Unlimited Frustration: A Sunday with Sprint

At the outset I want to be clear that dealing with wireless companies has always been akin to getting a wisdom tooth removed without anesthesia. However, given that this is 2017, the age of big data, real-time analytics, beacons and of every grandmother knowing that CRM stands for customer relationship management, I had some expectation that my experience with Sprint would not be like it was still 1990.

Our fateful journey started at the only Sprint store near us. The first sign of trouble came when the store manager informed me plan options the store offered were limited, compared to what customer service could offer. It is odd that Sprint is unable to offer the same options at retail, via phone or online, in 2017, but I said I would call when I got home. But that would have been too easy; we were informed that it was better to do the upgrade after we changed our plan, or we would not get access to the good plans.

I thought to myself that Sprint should make life easier for customers, not harder, especially for loyal ones who are about to renew their vows with the company.

I acquiesced and spent the next hour deciphering plan options with customer service by phone while standing at the store counter. During this time we also found out that we would need to postdate the new plan or face pro-rating fees that would double our cost for the month. No doubt this was designed to be just another way for customers to pay Sprint for their loyalty.

Two and a half hours later we walked out with one phone, one on order and a new plan that would take effect in a month.

My phone arrived a few days later and it was the wrong colour. By now I was also starting to get used to the obstacles Sprint seemed to like to put up – to test customer loyalty.

Upon informing the store of their mistake, I was told I needed to wait for a return package that would arrive in 5-7 business days, by mail. Then I needed to wait another 5-7 business days for Sprint to process the return, and only then could the store order the right colour for me.

Out of data and with no new phone, I asked why I was being punished for their mistake. I was told it was because this was not a Sprint corporate store.

I realised that I has just failed another test of customer loyalty.

I walked into this store, the only one in our area code, after seeing a big fat Sprint logo othe storefront, Sprint branded posters on walls, shelves full of Sprint merchandising, promotional cardboard cutouts with Sprint exclusive offers, Sprint logos on the salespeople’s t-shirt, but I failed to notice the small certificate on the wall that said “Sprint preferred retailer.” My bad.

I decided to make a last ditch appeal to the all-powerful customer service and asked them to ship me a new phone, while I waited for the circuitous return process to unfold. They were very apologetic and set-up an appointment for me to visit a corporate store, on the other side of town, and said I could simply exchange the phone. Problem solved!

It was a bright and beautiful Sunday afternoon when I ventured out to exchange my phone. Upon checking in at the store I was promptly informed that the exchange could not be done at the store. And they added that they did not care what customer service had told me, because customer service had no authority over stores. Thankfully, they took pains to re-assure me that this happened all the time to customers, making me feel all warm and fuzzy for not being singled-out.

After a heated back and forth, I dug in and said I was not leaving until my issue was resolved. They dialed customer service and handed me the phone to figure it out with customer service. With a strong sense of déjà vu I spent the next two hours, on the phone, standing at yet another Sprint store.

The customer service people were apologetic and admitted that I had been given erroneous information, vindicating the store, but not really servicing this customer. They assured me that the rep would be “coached”, which was wonderful, but again did nothing to resolve my issue. After a long and patient wait, someone in the ‘order support department’ where I ended up figured out that they could simply cancel the original order and have the corporate store create a new one and give me the correct phone.

Wait, the best is yet to come. We now get to part two of the torment, regarding the plan change.

While upgrading the phone, feeling badly about the ordeal everyone in the store had witnessed, the salesperson offered to look at my plan and see if he could save me money, only to discover that I was tethered to a wireless hotspot device that was on contract – totally unbeknownst to me.

I remember it being given as a free gift during our last upgrade; one I was told required a data plan but no mention of a two-year contract. So I said get rid of it, which required me to pay an early termination fee of over $100. Again, the store folks empathised with my plight and genuinely tried to help, but clearly lacked the authority to free me from my bondage.

So I reached out once more to the all-powerful customer service, and they transferred me to the termination department and to someone who said they would solve my problem without a termination fee. I was unwilling to pay because I was never overtly made aware of a contract. Three quarters of the way through the process the line got cut. I waited but nobody called back, even though they had my number.

So I called back and got a different rep, possibly in the Philippines. She was completely clueless. This person could not even find the device I was referring to, leave alone understand the issue.

