Food for thought and cutting-edge cuisine
We’ve just had a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, which means one thing.
Except it it didn’t. Rain, that is.
Instead – in the southern half of the country at least – the sun came out, the clothes came off (best not to go there) and the ice-cream vans hit the road.
It was glorious.
And on Sunday, I cycled into the centre of Cambridge to meet a friend for Sunday lunch. I’d found a new venue, and was crossing my fingers for ‘a triumph of hope over experience’ (as Dr Johnson famously said, though he was talking about second marriages).
You see, I’ve had some very mediocre, not to mention negative, experiences when it comes to eating out here in sunny Cambridge.
There was the waiter who rolled his eyes and sighed when I asked to move from the table he’d sat me at, strategically placed under an arctic air-conditioning unit. The waitress who brought me the wrong order, then claimed I’d made a mistake, not her. And the disastrously undercooked chicken which flew back to the kitchen and returned, overcooked, long after my dining companions had finished their main course.
Bad service, it seems, is much easier to deliver than good. You just don’t bother, and the rest takes care of itself.
So, then. Hope, experience, triumph. The three words swam around in my head as I pedalled through a glorious spring day, past frolicking kids on verdant meadows, perfectly clipped box hedges, and the obligatory Sunday car-washers, spoodling their pride and joy.
And the the lunch? Well, it was a revelation. And a object lesson in customer service, all wrapped up in freshly baked pita bread.
Soup to nuts
What was right about it? In a word, everything.
On the menu was:
- A friendly smile as soon as we stepped in the door.
- The choice of any free table in the house (rather than an Exocet-style journey to the coldest possible one).
- Drinks that arrived in record time.
- An indulgent smile and a convincing ‘no problem’ when I said I wasn’t quite ready to order my main course – followed by a split-second reaction from a second waitress as soon as I subsequently closed the menu (she’d been briefed to keep a watch-out for Mr Slowcoach).
- Free WiFi, which worked first time (Pret, take note).
- Food delivered not too soon (suggesting it’s rushed, undercooked or pre-prepared) or too late (forgotten, overcooked or dashed off by overworked staff). And perfect in every detail (quantity, quality, presentation, temperature).
- Ice cream (chocolate, with chocolate chips and chocolate sauce – yum) magicked out of nowhere, as it wasn’t on the menu.
- The bill (US: check) that winged its way to our table as if guided by thought alone. With the good news that it all cost a lot less than you might imagine.
- Another friendly smile and cheery wave to see us on our way.
Wake up and smell the coffee
Was I dreaming? Could it be true? Or had I found the perfect service experience?
I had, but this was no accidental experience. It was the result of attention to detail – every detail - and an unwavering focus on customer service.
The unstoppable force behind all this was the owner. I could see her, hovering around, always on the lookout. Constantly checking that clients were OK, had their food, weren’t waiting. Smiling and laughing with the waitresses, but still guiding them with gentle determination.
The waitresses were all alert, attentive and sensitive to clients.
It was an object lesson in customer service. Not any one thing: no Big Idea here, nothing revolutionary, nothing that anybody else couldn’t do.
It’s just that the’re not. Doing it, that is.
So in a world of bland food, indifferent service and sky-high costs, there’s a restaurant that excels on every front. They’ve been open for two months, the waitress told me, and they’re doing well.
No kidding. From what I’ve seen, they’re going to continue that way. They’ve set themselves apart in a crowded market place, becoming that rarest of rare finds – and one you want to tell everybody about.
A bit like a sunny bank holiday weekend.
Find out more:
- Gastronomic gem. Next time you’re in Cambridge, check out The Arches Coffee Shop (Eggs Benedict to die for – I promise you).
Crazy concepts, savvy scheduling and improved imitations
Were you taken in at the start of the month by Google? I was – almost. Had it not been for the recurring reminder I put in my calendar (‘April 1 – watch out!’) I might just have been tempted to fall for the latest gag coming out of Mountain View.
It was almost plausible - mainly because it was the sort of thing that you might expect from the company that brought you the Google Glass project. Let’s face it: specs that let you scroll through Facebook posts and reply to texts are no weirder than virtual scratch and sniff.
The best jokes have a grain of truth in them. Detached from reality, they’re not funny. It’s the juxtaposition of the possible and the ridiculous that makes them work.
And though I knew Google Nose was a joke, I really wanted to try it. Online supermarket shopping (see previous entry) would never be the same again, if you could enjoy the heady scent of cinnamon bagels, or the seductive aroma of a steaming hot chocolate.
Trust me, this is going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.
And Google got there first. Yes, it was a joke – but what better way to run an idea up the flagpole? I’m sure I wasn’t the only disappointed sniffer who sent them an email suggesting they do it for real.
Lesson 1: great ideas sometimes creep up on you. Don’t ignore them.
Ship of fools
If you have a great idea, you need to get it out there. Even it it’s still on the drawing board, you have to get people excited and build up momentum. They’ll get a sneak peek of great things to come, and you’ll get that kick up the proverbial that gets ideas off the drawing board and into the shops.
But timing is everything.
Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has been beavering way on its own glasses. They’ll do pretty much the same thing as the Google ones, but I’m sure they’ll carry a much lower price tag.
So far, so good. Except Baidu decided to make their big announcement on the first Monday in April. Which also happened to be the first day of the month. You see the problem.
It was taken, like so many other madcap ideas, to be a hoax. Only it wasn’t. But it took days for anybody to realise, by which time the significance of the announcement had been lost in the jamboree of April Fool jokes.
Not very clear-sighted of them.
Lesson 2: timing is everything. Don’t let your great idea disappear in a sea of mediocre ones.
Good, better, best
One of the things that make great marketing ideas great is their novelty value. If you’re first, then you’ve got that factor – in spades.
Yes, you’ve got a bit of explaining to do (How does it work? Does it complement or replace what I’ve already got? Is it reliable? Can I trust it? Is it around to stay or another here-today-gone-tomorrow idea?) but once you’ve addressed the basics, it’s all systems go.
It’ll fly, or it’ll fail. But at least you were there first, in the clear blue sky, uncluttered by competition. Until it appears. Because it always does.
So make hay while the sun shines (in that clear blue sky, to carry on the metaphor) and get ahead while you can.
If, on the other hand, you are the competition, be sure you’ve given the concept a twist. Taken a great idea and made it even better: easier to use, or cheaper, or more integrated, more portable, more compatible.
Me-too versions rarely succeed. Just look at Bebo or MySpace. Even the mighty Google gets it wrong sometimes: they recently announced that they’re ditching Google Reader, a clunky, user-unfriendly RSS reader that they’ve done nothing with for years.
And Microsoft isn’t averse to jumping on a passing bandwagon, with its oddly named Socl (pronounced ‘social’, in case you didn’t guess). It’s a hybrid of Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest, and is one that’s undoubtedly destined for the bit bucket of history.
Too late, too derivative, too desperate.
Lesson 3: if you’ve got a great idea, move fast – faster than the competition. And if you’re going to copy a great idea, do it well. Do it better than the original.
Don’t dream it – be it
And one final lesson, whatever your great idea: believe in it. Because if you don’t, they won’t. So even if you have doubts, never, ever let it show in your marketing communication. As with politics, positive thinking is half the battle.
In a world where perception is reality, you have one ace up your sleeve: your marketing controls that perception. Like the best April Fool jokes, total commitment and complete believability turns a good idea into a great one.
Every day of the year.
Find out more:
- Time out already. Microsoft’s Socl throws its hat in the social-networking ring.
Keeping regulars, seducing prospects: the age-old customer quandary
I’m a big believer in online grocery shopping. Not for me the tedium of trawling the aisles and schlepping bags in and out of the trolley, in and out of the car. Forget it.
Give me the online supermarket experience any day. I don’t need to press the flesh (fruit, that is) or kiss babies (tomatoes, that is) to have a good time.
No, give me a website, a mouse, and a debit card, and I’m happy as a pig in shiitake mushrooms, with a honey glaze on a bed of rice.
But which website? Which supermarket? There are so many to choose from, and often not much to differentiate them.
I used to be a supermarket tart, changing from one to the other as the mood took me. Who had better offers? Better delivery slots? An easier checkout process?
But in the end, of course, it was swings and roundabouts. Save on delivery, but lose out on price. Save on price, but lose out on convenience (two-hour slots instead of one, for example).
Still, it didn’t stop me shopping around. That was half the fun.
Then, Tesco did something really clever. They introduced Delivery Saver, where you paid up-front for six months, and could pick any delivery slot, any day, for free. Well not free, you understand, but for no extra charge. So a midweek £3 slot could be swapped for a prime position at the weekend which normally comes in at a whopping £6.
Hook, line and sinker, since you ask.
Of course I bit – what wasn’t to like?
Give and take
But loyalty is a two-way street, in life as in love. Each side has to come to the party – preferably bearing gifts. And the marriage of convenience has to continue making sense. Otherwise, when the honeymoon is over, you could be heading for a separation.
Which Tesco knows, of course. And they had another trick up their sleeve. But more of that in a moment.
Let’s walk out of one store and into another. From the blue, white and red of Mr Cohen to the green of Mr Schultz. To Starbucks, that is, for a grande skinny sugar-free hazelnut decaf extra-hot wet latte.
With an order like that, you can tell I’m a regular. So naturally, I have a loyalty card. It gets me free shots, free wifi, and if I’m very loyal (and I am, believe me) a free drink here and there along the way.
And it’s not just a card. It’s an Android app too, which has a pole position on the home screen of my shiny new Nexus 4. So it’s a highly detailed order, with a high-tech way to pay, for a highly valued customer.
Or so I thought.
For I recently read that Starbucks may be taking me for granted.
A regular mug
Loyalty card customers are loyal (no surprise there), so Starbucks have worked out that they don’t need to woo them as much. They trek into store, order the same thing, sit in the same place, and do it again and again.
A free syrup now and then, and they’re anyone’s.
New customers are what they’re really after, apparently. Or more specifically, those customers who are less than loyal. Coffee-drinkers who like to play away, and sample forbidden fruit at Costa, Pret or Caffè Nero. They get texts offering them free coffees when all I get a measly shot of vanilla syrup.
So they’re being courted, and loyal customers are being quietly ignored – predictable, reliable and always there.
Or so they hope. For loyalty works both ways. And in two ways: being seen to be loyal, and being really, truly loyal.
Not an easy trick to pull off, when you’re balancing keeping existing customers and winning new ones. But one you have to tackle if you’re to keep the base and grow the business.
I won’t abandon Starbucks. Not because I want a free shot, but because I like the cosy armchairs, the funky music, and the wifi. I like buying into their story, and basking in the reflected coolness of the Seattle thang they’ve got going.
No such coolness with Tesco. They need to make sure, in that time-honoured phrase, that every little helps. After all, when my ‘free’ delivery honeymoon comes to an end, I might just explore the singles scene again.
I know that. They know that.
Which is one of the reasons they’ve just offered me free delivery on Tesco Direct forever. Well, forever as long as I’m a Delivery Saver customer for groceries.
Clever. Very clever. It’s enough to make a person…loyal.
I’d bet my bottom latte on it.
Find out more:
Outside in, the view looks very different to inside out
OK, here’s a test for you. What do you think these things are? Spaceships? Installation art? Bollards? Spinning tops?
I’ll leave you to muse on that one for a while, and throw another spinning top into the marketing ring. Here’s a question for you: what are you like to do business with?
Easy? Difficult? Accommodating?
Is the experience one that puts a smile on people’s faces? Are you meeting their needs? Giving them what they want? Delivering the sort of service that they’re likely to tell their friends about?
And if all those questions are leaving you feeling breathless, sit back and I’ll tell you a story. A story with a point that all marketers should take to heart.
Cards on the table
Last week, I was up bright and early to catch the train to London. And from the madness of King’s Cross at rush-hour, it was but a few tube stops to the plush corridors and sound-proofed silence of a hotel near Green Park for a conference on brand protection.
I was writing a report for my client ActiveStandards, who jointly organised the event with brand specialists MarkMonitor.
One of the speakers was a smart cookie called Tim Loo, from the appropriately named brand company Foolproof. He delivered a fascinating talk on the brand-experience gap.
That’s the difference, he explained, between the brand promise (the stuff that marketers say) and the customer experience (what it’s really like to deal with the company on a day-to-day basis).
And he told one story that made me smile. And think.
A banking client of his took on a new head of department. This chap opened an account with the bank, which all new joiners are expected to do – it’s the only way to get paid, so optional doesn’t even come into it.
Suddenly, he saw what it was like to be a customer. And he was gobsmacked. So much so, in fact, that he asked Tim to make a film about the process, that could be shown to others in the bank.
Which Tim did, by becoming a customer himself. He kept a sort of video diary documenting the whole process.
The result was comedy bordering on tragedy: 10 or so letters in one week, two PIN numbers, lots of emails, conflicting and confusing advice, and a distinctly bad taste in the mouth.
The film went viral within the bank, and was soon seen by the C-suite execs. Who weren’t happy. How on earth could the bank treat its customers like that? What were they thinking? Who was responsible? How could they change? Where would they start?
The view from there
You’ve got to laugh. Mostly because we’ve all been there.
But hold on a moment, and wipe that smile off your face. (I’m wiping even as I write, which isn’t easy.)
Are you any different? Can you put your hand on heart and say your clients love working with you? That your customers love buying from you? That they don’t feel themselves tensing up each time that they have to interact with you? That they’re not badmouthing you to their next-door neighbour, friends or – worse, a whole lot worse – their army of Twitter followers?
Getting round the other side of the table, virtual or otherwise, is a salutary experience. And can be a very humbling one. Hearing what people really think about you takes an iron constitution and nerves of steel, but it’s worth it. You’ll get valuable feedback that’ll make you better, stronger and nicer to deal with.
If you don’t know what people want and expect from you, then the solution is simple: ask them. But be careful what you ask them. Measuring customer satisfaction isn’t always the best guide to how you’re doing.
If you ask people to rate from 1 to 5 the things that you deem to be important, you’re influencing the way they think and the parameters of their answers. They may well be happy or unhappy about something that never even crossed your mind.
So a freeform approach is a must. It could be as simple as a text box in a form where you ask them to raise issues that really matter to them. Let people set their own agenda, and tell you what’s important or not, what’s working or not.
You may not like what you hear, but at least you’ll know. And it’s important that you take on board the feedback you get, and accept it at face value. Don’t try to massage it, reinterpret it, or ignore it.
If people tell you what they think, that’s what they think. Why would it be otherwise?
Are you sitting comfortably?
Which brings us back to the photograph. They’re not spaceships, or installations, or tops, or bollards.
Yes, that’s right. After a public consultation, during which local residents and business owners outlined what they needed (more parking spaces, somewhere nice to sit) the council here in Cambridge ploughed on regardless with their original plan. No parking spaces of course, which were thought to be too eco-unfriendly. And futuristic benches without arms, backs or even the remotest resemblance to a bench.
Needless to say, nobody sits on them. They just walk past them, bemused and a little miffed at being ignored.
But that’s not the end of the story. A rival political party got up a petition, collected signatures, and has forced the council to see sense. Plans are now under way to erect a real bench or two near these ‘benches’.
There’s a lesson in there all of us.
Nobody knows your clients like your clients. So ask, listen and implement. It’s as simple as that – so why make it complicated?
It’s better out than in – so talk about it
Just last week, I spoke – yet again – to somebody who was unhappy with their existing copy.
“It just doesn’t capture who we are,” he said. “It’s too long and detailed. It’ll bore people.”
I asked him who wrote it. He did, he said, but he just thought it didn’t do the company justice.
Now it wasn’t that badly written. Mentally I ticked the boxes: grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, headings, call to action. Special offer, USPs, benefits (though a little hidden, light-like, under the bushel of features). All the elements were there, but something was missing.
“Something is missing,” he said.
Great minds, I thought.
And so I asked this great mind to do justice to his company by telling me its story. There and then, without any preparation, notes or MindMap. The sort of stuff you normally do – or should do – when you sit down to write.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he was off.
He swept me up and transported me to a distant time, when the firm was but a twinkle in his eye. He conjured up the late nights, the hard graft, the despair. The joy and the sorrow, the delight and pride. The first trickle of success, followed by the unstoppable flow of clients, feedback, accolades, expansion, hiring (and some firing), big ideas and broad new horizons.
What about his competition, I wondered? And his clients?
Once again, there was no stopping him. He was articulate, fluent and captivating. When he finished, I wanted to rush to his site and buy his stuff. Anything, just to ride the wave of enthusiasm that was unfurling before my very eyes.
But I didn’t. Instead, I took a deep breath and composed myself. And I calmly asked him why he hadn’t written as he’d just spoken.
Easier said than done written
You’ve guessed the answer, of course.
Distance. Objectivity. Emotion (too much or too little). And a real, live human who’s hanging on your every word, so you know you have to be engaging, interesting and entertaining.
And also, of course, that you have to tell a story.
But often, you’re too close to it all to tell that story on paper. Things come rushing into your head, and you struggle to get them down in a logical, orderly fashion.
Plus, there are so many of them that you write them all down indiscriminately, thinking they’re all equally important. And afterwards, when you really should be doing a spot of editing, you instead leave them all in place, thinking that you can’t cut them out.
Or you simply don’t know what to cut out, as they all seem like pearls of wisdom. Or worse, like so much dead wood. So you leave everything in, and end up with long unbroken mass of copy that the reader has to trudge through like snow in January.
Add to that the age-old problem that most people don’t write as they talk, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster: too much detail, little or no editing, and a tone of voice that’s stiff and starchy.
A scribe’s prescription
So what’s the answer? How do you make sure your copy reflects your thinking? Conveys your enthusiasm? Gets across your message? Captivates the essence of who you are, what you do and how you can help people?
As with most things, the answer is easy. Just difficult – at first – to put into practice:
- Brainstorm before you write. Use MindMaps or lists or bullet points or Post-its on a notice-board. Writing without preparation is like singing without vocal exercises. Ropey at best, jarring at worst.
- Take a break. Do a bit now, and leave it. Do a bit later, and leave it. Do a bit tomorrow, and leave it. Are you detecting a pattern here? It’s not by chance that artists don’t complete a painting in one sitting.
- Phone a friend. Or Skype, email, IM or tweet them. Meet them for a coffee or bring muffins to work and sit at your desk. But get an outside opinion. When you do, things suddenly seem clearer.
- Talk out loud (I do) if you haven’t got a human within latte-sharing distance. But don’t put your words silently on the page.
- Get somebody in and get rid of the problem. And yes, that’s a sales pitch on my part – of course it is. But it’s also common sense: if you take on somebody who does this kind of thing all the time, you (a) get better results and (b) free up your time and (c) focus on the stuff that’s important (like your business) and (d) leave the office earlier.
The one crucial thing to remember (or key takeaway, if you must) is that the journey from your brain to the page should always take a detour via your mouth. Or somebody else’s.
It’s what transforms the stagnant water of unchecked copy into the clear, sparkling flow of a mountain river, wending its way smoothly down to the deep-blue sea of comprehension.
Oh, and one last thing: watch out for purple prose. It gets everywhere, if you’re not careful.
Careful like me, that is.