How to make friends with the bots

talking to a bot

Let’s face it. Bots are going to take over the world. One day we’ll all wake up, and every online interaction will start with talking with a bot. Think of them as Walmart greeters for the internet (except that Walmart just announced they’re laying off all their greeters).

I’m fascinated with bots. In my work, I’ve been helping our bot team choose language that is friendly, clear and helpful. But herein lies the problem with bots. For communication to be effective, you need to understand how people are feeling, thinking, and what you want them to do. It’s called knowing your audience. And with bots, you’re not exactly sure what the frame of mind is of the person at the beginning of the interaction, and just as important, at the end of the interaction.

I’ll illustrate this by sharing my latest interaction with Koodo’s bot. Koodo’s tagline by the way is “Choose Happy”. It went something like this:

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“Hi Koodo bot. I need your help. My daughter has fried her phone a second time and I want to know my options for my contract.”

(Four options popped up for me to choose, none of them was what I needed help with.)

So I said, “I think it’s probably easier if I just called you. What’s your toll-free number?”

(The bot in its programming must have picked up on the keyword phrase “toll-free number” so it answered this)

“1-800 numbers are free of Long Distance charges, but the local minutes to connect you to the network are still billed at the local minute rate. The numbers you can call are (list of numbers). If you run out of minutes, you will be charged for additional airtime. You might get a prompt to a recording message if the toll-free number isn’t available in your area.”

Then it asked me if their answer was helpful. I gave it a thumbs down.

We went back and forth a few more times. At this point, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to just get their stupid 1 800 number from the bot and the UX tester in me went into overdrive, so I wrote,

“OK, so what’s the number you stupid bot” just to see how it would respond.

The bot answered, “Now, now, let’s play nice!” and send me a GIF of Maggie Smith looking affronted.

giphy

OK, so I don’t know how you would react to Maggie Smith raising her eyebrow in a supercilious manner just because you wanted to talk to someone in customer service, but my emotional response went from a ha, ha, I don’t believe it said that, to incredulous, to how dare you, you stupid bot? I showed it to Clare who had been sitting beside me the whole time and asked her how she felt about it. She said the exact same thing.

Let’s just say, I didn’t “Choose Happy” from Koodo in that moment.

To end the story, I ditched the bot, found their 1 800 number somewhere else, called them and finally found a human that was very helpful and resolved my dilemma. I did have to wait on the line for about 10 minutes though to speak to said human.

So if bots are here to stay, how do we make friends with them? Here are some tips:

  1. First, go in knowing their limitations. Bots do serve a purpose—they can answer simple questions, freeing up customer service agents to address more difficult issues and concerns.
  2. Be aware if you are dealing with a bot or a human. Sometimes this can be hard to know. If you’re not sure, ask. You’ll know after the first few interactions when five lines of text appear instantaneously.
  3. If after the first few questions it’s clear the bot’s programming isn’t giving you what you need, ask to speak to a live person. Most bots that are programmed well with have a human offramp, where you just pick “speak to a person” and they’ll redirect your enquiry.

If all else fails, you can always derive some entertainment value by messing with it. Just be prepared for the Maggie Smith gifs.

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52 walks later

Group of employees
Some of my co-workers who walked with me in 2018

For once, I followed through on a New Year’s resolution.

Last January, I posted this blog where I vowed to walk one day each week at lunch with a fellow Empire Life employee. My goals were to stay connected with my co-workers and what’s happening in the company, get in shape, and save money (as opposed to going out for lunch with people to catch up).

In full disclosure, I didn’t quite make my goal—work schedules, vacation, and a nasty gland infection in November meant I finished just shy of my 52 walks this year, but I figure I met it in spirit. Here is what I learned on my walks:

  • For some of us, a quick walk at lunch is one of the only times to ourselves. For instance, I learned one co-worker  has five kids under the age of seven, with two-year old twins. If I had five kids under the age of seven, I’d definitely need an escape now and then!
  • Every person has a story to tell. One of my favourite walks this year was with a co-worker who just happened to mention that her husband had received an invitation to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. She agreed to let me post a little contest on our company intranet to guess who the mystery wedding guest was. We had a lot of fun as people tried to guess which of us knew royalty.
  • People have many hidden passions and talents. Several guys I work with are beer aficionados and are members of the Kingston and Area Brewers of Beer club, I work with several “foodies”, and people love their pets!
  • Life is full of joy and challenges. Many shared their lives, struggles and challenges with me. It was a great reminder that you never really know what’s going on in people’s lives (despite Facebook and Instagram) and to always listen with your heart.

