspects are exhausted, empty, and no longer needed.

Have you ever seen this happen?


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Is Google listening to the stories around Knol?

I talk a lot in this blog about how listening to stories can help companies take the pulse of users. When a new product is released, people try it out, and provide all sorts of information that's critical to the future evolution of the product. They don't provide this information in statistics, but in stories. If you can make sense of the stories, it can give you insight that you can use to make adjustments in functionality, customer service, technical support, pricing, and strategy (as discussed in the section on emergent strategy in "The Innovator's Guide to Growth").

Here's an example of what I mean. On July 23rd, Google released Knol, a product that collects and organizes "authoritative article[s] about a specific topic," according to the company.

Here are some blog stories that emerged after the launch:

knol: content w/out context, collaboration, capital, or coruscation
...We're quite a few months into the Knol experiment. What I find particularly fascinating is that most of the knols that they promote on their front page are health-related, primarily by people who claim to have health-related expertise (doctors, nurses, professors) who appear to be copying/pasting from other places. Why health? What's motivating these people to contribute? (And why are they too lazy to fix the formatting when they copy/paste from elsewhere?)

Frankly, from my POV, Knol looks like an abysmal failure. There's no life to the content. Already articles are being forgotten and left to rot, along with a lot of other web content. There's no common format or standards and there's a lot more crap than gems. The incentives are all wrong and what content is emerging is limited. The expert-centric elitism is intimidating to knowledgeable folks without letters after their names and there is little reason for those of us with letters to contribute. While I don't believe in the wisdom of a crowd of idiots, I do believe that collective creations tend to result in much better content than that which is created by an individual hermit. (Case in point: my *$#! dissertation vs. any article I've co-authored.)

What makes me most annoyed about Knol though is that it feels a bit icky. Wikipedia is a non-profit focused on creating a public good. Google is a for-profit entity with a lot of power in controlling where on the web people go. Knol content is produced by volunteers who contribute content for free so that Google can make money directly from ads and indirectly from search traffic. In return for ?... (full post here)


Knol for Google: It Is Not Evil, It Is Business
Google is a smart company - smart enough for many people to be surprised after they witness this or that move or an acquisition, surprised enough to say "Why has not anyone thought of that move earlier?" And now it seems that Google has finally realized that it sends way too much traffic from its search results pages to websites that do not contribute to Google's business. What would be the correct move for a business when faced by such a discovery? Find a way to make money by sending traffic to your own properties.

And this is exactly what Google needs Knol for: Google must be tired of being the major source of traffic for Wikipedia and many other independent publishers and now it looks for new ways to further monetize its own business. And for that it simply needed to have a platform of its own to be able to bring tons of content to internet users easily - and displace competitors from the search results. In this particular case Google serves as a full-cycle company: it provides the platform (Knol itself), the revenue (AdSense) and, finally, the distribution (search).

Sure, we hear lots of complaints about Knol already. It is quite obvious that from the day 1 of Knol launch we should have expected voices pointing at spam on Knol created in order to get revenue by building a page on a popular term. It was so obvious that it is almost ridiculous to complain about it now. The explanation here is that no matter what service people use they invariably are motivated by something. And often the motivation offered by the service determines exactly what type of users it will attract eventually... (full post here)


Knol – from Google blog
There is a debate about whether Knol is an attempt at competing with Wikipedia. In academic use, its unclear where exacly it fits - for example, much of what you would think of writing a "knol" about seems better placed in a standard journal article review or scholarly dictionary. Does this offer a replacement for those? Scholarpedia is another potential candidate for competing with standard academic review formats. At the moment, there is not much incentive for individual academics to produce these types of documents but is it, more generally, a more logical way of reviewing fields that are very fast-moving?... (full post here)


A Unit of What?
A knol, Knol says, is a “unit of knowledge”. I don’t think so. But I do think Knol is already becoming a den of spam.

My cursory research, at that link, suggests that the answer is yes. “Anemia“? No results. “Hair“? 12, including several (supposedly) by the top guy at the Beauty Network. “Cancer“? 38, so far, inncluding three in the first page of results for the biggest spam giveaway, Mesothelioma. Search for anything. Watch the results.

