Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Customer Service - What does it mean?

In past three weeks as fate would have it I have needed to contact three different companies in the tri/bike space about some minor issues/problems. I received two amazing responses and one I am not sure what to do or how to categorize, but most would consider, this company's response bad.

I'll start with the not so good . . err bad. Let me first say that I am a huge fan and user of this companies product. However, I'm having some problems with a piece of equipment so I go to this companies very well designed and stylish web site and I find the "Contact Us" form. Explain my problem in a nice way and send in the query. I wait a week and I hear nothing. At about 10 days I send another note through the "Contact Us" form (there is no phone/email info on the site). Another week goes by and nothing. I find this company on Twitter, not trying to out them or be an ass, I send a nice neutral Tweet in their direction about what is the best way to make contact about a customer service issue and how long should I wait for a response. Nothing back. This company is considered a leader in their particular product category. Since I don't know the full side of the story, from there side, I will not name them in this post.

A part broke on one of our Kurt Kinetic indoor trainers (the roller wheel adjustment knob). Go to Kurt Web site and get the Customer Service number. I phone and within 30 sec I have a live person in the CS area on the phone who asks, "How can I help". I explain and she then asks for my address and where she can mail me the part. In less than 2 minutes we are Done! No charge and the part is at my door a week later. Bam!

Have some questions about Speedplay pedals and pedal spindle lengths for my wife's Speedplay pedals. Go to Speedplay's site, find the contact form and submit query. Less than 24 hours later I have a personal eMail back from "Mike" explaining clearly and in detail what my options are. I have some further questions which I fire off in an email and minutes later, "Mike" get's back to me. Another Bam!, problem solved!

Obviously the last two are what I would consider amazing customer service and we would hope this is the way it always ends, but we know that is not the case. Still not quite sure what to make of the first company's response.

What's your most recent Customer Service story - good or bad ( Hopefully we get more good than bad!)?

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Now For Ironman?

"I just did an Ironman"! I heard these words two years ago from a man seated behind me on the shuttle-bus that was taking us back to the car parking area after the inaugural Muskoka 70.3 race. The fellow had been going on and on to his friends how he had quit smoking, lost 40 lbs and trained for a whole year for this, "Ironman" race. It was an impressive, inspirational, and in truth a really great and genuine story. Was I to turn around and tell the guy that in reality, he had only done half an Ironman. No, I just sat their, listened, took it all in, and then as the bus came to our destination, stopped and we all got up to get off, I congratulated him on what he had done. Had the venerable and legendary Ironman just reached a tipping point?

It started off as a drunken bar-room challenge back in the late '70's between some U.S. Navy personnel stationed at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Who was the fitter athlete - the swimmer, the cyclist of the runner? What if they bolted together Hawaii's best known endurance challenges - the 2.5 mile Waikiki Rough Water swim, the 112 mile around Oahu Bike Race and the 26.2 mile Honolulu marathon. Surely the winner of this crazy challenge would be the best all round endurance athlete. The winner, as Captain John Collins, the acknowledged leader of this challenge said, would be called an Ironman! As Collins wrote right on the race instructions, "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life" And so it began, as a quirky and obscure challenge and race that back then few knew about, beyond a small circle of endurance athletes.

The Ironman really started to come into it's own 10 years on in the late 80's when Dave Scott started to own the race and set performance standards that were starting to be eye-openers for many. The famous "Iron-War" between Scott and his nemesis Mark Allen in '89 was a high water mark for the event in terms of performance and how fast humans could go over these crazy distances. The Ironman race by this time had spawned a small group of Ironman races around the world, but it was still, relatively speaking small group of serious endurance athletes who took part and raced these races. Each Ironman race had the feeling of a meeting of this endurance club. Everyone knew everyone else!

From the get-go many of the participants and racers beyond the top Pros such as Scott and Allen, were classic type-A sorts of folk - very driven and very passionate about their training and about Ironman. I first became aware of this passion when in the late 90's the Ironman Canada race, dealing with a onslaught of entries that was starting to overwhelm the event, floated the idea of having people qualify for it ( Note: starting in the late 80's Ironman Hawaii the so called World Ironman Championships, had been for the most part a qualify-only event). There was mass outrage on the triathlon newsgroups - remember those - about having to qualify for Ironman Canada! It was a testament to the passion that many of the Ironman race participants felt for their race.

Which brings us to this year and the last few months. The World Triathlon Corporation(WTC), has been in change and in advancement mode now for several years, but a string of changes in the last year with an aggressive corporate expansion policy has many asking, "What happened to Ironman?" Obviously, it no longer refers to just the original 2.5/112/26.2 distance as the WTC has branded races half that distance, their so called 70.3 races, Ironman as well. Can you brag about doing a 70.3? The WTC has also gone shorter, buying up a bunch of known "Olympic" distance races and series and branding them 50i50 races. With this latter move they have been careful, to not associate these shorter races with the Ironman, but people in the know, know the association, and they do have the now iconic "i" short for Ironman the name of the event.

What's behind all this? My guess is three things: the first in the most obvious - money. There is a mis-conception that these big Ironman and 70.3 races are huge money makers. I have heard the opposite - that they are not the profit centers that everyone thinks they are. Therefore, more races, of whatever length means, more money. Second - is simply the age-old exercise in the business, of brand extension. Once a business and a brand have tapped out one market, and the possibility of growth in that market is small or nothing, you need to expand into other markets and extend the reach of your brand. Finally, in many businesses, ounce you have X-number of customers/users/participants, your challenge becomes not so much finding new ones, but keeping the ones you have! Hence affinity programs of some form to keep the masses on-board.

Of course, there are still those very passionate folk within the sport who don't like any of this and the WTC and the Ironman brand has been getting a bit of a rough ride of late. On the very popular Slowtwitch forum recently , at one point 1/2 the subject threads on the first page were devoted to discussions about the WTC, many with a negative tone, about various moves the WTC has made of late regarding, race expansion, rule changes, miss-management of races, extraordinary revenue generators through affinity programs and other changes.

It must be said that over all this time, the WTC have been an outstanding steward of the Ironman brand, and of marketing the sport of triathlon in general. Races sell out quickly now, but it was not so long ago that this was not the case and the sport of triathlon was in the doldrums. Kudos to the WTC for keeping the flame alive and the lights on through some previous lean times.

Clearly when you say the word "Ironman" these days, it has a different meaning, to different people. The guy on the bus at the beginning of the blog, has a different idea of it than I, and many others do - but he's still right. The people railing against the WTC getting all corporate and expansionist perhaps yearn for the days when, one time race owner, Valerie Silk, used to send out personal Christmas cards to all Ironman Hawaii finishers. Back then, when mine would show up in the mail every year, I thought that was pretty cool! The problem is, once you go forward these days in the world of business and sport, it's hard to go backwards and the WTC is trying to expand it's business in a big way and has taken the word Ironman and it's original and iconic brand along with it.

The really big Irony, no pun intended, to me is that while there is a heavy over-emphasis on all-things Ironman in the sport of triathlon, the real growth action in the sport is far away from the Ironman. The Danskin, and Trek Women's tri series are huge women-only events that dwarf most of the WTC's events in participants and are the key front door to the sport of triathlon for many of these women. Might some of these women go on to do a full Ironman, or 70.3 race someday? Perhaps they will, but for now, they are happy to put a short swim/bike/run together and feel the accomplishment and garner some bragging rights, much like participants in the first Ironman did, all those years ago!

Where this all goes over the next few years will be rather interesting.

How do you feel about the direction the WTC is going in?

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Running Frequency

When we talk about running frequency there are two kinds of running frequency. The first is your stride rate, the second is the number of days each week that you run. Both are important, but I am going to be talking about the latter here.

For many the off-season is here and it's time to shake things up a bit. They say the off season is the best time to work on your weaknesses and from what I have seen in triathlon of late, no one is running terribly fast. This represents a great opportunity for those who are serious about improving their running.

There are a whole bunch of ways to really improve your running and if you ask 20 athletes and coaches you will get a broad range of ideas about how to do this. Increasing the number of days a week that you run is really straight-forward - increase the number of days/week that you run to 6 or 7 days and do this for a minimum one month. Now this is where many triathletes start to loose the trail. "Run 7 days a week", they say. "You are kidding"! However, the tendency here is to over-think this. If they are like most triathletes that have been given a program that has a nice balanced approach to swim/bike/run. That's good to get going, but it will only take them so far in each of the individual sports - soon they will plateau. Furthermore, each of their run workouts is perhaps a little bit longer and harder, because they are only running, perhaps two or three times a week. So, what they need to do first is figure out what is a typical run week for them in miles/Kilometers, and then divide that number by 6 - 7. Start there. Start running that distance, every day the first week and just run. See how you feel.

The next question is what about the bike and swim? To maintain swim and bike fitness, try and squeeze in 1 - 2 shorter (30 - 45 mins.) higher intensity swims/bikes each week, but keep the focus on the run.

For the more advanced - make it a goal to run a minimum of 20 minutes every day. That would be your shortest run, and your longest would be about an hour. Again - don't over-think it. Just run. If you feel like picking it up a bit - go ahead and do so. However, this is key - whatever you do, needs to be repeatable the next day. No single run should leave you so wiped out that you cannot run the next day. You see, great fitness and a really deep base of fitness is not built around individual or special workouts, it's built around day after day, and week after week of putting in the time at a modest level of effort. Endurance training is really not that complicated. It's about putting the work in and getting it done every day over a long period of time.

Be careful to monitor how you feel. If you feel tired at the start of a run, that's OK - often as you get into the run the fatigue goes away. However if it stays, make that a 20 minute and done day! Also note aches and pains - note the transient pains that tend to come and go as compared to the permanent ones that will not go away. If it is the latter, stop the run-every-day-routine. Do not force yourself through this, if you have more serious injuries.

After a week or two of running every day and if you feel good, start increasing the total weekly volume by 10 - 15 percent. Don't add all the distance onto one day - spread it across the week. There is a tendency to worry about, heart rates, and zones, and tempo and intervals and all that other stuff - again, just run. If you feel tired. Take it easy. If you feel like picking it up for a bit, do it, and keep it relaxed and flowing. But know that you have to run again tomorrow!

Keep this up for a month, but ideally try it for two months. The gains are often significant in terms of fitness and efficiency. Schedule a bit of a taper and then find a 5K or 10k running race. Many are shocked and surprised, to set significant new personal best times, after this focused block of what many would consider unstructured training - again, it's not the individual workouts, it's the cumulative effect of all of the running over time.

Final note. This also works for swimming and cycling. A focused block of doing almost all one sport, for period of time, in the off season, is never a bad thing.

Hope this helps.

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