Monthly Archives: June 2017

Burgers And Dogs

It’s Foodie Friday, and we’re heading into what I hope is a long Fourth Of July weekend for you. At some point, hopefully, your plans include firing up a grill of some sort and cooking some hot dogs and hamburgers. Simple? You bet, but this is a weekend for leisure time and not getting all sweaty in front of a grill. Besides, you never know when your crew will get hungry, and burgers and dogs can be ready in no time. And what meal could be more All-Amercian (even if both foods come to us from German origins)?

It wouldn’t be the screed if we didn’t use the simplicity of burgers and dogs as a jumping off point for some business-related thought, right? As I was musing about that, it came to me that there are, in fact, a lot of possibilities with either of those basic dishes, even if you’re not stuffing your own hot dog casings or grinding your own meat for the burgers (I do the latter; the former is well beyond my patience). Think about the almost endless variations on the hot dog. I used to patronize two very fine establishments who were renowned for their extensive takes on various dogs. You can change up the meat (all beef, beef and pork, etc.), you can change the dressings and roll (compare the classic Chicago dog with a classic Detroit Coney Island, a chili dog and onions), but the thing is still a boring old hot dog (not).

It’s the same with burgers. I have a few different burger books in my cookbook collection, and while the dressings, meats, and buns vary a lot, it’s still some form of ground meat shaped into a patty and grilled. Heck, you can even taste the difference (if you’re brave) between a simple burger from McDonald’s vs. one from Burger King (cooking on a grill vs. a griddle). It doesn’t take much to change the dish.

The business point is this. Even if you’re in a very crowded space, your business can distinguish itself. You do this by becoming a brand – something that is instantly recognizable for the promise to the customer it contains. You can do this through great service, great value, smart marketing, or any other number of ways.  What makes a Chicago Dog unique are the sport peppers, the poppy seed bun, and the celery salt. What makes you unique? How does your vision differ from all the other people in your business area?

Enjoy your Fourth and your cookout. Just remember that even if it’s plain old burgers and dogs, you’re the secret sauce that can make everything unique, both on the grill and in the office.

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Who Cares?

Somewhere along the line, I”m willing to bet you’ve heard the term fake news. Like the news itself, the term is everywhere these days and over the last 48 hours or so there was an incident around a news story that helps to make a great point about business.

You might have heard about the story CNN got wrong. Actually, we’re not sure that they got it wrong but we do know that they didn’t follow their own protocol for vetting information. The story concerned a claim that Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with supposed ties to The President. For our purposes today, that’s immaterial. What is important is that CNN, like all professional journalism outlets, has standards in place with respect to the number of sources required to run a story (among other things) and this story didn’t meet them. They ran the story (only on their website – it never made air ) and then retracted it after they realized they hadn’t met their own standards. The reporters who wrote the story resigned.

Those standards are what differentiate professional news organizations from the real “fake news” outlets. You know – people who just make stuff up to further their own purposes or who selectively report certain facts to advance their arguments. Those standards are why The Wall Street Journal dismissed a reporter who was doing secret business deals with one of his contacts. And those standards are our business point today.

I always make it a habit of asking “who cares” when I get information. Whose agenda is served by the news? Who is the source? Are there multiple, independent sources on this or is it just rumor mongering? In the CNN case, I take the incident as a positive. The system worked and whether the story is right or wrong is immaterial. It came from one anonymous source, and that’s just not good enough for a professional organization.

When you get business information, you need a similar system of vetting the story. Who cares that you have the information? Whose agenda is advanced? Asking those sorts of questions can save you from having to issue your own retraction or worse. Make sense?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks

One At A Time

Like many of you, I often feel as if I have way too many things on my “to do” list. I’ll often start one task and then segue into another while trying to complete the first. Maybe I’ll read my email mail while I’m talking on the phone or maybe I’ll try to write the screed while I’m thinking of solutions to a client’s problem. My guess is that you make similar attempts to multitask.
Then there are the dummies who multitask at the worst possible times. Texting and driving, for example. The sad fact is that multitasking – even in situations where there aren’t potentially deadly results – does not work. As the American Psychological Association research found:

Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

When we try to begin a new task while performing another, we have to make a mental switch to whatever rules and information will govern the new task. Our brains can’t do two things at once, and that switching means that we’re actually losing time and being less efficient in our attempt to be more efficient. Doing one thing at a time – and finishing it! – helps you get more done. Most importantly, you feel better as you can actually cross something off that “to do” list.

I think we’re all a bit ADD. The non-stop stream of news, email, social pings, and other distractions makes it incredibly hard to focus. I’ll admit to having a shorter attention span than I did 20 years ago, and I don’t think it’s (solely) because my aging brain is less functional. We’ve all become victims of the TL;DR syndrome or, even worse, the Fear Of Missing Out by remaining focused to the exclusion of all those alerts. Everything is too long and we want Cliff’s Notes versions. It’s hard to pay attention to that one task for an extended period, at least it seems so to me. But overcoming that desire to multitask is really the key to getting things done. I’m really going to work harder on it. You?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Opening A Can Of Mistrust

It’s Foodie Friday and I want to talk about a widespread fraud this week. If you cook Italian food every so often, you might have been a victim of this common deception, and of course, it has implications for your business (or else why would I bring it up here?). I’m talking about the lies told by many companies about what lies within a can of tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano.”

If you’ve been to Italy you’ve tasted the difference in what they have there vs. what we commonly use here, and one of the biggest differences is the true San Marzano tomato. Grown in the volcanic soil that surrounds Mt. Vesuvius, these plum tomatoes are protected by an official designation – DOP – which certifies that they are the real deal. Many other types of products receive this stamp which certifies that they are locally grown and packaged in the specific region according to strict standards – balsamic vinegar and mozzarella di bufala are two of the best known along with these tomatoes.

If you walk through your local supermarket, you will find many cans labeled “San Marzano” and yet there is a high likelihood that they are nothing of the sort. 95% of the tomatoes sold here as San Marzanos are fake, at least according to the person who certifies them. If you see crushed or diced San Marzanos, they’re fake, since true ones are only sold whole. If they are grown in the US, they’re fake. If it doesn’t have the DOP seal and the seal of the consortium that sells them, they’re fake. Some unscrupulous packagers put a DOP-looking seal on their cans; some don’t even bother, knowing that the words “San Marzano” are enough to confuse shoppers.

Why do I raise this? First, it bothers me that so many retailers are complicit in perpetuating this fraud. You wouldn’t see a legitimate store knowingly selling fake Dior bags or knockoff golf clubs with high-end labels. Why do supermarkets allow this? Can I trust that the wild-caught fish you’re selling at the fish counter isn’t farm-raised? Second, some fairly big time packagers engage in this, which calls into question what’s in the cans of other products they produce. Are those really organic peas or are you just charging more for the same stuff that’s in the non-organic cans? Lastly, and most importantly, it reiterates the point we’ve made often here in the screed. The most important thing any business gets from customers is trust. Losing that trust can be fatal, no matter how good your service or pricing might be. Knowingly perpetuating a fraud on your customers is way over the foul line.

I don’t want to make too big a point about a can of tomatoes. Most shoppers don’t look for San Marzano tomatoes – they buy whatever is on sale. It only takes one customer, however (like me?), who figures out that you’re profiting off of the deception to put a crack in your reputation. That’s not the type of sauce you want to be serving, is it?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

Cars For Dummies

I bought a new car yesterday. Mine was going on 10 years old and was beginning to show those little warning signs that it was heading downhill. Advocate for proactive action that I am, I decided that 10 years was a good run and that the car and I should part as friends. I know this will come as a shock to you but today’s post isn’t a screed about how my salesperson mistreated me (he didn’t) or how the paperwork takes forever (well, only about an hour) or how I had to negotiate my butt off to get a fair deal (we agreed on numbers in about 30 seconds – yay for the internet bringing transparency).

What has surprised me instead is how much more complex the car is. The decade has turned our vehicles into rolling computers. The owner’s manual – which comes in a few volumes – is roughly the size of a paperback edition of War And Peace. It should have a “hernia hazard” warning on the cover. The car has radar on all sides so that there is no longer a “blind spot”. I can set the cruise control and the radar in front of the car will keep me at a pre-determined distance from the car in front of me regardless of the speed I’ve set. The car will also hit the brakes if it thinks I’m moving toward an object too quickly – useful for idiots that are texting and driving I suppose, but also in case the car in front of you stops short.

I have the ability to connect via Bluetooth, which I had in my old car, but the functionality is much more advanced. In addition, I can link in via a USB cable and have the car perform dozens of functions through my phone and the car’s software. I can install apps in the car, which has its own ISP address. Of course, that’s assuming I can understand how to use all of this. The media center has its own rather large manual as well. My favorite passage in both manuals so far? A warning not to test the collision avoidance system. I suppose some moron thinks driving at a wall doing 40 to see if it works might be fun.

