Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Some things about moderating focus groups

"Hands On Activity" by Kirby Urner

I've been busy the past two weeks moderating focus groups for a multi-city, multi-product customer experience project we're doing at work. The groups got me thinking about some of the strategies and approaches I find useful when moderating. Here are some things I came up with (not in order of importance):
  • Make it interesting! No one likes to sit around a table for two hours answering questions in a back-and-forth, one-dimensional conversation, zoning out like they're in some boring, irrelevant work meeting. If possible (and I think it almost always is), make portions of your group interactive. By keeping people engaged, everyone (including you, the moderator) will have a better time and, even more importantly, your data will be more interesting and useful, because people will likely be more inclined to participate, share, and care about contributing. For example, get people up and out of their seats for a hands-on activity in another part of the room, or have them work together as a team on a mini-project. Your options for this will be even greater if your group is taking place in a non-traditional location, like a community center, home, park, etc.

  • Incorporate worksheets. It's not as interesting as hands-on activities, but it breaks things up a bit. But only do it if you're going to use it as a segue into the next topic. By giving people some time to fill out a short survey or other worksheet during the group, it allows them to get their thoughts down on paper before the discussion. Don't waste your time surveying folks in a focus group if you're not going to dive deeper into their responses; that's not what focus groups are for; it's what market surveys are meant to accomplish. Worksheets also serve to create a record on paper for subsequent analysis or if you need to go back and verify something a participant said. One word of caution: if you're going to use a worksheet, make sure you clearly explain its purpose and the instructions. When handing out worksheets in my groups, I focus the participants' attention on me and the step-by-step directions I'm about to give them by saying something like "Now, before you get started on this, I'm going to explain what it is you're going to be doing. If you take a look up here..."

  • Bring candy! If you're like me, you do a lot of groups at night because more people tend to be available after working hours. If you find that your 8:00 pm group (or even your 5:30 group!) is lacking in enthusiasm, bring in a bowl of individually-wrapped candy bars when they're busy working on a mini-project or worksheet. It's a nice little surprise and usually perks them up a bit (a variety of flavors is helpful). I wouldn't suggest having a bowl of candy on the table when the participants come in because it may just be a distraction, and people are sometimes too polite in front of strangers to be the first person to take some. If you find that your group isn't "digging in", one strategy to get people to take a piece is to take one yourself and hand the bowl to the person next to you, instructing them to "take some and pass it around." Never fails! Just remember to respect the wishes of folks who may not want any for health or other reasons.

  • Joke! Laugh! Make it fun! How you set the stage when folks walk into the room truly affects the outcome of the group dynamics, the moods of participants, and therefore the quality of your data. If it's in your nature to joke around, then do it! If it isn't, then find some other way to inject some personality into the situation or be prepared to face the consequences. 

  • Go out and introduce yourself to the participants while they're still in the waiting area. It might be unorthodox, but I believe there can be benefits. Stopping by and saying hi allows them to get a sense of your personality and know what to expect from you as a moderator. If you tell them you're going to have fun and that you have some interesting things planned for them, maybe they'll get excited. It's not something I always do, but it hasn't caused me any problems so far.

  • Go beyond the traditional focus group model and approach. Change it up as much as possible. Never stay on the same activity for more than 20 or 30 minutes unless it has multiple components. Surprise them by taking an alternate approach to gleaning insights and learning from them as experts of whatever product or service it is you're studying.
Of course, these are just a few things I find helpful when moderating, so it's not an exclusive list. There may be more to come later on - plenty for another post, I'm sure. :)

Anthropology Major Fox - a disciplinary meme

Thanks to Jason's comprehensive and up-to-date list of anthropology blogs over at The Anthropology Report, I've added a few new blogs to my blog list (see right-hand column for details).

One of them is Anthropology Major Fox. The "fuck yeah animal meme" this site is based on portrays a fox who is an anthropology major, and the witty things that come out of his cute little fox mouth (as imagined by various anthropologists, anthropology students and other site contributors). As AMF states, you don't have to be a major or minor in the discipline (or an anthropologist) to enjoy them; you simply have to "love that tricky little field of anthropology."

Here are a few of my favorite memes from the site. Looking forward to seeing more in the future. If I can come up with something good, I may even create my own!

Apple customer service survey: Thank-you screen

Behold a screen-shot of the "thank-you" page from an Apple customer service survey I took today. Most thank-you screens aren't so nice to look at! The design of the survey was also akin to Apple's philosophy of making things both pretty and easy to use. It was short and sweet; it took less than two minutes to complete, and all the questions were laid out in simple format on one page (it took only a little bit of scrolling to get to the bottom). The questions were well-worded and unambiguous. AND there was a space for an open-ended response at the bottom, where I could write about a complaint, suggestion or compliment (it asks you to choose which one fits your response).

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What's in a name? Welcome to Anthropologizing

"What's in a name?" Image via these people

I've finally found a name I like!

Since getting back into blogging a few weeks ago, I've been wanting to change the name of the place my posts call home. I wasn't happy with the former "Cultural Moments" because I didn't feel it encompassed the true nature of what I'm trying to accomplish here - that is, a place where I can post my thoughts on everything from general research and the consumer experience to culture, social issues and current events, all from my perspective as a practicing anthropologist.

So I chose a very plain and simple "Amy's Blog" as a temporary placeholder until I found something better. And I have, after many months of thinking about it. While discussing my quandary with my boyfriend, I recalled this one time I was in a bar in Memphis, TN. I was talking to a friend of a friend, some guy I had never met before, about what I was studying in school. It piqued his interest when I told him I was (or was about to officially become, after graduating) an anthropologist. The next words that came out of his drunkenly excited mouth were:
"Wow! So, can you, like, anthropologize me?!"
Unless they have an idea, people usually (and often sheepishly) admit that they don't know what anthropology is, or if they think they do, they respond with a question such as "Oh, so you dig up bones?" (or some variation involving bugs, dinosaurs, etc.). But no! This was a new one for sure. I sensed that he figured I was some sort of mix between a psychologist and a fortune teller. I could have had some fun with him, but I was (am!) fairly serious about the discipline from which I was about to receive my advanced degree, so I explained that I wouldn't be that simple and took our conversation in a different direction.

Recalling this story gave us a nice laugh. Better yet, it gave Isaac the idea of suggesting that I use the word "Anthropologize" in the title of my blog. I feel that "Anthropologizing" really fits with the open-ended, "mixed bag" approach of this blog, while making it clear that it's going to have something to do with anthropology. I really just comes down to thinking about what's going on in the world through an anthropological lens. Problem solved, thanks to some good old fashioned conversational brainstorming.

Welcome to Anthropologizing.

Survey no-nos: Holiday Inn Express

I'm no expert in survey design, but I know a thing or two about the basics. It's pretty researcher-nerdy of me, but I actually enjoy filling out surveys for other companies, not only because I like to share my opinion but because I take interest in seeing how other companies put theirs together (it's a great opportunity to get ideas for questions for future research projects).

I especially love it when I stumble upon what I like to call "survey no-nos" - questions, wording or anything else that should typically be avoided in questionnaire design (e.g., leading questions, no opportunities for open-ended responses, etc.) Here are a few gems I encountered while taking a customer experience survey for a recent stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

My immediate reaction to this page of scale questions was that the scale is going in the wrong direction. Rather than ranking each item from 10 to 1, it should be read across the page, left to right, from 1 to 10. If you're administering the survey to people who were educated to read from left to right, they're likely going to be confused that the scale is flipped. They may not even notice it. This may cause issues with your data if people don't actually read the scale at the top and just assume it's in the order they're used to.

On this next page, respondents are again asked to rank each item. My issue here is with the fourth item down: "Holiday Inn Express is a brand for me." What does that even mean? What are you asking? It looks like they're trying to gauge whether or not people think of a Holiday Inn Express as a brand. If so, how do you define brand? The word "brand" has many different emotional, psychological and cultural implications, and could be interpreted to mean different things. Suggestion: don't use wording that is open to any sort of interpretation, unless you operationalize those words for the respondent.


I don't have a screen shot of them, but there were two other questions in this survey that bugged me. One asked the respondent to quantify the number of nights they have stayed in a hotel within the InterContinental family of hotels (of which Holiday Inn Express is a member) within the past 12 months. Then it asked the respondent to answer the same question again, this time for non-InterContinental hotels. There are a few things wrong with this. First, how is anyone going to remember how many nights they've stayed in any hotels in the specified period of time - one year?! Self-reported questions about behavior or anything requiring the respondent to remember such things probably won't yield very accurate data. Second, will people recall the names of each and every hotel chain they stayed at during that time? Third, this question is just too much work. If I weren't so into taking surveys and sharing my opinion, and were I not a believer in Research Karma, I would just enter some random estimate off the top of my head and move on. Finally, if you're not paying people to take a survey, don't ask them to do more work than can be accomplished in a few minutes and a few clicks.

Lastly, there was an open-ended question that allowed respondents to provide more details if they reported having an issue at the hotel. However, the response box only allowed for 999 characters. When I filled mine in, I used up most of the space to discuss a rather serious occurrence that took place during my stay. There were a couple other issues I thought the hotel management would like to know about (lack of electrical outlets near the bed, slow internet, clogged toilet). Alas, I had run out of characters and didn't have the room. Respondents should be provided with as much space as they need to elaborate if they so choose. Some people probably don't need much space, I don't see any benefit in limiting them except to save time on the analysis end. I'd stay away from doing this to maximize the opportunity to collect good data if that's what people are willing to provide.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mediocrity and the airline industry

In business, doing just some things right and making just some people happy is a recipe for mediocrity. Companies that cook according to this tired formula, either out of pure ignorance or a stubborn unwillingness to change, typically end up losing valuable customers and business. Unless they’re lucky, they may just go the way of the dodo bird; or, they end up having to scramble to save themselves at the last minute.

Or, if they’re like the modern-day airline industry, they can get away with mediocrity without much consequence. People are unhappy. They complain. Especially online (like this guy, this other dude, and Kevin Smith). Aside from an occasional apology (you usually have to be important to get one of those), it doesn’t seem to do much.

We’ve all experienced it. The late and overbooked flights. The cost-cutting. Baggage fees and rising ticket prices. The packing-in of passengers like sardines in a tin can. The measly bags of peanuts and pretzels. The all-around inconvenience. The list could go on. Sure, there are some shining stars (Virgin America is pretty cool). But unless you’re on a flight with some of the more highly acclaimed airliners, you’re probably not expecting a top-notch experience. This is how mediocrity has manifested itself as the industry norm.

The inspiration for today’s article stems from some recent experiences I’ve had flying on Delta Airlines. During the past two weeks, I’ve flown a total of eight different flights with Delta and its regional carriers for a multi-city research project. These experiences have only added to my cynical perception of Delta as one of the second-rate airliners I’ve come to loathe on my travels. 

To start, out of all eight of my flights, five of them were late in departing by between 45 minutes to two hours, and not because of the weather. Two of them were late enough for me to just barely make my connecting flights. One actually was late enough for me to miss my connection because of a technical problem, but I was rebooked (for flights that got me home five hours later than I had originally planned). Lots of undue stress and frustration here, yet nothing that can be done about it. I do my part by getting to the airport on time and paying hundreds of dollars for plane tickets that fit my specific travel schedule. Why is it that Delta can only seem to fulfill its side of the bargain less than half the time? To add to it, two of these flights had been overbooked, which caused further delays. On one of them, the pilot came on the intercom after we’d been sitting there for about a half hour and actually said this: “Sorry for the delay, folks. We’ve had some problems with our numbers and how many people this flight can hold.” Wow. Just wow. And so nonchalant to boot. How hard is it to sell the correct number of tickets? How does it benefit them in any way when they end up having to give people $400 travel vouchers to volunteer their seats? 

There were other problems that occurred with Delta before I even arrived at the airport. Before one of my flights, I was unable to complete the check-in process on my phone. In the middle of paying for a checked bag, the app told me there was an error and that it could not process my payment. I wondered to myself, Am I actually checked in? I found out that I was, and that my payment had actually gone through – but if I had tried to make the payment again, would I have been charged twice? Closure is nice when you’re dealing with things like money and time. 

This makes me think they need to do some serious work on their mobile app. Apps are supposed to be about convenience, efficiency and ease of use. In a nutshell, is the user able to quickly and simply get the task done that he or she has set out to do? If not, what use is it? I won’t even go into the other issues I had with incorrect push notifications or the app’s failure to reflect my updated itinerary. Otherwise, I quite like the app and the ability to view flight details and check-in or pay for luggage in such a convenient fashion. That is, when it actually works.

Delayed flights and mis-information are fairly big issues in my book. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when the plane isn’t clean – and I’m not talking about a piece of trash on the floor or a few crumbs in the seat. I’m talking about multiplying that by however many seats there were on the plane, with some additional garbage in the seat pockets. When cramming into uncomfortable seats that barely give you enough room to breathe, it’s nice when the crew actually has the time to spruce the place up a bit (it's those little things that count). Even worse, the plane's bathroom floor was drenched in something that could have only been one of two things: urine or water from the toilet (both are equally repulsive). Right before we took off, I heard the flight attendant exclaim in surprise, “Oh! The toilet must have a leak!” As I sat in back, the stench of urine permeated the air for the remainder of the flight. Just lovely.

But enough of my experiences and back to the main point. It seems that all of the crappy stuff about flying has become par for the course. We sort of just expect it, especially casual travelers who don’t spend a lot of time in the air. But those of us who travel more frequently for both business and pleasure encounter it on a more regular basis, and it gets old after a while. Some disgruntled customers have taken to the internet as a forum for sharing their experiences and attempting to hold airline companies accountable. There are plenty of websites and blogs dedicated to how crappy this or that airline is (just google any airline name and the word “sucks” after it, and you’ll find plenty of examples). Complaints occasionally pop up on my Twitter feed from unhappy passengers that I happen to follow. A couple have happened to be celebrities and all-around influential people in the food/entertainment industries. Given that these folks probably have a lot more internet clout than most Twitter users, it can’t bode well for Delta’s reputation (think of all the re-tweets, favorites added, and the overall ability for these folks to influence the brand perception of their followers.)
Then there are people like me who don’t have a huge following, but who take the time to write articles about their experiences, or tweet about some major inconvenience or issue that Delta (or any other airline) has caused. I pick on Delta because that’s whose name is constantly on my radar, both personally and socially; it’s the company with whom I’ve the majority of my negative experiences, which go far beyond those of the past two weeks. 

All of this makes me wonder: can Delta do anything right?

Of course they can, and they do. Most companies that are still in business do at least something right, make at least some people happy.

Here’s my one real positive experience out of all of this. Just this morning I was headed home from moderating focus groups in Pittsburgh. I was scheduled for a 9:50 am flight to Atlanta, a 45-minute layover, and a last leg to Illinois that would get me home right before 1:00 in the afternoon. I was really looking forward to it after being on the road for so long. Not surprisingly, I received an automated phone call that morning notifying me that the flight was delayed, which would most likely make me miss my connection. 

