Developing outstanding customer service. Inspiring unwavering customer loyalty. Creating passionate customer advocates.

We all want it. We all need it. But how do we get it?

“I think at the end of the day all you have to do to be different and be remembered is just be a little bit better than what we expect and we expect crap. Because if all we expect is crap, that little bit more is going to change the world,” so says my podcast guest Peter Shankman.

He delivers the answers on the importance of customer experience and many other topics related to your customers. Peter is constantly evolving, changing and moving so buckle up as I talk to him about how to do things “just a little bit better” as well as:

  • Innovation through exploration
  • Why you need to hold your ground with clients and force them to trust your expertise
  • How to get your customers to tell your story for you
  • Peter’s book “Zombie Loyalists”
  • Peter’s company The Geek Factory
  • How agencies can make customer service attractive for their clients
  • Why rewarding someone for being your 10,000th follower is an insult to the rest of your followers
  • Why everything you create has to have value for someone
  • How to create invested customers with the way you respond through email
  • How Peter carves out time in his schedule for everything
  • Peter’s preferred methods for professional development
  • What Peter’s agency of the future would look like
  • How Peter helped his employees with professional development
  • The things that get in the way of corporations hearing their customers
  • Things agencies can do right now to implement the ideas from this episode

Peter Shankman is a spectacular example of what happens when you merge the power of pure creativity with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a dose of adventure, all to make it work to your advantage. The New York Times has called him “a public relations all-star who knows everything about new media and then some,” while Investor’s Business Daily has labeled him “crazy, but effective.”

He founded Help A Reporter Out (HARO) in 2010 from his apartment before selling it to Vocus. Peter is the also founder of ShankMinds: Business Masterminds, a series of small business entrepreneurial-style masterminds in over 25 cities worldwide.

Additionally, Peter is also the founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique Social Media, Marketing and PR Strategy firm located in New York City, with clients worldwide.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. Using Innovation and Exploration to Stay Current
  2. Teaching the Importance of Customer Experience
  3. Where Agencies are Struggling with Customer Experience
  4. Keeping Your Agency, Your Staff, and Yourself Up to Date
  5. Immediate Action Steps

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here and I am stoked to be with you today. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. One of the things I’m trying to do with this podcast is bring you guests who have taken a different path than many of you probably have, and that’s why I’m really excited about today’s guest, Peter Shankman. Many of you are familiar with Peter. The New York Times calls him “A public relations all-star who knows everything about new media and then some,” while Investor’s Business Daily called him, “Crazy but effective.” Peter says that he is a spectacular example of what happens when you merge the power of pure creativity with ADHD and a dose of adventure and make it all work to your advantage. And I think we’ve all seen that happen.

Most of you are going to be very familiar with Peter’s work. He founded Help A Reporter Out in 2010, actually did that in his apartment, and then later sold it to Vocus. And for many agencies, that continues to be a place where they are sourcing opportunities to put their clients into the media and helping reporters connect with sources, so it’s a great thing. Peter is also the founder of ShankMinds, which is a business masterminds group and serves small business entrepreneurial-style masterminds in over 25 cities worldwide. And he is the founder and CEO of the Geek Factory, which is a boutique social media Marketing and PR strategy firm in New York City with clients worldwide. So Peter, welcome to the podcast.

Peter: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me, Drew.


Using Innovation and Exploration to Stay Current

Drew: So let’s talk a little bit about, one of the things that as I sort of follow your career and the work you do, you’re always innovating. How are you always sort of staying ahead of the curve?

Peter: That’s a good question. You know, for me I think that I’m just a big believer in trying to have fun, and alot of having fun means not doing the same thing over and over again. So for me I spend a lot of time trying new things and trying to figure out sort of what I can do and what’s interesting and what’s out there. And when you research and search that kind of stuff, what you find out is that you wind up discovering new things and then you just want to discover that. Like I think at one point I was the 49th most popular person on Twitter, which you know, that and $2.50 will get me on the subway in New York, so it doesn’t really mean that much. It’s just because, “Oh, what’s this? Let’s try it. Let’s sign up.” So for me that’s really how I do everything.

Drew: So you’re an explorer in all meanings of the word?

Peter: You have to be. Isn’t that the whole purpose of life?

Drew: Yeah. Well, and it’s certainly I think it’s part of what our clients expect us to do, is to be sort of out ahead of them, looking at what’s coming, right?

