Category Archives: Marketing Plan

Bowling for Business: Ravings of a Mad Man


After years of resisting, I reluctantly heeded the recommendations of friends and colleagues and started watching AMC’s Mad Men. Set against the backdrop of a Madison Avenue ad agency circa 1960, the show features major moral failures on the part of every character. Nevertheless, I admit that I am hooked—mostly because each episode offers a priceless advertising gem.

One of my favorite such moments surfaces in the episode, Love Among the Ruins, where the show’s antihero, Don Draper, steps in to save a large account after a copywriter nearly blows it. A developer whose company is suffering from public outrage over plans to demolish Penn Station in order to replace it with Madison Square Garden, the client complains about the conflict. Draper replies:

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Clients often ask me what to do about negative comments posted to review sites. The knee-jerk reaction is to face the comments head-on, directly addressing each and every objection. But doing so panders to whiners. Instead, make sure you are aware of public sentiment relative to your brand. Respond only to legitimate concerns. And, more importantly, make sure you help shape the conversation, which you can do on any budget.

For Free—

To enter the online conversation, you first need to set up profiles on every available review site. The good news is that the basic packages for these accounts are free. The bad news is that signing up is time consuming.

Although new sites pop up daily, as of this writing, these are the major players:

  • Google Places—Since 97% of consumers reportedly search for local businesses online, provide them with the information they are looking for where they are looking for it. Google has the advantage when it comes to search. So if you want people to easily find your company, create a listing on Google Places. The site not only encourages reviews which will help you learn about what keywords prospects are searching for but also provides data to show where users are discovering your business. Armed with this information, you will be able to make better advertising decisions.
  • Google Alerts—is a great service for listening, since it captures every mention of your company name (and the names of competitors or other key words you enter). If you subscribe, you’ll be notified every time those words are mentioned anywhere on the web.
  • TripAdvisor—Completely free, this site boasts sophisticated search technology which helps entrepreneurs reach out to consumers at the very moment they are researching locations. Business owners list property descriptions, photos, and immediate booking. So TripAdvisor is most relevant to the hospitality industry. That said, the company has recently gotten more into restaurant and other local activity reviews, albeit with a bent toward tourism. Based on this, locals may find it more useful now than previously.
  • Yelp—promotes local businesses in virtually every field, from dentists to hair stylists to mechanics. With approximately 66 million monthly unique visitors in 2011, Yelp has hosted more than 25 million local reviews. In addition to setting up a free account and posting photos, you can use Yelp to have open conversations with your customers.

What’s more, to keep Yelp honest, an automated filter suppresses minority reviews and targets suspicious activity. And advertisers are prevented from changing or reordering their reviews, so users are more likely to trust the information.

On a Limited Budget—

Google Places and Yelp offer paid listings. If you can afford one, it might behoove you to upgrade. But if you do, make sure you track expenses so you can figure out your cost per click. One of our clients did an experimental run on Yelp. Although the cost-per-click for his Google Ad Words campaign averaged $5, the cost of similar ads we were managing for him on Yelp came in at a hefty $20 per click.

The Sky’s the Limit—

Although you might be tempted to start posting immediately after creating a free or paid account on any of these platforms, resist the urge to dive in before taking the time to listen. In the same way you wouldn’t interrupt a conversation at a cocktail party, don’t post until you understand what is going on. Listening will earn you the right to be heard.

Since you can’t be in several places at once, if you can afford to, hire an agency to manage your online reputation. Most social media employees literally live online. So they intuitively understand how to proactively start relevant conversations as well as rapidly react to negative feedback…even if it’s posted by a Mad Man.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Drown Out the Competition

Don't cut business essentials to save money.

(This column first appeared in The Press Enterprise and on January 12, 2012 and on ROTWNEWS.com on January 14, 2012.)

Resist the Urge to Cut Back on Advertising Despite the Economy

Planning a wedding is a little bit like drowning. As a future mother-of-the-bride, I often feel like I’m in over my head. And you know what they say about people who are drowning: Don’t get too close or they might pull you under. It isn’t that we want to kill prospective rescuers–we are just flailing about in a desperate attempt to survive.

During the past four years in a difficult economy, I’ve watched entrepreneurs thrash around and kill the very thing that could potentially ensure their small business survival: marketing.

The silver lining to a recession is that it focuses business owners’ attention on cost control. And keeping overhead low and profit margins should be a priority regardless of the financial environment. But, in many cases, there are much better ways to boost your bottom line and improve cash flow than blindly cutting costs. Like it or not, there is no getting around the fact that you have to spend money to make money. So, as important as knowing which costs to cut, you should make sure you understand which ones to protect.

If you own a restaurant, you probably wouldn’t consider reducing overhead by cancelling your wholesale order for food. Intuitively, you know that you can’t sell gourmet fare if you don’t have fresh ingredients. Advertising, on the other hand, is a less obvious necessity since it isn’t directly traceable to active income. But the best meals on the planet won’t sell unless potential patrons know where to find them.

I’m hardly alone in my belief that no matter how strapped you are for cash as a business owner, advertising is absolutely the last thing you should eliminate from your budget. The key is to look at your marketing dollars as an investment instead of an expense. The Harvard Business Review maintains that advertising during a recession contributed to profits:

“The rationale that a company can afford a cutback in advertising because everybody else is cutting back [is fallacious]. Rather than wait for business to return to normal, top executives should cash in on the opportunity that the rival companies are creating for them. The company courageous enough to stay in the fight when everyone else is playing safe can bring about a dramatic change in market position.”

A 1979 study done by ABP/Meldurm & Fewsmith revealed that:

“Companies which did not cut marketing expenditures experienced higher sales and net income during those two years and the two years following than those companies which cut in either or both recession years.”

In fact, some remarkable marketing success stories emerged during times of economic difficulties:

  • Procter & Gamble pushed Ivory Soap during the height of the Great Depression. It’s no coincidence that P&G has made progress during every major recession. While competitors cut ad budgets, this company increases spending.
  • FedEx started doing business in 1973 during the gas crisis-led recession. In spite of relying on gas-guzzling trucks and planes to ship packages around the country, they succeeded and grew not only because they could deliver packages overnight, but because they clearly communicated their ability to do so.
  • Kellogg’s and Post were tied for market share in the cereal category in the 1920s. Post cut their advertising budget while Kellogg’s increased theirs by one million dollars. After the recession, Kellogg’s profits improved from $4.3 million a year in the 1920s to $5.7 million in the early 1930s, leaving Post profits in the dust.

In tough times, resist the tightwad tendency to cut advertising. Instead, increase your budget and be thankful if your competition cuts theirs. When rivals cut back, your message will stand out all the more. And that way you’ll ensure at least your company stays afloat.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Forget the Fine Print

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on November 22, 2010 and in the Biz Press on November 24, 2010.

When writing promotional copy for your product or service, less is more.

When I was in sixth grade, Mr. Khouri called my parents for a conference because, although I was excelling in Honors’ English, I was failing math. Since he wrote math problems on the chalkboard, he and my mother and father decided the solution was a giant pair of gold-rimmed aviator eyeglasses that made me look like John Denver. Not a fan of that particular fashion statement, I often “forgot” to wear my glasses or “accidentally” dropped them behind the back tires of our Pinto or “absentmindedly” flushed them down the toilet.

Unfortunately, there was a seemingly endless supply of hideous replacement frames at LensCrafters, which arrived in rapid succession…each pair unbelievably more hideous than its predecessor. This pattern continued until I finally earned enough baby-sitting money to buy contact lenses.

The horror of it all is probably why I refuse to acknowledge my increasing need for reading glasses. For months, I have been complaining to my family that every food manufacturer, magazine publisher and pharmaceutical company has recently, inexplicably reduced the size of the printing on their products.

Unwilling to consider that the problem might lie with me, I decided the logical thing to do was to start ignoring instructions. After all, at my age, I already know how to lather, rinse and repeat without having to read it on the bottle. Turns out, I am not alone.

With so many things competing for our time and attention, most of us are too busy to breathe. Rather than enjoying the luxury of leisurely pouring over every detail in each article that lands in our email inbox, we are lucky if we have time to skim headlines.

But, ironically, when it comes to creating content for others to read, most business professionals write website content and brochure copy as if their readers have nothing but time. So, if you have something you want to say to current and prospective clients, customers, guests, diners or donors, eliminate the fine print.

For Free—

When money is tight, you might be forced to do your own marketing. If this is the case, be brief. Without benefit of a professional writer or editor, and since you’ll be writing about something with which you are intimately acquainted, you will probably be prone to ramble. So here are a few words of advice:

  • Write whatever you want in a stream-of-consciousness style. Don’t even worry about adding punctuation or breaking your thoughts into paragraphs. Just get it all on paper.
  • Tear up what you wrote. That’s right. Toss it. Don’t worry. You know the material. Creating a disposable first draft will help you stay on track with your second.
  • After you finish writing your second draft, reduce it by at least 50%.
  • Then, get a second opinion from someone outside of your industry, who can alert you if you unwittingly used insider terminology.
  • Use plenty of headlines, sub-headings and bold print to divide copy. Nothing turns off readers more than an endless sea of words.

On a Limited Budget—

Hire a freelance writer. If you are preparing a newspaper advertisement, find someone who specializes in writing punchy ad copy. If you are producing a corporate brochure, commission a professional who specializes in formal business writing. Few writers excel at all styles. And the benefit of using contracted professionals is your ability to hand-pick the right people for every project.

The Sky’s the Limit—

Hire someone to create a campaign centered on a very clear message. The more you try to say, the more you will dilute your message. Take a cue from these successful ad campaigns, and associated short-slogans:

  • Nike: Just do it.
  • Mountain Dew: Do the Dew.
  • Kay Jewelers: Every kiss begins with Kay.
  • Burger King: Have it your way.
  • KFC: Finger-lickin’ good
  • Taco Bell: Think outside the bun.
  • Bounty: The quicker thicker picker-upper
  • Subway: Eat fresh
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine
  • Avis: We try harder
  • AT&T: Reach out and touch someone
  • Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be
  • Skittles: Taste the rainbow
  • Yellow Pages: Let your fingers do the walking
  • Miller Beer: It’s Miller time.
  • Home Depot: You can do it. We can help.

And, my personal favorite—LensCrafters: Eyes love LensCrafters. (Hey, I never said a slogan had to be true in order to succeed.)

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: How Not to Suck at Social Media

Take steps so you won't be a social media spoil-sport.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on September 27, 2010 and in the Biz Press on September 30, 2010.

For reasons I will never be able to explain, in seventh grade, I joined the girls’ basketball team. I was just 5′ 2″ and about as athletic as an armchair. But, all the same, I woke up every morning while it was still dark and walked to Goddard Junior High School to stumble through drills and miss free throws. Although I sat on his bench the entire season, the head coach never learned my name. In fact, he even called me Jackie at our end-of-the-year banquet. Looking back, I wonder why my parents didn’t tell me I sucked. Didn’t they realize it is sometimes necessary to be Cruel to be Kind?

The same is true of social media. So please allow a departure from my regular column format this week. At risk of offending, I would like to share tips intended to keep you from missing the mark in your efforts to engage in social media.

Top Five Mistakes to Avoid in Social Media

1. Don’t ask connections to write you a recommendation on LinkedIn.

Sure, the option is there: “Can you endorse me?” But there is also a poke button on Facebook. That doesn’t mean you should use it. Instead of fishing for referrals, why not proactively write unsolicited recommendations for your own connections, thereby guilting the recipients into returning the favor? Once they see your glowing review, they will likely respond in kind.

2. Don’t tweet about what you’re eating.

If you aspire to leverage social media for business, eliminate the mundane. When it comes to your meals, unless you’re dining with Anthony Bourdain or ARE Anthony Bourdain and you’re trying deep fried monkey toes (eaten off the bone), your menu probably isn’t worthy of a post. That’s not to say it isn’t relevant to tweet or post about a good restaurant, an interesting dish or a great recipe. But, “had meatloaf again” doesn’t cut the mustard.

3. Don’t complain about your job, your boss or your relationships.

You might have had a rough day. But unless you want to be Debbie Downer, get over yourself. Using social media websites to complain is not only in poor taste but it can actually cost you your job. The now infamous Cisco Fatty incident is a cautionary tale about loose online lips sinking ships. A 22-year-old at UC, Berkeley, tweeted:

Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.

A Cisco employee saw the post and responded with his own tweet:

Who is the hiring manager? I’m sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the Web.

To keep yourself in check, assume everyone you know is parked in front of their computers reading your status updates and Tweets in real time. They probably are.

4. Don’t use your social media accounts to SPAM.

Does anyone really think that a constant stream of impersonal tweets that address half a dozen Twitterati saying, “Hey, you, check out this product,” will really attract anyone who cares? Have you ever read such an ad and clicked through to buy the product?

Abusing social media channels is as offensive as spamming email inboxes. At the risk of being redundant, let me remind you that social media is about engagement. You need to interact and react instead of blasting your message. Pay attention to what others in your network are saying. Be part of the community that cares enough to share. The most important thing to remember is that social media engagement takes time, just like building relationships in the real world.

5. Don’t be a lurker. Vote for your social media pet peeve.

This column was never meant to be a one-way conversation. So I would love to take the opportunity to invite you to participate in the discussion by suggesting point number five for this article. Please comment with your own social media horror stories. I would love to hear from you. What irritates you the most about social media?

Come on. You can do it. How else will we figure out how not to suck?

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Set Yourself Aside

Consider your target market's perspective.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on August 30, 2010 and on the Business Press on September 1, 2010 and the Press Enterprise on September 4, 2010.

It was a bonehead move for my counselors at Summer Fun Day Camp to take a van full of impressionable seven and eight-year-old kids to see the 1971 Vincent Price horror movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Filling my nightmares for years, the film featured a disfigured physician methodically killing the surgeons who had failed to save his wife following a car accident.

One scene in particular sent me repeatedly running to my parents’ room in tears. Dr. Phibes juiced Brussels sprouts and drilled a hole through the ceiling above his victim’s bed so he could pour liquefied vegetables all over her body. Then, he sent a swarm of hungry locusts to crawl down a tube, where they devoured her entire body.

I recently purchased the movie so I could face my fears some 40 years later. Instead of a hideously scary, realistic portrait of terror, as I had recalled, my second viewing revealed a hokey, campy farce. The Brussels sprout scene, in particular, is absurd. The locusts ate all but a cheesy plastic skeleton and her entire head of hair. It was all so preposterous that, as an adult, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

It all boils down to perception. Teenage counselors probably didn’t realize the movie choice would freak out their campers. To select more suitable fare, they should have looked at the field trip from our perspective. This is a concept I share with clients, who often choose advertising campaigns based on their own opinions and experiences instead of the needs, ideas and prejudices shared by potential clients and/or donors.

“I like this kind of advertising. So I’m sure my clients will like it, too,” explained one Mountain Marketing Group client.

“That’s fine,” I told him. “But let me ask you something. If you didn’t own the company, would you be in your own target market? Is this a product that you would buy?”

“Well, I have an iPod.”

“Yes. You have an iPod. But is your best customer a middle-aged white male who will buy one or two sets of headphones in his lifetime, or is it someone else?”

“I’m not selling to the end consumer. I’m selling to wholesalers who buy in bulk. And most of the buyers are girls in their 20s and 30s.”

It was then that he had his aha moment, realizing that the methods that persuade him may not be the same as strategies designed specifically to reach potential customers in his target market. A typical entrepreneur, intimately involved in every step of the business, from conceptualization to manufacturing to marketing, Rick found it difficult to set aside his own frame of reference. But once he agreed to do so, we were able to launch an effective social media campaign that catered to his customers instead of to him. And you can do it, too.

For Free—

To gain fresh perspective, ask for outside input. You can do this even if you run a one-man (or one-woman) show. Just make sure you ask the opinions of people who fit your Ideal Client Profile (ICP).

In The E-myth Revisited, Michael Gerber says business owners are often too close to their own enterprises to accurately identify the best overall picture of their own ideal clients. So make sure you ask around. It might take some detective work. And bear in mind that it’s entirely possible your current customer list does not yet include your ideal client.

On a Limited Budget—

When funds are tight, take advantage of books on tape, DVDs and webinars, which provide ready access to the best business and marketing minds in the world. Here are a few authors I recommend:

Ken Blanchard: The One-Minute Entrepreneur

Seth Godin: Free Prize Inside

Guy Kawasaki: The Art of the Start

The Sky’s the Limit—

With effective market research, you can determine the need for your service, a product’s likelihood to sell, target-market demographics, and desirable storefront locations. There are numerous ways to uncover this information—from online research to focus groups to counting customers. When money is no object, the most effective method for determining and catering to your ideal client is to hire a market research firm to compile data and prepare a report.

Here are a few options:

Market Research.com claims they have the best research offerings and expertise to make sure you get the right report every time. They do.

Vizu offers a full suite of customer-focused online market research survey solutions.

Polldaddy—software for data collection, which is more affordable than hiring a market research firm to handle everything for you. Polldaddy gives you the ability to collect data about virtually everything, from how to promote your product or service to evaluating age-appropriate entertainment options for skittish seven-year-old campers.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying

Why networking is a "no-brainer."

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on September 13, 2010 and in the Biz Press on September 15, 2010.

At 18, I didn’t understand the subtleties of the musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. So I unsuccessfully lobbied our director to produce the far more popular and ever racier show, Grease. As a senior in high school, I related more to the naïve, love-struck Sandy than to the part I begrudgingly landed… matronly secretary Miss Jones. Ironically, I now realize I should have taken notes from my role.

In the climatic show-stopping scene, Brotherhood of Man, lead characters J. Pierrepont Finch and Miss Jones sing about the common business practice of networking by joining groups like the Elks and Shriners. If “How to Succeed” were written today, the lyrics would likely also include references to social networking websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

In the two and a half years that I have owned my own advertising agency, I’ve learned one indisputable fact: If you want to succeed in business, YOU HAVE TO TRY. My take on the best use of your time and talent might come as a surprise. As a marketing professional, of course I believe in the power of a well-conceived advertising and public relations’ campaign. But, when it comes to business success, in the real world as well as cyberspace, there is no substitute for networking.

By networking, I mean more than attending mixers or posting status updates on Facebook. Real networking involves investing yourself in the lives of those around you. Only this kind of venture will produce dividends in business as well as life. But don’t take it from me. Some of the best business minds in the world agree:

Jeffrey Gitomer:

How important is networking? If you’re trying to be successful, it’s the difference between mediocre and big.

Dale Carnegie:

You can be more successful in two months by becoming really interested in other people’s success than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in your own success.

Keith Ferrazzi:

You don’t just network when you need it. You don’t network just to get something from someone. The goal is not to get from others. It is to give.

Dr. Ivan Misner:

Networking minus follow-through equals a waste of time.

If you are ready to raise the stakes with your business—to really try to succeed—get started networking today. Here are a few budget-friendly ideas to get you started creating and contributing to communities, in the real world and online.

For Free—

Check out Free Networking International, which provides information about networking opportunities across the globe. But this organization heavily promotes a $40 course to teach you how to network. So you might be better off heading to the park and striking up a conversation with strangers.

Though some have tried charging for access to community websites in Cyberspace, the best the Internet has to offer is still available to everyone for free. So if budget is a concern, take advantage of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which allow you to fan, friend and follow folks who share your interests, goals and religious or political leanings. And when you join communities, do so as a thoughtful collaborator instead of as a bombastic broadcaster.

 

On a Limited Budget—

Hire someone to establish and maintain your social networking accounts so you can use your time to attend events in the real world. Make sure you are a fixture at chamber of commerce mixers, community events and networking get-togethers. One group I recommend is BNI, which is the largest business networking organization in the world, offering members the opportunity to share ideas, contacts and business referrals on a weekly basis.

 

The Sky’s the Limit—

Don’t just attend networking events. Sponsor them. Take a cue from the Business Press, which hosts the annual Inland Empire’s Largest Mixer as a service to the local business community. This year’s effort is especially intriguing as reporters will conduct and record brief interviews with interested business men and women and provide participants with a flash drive for upload to their websites. By taking an active interest in and providing for the needs of their target market, the BP is building a network that would even make J. Pierrepont Finch and Miss Jones proud.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Info on the Go

Provide info-on-the-go to potential and current cilents and customers.

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on August 16, 2010 and in the Biz Press on August 18, 2010.

After borrowing my sister-in-law’s mobile phone in 1988, I was convinced that cell phone technology would never gain much of a following. As attractive and portable as a cinder block, it came with a 42-page instruction manual that was as user-friendly as the directions for programming the clock on an early-model VCR.

I noticed a sharp contrast while hosting a garage sale last weekend. Several customers walked up and down the makeshift aisles while feverishly tapping on tiny touch screens. When I asked one girl what she was doing, she said she was checking eBay to compare prices. It’s a brave new world.

Today, well over 250 million people in the United States use cell phones on a regular basis, which puts the mobile saturation rate at 82.4 percent. I have constant and immediate access to such statistics courtesy of the Information Superhighway delivered directly to my trusty Blackberry Smartphone.

Gone are the days of painstakingly searching for answers in reference books at the local library. If you have a question, just key it into your PC, laptop or handheld device and the answer will appear within seconds. Unlike a browser such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, which power keyword-based Internet searches, Q & A sites like ChaCha are designed to answer very specific questions via Internet and/or text message.

One mobile question & answer website I often reference is ChaCha. My kids use the word as a verb, as in “I cha-cha’d” this or that, which might sound strange. But so once did “googling.”

ChaCha was founded in 2006 by a disgruntled Jet Blue flight attendant who purportedly cussed out a passenger, cracked open a beer and activated the emergency slide to make his escape. When he launched ChaCha, the site joined the ranks of popular Q & A platforms such as Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers and Ask.com.

These sites are significant for small business and non-profit managers because they offer cost-effective vehicles for interactive target-marketing. Let me explain. If someone wants to know why bug bites itch, they can enter the question on Ask.com. Immediately, organic (unpaid) search results appear in response. Then, immediately thereafter, related, paid text advertisements show up by companies including Terminix and BedSBug.net. And relevant, colorful banner advertisements appear at right. The smartest Internet advertising strategy includes all three.

For Free—

Build SEO so your website ranks high in organic searches. The most effective way to do this is to set up and regularly post to social media websites such as a blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Resist the urge to use your social media sites to do direct sales. Instead, provide relevant, frequent content to your target market, so the name of your organization will appear when potential customers, clients or donors ask questions related to your field. In this way, you earn your position as a noted expert.

On a Limited Budget—

Pay for text advertisements that appear underneath natural results. The great thing about this type of marketing is that you only pay when someone clicks thru to your website. Ad rates for sponsored results are usually set by silent auction. The more competition there is for any given phrase, the higher the price. If you want to investigate this option, check out several Q & A sites, since rates vary greatly. Some sites to compare:

  • AnswerBag
  • Askville
  • LinkedIn Answers (Business-Focused)
  • Lycos
  • Minti (Parenting)
  • Point Ask
  • Trulia (Real Estate Research)
  • Yedda

The Sky’s the Limit—

Develop colorful banner ads so visitors can click-thru to your website. The term “banner” comes from the general shape for such advertisements, which is a short, wide strip that is usually placed at the top of a webpage. In his book, How to Grow Your Business on the Internet, Vince Emery says that a click-thru rate of 1 percent is normal, while 10 percent is outstanding.

Although display ads are considerably more expensive than either text-based or social media positioning to gain Search Engine Optimization, no one can argue the appeal of sharp graphics and a clever turn of phrase. But then again, Internet advertising probably won’t ever really catch on.

Until next time, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Satisfaction Guaranteed

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on March 29, 2010 and in the Biz Press on April 17, 2010.

Several years ago, we stayed at an international hotel chain in Northern California. When we arrived, we were surprised that there were no pillows in our room. When we called the front desk to ask for a few, the staff informed us that they were out of pillows because, prior to our arrival, several other guests had requested extras. And, naturally, the maids thought it best to raid our room in order to meet the demand.

After we unpacked, we rode the elevator to the lobby. Brianna leaned on the metal railing, knocking it to the ground, slamming it against her exposed toes. Brent bent down to extract the fallen metal edifice from our daughter’s swollen feet and encountered screws and sawdust, which had apparently fallen from the disheveled elevator ceiling.

Ordering food in the restaurant was difficult because the waitress informed us the kitchen was out of, well, food…bread, fruit, coffee, lettuce and milk. Later, the combination of loud party-goers in the atrium and thin walls made us desperate to see the light of day so we could finally end the misadventure and check out of Hotel Hell.

While I don’t normally complain about poor service, when our trip was over, I wrote a letter to recount our experience to hotel management. In addition to a letter of apology, we received a refund for our visit as well as vouchers for a free two-night stay. The next time we were in the area, we threw caution to the wind and booked a suite. Construction was complete. A gift basket welcomed our return. All was right with the world.

I share this story because I believe the Holiday Inn Sacramento Northeast did things right. We live in an imperfect world. Stuff happens. Odds are if you are in business long enough, you will one day inadvertently provide less than stellar service or inferior products to unwitting clients, customers or donors. What matters is how you prepare to respond to the challenge.

For Free—

Establish a customer-centric procedure for handling complaints. Once upon a time, virtually every business man and woman adhered to the adage, “The customer is always right.” Since this is no longer standard procedure, your company will gain favor by letting potential clients know that they matter. For ideas, take a cue from brands that are known for superior customer service such as Nordstrom, Four Seasons, Apple and General Motors.

For what not to do, look to the third annual study done by MSN Money, the Customer Service Hall of Shame. AOL, Comcast, Sprint Nextel, Capital One and Time Warner Cable head the list for what avoid when it comes to handling customer concerns.

On a Limited Budget—

Once you develop superior customer service policies, leverage them in your advertising. Come up with a campaign slogan that includes the details of your customer satisfaction guarantee. Then repeat the slogan in every form of marketing. Add it to your business cards, website, stationery, and the signature line of your email.

Internet users who enter “100% customer service satisfaction” in Google search bars stumble upon otherwise little known companies such as Oak Plus Furniture, Cigna and Fieldhouse. If your business has yet to make its mark, what better way than by guaranteeing satisfaction to otherwise wary would-be consumers?

The Sky’s the Limit—

Entrepreneurs sometimes hesitate to guarantee satisfaction for fear the policy will be costly. But according to a recent study done by McKinsey & Company, “Companies that have a strategic approach to customer satisfaction and make technology investments to support specific business and financial objectives are likely to achieve high rates of customer retention, fast growth, and increased profitability.”

In other words, if you invest on the front end to guarantee customer satisfaction on the back end, you will reap the rewards of more traffic, repeat business and a better bottom line.

And with the increase, you will be able to pop for the little things that make a difference…say, for example, food for your restaurant or pillows for your hotel.

Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.

Bowling for Business: Stop the Hype

Halt the Hype

This column first appeared on RIMOFTHEWORLD.net on March 15, 2010

Under-promise and Over-deliver

Before the advent of the Internet, cable television or PlayStation, as a five-year-old, I was over the moon with excitement about my kindergarten class’s upcoming field trip to Albertson’s. In the weeks leading up to the outing, Mrs. Dale would remind us to turn in our permission slips and then she would recount the following highlights of our impending journey:

  • We would be greeted by the store manager, who would give us an official “Albertson’s uniform.”
  • He would usher us to the back of the store, where we would be given an exclusive “behind the scenes” tour of the market.
  • Then, the produce manager would show us where the deliveries arrived and how the fruits and vegetables were processed.
  • Next, the bakery manager would take us into the magic room where all of the breads and pies were created.
  • And, finally, to cap off the exciting event…we would be given a special treat, created exclusively for us.

After what felt like several years, the morning of our field trip finally arrived. To kill time (and evidently drive the rest of the bus crazy) on the 45-minute journey, my friend and I sang an endless loop of Grandma’s Feather Bed. (Don’t ask me why we didn’t visit a grocery store nearer to our school. Even in the 1960s, there were markets on every street corner. Also, don’t ask me why we chose that particular song. Even at five, I wasn’t a huge John Denver fan.)

Unfortunately, our arrival at the store marked the end of the adventure. No one greeted us at the front door. Instead, we wandered back to the meat counter, where a gruff butcher gave us paper hats in lieu of uniforms. Mrs. Dale and the room mothers were told to occupy us by pointing out the food. Mind you; while we were easily amused in the 60s, walking up and down the aisles was hardly entertaining, much less educational. And, our exclusive “treat” was a small, stale cookie…the kind that each child gets at every bakery department in America, when accompanied by an adult.

As we rode home that afternoon, I made a silent resolution. “I’m just a kid right now. So they think I don’t matter. But, someday, I’m going to be a grown-up who shops for groceries. And I am never going to spend my money at Albertson’s.”
Somehow, despite the loss of my business, some 40 years later, Albertson’s remains a viable entity. And, looking back, I doubt any field trip could have lived up to the hype. But I learned a valuable lesson that day which has served me well in my own business. Whatever your product or service, target market or budget: under promise and over deliver.

For Free—

If you can’t do it, don’t say that you will. While this sounds like common sense, the concept sometimes evades sales reps intent on landing new clients. This is especially true of mountain folks, who are, unfortunately, notorious for saying they will start and finish projects in unrealistic timeframes. If you can’t start a project for three weeks, tell the truth. If you do what you say you will do when you say you will do it, your business will grow. And this is true regardless of the location of your company.

On a Limited Budget—

If circumstances arise which make it impossible for you to hold up your end of any business bargain, hire someone to help you out. While this might negatively impact your bottom line in the short run, in the long run, it will pay dividends where they matter most…in satisfied customers and glowing referrals.

The Sky’s the Limit—

If you can afford to promise the moon, then do it. There is nothing wrong with promoting the superior products that you provide. If you can afford to give away exclusive gifts, then, by all means, let your target market know about the perks. Just remember that if you fail to live up to the hype, you will most likely lose their business for life. Because that’s the way the stale grocery store cookie crumbles.

Until next week, I’ll be Bowling for Business.