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Consistency drives word of mouth business

Last week, my wife and I went to a place we’d been looking forward to for some time.  Our 31st wedding anniversary dinner was the perfect occasion to try a new (to us) place, so we went to a local Cajun restaurant whose entree price ranking is $$ and name includes “Orleans”.

Long time readers know I rarely name poor performers. I’ve made note of the theme, price range and part of the name to set the expectation you’d expect to find there.

Expectations vs. Reality

The combination of Cajun, $$ and Orleans implied white tablecloths, a Bourbon Street vibe / atmosphere and good Louisiana cuisine prepared to order, perhaps with an emphasis on seafood.

The menu’s broad selection of Cajun seafood dishes nailed that, but expectation delivery faded from there. There was little to tie the ambiance to New Orleans. The table settings resembled something you’d find in a pizza joint. This created a bit of disconnect with the pricing, menu and the restaurant’s name – which implied fine Bourbon Street dining.

Despite arriving at about 7:00 pm on a Wednesday, the place was empty. Warning bells went off, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway. After being seated, I noticed the floor was filthy. It seats 30-35 and on a busy night, I can see how the staff might not be able to get to the floor between turns. However, the dining area has a tile floor and the place was empty except for us, so finding it consistently dirty throughout the restaurant was pretty surprising.

The chef arrived at the restaurant at the same time we did. Rather than going to the kitchen, the chef sat down in the dining area with a couple of web site consultants and discussed the menu, photos and what should be changed on their site.

At no time during our visit did the chef enter the kitchen – including from the time we ordered to the time we received our food. Likewise, neither the waiter or cook staff approached the chef’s table for guidance. I suspect that the chef has their hand in their sauces and general guidance of the kitchen, but in a place this small in this price range, I expect direct chef involvement in the food and perhaps even a table visit on a slow night in an otherwise empty restaurant.

Instead, there was no welcome, no eye contact, no thank you and no time in the kitchen. Nothing from the chef.

Speaking of empty, it was quiet enough to hear the microwave beeping just before my wife’s étouffée arrived. Despite the microwave, the étouffée was surprisingly tasty and easily the best part of her meal. Oddly enough, the waiter discouraged her from ordering the entree, so she ordered a small cup to get a taste of it despite the waiter’s recommendation.

The inconsistency returned with my wife’s Shrimp Pontchartrain entree, which turned out to be a massive platter of heavily salted pasta / sauce with little sign of shrimp.  Meanwhile, my Catfish Tchoupitoulas was very good. I’d definitely order it again.

Quality and branding inconsistencies can damage any business – even if they don’t serve food.

Police your inconsistencies

Inconsistencies plague small business and can destroy repeat business, as well as word of mouth business. The more processes, systems and training you can put in place to root out these issues, the closer your business gets to marketing itself by reputation.

Our visit included a number of inconsistencies with the business’ pricing, name, menu and food.

The menu listed numerous chef and/or restaurant honors, yet the most recent award was four years old. The years without an award stood out as much as the period of years where consistent annual awards implied high quality. If you can’t show award consistency, don’t list the award years or list them as “Five time winner”. Meanwhile, address the inconsistencies that caused the wins to stop.

Whether you operate a three star restaurant or a tire shop, cleanliness is important. It’s a signal that a business cares and pays attention to details, while sending a message about the cleanliness of other parts of the business that you cannot see. Given the filthy condition of the dining area floor, would you expect the walk-in cooler, prep table or kitchen floor to be clean?

What inconsistencies can you address to increase repeat and word of mouth business?

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A business problem, not a water problem

Photo credit: Michael Hyatt

When book publisher Michael Hyatt posted this image saying “When you read this at Panera, you know your city has a water problem”, it struck me as a business problem.

Sure, the city might have a problem, but that shouldn’t be your customers’ problem.

Every day, we must adapt to the cards we’re dealt.

Rather than “We are not serving tap water, sodas or brewed tea today” and taking what might be perceived as a political shot at the city (the same one who does their next restaurant inspection?), a customer-centered management team could have called Culligan (et al) to get all the restaurant-approved water they’d need to provide glasses of water and brewed tea.

If you’re Culligan, there’s a win-win there.

Perhaps you can’t easily and quickly alter the water supply for a soda dispensing system, but that still doesn’t require a sign.

A quick look at last week’s sales totals from the register would have told them that they sell 430 sodas per day on average and run over to Costco or Sam’s (or called their normal supplier) for a canned/bottled supply that would span the gap for them.

The next work day, they could consult with their soda mix supplier and explain the situation further, ask for advice on water supply adaptation and then contact their plumber to arrange for a way to feed the third-party water into their soda system. Or they simply could have adapted using pre-mix, though that would probably be too much of an interference to the restaurant’s workflow.

