Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

I’m not your best friend. I’m a prospect. UPDATED

Like everyone else, I get inundated with marketing outreach all the time. Ads before YouTube videos. Newspapers. TV. Radio. Website banner ads. And on and on. And the phone. Which brings me to this.

Got this yesterday, on our landline. (Yes, we have a landline, we’re dinosaurs, ha ha ha) A little context: We leased a Hyundai. In 2002. At the end of the lease, we returned it, and since that time, to my knowledge, we’ve got a flyer about once a year from the dealership. We haven’t had any interaction for eight years. And then we get this voicemail. I eagerly await this mysterious letter.

“Oooh, you’re getting this special offer, it’s not going out to just any customers of ours, you’re very special and important.” Really? Someone who hasn’t had a moment of interaction in eight years is in some way deserving of a special offer from you? What does the customer who’s been loyal to you for multiple purchases get?

I know I’m a prospect. You know I’m a prospect. That’s why I’m in your CRM system. Why pretend that I’m any more than that? Be honest about your intentions, and I’ll likely be honest about mine.

UPDATE, August 11:

I got the letter from the car dealership. Here’s the envelope:

The more astute of you may notice it’s addressed to “Campbell LeDrew.” That’s my middle name. Which I never use. The letter suggests that I exchange my 2002 Hyundai Elantra on the purchase or lease of a new car. There’s a problem, though. I gave them back that car in 2006 when the lease ended. Haven’t seen it since. You’d think they’d know that, wouldn’t you?

So perhaps I can summarize their pitch this way:

Hey, person whose name we don’t know? Would you like to trade in the car you returned to us eight years ago on another car? We wouldn’t ask, except you’re a really special person to us and we care. 

Using online ads? Prepare for backlash

Interesting example of one of the pitfalls of online advertising passed by on my newsfeed. Ottawa realtor Tracy Arnett had used Facebook’s new promoted posts feature on Facebook. Available since May, this new feature allows a specific post to be pushed into people’s newsfeeds (this is different from Facebook ads, which appear in the sidebar of a Facebook profile). The one I saw advertised a condominium apartment.

But what really caught my eye was the first comment on the post. Take a look:

A screenshot of Tracy Arnett Facebook advertisement


To the credit of the realtor, she responded exceptionally well. Apologize for the offense, explain calmly and carefully why it happened, offer a solution.

When I went to the realtor’s Facebook page, I noted the following messages as well:

Arnett Facebook page screen capture

But it points out to businesses using new social media options for advertising such as sponsored posts on social networks that they may well tick off people who see them. Be prepared to receive angry — even intemperate — feedback, and to respond in a measured and factual manner. Imagine if the realtor had responded by saying “Look, if you don’t like it just hit ignore, okay? It’s not my problem”!

And in fact, depending on the type of advertising you’re planning on doing and the nature of your business or organization, the potential for negative responses might well dissuade you from doing such advertising. Proceed carefully!

Is your business going out on “dates?” Then why not get dressed up?

Yesterday, I saw a great post called “The First Rule of Branding” from former Algonquin College colleague Lisa Haggis, who’s now on her own as a branding consultant. My two-sentence summary of her post: “Customers want to love you. Don’t turn them off.”

And then this morning, I was meeting with friend and colleague Meredith Luce, a local graphic designer (and, as a side note, one of my favorite performers in all the world), and we were talking about businesses and design, when she said, “Sometimes it’s like hearing a friend is going out on a hot date and you look at her and say, ‘You’re going out dressed like that?? At least invest in a mirror.‘”

I burst out laughing. But what she had said, and what Lisa had written, were stuck in my head enough that I needed to write this.

As a business, the “frilly stuff”, like graphic design or customer experience, might seem unnecessary. As Lisa wrote in her post,

“People will evaluate your brand as a whole, not as individual experiences… exceptions – that one off-topic blog post, cheap marketing collateral, or a contradictory offering – will throw off the whole experience.” 

