Nine reasons unexpected career detours will make you a better person.
This is a story of an unexpected journey in three chapters.
Like all good stories, it has a few unexpected twists. Like all good life experiences, it has some good lessons that had I not gotten off the beaten path, I would have never learned.
This is a business article. This is a life article. I am going to simply tell the story and let you take away from it what you will.
I had spent over a dozen years as a thought leader in Engagement and Loyalty Marketing. I had built programs for global brands, had helped author Safe Harbor Guidelines for the FTC, was the subject of three business books and was having a hell of a good time with colleagues and industry peers I truly loved and respected.
Rather than embracing this journey, I wanted more. Something else. Something….bigger. What I got was not at all what I expected. It was infinitely less. It was infinitely more.
CHAPTER ONE. BEER.
It was just before New Year’s Eve and our brewery had just opened. Only the 12th in the state and the second in the city. A lot of the hard work had gone into getting to that evening. We had raised several million dollars, had found a suitable but dilapidated old building sandwiched between two of the city’s original neighborhoods. Both had a lot of rich history, including bank robbers, soldiers, escaped slaves, immigrants, opportunists and an nice assortment of cads and villains spanning from the Civil War to Prohibition. The area fit our brand story nicely.
A new brewhouse, a tank farm and the lovely smell of hops and mash filled the air. The building was painted red with a scaffolding sign on the roof, emblematic of the turn of the century brick factories of the area. It was exhilarating and rewarding to find the tap room packed on a Friday evening and to see the neighborhood begin to thrive. The brewery and brand grew quickly.
By day, we were in the business of servicing retail customers and assisting our distributors in selling and moving a quality product sold at the right price points. Supply chain optimization, quality and product innovation, staffing and budgets filled our days. By night, we were in the consumer satisfaction and engagement business. Events across multiple states, sponsorships and tap takeovers just scratches the surface of what we did daily. Brewing beer is 90% cleaning and 100% hard work.
I had been able to build a marketing and engagement machine which leveraged every best practice I had helped to either create or learn during my over 10 years as an engagement marketer and this experience paid dividends. In a humorous twist, a book published on the growth of craft breweries cited us with ‘having 9 core products…Eight beers and a Twitter handle.’
Fast forward a few years. I had sold my share of the brewery to a Private Equity firm. The leadership team had some fundamental and core differences of opinion on direction which I felt insurmountable.
After I left, the company and brand drifted. I felt sadness seeing what I helped build lose its way. Still, it was time to press on to something else.
The three lessons of Chapter One:
- Build engagement channels and integrated decision journeys which spark curiosity and are relatable.
- Be genuine. Let your true personality shine through. Customers and people are most intensely attracted to what is true, not manufactured. Be sure to have a genuine personality first though.
- Be consistent. Consistent in your quality, branding, messaging and experience. Consistently evolve. Consistently be curious. Consistently talk and listen to your customers.
CHAPTER TWO: THE IGNORANCE OF BLIND BELIEF
“TRUST BUT VERIFY.” -Ronald Reagan
Before selling out of the brewery, I became curious as to why out-of-stocks were so chronic in our business. You’ve experienced this issue yourself when ordering a beer. The server comes back and says “Sorry, we are out of that.”
An out-of-stock is kind of like a Shart. Unexpected and unpleasant for everyone involved.
This problem is so prevalent in the industry that in the mid 1960’s MIT created a game called ‘The Beer Distribution Game’ to help illustrate the impact of a lack of shared intelligence across the supply chain.
Well, if MIT created a game to simulate the problem, it must be a really important problem, right?
The first roadblock was engineering. I was told countless times that the engineering problem was impossible to solve with current technologies. Still, after over a year of working with a small group of very talented mechanical, electrical and software engineers, we had stumbled onto a solution. That solution ultimately resulted in 10 international IOT (Internet of Things) and Data Management patents that have my name on them.
Once this was done, we raised money. A lot of money. It was a big problem and a big idea. We moved fast and in doing so, we made a long list of mistakes until we made one that was catastrophic. Every decision and action creates a ripple effect which is tied to something else.
Based on what you see and believe, you make decisions. Sometimes the decision you make is wrong because what you see or believe is not necessarily true. What looks like a High Value Decision with High Value Outcomes may really be a High Cost Decision with High Cost Outcomes.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You are a fisherman in a small village on a South Pacific Island. One day, you go out to find your boat sitting on the sea bed. “Where did the ocean go?”
Then you see fish trapped in small pools or flopping on the muddy seabed. You rush out with baskets to gather them up. What an opportunity! You fill the baskets and leave them like breadcrumbs behind you as you venture further out on the seabed to collect more fish. Then you feel a breeze. You look up and see a massive wall of water rushing toward you at incredible speed. A Tsunami. You are done for. What you saw and believed to be true was not.
