Work Linear vs. Parallel

This week I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine for meetings with a software team. The meetings went well and I will be on my way home by the time you read this, however I had some travel issues.

It’s worth noting that all of the issues I encountered were either created or they were problems that are not allowed to solve themselves because the people and systems communicate with each other at a level that forces them to work in a linear fashion.

It prompts questions we should consider for ourselves and our clients.

What do I mean when I say “Work linear vs. parallel”? Some examples from my trip provide a good illustration.

Working linear

When my plane from Missoula left Salt Lake City (SLC), it left late because the de-icing line in SLC was long. I don’t know if they had a de-icing truck out for repairs, or if they simply didn’t allocate enough trucks or drivers, or if something else was going on.

Regardless of the reason, the situation and the possible lack of fallback solutions (ie: backup trucks, drivers on call, etc) created delayed flights for many that day – creating a linear problem.

If the normal pace of takeoffs cannot be maintained, then SLC becomes a bottleneck in the West and flights to surrounding cities start struggling with schedules as a result.

This cascades into many linear problems at once since every city with a late flight potentially has stranded passengers or passengers with missed connections. Old news, but it’s important to consider how quickly this can cascade.

When my plane left Missoula, it did not de-ice. I don’t know what the protocol is for de-icing, but about 15-20 minutes into the flight, we had failed to continue our climb to cruising altitude and started to turn back. The flaps would not retract and this wasted too much fuel. Unfortunately, we were above maximum landing weight, so we circled for 20-30 minutes to burn off enough fuel to land.

The irony is that this circling was burning the same fuel and time we would have burned if we had simply continued to SLC with the flaps down, normally a 54 minute flight.

This quickly ate into the layover I had built in.

When we got to SLC, we were unable to pull into our gate right away. By the time I got to the gate for Paris, the plane door was closed and I could not board.

Five minutes matters

The big thing that hit me during this process was seeing multiple instances of seemingly insignificant two to five minute delays cascading into hours of delays. Any one of them could have been planned out of the airline’s response and it would have allowed enough time for three people on the Missoula flight make the connection to Paris, much less all the other people who were missing connections that afternoon.

The thought to consider is this: How many two to five minute delays are built in to what you do, how you serve, how you deliver, etc? How do these affect the client’s outcome? What costs do they increase when service fails? What costs will the client incur?

What happens when a few of these five minute delays push your delivery of products or services to the next business day?

What systems do you have in place to automatically tend to conditions that can create these delays?

Working parallel

Every business encounters problems. How businesses react to them and what they do to eliminate / prevent situations that are controllable is critical.

How does automated, perhaps parallel problem solving save money? What delays can be addressed without waiting for them to happen? What delays can be reacted to with automation to accelerate a response and solution?

Cost examples from a plane trip:

  1. What’s the circling fuel expense to get below max landing weight vs. the cost to continue to SLC?
  2. What’s the cost of lost seat revenue for the empty seats and hotel stays for interrupted travel?
  3. How much delay is introduced at the gate when you don’t automatically rebook travelers?
  4. On a daily basis, what does a five minute gate wait cost, in missed connections, lost seat revenue and hotels?

Look at your business. Make a list of preventable delays. Knock off one at a time.

Starting A New Business: Part 5 – Infrastructure

Infrastructure is one of those things you don’t necessarily think about as a new business owner.

Thing is, strong infrastructure often turns out to be the competitive edge that no one (other than you) notices.

Your clientele notices “stuff”:

  • You’re always on top of things and that you rarely, if ever, have to say “oh, that fell in a crack.”
  • Your staff knows where orders, parts and service people are, when they’ll be show up and what, if anything, is holding them up.
  • Your staff is proactive more often than not.
  • You don’t lose checks, invoices, legal forms and other marginally important paperwork (yes, that was sarcasm).
  • Their priorities never seem to get lost in yours.
  • You rarely (if ever) miss a deadline – particularly one that would embarrass or damage their business.

In other words, they notice when you really have your act together. Not only do they notice, but they remember, tell others and keep coming back.

The price of worry

Infrastructure is what helps you keep from worrying about “stuff” every single day.

Every moment you spend fretting about “stuff”, chasing down minutiae, emailing to ask for status reports is time focused on things that you shouldn’t even have to think about.

When you have infrastructure in place that takes these things off your mind, your mind is free to do more important thinking. More valuable thinking about things (and on a level) that transforms what you do.

Something as simple as an automated website backup process that sends your content to an offsite backup location is one less menial task and one less brain-sucking thing to keep in the back of your mind.

Do-It-Yourself?

Entrepreneurs are often DIY kinds of folks because we want something slightly better than the norm. It’s why we build solutions.

It also means we spend time on things we have no business doing. Either we aren’t any good at it, or we don’t have time to get (much less stay) current in that activity. It might be computers, your network, plumbing, human resources, benefits or event management.

Frequently these things involve some combination of legal, insurance, finance and taxes. Not the kind of “stuff” you want to mess up.

Little things that can destroy a day…or a week

If I lose electricity, I lose water because our well requires a pump. Meanwhile, my computers will be up for another hour or so thanks to uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), giving me time to backup, shutdown my systems cleanly and leave if I need to keep working.

Few people backup enough, for example. If lightning from one of the thunderstorms that visit your coastline almost every day destroys your computer, you get to buy a new computer and waste a day setting it up. If your customer and order data isn’t backed up, you’ll spend even more time re-entering your customer/order data – if you have it on paper somewhere. So much for those orders you needed to ship tomorrow.

I do all my client work in VMs (VM = virtual machine). I backup the VMs I use to a portable external drive. I backup to it regularly and test it often to make sure it works. Regularly does not mean annually – it means weekly, worst case. The work I do for clients is backed up constantly.

This means I can run out the door with nothing but that external drive, go to a local store, buy a computer, download VMWare and be working again without losing a thing, inside an hour – anywhere. Allowing the failure of a $500 desktop computer to kill your business is just foolish.

Your business might not be as portable as mine, and that’s ok. The takeaway, no matter what you do, is “Protect your ability to continue to do business productively”.

The back of your mind is full

The back of your mind is full enough already. Let it focus on serious work that only you can do and let experts take care of the important stuff outside of your expertise. The same goes for your staff. That back of the mind stuff is what infrastructure does so well.

Think long-term and strategically about infrastructure investments – and then invest as soon as you can.

The Right Kind of Work

SUPERSEDED
Creative Commons License photo credit: m.a.x

 

Productivity is pretty important, but it had better apply to the right sort of work.

Even if your employees are incredibly efficient at whatever they do, if their work no longer brings substantial value to the table, your business could evaporate.

The failure to automate the work that can and should be automated will eventually push your costs out of line with the competition. If some of the work you do now could be automated without losing quality, you have to take an honest look at it.

Remember…If you don’t address this issue, the marketplace will do it for you.

If you’ve ever had to lay someone off, you know it isn’t fun. When they walk out for the last time, they have to go home and tell their family and they have to figure out what’s next. It won’t feel any better that it happened because you weren’t paying attention – and it certainly won’t help you to be understaffed.

In order to avoid this, you have to look for places to become more efficient. It has to be done without losing quality, distinction or value. It’s possible that your choice becomes your new edge and that the staffer who was doing the low value work ends up managing the process that replaced their labor.

Are you still doing the right things?

Sometimes, automation isn’t enough. You realize (or the market tells you) that you’re doing the wrong work.

Every month, you have to ask yourself about your business and about your people, “Am I doing the right sort of work? If not, am I ready to? If not, what do I have to do to get there?”

If your work can be outsourced easily, you’re living on borrowed time.

If you’re a middleman adding zero value, you’re living on borrowed time.

You already know this if you’re paying attention and being honest with yourself. Even so, it’s nothing to be ashamed of unless you ignore it. Everyone faces market challenges but we don’t have to seek them out and invite them in for dinner.

