Sunday, December 20, 2009

What do fake hamsters have in common with food sales?

I ran across this article today and thought it was worth sharing. It's about Toys 'R Us and their approach during the economic downturn. While they're certainly much different than ZMO in many ways, their CEO's take on managing during the downturn dovetailed with a lot of what I think is important.

The merchandise is what people want. If it's fun and interesting and good, people will buy it. Focus on that.

Don't get lured into fighting price battles. That's a zero sum game.

Innovate. Be exciting. Do things your customers don't expect. When things are bad, try to figure out how to give more service, not less.

Don't be dour and constantly tout "recession special" bunk. It's depressing. No one wants to buy anything from someone who's depressing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

ZMO Alumni: Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson probably hates that I used this as his picture.

The holiday rush is here, like it is every year. It always brings a surge of amazing, unexpected people to our business. I’ve met some of you this year and it’s no different—what a cool bunch of folks you are. There have been so many fabulous people come work for us during the holiday it’s hard to even comprehend. Many have stayed. Jackie and Brad, for example. They were some of our first holiday staff. I remember that I was late to Jackie’s interview. I remember that because she never lets me forget it. Brad — I never remember interviewing. It’s like Brad was always here.

I thought I would share a little ZMO history with at least one alumni profile this holiday. It may seem a little personal for the biz blog but I think it shares a sense of the spirit we’ve always had. Plus it’s a peek back in history at a company that, not long ago, was much more tiny and fragile than it is now. 

Robert Johnson
on the phones circa 1995-6

When I hired Robert everyone called him Bob. It was 1995. It was near Christmas. In the dark basement of my brain I knew that I needed help to run Mail Order for the holiday. At that time we were a staff of two. We would need two or three more—at least! It wasn’t until late November that the light turned on and I realized I needed to post, interview, hire, know, that kind of stuff. Frankly I’ve never been a terrific planner.

I called Bob because I knew him as a friend of a friend. More importantly, I knew he’d worked in phone sales. Being an, ahem, business man, I calculated his experience would help cut my training expenses (which were also unplanned for). His experience came from a previous company, name unknown. To call it phone sales might have been a stretch. Bob’s employer wasn’t exactly a legitimate organization. Telemarketing of some sort, positioned as "donations." It was basically one of those companies that the national Do Not Call registry was created for. I remember a line he used to give  little old ladies who asked him if he worked for the fire department: “Well, I’m sure not a policeman!” I knew Bob was recently unemployed. He had told me recently that he was walking to work in Ypsilanti, coffee in hand, saw a newspaper with a headline announcing a police raid on his employer, turned around and headed home.

Bob worked two holidays at ZMO. In between he sold cheese at the deli with Debra Dickerson. At the holiday, equipment-wise, we were pathetic. We had two ten dollar touch tone phones from K Mart. Our voice mail system consisted of three fifteen dollar answering machines from someplace worse. No 1-800 number. The fax was at Zingerman’s deli, across the street, and it was always running out of paper. We’d forget it was there for a day or two.

All I remember from those two seasons was my phone plastered to my ear all day, non-stop. Never a break, almost nothing to eat. Bob and I were the entire sales office. When we caught our breath and were off the phone at the same time we'd be in a daze and couldn’t think straight. Our conversation was childlike and profane, like a dirty Dr Seuss book. “Mo, Did you get the fax from Fox?” “No, but I just got the shit from Mr Schatz!”

When we closed at 5pm we hit play on the boom box, took a 10 minute break, then rang back all the voice mails. By 7 or 8 it was all over. Oh, except for the pick sheets. We wrote those by hand and it took half the night. 

Like many of the folks working in the service center now Bob had a fan club. He has a deeper voice than I do and I think there were people who called just to listen. Before he left he gave me advice about working the phones that I’ve never forgotten, but, for obvious reasons, hasn’t made it into our training manual. “Mo, the secret to great service is just talk to everyone like you want to have sex with them. Woman or man, doesn’t matter. Everyone.”

In 1997, Bob moved to New York. He worked at Murray’s Cheese in the Village and walked quarter wheels of Parmigiano around the corner to a young chef named Mario Batali, who was really starting to make it at a restaurant named Pó. After that he worked in one of those atrociously-named internet start-ups circa 2000. His stock shares went in the shitter, like everyone else’s.

Soon afterwards Bob got into the music business and he’s stayed there ever since. For years he worked at The Knitting Factory, a great little 3-stage club in lower Manhattan. At this point I should probably say I love rock and roll and everything about it so it has been awesome to stay in touch with Bob and, once in a while, get a chance to sneak into some great sold-out shows.

For the last three years Bob has worked with a partner in his own company called Scenic. He books rock shows for clubs in New York, mainly in Brooklyn. Some cute tiny shows like the Trachtenberg Family Slide Show Players. Some old punk bands like Fear. Some unknown heavy metal bands with moody names like Unearthly Trance. Some up and coming stars like Kurt Vile. And once in a while, some bonafide stars like Andrew W.K. and Big Star. (Andrew W.K. is from Ann Arbor and played a recent Scenic show in a Fleetwood Diner shirt.)

Whenever I see Bob, I try to remember to bring him a brownie. He still says Zingerman’s was the best job he ever had. (I barely believe him, but it was fun.) Now he is his own boss, which is something I hope everyone gets to try one day. If nothing else, for meeting awesome people like him.