Why so many privacy policy updates? Part 2 of 2

This week, we’ll continue discussing why you’ve received so many privacy policy updates lately.

Over the last decade, the trifecta of poor security controls, poor user-behavior controls (ie: can you bring a USB drive to work and plug it into a cash register?), and criminals crossed paths to produce repeated data breaches. You’ve heard of the big ones like Sony, Home Depot, Target, and Equifax. Naturally, there are many more. We rarely hear about the ones at small local businesses.

While the Feds have done little to require businesses to strengthen data privacy & security, some companies have voluntarily raised their security efforts. Many didn’t. It’s a broad global issue.

For example, you never give your credit/debit card to a clerk, waiter, or bartender when traveling outside the US. They bring the card machine to you. You insert the card, ok the amount & pocket the card, then hand the machine back to the clerk. US cardholders control the card like this only at big box retail & grocery stores. This process reduces the possibility of people stealing card info because employees never get possession of the card.

The other shoe drops

Two years ago, the European Union decided they’d waited long enough for companies to use consumer data carefully & properly protect it. They created the GDPR – or “General Data Protection Regulation“.

The GDPR gives control of a consumer’s personal data back to the consumer, requires clear privacy policies, and sets rules for how opt-ins are offered / used. But that’s not all.

It also has a few other items of interest:

  • Ever been frustrated that a company has as data breach and doesn’t report it for months or even years? GDPR requires providing the EU authorities within 72 hours of determining that a breach occurred (there are more details about what breaches require this, but I’ll leave that investigation to you).
  • Ever installed software, installed a phone app, or accessed a website that asked you to agree to 42 pages of terms and conditions written in legalese? GDPR puts a stop to that, which is why you’ve been getting all those privacy policy update emails.

First, I don’t recommend reading the GDPR reg on the EU website unless you’re an attorney. Maybe not even then. There are plenty of good, detailed explanations about what it means to companies based in the EU, companies with offices in the EU, and companies that do business with EU residents.

That last part is why US companies have to pay attention.

Why does a US business care about GDPR?

First off, this is not legal advice and I am certainly not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV. You need to discuss this stuff with your legal counsel, mostly because getting caught playing this game wrong can get really expensive.

You may think this doesn’t matter because it’s an EU regulation. You might be right, particularly if you only serve local customers. However, if you have an online business that serves customers in the EU, a closer look is merited.

This isn’t solely an EU problem. This change had to start somewhere and most of it is necessary. I suggest that you look at GDPR with your team. There are numerous “GDPR for Americans” explainer pages to help you decipher it.

For example: There are exemptions (perhaps not the right word) for data collected when the EU person is not in the EU, or when you don’t advertise in the EU, target EU prospects in your ads, or have EU languages / currencies as part of your website.

Even if exempt, we need to look forward

Companies need to take more responsibility for protecting they data they collect than they have previously done. Likewise, they will eventually need to give consumers better access/control of the data collected about them. Failing that, it will be forced upon them.

Why? Because Congress will eventually be forced to implement something & they have routinely shown a lack of ability / desire to understand how US businesses use technology.

Imagine how “the Patriot Act for business” and “TSA for data” might look like if written in a fear-based mindset after a “bad actor” gets an IRS database. If history teaches us anything, it’s that they’ll overreact.

Another angle: Companies that are ahead of the curve are going to be more attractive to consumers and prospective buyers.

The GDPR is enforceable as of May 25, 2018.

Why so many privacy policy updates? Part 1 of 2

If you buy stuff, do business, and/or take courses online, you deal with someone who collects your email & other personal info. Recently, you’ve probably received numerous emails regarding changes in their privacy policy. A privacy policy documents how a company uses the data they collect during the process of selling something or providing content to you.

A little backstory is necessary to paint a picture of why data privacy has gained recent attention & how recent changes could affect your business.

Why the data is important to businesses

If you’ve gotten a credit card offer in the mail, credit card / bank / credit bureau data about you was used to turn you-the-product into you-the-customer. It’s easy to buy a list of mailing addresses of people who make more than $75K a year, live in upscale neighborhoods, & own their own homes. This is not new in the Facebook era & they aren’t the first company using this data. It’s been happening for decades.

