Are your interactions worthless?

Do you need to ask an external company how you are supporting your customers? If so, that’s a good indicator that you may be doing it wrong.

It’s a principle of agile that an organisation is best when motivated people work on something together – face to face.  But it’s a principle that’s routinely ignored when it comes to working with customers – and by organisations which should know better.  Last week I participated in a “short survey” about a particular product, not because I had a particular desire to share my thoughts with the company concerned, but because they were offering free money (well, an Amazon voucher).

One of the questions was: “You recently engaged with one of our customer services operatives. How effectively did they resolve your query?”.  Apart from the complete blandness of this question, something struck me.

Don’t they know?

I had the same experience with BT a few years ago, this was before the widespread adoption of cable TV contracts with phone connections and when BT was the monopoly provider of all domestic telephone lines, and the BT customer survey person asked “how many phones do you have in your house?”

In both cases, we can tell two really alarming things about these companies when we  this sort of question.

  1. They can’t or won’t look up this information themselves (in both cases their internal systems should have the answer)
  2. They don’t trust their own staff to do their job right.

The staff who deal with customers know whether they did a good job, and they know whether the customer was happy at the end of it.  So why on earth engage external companies to ask these stupid questions?

So here’s the takeaway.

If you feel like you need to ask an external firm to see whether you have a problem with how your front line staff handle customers, then you know that you have a problem with how your front line staff handle customers.

The problem may be that they don’t do it well, or that you don’t trust them, but either way, that’s a pretty big problem, because today, if you’re cut off from your customers, you will be killed off pretty quickly by an organisation that understands them and connects with them as a grown-up.

What makes you tick?

I was in London yesterday.  Far away from the events of Parliament square but close enough to see the change in people.  I got the sense of admiration for our police officers and medical professionals, I got the sense of admiration for our politicians showing some rare grace under pressure, and I got the sense that London is united and defiant.

So all of that was enough to get me thinking about my own values, mainly because when I look at them every morning it feels like they are really important, and then an event like yesterday brings it home to me that many many other people share those values and we’re all trying to do better every day.

But values are the kind of thing that don’t come easily.  It’s hard to work out what they are, and it’s hard to stay mindful of them – it’s easy to get swept along by chatter, and by busyness and by the pressure to fit in.

For me, the very first thing that I do in the morning – OK, after putting the coffee on – is to just remind my brain of what I am all about.  It’s half meditation, half pep talk, and half basic instructions to get my brain to start the day.

I started this habit because I realised that when I’d had a really good day, getting stuff done, thinking about what was important and generally enjoying life, I’d go to bed with a really crisp and clear idea of my place in the world, my purpose and what life was all about.  But then the following morning, I’d wake up and all I could remember was where the coffee was, and sometimes I even needed help with that.  I needed a way for my sorted thoughtful brain to communicate with the very different fog-filled coffee-deprived brain that it became eight hours later, so that’s when I started working on a morning mantra.

It has changed a lot, but and I review it every few months, I’ve done it as a written list, a keynote document (think picture book rather than corporate presentation) and even a video but one thing that I have found common to all of those is that it always tends to contain the following six things.  Sometimes these are so short they’re covered in a comment of phrase, sometimes a whole page, but they’re always there one way or another.  I share them in the hope that you might find some value in starting your day this way.

