Jon Michaeli’s Blog


Zappos and Amazon still have much to learn

By now most everyone knows Zappos was recently acquired by Amazon for $850+ million. For investors who put in a total of $40+ million and employees, this is a home run. And most folks I know have lauded the company for beating the odds to build the largest and most recognizable online shoe store. Along the way, Zappos’ other successes include fostering a close-knit internal culture, providing superior customer service (including a 365-day return policy), and pioneering a free shipping both directions policy (which is now a standard in the industry, also offered by ShoeBuy, Piperlime and others).

People love Zappos, because 1) in their view, the company has removed much of the hassle in buying online, and 2) unusually friendly call center agents go out of their way to please customers. #2 is indeed unique and refreshing and deserves some praise. But, this is also a backwards way of thinking in that personally, I don’t shop online to talk on the phone (the exception being expensive highly considered purchases). And if I do need to call on more than a rare occasion, it’s a sign that not enough hassle has been removed in #1.

For the most part, I care about great selection and availability (Zappos gets good marks here) and a user-friendly easy-to-navigate site that makes it quick and painless for me to find the shoes (or apparel) that matches my needs and preferences (Zappos.com is a cluttered mess and fails miserably here).

Let’s face it, there’s a big hurdle to buying shoes online to begin with (when I bought shoes on Zappos in the past, I ordered 5+ pairs and kept none), so the site should start off clean and the shopping engine and flows should be as contextual and directed as possible. The more inventory a site has, the more important this is. If companies in industries with tens or hundreds of thousands of options can build scalable solutions (e.g. Kayak in travel and Indeed in job search), so too can an e-tailer like Zappos.

Zappos gets kudos for how it communicates and interacts, whether in the call center or through social media channels like Twitter (@zappos has over 1 million followers), but there are many other dimensions to servicing customers. Zappos, and even its acquirer Amazon, can learn from a company called Forzieri, a much less known Italian clothing and accessory retailer, with a fairly decent website.

I browsed around briefly and added a sweater to my shopping cart. I also found a nice pink button down on sale, however my size was unavailable. But instead of a “Sold Out” message, the site had a button labeled “Check Availability”, which I clicked. I assume this prompted the inventory system to check the warehouse(s) and/or stores. Pretty cool. Far larger retailers don’t integrate their online and offline properties so elegantly. After a few more minutes, I left the site without making a purchase.

Fast forward a few days when I had forgotten about Forzieri. I received a “Courtesy Reminder” advising me that the abandoned item in my shopping cart would be saved for 2 weeks, and if I completed the order in the next 2 days, I could use the private 10% off coupon provided in the email. Brilliant. A super-targeted discount with a clear and time-sensitive call-to-action. I liked the sweater enough to put it in my cart, so perhaps all I needed was a little extra incentive.

This is simple to do in e-commerce. Just deposit a cookie on the user’s machine and have functionality to accept unique coupon codes on your site (most Tier 1 and 2 sites do both of these already). Now you can not only distribute the codes to those who’ve visited and taken a specific action, but also track conversion rates of various offers and optimize.

As for the pink shirt, Forzieri let me know they couldn’t find my size after all. But it didn’t end there. The email included a link to a page where the “newest arrivals” by the same manufacturer were available for viewing and purchase. Sure they were full price, but as these were just added to the selection, they were the latest, most up to date styles. That warrants a premium, right?

Verizon FiOS: A Case Study of Anemic CRM

I’m sure many others are laughing along with me as Comcast and Verizon spend ridiculous amounts of money attacking each other on TV, stretching truths and greatly exaggerating the other’s fallbacks. As is true of virtually all negative advertising, the message about customer benefits gets diluted in all the bickering. When it concepted the campaign, Verizon likely was aiming to replicate Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad series success, portraying a Verizon technician as cool and clean cut, and his Comcast counterpart as disheveled, overweight, and anything but hip.

But alas, Verizon is no Apple. Apple delights with elegantly designed products and fuels demand with brilliantly executed clean and bold marketing. Verizon is inherently disadvantaged as a tech hardware and infrastructure company. There’s no argument it provides cool services, but it cannot create the same emotional connection, because these days a landline phone connection is BORING, wired broadband is a commodity,  and credit for the sharp picture in your living room goes to your high quality HDTV.

But enough with the Apple comparison, as that is not the focus of this post. My point is simple. The hoards of cash Verizon and Comcast are spending to one-up the other in this fight would be far better invested in sophisticated CRM systems.

No question, price and number of HD channels are two factors to consider when choosing a cable provider. And internet speed is important. But at the end of the day, are the companies’ capabilities really all that different? On the other hand, if you buy a bundled package (i.e. at least 2 of these 3 – phone, internet and cable), before long you’re bound to have a technical issue with at least one of them. Lord knows, FiOS has had numerous outages and glitches since I started using them around 2 ½ years ago. Working in the high-tech/internet space, I understand complex systems sometimes fail and service upgrades often don’t go quite as planned. So, I’ve been patient with FiOS as they’ve gone through their growing pains.