After what seemed like an eternity of explaining, and getting nowhere, I asked to speak with a supervisor, but she kept putting me on hold, while going off to ask someone questions and then coming back and asking me the same question. With my Gandhi-like patience starting to run thin, I firmly asked to speak with a supervisor, at which point she hung up.

Glutton for punishment, I called back again.

Of course, I got a new rep, to whom I had to repeat the entire ordeal (this happened every time I called); who was again polite and very apologetic, but said I needed another department. I asked that he at least brief the person they were transferring me to, so I wouldn’t have to go through the entire story every time I was cut-off.

I must have repeated my story at least a half a dozen times as I got transferred between departments, and finally reached someone with an American accent. At least she could understand the issue – progress!

She patiently took me through numerous options. One requires a degree in rocket science to understand the permutations and combinations of data plans and device leasing options, but despite this she was unable to do the one thing I needed – waive the early termination fee.

I suggested she talk with a supervisor and explain that I was ready to leave Sprint over a $110 termination fee, resulting in a loss of approx. $200 per month revenue over the next two years from me. The math was easy. She agreed wholeheartedly, as did her supervisor but again both lacked the lacked the authority to what they truly wanted: to retain this customer. They did offer me a one-time $30 credit to lessen the pain.

Needing to right a great service injustice and feeling like a combination of Mandela and the Energizer bunny, I reached out to Sprint’s CEO, Marcelo Claure on Twitter, asking to speak with him directly because it was clear that he was the ONLY person in the company with the authority to waive this fee.

Needless to say he did not respond but had something called “Team Marcel” reach out. I got a call from a lady in the corporate office and she too was also extremely apologetic and said unequivocally that my experience was totally unacceptable and that she would personally look into the entire matter. She magically waived the early termination fee…

I am still completely at a loss to understand why such a simple process for an upgrade and plan change required numerous phone calls, three store visits, countless hours on the phone with representatives from multiple departments and continents and tweeting the CEO. I have been told childbirth is less painful.

I want to be clear that, based on my experience across all of Sprint’s touch-points, the central issue has little to do with poor or rude employees; in fact the majority I dealt with expressed frustration at not being able to resolve my issue. It has everything to do with a complex organisational structure that is badly siloed, coupled with employees whose hands are tied and who lack the authority to provide resolution, use of third party resellers without a consistent service policy, and offshoring to poorly trained customer service reps who sometimes barely understand the English language, and finally the lack of a proper escalation policy.

This is clearly a management issue that begins at the top with a lack of singular focus on customer care and retention, which you would think is the most important aspect in an industry plagued with the highest customer churn.

So unless Mr. Claure meant he was working on increasing wait times to four and five hours when he said “Customers have to wait one or two hours to get a phone and that’s not acceptable”, I do hope he gets in touch with me. I still believe he needs to hear this unbelievably frustrating and painful experience, firsthand, because no customer should ever have to be put through this again.

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Uber and the Troubling Ethics of Silicon Valley

Image credit Forbes

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (Image credit: Forbes)

That Uber is a brilliant innovation and has brought about much needed disruption into the taxi and transportation industry is not in question. But how their CEO runs the company, the culture he has created and the business practices he promotes are an issue that investors, customers and the press have turned a blind eye to for far too long.

For years, it has been an open secret in Silicon Valley that Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is a completely unethical man who also lacks integrity and leadership skills. That he runs Uber like a misogynistic frat house is a well-documented fact. Kalanick has boasted to GQ magazine about how Uber helped increase his sex appeal; he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Now, I am a whole hearted capitalist pig and an ardent advocate of being competitive and winning by all means but not at any cost. It should be done through innovation, improving your products and services to beat your competitors fair and square; but we should never condone winning by cheating or using unethical and underhand tactics like Uber has also done to try and derail their competitors.

Uber employees ordered and cancelled more than 5,000 rides from rival Lyft since last October. This was done in an effort to reduce availability of Lyft cars, and thus push their users towards Uber. There have been reports of abuse of rider location information through a technology called God View, which allows Uber to track the movements of every single vehicle and the passenger. Former employees have confirmed that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company.

In 2011, venture capitalist Peter Sims penned a blog post about being tracked and sent text messages from someone he barely knew; all this was done without his knowledge or consent. When Sims expressed his outrage, he was told by an Uber employee “to calm down, and that it was all a ‘cool’ event and as if I should be honoured to have been one of the chosen. Turns out his movements were being projected on a large screen at an Uber event and nobody at the company thought this was wrong.

However, while all this information has been in the public domain for many years, it has done nothing to slow down the company’s growth or attract investors. Investments have continued to pour in from the biggest names in venture capital to investment banks and even governments all over the world. Everyone seems happy to turn a blind eye to the company culture and willing to dismiss unethical practices, blatant violations of privacy and misuse of personal information; as long as it helps Uber’s commoditized offering stay ahead of its competitors. Even the tech press has remained silent or looked the other way as the company became the darling of Silicon Valley and a unicorn, a start-up valued at more than one billion dollars. Uber’s current valuation stands at around $66 billion.

For me the last straw came when Uber personally threatened a female journalist who had been writing about the consistent pattern of misogynist behaviour at the company and their unfair and possibly illegal business tactics. Her revelations followed a dinner party where a senior executive at Uber was caught on the record, boasting to his guests that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

Ironically, the first time Uber faced any backlash from customers was for something Travis Kalanick did, which I actually applauded – being part of Trump’s advisory council. I believe the best way to safeguard democracy is by having diverse and opposing viewpoints around the President, but that is a conversation for another blog. What is ironic and tragic is that, irrespective of people’s polarising views about President Trump, prior to this point nobody seems to have had any moral, ethical or principled objections to all the things that have been openly transpiring at Uber for years.

Nobody cared about the sexist and misogynist culture Kalanick has routinely boasted about. Nobody cared about the silencing of a female journalist and others in the media. Nobody cared about violating every code of competitive ethics or unfairly hurting the income of drivers. Nobody cared about Uber’s repeated violations of privacy, and abuse of personal information to stalk and intimidate people the company did not like.

It seems that now, only when it is no longer conscionable to look the other way that people are finally expressing some shock and outrage. This follows a perfect storm of events, from seeing a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, to a NY Times story about Uber using a tool, called Greyball, to identify, track and evade law enforcement officials, and a compelling blog post by a former female engineer. She writes about her harrowing experiences of constantly being berated and sexually harassed by senior managers, and Uber HR and senior management’s reluctance to take action despite her repeated complaints.

It seems perfectly clear that everyone was aware, and has been complicit in encouraging this culture by doing nothing to object to it; despite the repeated and many lines crossed. The bottom line is that they were all protecting their investment and hoping that these things could be ‘handled or contained’ until an IPO happened and they were free and clear, having made hay on their initial investment.

In response to the video’s release, Uber’s CEO has said he needs leadership help, and Uber has hired former attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate the claims of sexual harassment by the former female engineer. As of last week, only one investor publicly penned an open letter, saying that the company needs to change its ‘toxic’ culture.

The problem is that all this is too little, too late. The fact that nobody felt the need to act before, despite being aware of all these issues indicates that what is happening now is nothing more than a PR exercise to do damage control on a prized unicorn investment; now that they have absolutely no choice due to the growing negative PR.

If Travis Kalanick, or his investors, had genuinely felt the need for him to grow up, it would have happened after he called his company boob-er. If investors had truly wanted to clean up the company’s act, surely the last straw would have been Uber threatening a female journalist.

At this stage, promising to fight to change Uber’s culture and all other talk that results in no real consequences for the CEO and others in management with whom the buck stops, are totally meaningless. It is akin to letting a murderer go scot-free because he apologises and promises never to murder anyone else in cold blood.

I will only be convinced that Uber’s investors are serious when they ask Travis Kalanick to resign or they fire him. In my book, this is the only way to send a strong and clear message that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated by Silicon Valley.

Business success devoid of integrity and ethics is a failure for all of society.

The Big Opportunity with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is being touted as the next big thing and venture capital firms are falling over themselves to give money to companies experimenting with the technology. There is also growing interest in mixed reality (MR), which is an augmented version that lets you use the real world as the backdrop to navigate VR objects placed within it. The MR experience is considered more real and believable, compared to VR, as the latter happens in a world that is entirely make believe. Here is a great Wired article on VR and MR which spurred my thinking and brought about this blog.

Turns out that VR technology has been around since the 1990’s but it was cost-prohibitive to mass produce. With the proliferation of smartphones, which have brought down the cost of sensors and created super computers that fit in our pocket, VR is finally ready to come of age.

