Lessons from an ice-cream lid: 1. Find out what the people want 2. Give them a lot of it

I understand we're heading for a recession.

Down the street I see triple gelatos being passed over countertops. Cupcakes, judging from the crush at Billy's Bakery last night, are waddling out the door in threesomes. An upscale nosherie called Cookshop, which managed to sell me a salad plucked from the lanes of my childhood athletics field, is packed every night. In Trader Joe's, I thought I was in a Soviet Russian supermarket, with queues of abnormally patient locals laden with life-saving salsas, bruschetta spreads and those demonic black bean chips.

David Rowell of the Travel Insider, says:

[Eating ice cream etc] … is fairly classic marketplace behavior - when you can't afford the big things, you treat yourself to small luxuries instead of big luxuries.

Nothing new here, but ... are we really in a recession? According to PR pro Fred Iannotti, the media is crying wolf but the wolf is presently muzzled by a bowl of bi bim bap:

We actually have not been in recession - the economy is actually still growing - I think the correction for the last quarter put it near 4 percent growth rate, and although unemployment is up slightly, something like 94 percent of everyone who wants a job has a job. People don't remember what a real recession is like, e.g., under a J. Carter, when interest rates for buying a new house were 22 percent! (Today you can get a mortgage for 5.75 percent). This was the mid- to late 1970s, when we had "stagflation."

As my father once said, "I'm not short of a few dollars, I'm short of a few thousand dollars."

In other words, when times are tough, and unless you're a Telfar model, people continue to eat ice cream. Especially when it's very, very good ice cream.

I first heard the "supersized" version of the more prosaic "find out what people want, and give it to them" in a TV ad for Homer Hudson Ice Cream. Invented in the excessive 80's by Unilever employee Lawrence Vincent, Homer Hudson was a "super premium" ice cream, meaning it "incorporates the least amount of air possible, and high levels of inclusions". According to Sugarblog, "inclusions are things like choc toffee pieces, which make up as much as 12.5% of the contents in Homer Hudson, compared to about 5% in other premium ice creams." This, in a market where a lot of so-called ice cream is just turbo-whipped trans fat.

Homer Hudson's most lethal flavor, Chocolate Rock, remains in my opinion, the only serious attempt at chocolate ice cream ever made by anyone within spitting distance of a cacao plant. On opening the lid, you are faced with what resembles a vat of black boot polish, except it's very cold boot polish, with none of the toe-curling bootpolishy smell. It's basically solid, spoonable dark chocolate. You can only eat a couple of spoonfuls at a time or start twitching all over and yammering at high speed. If there is a death by chocolate, Chocolate Rock is the Resurrection.

Homer Hudson disappeared in the late nineties - perhaps a result of the new focus on diet and aerobics at the time. Google tells me it resurfaced in 2004, just in time for a recessive millennium.

Why am I going on about ice cream, when I hardly touch the stuff?  I want to illustrate that in challenging times, rather than pulling back on features, services and "inclusions", try finding out what people want and giving - and including - a lot of it.

Were not just talking spoonables. Let's talk airlines.

The Travel Insider, a chatty, nosey, airline-watching e-letter, talks of companies like United coming up with all kinds of ways to cut costs, whereas companies like Virgin are keeping the customer firmly in mind.

From an August issue:

Fortunately, not all airlines are closing down - some are making improved profits instead.  Virgin Atlantic reported a 38% lift in their annual profit, going up to £61 million this year ($119 million) compared to £44 million last year. And while the loser airlines are trying to make money by cutting services and quality at every turn, Virgin's CEO, Steve Ridgway offers a different view. He says "...the winners will be those airlines that focus on offering the best customer service. We have ... focused on providing the best product in Upper Class, Premium Economy and Economy...

First Emirates, now Virgin Atlantic - two airlines reporting increased profits and attributing their profit in part to their successful pursuit of excellence.  Meanwhile, money losing United is cutting back on any and all reasons why higher fare paying passengers would ever wish to fly with them.

This seems so simple - there's no need even to be innovative, but rather just to do what the airlines like to do so much. Play copycat. But choose the 'high road' as exemplified by Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, rather than the low road, as exemplified by most US carriers."

Indeed, Just Copy It.

When I needed to change my trans-Pacific flight with United, three times due to family illness, I was charged $150 each time. I couldn't just "suspend" my flight until I could work out a better departure time closer to the date - hell no, I had to "hard commit" on the spot - costing me $150 each time. And a change of routing would incur more penalties. When I fronted up to the counter with a single checked bag 2 lbs overweight, I was given grief, despite saving the airline a lot of fuel and space by not bringing 2 checked bags. (And by weighing only 95 lbs myself, but that's for a future world).

I won't even mention the disastrous vegetarian meal, other than to say if you can't find a chef who can get beyond a few shards of nutritionally deficient iceberg lettuce and white pasta, please give the job to Wendy's or Subway - anyone, please.

Contrast this with Southwest Airlines, where your ticket is treated as the next best thing to cold, hard cash. Can't fly on the date booked? No problem, it goes as a cash credit against your name, none of this $100+ penalty nonsense. Want to go somewhere else instead? They'll apply your credit to the new ticket. Recently, I was bumped and accepted a travel voucher,  worth $510. I was not able to use it by the expiry date, so sold it to a customer who was looking for a deal. I just emailed him the PIN, got Paypalled cash, and the next day he flew. It left both of us in a state of euphoria - here's an airline that really knows what people want - and gives them plenty of it.

In Testify! you can read about a customer so evangelistic of Southwest, she personally wrote to tell them how she would do what she could to make sure they stayed in business. That was 2002.

Do you want customers to love you like Southwest? Who will stand by you when times are tough? Just find out what they want - and give them lots of it.

And how deep is that love? Deep is good, deep and wide is better. The Travel Insider tells us about "The Southwest Effect":

The 'Southwest Effect' is described as the two things that happen when Southwest starts flying into a new city. Airfares drop across the board as established carriers match Southwest's typically lower fares, and air travel increases in response. Here's an interesting example of the other side of the Southwest effect:  for reasons best known to itself and to no-one else, Southwest only publishes its schedules (and therefore fares) a little way into the future, unlike most airlines that will accept reservations up to 11 months in advance (and even further in advance for group type bookings). So guess what happens on the particular day when Southwest's future bookings stop being available? Yes - airfares typically rise on other carriers. Here's a wonderful example of this in chart form, courtesy of farecompare.com - at present, you can book with Southwest through until 6 March 2009. Look at the leap in fares on United that occurs on 7 March - from an average of about $385 up to an average of about $440. If you're flying anywhere in the US, plainly it is best not to book further in advance than Southwest has its schedules published for...


I do applaud United's green sensibility in eliminating that silly paper boarding pass folder that doesn't fit into any neckpouch, but really knowing what people want, and giving them lots of it, will inspire the kind of rampant customer evangelism enjoyed by Southwest and Virgin. If an airline is really bent on fees and schedules, why not ping us with little details - a moist towelette to sanitize our hands (remember those?), a pot of Haagen Daaz if you can't get Homer Hudson, anything but those mundane pretzels, a place to stash our rubbish unless you want us to force it in our seat pockets. How about giving us a crisp apple? How about not charging me when I am good enough to front up with 1 bag slightly overweight rather than 2 and I weigh half as much as the other passengers? How much are we talking here? Was it MidWest Airlines that supplied me with a "Cowpat" – a giant, fresh baked cookie in an envelope? Three consecutive legs with the same cookie did wear thin, but I remember the airline with fondness 6 years later …

I read that some time ago United hired a Chief Customer Experience Officer. She can't have spent much time in cattle class or on the phone to their call center, or she would have picked up on everything I am talking about.

In apparently challenging times, whether it's ice cream or airlines, "find out what people want, and give them a lot of it" is a strategy that is well within reach, if you just perch yourself on the customer's stool for a moment.  If you can't save them time or money, just try to delight them - a spoonful of ice cream makes the recession go down.


The Galfromdownunder would love to see WholeFoods and Trader Joes have a special express lane for customers with ice cream and other meltables.

Pictured: A superlative almond studded Magnum munchalike from Euphoria Chocolate Company, Eugene, Oregon, which knows what people like and gives them lots of it - nuts over chocolate!

 

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