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!

There’s No Business Like Brand Experience

Reflections on Exhibitions Day 2017

Whenever I get overwhelmed with work or frustrated that I can’t make things happen as quickly as I want (sound familiar?), I pause and ask myself if there’s something I’d rather be doing for a living. Is there an industry that’s more interesting? That touches more people? That affords a better opportunity to effect positive change? The answer, for me, is always “no.” I love this business; I love the chance to connect people in meaningful ways. I love how we can create a space in time for people to collaborate on building experiences, ideas, and memories that last long after that physical space has disappeared.

On June 6-7, we mark Exhibitions Day in Washington, D.C. It’s a chance to advocate for our industry — to make sure that our government representatives understand the huge contribution we make in terms of jobs, local commerce, and the economy at large. (You can find out all about it here.) And consider this — the events we produce spur innovation and healthy competition by showcasing the most innovative thinking in every business sector. In every corner of the world. This naturally creates a platform for international commerce — which means that smart marketers are paying attention to what we do.

Consider the plight of today’s chief marketing officers. They are trying to compete for consumer attention in a marketplace that is in a constant state of flux. Moreover, technology is making it easier for consumers to tune out traditional marketing channels. The ability to engage face-to-face with consumers in an immersive experience is certainly appealing. And that’s an opportunity for those of us who operate in the brand experience channel.

Freeman recently commissioned research to help us better understand how marketers around the world feel about these challenges and opportunities. You can read about our findings here.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Two-thirds of the surveyed marketers agree that brand experience is an effective way to reach their organization’s goals.
  • By and large, marketers felt that brand experience is great for building loyalty.
  • One in three CMOs expect to set aside 21 percent to 50 percent of their budgets for brand experience.

The research also shows that North American marketers lag behind their Asian counterparts in growing brand experience budgets and focusing resources on a more strategic approach to personalized technology. The irony here is that the same technology that helps audiences tune out advertising can help them engage audiences in a more immersive and personal way. From data that helps us fine-tune the experience, to tools that create a platform for collaborative participation (e.g., gamification and second-screen technology), the digital revolution can help us reinvent the world of brand experience. As an industry, we need to be more intentional about promoting the amazing tools and services we can offer.

Not everyone can or should travel to Washington, D.C. to help promote Exhibitions Day. But as proud professionals who make a living in this industry, we can all do our part to raise awareness for what we’ve accomplished, and raise the bar for what we can achieve together. Share a story about why you’re passionate about our industry — or call our attention to something you’ve recently seen that is worth celebrating. Don’t forget to use the #ExhibitionsDay hashtag.

And remember — increasingly, marketers are relying on brand experiences to create connections that resonate deeply with their audiences. There’s never been a more exciting or important time to do what we do. The work can be challenging, but I can’t imagine doing anything more worthwhile.

CTA callout: For more on what global marketers are saying about the importance of brand experience, how it impacts their audiences, and more, download Brand Experience: A New Era in Marketing.

Why We Make it Personal


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What customer experience pros can learn from the airlines

{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 we surveyed our Freeman expo customers for the very first time, the results were fairly shocking. Although we received some very positive comments, the overall feedback was that Freeman was the “best of a bad lot” – meaning we were the most favored of the general contractors, but we had a lot of work to do. This input proved useful as we began implementing a defined customer experience program that focused on our service vision and standards. Later we built on this with the creation of our True Blue House, which highlighted our vision, purpose, pillars and values. What a change we saw in our culture. And now our focus is on how each of us can Make It PersonalSM. Is this just a marketing slogan? No, it’s culturally who we are.

Look at the current airline industry: United touts, “Fly the Friendly Skies;” Southwest has, “You’re Now Free to Move about the Country;” American Airlines says there is, “Something Special in the Air;” and Jet Blue declares, “You Above All.” But in a recent Consumer Reports article, “Secrets to Stress-Free Flying”, it’s all about the rigors of flying today – coach seats measure 17 inches wide, down from 18.5 inches, and distance between seats has been reduced one to five inches since 1985. These changes, combined with weather-delayed flights, mechanical failures, more hidden fees and fewer refreshment options have made it almost impossible for airlines to live up to their slogans.

In a recent blog, Anne Handley reported experiencing one of those dreaded multiple-hour delays; she was expecting the worst as she headed to the gate for her Jet Blue flight. Instead, when she arrived, she discovered snacks and bottles of water set out by a Jet Blue agent for the stranded passengers. And the personal attention didn’t stop there; this same agent began playing a trivia game over the sound system with those waiting in the gate area, and when someone guessed the right answer, she rewarded them with a pair of headphones, blanket, or other “perk.” Two hours later, when it was time to board, the winner of the trivia game was allowed to board first – with lots of cheers! That night “You Above All” had an entirely new meaning to the passengers, I’m sure.

Freeman employees – and all of us in service industries – have opportunities to Make it PersonalSM, and memorable, for the people we work with every day! Let’s show our customers, and our competitors, that it’s more than a marketing slogan, it’s something we do by design.

