April 2013

DSC_0047Each year, around this time, AHA heads to New Zealand to blog for TRENZblog. This initiative is part of our work with Tourism New Zealand. We spend a week travelling the country and then we attend TRENZ, New Zealand’s largest travel trade show – and we blog our way through the country and the trade show.

Each time I visit New Zealand, I learn both life and communications lessons. Most times, they are intertwined (after all, we all communicate and it is one of the most challenging aspects of life sometimes). Each time, one big lesson stands out. This year, that lesson is about bringing your passion and your “A” game every day. While this lesson can be translated to any profession, it certainly hit home for me in what we do here at AHA.

In the two weeks in New Zealand, I had several opportunities to speak with/interview people in the tourism world. Several people really stood out for me. Over the next two weeks, I am going to share those experiences here on the AHA blog, showcasing what each of them taught me.

The first is Nicolas, the winemaker at the boutique winery, Black Estate, in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand. Nicolas took the time to let us see what was going on just a day or so after the harvest. This is a very busy time for a winemaker, and yet Nicolas let us into the area where the grapes were being squished (not the technical term) and he also spent a good thirty minutes showing us around and answering my questions.

Lesson 1: Be so excited and passionate about what you do that you want to share it.

Nicolas’ passion was clear – as was his knowledge and talent. I could almost see the delight in his eyes as he explained the process. It made me want to support this winery because it was clear that it mattered to him.

Lesson 2: Be patient and open to questions from those who know much less than you.

While I have been known to sip a glass of wine or two now and again, I know next to nothing about the behind-the-scenes workings of a real vineyard. Nicolas answered all my questions, never spoke down to me, and encouraged me to ask more questions. He opened my mind to many aspects of winemaking and he educated me, making me want to learn more about what he does.

Lesson 3: Embrace who you are. Not once did Nicolas apologize for being a small winery. In fact, he was proud of it and confident in the quality of his wine. Black Estate is a boutique winery and it embraces that – it doesn’t try to be a big winery; it focuses on being the best it can be. Not trying to be anyone else.

While these lessons might not seem to be communications lessons – they are. Nicolas lives the Black Estate brand. He is clear and consistent in how he speaks about the grapes, the process, and the art and craft of making wine. And he clearly loves it. His passion shone through and he used humour to explain things to me. He is an excellent communicator when it comes to his wine.

Next up: Fiona and Chris of Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura.

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http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-communication-concept-image29214163As some readers of this blog know, I have been dealing with an issue with H&R Block on behalf of a family member. I believe that it is important to acknowledge their efforts when an organization responds to an issue that is put in front of them.

Yesterday, I received a response from H&R Block that they are dealing with this issue. What they have put forward satisfies me for the moment. They have had someone with knowledge about the type of issue that my stepmother is facing (due to their error) look into this and they are taking steps to correct it. I was told that my stepmother should receive the refund that she is entitled to (and has been trying to get for the last year) in two to three months. I appreciate that they have taken this issue seriously and are working to resolve it. I will keep you posted on what happens next.

What I want to focus on in today’s blog post is the communications aspect of my interaction with H&R Block.

As a person with an issue, here is what I did to get results:

  • I was polite. (I said please and thank you; I did not use profanity.)
  • I did not get personal. (My issue is with H&R Block, not with any one person.)
  • I outlined my expectations, and they were not unreasonable.
  • I followed up. (I was the polite squeaky wheel.)
  • I did some research and included people in senior positions in the organization in the e-mail conversation.
  • When I felt that my issue was not receiving the consideration it deserved, I reached out via social media (this blog, Twitter and Facebook) to share my frustration and engaged the support of others.
  • I let the person who was communicating with me know that I appreciated the efforts they told me they are now taking.
  • And I will continue to follow up. This is not over until my stepmother has the refund cheque from the government in her hands.

Good customer service is a key element of operational excellence and brand reputation. In my opinion, customer service should be a priority for every organization. If you drop the ball here, it can turn into something quite costly in the long run.

And if you messed up, say you are sorry. I have dealt with issues and crisis with clients where the legal team and I have had incredibly loud discussions about this. I understand the challenges around “legal” responsibility, but if you made a mistake, acknowledge it, explain why it happened and what you will change so it will never happen again. As human beings, we want to forgive – but we won’t do that unless you apologize and take responsibility. (Which – I have to say – H&R Block has not done yet. I am waiting for them to get to this stage of our discussion.)

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Trenz_logo_nauticalHere at AHA, we are preparing to head to New Zealand for the 5th year of TRENZblog, the social media campaign that has us blogging and tweeting from the country. First, as we check out areas on a familiarization trip (this year it’s Wellington, the Marlborough region, and the Christchurch & Canterbury region), and then from TRENZ, New Zealand’s largest travel trade show.

We are always excited to head back to New Zealand – it’s a fabulous place. The beauty of the country is breathtaking and each region has its own unique charm. And the people of New Zealand are exceptional. Friendly, welcoming and more than a little bit cheeky.

Five years ago, TRENZblog was a bit of a leap of faith on the part of Tourism New Zealand. In 2008, the online world was just finding acceptance in the mainstream. In fact, five years ago I had the opportunity to interview New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and I was the first travel blogger to be granted an interview with him.

TRENZblog has now become a bit of a “regular” connection between trade media and New Zealand tourism operators. This project is a resource in providing trade media and travel trade professionals with timely and relevant information about tourism activities in the country.

