While visiting my family in Denver, I took my kids to take the free tour of the U.S. Mint. I remember going there as a kid, and being fascinated by the conveyor belts full of shiny pennies. This building was the source of my piggy-bank treasure! (I also have a memory of the gift shop, where I longed for a commemorative coin set that was far outside my childhood price range, but I digress).
My hopes were high. The Mint’s website boasts:
Touring the United States Mint is a fascinating experience for those of all ages and one that will be remembered for a lifetime.Â Tours cover both the present state of coin manufacturing as well as the history of the Mint.Â Learn about the craftsmanship required at all stages of the minting process, from the original designs and sculptures to the actual striking of the coins.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? My daughter has collected nearly all of the state quarters, so I was sure she’d enjoy learning about how the designs were chosen and engraved. Plus, my tech-geek side was tickled by the fact that this particular branch of the government has entered the 21st century; there’s actually an online reservation system for the tours!
But instead of an educational odyssey, I got a textbook object lesson in a large government bureaucracy acting like a cactus.
A business tree with no leaves.
That’s what a cactus is. Here’s a primer on the small-business tree if you need a refresher course. But basically the leaves in this metaphor stand for marketing, and marketing is all the ways a business touches the world (not just its customers, but its employees, suppliers, the public, etc.).
And the Mint is terrible at marketing. You don’t have to be Naomi or Seth to brainstorm multiple ways the Mint could tell a better story, make the tour experience memorable and fun, and do a heck of a lot of good in the process.
We are in the middle of a historic financial crisis, for heaven’s sake! Doesn’t the government want us, its citizens, to feel good about the institution that makes our money? Wouldn’t it be good public policy to increase consumer confidence in an institution like the Mint?
But there I go thinking like an entrepreneur again, forgetting that the Mint is a huge government bureaucracy (I nearly typed bureau-crazy) that apparently doesn’t care about the story it’s telling the public. In other words, it’s a business tree with no leaves (actually in this case the leaves are spines keeping people away, rather than leaves welcoming us in). A giant, spiny cactus.
10 things I hate about you (no, I don’t really hate them; that’s just snark)
Here are 10 ways the Mint disappointed me, and suggestions for sprouting leaves instead of spines. Although your business isn’t a government bureaucracy, see if any of these concepts might apply to you. Try mentally substituting your website, or your online purchasing process, for the tour process I describe here. Are you unintentionally putting up spines that keep your prospects from becoming customers?
- I expected high security (I totally get the need for metal detectors and all that). I expected to not be allowed to bring a camera, or a firearm, or anything remotely pointy. I didn’t expect that I’d have to wait outside on the sidewalk on a sub-freezing morning before being ushered through the screening process. Why not have a public waiting room with educational displays, where you can wait for your tour to begin?
- Oh, wait, there is a room chock-full of educational displays (they seemed to have been thoughtfully crafted and well-written, too) where visitors wait for the tour to begin (after the security screening). Unfortunately, you can’t get in until 10 minutes before the tour begins. So all that education is wasted because by the time you make it through screening you have four or five minutes to look at it before you’re herded into the tour. I wish I’d been able to take more time in that room. So why not put this room before the security screening?
- Better yet, why not create a public area that includes the educational displays, an information booth, and the gift shop? Let people browse for information as they browse for commemorative coin sets. Let them ask questions, and staff the shop and the booth with people who know the answers and care about sharing the Mint’s mission with the public. Tours could both begin and end here. Which leads me to:
- We left through a different door than the one we entered through (on the opposite side of the building, in fact), and we had to enter the gift shop through a third, separate entrance. Confusing! OK, part of this is just the geography of the building, but my suggestion in #3 could take this into account.
- Our tour guide was nice, but she was just doing her job. She recited long sentences in a near-monotone, didn’t explain terms like “assay” and “blanks” despite the children in her audience, and didn’t make eye contact with any of us. Any decent kindergarten teacher could have done a much better job at engaging us. Part of the problem was the “script” she’d obviously been taught, but part of the problem was that this public-facing position should be filled by someone with both passion and people skills.
- The (probably armed) silent guard following the tour group the whole time? A bit creepy. Yes, as I said, I totally get the need for security. But surely there’s a way to accomplish that in a less menacing way. Have the guard follow the group but remain out of sight, for example. Or have two “tour guides,” one of whom is really a guard and walks along the rear of the group while the other one leads the tour and takes the questions. If you’re allowed to ask them at all. Which we weren’t.
- No chance to ask questions! None! This both astonishes and outrages me. At the beginning of the tour we were told to hold our questions until the end. Fair enough, for a short tour (although question breaks could have easily been built into various stops on the tour). But at the end she basically herded us out of the building without inviting any questions. One person did ask her a question and got a rushed “only because I have to” response. The tour lasted 30 minutes. Why not make it 45, and build in time to answer questions?
- The whole tour felt rushed. We went through several rooms where there were displays and information along the walls (not to mention the room where you can look down on the actual minting machines), but there wasn’t time to take them all in, especially if you were trying to pay attention to the tour guide’s scripted presentation. Again, lengthen the tour by 15 to 30 minutes, give time for questions and time for information absorption.
- I like the online reservation process, but it’s just window dressing. You’re supposed to print out your confirmation page and bring it with you, and a guy with a clipboard checks you off with a pen (how quaint!) as you enter. To top it off, my (valid) confirmation number wasn’t on the guy’s list (because I’d just signed up a few hours before my tour). He let me in with zero hassle, but what does that say about the reservation process? That the Mint’s own employees don’t take it seriously, that’s what. If you’re going to require printed confirmations, at least print a barcode and invest in a scanner to let people in (from the freezing sidewalk) more quickly and more accurately.
- No free samples! On a full-production day, the Mint makes 20 million pennies. On a full-tour day (6 hourly tour slots x 40 people on a full tour), 240 people can tour the mint. Would it kill the government to drop a freshly-minted penny into each tourist’s hand? It would cost $2.40 per day. Yes, it’s a gimmick (these coins wouldn’t be collector-quality), but it makes the process real. Especially for children. Bonus: Imagine the marketing tagline! “Our tours are better than free, because we pay you!”
So, finishing up with the business tree metaphor, here’s how I’d map the business tree onto the U.S. Mint:
- Roots: Well, the government needs to print (mint) money for its citizens. That’s pretty much the reason for the Mint’s existence. The Federal Reserve Bank depends on the Mint to provide coins for banks everywhere. Pretty strong, well-defined roots.
- Trunk: The Mint’s sole client is the Federal Reserve Bank (though coin collectors also buy directly), and its product is coins. Very clear target market, and, as a government monopoly, its selling proposition is by definition unique.
- Leaves: Here’s where the Mint fails at marketing (remember that every interaction with the public is marketing; even though we tourists aren’t the Mint’s direct customers, the way we’re treated helps inform public opinion of the institution). Sure, they have a website with information on it. Even some pictures. Yes, you can schedule a tour online. But the tour experience itself? Sorely lacking.
What can you, as a small-business owner who wants a live and vibrant business, take from this example? What parts of your purchase process, or your website, throw up barriers to your readers/customers/prospects? Which parts work really well and can be celebrated?