attitude Box stores Business culture Competition Creativity Customer service Employees Improvement Leadership planning Positioning Retail Small Business strategic planning The Slight Edge

Why you should sell air

Ninja portrait

As I noted yesterday, my current survey here at Business is Personal asks “What’s your biggest marketing challenge?”

Yesterday, we discussed why 25% of respondents have said “Making time to do the marketing” and how they should go about fixing that.

Today, the next largest group (a very close second) is those who said “Differentiating my business from competitors” or offered a response that effectively means the same thing.

Consider “adding air” to the product or service you sell.

What I mean by air is something that:

  • Adds substantial value – from the customer’s viewpoint – to what you sell.
  • Doesn’t add substantial (or any) cost to what you sell (this is why people call it “air”)
  • Competitors haven’t bothered to add to their offering, so your product/service looks better/more complete, has a higher perceived/actual value.

The net result is that you can ask a higher price. You’ll stand out from the other guy.

Hopefully by now, I don’t have to say “Air is not lame, low value puffery”.

Example Air

Let’s say you sell premium brand house paint. Every hardware store and home improvement box store sells premium paint.

How in the world would you stand out? You can’t likely compete on price (thankfully) because they buy more in a month than you buy in a year.

Rather than try to meet the local box store’s price, talk about the time your customer will waste driving into town, dealing with traffic and talking to paint people who maybe don’t know paint. Sure, this means YOUR paint people will actually need to know paint, but they should anyhow.

Still need to add some air? You could negotiate with a local painting company to include drop cloths and stir sticks with the paint crew’s business name and 24-hour emergency number. Oh and print “Tired of this? We’ll finish the job.” on those items. Who hasn’t gotten 20 feet up on a ladder (or bit off more than they could chew) and wondered why in the world they didn’t get a pro to do the job?

Oops, I forgot a stir stick

Think about the last time you bought something that required additional pieces/parts. Doesn’t it annoy you to get home and find out you forgot something? Shouldn’t the sales / register staff where you bought that something take low-key steps to make sure you’ve got all the stuff you need?

Almost everyone complains about not having enough time to do (whatever), so go out of your way to save your customers’ time – and make note of it. How long would it take to drive from your premium paint aisle to the paint aisle at Home Depot? Put up a sign in your paint aisle noting that and thanking them for supporting a locally owned business.

Sell some air. Stand out. Be the best paint store in your county. Be the ONLY choice for someone who needs a can of premium paint, not because no one else sells it, but because no one else sells it and takes care of paint customers like you do.

After doing all that… your biggest marketing challenge WON’T be “Differentiating my business from competitors”.

Business culture Competition Customer relationships customer retention Customer service Employees Leadership Management Marketing marketing to the affluent Marketing to women Positioning quality Restaurants Retail Sales service Small Business The Slight Edge

Making nothing but customers

sunday morning

One of the reasons that I see businesses struggling (or not doing as well as they could) is that they appear to work as if the profit from a sale to a new customer is more important than getting a new customer itself.

Recognizing the difference is critical to turning one-time visitors into long-time devotees.

Devotees. Not just customers.

What’s a devotee?

A devotee will bring their family to your place when they come from out of town. Not just once, but as many times as they can.

A devotee will suggest your place both to visitors and those new to the area and make the place seem like the only place worth choosing.

A devotee considers your place the (not “a”) dependable solution to fill their wants and needs – and when recommended to others, your work secures their reputation among their circle of influence.

Testing 1-2-3

One of the little things my wife and I do to “test” a new restaurant is stop in (often late in the day) for coffee and a dessert. Sometimes we’ll do this just to get out of the house for a little while after a home-cooked meal or a long day. We get to experience a dessert we probably wouldn’t make at home and escape a little.

When we do this, we’re often asked if it’s our first time to visit their place.

What varies widely (both here and elsewhere) is how the experience goes from that point forward.

Think about how you welcome new guests and how the locals and tourists might be helped differently. Don’t leave this up to chance. TRAIN your employees in the proper ways to pull this off, things to avoid, things to always include and how to add just a little personal touch of their own.

What really gets my attention on these late evening visits is how we are treated – especially the first time – when all we order is a cup of coffee and a slice of pie to share.

What happens next?

