Do consumers lie to mislead you?  I was told they do not.  Then help me understand what was wrong with the following picture when I was working for a bagel restaurant chain.

  • 65% of customers stated that they wanted to try specialty bagel and flavored cream cheese.
    • 55% of customers stated that they do not come to a bagel store to get plain bagel and plain cream cheese
  • But actual sales from 500+ restaurants showed that more than 80% of customers were ordering a plain bagel with plain cream cheese.

This made no sense, as I could not explain to the senior management team the consumer insights were not in sync with actual sales.  As I thought more about it, this made sense only if the consumer’s buying situation changed from the time they answered the survey questions; and the only way to find out was to actually be at the store and watch customers buy a bagel.

THE OBSERVATION PHASE: On a Saturday morning, I was the first person in the store and seated myself at a table close to the ordering area. By 8:00 am, the line started becoming long and soon, I saw something that completely baffled me. Here was the sequence of events:

  1. A customer stood in line.
  2. When his turn came and he was at the ordering counter, the store employee greeted him.
  3. The customer then started looking at the menu board behind the employee. The menu was nearly 30 feet long.
  4. The customer started browsing the menu, trying to identify what he really wanted to order.
  5. By the time the customer browsed the entire menu and wanted to ask the order taker a question, he realized that the order taker had “TAKEN EYE CONTACT OFF HIM & PLACED IT ON THE CUSTOMER BEHIND”.
  6. This was a very uncomfortable situation for the customer. In a way, the order taker announced in broad daylight, in front of all other customers in the store, that the customer cannot perform a simple task of placing an order at a bagel store. This is very humiliating.
  7. To get out of the situation, the customer goes for a plain bagel and plain cream cheese, something that is a default answer.

This occurred over and over, and soon I realized that the customer had approximately 8 seconds to place their order before the order taker declared them a failure.  And it was not easy to read the entire 30 feet of the menu in 8 seconds.

TESTING A SOLUTION: The next morning, I was back at the same store, but this time I prepared a table mat that had the pictures of all bagels (with names) and all cream cheese lids (with names too).  I moved to my observation seat and saw that the table mats changed the entire customer/order-taker interaction.

Now the customer took the eye contact away from the order taker and focused on the table mat. The table mat allowed the customer total control to choose what they wanted to order. For groups, there were discussions centered on the table mat, which allowed each person in the group to get what they wanted. By the end of the evening, nearly 70% of customers in the store had ordered specialty bagels and flavored cream cheese.

RESULT: Soon this idea was tested in more stores and then taken nationwide. The result was dramatic:

  • Nearly 75% of customers were ordering specialty bagels and cream cheese.
  • The profitability and customer satisfaction scores increased significantly.

RETROSPECTION: As I think back I realize the following:

  1. The marketing team built a 30 feet long menu but did not know that the customer had only 8 seconds to read the menu.
  2. This was bound to create problems for the customer who had to either ignore a big part of the menu or be “reprimanded” for taking the time to read the entire menu.
  3. Nearly ½ the customers were leaving the store ordering things that they did not crave; in fact when this group ordered a plain bagel and plain cream cheese, they settled for something that was just an “OK Solution”.
  4. I do not think it is a sustainable business model for a brand to force ½ of their customers to settle into ordering what they did not come in to get.

BEYOND BAGELS: This is a situation faced by customers nearly every day in different restaurants and industries beyond. Here are a few situations where I would request you to think of how the customer was made to feel:

  1. Drive thru restaurant, when a customer wants to pause to make sure the food order is correct. The order taker does not have time to go into the details of the order.
  2. When a customer is picking up a prescription at a pharmacy and wants to have a discussion about the side effects of the medication. The pharmacist makes the customer aware that all the information is on the 8 pages of instructions and is simply interested in getting a signature from the customer that shows that he explained to the customer everything about the medication.
  3. Specs for electronic goods, especially digital cameras. Instead of training the employees to help the customer make the right decision, employees are referred to the description of each camera. Hence when a customer wants to understand the difference, and asks a question, the employee starts reading to the customer the descriptions. Come on, the customer can read, and the customer wants to know what the descriptions mean.

In short, businesses surviving on making customers feel like goofballs, and hence there is an opportunity for competition to step in by solving for this; and be rewarded big.