Some of this use is wise. Advertisers want the best return for their investment & businesses want the advertisements they offer to be effective so that advertisers keep advertising.

When we see out of context ads, they seem stupid & annoying. You may wonder if the advertiser (and the company displaying the ad) know what they’re doing. Effective advertisers don’t make money being stupid, and annoying. They like putting stuff in front of you that you’re inclined to buy.

Retargeting, not Big Brother

Advertising effectively includes using what you know about a prospect to show them ads for things they’ve previously shown interest in.

Perhaps this morning you looked at baby clothes on Amazon. This afternoon, you might have been weirded out to see an Amazon baby clothes ad in the Facebook sidebar.

This isn’t Big Brother.

It’s the smart (and sometimes obnoxious / overbearing) re-use of data collected when you were shopping. It’s called behavioral retargeting. When you visit Amazon.com, a blog, or Pinterest, your browser stores info about what you viewed.

Amazon advertises on Facebook. When they do retargeting, their dynamically generated Facebook ad has the ability to re-use the data your browser stored on their behalf while you were at Amazon, but they can only see the data they stored. Other sites you visit can also buy Facebook ads pointing at Amazon-offered (and other) products based on what you viewed when on their site, but they can’t see what Amazon stored.

Circling back to privacy policy

The value of this data grows as you collect more of it. When value is developed, there will be people who want to abuse it. Likewise, there will be people who want to steal the data and misuse it.

For years, the Federal Trade Commission has been tightening up monitoring and enforcement of advertising & (particularly) testimonials posted by US-based online businesses. This happened because of poor behavior by a small percentage of people. They made up testimonials, paid for testimonials (without making it clear that they were paid for), and/or sold their contact list to other businesses without telling customers they’d become their product, etc. While not all paid testimonials are a bad thing, misuse & less-than-ethical behavior was going on. The volume of complaints to the FTC was increasing.

Originally, there weren’t many rules about how the data could be used because the companies with this data treated it as a trade secret. Before company networks connected to the internet, data was easy to protect. Obviously, being connected to the internet changed that.

The FTC hasn’t taken the next step regarding the contents of the privacy policy. By requiring businesses to state how a person’s data would be used, they left action to the consumer by allowing us to choose businesses (in part) based on their stated privacy policy.

Brick and mortar businesses and organizations like Equifax haven’t been held to the same standards as online businesses, probably because they’re easier for the consumer to find & confront. However, businesses like Equifax are under no regulatory requirement to adhere to your requests about the data they collect about you. For example, when you ask them to delete your personal data from their systems, they don’t have to do it (and probably wont). You’re the product they sell, remember? More specifically, data about you is the product.

The misuse & lack of consumer control provoked what happened next. We’ll cover that next week.

Photo by stockcatalog

Reviewed your public internet access lately?

Last week, I was in Chicago for a seminar. As you might imagine, public internet access is important to business travelers. My hotel had internet, but browsers and Outlook both objected when I attempted to connect to any secure site or resource. When I switched to the wifi hotspot on my phone, those issues disappeared. When I reached wifi at other locations, those issues didn’t reappear.

Verdict: hotel internet was misconfigured, broken, hacked, or some combination thereof.

Reporting the problem

I reported the problem Monday afternoon to the front desk and to the hotel’s customer service account on Twitter. By the time I checked out early Friday morning, the problem still existed. It took their corporate Twitter people 28 hours to respond, despite the fact that they’re a substantial global hotel chain – or perhaps, because they are.

I noted to the Twitter reps that I didn’t expect the front desk to be network experts, thus I was reporting it to them so they could get the hotel property some corporate-level network help. This didn’t happen – at least not yet.

Their response was to contact the hotel manager. Based on his post-checkout email to me, he had no idea what I was talking about. As previously noted, I didn’t expect him to. Even better, they accidentally forwarded me the internal corporate support team email with the case number and all the contacts, all while leaving this hotel manager hanging out in the breeze to figure it out on his own.

So how does this affect you?

Public internet access quality matters

I don’t want to turn this into a geeky network security post. I mention it because there’s a lot at potential risk when networks offering public internet access have problems like this.

