Author Archives: Peter Buechler

It’s seldom mainstream news, when a retailer changes its return policy. When venerable LL Bean did just that, it was. National media as well as the trade press noticed.

Bean, the direct marketer of camping and sporting apparel and its signature rubber-bottomed boot, had long defined a position of treating customers very well. This included a very liberal return/exchange policy of anytime for any reason with or without receipt. Founder Leon Leonwood (aka LL) Bean (1872 – 1967) was reputed to have said “no one ever won an argument with a customer.”

Back in the day, service at Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine or from one of its mellow phone reps for catalog shoppers, was deservedly legendary. Case in point: I once ordered a set of bike panniers from Bean on sale. They were fine, but eventually one of the brackets, which attached them to rear rack, fell off. Some months later while vacationing in Maine, I stopped at the store to ask whether I could buy a replacement bracket.

The salesman looked at one of the panniers and left to do a few minutes of research. He returned, apologized that that product was discontinued, and without my asking (or expecting), offered me the full cash price and an apology.

That was then. A recent visit to a Bean store, is a different experience. The number of sales associates seems reduced and those remaining are seen neither as eager or knowledgeable as in days past. Gone is the free shipping on all items. Returns will be allowed only within one year of purchase, and only if the customer has a receipt.

Bean is privately held and does not release detailed financial statements. Estimates from Privco show less than 1% annual growth over the last five years despite increasing the number of domestic retail locations by a third (from 31 to 42). For Bean, sales growth has no longer been a walk in the woods.

Bean came to believe, not implausibly, that a number of customers were exploiting their return policy. For example, by returning merchandise bought from third party discounters for full price from Bean. In the face of no growth, they assume the tired strategy of squeezing expenses including returns.  But at the expense of diluting their primary value proposition of exceptional customer engagement and service.

“Fraudulent” returns – return of merchandise not bought from the retailer or used for more than a trial period – can be a real problem.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some sellers, such as Best Buy, tightly monitor returns. They refuse to grant returns to customers, whom their system flags as being “excessive returners.” This can happen even if the return conforms to Best Buy’s stated return policy – with receipt, within 15 days of purchase, and unopened. Of course, Best Buy unlike Bean, was never known for customer service or customer loyalty.

What else could Bean do?

Rather than jeopardize its brand image and position and surprise customers by declining their returns, it could institute better sales tracking. Thus, if Jane Q. Customer chooses to return a pair of boots, its purchase would be available at any of their sales terminals. This is already common practice. Bean could brag about the new full year to return policy with no receipt required.

The news has event has by now been largely forgotten, but the underlying problem remains. Beans still needs to grow sales. This might start with revamping their rather tired and tiring ecommerce site. But that’s material for another post.

Thanks For Not Asking

In the unending quest to “provide better service” or “get to know the customer,” a similarly unending army of organizations is asking us (visitors, prospects, customers, former customers, and innocent bystanders) about our experiences, desires, preferences, and opinions.

In the good old days, surveys were limited by the expense of field interviewers, printing and postage, and most effectively by limits in processing and analytical capacity. That was in the age of Little Data.

Now, thanks to the likes of SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, ForeSee, Qualtrics, and so many more, anyone with a mouse and keyboard has a license to impose and irritate by survey. Without warning, they can and do open fire by text, email, robocall, and pop-up.

This ability to inquire is not inherently bad. In practice it is often the lazy marketer’s way to bother and alienate, while learning nothing useful in the bargain. Aside the common errors of badly worded questions in a badly designed format. The offenses of the survey happy fall into familiar categories.

They ask:

Too early – The prospects or new customers are asked about experiences they haven’t yet had. Visit the site of some organizations and after a few clicks a pop-up window will offer to survey you about your “experience” on site. This before you’ve found what you came for or bought what you came to buy, and were satisfied or frustrated.

Too often – Asking more frequently doesn’t yield better data. It may however be a measure of a flaying marketer’s attempt to address customer irritation and brand erosion.

