How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want

Due to a misunderstanding, at the last minute before takeoff an airline refused to allow a pair of special-needs passengers to fly. This upset the passengers deeply and stranded them at an unfamiliar airport.

No one should have been surprised that intense criticism of the airline spread rapidly via social media, portraying them as bad-guys even though the incident was (arguably) a one-time mistake by an isolated group of employees.

This wound up being a good thing, because:

The airline discovered this issue, apologized to the would-be passengers and their families, refunded their money, offered them additional free flights, and came up with a new process to keep the problem from recurring. All-in-all, the airline—our hometown favorite here in Seattle, Alaska Airlines—took a regrettable mistake, and did everything possible (considering it was after the fact) to make it right with those affected. In this way Alaska Airlines also earned positive PR by showing they’re the kind of company that owns up to their mistakes and jumps on an opportunity to do the right thing when they can.

> Read more about the “special needs passengers stranded by Alaska Airlines” incident

> Another great PR turnaround story:  FedEx responds after delivery guy caught on video throwing computer equipment over a fence

This post isn’t about Alaska Airlines—it’s about the other guys

I’m pleased to see more and more stories about companies turning customer complaints into positive publicity. But this post is for the other guys, anyone who isn’t sure they have the right attitude, either individually or organizationally, to handle all customer criticism in a positive way.

Poster child for the other guys: Continue reading “How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want”

3 excellent books about how people make decisions

On the recommendation of a Twitter friend I recently read (or, rather, listened to the audio editions of) three excellent books about how people make decisions:

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

All three contain countless nuggets of recent scientific insight into behavioral economics, or why people and markets behave as we do, as explained by three very cogent thinkers. All three focused on defining the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of different brain areas; how human impulses mesh and are sorted and acted on; predictable biases of both “rational” and “emotional” sorts; and, what we can do to avoid—and manipulate—biases and errors. Interestingly, all three authors acknowledged the increasing difficulty academics are having in drawing sharp lines between “rational” and “emotional” behavior when confronted with contemporary knowledge about brain function, but all three attempted to draw distinctions between “rational” and “emotional” decisions nonetheless—with varying degrees of success.

Playing poker
Playing poker well involves combining “rational” and “emotional” decisions and knowing when to do which.

The book I enjoyed the most was Jonah Lehrer’s, which I could oversimplify by describing as “neuroscience discovers B.F. Skinner” because of his focus on learned behavior. But perhaps that’s because Lehrer’s approach best fit my personal preconceptions about behavior—and the fact that B.F. Skinner was still working at the psych department where I received my undergraduate degree in psychology way back when I was in school.

Ariely’s book is premised on the idea that traditional economic theory is Continue reading “3 excellent books about how people make decisions”

Confusion over the meaning of ROI in social media

You say tomato, I say tomahto….

Here’s a quick vocabulary lesson I’ve learned about social media ROI (“return on investment”), a topic I’ve been writing a lot about lately. In a nutshell: ROI means different things to different people, so it pays to be specific when you are talking about it.

Who’s Occupying the Occupy Movement?

Ironically, rigid adherence to an “open” communication process undermined communication.

Occupy Seattle General Assembly (by Jaxon Brooks via Wikipedia)
Occupy Seattle General Assembly (by Jaxon Brooks via Wikipedia)

Here in Seattle the local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, appropriately named Occupy Seattle, recently occupied itself–or so it was reported by Dominic Holden in the weekly arts, entertainment, and politics publication The Stranger: Occupy Seattle Disrupts Pro-Occupy Wall Street Forum, Drives Away Supporters.

To summarize: while certain Occupy Seattle “representatives” were participating in a pro-Occupy public panel discussion including prominent local sympathizers, other “representatives” effectively prevented the panel members from speaking.

I spent some time reading the comments to the Stranger post, trying to understand what had happened, and gleaned two insights: Continue reading “Who’s Occupying the Occupy Movement?”

A 1 page (2 sided) consensus “cheat sheet”

My previous post describes the benefits and limitations of the five-degree consensus process that I recommend to clients who use consensus decision making as part of their repertoire of business skills.

In this entry I offer you a downloadable chart plus a condensed, one-page explanation of how to use a consensus scale which you may want to print out for your own use or e-mail to friends and co-workers for their use. (If you’re really hard core, print the chart on special white-board paper for laser printers. Then you can mark and erase right on it as much as you want.)

DOWNLOAD IT HERE: > Using a five-degree consensus scale to reach consensus: the cheat sheet (in PDF Acrobat format)

To download it to your computer, right-click with your mouse (or on a Mac, option-click).

When, again, is a consensus process particularly appropriate? See my post from December 8, 2005 for a more detailed answer to this question. In general, a consensus process may be valuable when:

  • you want a proposal examined carefully. A consensus process pushes people proposing a course of action to clarify their reasoning and pushes others to wrap their minds around the proposal, encouraging everyone to understand it, ask questions, and offer input.
  • you fear weak follow-through, and thus you want to secure support up front or quit before setting a decision up for failure. A consensus process pushes everyone in a group to assume responsibility for a decision, including follow-through down the road.
  • you aren’t in a desperate hurry. Although a rapid decision may be reached by consensus, for speed alone you’re frequently better off assigning a qualified solo decision maker.

A simple consensus building process

A simple consensus process can reveal whether the members of a group agree about a proposed course of action while promoting discussion that can lead to agreement.

Polling a group using a five degree consensus scale “takes the temperature” of a group, instantly demonstrating when a proposal requires no further consideration either because it already has universal support or because opposition is overwhelming. When consensus for or against a proposal does not already exist, the scale identifies whose concerns need to be addressed and their degree of difference from others in the group, so that an effort can be made to close the gap or abandon the attempt to reach consensus.

Productive discussion is encouraged because it’s easy and acceptable for group members to express uncertainties, differences of opinion, and alternative approaches without appearing hostile, disruptive, or uncooperative towards the group or the group’s leader. Consensus is not a foregone conclusion using the scale, but the give-and-take atmosphere it facilitates helps with obtaining buy-in, discovering new options and changes in the plan, and enabling movement towards or away from support for a proposal.

Many consensus scales are in use utilizing hand gestures, cards, colors, or numerical tallies. The simplest might be the three-degrees scale such as “hot, neutral, cold” or “yes, maybe, no,” or “go, caution, stop,” but I find that a slightly wider range is useful in most cases. The following is a five-point scale I have adapted from a system sometimes called “shades of consensus” or “levels of consensus.”

After a plan of action has been proposed, each participant in the decision chooses a number from one to five to signal their degree of support. These numbers signal roughly the following:

      1: Yes. Let’s do it.
      2: OK. It’s good enough.
      3: Maybe. I have questions.
      4: Wait. Can we change it?
      5: No. Let’s do something else.

After everyone has weighed-in, all ones and twos show consensus support for a plan, although time might be well spent clarifying what, if anything, could be changed to bring twos up to ones. All fours and fives shows consensus opposition to a plan, although discussion may still be useful to generate a shared sense of why a proposal was rejected and to spur thinking about alternatives. Threes suggest more explanation is needed.

Some number of ones or twos alongside fours or fives demonstrates a lack of clear consensus and need for further discussion or in-depth exploration of options, if consensus remains the group’s goal. Polling a group with a consensus scale is an iterative process, which is to say, multiple polls can be taken to discover movement in consensus rankings, or lack thereof, after discussion.

It’s worth emphasizing that the whole point of this is to walk through the process, not to achieve a pre-determined outcome. What is more, deadlock is an entirely acceptable result using this technique. Using a consensus scale does not guarantee that a particular proposal will ultimately receive either consensus support or opposition. A strong contrary position taken by even one participant is enough to deny “consensus decision” status – but of course, there are always alternative proposals, and alternative ways to arrive at decisions besides consensus.

When a group is deadlocked, the value of a consensus process is that it reveals the existence of the deadlock and, hopefully, the reasons for it. Typically this leads to a new proposals which address the concerns on both sides of the consensus chart in a way which unifies everyone.

If a consensus can’t be reached, but a decision must be made regardless, it may become necessary to abandon the effort to reach consensus and to use another decision-making style instead. For example, if a board must arrive at a certain decision within a certain time frame, a failure to reach consensus may mean that a simple majority vote will be required instead. Or in a business group, it may become necessary for the senior person in the hierarchy to make an executive decision, delegate, or otherwise choose a different course for decision making. Either way, a group should begin a consensus decision-making process knowing the consequences it will face for failing to come to a decision, whether that means accepting responsibility for no decision being delivered or understanding that the decision will pass out of their hands and on to another process or person.

Regardless of the ultimate result, a consensus scale makes it a no-brainer for a diverse group of people to express and develop individual levels of understanding and enthusiasm, while making it easy for leaders to gauge the support a proposal will receive if it is adopted.

Balancing cost and quality in decision-making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (just over 4 minutes listening time–it’s a 2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


There is an apparent conflict between making decisions efficiently, which is to say, using a low-cost process for decision making, and making efficient decisions, the decisions that are most likely to lead to good quality results.

Decision process is important in several ways. For instance, delegation is an efficient decision-making process when it reduces the number of people involved and thus the total number of hours put into making a decision. This is true whether or not the person given decision-making authority has the most expertise in the area of the decision. Delegation also has potential intrinsic benefits. It can build decision makers’ expertise and help them develop in their organizational roles. In large part one learns to be a better leader by leading, and a salesperson by selling, and so on. Thus, even if the decision arrived at by a delegatee could have been improved upon by someone with more expertise, an organization benefits by using delegation as a process because of the time savings and the delegatee’s expertise building and role development.

But there can be costs associated with quick decisions, and decisions involving fewer people, as compared to slower decisions and decisions involving more people.

Decision quality, as well as the decision makers themselves, may benefit immensely when goals, assumptions, and alternatives are fully discussed. Even the most experienced, most qualified, most respected, and most intuitively gifted decision makers will face decisions that are outside of their expertise, or for which they lack adequate information, or which fall into their personal blind spots. Properly framed challenges help decision makers “check their math” and discover answers that may have been hidden.

Or as Richard Doherty was quoted by USA Today as saying about the turnaround at Apple when Steve Jobs resumed its leadership: “[H]e asked these amazing questions, and the company started to transform.”

Answering questions also helps decision makers articulate their decisions to the degree necessary to sketch a vision that others in the organization can get behind and follow through on. As well, those who ask questions develop their domain expertise, and refine their art as decision makers, by running through the mental workout of formulating and presenting questions.

But decisions which include the input and approval of larger numbers of people can be inefficient from a process perspective. Learning curves, egos, politics, or simply the sheer volume of people who want to be heard can make group processes extremely time consuming.

Your best practice will be to remain aware of the potential tradeoffs between efficient decisions and efficient decision-making. Make strategic choices somewhere between the two extremes, accept the potential downsides of your choices, and be prepared to deal with pitfalls should they appear.