We have recently been working on several proposals and that always makes us take a look at ourselves as communicators and what and how we do things. TRENZblog is a good example of seeing a shift in the landscape and moving that way. We recognized that the online world and social media were game changers when it came to PR and strategic communication and we knew that in order to serve our clients well, we had to evolve. TRENZblog is one of those projects that could have easily slipped by without much fanfare. It’s kind of workhorse PR initiative. It’s not big and flashy and it likely won’t win us any awards, but it gets the job done – and it gets done well. TRENZblog produces results and over the past four years, we have measured and reviewed what we could do differently, what works and what doesn’t, how we can continue to improve.

We’re really proud of TRENZblog. It’s a good project that meets its objective. The fact that we get to spend time in New Zealand while we implement it is a bonus.

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I have been thinking about how much I should share here about the issue that my stepmother is facing with H&R Block. And then I realized that this is a live case study of poor public relations by H&R Block; so let’s dive in.

I’ll start off with the fact that the person who did my stepmother’s tax return was inept and clearly not experienced or skilled enough for the job. While this professional incompetence has absolutely nothing to do with PR, it does lead right into the controversy that started because of an ad campaign by Intuit (parent company of TurboTax). The ads showcased how horrified people were when they realized that the person who prepared their tax return also worked as a plumber or a retail sales clerk. Check out the commercial accompanying this blog post. Here’s another.

H&R Block went to court and tried to “block” the ads. That failed. They then attempted a push back with a social media campaign with #IAMHRBLOCK that featured snapshots of its tax-preparing “professionals” holding up signs – many of which said what they did for a living… It’s quite the list: air traffic controller, Zumba instructor, a guy who owns a power washing company… not quite the kinds of people that you would expect to have the skills, education and experience necessary to understand the complex world of tax returns. (I’m not saying that some of them don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge; it’s just that when you hear the words “tax expert” – you don’t think of the guy who power washes your house.)

While there are some with day jobs that are more closely aligned with what we would expect from someone who calls themselves a “tax expert” – what I want to know is when a person like my stepmother sits down to have her taxes prepared at H&R Block, does that person disclose what their real job is? I love my Zumba instructor, but I wouldn’t want her to do my taxes.

Today, I am reaching out to Intuit President and CEO Brad Smith. Perhaps TurboTax will want to launch a new campaign, showcasing people like my stepmother who are the casualties here – the “regular” people that H&R Block swears it serves, but who are completely abandoned by H&R Block once they get their hands on their fees. I can see the hashtag now: #IAMHRBLOCKED.

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AHA CakeRegular visitors to this blog know that I strongly believe that a great brand reputation is only as strong as its people. The organization’s brand might be reflected in its tag line, positioning statement, key messaging, advertising and PR campaigns, but it is brought to life by the actions of the people who are connected to it. The best ad campaign in the world won’t work if you don’t execute your brand promise every day.

I recently had two very different experiences with brands. One exceptional (hello, Las Vegas) and one so bad that I can hardly believe they use this tag line in their e-mails: “Customer service is not a department… it is an attitude.” (Yes, H&R Block, it’s me again, hoping you will step up and do the right thing this time.)

Let me explain. Here at AHA, we recently submitted a proposal to be named the Canadian PR agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. We knew that there would be quite a few agencies that wanted this gig and we needed to stand out from the crowd. We developed a Canada Loves Las Vegas teaser campaign to engage the interest of the team reviewing the proposals. We approached several Las Vegas-based businesses for fun items to deliver along with cheeky little love notes from us to Las Vegas. I can’t tell you how incredibly helpful, open and responsive these small businesses were – not to mention that their products are spectacular. Their customer service was so good, it was like they became a part of the AHA team. Each one of the businesses listed below (with links to their websites) is one I would recommend without hesitation. They could write the book on customer service.

  • Enchanted Florist – They delivered fabulous flowers for us.
  • Distinct Impressions – They delivered delicious white chocolate-covered strawberries for us.
  • Caked Las Vegas –They delivered the incredible custom cake that you see in the image for us. (Get it? We sent a proposal with the cake.)

In another part of my life, I am assisting my 71-year-old stepmother with an issue with H&R Block. They made a mistake on her tax return that has created a huge amount of frustration for her – and has cost her a tax refund of $3,200. They have been giving her the runaround for close to a year. I stepped in to help and was pleasantly surprised to get a quick response to an e-mail that I sent to H&R Block’s head office and the PR agency. It was a phone call from the area manager where my stepmother had gotten her taxes done. I immediately sent him over 60 pages of information, documentation and details about the issue. And then… nothing. It went silent.

A week later, I followed up with him and he e-mailed me saying he was hoping I would wait a few more weeks because it’s tax time and he wants his staff to focus on clients. Really? My elderly stepmother is a client. I thought: “Customer service is not a department… it is an attitude.” How does this response live up to your e-mail tag line?

I can’t think of two more extreme examples – excellence from the people of Las Vegas and an epic fail from the people of H&R Block.

While there is nothing better than having AHA share your news with the world (hello again Vegas), there’s nothing worse than having a daughter with PR and social media expertise protecting her mother from an uncaring company.

I hope you will be hearing more from me about how fabulous Las Vegas is as a tourism and convention destination and I know you’ll be hearing more about my issue with H&R Block.

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