Category Archives: Helpful Hints

Phones Up!

I went to a startup conference yesterday and something that I saw going on made me feel…well…old. But it also got me thinking.

I don’t know about you, but I like to take notes at these sorts of things. I’ve always done it, even before my brain stopped remembering what is was I had wanted when I’d walked into the kitchen to get something. When you’re getting hit up with a lot of interesting stuff on various topics all at once, I find that notes read later after the heat of battle had subsided help with context and perspective.

So there I sat, pen in hand, paper on lap. I didn’t bring a laptop although, in retrospect, that should probably be my habit in the future since my handwriting gets so little use that it’s deteriorated. It’s now less legible than most physicians’. Maybe that’s because I do use my laptop for notes when I’m in the office.

On came the keynote speaker. Several folks in the crowd looked as I did – pen, paper, and open ears. Other had their laptops fired up. In general, they were younger and geekier than the pen/paper crowd. But then came the phone folks.

As I surveyed the room, each time a slide changed, up went dozens of phones. They were taking pictures of the slides, not of the speaker. In fact, note-taking via photograph seemed to be more the mode than the way I was doing things. Combine those photos with some notes (there are apps that let you annotate the photos with notes!) and you’re all set.

So here are a few random thoughts:

  • How many speakers are optimizing their slides for photo note taking? Very few, I’ll bet, yet that was by far the preferred method of note taking in the room yesterday.
  • Has anyone studied the differences in remembering and/or understanding when you don’t actually write the notes? To this day, if I want to remember something I write it down. Not because I want to refer to the note but because the act of writing it down makes me remember it.
  • Not one speaker offered to email their deck to the room. Obviously, that’s not a big deal if it’s a panel discussion, but there were several presentations. That’s a great way to gather a lot of data – who was there, for example – that might help you sell, hire, or find new connections. Maybe a missed opportunity.
  • Kids in schools use computers almost exclusively in some places. I know the schools will sometimes teach Word and Excel (or their non-MS counterparts) but are they teaching One Note/Evernote/etc.? Learning how to learn is awfully important, right?
  • Our brains are wired differently here in the digital age than they were 30 years ago. Like everything else, notetaking has evolved, and maybe not for the better. What do you think? How do you take notes?
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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Your Best Steak Forward

It’s Foodie Friday and we’re back to our regular nonsense here on the screed. Today I want you to think back to that time when you ordered takeout and it was not very good. I’m sure you’ve had such an instance: we all have. Maybe you ordered some fried dumplings that showed up as soggy as your recently washed laundry. Maybe the pasta dish you ordered had aggregated itself into a small object better suited for football than eating. Maybe you ordered a steak frites to go and it didn’t travel well. No one likes soggy fries and a cool steak doused in cooling, congealing butter.

For many restaurants, takeout has become a critical part of their business. Life today often leaves little time for cooking at home, especially during the week. Think about how many places you know that have only a few tables but do a ton of takeout. The growth of delivery services and apps has accelerated the trend while actually decreasing profitability (the services take a cut of the bill and in many cases, it’s close to the entire margin on the order). I’m not sure, however, that many restaurateurs put enough thought into putting their best products out there for takeout. Why sell something that you know won’t travel well?

Putting your best steak forward, so to speak, is something that every business should do. The most customer-friendly takeout situations have a separate counter to speed customer service. They might have a menu that’s priced a little differently since the costs of servicing a customer are different. They pack hot foods apart from cold foods and they take care to make sure that condensation in the hot food doesn’t make it soggy (vent holes, people). As with any customer encounter, how you present your brand matters. I wouldn’t even offer to sell a customer a product that I know won’t travel well. If they’ve enjoyed it before in my place, they’ll be disappointed. If it’s their first time, they won’t be back. We see this in businesses that take on jobs for which they’re ill-suited. I’ve turned down many opportunities over the years to build people websites since my ability to design and to code is not up to my ability to perform other tasks. That’s not my best steak.

Is that something your business is doing? Are you gathering data and keeping records of every customer interaction? Are you constantly looking for feedback so you can adjust your menu? Are you putting your best steak forward each and every time?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

Learning From Ed Mitchell

I’m going to start the week with something a little unusual (for me, anyway). Although I’ve moved out of my little town in Connecticut I still follow the local happenings there via a couple of local blogs. One of the best is from Dan Woog, a life-long resident. One of his posts this morning really resonated and I thought it would be a great way to start the week here on the screed. You can read Dan’s entire post here and I’d urge you to do so. However, I’m going to summarize some of it below.

The subject is a local clothing store, Ed Mitchells. What resonated with me is how the store puts the customer first and foremost. In an era when the death of local retail at the hands of national chains and online giants is being screamed about in the business press, Mitchells demonstrates that its possible for any business to succeed if it follows a few principles we’ve often discussed here. They know their market and their customers and go way beyond whatever expectations whose customers have. Having shopped there myself I can tell you that this commitment is visible even to the infrequent customer such as myself. Yes, the store is very expensive. Yes, some of what it carries can be found in department stores at lower prices. But I’ll grab a few quotes from Dan’s blog to demonstrate how Mitchells has managed to overcome the challenges many businesses face through great service.

Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people…When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of…An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen. A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Are those things you’d be willing to do for a client or customer? To demonstrate that this isn’t all store PR, here is one quote from the comments to Dan’s piece:

So here is a great Mitchells story. A friend of mine had to go to London for an emergency work week and dropped all of his suits off to be cleaned and it was Saturday night when he realized he had none of his suits. Here is your fashion emergency. He called Mitchells and they not only opened the store on Sunday for him for 30 minutes to get a few suits, but they had the tailor meet them there and alterations done by 3pm for his night flight.

If you want to be in business for 60 years and counter all the negative trends in your industry, Ed Mitchells is a great place for you to look for inspiration, don’t you think?

 

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Hurricane’s Comin’

I went to bed last night after watching my favorite weather forecaster give a rather dire outlook for this week. When I moved to North Carolina I opted for hurricanes over blizzards, I guess, and now it appears that one is headed right for us.

I ran out earlier to pick up a case of water bottles just in case the forecasts are accurate. The local Walmart had nary a bottle anywhere, and the long aisle of empty shelving reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who had this idea four days ahead of when this thing is supposed to pay us a visit. I’ve got lots of ice to hold the food and lots of wine to hold me so I think I’ll be fine.

On the drive home I thought to myself that it was pretty cool how everyone is going about their business and preparing. There weren’t any D batteries at Walmart either and there were lines at the gas stations I passed. People are trying, as we were constantly told in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.” Which leads me to today’s screed.

There is a hurricane headed for your business. It might not be on your radar yet or you may have red flags raised over your beaches, but you can rest assured that at some point a massive, devastating storm will hit you. The thing is that you need to have a disaster place in place and preparations made long before that time arrives. Was Chipotle ready for the massive e. coli outbreak? It almost destroyed them and they still haven’t recovered. What if the power grid fails for whatever reason and all of your refrigerated inventory must be thrown out? What’s the plan to deal with that and are there financial plans in place to recover?

You need a crisis response team and a disaster plan. Your key players from all your relevant business functions – operations, public relations, marketing, quality assurance, legal, etc. – have to have been briefed on the plan long before it’s executed. I’ve written before about how my organization’s web servers failed after 9/11 due to a lack of dust filters that forced the shutdown of the emergency power we were careful to have at our disposal. When the crisis had passed, we rewrote the disaster plan to account for yet another “just in case.”

Hurricanes happen. The question isn’t how to prevent hurricanes but how best to prepare and recover from any damage they cause when they do. I’m ready for this one. Are you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, What's Going On

The Sense Of Being Valued

I was reading an article about an emerging form of advertising the other day. It’s a form in which people who view ads are paid for having done so. You can read the article about it here but one thing in the article got me thinking and I hope it has the same effect on you.

The CEO of the company that’s doing this – AdWallet – was asked if this was just “slackers” trying to put a few extra bucks in their pockets. What he had to say was this:

They’re not Millennial slackers looking to earn money on the side, he says. Instead, the average AdWallet user is 45 years or older and earns more than $100,000 a year. The main reason they have been using the platform, he says, is not the money, but the sense of being valued (emphasis added).

That’s something that often gets lost in the marketing process, especially when expressing value to our customers takes a backseat to making more money off of them. For example, many companies are using chat-bots for customer service. Nothing infuriates me more than when I have a problem and, after having tried to solve the problem myself, I call customer service only to reach a phone tree. Reaching a bot instead of a human using many companies’ “live chat” help feature is just as bad. The message I get is “we value profits more than we value you.”

It’s almost as bad as when I get a human and they have no insight at all as to who I am. I give them account information or order numbers and they have no record of past transactions or the fact that I might have called in the past with an issue. I had this experience recently with one of the large ticketing companies. I was supposed to get a CD with at ticket purchase and the code they sent didn’t work. I spent 20 minutes reaching a human who promised me to get back to me with an answer. It’s been two months: No CD and no explanation. Message received: “we are so damn big that we don’t have to care.”

I’ve had similar issues with financial service companies (almost an oxymoron there since their “service” is non-existent) and many others, as I’m sure you have. Yes, I sometimes express my frustration via social media and here on the screed. More often than not I do whatever I can do to avoid interacting with this company again, taking my business elsewhere is at all possible.

When I was running an online commerce store I used to remind our customer service types that I didn’t expect them to solve every problem that arose. What I did expect, however, is that every single customer knew that we valued them, were listening. and would do whatever we could to rectify the issue even if it meant we’d sacrifice some margin by expending time and resources to do so. It’s always easier to retain and up-sell an existing customer than to find a new customer. You do that by letting them know how much you value them on a regular basis. What was the last time you did that?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Married To Making A Decision

I had one of those wonderful Dad moments over the weekend. We walked our youngest daughter down the aisle to meet her true love under the wedding canopy. It’s one of those moments that really don’t hit you until you’re standing there at the back looking down the aisle. In my case, 28 years of this child’s (now woman’s) life came flooding back in a rush. I wonder what the pictures captured as we walked her forward?

Of course, the 48 hours preceding the wedding were a minor nightmare as family, friends, and others hustled to transform a huge empty space into a magical circus that could seat 130 for dinner as well as for the wedding ceremony. Place settings, table and site decorations, room for aerialists and fire-breathers (I’m not kidding), as well as dancing and food all needed to be pulled together. And that’s what leads to today’s screed because the entire process reminded me of one thing.

Nothing happens without someone making a decision. That sounds awfully basic but it almost crippled us as we set the wedding up. First, no one was really in charge and empowered to have the final call. Does the salad plate sit on the table or on the dinner plate? 10-minute discussion. Where should the dessert bar go? 10-minute discussion. Silverware rolled into napkins or placed separately? 10-minute discussion. Meanwhile, a dozen helpers are sitting idle and the clock is ticking.

It’s critical that decisions get made. It’s critical that there be firm deadlines set by which they’ll get made and that someone is empowered to make the decision at that deadline if one hasn’t been reached in some other way. The team needs to have a roadmap, a project plan with milestones. It’s a guide which can limit distractions (and emergency trips to the store!). Don’t go chasing every shiny object that presents itself and keep to the deadlines you set. Appoint a “benevolent monarch” whose word is law when those deadlines come.

As with most productions, there were things that didn’t go as planned and, as with most productions, no one in the audience noticed. The bride was gorgeous, the drinks were cold, and the dance floor crowded. The most important decision did get made: for two people to spend their lives together. We were all just lucky enough to watch that marriage happen. You, however, can’t run your business just on luck. Make some decisions!

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Pay What You Want

There is a new kind of restaurant that’s opened here and it’s our topic this Foodie Friday. It’s called A Place at the Table and here is the concept as reported in the local newspaper:

A Place at the Table puts its mission at the counter, inviting patrons to pay what they can afford: the suggested donation, a little extra, pay for someone else’s meal or pay one’s way through volunteering. Volunteer jobs could include sweeping, wiping tables and bringing food to guests.

It’s not fancy and it’s only open for breakfast and lunch, which of course will have the effect of keeping the total bill down anyway. In my mind, that makes it less painful for those of us who can afford it to in essence overpay. It’s an interesting business model, don’t you think? Apparently, they’re doing pretty well as well as doing a lot of good. They’re not the only ones doing this, of course.

As far back as 2014, there were many of these restaurants in business around the world. Now you might think that most people would try to eat for free but the opposite is really true. Most people tend to pay at least the prices listed on the menu and many pay more. In addition, these businesses are often supplemented by grants, donations, and free labor to offset their costs.

The restaurant business isn’t the only one where the pay what you can model is in place. Music has become another one, with several artists releasing albums and asking the public to pay them what they think it’s worth although some folks distinguish between pay what you can and pay what you want. In my mind, anyone who is willing to offer their product up for judgment and to allow the user to asses the value is operating under the same model.

We see it in software and video games. It’s even expanding to fashion and amusement parks. So here is my question for you today. How much would your typical user pay you if they were setting the price? Is it enough to cover the cost of the product? Enough for you to make a profit? Or do they find less value in what it is your offering than you’re currently charging them? If you think the last response is closer to the truth, you had better look around because it won’t be long before a competitor figures that out as well and undercuts you. If you’re already competing on price and you’re still answering with the last response, you had better spend some time on figuring out how to add value so customers will gladly pay what you’re asking.

Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints