Big Data?

Feedback loop

Feedback loop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is quite a bit of buzz lately about “Big Data” and what it means to business.  I recently saw an infographic showing how in the past 2 years, more information has been collected and stored than in all prior history.  More companies are reading about this and are collecting more information about customers and prospective customers.

The question every company should ask is, “What are we going to do with this information?”  Too many marketers are gathering loads of customer information without any specific plans for using it.  Pouring information into the Marketing Funnel without a strategy for the output is tantamount to turning on a faucet and letting the water run straight into the sink drain.

It’s very easy to get lost in a sea of data and to spend money trying to make use of old information. Data storage is cheap, so Marketing and IT staff don’t seem to worry about the volume of information being stored, but there are several factors that negate the low price of storage in the overall value of stored data:

1. Relevance: Information Lifecycle and the value of data over time

2. Regulation: existing and evolving privacy and electronic marketing rules and best practices

3. Hygiene: the cost of keeping all of that data clean

Each of these has a cost, which needs to be factored into the overall value of a marketing analytics program.  The establishment and continued use of best practices for each of these factors can help contain the cost of making use of stored data..

Analytics should be considered a marketing expense and should be measured accordingly.   Marketing needs to define goals, for example: x new customers, or x% increase in repeat business, for the analysis team to achieve.  Baseline measurements should be taken and recorded. Metrics need to be defined for these goals and a feedback loop should be applied to the analytics program to be certain that it is producing ROI and the results that are expected by the Marketing team.

Knowing more about your customers is great.  But if you have no idea of how to apply that knowledge to grow your business, it’s wasted information.

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It’s About People

The title is pretty much a self-evident statement, which can be applied almost universally to anything that involves human beings. Humans, after all, are the center of everything they do. This is neither accusatory nor pejorative. It’s simply an observation, based upon the thousands of years of evidence.

In Business Analysis and especially in Information Technology, it’s natural to think in terms of data and/or systems. In the earlier part of my career, I often made the mistake of looking at a problem, or more accurately, the solution to a problem as being related to information and/or systems. As I evolved into a manager, I learned very quickly, that these things can indeed be the solution, but more often than not, the problem, and the solution, revolve around people.

I started my corporate path upward by devising technological solutions to automate business processes. It was my belief (via my IT experience) that any problem could be overcome with the application of technology. I devised solutions that really only worked around problems, but they were clever and effective enough to catch the attention of Management, who welcomed me into their ranks.

My first critical observation as a Manager was that the people who have systems impressed upon them, typically do not embrace those systems and will, in the absence of fear or oversight, revert to the process, manual or other, with which they are familiar and comfortable. I challenged myself to find the solution that I ultimately discovered was right in front of me the entire time: people.

UNDERSTAND

The first step to success is to understand why there is a manual or seemingly inefficient process in place. Observe, ask, and listen. Just because the person involved answers “That’s the way it’s always been done.” doesn’t mean there isn’t actually a valid reason. A comprehensive investigation of the process will reveal any legitimate purpose. In the end, it can be discovered that the existing procedures are indeed the most effective even if they are less efficient.

INVOLVE

If there are people involved, there will probably be some resistance to any change. Change brings fear of uncertainty, It’s critical to the implementation to create and share a comprehensive plan for any change that will have a large or wide impact. If all of the stakeholders (affected people) are aware of the changes, have input into them, and are assured a positive outcome, much of the resistance can be managed. Again; observe, ask, and listen. Be receptive to input from all stakeholders, no matter how small.

MANAGE

Post-implementation is where the biggest risk of failure lies. At this point, the time and money has already been invested in the change and now its success will depend upon the continued adoption of the change. Once again; observe, ask, and listen. It can be frustrating when dealing with unfounded fear and emotion if you don’t understand its nature.

Identify the people who have embraced the change. They are your champions. Invest enough time in them to ensure their success. Empower and direct them to be ambassadors to the people who have not accepted the change.

Invest your time and the time of your ambassadors in the people resistant to the change to understand their fears and help them overcome them. Thoroughly investigate any post-implementation objection to the new process and carefully document and review any reported problems. If any gaps are discovered, acknowledge and correct them immediately. Point out the important role that the people have in identifying problems and refining the process. Make them aware of their value.

In the end, the lack of acceptance could lead to the need to dismiss certain people, but always weigh the consequences. If, at some point, the new solution fails in any way, will the organization be able to revert to the prior process if necessary? Understand the risks involved with removing people from processes and you will see how important they can be.

For any new process implementation, the investment of time in people should always be greater than the investment in technology or processes.

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Life in 360 Degrees

Perspective is everything. Without it, we experience the world in a virtual vacuum.  Our interactions with our friends, family, colleagues and strangers provide us with points of view that we may not have otherwise been exposed.  Often, we view these things as mere opinion and either discount or ignore them accordingly, especially if they conflict with ours or are critical of us.

Learning to accept and embrace different perspectives, we can better understand others and forge stronger relationships.  More importantly, we can get a clear picture of how others perceive us.  This can be quite a shock, but can lead to self-improvement and personal and professional growth.