Instead, they chose to sell no soda and no tea (both high profit margin items) and take a shot at the city.

Maybe the city needed a smack, but the place to do that is at the city offices, at a council meeting and worst case, in the local press.

Using your customers as pawns in that game makes for a losing battle, especially when they are standing at your front door with their wallets and purses open.

PS: Interesting that coffee wasn’t mentioned on that sign. Might be because many places use high-tech water filtration systems for their coffee water supply lines. I wonder if a non-franchise restaurant would have reacted the same way.

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Arriving late?

Today’s guest post is for those business owners arriving late at the “social media party”.

For those making an entrance, business-wise, here’s a nice social media startup guide from the NYTimes’ “You’re The Boss” blog.

It talks about restaurants specifically, but the advice is sound regardless of what your business does.

As usual, salt to taste.

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How many pennies would you sell your reputation for?

My wife’s birthday was this weekend, so as a last bit of her gift, our youngest son and I took her to one of her favorite restaurants in the Valley.

As we sat down and caught up on junior’s just-finished semester at Pacific, the “so, what are you gonna order” discussion starts.

My wife has a favorite entree there – and to my knowledge has never ordered anything else in our many visits to this place over a period of roughly 5 years.

But this time, she asks for something else.

Turns out that the last time we visited, she ordered this item and the creamy sauce was more watery than creamy and just “didn’t seem like it used to”.

My son likes that dish as well, so he ordered it anyway.

Taking Pride

Most of my son’s jobs have been in the fine dining and/or catering business and the chefs he’s worked for are a couple of the finest we have to offer in our area.

His dish arrives and sure enough, he notices things that would have never flown at his employers’ restaurants.

Chipped plates, for example. His arrives with a small handful of chips around the edges of the plate. Both mine and my wife’s have them as well.

He tells us that someone with pride in their work would never serve these entrees on chipped plates (this is a restaurant with entrees from $14-29).

He also notices that the sauce is thinner than usual and not seasoned as it was in the past.

Reflecting ownership

“Something’s changed here”, he notes. “Do they have a new owner?”

I’m not sure of the timeframe but I do recall a change of ownership sometime in the past.

While that may or may not be the instigation of the change in entree quality of this place’s signature dish, it doesn’t really matter because it reflects on the owner, the manager and the head chef.

The chipped plates are a symptom of “Oh, that’s good enough”.

Would you sell your business’ reputation gets sold for the price of a $6 dinner plate? Or .08 worth of garlic, a little black pepper and 4 more minutes on the burner?

How about one less restroom check per day? Or a 25 cents worth of Pine Sol in the mop water?

It happens every day. Don’t let it happen to your business. Don’t teach “good enough” to your employees.

Every little thing sends a message. If nothing else, this is high-value marketing with a low price.

Doing it wrong gives it a high cost and delivers the wrong thing – reputation damage that’s hard to get back.

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Help your customers become better buyers

Better, more knowledgeable buyers tend to spend more, but they often need help doing so.

Who hasn’t looked at a restaurant wine list, and then thought it’d be nice to have the Wine Spectator articles (or a similar resource) on those 2 or 3 bottles you’re trying to choose between?

Until recently, restaurants would have a hard time doing this, if nothing else for logistical reasons.

Bone’s Steakhouse in Atlanta went one better, creating iPad-based winelists.…and increased sales by 25%.

They invested in 30 iPads and custom software in order to sell more (and better) wine.


Even smartphone toting patrons with Wine Spectator’s VintageChart+ app on their iPhone don’t have the details at their fingertips that would help a novice (or even moderately experienced) wine lover make a great choice.

While the VintageChart+ app can tell you whether or not the vintage on the list is a good choice, it currently shows nothing about the winery, the wine, reviews or any other details.

I expect WineSpectator will be leveraging that app or companion apps for a long while.

Sitting with GaryVee

Your method doesn’t have to be quite as fancy or technology-oriented as Bone’s, but it could be.

It might be your favorite wine expert and a bucket. That’s what wine retailer Gary Vaynerchuk does on his show, Wine Library TV.

In his case, the education he provides is intended to produce a better wine buyer, and of course prompt a retail purchase. You get his fun, gregarious personality as a bonus. After watching one show, who wouldn’t want to sit down with Gary and taste some wine?

That’s almost what WineLibraryTV allows you to do.

Where Bone’s might be heading

Imagine if the iPad app linked to a clip @garyvee‘s show that talked about that wine?  And the app went from there, providing links to Parker’s coverage of the wine, links to the winery’s website and info on the vintner and vintage, Wine Spectator reviews and so on.

