Good business is personal

smart fortwo passion mhd coupe & cabrio * Play
Creative Commons License photo credit: jiazi

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a lot of time to rethink a lot of things.

It struck me that I’ve spent a lot more time discussing the dumb things that businesses do rather than the smart things they do.

While I turn the story of those dumb things into a lesson for the smart business, and have made note of the reasons to expect me to focus on “bugs” on my About page; I’ve decided that we need to spend more time here focusing on the smart businesses and what they do.

Angie and Friends

It hit me while motoring from Memphis to Mom’s place after hearing yet another ad for Angie’s List.

It struck me that we “need” things like Angie’s List, Consumerist, the Better Business Bureau (which has little to do with better business IMO) and to a lesser extent, the US Consumer Protection Agency partly because we are lazy consumers.

Consumer laziness provokes us to return to a business even though they were treated poorly the last time we went there. Consumers are going to do what they’re going to do, collectively. Individually, of course, each of us can do something about it via word of mouth.

Responsibility

On the other hand, businesses have a lot of responsibility here as well, and it’s not just the ones treating consumers poorly.

Why do businesses that routinely treat their customers poorly manage to stay open?

I blame your business. And myself.

It doesn’t matter what economic level, what market position, or what part of the world your business is in. This isn’t about businesses focused on serving value-seeking customers vs. those focused on serving affluent customers.

It’s about customers on every rung of the economic ladder, how you take care of them and how you educate them.

The responsibility of a good business doesn’t stop there. Not even close.

Obligation

A good business is obligated to communicate why they are either the only logical solution (or on the “short list” of logical solutions).

“We’ll beat any price.” doesn’t do that. In fact, it usually takes everything else off the table, saying “We believe nothing is more important than price.” That might be true in a few situations, but in reality, people make one or two cent buying decisions every day.

Do you know what drives them?

A good business is obligated to find a way, even in commodity markets, to get their clientele to cross the street in their direction and pay 2 cents more. Most importantly, these customers are glad they did so and will happy to again.

Likewise, a good business is obligated to do whatever is necessary to make it as easy as possible for their clients to tell others about the insanely good (or maybe just consistently good) experience they have with that business.

Talk is cheap, until they talk about you

Why does Angie’s List have to exist in order to get someone’s testimonial for your business online?

To expand that beyond AL (I’m not picking on them – I happen to like their service), why do people have to search the internet to find out word-of-mouth info about you? It’s great that the info is there, but you should be leading the charge (strategically, not smarmily – yes, I made up that word) to let people know who thinks you hung the moon.

It’s your responsibility to first do good business and then make sure others find out what your clientele experienced. Doesn’t matter whether they find out via Twitter, Facebook, at the grocery store, after church or at a kid’s ballgame.

What haven’t you done to get that information on your site? In your store?

What haven’t you done to personalize your business to the point that people can’t help but tell their friends about you?

If you can identify those things, why haven’t you done them?

Why is that?

Are you really willing to sit there and let people cross the street to the other guy to save a penny or two, knowing full well the experience they will have?

The treatment they get from a competitor reflects on you because you’re in the same business. Do you take that personally?

You should. I wonder what you’ll do about it.

Ask them to tell your story

Once it has been pointed out, most people understand that benefits / tangible results do a better job of generating interest in your products / solutions than a dry corporate list of bullet items.

It’s easy for you to say “If you use this, <something> will result.”

Some people will believe you.

More people will believe it when it comes from your customers in their own words, even if you have to prompt them to answer a question.

Give your customers a chance to tell your story.

They’ll often say it better than you do, especially when sharing what they gained from working with you.

Choose Carefully, Be Amazing.

White Breach
Creative Commons License photo credit: erikogan

I was speaking with a wanna be business owner the other day who I *know* has the skills to help people in the market where he works.

When I say “wanna be”, I don’t mean they can’t do it, or won’t do it, just that they haven’t done it.

For the wanna be, something is missing: That first really important client.

That client has to be framed right.

  • It is FIRST really important CLIENT?
  • Or…is it first REALLY IMPORTANT client

I think it’s both – and they aren’t often the same person or business.

That FIRST really important CLIENT

As in first client, and really important because you finally got one. A paying one.

Not your brother in law, your mom’s boss, your church or that community organization that can’t afford anyone else – but someone who actually paid.

They’ll teach you how it feels to have a level of trust granted to you by someone who maybe shouldn’t have done so. Not because you didn’t deserve it, but because you didn’t yet have a reputation that told them you were the *only* logical choice for what they needed.

They give you much more confidence that you can actually do this thing and get paid for it.

And…that’s the one that will likely make you realize all the things you have left to do, learn and organize.

Those of you who have been there know what I mean. Sometime in the past, someone took a chance and bought what you do when maybe, just maybe they should have gone a different direction.

A safe direction. But they chose you instead, and that made all the difference.