Whether it’s media relations, sales, graphic design, social media — when you’re in business, you’re always going out on dates. Hopefully,  those dates develop into relationships (I’m not getting into polygamy or polyamory metaphors, please and thank you). You should be thinking:

But if you go out with your metaphorical fly unzipped or your pantyhose tucked into your skirt… you could end up like this:

Don’t leave a glaring hole in your customer experience. For that matter, don’t leave a subtle one either.

Not-for-profits, social media, and accountability

One of the things that social media offers EVERYONE is the chance to present important work to the world in engaging ways. Proof? Just look at a map from the James McGregor Stewart society in Nova Scotia. I think if you read this post, you’ll see that even the most underresourced organization can use online tools to do good work and spread it.

First, the inspiration. Parker Donham, an old acquaintance from my days as a freelancer for CBC Radio in Sydney, wrote in a June 5 Contrarian post:

The James McGregor Stewart Society, a small voluntary group with a single summer intern, has managed to pull off in a month what the Disabled Persons Commission of NS (annual budget: $600,000) and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ($2.1 million) have not achieved in the decades of their existence.

It has surveyed the accessibility of MLAs offices throughout the province. The results will not be a source of pride for Nova Scotia or its legislators.

So, the back story:

The James McGregor Stewart Society’s prime mover, a guy named Gus Reed, got a question from his intern. She wanted to find out  how easy is it for people with disabilities to meet with their elected representatives? So, simplicity itself. She phoned each of the 52 MLAs’ constitutency offices and asked them some very simple questions about accessibility. Here’s what they asked:

  1. Does your office have parking? If so, is it paved? Does it have designated accessible spots?
  2. Is there a power door button?
  3. Is your entrance accessible (level, ramped, and / or elevator?)? Does it have a portable or other questionable ramp? Does it have a step or stairs?
  4. Is the washroom large enough for a wheelchair? Are there grab bars and/or a wheel-under sink?
  5. Is your office on an accessible transit route?

With this, they assigned points so that MLAs could score between -1 and 6.

Here are the results:

MLA Accessibility map

The mean score was 3. Keep in mind, you could get a 3 by having a disabled parking space at your office and having a door at street level. If you had an accessible washroom you’d get a 5.  So a mean score of 3 is not exactly inspiring.

I spent a little time trying to get a handle on the Nova Scotia government’s accessibility policy. As best as I can understand it, buildings constructed since the 1990s, or buildings that have changed their purpose (from a house to a retail store, for example) are required to conform to the provincial building code, which mandates a number of measures to ensure disabled people can get access. (The building code regulations are here, and the province’s 1986 Building Access act is here.)  Unfortunately, calls and emails to the province’s Human Rights Commission and Disabled Persons Commission resulted in little useful information. However, a cheerful fellow at the  provincial department of Labour and Advanced Education (which is responsible for the building code) walked me through the regulations so that I got a cursory understanding of them.

The shameful level of accessibility is one thing. But I’m not an accessibility blogger – I’m a PR and social media blogger. So I’m gonna take on that aspect of this.

What really caught my eye in Parker Donham’s post was that nobody else had done this sort of survey before. Certainly, it’s not a technical challenge; simply pick up the phone 52 times and you’re done.

But what social media now offers is the opportunity to disseminate these findings in a graphically-rich way quickly, easily, and widely. No wire service needed, no fancy-dan graphic designers. Just Google Maps, Blogger, and email.

I spoke with Gus Reed on Skype on June 6, and he told me they weren’t sure what would happen with this survey. With no staff, the James McGregor Stewart Society has no “machine” to churn out a mass of followup documents. And this story may not make a dent in the media or in Nova Scotia government policy.

I want to draw out some public relations and social media lessons for both activist groups and for those who are their likely targets — large corporations, organizations, or government.

