Adding value in unexpected places

This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Twist Image and author of “Six Pixels of Separation.” His new book “CTRL ALT Delete” was released in May 2013. See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

What a nightmare.

I had to get my tires changed. Here’s a first world problem for you: I hate sitting around at the car dealership all day waiting for my vehicle. My trick? I call, ask how long it will take, and then look to book the first possible appointment in the morning, so that my car is the first one in. They said it would take about an hour. The problem was that I had to wait three weeks for the appointment.

That day finally came. With my appointment set for 8 AM, I arrived at the dealership at 7:40 AM. My car was checked-in, so I went to the waiting area, and got busy on my email. A little past 9 AM, and there was no sign of my service person or my car. By 9:30, I started getting agitated as my 10 AM meeting was now looking to be in jeopardy back at the office.

To make a long, sordid, poor customer service story short… I got out of there at close to 11 AM (missing all of my morning meetings). All of this for a simple tire change that usually takes about forty-five minutes.

Lessons in bad customer service.

I could list out all of the poorly executed things that could have easily changed my attitude and my response to the situation, and upon reflection, all of them can be summed up in two words: better communication.

We all know that things go off the rails from time to time, but what makes consumers most frustrated is either the lack of communication, the lack of clarity in the communication, or the impersonal way the information is being communicated. The thing that most brands don’t understand about these situations and moments in time is this: It takes a long time to wash away the bitter taste in our mouths. Even driving by the dealership on the way home the other day made my blood pressure spike.

Add value in unexpected places.

During my session of fuming in the waiting room of the car dealership, I came across a Vanity Fair article titled, “Chipotle Cups Will Now Feature Stories by Jonathan Safran Foer, Toni Morrison, and Other Authors.” Do you remember when you were a kid and, while eating your breakfast cereal, you would stare at the back of the cereal box? Maybe it had a maze on it, maybe a comic strip or maybe even just some pictures of kids eating cereal?

Jonthan Safran Foer (the author of Eating Animals) found himself in a Chipotle one day. As he was eating his burrito, he got bored. No magazine, newspaper, book, or even his smartphone to keep him busy, and then he had an idea…

“What if there were something truly good to read on his Chipotle cup? Or the bag? A few years earlier, he had met Steve Ells, Chipotle’s C.E.O., so he decided to write the executive an e-mail. ‘I said, ‘I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text,” Foer recalled. ‘And unlike McDonald’s, it’s not like they’re selling their surfaces to the highest bidder. They had nothing on their bags. So I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just put some interesting stuff on it? Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service.'”

Chipotle did something about it.

Soon, bags and cups in Chipotle will have short, snappy, and original pieces of writing from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Lewis. The space was available. There was not much additional work needed to do this, and it’s a smart and clever way for a brand to not only add utility, but add value in an unexpected place.

If you circle back and reflect upon my car dealership scenario (which was happening at the same time that I was reading this Vanity Fair piece), the ability for any brand to add value in unexpected places is massive. Free gourmet coffee? Let us text you updates on the progress of your car? Can we wash your car for you or fill up the windshield washer? Do you require free wi-fi? A place to charge your phone? Can we offer you some office space, so you don’t have to miss your meetings?

All of these are simple (and high-level) ways the dealership could have added tremendous value in unexpected ways, that don’t really cost anything more than time to create them and the will to execute them.

There are lessons to be learned on those cups and bags.

It’s easy to dismiss the Chipotle idea as a stunt or positioning tactic. I would argue that there is something much deeper for marketers to think about. We often look for breakthrough innovation by trying to develop, create, and execute on something that doesn’t exist. As if everything we are already doing is perfect and not in need of innovation.

Instead, perhaps the true lesson here is to look within first. To find moments, places, and things that we already have in our power to control, that can be augmented to provide additional value and smarts to our consumers.

Because, sometimes, the most unexpected and interesting things can come from the places we least expect. And, more importantly, perhaps they will come from the things that we have already dismissed.

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About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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