What I did not expect was a phone call from an actual human being, a Delta employee named Chris who works at the Pittsburgh International Airport. He wanted to see if I could get there by 8:30 for an earlier flight to Atlanta that would allow me to catch my connection on time (I hadn’t even left my hotel yet). I tried my damndest, but with the late notice and heavy traffic, I didn’t get to ticketing until 8:40. Apologizing that he would be unable to get me on the earlier flight, Chris looked into some alternate options. He put me on a plane to Detroit leaving around 10:20, with a connection I would surely make, albeit at a much later time than I had originally planned. After expressing frustration at my recent Delta experiences, Chris apologized for the inconvenience, explained why the flight was late (technical problems), and accepted blame on Delta’s behalf (rather than shirking responsibility). Overall, he was empathetic and pleasant to deal with; he also threw in a few meal vouchers, upgraded the seating for both of my flights (exit rows), and gave me a $50 travel voucher for future purchases.

Chris tried his best to make up for a crappy situation, and it did make somewhat of a difference in calming me down about the repeated problems and inconveniences Delta seems to love to cause me. But the extent to which these things keep happening is just unacceptable. It is as though Delta doesn’t respect that old saying, “time is money,” even though they could probably benefit from incorporating this approach into their business practices. As a business professional that travels frequently for work, I am frustrated at the amount of my time that Delta has wasted because of its incompetence and mediocre approach to doing business. Not only have they wasted my personal time, but also the time (and money) of my employer by affecting my travel schedule and the time I’ve been able to spend on analyzing data for this project. 

But what can I do about it other than share my frustrations through this article or on Twitter or with my friends and family? “Voting with my dollars” isn’t always a very practical approach given that Delta (and its subsidiaries) are sometimes the only carriers available going to or from a certain location. And managing my expectations? I feel that there are some things for which expectations should remain high. Just because Delta can't do something right doesn’t mean I should expect any less from them. Instead of telling ourselves to suck it up and lower our expectations, even though we spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on air travel each year, we should demand the airline industry to do better. And Delta should care enough about the customer experience and its own reputation to make some changes. I have to hope that if enough of Delta's unhappy customers talk about this with others, share their frustrations, tweet and blog and comment about the inconveniences, that maybe someday things will be different. I have faith in the internet as a platform for social discourse and a vehicle for change for everyday consumers.

As I write this post in the hopes of finishing up soon, I’m sitting at a Delta gate waiting to get on the plane to go home. It should have left five minutes ago, but the crew was late. Now they’ve come on the speaker saying a tire needs changing. Oh, and we have a new boarding gate down at the other end of the next terminal over. After another hour and a half, we are finally boarding. But we sit there for what seems like forever because, as the captain explains, “Our plane found our new gate, but our luggage is still back at the old one.”  *sigh*

This was not meant to be an exercise in complaining, but more of a reflection on some serious issues that I and other travelers seem to face on a regular basis. The way Delta operates, the way it does business, the ways in which it interacts with its customers, do not seem to reflect a desire to meet customer needs beyond getting people from point A to point B. At least Delta is good at that. Just know that it probably won’t happen on time or be the travel experience you hoped for.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Found out at the focus group: data corruptor or happy accident?

Happy Accident by Emily Hoyer

When using focus groups as a research method to explore consumer needs and preferences, it's common to take a "blind" (or un-branded) approach. This basically means that the company for whom the research is being conducted is not divulged to the participants. When this is the case, it's important that the moderator, and anyone else involved for that matter, doesn't do or say anything that will identify the company or client to the participants.

There are a whole host of reasons for doing it this way. There's less potential for participant bias, as any preconceived impressions of a brand or product may sway responses. Blind studies may also help to avoid any potential sharing of research-related information with competitors via the respondents who participate.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? In a way, yes. But there are other ways to taint an unbranded study outside of simply doing or saying something to divulge the company name while moderating a group.

