August 4th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Business isn’t always black and white–there are gray areas everywhere, and the ethical line between customer persuasion and manipulation can sometimes become blurred. In the case of the Union Street Guest House, a boutique hotel in upstate New York, however, the line is crystal clear. The just chose to cross it anyway.

According to the hotel company policy, which has now gone viral, guests that stay at the hotel for a wedding or other event are strongly discouraged from leaving any negative reviews on Web sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. If any are found, the event hosts would lose $500 of their deposit per review (yup, per review!). Just imagine it: you’re a newlywed, and your new wife’s uncle from Wisconsin didn’t like the salmon at your reception. He gave the Union Street Guest House a bad review, and boom! There goes $500 bucks. But there’s a silver lining! If you call your wife’s uncle and convince him to take the review down, you’ll get your money back. All’s well that ends well, right? I don’t think so either.

Here’s the hotel’s policy, verbatim:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. 

Sounds crazy enough, right? Well, there’s more! In a not-entirely-unexpected plot twist, the hotel responded to the sudden outrage over its practices on Facebook today, claiming that the policy was a “tongue-in-cheek” response to a debacle at a wedding several years ago and was never actually enforced. But, alas, a bodacious bunch of Facebook commenters didn’t let the company get away with that explanation–many pointed to a 2013 Yelp post from a customer who was being threatened with financial repercussions that alluded to the very policy in question. And then in response to all the hubbub, the Union Street Guest House took down their Facebook post. Drama, drama, drama.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, this whole thing is just absurd. Is there really no better way to leverage customer reviews? Plenty of great businesses have negative reviews here and there–negative brand impressions are inevitable, and attempting to stomp them out completely will undoubtedly reflect poorly on the brand. Instead, brands should encourage reviews–good and bad–but strive to deliver experiences that will lead to outstanding evaluations. And a little incentive doesn’t hurt either. My favorite hair salon in New York City, Fox and Jane Salon, for example, is a major presence on Yelp.

When the brand was just starting out, stylists encouraged customers to write reviews and share photos, with the promise of a discount at the next appointment. It didn’t have to be a good review necessarily, but the reasoning was probably that customers wouldn’t be too eager to leave a horrible review since they had to show it to their stylist to redeem a discount. Still, I’ve personally seen them give a discount to someone whose review wasn’t all that flattering. The salon’s been around for only a few years, but now has 5 locations in NY and California, and boasts 128 5-star reviews on Yelp. Actually, it’s one of the top rated NYC hair salons on Yelp, last time I checked. They’re transparent, and that’s why they’re successful. As for the Union Street Guest House, it looks like the entire Internet is giving them one giant bad review today. Guess we should all get our wallets ready, right?

July 31st, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Ever find yourself tempted to order that funky-sounding thing on the menu, just because it sounds funky? Apparently, you’re not alone! Turns out, we humans are pretty predictable creatures, and restaurant marketers are on to us. According to a new study of 217 menus and 300 diners conducted by researchers from Cornell University and published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, restaurants pull all kinds of tricks to get patrons to fork over the extra bucks.

When it comes to those fancy french dishes that no one can pronounce, restaurant goers are likely to spend up to 12 percent more, the survey found. The more foreign it sounds, the more customers are willing to pay. But we like embellishment in English too–a simple sounding “fish filet” might not garner too many bites, but call it a “succulent italian seafood filet” and orders will come swimming in. “Sales of these renamed items with descriptions rose by 28% and were rated as tastier, even though the recipes before and after were identical,” the report said.

Unsurprisingly, items that appear in distinct fonts or colors are meant to be attention grabbers as well, and are often the most expensive things on the menu. Though it’s a more subtle tactic, placing an item on the bottom right of a menu is usually a ploy as well. According to The Guardian, studies have shown that upon opening a menu, we tend to gravitate toward the upper right-hand corner first. This is often where the anchor–or the most profitable item–is located, The Guardian reports. Diners are likely to order this eye-catching dish, but even if they don’t, this carefully placed, expensive option makes all the other meals appear more affordable, and makes customers spend more. Don’t want to fall into this trap? Look at the bottom left–that’s where the most affordable item is likely to appear.

