The Communication Illusion

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw

I read that quote the other day, and it kind of blew me away. How often, as managers, executives, marketers and team members do we send forth messages and assume effective communication has taken place? I know that I personally have been guilty of spewing forth my thoughts and directives in ways that were clear to me but were not nearly clear enough to my audience. In the information age in which we live, it seems communication is the majority of what we do on a daily basis, so I thought I would take this space to explore my thoughts on the topic. I hope to learn from your thoughts, as well.

Over the weekend, I did a bit of reading on communication. As I read Wikipedia’s article on communication, I was reminded of the technical breakdown of communication I learned in my college Organizational Behavior class (see image to the right). While those explanations are useful, I really wanted to think about communication in more practical terms. While communication between individuals is very important in business, effective one-to-many communication can often be extremely challenging.

Technology may impede quality

Ironically, while communications technology advances have improved the speed, frequency and reach of our communications, they may have effectively reduced the quality of our communications because communication via phone, IM, Twitter, texting, etc. takes out so much subtlety, nuance, and context.

Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris performed a famous study to determine the proportion of the three major parts of human face-to-face communication: content, tone, and body language. According to the research:

  • 55% of impact is determined by body language—postures, gestures, and eye contact,
  • 38% by the tone of voice
  • 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process.

Although there is some controversy surrounding the exact numbers because of the scope of their research,  clearly communication is significantly aided by elements like body language and tone of voice that are not present in the forms of written communication that have become dominant because of technology innovations. Even phone conversations are missing the all important body language component.

But it’s not practical to communicate with everyone one-on-one, in person. So, how do we communicate more effectively and avoid the illusion that communication has taken place when it hasn’t?

“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

That is the subtitle of Words That Work by Frank Luntz, and those words are an important reminder of both the meaning of effective communication and the inherent challenges of achieving it. Our audiences bring with them their own unique past experiences, biases, cultures and perceptions (and frankly, so do we). When you think about it, it’s amazing we’re ever able to communicate anything at all. Because Luntz is a well-known Republican pollster and a somewhat controversial figure, I hesitated to reference him for fear politics would get in the way of my message here. But many of his communication tips transcend politics and make good sense for business communications, so I wanted to share some of his tips that I find very helpful (and decidedly non-partisan):

  • Simplicity: Use Small Words
  • Brevity: Use Short Sentences
  • Consistency Matters
  • Sound and Texture Matter
  • Provide Context and Explain Relevance

I would add two things to this list of communication tips: repetition and listening.

In my experience, repetition is critically important in any managerial or executive communication. Sometimes repetition means saying the same thing over and over, and sometimes it means slightly altering the core message to ensure the message is cutting through the biases, perspectives, etc. Either way, the key is understanding that saying something once is simply not enough given all the previously mentioned obstacles each message must hurdle.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Just as great leaders are also great followers, I believe the best communicators are also the best listeners. By truly dedicating ourselves to listening to our audiences, whether they are staff, peers, bosses or customers, we can better understand their perspectives, biases and cultural influences. We can learn to tailor our message so that it is heard as we meant it. I believe great communication takes great listening, and great listening takes conscious effort and a huge amount of discipline, but I also believe the return on the listening investment is the ability to communicate more effectively. And the ability to communicate more effectively is priceless.

Man, it’s not easy. But the more ways we find to ensure what our audiences hear is what we intended to say, the more effectively we will communicate and eliminate the communication illusion.

I really want to learn from you. What communications lessons have you learned? What tips do you have to share?



The Case to Cross It Up

For any retailer with more than one channel, becoming cross-channel is a critically important way to fully leverage its assets to provide a greater experience to its customers, which ultimately leads to more customer retention, brand loyalty and, of course, sales and profits.

In an effort to highlight and tackle the issues associated with implementing cross channel strategies, Kasey Lobaugh of Deloitte Consulting and Jim Bengier of Sterling Commerce pulled together a Cross Channel Retail Consortium of retail thought leaders that included executives from a cross section of retailers as well as some industry analysts, vendors and yours truly for a day of discussion this past Sunday on the strategy, tactics and challenges of implementing effective retail cross channel experiences for our customers.

Before I delve deeper into my thoughts on the day, it’s probably worth defining “cross channel.” Many times, “multi-channel” and “cross-channel” are used interchangeably, but I don’t think they’re the same thing at all. “Multi-channel” is simply operating in more than one channel while “cross-channel” is leveraging the strengths of each channel to create an overall customer experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s 1+1=3.

Sounds great, right? So, why aren’t more retailers doing it?

Three basic themes emerged from the group:

  1. Lack of executive and board level understanding of the value of customers transacting in multiple channels (and, conversely, the negative affects that occur when customers are prevented from interacting with a brand across channels)
  2. Lack of incentives for various employees, from executive to front line staff, to encourage shopping across channels
  3. IT systems limitations

So, let’s tackle these issues one-by-one.

1. Lack of executive and board level understanding of the value of creating cross channel experiences

The group agreed that getting the buy-in of the CEO is critical. No one believed, and I certainly agree, that a strategy as all-encompassing as creating a cross channel experience has any chance at success without the CEO actively driving it. So, just get the CEO to support it. Easy, right? Not so much.

In my experience, the best way to convince a CEO of the value of any strategy is to show him or her how it will maximize profits. One retailer in the room was able to show the value of customers shopping in multiple channels pretty easily by tracking customer transactions in all channels through a loyalty program. Others were able to do the same in various degrees, but the general concern was the potentially high cost of discounts provided in exchange for such information. (I have lots to say about loyalty programs, but I’ll save that for another post). Janet Sherlock of AMR Research extolled the virtues of emailed receipts as an environmentally attractive and altogether less costly alternative option to harness ID’d transactions. I find that proposal extremely intriguing.

While transactions tell us about customers who completed transactions in each channel, they don’t tell us about customers who researched online to buy in store or customers who took a look at products in store before buying online, and the group longed for an industry standard metric that could be used to assess the amount of sales influenced by the another channel.

Another driver of CEO support is attention to the issue from the Board. One retailer said all it took was a bad experience by one 17-year-old granddaughter of a Board member to get the issue front and center. Funny how life is, isn’t it? Who could imagine that one young girl’s frustration can drive a strategic shift in a major national retailer? But maybe the lesson here is about the importance of getting decision makers’ heads out of the financial spreadsheets and into real-life experiences to help them understand how their companies are (or are not) serving their customers.

2. Lack of incentives for various employees to encourage shopping across channels

One retailer described the challenges of focusing on customer experience at a retailer that is driven by “an imperialist merchant organization.” (There was no way I could write this piece without including that quote.) Merchants, by their nature, tend to care a lot more about product than customers. But in the end, they’re generally heavily driven by sales, margin and turn metrics. There are many cross channel strategies can be implemented to help merchants drive these key metrics.

For example, the web has many selling capabilities that are nearly impossible to achieve in store because of physical constraints. Customer reviews are extremely popular online and customers regularly report using them to make purchase decisions (both online and in store); however, they are very difficult to make available in a physical environment. Some retailers are making them available via in-store kiosks, but the kiosks are a large capital investment to make if they’re not already available. But just about everyone’s got a computer in his or her pocket or purse these days. Let’s make more use of mobile phone technology to give people access to customer reviews, recommendations, wish lists, gift registries, etc. in store while they’re standing in front of the products.

There are also advantages in stores than can be leveraged online. Many retailers have incredible experts in their stores. How can those experts build content that can be used by customers and other employees alike to improve the shopping experience? How about security? Should retailers start to look for ways to accept payment in their stores for web orders when customers aren’t comfortable paying online? Believe it or not, there are still a lot of customers out there who aren’t comfortable using a credit card online, and in this economy there are more and more customers who aren’t comfortable or aren’t able to use credit cards period. But they’re still interested in buying from us, and we should find every way we can to help them do so.

3. IT systems limitations

There’s no question that IT legacy systems cause us a lot of trouble when we try to integrate our customer experiences. But I also wonder how many times we fall back too easily on such an excuse. I’ve written about my Tree Stump Theory previously, and it’s certainly prevalent in this case. We have a lot of compelling reasons why systems prevent us from implementing such key capabilities as the ability to accept returns of online purchases in store. But guess what? Our customers don’t know those reasons, and even if they did, they don’t care. While many retailers have found ways around the returns issues, just as many still have not. Either way, the case to prioritize such efforts should rely on some of the same techniques described above to make compelling cases to the CEO and the incent imperialist merchants.

Pure play retailers, and especially Amazon, continue to grow at rapid rates by pulling more and more market share. Multi-channel retailers have assets in their stores that pure plays don’t, but it’s going to take implementing true cross channel strategies to leverage those assets in a competitively advantageous way. Let’s cross it up!

