Monday, November 23, 2009

Words that work: inside the halls of your business

Our direct experience has shown that, in certain agribusiness companies, our workers are feeling the strain of the public debate over food. Has it hit your place yet?

We train our sales people about features and benefits, about how to overcome objections, and about how to close the sale. We guide and train these people but what do we do for the rest of our staffs? And even for our sales people, maybe we haven’t adequately prepared them as well as we could have on talking points and their behaviors. What are you doing to help them deal with emotions and to help them regain their personal confidence through “words that work”?

The words we choose certainly make a definite difference in our relationships with spouses, children, and co-workers. In our business lives, our choice of words can make or break a sales situation, cause a customer service moment to turn ugly, or strike a chord that conveys instant understanding. In fact, our words, in part, define our customers’ experience. Agribusiness companies have employees who take the brunt of the sometimes sensationalized debate home with them. It’s our job to seize upon this time as one of additional education and communication to relieve their stress and to help them use words that work when confronted.

The business model of agribusiness is self-contained, highly complex, and had been virtually hidden from public view until the last 10 to 15 years. The recent increase in public awareness, if graphed, would be up and to the right at a steep angle! How much clarity is there really for the public about agribusiness, farming, sustainability, and feeding and clothing the world? Agriculture cannot withstand a repeat performance of what we are witnessing in the public debate over Health Care Reform.

This is a very public example of what agribusiness is in for in the coming months and years. We’re living through a confused, and angry public debate over our nation’s true and real need for Health Care reform. After months of shouting, influence-led proselytizing, and raucous Town Hall meetings, where are we?

The next great public conversation will be about carbon emissions, global warming, and sustainability. This far-reaching, complex, and already highly fractionalized, conversation will include among its topics “cap and trade” versus “cap and tax”, agribusiness, emissions, the industrial food system, farming, and almost everything and everything related. The conversation, if we allow media to dictate it could become even more sensationalized than the one on Health Care Reform. The message gaining strength and credence, and the doubtless ongoing message will be: how we as “the people” must change past practices to create a sustainable future. Let’s keep that message constructive, educational and balanced.

This is a time to unite. Each of us across the value chain, from grower or producer to seedsman to corporate executive, needs to help shape the language of this conversation. For some of us, we need to start inside our very own businesses.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

words that work: the wisdom of calling it "a fight"

I was glancing over blog headlines today, when my eye was caught by the headline " A Food Fight."

Like so many others, there are days when I turn off my computer disgusted by the factual mistakes and blatant lies told in the press about agriculture. Growers and producers are misunderstood. Agribusiness is much more complex than almost everyone understands. Agribusiness feeds and clothes the world. American farmers have a proud history of stewardship and sustainability. To date, however, much of the public debate has done more to confuse the general audience with polarizing language and war-like tactics - tactics clearly intended to strike terror into the hearts of the intended audience.

Therefore, I certainly applaud how the industry has been drawn together to reverse public opinion and to correct the facts about farmers, farming, and the "Food industry." What causes me concern, however, is the choice of metaphor.

The blog, which appears on AgWired, starts off:

" A FOOD FIGHT got underway today with dairy farmers and beef producers joining forces to fling facts in the face of food foes."

I have to ask if there isn't another "metaphor to live by" other than the "argument is war" metaphor, which underlies the author's opening lines. Cindy, the author, goes on to say that the purpose and main message from this food fight "is to Give Thanks for food and farmers."

I get her message. Yet the words "fight" and "give thanks for" are oddly juxtaposed.

Those of us involved in agribusiness, whether we are ranchers, producers, growers, farmers, dealers, seedsmen, equipment manufacturers, or marketing consultants, should reflect upon the power of words, ideally before they escape our lips, pens, or keyboards. We don't need a repetition of what has happened in the public debate over health care reform.

We do face a communications "opportunity", or "challenge" when it comes to the subject of food and of creating a sustainable world for future generations. A key to the success of our sustainability efforts will be our ability to come together, despite not being fully comfortable with doing so, and to collaboratively and creatively build a future. I am merely asking us to think about the metaphors we choose to help guide us to that future.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alice through the looking glass: words that work or not?

The last few pieces I've posted have dealt with finding "words that work". There can be no more important time to make sure you are using words that work than when speaking to a customer or prospect. Here's an interesting example of such an exchange: between "the customer" and "the company". A passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass serves as the example.

'Humpty-Dumpty said: "There's glory for you."

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.

Humpty-Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't till I tell you. I meant, 'There's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty-Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be Master - that's all."

Perhaps the example is a stretch, but each of us can remember an encounter similar I am sure.

Remember: It is not what you say that matters; it is what they hear. More importantly, if they have no idea what you mean by what you say, you can rest assured that what you hear will create a disconnect rather than a deeper connection with your customer.

Finding "Words that work" for your customer-facing roles

"English...tends to ambiguity and obscurity of expression in any but the most careful writing."

Robert Graves, the great English poet, mythographer and translator, wrote these words in his 1943 book, The Use and Abuse of the English Language. I can only imagine how Graves might react to the language of 21st century sales, marketing, and customer service efforts. If our written language is imperfect, what indeed can be said about our verbal skills?

For Customer Experience Management and CRM proponents, our message is this:

- there is a vital connection between your company and your customers that is forged at, and across, each touch point with them, as they move from suspect, to prospect, to trial user, to customer, and finally either to loyal customer advocate or to the position of terrorist, whose attitude threatens your reputation.

It is clear that we - each of us in those roles - must take more care, be more clear, be more precise, and more completely understandable as the company providing the service, products, solutions, and answers than our customers need be. Our front-line personnel can often feel besieged, if the customer is upset. Emotions can get in the way. In those "moments of truth", to borrow Percy Barneveld's phrase, when our frontline personnel are telling the product story, resolving an issue, or trying to sort through a complaint, the reputation and image of your company are put at risk.

Most of us understand this reality. Many of you have tried to communicate, train, and monitor your front-line people. Yet, all too often, it is the linguistic part of the interaction that causes the breakdown. I am not advocating scripting. I've never really liked the idea of any customer-facing representative having a script. I do advocate, however, guidance and planning: training, role-playing, on-going communications, and (perhaps even) a company-specific, conversational "dictionary" as actionable tools that each front-line, customer-facing individual can absorb and personalize.

In today's economy, our customers are looking for openness, resolution, and consistency. While words alone will not save or protect your reputation, words alone can sink your Customer Experience Management Efforts.

Monday, November 9, 2009


"Reputation" is a direct borrowing from Latin. Etymologically, it means "what is thought about ", from the Latin "re" and "putare". Reputation, like Trust, is a precious treasure. As with any other treasure, it can squandered or protected, invested in, burnished or destroyed. And, in today's flat-world, dominated by social media your "reputation" not only is on the line 24/7 each day, at each touch-point across your organization, but the "Risk" associated with the slightest "wrong step" no longer can be isolated and contained.

Today, as never before, your company's reputation, brand, image, and customer experience are inextricably linked together. Customers are defining your performance and their own "receipt of value" at each and every touch-point. Have you measured how your own customers see you of late?

One company that consistently amazes its customers ,when it comes to providing outstanding customer support, is USAA. If you haven't served in the military you might not be aware of them. If, however, you, your parents, spouse or significant other has served, or is serving, or is part of the armed forces family, then you know. Not only are their products above reproach but their customer management centers provide unparalleled support and unrivalled satisfaction to their millions of customers.

USAA's success is due to their unrelenting dedication to being customer focused. Their own reputation sparkles. Here are three reasons:

1. Continuous emphasis on product knowledge and on-going training
2. Communications skills with an emphasis on listening: they understand the adage: "it's not what you say, it's what they hear", so they "seek first to understand" - as Covey would teach.
3. Consistency: internal and external values are aligned and they "walk their talk." And, if you were to ask more than one representative a question (regardless of how complex) they would play back the same answer.

How many of us can say that about our own sales, marketing and customer service personnel - the ones daily on the front line with our customers?

These are steps any firm, in agribusiness, finance, or you-name-it, can borrow and build into its daily operational values and practice. USAA'S reputation is brighter than many stars. How does your reputation sparkle today? Or, has it become tarnished? Which of their 3 steps might you adapt to your own situation. It is your reputation on the line, isn't it?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

an education challenge for all in agriculture

Like many of us, I am deeply bothered by the current public debate about food, food production and safety. The traditional, and newer "social" medias have taken this very, very complex issue and lumped together factoids about "feeding the world", "clean air", "global warming", "genetically modified crops", and the very sustainability of our planet. Doing so only made things worse and certainly more confusing for most listeners. A great deal of positioning; a good deal of shouting; not much listening and working together going on there, so far, in this public debate.

Agribusiness cannot allow itself to be dragged into a public brawl such as the one we've recently watched - and still are watching - about Health Care Reform and The Public Option.

These issues surrounding agribusiness and farmers, are among the most important topics of today because we all are involved in food and clothing and environmental issues. Yet, journalists such as Michael Pollan, Paul Roberts, and notable world citizens, such as Vandana Shiva, are inciting their audiences and special interest groups, mostly through fear and "adjustment" of the facts. In contrast to these divisive voices, Peter Senge, of Fifth Discipline fame, offers a much more tempered approach, deeper and more thoughtful and quite a bit more challenging to each of us in his newest book, The Necessary Revolution.
Crafting a sustainable solution - just to guide the public debate - can, and will, not result from singularly slanted, or otherwise distorted preaching. These interrelated problems can only be corrected through a creative learning process. Rather than creating an atmosphere in which a true long-lasting solution can be crafted, these activists see only one way: their own. Instead we need to work together. Education and communications will play a huge role in shaping the outcome for many of us. It will take hard work.

We lose all chance to shape the future, however, if we allow those outside agribusiness to shape the public debate or if we yell and/or complain about what they are doing.

We need to listen. We need to practice what Stephen Covey suggests: "seek first to understand, then to be understood". We also need to build a dictionary that guides this conversation and mutual learning. All of us need to shape the language and use words that work and metaphors that reach across the gap between sides, pulling them into our conversation.

Keep this truism on a Post-It: "...those who define the debate will determine the outcome" (c.f., Frank Luntz,What Americans really want ... really).

It's time to re-tell, or to tell anew, the story of farming, of how the world is fed and clothed - and what it will require when there are 9 Billion people on earth. It is time for us to educate the rest of the world about farming, agriculture, tillage practices, land and water conservation, seeds and chemicals. If we shape the conversation, without rancour and with a complete and easy-to-comprehend story, which helps reveal the truth in its complexity, everyone will come out ahead. Then we can move ahead proud of our stewardship and assured of a sustainable future. But remember, "It's not what you say; it's what they hear" that matters

If agribusiness addresses these same sometimes-difficult-and-admitedly- complex subjects through education and communication - the ones the extremists have distortedly made visible - so that our fellow citizens of the planet can help better understand the reality, the rancorous, drama can subside; constructive conversation, dialogue and trust can be built; and, we can craft a sustainable future together.
That future will renew the social contract. Then we can walk our talk proudly.

- old consultant adage, however: easy to say, harder to accomplish.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Integrated model - the essence of best practices CRM

The Integrated Model is a Gold Mine: it’s the essence of successful CRM.

In business-to-business marketing, the integrated direct marketing model is a gold mine for the marketing group that wants to build sustainable relationships with the right customers. The Integrated Direct model is the foundation of best practices Customer Relationship Management and Customer Experience Management. The economics of the Integrated Direct model come from two primary facts:

1. Marketers have come to realize that they cannot afford to invest in all customers and prospects equally. In fact, acquisition efforts should be segregated out from cultivation, retention, and “win-back” efforts. Integrated Direct Marketing – that is the integration of your “market coverage efforts (sales, marketing and service) - allows us to do that. This delivers the promise of CRM.

2. More expensive contact types, such as face-to-face or special events, can be leveraged with tremendous effectiveness by lower contact types, such as the Internet, social media, E-mail, print, snail-mail, and phone.

Here’s what the integrated direct marketing process can do for you:

1. Reduce the expense to revenue ratio by at least 15%

2. Increase the number and frequency of value-based contacts to the right prospect or customer

3. Increase the perceived service level at the point of contact

4. Increase product penetration

5. Increase customer loyalty

Additionally, in support of particular product lines, Integrated Direct Marketing ensures:

1. Faster Introduction

2. Higher amplitude of sales

3. Segmented and sustained market position

4. More control when migrating customers to newer models, products and services.

Quoting Bob Stone, long the venerable guru of American direct marketing, a definition of direct marketing must include three phrases: “interactive system,” “using one or more contact media,” and as must all direct marketing “effect a measurable response or transaction.”

Integrated Direct Marketing is not direct mail; it is not telemarketing; it is not transaction focused. The integrated direct marketing model is data-based and loyalty focused. Integrated Direct Marketing is highly targeted marketing that uses an integrated, organized, planned system of contacts by which we make offers to individuals using a variety of media. This system of building sustainable loyalty with our customers and prospects creates an on-going civil dialogue. It is accomplished by integrating communication across all contact media - print, the Internet, E-mail, mail, phone, field events and face-to-face visits from the field force. It’s defining characteristic is the delivery of relevant value. The value is defined for us by our customers and prospects. It provides for the delivery of relevant value-based information at the right time, in the desired delivery system, to the right individual that ensures interdependent relationships built over time.

This “Market Coverage” model makes use of the marketing database as the repository of corporate memory, storing the results of all interactions with customers and prospects.

In addition to simple facts such as demographics and product usage, today’s sophisticated marketers are building database systems that capture the complexity of buyers’ needs and purchasing behavior along with relevant complaint and/or satisfaction issues. The information then is available for product design groups, marketing, sales, research and other corporate functions. The database becomes the springboard for the organization’s need to be responsive, flexible, and dedicated to learning. Through the technology of our database, we are able to store response data by individual contact within an account. Moreover, we are able to measure our effectiveness relative to cost and to results. The measurability tracks profits, investments, expenses, account penetration (or, “share of wallet”), problems, issues, complaints and satisfaction.

Integrated Direct Marketing is a systematic method of getting close to our customers. Using this tool we can integrate our channel contacts and media efforts through a common database, which is focused on our target universe. Through testing we can validate results and expand our program and processes with great certainty.

The marketing database is mind of the IDM organization. It is serviced by a proactive outbound call center (or telemarketing unit), which becomes both a listening post to customers and the dealer channel as well as a way to leverage the field organization in building relationships and selling products. In the Integrated model the marketing database is shared with the field organization, your channel partners, and all internal departments.

The essence of a successful Integrated process is the ability to capture, centrally, information about our customers and prospects at all points of contact – and then to transform that information in actionable knowledge that is shared across and between those functional areas inside your firm that touch the customer or your channel partners. The key to success then is how well the marketer can segment within a given target audience. It is critical in the B2B arena to segment on similar sets of unfulfilled needs and purchasing behavior. This allows us to understand our customers’ need and how they buy and then to market our products and services to these identified niches.

Once the segments have been identified (keeping in mind that the entire target universe may emerge as one large segment), the next step to take is to grade accounts within segments to ensure that the investment made is the least amount of money to strengthen the relationship with the particular account.

The grading model is a valuation model. In the Business-to-Business world, the grading model no longer should be the simplistic A-B-C model. Instead, it should allow enough granularity to understand the profitability and penetration potential of each cohort or segment. I suggest 5 grades, although in certain cases, I believe 7 to be the optimal number of grades.

Grading (or, “valuation”) is the economic modeling of the Integrated Direct effort based upon an investment decision, which takes into, account the historical (actual) revenue and potential revenue from a particular segment of accounts. In other words, grading serves the marketer as an economic and analytical tool, which requires that we invest in the major segments we have created proportional to their economic history and potential.

Integrated direct marketing works both as a stealth defensive weapon, as well as a highly leverageable marketing tool. The competitive advantage it affords the skilled executioner is proprietary and affords increasing , not decreasing, economic returns. The fundamental concepts we use in loyalty-focused customer relationship management include:

1. Market to individuals … not to corporations

2. Address the unique set of needs of that buyer group (or application)

3. Individuals are clustered (i.e., segmented) around common sets of needs which define a market niche

4. All contacts with an individual, whether a customer or a prospect, must be of value as defined by them

5. The technology we use is transparent

6. Planning is critical

7. Testing is mandatory

8. Integration is the process used to ensure that the higher cost contacts are leveraged

9. Properly executed the integrated model creates a continuous improvement process that profitably drives business strategy by creating a sustainable atmosphere of cooperation and coordination across, and between, your company’s various functional areas.

10. The investment made is proportional to the level of commitment to us, to the expected return from this customer.