Surpassingly, Divinely Exceptional

This morning, I was reading Psalm 48 (link leads to a modern-English version; I’ll be referencing a few phrases from it in this post), and marveling at the heart-mind response of people to God’s glory.

The psalm paints a picture of an outstandingly-aboveness – a unique greatness – that evokes the most devoted human response.

Being a businessman as well as a worshiper, I found myself thinking – what kind of surpassing wonderfulness, as depicted in this psalm, could turn customers into devotees and devotees into a growing business?

1. Unmatched greatness – in short, spectacular-ness that people cannot help but praise. When devotees line up for days in front of an Apple store for the latest product, so they can be the first to experience it and praise its excellence, this isn’t a mere transactional relationship. It moves into the realm of awe for Apple’s design and execution genius. Those 150 psalms in the Bible? They are bursting with praise that words can barely express. Wouldn’t it be something to have customer testimonials like that?

2. Outstanding memorable-ness – we are surrounded by forgettable, commodity products. Yet these worshipers cannot help but dwell on the surpassing quality of what they’ve been able to touch. Exceptional means top-of-mind in a very noisy, distracting world. You know when your favorite artists releases a new album and a couple of tasty tunes keep occupying your mind and escaping your lips? That.

3. Evangelistic enthusiasm – in this psalm, people are encouraged to look at the beautiful details, to consider and count and marvel, to rejoice with others – and to tell the next generation (organic word-of-mouth). I go out of my way to tell people about Loveless Cafe in Nashville, or Amica Insurance. Why? Their consistent excellence makes me want to see more people enjoy what they offer.

True worship of God has never been about miserable conformity to a set of nonsensical rules – it is about above-all-else greatness, heartfelt awe, and a personal attachment that is grounded in divine beauty. A form of religion with forced or transactional followers isn’t much of a model for us. People yearn for spectacular, not run-of-the-mill.

Our goal should be nothing less than being exceptional and creating enthusiasm. I guess you could consider that kind of business one that begins to reflect, in some feeble but real way, the image of God.

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>> A Tale of Two Welcomes

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A Tale of Two Welcomes

This past week, my 3 brothers and I took our annual pilgrimage up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for some bro get-away time. We hike, we play tennis, we joust over the card table, we verbally spar – it’s a fun time to re-connect. And we love upper New England in October.

There’s a lot of tourist activity in this part of the United States, so it’s interesting to see how different states and communities pull it off. Shortly after entering Vermont on I-91, there is a Welcome Center (Guilford exit) that trumps all other welcome centers I’ve ever seen—>

Beautiful post and beam construction. An eye-catching variety of country implements, Vermont memorabilia, information stations, clean restrooms, lovely exterior design and landscaping – and a huge carved-in-granite welcome sign. Plus, as a bonus, there was a pavilion outside inhabited by friendly locals who were serving coffee and selling a nice and diverse selection of baked goods (many of the healthy/organic variety). One of whom went out of her way to take a group picture of us.

A Welcome To Vermont that was truly memorable.

Then, on the way back south after our stay (which was lovely, by the way – the fall colors were just about at their peak), we left Vermont and re-entered Massachusetts. Now, I’ll try to be fair here – the more touristy sections of the great state of Massachusetts are to the east (Boston and shoreline) and to the west (Berkshires). But I-91 is a major corridor, and I’d like to think the powers-that-be would want to leave a good impression of the state. At least a nice welcome.

Instead? After the obligatory Welcome to Massachusetts sign at the border – “Pull-off area, 2 miles.” No Welcome Center. No facilities. Not even – get this – a trash can.

Well, at least there was a nice threat. Does this type of user experience encourage a repeat visit to the state? Is this the memory anyone wants to leave?

Now, not many of us are in charge of state tourism bureaus. But we do run businesses. And first and foremost on our minds should be our Welcome Centers. What is it like when people first encounter us on social platforms, for instance? A barren, sterile, and functional presentation with nothing to offer the user isn’t going to be particularly memorable – except in a negative sense. A vibrant place of beauty and interest and personal interaction, however, can color the impression of an entire entity – all the way up to the level of an entire state, let alone a business.

I’m a New England boy, so I happen to know all the goodness that Massachusetts has to offer. But had this “welcome center” experience been my first impression of the state, it may have also been my last – and my lasting – impression.

How’s your welcome center? Your first impression may be the last. Make it like Vermont!

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Related posts on Connection Agent:

>> Creating a Welcoming Climate

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Four Reasons Why I Bought a Ford This Weekend

This weekend, I did something I don’t believe I’ve ever done before.

I went to a Ford dealer and bought a Ford automobile.

We tried getting by with our two cars but, with 2 high-school age kids and the ever-growing list of places-to-go and people-to-see, we finally had to make an addition. The odd fact is, that I never even bothered seriously considering another make of car this time around. This, from someone whose last few business cars were all Mazdas and whose family van is currently a Toyota.

Why? Let me give you four simple reasons:

1. Quality. I don’t care what the item is, or what the argument for domestic production is, if you’re not high-quality, you don’t earn my business. Ford has been making great strides in this area, enough that they slowly but surely edged back onto my radar screen. When my 18-year old and I took a test drive in a gently used 2010 Fusion, we were quite impressed (at the top of his list: the sound system, and the cool blue vanity lighting in the cupholders!)

2. Scott Monty. Scott is Ford’s social media guru, though I became acquainted with him back in 2007 or 2008, before his tenure with Ford. Scott has done a great job putting a more human face on a venerable American institution, and that goodwill (earned over time) translated into, not only consideration, but strong leaning, when it was time to make a purchase. It pays to hire good people. If you’re keeping score, President and CEO Alan Mulally: +1, Scott Monty.