What cross-channel strategies have you implemented or are considering implementing? What are the barriers to cross-channel in your organization?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



Are web analytics like 24-hour news networks?

We have immediate access to loads of data with our web sites, but just because we can access lots of data in real time doesn’t mean we should access our data in real time. In fact, accessing and reporting on the numbers too quickly can often lead to distractions, false conclusions, premature reactions and bad decisions.

I was attending the web-analytics-focused Semphonic X Change conference last week in San Francisco (which, by the way, was fantastic) where lots of discussion centered around both the glories and the issues associated with the mass amount of data we have available to us in the world of the web.

Before heading down for the conference breakfast Friday morning (September 11), I switched on CNN and saw — played out in all their glory on national TV — the types of issues that can occur with reporting too early on available data.

It seems CNN reporters “monitoring video” from a local TV station saw Coast Guard vessels in the Potomac River apparently trying to keep another vessel from passing. They then monitored the Coast Guard radio and heard someone say, “You’re approaching a Coast Guard security zone. … If you don’t stop your vessel, you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately.” And, for my favorite part of the story, they made the decision to go on air when they heard someone say “bang, bang, bang, bang” and “we have expended 10 rounds.” They didn’t hear actual gun shots, mind you, they heard someone say “bang.” Could this be a case of someone wanting the data to say something it isn’t really saying?

In the end, it turned out the Coast Guard was simply executing a training exercise it runs four times a week! Yet, the results of CNN’s premature, erroneous and nationally broadcast report caused distractions to the Coast Guard leadership and White House leadership, caused the misappropriation of FBI agents who were sent to the waterfront unnecessarily, led to the grounding of planes at Washington National airport for 22 minutes, and resulted in reactionary demands from law enforcement agencies that they be alerted of such exercises in the future, even though the exercises run four times per week and those alerts will likely be quickly ignored because they will become so routine.

In the days when we only got news nightly, reporters would have chased down the information, discovered it was a non-issue and the report would have never aired. The 24-hour networks have such a need for speed of reporting that they’ve sacrificed accuracy and credibility.

Let’s not let such a rush negatively affect our businesses.

Later on that same day, I was attending a conference discussion on the role of web analytics in site redesigns. Several analysts in the room mentioned their frustrations when they were asked by executives for a report on how the new design was doing only a couple of hours after the launch of new site design. They wanted to be able to provide solid insight, but they knew they couldn’t provide anything reliable so soon.

Even though a lot of data is already available a couple of hours in, that data lacks the context necessary to start drawing conclusions.

For one, most site redesigns experience a dip in key metrics initially as regular customers adjust to a new look and feel. In the physical retail world, we used to call this the “Where’s my stuff?” phenomenon. But even if we set the initial dip aside, there are way too many variables involved in the short term of web activity to make any reliable assessments of the new design’s effectiveness. As with any short term measurement, the possibilities for random outliers to unnaturally sway the measurement to one direction or another is high. It takes some time and an accumulation of data to be sure we have a reliable story to tell.

And even with time, web data collection is not perfect. Deleted cookies, missed connections, etc. can all cause some problems in the overall completeness of the data. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen the perfect set of data in any retail environment. Given the imperfect nature of the data we’re using to make key strategic decisions, we need to give our analysts time to review it, debate it and come to reasoned conclusions before we react.

I realize the temptation is strong to get an “early read” on the progress of a new site design (or any strategic issue, really). I’ve certainly felt it myself on many occasions. However, since just about every manager and executive I know (including myself) has a strong bias for action, we have to be aware of the risks associated with these “early reads” and our own abilities or inabilities to make conclusions and immediately react. Early reads can lead to the bad decisions associated with the full accelerator/full brake syndrome I’ve referenced previously.

We can spend months or even years preparing for a massive new strategic effort and strangle it within days by overreacting to early data. Instead, I wonder if it’s a better to determine well in advance of the launch — when we’re thinking more rationally and the temptation to know something is low — when we’ll first analyze the success of our new venture. Why not make such reporting part of the project plan and publicly set expectations about when we’ll review the data and what type of adjustments we should plan to make based on what we learn?

In the end, let’s let our analysts strive for the credibility of the old nightly news rather than emulate the speed and rush to judgment that too often occurs in this era of 24-hours news. Our businesses and our strategies are too important and have taken too long to build to sacrifice them to a short-term need for speed.

What do you think? Have you seen this issue in action? How do you need with the balance between quick information and thoughtful analysis?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons




How are retail sales forecasts like baby due dates?