There’s nothing that says you have to do what you do now, that your people can’t learn a new skill that someone places a high value these days or that your business can’t start making something that people will line up to buy.

The kind of work you should be seeking is the kind of work that produces real value and/or requires taking real responsibility for what you deliver.

Think about the vendors who serve your business. How many of them take real responsibility for the products and services they provide? Now consider the vendor you’d NEVER fire. You know why. They care as much as you do.

What if you don’t want to change?

“Boy, the way Glenn Miller played”…

Edith and Archie sang that song in the 70s about music from decades earlier, looking back upon what they saw as their golden years.

No matter how wonderful those golden years were, no matter what decade they were in, now isn’t then. Even in 1939, the handwriting was on the wall for Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

If you warmly recall that time two, three or even four decades ago when your area had low unemployment, the best jobs, more work than you could do and close to the highest per capita wages in the country.

Those decades are long gone. So are many of the high-paying jobs that were valued back then. Just like that steam shovel.

Everyone deals with it.

Many “middle class” jobs of a century ago (like coal and ice delivery) were steady jobs. They’re gone. It’s not much different with many of the jobs from 20-30-40 years ago.

If this describes your business, understand that I’m not trying to make light of that. I was trained as a programmer. 20 years later, tens of millions of people in India, the Ukraine, China and elsewhere can do what most “first world” programmers do for $10-20 an hour. I understand the competitive pressures.

If your work can be outsourced at $10-20 an hour, you have to ask yourself…”How much value do I really deliver?”

Take charge. Do the right work.

 

 

Avoiding the hurt

Not long ago, we talked about reviewing the recent performance of your business and making adjustments based on what you find.

We ended that conversation like this…

Beyond the bumps, thereâ??s something missing here. Reacting after the fact.

Assessment and adjustment after the bleeding starts. Evaluating whatâ??s going on because the calendar says so.

Does that make sense in an ultra-competitive world? I think there has to be a better way.

One reason for this is human nature. If you feel you don’t have to stop and take the time to assess / measure what’s going on as often as I say or as often as the calendar says, you’re going to do it less often than you should.

Eventually, you can expect that to hurt.

By the dashboard light

This isn’t about killing pain or temporarily avoiding that hurt. I’d prefer to *prevent* the pain if possible. Wouldn’t you?

To set the context for one approach to preventing the pain, think about your car.

You don’t pull off of the highway to check your car’s speed, water and oil temperature. Your car’s dashboard provides information about its current condition while you’re moving, eliminating the need to pull over, stop, get out, change clothes, look under the hood and get your hands dirty. Not to mention how hard it is to judge your speed that way.

If your car requires immediate attention, something on your dashboard lights up so that you can’t help but notice it and (hopefully) attend to it.

Seems to me that you would benefit if your business could do that. Rather than waiting for you to sit down, crunch numbers and summarize things so you can make a decision – the equivalent of pulling off the highway and looking under the hood – why not setup your business to self-report just like your car?

Trends and Emergencies

In business situations requiring immediate attention, you want to know right then – much like the dashboard “idiot light” but smarter.

Rather than waiting to arrive at those “immediate attention” situations, it would be even better if your business notified you when conditions existed that could lead to a situation like that, giving you the time to take action or make a decision before things get ugly.

Sure, sometimes “immediate attention” situations happen instantly with no warning, but that really isn’t typical.

More often than not, there are leading indicators to the impending crisis. As your business operates, it creates feedback information about itself, about events that occur (such as customer interactions, so-many-days-since-they-paid) and so on. Yes, this is obvious. Each of those pieces of information trends in some direction, even if that direction is “same as last month”.

If they start trending toward that “Check engine” light, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest you’d want to know that well before the light comes on.

More than a handful

Keeping track of 100 of these by hand is almost impossible, or at least way more work than most people want to do or see ROI in. As a result, we might keep track of a small handful by hand. If we could monitor them in an automated fashion, we could monitor quite a few handfuls without extra effort. That would allow us to spend more time improving our business (much less doing business) and let our automated monitors tell us what we might otherwise not notice.

For example, when a trend direction starts to change over a predetermined period of time (or amount, or in too many areas at once), you want to know about it sooner rather than later. In your car, you want to find out about your coolant getting too warm *before* it overheats and strands you in the middle of nowhere at the worst possible time.

Dirty Hands

While an automated dashboard is great for keeping you out from under the hood on a daily basis, it’s still sometimes necessary to get your hands dirty. Don’t let your automated systems tempt you into avoiding this effort.

These systems allow you to keep substantially better track of more things on a day to day basis without spending all day “checking, checking, checking”. They educate you about problems far earlier than normal and let you focus on the real work – the stuff that creates revenue and profit.

Automation *can be* personal

Run, Motherfucker, Run
Creative Commons License photo credit: JOE MARINARO

Like I suspect you do, I get a number of automated emails asking how someone’s service was, or reminding me to deal with this or that before a deadline.

Most of these are innocuous emails that were done with an honest effort to help, but because the process was left unfinished, there’s very little long-term or accumulating value in them.

More value *could* come with a little more automation salted with a little personal touch.

For example, if I take a box to the local UPS Store (which recently reopened in our town, thankfully), I have an email waiting for me before I arrive home from the 3 mile drive from their shop.

The email includes the tracking number, a link to check on my package, an estimated arrival date, and perhaps the destination and a brief thank you.

Right up to that point, this is a minimum that should be getting done. There’s value in this email because I can check the link and perhaps put the email in my calendar so I remember to check the status later. Yes, a link to an iCal file to auto-add the delivery date to my calendar would be a nice option.

And then….silence.

Silence isn’t the right answer. It’s unfinished business.

Why silence isn’t golden

In many businesses, there is no email confirmation going on.

When doing business with those firms, I have to call (or they do) in order to find out what’s going on, when my work is done, what the estimate amount was and so on.  For those businesses, this post is a bit of a what-to-do checklist.

So why is the silence after that first email “unfinished business”?

Because it doesn’t complete the task at least as well as you would if you were standing in front of them when the package was delivered. An email isn’t an excuse to get out of work. It’s a way to give your customer the choice of being better informed.

But still, unfinished?

Yes, because (for example) I don’t get an email when the package is delivered and signed for.

That means they’ve missed an opportunity to confirm that the transaction completed as promised while subconsciously reminding me I use them because their job is to set my mind at ease.

It also subconsciously plants yet another seed that I can trust that business to get my package where it’s going safely and on time so I can consider the job delegated successfully.

That’s a big thing if you’re in the service biz.

In addition, they miss the opportunity to add a comment that…

  • Reminds me that 9 packages have been shipped this month and all arrived on time for less than USPS or Fedex rates (or similar).
  • Reminds me that customers who ship as often as I do can save time by opening a monthly-pay account at the store, allowing me to walk in, drop the package and leave rather than wait in line to ship and pay.

And so on.

Note that none of these emails require any manual labor once the templates are setup. The automated shipping notification systems are doing all of the work from that point forward. The result is that your business is more productive (given fewer calls re: package status) and your clients are better informed.

The next step: Those “How was our service?” emails could be of far more value to your customers and your business if someone paid attention to them. More on that tomorrow.

PS: These references to email could just as easily be text messages to my phone. Wouldn’t be lovely if I could choose one or both?

Changes and Clipboards

While the world wrings its hands over the tax implications of LeBron James’ move to Miami, the rest of us didn’t even look up.

We’re working hard to create (or advance the progress of) our next big thing.

Meanwhile, the economy stumbles forward in some ways, races in others, and limps in still others. Change, both for the better and the worse.

Now is the time to take a look at all the processes in your business and see what can be eliminated (presumably not service, unless people don’t want it), what can be fine-tuned and what needs to be added.

