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shattered

What can we learn about leadership, and management, from an insiders account of the 2016 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton?

A surprising amount is the answer in the case of Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes’ excellent “Shattered.”

Subtitled:”Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed campaign,” Shattered is a surprisingly partisan look at one of the most dramatic election campaigns in memory. As is mentioned in the book’s introduction, if you are a Hillary Clinton supporter this book can make for painful reading and a reopening of recently scabbed over wounds. It is also noted that if you are not a Hillary Clinton supporter it may reenforce your views, but may also engender some sympathy.

The story spans Clinton’s early decision-making process of whether to get into the 2016 presidential campaign all the way to the days and weeks after the election of Donald Trump. It is really the story of an organization; and the failures of leadership, management, data, and strategy.

What makes the story so compelling is that the people at the heart of the campaign to elect Hillary Clinton, and Clinton herself, are painfully aware of the mistakes of the 2008 campaign for the democratic nomination against Barack Obama. The 2008 campaign was characterized by internal power struggles, leaks, and was generally drama filled, and the candidate and her team are hell-bent on not making those same mistakes again. While for the most part they succeed, there are numerous new mistakes which once again create a dysfunctional organization.

Prizing loyalty over everything else, Clinton cannot help but create an organization of fiefdoms which allows them to get top down decisions implemented; however, is then tone-deaf to bottom up feedback. It also creates a system where staff need to get multiple people need to sign off on decisions. This in turn, creates the need for others to get involved to help fix the organizational problems, but unintentionally make things worse. As is noted mid way through the book, leaking was a symptom of the dysfunction of the 2008 campaign rather than the cause. This is a failure of leadership by getting management structure wrong.

As the book progresses, through the democratic primaries it becomes obvious that while some lessons of 2008 had been learned by the 2016 campaign, for example focusing on delegates rather than votes, it blinds them to the fact that some of their underlying assumptions are wrong. They do not realize that they are losing the votes of working class whites who had formed their base in 2008 and for whom Bill Clinton had been a champion.

Other than the organizational issues, there is also the role of big data. Every campaign decision is based on analytics and is constantly looking for the least costly route of victory. However, analytics are being used as a strategy, and a decider, rather than as a tool. The underlying assumption is that is cheaper to persuade supporters to go to the polls, and register to vote, rather than change the minds of undecided voters. This does not take account that there are voters who are actively voting against Hillary Clinton, and they were not doing anything to change the minds of those voters.

The campaign was misreading the electorate, the analytics were wrong, but it was the organization that allowed it to happen. Having said that, as the book correctly notes, no reputable pollster was predicting a Donald Trump win, so the Hillary team is hardly alone.

This is an interesting book because these are people obviously working at the top of their game, repeating the issues made famous by the World War I book “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman. That book explores the idea that the generals of World War I were not fighting the current war but the previous one and not realizing that the world had changed and thereby dramatically adding to the misery of The Great War.

Like Weapons of Math Destruction which I reviewed here, Shattered is also a warning of the potential limits of big data and predictive models. They are a tool, and should just be one of many. There are lots to learn from Shattered; it is an excellent tool as well.

As a manager, you are never going to please everyone.

Some might even argue that if you do, you are not doing your job correctly. You will be called upon to discipline and even terminate employees, some of whom you might consider friends if you no longer had to manage them, and who may already consider you a friend. That is until you fire them – no friendship survives that.  Moreover, a portion of your job is to stick your head above the parapet wall and take the pot shots that people send your way: customers and employees alike. You may well take the wrap for decisions that other stakeholders, and even the courts, have made and the people you work with will almost certainly never know about the arguments that you have won to protect their interests.

If you are someone who values internal culture, like I am, then you have the added concern of trying to make any piece of feedback positive. Gone are the days, for the most part, of managers losing their tempers and yelling at the people the work with. I won’t say that I have never lost my temper at a member of staff but I have made sure to apologize afterwards and I have always felt that loosing one’s temper is counterproductive: If it actually hurts what I’ve trying to achieve then what is the point? Management is hard, we are all over worked, underappreciated, our hands are often tied, and the goal posts are always shifting. However, the rewards make it worth it: financial, recognition of your peers, and the sense of achievement when you see both people and businesses grow.