It would be fair to say that Oculus Rift marked the turning point that resulted in VR going mainstream. Oculus started in 2012 as a Kickstarter project to build a VR gaming headset and quickly became a household name. In 2014 they were bought by Facebook for $2 billion. Since that moment there has been something akin to frenzy among the top tech companies to get into VR. Microsoft recently started shipping its HoloLens to developers (Source: Verge article). Verizon’s AOL bought a 360-degree VR video company called RYOT (Source: Wall Street Journal article). HTC, Google, Sony, Samsung, Apple and a host of other companies have launched VR products or are in the process of developing them.

However, all these companies are currently thinking about VR only through a lens of gaming and commercial applications like movies, tourism and for various new ways to market their products and services. It is great for companies to invest in innovation to find better and more effective ways to sell us ‘stuff’ but I believe that focusing entirely on the commercial aspects would be missing a much greater opportunity.

Here is the line in the article that sparked my thinking:
“People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”(Source: Wired article).

In my mind, the greatest flaw we have as human beings is the inability to see through someone else’s eyes and, therefore, to empathise with them in a truly meaningful way. It is almost as if we are conditioned to personally experience a situation before we can fully appreciate and understand it on a deeper level. This is why it is often hard for us to truly empathise with people and situations that we have never experienced.

For example, most people get involved or start donating to Alzheimer’s and cancer research only after they have lost someone close or witnessed the disease first hand. Similarly people born rich are unable to appreciate the daily hardships and obstacles faced by families that live paycheque to paycheque, and simply view them as lazy or less hardworking.

Most people cannot fathom the daily experience of people of colour and the toll racism takes on a person’s self-confidence and self-belief. It is also very hard for any of us to imagine the emotional scarring that occurs, often for life, on victims of abuse. When there are no overt physical manifestations and scars, people struggle to feel a depth of compassion that might lead to action or a change in behaviour.

Now, let’s go back to the statement from the article; “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”

Now, imagine if we could develop VR and MR tools that will allow Presidents to walk virtual battlefields, before making the decision to go to war. I guarantee that they would not make it as lightly as they do today. Imagine if convicted murderers could see the hell they leave behind for victim’s families. What if skeptical lawmakers could live through the eyes of refugees fleeing war-torn countries? And college freshmen were able to witness the damage they do with a drunken but forced hook-up (not the actual act of rape but the aftermath). Imagine if Donald Trump could spend a day as a Muslim woman.

Think of it as an education tool to help us make better life choices and wiser decisions by building greater empathy, not as a brainwashing tool. I believe there is a greater potential for VR, and especially MR, that goes beyond experiences designed to create entertainment, one that could truly help us become more humane, compassionate and wise.

CEO’s of companies like Facebook and Google love to talk about their altruism. They want to give back to society by solving some of the biggest problems using technology. But because their motives are driven by profit (which allows them to fund these initiatives) we tend to end up with flawed initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics.

So instead of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin playing God by holding onto innovations and breakthroughs in VR, to develop a narrow set of products that suits their commercial purposes (which they should still do), why not also open source all the research and code and allow the world to build off it and find many more commercial, altruistic and innovative uses for this technology.

Seeing life through someone else’s eyes is unequivocally the greatest power and gift we can give mankind and who knows, it might be the one thing that can help save us from ourselves.

Why Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Others Have Personalisation Wrong.

Today, it is hard to escape digital technology’s great promise of personalisation and customisation. Every company under the sun is touting tailored customer experiences. One based on learning about individual habits, preferences and interests; driven by our past behaviours, choices and actions.

Every advertiser and marketer swears the new ‘holy grail’ of connecting more intimately with customers, and they are racing to build algorithms and artificial intelligence that gets better, as it learns, at predicting future decisions based on past behaviours. They learn about our interests, hobbies and consumption habits in a bid to sell us more of what we ‘want’.

Amazon recommends products based on our purchase and browsing history. Netflix suggest movies based on our viewing history. Delta sends us special deals based on our travel history. The Wall Street Journal recommends news articles based on our reading history. Facebook shows us posts in our news feed based on our ‘likes’, and even the screensaver image on my PC asks me to like the pictures I want to see more of – well, you get the picture.

However, I believe every one of these companies has got it wrong. There exists a fundamental flaw in the way they are approaching personalisation, one that does not truly deliver on the greatest promise of the internet and digital technology.

The internet, beyond connecting the world, allowing us to share, engage, collaborate – is about discovery. The ability to discover new peoples, cultures, places and even points of view. It has the ability to open our minds, widen our worldview and expand our horizons through discovery; so why show us more of what we already know, like, see and do?

