Act from the Perspective of Your Customers

Today, a client and I received a group text message from a marketing services vendor:

“Need to get your credit card today if possible. Got your bill together.”

I understand this vendor’s perspective. It’s nearing the end of the year, and they want to maximize revenue. From the message’s urgency, it’s likely they have outstanding accounts payable coming due.

But here’s our perspective. Asking for a credit card by text message without even sending the invoice for us to review appears desperate and unprofessional. We don’t have the same sense of urgency regarding this payment.

Recently, I was discussing the end-of-year sales pipeline with another client. We started our conversation with the question, “What will our customers need between now and the end of the year?” By focusing on the needs of the customer, we’ll ultimately enjoy stronger results through customer loyalty and referrals.

To build great customer relationships, all communication needs to prioritize the customer’s perspective.

Finding Leads on LinkedIn

Finding Leads on LinkedInLinkedIn is a great prospecting tool for B2B companies. In this article, learn more about finding leads on the platform. (If you’ve already established that you should develop a LinkedIn strategy, based on my article, “Is LinkedIn Right for Marketing my Small Business?“)

The key to finding leads is making connections, both by inviting many people to connect with you and by having memorable interactions with those people.

When you invite someone to connect with you, personalize the message beyond the default, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” My friend and business expert Steve Yastrow‘s biggest pet peeve is when people he barely knows send him the default connection invitation– he just ignores them. If you act like a robot, people will treat you like one.

How Do You Find People to Connect With on LinkedIn?

You know more people than you think you do! Most people can double their number of professional connections in just a few days.

Make connections with employees at your vendor and partner organizations– these contacts will be eager to connect with you and might have access to valuable leads.

Similarly, make an effort to connect with several people at your client organizations, not just your main contact. Developing more relationships will help broaden your involvement with your client.

Reflect on your past for opportunities to make connections. Consider high school classmates, church youth group friends or professors from college. Also, reach out to social contacts that might be professionally relevant, like parents from your kids’ playgroup.

If you’re fairly new in your career or business, consider connecting with friends of your parents who are more established professionally and will probably be glad to help your development.

These are just a few ideas to get you started expanding your LinkedIn network. Remember, “connecting” is not enough! Your lead generation will only be successful if you develop and maintain your relationships over time.

Give Thanks to Your Customers

How often do you “give thanks” to your customers? I don’t mean sending them a coupon or throwing them a scanty “Thank you!” as they walk out the door. I mean being truly thankful to your customers.

They could spend money with your competitors, yet they choose you. Without customers, you and your employees wouldn’t be able to make a living. Even be thankful for the customers who complain. Without them, you would never improve, and many silent customers would simply stop buying.

I can’t tell you how to give thanks to your customers because I don’t know them. Giving thanks is a personal, individualized practice, and you need to do it based on what you know about your customers.

So on the day after Thanksgiving, after you’ve given thanks to God, family and country, spare some time to be thankful for your customers.

5 Reasons Marketing is Everything

Marketing is everything. And I’m not exaggerating.

If marketing is an expression of your company’s reputation (or brand), then every experience your customers have with your company is a marketing interaction. Your customers don’t stop evaluating your company and forming opinions just because they aren’t interacting with your traditional marketing. Here are five reasons why everything you do is marketing.

  1. Receiving a rude call from your accounting department will override any positive experience a customer has had with a customer service representative.
  2. Having a great experience with her waiter will do more to grow your customer’s relationship with your restaurant than receiving a coupon in the mail.
  3. Getting cut off in traffic by your service technician will shape a potential customer’s opinion of your company more than receiving a sales call.
  4. Not being able to find someone to answer his question is more influential to your customer than the most comprehensive FAQ on your website.
  5. A compassionate employee on the phone can turn a billing error into a positive experience with your customer.

There is a common thread woven through all five examples. It is personal experience and human interaction. People are more important than marketing strategies. Personal experience is more powerful than brand promises. This conclusion shouldn’t be surprising. Your customers are individual people, and people value relationships.

Anytime you treat your customer as an individual instead of as part of a group, they will remember that instance more frequently and place more value on it. But, as you can see above, not every personal interaction with your business creates a good impression.

How well does your business handle personal interactions? Think broadly– anyone who sees a customer face-to-face, talks to a customer on the phone, writes email correspondence or interacts with customers using social media. Even more broadly, think of all the systems that enable these customer interactions such as your company policies, your website design, your phone system and the layout of your stores. Do these systems help facilitate great personal interactions?

As you ponder these questions, remember that your customers believe marketing is everything you do. Every minute they are evaluating you. Make those minutes count.

Marketing isn’t war on your customers.