For activists:  

  1. Do solid work — like calling all 52 constituency offices, and tell your story well. Don’t focus only on media attention. A well-told story, like “people in wheelchairs can’t participate in basic democracy” is going to make people stop and read. If your work is shoddy or bloggers or media get burned, though, good luck getting someone to listen a second time.
  2. Use the resources you have at your disposal. In this case, the society has a blog on Blogger. Sure, they could get more fancy. But they haven’t. They used Google Maps to visualize and annotate their data. Gus Reed used Skype to give me more information.
  3. Have a plan. Even if you’re not going to push hard on the media front, doing the work requires followup. What will your next steps be? Once you do them, what’s next? Even for voluntary organizations with no staff, this stuff isn’t a closed circle, it’s lather, rinse, repeat. (Hint: there are lots of municipalities in Nova Scotia to look at, Mr Reed. Hint 2: There are 12 other legislatures that groups could survey in exactly the same way.)

For organizations:

  1. Do not look at this as a threat. Look at it as an opportunity. Even if it’s critical. And especially if, deep down, you know the criticism is well-founded.
  2. Do not ignore small organizations as powerless. The “amplification effect” may leave you chasing down a forest fire.
  3. Respond. Promptly and substantively.

What we have here…

Here in Ottawa, the most concentrated area for tourists is called the Byward Market. This historic market dates to when the city was called Bytown, after its founder, Colonel John By. And while you can still get your cheese, produce, or meat in the Byward Market, there are more than 100 bars and restaurants that compete for thirsty locals and peckish tourist, and occasionally for the Rolling Stones, who filmed a video in the legendary Zaphod Beeblebrox.

When President Barack Obama visited Ottawa few years ago, he made a side trip to a Byward Market bakery called Le Moulin de Provence to pick up some cookies for his kids:

But that bakery, a bunch of others, and the business improvement area which represents the neighbourhood’s businesses, are not too happy these days. Over the next few weeks, about 25 businesses in this area will be losing power overnight, as Hydro Ottawa, the city’s power authority, works on an underground hydro vault.

The utility provided the businesses with two weeks’ notice. Moulin owner Claude Bonnet told CBC that he looked into a generator, but that $20,000 for three weeks’ rental couldn’t be justified. At least one nightclub has coughed up for a generator; other restaurants have reduced their service hours, and the bakery is reducing hours and struggling to rework its baking schedule.

So what’s to learn here? I guess there are two lessons. First off, while Hydro Ottawa has told media it consulted with businesses, it apparently didn’t consult widely enough. And it’s hard to imagine why this work would be scheduled during the start of Ottawa’s tourist season when we have months of winter when the work could have been done, and why business owners could only be given two weeks’ notice. It’s one thing to cut off power to my house overnight; I may miss an alarm or have to set up a battery-powered alarm clock. But when you’re a food business in the premier Ottawa tourist destination, it’s not an inconvenience, it’s a disaster.

And for businesses like Le Moulin de Provence, interruption strategies are crucial. I’ve done tons of crisis communications sessions where the organization has said “but that would NEVER happen.” I’m sure that M. Bonnet would have said “Hydro Ottawa would never cut off our power three nights per week for three weeks! We’re paying customers!” Just because an event is unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

So… what we have here…

is a failure to communicate.

Theft is not a good business idea. (UPDATED)

Back in the day, it was easy for unethical businesses to pop up and disappear quite quickly. A number of years ago, I was interviewed by the local TV news when I discovered that a kiosk in a shopping mall was selling Livestrong wrist bands at a gross profit ($4 for bands purchased from the Livestrong Foundation for $1) and in contravention of the Livestrong Foundation’s agreement.

When the kiosk owner was nowhere to be found in the mall, the staff claimed ignorance and referred the reporter to the owner, and … things just passed over. Flea markets or other public events were popular places for people to show up with fake merchandise, bootlegged music or video, and make a quick buck.

But with social media, things can’t stay submerged for long, as brands like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 have learned to their chagrin. Bot those large companies were discovered (sometimes repeatedly) to have been copying the designs of small designers without permission and selling those designs.

Now, there appears to be a local example.

Two Ottawa men created and began selling promotional t-shirts with the message “Don’t F**K with the  Walrus” during the NHL playoffs. The phrase refers to Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean, who sports a rather outrageous moustache, and was referred to as a “bug-eyed fat walrus” by Montreal Canadiens player Brandon Prust.

