Category Archives: Huh?

I’m Sick Of Scammers

Another year, another scammer surfaces. I’ve written many times in this space about marketers who try to take advantage of people’s limited attention spans and fear of all things “official”. The mail delivered another example of one to my doorstep the other day and I want to tell you about them. Admittedly, part of this is venting but another part is a very real concern that many marketers have lowered their standards to a point where they’ll do just about anything to drive business. It’s even worse when the business itself is a scam.

North Carolina, like many states, requires that all businesses file an annual report with the Secretary Of State. If you’ve never done that, it’s a very easy process that can be completed online in about 3 minutes. I had to do the same thing when my LLC was registered in Connecticut and the process was equally easy. You check a few boxes and pay the fee. Easy peasy.

In the mail the other day was an official-looking document – 2020 Annual Report Instructions Form.  The blanks in the form were already pre-populated with my LLC’s information. It also contained the language from the general statutes about having to file an annual report. I thought it was something the state had sent until I gave it more than a cursory look.

In a different typeface was a sentence that said this was being sent by a third-party who would file my report for me. Just send along the $292 fee and that would be that. Of course, the filing fee is only $202 – the other $90 was what this company was scamming me for. The grift IS the business – there is very little, if any, work involved otherwise.

My first thought when I saw the form was, oh, I’ll do this online, as I do pretty much everything. My next thought was “wait, this isn’t the state, this is a scam.” The thought after that was “some percentage of business owners are going to fall for this.” It has all the right information and it’s very official-looking. Of course, anyone can get that information on the state’s website and matching the state’s form and typeface isn’t exactly rocket science.

I admit there are a couple of disclaimers that the company is not affiliated with the state but why should anyone have to read very carefully to avoid being taken advantage of? Are they providing a service? I suppose so, but why not offer the service in a clear manner instead of trying to obfuscate that you’re charging $90 to save someone a few minutes’ work?

If you market a product or service, the road to profitability isn’t made easier by misleading or scamming your customers. Let’s not do that. Even better, let’s shine some sunlight on those scammers who do.

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

New Year, New Protein, Same Problems

Happy New Year and Happy Foodie Friday! I hope you all had safe and enjoyable holidays. I did and I used the break to do some experimenting in the kitchen. If you’re like me you probably have a dozen or so stand-bys that you cook a lot of the time. For me, these tend to get repeated with some frequency as I’m planning the menus for the week.

One “resolution” for this year is to try to be less meat-centric in my cooking so I used the holidays to try a few new things, one of which was a tofu recipe. While I do have a daughter who’s a vegan and an expert tofu preparer, I’m certainly not. Because of that, I was more dependent on the recipe I found that I might be with many other proteins. I bought all of the ingredients and followed the directions carefully.

Here is where the problem arose and it gets to the business point I’d like to make today. The ingredient list was very specific about using Sambal Oelek, which the recipe termed a “spicy garlic sauce.” That’s what I bought. I didn’t take the time to scroll through the comments on the recipe (an error I won’t make going forward) or I would have seen this exchange:

Commentor: sambal oelek doesn’t contain garlic. i’m looking at the ingredients and it’s ground chilis, vinegar, salt, and preservatives. is it possible you mean huy fong chili garlic sauce?

Author: AHH omg, you are right!!! That is exactly what I meant. They’re so similar in packaging that I just thought they were interchangeable names 😦

So I bought the wrong stuff. That’s not my issue, however. The date of the post was September of 2018. The author has known for over a year that the recipe is wrong and hasn’t corrected it to reflect the proper sauce. That’s what got me thinking about a number of points this illustrates.

First, we all know to be careful about things we read on the internet but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that we need to delve more deeply into everything we read. Don’t take what you’re reading at face value. Find other sources. Dig more deeply. This reminded me to use my cookbooks as a source more often rather than the internet. I know the cookbooks have been vetted by people who cook everything carefully to assure the recipes are right.

Second, if we create content, I think we have an obligation to make sure what we post is accurate and if we find out that it’s not, we have an obligation to correct it. We should also point out the correction. Legitimate sources do that. If you want to be considered a trustworthy source, you need to do it too.

