Archive for the ‘General Business Fodder’ Category

Some of you may have noticed the climate of angry competitiveness that has overtaken the USA in the past, oh, 5 years or so.  It is really coming to a boil of late, especially here on the Interwebs, where opinion run screaming like Banshees with their hair on fire.  (Please note: No Offense was meant to be directed at the Banshee population, nor do I condone the act of running about with one’s hair on fire.)

But really, 84.7%* of all online discussions deteriorate into mean-spirited arguments concerning politics, religion, or lifestyle. (*Statistic courtesy of Make-M-Up Statistics, Inc.)  So ok, if that is what the lunkhead hoi polloi want to engage in on social media, then fine, let them.

But it is not a good idea for businesses, or business people, regardless of the strength of their political or religious beliefs, to bring those beliefs into the game.

Due to the simmering political divide in this country, a business person who visibly steps up to back an issue on one side of the divide automatically loses credibility, if not large amounts of revenue, from most members on the other side.   So, in light of Don Cathy’s recent statements, will Chick-fil-A gain so much support from the Christian Right as to compensate for the loss of business from middle-of -the-road and Left-leaning folks?  Outlook not so good.

And this is my point… this is a business issue, being discussed on a business blog.  So politics aside, I think it is stupid  – really special stupid… stupid with whipped cream and a cherry – for a business to toss their all eggs into one political or religious basket.  You know, at one time in the not-so-distant past, I knew about Chick-fil-A because of one thing: Outstanding Customer Service.  Now, that is something worth being known for, especially in the fast-food industry where franchises are typically populated with disinterested teenagers and weary adults who really wish they were doing something else with their lives.  I never lived near one, so I had never tested that experience, but I had read about them in customer service case studies and anecdotes.  I finally did get the opportunity to visit one in Memphis, and it was fine. I wasn’t blown away, but it was a clean environment and I was treated with courtesy.  And the chicken sammich was decent.  But overall, my experience was fine, and there was nothing to dissuade me from thinking their customer service reputation was justified.

Then Don Cathy has to open his mouth, condemning a segment of the population, as well as another segment that supports them.  Now, these two segments have to think twice about where to go for a chicken sammich!  Many will go instead to another establishment, one that possibly supports the same organizations and thinking that Mr. Cathy supports, but does not drag it into their business profile.  Because once that chicken flies the coop, it ain’t never goin’ back.

Moral of the story:  The idea behind a successful business is to attract customers, and serve them in such a manner that they will return to you, as well as share their experience with friends and colleagues.  Alienating segments of the consumer population by drawing a line in the political / religious sand is not smart.  It is self-defeating, regardless of what side of the line you stand.  A successful business should be apolitical and secular.  People don’t need to get spiritual guidance from a chicken sammich.

Just read some interesting articles on the concepts of FOMO (fear of missing out) and TMI (sharing too much information), specifically concerning social media.  Both articles resonated with me, on both a personal and professional level.   Perhaps I will comment more on them later, but out of these articles sprouted another business social media “ah-ha,” which is…

                Do not underestimate the importance of a compelling title or subject heading.               

By now, most businesses realize that they need to have an online presence, regardless of their industry or niche.  But as the two articles above make clear, there is literally a daily flood of information out there online, and much of it is, in fact, simply noise.

As a savvy businessperson, you have something significant to share with your customers and prospects in the way of content.  You have ideas and opinions and anecdotes.  You have white papers and webinars.  You have blogs and tweets and posts.

So why doesn’t your stuff get read more?  Well, it is competing with a LOT of crap out there on the interwebs.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of really good stuff out there, too.  Content that’s better than mine, and probably better than yours, too.  And does it all get read?  Hell, no.  Same problem – too much noise out there.  That, coupled with people’s overwhelming need to not miss out on anything cool, means that actually getting someone to read your stuff is really a competitive sport.

Bingo.  The best tool you can use to get read is a really, REALLY compelling title or subject heading.  And don’t go all high and mighty intellectual.  Remember, in this age of social media and online communications, you are no longer simply competing against other businesses in your industry.  Oh no.  You are now competing with EVERYTHING.  ALL the TIME.