The men, Jamie McLennan and Eric Chamois, made two shirts to wear to a playoff game, and found the market for them rabid and enthusiastic. They began making the shirts, selling them, and then donating $1 for each shirt sold to the Ottawa Senators Foundation.

But then they discovered that Ottawa Sports Experts stores were selling a design that was essentially identical to theirs.

Here’s the two. On the left is the original design by J and L Ink; on the right, a photo of a Sports Experts store display from the Senstown blog.

sedisplay JandLInk3












Looks to me as if the design on the right has slight variation in the font used and has had the F**K removed (making it a bit nonsensical — don’t moustache with the walrus?!) but is otherwise identical.

The creators of the original shirt are adamant that no deal is in place; I’ve reached out to Sports Experts for comment, but have heard nothing as yet.

Sports Experts has no active Twitter account, but they’re receiving dozens of angry messages on their Facebook page (which is showing a last update a day before the angry messages started.) They haven’t responded to any of those messages either. I’m at least the third blogger to find this, after the Senstown blog and the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

What’s the lesson here? At this point, it’s that sometimes, even people with great ideas and generosity can do things that small-minded people then rip off. Or… if you are selling retail and you get an idea to use someone else’s design… maybe you should think again. But let’s wait and see. Maybe Sports Experts will make this good. Hey, FGL Sports, owners of Sports Experts and other brands — it’s your move.

UPDATE: At about 10:50, Sports Experts posted a response on their Facebook page:

“Hello everyone, we are aware of your comments and concerns regarding the Walrus T-shirt. Details concerning the situation are presently being investigated and we will keep you updated as soon as we know more on what exactly has happened. Thank you very much for your understanding.”  

Look forward to more information as it comes.

UPDATE, 2:45 pm: Sports Experts has an apology and explanation up on their Facebook page:

Dear concerned customers,

The sale of the Walrus t-shirt in the Ottawa Sports Experts stores was a local initiative and in no way was meant to harm the artist. The Sports Experts franchise owner sourced the T-shirts from an Ottawa supplier and asked to modify the design (removing the obscene language) not knowing that the supplier didn’t own the rights to the graphic. As soon as he became aware of the problem, the store owner decided to stop selling the t-shirts and removed the unsold t-shirts from all locations. After discussing the situation with the local artist, the owner of the stores will donate all the sales revenues to the Sens Foundation. It was a misunderstanding between the artist, the supplier and the Sports Experts stores owner.

We, as a national team, are truly sorry for this mishap and look forward to your continued business.

Thank you for your understanding.

The Sports Experts team

Sometimes corporations aren’t as evil as we want them to be

Mammoth phone bill, by Flickr user

Mammoth phone bill, by Flickr user “Me and the sysop

It’s easy for all of us to get angry at big corporations. And it’s become the stock in trade of blogs like Consumerist to chronicle the failings and missteps of the corporate world.

But a story I learned about this morning (via the CBC’s consumer segment “Go Public“) made me wonder about just how consistently “evil” corporations are, and where the line gets drawn.

The story goes like this:

A financial planner from Burnaby went to Mexico on a family vacation. While there, he had switched his smartphone to “Airplane Mode” to avoid roaming charges. All was well until his son got sunburned. What then? The boy spent a lot of time in the family’s hotel room, playing already-downloaded video games (cool). However, he also took the phone out of “Airplane Mode” and … streamed something like 12 hours of video from Youtube. That resulted in a $22,000 bill by the time the phone provider Fido(owned by phone giant Rogers) cut off data service.

Apparently, the bill was cut to $2,200 and then to $500 by the provider.

A couple of points here:

  • The roaming rates for Fido are apparently higher than other providers. 
  • At least one other provider has a $200 cutoff point for data charges.
  • Canada’s roaming rates are among the world’s highest.

So now that we’ve set out those provisos, let’s look at the question of responsibility. The dad in question admits that had he removed the SIM card from his smartphone, this couldn’t have happened (of course, if he had told his kid to read a book it wouldn’t have happened either). Another important point:

“Buie is a financial planner from Burnaby, who said he is paranoid about roaming charges. Before his family went on vacation in January, he said Apple store representatives advised him to switch his iPhone to ‘airplane mode’ to prevent roaming.”  If you’re that “paranoid”… you give your kid your smartphone?

