Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On satisfaction guarantees

I posted yesterday about an off-putting experience at Starbucks. Basically, I felt like I was watching an Italian cafe experience production machine as opposed to a bunch of people making me a good cup of coffee in a nice setting.

I started thinking about Starbucks' satisfaction guarantee. I don't remember the exact language, but they guarantee that your beverage will be exactly what you want or they'll fix it (i.e., make you another I suppose).

OK, that's nice. But it brings me back to my earlier comment about the experience being manufactured with all of the professionalization and sterility that "production" implies vs. a true human experience.

Who can really guarantee 100% satisfaction? Well, a machine. One that's been built and tested rigorously to produce and reproduce over and over with no variance. But is that what I want? Do I want a "perfect coffee experience" each and every time I go to Starbucks because they have a detailed training manual, a coffee college for baristas, rigorous processes...? Or do I want a really good experience that isn't exactly the same each time. That has texture due to all sorts of factors including human variation.

I think I want the latter.

But humans cannot guarantee perfection each and every time. We get tired. We get cranky. We forget.

So what should a satisfaction guarantee really offer?

Well maybe they can just guarantee that if they screw up, they'll take care of it and make you happy. Maybe sometimes they just add the cream they forgot. Maybe they make you a new beverage. Maybe they offer you a $10 gift card... Maybe Starbucks doesn't have to tell its employees exactly how to make people happy.

In the end, I want a human experience. Now I don't want it to come with all of the crap that life throws at me. I get that for free. But I also don't want to feel like I've stepped into an experience assembly line.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A manufactured experience

I had a strange feeling at Starbucks this morning. Strange and unpleasant. While waiting for my coffee, I was just sort of watching the process as customers came in and ordered their whatever and the order were taken, relayed to the people towards the back, prepared and then handed to the consumer.

This was a very clear assembly line and for the first time, I felt like just another cog. Not a very good feeling.

Starbucks is obviously a manufactured experience. A sort of Disney World for adult coffee lovers. Howard Schultz liked Italian cafes and thought Americans would too. He was right. And that level of phoniness is OK with me as far as it goes. (Phony because Starbucks is not actually an Italian cafe.)

But Starbucks is clearly a place with a manual. What I mean by that is that there is probably a book and a training course on how to produce this customer experience. See how insidious this is? I just used the word "produce" without blinking an eye (you'll have to trust me that I didn't blink). This is what I mean by a manufactured experience. And this level of phoniness is not OK with me.

I have no reason to assume that Starbucks frontline employees are not genuinely nice people. I'm sure they are. But it feels very much to me that Starbucks tells them in minute detail just how to be nice to me. How to produce that Starbucks experience. I felt it very much today (this is what happens when I don't bring my Blackberry - I notice things). And now it feels fake. From the lingo they use. The staccato drone-like relaying of the order to the back...

I don't actually feel like this is a real human place. And now that I have seen this, the magic of Starbucks is totally gone for me.

BTW, I think Disney works even though we adults know it is totally fake, because we don't really have expectations for seeing real princesses and genies in life. We get it. We suspend our disbelief. (Oh, and their primary target is the little ones who are less jaded.) But we do have expectations of getting a cup of coffee from a genuine human being who is not programmed. In my opinion, Starbucks is not delivering this.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Stupid branding and a sad commentary on our country

My brother sent me the attached article on a pizza eating contest. Now I love pizza as much as the next guy, but I have to tell you that these eating contests are both ridiculous and slightly evil.

Ridiculous, because the eating is not about nutrition or pleasure. It's about a silly ego thing which has nothing to do with food. Do we really need to make a contest out of everything? Honestly people. This is just dumb.

Evil, because there are people starving in this country and others. And no, I don't intend to sound like your mother who told you to finish your peas because of starving kids in Africa. My point is that food should be respected as a source of nourishment for human life and/or as a source of pleasure. An eating contest treats food as worthless, as just a toy. Of course the pizza that was consumed here would not have helped someone starving in Africa. But even if it also couldn't have helped someone starving in NY (which it could have), the excess consumption merely for the sake of a game shows genuine callousness.