~ Katy Wild

Time is the currency of brand experience

Why technology isn’t the (only) answer

When we consider the changes shaping our future, it’s natural to default to discussions about nascent technology. That’s an important factor, but it can distract us from the real point. I’m old enough to remember when the fax machine was the “it” time-saving equipment. Instead of waiting to mail or hand-deliver documents, we could send them instantly to customers to get input and approval. We thought our troubles were over. But instead of being able to bank that “saved” time, we found that the new technology just helped compress our deadlines and increase the pressure to deliver instant results.

Tomorrow’s tech breakthroughs will no doubt bring new levels of flexibility, speed, accuracy and variety to our work. But if we know anything about the future – no matter how radical or unexpected the disruptions are – people are not likely to feel they have more time to waste. If anything, time will be increasingly precious. So, the question becomes, what can we offer consumers that they value more than their own time? Can we help them actually save time by getting to a decision, a connection, a transaction or an understanding more quickly?

The brand experiences we design and produce will continue to have major, positive economic and social impact. Our conferences, exhibitions and special events should still support the transfer of knowledge through certification classes, through lectures and panels (although these may be virtual), and as importantly, through networking opportunities.  Brand experiences in the future will continue to promote commerce. But today, and going forward, we must recognize that busy people don’t have time for everything they want to do; we must demonstrate good value.

In this sense, time is the currency of brand experience. If I spend my valuable time with you – if I invest precious minutes and hours with the experience you offer instead of working, eating, sleeping, or enjoying my family – I expect something in return. I expect a lot.

At Freeman, we believe in the unlimited potential of brand experiences to engage an individual’s five senses in a personal way. This commitment to make it personal is another way of talking about relevance. We think of this as return on interest – the value participants get in exchange for taking time to engage with us. This means we must design experiences that:

  • Offer immersive, personalized experiences;
  • Connect people;
  • Streamline the decision journey;
  • And inspire and motivate participants.

When we do these things to make the experience worthwhile, we build our brand equity, honor our commitments and help build a sustainable, successful future.

Preparing for the Future – Part Two


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Design the future you want to see

In my Preparing for the Future – Part  One blog, I referenced my participation in a UFI Global CEO Summit that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry. This blog picks up with the need to adopt a design-thinking approach to planning for the future.

Design forward.

Bruce Mau – designer, author, visionary and Freeman’s Chief Design Officer – has taught us the value of looking at events the way a designer does. He says, “We need to design forward, because when we live and work in a world of constant forward momentum, standing still is going backwards. What does not evolve, dies.” Our attendees are going forward. Every year they arrive at our shows with a new set of expectations. They want to see new technology, new ideas, and new applications. If we don’t design forward we are going to be left behind. Without innovation, we are destined for the boneyard.

Define what beautiful looks like.

No matter how many anniversaries a show or convention is celebrating, the planners need to look at it objectively and consider the opportunity to add more value. Examine what worked and what didn’t – and articulate a vision for what the show could ultimately offer. Remember to be intentional about metrics, and design-in a plan to measure success in a meaningful way that helps you design it better next time.

We call this “defining what Beautiful looks like.” What will it take to ensure that each stakeholder in the event is going to achieve their objectives? What about the super stakeholders – the anchor exhibitors who have invested in the show and have put their own brand equity at stake? And don’t forget the other audiences: press, attendees, and the host city. As planners and strategists, we must define what success means to each of them – what beautiful looks like for every distinct audience group – and then design a plan that takes us from here… to there. If we always design for the gap, we can achieve continuous improvement (and avoid the death spiral) while remaining relevant even as audience needs change. Revisit the plan every year – wash, rinse, repeat.

Break through the noise.

Once we commit to the habit of continuous improvement, we can seize the opportunity to innovate. Bruce Mau urges us to “break through the noise.” Many things are competing for the attention of our intended audiences – not just other shows and other media channels, but other demands on their time. We live and work amidst a cultural hubbub that obscures the messages we are trying to put out there. We can try to outshout the other guys. Or we can focus our resources in a way that helps us rise above the din. This is the sweet spot – the place where you find the money to do new things and still protect your margins. When we strive to make the experience personal, we help participants tune out the white noise and fully engage with us.

Preparing for the Future – Part One

Ensure a viable future by being the best we can be today.

In February, at the UFI Global CEO Summit, I was a panelist on a session that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry and what we should be doing to prepare for the future. Frankly, it’s a conversation I have almost every day with future-focused clients. Here are a few key considerations.

Treat every Brand Experience (a.k.a., event, expo and conference) as if it’s the first one.

Everyone knows that you have one chance to make a great first impression. But it only takes one “meh” show to keep people away forever. That’s why we must plan each brand experience to deliver ultimate value to the various stakeholders – the organizers, the host city, the sponsors and of course, the participants. Consider their individual needs. Ask, how can we exponentially increase the value that the brand experience medium provides each group?

Be a brand/community manager, not a margin manager.