Possibly the most interesting part of the CBC story that piqued my interest in this is the comment section. Sure, media story comment sections are where you go to forget that humanity has potential. But even here, the number of comments that are critical of the user are significant. I would have expected an almost 100% anti-Rogers comment section.

I’m not absolving Rogers / Fido of blame here. And maybe their policies or rates need work. But at the same time, it’s difficult to look at this case and not think of the actions of the owner of the phone in this case as they contributed to the problem.

When consumers run into trouble, sometimes they run into it on their own two feet.

SMB 101 Post #3: When someone complains, respond

Last week, I was challenged to write about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of people blocking or ignoring their online critics.

This week, I’m going to give you a few tips about how to deal with online criticisms of your business.

No business pleases everyone. And now, displeased customers can complain in public. Sometimes with lots of people watching. And when that happens, what do you do?!

Not recommended

CC licenced from Flickr user Gordon2208

Shockingly enough, many companies are choosing to ignore online complaints. Look at this blog post by Jay Baer, based on research published in September 2011. According to that research, less than a third of complaints on Twitter were responded to by the company being complained about.  According to Baer,

Brands must look at these new channels as the “social telephone” and ignoring these 140-character cries for help is a flawed decision.”

There are a few options. First thing is to assess the validity of the complaint. If Jane Bloggs is saying you screwed up the delivery and the product was broken when it finally got delivered… is she right? If so, did you know about her dissatisfcation and attempt to make things right? You need to have as complete a picture of what happened as you can get, so you can know where you stand and decide on a response.

It might be that this person is not a customer at all. And that’s good to know too. It might be rare, but some people do enjoy causing trouble by making up stories.

Assuming Jane Bloggs is real, then reach out using the same means she did to voice her complaint. Did she tweet it? Then @ her. Did she use Yelp? Then comment on her post, and try to engage her.

Use neutral language. Acknowledge her feelings. Show that you’re listening. And try to move the discussion into a more private place, like email, or even better, the phone. Human contact trumps electronic contact when it comes to resolving conflict.

If you’re able to mollify her and resolve the issues which got her mad, then thank her for being reasonable and promise to do better in the future. And do.

If you aren’t, do your best, and explain why you can’t help any more than you can.

I’ve adapted this chart from the US Air Force’s chart of how they respond to bloggers. And thanks to Jeremiah Owyang, we’ve all had a chance to see that classic piece of work.

A simple way to deal with online complaints

Don’t ignore complaints. You’re only hurting yourself.

The sad tale of Aubrey’s Meats and “daily deals.” UPDATED

I was watching my local newscast the other night when I watched a story about a local — and legendary — butcher shop.

Aubrey’s Meats is over 100 years old, and located in the Byward Market, one of Ottawa’s oldest areas. This may be one of its problems, actually. The Market, as it’s known to us Ottawans, is usually packed with a combination of tourists in search of the right tchotchke to take home to a coworker or maiden aunt and young revelers heading to The Heart and Crown or the Chateau Lafayette to get their drink on. If I’m gonna buy some steaks or a nice roast for the grill I’m not going to head to the Market.

But I digress. Aubrey’s Meats, according to its own “About” page, found itself in a serious bit of difficulty recently. The death of its owner and his declining health meant employees were running the shop. And not too well.

…in December 2010, Catherine Davis, the store’s bookkeeper, was made ad-hoc manager of Aubrey’s. When she took over, certain employees had run our store, between rent to the city and money owed to the suppliers, into a debt in excess of $300,000. Though it didn’t appear so, Aubrey’s was a sinking ship that some might not have tried to save. Out of a respect for Brian and his work, and an undying faith in this store’s potential, Catherine set about to keep Aubrey’s afloat.

So they were in trouble. Like some on a sinking ship, they grasped at anything that looked like it might help them float. And what they grabbed were Groupon and Kahoot.

They embarked on a number of different offers. One offered $200 in value for $89. They sold over 1000 of those. They offered others at $55 for $175 worth of meat. They sold thousands of those.


