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    Throw Pillows And Business

    June 12th, 2009

    throw_pillowsaaIf you’re like me, you see a bed full of pillows and wonder what the purpose of all of them could possibly be.  After all, if one were to use the bed, all of the pillows would have to be removed and the put back on after the cat nap.  It is very easy to think that the extra pillows have no purpose.  But, I have found that there is a very subtle error in this way of thinking.

    Many things are not designed with practicality in mind.  Yes, the widget has to accomplish the job it was made for, but it also has to look good doing it.  Here again you may argue that as long as it gets the job done, it doesn’t matter; again I have to say that there is an error in that logic.

    The common error between the throw pillows and the widget examples is that it ignores that instant judgment that people make upon viewing the object.  The reality is that many, if not all, people judge a book by its cover.  Knowing that, it is easy to see how this ties into business.

    The experience that people have with your product matters, the story it tells matters.  What is often overlooked is that this extends beyond the product to the company itself.  This includes everything form retail locations to corporate headquarters.  Money has to be spent to preserve the experience and the brand image.

    I have a great example.  Out at Lands’ End headquarters in Wisconsin we have both offices and a distribution center.  View_from_2nd_peninsula_hillOut in the back there is an area where semi trailers are parked that are not being used.  I have not idea how much space, but it can hold a few.  What I noticed on a run the other day is that there is a big grass mound/hill between the offices and this parking area.  It has been there for a long time, but how much did it cost to build it?  I have no idea, but it also makes me wonder, how many people decided to work for Lands’ End, or how many vendors gave a better deal, or how much business has been done because of a great experience on the campus.  An experience that was great, in part, because they saw a beautiful grassy hillside with trees instead of parked semi trailers.

    That is why as much as I wonder why a business would pay for an office in downtown NYC or why people spend what they do on nice suits, or why a company does what might be considered ‘fat cat’ spending on things such as landscaping, art, architecture, and the like…as much as I wonder about all of that and as much as people love to criticize it I think at the end of the day it matters.

    People will argue until they are blue in the face that they would like to just have something that gets the job done and that all that spending is wasteful.  Mostly this is because we want to believe that we are completely rational and don’t make ‘shallow’ decisions.  But as much as we would like to believe this, it is simply not true.

    What do you think about throw pillows?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Did You Leave The Open Flag Up?

    May 28th, 2009


    I enjoy a drive through the countryside every now and then.  There is something that is just relaxing about it.  You just get to cruise along, maybe have the windows down and the music up.  If you are lucky then you have a few hills and turns to keep things exciting.  And if you are in the right spot, at the right time of year, you may even stumble across a home selling whatever happens to be in season.

    Often times these places have handmade signs listing what is being sold and what price it is being sold at.  Perhaps there is also some obnoxious arrow pointing you up the driveway.  And if they really have it together, they may have a flag waving in the wind with the word “OPEN” on it.  That will really get people to stop in…or will it?

    When I see an “OPEN” flag I cannot help but wonder if the place is actually open.  Do they really take it down each day?  What about when I drive by after suppertime and the flag is still displayed?  Should I assume that they are still open for business?  It seems like a good idea to have the flag, but I’m just not sure how genuine most people think it is.  Oddly enough, I think that a cardboard sign will actually help because I know that can’t be left out very long before it falls apart.

    Another idea would be a light.  If I see that there is a light on the flag or sign, then I am more likely to believe that it is in fact open.  All of this is interesting, but it paves the way for a broader issue: credibility.

    A home shop with a cardboard sign or “OPEN” flag has plenty of credibility.  A light that is turned on and off has credibility.  The problem is the open flag always looks the same.  It is always there.  Nothing is ever different.  The owners are not considering what leaving the flag up might do.

    In the current business environment, this is a critical issue.  How credible are your promotions (because everybody is running them)?  Are you running the same thing over and over?  This will work just fine for a short amount of time, but make sure that you have an exit plan.  Even if you take pause for just a week you rebuild credibility.  You rebuild a scarcity factor.

