Monthly Archives: January 2018

Snowing Our Ignorance

It’s snowing here in Central North Carolina. Again. Is that unusual? Well, the area usually gets less than 6 inches of snow a year and we’re about to get 4 or so. We also got a few inches several weeks ago. When we got a dusting (and to my Yankee friends I know that 6 inches are pretty much just a dusting) of snow last year – maybe half an inch – the area came to a complete halt and schools were shut for 4 days. You can imagine what 4 inches will do. Fortunately, by the weekend it will be near 70 degrees so the accumulation shouldn’t be around very long.

Photo by Catherine Zaidova

Other than venting about the golf courses being covered in white, why do I bring this up? Because it’s symptomatic of something which has business implications. Increased snowfall, extreme temperature changes, and other weather phenomena are indicative of something going on. It’s pretty clear that something has changed and yet there are those who turn a scientific and factual issue into a political one. Folks, you can call it climate change or you can call it Fred but no matter what you call it, it is real.

You know, of course, that we don’t do politics here on the screed and my point isn’t that we need to acknowledge that the weird weather everywhere is the result of climate change. The point is that any businessperson can give their own interpretation about what they see going on in the market and in their own enterprise. The problem is that sometimes their interpretation conflicts with the empirical evidence – the facts. A single data point isn’t a reason to change your entire strategy, but when you have enough data points to produce a reliable trend, attention must be paid.

There are some very famous studies that were conducted by Stanford in 1975. They showed how people’s opinions are often unmoved by facts. One need not go a heck of a lot further than your own Facebook feed to see one person trying to change another’s mind using some fact-based evidence and failing miserably. The cold weather and snow here remind me that you can deny the facts but that denial won’t keep the snow from falling. Question the sources of information, question the interpretation of information, but once those questions are answered, don’t deny the facts. You still will have to shovel up the aftermath regardless. Make sense?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

50 Years On

As I sat down to write this morning’s screed with Dr. King’s birthday on my mind, I realized that it’s been 50 years since that horrible year of 1968. I was 13 at the time and if you’re younger than about 55 today you probably have no memories of the almost non-stop bad news. It’s hard to believe but things seemed even more screwed up and polarized that they do today. The day Dr. King was shot is one of my indelible memories and the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months later snuffed out a small glimmer of hope that Dr. King’s legacy might come to fruition soon. It took another 40 years for that although there are valid arguments that we as a country are still waiting in many ways.

With that, what follows is my post on celebrating Dr, King and his message from a few years ago. It’s about listening, something many of us don’t do often enough. Maybe you can give it a try this week?

Today is the day we pause to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.  I went back and looked at my post from two years ago, which was about dreams – specifically one of Dr. King’s dreams becoming a reality.  That was sort of focused on what he saw – his vision.  Today I want to focus on one of the great man’s best qualities that influenced how he acted to make that vision real.  I think it’s applicable to business.  No, it’s not going to be another ethics rant (although those are never out of style in my book).  Today, it’s about the most important skill I think all great businesspeople – and great leaders – possess.

To me, great leaders serve to fulfill the needs of their people.  For Dr. King, it meant endless meetings with various groups to understand their concerns and explain how broadening civil liberties to be more inclusive could help meet them.  For those of us in business, it means paying more attention to the concerns of our customers and co-workers than to our own agenda – these folks ARE our agenda to a certain extent, along with the underlying needs of our businesses.  In a word – listen.

Everyone wants to feel as if their ideas and thoughts are being heard if not acted upon. Without someone hearing them, acting on those concerns is impossible. Listening, then speaking, brings trust.

I know this isn’t a new thought in this space but it came to mind on this day thinking of Dr. King.  If you go back to the early days of Dr. King’s involvement in the civil rights movement, it’s pretty clear that he was a reluctant leader. He was drafted to lead and was kind of unsure of himself.  As he listened to the members of the community and other clergies, he realized that he was simply a voice for the community and their agenda became his agenda.

