The Maine Event

You may or may not know that in addition to your phone or your web browser tracking your every move that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) does as well. Naturally, they use the data themselves to sell ads or they sell it to others who do so on their behalf.

Last June, the good legislators of Maine passed a bill that prohibits the practice. It’s not revolutionary. Until the current administration took office in 2017, there were Federal regulations that prohibited it as well. To make up for this, in June 2019, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a law designed to prevent ISPs from “the use, sale, or distribution of a customer’s personal information by internet providers without the express consent of the customer.” The law had bipartisan support and passed the state senate unanimously.

I’ll let MediaPost take it from here:

Broadband carriers are suing to block a Maine privacy bill that requires Internet service providers to obtain consumers’ opt-in consent before drawing on their web activity for ad targeting.

“Protecting customer privacy is a laudable objective that ISPs support,” the major broadband industry organizations write in a complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Maine. “But Maine has not shown — through evidence in the legislative record — that ISPs’ privacy practices are causing any harm whatsoever to consumers.”

Here is where I come out on this and it’s something that might just apply to your business as well. First, privacy is going to become THE issue over the next couple of years as more people become aware of just how ubiquitous tracking is in their lives. There was a frightening report in the Times a couple of weeks ago that detailed just how much information was being collected. Does it seem unreasonable that some folks would like to take back a modicum of control? WE need to respect people’s wishes, or at least make a cogent argument about why they should let us have their data in return for the services we’re providing. I’d gladly give my ISP data if they’d cut the price of my internet service in half. But at least ask me for permission to track me and make me aware of what you’re collecting and why.

Second, ISP’s make an insane amount of money selling broadband access. Don’t buy their stuff about how much they invest in infrastructure – it’s trivial. Do they really need to sell ads on top of this? I’m a capitalist but I’m also a customer-advocate. Know when to say when people. When you’re already drunk on cash from your basic business, maybe it’s time to step away from the bar when you’re starting to treat your customers as a commodity.

When you’re suing to overturn this law, you’re suing your customers, plain and simple. Do any of you believe that having all of your personal data out there for anyone to purchase and use (and it’s out there) isn’t causing harm as the ISP’s allege? It’s a similar situation to the growth of ad blockers – the limit of consumers’ tolerance was hit and suddenly they revolted. This might be a good time to buy stock in VPN companies and the ones that still make dumb phones – text only, minimal tracking. We’ll see, won’t we? But I know for sure that suing and otherwise abusing your customers is a bad idea for any of us.

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Huh?

Eating At The Bar

It’s Foodie Friday! As on most Friday nights, I’ll probably go out to dinner this evening, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll go early to make sure I get seated before the love birds on their twice a year dinner out clutter up one of my favorite restaurants.

I usually sit at the bar to eat at this place. Actually, I generally do that at most places since I find the service to be better. It’s also a lot more social and I’ve met some interesting characters who’ve become friends of a sort. At this place, I know the bartenders quite well and they make sure my glass is filled and the food is right. Truth be told, other than the burger, which is terrific, the food in this place is really nothing special. It’s all good but there are rarely specials and it’s sometimes a challenge to find something appealing on a very familiar menu. So why am I there so often? As it turns out, there’s a business point.

It comes down to the discussion between great customer experience vs. great product. I think CX, which you can interpret as service, wins much of the time. When I was in the corporate world, we worked with, among others, two very large tech companies. One provided superior products but their account people were dreadful. The other’s technology was good but not as good. Their account people, on the other hand, were the best. They anticipated our needs and addressed every issue we raised immediately. Do you want to guess which company was our favorite?

We found out that the first company paid their people bonuses based on sales while the second company paid based largely on customer satisfaction. This alignment of customer interests with company interests is exactly where any business needs to be. There is a famous Bain study that says 80% of companies think they provide superior customer experience, yet only 8% of those same companies’ customers think they get a great experience. Getting everyone’s interests aligned can help mitigate that.

I think we’re at the point where price and product mean way less than service and experience. Obviously, I wouldn’t let my love for the bartenders make up for inedible food or prices that were too expensive for the product delivered but the food is as good as any nearby competitor’s food, a meal costs about the same, and that’s good enough for me. Where do you come out on this?

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Consulting

TLI

We live in a time when many people overshare. You know what I’m talking about. They post pictures of what they’re eating. They check-in and post about every place they go with the exception of the bathroom. Every random thought is posted with the hope of stimulating some response even when the thoughts are pretty vacuous and of interest to none but the author (Hey, be nice – this screed doesn’t count!).

