Monday, September 30, 2013

Resistance to Parasitic Change

In a case-study I was reading on scientific management, it was mentioned in passing that the cost-savings of an efficiency improvement was split three ways: a third of the cost-savings was kept by the company as profit, a third was returned to the workers in increased wages, and a third was passed on to the customer as a price reduction.   It dawned on me that this is not at all the typical arrangement in the current age.

In the current day, virtually all of the cost-savings are pocketed by the company, and the workers and customers are offered no reward for having made the change to the company's benefit.   And I say "virtually all" as a concession to the few and rare occasions in which this might occur - though no example comes readily to mind.

With this in mind, the reason that customers and employees are so resistant to change is that there's nothing in it for them.   In their various roles, people are generally motivated to take action when they perceive a benefit to themselves.  That's not to say individuals are entirely self-serving - as people some some willingness to accept inconvenience and individual effort for the benefit of others - but when the relationship becomes entirely parasitic, with one party constantly demanding accommodations from another for its own benefit while offering nothing in return, even the most charitable individual becomes irritated and disinterested in continuing to be fed upon my an ever-hungry mouth.

People are most sorely neglected in their role as employees, constantly demanded to make changes to their working patterns without compensation because the arrangement will be better for the company.   The word "bonus" is like the word "bigfoot" - a creature allegedly seen by someone else - and salary increases have for over two decades lagged well behind the rate of consumer price inflation.  And yet, corporations speak highly of their "productivity," dollars in revenue per dollar in expense, and take pride in claiming for themselves a greater and greater share of the revenues that employees create.

On the consumer side, customers have experienced steadily diminishing quality of product and service, all in the name of keeping prices low - but there seldom if ever is a return to the customer for accepting less.   The supermarket is a prime example: you cannot find a pint-sized can of anything, as the original 16 ounces was reduced to 14 or 12.5 and customers are being asked to perform the duties of a checkout clerk, scanning and bagging their own purchases.  The cost-savings is not passed along, and the reply that prices are not being increased has been so overused that it is no longer fooling anyone.

It occurs to me that this likely sounds like the ranting of a socialist, but there is some thread of truth that cannot be denied: companies want for themselves ever-increasing profits, and rare is the firm that sets as a goal to keep profits steady, or even accept a small decrease, for the sake of taking better care of their employees or customers.   It is entirely a one-sided relationship - so if customers and employees seem fed up, their reaction is entirely understandable.

And it is likely for this reason that the scientific revolution in management has failed entirely to accomplish its goal of a better and more productive society for all - in that one group have hoarded the rewards of change and improvement to themselves, and the other two groups have largely lost interest in accepting changes and compromises that offer them no benefit, but are entirely parasitic.  There are some broader cultural implications to be considered - the manner in which this sort of parasitism has degraded society in a broader sense - but that is likely a separate topic.

And likely the only way to end this meditation on a positive note is to observe that, in some regards, competition in the marketplace is nudging the relationship back toward a more healthy and sustainable balance, at least insofar as consumers are concerned - as it is becoming necessary for firms that wish to be competitive to consider the customer's experience and their perception of value in the relationship. In terms of the relationship between firms and employees, that will likely remain much neglected while unemployment statistics are unfavorable and employees are disempowered to negotiate for a fair share - but this too is likely to change over time, as it has in the past when there was a greater demand than supply of labor.  Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the pendulum will ever come to rest.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

One Hundred Books

I’ve recently completed a goal I set for myself about four years ago: to read one hundred books on topics related to my profession: design and usability, social media, mobile, web analytics, marketing, leadership, project management, strategy, economics, and various other topics.   They’re annotated on my personal web site, as my intention was to study these topics closely rather than read at leisure.

I’ve mixed feelings on the completion of this goal: I read a lot of very good books and a few fairly bad ones, and spent a great deal of time meditating on some of the perspectives I’ve encountered.    In a way, it feels a lot like graduating from an academic program, with a wan sense of pride in the accomplishment but knowing that it’s all been preparation for something I can’t quite conceive.   I waver between the sense of having accomplished something quite significant, and the sense that I have wasted quite a lot of time.

Perhaps that’s just melodrama grown of intellectual exhaustion – it really has been a long slog, and along the way I’ve amassed a reading list of additional topics I’d like to study that were not closely enough related to my primary goal to invest the time.   The more you learn, the more you realize there is still to be learned, and perhaps that’s the reason for the melancholy state in which I find myself at this moment.

At yet, I remain faithful to the pursuit of knowledge – anything you learn, even if it is of no immediate practical use, enriches your intellect and renders you capable of understanding things that leave others dumbfounded.   Thought it is with some sense of irony that the knowledge I have gained leaves me dumbstruck at the complete lack of its evidence in the world, such as it is.

All of this is likely a very odd way of bragging about an accomplishment, yet rather than feeling like I have climbed a hill, I instead feel as if I have climbed to the place I imagined to be the top of a hill only to find myself at the foot of a mountain.   It’s a very strange thing and I’m not sure if I quite like it .

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Infomercial Sales Tactics

This past weekend, I settled into one of my periodic bouts of melancholy and ennui and did what I suspect quite a few people do when they find themselves in the doldrums - deposited myself on the couch and watched mind-numbing junk on television for a couple of hours until disgust and self-loathing prompted me to find something else to do with my time (i.e., housework). In particular, I watched a series of infomercials for products I am wholly uninterested in buying and have a difficult time understanding why anyone would - while that kind of thing is candy to my inner cynic, it is also interesting to study the sales patter to understand how hammy sales tactics are intended to work.

The old-school hard selling tactics are contrived and obvious, following a four-step process:
  1. Tell the mark that they have a problem
  2. Show the mark how your product solves this alleged problem
  3. Convince the mark that your product is cheap and easy to obtain
  4. Usher the mark to the register 
In a commercial or infomercial, this sequence is repeated multiple times.   One of the infomercials I watched managed to do this seventeen times in thirty minutes - which is impressive, but hardly the theoretical maximum: I've seen thirty-second spots that run the process twice, so in theory a half-hour infomercial could repeat the sequence 120 times.

My sense is that once is likely enough - or more aptly, 0.25 times is likely enough for most prospects, because they can likely determine whether they are interested at the end of the first step: do you have trouble getting grass stains out of your umbrella?  Do you spend hour after tedious hour peeling hard-boiled eggs the old fashioned way?  Do you have trouble figuring out how to use a blanket?   If the answer is "no," everything else that follows isn't worth your time or attention.

As an aside, I have the sense that this is where the specious claims about the dwindling attention span of the American public comes from - the reason we tune out after seven seconds is we have already decided that it's not worth paying attention to the rest.  It's not a matter of diminishing capacity to pay attention, but improving abilities to decide whether it's worthwhile to pay attention to filter out the clutter in our environments.   But that's a different rant entirely.

What I was most stricken by is that even softer and more sophisticated sales tactics also fail at the first hurdle: they begin by assuming that the prospect has a given problem  and if they do not, then they stop paying attention: they ignore the sales patter, toss the direct mail piece in the trash unopened, or simply do not give attention to anything online that seems to have the appearance of being an advertisement.

This leads directly to the conclusion that advertising needs to be better targeted in order to be effective.   But even that is assumptive - in that it presumes that anyone at all would be interested in the product that is being sold ... that somewhere out there, there are a sufficient number of people who are mortified by the grass stains on their umbrellas, struggling to peel a crate hard-boiled eggs, and can't figure out how a blanket works.

It likely doesn't help my argument that some of them are entirely right about that, as products that solve these ridiculous problems sell by the millions and make their inventors very wealthy indeed.   But I would posit that these are the exceptional cases rather than the typical and that, these exceptions aside, the problem of selling in general is less to do with the tactics than the presumption of the needs of the prospect.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Customer Interaction Styles

I blanch at the way in which customers are stereotyped by vendors - particularly in this recent fad of "personas" that attempt to give the firm a better sense of the kinds of characters it is dealing with, but which are ultimately based on a one-sided set of assumptions that observe customer behavior without much consideration of the reasons customers behave the way that they do.

The vendor-customer relationships is a relationship like any other: each party interacts with the other on the assumption of what they expect their values and motives to be - and this perception ideally rectifies itself over time as they observe how the other party actually is, rather than how they are assumed to be.   Thus considered, behavior is not indelible, but more importantly it is not irrational - people behave in specific ways because they feel it has been successful for them in the past, on the assumption that future interactions will follow the same pattern.