It is great that technology has allowed companies to peek into our daily lives (for those who opt-in), and digital tools in turn allows them to deliver experiences and messages uniquely tailored to us. But here is what I want them to do with this power – use it to deliver on the greater promise – one that opens each of us up to new ideas, enables us to experience new things, and even challenges conventional beliefs and viewpoints. Let’s use it to experiment with broadening our worldview; rather than limiting it based on what we already see and do.

Only by doing this can we begin to unlock the potential of the human mind and deliver what I believe to be the holy grail of technology.

Today, Facebook’s feed algorithm works to show us more of what we already like. The same holds true for Twitter or CNN’s article suggestions and the principles behind every other personalisation algorithms – they are designed to show us more of what find most agreeable.

As a result there is little debate and no authentic discussion because we are in essence talking to ourselves. More importantly we learn nothing new, if we don’t have the opportunity to experience views, ideas and thoughts that are very different from our own.

Currently, technology is only perpetuating our natural human instincts to find and then quickly form safe, secure and comfortable tribes and online havens. Yet, societies only make progress through discord, based on debating conflicting ideas and diametrically opposed views, before the majority can find common ground and reach consensus to move forward on the most contentious issues.

My challenge to every company is to start applying a different set of principles their algorithms and in doing so redefine the idea of ‘personalisation’ along the following lines:

40% what I already like
+ 40% things that are new and different (stretch my worldview)
+ 20% that I will dislike/disagree with (challenge my thinking)

Now imagine what your Facebook and Twitter feed, Netflix recommendations, Open Table picks and Fox News or CNN article suggestions will begin to look like. I guarantee they will be richer, more rewarding and in time will also help us bring back civil dialogue and respectful debate on both the most divisive political and social issues; not to mention that our minds and society will be richer for it.

Why We Should All Love Female Bosses

In a career spanning more than two decades and three continents, I have reported to bosses of various nationalities, personality types and a solid mix of both sexes. My bosses have also run the gamut in ability and lack thereof. I have had smart, helpful and wise bosses as well as mean, incompetent, lazy and insecure ones. However, I can say without hesitation that given a choice I will always work for a female boss, despite the fact that I have had a few mean and incompetent female bosses.

Sure, I love the fairer sex but it has nothing to do with male-female attraction and chemistry and everything to do with management skill and competence. In my experience, women have time and again demonstrated vastly superior decision-making, judgement and people skills to those of their male counterparts; and it has little to do with aptitude, business intelligence or experience.

When I started working it was rare to find senior female executives within the management ranks, apart from in the advertising industry. My generation also grew up in a society where men served as the career role models and breadwinners, while mothers were predominantly homemakers. Even mothers who worked did not have ‘power’ jobs and it was very rare for them to harbour serious career ambitions.

Even though advertising had a larger percentage of women, there was still a stigma attached to reporting to a woman, something that was routinely discussed in hushed tones during male bonding and late night drinking sessions. Women were simply not taken as seriously as the men. While I never viewed women as inferior or lacking in ability, I had never experienced having a direct female boss either, so had no idea what to expect when I did for the first time in my second year. Despite the realities of a male-dominated world, I can say that I had no personal bias and approached my female boss on the same merits that I had every male boss. Perhaps this helped me where most of my peers struggled, but the point I want to make is not about having an open mind but about hard scientific evidence for the reasons women make better bosses and leaders.

I could wax eloquent about why I think female bosses are better than their male counterparts, but rather than have you take my word for it I want to reference the vast research now available to support my personal experiences.

A 2012 research study titled ‘Women vs. Men in Leadership’ featured in the Harvard Business Review found that “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.” The study, based on 30 years of research, measured competencies used to define management traits required for ‘overall leadership and effectiveness’.

It further found that “…two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.” (Source: Are Women Better Leaders than Men?).

Even in one of the last remaining bastions of male domination and chauvinism, the world of technology start-ups, a recent study by Illuminate Ventures finds that hi-tech companies run by women are more “capital-efficient than the norm” and companies “that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE.” (Source: Illuminate Ventures).

Another analysis done by Dow Jones VentureSource of more than 20,000 VC backed companies in America between 1997 and 2011 found that the successful start-ups had more women in senior positions. “They had more than twice as many women in top jobs like C-level managers, vice presidents, and board members than their unsuccessful counterparts did.” (Source: Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe this success is due to the fact that women are smarter than men, or that they possess some innate management skill that men lack; competence and experience in management vary with people but are possessed by both women and men. In my estimation the single most important reason women excel and make more effective leaders boils down to one fundamental difference between the two sexes: ego.

