Do You Know What’s Best For Your Customers?

I’ve had a long and enjoyable career as a marketer, engineer and product developer in the graphics, sign, display and menu board industry. During my career one of the things I’ve enjoyed most, and been best at, is developing new products or systems that solve my customer’s problems, cuts cost and/or increases sales. This has allowed me to develop many new products and several are significant in my industry and are still being used.

I have never enjoyed going to a customer with a product already developed and trying to show them why they need it. That was too much like being a salesman pushing a product and less like the useful problem solver I wanted to be. I’ve always believed it was best to meet with the customer to learn their problems and see the actual situation for myself. That made it much easier to provide them with the best product for solving the problem. If the product did not exist I would do my best to develop it. I can give you many examples of that.

As a result of the many years of work I have put into the development of digital menu boards, displays and new technology communication tools I now consider myself an expert in that field. As a result I started relying too much on telling my customers what they needed because I knew they didn’t know. I recently learned the best product is not always the best for their situation.

Recently someone came to me and told me they were opening a new concept restaurant/game-room type of establishment and were planning on opening several more. They said they wanted digital menu boards and displays but knew very little about them. After gathering information on what they would display on them I visited the site and determined they needed three 48″ and one 55″ display mounted on two different walls with simple copy, mostly menu items.

I met the operations manager at the site and he asked me many questions about digital menu boards and how to use them. I also spoke to the owner on the phone and he had several questions. I would normally recommend a fully functional digital system with all the latest capabilities; something they could learn and grow into as they added more sites. However, after learning as much as I did about the company and their lack of knowledge and experience in that area I recommended something very simple. Also, they wanted to do everything themselves.

The system I recommended and sold them was something I would have laughed at years ago. It was what experts used to refer to as a “Sneaker-net” system. It was very simple and easy for them to use. They put their simple content on a USB drive and plugged it into the displays. They even used PowerPoint software to lay out the menu.

I have learned that when most customers first start using digital menu boards they tend to be very uneasy with them and think they are complicated and difficult to use. As they get more familiar with them and learn their capabilities they start doing more with them and begin to learn and use their full capabilities.

I am happy I sold my customer the simple system because they were very happy with it. It was easy for them to use and in the middle of trying to open a new concept site they had many other important issues to resolve. As they start using and getting more comfortable with it all they have to do is add media players and software to make it a full capability system. These new capabilities were planned for.

My Return To Vietnam

Hello everyone. I returned from an 11 day/10 night trip to Vietnam last Thursday evening (Feb 14). I spent 8 of the nights in a hotel and 2 on a plane). It’s now Monday and I’ve recuperated, gotten back into my routine and ready to write about the trip. It was an amazing experience for me so I wanted to tell my story.

This all started several months ago when my daughter Jennifer told me she was going to travel around the world for 12 months with an organization called Remote Work. She would spend one month in each of 12 different countries around the world. I did not understand why or how she could just up and leave all her family and friends for one whole year. Now that I have met most of the 33 people she is traveling with and understand what they are doing I think it was one of the best things she has done in her life. All the people are great and it has been an incredible experience for her.

When Jennifer first told me about this she said she wanted me to come to visit her in one of the countries in South America. I’m not that excited about traveling to foreign countries any more so I convinced her it would be more worthwhile to invite her mother to two of the countries instead of each of us to one. She said she would do that but later she invited me to visit her in Vietnam. She wanted to pay my expenses as a gift. As soon as she said that I got nervous and started thinking of excuses why I could not go without hurting her feelings. I was in the Vietnam War 50 years ago and could not imagine ever going back there again. All I could think of was “Why would anyone want to go there? They don’t even have toilets! And it smells bad there” That was the last place in the world I wanted to visit. I had lost many friends there that were as close as brothers, plus saw many horrible things.

When I started thinking about it I remembered that when I wrote a book about some of my life experiences I included several stories about my year in the Vietnam War. Telling those stories made me feel better. Also, I recently attended a celebration here in Ft, Myers where they honored the 50 year anniversary for the veterans of the Vietnam War and that made me feel better. I felt very bad for 50 years about the way we left Vietnam and the way our soldiers were treated when we returned. I thought a trip back to Vietnam may make me feel even better so I agreed to do it. Jennifer also asked me to give a presentation to her group on my experience of the Vietnam War.

