The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

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The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Once upon a time in America, we had hundreds of little newspapers dotting the colonies to give leverage to the voice of the individual - they called it muckraking, and some of the blunt criticism contained in them regarding public officials makes today's media seem tame, but it served a vital purpose in our fledgling democracy.  What it did was start a core belief that it was important for the voice of the common man or woman to be heard.  

Of course, it wasn't simply enough to be heard.  Using one's voice was a demand for those in positions of power and authority to listen and to take action.  250 years later, we have tweets, blogs, and high-bandwidth always-on connectivity to anyone at anytime - its become quite trivial to "get heard" or to "get retweeted."  Each generation is more wary of marketing-spin and better able to sniff out BS from the truth and share both with others.  And this has led to a new model for effective consumer advocacy, such as the following:
“Cutting support costs can be lethal to customer satisfaction. Comcast for several years had found itself on lists of the ten worst companies in customer satisfaction.  Then in 2008, In response to “tweets” by irate customers, Comcast, started providing customer support on Twitter (@ComcastCares) as an alternative to having customers wait in the phone queue.  Customers could actively watch the Comcast Cares team trying and usually succeeding at solving problems. Recently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index for Comcast rose 9.3% in satisfaction. The only significant internal change was the team of 10 Comcast Twitter-reps.”
To absurdly simplify this case, cliché style, I’ll say “the squeaky wheel got the grease.”  But historically an isolated complainant had very little leverage to apply to move a company off a set position, to “get the grease” as I said.  But today, that frustrated customer has Internet access, the Internet has social media applications like Twitter and Facebook, and individuals have grown accustomed to immediate response and real-time communication due to the ubiquity of “anytime, anywhere, with anyone” gadgets.
Wealth (and influence), legal training, PR skills, or expertise in organizing groups is no longer a prerequisite for action.  The only prerequisite now is the boldness to let your issue be known, to put your name behind it.  Like rolling a snowball down a hill, forces of nature are thus set in motion.
This is not to discount the organizing efforts or investment of some individuals in customer advocacy, merely to point out that the Internet allows individuals to push a cause forward according to their unique talents, and the aggregate effect is that things get done and companies take notice.  The case of Don Wilson and his advocacy for Volvo owners who had a problem with their Electronic Throttle Module is a great example.  Don says on his site,, he is just a normal guy with a car issue.  Maybe, but he put together a web site, wrote to his Congressional representative, and convinced a news station in his hometown of Denver to do a segment on the issue.  So Don is an über-advocate, but he still may not have gained traction (excuse the pun) if not for the thousands who shared his problem and rallied (another auto pun, sorry) with him because he posted it on the Internet.
The throttle module, while it is a critical component, by itself is only a $300 part.  If this type of advocacy were a simple profit and loss business decision, I think Don would have thrown in the towel long ago.  But he has connected to a nerve with fellow owners, and this communion with others sparks a passion that may not make sense to the impassive corporate accountant, but is no less real than the numbers on a ledger.  What smart companies understand is that it is a good thing that customers, and loyal customers at that, have a lofty image of their products - that is what they spend money on branding for, right?  But these customers also want to see reality come closer to the brand image they have in their mind.  So, what do we do with a problem like Maria?
No longer is an individual customer, citizen, or any type of constituent or stakeholder isolated due to their lack of financial means, geography, shortage of time, or lack of skills in organizing a formal protest on an issue.  To break it down, I have made a first pass at identifying key elements in social-media based advocacy, but here they are, in proper, 5-element numbered-list fashion:
  1. just-in-timeunlike our political parties, or other organizations with a little too much staying power, these efforts arise from a need, see the need through to resolution, and then disperse
  2. geographically-dispersed – as an example, protesters in Iran can find kindred spirits from ex-pats around the world.  Of course, the risks are much higher in political advocacy than they are in typical consumer advocacy
  3. viral – if a critical mass of people identify with an issue and find determination with the kinship of others, the communication and connections spread faster than any media tour or PR campaign could ever hope to do.
  4. low cost of entry – the minimum contribution is simply to identify yourself as having the same issue.  As I described, the organizing effort of some individuals is amazing, but nothing matters more than standing up and being counted.
  5. importance to the individual – this is related to both “just-in-time” and “low cost of entry” – the potential benefit to the individual, on average, is greater than the required effort, again on average.  I am frustrated that the rechargeable battery in my Roomba robot vacuum cleaner has gone bad 3 times, all just out of warranty.  I could just walk away, but I love the product EXCEPT FOR THAT ONE THING.  I get nowhere with the $8/hour “customer service” agent, asking for “the manager” also just got me stonewalled……wait a minute, what did I just write in this blog?  Hey, I’ve got an idea, and I’m pissed off!…come join me on Twitter, you can find my tweets at #roomba_batteries_stink.  Gotta go advocate, bye.

