Monday, April 24, 2006

ROCI #2: Customer Dialog (Tasty's Donuts)

I always think so much more clearly when I've written things down.

I've decided to trade in my Subway Club points for free sandwiches, and start going to Tasty's instead whenever possible. Half of why I've decided this is in the previous post about Subway. In general, I don't cough up enough positive company reviews on this blog, so here's one for the books.

Tasty's Donuts (motto: Try Me, I'm Tasty!) is a Utah-based donut and sandwich shop franchise. In the last five years or so, they've worked really hard to upscale their locations. It's worked. The Tasty's in Layton is spacious, comfortable, and has 1950's-era poster-sized family photographs on the walls with bags of Tasty's donuts photoshopped in. The brand is zany and lovable. When I was in high school, they had a regal donut mascot with arms, legs, eyes, and a crown.

Ah-hah! I guess he's still around!

I forgot about the scepter and bow tie. How could I be so silly?

Anyway, it's a great brand, but that's not why we're here. We're here so that I can tell you why I love Tasty's.

  1. Their sandwiches are really good. The produce is more fresh than at Subway, the meat tends to be cut thicker, and the bread is really great. Subway bread is good, but rises a lot and ends up really fluffy and tall. Tasty's bread isn't heavy, but it's substantial enough to hold a sandwich together and it has the added bonus of you can fit it in your mouth.
  2. Their donuts are really good. Krispy Kreme doesn't have a thing on Tasty's. They're that good.
  3. The service is always great. It doesn't matter if I drive up or walk in. Tasty's employees treat me like the gold that I am, whether they recognize me or not. (I'm still nobody, anyway.)
  4. When they mess up my order, I point it out and they make it right.
No matter how good your business is at what it does, you'll screw up from time to time. Proper handling of customer complaints can define your brand.

One day about two years ago, I ordered lunch at the drive through at Tasty's. After I left, I discovered the wrong size sandwich in my bag, and no free donut. I called the phone number on the receipt expecting someone at the store, and instead got Tasty's corporate office.

The guy on the line asked what the issue was, and I explained that the store had messed up my order. He asked how much I had spent, I said it was about $6, and then he took my address. The next day, there were six Tasty Bucks in my mailbox. Amazing.

On Friday, I went to Tasty's for lunch in the middle of a busy day. The lady at the register is friendly and chatty, and when I handed her my business credit card, she and I began talking about business. It was a delight to talk to her.

Today, I made sure to go back. There was a teenaged guy at the register. He greeted me positively, even giddily. When I chuckled at his exuberance, he kept it right up, and appeared to have a wonderful time serving me. Tomorrow I'm stuck having lunch in Salt Lake, but you could put pretty good odds on my ending up at Tasty's on Wednesday.

Here's the bad news. Tasty's may be on hard times. I don't know this for sure, but I do keep my eyes open.
  • They closed a store near Weber State University recently. I was sad to see it go, but I did go there often, and I never saw the place full. The Layton store frequently fills up.
  • They've pulled gelato from the stores. I never once saw anyone order some. I'm not sure if this is belt-tightening or just pulling the plug on an idea that didn't fly.
  • Their web site is completely offline. You can pull Google caches of parts of it, but they let their domain name expire in October of 2005.
But this is interesting. Again, I know nothing, I'm on the outside. I've just noticed the above and I'm connecting dots. Maybe correctly, maybe not.

What's interesting about it is what it means if they are in trouble. Tasty's has not made me suffer for their hardships. If I were any other customer, I probably wouldn't have noticed the three points above, and would leave the store with my meal thinking nothing is unusual at all.

Tasty's is obeying the first rule (Don't punish customers for internal problems). Subway did not. Tasty's costs a little more. I don't care.


Now. That was a really great review, especially from me. I lean critical in my musings, and I'm very picky. Having said that, I'm going to offer advice to Tasty's.
  • Re-open your web page. What I saw in the Google cache was creative and cheerful. Well done, but now it's gone. To folks like me, your web page is your front door. Give me a place to link when I say nice things about you.
  • Don't change a thing with your staff hiring and training. They're great. Especially the older lady at the Layton store. She's courteous and clever.
  • Consider adding free Wi-Fi hotspots to your stores. When I was a student at WSU Davis campus, I'd frequently stop in for a meal and leave. If you had free Wi-Fi, I'd have stayed and eaten more (and left more cash in your register).
  • Give me options for a healthier 6" bundle. Drop the donut, make my soda a bottle of water, and replace my fries with something that won't harden my arteries.
  • Get a little more creative with the sandwiches and breads. Can you make a bread with cheese baked onto it like Subway? Can you offer me a sandwich with cream cheese like Einstein's? Can you do something entirely original and surprise me?
Tasty's is doing a lot of things right, which is why I've been so nice here. I'm excited about making the Rules Of Customer Interaction a regular thing, but at the same time, "Be cheerful and have a good product," is just far too obvious. If you need that rule enumerated, then you probably don't need the rest of them anyway.

So I'm writing this episode's ROCI in the hope that Tasty's will follow it and sell like crazy, and take the bigger guys' customer bases right out from under them. Here it is:

Jake's Second Rule Of Customer Interaction:

A customer talking about you is an opportunity for dialog, brand growth, company refinement, and bottom line enhancement. Don't let such opportunities slide by. Gather people who are good at exploiting opportunities, and find a way to turn it to your benefit.

The added benefit of this rule is that it turns ground already covered into a rule. Now I can sleep at night.


Today I ended up at Tasty's for lunch, as predicted. The giddy teen mentioned above was at the register again, and it turns out his name is Lane. Welcome to the blogosphere, Lane. And the older lady there mentioned above is Teresa, according to Lane.

I handed him a card with a TinyURL address on the back that points here, and told him that I'd written about the store on my website. He offered me a free donut. DO YOU SEE WHY I LOVE THIS PLACE? He actually gave me two free ones. Thanks, Lane!

I wanted to clarify one more thing: I sincerely hope, and would readily believe, that Tasty's is just fine financially. Since I wrote this post, I've heard unflattering things about the franchisee that ran the Harrison Tasty's, and they seem to make sense. The gelato thing was probably just a good business decision. The closed website is the big question mark for me. I hope that if we hear from someone high in the Tasty's hierarchy, they'll have something to say about that one.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

New Regular Feature: Jake's Rules Of Customer Interaction

I'm frequently peeved at the clueless ways in which the big boys deal with customers. Sometimes, it's just one store, or just one region, and sometimes the stupidity envelopes the entire chain.

I'm just guessing here, but I'm pretty sure that I'm bothered by this often enough that I can begin writing about it regularly. If I can do that, then I can make my own little guide. Thus, "Jake's Rules Of Customer Interaction."

My motivation for writing this is not only to get my views out there. Oh sure, I'd love it if the business world dropped everything and read my posts to get a pulse of what's going on out there. But that isn't going to happen. What I really want is insurance against a coming age of similar cluelessness. I know a lot in bursts, and sometimes I forget a lot of really important things that were once fresh to me. I want a place to read from a younger, more in-touch-with-the-consumer-mindset, clueful me. And that is this place. Off we go!

A semi-relative is getting married. She, and her semi-relatedness are unrelated, and her husband is mostly irrelevant also. Mostly.

He used to work at a Subway near my former home in Clinton. This was the period of 2000-2002 or so. At the time, Subway as a chain (as I got the story) was having a problem with stolen rolls of stamps.

You probably already know this, but Subway had for years a loyalty reward program that dealt with filling a card up with stamps and trading it in for free food. You had to make purchases to get stamps, unless you found a way to steal a roll of stamps from a Subway restaurant. Then you'd have a free 12" sandwich for every 12 stamps (or was it 10?) you licked and stuck to Subway Club cards.

I've heard that for a while, you could even buy counterfeit stamps on Ebay and pull the same scam with the same result.

As I was told, for a time each Subway location was to determine on its own what to do about stamp fraud. Some stores made no changes, and some decided to punish customers.

I'm not going to sugar coat this. The Subway stores that did anything but business as usual were punishing customers for an internal problem. This is an extremely unwise business strategy.

In light of this threat, the Clinton store first made the policy that only stamps from that store would be honored. I worked, went to friends' houses, and went on other trips at the time, and I'd generally end up with stamps from three or four Subway locations on each card. But my home Subway no longer wanted my stamps. I was unhappy, and I told the store manager as much. But why listen to customers? What do they know?

Next, this Subway decided that they would keep the Subway Club cards in a recipe box at that Subway. If you were a customer and you wanted a stamp, then you would have to put your name, address, and phone number on a card so that they could pull your card out of the box and apply the stamps themselves the next time you came in for a sandwich.

The privacy implications alone make my libertarian heart scream. I chewed on the manager for a while, and told her that I wouldn't be coming back unless they fixed it.

About six months later, I went back in. An employee there (might be the guy that's getting married) said he hadn't seen me in a while and thought I'd never come back. I asked him if the store had corrected its course, he said no, I left. I haven't been to that Subway since.