3. Principle. Ford had the guts to refuse the government bailout years ago. While Chrysler and General Motors decided to become state-run institutions (or facsimiles thereof), Ford held to free-market principles. Thousands of us Americans never forgot that, and when it was time to make a purchase this weekend, guess which two companies were not even in the running? Granted, Ford is not some perfect company filled with angelic beings, nor are the employees of GM and Chrysler the spawn of evil. I reserve the right to re-consider GM products in the future, of course – but only if and when they are no longer a ward of the federal government. It’s not personal – it’s principle.

4. Referral. My entire solopreneur business model is based on trusted referrals. When I reached out on Facebook about my upcoming decision, a good friend (thanks, Janice!) recommended that I deal with Tommy Garcia over at Wayne (NJ) Ford. They also said that the General Manager (Troy Mol) was great. I reached out on-line and got an immediate and friendly response from Milca Irizarry, and meeting each of them over at the dealership was a pleasure. Purchasing cars can be a dreadful experience. My time at Wayne Ford has, without a doubt, helped advance my view of the Ford brand. If you’re keeping score, Mr. Mulally: +3, Wayne Ford.

I am not going to change the world of business by one little car purchase, or through any of my social media rants about it (e.g., here and here). But this entire experience simply reinforces the power of what should be obvious, in any business. Make great stuff. Do the right thing. Hire the right people. Treat customers right. And the end result will be the vein of gold that every business seeks – enthusiastic referrals. And sometimes, very public commendations…

(lest there be fuel for cynics, so let me say up-front that I have received no financial or other consideration for writing this post. I just believe in telling it like it is – and that includes the good stuff when it is earned!)

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Sweet Customer Service by Vosges

Count me very happily surprised.

I was ordering a gift card for someone, and figured – what could be more universally-loved that some luscious Vosges chocolate? (if you’ve tried it, you know – if not, well, what are you waiting for??)

So I go on their site, and the ordering process is easy, with one interesting chocolate-centered twist – when you plug in the zip code of the recipient, the site does a quick calculation about the destination and the time of year, and if it’s going to be a hot trip, Vosges automatically adds some cooling materials for 10 bucks. After all, you don’t want to receive a gooey mess in July, do you?

Except plastic gift cards don’t melt like chocolate. Oops.

A bit frustrated, I filled in the on-line form for Questions and explained the dilemma. I wanted to order, but…and I went off to walk the dog, grumbling under my breath that:

  1. I would probably not hear from anyone in a timely fashion;
  2. Any response would likely be some canned apology with no resolution;
  3. I was going to have to abandon the shopping cart and go buy something else.

Wrong, wrong, WRONG, you overly cynical consumer from New Jersey!

While still out strolling with my black lab Mystic, I received an e-mail from a “Chocolate Concierge” named Anna. In that message, she apologized for the problem (and promised to alert the web team so that it can be fixed), and provided two avenues whereby we could complete the process, including a direct phone call. Speed and a pathway forward – problem solved. Customer happy.

I’ve talked up and given away Vosges chocolate bars in the past, but now they’ve really won my heart. How’s your responsiveness? Is it personal, and fast, and blog-worthy like Vosges’ is?

Well-played, Anna and Vosges. That’s some pretty sweet customer service!

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Cattle Disguised as People

Yesterday, I had the displeasure of going to a pharmacy and being treated as a non-human.

Walking up to the window with a prescription, the person behind the counter, busy inputting something-or-other into a computer, barely registered any recognition of my existence. Now I understand the desire to complete a task before moving on the next one, but to make no eye contact, to give no greeting, to not say (with a smile) “just a minute, please, sir, while I get this finished up, then I’ll be right with you.” – nothing?

I’m a person, a customer, not cattle. What a contrast from my recent experience being in the more hospitable South.

When it was finally my turn to exist, the person behind the counter, without even looking up into my face, extended his hand as the signal that he was now ready to process my paperwork. Not serve a customer. Not be an ambassador of good for the company. Just take on the next task, which happened to be me. Totally de-humanizing.

Yes, jobs can be repetitive and boring (read this article: Confessions of a former TSA agent). It can be tempting to treat customers as objects, particularly when those customers have no other options. But you can be outstanding – either as someone who brightens another’s day, or someone who darkens it. As we all seemed to conclude in last night’s #LeadershipChat, hire for passion and attitude – skill can be imparted. And fire the bad apples quickly!

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LinkedIn Listens, Reconsiders

After two volatile days of negative user reaction, LinkedIn has reconsidered its plan to use the names and pictures of members in third-party advertising.

I had no earthly idea, when putting up this blog post on Wednesday morning (which, 2 days later, has now been viewed 200,000+ times), that such a firestorm would be the result. Nor did I think that LinkedIn would take such prompt action. What we’ve been telling people all these years about the power of social networks? – well, it’s true! :>)

While it’s too soon to fully gain perspective on all this, because it is now hitting national and international media outlets, it’s not too soon to dispel misconceptions that may occur. So…

1. Lest anyone think I have it in for LinkedIn – some kind of vendetta – I don’t. I was a very early adopter and have been a (paying) Premium member for years. My outpost there, including managing several groups, is substantial. I actually like LinkedIn a lot – I’m sure that fueled my sense of disappointment about the new policy.

2. LinkedIn didn’t change course this week because some semi-obscure blogger in NJ “blew the whistle.” They did it because they listened to the sentiments of thousands of their customers. It was smart of users to speak their minds, and very smart of LinkedIn to pay heed.

3. I fully embrace the fact the we make a conscious choice to give up a lot of privacy when engaging in social networks. However, experience continues to show that people have a visceral and negative reaction to these two things:

- the use of their name and face for promotion by someone else in uncontrolled or unapproved circumstances

- forced opt-in at maximum exposure levels when privacy policies are changed

It doesn’t matter if technical, under-the-radar notification is given. What may be legally defensible is not always professionally and personally palatable. Companies really need to not only ask themselves, “can we get away with this?” – but also, “how will this be perceived?” Perception is reality – especially in privacy issues.

