Service Stories: Getting It Right The First Time

Big Thinking’s week-long survey of service stories kicks off with this most important concept:

Understand where your customers are complaining.

I sat in a local government proceeding last month where a government employee asserted that there were no complaints about taxicabs in a jurisdiction serving more than one million people.  He finally acknowledged that there were likely issues, but that they didn’t bother consumers enough to complain.

The corollary is almost certainly true.   Consumers certainly received poor service and almost certainly complained about that service.  They complained to the companies involved, a different agency or to others who don’t record complaints.  But because those consumers had not complained in the way that the county dictated they should, county employees asserted multiple times that the county’s programs worked fine and consumers were pleased.

Such nonsensical thinking only occurs in bureaucracies where people don’t have to close the doors if they are wrong too often.  In a small business, pretending that unheard customer complaints mean everything is okay is inviting disaster.  Many indicators exist to tell you about your service or product:  revenue, repeat customers, word-of-mouth referrals and proactive market research.

That’s right:  go ask customers how happy they are.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that you can’t rely on your systems to tell your about service quality. Go where your customers share their experiences.  Listen.  Ask questions.  Repeat.  Ignore finding out about complaints at your own peril.

Customer service and consumer affairs contact centers are for problem resolutions.  The very best among them measure customer satisfaction, but that’s usually a market research function.  A small business leader wearing both hats should already be asking these questions.

Make Sharing Easy

Antivirus company AVG pushed a great report to me earlier today called a “Threat Report”.  You can see a copy at the bottom of this post.  The security company with the freemium model wanted me to give them credit for protecting one my computers from a series of problems.  It’s a smart, relatively passive way for the company to prove its product’s worth to a user who is a potential upsell.

Silver Beacon Marketing does a similar thing, showing clients their return on investment (ROI) for advertising campaigns or other goals from our search engine optimization efforts.  That is proprietary data that few would publicize, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a referral has quoted their friend’s ROI to me.

Bagging about the number of threats your computer stopped is something you might share with anyone.  The whole thing sounds like fun.  And even a small adoption rate can mean some great exposure.  Let’s say that the report showed your level of web savvy and a fun rating about your computer’s strength along with some Twitter and Facebook share buttons.  Your product gets valuable exposure every time someone sends that report to their Twitter or Facebook stream.

Enabling that sharing function is only a part of the battle though. Sharing has to be simple–absolutely frictionless–to get the best possible return.  And that’s what I experienced today when I reactivated a StumbleUpon account.

Signing up was easy–only four fields after I clicked “connect with Facebook”.  And the company was smart enough to ask, “Hey, since you’re recommending pages to strangers, how about recommending them to your friends?”

Why not?  That makes perfectly good sense.  And with each post to my Facebook page, StumbleUpon gets a big endorsement from me to anyone connected with me.

Asking that question is smart.  My Facebook friends might not have a StumbleUpon account, but all the work is done for me if I want to post a link to my Facebook page or other social media channels. That is completely  frictionless.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to consider how your company communicates its real value to stakeh0lders.  Special bonus points if you make sharing that information easy.

AVG Threat Report shows that businesses value to customers

AVG Threat report - click to expand

Social Media Connections and What They Mean

Facebook is for people you used to know.
LinkedIn if for people from work.
And Twitter is for people you want to know.

That was the secret sauce of connection types using social media from television guru Jerry Ferguson at Fairfax County’s Channel 10.  We shared a laugh over it at the time, but as I continued using all three, they did seem to cluster that way.   There is overlap, of course, and a broom closet full of sweeping generalizations, but there is a lot of truth there too.

Jerry’s joke, shared during a committee meeting for a non-profit, made me think a lot about the way we use web services.  Reviewing The Social Network on a movie site we run, I wrote that it’s no longer enough to simply say that Google is the cluster of sites providing us utility (searches, email, maps, data) while Facebook is the site that provides fun (chats, messaging, games, apps).

Both companies are fascinating because of their attempts to diversify. Facebook already is a substantial search engine in its own right and is rumored to have a new communications platform ready to roll.  Google, meanwhile, is supposedly hard at work on socializing the organization even more after the failures of the standalone Orkut and integrated Buzz.

All of this brought my thinking to Big Thinking for Small Business and what this blog might be used for.  I talked with coaches and developers, equity holders and designers.  The issue really boils down to the audience for this blog, which is something Sara and I thought was defined a long time ago.

We don’t want to be your breaking news source although we will tell you when there is online marketing news that might change your organization.  And we don’t want to be a how-to primer either.  Many good sites do both things well.

Instead, Big Thinking for Small Business is intended for the very people Silver Beacon Marketing serves–small businesses and non-profits.  We write for our clients, partners and corporate friends. We write about search engines, online marketing, advertising and even some things that can help you earn more profit.

Starting March 1, we’ll integrate even more with Facebook and use their commenting section.  We’ll feature more guest bloggers, more reference pieces, more academic work and more content that will help you run your business.

Our WordPress tutorials, previously open just for clients, will be open to everyone.

We believe that any business can effectively compete in any market in the world.  Read along with us and we’ll show you how.   This is the next iteration of the Big Thinking for Small Business blog, Big Thinking 2.0 if you will, and we look forward to your comments and guidance on how it can help your organization.

Image: Shannon David French

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John moaned the lyrics “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” three decades ago.

For many, the word appears to still be difficult.

You likely know about designer Kenneth Cole’s gaffe.  He tweeted from the company’s official account that crowds demonstrating in Cairo had likely gathered because of the company’s fall line.

An hour later, this tweet appeared.

Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC
Kenneth Cole Prd

Kenneth Cole is a smart guy with resources.  He went to law school.  His brother-in-law is the governor of New York.   His company (NYSE:KCP) had revenues of more than $400 million last year.  A simpler message might simply have been “I’m truly sorry.  That post was in poor taste and has been removed.”  Or I’m sorry followed by anything.

In a personal situation, I responded to an survey with low marks and an explanation that the flowers were clearly old, looked bad upon delivery and did not last long.  The company thanked me for filling out a survey and wrote “We are sorry you were disappointed…”   The rest was meaningless boilerplate for the situation.  I wasn’t looking for a refund although a smart company might have dropped a coupon on me for a future purchase.  But by sending a token apology at the end of a direct transaction, the company acknowledged that my survey had been coded as “dissatisfied”, yet still failed to own the issue.  Had nothing ever happened, I would have simply assumed that the marketing research folks didn’t pass along my survey.

Your takeaway as a small business owner is to own your company’s mistakes and express regret by starting with a simple apology–”I’m sorry”. You should absolutely elaborate on how you’ll make things better and what happened if that’s appropriate to discuss.  But start with those two simple words and prepare to be amazed at the customer satisfaction that results when you sincerely accept a problem.

Source:  ”Kenneth Cole Egypt Tweets”, CNN Money, 2/6/11
Source:  ”NYSE:KCP Financials”, Google Finance, 2/6/11

Why Do Not Track Hurts Consumers

Chains wrapped around computer keyboardEveryone is hurt by “Do Not Track” and other well-meaning privacy initiatives that  hurt the economy, reduce the number of online options consumers have for news, entertainment and research and could even change pricing of mobile phone, Internet, television and other plans.

Most business leaders would agree that any short-term gains generated by compromising customer privacy would be offset by reputation damage and may eventually drive an organization out of business.  But consumers may not understand what happens when they install ad blocking software or take advantage of Firefox’s proposed “do not track” flag.

By informing companies that they don’t want their activities tracked or they don’t want to see advertising on websites or smartphones, consumers will block  the activity that allows organizations to provide free and subsidized services.   Google said that today that they would make code available for Internet developers to embed this opt-out mechanism in future browsers, but even The Washington Post conceded that doing so might cause repeated or less relevant ads.

Smart advertisers aren’t tracking you–they are tracking the activities of a computer session to serve better, more relevant advertising.  That tracking leads to better advertising targeting which means the companies sponsoring the information and connectivity are more profitable and can continue offering free services.  Imagine a world where  you pay a membership fee for access to a search engine or for Facebook or to watch a video.

Advertising pays for all of the services and more, including subsidized telephone services, broadband pricing initiatives and a global economy where a small business in Europe can compete with a multinational conglomerate in Los Angeles for the same consumers in South America.

You must know that companies have to be paid.  Someone pays the employees, pays for the lights to be on, pays for the things we all enjoy now free.

Forget free applications and consider how your daily surfing habits would change.  Email would likely remain free, but would probably have more restrictive sizes that wouldn’t allow pictures or files to be transmitted.  Even browsers are advertising or product supported.

Two popular browsers, Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, are directly supported through donations from Google, an organization that creates almost all of its revenue from online advertising.  You don’t pay $29.95 to buy browser software as you were expected to during the web’s nascent days.  And that’s true in so many situations because online advertising is affordable and effective.

I know that because I help small businesses and non-profits generate more revenue from their online advertising efforts.  That profit means they can create new jobs, keep prices stable a longer time and fund philanthropic activities.  Today’s Wall Street Journal print edition featured a story about Mozilla’s “do not track” future capability on the front page of its Marketplace section.  Further inside the section and no coincidence was an article about The New York Times’ plans to begin charging consumers for access via Amazon’s Kindle and the Apple iPad.

The Journal called this “the biggest test to date of consumers’ willingness to pay for news they’re accustomed to getting free.”

Providing bandwidth, content and creating websites costs money.  When consumers realize that some of their favorite activities may now be unavailable for free, it may be too late to restore some of those services.  Online ads are effective thanks to the tracking mechanisms that make ads appeal to the proper audiences. If ads become random and less efficient, you just may pay for the privilege of telling law-abiding companies that you don’t want to be tracked while organizations who don’t follow the practice or are not based in the United States will do as they please.

Ad blocking and “do not track” initiatives are bad for America’s businesses and worse for America’s consumers who use free Internet services.

Source:  ”Web Tool on Firefox to Deter Tracking”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Times Prepares Pay Wall”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Google, Mozilla Detail New Privacy Procedures“,  Washington Post, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Do Not Track FAQ“, Mozilla, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Keep Your Opt-Outs“, Google, 1/24/11
Image:   Courtesy of Armin Hanisch

Google, Bing and Moe: The Search Engines

uneven balanceWe’ve beat the drum about a search duopoly since before the Yahoo-Microsoft search alliance was finalized.

A duopoly is a market condition when there are two competitors serving many buyers.  Literalists will insist that Yahoo, Ask, AOL and meta search engines still receive a very large number of search requests.

That’s true.

What you need to know as a small business leader is that comScore’s latest data shows that Google or Bing “powered” 93.8 percent of US search in December.   There is an awful lot of money to be made in the fringes that remaining 6 percent or so.  But in January 2011, make sure you understand that web search is a two player game.

Yahoo! is reinventing itself into a content company as fast as it can.   AOL isn’t far behind.  And we’re not counting searches on entities like Facebook, Amazon or eBay.  One could argue that an Amazon search is in many ways a proxy for a commercial search–certainly among its core categories.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to remember that even Google says search engine optimization (SEO) is an ongoing process and you have two different companies in which to position your company’s goods and services.   That’s the first, ultimate priority because you reach 94% of the United States that way.

Source:  ”December 2010 Search Engine Rankings“, comScore, 1/14/2011
Image:  Balance by Stephen Stacey

Segmenting Email

Many small business leverage the power of email packages from companies like iContact, Constant Contact and Mail Chimp.  All have robust messages builders, built-in analytics and subscriber feature sets.  If you’re like me, you receive emails from clients, partners, colleagues and vendors.

There is the invariable newsletter, a big sales announcement or notices of upcoming meetings.

But most small businesses don’t leverage the functions in those email systems by creating segments.  Almost every business I speak with has a big list that receives the same email once or twice each month.

Consider segmenting your customers and sending regular email through the system.  For example, one client has a great data product that has a daily update.  By segmenting the email lists into various customer segments, this company can use the analytics to understand more about their customer behavior.

Other clients can create a newsletter for their customers and easily swap out one or two text blocks for prospects versus customers or non-prospects, non-customers versus those who receive product information.

Whether you use Outlook, Gmail or something else, your takeaway as a small business leader is to use your email marketing system’s lists to look at open rates, identify interested prospects and avoid sending that horrible “notify sender when read” message.

Segmenting your email addresses is something anyone can do that provides flexibility and tools far beyond your normal email client.

Google To Display More Product Info

Looking for product specs and descriptions? Google plans to list them directly on their site without sending the consumer to your site.

Google will begin using information compiled by data aggregators to provide information to consumers in the growing Google Products area.

The company has done this before, but things are different now.  The search engine once tried walling off internal information from products like Froogle and Google Product.  Now comes Google Product Search with product pages that compile “all the information” Google has on a product.

Google manager Brian Lam blogged yesterday that the company would “[work] with suppliers and manufacturers to get product data straight from the source.”   The company chose Edgenet, a data company that organizes information from thousands of companies in multiple sectors, including consumer electronics, furniture and “general merchandise”.
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How Different Businesses Treat Psuedo-Holidays

I wrote two years ago about productivity on pseudo-holidays, those days surrounding a holiday.  I call them CEO holidays because they’re days when the boss gets to be Santa CEO and declare an unofficial holiday.  They’re the kind of day where folks aimlessly wander around before a long weekend.  Thanksgiving and Christmas, often four day holidays, are often the worst.

Can we leave early today?

After so many requests, sometimes even from senior managers, the CEO declares a CEO pseudo-holiday.

“We’ll be closing today at 2 p.m. in observance of the holiday.”

(Err, you mean the one starting in two days?  And we’re leaving early today?)

I experienced something like that in reverse this month in a small business group at the local Chamber of Commerce. This business networking group exists for one reason–to help small businesses make more money through referrals, recommendations and learning about the capabilities of the individual members.

The group meets on Tuesdays and the next meeting is  November 23.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two days before Thanksgiving.  Two people mentioned that when the meeting was first announced and the rest of the group looked at them and muttered variations of the phrase, “So what?”

I was reminded of a time two years ago when I snuck online early Thanksgiving morning and someone asked me in Twitter what entrepreneurs call  Thanksgiving.

The answer:  Thursday.

Contrast that with a meeting I once had with some government folks.  I was eager to help with a project which a Deputy Chief of Something or Other assured me was the “agency’s top priority”.  We quickly agreed that the agency head should address an all-hands meeting.

Used to web speed, indeed one of the reasons they asked for my help, I began looking for open slots over the next 48 hours.

No, no… I’ll have to check his calendar.

Well, sure, but let’s put together two or three times, I suggested.  Then you check the calendar, confirm the time and away we go.

It’s not that easy.

Well, what’s so hard about it?  Okay, fine, I responded to some withering looks.  Check your calendar and let me know.

This critical kickoff meeting, the one that this government agency said was the most important initiative in the entire agency, took place 17 days later.   For those of you still scoring at home, that’s 4.5% of a YEAR.

There is a balance between CEO pseudo holidays, an entrepreneur working Thanksgiving morning and a government agency waiting a half-month before kicking off their “most important” initiative.

Finding that balance will help you keep your wits about you over the next 7 weeks of festivities.

Happy Thanksgiving.

E-Commerce Grows 9% This Quarter

shopping cartWeb measurement company comScore reports that e-commerce grew nine percent in the quarter just ended, a promising sign for online holiday sales and retail profitability.  The comScore data excludes large purchases like cars and travel and marks the fourth consecutive quarter in which overall spending has increased.

Company officials caution that overall spending doesn’t mean that all sectors of the economy have recovered.

comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni warned retailers to be aware of splits between haves and have-nots.   ”Even Americans who do have jobs still aren’t confident enough to spend freely and many are still pained by their loss of wealth since the financial crisis struck in 2008,” he said in a statement.  ”That and a higher consumer savings rate leaves less money for spending. Until the economy begins adding jobs at a meaningful rate, the lack of spending power among consumers will continue to be a drag on purchasing.”

But there is also a substantial split among  the million of Internet ecommerce sites.  comScore reported that the top 25 online retailers accounted for 70% of money spent online, up more than 8% in just one year.  That means the larger companies continue to account for more retail expenditures despite increases in online traffic, sites accepting online payments and overall expenditure growth.

Consumer spending was $32.1 billion for the three months ending October 31. The data seemed to echo a US Commerce Department estimate earlier in the day that reported “the fifth consecutive [monthly] increase in consumer spending, which has been accelerating over the past three quarters…”

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that consumers are spending more and spending more online, even as the largest e-commerce retailers capture more market share.. Remember that all boats rise together and while no one is suggesting that the economy is on solid ground, some sectors are beginning to show growth.

Source:  ”comScore Reports Q3 2010 U.S. Retail E-Commerce ”  comScore, 11/01/2010
Source: “Statement from US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke“, 11/01/2010
Image by Pam Roth