For one, wearing clothing or carrying bags or badges with the company logo could lead to problems if you end up running into participants in the bathroom, hallway or waiting area. So keep those at the office or hidden from view. When you are in the presence of potential participants, it's also important to identify yourself in a very generalized way, without saying which company you're with. For instance, you might simply say "I'm a viewer for the groups tonight" if the facility is only hosting one client that evening. If the facility is hosting multiple companies simultaneously, you can just say you are there to view the "x groups" ("x" being whatever product, service, industry, etc. that is the topic of discussion.)

There are probably other things that researchers and clients should avoid in this context. Here's one more: Don't leave anything in the focus group room that will identify your company or client to participants, such as any sort of item with a logo or name, data sheets, notes, etc. 

I recently found myself faced with this very situation. While traveling for focus groups, my colleague accidentally left a small digital camera bag in the room, which happened to have a tag on it with our company logo. Neither of us caught it because it was so small, but it was too late. About 30 minutes into moderating the group, I left the room to allow the participants to complete a worksheet. As soon as I walked into the viewing room, something, one of the participants noticed the bag. She immediately proclaimed her discovery to the other five participants, which set off a lively conversation about the their perceptions of our company's brand and reputation.

At first, I was horrified at what I was witnessing. However, I quickly recognized it instead as a happy accident with some potential benefit to our research. The participants, who were supposed to be focused on the worksheet, were distracted by something that I feared could really interfere with the rest of the discussion (going back to biases, etc.) Instead, this unintentional incident transformed the quiet, individual worksheet exercise into a moment of intense observation. This seemingly natural response, which grew out of an accidental stimuli, led to an actual, unscripted conversation. Our client viewers were especially excited, and kept shushing everyone else so they could hear what the participants were saying.What made it even more intriguing was that the participants were customers of our competitors; the interaction would have looked quite different had they all been our own customers.

Instead of intervening, I let it go for a few minutes, because it felt like an opportunity to observe something that might actually resonate more than the answers to some of the scripted questions from my guide. It felt different than what typically happens in the highly controlled environment of the focus group room. It felt real (not that focus groups aren't "real", but this is a debate for another day). But, in the interest of time, I had to return to the room and continue with the planned discussion.

I think something "accidental" like this could potentially be used to the advantage of any research project, providing for some unexpected and meaningful insights, especially if executed properly. I envision some sort of stimulus being placed strategically in the focus group room, somewhere that would allow for more controlled timing of the reaction to take place. Participants could be allowed to "discover" that stimulus and simply react naturally to it. Different approaches could be taken, such as allowing the reaction to occur with the moderator in the room (which would allow for deeper facilitation of the conversation), or without the moderator, which may provide different insights, though the conversation might not last as long.

Before I returned to the room, my colleague and I decided it would be best not to acknowledge the incident with the participants in the hopes that it would be forgotten or at least ignored. This was the approach I took, and it worked out well. We also didn't want to remind the participants of the anonymous viewers behind the one-way mirror.

My initial concern was that the rest of the discussion would be tainted by the participants' discovery of the bag, but that didn't seem to really be a problem. Of course, I'm not going to rule out the possibility of bias completely, because it's very likely that some people had that in the backs of their minds for the remainder of our time together. Based on my best judgement as a researcher, the potential bias should be accounted for in the analysis and dissemination phases of the research, rather than throwing out the data altogether.

I am excited about the possibilities of using this sort of research "trick" in the future and welcome any ideas for developing it further.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"Bearing Witness": The context of choice, behavior change, and changing the system

image by *Skia

[I wrote this post back in summer 2011, when I was deep into my anthropology MA program, but never published it, so I've decided to bring it out of the archives]

A warning: this article is a bit misanthropic in nature (we all feel this way from time to time, right?). For myself, I think it has a lot to do with my training in anthropology (ironic?) from a political-economic/critical theory perspective, as well as my good old liberal arts education (those damn leftist socialist commie professors, infiltrating our youth at colleges across Uh-mur-ica!)

