That Mom and Pop Feeling…

A shop a kid can grow up in...Remember the old days when you walked down the main street of town and the shops you went into were all owned by people who lived there? Everybody knew everybody else, their children knew everybody else’s children, if there was a problem, the locals could fix it for you. People provided good products and great service, because they were all neighbors! And a bad reputation would quickly put them out of business.

Actually no, most people today don’t remember those days. We read about them in books, or hear stories of them, a fond remembrance (or a complaint) from our elders who do remember. Larger companies who could sustain the loss undersold them, lobbied for regulations whose costs they could absorb, while the mom and pops couldn’t keep up. The big stores hired an army of employees at low wages who could move more product than the smaller shops could even dream of. The government rewarded the large shops with tax-breaks and other things, but more than anything else, the mass of people chose large shops over small by jumping for lower prices and lower quality goods. And they did so with little regret. More paycheck left in their bank accounts after shopping was enough to sweeten this deal.

Then the internet revolutionized everything, both for good and for ill. It leveled out the playing field, at least for a time. Little mom and pops could now market and sell their products online to a potentially unlimited market, far beyond the borders of their towns and cities. Sadly, as many of us know, it wasn’t to last. Just as the large shops conquered communities, they conquered the web, pre-eminently Amazon, which is a mixed blessing. Just as Wal-mart could force companies to lower prices below what they want or even considered profitable by means of the threat of not carrying their products, Amazon too can lower prices as it wishes. If you don’t like it, what are you going to do? John Q. Public’s bookstore is not going to have a flashy app, or cut their prices 20% to compete because they have bills to pay. Amazon can cut prices and absorb the cost. Amazon wins.

Despite the fact that the place that takes the smallest bite out of one’s check will usually win the customer, consumers still want to feel that mom and pop feeling. They want to have their cake, at a cheap price, and eat it too (albeit only with real butter, cream and sugar). And they want to see the face of the baker and think that their purchase is helping sending his or her kid to college. Many Americans say they would like to shop local and support local businesses, but talk is cheap. You have people like Occupy Wallstreet protestors who bought their sign materials at Wal-mart and skipped the locally owned coffee shop for Starbucks. And this seems to be the way most of America is at this point. They want that good old-fashioned feeling, but they don’t want to pay for it.

Some people DO put their money where their mouth is, and a movement is born. Harold Pollack, a Chicago professor, shops only at small retail stores online, saying: “I don’t feel they [the big box stores] behave in a way that I want to support with my consumer dollars.” (Source) Buy local, shop local movements are beginning to gain momentum, especially in touristy towns where small shops still exist because they are quaint and attract visitors. In this movement, people consciously choose to sacrifice quantity for quality, especially when there is a face attached to the business they are supporting. A big faceless corporation like the run of the mill big box store starts to lose appeal in the long run.

Even people who say they cannot afford to shop at the Mom and Pop shops heartily support them in spirit. They like the “feeling” and the “idea” of them being around. Whether it’s the quaintness of a nice old building, or the personal touch of an etsy online shop, mom and pop says personalized customer service, one-on-one attention to detail, someone that cares about you finding the thing you want and will do what it takes to rummage around the shop to find something that will make you happy. In addition to all that, most consumers DO like knowing their purchase might be paying someone’s school tuition.

Companies that share their story, even put up pictures of their children (the family you are helping to buy groceries for) and show how their shop is a valuable part of society are becoming very popular. People naturally wish to have a personal connection with the place they buy their products from. Social media helps to build and keep this connection established. A simple communication device between the mom and pop shop and the small guy customer. Suddenly, big box stores take note of this, and go… “why can’t we use this tactic to make us look like something special to the small guy?” That mom and pop feeling can be an illusion, and we as a country sometimes fall for it.

An advertising trend over the last five years, big box stores have hired experts to help create an illusion of their being a mom and pop-like establishment. Personal touches like stories of how CEOs started out as small farm boys and worked their way from the bottom up to the top of the ladder really help to build up an image that you would probably have never seen without Facebook. Tweeting about their numerous donations to local charities make it seem like they have the local neighborhood’s well being at heart. Aw. Well, why not shop at Costco then? They have a real man CEO with a real heart, and he even knows about the importance of providing organic eggs to us at an affordable price. We get our organic eggs cheap AND support a real bona-fide farm family, a win-win situation! It’s that olllld mom and pop feeeeeling. It feels good, it feels right. The guys that study consumer buying trends are aware of this, and as long as they can make us feel good in conscience about where we are purchasing, we as a nation will continue to do it.

