Ideas In Action: Please Pump First

January 15, 2008

Have you ever noticed that when you walk into most establishments, you are told what you can’t do instead of what you can do:

– No food or drink

– No cell phones

– No shirt, no service

– No American Express

(This last one was prominently displayed on four handwritten signs by the cashier at Kantor’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles)

I don’t know what this says about society, inattentive customers, or uptight small business owners. But it does say something about just how commonplace negative language has become.

This is the exact reason why I find it so refreshing whenever I stop to buy gas at a little station on the main street of our town. Three words greet me as I pull up:

Please Pump First

This simple instruction is totally unexpected in this day and age (not to mention record setting gas prices!). It’s a “one off,” as the Brits say, in a day and age when most gas stations are devoid of service and a customer never has to interact with another human being in order to pump and pay for gasoline. Efficient, faster, and absolutely no human interaction. Not so at my local station, where you get a smile and a hello when you go to pay after filling the tank.

Think about what this sign communicates: We trust you. We’re not afraid. C’mon in.

I asked the attendant if they typically have problems with people leaving before paying, and the attendant told me no, except occasionally when someone forgets they had not paid (likely because we’ve been programmed to always pay first).

It leads me to think about the core values of businesses, both big and small, that we routinely deal with. Do we actually know the core values and, more importantly, do we agree with them? In large corporations, we have become increasingly exposed to core values being displayed everywhere from the back employee badges to the annual shareholder report. But we’re not accustomed to knowing about or seeing the core values of small enterprises which retail businesses, service businesses, and medical practices.

Typically, the only visible display of core values is in those signs that tell us what NOT to do. For any retail business that depends on foot traffic, it’s like having a big STOP sign in your entrance (and that’s before the customer encounters any of your staff). For those businesses that operate by appointment, it’s like having a WARNING sign upon entry. This is a sad irony, because most businesses and practices I speak with want to grow their business and improve their customer’s experience.

So in the New Year, I have three questions for you to ask of your business:

– What are your core values?

– How are those values demonstrated to customers on a daily basis?

– What opportunities exist to use positive language with your customers? (your version of “Please Pump First”)

Happy New Year!


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

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Ideas In Action: Off Duty At The Waffle House

October 17, 2007

Understandably, there’s a lot being said about customer experience these days. It seems as though everywhere I turn I come across an article describing one or an advertisement touting one. What gets lost at times is the fact that it takes people – typically the employees of an organization – to create the events that are unique and memorable to customers. Which leads to Nashville.

Gathering in Nashville for an annual event called thinkAbout (hosted by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy), over 100 individuals from a wide-range of professions came together to discuss meaningful ways to enhance the customer experience in our respective industries. The two days were jam-packed with learning provocations and, of course, hands-on experiences. As powerfully instructive as this event is, it was something that happened after-hours that may have provided the best learning of all. Which leads to the Waffle House.

The plan called for all thinkAbout participants wanting to go on the “freakWalk” – a post-event happening birthed at the 2005 thinkAbout when a speech by Tom Peters heralded the value of freaks in any organization – to meet in the hotel lobby at 10 pm. I had heard about this event, where last year over a dozen participants took a midnight stroll from the Baltimore hotel to visit Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. Freaky, indeed. This year’s event appeared at first to be rather modest, with eighteen of us setting off for the nearest Waffle House, about a mile away from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel where we were staying. Which leads to the luggage cart.

The group freakishly borrowed a hotel luggage cart to ride on the way! As we set off through the parking lot, when most of the women in the group hopped aboard, someone shouted out, “Four out of five women prefer to go to Waffle House riding on a luggage rack!”

After pushing the cart down an access road and across a four-lane street to the sidewalk, and then over a highway, we arrived at the Waffle House. Its four employees went from serving not even a handful of customers to having to serve twenty-two, each hungering for waffles, grits, and their famous hash browns (“scattered smothered and covered”). Which leads to Shawn.

We noticed a gal sitting at the counter near one of our tables. We naturally assumed that she was one of the few customers but as we began placing our orders, Shawn sprang into action, getting drinks and place settings for our entire group. Curious, we asked her if she worked there, because she wasn’t in the Waffle House uniform. Without missing a beat, she told us that she had been a long-time employee and had come in to find a quiet place to study for an upcoming biology test.

But when we came in, she told us she had to help. “In fact,” she said in a most-spirited way, pointing her finger at us, “if you are an employee of Waffle House and are off work, and the place gets busy, you have a duty to help out fellow employees.” It’s just part of the Waffle House employee culture, she explained. And it doesn’t matter which Waffle House you’re in at the time; if needed, you get up and help.

Impromptu singing (the heavily tattooed Waffle House cook sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to us a cappella) and a magic trick (from a thinkAbouter named Giovanni Livera) rounded out the night before the return walk home (with luggage cart in tow, returned safely back to the hotel). We were tired yet amazed at how the seemingly ordinary became the truly extraordinary.

Shawn made a big impression on our group, and her off-duty behavior begs the question: Do you and your fellow employees go out of your way to help out one another? This fundamental, unselfish act is part and parcel to the staging of memorable customer experiences. Does your corporate culture (a term that applies to all organizations, regardless of size) encourage employees to support one another, even in the most mundane of tasks?

Finally, it was a great lesson to me in recognizing that learning opportunities can’t be confined to a classroom, lecture or intricately planned event. Some of the best learning comes when you least expect it, whether at work with colleagues, at home with kids, or out for the legendary freakWalk!


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

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Ideas in Action: iPod Ergo Sum

August 2007

iPod Ergo Sum

It’s Okay to Take a Bite

Creating Leverage


iPod Ergo Sum

Those of you who took Latin class in your school days will recognize the play on one of its most famous phrases, Cogito Ergo Sum. Written in 1637 by philosopher Descartes, I think, therefore I am became foundational to western thought and philosophy.

370 years later, a company called Apple is changing the way we think about goods and services for working (iMac and iBook), communicating (iPhone), lounging (Apple TV) and listening (iTunes). The largest driver of all these products is also the smallest in size: the iPod.


It’s Okay to Take a Bite

I featured Apple in my February 2007 column in CRSToday as one of my picks for companies that stage great customer experiences. Unlike the apples consumed by Eve and Snow White, this Apple has a lot to offer that can nourish how we think about our own businesses. I’ll highlight some of the best concepts here:

First, you’ll notice that the company is now called Apple. After thirty years as Apple Computer, Inc., they have redefined their business as much more than a computer company. They sell lifestyle as much as they sell any product or service.

Second, their stores draw you in with a “high tech, high touch” atmosphere that encourages you to come in and play with all the great looking gadgets. They’ve taken a big step in making technology less intimidating, as evidenced by the diversity of people you see shopping in their store: young and old, geek and non-geek, expert and novice.

Third, the staff is easily identifiable in their same color tee-shirts and strive to apple store business card educate rather than hard sell. The business card at right is what one fellow handed me to encourage me to learn more about switching over from PC to Mac platforms. On the back was an invitation to set up a dedicated appointment to learn more about the Mac, “no strings attached.”

Fourth, they have themed the entire store to reflect the cool rebel factor long associated with their company culture and core customers. Take, for example, the “Genius Bar”, where customers can queue up to get help with their products. How cool is that? I’d much rather visit a Genius Bar than get on the phone to talk to someone faraway in the land of technical support.

Think about your practice or business and take another read of the bolded phrases above. Just six years ago, Apple was computer company that had no retail stores. With creative intention and planning, how could you redefine your practice to make it significantly more attractive and appealing to potential customers?


Creating Leverage

Physicists define leverage as a factor that can multiply force. Apple has done a great job of creating business leverage, where sales of one product encourage sales of another. The iTunes music store led to market dominance for the iPod, in part because that online store was much easier to use and download than competing ones. The iPod created a whole new phrase in the Experience Economy: “podcasting.” With video capability, TV shows and movies can be watched where and when you want and programming off the PC can now be broadcast over the TV (Apple TV). See a pattern here?

Most important for Apple, the iPod revolution is causing a lot of folks, myself included, to take a closer look at the Mac platform for my basic computing needs. Financial statements indicate a clear increase in sales of the more-expensive and more profitable Macs (relative to PCs) as a direct result of the popularity of the iPod and iTunes.

Think Different

In your business, you should think about what services you can offer that are complementary to your existing or core services. Some will fit within your current framework, while others would require expanding that frame (reinvention) in order for you to be successful.

Apple serves as a reminder that we need to “think different” (the motto from an earlier ad campaign for the Mac) if we want different results. They did, and look what happened!

How fast a year goes by! Thanks to all of you for reading Ideas in Action, an e-letter devoted to helping you offer a better customer experience. Subscribers include doctors and other entrepreneurs who have a strong service component to their business. Please forward this to friends and colleagues who you think would benefit – they can easily sign up and get it directly.

And for those of you who missed earlier issues, we’ve provided a quick link below.



Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

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Ideas In Action: New Meanings for Old Sayings

July 2007

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Getting back to basics


In my marketing work with medical device companies and their customers, I’m finding that some of those old sayings that have been around forever have new meaning that’s applicable in the world of elective medicine.


It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Parents learn quickly that with kids, it’s important to teach about tone and manner in conversation. These little lessons seem to have a big impact, not only on the playground but throughout life. Similarly, communication experts tell us that 90% or more of what gets communicated between people is non-verbal.

A similar principal applies to the workplace, where your workday can typically be separated into two components, the content (what you do) and the process (how you get it done). In the world of refractive surgery, there’s been a lot of focus placed on content and little emphasis put on process. Surgeons invest heavily in equipment and skill to provide surgical procedures such as LASIK. This is the content piece that comprises “what” gets done, and the outcomes are spectacular.

However, equal emphasis on the process or “how” seems to be lacking in many practices.

And that is precisely where the real opportunity exists to improve the experience of your customers. The processes you put into place should all be designed to lead your customers to the conclusion that their experience was remarkable and memorable.

During this year, my monthly column in Cataract and Refractive Surgery Today (, has focused on how to improve quality in the refractive practice, often referencing the work of the International Council for Quality Care. This organization is devoted to helping physicians work on the process side of the ledger and have an abundance of tools and resources available. I strongly recommend their two-day Physician Strategy College for anyone who wants to live out their “perfect day” at work on a regular basis. The ICQC can be of big help: (


If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

You’ve heard it a million times: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” With sincere apologies to my 8th grade grammar teacher Mrs. Foulkes, I offer an updated corollary that applies today: It’s broke. And it’s definitely time to fix it.

The “it” I’m referring to are the systems in place to effectively capture and cultivate the interest initially expressed by people seeking your services. A decade of market data in refractive surgery has proven that doctors aren’t doing well when it comes to creating an experience that is over- the-top remarkable for their paying customer patients. Most surgeons I talk to believe they’re doing a reasonable job in this area, but they fail to recognize just how high the bar is when someone is asked to pay $5,000 or $10,000 to have their vision improved.

Our firm has done telephone assessment studies to assess how well surgeons’ staff members are answering calls from prospective customers for refractive surgery. The bottom line: the processes used to answer the phone are inadequate and are largely broken. Leaving this unfixed has consequences, one of which can be seen in the charts comparing the price and demand for LASIK with that for breast implants over the past decade. It’s clear that plastic surgeons are doing a better job of creating and protecting the value of their main offering.


Getting back to basics

The lack of sophistication by medical providers on the telephone is not what consumers considering multi-thousand dollar purchases should be receiving. Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond the phone and into the very practices themselves. It’s not that staff don’t try to be nice or helpful; it’s just that systems are typically not in place to make certain that every encounter with every customer is truly nice and helpful. Doctors often relegate these issues to the list of “little things” that can be worked on later. However, it is the little things that can often make a big difference, especially when you are a provider of a premium-priced service that is dependent on the discretionary-income of your target audience.

My recommendation is to go back and examine those routines which have become “automatic” and see what can be tweaked and improved to create greater connection with your current or future customer. The Ritz Carlton calls these their service “basics”, a set of 21 principles that guide an environment described as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” I hope that’s motivation enough for you to get back to basic.


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

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Ideas In Action: Pianos, Ice Cream and You

April 2007

Pianos, Ice Cream and You

The big “E”

The Fine Print


You might not have put this together, but Steinway (the legendary piano maker) and Cold Stone (the fast growing ice cream chain) have a lot more in common than many realize. Both have some unique approaches to satisfying customers and building their business brands. Both have built their reputations without advertising (one over the past 150 years, the during the past 5).


Pianos, Ice Cream and You

When you buy a Steinway, one of the benefits is that the company arranges a concert by a pianist in your home. You pick the date, give them the guest list, and they take care of the rest. You enjoy a neat experience and get to impress your guests. And you know who ends up becoming a future Steinway customer? The guests! Now, that’s clever marketing!

When you go to Cold Stone, an ice cream cone easily runs five bucks or more. Flavor sampling is encouraged, and you get to customize your order with goodies that get mixed in before your eyes on a cold slab of granite. The teenage scoopers sing for tips. It’s a brief performance dubbed “eatertainment” that has people standing in long lines on hot nights. Again, very clever marketing.

What these two examples have in common is something we should all pay attention to, namely the customer experience. Whether we’re dealing in high-end pianos or passion fruit sorbet, the path to differentiating our offering and commanding premium prices is through the delivery of over-the-top experiences to our customers.


The big “E”

Welcome to debut of Ideas in Action, a newsletter designed to stimulate your thinking and help you continuously improve the experience you offer your customers. The inspiration for doing this comes from 20 years of marketing and sales experience with medical technology, specifically ones that are so good that customers (meaning the doctor’s patients) are willing to pay for them with their own money rather than wait for somebody else (meaning insurance) to pick up the tab.

My firm, SM2 Consulting, works with leading manufacturers and providers in ophthalmic, dental, and cosmetic/aesthetic specialties. During the past 5 years, we have published numerous articles and reports (available in the Library of our just-launched website), most of which apply across the board to the effort involved the business and marketing of elective procedures. What I’ve learned while doing the research and writing is that when it comes to the marketing of services, the ultimate form of marketing occurs when the service you deliver exceeds the expectations in such a way that your customer feels compelled to tell everyone they know about it and continue doing so for a long time. We have passed by the era in marketing when you could create the right “mix” of traditional concepts – positioning, promotion, pricing, packaging, and all the other “P”s – in order to be successful.Those “P”s are still around, but they are taking a back seat to the big “E” of marketing called experience.

My goal is to discover and highlight for you great role models of products, services and companies that know how to deliver an enhanced customer experience.

We’ve got some good things planned going forward, so stay tuned. I’ll be discussing pricing (you won’t believe how much a buttocks lift actually costs!), a whole new approach to the sales of cell phones, and an interview with The Experience Economy author Jim Gilmore. In the meantime, I have finally published the long- awaited Top Ten Marketing Mistakes made by refractive surgeons, which is now available for you to download at the SM2 website. It should be a good conversation starter at your next staff meeting. For those of you who got this “magically”, I was the magician who added you from my rolodex. I hope you will let your friends and colleagues know about the newsletter and the site.

Summer starts today. That means swimming, BBQ, and, of course, Cold Stone. Enjoy!


The Fine Print

I call this a “newsletter” but it’s really more of a “fire starter,” intended to spark thoughts and ideas for readers to more creatively solve their own marketing challenges. It is intended to be more raw and “straight from the gut” (thank you Jack Welch) than what happens in my monthly column in CRSToday. I’ll do my best to issue this newsletter when I have something to say which I think adds value to your efforts to improve the level of customer experience in your practice or business.

We won’t sell or rent your e-mail address or name. If you are bored and don’t want to receive this, you check out at anytime. I hope the opposite happens and that this is good enough stuff that you will forward to your friends and colleagues so they can join in. Feedback is good! If you want to comment on something here, send a note to me at the address below.


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

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