When your customers connect to a secure site from your wifi & that network is misconfigured, it may simply prevent use of the network. If your business is frequented by business customers, fix this quickly as you don’t want them to leave and decide never to return.

You may not think this is a big deal, but business customers do – especially if they’re on the road a good bit. Don’t think of them as one person who “isn’t even a local“. Think of them as all business travelers (or tourists) as a whole. There are sites and mobile apps out there that guide people to businesses with good internet. If your internet is bad and your coffee and croissants are awesome, many of these folks will go elsewhere.

If a regular traveler finds a spot to settle in for an hour or two of work and that spot is dependable, they’ll never forget it and they’ll return every time they’re in town. BJ’s Coffee in Forest Grove, OR comes to mind immediately for me.

If your network is hacked, the risks go well beyond repelling customers. Worst case, the bad guys can “see” your network traffic and send it to a place where they can store and review it. If they have what appeared to be in place at the hotel I visited, they can gather logins, passwords, credit card and other account numbers and so on.

While it’s not a good idea to use the same network that you offer to your customers, if you do so & it’s hacked like this, info on the cards you run could be at risk, even if you passed PCI-DSS certification a few months ago. To be sure, this depends on the hack, your network config & other things. The details aren’t the point.

The risk these situations expose you to …. that’s the point.

Add “network health” to your regular checkups

On a regular basis, you probably check in with your lawyer, doctor, CPA, and a couple of other advisors. You do this to reduce / avoid risk, maintain good health (physical and/or financial) and keep yourself out of trouble.

I suggest adding “network people” to that list.

Ask them to help you lock your network down without making it impossible / annoying to use (there is a balance to be had). Ask them to show you what to check and how to detect when something is “not right” so that you know when to call them for expert help. This landscape changes often. Your network and the equipment, customers and data that touch it are assets. They need protection too.

Photo by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com)

When customer service consumes a business

Recently a software business came to me looking for some help with sales emails. During the initial discussion, they hinted at being a bit overloaded on support. While explaining the big picture situation that provoked their request about the emails, they revealed some details about support tying up development. This was also keeping them from attending to sales. Thus, the emails needed to improve so that sales can improve without needing quite so many phone calls to people wearing a sales hat right that minute, when they needed to be wearing a different hat.

When the phone rings, it’s important

You might wonder why the same people are doing sales and support. If so, you probably don’t have a small company anymore. Think back to how things were when your company had four or five people juggling business development / sales, customer service and whatever else you have to do.

Three calls come in at about the same moment. All three get answered by the four or five people you have. This is standard operating procedure in a small business. We do what has to be done with what we’ve got at that moment. When the phone rings at a company that maybe doesn’t know with absolute certainty where next month’s revenue is coming from – every ring sounds like “ka-ching”, either whether the money is heading in or out. The phone gets priority.

The idea seemed to be that better emails might reduce the demands on the folks trying to juggle sales and support. While that might be true, it’s the wrong problem, even though I totally understand why it’s the focus. Sales feeds the bulldog, folks.

The trouble with priorities

Jim Rohn once said that every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else. Customer service calls can consume every moment of your day… week… life. Yes, they can literally consume the rest of your life.

Why? Because your priorities need to be adjusted.

Look, I’ve been there. I know those service calls have to be handled. I know you base your reputation on the quality of your support. But you’re missing the big picture, and I’m that guy who in this very spot has written many times about lame service and differentiating service and so on. I’m not waffling on that, but when support becomes all consuming, it means your priorities need to be adjusted.

It’s time to sit down with the sales, support, development and management teams. You might not do software, so you may have a manufacturing, installation, customization, and/or deployment team. Whatever. Point is, this is not solely a software business issue.

Customer service eats the world

Like a fire consumes all the oxygen it can, that’s also how service loads can work. Certainly you’ve heard “Your call is important to us, please hold for the next available agent, blah blah blah“. Normally, this means that a large company has understaffed their customer service department and simply won’t admit it, so they tell you they’re experiencing “unusually high call volumes”. Yep, sure they are.

Sometimes it means something else is going on, such as the entire internet is down, or Metallica announced an extra show, or similar.

The point is that this is the nature of customer service. It can and will eat the world unless you make an intentional effort to eliminate the need for it.

Eliminate customer service?

