Competition Customer service ECommerce Employees Management Restaurants Retail Sales Small Business

Beating the franchises and box stores: Are you making it easy to buy?

If you’re competing with a franchise or a box store like Starbucks, WalMart, Costco, Best Buy or similar, one of the best ways to stand out from them is to combat one of their biggest failings: They make it extremely difficult to buy in an environment that built to offer the illusion of easy shopping.

It’s particularly true for higher priced items, or items that require some level of technical knowledge and enthusiasm, such as – but not limited to – handheld HD video recorders, digital SLRs or computers.

Of course, they make it easy for the local computer or video store to differentiate in 100 different ways as long as it isn’t price. Local stores can’t often compete with national box stores and mail order houses on price, so they have to find other ways to do so.

Think about the purchasing environment in these box stores. Despite what they try to make you think, it isn’t laid out to optimize sales. Instead, it’s designed to reduce employee staffing requirements and minimize losses. Sounds kinda like a Presidential campaign:)

Want some evidence?

  • Selling computers: Computers are all password protected so you can’t begin to see how well they work, much less if they are suitable for the job.
  • Selling video and digital cameras: Video and digital SLR cameras are cabled to the countertop.
  • Selling video and digital cameras: There’s nothing to photograph, other than a bunch of gear under lovely fluorescent lights.
  • Selling video and digital cameras: There’s rarely anyone there who knows a Fstop from a Fbomb.
  • Finally, there’s no one who is truly a specialist on the gear they sell, and only a few people who have a smattering of knowledge – if you’re lucky (and if they work that day).

All those things are fine if you have done a pile of research and know exactly what you want. To be sure, many people do just that because they’ve gotten used to the lack of support/help at these stores.

Have you ever asked a question in a franchise or big box retail store and found that the store’s expert on that topic (if they had one) knew less than you did?

Of course, they might just order online rather than waste 30 minutes and $10 worth of gas to drive to the box store. If they do that, you know where they’re going – the cheapest place they can find online that has a reasonably dependable reputation.

Why? Because the stores have already forced them to do all the heavy lifting. After all that, they’re tired.

But there are others out there who want a resource. Need some advice. Want to try the gear out before they buy it, just to make sure.

If this is the best method for selling things and creating a relationship with a customer that lasts and lasts, why don’t you see the following?

  • A car dealer who allows test drives as long as you don’t leave the parking lot.
  • A jeweler who won’t let the lady try on that big engagement ring.
  • A Chanel store that has no tester bottles.
  • A camera store that leaves the gear locked in the glass case and expects you to make a buying decision by ogling it through the glass.
  • A grocery store that doesn’t allow you to thump a melon.
  • A florist that doesn’t let you smell the flowers.
  • A bookstore that doesn’t let you browse or sit and read a book.
  • A software company that doesn’t offer a downloadable demo or trial version.
  • A coffee shop that smells like candles.
  • A hardware store that keeps tools and other trinkets locked up like cigarettes at the grocery store (while you do see this at Home Depot, you don’t at Ace).

Yet that’s exactly the kinds of things that many stores do.

They put up a glass wall between the customer and the merchandise. That wall makes it hard to buy unless you know exactly, precisely what you want. They force you to be the expert, offering little or no expertise for prospective buyers seeking advice in their store.

Now think about how some other big retailers who make it easy to get in the mood to buy. Apple stores. Barnes and Noble. Talbots. Nordstrom. Some locally owned stores have picked up on it, but many have not.

Maybe you don’t have a brick and mortar store, but instead have an online store. That doesn’t mean you don’t have similar issues challenging you.

Ever been in an online shopping cart that just makes you want to scream? Sure you have. Now think about the last experience that was so simple and pleasant that you were tempted to buy more.

Whether that experience was online or in a brick and mortar retail store, the rarity of that experience sticks with someone. If they don’t have that experience with your business, they’re going to encounter it somewhere else.

When they do, guess who they aren’t going to visit again?

Automation Competition Direct Mail ECommerce Employees Management Productivity Restaurants Retail Sales Small Business Strategy systems Technology

Are you missing the point of automation?

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

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

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

Yep, that’s a not-so-subtle hint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That just scrapes the surface of needs of that type.

Random customer behavior: bad idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah, back to that every 30 days list.

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

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

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

Automation Competition Customer service Email marketing Management Marketing planning Positioning Productivity Restaurants Retail Sales Small Business Strategy systems Technology

Why your staff wants more profitable work to do

Consider the profitability of the work being done by each member of your staff. Are they making your business more profitable? Or are they doing non-critical work that a computer or service could do?

Why not automate those often lame-but-necessary tasks?

Why? Because you arenâ??t getting it all done otherwise.

Want proof? Call a vendor who performs a service or sells an item that requires installation. More often than not, youâ??ll not find someone who can deliver today, or even this week.

Despite the state of the economy. Or perhaps, because of it.

Odd example: I was told late last week that Amtrak passenger trains are packed to the gills because they don’t have any more passenger cars to put in service. Now donâ??t get me wrong, thatâ??s good thing because it means theyâ??re busy. Busy is good. Means they are doing some things right (and of course that fuel prices are high).

But backlogged and having to force businesses and consumers to go to your competition isnâ??t good, and itâ??s a fine line between busy and too busy.

What’s bad for Amtrak in this case is also bad for you. And that’s where the profitability of the work your staff does will come into play.

On one side of the fine line: things that require your expertise.

On the other: stuff that a high school kid could do in their sleep (and they need more sleep anyhow, right?).

Those are the kinds of things to target for automation.

It isnâ??t about getting rid of people. Itâ??s about giving the people you have the kind of work that generates profit, rather than simply keeping them busy in low-value jobs that take them nowhere.

Why do they want that?

Because the kind of work that generates profit is the kind that makes a job – and thus an employee – more valuable.

Employees Management Montana Restaurants Small Business

Hire that punk kid with the snowboard? Are you nuts???

This weekend, I met the manager of my favorite local Italian restaurant. Somehow, I had managed to miss meeting him during my last few visits and was a bit surprised at how young this guy is.

He had just returned from Boise, where he had trained the staff and management at their newest location. He spoke of the night before as a zero mistake night in the kitchen (ie: no free meals to make up for mistakes) and how it was the third best business day of the busy summer season.

He’s in culinary school as well, and loving everything he learns from his “wizard teacher”, noting that “she’s amazing…knows everything. She doesn’t take any stuff from anyone”.

In his spare time, he’s a pro snowboarder who finishes 1st in many of the pro events on the local ski mountain, including a qualifying event for the X-Games (having trouble finding results on that one). Everyone who knows him knows his reputation on the slopes.

Last winter, he stumbled upon a skier who had slashed open his thigh, leaving a deep cut that was bleeding profusely. He rounded up 2 other skiers to put pressure on the wound, skinned back up the hill to mark the downed skier’s line with his poles so others wouldn’t hit the skier and those assisting him, boarded down to the ski patrol, returned to the scene, then after the ski patrol medical team patched up the skier, he drove him to the emergency room.

How did I meet him? I just happened to have the honor of handing his Eagle certificate to him, as one of the troops in Whitefish asked me to help officiate his Eagle Scout ceremony.

Yep. According to the calendar, Dar Johnston is just a 17 year old kid.

You should be so lucky to have “punk snowboarder” like Dar managing your restaurant. This polite, easy-going guy is going places, with or without the snowboard.

He took and passed his GED (high school equivalency exam) last year because the Whitefish School District wouldn’t let him make up work when he had be absent to travel to pro snowboard events. Shedding the time constraints of high school allowed him time to focus on culinary school and move up the management chain at Mambo Italiano in Whitefish without missing snowboard events.

There is a part of high school he does miss, of course. The girls.

Most everyone else is lamenting how kids these days are lousy employees and don’t care about anything but iPods and such. Despite that, the best Italian restaurant in the Flathead managed to find one. What is it about the best that makes them work a little harder, look a little farther and find staffers like this?

No doubt, there’s a kid in your neighborhood with similar skills and hunger. Open your eyes. Where are you looking for your next great staffer?

Might be that punk kid on the snowboard.

Advertising Community Competition Mark Riffey Marketing Positioning Restaurants Retail Sales Small Business Social Media Strategy The Slight Edge

I know what you look like

This morning, someone emailed me to confirm an appointment to meet me at a local coffee shop. One of the comments they made when we were making arrangements to meet was “I know what you look like.”

The great thing about that is that we’ll avoid the clumsy “stumbling about looking like you’re lost” thing that happens when you arrive at a public place to meet someone and don’t have a clue what they look like.

It’s one of many reasons why my photo is on this blog, on my printed newsletter, on my personal site, and on my newspaper column.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” only when relatives stay too long:)

In business, familiarity is essential.

Repeatedly, I’ve noticed the looks that business owners get when I step up to the register, counter, etc. They may not know exactly who I am, but I look familiar – which puts me one step ahead of the face they don’t know from Adam.

This is true regardless of whether I want their business, or I simply want to be treated a little better in their store or restaurant.

To my clients and prospects, it’s super critical for keeping me at the “top of their consciousness” when they are thinking about the needs they have that are related to services and products I offer.

You should be doing the same thing. If you have an “about us” on your business cards, brochures, literature, on the wall of your store/restaurant, or website, you should include a picture of yourself, staff, family – whatever seems appropriate.

If you use social media tools like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, having your picture there is equally important for the same reasons.

People don’t care if you look like a movie star, but they do care about seeing a friendly, familiar face.

You want people to associate you with your product. Humans are very visual people. How many times have you heard (or said) “I remember the face but can’t recall their name”?

You can’t even count the number of times, even if you use every remember-the-lady’s-name scheme ever invented.

Familiarity… top of consciousness is what helps put you a little farther in front of those other folks.

Isn’t that where you want to be?

Competition Management Marketing Positioning Restaurants Retail Small Business The Slight Edge

Does your store or restaurant give people the urge to splurge?

Today’s guest post comes from what you might think is an unlikely source – Psychology Today.

On the other hand, as many times as we’ve talked about Cialdini and your own mindset, maybe it isn’t a surprise.

The Urge to Splurge – things to think about for retailers, restaurants, service businesses and others with public-facing business locations.

Automation Competition E-myth Employees Leadership Management Marketing Public Relations Restaurants Retail Reward programs Small Business Social Media systems

Planning for the train wreck before it happens

Step one after the fire is out or the flood waters have receded (or both) – if you haven’t already done so – is implementing your comeback plan.

Notice that I said implementing the comeback plan, not making it. When times are hectic and the ceiling is dripping with smoky water, your mind isn’t going to be in a place where you can make a solid plan for recovery.

You need to have it roughed out and thought through BEFORE the bad stuff occurs.

Some things, like the references to the tragedy and how you’ll use it specifically in your ads and press releases, will change – but if the plan is in place before your worst nightmare happens you’ll be that much farther ahead and you’ll have a plan made by someone who isn’t fried, tired, ticked off and trying to figure out where next week’s payroll cash will come from.

So what should be in that plan? Here’s a partial list of things to consider…

Important elements of your comeback plan

Get a reward program in place NOW.

This is important to have in place and working well before your disaster so that you know how to contact your BEST customers. The occasional ones might not even notice you were closed for 3 months, but the regulars will and you must be ready to keep them as regulars.

Have a serious conversation about this with yourself, your banker, your insurance agent, your accountant and your attorney.

Now is not the time to find out you would’ve been OK if it wasn’t for that $100,000 deductible and flood exclusion. Pin these folks down. Make them talk about and help you arrange for the ideal recovery (if there is such a thing) in the same location.

Figure out how you’re going to keep your staff.

The *last* thing you need with all this turmoil is to lose your trained people. Make sure that you find a way to involve them in the comeback and do as much as you can to keep paying them, or at least the core players that you’d never want to work for a competitor. Be inventive. Talk to your insurance agent. Do whatever it takes.

Make sure your customer and financial databases are backed up offsite

Backups that sit on a CD or thumb drive that’s sitting on top of your melted computer are pretty worthless. Take a thumb drive home at least weekly, if not daily. Make sure it has your customer and financial databases on it, such as your QuickBooks database.

You can tell QuickBooks to automatically backup your data daily to a certain location. Put your flash drive on your keyring or attached to something else you take home every night. Note: if it’s on your keyring, it might not hurt to use one of those detachable security rings so you don’t lose your keys AND give out your financial data.

One of the biggest reasons that you see businesses fail after a disaster like this is that they don’t have customer records, order records, service records or financial information anymore. If on the day after the disaster you don’t know who owes you money, who has appointments next week and so on – you’ve got a big problem.

Many programs can automatically backup your data, and even send it to a secure backup location.

Communicate with the media and your clients regularly about the progress of your recovery

This is no time to keep secrets. If you will get power tomorrow, let everyone know. Use a blog, press releases and if it merits it, postcards and phone calls (etc) to get the word out.  If you have a problem during the recovery, talk about it. Get people interested in the process so that it becomes “water cooler talk” during the week. Make sure people know that you’re blogging about the experience.

Here’s a great example:

Make it a special event

Dining room closed? Sure, maybe it is, but your parking lot probably isn’t. Throw a block party. Roast hot dogs. Roast a pig. Do whatever it takes to get people to your place of business, even if they have to sit in rented chairs in the parking lot. Just be sure and do it right. Keep them in the habit of coming back, even if the building is a smoldering pile. If they liked you before, give them as many chances to show it as you can.

Go a little crazy

Now is not the time to be boring. The media likes a little eccentricity, so give them what they want…a LITTLE. Funny, silly crazy is fine. Insane asylum crazy is not fine.

If you cook, manufacture, warehouse or store stuff, figure out how that’s going to happen in the weeks immediately after the disaster.

The guy we talked about yesterday managed to arrange for competitors and friends with kitchens so he could continue fulfilling his catering obligations. But what about retail? Don’t make the excuses everyone else would make. Find a way and make it work.

Remember, quitting is the easy thing to do.

Management Marketing Public Relations Restaurants Retail Small Business

What’s your story regarding business fire or flood disasters?

People are coming out of the woodwork on this one, so I thought I should launch a formal request to contact me with your disaster story and the lessons learned.

Feel free to use the contact page, or comment below. If you want to keep the details anonymous, please say so in your comment and I will read/compile your story but leave the comment unapproved so no one sees it.

As for your story…

  • What happened?
  • What was the impact on your business?
  • How did you recover?
  • What was the most difficult part of the recovery process?
  • What blindsided you (other than the disaster itself)?
  • What did you learn about business insurance coverage that you’d never want anyone else to learn the hard way?
  • What did you learn about your agent, their company and the claims process that you wish you knew before the disaster?
  • How long did it take you to get your business back to where it was before the disaster? (Assuming you have)
  • Did your marketing or promotions take advantage of the disaster?
  • How did your clients react to the disaster and to your recovery process?
  • Did you use public relations or the news media to get the word out, or were you able to contact each customer about the disaster and your recovery plans?
  • Did your competition help you recover, do nothing, or take advantage of your loss? How?
  • What was the key – for your personally – to facing it, brushing yourself off and turning things around?

Thank you:)

Creativity Management Marketing Public Relations Restaurants Retail Reward programs Small Business

What can you learn from a business disaster?

Last week, while I was being a slacker (I was canoeing 50 miles or so around Hungry Horse Reservoir with the troop’s older guys), a friend’s restaurant was struck by lightning.

His business wasn’t physically destroyed, but it did take a pretty serious punch from smoke and water damage. Amazingly, the water damage came from a melted pipe that actually put out the fire and prevented the entire facility from burning to the ground.

Since that Sunday, his restaurant has been closed. Imagine having to close your business with zero notice for 10 days to 2 weeks during the summer – despite having a pile of catering work already scheduled.

Not ideal by anyone’s standards.

I spoke with him yesterday to ask what lessons he would take away from this.

The #1 thing that he felt he would do differently, knowing what he knows now, is to raise the value of his business interruption/overhead coverage so that he could make payroll despite being (mostly) closed and restock all perishable foods (think about what it would cost to restock an empty pantry or fridge…).

He felt confident that his facilities insurance and other coverages were in good shape and would probably take care of cleanup and build out of the damaged areas.

Because he does a lot of catering, he’s had to scramble around to friends who own restaurants or have certified kitchens, and has managed to keep that part of the business alive.

We also brainstormed a little about what to do to move forward and prevent the loss of retail, walk-in customers.

A traditional approach would require cleanup (already in progress), build-out, kitchen recertification and so on.  That could take months. In months, all those retail customers are going to already be in the habit of going somewhere else.

So how do you save them?

We’ll talk about that in coming posts, and lessons business owners have learned from other business disasters as well as strategies for keeping those customers and making sure everyone knows you aren’t going down with one punch.

One thing you should expect right off the bat – if you aren’t collecting the names and contact info for your customers – how will you tell them that you’re still open?

Could you contact your customers tomorrow and tell them that the fire wasn’t that bad and you’ll be back in the saddle in no time?

His loyalty/reward program is one way that will help him do just that. Do you have one in place?

Corporate America Customer service Employees Leadership Management Restaurants Small Business Starbucks

The Intersection of Policy and Customer Service

Joel Spolsky is a household name to most people in the software business.

He’s been blogging for years about Microsoft, customer service, the software business and even how to build out an office in New York City. Not long ago, he started blogging for Inc. Magazine.

Today, he’s our guest poster and talks about something we spoke of yesterday: The intersection between policies and customer service.

Enjoy. I’m over in Fort Benton Montana covering the State swim meet.