We were breaking new ground with our technology. It was exciting and the insights seemed powerful to us. We built more tools to capture more data and generate more information. We invested more time, energy and money into solving the problem. Except the problem didn’t want to be solved. We believed it should be solved but we lacked the understanding that our solution wasn’t the right answer at the time.
Looking back, what was clear to us as technologists at the time was lost on our customers. They wanted something simple. We sought to save them from themselves and educate them on the value of accessing vast amounts of real-time data available on their phones to help them make better decisions on the go. Our engineers made a passionate case and we chose that path. More information was surely better. Right?
So we went out on the dry sea bed to gather fish.
The three lessons of Chapter Two:
- As a brand (or an employee of a brand), in essence you are the servant. It is not your place to force change upon your customers by ‘saving them from themselves’ (which is an all too common approach). Instead, you should strive to remove friction and provide useful and intuitive tools which help them achieve their goals, not yours. Customer engagement drives loyalty which in turn drives growth and profit. Listening intently not talking incessantly drives relevance and popularity.
- As a brand, you have to build and maintain trust. Trust is based first on a common understanding. Common understanding puts expectations and experiences into alignment. Balanced expectations and experiences build trust. It begins with awareness, then belief, then trust then even blind trust. If you are virtuous and effective in your efforts.
- Understand the difference between a belief and a truth in what you are doing or acting on. If you don’t know or can’t tell the difference, don’t bet the farm until you can.
CHAPTER THREE: MATH, FISH & SOCIAL NETWORKS
I was smarting after my recent experience, as briefly outlined in Chapter Two. I reflected back and took inventory. Both Chapter One and Two told me that business practitioners don’t want data or dashboards but clear and simple actionable insights which drive activity outcomes in a predictable and consistent way.
Business professionals want answers and outcomes, they don’t care about the math. With analytics and intelligence, the key is focusing only on what drives actions and outcomes. Knowing what doesn’t belong or what is missing is as important as what is present.
I came to know quite a bit about Network Theory based predictive modeling. Networks are connected points…or really networks are moving groups of characteristics and attributes of things that are constantly moving closer together or further away. As they move, the patterns of distance create ‘fingerprints’ which can effectively inform certain actions with uncanny accuracy.
Have you ever wondered how Facebook makes a friend recommendation to you that links you back with someone you know but the link is so obscure, so far removed from your current network of friends or from so long ago that you wondered how the hell did Facebook make that connection?! The answer is found in Graph and Network based mathematical models.
My question was, could you put this Social Graph modeling and know-how to work with products and brands? Yes. How? Products and services have characteristics and attributes, just like people. When these are plotted and tracked as sales patterns, inventory and pricing strategies play out, patterns emerge.
Do not go out to collect fish on the seabed today. It looks safe but it is not.
Chapter Three’s challenge was similar to Chapter Two. Don’t make it too hard. Professionals want the answers needed to take specific actions and want them when they need them. No less, no more. They don’t want compex dashboards or reports any more than they want impossible to understand algorithms they can’t explain to their bosses. Our clients were dealing with blocking and tackling problems…just like I had, only for a moment I had forgotten this.
“By day, we were in the business of servicing retail customers and assisting our distributors in selling and moving a quality product sold at the right price points. Supply chain optimization, quality and product innovation, staffing and budgets filled our days. By night, we were in the consumer satisfaction business. Events across multiple states, sponsorships and tap takeovers just scratches the surface of what we did daily. Brewing beer is 90% cleaning and 100% hard work.”
The lessons of Chapter Three:
- Analytics are a tool, they aid with insight but don’t deliver anything on their own. Analytics will inform what to put on the shelf but without promoting the well-designed store, employing and training a courteous staff, and having those products in inventory, the analytics are useless.
- If a metric doesn’t inform performance or performance improvements in establishing effective communication channels, improving customer journeys, telling engaging and Relevant Stories or improving your brand’s cultural health, ignore it. The volume of metrics does not equate to actionable intelligence.
- Finally, when things feel out of balance, follow the Taoist philosophy of ‘Wu Wei’. Do not force what is not working. Release and seek another more natural path.
My detour from Engagement & Loyalty Marketing was an epic journey. Like I said at the outset, journeys can teach and inform but you have to recognize it is there for the taking. You do this by being intensely present and not waiting for the next thing to unfold. Often we rush through the now in order to get to the future faster, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.
Sometimes when you find yourself off the highway, don’t be so quick to rush back on. Take a journey down that road and see where it takes you. You might be surprised with what happens.