And then there are things like this:

“I loved the actual job here. Worked here for almost a year. If you could rise above petty back-stabbing and the fact people would be super nice to your face, and cut you down in a heartbeat behind your back, then it was a great job. Hospital chief administrator suffered from Little Big Man syndrome and needed to be avoided at all costs – unless you wanted your day ruined, as he was always incapable of saying anything nice, and preferred to berate – even if praise was his intention! Some of the doctors were difficult, but most were really great to work with. Overall, if you have thick skin, this was a good place to work – but no benefits other than an employee discount for vet services.

Ouch.

Other than the obvious of “what else would you expect a terminated employee to say?” What else can be learned from this from a management perspective? What can I learn from this since I feature so prominently?

Well yes, I am short – well spotted. Not much I can do about that. I guess you could argue that as someone of limited stature I have to be additionally careful to not appear angry so as to not play into the stereotype. As noted above, this is actually in my own interests anyway but a helpful reminder that I need to live up to my own standards.

If I am to be avoided, then that is actually pretty difficult. I try very hard to check in with every employee on both shifts every day and I am obviously sorry they felt this way. I think the comment of being “incapable of saying anything nice, and preferred to berate” is a little harsh. We, as an employer and I personally, have put a number of programs in place to improve and celebrate employee recognition. However, I will admit, that I do need to praise more in person than I currently do. Most managers do suffer from this and it is probably one of the more difficult aspects of the job. It is particularly hard when you have an employee who is not doing anything particularly wrong, but also not doing anything particularly exceptional. Since the above quote is from an anonymous post it is difficult to know for sure anything about this former employee, but as a general takeaway I think this rings true.

A “reading between the lines” insight, and backed up by some feedback from former employees who are now friends (see I’m not all bad) is that there is perhaps a lack of trust at times. A feeling that I did not have the employee’s “back.” This is probably a feature of trying to make customer service central to what we do. If a customer complains about an employee or the service they delivered, unless the claim is outrageous, I will probably try to make to client happy. This can certainly be interpreted as taking the side of the customer instead of the employee. It shouldn’t – I’m trying to protect the business and therefore indirectly the employee. If I feel there is an issue to be addressed with the employee, I will address it separately; however, it is easy to see how this issue arises and perhaps I need to do a better job of dealing with this unintended tension.    

As a final note, it is interesting that this former employee felt that discounted vet services was all the benefits that were on offer. I would take away from this that I needed to do a better job of explaining the other things that formed our benefits package.   

I don’t want a lot of reviews like this – nobody does. But the same rules apply to bad reviews about yourself as to bad reviews about your business. They are an opportunity to get feedback that you would not otherwise be able to receive. And while anonymous former employee reviews are even more unfair than anonymous customer reviews, due to the legal issues involved, a little self-examination is not a bad thing. If nothing else, it hopefully made for an interesting blog post.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

 Zappos, Tony Hsieh, and the Downtown Project are controversial subjects in some quarters of Las Vegas – although I have always been a supporter. In my opinion, it is hard to not give credit to Mr. Hsieh for having the courage, faith, and energy, to move his company and sink millions into the depressed center of Las Vegas, a city I love living in and call home.

That makes Aimee Groth’s tell all book about living inside, or at least partially inside, the bubble of Tony Hsieh’s circle throughout the first five years of the Downtown Project all the more difficult, and fascinating to read. With Ms. Groth becoming part, if not the driving force, of the narrative this is very much a piece of Gonzo journalism which gives some first person perspective to the stresses and confusion that many in the story recall.

To give some background, Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe retailer which is owned by Amazon. In 2013, Zappos moved its headquarters into the former city hall building of Downtown Las Vegas. Downtown Las Vegas, and in particular the area east of Las Vegas Boulevard, had been a rundown collection of tattoo parlors, pawn shops, seedy bars, and ultra-cheap motels. With the result, it had all the problems of a depressed city center, with homelessness, prostitution, and drug dealing on most street corners. With Zappos’s move to Downtown, Mr. Hsieh created the “Downtown Project” with $350 million of his own money. Almost half the money was earmarked for the purchasing of real-estate with the rest to be invested in businesses and startups centered in Downtown Las Vegas. The stated goals of the Downtown Project was not only the creation of a new business and a technology startup environment, but to make Downtown a place with a thriving innovation culture.

The story follows Ms. Groth’s intial conversations with Mr. Hsieh and other invited guests to the Downtown Project, through partying and becoming part of Mr. Hsiehs entourage, the first cracks appearing in the startup culture, to the major reorganization of the Downtown Project, and the internal strife at Zappos due to the move downtown and Holacracy. Holacracy is a new management system and communication tool that was adopted by Zappos. I reviewed Brian J. Robertson’s book on Holacracy here.

However, the main thrust of “The Kingdom of Happiness” is on Mr. Hsieh’s, and those around him’s, response to these events and to their motives in the first place. As the story is told there is almost a willful lack of support, and management, given to the early entrepreneurs, lured to Las Vegas with promises of financing to follow their dreams and the expectation of mentoring. With the result that many were essentially setup to fail, or at the very least felt that way.

“…the young entrepreneurs who didn’t naturally seek out assistance or know how to navigate an ecosystem like this were left to fend for themselves.” – From The Kingdom of Happiness.

There is also a darker undercurrent that flows through the book, and that is the potential conflict of interest in the due roles of the Downtown Project as both landlord and investor to various new and startup businesses. At one point in the book an entrepreneur wonders at the oddness of trying to avoid their investor and business partner, because they are also their landlord. There are numerous mentions throughout the book by those in the Downtown Project, that a source of profits for the Downtown Project is the real estate rather than in the businesses they have investments in. An uncharitable reading might question the ethics, or morality, of this arrangement.

 What I feel is the main takeaway from the book, and makes it of particular interest to business people,  is the balance between Vision, Leadership, and Management, and how this seems to have gone awry at both Zappos and the Downtown Project. At one point Mr. Hsieh snaps at Ms. Groth that he is not a leader but a visionary and it is hard to argue with him. But if Mr. Hsieh is not leading then who is?

The move to Holacracy, a system that dispenses with traditional management structures, through the lens of Ms. Groth’s book, seems to be an imperfect answer to some difficult questions. There has been plenty of vision at Downtown Project and Zappos. There is also some merit in the argument that there has also been leadership at Zappos (you don’t undertake something like Holacracy without leadership pointing the way). But the cult of personality surrounding Mr. Tsieh, and Zappos’s focus on its non- traditional internal culture, maybe filling in for actual leadership.

What is clear, particularly at the Downtown Project, is that there has been a failure of leadership through a lack of management. In a drive to be different, focus on making things “happen,” and create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial culture, the basic structures and support networks have never been put in place that would seem to be a prerequisite for this type of project.

I, for one, am a supporter of the Downtown Project and Zappos – particularly for Zappos’s focus on internal culture. One only has to walk through downtown to see the enormous impact that Downtown Project and Zappos have had. However, there have been significant costs, and without examining the issues that The Kingdom of Happiness raises we are doomed to repeat them. In business, but particularly in the startup culture, there is a focus on leadership to the expense of everything else and an almost dismissal of management. What the story that Ms. Groth tells us is that visionaries abandon management at their peril and that leadership, while the key ingredient in all successful companies, cannot survive without good management.

 

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

Please don’t buy this book.

I’ve seen Jay speak a couple of times and the most recent time I was intrigued by the study he conducted with Edison Research that forms the back bone of “Hug your Haters.” The study asked two basic, yet fundament, questions in this new age of online reviews and online customer service:

1: How has the proliferation of social media, review sites, and other online forms changed the customer expectations of what good customer service really means.

2: When interactions between brands and humans are played out on the public stage, how must brands perform to in order to satisfy not only the customer, but the customer’s audience.

Hug your haters is a guidebook, informed by real data, on how to best handle complaints in this age of onstage public complaining. When I read a new business book it will sometimes take me down a particular intellectual path, other times it will provide nuggets of useful information that I can use, and sometimes I will disagree with it to such an extent, that I cannot wait to be done.

Hug your haters is different.