Put a fine chamois on that

Even here at business process improvement’s global headquarters (or something like that), I can find things that need to be systemized or further refined.

For example, I noticed that some of the things I do didn’t have enough of a feedback loop in them. Sure, I ask but I really hadn’t formalized it into a system that *anyone* could use (even me before coffee). As a result, I’ve added a feedback loop in after every coaching session.

I realize that I needed to automate some additional parts of my follow up timeline by creating some tools to talk to QuickBooks and produce email, letters and a checklist of stuff for me to do based on recent sales, expirations of a period of time since a last sale (such as a coaching session), and so on.

Naturally, this is being pushed to my Google Calendar, so I get appropriately nagged by smartphone, iTouch and/or Things.

But you’re a lone eagle

Why did I do all that for a one dude office? Because things (lower case) get forgotten or fall between the cracks, no matter how big or small a business is. Putting these tools in place makes sure that I touch all the bases after hitting that home run.

Why is that important? Because it’s easy for the massively polished sales forces of organizations like Chet Holmes’ (who produces really good sales training materials) and George S. May (etc) to slip in under the radar and try to swipe a client from me. Or 10.

The same thing can happen to you. It’s easy to attract a local small business’ business until you goof up and drop the ball.

Clipboards

When I walk into a business and see 2 dozen yellow pads on clipboards hanging from a matrix of nails on the wall, I know there are balls being dropped.

I know it because those clipboards don’t scream at people who walk by and say “Dude, you haven’t called the customer on this page and told them that their order was delayed because it was damaged during shipment.”

Automated process management systems, even simple ones that “talk” to QuickBooks, can do that. At the very least, if you prefer a human touch (recommended), they will remind you and your staff to follow up (and tell you why). Better that you call before it was due and share the bad news now vs. sharing it 2 weeks after the promised delivery date.

That’s one way that the young whippersnapper (who is 52 and freshly laid off) gets in the door on you because they are more attentive, more timely and they follow up when it makes sense.

Kudos to them if they are on the ball rather than you. They’re hungry.

As long as they don’t forget as their business matures and the client list grows, you’re fighting a tough battle to supplant them.

Meanwhile, you’re fighting all those battles and dealing with inefficient business processes, it makes it that much harder to you (and/or your team, if you have one) to create that next big thing that’s going to be your Hank, LeBron, Junior or Martha.

Speaking of that big thing

You *are* working on or trying to advance your next big thing, right? You aren’t waiting for the economy to “turn”, I hope. Your next big thing is part of what produces that turn. If you’re too busy playing customer service Whack-a-Mole with a wall of clipboards, the time to create that next big thing is hard to find.

Is there something that needs some work? Put your Mark hat on. What could use a little chamois (or even a Sham-wow) to polish it up a bit?

#amazonfail, Niemoller and your business

choc bunny
Creative Commons License photo credit: Asti21

First they came for the chocolate bunnies, and I did nothing because I am not a chocolate bunny.

Quite a weekend we’re having: Passover, Good Friday, Easter, the Masters and a few thousand Easter Egg hunts, to name a few.

Oh, and I smoked a pork roast that turned out totally incredible. But I digress:)

In the midst of all the holiday celebrations, worship, family time and so on, Amazon gets into the act. So much so that they are trending #1 on Twitter (you must be logged into Twitter in another browser window/tab BEFORE clicking this link, sorry but that’s just how Twitter search works).

The hashtag (ie: search term) on Twitter that is receiving all the attention is #amazonfail.

First they came for those with an Amazon rank

It’s been a while since the online bookseller stepped in it and alienated a huge number of people, but they got into the act again this weekend.

Last time it was about Amazon shafting authors who use print on demand services that weren’t owned by Amazon.

This time, it’s some or all of the “adult” community.

At first, it wasn’t clear exactly what was going on (and still may not be), but an official customer service response from Amazon indicates that they are removing sales rank data for content with adult ratings. Amazon now denies this, calling it a glitch.

