Monthly Archives: January 2019

Lucky Or Good

I have a rant for you today and I’m going to say upfront that it is not political in nature although as you read it you might think that it’s my intention to make it so.

One of the things I’ve noticed in business is that we tend to put people who are rich or successful (and usually both) on a pedestal. We assume that they know a heck of a lot more than we do because they are rich or successful. We listen to them give speeches and prognosticate on business and the world. The reality is that more often than not they’re more the beneficiaries of “right place, right time” than they are smart.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a few examples in tech. The founders of Google at one time said they’d never take ads because it might throw in to question the purity of their search results. It took a non-founder, a person you probably have never heard of, to convince them that great computer science is one thing but running a business that has investors is quite another. Advertising is what makes Google profitable. Are the founders smart or lucky?

Think of all of Google’s products or Facebook’s for that matter. Besides the “core” product, what have they invented that demonstrate that they’re not just a one-trick pony? YouTube? Instagram? What’s App? Sorry, all acquisitions. Most of the features or products they have were created elsewhere and either bought or copied. Think about how many failed products or features those companies have produced. I’d suggest that they, like many in tech, we much luckier than they were good and yet we venerate many of them as if they were Einstein.

Then there are those in business who were born on third base. These are the ones who came from money and often are working in a family business. The positions they’re in can command respect but unlike those people who advance into those positions via hard work and demonstrating talent, these folks are often unsuited for jobs several levels below where they are. I’ve encountered several of them in my career and did my best to avoid them in business dealings.

Would I rather be lucky than good? I often say exactly that, mostly after a wayward golf shot hits something and ricochets back into a good spot. Studies have shown that we can create luck by being extroverted, observant, and positive It also helps to have perfect timing as many of those who got rich in the early internet days did. The really smart ones got out, recognizing that when a rogue wave throws you out of the ocean rather than drowning you, use the dry land to run away.

This isn’t prompted by anything other than a two-hour car drive which afforded me some time to think. I’ve been both lucky and, I think, pretty good. Life isn’t a zero sum game and I don’t begrudge these charlatans their success. I do, however, wish some of them would stop confusing their success or the jobs they hold with who they are as people and what skills they possess. Hopefully, none of us are doing that, right?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Slow Down

“Fail fast” has become one of the mantras of our age. The notion is that iterating fast failures will get us to the desired result faster than taking our time and seeking a more perfect answer. I agree that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that at some point the cost of reducing variance and getting to the perfect far exceeds the benefits derived from actually getting there. But I’m not so sure that slowing down and taking a bit more time is a bad thing. Let me explain why.

People are deluged these days. Marketing messages overwhelm them. We don’t have 100 channels of entertainment nor even 1,000. There is an unlimited and expanding number of sources, both physical and digital, of entertainment. Walk into any supermarket and the product offerings in almost any category boggle the mind. Why is this a big deal? Because I don’t think you get a second chance. If you’re not solving a problem and creating value for the customer right out of the box, you’re dead. That means that you have to get it right the first time.

How many apps have you installed and removed from your phone because they didn’t meet your expectations the first time you opened the app? Was version 2.0 better? Who knows – they had their chance. How many new restaurants have you tried that were disappointing either in food or service and not returned? Did the menu evolve and new a manager show up to fix service? Who knows or cares – there are plenty of other options.

I’ve noticed it in a bad habit I have. My brain is often working too fast as I’m listening to people and I will often respond before I’ve listened to all the information they are trying to convey to me. I need to slow it down a bit so my first answer to them is the right answer and not something that I need to revise.

If you make things, do market research. If you write things, proofread them and put them aside to read them again in 5 minutes instead of hitting “send”. We all feel the time crunch and the need to get stuff done, but slow down a bit. Your results will be better and you’ll actually save time since you won’t need to do it all over again as more information changes your thinking. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Something To Talk About

I’m going to return to an old theme this Foodie Friday. I’ve written about how happy customers breed more happy customers but I came across a piece of food-related research that reinforced that message. Since I think it’s one of the most critical tenets in any business – food-related or not – I’m sharing it here today.

A recent survey by reservation platform SevenRooms found that more than half of American diners (54 percent) turn to friends and family for restaurant recommendations. About 30 percent consult review sites like Yelp, and 25 percent were influenced by something they saw on TV, according to the survey. About 35 percent of diners said they have eaten at a restaurant because they saw it on social media. Among those platforms, Facebook had the most influence (23 percent), with Instagram (10 percent), YouTube (9 percent) and Twitter (7 percent) far behind.

So word of mouth isn’t dead, and the way that one generates the best word of mouth is to create a memorably wonderful experience for the customer. I don’t believe that the restaurant industry is any different from any other in this regard. Let’s think for a moment about what that great experience really means. I think it means that the business provides an experience that distracts the customer from whatever else is on their minds. It provides a break and enjoyment. It gives the customer something to talk about afterward – something positive. It makes the customer feel that whatever they paid for the service or product they received they received better than fair value. Their expectations were exceeded. It’s the totality of the customer experience. It’s a combination of items offered but also the service quality in which those items are offered.

That’s the sort of stuff that people talk and write about. Have you ever left a business with the feeling that you couldn’t wait to tell someone about it? I have and those become the businesses with which I gladly spend a good deal of time and money. One small example from going out for breakfast this morning. The server greeted me and said, “coffee and a small container of milk for it, right?” She remembered that I can’t stand the little containers of non-diary creamer or half and half that many places – including hers – put out for coffee. A small thing but among the many reasons I keep going back and tell others to do the same.

What business has given you something positive to talk about? I spent a lot of this week telling you about some businesses that managed to do the opposite. It’s much more fun to write and talk about when businesses get it right don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, food

The Easy Way Out For Whom?

It seems as if I’m writing a series of posts inspired by my having decided to purchase a new house. I guess when we shake up our lives a bit we get inspired, or at least we get confronted by how some businesses are a lot better than others in many ways.

Today’s tale is yet another head-shaker. One of the things I found myself needing as I planned out my new digs was a few pieces of furniture. Like many people, I took to the internet to browse online and I found things at both Wayfair and Ikea that were priced well and seemed to be of good quality. The closest Ikea store is three hours from me and Wayfair only operates online, so I did my ordering via the web.

The orders showed up pretty much on time. There was a delay in the Ikea boxes due to the fact that I wasn’t at the new house to receive them. Of course, while Ikea told me the time window in which things would arrive, they never said someone had to be there. A call to customer service and we rescheduled delivery for a few days later. If you’re telling the customer when the boxes will arrive, why not also tell them they need to be around while you have their attention? Wayfair’s deliveries were just placed on the porch without incident.

That, however, is far from the end of the tale. The real fun began after I opened the boxes. I needed to assemble the furniture and of course, the first step is to make sure all the pieces and hardware had arrived safely. They hadn’t. In two cases, one from each company, a key piece of the item was damaged and not just cosmetically. I needed replacement pieces before I could go any further.

This is where the head shaking begins. Ikea’s website says:

If you are not able to visit the store, and only one piece of the unit is damaged, call us within 365 days of the purchase with your receipt information and we will be happy to deliver the missing items within 7-10 days.

Wayfair’s policy is:

Through our online portal you can:

  • Order free replacement parts (e.g. table legs, missing screws)
  • Replace the entire item for free
  • Get in touch with Customer Service

Be sure to complete this process within 30 days of your delivery date.

No problem in either case. I contacted them and told them exactly which parts were damaged, even using the part numbers out of the assembly manuals. Want to guess what I was told? Neither company ships parts. Instead, they would ship me a complete item. I could then take the damaged part from the box and throw away or donate the rest. Huh?
These are not small items. A large bookcase from Ikea and a desk from Wayfair, each of which weighed around 100 lbs in the boxes. How is it possible it costs less to send a complete item than to have some system for having inventory replacement parts? I get that these items come pre-packaged from many manufacturers. I’m also sure these companies can track which parts of which items often show up damaged (that’s what data is for, right?). Why not order a stock of those parts instead of devastating your margins by shipping two complete items and only getting paid for one?
Many of us in business do things because it’s the easy way out. We don’t take the time to question a system that seems to be working even though it’s not optimal. When things have “always been done that way” or when a report shows up regularly and heads right to the recycling bin, we don’t ask ourselves “why” often enough. The system these two companies have doesn’t really work for anyone except the folks in the warehouse and the shipping companies. The margins are bad. The customer has to dispose of a lot of wood and packaging they don’t want or need. But I guess they think it’s working. Are you making the same mistake?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Happy MLK Day. Dream On!

