Customer satisfaction – the short path often beats the long road

Sometimes we need to be reminded that simple customer satisfaction is almost always the goal of most businesses – and that policies and procedures are merely means to that end.

A recent, hard-to-believe experience brought this to my attention.


While getting my ears lowered at my local chain haircut emporium (whose name still escapes me even after years of visits) a man came in who had apparently booked an appointment online for himself and his son.

The man was called up but asked that his son go first. The employee said that this was not possible; the computer indicated that he, not his son, was in the first position, and that it was corporate policy to do what the computer said.

The man politely but firmly mentioned that the online booking program does not allow one to enter preferences or even names of people; the order of haircut is randomly assigned – – and since it involved two family members (as opposed to two strangers), the order of haircut shouldn’t really matter.

Great Clips

Incredibly, the employee still refused to let the son go first, claiming it was “Corporate policy”.

The man understandably was confused and frustrated, but out of a surplus of good cheer he managed through the situation (after getting a more empathetic but no more satisfying repeat of the message from the store manager – “I’ll be sure to bring this up with Corporate”).

Corporate policy in this case would likely be in place for one of two reasons:

  • to avoid conflicts with two parties who have booked simultaneously
  • to gather information so that strategies and programs can be implemented to enhance the future experience of future customersShortPath

Now, I’m a big believer in insight-driven marketing; as described above it’s what one might call the ‘long road’.

HOWEVER, when the customer is standing right in front of you (or is on the phone, or in an online chat) the opportunity to create satisfaction is immediate – and needs to be taken!

As we enter the high holy season of shopping, this would be good for retailers to remember.

Not all Innovation is High-Tech. Not all High-Tech is Innovation.

To borrow an old punchline, sometimes companies innovate around technology ‘because they can’.*

A recent visit to the Hertz facility at the Denver airport illustrates the point – – innovation can only work when it is designed around the user experience.  Innovation that requires the user to adapt to technology, at the expense of experience, is not usually a blueprint for success.

My key car rental criteria are price, convenience and how fast I can get my car. At the counter, I preemptively say I don’t need an upgrade, don’t need insurance, and will fill it up myself. I also tell them they’re on the clock and my personal record is out the door in 3 minutes (although I had a wonderful 1:30 experience just this past week). It works, and it’s not nearly as jerky as it sounds. (really)


So I was eager to experience the Denver Airport Hertz facility, which is huge (2500 s.f.) and bristling with open format desks, high-tech kiosks, and bumblebee-colored employees. The car rental facility of the future, right?  I’d be out of there in no time.

It was a disaster.  First, 25 minutes in a standard Disney-style winding line; then left the line and went to the separate line for a kiosk on the recommendation of a Hertz employee.  10 minutes to get to one of the kiosks, which needed assistance to operate.  The disembodied head on the kiosk video screen informed me that while I had a reservation, my car would not be available for at least another 30 minutes.  Except, of course, if I wanted to upgrade (at extra cost).  (we’ve seen this before)

I got mad and tracked down a manager, who finally gave me an upgraded vehicle without the upcharge (duh).  That was 45 minutes of hell in a facility that was presumably built on research and smart engineering.

The expensive technology and fancy building did nothing to help this experience.  The difficulties I had (kiosk operation, being held hostage for an upgrade) were resolved with the human touch.  The same human touch that gets me in-and-out of low-tech counters in under 5 minutes (often with a high-five to the counter person).Hertz charging

(Perhaps I should have thought more when I passed the cute ‘recharge’ station – under what conditions would you be using one of these at a car rental place?!).

photo 3

On the other hand, a recent Delta flight showed how smart innovation made the experience much better.  This was on a newly refurbished plane.

The overhead compartments had signs asking passengers to load their rolling bags vertically rather than horizontally, which gets more bags on the plane, and therefore keeps me from gate-checking.  Smart!  I win!

photo 1-1photo 5

Facing me on the bottom of the seat in front was an electrical outlet. I’ve seen these before but they’ve been awkwardly placed in a hard to reach place around my ankles, presenting the constant danger of feeling up my seat mate’s leg.

In both situations there was an outlet on each seat.  Delta figured out it’s better when you can see it.  Smart! I win again!

Technology has transformed our world and has fueled amazing innovation.  But this innovation has only worked when it has improved the user’s experience.  

Technology with no benefit is usually not lasting.

*it’s a guy joke.  If you don’t know it already, you probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are Bags of Chips

…and the other candidates are furniture.

There is a marketing lesson here; allow me to explain.

Everyone and their mothers and the horses they all rode up on have already weighed in on what’s driving the surprising dominance of Trump and Sanders in the polls to date.

Donald ChipsBernie Chips

The Armchair MBA looks at this as a lesson for marketers:

There is a clear difference between an impulse purchase and a considered purchase, demanding different approaches.  Depends on whether your goal is short-term or long-term (or maybe both).

  • Impulse purchases (like chips):
    – immediate consumption, no long-term commitment, low-risk, who cares
  • Considered purchases (like furniture):
    – longer-term implications, significant commitment, meaningful risk

As chips and as candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders present the most powerful, clearly articulated and differentiated propositions that are intriguing to a segment of the population.

With virtually no risk in trying a chip (or answering a poll), the chips (and candidates) that stand out as different are more likely to get early trial and short-term success.
Other chips (candidates) have less extreme claims, are consequently less differentiated, and thus any one is less likely to gain a majority of trial (poll votes).

Candidate Chips

After trial (polling), however, things could change.

Trump chips, while very spicy, might present an unexpected burning sensation after ingestion.
And Sanders chips, while appealing conceptually, might not be particularly palatable or affordable.

In both cases, these chips will still likely retain loyal users, but would likely represent a smaller niche
– as candidates, the same might also be true

Chips that may be designed for more long-term market success will necessarily be positioned to garner a broader share of the population and have staying power. While less overtly exciting, they may have a more balanced combination of ingredients and claims.

As election time nears, candidates become viewed less like chips and more like furniture: a longer-term commitment that demands (at least hopefully for most people) more thoughtful consideration, doing research, shopping, weighing benefits vs. cost and risks.

NET: For short-term impact (trial), claims must be clear and differentiated.

For longer-term success, both claims and performance must be carefully crafted to meet the needs of a meaningful portion of the population.


Hopefully our voting public exhibits at least the same care in choosing their candidates as they do in picking furniture.

NEWS FLASH: Burger King Learns About Unintended Consequences

Last week Burger King ambushed McDonald’s with full-page ads in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, suggesting the two chains combine forces with a one-time mash-up burger (the McWhopper), ostensibly to further the cause of World Peace.  McDonald’s CEO adroitly demurred via Facebook, suggesting there may be better ways to save the world.  This was covered by The Armchair MBA recently.


BK’s goal seemed to be to bootstrap its profile inexpensively by forcing McDonald’s to publicly engage with a smaller competitor.


Now Burger King is dealing with smaller competitors trying to do the same thing to it.  Both Denny’s and Wayback Burgers (a 100-unit CT-based chain that features the ‘3 x 3’ —  a 9-patty burger) have reached out to Burger King, suggesting they would be happy to take McDonald’s place.


Denny’s took out its own tongue-in-cheek full-page ad in the New York Times, saying in part: “Hey @BurgerKing, We love the idea of a peace burger.  We’re just not sure what to call this thing.  Any ideas?  @DennysDiner

We have never heard of Wayback, and never considered Denny’s for burgers, so this seems like a great opportunistic play on their parts, driving awareness via media momentum initiated by someone else.

As for Burger King, while it hoped to trick the prom queen into a date, it is instead being asked to take its little sister to the movies.

Burger King Resorts to Crown-Foolery

Burger King Resorts to Crown-Foolery

Your faithful servant has been busy so this report is a few days delayed, but still worthy of mention.

As you may have seen, Burger King recently ran full page ads in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, inviting McDonald’s to participate in the creation of a joint burger, the “McWhopper”, to be sold at one location for one day, with proceeds benefiting the organization ‘Peace One Day’ – on September 21 (Peace Day).

McWhopper Promo

The premise, according to the ad, is to “create something special – -something that gets the world talking about Peace Day”.

The old “Challenge the bigger guy and have him publicly acknowledge you” play has been used successfully in the past (Avis’s “We Try Harder” campaign, famously) – with benefits of generating free attention and leveling the playing field by being perceived as an equal.  Importantly, in the case of Avis, ‘Try Harder’ has everything to do with Avis’s point of differentiation.

Avis Try Harder

To anyone, including the most casual observer, this is not at all about world peace – – it’s just a clumsily transparent  attempt to lure a larger competitor into a PR trap. And in the end, with no apparent benefit for Burger King.  There is no link to Burger King’s point of advantage, and no apparent end game that links this activity to future profits.

One can imagine the discussion that precipitated this masterstroke campaign: “Hey – I read selected quotes from Sun Tzu ‘s ‘The Art of War” – – there’s one that says: ‘Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.’ How about we publicly challenge McDonald’s to work with us on the biggest possible initiative: World Peace! (giggle). If they engage, we win – – they treat us as equals. If they shut us down (giggle), they look like a mean-hearted big corporation – – we win! This can only have a great outcome!” (high fives, then go for beers).

Well, like the infamous South Park underpants gnomes, Burger King envisions the first step (PR stunt), the end result (beating McDonald’s), but forgets the important in-between part (how can we translate this stunt to actual marketplace advantage?)

Let’s examine a few things:

  • Burger King is owned by 3G Partners, famous for hacking personnel and drastically cutting budgets – waging an actual media battle with McDonald’s is probably not on the table, leaving PR stunts as one of the few available tools (not counting, of course, improving the actual food)
  • McDonald’s has roughly twice as many outlets as Burger King, so it does not benefit by engaging
  • The amount of money generated by a one-day/one-outlet stunt is vapor compared to the cost of the ads that were taken out to announce it

In the end, McDonald’s quietly announced (via Facebook) that it was not interested, suggesting “a simple phone call will do next time”.

In this case, Burger King has used a derivative notion (World Peace? Really?) totally unconnected to a corporate advantage that might be leveraged (how about getting back to ‘flame broiled’?), and while it has generated some free media coverage, it also exposes itself as a mere prankster.

McDonald’s neither engaged nor totally ignored, it gracefully demurred, suggesting the companies try something that might make a real difference (how about reducing obesity?).

In the end, Burger King faithfully executes Sun Tzu’s strategy, except they neglected to figure out that pesky ‘crush him’ part.  Next time, linking the stunt to something the company actually stands for might be a better move.

Perhaps they mistakenly followed a different Sun Tzu strategy: “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”

HarperCollins Teaches Us About Brand Management

Posted on

Watchman A strange thing happened during the recent launch of ‘Go Set A Watchman’, the new(ly discovered) first novel by Harper Lee, author of the classic ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’:

  • Publisher HarperCollins advance printed more than 2 million hardcover books
  • Presses were globally coordinated to simultaneously deliver versions in multiple languages
  • Extremely tight security was used, including shrink-wrap, security cameras, and secured shipments by truck to retail locations
  • Barnes & Noble was in the news


A new book shrouded in mystique, focused on retail distribution sounds more like a 1980s release than 2015. Especially for a book that was written before TKAM, which no one had yet read! Why the throwback approach?

HarperCollins very shrewdly realized that it had an opportunity of huge proportions, which could be optimized by understanding the audience and delivering what they would want.

  • A brand, named Harper Lee, with enormous equity from over 50 years of visibility
  • A built-in audience of several generations who first enjoyed ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in book form
  • A heavily covered back-story concerning the surprise discovery of the secret manuscript and inquiry into the mental state of the author
Watchman at Costco

Display Shipper at Costco

As of now, the book has already been reprinted several times and is the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins history – remarkable in this digital-centric era.   The fact that ‘Go Set A Watchman’ has gotten generally mediocre reviews is almost beside the point.

HarperCollins scored a big success by understanding the audience, the environment, and having the courage to act accordingly and decisively.

Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

Posted on
Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

I just had a bit of a branding epiphany.

Recently two new books came out from notable authors:

  • Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee (author of the all-time classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘, published in 1960)
  • Under Fire’ from Tom Clancy (who first published ‘The Hunt for Red October’ in 1984, and went on to sell over 100 million espionage and military thriller books).

Lee WatchmanClancy Under Fire

Both are regarded as brilliant writers, with one key difference: Ms. Lee is still alive, and Mr. Clancy is not.

Apparently able to write from beyond the grave, Mr. Clancy’s name prominently adorns new books in the market, which at closer inspection are actually written by others (Grant Blackwood this time, Mark Greaney previously).

(in a bit of confusing overkill, a sub-brand third name is on the cover: “A Jack Ryan Jr. Novel”)

My initial gut response: Betrayal! They’re selling me Clancy and delivering Blackwood! Marketing malfeasance of the highest order! Isn’t Clancy’s writing the reason people bought the books? Isn’t he the brand? If not, what is the brand when it comes to books?



Joe Queenan takes a swing at this very topic in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (mentioning a few other dead-but-still-publishing authors), and this quote starts to get to it: “…it is the vision of Tom Clancy and V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum that makes their work so remarkable and unique, not the plots, characters, prose or leitmotifs. The actual writing is secondary.”

Apparently these posthumous publications still sell quite well. People have something in mind when they hear the names Clancy, Ludlum, and even Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys) and Ian Fleming (James Bond).

In the same way a brand’s essence is the expectation it creates for what will be delivered, these authors set an expectation that is the core of these books’ attraction. And apparently the essence of these authors’ brands was their imaginations – the unique areas in which they chose to set their storytelling, and the imaginative approaches to the storyline – – and not necessarily the specific unique quality of their prose.

Indeed, Ludlum trademarked plot lines and partially wrote books before he died, which have been ghost-written as new material afterward, presumably with his blessing from beyond.

Forbes covered this topic a few years ago and has some additional interesting examples.

basieDisneyClaiborne St Laurent  Perry Ellis BB

When you think about it, we readily accept the same phenomenon as it occurs for other brands in entertainment, where no one expects (or wants) to run into the name on the marquee:

  • Count Basie Orchestra for big band jazz
  • Disney for wholesome family entertainment
  • Liz Claiborne, Yves St. Laurent and Perry Ellis for fashion

So upon reflection, it seems OK in certain situations to evoke a person’s name that has over time consistently come to represent a type and quality of deliverable, and in effect has earned its right to be a brand.  That is what a brand is.  Even if it can leave you feeling a bit misled.

But this can only go so far.

  • I will not go to see Itzhak Perlman if played by someone else, watch a Usain Bolt-branded ghost-athlete, or read newly published Shakespeare by a ghostwriter.

Some things are not meant to be duplicated.


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