There are marketing lessons everywhere you look.
In the (hopefully) final chapter of my unpleasant encounter with the cable company, I was reminded that a “tier” system is almost always in place when you’re dealing with businesses that have a product or service you want.
This mostly-hidden world of power is what fuels conspiracy theories and gets best-selling thrillers published.
And it explains something critical about customer management that entrepreneurs often miss.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the story: My big damn state-of-the-art plasma TV viewing enjoyment went sideways a few weeks ago, courtesy of the cable company. I could still get most of the HD stuff I craved, but I couldn’t buy movies on the system.
So they sent out first one “tech”… then another… and then another. After, of course, I had to log multiple hours on the phone suffering under the virtual lash of a robot, and then the very troubling incompetency of someone in Bombay trying to shoot signals to my box from across two continents and one ocean.
I noticed something interesting as the parade of “cable guys” got more regular — each new tech cheerfully trashed the tech who’d visited before him, and denounced whatever actions they’d taken as wrong, wrong, wrong. They should have replaced the wires, they shouldn’t have used that type of connector, they forgot to cap the transducers, they didn’t say “Simon Says”, they didn’t do ANYTHING even remotely right.
Which left me thinking: “Then why were these idiots even on the job, if they don’t know what they’re doing?”
The plot, however, centered around the inconvenient fact that each new tech was just as impotent to FIX the problem as the one before them.
Three cable guys, miles of fresh wiring under my house, new holes drilled, new equipment installed, lots of chatter on the walkie-talkies. All while I received patient explanations about how it was all gonna be better now.
Except it never got better.
In fact, the problem got WORSE after each tech visit. By the time the last tech loaded up his truck and sped off, in fact, I was left with a sputtering test pattern on the TV.
This is where having a little “juice” in the community opens up all sorts of new opportunities.
Now, I’m pretty much a recluse. I’m happy to sit in my dark home office with the black-out curtains pulled tight… the only light the pale glow from my computer monitor, my only contact with humanity via the phone and email.
However, my significant other is a social butterfly, volunteering oodles of time for worthy local causes, and sitting on the boards of some very powerful committees in town. Her job also makes her a frequent visitor to the city council, where she rubs elbows with the movers and shakers of this small, vibrant Western town we live in.
In other words… she’s wired into the local power structure.
Now, you don’t want to ask for too many favors, ever. It’s just rude… and each time you hook a lapel of someone in power to fix your petty problems, you dilute the juice you have.
It’s probably close to how you’d deal with the mob. You wanna think twice about owing certain people favors, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, after the third failure to get our problem fixed through normal channels… we bit the bullet and contacted someone we knew had influence over the cable lords. I can’t share any details, for obvious reasons… but let’s just say the average person in town doesn’t even know this hidden path to getting stuff done even exists.
Result: We got a call late that night from a cable “specialist” — essentially a “SWAT team” kind of guy, who operates after-hours, and who has special powers (including secret phone numbers to bypass the bullshit) to get things done, quickly and without fuss.
He was a “fixer”. Like the Robert DeNiro character in “Brazil”, or the Harvey Kitel character in “Pulp Fiction”.
In a moment of clarity, I even recognized that it’s a job I’ve been doing for most of my career.
I, too, know secret paths to getting certain marketing chores done… and I have a “power Rolodex” of people who cannot normally be reached, but who will pick up the phone when I call.
Anyway, to cut to the quick: This last guy comes by, way after normal working hours… and, contrary to the “two to three hour window” all the other techs required for a visit, this Fixer showed up within MINUTES of calling us on the phone and alerting us that he was coming by.
He had, with him, a brand new cutting-edge high-tech cable box (which few people even know exist yet)… an astonishing knowledge of how to immediately and quickly identify physical problems with wires and connections… and a refreshing honesty.
Turns out that ALL the prior techs had done bad, bad things. Not out of spite… but out of not understanding the NATURE of the problem.
It wasn’t the wiring, or the signal, or ANY of the things identified as the culprit by everyone else we’d talked to.
Nope. The Fixer, with a phone call to a secret location, instantly discovered that our account had never been set up properly. And the digital signal to my box simply was being ignored by the main frames.
In other words… my TV was a phantom to the cable company. I’d fallen off their radar.
A very simple fix, once identified.
Of course, my question is: “Why the hell didn’t somebody check that FIRST?”
Answer: There are two levels of service with the cable company. The first level — all the robots, all the techs, all the “Steve’s” in India — did not have “authorization” to talk with the “privileged info” gate-keepers in the main office. So they were like emergency room doctors who only knew how to treat broken bones, and nothing else.
Everything they did — all the wiring, all the crawling around under the house, all the digital shoot-outs with the signal — were the actions of people who were DENIED the info that would have solved the problem immediately. They just tried, over and over again, the things they knew how to do.
Butting their heads repeatedly against a wall, but refusing to admit there might be another level to the problem.
And if we hadn’t had the juice to get connected with this hidden layer of power… I’d be talking to the dish people right now. There would have been no other choice.
Here’s the marketing lesson: Big companies often — and stupidly — set up protocol that angers customers. Like Enron, the internal culture actually despises the people who send them money for services or products.
To be fair — when you have to deal with lots of people, a huge percentage of the complainers are going to be assholes and idiots.
Quickly, however, if you don’t watch it, you start to treat EVERYONE pre-emptively as either an nutcase or a grouch.
And it spreads to your co-workers. THEY’RE all freaks and morons, too. (It’s just dumb to allow your employees to trash each other. It makes your entire organization appear unhinged and out-of-control.)
However… there is ALWAYS an alternative door, which is always hidden from most folks.
Through this door, you will get first-class service, you will get satisfaction, and you will be treated to all the perks of power.
All in hush-hush terms, of course.
This special treatment is why people struggle for power, and kill to keep it. Once you’ve flown on private jets, skipped the lines everyone else suffers in, and get a taste of the good life… it’s hard to go back to being a regular schlub.
As far as the conspiracy nuts go — you gotta just get over any anger at the way the system works. These hidden power structures exist in capitalism, communism, all religions, all governments, and even in every simple village or community… and the situation will never change.
All rebellions discover this the hard way. The guys who led the charge, shouting “equality for all”, end up not sharing the perks of power. It’s human nature.
This is why the US system of government is still a wonder — we’re not “better” than other governments… we just have checks-and-balances of power that clean up the mess every new administration makes. We can’t stop the power-grabs. But — keep your fingers crossed — eventually the would-be bad-guys get outed and punished.
Until the next group arrives, thinking they know better than everyone else how you should live your life. We have learned, in this country, to trust that the system will hold.
We don’t eliminate the problems. We just have fixes in place that seem to work.
So most people go through life semi-conscious of another world operating just out of their awareness… where thngs get done with a curt phone call, and where there are no secrets or closed doors.
And they know they will, without some intervention of Fate, never enjoy what this hidden world offers.
We expect this two-tiered power structure with government, and even with nightclubs and hotels and — yes — the cable company.
But entrepreneurs sometimes forget that their own business often has a secret level that is protected and kept hidden from most customers.
It can be as simple as personal access to you… or as complex as a whole new set of products or services that you don’t offer to just anyone, but require some sort of initiation or qualification process.
The micro (your little slice of the world) mimics the macro (the way systems work on large levels).
Top marketers and experts realize this… and set up “inner sanctums” and special levels of membership allowing for, essentially, special treatment.
I have known about, marvelled at, and studied this whole “hidden world” thing for decades. It was one of the first realizations I had after becoming a freelancer — if I “played the game” the way other freelancers did, I would just be one more guy in the long line hoping impotently for atttention.
So I quickly figured out ways to find the hidden doors… and bust them open.
I was not always successful… but I learned something from every siege. And I was successful enough to become the freelancer who got called FIRST for several LA agencies… and later the guy who earned the friendship (and mentoring) of the movers and shakers in this biz.
I’m not telling you to bust down doors like Robin Hood, in some idealistic fit of rage over the inequities of the system. You can do that, if it floats your boat… but please don’t say you weren’t warned of the futility of your crusade. (I used to be an idealist myself… until I realized how much you can actually get done when you become a realist.)
No. I’ve taken the time to tell this story to remind you that there is ALWAYS another way around any problem. It’s a shame the world isn’t black and white, and it complicates things enormously… but “no” is almost never the final answer to any question.
If you know how to look for the hidden doors.
In your own business, realizing you have different levels of service should open your eyes to an opportunity. There are people in every market who don’t get pissed when they learn of “insider” paths to getting info or getting things done. Instead… they just want to know how to JOIN that privileged group.
I don’t care if you’re selling furniture in a store, or info from a Website… if you have a privileged level of service, you can systemitize it to allow for access by people who wouldn’t otherwise get that access.
The basic question is: How much is it worth? Not to the average person, who may not appreciate the advantages of “insider” privileges… but to the guy who is not bothered by questions of “cost” when it comes to moving ahead quickly and without fuss.
In the public sphere, any blatant use of the hidden power paths brings on the outrage. The truth of our political system, of course, is that money talks and lobbyists get the ear of the guy you thought was representing you (because you voted for him).
But you’re not in politics. You’re in business. You CAN’T open up the private access to you, personally, to just anyone… because there isn’t enough of you to go around.
This is why so many marketers set up hyper-expensive, and very harshly limited, routes to the “hidden” parts of their business. These platinum levels, or customized mentoring programs, or brainstorm clubs are not MEANT to be for “everyone”.
There will always be a level above the one “most” people know about.
It may be as simple as being considered a friend, and having a secret phone number… or it can be organized, and require qualification and a fat check.
I can tell you from a lifetime as a guy who was born on the “outside”, and who dedicated myself to sneaking backstage, that there are levels of success that will always be denied to non-insiders.
I am not recommending that you “sell out” for a spot on the inside. You can enjoy lots of success without even acknowledging this hidden world of power. Screw ‘em.
However, as your own boss in a very competitive marketplace, it’s an advantage just to understand that levels exist.
And sometimes, you may want to sample life behind those hidden doors.
Something to think about.
PS: I want to thank all the people who left comments in my other post about the cable story. As with all monopolies, the truth about dealing with them is both horrific and hilarious (after you get a little perspective).
It’s no way to run a business, that’s for sure.
But someone suggested hitting buttons (or “0”) on the phone to get to a live person. That used to work. Current robot systems, however, don’t use buttons anymore — it’s all voice. Nothing you say or threaten or beg for will get you anything other than “I’m sorry. Please say yes… or no.”
We DID find a way around the robot, though.
The next time we called, we just asked for the “order more services” options. That got us to a sales person, a real human, immediately. And through them — cuz we got their name and ID right away — we were routed to the middle level of “fixers”.
Who were incompetent, of course. But it did get us past the robot.
We would have NEVER gained access to the secret level of fixer, though, without insider connections.
It’s not fair.
But I lost my idealistic desire to force the universe to be “fair” a long time ago. I’m not jaded, either. I just know how things work now.