Yes. Eliminate it. Not the department. The need.

When ELIMINATING the need for service is the goal, everything changes.

Imagine if you told the people who write your user manual that you were giving them a new goal: Eliminate the need for a user manual.

Next, tell your folks in shipping (or on the dock) that all shipping customer service calls will go to whoever packed the box.

Finally, tell your product development / install / deploy / customization team that  all customer service product questions will go directly to whoever made it.

After they finished howling at you, they’d ask why, how and so on.

Try something like this: “Let’s build something that people can use without asking for help.”

It completely changes how they think about what they do, much less how they do it. What about new users? What about experienced users? What about power users? Which one of those users does the dev team focus on now? Probably none of them.

It also completely changes how & what you manage.

 

Photo by Kay Kim(김기웅)

What’s a lifelong career lesson you depend on?

I graduated from college with a BS in Computer Science back in 1982. The timing was unfortunate. Interest rates had gone through the roof, cratering hiring, so the tried and true 1980s “every programmer graduate can find a job at an airline or oil company” situation was gone. My school’s BSCS was a very new program and really was more like a general engineering degree (lots of calculus, plus diff-e and more math, several physics courses, etc) with some programming courses tacked on. There wasn’t much resemblance to what most would consider a classic BSCS curriculum, but it didn’t matter too much back then.

My first job after college was at Ross Perot‘s Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Skipping forward several months, I came out of their training program, which everyone went through regardless of their degree. Didn’t matter if you had a CS degree or a history degree, you went. After training, my first mentor was a guy named Randall.

My first serious career lesson

Randall was few years older and had become a rising star in that area of the company. He was easy to look up to. He was smart, a bit of a jokester and someone people came to when they needed solutions to tough challenges. You could see what that meant to him and others. Unlike some in the tech space, he was happy to teach and provide access to resources to experiment with and learn from.

35 years later my strongest memory of Randall is a conversation that had a massive impact on my business life. It became a lifelong career lesson.

One day when I was tinkering around with something that probably had nothing to do with my job at the time (like an IBM mainframe virtual machine), he stared me down and said (paraphrased) “If you want to go places and move ahead (in this company), always be willing to take on new things even if you know nothing about them, then do whatever it takes to learn what’s needed.

It was years before I realized that his advice had become a consistent theme across that all the work situations I’ve been in since that time. It’d repeatedly been a door-opening differentiator. Thanks Randall, your advice that day was the most valuable thing a boss / co-worker / peer ever gave me.

What about “Business is Personal”?

I didn’t say there could only be one lifelong career lesson. “Business is Personal” is a business foundation, while Randall’s advice became a personal mindset & perspective.

The seeds of “Business is Personal” grew out of watching my photographer clients about 20 years ago. The level of personal touch that these folks maintained in their business was something much different than I’d ever seen. They thought about their relationship with their clients very deeply and used it to not only improve sales, but to create clients who stuck with them through each of the seasons of life.

In true “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” fashion, my business life turned a corner thanks to these folks. I suddenly saw every business through a different lens.

As an employer and business owner, “Business is Personal” took on a litany of nuances, year after year. It became the foundation of my consulting and writing because it has a broad application and touches so many parts of the business. It not only became a foundation for running a business, but it’s also a filter for businesses that I’ll do business with.

Ripples

Some non-traditional (for me) work eventually exposed “Business is Personal” as a nuanced connection between businesses, their employees, and the local community. Acquiring, caring for and retaining clients stabilized and helped grow those businesses and make them more resilient.

That stability ripples across families, schools, and quality of life in a community, impacting job creation and retention, crime, local funding, tourism, etc. Yes, it’s Economics 101.

That said, when explaining the “obligation” to get better at sales, customer service and marketing to a business owner as a means of impacting quality of life in their community, rather than “just a way to make more” – the big picture jumps out at them.

I’m curious what your core career lessons are. Have you thought about it? Have you thanked those who first instilled them in you?

What’s important when getting started?

A young man I know is getting started in business. He provides handyman services for homeowners. In a display of wisdom beyond his years, he asked his Facebook connections for things to read and people to talk to re: business advice.

Getting started means wearing several hats

Running a business on your own means you get to do all the jobs, including:

  1. Getting organized.
  2. Deciding who you are best suited to work with.
  3. Deciding who you shouldn’t work for even if they’re throwing $1000 bills at you. Almost everyone does this at least once because we start out under the illusion that everyone can be our customer.
  4. Letting people know that you’re available to help them. This includes discussing what you’re really good at and staying away from everything else (ie: learning to say no).
  5. Pricing your work.
  6. Selling / reaching an agreement to perform work.
  7. Doing the work.
  8. Following up.

The hard work

When getting started in your own business, there’s some “hard work” that has nothing to do with your service. I say “hard work” because they’re often things you don’t want to do, don’t have the time or money for, or don’t see the purpose of.

This includes “Getting organized”, which include making sure your bookkeeping is under control, getting all the permits and licenses that you need, doing whatever is necessary to make sure you are operating legally wherever you live, and getting the proper bonding (if needed) and (definitely needed) insurance to protect you and your customers so that if and when you make a mistake, it doesn’t cost you everything you own now and ever will own.

These things will seem like a pain, but the reality is that the pain they cause is much smaller than the pain created by not taking care of them.

Marketing and sales

Items two through five may generate an “OMG, seriously?”

A few thoughts about them…

If your typical happy customer is married, lives in 59912, works outside the home, and has a spouse who travels, then you’ll want to focus on identifying and attracting those specific people to your services. Don’t waste time advertising to 100,000 people who don’t “fit the profile”.

Come up with a one page (both sides) piece of paper that tells EXACTLY what you are great at (and what you actually want to do). Include your contact info.

Get a box of your business cards made into fridge magnets. Old school, but people will leave them on the fridge forever once they trust you. Even if you’re in their phone contacts, that fridge magnet is in their face every day. Make sure the visible side has your name, phone number, name and what you do. It’s OK to make a special card for magnets.

Figure out what you need to make from each job, including the expenses you might not be thinking of, like insurance, fuel, uniforms, marketing, downtime, taxes, etc. If you do everything else right and mess up your pricing, you won’t be happy.

Be humble, but don’t be shy. If you’re great at something, simply tell people you love to do that work.

As you prepare to leave the customer’s home, ask for more work. Say “Is there anything else that you’ve been meaning to get fixed?“, then let them think long enough so they’re the next one to speak. If they say no, say “OK, I’ll be happy to come back if you something comes up.

Ask your mom, your grandma, and the moms of a few of your friends these questions:

  • “What frustrates you about repair guys that you’ve had in the house?”
  • “Who is your favorite repair company?”
  • “Why are they your favorite? What makes them so special?”

I can predict the answers, but I want you to ask anyway. YOU need to hear these words coming from folks who resemble your customers. These conversations will help you prepare to sell to the customers you want. It isn’t about convincing them to do the work. It’s about showing them you’re the right guy for them.

Do the work, follow up

I’m not going to tell you how to do the work, but I will suggest how things work while you’re at the customer’s home.

Show up in a clean truck.

In Montana, this isn’t always easy, but do the best you can. Your rig sets a first impression when you arrive. It doesn’t have to be a $60,000 diesel rig. It just needs to be clean.

Park on the street.

You don’t want to park in the customer’s driveway and drop a bunch of mud, gravel and whatever else you’ve been driving through that day. You also don’t want to be in the way when someone gets home, someone needs to leave, etc.

Show up in a clean shirt that tucks in.

This means buying at least 3-4 uniform shirts. Get your company name, your name, and your logo sewn onto them (if you have a logo). If you want to go a little crazy, put a big logo, phone number and website address on the back. No matter what, make sure your company’s name is visible through the window of someone’s front door. You want the shirt to tuck in because repeat customers don’t call you because they like seeing your rear hanging out under an untucked shirt. Enough said.

If a job trashes a shirt for the day, change into a clean shirt before arriving at your next job. Yep, you might have to carry several clean shirts with you. Pro athletes don’t take the field in dirty uniforms and neither should you. Show up looking like a pro every time. Meanwhile, you’re a walking billboard.

Buy a box of those silly little shoe booties.

