Secret Marketing Weapon #1: Love Your Employees

Love, Robert Indiana 1966

Robert Indiana, 1966


I know what you’re thinking. I can hear what’s running through your brain right now, “Psychobabble . . . Richard’s off on another nonsensicle tirade about some lunatic, namby pamby article that he’s read somewhere about how we’re all supposed to love one another and the world will be a better place. I listened to John Lennon decades ago.”

Wrong. No psychobabble today, just some common sense. Let me start with a story.

A couple of weeks ago, I helped beautiful wife procure a couple of posters for a concert. She works as an office manager for the Macon Symphony, our community orchestra. They were holding the annual Pops Concert and wanted posters on easels to recognize and thank the sponsors for the evening. I didn’t foresee any difficulties. I chose a local sign shop with the right capabilities and went to their website to submit the file. Problem #1: No file transfer on the website. With the understanding that every company in the graphic arts industry must have some capability for file submission, I called the number on the website. Problem #2: No one answered the phone. I waited 30 minutes, then called again. On the third try, I got Joe. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Joe, I have a couple of posters that I need to get printed on foamboard  Can you get them done for me by Friday?” It was Monday, so I figured that this wouldn’t be a big difficulty.

Joe: Uh . . . I guess so.

Me: I’d like to send the files. What’s the best way?

Joe: We have a dropbox.

Me: (waiting) Ummmh. Joe, can you send me the link?

Joe: I guess so.

Me: Here’s my email address.

Joe: OK

I expected Joe to send the link, but it didn’t come. I called again later in the afternoon and got Pam. I explained to Pam that I’d talked with Joe earlier in the day and that I was expecting a link to submit some files. She said she would talk with Joe and make sure he responded, then hung up the phone. The link to submit the files eventually came, but I could tell that I was dealing with unhappy folks. You guessed it. We ended up waiting in their lobby for the posters at 4:30 pm on Friday.

There have been plenty of stories written about the value of excellent customer service. Just this morning, my #printchat friend Matthew Parker wrote another of his counter-intuitive blog posts on this very subject. He entitled his article “Why Selling on Service is Overvalued” and made a couple of incisive points:

  1. Excellent customer service is expected –If you own a printing business (or any small business), you know this. Good service isn’t a secret weapon. It’s mandatory if you want to keep the jobs flowing in.
  2. Selling on Customer Service makes your sales pitch the same as everyone else – It’s really not even worth talking about. After all, what company would ever sell on the basis of “average customer service?”

Matthew’s point is that customers don’t assign value to your assertions that good customer service is a distinctive attribute of your company. It’s just not a point of differentiation. He concludes, “Talking about service does not make your company stand out in the printing sector. It makes your company sound the same as many, many others.”

Does this justify mediocre customer service?

Matthew doesn’t discount the value of excellent customer service. He simply makes the point that it isn’t recognized. Mediocre customer service, in contrast, is easily recognizable. The folks at the local sign company weren’t rude, they were just unenthusiastic; and as the week progressed, it became obvious that they weren’t happy about their jobs or their company.

I have another business owner friend who doesn’t know that he has a disenchanted salesperson. I know it, though. It comes through in the salesperson’s voice when we talk. The salesperson isn’t doing direct damage, but he isn’t helping himself or his company, either. No matter what the company may assert in their marketing or sales messages, the impression that comes through on the phone is just lackluster. It’s a marketing problem because it creates a question and some doubt in the customer’s mind. When I talk to this salesperson, I want to know what’s wrong.

Employee Engagement

Attitude is a component of the secret weapon. Human Resources managers use the term employee engagement to describe both the problem and the opportunity. There’s been lots of research on the subject, and positive employee engagement has been linked to benefits in absenteeism, safety, quality, and profits (see this White Paper for a review of the research). From the HR perspective, improving employee engagement is more about communication than anything else, including money. Large companies address the problem with strategies and programs. For small businesses and for most printing companies, the solution is more direct. You just have to love your employees.

As a former employer and manager, I have both succeeded and failed miserably at this endeavor. Employee engagement is about the attitude and the ethos in your company. The signs of success are lots of laughter, customers who are happy to see you, and a certain amount of boisterous volume in the design office. The flip side can be a death spiral. I found another good article in the Harvard Business Review entitled Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better. The article makes three good suggestions:

  1. Broaden your definition of culture. Instead of focusing on “cognitive culture” — values such as teamwork, results-orientation, or innovation — you might think about how you can cultivate and enrich emotional culture as well.  Emotional culture can be based on love or other emotions, such as joy or pride.
  2. Pay attention to the emotions you’re expressing to employees every day.  Your mood creates a cultural blueprint for the group.
  3. Consider how your company policies and practices can foster greater affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness among workers.

This is big company language, but the results can be critical for smaller firms. Making changes can be difficult, because change requires breaking down the natural barrier between the Chief and the Indians, and both sides may be conditioned to build the wall rather than tear it down. On the business owner’s side, it means communicating openly and sharing both victories and challenges. Point 2 above is very important. “Cultural blueprints” aside, the owner has to set a good example – listening, encouraging and implementing good suggestions, and acting empathically are key. Empowering and encouraging employees to make decisions plays a part; also the willingness to let the team “live and learn” from mistakes.  Finally, the Chief has to demonstrate that he is also the chief customer advocate. The way that he cares for and helps customers, prospects, and the odd individual who wanders in the front door will make an impression on the team – setting a standard that they should be encouraged to imitate and expand.

Where’s the Marketing Payoff?

The payoff comes when the Indians really belong to the tribe. They see the Chief as the leader, but know that he has the best interests of the tribe at heart. Yes, this is common sense, but it’s easy to ignore slight signs of trouble in the midst of the daily pressure to get the jobs out the door. When this tight company culture is present, mediocre customer service just doesn’t occur. It’s a not-so-secret secret weapon: the attitude will show through. There will be no need to tout excellent customer service, it will be evident in the voices on the phone, over the counter, and with every interaction that takes place.

Let’s end this discussion a very positive note. Here’s a tune from one of my favorite New Orleans musicians, Dr. John.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

Gather ’round me while I testify!