How to Poorly Represent for Your Brand in 140 Characters or Less

Today, I went to BestBuy with my 15 year old daughter to look for a digital camcorder.  She wanted something that did HD and we found an interesting model for $149.  I suggested that we go back home and read some customer reviews  before buying it (plus, she had neglected to bring her money).

She did her research and in doing so, discovered that the camcorder was on sale for $99 on BestBuy’s website.  I looked at the offer on the website to make sure it wasn’t a “web only” deal.  It wasn’t.  She started to order it online for in-store pickup but noticed that a photo id for the credit card holder would be required.  She doesn’t have an id yet, so we jumped in the car and headed to the store.

At checkout, the camcorder rang up at $149.  My daughter, who doesn’t like confrontation and doesn’t yet earn her own living, was more than happy to pay $149, but I was not.  Moreover, as a 23 year veteran of the Consumer Electronics industry and someone who was familiar with BestBuy’s issue a while back regarding web/in-store pricing, I wanted to be sure that they honored the online price.

I told the cashier that it was $99 on the website.   He started to point me to a makeshift kiosk that had been set up to allow customers to do on-line price checks, but then actually walked over to it himself and looked up the item on BestBuy’s website.  Sure enough it was still $99.  He did a price override and we completed the transaction.

BestBuy has received lots of praise for their innovative use of social media, both internally and externally.  As someone keenly interested in retailers’ use of social media, I naturally follow them on Twitter. I am also very much a Customer Experience aficionado, so when I got home, I started an exchange on Twitter with Best Buy’s Chief Marketing Officer, Barry Judge.

bestbuycmo exchangeAs you can see, Mr. Judge’s first reply challenged the idea that prices should be the same.  Now without taking a big detour into the intricacies of multi-channel pricing strategies, I’ll say that there are absolutely situations where prices can and should differ.  Between physical markets (and sometimes stores in the same market) prices can vary based on the competitive environment.  Between online and in-store for a chain like BestBuy, it gets a little more complicated.  They have to compete with on-line pure plays (e.g. Amazon), but not cannibalize their physical stores, especially if their strategy is to have the two channels compliment each other. In this case, given that it was not a web-exclusive offer and their own price guarantee says they will match BestBuy.com, I replied that they prices should be the same.  Otherwise, it can only lead to a bad customer experience like the frustration of finding that you should have received a lower price and having to drive back to the store for a refund.

I made a few other comments including pointing out that the cashier handled the situation well.  When I suggested that customers don’t care about the different “value propositions” that Mr. Judge had cited earlier; that what matters to the customer is the experience they have, the “tone” of the conversation shifted dramatically.

When I told him that I was well versed in multi-channel retail complexities, I was shocked by his reply.  Not wanting to assume a meaning, I asked him to clarify.  At that point he abruptly ended the conversation.

Of course, that didn’t end the conversation.  I posted a link to the exchange on Twitter and asked for people’s opinions and the replies and retweets have been coming at a steady pace.  It used to be that if you shared a bad experience, 100 people would hear about it.  In the world of social media, those numbers can increase exponentially (ask United Airlines).  With that being one of the fundamental facts for companies to understand about social media, I was really surprised that the Chief Marketing Officer for BestBuy would engage with a customer former customer in this way.

What do you think?  Was I being out of line?  How could this conversation gone differently?

Advertisements

Maybe It’s Time to Smash Your iPod

image courtesy of ilounge.com

image courtesy of ilounge.com

Maybe you should take a hammer to your iPod.  OK, maybe not literally, but have you given any consideration to what the impact of the MP3 file (and Apples’s game changing iTunes business model) has been on the customer experience for recorded music?  Steven Wilson, the driving force behind the band Porcupine Tree has given it a great deal of consideration.   Wilson is clearly a minority in an industry transformed by technology and focused in selling three minutes of disposable entertainment at $.99 a pop. He sees the long form package as the best way to deliver a quality experience to the listener.  Like legendary artists that came before digital, Wilson still produces limited edition, high quality vinyl collector’s pressings and “Digi-Pacs” that contain both stereo and 5.1 mixes contained in packaging which is in itself a work of art with pages of glossy artwork.  Last month, Wilson released his first solo project to critical acclaim.  Insurgentes is about music and the album as art form, and applying the same aesthetic vision through the writing, performance, production, artwork, lyrics, videos and beyond.  It also reflects a theme which has been in Wilson’s most recent Porcupine Tree releases:

“My fear is that the current generation of kids who’re being born into this information revolution, growing up with the Internet, cell phones, iPods, this download culture, ‘American Idol,’ reality TV, prescription drugs, PlayStations – all of these things kind of distract people from what’s important about life, which is to develop a sense of curiosity about what’s out there.” (Steven Wilson, MTV News)

Later this year, Wilson and long-time film collaborator Lasse Hoile are expected to release a documentary film under the same title which looks into the issues of creating, packaging and marketing music in an era when iPods, Mp3’s and download culture are changing and eroding perceptions of exactly what an album is supposed to sound and look like.  In an extract from the documentary included with the DVD-Audio package, Wilson laments the loss of the rock album as an art form.

As a teenager, he would go to the local record store with enough money to buy one album.  He would explore the racks of titles and would make his decision on which one to buy based on, among other things, the look and feel of the cover artwork.  Once the decision was made, he would spend hours exploring and absorbing his investment from the first track to the last (as it was meant to be heard).

As a teenager in the 1970’s, this really resonated with me.  Think about a masterpiece like The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper.  It was never meant to be consumed in three minute chunks, but rather as a whole 48 minute composition, while exploring the extensive imagery and lyrics of the album cover.  A work of art like that could never deliver the same experience in digital download format with a single two inch square picture.  Sadly, most modern artists have abandoned the album format as a result of the available technology.

Nevertheless, we are in a different time and the technology has forever changed the customer experience.  Listening to Wilson describe why he does the things differently  made me wonder if we haven’t seen a familiar phenomenon with other types of customer experiences.  Have we made them superficial and disposable for the sake of technology and the need to do everything faster?  More importantly, are there ways to succeed by playing the game differently like Steven Wilson does?

I worked on a customer experience strategy project for a large retailer a few years ago.  One of the obvious insights gained from talking to customers was that they were (and still are) increasingly feeling starved for time.  They want and expect everything to happen instantly.  “Let me get in and out quickly” was the takeaway.  This is a common insight used by companies developing their customer experience strategies.  As a result, the approach many organizations have taken is to replace human interaction with technology.  We self-serve everything from money to gasoline.  It’s all very convenient, for the customer and cost efficient to the company, but does nothing to help build the brand by engaging customers through a smile, a greeting exchanged, a windshield washed (ok that’s a really old reference, but you get the point).

The point here is that while technology can be a great experience augmenter, it’s no substitute for building experiences based on the interactions of people. If you ask customers, they will tell you that that the brands they love and continue to be loyal to are the ones that deliver a great experience and a personal touch.  And, by the way, they are willing to pay more for it if it’s exceptional.  The good news is that so many organizations aren’t really focusing on or succeeding at making customer experiences a strategic differentiator.  If the customer experience you are delivering looks more like the iPod model than the ‘album as art form” model, maybe it really is time to smash your iPod.

Seeing the Customer Clearly Through All Channels

virgin_america_logo

Today’s post was inspired by a series of interactions I had with VirginAmerica this week .  Two lessons to be learned….

In one week, the family is headed to Southern California for a vacation.  Although not as convenient and more expensive than flying out of Richmond, we decided (after standing up to considerable pressure from our daughter) to fly VirginAmerica from DC.  Don’t tell her, but I’m looking forward to the experience.

Like all airlines, VirginAmerica has a rewards program.  Theirs is called Elevate.  Prior to purchasing our tickets in January, I joined the Elevate program.  This past week, I received the following email from VirginAmerica:

Douglas,

You joined Elevate but have not flown us. That just won’t do. We want you to come and see what you’ve been missing, so here’s a special offer just for you – 30% off our lowest advertised fare on your flight with Virgin America.

Now I love a good deal and this clearly is one, but there’s a big problem here.  You see, I already bought tickets to fly with them, and I might add, didn’t get the 30% discount, so why doesn’t their Marketing department know that???  Companies that deliver a truly exceptional customer experience, do so consistently at every touchpoint. My expectations for VirginAmerica have been set high based on feedback from other customers and  their advertising.  That e-mail sent the message that they aren’t aware I’ve already booked flights.  That is not what I would expect from a company focused on a great customer experience.

Lesson #1: Take advantage of the rich customer information you have at every touchpoint.  Don’t send a solicitation that says “Hey, when are you going to buy my stuff” if I already have!

.

Twitter to the Rescue

Many companies have established a presence on Facebook and Twitter, but the ones that approach those communities as listeners and facilitators are the ones demonstrating that they get it.  VirginAmerica  (@VirginAmerica on Twitter) is one who gets it.  This morning, I mentioned my frustration about the email experience in at “tweet” to Nick Schwartz, the guy behind the VirginAmerica Twitter presence.  The response was almost immediate.  He gave me his email address and asked me to send a note telling my story (in more than 140 characters), which I did.  To be clear, I was not asking for nor did I have any expectations that my email would result in a fare reduction or other adjustment.  I simply wanted to communicate an opportunity to inprove the customer experience.  Nick passed my email up the chain and within an hour I got a reply from VirginAmerica Guest Care indicating they had forwarded my concerns to the marketing department.

I love the immediacy of being able to tap a company on the shoulder and start a conversation with out having to go to their place (i.e. website, 800#).

Lesson #2: If your company is participating in Social Media channels, take a lead from companies like VirginAmerica.  Listen and Help first.  The value that you deliver by doing that helps to strengthen your brand over time.

Facebook’s CEO: Damn the Customers, We’re Doing it My Way

image courtesy of ideagrove.com

image courtesy of ideagrove.com

Seems like Facebook has been on a redesign binge lately and with every iteration, you can hear the increasing sound of users who are unhappy with the results. Last month, after Facebook’s redesigned Terms of Service debacle, Zuckerberg promised to be much more “democratic” about future changes.  Of course that was last month and based on the track record, it’s just about time for an other customer “disruption”.  In his latest move, following a failed attempt at acquiring Twitter, CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to give Facebook users a very twitter-like, steady stream of updates.  The problem is that the change is almost universally disliked, and that includes Facebook employees.  Valleywag recently reported on the story based on an insider tip:

Zuckerberg sent an email to Facebook staff reacting to criticism of the changes: “He said something like ‘the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers.'” Another tipster who has seen the email says Zuckerberg implied that companies were “stupid” for “listening to their customers.”

There are only alleged statements, but if that’s a part of Facebook’s longterm strategy, then I think young Mr. Zuckerberg may face some problems down the road.  Perhaps this thinking comes from the 24 year old’s lack of business experience .  Maybe he feels that the people who place advertising on the site are the only “customers” he needs to listen to.   Either way, I can think of no competitive business which has been successful in the long run without listening to its customers.    If people stop liking your product, they will look for alternatives in the marketplace (just ask MySpace).  When they start leaving, so will your advertisers.  There’s probably a couple of college students sitting in a dorm room right now dreaming up the Facebook-killer.

Update:  Robert Scoble has an interesting take on this over at Scoblizer.  He makes a case in favor of Facebook ignoring the complaints in the interest of achieving a longer term objective.  He says people will complain but they won’t leave.  Perhaps not at this point.  Too many people are joining facebook as their first foray into social media and are invested there.  I would compare their position to where Twitter was when the Fail Whale was a common occurence.  People didn’t leave because of the value and the investment there.  Still, I think Scoble and I are looking at this from two very different perspectives.  Perhaps Facebook is like mobile carriers.  It’s market position allows them to grow despite doing things that customers dont like.  Most competitive businesses cannot operate like that.  Don’t use Facebook as your model.

What do you think?

Radio Shack’s Mobile Store Experiment

Radio Shack is testing a new store model under the name PointMobl.  The three test stores in the Dallas area focus on “mobile” categories ranging from compact laptops and MP3 players to smart phones and GPS systems.

The depth of selection is greater than what a typical RadioShack store carries and there is no reference to the parent company to be found anywhere in the store or on the PointMobl website which lists the copyright owner as being “PointMobl Corporation”.

That last point is a very smart move which clearly shows Radio Shack understands where the brand sits in the minds of their target PointMobl customer.  I’m making an assumption here that they are trying to appeal to upscale, tech-savvy customers in the 18 – 35 year old range based on the store description and the images shown on the website.   Taking this “anonymous” approach removes one barrier to acceptance by those target customers.  On the other hand, the way they pitch the concept on the website sounds like the typical safe, boring nonsense that I sometimes hear coming from corporate marketing departments trying to appeal to a much broader and older segment:

“It’s time to let your mobile life out to play.  Give your productivity a power-up, stay connected, and take your inner rockstar on a world tour.  It’s time for a true mobile outfitter. One who really listens to your needs, then leads you to the right solution.”

Blech! If you are 18 – 35, chances are you are already leading a “mobile life”, you are always connected,  and when it comes to figuring out what gear you need, you do your own research because experience has shown that you usually understand the technology and the options better than the salespeople.  The rest of the copy on the site doesn’t get much better.  I should also point out that the website has at least one typographical error where they proclaim “You don’t need another mobile store – you need a good listener“.  Come on guys, any spellchecker program would have found that.

Some analysts have expressed concern about testing new store concepts under the current economic conditions.  I think Radio Shack has no choice but to explore alternatives given that a third of their existing store revenue comes from mobile sales and that business is being eroded by the likes of Best Buy who has opened their own chain of mobile specialty stores and expanded the mobile departments in over 900 of their superstores.  Radio Shack is also losing business to the mobile carriers which continue to pop up like weeds in every stripmall nationwide.  RadioShack has 6,000 company-operated and franchise stores and 700 wireless phone kiosks.  That gives them easy access to real estate that would be retrofitted into PointMobl outlets.  A slideshow of images from one of the test stores is available on YouTube:

This approach could end up generating higher revenue per square foot  than existing Radio Shack stores.  I’m fairly certain that is one of the test criteria and if the test proves this out, an expansion of the PointMobl concept could boost the chains revenue for a few years.  While that idea seems appealing, I don’t see it is a differentiated strategy that can be defended over the long term.  There’s nothing special here.

Store Aesthetics

The stores are described has being “upscale” with white fixtures and clean glass, but based on the following slide show, the interior of the store doesn’t generate that Apple store feel that I’m sure they were going for.  Instead it looks cramped and dark.  In some places, the dramatic lighting makes it seem almost museum-like; not the kind of feel that invites you to pick up the stuff and interact with it. 

The Competition

The mobile carriers all have significant presence in this size footprint and it would be extremely easy for them to expand their product offerings to include a similar product mix.  The only real differentiation here might be in the ability to offer multiple mobile carriers in one store, but that’s not unique either considering Best Buy’s strong position in the market and the growing presence of mass merchants like Walmart and Target in the mobile space.

In order for PointMobl to really be sustainable, it must be able to offer the customer an experience that no one else can.  I just don’t see that happening with categories that are already commodities.

Social Generosity

image courtesy of www.aolcdn.com

image courtesy of http://www.aolcdn.com

As the popularity of Social Media has risen over the last couple of years, so has the assertion from some  “experts” looking to sell their “expertise” that organizations must start using these tools or be left in the dust.  Of course, real value of Social Media has been much more difficult to demonstrate using traditional ROI approaches and, as with most emerging technologies, once touted concepts as Corporate Blogs, Public Virtual Worlds and the universal catch-all term “Web2.0” find themselves smack dab in the Trough of Disillusionment.  Newer technological innovations like Microblogging Platforms (eg. Twitter) can also be found in Gartner’s 2008 Hype Cycle.  As they are newer on the scene, they appear to be around the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”.  If you’ve spent any time listening to the Social Media “guru’s” on Twitter, you’ll probably agree with that assessment which means the Trough of Disillusionment can’t be far behind.

Companies are flocking to Twitter to “engage with their customers”, often with the same mixed or difficult to demonstrate results as with earlier attempts.  A Social Media strategy is not going to be effective for every organization and many simply don’t understand how to approach it.  One area that seems to be a natural fit for these communities is Social Causes.

Perhaps it’s a perfect storm of changing attitudes and technology adoption, but it seems to me that there have been some very newsworthy examples of people helping people through Social Media in the last few months.

  • Domestic Diva pleaded for help in finding a kidney doner for her daughter and received an enormous response from her community.
  • Tweetsgiving raised $11,000 for a classroom in Tanzania.
  • David Armano leveraged his network and his reputation to help a family in need.
  • Facebook’s Causes is the third largest app on the platform with 14 million users.   It raised $2.5 million for 20,ooo charities in it’s first year.
  • The wide-ranging response to Marcus Brown’s “I Care” request to show support for a dying mom in Germany.
  • Social Media 4 Social Change raised $20,000 for victims of domestic violence.
  • This week, over 180 cities around the world will host Twestival events to raise money for charity:water

Some of these have been focused on a single individual or family while others are much broader in scope. Either way, they have succeeded by leveraging relationships between real people and that seem like the biggest takeaway for other organizations.  Just as these communities are coming together to help others, the degree to which you show your “Social Generosity” will be the biggest factor in how your organization is is embraced by these social communities.

Failure

What does failure mean to you?  Chances are the first thing you think of isn’t good.  Standard definitions of failure include omission of occurrence or performance” and “a lack of success”. Great twentieth failures include disasters like the space shuttle Challenger, Chernobyl and the Titanic. Lately, the expression “FAIL” has increasingly become the way to sum up almost any bad situation in a single syllable (an epic fail in my opinion).

In many corners of the business world, failure is not rewarded or encouraged.  Failure can be expensive and if not managed, can damage a company’s reputation.  It doesn’t support the short term, high performance expectations of the average publicly traded company.  Of course, if you are an above average organization; one that has established a reputation as an innovative leader, failure is likely a valuable and necessary component of your continued success.

To most people,  the name “Honda” probably suggests “cars”, but at it’s core, Honda is an engine company.  Their engines drive cars, motorcycles, lawn equipment, watercraft, and jets (yes jets).  They are also the only provider of engines to the Indy Racing League, but that honor was only achieved through some spectacular failures.  Honda is one of those innovative companies that understands the importance of failing and learning from it.  It’s baked into their culture.  This company-produced film gives us an open and honest look at some failures from Honda drivers, designers and engineers and how they draw upon failure to motivate them to succeed.

So,  do you view failure as an omission or an opportunity?

If I didn’t fall down from time to time I’d never learn” – Ki Theory: Holiday Heart