Third, the young woman who runs this blog (which is very nicely designed) seems to be trying to run it professionally even if it’s a side-gig from her regular job. My issue isn’t that her style is very light and fun. It’s HER style and every business should have their own. The problem is that light and fun can’t mean posting smiley faces when there’s an error. You need to take action. I can almost hear the “whatever” in her response to the above comment and this exchange which comes from the recipe saying to brown all 4 sides of the tofu cubes:

There are 6 sides to a cube, not 4…..

Yes, someone has always pointed that out to me. I haven’t gotten around to changing it in the recipe; it doesn’t affect the recipe in any way that I can’t get my shapes right 😉

A minor point? Sure. Is she right that it doesn’t affect the dish? Probably. But it does affect her audience’s perception of her professionalism and maturity. These two corrections would probably have taken her under a minute to make.

Make a resolution be accurate in everything you post in 2020. More importantly, promise to correct your errors. There is just too much misinformation out there, isn’t there?

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Filed under digital media, food, Helpful Hints, Huh?

We’re Not Stupid

I do quite a bit of headshaking these days. We won’t talk about the political stuff that causes me to do so but there are just as many things outside of politics to trigger the behavior. I’d like to talk about one of them today because it’s instructive for anyone in business.

One term that’s become en vogue is “alternative facts.” You know what I mean – the dissemination of pieces of information that are mostly or completely untrue. Orwell termed them “doublethink“. I term them lies.

What brought this on? I subscribe to a bunch of magazines – golf publications, cooking publications, and several others. This time of year, in particular, I get snail mail with offers to send a gift subscription. Some ask me to renew or extend my existing subscription and offer to send a free gift subscription to someone as a thank you. So far, so good. These offers are usually clear and only mildly annoying.

Then there is one publication that just doesn’t get it. It’s part of a larger family of magazines and I wonder if what I’m about to describe goes on at the other publications as well. An envelope shows up stamped first notice. I’m told my subscription is expiring and I should renew. A few weeks later comes the second notice. Last week, I got some mail marked THIRD NOTICE in large letters outside the envelope. Inside was the same notice I’d already received twice – my subscription was going to expire (aren’t we all?) and I need to renew ASAP for uninterrupted service.

Here’s the problem. I just renewed this subscription last year for several years. Just to be sure, I found the last issue and sure enough, there on the mailing label was the expiration date. It’s January alright. January 2021. I’ve got a year to go. I wanted to confirm this so I logged on to my account on the magazine’s website. My account lets me use the site’s “recipe box” which I do quite a bit but for some inexplicable reason, it’s not linked to my magazine subscription. When I click on the “manage account” link, up pops a new tab asking me to renew. Again, there’s an assumption that you’re dumb and will just renew because a very in-your-face page is telling you that you need to. In order to see your current account, you need to click through on the FAQ link at the foot of the page and scroll until you find a link to “log in to your account”. Of course, when I finally found this and did so, I confirmed that I had a year to go on my subscription.

Putting the awful user experience aside, what’s bugging me is that these publishers think their readers are dumb. They seem to believe that sending out misleading notices with “alternative facts” will lead to renewals. I wish I could say they were unique but they’re not. I’m sure you get the same kinds of “notices” that I get. My home warranty is expiring (I don’t have one), I can have a “free security system” (it’s far from free), and on and on.

Companies that think we’re stupid deserve to be out of business. I’m well aware of Mencken’s statement that “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”. We need, instead, to think like David Ogilvy: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife”. Putting aside that deceptive marketing just might be illegal, doesn’t it bother you to be thought of as an idiot?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Don’t Waste My Time

I wasn’t going to write this week until Foodie Friday but I got aggravated and this seems to be one of my saner outlets to express my frustrations. As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I moved into a new home last February. In the new home, since it is newly constructed, are brand-new appliances. So far, they’ve been wonderful.

I especially like the ice-maker feature built into the fridge. That’s why, when it wouldn’t dispense ice last evening, I was horrified to find that the ice maker seems to have ingested itself. Somehow the little plastic tray that forms the ice and dumps it into the bin got tangled in the worm screw that pushes the ice to the dispenser. To paraphrase the Soup Nazi, no ice for me.

This morning I called the folks at Sears bright and early (7:30 eastern) to get a repair person out here and this is where the business angle comes in. If you’ve been following Sears at all in the business press (or even in this space), you know that they are in all kinds of financial trouble. Without getting into why that is, it’s safe to say that the last thing they want to do at this point is to alienate a customer. You with me so far?

Back to the phone call. Obviously, the fridge is still under warranty – it’s not even a year old. I called the number on their website that gets you to service for products under warranty and was greeted by an AI bot. I’m not a fan of these things – I think they aren’t that great yet and I’ve been frustrated more than once by a bot that couldn’t get what it was I wanted. Without a lot of gory details, I got this one to send me to a human. Except the humans weren’t in yet. “Please call back during business hours.” I spent 4 minutes getting to that point. They didn’t even bother to say what “business hours” were and in which time zone.

Let’s not alienate a customer, right? What would I have done differently? First, maybe they shouldn’t answer the phone with anything other than “our business hours are…” and ask you to call back. Even better – ask for my phone number so you can call me back when you get in. Don’t tie me up for several minutes and waste my time.

Sears isn’t the only company I’ve had a negative experience today. Two members of my family ordered new phones from ATT. Neither wanted insurance, told the salesperson so, and yet both were going to be billed $8.99/month without their permission. I know only because I got the “welcome to your new insurance” email since I’m the main account holder. That means more time out of my day to fix a problem that neither I nor my family members made.

If you run a business, especially a business that’s in financial distress or a business that is in an insanely competitive area, spend more time hugging your customers. Find ways to reduce their pain. Don’t waste their time or connive ways to take their money. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Living For The Likes

I’ve been meaning to mention the thing that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all either testing or have deployed outside of the USA: killing the like count. They’re not eliminating the positive feedback (or any other kind) that people reading your content provide. What they’re doing is deemphasizing it by not showing total like counts. I, for one, am a fan and I’ll tell you why.

Actually, I won’t tell you. I’ll instead quote a Wired piece on the subject of living for the like and tailoring your message and tactic accordingly:

These tactics are attracting increased scrutiny, about their impact on the health of the internet and on society at large. Publicly measurable indicators—including views, retweets, or likes—are “one of the driving forces in radicalization,” says Whitney Phillips, a media manipulation researcher and associate professor at Syracuse University. It works both ways, she says. A user can be radicalized by consuming content and a creator can be radicalized by users’ reactions to their content, as they tailor their behavior around what garners the most interest from their audience.

Unfortunately for marketers, it also eliminates a metric that many marketers use to guide both their spending and their own content. While a minor disturbance in the marketing Force, they’ll get over it and move on to something else. My hope is that it destroys the “influencer” world. I’ve never been a fan and if this hastens its demise, I’m all for it. These are vanity metrics and not real measures of engagement which can be tracked in other ways. It’s also the final solution to those scam artists that sell fake “likes”.

The real issue for me is that many people – especially young ones – seem to develop feelings of inadequacy if they can’t generate sufficient “likes.” Maybe it even deters them from sharing anything in the first place and withdrawing.  For those of us that were there when all of this social stuff began, it’s been hard to watch it go from a great way to stay in touch with your friends and family to a weaponized space where trolls proliferate and it’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

I’m sure there are some selfish business reasons behind these moves while remaining hopeful that it’s really the start of the social media company’s coming to grips with all of the downsides of their worlds. When you like these screeds, do I see the counts? Sure. Do I change what I have written? In broad strokes, yes, but not based on the likes as much as on the overall readership and responses. In the 11 years I’ve been writing the screed, things such as a regular post on music (TunesDay!) and blogs about research (only rarely now) have gone because you don’t read them. Would I still write on those topics if I thought I could produce something that would interest you? Of course, likes be damned.

Live for today, not for the like.  You with me?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

Don’t Surprise Me

You just can’t be too careful these days, can you? It seems that we hear every day about another data breach involving stolen credit card numbers or passwords or anything from your search history to your online shopping list. If you don’t pay much attention to your data security you are definitely, as my Dad used to say, cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

Since I try to make it a habit to practice what I preach, I’m quite careful about security. I use a password manager and I don’t generally store credit card numbers online, preferring to use that password manager to fill in the number as needed. It was quite disturbing, therefore, when my phone buzzed like a tornado was imminent yesterday. It was American Express notifying me of what they thought might be a fraudulent charge at the Microsoft online store. An email arrived simultaneously, telling me about the charge and asking me to click if I had knowledge of it. I didn’t and told them so, which immediately canceled my Amex card (and to their credit, Amex immediately generated a new number and I’ll have a new card today – why I’ve been a member since 1979).

Imagine my surprise this morning when I got an email from Microsoft telling me they “tried to charge your Xbox Live Gold subscription on Tuesday, August 20, 2019, but the charge of $60.59 to American Express was unsuccessful.” Well, no kidding. I told Amex not to pay it because I didn’t know that it was the renewal of something I very much did want to renew. Maybe if Microsoft gave me a little advance notice, which is what many other companies whose products I auto-renew to a credit card do, I wouldn’t have clicked the button that will now result in my having to change credit card numbers on several other things – my cell phone bill, two newspaper subscriptions and several magazines, and a streaming service among them. Every one of them notifies me before charging my card so that I’m expecting the charge. I guess Microsoft hasn’t figured out that when it comes to charges on a credit card people do NOT like to be surprised.

Had Microsoft put on their customer-focused thinking caps, they would have recognized that. Instead, I’m sure someone thought “let’s not give them the chance to cancel and go ahead and charge the auto-renew without telling them ahead of time.” That’s bad customer communication and bad strategy. By keeping the customer’s needs and perspective front and center, we won’t make mistakes like this. Agreed?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Pumpkin Spice

This Foodie Friday, we’re taking a leap ahead into Fall, and if Fall means one thing to most people, it’s pumpkin spice. I know – you were thinking football, but no, my guess is that far more people are affected by the pumpkin spice thing than the pigskin thing. It’s a relatively recent development as spice companies didn’t actually make “pumpkin pie spice” until the 1950s and that became “pumpkin spice” in the 1960s. Some candle company began marketing a pumpkin spice candle in 1995, Starbucks picked up the flavor after many small coffee shops did, and the rest is food history.

Today, I saw what might be the last straw in the craze: Pumpkin Spice Spam. This is not a joke – it will be available only online and there are already cans of it out in the wild. Apparently, it doesn’t taste too bad – kind of like breakfast sausage. While I’m generally a believer in the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” philosophy, I think we just might have hit our limits here, although one might wonder where that limit lies after pumpkin spice hummus, Four Loko, Pringles, gum, and vodka, to name only a few of the products that are out there.

There is a serious business point to be made here. Pumpkin spice is a flavor and a scent, and of course, you can add either of those things to a product to make it seasonally relevant, at least to some people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should which is the broader business point. There are often moments in business when we’re confronted with what some might call opportunities while others might see them as dilemmas. A bank might be able to make more money if it charges its own customers a fee to use their own ATMs or to have a debit card. That’s a bad idea.

There was a great piece published years ago called “Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them.” It talked about charging penalties and fees especially in the cell phone, cable, and banking industries. It concluded:

One of the most influential propositions in marketing is that customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets profits. Why, then, do so many companies infuriate their customers by binding them with contracts, bleeding them with fees, confounding them with fine print, and otherwise penalizing them for their business? Because, unfortunately, it pays. Companies have found that confused and ill-informed customers, who often end up making poor purchasing decisions, can be highly profitable indeed.

I don’t think that adding pumpkin spice to an already good product is on a level with some of the outrageous fees we’re charged as consumers but it illustrates the point that just because we can do something in business doesn’t mean that we should. Not only do you run the risk of having seasonal merchandise go unsold (unhappy retailers!) but also of having customers question your sanity. Neither is good business in my book. Yours?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Reality checks