So while it's well and good to make assumptions about consumer behavior, it's also important to consider how that behavior arose - how customers came to be the way that they are - and to consider our own conduct in the relationship.  In our first encounter, they are the way they are because of previous experience with other vendors but in second and subsequent interactions, their behavior is a reaction to our own.

How Customers Are

I'll start by considering, in a general sense, the way that customers behave in an encounter with a vendor.  It is, in essence, a relationship in which they need something they cannot furnish for themselves, and are looking to the vendor to provide it.   The way that customers are, at least at the first encounter, is a reflection of the way they have been treated in the past.

In a broad sense, they are collaborative, neutral, or hostile.  This is not a trinary switch, but a continuum - though I do have the sense that even "continuum" is not quite correct as it is the confluence of three different continuums:

  • Collaborative - The customer expects the vendor to be attentive to their needs and is amenable to being advised, believing that the vendor is trustworthy and will make suggestions that contribute to their welfare.
  • Neutral - The customer expects the vendor to be indifferent to their needs and is cautious about being advised, recognizing that the vendor has good intentions but, at the same time, is pursuing an agenda that may not be compatible to their personal welfare.
  • Hostile - The customer still expects the vendor to be indifferent to their needs but is resistant to being advised, recognizing that the  vendor is pursuing its own agenda that is contrary to their personal welfare.

The three key elements in each of these states are the vendor's attentiveness or indifference to the customer's needs, the objectives they presume the vendor to have, and the effect that the agreement or difference between the two has on the expectations of the customer. All of this derives from the basic consideration of whether the product on offer is really a solution to their needs.

In relation to customer behavior, the way in which they will interact with a vendor reflects their assessment of this relationship: a collaborative customer will be relatively easy to sell, a neutral one tougher, and a hostile one nearly impossible.   And again, this relationship will be level-set based on the customer's previous encounters with vendors who fit the archetype - when buying a car, the customer expects the vendor to act in the same manner, and with the same agenda, as the last vendor that sold them a car.

This is where assessing the customers' attitude toward the industry or product category is significant, as it is the starting point at which their expectations are set and upon which their behavior will be based.   Ideally, the vendor wishes to be approached tabula rasa so that the customer will judge the vendor on its own merits, without the negative baggage created by others - but this is inevitable.

How We Made Them That Way

The notion that customers "are the way they are" is ignoring how they came to be that way - and, too often, assuming that their style of interaction is going to remain consistent and there's nothing that vendors can do to change it.   This is not correct at all because both parties bear responsibility for the relationship - we made customers the way they are, and we can choose to accept, support, or change their general attitude toward us.

As mentioned, "we" begins in a vague and general sense of all marketers, or all markers in a given industry sector (as categorized in the customers' schema rather than our own) but slowly shifts to be appropriate to the individual relationship.   We can act to support their existing attitude, or we can act to adjust it.   Primarily, this results from the way in which a firm interacts with the customer:

  • Supportive - We can seek to understand and serve the needs of the customer, and serve them in the way they wish to be served
  • Indifferent - We can remain aloof from the customer, proffering our merchandise and expecting customers to undertake the effort to serve themselves
  • Parasitic - We can attempt to control the customers, indifferent to their needs but attentive to our own desire for profit

What I mean to imply here is that our behavior toward the customer shapes their behavior toward us.  A firm that is supportive encourages customers to be collaborative, one that is indifferent encourages them to be neutral, and one that is parasitic encourages them to be hostile.  The notion of encouragement is important, as it would be exceedingly ignorant or arrogant to assume our control is such that the customer will react a given way.

But encouragement is important in that it changes the nature of the relationship.  We have the ability to warm up a hostile customer by acting in a supportive manner.   We also have the ability, though we may often lack the interest, to change our own behavior in the relationship, such as when a collaborative customer voices a complain because they expected us to be supportive but found us to be indifferent.

And in that way, we shape the behavior of the customer - we inherit their attitude from the firms they have interacted with in the past, change their attitude during the course of our own interaction, and reset their assumptions for the next firm they will interact with.   We have the ability to do this for better or for worse.

