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Customer relationships – Do yours mature and adapt?

One of the things that separates people from most machines and systems is their ability to adapt their interactions as the relationship matures.

A tough-as-nails 61 year old grandfather who supervises workers on an oil rig in North Dakota’s Bakken adapts his communication to the recipient when training a new guy to stay alive on the rig, and does so again when chatting with his three year old granddaughter about her Hello Kitty outfit via a Skype video call.

He doesn’t coo at a young buck and he doesn’t growl at his granddaughter. He adapts. It’s common sense.

Our systems, processes and communications don’t do enough of this.

Adapt to the relationship state

Why do our companies, software, processes, communications and systems so infrequently adapt to the state of our customer relationships?

An example I’ve used a number of times: You get mail from a company offering you a great deal “for new subscribers only” – despite being a subscriber for decades. It’s annoying, not so much because someone else gets a better price for a short time, but (to me at least) because they don’t appear to care enough about their existing customers to remove them from a lead generation mailing.

It’s a trivial exercise to check a list of recipients for a new marketing piece against a current subscriber / client list. Why don’t “we” do it?

For mailed items, it would reduce postage and printing costs. It would cut down on the annoyance factor in clients who inappropriately get special lead generation offers – regardless of the media used.

Adapting your marketing (for example) to the state of the relationship you have with the recipient is marketing 101. It’s a no-lose investment.

Adapt to the maturity state

Like the grandfather, most of us alter our face-to-face speaking to the state of the relationship and maturity of the other person.

Sometimes we don’t, but that’s usually because we haven’t had the opportunity to determine the maturity of the other person in the conversation.

I’m speaking of the maturity of the customer relationship as well as where the client is with your products and services. There’s far more to this than simply adapting to a client’s intellectual and age-related maturity.

Remember that “tip of the day” feature that was popular in software not so many years ago? The half life of that feature was incredibly small and the value it delivered was tiny when compared to its potential.

Why? Because few software development companies took the feature seriously once it had been coded and tested.

How can I say that? Easy. Did you turn that feature off once you realize the tips were of little value after an hour’s use of that software? Did you turn it off earlier than that because the tips were of no use at all?

My guess is that one or both of those are true. The tips weren’t there for users throughout their lifetime of use with the software. In fact, most of them weren’t very useful beyond the first hour of use. Every time we move the software to a new machine, it’s likely we have to turn it off again. ROI for that feature? Not so high.

The content of these tips was everything (in fact, the only thing) to the user of that software, yet the content in most tip-of-the-day systems appeared to be rushed out as an afterthought.

What does a software’s tip of the day feature have to do with your business? Everything.

Take your time, implement well.

That the tips rarely were of use to new users beyond the first hour or so of use shows a lack of investment in their content.

Imagine if these tips were sensitive to the maturity of the user’s knowledge and use of the software.

Some cars do this. They automatically adjust the seat and mirror locations when Jerome unlocks the car and use different seat/mirror positions when Carmen unlocks it. Adaptation.

What if your systems, products, services, marketing, processes and other client interactions recognized and adapted like this?

Adaptive interaction isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. It can mature over time, as other things do. Take your time, do it right. You tend to get only one chance to break a relationship with a client, but you can strengthen it with every interaction.

Adaptive behavior is all about making your business personal.

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Automation Business model Customer relationships Direct Marketing Getting new customers Lead generation Management Productivity Sales Small Business tracking

Where does new business hide?

In every town, there’s a place where new business hides.

If you can’t find its hiding place, your business is likely to struggle.

Most of the time, that struggle is rooted in the inability to dependably produce predictable, month to month revenue.

Without predictable month to month revenue, businesses close, scale down or at the least, fail to reach their potential to support their owner, their family, their employees’ families and their community.

Revenue consistency problems influence a business owner’s decision making because their decisions end up being driven by cash flow. Decisions based on sales you made last week (much less yesterday) rarely fit into a long-term strategic plan.

Predicting revenue isn’t all that difficult. You simply have to check the Sales Thermometer.

What’s a Sales Thermometer?

Imagine that there’s a thermometer on the front door of businesses and homes that told you to pull in and sell something to someone because they had developed a need or a want that *had* to be fulfilled.

Armed with a town full of sales thermometers, you’d have all the new business you’ve ever wanted and wouldn’t waste a bit of time chasing around town after people who didn’t want or need what you sell.

Instead, you’d simply drive through town, check the thermometer and stop at the places where the temperature was the highest.

On days when you need a little extra revenue, you might get up a little earlier and drive around a little later so you could check more thermometers. 

Once you took care of the places with the hottest temperatures, you could retrace your steps, scan for the next highest set of temperatures and take care of those sales.

As the sales thermometer readings change on other homes and businesses, you’d see them during your travels so you could pick up on the newest opportunities for new business – simply by being observant.

Scaling

There is a downside to this sales thermometer thing. It has some scalability issues.

For example, you can only drive so far in a day and every customer who takes an hour of your time consumes an hour that you can’t use to check other thermometers. That will eventually force you (subconsciously at least) to stop and work with only the hottest thermometers.

If only there was a way to automatically check the hottest thermometers without spending all that time driving around.

Fortunately, there is.

Getting new business isn’t a joke

While talk of a sales thermometer seems like a bit of a fantasy or even a joke, your business’ inability to consistently produce new business from existing and new clients is no joke at all.

If your business struggles with that, the problem isn’t the lack of a thermometer. The problem is that you aren’t reading it. 

The sales thermometer in the information you should already have about your clients and prospects.  The thermometer’s temperature is driven by behavior and interaction, both yours and that of your prospects and clients.

Those behaviors are like a patient’s symptoms. Monitoring  and acting on them in a predictable, repeatable, systematic way is what gets your business to the point where you *can* produce consistent, predictable month to month revenue.

Random revenue from new business is an indication that you’re not watching and acting on these symptoms on a consistent basis. We all know we need to do these things, but sometimes we get sidetracked by the crisis-of-the-day.

While they should be acted on individually for each prospect or client, these symptoms should also be grouped together (aggregated) to help you monitor the health of your business and your market.

Things that drive up temperatures

What causes rising temperatures?

  • Interaction behavior changes.  You should know when someone is paying more attention than a typical prospect. Do you have a way to detect this?
  • Sales cycle behavior changes. You know how long it takes to close a sale. Is that timeline changing? Are certain prospects skipping steps in the process? Is their path-to-purchase pace is faster than normal? If so, does your internal behavior toward those prospects change to suit their timeline?
  • Purchasing behavior changes. For example, customers who are buying more (or less) often than they normally do. Even if you’re tracking sales on paper, you can monitor this .

Are you monitoring the sales thermometer?

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Advertising Business model Competition Lead generation Marketing Small Business Strategy

Win on low price, lose on low price

Do you depend on having the best price to win business? If so, are you sure that’s really how you want people to choose your company?

I ask that because if you cut your price 10%, that 10% comes out of your profit margin. Perhaps obvious, but not always something folks pay attention to – particularly when price is used as an end-all, be-all to close a sale.

You can tell that’s going on when you intentionally keep silent when someone names the price of a product or service. Stay silent long enough after they react to your “What’s the price?” question and the “we’ll win on price at all costs” salesperson (particularly the novice) will often get nervous and say something like “Of course, we can go lower…”

Use low price as a component

As Amazon Web Services SVP Andy Jassy is fond of saying, “I’ve never met a customer who asked if they could pay more.”

So how do you balance between being too expensive and being the one with the paper-thin margins?

Don’t get me wrong. Using price as a component of the things you use attract customers is fine. Where you run into trouble is when it’s used as the primary decision point. In those cases, you’re more than likely going to get burned and less likely to attract long-term customers.

One common example is using products and services as loss leaders. It’s OK to leverage price in this way as long as you know your numbers very, very well *and* you know that once you get that customer, there are plenty of opportunities to provide more value to them – value that they’ll be happy to pay for.

Fail to do this and you’re headed for trouble. This isn’t just about milk at the back of the store. You see it frequently with internet-based services. How do they offer “free” to so many people, yet still make a profit?

They know how much it costs to offer that free service.

They know how many of those freebie users will convert to paying customers because they want services, features and benefits not offered to freebie clients.

They know their margin on the paying customers is enough to fund the freebies, plus profit margin, so that more paying customers raise their hand and say “Yes, I need that.”

Bottom line, they know their numbers and they never stop recalculating them, just in case something changes.

Low price isn’t owned by the internet crowd

You can use free or cheap as a lead generation carrot as long as you too know your numbers, and make sure that you’re using that offer with the right prospect.

That’s where most businesses get started down the wrong road – they make the offer to the wrong group of people, ie: people who would never have been their customer in the first place.

If you make your offer to the right people, that’s a different story altogether – and that’s the magic formula no matter what your pricing is like.

The timeshare business has done this for years by giving away a free night or two, dinner, etc – all in order to get you to see and enjoy what their facility offers. They know historically what percentage of people will buy if they take the time and make the effort to attract the right prospects to their offers.

Using low price requires well-crafted offers

Timeshares don’t make their numbers by giving away all those free nights, golf rounds, lift tickets and meals to anyone and everyone. They’re careful to pre-qualify prospects using financial, behavioral, demographic and psychographic measures to make sure they closely match historical buyers.

When you attract people with a low price offer, the goal isn’t simply to make it free or available for a low price, but to provide enough of a taste with as little risk as possible to the prospect so that the right person can make a decision to become your newest client.

If you can do this without killing your margins during the period between the time they taste and the time they get serious about buying the real value you can deliver, then low price can work.

Do you know your numbers that well?

 

 

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Advertising Business culture Business model Customer relationships customer retention Direct Marketing Getting new customers Lead generation Marketing Positioning Recurring Revenue Sales Small Business Strategy systems

They really aren’t very good at marketing

NotVeryGoodAtMarketing

One of the most common marketing mistakes I see is focusing solely on new clients and doing so in a way that annoys everyone else who has (or had) a relationship with your business.

This quote from Facebook (above) about a New England newspaper’s Groupon deal is but one example.

The process

The process goes something like this:

There’s a discussion in the marketing team and/or with the senior management team (which may simply be you and you) that includes something like this:

We’re not getting enough new customers.

Well, let’s create a deal just for new customers and see if we can get some.

Of course, this means that existing customers can’t take advantage of the deal, and nor can any former customers.

For your existing customers, it’s annoying to know that there is a better deal for what you bought, but it isn’t available to you. To be sure, there might be other parts of the deal (free or discounted this or that to start), but the recurring part of the bill is still more than likely unobtainable for your current customers.

This makes them angry. Ditto for former customers who are thinking of returning.

Meanwhile back at the internet

Most businesses want as many customers as possible. Newspapers fall into that category, but this problem is far from limited to them. I’ve seen it from cable / internet /phone providers and many other businesses that sell products or services via subscription – and even some who don’t.

Innocent enough, but unless you have figured out a way to hide all of your marketing from former or current customers, you’re ignoring human nature. Your ability to “hide” your marketing is an illusion. People talk and they look on the internet. Your marketing is extremely difficult to hide. Even so, that’s very much the wrong problem to solve.

Here’s a secret – get them, keep them happy and keep delivering more value so they buy more. Add upper tier services so you can afford to deliver more value to those who want it.  Coupons come right off the top of your profit – that’s why you don’t want your existing customers to use them.

Meet your customers where they are

Every few years, I would call a local daily newspaper and ask if I could get a Sunday-only subscription.

Every few years, they would tell me that they “can’t do that”. This has happened in more than one place with more than one paper.

Tossing a Sunday paper in my driveway costs them almost nothing. There are almost certainly other subscribers on my road, so the paper delivery driver already goes by my house on Sunday. The incremental cost of that paper and its delivery is pretty close to zero.

Yet – they won’t sell me a Sunday only subscription.

Maybe it’s because…

  • Their billing systems can’t handle it – but I doubt it.
  • The system that bundles papers for the carrier every day can’t handle it – but I doubt it.
  • Their carrier isn’t intelligent or caring enough to make sure that I get a Sunday paper but no other papers – but I doubt it.

