Category Archives: Consumer Preference

Customer Service: So much more than a pretty face

To your left is the international symbol for customer service: Smiling, good-looking person with telephone headset.

Now, slap yourself or slam your hand in the car door or whatever it takes, and come back to reality.

When customers say, “I just really like talking to a real person,” they’re not saying, “Wow, I really like those nice people at XYZ, Inc.”

What they’re really saying (and some will come right out and say it) is that they like talking to a real person who knows what the heck they’re talking about and works with them diligently through resolution of their problem.

It’s also helpful when the person treats the customer as if their beef, issue or difficulty is credible and important. Now that you’ve heard the Spoon’s experience, here are some facts:

  • Most people have no trouble walking out of a store if they’re receiving bad service; even if the store has exactly what they’re looking for.*
  • Most people are less likely to visit other locations if they have a bad experience at a particular store.*
  • Most people want proactive solutions to problems before they happen, but only a few are willing to pay for them.*

As marketers, we must continue to extend the marketing conduit from the top of the value chain-procurement-to the front of the chain-sales and customer service. Marketing is as much customer service’s business as customer service is ours. We must demand, even more loudly than our customers, that complaints are handled expeditiously and problems are anticipated. At the same time, marketing must hear the customers voice when sales and customer service raise concerns of their own.

Is it any coincidence that great brands like L.L. Bean, Lexus, Trader Joe’s, Starbuck’s, Publix, Southwest Airlines, Apple and Chick-Fil-A are perennially found on the lists of customer service champions like this year’s BusinessWeek list?

We think not.

*YankelovichMONITOR

If you don’t take care of customers, you will get “weeded”

And no, “weeding” in this case doesn’t have anything to do with gardening or the Black Crowes.

In this case, according to Yankelovich MONITOR, it means being “blackballed” for superficiality in favor of substance and accountability.

In today’s world of myriad choices, it’s easier than ever for consumers to walk away from brands, restaurants and retailers that they don’t see as honest. After all, why exert the energy and spend the time when you can walk to the other side of the mall or click to another window and get something better.

It’s remarkable how the wisdom of a cousin in grocery retailing and a five-figure subscription to a consumer trend monitor can overlap. Here’s how Cousin Ron and Yankelovich recommend you improve customer service in order to delight and retain customers:

  1. Hire great people. Restaurants, retailers and manufacturers are all guilty of placing too little emphasis on hiring, training and retaining talented and passionate brand ambassadors. Trust us, your more successful peers and competitors do this. No excuses, now. Fix it.
  2. Remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. You have two choices. Make it happen or be willing to risk the customer moving on to something better.
  3. Don’t wait for them to ask you. If there’s even a slight chance a question might arise, publish an answer to it on your Web site and prepare your people to be able to answer it.
  4. Show caring through customization. Every neighborhood is different. Every market segment is unique. That’s why they’re called neighborhoods and segments-because they’re full of neighbors and segs who want something a little different. Wherever possible and profitable (especially long term), give it to them. It shows you care, and it builds loyalty.

Have a profitable, customer-focused, consumer-friendly day.

What’s good enough for Miller High Life is good enough for you

Miller High Life has always made a living at the nexus of quality and the down-to-earth mindset.

The brand went to the next level with ads that feature a determined delivery guy who refuses to allow the beer to be sold in establishments who have lost their sense and no longer live the High Life brand values.

At the time of the annual two-million-dollar-a-pop ad fest during the big game in January, Miller featured Windell on a rant (see video above) about the lack of common sense he sees as apparent in commercials with dancing lizards and flavored water. “If I want flavored water, I’ll just suck on a lollipop,” he says.

Obviously, not every brand needs to own the unpretentious, down-to-earth, common-sense essence of Miller High Life. But it is simply brilliant how the ads for this brand make it more appealing and credible as they pitch the idea of uncompromising ideals.

It’s also refreshing to see a brand with men as its primary target that puts forth the idea of being true to one’s values, not just being “hard” and “manly.”

Windell is a hero for the post-modern man and a shining example of integrity for brand managers.

True value is found in being true to your value proposition

As the author of Fresh & Easy Buzz says in a recent article about Tesco Neighborhood Market, “value is in across all grocery formats and it’s not just a fad.”