    If the “OPEN” flag isn’t always up, then I know that I had better stop in when it is up because otherwise I may miss my chance.  There is no urgency if there is always a sale.  I can’t stress this enough: Small things, the ‘scraps’ as I like to call them, matter.  Leaving the flag out and the promotions running may be the easy path, but sometimes it pays to take the path less traveled.

    Do you believe “OPEN” flags?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Fortune Fails

    April 14th, 2009

    warren_buffett_fortune_magazineRecently I got quite the offer from Fortune Magazine on a 3 year subscription.  I have always thought about getting a subscription but it always seemed just a bit to expensive for me.  If you know me you know I take my money very seriously.  So after much consideration (mostly in the form of having the offer sit on my desk for a few weeks) I decided to go ahead and send in the form.

    At this point I would like to admit that I am a credit-card-aholic.  I hate to use cash and never use a check – at least when it can be avoided.  Its not that I rack up the debt, it’s more that I just prefer it as a form of payment.  I like the perks that it offers.  I like the convenience of it.  I like being able to review my transactions BEFORE the money is taken out of my account.  And that’s my beef with debit cards.  I can contest a credit card charge before the money ever leaves my holdings.  I have to get the money back if there is an error and I used a debit card.

    With that background in mind, I move on to my issue with Fortune.  On the slip they provided, an option was to be billed later (and probably use my own stamp), send a check, or fill in my credit card info.  I did the credit card info.  It was just the easiest and quickest way to pay.  I slipped it into the provided return envelope (postage paid by them), licked it shut, and was all ready to send it off when I noticed something odd.  I could basically see right through the paper and read my credit card number.

    This didn’t take some special light, or even holding it up to the light.  Literally all I had to do was set it on my desk and press down on the envelope and I could see, plain as day, my credit card number.  Hmm….seems a bit odd.  So I didn’t send it and instead put in an inquiry to Fortune Customer Service – to verify that the offer was in fact real – and said the following:

    Comments : Hello – I got an offer in the mail for Fortune that advertises a corporate rate of x yrs. for $xx. The listed address is PO BOX 61xxx Tampa FL 33xxx-1xxx I have filled out the form, but before I send it off, I wanted to see if the offer was real. Main reason I question it is that you can see right through the envelope. Odd for an offer that asks for payment info to have a return envelope that is easily seen through.

    It took them nearly the full 2 business days they quote to get back to me and they said:

    Thank you for contacting FORTUNE Customer Service.
    Yes, the offer is a legitimate offer from FORTUNE magazine.  Any further questions, please let us know.

    We appreciate this opportunity to be of service.

    And then they had a bunch of links to useless info at the bottom.  Does this strike anybody as an odd response?

    Here I am, a potential customer.  I was suspicious about the offer but I didn’t discard it.  I went through the trouble of making sure it was real.  But more importantly I let them know why I was concerned and they didn’t even address the issue.  And they certainly didn’t thank me for bringing it to their attention.

    Keep in mind that this is Fortune magazine.  One would think they would be savvy about the real danger of identity theft.  And yet, they seem to have no problem giving you return envelopes requesting payment information that can easily be seen through.

    This is the sort of stuff I just don’t get.  How can they totally ignore the issue in their response?  I know there is just a small chance of anything actually going wrong but in the days where it is not difficult to hear about one story after another about a stolen identity, one would think a magazine of Fortune’s reputation would do what they can to protect the people they are prospecting to.  I don’t want to make a big issue out of nothing, but I can’t help but feel that being able to see my credit card number and expiration date through a business reply envelope is a big deal.

    What do you think?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    How Exits Lead To Anger

    April 6th, 2009

    When you are driving along the highway and suddenly notice that you are almost out of gas you want one thing: gas.  You glance up and see a huge billboard advertising the very thing you are looking for.  It talks about the “Cold Beer”, “Fresh Coffee”, and “Exit Number 32” but most importantly it is a gas station.  If you are lucky it even has the current price.

