The Spotlight Effect

There’s an old saw in business: “That which gets measured gets results”. 

I have to admit I’ve always been a bit dismissive of that saying (usually attributed to the late business guru Peter Drucker).  In corporate life, I saw plenty of things that were measured which didn’t get results.  The mere act of measuring something accomplishes nothing if effort doesn’t also go into improving that ‘something’.

But a couple of events over the past few weeks has me thinking about what does get results. 

Newtown Pike Extension
The first event was the much-acclaimed burial of utility lines along Lexington’s Newtown Pike extension.  After Graham and Clive Pohl (of Pohl Rosa Pohl Architects) highlighted the discrepancy between the pretty artists’ renderings of the extension and the actual plans for the construction that was about to begin.  Instead of the beautiful, pristine streets promised in the renderings, the extension would have been littered with utility poles and power lines.

LFUCG engineers cited the high relative cost of burying the utilities, estimating that putting them underground would add nearly $900,000 to the project’s cost.

Since the extension will be a kind of “gateway” into Lexington, there was an outcry from many on the Urban County Council about how important it was for us to look good for visitors.  Our Vice Mayor was quoted as saying “We’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  Local columnists and Lexington’s online community jumped on the issue as well, and it snowballed.

Within a couple of weeks, city leaders lined up with Kentucky’s Governor to announce that they had found the extra funds to put the utilities underground in the Governor’s contingency fund.

IMG_2545 I have to admit, I support putting utilities underground, but am dubious of the “first impression” argument.  The utilities are currently slated to go underground only on the Newtown Pike Extension.  The existing stretch of Newtown will still have above-ground utilities.  So a visitor’s true first impression will still be filled with wires and poles from I-75 to Main Street, as seen in this shot of Newtown from this afternoon.

The Treeds Experiment
The second event was a little closer to home.  In the Treeds Experiment, I decided take up a challenge from an Urban County Councilmember to see how long it took to get a response from LFUCG’s Division of Code Enforcement.  So, last Friday – just before the holiday weekend – I sent an email to Code Enforcement about a lot next to our main building which had become overgrown with tree-weeds, or “treeds”.  

At the same time I sent the email, I posted an outline of the experiment on my blog, along with pictures of the overgrowth.  And I pledged to chronicle the responses I got from the city. 

IMG_2531 This past Tuesday, the city’s contractors showed up to clear the lot – less than one business day after my email and post.  Pretty impressive by any measure.  Code Enforcement hasn’t addressed all of the concerns I outlined (the main drain in the lot is still clogged).  But, to be fair, they have addressed most of the public safety issues which accompanied the blight in that lot.

On Twitter, a couple of folks brought up valid points.  Russell and Ann both pointed out that Treeds had an unfair advantage – because I talked about it publicly, that may have helped artificially accelerate the responsiveness of the city.  (Indeed, within hours of my initial Treeds post, a city employee commented that the experiment would ‘fail’.)

The Spotlight Effect
These two events both benefited from the “spotlight effect”: When the public’s spotlight turns to a particular issue, and that spotlight begins burning intensely, ‘normal’ reactions and ‘normal’ timelines are no longer acceptable.

Russell and Ann were right: my experiment wasn’t ‘normal’, and the average citizen shouldn’t expect that kind of responsiveness.

And others would point out that the Newtown Pike Extension wasn’t ‘normal’ either – it was a one-time event which utilized one-time funds.  We shouldn’t expect city officials to move that quickly to fix an oversight or mistake.

But we should. 

Everyone should get prompt action on valid complaints.  Everyone should expect city leaders to fix their mistakes, to do the right things, and to do them quickly.

But we can’t wait for our leaders to do the right thing.  We need to push them.  We need to build bigger, brighter spotlights, and we need to shine those spotlights on the things that matter. 

It is up to us.

Building a Spotlight
What does it take to build an effective spotlight?  I can’t claim to be an expert, but here are some of my thoughts culled from the past few days and weeks (feel free to contribute your own in the comments below):

  • We must be more vocal.  We tend to be indirect folks here in Lexington.  It is awkward and impolite to complain; it is much better for the other person to do what they should.  But they don’t.  And we stew.  And nothing much changes.  

It is time for that to change.  As out-of-character as it may be for many of us, we need to become much more vocal about what is wrong and what we expect.  Only then can things improve.

  • We must join our voices.  When one person calls a city department, they are a complainer.  When several people call – and are joined by bloggers, columnists, and media – that’s a movement. 

And a movement is what dislodged the status quo of the Newtown Pike Extension.  We need more movements in Lexington with more voices working in concert.  We need to utilize our public platforms – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and papers – to draw others to our cause.

  • We must be more visible
    When one person calls one other person at LFUCG, there’s no spotlight. 
    No one else knows about the call, and no one else can amplify the
    sentiments expressed there. 

One of the reasons that Treeds got such a rapid response was probably
the ‘publicness’ of the experiment.  That visibility helped the amplify
the spotlight and, in all likelihood, accelerated the response.

  • We must measure.  This statement isn’t about micro-measuring every detail of every issue.  It is about documenting who we talked with and what they said, and holding them accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). 

Any regular reader of my posts knows that I’m not shy.  They know
that I’m not afraid to use my platforms to try to build a movement.  In
the past few months, my blogging and writing has become fairly
visible.  (And, for what it is worth, I’ve got some like-minded

So if you need a spotlight, let me help you.  If you see blight around campus or around downtown, let me know.  If
your business is suffering from the South Limestone road closure, let
me know.  If you have a great idea for our city, let me know.  If you
see a problem which needs fixing, let me know.

Together, let’s be more vocal.  Let’s join our
voices with others who agree.  Let’s be more visible.  And, then, let’s
hold people accountable.

I want a better Lexington.  One where businesses aren’t squeezed out of their locations by poorly-planned year-long road closures.  One where our government operates much more transparently.  One where blight is quickly and effectively addressed.  One which has a real (and realistic) urban development plan for downtown.  One which has a thriving arts and business community.  One which leverages its past to build a brighter future.  One which will make my son homesick if he ever leaves.

If you want that too, then join me – or rather, have me join you.  Tell me
what matters. 

And I’ll do my best to help you build a spotlight.  Let’s make a better, faster Lexington.


The Treeds Experiment

Back in May, I blogged about the abandoned properties next to our shop, and about what to do about blight in our city. 

In this week’s Urban County Council meetings, residents of several neighborhoods surrounding the University of Kentucky campus registered their concerns about the changes taking place in their communities. 

The biggest concerns surrounded how some property owners were effectively converting single-family homes into makeshift dormitories / frat houses / flop houses to take advantage of the burgeoning student population at UK.  The complaints centered not only on the creation of multi-unit apartments and the paving of lawns for parking, but also on the often-destructive behavior of the residents who move in.

Some on the council wished to impose a moratorium on these kinds of conversions while the city figures out how to accommodate growth at UK. 

Last night, the council rejected the proposed moratorium, to the disappointment of many of the residents.  At one point, Councilmember Lane suggested that neighbors should simply “file a complaint on property owners you feel are in violation of zoning ordinance, see if our government can apply the laws we have on the books,” to which citizen Janet Cowan responded “I know all of the numbers, Mr. Lane.  I have them on speed dial.” 

So, how well can the government apply the laws we have on the books?  It is time to see. 

The Treeds Experiment
What happened after openly blogging about the properties surrounding Lowell’s back in May? 


Well, not nothing, exactly..  The 8-foot tall tree-weeds (“treeds”) I talked about then have now grown to some 16- to 18-feet tall, dwarfing the hedges that they have grown through.


The treeds now spill out over the sidewalks, making them impossible to navigate without a machete.  Some pedestrians step into the street rather than navigate the mess on the sidewalks.


The grass growing next to our building has now grown to 7 1/2 feet tall (That’s me back there earlier this afternoon, risking chiggers and other man-eating varmints. I’m 6 1/2 feet tall…). 


And, finally, the only drain on the lot is completely crusted over.  So, during heavy rains, the lot drains straight into Mechanic Street, contributing to an occasional “Lake Mechanic”.


All of which sets the stage for what I’m calling “The Treeds Experiment”.  The Treeds Experiment is a test — wherein I plan to take up Councilmember Lane’s suggestion — and learn just how long and how well our government takes to apply the laws that we already have on the books.

Simultaneous with this blog post on the afternoon before a holiday weekend, I am sending an email to requesting that they take remedial action upon this lot and its owners.

I will chronicle the communication (and, I anticipate, the non-communication) I get from the Code Enforcement folks and other city officials in updates to this post and on Twitter.  I will not tell them that I am doing so (so that they will not artificially accelerate their actions).

But I am telling you.

Should be interesting.  Look for updates here as the weeks and months progress.


Note: Many thanks to AceWeekly for chronicling the LFUCG meetings and civic discussions.  Ace captured the quotes I used above.

Pat Gerhard at Third Street Stuff has recently contacted the Downtown Development Authority about the lot.  We agreed a month or so ago that I would contact Code Enforcement.  (Sorry for the delay, Pat.)