AT WORK

To affect positive change in an organization where I served as an Executive, we instituted a “360-Degree Review” process for our Management Team.  These reviews were not linked to compensation.   Our comp program was separated from our annual/regular reviews in order for us to better encourage understanding of value and progress.  The purpose was to afford our leaders 360-degree vision, primarily by increasing self-awareness.

Like some traditional 360-degree feedback systems, ours consisted of multi-directional assessments.  Because of the composition of our organization, we had to make some adjustments to better suit our needs. Top-down reviews were already in place and were less-formal, everyday occurrences.  Bottom-up reviews were to be put in place at a later time.  We implemented the two most difficult aspects of the review process; self and peer reviews.

Sequestered in a conference room, we took turns announcing our own strengths and weaknesses.  As with any review process, the strengths are the easiest to identify and announce.  This moved quickly and without issue.  We each knew our own biggest weaknesses, but it wasn’t until the peer review process began when we started to see how our lesser-developed skills were perceived by the other team members.

There can be a variety of emotions and responses that arise during a session like this.  Surprise, anger, hurt, defensiveness, denial, are all potential hazards, but if your team is honest and solid, this exercise can bring about needed change.  In our case, it took several hours and some diplomacy to get past some of these emotions, but in the end, we were a much stronger team.  I, personally, had a greater respect for my peers and a much better understanding of the areas I needed to improve.

[It’s worth noting that 3 members of that 4-member Executive Team, including this author, are no longer with the organization.  It’s my belief that this review process was the catalyst.]

IN LIFE

Taking this review process home with me was a turning point in my personal life.  I became able to ask for genuine feedback from my friends and family.  More importantly, I was able to receive it.  It dramatically changed the way that I viewed my relationships and allowed me to really see my flaws in a way that allows me to address them (or accept them).

[A good example of taking this type of feedback system from workplace to personal life is personal exit interviews.]

If we are honest with ourselves, we will most likely be able to list all of our shortcomings, so when a friend or loved one points them out, there should be no surprise,  For many people, it’s natural to become defensive, but with practice, we can learn to embrace the candor and view ourselves from a different perspective so that we can better ourselves and strengthen our relationships with others.

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Is The Customer Always Right?

Your answer will greatly depend upon your perspective.  If you work in sales, you will probably have a different view from somebody who works in technical support.  A Call Center Manager and an Accounting Supervisor will most likely provide a different answer, but from a better vantage point, and your understanding of the question, you should be able to see that the answer is both “yes” and “no.”.

Customers take several forms.  If you have an administrative job, your concept of the customer in relation to your duties may not be so clear.  Back-office personnel and administrative staff have customers too.  Those customers are internal staff members.   A customer is someone who receives or consumes a good or service from a vendor or supplier.  With this mind, an IT engineer has customers;  those who utilize the technology services implemented and maintained by him.  Managers also have customers; their direct reports. These staff members use the tools provided by management to perform their duties.  Without these tools, their jobs would go undone and ultimately, the front-line (sales and service) staff will be impacted, affecting their ability to serve their customers; the ones paying the bills.

If you are involved in a sales or service job, the traditional definition of “customer” will be familiar to you.  You’re probably already intimately familiar with the  “Customer is always right” mantra.  It goes without saying that the phrase, taken literally, is untrue.  But the meaning of it is undeniably correct.  The goal of a salesperson or customer service representative can rarely be achieved without customer satisfaction.

Unsatisfied customers don’t always directly express their unhappiness.  That doesn’t mean that their discontent won’t impact you.  Word-of-mouth becomes increasingly more powerful because of social media and the ubiquity of services like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Angie’s List, etc.  There are people who would prefer not to engage in a confrontational situation that would address their dissatisfaction, but would share their experience and unhappiness with friends and anonymously with millions of web site readers.  The fact that this person will not be a returning customer should also be of great concern.

Internally, in a Manager:Direct Report relationship, these things are also true.  A manager who does not treat his staff (or certain staff members well) or does not provide the tools for success may not receive direct negative feedback out of fear of reprisal, but eventually, there will be a steep price paid.  Lost productivity, staff turnover, and low morale all negatively contribute, directly or indirectly, to a company’s bottom line.

An IT Manager who does not consider his end-users’ feedback or concerns when implementing technologies is not providing good customer service.  Software and systems that are disliked, not embraced, or are not transparent to the end-user are going to lead to discontent internal customers, who will not have the tools they need (or feel they need) to serve the company’s paying customers.

Customers, internal and external, sometimes do silly and foolish things, like not reading instructions, wanting to pay less than cost, expecting miracles, etc.  These things are a distraction from the important fact that they are still customers.  Without them, there would be no business.

Every day, we encounter examples of poor customer service, whether it’s the clerk at the supermarket or the technical support person on the telephone.  We know how it feels to be treated poorly, or to feel like our business is unimportant to a company.  The bottom line is that we should always treat all of our customers the way we wish to be treated.  Every customer wants to be treated fairly and equitably.  In that respect, the customer is always right.

