Monday, December 29, 2014

Denny's Turns Into Dont-eat-here's ... and Here's Why

Tonight I made the great big mistake of eating at Denny's. Usually, this is a not-half-bad place to eat, with decent food, (usually) good-sized portions, and service that's better than you might expect.  However, tonight, everything went wrong ... including their web-based "email" complaint system, which crashed on me two-thirds of my way through writing a complaint  - which is probably just as well, as the type on the "form" is so small, and of such a faded gray, that I couldn't read what I'd written well enough to be sure I'd gotten my message across.

Tonight's disastrous visit to Denny's would have been a "comedy of errors," except it's not funny.  EVERYTHING that could go wrong, did.  Sometimes in more than one way. 
Here's what happened.

First, I was given a "special" holiday menu and ordered the turkey and dressing.  I'd planned to get something else, but this looked good.

Then, I asked what I could get as a substitute for the cranberry sauce (I'm diabetic and can't eat it, but I've never liked it, even when I could eat it).  I was told that, with Denny's entire menu at hand, they couldn't substitute anything it because "We don't carry applesauce." 

I didn't ask for applesauce, nor would I have asked for it. ANYTHING would have been preferable to cranberry sauce (even applesauce), but apparently making a simple substitution is beyond the abilities of both of the wait staff (one, whom I presume was the floor manager).  Frustrated, I told them to just throw mine away. 

To make up for the smaller serving (sans cranberry sauce), I ordered two pancakes ($0.69). However, nobody offered to swap those pancakes for the unwanted cranberry sauce.  How "thoughtful."  With them, I ordered extra butter - since I don't eat syrup, I like the extra butter to keep the pancakes from being too dry. More on that later.

Then, after 20 minutes of waiting (thinking it was taking a long time to get my food), I was told that Denny's were in the process of phasing out the special menu (so why even give it to me?) and, because of that, they'd ordered no more turkey, so ... for me ... there was no turkey.  An entire day after not having ordered more turkey, nobody had bothered to tell the wait-staff that there was no turkey?  Really?  Unbelievable. 

Worse, it took them 20 minutes of figuring it out before they could tell me.

So I ordered the senior spaghetti as a replacement for the turkey.  Nobody bothered to tell me that at Denny's, the "senior" serving is actually smaller than a kid's portion - I'm not sure where it's written that "seniors" have smaller appetites than kids (THIS senior sure doesn't) but by the time I got my order, it was too late - in more ways than one.

BTW - I got my salad (comes with the senior spaghetti) right away - but almost immediately, my main course was brought out, before I could half-finish my salad. MOST restaurants time their service so patrons can finish one course before being served the next ... but I guess, for Denny's, that's right up there with NOT knowing you're out of turkey.

Then, I was brought the pancakes - which I'd ordered as a replacement for the cranberry sauce, When I re-ordered, I'd assumed I was starting from scratch - bad me.  If you've never had pancakes with spaghetti, you're missing a culinary delight.  (BTW - when I ordered the pancakes, I asked for extra butter - but when they arrived, I got no extra butter and - since, as a diabetic, I don't use syrup, those were DRY pancakes).

BTW - I had iced tea with my meal, and I told each of my two wait-staff persons that I did NOT want lemon.  Care to guess how many lemons I got (if you guess "less than five" you'd be wrong).

Finally, I asked to order a to-go item. When asked, I said I wanted the salmon.  I was then asked what sides (please note that no menu had been provided, and that there are two different salmon dishes on the menu - I guess the wait staff figured that I was psychic when it came to the sides, and that they were psychic when it comes to which salmon I wanted).  I finally had to ask for a menu when the waitress couldn't tell me what sides there were, other than broccoli and mashed potatoes.

Could it get any worse?  Yes - twice.

First, my bill arrived (after waiting for another 20 minutes after my dishes had been cleared away) and I had been charged for the turkey you didn't have, instead of the kiddy-sized "senior spaghetti" I did get. When I pointed this out, the waitress kind of huffed and said it was only $0.49 difference ... (sigh) ... as if this was my fault, and that I was being unreasonable.  Nonetheless, I insisted on a corrected bill.

Five minutes later, she brought me back my check, and said it was "comped." In Las Vegas, where I live and where I had dinner, "comped" means just one thing - that the meal was being given to me for free in recognition of all the problems I'd had. "At last," I thought, "they're taking responsibility for their non-stop string of (ahem)-ups.

But something about that didn't feel right, and this feeling caused me to ask again what she meant about "comped," and she explained that she'd "comped" me the $0.49 (rather than re-doing the check) - and she said it like she was doing me a favor.  Having heard "comped" after a nightmare meal, then finding out that this was her way of fixing an incorrect bill ... well, my heart just soared with joy.

But there was one more thing wrong. I got home with the salmon for my sick-in-bed wife, and when she went to dig in, there was no fork, no napkin - nothing with which to eat her meal.  I was in another part of the house, she was hungry (by now it was nearly 8 pm, after a nearly two-hour meal ordeal) so she had to do her best to eat fingers-only.

So I ask you.  Is this the quality of service that  Denny's wants to be known for?  More to the point, is this the kind of service you want from a restaurant like Denny's?  Sure, it's not Outback Steak House or some other higher-end chain restaurant, but still ... is this acceptable?  To you? 

Not to me!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Black Friday Starts on Thanksgiving Day for Kmart Employees

In an effort to grab the customers early, major retailers have kept lowering the bar on “open” hours around Thanksgiving. 

Until recently, “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – had not only been the biggest shopping day of the year, but an “event” that seemed to fuel customer interest in starting their shopping on that day.  But in the past couple of years, big-box retailers have begun inching into what had been “forbidden” territory – the secularly-sacred family day of Thanksgiving (the day before Thanksgiving is the biggest travel day of the year).

This year, Kmart has gone a major step further – they will open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving day and remain open for 42 hours, covering 18 hours of Thanksgiving and all 24 hours of “Black Friday.”  And they have done so with no concern for their employees, or for the PR backlash.

As a marketer, I can understand why Kmart wants to grab those “first fruits" dollars of holiday shopping.  The dollars you don’t capture up front will be spent somewhere else.  Which is why some retailers are hosting a Black-Friday-on-Wednesday sale (the window for “first day” keeps getting pushed back – in five years, expect to see the Christmas shopping season start on January 2nd).  Already, Amazon declared the entire week a "Black Friday," jumping the gun on both Black Friday and Cyber-Monday.  And they are far from alone - my email inbox is bulging with pre-Black Friday sales, all from retailers and e-tailers trying to grab those first fruits before they're spent elsewhere.

Who actually plans to go shopping on Thanksgiving (other than women who don’t like football, who decide – after dinner – that Extreme Shopping is more fun than schlepping beer and Doritos for the menfolk who can’t bother themselves to get out of their seats) remains a mystery to me.  Not sure who Kmart and the others plan to grab as first-minute shoppers, but I’m assuming this is more a defensive strategy (fearing Walmart and Target will do this whether Kmart does it or not).

But as a PR guy, I can see what this is doing to employees, what this “tells” people who still take Thanksgiving-at-home-with-the-family as a God-given right (actually, as a Federal holiday, it’s Congressionally-given right, but let’s not quibble).  The media has been quick to pick up on this, for example, this story from Fox News - and no media I’ve found has been swift to defend Kmart.  This will, I think, result in a consumer backlash as well – Kmart doesn’t have a “lock” on gift-goodies (they’re pretty generic), and that makes it easier for sympathetic consumers (like me) to show their pique by shopping elsewhere.

For instance …

As one of those who doesn’t work retail, I not only resent those companies which force employees to work on the most family-oriented (and, let’s admit it, football-oriented) holiday of the year.  Having worked in retail in my early jobs, my resentment for what Kmart is doing is going to transform itself into a boycott – this holiday season, I’ll preferentially shop at stores who don’t impose 18-hour Thanksgiving work-days on their employees.

But what should employees do?  They could speak out, at risk of their jobs – but if they do, their employer will suffer financially, which could lead to store closings and smaller work-forces.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tilting at Windmills - Fighting the Rising Tide of Add-on Charges for Using Plastic Money

The problem can be small - KFC, for instance, now charges $0.39 per transaction if you use a credit card or debit card.  Or it can be big.  Wo Fat, an otherwise great neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas, now refuses to accept plastic money for charges under $10.  That new rule nearly turned into an embarrassment for me last night, as I generally don't carry cash.

But whatever the reason, too many retail businesses have forgotten that the banking fees for taking credit cards or debit cards has always been part of the cost of doing business - and frankly, on a per-transaction basis, not a very big cost of doing business.  Now, they are starting to charge clients for using plastic money, or they're putting floors on chargeable transactions.

What they don't realize is that consumers may not like this - in fact, a growing number of consumers really object to this practice. I'm one of them.

It's really not about the money - hey, it's only $0.39 per transaction.  No, it's about respect. This fee makes me feel like either a "second class customer" - not as good or worthy as cash customers; or it makes me feel like a dupe - an idiot willing to pay a surcharge for a common transaction most retailers ignore by absorbing the cost.

Just because it's legal for a company to do this doesn't make it a smart move.  In the case of KFC, I'm now preferentially buying "family meals" at A&W/Long John Silver, right across the street from my local KFC.  A&W doesn't charge me a fee, and their food is excellent (for drive-through) and comparably priced.

As far as Wo Fat is concerned, I've been a regular customer for 23 years - they serve the best egg fu yong in town.  But their lunch is $5.50 and their dinner is $7.75, so either way, I'll have to pay cash or go somewhere else.  Since I don't routinely carry cash (because everybody now takes debit cards), I'll have to find another good Chinese restaurant. In Las Vegas, that won't be hard.

A word to the wise retailer.  Do not risk pissing off loyal customers over anti-consumer policies that at best pay you a marginal fee ($0.39 for a $25 meal at KFC) or help you avoid fees for smaller transactions. 

And to KFC - it will take 65 meals to make up, at $0.39 each - just one weekly transaction you're losing when I take my business across the street.  And since I was buying the $25 family meal each week, you need a LOT of new customers to make up for the one you've just pissed off.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Skype's Message to Users: What Do You Want For Free? Your Money Back?

I suppose everybody in greater metropolitan Christendom knows about Skype, and probably has a Skype application on their computers and/or phones.  Skype seems to provide a useful service at a reasonable price - free being "reasonable" in my book.

But recently, they've begun an insidious effort to take over their users' computers (in a small way, but who asked them to, eh?).

They've begun circulating upgrades, and these "demand your attention" by popping up, un-asked-for, on your desktop.  Bad enough, but apparently justifiable.

After all, what do you want for free?  Your money back?

But now they've taken it a step further. If you do try to upgrade, unless you are VERY careful, they will - as part of this upgrade - automatically make Bing (instead of Google) your default search engine, and MSN (instead of Dilbert or Drudge or your default home page.

Who asked them to do that?

Well, obviously, the corporate masters (the ones with fat checkbooks) at MSN and Bing.  But I mean, if I wanted those, I'd have set them up myself, right?  But I don't. I want Dilbert and Google, and I DID set them up myself.

What's that got to do with upgrading Skype?  Not much.  But they seem to feel it's OK to try and sneak this one past you. 

After all, what do you want for free?  Your money back?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Business Wire - A Division of Publicly-Traded Berkshire Hathaway - Creates a Tangled Web of Deception

Note - this blog was updated on October 1, 2014, following further conversations with several increasingly-senior executives at Business Wire, including two calls with BizWire COO Phyllis Dantuono


The Scottish 19th Century Poet Sir Walter Scott might have had Business Wire in mind when he wrote:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

It turns out that, over at Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE BRK), Business Wire - at least when it comes to "practising to deceive" - has been "practising" overtime. At least that is my personal perspective, based on an increasing body of experience with the firm, related to the issue below.
One reason any PR professional might choose to use Business Wire – a Berkshire Hathaway Company – and one reason why so many PR people are willing to pay a premium to use this most expensive of news-release distribution services, is their claim that when you do place a release with BizWire, at least 294 news aggregator websites will (because they're under contract to Business Wire) pick up your release and run it online.   These nearly 300 news aggregator sites are primarily the online sites of news media outlets - national, state and local - and all this implies that your press release will appear on these sites, and be searchable at those sites.

That is the promise they offer. More important, that is the result they show in their NewsTrak dashboard.  This seemingly useful tool comes with each release, and purports to document just how often the release has been accessed, as well as offering links to online news sites where the release has been posted.  

Among other features, this seemingly-informative NewsTrak report shows (complete with interactive logos) that the release has been picked up by all 294 of those under-contract news aggregator sites.

I was so impressed when I first learned about this service four years ago that I blogged about this feature. I cited the advantages of a service with so many news aggregator sites under contract with them, and made the case for PR pros to use BizWire specifically for this reason:   

I also mentioned this feature favorably in a book I ghost-wrote earlier this year, "Beautifully Profitable / Forever Profitable."  

Clearly, I was a big fan of this news aggregator service (at least as it had been laid out to me in 2010).

Unfortunately, it turns out that there’s now a problem with that promise.

Today, of those 294 news aggregator sites, a vast majority of them do not actually post the releases as implied by the NewsTrak report. Some don't post the release at all. In those cases, the NewsTrak link routes you to other locations - including web pages hosted by Business Wire itself.  

For example, three Fox TV News local affiliate stations' websites are shown on my most recent NewsTrak dashboard report. However, when you click on those logo-links, instead of going to the released news story on those stations' websites, you go here: ... and when you get there, good luck finding the release.  

I have no idea what this site is, or who owns it (it may be a front for BizWire, or it could be as legitimate as the New York Stock Exchange - it's hard to tell).

If your release is there o this financial site at all, it's neither visible nor easily searchable.  Worse, if you search on the TV stations' websites for the release (using it's title as a search term), you get nothing.  

Despite the NewsTrak report's claim, the release is not where they said it would be - and, presumably, where my client was paying for it to be.

But unfortunate as this lack of performance is, for some media listed on NewsTrak, this situation only gets worse. 

For example, when you click on the Las Vegas Review Journal logo on the NewsTrak report (which I did because my client is in the Vegas SMSA), you do not go  to the Review Journal website, nor do you go to a financial site.  

Instead, you go to an internal page hosted on the Business Wire website: 

There, on that site, you have no RJ branding – just this:

Las Vegas Review-Journal - Las Vegas News, Business, Entertainment Information

Apparently, what you're really paying for is yet another posting on a BizWire web page - a placement on their own site, with no links to the RJ.

As an aside, I have published what appeared on the header of that page  because, within just 30 minutes after my discussion with Business Wire's regional manager, Jerry Johnson, my client's press release - which had been published on this Bizwire page - suddenly disappeared.  

Instead, what you now see is this:   

The content you request is no longer available. You are welcome to login to our site to see other news of interest.

That happened within 30 minutes after my call with their regional manager, a call which didn't end well.  

Several senior execs at Biz Wire, including the COO, Phyllis Dantuono herself, claims that this pull-down was either a coincidence, or the action of the Las Vegas Review Journal. 

 You may draw your own conclusion about this.

Finally, if you go directly to the RJ site, or to any of the Fox Network stations' linked news sites, or to any one of the other hundreds of sites found on the NewsTrak report, and then if you plug in the key words (i.e., the press release's headline) to their “search” function, what you get is ... nothing.  

Though they claim it as a valid "use" of the press release, on he RJ's site, there is not even a link to the BizWire created and hosted page.  

Those NewsTrak-claimed media outlets don’t acknowledge having anything to do with the release, nor do they have even a link to it on their own page or in their archives. 

Business Wire, via their NewsTrak dashboard report, tells you otherwise (by providing links that supposedly go to the releases at those sites). This tracking report claims that your release was basically plastered all over the Internet, featured on at least 300 or so news media websites.  

That’s a big part of what you pay for, and if you take the NewsTrak dashboard report at face value, that's what you've received.  In fact, this (at one time remarkable) feature has been how I have been justifying BizWire's premium rates to my clients.

But - as I learned rather painfully - what you really get from these supposed placements on news media websites is not much, apparently, at least not much of any real PR value.  And certainly what you get - at least if you believed, as I did, in the reality behind the NewsTrak report - is nothing like what you thought you were getting.

As an ending note, all of this - both what Business Wire promises and what Business Wire actually delivers - was explained to me in great detail by Jerry Johnson, regional manager of Business Wire.  He very candidly told me exactly how their news aggregator "benefit" really works.  He then tried to justify this seemingly bait-and-switch business offer (it appears to be so to me, anyway, though it may not rise to the legal definition of bait-and-switch).  

He justified this by saying “everybody does it,” an excuse my mother taught me to avoid back when I was 9 years old.  

After offering this justification, Mr. Johnson also refused to even consider a make-good. He then went further and refused to send my concerns, and my request for a make-good, up the corporate ladder to someone who might actually help me resolve this situation amicably and professionally.  

He also got nasty and vulgar, but that's really beside the point.

That refusal to even consider a make-good to satisfy my concerns that my client's money was wasted was the genesis of this blog.  

If Business Wire seems to offer one thing but actually delivers something else (and that "something" is of much less value), and if they then do not stand behind their service when a client like me complains, I felt other PR pros ought to know this, too.

UPDATE - October 1, 2014

Since I first wrote this blog, and after sending Mr. Johnson a further email trying to obtain equitable some resolution, I have spoken with a BizWire regional VP, Brenda in San Francisco.  She much more politely and professionally backed up what Jerry Johnson said about the fairly useless "reality" behind the bold promise reflected in the NewsTrak report.  

She then referred me to the corporate executive (Sandy) who apparently handles the news aggregator relationships.  She gave me a great many nuts-and-bolts pieces of information in an effort to claim real value from something that has no value.  However, in the end, she didn't dispute the fact that a link to the RJ, or to Fox News in Las Vegas, didn't actually go where they "suggested" that it went.

Then, today, I had several conversations with the COO of the company, Phyllis Dantuono.  She is a charming individual, and spent quite a bit of time with me.  

At the beginning of the call, her initial stated goal was to get me to stop reporting on this via emails to lists of public relations pros by persuading me of her personal ethics (which I have no reason to doubt) and her company's integrity as well (of which I remain unconvinced).  

In that initial part of the conversation, she also suggested that the facts I've been sharing with my fellow PR pros were somehow "libelous."  To that, I told her flat-out that the truth is a defense against libel, and that the First Amendment was on my side.

When I didn't quail at the hidden threat of legal actions, she quickly dropped that line of discussion, though I expect to hear it again if I refuse to back off.

She also said I was trying to "blackmail" her (or her company) by posting  emails to colleagues about what really happened when I tried to resolve a problem with BizWire. She specifically said that she resented this so-called blackmail.  

I countered that, since I was told there was no possible resolution (by Jerry Johnson, who was not contradicted by his boss, or by a senior corporate exec),  I was publishing the truth as I knew it with no expectation of gain. 

I wasn't threatening them with "pay me or I'll blast you.Instead, my approach has been, "since you won't resolve this, I'm going to let my colleagues know how you do business, and let them decide for themselves how to proceed."  That, I told her, was not blackmail.

She also backed off of that charge when I explained how illogical it was. 

Later in this series of calls, she re-stated her goal - this time, she wanted to satisfy my concerns (assuming that if she was successful in satisfying me, I'd drop this whole issue).  

Yet oddly, for someone who says she wanted to satisfy my concerns,  she still wasn't open to any meaningful make-good on a press release that I feel was largely a waste of my client's money.  

She did at one point offer a $200 discount on a future release, but I told her there will be no future releases.  With the transformation of their news aggregator feature from something of real value to something with no practical value (though the NewsTrak report makes it appear that they still offer value - until you check under the hood), there is no reason in my mind to pay the BizWire premium. Absent that now-nonexistent "benefit," other services can competently distribute my clients' press releases for far less cost.

She ended our calls today by saying she wanted to discuss this with others, then get back to me in a day or two.  This is when the whole situation got surreal. 

She's the COO of a multi-million-dollar company.  She's been with them for 28 years. Yet she apparently doesn't have the authority to authorize a $1,500 refund to a dissatisfied client, at least not without talking about it to others in her firm.  

The apparent fact that a division of a huge public company doesn't allow their COO to authorize a $1,500 refund is almost mind-boggling.  It also says something almost frightening about their resistance to offering meaningful make-goods to their dissatisfied clients.

But refund or not (and I honestly don't expect one - the whole question of "refunds" only came up when she asked me what it would take for me to be "satisfied"), BizWire no longer provides a valued service that was offered as recently as 2010

The appearance of the service remains, but the reality is not there.

I'll update this blog as I get additional information.  

In case you're wondering who this company is,
BizWire is owned by 
Warren Buffett. 
Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE BRK) is legendary business mogul Warren Buffett's self-described "diversified company with major interest in GEICO, life insurance, annuity sales and sales of jewelry."  It has a generally squeeky-clean reputation, based on Mr. Buffett's own formidable reputation (Forbes says his net worth is $67.4 billion dollars, making him the third wealthiest persons on earth).  However, I wonder if he knows that - through his Business Wire business unit - Berkshire Hathaway also apparently excels in deceiving - if not actually defrauding (that would be for a court to decide) - his Business Wire press release service clients

Berkshire Hathaway wholly owns BNSF (the railroad giant that merged the Burlington Northern and the Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads), as well as Lubrizol - the specialty chemical giant - Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds, FlightSafety International and NetJetsThe firm also owns half of John Kerry's wife's Heinz, and has strong positions in Mars, Inc., American Express, Coca Cola, Wells Fargo and IBM.  

And Business Wire.