Everyone Hates Your Out-of-Office Reply

It’s the end of summer, which means our inboxes are filled with the out-of-office replies from all those lucky folks on vacation while we’re still stuck at work. In the face of this, New York Magazine has listed the worst offenders of the vacation-reply list:

1. The Location-Brag
: An auto-responder that says, “I’m sunning myself on a pristine beach in Santorini and will have limited access to e-mail until Tuesday” might be an accurate reflection of your travel plans. It’s also going to make you look like an asshole.

2. The Seniority Show-off
: On a similar note, please do not conclude your away message by reminding others of the power you wield at work. (“If you need immediate assistance, please contact my executive assistant at kathleen@megacompany.com, or my associate executive assistant at tabitha@megacompany.com, or my executive assistant’s executive assistant at meredith@megacompany.com.”) We get it — you’re rich.

3. The Overly Complicated Reply Process
: If your auto-responder includes more than two ways to get in touch with you in an emergency, you’re doing it wrong. By the time you get to “If your message is urgent, contact me through awayfind.com/joeschmoe, then text ’50445′ to my Google Voice number, then shoot an e-mail to vacationjoe@gmail.com,” we’ve already given up. This is an out-of-office message, not a last will and testament.

 Read the rest over at their article, “The 7 Kinds of E-mail Vacation Auto-Responders Everyone Hates.”

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Why Community Managers Are the New Brand Managers

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Whereas brands used to push their products and messages out in what was essentially a one-way conversation, the social web has transformed it into a two-way conversation. Which means that we have to learn to speak authentically and honestly to our customers, and that we can’t hide when we make mistakes.

To learn how to deftly navigate this new dynamic, we chatted up one of the most talked-about brands on the social web—Warby Parker, the eyeglasses-cum-lifestyle brand that has been a mad success from day one. Here, co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal breaks down how to be okay with leading a brand that you can’t totally control:

Where do you think brands go wrong when they’re trying to build an authentic relationship with customers? 
People have extremely sensitive BS detectors these days. We’ve all been inundated with advertisements since we started walking and talking. So we can pick up on a brand’s authenticity—or fakeness—immediately. As a brand, you can only engender trust if you’re being transparent. Brands have never been able to control what their customers say about them, but now, thanks to the Internet, customers are more empowered than ever to disseminate their experiences with a brand. Companies can’t hide. If you make a mistake, or you do something wrong, it’s going to get out there. And if you’re not proactive about responding when it happens, you’re going to dig yourself into a deeper hole. 

What’s the best way to go about being “proactive” when something goes wrong? 
I think it goes back to transparency. The first thing to do is admit it. Explain what happened and apologize. Your customers can be very understanding provided that you enable them to be understanding, which means that you need to have an honest discussion with them and fess up when you make a mistake. 

For instance, think about if you call any of our favorite cell phone carriers. [laughs] It used to be that they were just rude and didn’t solve your problem. Now, they’re often polite, but they still don’t solve your problems. So, they’re getting a little bit better, but you still want to break your phone in half after one of those conversations. 

So being polite and friendly and apologizing is part of it. But it’s just the first part. Then you have to actually correct the situation. For us, that might be offering a discount, it might be offering free glasses, it might be doing whatever it takes to get that person a pair of glasses before they go on vacation. It’s the little things that make a brand great. It’s about being diligent with details, keeping your antennae sensitive to what customers want, and responding in a way that’s authentic to your brand. It sounds intuitive, but the fact is that many brands are not treating their customers the way they want to be treated. 

Do you think the dynamic of the social web means there’s more of an interplay between customers and brands than there’s been in the past? Can brands still control the conversation? 
I was talking to Troy Carter—an investor who also used to be Lady Gaga’s manager—the other day, and he made a really interesting observation. We were discussing Warby Parker, and he said, “It’s not your brand; it’s our brand.” “Our” being the public. And I think he’s right: You do not control your brand anymore. You can influence it and help guide the conversation, but there’s a limit to how precisely you can define your brand on your own. 

This idea that a brand will conform to a nice PowerPoint presentation with a strict brand architecture and messaging hierarchy is no longer the case. Your brand is part of conversations that are being had in the streets, on Twitter, and on Instagram. And the best that you can do is help influence that dialogue by giving people reasons to talk positively about it. These days, your community managers are your brand managers.


This is an excerpt from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark, which features 21 essays and interviews on building a creative business with impact.

Get  “Make Your Mark” now –>

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Use Daily Rewards to Break Creative Blocks

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Renowned author Stephen King, who has published 49 novels that have sold over 350 million copies, writes at least ten pages each day. As a creative person, you’ve experienced writer’s block, even if you’re not necessarily a writer; software engineers, artists, or anyone that has to create things for a living is susceptible. We also all know the well-trodden advice of practicing even for just a little bit, at least once a day — But how does one actually stick to it?

