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).

ECommerce Management planning Positioning Sales Small Business Strategy

How your top 10 clients can impact your disaster recovery

Yesterday’s mini-rant about the Flip (which I otherwise *really* like) codec thing aside, our disaster series continues today with a discussion about planning for your disaster recovery – before things go bad.

Aymee Ruiz with State Farm Corporate Media Relations sent me this list of disaster recovery planning steps, which I suggest you use as a high-level starting point to formulate your disaster plan BEFORE things go bad. There’s also some discussion of what to do afterwards, so be sure to use that to add to your disaster recovery plan NOW so that you don’t find yourself looking at the ground when your agent asks you if you have <whatever>.

Using that Flip recorder to document your assets isn’t a bad idea either. Just make sure the videos are stored somewhere other than at your business location, preferably in a secure, online location.

Next, I thought it might be wise to discuss something that might make you a little uncomfortable.

Making a top 10 list

You probably already have it in your head, but you may not think about it much.

If the disaster forces you into a position where you can handle the work of only 10 clients…which 10 will it be?

If you think back to last week’s post about the restaurant/catering business that burned, remember what he did first that was super-critical: He kept the catering business alive and kept the cash flowing.

In the eyes of his catering clients, there was no fire.

Despite all that was going on with the public-facing retail side of his business, he kept delivering and kept accepting catering orders. He focused on the relationships and facilities provided to him that kept that piece of the business going while the recovery of his retail business was in motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it pains him deeply every day that his retail serving area is closed… but the priority had to be the catering clients. Bigger tickets. Repeat business. Loyal business that appreciates the little things they do that other caterers don’t do.

You need to have that in mind as well. Which clients will get that sort of service, and which will have to wait?

Sure, it’d be ideal that none will have to do without, but the reality is that unless you’ve planned *very* well and you are *very* lucky, some aspect of your business is going to have to sit for a while.

Does that thought provoke you to look at your existing business a little differently?

Do you have another income stream for your existing business that functions without access to your retail (or public-facing restaurant) location?

If you have a retail store, do you sell on eBay? Etsy? Yahoo stores? Your own online store?

If you have a restaurant, do you cater events or corporate meetings and the like?

No matter what you do…is there a core revenue stream you can establish (or that you already have) that doesn’t depend on your physical business location?

It’s easier to get one now than it is in the middle of a crisis. Get to work.

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.

Automation Competition Customer service E-myth Employees Management Small Business Strategy systems

How to make follow up actually happen

Lately, I’ve been nagging you a bit about getting better about following up. And we talked about how you can identify hard dollar revenue to your follow ups.

One of the obstacles to following up is knowing when do to so.

Do you follow up a week after a purchase? A month? 3 months?

That depends on your products and services. There isn’t one good answer to the question – actually 2 questions:

  • When will my client need more product, or another service?
  • When will my client know whether or not that the product or service I just sold them is doing what I promised – or that it should be replaced with something different or better?

Another big obstacle to get past is putting the mechanisms in place so that the follow up actually occurs. Yes, I mean establishing business processes, thus – get out your E-Myth.

The important piece to that is to make it a systematic process that is ingrained into your business, so that the follow up occurs whether you are climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, chatting with the owner of your local coffee shop, or sitting in the office doing what you do to improve your business.

It doesn’t really matter whether you accomplish that with automation, software or a hand-written calendar, but that’s the key to making it happen.

Without a commitment by you (aka management) that it’ll get done as a part of everyday business, it’ll never happen. Instead, it’ll be one of those things you do when you have nothing else important to do.

Which means that eventually, it’ll never get done, assuming it ever got done at all.

The first step to making follow up actually happen is for YOU to commit to it as a core piece of your business.

And just in case you think it might not matter…think about the last time someone asked you how things are going with that product you just bought, or that service that was performed.

Competition Customer service E-myth Management Positioning Sales Small Business systems

The value of follow up

Previously, we’ve talked about how my old software company did every-30-day follow ups with clients and why it was so valuable. If nothing else, it made up for things that we maybe didn’t do so well.

When I have conversations with business owners about following up, it often comes up that these things are a lot of work. They don’t mean the follow up itself, but the act of getting their staff to actually do it, much less getting them to remember to do it, and so on.

First of all, a follow up system has to become part of your system for doing business, just like the bubble wrap that you insist must be wrapped around that expensive English bone china egg coddler before shipment.

Your staff wouldn’t dream of shipping a fragile piece of china without bubble wrap, and if you train them properly and make it part of the way you do business – they also won’t dream of blowing off the follow up.

The other side of this is that it isn’t rocket science. You don’t need an expensive system to make this stuff happen. A system could be an extra, documented, managed step that you insert into your paper-driven process.

So what about the value?

As I mentioned yesterday, I had some suspension work done on the Suburban. This is the same place where I bought the tires that are on it.

In the 13 months since I bought those tires, I have yet to receive a phone call, postcard or email offering to check those tires for uneven wear (a sure sign that something else needs to be repaired, or that I’m too stupid to inflate my tires properly).

Likewise, I have yet to receive any sort of contact to check alignment, brakes, or even to rotate my tires.

I don’t receive a contact in the early winter when lots of car owners change out regular tires for studded ones (I don’t, but many people do). I don’t receive a contact in the spring when the studded ones come off and are replaced by regular ones.

Not only are these things that naturally bring people to that store, but they also are ideal inspection times. Swap out time is an ideal time to determine that the other tires you are switching to might need to be replaced.

All this non-contact despite the fact that this store rotates and does flat fixes for free (they appear to understand Cialdini). It’s fairly clear to me (because of other things they do and how they do them) that they want me to come back and buy tires there again.

There is a pile of opportunity to offer a little care for those tires, and while showing they are trying to help me get the most from them, possibly earn a little extra cash by finding something during various inspections. And maybe sell me new ones.

Doing the math

For my rig, new tires are a $500+ expense. If you have 1000 customers (and they probably do), at any one time, research shows that about 3% of them have an immediate need for whatever you sell.

That’s 30 sets of tires waiting to be bought any any one time. $15 grand. Is that worth a little follow up effort?

We also talked yesterday about the batteries and how a free inspection routine for ANY vehicle would increase sales as well as improve the relationship. You see this in quick lube shops, sometimes to the wrong extreme. That isn’t what I’m proposing.

If you see 12 people an hour in a 10 hour day, that’s 720 clients through the door per 6 day work week (remember, it’s a tire store). If only 1 client per day needs a new battery (for example), and they buy a $45 battery, the free inspection will result in $14,040 in battery sales.

And that’s just batteries. Who knows what other sales you’ll make and what safety issues you’ll find.

Sure, maybe most of those people will buy a battery from you anyhow, but your inspections will have them buying before they are stranded somewhere, late for work, late for an appointment, stuck in bad winter weather, unable to drive their pregnant wife to the hospital and so on.

And you were the one who caught the fact that the battery was about to fail.

Look at your numbers like we did here and put a value on them. I suspect you’ll find a nice green reason to make it a part of your way of doing business.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t sell tires and batteries. You can use this too.

Customer service E-myth Employees Management Marketing Scouting Small Business systems The Slight Edge

Two simple keys to easy revenue and better service

Upsell and follow up.

Simple, right?  You already know this. But are you actually doing it?

Two of the easiest things to do to increase sales without spending even a dime to chase new customers, something you shouldn’t need to do if you are doing things right, are asking for the upsell and following up.

Before you change the channel, note that when I say upsell, I dont mean badger the crud out of your client with mindless “Do you want fries with that?” list of questions.

Instead, I mean ask smart questions that provoke your client to ask for more help, and do smart things that helps keep them out of trouble.

One local example is a nearby Chevy dealer’s Customer Appreciation Day, which just happens to include a bumper to bumper vehicle check.

On a nice 80 degree summer day, you don’t think much about being stranded. In the middle of a cold Montana winter, it’s on your radar anytime you’re out in the boonies.

In the middle of the coldest part of our Montana winters, which also happens to be their slowest time of the year, the dealer examines their clients’ vehicles for problems.

That vehicle check is done at no cost, plus you get breakfast or lunch and a bunch of chances to win door prizes.

They also have extra salespeople around in case clients have questions, but it isn’t a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sales event.

It’s a service/safety event that even includes a bunch of folks in the heated detail bays washing every car before the client takes it home.

The client goes home with a laundry list of stuff to keep get fixed or just keep an eye on, without any sales pressure. It truly is a courtesy check.

And of course, it’s a gold mine too.

Why? Because people see a bunch of stuff that they know might strand them on the side of a remote rural road at the worst possible time, so they either get it fixed at the dealer, or they take the list elsewhere (or home).

Even for those clients who don’t get a bunch of work done at the dealer, this serves a purpose: It gets that owner and their vehicle into the store once a year no matter what. It gets the service people an opportunity to check over the vehicle for potentially dangerous problems at least once a year. It gives the sales folks an opportunity to chat with former customers (there’s a reason why I call them that), offering them the chance to re-fire the connection with them.

While it would be a great idea for you if you are in any sort of service business, you don’t have to put on a big production like this every year.

You simply have to pay attention and take the opportunities presented.

When I bring my mower in for a new blade like I did earlier this week, you might take an extra 30 seconds to check the oil and see if it is low, or dirty.

You might check the air filter and see if it needs to be cleaned, or re-oiled. Even if those services only cost $5 to perform (plus the oil), that’s $10+ in incremental revenue, PLUS you make the point that you are trying to lengthen the life of my machines.

Trust me, if it burns gas, uses oil and I own it, it’s probably begging for help.

And I guarantee you, I’m not alone.

In many ways, your goal is their goal: Make sure that the client is as prepared to go into tomorrow, much less the rest of today, with as few detours as possible.

Yesterday, I had a pitman and idler arm replaced on my Suburban aka the Scoutmobile. I couldn’t pick them out of a box of parts but I do know they are part of the front end suspension and messed up ones like to ruin tires.

Meanwhile, another lady walked in to get a tire repaired. She was happy to find that the tire repair was free, but had to ask if someone would check her battery.

She shouldn’t have had to ask.

When her vehicle was taken in to fix the tire, it should have been part of their procedure to check the battery, tire pressures, fluid levels, wipers, brakes, shocks and tire tread.

Not just to upsell, but to make sure the client’s vehicle is safe to operate. And of course, to give yourself the opportunity to show the client that you are looking out for them and their vehicle.

But that didn’t happen, even though we were in a place that’s known for offering good service. You can tell they are trained, but they could be doing even more.

By the way, it turned out that the lady needed a new battery. The well-trained car guy offered her choices, let her make a decision and made the sale. But if she hadn’t asked…no sale.

Could you and your staff be doing more, all while being more helpful?

Competition Customer service Management Marketing Montana Positioning Retail Small Business Strategy systems Word of mouth marketing

Do you know why you lost that client? I do.

Last week, a story in one of our local papers noted that a local business had lost a customer that they had served for thirty years.

Thirty years is a long time to have a customer. That’s really impressive.

This big, regular customer accounted for a major portion of this local business’ revenue.

When the owner of that business was interviewed about the loss of that big customer – one of the largest businesses of that kind in our area – the owner said he was “dismayed” that he wasn’t given the opportunity to re-bid, and offer lower prices or enhanced service.

The straw that broke the backs of 1000 camels? He followed that with “They went with <the other vendor> for reasons I don’t know, I was flabbergasted.”

I’ve been in that business several times in the last 9 years. The store looks like it hasn’t changed in 30 years. It sends a signal that the rest of the business is probably operated similarly.

If you were in the retail Catholic goods business, Ian would have a field day with you. It’d be like game 7 of the 2008 NBA Finals. You’d be down 30 points before you knew it and the Celtics would be putting in retired players from the 1960’s to mop up the floor with you.

But that isn’t why you lost that big customer.

I know exactly why you lost the business.

You don’t have a relationship with them.

Your comments prove it. I suspect that you kept that customer for a long time because “they’d always done it that way”, but that is just a guess.

I verified that lack of a relationship by following the trail of evidence, and asking a few questions. I was told that your old customer approached the new vendor for help, saying they were unsatisfied with you.

That too is obvious, just from your comments in the article.

When you’ve had a customer for thirty years, and they have become 20-25% of your revenue stream, what in the world kept you from offering them “enhanced service” well before this happened?

If you could lower prices (or offset that by adding value) in order to put an iron cage around this customer so you’d never lose them…why didn’t you?

How could you NOT know that they were unhappy with you? After 30 years, you should have keys to the place. You should have your own coffee mug in their break room.

Ok, maybe keys is a little overboard, but still – you should have a good first name basis, personal relationship with the owner and management of that business.

And you should have known the business part of the relationship was broken long before it hit the papers. Long before you made that customer so frustrated that they felt asking you for help was a lost cause, so they asked your competitor.

Yet you are “flabbergasted” at the reason for losing that customer. And you blame that other business for being ruthless.

Look in the mirror. That’s whose fault it is.

For everyone else reading this: Which customer are YOU taking for granted?