Make your automation personal, not just automatic

Automatic Caution Door
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zesmerelda

After requesting a beta invitation to a web-based service, I received the activation email.

*ONE* minute later, I got an email from the CEO asking how I liked the service. 

Careful there, Sparky. 

While I’d be the first to encourage such emails, you have to think about how – and particularly, when – you send them. 

It doesn’t make sense to send them 1 minute after sending an activation email unless you want to send the wrong signals.

IE: “I’m sending everyone the same email even though my email is worded otherwise” and “I don’t really want your feedback since you couldn’t possibly have any yet”. 

Neither one is really what the sender wants. 

It doesn’t make sense to send the emails until some period of time after the activation email has been clicked on, since they couldn’t have any feedback for you until they’ve activated the service and had at least a little bit of time to use it and see what it’s really like. 

You see the same thing in blogs where you can generate emails automatically the first time someone comments. Sounds great in theory, but if the email comes 20 seconds after you post the comment, it isn’t personal.

Instead of doing that – what if the automated email was sent to the blog owner, giving them time to check the commenter’s website, find out a little about them, much less actually read their comment – then a personal touch can be applied to the partly pre-written email thanking someone for their comment. 

That’s the kind of personal follow up that is appreciated – and it’s still mostly automatic.

There are some hacks to existing tools that auto-email first time commenters. If you use those tools, I suggest using the hacks. Keep it personal.

What to know before selling gift cards in your business

As gift giving season ramps up, retailers and others who haven’t sold gift cards in the past start asking questions. I always see a bump in visitors searching for that info during this time of year so I thought I’d include a primer for business owners looking into selling gift cards (though it is a little late to be considering it for this year’s Christmas shopping season).

Before you start selling gift cards ( sometimes called stored value cards ) in your business, it’s important that you understand the difference between the types of cards that are available. Knowing these things will allow you to decide which type of card is best for your business.

First, let’s look at the 3 different types of gift cards.

Private label / store-only gift cards

Usage: A private label (or store-only) gift card is a card that works only in your store(s). An example of this would be a Best Buy gift card or a Barnes and Noble gift card. You can’t use a Best Buy gift card at Wal-Mart, nor can you use a Barnes and Noble gift card at Borders.

Point of sale: Typically, your point of sale (POS) system has to be setup specifically to handle these cards, both when selling the gift card (and storing value on your POS system), as well as when using it for payment. Ask your point of sale vendor if they have this sort of functionality before you order thousands of cards. If they don’t, you’ll either need to use a network card (see below) or get a different POS system. The big advantage to these cards is that your only cost is the card itself (assuming your point of sale system handles private label cards).

Authorization: No credit card network is used to authorize these purchases. That means that your point of sale system must provide all the functionality to let you register and activate the cards, store value on them, properly account for the sale and the unspent stored value, pay for purchases, and deal with lost and stolen cards.

The benefits of all that extra work are not having to pay for the network fees for purchases made with gift cards and knowing that your customer will have to spend their gift card at your business rather than anywhere and everywhere.

The nice thing about store-only cards is that you can typically have complete control how the program works. Like all the other types of gift cards, you can sell gift cards online via your website and in your retail location.

TIP: If you order this type of card and your point of sale is capable of processing them like any other credit card, I strongly suggest ordering cards whose number starts with 1, 2, 7, 8 or 9. Reason: American Express card numbers start with 3, Visa cards start with 4, Mastercards start with 5 and Discover cards start with 6. Don’t start the card numbers with zero, you’ll just find it annoys your point of sale and probably your staff as well.

Private network gift cards

Usage: A private network gift card is one that (sometimes) works using the regular credit card network, but there are some that don’t. I suggest you avoid those so that you don’t have to deal with additional point of sale hardware, possible manual transcription errors (moving info from the terminal to the POS system), and related issues. Normally these cards work similarly to private label / store-only gift cards, specifically that they can only be used within the specific store(s)  that put the card system together.

