October 1, 2012
"You lose money every month, eventually there’s no restaurant, right?… It is so important that we, as chefs, understand how to manage in a way that we are not losing money. Because otherwise there is no point."

In Check, Please, John Colapinto peeks into the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park, the upscale NYC restaurant that charges $195 for its tasting menu. The co-owners, Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm, are striking in their practical approach to running their business, while the piece is full of fascinating insights into the management of food. Some of the other tidbits that stood out:

Grant Achatz of Alinea got rid of tablecloths from his Chicago restaurant, saving himself $42,000 a year.

Staff at the restaurant Daniel monitor diners via cameras to ensure that service is as fast as humanly possible. Not for the benefit of said diners, it should be added, but so that the restaurant can maximize the number of people who eat there each night.

Says Guidara: “If you ever make a decision first and foremost to make money, it will end as well… Every decision needs to start with it making you better. And then you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this also a good financial decision?’ “

July 11, 2012
"I have an experienced customer service rep sitting next to me helping me because otherwise I would probably give really bad service… It’s not that easy."

— Wonderful quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who’s noted as a fierce believer in the theory that a) customer service is king with the firm caveat that b) customer service should be so invisible that said customers don’t actually notice they’re being served. As such, when he takes his yearly stint on the call lines to field the gripes of grumpy customers, it’s a given that the calls are going to be tricky to solve. The Bezos Doctrine of Ruthless Pragmatism contains this gem and several other stories of how the Seattle giant is using technology to innovate backwards and forwards up the supply chain.

April 12, 2012
Best-In-Class Service

Piers Fawkes at PSFK asked me to opine on what constitutes good service these days. I had to come up with a list of five stores I particularly enjoy shopping at. Given that I actually loathe shopping, this was rather harder than it should have been, but it was an interesting exercise. Here was my starting point:

I’ve never really enjoyed shopping, which is why I quickly embraced the Internet as a way to stock up on essentials without having to endure the misery of the high street. And, as more and more products have become commodities, so too have some companies done an incredible job of figuring out ever more ingenious ways to help me avoid actually having to interact with another human being.

What does all this mean for service professionals? Well, it means that the pressure is on. Shoddy service isn’t an option when the alternative is mere clicks away. That’s why I particularly love these stores. Something new and unexpected happens with each visit, yet each one is founded on principles of old-fashioned good service.

See details of the five stores I picked over at the PSFK post. The picture below is of one of them. Thanks to them for inviting me. Fun!

September 19, 2011
The Art of (Not) Saying You’re Sorry

This morning, Netflix subscribers woke up to an email from the company’s co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings. “I messed up,” he wrote. “I owe you an explanation.” But those hoping for an explanation for the terrible mess Netflix has made recently of its subscription policies were destined to be first disappointed, then mystified. For not only did Hastings make the case that his decision to split the subscriptions between DVDs and streaming was exactly the right thing to do, he then compounded the matter by announcing that the DVD service will be spun out as an entirely different business, Qwikster.

As a business decision, the split probably makes sense. We know from disruptive innovation theory that core businesses can become a liability if you’re not prepared to make bold decisions to keep evolving. As Hastings pointed out in his note, 

Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want.

Absolutely right. But, man oh man, does Hastings need some lessons in how to manage relations with his customers, who have been treated horribly in recent months. This is the apology of someone who’s actually apologizing for his customers’ stupidity. As I tweeted a quick translation of the note on first reading the letter,

I messed up. You didn’t understand the wisdom of my decision, which was absolutely correct. Love, Reid

I dubbed this a “humble nonapology.” On further reflection, it’s even worse than that. Seems to me, he’s really saying:

I messed up. I’m sorry you are slow in grasping all of this, but the great thing is that I was right all along. So stick with me while I make things even more confusing by announcing an entirely new brand that’s unrelated to Netflix without really telling you how this will affect you or your service. You won’t have to pay any more (silly old us for mucking that up, eh?!) but there will be a new website that won’t be integrated with the one you use now. Oh, and there’s a video games component now too, because for some reason I have decided that’s important to discuss right here and now.

Thing is, this isn’t merely a question of playing nicely with customers for the sake of appearances. Paying customers should always be treated with a great deal of respect and deference—but that’s doubly true when unsubscribing is a matter of clicks away. Of course, consumers can’t be allowed to paralyze a business, and change is necessary. There are doubtless a whole host of negotiations going on in the background that have led to this decision. But this arrogant tone does Hastings no favors at all. Netflix is a great service. Surely the clever people there can come up with better, more coherent, more convincing ways of communicating their decisions to their equally clever and (up to now) supportive audience?

[Images of now-retro Netflix DVD service, which will now be rebranded as Qwikster, c/o Netflix.]

[For another amazing nonapology, see journalist Johann Hari’s piece repenting for plagiarism. Then see The Economist’s beautiful evisceration of the same.]