Two Simple Statements

610xAs I was leaving the ILM:08 conference Friday afternoon I made my way around the various rooms and hallways to say goodbye and shake the hands of the many people I met with over the last few days. As I neared the lobby of the hotel I bumped into the Localeze crew hanging out and waiting for a cab to the airport. I walked over to thank them for the dinner and drinks from the previous evening. We joked around about a few things, as we usually do, and when I thanked Brian Wool, Vice President at Localeze, he responded “No Ben, thank you, we really appreciate your business.” I didn’t think much of it, we chatted for a minute longer and then I left the hotel for the airport.

Coincidentally, when I arrived my airport terminal I bumped into Geoff Jeff Beard, President of Localeze. We chatted a bit while until it was time to board the plane. I turned, shook his hand, and said “thanks again for the great time last night, really” and his response was “It was our pleasure, and thank you, we really appreciate your business.”

That’s when it hit me – “Thank you” and “we really appreciate your business” – two very simple statements, but so powerful. And sadly enough, as consumers and customers we just don’t hear it enough. Instead, we see a generic sign from the hardware store hanging in a window, or on the back of a cash register, that reads “Thank you, come again!” or “We value your business” but so rarely is it actually spoken.

When I sat on the plane I started to realize something – I’ve heard these statements many times from Localeze. In fact, I’ve heard it from each and every one of them either oh the phone or in person. I found myself rather dumbstruck by this, as simple as it is. All of this translates into something else, something vital in business – loyalty.

Like all companies there are a number of service providers, partners, and vendors that we work with at CitySquares. Nearly all of these relationships have lasted because, well obviously they provide value, but also because they appreciate our business and they make sure I know that. They make us feel like we’re valued. If I don’t feel like they appreciate my business, I’ll continue doing business with them but if someone else comes along and makes me a better offer, I’d give it serious consideration.

CitySquares’ relationships with our customers are our biggest asset. We have a high customer renewal rate because we take care of them, we provide them with value, and we appreciate their business. In fact, every month we have what we call Customer Love Day. Yeah I know, it sounds a little corny but that’s what it is; Customer Appreciation Day sounds so corporate and cliche. The point is that we make a concerted effort to make the time and we go out of our way to check in with our customers, provide them with additional value and to thank them and let them know that we appreciate their business. This is a process that’s simply in CitySquares’ DNA.

In these tough economic times, as businesses struggle in various ways it’s never ever too late to tell your partners and customers that you appreciate their business, to thank them. You can’t build loyalty in one phone call though, it takes time – but you can start today.

Clear a few minutes off your calendar and call just one of your customers today, or one more. Thank them, do something for them, go the extra mile. It only takes a moment and the worst you get out of it is a happy customer.

Customer Service: How To and How Not To

The cover of this week’s BusinessWeek is all about customer support. The subheads read, “Consumer Vigilantes” and “Customer Service Champs.” Meanwhile, CitySquares just got done tabulating our 2007 customer renewal rates: 80%. We’re an extremely customer oriented business – and I can’t stress that enough. These three points make the subject of this blog entry more poignant, I think. Here’s how not to do customer service – from my own personal experience in the past few days. If you don’t want to read my angry rants on two bad customer service experiences, go to the bottom.

First story – Jennifer Convertibles: Ali and I moved into a new home just after the holidays. Our new home is quite spacious and our existing furniture just ain’t cuttin it. Amidst all the excitement we got impulsive and decided to buy a couple chairs at Jennifer Convertibles in Porter Square. Truth be told, Jennifer Convertibles is a publicly held company based out of NY – they’re not a customer and they’re not local. I was actually a bit disappointed in myself, giving them my business. Anyway, we ordered the chairs and put the purchase on a 90 day interest-free payment plan – very handy indeed. Then we waited – we waited a month for these chairs to arrive. Three weeks ago, on a Thursday evening around 8pm, Jennifer Convertibles called us to tell us the chairs would be delivered the next day, between ….. 11 and 5. Well, thanks for the notice, first of all, and thanks for such a specific window of time. Well, I worked from home that next day and they showed up and delivered not one, but two busted chairs. That’s right – after waiting a month both chairs arrived broken. This could be a longer story, because there are other priceless details that I’m avoiding, but, long story short, they removed one chair, left the other. After dealing with the folks at Jennifer Convertibles’ Porter Square store, which in itself was a test of patience, I managed to get a couple new chairs delivered a week later. Now, we’re about 2 days before the anticipated delivery and I get a phone call – they can’t make it. I have to wait a few more days. I’ve had it – cancel my order, cancel my financing, forget the whole damn thing. They complied. This past week, however, I got a bill from Citi Financial. A bill? For what? For these two chairs. Yesterday morning, I placed literally 20 phone calls or so to a variety of Jennifer Convertibles stores in the Boston area, as well as their NY headquarters. I could not, for the life of me, and with all my trickery, get a human being on the phone. Finally, later in the day, I got someone at the Burlington, MA store. Apparently he’s circulating emails around the “higher ups” to ensure that Citi Financial is notified of the cancellation and my account is closed.

(last weekend Ali and I went to Gardner, MA to the furniture stores there. What a difference! In quality, in service, in guarantees, and sure, in price. But that’s where we’ll be buying our furniture.)

Second story – Comcast: When we moved into our new home on Dec 27th, we had Comcast come out the following day to wire up our much needed Internet and television. The technician was super nice, and did a nice job – even went above and beyond. But since then we’ve been getting strange tiling effects on our tvs. In the middle of a TV show, like um, the SuperBowl, the feed would stop – it’d freeze and we’d get these digital-like tiles all over the screen. One of our TVs became so bad a couple weeks ago that we just stopped watching it. The other one was bad too, but it was at least tolerable. Last week Ali called Comcast to have it looked at. We were told we’d have to wait a week for someone to come out. OK – fine, whatever it takes. A week was yesterday. We were told that a tech would be here between 3pm and 6pm. Ali was willing to leave work early and be home for them, so she did. At 11:30, I was at work and got a call on my mobile. It was the Comcast technician! He was outside our house – apparently it was more convenient for them. “Sir I appreciate your earliness, but no one will be home until 3pm, as scheduled.” He was totally cool and said, “Oh no problem, we’ll just come back then.” And that was that. At 3pm, Ali was home. At 4pm, Ali was home. And at 5pm and 6pm, Ali was home. No one came. We were very annoyed, to say the least. So, I called Comcast and ripped them a new one – they wasted Ali’s time and that’s enough for me. They gave me a hard time but I managed to schedule something for today, Saturday. So I snow blowed the driveway, did some work, read a little bit, and basically waited around for Comcast to come between 12 and 4. At 3:35 I called Comcast to be sure they were still coming. They assured me someone would be here by 4pm. At 3:53 my phone rang – it was the Comcast technician:

This is Comcast, you got a problem with your tv?
Yeah, is this the tech?
You on your way?
(pause) Yeah, tell me about the problem.
Why don’t we just talk about it when you get here?
(pause, sigh) What’s the problem with your tv?
Look, I got my hands full – if you’re on your way why don’t I just show you when you get here.

After the call, I went to check my TVs. Guess what – working fine. I’m confused. At 4:01 my doorbell rang – Comcast. I open the door.

So come on in but I’m really confused now. As far as I know we were still having problems. My wife waited at home for a few hours yesterday and nobody showed. I’ve been here all day waiting for you guys and I just checked and the TVs seem fine now.
Oh yeah, when we were here yesterday we climbed up the pole and rewired you – there was a bad connection.
(my turn to pause)
What time?
Like 3. We rang your doorbell and waited for a while but no one was here so we went up the pole to see what we could see.
At 3?
Funny, my wife was here from 2:30 and onward. You sure it wasnt earlier in the day? Didnt you call me?
OK look, I dont care anymore. Our TVs seem to fine now – so you think its fixed.
Thats what was causing the tiling and shit? Something up the pole in a box?
Yeah it’s all rewired. We’ve seen this before and it should be fine now.
Alright, thanks. Off you go.

Can someone please explain to me what just happened!? I called Comcast back and explained myself to a customer service rep becaues he said he might be able to do as much for me as a manager could. I bought that and explained my case to him, quite calmly too. He could offer me a $20 credit. $20! That’s what our time is worth! Twenty clams! I don’t think so pal – put your boss on.

The boss didnt even understand my story and decided she’d rather argue with me and make excuses. She didn’t understand her own title – “Customer Service Supervisor.” She offered me $40 – for my time yesterday and my time today.

OK. All that aside – what the heck is going on? Where is the customer service!? How can these companies neglect us like that? Not answer their phones!? Blow us off? Disrespect us? Waste our time? It’s really unbelievable to me. Strangely enough, this customer service is so bad that I actually am left scratching my head, wondering if I’m just too demanding of a consumer!

There are, of course, the rare companies that exceed in customer support. Many are named in the March 2nd issue of BusinessWeek. In my experience, some of the best customer service I’ve ever received has been from local businesses, of course. Local businesses need their customers, need loyalty, need favorable opinions of their customers more than the usual publicly traded company. This is not news to you of course.

A few weeks ago Ali and I were painting the walls in a few rooms. We wanted Benjamin Moore paints – only the best. We didn’t go to Home Depot, or Lowe’s, we went to a couple local hardware stores, including Hillside Hardware and Modern Hardware, both in Medford. The customer support that we received at both places, over the course of numerous weekends, was unparalleled! They were gentlemen, they were accomodating, they went above and beyond each and every time we stopped in. I will be a customer for life and I will recommend them to anyone, anytime!

The impact of bad customer support is largely diluted these days because it happens so often. We’re used to it. We’re totally used to it! And this whole consumer review trend we’re seeing is a reaction to it. Greg Sterling has blogged about this quite a bit.

CitySquares is all about the local business – not so much the consumer. We want to give consumers a voice, but we’re first and foremost about the businesses – letting them demonstrate their goods and services and giving them a platform. Consumers have enough platforms – let’s give the local businesses a real platform and let’s highlight the best of them. Let the worst sink to the bottom and let the best bubble to the top.

Locally Owned Businesses: Superior Businesses

Locally owned businesses, aka independant businesses, aka Mom and Pops, are superior to big box retailers in so many ways. Even though I believe this with every nerve in my body sometimes I forget the nuances and subtle qualities that really drive this point home. I’m guilty of shopping at chains and non-locally owned businesses like 99% of America but I truly and wholeheartedly try to shop locally whenever reasonably possible. I go to Porter Square Books to get all my books and if they don’t have it, I order it. I go to Diesel Cafe for my coffee. And when I shop at Trader Joes’s (yes, I know they’re not “local”) I buy organic foods and coffee beans etc, all in an effort to support whatever and whoever I’m told I’m supporting! Unfortunately I don’t have any locally owned pharmacies near me, so I go to CVS. On rare occasions I may go to Starbucks and I’ve been guilty of shopping at others, like Target, Home Depot, whatever. But I really try to avoid it. This past holiday season Ali and I did 90% of our gift shopping at local businesses. Some stuff we just had to buy otherwise, like a specific Brookstone gift. Unfortunately the days of local grocers are mostly gone, but we do try to shop at local butcher shops and farm stands and such. I do not like Home Depot and I try very hard to go to locally owned and operated hardware supply stores. I’ve learned a lot about Ace and True Value as a result of this and make no mistake about it – Ace and True Value stores are still very much locally owned and operated retail stores.

I think most of the population probably doesn’t concern themselves with this too much. They don’t intentionally go out of their way to Buy Local. When they need a new rake for their lawn, they go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. When they need a coffee they go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. When they need some food they go to Stop and Shop. And the national brands like those I just named have such deep pockets, they can outspend and out-advertise any local guy. They can cast so broad a net that we’re just all victims of their marketing and branding and it becomes almost instinct. You think soda – you think Coke. You think car, you think Ford. You think clothing, you think Filene’s. Ever since I was a little boy sitting in front of the TV eating cereal I’ve been bombarded with these ads. Sears, Home Depot, Circuit City, Macy’s, whatever – I’ve been groomed into this zombie consumer. MUST SHOP HERE. MUST GO THERE. NO OPTIONS.

When I was a kid I went to the same local barber with my dad every 2 weeks, I went to the same hardware store, more often than I liked. Most everything we bought was bought locally. My father is a republican, mind you (or was). He loves Nixon, loves Reagan – so this had nothing to do with politics or policy. It was how he was raised too, in NYC. Neighborhood stores in Brooklyn, the Bronx. So for me, the occasional trip to say, Child World, or Montgomery Ward was, again, occasional. It wasn’t the only choice. Heck, I don’t even remember Wal-Mart as a kid. It seemed to spring up when I was a teenager out of nowhere, but that’s here in the northeast. Anyway, I digress. Point is, I have fond memories of local stores and service providers. I don’t have memories of long and towering aisles at Sam’s Club, or grumpy people standing in lines at Wal-Mart.

So when I started CitySquares back in 2005 it was as much about local businesses, neighborhood businesses as it was about anything else. Our message is clear – BUY LOCAL. But we’re not obnoxious about, we’re not pious about it – we can’t be. And also, we ultimately respect people’s own individual rights to shop wherever they want to shop. At the end of the day, a larger portion of society does shop with their wallets. It’s nothing against local businesses, and they may even understand the value of shopping locally, but for them, it’s a matter of dollars and cents. If they can buy a box of crayons at Wal-Mart for 69 cents less than they can at a local toy store, then there are likely other savings for them and that’s ultimately what drives them. They may care deeply about the economic benefits of shopping locally – and there are many – but they have a family of four and the budget is very tight. So as far as they’re concerned, “thanks for the enlightenment buddy but I’ve got 3 kids to feed and a mortgage to pay!” And we respect that. That’s also why we continue to list non-locally owned businesses. We don’t ask them for their advertising dollars but we still put them on the website. That’s for us to be meaningful and credible.

