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Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece on the importance of words in the context of delivering a message. The main thrust of the piece was my dislike of certain code words that are meant to dress up a negative message and portray it as a positive event. Marketing and public relations folks are likely the most frequent abusers of this strategy. I was talking about words like “right-sizing” or “right-sourcing”.

The fact is people, consumers or customers or employees, see through this activity and know they are being scammed. There are almost inevitably two reactions.

1)      People feel insulted that the message bearer would think they are stupid enough to believe the message.

2)      People get mad because they know they are going to pay a very dear price for whatever adventure the company is about to embark upon.

This type of intentional deception is not limited to words. Companies also practice deceptive behavior. As marketing professionals, we must not allow ourselves to be co-opted into these schemes.

A friend of mine sent me an article today related to an accident involving Thai Airlines.  As airline accidents go, this was not a disaster. A few folks were injured, there were no fatalities. The airplane skidded off the runway. There were fourteen injuries. One of the landing gear collapsed during the event.

Sometime, shortly after the accident, someone was dispatched to black out or paint over, the airline logo and name displayed on the vertical stabilizer at the aft end of the airframe. You really have to wonder what marketing genius green lighted this strategy. I guess the site of the hobbled aircraft, with emergency slides deployed, was just too much for the image consultants to bear.

Even though the color scheme on the airframe identifies the airline just as effectively as the logo or the name painted on the tail, someone decided that blacking out the name would surely fool some of the people!

My first thought is these guys care far more about damage control then damage prevention or investigation. That is not a confidence inspiring realization. That would affect my selection of one carrier over another much more than the fact that the carrier had had a recent accident.

I’m far more interested in how a company reacts to a crisis then knowing if they have experienced a crisis. There are very few airlines flying today that can claim an accident free history.

An airline that reacts quickly to help the customers involved in the accident, to learn what caused the accident and to take steps to avoid a repeat of the accident is far more inspiring than one that seeks to hide the fact that an accident even occurred.

When I’m flying along at 90% of the speed of sound, through a -70⁰ vacuum, stuffed into a metal tube along with several hundred other folks and a couple of thousand gallons of high-grade kerosene, I want to know that the folks upfront driving the plane and their bosses back home, value honesty over deception.

Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

Growing up in a small city which sat astride two US Highways and a transcontinental Interstate you can imagine that automobiles were a big part of daily life. We had no need to pile buildings on top of one another because land was cheap. That meant everything was going to be on the first floor including the acres of asphalt required for parking.

Because of our horizontal approach to city planning, things were spread out. If you needed to go next door for a cup of sugar, you hopped in your car and went. We drove everywhere. School, grocery store, barber, movies, you name it, we took the car. I knew folks that drove to the mailbox in their front yard to pick up their mail.

Parking lots were ubiquitous. We had vast open plains of asphalt and concrete. There was always a place to leave your car while you did whatever it was that you were doing.

The car was as embedded in our culture as was the horse in the culture of the Old West.

The first true rite of passage for kids of my era was the driving test. This was what we waited for year after year, long after we had outgrown the pedal cars we used as four-year olds. Until we reached that magic birthday we contented ourselves with bicycles. Of course, we pretended our bicycles were cars.

In Missouri, the driving age was 16. That meant your first beer, your first real kiss and your first encounter with law enforcement was also at age 16. It was thrilling to be 16. Going out was an adventure!

My dad taught me drive on lazy Sunday afternoons in the parking lot of the Shelter Insurance Company headquarters building in my home town. It is one of the most precious memories I have of my father. His quiet, patient manner made him the ideal teacher for this type lesson.

Naturally, most of my friends were all roughly the same age as I, so driving and cars was the primary conversational topic in those days. We dreamed about hot rods, read books and magazines about cars and street racing and in general lived in a culture with the automobile positioned precisely at center stage.

For us, New Years Day has nothing to do with January first. For us, New years was sometime in early fall when the new models were introduced. During the lead up, we would argue about whether Ford would finally abandon dinner plate tail lights, if Chevy would stack headlights or stick with a side by side configuration. Styles changed radically over a very few model years. Fins went away, fastback designs leant cars with a sleek aerodynamic look which likely had little to do with physics.

