In Conversation with Neil Perkin and Helge Tennø

Louis-Jacques Darveau, sat down with Helge and Neil Perkin to talk about new ways of structuring organizations, how companies are leaving customers out of the conversation, and the importance of online platforms for spreading innovative ideas.

Helge Tennø is a Norwegian consultant who helps companies better understand their customers and Neil Perkin is a digital media consultant and founder of Only Dead Fish.

LJD: What's the new reality for organizations today?

H: We're really good at discussing organizations as if they're somehow isolated. We need to understand that corporations are pushed and forced by extreme factors and that it's eventually those factors that shape organizations.

Historically, I don't think organizations have had to work to understand their customers so much. It's a brand new problem. Now, organizations have to go to their customers and start listening more.

LJD: You say it's a new problem. How would you frame the problem exactly?

H: It's not necessarily a new problem. About every hundred years it happens. Shoshana Zuboff talks a lot about capitalism and says that every century or so, customers find new kinds of things valuable.

For the last hundred years our grandparents and parents wanted access to goods and material wealth. Today, we're surrounded by material goods. We can go into any shop and pick out anything we want. But customers are starting to want something more from the items they purchase. It's not just about producing products, it's about creating something beyond the actual product.

LJD: Like experiences.

H: Yeah, and this is the problem. Right now, we're in the middle of this change and we don't actually know what it is. What's this experience people are looking for? If somebody had that answer, they'd be in the billion-dollar club. We're trying hard to figure it out.

NP: From my point of view, the challenge is that a lot of companies say they're customer-focused. You see it in a lot of mission statements and it's just all over the place. Yet so few companies actually are customer-focused in terms of how they structure themselves and operate.

They always tend to default to what's most efficient for the organization. Even in areas like customer service, which should be the most customer-oriented part of the business, they make it impossible for you to speak to someone directly in the company. You have to speak to six people first, and then you have to repeat yourself lots of times. Organizations need to unlearn and unpack a lot of that kind of thinking.

H: You'll never be able to unleash any sort of wealth as long as you're in this old system. You have to start truly organizing around the customer. As you said Neil, everybody is talking about customer orientation, but only five to ten percent are really doing it.

LJD: Because of the commitment it requires.

H: It's basically a slogan exercise. It's something that's at the top of a PowerPoint presentation. It's very easy to just do the marketing thing and not implement it.

NP: Russell Davies wrote this great piece which said, “Stop innovating until you fix the basics.” It's so true because so many companies get the basics of customer experience really quite wrong. Actually, ninety percent of it is just getting the basics right, and then you can do all that other nice stuff.

H: Yeah, the Canadian company Telus is an example of this. I think it was in 2008 that they started restructuring their company around the customer. They've managed to unleash an enormous amount of wealth and success just by revamping their organizational culture around their customers.

LJD: I think it's the first time customer satisfaction and a telecommunications company have been mentioned in the same sentence.

H: Yes, I think the standard that they're committing to is the same as their peers, and as long as their peers have a low standard, then they think they're at the top of their game if they're slightly better.

If you've ever dealt with customer service at Hover, the American IP company, or Squarespace, you can see that they're just immensely much better than anything I've ever gotten from traditional sources. Customers don't compare customer service between telecommunications companies, they compare it to whatever kind of customer service they've ever experienced.

LJD: To Amazon for instance.

H: And other brilliant global players. I would say even the best customer service companies that I know from my country aren't comparable to what companies like Hover and Squarespace are able to pull off.

LJD: I'm happy you mentioned those two companies because I thought the first one that would come to mind was Zappos, because they're running their company contrary to what so many other companies are doing. This has now been really well covered, but the fact that they offer trainees money to leave after the training period just so they know that the ones who are staying are doing it for the right reasons remains unique…

NP: There's quite a few good examples of companies that really take that customer service culture seriously. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky talks about customer service culture being the most important thing in their organization. It can be difficult to get the right kind of talent, but when you do, it really reduces the need for excessive operations.

LJD: Let's talk more about the people side of things. I can see that when I look at Zappos or at Valve, a gaming company. Even Airbnb is a special type of company. But what if you're 3M, Maersk or FedEx? With Airbnb a lot of people want to work for your company, but not everyone wants to work for a railway operator or a shipping company. What are your thoughts Helge?

H: Going back to the Telus example, after the company's reorganization they've gone from 100,000 to 300,000 resumes a year. There's also the example of DB Schenker, the German railroad company that moved decision-making to the front lines. Then there's this Chinese company which has basically made all of its employees entrepreneurs. Of course, this will push away people who aren't interested in working with this model, but it will potentially keep the most talented guys around.

When Zappos restructured, more than fifteen percent of the employees quit. That might be a brilliant move because they got the people who were really interested in staying around and working with that new model. Those who weren't interested moved on.

NP: One of the things that came out of my research, called The Future of Agencies (2015), is that multidisciplinary teams that are working in different ways with a client, often concurrently, can better isolate a problem.

This is a whole new way of working. There are quite a few examples now of agencies working this way and I think there's loads of opportunity for all kinds of organizations to do this.

H: I can see that with Apple, a company based on small, nimble, cross-disciplinary teams with talented people working on the most important things for their customer. My experience is that it's not enough to just pull in people from different parts of the company. You have to make sure that their personalities and ambitions are well matched.

