Politics, Social Media and Your Business

I learned many things from my grandfather growing up: keep your elbows off the table, use a napkin not  the tablecloth and always hold a door for anyone who is behind you.  He grew up in a time when common civilities and good manners were arguably more important or at least more consistently observed.  He also told me never to talk about politics or religion with strangers, and never, ever, tell someone their baby isn’t the cutest thing ever.  I’ve been better about observing some of his lessons than others.

My grandfather passed away at age 94, just at the very dawn of what was to become our hyper-connected, hyper-kinetic internet-based world.  I’m not sure what he would have made of it.  I’ve been thinking about him lately in the context of the changes that have happened since his passing, not so much to the technology—that happens over any person’s lifetime—but to public engagement.    As business people we live in decidedly different times than our predecessors, less because of what we do or sell, but because of the abundant ways we have ways of connecting with the public.  With this plethora of communications comes an avalanche of outreach which can turn into an undifferentiated roar, good for little but inducing a headache.  Standing out from that noise is a huge challenge and we’ll visit that topic in the near future.

A more pressing and challenging component to our many ways of reaching the world today and it has implications for anyone in business: drawing the line between public personal commentary and equally public business communication.  We live in an age where the ability to go from the brain to the mouth (well, keyboard) can, and often is, unencumbered by the thought process. Sharing one’s thoughts  is within easy reach, every hour of every day.  While I am the strongest of supporters of free speech, regardless of my personal views on that speech, there’s a certain recklessness that has found firm footing in our society, both at its most casual and colloquial and at its most important.  Said another way, just because you CAN say something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  We now have the ability to express a view or comment on another’s perspective ,not just one on one, face to face, or muttering to yourself over a coffee, but to the entire world if we choose to—at that moment without even getting off the sofa.

I probably note a half dozen “WTF?” moments in my various social media feeds a day, and I just keep going. Where I get, maybe astonished is the best word, is when what would/should have been an airing of different views dives headfirst into the mud and crude insults (in all caps even!), without any intermediate step.  I’m no sociologist, and I know what we see here is just another symptom of what many would argue ails the country as a whole.  But going from disagreement to slinging digital poo seems to me a problem.

This all intersects with business in that there is no rule book, no good guidance for separating whether you are speaking as yourself when a viewpoint, controversial or otherwise is expressed, or if you are acting on behalf of your company.  In a simpler time there were spokespeople and communications were either on the record or off (more or less).  Now, however, a business’s Facebook identity is often tightly tied to the people who manage that identity, who usually have their own Facebook pages. That’s fine to the extent that it lends humanness and personality to the corporate business world, but it also comingles personal perspectives with the persona of your business.  I don’t suggest this is always a bad thing.  If your business has a viewpoint, a cause, or something as a whole you’re passionate about and want to advertise, have at it.  We’ve never had a better bully pulpit.

If, on the other hand, you really don’t want your business to stand for anything other than the products or services it provides, there’s work to be done in keeping personal commentary separate from the business side.  There are emerging policies and guidelines available online to help, but if you’re a local businessperson, keeping the sides separate is really hard to do if it can really be done at all.  It’s more logical and prudent to think about how you want to engage, and consider the implications before you press the enter key. Then go ahead and do what you think is right.  Be passionate.  Be concerned.  Be contrary.  That’s your right. Just don’t be a troll and remember that what happens on Facebook, unlike Vegas, does not stay on Facebook.

Let’s Talk About Faster Horses

In a quote attributed to Henry Ford (albeit with weak evidence) he famously claimed “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”  Accurately quoted or not, the comment brings up an important topic: getting input from your customers. The depth and breadth of customer input necessarily varies depending on your type of business, but broadly speaking, taking steps which bring you from speculating about their needs, interests or wants, and outright asking them can be at the very least informative, and at best, transformative.

You’re most likely already getting input whether you connect the dots or not.  If people stop coming to your restaurant you’ve got a problem.  If customers consistently return a given product or product line, you have a supplier problem. If your customer stops using your software in favor of another company’s there are issues.  In our 24/7 connected world of thumb typing and “likes”, not to mention the increasingly odious Yelp, everyone gets to be a critic, so there’s a lot of separating the fly specks from the pepper to find some useful guidance.

More useful is a focused and proactive approach to your customers.  Reaching out for input can help you adjust strategy, offer valuable guidance to suppliers or partners and tighten the bonds between you and your customers.  Key is to garner information which informs the business–ahead of time.  Customers tend to “vote with their feet”, so you don’t know if there’s a problem until it’s too late—they’ve already taken action.  Why should they go through the effort to let you know why?

Getting out ahead of things is critical.  Keeping the good Mr. Ford’s quote in mind, however, just opening wide the doors and asking your customers what they want isn’t a particularly good way to go either–you need a plan, and that plan has to start with what you’re seeking to get from any input process.  That objective can be almost anything: testing a new product line, finding out how much people are willing to pay for a service, learning what kind of a menu would change a patron’s frequency, what features in a piece of software would make a user’s life less stressful, etc.  Multiple objectives can often be grouped together, but they key it to make sure they are related.

