“If we make an exception for one customer, we’ll have to make them for everyone”

no parking signNo, you won’t.

What percentage of your customers contact customer support? 1%? 5%? Let’s be crazy-generous and say 10%.

What percentage of those ask for an exception? Maybe 50%.

So that’s 5% of your customers you’re giving an exception to.

Sure, maybe word spreads and now 75% of those contacting customer support are asking for an exception. That’s still only 7.5% of your customers.

Exceptions are possibly the most powerful tool you have in delighting customers. Who doesn’t rave about how a customer service agent bent the rules to do something nice for them? Zappos practically built their entire reputation and PR on bending the rules.

Yes, you need to have some restrictions so you don’t break the bank. But if 7.5% of your customers leave delighted and tell 5 friends each, you’ve just increased your userbase by 37%. Not too shabby.

Photo via Patricia H.

What if you subtracted “women” from that question?

For most* questions, if you replace “women” with “someone” and you get a different answer, there’s something wrong. Either there’s a institutional issue you should address, or you’re being sexist.

Take the case of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was asked what advice he’d give to women who want a raise (and might be uncomfortable asking). If Nadella was not sexist, he would have two options:

1) Give the same advice he gives to men: meet with your boss, show all the good work you’ve done, and ask.  This advice probably wouldn’t be super-helpful, seeing as women make 78% as much as men, but it would have been ignorant instead of sexist.

2) Acknowledge that there are a lot institutional problems with gender and pay. Talk about how women are often called manipulative or bitchy when they are strong-willed in the workplace, but similar men are considered driven and ambitious. Talk about how that needs to change, and maybe outline some ways that someone powerful like, I don’t know, the CEO of Microsoft, could change things. This also wouldn’t be a super-helpful answer, but it would be honest and definitely not sexist.

By telling women “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along”, Nadella is being sexist.

You might argue that he doesn’t know about the huge wage gap between men and women. Maybe that’s the case (disappointing if so). But again:  if he thinks women get the same opportunities as men, why would he give them a different answer than he would give men?

As a straight white male, anyone I’ve ever asked for advice on getting a raise has told me to ask. You can find plenty of this advice on the web. You’re generally supposed to gather examples of your great work, do some basic research, and then ask. “It never hurts to ask”, “you’ll never get what you don’t ask for”, etc – this is the stuff I’ve heard many times.

Why didn’t Nadella give this advice? Because he treats women differently. And that’s sexist. Period, full stop.

Let’s hope this is a wake-up call for him. I know it’s a wake-up call to me and many consumers that to not buy any Microsoft products. In the meantime, I’d recommend women avoid applying  to work at Microsoft, unless you want to cross your fingers for your “good karma” to somehow net you a raise.

*I will admit that “My water just broke, what should I do?” should have a different response when coming from a man.

Your morning cup of empathy

tip jar

The kid who made my chai this morning was a disaster.

It was his first time on the register in the morning, unclear if he had ever made a chai. He couldn’t find the bring-your-own-cup discount on the register, tried to get the cook to make the chai, couldn’t find the nutmeg, put it in a paper cup instead of my mug, etc.

I remember when I worked at a coffee shop, between freshman and softmore year of college. It was a tiny little place in Nevada City that tended more towards the grab’n'go crowd rather than the lounge’n'sippers. I was terrified of screwing up (and I often did). The thing is, the customers see a sign that lists items they can buy, and they expect to be able to buy those exact items, made as specified by the sign. That’s very reasonable. But when you’re new and have maybe never made that item, don’t know that there’s usually a sprinkling of parsley, can’t get the foaming just right – it seems impossible. People are often impatient and condescending; THEY know how this thing is made, why don’t YOU? Again – it’s not unreasonable, but they don’t have the full context of a kitchen with 300 ingredients and various things tucked in corners you’ve never seen.

Why is this story important? Because empathy is key to community management, customer service, and (in my opinion) life.

I believe empathy is imbued at a very early age by the people around you. When I interview, it’s clear some people have this as a core part of their personality and some people find it foreign.

But just because you’re naturally inclined towards empathy doesn’t mean you’ll always have it. Like a natural inclination towards singing or athleticism, practice is required to keep your skills of empathy handy and top-notch.

I frequently hear folks in customer-facing roles – hell, myself included - say that they often don’t have empathy left for the world when they get out of work. They feel pessimistic and mean. It’s understandable; you’ve used a lot of energy being extremely empathetic.

But that doesn’t mean you should only be empathetic at work. If you want to do your best work for your customers, you need to keep this skill sharp. I could have easily been frustrated with my barista this morning, tapping my foot and criticizing and holding back my tip. Instead, I assured him that it was ok, agreed that the register seemed complicated, and gave him a nice tip.

Practice empathy as much as you can, and it’ll come easier when you’re in that tough situation with a customer yelling at you, or a significant other snapping at you.

Photo via Dennis Miyashiro.

Business is simple

“Business is simple. Management’s job is to take care of employees. The employees’ job is to take care of the customers. Happy customers take care of the shareholders. It’s a virtuous cycle.”

John Mackey, Founder and CEO, Whole Foods Market

Love this quote, which I spotted in Chip Conley’s book Peak. Somehow companies keep forgetting that their customers pay the bills. Why would you accept (even build, in some cases) anything that makes them unhappy?

On listening

I just finished reading Oliver Reichenstein’s fantastic piece, “Putting Thought Into Things”. It’s extremely, well, thought-provoking.

“Thinking is stressful. While stereotypes click together sweetly, thinking comes in bitter flavors. We recur to clichés rather than reflection, because they make us wise without listening, bright without reasoning, and smart without taking the risk of being imprecise, boring, annoying, wrong.”

Ouch. I have definitely done this, casually leveraging my experience and cliched tips in order to provide value without actually thinking through how valuable it is. Terrible habit.

“Listening is a masochist endeavor. To do it right you have to put everything down. Not just your phone, even pen and paper.”

I realize he’s being intentionally dramatic (sometimes you need a pen to note details), but I get the point. It’s too easily to, mentally or physically, prepare for your response or your solution or your protestation. Truly listening, internalizing what’s being said, empathizing – that’s a lot harder.

“The fog of boredom and emptiness when listening to people you don’t sympathize with can be a sign that they are boring, empty, or not making sense. It can also be a sign that you do not understand.”

Another one that hits too close to home. I can distinctly remember being bored with a conversation because I didn’t understand the point….then how quickly that boredom disappeared once I did.

“The ease of following protocol comes with the disappointment of running in circles. The bittersweet pain of progress comes hand in hand with the heartache of making mistakes.”

When was the last time you felt deeply satisfied from throwing something together, rather than thinking it through?

Thanks to Andrew Spittle for sharing this post originally!

How to turn customers into enemies

1) Build a habit

2) Ambush your customers and fine them for following that habit

If you’ve ever taken a MUNI bus or light rail here in San Francisco, you’ve probably paid and then got on your vehicle, like a normal person. Your bus driver has perhaps nodded or smiled at you, or more likely stared off into space while contemplating their next aggressive driving move.

MUNI sucks

Turns out, you’re supposed to get a receipt – though this receipt is confusingly called a “transfer”, even if you’re not transferring. You wouldn’t know this to ride the actual buses though, since I have never, ever seen a bus driver offer a transfer. (I’ve heard people request them on occasion, but I assumed that was because they needed to transfer, hence the name.)

Today I entered my bus and paid with cash instead of my normal Clipper card (which I had accidentally left at home). I entered through the front door and clearly put my money in the machine. When I exited the bus where I normally do, I was cornered by a MUNI cop of some sort who asked for verification that I had paid. Sure, they could have just asked the bus driver, but since I didn’t get this mysterious receipt that apparently everyone is supposed to get, I got fined $108.

Yes, this effort is intended to stop people sneaking on without paying. What has it done instead? It’s created an enemy. All I did was act like a perfectly upstanding citizen and take my public transit to work, and I got fined $108. That’s a slap in the face. I’ll be avoiding MUNI as much as possible going forward. I like supporting public transit but you can buy a lot of taxi rides with $108.

Good job MUNI. Zero fare-evaders stopped, one customer alienated.

Community Manager Breakfast Notes – August 12th – Internal Communication

August’s Community Manager Breakfast focused on Internal Communication, a challenge that many departments face but particularly vexes community departments. We had a fantastic group with a lot of similar challenges and some great suggestions (I’m implementing at least two of them). A selection of them are below, but for the full shebang you’ll want to attend our next breakfast.

Thanks to Krista Gambrel for taking notes! You can finger her on Twitter @kristagambrel and  her company @mindieapp.

Biggest Challenges

  • Getting Info: Many struggled with getting insight into roadmaps, what other departments were doing, etc.
  • Participation: Getting team members to participate on an intranet, give them images for social, just give feedback.
  • Brand Disconnect: On a similar note, a lot of CMs got negative feedback on certain posts but didn’t get any directional feedback about the brand to help shape those posts. Sometimes, even the general mission statement was a bit of a mystery.

Getting Info

Why is there a disconnect? Perhaps because people don’t understand the role of Community Management.

Show metrics if you can:

    • Do customers spend more? Are they more loyal? More satisfied?
    • What is the average case cost? The community answers questions for you and saves company money.

Not all products have metrics to report – some people don’t have sales goals. In that case, ask questions: What are the top 3 things your boss needs to have done? Come in with ideas and recommendations. Be diligent about following up.


Pro Tip: “What’s Up Wednesday?”

Four questions:

  • What are you excited about this week?

  • What are the challenges you face?

  • What is something you have read?

  • (One question cycles through)

Then follow up with public thank-you’s (people notice if their name isn’t in there, and feel bad). Helps set a habit for participation.

