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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Great promise. Why are you hiding it?

By now, most Starbucks regulars are aware of their quality guarantee.

They’ll remake any drink that isn’t to the customer’s liking, free of charge.

It's not stated as a guarantee, but it is, and a good one. It would be enough to say that they’ll remake any drink they don’t make correctly, but their promise goes farther to the source of customers’ satisfaction with the experience.

But here’s the problem with this outstanding promise. It's unstated, and almost hidden.

In a local store, this sign was posted in a dimly lit hallway on the way to the restroom. To get even this poor image, I had to move 12 inches from the picture and manually disable the flash on my phone’s (admittedly awful) camera.

Making a guarantee promise so softly detracts from its value to customers. Those that are unaware, have forgotten, or feel too intimidated to engage the promise end up not saying anything, walking out of the store with an ultimately unsatisfying service encounter.

Marketing pros with a finance mind love this scenario, (it’s a form of slippage), the idea being that a large proportion of guarantees on defective experiences will go unclaimed, allowing the company to save money while claiming the value of a guarantee without having to fulfill it.

But customers that walk away disappointed diminish the value of the brand, regardless of whether they enacted a guarantee or not. Companies should be seeking customers with less than stellar experiences in order to recover them, not hiding their guarantees furtively around the corner near the service entrance in hopes that they never say anything.

If you’re going to make a great promise, then make it loudly.

Post the sign in a place immediately noticeable, in a high traffic area where customers are actively engaging in the evaluation of their service experience. Encourage customers to invoke the guarantee, and send them away happy when you get it right.

Monday, August 8, 2011

When a referral reflects badly on the referrer.

This past weekend, this sign stopped me in my tracks as I was walking into a Wendy’s.

Apparently, famed restaurant survey company and industry reference – Zagat – rated Wendy’s the #1 restaurant. A claim like this is so amazing it has to be true, so I investigated further.

It turns out that Wendy’s had both the Top Food and Top Overall rating among mega chains in Zagat’s 2010 Fast Food Survey. Still, something doesn’t fit.

What do you use Zagat for? To find which breakfast sandwich will work best on the way to your son’s Saturday baseball practice? Which fast food restaurant you should be dining at during the spare fifteen minutes in your crazy day? Which children’s meal your little ones will enjoy most while doing the least long term damage to a lifetime of healthy eating?

If I’m considering a fast food meal, it’s unlikely that I consult Zagat, or any ratings agency. The rating is far too vague to be of much use, even if it is credible, which, coming from Zagat, it may not be.

Zagat may conduct a survey rating the “mega chains” (their term, not mine), but the rating applies at the system-level, and gives little indication as to the quality of a specific location. As evidence, the “#1 rated restaurant” was out of both biscuits and sausage during the service encounter when I took this. Without debating whether they were doing me a favor, I wanted a sausage biscuit, as did the people behind me and the people behind them. Does a restaurant that on a Sunday morning negates 6/13 of their breakfast menu warrant the top rating?

A referral is a promise, usually given by a trusted 3rd party, that your experience is going to be a good one. Its critical characteristic is its credibility.

Zagat is, in general, a credible restaurant referral. It’s a good thing too, because their entire business hinges on the credibility of their referrals.

You have to wonder whether rating the mega chains doesn’t undermine their overall credibility in the view of customers who see a sign like this as they engage in a mediocre dining encounter. It did for me.

If Zagat can’t be a credible referral for all restaurants, perhaps they should focus on those in the core of their model – those where customers actively seek their opinions and rely on their credible referral.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Brevity is overrated.

Some terrific business strategy leaders espouse brevity as a virtue in business writing. There are hundreds of examples of books, articles and programs on the suject. Seth Godin, Mike Brown, and many others others have, in the in the last few months, reinforced the requirement for brevity in business as a cultural truism.

And some believe the benefit of brevity in correspondence extends to the customer experience, with the emphasis on finishing engagements as quickly as possible. I'd argue that for the best of service encounters, brevity is not always the best course of action.

Does The Phoenician spa shepherd guests out of the immediately after their experiences?

Does Art Smith at Table 52 hustle patrons out so he can get in another seating?

Does Chris Zane get customers out of his shops in the absolute minimum of time?

Damn right he does - when it’s appropriate. But Zane’s Cycles doesn’t have an espresso bar in the shop to give customers the bum’s rush as soon as they’ve been seen by an associate. It’s there because the experience is about more than keeping dialogue to the bare minimum needed to make a sale – rich dialogue with customers makes Zane’s service experience work better.