It’s TMI – Too Much Information, and I’ll admit that at times I’ve been as guilty as anyone. In my defense, I’ve now accepted that you can’t win an argument on Facebook even when you’re armed with facts so I won’t be engaging in THAT anymore. But one thing that I find to be just as bad as TMI is TLI – Too Little Information and that’s today’s subject.

A real-life example. I represent over 500 different franchise brands. While I’m very well acquainted with several dozen, it’s not really feasible for my aging brain to retain complete information about all of them, especially the ones I don’t discuss very often. Fortunately, the network I’m part of provides an information page on each of the brands and often there are recorded webinars that provide even more information. The brands themselves maintain the pages. Some provide a few pages for us to read with key selling points, finances the candidate must have, etc. There are often sales brochures we can download and send. Most importantly, they tell us why their brand is different from their competition. The very best brands give us extensive information and it makes it easy to present their brand. No issues here.

A large number, however, gives us nothing. Oh sure, we know what the franchise costs and what the royalty rates are, but we don’t have any materials to send nor do we have any information beyond the very basics. It’s TLI and it makes my job quite difficult. How do I represent a brand that’s a mystery to me? What distinguishes one residential cleaning service franchise from another? How is your lawn service franchise unique? Why should someone invest in your franchise vs. another in the same category?

You may be guilty of the same thing. Do you give employees enough information about a task you’re asking them to complete? How about vendors? Do they really understand why and how you use their products so they can provide better service? All of us in business are constantly providing information to various constituencies. The key is avoiding TLI just as much as we all want to avoid TMI. Make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Consulting

Tajine

This Foodie Friday, let’s investigate tajine. Those of you with some knowledge of middle eastern or northern African food and cooking will recognize that a tajine is both a dish and a cooking vessel. You probably aren’t aware that it makes a great business point as well.

The dish, as one might expect, varies quite a bit depending on the location and culture. Generally speaking, a tajine is a stew that’s cooked slowly. Depending on the culture, it can have meats, fish, regional spices and broth. Some cultures add fruit and nuts. In Tunisia, eggs and cheese are common additions, making the stew more like a frittata.

What most of the cultures have in common is that the dish is cooked in a pot with a pyramid-shaped lid that does most of the work for you and produces consistently moist results, condensing and redirecting steam back into the food. Technically you don’t need a tajine to cook a tajine (see what I did there?) but because the pot is made from porous terra cotta, it gets seasoned and infused with flavors over time. Yes, very much like a great cast-iron skillet. Yes, you could use a slow-cooker which develops a similar cooking environment and yes, some tajine pots are enameled so they don’t really absorb flavor, but no matter which way you go, the business point remains the same.

A tajine is very much a product of a specific environment. The flavors reflect the culture and what the pot does so well is to create a condition that keeps the product inside in an optimal state. I think that’s what great corporate cultures do as well. First, they select “ingredients” – people and processes – that reflect who they are as an organization. Next, they create an environment that allows those ingredients to combine while protecting them from burning or overcooking. It’s a slow, gentle braise.

Think about the best places in which you worked. I’ll bet it was a “braise” environment and not “broiling”. I’ve worked in the latter and the staff tended to be overcooked quite quickly.  It’s like one lovely description of tajine cooking says:

Fill the pot with your layered ingredients before it has fully heated, either at room temperature or when barely warm. This helps to mediate overall temperature and prevent any scorching. There’s no sautéing necessary—simply layer ingredients and add liquid all in one go. A moist and saucy tagine comes from the trapped steam, not pre-cooking.

As you’re creating your corporate tajine, think about both the dish and the pot. Keep the staff from scorching and the environment so it creates optimal conditions for success. It’s probably simpler than you think if you have the right tools!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Wing

Foodie Friday and one of America’s great food fests comes up on Sunday. Whether you’re watching The Super Bowl at home, at a party, or in a bar, there is probably an abundant amount of food around. One staple of football watching is the Buffalo Wing and they’re our topic today.

There is hardly a bar that doesn’t serve wings. That makes sense since they got their start in either a bar or restaurant (depending on which version of history you believe) in Buffalo, NY. The basic wing is deep-fried and tossed in a peppery sauce, but does anyone just eat basic wings? My buddy Barry owns a joint that sells 7 varieties of wings. Buffalo Wild Wings offers 25. Heck, even my favorite local tavern offers 10 varieties. But what those facts scream to me is that buffalo wings aren’t about wings at all: they’re about the sauce.

Think about it. Most places deep-fry the wings. When I make them at home, I dry-brine and bake them. I suppose you can broil them too. But does anyone really pay that much attention to the wing? Not really, unless it’s undercooked inside or has sat around so that the skin is chewy. Everyplace is after the same crisp product.

