Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thank You

Just as I keep harping that we are nothing without our customers, so too I understand that this blog is nothing without you, the reader.  So, as this year winds down, I would like to thank you for the following:

  • your continued readership;
  • your continued support;
  • your continued good humor; and
  • your continued feedback.
I can't believe how much I've learned this year by keeping my eyes and ears open.  Where I stand now is leaps and bounds ahead of where I was at this point last year.  But by that same token, I've learned that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn.  And I'm thankful for it.

I've met so many wonderful people this year thanks to outlets like LinkedIn and Twitter.  And through these people, I've met many other wonderful people.  And I can't wait to meet even more wonderful people in 2011.

Have a lovely rest of the year!


Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Monday, December 13, 2010

Uh, WalMart? Ham's Never Delicious for Chanukah.

So there I was Wednesday afternoon innocently procrastinating on Facebook when there were a bunch of documents I needed to review.  I justified the Facebook travels as "market research" and felt good about it.

And then there was payoff!  A friend shared this pic on his wall.  And it spoke to me because of its lovely ridiculousness.  We've got latkes with sour cream in the upper left corner juxtaposed with smoked ham text.  You can't make this stuff up.

In my last post, I talked about GEICO commercials as being unintentionally exclusionary because the context assumed you were a native English speaker.  I pointed out that by mid 21st century, "minorities" will represent over 50% of the U.S. population and I wondered why GEICO would want to leave 50% opportunity on the table.

And now, because the world works in mysterious ways, we have an opposite situation.  In WalMart's zeal to be inclusive, to honor and to celebrate all cultures, something has gone a bit awry.  And that something is a little basic information and knowledge.

Retailers have it tough during the holidays, admittedly.  Many celebrate Christmas but if there is too much Christmas, it's to the exclusion of other religions and perhaps can turn off long time shoppers who've had enough of the imbalance or repel prospective shoppers.  The easiest remedy is to find ways to make connections with others to show that the retailers "care" and "respect" other traditions.  

And, sometimes that means a menorah display in a corner of the store with a smattering of dreidels in another part of the store.  So I'm sure that somewhere in a WalMart store the same thing happened: the menorah, the blue and white wrapping paper, some gold foil wrapped chocolate and some dreidels.

Mistakes like the one in the picture make what may have been an honest effort ring false.  It's almost better not to make the effort than to make a mistaken effort like this.  You've heard me talk about "Surprise and Delight" more times than you could bear this year.  "Surprise and Dismay" is probably a good descriptor in this instance.

Just as I've said before (here, here and here) that the little things can make a big positive difference in the perception your customers have of you, so can the little things make a big negative difference.  The reason for the Buick salesman's success, the popularity of the Butterball hotline and Ramon DeLeon's high customer service scores is that in all three instances, they appreciate the fine art of detail to make things go right.  And they appreciate the fine art of detail to avoid things from going wrong.

Of course they're not perfect.  There are plenty of examples that Ramon DeLeon shares of orders that his team didn't fulfill correctly.  He'll even Tweet or put it on his FB page for the world to see.  But for each of those examples, he's always made up for the errors to keep the customer satisfied which means he's detail oriented when it comes to problem resolution, too.

In other words, it's a two way street when it comes to details.  In all three examples, there is this tacit understanding that you can't just "show up" and be rewarded for your existence.  Just showing up doesn't even cover the cost of doing business these days.  Just showing up is like opening your eyes in the morning: you don't know if it's cold, warm, raining or snowing.  All you know is that you're awake.  

And the WalMart price tag is an example of just showing up.  And this honest effort that rings false may not make a huge dent in WalMart revenues, but only reinforces the growing cynicism we have about retailers and other companies valuing our business.

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pigs, Birds and GEICO

Have you seen either of these two GEICO commercials?

Whether these are funny to you is a matter of personal taste.  I happen to enjoy the whimsy especially the one with the lizard buying his boss a drink.

But, there's something a little more critical I'd like to discuss here.  If you're a native English speaker, chances are you've heard the "bird in hand phrase" and "this little piggy" nursery rhyme as you were growing up.  But what if you're not a native English speaker?  What if you were raised abroad?

I bring this up because I'm an immigrant.  I bring this up because though my parents and their friends are intelligent and sophisticated, some of these GEICO commercials will be completely over their heads.  I bring this up because though Amir spent some of his childhood abroad yet is is extremely assimilated, he's mentioned that he doesn't get the pig.  These types of commercials are exclusionary and while I don't believe the account team intended to be exclusionary, the net effect is the same.  It can kind of feel like the inside joke between the cool kids in high school.

This is a marketing and business blog and this isn't a civil rights post.  I'm so not personally offended by the commercials at all.  It's just that when I see advertising like this (and many beer commercials typify what I'm talking about), I wonder if the marketing managers and their agency truly size the opportunity cost of this type of specific approach.  Do they have calculations of who might not "get it" for cultural reasons and how many of those would have been profitable customers for them?  Do they have cultural exclusion tolerances for people who don't get the pig?  I am guessing not.

And I think they should on some level.  If insurance, for example, is a highly competitive market, one wonders at an advertising approach that potentially limits its overall reach...  especially considering all of the reports that show that more than 50% of U.S. population will be non white by the middle of the century.  If you're starting out talking to half of the country only, is that even sustainable as a business model?

Now, for the record, I know of very few people who like milquetoast when it comes to marketing and advertising.  So, these musings are not a desire to suck the fun and creativity.  The point of advertising, after all, is to capture attention and not to deflect it.  I'm wondering why it is we can't develop advertising that appeals to all of us regardless of background as opposed to the inside joke.

Maybe the inside joke is the easy way out.  What do you think?

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

Monday, December 6, 2010

Marketing Lessons... From My Mother in Law

My mother in law is battling the last stages of Alzheimer's Disease.  What was once a vibrant, sharp, funny and social woman has gone and in her place is her meek alter ego.  It's heartbreaking to see her battle the confusion, it's heartbreaking that she doesn't recognize her own son and even more heartbreaking to see my father in law (her childhood sweetheart) watch the love of his life disappear before his eyes.

Ferdos Nedamani, first from right

I'm no scientist so I can't begin to explain the disease to you.  I'm no caregiver so I can't begin to explain the best ways to care for and interact with an Alzheimer's patient.  I'm just a person who met her in the middle of her battle and has watched her steady decline since then.

They say that if you've met one Alzheimer's patient then you've met one Alzheimer's patient.  No two people are the same.  What I can tell you is that at this late stage, every interaction, for her, is totally brand new...  Every step of hers leaving a room is the close of one scene and her return sometimes less than one minute later is the start of another.  It's true of her quick catnaps, if I am to step outside briefly, if someone changes the channel on the TV, if the next song plays on the radio and so on.

And so, the onus falls on others to make the best of every new scene (sometimes hundreds of them) that unfolds each day that is spent with her.  In each scene, I only have one shot to make things right with her.  I only have one shot to make her smile.  I only have one shot to give her comfort.  If I fail, the consequences are huge: confusion, maybe some anxiety, distress, withdrawal and a lingering sensation that can last longer than a scene or two that she was hurt by someone.

For me, it means that those around her have to have really good sets of eyes and ears.  And really good filters to check what is said and how it is said to her.  You have to be "on" at all times.  You bear the responsibility to make sure all is okay with her.  It's not easy and I am sure I've made loads of mistakes in my interactions with her.

What little time I've spent with her has made me consider where it is and how it is we could be doing right by our customers.  I'm not suggesting that our customers are like those suffering from Alzheimer's.  I'm suggesting that we take every interaction we have with them as wholly new and independent with the chance to delight as opposed to sequential and "good enough" level of service.  I'm suggesting we have to fight complacency.

It's easy to be complacent.  It's easy to take your eye off the ball if you live with a certain comfort or belief that your customers will come back no matter how you treat them.  But we've numerous before/after pictures of businesses who've suffered from that approach.  Sears' fall from grace immediately springs to mind, for example.

Do you remember my IntelligentsiaButterball and Domino's posts?  Each time, they've demonstrated success because of the big and little things they do to establish relationships with their customers no matter if it's the first or fiftieth transaction.  And with each interaction, is a delicately choreographed ballet that's been rehearsed many times over all with the goal of making the customer as happy and satisfied as possible every single time.  There is no next time; there is only this point in time.

People won't do business with you anymore by virtue of your sheer existence.  Competition, sophisticated differentiation, celebrity endorsements and all sorts of social media have changed the landscape permanently.  There's got to be a little something extra you bring to the table each and every time you have the chance to do so.

So I ask you, where is it that we could be doing better?  And, please, don't say it's too expensive.  I've never heard that treating customers well and thoughtfully through words or gestures, for example, was cost prohibitive.  I just don't buy it.  And neither will our customers.

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef