Meanings and Feelings

Winning Hearts and Minds

Firstly, I want to thank everyone that reached out to me over the holiday period after my first Curious Cognition blog article. It struck a chord with many of you and so instead of focusing this article purely on product management, which was my original plan, I am going to go a little deeper on why storytelling works and what it means in a B2B contest. I am also going to talk about the importance of persona for product management and messaging as part of the article.

I have recently had many colleagues and friends telling me to, “drop the whole storytelling thing” now. They have told me to focus on my product management skills as they are what organisations will want and will pay top dollar for. Which is why our focus for curious cognition is product management related. Having said that, authentic storytelling as a skill is so compelling and useful to different roles inducing product managers, that I feel it deserves at least a little more attention in this article. We are all familiar with the concepts of winning people’s hearts and minds, but do we win the heart or the mind first? Does it even matter if B2B is only organisations talking to other organisations?

Where is the P in B2B?

Is there such a thing as Business 2 Business? Or is it Business 2 Person 2 Business in reality – (B2P2B)? I hope we all know the answer to this – people are still the interfaces to business, not exclusively of course, as API’s and the handoffs between them play an increasingly essential role in digital business; in true platform business they play a vital role. However, I want this article to focus on people. We will leave API’s for another article, people in sales, in marketing, in product management, in finance, in purchasing… You name it, these people are everywhere and to make it worse they are different colours, have different attitudes and backgrounds and depending on the day, they may be in a good or bad mood. Yet in traditional B2B business marketing, you would think people don’t exist. Yes, there are pictures of people everywhere in B2B marketing and yes, they are different colours, sexes and backgrounds as you would expect.

A lot of the time however, the content that’s communicated in B2B sounds like a business talking to business:

“I am a leader in my field; therefore, you obviously want to buy from me”

“We have more of X and more of Y, and therefore you want to buy from me”

Does this sound familiar? If you don’t believe me, go and look on the web now, I just found half a dozen examples. I don’t want to make myself unpopular, so I am not going to share them! My point is many businesses sound arrogant pompous and insincere.

In some cases, more progressive messaging teams are building messages that speak to the users or the buyers, however often the two personas get confused. I have seen this problem first hand in my career and it’s a problem not just for sales and marketing, it’s a challenge for product managers as well. If you don’t have a clear view of who the customer is, how can you prioritise the requirements for your backlog? How do you prevent bloatware and all the additional costs it drives? (build time, quality assurance, support, training, sales enablement, etc.) In my personal experience, I have seen products that did not know who the target audience were, this kind of mistake is value destroying and it is not as uncommon as it might sound.

I have this feeling

As people, we are all share many of the same feelings. Recent research shows there are at least seven universal facial expressions that cross-cultural barriers. These are: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, contempt and surprise. We can all recognise them, we are pre-programmed from shortly after birth to do so. A message that resonates with us that triggers a feeling, is far more powerful than one that “bounces off”. A lot of B2B marketing in my view bounces off customers. It fails to recognise that we are emotional beings with feelings of hope and aspirations. I think, we are seeing more businesses that would have traditionally sold directly to the business, increasingly sell to the individuals within a business. The first company that did this was Salesforce.com who launched with an inspired marketing campaign build around No Software. They were one of the first Software as a service (SaaS) business models that are becoming increasingly standard today – it’s all about subscriptions. They use the cognitive bias known as ‘Anchoring’ – this is the human tendency to frame subsequent assessments around an initial piece of information. By claiming the solution was No Software, they made it easier for the sale people who they targeted directly to work around the IT departments. It was the beginning of the end for the IT department as the sole owner of the software solution. Today we see more and more businesses targeting the end user directly. Project management tools like Monday.com and AirTable are good examples of this with Monday.com adverts proudly boasting “what it feels like to use Monday”. Their YouTube videos also talk about emotional things such as “Your girlfriend leaves you” hardly what we see from the traditional B2B marketing efforts.

So feelings do have a place in B2B marketing?

