Weighing in on CX fails

I’ve had many ideas for blog posts over the past few months, but haven’t had much energy or coherent thought to spare after starting my new job in July. The learning curve is steep, but I’m loving it.

What finally inspired me to write were two unpleasant CX encounters in rapid succession that had me both (1) seriously annoyed and (2) wondering, “Am I fat and didn’t know it?”

First was a trip to a local My Fit Foods (MFF) store to get some healthy grab-and-go meals, a busy working professional’s best friend. I’d hoped for a Chicago version of Snap Kitchen, one of the places I still sorely miss from my Austin days. No such luck. MFF doesn’t color code their meals with gluten-free, paleo-style, etc., so I was stuck pulling out every meal and reading the ingredient list. But that was minor compared to the sales guy …

After saying hello, he launched into how great MFF is for weight loss and how it can help me achieve my goals. He also told me that MFF recommends the small portions for women, unless they’re very active, so he’d recommend the small ones for me.

Subtext: You look like you’ve got some weight to lose and that you’re not very athletic.

I should’ve challenged him to arm wrestle (I probably would’ve won) or stormed out, but I let him continue to dig the hole. I interrupted him to ask about the carbs in the “low-carb” dinners. Rather than directly answering my question to get at the “why” (I’m allergic to gluten and feel best with paleo-style eating), he launched into MFF’s philosophy about people not needing lots of carbs before bed.

I bought three meals (medium portions, thank you very much!) and only liked one of them. Disappointing, yes, but also a relief because now I can avoid that schmuck 100% without missing out on anything.

A few days after that CX fail, I started my trial membership at FFC, a gym in my neighborhood. (I figure I’ll be less and less inclined toward outdoor activities as Chicago winter hits, so want to line up options.) The trainer weighed me without comment. I asked him to take my measurements, too, since I care more about being lean than being light. That’s when things went downhill.

He started by measuring my waist. His comment: “XX inches – same as mine!” I couldn’t believe it. I almost laughed in disbelief. He then measured my bicep. His comment: “XX inches – check out those anaconda arms!” Fortunately, he didn’t have any comments about my thigh, though he did note it down as a hip measurement, so maybe he found it unbelievably small!

Subtext: You have a waist like a 6-foot-tall dude and arms like one, too!

It was clear that he, like the MFF guy, assumed I want to lose weight, regaling me with how he and the gym can help me achieve those goals. I smiled non-commitally, but my inner monologue was very similar to that day back in MFF – something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be kidding me, you schmuck. Why don’t you ask me what my goals are? Why don’t you take a breath long enough to let me get a word in edgewise, rather than more permanently cementing yourself of my bad list?”

My narrow takeaway from these two experiences is this: Even if you work in a health, fitness, or food business, don’t assume that every patron is primarily concerned with his/her weight or that commenting on body size is cool. If I think I’m fat, I don’t want you pointing it out. If I think I’m not, I definitely don’t!

My broader takeaway is to give your standard sales pitch a rest and try asking your customers what brought them to your business. Try listening to what they have to say, so you can cater your pitch – and maybe even your offering – to their specific needs. It will make your pitch more effective and leave them feeling heard rather than generalized.

Or, you know, fat.

Posted in Customer service, Product design | 1 Comment

You get what you pay for

We know it’s true, right? You get what you pay for. But finding a “deal” or cutting corners here and there can be fun, practical, or even necessary. Sometimes, though, not having learned that lesson leaves you (read: me) feeling like an idiot.

With my recent move to Chicago, I’m starting from scratch with everything from dishes and silverware to electronics and furniture. (My parents and I drove here from NYC after I finished my MBA, so I sold anything that wasn’t going to fit in the rented minivan.) Even though I have a great job lined up, splurging goes against my grain, especially when there’s so much to buy.

I did decide to buy a new couch because I wasn’t impressed with the ones I saw on Craigslist and also because I wanted a very specific type of sectional to work with the layout of my new place. I felt like I was splurging by spending $1,300 on the thing, but ended up learning (the hard way, for the umpteenth time) that you get what you pay for.

Check out my Yelp review of The Room Place to read about my experience.

After scouring Craigslist and checking out a few used options, I fell in love with a bed at Crate&Barrell. It’s back-ordered, so isn’t coming until July, but I’m really hoping it lives up to expectations. Cross your fingers, people! I don’t do well with feeling like an idiot.

