Customer service the right way

Previously, I wrote a post about our e-fax provider and how painful and silly it is when they have to go through a giant litany of scripted attempts to keep you as a customer.

Here’s a contrasting experience.

After 10 years with DirecTV, we decided to save some money and consolidate our internet, phone and television signal under Time Warner.

I expected the same sort of runaround. But instead, I had a friendly, helpful, almost touching experience canceling my DirecTV service. Their rep, Misty, was understanding, funny, and utterly charming.

Of course she tried to keep me as a customer. But her approach was thoughtful and genuine, and not scripted. In the end, she realized they couldn’t compete with the package our cable company was able to provide. So she created a reasonable, non-defensive transition for me. No crap. No whining. No blaming. Just pleasant and helpful.

That goes a long way toward building DirecTV’s brand and means I’d happily reenlist if they meet my needs in the future. And here I am, unsolicited, telling everyone in earshot that they were wonderful. How much advertising and PR would they have to do to achieve that kind of result?

Come on, just this once…


Months ago, I heard a Design Observer interview with Jonathan Ford of Pearlfisher . The whole show is worth listening to, but there was a particular quote at around the 28 minute mark that struck me as significant enough to write down. Host Debbie Millman asks Ford to explain his firm’s policy on why they won’t ever do a free pitch, or free work. Here’s what he said:

“What we do has a value. Designers are skilled people…we don’t produce a service. We are not vendors or suppliers. I hate that supplier mentality…I remind our clients that design isn’t like anything else. Design adds real value. It can build your brand. It can differentiate you from everyone else. And in a world where everything’s gone topsy turvy, where advertising has been fragmented and there are whole new channels, design is still tangible and will define the way to the future for your brand. That has a value that needs to be respected.

If you work for free, you’re giving away what you do, and that’s just bad business sense. If you work for low fees, under your normal rate, you will lose money because you will be diverting a lot of time away from other clients to try and win a piece of business for a low fee, and that doesn’t make sense either.

It’s far more sensible just to say ‘No’ and get on with the clients that you do have and do great work for them and build the value there — and the relationship…Designers just have to learn to say ‘What I do is important.’”

While occasionally we donate work to good causes, I don’t think we’ve ever pitched an account with free creative. Ford succinctly explains why. Our clients expect us to focus on their paid work and to give them our full attention. Rightly so. And with so many working relationships that span decades, we think that makes sense for our clients and ourselves. What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments.

My favorite books on branding (so far)

My friend and leadership group buddy Cheryl asked a bunch of us for our favorite books on branding. I sent her these, and thought I’d post them here for all of you, too.  I’d love it if you shared your favorites in the comments.

Brand is Four Letter Word:
Positioning and the Real Art of Marketing
by Austin McGhie
This is a smart, opinionated overview from the president of Sterling Brands’ Strategy Group with deep experience on the both the client side and the agency side of things. There’s a good interview with him on the Design Matters podcast that will give you a taste of the book. He hates the word “branding”. He contends that a brand is simply a relationship, and that you can’t “brand” anything, you can only position it.

World Famous:
How to Give Your Business a Kick-Ass Brand Identity
by David Tyreman
This is a workbook on defining your brand. I’ve used it as a rough guide in leading two companies through a deep evaluation and redefinition of their brand strategy and found it very helpful. Tyreman worked with Polo Ralph Lauren, Nike, Banana Republic and many other companies and has a kind of enthusiastic upbeat approach that works. I find him a little relentlessly self-promotional, but the core stuff is great.

Start With Why:
How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Sinek
Probably my favorite thinker about clarifying who you are and what your purpose is, and letting that drive what you create — as a company and as a person. First got turned onto him by a friend at an agency who was using his concepts in everything they were doing for their clients and themselves. I have drunk the kool-aid.

The Brand Gap:
How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design
by Marty Neumeier
Practical and highly visual, Neumeier presents his ideas in an entertaining and very valuable way. Easy to read. Fun to look it. Awesome cover design. “Fresh” and “relevant” to quote some of the blurbs. Many clear and simple ideas, but not “light” ones. The guy has thought through his subject and distilled it well.

