Adventures in Customer (Non) Service

Marketing, business, and entrepreneurship: they’ve always fascinated me.

My dad’s dad, Hugo, after having worked a bit as a lumberjack, eventually became a stock boy in a “dry goods” store, then a traveling salesman, and finally a department store buyer.  He loved to tell me stories about sales deals and marketing triumphs.

His favorite, I think, was when he bought so much of a certain fabric for the J. L. Hudson company that he told the marketing/advertising people that it would stretch all the way from the downtown Detroit Hudson building to the Detroit Zoo, which, two miles north of Detroit, was miles away.  They made a newspaper ad showing the fabric stretching from the iconic building to a giraffe holding the other end (I’m trying to find the image).

For years I’ve read a lot about these subjects, and now, as I’ve begun teaching entrepreneurship classes and am particularly interested in how classically-trained musicians can actually make money, my interest level has zoomed.

Dan Kennedy, who I first heard at a marathon, multi-speaker event years ago, writes often in his compnay’s newsletter about many topics, including customer service. He often points out how salespeople and servers can mess up a business–or make it.

On a weekend trip, I’ve been particularly aware of the service I have and haven’t experienced.  I’ll blow off a little steam–and there are some lessons musicians can draw from all this.

High-end (for this area) restaurant, inexperienced server: My $30 steak comes with potato or rice, but they won’t substitute a green vegetable (I can order one as a side dish).  I teasingly push the waitress a bit, so see if she can do something.  “That seems kind of cheap to me,” I say with a smile.  “Oh, well, you know that vegetables are more expensive than, like fries,” she explains in a somewhat patronizing tone.  It irritated me.  First, it seems like a counter-productive policy, because a baked potato loaded with butter and sour cream can’t be that much more expensive than some spinach or broccoli, and why in a place where with appetizer, drinks, etc., easily run $100/person would you not want to make people happy? Well, whatever.  It did get me wondering how I’d train servers to handle someone cranky about the policy better than this one did.

Huge music electronics complex: Outside the city I’m visiting is the extraordinary campus of one of the biggest sellers of electronics for musicians. Retail store, warehouse, teaching spaces, café, atrium, auditorium, arcade, even mini-mini golf.  I never saw anything like it.  There’s even a gym, which I assume is for employees.

I want to buy a portable digital recorder (to replace one that died), and a new pickup mic for my cello(s) (again, to replace one that died).  This firm, which has a strong online presence, has higher prices than online discounters. What they promote is knowledgeable salespeople who will give you advice and steer you in the right direction.  So I decided to go there and pay more than I would online just to have good service.

A receptionist directs my boyfriend and I to the retail store.  A salesperson, posted at a desk with an iMac, greets us and I explain what I am in the market for.

“Do you know what model you want to buy?”  No.  That’s why I came here, to get some help.  She asks me what I’ll use it for.  I explain I’m a classical and improvising cellist, and want something to record workshops I give, using the recorder’s own mics, and that I can connect microphones to.  She shows me a Tascam, one of two units on top of a display rack.

I ask her if it has phantom power (which powers the microphones).

“No it doesn’t,” she tells me.

I look at the box.  It says there is phantom power, and I point that out.

“Oh.”  She frowns.

“Well, what I meant was that someone else bought one and plugged in mics with quarter-inch plugs and phantom power doesn’t work for that.  You have to use XLR connections.”  OK, now, inadvertently, she’s told me not only that she’s confused but also that I must look like someone who, although I asked about phantom power, doesn’t know how it works.

“How’s the recording quality of the microphones?” I ask, moving on.

“I think it’s supposed to be pretty good.” Yep, that’s going to sell me.

There’s one other model, a Zoom, on display, at a big sales price.  It doesn’t do everything I want, but I love deals, and it does some sort of surround sound recording, which would be great in workshops.  So I look at that box, and she goes to check on pickup mics.  I can already tell she doesn’t know anything about them.

She comes back to tell me they don’t have any cello pickups, which I find hard to believe.  Maybe she’s searched the wrong way: what she’s done is to look on the website, on a big iMac out in the lobby.  Hoping that somehow she might understand me (I guess I just wanted to tell somebody), I tell her I have a Fishman pickup which I’ve found doesn’t work so well with Belgian bridges, and that I had a Realist pickup which was great (until it died, or more accurately was killed by a student), but I want to use it with multiple cellos and of course the Realist goes under a foot of the bridge.

