Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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    Welcome to a Silicon Valley State of Mind, thoughts tips and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "Silicon Valley's Top Information Strategist."

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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Posted by on in Strategy

I went into my bank last week, and I thought I walked into the wrong building. I’ve banked there for at least 10 years now, building relationships with all the tellers and account managers. I go there frequently, at least a few times a month; however, last week when I walked in, I didn’t recognize one person. You cannot build a relationship with your clients if you’re constantly introducing them to new people.

The foundation of your relationship strategy is the people that interact with your customers. There are other things that contribute to customer loyalty like your brand; however, any real relationship involves at least two people: your customer and the person in your organization that comes in contact with your customer.

Banks have a bad reputation for turnover, so seeing one or two people leave is disappointing and demeritorious, but doesn’t really come as a surprise. Last week however, was jolting. There were at least a dozen people working in the bank, and I didn’t recognize anybody. I made a comment to the teller asking, “Where did everybody go?” I started naming names, and one-by-one, she notified me that they had either transferred to another branch, or left “for a better opportunity.”

For me, this isn’t my bank anymore. I’m not leaving or canceling any of my accounts, but it’s just another place for transactions now. I can get the same experience at the grocery store, and since I shop more often than transact with the bank, I probably won’t go to my branch anymore. It’s a shame when I feel more comfortable picking up Chinese food than sitting down with my banker to discuss a loan.

Employee retention is vital in all areas of your organization, but especially where these employees touch your customers. Whether you like it or not, your customers are more loyal to the people in your company than your company’s brand or values. If your employees are leaving for better opportunities, your customers are probably walking right behind them.

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Posted by on in Strategy

Is it possible to be too nice to customers? Is it possible to overdo customer service? Are there damaging effects to exceeding your strategic goals with customer relationships? These are interesting questions to consider; let me share some of my ideas on the topic.

There was a period a few years back when my local Safeway was treating me way too nice. I couldn’t get down one aisle without three different clerks stopping to ask me if I was finding everything okay. If I did happen to need some help finding something, you would think I was rushing into a hospital with a severed arm, desperately in need of boxed macaroni and cheese. Maybe some people appreciated the experience, but for me it was too much.

As you can tell through my discussions about The Orient Express and Sage Vets, I’m a big fan of customer service. It’s more for professional reasons than personal reasons. Although my practice heavily revolves around information strategy, in my view, the best intended use of information is to please customers.

I don’t think you can go too far with customer service, but I do think you can aim for the wrong mark. For customer service to be effective, it needs to be perceived by the customer as valuable and helpful. What Safeway did back then (they’ve since corrected things) was paved with good intentions, but we all know where that road sometimes leads us. The experience was actually annoying for me, not valuable or helpful.

To be sure, you must be in touch with your clients and customers. Talk to them; conduct interviews, surveys, and focus groups as appropriate. Or, have an independent third party shop your business and relay what the experience was like. Get accurate market information, and keep good score. These are the kinds of metrics you should be tracking, not the number of hits on your website.

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Posted by on in Innovation

People love the tried and trued. There’s great comfort in knowing a process is in place, and it works. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? I agree, as long as you’re sure it ain’t broke.

I went to Lawrence’s Meat Company in Alamo the other day, the best place to buy meat in the area. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a real butcher shop around here—a concept that never should have been superseded by the huge supermarkets. Amazingly enough, they’ve been around since 1887, and they’ve probably done an outstanding job since then. I can certainly attest to the quality of their meat today; this this my only consideration when planning any serious meal.

While there, I noticed some BBQ sauce they were selling on the counter. Apparently, it was created in 1849, so it’s even older than Lawrence’s. For some reason, I was lured by the age of the BBQ sauce, assuming that the “old west,” had great BBQ sauce, and a flavor that’s been around so long must be good.

I was wrong.

I know everybody has their own taste, but this one isn’t mine. Maybe “old west” BBQ sauce isn’t all that great, or maybe this company just got it wrong, but after 163 years I would hope they could create something better tasting than this. I’m not sure how in touch they are with their customers, but a controlled approach to their customer experience might be in order.

In Six Sigma, there’s a tool called a control plan. A control plan is an operational tool that measures how your process is performing. You can overlay this information with your process expectations (when you do this it is not a control plan anymore, but that’s a different topic) to see if your process is consistently meeting expectations.

Of course, your expectations should be a reflection of what your customers expect. So, to ensure you’re meeting or exceeding your customers’ expectations, I advise that you collect some data from your customers on a periodic basis, and juxtapose it with your control plan.

