Spiral Marketing: The More You Know, The More You Can Know

June 24, 2009

Sbarro Isn’t Listening To Its Customers (A Cautionary Tale)

There is really no specific reason this blog post HAS to be about Sbarro Italian restaurant – there are plenty of other brands out there that are ignoring a great deal of interesting and even actionable information about brand perception, consumer experience, quality, etc.  It’s just that, coincidentally, several factors converged today to bring Sbarro to mind: 1) I used to like Sbarro’s quite a lot; 2) I have noticed that the quality of Sbarro’s has declined considerably – undoubtedly a result of the “franchise” effect – and so I almost never go there anymore; and 3) I noticed the following post on Twitter:

“Sbarro’s – never, ever, ever, EVER again. Never, not ever. EVER! #cardboard.”

So I searched Twitter to see if Sbarro has a Twitter account – apparently not.  I then searched Twitter for “Sbarro” and found comments that ranged from good, to OK, to bad – some examples:

mulebennett: @williamfleitch [Michael] Send ’em to Sbarro‘s for an authentic NY slice [/Scott]”

mohalen: @Arrens i thought i heard sbarro‘s was going out of business; i dont believe I have seen any in Ca.”

tastynsweet: sigh im at the mall right now eating sbarro they got good pizza but exspensive lol”

lynnsmithtx: Sbarro‘s pepperoni stromboli has 44g of fat & 2,470mg of sodium – a day’s worth of each.”

tiffany_dorrin: Ate at Sbarro for the first time in a very long time. I felt like I was in high or middle school again.”

BabyFresh360: Just ate some pizza from Sbarro Ewwwwww it was Sofa-King Disgusting…I Feel Sick my Fellow Twits : (“

GoodStuff4Free: Free pizza at Sbarro‘s for students with good grades June 23 http://linkbee.com/70IT

gadbearr: @joshuaharrell Sbarro…. yummmm!!”

So since Sbarro doesn’t have a Twitter account, I went to their corporate website, finally found the “contact us” link in the bottom navigation bar, and clicked on it to get a contact form.  There were 3 choices for my stakeholder role – Consumer, Franchiser and Real Estate Developer.  So I selected “Consumer,” added contact information, and in my message said that I noticed they were missing out on a lot of very useful information, including the original post: “Sbarro’s – never, ever, ever, EVER again. Never, not ever. EVER! #cardboard.”

This is where the story gets very interesting: I posted this comment, and got a rejection message back from the Sbarro’s website saying something to the effect that the “Contact Us” page should not be used to send messages it perceives as negative.  Are you KIDDING me?  Just tell me before I spend the time writing a comment that “We are very interested in anything you have to say, as long as it conforms to our vision of ourselves.  Any observations that do NOT conform to this viewpoint are out of line, and we will reject them out of hand.”

Good to know . . . now.

I am, as I would guess are the majority of you, of the school of thought that believes 1) ANY information or feedback is useful; and 2) I would rather hear negative comments that will help me improve my product or service, rather than flowery platitudes.  I JUMP on any hint of negative commentary, and try to get to the bottom of it.  In fact, some of the strongest client relationships I have ever developed have had a critical juncture, where the client perceived us in a negative way, and by rapidly addressing their concerns in a proactive, forthright and honest manner, I’ve ended up with a much better client relationship and a much stronger advocate of our services as a reward.

Now, it is clear Sbarro doesn’t belong to this school of thought, and while ultimately I believe that to be a fatal arrogance, I am not going to try to fight through the layers of bureaucracy they’ve built to ensure they don’t hear the voice of their most important asset: their customers.  I think, though, that there is a clear lesson for companies a little less vested in viewing the world through their own pre-determined lens.  While the dynamics are different for various sectors and industries, customers keep you in business; in the consumer world, you have an incredibly diverse, mobile and judgmental group of stakeholders that you ignore at your own peril.  And through emerging social media, the ability for those consumers to share good or bad information or experiences is incredibly rapid and remarkably efficient – the tweet that started this whole situation was sent by someone with 750 followers; through that one tweet, she told 750 people to never eat at Sbarro’s.  And that is just one of the 200 Million+ Facebook users and the 35 Million+ Twitter users (to name only two of the social networks out there).

The lesson of this cautionary tale?  There is more information about your brand than you could possibly imagine being shared on these social platforms.  You have two choices as a consumer retailer (or any business, for that matter): you can adopt and adapt your customer-facing processes to gather, assess, and act upon this vast reservoir of information, and through that process refine your view of your strengths and weaknesses, your opportunities and threats, the perceptions and misperceptions about your brand that you need to identify and act upon.

Or you can adopt the second option – the Sbarro option: only listen to what you want to hear, and filter and tune out the rest.  I would not recommend this option, but if you take this course, understand that you do so at your own risk.

Kev

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