Yes, one of your greatest competitors for people’s attention may be cute kitten photos with cleverly misspelled captions!  And if you work for, say, a venerable financial institution, that may be hard news for you and your management team to swallow.  Doesn’t make it any less true, though.

So don’t be afraid to take some chances with your titles and subject headings.  Loosen the knot on your tie, Don Draper!  Go ahead and say something outrageous, and then use the article or blog or post to explain it.

I realize that many old-school marketers will see this as sort of beneath the dignity of their craft, but the world of business has changed, and the best practices must change along with it, lest ye get drowned in the flood of info-noise.

Oh, and here: 

In this day and age, in an economy that is showing signs of staggering back to its feet, in a world where competition for the entertainment and hospitality dollar is wide and varied, it is amazing to me that establishments that cater to the public can provide ridiculously poor service, at any time.  But when poor service is mixed with bad attitude and stupidity, that my friends is the golden trifecta.

My colleague Jaime is president of the American Marketing Association of Southeastern New England, (AMASNE) and in the role, frequently hosts networking events with a substantial number of people who, not surprisingly, market for a living.

So an event is held at STATE Ultra Lounge, apparently one of Providence’s hot spots for the late night dance crowd.  When Jaime called that morning to confirm, they asked if she would, umm, reschedule her event. After Jaime gently but firmly convincing them to honor their agreement and open for the sake of preregistered guests, STATE  charged Jaime’s group an outrageous sum of money for less-than-exquisite hors d’oeuvres such as chicken fingers and pigs in blankets that could have easily been purchased from BJ’s for $20. Jaime told me “As a business owner and marketing professional, I am bewildered and appalled.”

And here is that three-way intersection of crap service, attitude, and ignorance. STATE was mad that they had to open their doors when they otherwise would not.  AMASNE had a small but dedicated following who had already registered, but apparently not a big enough group to satisfy STATE so they gouged on the food deal.  Duh. Not exactly a smart way to treat a room full of marketers.  People who influence buying decisions, for a living.

So because of this incident, it goes without saying that AMASNE is not planning on any further events  at STATE, nor will any of the group of marketers who attended the event likely be spreading any good words about the Ultra Lounge.

Now, I’m no genius (you’ve probably noticed), but it seems to me that if a restaurant / lounge / bar / whatever… is reserving a room for a group of marketing professionals, you might want to do something to ensure that they have a great freakin’ time.  Because if you DO ensure that they have a great freakin’ time, then they will send traffic your way.  Not interwebs kinda traffic – real traffic!  People with money traffic.

Let us consider for a moment that a personal recommendation is twice as influential as even the best advertising, and even an impersonal recommendation (from a stranger) is 50% more influential.

So this was what the young folks call “an opportunity”  for STATE.  A really nice one, served up on a silver platter.

And they blew it.

I just read this article about Best Buy’s holiday debacle, and feel the need to weigh in pile on with my own thoughts on this topic.