Marketing folks understood how important cars were. I believe it was no accident that new television shows debuted in the Fall simultaneously with the annual introduction of the new car models. The linkage between visual media and automotive design became firmly entrenched in this era.

I remember the season premier of Bonanza running without commercial interruption so America could spend twenty uninterrupted minutes at the end of the show to see the new Chevys introduced in their TV debut for the coming year. The next day at school, no one talked about Ben, Hoss or Little Joe, the conversation was all about the new Malibu or ‘Vette.

The End of the Era

As with many cultural shifts multiple factors contribute to changing styles, interests and norms. During the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a definite move away from the material orientation that drove our obsession with fins, chrome and high output V8 engines. The ’74 oil shortages did not help matters any.

We still worship cars, but our tastes and approaches to automobiles has greatly changed. We are more utilitarian, more focused on efficiency and mission in our selection processes.

Today, it seems like kids don’t really care much about driving. I’m not saying they are misguided, I just find it amazing that some kids don’t feel any urgency with regard to getting a driver’s license. The prospect of driving a car does not equate to freedom and adventure in the same way it did for my contemporaries.

In fact, the position of the automobile and the importance of driving seem to be diminishing rapidly in this post millennial age. Most recently, the notion of self-driving or autonomous vehicles are becoming real possibilities in the not too distant future.

Horrifying!

I can’t imagine a more depressing development than a car that drives itself. Before you start yelling “Luddite Philistine” at me, consider a few things about autonomous vehicles. These are just a few of the problems I see with this technology.

Designated Driver – Who needs them? No one is going to drive because the car knows the way home. Does this mean we all get to drink all night kong? Someone has to remain sober or no one will remember all the embarrassing stuff that happened.

Parking – I don’t mean parking at the mall, I mean parking after the movie on Saturday night. This is a very subtle art that young guys learn and pass along to other young guys. There are techniques and skills that require practice and honing. There is much more to it than “ . . . . Oh look, we’re out of gas on this deserted country road . . . . What will we do now?” I can’t imagine trusting some software developer at Subaru to get this right.

Drag Racing – Mano-a-Mano, A veritable ocean of testosterone powers the need to dominate the car next to you at a stop light. The revving engines, screeching tires and fishtailing acceleration at the green light. Every high school in America has one kid who has the baddest, meanest drag machine on the street. The cops know him and everybody wants to be him. Unless he’s a complete pizza face, he has pretty good luck in the romance department as well.

Jonesing your Neighbors – Part of the fun of buying a new car is sticking it to your neighbor. They are stuck driving a four-year old Junker while you a cruising around in luxury. How will you brag about a car you don’t even drive? Why would you envy your neighbor when the egg parked in his driveway is suddenly blue instead of green.

The Culture of Yawn

Then there is the other issue. The problem for which there is no solution. An American institution that has its beginnings in that most noble of enterprises, Moonshine distribution. This AV technology threatens a tradition that has grown over the years to become one the greatest spectacles in sport. Of course, I’m talking NASCAR!

Can you imagine the shame we will all feel watching a track with thirty or so driverless cars endlessly circulating around, never bumping, never squeezing or cutting off other cars. They will of course be unable to achieve speeds in excess of fifty-five miles per hour. Their sophisticated anti-collision and safety systems will over ride any attempt to break away from the pack.

What about the drivers? There won’t be any!

No angry young ego maniacs running around in ridiculous jumpsuits. No more rivals to bad mouth each other between races. No more post race fist fights. No poofy haired retired driver TV announcers explaining the action to us in their phony, exaggerated southern drawl voices.

All of this will be replaced by thirty jelly bean shaped vehicles putting around a vast race track forever locked into the formation and order in which they started.

I know autonomous vehicles are likely inevitable. I know they will save lives and probably save us countless hours of commuting time. I know they will save dollars in terms of gasoline or energy costs.

It’s just that they are so damn boring.

Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

Social Media has been with us for several years now and its making an impact on many traditional communication and engagement models. Most marketing organizations have considerable resources committed to Social.

Unless you are fortunate enough to work in a marketing environment with unlimited funding, the bucks spent on Social have to come at the expense of some other Marketing program. So, where are those bucks coming from? What are we giving up to pay for Social? What do we get for our money?

Ten years ago, our websites were going to handle almost all engagement with our customers, prospects investors and the general public. The website would be our chief sales outlet, our main customer support facility, our primary marketing instrument. The mission of the web page was to facilitate and hopefully accelerate tire-kicking browser interest into buying action.

Somewhere along the line, that didn’t really happen. Sure, for some retailers with huge investments in brick and mortar, the online point of sale replaced the cash registers in Topeka, Springfield, Chicago and everywhere else. But the traffic in and around malls in our area is still enough to make me break out in a cold sweat and reach for the Mylanta.

Corporate websites became huge sprawling facilities that frequenlty turned into just another power silo within the enterprise.

The problem with web sites is they are not effective tools for interactive communication. All the brainpower that goes into the design and content selection in most web sites is aimed at pushing information out to the frequently disinterested world. Sure, there is the occasional “click here” button to learn more, contact us or talk to an expert.

That is not engagement. Under that model you are still hanging a product catalogue out there with a shopping cart button next to each product.

There is nothing to tell you why people come to your web site, why they stay, why they can’t find you and especially what they really want you to do.

I know, cookies, IP addresses, analytics and traffic stats are supposed to do that for us. But I would submit they don’t really get the job done.

Social on the other hand provides terrific inbound communication, unvarnished truth as your audience perceives it and all manner of opportunities to react and measure the effectiveness of your actions. It also facilitates out bound communication but care must taken because social is a “public place” so you can’t just say it’s true and expect to be believed.

To often, we as marketers take the approach that we know what people want. What could our customers tell us that would be of value? The best answer to that is to ask your customers. Or, approach your social strategy with a large helping of listening.

I think the role of social is clear. This is where we converse with our audience and where our audience can converse with one another. . . .  and we get to listen! We must always remember that listening is where the value is found.

Using Social with maximum effectiveness should make the role of the web site less complex. The web site can then be assigned a more tightly defined role. It may well be that your website is merely a store front. Or perhaps your website serves as a portal to product information and support. I’ve seen some websites that are mostly for investors and regulators. A place to publicly post documents as directed by law or regulation.

But, your web site doesn’t have to carry the burden of advertising, mission statements, executive bios and the rest stuff that no one really cares about. Most importantly, it won’t confuse, lose or anger your customers.

Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

In the world of marketing we are tasked with presenting people, companies, products and concepts in a way that supports or reinforces an overarching message. Cynical people would call this “spin” while others might call it focusing language to align your message with a desired perception.

Regardless of your point of view about the value marketing provides, you would have to agree that conveyance of a message, any message, is dependent upon using the right words.

If you are in a hotel room and the bed is on fire, you are not going to call the front desk and tell them that you feel a little warm. You are going to yell “Fire!” and then you’re going to get out of the place.

Marketing is nothing more than a refinement of that concept.

Where marketing folks get into trouble is through the use of language to misrepresent truth by using confusing or approximating language.  An example of this would be “capacity optimization” used in reference to the seating arrangements on a commercial aircraft.

“Capacity Optimization” sounds innocuous enough. Who could possibly object to an airline optimizing passenger seating?

The answer is almost every passenger. That’s because in reality capacity optimization is achieved by pushing the seat rows closer together. This reduces the space between rows, meaning less leg room and knees scrunched up against the seat in front of you. For the airline it means five to seven more paying passengers onboard every flight. For the passengers it means discomfort, immobility and deep vein thrombosis.

Capacity optimized aircraft may appeal to stock holders but not to customers. Airlines know this but still they will compound the error by inflating the deception to include some perceived value delivered. They may advertise: Our planes are capacity optimized to assure your flight will feature the lowest fares in the business!  Yeah, right.

We see this in B2B marketing as well. This morning I read an article about the benefits of outsourcing. The writer was proudly throwing around a new word I gather of his own invention. The word was “Right-sourcing” which obviously has none of the negative baggage found with words like, outsourced, off-shored or plant closure.

The use of this type of word is beyond me. Does anyone really think these saccharine sounding terms signify anything other than deception?  Out sourcing is a fact of life. It is, on occasion, a business necessity. That does not mean workers; their families and whole towns don’t pay a terrible price when it comes to pass.

Let us not insult them by trying to dress that up as something that is actually good for them like finishing your vegetables or going to the dentist.

Losing a job sucks. A town losing a major employer is a tragedy. If you are in a position to make those kinds of decisions and affect people that profoundly, you should remember that.

By Lou Washington

In my real job I work with our sales and marketing folks in our enterprise system group. We’ve been selling software for as long as anyone on the planet and after nearly 40 years of selling ERP software, you might be wondering why I would be asking this question at all.

I assure you, I am quite serious about this question. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) is an umbrella term covering a wide variety of software solutions that facilitate the management of a given enterprise. As the words imply, the idea is that resources must be carefully managed to maximize the efficient and profitable use of those resources to achieve the goals of the enterprise.

There was a time when there were maybe 20 vendors in total selling ERP solutions. These companies addressed a market that was made up of 1) giant multi-billion dollar companies with worldwide coverage, 2) medium size companies that were less than a billion dollars in sales but more than 100 million and 3) the rest of the companies making up the lower end of the market with sales under the 100 million dollar threshold.

These companies typically had one thing in common, they made things. They were manufacturers. They maintained plants that transformed raw material or parts into products.

Each year, corporate planners would ask (or tell) the sales group what they were going to sell during the coming year and how much of it they would sell. The answers to these questions drove the purchasing decisions as far as what the company would need to buy in order to fulfill the orders planned by sales.

ERP systems developed to facilitate the efficient management of this deceptively simple process. The systems reinforced the decision-making processes associated with purchasing supplies, scheduling delivery of supplies, production scheduling, staffing and finished goods delivery scheduling. That is essentially how I see ERP in my manufacturing centric view.

ERP beyond Manufacturing

What about other types of businesses? What about retailers, wholesale or distribution businesses? How about services like accounting firms, maintenance providers, transportation services or insurance companies? The more I read about these businesses the more I would see references to their use of ERP. Even churches and governments seem to be in this arena.

Luckily, LinkedIn has a large collection of member communities associated with various aspects of ERP. I find that posing a question in the right LinkedIn Group will usually result in a series of responses and counter responses that offer great insight into how others see things.

So, I put some of my questions to my online friends in one of the LinkedIn ERP groups.

As I suspected, there really is no hard definition of ERP. It means different things to different people. While many of the responses were manufacturing centric, a large number were not. People had no trouble expounding on the benefits of ERP in a pure distribution environment. Services oriented advocates were just as convincing.

But this has negative implications for marketing folks. We spend huge amounts of time trying to establish the identity of our buyers. We look at the market in terms of who influences buying decisions, who chooses and who uses our products. We agonize over the types of businesses, what vertical markets they address, what types of products they make or sell.

When you market a product that “does everything for everybody” it may be a sales persons dream, but, it’s a marketing nightmare.  You can’t focus your message, you can’t isolate a specific group and establish their pain points to address with your strengths and you can’t afford to talk to everybody. Believe me, it’s a challenge.

What you used to be is Important

One of the folks I talked to put me onto a great concept. The vast majority of ERP systems on the market today, started out as something else.

The original product may have been a set of financial reporting tools, perhaps a warehouse management system or a system for handling human resources. Vendors love to build up product features. How many times have you bought something because it “now includes . . . .” whatever?

As the enterprises became more complex, more geographically wide-spread, more diverse in products offered, they drove their suppliers to add functionality to help take them wherever it was they wanted to go. Software vendors responded by pushing out their comfort zones and adding functionality which in turn expanded their own market reach.

Now, here we are with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of software products under the very diverse and increasingly generic ERP banner.

Most of these products were not built from scratch. What was finance/accounting software is now an ERP system. What was a human resources system is now ERP. A product that was formerly used to control inventory in a warehouse setting as evolved into ERP.

Oddly, many of these systems are rather weak in the traditional home of ERP; manufacturing. ERP was born of MRP or Manufacturing Requirements Planning. Software that scheduled production runs, supply of work stations and handled the acquisition of parts and raw material.

So the main message of this piece is to be careful if you are evaluating ERP systems, give strong consideration to what that system evolved from.  Be cognizant of what you really need. In some cases you may not need full-blown ERP, you may need accounting software.

But, if you are a manufacturer and you are looking for real ERP, make sure that is where your vendor came from. Make sure your buying a manufacturing centric system.

By Lou Washington

During my last year of college I roomed with my best friend in his town house. He managed to graduate a couple of years earlier than I did. Once he had his degree in hand he went straight to IBM and started a lifelong career selling computers in what was then called the General Systems Division.

He was a consummate sales person. He had all the God-given tools of looks and personality but he also had the passion to work hard and to learn from every single thing to which he was exposed. He would literally rather be selling then doing anything else.

I used to kid him about being a huckster, a drummer and all the other semi-derogatory terms professional sales folks live with. He shut me up one day by pointing out one very important fact.

We were driving around one afternoon when a truck passed us. It had a bumper sticker displayed on the trailer; if you Bought it, a Truck Brought it!

Laughing, he turned to me and said that it should read; if you Bought it, a Salesman Sold it!

He was right of course. Every single thing we have, we acquire or are given was sold to us or to someone along the way. Products cannot get beyond the manufacturer until someone buys them. Many times they are sold multiple times before finding their way into the hands of the end-user.

We literally are dealing with sales people all day long.

Which brings up the question; what do you want from a sales rep? What makes a good sales person in your eyes? Why are you happy with some buying experiences and exhausted by others? What are the show stopper sales behaviors which kill the deal in your world?

For me, selling is all about knowledge transfer. I want to be equipped to make an informed buying decision. Here are my requirements for a sales person when it comes to technology purchases:

  • Knows the product inside and out
  • Ability to articulate and communicate their knowledge effectively
  • Empowered – (I know it’s an over-used word) Sales folks need to be able to quote or negotiate prices and special requirements
  • Empathetic in terms of seeing “my use” of the product and what that means in terms of requirements for a successful transaction
  • Curious and imaginative – The unasked question is sometimes more important than the unanswered question.

With technology products, sales is less about intrusive, aggressive and persistent touching and more about making it easier for the buyer to buy. After all, how often do you really find yourself being convinced to purchase something you didn’t already want? What you want is help. What you want is someone who can remove the obstacles to getting your pain mitigated or your need satisfied.

Technology purchases are frequently complex in nature; complex products, complex specifications, complex pricing and frequently complex buying requirements. Somebody has to be the expert in such an environment. Most often, we require the sales person to take on this role.

Sales people can’t be just lead generators, order takers, entertainers or hand-holders. They have to have the skills and tools necessary to serve the customer.

This means the ability to configure complex products and provide on the fly price quotes. It also means they are knowledgeable enough about their customers business to make intelligent suggestions and understand the issues that challenges the customer on a day-to-day basis. They should be able to make recommendations based on what is really best for the customer in any particular situation.

CRM systems, product configuration technology and pricing application are great places to start. But, mobilizing these technologies is just as essential. The knowledge needs to be where the transaction takes place. Usually, that will be in the customer’s office.

Selling will always be required at some level. Selling is what makes the whole thing work. One company buys and another company sells. Selling smart is just as important as buying smart. After all, business ultimately has only these two functions; buying things and selling things. Why not do them equally well?

By Lou Washington

This past week a mile stone of sorts was clearly in view for our friends at Boeing. Their highly successful 777 program started the final build process on its 1,000th aircraft. This particular 777-300ER is slated for delivery to Emirates.

Boeing should be proud of this achievement, the 777 is a unique airplane. It is one of the first airliners that passengers actually participated in the concept and design stages of development. Many of the design elements used in the 777 are clearly present in the 787 and in later editions of other Boeing models.

Boeing 777

Photo by Lou Washington

Customer or user input is just as powerful in the business of designing airliners as it is anywhere else. Any marketer worth a damn will tell you that you can learn more from your customer than anyone else. As a consumer, we all benefit when we participate in the design of products. Companies that have learned this lesson are more likely to be rewarded by increased customer loyalty and in the end, more business.

If the onboard experience in today’s air travel is less than blissful, it is certainly not the fault of the aircraft manufacturers. Boeing and other major aircraft manufacturers go to great extremes to develop interiors that are comfortable and pleasant. Unfortunately, most airline operators undo all of this by turning these magnificent machines into livestock transports.

I’m not talking about the fantastical interior designs that accompany the roll out of a major new model. I know that my airline is never going to equip my flight to Des Moines with an on-board swimming pool or running track. Those are PR gimmicks that generate buzz much like concept cars do at auto shows.

But, Boeing takes the “User Experience” seriously. The Sky Interior program is not just a titillating concept, it is a reality. Softer, more natural lighting, larger windows, larger storage bins, flexible seating, higher ambient humidity and cabin pressure set much closer to normal sea level, all add up to a flying experience that will leave the passenger feeling much better upon arrival.

Any one who flies for a living or who spends a lot of time on airplanes has their own favorite aircraft, preferred seating configurations and more than likely, a specific favorite seat. Passengers who take the time to learn about seating charts and carrier seating configurations are rewarded with a more comfortable flight.

Knowing where the emergency exits are means more leg room, sitting near a galley can mean better drink service, sitting up front on the aisle means you are off the plane first or have ready access to the lavatory. Sitting in a seat just in front of a bulkhead can mean your seat won’t recline. But, seats just aft of the bulkhead many times have more leg room.

When I was on the road, flying all over the country at all hours of night and day, these little issues were very important to me. What was really remarkable to me was that airline personnel knew about all of these preferences. They would frequently help you make sure your preferences were addressed or recommend a close approximation alternative.

In those days my airline of choice was Delta. My airplane was the 727 stretch. Lucky for me Delta seemed to have a limitless supply of these birds and they also were the major carrier serving our local airport.

My preferences were pretty simple. I like a window seat because I can sleep without people climbing on me to get to the lavatory. I like lots of leg room because I like to stretch out. In those days, I smoked and I was sufficiently addicted to that nasty habit that I had to be far back in the smoking section to avoid risking the ever aft moving no smoking border. I also enjoyed having a couple of cocktails along the way so it helped to be close to one of the galleys.

Lucky for me, a friendly Delta Redcoat clued me in to party class. This was their lingo for row 35 on the 727 stretch. Row 35 was located at the back of the plane, there was a row 36 but it was lousy. Row 35 was next to the aft emergency exit and it was just opposite of the port side aft galley. Seat 35-F was the window seat. Row 34 didn’t exist, so a good three feet of deck was completely clear in front of row 35.

The fun started almost as soon as you buckled in. The flight attendants were busy with pre-flight activities, but almost always offered the row 35 passengers a pre-flight drink. Longer flights frequently turned into longer conversations with the flight attendants. This was a great opportunity to learn about your destination, where to go at night, what restaurants were great and what to avoid. There were almost always a few extra helpings of dessert or an extra cocktail available for those who flew party class.

For me, it made all the difference. Weekly or daily air travel is tiresome. It quickly loses the patina of glamour or excitement. But, it doesn’t have to be awful, it can be made pleasant. When I got the 35-F seat on my boarding pass, I was assured that I was going to have a very nice flight.

So, hats off to Boeing and congratulations on number 1,000. The 777 is a great airplane. But mostly, thanks for allowing us passengers to chime in on the design. Thank you for caring about what makes us happy.

You guys are the best!

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