Saturday, March 20, 2010

Basket Case

I took up snowshoeing this past winter. I'll never be mistaken for a backwoods trekker, but I have enjoyed some excursions around the fields and woods of Lackawanna State Park, which is just about 10 minutes from my home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I started out with a borrowed pair of snowshoes and wound up buying my own. I even got my wife to join me on a few of these jaunts as the season wound down, and now we're planning to make it a habit come next winter.

We were both using hiking poles from Swiss Gear, one of the brand names of Wenger, N.A., the Swiss firm that makes the Swiss Army Knife. On one of those hikes, one of the snow baskets that were attached to my wife's poles worked its way loose and was lost. (The snow basket, for those not into snowshoeing, is a circular piece that can be attached to the bottom of the trekking pole so that the pole doesn't slide as deeply into the snow – sort of like a snowshoe for the pole itself.)

Since the stores that sell the poles don't carry any replacement snow baskets, I thought I'd chalk that one up as a "just have to do without." But I decided to contact Wenger itself. Using their email contact form, I simply asked if it would be possible to buy either a single replacement or set of snow baskets from them directly. I told them that I owned several of their items – backpack, waist pack, poles and, of course, two Swiss Army knives. I hit SEND on the form without much expectation.

I received a form email almost immediately saying that someone from Customer Service would be in touch in 48 hours – unless it was a weekend. Standard stuff, I thought. What I didn't expect was another email from Customer Service an hour later that said, "Good Morning Paul, I do have one basket here I can send out if you are interested. Please provide me your address and I will be happy to get this out to you right away. Thanks!"

The email wasn't signed, so I have no idea just which Customer Service person was responsible, but I replied with my address and thanked them. Several days later, I received a snow basket – it was actually a larger basket from a higher-end model that fit my pole – for even better snow-pushing action. From the look of the packaging, someone must have just had that basket sitting on a shelf and took it upon him or herself to send it out – in a heavily taped, regular business envelope. It was clearly an act of good customer relations that didn't go through the company's "official" handling and shipping channels.

I've always liked Wenger's Swiss Gear "stuff" – and now I've decided I like the company even more. It's easy to beef when a company messes things up; you wind up telling half the world. But I think the good experiences should get at least as much exposure as the bad ones. So to that unknown Customer Service representative at Wenger: Thanks very much. You really made a good impression and were a true ambassador for your company.

An interesting footnote: neither Wenger nor Swiss Gear seem to be on either Facebook or Twitter – I wonder why. Their Customer Service reps are certainly sociable.

FTC Disclaimer: Other than being the owner of several Wenger/Swiss Gear products as explained above – products I purchased from them – I have no business relationship with the company, nor do I receive compensation of any kind from them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Redefining Toyota

So much has been written about Toyota and its travails; I won't analyze the company's missteps in handling the unintended acceleration issue other than to say that the situation has severely dented (if not crumpled) their reputation as a quality automaker.

I thought I came across the ultimate illustration of that damaged reputation while reading a New York Times article recently. The article was totally unrelated to Toyota or the auto industry. It was about the publication of a book, The Last Train from Hiroshima, by Charles Pellegrino. In his book, Pellegrino relates some fascinating revelations surrounding the watershed bombing flight that ushered in the atomic warfare era. Those revelations were based on the recollections of an airman, Joseph Fuoco, who purportedly flew on one of the observation planes as a last-minute replacement.

The only problem, say historians and family members of the flight crew, is that Fuoco never flew on the mission. Pellegrino now admits he was "probably duped" and plans to correct the paperback and other editions of the book. Being an avid reader of World War II history, I read through the full article until I came upon a description of the apparently-tainted book by an atomic historian. "This book is a Toyota," said Robert S. Norris, the author of "Racing for the Bomb" and an atomic historian. "The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record."

There you have it: a new synonym for a fault, mistake, error: Toyota. Will it make it into the lexicon? The Toyota brand has certainly become a late-night punch line and the subject of faux ad slogans like Toyota: We're Unstoppable. Whether or not it also becomes a new way to describe bad products in general will be determined by the actions Toyota takes in the next few weeks and months to rescue its name. With the belated appearance of Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company founder, a number of people raised the question why the company name is different from the family name. The Toyota web site says one of the factors in the change was that the number of strokes used to write "Toyota" in Japanese is eight, considered an auspicious or lucky number. Right now, the number that concerns Toyota most is 10 – which is how many percentage points Toyota sales in the U.S. fell in February amidst the sudden acceleration crisis.

An interesting side note on using car names to describe other products: in the current health care debate, politicians, pundits and the media alike all use one term to describe high-end or luxury health care plans: Cadillac – not Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. In spite of GM's woes, Cadillac apparently hasn't lost its ability to symbolize luxury.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More or Less Social

I've been participating in the PR Student Chat, a monthly feature run by a great group of public relations professionals, educators and students on Twitter (Twitter hashtag: #prstudchat – a somewhat less than apt abbreviation, but that's Twitter for you).

I've "met" a number of folks via the chat, including Josh Morris, a senior at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa and soon-to-be PR pro. Several of Josh's post-chat tweets intrigued me.

"What's more relevant these days: my real name or my Twitter handle? I'm tempted to include both on everything I do," Josh tweeted, followed shortly thereafter by "And trust me, more people know me by my Twitter handle than by my birth name. Is this where we're headed for good?

I wondered about those questions. Social media applications like Facebook and Twitter have certainly extended our social "range." Just a few clicks and I was part of a list of PR educators – a list that would have taken who-knows-how-long to assemble just a few years ago. But in our quest for more breadth on the social spectrum – following or friending more people, being followed or friended by more – are we sacrificing depth in those relationships, simply for lack of time? Are we now more social in theory and less social in practice?

In a way, I suppose this trend simply mirrors a slower evolution in media consumption habits over a generation or two. The lengthy newspaper piece that left you flipping to find the jump page gave way to the 90-second television news story that now gets repeated in the 30-second or less web clip. In the process, our understanding of key issues like the economy has increasingly narrowed to the width of a foot path – particularly among young people.

Is the same thing happening with social media? Will we "know" a greater number of people by their Twitter handle more so than their name, as Josh suggests? I would tend to agree. Whether that's good or bad for us remains to be seen. Josh, I'm glad to have met you. Someday I hope to shake your hand.

My thanks to Josh Morris for permission to quote his tweets. You can find him at @PRjoshmorris on Twitter or on his blog at