I think it’s a management and/or marketing choice that ignores Sales 101.

Sales 101

Sales 101 is “The reason to make a sale is to get a customer, not the other way around.”

This applies to all businesses, not just the ones we’re discussing today.

If this New England paper’s people are in the right frame of mind, they’re thinking “If we can get people to subscribe on Sunday, then they’ll see that our paper is so awesome that they will want a daily subscription – or at least, they will want the digital edition every day and the paper version on Sundays.

I suspect this isn’t what they’re thinking, but instead it’s something like “People only want the Sunday paper, so let’s make them buy it seven days a week to get what they really want.

To be sure – the latter is a legitimate concern about customer mindset, but it can be made irrelevant. Thinking further, why do they want only the Sunday paper? Is it there a way to deliver the desired content daily or at least, more often? Is it about the delivery mechanism? Would a digital subscription that included the Sunday paper in the driveway boost sales?

Are you asking these kinds of questions of YOUR business?

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Advertising Creativity Customer relationships Direct Marketing Getting new customers Internet marketing Lead generation Positioning Small Business

Sarcasm, humor and a great dog: Do they sell anything?

While I have and will continue to remind you about the need for ads that don’t actually help move a prospect (or existing customer) closer to buying (or buying again), this one is hits home on many levels with Guinness’ customers.

It makes fun of typical male weaknesses, while making us love the working dog.

Does it sell more Guinness? Tough to say.

It could be tracked by doing something like asking customers to refer to the ad in some way when they visit their favorite pub or beer store, perhaps in exchange for who-knows-what.

Does it matter? Or is the entertainment and “brand-on-your-mind one more time” enough?

As a small business owner, you need to know before you spend the money.

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Business model Getting new customers Improvement Lead generation Marketing Positioning Small Business strategic planning Strategy

Should your business grow horizontally or vertically?

When I see a business focused solely on a horizontal or vertical market, it’s hard not to wonder if that focus is what’s really best for them.

What do I mean by “vertical” and “horizontal” markets?

A vertical market serves a certain type of customer, even if the work performed for them is of broad use across many types of customers.

Welding isn’t really a vertical market, but underwater or aluminum welding could be. Narrowing that further might identify a business that specializes in aluminum component welding for recreational boat manufacturers.

A horizontal market is one where “every business” could be your customer. Their needs include technology, accounting, legal, taxes, insurance services and public relations, among others.

A horizontally-focused public relations firm might serve businesses in retail, hospitality, legal, manufacturing and other sectors, while a vertical PR firm might focus on a single type of client, like PR for the outdoor recreation equipment market.

A combination of horizontal and vertical might result in a firm that offers PR services to many types of customers, but only for a certain type of media, such as periodicals (magazines and newspapers).

Whether you’re positioned horizontally or vertically, you’d better be focused on your core customer.

What’s a core customer?

A core customer is one whose needs fit your business’ sweet spot – the customer that’s ideal for what your business does. Revenue from customers like these usually make up the majority of your revenue, perhaps 80% or more.

A law firm who specializes in transactional business might see their core customer as “local business owners with five to 20 employees”. These customers generate transactional legal work related to real estate, employment, business transfer and related activity.

It’s easy to identify them because of the nature of their business structure and activity. They hire and fire, they buy and sell business assets, and they build, buy, sell and update facilities as they grow or change what they do.

How you identify your core customer is critical if you’re going to continue to improve how well you’re serving them, how many you retain over time and how many new ones you acquire.

Expanding your market with a question

Ask yourself this: “Could a little adjustment radically expand what you accomplish – without abandoning your core customer?”

Looking back at the transactional law firm… many of their clients could’ve started out with one person doing everything. If the transactional law firm looking for new customers ignored those solos, they’d miss a fair number of future core customers who matured from a solo into that desirable employer/client of five to 20 staffers.

One of the things business owners tend to avoid is change, unless we can’t avoid it. If your attorney has served you well as you’ve grown, you’re unlikely to switch firms unless they really mess up.  That makes it even tougher to get new clients who are already perfect for you. Without significant differentiation, a special “mojo” or something that screams “You have to use US!”, where are your new “ideal customers” coming from?

Given the tendency to avoid change and the thought process that some solos are future five-to-20 employee businesses, the natural thing to do is get more of those solos and do what it takes to keep them as they grow into the core customers you wanted all along.

Your challenge is to figure out (at least) three things:

  • What the solo needs and wants NOW
  • How you can serve them as they grow
  • How to tell which solos will become an ideal customer.

This isn’t just about law firms – they’re just today’s example. “The question” applies to your business as well…I promise.

Everything or nothing?

Many vendors sell the same products and services in the same packaging (real or virtual) to everyone. Being everything to everyone usually means you’re special to no one.

Horizontal vendors can stand out by customizing what they do for a certain vertical market – rather than selling the same “box of stuff” to everyone.

Vertically focused businesses can seek out customers whose needs are similar to their core customers’. Dentists and energy companies couldn’t be more different, yet they both use scanning technologies to find correctable defects. Is there a sweet spot there?

Whether horizontal or vertical, you can grow without abandoning what you do and how you do it.

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Advertising Competition Customer relationships Direct Mail Direct Marketing Email marketing Getting new customers Improvement Internet marketing Lead generation marketing to the affluent Marketing to women Sales Small Business Social Media strategic planning The Slight Edge

How to segment your customer list

Have you heard that you should “segment” your customers before marketing to them?

Ever wondered what that means, much less how you’d do that?

We’re going to talk about that today in simple terms, but before we do that, you might be wondering …

Why should I segment my customers?

Good question.

You want to segment your marketing is to achieve something called “Message-to-market match“.

Let me explain with an example. Let’s say your company sells women’s underwear.

Would you advertise the same underwear in the same way with the same photos and the same messaging to each of these groups?

  • Single women
  • Pregnant women
  • Newlyweds
  • Moms of girls approaching puberty
  • Dads of girls approaching puberty
  • 50-plus women
  • 80-plus women
  • Women under 5′ 6″ tall
  • “Plus sized” women
  • “Tiny” women
  • Very curvy women
  • Not-so-curvy women
  • Women who have survived breast cancer
  • Significant others

I’ll assume you answered “No”.

Message-to-market match” means your message is refined for a specific group of recipients so that it’s welcome and in-context, rather than annoying and out of left field.

A lack of message-to-market match is why people tune out ads and pitch so much mail – the message isn’t truly for them. If it happens enough times, everything you send them is ignored. Ouch.

Like the recycling bin

When recycling different materials, the processes required to break down cardboard (shredding, pulping, etc) will differ from the process that prepares glass, plastic or animal manure for reuse.

Think of your messages in the same way. If the message a customer receives doesn’t make any sense because it’s out of context, it’s like recycling something with the wrong process. The money, time and energy invested in creating and delivering the wrong message will be wasted. Worse yet, the wrong message can alienate your customer and/or make your business look clueless.

Ever received an offer “for new customers only” from a business that you’ve worked with for months or years? How does that make you feel?

You might think a generic piece of news is received the same way by everyone – when in fact that news might excite some customers and annoy the rest. The time spent considering this and segmenting your announcement can save a lot of pain.

Your First Oil Change

Look at the groups listed for the underwear business. That’s customer segmentation.

If you sent “The Single Dad’s guide to helping your daughter pick out her first bra” to the entire customer list, how many would think “This is exactly what I need”? Only the single dads group. Most others would hit delete, unsubscribe, click the “Spam” button or just think you’re not too swift.

The smart folks sending the “first bra” piece would break it down further by sending a different guide to the moms than they send to the dads.

Need a simpler version? Chevy vs. Ford vs. Dodge. Harley vs. every other bike. You shouldn’t have the same conversation with these groups, even if you sell something common to all of them, like motor oil.

Think that list is broken down too much? Don’t. I just scratched the surface.

Why people think they can’t segment

– They don’t have or “get” technology.