This simple sensor should drive your entire organization. You must actively manage your markets’ expectations, and you can’t manage what you can’t measure. This also becomes the foundation for a good customer relationship strategy.

So, always challenge how trued your tried process is, especially when it comes to your customers. If you aren’t meeting or exceeding their expectations, what category would you guess remains?

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Posted by on in Leadership

Alaska Airlines finally apologized to the disabled gentleman they refused to help board their plane so he could visit his daughter in Washington. Apparently a man with Parkinson’s disease seemed disoriented at the gate (funny how that works), and nobody from Alaska/Horizon Airlines would help him—even when a concerned onlooker tried to intercede by appealing first to the professionalism of the airline staff, then to the basic humanity. In spite of the obvious need for their assistance, and multiple escalations with escalating appeals, the airline employees repeatedly recited their policy of not offering special assistance to any travelers.

Cameron Clark, the advocate for the elderly gentleman, quickly became outraged at the indecency of the way Alaska/Horizon treated this poor gentlemen, and took to social justice. He blasted Alaska Airlines on his Facebook page, and the story quickly went viral, then hit the national news with USA Today. Wouldn’t you know, Alaska Airlines has now taken a very active interest in our elderly and disabled gentleman flyer. In his apology, President Johnson from Horizon Air admits they should have handled it better.

I’d like to quickly address the leaders out there who believe good policies and procedures are the way to run a company. Directionally I agree; however you must be careful of getting into situations like Alaska. Good policies keep everything in order, and this is very important for an airline. They have a huge responsibility over others. Without an over-emphasis on policy, a lot of people could die.

That said, it’s impossible to create a policy/procedure for every situation. Especially when dealing with the public, there’s a wide variety of possible situations. They fell into the process management trap. Something obviously went wrong with Alaska, but I don’t blame the employees at the gate, I blame the leadership. Their philosophy is obviously bureaucratic, the employees were just doing what they were told, and they’re probably not allowed to do anything different for fear of some sanction.

The leadership needs to adjust their approach, and allow the employees on the front line to use some discretion. Yes, you will get a variety of inconsistent outcomes for different situations, but you must learn to live with it. It’s better than being crucified in the social media by your customers.

It’s good that Alaska apologized, but the damage is already done. This want so viral, I heard about it from my chiropractor when I was getting adjusted on Wednesday. You should read some of the responses to the apology. Few people are buying the ostensible sincerity of the President—would you?

It’s better to get the leadership correct so there is no need for an apology. There’s no undo in Unix; don’t issue return on the wrong command.

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Posted by on in Strategy

Over the weekend we received this wonderful gift from Sage Centers for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care. It’s not expensive or elaborate, just a hand-made craft with a picture of Lacy surrounded by congratulatory messages from all the doctors and nurses that took care of her over the last few weeks.

Lacy, our wonderful and perfect darling of the family was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma (yes, malignant cancer) a couple of months ago, and the wonderful staff at Sage have been nothing but courteous and professional throughout the whole process of excising the tumor, administering radiation treatment for three weeks, and following up with post-radiation treatments. Her checkup last Thursday was nothing but good news—she’s doing extremely well, and she will be ready for chemotherapy in just a couple of weeks. So, the staff at Sage decided to send us a nice “congratulations,” on the great progress she has made so far.

Sage continues to impress us with not only their professionalism, but their personal touch. As you can see by their Yelp reviews, they take their customer relationships very seriously. They’ve been awesome to this point, but I never expected anything like this. In my opinion, this is over the top.

Relationships are a key component to any business. For any company to have this kind of affect on so many people, there’s more than excellent customer service in play—this is proper execution on a relationship strategy. This is the secret to building long-term customer loyalty; something vital in today’s competitive environment. Relationships must be part of your strategy, and contemplated by the CEO and top management in the same discussion with what products will be offered and what markets will be served. Like anything else in your strategy, you can choose to be competitive, distinctive, or breakthrough. If you choose to pursue a breakthrough relationship strategy, you don’t need to spend a lot of money, but you do need to make a very strong impression on your customers: over and above what they normally experience. Sure, I get cards in the mail at Christmas time from my dentist; however, this is playing at a completely different level!

A couple of weeks ago I talked about The Orient Express, and now Sage. To be honest, I can count on one hand the number of companies that have this level of loyalty with me, and none of them have to do with utilities, financial services, or travel and hospitality. What have you done lately to show your customers how much you appreciate their business? If you value your customer base, you don’t want your competition to come up with a better answer.

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Posted by on in Innovation

My favorite place for Chinese food is Orient Express, in San Ramon. There’s nothing fancy about the decor, there’s really no dining area (just two or three tables inside), and sometimes there’s a long line going outside the door. The food is pretty good, but definitely not fine dining. Most of the food has been sitting in warming dishes waiting for take out, although you can phone ahead for one of the specials.

The reason why I love this place is because of the relationship I have with the people in the restaurant. They run a very small operation in a busy area of San Ramon (well, busy for San Ramon), so it’s not hard to get to know people, especially the people working the counter like Thomas and Michelle. Although they officially close at 9p, there have been many times when I’ve stopped in around 9:30p after a long day with clients, excited to see the doors still open, and happy to take whatever they have left over.

Last night was one of those nights. I pulled into the parking lot around 9:15p, and noticed someone just a few seconds in front of me, walk in ahead. By the way he was looking over the available food, I could tell he wasn’t familiar with the place. Thomas and the crew had already started to clean up, so there were only a few dishes in the warmers, and some other packaged food up on the counter. Among the packaged food on the counter was my absolute favorite, Salt and Pepper Chicken. The Salt and Pepper Chicken at Orient Express is nothing less than awesome. It’s chopped, battered and deep fried with generous portions of salt and jalapeño peppers. Yum!

Thomas was working behind the counter. He acknowledged the gentleman in front of me, then gave me a big smile and shouted, “Hello, John!” As Thomas reviewed the menu options with the gentleman in front of me, he touted all the wonderful dishes in the warmers, and with quick stare and a wink at me, politely “underemphasized” the Salt and Pepper Chicken which he knew I liked. It was already wrapped up on the counter, so even if the customer knew how good it was, he really couldn’t see it that well. As the nice gentleman walked out with his Kung Pao chicken, Thomas smiled at me and said, “I’m guessing you want the Salt and Pepper Chicken, right?” Needless to say, it was a great night for dinner and Big Brother (that’s another story).

Having a good relationship with your customers and suppliers is not taken serious enough in business these days. There are three dimensions to innovation and “product” development when considering your offerings: products, services and relationships. Most companies focus just on products and services; however, relationships are the most critical of the three and they’re often completely overlooked. When it comes to Chinese food, I’m not going anywhere but Orient Express. Do your customers feel the same way about you?

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Posted by on in General Comments

I just slammed the door in someone’s face. The same door that’s a few inches from the sign pictured here.

I’m not normally that rude to people, but in this case enough is enough. About three times a week, a different person comes to the door asking if I want solar panels on my house. The first time they came, I politely listened to what they had to say, agreed it’s an interesting thought, and said I’d investigate it on my own time. The second time they came, I cut them off before they got started, and told them somebody just came by two days ago. The third time they came by, I cut them off and said, “tell whoever is sending you people here, to stop.” The story I was told is that they’re all coming from different companies, and every person I encounter has no relationship to the next. It’s like a beacon went off somewhere, signaling all solar companies that I would like someone to visit my house and talk to me about installing solar—I don’t.

Well, this message isn’t being received. I’ve been dealing with this for weeks now. Tonight, this is how the exchange went. Shortly after I sat down to eat dinner:

(Knock, Knock)

Me: What?

Irritant: Hi, I’m Mr. Jackass from Jackass Solar?

Me: No soliciting, man.


You have to be perceptive of your customers’ needs. There is a sign right outside my door that says, “No Soliciting.” This means—no soliciting! I don’t do this to be mean or rude, but I’m doing both me and the door-to-door salespeople a favor. I can assure you, I’m not going to buy something from someone that comes to my door—I just won’t do it. If I decide to get solar, I’ll do the research myself on the Internet, then I’ll talk to some people I know that have had solar installed, and I’ll get a referral. This is why I have the sign outside; I’m saving us both the time.

How often do you keep badgering your customers with what you feel they need? Kodak was very late in the adoption of digital photography because they were too focused on what they thought was right. After breathing their own exhaust for too long, they finally filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Their future is very questionable at this point.

Value is in eye of the beholder. Your passion about an idea doesn’t mean anything until you’ve convinced your clients to be passionate about it. Maybe solar is a good thing for me, and I’m sure whoever just left my door is passionate about the benefits of solar, but if you think I’m just going to open my door and sign a contract with you to install solar panels on my house—you just don’t know me very well.

And that’s the whole point of this story.

Tagged in: customers ideas value
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