Nobody Buys “Product”

•July 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Here’s an uncharacteristically short post prompted by a well-meaning, but unfortunate exchange at my local Starbucks. Note: I was going to hide the name of the organization, but I realized that the narrative details that follow would identify the organization anyway.

Here’s What Happened:

A few minutes ago I sauntered (yes, I occasionally saunter) up to the service counter to place my order. Before I could request my usual summer beverage (black iced tea- unsweetened, in case you are curious), the effervescent and paradoxically bashful Barista offered a free sample of some drink. It was an iced concoction featuring their VIA Ready Brew and I must admit it was pretty tasty. If I could be bothered to drink coffee at home, I might pick up a pack or two. At any rate, the Barista did a pretty good job of attempting the up-sell. I was completely convinced she was just casually mentioning how much she enjoyed the stuff- it didn’t feel like a sales pitch at all, which is kind of the point. Then with a single giggly, breathless sentence she shattered the illusion. She said something about how she was “so committed to the product.”

That little bit of corporate-speak was enough to remind me that this person was up-selling me. Without the illusion, my brain was ready to once again engage in critical thinking and engaging in an information search enabling me to mount a defense against what was clearly a persuasion attempt. I was suddenly reminded that this person wasn’t sharing a personal story out of a human desire to connect with another human being. She wasn’t so enamored with the taste (or other product features) of those little vacuum-sealed packets of flash dried coffee that she spontaneously broke out into testimony in front of a near-random stranger. She was doing exactly what she was told she had to do; up-sell every customer.

The Analysis

Look, I get it. I was in sales before. Always Be Selling is the name of the game and up-sells are among the easiest sales you are going to have. I also understand that selling is unpleasant for most people and if you don’t compel non-professional and un-commissioned sales staff to up-sell they probably won’t do it (I know I wouldn’t). However, nothing makes your customers feel more like ambulatory wallets than being bombarded by compulsory sales messages at every point of contact. So let’s be clear about what we do and do not know about up-selling in retail environments.

  • Issues
    • People don’t like being the target of persuasion attempts.
    • Saying “NO” is unpleasant for most people and makes our affect more negative than it was before we said it.
    • Organizations seldom want to be associated with negative affect (a lesson governmental organizations have failed to grasp).
    • Anything compulsory has negative impact on employee job satisfaction, commitment and engagement.
    • We don’t “know” that up-selling is actually pushing sales numbers higher. Is anyone performing experiments comparing sales figures from up-selling and non up-selling groups?
    • Conclusion
      • So, up-selling has known negative affective consequences on your customers and employees, but it has unknown potentially positive consequences on sales figures. Are executives comfortable with this?
      • If you are comfortable with this, you have no business being an executive. Do your shareholders a huge favor and retire immediately.

One Last Note

Real humans do not use the word “product” and neither should you. Many sales decisions are driven in large part by affective considerations. This is particularly true of smaller consumer transactions. When we buy coffee, cupcakes, candies, movies, books, video games, etc., we are not doing so as a result of a thorough analysis of product features and cost-benefit analysis. We make those decisions based on emotions and heuristic processing. The word “product” effectively strips all these intangible “value adds” from what you are selling. Unless you are on the factory floor and talking to other manufacturing employees, never ever use “product” to refer to the object of your marketing or sales effort.

Similarly, a sales person’s commitment to a product is uninformative as to the merits of said product. Though most people may not actually know that there are several types of commitment, we do have an understanding that people can be committed to things for a wide variety of reasons, few of which inform our decision to buy something from you. Don’t tell me you are committed to something. Tell me that you like it. Tell me you love it and your life before the product was but a shell of what it is now. Tell me you have never experienced anything like it and that your friends and family thank you every day for introducing them to this product. If you tell me you are “committed” to something you are effectively telling me that you are telling me about this because you have to.


You’re not ugly. You’re off-brand.

•June 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

Some interesting reports surfaced last week about American Apparel’s unusual personnel selection practices. If reports have any merit, it would appear that the organization prefers to draw employees from the lofty ranks of the beautiful people and rejects applicants with mere mortal levels of physical attractiveness.

As might be expected, personnel selection largely on the basis of physical appearance offends the egalitarian sensibilities of many. It simply does not seem fair to hire employees on the basis of their good looks- a characteristic that is largely out of an individual’s control. Apparently applicant conformity to a very specific “look” is more important than their ability to sell mass-produced garments, deftly handle customer complaints, or even show up on time. I am under no illusion that I would be allowed to roam American Apparel’s apparently hallowed halls without a Hazmat suit (let’s I sprinkle my ugly all over their stuff), let alone sell a pair of their jeans (they do sell jeans, don’t they?), so I would normally be inclined to agree with this sentiment. However, since even the devil has a lawyer, I thought I would try to make the case that this selection “system” is not just evil for the sake of being evil. My arguments revolve largely around two considerations. Please read on; I am curious to see what my reader thinks (hi mom!). Heck, if I’m lucky, someone from American Apparel will read this and allow me to scrub their toilets for minimum wage (after store close, of course).

What a devil's advocate might look like.

The “Elitist Brand Management” defense:

So far as I understand, this is actually American Apparel’s primary justification. Employee directly engaging the trolls public are not just selling clothing. They are creating an image, a lifestyle. Since so much of American Apparel’s marketing strategy relies on creating an aspirational brand, it makes sense that their public-facing employees would be specifically selected for that capacity. In other words, American Apparel seems to be saying “why would you aspire to be like us, if we are just as ugly as you?” It’s not the most compelling reason to snub fatties, stoners, punks, scene kids, ravers, jocks, dweebs and dorks, but were I the chief executive of American Apparel’s marketing/sales division, I can totally see how this seems like a business necessity.

The “Everyone Else Does It” defense:

Thankfully, I have not actually heard any spokesperson try this one out. I can’t imagine it would improve their public relations situation. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that American Apparel is not alone in their appearance-based selection bias. Many other companies engage in just this type of practice, but no one has grilled them about it (at least not lately, or to any effect).  Mind you, I am not just talking about the usual suspects like Hooters or the ever-present Budweiser (substitute your choice of poison) girls. This type of selection practice is so wide-spread that we don’t even notice it; in fact it is accepted as normal.

For instance, visualize the last personal interview you endured. Did you show up in shorts, cut-off tee, jeans, or (my personal favorites) yoga pants? I suspect you did not. We tell ourselves that the selection agent’s preference for suits and ties are a matter of common sense, but let’s not lie to ourselves: These practices are also appearance-based selection. The difference here is not a matter of kind, but one of degree.

The same idea can be applied to organizations that “informally” reject applicants with visible tattoos and piercings. Of your company culture shuns facial hair for men (I’m looking at you, financial institutions), then you too are engaging in appearance-based selection. As a case in point, I once lost a job offer in part because the dress shirt under my suit was the wrong color. The corporate culture was so conservative that they only considered people that wore white or light blue dress shirts with a solid color tie.

The Verdict

Ugly is not a protected class. I am sorry, regular humans. As distasteful as it may be, American Apparel is not doing anything legally wrong (I’m ignoring reports that they only hire people of color for “the back”). Neither is it illegal to discriminate against people with tattoos, purple hair, an epic beard or subjectively “loud” neckwear. As to the question of morality, well that’s altogether more complicated. From at least one perspective, if we insist on “professional appearance” during interviews (or a dress code for job incumbents), we are allowing physical appearance to trump competencies and performance. No matter how much we appeal to the whole “common sense” idea, we are placing ourselves neatly inside a moral glass house.

Here’s my proposal then: Why don’t we stick to evaluating candidates with objective and valid selection tools (like nature intended)? Your selection decision will yield quantifiably better results. It’s not like we don’t have the techniques to accomplish this. A good job analysis, a few validated selection measures and a strategically aligned performance management system are all within the reach of most profitable companies. And if you don’t know anyone with the background to take care of that, I happen to know a guy that works for peanuts. I’ll even trim m beard for the interview.

Organizational Change By The Bullet

•February 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It has been a long time since I checked my RSS reader, so as you can imagine I had a few thousand entries to pick through. Thankfully, the vast majority of the items were news briefs I already reviewed elsewhere (or could live without apparently), or some spam poorly disguised as content.FYI:  For those of your producing marketing messages with zero original contributions, we can tell and are NOT amused.