This is not in the nature of an option we may choose to purse.  It is in the manner of a consequence we cannot avoid, not matter how hard we wish it were not so.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Persuading Customers When They Ignore Marketing

I've recently read a book on the topic of persuading customers who seem impervious to marketing - which is a bit misleading because the authors don't really reject the notion of marketing, but merely suggest a different approach to the practices of marketing.  While the logic is a bit specious and its assertions are entirely theoretical, backed by anecdotal evidence when any at all, there is among the flotsam a few good points that merit some consideration.

Primarily, the global marketplace has glutted customers with options for satisfying their needs, which is a significant change from previous eras in which there were relatively few suppliers to whom customers had access, and they were limited to choosing among the options available from retailers in their geographic location.  As consumers, we tend to take this for granted, and few people seem to remember the pre-Internet era in which local retailers had a stranglehold on supply, challenged only by the odd mail-order merchant who offered a few alternatives for those who were patient enough to wait six to eight weeks for delivery.

Another critical point is that the global marketplace is also glutted with information about options, and that the manufacturers are not the only source, nor the most reliable one.  Customers have a wealth of third-party information and regard the perspectives of those without a commercial motive to be more credible.   This, too, seems to be taken for granted, with few who recall the time when most product information was available from mass-media through paid advertisements and even the editorial content was written in fear of giving offense to potential advertisers.

The problem is that the principles of marketing hail from a bygone era: many brands do not seem to realize that there has been a radical transformation in the consumer markets, and continue playing by the old rules.   To the extent that none of their competitors has broken from the herd, this approach has remained successful - but in industries where a maverick firm has broken away, sizable firms have crumbled and more will continue to fall as they remain tethered to older ways of doing business with customers who are no longer required to tolerate it.

That perhaps sounds a bit general, and I don't often throw in with those who believe anything old is no longer applicable.   There are many theories of marketing from the previous era that remain viable, but some are clearly failing and will eventually fail completely, as will the brands that play by outdated rules in a game that has rapidly changed.

I don't think the authors of this particular book have the solution, but they do seem to at least be aware of the problems that will need to be solved - and that I do expect will be solved, though likely by entirely different providers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Experience Design as Competitive Advantage

Too often, the elements of design are regarded as decorative features: the value of the product is in its functional benefits and designers merely pick what color it should be painted to make it pretty.   Historically, companies could get away with considering design as a cosmetic trifle, but the nature of competition in the present day requires design to be taken far more seriously.

The Evolution of Competition

Many companies seem to acknowledge that the nature of competition is undergoing a significant change, but few seem to fully grasp the nature of this change and the consequences it will have.   In a historical context, we are on the verge of a the third significant shift.

The first shift occurred with the industrial revolution, when many products became available to markets for the first time.   There wasn’t very much competition to speak of.  Producers merely needed to find a need that was not being served and fashion a product to serve it, and the customer’s choice was to buy their product or do without (or more accurately, to continue doing for themselves, as people in that age were capable of getting along without the conveniences and luxuries that we presently consider to be necessary).

The second shift was more subtle.  It occurred in the mid-twentieth century, when multiple firms were providing very similar products.  Competition in this era required a firm to position its product as being better than the others that were available, but the customer’s choice was still essentially binary: to choose a product that had the features they most desired, or make do with one that wasn’t quite as good.   Or when there was no significant difference, "cheaper" became the means of competition.

The third shift is taking place right now.  And while it is on hiatus during the financial crisis that is dampening the world marketplace, it will return with renewed ferocity when that storm has passed.  In this competition, there is no longer a distinction between the products because the negotiation over features has been so thoroughly hashed out that most products are more or less identical and any differentiating feature that has appeal will be cloned quickly by competitors.  As such, competition has moved away from the product itself, and toward the experience of the consumer as a differentiating factor.

Experience as Both Benefit and Cost

The concept of experience is fairly new to most companies: they seem to recognize that the few firms that are evolving ahead of the rest are doing something different to win customer preference, but can't quite grasp what it is, or fathom the rationale behind it.  That is, they may have heard the word “experience” but have only a vague notion of what it means, and it doesn’t help that many of the firms that seem to be getting it right are doing such a haphazard job.

One of the factors that muddles the concept of “experience” is that it does not fall neatly onto one side or the other of the cost-benefit dichotomy, but entails components of both.   As such, firms that consider experience in terms of the benefit of a product overlook its application in terms of cost, and vice-versa.

The experience of a product is not synonymous to the benefit of using a product, though that is a major factor in overall satisfaction.   The benefit of using a product is generally objective and historical, insofar as it can readily be witnessed that the product did the job that was intended to do after using it, and commoditized products are more or less equal in their ability to satisfy the basic functional requirements of the buyer.   The experience of using a product is subjective, and it is more difficult to measure the degree to which the customer (and not the seller) feels that the product to have met their expectations and served their needs while causing them the least inconvenience possible.  The word "feel" is significant - it's not a quantifiable assessment of specific an observable things that the product did or failed to do, but a matter of the emotions that arose within the user, which is a very slippery matter.

In addition to the assessment of benefits, experience also pertains to the cost of acquiring and using a product, in terms of the difficulty of the acquisition process.   This is generally easier to recognize, as the online channel has made firms aware of user behavior on a very granular level – every click or keystroke can be logged and analyzed to determine where the user departed prematurely from an acquisition flow.

Unfortunately, this is a superficial, simplistic, and thoroughly incomplete means of assessing user experience: it fails to measure the difficulty of finding the product in the first place, fails to consider any task aside of the shopping and purchasing phase (the customer must also take delivery of the item and put it to use), and fails to consider the subjective impression of the user, assuming that if they got through the task at all, they are happy about it.

Experience: More Than Paint and Polish

This considered, the user’s experience of a given company’s product is a much broader and deeper concept than the cosmetic elements of the physical appearance – and unless the product is a fashion item that is conspicuously consumed, the customer may be entirely indifferent to the superficial elements of the product’s design.

And so to clarify, the competition over customer experience is not a beauty contest, and experience design is not limited to the superficial aspects of a product’s design: it pertains to subjective impression and intangible qualities – which makes it much more difficult to assess.   But given that it is becoming the sole means why which providers of commoditized products may compete for competitive advantage in the marketplace, the consideration of experience must be more than skin deep.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Online Communities: The Good, The Bad, and the Silent

I’ve been mulling over an observation that someone made in a discussion forum about community building, whose take was that there is an inverse relationship between a person’s desire to express their opinion and the value of the opinion they express.    I’d like to dismiss that as a pessimistic joke, but my sense is that it’s actually quite accurate.   Considering what I’ve seen in many forums over the course of the years, it does seem that uninformed people tend to talk quite a lot while those who have an informed perspective are reluctant to participate.

That’s just casual observation, and my sense is that it would be difficult to perform a reliable analysis of the phenomenon because it would require a great deal of data and some rather painstaking analysis to qualify whether each contribution was based on sound knowledge.   And it would also be impossible to truly account for the number of people who might have lent expertise to a conversation but chose not to participate.

So instead, I’ve decided to matrix a person’s willingness to participate in a conversation against their ability to contribute something worthwhile, and I do think that it corresponds to some of the behaviors I’ve witnessed, not only in online interactions, but in human interactions in general.

Lurkers (low desire, low expertise)

This group represents a discussion observers who rarely if ever participate.   They do not know enough to have an informed opinion, recognize their opinion is uninformed, and have the wisdom to remain silent and listen to the more informed.  The lurkers cannot be counted, but considering the number of people who view a discussion thread as opposed to the number of people who contribute, they are likely the majority of users who come to the feast but bring nothing to the table.

I wouldn’t go so far as to declare this group to be undesirable, even though their relationship is largely parasitic.   They will occasionally ask a question or probe someone to elaborate, and can be useful in keeping the conversation going.   Particularly in knowledge-sharing forums, a substantial number of participants who are hungry for knowledge is central to the mission of the group.  It could even be said that the main value of a discussion forum are the lurkers, as a group of experts posting things that everyone else in the group already knows is not doing anyone any good at all.

Neither does it seem like a particularly good idea to stimulate the lurkers into being more active in the group: their need for knowledge is something that they bring, and getting them to speak when they lack knowledge turns them into Disinformers.

Disinformers (high desire, low expertise)

The disinformers are the group that prompted the notion that people who know little enjoy talking much, but their contributions are of low value (and may even be detrimental) due to their lack of subject-matter expertise.  If you measure the success of a forum by the level of activity alone, they would seem to be a valuable audience – but given that they annoy others and that anyone who follows their guidance will likely come to regret it, they should likely be regarded as the least valuable audience a community might attract.

