11 Dec 2014

What An Unpleasant Boston Lawyer Should Teach Small Businesses About Marketing

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The Boston.com story ran under the headline “Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School Professor, Goes to War Over $4 Worth of Chinese Food“. A Harvard professor took a local Chinese restaurant to task for overcharging him for his order. The restaurant owner replied that the menu on their website was simply outdated, and had been “for a really long time.” It was a human interest story in a local paper that should have ended there, were it not for the lawyer/professor’s behavior. The elitist, upper crust lawyer became universally vilified for his boorish manner and bullying tone, leading one legal blogger to declare Edelman the reason “Why the World Hates Lawyers.”

Yet one thing got lost in the discussion of Edelman’s ridiculous behavior – he highlighted a legitimate complaint with many small businesses today. Simply, businesses do not see their website as a priority. The restaurateur, in reply to Edelman’s complaint noted that they had no marketing budget to pay for website updates, yet offered to send Edelman a paper menu with the current prices.

If you don’t see the problem there, you are like most of the people that seem to have missed the valuable lesson in this story.

The restaurant owner seems to be stuck in 1992. He is relying on people to keep copies of paper menus – ostensibly in a drawer in their kitchen – in order to complete their order. Does anyone do that anymore? Not likely.

Most people, like the professor, turn to their browser, apps like Yelp, UrbanSpoon, Open Table (and dozens of others) for information on restaurants, their menus, and their prices. The sites that curate information about restaurants frequently rely on links to menus just like the one Edelman used. They provide direct links to the restaurant’s menu to inform their users.

So Ran Duan, the owner, is missing a HUGE opportunity, and potentially creating significant animosity with customers, by not taking the minimal amount of time it would require to upload a new menu. In this instance, the objections by Edelman led to Duan updating his menu so it accurately reflected the prices on the receipt. Would he have done so absent Edelman’s objection? Probably not “for a really long time.”

Beyond this single exchange lies a good lesson for Ran and entrepreneurs who think like him. Even the smallest business will benefit from taking the web seriously. When Ran’s parents opened their restaurant, the web played no role in storefront operations. Today, every business, on any day, can be visited by customers that may never set foot in their shop. They are using myriad ways to find you, and you will never know most were looking in your direction. Should you write off those potential customers by saying “We don’t have a marketing budget”?

In this case, Ran made out well. The bizarre exchange has generated a lot of goodwill from all over the web and a lot of orders from local supporters. Other small businesses, without the benefit of a Ben Edelman to create buzz, should do two things.

First, put thought and time into your website. You have no idea how much business you are turning away because potential customers cannot find you, cannot easily find what they want on your site, or find only outdated information.

Second, in the case of a guy like Edelman, it likely would not have hurt at all to reply, “Sorry. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. We’ll refund the $4 because you feel we mislead you, and we’ll give you $5 off your next order.” All parties would have been satisfied, Ben Edelman would likely have eaten there again, and he probably would have told friends about the service.

That last point is what seems to have been lost in customer service interactions. It’s just as likely that Edelman could have been a food blogger instead of a lawyer. Had he written a scathing piece about Ran’s food and the overcharging, without ever contacting the store, who know how much damage Duan may have done to his own operation. You simply never know whether the guy you are talking to has a much bigger megaphone than you do. A dismissive attitude is just as likely to backfire on a store owner as it is an obnoxious customer. It’s worth keeping that in mind.

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