She gives me a blank look, and searches their website for violin mics.

She shows me a photo of a plastic gadget that attaches to the side of a violin to hold a mic. “Would that help you?”  No, I don’t think so.

I ask about other models of digital recorders. She looks on the web, and tells me they have some other ones available online that aren’t in the retail store.  She leaves me at the computer, on which there are multiple open windows, including someone’s email, to look at the online reviews.

I learn a few things (from the reviews, not the email, which I did not browse!).

Then, since I’m shopping online anyway, I pull out my iPhone and compare prices with the Amazon app.  (I couldn’t bring myself to use their computer to look at Amazon.)  Everything is much less expensive.  Here my experience has been one of pleasant non-guidance. Why should I pay $40 extra for the privilege of telling the sales person that the one unit does have phantom power?

“I’m going to think about it,” I tell her, and we leave.

The hotel: Well, actually a motel.  Once we are back from not buying a recorder or microphone, I spend 30 minutes running on the treadmill and end up very sweaty.  Since we’d gotten up late, I figure our towels will still be damp, so I go to the front desk.  The clerk gets off the phone and I ask for two bath towels.  She asks for my room number and puts it on a Post-it note.  “If you come back in 15 minutes, they’ll be here on the desk for you,” she tells me with a smile.  Unlike earlier, I’m not annoyed, just amused.  “But I want to take a shower now,” I say, smiling back. “Oh. I’ll be right back.  She grabs a key, and in 45 seconds is back with the towels.

This morning:

10:00 AM: knock at the door.  “Housekeeping!”  “We’re still here, I yell from the bed.”

10:45 AM: knock at the door. “Housekeeping!” “We’re here,” I call.  “Do you need service today?” “No, we’re checking out.”

11:12 AM: knock at the door. Actually, really aggressive knocking.  “Housekeeping!” This time I go to the door.  “We haven’t check out yet,” I explain.  “Well, checkout time was 11:00 AM!” How do I describe the tone? It’s when someone is angry, trying to seem nice.  Contempt and accusation masked with a smile.  “Well, we’re still here,” I point out.

I call the front desk and ask for a  12:00, hey, better make that 12:30, checkout.  “Sure, no problem.”  And she’ll try to tell housekeeping.

12:15 PM  We are out.  And hungry.  There’s a Bob Evans, and it’s jammed.  Across the street, we find Willy’s Cozy Nook. Seated right away.  A great waitress who keeps the coffee and water filled, laughs at my jokes, massages my shoulders, and is amazed at the video of the sword swallower at last night’s downtown Busker Fest.  Great omelet.  They happily fill my big plastic cup with ice water.  I tell the waitress I’ve had this run of customer-service experiences and how much i appreciated her skill.  She gives me a knowing and understanding look.  All these undertrained kids who mean well–we get each other.

“Honey, I’ve been at this for 45 years.  I know a thing a two about it.” She gives me a sincere smile. Tells me her name and that I can ask for her next time.  “It’s always nice to be thanked,” she says, and reaches out her hand.

I take it.

And I know the one place I will definitely be back to.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations.  I’m filing this under “audience building” (and just noticed that “audience is misspelled in my category list) because for every individual artist and for every arts organization, it’s all about the relationship you have with your audience, with your fans, your friends, your followers.  It’s about the experience they have when they interact with you.

So I’m asking myself:

When am I the waitress who explains vegetables are more expensive than fries to a customer ready to spend a a lot of money?

When am I the salesperson who gives wrong information about a product and puts the customer on a computer to look things up?

When am I the desk clerk who doesn’t infer that the sweat-soaked resident asking for bath towels probably needs them right then?

And when am I the experienced, friendly waitress doing a great job, truly taking care of people, and in an engaging yet unobtrusive way?




Filed under and everything, audeince building, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Adventures in Customer (Non) Service

  1. go with the zoom H4n, which was probably the pricey Zoom. we’ve done some shoot-outs over here in KC between the various Zooms and a Sony PCMD50 and Sony PCM-D1. It handled as well as the D50 (with a savings of $200) and wasn’t bad compared to the D1. considering the D1 costs, uh…$1400 i think, that’s saying something. Anyway, enough of the unsolicited help with hand-held recorders (sorry, it’s a part of my job in KC, helping people pick out electronic equipment. AND i did sales…)

    I’m sorry about the sales problems. In music, it’s a large problem. I worked at Sam Ash in Indy for a short time before starting my DMA. The first thing people were amazed by was my knowledge- and my willingness to accept that there were items i didn’t know everything about. It’s amazing when I would give a demo, someone would ask a question, and I’d stop and say “ya know, I’m not sure. never had anyone ask that question. Let’s find out!” and pop everything open, skim the manual, test functions i’ve never thought about before, etc.

