Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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

Google Moves the Goalposts – this time for the better

If your organization ranks well on Google, when visitors search on terms relent to what you do, congratulations. But not for too long. Google periodically tweaks its algorithm. Overnight, your high ranking page can be sent back to the Minors.

A sudden demotion in search rankings frustrates and angers some site owners. Sometimes Google’s ranking changes may appear arcane or arbitrary. Its latest change on April 21st makes sense.

In essence it says that if someone searches from a mobile phone, pages in search results, which do not render well on a mobile device, will be penalized with a lower rank.

Not rendering well includes a multitude of issues from a page requiring lateral scrolling to menus spilling off the screen. In the parlance of web design, such pages are said to be unresponsive. Unresponsiveness reduces the effectiveness of a page. Now it also reduces its search rank.

As a start, try viewing the pages on your site from your own iOS or Android phone or tablet. You might be unpleasantly surprised by what you see. Even if the site works OK on your particular device, there may still be problems with some of the scores of gadgets your clients are using.

A convenient way to check is with Google’s “Mobile-friendly” test page.  You just enter the URL of a page you want to test. If the page, such as the one you’re reading now or, say, on a well know site such as intel.com, pass, the test responds with a reassuring
Awesome! This page is mobile-friendly in go-ahead green type. If not, you’ll see a curt Not mobile-friendly in red, a list of errors, and suggestions for designing a more responsive site.

Firms, which ought to know better, such dell.com, had problems on the mobile-friendly test. Firms, with really busy pages, Home Depot comes to mind, nonetheless passed.

Thus Google gives yet another reason for your site to have a responsive, mobile-friendly or even mobile-first design. In southern Africa, where I’m writing this, mobile is the dominant mode of online access. As a recent Pew study reports – mobile is a growing and for some segments the dominant mode of Internet access in the U.S. See graphic below.

 

7% of Americans Rely Heavily on a Smartphone for Online Access

In both B2B and B2C mobile is where your customers are. Have you checked the mobile-friendliness of your site lately?