Eau de Play-Doh?

Play_doh_perfume This really doesn’t have much to do with mining your own business, but sometimes you just have to have some fun.  Who doesn’t remember the wonderful smell of a freshly opened can of Play-Doh?  In celebration of their 50th anniversary, Hasbro is offering Play-Doh Cologne.  I could be wrong, but I’ll bet that they’ll sell a ton of the stuff.  It’s only about $19.00.

Anyone interested in Eau de Sewing Machine for our sixtieth anniversary?

Legendary Service

Over the weekend, I was in Columbia, MO for my son’s graduation from the University of Missouri.  Columbia is a city of less than 100,000 population.  The University boasts nearly 30,000 students so you can imagine that graduation weekend puts a bit of a strain on the local hospitality industry. 

On Friday evening, we were looking for a place to eat dinner.  My son’s roommate/landlord suggested a new restaurant nearby.  Since they live on the western edge of the Columbia area, we guessed that they might not be as busy as something closer to the campus.  We were right, but we were also wrong.

The restaurant is called the Cherry Hill Brasserie.  It’s a small place and it was full.  On the other hand, the wait for a table was only about twenty minutes; not bad considering.  We took a seat (four seats, really) at the bar and waited for our table.  While we waited it was obvious that the place was "slammed" which is my former-waiter son’s term for busy.  My guess is that since the place is so new,this was their first graduation weekend and they weren’t prepared for the crowd.

To make a long story short, or at least not so long, we were seated in about the amount of time the hostess had predicted, and the waiter took our order promptly.  Then things started falling apart.  We waited, and waited, and waited some more.  We had no bread.  We had no napkins.  When the bread came, we had no bread plates.  It was obvious that the place was very short-staffed and everyone was working very hard, they just couldn’t keep up.

About a half an hour after we had placed our order, the waiter approached our table with kind of a deer-in-the-headlights look.  "Sir, I’m so sorry for your wait.  The kitchen misplaced your order and they’re just starting on it now.  I hope you’ll be patient.  We’re really busy tonight.  To make up for your long wait, your dinner will be on the house."

As you might guess from the name, this isn’t a fast-food place.  Dinner for four wasn’t cheap.  This was some serious damage control.

When dinner finally arrived, it was wonderful.  I could cut my steak with a fork.  Everyone else’s meal was equally good.  When we were done, the waiter suggested desert, but, because of the size of the portions, there were no takers.  As we were eating, both the manager (probably the owner) and the bartender came to our table to make sure everything was OK, and to add their apologies for the delay.

The waiter had said that dinner would be on the house, so I waited for him to bring me a bar tab, since I didn’t expect that to be included, especially since we ordered a round of drinks after he told us  that the meal would be gratis.  No, there was no charge for anything, just another apology.

I don’t imagine getting a free meal after the restaurant makes a mistake is all that unusual.  But, you have to understand, we walked into the restaurant about 7:00 and left about 9:30.  On the Friday night before graduation in Columbia, MO, there’s not a restaurant in town where we could have gotten in and out any more quickly.  In fact, I would guess that 3-4 hours was more the norm.

But for this restaurant, that wasn’t acceptable.  They were under-staffed, they made a mistake on our order, and they apologized and made up for it.  I may never go back to the restaurant, because now that Patrick has graduated, I’m not likely to be in Columbia very often.  But, I have told this story to everyone I’ve talked to over the last three days, including several who live in Columbia.  I’m telling it to you.  Of course, you know where I’m going with this.  Customer service, above and beyond what’s expected is the stuff that legends are made of. 

A free round of drinks, or free desert, or a percentage discount would have been enough to satisfy us.  And a month from now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of the restaurant.  All I would remember is how slow they were.  But, we were far more than satisfied.  We were surprised and delighted.  That’s the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that you can’t buy.  You have to earn it.

It’s a Small World

Depending on your interest in the computers and technology, you may or may not know about Robert Scoble.  Scoble writes a blog called Scobleizer about the world of technology.  What makes Scobleizer interesting is that while it’s a blog on a variety of topics, Scoble is an employee of Microsoft.  That wasn’t always the case.  He had built up quite a following before Gates and Company came calling to offer him a job.

While he’s on the Microsoft payroll, Scoble’s blog isn’t censored by them and he’s sometimes (often?) critical of them.  I mention Robert today because he’s going through a rough time personally.  His mom is in the hospital, near death.  He’s writing about this on his blog and has received hundreds of comments from his readers, offering support.

What a different world we live in today!  Can you imagine the newspaper business writer, even today, taking a break from his normal business coverage to share his personal thoughts on the passing of a family member?  Even if he did, he wouldn’t have immediate feedback from hundreds of people.  It’s a sign of the times that in the twenty-first century, people communicate instantly across state and even national boundaries on any topic.

How does this affect our business?  I can remember, not so long ago, that the worst thing an angry customer could do was to cause a scene in the store on a busy Saturday afternoon.  If someone was unhappy, we’d try to calm them down, to get the situation under control, not just to pacify that customer but to avoid raising doubt in the minds of the other customers.

Another thing that was always a concern was the threat to call the Better Business Bureau, the Attorney General, or the local TV station.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these were idle threats, but we still hated to hear them.  If they followed through on their threat, we were looking at a hassle at best and bad publicity and lost sales at worst.

But today, every unhappy customer has the potential of telling his or her story to hundreds, maybe even thousands of people through instant messaging, chat rooms, forums, blogs and web sites.  Where the angry customer of the twentieth century could cause us inconvenience and possibly a few lost sales, her twenty-first century equivalent could put us out of business.

There are no boundaries any more.  With modern translation software, language isn’t even a barrier to communications.  That’s why it’s more important than ever to not just satisfy our customers, but to delight them.  Satisfaction isn’t enough.  Nothing less than customer loyalty will do. 

More Kudos for Independent Business

From Newschannel 6 KPVI TV in Pocatello, ID comes the following:

"Nationally, 97% of all employees work
for a small business and in 2006; 3 out of every 4 new jobs are coming
from that small business sector.

With above average growth, the same is
true here in eastern Idaho. New buildings and second locations are
popping up across Bannock County.

As economic developers spend time, money
and energy on recruiting outside companies to the gem state, the
director of the Greater Pocatello Chamber of Commerce says there are
also plenty of dynamic, viable businesses already here.

Matt Hunter: ‘I think the business
retention and expansion is the most important part of economic
development. It’s a lot easier to take thirty companies and have them
grow by one or two jobs than it is to bring a new company with sixty
jobs into the community.’"


Hopefully other Chambers of Commerce will come to the same conclusion.

Safety First

USA Today reports on a recent study that found small, single-site businesses to be among the least dangerous places to work.  One reason cited is the possiblilty that on-site owners are more likely to feel responsible for their employees. 

I can think of other reasons that might also apply, but the bottom line is just one more reason why the independent business owner should be given more credit for his/her contribution to American society.

Keep up the good work!

Gas Prices

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that gas prices are approaching, or even over, $3.00 per gallon.  And, naturally, that’s causing a lot of discussions on-line, in the mainstream media, and at the local Starbuck’s.  The conversations seem to fall into three categories. 

One is who’s to blame.  Depending on who you listen to, it’s either the democrat’s fault or the republican’s fault.  Or, for the non-partisan, it’s the government’s fault.  Or, it’s the fault of the greedy oil companies.  Or, blame the people who drive the gas-guzzling SUV’s.  Or the auto makers.  Or global warming.  Or the war in the Middle East.  I know there are others, but you get my drift.

The second area of controversy is whether gas prices are really at an all-time high or not.  At three bucks a gallon, there’s no question that buying $5.00 worth of gas is no longer an option.  Even filling the gas can for my lawn more costs more than that!

But, if you factor in inflation, are gas prices really that high?  According to The Seatle Times, a gallon of gasoline averaged about $3.25 per gallon in 1918 and nearly $3.00 in 1980 when measured in 2005 dollars.  As a percent of our total paychecks, we may actually be paying less for fuel than we were 20 years ago.

The third topic of discussion is what are we going to do about it?  Of course the politicians are all looking to make points with the voters by suggesting all kinds of remedies.  But, nothing is going to make a major difference in the price of a gallon of gas in the short term.  Giving me a tax rebate of $100 when I spend that much in a WEEK isn’t going to be much help.  Temporarily dropping the Federal gas tax isn’t going to give us that much relief either.  It’s taken us a long time to get into this situation and it’s going to take a long time to get out.

So, what can you and I do?  We have businesses to run and for the most part we deal in realities, not theories.  Whatever the root cause of the current situation, we have to live with it.  How can we  take this lemon and turn it into lemonade? 

Have you considered giving away a free gas card with a major purchase?  According to USA Today, a lot of businesses are adopting that strategy.  For some reason, the value of a tank of gas seems to have more of an effect on consumers than even it’s inflated price deserves.  A twenty dollar gas card seems to have more of an impact than a twenty dollar bill or a twenty dollar price reduction.

An even better strategy might be to promote items that are associated with staying home.  While car dealers and tourism related industries may be facing serious problems right now, there’s no reason why retailers of stay-at-home products shouldn’t be having record sales. 

You don’t have to burn gasoline to sew, or to take care of your home or business.  Sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, fans, commercial cleaning, none of these things are travel-related.  Offer them something to make staying put more enjoyable, more convenient, more pleasant and you’ll help your customers save fuel.  Throw in a free tank of gas with a suitable purchase and you’ve got a winning promotion.

Small business is the backbone of the American economy.  One reason is because independent retailers are flexible.  We have to take action to survive.  Every economic situation contains opportunities for those who are willing to look for them.  May, 2006 is no exception.

Don’t Just Stand There–Sell Something!

Tom Peters writes on the "Marketing Prof’s Daily Fix" about the age-old battle between marketing and sales.  He quotes Robert Lewis Stevenson, "Everyone lives by selling something."

While I wouldn’t go as far as Tom does in putting down marketing, the old saying, "Nothing happens until somebody sells something" is still true today.  In spite of all the MBA’s, in spite of the thousands of books that have been written about marketing, in spite of the gazillion pieces of data we have to analyze, the bottom line is that somebody still has to get the customer’s head nodding up and down, rather than from side to side.

I recently visited the owner of a very successful retail operation.  What’s his biggest concern?  Nobody on the floor is asking for the sale.  His stores are beautiful.  He has a nice selection of products.   He spends thousands of dollars on advertising to get the prospects into his stores and his "sales" people are letting them walk.

It’s like going to a doctor who takes your temperature, tests your blood, does x-rays and cat scans and MRI’s.   Then, when he spots a tumor, he thanks you for coming in and says he hopes you’ll come back soon.  He’s not taking care of his customer’s needs.  Hopefully, we’re taking care of ours.

Do You Yahoo?

One method of free advertising that many businesses overlook is the Yahoo Local Listing.  While they offer what they call "featured listings" for a fee, the basic listing is offered at no charge.  Your customers are using Yahoo Local and if you aren’t there, they won’t find you.

To list your business, click on this link.  The free listing button is near the bottom of the page.

That little blue pill costs GM $17 million a year – 04/16/06 – The Detroit News

Link: That little blue pill costs GM $17 million a year – 04/16/06 – The Detroit News.

From the "You Think You Have Problems?" department, this item from the Detroit News points out that the world’s largest automaker is also the world’s largest purchaser of Viagra.  As part of their employee health plan, so-called lifestyle drugs contribute to the $1,500 per vehicle that GM spends on health care.

General Motors provides health care benefits for retirees as well as active employees, and currently insures two retirees for every one active employee.  GM recently cut benefits for salaried workers, but changes for union workers are a little more difficult.

The article concludes, "GM appears likely to approach the UAW about eliminating this perk when the moment’s right."

“They Like Me!”

Link: Small Business Trends ? The Rising Tide of Customer Defection.

Do you remember the 1985 Academy Awards when Sally Field won the "Best Actress" award?  She acted surprised when she said "You like me!"  I thought of that when Ii read Laurence Haughton’s article, The Rising Tide of Customer Defection."

When Bill Zollars took the top job at Yellow Freight in 1996, the company was coming off a $30 million loss the previous year.  He asked his top managers, "What do our customers think of us?" 

"They like us" he was told.

Zollars wasn’t so sure.  He asked his top managers to find out:

Did we pick everything up on-time?

Did we deliver everything on-time?

Did we keep everything in-tact?

Did we send the customer an accurate invoice?

It turned out that in 4 out of 10 cases, at least one answer was "no."  If they were failing to fill these basic needs forty percent of the time, how could the customers like them.  If you were in business in the ’90’s, you know the answer.  Chances are you didn’t like them.

It seems like there are two morals to this story.  First, don’t assume that your customers are happy with you.  Find out!  What are their expectations?  Are you delivering them?

Second, whatever your customers’ expectations are, make sure you deliver them each and every time.  Here’s what Zollars did at Yellow Freight:

1. He made sure everyone was crystal clear about “just what was expected.”

2. He took steps to make sure Yellow had the “right people” at every point of contact.

3. Zollars and his top managers got “enough buy-in” from everyone to overcome the law of inertia.

4. And Yellow reorganized their management to generate more “individual initiative” from every driver and at every depot.

They reduced errors from 40% to 4% and "Revenues and profits shot up."