Good to Great, or how to not fall into the rabbit hole

When we begin asking ourselves what is this life really all about clearly the implication is that something puzzling has confronted our sense of order and sent it careening into the wall. My last 6 months have been something of that sort.  And, yes, my sense of order and the universe has been challenged, severely.

I have worked in retail marketing most of my career and there are very clear pros and cons to that business.  If you are like me taking pleasure in my busy list and liking to keep busy generally the retail life is for you.  But…at times we question what has seemed to work and think that far fields are greener. Yes, I fell victim to the siren call and the earnest desire to avoid Black Fridays; to shun “holiday”; and to keep well away from the life and death of the 4th quarter.  I longed for a flat horizon where the peaks were in any other quarter except the 4th and where, I truly believed, a higher plane of rational thought drove logical and more strategic customer marketing decisions.  I fell hard and fast and was seduced by my own inventions of what that outside world looked liked.  What followed was a startling revelation!

I was recruited by Wiser Partners into a global CRM & Loyalty project with ABG Group by a very thoughtful practitioner of the art of retained search, Ruth Frantz.  She was extremely thorough.

We worked together to rationalize my work history of headcount and non headcount roles and emerged with a resume focusing on the highlights of a very successful career in global CRM.  Many successes and many innovations littered my career where, to a large extent, my sweet spot was to bring order and align process to deliver efficiencies across the marketing operation.  I’m one of those people who are like a search light where dysfunction exists.  I love to take ambiguity and massage out the wrinkles then align ALL the stakeholders behind a unified effort.  What fun. It is fun! And, it’s necessary but not always appreciated.

I’m often confronted by that deer in the headlights look and the realization that no matter how much I might work to outline the benefits, demonstrate the cost savings, or show the long term benefits it just doesn’t resonate.   More often than not, however, in my retail experience the story had resonated.  Retailers are always looking for ways to squeeze out another sale and CRM holds the keys to the kingdom.

When I review the leaders I’ve worked for – Delphine Hibon, Tyler Heiden Jones, Sue Lewis, Fabrice Gautron, Jay Hirschon, Andrew Dubin, and Paige Havens – what has differentiated them from so many others is the willingness to listen and explore a new idea and to give back at the right time.

In my retail world the tactical CRM conversations had evolved to the point where profiling best customers and building look-a-likes in the offline world was almost regular business.  Digital and offline integration was a no brainer.  The idea of washing a data set through Experian or MasterCard to enhance a propensity view, or to add additional channels of contact was no longer considered unusual while the application of the CRM disciplines to the field now embraced store segmentation and all the geo fencing applications you can think of within a lifecycle view of the customer. Whew!!

So now we’ve set my benchmark and expectation considerations.  Combining this with far fields are greener produced a toxic combination.  The Emerald City is real, isn’t it?

Now back to Ruth – she and I worked through a rigorous process of vetting and validation before I was presented to ABG Group.    I provided a list of 20 references including all my bosses back into my dim dark past.  We analyzed my various roles from an accomplishments perspective then dissected my management style, handling of ambiguity, leadership and on and on.  I emerged at the other side of this process with a very clear and positive view of where I came from and what I am capable of delivering.  I was presented and my capabilities were both admired and desirable from the perspective of ABG’s leadership.  Yes, I interviewed with more people than really made sense.  I was pleased. They were pleased.  The deal was done.

The first few months were bathed in the glow of our differences — between the car rental business and retail between high value and commodity and between high customer investment vs. low.   It was all so very different yet in so many ways much the same but I wasn’t seeing the sameness or the important strategic gaps between where I came from and where I was.  The gaps emerged over time with questions like – Who owns the marketing calendar?  No one, we don’t have one.  How is marketing aligned through the channels?  It’s not, there is no process.  The questions I raised were pretty fundamental and had to be answered in order to proceed with the project I was hired to make happen.

Oops, I forgot about that part.

Let’s step back – the project I was hired to launch was the ABG loyalty program.  This was the holy grail  that would level set the Avis value proposition versus competition, e.g. Hertz, National, etc.  Avis had completed a cost/benefit analysis prior to my starting which framed in infinite detail how the program was to be launched and marketed going forward.  What the cost/benefit didn’t do was answer those basic and fundamental questions that the loyalty marketer would look at including impact on field and fleet; point’s budget relative to customer lifecycle objectives; integration into the customer lifecycle plan; customer migration patterns; integration across media touchpoints, and marketing systems.

The weekly and monthly status meetings were in place.  The right stakeholders were invited but responsibility was too distributed to work.  What ensued was a debacle with the reality of the situation bumping into the cost/benefit and the executive leadership’s weekly, daily, hourly…moment by moment changes of direction.

The most discussed question other than the fleet implications was the value prop and how to deliver it to market within the budget authorized by the already approved cost/benefit plan. The loyalty vendor layered additional constraints that severely limited the ability to apply real marketing thinking to the program aka the “platform can’t do it”. Around and around we went on a daily basis with senior leadership second guessing itself and everyone out there pitching their own version of reality.  And, we had a hard date for the launch of November.  Well, we all know about hard dates.  They change and they did almost daily.

Oh and I forgot to mention the very challenged existing technology backend that required untold soft dollars in people and system work arounds  to support its integration into the loyalty program.  The structure of this system was neither documented nor did any one person have a solid understanding of all the component parts and how they worked together.  Yes, there were a few translators of this byzantine “platform” but they operated with their own agendas which largely involved keeping their jobs while sustaining the chaos indefinitely.  So how was it possible to deliver a strategic proposition in this environment?

And the final straw?  One of the senior leadership had made a commitment to the street to deliver a billion $ EBITDA in 2015.  At the time they neglected to figure out how.

All of these independent streams of dysfunction eventually bumped into each other and doomed the loyalty launch to second fiddle and my project to something less than necessary.  Around me people were being laid off, my boss stood aloof and kept his hands very clean.  Our CMO’s feet staid off the ground while executive leadership made every effort to cut expenses to the bone to ensure delivery of that billion $ EBITDA. Exciting times!

So we have a challenging financial context, a non-strategic marketing department, a budget plan built out of context to reality, and a strategic outcome predetermined by a plan that just didn’t work.  An important secondary factor was the ruthless outlook and limited valuation of the human asset. In other words the human capital had no material consideration in the decision making process.

My friends were agog. They had a small window into another industry and couldn’t believe what they saw.  They were all like me.  They had assumed those far fields really were greener and anything must be better than a retail marketing life.

So – what’s the lesson?

I think it would have been better to have learned more about Avis before I jumped. The positive side is that all projects have an end date.

A good friend of mine many years ago said to me that you learn only 30% about a company and your boss to be in the interview process, and the other 70% is either a pleasant or horrible surprise.  When you also overlay on top of this the 80/20 rule – Yikes.  This means that 2 out of 10 companies you interview with are good to great and the balance is varying degrees of pretty god awful.  Sounds bleak.

But I’m an optimist and have faith in people – the right people. This still doesn’t answer the question of how to vet the audience better but we know great companies are out there.

Check and Done!

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