9/4/2009, 3:46 PM: Sent initial email to LFUCG Code Enforcement, while publishing this post.

To whom it may concern:

I am the owner of Lowell’s, an auto
repair shop at 111 Mechanic Street.  There is a lot at the North corner
of North Limestone and Mechanic which appears to be abandoned, as no
maintenance has been done by the owners for over 2 years. 

There are now large tree-weeds growing through the hedges
surrounding the lot, making progress on sidewalks very difficult.  The
only drain on the lot is clogged, and the lot drains into Mechanic
Street, contributing to flooding during heavy rains.  There is a large
clump of grass which is now approaching 8 feet in height which is
growing next to our main building.  Many customers assume that the lot
is ours (since it borders our building), and a few have asked us to
clean it up.

Can you take remedial action on this property and update me on your progress in addressing these issues? 

Thank you,
Rob Morris

9/4/2009, 6:18 PM: Blog comment from the Lexington Streetweeper (written by an LFUCG employee) on how the Treeds Experiment is “destined to fail”.

9/4/2009, 9:28 PM: I reply that failure really isn’t possible.

9/7/2009, 10:50 AM: During torrential downpours, Lake Mechanic forms again as Mechanic Street is completely flooded, due in part to runoff from the Treeds lot with a clogged drain.

9/8/2009, 10:45 AM: I receive an email from David Jarvis, Director of Code Enforcement:

I will have Calvin Powell assign an Inspector.  Thank You.

9/8/2009, 1:25 PM: I respond:

Thank you.  I look forward to your updates.


9/8/2009, 2:19 PM: David Jarvis sends me another email:

Property will be cited (14 day time limit) and the limbs will be cleared back off the sidewalk as soon as we can get our contractor there.

As I read that email (and post this update) the contractors arrive with weed-eaters and loppers in hand:



Buh-bye treeds!  But where will the varmints live now?

9/8/2009, 2:45 PM: Taylor Shelton and 10th District Councilmember Doug Martin post responses on the blog.  Councilmember Martin mentions that Code Enforcement is particularly short-handed and suggests that citizens use LexCall 311 with details of their similar complaints.

9/8/2009, 6:31 PM: I came back to Lowell’s after being out since about 3:30 PM, and most of the debris was removed.  Still a couple of piles which couldn’t fit into the contractor’s truck.


9/9/2009, 9:15 AM: Contractors cleaning up remaining debris from lot next to Lowell’s main building.


9/9/2009, 10:14 AM: The lot’s only drain is still clogged.  Not sure whether that is a Code Enforcement issue or not.  Sent a response to David Jarvis and Calvin Powell:

Thank you for your quick actions in getting this lot cleared. 

Is the clogged drain in the lot something under the purview of Code
Enforcement, or would there be another department which handles that
drainage issue?



IMG_2540 IMG_2541 IMG_2542


What you told us: How Zappos would fix cars

This week we asked for your help in defining an astoundingly great car repair experience.  We summed it up this way: How would Zappos fix cars?

In Wednesday’s post, we talked a little about what Zappos does and why customers love them, including the famous I Heart Zappos post.  And in the past two days, we’ve gotten some really great responses on Twitter, Facebook, and here on the blog – including one response from a Zappos employee!


Over on Facebook, Joan commented that she thought that Zappos was actually the “Lowell’s of selling shoes“.  (We heart Joan.)  We love that sentiment and will try to live up to it, but still think we have a lot to potential to improve our own customer service.

On Twitter, Jim suggested that Zappos “would come to your house and fix it at night while you slept“.  Allan and Mari joked about needing to buy parts online from Amazon (an allusion to Zappos’ recent purchase by

But the strongest theme running through the comments: The need for greater transparency in auto repair.  I’ll run through some of the comments, and then talk a little about what Lowell’s does (and what we could do based on your comments).  On Twitter, Jupiter said he’d like to prevent that “being had” feeling, perhaps by getting greater detail on what was being repaired and why it was needed.  Ace Weekly chimed in “They would spoon you before giving you the bill?”  Here on the blog, Letha (a Zappos employee) shared a friend’s experience with a body shop which sent her daily text messages about the status of her car after a wreck, including a countdown to when it would be ready.  Jim added this comment:

“The thing the frustrates me about car repair is the unexpected nature
and size of the expense. It would be nice to provide as part of the
service an educational piece that says here are the expected life
cycles for key systems for your car and what you might expect to pay.
And here are indicators of failure so we can start to diagnose these
issues BEFORE they happen. At some point, owners need to start
BUDGETING for system replacement and failure and that takes planning
and information.”

