Category Archives: Customer Care

The customer is now in control of your business — get over it!

The business world is changing. The Age of the Seller is succumbing to the Age of the Customer, and in this new Age, control of the relationship between Seller and Customer has shifted to the customer as well.

This paradigm shift is largely caused by online platforms that are:

1) increasing the access customers have to information about a Seller and its products

2) allowing customers to express and share what they have learned about and experienced with a business.

Photo courtesy of ThoughtBlender

Photo courtesy of ThoughtBlender

To put two fine points on the first element of the shift, in the new Age:

First, Customers have access to virtually all the information they need before you know they’re interested, and prospects are similarly informed before you even know they exist. Such access to information is changing – or disrupting – the way you market to and connect with customers, as well as how you train sales people. Plus it demonstrates why your greatest danger in the Age of the Customer isn’t being uncompetitive, it’s becoming irrelevant.

Second, the new kid on the block corresponds to a centuries-old marketplace maxim, “If you make customers happy they will tell someone; if you make them unhappy they will tell 10 people,” which describes the ancient practice of word-of-mouth. The theory behind the 1:10 ratio is that all businesses, regardless of size, are motivated to perform, or risk a marketplace indictment by the judge and jury of word-of-mouth.

In the new Age, online platforms have caused word-of-mouth to transmogrify into a powerful dynamic called “user generated content,” aka UGC. This is when customers post online their experiences, questions, praise or condemnation about a seller’s products, services, and general behavior in the marketplace. In the vernacular, it’s word-of-mouth on steroids.

Indeed, if the word-of-mouth maxim were coined today it would sound like this: “Customers may post online their opinion – positive or otherwise – about your business, making it available potentially to millions.” To paraphrase Mark Twain, comparing word-of-mouth to UGC is like comparing a lightning bug to lightning.

In the new Age you have to do two new things: 1) anticipate that customers are already well informed; 2) track and respond to UGC about your business. And how well you do these two will influence whether the new customer control becomes a sales lever, or a disruptor that makes you irrelevant.

It’s the Age of the Customer — get over it.

Allow customers to see your authentic side through writing

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), identified writing as one of the three most important inventions of mankind – the other two being money and economic tables.

Photo courtesy of Small Biz Trends

Photo courtesy of Small Biz Trends

More than two centuries later, the Internet has powered the written word to levels unimagined only a generation ago, let alone during Smith’s era.  It is the driving force behind a handy new-media maxim, “Content is King.

In an era when content is king, if you want to connect with customers competitively and stay connected, you have to produce more written words than ever before. But not just any words – authentic words.

After all, today we’re consumers of many kinds of online content. From streaming audio and video to multi-media formats on iTunes and YouTube. In the midst of all it, the most popular content — hence the Kingly content — still remains most popular in its graphic form, like what Smith would have used.

Since 1999 – long before blogs and social media – two things I’ve encouraged small business owners to do is:

  1. develop better writing skills
  2. publish more of their own words online that communicate to and connect with customers.

Since 2010,  prospects and customers want to read about the stuff you sell before they meet you. But they want more than marketing messaging; they want authentic, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth information that delivers three things that are increasingly a big deal to customers:

1. the voice,

2. the vision, and

3. the values of the human beings behind the stuff, as unartful and unscripted as they may be.

So don’t worry if you’re not a professional wordsmith. When you need fancy words for strategic marketing messaging, online or otherwise, hire a pro.

But you must become comfortable with conveying your vision and values online, in your own words – the voice – about a variety of issues from explaining how to use a product you sell to a local cause you care about to your philosophy on serving customers. And it’s just fine if some of these authentic words also come from your employees who customers will get to know.

In the Age of the Customer®, now armed with as much information as the businesses they patronize, customers expect to be treated more like insiders. And the good news is that no one makes this connection as effectively and authentically as a small business. Congratulations.

Let customers read about your authentic side with your voice, vision, and values.

In the New Age the Force is with the Customer

—Earth, Stardate 8507 (The Age of the Seller)

Once upon a time, in a galaxy that today must seem far, far away, sellers controlled all information about their products, services and innovations. Consequently, customers learned what they needed to know from salespeople, who traveled far and wide dispensing information to, and collecting sales from, grateful and beholden customers.

If one had observed such a meeting, the customer would have nodded his head in wonderment as the salesperson revealed the virtual magic that was his product.  And in this land, the Force — control and availability of information — was with the seller.

TheForce—Earth, Stardate 10912 (The Age of the Customer)

On present-day planet Earth things haven’t changed. Customers still buy from sellers that still provide product information. But observing a customer and salesperson today you will see the former explaining how much she knows about the business’s products, while the salesperson nods his head in wonderment. In this universe the salesperson is grateful and beholden if the customer will just contacts him before deciding from whom she will buy.

In The Age of the Customer, the Force—access to lots of information—is with the customer. It began with the remote control, video recorders, TiVo, DVR, Internet, on-demand everything, social media, and more recently, mobile computing. All of the platforms that make up what we now call social media have become the Light Saber of consumers and business customers in the new Age.

Armed with an abundance of online content, commenting platforms, and social media communities, customers not only have access to the information they need to make a better decision, but also co-own brand messages in the sub-space chatter about any given seller or product as it is being evaluated in the online dimension. Alas, too many small businesses are still operating a Stardate 8507 strategy in Stardate 10912. The predominant response by one of these sellers is frustration that they have diminishing control over customer relationships, and therefore their future.

Scotty won’t be able to beam you up if you don’t learn that the only way to end this frustration and assume at least co-ownership of the Force is to embrace online community-building and join the conversations that are being conducted about your business, products, service and industry.

The good news is that this “joining” is not only relatively easy, but also can be done with minimal direct cost.  If you don’t know how, ask a 25-year-old customer.

Write this on a rock …

In Stardate 10912, the Force is with the customer.

Businesses should plan for success while operating for survival

Blasingame’s 2nd Law of Small Business states: It’s redundant to say “under-capitalized small business.”

Growing small businesses operate in the narrow danger zone between the leading edge and the bleeding edge of the marketplace, and since our capital reserves and options are limited, every small business CEO makes decisions every day that are at once as much about survival as success.

Small business survival

 

Operate for Survival
Here are four “operate for survival” objectives to do that will serve you well this year, followed by four “plan for success” ideas.

1. Cash used to be King, today it’s the Emperor. Ask employees to find and cut waste. Get them involved in reviewing operational processes and eliminate or tighten up inefficient ones. What’s their motivation? How about job security? Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.

2. Stay close to accounts receivables and cash management. Many tasks can and should be delegated, but in a small business, whether you’re growing or just holding on, cash management is not one of them.

3. Declare war on excess inventory. Inventory is cash you can’t spend until a customer pays for it. Practice Just-In-Time (JIT) inventory management, not just-in-case.

4. Stay close to customers. This isn’t complicated: Ask customers what they want and then give it to them. We’re in the Age of the Customer – know your customers’ expectations.

 

Plan for Success
Since opportunities will present themselves over the next year, here are four “plan for success” thoughts to consider as you take risks:

1. Eyes wide open. The marketplace we’re entering is going to look different than last year. That means opportunities – and threats – will look different, too.

2. Measure twice, cut once. Before taking a big growth step, apply the carpenter’s rule. Don’t scrimp on due diligence: check your assumptions, recheck your assumptions and then proceed with the best information you have, which might tell you to stop.

3. Mistakes are expensive. Can your capital picture support inevitable mistakes and/or surprises? Remember, there is a very fine line separating opportunity at the leading edge and the cash-eating bleeding edge.

4. Make your banker your partner. Keep him or her informed whether the news is good or bad – especially the bad. Remember this: An uninformed banker is a scared banker and no one ever got any help out of a scared banker.

Successful small business CEOs operate for survival while planning for success.

Create online customer communities for your small business

A “craze” is something that takes popular culture by storm. A “fad” is a craze that doesn’t last. Social media is currently a craze, but it’s not a fad. And the question is not whether this craze will last, but rather, what will it look like over time and why should a small business care? Consequently, let’s establish a few “social media” points.

Strictly speaking, “social media” is the technology that makes online community building possible, not the community itself. It allows for the creation of and service to online communities, where dialogue and interaction among community founders and members are possible. Ultimately, the term “social media” in a business application should become the more accurate term, “online customer communities.”

Photo courtesy of MySocialAgency.com

Photo courtesy of MySocialAgency.com

In defining community, Webster uses words like association, fellowship, like-mindedness and shared interests. When building online customer communities, we should remember these words. Every small business should create online customer communities, of which there are two primary examples:

1. A company’s profile pages on sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Your company leverages these companies’ platforms. These sites are free but have limited flexibility.

2. Communities founded and hosted by your company, oriented around relationships with customers and prospects. An online community is established when customers subscribe to one or more of your channel offerings in order to receive your information.

A channel is a syndication tool or method of content delivery and service to a community. For example, real simple syndication (RSS), a blog, an email newsletter (ezine), a text blast and Twitter are channel tool examples, through which businesses and their communities exchange information.

