Coaching Youth Basketball – Herding Cats

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Basketball, North Carolina

They say that coaching youth basketball is like herding cats. They are correct. Coaxing kittens out from under a carousel even. The movie Hoosiers teaches coaches that the best game plan is to search for Jimmy Chitwood, hence the visual reference. No doubt. The best defense is a good… assistant coach with a big, strong, fast, athletic second child. The reality though is that you probably are coaching kids that more closely resemble Ollie. You know, the kids that would rather smack each other in the Willie and tell poop jokes while taking water breaks. Sometimes that prankster is your kid too, regardless of how much you’ve cajoled, begged, or threatened him on the rides to practice. The variance in skills, knowledge, athleticism, and interest from one player to the next makes the experience of coaching kids one of the more fascinating social engineering experiments you will ever participate in. Did I mention the sheer joy of working with parents who knew nothing about basketball when it was time to sign up to coach yet amazingly developed into John Wooden by the first game day? Did I mention the rule changes from one age group to the next that keep you and the refs guessing? It is an amazingly rewarding experience when your effort works out. All it really takes in those first years is your kids learning to love the game – even if it makes you have to go to work for stress relief. One tip, trick, play or example of teamwork that you know translated directly from your clipboard to on court success is an amazing motivator. An assist thrown from the normal ball hog to the kid who hasn’t scored is like a crappy day of golf with a birdie on 18. You’ll be back – there is a glimmer of hope. If this is your first year, welcome to coaching, welcome to herding cats. Take my word for it, you aren’t the only one waking up in the middle of the night thinking about how to break down a defense of swarming germ droppers. Coaching Youth Basketball

Triangle Entrepreneur Week – Twitter Visualization

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Data Analysis, North Carolina, Raleigh, Tech, Twitter

Social dashboard I built to visually monitor events like Triangle Entrepreneur Week – Raleigh, NC. More info on the fantastic events that transpired can be found here: Originally Published Nov 15th

The Pit – Authentic Customer Service & Barbecue

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Customer Experience, North Carolina, Raleigh

My dad and I had lunch at The Pit today…
I’ll start with noting that I’ve lived in Eastern NC, and I grew up in Western NC.  I love Eastern NC Barbecue, Western NC Barbecue, Central Hybrid NC Barbecue, Northern.. you get the picture.  I love barbecue, and I don’t discriminate when it comes to barbecue based on region.  Most importantly though – I don’t do restaurant reviews. There are plenty of food buffs that are much more influential than me that have raved about The Pit anyway.  It is widely known how great the food is, so aside from saying that ‘it was fantastic,’ I’m going to leave most of the food critique to those better in the know.

Customer Listening
What I am passionate about is customer listening and exceeding expectations (and from a business standpoint – driving returns from that investment as they fall out along the passionate path). If you happen to have read my post on Customer Listening then you know that a lot of my focus is on data driven listening. In this world – no doubt it is critical beyond belief. But today at The Pit was another fantastic reminder that customer listening, by any means necessary, is ultimately about wowing everyone to the extent possible, every time you get a chance. So this is NOT a restaurant review.  It is simply a great example of how to listen, act, and exceed customer expectations.

Here is my story from today:
I navigated through the future metropolis known as Raleigh’s Warehouse District, and dropped my dad in front of The Pit – Authentic Barbecue restaurant. By the time I parked the car, peeked in the windows of the now famous Raleigh Denim and hoofed it up the alley, dad had struck up a conversation with a chef that had stepped out front. Dad’s Winston-Salem (Western NC) roots meant that I had to sell him on trying The Pit by touting their unbelievable Western NC BBQ Sauce.  Suffice it to say that the Western NC sauce is fantastic (just to stick with my limited food-review theme).  The conversation dad was having with the gentleman out front was around Eastern NC BBQ vs. Western NC BBQ, and how he hadn’t found anywhere in Raleigh that had a western NC red slaw. The Pit doesn’t have red slaw on the menu either, nor do most Eastern NC BBQ restaurants as far as I know.

I was hungry though, so I busted up the discussion and we ventured in.  Shortly after ordering – the chef came over to our table and told us that he was prepping some red slaw for us, to prove he could do it right.  That’s pretty cool.  At that point he introduced himself. He was Darrell Brown, The Pit’s Executive Chef. After a brief chat about Tarboro NC, barbecue prep and sauce preferences, Darrell disappeared into the back. As our food arrived, sure enough, so did Darrell.  And there it was – his customer specific above and beyond over-delivery, his fantastic red slaw.  So as noted – this isn’t a food review. (but off-the-record it was as good as any Western NC red slaw I’ve tasted)

Clearly this isn’t about red slaw, or red sauce, or even barbecue.  This is about hustle stats, passion, pride, and delivering above and beyond for a customer.  And not just customers with high Klout scores or Gold Service levels.  ALL customers.  Customers that you’ve never met before, regardless of whether you think they are locals or passers through.  I could also frame this as North Carolina hospitality, business genius, or competitive juices making Darrell prove his chefpertise.  I’m certain there was a little bit of all three in Darrell’s recipe.  But part of the genius was that it was natural, and what I can tell you is that this is the second time in a row that I have been absolutely WOW’ed by the service I’ve received from The Pit. In fact, I had spent the entire drive there telling dad about the last time I visited with my son and that we were treated with unbelievable hospitality. Today I spent the entire drive home thinking about telling other people about it. That’s a lot of thinking about a barbecue experience.

Darrell’s Red Slaw Recipe:
  • Listen to your customers
  • Act with empowerment
  • Exceed expectations
  • Make every customer leave WANTING to write about it and share their experience

Thanks Darrell for an amazing recipe!
BTW – The food was great too.

Customer Listening like a Lawn Service: Big Success from Small Business Experience

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Customer Experience, Data Analysis

Successful lawn businesses always listen to their customers.

Since lawn companies start out with a manageable number of customers – it isn’t tough for them to truly listen and impact the customer experience. But they don’t listen just because they can, they listen because they have to. It makes them or breaks them.  Show me a lawn business that doesn’t listen to its customers and I’ll show you a nice trailer on ebay. Lawn businesses incorporate what they hear from every single customer into their subconscious set of “business rules.”  They then use these rules to prioritize their work.  It isn’t a documented process.  For lawn businesses, hearing customers is a very natural, logical and necessary survival reflex. The same is true for your business, no matter the size.

Growing Ears Hear More Noise

If you have a big business, or even a small but growing business, you know a lot.  One thing that you know is that maintaining intimate knowledge of your customers (and products) becomes tougher and tougher as you grow.  You know the weighting of the individual customer attributes gives way to broad stereotypes and that you have larger segments that you are aiming to please.  You begin to listen to subsets of your customers that you believe to be representative samples of your entire business.  You begin to listen in waves, re-actively, often through secondary proxies to capture the feedback.  You may have built surveys at some point with the best intent, but they begin to tell you what you already know.   You aren’t receiving much real feedback that you haven’t heard before at this point, but you’ve ‘made it’ out of startup mode.  At this point you aren’t a rookie, you may even be a massive corporation.  You have enough customers to meet the target margin of the moment, and your loyalists (for corporations) or groupies, family and friends (for mid-made-its) are blowing so much sunshine up your ass that you don’t even remember that you don’t know everything.  Even the non-sunshine feedback is sugar coated to the point that it isn’t offering you anything that compels you to pivot from your temporary success plateau.   You can draw very little correlation anymore between the feedback you are hearing and what actions you should take.  You are making generalizations and using lagging indicators to help guide your lumbering strategic direction.  Sometimes you circle back to the days of small & you listen to specific customers because you know it’s the right thing to do.  But you are still left to make broad based assumptions about what the masses want based on some point-pet-peeves you recently heard from a few.  You may be fighting an urge to satisfy a big customer’s every whim vs. maintaining your core focus, losing alignment with your original and foundational mission.  I get it – it’s hard to balance your new found (and justified) confidence with that healthy dose of risk.  For the moment though, take solace in the fact that you wouldn’t have made it through that entire arduous paragraph if you were alone.

