Every now and then, your company makes a decision that has a pretty big impact on your customers. Sometimes that impact is positive, sometimes it does a pretty good job of ticking those customers off. How that decision is received can make a big difference in the ongoing success of your business. If you aren't watching the Internet to gauge the reaction to these decisions, you're making a big mistake.

I was reminded of this last Thursday when the Christmas break wrapped up and I returned to my pattern of heading to Panera bread twice a week to work while my kids are at preschool. Sometime during the last two weeks, Panera put a new policy in place that required wifi users to "log-in" to the wifi access once an hour. Since I work here for roughly three hours every time I come in, that means I have three interruptions to my work flow.

I can understand the thinking behind the policy change. Perhaps it's designed to empty out their stores during peak hours. If that's the case though, then the time limit should be in play during those peak hours, leaving those who come in when the place is empty to work and eat our bagels in peace.

As it is, I'm feeling pretty darn annoyed.

I've been coming here two mornings a week for more than six months. The staff knows me, the kitchen folks know me, the couch in front of the fireplace has an indent the shape of my rear on it. In other words, I am a very regular customer. Based on how often I tell people about going to Panera to work both in real life or on my blogs, you might even call me a brand evangelist.

I represent the customer you don't want to annoy. Not because there's anything special about me, but because I'm the type of customer who is already enamored with the brand and therefore willing to put up with the occasional inconvenience. If I get annoyed by what you're doing, chances are high that new customers will be annoyed as well. The difference is those new customers will simply walk out the door and never come back. The loyal customers will probably at least complain and give you a chance to fix things.

This is part of why social media and blogs are so essential to how you run your company. Scanning the conversation on social media sites and via Technorati is a great way to find the complaints being made by your loyal customers. One would hope that Panera Bread would pick up on this post and come here to address their reasons for adding that one hour time limit, but I have my doubts.

(ETA: Mack Collier has a great piggy-back post off of this one explaining how to find out what's being said about you on blogs. He also points out that this site probably reaches more readers than Panera's own site; based on that, he warns that Panera (and others) shouldn't write off the voice of a single blogger.)

A smart competitor to Panera Bread (say Atlanta Bread Company, Camille's or any other casual cafe) would be watching to see what consumers are saying about the company as well. As much as I love Panera, I do not love being forced to log back in every hour so that I can continue working. If I found out that a competitor with a similar environment and equally good food let me work without interrupting me, I'd make the switch.

I'm still here at Panera Bread and despite the high annoyance factor of getting booted offline once an hour, I'll probably continue to come back. That said, as soon as I find or hear of an alternative, I'll likely bail. The brand loyalty Panera had built with me over the past six months has been crushed with a single corporate decision. I'm now willing to jump ship to a new brand at a moment's notice.

Chances are good that my feelings are reflective of the larger business audience that thinks of Panera when they're looking for a place to grab a bite and some free wifi. If so, then Panera may be at risk of losing a core base of customers without even realizing it. And Panera's competitors may be poised to pick them up with a little savvy social marketing.

How will it play out? I guess we'll wait and see.

In the meantime, if you aren't already keeping your eyes peeled to see what's being said about you and your competitors, perhaps it's time to start?

January 8, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Mornings can be such a rush.

The dog, the kids, the phone, the traffic and when you finally feel comfortable and ready to relax, something stupid comes from out of left field and thumps you back into a state of disgust and high anxiety once again.

I know how you feel. I have been there. I will not get into the details but things are better now.

Now that you have it off your chest, take a deep breath and maybe cut down on the coffee for awhile. Tomorrow is a new day where the surprises are already known, for now.

LOL. Do I sound that ranty?

I don't drink coffee. Or anything else with caffeine for that matter.

That was more a "why in the world don't people understand that the base reflects the masses" kind of thing. Yet another example of a company thinking something looks good on paper but finding out it's not such a good idea once it's implemented.

The question is, how will they know whether it was a good idea or now. Will they notice an exodus of business types who work here? Or will we all put up with it because there aren't better options?

On any given day, I count at least a dozen other laptop users in here with me. At least half of them are usually with other people and clearly having a business meeting.

I do wonder if other's will note their complaints online and if Panera will notice it.

Either way, serves as yet another reminder of the need for small business owners to keep their ears to the ground online to find out what the feedback is.

Maybe I'm coming from a little different perspective as a former restaurant owner.. But the vast majority of people that would show up and sit for hours more or less hanging out was a huge drain on the business for us.. It made it difficult for "new" customers to find a place to sit, or even get in and out on some days..

There would always be a few true regulars who would actually spend money while they were in the place, but so many of them didn't we also looked for ways to subtly convince them to move on and loiter elsewhere.. :) The real regulars were given special treatment to avoid losing them, but the rest we were happy to see go..

And it did have a direct impact on our bottom line for the good.. We did lose some good customers, but from a pure profit perspective it was the right thing to do for the business..

Hey Jen-

Read your latest entry via Mack...great post.
The whole concept of "keeping an eye out" is so fundamental. You know, they should have an asterix on their (entirely dedicated to) wifi page indicating their hourly log-in rule. :) I also find it interesting that Panera's home page has their wifi service proudly front and center. who doesn't provide this anymore? (with the few unfortunate exceptions)...

Actually, it depends on where you are. Even here in Columbus free wifi isn't all that common. We're seeing it pop up more and more, but in terms of a nice place with good food and comfy places to sit, Panera is still the best option.

That's why despite me being really annoyed with them, I'm still planning on heading back there tomorrow while my kids are at pre-school.

That said, I'm now very open to change. If i catch wind of a great new wifi spot, I'm outta there.

Feydakin, I totally get that. In fact, it was my first thought. "Oh geeze, we all must be taking up too much space."

But then I thought about it. Everyone I see in there with a laptop either sits in a solo lounge chair or at a table for two and most of them are there in the morning or afternoon when there is no rush.

I generally pack up and head out right around the time the lunch crowd really starts to pick up.

If it's an issue of the place being too full, then sure, go ahead and limit the wifi time during your busy hours. I have no problem with that.

BUT. Don't just make the change. Put a notice that says as much on the web site where I'm doing the logging in. Let me know you've changed your policies. Give me a reason. Don't just change it up and expect me to deal with it, know what I mean?

It's a corporate thing though. Smaller companies have far more flexibility in terms of dealing with those things.

I don't think you're necessarily wrong, but this is an interesting perspective. Free Wi-Fi is an add-on service for people who are in the coffee shop to spend money. It's tautological, but the money people spend keeps Panera in business so that they can continue to offer free add-on services.

So Panera (and Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Peets, and others) is a coffee shop and a restaurant, and it's reasonable for them to increase the irritation factor for people who want to use more than an hour of free services for the cost of a cup of coffee. (Remember that YOU know the staff, and probably spend a few bucks while you're sitting there, but policies have to be applied to anyone who chooses to use or abuse them. Others might ask for a cup of water and hang out all day.) However, I think this is an unbelievably trivial increase in the irritation factor - you sound infuriated that they're asking you to spend a few seconds reactivating your free connection once an hour. Is that really so awful? Is there really that much distress in your life?

And you say you're ready to switch to any alternative, ready to discard Panera and all of your friends among the staff there without a thought for having the temerity to require a reconnect once an hour. Clearly you believe that your usage patterns would be seen as desirable by those people who would potentially create those alternatives. In fact, any company that's thinking about offering free WiFi will look at the Panera model and say "if we offer it for free, we're going to get a bunch of people who feel entitled to sit at our tables for hours at a time while they generate little or no revenue." What business person would say "hey, sign me up for that!"?

I'll also point out that smaller companies wouldn't have more flexibility - smaller companies don't have the luxury of offering unlimited free value-added services. They would be put out of business by someone parking in their restaurant for several hours. If someone went to Panera and grabbed fifty packets of Splenda to stock their coffee cupboard at home, Panera could absorb that cost. If someone went to a Mom-and-Pop coffee shop and did the same thing, Mom and Pop would have to respond by limiting the amount of Splenda they put out for customers.

I've logged onto Panera before and it didn't seem like that big of a deal. If I had to do it a few more times during a visit then that wouldn't ruin my experience. There are so many other things that rank higher to me than that.

To get back to your analogy. I agree with managing your reputation and Panera should definitely be on the lookout to make sure this doesn't blow up. They probably thought it was going to be no big deal just like I did.

By the way, coffee shops with wi-fi, my biggest pet peave is when coffee shops charge double or triple for the unlimited refill cup of coffee over the to go cup. That is a horribly uninviting policy given that I usually get my own refills and given that the coffee, tea, soda itself is so relatively unexpensive. You may think it's fair, but what I hear is "Get your coffee and leave freeloader".

I went to Panera today and got the permanent boot after an hour!

I go to get my car fixed at this place w/a Panera nearby so I can wait in comfort and be productive.

I'm on the phone with my insurance agent, who tells me he's emailing me a document when all of a sudden I can't connect all all to anything using any program.

I check and the network is fine. grrr.

I reboot only to have a message come up informing me that it wont connect me because I've used all the time alloted for my computer at that location today.

I guess they only do that during peak hours but it still pissed me off. And I even bought a meal! grr.

I wouldn't bat an eye at logging in every hour if it meant that I got decent wi fi speed. Panera's wi fi has been sporadic at best for me. I was going about twice a week and stopped going because I couldn't get any work done waiting for pages to load. I would work there for about 3 hours a day on a daily basis (and buy food/drinks) if it didn't take 20 seconds just to load a simple page like google. Wi fi that is as slow as dial-up is totally useless to me. By the way I was the only one in the store using wi fi at the time.

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