If feeling has a place, then emotions must have a place also. After all, feeling and emotions are effectively the same. The definition of a feeling is an emotional state or reaction. I think they do have a place and for me, this underlines why storytelling works. When we hear a good story, it triggers an emotional response. A ghost story where the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, or a story about overcoming adversity where we feel proud for the company we work for. If we want to trigger emotional responses, we need to consider the words we use carefully and with meaning when we build messaging frameworks in marketing and how we make marketecture’s in product management.  This link demonstrates how all these words matter and if we want to trigger an emotional response, we need to use adjectives, as this helps express the tone, feelings, and emotions of our words by accentuating the point. Picking the right adjectives for your product, narrative, purpose, values, vision or strategy matter… no, they REALLY matter.

Most of us are familiar with the research that shows how quickly interviewers make decisions. Much of this is based on feeling, heuristics and cognitive biases. Examples include halo/horn bias, affective bias, confirmation bias, anchoring bias (which I mentioned above) and nonverbal bias are some of the most significant used in interviews

So, if feelings matter, then the meanings of the words we use must also matter for all the communication we do – whether you’re writing product user stories, marketing copy, creating investment pitches, sales pitches, compiling an earnings announcement or announcing a new strategy or change in strategic direction. So often, getting everyone on the same page fails because we don’t consider just how much the messages matter and whether they contradict or support each other – they often contradict, especially in bigger business.

I have worked with organisations where the ‘strategy’ felt like a lottery of keywords and phrases, each selected by a different senior leader, all delivered as a smorgasbord of strategic options and generic statements. “Win in sales” – FFS! Who doesn’t want to win in sales?! I have also worked with organisations with a coherent, focused strategic narrative that inspired, focused and constrained the options before us and explained how we were going to achieve something. Getting everyone pointing in the same direction, committed to the cause, drinking the cool aid, motivated, excited, aligned… I could go on, but you get the idea. This can be so powerful and yet it’s far from universal, in part because everyone is using a different set of words to describe what they want to achieve. There is a general lack of alignment between intent and action, often because of the quality of communication – with many businesses favouring the number of communications over the over quality. The way messaging is built and managed also contributes to this challenge.

A physical feeling

All words have meanings, but some trigger feelings some of which can be visceral – a physical feeling brought about though emotions. I am guessing as I conclude, some of you will feel uneasy with all this talk of emotions in a B2B context. However, as we have established, even in B2B there are people – people with cognitive biases can’t help themselves. You can’t hope to win people over with logic alone, and many studies have shown this.  One pricing example: Two groups, equal groups, were offered two different offers a 35% discount or a staff discount at 30%. Logically you would expect the 35% to have performed better, but the staff discount with a compelling story performed better. Maybe because of the story that went around the pricing and because we expect staff to get the best discounts.

Next month I promise to leave the squishy feeling stuff alone. I am going to deep dive on a product topic that’s been described as ‘Elephant Carpaccio’ and often manifests its self as ‘How do you prioritise a backlog when it’s too big, and your senior leadership keep adding more to it.’

If your curious about the power of authentic storytelling in a business environment this is the event for you. You will hear from Jason Nash the founder of Curious Cognition, and about his work building a company narrative for Travelport supporting its repositioning effort form B2B Global Distribution System to B2B4C Travel Commerce & Retailing Platform. He will also share some storytelling tricks and tips.  You will find this interesting if you’re a B2B Brand Manager, Marketing Managers, Sales Managers and Product Managers.

Why Curious Cognition?

Why have we called the company Curious Cognition? Well, you need to read on to find out….and I’m hoping that the fact I posted a question will hook your interest and keep your attention. It’s a tried and trusted storytelling technique, and it leads into what I want to tell you about – what I’ve been doing and why I decided to leave Travelport. It begins back in January 2017 when I became fascinated by the power of authentic storytelling.

From selling to storytelling

I had just been promoted as part of a restructure into a newly created role of a chief storyteller at Travelport. I quickly set about enhancing my predominantly product management and marketing skill set with all I could find about storytelling. I interviewed a large number of senior stakeholders across the business to understand what everyone thought the current company story was. Unsurprisingly – this is common to many large companies – everyone had a different view of what they believed (we’ll come back to this in a while) the company story was.

Following the interviews, I spent time with Gordon Wilson Travelport’s CEO to capture his thoughts before we worked with the brand team to start to build out a company narrative. This drew on some of my newly discovered skills such as the seven-point story arc, the concept of the audience being the hero and the presenter being the mentor, all of which is designed to increase the empathy and authenticity of the story.