What’s clear from this last batch of comments is that automotive service is all-too-frequently a kind of mysterious ‘black box’ where a car goes in one side and nasty, unpleasant surprises emerge from the other. 

At Lowell’s we try to prevent such surprises in the following ways:

  • On each invoice, we print a list of factory-recommended maintenance given vehicle mileage, including a rating of the severity or urgency of each one, and pricing.  We try to review that list with our customers when they pick up or drop off their vehicle.  We sometimes fail to discuss maintenance needs during busy pick-up and drop-off times.
  • We always get customer approval before doing work on a vehicle, providing customers with estimates of the costs before we do the work.  If they are available, we’ll also offer less-expensive alternatives, like fixing or cleaning a part instead of replacing it.  (Ace, we try to reduce the need for ‘spooning’ whenever possible.)
  • When we call a customer to get approval, we tell them what a technician found and explain why action might be needed.

Based on your comments to us, here are some ideas of what we could do:

  • Explainers.  For frequently-done maintenance and repair service items, we could provide detailed “explainer” sheets, including text and pictures regarding what the service is, why it is needed, and what a part might look like when it needs replacement. 
  • Schedules.  With ongoing maintenance, it is easier to implement Jim’s suggestion
    that we provide more of a roadmap of service.  And we do that, to some extent,
    with our list of factory-recommended maintenance.  But it is very
    difficult to predict with accuracy when something will break and
    require repair, and for many repairs there are few warning signs until
    something breaks.  When visible, we’ll tell customers about signs like
    brake or belt wear or engine leaks.  One idea: We could take pictures of the actual parts that are wearing or of the places that are leaking, to show the thing that needs service.
  • Convenience.  Not sure yet how we might do something like this, but Jim’s other suggestion of working on vehicles overnight is interesting.  Perhaps we could pick a car up and have it back in the morning for very basic items, but a big part of our process is communicating back to customers about what we find (and they probably won’t welcome updates at 2 in the morning).  But Jim’s suggestion got us thinking: Are there other ways we could make getting auto service easier?
  • Updates.  As a mechanical shop, most of our repairs are completed same-day, so we almost never have the 20-day delay in getting completed that Letha’s friend had at the body shop.  But Letha’s post got us thinking: Are there other ways you’d prefer to be contacted?  While the phone is our usual way of updating customers, we do frequently find ourselves in a kind of phone tag during the service approval process.  We could provide more contact alternatives: text messages, Twitter DM’s (direct messages), etc. 

Which of these things would matter to you?  What other things would create an astounding car repair experience for you?

We really appreciate your thoughts, and please, keep giving us ideas on how to improve.


How would Zappos fix cars?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our shop a better place for our customers and our community.  We feel like we're pretty good at the basics.  Just a few examples:

  • We have an expert staff who know how to get cars fixed.
  • We have a lot of nice touches for customers who wait on their vehicles: 5-cent Cokes, complimentary coupons for a drink and snack at Third Street Stuff, and we encourage customers to take our waiting area magazines with them.
  • For customers who can't wait around, we have a complimentary shuttle to take them back home or to work.  For longer repairs, we provide complimentary loaner vehicles.

These (and many other) touches have helped us a lot.

But "It can always be better" is my personal motto.  This isn't some pessimistic, glass-half-empty statement; it is a fundamental belief that we can always improve the way we do things.

3So we've been thinking about companies that really excel in customer service, and one name keeps popping up: Zappos

Zappos is a world-class online shoe and clothing retailer who has gained a fanatical customer following because they do a lot of things right:

  • They offer free shipping (both ways).  While not promised, the shipping is often next-day.
  • They have a 365-day return policy.  If your shoes don't fit or don't look the way you expected, return them at no cost.
  • They have round-the-clock customer service.
  • They have a positive culture which puts a premium on providing astoundingly great customer service and having fun.
  • They have an enthusiastic staff which has permission to make things 'right' for customers with frequent pleasant surprises like this one.

Zappos recently agreed to be acquired by, and there has been a lot of concern about their ability to maintain their unmatched customer service. 

But for us, Zappos presents an interesting question:

How would Zappos fix cars?

What would an astoundingly great car repair experience be like?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 

We can't wait to see what you come up with.

UPDATE: What you told us.


The UnTower Manifesto: 1. Truth

[Note: The UnTower Manifesto is a three-part series about responding to the failure of CentrePointe.  You can read the full story of that failure here.]

As the CentrePointe project becomes the UnTower scandal, a general consensus has developed which agrees that CentrePointe will never be built on the crater that its developers rushed to create. 

A critical question, then, is this: If CentrePointe will not be successfully constructed, how should Lexington move forward in the wake of the UnTower scandal?