Purple Cow — or practically any of his other books
by Seth Godin
This guy is the big thinker about positioning and marketing businesses. Huge influence, unafraid and committed to getting people out of the fear-driven culture and finding their art as business people. Purple Cow is about being different and remarkable — the essence of a good brand. I have to admit I didn’t like it at first; it seemed a little contrived and precious. But as I’ve delved deeper into Godin’s world through blog posts, interviews and other books, the principles just make more and more sense.

Your turn.

Inspiring leadership starts with Why

Start With Why bookWhy is it that a company can write glowingly about its specs and features and even its benefits and elicit not much more that a yawn? Why do we meet the promises of our politicians with such apathy? Why are we so focused on convincing and manipulating people instead of inspiring them?

We think we make important decisions rationally, but we almost never do. Instead, we are driven by, and respond to, signals that are difficult to articulate, but powerful when we receive them. And to be effective and meaningful, those signals always start with “WHY”.

That’s the premise of Simon Sinek’s fascinating study of leadership called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (Portfolio/Penguin).

You may know Sinek from his TED Talk, which I’ve blogged about previously. His book expands and details those concepts with many examples that go far beyond the few in his video. If you buy his basic premise, that the WHY is the hook that connects us to the brands and ideas we care about most deeply, then his book will flesh out your understanding and give you lots of fodder for your thinking.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Sinek’s writing style. I find him too pedantic and repetitive. But that may also be because this is the kind of book many won’t read cover-to-cover, and he had to include repeated references and reminders to anchor his points. I’ll give him a break on that score because his fundamental idea is so important.

That idea is well worth incorporating into our communications — not just our marketing efforts but our broader role as leaders (and we’re almost all leaders in some sense, but that’s another conversation). We want to start with the WHY. The belief. The purpose. That’s what will enlist followers in our vision. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.” And millions of people who shared that dream of fairness and equality, who also imagined a world where people were treated like people, thought, “Hey, this guy thinks like I do… he wants what I want.”

Notice that they didn’t say, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea.” as if they had never imagined a world like that themselves. King tapped into something that was already there. He attracted the people who already believed what he believed, and then galvanized them to action. They became a movement because of the WHY.

Sinek explains that brands work the same way. People love or hate Apple. But the reason the company has so many rabid fanboys is because they stand for something and are willing to start their communications with that central value. If you identify with their rebellious creativity and obsession with design detail, with their core belief in challenging the status quo and thinking differently (their WHY), you’re on board. And you’ll pay more for it, because it reflects who you are, and meshes with your personal values.

That WHY pulls a company, a leader, a brand, out of the swamp of commoditized, transaction-based competitors. It means you no longer need to offer a lower price than everyone else. It means you don’t need to drive volume with coupons and discounts and sales in a never-ending downward spiral of slimmer and slimmer margins. It means you create products or companies you love and care about, and your customers are people who feel the same way.

That’s why Sinek’s message means so much to me in my own business, and to my clients’ businesses as well, whether or not they’ve read the book. Creating work I care about for people who feel the same way? That’s my dream job. And I bet it’s yours, too.

Grab a copy of Start With Why. And start letting people know what you really value.

New FreeAssociates site

Come on down! We’ve launched our new and improved website today. And we’d love to share it with you.

We invite your comments and suggestions. Thanks for your interest, your support and your friendship. We can’t do this without you.


Serving clients with Fierce Love

Flaming HeartMichael Bungay Stanier is a business coach who puts out a tiny daily email that you can read in 30 seconds. It’s called Great Work Provocations. The e-blast starts my day with a challenge or a bit of encouragement, and I really enjoy it when it pops up in my In Box.

Today’s provocation was:

My goal is to serve people with Fierce Love.

Love, in that I want them to succeed thoroughly and utterly.

Fierce in that I won’t let my own fears and cowardice stop me in doing what it takes to help them get there.

How about you?

This concept of “Fierce Love” has been coming up a lot for me lately. As a marketer, as a designer, as a consultant, what do you do when  you see a stubborn client heading down a path that you know will undermine their goal? Do you fight, and risk being thought of as a prima donna? Do you comply, and risk the final product not working? Where’s that balance? Should it be balanced at all?

Work is a partnership, and hopefully it’s a loving one, full of shared goals and good intentions. But fear — of internal political pressures, detached decision makers who purposely stay apart from the process, frayed budgets, frayed nerves and looming deadlines — can undermine months of hard work and thoughtful problem-solving.