Where one wing shines over another is the sauce. The choice, and intensity, of the brand of hot sauce makes a difference. Dry rubs vs. sauce at all is a choice. We often get garlic and parmesan wings that feature nice chunks of garlic and grated cheese. Whatever your choice, there is a business point to be made.

What distinguishes most businesses is the sauce. Customers have expectations that the fundamental stuff such as basic customer service and a product that does what you claim it will are foundational – they’re the wing. It’s how you “sauce” the basics that makes all the difference. Just as with wings, the more ways you can do that the great the likelihood that you’ll allow the customer to find something that they love.

It really doesn’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that wing. The basics of business have to be sound before you worry about the sauce. That said, one thing I always ask consulting clients is what their special sauce is. It’s a question you should ask yourself about your business (and about yourself if you’re going to be job-hunting!). It’s the sauce that matters, after all.

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Filed under Consulting, food

A Commotion On The Train

I used to ride the commuter train to and from work every day. I did that for 25+ years. Usually, you saw the same faces standing in the same places on the platform in the morning. Going home, it was pretty much the same thing.

One morning, there was a commotion at the other end of the car I was riding in. Someone was on the floor and there was a fair amount of yelling. He’d had a heart attack and, we found out later, passed away. The image of that morning sticks with me.

Everyone has had a bad day at work, and when those bad days begin to follow one another closely, one’s thoughts turn to quitting. I know mine sure did, or at least to make a job change. Frankly, those were hard thoughts to have. I had jobs that paid well and a family for which I had to provide.  Quitting is hard and making a big change is unnerving, almost as unnerving as seeing someone you rode that train with each day passing away.

Why do I bring this up today? I speak with a lot of people who are facing precisely this conundrum. They’re not happy and they know they need to do something but are afraid of making the leap. Maybe it dawns on them that life is too short to waste being miserable. Maybe they’re just bored and want to do something else. Having been in the same place, I sure don’t blame them. What I try to explain to them is that there is a middle ground. You can run your own business while removing a good chunk of the risk generally associated with doing that by investing in a proven business and following the path that dozens or hundreds of others have blazed for you with the brand. Those are what franchises are.

I talk to a lot of folks who have a knack for entrepreneurship but don’t have the right concept figured out. I help them identify one or two that will let them use their skills. Some folks want to invest in a franchise but they don’t want to quit their job to do so. That’s possible, but even in that least disruptive case, fear kicks in.

Quitting makes you uncomfortable. Fear prevents you from addressing your discomfort by reminding you that the status quo is safe even if it’s an unhappy place. Looking back 40+ business years down the road, I’m sorry I didn’t get off that train earlier.  You?

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Filed under Reality checks, Consulting, Franchises

Dumplings

This Foodie Friday, ask yourself why it is that every culture has a dumpling of some sort. When I say the word, your mind might initially flash to Chinese dumplings. After all, nearly every Chinese menu offers a dumpling or two (and often many more). You can usually get mandu at a Korean place. Italian ravioli, Spanish empanadas, Polish pierogi, Puerto Rican pasteles, Indian guija – heck, even Jewish Kreplach – are all members of the dumpling club along with dozens of others.

At the most basic level, dumplings are a wrapper filled with something. Generally, it’s meat or vegetables (or both) but it can be soup or it can be something sweet. They almost always can be eaten with one or two bites. I think they’re an apt metaphor for your business or your brand.

There is a core element. That’s your “why.” It’s not a “why” based on how you see yourself but on how your customers see you. What problem are you solving for them? How do you interact with them? It’s the messages you send and the reality that you provide (and those things had better be aligned and consistent!).

Dumplings have wrappers. I suspect many of us don’t pay much attention to the wrapper but let’s remember that the wrapper holds the whole thing together. The wrapper makes the dumpling possible. Your business has a wrapper. It’s your staff, your partners, and your suppliers. A great dumpling’s wrapper complements the filling. It’s of appropriate thickness and texture. It can be fancy or plain, but in every case, it is complete – without holes so the filling stays intact. Your team needs to be that way – without holes, appropriate to the essence. If the dumpling is broken, the odds are that the product that lies within is not optimal either.

I think every dumpling began with the filling, just as your business should. I am unaware, however, of any dishes that are just “dumpling filling”, despite having a child who would remove the wrappers and only consume the filling every time we had Chinese food.  The dish isn’t complete without the wrapper, the filling, and often the broth within that brings everything together. You need to pay attention to all the parts of your business as well – the entire experience – and not just focus on the filling. It’s just one part of the dumpling!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud