Sparklers, Bagels, and Value

I have a 6-year-old, which means I also must have sparklers on the 4th of July. (And that’s about it; I don’t trust my klutziness to be in the proximity of most explosives.) So this year, I drove down to South Carolina on the eve of the 4th to make my purchase. I got 96 sparklers for $5.00 – WOW, that’s only 5.2 cents per sparkler, I thought – what a great value! We got them home, night fell, emotions got high, and my kid was concerned that our sparklers would be so fantastic that all the neighbors would come to watch. (“Do we have enough seats in the yard?” he asked.)

It was dark… we were ready. We lit the sparklers. Expecting a ball of sparks at least 6 inches in diameter, I jumped back after I lit the end of the stick. I was looking forward to the part where we could write our names in the dark air, letting the letters hang there – a rite of passage in youth, or so I assumed. A little tiny penny-sized flare zizzled up, and a few sparks shot out straight to the ground, and 10 seconds later it was over. Just 3 sparklers left giant, noxious clouds of irritating ash and dust that filled up the neighborhood, to the point where we couldn’t light any more after just one round.

WHAT????!!? I thought. I wasn’t alone… I looked over and saw a sad, puzzled face looking back at me. “Are you sure you got real sparklers this time?” I was sure, but what I’d purchased – though a great perceived value, at first – turned out to be very low perceived quality. Why? My expectations were that any decent company making sparklers would have standards… nice ball of sparks, 60-second-plus duration, smoky cloud that would not put you in the hospital or give you Black Lung. My expectations were unmet by the product, and as a result, both perceived quality and perceived value plummeted.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there is a difference between how you perceive quality, and how you perceive value (according to Mitra, 2002):

  • Perceived quality happens before you buy, adopt, or experience something.
  • Perceived value depends on how well the product, service or experience meets your expectations after you buy, adopt or experience it.
  • Perceived quality and perceived value are moderated by your expectations. Your expectations can (and often do!) change after you buy, adopt or experience something. Perceived value is NOT invariant, nor is it independent of perceived quality – your perception of value can change after you buy, adopt or experience similar products or participate in similar activities, because then you have a more rich basis for comparison.

This made me wonder just why people are buying these sparklers… as a sparkler connoisseur since this incident, I have noticed that pretty much all sparklers that are sold are the exact same variety that we got. Which means there must be a lot of people buying this brand of sparklers… and the company certainly wouldn’t be making them if people weren’t buying them. If we keep buying low quality products, how will manufacturers ever know that they’re not meeting minimum quality standards? I know this is significant in safety critical industries, or industries where there’s intense competition, but this whole sparkler debacle made me realize that as consumers, there are probably many fronts where we’re selling ourselves out. I’m sure there are plenty of families who also bought the same sparklers and thought they sucked, but they probably rationalized it by thinking that any sparklers are better than no sparklers for my kids. I might have thought the same thing, but I’m now of the opinion that NO sparklers are better than crappy sparklers, because buying duds sends the wrong message into the Invisible Brain of our Invisible Hand-guided global economy.

So what does this have to do with bagels? Here’s what. As I was lamenting the sad state of the sparklers, I thought to myself, “This would never happen in New York City if we were dealing with bagels.” Why? Because people there know a good bagel when they eat one, the price point is well known (as is willingness-to-pay), and people will not tolerate bagels that are subpar. They will vote with their feet. Bad bagels will cease and desist. The market will eat them, if they don’t meet the very high quality standards of the local bagel consumers.

My appeal to consumers is to ask yourselves this question. How bad does the quality OR value of a consumer product have to get before you’ll just say no, and send a proper signal back into the economy? If you don’t signal now, what makes you think the quality levels will stay the same as they are now?

LET EVERYTHING BE YOUR BAGEL. Don’t settle for minimally acceptable quality unless you’re ready for it to sink even lower.

Expectations (and How to Violate Them)

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few months about expectations. One of the definitions of expectations on dictionary.com is “the degree of probability that something will occur.” In particular, I’ve been comparatively examining three different variations on the concept of expectations:

  • Consciously setting expectations
  • Consciously deciding on a state of no expectations
  • Developing shared expectations (a process)

You can set expectations with yourself, or with another person (or another group of people). Setting expectations is the equivalent of saying “here’s the way I want it to be” or “here’s the way it’s GOING to be.” Managers often aim to set expectations with their employees regarding concepts of acceptable (and excellent) performance. Developing shared expectations, however, is a process that must be done collaboratively. It is best accomplished when you enter into the process with no expectations or a knowledge that your expectations can (and SHOULD) change in response to your interactions with the people you’ll share those expectations.

