Make it Personal Is Not Just a Slogan

Unforgettable experiences make the difference.

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

I recently attended an event in Atlanta and stayed at one of Marriott’s boutique properties for the first time — the Glenn Hotel.  The main reason I chose it wasn’t due to a recommendation or price, but simply the close proximity to the event facility.  How was I to know this chance encounter was going to provide one of my best experiences in a hotel as it relates to “make it personal” service?

The experience wasn’t based on an elegant lobby, beautiful view from my room, or the lush, elaborate accommodations.  These were perfectly fine — but on their own would not have been enough to really bring me back.

It was the personal, seemingly natural touch the employees gave every act that definitely earned a second visit.  Every individual I came in contact with made even the simplest request seem like their supreme pleasure to fulfill.   There were actually several occurrences that really caught my attention, but two were especially memorable.

I did not see a taxi stand so I inquired at the front desk if there was a taxi available.  The desk agent personally walked me out (instead of pointing or showing me a map) and actually introduced me to the gentleman at the valet stand.   He responded that there was a taxi waiting and walked me to the vehicle only to find out the driver was missing.  He apologized profusely (even though it wasn’t his fault), took a minute or so to search for the driver with no success, so he then sprinted to the street to flag down another taxi.  And did I mention that it was also pouring down rain?  Just as I was getting in the taxi he had directed to the pickup area, the first taxi driver appeared and was extremely agitated that his fare was given away.  My valet apologized to the driver (even though it was not his fault) and said he would make sure he would have the next guest, then turned and with a smile, apologized to me for the situation, and placed me in the taxi.   A great save for both the customer and his vendor.

The second occurrence really took me by surprise!  When I returned to the hotel, I was looking for the ice machine on my floor and saw that it was being blocked by the car of an electrician who was working on a heating unit in the closet next to the machine.  He immediately stood up, apologized for the inconvenience, took my ice bucket, and began to get the ice for me.

Unfortunately, the ice machine was not working!  Without a second of hesitation, and with a smile, he said he would run down two floors, obtain the ice and bring it to my room.  He opened the near stairwell door and took off down two flights of stairs before I could even respond.  Keep in my mind, this was not a food service attendant – he was the electrician!   He delivered the ice as promised in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes, and with a smile, apologized again for the inoperable ice machine.

In just a few seconds’ interaction, customers can tell whether a service provider has that “make it personal” attitude and are ready to back it up with action. These seemingly small interactions made my stay memorable enough to share with others.  What unforgettable personal experiences are you providing for your customers?

Connecting Science and Art to Inform Design

#3 Quantify and Visualize: Seeing Is Believing

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

We’ve already talked about the need for designers to begin any project by gathering all the available, relevant data. With our third design principle, Bruce Mau urges us to quantify and visualize that data. “The key concept is visualize – which is sharing,” Bruce explains.  I’m sure there are people who can discover everything they need to know from a comprehensive excel spreadsheet – and that’s a good start. But spreadsheets don’t tell the story behind the data. They tell the “what,” and maybe even the “how,” but not the “why.”

“The difference between a spreadsheet and a visualization,” says Bruce, “is that we have to individually experience the spreadsheet, but we can collectively experience the image. The image is social. So … if I can take that quantification and visualize it, we can all see the it simultaneously, and experience it together. That makes it accessible to all kinds of thinkers.”

Data may show us that we have a piano and a kitten and six feet of rope. A visual shows us the Steinway dangling over Fluffy’s head – and totally clarifies the problem, potential solutions, and our sense of urgency.

We now have software that will convert data into graphs — I love that. Even better, smart designers can interpret data in graphics that take complex, qualitative data and present it in such a compelling and easy-to-grasp visual that it ignites breakthrough gestalt moments. A good infographic can inspire understanding, consensus and action.

As leaders, we want to inspire belief in a shared goal, and seeing is believing. Yale statistician, author and artist Edward Tufte understands the power of visualizing data and teaches seminars on how to tell complex stories in a compelling way. It’s a science-meets-art thing. He describes this as “Simple design, intense content.”