  1. Over-promising and under-delivering… never a good thing for any business.  But for a zillion dollar big box store, it is pathetic! Add to this mix the fact that the economy still sucks, and that it is the holiday season where millions of people are trying to cobble together a decent holiday with limited resources.  And now, a few days before Christmas, Best Buy tells MANY of its customers, “Ummmm, ya know that stuff you ordered and paid for back in November in our great Black Friday sale?  Funny thing… we don’t seem to have enough of those things that we can ship it to you in time for the holiday, although we do have them in stock in our stores for full price.  But those ones on sale?  We ain’t got.  In fact, we ain’t gonna get, either.  So we’ll just cancel your order, and ruin your Christmas.  Have a nice day!”
  2. Best Buy should realize that this is NOT just a slightly embarrassing situation.  Not only have the ruined the holiday for a lot of people this year, but they run the risk of losing a LOT of business FOREVER.  Many people have long memories when it comes to big businesses treating them like crap.  Your humble blogger, for example.  I still will not use Target.com because of an experience ten years ago, where a similar situation occurred.
  3. I am very interested in how Best Buy will try to resolve this matter. For the orders that will simply be late, I wonder if they will expedite the delivery.  I wonder if they will knock off some of the price.  I wouldn’t expect that they would outright refund any money already spent, but will they throw in a gift card or two to make up for their blunder?  And for those poor bastards that simply had their orders unilaterally cancelled, how exactly do you go about winning back their trust?
  4. We know that in every crisis, there is opportunity.  We also know that customers who have had a problem successfully, swiftly, and courteously resolved tend to end up being more loyal than the customer who has never experienced a problem with a business.  OK, so you and I know this… it will be interesting to see if Best Buy gets this.  Or will they simply paste on a smile and act like it never happened?
  5. I’m thinking this is a make or break situation for Best Buy.  They have an opportunity to do something wonderful to try to make up for this blunder, and show their customers, the buying public, and the media that they really do care about their customers’ happiness.  Or, they can make it easy on themselves, and just give a shrug and a weak grin, and hope that it doesn’t happen again, and hope that no one really carries a grudge.    Best Buy!  The eyes of the retail world are on you!

I was very surprised, and very disappointed, to read today that last Monday, a flight attendant on Southwest Airlines saw fit to kick two women off of a flight because they shared a small kiss as they boarded the plane.  By all accounts, they were not tangled up in a hot make-out session, but just a quick “I love you” peck.  However, a flight attendant saw this as a flagrant violation of her moral worldview, and told then that their actions were not acceptable, because Southwest was a “family-oriented” airline.  As opposed to what?  Those other airlines that cater to perverts, homicidal maniacs, and drug dealers?

Oh, and in addition to being a family-oriented airline, Southwest is also the official airline for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).  How’s that for irony?

I, personally, have always liked Southwest.  Aside from their annoying commercials, I always felt they combined great service, great performance, and a sense of humor.  And, by virtue of being the titular “official airline” of GLAAD, there must some folks in Southwest’s management who were not horrified at the thought of same-sex couples.  However, their reluctance to apologize for this incident, or to publicly chastise its homophobic flight attendant, the company has drawn a line in the sand.

This is like the Montgomery, Alabama transit service of the 1950’s calling itself the “official bus line” of the city’s African Americans, provided, of course, that they sit at the back of the bus.  But then that pesky Rosa Parks had to ruin it for everyone by insisting on sitting in the middle of the bus!  How dare she!  Well, history buffs, how did that work out for the Montgomery bus system?  About as well as this incident is going to work out for Southwest, unless they get a clue, and get it quick!

So, I have two things to say about this, one is from the heart, and one is from the brain:

1) People, this is 2011.  We are 11 years into the 21st Century.  For the sake of all that you hold dear, isn’t it time we, as a people, finally got over ourselves, and realized that the world has changed (whether we like it or not), and that we need to reevaluate many of our long-held beliefs?  There are still so many people who want to drag us back to the “good ol’ days” of racism, sexism, religion-ism, and all the other “-isms” that claim one group of people to be superior over another.  Are we as a people really that insecure that we need to impose our worldview on everyone?

2) It’s bad enough when individuals show their bigoted side.  But when businesses do it, it is just plain stupid.  Especially in an economy that is as shaky as what we’ve been experiencing the past five years.  I mean, how smart is it that a multi-million dollar enterprise would risk sacrificing a significant source of its revenue, because one of its employees was appalled at the idea of two women in love, sharing a kiss.  Yeah, that’s a problem… too much love in the world today.  Knock that crap off, people.  We’re trying to run an airline here!  I’m sure the bean counters at Southwest don’t mind taking the money from the gay and lesbian community.  And money, ultimately, is what businesses are all about.  So here’s a tip, folks… treat everyone with the same courtesy and respect that you would give to people of your own race, religion, or sexual orientation.  If you can’t do that, perhaps you should not be in business.