Bringing Fierce Love to the relationship seems to me to be the very best thing you can do for both your business partner and yourself. If the love provides direction, and the fierceness helps you get there, then Great Work is often the result.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you think.

Community Dynamics, transformed

Rendering of Carson project

Community Dynamics has been our client for 25 years. During that time, we’ve handled their corporate branding as well as the design and advertising for nearly all of their communities. And together along the way we’ve had some big successes and won a few national awards for marketing.

Smart guys that they are, they’re learning, rethinking and adjusting to the ever-changing real estate market. They’re now focusing more and more on urban mixed-use infill development. But their old website was still very much about suburban homes. They needed to reflect their more diversified direction, while still maintaining the equity of their brand, and of their successful history as a scrappy, independent developer.

A new website was in order. So we built one.

The repositioned Community Dynamics, poised to succeed in a tough economy, is online. Take a look.

(Thanks to associates Janina Lovern and Chris Grau for all their great work!)

New Be Green Packaging website is live!

Be Green home pageBe Green  is an innovative manufacturer of tree-free, compostable packaging. If you’re a CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) that statement will perk you right up, because you’re charged with finding new solutions to reduce the amount of gunk your company puts into our atmosphere, our water and our landfills. And you’re one of the target audiences for the new site.

When Be Green began just a few years ago, they had a down-home visual style. Birkenstock ads would have felt right at home on their website. But as they grew, they found themselves competing in a corporate world against giant packaging producers for huge consumer product accounts. They needed to look as professional, competent and state-of-art as, in fact, they are. It was actually a natural (pardon me) stage of their development: they had outgrown their old positioning.

Our job was to reimagine their brand without losing continuity. We developed a campaign based around the idea that “sometimes the best packaging ideas are right in front of us.” Then we created a fresh new grid-based style that says “we’re pros” without losing the genuine concern, the humanity and the tactile qualities that characterize their operation.

The site still has a few missing bits and pieces that will be filled in as Ron and Robert, the incredibly busy partners (and their staff), have a little more time to focus on this kind of stuff and add to it. But they’re out changing the world, working with monster brands like Gillette, and opening a brand new plant in South Carolina, so their attention is on lots and lots of exciting developments beside their website. And that’s great news, too.

Take a look. We hope you enjoy learning a little about sustainable packaging. We sure did!

What? No focus group?

I just found out that Dan Pallotta blogs at the Harvard Business Review. Pallotta’s a legendary — and in some circles, infamous — marketer of charity events. He started the AIDSRides and the 3 Day events for Breast Cancer. And, as you can imagine, was both inspiration and reference point for the work we did over the last decade for the Revlon Run/Walk for Women.

One post I found especially interesting was this one called Real Leaders Don’t Do Focus Groups.

Personally, I like focus groups — when they’re done well. But they so rarely are. Often, they’re just an opportunity for consumers to become product managers and art directors. And the bland, fear-driven, mediocre work that results from letting these amateur critics drive your decisions virtually ensures that your brand or product will blend in with the crowd.

But sometimes — usually under a smart, experienced group leader — you get a flash of insight, a glimpse into your target audience’s mind, or confirmation of an inkling of an idea you have. And when that happens, the hours you spend peering through the two-way mirror are well worthwhile.

Bottom line? Proceed with caution. Don’t take research results as gospel. Let your creative vision drive the process. Take a risk. Be different. Show the world you’re special. Give them a reason to fall in love.

Allow your audience to discover you instead of predict you.

Consumers buy products, not packaging…maybe.

Plain brown boxIn the slug-fest that is retailing during a recession (coupled with an interest in green packaging) some of our clients are thinking a lot about their brand identity in the store.

Me, too.

But in a few commoditized categories, there’s an underlying doubt at work. For these manufacturers, research indicates that consumers don’t pick a product on the basis of who makes it. Instead, they are swayed almost entirely by the design of the product itself. Who made the sheets on your bed, for example? The towels in your bathroom? Your socks? Many people have no idea. They just liked the pattern or the color or the feel of the fabric.

If that’s true, why spend money and energy on branding in those categories? Here’s why: Because there are other decisions you can affect and other audiences you’re communicating with that matter. A lot. Continue reading