Most marketing metaphors seem so violent. Many of these metaphors are directed at competitors- you need to outwit, outflank, outsmart the enemy. It’s a bit macho for me, but I get it. You want to beat the other guy.

I’m mostly bothered by the warlike analogies directed at customers, as if we are trying to fight, capture, abduct or otherwise force people to buy from us. As part of the marketing lexicon we have:

  • Email blasts – Hit prospects with enough firepower, and surely we’ll get a few casualties, uh I mean customers.
  • Targeting customers – Hit the bullseye, win a customer. Just hope he survives the blood loss.
  • Capturing eyeballs – Possibly the creepiest analogy. For me, it conjures up images of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Launching campaigns - This analogy is the most pervasive in marketing-speak, but it comes from military campaigns. Don’t attack until you see the whites of their eyes (see above).
  • Captive audiences – Once we’ve got them where we want them, they’ll have no chance but to pay attention! I believe this is the rationale for advertising placed above urinals.
  • Guerilla marketing – In case you thought marketing warfare was only for big companies. Now small businesses can get in on the assault. You may not be able to buy enough ad space to “cut through the clutter,” but you can certainly launch surprise attacks.

All this talk of conquering makes marketers lose sight of their customers’ humanity. After all, we are marketing to actual people. And actual people aren’t coerced into their purchasing decisions and won’t be swayed by “blasts” of advertising copy. They will just ignore you.

For marketing to be effective, it has to honor the true relationship between business and customer. Marketing parlance describes an outdated model of marketing when companies felt like they were in control. That illusion has been shattered. Now customers have many options, research tools and alternatives available to them. In reality, the customers call the shots, and they are in control.

But we need metaphors and analogies. It makes marketing efforts easier to visualize and share. These descriptions need to be accurate and enforce how people actually buy. A bad analogy is like a calloused rhinocerous (and the same can be said for bad similes, eh?). Let’s try to use realistic metaphors, ones that actually depict the relationship between business and customer. Some are already in circulation, such as the following:

  • Brand story – Instead of campaigns, develop a shared story between you and your customers. Think of advertising, PR and other communication methods as ways to move the story along.
  • Relationship marketing – Brand stories build relationships. With war marketing, you capture dollars. With relationship marketing, you develop a relationship that leads to sustainable business.
  • Seek permission – Get customers’ permission before starting up a conversation with them. Don’t waste time communicating with people who will never be your customer.
  • Engage customers – It’s your responsibility to find out what interests customers and engage them.
  • Build community - Engaged customers who are in a relationship with you will be eager to share that sense of community with others. A loyal community is the perfect referral network.
  • Email broadcast – No need to blast customers. Once you’ve sought permission, update them with content you wouldn’t mind getting in your own inbox.

Interestingly, some of these terms don’t have to be metaphors. We can have real relationships with our customers. Do you have more metaphors for my list? Email me at amanda@zooinajungle.com.

Let’s look at some success stories (it’s too easy to find failures). Here are four companies successfully putting these attitudes into practice.

Old Spice

Old Spice took their “Smell Like a Man, Man” story from a few clever commercials to an Internet phenomenon. They interacted with followers on Twitter, responding to questions with YouTube videos by the Old Spice Man himself. Hilarious? Certainly. And the business results were nothing to scoff at: the Old Spice line of products has skyrocketed in sales, rising by 107% in June.

But why did it work? Companies create funny ads all the time without such dramatic results. The key to this effort was acknowleding the power of the customer. Old Spice made their spokesman into a celebrity then shared him with the world. They encouraged their customers to be part of the joke.

Etsy – Buy and Sell Handmade

Etsy’s Facebook marketing is tailored for those who wish to buy or sell handmade and vintgage objects. They adopt a breezy, conversational style while recommending their sellers’ products. Here’s an example, where 57 people enjoyed reading about bird scupltures:

Author Guy Kawasaki

Apple veteran Guy Kawasaki’s Twitter strategy is unique and encourages curiosity. Imagine my surprise when I saw Guy Kawasaki was following people I know. It was flattering, but I found upon investigation that he is following 286,644 people. It’s very egalitarian of him to eschew the general rule that you shouldn’t follow more people than follow you. And, for me, seeing he follows people I know created a greater interest to learn more about him and his company. Like, did you know you can hire Guy for speaking engagements?

Wal-Mart (yes Wal-Mart!)

The retailing supergiant has avoided brute force marketing lately. Their Save Money, Live Better brand story tries to connect with customers, and they are building a community of “Savers.” Here is an excerpt from their website that shows their implementation:

The story extends to public relations as well- recently Wal-Mart donated 6,000 articles of professional clothing to Dress for Success, a group that helps unemployed women get ready for the workplace. Finding a job seems like a great way to Save Money, Live Better.

