3 Mistakes Managers Should Never Make

DISCLAIMER : I’m speaking from a rather recent and disappointing personal experience, so please overlook (or enjoy?) the occasional raving and sarcasm.

1. Become enamored of their product

We all know that love is blind or, to be accurate, selectively so. It creates a filter through which qualities pass and are even enhanced, while defects are obscured. What’s going to happen if a similar filter is applied to the product? Design flaws, service interruptions, disconnect between the product and its customers can all be ignored by the manager who loves her product too much. Like disapproving family members, colleagues who point out inadequacies will incur animosity. Protective instincts kick in, so instead of taking criticism and working to fix the issues, the enamored manager begins to deflect, expending wits and energy to defend the product. It’s costly for the company, hard on the hapless colleagues, and detrimental for the enamored manager, as it ultimately leads to failure for the product and the manager.

2. Assume that quality is absolute.

In truth, very few things are. Except the ten commandments. Maybe.

But even if it were, even if the product is perfectly written, made with state of the art materials, designed to the highest standard, that inherent, indubitable quality is simply NOT RELEVANT.

In today’s market, the operating paradigm is VALUE, not quality. A perfectly good product that brings nothing that customers value will not be bought, despite the best effort of the crackest sales and marketing team.

Managers who overlook this, who constantly say “I’ve got the best product here, so I don’t understand why you nincompoops can’t flog it ” are in fact demonstrating a deep-seated incompetence. Sure, competent marketers with large budgets might eventually create a market for this quality product. After all, people once bought snake-skin oil, and that wasn’t even good. The effort and money required are, however, considerable. A responsible manager, custodian of the company’s resources, will tweak the product instead to fit with customer needs and expectations. Nowadays marketing is no longer about taking a finite product and arranging the 4Ps to maximize selling. It’s about feeding back customer insight, market info, competitive intelligence, into designing and evolving the product to bring that value to the customer. In a profitable way, of course. Managers who ignore this paradigm do so at the company’s peril.

3. Think that just because they know how to build a product they also know how to market it

Many managers believe that knowing the product is tantamount to being able to sell it. They have, of course, moved beyond the mere exposition of product features, and understand the concept of benefits, but actually articulating a benefit, understanding how a product or service, be it a ball, a magazine or a tire storage facility, fits into a customer’s life, and how to find that benefit to which most customers will respond, is a matter of an art and a science called marketing. Knowing how to put together a publication, store tires, or make sure that a ball is inflated gives you command over the product, but not over how people relate to it. As per point 2, rapport exists independently of the product itself and it takes skill and experience to connect people and products. Some people know how to build both product, and connections. Most don’t. And that’s ok, as long as they don’t try to lord it over those who do.

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Strategy, Shmategy

There are two modes of thinking about strategy.

One is to view it as the sine qua non of all business, the other is to scoff and say it’s no longer a valid approach in today’s rapidly changing world (for obvious reasons, I am ignoring those who couldn’t tell strategy from grandma’s dentures if their life depended on it.)

Which camp am I siding with?

The first.

Why?

Simply because in my book, crisis or fast changing environments are not game changers. As one of my former teachers recently said (in a presentation I am urging you not to miss), “Crisis is an accelerator of time”, and when time is compressed a quick path to action is mighty handy.

Part of the reluctance to acknowledge the role of strategy lies in misunderstanding the term.

In its simplest incarnation, strategy is just the way a company chooses to approach its environment. It’s a HOW.

We usually relate strategy to a purpose, namely WHY the company exists and deals with that particular environment, and to a goal, that is WHAT the company is trying to accomplish.

There are many components of strategy, from the business model to, if marketing strategy is under scrutiny, positioning. 

But none of these components is a timeline, chart or diagram. Strategy is not, as many mistakenly believe, a series of interconnected actions, steps and tasks or the resources allocated to them. Those constitute a plan, and are just tools. A strategy process will most often produce not just the strategy, but also such a plan, and it indeed can lack flexibility and become obsolete with rapid change. But the plan’s demise does not invalidate the strategy. I would argue that crisis and change make strategy all the more important. In the absence of certainty, all businesses can rely on is principles on which to base their response. And that’s strategy: a framework and fundament for behavior.

