Tuesday, January 30, 2007

 

Building your business with customer focus

I was asked yesterday to define the single most important factor in helping a business achieve phenomenal growth and success. I'm sure there are many answers to this question, but my answer typically comes down to the right people. If you can find, hire and motivate the right people, everything else is achievable.

But "the right people" means more than just hard workers, more than just type-A personalities, more than just a reputation for producing results. The right people have a deep-rooted passion for the success and satisfaction of their customers. Such passion and drive for customers, combined with the right mix of work ethic and focus, creates the best opportunity for success in any organization.

Mark Strother (pictured left with customer), a senior coach at HouseValues, epitomizes this customer passion and focus. Mark's job for the past five years, plain and simple, has been to make his customers successful. He spends every day on the phone (and occasionally in person) with his customers, teaching them what they need to do to accelerate their real estate careers.

Now, our entire organization is focused on making real estate agents more successful. But Mark embodies that better than anybody I know. He exudes passion for his job, and excitement for his customers. When one of his customers shares a success story, Mark's face lights up. He starts talking with his hands. He walks around the office bragging about the success of his customers. You'd think his daughter just made the Honor Roll. His customers are his family.

This customer passion is even more evident when Mark is on the road, working live with his customers. In Minneapolis, for example, Mark developed a state fair marketing strategy that helped one of his customer earn more than $50,000 dollars over the course of two fairs. You should see (via the power of YouTube) Mark and his customer talk together about this project. The video tells the story better than I can just how committed Mark is to his customers.

Mark is "the right people." Mark cares deeply for the success of his customers, and does whatever it takes to make them happy and successful. Better yet, his passion is infectious. Mark leads by example in his organization, and encourages others to care deeply about their customers as well.

Successful businesses, businesses with a reputation for customer centricity and intimacy, are built with people like Mark at the center.

Do you have people like this in your organization? If so, how are you helping them accelerate their impact on the business, and how are you helping their passion rub off on other employees?

 

What about Peerflix?

There's been a lot of buzz this month about Netflix and Blockbuster Total Access, especially with Blockbuster's New Year Blitz of ads for their new-and-improved online service. I've been a loyal Netflix subscriber for years, and started using Blockbuster's Total Access a few weeks ago.

But the service it seems nobody is talking about anymore is Peerflix. I started using Peerflix last summer as an alternative means of watching more movies. Instead of a rental model, Peerflix is a peer-to-peer movie trading service.

It was a great service until December, when they rolled out a brand new Web site with lots of great new features, a better customer interface, etc.

I'm still a big fan of the Peerflix model, but it apparently no longer works. Despite having 142 movies on my "want" list, and plenty of "trade cash" in my reserve, I haven't received a single DVD since December.

I've long wondered if Peerflix's days are numbered. A peer-to-peer model sounds great, but inventory is its Achilles' Heel. It requires each user to stay active, and continue passing discs back and forth.

But if somehow the Web site and/or the back-end software no longer facilitates customer requests efficiently, it brings the whole thing to a screeching halt.

With services like Netflix and Blockbuster working so seamlessly now, is this the beginning of the end for Peerflix? And why isn't anybody talking about it?

 

A great reason to watch more TV!

Bravo to Paul Williams at Idea Sandbox for pointing out some of the best elevator pitch writing in the marketing world today. It's been going on for years, right under our noses. Where is it? On your television, of course.

Paul points out several great examples of current and past television programs that concisely and accurately capture the premise and excitement of the program in just 1-2 sentences.

When was the last time you were able to capture the essence of your business in language this tight? And when was the last time that business or product description also excited your customer or prospect, and drove them to want to learn (or watch) more?

Read more here. Great work, Paul!

Monday, January 29, 2007

 

Take the Buzz Challenge!

I'm a huge fan of Ron McDaniel and the work he's doing at Buzzoodle, so I'm happily taking his Buzz Challenge. As featured in his new book, Ron's challenging all marketers and business owners to accelerate the growth of their business by creating more buzz.

The list below is a fantastically diverse set of tasks, all of which can help you generate buzz. Some will take just a couple seconds, others a little longer. Some will be easy, others will take you out of your comfort zone. I can already see a few tasks I'm not comfortable with, but will push through and do them anyway.

An interesting side-exercise is to determine how many of these tasks you've already completed, or already make a part of your regular routine. How good of a job do you already do at creating buzz for your product or your business?

Below is Ron's Buzz Challenge list. As I complete each task, I'll cross it off below. Click here to get a clean copy for your own Challenge!


Email an Old Friend or Acquaintance
Contact a Stale Connection
Email Extended Family
Call Someone You Have Never Talked To
Congratulations Call or Note
Send a Surprise Letter
Any Day Card
Mail a News Clipping
Social Networking
Online Directory
Squidoo Expert Lens
Tag Your Website or Blog
Blog/Message Board Comment
Join/Participate in an Online Group
Talk to a New Person in Person
Contact a Reporter or Writer
Contact an Old Employer/Employee
Customer Follow-up
Call/Email a Person You Respect
Mini Announcements
Digg Your Site
Flickr Fun
Personal Success Email List
Did You Know? - Trivia
Instant Messaging
Text Messaging
Email a Useful Link to Someone
Testimonials
Celebrate Success
Write a Blog
Have a “Get To Know You” Meal
Host a Dinner Party
Arrange a Networking Lunch
Publish an Article
Meet More Neighbors
Send a Press Release
Give a Speech
Volunteer
Online Interview/Podcast
Conduct a Survey
Local Government Involvement
Open House
Interview a Leader
YouTube.com
Meet Business Neighbors
eNewsletter or Newsletter
Produce an eBook
Nominate an Organization
Challenge a Coworker to a Buzz-Off
Podcast Show
Host a Seminar or Training Session
Unexpected Booth
Organize a Group
Become a Board Member
Conduct a Focus Group/Roundtable
Conduct a Customer Contest
Organize a Charitable Event




Sunday, January 28, 2007

 

Getting Organized, Part III


So, I'm using Outlook Tasks more frequently and setting my daily Top Five priorities.

But it all comes down to the binder.

In the past, I've walked around the office from meeting to meeting with a notebook and a couple unorganized folders of handouts. I had most of what I needed, but it was desperately unorganized. Within a meeting, I often had a hard time finding exactly the document or information I needed. My notebook was great, but it along with a couple folders was a lot to manage. That, plus information was always in several different places.

Not now, not with the binder. Here's a quick description of what I've done.

It's just a small, one-inch binder, but it's got everything I need.

The front and back cover have a plastic sleeve so that I can slip paper inside. The front cover of my binder features my calendar for the day, with a sidebar that features my top five and "first of five" for that day. The back cover is my task list, so that it's easy to reference at a quick glance.

Inside the binder is an opening for loose-leaf handouts I might receive throughout the day. Those handouts are destined either for a folder in my office (if they likely won't be referenced often) or for a special place inside the binder itself.

The binder features eight dividers - each corresponding to an important, long-term initiative or business I'm focused on. Well, six of the dividers are devoted to this. The seventh is for personal business, and the eighth is for miscellaneous items.

In the front of the binder, I've three-hold punched a few pieces of copy paper. That's my new notebook, and is where I take notes and hand-write to-do items through the day. Important notes might be transcribed later, and to-do items are added to my Tasks list eventually (unless they're quick to-do's, in which case they're taken care of before I leave for the day).

That's it. It's not fancy, and cost me all of $12 bucks at the local OfficeMax, but it's made me far more organized and productive when away from my office during the day.


 

Thinking big, act (and spend) small

Are you a small business trying to build a significant presence for yourself quickly, and for a low cost? In just part of an afternoon, you can:

Start a blog on Blogger.com, and teach people things you know. Home improvement tips, beauty advice, fashion trends, whatever you do. Blogger is free.

Register a "vanity URL" via GoDaddy to promote your blog. Just have the new vanity URL redirect to your blog, and that's your Web site! Your URL will cost just $7 bucks each year.

Start asking your customers for their email address, and start a newsletter via Constant Contact. It's free for 60 days, or free forever if your email database is less than 50 names. But if your database is between 51 and 500 names, it's still just $15 bucks a month. Your newsletter features teasers to content on your blog, which drives traffic back to your Web site. Professionally-designed templates are waiting and ready, all included in the price.

Promote your Web site and newsletter by printing business cards with VistaPrint.com. Your first 250 business cards are free, and to add a newsletter sign-up tout on the back (with URL) it's just $6 bucks. You'll pay for shipping, but that's just another $5 bucks if you do the economy ship rate.

So, you now have a custom Web site, custom URL, an email newsletter, and business cards to promote all of the above.

And your first month fees (including the annual costs) is $18 bucks. Each month moving forward, it's just $15 bucks a month.

Perfect for small businesses, right? Sure. But if you're a big company, or big agency, why not try these tools for your next marketing campaign? Your next product launch? Or your next guerilla effort? I'm guessing it'll be far cheaper than other options. And it'll take less than an afternoon to get up and rolling.

 

Happy Customers = Buzz, Beautiful Buzz

Last night my wife and I ate at Mama Lucia's, a fantastic Italian restaurant near downtown Kirkland, Washington. We eat there all the time - it has great food, a fun menu, good wine, good prices, and great service.

Last night we were seated at a table that wobbled, so we asked the waitress if they had a shim. We didn't need to be reseated, we just wanted to help fix the problem.

The manager came over and asked if we wanted a different table. Turns out, they had a larger party they wanted to seat at our table anyway, plus they wanted to fix the wobbly table and get us somewhere more stable.

The manager offered a free dessert for moving. We thanked her, but said it really wasn't necessary.

At the end of our dinner, the manager reappeared and asked what dessert we wanted. My wife chose a slice of cheesecake, and I also ordered an espresso.

When the bill came, I was surprised to see that they had comped us for both the dessert and the espresso. When I flagged down the manager and asked to pay for the espresso, she said absolutely not.

Successful, buzzworthy businesses know that little things can go a long way. Mama Lucia's might not have thought I'd blog to the world about their fantastic little restaurant, but I'm sure they knew they were creating a noteworthy experience - something that was likely to convert into at least a few repeat visits, and probably a little word-of-mouth to family and friends.

So, what's your espresso? What are you doing to let your customers know they're priority number-one? Big initiatives are great, but the little things can often have the same noteworthy, buzzworthy effect.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

 

Getting Organized, Part II

I wrote a couple days ago about my use of Microsoft Outlook's "Tasks" features to help me organize several aspects of my life, both professional and personal. Making lists of the things I need to do, and aggregating those lists in one place, has been quite helpful in increasing my productivity.

Getting more things done is a good first step. But I'm also getting more of the right things done, thanks to a daily "top five" list.

Let's first assume that your organization has set explicit goals for this year, and this quarter. Let's also assume that you've done the same for yourself - mapped what the company needs back to the specific things you need to accomplish this year, and this quarter, in order to succeed.

If you know what success looks like at the end of this quarter, you should be able to map that back into weekly, even daily, deliverables for yourself and your team.

And that's where the top five, and "first of five", come in.

Many people set priorities, but fail to effectively prioritize the priorities. If I have five priorities today, and get two of them done, were those the most improtant two priorities to get done? Did you get done the most important priority today?

With the myriad things on our plates each day, it's easy to focus on some of the easiest projects, or the emails in front of us, or simply be reactive to what appears the most urgent. But if we look back, that work rarely maps to the most important, most direct means of achieving our monthly, quarterly and annual objectives.

So now, every morning, I establish my top five priorities for the day. And I focus on achieving the priority at the top of the list. If I've prioritized correctly, I'm spending my time on the most important project - that day, and every day.

Tomorrow, the list simply shifts up. Today's #2 priority (assuming it didn't get done) becomes tomorrow's "first of five", and gets done.

Lists are important. Prioritized lists are better. And getting the most improtant priority done each day is far better than simply getting "a lot done."