Hug Your Haters, for me, is validation of what I have come to believe over the last few years. Negative reviews are a chance to shine. Upset clients can be loyal clients if you can turn them around. Onstage interactions with upset clients is chance to show all those watching that you care enough to listen, empathize, apologize, and try to fix individual complaints.

It is amazing to read a book and have the author focus on a point of technique, where Jay talks about shock and awe was my favorite moment for this to happen, and realize “hey I love to do that – nice to know I’m not the only one!” Although the book primarily focuses on online strategies for customer resolution, is does deal with offline issues and really provides a blueprint, with real world examples, of how to provide customer service in almost any sized business. The basic philosophy is simple – answer every negative complaint, every time, in every channel. By doing this the author, and I agree, believes that customer service can become marketing.  This is because, more often than not, these interactions are conducted in public with an audience.  

If I have to have a complaint about the book it is that Jay lets Yelp off the hook far too easily. My own personal feelings about Yelp have evolved over the years; from outright despising them for their failure to engage with their clients and critics which you can read here, to acceptance with a few reservations which you can read here. However, the issue that Yelp arbitrarily filters out reviews from real paying clients, but does not seem to have the same scruples when it comes to negative reviews from people you do not recognize, and refuses to engage about what has happened, still stands.

However, this really is a minor quibble about what is without doubt the bible of how handle customer service in the modern age. It is not for the faint of heart. Following Jay’s playbook, you will encounter managers, owners, and employees, who feel that you are opening the company to being taken advantage or creating a culture where customers are rewarded for complaining. And there are some merits to these fears; however, these are far out-weighed by the rewards.

For me this book is validation – thank you Jay.

For others, it is heresy.

For most it will be revelatory.

But I like my competitive advantage, so please, don’t buy this book.

 

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

Statistics, standardized testing, crime prediction, Google, Facebook, “Moneyballing,” insurance risk analysis, and mathematical models all have one thing in common; they can all fall into the catch all term of “big data.”

There are very few parts of modern life that are not impacted by big data; for better or for worse. The mathematical models that harness vast amounts of data are used for everything:  to determine who should receive a bank loan, which teachers should be fired, whether to hire a particular worker, where police should patrol, which colleges are the best to apply to, which students should offered a place in a college, how sports are played, and even the sentences that convicted criminals should receive.

Some of these mathematical models are transparent.  The model featured in the book and movie “Moneyball” (you can read my review of the movie here) would be an example of a transparent model. The data and the rules that lead to the model’s conclusions are open and available for everyone to see. However, more and more, the models are opaque and it is these models that Ms. O’Neil goes after with devastating logic and passion.

The fundamental issue with these opaque models, other than a lack of openness and therefore the impossibility to challenge their assumptions, is that they can suffer from a lack of feedback or create self-reinforcing feedback loops. Because the models are opaque, many people may not even realize that are in a mathematical model, or that the model is partially or wholly responsible for their circumstance.

As Ms. O’Neil states in her introduction: “Without feedback; however, a statistical engine can continue spinning out faulty and damaging analysis while never learning from its mistakes. Many of the W.M.D’s (Weapons of Math Destruction) I’ll be discussing in this book … behave like that. They define their own reality and use it to justify their results. This type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive, and very common.”

Ms. O’Neil does go to some great lengths to stress that a lot of these models have been built with the intention of being fairer. The idea being that removing flawed human beings from decisions that could be made by mathematical models would remove their biases and faulty logic from the progress. However, it is these same flawed humans that are creating the models and without proper feedback, monitoring, and proper understanding of statistics, the models themselves can cause far worse problems than the ones they are supposed to solve.

Written for the layperson, about a subject that would cause most peoples eyes to glaze over unless written by Ms. O’Neil, this is a great and important book and one that I feel will become only more important as mathematical models become even more entwined in our lives. This is also an important book for those is position to make use of mathematical models in their business as there can be significant pressure to accept the word of a program when we should be asking some pretty hard and detailed questions; not only to ensure that what we are getting is correct, but also to ensure that we are not contributing to the Weapons of Math Destruction problem.

Garbage in – Garbage out, has never been more apt.  

Is is just me, or is hiring getting more difficult due the bad behavior of the un (or under) employed?