Q. How are retail sales forecasts like baby due dates.

A. They both provide an improper illusion of precision and cause considerable consternation when they’re missed.

Our first child was born perfectly healthy almost two weeks past her due date, but every day past that less than precisely accurate due date was considerably more frustrating for my amazing and beautiful wife. While her misery was greater than many of us endure in retail sales results meetings, we nonetheless experience more misery than necessary due to improperly specific forecast numbers creating unrealistic expectations.

I believe there’s a way to continue to provide the planning value of a sales forecast (and baby due date) while reducing the consternation involved in the almost inevitable miss of the predictions generated today.

But first, let’s explore how sales forecasts are produced today.

In my experience, an analyst or team of analysts will pull a variety of data sources into a model used to generate their forecast. They’ll feed sales for the same time period over the last several years at least; they’ll look at the current year sales trend to try to factor in the current environment; they’ll take some guidance from merchant planning; and they’ll mix in planned promotions for the time period, which also includes looking at past performance of the same promotions. That description is probably oversimplified for most retailers, but the basic process is there.

Once all the data is in the mix, some degree of statistical analysis is run on the data and used to generate a forecast of sales for the coming time period — let’s say it’s a week. Here’s where the problems start. The sales forecast are specific numbers, maybe rounded to the nearest thousand. For example, the forecast for the week might be $38,478k. From that number, daily sales will be further parsed out by determining percentages of the week that each day represents, and each day’s actual sales will be measured against those forecast days.

And let the consternation begin because the forecast almost never matches up to actual sales.

The laws of statistics are incredibly powerful — sometimes so powerful that we forget all the intricacies involved. We forget about confidence intervals, margins of error, standard deviations, proper sampling techniques, etc. The reality is we can use statistical methodologies to pretty accurately predict the probability we’ll get a certain range of sales for a coming week. We can use various modeling techniques and different mixes of data to potentially increase the probability and decrease the range, but we’ll still have a probability and a range.

I propose we stop forecasting specific amounts and start forecasting the probability we’ll achieve sales in a particular range.

Instead of projecting an unreliably specific amount like $38,478k, we would instead forecast a 70% probability that sales would fall between $37,708k and $39,243k. Looking at our businesses in this manner better reflects the reality that literally millions of variables have an effect on our sales each day, and random outliers at any given time can cause significant swings in results over small periods of time.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t still need sales targets to achieve our sales plans. But if we don’t acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of our forecasts, we won’t truly understand the size of the risks associated with achieving plan. And we need to understand the risks in order to develop the right contingency and mitigation tactics. The National Weather Service, which uses similar methods of forecasting, explains the reasons for their methods as follows:

“These are guidelines based on weather model output data along with local forecasting experience in order to give persons [an idea] as to what the statistical chance of rain is so that people can be prepared and take whatever action may be required. For example, if someone pouring concrete was at a critical point of a job, a 40% chance of rain may be enough to have that person change their plans or at least be alerted to such an event. No guarantees, but forecasts are getting better.”

Imagine how the Monday conversation would change when reviewing last week’s sales if we had the probability and range forecast suggested above and actual sales came in at $37,805k? Instead of focusing on how we missed a phantom forecast figure by 1.7%, we could quickly acknowledge that sales came in as predicted and then focus on what tactics we employed above and beyond what was fed into the model that generated the forecast. Did those tactics generate additional sales or not? How did those tactics affect or not affect existing tactics? Do we need to make strategic changes, or should we accept that our even though our strategy can be affected by millions of variables in the short term it’s still on track for the long term?

Expressing our forecasts in probabilities and ranges, whether we’re
talking about sales, baby due dates or the weather, helps us get a
better sense of the possibilities the future might hold and allows us
to plan with our eyes wide open. And maybe, just maybe, those last couple weeks of pregnancy will be slightly less frustrating (and, believe me, every little bit helps).

What do you think? Would forecasts with probabilities and ranges enhance sales discussions at your company? Do sales forecasts work differently at your company?



The immense value of “slop time”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. We spend such a large portion of our days reacting to issues flying at us from all directions that we can easily lose sight of where we’re headed and why we’re going there. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to think, and failing to allot time to think is ultimately counterproductive. Taking time (and even scheduling time) to reflect on past actions and consider future courses of action is more important than we often realize.

