The crazy week that was…
Posted on January 13, 2013
We’ve run three Groupons in our history. Last Thursday, January 10th, the sun set on the $20 premium on our most recent offer. I must admit that I have rarely felt under more pressure than I experienced in the last ten days. People take their discounts very seriously!
As we all experience from time to time, though, we learn the most from more challenging experiences. Easy days generally teach me next to nothing. So, yes, I learned a LOT last week!
Yes, I learned that people take their discounts very seriously. I learned I need to be more careful in evaluating ways to promote my business. We ran this Groupon because I believed the first two had been good for us. We understand they follow a “bathtub curve” redemption pattern, so we time them to sell during one of our quieter periods, and for their premiums to sunset during another of our quieter periods. Well, last week – the week after New Years, when so many people are “holidayed out” can be one of the slowest weeks of the year. But, thanks to this Groupon it turned out to be more than 30% busier than our prior RECORD week – and very challenging for us to handle.
This Groupon was ultimately much harder on us than the last because, I believe, we permitted too many to be sold. That choice resulted in many more last-minute people wanting to redeem their Groupons than we had capacity to serve. Even a week in advance of the premium sunset date we were seeing our reservation book fill up, during the slowest week of the year! And I that that news certainly did not sit well with some people.
Once we realized a significant number of people were going to be upset, we felt we had to offer a more palatable alternative to guests we were unable to accommodate than “I’m sorry.” What we came up with was an exchange offer of a $30 gift certificate to The Elephant Walk in Waltham that would never expire. This effectively “split the difference” with those guests who took us up on the offer – giving them $30 to spend at the restaurant for the $20 they’d paid many months prior. We made nearly two hundred of those exchanges.
Of course, life is rarely simple, and the Law of Unintended Consequences decided to enforce itself on this case, too: More than one person accused us fo cheating or defrauding them, threatening to report us even to the Waltham Police! Thankfully, the vast majority of our guests who accepted the offer did so expressing appreciation for our gesture.
As I reflect on the mechanics of this deal, I now know we authorized more Groupons to be sold than we should have. At contract time I requested a limit that Groupon asked be increased. I acquiesced, so it’s on me. But I think that choice frayed our reputation a bit, fairly or not. I think Groupon must know by now it’s possible to over-sell an offer, and they should respect that possibility. That knowledge should lead Groupon to coach their clients to conduct a deeper analysis of what level of Groupons sold is prudent, which no doubt varies by industry. No such effort was made in this case. On the contrary: they – and we – went for what turned out to be a short-term benefit that has caused us, and number of our guests, long-term pain.
What else did I learn this week? I learned that online review sites ought to be taken with an even larger grain of salt than I previously thought prudent. A confounding and unwelcome subtheme to our Groupon challenge emerged on Yelp. Unsurprisingly, some of the people who were unhappy with the way our Groupon endgame was playing out spoke up about it on the site. Then someone posted a positive review rebutting some of the negative feedback, specifically mentioning our $30 Gift Card trade offer. That took a LOT of the sting out of reading those bad reviews. However, a couple of days after it appeared, that positive review disappeared! It was filtered out and grouped with the long list of other filtered reviews that are viewable, but are very hard to find. In fact, I suspect most people aren’t even aware of that whole aspect of the Yelp experience.
Aaaanyway, that’s where it got interesting. – I’ve known for a long time about filtered Yelp reviews and have been deeply frustrated that the vast majority of those of ours that are filtered are very positive. The same pattern holds for my wife’s small business. But “you can’t fight City Hall,” so I’ve more or less ignored the matter.
Then, by notable coincidence, at the beginning of last week I was solicited by a Yelp advertising rep. I was very frank and told him that I couldn’t imagine financially supporting a business model that I believed was hurting rather than helping my business. The Yelp rep claimed, naturally, that the filter is unbiased. Count me among the skeptics.
I admit that I notice scores, but I always focus primarily on the text of reviews so that I can hopefully learn something of value about how guests experience our food and service. I have read all of our filtered reviews and I cannot for the life of me understand why the vast majority of the filtered feedback was expunged.
The Yelp rep and I traded nearly a dozen messages on the subject when I finally dropped out of the conversation and got back something really important: redeeming Groupons. Perhaps a day or so later, I pulled Yelp back up on my browser and noticed our scores curve had absolutely crashed!
At first I thought there must have been a surge of fresh negative reviews, but no. Instead , vexingly, not a single positive review that had been posted since late September appeared in our review stream any longer. They’d all been “filtered” out! – I can’t prove it, but I sure can feel it, and that felt to me like retaliation. But that’s not a case I have the wherewithal to press.
I learned something else in our last couple of weeks of Groupon Mania: Our staff – no, they’re not perfect [surprise, surprise!] – is one tough, soulful bunch.
I understand what New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick means when he says that every season is different, that every team he coaches is different. Like sports teams, we have a little turnover each year too, and our team dynamic evolves with it. I have worked with a lot of great, talented, and skilled people in my nearly 22 years at The Elephant Walk, but I have never been prouder of a staff than I am of the group I’m working with now. I’ve always known how important it is to have a good team. Now I know just how good a team I’m on!
Team Elephant Walk Waltham was just challenged with the equivalent of more than a week of consecutive Valentine’s Days [any reader whose worked in a restaurant on Valentine's Day knows what they're like] and handled it courageously and gracefully. Many of them worked overtime – especially our kitchen staff – pulling extra shifts and extending themselves to put in super long days to make sure that we kept up with our prep and didn’t run out of food.
After it was over, I realized that the truly amazing thing the was how well everyone managed to handle it emotionally. Our restaurant – the people and the place – just got put though a major stress test and that stress didn’t break us. I’m accustomed to a shouting match or two popping up when the intensity rises and people get tired. But this group worked so well together and helped each other right through to the end of the adventure, all without fighting among themselves. They each did whatever was needed to get the job done, and with a maturity and selflessness that I deeply appreciate and admire.
This photo is of the group that worked together last Thursday night, the day the Groupon wave crested. For staff meal we gave the kitchen an extraordinarily well-deserved break and got takeout from a couple of nearby restaurants whose food we enjoy – Blue Ribbon Barbecue and Paisano’s. We invited the entire staff to join us, but only a few not already working that night came in for this informal meal. Genuinely exhausted, an upbeat but unusually quiet time was had by all.
I want to thank by name those pictured, proceeding clockwise, beginning in the foreground: Thank you Kat, Avelina, Mendy, Ligia, [someone I can't recognize!], Sarah, Alejo, Diego, Fenando, Mike, Fabricio, Rony, Benigno, Gonzalo, Carlos, Maddie, Joel, and Spencer, and thank you, also, to those of our teammates not pictured here, but who also contributed mightily to this tremendous team effort. – Quite simply, everyone: You Rock!