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A pitcher of Diet Coke, 250 humid yards and a sippy cup

One of the things that restaurants put tons of effort and money into is creating an experience for their patrons that makes people tell their friends.

No, it isn’t just the food. In many cases, it isn’t the food at all. Of course, others concentrate solely on the food.

Despite all that effort and expense, little things can transform an experience into something that will have you telling friends and family – or perhaps, writing about as I am.

Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads

Eleven of us sat down to dinner on the lake last night at White River Fish House in Branson. We barely made it in the door before they stopped seating at 8 p.m. Branson is not Las Vegas as far as timetables are concerned.

It would have been easy for our waitress to go through the motions serving a big group who walked in as the last seating of the day on a Sunday. Large groups mean a guaranteed 18% tip in most restaurants. Unless her service merited a complaint, she’d walk away with a decent sized tip from a group this big.

At first I just wasn’t sure, but little things started giving away that Lorraine had her game face on.

When she got to me and asked for a drink order, I was ready. After a long three days at Silver Dollar City, on the lake and a sweltering, humid midday round of golf, I still felt dehydrated and was very thirsty.

When she asked for my drink order, I was still standing while helping clean up a 7 year old’s spilled lemonade.

I held my hands above each other about 2 feet apart and asked Lorraine for a Diet Coke “about this big”.  She replied “We only have one size” and I thought she had missed her chance to do one of those little things, or be funny or something.

I was wrong.

When Lorraine brought the drinks, she brought me two.

When she brought refills, she brought me two.

Smart. Not only was she thinking about my request, but she was saving trips to the drink station and thus increasing the speed that other things happened. I never had to ask for a refill, which is how it should be.

After the 3rd cup of Diet Coke was gone (I *said* I was thirsty), she brought a pitcher and put a straw in it.

She never said a word about any of this, it just happened and these things just appeared in front of me – often without me noticing until a moment later.

Everyone around me got a kick out of it, and I appreciated the special care – even for this little tiny thing like a drink.

Later, the food came (I had the catfish, which was very lightly breaded, not deep fried and darned tasty) and before too long, we finished up our meal.

Lasers (Note: Say that with your “Doctor Evil voice”)

We didn’t spend a pile of time in the “after-meal” because there’s a laser show in a fountain in the complex near the restaurant – something all the kids wanted to check out.

With that in mind, the tab was paid and out the door we went. I suspect the restaurant staff hustled to close up so they could go home after a long, hot weekend.

About 250 yards down the plaza at the laser show location, Lorraine comes walking up out of the darkness staged around the laser show area.

She’s holding a sippy cup. The little 2 year old had dropped it under the table and we had left without noticing it.

At the end of her shift after a long, hot, busy weekend, at a time when most would have been focused on counting their tips, closing out their register and heading for home, Lorraine remembered that we mentioned the laser show and walked the 250 yards each way on a warm, humid evening just to find us and deliver a 2 year old’s sippy cup.

Her thoughtful, extra effort made an impression on the entire group that will no doubt be repeated elsewhere as well as written about here.

It was just a generic two-dollar sippy cup that the little guy wouldn’t have missed, but like those famous Mastercard ads, she made it priceless.

What’s your staff doing to make your clientele’s experience priceless?

How do you determine which applicants are the ones with the “stuff” to do the little things?

It matters, now more than ever.

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Let them show some appreciation

Sweet Child O Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: ssh

How do you allow your customers to show their appreciation for friends, clients, family members or someone in the community who did something helpful?

For example, there’s this cool retired lady in my town who runs the Chamber of Commerce. Everyone calls her “the Chamber Mom”. I think you can visualize the nurturing role she plays for our Chamber just from that description.

You could show appreciation for her hard work or (for someone like her) by giving her lunch for two at a local restaurant, or even coffee for 2 at a local coffee shop.

So…exactly how easy is it for your customers to do just that?

Do you have a lunch for two gift card ready to sell, with no frustrating wait for swiping the card, adding value to it and so on? IE: an impulse buy when someone is thinking of someone they’d like to show appreciation for.

You’ve seen these before. Big retail uses them. Even phone cards come in “sizes”.

And why exactly haven’t you taken the gift (ie: the idea) these businesses have given you and turned it into your own?

I don’t know either.

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Obama’s Pizza War : Get your piece of the pie

Prosciutto, anchovy and onion pizza.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gio JL

The President is hosting a group for dinner at the White House this weekend and pizza is on the menu.

That alone should have you thinking about opportunities to use the news -  if you’re in the pizza or catering business.

But then, it got turned up a notch when Obama chose St. Louis pizza for the dinner rather than pizza from his adopted hometown of Chicago.

And that gave you yet another opportunity. If you’re in Chicago, NY or St. Louis, there are lots of opportunities to use this since those cities all claim to have the best pizza.

With the choice of St. Louis’ Pi pizza to cater the dinner, it just adds to the opportunity.

In fact, even if you have a pizza joint in Ft Benton Montana (population 1459, saaaaa-lute), there’s a ready-made opportunity that just got tossed your way like a thin crust pizza (noting that St Louis-based IMO’s wasn’t invited).

There is always opportunity for those paying attention.

How can you use this while the story is still hot?

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The Dow fell, let’s go out to eat!

Sorry to interrupt your regularly scheduled Bokeh Wednesday, but it's time to return to the Apocalypse
Creative Commons License photo credit: nosha

After dropping my son off at school at 5:30am (he is heading to Great Falls for the state basketball tournament), I turned on NPR on the ride home and heard a story about a Seattle restaurant whose daily special is priced based on the closing level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

For example, if the Dow closes at 7523, then the restaurant’s special that night is priced at $7.52.

If you listen to the story, you’ll find what you might expect: that people are buying the special (which is in limited quantities) because of the price.

What you might not have expected is that the same people who come in for the low price are also adding high-profit-margin items to their meal, like alcohol and desserts.

The owner sounds a little concerned about the price of the Dow, which is down 1000 points since he started the promotion, yet he continues the special. That tells me that the special is still profitable.

Not only did it not cost him large amounts of advertising money, but it turned a profit AND generated a ton of free publicity via National Public Radio.

So, how can you be creative and use the news today?

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Warm chocolate chip cookies and the big difference between you and them


Almost every day, I stumble upon someone looking for a way to differentiate their business from their competitors’.

Far too often, they try to compete almost solely on price.

Since I’ve beat the dont-compete-solely-on-price drum in the past (eg: all those WalMart posts), so today we’re going to take a different tack.

Is it the steak or the sizzle? Or maybe something else?

Ever been to Sizzler, Western Sizzlin’ or Ryan’s Steak House?

Likewise, have you been to Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Charley’s, Shula’s or Chicago Chop House?

Which would you prefer if you had a coupon for a free meal, or if someone else was buying?

My money is on Charley’s (followed very closely by Ruth’s) – though I have to admit I haven’t made it to Shula’s as yet.

Why? Because everything about the place is simply amazing. The steak, the experience, the service, and so on.

One of the best moments I’ve had with my dad was after a photography trade show (yeah, back in the software company days), where we found ourselves sitting at the bar in Charley’s near the Tampa airport.

If you eat at the bar (almost no one seems to), you get to watch the chefs fire the steak – away from the quiet luxury of the dining room – and you still get incredible service, quite possibly more attentive than the service in the dining room if that’s possible.

What about retail?

Over the last several months, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the CPSIA situation.

Despite widespread knowledge of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act by some store owners, I see very few of them using it as a competitive advantage.

Maybe they’ve been too busy spending time trying to get their Congressional reps/Senators to change the bill. OK, maybe that’s a reason, but it isn’t an excuse. You know the difference, right?

Here’s an example: If you have a newborn and you walk into an upscale handmade baby clothing store and see a sign that says “All of our fashions for babies are tested and certified safe according to the CPSIA”, isn’t it obvious that it plants a seed in the mind of the persnickety shopper?

IE: “Shouldn’t everyone’s stuff be tested and certified safe?” Hmmm. Remember, in a store like that – the persnickety shopper is absolutely the one you *want* in your store.

If you wanted to get really aggressive about it, add “…Do the other stores you frequent care as much about your baby’s safety as we do? Ask them about the CPSIA and their testing and safety certification of the fashions they offer for your child.”

Fresh from the oven

If you have a choice, do you want warm, soft chocolate chip cookies made from scratch that are fresh out of Grandma’s oven, or do you want generic store-brand “chocolate” chip cookies that you know might have been baked a month ago?

I’d bet that you’d prefer the warm cookies from Grandma’s oven.

What about your business, product and service can create a chasm that wide, making it *that* easy to make a decision between your product/service and theirs?

Make a point of focusing on it. Educate your clientele to call attention to it so that they expect exactly what you do/sell if they find themselves elsewhere. You want to be the standard that everyone else has to meet.