And finally, but I didn’t need 52 walks to know this, I work with some of the nicest, most talented people around. Thanks to everyone who joined me for a walk in 2018. I plan to continue my walks in 2019.

What’s your New Year’s resolution? Leave a comment.

Did Les Nessman have it right? My ideal office of the future

Les Nessman fake door sign

I’ve been watching with interest the discussion online about ideal office space and I’ve come to the conclusion Les Nessman had it right.

You may recall the classic episode from the 70s show WKRP in Cincinnati, where news director Les Nessman draws imaginary lines around where his office door should be and asks the rest of the office to respect his space.

There’s been a huge shift in the past five years to open, collaborative workstations.

The idea behind these workspaces was noble. Force people out of their offices and workstations, and you’ll foster collaboration, drive innovation and break down silos.

But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and most employees who work in these cattle stalls report being unhappier at work and less productive.

They say noise levels and lack of privacy make it hard to concentrate and do “heads down” work and god forbid you try to have a conference call or hangout with someone. I was reading an article the other day where one employee said it’s actually hurt collaboration in their company, because most people now wear headphones all day and don’t talk to each other.

I have friends that work in some companies where they don’t even have a workstation any more. There is a space for their team and transient workstations for the days they are working in the office.

Now some may say, what’s the big deal, sounds great. People are working from home, they don’t need regular workspace. So what if it’s noisy?

Others say it is a big deal and we need to come up with a new approach that will achieve the original goals of openness and collaboration, but address the needs of modern work. I saw a design last week that had bizarre small desks that could move and looked like a honeycomb. It made me think of a hamster wheel. No thanks.

You see the problem is many of these so-called “experts” who are designing modern workspaces are overlooking some very basic realities and needs of office workers today.

The first is the importance of natural light. Number two is addressing the plague affecting office workers of the 21st century: inactivity. The third goes back to where I started this blog, Les Nessman and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which states people by nature need to satisfy their physiological needs first (eating, drinking, shelter), then feel safe. It’s tough to feel safe in open workplaces.

So it got me to thinking if I could design my ideal work space, what would it look like.

Everyone would still have a desk or place to work with natural light. You’d sit in pods of four or maybe six with people you like. The pods would have chairs that are like ultramatic beds. Push a button and you are sitting up, or recline for casual conversation. When you didn’t want to chat anymore, you’d push a button and sound-proof glass would come up and you turn your chair like you’re on the Voice, and presto, you have peace and quiet for concentrated work.

There’d still be open, airy spaces where you could chat, have a quick meeting or just take a break. In every pod, or maybe in a separate area, there would be treadmills and exercise bikes fully wired so you could participate in a meeting or listen to a webinar while getting exercise.

There would be a Dog Café where you could bring your dog to work and visit with them over coffee or take them out for a walk at lunch. It would be street level and become a tourist attraction—people would come from miles to see the dogs in the window.

And last but not least, there would be a beer fridge and free beer for everyone on Friday afternoons.

Yes, that workplace of the future would make me happy.

Witness a strong team in action

Empire Life co-chairs Ian Alexander and Karen Swain reveal the thermometer surpassing our goal

There’s a saying in sports. There’s no “I” in the word team.

Watching a team come together and work magic is…well, in a word, magical.

This past week, our Empire Life United Way committee and team wrapped up its annual United Way campaign. Our goal was $240,000 and we blew it out of the water, raising more than $260,000. The money is still coming in.

Those of us who have been involved in our United Way campaign for many years have been asking ourselves, what did we do right? What was the magic formula and how do we replicate it next year?

While I think there were many things that made this year’s campaign a success, having a strong team in place was key.

It’s always interesting working with teams and volunteers. Some people prefer to work diligently behind the scenes on a specific task; others are happy to pitch in where needed, while others are more comfortable taking a leadership role.

When teams start working together, there’s always that initial adjustment period when people are trying to figure out the plan, who’s taking the lead, who will do what and the personalities of the players.

And then a magical moment happens when the team just clicks. The plan is in place. Everyone knows what they need to do and they do it.

That’s what happened with our team this year, and they did a magnificent job.

A big kudos to our campaign co-chairs this year Karen Swain and Ian Alexander who built a strong team and whose positive support and leadership guided them to their goal.

And a big shout out to Jessica Schonewille on my team who is one of the hardest working volunteers and supporters of the campaign I know, and who came in every day this week despite having bronchitis to do her part. You’re the best. 