Anyway, as you see, I’m passionate about this stuff. It’s not just a drum I’m beating either – I believe in it greatly and I believe in the importance of shopping locally as much as the next guy.

To wrap things up, I’m writing this because many people have heard me talk about it before, some people have heard me talk about it so much that it’s making them crazy (but they get it!) and I finally realized that I haven’t really blogged about it at any length. I got inspired this weekend when Ali and I had some very inspiring local shopping experiences. But I won’t get into that right now, I’m only on one cup of coffee and I feel like I could talk about this forever. But I will be talking about this more, you can bet on that.

Local Merchants: Do they get it?

That’s really the billion dollar question isn’t it? Local search was recently labeled by a friend of mine as “The Holy Grail of the Internet.” I think that might be stretching it a bit, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it The Promised Land. After all, so many are trying to get there, yet no one can tell you what it’s like! OK, now I’m stretching it.

Surely it’s no secret amongst those ‘in the know’ that local search is a hot space. There’s been a lot of press about it over the past year or so (and certainly earlier). I can think of at least three major magazines that Yelp has been written up in over the past year or so, off the top of my head. This week they were in Red Herring. They’ve been very well funded. So have folks like Judy’s Book, and Insider Pages. As I understand it, the latter two are having some troubles. I don’t really understand any of them, but that’s not relevant right now.

Citysearch and Yellow Pages are the two biggest players in the directory advertising space. I can’t say I know their financials and I’m not going to tell you that they’re not performing well, but if memory serves me right and if my homework has been done well, Citysearch barely squeaked out a profit in ’05 for the first time, and even then, that’s after several years of huge losses. Yellow Pages is in a similar situation I believe, although not nearly as dramatic. But folks, please, correct me if I’m wrong! I want to be wrong about this.

So here’s the thing, what does Citysearch, Yelp, Judy’s Book, Insider Pages, Yellow Pages, Google Local, Yahoo! Local and lil’ old Citysquares have in common?

  1. All provide a consumer facing service, online.
  2. All need to build brand awareness.
  3. All need the participation of local merchants.
  4. All need to generate revenue from these local merchants.

So what about the local merchants? Everyone is so busy talking the talk, but no one seems to really be walking the walk. I mean, isn’t the real value proposition for any of these companies to provide relevant, local, accurate information for consumers seeking local goods and services? At the end of the day, isn’t that the objective? I’m sure everyone of these companies will claim, like us, to be doing just that. I beg to differ.

Who’s really providing value for the local merchant? Our customers, at, expect a return on their investment. Remember that everyone? ROI? As a business owner, we’re focused on ROI. But so are our customers.

Before we launched our site in October of ’05 (sounds like a decade ago, but it was really just last year), we did our homework. We spoke to local merchants. (Don’t be impressed though, please.)

“What is it that you’d like out of this Ms. Merchant?”

“Well Ben, I’m glad to asked. I’d like an easy way to upload pictures of my store. I’d like to display my hours, a description of my business, my contact information. Oh, ya know what else Ben? I have a website. I’d like people to have the option of seeing more about us on our website. We don’t want you to supplant our website, just bring more traffic to it. But really Ben, the one thing I want, after all that stuff, is I want you to bring people in my door.”

“Well that’s a tall order Ms. Merchant, but if you give us a test drive, I can promise you that we’re going to do everything in our power to make you want to renew with us in 1 year.”

That’s where we are today. Renewals. And the question has come up: “So Ben, what have you done for me lately?”And we have statistics for them. We have facts and figures. Can we actually prove how much money we put back into their drawer? No, we can’t. [We are able to track a lot of things for them, but how many nickels and cents we put in their drawer isn’t one of them. (added 2006-12-16 @ 07:24) ]

We talk to local merchants all day long. If they didn’t believe in Citysquares and didn’t believe in our mission, our philosophy, I don’t think we’d be here doing this. If consumers weren’t using us, we definitely wouldn’t be here. As the super passionate founder of this wee lil’ bootstrapping startup, I’ve often wondered if I’m just a pie-eyed fool with his head to the clouds. Then I get a voice mail from a local customer who says, and I quote:

“This is Lisa with [Company] calling. And I’m calling to see if I can do some more advertising with you guys! I’m actually getting more referrals from Citysquares than I am from my Google ads. So, I wanted to talk to you about doing a little more…”

And folks, that ain’t no hype. That’s a happy customer. That’s a customer who bought in when we had less than 400 unique visitors per month, and now is investing more in Citysquares because it’s out-performing her Google AdWords campaign. Hey, not too shabby if I may say so myself. And we’re not even VC backed! That’s a customer that validates everything we’re doing. She validated every sleepless hour over the past month that the three of us have had.

With 300 customers in 14 months, we’re doing OK. We could be doing better. It’s hard work selling to local merchants. If we can get them to give us 5 minutes, we’ve almost always got a sale. But therein lies the quandary! Ah! The whole “how to sell to local merchants” question. Yes, I’m familiar with that debate. We have our ideas, we have our plans. We don’t profess to have the magic wand, but you just wait dear friends.

Now there’s the consumer side of things, right? That’s not so hard. Just demonstrate to the user that we have information for them, specifically the information they’re looking for at that moment. User generated content (like reviews) is just a value-add. It’s a bonus. Like the volume control on my steering wheel. Do I need it? No. Is it nice? Yes. Sometimes I don’t even use it. (Full disclosure: I do not have a volume control on my car steering wheel. Truth be told, I don’t have a car. My wife does though. It’s a Volkswagen Golf and it too does not have volume control on the steering wheel. But I’ve rented cars that do. Now you know.)

Here’s what it boils down to:

Merchants only get it, if we get it. Merchants know exactly what they want. They may not be using an Oracle order fulfillment systems, they may even be keeping their books in a leather bound ledger that’s 12 years old and covered in rubber bands and post-it notes. But if they have a ledger that’s 12 years old, I can guarantee you that this merchant knows more about his business than you know about yours. He’ll look up at you over his reading glasses and tell you you’re wasting your time, and that if you can’t bring him business, he doesn’t care what color your website is. He doesn’t care how many page views you have. He doesn’t care how many people read your newsletter. He’s concerned with one thing – feet in the door, young man.

The young, Internet savvy, Gen-X merchant running her clothing boutique around the corner is no different. She may disarm you with all her sweet smile and warm demeanor, but she knows more about her business than you do about yours. You have to assume that. She understands the Internet and she knows it has it’s place. She may even have a MySpace profile. Wow! She even has a website that she updates herself! Double wow! And beyond all that, she also has a Best of Citysearch plaque on her wall, from 1998. She’s got you pegged before you even open your mouth.

Does she get it? Yes. She’s waiting for you to get it.

I want to be clear about one thing – I’m not Lee Iaccoca. In fact, I’ve never even met the guy. I don’t have the answers. I don’t have the “sell to local merchants” magic wand. I do, however, understand small business. I grew up around them, in my family, and in the communities I’ve lived in. I ran one prior to Citysquares.

Local merchants are having a hard enough time making payroll, never mind getting more unique visitors to their website, or getting more people to post reviews on some web 2.0 website with a pink and bubbly brand. Local merchants are getting their asses beaten all across the nation by Wal-Mart. (I’ll stop myself right there)

I just had a conversation last night with a sports card shop in town. He was going to pay $50.00 per month for web hosting, for a 3 page website, and someone was going to charge him a lot of benjamins for a PayPal store. I had a good chat with the chap. I explained to him that the very same place he purchased his domain name for $8.00 (GoDaddy) can host his website for around $5.00 per month. (This was breaking news.) I went on to explain how they even provide a tool for him to build his own website. (He needed fresh air.) I also explained that for very little money he could use Yahoo! to build a customized storefront, with credit card services, online product galleries, and more. (The phone went dead.) But really, I’m not making this up (I promise I won’t make things up in this blog site). He was lifted to new heights of enlightenment! Then he signed up with Citysquares. He’s now a customer.

Is this the way to sell to local merchants? I mean, come on, from a practical business minded perspective, is this the way to sell? What’s the CPA? Well, that depends on who we’re trying to be, and who we’re trying to beat. I’ll let the future determine that. Feet on the street? Dial for dollars? Direct Mail? “If you build it, they will come?” Sales channels and partnerships? Look at the Google-Intuit deal. It’s brilliant. I don’t see it as the best idea to surface in this crazy space, but it’s a brilliant idea. I question why some people consider it to be such a big deal, but certainly it’s a good sales channel, and a back door one at that. I’m envious.

I don’t have the answers. But I do have one answer: Local merchants do get it.

If I haven’t done a good job of making this argument, please let me know. I’d like to type more, but I’m afraid I’ve already bored you, and it’s 8pm and I haven’t had lunch yet.