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Tweet, Tweet…

Back in April, a Twitter monitoring service informed me that I’d been on Twitter for 5 years. I checked, it’s true, and I think it makes me one of the early adopters of the platform. And yet, in 5+ years, I’ve never wondered whether I am doing Twitter right. My excuse is that most of my twittering was on my account, sharing thoughts and posts and resources that struck me as interesting. But I did use it for corporate purposes as well, under other handles, and while careful to post convincing, clear, well written, engaging tweets, I didn’t really consider when it is best to post.

Social media marketing firm Buddy Media did.

And they released a report on the matter. True, as most reports on social media tend to do, it looks mostly at the US market, but some insights are transferable to the Romanian market, or so my instinct tells me.

Brace yourselves for the first: While Twitter is about engagement, it is NOT about conversation. Less than 22% of users reply to brand messages, but they will frequently retweet, and therefore amplify the brand message.

Engagement levels vary by the days of the week, with different industries driving more engagement on different days. My current industry, publishing, would do well to tweet on Saturdays, the report says, and so would fashion and shopping, whose key interval is the weekend.

Tweets are better received when users are busy. This makes (common) sense, as quick bites of info are more suitable for office hours than leisurely posts, while people desire more substance when they have more time to consume it (and therefore would find tweets rather scarce in information or entertainment value).

Links = more retweets. ‘Nuff said.

#hashtags are underused (by only 24% of brands), which is a pity cause they deliver twice as much engagement.

A picture is worth… many more retweets.

Ask, and ye shall receive. Retweets, that is. And I am thinking that if retweets would also be rewarded somehow (while being wary of an outright bribe), the ask would be more successful.

Now let me go tweet this.

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Everyone’s an Expert :-(

A while back someone told me: I could do what you do in a heartbeat, but you couldn’t do what I do in a million years. She was an engineer. I, a marketer.

Granted, I can no more design energy systems than fly unaided (although, unlike flying, engineering can actually be learned), but I was still miffed at the implicit assumption that marketing’s a sort of fluff that anyone can do if they put their mind to it. In Romania, everyone’s an expert on football and politics, or so the saying goes. It now seems that marketing expertise is just as widespread.

But in reality, marketing’s neither easy nor accessible.

Marketing competence starts with nature: an affinity for people, a facility for language, an ability to synthesize, a propensity for innovation.

Then comes nurture : directing creativity to a purpose, transforming interaction into insight, generalizing, particularizing, synthesizing, balancing rigor in thinking with surprising leaps of imagination and many other habits of the mind that must develop early on.

Then comes education. Good marketers are generally recipients of a broader education than good engineers. They must know more than their own profession. Besides learning the tenets of customer behavior, statistical analysis, media buying, design, copywriting, public speaking etc., they need to master project management, budgeting, managerial accounting, HR, training of adults, etiquette, consumer technology and so much more.

They then need to learn whatever industry they’re in, understand its values, lingo, basic processes and limitations.

And then they must constantly learn. Keep in touch with marketing trends and tools, the industry and connected fields, and the world at large, for where metals will behave predictably under given circumstances, people won’t. And people are what marketing’s all about.

Sure, everyone can be a marketer in a heartbeat.

I’d like to see them try. With their own money, of course. Since it’s soooo easy.

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Why Burger King’s Exit from Romania Doesn’t Surprise Me

I used to mildly like Burger King in the US. It was a distant also-ran to favorite Taco Bell and runner-up Wendy’s, but I enjoyed my occasional whopper and onion rings. I tried it in Romania as well and found it uninspiring, with a vapid staff and indifferent atmosphere. I now read that they are insolvent and will be closing their last two premises this week. I’m sorry, but not surprised. Why? Here’s my take:

1. They didn’t advertise. Or at least not properly.

The goal of advertising for a food outlet should be, initially, to generate trial, assuming that the quality and value for money of the food, and the level of service (staff, waiting times, cleanliness) will create a positive impression and convince customers to return. However, that initial impression will not generate return visits over periods of time, and simply being available alongside other options in a mall or high street location will not remind customers to choose this chain over others, who make themselves aggressively more familiar. Where KFC and McDonald’s have developed a presence in the Romanian lingo (“Mergem la Mec? Am chef de niste crispy de la Ka Fe Ce”) Burger King didn’t.  Where the nation recognizes the  golden arches and hums along to “I’m loving it”, no such quick and easy brand icons exist for Burger King. Whatever advertising the chain put in place was either insufficient or not memorable, and therefore did not deliver traffic, stimulate trial, or generate notoriety. In brief clichés, Burger King didn’t get into the top-of-mind, so it didn’t get the out-of-pocket.