There is the obvious question of how to proceed with the colossal scar in the middle of our city.  But there is also the less obvious – but, ultimately, more important – issue of changing how Lexington works in order to prevent the next UnTower catastrophe.  Let me start there, and we'll return to the issue of what to do with the site.

Toward a Better Lexington
The details of how UnTower happened have slooowly trickled out from the developers.  Their secrecy, lack of candor, intimidation, outright deception, and possible fraud have sharpened questions about how decisions have been made throughout the project's approval process.  UnTower has exposed how opaque and how ill-informed our mayor's and our Urban County Council's decision-making processes have been.  And, if you look closely enough, the scandal shows us how Lexington should improve.

So, how did this fiasco happen?  The details have been covered many times from many, many, many quarters, so I'll simply summarize the key themes:

  • Throughout UnTower, the developers have maintained great secrecy about the financing and the business model behind their development.  As details have emerged, neither looks viable.
  • The developers claim their project is 'private', but have pressured the public to provide approvals and special Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for the project, with much of the TIF dependent upon a vibrant long-term business model which they don't have.
  • The developers, the mayor, and some council members have not shared how and when they learned about key elements of and issues with UnTower which led to its ultimate demise.
  • The developers, the mayor, and much of the council have responded to pointed and informed questions about the project with vague, non-responsive answers.  Often, they refused to respond at all.
  • While there was public discussion about the decisions our government was making, the conversation was muffled by their timing and format.

In the end, the whole affair had a distinct 'backroom deal' flavor to it which left more questions than answers: How were these decisions made?  What information went into the decisions?  What information was withheld?  What information was fabricated? Who talked with whom about the project?  When did they talk? 

All of the questions have raised a bigger question: How is it possible that our community doesn't have absolute clarity into how decisions are made by our elected representatives?

In my business, if we failed to clearly explain how a vehicle was repaired, we'd lose customers.  If we came across as less-than-honest, our loyal customers would fire us.  If we refused to meet with a customer to address their complaints, they would tell their friends and family.  If we didn't make things right when we screwed up (and, yes, that does happen occasionally), our reputation would suffer.  In the end, our business would fail.

With UnTower, our community's 'business' failed us.

Clarity.  Explanation.  Honesty.  Availability.  Accountability.  These are the pillars of a transparent business that customers can believe 'does things right'.  A healthy, vibrant business which grows and prospers.

We wouldn't accept anything less than these qualities from a business.  And we shouldn't accept anything less from Lexington.

In an age of websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, every business has had to engage in conversations with customers on the customers' terms.  The ubiquity of the internet means that these tools are available to nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.  The latency of the internet means that the conversations don't have to happen at the same time – they can build over time.  The internet's ubiquity and latency forms the foundation of a new and better town hall.

Why should we all have to cram into a room at the same time?  Why should we have to play 'beat the clock' when talking about issues which are complex and nuanced?  Why should we have to forgo pressing business or personal matters to attend a meeting which is designed to be convenient for our representatives?

The internet provides the perfect public forum for every citizen to express his or her public policy views, ideas, and thinking.  Even better, our ideas can build on one another as we tinker with and improve the ideas of our neighbors.  Plus, conducting civic conversations on the internet can happen around the clock.  Citizens can participate in the public discussion when and where it is convenient for them, not for the elected representatives who serve them.  Isn't that the way it should be?

Further, every single representative should publish their conversations, thinking, dilemmas, trade-offs, beliefs and positions (and the transactions between them and other interested parties – like developers or investors or campaign contributors).  These records should be posted online for all citizens to see, comment on, debate, and improve.

The council members' emails are listed on the city's website, as are the mayor's newsletters.  But these are old, closed, one-way forms of communication.  They aren't vibrant community discussions.

So, do I want to see tweets that the mayor's advisor is picking up eggs?  Or a Facebook entry featuring the halloween costumes of the councilwoman's children?  Not particularly.  But we deserve to see real-time updates of their thinking on critical community issues.  We should know why they have changed their minds at the last minute.  They should tell us who they talked with and what they said.  After all, they are public officials.  We should see into a transparent civic machine which serves all of us.

What is clear is that a 19th-century civic apparatus has hamstrung our
21st-century community. The ancient contraption allows far too many
secrets to hide within.  Whether our representatives and our governments use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or some other platform matters far less than whether they start participating in open conversations with the people they serve.

The technology already exists.  Millions of people already use it.  Thousands of your constituents use it every day.  It's easy.  It's free.  And it will make Lexington better.  What are you waiting for?

[Continued in: The UnTower Manifesto: 2. Consequences]

[where: E Main St & N Limestone St, Lexington, KY 40507]

What do you hate about Lowell’s?

