The Gossip Strategy

Tom Peters

Man is a curious creature. During personal bankruptcy proceedings in the Great Depression, people would often give up a refrigerator or stove before forking over their radios. Once hooked on the nation’s gossip, they wouldn’t let go for anything.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported research by an Australian doctor. He sent 24 patients letters after their office visits, summarizing what he’d said. Another 24 were left letter-less. The mere act of corresponding dramatically increased patient satisfaction—especially among those who’d received bad news from the doctor.

Women, it’s said, are gossips. Baloney! Women and men are gossips. We are all desperately, irrationally hungry for information in any and all forms. News of the world 10,000 miles away is more important to us than a refrigerator. News of what you just heard the day before yesterday from Doc makes you take a shine to him. And, no, I couldn’t resist buying a copy of the Star with the Bill Clinton “story” in it!

My wife recently went shopping for a mattress at the Emporium department store in Palo Alto, Calif. She left in disgust. The lonely clerk was busy with another customer. Fine. But she couldn’t even bring herself to look up and say, “Be with you in a minute, I’m serving another customer.” Let alone offer to try and fetch another clerk. Of course my wife could see all that. But she wanted acknowledgment—an explanation of the obvious, a little gossip if you will.

I’m convinced that airlines could cure 90 percent of their woeful image with passengers if they’d teach their personnel—at ticket counters, gates, in the cockpit, walking the aisles in the plane, at baggage claim—to keep folks informed. The “We’re passing over the Red River Valley” stuff is OK. But mostly I’m talking about constant, honest, confused (i.e., human, lifelike) commentary on delays, weather, bumps and clanks, the lack of menu options, whatever. Just chat with us, let us know something..

It’s like the Australian Doc’s patients. I can handle bad news. I can handle lots of news. And even ludicrous rumors. (I thirst for them, in fact.) But I can’t handle no news. In fact an overly elaborate or lame explanation is preferable to a curt or perfunctory one. Such is the perverse nature of man.

A crusty, cost-conscious distribution company CEO prefers often-more-expensive Federal Express over often-less-expensive UPS—the choice involves millions of dollars. There are several reasons. Chief among them, he says, is that Fed Ex does a first-class job of keeping you informed about what’s up—good, bad, or indifferent. It makes my CEO friend happy because it makes his customers happy. They can live with an occasional late delivery—if they know it’s going to be late, exactly how late, and why, or even a wild guess about why.

Information—raggedy or not—is arguably the No.1 customer service elixir in general, and especially after screw ups. Premier service researcher Ron Zemke’s studies show that over a third of the difference between customers’ perception of very good and very bad service comes from how providers handle their 2 percent or 3 percent of problem cases. At the top of the snafu handlers’ list of magic tricks is keeping people informed. Not once. Not twice. But over and over and over. In other words, gossip.

Gossip (uh, info) is also a top, if not the top, “tool” in the employee involvement kit. How does MCI stay so responsive, in the face of substantial growth? “Everyone is informed of everything,” is the reason heading Chairman Bill McGowan’s list. Former union Pacific Railroad boss Mike Walsh (now Tenneco’s CEO) likewise said that the No.1 “device” that spurred his 1986-1991 renaissance at the giant railroad was sharing accurate, timely, trustworthy information—with everyone. It worked with the unions. And it worked even better with front-line employees.

That’s the nutty thing about it, in fact. You don’t even have to tell people to do anything with information, one successful computer factory boss insists. Just inundate workers with it, and then get the heck out of the way, he declares. I saw a similar “strategy” work miracles at an old General Motors components plant, and Brazil’s maverick supermanager, Ricardo Semler, says it’s key to his astonishing turnaround of $40 million Semco Corp.

Recall our discussion of The Body Shop International a couple of weeks ago. Founder Anita Roddick said her marketing strategy (not that she’d ever use such a term) is to engage her patrons in “conversation.” When it comes to suppliers, customers, the work force—or domestic relations—conversation, information, and gossip by the bushel are matchless tools.

So how do you do it? Just do it, mostly. If there’s a blight on corporate America, it has a lot to do with the reluctance—gutlessness, if you ask me—of the big cheese to chatter.

How about it? Will you consider developing a hard-boiled Gossip Strategy? Doing so is about as close as a human being can come to a sure-fire remedy—for almost anything. Man is a curious creature. Playing to that curiosity is, in short, a no-lose proposition.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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