I can think of one potential benefit of having disinformers – and admittedly, this is quite a stretch: by offering bad information, a disinformer provokes a response from a participant who has genuine subject matter expertise but is reluctant to participate, who will feel the need to speak up in order to set the record straight.

Consultants (low desire, high expertise)

There are among the lurkers a number of people who do have a significant level of expertise and could be valuable contributors to the group, but who are for whatever reason reluctant to speak.   I liken them to consultants because they are only likely to contribute if they are compensated in some way – not necessarily with a monetary payment, but for esteem or recognition of their expertise.

Consultants represent an untapped potential in online communities, and it’s desirable to get them to join the conversation.  Aside of offering tokens of esteem such as badges of status or participation (which seems quite silly, but can be effective) or cajoling them into taking an active role of moderator, it seems difficult to get them to step out of the shadows.

Ambassadors (high desire, high expertise)

The most desirable participants for an online community – highly knowledgeable people who are generous with their knowledge and who are motivated by a desire to spread enthusiasm for the subject at hand.  This is the audience to pursue, develop, defend, and treasure as they are the value that lurkers seek in a community, and they tend to draw like-minded people to participate, fueling the growth of the community.

However, it does not follow that a community should seek to be solely composed of ambassadors – that leads to the problem described earlier, in which there is no-one in the group that genuinely needs to converse, such that a group of experts has no audience that could benefit from the information they wish to share because everyone to whom they are speaking is already aware of the facts they are sharing.

Caveat: Social Communities

It’s likely that the desirability of knowledgeable participants is particular to knowledge communities – in which the point of participation is to share and gain information germane to a practical skill, be it an occupational or leisure interest – and expertise is significantly less important in social communities, in which the topic of conversation is entirely frivolous.

It’s also likely that the demand for social communities is largely satisfied by the large general-interest communities of Facebook and Twitter, in which people interact with a purely social interest – as a convenient way to maintain contact with people they already know in their offline lives.  An engaging conversationalist in social communities doesn’t necessarily need to have anything of value to say, just the ability to make pleasant conversation, as no-one seems to want or expect anything practical.

At the same time there is a significant and underexploited market for specific professional and leisure interest.   Arguably, LinkedIn has attempted to provide forums for occupational conversation, but non-occupational interest groups seem to be disperse and difficult to locate.   Whether this is fertile ground for expansion or merely an idea that hasn't worked out at all is subject to some debate.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Customer Experience in the Culinary Industry

I read an excerpt from a book on culinary anthropology, specifically the evolution of the restaurant industry, that seemed to encapsulate the basic approaches to customer experience in general – or perhaps that’s what I paid attention to, given my own cognitive filters.  Whether it was intent or inference, it seemed worth a bit more meditation.

Choices in Cuisine

The author’s approach to categorizing cuisine (which is only one of several facets of the restaurant experience) considers the choices that restaurant operators made out of operational or competitive necessity, and seems to portray the contemporary restaurant scene as branches in evolution:

  • Home Cooking – Food prepared in the home is the basis for all cuisine, and the customers’ alternative to dining in restaurants.   In this genre, the home cook does as best as he can given the constraints of his skills and budget.   It is a moral imperative to provide food that is substantial, nutritious, and pleasant to consume when feeding one’s own family.
  • Utility Cooking – This involves food prepared for the masses.  Food is delivered to a large number of people and the focus is on adequacy, being merely “good enough” to pass for a meal with emphasis on time and cost efficiency that often take priority.  This includes not only cafeterias and mess halls, but also hospital and airline food service as well as “fast food” restaurants … and likely any other venue that is infamous for abysmal quality.   
  • Traditional Cuisine – Restaurants that attempt to mimic home cooking, which serve a substantive and flavorful meal but often compromise on nutrition, in which time and money still have some influence and a corresponding effect on degrading quality to varying degrees.   This includes most typical restaurants, and also includes many ethnic restaurants, which mimic “home cooking” of a different nation or culture.
  • Haute Cuisine – Restaurants that attempt to elevate the dining experience, by using high-quality ingredients and hiring talented chefs to prepare a meal that a home cook cannot general execute.   This form of cooking focuses more on the presentation and flavor than on the substantive or nutritional qualities, focusing on the pleasure of consumption rather than its functional effect in satisfying hunger or nutritional needs.
  • Non-Cuisine – A catchall category was suggested for restaurants that prioritize to non-culinary concerns.  Meals are prepared to suit religious practices (a Kosher or Halal restaurant), dietary restrictions (meals suitable for diabetics), or political sensitivities (a vegetarian or “organic” restaurant) – with the admission that they may fall into one of the other categories as a secondary priority (a Kosher restaurant may be utility, traditional, or haute)

