My favourite podcast is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History“. I actually delayed listening to the start of Season 2 because I was disappointed that I’d go through it so quickly and have to wait another year before getting more. I can’t remember any other show or podcast that has invoked that feeling in me, although, Star Trek: Discovery came pretty close.
Today I was listening to the penultimate episode, “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” and it was riveting.
Ok, let me just say, the second season of this podcast is epic.
If you’re not familiar with the show, what Gladwell does is he goes back and looks at interesting points in recent history and finds the underlying story that presents you with a different way of looking at things.
The second season has focused about half of its ten episodes on the topic of racism and in particular, the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South. Gladwell’s take and the way he presents the stories are fascinating and educational.
But this particular episode, it resonated with me for another reason and had to do with the humble McDonald’s French Fry.
Without ruining the story too much, it goes something like this. In 1990, McDonald’s announced that it was changing the oil it used to cook French Fries in after intense pressure from a gentleman by the name of Philip Sokolof.
Sokolof was a self-made millionaire who at the age of 43, had a heart attack and his doctors in the 80’s blamed saturated fats. This led Sokolof to crusade for the removal of saturated fats from fast food.
He took out full-page ads in newspapers, appeared on Donohue and basically was a one-man wrecking crew going after companies that he thought were killing Americans with unhealthy food.
Then he took on McDonald’s and they caved.
You need to listen to the podcast episode to see how this led to an even worse situation and candidly, the science was never on Sokolof’s side – it was mostly apocryphal evidence from poor studies, but that’s beside the point.
Gladwell does something unique and fun – he takes the debate to the lab, but not to work out if the Beef Tallow blend was better than the crazy vegetable oil goop they use now from a health perspective, but from a taste perspective.
Conclusively, the beef tallow oil blend tasted better and as an aside that Gladwell doesn’t mention, but does allude to, if portions were controlled, would actually be healthier as well.
But Sokolof was a bully and he used his wealth and single-mindedness to attack these companies who simply refused to say, “No” and just capitulated.
It reminded me of an experience that I had early on in our content business when we were just getting started. We had one “client” that was very, very outspoken about the fact that we only used native English speaking writers. He said it was too expensive and the quality difference was “negligible*”.
* – I’ll come back to this…
He went on forums and on Facebook and repeatedly said things like, “These guys are great, but the fact that they ONLY use native English writers makes it harder to work with them from a cost and value perspective.”
I pretty much played it with a straight bat – I would say that we preferred the quality we were getting and that there were plenty of opportunities for people to work with non-native English speaking writers if they wanted to.
Eventually, this lobbying started to bite into our business. Not significantly, but enough to see that his narrative was having an impact on the audience pool we were serving.
Then he started suggesting that we have a two-speed system – one made up of our “premium” native English writers and a second, cheaper pool made up of non-native English writers.
I decided to give it a try and we had a bunch of writers we knew from the Philippines and India, so we called on them to do some work for us.
Immediately we saw a shift in buying habits, clients were buying the “cheaper” content in higher volumes. The problem was, they started wanting more “editing” done on the content from the “cheaper” writers to “improve the quality” and it was costing us more time and money.
I kept a watching brief to see how it would play out.
Then “the bully” went into a forum and complained that our quality had slipped and he was frustrated with the service. He felt that we should be “editing” the cheaper content better.
I sent him an email telling him that we were never going to do business with him ever again and I cancelled all of his outstanding orders.
I then went to this particular forum and said that we made a mistake, we listened to loud customers who had no idea what they were talking about. I cautioned everyone else in that community to never let vocal customers set the agenda for their business and that when said customers decided to use social media and forums to discuss how you should run your business, fire that customer and shut that down right away.
As soon as I was done, I shut down that “offshore” content service and sent our customers an email saying that it was a failed experiment, that we were going to focus on being a high-quality content provider and if they were looking for cheaper options, I gave them a list of providers.
Within a few weeks, the whole situation had worked it’s way through and we were back running our business the way we wanted to again.
That’s why this episode of the podcast resonated with me, I immediately remembered my own “Philip Sokolof” moment.
And that’s the big lesson here… You should absolutely be listening to feedback from your customers and the market, but you need to distinguish between market feedback and loudmouth customers that are just trying to shape your business into what they think they want.
Which is a key point – these type of people don’t really know what they want anyway. They think they want something, fail to go through the full thought process of what that will look like and then complain that it’s not what they REALLY wanted when you give it to them.
It’s like when a kid wants you to put salt on their food and then complain that it’s now too salty and they can’t eat it.
You’re the boss of you and your business.
Don’t let someone bully you.
Don’t change from Beef Tallow to unsaturated fat oils that actually make your food taste worse and are less healthy to make Philip Sokolof feel like he’s making a difference because he had a heart attack at 43.
You’re in charge, put your foot down.