Peter: Yeah. No question about it. I think more importantly telling them, “Hey, we like this, we don’t like this. Let’s risk it.”

Drew: So you know, that’s an interesting thing. A lot of agencies, especially coming out of the recession, still have sort of that skittishness that they didn’t have prior to the recession, and are a little afraid sometimes, I think, to take a stand. So talk to me a little bit about your position of having a strong position.

Peter: You know, I have always been of the belief that if you’re paying someone to do something, 99% of the time, you should listen to what they say because chances are they know what they’re talking about. I never understood people would… When I used to run an agency I never understood people would hire me and then question everything I did. “Oh, well, we don’t know if we want to do that.” What the fuck did you hire me for?

It’s like I’m not… I remember I had a client, a law firm, and every single decision I made they questioned it and put through meetings endlessly. Finally I went to the partners and said, “Guys, look,” I said, “I don’t pretend to know law, right? If I get myself arrested, I’m not going to defend myself.” And they go, “Well, of course not, you shouldn’t. That’s terrible.” Then why the hell do you try to do PR? And I sort of just stuck up all my courage and I said either they’ll fire me or they’ll let me do my own thing. And they let me do my own thing, and I still consult with them from time to time. It’s just that you’ve got to be smarter than that.

Drew: Well, and I think you have to be confident enough in your own abilities to say, “Look, this is what we need to do, and if you don’t want to do it then we probably shouldn’t work together anymore.”

Peter: Yeah, no question about it. I’ve fired clients. It’s one of the greatest things in the world is to fire clients. It’s one of the greatest feeling in the world is to fire clients.

Drew: Absolutely. It’s very liberating. So in your work today with clients, talk to us a little bit about sort of process in terms of how you kind of wrap yourself around a client and sort of figure out in terms of telling their story and the PR, how do you craft that in terms of a plan or a roadmap, if you will?

Peter: One of the things, one of the reasons that I love sort of what I do now is that to teach companies what to do in a customer service and customer experience environment, which is sort of the world that I live in now, you have to start by teaching customers that the only and best way that they can get what they want is simply by understanding that if you say how awesome you are, no one’s ever going to believe you, but if your customers say how awesome you are, everyone will believe. And so the way to do that, simply put, is to allow your customers to tell your story for you. And the way to get customers to tell your story for you is to give them a reason to. And that all starts with listening.

So listening to your customers and treating them just a little bit better, then the crap they expect to be treated… Let’s face it, I don’t go and give…you know, I keynote conferences all around the world, and I don’t go in and tell people, “Okay, I want you to be awesome. I just want you to be one level above crap.” And the same thing applies in a PR firm, the same thing applies in any kind of agency, especially agencies. My god, we expect to be ridiculously…we’re expecting to hire the agency and that’ll be the last time we ever see the head of the agency, right? We’re only going to see like the lower people that are…

Drew: Yeah, the junior woodchucks.

Peter: Right. So the simple act of just the CEO calling you once in awhile saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” is a huge, huge thing.

Drew: Yeah, I coach agency owners that they should be having those kind of conversations on a regular basis with their clients if they’re not seeing them on a day to day or monthly basis. Just touching back and saying, “How’s my team doing for you?”

Peter: Yep, no question about it, and that’s really all you want is to be able to create that little bit where you expect just a little tiny bit more. Because if all we expect is crap, that little bit more is going to change the world.

Drew: And we’re so excited about it, we can’t help but talk about it.

Peter: Exactly.

Drew: Yeah. So in your latest book, first of all, tell our listeners a little bit about your book because it was awesome.  And give them the title, where they can get it, and sort of the main message.

Peter: Well, the most recent one, it’s called “Zombie Loyalists” and it’s about using great service to create rabid fans. And I talk about everything in that book, from agencies to restaurants, to business to businesses.  Essentially the concept that, you know, again, we expect to be treated like garbage, and so the little, tiny things…it’s basically a book of stories about little tiny things. Little tiny things that people have done to make their customers happier, and it’s these easiest things in the world, but they really do pay off.

It’s available everywhere in the world, Amazon, all major bookstores. You can also grab it if you want at

Drew: I think that’s one of the fallacies is we think and our clients think that they have to do something big and spectacular to get, A, their customers’ attention, and B, to get them to talk about them. And the reality is we’re sort of surprised when we drive through McDonald’s and what’s in the bag is what we ordered. So our expectations are so low that you really, you’re right, you just have to do a notch above that to be noteworthy.

