Jan 21

So, are you here for the Dowling wedding or the Harris funeral?

Corpse-bride-emily-victor--large-msg-114048085698-2

I've read about interesting line extensions in my time, but the Community Life Center (CLC) at the Washington Park East Cemetery in Indianapolis may take the cake (wedding cake, that is).

It seems that funeral parlors such as CLC, desperate for steadier income (c'mon, guys, can't you hurry up and die a little sooner?) are re-positioning themselves as, are you ready for this, event centers! Sure, death is an event, and a terminal one at that. But, places such as the Flanner & Buchanan Funeral Center now play host to weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties, holiday parties and proms (talk about “Mary Jane's Last Dance”!).

I guess one could call these line extensions creative, but I call them creepy. And, just imagine if simultaneous events are being held at a one of these community centers and the attendees become confused (this has a Adam Sandler/Ben Stiller comedy written all over it). I can just envision the mix-ups:

– '”Do you wanna dance? God, for someone so hot your hand is so cold.”
– “Kids, don't eat all the birthday cake. We'll need some for grandpa's wake across the hall.”
– “Do, you, Pamela MacFall, take the deceased to be your husband…”

This is a beautiful thing. And, it opens up so many new opportunities for Owen Wilson-type wedding crashers. Hell, a guy could crash seven distinct events in the same day and in the same venue. Now, that's what I call value add.

So, here's to the new world of community centers and their re-defining the entire concept of cradle to grave marketing. I, for one, am dying to visit one in the near future.

Tip o' Repman's bicycling helmet to Greg Schmalz for this suggestion.

Jan 07

Who’s The Boss!?

Today's post is by Peppercomer Ray Carroll.

First, I was brought on for resembling Brendan, and then hired fulltime as receptionist for projecting courtesy and hospitality.  Never would I’ve thought I’d receive an offer to be managing partner in my first year with the agency!  Although short-lived, my coup of the corner office was just as enlightening as it was rewarding.

B&I The front desk can be merciless, offering myriad tasks.  At other times it is placid.  There, I assist on many levels and have become facilitator in certain respects.  While I meet and greet clients, I rarely see our executives orchestrating their business. 

The idea of job swaps isn’t original, but a CEO trading places with a receptionist is new to me.  And, better yet, I was happy to be involved.  Following the trail blazed by erstwhile (couldn’t resist it) Peppercomers, I was anxious for my chance to overtake the reins as CEO.  The opportunity would provide insight into business beyond the lobby threshold.

Steve and I began this experience coincidently meeting outside our office building.  We rode the elevator together on route to conquer new domains.  Arriving on our floor, I bypassed my usual tasks and, was already convinced I had the better half of the arrangement.

Sprinting past the reception desk, I made a beeline for the boss’s office.  I relished my own space that boasted a huge desk, comfy couch, and Park Avenue view.  More impressive, I had an elite personal assistant at my beck-and-call.  

My morning agenda, at this point, seemed light and things were quiet.  I’d conclude an agency can’t evolve or prosper with a CEO sitting complacently at their desk.  My expectations became self-imposed, and I’d devise a few plans.  I questioned just how much I’d get away with in my new role.

I balked at tyranny, and I mulled over pranks and abuses of power that could’ve potentially jeopardized my returning the next day.  Choosing wisely, I gave Dandy an abridged version of my executive requests.  She politely rejected each one of my highfalutin ideas, and casually redirected my enthusiasm towards conference calls and caucuses. 

Confident in my new role, I summoned Peppercom’s president, Ted Birkhahn, into my office.  We discussed service trends and economic forces hindering top quality production from low-level positions.  Surprisingly, Ted dismissed my notion to double our receptionist’s salary.  We considered the relevance of job rotation, as well as potential benefits from swapping jobs with clients.  Staying true to impersonation, I tried convincing Ted to take part in a job swap of his own. 

Being part of Peppercom for nearly a year, it’s clear to me that leadership is a value shared both founders.  So, I next brought individuals into my office to speak about their professional development. We’d address account work, stressors, as well as experiences from the past year and future aspirations.  I also managed to finagle my way into a possible RepMan podcast with Paul Merchan.

