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Strategic Ambiguity

Whether it is intentional or not, given by pundits, professionals or proselytizers ‘advice’ is too often vague, fluffy and/or shallow. Websites, blogs and articles are filled with key words suitable for Google but lost on most humans. In the domain where I read, think and strategize; customer service, this is especially annoying.  To be clear, I am not talking about those who are skilled in the one or two lines of ‘wow’, which can motivate and inject value; those I rather enjoy.

The reality is that being direct is considered rude, harsh words unprofessional and honesty talked about but practiced only by convenience. We tiptoe around issues, more concerned with positioning, politics and positivity over efficiency and progress. When work submitted is unsatisfactory, we spend twice as much time trying to figure out how to say “this is really crap” in 3 paragraphs worth of ‘politeness’ as we should do. With respect to customer service,  the customer is ‘always right’, however there are degrees of correctness. I am not promoting rude behavior, simply raising awareness.

Enter the Euphemism

A Euphemism is the word or phrase chosen when the one you really need might not pass the ‘Mom test’ – you know, the ‘could I say that at the dinner table in front of mom’ word. In the business world the issue is not quite a ‘dinner table’ issue, but it does have a parallel – ‘could I say it in front of my CEO’. These are the terms and discussion topics that you try to avoid because they are too direct or contentious. Instead of saying “The server crashed” we start with “Due to…” and it ends with “…we have confidence the issue will be resolved shortly”. When it would have been awesome if only once, the answer was “I spilled my Double Mocha Super Grande on the power supply”!

As companies and individuals, we are told to be transparent and authentic – which are worthy goals. But, come on, transparency is the portal to the staging environment where the view is scripted and hardly authentic. The gatekeeper is getting caught or being embarrassed into conformity (If I have high confidence I can get away with it, I will try). If we were truly being authentic, we would use the phrase “none of your business” much more often; how is that for ambiguity. When the CMOs are asked why something is done, the answer should simply be “because I want people to buy more of our stuff!” Is there really any other answer? Of course there is, but when we net it out, that is pretty close.

Getting Closer to Your Customer

This single phrase, the mantra of the CEO, is bandied about a lot these days, and it is becoming almost as bad the word ‘social’.  Put the word ‘social’ in front of almost anything and all corporate ills are cured <hyperbole>. What exactly does getting closer to your customers mean? Does it mean listen more, talk more, sell more, Co-create or infatuate? What is the path to getting closer to your customers and the results to the bottom line? Do you want to get closer to your customer or customers? Do not answer too fast, spend a minute thinking about it. All we need to do is be customer centric, right?

Social, as a descriptor, is getting in the way of progress towards actually getting closer.  The reason is that it simply has too many definitions past and present. People will try to make the leap that we are able get closer to our customers by being more social. What do you think? How much about getting closer is about technology? As the size of the organization increases, technology will be involved at some level, of course. The key is to use technology to mediate the communication (or channel), not dis-intermediate the customer. If I pick up the phone or talk to my customers face to face, I will understand them better. In other words, getting closer to your customer will involve a social activity but might not involve a social technology.

In the context of business, social is different from social in the high school café. Social is really about sitting down and having a drink, playing a round of golf, going shopping, being human and listening actively. The meaning of social has not changed, nor should it. Getting closer to your customer takes time, energy and patience; there is no magic bullet. I apologize if I did not give specific instructions, nor a how-to guide. You know your customers better than anyone else, consider that as you build your customer strategy and those who will advise you on how to get it done.

Strategic Ambiguity is really about doing more with less, that really is a win-win. If you are an advice giver, do you have what you need to back up your claims? If you are searching for insights and are the recipient, are the pundits clear enough to pass the sniff test?

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