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Competition Redefined – Lessons from Wesabe’s Demise

Posted on October 11, 2010 by Sean

Competition breeds excellence and we all enjoy the fruits of the fight. It brings us better phones and better food and better experiences at (usually) better prices. Without competition we might not have Android smartphone software or the Macbook or the commoditized coffee chain from which I write this blog.

There are two groups of winners in any competitive arena, first and most obvious - the winner of the event, whether it’s a sports team who won the series or start-up who secured the most VC interest. The second group of winners is us - the market, those for whom the gadget was designed, for whom the game was played. If the winning team is at the receiving end of millions (or billions?) of dollars, we’re at the receiving end of a product polished, edited and refined by the competitive process; and for us, the more brutal the competition, the better.

In his post-mortem essay, “Why Wesabe Lost to Mint” Wesabe co-creator, Marc Hedlund responds to speculations surrounding the Wesabe vs. Mint competition, and debunks several misunderstandings associated with Wesabe’s eventual acquiescence.

If you haven’t used or heard of either, both Wesabe and Mint were/are personal finance web-applications. In his essay, Hedlund makes his intentions clear. “I prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior for the better, which I believed required people to more closely work with and understand their data” he says.  A noble pursuit, to be sure, but in the end, not enough.

It wasn’t the name.  Hedlund mentions several examples of screwy-names-turned-profitable, listing Google, Yahoo and Amazon (I might also submit Hulu). While the term “mint” helps conjure images of fortresses full of gold bars or the literal creation of money, Wesabe supplements bland sushi. No matter, he says, it wasn’t the name that held them back.

And it wasn’t the timing, either. According to Hedlund, Wesabe had nearly a 10 month head-start on Mint. In the world of all-night programming binges and instant market feedback, 10 months is an eternity. While he admits that there are some advantages in not being first (learning from competition missteps, free market research etc.) it is generally valuable to be the first to market. Wesabe was first and they still failed.

“Most people simply won't care enough or get enough benefit from long-term features if a shorter-term alternative is available” Hedlund concedes. As someone deeply interested in personal finance (and well-versed in the usefulness of web-apps) I’ve tried both services and found Hedlund’s hypothesis true, without question. While Wesabe might have yielded the most permanent results (Long-term personal finance improvement) I never got past the myriad of fields and required data-entry. Simply put, Wesabe was too hard to use.

Mint, at the other end of the spectrum, might be too simplistic to effect real change. Yes, it gives me a nice macroscopic view of my finances. It sends me emails when I am approaching my determined budget-limit in certain financial categories. It’s effective in that regard, but I believe long-term, sustainable personal finance goals are met when the user develops responsibility and discipline - qualities likely to come through a series of repeated micro decisions. The sad irony is that while Hedlund and I are simpatico in this regard, he is the co-founder of an out-of-business personal finance enterprise and I am the user of a semi-ineffective personal finance web application.

In my experience, most of us slave over branding issues and domain name ideas and spend too much time doubled-over and panting with exhaustion trying to beat the competition to market. Mint wasn’t first, and yet they won because they gave us what we wanted.  Maybe it’s time to consider what the user actually wants, rather than what we want them to want.

For now, I’ll just check my email and make sure it’s okay to buy another cup of coffee.


Little Giant has been hard at work engineering pumps that their most loyal customers have been waiting for. is your destination for the new Little Giant TSW Sump Pump System and their NXTGen Condensate Pumps.

Oh, Those Customers – Five Great Customer Responses

Posted on June 17, 2010 by Sean

Here at – we love customers. No, seriously – we love our customers. Working in Customer Service gives us the opportunity - nay, privilege to interact with literally thousands of personalities each month.

It’s awesome.

From time to time, we get together to discuss the “gems” we’ve accumulated throughout our months of helping customers. We gather in the conference room and swap stories like baseball cards. Here’s a few we’ve collected from our recent “gem-jam.”

1) Customer responded to his account update email with the Taco Bell nutritional value menu.

Our customer was either hungry or set on proselytizing the nutritional values (or lack thereof) of delicious and convenient Mexican fare.