4. One person can make a difference – as part of a network. The alert came to me from one unexpected source (in my pharmaceutical network), and once I tossed it up in a quick blog post, it spread like wildfire via another part of my social network.

Kudos to LinkedIn for reacting so quickly. I hope other social platforms will learn the lesson about respecting customers first. As we’ve seen this week – it matters. A whole lot.

(Image credit – Travis Isaacs on Flickr)

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Hire Steve Woodruff  if your identity and message need clarity (personal or company Brand Therapy)

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>> A Box You Want to Uncheck on LinkedIn

>> LinkedIn, Privacy, and Notification

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Interview: Becky Carroll on Rockin’ Customer Service

If you don’t yet know Becky Carroll, you definitely should. She is one of the first bloggers I discovered 4-5 years ago in the marketing/social media space, and her Customers Rock! blog is well-known as a destination for all things customer service.

She’s also a really nice gal. We’ve collaborated on projects, spoken at an event together – I even had lunch with Becky and her family while staring at the Pacific Ocean in southern California (where she resides).

Becky’s just-released book, The Hidden Power of Customers, is a guidebook for any business that wants to put customers – especially existing customers – front-and-center in their business growth plan. And that should be – well, EVERY business.

Pardon the minor hiccup in 2/3 of the way through the interview when we had a connectivity blip. You’ll see a rather abrupt lighting change…!

Be sure to pick up a copy of Becky’s book today! (note: not an affiliate link. I have no financial interest in sales of this book).

Memorable (blog-worthy) Service

It’s easy to turn to blogging to complain about this-or-that customer experience that went wrong – but we should also be careful to note the good stuff that happens day by day. Such as:

  1.  That drive through teller at my local Bank of America who greeted me on Monday, even through 2 layers of glass and from a distance, with a friendly smile and warm greeting. I drove out not only with a deposit of money made, but a deposit of kindness making my day better.
  2. Paul, the guy behind the counter at Saltwater Farm Vineyards (highly recommended, btw) in Stonington CT, who greeted my wife and me with a warm handshake and easy banter as we tasted their wines and got the fascinating backstory of this relatively new vineyard headquartered in a converted airplane hangar. And, yes, we bought a case.
  3. Tanya, a customer service rep from Enterprise in Orlando, who tracked down the pair of prescription sunglasses that I’d left in a rental car there and made sure they were sent back to me.

And then there’s this great story from Drew McLellan’s blog today about CustomInk.com. Look at the free WOM advertising they get just by doing customer service right.

Want to learn more about customer service? I’d recommend reading Becky Carroll’s new book titled, The Hidden Power of Your Customers. Well, not just reading. Doing!

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DeltaFAIL? You decide…

Delta Airlines has a PR nightmare on its hands – or, is it an opportunity?

Here’s the deal – some soldiers returning from Afghanistan put up this video on YouTube (please watch) complaining about the fact that they had to pay, out-of-pocket, for a fourth piece of luggage. They had been operating under the impression that they were allowed 4 pieces of baggage.

Delta put up this apologetic response on their blog, which outlines the fact that soldiers traveling coach class are actually allowed three bags (first/business class allows four).

Military people know that you have to do things “by the book” as you do your job. And Delta employee(s) were apparently doing just that – following the rules. Clearly, we have a case of miscommunication – and maybe a policy in need of review – that has blown up and is creating a strong emotional response.

So, here’s the question – what do you think Delta Airlines should do – right now for these soldiers, this week for PR damage control, and long-term regarding their luggage policy for the military? Put your thoughts in the comments and let’s discuss.

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Welcome! How May We Gouge You??

It was a rainy morning in Chicago. I had flown in early, taken the train downtown, and gotten pretty well soaked on the walk to the hotel – but, I was here. Ready for a great few days of networking and SOBCon.

I’d booked the conference hotel (Hotel 71) months ago for the duration of SOBCon but needed a place for one night, so I had gone on-line and reserved a room at a relatively nearby place, which will remain unnamed at the moment.

Dripping my way into the lobby at about 10 am local time, I was flabbergasted by the following exchange:

Tom: “We have a room ready for you, Mr Woodruff, but there will be a $35 early check-in fee.”

Me: ???????????????????????

OK, let me get this straight. A room is sitting there ready, I arrive early (terrible sin!) – and now you want to ding me for an extra $35? In 25 years of business travel, I’ve NEVER run into this gouging maneuver (have you? If so, enlighten me – please!)

This, after mentioning that, no, I don’t recall ever staying here before. What a nice welcome for a new guest!

I described this red carpet treatment on Twitter and apparently others agree with me.

I’ll try to communicate my displeasure privately and see where that goes, which is why I’m not mentioning the property by name at this point. But if you’re in the hospitality business, take away this lesson – when your first encounter with the customer is a grab deeper into their pocket – for no good reason – you’re really not likely to build repeat business.

Not. Likely. At. All.

ADDED BONUS: no e-mail address, no electronic message capability on website, and no Twitter! Free Wi-Fi, though….

UPDATE: I confirmed with a second desk person that this is indeed a policy of the small chain (though I think it is presented as a reserved red-eye early check-in on some document I see in the room here – I was a walk-up). That person gave me the name and e-mail address of the Customer Service Manager, whom I e-mailed, and who kindly got right back to me with an offer to waive the charge. That was (in my opinion) the right thing to do – and I respect the two desk personnel who actually did what they had to do – enforce policy (even if it was uncomfortable).

I will continue to leave the name of the hotel unmentioned and simply suggest that they forward this post up the chain of command so that an internal decision can be made about the wisdom of said policy.

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Do Customers Need to be Led?

The short answer to the above question is: of course. If someone is in one place, and needs to be drawn to a different place, that means exercising leadership.

However, there’s a whole different relationship involved. If you’re leading employees, there are built-in motivations, and a hierarchy of authority to enforce leadership. Not so with customers (or others where influence is more indirect – volunteers, collaborators, etc.)