Consider the specific differences in your customers’ experience when visiting your place for the first time, when visiting it thereafter, and when visiting it at the point where several employees know your name because you visit so often. It’s important no matter what kind of business you run.

Why is it so important?

Because that first sale – especially that dinky little cuppa joe and slice of pie – is a critical first step to creating a devotee.

You might not feel like those coffee and pie customers are worth fawning over like everyone else (assuming you fawn). The thing is, when they walk out to the parking lot (or leave the drive up) for the first time, the impression in that first-time-customer’s mind usually determines whether or not they will return.

Perhaps with tourists, you don’t care, but you should.

With social review services like Yelp, UrbanSpoon and TripAdvisor (among others) to help *future* customers make purchase decisions, one-time visits by someone with a smartphone can pay big dividends or cost you visitors. Imagine the unseen revenue loss from a few poor (and deservedly so) online reviews. You’ll never know how many people didn’t visit because of a series of unfavorable reviews.

Even if you have no desire to carry the internet in your pocket, consider that as of June 2010, 45 MILLION people in the U.S. currently carry a smartphone. Every one of them is a little review machine just waiting to create (or destroy) your business’ karma. Collectively, those reviews can transform your business.

Keep in mind that’s roughly 1 of every 4 people you see.

Doing the math

A little “What 1 new customer means” math…

  • For your cafe: One visit every other month. Average ticket size: $50 (you already know your average lunch and/or dinner ticket size – if you don’t, you better find out).  That’s $300 a year. Over 20 years, that cup of coffee and pie eventually brings you $6000 worth of business.
  • For your small engine repair shop: 3 visits per year at between $75 and $150 per visit (or whatever your per ticket average is). Call it $100 to make the math easy. That’s $300 per year or $6000 over 20 years.
  • For your oil change shop: 4 visits a year. $40 per visit. Only $160 per year, or maybe twice that if you upsell *wisely* and don’t sell stuff just because you can get away with it.

Those numbers seem almost too small for you to care about, especially over 20 years…until you realize how many first-time customers drop in each day.

Now, with that number (for this month) floating in your head, let’s look at the math again.

How many first impressions do you get to make each day?

Don’t just make the sale. Make a new lifelong customer.

attitude Business culture coaching Competition Employees Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Productivity service Small Business Strategy

The size of the mountain doesn’t matter

A combination of events over the last couple of months has had me thinking more about the expectations we have for ourselves, our kids, our employees and holy moly, even our politicians.

First, Jim Rohn passed away.

Jim talked a lot about expectations and how delivery of them is on one person: you. I highly recommend Rohn’s stuff. While you can buy his books, videos, audio etc online, quite a lot can be found at no cost on his site and on YouTube.

Next, four of my Scouts attained the rank of Eagle on the same day, after progressing together in Scouting since the second grade.

Three of them had been Life Scouts (the last rank prior to Eagle) for over three years. They needed a little prodding to finish the last item or two on their checklist, but they all assumed they’d get it done. If nothing else, they figured their parents would pressure them to get it done. Note: They were right.

A tall, steep mountain

But a year ago, one of them just didn’t think he could get there. Not because he isn’t confident (he is), but because the mountain in front of him was so very tall.

A year ago, he was a Star Scout (and had been for some time). That means that he needed several merit badges in addition to finishing the requirements for the Life Scout rank, then he needed to spend six months actively providing senior leadership to the troop,  and finally had to come up with and complete an Eagle Scout service project.

All of that had to happen in about a year, and with a dose of reality, it had to happen in an environment that includes a job, his senior year of high school, cars, girls, school, skiing, hunting, a summer of fun (including traveling for a team sport) and everything else teenagers do these days.

The size of the mountain doesn’t matter much

One thing that I’ve found with folks young and not so young is that the size of the mountain in front of them rarely has anything to do with their ability to climb it.

What’s far more important is whether or not they THINK they can climb it.

Yeah, I know I’m teetering into the land of the touchy-feely. However, what folks think they can make happen clearly has a huge impact on what they accomplish.

For that one young man, it was easy to seem like Eagle wasn’t reachable because it was so far away.

All he needed was to see that *I* completely believed he could do it if he applied himself. I didn’t do the work, I didn’t give him any shortcuts, and I sure don’t deserve the credit, but that little tiny bump in the road could have kept him from getting there.

Once he believed he could get over it, he simply had to chip away at it till he was done.

