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Archive for the 'Hall of Shame' Category

Taxi"I try to equate this illegal operation of [. . .] as a terroristic act like ISIS invading the Middle East" he said, "It is exactly the same menace."

Whoa. That must be one horrible outfit the speaker is referring to, to warrant comparison with a terrorist group so brutal that al-Qaeda cut ties with it.

The speaker is Alex Friedman, general manager of two Philadelphia taxi companies and president of the Pennsylvania Taxi Association, and he said this at a board meeting of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. And the diabolical operation in question? uberX, the ride-sharing service that is winning fans among consumers looking for an alternative to conventional taxi service—and winning enemies among taxi companies for presenting a form of competition they consider unfair and even illegal in some instances. (The uberX operation Friedman refers to recently began transporting passengers in Philly, even though the Parking Authority considers it an illegal operation and threatens to fine Uber drivers and impound their cars.)

Legal issues aside, referring to any business operation as a terrorist organization is an absurd use of metaphor. Moreover, it is—or at least should be—an ineffective, credibility-destroying communication strategy to use with any rational audience.

If you need to give your students an example of metaphorical speech and hyperbole gone horribly wrong, chances are you'll never find a better/worse example than this.


Photo credit:

CorrelationWe thought we'd wrap up the school year with a look at the numerical side of communication. Sports-minded students might've seen this map, labeled "Who Is the Most Popular Athlete in Your State?"

Aside from LeBron James's universal popularity, the map shows some fairly predictable regional preferences—Tom Brady in New England, Payton Manning in Colorado, and so on.

It all looks like good, harmless fun until you read the subtitle of the map: "Average Monthly Google Search Queries." Ugh. Putting aside the not-insignificant questions of defining and measuring popularity, the only valid insight one can glean from the number of Google searches is the number of times people used Google to search for a particular name.

At best, it's a meaningless measure of anything else, and it could conceivably mean the exact opposite of what the map claims to say. Maybe fans of the Portland Trailblazers despise LeBron James, and that's why he shows up as the most-searched athlete in the state of Oregon. And one of the athletes listed was involved in a widely reported hoax involving an imaginary girlfriend, so his high ranking might not be a measure of "popularity" at all.

It's not exactly mainstream business communication, but the map is a great example to share with your students about the dangers of misusing numbers, particularly numbers that are easy to use and misuse because they are readily available. (Finding out who is really the most popular athlete in each state would, of course, require a large and expensive survey.)

In the spirit of innumeracy, the website Spurious Correlations has some really entertaining graphs that highlight the dangers of confusing correlation with causality. Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost exactly (0.99) with the per-capita consumption of margarine in the United States?

Once students see how ludicrous some of these correlations are, they might become a little more skeptical of the numbers they see tossed around in the daily news and be a little more careful about using numbers in their own communication efforts. In our chapters on conducting research for business reports, we discuss the dangers of confusing coincidence, correlation, and causality, and these graphs would make a great presentation to enhance your class discussions.

With that, we wish you a safe, restful, and enjoyable summer, and we'll be back in touch in August.


Image: Spurious Correlations

CDBabyCD Baby, the world’s largest retailer of independent music, uses clear, positive language to help musicians understand the process of selling their music through the company and its affiliates. By making the effort to
communicate clearly and succinctly, the company encourages a positive response from its target readers.

We've annotated two slides that point out some of the reader-friendly features of the company's website.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – CDBaby


Within minutes of its release as part of an operating system upgrade on Apple mobile devices, the Apple Maps feature began to generate howls of protest. Compared to the Google mapping feature it replaced, Apple Maps had numerous problems, from egregious errors to missing functionality.

Users accustomed to finding just about anything through the Google app flooded the Internet with examples of mapping blunders. A railway station in Helsinki showed up as a park in Apple Maps. A farm in Ireland appeared as an airport. The Washington Monument was misplaced by several hundred yards. Driving directions steered one user down a railroad track. A search for the huge John Lewis department store in central London yielded nothing, even when the user was standing on the sidewalk outside the store. (This Tumblr blog offers dozens of examples—some amusing, some frightening.)

Beyond the errors and omissions, the removal of real-time mass transit schedules upset people who had been relying on this feature to plan journeys.

Two responses from Apple caught our eye during the aftermath. The first merits our Hall of Shame award, but the second gets into the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Shame Example

An article on highlighted the many problems Apple Maps was displaying soon after launch and quoted this response from Apple’s Trudy Muller:

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn by turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We’re also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

There are five major problems with this response:

First, there is no acknowledgment of any problems, even though people all over the world were having problems and sharing them all over the Internet.

Second, there is no element of apology. Many users were furious, particularly given that they had no choice in the switch from Google to Apple Maps. (Of course, you can’t apologize if you don’t admit you even have a problem.)

Third, the upbeat tone adds insult to injury. Yes, companies need to put a positive spin on things whenever they can, but when customers are angry, they really don’t want to hear that you’re “excited to offer” the very service that is driving them nuts. Yes, Flyover and Siri are cool features to add to mapping, but if the map sends you astray, they aren’t all that helpful. And promising to make customer experience “even better” is tone deaf in this context. Something has to be perceived as “good” before it can get “better.”

Fourth, angry customers also don’t care that it’s a “major initiative” or that you’re “just getting started with it.” They care that a major feature on their expensive phones was suddenly replaced with one that was unreliable and in many instances simply unusable. Plus, this aspect of the message risks coming across as “give us a break; this is really hard and we aren’t finished yet.”

Fifth, with “the more people use it, the better it will get,” the message comes close to blaming users, or at least suggesting that they share the responsibility for fixing the problems. And what are people supposed to do the meantime, keep driving down railroad tracks or walking across lakes?

All in all, it’s a classic. But not the kind of classic any company wants to be known for.

The Hall of Fame Example

About a week later, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with an open letter to Apple customers that acknowledged the extent of the problem, apologized for the frustration Apple created, and, most impressively, explained how to put alternative mapping capabilities—including Google—on affected Apple products. (Click here for an annotated slide.)

Cook’s letter does repeat the “the more people use it, the better it will get,” which we believe is an ill-advised message point. Mapping is an important feature on an expensive product, and it is Apple’s responsibility to fix the problem, not customers’, even if customer input can help. However, the letter has enough other helpful information conveyed in a respectful way that we still think it offers a worthy example.


Want to make an unpleasant situation even worse? Spring the news on people with no warning.

Chargify, which provides securing billing solutions for small to midsized e-commerce companies, charges its clients flat monthly fees based on the number of customers they have. This tiered pricing plan keeps costs low for e-commerce startups that still have few revenue-generating customers.

Until recently, the lowest tier in Chargify’s pricing plan had an extremely attractive price point—it was free. The idea behind the free tier was to attract e-commerce companies still in their startup phase, and as they grew, they would grow into the higher tiers and become paying clients. However, Chargify discovered that many companies in the free tier grew very slowly, if they grew at all, and Chargify wound up supporting a lot of users that weren’t bringing in any revenue.

In order to pull in enough money to deliver the dependable, sustainable services that its clients needed, Chargify realized it needed to raise prices, and that included charging lowest-tier clients for the first time. The company announced its new pricing structure and immediately came under attack from many of its clients—for the price increases themselves, for the lack of any advance notice, and for Chargify’s refusal to “grandfather” existing customers under their original pricing plans. Some called the company “greedy” or “stupid,” and a few went so far as to accuse it of bait-and-switch tactics.

As bloggers and commenters across the Internet piled on, the technology news site TechCrunch summed up with the situation with an article that began, “It’s been a rough day for Chargify . . .” After spending two long days responding to criticisms on Twitter, industry blogs, and other venues, co-founder David Hauser wrote an unusually frank blog post titled “How to Break the Trust of Your Customers in Just One Day: Lessons Learned from a Major Mistake.” He said the company made “a massive mistake” in the way it handled the changes to its pricing model. By failing to alert customers well in advance of the change, he continued, Chargify “broke a trust that we had developed with our customers over a long period of time, and will take much to repair. We should have communicated our need and desire to remove free plans and provided more information about how this would happen, and over a period of time leading up to the change.”