OK, so 'hate' is a strong word for it.

But as much as we try to be the best mechanic in Lexington, we know we're not perfect.  We know that there must be some parts of your experience with us which could be better.

So tell us.  Let us have it.  We can take it.  And we need it.

To get the conversation started, here are some aspects of our business you might want to riff on:

  • Our location
  • Our pricing
  • Our service
  • Our website
  • Our blog
  • Our lobby
  • Our restroom
  • Our people
  • Our honesty
  • Our attitude
  • How we checked you in
  • How much time we took
  • How well we explained what we did
  • How we checked you out
  • Something we did
  • Something we didn't do
  • Something we should do

Please let us know how Lowell's can get better.  Use the comments section below, call the shop at 233-1173, or email us at lowells [at] iglou [dot] com.

We can't promise we'll do everything you suggest, but we will work to make your overall experience with Lowell's a better one.

And thank you.

[where: 111 Mechanic St., Lexington, KY, 40507]

Service Hero: Chili’s

Part of our Customer Service Hero, Zero, or Nero series.
Heroes really care about customers and create surprise and delight.

A few years ago, Chili's really ticked me off.

Because of our careers, my wife and I ate out a lot.  (We still do.)  And Chili's had my favorite meal, a dish they called 'Margarita Grilled Tuna'.  I had eaten it every week or so for some 5 or 6 years.

Then it disappeared from the menu.  (Editorial comment: Booooooo!)

I tried to stay away from Chili's in protest, but my wife dragged me back in.  Eventually, I found some other things I liked eating there, but nothing ever compared to that tuna…

Chili's continued to be part of our regular rotation of restaurants after our son was born.  And, with his magnetic personality, several wait-staff members would go out of their way to come visit with him.  The greeters and managers began recognizing us as well.

When we walked in last night, the greeter proclaimed "There's my buddy! How's Mr. Carson tonight?" and exchanged high-fives with him.  She took us to our 'regular' booth (in reality, we have eaten all over the restaurant, but we do prefer the booths).

Alex, who wasn't our server last night, came over and double-high-fived Carson, and talked with him for a few minutes.

Neil, the general manager, came over and gave him a big hug and called him by name.  He also brought a Chili's ball cap, and gave it to Carson to wear.  On previous visits, Neil has also brought us a complementary slushie and has introduced Carson to Neil's own daughter.

CarsonChilisLast night, he asked if he could take Carson's picture for the office wall, because "seeing Carson only once a week just wasn't enough".  15 minutes later, he brought out a 4×6 print for us to keep.  Carson was beaming.  (My scan doesn't do the original photo justice.)

On the way out, Carson gave Neil another big hug and waved goodbye enthusiastically to the other staff members.

Eating out with a toddler can be a challenging experience.  At Chili's, the staff's willingness to engage Carson has helped keep him occupied and entertained.  That's a big bonus for parents like us.

But what makes the experience truly special is the sense that we are among family and friends.  Carson is greeted with genuine joy by the Chili's staff.  They are happy to have us come back.  And, as a result, we are happy to go back.

For Carson, these kinds of interactions have made Chili's one of only two restaurants he knows by name: "Chih-wee's".  (The other is "Chick-foo-way".)

Can I recommend every Chili's based on our experiences?  No.  Over at the Brand Autopsy blog, John Moore openly wondered why Chili's needs to exist.

But I can heartily recommend our Chili's.  Even without the tuna…

A Few Lessons for Business

  1. Relationships matter.  We have come to see Chili's as a kind of extended family.  Out of the dozens of companies you interact with, how many businesses can you say that about?
  2. Relationships take time and patience.  Real relationships aren't built overnight.  If Neil had started snapping pictures of Carson the first time we met him, we would have been creeped out.  Because he had earned our friendship and trust over a series of interactions, we didn't mind a bit.
  3. Relationships require genuine familiarity.  Fake familiarity doesn't work — customers will see through that as shallow.  But when the Chili's staff remembers our names (well, OK, Carson's name) and our preferences, that shows a level of caring, concern, and memory which is lacking in most business interactions.  Neil, Alex, Tina, and the rest of Chili's staff have shown a genuine interest in us and our child, and have earned our trust and loyalty.
  4. Be happy to see your customers.  And make sure your staff is, too.
  5. Leadership matters.  Neil's outgoing approach and enthusiastic attitude has infected his staff, who reflect the same personality.  Speaking from experience, it is really easy to get stuck in the office.  Neil gets out of the office to talk with his people and his customers.  And it really works.
  6. Kids matter.  As a parent, when a business goes out of their way to show that they care about the experience they create for my child, they win my loyalty.  Be a kid's hero, and you'll be their parents' hero, too.
  7. The product still matters.  You might notice that I haven't mentioned the food last night.  It was good.  And a good product is the first requirement for a good experience – that's why the customer is really there to begin with.  Wrapping a great experience around an awful product will ring hollow for the customer – and they won't be back.
  8. Margarita Grilled Tuna matters.  Bring it back.  Please.

