Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On trust and good corporate responses - the pragmatic response that Steve Kovak gave to Robert Scoble

This is a follow-up to THREE posts that I've previously written - my September 3 post Is "trust" about to jump the shark?, my September 8 post Hackham girls in a stormwater drain - I use the word "trust" myself, and my September 11 post A pragmatic way to respond to negative feedback. The latter post is the most relevant, since it takes Joan Koerber-Walker's suggestions in her post Responding to Feedback in a New Age of Communications to the story (courtesy eSarcasm) about a self-contradicting press release from Pragmatic Marketing - and, more importantly, the superior way that Pragmatic Marketing responded to the online criticism.

Well, Pragmatic Marketing isn't the only organization that knows how to artfully respond to negative criticism. Robert Scoble reported on a similar incident that occurred while he was talking to Ford representative Steve Kovak.

Scoble starts his post by using that word that will soon be overused - trust. After he talked about Chris Brogan's book "Trust Agents," Scoble launched into the main point of his post.

Here we have a new trust agent to study. His name is Steve Kovak and he runs the teams at Ford that build safety features into their cars like radar systems and airbags and the like.

Now Ford, while in many respects the shining star of the traditional group of American car companies, certainly has worldwide competition - a fact that Scoble brought up at the very first opportunity.

Of course, what did I do? I told him quickly I bought a Toyota Prius, a car I really love.

Now there are several ways that Kovak could have responded to that remark. Before I tell you what he said, let's review Joan Koerber-Walker's suggestions one more time. Again we have to bear in mind that Koerber-Walker was talking about service failures, and the Kovak-Scoble example doesn't really fit into that category. But there was one thing that Koerber-Walker said that is relevant here.

And as to putting up your dukes to start swinging in cyberspace – Please don't! Most of us do not want to be subjected to that.

Let me take a detour down another road for a moment. Robert Scoble himself linked to one way to respond to an endorsement of a competing product. Before I tell the story, I should disclose that I worked for Motorola for eight years, so I can clearly picture both sides of this story.

[Microsoft's Steve] Ballmer was making his big entrance -- slapping hands, running around, and generally whooping things up, as is his tradition at these events. That was when he spotted someone at field level, allegedly a member of the Windows group, using an iPhone to take his picture.

Ballmer grabbed the Apple device from the employee and made some funny remarks as everyone booed. Then he put it on the ground and pretended to stomp on it, before walking away.

The scene was visible on the big screen, so even people in the upper deck could see what was happening. Later, during his presentation on stage, Ballmer referred to the episode again, teasing the person and making it clear that he hadn't forgotten what happened.

But what's better is the hidden story about the post-incident fallout. The writer of the story above, Todd Bishop, then said:

Microsoft employees alluded to the incident on Twitter...

Bishop then linked to http://twitter.com/cuddlebottoms/statuses/3897453555. I followed the link, and here's what I got:

Hmm, a "that page doesn't exist" message for a tweet that was prominently linked to in a blog post. Further analysis revealed that @cuddlebottoms now has protected updates. Speculation runs rampant - did some Microsoft executive choose to spank cuddlebottoms for sharing internal information about a funny incident at a Microsoft event? If so, it doesn't look good for Microsoft, which has a history of suppressing information - even if Microsoft was right in what it did (and Michael Hanscom agreed that Microsoft had the right to terminate him for the pictures of Apple computers on a Microsoft loading dock). Still, Ballmer's attitude and Microsoft's action paint a negative picture of a company that apparently doesn't want to acknowledge that competitors are out there, and people like them.

Enough about Microsoft - back to Ford. So anyways, when Robert Scoble began singing the praises of the Toyota Prius, how did Ford's Steve Kovak respond? I'll let Scoble tell the story:

What did he do? He admitted he bought one too. Then he promptly praised it. Then he explained how his product was different. He also made sure to mention his company's advantages (that they've been doing this longer).

So Kovak acknowledged the good points about Scoble's chosen product, then made his case - rather than refusing to acknowledge that a competitor had any good points, or (worse yet) berating Scoble for not buying American.

And guess what? Treating Robert Scoble in a positive way had...a positive impact!

All three got me to trust him. Well, as much as I'd trust anyone pitching a product.

If you take a moment and think about it, there are clear advantages in a positive response (what I'll call the "Pragmatic Kovak" method) vs. a negative response (what I'll call the "Ballmer" method). If I tell Company A representative that I like Company B, and the representative ends up Ballmering me, I immediately end up on the defensive, being told that I'm wrong (or at best uninformed). But if the representative chooses to Pragmatically Kovak me instead, acknowledging that Company B has some strengths and THEN making the case for Company A, I'm going to have a lot more positive attitude.

Not only do you have a happy customer, but you also have a happy company. Using Ford as an example, I can point to one happy Ford employee because of Ford's approach to the competition. Scott Monty commented on Scoble's post, and this is (part of) what he said:

Robert, you've discovered one of the secret ingredients that helped me make the decision to take a job with Ford just over a year ago, when American auto companies weren't viewed so positively: passion. But it's more than that. It's passion that's backed up by really solid leadership, a strong plan, and a product lineup that's better than it's been in a long time.

And how did Ford get there? Certainly not by burying our heads in the sand or putting our hands over our ears and saying "la la la la...I can't hear you." In fact, it's been a constant push to improve our products and our company, and looking at the competition for what they're doing. A great encapsulation of that is when I had Alan Mulally taking questions on Twitter unplanned. Someone asked what kind of car he drove. Instinctively, I hesitated, as I thought it might be a security risk, but Alan was eager to answer. And this is what he said:

"I drive a different car every day. And not just Ford vehicles; cars from every manufacturer."

The CEO of Ford goes out of his way to ensure he experiences other products in order to keep us competitive - or ahead of the competition. ;-).

Scott Monty is jazzed about his job. Steve Kovak is jazzed about his job.

Are the anonymous Microsoft iPhone user and @cuddlebottoms jazzed about their jobs? Or are they even now planning to offer their inquisitive talents to some other employer, having decided that Microsoft doesn't really want them?
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