To learn more about top five lists, and the "first of five", check out Verne Harnish's great work.

 

Testing the bounds of permission

Bob Bly has started a good conversation about just how far permission can be stretched, particularly in the email marketing world.

Just because you've given a company permission to send you email, doesn't necessarily mean they can email you daily. Or multiple times daily. Unless that's what you expected, or what you requested.

Permission is not a binary decision by your customers. It's rarely black and white. Just because a new customer wants to stay in touch, and has put their email address on a signup sheet next to the register, doesn't mean they want you to move in and be their new best friend.

By effectively capturing permission intent from your customers, you can ensure that you're being as respectful as possible to 100% of your customers, while increasing frequency (and sales opportunities) with those who want such a deeper relationship.

Friday, January 26, 2007

 

Making community work (without doing a thing)

Online communities don't really work when they're controlled by a company, brand or individual that has a vested interest in managing the conversation.

They don't really work when the conversation is dominated by one or two strong-minded individuals.

They don't really work when they're thought of as a communication channel to one's customers.

And yet, many companies and brands justify online customer forums with one or more of these objectives in mind.

The problem is, your customer is much smarter than that. They'll see through your strategy in a second.

The best communities are those that develop, blossom and mature on their own. The best communities are truly egalitarian, with a free exchange of ideas and opinions.

And whether you believe it now or not, this is actually the most valuable forum for marketers and product planners as well. When your customers are able to share ideas and opinions with each other freely, you get a true sense for what they like, what they don't like, what they want, and what they don't want.

Online communities that are given the freedom to find their own path represent a gold mine for marketers. Are you brave enough to let them develop? And are you smart enough to listen, and take action on what you've heard?

 

How to handle bad news

How a company handles bad news goes a long way in defining how it thinks about its business, its customers, and its employees.

Kudos to Rich for his analysis of how two Seattle companies handled recent bad news very differently, and what it means for their long-term reputation as well as their opportunity to make things right again.

(disclaimer, I work for HouseValues, one of the companies discussed here)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

 

What's your paperclip?

I love this (see photo).

How are you best using the resources available to you, to achieve your goals and delight your customers? Assume you will never have a complete set of the perfect tools in your marketing toolbox. You'll always need something - more money, more resources, a bigger team, new technology, etc.

But what are you doing to squeeze the maximum value out of what you already have? How are you reinventing how your current resources are used to achieve the next level of success - for yourself, your company and your customers?

What's your paperclip? And how will YOU use it?

 

The Marketer Chasm

Standout marketing is about walking the other direction, doing something different, standing out from the crowd.

Seth Godin has a knack for pointing out critical insights with simple, succinct language. This line he credits to a friend of his (who was describing a colleague), but I also thought it was a great example of what separates good and great marketing minds.

I believe she is good at the standard but limited in considering the notable.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

 

Do your customers talk about themselves?

How would your customer describe your product? Would they spend most of their time talking about the product or your company, or would they talk about themselves?

Kathy correctly points out that the best product reviews have customers talking about how good the product makes them feel, or how it makes them look good.

The best products are transparent. They don't get in the way of your customers achieving what they really want.

Kathy recommends having your product team write their own product review, and see how many times they use (or don't use) the word "I".

Her post is worth a read (as is the entire Creating Passionate Users blog).

 

Getting Organized, Part I

As part of my New Year's Resolutions, I'm trying to get better organized - both in my professional and personal life. Like you, I find I'm constantly pulled in a thousand different directions, and have a hard time 1) remembering everything I need to do (or want to do), and 2) putting them in a good, priority order so that the most important things are getting done first.

One of the things I've started doing is make extensive use of the "tasks" feature in Microsoft Outlook. I've used this feature on and off for years, but just recently have started making them a regular part of my organizational structure.

In the past, I've kept primarily work-related items in my Task list. Now, I'm starting to keep track of everything.

Yes, my work priorities and deliverables are all there, divided by functional responsibility. But I'm also tracking my "honey do" list for projects around the house. I'm tracking my progressive shopping list for weekend trips to The Home Depot. Calls I need to return (personal and professional). Books I want to read (and either purchase or check-out from the local library). Personal errands. Even an inventory of future blog posts. It's all organized as Tasks.

This may seem like overkill, but I now have (one one piece of paper) an inventory of things across my life that are important to me, and that I want to get done.

So far this year (three weeks and counting), I've found this format to be very helpful and highly productive.

It's one of several things I've started doing to get myself better organized and significantly accelerate my productivity. I'll share a few more tips in the coming days.

Monday, January 22, 2007

 

Marketing candy for your inbox


(Disclaimer: Somewhat self-promotional plug ahead)

Over the past year, I’ve ramped up a little consulting enterprise called Heinz Marketing. It’s been a fun side project for me, as I’ve been able to help friends work though marketing and business development challenges in their own businesses and agencies.

This year, I’ve added a monthly newsletter to the mix. It includes a few "greatest hits" from this blog and others, but also will include some good resources and content I find elsewhere that I believe will help busy marketing and business professionals.

Whether you're in the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company, or a small business owner looking for an edge, I'm hopeful this newsletter has something to help you.

You can sign up from the left-hand sidebar of this blog, or via this link.

Thanks for your interest!

 

Can a photograph lie?

How many of you have responded to a real estate listing advertisement - either posted online or in a newspaper - only to find that the neighbor's wall is far closer than the picture implied? Or that there's something very scary behind the back fence, conveniently out of frame from the photograph posted on the listing?

Kudos to Ardell for taking on the subject of ethical real estate photography today on the well-done Rain City Guide real estate blog. She goes as far as to say classes in photo editing should be a required class for new agents.

Real estate photography really isn't much different from the "spin" we all put on our products & services. If a real estate listing photograph is cropped such that you can't tell see the negative aspects of the home, how is that different from the rest of us "touting" the great features of our new product, but failing to mention slow speeds and/or low battery life?

