Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tradeshows, Show Labor, and Unions: Customer Service and the Politics of Collective Bargaining

In the current political climate, it's not hard to find examples of the war between corporate-funded anti-union political efforts and the besieged unions that they target. Recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and with the battle over FAA funding highlight a few examples. For Republicans and their corporate sponsors, focused efforts on scuttling any entities that enable an organized opposition is a strategic theme and unions are frequent targets because they usually fit that description. And while many Democratic candidates seem happy to receive money and support from unions in a "the enemy of my enemy" theme, few are willing to battle for unions in the same way that they might have once done in the past.

Unions have a branding problem. While I don't have poll data or numbers, I can say with some confidence that from wherever you are right now, you probably can't through a rock without hitting someone who has a negative opinion of unions or, at the very least, can tell you a negative story with labor unions as a theme. Think about the amount of negativity surrounding organizations that helped establish the principle of worker's rights, paid time off and the standard work week.

For anyone in the marketing world who deals with tradeshows, the stories are legendary. Union electricians are required to screw in a lightbulb or plug in a computer with astronomical charges and one-hour minimums. Want to display large capital equipment -- forget about it; the cost of drayage (unloading it from the truck and transporting it to your booth) will be more than shipping it across the country -- even with gas at $4 a gallon. You also hear all about the cities where the unions are bad -- Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- and about how much better it is to exhibit in right-to-work areas across the south.

There are many rules in place for safety and predictability -- you probably wouldn't want some sales/part-time marketing guy driving a forklift, running a drill, or connecting high-voltage electrical circuits. But safety rules often just become clubs -- clueless sales guys are capable of plugging in a computer monitor and even seasoned tradeshow veterans who know the rules can find themselves sandbagged on the floor, held hostage by an on-the-spot rule interpretation, then jacked for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars of charges. Sometimes these experiences can feel more like organized crime than helpful customer service.

The Internet is Killing Tradeshows
Unions are no more responsible for the death of the tradeshow than they are for killing the daily paper. The Internet has supplanted tradeshows as the vehicle of choice for information gathering, customer service, and engagement. Why travel? Why display? ROI is the bottom line and, no matter how important we might think that it is to have face-to-face experiences with customers, it's harder and harder to justify the expense against shrinking ROI.

Scan the industry and you'll find few tradeshows that are actually growing in size and fewer exhibit companies supporting those events. Even on the expo services end, Freeman bought Champion. Practically speaking, all of this consolidation also means fewer jobs. Like my friends in the printing industry faced, it doesn't matter if you are really good, there's just less work out there.

Jobs versus Efficiency
Year's ago while working at a tradeshow in Chicago, we had one union guy who had been working there long enough that his son was also there working. He told us the story about how, years before, the shop steward had chewed him out for using a rachet-drive tool. "You're costing us jobs," the steward had told him.

Economists might point to this as being one of the challenges that encompasses the labor transaction -- when you are paying someone by the hour to complete a task, they make more money if the task takes longer. There is no incentive for the task to be completed quickly. I once had one show laborer take a full eight-hour day to assemble one Ikea bookshelf -- if all of their products required similar assembly times, Ikea would be out of business.

The costs and hassles associated with these aspects of tradeshows is part of the reason why most companies will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting caught in that web. And with fewer companies participating or scaling down their presence, the macro effect for labor pool on the floor is fewer opportunities to make money. This can translate into squeezing the available opportunities even more as if the remaining geese could produce the same amount of gold eggs as the once prolific flock.

Back to the Branding Problem
The efficiency disincentive inherent to billable hours is a key element in the labor union branding issue. Like all of those little customer service issues that have plagued Dell and Comcast, these negative customer experiences with labor unions become viral, word of mouth brand-busters and actually transcend hourly labor to affect collective bargaining as a broader brand. Teachers, for example, don't typically operate on an hourly model, but the collective bargaining Teacher's Union often is often connected to broader brush negative characterizations. Instead of being able to ride a technical expertise brand image or even a socially responsible brand, labor unions are all saddled with an anti-productive, anti-cooperative mantle.

Conservative politicians and anti-union corporate interests like to pitch competition as the only viable solution for the billable hours dilemma. In essence, they push the idea that, instead of being charged for high-priced rigger and the use of the automated lift, all you really need is to find a guy who is hungry enough that he is willing to climb up a 25' rickety ladder at the lowest price.

While this of mindset has eroded our economy and sent most physical labor jobs overseas constantly seeking the lowest wage with the least worker's protections, most of us that are involved in tradeshows aren't interested in destroying the labor market or asking people to do things that we wouldn't do ourselves. In his post, Stop Blaming the Unions for Trade Show Failures in Chicago, Keith Johnston of PlannerWire writes,
I have heaped a fair share of blame on unions for their part in the rising costs of trade show exhibiting for a long time, In fact, I have a posts where I call out all of the sides to rethink how they are working together at McCormick Place here in Chicago. 
I will lay blame where it is due and now, it is not the unions, not by a long shot.
It's a good post (and a good blog) -- worth a read. But while costs are certainly a contributing factor in the dying tradeshow industry, costs are not really at the heart of this labor union brand problem.

So what is the answer?
In our current political and media environment, ideological zealotry often drives message on a foundation of perceptual relativism over substance. Science, facts and tangible experiences often come up short. For some percentage of the anti-union crowd, facts or amazing customer experiences will never change their position. Short of the public humiliation associated with being caught on record embarrassingly booing police, firefighters or some other public servants that they've previously lauded as heroes, these people are probably a lost cost. But what about the rest of us.

Imagine a transformation of the customer service relationship on a much smaller scale. Imagine what might happen if a tradeshow was able to negotiate a flat fee for all show labor and services. Imagine if, instead of being billed on an hourly rate, you could just get help when you needed it, perhaps more than you needed, but it didn't matter how long it took (assuming that it was completed before the show started). Imagine if the show management was able incentive the workers on the floor to reduce the amount of work that needed to be done on the floor and that shows with less work were more profitable. Imagine how this might change the customer experience.

Early engagement. Rapid resolution. These are the kinds of techniques employed by businesses that have struggled with customer service issues -- imagine how they might be implemented in tradeshow labor. Would it solve the branding problem? Maybe not completely, but it might be an interesting step forward. Or at least an interesting thought experiment.

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