Many experts are calling the current economic climate a “perfect storm” of inflation, government debt, reduced consumer spending, weak dollar and intense foreign competition. It’s enough to make retailers reach for the red pen to start marking down prices faster than you can say, “Dollar General.”

Even the staunchest niche and aspirational retailers, including Whole Foods and Safeway, among others, are trying to find ways to fit the square peg of their specialty brands and products into the round hole of extreme price sensitivity.

Whole Foods has become known as “whole paycheck” because of the “high” prices consumers are willing to pay for the products and experience of the organic and natural foods retailer. But now the grocer is putting an extreme emphasis on its private labels, and its leadership has promised consumers it will find a way to make products less expensive.

But is this the right strategy? The right reaction?

Only time will tell. But there are certainly two retailers who will tell you that pairing another key brand attribute with low prices is a potentially profitable way to go: Target and Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart has put up big numbers in the past year, going from $43 to $59. Target stock is down about 10 points from this time last year.

Target sort of pioneered “get more, pay less,” but as the economy has worsened, Wal-Mart has performed exceedingly well. That might be-and this is conjecture, of course-because Wal-Mart “owns” low prices, making it better suited to be recession-ready while injecting a bit of style as its business model allows.

Everyone else, from Whole Foods to Safeway to Tesco, would be playing catch-up to Wal-Mart’s EDLP proposition at this point.

Remember, Wal-Mart fared none too well when it tried to water down its EDLP concept with style and name-brands that strayed from its core value proposition. Today’s batch of niche and aspirational retailers would do well to remember to stay true to themselves.

That doesn’t mean they can’t graft a cost-savings aspect onto their existing strengths and points of differentiation, but it does mean they shouldn’t shift away from what makes them successful.

Furthermore, they had better be ready to do things operationally and within the supply chain to reduce costs as much as possible to fund any kinds of discounts they want to use to entice consumers. Because shoppers are happy to pay less, but they don’t want to sacrifice quality, and that money has to come from somewhere.

In honor of Michael Phelps: A new way to think about counting calories

Today, let’s talk about a different way to think about calorie intake or “share of stomach.”

In one of our first posts, we addressed the problem of obesity in this country, trying to add a dose of sanity to counter the notion that the food industry is solely to blame for it. We pointed out that the decisions people make about diet and exercise, along with genetics, also factor into the equation. But basically, it’s calories in, calories out.

If you’ve been following the Olympics this week, you might have heard that 14-time gold-medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps eats 12,000 calories a day to keep his engine going.

Phelps also swam about five miles a day during the Olympics. If that sounds like a lot of exercise, that’s because it is. To put it another way, conventional wisdom is that swimming five miles is like running 20 miles. Imagine running 140 miles in a week.

Unlike Phelps, most of us need far fewer than 12,000 calories to keep our motors running. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization say the average American consumes about 4,000 calories a day.

That’s still a fair amount of calories to count. And the reasons for consuming those calories are numerous and diverse:

  • To satisfy hunger
  • To experience flavors and textures
  • To soothe emotional wounds
  • To celebrate achievement

We talk a lot in our business about share of stomach. Usually, we’re talking about our share versus our competitors. We ought to be trying to learn what types of emotions and activities are responsible for what percentage of our target consumers’ caloric intake.

Make sure you’re taking a detailed account of WHY your customers are buying and consuming your brands.

At every point possible in the buying process, take advantage or opportunities to ask questions. Put questions on coupons. Offer discounts for answering questions. Put surveys on cash register receipts.

This next part will seem a little foreign to some people. Rather than asking about satsifaction with the product, ask your consumer about themselves. Ask them why they made the purchase when and where they did. People would much rather talk about themselves than you.

It’s a natural thing to ask, and the answers will tell you the language, tone of voice and venues in which to best communicate to your targets when they’re making their food choice.

Hu Hot is Pretty Much All That as Americans Expand Their Tastes

We tried a great little restaurant last night in the Little Apple (that’s Manhattan, KANSAS, if you’re keeping score at home). Bottom line: Tasty and fun but slightly overpriced.

Hu Hot is the latest iteration of the Mongolian grill for the American masses. Greater numbers of people seem ready to embrace the concept of putting your food in a bowl and carrying it to someone so he can cook it for you while you stand there and wait for it. There have been others before it, but Hu Hot might have the timing right.

The Spoon’s most important observation about the concept is that it delivers intense flavor, an exotic menu and an interactive experience in a relatively small physical footprint. This location was tucked away in the front corner of a shopping mall, and it was not roomy inside. Two servers, two cooks and one go-fer in the back had a crowd of 60 diners easily covered.

To give you an idea of the overall experience of eating at Hu Hot, we’d tell you that the food was fresh and hot. The flavors were true to their respective Asian heritage of Thai, Sechuan and Japanese. It was a bit more down to earth than P.F. Chang’s, like they’re not trying to impress anyone.

A bowl of rice and your choice of soup or salad accompanied the meal.

As far as preparation, stuff that was supposed to be gingery was gingery, and stuff that was supposed to be crispy was crispy. But there were some twists, such as just enough chili in the fried spring roll to sting your lips a bit. Tasty.

When it came time for throwing sauce on the stuff in the bowl, we chose pork and pad thai noodles with a few veggies. While traditional Mongolian grills have stuff like “garlic water” and “sa cha,” Hu Hot allows you to play around with combining flavors like Black Thai Peanut, Yellow Belly Curry and Feed the Hordes Hoisin to create crazy-tasty fusion.

Make your own or try it The Spoon Way: 3 ladles Black Thai Peanut, 1 ladle Feed the Hordes Hoisin, 1 ladle sweet red chili, 1 ladle ginger. A very nice Thai-style complement to pork pad thai.

The actual cooking was like any other Mongolian grill, if you’ve seen it. Two guys with spatulas turn your stuff over and over on a large round grill until it’s done.

Try the appetizer sampler to share with your family or group. The most compelling item is the potsticker that’s fried Rangoon-style.

For dessert, the 5-layer chocolate cake, called Choco Khan, will rock you.

Shopping and Mood are Strongly Correlated

We were surfing MSNBC to get the latest US medal count when we came across this little dandy:

“Shopping in a lousy mood will cost you.”

You’ve heard how hungry shoppers spend more? Well, a study shows the SADDER you are, the more you spend. Check it out here.

The good news for food marketers is that shopping can actually LIFT your mood.

Can’t you just see a whole new line of weekly supermarket promotions?

Perk up your disposition with outrageous deals on asparagus and T-bones.

Give your mood a lift with this week’s stock-up sale on meat.

Feeling blue? Our two-for-one blueberry special will fix you right up!

It may seem trite, but this study adds to the credibility of our conventional wisdom that there is a strong relationship between the visceral feelings and the act of buying something.

People are less likely to SEARCH for a solution than to REACH for the nearest solution to their discomfort. We happen to be selling one of their favorites: FOOD.

Traditionally, we’ve focused almost completely on price. What if circulars were more about promising feelings than discounts?

Obviously, it’s something that will require a delicate balance in the current economic climate, but it bears repeating:

Emotion sells and emotion spurs purchase.

Stylish AND Cheap Sells; Good Advertising Helps

Just because we advocate appealing to people’s heightened dollar-value consciousness doesn’t mean we necessarily advocate abdicating style, fun and intellectual and emotional appeal.

What do these things have in common?

a. Burger King Whopper Jr.
b. Taco Bell bean burrito
c. McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty
d. Wendy’s Small Frosty

We’ll give you a hint: They’re all available for about a buck on the value menus of their respective QSRs (quick service restaurants).

In a recent post, we talked about how fast and cheap seem to be winning out, at least if three-year stock performance is any indication.

But as we’ve also discussed, being fast and cheap, even under the threat of rising prices and reduced productivity, isn’t enough. Consumers want it all, remember? And they’re always right. You have to be cool, stylish and lifestyle-relevant while satisfying the more mundane elements of the value equation.

So, once again, we sing the praises of the Golden Arches. “What makes them so great?” You ask. Check this out.

Hot (at least half the time) food, wrapped in paper and set on a tray is nothing special. That’s where advertising comes in.

Food, any kind of food, fast food included, has numerous close substitutes. And regardless of what we tell ourselves, there’s only so much we can do to the product itself. We can improve service, make the experience more exotic and, importantly, we can create an expecation or reinforce a decision with the use of properly placed, relevant and compelling advertising.

In a world with hundreds of different fast food options, McDonald’s makes people feel good about having just visited one of the chain’s thousands of locations by reinforcing their choice with messages like the Chicken Dance commercial.

It may not get you to run right out and by an Extra Value Meal. But it will reduce the cognitive dissonance that many people feel before, during and after eating at the restaurant. “I really want the burger and fries, but I know that later I’ll feel like I could have made a healthier choice. Still, it’s always so satisfying.”

It doesn’t hurt that this particular ad is tagged with a shot of a seemingly healthy wrap, Dasani bottled water and a fruit/yogurt parfait. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that many of us won’t be ordering that particular combination of menu items.

But that doesn’t matter. McDonald’s has given us the options, shown us how much fun their brand adds to our lives and simply asked us to make them a part of our lives. It’s not a push-y strategy at all. They’ve even toned it down on the promotional offers, specials and movie tie-ins. It’s not all about product and price.

If McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can do it, smaller competitors who trail them better take notice.

The Localization of Food Brands

Once, long before she had celebrated her Bicentennial, America had a local-regional food system.

The Spoon is not quite 40, but there used to be a dairy that supplied reusable milk bottles full of ice-cold milk just across town from where we lived. There was a meat market. And a bread store. It wasn’t until 1978 that the one-stop supermarket really started to show up in our part of Middle America.

This is important to consider because consumers have started a dull roar of demand for a return to this type of specialization and localization. Why? There are several factors. Their order of importance depends on the individual consumer.

  • Health. This is number one. In surveys, people cite freshness as the top concern about food. According to a survey by Yankelovich, they also equate freshness with health. And when they know their food came from someplace nearby, they feel it is fresher, healthier and safer to eat.
  • Altruism. People believe they are helping out their local economy, but more especially farmers, when they “buy local.” Consumers also tend to believe that “the little guy” has less of a negative impact on the environment, lending additional “greenness” to their purchase.
  • Quality. Aside from food safety concerns, consumers tend to report that locally-produced products taste better, have better texture and perform better in recipes. They are also usually willing to pay more for products that travel lesser distances and are grown using practices that are inefficient.

Whatever their reasons, Desmond Jolly a retired professor from the University of California did important work that shows there are plenty of reasons to believe this emerging trend is not going away. He sees it as more than just a luxury of the coveted wealthy segment of America. Interestingly, one survey showed 55 percent of households buying these foodstuffs earned over $60,000 per year, meaning almost half of such households earned less than $60,000 per year.

Researchers point out that going local may also be a way to negotiate many challenges, from improving pre-natal health of low-income mothers to providing as yet untapped career opportunities for new generations of American workers.

To paraphrase Eastern philosophy, this ox is small right now, but it is growing. We can choose to put a yoke on it now and benefit from its strength, or we can look on in horror as it tramples our crops.

Vacation Snack Odyssey Day Six: Betty Crocker, meet Betty Rubble

Dear Betty Crocker,

We’d like to tell you about how much we love your brownies. We love them so much that not even the absence of an oven will keep us from their moist, chocolatey goodness.

Our love for your brownies inspired us to not only make an heroic effort to cook them on the road, but also to think of new ways food can transport people to another plane or at least go with us on our adventures. As food marketers, we should challenge ourselves to dig deeply into our customers’ habits to see where we can fit better.

Come to think of it, not only would it make sense to see a Betty Crocker ad with families enjoying your wonderful product in all kinds of settings outside the home, but how come we’ve never seen a freshly-baked Betty Crocker brownie in the store? But we digress…this letter is about how much we love your product and the lengths we recently took to enjoy it.

While staying in a rustic cabin on the Arkansas River in Colorado, we got a hankering for brownies, but we didn’t have an oven. So we built one.

First, we dug a 15″Lx10″Wx3″D hole. Then we gathered up a bunch of smooth, stackable stones. Then we stacked them in a rectangular formation about a foot off the ground. We put large, flat stones on top to create the roof of the oven, as shown here.

While the Spoon fired up the charcoal inside the makeshift oven, Mama Spoon and the Littles mixed up the Betty Crocker brownie mix according to the instructions on the box. They put the mix into a disposable 9″x13″ aluminum baking pan.

When the coals had burned down to a red-hot condition, we placed three flat stones on top of them so the pan would not be directly on the heat.

We placed the pan full of brownie mix on the stones and put our camp griddle over the remaining hole in the top of the oven to keep the heat inside.

Three hours later, our slow-cooked brownies were ready for a late-afternoon snack. As you can see, the our effort was rewarded richly.

Thanks, Betty Crocker!