Many of you will be familiar with Stephen R. Covey, who wrote that we ought to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I think Dr. King if he read pop-psychology, would have appreciated that.

What are you listening to today?

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Filed under Growing up, Helpful Hints, What's Going On

Looking For The Truffles

This Foodie Friday I’m going to run the risk that I’m going to burst a balloon. If you received some truffle oil as a holiday gift, the odds are overwhelming that there isn’t any truffle in your truffle oil. That’s right: much like true extra virgin olive oil, which is generally often neither “virgin” nor “olive oil,” truffle oil is generally some sort of oil infused with something called 2,4-dithiapentane. Sounds yummy, no? As Tony Bourdain said, truffle oil is “not even food! About as edible as Astroglide and made out of the same material.”

Norcia black truffles.

Norcia black truffles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should not really be the real bearer of bad news here. As far back as 2003, publications were reporting on this and the NY Times did a piece last September on it that was widely read in foodie circles. You might think I’m going to use this as the jumping off point for another rant about deceptive advertising, and as appealing a thought as that is, I’m heading in another direction. Much like the “Where’s The Beef” question, seeing truffle oil on a grocery shelf (heck, even Walmart sells EVOO with “truffle aroma”) makes me wonder where exactly the truffles are. Real truffles in oil don’t last long, you know, so they’re probably not in things that sit on a shelf.

Come to think of it, vanilla extract has the same issue. Much of what you see in the stores isn’t real vanilla and there’s no vanilla in most vanilla things, but vanillin, a chemical compound. Unlike truffles, you probably can buy the real thing at your local store but it’s not 98 cents a bottle, believe me.

What does this have to do with your business, other than making you feel as you did when you found out there isn’t a Santa Claus or Easter Bunny? More than you’d think, actually. When you put up a sign or create a website that announces you as a service provider of some sort, people have an expectation that you can, in fact, provide said service. When you advertise a product, customers expect that the product will do what you say it will. They don’t want to have to look for the truffles nor do they expect that what they’ll find will be fake or something that mimics the real thing. If you’re selling your expertise, have some, even if it’s narrow. I’m surprised sometimes when I speak with people who claim to know something about a piece of this crazy business world how little they actually do know. They might have read a book and can fake their competence, but there really isn’t a truffle there.

A vanilla-flavored extract isn’t the same as vanilla extract. Truffle flavored oil assuredly has no truffles. Make sure there is validity in whatever you’re claiming to be or much like olive oil brands and truffle oil distributors are being sued (there were “four class-action lawsuits filed in New York and California accusing Trader Joe’s, Urbani Truffles, Sabatino and Monini of fraud of ‘false, misleading, and deceptive misbranding’ of its truffle oil products'” you’re heading for big trouble.

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Filed under food, Consulting, Huh?

What Has Happened?

Maybe it’s because the start of the year is also a time of reflection, but I continue to be appalled at the state of the online advertising business. It’s not so much about the fact that 2 players – Facebook and Google – gobble up the majority of money spent. In fact, in terms of ad revenue, Facebook by itself is twice as big as the newspaper business, according to eMarketer, and will be bigger than the entire print business shortly. Google is twice as big as Facebook. There’s a third player – Amazon – on the way to suck up a huge share of the ad pot as well.

While that isn’t the problem, it does mean that the rest of the industry is fighting over relative crumbs. When you’re desperate, you might do things that you know are wrong or foolish and that’s where I think we are. In fact, I think we’ve gone way over the line from foolish to criminal.

Some examples. Yesterday while I was reading an article via the web browser on my phone, up popped the screen you see on the right. Those of you who have an Android phone know that what you see looks very much like the Google Play store and it seems as if there is a critical app update I need to make. It is an ad, of course, trying to get me to install what I assume is malware. Had I not noticed that it was in a web browser and not in the native Play Store, I just might have clicked.

