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Ira Koretsky
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Duane Bailey
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I still remember the feeling I had when my parents dropped me off at college for the first time. We said our goodbyes outside my dorm and then they were off. I was alone. It was a little scary, I’ll admit. 

As I walked back into my dorm, it hit me. This was my time. A chance to build something new. It was a chance to carve out a niche for myself in this unfamiliar territory I knew as college. It was a time for building...new friends, new relationships and new communities.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize college dorm life offers many lessons in customer relationship management. The dorm is analogous to the office, the people you encounter are your colleagues and customers, and the world around you is your market.

Here are five lessons I learned about customer relationship management in my college dorm:
 - The best ideas are hatched in an environment of open doors and spirited collaboration, where residents trust and respect the people they live and work with
 - There is no pride of authorship…none of us, not even our best friends and professors, has all the answers
 - The markets where your ideas are implemented and tested…the classroom, the campus and the local community…are diverse and unfailingly candid
 - Your best memories involve people, not books or exams, and are borne of open doors and authentic transparency…the relationships you build in college will last you a lifetime
 - It takes four years to build a reputation and a fleeting moment of selfishness or foolishness to destroy it…operate with integrity always and treat the people you encounter the way you would want to be treated

If you’re in the business of serving customers, think back to your own college dorm life experience. What lessons can you apply to your customer relationship management efforts?

When it comes to business planning and strategy, I’ve noticed there are two types of people – those who believe they can and those who believe they cannot. The folks in the first group will generate a slew of ideas for making dreams come true, while those in the second group will offer only excuses for why the possible is really impossible.

One of the lessons I learned as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America is that the key to personal and organizational growth is empowerment. Empowering others gives them the freedom to try new things, to take risks and to learn (and grow) from their mistakes. Empowerment is allowing others to bring a “can-do” attitude to the challenges and opportunities they encounter. It is a sharing of decision-making authority and it drives accountability at all levels of an organization. And it encourages creative thinking and innovation, both prerequisites for growth.

This “can-do” attitude is one of the attributes I see consistently in entrepreneurs. Many of them start with a dream and an idea. One idea becomes several and as they implement their ideas, they take some risks. Not every idea is a home run and they learn from their mistakes. And this is how they grow their businesses and realize what, for many of them, has been a lifelong dream. As an example, I recently wrote about the story of Knockaround™ sunglasses and the role founder Adam “Ace” Moyer’s “can-do” attitude played in the growth of his business.

Which do your business planning and strategy discussions include more of: ideas for making dreams come true or excuses for why the possible is impossible?

 

This morning I was driving my daughter to school. Out of nowhere she says, "Why is that man not smiling?" I look around car to car to car without seeing any man scowling. As such I said to my four year-old, "what man?" And she pointed right in front of my car and said, "the man on the car."

It then hit me. I am bombarded with images every day. The bad ones pass me by. This is a great example of a bad advertisement. I grabbed my handy smart phone and took the picture below.

Changing the name of the agent, website, and telephone number, can you see the man's face?  I wouldn't say he is grumpy or scowling. I also wouldn't say he is happy either. To me, in the world of customer service, a smile means everything, whether in person or on the phone.

Ensure you provide appropriate guidance, advice, and coaching to your sales/service/outreach teams to ensure your target audiences don't say the equivalent of "Daddy. Why is that man not smiling?"

 

I was at a meeting recently where one of the participants emphatically declared that social media was all about creating great content. Period. An “if you post it, they will come” approach to building a presence across the digital marketplace, if you will.

As an experienced business storyteller and social media professional, I would have to disagree. Sure, content is important. Engaging others is equally, if not more important. Social media is not a one-way communication. It is not a conversation between a brand and a person. It is an interactive dialogue between two people who share a common interest. It is a forum for engaging others with compelling images, personalized stories and the exchange of information.

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To help you understand how well you are engaging others across your social networks, consider using an application like Klout. Since it was updated in September 2012 to include a new feature called Klout Moments, I have been using it to help identify my own social media posts that have generated action (e.g., likes, RT’s, favorites, etc.) from the people in my networks. Klout Moments is a measure of influence and it tells me how the content I am posting is engaging the people I care about.

So, as you build or modify your brand's social media strategy, be sure to include an equal focus on content and engagement. After all, when it comes to social media and the impact of these two elements on your strategy, it is an "and" conversation.

 

For more insights on social media branding and the relationship between content and engagement, please see:
• How to Measure Your Brand’s Storytelling Effectiveness in Social Media
• Branding Lessons from Social Media
• Brand Building Through Social Media
• Content is the New Currency for Brand Storytelling in 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

One Team, One Goal

I was at the gym the other day when I saw a t-shirt with this quote on it: “One team, one goal.” While it apparently was the motto that had been adopted by a group of employees at a local business, it could (and should) be the motto that guides almost any team or group.

“One team, one goal” speaks to the culture of an organization. It’s an attitude and it starts at the top. Without exception, every successful organization I have ever been a part of has embraced this attitude. Team members rally around each other and maintain a laser focus on a singular goal. If one member succeeds, they all do. Leaders reward and recognize efforts that encourage sharing, create a sense of community, resolve conflict and foster other collaborative behaviors that create a unified and energized culture. And results follow.

How would you characterize your organization? Are your team members unified around a single goal? Or is everyone out for themselves? What are your results telling you?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

It’s Time to Innovate

Are you starting a new business? Building a brand? Seeking to turn around a declining brand? Then innovate.

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Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Innovation is what makes you, your culture, your value proposition, your products and services, your customer experience and everything else about your brand unique. It’s what makes you memorable. It’s your source of competitive advantage.

Instead of following someone else’s best practices, take the lead. Create the future. Write your own best practices. Take some risks. Innovate.

For more on the impact of innovation on your branding strategy, please see:
• How Innovation Drives Sustained Growth for Your Brand
• What Makes Your Company Different?
• Accelerate Growth and Innovation - Encourage a Culture of Risk-Taking

I dropped my eldest son off at college earlier this week. He is an incoming freshman at Virginia Tech, a nationally ranked university with a main campus that includes more than 125 buildings, 2,600 acres and 31,000 students. As you can imagine, Virginia Tech is a big place. At first glance, this might seem like a place where newcomers might easily feel disconnected and unengaged.

From a branding perspective, one of the things Virginia Tech excels at is welcoming new members to its brand community – in this case, new students and their parents. During Freshman Orientation, my son and every other new student received a maroon t-shirt with the following question and answer exchange printed on it: “What's a Hokie? I am.” With that simple declaration, they joined existing members of the Hokie community and became the newest faces of Virginia Tech.

On move-in day, we were greeted curbside as we pulled our loaded minivan up to my son’s dormitory. We were met by several student volunteers, or Hokie helpers, who we recognized by the blue shirts they were wearing (a Virginia Tech move-in day tradition for incoming freshman). Starting with Eli, they welcomed us to Virginia Tech and introduced themselves by name. They took a few moments to learn more about each member of my family before loading my son’s belongings into a cart and transporting them to his dorm. My youngest son and I waited with the van. Eli returned a few moments later to let us know my son’s belongings had been safely delivered to his room and that my son would be back in a few moments with a parking pass.

To us, Eli and the other Hokie helpers who greeted us that day are the faces we call to mind when we think of Virginia Tech. They are the human side of the Hokie brand. From the moment we arrived, they helped us feel welcome in this new and very large community. As a result, my family and I are proud to say we are all members of the Hokie family now…as parents, a legacy and, of course, a Hokie.

How does your brand welcome new members to its community? Is your brand providing the kind of memorable experience that allows its newest members to easily connect and engage with the people who represent your brand?

Last week, I wrote about the power of social media in brand storytelling. If the power of social media lies in its ability to foster stronger and more personal relationships that lead to higher levels of customer engagement and brand loyalty, how do you measure it? One way might be to consider your brand’s influence and outreach, as measured by Kred.

I’ve been using Kred for the better part of a year now. While I may have my own sense of how my personal brand might be perceived by others, Kred provides me with an outside perspective through a visual activity stream. This stream includes a snapshot of what others see, how they are reacting to the content I share, the topics I am most influential in and why.

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Kred measures influence (or the likelihood that someone will trust me enough to take action on the content I post, on a scale from 1 to 1,000) and outreach (or my generosity in online relationships, as determined by my willingness to follow others and share their content, on a scale from 1 to 12). Brands with higher scores enjoy higher levels of trust and generosity – both key elements in storytelling effectiveness.

While much of what my Kred Story tells me is consistent with my expectations, I am occasionally surprised by what I find. For example, my latest report (shown here) includes my influence (685 out of 1,000) and outreach (6 out of 12) scores. It also contains a summary of hash tags that have appeared in online conversations with me (e.g., #branding, #leadership, #socialmedia, #marketing, #storytelling, etc.), a steady growth in followers and a short listing of my top communities (e.g., marketing, social media and music).

No real surprises until I got to the last top community I just listed. Music? Really? Now that is a surprising insight, given that music is not something I would associate with my personal brand. As I thought about it some more, I realized a good number of musicians are storytellers, too. I suppose it's possible my posts may be resonating with people in the music community and this might be a target audience I may have overlooked. 

As your brand hones its storytelling effectiveness on social media, be sure to include outside measures of your influence and outreach by tools like Kred. Hopefully, most of what you'll find will reaffirm your sense of how your brand is being perceived online. The things that surprise you might just open new doors and opportunities for your brand.

For more on social media effectiveness, please see:
• Does Your Brand Have Klout?
• Extend Your Brand’s Reach With Twitter
• Is Your LinkedIn Story a Best Seller?

Is your brand using social media to tell its story? If not, you may be missing out on one of the best opportunities for interacting with your customers and prospects. Unlike traditional media, the conversational nature of social media can help your brand foster stronger and more personal relationships. Relationships that lead to higher levels of customer engagement and brand loyalty.

I recently wrote about the importance of telling your own story on social media vs. letting someone else tell it for you (or not). If that wasn’t enough to convince you to jump on the social media bandwagon, let me offer you a list of 7 more reasons why I believe social media is a powerful platform for business storytelling. Social media:

  • Delivers value – through fresh and original content – that helps to differentiate your brand
  • Establishes your credibility and authority as a thought leader – through commentary on trending topics and industry issues
  • Demonstrates your commitment to corporate citizenship in your local community – through updates on events and invitations to participate
  • Invites customer feedback – through the effective use of questions and comments showing genuine concern – that allows you to react quickly to customer dissatisfiers and offbrand experiences 
  • Creates emotional connections between brands and consumers – through its ability to allow two-way conversations
  • Achieves strong SEO results – through a combination of user interaction, keywords and relevant backlinks
  • Encourages people to share, engage and even buy your product or service – through informative and interesting content

For more on the power of social media as a channel for brand storytelling and customer engagement, please see:
• Branding Lessons from Social Media
• Brand Building Through Social Media
• 5 Insights on Marketing Your Brand in Social Media
• Social Media Is About Building Relationships
• Are You Embracing Social Media?

 

When most of us choose one brand over another, we do so with an expectation. An expectation that the product or service will fulfill a promise made by the brand. What happens, though, when the promise isn’t kept?

This is where the resolution portion of your brand’s customer experience can help. Brands that provide disappointed or inconvenienced customers with an overwhelmingly positive resolution experience are able to recover quickly and restore the trust that may have been lost.

As many of you know, I own a Jeep Wrangler. One of the things I have learned about Jeep Wranglers over the years is that the windshields are particularly prone to cracks and chips caused by small rocks and other road debris. When my windshield needs replacing, I turn to Safelite AutoGlass®. Each time, I receive a professionally installed OEM windshield that is every bit as good as the original (i.e., the brand promise).

Recently, however, the rearview mirror that was attached to my windshield fell off (a not-so-uncommon problem, I discovered, in places like Las Vegas, where it is really hot).  So I called Safelite AutoGlass® and scheduled a repair.  The customer resolution experience was flawless – minimal effort was required on my part (they came to my home), the mobile technician was professional and knowledgeable, the repair was completed promptly and it was covered under warranty (I paid nothing for the repair).

My windshield is once again every bit as good as the original.  So, of course, I would trust them again with the replacement of any future windshields...on any of my cars. And, yes, I would recommend them to a friend or colleague.

Think about your customers and the times where your brand may have fallen short on delivering its promise. How would they rate your resolution experience?

For more insights on what makes a great customer experience, please see:
• All Great Customer Experiences Begin with a Smile
• Communication Is the Foundation of a Great Customer Experience
• Anticipating Needs Is the Key to Customer Retention

What if you could gather hundreds of your targeted prospects and customers in one place on a single night? What if you had a shared interest in something that would bring them together? How would you use that to build a loyal community of customers?

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On Saturday night, Pacers Running Stores gathered over 1800 runners and volunteers for the Crystal City Twilighter 5K. This annual event is organized by Pacers and is aptly billed the area's favorite summer twilight race. With a flat and fast course, a lively post-race party and a chance for me to meet up with my family at the Good Stuff Eatery afterward, the evening did not disappoint.  It was an amazing and unforgettable experience, from start to finish.

Pacers races offer “fabulously fun courses, great swag, and an incredible group of runners.” Every customer touch point – including online registration, packet pickup, bag check, the start, the race itself, the finish and the post-race party – are true to that promise. The paid staff and volunteers go out of their way to make the events fun, the stuff we all get (SWAG) is awesome and the participants are united by their shared passion for running.

It’s also an opportunity for these runners – many of them Pacers customers and prospects – to benefit from the expertise the Pacers staff can provide when purchasing new running gear, apparel and accessories.  My own enthusiasm for Pacers running events has spilled over into the brand and I am proud to count myself a member of the loyal community of Pacers customers.

I can hardly wait until next year's Crystal City Twilighter! How about you?


For related posts on my passion for running and its relationship to branding and customer communities, please see:
• Beyond Price…How One Small Business Is Building Strong Community Ties to Differentiate
• Why Personal Relationships Are Important In Personal and Business Life
• A Trail Run and a Harmonious Customer Experience

A picture really does tell the story of a thousand words. Which story, though? From whose perspective? Depending on the storyteller, the same picture can be used to tell different stories. These stories, and how well they resonate with us, are often what determine whether or not we engage with the storyteller.

Consider the picture shown here.  It appeared on Instagram recently and was posted by a college graduate on the morning of her commencement. The picture was accompanied by a very short story – one that poignantly described that moment and the emotions she felt as her college experience was about to draw to a close. The caption read, “This day came to our party uninvited and unwanted….” This image, and the words below it, reminded me of the emotions I felt on my own graduation day.   

You might notice there are about a dozen or so others in the picture. What stories do you suppose they might tell about that same moment in time? Here are some of my guesses:
     • “And so it begins…a new day and the dawn of our future.”
     • “The good old days came to an end today.”
     • “The light of our friendship burns bright and will never be extinguished.”
     • “So long to sleepless nights and all-night cramming…”
     • “We made it!”
Can you think of any you might want to add to this list?

Everyone has his or her own story to tell, each of which leaves us with some insight into their personality, values, history and aspirations for the future. Some of them will tell their stories, others may simply choose to remain silent.

Now imagine the beach as a competitive landscape. Dotted among the landscape is your brand and a dozen or so of your competitors. Everyone is facing the same opportunities, challenges and uncertainties. Your competitors are telling their stories on social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and blog posts). Your brand, on the other hand, chooses to stay silent. Instead, you let others tell your story for you. Or you let them guess.

Either way, what is your silence saying about you and your brand? What influence are your competitors' stories having on your prospects and customers? How are people perceiving your brand and the relevance of it to their lives? Perhaps it's time to engage your prospects and customers on social media.

