The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Category: Customer Service

My ‘Buying Local’ Mistake

For those who might not know, I host a radio show for my real job called Pittsburgh Impact Radio (click here for the iTunes podcast). In my most recent show, I interviewed Buy Pittsburgh First, an organization that promotes the idea that companies can, and should, buy from local suppliers. From an economic development standpoint, this is a huge opportunity — between 40%-60% additional economic impact is made when a purchaser buys from a local supplier vs. a national/non-local one. That translates to jobs, more consumption of local products and services, multiplier effects and other good stuff.

As an entrepreneur currently selling into the local and national market, I too have skin in the buy local game. It is easier for me to market and sell product to companies nearby (I can demonstrate how our product looks and works). It’s cheaper for me to fulfill my orders to local companies. And, in the (rare) case where something isn’t quite right, I can fix it personally. Our company is another case study in why buying local makes sense — the service is often far beyond any national vendor and we’re willing to go above-and-beyond in ways that are impossible for our other customers across the country.

So, my ‘buying local’ mistake. Somewhere in the radio interview, and I believe it might have been said multiple times, I mentioned that there is an obligation to buy from local vendors. Given the regional impact, and what it can do to accelerate growth, it sounds like something that is reasonable to say. Further, I have also worked in economic development for seven years, so I’m comfortable talking about connections between buying from companies and how that can impact an economy. But, after more reflection, I realized that I was dead wrong. There is no obligation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In any business transaction, the decision comes down to what option brings the most value. Some of these are objective measures (price, turnaround time), and some of these are completely subjective (brand, reputation). A commitment to buying local is decidedly a subjective perception of value. Regardless of how much value we might individually place on buying local, that doesn’t mean that we do it at each opportunity, or that it’s right to always buy local. Sometimes, the local option just doesn’t deliver the value we need, regardless of proximity.

I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt when a local company won’t take a meeting or consider our product. I’ll admit to getting irritated when a company decides against giving us a chance to prove our concept. But, the reality is that it’s not their fault for not buying. It’s our fault for not delivering enough value (or, worse, targeting the wrong market).

This doesn’t mean that I will not continue to be an advocate for buying local — I think it’s a great opportunity to have a disproportionate impact on the local economy (and get exceptional customer service at the same time). However, I have made a decision to stop making it personal, start delivering more value, and eliminating the words “should” and “obligated” from my vocabulary.

Marketing to Women #2 – The End of Men

Women comprise 51.4% of the U.S. population, but make or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions. (MayoSeitz Media)

This was the statistic that got me started down this road. It got me asking questions: What of those decisions are made by women and what of those are influenced? Whose money is it? What is the final purchase result? And, to some extent, what are men buying in the 15% of instances that they’re making the decisions by themselves?

Some of those questions were answered in an article published yesterday in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The End of Men”. The thesis should scare men and women alike as there is a gender inequality 180 that could be as damaging as the chauvinist tendencies of most of history. PLEASE read the article — it is well-written, fascinating and disturbing.

Why is it the end of men? Ronald Ericsson, a now 74-year old biologist who devised a way to separate sperm to help people to select the gender of their children in the 70s, is quoted in the article as saying:

“Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”

The article goes on to explain how the world is changing to favor the skills/talents/demeanor of women. This is demonstrated by a few key facts/statistics:

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Heinz Proves That it is Good to be the King

Heinz Packet

New Heinz Ketchup Packet

After years of watching people fumble with the little packets tossed in fast food to-go, Heinz announced yesterday that it has invented a new packet with three times more ketchup that can be opened for dunking or squeezed onto a hot dog bun. Really? After more than 50 years (the original patent for the ketchup packet was issued in 1955) and years of customers cursing the design, the company FINALLY came up with something better. It made me realize that, while there might be start-up companies that can supplant technologies, there are still industries that have market leaders with legit competition.

This reminded me of the story of Alcoa, the multinational aluminum conglomerate, and the Fridge Pack. As one of the largest providers of aluminum to the world, it obviously sees the soft drink market as important to it’s success. In 1999, the company saw that cans were sort of hard to keep in your refrigerator, as evidenced by all of the “can storage” as-seen-on-TV items in the early 90’s. So, the company decided to rethink the way cans were sold and stored, and invented the 12-can fridge pack. Stacked 6×2 (as opposed to 3×4 or in 6-packs with the soft plastic carriers), people learned to just throw the box in the fridge and forget about it.

I think the Heinz example is reinforced by a Malcom Gladwell article about ketchup. In the article, he talks about how there are a gazillion different mustards, but really only one (Heinz) ketchup. Despite many attempts to make the “Grey Poupon” of ketchup, none of them have succeeded. People like Heinz and, according to taste tests, pretty much consider it perfect.

So, what does this mean? First, it’s pretty awesome to be considered an irreplaceable product. Heinz has no legitimate threat and, as a result, no need to push the envelope too hard with respect to ketchup innovation (purple ketchup, anyone??). Second, you have to be able to anticipate your weaknesses/threats and gauge whether or not to do something about it. In the Heinz case, there might have been a consumer demand for a new packet, but the threat wasn’t such that it made a change a top priority. For Alcoa, not making an adjustment could mean a shift of consumer behavior to other soft drink containers (could prove disastrous for the company).

Companies always need to be on the lookout and figure out if they’re in a Heinz position or an Alcoa position. If the former, it’s really not worth spending the money on R&D when you could be dedicating resources to other, more profitable projects (Heinz’s restaurant squeeze bottles are a good example). If you’re Alcoa, you have to be able to recognize if there’s a threat to your business and, if so, you might need to innovate on the margins of your core offering to shore up your relevance in the market. In the end, you have to listen to the customer and do the strategic math. If your customers are willing to put up with your inadequacies, good for you! If not, get working on a solution before it’s too late.

Customer Service That Is Done Well

A few weeks ago, after a long struggle, I lost a companion of more than a year-and-a-half — my BlackBerry World Edition (8830) from Verizon. It was a great phone, surviving heavy drops on pavement and enduring more than one text battle with friends and significant others, but was on death watch for about a month. Finally, after an accidental dip in the sink — and the periodic malfunctioning of the left half of the keyboard — I decided that it was time to let go.

I had been following the progress of the BlackBerry 9630, eventually named the Tour (for the record, I did this with the other BlackBerry out of the room lest I offend it and it delete all of my text messages). The Tour boasted some great features that had limited the world edition — more memory, better screen resolution, a faster processor and a camera. After stopping into the Verizon store on Smithfield in downtown Pittsburgh on numerous occasions, I knew that it was the right phone for me.

The team at this Verizon store is always excellent — they move people through quickly, are courteous and professional, and consistently deliver great customer service. I have always been amazed by this — it is a very high-traffic store — yet the folks working there rarely get overwhelmed.

Everything was going well until I learned that my expected “new every two”, the program that provides a $50 credit toward the purchase of a new phone, wasn’t available to me. You see, I was on someone else’s family share plan for the previous 18 months and, by Verizon policy, wasn’t eligible for the credit because I wasn’t the primary account holder. I was pretty upset — I had been a customer for years, and a profitable one at that (I’ve had a smartphone since 2004). How could they not acknowledge that I was a long-time customer? Was it worth the $50 to them to make me feel like my business wasn’t valued?

I grumbled to the person who was setting up the phone. She responded, “I hate telling someone no, especially if they’re nice, but there really isn’t anything I can do.” I accepted it and moved on, but remained irritated by the policy.

I received a robocall later that week asking for my opinions about the service I received. The first part was a standard survey, but at the end, it allowed me to leave a voice mail with additional comments. I took the opportunity to emphasize how much I appreciate the service at the store (even if I’m just browsing), but mentioned that I was disappointed by the new every two policy. I hung up the phone and promptly forgot about the call.

A couple of days later, I got a call back from the manager, who had said he received my message and wanted to follow-up regarding my complaint about their policy. I was stunned — I never expected my message to be heard let alone reacted to. I mentioned how great the staff was (again), but laid out my case for why the new every two policy was not right. He immediately agreed, saying that he felt that it was a bit unfair since people often pool their plans to save money (and pay their fair share), yet aren’t given the benefit of the primary account holder. He then credited my account $50 and thanked me for my feedback, also stating that he would be sending the complaint about the new every two policy to his district manager.

For all the ads that tout Verizon’s superior network, I have to say that this interaction taught me that big corporations, especially those that are providing utility-level products or service, can deliver excellent customer service. It is possible for a company to hire well, train well, and empower the folks working on the front lines to satisfy the needs of their customers. Not only does it build goodwill with individual customers, but it creates the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that can make the difference in a competitive consumer landscape.