In 2010, computer-graphics master Kai Krause famously created an uproar when he demonstrated how Mercator maps distort the relative size of the African continent to the advantage of the USA and other countries. By graphically showing, in his map entitled “The True Size of Africa,” that the United States, India, Western Europe and China all fit easily within its borders, he forced people to reconsider the scale and geographic importance of the African continent and, perhaps, its 54 distinct and diverse countries.

Visualizing the data doesn’t need to be a two-dimensional process. When the engineers in Houston had to help the astronauts on the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft convert air filter canisters from the command module to fit the lunar module, they began by assembling all the plastic bags, cardboard and tape available to the astronauts. With no time to spare, they took visual inventory and then devised a solution, in Houston, that the astronauts could implement 200,000 miles away, orbiting the planet.

In the brand experience biz, we are used to diagraming logistical info – timetables, rigging grids, floorplans, exhibit models, and so on. We are getting better at using storyboards to help a client see the recommended solution long before we start to build.  But what if we used data to plot traffic flow by personas, based on things like time of day, alternate activities, outdoor temperature, seasonal implications, and even sport/music/food preferences? We could not only staff exhibits more efficiently, but could also make sure the right docents and SMEs were on hand – in the right location – to engage with our guests. How might our experience design change if we layered in data that revealed extrovert and introvert preferences? How might we help different personas engage and interact? What new sponsors might we attract?

Think about your most complicated project or assignment. What kind of data do you need to design a better outcome? Can you visualize it? What might we achieve if we had a tool to help decipher and connect all the data collected through the various apps, surveys, game devices, registrations and social media activities attached to the events we create? What if we could literally see the opportunities for improvement and innovation?

I know this much – seeing is believing – and I’ve seen enough to believe that if we act with intent we can find a way to visually quantify the relevant data – and make the most amazing brand experiences possible.

The Value of Failure

Business people, high school football coaches and politicians like to talk about winning as if it were the only acceptable — only possible — outcome of any endeavor. It’s driven by a sort of superstitious belief that even thinking about failure is tantamount to allowing it to happen. I like to win as much as the next guy, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the value of failure.

For better or worse, I consider myself something of an authority on the subject of making mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as an employee, as a boss, as a spouse and as a parent. And here’s what I’ve learned. If your goal is to never fail, you must limit your actions to doing what you’ve always done. As one business pundit put it, “Only the mediocre are always at their best.”  But, if your goal is to reach higher and achieve something new, you must expect to fail quickly and course-correct until you get it right. If you aren’t failing, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Of course, nobody likes to make mistakes, and if we do it often enough, it can damage our self-esteem. This makes people risk-adverse and stifles innovation. That’s why I always ask leaders to give their people a safe place to fail. This doesn’t mean, however, that we look the other way and pretend the mistakes haven’t happened.  Or blame someone else. We all need to own our mistakes. When we overlook failures, in ourselves or in others, we are throwing away the invaluable opportunity to understand what went wrong and learn how to improve next time.

They say that it took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts before he invented a working electric light bulb. He recognized the first 1000 “failures” as learning steps that made success possible. The value of failure is that we learn how to learn. The only true failure is not learning.

Cynicism Is a Luxury Leaders Can’t Afford

#2 Begin with Fact-Based Optimism.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Bruce Mau likes to remind us that, as design thinkers, we are called to be critical but not cynical. Our responsibility is to design a new or better way of achieving or creating something — a product, a process, a piece of art, an experience, etc. If we don’t believe a better solution is possible — the cynic’s point-of-view — we’ve failed before we’ve begun. Buck Freeman understood this when he embraced the value of enthusiasm, which remains a core Freeman value today. Freeman values are essentially design values.

Although we can’t afford to be cynical, we can’t forego the rigors of critical thinking. Bruce urges us to qualify the essential challenges before we try to solve for them: “We have to start with, ‘This is really the true problem and we’re going to figure it out. What about this problem can we measure, and what kinds of proxies could we measure to help us understand the problem?’”

This is where data enters the picture.  In the history of live events, good metrics were hard to come by, so we relied on anecdotal evidence and hunches. Today, most things are measurable if we have the will to seek, analyze and believe the data. There are two problems here: One, we collect so much data, without thinking about what we need to learn, that we become inundated and just fall back on assumptions; Two, we initiate surveys or focus groups designed to affirm our assumptions, or make us look good to our bosses and our clients, instead of unearthing insights that could drive improvement.

To be designers, we have to be honest. “And when you start to think like that,” Bruce concludes,  “then the process that you’re in is a design process, because you’re actually looking for the truth.”

Integrity, of course is another Freeman value that aligns with a design-thinking approach to leadership. If we punish our people for delivering bad news, they will quickly learn to bring us only the good news. This begins the spiral of complacency and slow, sure death.  If we choose to believe that the things that have always worked will continue to work — that the next generation of attendees at our medical convention or auto show or user conference will engage the same way as their predecessors — we are doomed to fail. Conversely, when we form the habit of collecting meaningful data, when we think about what kind of proxies and metrics we can start to gather, and design that continuous cycle of learning into the process, we are well on our way to being a design-thinking company.

Cynics are usually just waiting for something bad to happen so they can say, “I told you so.” They treat the future as a minefield they refuse to cross. Designers consider all the bad news early in the process, when they think about the opportunity for improvement and formulate their plan. Having flagged and defused all the landmines, they can afford to be optimistic about their success for the future.  And people are inspired to follow them.

You can read more about Freeman’s decision to become a design-thinking company here.

Knowledge is Power!

When data drives positive change, pain-points disappear.

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

Our Freeman family is widely known for the outstanding service we provide our customers.  It’s our culture, it’s in our DNA, and it’s what we do!  But we also know that we can always improve our performance.  Bill Gates, business magnate, investor, author, and philanthropist, had a quotation that I refer to often – “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Freeman, with the help of IPSOS, a global leader in customer research, recently went through an amazing educational process known as customer journey mapping.  This mapping experience included customers across our diverse business units and gave us tremendous insights into areas where we excel and where we can still improve.  When our employees listened to some of the verbatim customer comments, you could see the surprised expressions on their faces, followed by such remarks as: “Don’t they know we can do that?”; “How do they not know that’s not our service?”; “Where did they get that idea?”; and maybe most important, “I had no idea that was such a big problem.”

We were all surprised at a few areas identified as our biggest pain points – while others were simply confirmation of weaknesses we were aware of and already working on.  Additionally, we surfaced some issues that weren’t really service gaps, but simply gaps in customer education, requiring us to communicate proactively. With the tremendous knowledge base in the Freeman enterprise, we know we can look forward to solutions from the vast experience of our specialists to address these issues.  Fortunately, we were also pleasantly surprised in a good way – where customers assured us that some of the services we questioned ourselves are ones they said they couldn’t live without!  Who knew?

Bottom line – knowledge IS power! And we have the power to implement change. Our clients know we care enough to ask what they love about Freeman… and what they don’t.  We have already made a number of process improvements to remedy these service bumps.  Some of the stumbling blocks are easy to resolve and some will take more time. We’ll tackle them by applying our design-thinking methodology to produce just the right solutions for our customers.  We can do this!

It’s Your Job to Inspire People

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

The trick with working with someone as brilliant as Bruce Mau is that there is so much value in the simplest remarks that it sometimes takes me a while to unpack it all. The notion that we are called to inspire the people we work with underpins everything we have learned about design thinking.  I always thought that inspiration was a sort of lucky-strike extra. But Bruce has shown us that there is methodology to this madness. Literally. As leaders, we are called to take people on a quest — a collaborative journey that has a clearly defined objective. It may be difficult to achieve — we may need to adjust our course along the way — but our first duty is to inspire the people we hope to lead.

The design-thinking methodology that Freeman has embraced is unique in that it is fundamentally a leadership methodology. When I think of all the leadership books I’ve read, and the many lectures I’ve attended, they generally consist of anecdotal stories that describe amazing people and how they demonstrated grace under fire. But those stories don’t provide a DIY method that helps us become more effective leaders.

Freeman’s 24 Design Principles begins with this essential directive: “First inspire… lead by design.” True leaders take the time to show people what success will look like once it’s been achieved. They engage their team both emotionally and intellectually in “what beautiful looks like.” They act with intention to inspire their people, and to show them how to inspire each other.