Next, consider the means of gathering the information you’re seeking.  We’ve all seen, and perhaps participated in, formal focus groups where an assortment of consumers are asked to try a product or share perceptions about a product, service or company.  These are great, but they are financially out of reach for most of us, and arguably are “too much” for most purposes.  The concept is important though: define the questions you want your customers to ponder, and ask for their responses.  This can be done in a survey form, face to face (singly or across groups), and can be a single event or an ongoing process.  Regardless, rather than leaving everything open-ended, it’s important to test your hypotheses against those questions.  Part of what you’re looking for is validation or correction of assumptions you’re using to guide your business plan.  Leaving them room for additional thoughts and input above and beyond your framing gives customers some latitude to offer up suggestions you may have not thought of.

One of the most valuable ways to engage with customers and gain insights and input is a customer advisory board or customer council.  Common in the technology world, a bargain of sorts is offered: in exchange for early access to your strategy and product/service roadmap and new product features, selected customers invest time to react, share their thoughts and provide input which can be extremely valuable in validating—and modifying—your plan.  Done quarterly, twice a year or even annually, these sessions can stop a company from heading down a rabbit hole.  Equally important, it can put the customer in a position to “put their money where their mouth is” relative to requested products or features.  Saying you want something and being willing to pay for it are often two different things as many companies have discovered over the years.

Getting your customers’ input in a structured and useful form takes work both ahead of and after the process is completed.  Managing expectations, filtering out the “faster horse”, and applying judgement to considering which input rings true are not trivial activities.  They are, however, very valuable ones and usually worth the work both in terms of information and strengthening customer relationships.

Giving Back–Good for You and Your Business

In a recent post kicking off the New Year I suggested several resolutions for business owners and executives to consider.  To my surprise, the one that triggered the most response  was the last on my list, namely, “get involved”.  Because that proposed resolution clearly struck a chord I thought I’d expand on that topic today.

Actually, the full sentence was “get involved in something bigger than your business”, and I think it’s an important message for a company of any size.  Look, most of us are in business to make a profit.  Making, selling, renting or distributing goods or services is what our organizations do and we should be spending our time doing the best, most effective job we can to achieve the goals we’ve set out. However, since any business is made up of people, without whom it doesn’t exist let alone run, it’s imperative for owners and managers to remember that the “machine” doesn’t operate in a vacuum.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.  The first is most often discussed in terms of, variously, good, positive work environments, nurturing employees, helping them to succeed,  being respectful or even encouraging of a healthy work-life balance.  There’s no doubt about how important all this is: I’ve personally worked for some horrifyingly “grindy” companies over the years, businesses that expected 24/7 engagement, even on vacations.  Places that put so much stress on employees they got worn down or behaved terribly to colleagues just to protect themselves.  They seem like caricatures you’d find in the movies if you hadn’t lived through them.  Those places are toxic and efforts to change workplaces to a more positive, more balanced environment are, thankfully, are moving along swiftly.  In what can cynically be called enlightened self-interest, the workplace is a better one now than it was 10 years ago for many, many people. For those companies which were not driven to make those changes, their employees took matters into their own hands and moved on.  There is still a long way to go but there has been much progress.

The second framing I’d like to offer up is, I think, a logical extension of the improved/enlightened workplace, and that’s where my exhortation to get involved has its genesis.  Just as companies do not exist in a vacuum, separate from their employees and their welfare, neither do businesses exist outside of the communities in which they make their offices.  I’m glad to say that it’s my sense that many have some funds set aside for charitable contributions, corporately sponsored actions like United Fund drives or some other financial donation pool.  That’s a good start for sure, but I think businesses can and should do more, especially at a local, more personal level. It’s not just about writing a check, but rather, I believe they should become more holistically engaged in their communities in ways that go beyond the monetary.

Before I go any further I should say that while I am speaking broadly on this topic, there are many companies in our area who are exemplars of this engagement and they should be recognized for those efforts—fortunately they often are spotlighted, which I hope serves as an encouragement to others.  But far too many other businesses don’t get involved.  Involvement takes time, it may take money, is certainly can be a distraction, but that’s not a reason to avoid participation.  Local Chambers of Commerce are always looking for community business members to participate in their many activities and committees.   Even better, countless non-profits serving every imaginable niche need not just cash, but thoughtful, caring, supportive people—you and your staff—to help them accomplish their missions.

Practically speaking this is simple to implement in your business.  Give your employees compensatory time for local volunteering, or at least make it acceptable for them to come in late or leave early once or twice a week—or a month.  Celebrate the organizations they are helping.

Alternatively, pick a local cause or two you feel strongly about.  Focus on children. Homelessness. The arts. Abandoned pets.  Just pick something to support and then rally the organization around that cause. I can’t think of a stronger win-win-win: the chosen recipient gets helping hands, maybe some expertise, perhaps some infusion of funds.  Your employees get to be involved in something beyond the day to day of their jobs and that refreshes and energizes them.  Your business wins by having happier, more engaged employees.  What could be better than that? Do it.  Get involved!