If this is about a fight with Wikipedia, I’d say it’s no contest. But it’s not. It’s about the corrupting influence of pure scammy ambition. Even if Google doesn’t have that, it plays host to plenty. And Knol (born on 23 July) was barely out of the womb before it got infected with it. (full post here)


The Invidious Knol
My third post on the subject and potentially the most worrying. This blog suggests that Google are tipping the search balance so that knols come above the Wikipedia on search. Its also got a good quote from Nick Carr I'm guessing that serving as the front door for a vast ad-less info-moshpit outfitted with open source search tools is not exactly the future that Google has in mind for itself. Enter Knol.

Now the evidence here is anecdotal, but it will be interesting to see if others carry out more scientific and controlled tests. If it is true then Google's famous Do Good, already tarnished for its willing to compromise its principles in China would be finally shot. It would be an interesting new form of monopoly and a major issue of trust. Any other evidence out there? (full post here)


Twitter is also a neat place for Knol micro-stories. Here are some:

I would suggest Google Knol. It is a combination of Squidoo and Wikipedia. Plus, it is SEO-ready.

admiring my knol, and blogging about Intranet Week and my new gig at J&J

the geekosphere hating knol out of gate only makes me that much more bullish on it longer term...

I love that the wikipedia article for Knol ranks above Knol itself. I wonder how long that will last?

google knol has boobies. Goodbye wikipedia!

Ready to pronounce knol a failure already? I think we'll see over time. Life is not *all* wisdom of crowds.

it's pretty cool that Google can afford to have full on projects that are pointless - and it doesn't really hurt - Knol, I'm looking at you

If I am Google, I am collecting every story I can find like this, and reading them all (including, and perhaps especially, the ones that are critical). There will be some randomness and noise, but with enough volume there will also be themes that emerge. Some that came out of my reading were:

- there's a feeling that Google will favor Knols in its search rankings, and that's a risk not only to the success of Knol, but also to AdSense, one of Google's cash cows.

- the commercial model for Knol, and the perception of can encourage spammers and risk degrading the content available via Knols, tarnishing all of them.

- the perception that Google is taking on Wikipedia (or "commercializing" it) is clashing with Google's "do no evil" mantra.

The Google team may find different patterns. Or they may not care to do anything about them. But they should at minimum understand them. Hopefully they're doing so. The changes that come in Knol over the next few months should provide some insight.

(To see the links for thirty-five stories found on the web about Knol, both blogs and tweets, click here.)

Related post:
Review of "The Innovator's Guide to Growth"
What in hell do stories have to do with innovation?

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Enterprise use of web2.0 collides with restrictive access policies

I've been talking to a prospective client in the banking industry about a project to have tellers blog about interesting customer encounters they have, as a way to share knowledge on the behaviors of fraudsters and other front-line customer service issues, especially with executives who are removed from most front-line customer communication.

I talked to them yesterday and they said they can't pursue the project for two reasons. One was a concern about wide sharing of possibly sensitive data, a reasonable concern that can be addressed with standards and practices of data accessibility, and guidelines about appropriate and inappropriate subjects.

The second was a show-stopper. "We just put a policy in place to strictly limit the amount of internet usage by our people. This project would go counter to that by encouraging people to use the internet more to blog and to monitor RSS feeds."

I went slack-jawed, hearing this. With the potential of web2.0 tools to open up lines of communication, gather and share vivid data, and generally create a stronger, more capable staff, this company was concerned about people spending too much work time on Myspace or eBay.

Under Jeff Thull's credo of "going for the no," I stopped working this opportunity immediately. If a company wants to reduce their team's internet usage, and my project is predicated on increasing it, that's not a battle I will win.

But worse than the opportunity lost was the sinking feeling that enterprises are just not understanding the value in the new social media and by choking off access they risk permanently missing out on the possibilities. Perhaps Andrew McAfee's healthy pessimism about business' adoption of these tools is warranted.

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