Small businesses are especially poised to take advantage of this empowering, personalized kind of marketing. Who could possibly be better at creating stories and growing relationships with their customers? How can you start putting these concepts to work for your business today?

Let’s get started!

Small Business Marketing for Startups

Yesterday, an acquaintance asked me for advice on his startup company’s marketing. He just didn’t know how to get started with his first customer. He wanted to know what kinds of brochures, business card or website he needed to get people interested.

I told him, “Decide who you want your customers to be.”

He replied, “Oh, you mean middle class or upper class?”

“No, I mean decide which specific people in which neighborhoods should be your customers. Get to know them, how they talk and what their needs are. Then you can start selling. Then you will know what should be on your website.”

When people first start looking for customers, their instinct is to look for large groups of people and hope to convince a few of those people to hire them. The idea is, “If I aim for all middle class families, surely I’ll get a couple of customers.” But this instinct is wrong. The more people with whom you try to communicate, the less each one will pay attention to you. For example, I imagine you rarely pay attention to the loudspeaker at the grocery store. It’s just not that meaningful to you because the grocery store is trying to communicate a general message to the entire store. When you try to be meaningful to everyone, you end up being meaningful to no one. Generalization for the masses is the worst way to sell a new (or any) product.

To find its first customer, a startup needs to get specific. Instead of selling to groups differentiated by demographics, sell to individual people. Talk their language and address their needs.

On a related note, marketing expert Steve Yastrow wrote two very helpful newsletters on how to differentiate your customers as individuals instead of groups– Do Differentiation Differently and How to Do Differentiation Differently. Steve’s essential message is:

“Your customer doesn’t really care if you are different. But he will be blown away if he sees that you think he is different.”

Showing your customer you think he is different is more work than blanketing a city with flyers- but it will also yield more results. As counterintuitive as it may seem, startups (and all companies) will find more customers if they focus on fewer people.

Be easy to do business with.

Recently, I outlined five small business marketing rules and invited you to take the test to see how your small business’ marketing performs.

This article focuses on the first rule- Be easy to do business with. Small businesses have the competitive advantage of being able to offer their customers flexibility, personalization and relationships.Your customers will be as loyal to you as you are to them- take advantage of this truism.

Being easy to do business with isn’t the only reason your customers will become loyal, but it is certainly a necessary condition. If you give your customers any reason not to buy from you, they probably won’t. If you make it difficult to do more business with you, they won’t do that either.

So how do you become easy to do business with? The first step is to analyze what your business is like from your customers’ point of view. This is not limited to marketing interactions with your customers but should include billing, customer service, waiting areas and every point of contact customers have with you. Ask your employees for their honest assessments and feel free to ask some of your customers about their experiences with your business.

Sometimes companies make operational decisions and neglect to consider how those decisions will affect the customer experience. A lovely restaurant near my office is open from 7AM – 2:30PM, which is brilliant for operations. They only require one eight-hour shift. It makes scheduling very easy. But how does it look from a customer’s point of view, when McDonald’s opens at 5AM for breakfast? How many potential customers avoid this restaurant when they have to be at the office by 8AM? You need to be available at the times your customers want to buy, even if it makes life more difficult for you.

Many small businesses avoid the hassle of accepting credit cards. Yet Nilson Reports show that there were 20.2 billion credit card purchase transactions in 2009. That’s about 65 credit card transactions per U.S. citizen each year. If given the choice, it’s likely your customers would prefer to pay by credit card (other studies also show consumers spend more when they use credit cards as opposed to cash, as well).

The next step to becoming easy to do business with is to test your processes internally before inflicting them onto your customers. I’ve received my fair share of speeding tickets, and I’m always amazed at how cumbersome it is to pay the fine. I’m certain all of my readers are law-abiding citizens, but you may have seen an acquaintance’s speeding ticket. In many states, the envelope provided to mail in payment is the same size as the ticket itself, requiring you to fold the ticket in quarters to mail it back. The government isn’t designed to be easy to do business with, but small business owners should learn from this lesson.

Accounts receivable is an area where many businesses aren’t easy to do business with. Have you ever tested the process required for your customers to pay you? Does your billing cycle consider your customers’ schedules, or is it simply convenient for you? Take a look at your invoices. Are they clear, professional and part of your branding experience? The worst invoices I’ve seen have a hodgepodge of clauses left over from process changes that were created for internal convenience.

