Tag Archives: business thinking

Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Filed under Consulting, Music, Thinking Aloud

A Slice Of Menu Advice

It’s Foodie Friday and our fun this week derives from some things I took away from an article on pizzeria menus. I know – what is a guy whose consulting practice focuses on strategy and media doing reading an article on how to write a best-selling pizza menu? Well, as I’ve often mentioned, one never knows from where a great insight will spring and so it’s incumbent upon us to look under every rock and (pizza) stone, don’t you think?

The article, from Pizza Today, talks about a number of things that can drive more sales from the same menu. I think a number of those things are applicable to most businesses, food-related or not. First, there is such a thing as TMI – too much information. If the menu details every bit of information about each ingredient in the pizza (local mushrooms grown in special caves, organic, non-GMO cheese from a particular type of cow, etc.) it’s likely that the customer‘s eyes will glaze over and they’ll stop reading. I don’t need to tell you about information overload – most of us suffer from it and despite the often-cited false information that our attention spans are now shorter than those of a goldfish, I do believe our tolerance for excessive information has vanished. We’re all too time-challenged, so respect your customer by providing enough detail so that they can make an informed decision (it’s pecorino cheese)  but know that too much and they turn off (it’s pecorino, a hard, salty sheep’s milk cheese from Lazio).

The piece also talks about changing the menu a few times a year. One owner mentions that he

changes 25 to 30 percent of the menu about four times a year, “which we need to do as a neighborhood restaurant. It gives us a story to tell customers — why we have changed it up. That keeps customers excited and chefs stimulated and allows us to serve seasonal food.”

That’s a good thought regardless of your business. It’s imperative that you keep in touch with your customers but to do so you really need to have something to say. A new product or service or the fact that something that customers are used to seeing in your offerings will be discontinued is news. Too many businesses post what amounts to spam and make their user bases less like to engage when they really do have something to say.

Finally, the article mentions how the menu should call out information that is important such as gluten-free and dairy-free items along with upcharges. Recognizing that some customers have special needs and that most customers aren’t happy when they get it with fees they weren’t expecting is just common sense for anyone in business. We’ve been over the mess the airlines have made of doing fare-comparisons because almost no airline sells you a ticket without some sort of extra fee. The same is true of concert tickets, hotel rooms (those resort fees!), rental cars, and many other businesses. Are you happy when they pop up on your bill? Neither are your customers.

That’s what I learned from a pizza menu. You?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Taking The Temperature

Foodie Friday! As much as I’d like to write about Pimento Cheese on this Masters’ Friday, I have a business thought that comes from an article I read on whipped cream. The folks at Cook’s Illustrated, about which I’ve written before, have a science page as part of their website. On it, they present the results of their ongoing tests into food preparation and one of the things they investigated was the old saw that you have to start with cold cream if you’re whipping the cream to stiff peaks.

The short answer is that yes, temperature matters and the colder your cream (and bowl and beaters) the better. You get much better results that way – a higher volume and much less whipping time to get the results you want. In fact, cream at room temperature never really got to stiff peaks at all. As I read the piece it occurred to me that the kitchen isn’t the only place where the environment matters.

You don’t have to look very far into the business world to find companies that produce excellent results because the management creates optimal conditions for the team to do so. I’ve worked in places where I’ve seen two similar departments produce very different results based on how the managers treated the staff. I wouldn’t say that one department had very different levels of skill or intelligence but it did have some managers that created the best conditions possible for success. They outlined the group’s goals clearly. They were supportive and encouraging. They didn’t hesitate to praise great work (and publicly!) and they very quietly made sure that the underperformers knew they were not meeting the standards of the group. The people in the group weren’t impersonal names on a page. They had personal relationships with each person and communicated effectively with each person. They led by example and didn’t hold themselves above the group or to a different standard of behavior.

Creating the right conditions for success really is the only job a manager has. Much like making sure the cream, beaters, and bowl are cold, they make it easy for the team to produce the best possible outcomes with the least effort and drama. Doesn’t that sound like a plan?