    You quickly look for the small green mileage posts to figure out just how far that is.  After a few moments you see that you are at mile post 30.  Only 2 more miles.  You feel a bit more at ease.  About a minute or so later you see the familiar signs listing Food, Gas, Lodging and the like. A moment later you are upon the exit ramp.  You take it off cruise control and start slowing.

    Halfway down the ramp you see the sign with the logo of your favorite gas station and an arrow to the right.  You roll up to the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp and turn right.  No gas station in sight.  You drive along anyway until you finally just turn around and continue on to the next exit.  Now you’re angry.  The gas station was only another mile ahead, but you will never see it.

    I have one thing to say to businesses that are on these exit ramp signs: don’t lead people on like this.  I’m not sure what the rules are, or if it varies state by state, but I hate it when locations on the exit sign don’t have a distance on them.  It is such a small thing to do.  It’s not like the distance changes each day.  There is just no reason not to have 1.2 miles or 5.7 miles or whatever underneath the logo on the exit ramp.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I like to know the distance to my destination.  It is so easy to add this to the exit signs and yet for some reason no exit around me has that piece of information.  How many displeased customers are created because of this?  More importantly, how many people does that business lose because people can’t see it from the highway and don’t know how far away it is.  If they know it was just a mile away perhaps they would take the exit, instead the just keep driving hoping that the next exit will have a sign visible from the highway.

    Small things, like distance to location on the exit sign, are so critical in providing an optimal customer experience.  This blog is built on that very principle, that every little scrap of information has value; if you overlook the scraps (also called “the long tail”) you are going to miss huge opportunities.

    Does your area have distance on the exit ramp signs?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Opportunity Awaits

    March 5th, 2009

    OpportunityWhat do you see when you look at this picture?  Do you see a game of Jenga nearly complete?  Do you see a tower of block about to fall?  Do you see the next block that you would take out and add on top?  It all depends on your perception.

    Many people will just see the picture as a game of Jenga.  Passive.  Just a picture.  That may be true, but what it represents is opportunity.  Yes, there is risk in taking the next block out.  But – as they say in a casino – you cannot win if you don’t play.

    The economy is in an interesting state right now.  Things are a little wobbly.  But the interesting part is that we can change it.  All this is is economics.  As business pull back and cut ad spend that means that if you were to buy what they are leaving behind it will not only cost you less, but you will gain market share.

    This won’t work with all businesses and all products.  Some things just won’t sell with things as they are.  Then go somewhere else.  Wal-Mart is growing.  McDonalds is growing.  Thrift stores are growing.  It is easy to just dismiss these things as obvious.  Resist the temptation.  What they are really doing is providing a service that people are seeking out right now.  Yes, in this case it is value, but it doesn’t have to be.

    Really think about how your business can fit a need for the modern customer.  If Lands’ End had never expanded into apparel, would they still be around?  BMG is canning its mail-order membership.  I just got my “Final Mailing” because they are getting out and moving into a discount model rather than a mail-order model.  (On a side note, did you know that if you forgot to decline the ‘Featured Selection’ you could just write “Return To Sender” on the box and they have to ship it back and don’t charge you!)

    The point is that people still have needs.  Visualize how you can help morph your current business to fit a need.  It may be as simple as shifting your marketing to promote value.  Or if you are doing that maybe you have to highlight the value and some other feature that the product has.

    Winners and losers are being determined as you read this.  Which side is your company on?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Do You Ignore The Clutter

    February 11th, 2009

    An interesting thing happened to me the other day. I was having diner with a friend at a Mexican place and I had a craving for a quesadilla. I scoured the menu for quite a few minutes and came up with nothing.  I sat there thinking to myself “how can a Mexican place not have quesadillas on the menu?  Perhaps they don’t actually eat quesadillas in Mexico and this place is hardcore authentic.”

    Now I have no idea if they actually eat quesadillas in Mexico or not.  Frankly, I am more interested in food that tastes good than if it is placed into the “correct”category.  That said it was still a let down.  I had settled on something else and was ready to order, but I made a comment to my friend about how bummed I was.

    It took him about 10 seconds to locate them and point it out to me.  What, you might ask, was my problem?

    I’m not sure if it is from reading too many blogs, going to too many websites, or just filtering out stuff just because but I missed the whole section.  After looking at it a bit closer I think I figured out why.  It was made to stick out.

    That might sound a bit counter-intuitive at first, but its not.  I skipped it because it had a different background then the rest of the menu.  It was colored to stick out.  But for whatever reason my brain just skipped it.  Near as I can figure, it is just because if the menu was a webpage that is where the advertisement would have been.  Or at least it was blocked off and so my brain just read it as advertisement even if it was in the wrong spot to make sense.  I just ignored the whole section.  Keep in mind that this is while I am activly searching, trying to find something in the menu and I still skipped the whole thing.

    For me it proves how cluttered the world is.  It proves how hard it is to stand out.  It proves that the game has changed.  What used to stand out and draw attention no longer works because people’s brains have been overstimulated with advertisements.  Do you even notice the product placement in moves/shows?  Sometimes it is painfully obvious and you can’t miss them (and then it just looks dumb) and the other times you miss them entirely.  Too much clutter.

    Do you ignore clutter?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Slim-Fast And How Not To Design A Site

    February 6th, 2009

    When looking at a web site process, such as registration, it doesn’t take much testing to figure out that the answer is always less.

    What information should we collect?  Less.  What questions should we ask?  Less.  How many steps should there be in checkout?  Less.  Less.  Less.  You get the idea.  The reason is that each step or bit of information, or whatever is another obstacle that the visitor has to overcome to convert.  Why add things that actually prevent the visitor from taking the desired action?  Because you’re greedy.  That is the only answer.  If you do not have a guest checkout, you’re greedy.  If you force someone to put in their address when signing up for an account to access ‘premium website features’ you’re greedy.  You only need an address to ship.  Don’t be greedy.

    I was looking over a Slim-Fast package and saw this box that lets you “customize your weight loss journey”.  It sounded interesting.  I’m not overly concerned about my current weight, but was curious anyway so when I had a chance I decided to check out the site.

    This custom weight loss plan is on the homepage.  Like dead center on the homepage.  You can’t really miss the red “Register Now” button.

    The Slim-Fast Homepage

    The Slim-Fast Homepage

    At this point, for me personally, I was already a bit hesitant.  I’m thinking to myself, why are they calling it “register” and not “Get Your Plan Now” or at least something that doesn’t sound as impersonal as “register now”.

    Anyway, because I was interested I click through anyway.  Point them.  But look at the ridiculous amount of information (click to enlarge) they demand from the visitor (in this case me):

    Register And Join Our Community

    So here I am, all interested is seeing what Slim-Fast can do for me and this is what they give me.  It is about the worst possible experience I could imagine.  But, I pressed on.  I really wanted to see what this “customized plan” was going to be.  So, like any person who has no interest in giving out tons of information for no reason, I filled in the stuff with a bunch of junk info.

    Boy did they get me.  After I took the time to fill the whole long form out (albeit with bad info) they don’t even give me the plan.  They e-mail it to me.  Well, I didn’t put in an actual e-mail address so it when to some random person.  At that point I just lost interest.  I could not go on.

    So with all of this in mind, what was Slim-Fast looking to gain with all of that information?  Would they mail me crap I didn’t want?  Just e-mail me the coupon.  What could they possible need all that information for?  Invasive marketing was my only thought and that is why I gave them bad information.  I don’t want to be invaded upon any more than I can help.  But the bigger miss here is what they lost.

    Sure, they lost my interest but they lost something much more than that.  They lost my money.  Imagine, here is a customer all set to lose weight.  They not only want to lose weight, they want to lose it with Slim-Fast.  And beyond that, they not only want to lose it with Slim-Fast, but they want a diet plan from Slim-Fast that will – in all likelihood – contain a fair amount of Slim-Fast product.  From snack bars to meal bars to shake powder to a shake-in-a-can.  And then different flavors of all of those things.  This was a free pass for Slim-Fast to sell a lot of product to a customer that wanted to be sold to.

    Instead of taking this easy money, instead of helping me toward my personal weight loss goal – and using Slim-Fast to do it, which I would certainly tell my friends about -, instead of any of that they got a visitor that was just pissed at them.  I wrote them a letter telling them how bad of a site they had and pointed out the huge opportunity they were missing out on.  After several weeks I have not got a response.  This is not how you build your brand.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

    Give information about your product freely.  Get a customer to engage with your product for free.  If you are a quality product they will be more than happy to give you the rest.

    In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to quote the late founder of Lands’ End – Gary Comer (who was a billionaire – so yes, it works):

    Take care of the customer.  Take care of the employees.  The rest will take care of itself.

    Do you agree?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    IGN Insider FAIL

    December 17th, 2008

    I said I was going to post about this, and true to my word, I will.

    While viewing my credit card statement online I noticed a charge from IGN Insider (no link as a disservice to them) – a service I had signed up for last year to get some info.  Silly me.  Anyway, I did not want to pay for it again.  All the info is out on the internet and is FREE.  Just look for it.  As a side note, that is why I forget that I even had this account.

    Needless to say they were not helpful at all.  In fact, the ‘customer service’ provided very little of that.  Here is a company that just doesn’t get it.  Instead of just giving me back my $20 and sending me on my way they just hid behind their Terms of Service and basically told me to shove off.  Being polite the entire time – normally good but just aggravating when they have no intention of helping you.

    You can find the whole dialogue below.  Each paragraph is a different speaker.  Paragraph breaks in the actual communication have been removed to conserve space.  Let me know what you think.

    Me: I have canceled my account with IGN. It was just charged to my card. There was no e-mail receipt, there was no notification that the payment was coming due. Nothing. I am outraged that IGN, who clearly has a means to contact me, would just charge my card without any verification. That is just poor. Please remove the charge from my account. As it has only been days since the charge there is no reason that this would be a problem. Regards, David

    Them: Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding your subscription account. I am sorry for any delays responding to your support request. We do see you have already turned off your auto billing (cancelled) your subscription.It will remain open until the end date described on your cancellation confirmation email. A renewal email was sent to this email address on 11/27/2008. Sorry you missed this email. All of our subscriptions renew automatically, We offer it in our Terms of Service twice during the subscription process and you agree to it while subscribing. http://corp.ign.com/user-agreement.html We appreciate your email however we do not issue refunds for subscription services except in the case of demonstrated fraud.  Kind Regards, Julie

    Me: I think it is sad that instead of providing customer service you cower behind a ToS. In a world where each individual now has a voice via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media you would think customer service would be paramount for a company like yours. Instead you are content to take your $20 – nothing but a drop in the bucket for you – and let me share my poor experience with the entire internet community. It no longer takes a newspaper to pick up a story, but an individual. Your response, while I’m sure technically correct, completely misses the mark of providing customer service. Given my experience with what you term ‘customer service’ I am sure this will fall on deaf ears to you, but perhaps not to the many that will read of my poor experience. I strongly believe that you are making a poor choice for your company, but at least you have $20 more in the bank. So shortsighted. Also, per your statement that an e-mail was sent, I did not get anything. I checked both my inbox and my spam folder – which has e-mails prior to 11/27 in it – and found nothing. Since I don’t delete anything from my inbox, I just archive it, I am more than a bit skeptical that the e-mail was sent. When I do a search for IGN in my mailbox the only communication prior to me filing this issue was the day that I originally subscribed to IGN insider. Can you verify it went out? Also, why would I not get an e-mail informing me of my payment (the day my card is charged)? Thanks, David

    Them: Hi David, We do appreciate your feedback regarding our refund policy. I can confirm that an email was sent out on 11/27/2008 to XXX@gmail.com. We apologize if you missed this email. I”GN/GameSpy Services Annual Renewal Notification It’s been a great year!We hope you’ve been enjoying the past year with us. We’re sending you this email to remind you that your annual subscription is scheduled to renew on December 11, 2008.” During the original purchase it is agreed that the subscription is auto billed. Unfortunately, we do not send out renewal invoices. A renewal notice is sent out. Please let me know if you have any further questions. Kind Regards, Julie

    So in summary they appreciate my feedback but will not do anything to show it.  They tell me that they did send the e-mail and that they are sorry that I missed the e-mail.  So let me make this clear: I don’t delete anything from that e-mail address and I rarely even check it therefore if it is not in my inbox and not in my SPAM folder (which had e-mail prior to the date they claim they sent it) then I did not get it.  Then Julie includes the text of the e-mail they claim to have sent as if it is either a) “verification” or b) “helpful” of which it is neither.  She then states AGAIN that I agreed to it in the original purchase.  I never argue this point.  All I wanted was some notification that it was happening!

    Needless to say I am not very happy with IGN or IGN Insider.  So I ask you, what are your thoughts?  Was I over the top?  Not angry enogh?  Or should I just not care?

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk Responds

    December 12th, 2008

    If you have not watched a video by Gary Vaynerchuk you are doing yourself a disservice.  The man is amazingly passionate about what he does.  I wrote about how great he was at building brand, but it really hit home today.

    This guy cares.

    I have heard him say it may times on garyvaynerchuk , at winelibrarytv, and at a few things I have watched/listened to him on ustream: “Care about your people.”  He says that he responds to every e-mail he gets.  The guy has tens of thousands of people (last I heard about 80k a day) watch his wine show.  DAILY.  The guy gets several hundred e-mails DAILY.  He can’t respond to it the same day but he does respond.

    Today I got verification.  I sent him an e-mail.  It was 10 days ago and his response could have fit inside a @TheCakeScraps on Twitter, but he did respond.  Amazing.

    This guy has personal brand equity.

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.

    MBA Brands During Recession

    December 10th, 2008

    So what does a brand mean during a recession?  That is the real question.  Does your brand gain or lose value in a recession? Have you positioned yourself to be seen as a “luxury” that can be done without, a “value” brand that everybody needs, an “affordable luxury”, or as a brand that “is worth the price” because your customer doesn’t have to repurchase every week?

    Certain companies have stood by their luxury brand – such as A&F – and that has not yielded the greatest results.  On the flip side you have Wal-Mart that is doing very well because of how they have positioned themselves from day one.  Both brands are sticking to what they feel their brand stands for, which makes sense for Wal-Mart and takes guts (and deep pockets) for A&F.  It is interesting to note that Wal-Mart has tried to position itself as more like a “Target” in recent years and now they are back to the basics.

    How does all of this relate to what I term “MBA brands”?

    With the economy as it is companies are going to hire “Smart people who get things done“, not just anybody.  They are focusing the available resources so that every dollar is well spent.  Efficiency is key when resources are limited.  These are basic statements that I think everybody should be on board with.  That leads me to my next point:

    MBA brands, the school you are attending for an MBA, become more important as the economy declines.

    Let me break it down how I see it.

    When everything in the economy was good, companies loved to hire the MBAs and were basically going under the assumption that a certain skill set was going to come with somebody that had an MBA.  There was, and is, a premium placed on the top schools and companies were not always willing to fork over the extra money.  Companies, overall, had the school of thought that an MBA is an MBA.  Sure one may be slightly better than another, but not all that much.

    In a down economy there is much talk of people going back to school because they no longer have a job.  Clearly this will saturate the market with MBAs.  How does a company filter out people?  There are many criteria, but I think that the brand of the MBA will increase in importance.  The brand of a top MBA program tells a company that this person is, in essence, “guaranteed” to be a quality candidate for the job – at least in terms of experience and skills gained from an MBA.

    I think this is interesting because it is fundamentally different than how people spend their money during a downturn.  They tend to do away with the brand they normally pick in favor of the store brand or “Sam’s Choice” sort of goods.  They are willing to sacrifice a little quality to get more with the money they have.  The “Great Value” peanut butter is basically the same as “Jiff” but costs less.  Why not get it?

    With a company, the company is going to put an increased focus on the quality of the MBA more so than in the past.  The brand, both your individual brand and other brands you carry with you, such as an MBA, will make or break deals.

    This has been a Thought From The Cake Scraps.