Once you identify the areas where you are difficult to do business with, you need to fix those areas. This step can sometimes be impossible in large companies, where a labyrinth of bureaucracy cements processes in place. The great advantage of small businesses is their flexibility, though. Start by prioritizing the most important interactions and the ones with the most room for improvement.

Finally, tell your customers about your improvements. It doesn’t matter how many fixes you’ve made if your customers don’t give you credit for them! At your next appropriate interaction with each customer, mention your new, more convenient billing cycle or that you are now accepting credit cards.

Being easy to do business with should be a cycle of continuous improvement. Each improvement in your customer experience- no matter how small- will grow your customer loyalty a little more. Occasionally, ask some of your best customers what you could do to serve them better or how you could better meet their needs. Always be on alert for how you can make your customers’ experiences better- and actually make those changes.

Small Business Marketing Spotlight: LMB Associates

In the marketing spotlight this week, we have Lorena Blonsky, owner of LMB Associates, a firm specializing in recruitment of information technology professionals.

She has owned the business for the last 20 years and recruits mostly in Chicago and the Midwest. Lorena started off our interview by telling me, “I love being a small business owner because of the flexibility it allows in my schedule and because I love what I do. I’m able to control the quality of the work that gets done. I am committed to quality work; I have a commitment to my clients, and they really appreciate and value that.”

(Some recruitment definitions for my readers: Clients are the companies LMB Associates represents, while Candidates are those seeking jobs with LMB Associates’ clients.)

Since LMB Associates is in its twenty-first year, I wanted to know what factors Lorena credits for her success. She was able to give a very forceful answer:

Determination to succeed is critical and most important. There never was a question that I would succeed. Sometimes other people just give up.  When I first started, someone told me that I would make a lot of money and make it very quickly. In actuality, it took me eight months to make my first dime, and it wasn’t so easy. To people on the outside, they only see the end success. But there is a lot of work that goes into creating something and making it successful.”

Lorena emphasizes that hard work and determination are crucial for any aspiring entrepreneurs:

“It’s a very important thing to know and understand before you start your own business that it is going to be challenging. I’m glad I went through this experience, although I wasn’t glad at the beginning, while I was going through the pains of starting up. The truth is the start-up time gives you an accurate, honest assessment of what you’re in for, and I think that’s very important.”

Lorena’s hard work continues, as the economic downturn has become the biggest challenge for LMB Associates. Lorena says, “It’s been a shrinking job market, and my business is very dependent on economic circumstances.” She adds that the economy has had other, indirect, influences on her business: “There’s been a lot of volatility in the market, such as clients downsizing, consolidating offices or moving technology responsibilities offshore. Understanding these market changes present challenges but can also present opportunity.”

There is another looming challenge for the recruitment industry:  the Internet. Lorena isn’t worried about the challenge from Monster or HotJobs in the long run, because recruitment web sites aren’t necessarily saving companies time or money.  Recruitment web sites offer a high volume of resumes, but they provide no quality control. She says, “Companies need more capable, human resources to put toward screening candidates when they choose that option. I offer more than bodies to fill a room or paper in the form of dozens of resumes. I work with each client organization to find the best match for their needs.”

Many companies find that using recruitment web sites can tarnish their reputations among job seekers, if they do not follow up with candidates. Lorena explains,

“Candidates often don’t get responses from the companies to whom they send their resumes.  Companies should send a letter of thanks to a candidate who has sent his or her resume. It makes the companies look bad when they don’t respond. The way a person or organization treats people is very, very important. If you treat people poorly, they won’t want to work with you and that reputation will get into the marketplace.  And if you treat people with respect, they never forget it.”

Treating people respectfully is key to LMB Associates’ business. Lorena’s marketing strategy is to treat people as individuals, learn about their needs and develop relationships with them. She says,

“Often recruiters are just looking for the next buck. I differentiate myself by treating people as people. I give people the respect they deserve. Candidates might not know how to write a résumé, so I give them my time, sample resumes, suggestions and support. Candidates can become demoralized while searching for a job. I pump people up to feel good about themselves, because they need to know that, even though the market may be tough, they bring value to the marketplace. It’s a big deal to give people a boost so that they can get out there and do what they have to do: find a new job.”

She uses a similar strategy for her client organizations:

“I listen to what my clients say they need, then I ask questions, based on the qualifications they seek, their insight and feedback. My clients have personnel issues that need to be addressed, certainly that they need to hire someone but also often beyond the job description. What my clients need from me is to maintain confidentiality, to understand their needs and to assess what types of candidates will fit into their organizations.”

