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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).

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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.

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Making it easier – isn’t that what your clients really want?

Easy Cheese photo credit: xiaming

Yesterday, we talked about making it easier for your clients to do – whatever it is that you make them do, hopefully not making them do it at all.

But what about making it easier to do the things that you can’t eliminate? One example is making it easier to reorder from you. You already know what your clients buy, right?

What do you do to remind them it’s time to refill, replenish and reorder? Since you know what they ordered, it should be easy for you to do this.

How do you know? It’s in your order database, point of sale (POS) system or online store order history.

You know how long it has been since they’ve visited your store or ordered online.

Is that number of days getting close? Shouldn’t you send them something (or call) to make it easy to order?

Has that number of days already passed? Shouldn’t you be contacting them to make sure all is well and that they haven’t run out of whatever they buy from you?

Do you have a system in place to get regular reorders pre-authorized by your clients? Makes life easier for them and more fruitful for you.

If you have automated reorders in place, isn’t it that much harder for a competitor to steal your clients from you? And aren’t your clients that much happier with the way you’ve added a little non-stick Teflon to their day to day lives?