Here is how I can most simply explain it; the majority of my male bosses (and most men) are unable to take ego out of any equation. The male ego always gets in the way of better judgement and making a better decision. For the vast majority of men, anybody questioning a decision they have made is seen as a direct challenge to their authority. God forbid that a man has to admit that he was wrong; this is considered a cardinal sin and perceived by men as a sign of weakness. Even the notion of listening to other people’s ideas or changing their view based on input from their team can be construed as an inability to lead.

In fact, I would say that most men would rather be seen to be sticking to their guns than doing the right thing, especially if it means admitting they were wrong. The male ego is conditioned to be more concerned about projecting a powerful image and less about achieving the right outcome. This to me is the reason women excel and will continue to thrive.

The majority of women are able to put their egos aside when they need to and as a result also show genuine empathy toward co-workers, subordinates and direct reports. They are willing to admit when they are wrong and ask for help – all in the interest of achieving a better outcome. Women are not shy about seeking guidance from their teams or asking the advice of superiors when they believe it will help them make a better decision and lead to a better result.

This is not about not being tough. All the women I worked with could be tough as nails when necessary. It is about not needing to constantly project power the way men feel they must. In short, a man will do the wrong thing knowingly rather than admit he is wrong.

Interestingly, a new study in the field of psychology supports my theory and personal experiences about women in the workplace; “…in times of stress male subjects become more egocentric and less able to properly respond to social situations. Women react in exactly the opposite fashion, becoming more “prosocial,” and able to relate to others in times of stress.” (Source: PBS Newshour).

Many experts have opined that in order to break the corporate glass ceiling, women need to become more like men. I completely disagree.

I believe women need to continue being true to themselves and show men a better way to lead, one that empirical evidence shows can lead to healthier, happier and more productive work environments and employees, AND better business results.

p.s. my apologies to the male species for blowing the lid on the 200,000 years male created, perpetuated and dominated world!

Starbucks Race Together and the Starting Line

I was lucky enough to see Howard Schultz talk about Starbucks’ Race Together initiative at a small gathering not too long ago. While I was already a supporter of the company’s brave foray into the issue of race, I became an even bigger fan after witnessing Mr. Schultz’s passion and personal commitment to a cause he clearly views as important, and genuinely holds close to his heart.

While I laud the effort, I also think it is important to point out that there has been a problem with the execution and the manner it was launched into the mainstream. Execution always matters, but in an effort of this magnitude, sensitivity and complexity, it will be the difference between success and failure. For one thing, it is absolutely imperative that this effort not come across as a glib and disingenuous marketing campaign. Nor can it afford to be ‘perceived’ as an altruistic effort designed to generate sales and foot traffic for Starbucks. I know it is not, but I may be the in the minority.

For starters, there are very few companies and brands in the world that could even attempt to raise an issue so loaded and so sensitive, leave alone try to convince the world that it is coming from a selfless place. The Starbucks brand has built a strong reputation for authenticity both with the respect with which they treat their partners (employees) and the amazing benefits they offer. They also have a history of actively supporting the communities they do businesses in. They were one of the early companies to join RED to help fight AIDS. During the recent recession they partnered with Opportunity Finance Network to help put people back to work. Diversity and inclusion have always been more than a motto and mere words on a vision statement to this company. Recently, they launched a major initiative to help US veterans. They sponsored a star-studded concert this past Veterans Day, and Howard Schultz has even co-authored a book “For Love of Country” that shines a light on these brave men and women by sharing their personal stories. Starbucks has also pledged to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. This is a company whose social outreach has always gone above and beyond writing cheques. They have never been afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty on issues they believe are important to society.

However, unlike all their past efforts, there is one stark and crucial difference that they need to recognise with Race Together before they can create a blueprint for how to execute it. Free undergraduate college degrees (recently announced for all employees), helping fight AIDS, supporting Veterans and every other social initiative Starbucks has undertaken are very easy for people to get behind in ways that instantly make them feel warm and fuzzy, be it through personally getting involved or by simply buying a cup of coffee. Race Together is different.

The topic of race pushes people well outside their comfort zone. There is no warm and fuzzy here – only guilt, grimace, shame, embarrassment and gross discomfort. Whether you have witnessed a racist act and did nothing to stop it, or have been humiliated because of the colour of your skin and felt like you did something wrong – most everyone has had a personal experience with race. Yet, this is not a subject that families discuss at the dinner table or even with close friends. It is something we bear witness to and experience, most often in silence.

