ADVENTURES IN ADLAND #2: "Walking in the Customer's Shoes, and Scooping 31 Flavors of Client Service"

Most agency people today rely on researchers or account planners to serve up insights about consumers.  But I took Ogilvy’s words literally; I did my own “walking.”  So when I worked on the Shell account, I pumped gas at a service station, jabbering with the customers while the petrol flowed.  A few years later, I manned the counter at a Trailways bus depot.  I also sold picture frames at an art supplies store in L.A., waited tables at a chain restaurant, and even played the role of a “greeter” at a big Las Vegas casino.  Nothing beats a one-to-one conversation with a consumer.  And good advertising usually results.

So when my agency, Asher/Gould, pitched the Baskin-Robbins account in 1986, we promised that every member of the agency team would “walk in the customer’s shoes” by working the counter at one of the client’s L.A.-area stores.  To do that, of course, we all had to spend a week at B-R’s “Scoop School,” learning how to make sundaes, sodas and shakes.  (By the way, learning to scoop out 3.5 ounces of Jamoca Almond Fudge for a cone is harder than it looks!)

I volunteered to take the first shift at the store, though I have to admit to an ulterior motive for that seemingly selfless decision; scoop shops typically do very little business before noon.  It would be an easy gig.  So when a little old lady came in at 10:15 in the morning, I was somewhat stunned when she ordered a banana split.

But I was ready; my Scoop School training came to the fore. “Okay… one scoop of vanilla, one scoop chocolate, one scoop strawberry…. chocolate syrup on the vanilla, marshmallow on the chocolate, pineapple on the strawberry…. whipped cream, whipped cream, whipped cream… nuts, nuts, nuts… cheery, cherry, cherry…” 

At which point I proudly presented my concoction to the customer, who squinted at the sundae boat and said, “You forgot the banana.”

The training supervisor sprinted over, yelling “I’m so sorry, he’s a trainee.  I’ll make another sundae for you… and it’ll be on the house.”  He then turned to me.  “Talk care of the next customer… and don’t screw up!”

(It’s bad enough to be a “trainee” at age 41…but a screw-up, too!!!  Yikes… didn’t he know I was a Scoop School graduate?!?)

I was very relieved to see that the “next customer” was a young woman… and all she wanted was a small swirled frozen yogurt.  I had practically majored in frozen yogurt at Scoop School; I was ready.

I grabbed a cone, pulled the handle on the yogurt machine down and the chocolate and vanilla yogurt swirled out perfectly. I was all smiles… looking forward to chatting up the customer… when the handle came off in my hand!  Yogurt gushed out and I couldn’t stop it! I went into Lucy Ricardo mode, yelping for help as I grabbed dishes, bowls, even a towel to catch the yogurt gushing from the machine. My customer started laughing.  The supervisor, halfway through remaking the banana split, ran to the machine, cursing under his breath at me.  The little old lady was wide-eyed.

The supervisor pulled the plug, apologized for “my trainee’s error” as well as his language… offered a free ANYTHING to the young woman… and told me to “just work the register.”  I was chagrined from the top of my brown 31-Flavor crew hat to the tip of my sneakers.

Virtually every Baskin-Robbins store has a small video camera aimed at the register; it’s one of the ways the store owner, who frequently is in the back room making ice-cream cakes, prevents hanky-panky by their mostly teenage employees. But that camera only added to my humiliation that morning.

The little old lady came over and looked at me VERY closely.  Then she looked up at the camera… back to me… back to the camera…  and then very suddenly reached across the counter and yanked off my cap.  “I get it, I get it!  You’re Allen Funt… and we’re on Candid Camera!

Allen Funt is on top, and his doppleganger Bruce Silverman on the bottom.

Author Bruce Silverman is one of America’s best known and well respected marketing-communication and branding experts. He is writing a series of posts titled, “Adventures in AdLand” for THE FIVE. During his Madison Avenue days, Bruce was the creative mind behind “Don’t Leave Home Without It” for American Express, “Bullish on America” (Merrill Lynch), “Something Special in the Air” (American Airlines), “Not made in Nooo Yawk Ciddy” (Pace Picante), “The Shell Answer Man” and a dozen other award winning campaigns for such clients as IBM, Hershey, Baskin-Robbins, Coldwell Banker, Sizzler, Suzuki, Pabst, Sanyo, Mattel, Greyhound and Post. He currently spreads his words of wisdom, offering strategic and tactical counsel to marketers of consumer and business-to-business products and services and to advertising and public relations agencies, as well as serving as an expert witness for legal firms. 

For more Adventures in Adland, click here.

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