Whether you use a yellow pad or a fancy customer relationship management (CRM) system, you can make this work. If not, consider a better way to keep track of things.

Long before computers, savvy business people would sort customers into the “blue pile, red pile, yellow pile” before putting together a marketing piece. No technology is no excuse.

– Their media doesn’t offer segmenting.

What if your chosen media doesn’t provide a way to target a specific segment? They don’t deliver special Yellow Page books to single people, retired people, CPAs or car dealers – so how do you segment your message?

You can segment those media buys by message since many vendors are unable to deliver a different book, newspaper, magazine or radio/TV ad to different types of customer – which should also improve ad ROI.

You might be getting pressure from internet-savvy staff (or vendors) to drop old-school media. If it works now (do you know?), dropping them makes no sense.

– They don’t have a customer list

Start creating one today, even if it’s on a yellow pad. Figure out what differences are important to you and record them.

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Start a streak

What have you done every day, every week or every month for years?

For example, I’ve written a weekly column for the Flathead Beacon since 2006.

I don’t get a week off from the column if it’s Christmas or the Fourth of July. It just gets done.

Some find that a massive, if not surprising, achievement. Others see it as if it were a ball and chain.

Me? It’s just something I need to get done every week. Some weeks, it’s harder than others – but I still make sure it gets done – and yes, I’m better at getting that done regularly than I am at some other things because I’m accountable to the community who reads it.

The value of that accountability shouldn’t be discounted. It’s a powerful tool and motivator.

Think about it

Think about the consistency of the tasks *you* perform to grow your business. Would more consistency in how you podcast, blog, tweet, vlog, post to Facebook, send an email, make a call, drop a mailing or send a newsletter mean more/better business? Would adding a new item to the list make more of an impact?

Of the things you do regularly, which of them produce the best response? (if you don’t know – fix that)

Would it help if that work was done more often? Think about it.

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How to Win The Three Inch Tourism War of Words

tourismbrochurerack

When I’m on the road, I always take a look at tourism brochure racks.

Take a look at this rack in the Havre Montana Amtrak station.

It’s a typical floor-standing tourism brochure rack that you might see around your town or at the local chamber of commerce office.

I took the photo at this height and angle because I wanted to simulate the view the “average” person has when scanning the rack for something interesting to do or visit.

The critical part is that this is also the likely view they have of your brochure.

If you’re the tourist and this is your eye level view:

  • Which brochures get your attention and provoke you to pick them up?
  • Which leave you with no idea what they’re for?

A critical three inches

The critical question is this: Which ones easily tell their story in the top three inches?

Those top three inches are the most important real estate on a rack brochure because that’s the part everyone can see.

Everything below that point is meaningless if the top three inches can’t provoke someone to pick it up and open it. That cool info inside and on the back? Meaningless if they don’t pick it up.

Whenever I see one of these racks, I always wonder how many graphic designers put enough thought into the design of these rack pieces to print a sample, fold it up and test drive it on a real rack in their community.

If they tried that, do you think it would change the design? How about the text and background colors how they contrast? The headline? Font sizes? Font weights? Font styles?

I’ll bet it would.

I guarantee you it isn’t an accident that you can clearly see “Visitor Tips Online”, “Raft”, “Rafting Zipline” and “Fishing”  from several feet away.

Brochure goals

The primary goal of a brochure isn’t “To get picked up, opened, read and provoke the reader to visit (or make a reservation at) the lodging, attraction or restaurant”, nor is it to jam as many words as possible onto the brochure in an attempt to win an undeclared war of words.

The first goal of the brochure is to get someone to pick it up.

That’s why you see “Raft”, “Fishing” and “Visitor Tips Online”. Either they care or they don’t. If they don’t, you shouldn’t either. From that point, it needs to satisfy the reader’s interests and need to know. If you can’t get them to look at your brochure – all that design and printing expense is wasted.

Is that the goal you communicated to your designer when you asked them to make a brochure? Or was it that you wanted it to be blue, use a gorgeous photo or use a font that “looks Victorian”?

None of that matters if they don’t pick it up.