Citizens are customers too, and more!

OK, while this blog is typically about how to improve the customer experience, I am writing this week about some news I came across citing estimates that spending on this year's political campaigns will set a new record high for mid-term elections.

Ok, boys and girls, "R" doesn't stand for "Recession" any more, "R" stands for "Raisin' funds."  Now I'm not a politician, so my spin skills are suspect, but I'll just try to relate this week's blog entry to the customer experience by saying that citizens are customers too, and as such, our citizen experience right now kinda sucks.

I have the benefit of being an almost-lifelong independent voter, which I vigorously defend as being a member of the "right to think" party.  It may be genetically explainable someday that I lack the "likes to be in a crowd" gene, I don't know.  But I have two thoughts for the week that indicate that any hope for the future prosperity of our country will almost certainly come from outside of the Democratic or Republican Parties.  Here they are:

1. Today, many politicians in whatever party you choose to praise are really swearing their allegiance first to the party, or more specifically, their perception of what the party can do for them to gain fame, power, wealth, and a little nookie on the side.  That's it.  Their publicly pledged allegiance to Country, or any doctrine, philosophy, or faith for that matter, is little more than expediency. We see faint glimmers of bi-partisanship only when it either benefits or does no harm to the self interest of each political party and politician involved.  That is not putting Country first, it is simply a momentarily happy situation where Party concerns do not force its officials to act in blatant contempt of Country.
I have no doubt that some are so good at wearing this mask, that they start to believe their artificial persona is a proxy for a true creed. For example, when you take the money (and voting blocs) out of an issue like gays in the military, we find out that to many in Washington it is really not that big an issue, and a little more display of tolerance might make it a little more comfortable at Thanksgiving when they sit down with that gay cousin. As recently as 1994, when the "Don't ask, don't tell" politically expedient compromise was arrived at, members of both parties feared losing their gravy train.  Hence, it was not expedient until recently to say, "why not, gays have been serving in the military since, uh....Alexander the Great anyway, and its not like we are saying if we make it legal that they can start wearing Johnny Weir outfits to boot camp."

2. The Old Watergate adage, "Follow the Money", could never be more true. OK, no one in 2010 still believes in purely rational markets, but we can probably agree that in general it is rational to invest only when you have a probability of return as good or better than your other options. So, despite our economy getting its butt kicked, the "rational" corporation or wealthy individual sees that getting quid pro quo from our elected politicians beats many other uses of those funds, such as retooling, retraining, entering new markets or launching new products. However it is not rational for us citizens to not hear a "giant sucking sound" behind all those dollars going into politics these days. 
As citizens, we have a responsibility to use means such as prosecution, boycott, reform, voting out of office, and exposing practices so that those returns do not look so good anymore.  It is also not rational for us to believe that these two parties will change in any meaningful and lasting way - the self-serving, country-be-damned approach, along with the ever-present finger pointing that the other guy is who is screwing up the country, is a progressive, terminal illness for our two political parties.  I don't really care that its a terminal illness for the parties, but the problem is that it will be terminal for the U.S.A. health as well, unless we the citizen-customers do something about it.  