You can’t do that

I wonder how many of those little bumps and “You can’t do that” comments employees, business owners and entrepreneurs run into and what accomplishments they prevent.

Some people would see a comment like that as a challenge. They’ll swing for the fences and complete the task with a flourish (think “Ricky Henderson”) as a way to say “Oh yeah? Take THAT. I *could* do it.”

Most business owners and entrepreneurs probably steamroll past that stuff or they wouldn’t be in those positions.

But not everyone is built that way. It might take a success or two to show some that they really can kick butt and take names.

I spend a lot of time with kids due to Scouts, swim team and other things I’m involved in. I sometimes see kids who are told they *are* great (whether they are or not). I see others who are encouraged to *be* great (or even better) and accomplish great things.

More kids need to be encouraged to BE great, whether they want to be a rocket scientist, a millwright or a statesman (“statesperson” sounds a little weird for me). We could use a few (hundred) *great* statesmen of both genders, in fact.

Just telling them they are great isn’t enough. They need mentors, like anyone else.

Management Small Business Strategy

Keeping your focus

One of the things essential to getting your business systemized and streamlined is farming out the stuff that you really don’t have any business doing. The key to systemizing work to external vendors is choosing the right vendor for the right job. IE: qualified, technically able to produce the work, has the right equipment, etc.

For me, printing is an easy one to farm out. But I didn’t always do that.

It’s a little like a 12 step program for me, as I’ve got several printers here, yet my printing still gets done all over the place:)

I have a duplexing B&W laser that I use for every day stuff, but I still don’t print the newsletters for my newsletter service using that printer. Tried that once (for mine, not for a client’s), let’s just say that was a bad idea:)

I have a fancy color laser. That sucker will eat up $500 in no time flat. 4 toner cartridges at $80+ each and a drum at $200+. Expensive to use, but it produces nice output in low volumes. But, it doesn’t print full bleed – ie: ink out to the edge – that’s something I go to a local print shop or online service for.

Local print shops work fine for simple jobs that don’t require complex data merges (IE: having “Dear Mark” printed on 1 postcard and “Dear Mary” printed on the next one). There are some other more sophisticated things that I avoid with them, but they do work well for my newsletters because those pieces are 1 color, use standard folds and don’t use elaborate papers, perforations or other services.

More often than not, when the job is outside the ability of those 3 resources, I’ll end up going with an online service for complicated printing jobs. One thing where this crops up repeatedly is large format printing. I found a nifty service that office supply stores started offering not long ago. They print pretty good sized stuff, though they are limited in size. Some of them even have nice online interfaces so you don’t even have to leave home.

When I’m involved in event marketing, I usually need the services of a sophisticated print service. Usually events involve poster printing, complex folding, special papers, tickets and/or seals, which are not the kinds of things that most local print shops are up to. Because I’m in a rural area, I go online to make the fancy stuff happen.

As you can see, there isn’t a one size fits all solution for me, at least for this type of work. I suspect you’ll find the same thing.

But – it isn’t just about printing. You’ll often find businesses outsourcing graphic design, web site work, and any number of other technical and artistic tasks.

What can you farm out that you just don’t need to be doing? Could be any number of things, just make sure it isn’t your core business.

That’s why you’re farming stuff out, remember…so you can focus on the core of your business.

Competition Management Marketing Positioning Small Business Software Strategy

When a competitor gives you an opening, hammer them

Over the weekend, a fellow software developer who makes software for auto repair shops pointed out this quote from his competitor:

<vendor> would like to mention a couple of things about the desktop operating systems. Microsoft is having a lot of issues with the Vista operating system. When putting together a new computer, <vendor> recommends that you buy it with XP Professional and when the bugs have been worked out, then upgrade to Vista. If you do your research on the web you can find out the issues that are causing problems.

My comment to him: You oughta be hammering them.

Rhetorical questions to ask your prospects after pointing out this quote from your competitor:

  • Why do I need you to tell me to waste my valuable time researching problems in Microsoft’s new operating system? I thought YOU were supposed to be the expert, as the leading vendor in this niche. If you’re asking mechanics to do their own operating system research, why don’t we just spent that time researching other shop software instead?
  • As a mechanic, you have to keep up with multiple automakers, model year changes, changes within model years, etc. Do I want a vendor who can’t even keep up with Microsoft releasing an operating system every 3 or 4 years?
  • What other message does that send you about their company, their management, their technical team and their software?
  • What reaction would you get if you decided that you werent going to work on new vehicles “until they worked the bugs out in them”? Is that the kind of response you want to get from a software vendor?