Time was flying by and my afternoon was booked solid, so with a break coming up, I hit the gym.  I had my choice of equipment, so I jumped on a treadmill with a street view following it up with circuit training. I took note: physical wellness and mental prosperity go hand-in-hand.  It’d been too long since I’d last been to a gym, so, Steve, my heart and lungs thank you. 

I returned to the office and had lunch waiting; excellent timing before a few meetings.  By now I was ready to delve into what really makes Peppercom tick.  For the afternoon, Dandy had included me in every pertinent meeting, so now I’d witnessed the lifeblood of our company. 

Various teams of executives shuffled into my office with their expertise in tow.  We’d review client updates, plan outlines, and media strategy.  I saw our progress-tracking Harte chart, and joined in discussing technique to maximize capability within a scope of work.  I also joined a publicity team meeting, discussed leverage and positioning initiatives, and joined client conference calls. 

I found the job-swap to be an extremely eye opening experience.  I feel inspired and rejuvenated both mentally and physically.  While my current gig pays a few bills, I’ll strive for the caliber of job I held that day.  It’s tough passing up the rewards that wait as a direct result of your own dedicated efforts and success.  Mr. Cody: Thank You for the opportunity!

** My one regret: At my helm, our company’s image may have taken a direct hit.  Mismanagement of an entry-level position, by yours truly, will now prevent Andrea from ever referring us.

 

Jan 06

My apologies to Andrea

I did something yesterday that I guarantee no holding company CEO has EVER done. I swapped  42-20042220 jobs with Ray Carroll, our superb receptionist.

So, for a full day, I answered phones, made copies, welcomed visitors, modulated the temperature in the office and signed for multiple lunch orders placed by our hard-working staff (more to come on that).

It was an enlightening experience to say the least. I learned that being a receptionist can be the best of all worlds and the worst of all worlds. At its best, the job made me feel like a front-line brand ambassador empowered to make sure every person 'touching' the Peppercom brand had a positive experience.

At its worst, being a receptionist can resemble being stuck inside a video game. Phones were ringing off the hook, visitors were entering the lobby, employees were IMing requests for me to lower the heat and delivery guys were dropping off food. All at the same time! How do you spell stressful?

I'm proud to say that, with one glaring exception, I excelled in my new job. That exception, though, was a real beaut.

Right around noontime, three or four delivery guys arrived with lunch orders. I dutifully signed each receipt and began IMing the individuals to come to the front desk and retrieve their grub. Everyone responded except Andrea. That's when I realized we didn't have an Andrea working for us.
 
So, I sent an office-wide memo letting everyone know there was a free, unclaimed lunch waiting in the kitchen.

Now, fast forward 90 minutes. The elevator doors opened and in walked one of the delivery guys I'd met earlier along with a very agitated young woman. She charged up to the reception desk and barked, 'Do you have my lunch?' I smiled and said, 'And, you must be Andrea?'

Andrea (who I quickly learned works elsewhere in our building) nodded. I told her we had her lunch (happily, no one had claimed it). I went to retrieve it and handed it over with a smile. 'Where's the receipt?' She demanded. 'I used my credit card to place this order!'

I couldn't find the receipt anywhere. I remembered signing it but, with the total chaos of the moment, had lost track of it.

Andrea wasn't buying any of it. 'Look,' she said to me. 'You seem like a nice guy, but you have my credit card information.'

I assured her I wasn't an identity thief and promised to keep looking for the errant receipt. She was incredibly upset and lashed out at the delivery guy and me in heated Spanish. Not being fluent in the language, I wasn't sure what she was saying, but it certainly wasn't complimentary of my receptionist skills.

Andrea eventually left with her lunch (and minus her receipt). And, I went back to work, shaking like a leaf.

Being Ray Carroll for a day was an amazing experience that gave me all sorts of insights into the job, its critical role as part of the Peppercom brand promise and the importance of hanging onto receipts.

Oh, and what, you may ask, was Ray doing during the day? He experienced my daily existence: so, he sent several internal memos that were chock-a-block with inane, nonsensical comments. He went to the gym for a long workout. He attended various meetings and interrupted serious conversations with other inane, nonsensical comments. And, he answered my desperate IMs asking how to do his job.

So, here's a challenge to Andy Polansky, Richard Edelman, Pat Ford and all  the other CEOs of holding company PR firms: I dare you to step back from strategy, innovation and administration tasks for just one day and swap jobs with your receptionist. You'll learn things you never knew. Your receptionist will love being 'you' for a day. And, your employees will have a newfound respect for you. Just make sure to hang onto those damn receipts.

Jan 04

The Ghetto of the Workplace

Ever stop to wonder why so many companies have such poor customer service? Emily Yellin knows Loyalty3 why.

Ms. Yellin is the author of 'Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us'. It's a riveting read of all that's wrong with customer service.

She calls customer service the “ghetto of the workplace,” a twilight zone in which people are overworked, underpaid and stressed to the max. 

In her book, Ms. Yellin explains why so many organizations see customer service as a necessary evil and why so few treat it as a strategic competitive advantage. She was also nice enough to discuss the subject on a recent PepperTown Hall podcast

Yes, says Ms. Yellin, there ARE a few enlightened companies that actually stress quality over quantity and believe that customer service is the new PR. Zappos is one example. CEO Tony Hsieh made the decision to move his strategic, front-office executives to Las Vegas so they could be housed right alongside their call center peers. Why? Because Hsieh believes the phone is his “…best branding device.” Zappos receives 2 million calls a year, so the better the user experience, the more repeat customers it will have. It seems so simple. So, why do so many of us still have horrific user experiences?

Ms. Yellin says poor customer service is the direct result of an indifferent management mindset. Most companies, she says, marginalize customer service in their corporate hierarchy. They'll spend millions on branding, but a mere pittance on competent, quality-focused customer care. Is it any wonder then why there are so many loutish, insensitive CSRs?

Ms. Yellin asks how our lives would change if, say, the head of customer service at an airline or cable company was the second highest paid officer. Or, if being a customer service agent were a well-paid, coveted career position that led to office management. So far, only a few brave companies have taken those steps. But, she says, they've thrived as a result.

I'm all about improving Peppercom's customer service. We've already conducted a 'customer journey' that examined 20 separate communication touch points potential customers and other key audiences have with us. We fared well in many but fell short in others. Recognizing that customer service is, indeed, the new PR, we're making quick upgrades, though. And, we're forcing ourselves to experience Peppercom the way a prospective client or employee would.

Oh, and one more thing. I'm going to walk the talk when it comes to better understanding the experience of our most crucial customer service employees as well. I'll be sitting at the reception desk all day tomorrow. Trust me, your call WILL BE important to me.

Dec 16

What sets you apart?

85658802 I typically find myself immersed in at least one strategic client positioning each and every month. And, without exception, the CEO or lead executive will say her people are what separates the organization from its competition. They'll say such things as:

– “Our people are totally client focused.”
– “We have deeper sector knowledge than anyone else.”
Or, my personal favorite…
– “Our people are smarter.”

People are an asset but, almost without fail, they are NOT what sets an organization apart from its competition.

6a00d8341c39e853ef0148c67db778970c-800wiIn her most excellent new book, 'The Art of Managing Professional Services,' Maureen Broderick  defines positioning as: “The FOUNDATION of a successful brand. It flows from all other elements of a firm's management: shared vision, values and culture. A focused positioning attracts both top talent and steadily builds a distinct brand.” I'd add two other points: a positioning MUST succinctly describe the unique end user benefit your organization ALONE can provide. And, it MUST ring true.

Here are three examples of what I consider three memorable positionings (all created by a certain strategic communications firm with which you may be familiar):

– “Disrupt your own organization before your competitors do it for you.” (for a strategy firm that helped clients figure out how to re-create their service offerings)

– “At the crossroads of the spiritual and the secular” (for a church that was equally adept at providing spiritual guidance and networking events for Wall Street executives)

– “What sets us apart from our competition is helping set clients apart from theirs.” (for a nascent PR firm run out of a squalid, one-bedroom apartment)

Every now and then, people CAN drive a firm's strategic positioning. Broderick points to law firm Skadden Arps, whose motto is, “Walking through walls for clients.” Skadden, and Skadden alone, commits to a 24-hour call return policy. Employees will not go home until every piece of client business for the day has been completed. The firm insists upon it and clients hire them for that almost maniacal commitment. They do, in fact, walk through walls for clients. That's an end user benefit and it rings true. 

Mostly, though, we run into clients who want their funky work environment to drive their positioning. Others insist upon hyping their past credentials as a differentiator, (i.e. “Our CEO is a builder of businesses.” Gee whiz.).

The single best way to arrive at a strategic positioning is to interview key internal and external constituents and ask them the same question: “What does The Befuddled Group, and the Befuddled Group alone, do best?” Qualify that answer, make sure some competitor, (e.g. Perplexed & Perplexed, Ltd.) hasn't already claimed the strategic positioning and you're off to the races. But, remember, it's a distinct end user benefit, and not the people, that set an organization apart.

Dec 14

The W Deserves an F

Robinsonjack_Tomlin11 W_Hotels-logo-CCE5D496E7-seeklogo.com Today's guest post is by Ann Barlow, President, Peppercom West.

If you’ve stayed at a W hotel, you know how hard they work to be hip.  I was at one for three  nights this past week, and when I tell you the priority they gave coolness over service wore a little thin by the time we left, I’m being kind. 

was fortunate to go to the first TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C.  As usual with these things, the conference had ‘deals,’ (there’s no such thing in that neighborhood) in this case at the Marriott, the Willard and the W.  The Marriott was sold out, and the Willard was a little pricier than the W, so I chose the W. 

  When you arrive, the bellmen are all in black shirts and  pants, so initially it’s not easy to spot them.  (I can’t imagine how that could possibly work in NY, where black is the signature color.)  At any rate, we were shown to our room, which looked eerily like the inside of a refrigerator.  White drawers, a bluish brushed glass on shower, white bed. I half-expected the headboard to read ‘crisper.’

The shower is a good example of hip over what’s actually good for the guest.  The bluish, but nonetheless transparent, glass faces the room and entranceway so if you are showering when, say, room service walks in, you’ll be revealing more than your preferences for tea over coffee.  What is the point?

In the bathroom, there are the requisite toiletries, tissues, towels and robe.  There’s a little white bag hanging next to the robe labeled ‘plan B.’ What’s in this mysterious bag?  A roll of toilet paper.  Seriously?  Couldn’t they just put an extra roll under the counter and be done with it?
The worst, though, is when you want to call for anything from a wake-up call to housekeeping to room service.  In what must have seemed like a great idea at the time, some marketing guru decided that the guest should dial ‘1’ no matter what they needed, and they would be served. 

Three problems with that:
1.    They answer with an impossibly cheerful ‘Whatever, whenever! How can I help you?’  Try being greeted that way more than twice and see if your nerves don’t begin to fray.
2.    About half the time, the line is busy, especially since the same people who answer also man the front desks.
3.    Because they wear so many hats, the Whatever Whenever people sometimes forget to do what they said they would for you.  When that happens, the Whatever Whenever greeting makes you want to go through the phone at them.

One of several cases in point:  We asked for a wake-up call at 7 am.  The Whatever lady asked if we would like a 7:15 follow-up call.  I thought that was a great idea, because being on West Coast time (we’d flown in from California), I knew it wouldn’t be easy to wake up.  So I said yes, please.  She asked if we wanted breakfast, and I said no thank you.

Well, they must have taken the Whenever part a bit too seriously, because the wake-up call never came.  We woke up at 9:30.  My husband missed his 10 am meeting in Reston, and I was late to register for the opening day of the conference. If that had happened the second or third morning, the results would have been disastrous. We weren’t pleased. 

I want to point out here that the hotel did its best to make things right, taking $200 off our bill and sending up wine and cheese.  And the next morning when apparently they once again took Whenever a little too much to heart and showed up late with our breakfast, they comped it.

The point is, trying hard to be hip at the expense of service is so 2008.  In this kind of economy – and to my way of thinking, in any economy – why not focus your energies on good customer service instead of being cool?  Turn down the ‘unz unz’ beat in the lobby so that the concierge can hear your question and the bartender hear your drink order.   Let the operator direct my call to housekeeping or room service.  I’ll sacrifice the one-touch saccharine greeting for knowing that my request will be honored.

This is hardly the first time I’ve stayed at a W.  No doubt, the hotel chain will say, ‘whatever,’ but whenever do I intend to stay at a W again?  Never. 