2. They didn’t differentiate.

Some people might say it’s a corollary of lack of advertising, but given the chain’s location mostly in food courts, with their inbuilt traffic, I’d say they could have played the differentiation game even without advertising outside those premises. While the lack of advertising made customers ignore/forget there is a BK, the lack of differentiation meant customers saw no reason to go there. I, who’ve spent the better part of the last 4 years in malls and their food-courts, marketing cinemas and opening stores, and checking places for our promo materials, have, despite that exposure, yet to figure out why I should choose Burger King. What is the dish that makes it worthwhile? Why choose their burger (Whopper) as opposed to the Big Mac?  What is there that I can’t find elsewhere? Mind you, the product line in and of itself is different, but it is not communicated as such, and the consumers see no reason for choosing BK.

3. Fast-food is taking a hit, globally.

Rising commodity prices, the slow-food movement, health conscious consumers, numerous substitutes and the economic crisis have all affected the consumers’ willingness and ability to purchase and consume fast food. And, as logic would have it, the most vulnerable are the less established (understood as the least entrenched in the collective mind and habit), which is, sadly, the case for BK, the latest big chain to enter the Romanian market, and the one with the smallest number of stores.

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Customer experience and comparative satisfaction

I’m just back from a weekend of dance and fun, that involved my first time in a (literal) saddle. By all accounts, it should have been memorable. My mind held a wealth of reading and imagery associated with being on horseback, from the Old West to riding to hounds in regency England that rendered the occasion both exciting and a bit awe-inspiring. And yet…

ImageThere were five of us riding at the same time, of which four were sitting a horse for the first time and learning how to hold the reins and “tell” the horse where to go. My mare was gentle, and all too prone to following another mare, so while I was going in circles, atop a horse that was being led by an elderly stable hand, I could hear the conversation going on between my friend on the other horse, and the man accompanying her. She was being instructed in holding the reins, connecting with the horse’s mouth and proper posture. All the while, the man leading my horse kept walking in circles behind the plucky mare that my friend was already managing alone. She rode, while I felt like a toddler on training wheels.

I stopped to analyze my frustration.

And I realized that it sprang from perceiving that someone else received more value for the same amount of money. The perception that I wasn’t getting a service as good as someone else was enjoying, overshadowed the fact that the quality of the service I was getting was intrinsically good.

Hence today’s bit of insight:

1. The quality of service must be equal and constant, and equally paying customers should get roughly the same level of (good) service.

2. If there is preferential treatment, there should be a clear and discernible reason (membership, fidelity, level of expenditure) and access to preferential treatment should be clearly explained.

Otherwise, the customers will perceive a lack of fairness that will affect their overall experience. And, as we live in the experience economy, we all know that undermining the quality of the customer experience is a sure fire way to fail.

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Next generation branding

I am celebrating my return to blogging with some insight from the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website. A recent article highlights new research on the importance of names for new products. It analyses whether naming products with numeric increments to show improvement over the previous version versus naming products with a completely new name has an impact on consumer choice.

Well,  guess what?  It does.

Consumers tend to feel that sequential naming (2400 vs. 2300, for example), tends to indicate an improvement in functionality and ease of use, whereas new product names (Ice Cream Sandwhich, anyone?) signify major departures from the previous product, which change the way in which the product operates, and the customer’s interaction with that product. Product name changes (from XP to Vista, for example)  imply a learning curve, while numerical increments only signal that minor adjustments are necessary.

The research also contextualizes the findings. Signaling improvements or touting major departures are neither good or bad per se, but carry weight only in the context of the risk associated with adopting the new product (perceived risk, that is). Thus fiddling with a new phone to learn how to adjust the setting is not as risky as a new server that may or may not be compatible with the existing infrastructure.

Granted, the findings seem to hold mainly for technology products, so I’d be curious to know whether they hold for products whose fundamental use is not affected by the change in formula or content, such as facial creams or mascara.

My guess is that there would be some small level of concern over the ingredients or the results of the new versus the improved product, but the brand name would carry more weight than the product name.

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