I have the sense this could likely be picked apart a bit further – to consider each of the factors involved (substantial, nutritious, tasty, cheap, quick, and entertaining) – but my sense is that this original schematization is most germane to the analogy I’m not going to get back to: the choice of the level of customer service.

Choices in Customer Service

As the author described each of his categories, it occurred to me that it reflected a choice made by a business owner to provide a given level of customer service, and to serve different priorities.

A brief aside: I’d like to stress “different” because there is a tendency to consider the categorization in the nature of a hierarchy in which one is better than another – suggesting that all restaurants should aspire to the standards of haute cuisine as anything else is inferior.   I could not disagree more: there are many customers who prefer a utility meal to a fancy dinner, ad even those who enjoy fine dining on occasion have a more frequent need of a standard meal, so it’s just as valid a choice to serve their needs and interests such as they are.   There is no profit, and little point, in snobbery.

That said, I’ll ruminate a bit on how these culinary categories are reflected in terms of businesses and customer experience in general:

  • Do It Yourself (Home Cooking) – Businesses that support customers with equipment, supplies, and education that enable them to serve themselves.   This is likely the origin of all businesses, whose founders recognized that people will pay someone to do things they already do for themselves.  It is also the death of industries such as financial advice and travel agencies, as people have recognized that doing it themselves results in a better outcome, such that self-service investment and travel reservations have replaced full-service providers.
  • Discount Merchandisers (Utility Cooking) – Retailers that provide customers with something that is just barely adequate with a focus on cost and time efficiency.   This is generally seen in the lowest end of the retail industry, but can also be seen in services (cheap haircut chains, discount motels, and the like) 
  • Standard Merchandisers (Traditional Cuisine) – Retailers that aim to provide customers with something of moderate quality at a reasonable price, which is more or less as good as they could do for themselves, if they had the time.  Again, this also applies to service, considering that car washes, lawn care, or maid services do a pretty good job at something people would rather not do for themselves.
  • Premium Merchandisers (Haute Cuisine) - Retailers that provide the customer elevated quality at an elevated price, often providing a quality that the consumer cannot achieve by his own efforts.   Most “upscale” lines of merchandise fall into this category, as do most “upscale” service providers.
  • Fashion Merchandisers (Non-Cuisine) – Retailers whose value pertains to something other than their functional purpose of the goods and services they sell.   This remains vaguely defined: if a person purchase a garment to make a political statement or participates in an activity to socialize with fellow aficionados, these secondary characteristics of the experience surpass the typical benefits most consumers seek to obtain.

My sense in considering this is that it’s more difficult to consider because while “cooking” is something that anyone can do for themselves (to some degree), most people have lost the skills to weave their own cloth and make it into clothing (never mind making your own cell phone from scratch) so purchasing is their only means of serving their needs – so likely the base comparison of retailers and service providers to “what you could do for yourself” is not something that most people can even imagine.

In spite of that, the comparison does seem to fit – and it should be fairly simple to consider the way in which any given business has chosen to serve its customers: whether it supports customers who need supplies and knowledge to do it on their own, those who want something cheap and adequate, those who want something of standard quality at a reasonable price, those who want something superlative (or at least very good) at a premium price, and those whose purchasing decision is influenced by factors not related to the product at all.

In the end

Perhaps I’m making too much of too little, or stretching the analogy too far?   But at the same time I do think that it provides a slightly different way to consider the approach to customer experience that might provide more food for thought than the traditional “price versus quality” schematization based on the customers’ definition of “quality” in a given situation or market segment.

I’ve added the book to my reading list, and am eager to delve further, so it will likely appear as “reading notes” in future.