And price order matters as well. Patrons are often reluctant to buy the most expensive bottle of wine, but don’t want to order the cheapest one either, and sommeliers are well aware of this. That’s why the second cheapest bottle typically gets the biggest markup. The same applies to food. The cheapest dish might not be the most appealing, but the second or third cheapest ones usually get a lot of attention.

Even something as minor as alignment could make a difference, additional studies suggest. Centre-aligned menus, for example, make it more difficult to compare prices, but right-justified menus are more comparison friendly.

Is this starting to sound more like manipulation than marketing? I would say so, but in the age of Yelp and Google Reviews, these tricks are going to become obsolete very soon. Most consumers scope out a restaurant long before they get there, and are ready to order the items that have hit a high note with previous visitors before seeing a physical menu. So while delicious sounding dish descriptions are always welcome, some of the sneakier stuff, in my opinion, is not. Transparency trumps trickery, and in the long run, it’s what keeps customers coming back.

July 24th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

There’s no denying it now–Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, is happening. Unless you’ve been hiding from social media all day, you’ve probably heard that the trailer aired on the TODAY show this morning, with an exclusive “more risqué” version available online. The film, which (unsurprisingly) received an R rating is racy indeed, which begs the question–why bother releasing it in theaters at all?

As I interviewed sources for a story on interactive video as a marketing tool throughout this week, every conversation began the same way. “Online video is huge. On-demand video is exploding. The marketing opportunities are huge,” they told me. Online video platforms like Hulu and Netflix are generating and monetizing on this demand, launching original series and original films or documentaries exclusively online on an on-demand basis. And they’re often experiencing a great deal of success. Just look at Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. It’s a major hit. With growing pressure from the MPAA to censor violence and sex in movies (though they tend to be more lenient with violence, but who’s counting?), isn’t it time for the film industry to follow suit?

A borderline pornographic film like Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t exactly have mainstream appeal. No, it’s not for everyone–many find it downright offensive, but what makes it an interesting case study, in my opinion, is its niche appeal. Marketing to the masses has pretty much become obsolete, and yet the film industry desperately continues to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. Movie producer Adi Shankar put it well in this post for Quora:

“The fundamental flaw in movie marketing is that it’s both very costly, and inefficient at matching a movie with its target audience. To be clear, this mattered less when movies had astronomical budgets, and were ostensibly produced for the mass market. However, the future of the movie business lies in niche markets – not in generalized mass appeal. Audiences are growing tired of the recycled, bloated, arbitrary, homogenized movie franchises to which their cinematic taste buds have become numb.”

So what are producers to do? When they’re working on a niche project that’s guaranteed to make serious bank like the Fifty Shades film, taking it online could be a promising approach. Making the film less racy won’t win over new audiences that have already made up their minds about the franchise, but it may lose some loyal fans that would rather skip the film than risk being disappointed. Everyone has been tip-toeing around making, marketing, and even seeing this film, so maybe it’s time to eliminate the drama by skipping the big screen. Something to think about for the next two films in the trilogy, if they’re even going to bother making those.

July 17th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

We’ve all had bad customer service experiences. I, for example, will never forget the time I tried to quit a gym that billed me twice every month for no apparent reason. When I tried to explain their error, they made jokes about my weight and suggested that maybe I should be going twice as often. Great service, right?

Though perhaps not as emotionally scarring, tech journalist Ryan Block’s recent phone call with Comcast was equally as frustrating. He was calling to cancel his service, but instead of getting a courteous “Thanks for being our customer, have a nice life” response from Comcast, Block endured an 18-minute long conversation with a service rep who simply refused to help him.

Here’s a taste of the conversation, courtesy of Slate:

Rep: I’m just trying to figure out what it is about Comcast service that you don’t want to keep.

Block: This phone call is actually a really amazing representative example of why I don’t want to stay with Comcast.

Rep: OK, but I’m trying to help you.

Block: The way you can help me is by disconnecting my service.