Consider this quote from former Intel exec Dov Frohman in his book Leadership the Hard Way and also discussed on this Practice of Leadership blog posting:

“Every leader should routinely keep a substantial portion of his or her time—I would say as much as 50 percent—unscheduled. Until you do so, you will never be able to develop the detachment required to identify long-term threats to the organization or the flexibility to move quickly to take advantage of random opportunities as they emerge. Only when you
have substantial ’slop’ in your schedule—unscheduled time—will you have the space to reflect on what  you are doing, learn from experience, and recover from your inevitable mistakes. Leaders without such  free time end up tackling issues only when there is an immediate or visible problem.”

Frohman makes some excellent points about the need to learn from experience and pull the value from the mistakes we make. Truly understanding the pros and cons of past decisions, ideally with the benefit that hindsight and new learning gives us, helps us better prepare for future decisions.

But there’s so much going on every day, and with staff cuts we have more work than ever. How can we possibly afford to time to think?
Well, Frohman has a ready answer:

“Managers’ typical response to my argument about free time is, ‘That’s all well and good, but there are  things I have to do.’ Yet we waste so much time in unproductive activity—it takes an enormous effort on  the part of the leader to keep free time for the truly important things.”

Of course, that’s easy to say and considerably harder to do. But it’s so important. Without taking the time to focus on the most important issues, tactics and strategies, we end up constantly fighting fires and ultimately working our way into a death spiral.

I find that if I give my think time enough priority, I can find a way to get it in. For me, actually scheduling time on my calendar makes all the difference. It also forces me to put some of the daily issues into perspective and postpone or even cancel meetings that don’t rate highly enough on the prioritization scale.

So, what do we do with this newly scheduled time to think?

Reflect on past decisions
I’ve recently started spending some time actively thinking through the decisions I made during the previous week or so. It’s amazing how hard it was at first to think of many decisions I made, particularly the numerous small decisions that happen every day. They came and went so fast that I didn’t really immediately retain them and their effects. Where they good decisions or bad decisions? It made me wonder if I could make better decisions in the future just by doing a better job of examining past decisions.

Open up to new ideas and learn something new
I am constantly hungry for new ideas. I love to read interesting new books, and I try to read as many blogs as I can. Of course, all of that reading takes time, so I look for my opportunities wherever I can. I try to read for at least a half hour every night, and I’m always looking for books that will expand my thinking.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s essentially about behavioral economics (a fascinating field with all sorts of retail implications) but the twist is that he actually examines the inner mechanics of the brain to explain why we do what we do. He’s a good story teller and it doesn’t get to “scienc-y.” (Is that a word?)

Fooled by randomness Another book that has me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a very long time is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How much time have we mis-spent reacting to data that lacks statistical significance? Could some focused learning on the events that fool us time and again prevent us from making bad decisions in the future?

I use Google Reader to follow many thought provoking blogs, including those listed on the right column here. I also use the Newsstand application on my iPhone, which syncs with Google Reader and allows me to take in a blog or two at all sorts of random moments when I have a little bit of time on my hands. In fact, during my blog reading recently I even came upon a list of new an “out-of-the-box” ways to inject thinking in your business from Mitch Joel.

Anticipate the future
After analyzing past decisions and opening up my mind to new ideas, I try taking some time to start anticipating the future. Here, I think it’s definitely important to imagine large strategic shifts in the marketplace, but it’s also important to consider daily issues that come up with staff, marketing tactics, etc. as well. How are different types of decisions made in the organization, and who makes them? Is decision making authority matched with accountability? Are decision makers aware of their boundaries? Are the boundaries appropriate? Is the business strategy correct and clearly communicated? Are we working towards the right objectives? Should I consider a different approach when working with a particular person? Should I go with the ham or the turkey for lunch. 🙂

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You’re clearly reading at least one blog today, so it’s good that you’ve already made some time in your day. Good news! I hope you’ll be back, and I hope you’re also taking some time to read more of the really great content that’s available out there in both book and blog form. I hope you’ll come across something so mind-blowingly thought provoking that it changes the way you think about something. I hope you’ll be so open to new ideas that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about past decisions and direction. (Side note pet peeve of mine: Why do we criticize leaders and politicians who change their minds? Would you rather work with someone who can change his or her mind in the face of new information or someone who stubbornly sticks to convictions no matter what?)

And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider adding some “slop time” to your schedule to allow you to reflect on past decisions, open up to new ideas and new learning, and anticipate the future.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you find time to think. What are your sources of expanded thinking? Will you share any great books or blogs that you’ve read? What’s changed your thinking recently?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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