Let’s say you are a graphic design consultant, and you have been hired by a customer to create a website design. You know what works on the web. You know what color schemes are appealing to the eye. You know about typefaces and layout and all that other juicy designer stuff. Yet your client wants you to put a 1,000-word marketing dissertation in 8-point type on a black background. With 14 references to Justin Bieber because they read an article on a plane once about keywords and SEO. Does this customer need to be led?

To ask the question is to answer it. And just replace the details with a hundred other business scenarios, and you’ll see that we need to lead customers every day.

As a consultant, I am leading my clients all the time. I have no value unless I’m leading them in the direction they need to go. Here are three basic ways in which I seek to lead a customer:

  1. Listen and ask questions. Put on your therapist hat first. Draw out the thoughts and goals and ideas bubbling in their minds (yes, typically, that is the way it is – very few customers actually come to you with a pre-packaged blueprint. Why do you think  they called you??)
  2. Steadily direct the questions and conversations to this one main point: What are you seeking to accomplish? It is amazing how many questions and ideas appear in a different light once you help the customer reach that one-sentence statement of purpose.
  3. NOW begin to apply your expertise to answering that question. Believe it or not, by playing the therapist and then clarifying the issue, you have attained a leadership position far greater than if you trotted our all your qualifications and pointed to your wall full of awards. Customer resistance is removed, not by intimidation, but by understanding. People are ready to hear your expert point of view and recommendations once they see that you’re standing right next to them, helping them see the main goal with 20/20 vision.

I have an accountant, and a financial planner. I want their expertise because I don’t have the bandwidth or interest to mess with all that financial stuff. They are both younger than me (I used to lead one of them in his high school youth group!). And I gladly let them lead me, because they can track and think about issues that I can’t or won’t. They ask the right questions, and show their ability to come up with a plan. Now I have one less worry.

Customers want to be led. They want one less worry. And you’re the answer – right?

Join us on Tuesday nights for #LeadershipChat on Twitter (8 pm ET). And, before you pull up a seat at the table tonight, read what my lovely and talented co-host, Lisa Petrilli, has written about this topic, drawing lessons from the life of Abraham Lincoln! And, to make your chat experience even more enjoyable, try out ChatTagged, a custom-made Twitter client for helping manage your on-line chat interactions!

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A Lake Placid Mugging

I was bummed.

Pulling my coffee out of the microwave, I managed to bang my favorite mug against the edge and shatter it, not only spilling coffee everywhere, but losing a symbol one of my fond memories.

Lake Placid, NY.

You see, I met my wife-to-be in Lake Placid during the summer of 1979, just before the “Miracle on Ice” Winter Olympics (still my favorite sports memory of all time!). We spent part of our honeymoon there, and have visited numerous times over the years, always happy to re-live the memories, and to introduce our kids to the sights and pleasures of that little Adirondack getaway.

Last summer, we had the pleasure of enjoying lunch at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, and there I spotted a mug similar in shape and size to one I’d purchased in LP way back in ’79. So, I bought it.

Then, a few weeks back, broke it.

Because I have fun sharing life events on Twitter, I posted a picture of me mugging with my remaining half-mug, and got some funny messages of sympathy. But then, lo and behold, a unexpected note from Kimberly Rielly at the Lake Placid Twitter account:

I loved the fact that LP has someone in charge of monitoring tweets that mention the destination. But I loved even more that Kim reached out via e-mail and really did offer to fix one of these tragedies. And, she did (together with the fine folks at the Brewery)!  A few days, later, I get this box in the mail, and sure enough, it put a whole new expression on my previously-saddened mug–>

And that, my friends, is how to use social media to delight customers. Happily, our local libation store now carries Lake Placid Brewery Ubu Ale, so I’ll be enjoying some of it this weekend.

This spring will be our 30th anniversary, and this summer the 32nd anniversary of our meeting in LP. It’ll be a little bit sweeter knowing that Lake Placid is not just a far-away memory, but an up-to-date source of gladness!

Now, for some more coffee…

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A Satisfied Elenco Customer

Here is the story, in bullet points:

  1. For Christmas, we got our 9-year old Seth a cool electronic snap circuits toy (made by Elenco Electronics) – various parts and pieces that kids can use to create simple electronic circuits.
  2. Dog decided to try out her teeth on several pieces. The teeth worked. The pieces no longer did.
  3. Wife contacts Elenco (e-mail) about the several DOA pieces. They promptly respond back by e-mail that the specific pieces outlined by my wife will be replaced.
  4. Package comes: new parts. No charge. Not even shipping. Happy wife. Happy Seth.
  5. Happy customer gives public, on-line back pat and recommendation for “blog-worthy” service.

And that, folks, is how customer service works.

(btw, I wrote a similar post about a similar customer experience with Legos 2 years ago. And that post has been one of the most heavily trafficked EVER on my blog.)

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Saying Good-bye to a Newspaper

For years, I faithfully subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. I liked the business focus. The in-depth reporting. The regular off-the-beaten-track feature stories.

I even liked the launch of the Personal Journal section a couple years back, which had more lifestyle reportage (including wine reviews, which I always enjoyed).

But this week marks the end of my customer journey with the WSJ. And it has nothing to do with the paper vs. digital transition.

Reason #1: The paper has changed. Too much. It’s been, for lack of a better term, “Murdoch-ized.” The last straw was the NY section, with all kinds of style and fashion garbage. I found that when the WSJ was in my hands, it no longer felt like a “serious” news vehicle the way it once did. The fluff invasion got to me.

Reason #2: They never could crack the nut of getting reliable, on-time delivery to my door. Whoever was in charge of morning delivery by car was so unreliable (multiple reports of poor service made no difference) that I finally insisted on getting the paper by U.S. Mail. This meant getting the paper in late afternoon – an OK compromise – but then, starting a couple months ago, suddenly daily issues began not showing up at all, or coming one or two days late. Making contact via Twitter, phone, and e-mail actually yielded personal interactions, but the bottom line is: the problem wasn’t fixed.

Delivering something on-time and on-target 70-80% of the time just doesn’t cut it.

And so, good-bye to an old friend. I still respect you. I appreciate the memories. And I”ll stay in touch on-line.

But you didn’t deliver.

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Steal This Idea

Just went to Wal-Mart to buy some replacement ink for my printer.

I hate the prices, and I hate the thought that 90% of the price is the packaging. Thief-proofing, I know – but wasteful and environmentally unsound.

Here’s what I’d love to find – a really high-quality third-party ink replacement company that would let me “subscribe” to having ink sent at regular intervals (or on-demand). In simple packages without the retail garbage surrounding it. I just enter in the printer(s) I have, make my first order, specify auto-ship or auto-remind intervals, and never run out of ink again.

I’ve used third-party ink replacement companies before, but the interval between orders is so long, I often don’t even remember who I used. And, the quality can be spotty. I hate paying manufacturer’s ink pricing – give me reliability and cross the threshold of easy; you’d have all my business immediately. Game over. Plus, the simple principle could then be extended to other supplies.

Anybody you know have something like this in place??

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A Grand Hyatt Stay

After a recent conference in Orlando, I had enough Hyatt points to book a night at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress (the conference was at Gaylord Palms, quite a nice destination itself).

Count me impressed.

My wife and I had stayed there a couple years back, and we liked it then. We liked it even more this time.

I’ll give you three major reasons why:

1. Exemplary service. Every single employee went out of their way to be kind and friendly. In fact, the service went to a place where no hotel has ever gone before (in my experience) – after dining in one of the hotel restaurants, we awoke in the morning to find a hand-written card under our door from our server the night before, thanking us for eating there and offering help with “anything to make your stay more memorable.”

2. Outstanding facilities. The resort is huge. Not only is there a golf course there, but there are walking trails of up to 5 miles in length, with very pleasant variety (including a boardwalk loop through a swamp area). The multiple pools, with waterfalls and faux rocks and various slides and bridges, was extremely family-friendly. A lake with boats, a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, bikes, and a bunch of other amenities make this an ideal destination for families. Disney World is just around the corner, but you might have a hard time getting the kids to leave the Grand Cypress. And if you’re a member of the Regency Club, there’s a wonderful lounge area for morning breakfast, snacks and drinks during the day, etc.

3. Cleanliness. This place is spotless. The grounds are meticulously maintained. This place is easy on the eyes. We saw one guy dusting a rock outside – not kidding!

As mentioned, the Disney resorts are right nearby, and a bunch of restaurants are all within easy walking distance. But once you’re in the grounds, you feel like you’re enclosed in a very pleasant, self-contained little world.

A series of pictures from our all-too-brief stay are below. I highly recommend this resort for anyone looking to stay in the Orlando area, whether or not you have kids along. Delightful.

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A Dinner Out that went Epic

It was our 29th anniversary dinner. We’d driven past this restaurant (Tabor Road Tavern in Morris Plains, NJ) many times, and finally decided to try it out.

When we walked in, we thought the place looked pretty cool – nice design, pleasing atmosphere, unobtrusive music. By the time we walked out, we were raving fans. How did that happen?

Background: both Sandy and I have worked in restaurants in the distant past. We try not to be too picky, but once you’ve waited on tables, you know what good (or bad) service is all about. It takes a lot for me to become a raving fan of any restaurant.

The waiter introduced himself, and then, to level the playing field, he asked to know our names – and also inquired if this was our first time at Tabor Road Tavern, and if there was a special occasion. He was friendly, knowledgeable about the menu offerings, and efficient, as well as glad that we had come to celebrate our anniversary.

During the course of our dinner (and the food was exceptional, by the way), we were attended to by the busboy, the back-waiter, the waiter, the hostess, and two managers – each of them bringing what was ordered or checking in to see how things were. It turned out that the hostess was a gal we knew from church, so she had a bit more history with us.

We had a wonderful meal, and ordered a dessert to share, but before it came out, this plate was brought to our table, with various treats, a candle and the words “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate. And a handwritten, personalized card, wishing us well on our anniversary. I was dumbfounded. We weren’t regular patrons – in fact, we had walked in without a reservation.

The food was great. The wine list was top-notch. The service was exceptional. But here was the bottom line – we were made to feel very special. And that sort of restaurant experience does not happen by accident.

Will we be regular patrons now? Of course – we’ve had many meals out in our years of marriage, but I can count on one hand the ones that rank as memorably “epic.” The Tavern is not inexpensive, but for the level of service that was given, I happily paid the bill. And now happily memorialize the event with a blog post.

Other service organizations, take note – run-of-the-mill customer service gets you forgotten. Epic efforts just may get you immortalized.

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It’s All Going Away

These social media tools we’re all using right now?

They’re all going to go away. Or, they will morph so much in the next 3-5 years as to be unrecognizable.

Why? Because they do bits and pieces of what we want. They’re Legos. Blocks. We’re rapidly growing up and finding we need better toys and tools.

We want to Find. Connect. Filter. Stratify. Create. Publish. Consume. Purchase. Consolidate. Aggregate. Edit. Comment. Link. Interact. Organize. Get face-to-face. Control our information.

Smart designers see this and are evolving their tools to keep doing more, and doing it better.

But we’re nowhere close to having what we need – these functions are scattered all over the place. We like the bits and the pieces, but now we need them assembled together in smarter ways. There are undoubtedly brilliant developers already working on this in stealth mode.

I, for one, can’t wait for a lot of what we have now go away. Not because it’s not great stuff. But because it’s not really built around us, and how we want to interact.

What do you want to see in the next generation of networking platforms??

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Why Should I…?

My car needed an oil change. And instead of suffering through the rigamarole that often occurs when going to the dealership (even with a coupon for a freebie), I decided to use the Valvoline “Instant Oil Change” joint not far away. You don’t even get out of your car – they have a remarkably efficient system for knocking out quick stuff like this.

And knock it out they did. Very friendly and crisp service. Zoom-zoom and it was done (yes, I have a Mazda). I was very happy with Vince and the gang up in Kinnelon until the very end – when he pointed out a section on the receipt and asked if I would make a phone call (“only about 4 1/2 minutes!”) to tell Valvoline about how they did.

Just plug in that 17-digit number and go through a series of questions. Ummm…yeah. I just saved a bunch of time by using their service, then I want to take more minutes of my time to get immersed in an automated phone survey…with no incentive to do so? Why should I?

Oh – I had a chance to win $500.00. Right.

As I drove home, I mused on this – what would motivate me to actually make that call? What would make me WANT to do something so optional and non-rewarding, even if (as a marketing guy) I know why they’re doing it and I benefited from the good service?

Well, when totaling up the bill, Vince asked if I had any coupons. Ummm…no. There is a seemingly random appearance at times of such coupons for Valvoline but I can never keep track. Well – what if the incentive to make the phone call was to receive a coupon for $7.00 off the next oil change? And furthermore – what if I could do the survey on-line, and specify whether I wanted to print it out immediately, OR have them e-mail it to me at an interval I choose – say, in 3 months as a reminder, just when I’m due for the next oil change?

That, I would do. And really – isn’t it better to provide coupons to already-existing customers, in a way that actually helps ensure their return? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

So, Valvoline or other-purveyors-of-similar-services – Tell you about my visit? Sure – it was fine, but can be better for both you and me. So here’s an idea for you, from a customer/marketer who won’t make that phone call for no reason, but will spend 15 minutes blogging about how to improve the experience. Hope to see you again in 3 months or so (if I remember…!)

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Fun for Some, and Some for Fun

In the Harvard Business Review this week, Grant McCracken takes on the concept of “forced fun” in a corporation, using the way Zappo’s treats visitors as an example. Here’s an extract of Mr. McCracken’s post:

Visitors touring the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas are greeted noisily. Staffers blow horns and ring cowbells to bid them welcome.

This sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. Call me a grinch. Call me a humorless, life-hating, stick in the mud, but commandeering personal emotions in the interest of forced conviviality seems to me wrong. I believe emotions are mostly a private matter and should not be controlled by the corporation.

I have never met Grant, and have no idea whether or not he is a grinch, but one thing I can say: his logic is flawed.

I get the point – who wants to be subject to inauthentic displays of emotion, either as the giver or recipient? But as many of the commentators point out, people choose to work where they will and do business where they will, and corporate culture is one of those aspects that draws or repels.

As our grandmothers would tell us, honey works better then lemons.

By using terms like “forced fun” and “commandeering personal emotions”, the author tries to portray the issue as one where employers are infringing on private freedoms, or encouraging insincerity, a place where an employer should not tread. But the freedom issue is really at the point of decision to work within a company that has a certain culture. And some companies choose to have a culture of fun, and excitement, and engagement.

People are complex and holistic beings, and emotions are woven into us, impacted by our surroundings, our co-workers, our behaviors, and yes, even our expectations and the expectations of others. Any business owner should not only own the tangible and financial aspects of the company, but also own the responsibility to develop (and model) a positive culture. Unless lemon juice is preferred. Take your pick. As a customer, I’ll take my pick as well. Guess what kind of climate I’ll seek out?

Mr. McCracken says, near the conclusion, “When we commandeer the emotional lives of our employees we waste a valuable resource.” I respectfully disagree (PLUS – read this article just published by WSJ Online, regarding happiness in the workplace). When we FAIL to commandeer the abilities of our employees, and don’t encourage self-control and productivity in all areas (including imagination, task performance, and emotional engagement), then we leave the company culture to drift. Leadership of people is not simply addressing 70% of who they are. It’s tapping the entire potential of each individual and making a much greater “whole” in the process.

I’m all for personal authenticity. And for corporate authenticity. If someone wants to be sour, moody, or emotionally fickle and/or disengaged, I’m sure there are plenty of places to go and be “authentic.” Please, however – don’t go to Zappo’s, and don’t try to work with me!

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Loveless in Nashville

You’ve probably seen the chick flick Sleepless in Seattle. Today, I want to talk about Loveless in Nashville. No, that’s not an on-line Lonely Hearts Club in Music City.

It’s a none-too-fancy restaurant that has been serving mouth-watering chicken, biscuits, and jam since, oh, the days of the Pony Express. Loveless Cafe.

Yes, the food is wonderful, in that fill-your-belly-to-bursting southern cooking kind of way. But I haven’t been there for, like 28 years. So why write about it now?

Because, a quick web search indicates that it’s still there. And I can tell you one 28-year old reason why.

Newlyweds, and fresh off of a move from Connecticut to Nashville, where we planned to take up residence, my bride and I walked into the famed Loveless Cafe for dinner. We were such newbies to the area, in fact, that we didn’t have a bank account set up yet. I think it was about our first week in town.

I remember the usual friendly Southern service. Very large quantities of wonderful food that I wish I could afford to eat in these days of more restricted caloric intake. The homey atmosphere. And, at the end, the travelers checks (remember those, anybody?), always advertised as “same as cash” – that’s all we had to pay for the meal. Like I said, no bank account yet, and no cash in our pockets.

Loveless’ didn’t take travelers checks. Ooops.

So how did they handle this embarrassing situation? I will paraphrase the waitress’ words: “Now, that’s all right honey, you just take this bill, and once you have your bank account set up, just send us a check for it.”

Huh?????

Needless to say, this native New England couple was blown away. Yes, we sent them a check. And yes, I never forgot. And somehow, almost three decades later, I’m simply not at all surprised to see that they’re still in business.

Treat people like that and it’s hard to lose.

(Apparently, CC Chapman has been there too! If you’ve been to Loveless, leave a comment with your impressions!)

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Eat Mor Chikin

Last week, I had the opportunity to go down South (driving with family members from NJ to South Carolina) for a couple days, for my son David’s graduation from Marine boot camp.

Having spent 7 years of my life in the great state of Tennessee, I got used to Southern cooking, and fried chicken chains like Popeye’s, Bojangles, and others. I also got used to friendly Southern service, which seems to be sadly lacking here in the colder climes of the Northeast.

Also missing from much of the Northeast is Chick-Fil-A, a chain I admire for multiple reasons, including their brilliant marketing (Eat Mor Chickin), their moral/ethical business stance, and their really good food. So I made sure, on this trip, that we went a bit out of our way to grab lunch at a Chick-Fil-A.

That’s where something happened that I don’t recall ever experiencing at a fast-food chain before.

Of course, the lady behind the counter was warm, chatty, and helpful – quite refreshing in and of itself. But there were 6 of us, and the order was pretty involved. As the food came out in multiple trays, this lady actually offered to come out from behind the counter and carry one of the trays to our table. Then, later, she came over to verify that everything was OK, and then later came back to get drink refills for us! And to just chat.

Now, we were there a bit off-hour, so the place wasn’t packed, but still – personable, voluntary table service at a fast-food restaurant? What a concept!

Bravo, Chick-Fil-A. Now, will you PLEASE open a bunch of outlets in New Jersey? Because I want to Eat Mor Chickin.

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Door-to-Door Eco-Robbery

I’m mad. About light bulbs – and customer “service”.

Let me explain why, with a parable.

Let’s say you lived in a fairly well-off neighborhood. Everyone is now gearing up for the holidays – decorations are coming out, lights and displays are appearing…and, of course, the stores have been running sales since Halloween. It’s another American Christmas season.

One day you go out to check the mail, and lo and behold, someone has hung a Christmas wreath on your door. It’s decorated with sparkly balls that have smiley faces. And with it is a note from your mortgage company, explaining that latest studies have shown that Christmas wreaths lead to a 15% increase in overall societal happiness – in light of that, they are delivering wreaths to every one of their customers because…well, who can question such a good cause?

Even the president, and all the in-vogue politicos, have been mandating happiness measures. So it must be right.

You look to your left, and see that a wreath is hanging on the Goldblum’s front door. And to your right, on the Al-Mahdi”s door – another wreath. You think that perhaps your Jewish and Muslim neighbors might not approve of this gesture – and furthermore, you have your own favorite wreath already and don’t particularly care for this one hand-delivered to you without your consent.

It takes some work, but you do your digging and find out that this “free” wreath (worth about $17.00) is actually going to cost you $75.00, paid for on your mortgage bill, spread out in monthly payments over three years. WHAT? You’re going to be ripped off for something you didn’t ask for, don’t want, and perhaps even don’t believe in?? An outrage!

Far-fetched? Not at all. Let’s just change a few details, and you’ll know why I’m mad.

In Ohio, the First Energy Utility has taken upon itself to deliver unasked-for compact fluorescent light bulbs (the kind with mercury in them) to its millions of customers – and is charging them a pretty penny for the privilege. Now, these supposedly high-efficiency bulbs have gained the imprimatur of the eco-politically-correct crowd, and the utility feels that it must impose these bulbs on its customers.

    The utility will charge average users 60 cents a month extra on their electric bills for the next three years — $21.60 all together. That covers the cost of the bulbs ($3.50 each), their delivery and the delivery of the power consumers would have used if they didn’t have them…but the company — and therefore you — are paying too much for the bulbs, said Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. A five-pack of similar bulbs costs $13.99 from Ace Hardware’s Web site.

Beside the fact that the program is a form of robbery, what really irks is the fact that people are not being left with the freedom to make their own choices, based on intelligent shopping, personal conviction, and genuine need. And if you look at the reactions, this exercise in eco-bludgeoning is creating a firestorm (see here and here). I’ll just extract two comments:

    How is it even legal for any company to require customers to pay for items they neither ordered nor wanted? If CEI is allowed to get away with its lightbulb plan, it will set a very dangerous precedent.
    $21 for 2 lightbulbs? Not fair to anyone except possibly the workers getting paid to deliver them. I just purchased a package of 12 of these for less than $21. That means I have changed out all my bulbs and already have cut my electric consumption. Why didn’t they just mail coupons for a couple bulbs in our bills if they were serious about us cutting our consumption. Oh that’s right, it was a mandate so they wanted to insure they kept profits the same with generating output lowered. I think I’ll tell the boss I want the same pay and I’ll work at least 10% less, lets see what they say. It’s a bad deal and I’m tired of everyone reaching in my wallet without my permission.

Now, I don’t live in Ohio – so what’s my beef? Well, a few days ago I heard that the green-shirted volunteers were in our neighborhood here in NJ, and what did I find on my doorknob? Two unrequested and unwanted bulbs.

On Saturday, I went onto the NJ Clean Energy website and left the following (with my e-mail):

    We just had 2 (unrequested) Project Porchlight light bulbs hand-delivered to our door. I would like to know:
    1. What I am being charged for this, one-time and monthly,
    2. The actual bulk cost of one of these bulbs on the open market,
    3. What you are paying for this program, per household

Thank you.

On Monday, two e-mails drop into my InBox, from a person who will remain unnamed. One was inadvertently copied to me, the other was one of those futile “Would like to recall that last e-mail” messages (oops – too late!). In it, my message was sent to a handful of internal people for consideration, with the following note:

Do you have any suggestions on answering the below.  Not sure if you have/want to give them detail.  I can cover with the general explanation about the SBC charge and how NJCEP is funded, but want to run it by you……

Now, frankly, I’m not interested in general explanations about how the NJ Clean Energy Program is funded. Here is an explanation of the Society Benefits Charge (SBC) which already consumes 3% of our bill. What I want to know is if I am being charged even more for something I neither want (I do have a problem with these mercury-containing bulbs) nor have asked for. And I want to know the numbers if I and other NJ residents are being gouged like our fellow citizens in Ohio.