The Power of the Platform

Within a few weeks, we had built out a topline company narrative which became known internally as the “The power of the platform”. This story started to be shared with customers at our events and in one-on-ones during strategic reviews with key customers. After a few weeks of feedback and a few tweaks, it really started to resonate with customers. You know when a story is working because your audience leans into the room – you can physically see them lean forward and become much more intense and interested in what’s being said. When the story is crafted with the things the customer cares about, it starts to matter to them; it’s about them not you. Good delivery also clearly matters and helps the messages land.

Pitch perfect

Next up I worked on building out a curriculum so that I could train more people across the business on what was rapidly starting to feel like a superpower. I read a number of excellent books – you can find many on my goodreads.com list – and I watched and made detailed notes from the Ted Talks on storytelling. It’s amazing just how much free high-quality content you can find online….

With my newly-created curriculum, I started to work with different teams; up-skilling people on the basics and more advanced topics. All was going well, but I still did not feel that most people had the confidence to use it in their day-to-day engagements with customers. So as part of a sales academy programme, we rolled out training and we began something we called pitch perfect – giving the sales teams a safe environment where they could pitch ideas and get feedback on their upcoming customer meetings. I think it’s fair to say – and I will be interested to see if any of the Travelport team comment – that most people who attended not only understood why it worked, how to ‘do it’ and what they should do to be successful, but they also seemed genuinely energised by the process. Which brings me back to that point about ‘believing’. By turning them into believers in storytelling, it was turning them into believers in Travelport.

Seeing more and more success from the approach, I started to wonder what it was about authentic storytelling that made it work, and I began reading more around the subject.  I had previously read Hooked (by Nir Eyal) about how product managers could create addictive products. It talks about triggers, actions and variable rewards – such as all those little dopamine hits we get making the red dots disappear from our phone icons, the badges we get through gamification and much more. I then referenced that book to find others, coming across several books on heuristics, behavioural economics/behavioural sciences and cognitive biases. You can think of heuristics as cognitive shortcuts or rules of thumb that simplify decisions. Because our brains use lots of energy and the body is always looking to conserve energy, they are the shortcuts we use to make decisions. Some lead to cognitive biases affecting rationality and most crucial decision making. It’s heuristics and the associated biases that account for why storytelling works so well.

Today…

Today, a few short weeks before the end of 2018, I’m excited to be working on the next chapter of my life, building out my own consultancy focused on supporting product management teams and their executives who want to optimise the performance of their products and portfolios.  This falls squarely in my comfort zone of commercial product management, product P&L’s, pragmatic product management and, of course, lean start-up.  Plus I’ve remained active in coaching and working closely with a number of the product managers and proposition team members during my time at Travelport.  I’m focused right now on consulting engagements and finding one or two non-exec board roles. I’m convinced, however, that it’s going to be possible to create social and economic value from connecting the dots around cognitive biases and helping organisations and product managers build more effective messaging…and I have started to run some experiments, including lean start-up.

So, why Curious Cognition?

There are a few reasons. The first is the fact I have always had a very curious mind – I’m always reading something or listening to an audio book. A couple of years ago, I taught myself some iOS coding and built a few simple apps (following guides such as https://www.raywenderlich.com) as I thought it would be useful when discussing product requirements with developers – the fact it gets dark really early in the UK in the winter also helped! Second, I have always wanted to build my own product and I think I have some interesting ideas that I am working on right now.  Nothing to share publicly at this stage but stay tuned to find out more on that front. The final reason is a little more personal; my own curious cognition is driven through the simple fact that I suffer from dyslexia – which is a blessing and a curse. Reading and writing English is a chore and even with spell checkers I still find it to be a real effort sometimes. I will often write things as I would say them, leading to verbose and unclear sentence structure.

On the bright side, modern technologies have good workarounds tools like www.grammarly.com, audio books and voice recognition. Other strengths include the fact that I build relationships with people quickly, have good verbal communication skills and an IQ of 139 the last time it was tested. I would describe myself as a horizontal thinker – I join things up other people don’t see, I am quite creative and I used to be a wiz at organic chemistry, in-fact anything requiring 3D visualisation or spatial awareness. The other thing dyslexia has given me is a strong work ethic and maybe a little overachiever’s syndrome and a fear of failure. When you’re the stupid kid in the class you have to work harder than everyone else and then, one day, you’re not the stupid kid anymore. But by then the damage is done, and the work ethic is set. It’s funny how the last few weeks have made me realise some of these defects in my character are very ingrained.

Inspiring leaders

So, after two years of successful storytelling, I am totally confident that storytelling is a better approach to conventional presenting. There is no shortage of evidence for the benefits and a number of inspiring leaders have been focusing on its virtues for some time. I believe in the power of authentic storytelling; narratives that come to life and stick in the hearts and minds of the recipients. And it’s the cognitive biases that are at the heart of that reason that it works. If you want to influence behaviour, consider creating a good story for your products, for your strategy, for your review, for yourself.  Customers who have been won over by a good story are more likely to share it with others. And if you want people to remember you or your company, tell them a good, authentic story with all the details that give them a reason to care and reason to share it.

This is the first of my Curious Cognition blog articles – I would love your feedback. I know it’s a little longer then convention would recommend, but I have never been one to stick with convention.

Looking for growth in all the wrong​ places

Paid Engine of Growth

Many customers I meet are growing there business through the paid engine of growth (Lean Startup) in my view this is a risk and potentially unsustainable model. Google’s genius, more than anything else is its bidding model for Google Ad words. Its drive up the cost of AdWords for advertisers in a way that makes prices increase to a greater extent invisible to its customers, yet we see more and more money pouring into google. With Expedia and Booking spending over a $1B each per quarter (Skift Reseach numbers) before you take into account their metasearch business it’s very lucrative for Google. Then factor in the Airlines, Hotels, Car rental companies and we are talking about a lot of AdWords. If your smaller independent travel resellers how can you hope to compete?

Sticky engine of growth

In short, I think business needs to focus more on their sticky engine of growth (Lean Startup) where customer loyalty, lifetime value and superior customer experience are real drivers of value for customers. Don’t merely pay to get their attention, invest in your proposition – make it better, make it easier, make it simpler, make it so your customers would never dream of going elsewhere — investment in your sticky engine of growth, is an investment in your brand, in lifetime value and it should payback multiplies times over.

Customer experience = Emotional connections

Another article from earlier in 2018

We all make purchasing decisions based on a combination of facts and figures, but it’s the emotional connection, that drives our choices more than you might think. But how are customers emotions influenced or driven? Most of the time it’s through the experience you have received.  In recent years talk of customer experience has become deafening, today its seen as the primary battleground for completion and future business success. In work or personal life, we tend to seek out things we like (desire) and avoid things we dislike (pain), at its most simplistic this is what customer experience is all about. There are many tools and complexities around the subject such as value stream and customer journey mapping, but at its heart, it’s about building an emotional connection.

Design

Designing a great customer experience is not dissimilar to creating a value proposition for your customers, is all about understanding your customer’s pains, gains and job to be done[1]. Tools like the value proposition canvas can be valuable to help understand customers and create both user and buyer personas. Just a small increase in loyalty can significantly improve profitability, and numerous studies are available that demonstrate this. If your business’s engine or growth is primarily of the paid variety, (marketing and sales activity) as opposed to the sticky (high retention) or viral variety (customer referral). Increasing loyalty inevitably activates these other engines as happy customers become advocates and share their positive experiences with others, something that in today’s 24×7, social network connected world can happen very quickly indeed for good or ill!

Just as business performance. i.e. profit can be driven by reducing costs or increasing revenues customer experience can be influenced by removing pain (commonly referred to as friction) or increasing the customer’s gains (desire). We all know when we have had a good experience, in the travel world the consumer brands work hard to minimise the friction with a company like Uber often described as frictionless or easy to use. Mobile apps have taken this connected customer experience to the next level with many brands now offering apps. Mobile apps are an area Travelport has intimate knowledge of, as we work with some of the leading travel brands like Easy Jet, Singapore Airlines and Emeries to create and maintain their mobile apps and experiences, the power behind the app you might say.

Measurement

Measuring such emotional indicators is not simple in business, you apparently can’t look every customer in the eye to understand how they feel about you and your business. And Although Account management teams have regular contact you don’t always get the full picture. That’s where net promoter score (NPS) has proven to be a useful, not only as a leading measure for future sales. But also, to help understand customers real feeling about a brand, product, and or solution.  It’s at it’s most useful when applied to individual touch points in the customer journey, I.e. at the end of a support call or interaction with a website. These moments of truth give a barometer of customer sentiment in real time and on an ongoing basis. These kinds of feedback loops are comment place today across industry’s but are common in travel rank your driver, rank your room, rank your stay etc. And although they may not use the 0 – 10 scales and the ultimate question[2]  “How likely are you to recommend to a friend or colleague.”

In many established businesses grown by acquisitions and mergers, complexity is rife. Multiple back offices, CRM and support systems compete to be the one source of truth about the customer and the impacts inside the business are additional costs & complexity and experience for the customers that from the outside is one that feels disconnected and confused. I recently met a customer who said they wanted to ‘Uberize’ their customer experience, to compete with, as they put it ‘a new breed of ‘.

Travelport is not unlike many businesses in this regard, however, in 2018, we have some exciting new initiatives underway. A new CRM system that will enable us to deliver a single view of our customers, a new single telephony system that will facilitate intelligent call roughing, for our support teams. Making it easy to connect customers with problems to the right skilled support person. We are also focusing on better self-service tools like myTravelport that is designed to deliver more self-serve support, in the world of Amazon we all know how convenient this can be when done well.

But our efforts go further than that we are building customer experience thinking, into the products and services joining up the solutions we offer to travel suppliers, resellers and corporates. Products like SmartPoint and Agency effectiveness suite are focused on driving performance for the customers that use our platform, we’re helping them maximise the return on every trip they book with us. At Travelport we believe so firmly in the importance of customer experience, it makes up part of our customer promise in the power of the platform story, and it’s recently become part of our new purpose “to make the experience of buying and managing travel continually better.”


[1] The concept of jobs to be done come from Clayton Christensen who is best known for his book innovators dilemma

[2] The ultimate question 2.0 by Fred ReichheldRob Markey

 

Buzzwords, building trust and giving back

Building a website for yourself is not hard in today’s world and so as I embark on my new adventure I thought I would pull all my blog articles together into one place. Here is an article from earlier in the year.

Buzzwords

Earlier today I was emailed, with a request to take a look at an online article which was dishing out career advice for people in the travel tech industry. It featured the usual list of buzzwords (some of which I have changed to protect the innocent). We all know them, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Bots, Mobile, Quantum Computing. If your content creation, PR or thought leadership teams are not churning them out like water from a hosepipe how will you get recognise, how will your share of voice go up? How can you and your brand stand out from the crowd? I think we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask the questions Why? Why am I putting this article out? Why am I at work today? and why does any of it mater? In short, how do we build trust with our customers, our employees, our stakeholders? I would argue it’s not through churning out more of the same or strongly agreeing with everyone just because it’s easy. In a world of alternative facts and increasingly polar views, it’s more important than ever that we all stand up for what we believe matters and what is important. But also recognise that the good stuff happens in the grey space between extream points of view. Not sure you agree… Take a concept like traditional architecture its looking dated based on cloud computing which is increasingly making business consider if they need architecture, in the conventional sense. Or take Big data overused as a catchphrase, business needs data science, and most importantly a need a reason to do either.

I would argue the better skills for travel tech professionals are to have is an in-depth knowledge of product management, business model’s and value proposition design so they can partner more efficiently across the business, particularly with marketing and sales.

Renaissance

These are the skill combinations that make tech professionals unstoppable. Just like the 14th – 17th-century renaissance, where people with diverse skils delivered genuinely new ideas and created a better society. It’s these skill combos and diversity that enable lateral thinking and new ideas to be created. Yes, there is a place for deep knowledge in all business but it’s in the spaces that exist between business models and industries that new ideas are formed and new growth opportunities often make themselves apparent.

As a set of buzz words, the article I reviewed covered most of them from the last few years. However, today if your a travel tech expert I would not recommend extending your skills to take on mobile or big data better use of your time would be to continue into new areas like business models, value props, lean startup thinking, where you will become an unstoppable force for change. I would recommend recent books like Blue Ocean Shift,  Business Model Design, and The startup way  these will give the kinds of insights, which in my view let technologies expand their skills and career prospects beyond buzz words and across the travel and technology industry.