Customer Service is Dead

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RiA6q9poTWell at least it is at a certain airline about to be absorbed by American Airlines (thank God).

I just spent more than three hours trying to book airfare for our summer vacation. It was a relatively easy booking – not a straight round-trip but a multi city with only two flights. When you look on Kayak, it looks like it should be a breeze to book.

When I saw that the most desirable flights – time-wise – were with USAirways I have to admit I cringed more than just a little bit. I went to every airline’s individual site to make sure I couldn’t do better. Again, a bit of a cringe when I realized I couldn’t.

So at 10 p.m. on a Friday night I started the process. I went to the USAirways site and called up the flights. Actually found that the pricing was a wee bit lower than what Kayak had quoted. Good news, right?

Well at 1 a.m., I have just finished the process. That’s because I would get through all the screens, plugging in names, addresses, credit card information, answering all the questions about hazardous materials and then hitting “buy” only to get an error message – not once…not twice…but five times.

So I called “online booking support” which is a misnomer like no other. My “support rep” argued with me, told me I was wrong and insisted the flight number I was booking was completely different than the one showing up on the website. She had a few other great quotes.

“Maybe you should call your credit card company.” Uh my credit card has 30 K of credit available and that is more than enough to cover this purchase almost 10 times over.

“I think the problem is that the flight you are booking is no longer available.”   Huh? It’s showing up online. In fact, I just restarted the process and there it is.

But my favorite: “Maybe that fare isn’t available anymore. Just because you see it on our website doesn’t mean it’s real.” To this I had no words, except to point out that this was the worst “support” call in which I’ve every participated.

I had to call the credit card company too because I got a fraud alert for trying to book this flight. Frustrating, sure, but I do appreciate their vigilance. The good news is that I gave it one last try and it worked. No idea why. No idea how.

Our frequent flyer numbers are still not associated with this reservation but that’s because American literally started the process of moving those accounts over tonight at midnight. A call to a lovely American Airlines support person confirmed that.

So to USAirways, a company that fooled the politicians of Allegheny County into thinking they’d be here forever in order to get a new airport, good riddance. They have laid off thousands of good committed airline professionals. They have abandoned the hub they built on the backs of the local taxpayers so that our airport is now half shuttered and we can’t get very many places nonstop anymore. They turned from one of the region’s top employers to a non-player in the blink of an eye.

I wish I had more faith in the Allegheny County government to think they could restore some level of business at Pittsburgh International. Unfortunately I don’t believe they are up to the task and that we are probably going to see more gates shuttered. I hope they prove me wrong so I can actually fly to New York for less than $650 someday.

 

 

 

Taking the Plunge: Top Six Tips to Launching Your Own Consulting Business

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polarbearplungeIf I had a nickel for every friend, acquaintance or stranger who tells me that they’d love to launch their own business but are afraid, I’d be a very rich man. And they tell me that as if I wasn’t afraid nearly 10 years ago when I made the big move. Truth be told, I can’t believe I did it. I’m not sure where I mustered up the guts to quit what was, at the time, a great job, to enter the unknown world of entrepreneurship.

But I did it and I couldn’t be happier. Given that I am an older dad and have two children, the youngest of whom was only one when I made the move, I knew I’d probably never retire. So I had to find a way to make life more livable while continuing to earn a living. After spending two decades in agency, non-profit and corporate communications, launching my own PR and writing business was the answer.

It doesn’t matter whether you are launching a business like mine, or any consulting gig that means you sell your brainpower and skills to companies. This life isn’t for everyone, but I took a few steps that made me muster up the will to make it happen.

  1. Have a plan – It may sound simple, but know what you want to do. You can’t sell your services to people unless you know specifcially what it is you want to sell. For me, it was simple. I’m a writer by trade with two decades of PR and Corporate Communications experience. Make sure you are clear about your goals and how you want to spend your time every day.
  2. Do your homework – I must have read six different books on launching a business, most notably Peter Bowerman’s Well Fed Writer Filled with great information and inspiration, just reading these books gave me the confidence that I could be successful.
  3. Tell your friends – And by friends, I mean everyone you know, worked with or with whom you had any level of interaction. I started selling my services six months before I launched my business and when it was time to pull the trigger I had one client contract in hand and several others under consideration. I took a chance that my existing employer would contract with me for projects I had created and owned for seven years and when they did (on the day I handed in my resignation) I knew I would hit the ground running.
  4. Get your finances in order – Probably the toughest item on this list, you can’t just quit a job and launch a business with no resources backing you up. Whether it’s savings that you have put away as you chase this dream or a supportive spouse who can pick up the slack while you get your feet under you, make sure you have a back up plan. A lot of books talk about having three or six months of living expenses put away, but in my experience the number doesn’t matter as long as it is a number you are comfortable with and have the ability and drive to make it happen.
  5. Consider the small stuff – I’m a big believer in trying to learn to not sweat the small stuff. But when planning to launch your business, there are few things more important than the small stuff; from benefits to retirement, from vacations to office space – put all of these considerations on paper and make sure that you are truly ready to go.
  6. Finally, expand your network – When you leave the corporate womb to strike out on your own, one of the things you lose is constant human contact. Don’t lose your existing network and expand it so that you have a lot of folks with whom to interact on a daily basis.

Striking out on your own can be a wonderful thing, so long as you are prepared.

Four Brand-Building Lessons to Take Away from the NCAA Tournament

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11013547_10204578387718237_259148508980662855_nI love March Madness because college basketball is my favorite sport and this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament represents pure nirvana. So of course I attended yesterday’s round of first round games at the CONSOL Arena in Pittsburgh.

When you attend the four games in a first round session over the course of more than 12 hours total, there’s bound to be some down time to ponder the universe and the way the event is run, leveraged and even exploited. I took notice of a – some would say bizarre – range of subjects over the course of the day and night. Here are just a few ways that this event and its attendees did a good, and not so good, job of branding and PR.

You can over-brand. The NCAA – Big Brother who puts on this fabulous event every year needs to take itself just a little less seriously. In between games during the night time session, the NCAA showed a nearly 10 minute “highlight” film that flashed the NCAA logo about four million times during its run, dramatic music and all, but there really seemed to be no real reason for it. You don’t have to hit people over the head with your message just for the sake of saying the same words over and over again. Be sure to create messages that resonate with your key audiences and create the right communications channels in which to communicate them.

A picture is worth a thousand words – The thing that is great about the NCAAs is the thing that is great about all college sports. The color and excitement; the alumni wearing school colors proud and loud; the band, cheerleaders, mascots and dance teams – I love it all. In taking in the scene I found myself wondering why some schools decide to bring a big band and few cheerleaders, while others have cheer squads, dance teams and fewer band members. No matter what they brought, it added a sense of pageantry and excitement to the whole day – even during the dull games. My only conundrum was why the Villanova cheerleaders were constantly waving to the crowd before, during and after performing. Did they have a lot of family in the stands?  A pretty package doesn’t hide a bad product, but you aren’t going to get anyone’s attention without ensuring that the exterior is looking good as well. Make sure that your packaging matches the quality of the product.

Know your audience – There were several instances of total bafflement for me, but the biggest came when the event organizers marched out the national championship rifle team from West Virginia University for recognition. Now, WVU isn’t playing in Pittsburgh – they are three hours west in Columbus. Duquesne University was the event host. Many of the fans not connected with the teams playing here were Pitt and Duquesne alums that just like basketball and are rivals of WVU. It was just a misplaced moment that I think didn’t do the student athletes any favors since I heard a smattering of boos from ignorant fans. It just didn’t belong in this venue. Make sure you consider your audience for every element of a big event, a product launch or any other promotion.

Big events can shine a light, but in the end it’s the product. There was enough good basketball to keep most basketball fans entertained throughout the day but when the games were bad, they were very bad and no matter how loud the band was, no matter how pretty or talented the cheerleaders, it was easy to tune out for a bit. Make sure that your product holds up to any bright light.

If all else fails and your team is losing or even if they are winning big (like Villanova yesterday), just smile and wave –like the ‘Nova cheerleaders.

 

 

March Sadness

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1461363_10201378150074296_2055553453_nMy favorite team had a tough year. Pretty much the only sport I follow is college basketball and my alma mater – the University of Pittsburgh – is my favorite team. I have had season tickets for more years than I want to admit. As fans, we have been spoiled rotten with the team’s success over the past decade and a half after years of mostly misery. So when the team has a year like this one – a winning season, but not enough to get them into the Big Dance and an early exit from the ACC Tournament, it leaves me a little sad.

You see, I use college basketball season to struggle through winter and this winter was harsher than normal in a year when my favorite team was ice cold most nights. Perhaps that is why I grew a new level of hate for the winter season.

After years of making the NCAA Tournament in six of eight years between 1987 and 1993 but not performing well in the tourney, Pitt went nine years without sniffing the NCAAs. Then the golden years began in 2002, with the team making the tournament 10 years in a row and 12 of 13, making the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once.

The spoiled fans of the team complained throughout this stretch for various reasons and now that Pitt has failed to make the tournament for only the second time in a 14-year timespan, I hope that people are realizing some things that also apply to life in general.

  1. Enjoy the ride. Yes this season was painful but there were moments that were filled with pure joy – the win over Notre Dame, the sweep of Syracuse and the drubbing of North Carolina come to mind. It’s not always about the destination as the journey is sometimes just as important. Even in that near decade of hoops misery between 1993 and 2002, I went to nearly every game and remember overall having a good time. Life is about a series of seemingly uneventful events. If you don’t take time to enjoy every moment, you’re missing out on a lot of good feelings.
  2. Embrace success and don’t take it for granted. During those years that Pitt was making the Sweet 16, fans and media howled that the team didn’t make it farther in the tournament. And in the years when the team lost before that milestone, the critics were even louder. I can’t even listen to talk radio this week because I’m sure the commentary is beyond absurd. Success is not something that you are entitled to, so enjoy it when you have it because you never know when you’ll have it again.
  3. Appreciate what you have. The stunning call for the firing of the head coach who has overseen the best decade of Pitt basketball just baffles me. Firing a coach isn’t always the solution, especially one who has proven to be a magician of sorts in finding success with talent that is less than NBA-level. We all have so much – whether it’s relationships, business or just stuff in general – stop taking it all for granted.
  4. The sun will come out tomorrow. Yes, I’m disappointed but hope springs eternal for a new year. Heck, if the team heads to the NIT I’ll even hit those games because that means the season isn’t over yet and because there is always hope, I can envision – if only for a day or two – my favorite team playing at my favorite venue, Madison Square Garden, for the NIT Finals. And no matter what disappointment you are facing today, just get up and attack the new day with all you have.

Are you Happy or Glad?

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UnknownI have often been described as a tough editor. I actually had a boss once give me a pencil that had stamped on it the words “Editorial Guillotine.” I took it as a compliment and wore that moniker as a badge of honor.

While I may be a tough editor, I’m not an editor for editing’s sake. In other words, I don’t edit just to make it look like I was deeply engaged in a project. I edit because editing is needed or because it will improve the flow of a piece.

Back in my early years in PR, I had a supervisor who DID edit for editing sake and I vowed to never become that guy. My absolute favorite edit that he ever made was changing the word “happy” to “glad.”

It’s my favorite edit because I use it now to describe a bad editor or when reviewing copy I will tell the writer that I am not going to be changing “happy” to “glad” just for the sake of change.

Editing is an art that must walk the fine line between enforcing rules of grammar while not infringing on a writer’s style. Truth be told, I may enjoy editing at least as much as writing and that makes me happy. Or glad.

Winter is Like a Difficult Client

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UnknownWinter is like a Difficult Client

Anyone who knows me knows that I despise winter. I look at it as the season to “get through.” I know that I should embrace it more, perhaps take up skiing in my old age or build a snowman. But no thanks. Let’s just find a way to get to April without thinking too much of it.

The one good thing about winter – yes, there is one – is that when it is on the verge of ending, I feel an amazing rush of excitement. Witness yesterday when the temperature soared to an amazing 43 degrees and I headed straight for the park for a five mile jaunt to enjoy the “warmth” and sunshine. I was there with about a million of my best friends, including folks in t-shirts and shorts (really?) and one guy who was shirtless (perhaps taking it a bit far).

It got me to thinking that getting through winter is like getting through a tough project or managing a painful client. I think I use all the same coping mechanisms.

Every client looks pretty upon first look. Just like the ground in a new-fallen snow everything is perfectly beautiful and serene when you first engage with a new client. But knowing what is underneath that cover is what separates the good client from the nightmare. So do your due diligence and know whether the ground underneath that new fallen snow is a sheet of ice or your new client is hiding secrets that will come out in the media to everyone’s surprise.

The storm is coming. You can bet on it. Even the most serene scene can be turned into a blizzard in a split second of time. And every client can face a crisis of epic proportions without notice. That’s why being prepared is so important, whether it’s with salt and a good shovel or a well thought out crisis communications plan.

It will be over soon – won’t it? Of course it will and so will any tough situation facing any client. The key is to compartmentalize the timeframe in a series of “must get throughs” using solid strategic tactics to mitigate the pain. With winter, I focus on milestones – college basketball season eats up a lot of that time and well timed weekends away help as well. For clients facing a crisis, it is all about making sure that you are using the right strategies to reach certain measures of success along the way and ultimately achieve long-term goals of mitigating whatever crisis the client is facing.

Sometimes it is best to just cut and run. When winter has consumed the last positive thought I have, that weekend away automatically moves to Florida or the Caribbean, budget be damned. And when a client is causing more pain than pleasure, it’s time to take the same approach and part ways. Firing an impossible client is never an easy thing for an entrepreneur but in every case has been the exact right move.

Bring on the sunshine and the clients who love us.

Liar, Liar, Your Pants are on Fire

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UnknownI’ve been very tough on Brian Williams. Well, I haven’t called him or texted him about it or anything but in my mind and casual conversations with friends and colleagues I’ve really let him have it.  The news anchor sits high on a pedestal in this culture – someone who should be beyond reproach.  There have been other examples of anchors who have fallen from grace for various reasons but I don’t remember anyone who has been so for being an out-and-out liar.  But with some time having passed since “the big lie” I have reflected on how Brian Williams is merely a mirror of his viewers – all of whom deserve the same tough scrutiny and criticism.

First there’s the resume enhancer.  Over the course of my career I have seen too many resumes that are “enhanced” as their owners would like you to believe. It starts with the filling in of unemployed times with jobs or assignments that were neither full time nor all that relevant to the career path that people include because they’ve been warned to not have holes in their resumes.  I can almost forgive these lies.  But then some people continue to exaggerating  success at a job which is at its root a lie.  Then there are those who invent degrees that they don’t hold. And for those people I believe there is no hope because they are liars at the core.

On a smaller scale, you have people who lie to make themselves look good much like Williams. Who’s going to know that I wasn’t the war hero…or the captain of the football team…or student government president…or a volunteer with Make A Wish?  A fib, a little white lie,they say.  Another black mark against your character, I say.

Today’s technology has given liars so many other ways to perfect their skills – whether it’s a Facebook post, a Tinder profile or LinkedIn career summary.  Lying has become part of the daily fabric of many lives today and perhaps Brian Williams is just the president of that club.

So what’s the solution?  It’s the same thing I tell every client every day.  Tell the truth.  Period.  Today’s technology that has so many opportunities for lying is also the monitor that liars should fear.  Social media posts don’t disappear. Email is forever.  Video evidence is everywhere. So for Brian Williams and all his lying minions, look in that mirror, fear the retribution and tell the truth.

Defining PR

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UnknownI keep reading all these supposed experts writing about how they explain PR to their friends or how they want to define PR. In nearly every case, the explanation is all about publicity…or social media…or content creation…or story telling…or event planning. While PR can be about all of those tactics, if your explanation about what you do every day doesn’t start with strategy, then you’re really not doing your clients any favors.

