Posts Tagged ‘customer retention’

Are some departments undermining your branding?

August 26, 2010

Knowledge Management Issues: Branding and Bad Communication Memes

Let’s presume that you are the Vice President of Marketing for your organization and Brand Management is something you are naturally quite passionate about. You have spent several million dollars over the last few years carefully building brand recognition in the marketplace, and at last you can see the signs of these efforts – customers associate the logo, color schemes, and fonts with the company name and products. You have also tested brand recognition out in the market, and prospective clients show good brand recognition. The investment analysts have the brand on their radar, and you are slowly moving up and right on the magic-quadrants graph.

You are naturally very focused on brand recognition, but equally on what the brand evokes – you want recognition to trigger positive, dare I say, buying emotions. You keep a close watch on whether people refer to your brand positively.

Part of this effort involves a shiny new website, and on it you have a teaser that offers a white-paper and some product information, and then collects respondent information and sends an acknowledgment email.
Look at the following three scenarios:

1. Which of the following taglines would you have at the end of the email?

  1. “Please DO NOT respond to this email, this is an unattended mailbox.”

  2. This is an automatically generated email, please do not reply.

  3. This is an auto-generated email. Please do not reply to this message.

2. Which of the following email addresses would you provide?


  2. noreply;


3. Which of the following font, color scheme, and logo combinations would you use?

  1. Plain ASCII text, no logo, no color scheme

  2. Same as #1 but with really tiny font

  3. Same as #1 but with no actual company information at all

Well by now you are thinking that nobody would ever do any of these things.

However, let me assure you that I collected these and many more from real emails collected over the last year. The only facts that I have changed is that these are not from a marketing department, but from HR departments.

I have also measured people’s affective response to receiving these emails, and there is pretty much uniform feeling of irritation and displeasure with substantial skew towards negativity.
One person summed it up thus: “[the emails] are downright insulting, rude, offensive … I wind up steaming and irritable and in no mood to buy from them, ever”

People hate them, and they have residual dislike for the associated company that rubs off both in terms of their purchasing patronage as well as their willingness to volunteer positive references for the products and services.
I have no data on how many bad references they volunteer to acquaintances, but I would bet it far exceeds both positive and neutral references put together, and I also bet that they will volunteer the bad experience enthusiastically.

Now consider for a moment that these emails that I collected are all in response to people who submitted applications to job vacancies at director and VP level, and that the people being anatagonized are likely to find jobs elsewhere at places you might care about and where they may exercise significant influence over decisions that affect your firm – customers, prospective customers, business partners, suppliers, your bank, and so on.

Here’s an odd paradox though – as much as the emails are probably an affront to many thousands of people, the fact that they are unbranded means that there is actually a weakened link to your branding. The effect is not universal nor very strong, but for the moment the fact that they are not using the same branding is a slight protection – imagine if they were experienced as rude, offensive, antagonizing and they also had very high brand recognition!
I can’t imagine a better outcome for your competitors

The flip side is that your HR department is touching thousands of people regularly and with a bit of help from Marketing, could turn this into a positive branding exercise – leave those people not only with high brand recognition, but also a feeling that they have been treated with respect, listened to, and heard.

It may be a good idea for the Marketing and PR side of the firm to keep an eye on how other departments are communicating with the public, whether that is the customer support teams, the receptionists, the accounts receivable team, or your HR department.

The first step is to clean up communications – there just is no good that can come from irritating thousands of people, some of whom might soon be in positions of power over your costs or revenue.

Second step needs to be a complete overhaul of the communication format and styling that recruiters use, it makes no sense to spend tons of effort on the website, letterheads, and all those other communications to the public, only to have some departments send out thousands of “no-name brand” emails.

Your HR department can be a positive branding force, but you have to include them in the process and support them so they don’t need to employ utilitarian techniques  that are the polar opposite to the rest of your branding.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

Controlled Vocabulary

August 4, 2010


Language is a powerful thing, it’s not only a prime medium of expression, but it in turn shapes concepts and thinking – terminology frames concepts and makes some ideas more expressible and others less so – it emphasizes or diminishes in turn. Some ideas flow naturally from the syntax and terminology of the language in use and others are not even expressible.

In real terms an argument or proposal resonates better if it is expressed in the dominant terminology, and seems weaker and off-key if it doesn’t, and due to concision effects and psychological set, it allows or limits innovation.

Inconsistent use of jargon and terminology results in higher cost of translation and localization, less effective training and education materials, and raises the cost of product support.

The Foundational Nature of Language

From an Organizational Psychology point of view, Language in the form of endemic jargon, special terms and terminology, and accepted forms of speech and protocol are part of the social structure of an organization.