"But what about the new Subway Cards?"

Now when I go to a Subway, I hand a plastic card with a mag stripe on it to the clerk, and he/she puts a point onto it for every whole dollar I spend at the restaurant. I like Subway sandwiches a lot, and I generally carry 600-700 points on my card at any given time. Sometimes I use a few of them, but mostly I just let them rack up. The kid running the register frequently utters something like "OMGWTF?" when he/she sees how many points I have, and I usually make a joke about saving up for the Subway Cadillac. This is how we play our game. But is it ok?

There are two problems with the new card program.

First, if you pay attention, the free stuff actually costs more than double now. Six 12" sandwiches used to earn me 12 stamps, which amounted to a free 12" sandwich. If a 12" sandwich runs $5-7, then I spent $30-$42 for each free sandwich. Now a free 12" sandwich costs me 90 points, which is easy, because that means $90 whole dollars spent at the register, not including the change I spent on each purchase. If my purchase total came to $4.92, that's 4 points according to their rules.

So I'm being rewarded less than half as much, or I'm paying more than twice as much for the same reward as before. You can see it how you choose. Either way, Subway is getting screwed less (no stolen stamps), and I'm getting screwed more.

Second, Subway brought in the sandbags when the storm had already done the damage. The Clinton store management had already left me outraged and not spending money at Subway with no solution in sight. Subway had already punished their customers for a good couple of years before the first new Subway Cards were being handed out. They lost money because they couldn't swallow the idea of giving away a few more fraudulent sandwiches before they could get the new program in place.

Thank you, Krys, for helping me put words to the above idea.

Subway, Subway. For all your "Doctor's" this and "Fresh" that, you and all the king's marketers couldn't have seen this coming? Maybe I'm giving you too much business even today, in the age of digital points.

And so I give you, and all the world, and most of all me:

Jake's First Rule Of Customer Interaction:

Don't punish your customers for internal problems. Solve them from the inside out, and make the solution apparent to the customer only when absolutely necessary.

And thus it is written. Good night, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hey, Look Over There, It's Free Advertising!

And that's what this post is all about, indirectly.

More to the point, this post is about openenness, respect for customers, brand growth and defense, and web savvy. And I'm going to do all this in less than five yards of column inches. Substantially less, I hope.

Here's the problem. I've used this blog over the last two years to call several businesses to repentance regarding customer handling and nonsensical internal practices. Archos, Baja Fresh, Acronis, Video Professor, and others have received fairly thorough bashings from me here, in this semi-public forum (anyone can read here, only a few can post here, anyone can comment here).

All of these companies have made obvious and embarrassing mistakes in reply to these posts, chief among these being simply ignoring the post.

The one exception, Acronis, made nearly as embarrassing a mistake in allowing a first-tier agent to post his not-so-well thought out rebuttal to my post, spelling mistakes and all, here for all the world to see.

Now this is just sad. Aren't any of these companies familiar with a neat little up-and-comer called Google? Right, gotcha, I know I'm not a huge PageRank contender. But other people are, and they're writing about these companies and not getting responses. And even more importantly, maybe someday my blog will be higher up in the PageRank stats.
Q: What then?

A: It will be too late, and that's worse than it sounds. There are two negatives here. I call them the Shame and the Real Tragedy.

The Shame is that I won't get my question answered. My readers and friends will wonder why the company wasn't smart enough to answer my question. They'll ask me if I ever heard back from that company, and when the answer comes back no, they'll think twice about doing business with that organization. That's the Shame; lost sales more or less up-front because the company powers simply don't care enough to have people watching for this sort of thing and taking care of it.

But as the name implies, the Real Tragedy is much worse, and it involves the differences between doing nothing, and doing something, and doing something great.

Let's use Acronis as an example. My complaint was that their hard disk management software wrecked my server. That's reason enough to trash talk the company, but I'm an even-handed guy, and I wanted to see if they would care enough about the issue to re-sell me on the company.

They did something, albeit poorly, and they deserve credit for that. To their discredit, they attempted to pass the buck, stating that it was the fault of Windows that Windows wouldn't boot any more after using their software. This is pretty ridiculous on its face, but if you'd like all the gory details and my point-by-point debunking of their reply, you can find the post here.

There are many ways to do a thing well, and there are many ways to screw a thing up. Our example, Acronis, had an abundance of choices that they had already made before I came along that would determine how I was dealt with.

And so my first proposal is this: Get your company to make a uniform policy on dealing with blog and forum posts and be proactive when dealing with brand attacks. The proactive thing is too smart to have come from me. See the above link for more about that.

Acronis' policy at the time was: "When a blogger complains in a public area of the internets, do nothing." I know this, because their tech support agent was clearly acting on his own, and had the company made a policy for this situation, I would have been given a response that at very least had been run through spell check first.

And that spell checked public reply would have been a step in the right direction. You can pretty much fill in the blanks on how they could have made the situation better for me and them all at once, or if you can't, you can see the suggestions I wrote at the time in the post linked to above.

That they didn't do this is not the Real Tragedy. The Real Tragedy is that they didn't do more than this. It really is a shame, because people are making all kinds of money on the net these days by doing unusually brilliant things. What about this....

Dear Jake-

We're so sorry you had a problem with Disk Director. Perhaps you're right about having a warning message before performing operations that may break Windows. Thank you for bringing our attention to this problem. We'll have our developers look at it right away.

Because we appreciate your help in this matter, we'd like to give you a free license for any one software product that we offer, and we'd also like to give the first 25 of your readers who comment to this post a free license for Acronis Disk Director, the premier disk utility available today, for free.

Simply send us their names and email addresses when you've collected the 25, and we'll send them license keys and download links.

Best Wishes,

Some Internal Functionary,
Acronis Software

THIS IS NOT A NEW IDEA! It's just a really smart idea that no one has tried since the first time. The makers of X1 Desktop Search had a problem when Google announced their own desktop search product, which was free. So X1 teamed up with a blogger and gave away 100 licenses to people who 1.) Linked to that post from their own blog, and 2.) posted a comment with their blog address and the email address to send the license to. It was brilliant. Jason Calacanis, the guy who owned that blog, got a boost, X1 Software got a boost, and I got a free X1 license worth $75. If you look, I'm commenter #55.

Now, 1.5 years later, I still recommend X1 Desktop Search over Google Desktop Search to anyone who asks, even though I still have never used my free license! EVER! That's almost embarrassing, but it isn't the point.

The point is that X1 had a huge competitor with a free product to contend with, and instead of doing business as usual, they did something outstanding. And now they're thriving. Curious, isn't it?

I propose that the Real Tragedy of ignoring user forums and blogs is not simply losing a few sales or displeasing a few geeks. It's losing the opportunity to make your brand outstanding by being different and innovative.

1.5 years ago, I would never have paid $75 for desktop search software. But now I'm considering using my X1 license, and if I didn't already have one, I'd consider dropping $75 on one. Why? Because there are enough people who feel that X1's product is so much better than Google's product that they're willing to pay the $75, and maybe if they're willing to spend that much on it, it's really worth it. Or it could just be that they're still around because they did something bold in the shadow of Google's 800 lb. software gorilla.

Archos missed a chance to talk to a card-carrying geek about what he wants to spend money on when it comes to an MP3 player.

Baja Fresh missed a chance to talk about what went wrong when they catered my party. Now they won't know why I've never gone back.

Acronis could have graciously admitted that their software broke my server, and creatively fostered goodwill. They missed that boat.

John Scherer of Video Professor has an opportunity to shine staring him in the face, but I've not heard a peep from him or any of his people.

CEOs must hire creative people to develop, market, and support a product. If you are the CEO, why not choose one of these creative geniuses to spearhead an initiative to manage your online brand? Have your genius do a daily Google search for new mentions of your product, and proactively reach out to those complaining. Don't let the ranters turn you off of making a bad review better. Make sure that there is special routing for messages coming in from people who want to hear from your company in a forum or blog. Create dialog with these people and find pain points in your product to fix. Be an eager listener to your customers if you want them to stay as customers.

Most of all, I liked writing this above so I'll repeat it: make your brand outstanding by being different and innovative.

Now, if I can just find that X1 Desktop Search license key...


I found my X1 key, and I'm closer than ever to installing and trying it.

Also, I fixed the above link to Jason Calacanis' blog where the X1 contest happened.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Order Of Business: Suspending Confessions Of A Budding Entrepreneur

Phischkneght has become my business, and I conveniently already have a blog by that name. Also, That's where all of my posts seem to go whether they're about business or otherwise.

So there's really no point in maintaining a separate blog for entrepreneurial ideas. They will be posted at Phischkneght from now on, and as usual.

I'm not going to delete Confessions Of A Budding Entrepreneur, and I'm not going to move the posts there over to Phischkneght. I'm going to keep COABE as insurance in case I want to use it later. So officially, it's on indefinite hiatus.

Thank you.

EDIT: Contributors of COABE are still welcome to post there, and if they did so enough, I'd be inclined to follow suit. That door is still open, it's just not currently in use.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Video Professor Doesn't Want My Money

Obviously, I haven't been posting enough. I'm constantly thinking of things to write about, but then I get to work on a PC or five and there goes the day.

I'm thinking that maybe I should set my PocketPC to ring at a set time every day, and wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'll write a little and then post it as soon as convenient. Maybe.

But anyway, here's what's on my mind. I've been running my PC business since January. Things are going well. I'm learning a lot, and I've been a little feast-or-famine lately, but I think my trend is good so far.

Running your own business exclusively gives you a perspective on business and economy that nothing else will. Here's an example.

You've probably heard of the Video Professor. He's the guy on TV that says that if you don't know or are struggling with a computer program like Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Quicken, and so forth, he'll send you CDs with lessons on them to try, and if you don't want to keep them, you can send them back and only pay the shipping.

Here's why this is an incredibly smart business model:
  1. CDs are dirt cheap to press. He probably pays 10-25 cents per pressed disc (maybe less). If there are three discs in each lesson set, we'll be liberal and say that's $1 worth of discs, and another $1 worth of printed materials. He charges $8-12 (in my experience) to ship the package to you, and probably pays USPS $1.25 or so to First Class the parcel to your house. If we figure that's about $3.25 of up-front costs to get it to you, then his (exorbitant) shipping charge nets him about $5 (or more) even if you fall off the face of the earth after he sends it to you. He says it's free, you think it's free, and he still makes $5 if you disappear. Smart? Damn right it is.
  2. If you forget to return a disc so that you don't have to pay the $80 for the set, then he already has your credit card number and authorization to charge to it. Genius!
  3. If you do return a disc to avoid paying further, you still have his marketing materials and will treasure them, because he has assigned an artificial value to them: $80. HE DOESN'T CARE ABOUT THE DISC HE'S GETTING BACK!!! It doesn't matter! He probably trashes it, but you having to send the disc back to avoid paying sells you on the value of the rest of the set. He doesn't want the other discs and printed stuff back because it's advertising that you paid to get from him! I love it.
  4. Finally, if you really aren't a technical type, and everything in one of these training kits is a revelatory experience, then $80 can be a really great deal. You don't even have to leave your home. I'm sure there are plenty of people who are happy to pay it. For me, it's way overpriced. I usually learn a couple of tricks from Disc 3, and the rest is a waste of my time. That's not worth $80, but I'm also not the target market. He's got a great market, and I'm sure he's making a killing, $5, and then $80 at a time.
Do you see why this is a doozy of a business? He makes money on you coming and going, and then he sells you on keeping his ads around so that the next time you have a computer problem, you think of him. It takes a special kind of entrepreneur to come up with a business model like this, and he usually only has to do it once. Then he retires in Maui.

But there's trouble in paradise.

I have my wife using QuickBooks Pro for our small computer business. She's smart, and very PC literate, but QuickBooks is a comprehensive, complex program, and it's been difficult for her to adjust to it. So I ordered the Video Professor QuickBooks Pro lessons, fully intending to send back a disc before the deadline so I don't have to pay $80 for the set. I did this same thing with the Vid Prof Outlook, Access, and FrontPage sets, so it's no big deal for me by now.

But when Crystal called to arrange to send a disc back, they told her that I've ordered from them three times now (Outlook, Access, FrontPage, QuickBooks...isn't that four?), and I'm only supposed to do it once, so I can't order again.

Ok. Now, John W. Scherer, Founder and CEO of Video Professor, I'm talking to you. What's the deal with this? You and I both know that:
  • You make money whether I keep the whole set and pay the $80 or not.
  • I'm keeping the materials that you send because you've magically convinced me that they're valuable.
  • I'll pay you to send me advertisements again when I need a little help with another program.
  • One of these times I just may keep the whole set and happily pay $80.
  • Even if I don't, my grandma might at my recommendation.
  • (And now that you know I have a PC business,) My clients might too, at my recommendation.
But now, I'm hesitant to even try doing business with you again, and I certainly won't recommend a service to my clients that I feel shaky about.

Was this a rogue employee? Do you really not want me to try your products again? Can it really be that you don't want recommendations from me just because I'd rather pay you $5 than $85?

And I'm not being sarcastic here. I really do admire the smart business model, and I really am mystified by the incongruity of what I'm hearing from your phone agent. And I would genuinely love to hear from you about it, Mr. Scherer. If you're so inclined, please drop me an email at slybevel**at**gmail**dot**com, on or off the record; it's up to you. I'd love to post your reply here, but if that's not ok with you, I'll respect your wish.