Monthly Archives: September 2015

Gagging Your Customers

I love the Streisand Effect.  You know – some person or company takes umbrage at what someone else has written somewhere and decides to “fix” things.  Usually, that fix creates even more awareness of the original negative  item and so the attempt to hide it has just the opposite effect.  Some genius at a Florida company that sells weight loss products decided to solve the negative item problem in a different way.  It allegedly made false claims for their products, and then threatened to enforce “gag clause” provisions against consumers to stop them from posting negative reviews and testimonials online.  How great an idea was this?

Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC alleges that Roca Labs, Inc.; Roca Labs Nutraceutical USA, Inc.; and their principals have sued and threatened to sue consumers who shared their negative experiences online or complained to the Better Business Bureau, stating that the consumers violated the non-disparagement provisions of the “Terms and Conditions” they supposedly agreed to when they bought the products. The FTC alleges that these gag clause provisions, and the defendants’ related warnings, threats, and lawsuits, harm consumers by unfairly barring purchasers from sharing truthful, negative comments about the defendants and their products.

Hmm.  Maybe not such a good idea after all, huh?  Telling consumers that they would be subject to $100,000 in damages for posting reviews isn’t exactly embracing the customer.  In fact, I can’t really imagine a circumstance where preemptively threatening to sue a customer for anything short of non-payment makes any sense.  In this case, not only has the Streisand Effect kicked in but so too has a stream of legal fees and, potentially, fines and damages.  As it turns out, the FTC alleges that the product’s weight-loss claims are false or unsubstantiated – you know, the stuff they’re selling just doesn’t work. That will move a lot of product, right? Just to kick them a little while they’re down, the FTC also charges that the defendants failed to disclose that they compensated users who posted positive reviews.

The takeaways (none of which are news to anyone who has read this screed before): don’t threaten your customers, don’t lie about your products, don’t pay for fake reviews and don’t actually follow through and sue them when someone posts a negative comment (these guys did file a number of suits).  Sure, if someone is spreading out-and-out lies, you need to respond but hopefully not in court.  If what they are saying contains a fair amount of truth, however, the fault isn’t the customer’s.  Agreed?

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No Clue

You are probably aware the there is a war being fought in the world of digital advertising.  Unfortunately, the combatants are publishers and their readers who use ad blockers.  With the release of iOS9, which supports ad blockers within Safari, the fighting escalated to another level.  I’ve written a number of posts on this topic, why users are using blockers, and how screwed up the advertising-supported world of digital media has become. This is not going to be another one.  Instead, just as every war has “collateral damage”, I want to focus on a side effect this war is having, one that is causing harm even to sites (like mine) that are ad-free.  

Simply put, ad blockers have the effect of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  They often will “break” sites, leaving them unreadable or unusable.  More importantly, even if the sites render correctly, ad blockers will often block the analytics – Google Analytics or Adobe Omniture – that most sites use to measure traffic and other things.  That means that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to get an accurate measure of which content users like, what’s useful, how the site is performing technically, how to optimize the viewing experience based on browsers, etc.  Publishers have no clue.

I’ve admitted before that I use both Ghostery and Privacy Badger.  That said, I do whitelist Google Analytics and Omniture so that sites I visit know that I’ve been there. I’m not proud that I block most of the ads, but I’m also not a fan of what many sites have done with respect to commercial loads, pop-ups, rendering speed, and  constant remarketing.  If, as is being talked about in some places, many publishers band together to collectively block their sites to people who don’t want to give some value in return (check out The Washington Post’s actions), I’ll either make a site by site judgement with respect to whitelisting them (as I do some ad-supported sites now that carry reasonable ad loads and aren’t a mess) or I will find the content elsewhere.  I understand their position; hopefully, they care about mine.

Where I do draw the line, however, is with the analytics, and if you use an ad blocker I’d ask you to think about letting sites measure traffic.  Your privacy is still maintained (yes, I’m aware it’s possible to track individuals across sites but that’s the exception) and you’re providing some value in return for the content you’re receiving. It’s a small step towards avoiding collateral damage while this war rages on.  You with me?

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AV Gee Whiz…

If you own a Windows computer, chances are you’ve installed some sort of anti-virus program.  At least I hope you have.  One of the more popular programs of this sort is AVG Anti-virus.  I have it on my old Windows machine and I’ve installed it on my parents’ laptop.  AVG recently updated their privacy policy and it’s caused a bit of a fracas.  It also raises some important issues for the rest of us. 

Let me say at the outset that the manner in which AVG presents their new policy should be a model for the rest of us.  You can (and should) read it here.  It is clear, written in plain language that doesn’t require the reader to be either a lawyer or a technical person. Not only do they explain what data they are collecting but also why they are collecting it.  I bet you can’t find another privacy policy that does so as well as this one does.

So what has happened as a result of AVG trying to be good corporate citizens?  They are getting reamed.  There have been many negative articles and thousands of negative posts written (this thread on reddit is particularly nasty).  You see, AVG made one large change in the policy, which is that it now involves keeping the browsing history of its users and selling the data to third parties.  They actually were collecting most of this data before except there was no mention of selling it to anyone for commercial purposes.

The PC World piece on the controversy summed it up nicely:

AVG’s new policy illustrates exactly why companies tend to drown their data collection practices in legalese. There’s no penalty for doing so, and being transparent only invites more outrage. In that sense, AVG at least deserves credit for helping users make informed decisions. Still, the idea of an anti-virus program tracking and monetizing your browsing history is unnerving, and if anything AVG ought to clarify that point further as it finalizes its new privacy policy.

So I’m at a loss here.  Is it a better idea to confuse your customers?  Is it good practice to be a little less transparent?  I don’t think either of those are true.  Are we all still so naive that we believe all the tracking information companies gather about our every move (and this is true about your mobile device usage too!) is just for their own information so that they can make our user experiences better?  Sure, AVG makes it possible to opt out of some of this, but do we really think most people will read the new policy and do so?

I guess the real question becomes is honesty still the best policy?  What’s your take?

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Searing Off The Truth

Our Foodie Friday Fun this week revolves around searing meat.  One thing I was told early on in my cooking education was to sear off meat before using it in a dish.  This would have the effect of locking in the juices so that the meat doesn’t get dry during cooking.  I guess this was cooking “knowledge” that had been put forth a hundred or so years before I heard it.  If you’ve ever heard the term “cauterization” you’ll understand the thinking.  Just as a doctor can cauterize a wound, burning the flesh to seal it shut, so too did a cook lock in juices by searing off the meat, creating a barrier that kept the meat moist.  

If you go back in cooking history, you hear this “truism” repeated over and over.  As you can tell from my use of quotation marks, the truism isn’t remotely true.  No, this is not going to be another screed about not trusting all the so-called truths, especially not in a world where everything you knew yesterday might not be true today.  Instead, I’d like us to think about how a food scientist named Harold McGee figured out that the “truth” wasn’t.

I’ll quote from a book called The Food Lab (which, by the way, is quite a wonderful read if you’re a combination of geek and cook):

You’d think that with all that working against him, McGee must have used the world’s most powerful computer, or at the very least a scanning electron microscope, to prove his assertion, right? Nope. His proof was as simple as looking at a piece of meat. He noticed that when you sear a steak on one side, then flip it over and cook it on the second side, juices from the interior of the steak are squeezed out of the top—the very side that was supposedly now impermeable to moisture loss!

In other words, he looked at the facts and came to his own conclusion about things.  He didn’t rely on what others had to say on the matter; he gathered his own information and came to his own conclusions based on what he could observe with his own eyes.  The answer was staring him in the face.

That’s how we all need to be doing things in business (and, with an election looming, in the non-business world too!).  We need to be open to the answers that become obvious as we look into things ourselves.  Who knows – we might lose some intellectual baggage while gaining valuable insight.  Worth a shot?

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Teshuva

It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  This was a post from several years ago.  As I read it over, looking for inspiration for something to write on the subject of change and business based on the holiday, I realized that I had expressed my thinking pretty well in the earlier post.  Those of you who celebrate the holiday are probably not reading this until sundown (I scheduled this yesterday in keeping with the spirit of not working on the day). Whether you do or don’t celebrate, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. For those of you unfamiliar with the holiday, it concludes the 10 day period at the start of the Jewish calendarRosh Hashanah – head of the year – during which all Jews are supposed to reflect upon the past year and examine how they’re going to change their lives going forward. One also seeks forgiveness from those against whom he has transgressed – both those of this earth and higher powers. There is a lot of other imagery connected with the period – inscription in the Book of Life being a big one – but I think there’s something each of us can take as a business lesson in a non-denominational way.

We all get off track.  Sometimes it’s in little ways like eating badly or drinking too much.  Sometimes it’s in big ways like alienating our families or hurting friends who love us.  The concept in Judaism of repentance is called Teshuva  which means “return”.  I love the notion of coming back to one’s self as well as to the basic human tenets that are common to all religions and peoples.

We can take a period of reflection and “return” in our business lives as well.  The most obvious way is for us as individuals   Whom have we alienated this year?  What client have we taken for granted?  But it a bigger opportunity.  How has the business diverged from the mission?  Why have we stopped getting better and are just marching in place?  What can we be doing to grow our people but are ignoring?

We ask those kinds of questions from time to time, but I guess I’m suggesting that it become a more formal process.  Set aside a period every year for “return” thinking.  A period of repentance?  Maybe, in some cases.  But in all cases a chance to change.  A chance to regret past bad actions and to vow not to repeat them.  Most importantly (this is true in the religious sense as well), to correct the transgression.  To apologize.   To make restitution.  Whatever is right and lets everyone move forward with a clear conscious and a vow to do better.

Sound like a plan?

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A Lesson On Sorry

You have probably heard of The Ryder Cup even if you’re not a golfer.  The women’s version of that competition is called The Solheim Cup and it was contested over the weekend.  During the run of play, an incident occurred between one of the European golfers and an American.  I’ll explain it in a second (with minimal golf jargon – you’re welcome) but it’s what has happened afterwards that’s instructive to all of us in business.

Solheim Cup

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cup competitions are match play.  The total score you shoot is immaterial; you just need to have a better score than the person you’re playing on any particular hole to win that hole.  Most holes won wins the match.  Unlike the tournaments you’re used to seeing on TV, a golfer doesn’t have to putt out – finish the hole – if their opponent concedes that the next putt will be made.  Most short (2 feet and under) putts are conceded since at this level, golfers rarely miss anything that short.

What happened was that an American missed a long putt and had an 18-inch putt coming back.  The Europeans walked away from the hole and the green, so the American assumed they had conceded the putt and picked up the ball.  At that point, one of the very experienced European golfers informed her that they had not conceded the putt and the US just lost the hole at a critical point in the match.  Everyone was stunned at this bit of gamesmanship.  While she was correct with the rules of the game (you can’t assume the concession and just pick up your ball), it is way out of line with the spirit of these competitions and how the game is played.

I’m sorry for that long introduction, but it’s what has happened since that’s instructive.  In two words: she apologized.  You can read her heartfelt apology here, and it is a model for how any business or businessperson should act when they have screwed up.  It shows the difference between “I’m sorry” and the far too common “I’m sorry but…” or “I’m sorry if I offended anyone”.

This is how she begins:

I am so sorry for not thinking about the bigger picture in the heat of the battle and competition. I was trying my hardest for my team and put the single match and the point that could be earned ahead of sportsmanship and the game of golf itself! I feel like I let my team down and I am sorry.

She goes on to acknowledge each of the offended parties and to ask for forgiveness, promising to earn back each party’s faith and trust.  The next time I need to say I’m sorry for something, this will be my model.  You?

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Eddie Haskell Software

Our topic today is something so mind-numbingly stupid that I hesitate even to write about it. There was an announcement late on Friday from the EPA about diesel engines from Volkswagen. These are the engines that the automaker markets as “Clean Diesel.” The announcement was shocking. As reported in the NY Times:

Eddie Haskell

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Volkswagen has been ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to recall 482,000 diesel cars in the U.S. over software they say was intentionally designed to circumvent smog regulations. The cars, all diesels from 2009 to 2015, have a “defeat device” programmed to detect when the car is undergoing official emissions testing that only then turns on the full emissions control systems.

Many of you might not remember the Eddie Haskell character from Leave It To Beaver, the old TV show.  Eddie was a bad kid who acted like an angel in front of parents and other adults.  That is apparently what VW designed their software to do – behave nicely in front of the standard EPA tests while belching out unhealthy levels of nitrogen oxide emissions when the testers weren’t looking – as in 40 times more than the allowable levels of emissions..  It’s not something recent either: the bad software is in 6 model years of cars. Nice right?

Here is the thing about big companies.  Rarely does one person make a decision.  In this case, the people (plural) involved have put VW in jeopardy of having to pay around $18 Billion in fines.  At a minimum, they’re looking at the recall of 482,000 diesel cars.  But the automaker isn’t the only company to demonstrate this kind of idiocy.  Samsung has been accused of the same sort of thing to detect speed tests on their phone chips in order to demonstrate speed that really isn’t there in real life use.  Antivirus company Qihoo submitted different versions for benchmark testing than those provided to consumers.  I’m sure there are other examples across other business categories.

Knowing this, would you buy any of the affected products?  I wouldn’t.  What else aren’t they telling us?  How safe/effective/good are their products?  More importantly, if they would knowingly cheat this way, how will they treat me as a customer?  Will they lie to me just as they have to the testers?

This kind of behavior goes global rapidly today.  Like the Cleavers, who were well aware of Eddie’s true personality, consumers are better informed and bad behavior is always front and center.  Putting aside the destruction of the bottom line due to getting caught, how can anyone with an ounce of business sense think this sort of activity is a good idea?

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