Category Archives: business schools

Flying Saucer: Doing the Right Thing

Few things impress me more from management than responsiveness and a sense of responsibility. Contrary to what some people seem to assume when I say a thing like this, the reciprocal isn’t true. There are several things managers can do which disappoint me more than their lack of responsiveness or their failure to take responsibility for something going on in their business. The main point is that I don’t really expect most managers to be responsive or responsible in matters pertaining to their business. Without my noticing it, there might be an implicit indictment of common managerial styles in the way I perceive responsive and responsible managers. But I mostly mean this as praise for what I perceive as proper management.

Now, those who know me would probably shout out that I’m really nothing like the “managerial type.” At best, I’d be the kind of person managers may pay attention to, on occasion. But I like ambivalence and nuance too much to be a “decider.” Since I have never been (nor do I ever plan to be) in a position of power over others, “it’s all good.”

What does any of this have to do with the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, you ask so eagerly I can smell the anxiety in your voice? Simple: Management at FS has just provided me with an excellent example of what I consider to be responsible and responsive management. And this does almost as much to endear them to me than their beer selection. SRSLY!

Here’s the deal…

Went to the recently-opened Austin location of the FS beerpub chain. Based in Houston, the chain has pubs in different parts of Southcentral and Southeastern United States (AR, TN, TX, NC, and SC). Because their beer selection tends to be rather extensive, their pubs are mentioned occasionally in beer podcasts and informal discussions. I was thus enthusiastic about the opportunity to go and sample some of their beers. Anything which brings people to understand beer diversity has my attention.

To make things even more exciting, the pub has a Monday night special (every week, apparently) during which draft beers are sold at $2.50 a pint. There are less expensive beers around (including some carefully crafted beer brewed locally) but given Flying Saucer’s beer selection, the deal sounded too good to be true.

And it kind of was. Not every beer on the draft menu was part of the special. Fair enough, of course. But a bit confusing. In fact, something on their Austin website was slightly misleading. Nothing to sue them over but, still, it’s a bit frustrating to have reality not live up to expectations set up by information given out by an enterprise. (A rare occurrence, right? 😉 )
So I submitted some comments using their feedback form. Because my comments were (hopefully constructive but still) somewhat negative, I sent those comments in the “Criticize Us” category. I tried to make my comments as thoughtful as possible but I did feel a bit silly to criticize a pub for what is objectively a very nice special. It’s probably just something about myself that I like to tell people what I feel about what they do to me. It might even be a Quebecker thing.

Thing is, I didn’t really expect an answer. I was sending comments in the hope that, maybe, it would reach someone who might be reminded of it on an occasion where it might matter, somewhat. I almost sent a copy of my comments as an “open letter” but, probably because I felt a bit silly for sending such comments, I refrained from compulsively blogging the issue.

I sent my comment at 10PM CET. An automatic response told me, in a humorous way, that I should receive a response within 12 to 24 hours and, failing this, I should send another message. I don’t even expect that kind of a response time in time-sensitive situations (say, a moving or a courier company) so I really didn’t expect a response in that timeframe. But this auto-response did prepare me to get some kind of reply (probably a generic response) at some point in the not-too-distant future. Again, this wasn’t something I was really expecting when I submitted my comments.

What I still wasn’t expecting after receiving the automatic response was what actually happened. By 4:30AM CET,  a message was sent to me by someone at the Austin management for Flying Saucer. That message was CC’ed to other people but was clearly addressed to me. No form letter here. In fact, the message was directly addressing the issues I had raised, in exactly the right tone and most appropriate way. The person who sent the message took responsibility for the misleading statement and pledged to rectify it right away. In fact, by the time I read that message, the actual webpage had in fact been updated, and the statement I had quoted had been replaced with a claim that I find humorous, honest, and quite appropriate.

Wow!

Of course, it didn’t take them too much of an effort to make these changes. And they might have acted so quickly for fear of legal issues (even though my message wasn’t at all meant to be threatening). But I’m still very impressed by the responsiveness and sense of responsibility displayed by management at Flying Saucer Austin.

To remain in the corporate mindframe, it reminds me of ads for a fast-food chain in which people act in a “refreshingly honest” way. Though I’m certainly not going to eat fast-food because of ads like these, I definitely appreciate the concept. Openness, transparency, effectiveness, responsiveness, responsibility… Taken together, these qualities make for a very pleasurable experience, even when they relate to relatively large institutions. I sincerely think that if more managers were like that, many problems could be solved.

Now, if I can only get Texas to change its beer import laws… 😉

The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium – www.beerknurd.com


Schools, Research, Relevance

The following was sent to the Moodle Lounge.

Business schools and research | Practically irrelevant? | Economist.com

My own reaction to this piece…
Well, well…
The title and the tone are, IMHO, rather inflammatory. For those who follow tech news, this could sound like a column by John C. Dvorak. The goal is probably to spark conversation about the goals of business schools. Only a cynic (rarely found in academia 😛 ) would say that they’re trying to increase readership. 😎

The article does raise important issues, although many of those have been tackled in the past. For instance, the tendency for educational institutions to look at the short-term gains of their “employees’ work” for their own programs instead of looking at the broader picture in terms of social and human gains. Simple rankings decreasing the diversity of programmes. Professors who care more about their careers than about their impact on the world. The search for “metrics” in scholarship (citation impact, patents-count, practical impact…). The quest for prestige. Reluctance to change. Etc.

This point could lead to something interesting:

AACSB justifies its stance by saying that it wants schools and faculty to play to their strengths, whether they be in pedagogy, in the research of practical applications, or in scholarly endeavour.

IMHO, it seems to lead to a view of educational institutions which does favour diversity. We need some schools which are really good at basic research. We need other schools (or other people at the same schools) to be really good ast creating learning environments. And some people should be able to do the typical goal-oriented “R&D” for very practical purposes, with business partners in mind. It takes all kinds. And because some people forget the necessity for diverse environments, it’s an important point to reassess.
The problem is, though, that the knee-jerk reaction apparently runs counter to the “diversity” argument. Possibly because of the AACSB’s own recommendations or maybe because of a difference of opinion, academics (and the anonymous Economist journalist) seem to understand the AACSB’s stance as meaning that all programs should be evaluated with the exact same criteria which give less room for basic research. Similar things have been done in the past and, AFAICT, basic research eventually makes a comeback, one way or the other. A move toward “practical outcomes” is often a stopgap measure in a “bearish” context.

To jump on the soapbox for a second. I personally do think that there should be more variety in academic careers, including in business schools. Those who do undertake basic research are as important as the others. But it might be ill-advised to require every faculty member at every school to have an impressive research résumé every single year. Those people whose “calling” it is to actually teach should have some space and should probably not be judged using the same criteria as those who perceive teaching as an obstacle in their research careers. This is not to say that teachers should do no research. But it does mean that requiring proof of excellence in research of everyone involved is a very efficient way to get both shoddy research and dispassionate teaching. In terms of practical implications for the world outside the Ivory Tower, often subsumed under the category of “Service,” there are more elements which should “count” than direct gain from a given project with a powerful business partner. (After all, there is more volatility in this context than in most academic endeavours.) IMHO, some people are doing more for their institutions by going “in the world” and getting people interested in learning than by working for a private sponsor. Not that private sponsors are unimportant. But one strength of academic institutions is that they can be neutral enough to withstand changes in the “market.”

Phew! 😉

Couldn’t help but notice that the article opens the door for qualitative and inductive research. Given the current trend in and toward ethnography, this kind of attitude could make it easier to “sell” ethnography to businesses.
What made me laugh in a discussion of video-based ethnographic observation is that they keep contrasting “ethnography” (at least, the method they use at EverydayLives) with “research.” 😀

The advantage of this distinction, though, in the context of this Economist piece, is that marketeers and other business-minded people might then see ethnography as an alternative for what is perceived as “practically irrelevant” research. 💡


Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

An interesting piece about the move, by Netflix, to phone-only customer service.
Victory for voices over keystrokes | CNET News.com

Much of it sounds very obvious. Customers tend to prefer phone support instead of email. Customer service representatives who take more time on the phone with customers are more likely to make people happy. Many customers dislike offshoring. Customer service can make or break some corporations. Customers often have outlandish requests. Hourly salaries in call centres will vary greatly from one place to the other, even within the same area.

In other words, Netflix has done what many people think a company should do. We’ll see how it all pans out in the end.

The main reason this piece caught my attention is that I have been doing surveys (over the phone) about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives over the phone. Not only am I working in a call centre myself (and can certainly relate with the job satisfaction which comes from empathy). But several of the surveys I do are precisely about the points made in this News.com piece. The majority of the surveys I do are about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives (CSRs) at incoming call centres for a big corporation. So I hear a lot about CSRs and what they do well. Or not so well. One answer I’ve been hearing on occasion was “I’d appreciate it if I could talk to people who are a bit less courteous but who know more about the services the company is providing.” After interactions with several CSRs and tech support people, I can relate with this experience on a personal level.

The general pattern is that people do prefer it if they can speak directly (over the phone) with a human being who speaks their native language very fluently and are able to spend as much time as it takes with them on the phone. Most people seem to believe that it is important to be able to speak to someone instead of dealing with the issue in an “impersonal” manner.

Sounds obvious. And it probably is obvious to many executives, when they talk about customer service. So email support, outsourcing, offshoring, time limits on customer service, and low wages given to customer service representatives are all perceived by customers as cost-cutting measures.

But there’s something else.

We need the “chunky spaghetti sauce” of customer service. Yes, this is also very obvious. But it seems that some people draw awkward conclusions from it. It’s not really about niche marketing. It’s not exactly about customer choice or even freedom. It’s about diversity.

As an anthropologist, I cherish human diversity. Think of the need for biological diversity on the level of species but through the cultural, linguistic, and biological dimensions of one subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Yes, we’re all the same. Yes, we’re all different. But looking at human diversity for a while, you begin to notice patterns. Some of these patterns can be described as “profiles.” Other patterns are more subtle, harder to describe. But really not that difficult to understand.

The relationships between age and technology use, for instance. The common idea is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be “into technology.” “It’s a generation thing, you know. Kids these days, they’re into HyPods and MikeSpaces, and Nit’n’do-wee. I’m too old to know anything about these things.”

Yeah, right.

All the while, some children are struggling with different pieces of technology forced unto them and some retirees are sending each other elaborate PowerPoint files to younger people who are too busy to look at them.

To go back to customer service on the phone. Some people are quite vocal about their preference for interactions with “real human beings” who speak their native language and are able to understand them. Other people would actually prefer it if they could just fire off a message somewhere and not have to spend any time on the phone. On several occasions having to do with customer service, I do prefer email exchanges over phone interactions. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority.

Many people in fact deal with different situations in different ways.

One paragraph I personally find quite surprising in the News.com piece is about the decision to not only strengthen the phone-based support but to, in effect, abolish email support:

Netflix’s decision to eliminate the e-mail feature was made after a great deal of research, Osier said. He looked at two other companies with reputations for superb phone-based customer service, Southwest Airlines and American Express, and saw that customers preferred human interaction over e-mail messages.

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to me. (It’d be fun to read the research report!) I’m pretty sure that most business schools advise future executives against knee-jerk reactions.

One thing which surprises me about the Netflix move is that, contrary to Southwest Airlines and American Express, the Netflix business is primarily based on online communication and postal services. My hunch is that a significant number of Netflix users are people who enjoy the convenience of one-click movie rentals without any need to interact with a person. Not that Netflix users dislike other human beings but they may prefer dealing with other human beings on other levels. If my hunch is accurate to any degree, chances are that these same people also enjoy it when they can solve an issue with their account through a single email or, better yet, a single click. For instance, someone might like the option of simply clicking a button on the Netflix website to put their rental queue on hold. And it might be quite useful to receive an email confirmation of a “Damaged Disc Report” (SRC: DISCPROBLEM) instead of having to rely on a confirmation number given on the phone by a friendly CSR in Oregon or, say, Moncton.

Yes, I’m referring to the specific instances of my interactions with Netflix. While I’d certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with friendly French-speaking CSRs when I have problems with plane tickets or credit cards, I like the fact that I can deal with Netflix online (and through free postal mail). Call me crazy all you want. I’m one of those Netflix customers who find it convenient to deal with the company through those means. After all, Netflix is unlikely to have such an influence on my life that I would enjoy spending as much as ten minutes on the phone with friendly Oregonians.

As an ethnographer, I have not, in fact, observed Netflix to any significant extent. I’m just a random customer and, as it so happens, my wife is the one who is getting rentals from them. What little I know about the Netflix business model is limited to discussions about it on tech-related podcasts. And I do understand that Blockbuster is their direct target.

Yet it seems to me that one of the main reasons Netflix has/had been succeeding is that they went into relatively uncharted territory and tapped into a specific market (mixed analogies are fun). Even now, Netflix has advantages over “traditional” DVD rental companies including Blockbuster the same way that Amazon has advantages over Barnes and Noble. It seems to me that Amazon is not actively trying to become the next Barnes and Noble. AFAIK, Amazon is not even trying to become the next Wal-Mart (although it has partnered with Target).

Why should Netflix try to beat Blockbusters?

What does this all mean for corporate America?