SUGGESTED FURTHER READING:

30 Ways to Show Your Customer is Always Right – Entrepreneur.com

Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success – by Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg

The Customer is always right? Wrong! – by Flavio Martins – WinTheCustomer.com

Focusing on the Internal Customer -by Nancy Mobely –  Inc.com

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Personal Exit Interviews

Many companies conduct exit interviews with departing employees to gather information that can be used to cover any gaps being created by the departure or to identify potential problems with other employees.   It’s a valuable tool, when used properly, but typically, aside from allowing a disgruntled employee to vent, it’s a one-way process.

Employees leaving a company can derive great value from creating their own exit interviews.  Conducting personal exit interviews with colleagues can assist with building/reinforcing a resume and self-improvement.

WHERE TO START

If possible, try to set up meetings or calls with direct reports, peers, and your supervisors/boss before you leave.  This will increase your response rate.  Once you are separated from the company, some other employees may perceive you as an outsider or may not be willing to share information with you.   Performing the interviews while still employed may afford you access to other employees with whom you may not be as friendly, which will provide you with very different perspectives.

If you cannot conduct the interviews prior to your departure, you can still extract valuable information from those who are willing to assist you.  If you work in an ideal environment, you will have been receiving this type of honest feedback throughout your tenure, however, it’s unlikely that you work in an ideal environment if you are leaving.

MAKE IT EASY

You are asking people for their most valuable asset; time.  Be respectful and thankful.  Your request should be clear about what you hope to accomplish and what their participation will require of them.   Set a time limit on the meeting or call.  The amount of time required may depend upon your length of time with the company, but most people can and will give 30 minutes of their time to a colleague.  If you have to encourage participation, do it over coffee or lunch.  Food and drink can be persuasive tools.

Form a standard questionnaire and limit it to 3 to 5 questions.  Short surveys are preferred by those who participate in them.  You’ll be asking for free-text answers, so remember that you may only be asking 5 questions, but the interviewee will need to do some thinking and will have to provide some long answers.   For the best results, you should ask the exact same questions to everyone, however you may find it beneficial to make adjustments to the questions if you find your audience cannot or will not answer them as asked.

WHAT TO ASK

Ask them questions that will help you identify the qualities and accomplishments that they feel represent your best.  This can uncover great additions to your accomplishments list for your resume and will give you an indication of how they may answer questions about your skills and achievements during a reference check.   Make special note of skills or praise for specific projects and echo these to prospective employers.

Temper each question with one that allows your subject to point out any failures and the areas where you need to improve.   It may be wonderful to receive nothing but “back-pats,” but if you do, it’s likely that not everyone is being honest, which will do little to help you improve any weaknesses you may have.  Constructive criticism is a very useful learning tool.

USE THIS SAMPLE  WORKSHEET FOR COLLECTING RESPONSES

BE READY

You may be surprised by what you hear.  Sometimes, our perception of ourselves or a particular situation is not shared with others.   Perspective is one of the goals here, so don’t be hurt or defensive.  Do not respond to any of the answers, even if you feel there is a misperception.  You’re not on trial and you’re leaving the company anyhow, so simply take notes and move along.  You asked for this.  Take it with grace, humility, and dignity.

Your interviewees may feel uncomfortable providing feedback that they consider negative, so assure them that it is part of your goal to identify areas where you need to improve and tasks and projects that you could have handled better.   Knowing these things affords you a starting point for self-improvement, but more importantly, it can present you with a list of projects that you may want to exclude from your list of accomplishments.  This could prove very useful in avoiding uncomfortable or negative situations during reference checks by prospective employers.

FOLLOW UP

You have just received the valuable gifts of someone’s time and insights.  A “Thank You” is in order.  Send a follow-up email, or better, a handwritten note or card, acknowledging any weaknesses or failures pointed out during the interview and thanking the colleague for their candor and assistance.   This is not only an opportunity to express your gratitude.  It’s a chance to right a wrong, change a mis-perception, and better still, to forge a stronger relationship that can help build and reinforce your network as you move on.

If an interviewee points out a failure on your part, perhaps related to a particular project, connect with others involved in that project and ask them specifically if they feel you failed anywhere and/or how you could have done better.   If you have the chance to do so, correct any mistakes you may have made that led to the negative feedback/perception.  This shows that you’ve acknowledged and validated the interviewee’s opinions and that you’re an upstanding and reasonable person.  It allows you to leave the best possible impression behind and create a positive legacy.

APPLY YOUR INSIGHTS

If all has gone well, you will have conducted at least 3 interviews; one with a direct report (or intern) if you have any, one with a peer, and one with a supervisor/manager.  This will at least give you some perspective in 360 degrees.  If you can conduct more interviews, you will have a far better sample of information to use and a more accurate picture of how you are/have been perceived.

Apply this information by updating your resume, accomplishments, profiles, and any other personal sales tools you are using to promote yourself.  Reflect upon any areas where you can improve yourself and try to make positive changes accordingly.  As you progress in your career, and your life, you can become more successful by eliminating, minimizing, or simply acknowledging any weaknesses you have and accentuating your strengths.

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