We saw the same sort of thing in the photography software business when Windows XP came out. Competitors were still stuck on Windows 2000. We were developing sofware on Windows XP, testing on Windows XP and demonstrating the software in our trade show booths on Windows XP…during the Windows XP Beta (ie: well before it was released).

We made it clear what we were using and asked prospects to ask to see the product in the other booth running on Windows XP to prove it ran without issues on XP. Of course, we did this knowing full well that they couldn’t produce that result.

For most software vendors, this should be common sense. For the rest, you can consider them low-hanging fruit as you pick them off.

Corporate America Management

Attention to detail: Gets em everytime.

A few of you hassled me privately about the bathroom post a few weeks ago. Here’s a followup.

You might find this clip a little eye-opening. Not even corporate-class hotels are immune from things that would have you marching with torches on a local restaurant.

Note closely that most of the health officials in this post show no sign of surprise at these findings.


Still think I look too close?

Automation Entrepreneurs Marketing Sales Software The Slight Edge

Make it easy to buy

One of the things I like to pound into your head with the subtlety of a ball peen hammer tapping on your forehead the morning after your 21st birthday is making it easy to buy.

Joel just did that, finally.

One of the differences you’ll find from a company doing ok in a business and another one doing really well in that same business is how easy it is for you to buy from them.

I’m talking about things like…

Competition Entrepreneurs Management Marketing

Smartest barber on the planet

Not too long ago, I was talking with my buddy Chris Hurn, the commercial paper wizard from Orlando.

He was telling me about a barber down there who offers memberships for his barbershop.

The memberships allow you to reserve a specific time every so many weeks for whatever services you wanted to get. Maybe you paid for 30 minutes and just got a haircut. Maybe you paid for 45 and got a haircut, a manicure and a shave.

The barber caters to executives, Realtors, attorneys and others whose time is very valuable to them. Sitting in a barber shop for 45 minutes waiting for your turn is not these guys’ idea of productivity.

But here’s the really brilliant part.

It’s all prepaid.

If you want your haircut and shave slot every week or every other week or whatever – you pay for your membership in advance to reserve that slot as yours. In some cases, for a year in advance. People love it because they know that they can stop in at their personally reserved time and get the services they need without waiting. This allows them the wonderful freedom to get back to business, golf, family or whatever – on time, on their terms.

They can make plane reservations around their barber time, because they know their time is theirs.

Even though the barber is trading time for dollars, they’re doing so in a business that typically allows itself to be the random recipient of customers.

Many have no idea how much money they’ll make tomorrow. That’s insane in a service business. ANY service business.

This barber doesn’t leave himself open to the random “Hmm, I need a haircut. How’s traffic in that part of town today? Oh, nevermind, maybe I’ll go next week” arrival (or non-arrival) of customers. He knows how many paid appointments he has next week. He has the best setup of all: built-in scarcity. He can say “Well, on first and third Thursdays, I have 3 thirty minute openings available for members, but that’s it.” – knowing full well that the rest of Thursday is already paid for.

Back when I was in the photography studio software business, we saw great success with prepaid appointments. This was particularly effective when a client was in the senior portrait business. Kids with drivers licenses are distracted, busy and in many cases, don’t really care if they miss a photo shoot. They’d miss them time and time again. Every time, this wastes photographer time, studio time, assistant time PLUS there’s no sales made on portraits that don’t get taken.

The smart studios figured out that if the portrait appointment was paid for in advance, mom would “properly motivate” Dirk or Susie so they’d make it to their portrait appointment. No shows went through the floor, almost to zero. In some cases, the number actually did hit zero. Those were happy, happy studios.

When’s the last time you had a no show? When’s the last time you had a no show that didn’t cost you money? When’s the last time your service business not only knew how much money it was going to make next week – but also knew it was already in the bank?

More hard dollars. Get it fixed.

Competition Marketing The Slight Edge

5 reasons why your business needs a newsletter – part 1

Willie Nelson sang “You’re always on my mind….”, and as a business owner – that’s just what you want to be, in a good way.