Is it spammy? Sure, but if it’s a small enough team and you have buy-in from management, it works.


  •  Ask for Forgiveness and not for permission – you gotta publish something
  • Try not to be defensive- feedback is really important
  • Ask them to describe the brand voice as a character – it helps!
  • Asking what did the person liked is more useful than what they didn’t like.

General Tips 

  • Forgive, forget and move on. It’s easy to get passive-aggressive. New day, new game.
  • Make time for direct communication. Make time for a “standing-meeting” and have direct communication to talk about main points.
  • Be empathetic to what your colleagues are looking for and elicit empathy.
  •  Know your motivators, and internal audience.
  •  Communication isn’t about what you say, but about how you act and how you say it and also how you listen.
  •  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen. Its so important in extracting information.

Two things the Washington Post doesn’t understand about comments

The Washington Post wrote an interesting piece on the state of comments on the web in response to the current Kinja/Jezebel offensive comment issues. Their take: maybe it’s just not worth it to have comments. It’s a great discussion to have, and largely I think the article is thought-provoking.

However, I think they missed two points (though I don’t blame them).

1. Sometimes the comments are half the reason you visit a site

io9, which is also on the Gawker network with Jezebel, is probably the site I visit the most outside of Gmail. I’m a huge geek, and I love their articles…but I also like connecting with fellow geeks, learning random facts that even the editors don’t know, and sharing in the joy of fandom – all in the comments.

Without comments, io9 would survive. But because of the comments, they thrive. (They even have a regular open animated gif comment threads).

2. Some content can’t really exist without comments

Similar to my last point, but worth calling out separately.

Jezebel is a women’s site, but more relevantly a feminist site. They spend their days calling out and debating women’s issues. Can you imagine a site like that without comments? These sort of issues are an ongoing discussion, not a piece of news.

That said, I totally understand why the Washington Post missed these points. They largely publish news. People come to news sites for news, not comments. Often, comments can actually misinform the reader about news (which is why I understand science sites like Pacific Standard turning comments off).  And there’s plenty of news that doesn’t really warrant comments - and often providing them can open a can of worms (I think it’s quite interesting how the New York Times only turns comments on for certain posts).

This is a very tough, very important debate to have. Turning comments off for some sites might make sense (though I would consider that a last resort). But let’s keep in mind that this is just not an option for some sites – and when comments are great, they’re incredibly valuable and even powerful.

Community Manager Breakfast Notes – July 9th – Event Management

We had our very first Community Manager Breakfast of the new season last week, on the topic of event management. It was a great discussion and a fantastic group of people – thank you to everyone who came out!

Many thanks to Kat Otto of Galvanize for taking notes (and a big thank-you to Galvanize for hosting the event)! These represent only part of what we spoke about – you’ll have to attend for the full shebang. Interested in joining us next time? If you’re a community manager, sign up here. If you’re not a community manager, I’m so, so sorry.


Have clear goals for your event

  • Go to other events, and note what you like…but more importantly, what you hate.
  • The very smallest things are the things that people remember the most; attention to detail is key
  • No-brainer: create really relevant content that focuses on helping people do their job better
  • Make sure human connections are happening – giving people an experience that they remember
  • Don’t forget the fun factor!

Drawing an audience/scaling future audience:

  • Make sure relevant & key people are there – give out free tickets! (and ask them to tweet about it) :)
  • Show who else is going to be there – “if they’re going, I have to go”
  • Take the star of the conference/event & follow through with more content, events
  • Lean on real-time social data from the event

Struggle: online events/forums/platforms – not as interactive as hoped
How do you pose questions/give instructions in a way that guests/attendees feel that their input & participation is needed & valued?

  • Need first followers/active participants to start the conversation
  • Pathable – interact with other attendees, articles by speakers, discussion boards, etc. – pre & post event – a private community – added an additional layer of community
  • Take interesting content & push it out to social media
  • Get speakers to seed content – other topics surrounding the topic they are planning to speak on  (you don’t want to ruin the talk)
  • CMX Summit does this really well
  • Logistical discussions may not be sexy, but can get people interacting prior

Event Series
How do you keep people coming back?

  • Ask what they want to see, why they’re not coming back (though probably ask more than once to get an honest answer)
  • Reach outside & beyond the pool/database of people that you’re given. What adjacent events/communities can you promote to?
  • Relevant recurring content vs diversity of content
  • Find your focus. Parisoma has been successful in bringing their own members to events – specialize in business content, which is hyper-relevant to their members

Revitalizing a stale event

  • Try new locations
  • Consider hosting less frequently
  • Make it more exclusive
  • Re-brand – new name, new tone, etc.
  • Take a break – 6 months – make people miss it!
  • Be strategic about messaging, though. You haven’t failing, you’re “taking a break to plan exciting new things”.

Structuring an event team

  • Content managers: background in the arts & design can be good
  • Do you separate logistics and content?

Looking forward to seeing folks at the next breakfast!