I haven’t seen the Bone’s iPad app, but I suspect it gives the diner info of this nature so they can make a better choice when selecting a wine.

Now, with that in mind, how can you help your customers become better buyers?

PS: Think about how you’d feel at another restaurant when presented with a typical paper wine list (even if bound elegantly, etc), after having experienced what Bone’s offers. This isn’t just about selling more and better wine.

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Do you complete the process?

Sweet Temptations
Creative Commons License photo credit: williamcho

I like that Amazon lets me prod a publisher into Kindle-ing a book.

The only problem with starting a process like the “request this book on Kindle” thing is that many businesses fail to finish what they started.

For example, does Amazon notify me when the Kindle version becomes available and email me a link to purchase that version? I have no idea.

Wouldn’t that be the ideal conclusion?

I’m not sure if they do this or not, but I’ve never received a notification. Would seem a bit odd that none of the books I’ve prodded them about have been Kindle’d but it’s possible.

Amazon also doesn’t ask me if I want to automatically purchase the Kindle version when/if it comes out.


It isn’t just tech businesses that get into this kind of trouble with processes. Non-technical businesses do too.

On Sunday, my wife and I went out for dinner after a long day of working around the house. We decided to go to a new restaurant in town that we hadn’t yet visited.

A few moments after dropping off our food, the wait staffer asked how the food was, without seeming to break stride as she passed our table. I hadn’t had time to take a bite and didn’t get a chance to reply before she was gone.

Having a checklist for your process is ok. Not having proper timing for each step is not.

At the end of the meal, we weren’t asked if we wanted coffee or dessert. Usually we don’t. On this night, we were ready and this was the sort of place where you expect to be asked.

We bailed out and went to another restaurant. There, we were told that dessert isn’t on the menu but they just happened to have a few things to choose from and he reeled off the items they had.

He got a better tip for 2 coffees and a dessert.

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100 things waiters, real estate agents and mechanics should never do, Part 2

Yesterday, we went over the first 50 items on the NY Times’ “100 things restaurant staffers should never do”, and mentioned a few other folks that might also use those things even if they don’t own a restaurant.

Today, the NYT published the next 50, and once again – they might be focused on a restaurant staffer’s duties but you have similar, little tiny, insignificant things in your business that matter JUST AS MUCH.

Hopefully this list from a restaurant will help you find them in your place and do what makes sense for the customer.

What I hope you don’t do is discard the entire list because you disagree with one of them. We’ve all had a waiter do something little that bothered us, grossed us out, or whatever. Your staff does little things that have the same impact on your customers.

For example, do you have a counter service person who licks their index finger while flipping through papers? Do they then hand the paper over to the client? Normally, maybe a minor thing. In the days of H1N1 (swine flu), it may or may not be a way to transmit the flu but it will still cause concern.

Just a little thing…like the difference between the way water behaves at 211 degrees F vs. 212 degrees F.

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100 things waiters, real estate agents and mechanics should never do, Part 1

If you don’t own a restaurant, the temptation might be to turn the page and blow past part one of the NY Times’ “100 things restaurant staffers should never do” story.

Or maybe you’d read it like a diner, thinking “Yeah, #2, 13 and 34 really annoy me”.

Don’t waste it like that.

The list is all about whatever *you* do, no matter what that is.

I guarantee that your oil change store, dry cleaning store, clothing store, bar, coffee shop, software business or consulting firm can adapt most of these for your business.

You don’t have to agree with all fifty. For example, I *prefer* to know the waiter’s name. It’s more… personal. But you knew I’d say that.

Even if you don’t agree with all of them, use the list to your advantage.

Update: Here’s part 2 of the NY Times “100 things” list, along with my comments.

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How are you getting them back into the fold?

I can see fine without windows
Creative Commons License photo credit: Blyzz

A number of vendors that I used to do business with waste my time and theirs with their lame, cookie cutter attempts to get me to renew a subscription, update my software or renew some other sort of thing I use to have.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that they made the effort, but the effort made is usually so weak that it makes whatever is left of the relationship even weaker.

Sometimes I’m not interested anymore and I unsubscribe. Other times I just hit delete because for whatever reason, I’m just not ready to unsubscribe. I may be planning to buy sometime in the future, but not just yet…

One of the vendors who emails me like clockwork does so once a month to remind me that my subscription to their data, software and newsletter has lapsed. Sure, those emails are automated, but I don’t mind because 1) I’ve done business with them and 2) they don’t nag the crap out of me. I can depend on a single monthly email.

Keep in mind that these emails don’t LOOK automated, but I know they are. They look and are written like someone actually cared about what the email says – and that makes all the difference.

A Surprise

But today was different. Better.