Where's the line between spin and disclosure? What level of spin is ethical, and when does it border on deception?

The long-term risks for real estate agents are mitigated by the fact that nobody really buys a home sight unseen. The worst they'll likely do is waste your time with an extra trip to their listing.

For those of us who compel a sale with largely our words and images, the stakes are much higher.

What are the risks for your business, your brand, and your products? Is it simply selling a product that your customer might not want, or is it bigger than that? Are you risking the very reputation of your company?

Weighty issues, that clearly can't be taken lightly.

(Thanks Ardell for letting me borrow the picture)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

 

The Long Tail and Stadium Cakes

Much has been written about the long tail created by the Internet, and I've said before that I don't think the long tail is anything new. It's just that the Interent has made the tail infinitely more discoverable.

My dad reminded me of this earlier today. He grew up just a couple hours from Chicago, so came over to watch the Bears beat the Saints for their first Super Bowl berth in 21 years.

He showed up this morning with a cake to enjoy at halftime. But this wasn't just any cake. It was a stadium-shaped cake. He'd frosted the entire thing to look like Soldier Field (the Bears' home turf), complete with fans and grass.

Fifteen years ago, stadium-shaped cake pans existed. If you could find it, you could buy it. But that was the problem. Unless you knew specifically which vendor sold them, you likely were out of luck.

Specialty catalogs for such obscure items as stadium-shaped cake pans have existed for decades. But unless you were mailed such catalogs (let alone flipped through every page), your chances of buying them were slim.

This channel problem impacted more than just discoverability. It also had an impact on availability. Twenty years ago, stadium-shaped cake pans weren't widely offered to the public. They were primarily available directly to bakers and caterers. Why? Because manufacturers of stadium-shaped cake pans could only profitably sell those pans through more efficient sales channels. Finding consumer buyers just wasn't cost-efficient.

But the Internet has changed that. I can do a search for "stadium-shaped cake pans" on Google and be linked straight to a seller. Now, obscure products can find their buyers far more efficiently, and with greater volume.

This will continue to accelerate the variety of products at our fingertips, catering to increasingly specific interests.

Update: My wife read this post, and she wants to know why I can't just enjoy a good piece of cake...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

 

Mistakes at the middle of the ladder

Bright young people generally shoot up the corporate ladder based on a combination of smarts, ambition and results.

But without effective people and workplace skills, some of those bright people stall after a few years.

Marshall Goldsmith pulled together a great list of common mistakes made be eager, emerging leaders. Avoiding these can be the key to continued growth.

These were published in last week's Business Week, reprinted by Brand Autopsy.

Enjoy!

 

My unsuccessful attempt to cancel TiVo


I called TiVo this morning to cancel my account. But they saved me.

For the past year my wife and I have primarily used our Comcast DVR box to record TV programs. I love that it has a double-tuner and HD recording capabilities (TiVo didn't have this at the time).

Our TiVo box is still active, but it's hooked up to a secondary television at the house that we don't use as frequently. We'd transfered all of our "season passes" to the Comcast box, so haven't really been using TiVo anymore.

So I called today to cancel. They asked why I was cancelling, so I explained the circumstances above.

I half-expected them to tell my why TiVo was better - explain its great features (many of which Comcast doesn't have, and my wife still misses), maybe even offer a free upgrade to the new double-tuner Series 3 box.

Instead, I was surprised when the customer service rep offered to cut my price in half. Instead of paying $12.95/month, she offered me $6.95/month to stay on.

Now, offering price reductions as a "save" strategy is nothing new, and is fairly common. But I was a little surprised that this was the first thing out of the rep's mouth when I said I wanted to cancel.

A couple lessons here, I think, for both businesses and consumers.

For consumers, make sure you're sharing feedback, concerns, even the possibility of cancellation with the companies you do business with. You never know when they'll offer you an upgrade, a reduced price, a different cell phone, better plan, etc. to keep your business.

For businesses, make sure you're not using price reduction strategies too aggressively. If you ask a couple questions and better understand "why" your customers might want to leave, you might be able to save them with a less-costly upgrade or change to their subscription that, in the long run, is far more profitable than a significant price cut.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

Act like an owner

I remember my first business trip at my first job after college. It was in NYC on a press tour for a client (I was at the PR firm Weber Shandwick at the time).

I assumed I would spend the trip eating Subway sandwiches and fast food, the cheapest food possible so that it wouldn't cost my company, or my client, any more than was necessary. I remember a colleague taking a $4.50 bottle of water out of the wet bar and being shocked (shocked!) that they would do this. That was a WAY overpriced bottle of water, that our client was going to have to pay for! I couldn't believe it! Shoudn't we be more frugal? Shouldn't we be more careful with our client's money?

I soon realized that eating fast food with and without clients wasn't always feasible. But I still cringed at the price of unscrewing that small bottle of water next to the bed at hotels.

When I joined Microsoft a couple years later, I remember watching colleagues order extra computer equipment for their offices - not because they needed it, but because they could.

I remember going on business trips - client visits, trade shows, etc. I was shocked at what was ordered and purchased, all on the company dime, and often without a client anywhere in sight. Colleagues laughed at the idea of dining at Applebee's (Subway was out of the question), and headed to Morton's instead. "Uncle Bill" was picking up the tab, so order what you want!

Years later I joined a private start-up. Our CEO was also the founder. The majority of his personal net worth was tied up in the company.

I realized I had come full circle. At this company, I made purchase decisions like an owner because I worked for the owner. Even as the company grew quickly, the culture was such that we all spend (and saved) money like it was our company.

No matter where you work - a company large or small, private or public - there's no reason why we can't all take an "owner" mentality.

Do you really need an expensive agency to help you create a new customer promotion, or do you have the smarts and customer knowledge internally to hunker down, get create, and do the work yourself?

Do your customers really want to be taken out to the fanciest restaurant, or would they be impressed that you take them somewhere more reasonable, proving that you're investing your money in product development and not on wining & dining?

Do you really need that extra magazine subscription, or can you share a subscription with a couple other colleagues down the hall?

What if your company was your company? What if purchase decisions you make every day had a direct impact on your personal net worth, your personal savings?

Would you make decisions any differently than you do today?

What responsibility do you have to your company to spend wisely? What example are you setting for those around you? If you're a business leader, what levels of accountability are you creating for such behavior, and what rewards are you putting in place to encourage the right fiscal actions?

 

Great business books aren't always about business

I was excited to see Ben's list of top 10 books that every business leader should read, and was particularly excited to see that he included a book that is not about business.

Amidst such classics as Selling the Dream and Purple Cow (the entire list is well done and on target), Ben also listed Theodore Rex, part two in a three-part biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (part three has yet to be published). In addition to a great biographical text, Ben described the book as also "a treatise on the qualities of superhuman energy, charm and political skill."

Fictional novels, biographies and other reading material can often be very instructive for busy business leaders and managers, even if they're not found on the Business shelf at the local bookstore.

A couple books I've read recently that also fit this bill include:

His Excellency, a biography of George Washington by Joseph Ellis. Washington was an incredible leader, and this book gave myriad examples of why.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, by David Maraniss. Roberto Clemente's contributions to baseball weren't well known until his untimely death in 1972, largely because he labored his entire career in small-market Pittsburgh. But Clemente was a giant of a man, a pioneer for Latin Americans in baseball, with a clear direction for his life. His life story provides examples of leadership, commitment, focus and determination - all critical skills for leaders at every level.

 

Back inside a Blockbuster

I hadn't been inside a Blockbuster store in years, until this weekend.

I've been a loyal NetFlix fan since 2003, but recently signed up for Blockbuster's Total Access program to see which was better.

The inside of a Blockbuster store hasn't changed much in four-plus years. Plenty of stained carpets, stacks of used DVDs for sale, and oversized boxes of candy next to the check-out register.

I was there to get my retail Blockbuster membership (to take advantage of the "instant return" portion of Total Access) and was surpised at the clerk's ambivalence to my request for a membership application.

Looking around the front of the store, part of Blockbuster's "return your online video in person" strategy became clearer. Just like Walgreen's, they appear to be cramming the point-of-sale with tons of impulse purchase opportunities - not just candy but also gift cards, new release purchase opportunities, and bargain-priced $3.99 used DVD movies. Those low-priced used movies are very high-margin for Blockbuster, not to mention a great opportunity to move excess inventory quickly.

While I waited for my application to be processed (on what appeared to be a Commodore 64 computer behind the counter), I watched four other Blockbuster customers check out with their rentals. All four were given the Total Access upsell pitch, and all four declined. The script and passion behind the pitch on each count was unimpressive.

It made me wonder where Blockbuster's online rental business growth strategy lies. Are they primarily hoping to convert people away from NetFlix, as their current television strategy implies? Or are they hoping to upsell their offline customers? My assumption is the former, at least for now.

But despite my concerns with ambivalent sales clerks and stained carpets, there was one thing about Blockbuster stores that I had forgetten about - the treasure hunt.

Searching for movies to rent online requires a level of self-direction. I have to start my search somewhere - in a particular genre, via a favorite actor, etc. Wandering through a Blockbuster store provides the ultimate opportunity to discover, and re-discover, movies that I really want to watch, but probably wouldn't have thought about unless they were staring me in the face.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

 

How to win back my business

This past weekend I finally signed up for Google Desktop. For those that haven't tried it yet, Google Desktop is essentially a sidebar of "widgets" that sits on the side of your screen, and give you easy access to things like sports scores, stock prices, news headlines, etc. Many companies (and most of the major portals) are offering a flavor of widgets, but I was impressed with the ease of use from Google.

Problem was, come Monday morning, I noticed that performance on my laptop had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I ultimately targeted Google Desktop as the culprit, and uninstalled the program.

But here's where things got interesting. As soon as the "uninstall" application completed, I was sent to a Google page asking me why I decided to uninstall. One of the options was "it slowed down my computer." Once I selected this option, I saw the following message from Google (paraphrasing):

"We're very sorry that you experienced this problem. We may contact you if we have any questions about your particular problem, or if we have corrected the issue."

First of all, this was the first time I've ever been surveyed by the maker of an application I've uninstalled from my computer. It was a simple, one-question survey I was happy to answer.

Even more impressive was the follow-up message. I was a happy Google Desktop user until the overall performance issue popped up. If Google were to solve the performance issue, I'd likely install and use the application again.

How would Google have known this was my issue if they didn't ask? And how would the typical past customer know that they've fixed the very problem that initiated the uninstall if Google wasn't able to follow-up?

Your past customers aren't gone forever. If you know enough about your customers to understand 1) why they left, and 2) what it would take to bring them back, how could you use that to your advantage?

And aren't the "prodigal" customers often some of our best evangelists?

 

Excuse or opportunity?

In the greater Seattle area, we saw another couple inches of snow last night. We typically get a little snow each year during the winter, but this year we've experienced a prolonged period of snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Last Wednesday night's snow froze to the ground, and six days later it's still icy in many places.

The smart move when this happens (especially in a city that isn't used to such weather, and therefore isn't as able to sand roads, etc.) is to put your safety first. If the conditions are bad enough, don't put your life (or your car) in danger.

But for many, bad weather forces a decision between excuse and opportunity.

Do you use snow to make excuses for not getting things done? Or do you use the disruption in your usual routine to get stuff done?

If your school or business is closed due to weather, do you take it as a day off? Or do you use it as an opportunity to get caught up, evaluate your work so far, and set new priorities?

If the weather is causing a disruption for your customers, how can you use that as a means of reaching out to them, offering a service, and creating more passionate and loyal customers?

Last month Seattle saw its worst windstorm in years, knocking down trees everywhere, knocking out power to nearly a million homes, and causing billions of dollars in damage.

The day after the storm, as residents throughout the area sat at home in the dark without power or heat, a contractor friend of mine started calling through all of his past customers. He was simply checking to make sure they were OK, and to see if they needed anything.

You can imagine their response. At a minimum, every customer he reached was very appreciative for his call and concern. And he also received several primary and secondary leads for new business, all from just an afternoon of phone calls.

When the weather changes, when you face an obstacle in life or business, do you see it as an excuse....or an opportunity?

 

Making people smile

Most of us are in the business of making our customers happy. Customer happiness is typically defined as satisfaction or success with our products, but we also know that customer happiness can be impacted in a lot of ways - big and small. Customer service, for example, is a HUGE differentiator between companies. Even with equal products, a company with superior customer service will almost always beat out a company with bad service. It's not just about good products, it's also about how you treat your customers - and how you make your customers feel.

Some of that customer happiness can be taught and institutionalized. Some of it can be done through companywide initiatives, marketing campaigns, sales scripts, etc.

More of it, however, can be done in very small ways. The mundane can be made fun. Stressful customer experiences (a travel delay, for example) can be transformed by a company representative that did little more than emphathize and make you smile.

Kathy Sierra does a great job talking about how the little things can go a long way, and how the simple act of making people smile can be a very powerful thing. Definitely worth a read.

Nobody wants to be upset, or frustrated, or stressed out, and simple gestures aren't typically going to erase the cause of this frustration or stress. But the act of making someone smile can make the path to satisfaction far easier to navigate.

Monday, January 15, 2007

 

Bringing theory to life

Good speakers and writers are typically also great storytellers. They know that raw information by itself can often be dry and difficult to understand, so they bring that information to life in the way of real-life examples and analogies.

Think about one of your favorite business books. The "core idea" of the book can probably be summarized in a concise magazine article, maybe less. But the idea really comes to life when it's explained in greater detail, and proven with the use of countless case studies, real-life examples, and analogies that make the idea easier to access.

HouseValues Inc. (disclaimer: also my employer) helps real estate professionals manage their business with a package of marketing and business development services. These services include a CRM tool meant to help real estate agents build relationships with prospective home buyers and sellers over a long period of time - allowing the buyers and sellers to choose when they're ready to take action, but helping the real estate agent "be there" when they're ready.

This is a different business development paradigm for many real estate agents, who expect to work with clients who might be 30-60 days away from a transaction. Therefore, many agents don't start with the patience to work with prospective customers who don't immediately do business.

The theory of long-term client cultivation is the "core idea", but like many good ideas it's easier to understand in analogy format. Brenda Hakimi, an agent coach at HouseValues, came up with a great business cultivation analogy using

 

Why advertising is secondary

Check out this chart from a recent issue of Advertising Age. It demonstrates the top ten restauarant chains in the U.S. in 2005 ranked by market share, and also lists their reported (and estimated) media expenditures.

The source of the media spend is typically "list price" for the media, so is probably inflated for nearly everyone on the list. But what's impressive is Starbucks - #6 on the list for overall market share, yet with less than 10% of the media spend.

John Moore at Brand Autopsy (a former Starbucks marketing executive) smartly points out that it's a focus on better products and better customer experience that allows them to continue to grow loyalty and market share without the associated media costs.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

 

Aggregating news at a very local level

Growing up in small suburb of San Francisco, my family subscribed to a really bad daily newspaper. Yes, we knew it was bad. The writing was bad, the national and world coverage was bad, the printing was bad, even the ads were bad.

But we subscribed anyway, and largely for the local news. School board news, Little League scores, and other issues that impacted us at a very local level. That bad local newspaper was the only place to get local news. They had a virtual monopoly.

The Internet, of course, has changed where local news can come from. Not only do local news sources (governments, schools and the like) now have a direct line to readers, but millions of citizen journalists nationwide are also "on the job", reporting what's relevant locally. That said, those citizen journalists and other local news sources remain frustratingly decentralized.

Enter AmericanTowns.com. They're attempting to aggregate ultra-local content at a national scale. I checked out the site for Kirkland, WA (where I both work and live) and the content thus far is sparse - mostly content from government agencies and a handful of early-adopter businesses.

But the platform makes sense, and should be popular once it catches on.

Information online is still exceedingly hard to find. Finding and aggregating relevant information for each individual interest is still a huge opportunity for Web entrepreneurs.

 

How much would you pay for a Super Bowl spot?

Many of this year's expected Super Bowl XLI advertisers are soliciting fan-created ads for their very own 30 seconds of fame. With the typical Super Bowl spot production running in excess of $1 million dollars (not including the $2.5M+ cost of 30 seconds during the game), paying a few thousand to the "winning" fan isn't a bad trade-off.

This spot, produced for Doritos by one of five finalists for their Super Bowl spot, was apparently created for just $150 dollars.

It might not win awards, but it's certainly helping Doritos get some nice pre-game PR, and further leverage for their Super-sized advertising spend.

 

Passionate customers will transform your company

If you haven't read the Winter 2006 issue of Business Week Small Business, take a few minutes and read through these articles. They offer some fantastic case studies and best practices for putting customers first in your business.

If you don't have time to read the the key issues, Brand Autopsy has condensed it down to a short 500 words.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

 

Virtual teasure hunts for tool junkies

Stores such as Costco and Tuesday Morning have long profited from a strong focus on creating ever-changing treasure hunts for their customers. My wife and I are far from immune. We'll head to Costco on a Saturday morning with a list just 2-3 items long, and walk out with far more - especially if we have enough time to just "wander the aisles" and find all those goodies we didn't need, but just have to have.

The opportunity to discover new "must-have" toys is a mainstay for vertical retailers as well. In the past year I've steadily fed my interest in DIY projects around the house, and more recently woodworking. This interest has led to a many weekend afternoons loitering in Home Depot and/or the Sears tool department, where I'm clearly joining many others who appear to be doing nothing more than browsing, discovering, treasure hunting.

Which leads me to ToolMonger. If you're at all interested in working with your hands around the house, or in a personal or professional shop, you'll love this site. They post "tool finds" multiple times a day, many direct from other readers. They also feature daily TV programming guides for the DIYer or weekend garage warrior, and plenty of products worthy of any homeowner.