Peter: That’s exactly what I tell people. I tell people, “Look, I don’t need you to be awesome.” You know, Morton’s delivered me a steak to the airport, that was great, but that’s not Morton’s job. Morton’s job is to create phenomenal experiences when you go to Morton’s. If they didn’t do that, all the steaks in the airport in the world wouldn’t matter because their steaks, their service would suffer when you go to the restaurant. So fortunately, their service is great and they tell the world about that.

Drew: Right, and their customers tell the world about it.  

Peter: Well, that’s what I meant, the customers tell the world that this…


Teaching the Importance of Customer Experience

Drew: So, the evolution of the Geek Factory, tell us a little bit about how that’s structured. Is that structured as a traditional agency, or is it more of a consultancy, and how do you work with clients day in and day out?

Peter: Well, The Geek Factory today is really more of a holding company than anything else. So, the Geek Factory was a PR firm that I started back in 1998 with the premise that we could do better for agencies than, at the time, than a lot of the big agencies…or we could do better for dotcoms at the time that a lot of the big PR firms could. I started the agency, I had no money. I had one previous job. I had no money. It was the summer of ’98 and the movie “Titanic” was coming out on video. I took my rent money and had 500 T-shirts printed up that read, “It sank, get over it.” I went into Times Square, figured if I could sell 180, I’d make my rent money back. I sold 500 in 6 hours, I leaked the story to USA Today, they ran it in the front pages, I sold 10,000 T-shirts on the web. I’ve cleared $100,000 and that’s sort of my first business. I was like 25 at the time, 26.

From there, I started this agency figuring that we could do things better, and we became known as this sort of different agency. We took our clients skydiving, we showed up randomly with pizza at their offices to talk to them, and all these different types of things. In two years, we had clients ranging from Napster to Juno, we were doing some work for AOL, a lot of startups that failed but some succeeded. In summer of 2001, the agency was acquired by a larger agency who came in and said, “We’d like your clients because you have great clients and we got decimated in the dotcom failures.”

So I sold the clients and staff, I kept the name. The goal was to consult, do whatever. I always keep the name because the name Geek Factory is just awesome, right? So I kept the name and to this day Geek Factory is still an agency that we handle…we do some PR, it’s very rare. A lot of what we do, or a lot of what I do is I focus on customer interaction.  So we’ll go and I’ll do a lot of keynotes about customer interaction and then work with specific companies, Saudi Aramco, American Express, Disney, things like that, on specific projects to improve their customer service.  And customer service in a world that’s evolved from social and the concept of old school PR and marketing.

Drew: Okay, so how do you help a world leader like Disney up the ante on customer service?

Peter: The concept of Disney…I mean they’re the best in the world that I have done work for. Some of the stuff I’ve done with Disney back in the day was all about talking to, reaching millennials. If you think about it, who loves to go to Disney? Well, young kids and then older kids and then parents, but not necessarily 12, 14, 15-year-olds. So we did some work with them several years ago to figure out different ways to get 15-year-olds to embrace the concept of Disney.

Drew: Yeah, you’re right. There’s a hole there that people come back, but there probably is a period of 8, 10 years where it’s not as cool anymore.

Peter: Uh-huh.

Drew: So from an agency perspective for our listeners, how can agencies help their clients focus on customer service? One of the things I hear from a lot of agencies is clients don’t want to pony up money to do research or to do that sort of listening. How do you make that compelling?

Peter: I think for me, what I wind up doing that tends to work is I explain to agencies that the best thing they could possibly do is keep their customer hat on when they go back into the office. So that you go into the office, or you leave the office to go to lunch and obviously then you’re a customer, and you expect to be treated well, and you want people to treat you the right way. But then you go back in the office and you take it off, and you don’t necessarily care sort of how you treat people. So, if you can keep that customer hat on and say, “Hey, how would I like to be treated in this situation? What can I do…” Because at the end of the day, the majority of customers, they don’t necessarily need to be coddled or given amazing things, what they really want is just to feel like they’re not a number. They just want to feel like they matter a little bit.

Drew: And that you care.

Peter: Yeah, that you care a little more than normal. And so I love that. I love that because all you have to do is, like I said, just be that one level above crap.

Drew: It doesn’t sound so daunting when you put it that way.

Peter: It’s not. One of my favorite quotes, “How do you eat an elephant?” And you know, bite by bite.


Where Agencies are Struggling with Customer Experience

Drew: Right. So when you were talking about back when you had the PR firm and you were talking about how you did things differently, and as you work with agencies and clients that are all over the globe, what are agencies doing wrong today? What are they getting wrong, or where do they need to sort of step up? Because the agency model is evolving so fast that a lot of agency owners are struggling to keep up and might not understand the importance of customer experience as much anymore. So where are they tripping over themselves, from your perspective?

Peter: I think one of things that agencies are doing is they’re looking at the concept of sort of the old school. I talk to agency owners all the time who still don’t embrace social, and, all right, look, you don’t have to embrace social, but for Christ’s sake get a Facebook page.  Understand that likes, followers, fans, that’s all bullshit. I don’t need that from you. What I need…I have 150,000 something fans, followers on Facebook, 160,000 Twitter followers.  I guarantee you, none of them have ever paid my mortgage.

What I want is someone to understand that creating great content, teaching your clients to create great content, teach your clients to act human, things like that, is to be sort of the…that’s a little bit above crap right there. What people expect is a little bit… I hate, “We’re 9 followers away from 10,000. Our 10,000th follower receives a prize.” Well, that’s a “Screw you” to the 9,999 followers who you’ve been working so hard to get, right? So why would you do that? That’s like going to a dance with a girl and then you try to better-deal her. The best thing you can do, why don’t you look for what can you do to the followers and the fans you currently have? How can you make their lives better? They’re the ones that took the time out to be with you.

Drew: Well, and they’re waiting for something, right?

Peter: Exactly, they’re waiting for something. And it doesn’t have to be anything major, they’re just waiting for something. So I never understood why people do that.

Drew: When you think about the content that you create, because you’ve built a brand around yourself that creates credibility and opportunity for you, and I think that a lot of agency owners have that same opportunity, was that on purpose or did it happen by accident?

Peter: A little bit of both. I mean, I went to high school, performing arts, so I was always a sort of a showman, for lack of a better word. I like to talk to people. And so for me it’s always been about sharing, and what I realized is that, and this took a while to realize as a kid, no one gives a damn about anything you have to say unless it somehow works with them as well. And so for me, if I could focus on people and give them something beneficial, everyone wins. So that was cool for me, to be able to create something that would benefit my audience. I always say this, “Having an audience is a privilege, it’s not a right.” It’s exactly like wearing spandex, how does that sound, right? If you want to be able to create something that people enjoy and appreciate, then they will continue to come to you.

Drew: So you were audience-focused from the beginning. Was it with the intention of recognizing you could build a brand that had value, or was it just the kid who liked the spotlight on the stage and happened to realize “Wow, there’s value in this?”

Drew: I think a little of both. I enjoy helping people, I really do. I get value out of it. I enjoy helping people, and I like to know that I’ve made a difference, and that’s really all we have in life.  I was able to turn that into a brand.

Drew: Yeah, a strong brand. I mean certainly a worldwide brand that serves you well.

Peter: Yeah, it works. And I’m having fun.

Drew: So what would surprise us about how you work with clients day in and day out? What about your methodology or your way of contacting them, would surprise agency owners?

Peter: I am definitely not your typical… I go into the office for the first meeting and then I’m the one who answers the phone. I’m the one who you call. You don’t get an assistant, you get me. My favorite story is when I ran HARO, for three years we ran Help A Reporter, and when you replied to any Help a Reporter email and when you replied to any Help A Reporter email, I was sending out 750,000 emails a day, when you replied to any email, it came from me. It didn’t come from like “Do not reply at whatever,” you responded to me directly.

And that was huge because people said, “Oh, I have a problem, I’ll just call Peter,” and they did, and I replied, and that freaked out everyone. They’re like, “Oh my God, the CEO replied.” And people became invested in me.

Drew: Because you were invested.

Peter: Exactly. And invested customers are worth so much more than invested money.

Drew: Yeah, so true. So how did you manage that, and how do you manage that today? How do you stay that accessible? Because I think that’s challenging.

Peter: Ninety-five percent of my day is answering email, and that’s fine. I answer email every chance I get. I answer every single one of my own emails.  No one else has ever had access to my email for as long as I had email. I answer every single one of them, and if I have to do it on the subway, if I have to do it on the airplane, wherever, that’s what I do. And that’s how I handle it, and it’s always been that way, and I believe that’s the best way to do it. I don’t believe that you can outsource that.

I respect Tim Ferriss, we’re friends. I’ve met him several times, but that whole concept of getting other people to do your email, to do your personal… No, I disagree.

Drew: Well, I think when you are selling your own smarts and your own brand it’s difficult to say, “Oh, but there’s going to be an intermediary.”

Peter: Yep, and I also believe that you could do it… it’s like, “I work in X, Y, Z, I don’t have time to.” There’s this concept that I came up with called short-burst downtime. And short-burst downtime essentially is…you know, long-burst downtime is, “I’m on a plane for eight hours,” that’s long burst downtime. And then so the short-burst downtime is 5 minutes waiting in line at the bank, is 10 minutes waiting here, 2 minutes waiting here, whatever the case may be. Get that done, and then you’re able to, while you’re waiting on the line at the bank, finish what you need to do. It is not difficult.

Drew: So it’s about intention I think, right?

Peter: It’s about intention, but it’s also about… It’s the same reason people who work out work out, and people who don’t don’t. People who work out blame, they always blame, “I don’t have the time.” Bullshit. People will give me the, “How do you get so much done?” They ask me this question like we both don’t have the exact same amount of hours in the day. Like somehow I’ve managed to find 34 hours per day, and they’re only stuck with 24. Come on.

Drew: But I also know that you have hobbies and a family and all of that, so as you know, many small business owners wrestle with sort of the balance of time. So how do you also chunk out and carve out time for the personal side of your life?

Peter: When I get home I shut off my phone for hours at a time when I’m with my kid. I have a two-year-old, she’s awesome. I shut off my phone when I play with her at night. We hang out together. Last night we drank tea and played dolls, and my phone was nowhere to be found. She went to sleep, I worked for a little bit.

Drew: So literally, you’re shutting the work world out so you have uninterrupted personal time?

Peter: Airplane mode is not just for airplanes.

Drew: That may be the quote of the day.  

Peter: Ha! It’s true though.

Drew: Yeah, I know. It’s a good point. I think when you are a high performer you’ve got to find ways to sort of refill your bucket and give yourself time to do that. And a lot of agency owners really struggle that they’re, especially with smartphones and everything else, they constantly feel like they’re constantly on a short leash, and I think we have to all remember that we actually control the leash.

Peter: No question about it. No question about it. We’ve been talking about this for years. Why don’t we bother to live our lives?


Keeping Your Agency, Your Staff, and Yourself Up to Date

Drew: So part of what I would assume your clients are looking to you for is sort of forward thinking, cutting-edge thinking. How do you stay current and abreast of, not only what’s going on today, but what’s coming down the pike?

Peter: Well, again, I mean, I look at things, I read things. First thing every morning, I’m online. You know 4:35 in the morning I’m reading the latest websites, I’m reading what I missed the night before from Asia. I belong to a handful of message boards that are not your typical message boards, but I read a lot of things. I read the most random stuff online. I read about fishing. Things that I don’t do. I read about it because you never know where the next ideas may come from. So for me that’s really enjoyable.  

Drew: So for you the lion’s share of your sort of continuing professional development, if you will, is staying current on a day to day basis with trends? Are there certain conferences or authors or anybody that are sort of your go-tos?

Peter: I follow countless blogs, podcasts, things like that. Everything from… What the hell do I read? I read everything from skydiving podcasts, I listen to sort, all the way to like NPR. I enjoy reading things that intrigue me. They might not necessarily be about business. That’s sort of the best part. They might not necessarily be about business, but they’re things that allow me to learn a bit, and think a little differently. And once you do that, you’re able to sort of retrain your brain, as it were. And if you can retrain your brain then you can really… What did Einstein say? Or someone said something that they believe, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If you’re stuck in your comfort zone… Comfort zones are nice, but they’re a horrible place to be because nothing ever grows there. So if you can come out of your comfort zone by doing something new, well, everyone wins.

Drew: Yep, clients especially.

Peter:  Yeah, yeah!

Drew: Yes, no question about it.

Drew: If you were charged with creating an agency today that you thought was going to be kind of bullet proof for the future, what might that look like?

Peter: I think it would have a social component. It would have definitely a customer experience component. It would have a traditional PR component. The three of those would work together and there would be no silos. That’s probably the most important thing, there would be no silos. That I think is the biggest problem that everyone does is that they silo what they’re doing so that no one can really talk to each other, and that’s such a mistake. It’s just such a mistake because you wind up doing nothing of any benefit. You wind up killing your agency because you don’t listen, you don’t listen in the slightest.