There is this tomato company in California [The Morning Star Company] where everyone is responsible for their own production and their role in the company. They were interviewed by the BBC just a couple months ago and they clearly said that this is for people who want to work like this. It's not supposed to work for everybody. You're supposed to pick the best people to work within this model and present them with an opportunity to deliver on their talent, and those who don't like it can stick to the old model.

NP: Traditionally, organizations have divided their employees into silos. They put groups of people who are very good at one thing together. It's important in one sense because it allows you to understand best practices and to learn from others. If you're putting people together in multidisciplinary teams, you still need to find ways of joining up that functional expertise across the organization. You've got to keep the best of the old, while still introducing the new.

LJD: Helge, how do you go about consulting practice?

H: I'm a company, but I'm only one person. And I intend to stay that way forever. The best decision I've made is to not be a team. I get injected into companies' teams and help them find ways to better focus on the customer. These companies are often basing themselves off of old business models. They need interesting and valuable data in front of them that makes them think and react according to what the customer wants. My job is to essentially put the customer inside their team.

LJD: How do you do that?

H: Well, I want to say, “I open doors,” but I sneak around a lot in the beginning. Sometimes I get hired to do traditional consulting, which is basically just delivering something at the end of the period. It's horrible. I just can't work like that anymore. I feel that ninety percent of what I can offer a company is the process, something I can only achieve by working with them every day.

I don't necessarily have to physically be with them, but I do need to be in an ongoing conversation with them about that problem. I work very closely with a couple of the team members and I help them organize and work with the different participants in that team, depending on what works or doesn't work. I would say maybe seventy percent of what we do is traditional team working and thirty percent is trying to force new ideas and ways of thinking.

LJD: Are your clients mostly in Norway, and do you feel that the psychology of boards and executives there is different than the rest of Scandinavia or Europe?

H: Yes, my clients are mostly in Norway. The country is very isolated. It's a lot of international companies coming into Norway having problems working with Norwegian culture because it's very flat and efficient. It doesn't have any hierarchies. Well, it does have hierarchies but they don't have the same kind of authority. When a Norwegian CEO travels to Germany they don't understand why it has to be so hierarchical. Why can't people who are lower in rank talk to the people on top? Norway is also exceptionally traditional. This is my struggle a bit.

I like to think I'm forward-leaning. I work with companies in Norway who are exceptionally traditional and very engineering-based. Companies in Sweden, for example, appreciate creativity more than Norway. Branding came to Norway about twenty-five years ago, but I've managed to find people in corporations that are interested in working and thinking in new ways.

LJD: Do you think these non-hierarchical structures give Norwegian companies an advantage over other companies?

H: I haven't actually thought about it in that way, but I think, yes. It's a benefit to have different kinds of people inside teams working together at the same level.

LJD: Neil, you travel regularly. Do you see a lot of geographical differences in terms of thinking?

NP: I think Asia is really interesting. I don't do a lot of work in Asia, but the stuff I've done there is very different. You have to have a really good understanding of the culture in order to advise a company well.

When you speak to people in different global markets you always get local variations, but the big themes are often the same. There's also some really interesting stuff happening in Australia in terms of the way that agencies work with their clients.

LJ: Helge, you're very prolific in terms of publishing your frameworks on organizations. How do you balance client work with nurturing your own online platform?

H: It's hard. We have these ideas that grow inside us and we need to articulate them. We have these hunches that can turn into brilliant ideas. My blog forces me to think and rethink what's happening inside my head. At the same time, I have only one marketing platform which is, basically, my blog and SlideShare. I don't have to invest in anything else.

It's the reason I was able to do my business, because I've been out there for ten years publishing ideas. I've been throwing ideas out long before I even thought they were sensible to put out there, but I just thought, “Let's do it and see what happens.” Maybe a lot of what I put out there is silly, but sometimes I write something that hits a nerve.

NP: I have a quote on my blog that's my favorite quote of all time. It's by Paul Arden who's a creative director for Saatchi and he says, “Do not cover your ideas. Give away everything you know, more will come back to you.” For me, that's what it's all about. You just start blogging for the reason that you have ideas that you want to express. You don't do it with any expectation of accumulating a big audience, but there's lots of different benefits that you get down the line. I've lost count of the number of interesting people I have met and benefited as a result of my blog.

H: At first, I had lots of people asking why I was giving away so much stuff for free. I had two arguments. First, I receive much more wisdom from my networks than I could ever give back. And second, you can steal as many of my ideas as you want, but if I publish something in the morning, then that idea would probably have developed by the afternoon. You wouldn't really steal my ideas, you would just be developing them.

LJD: Are we doing enough as practitioners to build these frameworks and peer networks? I feel like that's the challenge ahead of us for the next twenty years: transforming large organizations before they collapse. Look at Eastman Kodak. They used to employ 140,000 people and were replaced by Instagram, a company with 13 people when they were acquired by Facebook.

NP: I think we've only started to understand what this whole level of connection really means. I think there's going to be lots of interesting stuff happening in the next twenty or thirty years. Organizations are really good at valuing what's tangible and perhaps the challenge will be how these companies visualize their ROI. People who spend their time doing stuff without an immediate ROI are questioned and I think that's a fundamental problem. People need to invest time and energy in getting fresh perspectives and connecting with interesting people and that does require some time and effort.

H: Everybody's talking about the same thing but they're just using different language. Everybody's trying to coin the next term. I think the idea of a peer network is wonderful, but we should be trying to fight for a common language because then it could be a much stronger cause.

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