Tag Archives: customer service

Irrelevant Innovation

Last week I went to Inamo, an oriental restaurant in Lower Regent Street, for a pre-theatre meal. My companion suggested it, as he’d heard the food was good (it was – especially the spicy ribs) and it has a new and different twist – computerised dining tables.

In front of each diner is a mouse pad and the whole table is a digitised display. There’s a choice of landscapes for your table – so you can choose your own personal ambiance, from vivid tropical landscape to abstract expressionism. The mouse pad also controls the visual menu, broken down into drinks, starter and main courses, as well as an option to call for a waiter and a games console.

I suppose if you’re in the habit of going for a meal with an incredibly boring person, having a games console on your table during dinner may be an attractive diversion. And if you like the kind of establishment that offers illustrated menus, having one that visualises each dish as if it was a plate in front of you, may have its attractions. For the rest of us it’s a pointless feature.

I found the ordering process surprisingly stressful and time consuming (mouse management!) as well as rather anti-social. My companion ordered a second glass of wine for himself without telling me – when he’d normally have said ‘shall we have another?’ – which made it all seem very individually focused and not very sociable. I  found scrolling through the (picture) menu tedious and frequently got mouse paralysis. The novelty had worn off in about 45 seconds!

All this raises a question. Just exactly what unmet need is a computerised dining table and menu meeting? What is so difficult about looking at a printed menu? It’s MUCH quicker. It allows you to scan the whole offering – as opposed to looking at one item at a time. I can imagine there are benefits for the restaurant – more speedy and accurate transmission of orders from table to kitchen – and the fact that you probably end up spending much more than normal (we certainly did!).

It reduces the waiters to mere delivery vehicles and removes one of the most important elements of dining –  interaction with the waiters. When all they do is plonk something down on your table, it becomes a very souless and impersonal transaction.

Yes, you can apply technology to dining. Inamo have shown that. They delivered everything we ordered in a timely and accurate manner. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should!

I wonder how many of their diners make a return visit. Nice as the food was I won’t. I want to escape from computers when I go out to eat. I want to talk to my companion, not play with a mouse or challenge him to a game. I like to have a bit of repartee with a waiter – or ask for the recommendations – and in doing so glimpse his or her personality, not have a cipher silently deliver dishes to my table. They may as well be androids! And call me old fashioned – but give me  a well starched, linen table cloth in preference to a digital display any day.


My yellow card to Apple

I need to declare an interest up front. I’m writing this on a Mac, I have an iPod, an iPhone and an iPad. My first ever computer was an old Macintosh and, after years of corporate life which forced me down the PC railroad, I was ecstatic to get back to the Church of Apple. Lately however, while still a believer, I’m beginning to experience some doubts and now I’m wondering  whether Apple’s got just a bit too big for its rebellious nonconformist boots. Here’s why.

To me the big appeal of the Apple brand has always been the way they made things so easy. They took care of the horrible technology and all I had to do was show up and be creatively inspired (or more often not!).

When I had to use a PC after enjoying my first 2 years on a Mac, I nearly cried in despair. I couldn’t understand the complexity of all the directories. Everything was just so difficult and apart from the stupid time-wasting Solitaire game that came as part of the Windows package, I found it all a bit too much for my tiny brain. But needs must. I learned and eventually Windows became second nature, albeit a frustrating a complicated experience.

In contrast Macs were so great because they are intuitive. They work in a very easy to grasp way – they’re almost human! Certainly the user experience is human. Dragging things into folders to tidy them away. Clear and obvious icons. Nothing to worry about but what you wanted to create. And everything so aesthetically pleasing. Little wonder they became such a huge hit with creative people. The badge of honour of the non-business person. My friend Douglas Atkin in his book The Culting of Brands devotes a whole chapter to why Apple is a religious experience for creative people.

But now things are changing. Firstly the wonders of Apple’s almost perfect technology have been dealt a heavy blow by the debacle of the iPhone4 and its wonky antenna. This has come on top of some initial problems with early iPads around wireless capability. The iPad itself is arguably a contradiction of Apple’s own successful Mac vs PC advertising – unlike the fully loaded Mac ready to run when you take it out of the box, the iPad won’t run Flash, has no camera and no USB slot. I’ve never been a Flash fan and I don’t really care about the camera but I really do want that USB slot.

I don’t have an iPhone4 but iPhone 3GS is actually a pretty lousy phone. I can forgive that as I love the apps and the compatibility with everything else Apple I own. But why do I hardly ever get a decent signal? why does it keep dropping texts?  why will it only re-try to send them manually? – and why does that battery last less than a day?

All these points could be temporary blips to be sorted with the next generation hardware and none of them counter the fact that Apple keeps on coming up with game-changing developments in every category it plays in. From iTunes and the iPod which opened up the digital music market, to the Genius Bar which transformed the retail experience, to the way Apple encouraged developers to populate its mobile devices with a plethora of applications that make the user experience so special.

But – and it’s a big but – there is a real risk that the wonderfully human experience of the Apple brand is also being trashed by a customer service experience that is anything but perfect. A Mac RAM and drive disaster caused me to have to go to not one but three Apple stores in quick succession. First of all I have nothing but praise for all the staff I met there – fantastic friendly people who went out of their way to help me and who have restored my Mac to working order – and a special thanks to Alfred at Westfield who convinced me to invest in an external hard drive just before my system crashed – he must have been hired for his psychic powers – he certainly saved my bacon!

No, my problem is the way you have to fit Apple’s idea of customer communication. You can’t use the Genius Bar without an appointment – no matter how willing you are to wait hours for a cancellation or a gap in the schedule – at least that’s the story in the London stores especially Westfield. You can book your appointment online but you can’t cancel it. This means the stores don’t know if they’ll get any no-shows and hence can accommodate the poor suckers who do turn up on spec.

The store phone numbers are a joke. I called the Westfield store 8 times across 2 successive days and each time got a recorded message that I was Number 9 in the queue, a ranking that didn’t improve no matter how long I hung on the line. I called Brent Cross four times and each time I navigated the call system I was greeted with the words “The other person has hung up”. Sorry Apple not good enough! I’d rather talk to someone in a Bangalore call centre  than be unceremoniously dumped after navigating my way at my expense through your multiple choices. When I raised this with the lovely store staff they said “Well we’re really busy and there’s only one person upstairs answering the phone”. Excuse me Apple this is the 21st Century! Maybe call answering technology is not to your taste but a non-Apple experience that results in an answered call is better than the blind anger and frustration that results from your abject failure to answer the bloody phone!

Look this is a bit of a rant. I do love Apple. My Mac is now fixed and I’m so happy to have it back after a week on my HP laptop with its constant downloads of updates and interruptions and muddled directories and my inability to find anything I’m looking for. But as someone who believes in brands and has long rated Apple as one of the best of them, this is your yellow card Steve! A brand is not just about the physical product, breakthrough ideas and fabulous styling: it’s also about every touchpoint with the consumer. Most Apple fanatics have huge reserves of goodwill towards this most iconic and cultish of brands, so please don’t abuse that Apple – that way lies the graveyard of once great brands.

Funny that Apple always stood for creating (Think different!) and now with iPhones, iPads et al is this a move to consuming? And maybe the consequent flood of mass market consumers is what’s causing the human customer experience to look  as though it’s in need of some creativity.

Can a company really expect to deliver happiness?

I’ve followed Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, on Twitter for some time now by one of those fortuitous accidents. I was lucky enough to get sent a couple of review copies of Tony’s book, ‘Delivering Happiness’ and read it right through in a sitting.

The book is subtitled ‘A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose’ and is in 3 sections, one for each of these Ps. The first, Profits, tells Tony’s personal story and demonstrates how he has entrepreneurship coded into his DNA. He recounts his childhood enterprises from worm farms (an early failure) to badge selling (a big success) and then his creation of his first company, Link Exchange, as a result of being bored one weekend and experimenting with some computer coding. He went on to sell the company to Microsoft a couple of years later for $265 million. Fascinating as this story is (and Tony tells it with humour and pace), the real meat of the book comes in the two following sections as he tells the story of Zappos, the online shoe and apparel retailer, from conception to its recent sale to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

The trials and tribulations of getting the company going, keeping it afloat when cash was short and dealing with several setbacks that could have sounded the death knell to the nascent business, make fascinating reading. However it’s the insights offered into the unique culture that is Zappos, that makes this book unmissable for anyone interested in corporate culture, employee engagement or the creation of a great place to work.

Whilst the Zappos culture is unique and not readily replicable, particularly in a large long-established organisation, it provides some fabulous stimulus to help you come up with your own ideas for creating a culture that is unique and special for your own business. Here are some examples:

The Ten Core Values

I thought ten was overdoing it a bit (I try to get companies to stick to no more than about 5 or 6) but there’s ample evidence in ‘Delivering Happiness’ that these are values that are lived and breathed and not just words on a mouse mat or printed in the front of the annual report. In fact they were whittled down from an original list of 37. Tony includes a write up on each value by a different member of the company to explain with a story how these are brought to life. Story-telling seems to be a strong part of the keeping this culture vibrant and alive.

The Library

This started with the boss lending out the odd book but evolved into 100 titles available in the lobby to be lent out to employees and visitors. In fact some of the books are required reading for employee development and have even developed into courses. I have a feeling one of them is Good to Great as there was a lot of evidence in Tony’s philosophy of the thinking that went into that book regarding leadership, vision, “getting people on the bus” etc

The Culture Book

Every year, each employee is asked to write a personal statement on what the Zappos culture means to them. These paragraphs are compiled into a hardback book which is distributed to all employees, new hires plus any customers, suppliers, or others who happen to want one. I put this to the test by emailing the company to ask for one. It was delivered to me here in the UK a couple of days later by UPS. This is really putting money where mouth is – as there is no censorship – everything submitted goes in the book. It’s lavishly produced and illustrated so must cost them a tidy sum but “It’s a short term expense, long term investment.”

New employee induction

Given the strength of the culture, it’s obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and like other culturally driven organisations, Zappos recognises the importance of not only getting the right people ‘on the bus’, but also getting the wrong ones off it. At the end of the induction process new employees are offered $2000 to quit, thereby ensuring a high level of commitment among those who last the course. Although as the recruitment process is very values-driven, they don’t get taken up on the offer that often.

The Pipeline

Rather than using that old chestnut favoured by company reports: “Our people are our greatest asset, Hsieh’s philosophy is to value the pipeline of people rather than the individuals. The long term intent is to hire only at entry level and promote and develop their own talent pipeline, hence the emphasis on learning and development. The company offers a wide range of courses and boot camps both specific to the internal culture and covering other topics from Tribal Leadership to Grammar and Writing!

So if you’re one of those people who loves the experiential approach to business, this is an autobiography that has a great and inspiring story to tell, from Hsieh climbing Kilimanjaro while the company was running out of cash, uprooting the entire company and moving to Las Vegas, and the trials and tribulations of managing stock availability  (yes he even makes that interesting!) I recently read another successful entrepreneur’s biography and despite me knowing the other CEO personally and admiring much of what he’s achieved, it wasn’t a patch on this book.

If you’re a student of business culture, responsible for  customer service, a struggling entrepreneur or someone fascinated by leadership, then this is a gold-mine of a source-book. And if you doubt that making people (customers and employees) happy is a profitable business strategy, then prepare to be convinced!

>> More information on the book

>> Buy the book on Amazon

15 Key Principles for winning in a recession


  1. Start with a clear vision for the business – Why do you exist? How do you create value? What are the things that you will do and, most importantly, won’t do?
  2. Make sure you really understand the market and your competitors and your own strengths and weaknesses
  3. Get close and personal with your customers – you need to understand them better than anyone else does (especially your competitors) and in tough economic times they will be more discerning and discriminating about what they buy and what they need
  4. Innovate, innovate, innovate! If you can’t afford to improve your product then be more creative in your marketing. Try different ways of serving your customers.
  5. Zero-base your business structure – what organization structure would you need to deliver your goals if you were starting from scratch now? What can be outsourced?
  6. How can you make better use of the talent at your disposal?
  7. Invest in advertising – but spend smarter and measure its effectiveness
  8. Collaborate with employees, customers and suppliers to develop ideas that build the business or save you money – and reward them for doing it
  9. Negotiate better deals with your suppliers
  10. Invest in “good costs” but prune bad ones
  11. Chase receivables and incentivise customers for early payment
  12. Communicate transparently with employees – they need to see the big picture
  13. Find ways to keep employees’ (and your own) morale and motivation up, at low cost
  14. Look for ways to add value, service or flexibility rather than just cutting prices or discounting
  15. Get 2 steps ahead of competition – pull forward projects that they might delay

And always keep smiling!

Riding out the recession

snowboardingThe natural instincts of most businesses, is to pull in their horns when recession looms. Just as consumers are abandoning the high street and reveling in frugality, so many businesses look inwards, cut budgets and cut back customer service.

This is a big mistake.

Great companies always outperform their competitors during hard times. They seize the opportunity to grab market share by continuing to invest in their customers, their products and services and keep a long-term focus.

Whilst many companies go to the wall during recessions, history is rich with examples of those that built unassailable gains and rode to greatness in these periods. Some of the world’s most significant inventions and most successful corporations were born during depressions or recessions.  New needs emerge in such times: Health insurance was born out of the US Depression as were stereo recordings, digital computers, Monopoly, sunglasses, ballpoint pens and bubble gum, to name but a few. Messrs Hewlett and Packard got their products rolling from the famous garage in 1939. Despite industry in crisis and companies going under, Fortune magazine, the world’s first and most successful business publication was born at the height of the Great Depression : this was a counter-intuitive and risky venture at the time, but proved an unqualified success.

Continue to invest – your money goes further
During recessions, when everyone else is cutting back on marketing expenditure and research and development efforts, the wisest companies continue to invest in these. They are often able to do so because they managed their businesses prudently during easier times, keeping costs under control and building a valuable war chest.  This makes sense, as during a recession money goes further, as suppliers cut costs, and are ready to make deals. For those with available resources, this can be a great time to get acquisitive. Sadly most firms work the other way round, spending freely in good times and then savagely cutting costs when times get tough.

Lavish time and effort on customers
For those companies or small businesses that haven’t built up a war chest, there are still great opportunities. What they lack in funds they can make up in time and effort, by lavishing attention on customers. This means spending time to listen to them and find out how to serve them better; to get them to collaborate with you in dreaming up new products or solutions; to look for ways to offer them more value, rather than lower prices and to find ways to lock in their loyalty.

Keep on marketing
Advertising and marketing is often the first spending victim of recessionary cost-cutting. It is such an easy budget to slash, but you do so at your peril. Look for ways to use the money more efficiently, to seek out better deals and to try new approaches, but NEVER stop communicating with your target market. If your competitors cut back their spending, rub your hands with glee and see it as a golden opportunity to gain share at their expense. In a normal market, marketing is often a game of ‘tit for tat’ that makes it hard to gain ground and often results in standoff. In recessionary times, you can find yourself on an empty dance floor with the audience’s eyes trained on you alone. Go for it!

Ideas and insights are free!
Whilst money may be tight, creativity comes free, as does spending time understanding your customers’ needs. Time spent now hanging out with customers and consumers, observing them, talking with them and listening to them will yield rich insights about their needs and behaviour that will give a huge edge to your new product and service development efforts and help you hone your advertising messages.

History shows that it is twice as easy to grow share in a recession as in buoyant economic periods. Those firms that succeed in growing market share in this recession are likely to hang on to it, while those that lose it will have a tough and very costly battle to regain ground when things pick up.

Yesterday I read a quote from Marco Pierre White of Hell’s Kitchen:

“I think a recession is the most obvious time to open a restaurant. Number one: in doom and gloom, you’re creating something that’s exciting and fun. Number two: everything is cheap to do. Number three: you get the lion’s share of publicity ‘cos no one else is doing it. So it’s entirely logical to open a restaurant during a recession.”

There are many other businesses that could apply the same philosophy.