I mean I get it, and employers are partly to blame, looking for a job can really suck. Employers rarely respond to applications (guilty), some employers insist on their own applications rather an accepting a resume, interviews are time consuming, and wages in some fields are stagnant.

However, none of the above explains some horrendous behaviors I have seen – in particular in the last year or so.
“Obviously you did not read the resume – good luck to you.” A message from an applicant after receiving a rejection email because they were totally unsuitable for position.

“Hi I’m very interested in the position, although I do not have any experience, could you call me back with more information?” A phone message from candidate replying to ad that clearly stated “NO PHONE CALLS.” I have 100 applications on my desk, if everyone does this I’ll do nothing else for days.

Harassing an employer with voicemails telling them that you are obviously the best person for the job and how dare they not hire you because you probably know more than they do. – Yes, this actually happened to me.

Replies to ads that directly contradict what is being asked for. – I don’t think I need to explain this.

Companies, or consultants, replying to ads for full time employees. – Please don’t assume I don’t know what I’m doing. If my ad explicitly states that telecommuting is not an option, an outside contractor is even less likely.

LinkedIn invites after an interview for an entry level position.- This is not going to get you the job and just makes things weird.

Not showing up – really! You accept an invite for an interview and then do not have the courtesy to call and cancel?

Photos on your resume. – We get it, you think you’re hot, but it really just makes most managers uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.

Resumes in weird formats. – When did a PDF become so hard to create? Those of us who get a lot of email everyday are very wary of opening attachments from people we don’t know, but PDFs are a necessary evil for the most part. Word files are annoying but I guess I’ll live with it. Wps files? Google doc files? Jpegs? Screen shots from your phone? I get it you don’t have a computer, and are using your phone, but there are better ways. Just looks lazy.

Bringing a coffee or energy drink into the interview with you. – I’m sorry to get in the way of your morning routine, but I may be your future employer. Or not.

Dressing inappropriately. – It is an interview, not a nightclub, or a trip to the store on a Sunday morning, or a day at the beach.

Now a lot of managers blame the Millennial phenomenon for the above behaviors ; however, I’m not so sure. For one I’m not a big believer in the Millennials being that different from everyone else. They just happen to be young people who are not shy about saying what they want. And a lot of the above behaviors have come from people who do not fit into the generally agreed upon Millennial age bracket. I do think there are cultural things afoot, however, that transcend age. A lowering of the value of work, and generally a misunderstanding of a value of first impressions for starters.

As Tyler Durden from Fight Club might say: “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”

If you want to impress an employer, try professionalism. There are so few practicing it that it will make you easily stand out

I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message. I decided that it was time to share some of these.

 (Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

Moneyball, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis of the same name, follows the real life story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. In particular, Moneyball documents the Oakland A’s struggles of trying to be successful with a budget a mere fraction of their competitors. The realization of their manger, Billy Beane – played by Brad Pitt, that they either have to “adapt or die” is one that many businesses can relate to. The solution that Oakland A’s adopted was to look at the data about players, which informs hiring and firing, objectively rather than emotionally.

Looking at a problem from outside the box and understanding what a problem actually is, not what you have always thought it was, is a huge lesson for most managers. It is also one that is difficult to teach. However, the lesson of being prepared to do what others will not is one that many from the business world will be familiar with – or at least should be. Overcoming the objections, and down right obstructionist behavior, of those who have not bought into your ideas should also be familiar territory for most managers. The movie treats these issues with respect, and although there is an obvious “good guy / bad guy” dynamic, it is easy to overlook this and see the issues being discussed from both sides.

Since the publication of the book, the statistical approach to fields that have previously been lacking such analysis has become know by the colloquialism “Moneyball.” And although the initially baseball was dramatically changed by Billy Beane and the Moneyball approach, there are signs of it falling out of favor.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the book, or the movie, because of this change in the idea’s fortunes. Indeed it actually signals a misunderstanding of the limitations of the approach and of statistics in general. As is stated in the movie: “The first person through the wall always gets bloody.”