If you walk into someone’s home leaving a trail of muddy, snowy footprints, I guarantee you won’t be asked to come back. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to pull them on and pull them off repeatedly, but it beats losing a customer you worked hard to get. You want to be the service they choose first. When some other handyman asks for their business, you want them thinking “Nope, never using anyone but (that guy).

Make it like you were never there.

After you’ve left a customer’s home, you don’t want them to find any evidence you were there except for the repaired item, a receipt, and a business card. If you made a mess, clean it up. If you tracked something in or the job generate a mess, be sure you have the stuff needed to clean it up. If someone has to clean up after you, they’ll never ask you to come back.

Sign up for Square

… or a similar service that lets you get paid via card using your phone. Many competitors will take credit / debit cards. Yes, it will cost you a few percent of your sales, but it will get you sales as well. Be sure to put the card logos on your business card and one page brochure.

Find customers that can help you during lean times

One of the frustrating aspects of managing rentals is dealing with maintenance. Become the dependable guy for people who own rentals, or rental management firms and you’ll have business that keeps feeding you when you aren’t sure where your next gig will come from. Think about other opportunities similar to this.

Follow up

Call or text the customer the next day and ask them if everything is ok. Leave a voice mail if they don’t answer. Almost NO ONE does this. You will stand out by doing so. 1000 handyman services might read this and STILL, few of them that don’t already do it will start doing it habitually. If things went well, it’s a natural time to thank them and remind them that your business depends on referrals from satisfied customers. If they didn’t go well, it’s a chance to save that customer. Sure, you have to hustle a little, but people refer vendors who took great care of them.

Get some help with Facebook marketing

Your business is ideal for marketing to people on Facebook. Despite all the noise about Facebook data in the news, it’s important to know two things:

  • Most data was given with implicit permission that was granted when someone took a poll on Facebook.
  • This data has been collected for 100 years. Facebook’s is a bit easier to use.

For example, you can ask Facebook to put your ad in front of homeowners who live in the 59912 zip code who have a household income of $xx,xxx. You can optionally have them echo the ads to Instagram. You can have them eliminate homeowners who aren’t married and otherwise filter out people who don’t fit your ideal customer profile.

Few other advertising mechanisms can put your smiling face in front of *exactly* the right people, much less charge you only for the ones who click on your ad.

 Photo by Wonderlane

The scary thing about artificial intelligence

The phrase “artificial intelligence” might bring politicians to your mind’s eye, but today, we’re talking about the real thing. Maybe you own an Alexa (or five of them), but I’m guessing many of you don’t have one. As with most “new” technologies, you’ve probably seen a number of articles that seem bent on inspiring fear about artificial intelligence (AI). Some of them forecast that AI is going to put everyone out of work, take over your life and eventually try to chase down John Connor’s mom.

Even Elon Musk has noted that our (society’s) failure to manage AI could have a bad outcome. Certainly, there’s quite a range of meanings for that phrase. I’m not so worried about Arnold’s metal, computerized alter-ego as some seem to be. My concern in the short term is more about taking advantage artificial intelligence in your business. As with any other technology, there’s the threat of wasting time and money by using it simply because it exists.

AI is already part of your business

Before we consider whether or not artificial intelligence has a place in your business, it might be worthwhile to accept the fact that it’s probably already there. Naturally, there are the obvious things like Siri, the directions providing parts of Google Maps, Waze and similar. They may not “feel” like AI, however.

For decades, software has assessed credit scores & determined risk for insurance underwriters. While that might seem boring to some, the folks in those lines of work still appreciate their value to the quality & accuracy of underwriting. They’re an important factor in insurance company profitability. To me, that’s like the feature of table saws that detect the touch of skin to the blade and stop it in milliseconds to avoid injuring the operator.  Cool, but not AI.

I remember seeing logs entering the then Plum Creek Columbia Falls mill a few years ago and being impressed at the laser-guided saws that assessed a log’s size and shape in an instant and then made initial cuts to maximize yield from that log. This sort of automation has been in place in large, highly-capital intensive manufacturing businesses for some time.

Small businesses have benefited from this sort of automation via CNC (computerized numerical control) driven routers and similar tools. While full-sized CNCs might be too expensive for smaller businesses, a Bozeman-based company makes reasonably-priced desktop-sized CNC.

Learning & problem solving

While all these things are cool, are they AI? The log sensing thing is the closest, but ultimately, the AI purist (there are always purists) might disagree.

Wikipedia describes artificial intelligence as:

when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with human minds, such as learning and problem solving.

Notice that “decision making” is not mentioned. All software makes decisions. A tool that can look at an apple and determine its variety (or its ripeness) based on a previously analyzed group of 10,000 apple images isn’t making decisions per se. It’s using AI based on the training it received by analyzing 10,000 apple photos. Every photo was associated with ripeness and species data.

When processing 10 million apples per year, production speed matters. If separating apples by ripeness and/or species is important to that process, then AI-enabled sorting equipment might be of use.

Software like Adobe Lightroom assesses & automatically “corrects” a photo’s color, contrast, color saturation, etc. Pro photographers who hit the “auto” button probably don’t accept the automated settings as their final choice, but the button still saves time.

Artificial intelligence & your business

Ask yourself this: “Does artificial intelligence have a place in my business and if so, where?

If you’re the apple processor, it probably depends on the price tag.

Is there (perhaps mundane / routine) work / analysis that must be learned to become productive at your company? It’s possible a system could be trained to perform some or all of it. Like the time savings associated with automation, it might eventually free your team’s time to focus on work that you’d never cede to AI. It’s still early, but it’s worth investigating for the right kind of processes. The scary thing is the number of unknowns when you get started, but you’ll get past them like you have with other new things.

This can help improve customer support, but don’t confuse that with customer service. Empathetic, knowledgeable people belong there, not AI.

Unmet needs

A small group I belong to was recently asked by a member of the group to identify some “unmet needs”. The context was “any business” and his question related to a course on self-reliance that he and his wife are participating in. This friend and another in the group are in the fitness and weight loss industry.

My suggestion for him was the lack of effort most gyms make to get (and keep) members engaged and training at their gym. Most gyms scan a barcode membership card or have some sort of sign in process.

Despite this, if you don’t show up on the normal days you’ve showed up in the past, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for two weeks, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for three months, you’ll hear nothing from them. As long as you keep paying the bill, that is. So that was an example of an unmet need for his course.

To be sure, self-motivation is a lot of this, but a short text or email to say “Hey, are you still alive? We haven’t seen you in three months” might be the kick in the tail feathers that they need. Or maybe life has been hectic and they need a little push to get back in the habit. Regardless of the reason, none of this happens in most gyms.

So that prompted more thought on the subject, which is why we’re discussing unmet needs today. There are at least three kinds of unmet needs:

  • Those you know of and haven’t satisfied
  • Those you know of and refuse to address
  • Those you don’t know about

Unmet needs that you know of and don’t satisfy

Using the context of the gym, what does your gym to do set itself apart from the others? Does it miss you when you don’t show up for an unusually long time? If you’re a persistent daily user, does it miss you when you miss a single day?

These kinds of things don’t pertain solely to a gym. Does your oil change place miss you when you stop going there, or when you’re a month later than usual? Do they even notice? What about your dentist? Your dry cleaners? Your beer store?

These things aren’t limited to retail. They’re only limited by how much attention you’re paying to your customers. Are they “suddenly” spending twice as much or half as much as they have for the last five years? There’s a reason. Maybe it affects you, maybe it doesn’t.

Unmet needs hide in places like this.

Unmet needs that you refuse to address

Refusing to address certain needs is OK. Even when the need is there and legitimate, there may be any number of reasons why you’d want to avoid it. Maybe it’s none of your business, even though it’s in context with the products and services you provide to your clientele. Maybe this need is too costly to meet. Meeting it might require invading the privacy or “personal space” of your customers. Perhaps meeting this need might even annoy your customers, despite the fact that they know they need it.

Give yourself the latitude to say no, even if you’d rather say yes (to the income).

The ones you don’t know about

This one always reminds me of the famous Rumsfeld quote about unknown unknowns. In other words, there are things we don’t know that we don’t know about. Have you ever heard of the citric acid cycle? It’s also called the Krebs cycle. I suspect that for most people, it’s an unknown unknown. IE: It’s something we weren’t aware of the existence of, plus we don’t know anything about it now that we’ve been told it exists.