The services Chargify provides take money to deliver, and the price increases were necessary, but everyone involved agrees that the situation was not handled well. Hauser and his team will continue to learn new lessons as they expand Chargify, but you can bet they won’t ever initiate a price increase without giving their customers plenty of warning. (By the way, if you teach Introduction to Business, this story has a number of interesting angles to discuss in class, including the difficulty of validating a business model before it goes live, the financial imperative to jettison unprofitable customers, and the pluses and minuses of the freemium pricing strategy.)

Indirect language and passive voice can be great tools for diplomacy, but as New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel recently demonstrated, they can also be used to avoid the appearance of taking responsibility.

The Waldorf was clearly in a bind when a large contingent of the Saudi royal family arrived and needed a whole lot of hotel rooms, at a time when the hotel was booked for the Thanksgiving holiday. The hotel would not confirm what happened or explain its decision, but the apparent result was that more than 100 other guests with confirmed reservations discovered they had been bumped. In addition to the decision itself, there is the significant customer service question of why the hotel didn’t inform all those it had to bump before they arrived. Even though the hotel made other arrangements for these guests, when you book a room at the world-famous Waldorf, you want to stay at the world-famous Waldorf.

However, what really caught our attention was the language used by Hilton Hotels, the Waldorf’s owner, to explain the situation. Hilton’s statement included the following:

“On those occasions when a guest relocation occurs, it is always our intention and goal to ensure that the affected individual is totally satisfied.”

When a guest relocation occurs. We’ll even concede the “guest relocation” euphemism. It’s the word occurs that is the real gem here, as though some mysterious force relocated 100 people who had confirmed reservations. These relocation didn’t passively “occur.” Waldorf actively relocated 100 customers.

Yes, the hotel was clearly in a jam, but just as clearly it made the decision to accommodate one group of customers at the inconvenience of another group. We’re not saying the hotel should have just come right out and explained exactly what it did, but it could have shown more respect for the bumped customers by taking responsibility for the decision. Here’s one possibility:

“When circumstances force us to relocate guests, it is always . . . “

This keeps the business decision behind the scenes but puts the hotel in the role of the active agent responsible for the decision. This seems like a reasonable middle ground between offering a full explanation and pretending that a Thanksgiving miracle happened.

What do you think of Hilton’s statement? What would you advise your students to say if they were in the role of Hilton’s PR manager?

We’d be willing to bet that database software generates the highest profanity-to-mouseclicks ratio of any category of personal computer software. Database concepts in general are fairly complicated, and the powerful software that lets users create and manage databases can add layers of operational complexity.

Any news about improvements in usability is good news, but Microsoft tripped when it tried to explain that ready-made templates in its Access database software help hide the complexity. The introductory screen for an online Access training course begins with this assertion: “If you think databases are hard to understand, you’re not up to date.”

In other words, “The reason you’re stupid is that you insist on wasting your time worrying about your actual job, life, family, and so on, rather than following the brilliant innovations being made by database software designers.” Or more simply, “If you’re dumb, it’s your fault.”

We exaggerate the effects here, but not by much. Blaming the customer for not understanding the product is bad enough, but Microsoft takes the extra step of implying that it is the customer’s responsibility to keep up with what the company is doing.

Rather than insulting the customer and dredging up negative associations about database software, the promotional copy could’ve said something along the lines of “New ready-made templates make it easy to harness the power of Microsoft Access.” This puts the burden of complexity on the product, where it belongs, but it also moves the conversation in a positive direction by talking about solutions to a problem. And nowhere does it criticize the customer for not being smart or up to date.

On the plus side, Microsoft does provide us with a great example of a situation in which using the word you does not equate to demonstrating the “you” attitude.