Let’s talk about that hypothetical outdoor power equipment store that I seem to love to pick on.

Why does that outdoor power business need a newsletter? I don’t mean just an email newsletter, but a printed newsletter that’s mailed monthly.

I can give you at least 5 reasons, but today, I’ll spare you a little and just go over reason number 1: Top of mind consciousness.

Sounds great, but what is it? Believe it or not, just being there…often!

Why? Because more so today than yesterday, and less so today than tomorrow:

  • People are busy.
  • Competitors are aggressive.
  • Client loyalty is typically invisible, unless you’ve cultivated it and constantly worked at it.

As hard as it may be for a business owner to believe, studies have shown that the number one reason given by consumers NOT returning to a business is: “I just didn’t think about them.”

It’s been proven that simply by frequently reminding customers of your existence, you AUTOMATICALLY increase business and thus, increase customer value. Why? How?

  • It reduces ‘spreading my business around’
  • It allows you to ‘Cross-sell’? different products & services you think they know about (they don’t, trust me)
  • It strengthens your relationship, creating obligation and eventually, loyalty
  • It counters competitors’ seductive messages and offers

When people who own a snowblower, snowmobile (folks around here call them a “snowcat” or a “snowmachine”), chain saw, lawn mower, riding lawn mower, garden tractor, weed whacker or similar equipment, ONE thing is critical – when your existing or prospective clients need something for their power equipment, you’d better be the name they think of.

Not Wal-Mart. Not Lowe’s. Not Home Depot. Not Ace.
You, a staff member at your shop, and your outdoor power equipment store need to be the first thing they think of.

  • You aren’t the one with the everyday low prices, always.
  • You aren’t the big flashy brand-building commercials during American Idol.
  • You aren’t the one with the big orange store, nice people in tv commercials in the orange vests, etc.
  • You aren’t the place with the helpful hardware man.

By the way, it doesn’t matter if you own a software business, florist, tire store, brake shop, legal office or coffee shop – this still applies to YOUR business.

Why? You aren’t living in the movie “Field of Dreams”, your business isn’t a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield and you aren’t Kevin Costner: You CAN’T expect to “build it and they will come”.

Ideally, you want to position your business so that you are the FIRST one they think of when they need services and products like those offered by your business.

How do you do that? One way is a newsletter, and I think you need a print newsletter and an email newsletter to do the job properly.

Why? They serve different purposes, plus they help you be sure that you have all the contact information you need in the event that you need to sell your business, or contact the fiercely loyal, enthusiast buyers about a new 30 horsepower riding mower with candy apple red paint and gold pinstripes. Obviously, there are plenty of other reasons as well.

Bankers might look at a customer list (with full contact information) of 4500 active, regular buyers and call it “goodwill” with an equity value of $0, but a smart buyer will wisely put a lot bigger value on it. That’s the hidden gold, if you know how to use it. Newsletters help keep that info current, and those buyers active.

The email newsletter is great for a series of “how to” articles, notification about time-sensitive news or short-term promotions and the like. Thing is, email’s nature limits who can receive it. In addition, it is constantly faced with delivery issues, including regular email address changes, infrequent email readers, spam filters and so on.

Look, an email newsletter is very effective for the right kind of client and the right kind of information, so don’t bail out on it. Just don’t depend on it and nothing else.

Print newsletters, on the other hand, are ideal for making regular contact with EVERY client you have. Sure, you have to pay to have them printed and mailed, but you also know they are getting delivered. It’s another touch and no matter what the age or computer prowess of your clientèle – it’ll get read, unless it suffers from the 2 big newsletter mistakes: sending a newsletter that is nothing but sales pitch, and sending a newsletter that’s a bore.

Don’t get caught by the “But Mark, email is free” trap. Yes, it’s free (or close) to send a zillion emails but it doesn’t matter if they don’t reach their destination or no one reads them. You need BOTH.

Of course, the bigger mistake is not having any newsletter.

See, there are two assumptions (big mistakes, actually) that businesses make when they blow off having a newsletter:

  • “My customers know who I am, what I do, and where I am. They’ll call me or come in when they need me.’
    If you read my print newsletter this month, you know that isn’t true and that I proved it to a business owner whose business has been open for decades.
  • “An email newsletter is fine, I don’t need to spend money mailing to my clients.”

Here’s the next reason to have a print newsletter…