My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

Knowing Your Company’s Product

Verizon Wireless workers with a Cell on Light Truck that is used to provide additional wireless call capacity.

In announcing its third-quarter earnings results recently, Verizon—as usual—attributed much of its success to its wireless unit. Fran Shammo, Verizon’s chief financial officer, noted that the reason Verizon Wireless leads the industry in the number of wireless customers is that it has always focused on its network.

“Scale is important,” he is quoted by The New York Times as saying. “But the network is the product here. This has been a long-term strategic investment for us.”

Knowing what its real product is and focusing on making it the best in the industry are two reasons Verizon Wireless excels. They also provide lessons for other companies wanting to lead their industries.

Even at the company’s founding in April 2000 (from a merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, along with a few smaller operations) Verizon Wireless stressed the quality of its network. At that time, the company—or more correctly, perhaps, Denny Strigl, its strong CEO then and for the next several years—knew that no matter what brand or style of wireless phones customers used, they would not be happy if their calls did not go through. And, although many of us—especially those who live in or near large metropolitan areas—may have forgotten this fact, wireless coverage was for many years often very bad for much of the country’s cell phone users.

So, over the years, Verizon Wireless has focused on making sure its network—whether analog, 2G (the first generation digital wireless service, 3G (an updated digital service), or now 4G (the latest digital service known as LTE or Long Term Evolution)—has been as good as its technicians and billions of dollars could make it.

This focus is part of the reason why 79 percent of the phones purchased from the company during the third quarter were smartphones—a huge increase over its 25 percent goal only a few years ago. These phones suck data like candy, and they need a great network if they are to function flawlessly.

The lesson here, I think, is that a company must know what its real product is, and it must work to make it the best. In Verizon Wireless’ case, the product is its network. Other wireless carriers—those who trail their competitors and are looking for merger opportunities and funding injections to stay alive—may not see it that way. They might think their product is cheap service or phones, perhaps; or maybe they’re still not sure what it is, even after years of operation.

Verizon Wireless never stops improving its customer service and retail operations, or offering the best cell phones and wireless devices available. But it knows that while these aspects strengthen its business, it is its network that drives the company’s success.

Photo: Verizon Wireless

The Wrong Message

The note stuck to the headboard of our bed in the hotel room said, “Duvet covers & sheets are clean for your arrival.”

The grammar-conscious, observant reader would, first, notice the missing period at the end of the sentence in this note. And then wonder why whoever printed it would take the time and care to choose a friendly, handwritten-inspired typeface, print the message on a Post-it note, and put it on our headboard—but not proofread it to catch the errant period.

As important as correct punctuation is, something more significant trumps the missing period in this sentence: the overall message.

Some guests, I’m sure, wonder what inspired the local hotel manager or the executives of the hotel chain to leave such a message. Did they really think that telling guests that the linens were clean when they arrived would make them feel better during their stay?

It doesn’t.

Telling guests that the linens are clean this time only forces them to question whether they were not clean the last time they checked in. It causes them to wonder why there weren’t notes saying that the bath towels and face cloths were clean, too, and other notes pointing out that the carpet had been vacuumed and the counters washed.

We’ve stayed in this hotel perhaps ten times over the past four years and never felt the need to question whether the linens were clean or whether anything else was not up to our expectations. The note, however, landed as an apology, an apology for not having done a good job in the past and for having gotten caught in this failure. It seemed as if management was trying to make up for past mistakes.

Making sure the linens are clean, one would assume, is a given at any hotel in America. It’s a fundamental part of being a hotel, in fact.

One wonders how diners would feel if they sat down in their favorite restaurant and found on the table a note stating, “Tonight we are going to cook your meal,” or how airline passengers would feel hearing the flight attendant say, “Welcome aboard. Today, we are going to miss all the other planes in the sky and land safely at our destination.”

It seems clear that no business needs to point out that its employees have done the fundamental tasks of their jobs. Such declarations undercut the intended message, leaving hotel guests, diners, or airline passengers questioning whether they should look for another hotel, a new restaurant or a different airline. Even for the most ardent customer, it weakens confidence in the company.

Neither a company nor its customers benefit when communicators skip the effort to thoroughly think through what they are trying to say and when they fail to consider how the words they choose will actually be received.

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Update

About nine months after we last stayed at this hotel, we visited it again this past week.IMG_0437

The note about clean duvet covers and sheets is still stuck to the headboard. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that this sign (to the right) is now fastened, like a 1 ½’ x 2’ piece of art inside one of the hotel elevators.

Although trying to look up-to-date and catchy, this sign continues to stress the same wrong message first delivered by the note stuck to the headboard.

Misspelling as a Symptom of a Bigger Issue

Some people who read about Starbucks’ misspelling of the word vegetable in its new Evolution Fresh promotion, laughed and called it “embarrassing.” Others of us, however, thought this easily avoided mistake points to a much bigger issue: that the company is not focusing on the fundamentals of its business.

I used to work with a CEO who couldn’t say often enough that employees needed to focus on the fundamentals. By that he meant that whatever your job, you needed to make sure you not only performed well the big things that everyone would notice and on which they would often judge the quality of your work, but that you also needed to focus on making sure that the fundamentals, the basics, of what you were responsible for—whether it was handling the company’s finances, running the sales effort for a large region, or merely writing a promotional piece—was as perfect as possible.

He sometimes visited our stores, unannounced, giving everything from the parking lot, to the product displays, to the backroom storage area the equivalent of a white-glove inspection. His rationale was simple: Everything reflects on the quality of the business. No matter how well you try to serve those who walk through the front door, he would say, they can’t have a great customer experience if they have to wipe the smudge off the products before they can clearly view them, or have to squint to read the fine print on a contract because the light bulb over the counter is burned out.

I agreed with him then. And I agree with him now, years after I’ve left the company. So when I see Starbucks spelling vegatable in a wall poster to promote its new Evolution Fresh juice bar, I have to wonder what else besides this word is not getting the attention it deserves. Are the fruits and vegetables really fresh as the promotion claims? Or are they “nearly fresh” because some employee assumes no one will really notice or that “almost fresh” is close enough? Is Starbucks really ready to move beyond coffee and into other kinds of drinks? Or is the person (or team) responsible for this new product line too distracted by other things to worry about spelling correctly the words on the most-visible promotion in the new store?

Proofreading is not the easiest job—I don’t want to count the number of mistakes that could lie unsuspectedly in these lines—but, clearly, it’s a fundamental task of somebody at Starbucks responsible for this graphic. If this person is not doing his or her job, who else is slacking off on the fundamentals? Who else is not making sure the water is hot but not too hot, the sandwiches are fresh, or the employee’s fingers are washed before they touch my Earl Grey teabag each Sunday morning when she puts it into my tall cup and pushes the lid on tight?