I think I got it right last year so I’m reposting it this year along with the introduction I wrote at the time. Happy birthday, Dr. King!

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 than 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

Fixing The Food

This Foodie Friday, our subject is a bit more somber than usual. It’s a report put out by The Lancet, which is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal. It is among the world’s oldest, most prestigious, and best known general medical journals, according to Wikipedia. The subject of the report is what healthy diets from sustainable food systems should look like. Unfortunately, where the world is at the moment is neither healthy nor sustainable.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the entire report here. It’s eye-opening. As the introduction says:

Civilization is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronization with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.

Not good right? We can discuss the causes (are the excess carbon emissions generated from red meat production inherent in the process or just in having to move the meat such great distances?) but we really do need to acknowledge that there is a problem and something needs to change. And that’s really the business point for anyone engaged in business.

Not only do markets change but circumstances do as well. I’m sure that it didn’t start out this way and there is a lot of cultural history behind it, but the report says people in North America eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat, while people in South Asia eat half of what they should. Of course, shipping red meat to South Asia causes carbon emissions as well as provides a product that might not be affordable. What’s the solution? That’s for people way smarter than me.

Another example of changing circumstances. We’ve all seen businesses fail or have to move because of a huge increase in rent. That’s not a changed market and the business might be selling every bit as much as it was before. But short of raising prices, thereby possibly killing sales and destroying a customer base, what’s the solution? Usually, it’s to move and hope your customers move with you.

We can’t ignore things beyond the market. People are hungry – nearly 1 billion people are going hungry while 2 billion people are eating too much. There is demand for food. It’s a healthy market. But ignoring the circumstances that the business of creating it is destroying humans’ long-term prospects is short-sighted, something none of us in business can afford to be, right?

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Filed under food, Reality checks, What's Going On

When Free Is $99

If you’ve not moved or bought a house recently, you are probably unfamiliar with the deluge of mail you receive for everything from supplemental mortgage insurance to yard services to security systems. The last time I bought a new place was in 1985 when it must have been a lot more difficult to pull together all the names and addresses of those people filing deeds or getting new mortgages. Apparently, it isn’t today.

One of the offers that showed up in the mailbox on Monday came from…well…I actually am not really sure from whom it came since there wasn’t a return address. It says it wants to welcome me to the neighborhood with a FREE OFFER! Of course, nothing in this world is free and this offer isn’t any different. The “free” security system will be installed with a $99 customer installation charge and the payment of $28 a month for monitoring. The free offer will only cost $435 the first year, and you have to sign a three-year agreement. Nice, right?  The fine print, which takes up a third of the second page, also mentions that labor charges might apply and that there are additional fees for various monitoring services beyond the basic. There are also limits on how many sensors you can get if your home isn’t prewired. Of course, it also comes with a $100 Visa gift card, so I got that working for me, which is nice.

This is yet another example of shady marketing. Sure, it’s a free offer in that the offer is free. The alarm and monitoring will run you thousands of dollars. The company behind it is called Protect Your Home and out of the 63 reviews for one location on Yelp, 59 are one-star reviews. There are complaints about being lied to by technicians, missed appointments, non-existent customer service, and even forged signatures. The BBB shows 1,630 complaints in the last three years. One can’t help but wonder why ADT, for whom they are an authorized reseller, doesn’t monitor how their brand is being marketed and serviced.

Trust is everything in marketing these days. A lot of fine print, unless it’s the sort of regulatory stuff the government makes you write as in a drug ad, is generally not a good indicator of trustworthiness. “Free” should really be free or the word should not be used. It sets an expectation which this company clearly doesn’t come close to meeting when the offer is broken down in detail. Honest marketing is one of the first steps to happy, satisfied, long-term customers. Beginning any relationship with a lie or half-truth really isn’t, is it?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?