Check out the dog-friendly ice melter, for example, and this simple garage corner organizational device.

For home improvement junkies, it's like a daily visit to the candy store. Worth a look.

Friday, January 12, 2007

 

Netflix 1, Blockbuster 0

In my quest to choose one online DVD rental service, I've pitted NetFlix against Blockbuster's Total Access in an all-out head-to-head.

Today, both services received a returned DVD and send me notification that my next disc was being shipped.

Netflix has let me know that my new disc will likely arrive tomorrow. Blockbuster has told me I'll have to wait until next Tuesday.

Now, to give Blockbuster a little credit, I did ask for a possibly-obscure Pittsburgh Pirates World Series highlight DVD, so it's possible that they only have this particular disc in an East Coast-based distribution center.

But that still doesn't bode well for Blockbuster in my little competition. I've ordered similar discs from NetFlix, and most have come straight from their Tacoma-based distribution center. Except for when Sundays get in the way, that typically means a next-day turnaround.

Is Blockbuster counting on their "return it immediately" policy to build slack-time into their distribution center chain? Is this an effort to cut costs - fewer nationwide distribution centers with less inventory, and fewer monthly DVDs to customers to keep costs low and profits high? Or am I overreacting less than week into my Blockbuster free trial?

Time will tell...

Jan 13 Update: Blockbuster today committed another DVD to the mail - with an expected delivery date of next Thursday. Every with the MLK holiday, that feels like a long ways away.

Meanwhile, both of the DVDs Netflix committed yesterday arrived today.

 

Didn't need it, had to have it...

Yes, I'm a sucker for stuff like this anyway. But in doing a bit of research for the previous "NetFlix vs. Blockbuster" post, I came upon this brilliantly simple little organizer. It's called a RentCaddy, and is being marketed as a home or travel organizational tool for those online DVD rentals. Smartly advertised in the sidebar as a Goodle PPC campaign.

Worth a look...

 

NetFlix vs. Blockbuster Total Access

I'd say I'm a big movie fan, but it's actually bigger than that. I'm a fan of TV shows on DVD. I'm a fan of exploring unknown but incredible documentaries. I also love watching classic baseball games and World Series highlights on DVD.

All of which is why I've been a huge fan of NetFlix. My "wait list" is a couple hundred discs long, and quite diversified (it also includes yoga discs for the Mrs.). I love that I can pretty much always have something at home, and just use my mailbox as a delivery mechanism. Passive-aggressive movie rentals.

It was perfect, that is, until I saw four thousand ads for Blockbuster's Total Access program during College Bowl Season. If you've watched any television the past couple weeks, you've seen the ad. It pretty much describes the NetFlix value proposition for the first seven seconds, then reminds you that waiting two days for your next DVD is simply not acceptable - especially when there's a perfectly-good Blockbuster store down the road that will exchange your movie immediately.

What those onmipresent ads don't really tell you is that the offer is actually better than what they say initially. When you exchange your DVD (in its mailed pouch) at the local Blockbuster retail location, it's essentially like getting another FREE DVD rental. You pick a single DVD from their available library, and they mail back your previous DVD for you. You get a new DVD rental from the retail store, plus the next DVD in your online queue. Not too bad.

Of course, that retail DVD rental still has late fees that may apply if you don't physically take it back in time. But if you don't mind the drive, and especially if a Blockbuster retail store is conveniently located somewhere you typically drive past anyway, it's not a bad way to get a few extra DVD rentals for no additional cost.

So now, I'm a Netflix and Total Access subscriber. A month from now, I hope to only keep one or the other. We'll see how this turns out. Updates to come...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

 

The Politics of Immortality

I'm a hopeless baseball romantic. I want the game that I love to be and stay pure, clear and exceedingly healthy. I want its players to be pure hero, its past to consist of legend and grandeur. If baseball is our National Pasttime, it should be held to the highest standards, and should reflect the best our great country has to offer.

But baseball, like many things, doesn't shine that way. Even in its very early, post-Civil War days, professional baseball's very existence was threatened by gambling, drugs and drunkenness, fights (among fans and with players), and unscrupulous business men (including club owners).

Some of our greatest baseball heros may have been mythic between the lines, but off the diamond was a different story. They were drunks. Racists. Philanderers.

We worry about the current state of the game, and the players that play it. We worry about players who may have gambled while still active. We worry about an era when some players may have used articificial means to accelerate their performance. But what we worry about today is nothing new. We can agrue the degrees, but the "crimes" are the same.

This week, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn received two of the highest voting percentages ever as they'll be welcomed into the Baseball Hall of Fame this coming July, and justifiably so. Both were uniquely talented players, among the best to ever play the game, and two great baseball ambassadors.

Mark McGwire, two years ago considered a lock for the Hall, received less than 33% of the votes required to gain admission.

Baseball was on a dangerous precepice when its players were locked out in the early 90's, and Cal Ripken was given much credit for helping to bring fans back when he finally broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak. But it was McGwire's home run chase in 1998 that truly cemented the game's renaissance as the National Pasttime.

And part of what made that story so wonderful was McGwire himself. He was a good guy. A family man. His emotions towards the end of 1998 reminded us that he was struggling with pressure like any of us would, and it drew us to him all the more.

Many Hall of Famers had brilliant individual careers. Impossible personal achievements. But no matter how much I love the game of baseball, I would not want my children to meet some of those men.

Ty Cobb was not a very nice man. Neither is Eddie Murray. Neither is Reggie Jackson.

Mickey Mantle was a drunk. Ted Williams swore like a sailor. Joe DiMaggio slept around. And yet they are all baseball heroes, and Cooperstown immortals.

MgGwire was a good man, and his achievements on the field defined a trying time for the national game. His impact on baseball's resurgence is hard to ignore.

Who among us can define the limits, or requirements, for immortality? Is it about maintaining an untarnished image, a pure existence, a flawless career?

What is more important? Achievements? Statistics? Character? Impact? Morality? Memorability?

The gloss of immortality is never as reflective as history and mythology allows, making real-time decisions of greatness even more difficult. But that doesn't mean our collective judgement of such greatness, morality and immortality isn't itself flawed and inconsistent.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

 

Asking "Why"

John Jantsch at Duct Tape Marketing did a nice job reminding us that asking "why" is often as important as knowing "what."

John's example focused on referrals. If you're a business of any size and are contacted by someone who was referred to you by another, make sure you follow-up with the person who did the original referring and ask "why." Finding out why they referred you in the first place will give you great insight into what you're doing well, and what you might want to do more of.

The same applies to just about any customer feedback situation. For example, don't just ask your customers if they're satisfied with your service. Many companies collect some type of customer satisfaction rating, which is only helpful and directional if you know why those customers are (or are not) satisfied.

Knowing "why" gives you the tools you need to START and STOP doing activities that will accelerate your growth, not to mention satisfaction and referrals from even more customers.

Monday, January 08, 2007

 

Just Jott It!

You're in the car, at the mall, or just plain away from your computer. But you have an idea, remember a to-do, and have your cell phone handy.

In the past, you might have left yourself a voicemail, then gone in and written down those voicemail to-do's.

Now, a new service called Jott eliminates the middle step, by sending those voicemails in text format straight to your email inbox. You can also organize your to-do list right in Jott.com, and "Jottcast" your to-do's to others in your Jott network.

For those who regularly think about, and then forget, things on the road, this is a great new (and free) service.

Worth checking out at Jott.com.

 

Planning around your email

I spend too much time "doing email." I'm on it all the time - especially during the work day but also on weekends, evenings, etc.

But when I step back, a very small percentage of the email I receive is urgent. A very small percentage. Much of what I get (and likely what you get as well) is a combination of junk mail, "FYI" emails that can be read later, and requests that otherwise wouldn't bubble up as something you need to do right away.

Let's say you end each day by making a list of your top five priorities for the next day. You commit yourself to getting the first 1-2 things done. Sure, fire drills are a part of business, but you can't let those fire drills get in the way of what you need to do in your job, and for your business, long-term. You can't let the reactive work get in the way of your more-important proactive work, which ideally is based on a long-term plan focused on growing your business.

If you effectively prioritized your workday last night, then there's very little in today's email that will affect those priorities. With that kind of daily focus, you can spend more time getting your core work done, and less time letting your email inbox manage you.

Set aside 2-3 times each day to focus on email - clearing out the junk, reading the FYI's, and identifying work that might become a "top five" priority for the next day. This level of "compartmentalized" email time will be a big change for many (including myself), but I guarantee it will make you feel far more productive and successful in the long run.

Friday, January 05, 2007

 

The (other) impact of compound interest

I've had the pleasure this week of attending a seminar by Verne Harnish and the folks at Gazelles, who among other things teach a number of business-building best practices known as "The Rockefeller Habits." If you haven't done so yet, please read the book Mastering The Rockefeller Habits. For businesses big and small, young and old, it offers a great many organizational best practices that will make your business more efficient.

Yesterday, Verne talked about many things business owners and executives can do to make their business run more efficiently, and ultimately grow faster. Many of the things he recommends, however, won't have an impact tomorrow. Might not even have an impact next week.

But over time, and collectively, these changes can have a massive impact on your business. Verne compared it to the concept of compound interest on a general savings account. Initially, and over the short-term, you might not see a big change. But over time, those changes compound into something incredible.

Bill Gates, for example, talks about how he uses three screens in his office at Microsoft. The screen on the left is for his email. The middle screen is for the document he's currently reading or working on. The screen on the right is for his Web browser. Bill claims that his desk efficiency has increased by 30-35%, simply by not having to navigate back and forth between windows on his screen so often.

Will that efficiency impact Microsoft tomorrow? Probably not. If you buy two extra screens for your office, will you make more money next week as a result? Probably not. But if you implement this and other small, simple changes to your business, over time they will have a significant impact on your business - in terms of growth and profitability.

Read more about Verne and his "Habits" here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

 

Strategies & Tactics


The best professional athletes make everything look exceedingly simple. They blend incredible hard work with natural talent to do this.

Seth Godin has put this same combination of amazing natural talents and years of experience into his fascinating blog, the result of which is insight that makes often-complicated topics seem exceedingly simple.

Take his commentary today about tactics and strategies. He uses a couple examples to clarify how well-written strategies can take pressure out of both tactical identification and execution.

Read more at Seth's blog here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

 

Big goals begin with baby steps

January 1st technically isn't that different than the other 364 days of the year. But psychologically, we all think of today as an opportunity to press the "reset" button in our lives - personal and professional. It's an opportunity to chart a new course, establish new habits, set new patterns of behavior (personal and professional) that will enrich our lives and careers.

Too often, however, New Year's Resolutions are so big and ultimately so daunting that we abandon them before January is over. Now, that doesn't mean big/daunting goals aren't valuable. But to achieve them with greater success, it's important to break them down into manageable chunks, and keep yourself accountable.

Take this blog, for example. It in and of itself is only a small part of a much larger goal I've set for myself - a resolution that at a high level is not entirely manageable or actionable. But I've been able to break that ultimate goal down to specific strategies - this blog being one.

So, I've resolved to be a more consistent blogger. I want to post at least twice a week (a vast improvement from my behavior over the past couple months). To keep myself accountable, I've put a note on my calendar twice a week moving forward to get something up here.

Adding just two posts a week feels manageable, and setting an automatic "reminder" in my calendar twice a week helps keep me accountable. Ultimately, I want to be a far more consistent blogger, but starting back up with just two posts a week is a good first step. Once I've established the patterns and behavior for this first step, the next step (which is closer to my more ambitious goals) is far more manageable and actionable.

Big goals begin with baby steps. Take time this week to set those big goals for yourself, then identify the individual steps to get there.

Happy New Year, and good luck in 2007!

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