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What to know before selling gift cards in your business

As gift giving season ramps up, retailers and others who haven’t sold gift cards in the past start asking questions. I always see a bump in visitors searching for that info during this time of year so I thought I’d include a primer for business owners looking into selling gift cards (though it is a little late to be considering it for this year’s Christmas shopping season).

Before you start selling gift cards ( sometimes called stored value cards ) in your business, it’s important that you understand the difference between the types of cards that are available. Knowing these things will allow you to decide which type of card is best for your business.

First, let’s look at the 3 different types of gift cards.

Private label / store-only gift cards

Usage: A private label (or store-only) gift card is a card that works only in your store(s). An example of this would be a Best Buy gift card or a Barnes and Noble gift card. You can’t use a Best Buy gift card at Wal-Mart, nor can you use a Barnes and Noble gift card at Borders.

Point of sale: Typically, your point of sale (POS) system has to be setup specifically to handle these cards, both when selling the gift card (and storing value on your POS system), as well as when using it for payment. Ask your point of sale vendor if they have this sort of functionality before you order thousands of cards. If they don’t, you’ll either need to use a network card (see below) or get a different POS system. The big advantage to these cards is that your only cost is the card itself (assuming your point of sale system handles private label cards).

Authorization: No credit card network is used to authorize these purchases. That means that your point of sale system must provide all the functionality to let you register and activate the cards, store value on them, properly account for the sale and the unspent stored value, pay for purchases, and deal with lost and stolen cards.

The benefits of all that extra work are not having to pay for the network fees for purchases made with gift cards and knowing that your customer will have to spend their gift card at your business rather than anywhere and everywhere.

The nice thing about store-only cards is that you can typically have complete control how the program works. Like all the other types of gift cards, you can sell gift cards online via your website and in your retail location.

TIP: If you order this type of card and your point of sale is capable of processing them like any other credit card, I strongly suggest ordering cards whose number starts with 1, 2, 7, 8 or 9. Reason: American Express card numbers start with 3, Visa cards start with 4, Mastercards start with 5 and Discover cards start with 6. Don’t start the card numbers with zero, you’ll just find it annoys your point of sale and probably your staff as well.

Private network gift cards

Usage: A private network gift card is one that (sometimes) works using the regular credit card network, but there are some that don’t. I suggest you avoid those so that you don’t have to deal with additional point of sale hardware, possible manual transcription errors (moving info from the terminal to the POS system), and related issues. Normally these cards work similarly to private label / store-only gift cards, specifically that they can only be used within the specific store(s)  that put the card system together.

Point of sale: Most private network cards use the regular merchant account authorization systems, so your point of sale system shouldn’t have to be changed assuming that you already use it to accept credit cards or debit cards.

Authorization: The big difference between these cards and the private network store-only cards we spoke of a few minutes ago is that these cards are authorized over the regular credit card network (such as Nova’s). It’s not unusual to find resort areas, small towns and shopping malls that offer these types of cards and set them up so they are only authorized for use in those areas. These cards aren’t as popular as they used to be, because of the growth of credit card network gift cards, which I’ll cover next.

Credit card network gift cards

Usage: These cards act just like a regular credit card except that the spending limit is the amount of value stored “in” the card. The value really isn’t stored in the card of course, it’s stored on a computer system at the card issuer (eg: Mastercard, Visa, Discover or American Express). These are the same gift cards you can purchase at any bank.

Authorization: The same credit card authorization network that you use with regular credit and debit cards is used to authorize purchases using this type of gift card.

Point of sale: One substantial upside to these cards is that they can be used in any existing point of sale system or credit card sales terminal. Many of these act as debit cards, though I have found that these cards do not always work at gas stations, particularly 24×7 unattended gas pumps.

Designing your cards

Typically you can get these custom printed with the image of your choice. Don’t scrimp on the effort you put into making your cards look great. A couple of hundred bucks spent on a skilled designer will go a LONG way toward making your cards sell, as attractive gift cards sell much better. Maybe it doesn’t make all that much sense, but a card that fits the image of your business will simply sell better. If the products you sell are visual, you definitely want to make sure your cards show off your product.

Optional features of gift cards
Some options to consider (again, talk to your point of sale vendor):  a printed barcode (which will scan via your point of sale terminal), with a magnetic stripe, or both a stripe and a barcode. You can also get a unique card serial number printed on the back, or embossed into the card like a regular credit card. Credit card network gift cards don’t typically offer these options – you get what you get, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re already integrated into your POS system.

RELATED TOPIC: Why should a small business sell gift cards?

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I know what you look like

This morning, someone emailed me to confirm an appointment to meet me at a local coffee shop. One of the comments they made when we were making arrangements to meet was “I know what you look like.”