Any PR professional can pitch media or create an event or write a blog – well they should be able to do the writing but that’s another subject for another day. If your first planning session with a client isn’t centered around strategies to achieve real world goals – like increased sales – then you are just servicing your client “half-fast” as the recent ad campaign says.

Strategy isn’t just words on a piece of paper, but a real world approach to a challenge or solution to a problem that involves communications. Too many PR people today are ready to pat themselves on the back after pulling off a great event or a high profile media placement when all too often those results live in a vacuum of self-congratulation.

My clients will always get strategy first, tactics second and then a secondary strategy to leverage results for further marketing good. Embracing an approach like this only makes PR professionals more valuable to the clients they serve. I’d like to see the industry take a step back from the sexy (content creation), jargony (story telling) and marginalized (event planning) tactics and be taken seriously because of their deep knowledge of communications and its implications inside and outside of every organization.

The Perfect Cookie

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When I was growing up my mom made the most amazing chocolate cookies. Her chocolate drop cookies were the stuff of legends. Nearly 50 years later I can remember the feeling of opening my lunchbox and finding two perfect cookies in there to be savored at the end of lunch. Never shared. Always enjoyed.

I had what I believe is the recipe for these cookies earlier in my adult life and made them several times for my wife but somehow lost the recipe along the way. In trying to lose weight for the past five years I guess I kind of forgot about them but something this weekend touched off a nerve that set me off on a mission to find that recipe. I searched through every place it could be to no avail. Checked the Internet to see if I could find something that looked right. I texted my sister to see if she had the recipe. All of this searching was to no avail until she sent me a recipe that she said looked right. And it did. So I made them. Ingredients? Basically sugar, butter, chocolate, flour and milk. Not healthy. Not Paleo. Not the least bit good for you. But my gosh are they good.

IMG_6564Now it’s not like I don’t cook on a regular basis around the house but my kids were stunned when they tasted the batter and even more so when they tasted the cookies. I even got one of those moments in time when my youngest said, “I want to take two in my lunch tomorrow just like daddy did when he was a little boy.”

The circle of life.

 

 

Customer Service if I Ran the World…

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thAs I approached the third hour of sitting in the waiting room of the tire dealer waiting for a very simple service – take my snow tires that YOU store for me, put them on my car after you remove the summer tires and put them in storage – I began thinking about customer service.

I watched a dozen people come in after me who were lucky enough to have a ride home or to their office and therefore didn’t have to wait in that god-forsaken waiting room. One person who popped in while I was writing this sentence asked “how long” and was told no more than two hours – then went off to their warm home.  At that moment, I was at 2:03 and counting.

If I ran the world, there would be rules for customer service.

One would be if you have taken the time to COME IN to a business you get preference over someone on the phone.  There is nothing more annoying than standing at a counter discussing whatever it is you are there to buy and having the person interrupt you, answer the phone and then stay on the phone to help THAT person first.  If you are truly the only one who can pick up the phone, answer it, put that person on hold until you have finished with me.  That should be one privilege of being there in person.

At a bank, if you walk in the door, you get first service over drive up customers.  How many times have you waited in a long line while a teller takes care of one drive through customer after another?  If you can’t dedicate one teller to the drive through line, have a protocol that takes care of your in-person customers first – or at the very least on an every-other-customer basis (one drive through, one in line).

And finally and most important to my situation at the tire dealer, if a business does not take appointments – like this one – if I come in and wait for you to finish my service instead of dropping off and going back home, I get moved to the front of the line. And my car is certainly taken care of before anyone who comes in after me and demands “when will it be done” and then leaves to go back home. No question about it.

Oh and here’s one for being a bad customer.  If you approach the counter of Starbucks, or any retailer, with a phone stuck to your ear and tell the person trying to wait on you – to wait.  Get out.  Finish your call. Come back when your brain is halfway engaged.

If only I ran the world…..

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