The movie does break some of its own rules for dramatic effect; however, these are minor sins given how excellent the movie is as a whole. Interestingly, the movie also has two of the best scenes I have ever seen about terminating an employee. New managers could do a lot worse than follow Brad Pitt’s advice on the matter that can be found in Chapter 8 at the 1:00:00 mark explaining the right and wrong ways to go about a termination. Chapter 10 at the 1:18:00 mark actually shows Jonah Hill”s character putting that advice to use and it is a highly accurate and realistic portrayal of how a termination should be done.

As a management tool, Moneyball is a great business story cloaked in a sports jacket. Both the good and the bad of analytics are on display here, as well as the difficulty of being a pioneer and trying to overcome entrenched ideas whose only validity is “that’s the way we have always done things.”

You may not like baseball, but this is a smart story, based on a smart book, about smart people. It also has the added advantage of being highly entertaining.

You could do a lot worse.

I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message. I decided that it was time to share some of these.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.

 

Burnt is a great movie. Staring Bradley Cooper, it’s the story of a chef seeking redemption by opening a new restaurant in London and winning a 3rd Michelin star after imploding and ruining his mentor’s restaurant in Paris.

It’s use as a management tool comes from the relationships of running a team and of how not to treat employees. It does contain swearing, so if that is incompatible with your company culture this movie is not for you.

I feel there two ways to use this particular movie. In whole; individually, to help illuminate how abusive management is contagious and ultimately counterproductive and in a general staff meeting. As a tool in a meeting I found the best way was to isolate certain scenes.

Chapter 5: @ 26:30 through to Chapter 6: @ 36:20 – The preparation for the opening of the restaurant. The attention to detail. Staff working at the top of their game, working as a team, and watching that disintegrate due the the behavior of one employee and then the abuse that is untenable.

Chapter 7: @ 40:44 through Chapter 7: @ 43:45 – Again, the preparation and attention to detail and that things have recovered after the events of Chapter 5 and 6. Does this mean the behavior that was seen in chapter 5 and 6 was ok and worked?

Chapter 9: @ 50:58 through Chapter 9: @ 52:23 – Contagion. Demonstrated behavior turns into learned behavior.

Chapter 10 through Chapter 10: @ 56:03 – More contagion, and now it is difficult to control.

Chapter 12: @ 1:11:52 through Chapter 12: @ 1:16:00 – Appalling behavior has a price to pay – even years afterwards.

Chapter 15: working as a team, and working together, is more important than anything else.

It is unusual to see actual work environments, even though this is quite a dysfunctional one, with the real kind of relationships that employees have between each other in a mainstream movie. A thoughtful viewing of “Burnt” should give any leader pause for thought or something to aspire to. And even with taking scenes in isolation it should allow staff to see how bad behavior from anyone can spread and create a workplace where no one wants to work. It is also nice to see a movie where unacceptable behavior is shown for what it is: unacceptable, rather than celebrated.

By Mike Falconer

The most popular post to date on my site is: “Why I hate Yelp (and you should too!).”

I still do by the way; and everything is that post still stands today three years later; however, I have grown to accept it as part of the daily life of being in business and feel that, a few road bumps aside, I’ve made my peace with online reviews and even with Yelp.

That mighty sound a little contradictory, but the bottom line is that reviews are here to stay so we all have to deal with it.

“Scott, we have a Yelp problem. We keep getting these horrible reviews what can we do about it?”

” – Build a better product.”

Scott Stratten @unmarketing

There is no strategy or tip that I, or anyone else, can give you that will fix your business and your online reviews overnight (those that promise to do so are scamming you). If you are a horrible business the chances are you will have horrible reviews online.

Now you can write your own reviews, and risk the wrath of companies like Yelp or Google which are filled with people smarter than you or I (sorry it’s true) who spend a lot of time and energy trying to foil the attempts of those gaming their systems. If you are really unlucky you could also find yourself the subject of a FTC investigation and slapped with a serious fine. It has happened a few times already to those trying to buy or reward those for reviews (many thanks to he great Mike Blumenthal @mblumenthal for this awesome nugget of info and indeed for solidifying my thoughts on Yelp, and online reviews, in general) and expect it to happen a lot more when the government figures out how prevalent it is and how much money can be made. But why bother? It is simpler, easier, and better for your business to just fix the problems in the first place.