Fear Factor

If you’ve grown to be big(ger)- you’ve no doubt listened to your customers in the past.  You’ve made decisions with limited data.  And most often, fortunately, you have been right.  But you are also right when you have that  fear (that you try not to listen to) in the back of your head.  You know – that subtle fear of your empire crumbling that occasionally creeps in to your subconscious.  Don’t worry, I’m not a mind reader, just a listener.  It doesn’t make you less of a founding genius to have that healthy fear.  I won’t even tell anyone that your suit of confidence armor has a secret chink.  But your  promise to yourself should be that you won’t suppress that healthy fear either.   Recognize that risk fearlessness doesnt make you successful, it just separates you from those that wont be. <– Tweet that.  Repeat that. Hear yourself say it.  It’s important. The admirable portion of your chutzpah is self gratifying and sexy, but don’t let it lead to your demise. Go ahead, that’s tweetable too. I’ll wait for you.  When everyone knows your name, the admiration may make you feel like a god..  But you are not.  You are just a leader, and leaders have proven to have limited lifespans.  That feeling of fame stops when you have no followers, so make certain you are working to keep them.  Work to lead people where they are trying to tell you they want to go.  Walk chest high with confidence and a swagger (in your sport coat and jeans if you must) at the end of every day that you have focused on retaining and satisfying customers, your followers.

The Growing Customer Voice

So you get it.  You have to listen to your customers.  That has been true since before an early entrepreneur opened the first brothel.   But what is new(er), that you are beginning to feel is that your customer’s voice is growing.  The former next door neighbor is now the world. If you don’t listen to your customer – that neighbor will know.  If you wow them, the same world is listening too.  Ignore them or wow them.  But know that your ownership of the customer experience is a world stage. Since the customer voice is growing, for better or for worse, your job is to deal with it.  The echoes of feedback are now heard for eternity.  They are re-framed across multiple channels in near-real-time before being archived for future mining.  As big data analytics becomes increasingly more economical, these  echoes are increasingly heard, and additional uses for all of this data-at-rest will come to light.  Trees that fell in the forest last year can rest easy knowing that eventually someone will be there to hear them.  Someone will hear them, and also be able to recognize that the earth was warming and chainsaw sales were also up.  Everything is heard, and everything that is heard is more valuable when coupled with everything else.  That value has become clear and increasingly attainable, and that is why these changes are coming quicker than any business changes you’ve been alive to see.  Being ahead of the wave is going to be critical for your ability to wow your customers and retain market share.  Being behind the wave, well, I hope you enjoyed the adrenaline rush Bodhi.

Competitive Listening

One key and continuing trend is that your biggest competitors are able to hear YOUR customers.  Your competitors are going to be the ones that are capturing data and listening to them – especially when you aren’t.  You need to be doing the same.  Customers that get what they want have always known that squeaky wheels get grease, and now they are squeaking into a megaphone, and in places that require your immediate attention.  And the way you conduct yourself when addressing squeaks is micro-analyzed as well. Your competitors of the future will be the squeak finders that understand YOUR customers better than you do.  They are using big data, often open social and pseudo social data joined with unstructured data bolted to other obscure but now accessible data sources.  That is short enough to tweet, but your followers won’t have any context and they may think you are odd(er). Just send them here, and I’ll be the scapegoat.  Meanwhile – your competitors are working to discover where they can enhance YOUR customer’s experience. They are going to break off chunks of your market share because they are listening to YOUR customers.  So if you want to grow, or stay as big as you already are – you are going to have to learn new and better ways of listening to customers. You are going to have to:
  • Re-think what ‘listening’ even really means.  Daily.
  • Listen to them even when they are not talking directly to you.
  • Listen to what they aren’t saying.
  • Keep your ear to the ground for what they are doing that may change your relationship.
  • Extract an understanding of what is important to your customers *and to their customers
  • Translate all of the above into action, without the delay of bureaucracy