I received this email from

Hi Mark,

It can sometimes be challenging to find a graceful way to give a gift. These days many people are suspicious or cynical. They’ve been jaded by so many nefarious schemes with hidden agendas. But in spite of all that, I am going to try to give you something anyway …something that is truly valuable and doesn’t have any strings attached.

Here goes.

You, as a past subscriber of Planet Ocean’s, raised your hand as someone with interest in ranking at the top of the Search Engines. I can only guess that you may still be interested. And assuming that you are, I am giving you a full and free membership to for the rest of the year — complete access through December 31st, 2009.

This gift is without strings or restrictions. It is simply a gift. You may download the most recent UnFair Advantage Book, gain access to all of the articles and expert reports, peruse the archives, use each and every one of the resources and test your site against your competitor’s by running it through our amazing tool, the Site Strength Indicator.

Now I hear you asking “why.”

We’ll it isn’t because we are desperate for members. On the contrary, ever since 1996, Planet Ocean has had a better year than the previous one — And this year is no exception. Our membership revenues have never been higher. 2009 has blessed us with our best year…in spite of all the so-called economic doom and gloom in the news lately.

I’m not bragging–exactly the opposite. I am humbled by our success and proud of our Planet Ocean people who have worked together to succeed in the face of challenge and adversity.

But most of all, I am thankful for having had you as a subscriber. And, this is a chance for me to give *you* something that is affordable for us and *could easily be more valuable than money* to you during what many are predicting to be a continuation of the challenges being faced all over the economic landscape.

Personally, I feel energized by the opportunities upon us. My 57 years of life experience have taught me that, in good times, anybody can succeed. But when the industry turns challenging, those of us with the best attitude, resources and information become the eagles who literally soar above the turmoil.

Hopefully you are already soaring like an eagle. And if not yet, then please allow me to put a little wind under your wings by gifting you with our researched information for ranking your business at the top. No strings attached, here is your login information for the October 09 issue of

(login and link left out)

Again – Thank you,

Stephen Mahaney – CEO/Founder
Planet Ocean
75-1027 Henry St. 111A #301 · Kailua-Kona HI 96740-3154
800-334-5662, 808-329-5700

Yeah, it’s kinda long (and it was formatted narrower since it was an email – just in case you were wondering), but it is a really smart email. Why?

First – His product doesn’t have an incremental cost, so it doesn’t matter if he gives it away to the *right people*. Giving it away to just anyone would be a waste of time and server resources. Giving it away for a short time to lapsed customers who already are familiar with the product and saw enough value to subscribe in the past is absolutely the right thing to do. No selling needed. Just lay the fly on the water, right out there in front of his nose and let Mr. Rainbow take a look at it. If there’s no trout there, what’s the point?

Second – He isn’t getting my subscription $ right now anyhow, so (thanks to the lack of incremental cost) he isn’t losing anything by giving me 70 days of his product. That presumably will give me a chance to check it out again and remember how much I got out of it before my subscription lapsed, was forgotten or whatever the situation was.

Third – Rather than just saying “Hey, we want you back cuz we *really* miss your money, here’s a bribe”, he provides the “Reason Why”. He tells a story about what provoked him to do this, weaves in the state of the economy, and it all makes sense.

Your turn

What are you doing to get your lapsed customers back into the fold?

If you’re a retailer, did you lose them after a return? I know darned well you have the point of sale data there to figure that out. Get it out and crunch it. Find out which customers haven’t been back since they asked for a refund, exchange, return or what not. Did they fail to return intentionally because their last experience was about as pleasant as a spoonful of cold bacon grease?

If you run a restaurant, did you lose them after a party booking? Or a regular visit? Your loyalty program data should be able to tell you when they last visited and your point of sale data will tell you what they last bought. Don’t have a loyalty program? All your point of sale data is on little order pads? Do I really have to go there?

If you sell a service, you should be able to figure out from your point of sale data what they last had serviced (or what service they bought). Same question re: loyalty program and point of sale data.

No matter what you do, you should be able to identify the lapsed customers.

With that in hand, how will you get their attention and show them the value they’re missing out on?

Either Stephen figured it out, or had someone help him do it. Doesn’t matter which way as long as it got done.

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Don’t miss a chance to connect

Today’s guest post from Jeff over at has great timing, as I’ve discussed this very topic with two different clients in the last two days.

I love it when I can find someone else to do the nagging for me (as he laughs maniacally).

Seriously, Jeff’s talking about making sure that there’s an opportunity to tell your clients that they can connect with you via Twitter, Facebook etc by making it obvious to them that you even *exist* there to begin with.

Simple, obvious, yet easy to overlook. I just thought of one prominent place where I’m not doing exactly that.

See, it isn’t just you.

Go see Jeff’s take on the subject.