The hammer started to fall for the people running Aubrey’s when they realized that they couldn’t fulfil all the orders placed. So they limited it to redeeming $50 worth of meat at a time. Now they’ve suspended all redemptions until May 1.

What went wrong here? I think it should be obvious. The cash crunch they found themselves in made them decide to try this for an immediate cash infusion (even though they only get a portion of the revenue — according to the butcher who is the spokesperson for Aubrey’s right now, each $55 coupon resulted in $24 in revenue to Aubrey’s). But they didn’t look even one step down the road to figure out what to do if they SUCCEEDED with the offers. I feel for Aubrey’s employees. It sounds like they’re in a tight spot. But they’ve done themselves no favours by pursuing this strategy.

The companies which marketed their deals? I’d wager that they’re in no way suffering the way Aubrey’s is.

This isn’t a new story. Others, including my buddy Anne Weiskopf, have written about some of the challenges of managing daily deal sites for small businesses. Don’t just dive in. Think about the risks AND the potential benefits. If you’re new to doing that sort of thing, get advice. And if you’re considering a daily coupon site, you need to not only ask what will happen if your offer goes nowhere, you need to  think VERY carefully about what the implications of SUCCESS will be. Dying of popularity is not any better than dying of neglect. 


UPDATE, January 23: Three of the four companies which issued coupons for Aubrey’s meats are refunding those coupons, according to CBC Ottawa. Those are: Team Buy, DealFind and Groupon. CBC is reporting that Ottawa-based company Kahoot told its customers:

“We have been made aware of these unfortunate circumstances regarding Aubrey’s. Unfortunately we are unable to refund vouchers outside of seven days after purchase. If interested in a refund, we suggest going directly to Aubrey’s as they are now liable for their commitment to honour all vouchers sold.”

I wonder if Kahoot has thought about the several thousand people who bought through them rather than another of the coupon sites, and how likely they are to return to Kahoot to purchase.

UPDATE, JANUARY 24: I’ve asked Kahoot a couple of questions:

1. Can you provide the statement sent to customers who purchased Kahoot deals for Aubrey’s?
2. Is Kahoot concerned that its decision to not refund coupons will cost it brand loyalty when compared to the decisions of Teambuy, DealFind and Groupon to refund the coupons?

I’m hoping for a reply more substantive than this one from them:



Your business isn’t every business

Hat shop, from Flickr user Slimmer_Jimmer

Just 3 more and I get one free!

The Consumerist is one of my must-read blogs. But I don’t necessarily read it for solid marketing and communications advice. Until this morning, when I opened up my feed reader and found a post called “The Silly Hat Shop.”

It reminded me of a cool furniture store in my neighbourhood in Ottawa. They sell the sort of furniture that funky condos would have, as well as custom design services for furniture.

On their door, they trumpet that they’re on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. What’s that mean? For Twitter, they’ve posted 76 tweets in two years, with less than 50 followers. Most of those tweets are for sales on their products. On Facebook, a page with 133 friends and an unending series of sales. And on LinkedIn? Well, they have some employees there.

What does their online presence say to me? I’m NEVER buying full price from them, and they aren’t that different from a Leon’s, a “The Brick”, or other furniture stores.  In short, Ben Popken needed a hat and bought one at a new hat store. They then subjected him to a variety of marketing and loyalty techniques that, in his opinion and mine, don’t fit a hat shop. A frequent buyer card? Really?

I’d also wager that neither the hat shop nor the furniture store have put a second of thought into how they are going to evaluate the success of their frequent buyer club or their Twitter account.

Being a great buyer / retailer of hats, of furniture, of whatever, does not make you a great communicator of what you’re REALLY all about. If you sell great funky furniture that deserves premium treatment — and prices — why not treat it that way? And act as if you’re a trusted advisor rather than a salesman? If you sell hats, don’t treat them like they’re a cappuccino.

And if you can’t think this through because you’re too close to your store, too much in love with what you do — hire someone with a clear vision and trust their insights to do it for you.

(Photo CC licenced from Flickr user Slimmer_Jimmer)