Back in my Culture and Consumerism class in Fall 2010, I read Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, in which she discusses the Quaker concept of "bearing witness" to what all is going on in the world (and by "what all", I mean all the crappy, horrible stuff that human beings are fond of doing). She promotes a poignant, if radical, idea - if you know something is wrong or unjust, you have the moral obligation to let others know and to take action to fix the injustice. But what does this really solve in the long run? Is it always appropriate to get involved, and if you do, when is it appropriate to do so? What are the consequences of taking action? Are the consequences for not taking action worse? How and where do you strike a balance?

A lot of people in the United States simply sit back and let this crappy, horrible stuff happen all around them. Think voting, politics, national decision-making, poverty, racism, etc. I've often thought that it's a lack of education that causes apathy or a lack of concern - just educate people, and they'll doing what's right, for them and for others - but I don't think this is entirely true. I'm sorry (actually I'm not sorry), but when I see a woman hitting or verbally abusing her child in front of me at the store, it is extremely difficult for me not to say something to her. It makes me wonder if she realizes what she is doing, or if she cares. We can talk all night long about the stresses of parenting and the stressors of living in poverty that may affect parenting, and I am the first to empathize with people in these situations because of my own life experiences and my training in anthropology. But some things, some people, must be defended, or defended against. Then there is, of course, the idea of minding your own damn business. My question is, when does an injustice become someone else's business?

We all do things we know are bad for ourselves, for others, and for the environment. We eat foods that make us fat and unhealthy and give us heart disease; we smoke cigarettes even though it wrinkles our skin, gives us cancer and endangers those around us; we abuse our children without considering how it will affect their social, emotional and cognitive development and that oftentimes the abused become abusers, only to continue the cycle; we buy, buy, buy without thinking of the consequences of our actions, and support products without considering the labor or materials that go into them and where the products go when we throw them into the seemingly never-ending black hole of, as Leonard calls it, "away" (as in "throwing away" something).

I think lots of people realize what they’re doing, but for one reason or another they don’t want to change or maybe don't feel like they are able to, or are so wrapped up in their lives that they don't stop to think about their actions. It really all comes down to value, and not in the "rational consumer" sense of value, but in the cultural, political, individual and social meaning of the term. In the cost-benefit analyses that pervade our every-day decision-making, we ask what benefits will our actions bring us, and is there any harm or risk involved? Fast food is cheap, easily accessible and convenient, so why buy fresh, whole foods and cook a meal at home? Why take the two-hour bus ride to get to the grocery store (because you live in a food desert) when there's a convenience store selling the calories you crave within walking distance? Why quit smoking if your great aunt took up the habit when she was 16 and lived to be 105? An N of 1 works for me. Why go to therapy and quit abusing substances when your kids are within an arm's reach, the perfect targets for releasing stress? And hey, it doesn’t matter what we throw away since it all goes somewhere else and we don’t have to deal with it ever again. And recycling is too much of an inconvenience to even bother with. Global warming? An inconvenient truth. There are so many factors and circumstances that come into play in each situation - can we actually expect people to change their behaviors "for the better"?

No matter how much you try to explain things to people – the dysfunctionality of capitalism; the relationship between poverty, history, racism and the global economy; the merits of eating and buying healthy, local foods; why eating at Taco Bell on a daily basis is probably not a good idea; the consequences of feeding your children processed garbage; the ramifications of an industrialized food system; the effects of picking pesticide-ridden vegetables on immigrant farmworkers and their children; or the problems inherent to the current take-make-waste system (to reference Leonard again) – there are some things that may never change, simply because the value is not great enough to warrant one, and because people's lives are just too damn complicated. It's not just about choice, as in "yes, I'm going to do x," or "no, I will not do y anymore." It's about the context surrounding a choice being made within a very specific moment in time.

So, when is it appropriate to get involved, and to what degree? Is it always a good thing to try and change the world for the better? How do we define "better"? I'm afraid the answer is not such an easy one. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

This week in customer experience: long-expired gift cards

Photo by James Currie

When visiting my boyfriend's mom in San Francisco in May, she kindly gave me a couple of old Macy's gift cards she had laying around for what I assumed was maybe a few months or a year or so. No biggie. I figured that before going shopping with them I'd call the number on the back to find out the balance and to see if they were expired. Indeed, both of the cards were past their prime. The card numbers I entered weren't registering, and once I got a live person on the line, I found out that not only were the cards expired, but they had been expired since 2003 and 2004.

I was sort of flabbergasted, mostly at the fact that they were still in existence. But that's beside the point. Without me even asking what my options were at this point, the woman on the other end of the line told me that before making a purchase, all I had to do was ask for a store manager and explain that the cards had expired, and the store would be able to provide me with new ones.

Fast-forward to Macy's. When I went to make a purchase later that same day, the cards somehow magically worked, so I didn't actually have to ask for replacements. I don't know if that's because they had been re-activated or what. Most important here was that Macy's replaced the cards without any hassle to the customer.

This was great considering billions of dollars in gift cards never end up getting spent because people forget about them or lose them. This translates to lost money for consumers (both the purchaser and receiver of the card), and potentially unwarranted (at least in my opinion) profits for the companies issuing the cards (though there are rules that limit this, which I get to in a second). Not only did I end up with a nice new pair of shoes, but I appreciated feeling like Macy's cared about making sure I got what I should have.

Of course, it's not like Macy's had anything to lose in doing this. While researching the topic of unused gift cards, I found out from the WSJ that retailers can't count the money made from the sale of gift cards as profit until the card is actually used, unless it meets the expiration limit minimum of five years. They note that
The Securities and Exchange Commission allows companies to take unused gift-card money as income once they can reasonably say the card won’t be redeemed, but there’s no set time limit. Best Buy, for example, sets that level at about two years [I'm not sure how this meshes with the five-year expiration minimum...] In fiscal 2011, the electronics company recorded $53 million in income from gift-card “breakage,” or cards that are unlikely ever to be redeemed, up from $43 million a year earlier.
But some states don’t allow companies to keep unused gift-card cash. They demand that companies give the money to the state after a certain period of time to add to unclaimed-funds accounts.
Macy's could have simply followed the federal limit of five years and cashed in on the cards, knowing how old they were. Instead, they chose not to, perhaps in the hopes that the cards would eventually be used. After all, gift card purchases can benefit retailers beyond their original face value. The WSJ cites Brian Riley of TowerGroup, who estimates that over one-third of of purchases made with a gift card have a value that exceeds the amount of the card. It also helped that the state in which the cards were issued (California) does not follow the above-mentioned escheatment rule like some others do. The only other possibility I can think of is that Macy's does actually add unused gift card dollars to its coffers, but happily gives them back when a customer comes calling. And that's how it should be.

During my experience with Macy's, I was offered a quick, simple, no-hassle solution right up front. There were no fees for inactivity or lack of use. It's a great thing when retailers put the customer first and take into consideration their crazy, busy lives, prioritizing the customer relationship  rather than a few extra bucks in profit. That can go a long way in the world of brand loyalty.

In other customer experience news, I recently tweeted about the poor experience I had at a recent Chicago Le Cordon Bleu MasterChef cooking class last month (International Cuisine 101: Taste of Latin America). A day later, I noticed that LCB Chicago began following me on Twitter. Hmm, I thought, and moved on. Then, a couple days after that, I received an email from Kirk Bachmann, the president of LCB Chicago, who had apparently seen my tweet. Apologizing that my experience "wasn't what I had hoped for," he offered to chat with me over the phone to learn more about my experience and how they might be able to improve. I'm impressed that he took my tweet so seriously and am looking forward to our call. Will post more on this after our conversation.