Think Yelp or Google (or whatever review site you feel tortures you on a regular basis) does not accurately reflect what your clients think of your business? Prove it! Survey your clients. Make it easy for them to complain and give you feedback. Have a policy to deal with complaints. And, of course, read, learn, and above all, reply to your reviews. If your survey results really are different from what you are seeing from the review sites then publish the data and be honest about what people were complaining about and what you are doing to fix it.

When I started reviewing my business’s clients what I found from the was that they wanted to respond. The feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive, and it allowed me to fix issues, even minor ones, quickly before they blew up online. It also provided real data about what problems we did have and where we were excelling.

A splash page with links to review sites helped make it easy for those who already reviewing us privately to review us in public. As a rule I and not a big fan of asking for reviews – particularly when companies just try to flood one channel. (400 reviews on Google and 10 on Yelp just makes you look shady.) However, a simple splash page with three or four links is tasteful and is the least spam-like way I have found and does not seem to offend anyone.

Unhappy clients will, of course, still happen. How you respond to them is all important, not just for the client, but your future clients who will read your response and see how you deal with complaints.

Apologize – it costs you nothing.

Try to resolve the issue – D’uh!

If you can’t resolve the issue – apologize again!

Do not get into a protracted fight online – would you rather be right or have an unhappy client, a bad review, and maybe worse? Genuinely apologize and try to make things right.

And never, never ever, send, say, or do anything that that you are not completely happy with being splashed all over the Internet. “If you take your review down we will give you your money back” means you care more about the bad review than the unhappy client. If the client deserves their money back – give them their money back!

I am a big fan of responding to even positive reviews – a simple thank you goes a long way. The interesting thing about responding to every review and trying to keep clients happy is that it is not just new clients that notice. Potential new employees use the tools available to them when researching their potential new employer. Those tools are Yelp and Google.

While I still hate Yelp – it really is a flawed product. It exists because customers used to basically be powerless. The balance may have shifted but I know at my business we try to solve issues, I know that we sometimes succeed and sometimes we fail. We are not perfect, but we have not stopped trying and I think even those that view us on Yelp can see it.

And I can live with that.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help fund my book buying habit.)

“We have always had some influence over the justice system but for the first time in 180 years, since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments and so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson shines a, sometimes unwelcome, light on the unforgiving nature of Internet shaming. Ronson convincingly argues that almost 200 years ago we abandoned shaming as a form of punishment, not due a lack of effectiveness with rise of the larger towns and cities, but because it was seen as overly cruel.

Ronson has extraordinary access to those who lives have been ruined because of a bad out of context joke, calling out someone for perceived sexist comments, for making perceived sexist comments, and for being too irreverent in a selfie at a national memorial. The author also cleverly focuses on those less worthy of pity; the successful author who gets found out for making up quotes, and exposes our own attitudes to shaming. And then there are those who seem to have beaten the shame cycle; the UK publicist who went to war with the tabloid press, and the small town where almost a hundred of its citizenry where reveled to be visiting a local prostitute.

As well as telling the story of the various victims of the modern age of public shaming, Ronson also tells us of his own journey and grappling with his own role in the shaming of others and of being of control of his internet persona. This does not hang together quite as well as the rest of the book. I have a hard time, for instance, that such a talented researcher cannot look back through their own Twitter history to see who they have previously shamed. However, this is minor quibble and a brave personal exploration and opening up about personal shame.

The book does end on a relatively positive note due to the miracles of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), however the real point of the book is for the reader to examine how they feel about this return of public shaming. Even for those whom it is hard to defend; the hunters seeking big game trophies, the Vet taking pleasure in shooting a cat with a bow and arrow, and the plagiarizing author, to name but a few – do they really deserve this level of life altering destruction?

For those who answer yes, this book is for you. “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is, if nothing else, a testament to how much of a double edged sword internet shame can be, how cruel and destructive it is, and how uncomfortable we should all be with it. The Internet shows us at our best and worst as a culture – it is we who have to change.

Note: I have refrained from using the names of any of the subjects, or related people, in this post so as not to add to add to the problem.

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