But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

Advertisements

You Call This a Loyalty Program?

Try this episode on for size and tell me how it makes you feel about the brand:

I recently logged into one of my hotel loyalty accounts where I had amassed several hundred thousand points. That is, I thought I did. All my points were gone. Apparently this chain has a policy that deletes all your points if you don’t stay at one of their properties for a year. Did they send me a courtesy email reminding me I needed to stay there toward the end of the twelve-month lapse? They did not.

I called customer service and they recited the policy back to me, willing to say farewell to a customer who had paid the freight to accumulate several hundred thousand points in its loyalty program, just not in the past 14 months.

Then I tweeted my complaint about the forfeited points publicly. A few hours later whoever runs the company’s Twitter account tweeted back publicly that the company was very sorry for the situation and dedicated to my satisfaction. The Twit-master asked that I send a private tweet to follow up, which I did. Then we moved the correspondence to email.

I was then told that the company had a one-time exception to the policy where points could be reinstated, but that had already been done for me approximately 13 years ago. Silly how I could have forgotten their grace. However, they said that in an attempt to reinstate my customer satisfaction, they would restore half my forfeited points now and the other half if I agreed to stay at their properties at least three times in the next six months. I wrote back that it sounded a bit ridiculous to be playing Let’s Make a Deal – Loyalty Edition with them, but I would agree because, well, why not?

To their credit, they did return half my points upon receipt of our “written agreement” in that email thread, and I have booked one stay with them. I just wonder, is this what they really set out to accomplish in developing their loyalty program? Is it a loyalty program at all, or just a rewards program that effectively gives me a rebate on what I spend provided I do it on their timetable?

If you give me a reward for my business, then take it away because I didn’t precisely follow your rules, then give it back conditionally with an expectation that somehow I have become pleased by our interaction, how has this helped me as a customer or you as a business? It’s a quid pro quo. I don’t think a quid pro quo has anything to do with loyalty.

When I think about loyalty, I think about preference. When I think about preference, I think about what brand comes first to mind when I need a particular item or service. I choose that brand for a host of reasons, for the totality of my experience with the brand.

I prefer to fly Alaska Airlines because they tend to treat me better as a human being, so I am loyal to them. I am also a member of their loyalty program, but that has very little to do with my loyalty. The way we interact all the time has to do with my loyalty. There is a consistency in my interaction with their airline personnel whether I am flying in coach or upgraded to first class, whether I bought a discount or full-fare ticket. That consistency is what creates loyalty.

I prefer to shop at REI for sporting gear because they are patient with me when I come to their stores not knowing nearly as much about hiking or biking shoes as they do, and when I leave it is with the right pair of shoes. I am also a member of their co-op because that is required to shop in the store, and I get a member rebate every year, but that is not why I am loyal. I am loyal because when I am on a trail or in spin class and my shoes are comfortable, I remember how great they were about helping me get the exact fit and charging me nothing more for their time.

I don’t prefer the hotel chain that gave me back half my points now with a contingent promise for half my points later. We have a transactional relationship based on price and location. I wouldn’t seek them out. I could, but they have given me no reason. Now when I think of them I think of my Let’s Make a Deal experience rather than any experience staying under their roof. That’s sad.

Maybe the problem is terminology. Maybe there is no such thing as a loyalty program. Maybe they are all just rewards programs masquerading as loyalty programs. That’s kind of a punt when you think about it. We could design a loyalty program that involved every point of customer interaction to ensure your satisfaction, but heck, that would be hard, why don’t you just take these points instead and we’ll play like we’re loyal to each other even when we know, wink-wink, we couldn’t care less about each other. It’s a bed and bathroom and points if you follow our rules, so come here at least every twelve months and someday maybe you can cash in those points for a standard room on the house. Maybe, if we have availability, certain restrictions apply.

I recently attended an e-commerce industry conference where at more than one session I heard the phrase, “There is no customer loyalty, consumers only care about price.” If this cynical statement is true, then I wonder why we have marketing departments at all. Don’t believe it. All customers are not automatons who solely focus on what’s cheapest.

Brands are not dead. A brand is a promise. Brands compete on price, quality, and service. If a company wants my loyalty it is there to be won, like Alaska Air and REI. If a company wants to make it about points and rules, that’s something else, and yes, in that scenario why should there be customer loyalty?

You get what you give. Since you’re selling and I’m buying you get to go first. You want my loyalty, show me yours. You want my loyalty, enter into a brand-customer relationship with me. You want to make it about points, if you piss me off I’ll dump you at the next possible off-ramp.

Loyalty is hard to win. It should be, because it’s valuable. That’s why the great brands think in terms of lifetime value rather than rules. If I have to publicly embarrass you with a tweet to get your attention, you don’t care about me a hoot, especially when you just had me on the phone. Think about that the next time a company penalizes you for breaking its loyalty rules. Those are stupid rules. You don’t need the points that badly, and if you don’t prefer the brand, you sure don’t need its crappy rewards program.

_____

Image: Stefan Hatos – Monty Hall Productions

It’s All Getting Personal

It’s a bit weird, this Author thing. Let me try to explain.

For as long as I can remember, putting words on paper has been an integral part of my life. It started when I was a kid, with little plays and poems. Then in high school it became short stories and full-length plays. Then in college some more plays, some student films, and the occasional joke for a journeyman standup comic. When I was done with school, I wrote about a dozen screenplays, and then when the Writers Guild strike hit, I wrote an epic story for one of the very first movie-like computer games.

Shortly after that I moved to the business side of the computer software publishing model, only occasionally penning a bit of dialogue here and there for a certain Carmen Sandiego. My life became focused on technology, marketing, sales, finance, and team leadership. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t write much for a couple of decades, other than business plans and PowerPoint decks, which I was later told might have had saleable option rights for media exploitation given my need to always tell a story (if only I then had an agent!).

All through these periods of business creativity and innovation, I never had much trouble calling myself a writer, because I felt pretty good about my ability to form pithy sentences and get other people to take an interest in them. Even when I wasn’t writing per se, people would call me a writer, and I would show up at writerly events and schmooze with writers because I could keep up with the banter and liked most of it. I felt fine about this. It never felt stuffy, arrogant, pretentious, or the least bit weird.

Then I hung up the spreadsheet programs for a while and wrote my first novel, This Is Rage. Suddenly I was an Author—at least that’s what my publisher called me. I fell into silence at that descriptor. That was weird. In that same window, one of my most valued mentors introduced me at lunch as a Novelist. I looked at him in fear and more silence. “No, it’s just me, Ken, the writer.” It was and it wasn’t. That’s when things started to change.

You can go online and look up all the different uses of Writer vs Author vs Novelist vs. Schmuck Who Types and Prays for Good Reviews and Modest Royalties (that last one is harder to find in search, so I think I’ll tag it). Here’s the really hard part, especially for me: Once you decide you want to sell books and do public readings and speak at lunches and conventions, you have made the implicit decision to transform yourself from Writer to Author. What’s hard about that? You now find yourself being public about things you never thought were your job to expose. Take, for example, this blog post. It’s a little different from most of my others, huh? It’s getting personal.

PlatformIn the publishing world, they call this “building your platform.” It’s not a platform you stand on in Hyde Park and it’s not a platform you adopt as a political candidate. It’s the sum total of all your networking outreach, private and public. You gotta go light up Twitter (@CorporateIntel) with clever BRIEF memes your soon to be amassed Followers can follow. You gotta have an Author Page on Facebook that gently steers people toward buying your new book without being too crass about it. You gotta pump up your LinkedIn Profile so your business associates know what you’re doing but don’t think you’ve gone completely rogue. You gotta get busy on Google+ which means you have to figure out how Google+ works and learn to repost everything there to get it scraped into the index.

Why in tarnation do you need to do all this? Can’t you just write the dang book (that’s hard enough!) and toss it over the wall to your publishing team? Well, I suppose you can if your name is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell. The rest of us quickly learn our real name is more like P.T. Barnum. When you are deemed an Author, you are also deemed Promoter-in-Chief, because if you won’t get out there and rally people behind your work, why on earth would anyone else? The introverted tendencies of writing reverse themselves into Living Out Loud! If you don’t think you can do it, you can always go back to being a Writer. In this day and age, writing for an audience is putting yourself out there, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to type the word Author after your name as some bizarre form of professional title from The Bloomsbury Group, you really have no choice other than to accept obscurity without a fight.

Okay, two more points and then I’ll wind down. First, if you know me, you know I’m a lousy introvert, and second, if you know me, you know I ain’t going down without a fight. Publisher says build the platform, I’m building the platform. Please don’t leave me out here on the ledge in the clown suit alone. Like me or something.

Here’s how I am reconciling this weirdness, this discomfort, this near unholy demand to say please pay attention to me. I’m going back to my business roots. It’s all about mission statement. It’s all about brand promise. Writer, Author, or Schmuck, that’s my job.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to forget, and the ones most worth remembering. Two years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a mission statement in a business. What I emphasized was that it only mattered if it was more than words. At the top of this blog you see the words:

Ideas. Business. Stories.

That has been my brand promise to you, the underlying essence of this whole Author mishigos. You buy that, you buy me. I’m pretty sure the rest is arts and crafts.

Rolling deeper into my non-Author roots, as I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Dane Ban, the CEO of much-beloved Trader Joe’s. He was asked what advice he most often gives emerging entrepreneurs. He replied that a business has to be about a mission. Rather than leave it at that, which already resonated with me, he went on to quote the esteemed Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

Simple. Relevant. Profound. Try to challenge it.  Very, very hard.

So as weird as it feels to me, as uncomfortable as it is being made for me, I am building that platform in advance of the launch of Endless Encores. Its subtitle is not coincidental: “People, Products, Profits—In That Order.” That also appears near the top of this blog in my mission statement. It all comes around. Like I said, it’s all getting personal.

Come along for the ride, will you, please? Don’t force me to come to my senses and claw my way back in. That might make me a writer again. How scary would that be?

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Do You Care?

I Don't CareHere are a few marvels of bad business practices I’ve experienced in the past month:

In the middle of a presentation pitching me for a strategic business services contract, the presenter nonchalantly said the words: “We don’t really need this business.” He didn’t get it.

I reviewed two proposals for a project: one a two-pager with one paragraph personalized and the balance consisting of the company’s credits; the other a five-pager all personalized around my project with a single paragraph at the end articulating the company’s vision. The five-pager won.

I received via snail mail a stock market overview newsletter from one of the largest financial services companies in the world. Inside was the business card of some guy I have never met. There was no note, no signed cover letter, not even a form letter. Does he think I’m going to read the newsletter, pick up the phone, call him, and move my portfolio to his firm so he can manage it? Straight into the shredder it went. Cost of printing and postage vaporized.

Our phone rings in the evening. Often. With no Caller ID recognizable on the little screen. Occasionally I pick it up. There’s a pause, handing off my call from the much-despised auto-dialer. Someone tells me he is a building contractor of some kind and he is going to be in my neighborhood tomorrow and can he stop by and offer me a free estimate on work around the house. No, you can’t have my address. You lost me at much despised auto-dialer.

Another contractor who was referred by a good friend actually came to the house, walked through the prospective project with us, took a copy of our site plans, and said she would get back to us with a proposal. A month later we hadn’t heard from her. My wife called and emailed, asking if she was still interested in the project. Still didn’t hear from her. The next email from my wife asked her to return the site plans. Coincidentally, we were subsequently asked for a reference on this contractor by another friend. You can surmise how that went.

What are the key takeaways here?

First, if you want a piece of business, care enough to go out and get it. If you don’t, don’t waste your time or mine.

Second, never confuse tonnage of time invested in vast outreach with proper, focused, caring effort. You can allot infinite hours to scouting the wild, but if your approach is lazy and lacking in detail, your results are likely to reflect your lack of innovation and thoughtful initiative.

Pitching is not perfunctory. Much like dating or interviewing for a job, it’s how you get to know someone before you decide if you want to pursue a more involved relationship. Don’t tell me in the Digital Age a sales call is somehow different from yesteryear. A sales call is still just that—it’s one of many steps in securing prosperous deal flow. It requires the art and science of selling. If you’re not going to bother preparing, being respectful, being responsive, or following through, just stay away. We’ll both be a lot happier—although you won’t have my business, my endorsement, or my goodwill.

Not a problem. You probably don’t care. But you should.

Here’s the thing: you may have enough business now, at this very moment, but you won’t always. No one does. What matters when you don’t have enough business is how wide your network has become—the glowing part of your network. You have no idea where one client can lead you, where one prospect can lead you, where one seemingly casual handshake can lead you. What you can know for sure is that a burned bridge leads nowhere, usually in perpetuity, and the swiftness with which a bridge can be burned forever pales in comparison to the time it takes to build a relationship.

Relationships are worth it. You need them. We all do.

Here’s the corollary: if you don’t have enough business right now, there are no real shortcuts to landing new work. You may think it’s a numbers game and you can just dial and smile, carpet bombing the business terrain with junk mail and door-knocking. What kind of clients do you think that is going to bring you? A crappy sales pitch that does lock in a piece of business is likely to land you a crappy piece of business. Think about who would respond to your unpolished approach. Now imagine their sophistication in carrying out the contract, paying their bill, and passing you along to another prospect. If a crappy pitch and a crappy client are the foundation of your business, I think you can fill in the blank with the adjective that best describes that business.

Imagine instead a well-researched approach to a narrower set of prospects. Imagine doing your homework, preparing a written, phone, or in-person pitch that speaks to your desire to do a job that will capture a client’s imagination. Imagine being sharp, creative, and personal in asking for the business. Imagine following through with a great job that exceeds customer expectations. Then imagine the reward of future business from that client (repeat business is the best of all, because your sales costs are so low), or the networking value that will come from future business you could otherwise never access. Is that what you want, or would you prefer to continue dialing and smiling—and generally soiling your name and reputation before you even get a chance to demonstrate what you can do?

When I get an email offer letter from Yosemite, they refer to my last visit and craft a well-priced offer that speaks to me as a person. We recently were referred to another contractor, who showed up on time and had already had a look at the yard so he had ideas to share immediately after we said hello. One of the national non-profits I support calls once a year just to thank me for my donations and ask if they can send me any information about upcoming programs, without requesting an incremental dime. A market research vendor recently reached out to me on LinkedIn and invited me to a conference that was relevant to one of my business interests, spent time with me at the conference, and is now at the top of my list when I might need his services.

None of this is very hard to understand, but it is immensely hard to do consistently, which is why it gives those who do it a competitive advantage. What they all have in common is one simple thing: they care about my business. They convince me that they want my business, not just any business. They don’t take it for granted. I’m not lost in a carpet bombing campaign. I want to respond. I want to be an evangelist for them.

Before you formulate your next pitch, before you pick up the phone, before you hit send on that email, before you waste the money on postage, ask yourself the one simple question that will make your sales pitch better: Do you care?

The Art of the Winback

Last month I wrote a post called How to Lose a Customer for Life for Ten Bucks. I received a lot of feedback, mostly private and positive, but some people didn’t understand my point. I have no interest in punishing a business that lets me down. I simply choose to redirect my business to someone who wants it more. I applaud entrepreneurs at every level, but first and foremost, my mantra of “People, Products, Profits—in that order” is not directed exclusively toward the People who run the business. It extends to the customers who are served by the business, the suppliers and partners who support the business, and even the investors who champion the business. The People part of business is unending, complex, fascinating, and a noble bedrock on which to establish competitive advantage.

Dilbert Customer ServiceNowhere is this more true than in the discipline and practice of customer service. My key point in the tale of enforcing restaurant corkage as specified by company policy despite customer confusion was not that the restaurant owner had upset and lost me as a customer by not showing concern for my concern. It was that he had willingly tossed into the incinerator an opportunity to bond me as a customer forever, future cost of acquisition priced at zero.

This is the takeaway that matters: Any botched moment in a transaction is a moment of truth, a distinct fork in the road that will lead you to one of two places, separated or hitched. Mess-ups are good. Mess-ups are big-ticket fountains of light. A momentary instance of failure is the single best opportunity a business will ever have to connect with a customer’s conviction. Understanding that a boo-boo is not a lethal wound is as simple as knowing that almost anything gone wrong unintentionally and without malice opens the door to a celebrated winback.

When something goes wrong, you have a unique opportunity presented to you on a platter. This is opportunity you can’t create intentionally in good faith; it happens when things go astray in a way you hadn’t planned. When something goes boom, you can lose your customer or you can save your customer. They are likely both forever choices. You get to decide. You just have to make that decision on the spot, quickly and correctly.

The error can be your friend if the winback is always what you keep top of mind. Do it right, reach beyond the customer’s expectations, they’ll be back again and again. It works every time.

You just bought your child an ice cream cone from a local vendor in the park. Your child takes a bite and drops the cone on the ground, eyes already beginning to tear. The vendor can offer up a free replacement before you ask, or else charge you for another one. Of course the free one hurts his pocketbook. Which choice makes him the hero you always come back to find?

You arrive at your hotel room late at night and discover the bed is not made. You’re tired, perturbed, and frankly a bit shocked. You call down to the front desk, not exactly joyful. The attendant at the front desk sees no other rooms available on par with yours, leaving the options of sending up a housekeeper or upgrading you to a suite. It’s a busy time of year and the attendant is pretty sure he can sell the suite in the next hour at triple the discount price you paid. What’s the attendant’s best move?

You pick up a half-dozen shirts from the dry cleaner. Your favorite one has been returned with frayed cuffs. The owner has seen this shirt come through more than a few times, and everyone knows that laundering can be harsh on pressed cotton. You complain that this was your favorite shirt and you really hadn’t sent it to the cleaner that many times, although maybe you had. The owner can delete the cost of cleaning that shirt, offer not to charge you for that order, or offer you the replacement cost of the shirt. What will serve you and the owner best?

What is at stake here is nothing less than the lifetime value of your customer. In any one of these cases, the customer might refuse the act of good will and make due, but your kind offer is unlikely to be forgotten or undervalued. If the customer does take you up on your generosity, you might have invested in ten times or a hundred times the business. All three of these examples are real for me, not the exact circumstances, but close enough. As a result, I make a point of where I buy ice cream, which hotel chain I favor, and which dry cleaner gets my laundry bag every single week. Honestly, I can’t remember whether I took their offer or not, but I remember the point of failure, I remember the response attitude, and I now am as loyal a customer as I could ever be, way more so than if the failure had never occurred. The winback is that powerful. It makes bad into good, good into great, temporal into forever. No advertising can do that, no coupon can do that, no promotion can do that. Only a person can do that by making a smart choice that is authentic and heartfelt.

Are there awful customers who will take advantage of merchants and service providers? Of course there are. As I said in my prior article, the customer is not always right. Sometimes a truly miserable customer will force the point of failure to see what goodies will come, even lie about the unmade bed to sneak a free upgrade. Yes, there are good customers and there are bad customers. Decide which one you’re dealing with and act accordingly. My experience is that if you worry less about whether there is a charade before you and more about the immeasurable value of the winback opportunity, the bucket of winback business will fully offset the times you get beat for your graciousness.

Good business starts at the front lines, where those who interact with customers are meeting their true boss. All the small things we can do to make businesses better at any touchpoint can add longevity and prosperity to the enterprise. It’s that kind of creativity I most encourage when a winback is at hand.

Go on, get out there, and start winning ’em back! Reach way out. It’s worth the stretch.

____________

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

How to Lose a Customer for Life for Ten Bucks

Steve Martin in his heyday had a funny routine called Let’s Get Small. Today I am going to ask you to do the opposite. I am going to ask you not to be small.

A while back I wrote an article called the The $20 Brand Bond, noting how Amazon locked in my loyalty by facilitating a modest refund in record time without asking me a single question. Now I am going to tell you the story from the other end, how a local brick-and-mortar company lost me forever for half that much.

wine corksThis was the very definition of a no-brainer. My wife and I recently went to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, which since it opened offered a no-corkage policy if you bought a bottle of wine at a shop a few doors down. We had done this several times and enjoyed the restaurant as well as spent a little more on wine, since there was no mark-up after retail. All was well with the village—until we walked in one Friday with a store-bought bottle stickered with the retail shop’s brand, only to be told while the waiter was uncorking it that the no-corkage fee no longer applied weekends but was now good weeknights only. I asked why the fellow at the wine shop hadn’t told me that since we had just been there and mentioned we needed the sticker for the restaurant to waive the corkage. The waiter said he had no idea why, but it was “out of his authority” and he would send over the owner.

This restaurant is about 1500 square feet, maybe 20 tables. The owner arrived a half-hour later. I told him the situation bothered me, that we had followed the routine only to be told after our bottle was open that corkage would apply because it was Friday. He responded, “Well, they should have told you at the wine shop. I’ll have to follow up with the owner there. He should tell his people that we changed this policy. I have to charge you $10 tonight.”

“You’re the owner,” I said. “You have to charge me $10? You have no leeway to make this one-time exception since we didn’t know you changed the rules?”

“We changed the policy so I am going to charge you,” said the owner, and he walked away.

We will never go back to that restaurant. I have told this story to perhaps 50 people around town. I am not naming the restaurant here out of loyalty to our community to prevent harm to our local businesses. Yet here you observe the destruction brought on a business by making the single most important mistake a business can make: not loving customers.

What’s interesting about this particular scenario is that we almost always order extra food when we don’t pay the restaurant for a bottle of wine, and we take home increased leftovers. We also tend to tip heavily and supplement the night’s bill so the restaurant doesn’t get beat on its own promotion. We understand the cost of customer acquisition and operating in a competitive environment. We understand you can change your policies anytime you like and rules are rules, no doubt to be fair and ensure continuity in the enterprise. We also understand that we have choices, we like great value more than we like a reduced bill, and we like to be treated kindly when we are guests in your house. You don’t have to do any of those things. Feel free to advertise, run Groupons, buy ads on Google, whatever you think gets us in the door. What gets us in the door fastest is getting us back in the door after we just had a swell experience. It doesn’t get any cheaper or easier than that.

When it comes to your customers, never think small. Your customers are your lifeblood. Without them your business is nothing. It takes years to acquire a customer base, and marketing is often your biggest intangible risk investment in a new business. You can lose a customer in an instant, and the potential damage to your reputation is unquantifiable. Yelp and OpenTable are only the beginning of your problem when you do a customer wrong. While bad reviews there are almost impossible to shed, they pale in comparison to the power of WOM: Word of Mouth. Casual conversation now travels at internet speed. Word of mouth escalates and compounds exponentially, but we are more predisposed to hear the bad over the good. It might take a dozen people telling you a place is good to try it. It might take only one to get you to avoid it all costs.

Is this just about small local businesses? I think not. Listen to the people around you talk about their cable companies, their phone carriers, their insurance companies. What’s their #1 complaint? Well, cost of course, getting gouged for mediocre products. And then? Customer service. They can’t get anyone on the line to help them. When they do get someone on the line they have little discretion to help them. These customers are held in place by a lack of choice—a situation that won’t last forever. When these neglected customers do have a choice—and they will—they will be gone, gone, gone!

Last week I attended a talk called The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer. I agreed with everything the speaker had to say about making customer service strategic and giving the Chief Customer Officer a seat at the table, except for one thing: I don’t think a CEO or an owner can afford to delegate this title; I think the CEO or owner has to be the Chief Customer Officer. If you want to show your employees what matters to you most, lead by example. Customers matter most. They pay for you to have a business. Contrary to an old cliché, they aren’t always right, but they do always matter. If you don’t woo them at every turn, they will vote with their feet. Or their mouths. Or their smartphone.

Thinking big means thinking long term. You don’t want one-off transactions; they are much too expensive. You want ongoing relationships, where customers return to you because you treat them like gold. Invest in relationships and the transactions will follow. Leave a few bucks on the table today for lifetime value that is unlimited.

Our local restaurateur got his ten bucks for the bottle of wine per his policy. Good for him. The next ten times we don’t walk into his cafe at $100 per seating costs him gross sales of $1000. The ten people who don’t come in because of word of mouth cost another $1000. Multiply by ten years of lost loyalty, that’s $20,000 of topline vaporized. You won’t need an MBA to calculate the negative ROI on that cold hard ten-spot in his pocket.

Still want that extra margin on a bottle of wine on tonight’s tab?

Dear RadioShack

RadioShackGreetings, my fellow nerdy friends. I read with concern last week in the business press that you are closing as many as 1100 stores, following your well-received Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. You are not alone. Sears is closing stores. Staples is closing stores. Quiznos is closing stores. There seems to be plenty of commercial real estate coming on the market in all shapes and footprints. I wanted to write to you because I used to love the RadioShack brand, and I would hate to see it join the other tombstones in the Dead Brand Graveyard. You see, I was a bit of a geek as a kid, still sort of am, mowed a lot of lawns and bought my first CB Radio at RadioShack way back when, then used to love to hang out with the other geeks in the store.

So I wonder if the big-salary strategy teams sitting around the table in your headquarters this modern moment have asked themselves the following ten very personal questions:

1) When was the last time they shopped unprompted as a customer in a RadioShack?

2) What did they love about walking into the store?

3) What did they love about the shelf displays in the store?

4) What did they love about the merchandise on sale in the store?

5) What did they love about the staff in the store?

6) What was in the store that was unique, perfectly priced, or presented so well they couldn’t say no to it?

7) How much did they spend of their own money in the store?

8) Did they tell a friend about the experience and urge that friend to also visit the store?

9) When they got home, did they think, oh wow, I should have bought something else while I was there?

10) Are they actually excited about visiting that store again as soon as they can?

The reason I ask is, I never worked at a RadioShack, but I used to be able to answer every single one of these questions in the affirmative. I was a brand evangelist for RadioShack. I actually loved your brand.

At the moment I have no clue what it stands for, except every once in a while I need an obscure electronics plug or unusually shaped battery, and I drop by because you’re paying top dollar for a great location right between my bank and a sushi place I enjoy. If it pops in my head, sometimes I drop off a bucket of old batteries for you to recycle, and if you have the gizmo I need, I gladly fork over about $3 to $8. The guys at checkout always ask for my zip code for some reason, even though I know you know it, because you used to mail me a catalogue several times a year with cool stuff to come see and at least one great coupon offer, but no one there seems to know me after 40-plus years of stopping by. I’m glad you still have the little wired metal gizmos when I need them, and I wish I could spend more money while I was in the store, but there’s really nothing I need or can’t get online cheaper, and the guy behind the counter doesn’t seem to want to swap stories about weird-shaped neon mini bulbs anymore. I miss that guy, he was a geek like me.

You were once the Tandy Corporation, remember? You sold leather goods. Then you reinvented and became RadioShack, and we geeks thought it was a cool place to gather, kind of like Egghead, before they became rent-free NewEgg. You had the TRS-80 and knew how to load software on it! Are some of those geeks at your conference table? Do they love your brand the way we did–not like, but actually love? If they don’t, are they able to articulate what happened to the magic?  Because if they can’t, and they don’t want to go to RadioShack like a real customer, then why should I? I mean, sure, anyone can hire an agency to do a killer commercial, and you can love a commercial, but that’s not the same as loving a brand. It’s also not the same as a reason to go into your store.

I do believe you have to eat your own dogfood if you want someone else to give it a taste. That’s just me. Call me a simpleton without an MBA, but when I love a brand, and I have reason to recommit my loyalty to that brand time and again, price is only one part of my decision funnel. I want a brand that comes with a promise. What’s yours?

I won’t be writing this letter to Sears or Staples or Quiznos, although I do occasionally frequent those stores, but I did want to share my thoughts with you, because there was a time not long ago when you meant something to me. Like Borders. Like Tower Records. Like Blockbuster. Those old friends are no longer to be found. I wonder if the people sitting around the table in their final year loved their brands as much as their customers once did, or if they just ran spreadsheets and focus tests.

There’s a lot going on in a store; it’s a great laboratory for learning. When there’s nothing going on there at all, you can learn even more.

It all begins with a promise.

Signing off now, that’s a big 10-4.