The great thing about that is that we’ll avoid the clumsy “stumbling about looking like you’re lost” thing that happens when you arrive at a public place to meet someone and don’t have a clue what they look like.

It’s one of many reasons why my photo is on this blog, on my printed newsletter, on my personal site, and on my newspaper column.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” only when relatives stay too long:)

In business, familiarity is essential.

Repeatedly, I’ve noticed the looks that business owners get when I step up to the register, counter, etc. They may not know exactly who I am, but I look familiar – which puts me one step ahead of the face they don’t know from Adam.

This is true regardless of whether I want their business, or I simply want to be treated a little better in their store or restaurant.

To my clients and prospects, it’s super critical for keeping me at the “top of their consciousness” when they are thinking about the needs they have that are related to services and products I offer.

You should be doing the same thing. If you have an “about us” on your business cards, brochures, literature, on the wall of your store/restaurant, or website, you should include a picture of yourself, staff, family – whatever seems appropriate.

If you use social media tools like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, having your picture there is equally important for the same reasons.

People don’t care if you look like a movie star, but they do care about seeing a friendly, familiar face.

You want people to associate you with your product. Humans are very visual people. How many times have you heard (or said) “I remember the face but can’t recall their name”?

You can’t even count the number of times, even if you use every remember-the-lady’s-name scheme ever invented.

Familiarity… top of consciousness is what helps put you a little farther in front of those other folks.

Isn’t that where you want to be?

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What can you learn from a business disaster?

Last week, while I was being a slacker (I was canoeing 50 miles or so around Hungry Horse Reservoir with the troop’s older guys), a friend’s restaurant was struck by lightning.

His business wasn’t physically destroyed, but it did take a pretty serious punch from smoke and water damage. Amazingly, the water damage came from a melted pipe that actually put out the fire and prevented the entire facility from burning to the ground.

Since that Sunday, his restaurant has been closed. Imagine having to close your business with zero notice for 10 days to 2 weeks during the summer – despite having a pile of catering work already scheduled.

Not ideal by anyone’s standards.

I spoke with him yesterday to ask what lessons he would take away from this.

The #1 thing that he felt he would do differently, knowing what he knows now, is to raise the value of his business interruption/overhead coverage so that he could make payroll despite being (mostly) closed and restock all perishable foods (think about what it would cost to restock an empty pantry or fridge…).

He felt confident that his facilities insurance and other coverages were in good shape and would probably take care of cleanup and build out of the damaged areas.

Because he does a lot of catering, he’s had to scramble around to friends who own restaurants or have certified kitchens, and has managed to keep that part of the business alive.

We also brainstormed a little about what to do to move forward and prevent the loss of retail, walk-in customers.

A traditional approach would require cleanup (already in progress), build-out, kitchen recertification and so on.  That could take months. In months, all those retail customers are going to already be in the habit of going somewhere else.

So how do you save them?

We’ll talk about that in coming posts, and lessons business owners have learned from other business disasters as well as strategies for keeping those customers and making sure everyone knows you aren’t going down with one punch.

One thing you should expect right off the bat – if you aren’t collecting the names and contact info for your customers – how will you tell them that you’re still open?

Could you contact your customers tomorrow and tell them that the fire wasn’t that bad and you’ll be back in the saddle in no time?

His loyalty/reward program is one way that will help him do just that. Do you have one in place?

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“Nothing can be done about it.” Phooey.

One of the readers of my newspaper column owns a bar/restaurant.

Recently she told me that one of her bartenders accidentally rang in a $6 charge twice on a debit charge card.

They found the mistake the next day and corrected it by reimbursing the $6 to the customer.

The customer called back and said she had a problem.

Her debit card bank, US Bank in Boise, charged her $160.50 because her debit card (due to the bartender’s error) went over by $2.00.

The owner called the bank there because he found it difficult to believe the customer’s claim of the amount she was charged. The bank verified the fee and said “nothing can be done about it”.

What the bank employee’s “nothing can be done about it” comment really means is likely one of two things:

Either a not-too-customer-centric “I don’t want to do anything about it.” or “My boss won’t let me do anything about it.”

Not wise, but not unusual depending on the management involved.

Of course, my friend the bar/restaurant owner reimbursed her for the $160.50 bank charge.

But she was curious, so she called her business bank here in Montana to discuss their procedures.

