How Best Buy can teach you *not* to run your news business

When was the last time you read something that prompted you to shout “Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve seen. I’ve been waiting for someone else to notice that!”?

For me, it was last night, shortly after Rob Curley posted a link to Why Best Buy is Going out of Business…Gradually, by Larry Downes on

Downes just destroys the big box electronics retailer, and in doing so, lays out some important lessons for anyone who’s running a business today. (Including news publishers.) I hope you’ll take a few moments today to read Downes’ piece, and to think about how what Best Buy is doing might compare with how your publication treats its readers and customers.

Downes’ challenge to readers? “Walk into one of the company’s retail locations or shop online. And try, really try, not to lose your temper.”

More times than not, I can’t do it. Downes details one recent visit to Best Buy, when friend tried to buy a Blu-Ray disc, only to be waylaid by a “customer service” rep who tried instead to sell him on a pay-TV deal.

Me? Dozens of trips to various Best Buys over the years have taught me to never make eye contact with any employees in the store. Keep other customers between myself and the floor staff. If I need a clerk to get something for me, ask only someone who appears to work in the section where the item is stocked, ask for the item using the specific model number and be prepared to walk away if they don’t have it, or the clerk wants to start talking about something else.

Doesn’t this sound like an awful shopping experience?

But it’s worse to have to endure the sort of bait-and-switch that Downes describes – pitches for unrelated subscription services, incompatible additional products and interrogations about my personal life, designed to talk me into buying products Best Buy wants to push. Even if I manage to avoid all those, I’ve yet to find a way to get out of the inevitable pitch at check-out to buy an extended warranty. (Extended warranty pitches are the number one reason why I try to buy all of my electronics, software and accessories online. Two days ago, a Radio Shack employee tried to sell me an extended warranty on an iPod case.)

I don’t believe that the people who run Best Buy are intentionally sadists. Downes describes how Best Buy managers have made apparently rational business decisions that nonetheless have led to their employees creating a nasty, even hostile, shopping environment. That should cause any business managers to pause in fear for a moment.

What kind of “shopping experience” are you creating for your customers? Are you encouraging them to do business with you, and then rewarding them for that? Do your customers look forward to interacting with you, or do they dread it as an obligation they can’t wait to end?

Have you ever spoken or written the phrase “fiduciary obligation to our stockholders” to justify doing something that will frustrate your customers? Do you start using passive voice when justifying your business actions to customers (as Downes shows Best Buy doing)? Are you willing to trade customer goodwill tomorrow for extra revenue today?

In short, do you make things sometimes difficult for yourself so that they’ll always be easy for your customers, or do you place obstacles in front of your customers to make life easier for you?

If you do, you could be on the same path to oblivion as Best Buy.

Keep in mind, as always, that your customers are the people who write you a check. If someone isn’t paying you, that person is not your customer. That can make life a little confusing – if not troubling – for a journalist writing for an advertiser-supported website. Your customers aren’t your readers, after all – your real customers are those people buying the ads.

But don’t forget why those people are buying those ads. For the most part, it’s so that they can reach your readers. So anything you do to make life difficult, unpleasant or frustrating for your readers will someday make attracting and retaining advertisers more difficult for you. Free sports tickets, dinners and “thank you” presents for your biggest ad clients might delay that inevitability a bit, but if your advertisers want to stay in business, too, they can’t afford to keep advertising with a publication that’s not delivering the readers they want to reach.

So in 2012, let’s resolve to make our publications the “anti-Best Buy” – let’s make them aesthetically pleasant places to visit, sites that respond with information that engages, informs, delights and challenges readers. Hunt aggressively for input forms, navigation structures and article narratives that frustrate or confuse readers, then eliminate them from your site.

Work on customer service, as well. How easy do you make ordering and payment? Can customers do that online, over the phone and in person, whatever they prefer? How many steps does a new order or payment take? Have you tried it yourself recently?

Do you thank customers for their business? How often do you listen to your customers’ problems and challenges to get ideas for new products and services, instead of simply looking for hooks to sell them something you already offer? How willing are you to refer customers elsewhere if there’s a better place for them to find as solution they need? When customers do business with you, you should want them to feel like that’s the highlight of their day.

And not like it’s a dreaded trip to Best Buy.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at