When I think about where we are today, both Freeman and our industry at large, leading by design is more important than ever. People used to come to trade shows because that was the only place to get the information they needed to succeed. But today, they have plenty of options on where to get information.  I believe that they turn to us — and to the brand experiences we create — for inspiration.

What does this kind of leadership look like? I saw it in action the other day, and it was truly inspirational. One of our account leaders was kicking off the start-of-work meeting for the team working on a very high-profile client event. Normally, she would have framed it up by talking about client expectations, budget limitations and timeline challenges. She would have addressed questions about the size of the exhibit space and logistical concerns. Instead, she started the meeting by asking our team to think about how our client’s innovative technology could change the world for the better. She asked them to consider how to engage participants in this mission. She inspired the team by visualizing the opportunity to design for massive change.

For me, that’s what beautiful looks like. That’s what leadership looks like.

P.S.
In the workshops Bruce Mau conducts, he helps us think about how to act with intent by having everyone write their personal manifesto. You can read more about that here.

All You Need Is Trust

I totally believe that great leaders offer their people unconditional love — a safe place to learn, to grow, to take risks, and to become the next generation of great leaders.  Sometimes, however, we have to work with people we don’t necessarily love.  This can be a simple difference in personalities, interests and even politics. And in cases like these, we need to understand the value of trust.

I can work with people I don’t personally like, as long as they are effective and I’m confident that they will do the right thing.  No question — it’s more fun working with people I love. They make me feel good. They make it easy for me to help them. But with apologies to John Lennon, all you need is trust.

When we trust someone to execute to our own high standards, when we know their core values are solid, it doesn’t really matter if we want to each lunch together. Trust is foundational; trust is an essential requirement. When leaders don’t know whether or not they can trust someone on whom they rely, the result is stress. Stress amplifies every opportunity to fail. Trust illuminates every opportunity to win.

It’s not enough for leaders to trust their followers; leaders must inspire trust in their followers.  If employees can’t trust you to look out for their needs, they will be forced to look out for themselves; selfishness replaces any sense of teamwork. We can all recount stories about companies whose business failures boiled down to a bankruptcy of trust. Too often, would-be leaders acted the part of bad managers by demanding loyalty and sacrifice from people they’d trained to be distrustful and selfish.  That formula will never work for long.

The soldiers who followed Henry V into the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 knew the odds were not in their favor. They may or may not have liked Henry, but they trusted his leadership, they trusted that he would execute the best plan given the circumstances, and they trusted that he would share whatever glory and rewards came their way. The result was a big win for Team Henry.

In 2006, when Bruce Mau was asked to help Guatemala unite its beleaguered citizenry behind a common vision, his team started by addressing the trust factor. The people of Guatemala had been made promises before, and were suspicious of institutions. (There’s a great case study here.) A design-thinking approach helped surface compelling evidence of successful entrepreneurial projects springing up across the country—small businesses and community ventures run by real citizens. These became the rallying point for a grassroots movement. It was something people could trust, and they embraced it.

Someday, you may earn the love of people who will follow you anywhere – into any situation, any risky proposition, any physical or philosophical battle. But first, you’ll have to earn their trust. Without trust, love is blind.

How Important Is It to Please EVERY Customer?

Ask yourself – how many babies is it okay to drop?

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

In 2003, when Freeman launched an initiative to emphasize customer service as the platform for everything we do, we solicited help from customer service consultant, Dr. Chip Bell.  For 90 years, Freeman has had an emphasis on treating our customers well – but 14 years ago, we shifted focus to consider the entire customer experience.  From their first contact to their last, across all companies, including all services, we were committed to making the customers’ experience not just positive, but memorable.

Chip, as all of us called him, had worked with hundreds of Fortune 500 companies on enlightening and expanding customer experience programs.  He spent many hours with Freeman employees, department heads, and executives to learn our business and to share his learnings and proven best practices. We engaged a group of cross-department, branch and company employees to work with Chip. During one of these sessions, a Freeman executive asked our consultant experts, “How important is it to provide this exceptional experience to EVERY customer?  What percentage should we expect NOT to be able to please or satisfy?”

I loved Chip’s response – and have reminded myself of it often. He looked directly at the executive and asked an unexpected question in return.  “What if you worked in the maternity ward in the hospital and were responsible for the care of the patients and the newborn babies?  What percentage of the babies would you think it is okay to drop?”  The entire room was silent and you could have heard a pin drop – then we realized he was kidding – and we all laughed but realized he had made a valid point.  Who wants to be the customer that is “dropped”?  Is it ever okay?

As one of our strategic pillars, we are committed to provide Uncompromising Service to ALL of our employees, our clients and our community. We may not succeed 100% of the time, but that is what we aim for. We plan not to drop any babies and to make every impression lasting and each interaction memorable – for all the right reasons.

The Opposite of Enthusiasm Isn’t What You Think

I used to think that the opposite of enthusiasm was apathy. I used to think that people who didn’t share my passion for the work just didn’t care. And when people were habitually late for meetings, consistently blew deadlines, and were generally disrespectful to their teammates, I chalked it up to apathy.

I’ve since come to believe that it’s something more unsettling. The opposite of enthusiasm is arrogance.

Only someone blinded by their own egotism could fail to see how disruptive it is when they assume that their needs, their opinions, or their time is more valuable than their colleagues. Only someone who believes they have nothing left to learn is that eager to tune out the group. Only someone desperate to appear cooler than everyone else finds it necessary to put people down.

I totally believe in unconditional love and giving people second chances. But I find arrogance almost intolerable. There’s a reason enthusiasm is a core Freeman value.  There’s a reason enthusiasm is embraced by great leaders around the globe. If you lack proper enthusiasm for an assignment, for a career position, or for the group you’re working with, try taking a second, more objective look. If you can’t see what others are so excited about, maybe your next look needs to be a long, hard gaze in the mirror.

Enthusiastic people are more fun to work with. They instill confidence in others. They make it easier for everyone to do their best work.  Arrogant people may seem cool. Their aloofness may pass for confidence. But when they most need it, arrogant people are less likely to find a friend, or get a pass, because they have failed to inspire trust. And that can hurt an entire team.

Arrogance isn’t a personality trait. It’s a choice to behave in a certain way. So is enthusiasm. Choose wisely.

HR by Design

One of the simplest but most amazing things about agreeing to embrace a design perspective is how it brings clarity to just about every conversation, meeting and business encounter.  By way of reminder, design-thinking means acting with intention against a desired outcome; anything not done by design happens by accident.

For example, a couple months ago, in an executive committee planning meeting, we were focused on designing the future of our company and discussing the best way to prepare our people for inevitable organizational changes. One of our most sage members observed that we’ve introduced a number of big changes over the last few years, and with each one, we apologize to our people and assure them that everything will settle down soon. But of course, it doesn’t. “The new world order,” he said, “requires us to build an organization that thrives on change. There really is no other way.”

He’s right, of course. More importantly, this is probably true for just about any large company or association that has been in business for more than 30 years. We all need to stop apologizing and start designing a plan that will enable our people to be masters of transformative change. And we need to make this someone’s Number One priority. In fact, Freeman recently named Martha May as EVP of People and Inclusion for this very reason. Martha can help us rethink the Human Resources capability—and champion the kind of training, coaching, recruiting and motivation that anticipates the mandates of change. Most companies are seeking new people with new skill sets; many are acquiring entire companies and trying to assimilate those new people into the organization’s culture. So there is a huge need for leaders who can act as a strategic partner, an advocate for employee-owners, and a change agent.

Here’s how I like to frame it: the leader in charge of People and Inclusion needs to ensure that the people running the space ship are the kind of people who can take it where we want it to go. We don’t need people who can simply follow a chart; rather, we need people who know how to plot a course, motivate the crew, launch, and then course-correct as obstacles arise or better information becomes available. Which is sure to happen.

And think about this: if the new world order involves non-stop change, it’s even more critical that the person leading human resources understands how to screen for people who reflect the organization’s cultural values – which DO NOT CHANGE. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it sounds. When people share common values, it gives them a bedrock to stand on when everything else is in motion.  We are delighted to have found that kind of solid leadership at Freeman. Welcome, Martha!