On free refills

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The good thing about the US are the free refills in restaurants. The bad thing is the phone dialing system.

When I visited the USA in may 2010, I was enthusiastic about the fact that I could order as many Sprites in a restaurant as I wanted and I only had to pay once. These free refills are uncommon in Europe. I enjoyed them.

Later on, I learned that a businessman in Germany had tried to introduce the idea there as well. It had failed miserably. The Germans were passing around their "magic refill cups" in groups of a dozen people. The businessman had to give up his idea and change back to a "per-fill" payment again. Strange enough, as a German I understand both sides of the story. I love the idea of free refills, but I would also pass around my "magic cup" in a group.

This has something to do with managing expectations. Raised in Germany, you expect certain rights from the drink you bought: to drink it, to pour it away if you do not like it, to resell it (seldom used) and to share it (seldom used).

Now this businessman was adding a right to the customer in his business model (you get it refilled) and at the same time subtracting a right (you may not share it with other people). Now there is an important psychological equation:

+1 -1 < 0

Plus one minus one is a loss of what you are used to get. "you want me to abandon my right to share my drink? Who are you, dude?"

This is why the idea of "free refills" turned into "magic cups" in the minds of my german fellows - we are not used to think in terms of "per-user-flatrates" unless you tell us. The ironic thing is that this problem of wrong expectations can be managed quite easily by good communication. For example, if our gentleman had announced it like this:

  1. get your drink as usual
  2. if you do not share your drink and pay an additional Euro, we will refill it as often as you want

or even more simple:

  • get a per-person-flatrate of softdrinks

The psychological result is obvious: You have a so-called opt-in. A free refill if you acknowledge that it is for you, not for everyone.

What do we learn from this? Resist the temptation to tell your customer everything he wants to hear. He will not believe you anyway. Instead, clearly point out risks and preconditions. You will be surprised how much customers love suppliers who act as trusted advisors.