Posted in Customer behavior, Customer service, Feedback, Pricing, Product design | Leave a comment

Angie’s List spam

Sending abandoned cart e-mails is par for the course. I just got one from Pottery Barn about a dining set I’d put in my cart, but decided not to buy after seeing it in the store. Those e-mails are a smart, cost-effective way for companies to try to convert looky-loos into purchasers.

But, like all good things, there can be too much. In the case of Angie’s List, WAY too much.

The backstory: In early August 2012, I was looking for painters for my parents’ house in Seattle and had seen commercials for Angie’s List (hard to miss them, eh!) and thought I’d give it a go. Only once I got into the sign-up process did I realize that accessing the customer reviews requires a paid monthly membership. I bailed and immediately started getting abandoned cart e-mails offering me discounted membership.

The first one offered 25% off. Four days later, the subject was “Oops! We meant to give you a bigger discount” and offered 40% off. All subsequent offers have been for 40% off. At first, I found the frequency of the e-mails amusing and wondered how deeply they’d discount in an attempt to get me to join. That curiosity, combined with increasing annoyance as the spam piled up, led me to dump them all in a folder with the thought of writing this blog post one day. It has been 11 months and that folder contains 42 e-mails:

Attack of the abandoned cart e-mails ... they just keep coming!

Attack of the abandoned cart e-mails … they just keep coming!

Although I found the subject lines somewhat hilarious, finally, the annoyance grew too great and I unsubscribed. Here was the unsubscribe page:

Holy moly! I didn't want or agree to receive any of these.

Holy moly! I didn’t want or agree to receive any of these.

Overkill, Angie? Yes. Unsubscribe from ALL correspondence? Hell yes and good riddance.

Morals of the story:

  • Don’t advertise like you’re offering a free service and later surprise potential customers with membership fees.
  • Don’t spam. Ever. And don’t use abandoned carts as an invitation to sign people up for every e-mail list you have.
  • And … as a customer, use Yelp! instead. It’s free and awesome and never spams.
  • And … if you want something at a discount, try abandoning the sign-up process or leaving something in your cart for a few days to see if you’re lack of interest will spur theirs (kinda like with dating – ha!).
Posted in Marketing, Pricing | Leave a comment

JC Penney CX flop

JCPenney’s CEO Ron Johnson was recently ousted after 17 months on the job. He had tried to overhaul the struggling retailer’s CX by simplifying pricing, replacing cashiers with roving check-out staff, introducing designer and upscale products, and changing the name and logo. See the changes since 2011:

JC Penney logo history on Wikipedia.org

JC Penney logo history from Wikipedia.org

The problem? The customers didn’t like it.

I came across a LinkedIn post that eloquently describes how JCP customers failed to respond to ideas that had been “rousing successes” at the Apple Store. In my Change Management class at Stern, we’re discussing this topic as part of a broader conversation about why change initiatives often fail. In the case of M&As, too heavy a focus on spreadsheets, financial statements, and calculations at the expense of psychological and cultural considerations is often to blame. A similar story seems to have played out at JCP.

The problem? The customers didn’t like it.

They didn’t want to give up sales or the thrill of the hunt for the sake of predictable prices. They didn’t want to change their check-out behavior for the sake of revolutionizing retail. They didn’t want upscale products at high-end prices. JCP underestimated both the psychological and cultural resistance to change among existing customers and the difficulty of wooing customers from the Apple Store set. (Of course, the lawsuit from Macy’s over Martha Stewart didn’t help matters. An LA Times journalist called it Johnson’s Waterloo.)

JCP’s CX flop illustrates two key ideas. The first is to know your customers. Not the Apple Store’s or anybody else’s – yours. The second is to understand that your customers own your brand, not you. That reminds me of my prior post about logo changes Gap and Starbucks. JCP had the same logo for 40 years, then two new ones (including a name change) in 2 years. Too much change, too fast? Maybe so. What’s obvious is that the customers didn’t like it. What else matters?

Posted in Customer behavior, Customer service, Marketing, Pricing | 2 Comments

Simple innovations that haven’t made the rounds

How often do you see a clever innovation and think, “Brilliant! Why didn’t someone figure that out sooner?!”? Today, I’m going to talk about some clever innovations that someone has thought of, but that – for reasons unknown to me – haven’t made the rounds. These are simple innovations that wouldn’t be difficult to implement, making their lack of universality especially puzzling.

I came across the first two innovations in my international travels. First, while living in Santiago, Chile, I was impressed by this clever innovation:

Three-pronged subway handle in Santiago, Chile

Three-pronged subway handle in Santiago, Chile

On the subway trains, the posts branched into three prongs! They still had a single point of attachment at the top and bottom, so required no innovation in installation. Yet, three times as many hands could fit – a huge benefit during peak travel times. Brilliant, no? Why aren’t these standard issue on subways everywhere?