Final notes

  • To learn more about the important work United Way does in your community to change lives locally, visit your local United Way website. If you haven’t given to this year’s campaign yet, give now.
Aaron Lutz is one of our behind the scenes workers
My friend Aaron Lutz is one of those guys who works hard behind the scenes but prefers not to be in the spotlight, so this time Aaron I’m putting you in the spotlight!
Jessica Schonewille
Jessica Schonewille came in every day this past week despite having bronchitis–that’s how dedicated this team was

This is Seth Godin live

Speaker Seth Godin

It’s not every day you get to see one of your heroes live.

Last month, I had the privilege of hearing Seth Godin live. If you are in marketing or communications, you know the name Seth Godin. Marketing guru, brand revolutionary, author of 18 best-selling books and changemaker. This is Seth Godin.

Screw E.F. Hutton. When Seth Godin talks, people listen.

In his opening keynote, Seth talked about the power of communication to connect people and culture. He said most organizations are at a crossroads. We are living in an age of distraction. We need to be telling human-centric, emotional stories to cut through the noise.

My favourite business mantra is “strategy eats culture for lunch” (Peter Drucker). You can strategize all you want, but if what you are trying to achieve goes against the culture of an organization, you will fail. And yet many leaders do not pay close enough attention to culture within their organizations.

Here were Seth’s insights on culture:

You can’t fake culture. Honour your past; define your future. Make symbolic changes, big and small. Have all oars in the water. Be humble, stay the course.

We are experiencing a revolution, and a renaissance for business communicators who will be key strategic advisers in the age of information.

This week’s #HappyAct is to find a hero and learn from them. Or you can adopt mine and sign up for Seth’s blog.

The Gorilla glue of an organization

kid with capeEmployee engagement continues to be at an all-time low globally. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. The economic consequences of this global “norm” are approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity a year.

I’ve shared my own views about declining employee engagement before. In Love in the Workplace, I said a pay cheque is what makes people show up for work every day, but what they do with their time depends on three key things: the degree to which the work they do aligns to their passions and strengths, the relationships they have at work, and what I called the “negative quotient” or “piss off” factor–the degree to which negative factors at work affect their ability to succeed.

I believe that more than ever, but I think there is a fourth key factor contributing to low employee engagement, and that is undervaluing a key segment of employees, the unsung heroes of every organization.

This group is highly knowledgeable and experienced but usually not as well known to senior leaders. They may not aspire to move up the corporate ladder, but prefer to fly under the radar and do their work without fanfare, quietly coming in every day and producing, solving problems, sharing their knowledge and helping team members out of jams. They are the glue that keeps the corporate machine running smoothly.

They also serve another incredibly indispensable purpose—they set the tone for the culture of a company.

I’m very lucky to work for a company that has these unsung heroes in spades, but we need to do a better job of recognizing them.

In my world of corporate and strategic communications, data, metrics, employee engagement numbers and strategic alignment, and yes, culture are buzzwords that rule the day. Some leaders believe the most valuable use of their time is crunching numbers and spreadsheets.

I take a contrarian view. I think I provide the greatest value by doing my part to develop and promote a positive and people-focused culture, by helping and recognizing the people who are the Gorilla glue of my organization.

So to the Mirandas, Randys, Sandras, Donnas, Karens, Lillians, Elaines, Amys, Kristas, Andreas, Garys, Jessicas and all the other unsung heroes I have the privilege working with every day, thank you.

This week’s #HappyAct is to recognize an unsung hero in your life or organization. Feel free to share your message to them below.

Take the work happiness test

sign take the test

The average person spends 2,000 hours per year at work. Based on that staggering figure, it stands to reason that being happy at work is key to our overall happiness.

According to Harvard Business Review, there are three main things that contribute to happiness at work:

  1. Feeling like you are making a difference
  2. How hopeful you are about the future and the link between your work and your goals and aspirations
  3. Having positive work relationships

In Love in the Workplace, I shared the findings of one leadership expert, Mark Crowley who found a monumental shift in the drivers of happiness from time with family and hobbies to time at work. Crowley concluded “how satisfied workers feel in their jobs now determines their overall happiness with life. This monumental shift means that job fulfillment has become essential to people everywhere.”

HBR has a 24-question test you can take to measure your happiness at work. It gives you a summary report and tips on how to use your strengths and find happiness. It also shows your responses and happiness/satisfaction levels in comparison to other HBR readers who take the test.

I took it again this week. Like employee engagement scores, I find results for these kinds of tests can swing depending on your current state of mind. I scored Medium on Purpose and Hope and High on Friendship at Work. The test reinforced for me what I need to do to stay engaged at work and gave me helpful advice for making work a positive experience.

This week’s #HappyAct is to take the test to see how happy you are at work. How did you do? Leave a comment.

For more on happiness at work, read

How to be happier at work

Develop your emotional intelligence