For example, Chao (1994) proposes six dimensions of Organizational Socialization:

  1. History

  2. Language

  3. Politics

  4. People

  5. Organizational Goals and Values

  6. Performance Proficiency

Language deserves a special mention though because it is through language itself that the other dimensions are expressed and how strongly they are communicated. Historical narratives are elevated or decreased in prominence according to the terminology used to relate them, and so too are the organizational politics detailed and distributed according to the rules and parameters of internal language.

Organizational goals are couched in terms of organizational metaphors, and proficiency itself is measured according to articles of the organizational terminology.

Language thus forms part of what topics are allowable by means of both the “correct” protocols, but also at a more fundamental level by means of the terminology itself.

In this sense, Single-Loop Learning and Type I homeostatic systems in an organization (Argyris1987) are strongly influenced and delimited by the vocabulary that is allowable.

User Experience

A major part of user satisfaction is the feeling of confidence they feel in the product (whether that be using a transit system or a software suite), and in many cases also the degree to which use requires mental computation. Unwelcome processing or decision-making requirements result in low satisfaction.

A major part of this in turn is the continuity of the information architecture – the way terms confirm expectations and make sense, and are used where and when expected. While most suppliers of products take care about simple things such as a hyperlink anchor text being immediately visible on the landing page, many do not consider how multiple designers and engineers may use different text for the same meaning in different parts of the product, its documentation, its sales collateral, its training, and in communication related to the product.

Encountering terminology in unfamiliar context undermines and attenuates information scent, and reduces the user’s confidence and overall satisfaction.

OD & L10N/I18N

Cost-effective Internationalization (I18N) and Localization (L10N) depend on the source language usage being tightly controlled and not having a significant degree of equivocation and ambiguity. The more a single term is used for multiple meanings or multiple terms used for the same meaning, the higher the complexity of translation, the higher the bulk of terms to be translated, and the lower the coherence of the final translated text.

Machine Translation is powerless to fix this, and simply multiplies the variances – requiring lengthy and costly human involvement each time.

Inconsistent terminology equates to duplicated effort and difficulties when it comes to translation of product, documentation, and training materials – greatly increasing the complexity, time, and cost of translation. Creating meaningful Translation Memories when the terminology is overlapping and inconsistent is very difficult, and tends to lead to an even worse degree of inconsistency in all the translated languages.

Likewise, training becomes more costly and less effective when terminology is used with any significant degree of variation in meaning.

Knowledge Management

Most Knowledge-bases rely on keyword searches, and the more sophisticated systems also use tagging, which at heart is still a keyword search and in its best form gathers tags from a Folksonomy.

Unfortunately the power of search-engines in this situation results in very high retrieval but low precision. This results in infoglut and lower search effectiveness, and thus a significant impediment to use of Knowledge-bases to augment knowledge-workers such as customer-support staff, and lowers effective re-use of knowledge.

Since a major component of cost-reduction and quality-improvement in customer-support hinges on use of knowledge-bases, terminology control is a significant factor.

Branding and Market Mastery

Part of gaining mastery or dominating a market niche is having a degree of control over the terminology and therefore the expressible concepts – The degree of influence one player has over the terminology translates directly into their freedom of movement within the domain, the cost incurred in terms of effort to thrive, and the extent to which discourse tends to be channeled in their favor.

At the very least, a clear brand and value proposition relies on message consistency across the many external communications an organization makes – be they the deliberate marketing efforts, training materials, or even HR recruiting information. The terminology used by Recruiters should for example be consistent with those of Sales and Training Materials, and so on. Any one department or group that injects noise will reduce the brand coherence and effectiveness.

Gaining Control

Influence over terminology is not something one can beg, buy, or steal – it can only be attained by thought leadership. In other words, good knowledge management practices around intellectual expression.

It is determined by who is disseminating authoritative information, who provides attractive ideas, and who is leading in thought value – and who gets to saturate the frame of reference and the concept terrain.

An early step in gaining more control over the influence of language is to formalize usage and to self-consciously construct a lexicon detailing what terms mean and where they are used, and it sets the stage for searchable knowledge-bases, single-sourced documentation, and consistent branding.

A low-cost approach is to establish an internal terminology wiki along the lines of wikipedia, and to build and refine a corporate lexicon in three phases of limited crowdsourcing:

  1. Open invitation to internal staff

  2. Invitation to business partners (and industry luminaries) to contribute

  3. Invitation to customers to contribute

Step 1 requires some preparation to identify people who are influential in terminology as well as obtaining buy-in from content-owners and domain experts.

Steps 2&3 are a Marketing bonanza that yield many spinoff benefits.

Making the terminology visible in this manner is not just a step in protecting against erosion of meaningful terminology but also forms part of a knowledge-management approach to organizational-learning.


