Live Blog: 3M Unites Global Workforce With Technology

Lotusphere 2012When it comes to innovation, everyone wants to know what the leaders are doing, and you won’t find many firms with a better innovation track record than Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M). At Lotusphere today, two representatives to 3M outlined some ways the company is using collaboration platforms to improve access to expertise and information across the far-flung company, which has people in more than 60 countries.

Jeff Berg, 3M, at Lotusphere 20123M’s track record of innovation is legendary, but globalization has presented new challenges. “We’re a century-old company founded on the principles of collaboration, but now we’re worldwide, said Jeff Berg (left), IT eBusiness Architecture and Development Manager.

Internet-based tools have been embraced across the company to compensate for the loss of physical proximity. 3M engineers have adopted a microblogging platform called Socialcast behind the firewall to tie together 800 members across 30 channels. The tool is enabling point questions to be answered quickly.

A sampling:

  • “I need information on 3M Japan products (name withheld) and what are the Eurpean substitutes?”
  • “Does somebody know whether (unnamed competitor’s product) is approved at (unnamed customer)?”
  • “Anybody have a good print anchorage test for films or a test apparatus that performs a wiping motion repeatedly?”

Michael Lynch, 3M, at LotusphereThese questions were all answered in minutes, said Michael Lynch (right), Manager of IT Advanced Personal & Workgroup Solutions. People have gravitated to Socialcast “because of the speed and light touch.”

Not all problems lend themselves to brief answers, though. 3M has also experimented with more ambitious projects involving live seminars, group brainstorms and even contests.

One division launched a contest seeking 50 unique prototypes that contained 3M technology. The deadline was six weeks. The group held live live webcasts and chats to explain the event and succeeded in getting 45 prototypes from across the U.S. 3M filed seven patents on the work that resulted.

The research & development organization has used IBM Connections to take a long-standing technical conference online. The Virtual Technical Information Exchange (VTIE) renders in cyberspace what used to be done with speeches, posters and conference calls.

Last year the event went virtual with IBM Connections, drawing 10,000 participants from around the world who contributed to 140 presentation threads with nearly 1,000 posts and comments. “This was supposed to be a two-week event when it started last summer,” Lynch said. “It’s still running.” The time-shifted conversation has drawn significantly more participation from overseas employees, he added. Presentations are recorded and posted as audio files, which participants can follow up in forums.

Time to Market

Online collaboration is also being used in non-technical functions. A private community of about 200 consumer-focused field sales reps and service engineers now post monthly blog-like summaries of field activity reports, customer wins and innovative marketing ideas. “Not only does this helps us understand what problems need solving in the field, but it helps the headquarters team feel more connected with customers,” Berg said.

For 3M’s largest customers, account managers can now connect with each other to seek innovative solutions. Berg cited one customer in the hospitality industry that needed a noise-mitigation solution that couldn’t be addressed by 3M’s Thinsulate or Bumpon products. A Connections search found just the thing in a completely unrelated industry.

From the Top

Collaboration tools aren’t just for peer connections. Executive managers recently found them useful when communicating with employees about disruptions that would stem from a major renovation of the company’s Minneapolis headquarters.

“Temperatures in Minneapolis can drop to 20 below in winter, so the need to force people outside during renovations was a concern,” Lynch said. “The decision to use for the renovation plans to employees was controversial at first because news has always been top-down.” A wiki devoted to the project proved to be just the ticket, however. “It’s become the most popular internal social site in the company” with 340,000 page views and more than 200 comments, Lynch said. “We’ve been able to listen to discussions, manage objections and actually get great ideas.”

And when it’s 20 below, the creative juices really get flowing.

This is one in a series of posts sponsored by IBM Midsize Business that explore people and technologies that enable midsize companies to innovate. In some cases, the topics are requested by IBM; however, the words and opinions are entirely my own.

Making It or Breaking It with Customer Service

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

On June 13, Vincent Ferrari decided he no longer needed his $14.95-per-month account with a major online service provider. Ferrari had heard stories about the company’s notoriously poor customer service, so on a hunch, he wired his phone to record the conversation.

What he got is a marketer’s nightmare. After waiting 15 minutes on hold, Ferrari finally spoke to a customer service rep who spent the next five minutes insisting that he shouldn’t cancel the account. Despite Ferrari’s repeated requests to “Cancel…the…account,” the agent wouldn’t give up. The exchange reached the height of absurdity when the rep asked to speak to Ferrari’s father. Ferrari is 30.

There was a time when a story like this would have been shared and laughed over with a few friends. But this is the age of the blog and Ferrari did what any self-respecting blogger does these days. He posted the recording.

The response was overwhelming. More than 1,000 readers weighed in with comments, many lamenting their own customer service horror stories with the vendor. Ferrari was interviewed on the Today show. Google news lists 32 news accounts of the incident. The recording was downloaded more than 65,000 times from YouTube. Demand was so high that Ferrari’s blog server crashed. You can read his story here.

The conventional wisdom that a dissatisfied customer tells 10 people about a bad experience is outdated. Today, they tell millions. Social media is unforgiving in this way. Consider the poor vendor in this situation. One negative exchange with a customer resulted in a firestorm of bad publicity that was wholly out of proportion to the offense. Ferrari had a juicy story to tell and the media loves a juicy story.

For many businesses, customer service is a neglected afterthought. Squeezed to cut costs, businesses are increasingly marginalizing the customer experience by inserting automated phone systems and ponderous Web interfaces between themselves and their clients. Or they’re outsourcing the whole thing overseas. The result is that customers are becoming more and more disenfranchised. And they’re going to sites like The Consumerist to vent their frustration.

I set out today to write about innovative customer service, but in researching the topic, I discovered so much rancor about the state of customer service that I changed course. It seems to me that in the outsourced, cost-controlled, Webified and automated business world, innovative customer service is increasingly about going back to basics. It’s about providing your customers with a speedy, hassle-free exchange with a pleasant human being who genuinely appreciates the customer’s business.

Think of the businesses you patronize that give you good customer service. What do they do right? Chances are they make a positive customer experience part of their value system. Whether it’s an efficient web design, a helpful e-mail newsletter service, a pleasant telephone support staff or a cheerful hello at the checkout counter, they show you that they appreciate you as a person, not just an account number.

So innovative customer service these days isn’t about innovation so much as it’s about core values. Getting back to basics. Sweating the details. How important is a happy customer to you? How dangerous is an unhappy one?

Let’s close with a positive anecdote. The other day, my regular Federal Express delivery guy rang my doorbell just to tell me that it was starting to rain and he had noticed the top was down on my convertible. He didn’t have tell me that; I’m sure he had plenty of deliveries to make. But he took literally one minute out of his day to help a steady customer. I will remember that small courtesy for a long time and will tell other people about it. In fact, I just did!

What are businesses doing to make you a happy customer? Share your stories in the comments below.