Imaginary Lemonade, Real Sour Taste

By J.F. McKenna

Susie is an enterprising pixie of a girl. One day her father lends his cell phone to Susie as she sets up a sidewalk lemonade stand. Overnight, parlaying the power of daddy’s wireless technology, Susie is Fortune’s child prodigy. She commands a plucky legion of peers to market and sell her lemonade and directs adult vendors over her growing wireless network. Hers is the confidence of Gordon Gekko. And her story, told repeatedly in slickly crafted TV commercials, is that of the Little Rascals conquering Corporate America.

No actual commercial mention is given to the product itself, a once low-tech commodity but now apparently a nectar of the gods suspended in mom’s tap water. The novel flavor of success must be courtesy of the wireless wizardry.

So goes today’s traditional business myth—that tools alone can transform the seemingly mundane into world-beating products and services. Ah, were it only so, Susie!

In the world outside the 60-second ad, business gets rough, customers demand endlessly and vendors sometimes deliver nostrums instead of actual solutions. Susie’s fifth-grade sensibilities might even be shaken by the fact that seemingly kindly vendors forget Peter Drucker’s prime directive: There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer….What the customer buys and considers value is never just a product. It is always a utility, that is, whatever a product or services does for him.

As a customer myself, I recently had a taste of what happens when a business forgets that Peter principle. Interestingly enough, the forgetful business happens to be one with whom little Susie is quite familiar. Just for me, these wireless-network folks reverse-engineered the adage When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

My puckering began about two weeks ago, more than a year after Lady Carol and I had taken advantage of the wireless carrier’s offer of a two-year service contract, complete with a laptop as the company’s premium thank you to us. An attractive offer for two peripatetic writers, to be sure.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me report that I opted not to renew the laptop warranty after the initial year. That decision bore the fruit of its own punishment just as I was completing, on the laptop, a somewhat complicated project for a marketing client.

The access manager tool read: Network registration denied. In short—no email and no Internet connection. All I had left was a tight project deadline and my own promise to a client. Resourceful fellow that I am, I reached out to the carrier’s customer service team to explain my plight. After much conversation by phone, the carrier’s CS passed me along to its counterpart for the laptop maker. Yet another representative listened to my sad tale and reminded me that I had allowed my warranty to lapse. She then passed me onto the folks who deal with warranty scoffers. After waiting far too long for someone to pick up the phone line, I abandoned this supposed path to a quick solution. I needed to concoct an alternative plan for completing my project, pronto. Besides, the puckering was starting to make my face hurt.

By next light, I had formulated my strategy for getting the white paper in the client’s hand. But, like Susie, I still harbored a childlike faith that the wireless carrier would somehow come through for me, its warranty-less customer. Sure enough, my phone rang. The carrier, though a recorded high-tech survey, wanted to know how I rated its customer service. Be aware that neither negative numbers nor purposeful puckers are tallied in this or other such surveys.

To its credit, the carrier did offer me an opportunity to leave a message. “Your customer service is totally unacceptable to me,” I said. “Please have someone in marketing call me—EVP level or higher.” I wasn’t grandstanding. I expected a call. Even as I type, I am still waiting.

I can offer one positive vignette in this story. Your still undaunted correspondent headed to a local carrier store to determine if a face-to-face appeal might prove more successful. There I met the store manager, Matthew, an affable fellow who spent a lot of time trying his best to reconnect me with the larger world and, more important, to my client. After making several calls, he finally recommended that I upgrade my still extant service package. Disappointed but grateful for the personal service, I picked up my crippled laptop and went home. Memo to marketing: Promote Matthew to EVP.

As a devoted Druckerite, I believe that the “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.” I’m certain Susie would agree. I had a deadline to meet, so I called the carrier’s customer service operation one more time. After hearing that my call might be monitored for quality control, I talked with Chris, who plowed over some old ground with me. I asked if I could speak with someone wielding a bit more authority. Chris said his supervisor could call me back. How soon? I asked. The phrase “72 hours” still hurts my ears. Even as I type, I am still waiting for that call. Memo to quality control: Ten days is longer than 72 hours.

If you’re wondering, I finished the project for the client, whose own client expected nothing less. Not without disruption for me, of course. [But that’s how business works in the real world.

My customer odyssey also reminded me of something Drucker wrote in The New Realities, back in 1988: The single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that results exist only on the outside. The result of a business is a satisfied customer.

Susie would naturally offer you a much different take on her customer experience, and maybe even a different take on Drucker’s philosophy. Keep in mind, though, that Susie isn’t real. Neither is her lemonade.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. He and his wife, Carol, are working on a new children’s book about the world’s smartest canines. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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