We at The Armchair MBA are very aware that the person you may see simply as a revenue-generating customer is actually a human being with a unique history, identity, and set of hopes and challenges. Just like you.
This past Saturday we were humbled by the courage and determination of a customer. We only learned her backstory after completing a consultation and sale (about 1 hour).
As described on her website: “Andrea Lytle Peet was diagnosed with ALS in 2014 at the age of 33. In eight months, she went from completing a 70.3-mile half Ironman triathlon to walking with a cane.
Remarkably, she has continued to participate in races on her recumbent trike. In May 2022, She became the first person with ALS to do a marathon in all 50 states!“
ALS diagoses typically are accompanied by a 2-5 year life expectancy. Andrea has passed year 8, is not passively accepting her situation but is attacking it full throttle, and has raised over $1 million for ALS research.
A documentary about her story ‘Go On, Be Brave‘, will debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival next week (and will be shown at the Durham Theater in NC in June).
Rather than concoct a complex and costly PR campaign to mollify frustrated customers (as the owner said “we are a 11 month old 5 person business LOL”), the owner simply sat down and wrote an email to roughly 35k past customers apologizing for shortcomings and promising to do better.
You can view the letter below. Hope your eyes are up to the challenge.
By all accounts the outreach has had a great positive effect – – not only was the letter’s transparency appreciated by many of the 35k recipients, but in an outstanding example of ‘collateral benefit’, it was picked up as a story by one of the biggest newspapers in the world (daily circulation around 2.8 million), AND The Armchair MBA is talking about it as well.
On the other hand, in addressing a small issue, the inevitably greater resulting demand will likely have created some much bigger challenges…for starters, production capacity might be getting some additional attention.
We wish Graza well. I would imagine that they will be expanding to more than 5 people in the near future.
Today we mark our 3rd anniversary since we took a career left turn from corporate marketing and opened a business serving the disabled – our name is Step Ahead Mobility. We’ve served over 1300 customers since we opened in 2019.
In that time we’ve learned a ton about the industry, but also about customers – and a lot of it applies to any industry.
We’re not really about just wheelchairs.
Our mission is to help people improve their independence – whether it’s a power wheelchair to get around the house, a lift recliner to for those who can’t otherwise get out of a chair, to a hospital bed for hospice care, to a cool shouldn’t-be-this-fast mobility scooter for people who just aren’t able to walk very far on their own.
Our customers are disproportionately older, but we’ve also had pediatric customers undergoing brain cancer treatment, weekend warriors who have blown out their Achilles doing Crossfit, former HS quarterbacks who had a disabling stroke in their 40s, and otherwise very healthy young customers recovering from cosmetic or reconstructive surgery. We serve a lot of veterans (including WW2), a fair number of amputees, and people suffering from degenerative conditions such as MS, MD, Parkinson’s, etc.
Sounds depressing, right? Couldn’t be further from the truth. While we got into this business for strategic market reasons (demographic trends, recession- and Amazon-resistant), the biggest plus by far has been having the ability to directly impact the lives of others.
And while we help others, it’s more than made up for by what we’ve learned from them.
Here are a few observations:
Listen to the customer! We have a strict rule to never recommend anything before hearing from the customer what their needs are. Sometimes they come in convinced they need A, but they really need B. Our job is to get them what they need, not necessarily what we want to sell.
Our success depends on trust. Our customers are often faced with an unexpected challenge, when they’ve been perfectly healthy all their lives. Sometimes the customer is the adult child of an older parent, sometimes it is the parent of a grown adult child. They need solutions quickly in an area they are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. Like a good car mechanic, they need to have complete faith that you are working on their behalf, with integrity.
We try to see our customers at their best – – not just how they appear today. While they may not be as able to communicate as they used to, the majority of our customers are smart and thoughtful, and want to be treated that way. The stooped 85-year old man was a hero in military service; the frail woman was a striking ballerina. The woman who can’t speak clearly was a popular philosophy professor. The little quiet guy with the walker was a CEO. This is part of their self-image; and this is how we try to see them. Treating our customers with dignity is absolutely essential – -always.
Play the long game. We sometimes have hour-long consultations with walk-in customers about the best solution to a challenge they’re facing, only to have them walk out without buying anything. But we feel that by providing good information and building trust, they may return later – -and this has proven to be true many times.
You don’t know the customer’s story – so don’t judge. Yes, they may be in a wheelchair or have a walker or be severely overweight or be cranky or impatient – – but chances are they’re dealing with something you’re glad you don’t have to deal with. So be patient.