Heightened awareness

I wonder if brochure designers produce different brochures for the same campaign so they can test the highest performing design.

Do they design differently for different displays? What would change about a brochure’s design if the designer knew the piece was intended for a rack mounted at eye level? What would change if the brochure was designed to lay flat at the check-in counter or on a desk?

Now consider how you would design a floor rack’s brochure to catch the eye of an eight year old, or someone rather tall? Would it provoke a mom with an armload of baby, purse and diaper bag to go to the trouble to pick it up?

This isn’t nitpicking, it’s paying attention to your audience so you can maximize the performance of the brochure.

“Maximize the performance of the brochure” sounds pretty antiseptic. Does “attract enough visitors to allow you to make payroll this week” sound better?

Would that provoke you to go to the trouble to test multiple brochure designs against each other? To design and print different ones for different uses?

This doesn’t apply to MY business

You can’t ignore these things if your business doesn’t use rack brochures.

The best marketing in the world will fail if no one “picks it up”, no matter what media you use.

What’s one more visitor per day (or hour) worth to your business? That’s what this is really about.

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Talk is cheap, conversation is priceless

How we talk, write, stand, sit or hold our hands and arms plays a huge part in how effective we are in helping others understand what we have to say, much less keep their attention long enough to finish the message.

If they don’t get it all, at best you may as well have said nothing. Worst case, the other person could misinterpret your message and think or react the opposite of what you want.

Imagine that you make a trip to an Eastern European country.

You arrive by boat and step onto the dock with your bags in your hands.

A young Lithuanian man standing on the dock looks at your feet and says something to his friend. By the way his voice rises at the end, you’re sure he either asked a question or made a joke about your legs. Too bad he isn’t speaking your language. If he was, you would know that he was telling his friend that a camera fell out of the unzipped side pocket of your bag.

If you don’t understand the man, you might keep walking without paying attention. Once the man realized you didn’t understand, he would take another step to let you know what he was saying. He might make eye contact with you, repeat his comment and point at the camera.

As with the Lithuanian man, your business communications – from marketing messages and press releases to ads to fill staff openings – will be ineffective if they don’t use the right language and the right context, much less speak to the right person.

What is the right language?

The man’s effort to make eye contact and point is no different than speaking in a language you understand. By establishing eye contact and pointing, he brings context to the conversation – a context you care about.

The language and context you bring to conversations with your prospects and customers is equally important. The right language provokes your audience to think, act, react, remain attentive, follow your instructions (or advice) and believe in your message.

Or not.

Robert Collier famously suggested that writers “join the conversation already going on in the prospect’s mind”. Collier wasn’t encouraging you to be creepy and spy on your prospects and customers. He’s encouraging you to get to know and understand them, including their needs, desires and fears.

The right language…like the empathy that the video gets across so well… requires listening, paying attention and understanding what’s going on behind the face they put on.

Until you make the effort to learn, listen and observe these things, how can you begin to join their conversation? How can you engage with them in a conversation they care about? How can you understand what they lose sleep over? How else can what you say begin to address what’s critical to their decision-making process?

All of these things help you use the right language and the right message, whether you’re on the phone, writing an email or composing text for a billboard.

You wouldn’t walk up to a few people who are actively chatting at a gathering, interrupt them and start talking loudly about something they don’t care about – yet that’s exactly what most marketing does.

It helps me to imagine that I’m speaking directly with a single person who is exactly the type of person whose needs, desires and fears my message will resonate with in the strongest possible way. Notice that I didn’t say “the group of people my message targets”, or that I said “speaking with” rather than to.

Think about how important the positioning and context of your message must be in order to move from broadcasting like someone yelling at passersby on a random big city street corner, to that of a personal conversation with a trusted advisor.

Hippity Hop

If you overheard just a nibble of a conversation about hops, you might guess that someone was talking about the communications via the internet, frog jumping competitions or rabbits.

On the other hand, they could be talking about craft beers or microbrews. You’d have to listen to more than just one word (hops) to figure out the topic – and that’s the key.

Listen. Observe. Develop empathy and understanding. Join the conversation.

Disclaimer: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.