Trent Meidinger

internal and executive communicator

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Remember front-line staff in your communication plans

The people attending to the customers your business counts on to survive and thrive often are overlooked in internal-communications plans. Although it’s a surprisingly common misstep, it’s avoidable. And when done well, it can pay off for the staff and customers alike.

A common scenario is with food-and-beverage businesses. For example, a favorite local restaurant with a history of consistently excellent food and service – the team culture would be envied by any big business – recently introduced a smart-phone app to offer customers daily and long-term loyalty rewards. Often, though, requests for a reward are met with courteous-but-quizzical looks. A member of the wait staff recently admitted the problem.

“We never learn about these offers until you tell us about them,” she told me. “We rarely hear about them from our managers.”

Clearly that’s a loss for everyone involved. But all it would have taken to avoid the problem is a quick start-of-the shift conversation or a note on a kitchen news board. Or, for staff members who opt in, a short text in the morning.

The same scenario plays out in corporate settings when phone-based service teams aren’t provided with advance copies of the materials sent to prospective or existing customers. It’s hard to back up a marketing offer or answer questions about an important change in company benefits when you don’t have the same information callers are holding in their hands.

If this communications gap is cropping up in your business, it’s easily resolved with the following tips.

  • Plan ahead. Regardless of what you’re writing an internal-communications plan for, determine whether one of the tactics should be to notify the front-line staff. If you’re not sure, talk with your company’s service manager. They will be delighted you did and can help you plan the right steps to reach their teams.
  • Share the stuff. If your customers will receive an email, share it with your company’s service team in advance whenever possible. Phone-based service teams in particular need time to schedule agents off the phone to familiarize themselves with the material.
  • Check in and follow up. Once your communication reaches your customers or employees and they begin responding, check in with the service staff to see how things are going. Very quickly you’ll learn how well the recipients are understanding and reacting to your communication. It’s also wise to follow up with the service team after all is done. They can share input that can help you improve your communications next time.

With a little foresight and collaboration, your organization can provide the consistent end-to-end experience your business is hoping for.

What are your experiences and tips for communicating with front-line staff?

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The Case for Volunteerism

Stories about retail sales and this year’s top gifts seem to dominate the news during the holidays, but there’s a less-discussed one that outdoes them all: volunteerism in our communities.

I’m talking about giving rather than getting and the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar, face-to-face-with-live-people kinds of communities, not the online ones we might aspire to build through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Most of us live in communities – whether we want to or not; whether we are wealthy or poor; whether we live in an apartment, condominium, townhouse or house; whether our block, neighborhood, town or city is large or small; and whether our family heritage is from Africa, Asia, Europe or anywhere else on the planet.

Communities are a common denominator among us – they could even be a unifier – and yet not everyone ventures into them with open minds, curious eyes and ears, and a giving heart. For many years, I was among the unadventurous. I could count on one hand (or one or two fingers, if I’m really honest) the number of hours I spent every year going into the community and doing something for the greater good.

But that changed two years ago. A trusted advisor encouraged me to “do something outside myself” that had no benefit for me. “Choose what you would enjoy doing and what calls on your natural talents,” he said, “and do something for someone else.”

I took his advice to heart and found a local anti-poverty organization that needed volunteers to conduct mock job interviews with its participants. I emailed the organization, met with the volunteer director, and after completing paperwork and a thorough orientation session was conducting mock interviews on a few Monday evenings.

It was a small start, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a defining moment for me. My perspectives about life and awareness of my community began to evolve in wonderful ways.

It wasn’t easy at first. As with any change, I experienced a normal range of emotions, including fear (“what have I gotten myself into?”), self-doubt (“what do I have to offer?”) and sadness (“why are there are so many people in Minneapolis/St. Paul who are really suffering in their lives?”). But something inside told me to continue on and see what was around the next bend, so to speak.

So I kept going, conducting mock interviews consistently throughout the seasons for the past two years. And I’m glad I did so, because along the way I made new friends and had heartwarming experiences. I also learned the following valuable lessons:

  • We’re really not that different from one another. While volunteering, I met others with a wide array of backgrounds, interests, personalities, values, perspectives and life experiences. And from that I learned we all can be incredibly different while being – simultaneously – incredibly the same. Regardless of backgrounds and circumstances, I discovered, nearly everyone wants to fulfill a dream of some kind, desires to be loved and valued, and longs to be happy, peaceful and safe.

