customer retention Customer service Improvement Management Positioning Restaurants Retail service Small Business Strategy

Can we depend on your business? 2 minutes can change it all.

In other words, can your community of clients depend on the quality, promptness, on-time-performance and regularity of everything you do for them?

Now is the time to start figuring out how to address that. For many businesses, these next 9-10 days are the slowest you’ll see all year. 

Even if they aren’t, take TWO minutes to talk to those who come in, call or email. 

Tell them you want to make sure that your service to them in 2009 is better than it was in 2008. Ask them for their help and let them know that 2 minutes is all you need.

Ask these things

Ask them if they depend on you.

If they say yes, ask them why.

If they say no, ask them why not – and shouldn’t you wonder why they are still coming back? – Ask.

Ask them what they can no longer depend on you for that they once did, if anything.

Ask them who at your business they can always depend on.

Ask them who at your business they can no longer depend on. 

Ask them if they can still depend on the quality of every single product or service you sell. 

If they say no, ask them which list is shorter – the ones they can depend on, or the ones they can’t depend on?

Once they answer, ask them for the items in the shorter list.

Get to work

With the answers to these questions in hand, it’s time to get to work.

Armed with these answers and a yellow pad, you can come up with strategies to deal with them even if you’re sitting in your easy chair. 

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a panini sandwich, an oil change or a complex legal question related to salmon fishing in international waters. It can be improved. 

You can do it. Start by asking for two minutes of your customers’ time.

Competition Corporate America Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement Leadership Microsoft Small Business Strategy Technology

How to provoke a sea change

Seldom do I ask you to read extensive articles about large corporations. Usually, those corporations are the ones giving me blog post seedlings through their often inane behavior. 

Today is no different, but the behavior is.

Our guest post today comes from Wired Magazine, which talks about the impact of Ray Ozzie and his vision on processes and the future of Microsoft.

I’ll warn you right now. It’s a long article, but worth the time. 

There are a ton of takeaways from it, many of which are also advice or suggestions you’ve heard from me or read elsewhere. What’s important is that when influential parts of large companies like Microsoft start to realize the truth in these things, it’s hard not to ask who will be next. 

Perhaps your competition. 

On another level, it’s more provocational. 

Are you asking yourself and your staff tough, might-makeover-the-business questions?

Even if you’re afraid of the answers, you’d better be asking the questions every now and then.

Automation Direct Mail Direct Marketing Improvement Marketing podcast Positioning Retail Rotary Small Business Strategy

Help! What’s wrong with my mailing?

Yesterday we talked about the details about the envelope and letter we sent to request Brunch with Santa donations and to sell tickets.

There were (in my opinion) a lot of things right with it. BUT…what was wrong with it?

Keep in mind it is perfectly normal to find things that are wrong with a mailing you just dropped at the post office. There’s a big lesson there: We didn’t wait to mail it until it was perfect. You just can’t do that.

If you wait until your campaign is perfect, you’ll never mail it because it’ll never be perfect. It’s like waiting until the perfect time to have a baby – there’s no such thing.

That said, there is always room for improvement. Maybe there’s a better way to state it rather than “what’s wrong?” is “How can I make the envelope and the letter even better?”

Slice em and dice em

One thing that I advise customers (and readers) to do is segment your mailing. Some might look at the letter sent to chamber members and think that I did – but that really isn’t the case.

The people on this particular mailing list fall into a couple of distinct groups: blue collar services (construction, auto body, auto repair, custom logging, trucking), white collar services (attorneys, accountants, bankers, computer consultants, real estate sales, graphic artists), hospitality businesses (restaurants, caterers, hotels, motels, bed and breakfast inns) and traditional retailers (clothing, food, auto parts, tires, coffee, etc).

What changes would segmentation bring?

If I broke that list down into the four segments I mentioned, it would allow me to make several important changes. I didn’t do so this year simply because of time pressure.

For blue collar service businesses: I would likely use slightly different verbiage that is more in tune with their businesses and would have made a more specific ask. Like the others below, the ask would be for items or services that are most likely to get the business a new customer. In their language, specific to their needs.

For white collar service businesses: I’d use some different verbiage, a different ask – more specific to the services they offer and keeping in mind that I want a donation that helps them get a new customer – and some slightly different psychology. Again, the language used would be in tune with these kinds of businesses.

For the hospitality businesses: Again, specific language to their business. In fact, I would likely split this group into food-related and non-food-related because of the differences in what I would like to get in donations, differences in industry language and COGS. For the food biz, I’m trying to create an opportunity for them to make an impression that brings new customers to their restaurant or catering service. That happened this year as well – I didn’t simply ask for a donation. I offered them an opportunity to promote their business with the best they could bring to the table. Positioning is important.

Other thoughts

I would like to have a bit more automation in place to deal with generating specific responses, logging auction assets and so forth. I’ll be working on that throughout 2009. While that automation will be somewhat specific to the Brunch, it is designed to work with any campaign – and with multiple media. It might become a system that you can buy.

A blue collar vs white collar mental image

Speaking of blue collar and white collar services, I’m reminded of an interesting way that Ford Automotive’s Social Media guy Scott Monty described the difference between white collar workers and blue collar workers: “people who shower *before* they go to work” and “people who shower *after* they go to work”. Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? You can follow Scott on Twitter.

Competition Improvement Management Marketing Motivation Small Business Strategy The Slight Edge

We sell a commodity. There’s no way to differentiate it.

Don’t even think about trying that line on The Cactus Cuties.

If you live outside of the US, this song’s rendition might not seem like a big deal – particularly if you’ve only heard it at big sports events or on TV.

If you live in the US, you’ve heard the song thousands of times – some amazing, some not so amazing, and some where you just hoped time would go a little faster for the poor singer.

It’s a commodity.

Everyone in the U.S. has attempted it at one time or another, even if they were in a crowd at a ballgame where no one else could hear it. Almost everyone in the U.S. knows the words.

Who could possibly differentiate it? Five little girls, that’s who.

You’ve likely never heard it like this:

Tell me again about that “commodity” you sell that can’t be differentiated…

Creativity Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Management Marketing Motivation podcast Small Business Strategy

That just wont work for my business

The majority of folks are great at finding a multitude of reasons why a particular technique or strategy simply won’t work in their business.

A convenient excuse these days is “Well, the market is down” or “Business is slow”.

Really? Isn’t that the time to step up and out and as Perry Marshall says, “lean into the fear”?

Whether you decide to participate in the media’s gloom and doom is your choice, but you still have to consider the reality of the impact of the Wall Street, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailouts. I don’t mean to minimize the obvious problems that many businesses – much less business sectors – are having.

CHOOSING to participate in them, or make them even worse, is another story.

Given that, will there be a time where the so-called bottom is closer, where money is tighter, where MOST people would expect things to go even worse?

Maybe, but my guess is not in your business lifetime.

So now, more than ever, is the time to do something flippin’ huge, to try something new, to listen to the multitude of suggestions you’ve received and see if one of them works.

What have you got to lose? More importantly…what have you got to gain?

Competition customer retention Customer service E-myth Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Management market research President-proof Small Business Strategy

President proof your business: Through the eyes of your clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at your clients. Look at your market.

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

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

Make em scatter like cockroaches suddenly exposed to sunlight.

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

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

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

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

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

customer retention Customer service Improvement Management planning Productivity Small Business Strategy

How are you preparing for a long business winter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition customer retention Improvement Management Positioning

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

You find out that you aren’t even close.

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

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

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

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

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

Improve, every single flippin’ day.