With social media at your disposal you can create pretty much any image you want to portray. You can’t go wrong with that mom and pop feeling.

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“But I don’t know what to blog about!” How to stop worrying and start writing for your business

The end of any year, we hope, involves clearing out the clutter and mistakes of the previous year, and part of those mistakes for any small business may have involved neglecting (maybe if I ignore it, it’ll go away) blogging for your business.  As part of the initial consultation with any small business owner (we work with all sizes of business but many of our clients have between 2-25 employees) the question always is posed: “What are you going to write about?”  This is partly because the owner or principal feels that there isn’t any “interesting” content to share with the public.  But this just isn’t true.  Every business has stories to share about the industry, its customers, its practices, and its passions, just to name a few starting points.

The Industry

People may be aware that your industry exists, but do they know how it works?  Can you tell some “inside baseball” stories in an interesting fashion?  Ask your colleagues for thoughts on sharing things you take for granted.  One of our clients helps plan special events and one thing we didn’t really think about before working with them was how long an initial phone call might take.  Share how someone gets started in your business (are there certifications?) or how many players (wide open or pretty niche?) or even how you got started.  All of these can be compelling stories to share.

Your Customers

You can always change the names to protect the guilty (or the innocent!) but telling stories about customers is not only cathartic from a business perspective, but it’s also helpful from a reviewing perspective for your staff and colleagues.  Walking through a very positive customer interaction not only reinforces good feelings about your brand, but it sets a point of reference to strive for.  Walking through a challenging customer situation, if done well, showcases your customer service skills.

Your Practices

So you have a donut shop and all donuts are the same, aren’t they?  Or are they?  Whatever your donut/widget, what’s your differentiator?  Marty Neumeier, in his landmark book Zag, refers to this as being the only _____ that _____.  What makes you different?  That’s what is going to draw a consumer that is increasingly tech-savvy and reliant on fellow customer reviews.

Your Passions

We know that you aren’t robots and don’t just think about your business 24/7.  Well that’s not true – plenty of us often do – but the point is that you should always take some time to share something that isn’t directly related to your business.  Proud of your town’s historic roots?  Tell us about them!  Fascinated by scuba diving?  Share your reflections from your latest vacation.  Has one of your colleagues recently had a major positive life change?  Inquiring minds want to know!

We hope this brief brainstorming exercise has gotten you excited about beginning to blog – because, let’s face it, your competitors are already doing it.  So are you going to let it continue to stay on your “to-do” list?  Or are you going to make the New Year truly new, by promoting your business in one of the most genuine and relevant ways: by writing about it.  If you feel overwhelmed or need help – we are just an email away.

How NOT to manage your social media

Most businesses know they need to start using social media, but many don’t know anything about it.  But hey, it’s easy to get an account for free in just a few minutes, and then they’re up and running.  What could go wrong?

As it turns out, a whole lot.

Take Nestle, for example.  They’re a pretty big company, and you’d think they would have some pretty savvy media types there.  But, when they asked on their Facebook page that people only use their official logo rather than any sort of unofficially modified one, the response was a somewhat indignant, “stop telling us what to do.”  It was at this point that things went bad…in a hurry.  Here’s a part of the exchange:

The problem is that Nestle’s Facebook person went on the attack, and with no small amount of snark.  When things like this happen, the downward spiral happens fast.  There’s a reason it’s called “going viral” – it’s because it spreads too fast to contain.  Trust me when I tell you that no single person can outwit and outsnark the entire Internet.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t end well for Nestle.