  • We don’t all get a fair start in life. I used to think that if a person works hard, there are few limits to what can be accomplished in life. My inaccurate idea changed through volunteering. I learned that not everyone receives a fair start in life. For example: how can you attend to your school studies if you’re always hungry?; how will you learn to apply for your first job if your parents haven’t had a job themselves or aren’t around?; or how will you learn to value yourself and make good decisions in life if the people around you don’t do that themselves and want to keep you down rather than lift you up? When this has been the case for someone, a helping hand from a volunteer can make all the difference in the world.

  • We all make mistakes. No one is perfect, and subsequently no one makes the right decisions 100 percent of the time. Whether the consequences are nearly unnoticeable or are so large they follow someone for a lifetime, people can and do learn from their mistakes. And because we’re all imperfect, we owe it to one another to sincerely offer forgiveness. Everyone deserves a shot at redemption.

  • Even while giving, you receive. This could be my biggest lesson learned from volunteering. And while it might sound cliché, it is so very true for me. Whenever I’m volunteering, I feel I receive far more than I give. It’s like food for my soul. How am I fed? Additional friends. New perspectives. Inspiration. A good feeling from helping people who want help. Appreciation from the nonprofit organization doing the bulk of the heavy lifting every day. And hope that the world can slowly become a better place if we all help to make it so.

So that’s what I’ve learned from volunteering in my community. It has been a wonderfully unexpected development in my life. And because of what I receive and what I suspect I have yet to learn from it, I plan to volunteer for the rest of my days.

How did you get started volunteering, and what has the experience been like for you?

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Three Ingredients for Transforming Individuals, Organizations and Communities

When a spirit of appreciation, encouragement and respect arises among people, it’s a beautiful thing.

Last week I had a front-row seat to this phenomenon. It was a moving experience and offered lessons useful inside and outside the workplace.

The setting was a celebration for Twin Cities RISE! (TCR!) participants. Most spend 12 to 18 months in TCR!’s anti-poverty program, learning fundamental job skills along with how to value themselves and be empowered in their decision-making. A major part of the latter is choosing thoughts and feelings that lead to positive, productive behaviors.

The Little Earth Singers opened the celebration with an honor song. The purpose is to recognize a tribe’s, family’s or individual’s accomplishments. The lead singer said many people tend to view life as a sprint when actually it’s a long crawl. Among the American Indian teenage boys they mentor, the singers use honor songs to let them know they’re doing just fine moving along their paths in life and that others are cheering for them.

The singing was moving – and not only because of the powerful voices and drumbeats. To think of people coming together to publicly lift up others is inspirational. And I appreciate that it’s not because of a singular accomplishment. The point is to recognize where someone is today and to encourage them onward.

This theme continued throughout the TCR! celebration at the Wilder Center in St. Paul. One after another, participants at every stage in their program talked with deep appreciation about where they have come from, where they are today, and what they’re learning from others. From their stories and the honor song, here’s what I’m taking with me.

Appreciate the journey. In the spirit of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s “a journey of a thousand miles,” the first step often is the most important because it starts you in a new direction. And once you’ve taken that first step, TCR! participants unknowingly reminded me, it’s valuable to acknowledge and appreciate what you learn and accomplish along the way. Doing so reminds you where you’ve come from, reinforces what you learn and motivates you to continue. It’s similar to the continuous-improvement philosophy in business but with a view well beyond the destination we tend to prize.

Encourage others along the way. The camaraderie at the celebration was contagious. Every participant who spoke thanked peers for their support and encouraged them to press on, regardless of the challenges they encounter. It was powerful to hear others admit to an occasional desire to stop at particularly difficult times. But a thread keeping them on course was encouragement from others – voices championing “you can do it” and “I’m here for you no matter what” and “we’re in this together.”

Respect, all around. Another highly evident characteristic in the evening was the respect participants have for one another and, especially, for the TCR! staff. It was clear that respect must be earned as well as given. I consistently observe this in the staff valuing, guiding, serving and encouraging participants, who in turn fully engage in, support others in and advance the program. It’s impressive to see how this respect-based environment fosters a healthy culture where people flourish and strive to help others do the same. Another benefit: Countless participants proclaimed how they sing TCR!’s praises among friends and family and encourage them to enroll in the program or support the organization. Talk about brand advocacy!

Appreciation, encouragement and respect altogether are helping TCR! participants and staff to accomplish amazing things, transforming individuals and their families along with the organization and our community. Imagine how we all could advance even further by following their lead.