Never underestimate the strength of everyday people. We are amazed and humbled by the incredible quiet love and courage of loved ones and caregivers – – whether it’s a husband’s patience in taking care of a severely disabled wife, to a daughter uncomplainingly caring for both her kids and her parents, to a mom dedicating her life to an adult child who cannot communicate. These people are true everyday heroes, and they are all around us.
Customers don’t want to be serious all the time. Without question, every single person who contacts us would rather be doing something else, and many are dealing with something serious. You get to be very good at consoling in this business. But they’ve got enough stress already – a little humor can provide a welcome break. In our case, our slightly creepy mannequin carries our ‘think positive’ slogan, as well as an ever-changing quote to hopefully bring a grin – which it usually does. We want our customer experiences to be as positive as possible. Just be thoughtful as to what’s appropriate to each situation.
—> One of our favorite customers, Mr. Moses, came in looking for a fancy walker. He was “98 years old; going to be 99 in 2 months”. WW2 vet. Armed with a pile of printouts about specific models and pricing. He asked about all the details and then said, “what’s the warranty”? He thought about that for a few seconds, then said “never mind”. <—
Confession and trigger warning: I’ve been listening to podcasts of Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano.
And I was surprised at some of the valuable management skills he used in his past day job.
If you’re not familiar, Salvatore Gravano was a big-time gangster and all-around bad guy, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and mostly with the notorious NY Gambino mob, as a street guy, then a Made guy (formally initiated), then a Caporegime (or Capo, a captain with his own crew), then Consiglieri (think Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen in The Godfather), and ultimately Underboss, reporting to the uber-notorious John Gotti – effectively, he was sort of the COO of the Gambino family.
If Gravano had a LinkedIn profile, it would be pretty impressive – – loyalty to his organization, steady rise to top management, etc. – – falling short, however, in the areas of education (8th grade), and the fact that he, uh, spent over 22 years in prison. (I did check and no, he has no LI profile- yet).
His list of crimes ranges from the petty (stealing spare tires from car trunks when he was in a street gang) to shakedowns of various flavors, to the truly horrible – murder, either directly or as a planner, 19 by the FBI’s count (most famously, planning and executing the murder of the head of his own Family, ‘Boss of Bosses’ Paul Castellano, Gotti’s predecessor – in the middle of Christmas shopping crowds in NY in December 1985).
The first lesson is compartmentalization. I’ve always felt that there’s something to be learned from virtually everyone – from career mentors to role models to competitors to my dog Rizzo, who is super capable of being in the moment. It requires focusing on something important and ignoring everything else.
In this case, learning from a mobster requires the ability to separate the guy described above from the gruff, but relaxed and confident 77-year old you hear in the podcasts. While he committed a lot of heinous crimes that can never be forgiven, at the same time he also has some interesting takes on his past that can be helpful to us ‘legitimate’ people.
Gravano is a master compartmentalizer – – rationalizing the crimes of the past and softening them with statements about how he always did the right thing or what was required of him after pledging loyalty.
Moral Hazard Disclaimer: You need to be comfortable with the fact that listening to his podcasts in some way puts money in his, and Patreon’s, pockets.
Lesson: Loyalty to the organization, but with limits. Everyone knows that the Cosa Nostra demands utter loyalty – above family and faith. You do what the Boss demands without question, you keep him informed, you expect the same from those you lead. The penalty for screwing this up was usually not living long afterward.
Gravano took his loyalty oath seriously but not blindly. When the mercurial Gotti would order a hit, Gravano on multiple occasions would challenge Gotti’s command, encourage him to calm down and reconsider, rather than act on impulse and create bigger issues.
At the same time, after both of their arrests in 1990, when Gravano heard that Gotti had asked for a plea whereby he would throw Gravano under the bus, he reconsidered his view of loyalty and cooperated with the FBI against Gotti.
Lesson: Win-win. Gravano had outsized influence with labor unions on huge construction projects (not a few of which were Trump projects). Rather than exerting influence through threats of violence, he created unique schemes whereby all parties came out ahead (except, of course, the people paying for the buildings) – ensuring the loyalty of those he got payments from. And while his education stopped at 8th grade, he had practical experience running construction companies and was adept at running the numbers.
Lesson: Loyalty to people. Without question, personal loyalties were extremely important to Gravano, and he would go to significant lengths to help those he had loyalty to, even at personal risk, often for no financial benefit.
Lesson: Planning. Hearing the planning involved in some of the hits is eye-opening; sometimes it would take months. Staking out, detecting patterns, having plans and back-up plans, deploying decoy cars to block or distract police, etc. The goal was to anticipate every possible scenario and cover for it.
Lesson: Sunk cost. Despite planning, sometimes the unexpected did happen – -and despite having lots of assets in place, at times Gravano would assess the situation and cancel the hit. Considering the severe potential consequences of not executing the plan, this was no small decision.
Lesson: When in hole, stop digging. Gravano was arrested in 1990 and served 5 years as part of a plea deal, released in 1995, moved to Arizona. The end of roughly 20 years in the mob, with access to the Witness Protection Program (which he quickly opted out of). Free to start anew.
Which he did. In 2002, he was arrested for running a drug ring, got a 20-year sentence and was released a bit early in 2017. Oops.
He is by all appearances walking a straight path now.
Final lesson: Adapt and survive. This poorly-educated, street-smart, morally challenged 77-year old was previously mostly comfortable with a gun. He is now a podcaster and YouTuber, and you can hear him grimace when he asks you to ‘Like and Subscribe’ at the end of his podcasts, as his handlers insist. He also now does live ads for companies like watch company MVMT (“I don’t often take off my Rolex, but when I do, I wear MVMT” or “I know about doing time”), or counseling company betterhelp, or online insurance broker Policygenius. He also has a website and a number of other ventures.
Last week’s shipping disaster involving the Panama-flagged Ever Given delayed transit of over 400 vessels, with lost trade and added costs totaling an estimated $400 million per hour.
In the wake of this crisis stemming from the accidental grounding of a massive 1300 foot container ship that blocked the Suez Canal, the Biden administration moved quickly to add $17 billion in its recently revealed infrastructure package to prevent such an occurrence from happening in the country’s 25,000 miles of inland waterways.
As the crisis grew in the Suez region last week, frantic planning sessions in the White House West Wing were added to the budgeting process to fold potential appropriations into the larger package.
An administration spokesperson explained: “The grounding of a ¼ mile ship within US borders was something we frankly had not contemplated – – so, guided by Rahm Emanuel’s credo ‘never waste a crisis’, so we did what we felt was necessary. Many canals are well over their 50-year planned life span and so we feel this is an appropriate upgrade”. The dimensions of the Ever Given are the administration’s benchmark.
President Biden himself said: “We all saw this disaster happen – – you saw it, I saw it, the world saw it. I could see it coming. Now all eyes are on us. The Erie Canal – you know that song – it’s part of who we are. C’mon man, it’s pretty clear that we can’t let a massive ship like that get stuck in the U.S. If this Administration can’t figure out how to get money for this project, who will?”.
The challenge is daunting, considering that the Ever Given is 1312 feet long, 193 feet wide, and requires about 47 feet of depth. The depth of the average canal in the U.S. is 9 feet.
Details of this $17B budget component have not been revealed, but a spokesperson said: “It would involve things like dredging and widening the Mississippi and other waterways, enlarging many of the 150-year-old locks to accommodate a ship occupying over a quarter million square feet, and of course addressing the related need for added restrooms, eating facilities and gift shops at major ports”.
When asked about the related cost to then build all new bridges and roads to service these expanded waterways, the spokesman said: “That will be Phase 2 – – we’ll address that during the second Biden administration”.
Lots of people are getting cancelled these days. For most of them, it wasn’t something they wanted.
I, on the other hand, wanted desperately to be cancelled, and my best efforts yielded exactly no results. It left me somewhere in between ticked off and sad; call it pissappointed. My story is below, in blue.
We are referring, of course, to subscription auto-renewals (aka ‘evergreen clause’ or ‘negative option clause’, or in the words of one congressman, ‘zombie contracts’).
Auto-renewal practices are a critical way of sustaining revenue, but if done too aggressively, there are potential huge costs in losing customer goodwill and provoking litigation.
This is often related to free trials with a commitment buried in the fine print, but it’s not always the case, as I experienced.
Auto-renew allows companies to lock in revenue, often without the consumer even noticing. And they rely heavily on this practice; you will have to pry a company’s cold, dead hands off your money (usually with a lawyer’s help) before you get anything back.
Turns out I’m not the only one who’s been disappointed.
As a result, a lot of states are working on legislation to control abuse of the auto-renew, led by California’s Auto-Renewal Law (ARL), which took effect July 1, 2018 and prohibits automatic renewal of subscription or service fees without first presenting consumers with certain terms, and obtaining their affirmative consent.
The questions here:
What is the moral obligation to inform customers before they are going to be charged?
Is the retention of some proportion of ticked-off customers worth the blowback when they tell their friends/colleagues about it?
What actions can you take as a marketer or as a consumer, to avoid the need for litigation?
April 2018 – signed up for one year of online survey company’s premium package to support consulting work. Not aware of any auto-renew commitment.
April 2019 – found out my credit card was automatically charged for another year. Still used the service so no big deal; still, irritating to get neither a heads-up nor a confirmation that a charge was made.
March 2020 – didn’t need service anymore. Through my account portal, cancelled and switched off auto-renew a month before renewal (on advice of the company).
May 2020 – surprised to find that I’d been auto-billed again, despite cancelling. No email notice.
Emailed company: ‘must have been a mistake; don’t need it anymore, please reverse charges, thank you’.
Company responds that a) their records show that auto-renew was reinstated on my account (which it definitely wasn’t!) b) you are ineligible for an exception because it renewed over a month ago c) we cannot give full or partial refund. d) you should know this; it was in our T&C when you signed up (you noob).
Increasingly animated emails from me met with consistently anodyne ‘geez, we’re real sorry, you messed up, we can’t do anything about it’ responses.
Stopped payment on credit card; company now has cover and responds with: “Although our system showed that you re-instated your subscription, from your words, I know this was a mistake and clearly a human error. Even if I could make an exception for you, because a dispute has been filed with the card issuer or bank, we can’t take any action on the account.”
Thankfully, the charge was ultimately reversed.
But it was LOTS of effort, and let’s just say it won’t help their Net Promoter Score if I am asked for my opinion.
This is a big, popular, generally well-regarded company and they’re clearly taking all steps possible to maximize revenue retention. How many other companies are using the same tactics?
Well, in the last few years, over 100 companies have been sued for deceptive auto-renewals, including those shown below (spawning a cottage industry of how to disable auto-renew):
Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft)
Gunthy-Renker (Proactiv skin products)
New York Times
WalMart’s Beauty Box
It is no secret that a renewal is way more profitable than acquiring a new customer, and the fight for customers is fierce, so the focus on retention is understandable.
But at some point the negative impact of heavy-handed tactics, in terms of brand goodwill and image (not to mention litigation costs), could overwhelm the benefit.
IF YOU’RE A MARKETER OF SUBSCRIPTION PRODUCTS OR SERVICES:
Become familiar with, and follow, California’s ARL; it looks to be the standard going forward
Offer in-between solutions that give the customer relief, but keeps them in the fold and positive. (Example: when I tried to cancel my Audible subscription when my commute was drastically shortened, they offered a deal of $10/year to retain the books I already had, rather than losing everything. That was a good solution for me.)
IF YOU’RE A CONSUMER:
Read the fine print on everything you sign up for, and keep careful records
If you want to downgrade your level, challenge the company to provide a better option. Frequently they’ll do anything possible to keep you.
Certain apps like TRIMhttps://www.asktrim.com/automatically detect recurring charges on your credit cards; they can help identify needless renewals and help with cancellations
IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR:
Thanks for your patience and loyalty. You have automatically been renewed to follow The Armchair MBA for another 5 years. You have no opt-out before that time.
Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. The oppression of everyone being confined at home all day, every day is testing the limits of patience. And this extends to Fido.
The good folks who brought you Match.com have decided that enough is enough – – there is now a video doggy hookup, er, playdate app that is intended to keep your four-legged friends distracted and occupied for hours at a time while you’re trying to work.
On the surface, it seems silly, but when you consider that your dog is missing out on daily dog-to-dog interaction, this sort of stimulation might come in handy over what is certain to be several more months of isolation.
Just look at that little buddy, bored and looking up at you. Here’s a way to let technology assuage your guilt! (it’s actually pretty cool)
Full text of the press release is below:
DoggoVision offers a videoconferencing alternative to Doggy Daycare
This innovative networked service is a response to sweeping stay-at-home rules, requiring entire families to work and/or study under the same roof, which for many families had never been experienced before. Compounding the situation is the closure of pet sitting facilities and services, which in many cases had provided an outlet for pets and a break for their owners.
While working from home has generally increased the number of walks dogs are getting, human social distancing during these walks has severely curtailed dog-to-dog interaction.
DoggoVision provides dogs (and their owners) access to a video community in which dogs can interact in real time, in both audio and video, with other dogs selected for particular affinities. Selection criteria include dog size, breed, temperament, etc. Enabled by the virtual reality of the Spaces app, dogs can see, bark, investigate, engage in play behavior, and even virtually ‘sniff’ other dogs.
A variety of video background images can be artificially projected behind the dogs’ video images, so that the dogs can think they’re at the beach, in a forest, in the AKC show, on the couch, etc. According to the company, in beta testing most dogs quickly accepted the scenarios, were transfixed for up to several hours at a time, and there were very few fights.
Sign-up is free through http://www.doggovision.com, and requires the owner to enter their dog’s description, disposition, favorite activities, typical daily schedules, and any triggers that drive bad behavior (e.g. mailman, vacuum cleaner, etc). Fees are based on session length, time of day, and size of group.
The DoggoVision software, in addition to using Zoom technology, uses Match.com AI algorithms to optimize dog matches globally. An owner has the capability to swipe a ‘paw’ icon if a proposed dog or dog group is objectionable. Software automatically verifies that dog preview photos are current.
According to a spokesperson from Match Group, owner of Match.com, OkCupid, Tinder and other services: “Match Group’s mission is bringing people together. DoggoVision extends this concept to our best friends, and in providing diversion for dogs, creates a little peace in the home.
Our existing software platforms were essential in developing this product in record time. This is not a simple watch-only video product – it’s fully interactive, inspired by the natural outgoing and playful spirit of dogs. There will be no equivalent version for cats. Importantly, while DoggoVision fulfills a specific need, it is not intended as a substitute for the obligations of responsible dog ownership.”
Over the last week, shelter-in-place restrictions due to Covid-19 have turned the work landscape upside down.
This is one story of how one person, given lemons, has made lemonade.
Mom turned 89 last week. She has been a lifetime pianist, still does performances at senior homes several times each month, and has been teaching now for about 65 years, currently with about 5-10 weekly students.
The new workplace rules prevent in-person lessons, and as anyone who ever took piano lessons knows, skills deteriorate quickly. This is not good when you’re a piano teacher. You need your students to continue to move forward with their skills.
So, with guidance from a former piano student (now at MIT), Mom decided she would try to teach remotely.
And that is exactly what she’s done.
As she described it excitedly yesterday:
“It’s really very easy. I’m using Chrome, and the Zoom app. My students (aged 7-17) are quite capable of setting up a camera to show their hands on the keyboard. I send them an invitation, give them the code, and off we go. I see their hands, and they see me. It actually works better for the younger students because they are forced to figure things out for themselves”.
Mom has successfully completed her first 5 online teaching sessions, with more to come.
You may be one of the many who watch the ads purely for entertainment value. If that’s the case, you’re no doubt in for your share of brilliance, virtue signaling, emotional manipulation, morally questionable/disgusting, Christopher Walken and just plain bad ads (see “puppybabymonkey”). All of which is great. Enjoy.
The intended point is that even if an ad is unbelievably hilarious, poignant, memorable or otherwise highly engaging, advertising has diminished value if the brand is not well integrated.
It’s sort of like meeting that attractive person at a bar that you have an amazing instant connection with, but leave without a phone number or any other way to take action. If the brand isn’t connected to the ad, it’s hard for the viewer to do anything about it.
If you’re a marketer, however, SB, er, BG ads are interesting for different reasons – at $3.5M or $4M whatever the price for 30 seconds is these days, you are no doubt wondering how that expense can possibly pay out.
This point we’re talking about is related to one of the 6 points – L – Linkage – – of the advertising to the brand.
Many of the Big Game ads do a great job getting your attention, but don’t close the loop by making the brand an integral element.
As an example, compare two very entertaining ads – – which of them can you connect to a brand?
“Just OK is not OK” – whether it’s a tattoo artist, surgeon, babysitter or tax preparer, this campaign is highly entertaining, engaging and amusing. It just doesn’t have a strong linkage to the brand or core message (other than ‘we’re better than OK’ – – not necessarily ownable or particularly compelling). I’ve enjoyed this campaign immensely but have never remembered the advertiser. (It’s AT&T, by the way. I checked).
“Jake” You can probably already envision the scene (late at night phone call) and catchphrase “Jake…from State Farm”. In this case, the premise (State Farm is always available) and the brand name are well integrated into the creative.
This is the season when gifting and shipping reaches a frenzied peak — and with it the highest level of product fulfillment mistakes – – the wrong product, the wrong location, missed timing, missed gift message, etc. It’s inevitable.
For those fulfilling orders, mistakes are going to happen. And the fallout is customer dissatisfaction.
There are two ways to deal with mistakes:
1) wring your hands and work to assign blame, OR
2) as has been attributed to both Winston Churchill and former Chicago Mayor and Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – “Never let a good crisis go to waste”
What this means is, mistakes provide an opportunity to go above and beyond in correcting the mistake, which can actually generate more goodwill than getting it right the first time.
In other words, it is possible to fail your way to customer satisfaction.
We hereby repost one of our most popular posts on this topic, from 2017.