This is why the online ad business is doomed or at least the part that’s outside of the big 3. On the consumer side, people are forced to use ad blockers to prevent malware from infecting their devices as well as interrupting their tasks with annoying popups. On the business side, publishers keep pushing ads knowing that some percentage of them are scams or worse yet unable to do anything since in many cases they’re not the ones selling the ads. They’ve offloaded that to third parties and 74.5% of US digital display ad dollars transacted programmatically will go to private marketplaces and programmatic direct setups.

Speaking of those third parties, they might just be the worst thieves in the bunch. They claim to be there to help publishers increase revenues or marketers to buy efficiently yet they inject numerous fees, both known and hidden, into the process, siphoning off at significant (upwards of 25%) amount of the available money in the transaction. Those hidden fees, by the way, might just violate any number of local and federal laws.

So what has happened to the ad business in which I grew up? What has happened to agencies being honest brokers and nearly full transparency on all sides? Where is someone in the ad chain (looking at you, ad networks) saying “no” to scams, malware, and the other crap that serve no purpose other than to encourage adblocking or to harm someone? Anyone?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

The Razzie Goes To…

I went to see a movie Saturday afternoon and ended up seeing a lot more than I had intended. It became a great learning experience about trying to solve one problem and creating a much more severe issue in the process.

The movie itself was fine (“Darkest Hour,” a little long but great performances). It was what I saw going on several times in the lobby which provided the learning experience. Apparently, this theater has a policy that kids under age 17 cannot attend a movie Friday-Sunday after 4pm without an accompanying adult. That’s right – any movie, even a G-rated one. It’s a relatively new policy too since there were several people there who had thought they’d go into one theater while their teen-aged kids went to see something else. They were engaged with the person taking tickets as well as with the customer service desk and someone I assume was a manager. The exchanges weren’t going well.

A few things from which we all can learn. First, this policy is nowhere to be found on the theater’s website or Facebook page. From the comments on the Facebook page, some parents had even dropped off their 15-year-old kids only to be called to come back since they weren’t being admitted to a PG-13 movie. If you’re going to make a change in your policies, make them loudly and often. Obviously, people do check movie times before showing up – how about making sure that every time your theater displays that your new policy does as well? BY the way, there is still no official announcement of this on their Facebook page despite numerous (negative) comments about it.

Second. This theater could not care less about customer service. How do I know? Two ways for starters. The person at the customer service desk was doing anything but serving the customer. They had a “take it or leave it” attitude and when I heard someone say “we won’t be back to this theater” his dismissed it with a “that’s fine.” He also said the policy was a safety issue and when one mom pointed to her three 13-year-old girls, asking if they looked dangerous, his response was “yes.” Really?

The other thing that this theater does it to respond to every Facebook comment, good or bad, with exactly the same cut and paste copy. There is no acknowledgment of the specific issue nor anything beyond a link to their corporate customer service page (they’re part of a chain) which is basically kicking a local issue into a much larger, less likely to be served bin. The funny thing is the copy: We strive to give you the best experience and would like the opportunity to give you a 5-star experience, next time. Not so much, and why would anyone with an issue come back?

I do understand why this policy is in place. The theater has had trouble on Friday and Saturday nights with teenagers acting up: making noise, throwing food, using their phones to take pictures, etc. As with most things, it’s a very small group that causes the problem and the theater’s management has chosen to paint with an extremely wide brush in an attempt to solve it. In the process, they’ve alienated many customers. There is another multiplex showing most of the same movies not very far away. Which would you choose as a parent?

I wonder if they did a cost/benefit analysis? What would it cost to hire extra security on weekends? How about a few more ushers? How many admissions and concession sales are lost to the new policy? Moreover, what is the value of the goodwill seeing the extra security vs. the negative effect of this? What 16-year old wants to be told they need to have Mommy go with them to the movies?

They give out The Razzies to films or acting performances in films considered to be the worst of the year. I’d give this theater one for their “problem-solving” and customer service performances. You?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Want Fries With That?

Foodie Friday at last and this week the topic is, once again, fries. I see that Taco Bell has joined damn near every other quick-service restaurant and is now offering fries. Not just any fries, though. Nacho fries, which I gather are fries with a bit of Mexican seasoning and some nacho cheese on the side. Sounds good, right? Well, maybe, but not from a business perspective and let me tell you why (and how it might just apply to your business too!).

English: Taco Bell crunchy shell beef tacos

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I think of Taco Bell (or any other taco chain), fries don’t enter into the equation. I realize that a few of Taco Bell’s direct competitors have fries (more on that in a second) as does every burger chain and chicken joint. Do you really think that diluting the brand is worth capturing those people who MUST have some fries with the burrito?

Moreover, Taco Bell has actually done a great job in positioning itself as having healthy alternatives and, in fact, has some of the best options for healthy eating in all of fast food. While they don’t tout themselves as being healthy (they respect that much of what’s on their menu isn’t and know it would be inauthentic to claim to be), the fact is that they can now offer “choice” while competing against Chipotle and other “healthier” alternatives.

The chain has also done a great job in coming up with weird menu items that are true to the brand. While I’m not rushing out to grab a naked egg taco or a firecracker burrito, those items are true to the brand identity. Even the California Loaded Fries burrito rings true while just plain fries don’t. A better idea? How about offering carne asada fries, which are common in Southern California and taking them nationally? Sort of a Mexican version of poutine, Taco Bell could have stayed true to their brand while offering something they believed was lacking in their menu. Del Taco, a SoCal competitor, offers chili fries. Here is a chance to one-up them and take a regional specialty into new areas.

Ask yourself this. Would you head to Burger King for a taco? Maybe for a breakfast burrito but I wouldn’t classify what is basically an egg sandwich wrap as “Mexican.” McDonald’s tried and failed with pizza, and it wasn’t just because of the product. If you’ve done a good job of branding, your customers have a focused expectation of your product. Diluting that image or causing cognitive dissonance with a new offering helps neither you nor them.

My local taco place doesn’t serve fries. It serves papas, and only as a side on the kiddie menu. Frankly, I was upset when they went to a menu in English because it hurt the authenticity of the place in my mind. Fortunately, the food spoke louder than the language change. See your brand from the consumer’s eyes and you won’t get too far out of bounds. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

Snow In The South

It snowed here in North Carolina last night. I awoke to find maybe two inches of the white stuff. Having lived almost my entire life in New York and Connecticut, my immediate thoughts were “how pretty” and “no big deal.” Then I remembered where I was. We got what I would call an overnight accumulation here last February (under an inch, seriously), and it closed the schools for four days.

In my mind, there is about a foot/inch ratio which applies to the level of hysteria and inconvenience here. An inch of snow here is the equivalent to a foot up north. The local TV stations have been nothing but the weather for the last day and the excitement in the reporters’ voices as they stand by some highway pointing to a dusting is palpable.

There is, of course, a business thought or two in all of this. One is that of perspective. My perspective on snow is very different from that of my neighbors, most of whom rarely have ever had to deal with it. Don’t let your own perspective corrupt your ability to get inside that of your partners, vendors, and customers.

Next is emergency planning. Despite the rarity of snow here, many of the roads were pre-treated with brine before the snowfall to help keep the roads clear. That means the authorities have both the equipment and the knowledge (brine actually works better than rock salt and is way more cost effective than clearing the snow later) to be proactive. They had a plan. Can you say that you have a plan, the tools you’ll need, and the knowledge required to handle most emergencies that happen in your business?

I’ll probably just hunker down today and let nature take its course. It’s a sunny day with the temperature back above freezing so the snow won’t be here long. Nevertheless, it’s been here long enough to remind me of a couple of business truisms. You?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On