If you want to take a stand on this matter, click here and sign a petition, demanding that Southwest step up to the plate and apologize for this incident.

Since attending an interesting   meeting a couple weeks ago, on the impact that real social responsibility has on business today has been rattling around my brain.  Not the BS-made-for-headlines “socially responsible” crap that BP put out after they polluted a sizable portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

No, we heard from the real deal; a couple of New England companies of global scope, who actually walk the talk.  Not only have they made effective use of resources to produce quality products, they have managed to save considerable amount of money in doing so!  My eyes were opened to the enormous amount of waste that companies of all sizes burn through, often because they just don’t think of it.

Our host,   and our guest speaker   , both demonstrated social responsibility, not only in the products they produce and how they produce them, but also how these principles translate into the day-to-day business practices of these organizations.

I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve suddenly caught the “green fever.”  It’s hard to overcome one’s lifetime’s worth of disengagement in one day’s worth of presentation and discussion.  But it is not an exaggeration to say that my eyes were opened a bit to this matter.  Let’s just say, I have a new-found respect for companies that put the effort into doing the right things, and a new-found scorn for those business that do not.  I notice this stuff now.

And here is something I learned today that kinda pretty much sucks, anyway you look at it.  Still lookin’ for the silver lining 0n this one, folks, so if you can help me out, much obliged.

To wit: “Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.”

I’m not going to prattle on with the details here; I ask that you read the article.  But I will break it down for you:

  • We as a culture, have become addicted to the medium of television.
  • In its effort to meet our demand for both immediate gratification AND complete control of  viewing of broadcast content, cable providers give us a ubiquitous box or two which drain our resources considerably.
  • We pat ourselves on the back for being conscientious when we remember to turn out the light when we leave a room, yet 24/7/365, the beady little light from our cable / DVR boxes shows that it is ready to serve us, any time, day or night.  But not without a cost.

Apparently, energy-conservation is sort of an afterthought here.  Oh sure, we might be interested in seeing some of that energy-saving stuff, but our concern is really limited here to “does it do what our technology-crazed customer base demands?” and… “how much profit can we make by providing it?”

Later in the article, an industry guy was asked why making energy-efficient equipment has not been a priority, he shrugged and said, “nobody asked me to.”   Brilliant.  I used to use that same excuse as a thirteen year old, just before getting smacked in the head by a family member.

But apparently (sez them), it is our lust for anything bigger/better/quicker that drives conservation to the back-burner in the minds of the device technology manufacturers.  Just givin’ you people all the toys what you want.  Can’t be expected to preserve your “environment,” too!  If we start building eco-friendly cable boxes, we may not be able to give our customers that all-important instantaneous access to the old movies or episodes of reality programs that they require round the clock!  From there, we are on a slippery slope… to… umm, maybe considering a new technology to help conserve.  Just a thought.  Read the article.

In a recent Los Angeles Times story about “some significant changes” that AT&T has made to its service contract.  The telecom giant “will impose caps on data use or limit a customer’s download speed — or even impose additional fees” if said customer is using too much bandwidth.  A spokesperson for AT&T said this is because 20% of available bandwidth is used by 2% of their customers, and they are simply trying to level the playing field so that all customers receive “a good experience.”

OK, sounds reasonable enough, so far.  While AT&T is not the only company to do this (Comcast has a similar provision), they also come off as a little heavy-handed in addressing the issue.  Big-time bandwidth gobblers can have their accounts changed, unilaterally, to the company’s premium U-verse service, which is faster and more versatile than its normal DSL service.

Sounds cool, until the customer realizes that his rates have now jumped considerably.  Still bound by the service contract he signed, John Q. Customer might find himself paying even higher rates for a service he did not request.  In this economy – hell, in any economy – that ain’t gonna go over well.

What with streaming and downloading movies and television programs, and graphic-rich video games, it is not inconceivable that many customers could find themselves trapped in a nasty situation.  Enough to make John Q. cuss like a drunken sailor.