When I received my travel itinerary I saw I would fly from Ft. Myers to Detroit then to Seoul, Korea and then to Hanoi, North Vietnam, right into the heart of enemy territory! That made me very nervous. Later when I arrived there every time I saw someone in uniform I was totally on guard. I was amazed at the modern and efficient airports in Seoul and Hanoi. It was easier traveling there than in the US. I received my visa in Vietnam and made it through customs almost nonstop. In comparison, my last trip to Canada took me hours to clear customs! I picked up my checked bag and a car was waiting for me outside that took me to my hotel. My hotel was great and only a block from Jennifer’s office and living quarters.

Following are some notes to recap my experience there, plus some of my observations:

On my way to the hotel, I thought all the drivers were rude because they kept honking their horns. I later learned that they weren’t being rude like the drivers in the US but were being polite by letting the other drivers know they were passing. I later learned how important this was in the heavy traffic there. I found all the people I interacted with there were friendly, polite and respectful.

I stayed in two different hotels the 8 nights I was there. They both were great hotels with large rooms and luxury amenities. They also included a large buffet breakfast and the cost was only $45 per night.

Jennifer and I, plus some of her group members, were very busy and went on tours every day. We flew to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and spent 3 days there taking tours also. I could not believe how much that city had changed. It now looks similar to Las Vegas. Following are highlights of the things we did in Vietnam:

We visited the Mekong Delta, took 3 boat rides/tours, visited a couple war museums, visited a military camp to see caves the Viet Cong used and heard stories about how their soldiers fought the war, I fired an M-60 machine gun on a firing range (I had my choice of most of the weapons used in the Vietnam War), we visited a candy factory, we took cooking lessons and ate the food we cooked, we visited a place where handicapped people made pieces of art and souvenirs, we visited several beautiful parks and took naps in hammocks in one park. We took an exciting tour on motorbikes through the streets and narrow alleys of Hanoi. We also ate out in all kinds of interesting restaurants ranging from fancy and beautiful rooftop restaurants to sitting on the sidewalk in tiny little plastic chairs with tiny plastic tables like those small children would use as toys in the US.

FOOD: They had several different kinds of coffee there and I loved them all. After returning home the first cup of coffee I had here tasted like crap. I’m gradually getting used to my coffee again.

The food there was great. We ate constantly and I actually lost weight while there. I now know why there are no overweight people in Vietnam, at least I saw none. I also did not see any sick people, doctor’s offices, drug stores, hospitals or grocery stores (although I was told there were some) Their food supply is very healthy and fresh. For the most part, it’s actually gathered, prepared and eaten daily. I saw none of the processed food we have in abundance here in the US that is making us overweight and very unhealthy.

I had a very different impression of the food when I first arrived there because most of it is processed, cooked and eaten on the sidewalks. Sort of like when we are camping out in the woods in the US. It seemed dirty and unsanitary. I heard the same comments from other people from the US. After a few days, I realized that was not true.

Motorbikes, scooters, cars, and traffic: The traffic in the cities there is unbelievable. Their primary source of transportation is motorbikes and scooters, with a few small cars, bicycles, buses and trucks sprinkled in. We saw as many as a family of 6 on one small motor scooter or motorbike and few wear helmets. They have streets and sidewalks that are similar to ours except parked cars and motorbikes fill up the sidewalks, plus people eat and sell their products on the sidewalks. When you walk around town you mostly have to walk in the streets with the traffic because the sidewalks are full.

It’s very difficult to describe how traffic moves there. It’s similar to how your blood cells move through your body. The motorbikes and scooters simply flow through the streets weaving in and out of traffic and around the pedestrians. When you have to cross a street or make a turn you simply make your intentions known and make your move. They all anticipate your moves and flow around you. You don’t want to hesitate or make any sudden unanticipated moves. It’s incredible there are no accidents. I saw none the 11 days I was there. If people tried that in the US there would be accidents everywhere and we would have total gridlock.

Needless to say, the tour we took through Hanoi on the back of motorbikes was very exciting. We traveled the streets and also the small very narrow alleys with only a couple inches of free space on each side of the handlebars. It was e3xciting when we met someone else coming in our direction.

My Feeling about my return to Vietnam: As I have stated before I was very upset about how we left Vietnam. I heard many stories about how our South Vietnamese allies were tortured and killed for helping us after we left. I expected the killing to continue, even now, but what I saw was quite different. All the people there seem quite happy and they don’t care what type of government they have as long as they can continue to live their lives as they have for years. I got that impression from talking to several of the village chiefs 51 years ago. They didn’t know what the war was about. All they were concerned about was living in their villages. Their communist government is not oppressive to them and commerce is flourishing. It was amazing to see how the two major cities have grown and how the modern buildings blend in with the old traditional homes. There is also lots of new major construction going on. In one of the modern rooftop restaurants, I could see 4 large construction cranes where new major buildings were being constructed.