She was told that at $27 per overdraft charge, it can add up as far as the computer system shows. However, if the customer were to call (as the bar/restaurant customer did, and as the bar/restaurant owner did)) and explain the errors (restaurant wrongfully double charging, and only $2.00 over her limit) the bank would waive those fees.

I’ve had experiences with this same bank where checks were accidentally written on a closed account. Once the check amounts were paid, the fees were refunded.

In other words, they have a policy (a good thing), and they have some automation in place (usually a good thing) but they also have a human side as well.

A very good thing.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong policies in place. And there’s nothing wrong with using automation to help run your business (I’m the last one you’d find telling you not to automate), but you should always leave room for the personal touch.

There are some businesses that realize this and make a point of empowering their people to make a decision that is right for the company and the customer.

Yours should be one of those.

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Sticking a fork in restaurant websites

Though I haven’t mentioned it here in a while, my series of columns in the Flathead Beacon about local websites has continued over the last couple weeks. It’s on topic here as well, so let’s elaborate on it a bit further than I have space for in the Beacon.

Next week’s column takes a look at local restaurant websites in my area.

One thing stands out here, and thatâ??s the chains. Most all of the franchise restaurant chains have corporate-managed websites that are well done. But weâ??re not here to help them â?? they have plenty of help already.

What you can do is look to them to see what to consider when putting your web site together. Things like menus, a map to your location (pleaseâ?¦), whether or not you do catering, what meals you serve (ie: do you serve breakfast and lunch only?)

One example was a restaurant between Columbia Falls and Kalispell that I happen to like. Their site is simple, isnâ??t much eye candy-wise, but it touched on the essentials for a 3 or 4 page restaurant website.

It talked about their location (included a graphical map), their phone number, their address, their catering info (could have been more complete), their hours, which credit cards they take and the facilities they offered. This site could easily be completed in an afternoon. No, itâ??s not as fancy or as complete as it could be but it is what is absolutely necessary.

Slow cooked Angus sirloin, local asparagus, truffle butter sauce
photo credit: irrational_cat

They didn’t bother to go into great detail on the food, the special ingredients they fly in from coastal fisheries, their use of local game, organic local vegetables, custom processed meats and local seasonings, the romance of their massive fireplace area, the expertly trained staff, the menu, special occasion bookings, private dining rooms, banquet and special occasion services, their expert sommelier (not sure if they have one), the chef and his/her training and experience, and so on (those are all hints, if Iâ??m not being obvious enough).

No testimonials. No photos. No video. Cooking is an experiential thing. Video and photos are critical.

Butâ?¦their site achieved an important goal: to provide basic information needed to contact them and go there for a meal.

The unfortunate thing is that many local restaurants had no site at all, and that included those who also offer catering.

Iâ??ve gotten some good feedback from previous posts on this topic, including a great phone call from a reader in Kalispell whose input I will include in a later post on the subject.

Someone told me they felt that not all businesses need a website. Sorry, but I have to disagree.

Even if all you do is put up a one page site with your location, hours and a map, that is far better than nothing. You wouldnâ??t likely open a business and not have a phone. You wouldnâ??t skip on printing menus in your restaurant. If youâ??re a consultant, attorney, CPA or other service professional, you wouldnâ??t blow off printing business cards.

Not having even a one page website is equivalent to not having a phone or a business card.

Even if your business is busy and doesnâ??t need more work right now, you need a website. Everything has ups and downs. The time to dig the well is before youâ??re thirsty.

See all those kids running around with cell phones? They wouldnâ??t use the Yellow Pages unless you forced it on them. It wonâ??t be long before they are your 18-35 demographic group.

If you donâ??t have a website, to that group of people, you donâ??t exist.

Kids these days know that they can text â??59937 mexicanâ? to 466453 (ie: G-o-o-g-l-e on your phone’s dial pad) from their cell phone and get back a list of Mexican restaurants in Whitefish Montana with their phone numbers.

Le digo yo
photo credit: fluzo

Did you know about that? This feature isnâ??t limited to searching for restaurants. Where do you think that data comes from? A Google search, of course.

But it isnâ??t just the young adults who use the web these days.

One of the phone calls I received about websites was from a self-proclaimed â??older personâ?. She had some great feedback about what is important to make a site usable for people who arenâ??t 29 anymore. She doesnâ??t want to be ignored when she uses the web. Neither do the 18-35 or 25-55 groups.

What demographic can you afford to ignore? Most businesses canâ??t afford to ignore any of them, but there are exceptions. Not having a website is ignoring at least one, maybe more â?? especially tourists. They research what they plan to do using the internet.

Do you want to be on their radar, or not?