Friday, November 30, 2007

Getting to the Point

Sometimes it's not easy taking the customer's or end user's view when designing or thinking about how to present your marketing material. Who is your audience? How are the materials being distributed? How long will the piece be in someone's possession? How are they going to use it? How much do they already know about you and your product?

Business cards are a great example. Many think it's wise to make the phone number very large and to list as many of the products and services provided as possible. Think about how people generally get your business card. In most cases, you give it to them. They already know something about you and what you do. The business card is an easy reference guide for them. When I look through my business cards, it's usually because I want to get hold of somebody. I know the phone number's on there. It doesn't have to jump out at me. I'll find it. What's more useful is being able to spot your card among the crowd. A colorful background, a recognizable logo, a picture, something that tells me right away....that's the one I'm looking for.

In the case of an ad such as in a newspaper, a doorhanger or a flyer, the viewer may not be familiar with you, or your services. You have just a second or two to catch their attention. A prominent picture of someone enjoying your product, or the results of your service is a good start. A consistent logo will also add leverage. Recognizable images catch one's attention. Of course you want to include contact information, but job one is to get them interested in what you're selling. Too much information jammed into a small ad is self-defeating. Get them interested enough to look for more.

Brochures are a great venue for more detailed information and are normally picked up by people looking for just that. Again, you want to "illustrate your point" with imagery between blocks of text or tables. There's also room for a map of your location. Helpful tips related to your product or service will increase the probability that the recipient will hold onto the brochure longer.

Websites are the new Yellow Pages, only better. In fact, I only use the phone book these days if I can't find you anywhere else. You can put as much information as your heart desires on a website. You start with an overview on the main page and links to more information on subsequent pages. Your web address should appear on everything you put out, just as often as your phone number and address. If you're not "web savvy" don't be intimidated. Just Google "free html lessons" and take a few hours to learn the basics. You don't have to become a web designer or do your own site, but knowing how it's done will take the "magic" out of it and you'll have a better understanding of what you're paying for when you do hire someone.

Whatever the medium, consider the viewer. Different contexts call for different presentations. They all have different functions which can amplify and enhance one another.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Be the Customer

What makes your repeat customers choose you over the competition? What makes a potential customer choose someone else?

A common mistake business owners and managers make is in assuming that the aspects of their business that are important to them are the same things that are important to their customers. For example, a business owner may be very proud of the equipment and/or training and certifications they have received because it helps them do a better job or offer a better product. While this may be a legitimate source of pride and may well result in better product or service, the customer often can't relate the two because they don't have the same knowledge of these instruments that the business owner or manager has.

I'll pick on carpet cleaners first because almost all of them do it. What does a customer who might hire a carpet cleaner really want? Clean carpets at an affordable price. They really aren't that interested in the type or brand of machinery you're using because they don't know anything about it. Yet, in their advertising, many choose to highlight their machinery and try to "educate" the consumer about why it's important. Before and after pictures would be much more effective, or even just a picture of the kids playing on a freshly cleaned carpet while Mom beams with satisfaction. Of course you have to deliver on your promise, and your equipment and training are a huge part of that, but the customer is buying the result, not the process.

Service professionals are guilty as well. You may have taken numerous educational courses and earned dozens of certifications, but if I don't have first hand knowledge of what those courses were and why they are important, they don't mean anything to me. I don't want you to explain the course content, I want you to sell my house at the target price in the time frame I've spelled out. I'd rather see your track record than your transcript.

What is more likely to make you want to eat a steak? A series of tips on the proper way to evaluate and prepare a piece of meat, or an image of someone obviously enjoying a delicious steak?

Highlighting equipment and credentials is effective when your audience has working knowledge of the items in question and perceives them as providing better value. For instance a highly touted, new and improved laser eye surgery machine might be something the public is well aware of and would take into consideration in the purchase decisions. On the other hand the model or type of snow removal equipment you use to have my sidewalk cleared by 8am after a snow storm, doesn't really concern me. Just do a good job and have it done by 8am. In your advertising, assure me that the job will be done on time, every time. Show me testimonials from satisfied customers. Show me a clear sidewalk surrounded by snow.

It's not always easy to put yourself in the customers shoes, especially if you've been in the business a long time. You know what it takes to do your job well. They don't. They just want you to do the job well. If you're not sure what factors go into a customer's purchase decision, ask them.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Listen Up

One of the best pieces of advice I've heard regarding networking is "If you want to be interesting, be interested." People are much more likely to remember what they said and who they said it to than what was spoken at them.

When you engage in conversation with someone, be genuinely interested in what they're telling you. Find out what they are trying to accomplish and what their obstacles are. Think to yourself - "How can I help?". You don't have to immediately connect it to your business. First help come up with suggestions or solutions, then see if there's a way to connect it to your business. Even if you can't, your help will be greatly appreciated and remembered, which is excellent PR in and of itself.

Every conversation is an opportunity to learn something new. With the price of higher education spiraling ever higher, it would be foolish to pass up the chance to absorb valuable information and insights for free. Think of conversations as idea exchanges and make sure you walk away with more than you came in with. Of course, by offering truly valuable information and insights in return, both parties walk away wealthier.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ramsey's Way

I've become a big fan of Chef Ramsey and his shows. On both Hell's Kitchen and Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares (both the British and US versions) he unapologetically forces people to acknowledge their mistakes, ignorance and inefficiencies and deal with them. A knee jerk reaction might be to view his style as cold-hearted, mean and vulgar. On closer inspection I see him more as the "Mary Poppins" of the restaurant business. He comes into an establishment, assesses the problems and develops a unique plan of attack to quickly remedy them based on the personalities of the people he's working with.

Many of the situations display common mistakes that are prevalent in business in general, not just the dining industry. Here are a few to be aware of.

Too many items on the menu:

In the interest of trying to appeal to the widest audience possible, many business owners wind up offering more choices of products and services than they can possibly execute on well. Not only does an over sized product offering make it tough to execute, it makes marketing harder and less effective. For example, a mortgage broker may choose to offer reverse mortgages, traditional mortgages, refinancing, first time buyers programs and a host of others. The aim may be to create a "one stop shopping" image. The reality is you create an image of a broker that specializes in nothing and no one program stands out in your marketing. There's also the training aspect. How can you expect your employees to have in depth knowledge of hundreds or thousands of products? If you want to stand out from your competition you have to be more than a commodities broker, whether it be in retail or professional services. Play on your strengths. Figure out what you do well and get even better at it.

Clinging to Bad Ideas:

Another mistake Ramsey often comes across that's common to business in general is falling in love with your own ideas to the extent that you don't listen to what the market is telling you. Another great business mentor, Bruce Williams often advised "Never fall in love with something that can't love you back". Reality is not emotional. No matter how great you think your product or idea is, if the market's not buying it, let it go. Trying out new ideas is a good thing, but you have to compare the way it played out in your head with the way it plays out in reality. Don't let the failure of one idea stop you from trying out others, but don't cling to an approach that's not working because you believe it "should" work. Believe your own eyes.

Fully Trained Employees:

Owners and managers often make the mistake of believing that once an employee completes the training period or program, they can now leave them on "auto pilot". Training never ends. Not for your employees, not for you. The marketplace is dynamic, which means it's always changing. Employees, managers and owners need to remain constantly engaged and observant. Talk to each other. Share ideas, methods and observations with your people every chance you get. Reinforce good practice and behavior. Never stop learning. Never stop teaching.

Passive Equals Nice:

Another business blunder is to equate being a nice guy or a good boss with being disconnected or passive. Allowing substandard performance, avoiding criticism and confrontation is not "nice". You don't promote self-improvement by condoning incompetence. You may avoid confrontation, but you are not doing yourself or your employees any favors by allowing them to continue in their incompetence or mediocrity. Be in charge. Be the captain. Be the coach. If you find you have an employee or two that can't deal with striving to excel or at least improve, cut them loose. Be a leader, not a babysitter.

Poor Communication:

Every aspect of your business is connected to every other aspect of your business. To execute well, the right hand has to know what the left hand is doing. Put systems in place to ensure the smooth flow of an order from first contact with the customer to product or service delivery and on to service, support and feedback after the transaction. Facilitate and require effective communication between employees and departments. If someone needs a particular bit of information, make sure they know where to get and how to ask for it. Whether it be verbal or digital, an effective communication network is crucial to operational efficiency.

Letting Mistakes "Out of the Kitchen":

You don't save money in the long term by hoping your customer wont notice or wont complain about your mistakes. Every product that leaves your "kitchen" has your name attached to it. The value of your brand is directly linked to every item you sell. If the product or service is substandard "Put it in the bin". Bite the bullet. Take the loss. Start over and send it out right. Consider it an advertising and training expense and money well spent.

Lower Quality Equals Lower Standards:

Not everyone can afford the very best. There is a legitimate market for lower quality, less expensive fare. For example I may choose to buy a plastic watch rather than a sterling silver watch due to budget concerns. However, I still expect the watch to work. I may choose to order the hamburger rather than the prime rib, but I still want a great hamburger. If your product mix includes items for the budget conscious or lower income buyer, offer the very best in the price range. If you're a producer, remember, lower cost raw materials doesn't mean less attention to detail on your part. Every customer is a valuable customer regardless of the ticket total. Treat them all with the respect you'd want to be treated with. Give them the value they deserve. Earn your money.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Ramsey's shows and a few like it is the fact that they display methods of achieving business success in a totally transparent manner. There's no "tricking" the customer into anything. It's all about honestly creating value by focusing on what you're offering and delivering on your promise. Given enough time, anyone can make a great meal at home for a lot less than they can buy it in a restaurant. They don't want to or they wouldn't have come to your place. They're counting on you to make the effort, put in the time, monitor the quality and do the hard work. That's how to create value and wealth and be proud of it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Value of Co-Operation

One of the biggest challenges facing small businesses is that they often must compete with chains that can spread advertising expenses over dozens or hundred or thousands of stores. A $1000 ad that benefits 10 locations costs $100 per store. The same ad for just your one location costs $1000/store. This is why so many small businesses get frustrated with their advertising. It doesn't seem to be generating enough bang for its buck. That's because it isn't.

One solution to this dilema is co-op advertising. Instead of buying advertising for your single location or office, you team up with related businesses and advertise jointly. An example of this is our upcoming South Side Holiday Savings brochure. It's a 10,000 piece, glossy, full color brochure that will feature 16 area retailers. All will be the kind of place where you might actually do some Christmas shopping. Things like car care, restaraunts, professional services, will be covered in later editions. Distribution will be through newspaper inserts in 3 different small regional papers. The advertiser gets a 2" x 3" ad, great targeted coverage, in an attractive, substantial, festive looking, holiday themed brochure for 1.5 cents per piece.

You can also team up on things like calendars, memo boards and other "top of the mind" type promotional pieces. This not only gives you the advantage of volume buying, but it gives you several additional distribution channels, since each participant will be distributing their portion.

Another opportunity not to be overlooked is events that offer vendor booths. It might not make sense for you to pay the booth fee just to give out your own promotional material, but it would be very cost effective to go in with several of your network partners on a single booth. You could make the purchase as "The West Side Alliance" or whatever you want to call your group. For $10 a piece or so you could spend a few hours reaching hundreds or thousands of potential customers.

Yet another great co-op is a campaign involving prizes. People might not get excited about a $25 gift certificate, but they probably would take a look at a $500 shopping spree! (20 participants each put in a $25 certificate. Entry forms and boxes at each participant's location.) You could market the campaign jointly. Newspaper inserts can be had for around 5 cents each (not counting printing) and the cost, again, is split 20 ways. It might be easier to organize a smaller group, maybe 10. The cost is still minimal. When you consider the cost of goods sold plus a fixed amount each for promotion. The whole thing could be done in a targeted manner for less than $100 each including gift certificates, printing and distribution.

Don't try to mimic the chain stores. The single location operation is a different animal. Leverage your relationships to benefit yourself and your network associates.