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An Expensive Trip To The Bar But A Much Better Picture

I had a what turned out to be a very expensive trip to a bar a few weeks ago. No, I wasn’t overserved nor did I need to cab it home from a remote location. It became expensive because I watched TV there. The picture was noticeably better than what I was used to and it turned out that I was watching a 4K TV with full High dynamic range, or HDR. Even though the program (a basketball game) wasn’t in native 4K, it was noticeably better. Once I figured out that DirecTV, my TV provider, has a few 4K channels and that some sports, including the upcoming Masters, are shown in 4K,  I was hooked. I did some research and found that one of the top-rated sets was on sale (almost half price!) and two days later, and hundreds of dollars for the TV and a new DirecTV box that handles 4K, my viewing experience was upgraded.

Photo by Tim Mossholder

One thing that I got along with the upgraded picture (even standard HD looks better) was a built-in Roku device. I’ve had a Chromecast for years and I also have my Xbox hooked into the TV. I have been using both for “over the top” viewing of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. What has changed with the Roku is that all of these services and many others are available as channels on the TV. There’s no need to switch inputs or fire up another device as I have been doing. Which reminded me of a couple of things.

First, the lines between “TV” and “video” have vanished forever. One can argue that once consumers had remotes and DVR‘s they morphed into active programmers but with what is now the almost full integration of TV and OTT, making an unlimited amount of content available in high-quality video, it’s now all just TV.  The second point, one which might apply to your non-media business, is that consumers don’t care about the tools or the labels. They do care about control since they now have complete control in many areas of their consuming lives, or at least a lot more than they used to. You can fight this (broadcasters did for years) or you can facilitate this, but hanging on to an antiquated business model is the wrong choice.

Disney will launch an ESPN-branded streaming service in a couple of weeks. Since to me and many others there is no difference between traditional TV and streaming video, it will be just another channel on my TV (hopefully in 4K). For many cord-cutters, it will be a nice addition to their programming options. Disney has learned that the tools (or channels) are immaterial and the business model needs to continue to evolve as do consumers’ habits. Have you?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, digital media, sports business

Dishing On The Holidays

As seems to happen so often after a decade of blogging, I find that a post I wrote some time ago says what I want to say today. Of course, it’s Foodie Friday and it’s also Good Friday, the start of the Easter weekend. This post, originally titled “Tsimmes,” captures the food and business themes. Enjoy the post, enjoy whatever holidays you celebrate, and enjoy the weekend!

This week’s Foodie Friday coincides with the start of Passover. As with most festivals of any religion, certain foods appear for the Seder that rarely show up at other times during the year. One of those is Tsimmis, a combination of sweet potatoes, dried fruit, and carrots. I use a recipe written down by my mother years ago (from her mother) and as with many family recipes it requires some interpretation and local knowledge. It calls for a “large can” of yams (how large exactly?), a box of prunes (which is how many ounces?) and a few other equally vague references. Of course, my inclination as a cook is to use fresh ingredients. Fresh sweet potato instead of canned, fresh carrots in place of the bag of frozen ones called for, etc. I don’t, however, and the reason why I don’t is a good business point too.

If I were to serve the dish made with fresh ingredients my family, who have been eating my mother’s recipe at seders for decades, would notice a difference.  Holidays are built around traditions and those traditions contain expectations.  Would the dish taste better?  Probably.  It would be more healthy as well – canned yams in syrup are not the best thing.  But the folks around that table aren’t looking for healthy or better.  They want the comfort of the familiar.

We often forget that in business as we’re always trying to make or products or services “better.”  History is littered with products that represent good companies making bad decisions by making the very familiar different.  New Coke, the Arch Deluxe burger, and others represent variants on successful products that seemed the same but resulted in an experience that didn’t match consumers’ expectations.  Of course we need to improve but we need to do so in a way that brings our customers along for the ride.  Presenting them with a dish that they expect to be one thing but which is very different probably isn’t going to have a great outcome.

It can be done.  Another Foodie Friday example.  After years of roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving I wanted to switch to frying them (it freed up my ovens, was quicker and they taste better too!).  I didn’t just switch them one year.  I did both and let the family come to their own conclusions.  My mother was able to answer her “darling, won’t they be very greasy?” question by comparing the methods side by side.  Now, we only fry.

As brands, we can cajole, request, and demonstrate.  We can’t impose.  We need to meet expectations with the dishes that live in their memories and for which they keep coming back.

