Amanda Lannert

A couple years ago, a team at Volkswagen turned a flight of stairs in a Stockholm train station into a giant piano. The theory was that if you made stairs more fun, fewer people would choose the escalator. It turned out to be a good theory when 66 percent more people chose the stairs once they knew they’d be playing a tune on their way out of the subway. 

This got me thinking not only about how cool Volkswagen is, but about the effects fun can have on our customers and clients, not to mention our own employees. Fact is, it’s a treat to work with people who know how to have a good time and companies that foster a fun culture have been shown to be better at retaining employees.

And yet, in my experience, too many businesses unwittingly limit the fun to lunchtime conversations between employees and occasional outbursts in the break room. Meanwhile, everything client- or customer-facing feels as though it’s been run through a highly effective humor-extracting device.

Isn’t it reasonable to suggest that if I love working with, say, Ryan, because he’s smart and cracks me up, that our customers and clients may appreciate Ryan’s personality too? That the average consumer doesn’t want to read mind-numbing ROI-based marketing messages any more than you or I do? We at Jellyvision work — and it is work — but we work to think of our target markets not as demographic categories, but as individuals who would appreciate creativity and humor in an explanation of their health benefits as much as they would in a discussion with a relative about Uncle Lou’s new girlfriend.

Granted, you might wonder whether humor fits naturally with your brand, not to mention with that of your customers and clients. Fair enough. I may be a little biased working for a place called Jellyvision. And perhaps there are topics where it is better to convey an air of thoughtful, razor-like focus, such as… airline safety.

Enter Southwest Airlines. They’ve successfully walked that serious/playful line by taking subject matter that is uniquely scary and boring and getting travelers to actually pay attention by focusing on the unique comedic sensibilities of their employees. Their flight attendants rank at the top of all airlines for customer satisfaction, as does the company in general. Their sense of fun and their creative marketing direction not only captures the attention of their audience, but results in the appreciation of their customers, building loyalty, differentiation and ROI.

So. How do you bring more fun to your work?

Hire funny people

That doesn’t mean hire comedians. It means place a premium on candidates who, in addition to possessing the skill set their role requires, have a good sense of humor. If someone can have fun in an interview, it’s likely they’ll bring that sensibility to their work.

Get rid of robotic language

Look at all the ways you interact with prospects and customers — automated voice responses and e-mails, form letters, everything — and toss out every phrase that sounds like a robot wrote it. Our standard, semi-automated reply to job applicants, for example, was written by one of our creative staff. It assures candidates that each application will be read by “a real human or two” and concludes with the line, “I don’t have any pull around here, but I’m rooting for you.” More famously, Groupon allows people to unsubscribe while making one last, and lasting, impression. It’s a great example of using humor to remain on task while not getting in the way. Go here to see it: www.groupon.com/unsubscribe

Be funny on task

Effective humor isn’t about peppering punch lines onto your existing content. The creativity and humor should work at the service of the goals. It should be woven into how you communicate with your audience about your product and about renewing, unsubscribing or buying.

While “fun” might not be synonymous with your “Brand Voice,” ultimately, your prospects and customers experience your brand largely through interactions with the people in your company. So unleash your funniest, most creative and delightful personalities on your marketing, customer service, and internal communications. Job satisfaction may just skyrocket, and customer loyalty will likely follow suit.

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service. You can reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606, ext. 116.

Last Wednesday, I made a mistake. It was a simple error, but one that had pretty embarrassing consequences. The Jellyvision Lab is beefing up our financial controls, so I wanted to get my hands dirty in our online payroll system during our period of transition. The first week that I was responsible for payroll, I overlooked that submissions are due at 4 p.m., not the end of the day. For the first time in 14.5 years, Jellyvision had blown a payroll and people were going to be paid late (unacceptable) or be given a printed check they’d have to manually deposit (also unacceptable, to me). And it was squarely and solely my fault.

In a last ditch effort for clemency, I called the CEO of our payroll provider at 6:20 p.m. Seven minutes later, he called me back from his cell phone, because he was personally marching over to customer service to see that my case was handled promptly. Long story short: They saved the day — payroll went out on time and Jellyvision staff was none the wiser (until now). 

But there’s more to the silver lining. My payroll gaffe got me thinking about business mistakes in general. We’re all working harder, faster, pushing the boundaries of technology and people to their limits and meanwhile giving ourselves increasingly compressed deadlines. Hanging on the wall at Facebook is the following quote: “Done is better than perfect.” Accordingly, mistakes are going to happen. 

Perhaps we’re missing a huge opportunity if we don’t figure out how to treat mistakes as a matter of course and figure out how we respond to, manage and improve from them. With humility, I offer the following suggestions for turning business mistakes into ingredients for a stronger company:

Get over the fear. Everyone makes mistakes. We just aren’t robots (yet). We are going to make mistakes. Some of them are going to be embarrassing and we will want to hide under our desks and call our mothers. But if we get over the fear of imperfection, we’ll be able to recover more quickly.

Transparency prevents bigger problems. If you make a mistake, say you’re sorry and take full responsibility for it. I didn’t enjoy telling my finance director that I’d dropped the ball on payroll. But the fact is, a business mistake, like a business success, is about the business and not about ego. The goal was to fix the mistake. That’s easier to do when you’ve got smart people helping you, which they can’t do if you don’t come clean. Fess up, be a good role model in demonstrating accountability and handle your mess.

Treat each situation with empathy and appropriate urgency. One of the reasons I’m so smitten with the way our payroll provider handled the situation is that they seemed to feel my pain. The company moved aggressively, and everyone owned the problem even though it was my mistake not the payroll provider’s. Moreover, I still have seen countless examples of deft handling of a misstep leading to greater relationships and more trust than before.

Share your war stories so they don’t happen again.  Jellyvision revamped its internal processes so that payroll is now due by end of day Tuesday instead of Wednesday. A small detail, but one that will fundamentally prevent this error in the future, which is my consolation prize.

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service.  Amanda has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local start ups and often waves to people she doesn’t even know on the street just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, birthed a gaggle of daughters and is known to award limitless slabs of grilled meats to coworkers who grow ironic mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606 x116.

Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

How to hire a rock star

Rumor has it that an economic recovery is underway. Maybe your employees haven’t ditched their chairs to sit on piles of cash (yet), but it’s at least evident from the slight uptick in the job market. If you’re fortunate enough to be adding to your teams this year, you’re probably doing so with great caution so getting the very best people matters more than ever.

Surely we all understand the costs — in lost productivity, morale and coffee — of making a disastrous hire. And most likely, your hiring skills are honed such that you can weed out these obvious stinkers during the initial interviews, if not before. The trick, though, is finding the truly great in a sea of good enough — finding a candidate who’s an indispensable game changer and not just another competent game player.

In my experience, it’s not dumb luck, but rather a combination of a rigorous process, an investment of effort and creativity, and a willingness to trust your gut (but only if it has largely served you well in the past. Otherwise, trust someone else who has a better one).

Here are a few proven tricks to jumpstart your talent scouting efforts:

1. Invest care and creativity in your job description.

If you’re using dry, boilerplate job descriptions, get ready to read lots of dry, boilerplate applications. Instead of viewing your job description as a classified ad, think of it as a marketing effort aimed at your ideal future employees. They’re not going to work for you, let alone apply to work for you, let alone even read your job description, if it doesn’t speak to them. Also, when you put time and effort into your postings, you’ll be pleased to see that great candidates do the same, and then it’s much easier to pick them out of the clutter.

2. Require cover letters and weigh them heavily.

Thanks to the Internet and fancy Word templates, anyone can crib together a smart-looking resume. But a compelling, thoughtful and well-written cover letter — those tend to come only from bright, interesting people. Great writing skills are an asset in any position, so it’s safe to assume that if people can’t craft an engaging page about themselves for a job they want, they’re not going to be any more engaging when, say, communicating with one of your customers. The time you spend reading all of those cover letters is time you won’t spend interviewing a bunch of duds. Candidates won’t do it, you fear? They will if they are humble, committed, caring and interested people, which are key characteristics of a true rock star employee.

 

3. Have an audition.

There’s a difference between talking about expertise and actually having any. We require our writers to pass writing tests. Our engineers have all passed coding tests. Our salespeople have prospected for their jobs. Our project managers weren’t hired until they demonstrated an ability to assemble a production schedule and impress us in some client-handling role-plays. And our marketing guy who bragged in his cover letter about making the best chili in the Midwest? Well, it’s a bit spicy for my tastes, but the point is, no one should be hired for merely talking the talk.

4. Weigh “DNA” over experience.

Greg Gretsch, a 2009 Midas Winner at Sigma Partners (and an investor in The Jellyvision Lab) says a secret to his success is picking A teams with B ideas over B teams with A ideas — because really great people can adjust to bumps in the road, whereas B players can drop a perfectly thrown spiral pass. So if someone comes in with smarts, hunger and a phenomenal work ethic, they just might be a better business bet than the perfect resume fronted by someone who lacks passion, intuition or creativity, for example, which are all characteristics that really can’t be learned.

5. Be patient.

For me, this one’s the hardest. When you’ve got financial targets and deadlines looming, it’s tempting to staff up with B teamers and bulldoze forward. But the truth is — whether you’re a small outfit or a ginormous conglomerate — a handful of rock star employees is better than a roomful of roadies — every time.

Truly great employees are rare, as you may know from all the times you wished you were working with more of them. All the more reason to be patient. Position yourself properly, make yourself visible to them, and they’ll appear. And when they do, you’ll know it.

Some inspiring job postings:

Designer: http://www.zefrank.com/jobz/

Engineer: http://blog.reddit.com/2010/08/reddit-is-hiring.html

Intern: http://lowercasellc.com/ranchhands/

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees, and reduce the costs of customer service. Lannert has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local startups and often waves to people she doesn’t even know on the street, just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, birthed a gaggle of daughters and is known to award limitless slabs of grilled meats to co-workers who grow ironic mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606, ext. 116.

Sunday, 26 December 2010 19:00

You seem boring

Your prospects and customers — not to mention potential new hires, competitors and your mother — hit your website at every stage of the sales cycle, from initial awareness to final due diligence.

Your mom is just looking for your work number again. Everyone else, though? They’re on your site to learn as much about your business as possible without having to actually talk to you. They want to know how your products or services can help them, how you differ from your competitors, how much you cost and, very importantly, who you guys actually are.

And that’s why, sooner or later, interested prospects will click that “about us” link on your site. They want to know who’s going to be at the other end of the line when they call. They want to know if they should bother calling.

Unfortunately, most “about us” pages consist of mind-numbingly dull corporate histories and bland mission statements with phrases like “mission critical” and “best in class.” Do you know the last time that the phrase “best in class” really made an impression on someone? Nineteen ninety-never.

Your “about us” page should accomplish two goals:

1. Create a memorable impression of how you’re better than your competition.

2. Give prospects an accurate sense of the actual people they’d be working with if they contact you.

Here are four steps you can take with your “about us” page to accomplish those goals.

1. Don’t use jargon.
Again, we’re talking about people who have expressed a genuine interest in knowing more about you. Let them know you’re interesting, thoughtful people by avoiding corporate-speak and buzzwords. Try reading the copy aloud. If it feels inauthentic to say, then it’s a boring read. If it’s very similar to your competitors, you’re doing your prospects — and yourself — a disservice. Scrap it and start over. Try recording yourself while explaining to a friend how your company started, how you’re different and why anyone would want to become a customer. Transcribe that text as your new first draft. The more authentic, the better.

2. Do use pictures.
It’s about “us” versus about “our product.” Executive bios are a good beginning, but how can you stretch beyond the confines of the typical bio to communicate not just “competent leadership” but also “interesting, curious, hardworking, committed, funny, golf-fanatic human beings”? Are there any particularly meaningful company events that you can show pictures of? An “employee profile of the month” to give a sense of the real people behind your product or service? A product may win the RFP but human beings maintain the relationships over the long haul. Showing these people is an important differentiator.

3. Be funnier.
Much of my business relies on bottling up the attributes of the top-performing salespeople at Fortune 500 companies. But it turns out, most top performers (most successful human beings in general, in fact) are fascinating people with a good sense of humor. I’m not suggesting you turn your “about us” page into a National Lampoon’s script, and yes, humor is arguably inappropriate if you’re selling coffins. I’m simply recommending adding some personality and pointing out that humor is a key component of most personalities. At the end of the day, people like to do business with people they like. Funny is likable.

4. Provide testimonials.
The fact that you and everyone on your payroll think your company rocks is excellent but not surprising or compelling. When actual customers attest to how great you are, that carries a bit more weight with your prospects. When possible, let others tell your story.

Many companies believe the “about us” section is under the purview of the marketing department, but telling the story of who your company is and what makes it special is one of the most important and potentially rewarding jobs of executive leadership. As you’re thinking about your own “about us” page, look at about.zappos.com, www.southwest.com/about_swa/ or others for inspiration.

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the Interactive Conversation company, which creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service. Lannert has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local startups and often waves at strangers just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Mount Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, and is known to award limitless grilled meat to co-workers who grow mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606, ext. 116.