For this reason, I am confident that none of the traditional tactics will work here. In fact, the message will fail to resonate as long as it is delivered in a top-down manner. What I mean is that USA Today inserts make this feel like a marketing campaign. Writing it on cups (while well intentioned) made it feel forced and gimmicky. You cannot force people to talk about sexual abuse publicly; and most people feel the same way about racism. One final point on this; I believe that as long as Mr. Schultz and/or his board and senior executives are seen to be the public “voices” and faces of this campaign, they will struggle to lend it the authenticity it requires. I have no doubt that Mr. Schultz is genuine about his desire to start this conversation and for all the right reasons, but he is still a wealthy and successful white man and this fact matters in this conversation (even though it should not).

My suggestion to Mr. Schultz is to turn his current executional strategy on its head – stop trying to deliver it top-down. By this I mean think about Race Together less like every other traditional corporate PR and communications effort, and imagine it like needing to build a grassroots movement – one that can only be built bottom-up.

For me the video Mr. Schultz showed us of an impromptu town hall meeting (he held at Starbucks headquarters last December) did more to provoke thought and evoke a sentiment about this topic than anything else Starbucks has done thus far. And it was not Starbucks’ voice that caused this emotional stirring, but the voices of the everyday people sharing their very personal stories.

By sharing starkly different experiences about simple, mundane, everyday acts that most of us go through without batting an eyelid – it brought to life very vividly the different Americas we still live in today and experience differently based purely on our skin colour.

Hearing a black mother say that one of her greatest daily fears is making sure her child does not wear brightly coloured clothes to school has a power that no advertising or PR agency can ever deliver in a campaign. It is raw. It is authentic. It is where Mr. Schultz should begin building his brave and much needed conversation about race in America, all while ensuring that Starbucks Corporation and his voice are always in the background, creating the safe zones, providing the platforms and championing everyday voices until one-day they light the spark that will get everyone speaking out, across America.

Stop Using ‘Category Experience’ as a Criteria to Hire an Agency

If I had a penny for every time a client Request for Proposal (RFP) document asked if the agency has relevant category experience, I would be rich and retired today…

Not sure if this is something clients are taught in some secret “client” school but it has become a global epidemic and I for one am completely unable to understand why. For those not from the wicked world of advertising and marketing – when a prospective client is looking to hire a new ad agency they send out an RFP and it always asks if the agency has relevant category experience (they are most often eliminated if they do not). For example, Mercedes-Benz would look for an agency with automotive experience and Benadryl for one with pharmaceutical/healthcare category experience.

I have never understood why it is so important for an automaker to only find someone who has sold a car before. Or why they believe that an agency that has sold cars is the only one capable of selling another car. One would think that clients would seek out agencies that have the greatest salespeople. People who have done great work across many different categories; rather than limiting themselves to car salesman. If I were a client I would never limit myself when selecting a new agency partner. There is good reason why it is so hard for consumers to tell automotive, financial services and pharmaceutical advertisements apart. The best way to illustrate my point is by using a golfing analogy.

All professional golfers play on many different courses around the world. With every new course they need to navigate a totally different layout, wind conditions, sand quality and even climate and vegetation make a dramatic difference in everything from distance control to putting green speeds. Most good golfers are able to negotiate these aspects and sufficiently play a competitive round but great golfers have the ability to raise their game. They can take their past experiences and combine it with innate skills and talent, adapt their game, and excel in new and varying conditions. As a result, after spending a very short time learning the intricacies of the new course, they are able to master it and win.

Great agency practitioners are the same way. They have the necessary skills to adapt to the needs of any category and client because the fundamentals of great advertising never change – a great strategy, a powerful customer insight and creative work built on an idea. This is what differentiates iconic brands from regular brands and courageous clients from clients.

I have also found that agencies and agency folk with strong cross-category experiences bring not only a fresh set of eyes to a challenge but also richer perspectives that ultimately lead to better solutions for their clients. Over my career I have sold ice-cream, complex CRM solutions, baby products and even launched a television channel. It is our wealth of cross-category experiences that ensures we are well-versed enough to develop a corporate M&A strategy one day and help market a dandruff shampoo the next.
So the next time you are selecting a new agency, look for diversity of experience versus specific category experience – you might just end up being delighted by the ground breaking and category re-defining work your agency delivers.