Product Manager at Twitter, Buster Benson, recently created 750words.com to help us break through writer’s block and open up our creative passages. He uses a rewards system to keep on track (much like the famous Jerry Seinfeld calendar-method). The idea is simple:

Every month you get a clean bowling-esque score card. If you write anything at all, you get 1 point. If you write 750 words or more, you get 2 points. If you write two, three or more days in a row, you get even more points. How I see it, points can motivate. It’s fun to try to stay on streaks and the points are a way to play around with that. You can also see how others are doing points-wise if you’re at all competitive that way.

Benson shares his inspiration:

I’ve long been inspired by an idea I first learned about in The Artist’s Way called morning pages. Morning pages are three pages of writing done every day, typically encouraged to be in “long hand”, typically done in the morning, that can be about anything and everything that comes into your head. It’s about getting it all out of your head, and is not supposed to be edited or censored in any way.

The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. Unlike many of the other exercises in that book, I found that this one actually worked and was really really useful.

By writing 750 words a day, or 50 lines of code, or a page of illustrations every morning, you’re turning the act of creating into a habit. A creative block isn’t worn down by worrying or procrastinating; it can only be broken by trying.

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99U Book Giveaway: “Make Your Mark” + Free Kindle eReader!

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Make Your Mark, our new business book for makers (not managers!) launches this week. It’s our third book in the 99U book series, which offers pragmatic, actionable advice for managing your time, your career, and your business. You can order the book here.

To celebrate, we’re giving away three Kindle Paperwhite eReader devices pre-loaded with all three 99U books. (Not to mention a totally sweet carrying case that looks like the cover of Make Your Mark.)

To enter, tweet your favorite piece of startup wisdom for creatives in the next 24 hours with this link and hashtag: amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

Tweet: [Your deep wisdom here.] – amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

We’ll pick three winners at random on Monday, and ship them their snazzy Kindle eReaders.

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Don’t Let Overthinking Kill Your Work

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Visual artist Koosje Koene says that when it comes to creating, you have to be jump right in. In an interview with The People Project, she explains her creative process:

I am a do-er, if that’s a word. If I have an idea, I like to execute it, create it, or at least start planning the project. In Art School, we talked a lot about ideas, the ideas behind the ideas, and so on. It made me feel less enthusiastic about starting a project, since the idea wasn’t fresh anymore. All the thinking sort of sucked the passion and excitement out of me, and that showed in the results. In a bad way.

When a new idea hits, we should take advantage of that initial passion and excitement and jump right in. If we spend too much time thinking, the concept begins to fade and you lose the creative momentum. After the initial burst of creativity, we can always take a step back and do some evaluating. Get out of your head and create.

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Get Better by Training like an Athlete

Photo by Nike Labs

Photo by Nike Labs

10,000 hours notwithstanding, practice doesn’t make perfect unless the way you practice is perfect.

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores the recent “performance revolution” in sports, and how that approach to improvement has also raised the bar in business:

[T]he way to improve the way you perform is to improve the way you train. High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better.

Thanks to more sophisticated technology, ultra-individualized training, and “the mainstreaming of excellent habits,” athletes are working not only harder than ever but smarter than ever—and so goes for a range of other fields in which performance improvement is self-controlled and measurable, from manufacturing and airline safety to higher education and business.

For example, Japanese elementary school math teachers train rigorously, before and throughout their careers:

They’ve developed a vocabulary to describe successful teaching tactics. They spend hours talking about how to improve things… in a way that helps students learn. And they get constant feedback from other teachers and mentors. This method—with its systematic approach to learning, its emphasis on preparation, and its relentless focus on small details and the need for constant feedback—sounds like the way athletes train today.

With data analysis available for everyone these days, there’s no reason not to track your data (even if it seems fairly basic: amount of sleep, time of day, etc.) and experiment with your process in order to improve upon it. Whatever your field, cultivating a methodical, focused approach to advancement could have the most impact on your growth.

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How To Decline Invitations Without Burning Bridges

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While talking to people who do a superhuman job at managing their time, founder and investor Bill Trenchard discovered that one of the most common ways they avoid wasting time is by simply saying “no.”

As your [work] becomes more prominent, you’re only going to get more of everything. More people reaching out through LinkedIn, email, invitations to connect, to go to coffee, to ask for a favor. It’s death by paper cuts. Inevitably, a childhood acquaintance from 20 years ago who you can barely remember will ask you for introductions to all your influential friends at Facebook. This is when you have to say, “No.” Saying no is so hard. It’s hard because you want to pay it forward. So many people have helped you. You want to do the same. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and there are ways to make it easier.

He suggests using templates; canned responses for all the common situations where you might find yourself saying no. Here’s an example:

Hi Bill,

Great to hear from you. I hope all is well. Fortunately, my company is starting to take off, and I’m under extreme pressure to deliver against some ambitious goals… Unfortunately [I'm not] able to connect right now.

Best,
Josh 

What’s unique about this response is that it blocks further communication. Do it nicely in a way that truthfully explains the situation, but don’t leave things open-ended. 

Saying no  (when respectful and structured )  deflects distractions and ensures that the right projects are completed. The creative process is paralyzed when you are juggling things that you wish you never committed to. Guard your time from things that don’t warrant your immediate attention or are counterproductive.

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