These are the things your customers will tell you if you listen closely. But… don’t wait until they tell you. Ask them. “Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” Notice that I didn’t say “Is there anything we can sell you that you don’t already buy from us?” That’s a different question. It’s about you, mostly.

“Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” is about them and their unmet needs – and probably unspoken ones at that. Ask questions that make it about them.

Photo by Joris_Louwes

The town with no public parking

Recently I traveled to visit a family member. Their town is practically devoid of parking in the retail and business sections of town. Weirdest thing ever. I haven’t seen anything quite like this in years. Parking was almost non-existent.

Structural retail

In the main retail part of town, you had to use a parking structure six blocks away. It was damp and poorly lit. Given that this is an area where meth has substantially influenced the nature and volume of local crimes, it wasn’t a place I’d want family members walking to and from.  What little front door parking the retail area offered was completely consumed – and as I watched for a while, these cars were there for the long term. Normally, retail spaces have fairly frequent turnover, but not here. I suspect the spots were taken by employees of nearby businesses – whose building owners weren’t required to provide parking for a reasonable percentage of the building’s expected occupancy.

This isn’t unusual. Many times a substantial new building will be built in an area that is already under serious pressure parking-wise – and the building’s owner isn’t expected to allocate space for parking by the building’s occupants. The result is an area under even heavier parking pressure, which is not particularly good for business.

Except in large cities, transit usually isn’t an option. That was the case in this town of about 10,000 people. As a result, travel happens in individual vehicles, which means parking is a critical resource for the success of these retail businesses.

Business parking in a box

In the “office-y”, business section of town, there were a few small (two or three story) office towers and medical facilities. These buildings were clumped together in a downtown (formerly dense retail area) with surprisingly few parking spots – and none on the street. Collectively, these buildings were big enough to house several hundred workers. The result? Some of those employees were parking in adjacent residential areas and were obviously walking across four lane roads that were not pedestrian friendly areas. Down the road about 300 yards, it appeared that “overflow” parking was happening in the corner of an abandoned box store’s parking lot.

I have no idea where customers of these businesses would park. Maybe they circle the lot like a buzzard until a spot opens up. I don’t know about you, but when a business offers nowhere to park, I go somewhere else. They chose the location and the parking situation, or they chose not to move when the situation became difficult parking-wise. If the location and parking options are inconvenient, seriously sub-standard, or just plain terrible, I choose one of their competitors. I’ll bet you do too.

Did I say parking? Sorry about that.

Parking is a critical resource for businesses, particularly those that serve the public, whether they’re retail or “other business”. Certainly, we want to have safe parking for our employees, but for businesses that serve the public, it’s like oxygen.

Whoops.

When I was talking about the town I visited, rather than parking, I was referring to a startling lack of internet access at every location I tested. But now you get the idea about scarcity of a resource – and the problems are similar whether we’re talking about parking or broadband.

35% of the US workforce freelances and a substantial percentage of them telecommute full or part-time. Six percent of working Montanans telecommute. Given the nature of business and the needs of the US work force, these numbers are likely to keep increasing.

While you might think that telecommuters are all geeky software jobs – that isn’t the case. Telecommuters work in finance, law, medicine, pharma, research, insurance, higher education, customer service, government (yes, really), marketing, sales, cybersecurity, and many other fields. In other words, many “office jobs” of the past have become telecommuting jobs.

Broadband is a strategic economic resource

When entrepreneurs leave town, it’s not usually a good thing. Those two issues will make it difficult for a town to be the place where two pizza teams form.

Quality internet access isn’t simply about watching cat videos without buffering. It’s a strategic economic resource for your community. Like Chattanooga (“Gig City”), cities and towns don’t have to wait for big cable ISP vendors, much less Washington or the state capitol to make better access happen.

When A Storm Comes To Town

Wall Street loves “events”. An event in their context might be a CEO saying something incredibly stupid that affects the stock price, gets the CEO fired, or both. A good example is the Lululemon CEO’s yoga pants comment back in 2013.

If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.

Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.

Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.

Dealing with the aftermath

No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.

Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.

Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.

In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.

Which truth is that?

Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.

Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.

Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.

The truth is for everyone else.

Recovery and Communication

When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.

If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.

If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.

What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.

Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.

If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.

A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.

Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.