  • Statement of Values.  This is a reminder of who I am.  Through the day I am assaulted by the world – tempted this way and that – so reminding myself of my values first thing helps me to avoid getting to the end of the day and thinking “why did I do THAT?!”
  • Statement of Purpose.  This sounds like a corporate mission statement, but it’s not.  For me being my best self, being healthy, wealthy and wise have a very specific look and feel, and I guess they might for you too.  Stating this purpose at the start of each day reminds me of where I’m heading.
  • Statement of Why.  The purpose is great, but when things get tough it is tempting to settle for a limited win or even defeat and hope to fight another day.  For me, the question of “why?” gets me back on track when things get tough and I am tempted to slack off (for a good example see the link at the bottom)
  • Some inspiration.  I’m not a poet or a great writer, but I value those who are, and they can really help me to start the day.  For me nothing beats Kipling’s “If”, and I have a lovely audio reading of this by Michael Caine which never fails to help me feel stronger in the morning.
  • Statement of Objectives.  Enough of this value feel-good stuff.  I need specifics, so reminding myself of where I need to get to this quarter is great for getting some perspective.  I find that a quarterly objective is great for this – far enough away to get some serious progress, but close enough that you can’t leave it until later, so reminding myself of these deadlines and milestones to hit always motivates.
  • Clear instructions.  Finally, I need to break it down.  My brain is still woozy no matter how good this pep talk is, and I need some clear instructions on what I have to do next to get going.  For me, I always get going with some exercise first thing when I can because that seems to get the blood flowing to my brain, and then get into my daily routine which delivers what I need when I follow it correctly.  This reminder gets me started.

For me the format doesn’t matter, audio and video are great, but the simplicity of just reading something means that I can always make that work, so I have a written version in the back of my daily journal which is always reliable.

I don’t know how I’d respond to someone running at me with a knife.  I’d like to think that the protection of others and the need to eliminate danger would be enough for me to act appropriately.  Like most people I hope that I will never be put in that position and am ever grateful for those who run towards danger on our behalf.  I think I can learn a lot from your their values.


So how do you start your day?  Do you have a morning mantra or something that really gets you kick-started?  Please do share below!

What’s your why? Youtube Video

Life’s a Pitch

This week I’m thinking a lot about pitching style. Yesterday I pitched in the finals of the disruptive pitch series in which founders pitch their businesses Dragons’ Den-style to a group of industry experts.

Having made it to the final, I spent the morning with Neil, the judge who selected me for the final and got some great feedback on our pitch and what I need to do to take it forward.

All of this reminded me just how important your pitching style is, not just for competitions like this, and not just for business, but for everyday life. It also made me realise just how difficult it is to make a really great pitch, and how a different kind of thinking is needed.

It was when Neil was briefing me on the art of pitching that I realised that whenever I meet someone, whether it’s in business, socially, at the dentist or in the gym, to some extent I need to pitch them. I don’t mean that I need to sell them something of course, but I need to make a connection with them, to find out why they should be interested in me and what we should do next.

It was only when I broke down the whole concept of the pitch to these very simple steps that I realised that these are essential for any conversation. You need to get the person you’re speaking to interested, you need to communicate whatever it is that is the subject of the communication – from a business transaction to a football score – and you need a clear next step.

What first struck me about this was how I’m often not clear myself, when I communicate with someone, what exactly it is I want to achieve in that conversation. It’s often clear enough at a big picture level: I’m “building a relationship”, “engaging about a future project” or “finding out if they’re interested in working with us”. But at a precise conversation level, am I clear enough about why they should talk to me, what we’re talking about and what the outcome should be?

Three key elements to a good pitching style

So from my coaching session, I picked out three key elements of the pitch which I need to make sure are there in every interaction.

  1. The hook – a way to get the listener interested within the vital first few seconds when a first impression is formed
  2. The content – the key information they need to understand whether this is something that’s interesting to them
  3. The call to action – the clear next thing that the listener must do in order to engage with the speaker

It sounds a bit “business bore” to think of framing every conversation that I have in these terms, and that’s certainly not how I greet my family when I walk in the door! But when I thought of how to pitch the idea of doing some maths homework with me on Saturday to my nine-year-old, I found that framing it in these terms was incredibly useful – mainly because it forced me to think about the whole thing that I was pitching from her point of view, not mine.

The hook isn’t the thing that gets me interested, it’s the thing that gets her interested – in this case “hey mum, said you wanted to see if you could get faster at your fractions so that you can have more fun in maths lessons, is that right?” It went far better than I thought, and I now have a daughter who can’t wait for the next fractions session – so I’m frantically reading up to stay ahead of her…

Be careful what you pitch for…


Writing stuff down

So this happened to me today.

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Usually, when I read Dilbert, I give a wry smile and thank God that I don’t have to work in corporate America.

Today, though, corporate America caught up with me.  In fact, it’s a disease that’s been slowly infecting all walks of life – you’ll have seen it too.  Not the lack of accountability, that’s something that has been with us for a while.  But the idea that accountability is something that other people have to get a grip on so that we don’t have to.

You see, if I’m responsible for getting something done and I ask someone else to help me out, it doesn’t mean that I’m off the hook, that I can just sit there and wait for them to do it.  They may be massively well organised, and I never have to ask for a thing twice, but no-one’s like that all the time, so if I want to get something done, I have to keep track of it and check in with them.

It’s that simple, I write it down on a list of things that that person is handling, and then when I next see them, I can simply check that list and ask “how’s it going”.

A simple cure for a paralysing disease, plus it keeps me accountable for everything that I have decided is important.

“Writing things down”.  Try it, it’s the new “handing things off to someone.”

How to avoid problem customers

We’ve all had them.  The customer that promises to deliver a significant boost to business; to lead to better things; to open doors.  But sometimes it doesn’t turn out like that.  Sometimes our customers throw their weight around, fail to keep their promises and do much more harm than good.

As a small business, though, getting a big customer is always good news – or is it?  Not if that customer changes the rules on you, ignores your contract and messes you around.  So how can you tell how your customers are going to behave BEFORE you invest your own business’ reputation in dealing with them?

Well, the good news is that there is a way.  We hear a lot about company “culture” – it’s something that runs right through a company and impacts everything that they do and everyone that works there.  So if there’s something consistently wrong in one part of the business, then it is a fair assumption that there’s either a culture where that’s OK or that the company itself doesn’t know that there’s something wrong.  Either of these is a HUGE warning sign.


Unilever was in the news this week when Tesco pulled all of its products from the shelves in response to a price rise caused by the falling pound.  Was Tesco’s reaction very aggressive?  Absolutely.  Was it a surprise?  Absolutely not.  A quick look at Tesco PLC (company number 00445790) on will tell you two things.  Firstly they aren’t particularly good at paying their bills on time (according to Dun and Bradstreet and Experian).  Second, they have been taken to court a lot and lost.


And if Tesco behaves this way towards a major multinational, what do you think it will do when it engages with your small business?

So it doesn’t matter if you’re deciding who to have as a customer, a supplier, or an employer, check out who they are and what their culture is before you make the jump.  And avoid those nasty surprises.

PS, if you’re thinking Unilever comes out of this looking like the innocent victim, better check them too!

Revolution On Demand

aaeaaqaaaaaaaah-aaaajguxmzlhmgi5ltdmm2mtngm2zi04m2e4ltnhyjc3ywflmdjhnqI read an interesting story recently regarding the Competition and Markets Authority requiring banks to open up their doors to innovation.

The story tells how banks need to do better at the nuts and bolts, switching accounts, capping fees, all the stuff that makes banking miserable when banks get it wrong.

It’s useful to see a light shone on this area in the general media, but in this case I think the story somewhat misses the point.  The real battleground in banking isn’t around the ease of switching and clear statements, but around the experience of banking.

For most people banking is an inconvenient necessity, a commodity.  Banks already fight over headline rates knowing that most folks who switch to their account will be retained even when the rates start to creep in a less generous direction.

The real question here is the user experience.  What does it feel like to use my bank?  Does it feel like I have to justify withdrawing cash to a teller who has no business enquiring what I need £500 for, or do I need to queue up and fill in forms?  As people begin to use technologies like apple pay and contactless cards, the contrast between the retail and the banking experience on the high street becomes very sharp.

And the same is true in business banking.  Small businesses in particular want a bank to support and help them – really deliver meaningful help not just sell them “business stuff” at a small discount.