Whatever you may think of green initiatives, various types of bulbs, and the like, that’s not the issue here. This is an issue of having something shoved down our throats due to an in-vogue agenda, and being charged for the privilege. I don’t care whether it’s wreaths or bulbs – it’s just wrong.

We called the utility and, after long delays getting to anyone who could even address the issue, someone said they’d come get the bulbs back. Fine. But I still await an answer about the costs of this program to those of us who are being serviced by the utility. I’ll let you know what we find out.

Update: here is the e-mail response from the utility:

As I mentioned, I had to go to several sources top to see what numbers are available to you that may answer your specific questions.

  • As previously mentioned, the bulbs were delivered by local volunteers so there is no direct cost to you for that.
  • CFL open market costs vary by retailer and type. To give you an idea we offer a 14 watt CFL for $.95 through our online store.
  • As also mentioned, the overall funding for NJCEP is through the Societal Benefits Charge (SBC) that the main gas and electric utilities companies charge (not municipality owned utilities).  The charge can be found on your utility bill each month.  If you are unable to locate it, I would suggest you contact your electric utility company to find out what the monthly charge is.

To give you an idea, in 2008, an average residential electric utility customer contributed approximately $18 to fund these programs and an average residential gas utility customer contributed approximately $14.

The 2009 budget for the Energy Efficient Products Program is $23,315,444.  That budget supports several initiatives, including discounted ENERGY STAR lighting in retail stores like Home Depot and Lowes, incentives on clothes washers, room air conditioners and dehumidifiers, an on-line energy audit, a refrigerator recycling program and activities related to the Green NJ Resource Team of which Project Porchlight is a member.   If you wish to look at further the NJCEP’s 2009 Budget Filing can be found on our website and there is a specific section on ENERGY STAR ® Products to help you get a better understanding of the overall budget for this portion of NJCEP.

–If I’m reading this correctly, this bulb drop-off initiative is a component of a larger program, which we have no choice but to pay for, for various green initiatives, including Project Porchlight. The cost of this aspect of the program appears not to be publicly disclosed as a line item. I really wonder if a voucher program would not have been far more effective and customer-focused – providing discount vouchers for any type of energy-conserving bulb, if desired, purchased at market price somewhere instead of having people hand-deliver something that may or may not be desired or a good “match” for customer lighting needs.

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Tivo Records – and Listens

As part of a major household digital upgrade late last year, we finally entered the 21st century and acquired a TiVo box. I love it – the user experience crosses the threshold of Easy, and we record a whole variety of programs that we can pull up when it’s convenient for us.

One thing bothered me, however, on the TiVo.com site – there was no immediate option on the home page for TiVo users to login (you can select programs you want to record right from the website, which is a great feature). An immediately visible home page login link, to me, was a no-brainer  – users of the service should not need to go one level deep before being presented with that option. Netflix, Amazon – all the cool kids do it that way. Yes, it’s a “mixed” destination (for users and for potential customers who are investigating the service), but it seemed like a design flaw to me, because users who are scheduling recordings should be the biggest source of traffic.

So I did what many of us increasingly do – just threw it out there on Twitter.

And I was surprised to get a rapid response from a TiVo customer service person (that would be you, Shanan) on Twitter who agreed with the input, and passed it along to the development team.

And there it sat, for months. Now I know a bit about web development, and while it may seem like a simple thing to move a link, when you’re dealing with a highly visible and functional site, you don’t make interface changes quickly. A month or two back, I was assured that the input wasn’t forgotten.

It wasn’t. Today, I saw this:

tivosmIt’s a subtle change, and many might not even notice it. But I, for one, appreciate it. And more than that, I appreciate the fact that TiVo was monitoring Twitter, responded promptly and enthusiastically, and eventually came through with a small but important fix.

Customer service lesson: Listen, respond, act. Bread-and-butter basics, I know. But even though it took a while to see this change, I have nothing but praise for the TiVo team for making it happen. Which I don’t mind sharing publicly here!

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The Power of Inertia

purplecowI wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that businesses should strive to be remarkable – we should strive to be, in the classic words of Seth Godin, a Purple Cow in the midst of a herd of sameness.

But many companies drift along with some level of success even though, perhaps, they aren’t all that remarkable. Why?

One reason is the power of inertia. That is, we’ll often stick with a brand or company or service provider because they haven’t done anything bad enough to lose our business.

I am driving my third Mazda. My first, an older 323, was a pretty good car. Later, I bought a Mazda 626, which I had for a good number of years – and I was pretty pleased with it. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was perfectly adequate and reliable. And when it was time to get a new car for my business a couple years back, the winner was…a Mazda6.

I’d gotten used to the Mazda. I liked it. It was perfectly OK.

Surely there were other cars that would have been perfectly OK as well. But, you see, they were unknowns to me. I had a baseline level of trust in Mazda, and inertia argued that there was no compelling reason to change.

For the same reason, I’ve had a string of Dell computers. Again, none of them give me the same pride of ownership as when I whip out my iPhone, but they have worked reliably for me. Why change? (well, actually, I do plan to convert the family computer to a Mac – but that’s because of a desire for a whole new platform, not because of dissatisfaction with Dell).

Inertia. If it’s been OK, or pretty good, or really good in the past, it helps ease us into giving repeat business.

I would hope that no company will strive to live off of this reality. “Our mission – to be quite adequate!” But perhaps it explains why so many companies survive and even thrive (for a season) in the marketplace. Bleeding edge folks tend to be more daring in their purchases of the latest and greatest, less focused on straight-on reliability and adequacy. But there is a vast pool of consumers that buy on inertia. If you’re not going to be a purple cow, at least be a really good black and white one. But I still think you should strive to be purple.

What do you think? Can black & white cows still make it in the marketplace? And, how does inertia shape some of your decisions?

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