Friday, January 21, 2011

Three Ways to Wreck a Marketing Interview

Tips for Fixing Common Mistakes in Marketing Interviews

As a business writer and marketing consultant, I conduct a lot of interviews, many of them by telephone. I interview my clients’ customers, partners, external consultants and internal experts to obtain information, insights and “color commentary.” I have conducted more than a thousand interviews over the course of my career.

Sometimes I am asked to participate in interviews conducted by other people. From these interviews, I have observed common interviewer behaviors that undermine the interview process.

Here are the three most common mistakes, with tips for preventing them. (For purposes of this article, I refer to the interviewee as “the speaker.”)

Deviating from the Questions: Experienced interviewers almost always send a list of questions to the speaker in advance. If the speaker has the questions in advance, he can prepare better. (Even experienced speakers appreciate this opportunity.) At a minimum, the speaker knows the goal of the interview, what to expect and roughly how long the interview will last.

If you send the questions, stick to them – particularly at the beginning of the interview. If you begin with a different question than the speaker expects, you will likely rattle him and get the interview off to a rocky start (from which it may not recover). An experienced speaker – one who participates in many interviews – may be able to roll with the punches; however, other speakers may become distracted or even terrified by a starter question from left field.

Tip: Follow the questions provided in advance. To ask questions not on the list, look for natural opportunities to work them in – later in the interview. Interviewers call this technique “branching.” It works.

Interrupting the Speaker: In the interest of moving the interview along, inexperienced interviewers may interrupt the speaker – usually cutting in at the end of the sentence. Resist this! It’s the number-one interview killer. When you interrupt the speaker, you interrupt his train of thought, which slows down the interview and hurts content quality. Worse, speakers often deliver the best content at the end of sentences – which you will “clip off” if you interrupt. Poof – gone forever.

Tips: Train yourself not to interrupt. (It took me years to train myself.) Practice on your colleagues and friends. Also, record your practice interviews so that you are aware of your interruption habits (and other not-so-good habits.)

Try this instead of interrupting: When a speaker arrives at the end of a sentence, silently count to three before asking your next question. In fact, before moving to the next question, I often will ask: “Anything else about [insert topic of the question here]?” Often, the speaker will have an additional thought that (a) succinctly sums up his answer (sound bite!) or (b) gives you the headline for your marketing document.

Special Bonus Tip: The habit of interrupting usually develops because inexperienced interviewers pack too many questions into the allotted time for the interview. I typically allow one question for every four to five minutes. If you finish your questions early, you will get points from the speaker – or you can ask another wrap-up question. (Wrap-up questions often yield the best content of all, because at this point your speaker is completely warmed up and relaxed.)

Meandering: In the courtroom, lawyers never ask a question to which they don’t know the answer. In a marketing interview, experienced interviewers never ask a question that doesn’t contribute to the purpose of the interview. Experienced interviewers go into interviews with an end-result in mind. For example: you want the speaker to validate (or invalidate) an idea, or to provide three ways that your product helped his business.

Don’t attempt to turn an interview (a structured Q&A) into a free-form brainstorming session crammed with many different topics. It never works. You will confuse and usually irritate your speaker, and you will generally not get useful content. If you want to conduct a brainstorming session, define it that way and state your purpose in advance.

Tip: Clearly understand and state the purpose of the interview in advance; include details on how you plan to use the information, the content approval process, and the timeline for your project. An interview is a process – not a transaction – and providing context will help the speaker through the process. If you insist on asking a “while-I-have-you-here” question during the interview, allow time for it at the end.

A great interview is like a river. It gently flows, providing new insights and delights as it turns around the bends. Occasionally, it reveals rapids or a rock. However, if you picture the interview as a river, you will keep the canoe upright and navigate around obstructions – or turn them into productive, instead of destructive, moments.

For more tips on conducting successful interviews, see “The Customer Interview and How to Ace It" and "The Customer Interview and How to Ace It - Part II."

Happy interviewing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Your Customers See Dead People?

The Importance of Looking at Your Business with the Customer’s Eye

When your customers interact with your business, do they deal with real people? Or mindless automation? And how do you know?

Automation and the human touch clearly aren’t mutually exclusive in customer interaction. Businesses like have proven this. And many smaller businesses are proving it through the use of social media. Properly used, social media mixes live people with automation to help find customers and make fans.

But a lot of businesses get customer interaction wrong: dead wrong. They make easily avoidable mistakes – in spite of the millions that companies invest in automation and in software for monitoring the customer experience.

Often, it’s the little things. Consider the story of the national debt collection agency that robo-signed a dead employee’s name to thousands of affidavits in debt-collection lawsuits.

Beyond landing the company in the public eye and under regulators’ scrutiny, what sort of message does this practice send about the company? If they make this kind of mistake with legal paperwork, what else might be wrong at the company?

We’ve learned that the financial industry is a bit of a protected species, so perhaps it doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of the business world. However, other companies – including large, publicly held companies in other industries – often suffer from the same disease.

In his book Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now, David Meerman Scott recounts his experiment with contacting the Fortune 100. A prominent blogger and contributing editor to publications, David contacted, via email, the media relations people at each company, with an inquiry for an article he was writing; he included his journalism credentials. He heard back from 28 of the 100. The relative response times for the companies ranged from snappy (10 minutes) to never, and a number involved inane and completely irrelevant robo-responses. (His experience in finding whom to contact is a story in itself.)

Why was this so hard? David was a customer: a journalist writing about a public company. All of these companies make a pretense of being reachable. They all have Web sites – often lavish Web sites. Many have automated forms and links on their Web sites. But the system breaks down there for many. So much for the real-time economy.

More recently, I was thwarted in reaching a firm in the information publishing business. I tried every avenue (except the US Postal Service). I navigated a confusing phonemail tree and left a detailed message in their general mailbox. I clicked on their Press Inquiry link on their Web site – and had three emails bounce back (I tried from both my email client and Webmail). I finally identified the human being who might be able to help me. But my personal email to that person was never returned, nor did I receive a response from the handy contact form that they provided on the contact’s bio on their Web site.

My recommendation: Marketers or business owners should regularly test their customers’ experience with the business. Personally. Beyond any automated testing you may do. Or secret shoppers you may employ. What’s it like to buy from your company? Return a product? Get a question answered? What does it feel like?

True, as a marketer or business owner, you can never be 100% objective about your own business. But just spending an hour in the customers’ shoes might be a revelation.

When I was working for an advertising agency many years ago, a retail client hired us to walk through a few of their locations “with the customer’s eye.” Yes, the results were subjective – and perhaps even biased, you may say – but they were very human. And the results added a dimension to the retailer's traditional research.

The good news is that small changes can often make a big difference.

Here are three obvious places to start:

Your Web Site: Test the email addresses, contact forms and links. Do they work? How quickly do you get a response? Is the response relevant? Coherent? Indecipherable? Lawyer-ese for “go away?”

Your Phone System: Make sure that your phonemail is easily navigable. Have a process and schedule for checking the general mailbox and routing or responding to the inquiries.

It’s also helpful if the automated voice on the system matches your brand. It’s disconcerting to a call a bank or brokerage firm and hear what appears to be a five-year-old girl answering. Pick the person on your staff who most represents your brand – a successful broker or financial adviser, in this case – and have that person make the recording. Or outsource this task to a firm that specializes in this type of thing.

Your Social Media Program: Have a protocol for responding to questions to your company on social media. Promptly. Most large companies – particularly those that consciously use social media for customer service (such as Comcast) – have this down pat, often using teams of people with real names and faces. For better or worse, these companies are setting the bar for all companies. Respond to queries promptly, and in the tone of your brand.

Remember that these forms of electronic media are proxies for your brand. They should reflect the personality of your brand, even though they are automation not actual people.

Or, you can continue to let your customers see dead people – and suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Navigating a Corporate Crisis: Would You Sail or Fail?

Why Every Business Needs A Crisis Management and Crisis Communications Plan

As part of its year-end analysis of 2010, The Wall Street Journal published a post-mortem on the top corporate crises of the year – from BP’s Gulf oil spill to Toyota’s safety recall. With the help of crisis-communications and crisis-management experts, the article briefly examines each crisis, how effectively the company responded, and what the company might have done differently to achieve a better outcome.

While I disagree with some of the statements in the article,* it contains some useful lessons and ideas for every business.

The main lesson: Every company – even smaller businesses – should have a crisis communications plan in place. Smaller companies may not be in the public eye or under government scrutiny as much as larger, publicly held companies. However, smaller companies may be less able than larger companies to absorb the business damage from crises such as a product problem or a fire.

Professional PR or reputation management consultants can often be extremely helpful in such a crisis, but they can be pricey. If you are a smaller business on a tight budget, you can create your own crisis communications plan. It’s mostly common sense.

Here are a few tips:

First, define the most likely crises. What are the most likely crises that could happen in your business? What are the likely elements of the crisis (for example, interest by your local media)? Describe the scenario in detail. You can’t anticipate every possible scenario, obviously, but at least you will have some crisis thinking in place.

Next, outline a brief plan of action for each scenario. For example, in the event of a serious customer complaint that “goes viral” on social media, what is your policy for dealing with customer complaints? Do you refund or replace, without question? Or require a return? Does the policy need to be revisited? Then, define how you will communicate your actions and to which audiences. What’s the most efficient way to reach each audience?

Create a phone or email “tree” of the people in the company who need to be notified or involved in resolving the crisis. Keep it detailed but short and updated. In some cases, you may want to include your legal counsel on the tree.

Identify key members of the media and other important channels for reaching your audience, such as local business leaders or industry analysts. Make sure you have current contact information for each person.

Identify who will be your media spokesperson, and make sure that that person is readily available to the media via cellphone and email.

Write everything down, and share your plan with managers and executives. Make sure that everyone understands the process – and who to contact if they have questions.

Don’t forget employees. Make sure that line employees – often the first people to become aware of a crisis – know the process. Typically, you do not want non-authorized employees speaking to the media on behalf of the company. So, tell employees simply and exactly what they should do. Don’t leave them guessing in the heat of the moment about what to do or who to contact.

Always do a post-mortem. After any crisis, analyze how well your process worked. Update your process as necessary, in writing. Don’t forget to close the loop by briefing employees on how you handled the crisis and answering any questions they may have. Employees also may have ideas for improvement.

Don’t forget social media. Social media can accelerate some crises, by broadcasting the event and enabling lots of public discussion. On the plus side, social media – a company blog, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – can help assuage crises by giving you a real-time, unfiltered way to convey information and engage in a direct dialog with your audiences.

If you are already using social media, make sure you include social media in your plans. If you are not using social media, familiarize yourself with it now because it more than likely will play a role in your crisis. Members of the traditional media (magazines, newspapers, local media, and Web press) participate in social media, and may use social media discussion as a source for information or stories.

In a crisis, it’s important to respond to public discussion using the same media. For example, if a customer complaint goes viral on Twitter, you must respond on Twitter (although you may use other media as well). That’s where the audience is. Ignore it at your peril.

David Meerman Scott’s book, Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now, contains some great advice about using real-time media in a crisis (see pages 124-131).

Obviously, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible crisis. However, if you follow the steps above, you will have a template in place to work from. You won’t be starting with a blank piece of paper if a crisis does happen.

Finally, view every crisis as an opportunity to deepen your engagement with customers. By doing the right thing and communicating it quickly and effectively, you may end up with more customers and an improved reputation.

*Particularly that the oil spill was unexpected (I think it was inevitable)