[where: 2851 Richmond Rd, Lexington, KY 40509]

Recession Pants

Part of our Customer Service Hero, Zero, or Nero series.
Zeroes seemed to have just stopped trying.

I like Dockers pants.  They are easy to find, and their sizes are reliable and fit me well.  I'm a particular fan of their "Golf Pant" – not because I play golf, but because they have a few bonuses I like: a 'shirt-gripper' waistband (to keep shirts tucked in) and extra interior pockets (to keep my stuff easy-to-find).  Also, I don't have to iron them — a big time-saver.

So I visited a store earlier this week to look for them.  But the Dockers section had a lot of new, unfamiliar names for their pants: 'The Broker Chino' and 'The Lincoln Pant'.  The Golf Pant was nowhere to be found…

I was in a hurry, so I grabbed the ones which looked closest to the style I liked: The Lincoln Pant.  Same price, same style.  Just a different name…

Or so I thought.

The next morning, I put these pants on, and noticed to my annoyance that the shirt-gripper was missing.  My brain was filled with images of me constantly stuffing my shirts back into the back of my pants.

Then I went to load my stuff: change, cell phone, pens, glasses case, cash, and such.  No interior pockets, so all my stuff was swimming in there together.  Plus, the pockets aren't as deep as they used to be.  Another annoyance, especially when I'm driving or sitting and stuff spills out of my pockets.

It seems that the Lincoln pants are a recession version of the Golf pants: All style, no substance.  By skimping on a few square inches of cloth and that little rubbery strip around the waist, the pants have lost most of what made them worth buying in the first place. 

Lessons for Business
Times are tough for a lot of businesses, and the desire for cost-cutting is understandable.

But when a business chooses to scrimp on the very things their customers value, they make things even tougher for themselves.  Ultimately, such businesses wither as customers see no particular reason to patronize them.

Did Dockers offend me?  No.  I bought a decent (but not special) pair of pants.  But by charging the same price for a blander product, they did create a Zero experience and gave me the impression that they just stopped trying to meet my needs.

So, by saving costs on these "recession pants", Dockers will likely lose a customer.  That's a steep price for the few pennies saved.

What if, instead, Dockers had leaned into the recession winds, and invested a few extra cents?  Maybe heavier cloth, more pockets, or some cool innovation.  What if they had chosen to stand out from all of the competitors who also cut costs?  What if they treated the recession as an opportunity to grow, rather than a threat requiring fiscal tightening?  What if they had chosen to change things instead of being changed by them?

It might have cost them a little more in these hard times, but it would have increased my devotion to their brand, perhaps for several years.

What is that worth?

[where: 1988 Pavilion Way, Lexington, KY 40509]

Service Nero: Ruby Tuesday

Part of our Customer Service Hero, Zero, or Nero series.
Neroes fiddle while the organization is on fire.

The meal was fine.

But I left my glasses at the table.

When we sat down, I distinctly remembered setting them near the edge of the table.  As the meal progressed, and we attended to our 2-year-old, they got obscured by plates and napkins. 

As we were leaving the table, we saw some long-time friends at another table.  My wife took our son over to visit while I paid the bill (nice tip – more than 25% because we had a coupon) and gathered our things.  But I forgot my glasses. 

We visited with our friends for about 5 minutes on the other side of the restaurant and went out to the car.  That's when I realized that I didn't have them. 

I returned to the table, which had already been cleared.

That's when it got ugly.

I found our server, and when I asked her about the glasses, she declared that they weren't on the table: "I would have seen them if they were there."  She was quite defiant, and I started to regret that I had been generous with her tip. 

She then asked if I had left them in the bathroom – which I hadn't visited.  I had to verbally nudge her to get her to ask around in the kitchen to see if anyone else had seen them.  She came back: "They're not here."  She was getting impatient with me.  I was getting impatient with her.  I regretted tipping her at all.

I told her I was certain I left them on the table, and I wondered whether they could have been placed into the trash.  Now, she looked at me with disgust.  She reiterated that she would have seen the glasses "if they were there."  When she saw I was serious and wasn't going to leave, she offered to talk to the manager about whether I could go through the trash. 

While she was in the kitchen, I heard her declare that she wasn't going "in there" (the trash can).  There were also rounds of laughter — I assumed it was at my expense.  She came back, and informed me they would carry the can out to the back of the restaurant, and I could rifle through it out in the cold.  She looked at me as though I had bugs crawling all over me.  Now furious, I told her I'd go out there.

I pulled my car around back, and two kitchen dudes brought a couple of garbage cans out.  Without saying a word to me, they plopped them down, returned to the kitchen, and slammed the door.  I stood there in the cold, stunned for a few seconds as I realized that no one was going to help in the slightest — even to offer any suggestions on where to start or implements with which to sift through the trash…

Then, I remembered that I had a 24" level in the back of my car.  At first, I poked and prodded through the kitchen waste with the bright yellow level.  No glasses.  Then I was rowing through the stuff to get deeper and deeper into the can.  My son was repeating "What is Daddy doooooing?" over and over again.  It must have made for a comical scene, but I was livid.

I was angry enough that I entertained the thought of emptying the trash cans all over the lot.  Or, even better, the lobby!  I just wanted revenge.

Then, I rowed back a piece of lettuce and found my "prize": The glasses were covered in some sort of ranch sauce, onion, and ketchup concoction.  I went back to the car to get a few paper napkins, and then fished the disgusting mixture out.

I wanted to show our server — despite her absolute certainty that the glasses weren't there — that in fact, they were.  So I headed around to the lobby.  One of the kitchen dudes was outside the front door on his smoke break.  "Did you find 'em?"  "Yes," I said, holding up the messy prize.  "Really?  That's amazing…"  I asked him to let our server know, deciding not to make a bigger confrontation out of it.

While I had gone to the front, the manager had come out briefly to talk with my wife.  He went inside before I got back.

But for me, it was too little, too late.  I hated Ruby Tuesday.  That was two weeks ago, and I'm still peeved.  Can you tell?

A Few Lessons for Business

  1. It isn't just what you are selling.  Bad service ruins a great, quality product.
  2. Be vigilant.  One employee (and one incident) can reflect badly on the entire company.  It won't matter if you do great 90% of the time.
  3. Be humble.  Don't pretend to be certain, whether to cover for what you don't know or to cover for what you didn't do.
  4. Don't tell customers they are wrong.
  5. Don't treat customers with contempt, disgust, or derision.
  6. Own some part of the customer's problem.  Even if it involves something distasteful, offer to help the customer in some way.  They didn't have to sift through the trash with me, but I would have appreciated simple suggestions or tools or even sympathy…
  7. The real problem is bigger.  Very few customers blog or confront like I just did.  Most simply give up and never come back.  Find out why.  And fix it.
  8. Customers talk.  Customers will tell family, friends, and acquaintances (and, sometimes, blog readers) about their bad experiences.  But they probably won't tell you.
  9. Don't leave your glasses at Ruby Tuesday.  On second thought, better be safe and just don't go there.  Ever.

[where: 1808 Alysheba Way, Lexington, KY 40509]

Customer service: Hero, zero, or Nero?

Here at Lowell's, we strive for an exceptional level of customer service.  We want our customers to remember and recommend us.  When they do, we grow.

In reality, we make mistakes.  But we do try to learn and improve when we make them.  And we try to make up for mistakes whenever possible.

Recently, we have had some, er, memorable customer experiences with other organizations.  In upcoming posts, I'll document some of them.  It will be quite entertaining.

In the process, I'll use three categories to talk about customer service levels:

  • Heroes:  Heroes are the folks who surprise, delight, and really create memorable customer experiences.  They are the ones who care the most about their customers, and really deliver what customers want.  Heroes create vibrant, growing businesses.
  • Zeroes:  These are the people who, in some way, have seemed to just stop trying.  There's nothing particularly bad about their experiences, but there's nothing great, either.  They're just complacent.  And the end result is a blah, unremarkable encounter.  'Zero' businesses are usually stagnant or shrinking.  They tend to have shifted their focus from customers to internal processes, and often end up quite bureaucratic as a result. 
  • Neroes:  Named in honor of the emperor who 'fiddled' while Rome burned, a customer service Nero is someone who actively creates a crappy, customer-repelling experience.  'Nero' experiences often come from rogue employees, but some organizations seem to allow poor service to spread throughout.  Nero businesses often implode as customers simply evaporate.

We're going to have some fun with these posts, but we're also going to try to extract important business lessons from them. 

We're also very interested in hearing about your hero, zero, or Nero customer service experiences.  Comment below about your notable experiences.  We can't wait to hear from you.

[where: 111 Mechanic St, Lexington, KY 40507]