But recently, when my credit card was triple charged almost $300 (i.e. $900 in total) due to a glitch on the FiOS website, I wanted answers, and I wanted them immediately. The fact that it happened in the first place is very disconcerting. That I still don’t have the issue resolved a couple of months later after speaking to over 10 Verizon reps (including a couple in the Collections Dept.), is inexcusable.

My initial experience with FiOS was great. The installation was fairly smooth, a local manager stopped by to inspect the work and ensure my satisfaction (he even gave me one of his cards), and they waived the installation fee of an extra phone jack for my fax machine. Judging on this one-time event alone, I would give FiOS a solid “A” for service. Therein lies the difference between simple customer service, and its far more powerful cousin CRM, which requires deep commitment to put systems, procedures and people in place to foster relationships with customers throughout the life cycle. It is here that FiOS has failed.

As one of the first subscribers in my town who’s still with FiOS, by definition, I am one of their longest standing (i.e. loyal) customers. My guess is I’m also in their upper tier of monthly spend at ~$160. And perhaps my best quality of all: I always pay my bill on time. Undoubtedly, these are 3 of the most important factors in assigning value to FiOS’ member segments. Not rocket science.

So CRM 101 should reveal to FiOS that if nothing else, I’m an above-average customer. Work even a little to keep me happy (e.g. a priority 800#) and show me you care (e.g. actually call me back when you say you will), and there’s a good chance I’ll stick with you. Take it to the next level and show you understand early adopter = influencer with potential for real evangelism, and watch how many people I bring to your service. And if segmentation is too much to ask, at the very least try following the no longer new Web 2.0 trends and establish a presence on social media channels, such as Twitter. Score one for Comcast, which is leaps and bounds ahead with its @ComcastCares initiative. Obviously Twitter alone is an insufficient strategy, but it symbolizes Comcast’s commitment to differentiate on service.

What is Twitter’s saturation point?

Want a perfect example of hockey stick growth? Just take a look at Twitter in 2009. Unique visitors have climbed from ~2mm at the end of 2008 to ~10mm by the end of March, 2009. That’s a monthly compounded growth rate of 70%!

Twitter’s base platform is rudimentary at best, which is why 3rd parties have built ad hoc services, such as TweetDeck, TweetVolume and TweetPhoto (the most recent addition) on top of Twitter to help users manage and enrich their posts, organize their streams categorically, integrate with other social networks, and monitor chatter for CRM purposes.

But, as a tool to reach new customer prospects – especially for a bootstrap that cannot afford to hire a team of social media specialists – I cannot help but feel Twitter will soon follow in Facebook’s steps as cluttered, overwhelming, and tough to navigate. Granted there are some key differences. Perhaps two of the most important in Twitter’s favor are 1) The hurdle for participation is extremely low, and 2) Twitter simulates a real-time one-to-many conversation. That said, Facebook has its own strengths (e.g. more of a community feel, more robust in functionality acting as a one-stop destination site). Anyway, try creating an application and/or fan page as a cash-constrained startup on Facebook these days and see how little traction you’ll get without assigning a leading agency and devoting 24/7 to the project.

We’ve seen this before in the digital era. Look no further than email, where it’s now virtually impossible to gain mindshare. Lists quickly get stale, staying whitelisted gets ever more challenging, and standard email open and click thru rates have plummeted to the low single digits. Implement best practices such as list cleansing, personalization, database triggers and contextual targeting, and you’ll do somewhat better, but again there’s an opportunity cost for your effort.

No I’m not debating that new Web 2.0 techniques are quickly going the way of their digital predecessors like email and display advertising. But the fact that SPAM and “posers” cannot be eliminated beyond a certain point, the sheer volume of traffic will create tons of competition and “noise.” This is the very reason why I am not a big fan of social media outreach as a standalone strategy, especially for brands at the outset of generating awareness.

I’m far from the first to advocate for integrated marketing, but aside from its value as a multi-touchpoint, consumer life-cycle grounded strategy, I believe it is an effective solution to this problem. There’s no debate that understanding your customers and prospects, finding a way to effectively communicate your value proposition, and stating your goals are a prerequisite. But I believe the next best step is working within an initial budget and ROI goal to develop a “shtick” or hook that is compelling, differentiated, perhaps edgy, but definitely buzzworthy. This offers the best chance of plugging in to the influencer crowd of the social web, and it is in their hands to determine whether your brand is destined for true virality. But, for creative concepts to truly lead to successful execution, I believe the message (focused, simple and consistent) should be distributed across mediums and communication channels, leveraging other digital tactics, grassroots initiatives, and even more traditional methods, including microsites, street/stunt/event marketing, media outreach, and mobile ad campaigns.