On the opposite side of the world, I was blown away by information design in the Hong Kong subways. For example, above every door of the train was a map of the subway system with lights indicating current and future stops. There was also a lighted display indicating the direction of travel and which side of the train the doors would open on at the next stop. This sleek and informative design wowed me and my fellow travelers, but it’s not easy to implement retroactively, so I’ll talk about the exit signs instead.

Each subway stations has multiple (read: up to 10 or so) exits and leaving via the wrong one can leave you confused and/or far from your desired destination. Hong Kong solved this by naming and labeling the exits. You can arrange to meet your friends at Exit R. A business can tell you to use Exit B and walk two blocks north. Brilliant, no? After a year and a half living in NYC, at an unfamiliar stop, I still often exit the subway and then figure out which way to head by looking at street numbers. NYC could implement this innovation and provide exiting riders with more useful information than “NW corner”.

hong kong exit

Exit the subway with confidence in Hong Kong

We’ve talked about subways. Now, let’s talk about bathrooms. I’ve come across some unexpected configurations and some technology that seems like it belongs on an infomercial, but I’m sticking to practical – and desirable – innovations in this post.

After ducking to peek for feet under a row of stalls in the ladies room yesterday, I thought, “Why don’t all stalls have occupied/vacant signs?” This innovation isn’t new or fancy. In fact, it’s used on airplanes that were built decades ago and on every last Porta Potty. (If Porta Potties have a head start on innovation, bathrooms everywhere should be ashamed.) It can be done with the same style of sliding bolt, so no big innovation in installation is needed. Here’s an example:

Same sliding bolt, but no more peeking for feet

Same sliding bolt, but no more peeking for feet

A big innovation in toilet design is the automatic flush. Desirable in principle, terrible in practice. I can’t be the only person frequently victim of a surprise flush when the sensor mistakenly thinks I’ve stood up. I can’t be the only one who notices that the automatic flush is often so strong that it splashes water all over the seat. (If we’re trying to keep things clean and prevent squatting, this is not the answer!) If we have a people-don’t-flush problem, maybe there’s another way. Yes, indeed, there is!

Introducing: the foot flush!

Introducing: the foot flush!

I’ve seen this in a few old fashioned bathrooms in NYC. Why did we abandon this innovation? From the following sign, it’s clear that people want to flush with their feet.

Given the choice between a precarious karate move and touching it with my hand ...

Given the choice between a precarious karate kick and touching it with my hand …

Give the people what they want! Nobody wants surprise flushes or tsunami style automatic flushes. I admit that the foot flush is extremely expensive to retrofit, but there’s no excuse not to use pedals in new construction or in total makeovers.

What simple innovations have you seen that haven’t made the rounds?

Posted in Product design, Usability | 3 Comments

Let them eat stale bread!

Yesterday, I participated in a half-day session called “Hack B-school”. It was facilitated by Stern professors and administrators and was intended to produce revolutionary thinking about business education. One of the exercises was to list cliches about business education and then challenge them. The idea is that the status quo is the status quo because it served a purpose at some point, but maybe (likely!) it’s no longer optimal.

Luke Williams, resident innovation expert, walked us through three ways to challenge cliches:

  1. Invert: What if the opposite were true?
  2. Deny: What if we eliminate the cliche?
  3. Exaggerate: What if we take it to extremes?

For (1) inversion, let’s take soft drinks. What are the cliches?

  • Cheap
  • Tastes great (hello, sugar high!)
  • Aspirational (it’s not sugar water – it’s childhood memories)

So, if we inverted the cliches, we’d get this product:

  • Expensive
  • Tastes bad
  • Functional

“Ha!” you might say, “Who would want a product like that? How could it be pawned through clever marketing? No way anyone would pay a premium for that over a Coke, right?”


It's more expensive than a soft drink, tastes worse, and is all about a functional boost.

Red Bull: more expensive than a soft drink, tastes worse, all about the functional benefits

For (2) denial, we looked at rental cars as an example. The cliches are that you have to go to a rental center, fill out paperwork, pay by the day, etc. What if none of those were true?


Pick up anywhere, no paperwork, and rent by the hour.

Zipcar: pick up a car anywhere, no paperwork, rent by the hour

For (3) exaggeration, we talked about socks. Who says they have to be sold in pairs? Is this cliche optimal? It seems logical – most of us have two feet. But think about the angst about matching up sock pairs and that random sock you hold on to in case its mate reappears. Could there be a business in mismatched socks?


LittleMissMatched: coordinated but mismatched socks sold in sets of 3

LittleMissMatched: colorful, coordinated, but mismatched socks sold in sets of three

Red Bull, Zipcar, and LittleMissMatch successfully challenged the status quo by launching innovative products that inverted, denied, or exaggerated long-standing cliches. Remarkable, no?

In yesterday’s session, we were asked to do the same for business education. We applied the same three methods: invert, deny, exaggerate. What if business education were cheap, open, and inclusive? (Read up on MOOCs.) What if there were no distinctions between soft and hard skills or between corporate management and entrepreneurship? What if it lasted for one hour or ten years … what if business students were 10 years old or 50 years old?

What will be the “Boom”?

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Nicely handled, SGov

It’s no secret that I love my MBA program at Stern. Last week, the student government (SGov*) gave me one more reason – and its handling of the situation illustrates some CX principles relevant to this blog.

The scenario: There had been heated debate about the student body adopting a grade non-disclosure (GND) policy leading up to a vote. The ballot was issued in survey format and covered GND in addition to several other topics, including best professor and whether the class trip to Atlantic City should be one night or two.

I was eager to vote because (1) I’m a good citizen and (2) I felt strongly about not GND passing. I was frustrated to discover that the survey had been designed so that all of the questions were mandatory. I couldn’t selectively abstain from the issues I didn’t know (never had any of the professors listed) or care (Atlantic City isn’t my scene) about and still make my voice heard on the ones I did.

What did I do? I complained on Facebook. (Perhaps not the best example of my good citizenship!) The president of SGov replied that allowing selective abstention was a good principle for future surveys. I felt heard, but not happy. I’d been forced to taint the vote on the aforementioned don’t-know/don’t-care issues.

A few days later, to my delight, an e-mail arrived from SGov entitled “Freedom to Abstain from Voting”. It provided a new survey link with abstention offered as an option for each issue. Even better, while I could re-vote and void my old submission, all original submissions by students who didn’t re-vote would be be valid. This was a beautiful move on SGov’s part. Starting a new vote from scratch and forcing everyone to re-vote would have botched the CX big time – and probably lowered turnout by quite a bit.

Nicely handled, SGov. You made me a very happy citizen!

*SGov recently changed its name from SCorp (Stern Student Corporation) to better reflect what it is: Stern Student Government. While we b-school students love corporations and all, it was a smart re-branding for clarity (1) within the school and (2) with recruiters and others not familiar with the inner workings of Stern.

Posted in Feedback, Surveys, Usability, VOC | Leave a comment

Tales from airline insider

One of the great things about attending business school in downtown NYC is the quality and breadth of speakers who come to campus. This week, Rick Zeni, formerly of US Airways and JetBlue, visited my Revenue Management class to talk about pricing in the airline industry. It was one of the first to use dynamic pricing and segmentation to increase profitability. Now, of course, it helps airlines be much less unprofitable than the otherwise would be.

JetBlue is my favorite airline and Rick confirmed that they really do care about CX and service there. The consciously have fewer seats per plane, personal TVs for every seat, etc., and these costs make them less profitable than, say, Spirit Airlines. In terms of CX, JetBlue beats out mainstream carriers, too. If people love JetBlue, asked Rick, why aren’t they able to charge a premium?

People love JetBlue:

"JetBlue's killer legroom JFK-Salt Lake" - flickr post

“JetBlue’s killer legroom JFK-Salt Lake” – flickr post

He asked us to raise our hands if we’d pay an extra $1 to fly JetBlue versus another carrier. Most everyone raised theirs. The problem is that, while many customers would pay a $1 premium to fly on JetBlue, many would not.  If JetBlue loses one $150 fare because it asked for $151, then 150 passengers would have to pay the $1 premium just for JetBlue to break even. Leisure flyers are notoriously price sensitive, so the math doesn’t work.

This is not to say that JetBlue’s efforts are for naught. The idea is that JetBlue’s superior CX helps it to win in a tie. That is, if customers have several options at the same price, they’ll more often choose Jet Blue, boosting the airline’s yield.

Spirit provides an compelling comparison. Spirit attracts customers who care only about price. It is infamous for charging very low fares, then annoying customers with fees – including up to $100 for a carry-on bag. It is also infamous for getting free publicity by creating ads so offensive they get media coverage. According to Rick, Spirit also packs the maximum number of seats on each plane as allowed by law.

Customers notice:

"This is how much leg room you get" on Spirit - Yelp!

“This is how much leg room you get” on Spirit – Yelp!

It riles me when companies that care thismuch about CX outperform companies that make exceptional CX the cornerstone of their business. Of course, profitability matters, too … see: Virgin America. It will be interesting to see how these airlines fare over the longer term.

For the record, I flew Spirit once and it was a maddening experience.

Posted in Customer behavior, Marketing, Pricing | 1 Comment

American and SuperShuttle: call me … maybe?

Dear American Airlines and SuperShuttle,

This seems obvious, but apparently you need a reminder: Don’t leave customers in the lurch. Don’t leave them guessing. Don’t cause them needless stress. Listen up …

I’ve been looking forward to a trip to Austin for my niece’s 4th birthday party. It’s coming about a week after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power, water, and cell service at my apartment. I spent five days away from home, camping out at friends’ places in a city short on extra space. A nor’easter (effectively a wintery hurricane) is on its way, which is, of course, the last thing NYC and the surrounding areas need. It also threatened my flight to Austin, which was scheduled for 5pm today.

Around 10pm last night, I went to AA.com to check on my flight. Cancelled. In bright red letters. Umm, when did they plan to tell me? I did some digging on the American Airlines Twitter feed and discovered that all flights past 3pm were preemptively cancelled due to the impending storm. Did they expect me to discover that when I arrived at the airport after braving the storm, only to turn around and go home? They should have called. Or texted. Or e-mailed.

I called their customer service line and waited on hold for over an hour before giving up. I talked to my sister in Austin and told her I wasn’t going to make it. She flies a lot on American, so has some sort of VIP hotline number. She called that and got me on an early morning flight out of Laguardia. Sweet! The trip was back on!

I balk at the high flat airport fares charged by taxis, so I reserved a SuperShuttle pickup online. I was given the window of 5:50-6:05am. I’ve found that service to be very prompt, so this morning I was not just ready, but outside, curbside at 5:50. By 6am, there was no sign of the van, so I went to SuperShuttle on my phone (nice mobile site, by the way). It said the van was 1.16 miles away. Five minutes later, it was 1.17 miles away. Another five minutes later, it was 2.15 miles away. Wrong direction! I was getting really cold, so went into the atrium of my building.

Finally, at 6:24, I got a call from the driver to confirm directions to my place. He arrived at 6:28 with no apology or acknowledgment that he was late. I’d been waiting since 5:50 with no word from him, so, by my count, he was 38 minutes late. Unacceptable! In those 38 minutes, I’d gone from eager to annoyed to panicky to angry. If he was going to be even a few minutes past the end of the window they’d given me, he should have called.

I’m now sitting at the airport, awaiting my flight. A big hug from my niece will erase my irritation, but I won’t forget that American and SuperShuttle unnecessarily created it. So, next time you know things aren’t going according to plan, will you call me … maybe?

Posted in Customer service, Feedback | Leave a comment

Daily deals from a full-price customer’s perspective

I’ve previously shared my doubts about daily deals (Groupon, LivingSocial, etc.) and their bottom-line and long-term benefit for small businesses. Part of that was based on my own behavior as a user of those types of deals, as very rarely did I ever return to pay full price after using one.

Only recently, however, have I experienced what it’s like to be an existing full-price customer of a place that runs a daily deal. The punchline: it sucks.

I’m in Chicago for the summer, doing my MBA internship, and found a fantastic gym called Core Fitness. It has a class called Train Like Jane, a women-only primal-style workout in which we flip truck tires, run relays with sandbags, etc. I always emerge dirty, drenched in sweat, high on adrenaline, and grinning ear to ear. I happily paid full price for a 10-class pass and raved about the place to my coworkers and friends.

Then, Core Fitness participated in a Groupon deal and, suddenly, the classes were chock full and the popular days/times booked a few weeks out. Talking to the new students, I found out that they’d paid $1 per class and were just there “to check it out.” They’re lucky my primally-buff self didn’t punch them out!

So, Core Fitness, and any other business considering selling its services for a fraction of the price (the gym made, what 50¢/student/class?) … take a moment to consider how your loyal, full-price customers will feel.

In this particular case, I’m working my butt off in a class I barely squeezed into, watching the trainer coach Looky Loos who are unlikely to return when their $1/class deal is up. It’s way worse than the New Year’s Resolution flood at the gym. At least those short-timers are paying full price and, honestly, subsidizing the those of us who go all year.

When a flood of Grouponers hits a place you love, it stings like it’s personal.

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