A growing number of folks in the GLBT (or LGBT) community (particularly on Twitter) are noting some inconsistency of the removed ranking data, noting that it seems to apply more to content of interest to them than to adult material across the board.

No matter what your feelings about the various forms of sexuality, I should remind you about two things:

  • First, the Rev. Martin Niemoller poem, “First they came“. If your business (through you) is willing to take on a group, be careful what you wish for. Be sure of your staying power with your stance on an issue.
  • Second, while there are political and other sensitive issues here, this isn’t why I bring this up. There are business issues intertwined throughout this.

In Amazon’s case on this issue, they risk a nationwide boycott from the LGBT community. If they change their mind, they risk a boycott by other groups. If they waffle and end up somewhere in the middle, they might get both.

Yeah but this stuff has nothing to do with my business!

Not really.

It’s 2009. For no cost, anyone can get detailed info about your political contribution numbers and plot them on a Google map and do any number of things with it, including to suggest that people pay you a visit.

Are you ready for that?

If you think your personal values don’t affect your business, think again.

Every business owner will inevitably find themselves taking a side on a political, theological or similar issue at some point (probably several dozen). You need to think through how you will handle situations like this.

  • Will you bring your stance on contentious issues into your business?
  • If you become active on an issue, will it impact your business and if so, are you strong enough to stand firm when the public attaches the issue to your business? It doesn’t matter what the issue is. What matters is how you will handle it and how your staff will handle it.
  • Are you willing to deal with the fact that your staff feels differently about the issue (whatever it is) than you do? Whether you are or not, you should talk to a HR specialist or an attorney who specializes in employment law before hiring people. HR problems are a great way to lose your shorts.
  • Is your stance on an issue going to affect the clients and employees you attract? As long as you are sure of yourself, that’s the primary concern. Well, that and are you acting within the law?
  • Will your ethics on the issue in question suggest that your business ethics should be called into question?

I’m not asking nor suggesting that you temper your views or how and where you share them with others. Only you can make that decision.

Nor am I suggesting that you be hypocritical. Congruent for sure, but not hypocritical.

What I am suggesting is that you need to decide in advance if you are willing to lose your business (or a part of your business) over your stance on an issue. It’s ok either way,  just be sure of yourself before you go down that road.

Some might suggest that you’ll get more business if you show your colors. In some cases, I think that’s absolutely right. One of the easiest examples I can think of where this likely helps a business is Ian’s stance on China, human rights and his Catholic goods store.

More than anything, I am suggesting that you consider the big picture before you step onto the soapbox.

No matter how you feel, it is difficult to get the genie back into the bottle.

PS: It’s all about the malted milk eggs for me.

UPDATE: An interesting theory on what might be happening to Amazon: http://tehdely.livejournal.com/88823.html

Whether this theory is true or not, it’s a valuable lesson for system designers of social media systems, interactive/community feedback systems and the like.

Meanwhile, a bunch of tweets reference people actively tagging conservative books with keywords that might get them de-listed from the sales rank numbers for the same reason that others are being de-listed.

UPDATE: Amazon says the change in sales rankings is a glitch. In social media circles, they arent getting a lot of traction on that. Time will tell.

What do a turkey and an iPhone have in common?

Old istanbul
Creative Commons License photo credit: Atilla1000

Plenty, if you’re thinking and paying attention to what other businesses are up to. 

We had a Hutterite turkey last week, but in the process of digging around, I came across some innovative things that Butterball is doing to make life easier for their customers. 

Things like text messages to remind you to start thawing the turkey. Simple, helpful, smart. 

Who HASN’T forgotten to start thawing the turkey on time at least once in their life? We sure have. 

Learn more about Butterball’s mobile tools. 

Now…salt to taste for your business. What are your takeaways from what they’ve done?

PS: You can learn about Montana’s Hutterites here and get some additional info here.

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/TurkeyiPhone.mp3]

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.

Are you missing the point of automation?

Last week I received a phone call from SendOutCards, whose service sends personalized postcards and greeting cards â?? with pictures if you like â?? simply by pounding on their website for a moment.