Too much – As long as they’re at it, why not ask another question or two or twelve? Wouldn’t it be nice to know… I’m reminded of a nonprofit, on whose website I was making a donation. Their pop-up survey had 37 questions across multiple pages and all had to be answered before betting to the next page. The only alternative was to abandon their survey and their site.

Too vague Diffuse or inappropriate questions, which could not be reasonably understood, let alone answered .

All of these violations come before analysis and action on the data. When the response rates are low for all of the above reasons there is a tendency to abandon the study and compound the problem by trying yet again and perpetuate the whole silly cycle.

Marketers, unfortunately, lack the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath, viz., “first do no harm.”

A number of organizations do get this right. Consider a recent message to clients of the Vanguard Group. Rather than barging ahead, it included a button asking if they would answer two questions. Those who clicked, were presented with two and only two multiple choice questions.

Marketing In Another Dimension

Far ago and long away in a kingdom, whose name I don’t care to remember, was an emerging venture funded startup. We’ll call it StraightArrow. Its enterprise product for drawbridge management was a major improvement on what the feudal and knightly segments had traditionally used. The CEO, Lance A. Little, had tried everything from social media to ads painted on the sides of jousting horses to sponsored mead drinking bouts – all with indifferent success. StraightArrow was not hitting its growth targets and its investors were starting to dust off their management methods such as the rack and the dungeon.

Over a lunch at the ale house, Lance and his marketing team pondered ways to get their message across the moat. Clearly, mass media such as peppering a potential customer castle with logo bearing arrows was ineffective.

Theirs was a product appealing to a relatively small number of castles and princely buyers, so non-traditional tactics, even if individually more expensive, could still be affordable. Over the next round of mead, they considered placing a tempting object in front of the raised drawbridge. One which would be too tempting to ignore.

Candidates included:

A tethered unicorn
A damsel in distress
A bejeweled sword embedded in a bolder
A Swedish/Shiatsu massage throne
A Mysterious Unexpected Box

Reaching your target audience is difficult – whatever the communication medium. It has defenses for weeding out unwanted communication including yours. Most of your messages will die unseen in SPAM filters, voicemail, mute buttons, fast forwards, and waste bins. Real, as opposed to virtual junk mail, may be seen. It is seldom opened, let alone attended to.

A classic alternative is to send something sufficiently remarkable that it peaks the recipient’s curiosity. Something beyond the postcard or form letter, electronic or physical, which is hard to be immediately ignored. Something real and solid in three dimensions.

Dimensional communications can be effective because they are novel. How many have you received this month? They are uncommon in part because they are far more expensive per message. The marginal costs of most media are trivial. The costs of a dimensional campaign are not.

The higher cost makes targeting even more important. Many firms sling cheesy tchotchkes rather than send desirable tangible targeted premiums to real prospects. In other words, they trojan_horseabdicate marketing. Perhaps the best known example of using an enticing package is the myth of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks, so the legend goes, had exhausted traditional marketing media during ten years of war. Then they went dimensional with a precisely targeted package. Their campaign succeeded. Now you need the Wayback Machine to visit Troy.

Successful marketing campaigns have been built on dimensional marketing. They provide a compelling narrative by delivering a series of intriguing components to get the attention and engagement of an audience. For example, to reach technology decision makers, one might send in successive shipments, the components of a robot. When the final component arrived and the robot completed, it might invite the recipient to a presentation or event.

This requires a lot of thought to do well. Then there is the brute force approach.

I recently received an unexpected package about 10” by 4” by 14”. The label indicated it was from a supplier of office products. Though I have bought from them, I had no outstanding orders. The box was suspiciously light. In fact, it contained nothing but some sealed-air packaging and a single page print ad. The ad offered a trial on a package of “healthy snacks.”  The same ad could, of course, have been sent by many other media. None of these could have been as anticlimactic or disappointing. The predictable result – no sale at a much higher cost.

To cross the moat, you need more than hip boots.

Thanks for Not Asking

Foot in the door can lead to foot in the mouth

Organizations should often get relevant feedback from customers, clients, or audiences. Increasingly though, it seems every time I transact with a firm, I get a follow-up message asking me to evaluate the experience. This could provide useful information to the offering organization, improve its service, and even strengthen the provider client relationship.

In practice, it usually does none of these. All too frequently, the survey, questionnaire, or interview becomes a license to pile on reams of tangential or irrelevant questions. They seem to figure as long as you’ve clicked a respond button, they have a license to ask all sorts of questions in lengthy detail. In this age of Big Data and machine learning they seem to think, why not bulk up a data store? Some time, they may even try to analyze it and discover amazing insights.

Case in point – calls to technical support. Take, Adobe (please). After receiving what passes for “support,” you get a message asking you to “take a moment to let us know how we’re performing.” After the fourth or fifth screen of increasingly detailed yet irrelevant questions, you may feel taken advantage of. As, I suspect, many other customers did; I closed the window and abandoned the survey.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are, firms such as Blue Host. As you are being queued to speak with a support specialist, a recording tells you that if you wish, you may stay on after the call and answer a single question. The one question rates the service, similar to a Net Promoter Score.

It should be obvious to organizations, which abuse the privilege of asking customers for feedback, that they compromise both their customer relationships and the quality of their data. Apparently the part of the organization doing or commissioning the research is not the part, which lives with the consequences of irritating customers.

Some firms are not content to let the memory of bad service badly engineered fade but send “Friendly reminders” to customers who don’t want to waste yet more time by responding to surveys.

This should not be a difficult problem. It does require the organization to think about what information it should collect. Would it be able to act on such information to produce some improvement noticeable to clients? If not, think again before clicking that send button.

Escaping the Commodity Trap

Pricing is an important part of any product strategy. As such it should include not just the price of a unit of whatever you’re providing but the total cost of acquisition. That is, price includes costs of searching, acquisition, waiting time, and whatever else comes between desire and fulfillment.

The assumption in rationalist economics is that lower prices ceteris paribus (to borrow another fiction from economics) will increase demand. Perhaps – if your product were a pure commodity. If you’re providing, services, software, sugar cookies, or almost anything else; neither low nor high pricing is obviously correct. Pricing implies attributes of your product, which you do not explicitly state.

I had time to ponder this recently while waiting in line at a bagel shop. Bagels are hardly exotic. Their very fbagelamiliarity, like pizza, ice cream, and smart phones, allows for endless debate. Needing a couple of bagels and already being in lower New York City of a Sunday morning, why not stroll an extra half mile to semi-famous Black Seed Bagel shop.

The unassuming space was perhaps 20 feet wide, but easy to find by the queue outside. Behind the counter was a table strewn with bagels and behind that two large ovens. Diners hunched over the few high tables in the dim dining area. Most just stood where they could squeeze in waiting for their numbers to be called, so they could pick up their sandwiches and leave.

Having to wait in line does afford chance for stray conversation. The two twenty-something women in front of us assured us that these bagels were worth the effort. After getting to the head of the line, I asked for “multi-everything bagel,” only to be told they were out of them. I settled for a sesame and a multigrain.

The clientele were not here for a bargain. My survey of a dozen providers around Boston and New York found a median price of one dollar. At Black Seed, they cost $1.50. At the current New York city minimum wage of $8.75/hr one could add $3 to the total tab for waiting time or perhaps $3.00 per bagel. That afternoon, we stopped at the venerable Zabars on the upper West Side. The wait was minimal and the bagels $ .95 each.

Were Black Seed’s “better?” Back home over a late supper of smoked salmon and bagels, we did a taste test. Zabars beat Black Seed and local standard Rosenfeld’s. Black Seed’s multigrain bagel, in the picture, was airy in the sense that it had extra empty space. This “benefit” both reduces calories, provides transparency, and allows you to see what’s in your sandwich.

De gustibus non est disputandum, but the Black Seed experience was distinct. In contrast, the nearly frictionless transaction of buying bagels at countless other places seems immediately forgotten.

Whether Black Seed’s physical product is superior or its cafe’s inviting is, of course, irrelevant. Through social media, a superior online presence, and inspired marketing It has escaped the commodity trap.

As an anonymous bard might have phrased it:

As you wander through life
Whatever be your goal
Keep your eye on the bagel
And not upon the hole