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My friend Kent Dicken at Shared IDiz had a great blog post last week that involved the coolness of bananas. That’s right. Imagine if you were the marketer for Chiquita. You need to somehow differentiate your banana. Go.

Any ideas? Think about it. I’ll wait.

They did something very simple. Very random, and it changed the way I buy bananas. Success.

Yesterday I was listening to the local news and a reporter, Stephanie Strickland struck her own version of Olympic gold when she was able to get the attention of Snowboarder Shaun White. How? With a banana.

As she tells the story, she knew there was no way she could get an interview with this icon, and there were literally thousands of photographers and reporters that would be waiting for him outside the venue. So…..she got some poster board, a  few Canadian stickers and a banana. She wrote “Sign this Banana” and waited. It worked.

Shaun walked over and said “You want me to sign a banana?”

“Yes, please.”

And so he did.

Then he posted a picture of it on his Facebook page that simply said “I had to sign this banana.” 4,582 Facebook fans agreed.

Lessons learned. Shiny happy people on your marketing stuff does not differentiate you. So stop doing it! Think like a banana. Be the banana. Find your inner banana.

It started as a movement. An idea. Word of mouth among the target audience built it into an event. A thing. A space was opened. Plans were laid. Meetings were held. Money was gathered. Pooled really. No, this isn’t another story of how credit unions entered the US marketplace – but it could be.

Instead this is how a group of Gen Yers took to the nation’s capital this week to claim their spot at the legislative table during one of the most important and tumultuous times in credit union history.

Led by Brent Dixon and Matt Davis (aka modern day Ed Filene and Roy Bergengren) Crash the GAC is a perfect example of collaboration, communication and innovation.

If you want to see the power of social media. Twitter #GAC10.

If you want to see the power of viral marketing and some pretty kick-ass SWAG, check out CU SWAG’s Crash the GAC t-shirt contest.

If you want to see what a grassroots movement looks like in 2010 – see the line-up of speakers that generously donated their time to this cause. The original cause – people helping people.

And, if you want to see Brent Dixon rocking a tie, check out this blog.

I was excited to see in my google alerts this morning a local story about switching from a bank to a credit union.

Brent Hunsberger of The Oregonian authors a personal finance blog called “It’s Only Money.” He is very thorough is his research. I learned a ton from reading his post – here’s just a sampling:

Last week, classic credit cards issued through Oregon credit unions, on average, charged 11.2 percent interest, according to Datatrac, a market research firm. Bank-issued cards charged 17.2 percent.

If you love those kind of stats, you need to read his entire post.

He plugs shared branching and the Co-Op network, he lets banks say we have an unfair advantage (ad nauseum) with the federal income tax break, and he even got an opinion from an Illinois State University professor on the impact of the economy on some credit unions.

But the most interesting part of the piece? His list of pros and cons for joining a credit union.

The pros are what you’d expect. They’re lending, their rates are better, they’re easier to join, etc.

But the cons list included:

Some are acting like banks.

OnPoint Community Credit Union of Portland and First Technology Credit Union of Beaverton each boast more than $2 billion in assets and hold more deposits than any Oregon-based bank, except Umpqua Bank.

That’s it.

The writer is a member of a credit union (he doesn’t say which one), so he offered this con as his personal opinion.

Does this mean bigger isn’t better?

I’ve been with United Airlines for 10 years now. Yesterday I logged my 971,105th mile. And those are miles sitting in a damn seat on United. Paid trips. Not buying stuff at the mall. Nine hundred seventy one thousand one hundred and five miles.

Each year you have to re-qualify for your “status.” I get that. Last year I fell short of the 100K status I’ve enjoyed. BUT, once I hit one million miles (very soon) I will have lifetime status. Never have to re-qualify.

I have goals. I will log my 1 millionth mile with them.

Life in the Premier line isn’t bad. I still get to board the plane before most of the passengers, enjoy the express security lane and they consider all of my miles (lifetime) when I am on the wait list for a first class upgrade.

What I miss the most – the private number for 100K passengers. Even though I still know the number (have it memorized) the computer asks “To make sure we direct your call to the right place, please enter, or speak your mileage plus number…” And so off to India I go.

I was just told that to change a flight (which, btw, I tried to do online but it said I had to call) they had to call the service desk to manually recalculate the price. It would be about 10-15 minutes to do that – did I want to hold?