Unfortunately, the very group that should be advocating for added value in the exhibitions industry – the individuals who should be brand managers for their events – are under pressure to behave like margin managers. (And I am not saying that margins are not important – we all know they are a reality.) There’s a huge temptation to just push the “same-as-last-year” button: it’s quicker, it requires less up-front work and therefore creates the illusion of saving money. But this misguided focus on minding the margins has caused a devaluation of net-new content and undermined the relevance of experiential marketing as a medium.  How much better to invest in the development of new solutions to share with event participants – which will give you both eternal youth and good margins.

New content is essential to sustained relevance.  

After more than 25 years in this industry, I have a lens into the world of “net new content.” When I started out working in expositions, there was a huge emphasis on the creation of original content. That was the draw. That’s what made us relevant. Over the last decade, we’ve seen content continuously defunded. Print has been deprioritized (for obvious reasons), and even some digital assets have been trimmed from budgets.  Event planners are forced to rely on exhibitor boards and committees that bring repurposed content. When conferences and shows become nothing more than content curators, it can begin a death spiral. Attendees discover that they can more easily and effectively find what they want for themselves, and the event becomes superfluous.

Don’t confuse short-term activities with long-term strategic, measurable action.

Another thing that threatens the viability of the expositions industry is the tendency we all have to pursue short-term activities instead of beginning the more challenging, long-term strategic action required to keep our brands relevant.  For example, we obsess about who will speak at our General Session and never stop to consider whether a General Session with wall-to-wall talking heads is even the right thing to do. Or we jam new technology into our conference without understanding what we want it to accomplish. We collect data, but we don’t use it. We fail to learn what works and what doesn’t, because we don’t design with a specific outcome in mind; we fail to design metrics into the execution. There is no substitute for strategy.

In my next blog, I’ll pick up with this thought, and discuss how a design-thinking approach can help any organization prepare for the future. 

The Wisdom of Patience

Leadership is understanding when to force change and when to let it come to you. 

Guy Kawasaki is quoted as saying, “Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.” As a leader, I need to work on this, as I suspect most of us do.

When we are fired up by a plan to transform our company, disrupt the industry, and delight our customers, patience is hard to come by. In fact, if the change is that important, we owe it to our organization to make it happen as quickly as possible, right?

Not always. Often, the most worthwhile idea is the one that you just can’t force; you must let it come to you.

Gardeners get this. They till the soil, plant the seeds, and nurture the plants so that they can enjoy the best tasting fruits and vegetables when the season is right. Hot-house plants, picked before they are ripe, can be forced to grow year-round, but flavor-wise, they don’t measure up.

We need to nurture new ideas with the same thoughtfulness. As a leader, it’s your job to know when to force a change and when to let it come to you. Ask yourself what a speedy execution gives you…and what it costs. If the price of expediting change is strictly a matter of dedicating more resources to make it happen, and you’re willing to make the investment, go for it. But if the mission requires changing the hearts and minds of the very people who will make it succeed or fail, exercise some patience. Once your people recognize the value of a new idea that involves change, they will bring their ideas and energy to the solution. But until they get it, and embrace it, they will just keep going through empty motions, certain the idea will fail and ensuring that outcome.

“Workforce math” dictates that 10 people, working for one day, can sometimes achieve what one person can do in 10 days. But nine women can’t have a baby in one month. Some things – things worth waiting for – can’t be rushed.

Rocks vs. Boulders: Clearing the Road to Success


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Because we live in times of exponential change, many business executives face the task of leading strategic organizational transformations. The best of these leaders are able to articulate a clear vision of what success looks like – spelling out the guiding tenets, strategic imperatives and value creators required to get there. But unfortunately, too many still cling to a tried-and-true, operationally-focused management style; they think in terms of activities and check lists, instead of goals and strategic action. The only question that matters, as my friend Albert Chew says, is “What is required to make it work?”

I refer to this as a “rocks vs. boulders” mentality. The transformation of an organization – its road to the future – cannot be achieved with a business-as-usual approach.  Certainly, success with any goal requires some basic work. If you’re building a road, it helps to clear out all the rocks in your path. But that really isn’t progress – it just feels like it. If I’m the foreman on a road crew that’s designing and building an amazing highway to the future, no one cares how many buckets of rocks I’ve moved today, or my plan to move more rocks the next day. The team needs to know where the road is leading, what we’re going to do about the boulders blocking our way, and the metrics we’ll use to know if we are on track. People want to understand what benefits they can expect when each of those boulders is removed. They want to embrace a shared vision of what beautiful looks like. That’s the work that matters. That’s where your focus needs to be.

Whether you are trying to transform a small workgroup, a corporate division or an entire organization, be strategic about how you measure your success. It can be very satisfying to rip through a long to-do list; it may even look good in your report. But unless your actions are moving the boulders, and advancing the true opportunity, it’s wasted motion. Concentrate on big outcomes that are aligned behind your strategic imperatives. Invest your time and talent in creating true value.

The only road worth building is the one that leads to a successful, sustainable future. That’s taking the high road.