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Going First Class

I’m going to be on an airplane later this week. I used to travel a lot for my job, often going over 100.000 miles a year. I never tallied up the time that took, but the air portion alone was probably the equivalent of 5 or 6 work weeks aloft. Add in getting to and from the airport plus time at the airport itself and travel was a significant part of my life.

JAL

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One great thing happened to my travel life when I made VP. Suddenly I was allowed to book travel in business or first class. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, it was a little bigger seat and some better food. Today, it’s the difference between leaving the plane with sore knees (from the person in front of you hitting your legs) and hungry vs. arriving relatively intact and ready to do business. Still, if you’re paying your own way or traveling on vacation, why fly first class instead of coach? After all, you get to the same place at the same time and the price difference is extremely significant. My answer is something that I think applies everywhere in business.

The airline business has a system now that packs people into planes in a way that maximizes profit. The seats are closer together and an in-flight meal consists of generally unhealthy snacks (stick to the peanuts, kids). You’re charged for everything from bags to blankets. Flying in first is, in short, a much better experience. You’re paying for better care, not for faster or better transportation. Once again, cost vs. value.

Here is the thing. In the course of maximizing profit, the airlines have relegated the comfort and happiness of the majority of their customers to secondary status. I suspect they’re not alone in this. One supermarket will have people walking throughout the store to help you while another will have you walk to the customer service desk if you need help finding something. Yes, the prices may be a bit lower at the latter but isn’t the former a better experience and worth a small premium? First class vs. coach in terms of the experience. Have you ever bought shoes from Zappo’s? They cost about the same as elsewhere but their customer service and support is legendary and a significant point of differentiation. It’s flying in first vs. coach once again.

Customers don’t forget. Think about the grievances you have with most businesses and I’m willing to bet they’re both relatively petty and related to the business choosing profit over customer happiness. Because I refuse to step foot on one of their planes ever again, I will pay a little more this week not to fly an airline that has treated me and many other customers like crap. I’ll also fork over a few bucks to sit in an exit row because it’s a better experience for my legs but I’m not happy about having to do so when there are open seats that in the old days I could have chosen for nothing but now cost more. The real question for your business is how can you provide that first class experience at a coach price even if the bottom line takes a tiny hit?

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Why I Had To Buy The Crackers

This Foodie Friday we have a tale from the aisles of my local Harris Teeter. For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, it operates over 230 stores and 14 fuel centers in seven states and the District of Columbia. They’re originally from North Carolina and their southern hospitality is the story I’d like to hold up to you (or y’all) today as a best practice for any of us in business.

I do my weekly shopping at the HT, generally on Thursdays (extra 5% discount for us old folks!). I was wandering around the deli section trying to find some crackers that were on sale. An HT employee, whose sole responsibility seemed to be to walk around and to look for confused customers, asked me if I was having trouble finding something. I told her I was and what the missing item was. She walked over to the department manager to inquire and he immediately stopped what he was doing, came over, and told me that he had some more of the items in the back. He encouraged me to keep shopping and return to the deli later while he would go get the items.

No more than 5 minutes later, as I was wandering down an adjacent aisle, up walks the manager, 4 boxes of crackers in hand, one of each flavor. Now, you might not remember this, but I’m fairly fanatical about not eating non-whole grains or sugar or simple carbs. Without looking, I took 2 boxes of the crackers from him, thanked him profusely, and carried on. After he had left, I read the labels. These were not generally the sort of crackers I’d buy. However, he had gone to such effort to get them for me that I felt an obligation to do so.

That, my friends, is the reciprocation tendency in action. That, as you may recall,  is the tendency to want to return the favor when someone helps us or gives us something. I gladly bought two boxes of crackers I’ll probably only serve to guests just because the customer service was so excellent. As an aside, it’s a cultural thing in the store. Someone is constantly available to help you and they do so willingly and immediately. The store also does ongoing customer service surveys.

I’ve written about it before and will continue to do so. Customer service is, by my reckoning, the single most important distinguishing factor for most businesses today. Customers expect convenience and speed when they interact with your company, along with a smile. In this case, I bought something I probably would not have as a way to reward that service. What can you be doing to get your customers to do the same?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints