Pelland Blog

5 Ways to Annoy Your Customers

April 27th, 2016

It sometimes baffles me how some businesses will go out of their way to annoy their customers – and potential customers – when customer service should be their primary concern. Let me outline 5 bad practices that are in common use. I am hoping that none of my readers employ any of these practices; however, if you do, it is never too late to repent and change your ways!

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Spammy E-Mail

It is amazing how everybody seems to think that only other people send out spam. We all think that our own messages are important and that the recipients are sitting on the edge of their chairs, just waiting to hear from us. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way.

Spam is in the eyes of the beholder. If you are not already engaged in an e-mail conversation with the recipient, and you are initiating a marketing-related message, what you are sending out is an unsolicited e-mail. By definition, that is spam. If your e-mail is carefully crafted and subtle, many people might cut you a break. Want to increase the odds of having your message flagged as spam? Use a compiled list, use ALL CAPS in the subject line or body of your message, use different fonts and colors, or use words like “free”, “not spam”, “please read”, “winner”, “congratulations”, “selected”, “limited time”, “click here”, and “$$$”.

Junk Fax

Although the laws have been watered down in recent years and are rarely enforced, junk faxes are illegal. Nobody purchases a fax machine so they can get the latest offer on a “Funtacular Vacation” or “Ticket to Paradise” involving a trip to Cancun or the Bahamas. They also do not need to be contacted about emergency roof repairs after every heavy rainstorm, and, if they are in need of a small business loan, they are probably not going to arrange for one through a junk faxer. Are you going to pay for the recipients’ telephone line, ink or toner cartridges, paper, and electricity? If you send faxes to anyone who has not specifically requested your fax, get a life and stop it!

Telemarketing Calls

After the average person has already gotten calls on any given day from timeshare scammers and people in a boiler room in Bangalore who pretend to be working with either Google or Microsoft, they are already predisposed against receiving your phone call. I already have solar panels on my roof, so why do I get calls from at least 3 solar sales outfits every day? (Trust me … my solar installation did not originate with a telemarketing call!) The only thing certain about an unsolicited phone call is that the person at the receiving end is in the middle of doing something else that has nothing to do with anticipating your call. Disturbing people is not really the best marketing approach. Think of it like eating wild mushrooms. Unless you really know what you are doing, the experience is probably not going to end as well as you had hoped.

Unmonitored E-Mail

If you send somebody an e-mail message, particularly if it is a response to any type of consumer contact form, always ensure that the recipient can reply to your message. It amazes me how often I will contact a business (or a local politician, for that matter), only to get a canned response from an e-mail address that beings with “noreply” or “DoNotReply”. A few months ago, I sent a consumer inquiry to a major supermarket chain where I am a frequent customer. The response, with a “noreply” sender address, was addressed to “Dear Customer”, and continued, “The mailbox you attempted to send your e-mail to is not monitored. However, we do want to hear from you! For questions and comments, please contact us by calling: Consumer Affairs.” If your consumer affairs department has a contact form, and I have taken the time to initiate an e-mail conversation, why is your only response to tell me to call you on the phone – and probably get put on hold for several minutes?

Spell Your Customer’s Name Wrong

Finally, I remember about 10 or 15 years ago when I bought two season’s passes to a nearby summer theatre. I probably spent two or three hundred dollars for the tickets, but from that day forward, the theatre company started sending me mail addressed to “Paul Pillard”. Do you think that I ever renewed my subscription for another season, or even bought tickets for an individual production? No way! The supermarket that addressed me in their e-mail as “Dear Customer” was far better off than the theatre company that continually addressed me by the wrong name.

Speaking of names, never presume the use of a nickname or abbreviated name, and know how to pronounce a person’s name before speaking it. My name is Peter, and I am already predisposed against incoming telemarketing calls. Want to really call the wrong number? Be a total stranger who addresses me as “Pete”, or struggle with the pronunciation of my last name when you call me. If you catch me in a particularly good mood, you will not get an earful!

Okay, now that I have gotten these marketing pet peeves off my chest, I can go enjoy a pleasant dinner … until it gets interrupted by a telemarketing call.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Ten Common Website Mistakes to Avoid

April 21st, 2016

The biggest mistake that many small business owners might make would be to build and maintain their own website. Sure, companies like GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, and Vistaprint make it look like an easy task that anybody can handle, but do you simply want a website or do you want a website that can effectively compete online? Whether you insist on building your own site, or whether you simply want to keep an eye on your webmaster (particularly if that webmaster is a family member or that “nice kid who knows a lot about computers” down the road), there are a few common mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Usually these mistakes are errors of omission, but they can also be reflections of careless work habits. Just this week, my company took over the hosting of a campground website that had been built by another company. In the process of fixing a few things that were broken, we noticed that no Google Analytics tracking code was installed on the site – even though the client insisted that he was accessing his Google Analytics data on a regular basis. It turned out that we were correct. Google Analytics was not installed on his site, but the site-specific tracking code had been mistakenly installed on one of his secondary websites, giving him the impression that the data that he had been digesting for over a year was based upon traffic to the main site.

  1. Google Analytics: Yes, let me make that #1 on the list. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding the visitors to your site, traffic sources, and much more.
  2. Flash: Leisure suits were really popular for a brief period of time in the late 1970’s, but even John Travolta would not be caught dead wearing one today. The same with Flash. It was “really cool” for a while … until support for Flash was dropped by iOS and the latest Android devices. There are new ways of presenting rich content, but steer clear of Flash.
  3. Orphans: I am not talking about Mickey Rooney and Boys Town. I am talking about pages on a website that fail to link back to the other pages of the site. Sort of like a dead end in a corn maze or a hall of mirrors, orphan pages are very frustrating to site visitors.
  4. Broken Links: Formula 409 is a well-known cleaning and degreasing product that has been around since the 1950’s, but 404 error messages on a website are about as popular as a “door-buster” item at Wal-Mart that is out of stock the moment the store opens and the sale begins. People see these frustrating messages when they click on a broken link, typically because a page has been deleted without updating its incoming links.
  5. Unencrypted E-Mail Links: You would not display your credit card number on a poster in Times Square, and you would certainly not hand out keys to your home or automobile to total strangers, so why would you display an unencrypted e-mail address on your website? Without encryption, the message to e-mail address harvesting spam robots is “Here I am. Come get me!”
  6. Broken Graphics: One of the telltale signs of a beginning webmaster are broken graphics. If graphics are linked to files on a local computer, they will appear normally, but only on that computer. Anybody accessing the page from any other device anywhere in the world will see a broken graphic link.
  7. Slow Loading Images: Have you ever visited a website, only to watch images slowly loading, as if they were being slowly painted onto your screen? Almost inevitably, it is because the person maintaining the site has placed enormous photos onto the page, then has those images being scaled down to size by the browsers of end users. The enormous file is being needlessly downloaded, then resized, when a properly sized image would have loaded immediately.
  8. Ignoring Mobile Devices: All the talk these days is about mobile-friendliness and the fact that over 50% of the traffic to most websites is coming from people using smartphones and tablets. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you are turning away a tremendous portion of your market. Do not be deceived by the fact that almost any website may be viewed on a smartphone. There is a big difference between being able to view a site and actually engaging in a non-frustrating experience. Is your content scaling down to the size of the display, does the navigation work with pudgy fingers, and can users tap a phone number displayed on your site to initiate a phone call?
  9. Out of Date Content: You would not buy a gallon of milk that was past its expiration date, would you? Well, why would you expect people to “buy” what you are selling on your website if its content looks like it is way past its “best used by” date? Specifically, rates and schedules should show the current year. I know of another website design company that circumvents this maintenance issue by never including the year on a rates page. That is a big mistake because it fails to offer users the assurance that the content is current. Particularly when it involves pricing, nobody wants to make a buying decision when there is pricing uncertainty.
  10. Missing Meta Content: Meta content consists of essential elements written into the code of a website that are not generally visible when the site is viewed by an end user. This basic content is mission-critical for search engine optimization and to influence search engine users to choose to click on your site’s listing over another. This meta content only begins with a proper page title, page description, and “alt” tags that describe photos and graphics. That same site that was missing the Google Analytics tracking code also had a site title tag that read “My Blog | My WordPress Blog”.

These are only 10 common mistakes that webmasters can make. The overall best advice is to avoid working with that webmaster in your mirror (or that clever kid down the road) and to choose one of several professional companies with reputations you can trust. You have better things to do than to look for mistakes on your website … or to deal with the consequences of those mistakes.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

All Links Are Good … or Are They?

April 4th, 2016

One of my clients recently contacted me, concerned that his New Hampshire campground was listed without his prior knowledge or authorization on several websites that purported to be online campground directories. He discovered this when one of the sites contacted him on behalf of a camper who wanted to make a reservation to stay at his park and another contacted him to “claim” his listing. At first glance, these would appear to be good things, wouldn’t they? Any resource that is sending you business is generally welcome to do so. After all, your campground is probably sent online traffic from a variety of referring sites – everything from Go Camping America to your state association website to Good Sam to your local tourism association.

In the instances that my client described, something just didn’t seem right.

Over the years, a number of websites have sprouted up that are essentially directories of local businesses. Many of these have evolved from so-called “yellow pages” companies, and their business model is to persuade gullible business owners to pay for enhanced listings. In my own instance, about a third of these local directories lists my company’s street address correctly, but then locates us in the next town. Another third list our fax number as our phone number. Do I care? Not really, because these sites get close to zero traffic, and they have little if any effect – either positive or negative – upon the SEO of my company’s official website. These websites are working with compiled data, obviously harvested from unreliable sources.

The sites that my client described were an entirely new breed. Also based upon compiled data, their business plans are no longer focused upon selling enhanced listings but in providing reservation services where they collect referral or transaction fees. These can be problematic indeed. My client has gone through a fairly labor-intensive process of getting his business de-listed from several of these sites. The more that I looked into them, the better my understanding of how my client’s instincts were probably right on target.

Campground reservations are accurately perceived as a multi-billion dollar business, and companies that would like a piece of the action are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Funded with infusions of venture capital, the focus is on generating income from the collection of processing fees on those reservations, either in real-time (with campgrounds that get on board) or with the type of delayed booking that initially caught my client’s attention. One such site posts that it “anticipates” use by 1 million campers per month, even though it does not currently show up as even a blip on the radar at Alexa, the leading provider of comparative website traffic analytics.

What is the problem with these sites? Well, first of all there is a problem with compiled data. How often is the data updated and how accurate is the initial source? (Think back to those local sites that list my business in the wrong town or with our fax number as our primary phone number, where incorrect data tends to perpetuate itself.) On one of these sites that my client called to my attention, I perused the campgrounds listed in my home state of Massachusetts. I am intimately familiar with the industry players in my home state, and I found fictitious listings, listings for municipal parks that have nothing to do with camping, listings for campgrounds that have been out of business for several years, and listings for summer camps.

The second problem is the potential for these sites to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and that could inflict harm upon your business. I know that I do not want any other company representing my business, and I would be feverishly protective against any threats to my company’s unique online identity. Particularly if pricing (that may or may not be accurate) or reservations enter into the equation, the potential for problems is very real.

Thirdly, if you choose to get on board, be sure to read the fine print. The “Terms of Service” listed on one of these websites, when copied and pasted into a Word document, consisted of over 20,000 words that ran 42 pages in length. That’s a far cry from the old-fashioned handshake agreement of years past and probably reason to proceed with caution.

Keep in mind that any online directories or search engines built upon compiled data (even Google itself!) need businesses like yours as much as you need them. Without listing real businesses that consumers are seeking, they have no product to offer. It is your decision whether or not to get on board with any particular website. Understand the potential risks and benefits, and then make a decision based upon what is best for your business and how it can most effectively meet the needs and expectations of its core clientele.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shoppers

March 30th, 2016

Over the years, I have heard campground owners consistently complain about ratings that are generated by independent, third-party inspectors from organizations ranging from AAA and Trailer Life to Wheelers and Woodall’s. With the demise of the “big books,” the consolidation of Trailer Life and Woodall’s into Good Sam ratings, and the explosive growth and credibility of online consumer review sites such as RV Park Reviews and TripAdvisor, ratings are as important – if not more important – than ever. What remains consistent is the question as to why a campground owner would be surprised by ratings or consumer reviews, as if he was unfamiliar with the shortcomings of his own park.

Perhaps it would make sense for the industry to be a bit more proactive with regard to the types of third-party assessments that would identify problems and nip them in the bud. Other industries – most notably the hotel, restaurant, cruise line, retailing, banking, and automotive industries – have routinely employed what are referred to as “mystery shoppers”. It is important to know that both your business and your employees are up to par and providing exceptional customer service. At my local bank, I noticed last week how one of the tellers had been awarded for having successfully passed 5 out of 5 such test situations during the previous year.

To make these inspections work, they must be carried out in an anonymous and seemingly random fashion. Think of the popular CBS reality TV series, Undercover Boss, where even Jim Rogers, the former CEO of KOA, went undercover to gain an inside perspective on various employee issues at three parks within the KOA franchise system. Another popular reality TV show is Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, where host Robert Irvine helps to turn restaurants around by identifying problems with everything from their menus and décor to their staffs and the attitude of their owners. We all need to see our businesses sometimes with the objectivity of another set of eyes.

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In the hotel industry, which is so closely related to the campground industry, there is a wide range of companies that provide independent inspection services. The companies include Secret Hotel Inspector, Coyle Hospitality Group, and Guest Check. There is also a network of independent contractors that provide similar services, in some instances on a smaller scale and meeting the needs of businesses with more limited budgets. These services are so important that there is actually an association of service providers, the Mystery Shopping Provider Association of North America. According to MSPA-NA statistics, 70% of shoppers (yes, that includes campers!) state that they are willing to spend up to 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. Perhaps more importantly, 78% of customers have opted to cancel a transaction or did not complete an intended purchase because of a poor customer experience. Think of how that latter statistic relates to the usability of your website or the user experience during your online reservation process.

Some companies even recruit and hire their own secret inspectors, one example being Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an affiliation of 520 luxury hotels located worldwide.

What these companies share in common is the proven statistic that the fees for their services are more than offset by the increased profitability that results from the improvements in customer loyalty, customer satisfaction, staff training, and morale that are realized after implementing their study recommendations. More than simply running a white glove along a windowsill, these companies identify weaknesses and waste, and then recommend solutions and remedial actions.

It is important to have access to this type of information prior to the time of interaction with your paying guests. Why not make now the time for a new beginning? My suggestion is for some of the larger, more progressive state associations to explore an affiliation with a mystery shopping organization, and then offer this as a paid add-on service for members who are striving for excellence. Not only would the member campgrounds benefit greatly from their participation, this would also be a service that would add significant value to the member benefits package of any such state associations themselves.

As always, it is always wise to think outside the box, learn from other industries, and emulate the various formulae that have contributed to their success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Highly Effective Facebook Posts

March 8th, 2016

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is an age-old philosophical question. While pondering the answer to that question, let me present a very similar question: If you post to your Facebook Page, but Facebook only allows for a small percentage of your followers to see the post, are you totally wasting your time? Almost anybody can quickly answer that question with a resounding ‘yes!’

Most people know that, unless you promote (in other words, pay for) your posts, only a small percentage of the people who have “liked” your page and want to see your posts will actually get to do so. Facebook claims that, “Pages organically reach about 16% of their fans on average. To make sure your fans see your stories, sponsor your posts to increase the reach of your content.” That claimed statistic (which everybody suspects is steadily falling, but that Facebook has not updated in nearly 4 years) is called into question by third-party analytics that actually calculate a far lower percentage in many if not most instances. We also know that engagement with the chosen few who will actually get to see your posts will be increased if your posts contain video or photos.

How to Beat Facebook at its Own Game

I would not advise businesses to cave in to Facebook’s financial demands. What I will advise is that businesses think smarter in order to gain the greatest benefit from this social media giant. Let’s presume that posts from your page are seen by 16% of the people who have liked your page, as Facebook suggests. Metric studies have also shown that, on average, about 35% of Facebook users see posts from their friends (as opposed to your page.) The actual percentage will vary, following a complex algorithm called EdgeRank that determines to what extent Facebook will filter any specific posted content that users will get to see. The bottom line is that, if over twice as many people are likely to see posts from their friends as they are from your page, you can substantially increase your reach if you offer people incentives to share your posts.

A Case Example

My family was recently involved with hiring the services of one of the leading wedding photographers in the local area. Toward the end of the year, the photographer ran a very clever yet inexpensive promotion on Facebook that was certain to generate a remarkable amount of traffic, exposing many new prospective customers to her services. Here is how it worked:

  1. The photographer confirms in advance that couples are willing to allow their photos to be used for appropriate promotional purposes.
  2. She then created a Facebook album that consisted of 35 photos, one from each of 35 weddings that she had photographed during the recent nuptial season.
  3. She then shared that album with each of the 35 couples, encouraging them to, in turn, share the album on Facebook with their network of friends, asking their friends to vote (with a “like”) for their photo.
  4. The couple whose photo garnered the most “likes” would win a dinner for two (valued at $60.00) at an area restaurant that is located within a frequent wedding venue.
  5. In order to “vote”, each person is also supposed to “like” the photographer’s page and the page of the wedding venue (although this would appear to be an unenforceable rule.)
  6. The dinner certificate was almost certainly provided by the wedding venue at no charge, in exchange for the promotional value.

The total cost to the photographer: Zero. By the end of the contest, there had been a total of 865 “likes” of the various photos in the album, each an indication of a person who most likely viewed what is essentially a portfolio of the photographer’s work. The photographer’s Facebook page currently has about 4,400 “likes”. Based upon the 16% average that Facebook claims, about 700 people would have at least seen the link to this album when it was posted. Adding in the 865 people who interacted with the album in response to the links that were shared by the 35 wedding couples, you can clearly see that this was a very effective promotion.

Using a similar degree of imagination and creativity, there are certainly opportunities for your park to benefit from a similar promotion. An idea that immediately comes to mind would be a contest to choose your campground’s three nicest seasonal sites, with the winners getting $200.00, $150.00, and $100.00 discounts toward their seasonal site renewals fees for the following year. Every person visiting the album will be impressed by the quality of the sites that they see and may be a likely prospect to become a seasonal camper themselves. Another shorter-term promotional idea (and with smaller prizes) might determine the best decorated site (or the best individual costumes) from your Halloween weekend. Get the idea?

With a bit of ingenuity, you can easily multiply the impact of social media like Facebook upon your business, at little or no cost and without paying for the privilege of promoting your posts.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Listen to Your Customers

February 28th, 2016

I thought it would be useful to read through random reviews of campgrounds on the TripAdvisor website in order to determine whether there were some common complaints that savvy park operators might need to address. On TripAdvisor, we are generally dealing with that all-important market of first-time campers – precisely the people who are needed to grow the industry’s markets. We all know the old adage about first impressions being lasting impressions, and an experience that fails to live up to expectations could not only ensure that a first-time guest will not return to your park; you could very well sour that first-time camper on the entire camping experience, rather than turning him into the next lifetime camper.

I randomly chose campgrounds in four regions of the country and read through reviews. In the instance of one park, I found that every recent 5-star review was followed up with a management response, thanking the reviewer for taking the time to write the review; however, there was not a management response for even a single recent review that rated the campground as anything less than outstanding. The management of this campground is totally missing the point in its failure to address legitimate concerns or even to acknowledge those somewhat less-than-happy campers. Ironically, those unaddressed reviews are consistently flagged as “helpful” by fellow TripAdvisor users. In other words, these unaddressed complaints are being read by other potential guests who are thanking the reviewers for saving them from making the mistake of vacationing at the same park.

The most common complaints fell into 6 categories:

  1. Extra fees. People who have customarily stayed in hotels or conventional resorts are not accustomed to paying excessive add-on fees or for paying to take a shower. I frequently encountered the term “nickeled and dimed”, and that is not good. Reviewers complained about excessive fees for everything from arts and crafts sessions to the rental of recreational equipment, but the single biggest complaint was with any park that used metered showers. One reviewer wrote, “You have to pay for your shower, and the first three minutes are cold.”
  2. Indifference on the part of staff or management. Some of the specific complaints a bad attitude when staff members visited campsites, or security staff members who turned a blind eye away from issues that needed to be addressed. There were many complaints about rude employees (bad enough), but the people who referenced rude owners are really raising red flags. One reviewer documented about requesting a credit (not a refund) due to a medical emergency, and how the park owner insultingly demanded a note from her doctor! Another wrote, “The gate guards are not that friendly – actually they are aggressive and rude – and are easily annoyed.” That surly gate guard is the first person encountered upon arrival and can set the tone for the entire camping experience.
  3. Small sites that are not big rig friendly. Unless camping in a group, campers generally do not want to feel like they are on top of the adjoining sites. If they are camping in a big rig, they want to be able to get into and out of their site easily and without risk of damage to their investment. In the short term, this may mean carefully assigning sites to the camping equipment; in the long term, this may mean re-engineering smaller adjoining sites into larger single sites.
  4. Dirty, inadequately or infrequently cleaned restrooms. There are simply no excuses here. If it is a busy weekend, your cleaning staff may need to be cleaning your restrooms on a continuous rotation throughout the day. If you are short-staffed, hire people. The photo that I am showing below is one of eight that was included in an actual review, documenting a lack of bathroom cleaning – both short-term and long-term – at one particular park. Additional photos attached to the review show fecal matter in front of toilets, dirty floors, empty paper towel dispensers, and stained shower stalls.
  5. Lack of maintenance in rentals. Be careful about overselling you’re amenities. It is probably a mistake to market aging park models as “luxury cottages”, particularly if their amenities are inconsistent with what you advertise. If a furnished park model is designed to sleep 6 people, the kitchen utensils should not be limited to 3 forks, 2 glasses and 4 chipped plates (as mentioned in one actual review). There should be a printed inventory of furnishings (that are checked and replenished by housekeeping between rentals) that will allow guests to know exactly what they should expect to find in the unit.
  6. Lax enforcement of rules. Yes, we all know that rules are a double-edged sword where some people are always going to be unhappy; however, the guests who really count are the ones who expect quiet, not those who are creating a nuisance. Within this category of complaints, the biggest issues involved unattended dogs being allowed to bark, and quiet hours that were not consistently and politely enforced.

Restroom Trash Bin

All in all, the people who are addressing these concerns are far from being unreasonable. If you were on a vacation – perhaps a cruise or a trip to a vacation resort – would you find these shortcomings acceptable? Of course not! Treat your guests with respect, meet their expectations, and your business will grow and prosper.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Give New Thinking Another Thought

February 17th, 2016

We generally tend to believe that new ways of doing things improve our efficiency, while we turn a blind eye toward any associated shortcomings. Nobody will argue that an e-mail is more efficient than a handwritten letter, a fax, or an expensive overnight document. In some instances, new technologies and new ways of thinking have brought about the total obsolescence of old ways of doing things. How many readers are old enough to remember the delivery of a telegram by a Western Union courier?

Sometimes, upon closer inspection, some of the new ways of doing things are not necessarily better than their predecessors, particularly when an opportunity for face-to-face conversation and dialogue is lost in the process. Let us look at the commonly-used conference call as an example. When it is necessary to schedule a meeting of the minds, the logistics of assembling a diverse group of people into a single room at a single time can be both overwhelming and contrary to a need for urgency. As convenient as the logistics may be, there is reason to call the overall effectiveness of a concept as simple as a conference call into question.

A study that was conducted by InterCall, the world’s largest provider of conference and collaborations services (according to Wikipedia) was broadly reported in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Forbes Magazine to the Harvard Business Review. The study was based upon a survey of 500 corporate users of the company’s services, and the findings were eye-opening to say the least. They bear repeating here.

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  1. 65% of participants in conference calls admitted that they did other work during the course of the call.
  2. 63% of participants admitted to sending e-mails during the course of the call. Of course, this may have included instances when the e-mails being sent had something to do with the subject being discussed.
  3. 55% admitted to eating or preparing food during the call.
  4. 47% admitted to leaving the call, unannounced, to go to the bathroom.
  5. 44% admitted to sending text messages during the call, a percentage that has probably only increased since the time of the survey.
  6. 43% spent time on Facebook or other social media while they were supposed to be participating in the conference call.
  7. 25% admitted to playing video games during the call. If the person organizing the call had the authority to terminate the employment of participants, this would certainly constitute justifiable cause.
  8. 21% admitted to doing online shopping during the call.

Keep in mind that, in each instance, we are looking at statistics that are based upon personal behavior that participants in the survey were willing to admit. The actual percentages may be higher. In addition, there were smaller numbers of people who admitted to either exercising or taking another call during the course of a conference call.

It may be apparent that it is imperative for a conference call to be kept on-topic and as brief as possible, if we are to avoid the risk of losing the attention of participants. On the other hand, the percentages cited would be closer to zero in a physical, face-to-face conference. Even when video comes into play, via Skype, it is amazing how some people think that the same rules do not apply to virtual meetings as apply to physical meetings. I recall making a Skype presentation before a local tourism association in another region of the country a few years ago. As I started my presentation, the camera showed one of the committee members to whom I was speaking with her eyes closed, proceeding to take a nap. I was understandably offended.

The important point from all of this is that we always need to be aware of the trade-offs when we embrace a “new and improved” technology to substitute for direct human interaction.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews, Reviewed

January 31st, 2016

Recent outdoor hospitality conferences in Daytona Beach presented me with an opportunity to stay at area hotels, dine at area restaurants, and visit area attractions during the course of two stays in town. For nearly 10 years, I have been an active reviewer on the TripAdvisor website, and I have come to rely upon TripAdvisor as a reliable source of peer reviews. I like to think that I write honest reviews, and I appreciate that same honesty in other reviewers. To date, I have written 120 reviews, 49.2% of which have given “excellent” ratings and 27.5% of which have given “good” ratings. My reviews provide business owners with wonderful opportunities to obtain valuable consumer feedback. Occasionally, business owners are incapable of accepting constructive criticism, and that is their loss. When they react with an over-the-top, non-objective management response, they are truly missing the point of the entire process.

One recent experience illustrates my point. When my wife and I stayed in Daytona Beach for a few days at the end of the KOA Expo, we visited an attraction that TripAdvisor rates as #1 out of 71 “things to do” in the nearby city of DeLand. We were disappointed in this historic house tour, felt that the tour was overcrowded, and considered it overpriced. What particularly bothered me – and aroused my suspicions regarding the validity of the attraction’s rating – was the way that the tour guide came right out and asked people to submit TripAdvisor reviews, followed two days later by an e-mail from one of the owners, again asking for a TripAdvisor review. I definitely had the impression that a ballot box was being stuffed.

Of course, I felt compelled to share my experience with others on TripAdvisor, particularly since I thought that the attraction’s #1 rating was highly misleading. I went out of my way to be objective and sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of the owners, quite generously giving it a three-star (“fair”) rating that I carefully documented. Prior to writing my review, I noticed how the owners of the attraction responded to every review on TripAdvisor, and how any reviewer who did not give the attraction an “excellent” rating was essentially attacked in one way or another. I was prepared for an assault but would not be intimidated. In my case, I was told that I had “baffled” and “insulted” them with my “false claims”, and that I was obviously an “angry” person.

Other reviews received management responses that were far more offensive. Here are some samples culled from various management responses: “Your comments are unsubstantiated and more importantly not true.” “Your comments are completely false and hurtful.” “I have contacted TA to handle your harassment, (and) your hateful attempt to try and discredit us is sad at best. You should be ashamed of yourself.” “Your ‘Poor’ rating is suspicious at best.” “For someone to go out of there (sic) way to give false feedback with the intent to hurt a small business owner is sad and actually difficult for me to comprehend.”

As you can see, some small business owners cannot be objective when handling criticisms of the businesses which are often extensions of themselves. That is understandable, but it is important to put subjectivity aside and recognize that, in the vast majority of instances, a negative review is providing valuable input regarding improvements that you should consider making.

When you have the opportunity to respond to a negative review, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Listen to what the reviewer has to say. Try to be as subjective as possible, putting your ego aside. The review is not a personal attack upon your reputation (even if you think that it is.)
  2. Empathize, introduce a positive factor into the conversation, and apologize if necessary. An apology is not an admission of guilt but simply a polite acknowledgement that the reviewer had less than a perfect experience involving your business.
  3. Try to take the conversation offline. Not long ago, I posted on Facebook how I was dissatisfied when an energy audit contractor failed to show up for a scheduled appointment. The organization saw that it had been mentioned on Facebook, responding by asking me to contact them privately with my telephone number. Offline, they apologized and re-scheduled the appointment for the following day. Any damage was under control.
  4. Despite the urgency of responding quickly, before posting a response to an online review, always run it by another set of eyes. Too often, in the absence of body language and tone of voice, a response with the best of intentions might sound condescending or even sarcastic. Remember that you are trying to rectify a situation, not make it worse.

It is important to separate yourself from your business, to keep your cool, and to try to treat every review as a learning experience. If you do not like what you are reading, avoid the temptation to take things personally and as an opportunity for retaliation. Respond following the guidelines above, and then move on. Put on your big boy pants and get on with the responsibilities of running your business to succeed within the best of your capabilities.

Note: Since originally writing this post, I have continued to receive e-mails from one of the owners of the attraction in DeLand, again asking me to write a positive review on TripAdvisor. (Apparently, they do not mind spamming their customers in their pursuit of TripAdvisor reviews.) Another e-mail arrived more recently, urging its recipients to e-mail the producers of CBS Sunday Morning to ask them to do a feature story on the attraction.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Free Yourself from Technology

January 20th, 2016

Yes, you read it right. Am I speaking blasphemy? Maybe not. I am currently reading an excellent book titled “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” by Sherry Turkle, and it is about how smartphones, texting, and social media like Twitter and Facebook have destroyed our ability to carry on emotional and intellectual conversations. In the words of the author, “Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” An entire generation of us, dominated by those under the age of 30, is uncomfortable with the unfamiliar concept of carrying on a direct conversation that involves eye contact, inflection, body language, and emotion.

We have grown accustomed to substituting ALL CAPS for subtle inflections, acronyms like LOL for a smile or a laugh, avatars for our faces, and emoticons for our emotions. Facebook encourages us to only post comments that will be broadly “liked”, discouraging any sort of intelligent discourse or exchange of opinions with anyone who is not like-minded. The fact is that we all have much to learn, in a respectful way, from people with beliefs and opinions that differ from our own.

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In the camping experience – built upon the concept of providing people with an opportunity to get away from their routines and to commune with a more natural environment – one of the single most highly demanded amenities is high-speed Internet access. The lion’s share of my own business is the development of mobile-friendly campground websites, ensuring that campers can learn everything possible about a park using nothing but their smartphones or tablets. Camping tends to mirror society itself, and somewhere along the line society has gone astray.

As school systems nationwide have been in a mad rush to see which of whom can install more computer classrooms faster than their peers, it may surprise some readers to learn about the growth of technology-free schools in America’s computer capital, Silicon Valley. That’s right. Back in 2011, the New York Times reported how educational alternatives like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Silicon Valley, had a student body that consisted of the children of executives from eBay, Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. It has also been widely reported how Steve Jobs limited his children’s access to technology at home, and how many of the other icons of technology follow the same course.

In fact, one of the latest trends in summer camps (those second cousins of family campgrounds) is the development of technology-free camping, sometimes referred to as “tech detox” camps. Mind you, these summer camps are available not only for kids but for adults, hundreds of whom are willing to pay dearly for the opportunity to put aside their cell phones for a week. There is clearly a demand for device-free vacations. In fact, one of my childhood friends (with whom I am connected on Facebook, of course) just posted last week, “I wonder if there is a place on earth where there is no cell phone service, no Facebook, no TV, no computers … I would go to that place for one week and do nothing but read, write, rest, and get away (just for a while) from this maddening crowd we live within.” Is there a campground ready to step up to the plate?

There was a recent discussion on the Campground Success LinkedIn Group that I moderate, initiated by a campground owner who wondered whether or not there might be a viable market for a pet-free campground. The general consensus was that there might be risks in suddenly implementing a pet-free policy, particularly when so many of us treat our pets like our own children; however, there is likely a demand for such an alternative. (I would consider it a far lesser risk if I was running a campground that was surrounded by 20 other parks in the immediate area, rather than a park where my nearest competitor was 50 miles away.) I believe that the time has also come for a few brave souls to experiment with running a technology-free campground, maybe testing the waters with a technology-free weekend. (Imagine the free publicity that you could garner in the press!)

This would have to be planned well in advance, before accepting reservations from any campers with conventional expectations. Campers would agree to leave their cell phones at home or locked away and to put away their satellite dishes. The park would shut down its wi-fi routers, pull the cable on TV service, and plan an entire weekend of activities and events that will allow campers to get to know one another – and to get to know themselves – like they used to do in the “good old days”. Let’s face it: Camping is the perfect setting and environment for tech-free activities and non-activities alike! You could offer things like a book exchange, an acoustic music jam session, nightly group campfires, nature walks, parent and child activities, and a Sunday morning service with a tech-free homily.

Sure, there are issues that would need to be addressed. What do you do about seasonal campers who do not want to participate? What do you do about people who do not easily withdraw from their technology addiction? Those are minor challenges that can be easily overcome. Think of the first restaurants years ago that toyed with the idea of going smoke-free. Today it is almost unheard of to find a restaurant in the United States that allows smoking, and we are all better off for the change.

Who will be the first to step up to the challenge? Without explorers who risked sailing into uncharted waters, we might still believe that the world was flat. Just think of what you might accomplish. If the lessons learned at your tech-free weekend lead to just one family that returns to having dinner together each evening without the distractions of cell phones and TV, you will have just accomplished far more than you had ever intended.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Big Things Are Happening at RV Park Reviews

January 10th, 2016

The following post is based upon an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, and the owner of the RV Park Reviews website. The interview was conducted by Peter Pelland in July of 2015 and originally published in the November 2015 issue of Woodall’s Campground Management.

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Let’s face it: The typical small business owner likes consumer review sites about as well as fingernails scratching on a chalkboard or tooth extraction without anesthesia. That disdain is generally unfounded. Yes, there are certainly instances when somebody with an axe to grind exploits the opportunity to try to inflict harm upon a business, but most readers of mean-spirited reviews are smart enough to read between the lines (and the usual spelling mistakes).

Smart small business owners look at consumer reviews in the aggregate and in an objective manner, recognizing the valuable feedback that the reviews provide. Big companies designate significant sums of money toward market research, employing focus groups, product sampling, surveys and many other costly tools. Whether somebody is thanking you for something that was done right, or pointing out an area where there is room for improvement, think of each review as free market research data that should influence decisions about how to run your business more successfully. Particularly when a comment or observation is expressed repeatedly, it should never be dismissed as simply an individual opinion. Reviewers are generally influencers, predicting future trends as effectively as canaries in coal mines.

The Campground Industry

Campground review sites are nothing new; however, they are growing in influence and becoming far more versatile as the sites add features and functionality designed to meet the needs of both campers and campground owners. While some review sites have stagnated a bit, and while TripAdvisor wastes valuable time deciding when to add a dedicated “Campgrounds” navigational tab, the RV Park Reviews website is undergoing some major improvements that need to be on your radar.

RV Park Reviews originated back in 2000 and has grown into perhaps the most significant contender among review sites that are specific to the campground industry. The site was acquired by Social Knowledge LLC, a Dallas-based company, in the fall of 2013, and the new owners are more focused than ever on meeting both the needs of the site’s readers and individual campground owners. They have shared both documentation and their vision for the future with me.

Over the past year, RV Park Reviews has reached nearly 6,000,000 unique users, 95% of whom were located in the United States. Both user and session numbers are up roughly 20% over the previous year, and a similar rate of growth is anticipated going forward. With well over 200,000 existing reviews, far more people are turning to the site to conduct research prior to choosing a park destination than are turning to the site specifically to write a review. (This serves to disprove the “axe-grinder” theory!) These users spend a considerable amount of time visiting multiple pages per session, considering the experiences of others while looking for campgrounds like yours. With over 30,000,000 page views over the past year, doing the math will suggest that the average review has been read over 150 times in the past year alone.

In an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, I gained some insight into what the site is currently offering to campground owners, as well as some of the added functionality that will be introduced this fall.

PLP: What sets RV Park Reviews apart from other campground review websites?

AR: Our contributors, the scale of our readership, campground coverage, and amenity data are what set us apart. We tend to have more reviews per campground than other websites. Our readership has now grown to more than 6 million readers annually. About 25% of our readers return on a regular basis, indicating how the site is very popular.

PLP: What do you say to campground owners who see review sites as forums for people with an axe to grind, and what do you do to try to prevent that from happening?

AR: It’s a valid concern. We address this issue in a few ways with our policies. We also provide readers with tools to help them to better decide which reviews they want to trust, and soon we will be giving the campground owners the ability to respond to reviews, so they will have a voice as well.

To help our readers decide which reviews to trust, we recently added the rating distributions of each reviewer so someone can see if a contributor tends to only leave negative reviews. Alternatively, if you see a user who has lots of reviews with most of them being positive, then a single really bad review, you might take that into consideration in deciding whether to trust the review or not.

Going back to the axe grinders, our analysis shows that these types of issues are rare, with the vast majority of our reviews being positive. Regardless, we have a policy that requires a user to have at least two reviews approved before either will be shown on our website. This prevents people from creating an account to publish a single negative review. Most disgruntled customers never take the time to submit additional reviews. We also require reviewers to meet our Review Guidelines so they can’t just rant about poor service. We moderate all submissions from new users before they are published. Based on our historical information, we suspect less than 1 in 100 reviews are from disgruntled customers.

PLP: Do you encourage campground owners to ask their campers to write reviews?

AR: Yes, I would recommend that campground owners ask their campers to leave reviews. The more reviews you have, the better the odds that readers will get an accurate feeling for a campground where they have not previously stayed. It also helps establish a larger base for the ratings. For example, if you only have two reviews, an 8 and a 10 mean you had an average rating of 9. Then, if someone leaves a review with the rating of 6, your average falls to 8. If you have 7 reviews with an average of 9 and someone leaves a 6, your average will not change. Having more reviews is better for consumers and better for campgrounds.

PLP: You mentioned that campground owners will soon be able to directly respond to reviews. I know that Management Responses have been a key feature of TripAdvisor. Could you elaborate on what you have planned?

AR: This fall we will be rolling out a new feature called the Campground Owner’s Interface. Among other components, this interface will allow campground owners to respond to reviews. This will give campground owners a voice, allowing them to tell their side of a story so readers can use both perspectives when deciding whether to trust a review or not.

Keep in mind that review volume is important to help give more perspectives to readers. Campgrounds with lots of reviews are able to water down any negative effects from a disgruntled client. If you have 9 great reviews from happy customers and 1 negative review, it’s pretty easy for readers to see the trend.

PLP: If this is rolling out in the fall, how can campground owners get a jump start on joining the program?

AR: We highly encourage campground owners to claim their campgrounds. This fall, when the Campground Owner’s Interface is online, campground owners (or management) will then be able to manage their amenities, set their hours of operation, respond to reviews, and more. We’ll even e-mail them whenever new reviews are posted so they will know to respond in a timely manner.

PLP: What will be some additional features?

AR: We will also have a widget available so campground owners can showcase their positive reviews. Campground owners will be in control of what is shown on the widget so they can customize it to their needs. For example, if they want to show only snippets of 4 or 5 star reviews, they can set it to do that. If they don’t want to show any reviews, they can do that as well (and just link to their profile). By adding the widget to their site, a park owner makes it easy for their clients to leave reviews. We strongly suggest installing this on the campground’s website to get more reviews and help with search engine optimization as well.

Given an advance peek at what is coming, I can tell readers that there will also be tools that will allow campground owners to access their statistics at the RV Park Reviews website, keeping track of reviews, page views and more. They will also be able to directly update their seasonal dates, hours of operation, amenities and other campground information, keeping up-to-date and helping potential visitors. The amenities listing will include information that may be vital to some visitors in their decision-making process. For example, whether or not the park has cellular phone service, and if so, which cellular service providers have a signal available; whether or not the park offers wi-fi, listing the fee if applicable; and whether or not the park has showers, again listing whether or not there is an associated fee for that service.

To get started, go to the RV Park Reviews website at http://rvparkreviews.com, find your park by choosing your state and city from the alphabetical listing to the left of the map or by using the search box at the top of the page. When you find your park’s listing, click on the “View Campground Details” link. On the next page, click on the “Own this Campground? / Claim it and Unlock Features” link. Enter your name, e-mail address, phone number, and whether you are the campground’s owner, manager or employee, and you will be notified prior to the rollout of the new features.

When it comes to technology, early adopters usually benefit the most. The RV Park Reviews website is already sending you significant volumes of traffic. Make it work to your park’s maximum advantage. My recommendation is to get on board!

This post was written by Peter Pelland