That first REALLY IMPORTANT client

What does ‘really important’ mean in a client?

The first one is important because they exist. They prime the pump.

The really important one is the one that solves a fundamental problem you have when you go to sell your stuff to the next person.

They ask “Why should I buy from you instead of anyone/everyone else?” You’re ready for that one. And then it comes, the one that you hate to hear – until you have an amazing response: “Who else do you do this for?”

That’s when you want to say “the United States Senate” (I still remember what that check looked like).

You might even manage to be able to say a name like Donald Trump, The Bellagio, the Dallas Cowboys, The Diaper Bank of Tucson, Wachovia (well, back in the day anyhow), The American Red Cross, IBM, Microsoft, the New York Yankees, Apple or Pixar.

Mention a few of those – or the equivalent in your market – and suddenly, you’re the one being pursued.

Credibility. That big product champion. The quote from Bill Gates or Steve Jobs about the work you did.

The testimonial that makes them raise their eyebrows and say “Come on in”.

The Whale

That’s what the wanna be is missing: the “whale”.

In Las Vegas, a whale is a gambler who comes to town to drop big money at the tables. Six figures.

In the business world, a whale might be a Bill Gates, a Trump, the US Senate, or it might just be an influential local client. Someone that the rest of the community respects.

They’re an influencer in their market, or better, in *every* market…and that person likes what you do.

Every business needs a whale, whether they’re a local or a national one. They need a product champion, a killer testimonial. Someone that you can mention and say “See what I did for *them*? I can do that for you too.”

Maybe Gates or Jobs are a stretch, but maybe not. They have to buy from *someone*. Why not you?

Bill Gates has a plumber. What, you aren’t good enough? Whales come in all sizes. They’re people too.

Landing the Whale

For the wanna be, that first client might seem like a whale. If you’re going to work hard as you can to get that first client, why not make it one that would be an ideal match?

Focus on a client that’s an absolutely great match for what you do. Go after them with everything you have. I don’t mean be obnoxious and cold call them at 10pm. Instead, position yourself to answer that important question…

“Why should I buy from you instead of anyone/everyone else?”

Once they’ve taken that chance, transform them into a great champion of your work…by doing your best work.

Start with one. Be amazing. And then…Wash, rinse, repeat.

Bad apples make you taller, thinner and better looking (until Dec 1 2009)

Sir Millard Mulch
Creative Commons License photo credit: rick

One of the things I’ve always counseled you to use in your marketing is testimonials: carefully chosen things your customers have said about their experiences using your products and services.

On Dec 1 2009, that changes a bit.

In some ways, it’s a good thing. It’ll make almost all those lame infomercials edit their fake testimonials.

In others, it’s a bad thing because it will punish (or frighten) good businesses by making them think they can no longer use testimonials or that the ones they can use have to be gutted.

Neither is true.

A great testimonial addresses…

…a common sales objection.

Getting a testimonial – particularly a strong, believable, honest one that directly addresses a common sales objection – can be difficult. Not so much because they are hard to get, but because people don’t always like to talk about their use of a product/service. A lot of that depends on what it is.

Not everyone understands what kind of testimonials are truly valuable. When people tell you they love the product or that they love working with you and your service is wonderful, those are nice and heartwarming comments, but they aren’t strong testimonials.

One type of strong testimonial states specific results, such as “We’re up 70% in same month, prior year sales after working with Mark to improve our marketing over the last 3 months”. That’s a good testimonial, and it’s (naturally) the exact type of thing the FTC doesn’t like.

Why? Because it states specific results that might be 100% factual for one person (or 100, if you have that many), but it still doesn’t mean that every single Joe Blow can achieve the same results by simply falling out of bed in the morning.

If everyone who buys your product can’t typically achieve a documented, 100% factual result stated in a testimonial when THEY use your product / service, you will have a problem using that testimonial EVEN IF 99% OF YOUR CUSTOMERS NEVER USE IT.

Isn’t that grand? “Lowest common denominator” comes to mind.

As you likely assume, these regulations came about mostly because of the bad apples out there. So be it. Let’s get to the details.

Bad apples beware

The new FTC regulations that take effect on December 1 2009 that will require you to be far more careful about the testimonials you use.

Quoting the hard-to-believe results of one highly-motivated person and then saying “these results are not typical” is no longer sufficient. You have to state typical results that your customers get when using your product or service. If those turn out to be difficult or impossible to achieve, expect the FTC to come calling – and not for dinner.

If you haven’t already done so, you need to check your marketing materials TODAY for any claims that – no matter how real and accurate – are not typical.

You can see the FTC-issued guidance on this at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

This applies to bloggers, advertisers of products/services and many others, so I strongly suggest you give it a look. It’s not a game. Regardless of what party is running Washington, these folks seem to revel in making examples out of business people to ‘send a message’ to everyone else.

Sometimes, these things come down very unfairly. Don’t let it happen to you.

More details from the FTC are available here.

Be gone with you, Debbie Downer

Now that we have the “Debbie Downer” stuff out of the way, there is some good news in this because it does punish the slime in your market along with the good guys.

Several things come out of this, but one thing is clear – it makes measurement all that much more critical to your success.

If your product or service can somehow anonymously document what it does – easy for some products and services, almost impossible for others – you will be ahead of the game.

A lot of this applies to software businesses and those with automation in their products / services – but if testimonials are important to your business, measurement might become essential across your entire product line.

Implement results measurement into your products and services. Not only will it help your product / service, but it will help you sell them to those who REALLY need them AND it’ll be the evidence you need to prove the results of typical use.

NO, I’m not a lawyer. If testimonials are central to everything you do, I strongly urge you to consult your attorney about these regulations.

Meanwhile, you should be measuring results. Imagine what will happen if your products / services can prove to your customers what they are doing for them (and what they are not).

That’s why we’ve had this measurement conversation for years prior to the FTC forcing it upon you.

In a nutshell, the FTC is making some modifications to how US firms, and those advertising in the US, can use testimonials.

It’s no longer good enough to point out that the results mentioned might be exceptional. If you use results-based testimonials or case studies, you also have to tell the viewer or reader what the typical results are that your customers achieve using the product.

This is tough for physical products, such as weight loss programs and the like, but it’s doable. It’s damned near impossible for “how to” products.

The reasons are pretty simple: Most people buy them and don’t do anything with them. Others add or remove processes, or do various things really well or poorly. All of that affects results, and makes it incredibly hard to describe “typical,”

even if you can get people to tell you their results.

Getting them to tell you what they achieved can be a tough row to hoe to start with. Many people are embarrassed to tell you they did nothing with it. Others overstate their results out of pride, or as a means to get more credibility. Some will understate them, to keep attention away from their successes.

None of this has any reflection on the product, or the truth of the advertising involved. It’s a matter of record-keeping and regulatory compliance that may prove beyond the capabilities of many information publishers.

Scarlett Johansson’s lips

Scarlett Johansson for Louis Vuitton
Creative Commons License photo credit: coolz0r

On the BBC television show TopGear, one of the hosts was reviewing a new Audi sports car.

After going on about the car, cooing about its performance and handling, he had to come up with something to say how amazing he felt about it overall.

Keep in mind that despite slowly changing demographics, this is mostly a guy show. It’s about cars, geeky mechanical stuff and perhaps most importantly, stupid projects we build for no apparent reason.

So he said about the car…. “It’s like Scarlett Johansson’s lips.”

He said it much better than just saying “Wow”, or perhaps just by staring “for too long” as if you were hypnotized. I’m guessing that anyone who actually knows who Scarlett is (or at least has seen her photos/movies) knows exactly what he means.

By describing it in that way, he put an exclamation point on it that made it difficult not to want to drive the car.

How do the testimonials your clients give make it difficult not to try your products and services?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Are your testimonials illegal? Will they be?

Even if you aren’t using REAL testimonials in your ads, you should be. I believe we’ve talked about that a few times.

If you are using testimonials (again, you should be – I can’t nag about that enough), then you might be interested in some changes that the FTC is considering. They’d like to keep a closer eye on what people say about the things and services you sell.

As the CPSIA situation might suggest (and I think I’ve made it more than a suggestion), you have to be more vigilant about keeping track of changes in laws and regulations that can impact your business.

To that end, I suggest you slide over to the FTC notice of their Federal Register request for comments about the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. Here’s the 86 page request for comments (pdf) from the FTC.

EIGHTY SIX PAGES? Yeesh. But you gotta do it, if nothing else to avoid another CPSIA-like experience. The PDF is on my reading list for the weekend. If I find anything ugly, I’ll be sure and make note of it here – HOWEVER, you need to check it over to see if your business is impacted.

Rather than get caught being less than vigilant as many were by the CPSIA, I suggest getting on top of this before it becomes law. The deadline for comments is January 30, 2009.

It appears that the changes are common sense, but I strongly suggest you check it out for yourself – one person’s common sense is another person’s “One lamp or two?

A quote from the FTC notice:

In the newly approved Federal Register notice, the FTCâ??s proposed revisions to the Guides address consumer endorsements, expert endorsements, endorsement by organizations, and disclosure of material connections between advertisers and endorsers (emphasis mine). On the issue of consumer endorsements, the proposed revisions state that testimonials that do not describe typical consumer experiences should be accompanied by clear and conspicuous disclosure of the results consumers can generally expect to achieve from the advertised product or program.

UPDATE: One of the reasons that we get these kneejerk reactions from Congress that hurt everyone is that there are still unethical vendors out there doing things that ought to get them slapped to the gutter. Things like this, for example. Thanks to Jeff for the heads up on this story.