I just received this LinkedIn note soliciting my attention and business. I thought to share it as it is an excellent example of what not to do...Following the note, I shared some thoughts and suggestions.

Hi Ira,

How are you today? I just came across your profile and thought I would reach out real quick and see if you would like to connect further here on LinkedIn.

I don’t usually reach out like this, but thought you may be a good candidate for my advanced leadership certification program and wanted to personally invite you to take a look at it.

If you are interested in learning more, let me know and I will introduce you to the right person on my team who can provide you with more information.

Here is a link with more info in the meantime: www.abc-offer.com

Keep up the good work.

Your friend,

FirstName LastName

-----------------------------

Here I share my impressions and offer some suggestions. My comments are preceeded by "Ira>"


How are you today? I just came across your profile
Ira> You are selling me a product/service. I automatically have my “cautionary antennae” up. When you use such a phrase, it sounds as if you casually, by accident found my profile. Since you are obviously selling me something. I really question the sincerity of the phrase, “just came across"

I don’t usually reach out like this
Ira> Anyone and I mean anyone, who uses a phrase like this, loses all credibility. Delete the phrase all together. Just start with “Based on your experience and profile, I think you might be a good candidate for [blank]"

wanted to personally invite you to take a look at it.
Ira> Messaging disconnect. You are personally inviting me to connect. In reality, you are going to connect me to someone else on your team. To me, if you are the face/name behind the brand and you reach out, you become my point of contact. You are not simply an inside sales person making and asking for an appointment. The relationship starts with you. This phrase further works against the credibility of the sender.

Keep up the good work.
Ira> Another throw away comment. You and I have never met. Leave it out.

Your friend,
Ira> Another throw away comment. Friendships take time, they don’t come in the form of an unsolicited commercial email, which is the legal term for spam. Perhaps this is a code word?

 

Moral of the story:  If you are going to send an unsolicited sale emails, irrespective of the medium:
-  Do your homework
-  Use relevant language that will absolutely resonate with your target audiences
-  Avoid clichés and throw away phrases
-  Excite my mind, pique my interest quickly
-  Share with me one or two benefits. Tell me why I should become invested in you
-  Respect your audience's time. Send well-written notes

Let’s pretend for a moment you’re in the business of selling transportation to college students. What, do you suppose, is most important to them: price, time, convenience, comfort or safety?

After you conduct your market research, you determine what matters most to your target audience is time. So you develop a value proposition and service offering that guarantees a five-hour bus ride from the student’s college to his or her hometown. Your business begins to grow.

A few months go by and somebody else comes along offering students a faster ride home (time) with door-to-door service (convenience), an impeccable safety record (safety) and extra legroom (comfort) at a comparable fare (price).  Your business begins to decline.

What just happened? While you were building a business by offering customers what they told you they wanted, someone else came along and, with a little innovation, came up with an improved business model. By replacing buses with cars, your competitor found a way to provide your customers with better and faster service at the same price.

The moral of the story is this: it’s not enough to simply ask your customers what they want and then give it to them. Brands that enjoy sustained growth are continually innovating and finding new ways to serve their customers. Sometimes, that means providing your customers with something they will value before they even ask for it.

For more on branding and innovation, please see:
• What Makes Your Company Different?
• Your Customers Are Talking. Are You Listening?
• Are You Ready for the Next Big Competitor?

The phrase, fun and work, doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.

Just ask any of the employees who work for the area companies recently named among the Washington Business Journal’s Best Places to Work for 2013. For the ninth year in a row, the Washington Business Journal has compiled its list of the best DC area companies among small, medium and large companies.

Designed to honor the area’s leading employers, organizations that wish to be considered are evaluated through an employee survey that measures performance in areas like: team effectiveness, employee alignment with company goals, trust with co-workers, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

This year’s honorees include companies like Ntiva, Ackerman Brown, McEnearney Associates of Alexandria, Cvent, Opower, LMI and AOL. Water balloon fights, Flip-Flop Fridays, team-building events, Caps games, picnics, paintball tournaments, catered lunches, a jogging trail, and scooters to use in the office are among the fun perks these companies offer to their employees.

Sure, you may have seen these perks elsewhere and may be wondering what makes the companies on this year’s list stand apart from others who aren’t on the list. In a word, it’s culture. For this year’s honorees, making work fun is more than just leaving a plate full of snacks in the kitchen. It’s a commitment to working together, trusting in one another, valuing the contributions of each and every employee, adhering to the Golden Rule and having fun.

Are your employees having fun at work? If not, what changes are needed in your organizational culture to make work fun? Why not set as a goal the inclusion of your organization in next year's list of best places to work?

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Collaboration Is the Way Forward

Nobel Laureate and Physicist Kenneth G. Wilson once said “the hardest problems of pure and applied science can only be solved by the open collaboration of the world-wide scientific community.” If you’re like me and think there is an element of science (as well as art) to business, then I suppose the same can be said about the challenges your business may be facing.

Falling profit margins, increasing customer attrition rates, a slowdown in the rate in which new customers are acquired, an erosion of investor confidence and even a lack of brand awareness are all typical problems many businesses face.  I know from my own experience leading sales teams in a Fortune 500 company, along with my recent roles as a project manager in two week-long volunteer service projects, the best ideas for solving problems often come from the very team members tasked with figuring them out. In fact, I‘m certain I have never met a team leader who actually has all the answers.

If your business is facing some tough challenges and not seeing the results you desire, it may be time for some open collaboration with the people in your community – your employees, your customers, your business partners and even your shareholders. Collaboration is the key to solving some of your hardest problems...and the way forward.

This week, for the second year in a row, I am volunteering as a contractor and will be joining several hundred youth and adults from my faith-based community to perform home improvement work in the homes of needy people living in an economically depressed area. The 140 or so projects we will complete include painting, roofing repairs, deck and wheelchair ramp construction, window replacement, kitchen and bathroom enhancements and even the construction of a new home (in partnership with Habitat for Humanity).

This program, which is called WorkCamp, brings people together from many different walks of life. Participants are assigned to crews of 5-7, with each participant responsible for a specific role regarding the crew’s assigned project. One of the amazing things about work camp is seeing how people who have never met can come together to accomplish the extraordinary within a few short days.

As a contractor, my role is to manage our project to completion. While the goal is to finish on-time and within budget, equal if not more attention is given to the experience our youth and adult leaders will encounter during WorkCamp. This is, after all, a hands-on experience where everyone has an opportunity to learn about social justice, teamwork and home improvement. It’s a chance for all of us to touch the lives of the people we serve.

It’s also an opportunity for me to hone my leadership skills in areas like planning, project management, delegation and collaboration. And, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, it’s an opportunity for me to take some risks by moving outside my comfort zone and taking on projects that challenge me.

Together, my crew and I will share our time and talents to make a difference and, in the eyes of the people we serve, we will accomplish the extraordinary.       

For more on servant leadership and how it can improve your ability to accomplish the extraordinary, please see:
• Reputation Management: Six Things Brands Can Learn from George Bailey
• Your Brand and the Community It Serves
• What the Boy Scouts Can Teach Your Business About Serving Others

My oldest son graduated from Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia the other day. For many of his classmates, it was an occasion marked by feelings of intense pride, quiet anticipation and hope. So it was fitting to mark the end of their high school years and the beginning of the rest of their young lives with a commencement address by Class of 2000 Oakton High School alumnus and entrepreneur Adam “Ace” Moyer, Founder and CEO of Knockaround™.

Ace’s message to the graduates was simple. If you have an idea, follow your dreams. No experience is necessary. With the support and encouragement of family and friends, you’ll figure it out.  Sure, the good will come with the bad and there may be times when difficult decisions have to be made. In the end, he told the graduating class of 2013, don’t be afraid to take risks. It will be worth it.

For Ace, his company started in 2005 with the idea of providing customers with classically styled sunglasses in many colors at an affordable price. Knockaround™ sunglasses were designed to take abuse and, as the thinking went, the people who owned them wouldn't mind abusing them because they didn’t cost much in the first place. That idea has since grown to include new models and color choices, limited edition and custom-designed sunglasses, apparel and accessories.

So follow your dreams and, as they say at Knockaround™, “keep looking at the bright side.” 

In an instant, I can always tell what my experience is going to be with a brand, company or organization I am interacting with for the first time. In most cases, I can see it. Where I cannot see it, I can hear it. And regardless of whether I can see or hear it, I can almost always feel it. In a word, it’s a smile.

A smile is contagious. It starts with your employees and how they greet one another at the beginning of their work day. It extends to how they greet your customers at every touch point in their experience with your brand, company or organization. You don’t need a magnifying glass to observe it. And you won’t see it measured on any report. You will, however, know it when you see it.

So the next time someone asks you to look into improving your customer experience, start where it matters…at the beginning. How are your employees greeting one another? How often do they smile when they are at work? Can you see the smiles on their faces? Or hear them in their voices? Or feel them by their presence?

Remember, all great customer experiences begin with a smile.

I read an article by best-selling author and syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay (“Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive”) in the Washington Business Journal the other day where he cited research that shows “buyers are not reaching out to contact salespeople and sales organizations until they’re 60-70 percent along in the decision process.”

The simple truth is customers are doing their homework. They are going online and researching the answers to their needs and problems. They are forming opinions on who they think can best help them. Then they are reaching out to sellers for the one thing they cannot get online – a better price.

This is where the value of preparation comes into play. In today’s selling environment, salespeople need to provide value by telling buyers something they don’t already know…answers to questions like:
• What makes you and your products different?
• How can you and your products help me?
• How do you know you can help me?

The sellers who can answer these questions with thoughtful and relevant responses are the ones who are most likely to make the sale, often commanding a price premium even in today’s market. Those who cannot are the ones who will most often find themselves responding to RFPs and attempting to sell highly commoditized products at the lowest price.

 

In a few weeks, I will attend my 30th college reunion at Fairfield University. It’s hard to believe so many years have gone by since I received my undergraduate degree in Marketing and said goodbye to the place that had been home for four great years.

As I scanned photos of this year’s commencement activities on the University’s Facebook and Instagram pages the other day, it was easy to take myself back in time. I remember thinking on graduation day I had made it. I did it. I had become one of my family's first-generation college graduates. I had no idea what the future would hold. All I had at that point were fond memories, lessons learned from my undergraduate studies and the promise of an uncertain future.

Thirty years later, the feeling I had on graduation day remains with me. I did it.  Along with my wife, I have since raised a family, earned an MBA, built two successful careers in business, given back to my community in countless ways and have reconnected to many of my college friends and the place I once called home.

I’ve applied many of the lessons I learned at Fairfield over the last thirty years. Of these, I think the most important is this – in everything you do, always remember to make it about “them.” The people who tend to be the most successful in life are the best listeners. They are sincere, open, honest and responsive to others. They are team players and treat others the way they would like to be treated.  They respect the people in their lives and spend time getting to know, understand and appreciate them.

As I look back now and think about it, this is probably the one big lesson the Jesuit Fathers and my other college professors hoped I would take away from my undergraduate experience. You see, making it about “them” is not only the foundation of great marketing, it’s a big part of the Jesuit commitment to service and social justice.

If the measure of one’s commitment to protecting the environment is the number of cars taken off the road as a direct result of an action, this year’s record-breaking turnout of participants in the Washington, D.C. region’s Bike to Work Day is tangible proof of the region’s growing concern for the environment. On a recent Spring day in mid-May, over 14,500 registered riders made a difference by taking their cars off the road for at least one day.

Of course, like so many other causes, events like this would not be possible were it not for the generous support of like-minded corporate and not-for-profit sponsors like Whole Foods Market, Marriott, ICF International, AAA, Commuter Connections and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).

Working together with their local communities, these organizations are leading the way by telling a story we can believe in. It’s an authentic story about sustainability and how individuals can come together to make a difference. It’s also a story about a healthy and safe alternative to driving alone in your car…and about learning to enjoy the ride, as I and thousands of others did. One bike at a time, their participation in this year's Bike to Work Day provides us with a glimpse of the causes they and the people in their communities care most about -- sustainability, health and fitness, fun, etc.

How are you and your organization making a difference in your community? Are the stories being told reflective of your personal and organizational values? 

I am a huge fan of audio books. On the plane, in the car, and on the subway I am catching up on my favorite business books and for pleasure books. A colleague introduced me to John Scalzi, who is primarily a sci-fi writer. As I do every time with new authors, I read reviews on Amazon, biographies on Wikipedia and Amazon, and ask the referrering person more about style and substance.

Reading John's bio on Amazon really piqued my interest. Reading the bio shows me he's a bit wry, funny, well-liked (he's won several awards), and has an interesting call-to-action at the end.

John Scalzi writes books, which, considering where you're reading this, makes perfect sense. He's best known for writing science fiction, for which he won the John W. Campbell Award (2006) and has been nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel (2006, 2008, 2009). He also writes non-fiction, on subjects ranging from personal finance to astronomy to film, and was the Creative Consultant for the Stargate: Universe television series. He enjoys pie, as should all right thinking people. You can get to his blog by typing the word "Whatever" into Google. No, seriously, try it.

I indeed typed "Whatever" into Google and John's blog came up first. I'm convinced. Now I have to figure out which book to read first.

Moral of the story:  If you have a personal bio on your website, LinkedIn profile, speaker one sheet, etc., have you considered, seriously considered changing it? Most bios are factual and chronological splashed at the end with the "Ira's married to the love of his life, has a wonderful daughter, and enjoys photography in his spare time." When I thought conservative was better, I didn't stand out. Today, my bio helps me more memorable and more engaging. My bio gives people reasons and opportunities to talk with me more about my background.

Try changing your bio....even if it is just a little.

Postscript 1:  I just looked at his LinkedIn page and this is his first sentence in his Summary:  "I write. I edit. I get paid. I fight crime! I lied about that last one."

Postscript 2:  Some people asked that I include my bio. The bio is available as a PDF on The Chief Storyteller website, is included with my speaking engagements, has a variation on social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, is included in proposals, and the list goes on. People always ask me about something in the bio.

“Think deliberately.” The mantra of a person who has made improving communications his life’s work.

It all began some 30 years ago, at a high school science fair. Ira had presented his computer program on the heart and the circulatory system. One by one, the prizes were announced...third...second...first place. After nearly 100 hours of programming evenings and weekends, he slumped his shoulders and thought to himself, “I lost.” Then...Ira heard the chairwoman announce, “We are awarding the grand prize to a young man who could sell me my own pair of shoes!” And his name was called.

For more than 26 years nationally and internationally, Ira has been building his communication skills into a well-honed set of precision instruments. Within minutes, he will fundamentally change the way you communicate.

His most pivotal experience was serving as a public affairs officer in the United States Army Medical Service Corps. Trained in giving and preparing presentations for military and civilian executives, he gained invaluable insights into messaging, communications, and storytelling.

Living on both coasts, Ira has held various leadership roles in marketing and product management. After earning his MBA from the University of Maryland in 2000, Ira entered into the world of leading edge technology. It was while working in San Francisco and Silicon Valley he began to adapt his skills for use with the new, technology-driven tools today’s professionals have come to rely on.

And like all good communicators, Ira loves the stage. He performed improvisational humor professionally with ComedySportz in a career spanning 12 years and more than 1,000 shows. While performing, Ira had this epiphany: “improv mirrors life.” Life experiences stem from random and planned connections with people, and it is these experiences that help us to bond quickly with audiences.

Ira is an active blogger and writer, was a guest columnist for the Washington Business Journal, and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. He helped the a US government contracting firm win a $94 million multi-year project; Altum develop a proposal that had a 100% success rate in going to the final decision round; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) secure funding for the National Youth Fitness Survey.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Overcoming Marketing Myopia

I recently posed the question, “How do you really know what your customers want?” I offered a simple answer by suggesting the way to truly understanding what your customers want is through continual engagement with them.

I’m going to take that a step further today by offering another suggestion – the formation of a customer advisory council. A customer advisory council is a group of customers (and non-customers, too) who meet on a regular basis with representatives of your brand. Each of them would be paid a nominal sum for their participation and their purpose would be to serve as an external sounding board for your marketing team. Their candid feedback would be used to inform current and future marketing strategies and campaigns, with the intent of improving customer acquisition and retention rates.

The real benefit of a customer advisory council is that it allows you to define your brand, your products and your offers from the perspective of your customers and prospects. Too many brands make the mistake of defining these elements from their own internal perspective, based on the company’s needs and wants. This flawed, internally-focused approach was the subject of a 1960 Harvard Business Review article, “Marketing Myopia,” by Theodore Levitt.

The next time you encounter repeated customer objections to one or more elements of your marketing strategy, resist the urge to overcome them simply by offering more and clever rebuttals that merely aim to justify the needs and wants of your company. Instead, focus on why your customers are raising those objections in the first place.  Place yourself in your customer’s shoes and try to understand how their needs and wants are causing them to perceive your brand, your products and your offers.

Ask your customer advisory council for help in seeing the long-term picture from an outward looking perspective. Their insights, and your willingness to act on them, could mean the difference between a great marketing strategy and a mediocre one.

If I were to ask, “What Makes Your Company Different?” how would your employees answer? How would your customers answer? Would their responses be the same?

This question is at the heart of your company’s marketing strategy. As noted author and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter notes in Competitive Strategy (The Free Press, 1980), “differentiation…creates layers of insulation against competitive warfare because buyers have preferences and loyalties to particular sellers.” When companies lack differentiation and a product or service is viewed as a commodity, “choice by the buyer is largely based on price and service, and pressures for intense price and service competition result.”

So, what makes your company different? Is it price, service or something truly unique and innovative? Now may be a good time to re-engage your employees and customers to see what they have to say.

For more on marketing strategy, please see:
• Low Customer Retention? Maybe You’re Just Selling Mulch
• Are Your Customers Looking for a Better Deal?
• Beyond Price…How One Small Business Is Building Strong Community Ties to Differentiate

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Branding Lessons from Social Media

I celebrated a personal milestone this week when I reached the 3,000 follower mark on Twitter. Later that day, a friend and I were having lunch when he asked me to tell him about my success. Without hesitation, I gave him this simple explanation. It's all about branding. 

My experience with social media has provided me with some powerful insights. One of those insights is that developing an engaging presence on social media is a lot like building a brand. I started by defining my brand, a promise and an audience. The next step was to deliver on it. Consistently and regularly.

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Let me share with you ten branding lessons I've gained from my experience with social media over the last four years:
1. Be yourself.
       Your friends and followers will like you for the person you are, not the person who you think they want you to be.
2. Always be true to yourself.
       Actions speak louder than words. Your followers will see through actions that are inconsistent with your identity.
3. Make it about them.
       Share content your followers will find helpful, valuable or meaningful.
4. Engage them.
       Embrace the notion that you are managing relationships with people, not selling something to them.
5. Be present where they are.
       Establish a consistent presence across multiple social networking sites (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, weekly blog, etc.).
6. Avoid unexplained absences for extended periods of time.
       Stay active and let your friends and followers know when you decide to take a break (or pre-schedule your posts).
7. Listen to your followers.
       Your followers are smart. Listen and learn from them. Share their content. Exchange ideas with them.
8. Know that real engagement is more than just the number of followers you have.
       Large numbers aren't everything. It's how you well you engage that matters. Kred (shown above) and Klout provide some measure of engagement in areas like reach, amplification, network and influence. 
9. Never buy friends and followers.
       Followers who are bought tend to be less engaged and are far less likely to stick around.
10. Respect and value your friends.
       When it comes right down to it, they are the reason for your presence (and success) on social media.

 

For more insights on brand building and social media, please see:
• Brand Building Through Social Media
• How Social Media Is Making an Impact on Marketing
• Why Social Media Should Be Part of Your Marketing Communications
• 5 Insights on Marketing Your Brand on Social Media
• Social Media Is About Building Relationships

How do you really know what your customers want?

One of the most common answers I hear is, “Because they told us….” Yet, for me anyway, this answer only invites more questions. Who? When? What did they tell you? How did they tell you? Was it an interactive conversation? Are you sure you really understood what they were telling you? Have their wants changed?

If understanding what your customers want is the foundation of your marketing strategy, listening to customers is going to require more than a one-time investment in classic market research tools like focus groups and customer surveys. 

The markets in which you compete are evolving. Customer preferences and wants are continually changing. New competitors are emerging. The one constant is your customers are talking. The key to truly understanding what they want is continual engagement – through social media, one-on-one interactions, public forums and even sales calls. Getting in front of customers and engaging them in conversations should be a required part of every marketer’s job – from the CMO down to the marketing specialist.

Your customers are still talking. When was the last time you listened?

Earth Day is Monday, April 22.

Since it was first celebrated here in the U.S. in 1970, it has become an international movement for promoting the planet and a sustainable future. It is now observed in 192 countries across colleges and universities, secondary schools, local communities and a growing number of brands.

If you’re a marketer like me and believe sustainability is about more than simply promoting green products and behaviors, you’ll appreciate brands whose approaches to sustainability marketing include calls to action that champion economic prosperity, social justice and environmental protection.

A brand that is making a difference in these three areas is One, whose tag line is “do one good thing™.” The story of One began in the U.K. with an awareness of a single need – that something needed to be done about the one billion people in the world who lacked access to safe drinking water – and an idea – to create a brand of bottled water where all the profits were given to charity.

While it may seem counterintuitive that a brand concerned with world water issues is selling bottled water, the explanation One provides on its website is what makes its sustainability marketing effort so innovative and unique: “We are not saying buy our water INSTEAD of using tap water; we are saying IF you are going to buy bottled water, buy One and make a difference at the same time.”

The story of One is still being written. Since May 2005, One has raised over $7.8 million for clean water supply projects in countries where the need is greatest (i.e., where over 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty). Thanks to the efforts of One, over 1.5 million people now have access to clean drinking water and, instead of walking great distances to get water, children are now going to school. One bottles are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), use less plastic than the typical water bottle and are 50% lighter than the average soda bottle.

So the next time you reach for bottled water, think of One and the difference it is making in the global economy, the lives of people in some of the poorest countries in the world and the environment we call home. 

The other day, Geetesh Baraj, PowerPoint MVP and Manager of the "PowerPoint and Presenting Stuff" LinkedIn Group posted the following question to the group.  My suggestions follow below...

Creating Slides for Multi-Lingual Audiences
I am researching a blog post topic -- since it is still being researched, anything mentioned below is not set in stone. I am open to all your thoughts and the scenario and the suggestions can be broadly changed as required.
Here is the scenario, and as I said, this is a broad definition that can be changed:
1. You need to create slides for a multi-lingual audience.
2. Everyone in the audience understands English to some extent, but they are not necessarily fluent in the language.
3. The presentation needs to distributed later to audience members -- and some others who were not present at the actual event.
4. Before distribution, the presentation may need to be translated to other languages -- this means that there needs to be some basic amount of text.

What are your thoughts about the use of:
1. Story / Outline: How deep should this be? Should the depth level be low -- will that compromise the content?
2. Text: What level of simplification?
3. Visuals: Should pictures replace text, or complement it?
4. Design and Color: What works best?

 

My response:

Geetesh,

Interesting...

I've pondered this several years ago before I started presenting internationally. I have had the honor of conducting programs in 8 countries with six trips involving simultaneous translation. Here are some questions and suggestions.

1. How knowledgeable is the audience? Without knowing your answer, in general, I suggest ~30 to 50% reduction in complexity and content
2) The broad brush suggestion is to translate the presentation and handouts in advance. Bring your own version matched page-for-page with the translated version
3) Find people through your network whom have done business, worked in, or lived in the country/region and solicit feedback
4) Localize--always. For color, fonts, pictures, graphs, words, humor, etc. Some seemingly small things could actually backfire and you may never even know it
5) Consider an appendix or handouts with tips, examples, and how-to's
6) Solicit feedback from the audience afterward. Be gentle as you probe, as some cultures are not forthcoming with what they deem criticism of the speaker

When you think of products whose selling propositions are built around the promise of sustainability, which products come to mind? Green ones? Blue ones? How about gray ones?

If you said green ones, you might be right. Well, sort of. There is certainly no shortage of “green” products on the market today. Brands across many categories have added a green component to their products in an effort to appeal to one or more market niches, increase sales and demonstrate their commitment to the environment. Green products, as a whole, are largely considered alternatives to mainstream products and are often pricier. A common theme among green marketers is to ask consumers to make a positive change in one aspect of their consumption behavior, while permitting them to maintain the status quo with others.

Sustainability takes this call to action one step further. Sustainability is transformative. It seeks to reform the way we produce, consume and dispose of mainstream products.  Upstart brands like method®, the maker of non-toxic biodegradable home and personal care products, market goods that are designed to reduce health risks, waste and water pollution. Their products are priced comparably to others in their category, sold in aesthetically-pleasing recyclable packaging and available through mainstream and specialty retailers alike (e.g., Target, Whole Foods, etc.).

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For method®, sustainability includes a focus on health, community and environmental impacts. Products like its naturally-derived, 2-in-1 dish and hand soap come packaged in a gray bottle made with recycled ocean plastic. Each bottle includes a blue tag around its neck with a short story of how method® is seeking to change the way we view the impact our consumption and disposal habits are having on our environment:

 "it's estimated that several million tons of plastic makes its way into our oceans every year, polluting the environment and hurting our marine populations...we're on a mission to change that. that's why the ocean plastic used to make the bottle you're holding was collected by us, method employees. we know we can't return the ocean to it's pristine condition, but we can raise awareness of the importance of reusing the plastic that's already here. that's something. [and] that's why I'm gray."

The next time you think of sustainability, don’t just think “green.” Think about the gray bottle atop your kitchen sink and the transformative nature of what it represents. Now that's something.

For other insights on sustainability and green marketing, please see:
• Simple Sells When Going Green
• A FRESH Approach to Going Green
• Maximum Fun Meets Minimal Impact

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