    In music, it’s all the same. getting people to your concerts is as easy as coming up with a good description that doesn’t sound pretentious. For instance, i’m doing a show in August. When people ask about my music, i say “With this group, I go for something between funk, jazz, and metal. Lots of heavy riffs, shredding, with more laid back funky stuff. Think earth wind and fire on acid. or if Charles Mingus, Ralph Johnson, Louis Andriessen, and Robert Johnson formed a band…and Andriessen played Soprano Sax. Some call it experimental, but I just love heavy metal and funk grooves and refuse to choose.” Same in marketing “here’s why it’s awesome, here’s why it’s unique, here’s a comparison to something you know, and here’s why you’ll like it!”

    That’s usually enough to pique some interest. it’s catchy, relates to music people have heard, and is an apt description. no talking about the pitch structure. no one cares that one song is based on a collection of 4 pitches, first played by the guitar, then harmonized based on rotating around the harmonic series of each pitch, with harmonizations based on the harmonic series and parsimonious voice leading…or as one friend mine described the several Fibonacci sequences to order the pitch and rhythm. Seriously, I do heavy analysis on esoteric music, but if i’m at a concert, i don’t care. I care if i like the music. and Fibonacci doesn’t make me like music…usually it makes me dislike it. LOL.

    I like to give people credit, they’ve come to a concert of new music, stuff with some referential ideas (the use and repetition of grooves, mainly, in this concert), and i focus on that knowledge area, then add some tid-bits that are interesting. If someone asks “oh, it seems like it stayed the same a lot” i would answer “it does. It’s because it’s an homage to Mingus and Andriessen, two guys that built songs based on one melody, or one groove.” once they know it’s intentional, then they make an aesthetic judgement (and, hey, my music isn’t for everyone. LOL). They prolly saw the reference to Mingus and Andriessen, maybe knew Mingus but not Andriessen, but then I give them the single tie. Maybe they love Mingus and now go look up Andriessen.

    How we carry ourselves, how we present information, it’s all so important.

    And i’ve expounded far too long. I apologize. Loquaciousness is my biggest fault in marketing. Short and sweet works better than my ambling discourses. LOL

    • Great comment, John. Thanks!

      Meanwhile the Tascam was the Dr-40 (or something like that). I want phantom power for the xlr inputs (long story why) and the Zoom didn’t have that.

      Sent from my iPhone

      • The Zoom h4n does have phantom power. the Zoom h2n (smaller cheaper guy) doesn’t. I’m guessing since you described the 4 channel surround recording, it was the H2 or H2n (the H2 being the old version) that you looked at in the store. Around $150, or so, right? Salespeople love to talk up the surround on the H2, especially as an inexpensive recorder for meetings- drop it in the center of the table and voila! For external mics the H2n only has 3.5mm input while the H4n has the combo 1/4″/XLR jacks that can supply phantom. The weird thing is i think the package doesn’t say “Phantom Power.” I think it’s something like “Supports Plugin Powered Mics.” kinda weird. The H4n also runs around $300 rather than the H2n

        Tascam has made some pretty decent products over the years. The DR-40 is nice because it is an X/Y pair 90º, whereas most cheaper Tascams aren’t, they’ve got the mics on the side or in a 120º config. 120º is ok, depending on placement, and the DR-40 can do both, which is nice.

        I just found a couple head to heads with audio, and to my ears the H4n is much better. there was a slightly artifacted sound to the Tascam, noticeable in the sibilants…which is where you’ll usually get problems with if there’s something bad in the compression. It was just a couple recordings I found online, so, who knows, maybe something else was messed up. I much prefer my own head to heads, but the Tascam came out, last fall, right? I haven’t seen one in action.

        Also, the zooms are great because they can act as an interface. When you’re at home, you can use it to record straight into your computer rather than recording it and transferring, a handy little function. It also has a built in compressor, which is REALLY handy if you’re going to set it up during a lecture and just leave it- you never know when things might get loud (spontaneous sing-a-long or drum circle?). Also, the H4n has a metal case. the H2 and Tascam DR-40 have plastic cases.

        Anyway, hope this helps some.

    • John, I used to shop regularly at Sam Ash in Indy (the one in the Castleton area). I was always pleased with the service and knowledgeable staff there. I was actually going to suggest Eric as it’s relatively close to him.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post, Eric, and I do think your four last questions are thought-provoking, but I cringe when I think that after all the work that musicians do, it is perfectly acceptable to think that we have to be sales people as well as people who create the “product.” Our American culture has come to the point where people speak with a completely straight face about the President having to “sell” his health care plan (the one that is law already). This is, I suppose, what someone might consider a huge paradigm shift.

    When we see someone with integrity who genuinely seems to enjoy her job behaving in a way that makes us feel special, might we simply consider that she genuinely likes meeting people and helping them to feel welcome in her restaurant? When I play in a “service” position (as I often do when playing weddings and such), I often really enjoy myself. I love playing music for people, and appreciate it if they compliment me or my group after we play, but I often feel (and I’m usually right) that the relationship with that particular “audience” ends after the wedding is over.

    By the way, I like the aforementioned Zoom very much.

    • Elaine, I think American culture has always been like this–it’s just now musicians have lost, or far less frequently use, most of the intermediaries who generally do the job of selling for us. I think that has more to do with the cultural shift towards a more DIY approach to making music than any actual fundamental change in American culture. One of the most fascinating books I read some years ago was Metaphor, Culture, and Worldview: The Case of American English and the Chinese Language by Dilin Liu describing how the metaphoric language of the US is filled with rich overlapping of sports, politics, business metaphors, whereas in China, political metaphors reference family and food rather than sports and business (the latter is actually similar to my homeland, Thailand). But the business and sports have always been an integral part of the American landscape–the fine arts have tended to be sheltered from that a bit given the interestingly “unbusinesslike” status of non-prof organization.

      That DIY drive, however, has its drawbacks. While it is nice to do everything yourself, I think it’s important to realize that those musicians who do have a “team” (managers, booking agents, lawyers, etc.) tend to have much higher revenue than DIY independents have. At least two and three times the revenue on the average! The Artsist Revenue Streams website is still analyzing the data from their most recent survey (n=5371 –not a bad sample size, relatively speaking) and are coming up with intriguing (and in some cases, counter-intuitive) conclusions to very specific questions about musicians’ livelihood! In other words, what we might think will increase our revenue, may not actually be the actual best practice for increasing revenue!

  3. Wrote a long reply to everyone, and then accidentally deleted it. Ugh!

    John–thanks so much for the input. Just the information I needed. Sounds like the H4N will be great for recording workshops, informal performances, etc., with its own mics. Occasionally, when Matt Champagne, the DPU recording engineer who records the summer concerts I organize in Greencastle at Gobin, is away, I am in charge of recording. This summer he has some high-end mics suspended above the performance area. Lugging over my Roland VS 1824 is a pain, esp. if I am performing–although the sound is great. So I’m hoping this will work well for that as well.

    Jon–great information in your reply to Elaine, as always! And excellent point about DIY. Of course, before you can afford a team, DIY can be the only option.

    Elaine–your comments resonate with me quite deeply, as I’m sure they do with many other artists (and non-artists). There’s another way to look at this, which I’m learning myself, which is that it’s not so bad to communicate who we are, what we do, and the benefits of experiencing it.

    Thanks to all three of you!

    • Yes, that’s the conundrum–given where I am currently, it’s basically a choice between getting that team or trying to figure out a way to maximize revenue given the resources I currently have. DIY is the quick option–and for most of us now, it’s a way to get past the system of networks since the infrastructure for performing has dramatically changed (more DIY venues/performers/middlemen). I suppose it remains to be seen if the DIY push will overcome the previous ‘professional’ model–and in some ways, I think the copyrights issues that are coming to the foreground currently may very well be the test cases that determine new precedents for a DIY paradigm shift! But for some genres (e.g. Noise Music), DIY has always been the only way to go since its very unlikely those genres could ever really be monetized in the way that many other genres could be monetized.

  4. Pingback: Creating Sustainability as an Entrepreneurial Musician | Mae Mai

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