Merely having a website isn’t practicing community building any more than owning a piano makes you a musician. But a website can become a platform from which you launch and serve online communities.

There is one critically important thing for a founding company to understand about both of the online customer community types: the company cannot control community behavior. Members – customers and prospects – control the community. A founding company can only create the community and influence it by establishing community values, then serving it via the channels and information it offers, which are requested by members.

Always remember: Customers control online communities, not companies.

 

Blasingame’s new law of customer relevance

When you take a photograph, the resulting product is two-dimensional: tall, wide, and flat. But in most cases, you want the photo to actually show depth, where images in the foreground and background are all in focus.

In photographic terms, the range of focus front to back is called depth of field. The way to expand depth of field so more of the subjects in the photo are in focus is to add light. Light creates depth of field.

Photo courtesy of Business2Community.com

Photo courtesy of Business2Community.com

If you were given a photo of people who were the most critical to your success, you’d easily recognize your customers in the foreground in perfect focus. But as you look deeper into the photo you’d notice the images behind that first row increasingly drop out of focus with each receding row. The reason is because for most of the history of the marketplace, businesses have gotten away with having a very narrow customer depth of field.

When the coin of the realm was to be competitive, that meant you spent all your time thinking about how to serve the person in the foreground, the first row of your business world: your customers. But as I’ve revealed in the past, being competitive has been trumped by being relevant. And in The Age of the Customer, perhaps the most important component of being relevant to business customers is helping them serve the most important person in their photo: their customers.

Let me say that again with Blasingame’s New Law of Customer Relevance:

If you want to have customers for life, help your customers help their customers.

The way to accomplish this is to increase the depth of field of your customer photo. Light up the view beyond the first row of customers so that the second row is completely in focus. This three-step process works every time:

  1. Identify the customer of your customer.
  2. Find out what your customer needs to do to become relevant to their customer.
  3. Whatever the answer to #2 is, help your customer do that.

Executing this approach is how you acquire customers you almost can’t run off. Because when you help your customers help their customers, they know you’re doing more than just delivering stuff; you’ve become part of their team – integrated and committed, like a true stakeholder.

And if you want to pull off the customer relevance hat trick, light up the third row of your businesses photo: Help your customers help their customers help their customers.

I’ve done it – it’s a beautiful thing.

Achieve maximum relevance with customers by helping them serve their customers.

The Age of the Customer®, Part 3: The values of online customer communities

Photo courtesy of Mansa Systems

Photo courtesy of Mansa Systems

This is the second of two articles about finding and staying connected to customers as the marketplace continues to evolve.  Last week we talked about creating online communities as a way to find relevance with social media.

Going forward, connecting with prospects and customers will be less about 20th century marketing strategies and more about having at least one type of online relationship with them, including information delivered in one of the online channels like email, texting, even Twitter. And you haven’t created a true online community until members can comment on every aspect of their experience with your business.

Increasingly, prospects will turn into customers more because they’re attracted to the values of your online community than because of what you sell.  Your community values should have three elements:

1.  Brand elements – brand promise and brand image.

2.  Quality information delivered to the community.

3.  The tone of connection the business wants to set with its community. Your “tone” is how brand messages are included in information you deliver to the community, and it can be anywhere from crassly commercial to so subtle it’s almost subliminal.  The “volume” of your tone will depend on your ROI patience.

Establishing community values is a critical element of community growth not only because that’s what attracts members to connect with you, but it also causes them to encourage members of other communities to which they belong to join them in your community. Indeed, the most viral element of any online community is the feeling members have for the community values, which could range from devotion to derision.

In order to foster community longevity and quality, a business should create its own social media platform and technologies, rather than counting on public sites, like Facebook or LinkedIn. Here are a few guidelines:

1.  Establish compelling community values.

2.  Create an environment where communities can flourish around these values.

3.  Acquire the technology that makes online community building possible.

4.  Protect community values and control how the community is served, while accepting that the community founder cannot control member activity.

Ultimately, as a result of their experiences with your online community, members will turn into customers and possibly your best salespeople.

Write this on a rock… Get connected – and stay connected with customers through online communities.

Your values and customer communities

Last time we talked about focusing on developing customer communities as a way to find relevance through your online strategy, including website and social media. Now let’s strengthen this relevance by focusing on values.

ONLINE_SHOPPING_toppick_cropIncreasingly, prospects will turn into customers, and customers will become loyal, because they’re attracted to what your company stands for. They are looking for evidence of your values in your online elements. For example:

1.Are your brand elements – brand promise and image – all about you and your stuff, or do they sound like something that would benefit your customer community?

2. When delivering information to the community, is it all about you, or does it contribute to helping customers?

3. What is the tone of your marketing message? “Tone” is how brand messages are incorporated as you serve the community, from crassly commercial to almost subliminal. You should strike a tone balance between making a sale and serving the community.

In a world where everything you sell is a commodity, value – product, price, service – is the threshold of a customer community, but values are the foundation. Anyone can find value, but when customers like your values, they tell their friends. Indeed, the most dynamic and potentially viral element of any online community is the feeling members have about your values. But remember, that “feeling” can go either way – positive or negative.

Here are a few guidelines for establishing compelling values online that match your values offline:

1. Acquire and use the technology that makes online community building possible.

2. Create an environment where an online community can flourish around the value you deliver and the values you demonstrate.

3. Serve and protect your customer community, while accepting that you cannot control it. As customer members come and go, and say what’s on their minds, maximize the positive and repair the negative.

Once community members find your value and like your values, prospects will turn into customers and customers will turn into your best salespeople.

Write this on a rock…

Build and serve customer communities by delivering value and demonstrating values.

Small business ethics

While talking with an attorney friend of mine, our topic of discussion was about professional behavior in the marketplace. She reminded me that attorneys have very specific ethical and professional standards that are published, plus a well developed monitoring organization, complete with sanctioning authority.

The story is quite similar for CPA’s, architects, medical doctors, or any securities representative such as stock brokers, financial planners, etc. Much of the behavioral track these professionals run on is pretty well spelled out for them. Not that the members of these groups need to be led or coerced into good professional behavior. It’s just that, when in doubt, they have published guidelines with which to refer.

Small business owners operate in the same marketplace as the so-called professionals. Indeed, they are often our clients and customers. We serve the same businesses and consumers as other professionals, plus we enter into similar relationships, contracts and agreements. And we often find ourselves perched precariously on the same horns-of-a-dilemma as other professionals. But here’s the difference: The Universal Small Business Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics doesn’t exist.

Small business owners, like all humans, ultimately behave according to their own moral compass, sense of fair play and inclination to deal in good faith. When we find ourselves in a quandary over how to respond to a difficult situation with a customer that is in the gray area of a contract, we’re on our own. When we are faced with an ethical issue that would challenge King Solomon, there is no sanctioning body or support group to dial up, or to whom we can email a “scenario.”

There are many ancient codes small business owners can turn to for behavioral guidance in the marketplace, such as the last three of the Ten Commandments. But in terms of a handy guide, I think philosopher and 1957 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Albert Camus, may have given us the best ethical vector when he wrote, “Integrity has no need of rules.”

Wise small business owners know that life is much simpler, and exceedingly more rewarding, when we just do the right thing.

It’s The Age of the Customer—the rules have changed

For 10,000 years, customers refined their search for products and services down to a couple of semi-finalist sellers based almost entirely on the classic competitive value proposition: price, product, availability, service, etc. I’ve termed this period the Age of the Seller.

That was a nice trip down memory lane, wasn’t it?

The new, prime differentiator today is no longer the competitive model, but rather a customer’s appraisal of how relevant a seller is to them, often before they even know if a seller is competitive. So does this mean that sellers no longer have to be competitive?

Not at all—no one will pay you more for less. But consider three new marketplace truths:

  1. With value now presumed, customers expect to find what they want, at a price they want to pay, from many sellers.
  2. Before a seller’s competitive position has even been established, they are being ruled in or out by customers.
  3. Differentiating by customers based on relevance is happening before prospective sellers even know the customer exists.

That last point is perhaps the most breathtakingly disruptive development in the shift from the Age of the Seller to what I’ve named The Age of the Customer®.

So what do you have to do to prove your relevance in order to be among the last to be considered and hopefully anointed as the Chosen One? Here are three important Age of the Customer relevance practices:

  • Technology matters. Your online capability must match the expectations of your profile customers, such as having a mobile-optimized website.
  • Contribute first, contract second. Now confident of acquiring value, customers are increasingly seeking and collecting trusted advisors and experts in their quest for relevance before they make a purchase decision.
  • Connect with credentials. Use new media to establish relevance credentials and connect with prospects and customers.

In his book Megatrends, John Naisbitt prophesied, “The more high-tech we have, the more high-touch we will want.” Here are three high-touch Age of the Seller practices still relevant in the new Age.

  • Remember the customer’s name and use it—often.
  • Make eye-contact and smile—early and often.
  • Be grateful and say “thank you”—a lot.

Find success in The Age of the Customer by doing the following absolutely in this order: be relevant, be useful, and then be competitive.

Your greatest danger is not being uncompetitive, but being irrelevant.