But… hmmm… there is yet another change in AT&T’s service agreement.  One that states that the company reserves the right to terminate the contract of any customer who engages “in conduct that is threatening, abusive or harassing” to the company’s workers, or for “frequent use of profane or vulgar language” when dealing with service reps.  You thinking what I’m thinking?

AT&T has essentially told its customers that if they don’t like having their account upgraded against their will, or if they don’t like pretty much anything about their account, all they have to do is pull a nutty, with some choice colorful language, and they can be set free.  Wow.  Let this settle in for a minute, as faces of angry customers everywhere light up like a kid’s at Christmas.  Many angry customers are prepared to fuss and cuss for free, just as a routine part of their interaction.  But now, by doing it, they can actually be set free from a binding contract!  With no early termination fee!  Woo-hoo!  Get your foul-mouth on, AT&T customers!  You’re mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore!!!

All things considered, I think AT&T could have handled this whole matter differently.  Instead of forcing their customers to pay for the company’s shortcomings, the company could use some of its money to provide service that meets their customers’ needs.  Then, it probably wouldn’t cause the angry customer to use profanity and threatening language, just to wiggle out of his contract.  But no, AT&T has chosen to focus on what’s important to them, as opposed to what’s important to their customers.  And please, do not let the company cry poor-mouth; they just recently bought up one of their competitors, T-Mobile, for a cool $39 billion.  Nice.  Buy up the competition, and jack up your customers’ fees without their consent.  Greed is good?  Really?

I was reading Peter Shankman’s amusing story about having to shut up a fellow commuter in the Quiet Car on the New York to Philly Amtrak.  The customer service angle of this story should not be lost on anyone.  That’s why I am here, to shine a light on it.

In this story, this ignoramus prattled on loudly on his cell phone, while the rest of the Quiet Car’s occupants squirmed nervously.  Finally, Shankman, a fellow commuter and customer, could stand no more, and asked the man to honor the rules of the Quiet Car.  I.e., STFU.

But while I am sure that many other fellow commuters were grateful to Shankman for having the guts to step up, it begs the question as to why he had to.  Where was the conductor?  Regardless of his pay grade, it seems as though this is one of the things under his purview.  And if not him, then his manager, certainly.  It should not be up to other customers to bring a disruptive customer under control.  

First of all, there is the possibility of danger.  I mean, this butt head could have been loud AND vicious, you don’t know.  But if Amtrak is going to offer a Quiet Car, then it is up to them to ensure the quiet.  Simple as that.  Anything less than that is not only crappy customer service, but also stupid business.

Look, business is tough enough for everyone these days.  There is competition for limited funds, everywhere.  The Amtrak train that this babbling idiot was on, is competing with a) airplanes, b) buses, c) driving, or d) staying home.  So, they are going to let some loudmouth mook negatively impact their service, and therefore, their business?  Really?

Businesses!  Take control of things!  One disruptive customer can leave a bad feeling with a whole lotta folks, so step up.  You don’t have to be a badass with the yakker, but simply enforce the rules that you have laid out for the rest of your customers’ convenience.  Don’t sit there silently while a rowdy customer disturbs the experience of others.  You will earn their respect by taking charge of the matter in a gentle but firm manner.

I am normally a complete and total advocate of the customer, even when he or she is angry.  But I get challenged on that occasionally, by this type of customer.  But the service provider is not without fault here, as well – as is the case with the majority of angry customer cases.

This clown, apparently drunk and full of himself, became enraged because the JetBlue flight attendant on his coast-to-coast flight, following the company’s credit card-only policy, would not accept cash for the rental of some headphones to take advantage of the airline’s cool individual TV / radio in every seat.  Yeah, that’ll piss a guy off, for sure.  So, when you can’t get what you want, you order a drink, right?  Well, because he was already pretty toasted and belligerent, the flight attendants refused to serve him alcohol.  As you can imagine, this did not go over with our loud, tipsy friend.  He fussed so much that passengers around him requested he be moved.  So our grumpy intoxicated friend was moved to another seat, where, unfortunately, he was accidentally hit by an item that fell from the overhead bin when an attendant was retrieving something for another passenger.  Naturally, this was more than our disgruntled drunk could handle, and he just went off, repeatedly yelling out the magic words: “I will take this plane down!”

Really?  Bad move there, sport.  You may have heard that the airline industry is a tad leery of people even talking about disrupting flights.  Still a bit touchy over that whole 9/11 thing, and rightly so. It’s one thing to be a drunken ass, but when you start spoutin’ threats about endangering the lives of others, sorry mate, it’s time to go.

So the flight made an unscheduled stop in Salt Lake City, where this guy was removed from the plane, where TSA and law enforcement officials took him into custody on a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.  Hopefully, he will be given a penalty that will make him think twice about travelling without his own headphones again, and maybe a little introspection about his drinking problem.

OK, obviously, we know what this customer did wrong.  He brought his problems on himself and deserves his punishment.  But JetBlue, whom I love, is not without blame here.

Now, one reader of the article detailing this situation suggested that the flight attendant could have disarmed the entire situation by simply giving the inebriated imbecile a headset.  Not a bad idea, except for the other passengers who had already given their credit cards in payment for the headphone rental.  Would it be fair to them to be billed for something that the airline would simply give to a whiny drunk?  Um, no.

But it does raise the question of why JetBlue  feels compelled to charge for headphones when they tout their personal TV for every seat.  I mean, if you’re going to give a perk, give the whole enchilada.  I mean, it’s like a restaurant offering a free dessert, but if want a dish or utensil to eat it with, that’ll cost ya.  Can you say “bogus?”

But, aside from the kinda bait & switch-y thing, when exactly did cash become unwanted?  Credit cards charge the businesses that accept them a service fee on every transaction.  I’m wondering why JetBlue prefers cut the credit card companies in on their “take” on the headphone scam… if you’re gonna shake your customers down, why not keep all the loot?

So JetBlue’s nickel and diming of their customers, and their misguided ideas about forcing customers to pay only a certain way notwithstanding, their policies do not warrant threatening to force a crash of a commercial airline.  I mean, beyond this petty little fee and payment method thing, JetBlue is a pretty awesome airline.  Their flights are typically less expensive than most of their competitors, their jets are spacious and comfortable, and if you bring your own headphones, you get free TV on every flight!  Their service personnel and crew, in my experience, are well-trained and friendly.  I would bet that they tried to deal with the belligerent boozer as professionally as possible, but when he decided to pretend he was a terrorist, all bets were off.

Most customers deserve courtesy, even if they are nasty about a perceived slight.  But there is a line which, once crossed, the customer forfeits their right to courtesy, and simply deserves getting bounced.  Hey, as nicely as possible.  But bounced, nonetheless.

This wonderfully droll comic strip, Wondermark, clearly demonstrates how most customers actually behave in the aftermath of a disappointing experience with a business or vendor.

Many people do not like confrontation of any kind.  So as customers, they will avoid it by simply glossing over a service problem.  While that may be “fine” with the service provider (because, really, who likes to be hassled?), the business will never know how poorly their product or service was delivered.

But many others will know.  Disgruntled customers are way more prone to talk than their more “gruntled” counterparts. They’ll tell their friends and their family.  If they’re particularly chatty, or inebriated, they’ll tell complete strangers.  Or if they are computer literate, they’ll tell the legions that follow their blogs, tweets, and facebookings.  And they will definitely tell the business’ competitors, when they patronize them instead of the offending business that they chose not to confront about a poor experience.

So, the offending company loses customers, its competitors gain customers, and they never knew what hit them. Because either their customers decided not to complain.  Or maybe the business isn’t making it easy for customers to complain or critique.  Because who wants to be hassled, right?

Certainly not your angry customer.  He’s got you in his rearview.  

But you should want to be hassled by your dissatisfied customers!  You need to know what irked them, so you can resolve it and not do it again.  You need to know how upset they are, so you can make it up to them in a way that will help rebuild their trust.  You think I am being dramatic here?  I am not.  Every customer is precious.  Stay in front of them!