Sometimes, expectations are implicit or assumed, and this is where you can get into a lot of trouble! Miscommunications and bad feelings can abound when expectations are violated. I’d like to give an example where I unknowingly violated someone’s expectations, and probably left him with tons of bad feelings. I didn’t mean to, but I think his expectations were unreasonable, and apparently he doesn’t. This gap in expectations indicates that we don’t share a core value or two, and subsequently suggests that we might even have difficulty sustaining even the most casual of relationships. I don’t feel bad about the interchange; it just says to me “this is a person you’re just not going to be able to relate to.”

The context: this person is an old Facebook friend of mine. I’ve known him for almost 15 years, but haven’t seen him in almost 10 – although I have talked to him on the phone a few times in the meantime. I thought we were relatively good and comfortable friends, but he de-friended me about a year ago. I didn’t think anything of it; some people choose to have only a small circle of Facebook friends or family, and I wouldn’t be in the small circle. When I called him on his birthday and he didn’t answer, I also didn’t think anything of it. But then, a couple weeks ago, I decided to re-friend him! Asked how he was doing, let him know I had called on his birthday… asked what was up. He sent me a short direct message that I didn’t have the time to properly respond to, so I was waiting for a time I could write a longer message.

About 5 days later I get this direct message:

I do not see the point of being on Facebook with you. When you first requested being a FB friend about a year or so ago, I readily honored the request, but then noticed that you responded to only one of my many messages to you. So I bailed out. What was the point, I asked myself.

Now you have initiated another friend request, I agreed, but then we are back to your not responding to my messages, whereas you are in dialog with others.

So, I am bailing out again.

“One of his many messages to me,” by the way, was maybe 2 or 3 public posts. His expectations, I guess, were that I would respond to each and every post to my wall, or follow-up to comments, or direct message. I don’t respond to all wall posts or comments. I do respond to all direct messages, but sometimes it takes me a while (up to a couple months, in the worst cases). I immediately recognized that this was an EXPECTATION GAP problem, and felt the bad energy and bad feelings, and realized that I didn’t want or need this discordant energy in my life. I decided to cut the ties as follows:

Wow, I didn’t know there was a protocol to follow! Since I’m certainly not going to be able to live up to such expectations, I honor your de-friending, and wish you the best from here on out.

Sincerely,
Me

It only took about 15 minutes to get a response (and yes, this is ALL it said… pretty terse, huh):

Expecting someone to respond to a sent message is hardly an unreasonable expectation. That is a protocol that is ages old.

Clearly, the issue is that he had some timeline on his expectations, e.g. if you don’t respond to someone’s post or message in a day or two, you are not responding at all. Second, by stating “that is a protocol that is ages old” it communicates to me that HE feels everyone on earth shares this expectation and always has. Not true; that is not my expectation, and I know of many people who feel the same way as I do. For example, I have another VERY good Facebook friend who I only talk to every 6 months or a year. A couple months ago, we arranged for me to come visit him in December, but I didn’t get back to him until just last week. Turns out his plans have changed, and we’ll have to reschedule our meetup. Did I have a problem with this? Not at all – we’ll be flexible. Did he have a problem with my slow response? Not at all – we’re good friends, and that’s the bottom line. No friendship lost, no feelings hurt – we are on the same page and probably always will be.

And it’s all thanks to having a shared, flexible expectation on how and when we communicate. Regarding the FB-defriender? Glad to not have you in my life anymore – what an energy drain you could have become. (But I really did mean it when I wished him the best.)

Shared expectations = good friendships, good relationships, good business interactions. Get there expeditiously, and everyone will be happier sooner.

Quality, Expectations, Value & Harrisonburg Bars

I met a guy named Brent at the Artful Dodger in Harrisonburg, VA last Friday. He’s behind @hburgnews on twitter, so I started following him, and through his tweets found a neat blog post detailing one person’s experience with Harrisonburg bars: In Vino Veritas: A Meditation on Value by Andrew Jenner, posted on February 11, 2010.

I think about quality and value all the time, so naturally (notwithstanding my intrinsic interest in learning more about Harrisonburg social venues, ie. bars) I read his blog post through an academic lens. My 2 cents of review on the quality and value of Harrisonburg bars, based on HIS review, is thus the substance of this post. (Does that make my review a re-review, or is that redundant?)

Typically when we think of quality, we think of the quality of a product or service. Lots of organizations, though, choose to emphasize the quality of the customer experience – which relates the transcendent, aesthetic involvement of a person with that product or service. The “customer experience” in a bar at happy hour (or any other time) has several components: Do you like the atmosphere of the place? Are you spending time with people whose company you enjoy? Does the environment suit your mood at the time? Do they serve the beer you like? Does the beer meet your price points? If you don’t want beer, do they have something else you’re interested in? Do you have any other criteria that are specific to your personal perception of quality and value?

The answers to these questions define your personal quality attributes, against which you set your expectations and judge your experiences. And there is a difference in how you perceive quality, and how you perceive value (according to Mitra, 2002):

  • Perceived quality happens before you buy, adopt, or experience something.
  • Perceived value depends on how well the product, service or experience meets your expectations after you buy, adopt or experience it.
  • Perceived quality and perceived value are moderated by your expectations. Your expectations can (and often do!) change after you buy, adopt or experience something. Perceived value is NOT invariant, nor is it independent – your perception of value can change after you buy, adopt or experience similar products or participate in similar activities, because then you have a more rich basis for comparison.

Andrew Jenner reviewed seven venues. I’ll review them too, based on my experiences and in light of the perceived quality <-> expectations <-> perceived value chain, plus one more that I have to throw in.

1. Clementine Cafe. This one’s really easy… because I’ve never been there. I have no pre-set expectations beyond what I’ve experienced in other venues in this locale. Andrew notes that this place has a “good beer for $3″ price midpoint. I can deal with that, but it wouldn’t (on its own) sway me to try this place, unless my friends and colleagues were going there and I wanted to spend time with them.

2. Dave’s Downtown Taverna. They have really (really) cheap, low-quality beer, and reasonably priced high-quality beer on draft. Meets all of my basic expectations. But what I really like about this place are the little blue lights above the tables, the level of lighting, the cool spiral staircase in the corner, and the fact that sitting upstairs reminds me of being in the Bayou in DC before it closed. I have a good emotional anchor that influences my appreciation for this place. Even if the beer was twice as expensive, I’d go there just for the good feeling… which completely enhances my perception of the value of this place.

3. Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint. Andrew’s review skipped this place, because it was so crowded he couldn’t get in. The first time I went there, it was equally crowded – and I didn’t really like it, so I left. Why? Because I have nerve damage in one of my ears, and for some reason, there’s interference in the front of the place from the loud music and it was like nails on a chalkboard – and because one of my expectations was to hang out and talk to a few people, I couldn’t actually accomplish this there. But fast forward a few months, and now I really enjoy this place. They have an otherworldly selection of beers and tons of good imports. I’ve discovered a couple of new ones, so they have expanded my world view on beer. And later at night, when you’ve already talked to your people and you just want to go drink more beer and listen to heavy, edgy music, there is no comparable place in the town to achieve the same kind of mood. This place, to me, really feels like a Summit County, CO bar (another good emotional anchor for me). And now that I’ve reset my expectations to sit in the back (where the noise interference isn’t as pronounced) and to lip read (so I can understand what people around me are saying) I really enjoy it here.

4. Cuchi Guido’s. Never been there. Andrew wasn’t impressed by their slow service or challenged ambiance. (If there’s a process improvement opportunity here, I’ll have to go check the place out sometime.)

5. Cally’s. I’ve been there once, and they only had four beers on tap. One of my key expectations is that a place has a good selection, so perceived quality (as I walked in) took a hit. The place feels like an Applebee’s, and I typically like my bars to have some sort of unique characteristic that makes them interesting to look at while you’re drinking. None… perceived quality takes another hit. The beer was more expensive than any of the other places in town, and wasn’t particularly good. Perceived value takes a hit. As a result, this place is not on my short list (but might be the perfect venue for someone whose expectations are different).

6. Artful Dodger. I think this is the first (or second) bar I ever went to in Harrisonburg… on a Monday night. Quiet, laid back, and their very unique beers change a lot (add one on my perceived quality rating). They have a funky pricing schedule (which Andrew also noted) that makes your tabs always come out to even numbers (add one to perceived quailty for “cool” factor, as well as helping you add things when you’re signing the tab after multiple beers). Even though I don’t know tons of people around town, I’m finding that I can run into people I know or recognize here pretty readily (that’s one of my “nice to haves” on the expectations list). Fast forward to Fridays, when you get to see this place in its full Jekyll and Hyde best. Loud, unorthodox, and an extremely diverse crowd (I especially liked the girl in the full-suit alien costume last week). Reminds me of my crazy high school where folks like Adam Majewski used to wear full-suit astronaut uniforms to class. What a great way to open your mind. Perceived value on Fridays is, based on my expectations, now through the roof.

7. Local Chop & Grill House. Never been there, but Andrew’s post sets an expectation for me: really cheap, good beer. The name of the place doesn’t really stir me. It says “we want to be like Applebee’s” – so to me, that’s one step down in terms of perceived quality. Without any prodding, the promise of high-quality, cheap beer will not get me in here.

8. Chili’s. (Yes, I know Andrew didn’t review Chili’s, but I’m compelled to). But they have decent, high-quality beer on tap, it’s so inexpensive (during Happy Hour) you almost don’t notice it on your tab, and I’m always here with people who are fun and whose company I really enjoy. The bartender, Camille, is really great. I really don’t care that the ambiance is so nominal. High perceived value, based on my set of expectations, and moderated by good-experience-upon-good-experience.

The bottom line: Value is heavily mediated by your expectations, your prior experiences which influence your evolving expectations, and the quality attributes that YOU personally attach to your “customer experience”. This means you can’t just rely on one person’s reviews to see whether you will like a product, service, or experience yourself… you have to have the experience and then make your evaluation.

Setting Expectations: Google Voice Search on the iPhone

google1On Friday, November 14th, John Markoff published a story in the New York Times announcing the new Google Voice Search technology for the iPhone. Here’s how he set expectations about the features and release date for this admittedly exciting new tool:

Users of the free application, which Apple is expected to make available as soon as Friday through its iTunes store, can place the phone to their ear and ask virtually any question, like “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” or “How tall is Mount Everest?” The sound is converted to a digital file and sent to Google’s servers, which try to determine the words spoken and pass them along to the Google search engine.

The search results, which may be displayed in just seconds on a fast wireless network, will at times include local information, taking advantage of iPhone features that let it determine its location.

This provides an excellent example of three points: 1) how NOT to set expectations with your user community, 2) being sensitive to REAL and UNREAL deadlines, and 3) recognizing that sometimes other people (e.g. the media) help set customer expectations for you – especially when your product or technology is popular.

#1: Ever seen that Far Side comic called “What Dogs Hear”? That’s the one where the man is talking to his dog, but all the dog hears is “blah blah blah GINGER blah blah.” When Markoff notes that Google Voice Search would be available “as soon as Friday”, what customers hear is “blah blah blah GOOGLE VOICE SEARCH blah blah blah WILL BE AVAILABLE FRIDAY blah blah”. It doesn’t surprise me that complaints are flying, now that it’s Saturday:

Well, it’s Saturday morning, and as of this writing, the update is nowhere to be found. The bloggers are starting to go meta, writing stories like Harry McCracken’s “How Long Does Google Baby the iPhone?“

#2 Regardless of when Google’s official release date for Google Voice Search is/was, once it was published in the New York Times, the release date was officially Friday, November 14th. And that’s when the REAL deadline was established, because the customer expectations were (purposefully or inadvertently) set!

#3 Google might say “hey, we didn’t actually give the New York Times a release date, they just asked us when the soonest might be that we’d release the product, and we told them what we thought was our best answer.” Lesson: if anyone asks you when’s the soonest your product will be available, they are basically drooling over the new gadgets or functionality you’re getting ready to provide. Think about how many days or weeks you expect the product will still be in development, and then multiply it by three. Or ten. I admire Google, which is why I’m content to use them as an example here – they have a ton of equity with their user base, but their release dates will still be under the microscope and so managing expectations (especially through the media) is even more critical.