Point of sale: Most private network cards use the regular merchant account authorization systems, so your point of sale system shouldn’t have to be changed assuming that you already use it to accept credit cards or debit cards.

Authorization: The big difference between these cards and the private network store-only cards we spoke of a few minutes ago is that these cards are authorized over the regular credit card network (such as Nova’s). It’s not unusual to find resort areas, small towns and shopping malls that offer these types of cards and set them up so they are only authorized for use in those areas. These cards aren’t as popular as they used to be, because of the growth of credit card network gift cards, which I’ll cover next.

Credit card network gift cards

Usage: These cards act just like a regular credit card except that the spending limit is the amount of value stored “in” the card. The value really isn’t stored in the card of course, it’s stored on a computer system at the card issuer (eg: Mastercard, Visa, Discover or American Express). These are the same gift cards you can purchase at any bank.

Authorization: The same credit card authorization network that you use with regular credit and debit cards is used to authorize purchases using this type of gift card.

Point of sale: One substantial upside to these cards is that they can be used in any existing point of sale system or credit card sales terminal. Many of these act as debit cards, though I have found that these cards do not always work at gas stations, particularly 24×7 unattended gas pumps.

Designing your cards

Typically you can get these custom printed with the image of your choice. Don’t scrimp on the effort you put into making your cards look great. A couple of hundred bucks spent on a skilled designer will go a LONG way toward making your cards sell, as attractive gift cards sell much better. Maybe it doesn’t make all that much sense, but a card that fits the image of your business will simply sell better. If the products you sell are visual, you definitely want to make sure your cards show off your product.

Optional features of gift cards
Some options to consider (again, talk to your point of sale vendor):  a printed barcode (which will scan via your point of sale terminal), with a magnetic stripe, or both a stripe and a barcode. You can also get a unique card serial number printed on the back, or embossed into the card like a regular credit card. Credit card network gift cards don’t typically offer these options – you get what you get, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re already integrated into your POS system.

RELATED TOPIC: Why should a small business sell gift cards?

President proof your business: Through the eyes of your clients

No matter who is elected as the next President of the United States, things are going to be different over the next 4 to 8 years. Whether Obama or McCain wins, the wind in the business community is going to shift.

Is your business sail going to be set in the right direction to catch that wind? We’re going to talk about “president-proofing” your business on and off for a while, so let’s get started with episode 1.

Whether you do business with the government or not, the change that is taking place now and the changes that will take place starting on January 20th 2009 are going to present a pile of opportunity.

Either you recognize these opportunities as early as possible and set your sail to catch the wind, or you could find yourself tacking against a storm.

Whenever there is change -of any kind – in the air, you will find it accompanied by opportunity.

The problem with these great new opportunities is that they can be frustratingly difficult to detect when you are blinded by the day to day crisis management of your business. Even if you’ve successfully implemented processes and systems in your business that funnel responsibilities to your staff and shield you from what I would call the “daily mundane crisis”, stuff happens.

A critical step in seeing through the day to day fog of business crisis is something we talked about a few weeks ago (Airplane Time). I think we hit that topic hard enough already, so I suggest you review that post as part of your efforts to President-proof your business.

So how do you see those opportunities? Open your eyes.

When I say “Open your eyes”, what I mean is that you need to look really hard at the changes likely to come from a new President and his management (aka the Cabinet and staff), much less from 400+ elected or re-elected Congressional members.

No matter how you vote, examining the middle ground of each candidate’s goals and platform is a safe bet, but is it going to result in a breakthrough for your business? I’m not so sure. On the other hand, expecting massive, immediate change isn’t a reality-based expectation either.

Presidential inertia (voluntary or otherwise) will set in at the White House, as will a realization of how things really work in Congress when you’re no longer a Senator. Even if the same party controls the White House and the Congress, it isn’t necessarily a blank check.

Don’t believe me? Look at the lack of movement that has come as a result of the almost-month-old bailout bill. Life is more complex than Washington sometimes seems to recognize.

So how do you push the envelope and come up with ideas that are going to propel you safely and profitably through 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s gauntlet of *whatever* and create that new, great new thing?

Look at your clients. Look at your market.

Don’t worry so much about how the upcoming changes – whatever they are – will affect you and your business. Look at how these changes will affect your clients and your prospects.

Do any of these changes relate even remotely to what you already do? Deal with it. Create products and services that make the impacts of these annoying little changes simply go away.

Make em scatter like cockroaches suddenly exposed to sunlight.

Put yourself in your clients’ place. Look at the new world through THEIR open eyes, not just yours. Talk to them about their anticipated concerns for the upcoming administration to confirm (or destroy) that their concerns are what you expected.

What is going to make them the most insanely annoyed, angry or crazy about the upcoming administration?

What is going to start making them lose sleep at night? What is simply going to be different, perhaps notably different for them – even if it isn’t going to make them crazy?

Create the magic wand that makes the pain go away and take insanely great care of them through “these difficult times” (whatever that’s gonna mean).

PS: While I really appreciate comments, candidate-specific responses here will be deleted. If that’s on your mind when your comment juices are flowing, you’re missing the point of this post. Read it again.

How to tell your clients you don’t want their business

Here’s a good example of how financial institutions send that message.

Now, I wouldn’t expect any of you to do something this obvious to run off *good customers*, but I thought I’d plant the seed just in case.

How are you preparing for a long business winter?

All around Columbia Falls, people are cleaning up their yards, picking up and storing canoes and such so they won’t get snowed on; and getting firewood cut, split, stacked and covered as winter approaches.

All the signals are there. The cool weather is already here, often dropping below freezing at night. Most of the leaves have fallen and the tamaracks are golden. Winter is coming.

Interestingly, I see people treating their business the same way. They’re taking steps to deal with the economy’s anticipated winter. Some markets are already seeing it, some are not.

With the slowness of the economy – and yes, I’m hearing it from a broad mix of business owners, but not all of them – folks are preparing for winter in their business.

What do I mean by the winter of their business? Two things really. Winter might be when portions of the economy are slow, and winter might also be when a company is near the end of its life – perhaps a natural thing.

In this case, I’m talking about the natural changes of the season of the economy, although sometimes the changes of the season aren’t so natural.

In the spring and summer of the economy, in other words – when the economy is rocking and rolling, some businesses seem to think that it isn’t important to pay such close attention to “trivial little things” like customer service, ROI on various media targets for advertising, lead sources and so on.

In that same strong economy, it often seems like almost anyone can run a business and make a profit. Ever notice how many people suddenly are in the construction business during those periods? A business card and a diesel pickup is all it takes to become a home builder.

But then…the economy turns. Or at least housing-related markets do. When it happens, spec homes sell slowly and weigh on a new contractor like the clock on Flavor Flav’s neck. Before long, many of these newbies and their diesel pickups are doing something else for a living.

In the winter-like periods of the economy, you start to see businesses pay more attention to expenses, lay off people that they probably shouldn’t have hired in the first place, start emphasizing customer service; in other words, start paying attention to the stuff they should have been watching all along.

As spring and summer comes, some will get lazy and stop watching those things. Will you be one of them?

The easy thing to do right now is to be consumed with thoughts of survival if your business is one of the ones that is struggling. Short term fixes won’t serve you well when the seasons change.

Plan your winter strategies with a long-term view. Put things in place that you can keep in place as your business and the economy strengthen.

Don’t waste time on duct tape and twine. No matter how long winter is, the strong but flexible steps you take now to fine tune your business will pay dividends in the spring.

Just when you think you’ve made it and you can finally rest…

You find out that you aren’t even close.

I’ve had clients experience it, I’ve lived it myself, and at least one of my vendors is just about to experience it.

No matter how good you are, you’d better be getting better.

In fact, you’d better be getting better at getting better.

If you don’t, someone is gonna burnout, implode or spontaneously combust.

Seth Godin does a fine job of summing up the customer side of it in this guest post.

Improve, every single flippin’ day.

Teach your clients to be smarter, better educated buyers

We’ve talked about this topic a few times in the past, but today I have an example that you can learn from.

First, take a look at the “Consumer Checklist” at FancyFortuneCookies.com. Don’t be distracted by the aging look of their site. That page is worth major dollars to you if you get the right message from it and use it.

Since they let you customize the message inside the cookie, they have to make them fresh just for you. I know  because I’ve ordered fortune cookies from these guys to use as business cards from time to time.

So not only do my fortune cookie business cards stand out from the yawners that everyone else hands out, but they are tasty as well.

How tasty are those imported fortune cookies from your favorite Asian restaurant? They probably buy them after they are mass-produced, sit on a dock in a container for a week or two, then on a cargo ship for a week or two, then on a dock for another week, then on a train or truck for another few days before they were warehoused and then eventually shipped to the restaurant.

Notice that I just taught you an important difference between good fortune cookies and bad or at least unnoticeable ones? And I didn’t do it while screaming BUY! BUY! BUY!

How can you teach your clients to be better educated, choosier buyers? Even Jif does it with their “Choosy moms choose Jif” line.

Why?…

Are you getting paid?

One of the comments I’m hearing from business owners these days is that payments are slow in coming. 

While the last thing you might want to do is add more to your receivables, it might just be the thing that gets you an edge over your competition and gets more new customers in your door. 

One option: Offer financing. 

Obviously, you have to make sure the economics are right, particularly if you have cost of goods sold. If the economics work for you, offering a 3 payment, 90 days same as cash is a very effective way of making it easier to buy, no matter what business you’re in.

You might need to change the terms to fit your delivery schedule, the cost, and so on, but it’s worth examining. I’ve seen businesses mushroom in size simply by offering a small down and a monthly payment plan for services and non-tangible goods (software is a good example). 

This probably doesn’t help you if you sell coffee by the cup.

On the other hand, if you do catering jobs and you take reservations for events that are weeks away, take a credit card number and offer to divide the cost by the number of weeks between now and the event. Ring the card up weekly. 

Got an existing accounts receivable with a good client that’s due in one big piece? If it’s late, offer to let them split it into 2 or 3 payments, with payments coming every 2 weeks, 4 weeks or whatever makes sense.

Remember, you don’t have to offer this option to everyone. Perhaps only your best clients receive this benefit. As famous retailer Murray Raphael said, “Treat everyone the same (ie: really well), but reward them differently.”

Doing what makes sense to help your customers pay you (and they really do want to) beats not getting the business, not getting paid and perhaps most importantly, discounting your work and getting into a price battle. 

Be creative. Make it easy to buy, now more than ever.

Another way to talk to your community

OK, I’m still not over the small number of folks using the news in your marketing like 7-11 does, so here’s another way for you to talk to your community of clients if that type of thing doesn’t feel right.

You can create your company’s own custom browser toolbar for your clientele at http://www.conduit.com.

While I know there are umpteen zillion toolbars for your browser out there, the ones that get used are the ones that truly provide value.

What a surprise, right?

It’s a big deal for most computer users to give up half an inch or more of their Internet Explorer or Firefox  screen real estate to yet another toolbar, so you’d better make it worthwhile if you create one for your users.

What can you include on your toolbar that is so important or so valuable to your clientele that they’d give up an inch of their screen for it?

If that doesn’t give you some motivation to communicate value, I’m not sure what would:)

I’m still investigating how to merge this tool into the mix of tools I use to communicate with clients and prospects, but I thought you’d want to know about it as soon as possible.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how this tool (or ones like it) have improved (or could improve) the business relationships you have.