Or how about Applebee’s and their catastrophic overnight meltdown earlier this year?  At a location in St. Louis, a pastor left a note for her waitress on the receipt saying, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” and actually left no tip at all.  All conversations about the pastor being a rude and hypocritical chucklehead aside, a co-worker of the stiffed waitress took a picture of the note and posted it on Reddit.  Applebee’s claimed she violated the company’s customer privacy policy and fired her.  This angered the Internet, and they lit up the Applebee’s Facebook page with complaints and demands of giving the waitress her job back.  Applebee’s responded like this:

This non-apologetic apology did not mollify the masses, and comments poured in.  At the point where there were about 10,000 comments — overwhelmingly negative — someone pointed out that just two weeks prior to this incident Applebee’s violated their own privacy policy by posting a note from a customer that clearly showed that customer’s name.  Most interesting was the fact that Applebee’s had deleted (some would say “hidden”) this post as soon as the incident with the pastor occurred, though one of the commenters resurrected the image and it spread like wildfire, too.  This, of course, provided a whole lot of power to the Internet’s argument about the hypocrisy of Applebee’s and the need to restore the waitress’ job.  Comments continued to proliferate, exploding to over 17,000 in the next couple of hours.  But, in a stunning move of sheer, unadulterated idiocy, the Applebee’s social media person didn’t stop there.  At 2:53am, the official Applebee’s Facebook page posted a rather lengthy and condescending explanation of the company’s perspective, and started censoring a bunch of the really negative comments.  Not only was there righteous anger at the firing, but now people also started getting angry at the way Applebee’s was conducting itself on the Facebook page.  One would think that when comments are flooding in at around 1,000 per hour expressing anger and outrage at injustice and censorship, maybe they would call it quits.  Nope.  The Applebee’s Facebook person began arguing with customers over the course of the early morning hours.  But despite all that, it still gets worse.

Applebee’s deleted the offending status update, along with over 20,000 comments.  The Internet called bull, and the company then insisted that it hadn’t deleted anything.  As one can imagine, this only agitated the Internet even more.  The social media person continued to argue with commenters, and the comments spiraled up by the thousands once again.  By the time it was all over and done, there had been a total of well over 40,000 negative comments on the Applebee’s Facebook page, and that doesn’t even include the ones that were deleted or blocked…and then the argument moved onto Twitter.  Needless to say, this is a clinic on what not to do with social media.

But Nestle and Applebee’s are far from alone.  British Airways, Chrysler, McDonald’s, Kenneth Cole…the list is virtually endless.  Celebrities shoot themselves in the social media foot all the time, too.  So, this begs the question: how should you handle it when something goes wrong?

With a little humor and a lot of humility seems to work well.

A great example of this would be when a New York & Company employee thought she was logged into her personal Facebook account and posted the words to a song that was wholly inappropriate for such a venue.  The company immediately deleted the post and replaced it with this:

Hundreds of comments poured in, mostly along the lines of “no big deal, mistakes happen.”  Eventually, people started expressing concern for the employee who mistakenly posted it, so NY&C followed up with this:

It was a happy ending for all involved, and it generated a ton of buzz — the right kind of buzz — for the company and its handling of the incident. People who were already customers became even more loyal to the brand, and people who didn’t know NY&C got a tremendously favorable first impression.

Or consider the story of a couple who purchased dishes from Bed, Bath & Beyond’s online store.  When the dishes arrived, they were broken and the wrong color.  The husband fired off a quick message to the company’s Twitter account, though he didn’t really expect a response.  Thirty-eight minutes later the company Twitterer messaged him back, promising to look into it.  Between the Twitter account and his local store, they processed a full refund quickly and without any argument whatsoever, turning an angry and antagonistic soon-to-be-former customer into a repeat buyer who personally endorsed the experience and the company in a very public way.

More and more companies are using social media to connect with their customers in a very real and powerful way, but the person running those accounts needs to know how to use that power properly.  The Internet can be an extremely hazardous and unforgiving place…or a gigantic goodwill generator.  When it comes to social media, the difference is often a fine line that needs to be drawn oh so carefully.

How Social Media can protect your brand (Thanks, Nordstrom!)

The whole point of having an “industry” blog, in our conception, is to talk about what is happening OUT THERE, not necessarily what happens in the personal lives of our staff.  But when the incident is directly related to your job, you really HAVE to write about it, if for no other reason than not to put off expressing gratitude to a well-handled situation.

One of the reasons that I shop at Nordstrom is for the customer service.  Yes, sure, there are other reasons to eat there (like having a great lunch) but I know that if something goes wrong, and the original manufacturer doesn’t do right by me (which happens sometimes), Nordstrom will take care of me.  This was a theory, based on stories I read in textbooks, heard about at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and had heard about from friends.  But the theory became a fact earlier today.

On Monday I stopped by Nordstrom with a cologne bottle which had an issue with the sprayer (I know, with a government shutdown this is a #firstworldproblem par excellence, but read on!) and I was hoping the staff could help me fix the sprayer or transfer the contents to another bottle.  The patient in question was a bottle of Ralph Lauren for Men Silver (which is, alas, discontinued, but lives on in ebay auctions) and I stood at the counter and chatted with the new employee who, like me, couldn’t get the sprayer top to stay on.  The supervisor was busy helping another customer.  The new employee and I worked on it over a period of 10 minutes (he also pointed out it was going be painstakingly long to transfer the contents to another bottle which would only hold 1/4 of what was left in my bottle).

Look, I’ve worked retail – I know you can only help one person at a time, and it’s probably Nordstrom policy to stay with your customer the whole time – but I would have appreciated a quick stopover from the supervisor to acknowledge my situation and to give me a time when she would be able to help me.  She did, after about 15 minutes of waiting (and that’s real minutes, not customer minutes.  I know the difference!) stop by and acknowledge the issue and that she’d be by to help me.

In addition to repeating what we had already tried, she checked over with the ladies’ fragrance counter for any other ideas.  None forthcoming, she asked when I had bought the fragrance.  Years ago, I told her.  I didn’t remember when, but it was likely in California and I didn’t buy it on a Nordstrom card.  We searched old phone numbers and zip codes to try to find a record of the purchase.  Nada.

“If we had a record I could process a return,” she stated glumly.  I thought to myself that surely the Nordstrom reputation doesn’t necessarily need a receipt.  I expressed surprise that I could “return” an item I had used for years that was discontinued.  If that was the case, why would the holdup be simply the paperwork?  To contextualize further, I had two samples in front of me, the Burberry and the Prada, which had some of the same scent profile of the RL – light, citrusy, etc.  I wasn’t expecting a full return – I would have been happy with some kind of partial credit and I would have bought a new fragrance right then and there to replace an old favorite.  So, perhaps the failure here wasn’t customer service, it was salesmanship.

In any event, I returned back to the office and tweeted.  I received a response from Nordstrom exactly one minute later.

We began direct messaging and I gave the Nordstrom social media rep a twitter version of the story I’ve recounted above.  She promised to look into it, took my info, and that was that.

A little over two hours later I received a phone call (I couldn’t answer) and heard a voice message from a manager at the Nordstrom I had visited informing me that I had a giftcard for an equivalent return waiting for me when I came back next.

Yeah, I just said that.

Photo Oct 03, 14 24 02Nordstrom processed a return for my cologne (which I had just left at the store when we realized we wouldn’t be able to fix it) at what the market rate would have been for that type of brand and gave me a gift card.  And they did all of this within about 2 hours of my first tweet.

I mean, the customer service lessons here are beyond obvious, but I’ll restate them, just in the spirit of recapitulating to the Nordstrom team what this meant to me:

1.  We all make mistakes in dealing with customers, but the mistake isn’t the issue – the issue is how you deal with it.  And Nordstrom lived up to their reputation (and exceeded it) in how they responded to me.

2.  You never know who you’re going to please.  Now, I don’t have some nationally syndicated blog, but I am what Malcolm Gladwell would call an “Influencer” and I often share my thoughts and views with family, friends, students, colleagues, and even acquaintances (ask the barista who I just told the story to while typing it up here at Parisi in Leawood) who go on to buy from brands and firms I rave about.  I’ve told at least 10 people about this story since Monday, when it happened.

3.  See customer service as an investment.  Sure, I’m going to use that gift card right away towards a new fragrance.  But they’ve strengthened their brand reputation with me and know the dividends that will come from this one act.

4.  Social Media moves as quickly as you want it to.  Nordstrom did not want to see their name in a tweet with #bummed in it.  They dealt with it at a speed that is not necessarily expected, even by a guy who runs a small boutique social media and blogging firm.  It made me feel important and taken seriously, and it ensured that their swiftness was documented (for anyone who wanted to go back and look later).

Thank you Nordstrom.  You guys rock.

Now if I could only get Ralph Lauren to bring back Silver. 🙂