Yes. I will hold. I really need to change this flight. And so I listen to the Gershwin tune – over and over and over again…..on speaker phone….cutting in and out as I type furiously.…giving me hope that some United employee with a calculator will tell me how much more money I have to give them to fly in a middle seat on their lousy airline.

It’s hard to describe my frustration. And I thought writing this post would help, but I realize it’s really not. Only adding to it.

Because you see – no one at United cares. Even if I complain to the person who eventually will answer my call. Nothing will change. Sure, I could boycott them – that’ll show them.

On average I spend $45,000 on airline tickets per year. So you could say I’m coming up on a cool half million to fly one million miles with United. You’d think someone in their accounting department is doing the math.

Oh, and I just heard the breaking news – Tiger Woods is going to apologize for his behavior. Wow. That’s a relief. The world is right again……..

I think a lot of people hate the iPad because of what it represents. A dramatic shift in how we view the world. It’s not that we love the world we’re in as much as we simply hate change.

I’m getting ready to lead a group of credit union executives through a day of strategic thinking. Looking ahead to 2020 and visualizing the world. I’m not trying to get them to predict the future – I’ll leave that up to economists, astrologers and Oprah– but rather coax them into thinking like Steve Jobs and creating their future.

I googled “future of banking” and this popped up on the first page. B of A’s failure beta blog. Think about it.

Now that I’m living back in the Northwest in the land of green and black (Starbucks) instead of pink and orange (you can’t swing a dead cat in Long Island without hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts) I am loving the call of the Siren more than ever.

I grew up with this company. It has been a part of my working life for 25 years. I can’t even remember life without it.

It was 1989. I jumped in my 1973 VW Super Beetle (named Howard) and noticed my tank was hovering on the big “E.” Quick look at my watch revealed I only had time for one stop – was it going to be gas or coffee? Do you ever look at your fuel gauge at a different angle to see what you want to see? This was one of those days.

So I’m off to my Starbucks. When I pull up, it’s raining (of course) and I can see the back of a suited body pressed against the glass front door. It’s that crowded in there. Another glance at my watch…..I might be late, but I gotta have my fix.

As soon as I walk through the door, the aroma hits me. Coffee is the great neutralizer of all manner of funk. Think of why the perfume counter has you take a snort of coffee beans in-between smelling fragrances. It purifies your soul.

The lighting in Starbucks is kind. Soft, indirect lighting. The music is always perfect. As I stand in line, I am tempted by the pastry offerings. Lined up like little sugar soldiers begging to be adopted. I vow to take the stairs. As I approach the counter, ready to rhythmically rattle of my drink specifics, I notice the new Starbucks bear has arrived. Oh, hello! And the music I’ve been enjoying – the ultimate coffee shop mix tape – right there for only $9.95!

I pay, tip (of course) and step aside to the expecting coffee corral. One by one our names are called to receive the gift of goodness that is Starbucks. With bear, scone, music and coffee in hand, I fumble for my keys, slip in the driver’s seat, turn the engine over. I may run out of gas, but that’s okay – I’ve just created my own little third place in my car while I wait for AAA to rescue me.

Today, there’s a wonderful little Starbucks next door to my credit union. I have to make a deposit, I have plenty of gas in my 2008 VUE (named Sunkist) and plenty of time to write my book (supposed to be on the east coast working with a credit union but the snow cancelled me). I don’t collect the little bears anymore, I have a huge collection of Starbucks City Mugs from my travels. And I’m looking forward to the free WiFi and the complimentary “pick of the week” iTunes download.

See – you can go home again.

For those of you that remember my precious Miss Mavis, you know that’s not possible. But, she’s a close second. Her new book, titled “I Love You More Than My Dog” takes a new and fresh look at what she calls beloved companies.

Trader Joe’s, Container Store, LUSH, Netflix, IKEA. What do these entirely different brands have in common? They are irrational. Their love of customers is irrational. From a CFO perspective, some of the things they do to delight customers makes no mathematical sense. But they cannot help themselves. They decided to love customers – every day.

Her book is centered around the five decisions made by beloved companies:

  1. Beloved companies decide to believe.
  2. Beloved companies decide with clarity of purpose.
  3. Beloved companies decide to be real.
  4. Beloved companies decide to be there.
  5. Beloved companies decide to say sorry.

Last week at the NPS Conference in NYC, Jeanne Bliss invited three people, highlighted in her book,  to join her on stage to tell their stories. First up was Christopher Zane, president and founder of Zane’s Cycles. He started this company when he was 16 years old and his love of bicycling has now turned into an extremely profitable enterprise. He believes that people are good and can be trusted. So when someone comes in to look at a bike, his store encourages them to take it for a spin. With no collateral (like wallet, car keys, etc) required to leave behind. Sure, about 6 bikes a year get stolen. But he did the math. The losses he takes for those six jerks versus the love he creates for the 99.9% of his customers by deciding to believe, makes mathematical sense.

Next up, Fred Taylor from Southwest Airlines (SWA). He is the Chief Apology Officer for Southwest Airlines. Even though SWA has consistently received the lowest ratio of complaints per passengers boarded of all major US carriers – when you employee 35,000 people that fly more than 3100 flights a day – stuff happens.

They decided to be real and to say they are sorry. They start each day with MOM. The Morning Overview Meeting. Weather, staffing issues, mechanical, anything that might get in the way of passengers delight, they are proactively working it.

I was supposed to fly through Dulles tomorrow on my way to Jacksonville. I got a text page from United that said simply “cancelled” and gave me a number to call. I called and got a recording that said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “We are experiencing crazy high call volume and can’t help you right now……good bye.”

The folks at SWA are busy responding with customized messages to those passengers that are screwed.  Their goal is to reach the customer electronically before the customer has to reach out to them to lodge a complaint. You can’t control the weather, but you can control how you react to it. At SWA it’s simple:

  1. They acknowledge the situation.
  2. They apologize for the experience they have had.
  3. They make some gesture to help regain the customer’s trust.

When is the last time you proactively apologized to a member?

And finally, Wayne Peacock from USAA. USAA is a membership organization (much like a credit union) serving over 7 million members of the US military. They provide legendary service that focuses on one word: empathy. Their products are insurance and financial services. Their customers are fighting everyday for our freedom.

A big part of their culture is understanding intimately their customer’s world. So in new employee orientation, they spend a day wearing a soldier’s uniform complete with those big boots, and eating MREs – meals ready to eat. They need to empathize with their customer.

The session concluded with Jeanne donning the soldier’s gear and dining on MRE fettucini. A powerful visual and reminder to us all – to walk a mile in our customer’s shoes and ask “Do we make it easy to do business with us?”

In this economy, we’d better find a way.

I’m sitting in New York listening to Richard Owen, co-author of Answering the Ultimate Question. He has just asked for two volunteers from the audience of 450 people, from 20 countries and 40 of the United States. Their job. To hold up a sign. One says “What I Expect,” the other “What I Want.”

He proceeded to illustrate a very simple exercise in creating promoters. Many companies have a goal to exceed customer’s expectations, very few put any real muscle behind that goal. Many will try (dabble) and end up in the big fat nebulous bell curve of, satisfied. One of the biggest problems, we don’t know what people want, and we really don’t care.

Consider the airline industry. Customers expectations got lowered (dude holding the “what I expect” sign took a step to the left) in the past two years by a new policy – charging for bags. One big player starts it (American) and everyone follows. Customers don’t want these fees (dude holding the “what I want” takes a giant step to the right) but now because everyone is doing it – expectations get lowered, complaints slow, but no love is gained. No promoters = no profit.

Except at Southwest Airlines. They have always been focused on what people want. People want to get to their destination on time. That’s why they have the unique boarding process. No one can turn a plane like SWA. The flight attendants clean the planes, mechanics only have to service one type of plane, and point to point routes dodge the nightmare that is hub and spoke and snow.

The other airlines are creating even more delays with their bag policy. People are choosing to carry-on all kinds of unwieldy bags to avoid the fee.

Southwest Airlines does not have to charge for bags.  And by doing nothing, they have become what customers want. Truly exceeding expectations. They are having a blast telling that story with these clever commercials.

They just posted a fourth quarter profit and logged their 37th consecutive year of profitability. It’s very simple. Stay focused on the customer, listen to what they want, get out of the zone of tolerance and have the balls to stick with something.

Richard just closed with a great quote from the late great Sam Walton (and I’m paraphrasing here)

Rule #10 – Swim upstream. You should go the other way and ignore the conventional wisdom. If everyone is going one way, there’s a good chance you’ll find success in the other direction. Beware –  people will flag you down and tell you you’re going the wrong way – so swim faster….

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February 2010