Aside from making me ironically grateful for tons of spam (I didn’t have to read it), this quick review allowed me to notice a bit of a trend the bothered me enough to burden my readers about it. Increasing numbers of bloggers seem to be adopting the bullet approach to their posts. Whether we are talking about Employee Engagement, Leadership Development, Performance Management, Organizational Culture/Climate, or any of the other complex determinants of organizational success, we bloggers are attempting to influence and educate others about important organizational phenomena (and yes, sneak a marketing message in there somewhere). We aren’t going to win a single heart or mind with a few bullet points and a generic (if striking) image from istockphoto. I suppose this is fine for discussions amongst ourselves (other experts in these areas, yes I am including myself in this group), but are frequent, content-light entries really the way to accomplish our professional advocacy, thought leadership and marketing outreach goals?

My bias is towards less frequent, but richer posts. A few of my previous colleagues might attribute this preference to my academic leanings. In the “real world,” what isn’t bulleted goes unread. This is a pretty big assumptions and I have only a few bits of anecdotal evidence to help me decide one way or the other.

My stint in this “real world” I apparently just discovered  was littered with suggestions to abbreviate and simplify everything I ever wrote, be they blog posts, professional emails, training presentations, or technical reports, word were treated a bit like radiation. Once a victim was exposed to a certain amount, they could not be around anymore for fear of causing some type of horribly painful cancer. There was no paragraph ever written that could not be magically condensed into a five word bullet point.

So were we on track with this? Are organizational decision makers really allergic to paragraphs? Must we really adopt a sixth-grade vocabulary or risk a round of head-scratching of calamitous proportions? My gut reaction is that we were wrong. We in the consulting business were so afraid of losing a client that we sometimes forgot they were paying us to deliver value, not comfort. If we don’t compete on our demonstrable knowledge, experience and dare I say collective wisdom, then how are we distinguishing ourselves from each other? Everyone has access to the same few bullet styles, so I guess that just leaves competing on the basis of price; that’s not a business I care to be in.

Certainly, I ran across a few organizations where this was the case (at least that was the impression I came away with after working with some of its decision-makers). Ultimately, I believed that each of my client organizations and their agents deserved the benefit of the doubt. I assumed they were interested in obtaining the tools for positive organizational change and that they were literate enough to have earned at least a high-school diploma (or had access to a couple, at any rate).I figured that if I was wrong about this, the bankruptcy proceedings that must surly follow would save us the trouble of retaining them as long-term clients. However, in the all-too likely scenario that these individuals were more competent than we gave them credit for, we risked demonstrating just how incompetent we believed them to be (or worse yet, how incompetent we were).

So I have two messages to offer. First off, we must be acutely aware of not just the audience for our communications, but also their objectives. Complicated procedures, business critical concepts and valuable recommendations are seldom suited for comprehension via a few bullet points. If our interventions or analyses were really that simple, then our clients didn’t really need us in the first place and we have robbed them of value.

The second message goes out to the few organizational agents that insist on basing their decisions on the basis of a few bullet points. If you can’t be bothered to read a report, please don’t commission it in the first place. Save your organization a lot of time, money and effort. Organizational outcomes are the same whether you waste our time on a report you won’t read, or you don’t ask for it in the first place. In either case you are making decisions through the fog of ignorance. In neither case will you benefit from the years of training and experience that have yielded organizational insights you lack. I understand managers and executives are busy. I get it and sympathize with your crowded calendar, I really do. But you are charged with making informed decisions, not simply decisions. Your shareholders expect you to create a healthy, profitable organization, not random organizational interventions.

By the way bloggers, keep buying stock photos. I have a very talented friend you should patronize =)

Reflections on White Collar Work

•February 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I was crossing the elevated walkway to the parking garage after a busy, but successful day in the classroom when I passed by a man cleaning one of the walkway windows. The sun was shining liberally through the large glass panes through which one can spy on a small portion of the city of Milwaukee sheltered from the biting January wind. As I walked past him, I saw the care with which this man performed a task I had taken for granted since my mother first forced me to do it as a kid. He was intently focused on eliminating every streak from the window he was cleaning, despite the fact that no one was supervising him and he had dozens more to tackle. A smile crept upon my face as I watched him work. He radiated a sense of pride and professionalism I don’t often see in other professionals, myself included.

This change in affect started me thinking about how great it would be to feel that way about my work. Do my co-workers and I smile when we pour over a data set, or lose all sense of time when we type out a report? Come to think of it, yeah, we do! I didn’t realize it until I started writing this piece (seriously, this was going to be a very different post), but I can think of plenty of times when I was so focused on a spreadsheet that my fingers positively flew over my keyboard without a single conscious instruction from my brain. And I vividly remember those feelings of near-ecstasy when I solved a particularly recalcitrant data analysis problem, or devised a particularly clever way to phrase a concept with which I was struggling. I occasionally jumped out of my chair and did a little victory dance (<- this is a Family Guy clip, so beware).

This was an important realization for me because I occasionally feel guilty about being a white collar worker. Growing up I was surrounded by blue collar workers. They were some of the hardest-working people I have ever met, but they all wanted their children to be “something more.” They had great pride in a honest day’s work, but wanted their children to work with their minds, not with their hands and certainly not with their backs. Now that I have achieved what they wanted for us, I catch myself looking back wondering if I have abandoned them and the values that made them so special. I somehow internalized the idea that blue collar work is somehow more honest and real that whatever it is the rest of us do (thanks Mike Rowe). Seeing the sense of pride in the janitor cleaning the skywalk windows, I saw myself even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

Both blue collar and white collar (I am resisting using the term pink collar- but I am open to persuasion attempts) work is valuable and beautiful in their own ways. Both types of work require humans to reach deep within themselves to produce work we can be proud of; the kind of work we can speak of openly to our children and grandchildren. Of course, slackers can be found in both arenas.

By the way, anyone that uses the term “unskilled labor” has never seen the concentration of a janitor as he cleans a window and has most certainly never seen a waitress carry five armloads of dishes with only two hands.

Workplace Violence: Why We Can’t Eliminate It (But We Can Reduce It)

•November 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

No matter how you slice it, this has been a rough week for Americans. Yesterday, an Army Psychiatrist turned against the very people he was trained to care for. The nation was shocked. This was a major blow not just to Americans, but to its military, the mental health profession and the Muslim community. Before we could begin to process what had happened, we hear reports of yet another workplace shooting. This time, a Latino engineer apparently vented his frustrations against his former employer by shooting u an office filled with his former co-workers. What the hell?

Naturally, the people I have discussed this with express shock. More surprisingly, many of them seem frustrated and angry about these situations.

“Why does this keep happening?”

“How do we keep this from happening again?”

As you might expect, your friendly neighborhood Spiderman I/O psychologist has some thoughts to share. Sadly, these are not of the warm, fuzzy, comforting type. I am sorry, gentle reader. There is quite simply no real way of eliminating workplace violence. I can think of two major reasons for this being the case.

The first of these is perhaps the most important: Workplace violence is a specific expression of a more general human tendency to resort to violence. We attack others at work because we attack others period. This is not to say that violence in one context predicts violence in other settings; human behavior tendencies tend to not generalize across contexts the way we think they do. However, generally speaking, we are a violent organism and I can’t think of any place humans have not sullied with a little bloodshed. Our workplace is no more sacred than our homes, our schools, or churches.

The second reason we cannot eliminate workplace violence is less dramatic, but no less limiting. Before we develop initiatives to eliminate some type of human behavior, we must find good ways of predicting it. This means measurement of some sort. We have to measure individual’s capacity for future violence, history of violence, or other attitudes that are related to workplace violence. While this in and of itself is not a problem, as psychologists do this all the time, perfect psychological measurements are simply not possible (this may not always be the case, but it is for the current state of the art).

Every psychological measurement has error. All the sources of error are not always known, but we do know how much measurement error to expect. This is why psychology doesn’t deal in many absolutes, there simply aren’t many of them to be had. All organisms are complex, but none more so than a human.

Even if we developed ways to identify people who are likely to commit this type of atrocity, there will always be a certain number of people who are wrongly classified. Perhaps more importantly, a certain portion of the people we predict will not become violent in the workplace will give us an unpleasant surprise.