What makes your favorite book your favorite? Its length? Or that it is well crafted, appropriate for you and therefore memorable beyond others?

Brevity can be efficient. Brevity can be effective. But use it when its appropriate. If your experience hinges on being memorable, on being crafted specifically for someone, be selective with brevity.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trader Joe’s: Can you join a cult slowly?

Trader Joe’s arrived in my community last month. I had reviewed them before, but inspired by this week’s post at Write The Company, I planned an excursion to see if the home town service encounter was more compelling than the one I wrote about on a trip to the west coast.

Not unexpectedly, the place was packed.

Trader Joe’s enjoys a cult-like following wherever it crops up, and suburban Kansas was no exception. The number of patrons was the major difference between this visit and those I’ve had previously, in mostly west coast stores, and those other customers that finally turned the light on for me as to what the Trader Joe’s experience was all about.

It seemed every time I picked up a store-branded item – I’d guess 6 times in a 30 minute visit – a nearby customer either asked me whether the product I’d picked up was good, or offered their opinion on the product. The customer-to-customer interactions were rich throughout the store, and all based on the unique merchandise that Trader Joe’s carries. As time went on, I felt badly, as though I wasn’t contributing as much to the experiences of other shoppers as they were to mine.

All of my previous visits to Trader Joe’s had been in the middle of a mid-week day, few patrons, mostly rushing in to rush out. Now, I had seen it for the other side – where unhurried customers stroll through the store, asking other customers about the products and referring products they like to them, in a social network defined by the outer walls of the store.

At the checkout, the attendant gave me details about each of the products that I had purchased. When I asked her what proportion of customers she thought had been Trader Joe’s customers in other areas of the country and were familiar with the store, she astonished me with a reply of 90%.

90% seems like a high estimate. But even if it were half that, you’d have a retail store, completely foreign to the region and open less than a month, where almost half of customers were familiar brand users. That’s still amazing.

I used the word “cult” before, and I think it does apply, in that a cult – in this case the Trader Joe’s experience – doesn’t make sense to people that aren’t “in” it, but it makes complete sense to those who are. My service encounter was terrific, and as a result, I'll go back and get a little more familiar with the cult-ure.

A sign near the exit reads, “There’s no place like Trader Joe’s.” The quote is likely a an outsider's nod to Kansas culture based on their perception, but for those that have indoctrinated into the experience, it’s an apt comment. For cult members, there really is no place like Trader Joe’s.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Restaurant reviews also help the reviewed.

My wife and I are fans of the Top Chef television series, so I was thrilled when this year the one of the Top Chef Masters contestants was Celina Tio, proprietor of Julian here in Kansas City.

A Top Chef Masters selection represents a strong endorsement of a Chef’s work and, by extension, their restaurant. In the show, they showcased Celina's credentials as a Top Chef, which included Chef Magazine’s 2005 Chef of the Year and the 2007 James Beard Best Chef: Midwest region.

Impressive stuff, and my wife & I were excited to try her service experience.

But when we started looking at some reviews, we noticed that not everyone who had an encounter at Julian had come away impressed. OpenTable users rated it 4.2 out of 5, but had chared some negative comments about the service. Google reviewers were less kind, rating Julian 2.5 out of 5.

Among the comments on Google:

“Our server was also unattentive and our water glasses sat empty for most of the meal.”

“Food was excellent, however the service and atmosphere left much to be desired.”

“The servers were very unkept and unmotivated.”

Its tough to say - we may not have felt as good about the food had the reviewers’ comments not tempered our Top Chef-level expectations, but the meal was terrific all around.

The most notable thing about the service encounter: How unlike the reviews the service staff were.

Sure, they were dressed casually, but casual is the vibe of the place. Every person we interacted with went out of their way to thank us for coming, asked multiple times how the evening was going and if they could do anything to improve on it. As we left, service staff we passed but had never otherwise interacted with thanked us for coming. It's a small place, but by the time we hit the door, it felt as though every employee of the restaurant had helped us or thanked us.

Its possible that the service staff, who the comments largely reflected on, had read the negative comments and amended the service behavior themselves. If they didn’t, it is likely that Celina read them and conveyed their content to the staff, with some additional direction.

For anyone labeled a Top Chef Master, their name is their brand. Their reputation is on the line not just with every meal, but with every service encounter. The negative reviews didn’t just give prospective diners information about what they can expect, it also gave the service provider additional cues on what customers think they can improve on.