If an organization is inconsistent in its use of terminology and language, if it vacillates on meaning and implication, if terminology is used hesitantly and passively – then the information scent attenuates, and the audience becomes uncertain and less likely to agree with the message or see the source as trustworthy or authoritative. In addition it leads to escalating costs and loss of effectiveness in training & development, and significant barriers to cost-effective translation & localization.

To get in a position where you influence the discourse and the frame of reference in your market niche you must settle on a controlled vocabulary, use it strongly, and use it consistently over every part of your products, documentation, and communications.

The place to start is inside the company – to practice, refine, and then deliver.


Two areas I left out but deserve mention are the effects on Content Management and Health &Safety.
Inconsistent terminology can be a significant safety risk, and this is a topic that deserves its own paper.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Argyris C & Schön D (1987) Argyris C & Schön D. “What is an organization that it may learn”. (1987) : .

Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al. (1994) Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al.. “Organizational socialization : its content and consequences”. Journal of Applied Psychology (1994) 79: pp. 730-749.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

In which I explain “Referenceability”, “Retention”, and especially “Stickiness”, and why YOU should care

May 20, 2010


A number of people have asked me just what on earth I mean by “product stickiness” – and why it matters (to them, I presume).

These days when I am asked what I do, or especially that perennial “what are you” that one gets from some people, I resist the fleeting temptation to issue a flippant “I am a carbon-based life-form of the non-bugeyed variety” and give the “personal branding” sound-bite that I am an …

“expert in knowledge-centered customer support & service delivery that increases customer referenceability, revenue retention, product stickiness, and reduces cost of execution”.

According to the current lore, everyone needs to have such a statement and to own their personal “brand”, without which apparently, we are lost. The objective of these personal-branding statements is presumably to either sound really important and high on the social scale, or to invite a polite question as to what it means – just in case one is asked by an important person whilst riding the elevator.

The polite questions I get most frequently are about the customer referenceability, revenue retention, and product stickiness segment of my brand – mostly about stickiness, which I am sure makes people think that I do something rather boring or unpleasant in the adhesives field. Maybe like sticky-notes that glom to one’s fingers or drip goo or something.

The issue though, is that corporate goals are often expressed in a very general way that makes it difficult for people other than those on the top floor to understand what they mean operationally. Even worse, the “motherhood” statements tend to lead to a sense of hypocrisy and an attitude of cynicism.

In my experience it is far better to be quite clear that the goal is to achieve mastery of a market niche and to do so at a preferred EBITDA, and then show how each person plays a role in that.

Let’s for example pick customer support, and the teams that play that role.

The question I pose to the support staff, is why exactly they should give a damn whether the customer is satisfied or not, and then I proceed to burst the “motherhood and apple-pie” bubble about how we do it because of love and being such nice people.

The answer of course is that we want to be masters of our market niche and to bring in a healthy EBITDA, and we do so by selling more to more people more often and collecting the money for it without delay or hurdles to leap.

So I ask them to consider what they do at work and how they deal with customers in three specific dimensions:

  1. The effect of what they do on the ability of the sales team to get many good reference customers who will accept calls from prospective clients and give favorable reviews.
  2. The influence of their actions on whether the contracts will be renewed or the bills paid without delays or conditions.
  3. The impact they have on whether the customer would be inclined to expand the scope or depth of their use of the firm’s products and services.


Would the customer we had just dealt with take a reference call from a prospective new client and give a favorable review or at least recommend to somebody else that such a reference call be taken?
If they would be less inclined to either take a reference call or give a favorable review to a prospective client, then our actions are going to be detrimental to the success of the sales team and the survival of the company.

Revenue Retention

If their CFO asked them for input on whether our latest invoice or contract renewal should be dragged out or settled quickly, what would they say? Would they tell the CFO to punish us by holding out, or say they didn’t care either way, or would they go to bat for us and recommend swift payment or renewal?

… and now for Product Stickiness

I used to call this “product saturation” but some people felt it implied something negative, and the term “stickiness” was suggested by somebody I respect. What it means is that because of good experiences with us, the customer will want to use more of our product features in more ways and in more parts of their organization. The question then is whether this recent experience with the support staff would incline them to agree to or oppose the idea of using another module or adding more users, or whether, if asked for input they would give a bad review.

Putting this all together, we can detail to anyone in a company exactly how what they do on a minute to minute basis plays a real and vital part in the survival and success of the company.
Of course we are all nice people and the customers become friends in a sense, but by providing a more meaningful and real-world narrative of why we should behave with courtesy, helpfulness, and effectiveness, we can see how in practical terms it results in a good outcome for the customer, staff, and the investors.

Now I suppose I will need to explain the “knowledge-centered” bit, but that can wait until I get enough people asking politely why it should matter to them – which of course it does and could save your organization a big chunk of money and improve, you guessed it, … referenceability, revenue retention, and product stickiness.

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