Hire a CHO

As soon as possible, stop using a CxO part time for customer listening.  This is not a CEO, not a CFO,  and certainly not someone buried 3 layers down from any of them.  You need a Chief HEARING Officer.  Call them CHO, CLO, CE-HO, CE-LO or call them BooBoo. But be clear that he or she is there to HEAR, ACT, and ensure INTERACTion, not just listen.  I’m talking about 1/3rd strategic visionary, 1/3rd data scientist and 1/3rd Tasmanian marketing devil.  If you are small and growing, you are likely waiting to be inundated with support calls before you hire someone to run service and support.  But if so, you are waiting too long to start listening to your customers.  You will have already missed an opportunity to guide and influence a cult like following of your product.  You will be putting yourself into the same position that every other company in history has  – creating reactive support that wishes it were more proactive.  If you are big, stop wishing.  Invest in listening.  Start hearing. Hire someone who understands the power of data, particularly the power of combined, big data. There is a reason that Moneyball is real.  Almost every NBA team (aka Big Business) employs brilliant data scientists and data driven decision makers.  There is a clear ability to improve your odds when you are able to see players, plays, profit and customer experience in ways that your competitors have not even thought of yet.  Typical old box scores are directionally accurate at best to these guys.  They have realized that the one data point holy grail doesn’t exist – but that combinations of data can paint a much closer map of it.  They are finding ways to listen to these data points and to utilize them in combination. They are hearing things in the data that you aren’t even listening for. Morey Data Analytics
Lawn services see and split test potential paths constantly. They may find value in helping a non-paying but potential customer with a simple task for free on occasion.  They may knock on the neighbors door to make sure where they are parked is ok – and introduce themselves. On the fly, they weigh the opportunity cost of spending that time vs. driving off to the next job.  These customer touches and hustle efforts may lead to the signing up of a new customer.   This may happen instantly, or it may happen months after the interactive seed is planted.  The effort may be for naught.  But business decisions are made real-time by the person that is directly listening to and hearing what the customer has to say. That is every person that touches the customer. But your business can only fully utilize these data points if you are truly listening and combining what you are hearing. So hire someone who is excited about HEARING pins drop… while they are still in the air…
Pin drop
Hire someone willing to be accountable when they don’t catch the pins before they land. This person has to be capable of grasping your business and must be part of the team that is setting your strategy.  Not just aligned to, not just bought in, but a voice in setting the strategy.  And then you must empower them to influence big decisions from pre-sales through death, both tactical and strategic. Hire someone that listens one way today and two new ways tomorrow. They should be willing to evolve from listening in mono to listening in stereo to 5.1 to 7.1 to 10.2

Customer Listening Evolution

The sound of just two speakers was amazing at one point in the past.  Those days are over, as will be these days. Have you ever thought about how cool an action movie would be with an overhead speaker? I have. In real-life that channel is being captured.

CHO – Action

If you aren’t going to empower someone to course correct tactical processes quickly and also help set long term strategy – don’t bother reading further, because your customer doesn’t really have a voice.  You have to enable, empower, and reward them for prompt ACTION.  You should have a level of trust in your CHO that when he/she  says fix a process – you fix it.  If they say fix a customer interface – fix it.  If they say customers are willing to pay more if we were to do x – split test it. Listening to a customer and then not taking action is a great way to fail slowly.  Be clear that sometimes ‘action’ means explaining to a customer why their demands shouldn’t, can’t, or won’t be addressed.  If you properly set expectations early and often – there is never a reason for dis-sat.  Hire someone that will intuitively know the right factors to account for before taking action on behalf of the customer.

Customer Experience

Every person behind every mower should understand how to interact with Crazy Betty.  Every time they see her, they should know her grandson’s name and that she is a diabetic.  Every interaction is an opportunity to build on a relationship that improves her experience the next time.  Treat Betty like she might put you in her will. Don’t waiver on this.  Hire based on your confidence that the person you are hiring is bought in to your mission.  Use the three strike rule, and fire them when they show that they aren’t bought in.  When they screw this up the first time, explain the massive mantra that should be painted in 4000 pt font on your walls.  Let them know that this can’t happen again.  When they screw up the second time, fire them.  The third strike?  That comes when they are working for your competition.  Harsh? No.  This isn’t a confusing process or obscure and meaningless silo’d initiative.  This is the customer experience we are talking about, and instances where you get to a second strike should be a rarity.  In the absence of a clear process, doing the right thing for the customer is the default path for making the right decision.   Make the customer experience paramount and part of your company culture from top to bottom.  As a leader – own the culture and make sure that everyone that you hire owns it. This should be top down and bottoms up.  It should be clear that the customer is why every single job exists.  Set customer expectations all the time, every time.  Repeat.  Do it again.  Do it once more.  Communicate the expectations.  Clarify.  Deliver or reset expectations again whenever they change.  Deliver more than what you’ve committed to.  You were asked to mow.  Pull weeds, pet the puppy and put the paper on the porch.  Wow them with what you heard from them last time.  Communicate with them – learn how to wow them with an improved experience next time too.

Don’t Discard the Original Sales Pitch

After the sale – don’t discard the ‘pitch.’  This is easy with 5 customers but almost never happens to the extent it should when there are 5000 customers.  But it is basic blocking and tackling if you think about it: Lawn services know exactly why Jimmy signed up with them, and why he left his previous service or is compelled to stop doing it himself. He told them in detail what pissed him off with the previous lawn service during the very first interaction. It was part of the original bonding of the new formed relationship even, a common enemy of sorts. They never forget that he came to them because the last service broke two sprinkler heads. They avoid sprinkler heads like a hornets’ nest when they mow Jimmy’s yard. Now.  Tell me.
WHY did customer ID 8675309 purchase YOUR product or service? Good talk Russ.

How much should I invest in customer listening?

Invest whatever it takes to KNOW your customers better than your competitors possibly can.   Customer Experience
Supplement that investment with listening posts built to hear your competitor’s customers. You need to know your customer’s perception of green grass and be keenly aware of your competitor’s brown spots.
After all, you do have a lawn business. – Messing with Big Foot

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Misfit Toys

Circa 1995, behind Carmichael Gym on the campus of North Carolina State University … @dansmith – formerly known as Danno of fame – and one of the funniest comedians over 5′ tall that you will find Told a massive gentleman during a game of two on two … “I don’t see you stepping to me.” The guy was about the same size as Mr. Woodworker here – a Cooper sculpture up in Canada, eh. @crunkisized and I had to step in, and frankly I don’t recall what happened from there. This is what could have happened:
Dan Smith Cooper Sculpture Canada

Who knew the kid had a remote control

RIP to those outdoor courts (and almost to Danno), this brought back a ton of memories now actually: See future posts related to the old Carmichael Gym courts and general areas (not yet written) called:
  • “Vance kicks the muffler full of concrete”
  • “Vance jumps over a car hood”
  • “Brett shaves head and plays at 95% full intensity (an upgrade from his typical 80%)”
  • “Nile gets abused by a one armed basketball player”
  • “Vance & Brett dunk for the first time in the ‘upper courts’ with Kevin Thompson and Bryant Feggins on the adjacent court thinking he was an idiot for celebrating it”
  • “Mike Wheaton breaks both elbows jumping over a tennis net after a loss to @vancefitzgerald “
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