2) On St. Patrick’s day – a wonderful Irish customer bid Hannah adieu by sending her off with a traditional Irish blessing.

 “May those who love us, love us,
  And those who don't love us,
  May God turn their hearts
  And if he can't turn their hearts,
  May he turn their ankles
  So we will know them by their limping!”

3) A valued customer used "A as in abstinence." To better clarify the spelling of his name.

    I think we’ll leave it at that.

4) A customer once asked if we delivered to the moon. We informed him that we shipped primarily with UPS and sadly, the moon was outside of their delivery area.

5) "Thank you for calling this is Joelle"..."what’s your name?"..."Joelle"...."What?"....'My name is Joelle"...."Your name is Jello?"...."No, Joelle"....."Oh whatever I don’t even care, YOU SENT ME A BROKEN TUB..."

Personally – I think Jello makes every situation better.


Little Giant has been hard at work engineering pumps that their most loyal customers have been waiting for. is your destination for the new Little Giant TSW Sump Pump System and their NXTGen Condensate Pumps.

Incomplete Evaluations Lead to Hasty Decisions

Posted on February 22, 2010 by Archives

We live in a culture of information overload. If you’re reading this online (with certainty, you are) you understand that there are several programs or websites running in the background vying for your attention. This overload is a reality that forces each of us to constantly make hasty decisions about the meaning and importance of the information surging at us everyday.

The problem with this is that many times, due to the haste and lack of complete visibility, we make the wrong decision. In this process, we're given only a few seconds to decide that one item, idea or issue carries more weight than another.

We skim through important documents and speed through 15-second sound bites to decide which products we buy, which celebrity we admire and which political party we support.

As a customer service representative, I see the consequences of this information overload on a daily basis. A customer who thought that reading through our returns policy was not that big of a deal is upset about a restocking fee. Someone who based a purchasing decision on a picture rather than reading through the product description has (inadvertently) ordered the wrong item. Maybe they overlooked the stated lead-time on an item and are forced to extend an important deadline, all kinds of conflict that could have been avoided.

Though I see the results of cursory information evaluation, I am not guiltless of doing the same thing.  In a world where a tide of new information is crashing down on us at 7 megabytes per second, it is hard to keep your head above water. I confess to having hastily agreed to a fair share of returns policies before reading them through. Who has the time (or professional training) to decipher the foreign legalese anyway?

Someone very wise has told me that the foundation of business and sales is not only to convince a customer of the need for your product, but to convince them that it is easier to live with it than without it.

So, I might suggest that we take the same approach to presenting critical information. How do we make relevant information easier to have than not to have? It is easy to argue that information-- returns policies, terms and conditions, shipping information --is already easily accessible, which is true. But is it easier to have than not to have? I do not presume to have an answer to the great question of how to educate the masses for our own good. But, I’m happy to join in the conversation.

Meet Tom Wujec. This year at the TED conference he discussed just how it is that our fickle minds create meaning.

Maybe if we start with an understanding of how we work, we can figure out how to make it easier to live educated than it is to suffer the consequences of the uninformed.


Want Your Company to Succeed? Find Customers Who do Too

Posted on November 10, 2009 by Sean

Too often, and through no malicious intent, companies lose sight of their customers interests. In many company war rooms, you’ll find brilliant people bunkered in the back of the building burning through notepads and hallucinating from the noxious fumes of dry-erase markers. Fight plans are drafted and pricing structures are in place. But, ultimately, none of this matters if your customers are not on board. You cannot “go live” in a ghost town.

We’ve all had the impossible call with customer service or have wanted to set fire to stacks of unnecessary rebate paperwork (and sometimes ourselves.)  And there are companies that exploit the working poor in order to generate heftier profits. Bad business is all around us - I’m quite sure there are examples of companies you’d like to see fold. But, successful businesses have customers that support their success. Why would your customers want you to succeed?

Prices, the basest of all customer/company dynamic, and ultimately the cheapest (pardon the pun.) Your prices may keep your customer base, but if your service, brand and quality do not provide a similar value, your customers will eventually tire of “selling” their consumer dignity. Your customers will want you to succeed, but only as long as your prices make it worth it. If you know someone who would still shop at Wal-Mart if they raised prices, I’d like to meet them…On second thought, I’m busy that day.

Your brand (see also: Bragging Rights.) Customers are made up largely of human beings, and my anthropology professor told me that despite our best efforts, humans are emotionally dependent creatures. We seek validation and approval from others, if your company is one that connotes status or promotes a definite image, your branding is a reason your customers want you to succeed. Oftentimes, the more lucrative your brand, the higher the value of its emotional “stock.” Need proof? The iPhone has ego-boosted its way through a record-setting recession.

Because you defend them. Backwards right? But it is a rare occasion that customers defend their brand first. Companies defend their customers by knowing who they are, giving them what they want, and improving their quality of life. Defend customers from your competitors who might not have their sustainable interests in mind. Understand their humanity; share it, rather than exploit it.

The “forest for the trees” metaphor is dripping in apropos. All of the ingenuity in the world will not matter to you if your customers don’t.

Little Giant has been hard at work engineering pumps that their most loyal customers have been waiting for. is your destination for the new Little Giant TSW Sump Pump System and their NXTGen Condensate Pumps.

Policy Updates: Who Reads the Policies Anyways?

Posted on March 24, 2009 by Zach

Recently, we had some interns helping us review our policy pages. Overall both I and the interns thought it was a pretty interesting project and we will certainly be making some necessary changes to our policies. Specific changes include: making our policies more readable, more user friendly, and displaying the most valuable information in an easy to read layout.

Before we set out on this project we knew that our policies had not been updated in a while, and we were interested in how we stacked up against competitors and other Internet retailers.  We focused on what was displayed in others policies, the terms of their policies and how strictly they where enforced. We also paid particular attention to what was enforced and why some policies seemed more flexible than others, and of those policies which ones were clear sticking points for merchants. With that in mind we decided that our onslaught of interns would be perfect for the job of researching website policies and providing us with some recommendations.

Throughout the entire process I had to combat the question, "who reads the policies anyways?” and I had to explain that it’s true, most people do not read the policies, upfront.  What the interns needed to understand was that the policies contain essential pieces of information which need to be made public and available to our users regardless of what point in the buying cycle the customer decides to read or review them. While someone may not care what the returns process is upfront, you know they certainly care if they get the wrong product, a damaged product or simply do not like what they ordered. Clear and concise information regarding how to contact us, answers to common questions, order status, return a product, terms of use, privacy information etc., needs to be available.

Having this information is not only important, legally, but it is also important to keep transparency between our staff and consumers.  When imperative information is made public upfront it ensures that we are properly servicing our customers and in turn giving them the ability to serve themselves.


The Christmas Retail Season in Review Part 2: Lessons Learned in Resourcing for the Unexpected

Posted on January 14, 2009 by Josh

An interesting thing happened at the Gordian Project this Christmas. We had Christmas shoppers! This may not sound too startling, considering Christmas just passed, but this year's Christmas crowd was different from years passed. In March of 2008, Gordian Project launched This Christmas, with, we've uncovered some really great opportunities for good solutions.

For a few years, with, we had successfully navigated Christmas shopping without too much disruption to normal work and without the need to significantly augment our staffing or resources in customer service. With the addition of, however, we were facing an entirely new animal. I have worked in retail before. I remember the days when I worked at the Gateway Country store selling computers to people who lined up like cows at Christmas. It was busy, it was crazy, and gifts flew out the door. But customers that came into our store at least knew that when our door was closed, we couldn't be much help to them. Even though Gateway was, at the time, a multichannel retailer, I didn't see much in the way of integration of the different customer bases (online vs. walk-in traffic). The customers’ expectations were, I'm sure, very different about how Christmas gift orders should be handled. This year, with, we learned about the customer expectation during a busy holiday on a site that offers more gift-oriented wares. gets busier in November and December with folks dressing up their homes to be ready for Christmas. We also sell some items that could be gift items, like a nice shower head, a towel warmer or a nice drill/saw combo.  But, for some reason, customers seem to plan really well for the holiday. customers, on the other hand, have a very different up front expectation. Customers want a really great deal, they want to know what is in stock or what the lead time is going to be.  They want to know when it will ship and how long it will take to get to them, they want tracking information when it ships, or a backorder update when it doesn't ship.  They want it to be guaranteed because it's a Christmas gift. These are completely reasonable expectations and, for us, really great opportunities to improve. If you control 100% of your inventory and fulfillment, envisioning solutions to these customer needs are easily in focus. If, however, you control only some or none of your inventory and fulfillment and rely on strategic partners, and you haven't worked out solutions to the above customer pains, you may be due for some lumps around Christmas.

Also, our volume of inquiries for our property easily quadrupled for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. It was not unexpected that our volume would balloon, but we didn't expect the kind of volume we were getting in terms of customer inquiries. It's a week into January 2009 and I can see our inquiry volume back at October levels. Concurrent with our unexpected explosion of the volume of inquiries were some staffing issues. We had some personnel changes for various reasons. A number of factors contributed to a poor staffing situation and we ended up providing a poor customer experience to a number of customers who had to wait extra time for a reply to voicemails and emails (this is my public apology... I am truly sorry to any and all that were forced to wait.). We did come together as a team and even pulled some resources from other departments to get the job done, but it's no excuse for not properly resourcing the customer service department during the busiest time of year. It's not easy to find and train qualified reps in a short amount of time, so we should have done this long before.

We found that when working with customers whose orders were filled by one of our strategic partners, we hadn't planned well enough for meeting the above customer needs on those orders. This coupled with our poor resourcing of the customer service department and we had not prepared well for a busier-than-expected Christmas season. I will chalk it up to "lesson learned" and plan for the extreme rush for our next Christmas season. This is going to be especially important as we expand our offering and even launch new sites with more gift-oriented products.


The Christmas Retail Season in Review Part 1: Online Shopping Tips for Planning and Order Placement

Posted on January 14, 2009 by Archives

In light of the Christmas season just passing, my customer service team and I experienced a high volume of unhappy and "angry" customers.
The majority of the customer frustrations came from last minute shopping. Orders were placed with the expectation that the products would be received on a specific day. To the surprise of the customer some items would not be in stock and some would even be on back order, due to the amount of popular items being purchased. As you can imagine, when customers found out the item(s) on their order were not in stock, the typical response was "This was a Christmas gift, and you guys have messed it up."
In our customer service department we strive to do the best with what tools we have and what has been made available to us. Everyone works their hardest and to the best of their ability. But we have all realized that in the online world of shopping, to customers, a lot of times that is not good enough. Customers who shop online seem to have a higher expectation of great customer service, and every year the bar they set seems to rise.  I hate to see unhappy customers and I sometimes want to let them know that their situation could have been avoided if they would have just read the description of the product, read our shipping and returns policies and planned their orders appropriately.  Yet, in the midst of their dismay I don’t say these things because in all honesty I really do want to make them happy and hopefully resolve whatever issue they may be encountering.

As a customer service representative, at times it can become very stressful and discouraging when you are continually dealing with "angry" or "unhappy" customers, day after day. I mean regardless of how many customers that amounts to every week, even if it is only one, that customer situation sticks with you far longer than the customer that emails to say “thank you”.  Its human nature and it can be hard to shake off.  Here at Gordian Project all of our reps have taken this challenge in stride, and they do their best, every time, to help the customer as much as they can. We see it as an area to improve and do better, if we did not, we would eventually become defeated. Not just as a company and department, but emotionally as well.
I have wondered how many of our actual customers read our blog, especially the customer service section? There are plenty of articles written on what a customer should look out for when making an online purchase, but not many that give tips on actually planning your purchases.  After making a list of the most common complaints and frustrations our customer’s experience, I thought I would write down a few ways of avoiding such frustrations.  I settled on a list of a few tips for any consumer who is considering making an online purchase, especially a purchase that will be needed by a certain date.
Tip 1:
Keep track of your account information and log in to check order status. Most websites, including ours, make it easy for you to see the status of your order by simply logging in to an account. A lot of customers get angry waiting on hold to check status of their order and do not realize they can find it themselves by logging into their account.
Tip 2:
Call centers experience high call volumes, especially during the holidays, even with increased staffing. As a consumer, if you are unable to get through, leave a voicemail, and you will generally be called back within one business day. Many customers get upset because they continue to hold, or instead try to continually call, hang up and keep calling back. If you do not need an immediate answer and can wait a business day, leaving a voicemail will save you call and wait time.
Tip 3:
Using our LivePerson live chat feature is one of our greatest tools. Customers can chat with an online rep who will assist them in real time and in the same exact way a rep will on the phones. Many customers think they must speak to someone on the phone to get an answer, when in reality they will get the same exact service via our live chat feature.
Tip 4:
I would say this is my greatest tip to any customer, whether you are our customer or shopping elsewhere. Read the returns policy.
I will admit I never really read or paid attention to any company's or stores return policy until I started working here. You can bet that I do now, and I actually do read them, even if I only scan through the important points.
I would say a good percentage of our customers fail to read our returns policy, this creates stress and trouble for not only the customer but the representative as well. We want to help customers in any way we can, but in all reality, there are policies we have to stick to.
It makes us very happy and encourages us when a customer calls and says, I read your return policy which states "X, Y, and Z", is there anything you can do for me? This shows the customer understands our policies and is asking for some type of exception. At which point we try and do what we can to help them or come to a solution that favors both the company and customer. As a customer please understand there are some policies we simply cannot break or make an exception to, but we will try our best. This is why it is always best to read companies return policy.

There are definitely areas that retailers can improve on, us included, but as someone who sees both sides of the equation as an online consumer and an online customer service representative, it is my hope that these tips not only assist the consumer but the customer service representative as well.


JQuery, AJAX and Other Buzzwords That Can Scare Away Customers

Posted on January 8, 2009 by Archives

Lately over here at the Surplus we’ve been focused on a lot of internal development to better streamline our processes, interactions with customers and suppliers, and other types of projects that add value to us as an organization but remain invisible to our customers. However, we have been looking ahead to this year’s development projects and have plans to do a lot of work on what we call “Customer Experience”.

With this focus, I’ve been poking around, looking for ideas and the technologies that may support some of the cooler features we may want to implement. In a post Web 2.0 world, we are looking for things that really add value to the customer, not just every cool little gadget, widget or flashy thing that might look cool.

One topic that has been particular warm in the online developer community as of late is the pros and cons of the new interactivity features as well as the tools used to develop them (read: AJAX, JQuery, javascript). In an effort to make the web work much more like a desktop application, developers are using more and more sophisticated techniques to push data back and forth without the user noticing. This provides much more real time feedback to the user, as well as adds a lot of functionality and makes interacting with the internet a lot more convenient with fewer time-wasting page reloads.

Take, for example, a familiar concept I’m sure you’ve seen and used yourself, what we call the “Product Selector”, where a user can choose a high level product they want to purchase, such as a bathtub, and using various slider bars, checkboxes, and other mechanisms, narrow down the result set to see the products that match their filtering criteria. has used this for their diamond search for a long time. Product selectors like this are often very helpful and kind of fun to use. It increases customer retention and gives customers the ability to really find what they are looking for, or better yet, shows them a range of products that meet their criteria. However, there are drawbacks to the product selectors, including the inability for Google to crawl your products that are only accessible through the selector, the inability to have direct links to filtered results, and the ability to build a tool that the customer finds intuitive and helpful.

One big problem web-developers face in this post web 2.0 world is finding the balance between cool and functional. There is a fine line between enhancing a customer’s experience and frustrating the heck out of them. What is intuitive for a developer may seem obtuse to a customer (I’m pretty sure the developer is right though).

You can make a web page take you through 5 steps to create an account, choose your options, confirm your purchase, and agree to the terms, all in one single, seamless AJAX-enabled application. That is, until they realize they want to ship it to Aunt Gertrude instead, click their browser’s back button, and lose all the information they’ve entered, frustrating them to the point of abandoning the process.

Many of these new technologies break the expectations of the browser’s back button and bookmarks. Often these technologies can completely block search engine’s ability to find relevant data on your site. Often a page refresh or other unexpected action can cause the user to lose their place and what they were doing.

As a fan of emerging web technologies, I am looking forward to tackling some of these challenges in the coming year. However, I will be sure to be on the lookout for the unexpected consequences of clever web development.

So stay tuned, keep hitting F5, and look for some new features coming soon!


Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of January 2nd, 2009

Posted on December 31, 2008 by Vanessa

Happy New Year all!  I am out for the rest of the week so the variety is early.  There are some new posts that I wanted to share, but in addition to that let’s take a look at some of our favorite posts, top stories, and some of the biggest developments in the industry from 2008.

  • Google Product Search up 786% in the category of shopping search.
  • The Silicon Alley Insider reports on Digg’s revenue losses and why ad targeting, or the lack there of, could be a major factor in these losses.
  • Have your 2009 wish list ready for Google?  I know Zach does and Matt Cutts’ parents do, but submissions are coming in fast so add yours soon.
  • Jennifer Laycock released her second installment of “Six Lessons from a Wooden Boy”, but I recommend starting from her first post on the subject.
  • A legend about the inventor of chess may provide insight into internet retail growth.


2008 In Review

Internet Retailer released their top 10 stories from 2008, here they are in ascending order:


I know this couldn't possibly be everything, which events in 2008 were most memorable to you?


Should all Departments Have “Customer Experience” as their Number One Priority?

Posted on December 29, 2008 by Arianna

Our Returns Policy provides customers with information on how to request a Return Merchandise Authorization [RMA], how to return a product, etc.  One of the most overlooked sections in our policy is our “Basic RMA Policies” which states that “returns must meet all applicable criteria”.  It later goes on to say: “RMAs must be valid, unexpired, and issued for the product being returned”.  We then go on to explain timeframes and acceptable shipping methods.

Recently a customer returned an item that was received incorrectly, but exceeded our approved timeline, and so their return was refused. I was later asked to review the customer’s RMA and rethink our set timeframes and associated policies in order to improve in the area of customer experience.  In an effort to see where we stand as opposed to other major retailers I began to review our returns criteria and compare it to that of others.  According to consumer world we are more consumer friendly than most of the major retailers reviewed.  This brings me to my next point…

Where do we draw the line between our company responsibility and that of the customers’? As I reviewed the RMA it was clear that we did all we could to get the item back. The customer requested an RMA, and in less than an hour received an acceptance email informing them to refer to our Returns Policies before returning the item. The next morning the customer was sent a return label so that they would not incur return shipping costs [which was never used]. Exactly a month after the accepted RMA email was sent to the customer, they returned the package, which was refused by our warehouse. It is the customer’s responsibility to get the product back to us within the specified timeline, and it is our responsibility to do the best we can to help customers with that process.

It is important to note that if the customer had called our Customer Service department to inform us that they were late in returning their item, the RMA may have been approved for return despite the required timeframe.  We strive to give our customers the best experience we can offer. However, there are times when all we can do is assist our customers, and let them do the rest. We will be reviewing different ways of improving our RMA timeframe; for now we hope that customers will understand that we want to help them as much as we can, but in the end we can only help them as much as they allow us to do so.

I encourage feedback and comments from others dealing with similar issues.  When should we meet the customer in the middle and when does it become completely unprofitable to do so?  According to Maxim Mironov’s Optimalogica blog “1 % returns costs you 0.45 % of sales”.  What is even more interesting is the question he then poses “On $10 million sales 1 % returns increase means $45,000 lost in costs. At 4.5 % margin to off-set this loss you need $1 million extra sales. Are you getting this much because of a nicer policy?”  While these numbers may not match ours perfectly it is good to understand that even with a good returns policy we aren’t able to make everyone happy.  We just have to decide if that is something we are ok with and if the dollars make sense.