The good news, is that this revolution is happening.  Not because the watchdog is barking about it, but because big banks and challenger banks alike are deploying modern digital technologies to their customers (like our own credithq) and finding that they improve their ability to attract and retain new customers and that those customers do better whilst they’re with the bank – reducing risk and growing faster.

So it sounds great doesn’t it.  Well there’s still a problem or two to overcome.  Banks are big – really big – and really set around doing things in a particular way.  They’ve set things up, and then restructured and then built on the stuff that was originally there until the systems, departments and functions are woven together in a way that’s really hard to change quickly and at scale.

So does this mean that high street banks are doomed and it’s these challenger upstarts with their new IT systems and shiny brands which will succeed?  Not necessarily.  Banking is fundamentally about trust, and that’s one reason we don’t like to change our bank account very much.  Maybe that gives the high street time to catch up.  Only time will tell, but watch this space.

This particular revolution won’t be televised, it’ll play out on your browser, on your smartphone, and in your high street.

Banking tech revolution ordered by watchdog

Real Integrity?

Leadership and integrity seem to be the business buzzwords of the moment, with no self-respecting businessperson claiming anything less. But look closely at most businesses – especially those under stress – and it’s often the case that leadership has fallen short of the mark and integrity hasn’t picked up the slack. Recent examples from the popular press would include banks putting profits ahead of customers’ livelihoods, or energy companies capitalising on a captive market, but it would be misleading to think that it’s only in these extreme examples where the behaviour of individual team members gets out of whack with the organisation’s values and objectives.

In my own experience, I’ve found communicating the values of the company to be among the hardest parts of growing a business. When taking on team members it’s often easy to focus on the nuts and bolts “job to get done” and skip over the true values of the company and the culture of how it’s appropriate to act towards colleagues, trading partners and customers. A few years ago I joined a company which had a particularly poor reputation in its sector. It was seen as a badly-behaved big business that took advantage of its customers with high prices and long contracts. My team had the job of turning around the reputation of the company – a company whose leadership had a genuine care for its customers and wanted to reconnect with them at a fundamental level.

In taking one partner out for lunch, I was told in no uncertain terms that: “I’m fed up with the person in your chair promising that things are going be equitable, only to find out later that I’m being set up to take the hit.” After working hard with that partner for more than six months and delivering a real improvement in the relationship, my counterpart told me: “It all started that first lunch when you paid the bill. No-one I’d met before from your company would have picked up the tab, they’d have expected me to do it.” By extending the basic courtesy and good manners that are essential in any relationship, I’d been true to the headline on our relationship – “partner”, and when I had to justify the expense, it was easy to do among colleagues who each understood that the company’s approach needed to reflect our objectives.

So what can you do to ensure that each team member is empowered to act in a way that’s consistent with where your company is headed?

  • Identify your values. Mission statements are a bit old hat, but being clear about your brand and your values is essential to the success of any business. Find all the ways you can bring those alive in how you run the company and act with colleagues.
  • Set out clear objectives. Knowing what you need to get done in a given quarter/month/week helps you decide what you can’t do – and that’s essential. Knowing what you can’t do means you won’t be over-confident and can pay your bills on time.
  • Keep your word. Tracking what you’ve committed to – in public and in private, in the big things and the small is the only way to build trust. Don’t let being disorganised be your excuse – systems like GTD (Getting Things Done) are your friend.
  • Pay your bills on time. Small businesses suffer at the hands of big companies who don’t pay their bills – so lead from the front and ensure that you pay your bills on time. Not only is it the right thing to do, but your credit rating will improve and you’ll benefit as a result.
  • Say sorry when you get things wrong. Ask for forgiveness and help getting things right next time.
  • Finally, be honest with yourself – and with others – about what you see in the world around you.  This week as the people of Europe and Greece struggle with a situation that many argue should never have arisen, there’s the ideal opportunity to go back to values and think long and hard about the right thing to do.  Whilst I’m not a politician and don’t have a solution to propose, I can also see very clearly that pretending everything’s going to be OK is not a route that will work, because it lacks integrity.

(from a guest post on SME Insider)