Back on the money topic, the bigger the federal government is, the more "deals" it has the power to broker or influence. The corruption that goes along with that is my top reason why an expanding federal government is a problem, not because my taxes will go up, or out of fear that its a socialist conspiracy, but because we will continue to see less and less real service and quality of life from our taxes at whatever tax rate.  In business school, we called these agency costs - assets are never administered 100% efficiently and honestly - the waste in administering an asset under a particular system is its agency cost.  And its a tricky problem, because the amount you spend to police corruption in order to reduce it is ALSO counted as an agency cost.  Keep in mind an unethical politician can cost us much more than his salary in agency costs, because they are the trustees of many public assets as well as hold influence over budgetary spending.  With each dollar going in to campaigns and lobbyists and meals and well...let's not go there, there is quite often an expectation of financial return coming out, and that is how each dollar you pay in taxes is skimmed to provide less and less.  Now, wouldn't that be a substantive way to look at health care?  For any given level of care, what system results in the lowest agency costs?  But instead we just hear these tired "philosophical" positions.

My conclusion?  Our form of government is still the best in the world, but the two-party system that controls the actions of our elected officials is broken, is no longer serving the needs of current and future citizens, and will increasingly become a burden to our nation's prosperity.  It is a universal, immutable law that the same elements that are THE PROBLEM cannot also provide the solution. Powerful beasts do not walk away quietly, getting rid of both the Democratic and Republican Parties is as daunting as it would be for Michael J. Fox to fight a cage match against both Mike Tyson and Dog the Bounty Hunter (not sure where that came from). But there is no alternative, we need to turn the Citizen Experience back to a positive.

The Champion and The Challenger

"It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power." - David Brin

The way any company currently operates has a momentum that can drive its eventual downfall, unless it evolves due to the intercession of a proactive management team.  It is the rare, yet healthy organization that, as an analogy, puts an unknown challenger like Buster Douglass on the fight card against an "unbeatable" champion like Mike Tyson.

Executive personalities eventually fail, market strategies eventually fail, employee "carrot or stick" incentive plans eventually fail, but it is important that the business does not fail. So if we can call a company's current mode of interacting with customers the "champion", then a company must always be developing its own "challengers", lest it be beaten into submission by an external opponent.

Unfortunately, this is hard to do unless driven from on high.  In customer operations, for example, it is not often welcome for one to say, "what if we changed our quality assurance to focus on how well we take care of the customer rather than how well we follow the script that was approved by management?"  That would fly about as well as a lead zeppelin.  Unless... management has a champion and challenger framework for managing change, and they can compare results on the fight card to see who wins.

Here's how it works.  The current model for your business - the way you sell, deliver, provide customer service, whatever, is the champion - what you have determined to be the optimal modus operandi for your business.

Now, instead of fomenting jihadist talks at the water cooler and watching insightful employees leave, or allowing a competitor to come in and eat your lunch, you plant the seeds of your own champion's destruction within your own companyWhy?  Because while you are focusing on getting things done, things "out there" keep changing.  How? You introduce challengers.  You create a competition for "best of breed" within your own company.  It keeps those intelligent yet recalcitrant employees excited about coming to work, and it keeps you one step ahead of your competitors.

I consult in the area of customer experience and call center operations.  For my clients, champion vs. challenger means taking a customer segment or region, and applying some new methods of interacting with the customer.  It might be how a call is routed, the level of information that is provided, when a call will be escalated, the conditions under which an agent will try to "upsell" a caller, or the knowledge competency requirements for an agent to handle a certain type of call or caller.  There are many more examples from my line of work.  The key is to make the Challenger a discrete and measurable activity.  Confining each challenger activity to a limited scope helps with that.

Don't wait to get cold cocked by an unforeseen opponent.  Find ways to experiment with your operations to create challengers within your own organization.  Don't be forced to tap out.