Rep: But how is that helping you! How is that helping you! Explain to me how that is helping you!

All in all, this looks terrible for Comcast, which is actually in the middle of negotiating a $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable. Turns out, regulators are reluctant to approve the bill because they’re worried the “merger between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 largest cable providers would lead to worse service, since the combined company would have even less to fear from competitors,” The Hill’s Julian Hattem writes. A valid concern, I would say. (Realistically though, how much worse could it get?)

Why Block didn’t hang up and just try to reach another rep is beyond me, but either way, Comcast appears to be in the wrong here, and for multiple reasons. Companies have protocols and scripts for their service representatives so that they know what to do in different scenarios, such as a cancellation call. A little persuasion is expected, of course, and a company can’t be expected to send up a white flag right away. Some try to win customers back with special offers or promotions, while others ask customers what they didn’t like about the service. All of these are totally acceptable, but there’s a fine line between persuasion and harassment, and it seems like the Comcast rep hopped right across it. Does his behavior represent the kinds of customer interactions that Comcast promotes?

Furthermore, the whole idea of having to call a company to cancel a subscription is bizarre to me. In this day and age, I should be able to go to the company Web site and cancel without any embarrassing encounters or awkward phone conversations. Consumers that want to end their ties with a company will do so no matter how difficult it is, so making the process impossible won’t win that customer back. It’ll just make new customers more reluctant to sign up.

The one thing Comcast actually did right throughout this whole fiasco is apologize, and do almost immediately. Block’s call went viral yesterday, and though the damage was done, letting his move go unanswered would have been devastating for the company’s reputation. A quick apology won’t solve a problematic employee culture if one exists at Comcast, but securing some distance between the brand and what could just turn out to be an employee gone rogue is a step in the right direction. If Comcast really wants to repair its image, though,  I’d recommend rethinking their cancellation policy. Just look at Netflix; that’s all I’m saying.

July 10th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Air travel is notoriously awful. From overpriced on-board amenities to flight delays and cancellations, airline companies pride themselves on making customers miserable while they’re trapped inside a metal box in the air–or on the tarmac–for hours. In May, for example, on-time arrivals dropped from just over 79 percent to 76 percent and flight cancellations jumped from one percent, to almost two, USA Today reported this morning. Lost baggage claims grew as well, rising to 3.34 reports per 1,000 fliers, as compared to 2.96 during that month last year and the 2.92 reports per 1,000 fliers in April, USA Today reports. And, unsurprisingly, passenger complaints are up: in May, there were 1,280 complaints from disgruntled fliers, a 31.3 percent jump from last May and a 1.7% increase from April.

But, as it turns out, turning an air travel nightmare into a positive customer experiences isn’t that difficult when employees have the right mindset.

Earlier this week, passengers on a Frontier Airlines flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver was forced to “circle in western Nebraska” and eventually land in Wyoming because of bad weather conditions. Stuck on the runway for over an hour with some very frustrated passengers, the crew eventually ran out of on-board snacks and was getting desperate. So the captain took matters into his own hands.

According to some passenger accounts, Captain Gerhard Brandner made an announcement and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, Frontier Airlines is known for being one of the cheapest airlines in the U.S., but your captain is not cheap. I just ordered pizza for the entire plane.” Apparently, he ordered over 40 pizzas, with at least one pie per row of passengers. 

Sure, ordering pizza for angry passengers probably isn’t a part of Frontier Airlines’ customer service policy handbook, but who cares? Time and time again analysts agree that most of the time, it’s up to company executives to set up a culture in which employees have the authority and the initiative to do what it takes to delight customers, but it’s ultimately up to employees to deliver that satisfaction. Brandner made the right call here, and Frontier Airlines looks better for it. Cheap or not, that airline is getting something right–it’s instilling the kind of dedication and devotion to customer service that other airlines should strive to inspire among employees.

“If the need arises,” Brandner said later,  “you need to take care of your passengers. They are my responsibility the moment they step on the aircraft until they get off the aircraft.” That’s good customer service for you. 


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