Sep 22

When in doubt, blame others

Birds don't do it. Bees don't do it. But, big business sure does it. “It” is blaming others for one's Blame-game mistakes.

The latest example came a few days ago when my beloved, primary source of commutation, NJ Transit, blamed Amtrak for its record 1,400 delays this past summer.

Talk about the summer from hell. NJT experienced 1,400 delays in a period of 90 days! Now, I'm not a math wizard, but that adds up to a staggering 150 or so delays a day. I'm surprised any of their damn trains moved at all.

But, hey, don't blame NJT. It wasn't their fault. A lead spokesperson pointed the finger at Amtrak, from whom NJT leases 'track time' on the Northeast Corridor. He said that, since Amtrak has always been underfunded by the government and unable to keep pace with needed maintenance, NJT really isn't to blame for overheated 20-year-old locomotives, overhead wires that drooped in the heat and electric power interruptions. That's the business equivalent of a kid saying the dog ate his homework.

To add insult to injury, NJT also implemented an across-the-board fare hike this summer. That's akin to charging the Titanic passengers a surcharge for life jackets.

NJT officials certainly aren't alone when it comes to pointing fingers at others. BP has made it something of an art form. So, too, have Wall Street executives who shrugged their shoulders when the markets collapsed but happily continue to pocket record bonuses.

No one's better at obfuscation, though, than religious leaders. My favorite is Brother Harold Camping, a Bible expert who holds court on a national cable channel.

The 90-year-old, hearing impaired, former engineer sits in a dilapidated studio, holding a Bible and entertaining questions from viewers. But, whenever an above-average viewer stumps Brother Camping with one of the Bible's countless contradictions, he claims not to have heard or understood what was just asked. So, he thanks the viewer for her question and simply hangs up. It's hilarious to watch.

Recently, the self-proclaimed Bible authority was thrown a real caller curve: “Brother Camping,” said the caller, “please explain how the Bible preaches an eye for an eye in one section but advises us to turn the other cheek in another?” Brother Camping squinted at the camera, fidgeted in his chair and finally responded by saying, “Unless you can cite the specific passages, I can't answer. But, thank you for calling Open Forum.” Classic dodge.

Brother Camping has somehow added, multiplied, subtracted and divided various 'mathematical clues' in the bible and declared that May 22, 2011, will be the end of the world. About 15 years ago, he made a similar prediction. But, when the day came and went without an apocalyptic event, Brother Camping pulled an NJT (or, BP if you prefer) and blamed a faulty computer.

Isn't it great to be living in a society with no accountability? Hey, my train's delayed again! At least I know it's Amtrak's fault.

Sep 21

The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management

Every now and then, Ed and I get it right. By it, I mean hiring superstars. IMG_0713

We did it when we hired Lee Stechmann, our original office manager (and, we did it when we hired his successor, Catherine Mok).

We did it again when we hired a wet-behind-the-ears Edward M. ‘Ted’ Birkhahn about a decade ago. Ted is now our president and was recently named to PR Week’s 40 under 40.
But, we really hit the trifecta with Raymond J. Carroll, our current receptionist.

Calling Ray a receptionist is like calling Muhammad Ali a boxer or Mozart a musician. Ray is so much more. Since joining us a year or so ago, Ray has rocked our world. He’s beloved by clients, prospective clients, employees, vendors, and just about everyone who comes into contact with Peppercom. He’s our brand ambassador, a can-do, go-to guy who never says no to any request.

Having spent years representing the likes of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, I know the faculty and students of each could learn a lesson or two from The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management. So, why not share Ray’s POV on his job, his firm and his role as brand ambassador?

1)    You seem to have endeared yourself to everyone. What’s your advice for managing up, down and across an organization?
I reciprocate any attitudes projected toward me.  Like a mirror, I reflect what Peppercom shows me.  Life is hectic, especially professional life. Taking the time to treat people as people will establish a level of comfort.  Obviously, people have varying responsibilities, but everyone should be treated equally.  My advice for managing across an organization would be to praise good actions while analyzing and correcting counter-productive ones.     

2)    You’re our first point of contact with the outside world. What sort of experience do you want to create for each and every visitor?
I extend a cordial, accommodating presence to make people comfortable.  A receptionist should be able to provide information and/or assistance, just like a hotel concierge.  I’m attentive and I offer assistance to all guests.  In doing so, I follow the advice a friend once gave me: a lady or gentleman is a person who takes the time to be sure everyone is comfortable, and he/she always puts others before themselves.  I have this outlook outside the office as well. It’s a characteristic likely instilled by my mother and a testament to how she raised me. 

3)    Describe your job responsibilities:
To borrow a sports analogy, I’d liken myself to a utility man.  I’m willing to fill any voids necessary, for the good of the team.  From mailroom duties and moving filing cabinets to grocery shopping and changing light bulbs, I do it all. I also assist on monthly reports, and write guest blogs.

4)    How do you handle rude guests, phone callers, or fellow employees such as Ed?
Aside from Ed, I’ve yet to have an ‘encounter of the rude kind’ here at the office. That could be because my definition of “rude” is exceptional.  (please see response to question 5).  In my personal life, I believe it’s important to take the high road but also being sure a rude person’s made aware of how he or she is acting.  No one wants to be treated disrespectfully. If you gently point that out, you’ll usually see some bit of contrition (with the possible exception of Ed). 

5)    What path led you to our doors?
When I was younger, I didn’t have much patience for office life. In fact, my few attempts at it were short lived. I may have just needed more action in my day. That said, I’ve now accepted that ‘slow and steady’ wins the race.

Career wise, I’d tended a bar for nearly a decade, held some off-the-book construction jobs, a variety of temp work, and even a job at Yankee Stadium’s money room thumbing through George Steinbrenner’s dirty cash.  Tending bar exposed me to many of life’s negative elements, which became fine examples of which routes not to follow.  The variety of bar cliental exposed me to some decent, but mostly animalistic, conduct (rude was redefined here).  In all jobs it was a necessity to establish a rapport with folks I wouldn’t necessarily have much in common with. that said, each of these positions opened my eyes a quite bit. I’ve worked with persons from all walks of life.

6.) What are your professional goals?
My goal is to build a professional relationship that will afford my family and me comfortable lives.  Simply stated, I need to provide happiness for others. And, in this world isn’t, happiness doesn’t come for free.  That said, it’s in my best interest to establish myself while proving myself worthy of long-lasting employment. I believe every new day in life leads to improvements.  Learning and growing in both professional and personal realms is my life’s objective. 

7.) What’s your number one piece of advice for any brand ambassador at any organization?
Live your brand, walk the walk and talk the talk.  If you’re in a service industry, serve like no other.”

How’s that for a 30-second M.B.A.,?

Sep 20

You want skin with your coffee?

It's somehow comforting to know terrible customer service isn't the sole domain of New Jersey Panera1 Transit. It's actually alive and well in tony Brookline, Massachusetts, where the local Panera eatery may employ the most illiterate employees north of Secaucus Junction.

We frequent the Coolidge Corner Panera whenever we visit Repman, Jr.  (who lives nearby and pursues his master's degree in history at the white hot Northeastern University).

So, our dismal customer experience this past Sunday morning was in no way unique. Allow me to explain.

While it boasts a Peet's or Starbucks-like environment replete with soft jazz music, overstuffed chairs and Kindle-toting patrons, Panera's similarity to the higher-end chains ends there.

Once one survives a long wait on line, one places an order that must, repeat, must fall strictly within the guidelines of the menu. So, for example, if one prefers his egg whites without a bagel, the conversation quickly deteriorates faster than a Mets' fan's hopes in late Spring.

“You no want bagel?” the counter attendant asked me. “No,” I replied. “Just the eggs. Thanks.” He shook his head. “Not on menu. What type bagel?” I tried explaining my desire for bagel-free egg whites, but he continued to resist.

Finally, after a moment or so, he shouted, “Margie!”

Out strode a middle-aged woman who clearly knew the ropes. “What's the issue, sweetie?” She asked me. I explained there was no real issue, just a desire to be bagel free. She sighed, shook her head in a disapproving way, whispered something into the attendant's ear and, magically, my order was placed.

Next came my wife's trial by fire. Her order was simpler: a walnut raisin muffin and large coffee with skim milk. “You want skin with coffee?” The attendant asked incredulously. “No,” said my wife, “skim milk.” The server was completely baffled. “Skin?” Being the provocateur that I am, I stepped forward and added, “Yeah, and would you mind throwing in a finger or two, a spleen and some toenails?” This wasn't a language barrier, mind you. The attendant spoke English. He simply didn't, or wouldn't, respond to the request.

Back came Margie. If looks could kill, Ang and I would be dead on arrival. “What's the issue this time?” She sniffed. My wife said she wanted skim milk with her coffee. Margie didn't answer. Instead, she just pointed behind us to a partially obscured stand containing various types of milk and cream.

We grabbed our food and sat down, shaking our heads at yet another horrific user experience. While it was conveniently located to my son's spacious bachelor pad, we decided to place Panera on our endangered species list.

When will brands understand that customer service has become the new public relations? Billboards outside the Brookline Panera boast of its steaming hot coffee, wide assortment of bagels, croissants and breakfast fare. And, of course, the billboards come replete with photographs of smiling customers.

My visceral reaction to the marketing materials was similar to the one I experience whenever an NJT conductor announces an indefinite delay, but doesn't bother to add why it was caused or how long it would last.

Until, and unless, brands begin closing the gaps between what their marketing messages boast and what an end user experiences, they'll continue to lose customers (and, all the time, be at a complete loss as to the exact reason why).

We went into Panera hungry for breakfast. We left feeling like a combination of Jack Nicholson's character in 'Five Easy Pieces' and some sort of real-world Hannibal Lecter, who'd just ordered skin with their coffee.

So, note to Rep, Jr.: track down a new eatery in Coolidge Corner. Panera has bungled its last order for the Cody Clan. Oh, and I'll take an eyebrow to go with my egg whites.

Aug 05

The St. Petersburg, Russia, Holiday Inn is no vacation

There's poor customer service, there's NJ transit and then there's the St. Petersburg, Russia,
3-1214_holiday-inn-logo
Holiday-inn-moskovskie Holiday Inn. The last is in a class of its own and could easily lay claim to a global 'worst in class' top spot.
  
I had the serious misfortune to begin my two-week Russian climbing adventure at the Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg.
  
Upon waking the second morning, I sauntered into the bathroom and flipped on the shower faucet. That's when I spied a Holiday Inn sign on the wall that read 'Please use orange floor mat when bathing.' So, I did. Big, big mistake. Bigger, in fact, than the 18,800 ft high Mt. Elbrus I was planning  to climb.

I put one toe on the orange mat and, swoosh, I was sent flying head over heels. My head cracked (and broke) the toilet seat. Simultaneously, my  left hip slammed full force into the side of the porcelain tub. The pain was exquisite.
  
I sucked it up, downed some Aleve and continued on the trip. Each day, the pain would move from one part of my back to another. A doctor traveling with our climbing team thought I'd suffered a pinched nerve. Being the take no prisoners type of blogger that I am, I shook it off and began training with the rest of the team.
  
We flew to the Baksun Valley, hiked on the spectacular, lower level hills, attended rescue and survival courses (it's so uplifting to hear crevasse horror stories) and took in the local sights.

Now, fast forward to summit day. We began at 2am. By 11:30 am, we'd made it to the 'saddle,' a spot just below the peak. My back was screaming 'Nyet!' But, I plowed ahead anyway before the searing pain made me turn back a mere 800 feet from my goal. All because of an orange Holiday Inn bath mat.
  
My assistant, Dandy Stevenson, will be sending copies of this blog to the CEO of Holiday Inn and the general manager of the totally irresponsible St. Petersburg unit. Oh, by the way, six other members of my climbing team also fell on those same malevolent mats.

If
Holiday Inn has any sort of image and reputation left over from its heyday in
the mid 1960s, I'd like this blog to be my way of placing a virtual orange mat
in front of their brand. I hope they slip on it and  suffer the same
degree of pain and disappointment as me.

Holiday Inn's tagline is: 'Stay you'. They define the brand promise in the following ways: 'Stay yourself,' 'Stay picky,' 'Stay indulgent' 'Stay Impressed' and ''Stay Invigorated.' I suggest a slight variation on the 'Stay' campaign: 'Stay someplace else!"