My trip turned out to be amazing! I met some great people, had fun with my daughter, ate lots of great food, drank lots of great coffee and had a great time. Finally, after 51 years I’m no longer worried about the people of Vietnam. They’re very capable of taking care of themselves and doing very well. Hopefully, I’ll get to return someday.

How do you keep the displays people touch clean?

Dirty Screen

I’m sure everyone has heard about the self-order kiosks in 2 restaurants in a major chain that were found to have human feces on the screens. I have heard they may have found the same in ten more restaurants.

That is a PR nightmare for the restaurant chain and for the touch screen industry. I don’t know what their plans are but this needs to be resolved quickly in a way that will give their customers confidence it has been resolved and won’t happen again. They may have had a cleaning process in place but it has to be changed and the changes advertised quickly.

There are amazing new technologies already developed that will solve this problem. There are new films and cleaning compounds that will kill all the germs, bacteria and harmful organisms and keep the screens clean. The compounds will last from a day up to more than a year. There is also a new LED lighting system available that will do the same that may be used to illuminate the displays. I have to believe there are people working on this problem now that know about these new technologies.

If this causes a serious enough problem that end users are afraid to use kiosks that large numbers of customers touch, an alternative is to switch to the self-order kiosk everyone carries with them. The cell phone. I also read a recent study that determined a significant number of cell phones were found to have human feces on them also. However, that is not a problem for the restaurant.

What criteria do you use to select a digital menu board content supplier?

I spent a good part of last week filling out and submitting an RFP for digital menu boards for a major QSR chain. I have worked on several of these recently and they all seem to me to be lacking in a major area. 

I have been in this industry since well before it started and in all that time the experts (including me) have said “content is king”, “content is the most important component of a digital menu board” and made similar statements. However, in most of the RFP’s I have seen by major chains content and content supplier qualifications seem to be at the bottom of the list. 

I’ll use the RFP I did last week as an example. Like most, the RFP was huge. It had 11 sections and each section had from 5 to 35 questions, but most had well over 20 questions per section. Guess which one had 5? You’re right, the section on content. Even the section on media players had 28 questions.

I think this happens because most chains let their technical people work on their RFP’s. I understand this because I’m an engineer and it’s easy for me to think of many technical questions about displays and media players.  But, I don’t understand why the marketing and merchandising people don’t have more input. What you say to your customers and how you say it is much more important than the hardware specifications

Hardware is also much easier to specify and quote than content. Most people quote the development of content at an hourly rate but an hourly rate doesn’t tell you anything because you don’t know how much they can do in an hour. There are what some would call sweat shops that have low paid people that can crank out large amounts of simple content and others that have talented highly paid people that can put out incredible content but how do you quote it?

I think it is much more important to check out the work your prospective content providers have generated than to judge it on an hourly rate. I would even have them generate some sample content to compare before a decision is made.  

I have seen at least on of the top QSR chains go through the process of selecting digital menu board hardware that had all the latest capabilities and after they are installed they look exactly like the old boards because they don’t use all the capabilities properly. Why waste your time and money?  

Special Veteran’s Day Event

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Sorry, everyone, this is not about business but personal; for me very personal. I attended a special Veteran’s Day event on Monday I really want to share with all my friends. The name of the event was Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of The Vietnam War. It was held in the Jet Blue Stadium in Ft. Myers, FL. This event was put on by a great group of people known as The Collier-Lee Honor Flight Team. There are 21 people on this team led by Dr. Debi Lux and her husband Sean. They have and continue to do some wonderful things for our military veterans in Lee and Collier Counties in Florida.

Major General Arnold Fields, USMC, was one of several speakers and he explained what made the Vietnam War different from our other wars. His explanation cleared a problem I held inside for 50 years. He stated it was the only war where we did not attack our enemy. We fought with the people in South Vietnam and defended them but we never invaded North Vietnam. I was bitter because I thought our politicians never let us win the war because of public sentiment and demonstrations in the US. I thought they were more interested in getting re-elected than doing the right thing. General Fields explained our leaders knew if we invaded North Vietnam, China and Russia would join the war against us and create another World War much worse than the war we were in.

Twelve of the fourteen members of my OCS graduating class were sent to Vietnam and only three of us came back alive. These classmates were like brothers to me.  I saw many other great soldiers and civilians, including women and children, die there. When we came home without a victory I thought all those lives were simply wasted because of a political decision. That has bothered me for 50 years and General Fields’ words released that.

Another thing that really upset me and other Vietnam veterans was the way we were greeted when we returned home. When I was ordered to go fight in Vietnam I thought I was doing the right thing. I was helping defend the men, women, and children in South Vietnam from the invading communists. Eight of my Uncles did the same thing in WWII. When they returned home they were greeted with parades and celebrations and considered heroes. When we returned from Vietnam we were booed, yelled at and called names such as baby killers. We could not wear our uniforms in some public places without trouble. 

In the event Monday, all the wonderful people welcomed us home and sincerely thanked us for our service. That meant a lot to all 700 of us and it brought tears to my eyes. I will always be grateful for what these people did for us and I wanted to pass his on to my friends and other military friends.      

Digital menu board basics, Part 4

“Digital menu board basics” is a white paper in four parts. Read Part 1Part 2 & Part 3.

Three of the major QSR chains started rolling out digital boards 15-20 years ago but the hardware, software, and content were not yet fully tested and developed, however testing showed their value.  The hardware was not reliable and the software was difficult to use, plus everything was more expensive than it is today. Although they clearly saw the benefits of digital menu boards they started before the industry was ready. This early start resulted in some people losing their jobs and the major supplier going bankrupt. I was involved in the testing at the time as a consultant and I advised the supplier the product was not ready for a rollout.

All those problems were resolved but the QSR industry was slow to switch to digital because of that failure. Tim Horton’s was the first major QSR chain I am aware of to roll out digital menu boards to their entire system in North America that were successful. I was involved in that rollout through a software company called EK3. Although they have had some problems with the outdoor digital menu boards I am told they are very happy with the results of their system.

Most of the major chains have been testing digital boards for years and several have made the switch. They were further ahead in Europe and Asia mostly due to the early problem mentioned above. Also, they have been waiting for improvements to be made to the outdoor drive-thru boards. The drive-thru was not as large a part of the Europe and Asia business. These improvements have now been made and most of the chains have either made or are considering making the switch.

Selling ads to vendors and third parties

Some of your major suppliers will pay for space on your digital menu boards. Also, third-party ads can be sold on digital boards in your restaurants. Some companies have signed deals where third-party ads will pay the total cost of the digital boards.

There are several companies that install digital displays in your sites at no cost to you but they retain ownership and sell you part of the space. They make money on the ads that run on the screens. This is becoming less popular as the chains realize space on the screens is too valuable for anything but their own products and information.

Entertainment value

Several companies are still recommending or selling systems with entertainment or current event information on digital menu boards to give people a reason to view them, or for just the entertainment value such as in a sports bar. However, I do not recommend this for menu boards.

Menu board placement

Digital menu boards and displays can be used effectively in several zones in your restaurants and in the drive-thru. The purpose for each board will determine where it is placed.

The first zone where you may consider digital boards is where you first enter the drive-thru lane or walk into the restaurant. This is where you want to make your guests feel welcome and set the mood. Since most people won’t read much when they first enter this zone it would not justify the expense of a digital board. Some simple welcome message and a design that reinforces the brand would be enough. This could also be included on a directional sign.

The next zone is after the customer has entered the restaurant or drive-thru and starts to think about what they will order. This is a good place for a digital preview board. It can influence the order, introduce a new product, upsell or influence a purchase on a return trip. It is also a good place to introduce discounts or coupons.

The next and most important zone is where the order is placed. This is where the main menu board is placed and the final decisions have to be made. These boards must be well organized so they can be quickly read and easily understood. The products, prices and necessary information should be displayed in a clear and appetizing manner. Only information used to influence and make the final decision should be placed on these boards. Order confirmation units have been very popular in the drive-thru but new technologies are making them less needed so they are on the decline. Some are being converted to digital merchandising screens.

After the customer has placed the order and is either driving up to a pay window or waiting to pay the attendant behind the counter is a good time to introduce credit card information (maybe with a small screen on the back of the cash register), frequent customer programs, brand information or new services.

After the order has been placed and customers are waiting for their food is a key time when the perceived wait time needs to be influenced, especially in the drive-thru. If you have a separate order pick-up area inside you can also include entertainment, current event and neighborhood information.

Since outdoor digital boards are much more expensive than indoor it’s difficult to justify using them anywhere in the drive-thru other than as preview boards or main menu boards. However, traditional signage and graphics can be used.

Inside there are other areas where digital boards may be justified other than as preview and main menu boards. They would be very effective in drink areas, dessert bars or in the dining area. This is where you can influence additional or secondary purchases such as a dessert, side order, take home order, extra drink or non-food items. this is also a good place to put brand information, entertainment, and local and current information.

The last zone is where the customer leaves the restaurant. Although digital boards may not be justified there should be some type of message thanking them for visiting and encouraging them to return soon.

New technologies

When you develop your digital menu board plan keep new technologies in mind. New technologies that allow your customers to interact with your displays have been developed and are increasing quickly. These technologies are more common in other parts of the world but are showing up in the US also. We are shifting away from “what happened” to “what is happening.”

What’s the Most Pressure You’ve Been under to Make a Sale?

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For me, it was a couple decades ago when I founded LSI Images, a menu board company. One Monday morning I found myself in a new office with 10 employees and a new 10,000 square foot manufacturing plant and absolutely no sales. I had to sell something quickly. I can still feel that pressure but it helped me succeed quickly. I simply had no other choice. The CEO of LSI Lighting had trusted me to do something quickly.

The first job I sold was the parking lot lighting and other lighting for Arrowhead Stadium. I also designed and sold all the menu boards for the concession stands there. We did concession stand menu boards for several other stadiums until we started receiving menu board orders from major QSR brands. The first two were Burger King and Arby’s. Within 5 years we had over 40% of the menu board business in the US. That was pressure but it was a lot of fun also.

How do you develop new products?

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I enjoy meeting with customers and prospects to discuss their needs and major problems. Most salespeople I know like to meet prospects and clients in their offices. If they are smart they will at least do a survey of one or more sites before their meeting so they will know what they are talking about. Sometimes that is the only choice but I have found it is much more effective for both parties to meet away from the office at a site where the product will be used. That makes it much easier to get a complete understanding of how the product will be used and what the customer needs. It also gives you an opportunity to see how your product will fit in and operate within the system and to speak to the people actually using or operating the product.

Actually seeing a customer’s problems and needs while listening to them explain and seeing how it will be used is critical to the development of great products. It also requires a good team back in your office to get great products developed and tested. When I recall all the successful products I have developed that was the process I used.

Digital Menu Boards for Single Unit Operators or Small Chains.

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Do you own or operate one to ten restaurants and think you are too small to justify using digital menu boards or any of the other new technology communication systems? I have met many of you that have been in business for a while who think that, but I just don’t get it. Most of the new concepts with plans for expansion start out with digital but the more established operators and startups without plans for expansion resist making the change. Some of the major reasons I hear are “It’s too expensive”, “I don’t have the technical people”, “It’s too complicated”, I’m too small” and others.

I have been in the old style and digital menu board business for four decades now and if I were to open a restaurant, small or large, there is no question I would go with digital. It would be much easier and cheaper for me to buy an LCD screen and a media player and develop my own content than it would to buy an old-style board and have the content developed and printed for one restaurant. Plus, it would also be much quicker, easier and less expensive to make changes to my content. It would also give me the capability to use new apps to communicate with my customers on their cell phones and other devices.

As far as the “too complicated” reason, once you start working with it you will find it less complicated than the old style. When you think about the other reason of not having the technical people, even many of the large chains don’t have such people.

If you are a single unit operator and would be interested in a webinar to explain how to do this please let me know.






Do You Cast a Spell on Your Customers?

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I read an article a few days ago titled “8 Psychological Tricks of Restaurant Menus”. Actually, it was well written and made some great points, but I thought it was very strange because it took what seems like a view opposite of what I have been practicing and teaching for decades.  It made me believe the author was trying to protect restaurant customers from the tricks evil menu engineers like me play on them. The 8 “tricks” we use are 1. We limit your options, 2. We add photos, 3. We manipulate prices, 4. We use expensive decoys, 5. We play with your eyes, 6. We utilize colors, 7. We use fancy language and, 8. We make you feel nostalgic. If these 8 tactics are evil then I confess, I am evil because I have been using them and many more for a long time.

Every business person has to communicate what they have to offer their customers in the best manner they can in order to compete successfully. Their customers want to know as much as they can about it. If a restaurant has crappy food and they make it look great they will not be in business long anyway. The same is true of a retailer misrepresenting their products.

It has been proven many times that the way you show food items or retail items on a menu has a huge impact on sales and profit margin. All the following items are important: photography, words used, layout design, prices, what items you put on them, colors, letter style, the total number of items, size of copy and where specific items are placed on the menu. Even where and how signs and menu boards are installed is important.

Let me know if you need help with your menu design but be warned. I may be evil!