From listening to Lorena, it is evident that she loves what she does:  working with her clients and candidates. Before concluding the interview Lorena added,

“I like working in technology because it’s always changing and mind-expanding, and I like working with technology people, who are on the cutting edge of that change. I like having clients in a variety of industries; it makes work more interesting. I love working with candidates, who are all different kinds of people from all cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, and environments.”

To learn more about LMB Associates, view current job openings or contact Lorena, visit LMB Associates.

Undercover Customer Relationships

Who would have thought reality television would showcase the value of creating customer relationships? CBS’s show, Undercover Boss, follows CEOs of  large corporations as they “go undercover” as entry-level employees. In several instances, the CEOs have learned just how important these employees’ relationships are to creating loyal customers.

Joseph DePinto, CEO of 7-Eleven, wanted to discover the secret of their most successful stores. He said of one location,

“It’s the epicenter of coffee for 7-Eleven. This store sells more than 2,500 cups of coffee every day. I need to figure out what makes their coffee business so great, so I can roll it out to our other stores.”

He finds out that in this store with the highest volume of coffee sales, it’s all about the relationship, not the product.  Watch the clip below:

After working with Delores, who greets most customers by name, Joseph DePinto realizes,

“That’s why we’re selling 2,500 cups of coffee. Not because we have great coffee but because we have Delores there.”

In a more unusual situation, Waste Management president Larry O’Donnell learns the local trash collector is the literal face of his company to customers. After watching trash collector Janice greet and hug customers, he began to see her job as building relationships with their customers, in addition to collecting the trash. He made plans to change Waste Management’s approach to productivity measurement.

The specific segment isn’t available, but the full episode is here: Undercover Boss – Waste Management (The segment starts at 30:00).

These corporate leaders got the opportunity to see what their customers and employees experience first-hand. They witnessed the value of customer relationships. But you don’t have to go undercover to build relationships with your customers- you just have to start doing it.

Small Business Marketing Spotlight: Reflected Spectrum Photography

Reflected Spectrum Photography is an Indianapolis-based firm specializing in wedding photography, creative portraiture, and fine art photography. Although the business has only been in operation for a year, owner Laura Poland has turned it into a successful venture. Laura is a professional photographer who also runs the business. In this interview, she will share her advice for small business success, some challenges she has faced and the joy she has for photography. I’m certain readers will also enjoy the beautiful photographs she has supplied for this article.

Laura starts by telling us what she enjoys about owning her own business:

I love the freedom I get from owning a business.  I have full creative control over all my work, so I’m free to try new techniques and experiment with new ideas.  I’m also able to work at my own pace, set my own hours, and choose my own assignments.

But all small business owners discover challenges as they grow. For Reflected Spectrum Photography, Laura was already an experienced photographer, but running the other aspects of the business, such as sales, marketing and finance, was difficult at first. Since her core competency was photography, she sought advice:

I continue to learn as much as I can about these fields to improve my knowledge and skills in those areas, but I have also benefited greatly from the help of good consultants, such as Zoo In A Jungle Marketing and Andrew Technology. Having expert advice available has been extremely helpful to give my business a head start.

As with most successful small businesses, Reflected Spectrum Photography focuses on the customer experience and building relationships. Relationship-building is easier for small businesses than with large ones, which is a key competitive advantage of being small. Laura agrees and adds, “I really enjoy building relationships with all my clients. I find it very rewarding to be present at the most special moments in my clients’ lives, and to see how their children have grown at each new portrait session.”

Laura realizes that satisfying her clients involves more than delivering beautiful photographs, so she ensures they have a great experience during the photo shoot as well:

I try to help my clients feel relaxed and get them excited about having their pictures taken. If my clients are enjoying themselves, that allows me to capture special moments as they happen and preserve them as art, and I hope that they will be treasured for years to come. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the expression on my clients’ faces when I’ve captured the perfect expression of happiness on their child’s face, or caught a spark of real emotion from their wedding day. If my customers enjoy the experience and love the results, they are likely to hire me again in the future and refer me to their friends.

As for building her customer base, Laura has employed a very successful web marketing strategy and client referral network. She says, “Before you can make a client happy, you first have to actually get some clients, so well planned sales and marketing strategies have played a key role in my success.”

As a successful small business owner, Laura parted with the following advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:

Before you start to focus on selling your products or services, build a solid foundation for your business to grow on.  Once you become successful, you may be too busy with your clients to focus on building a good web site, formulating targeted marketing initiatives, or finding a record keeping system that works for you.  If you need help with any of these things, don’t be afraid to ask!  Help is out there in many forms.  Books, forums, internet articles, and expert consultants are all available to help you get your business off to the right start.

Contact Info:

Reflected Spectrum Photography
Laura Poland
http://www.reflectedspectrum.com