As for the branding issue, Famous Famiglia sponsored this event. What exactly do they intend to say about their brand? Generally speaking, people do not shovel food down their throats because they enjoy it. So are they trying to portray themselves as the brand for people who don't care about the taste of their pizza? Or are they the Marie Antoinette of the pizza world - hahaha! We can just throw food away. And the masses? Well let them eat cake! Or, are they the brand for big fat guys? I don't get it. I cannot see a reasonably positive association that they would realistically communicate to consumers with such a ridiculous event.

And just in case you aren't yet sure of my credentials as a crotchety old bastard, I have to say that the fact that our society seems titillated by such events and the fact that they are reported on with amusement, does not say anything positive about us. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Now get off my lawn you damn kids!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A little oasis of reliability

It's nice to know in this crazy world that sometimes things are just what they purport to be.

Monday, October 13, 2008

So close!

On my way home one evening, I passed this pickup. The signs on the back were so remarkable that I stopped to take a picture.

Now that's a pretty big deal. I stopped on my way home after a full day's work before having dinner to look at this truck because I thought the signs were so cool.

I wanted to call the owner just to let him know. But I couldn't find the phone number! Ouch!!!

The next day when I saw the truck again, I walked around it and found the phone number on the side. But this was because it was on my way home. Otherwise, it would have been gone and off my radar screen forever.

If you're going to create a remarkable sign to generate buzz, make sure people who respond favorably know how to find you. Otherwise your sign is just a sign and not a new business generator.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

So how did I do?

I just came back from a wonderful weekend with great friends. Had a chance to check out the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, MD. Awesome place and the beer was really good.

I also joined the City of Hope, Walk for Hope to cure breast cancer.

Of course,
I felt much more hopeful immediately after finishing the run. But, sadly, I do not get to be judge and jury of my own performance.

So I really need to know: did you all feel more hopeful around 11am EST today? I really hope you did because I have no intention of getting up at 8 in the morning on a Sunday again anytime soon. Even if it is for a cause as worthy as healthy breasts.

Doesn't this ruin the joke?

Why would anyone go if they already know?

Monday, October 6, 2008

On 5 minute vs. 5 year bombs

Innovation is tough. We all know this. It has become an article of faith. Right?

I don't think so. I don't think innovation is any tougher than anything else we do. Marketing is tough. Sales is tough. R&D is tough. Life is tough.

I think the bigger challenge for innovation is not how tough it is, but how seriously we take it. That is, we just don't take it seriously enough. We don't invest in it enough. We don't give it enough sunshine, air, nutrients and time. We want it to produce results on a time line that is appropriate for other endeavors but inappropriate for innovation.

So if the primary barrier to innovation is one of volition, how can we move innovation along?

I propose the ticking bomb framework. There's a lot of hand wringing about innovation. How do we do it? How can we fund it? What are the right organizational structures or processes?... But really, these are not the questions we need to focus on. Not yet.

If a leader knew there was a ticking bomb that would go off in 5 minutes and 1 second and that would take 5 minutes to disarm, he would instantly go about getting it done. The need for innovation, however, is really a ticking bomb that will go off in 5 years and 1 second. So it is perceived as always less urgent than the bevy of 5 minute bombs that can be plainly seen in the moment. But the reality is that while innovation is a 5 year plus 1 second bomb, it will take a full 5 years to disarm. So our leader needs to jump on it with the same sense of urgency as he does the 5 minute bombs. It is the same problem.

Once we understand and accept that, we can then move along to the tactical questions of how to innovate. And I bet we will find that suddenly the questions do not seem so big and scary. In fact, I expect many of them will seem as silly as asking whether one should use a regular or needlenose pliers when disarming the 5 minute bomb. There's no time to discuss the philosophy of pliers when you're disarming a 5 minute bomb. And it doesn't matter anyway. You just do it. Well the 5 year bomb is exactly the same.

So let's just do it!