How to sabotage your own reputation

When you buy a ticket for an airline flight, what do you think you’re buying?

The ability to travel from A to B at the date and time on your ticket?

Not according to British Airways.

(Regular readers of this blog may sigh to hear me bring up that name again – but bear with me. I promise there’s a point…)

When I complained to BA recently about bumping me off a flight back from Texas, they handled it every bit as badly as the original incident (which is to say, they ignored it completely, until I sent a second stroppy letter to their CEO – at which point, they offered a grudging apology and a few quid off another flight).

The most interesting part was that they denied liability for any losses caused by the delay, because they said they weren’t contractually obliged to carry me on the flight they’d sold me the ticket for.

This didn’t seem to make sense, so I checked twice, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t. They said: ‘BA reserves the right not to let you on the flight if we’ve oversold it.’

In other words, when you buy a ticket from BA, what you’re actually buying is the ability to travel from A to B at a time that suits the airline, even if it totally disrupts your own plans.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re counting on BA to get you to a meeting, or a concert, or a family wedding on time, you’d better hope you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bumped off when they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane.

You might think this is a rather odd policy for an airline that claims to pride itself on customer experience.

Until you remember it’s the same airline that, this week, got hit with a £183m fine for letting hackers access its customers’ confidential data.

‘This fine isn’t fair’, whined BA’s management. ‘We’re all about customers – we’ve just spent loads on some new bag drops at Heathrow. How can we be the bad guys here?’

And that’s the point. BA just don’t get it.

You can have the best bag-drops in the world. The fanciest menus. The softest cushions.

And none of that matters if you can’t get the basic elements of customer experience right. Such as taking people where they want to go when you said you would. And not exposing their personal and financial data to criminals.

If your customers can’t trust you, nothing else matters – and, if BA really cared about their customers’ experience, they’d know that.

But they don’t. And that’s why they’re now £183m worse off.

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

It’s not about the camera

The word ‘great’ gets used too freely these days. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Don McCullin is a great photo-journalist.

There’s a retrospective of his work on display in Tate Britain until 6 May. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to go.

The pictures are extraordinarily powerful. As well as the war photography for which he’s best known (Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland), there are poignant, gritty images of life in the industrial Northeast and in London’s East End, where McCullin grew up.

What makes the pictures so powerful is their ability to tell a story. McCullin’s gift is for identifying and capturing small moments that somehow express a much larger truth.

Like the picture above, taken at a protest in Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. Hundreds of photographers were covering the event and they all got plenty of pictures that showed the police and the protesters facing off. But only McCullin got this shot.

That’s partly about being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly one of McCullin’s skills. But it’s mostly about empathy – about being able to look at a scene with the eyes of a human being, rather than the eyes of a technician.

‘I use the camera like I use a toothbrush,’ McCullin once said.  ‘The most important photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same shots. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

That’s a pretty good definition of how communication works.

You can have the best technology in the world, the coolest graphics, the funkiest presentation – and none of it will make much difference.

Because what really matters is the story.

 

Why not?

If you were born after 1980, when you hear the name ‘Buzzcocks’, you probably think of a slightly arch musical quiz show on BBC2. (If you were born after 2000, BBC2 was a channel on a thing called television. Google it).

If you grew up in 1970s Britain, on the other hand, there’s a good chance the name will fill you with a warm glow of nostalgia.

Even if you didn’t really like punk, it would have been hard not to be drawn to the infectious energy of the Buzzcocks’ output. Songs like ‘What do I get?’, ‘Orgasm addict’ and ‘Whatever happened to…?’. Ear-worming riffs. Whip-sharp, slightly edgy lyrics. Cocky, confident posturing. All wrapped up with a knowing grin and a three-minute play-length. It was about as close as you get to perfect teenage music.

So today feels like a pretty sad day to me.

Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, was the man who formed and led the Buzzcocks and wrote all their best songs.

He was also a natural entrepreneur, who basically invented the idea of independent record labels.

When the Buzzcocks couldn’t get a deal with one of the big record companies who dominated the industry at the time, Pete talked family and friends into lending the band enough money to start pressing their own vinyl EPs, which they sold in the Virgin record store in Manchester.

20 years before the internet was invented, the Buzzcocks went viral through sheer energy and bloody-minded determination: playing gigs, building an audience, hustling record stores and, eventually, elbowing their way into the mainstream.

Their best-known number – ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’ – was a brilliant reinvention of that old pop cliché, the love song.

It was also unusual, at that time, in being written as a love song to another man. While Elton John was coyly getting married to a woman, Pete was quite comfortable talking openly about his bisexuality.

Pete Shelley broke the mould. He made his band successful without any help from the music industry behemoths.

Along the way, he helped to democratise popular music – and pave the way for a much more eclectic and authentic soundtrack to my (and many other peoples’) youths than those behemoths would ever have allowed.

And he did it all with a smile on his face.

So, if you want a template for authenticity, creativity and sheer can-do determination, my advice is to google ‘Buzzcocks’ and keep scrolling down until you get to the band.

Let the giraffes out

A few years ago, a little girl named Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s about their bread. This is what her letter said:

Dear Sainssssssssssssbbbbbbbbbbbbbburyyyys,

Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?