Why am I bring this up? Cars are very complicated machines and while I’m certainly a long-time user of them (as well as a relatively sophisticated user of digital products) I’m kind of overwhelmed. Part of what we need to remember as we introduce new features to current users or our product to new users is that they need help. Jargon isn’t helpful nor are explanations written by technical writers who are engineers first and consumers second. I would have loved a short pamphlet that showed the “Top Ten Things You Will Want To Do First”, written in plain language, highly illustrated, and backed up by a newcomers’ hotline I could call if I ran into trouble. Expensive to support? Sure, but cars are expensive products. Could the dealer have sat with me and provided that service? You bet. Did they? Nope.

Selling the product is only part of the process. Making sure the customer gets every bit of value out of what you’ve sold them is just as important. I’m off to figure out just what I’ve bought here. At least I knew how to get it home!

 

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

I Almost Did Something Stupid

I’ve mentioned before here on the screed that I have friends of all political persuasions. By definition, that means that some of them diverge quite a bit from where I stand on various issues. I posted something on Facebook the other day about an action the Senate took to restrict press access (since rescinded). While my post had to do with the need for our First Amendment rights to remain unimpeded, a friend replied with a long comment that was a litany of hate speech the left wing had spewed. I suspect he was reacting to the horrible shootings in Alexandria last week.

He had missed my point entirely but that’s not my topic today. Instead, I want to reflect upon my immediate response and why it can be a horrible mistake in business. Within a few seconds of reading his rant, I had flipped over to the place on Facebook where you can block someone. After all, I don’t want my page to be filled with half-truths and venom. Fortunately, I took a breath and remembered a couple of things. First, this guy is a friend of over 20 years, and I know he has a big heart even if his head seems to interpret the world very differently from mine. Second, he and I have had many chats about politics and we’ve actually found that we agree on a lot more than you might expect. But it was the last thing I thought about which is relevant to you and to your business.

One of the biggest problems anyone in business can face is incomplete information. The other thing is that they live in an echo chamber, a place where all they hear is their own voice reflected back at them. Some people like it that way – I’ve worked for guys who never heard anything that contradicted their world view because they made it intolerable for anyone who brought them that sort of information. Closing off your mind to divergent points of view doesn’t improve your decision-making nor does it reflect the reality of the world. If you believe that all your customers are happy and totally satisfied, you’re delusional. Shooting the messenger or writing off the negative reviews is short-sighted. Ignoring data that point to a different direction than the one you’re taking is simply fostering ignorance. When I thought about blocking my friend and his divergent thinking from my page, I was heading down a very dangerous road (and infringing on his First Amendment rights too!).

As I’ve written before, I’m a firm believer in anyone’s ability – inside or outside of business – to express their opinions. I insist, however, that those opinions be grounded in fact. Is that how you approach things? Do you welcome new ideas and new thinking? Are you keeping an open mind?

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Filed under Reality checks

The Health Inspector

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s talk about the grades restaurants receive from the health department. Depending on where you live, you might see an “A” to “F” scale or some number on a 100-point scale. Most jurisdictions require that the establishment display its most recent grade and I, for one, make a point to have a look at it, especially when it’s an unfamiliar place. I don’t know about you, but I won’t eat in a place where the grade drops below 92 or “A”. Better safe than sorry, right?

I looked up the record of a place in which I eat frequently. It’s well-run and I’ve peeked in the kitchen to see if my opinion might change (back of house and front of house are two very different worlds, after all). It too looked well run. Their last 9 inspections confirm this – they run from a low of 96 to a few perfect scores of 100. Does that make the food taste any better? No, but at least I have no qualms about tasting it.

Why do I raise this since most of us aren’t in the restaurant business? Because each of us gets inspected and publicly rated every day. Search for any business and you’ll almost assuredly see several review sites or actual reviews in the search results themselves. I’m not even thinking of influencers here, just normal folk who have some information (if they’ve patronized a business and you haven’t, that’s knowledge) and the ability to share it. I suspect that Amazon’s product reviews are almost as valuable an information source as their purchase data, and Consumer Reports has built a business in doing unbiased reviews for as long as I can remember.

Everyone who interacts with you business is a health inspector of sorts. The National Restaurant Association has some tips on how to prepare for a health inspection and a few just might apply to your business as well:

  • Walk into your establishment from the outside to get an outsider’s impression.
  • Brief your kitchen staff to review any problems post-inspection.
  • Ensure all staff are on the same page.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Train your managers to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest food-safety techniques.
  • Review your local health code.

In other words, approach things from the customer’s perspective, reinforce that need to everyone on the staff, operate as a cohesive unit, listen and respond to customer feedback, stay current and be sure you’re operating under whatever set of rules govern your field of business. Those tips will keep health inspectors of any sort happy, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud