Know Your Customers

One of the fundamentals of providing great service to your customers is to get to know them well. You have to understand their needs as well as how they operate. I’m sure most of you have heard this many times and many of you business owners practice it well. However, I want to share with you some examples where this basic rule was not followed and the problems it caused. Although I’ve seen these problems many times in several markets I will limit my comments in this post to the market I know best; the Quick Serve Restaurant market(QSR) and the product I know best; digital menu boards.

Most of the digital menu board suppliers are new to menu boards. When the industry started switching from the old style menu boards to digital, most of the digital suppliers came from the audio video industry. Many are also new to the QSR market where most of the chains are franchise systems and they don’t fully understand how franchise systems work.

I’m always surprised at how many of the suppliers think if they sell their system to a 10,000 site chain they will receive an order for all 10,000 sites. That’s almost always not the case. Most franchised chains are about 20% corporate owned and 80% franchisee owned. In most cases the corporation cannot force the franchisees to purchase what they purchase, when they do.

Some suppliers still think they can get into the system by selling a franchisee. In most chains this can be the kiss of death. Corporate understandably wants to control something like a digital menu board system to make sure they end up with the same system at all sites. Therefore suppliers trying to sell franchisees without corporate approval immediately becomes an enemy of corporate.

In a typical example; when an order is placed it’s usually just for the 20% of the sites that are corporate owned and maybe 10% of the the top franchisees. Many times it can take several years to sell the remainder of the franchisees and the supplier has to sell them one at a time. Many suppliers are not set up to do that and they may have trouble handling new sites as they are opened.

Another problem I have seen in a recent roll-out of a digital menu board system is the supplier assumed their system would be installed at all sites. They sold a standard system consisting of four 46″ displays but the standard system could not be installed at all sites because some did not have the physical space for them. Some could only use 2 or 3 of the displays. Also, many of the franchisees wanted something different than what the corporate people ordered. The supplier was certainly not prepared for that so they had some severe problems.

Another problem is the assumption by the supplier that all franchise chains are the same. That is certainly not the case. The control franchisors have over their franchisees range from very tight to very little. The chains can be set up to operate very differently from each other also. You can imagine the problems a supplier would have if they sold a standard system for the entire chain and many of the franchisees ordered something different.

We all must learn as much as we can about our customers when we design something for them. It’s also very important for the customer to share this information if they want the best from their supplier. This may be difficult at times because the customer may assume the supplier knows all they need to know or the people the supplier deals with may not know or understand all the important considerations.


Digital Menu Boards VS Computers

To begin I would like to state I am not stupid enough to believe the development of digital menu boards or digital signs are nearly as important as the development of computers. However, I do believe it is valid to make some comparisons.

If you are old enough to remember when personal computers first became available you know it took a long time for most people to start using them, even in business. In the beginning we were told the primary benefit was to save time and reduce cost. What we later learned was they did not save time. Instead, they greatly increased our individual capability, capacity and quality of work. They allowed us to do much more, more quickly and more accurately. Computers allowed us to do many things we could not do without them. I delayed using them because it seemed like too much work to download the data and get the programs set up. Today I don’t think we could survive without personal computers. Try taking them away and see what happens.

I can remember a few years ago when every executive had a secretary, now there are very few. As an example, it would take me all day working with my secretary and several other people to get a large proposal or important document composed, typed and ready to be delivered by overnight service to a customer. I can do the same thing today by myself, do it better and have it delivered in a matter of minutes.

Now let’s compare personal computers to digital menu boards. Think about how much time and how many people it takes for a restaurant chain to make changes to the content in a traditional menu board system and have it displayed properly in the restaurants. It takes several weeks or a couple months. With digital menu boards it takes a matter of hours. One person can do it easily, better and the content is more effective. Consider how much more you can do with digital menu boards than with traditional boards. I won’t list them here but the list is long. These are features you can compare with computers.

A true test of the value of a new technology is to see what would happen if you take it away after people have used it long enough to utilize its full capabilities and have them switch back to the old technology. Consider what would happen if you took away personal computers today. It would be a disaster. Although it would still be difficult to find someone utilizing the full capabilities of digital menu boards, how do you think they would react if they had to switch back to the old technology? Although I would say McDonald’s has not used their digital menu boards long enough to utilize their full capabilities, it is the best example I can think of. Ask their management how they would feel about replacing the digital boards in their McCafe units with the old menu board technology. It would be a huge problem.

I believe digital menu boards will eventually replace all the old boards and many new capabilities will continue to be developed and utilized.