First of all, kudos to them. They were just calling to see if I was getting what I needed out of the service and wondered what – if anything – they could do to help me.

Why kudos? Because SO FEW actually make the effort to do this.

Yep, that’s a not-so-subtle hint.

The downside of the conversation was that I blindsided them with my request.

It’s important to clarify that I really like the service â?? they even let me create a font of individual letters using my handwriting, so that the text I type into the website is printed in my writing on the card or postcard. This includes several variations of my hand-written signature so I can sign the cards any way I want depending on who the recipient is.

The disappointment is that the service lacks the ability to let you automate the delivery of what they produce.

You can import a list from your Outlook or whatever, but that isnâ??t automation. Itâ??s manual and a pain. Plus it’s a duplication of data – bad idea.

Once youâ??ve imported contacts, you can setup a series of cards or postcards or notes to go out over a period of days as you like. Setting it up is a little bit of a pain, but it works.

Then the trouble starts. There is no automated way to update the contacts when their contact info changes on my systems, much less to add or remove them. It’s 2008 folks, this stuff is commonplace and simple to implement.

Also – when you have 9400 customers, you don’t have them in Outlook and you don’t want to manually import and categorize them using a web interface.

Their goal SHOULD be to make it as easy to send cards and postcards as they possibly can, since their profit depends on two things: the revenue from sending cards and postcards, and the exposure they get to new people who receive those cards and start using the service on their own.

As it is now, it isnâ??t real automation. Automation occurs when things happen automatically because something else happened, manual or otherwise.

I tried explaining this to the vendor and gave them a few examples.

If I have an online store that sells stuff, I’d want my online store to automatically send a thank you card with shipping info in it. A month or a week or whatever (depends on the product) later, I’d want to send a follow up thank you that asks for a review, comments, makes sure they are happy with their purchase, etc.

That just scrapes the surface of needs of that type.

Random customer behavior: bad idea

Another example: Let’s assume that Iâ??m performing a service or selling an item to customers who come back intermittently. Your internal point of sale and invoicing system should have the information needed to produce a list of â??Who hasnâ??t been here in 30 days?â? (or 60, or whatever).

If youâ??re on top of this situation, someone is currently printing out that list and having someone mail them a postcard, or a note, or calling them to see if theyâ??re doing OK, need an appointment, etc. Or SendOutCards could be *automatically instructed* by your systems to send a reminder card or what not to try and retain this customer and get them back into the store, office, etc.

If you arenâ??t on top of this sort of thing, youâ??re simply waiting on the random behavior of your customers to return to your business – exactly the kind of thing SendOutCards is designed to assist you with.

Smart businesses DO NOT depend on the random behavior of their customers. Instead, they show up (and/or deliver) “Just before just-in-time”, as Don Ferris says.. They also make a point of reminding their customers to come back / purchase / do maintenance (or whatever) when it’s best for the customer… without being an annoying nag about it.

By now, you should have asked yourself what you can be doing in this area. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your business:

  • What do your customers use every month?
  • What do they own that requires maintenance every quarter?
  • What happens TO THEM if they don’t come back on a regular basis?
  • What happens if I lose track of changes in their personal situation (if B-to-C) or business situation (B-to-B)?

If they arenâ??t buying or maintaining those things on that basis, every day they wait is costing you money *and* it could cost them money too.

Oh yeah, back to that every 30 days list.

What if your systems were automated and knew to send out a postcard (not one of those lame ones from the corporate office that no one reads) when someone should have an appointment coming up? And the system knows not to mail one if you already have an appointment scheduled in the next few weeks.

And it knows to email the right person in your business 10 days after the postcard is mailed to remind them to call that person if and only if they donâ??t have an appointment (or haven’t made a purchase).

This isnâ??t rocket science, but the vendor didnâ??t seem to get how valuable this was not only to me, but to their bottom line (ie: more cards get mailed, more people are exposed to the vendor’s service).