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Coon Rapids Dam on the Mississippi River. Between Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids, MN. (iPhone 3GS) 

Coon Rapids Dam on the Mississippi River. Between Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids, MN. (iPhone 3GS) 

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Communications Fundamentals Still Matter, Even in Social Media

Some things are so good, they must endure.

Fundamental practices – classic, dependable and consistently effective – are among them. Every profession has them, including communications. And while the term “fundamentals” might sound old-school in the fresh and flashy world of social media, they can help us find our way, in a good way.

The adventure, potential and ease-of-use in social media sometimes make it easy to forget this. And when it happens, people notice. For example, I read a tweet calling on dad-bloggers to take more care in their writing so it looks better than what an eight-year-old would produce.

Another example is when a restaurant tweeted an attractive late-afternoon offer: It’s gorgeous outside, so come over and eat dinner on our beautiful patio. But on the call immediately afterward for a reservation, I was told, “Are you kidding? The weather is perfect, so we’ve been booked since this morning.” OK, then.

The more I participate in social media, the more I believe in the power and enduring benefits of the communications fundamentals I learned long ago. Following are four favorites:

Have a purpose. Do you want to make someone laugh? Influence or inform them? Compel them to hire you or buy something? Whatever it is, it’s important for you to know the purpose of your communications. It’s easy to spot who does know, and social media magnify this.

Know your audience. We can’t be all things to all people, so why try to be? It is confusing, and your message becomes diluted. Understand what your audience already knows and what they expect from you. And then deliver it with quality.

Write well. Tight, grammatically correct and error-free copy is a must, in my opinion. Always. If you practice it consistently, your writing improves and your readers appreciate it. A good post with links to resources on writing well is here.

Be courteous. Online should not be synonymous with indifferent. As you would in any social gathering, be polite, listen carefully and use manners. In addition, try not to repeat yourself, and be sure you can deliver whatever you promise.

Remembering the communications fundamentals helps everyone – contributors and readers alike – benefit from quality content along with strong online communities. Happy practicing!

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How the Grocery Can Inspire Your Communications and Leadership

The grocery store has more sway than we give it credit for, and it has nothing to do with food.

Let me explain.  

Communications and leadership practitioners know the importance of integrity, transparency and approachability. We appreciate the art of earning trust and respect from others. And we heed a number of other routinely tweeted and emailed must-dos.

Yet there is a detail easy to overlook: The people we work with have lives outside the office. They are more than their profession.

They have families. They have friends. Some have pets they adore more than families and friends. And they have – I’ll go on a limb – what all of us have in common: good times and bad, birthdays, responsibilities, opinions, worries, bills, wants, needs, dreams and all the other material of humanity.

It’s easily forgotten because life at work tends to be mobile, fast, partitioned and sometimes, alas, a tad cold. We focus on initiatives and strategies. Outcomes are crucial. Results must be measured and reported. The work subsequently tends to take the spotlight over the people doing the work.

Yet most of us – especially communicators and leaders – want to connect with the people in our organizations so we’re successful with our initiatives, strategies and outcomes. But that’s difficult to do well if we don’t consider the whole of the individuals with whom we work – and remember they are more than their profession.

A grocery store, of all things, helped to influence me in this.  

For a period of time when I was a corporate communicator, I was accustomed to what I call interactive anonymity. I lived in a large city, worked from home and offices, and I traveled often. Communication was predominantly through email and phone. I interacted with people every day, but it was from afar, was nearly always scheduled, and often focused on the work.

Relocating later to a small town (population 15,000) to lead an operations center changed everything. Now, part of my job was about visibility with a large team. I interacted in person, scheduled and otherwise. I hosted town-hall meetings where, besides hearing what others said, I could see the unsaid. And as I talked with people, I learned more about them personally.

Altogether these things impressed on me the importance of personal connections, knowing the whole person and treating people honestly and fairly.

I also learned that, in a small town, it was probable in the grocery store to run into someone from the office. That did not happen where I lived before. Furthermore, it was likely their significant other, kids, grandparents, cousins or friends would be with them.

This was significant in that it prompted an important realization in me: If whatever I’ve done or said in the office was replayed among my co-workers’ friends and family in the grocery, would I still stand by my actions? Would I still feel I had acted with integrity and respect for others?

It influenced me then, and it remains powerful insight to this day. And it helps to remind me that we all are more than our professions.

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