It should be called giraffe bread.

Love from Lily Robinson (age 3 ½)

When you look at the product, you can see that she’s got a point. Lots of spots, no stripes: definitely much more like a giraffe than a tiger.

Lily’s letter ended up in the in-tray of a man named Chris King, a manager in Sainsbury’s customer service team. He liked the letter and he wrote one back in a similar style:

Dear Lily

Thanks so much for your letter. I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a loooong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.

I really liked reading your letter so I thought I would send you a little present. I’ve put a £3 gift card in with this letter. If you ask your mum or dad to take you to Sainsbury’s, you could use it to buy some of your own tiger bread (and maybe if mum and dad say it’s OK, you can get some sweeties too!) Please tell an adult to wait 48 hours before using this card.

I’m glad you wrote to us and hope you like spending your gift card. See you in store soon.

Yours sincerely, Chris King (age 27 ½)

Customer Manager

Lily’s mother was so delighted with this charming reply that she posted it on her blog. It quickly went viral, was picked up by the media and earned Sainsbury’s a lot of very positive publicity.

What’s interesting about this story is that Chris King was not acting in line with what was expected of him as a Sainsbury’s customer service manager when he wrote that letter. Quite the opposite.

The customer service team is there to deal with customer concerns and protect Sainsbury’s reputation as efficiently and effectively as possible. Being brutal, it’s about keeping the noise down.

Lily’s letter wasn’t noise: it wasn’t a business risk and it didn’t really require much attention. He could have just written a standard reply along the lines of ‘thank you for your interest in Sainsbury’s – please find enclosed a gift token.’ That would have been the correct thing to do; the efficient, standard, procedurally-compliant thing to do.

But Chris King didn’t do that. He wanted to be more than just efficient and professional. He wanted to respond like a human being. And, by doing that, he made Sainsbury’s seem human and likeable, too.

Not because of their procedures but in spite of them.

We’re all in this together (yeah, right)

It’s a funny word, collaboration.

Seventy years ago, it was the worst kind of insult. It meant you’d betrayed your country and helped the enemy. If you were identified as a collaborator in post-liberation Paris in 1945, you’d be marched through the street with your head shaved, so your neighbours could jeer at you and throw rotten fruit.

But times have changed and the word has recovered a more positive meaning. Politicians now speak proudly of ‘cross-party collaboration’, fading music stars ‘collaborate’ with edgy hip-hop producers – and big companies want to unlock a brave new world of creativity by ‘making it easy for our people to collaborate and share ideas’.

The trouble is: why would you want to?

I mean, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the company. They want their employees to be more ‘open’ and ‘giving’, to embrace the hackathon culture of hip Silicon Valley tech companies; to tap into a sparkling well of innovation and value.

But it’s a lot less easy to see what’s in it for everyone else. Employees who do collaborate often find it doesn’t benefit them – quite the reverse, in fact. They see their ideas co-opted by others and used as a stepping stone to promotions and rewards that pass them by. So why bother?

The problem is that we want collaboration, but we encourage competitiveness.

We want people to work as a team, but we reward individuals.

In its most recent annual survey, the High Pay Centre noted that, between 2016 and 2017, the average annual pay of a FTSE 100 boss rose by 11% to £3.93m. That’s roughly 145 times more than their average employee earns.

Now, as it happens, I know a few FTSE 100 bosses – and they are (mostly) smart and charismatic and capable people. Not the uncaring, out-of-touch corporate fat cats lampooned in the tabloid press.

But the point I always try to make to them is that, if you really want people to collaborate, engage and share their best ideas, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and appreciated for doing it.

Because, if you don’t, it won’t be long till collaboration is a dirty word again.

Leading the change

I spent last Saturday at The Big Yak, the self-styled ‘unconference’ for internal comms folk. (If you haven’t been, make sure you wangle a ticket for the next one – by some way the best event in the comms calendar).

In amongst the questions, ideas, debates and free beer (thanks, Facebook), there were two big themes that kept cropping up: culture and leadership.

Specifically, how do we make our business feel more authentic? And how do we persuade our leaders to communicate in a more structured and engaging way?

It was sobering to realise how many leaders of large, public organisations still don’t think communication is a priority. Especially in a week when Theresa May finally acknowledged that her response to the Grenfell disaster (not talking to anyone about it) had been a huge mistake. If even Theresa May has figured this out, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

It was even more sobering to realise how many senior business leaders still think ‘culture’ is something you can buy by the yard from a branding consultancy. Especially in a week when House of Fraser and New Look joined the ranks of former high street titans who are unravelling faster than they can explain their relevance to a generation that knows it has plenty of choice.

All over this country, there are great big organisations that are kidding themselves they can blag their way to a sustainable future with a swanky logo refresh and a ‘tone of voice’ manual.

They’re wrong.

The only way they can engage people (customers or employees) is by creating an environment where people feel good about their organisation: happy to work for it, happy to buy from it.

And the only way to do that is if the senior leaders of the organisation behave in an honest, open and human way (rather than just talking about it and then fudging the figures to keep the shareholders happy).

The good news is that, when they do finally figure it out, they’ve got an army of great communicators to help them do it.