The key here is not to focus on the impossible. We cannot eliminate workplace violence. We can, however, reduce it. We may not be able to agree on what a “tolerable level” of workplace violence would be, but I think we can all agree that less is better. Toward that end, we have a legion of psychologists working on identifying the precursors to workplace violence. Their work may have real-world applications to help us reduce the danger of being assaulted at work. Before we start drafting a ton of policy that appeals to our common sense, let’s examine what science has to tell us. I am no expert in workplace violence, it has never appealed to the scientist in me for some reason, but I suspect some of the answers can be found in a few simple places:

  1. Treat your employees with dignity, respect and fairness.
  2. Ensure that your employees treat each other with dignity, respect and fairness.
  3. Take steps to minimize the economic impact of market fluctuations on individuals. In other words, losing one’s job should lead to losing one’s livelihood.
  4. Develop systems to identify employees facing economic, philosophical and psychological crises before they escalate.

Academics Are Important. Seriously!

•October 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Driving to Starbucks for my desperately needed Americano, I ended up stopping behind a bus. I have become so accustomed to the ubiquity of advertisements that I was surprised when I noted the bright red banner splayed on the bus’s rear. The big, bold, white letters read, “SR-22’s.” I presume somewhere beneath those letters was a telephone number one could cal to take advantage of said service, but I stopped reading (sorry, marketing people). I was lost in thought about the irony of advertizing a service that allows people to drive legally when they might otherwise be relegated to using mass transit (and reducing usage of mass transit, for that matter). At east, I think that’s what distracted me. I can’t say for certain, as the thought was pretty fleeting. I ended up thinking about the potential injustice of a system of governance that imposes a myriad of expenses on individuals and families that can least afford them. Fees associated with driving are pretty regressive in nature when you think about it. I could almost see the face of my old political science professor from my undergraduate days.

I sat in his class for a semester. Well, I was in the class for a semester technically; I could seldom be bothered to show up for class in those days. It’s a damned same too. I can think of few professors that influenced me more than he did. I think his name was Dr. Boquina. I never thanked him and I feel bad about that. Perhaps I can still correct that, but atonement is not the topic of this post. It is about the role academics can play in informing the institutions that shape our lives, especially our places of work.

You see, when Dr. Boquina wasn’t teaching young minds that would rather be hanging with their fraternity brothers (or sisters), or dealing with hangovers in the privacy of their own little apartments, he was writing about the role that opera played in political science. Or maybe his research was about the way political institutions influenced their operas. I’m not sure; I wasn’t a very engaged undergrad. Quite frankly, I didn’t care. I did not see how his research had any impact on the world in which we all struggled. Pure science absolutely had some intrinsic value to me even then, but until recently I believed that the real value could only be realized until that pure science was applied to the real world. I think I may have been at least partially mistaken.

Academics are valuable to organizations because they have the time to really think about issues organizations face. It may not seem like a whole lot, but taking time to think an issue all the way through is too often a luxury in the field.  In practice, we often seek answers that are palatable and digestible by client organizations. Similarly, conducting appropriate research for a particular solution requires more time than many are willing to spend, so we turn to self-appointed experts that speak with confidence born of insufficient insight. Before any plan is approved, it must travel through various stakeholders, decision-makers, committees and focus groups, most of which lack the expertise to make positive contributions to the solution at hand. Yet, they make “contributions” anyway. What results are programs and interventions that may or may not work, but have sufficient buy-in. In other words, we offer solutions with potentially no value other than that they are found acceptable by a bunch of non-experts.

This is why we must take some time to listen to academics. Believe it or not, practitioners and academics share many of the same goals. We all seek to understand organizations, and develop interventions to make them work better for everyone involved.  It is premature to dismiss their knowledge as impractical or out of touch. In my experience, we dismiss this research out of hand, without actually reading it. Remember, academics can examine the same challenges we do, but they do so within different constraints. Academics can seek “optimum” solutions. They can examine a problem in its entirety, where practitioners can’t.  Academics have something of remarkable value to offer, in most cases at no cost to us. So why do we insist in ignoring their knowledge?

We must look within our own organizations and accept the idea that we may not have all the answers. We have to acknowledge the scary fact that experience is not the only answer. Experience helps us with situations we have encountered before, but it can lead us astray in novel situations. Continuing with business as usual serves no one’s interest.

Layoff Rumors and Condolences

•September 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

It looks like an organization I am familiar with is about to announce a new round of layoffs. To my brothers and sisters, I offer my best wishes. If the rumors are true, you are about to feel pain with which too many of us are familiar.

Things will work themselves out. In the mean time, enjoy some well-earned rest.