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boy_and_mail_slot.jpgThe other day I had to get our mortgage payment in the mail and I decided to drop it in the mailbox at the grocery store we frequent. I walked up to the mailbox and was struck by how faded out it looked from a distance, only to be even more disappointed when I got close enough to observe the rust on the handle and hinges, and the faded, peeling labels denoting the pickup times and the USPS logo.

I’ve actually done some work with the U.S. Postal Service and, despite what we may think based on one or two experiences that stand out (like this one!), they have a noteworthy track record of getting the mail to its destination. They have spent millions over the past few years trying to tell that story to the public, only to have that story countered by unfortunate incidents we have all experienced individually, like an accidentally shredded letter, a grouchy counter worker, or a mail box that looks like nobody knows it exists! I, the customer, see this rusty, faded mailbox and I immediately question whether the mail will be picked up on time, as promised. I question the organization behind the faded logo and don’t think of a streamlined, dependable, well-oiled machine. I think of my mortgage check ending up in Never Neverland. I think about the inconvenience I’m now facing because of my lack of confidence in this mail drop and the extra mileage I’ll have to log to find another one. And I don’t think too well of the Postal Service regardless of what other evidence they put before me concerning their track record.

Everything is branding! It’s the big things, and it’s all the little things, and in the big picture there are no little things!

In my ECHO Marketing Seminars earlier this year, I was asked several times if the Kindle launch at Amazon.com was an example of how hyper-growth can be worse than not growing at all. While it is a good example of how we can sometimes be a victim of our own marketing success, and I still passionately advocate deliberate, healthy growth over explosive, hyper-growth, I think the marketplace is better off if we fail while daring greatly rather than timidly waiting for everything to be perfect before we launch. If we handle the inevitable hiccups promptly and with a genuine customer focus, it may even be possible for our brands to emerge even stronger.

I’m tempted to suggest that Amazon’s handling of this situation will become a part of such branding folklore that gets told around the campfire, but I really think that their handling of the situation is so good, future sales of the product will eclipse any breakdowns in delivery that may have afflicted the original launch, and the stock outs will be pretty much forgotten. I commend the ownership of this situation Amazon founder and president Jeff Bezos has taken, and the lesson is a good one for all of us.  They stumbled, they admitted it, and they marched on!

This appeared on their homepage today:

Dear Customers, Ever since we launched our wireless reading device Kindle last November, we've been unable to keep it in stock, and we've had to work hard to increase manufacturing capacity. Today, we're excited to announce that Kindle is in stock and ready for immediate shipment. We've also been adding selection. Since launch, we've added 25,000 additional books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers that you can download wirelessly to your Kindle, bringing the total to more than 115,000. To learn more about the device and what you can read on it, visit Kindle's product page. You'll see that more than 2,000 customers have reviewed Kindle - I encourage you to take a look at what customers have to say. For those of you who are interested, I invite you to read Amazon's just-released annual letter to shareholders. I don't normally link to a shareholder letter from the Amazon home page, but this letter is all about Kindle. If you're curious, it will give you some insight into how we think about the business and our long-term vision for Kindle. It's a short letter, and I hope you find it worthwhile. Happy reading, Jeff Bezos Founder & CEO

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Googlish Hubris?

By Dr. Burt Smith April 24th, 2008

Google black background_1.gifCould hubris be the downfall of the mighty Google?

Let me find a dictionary and get back to you!

Actually, CNBC’s Dennis Kneale comes right out and says he thinks Google has indeed gone too far astray from its core business. I’ll let you watch for yourself and see what you think.

Here’s the link:  http://www.cnbc.com/id/15840232?video=714888834

Interesting thoughts, and time will tell. Whatever happens, I am still grateful for their FREE directory assistance program (evangelized by your old buddy Dr. Burt in a previous BLOG entry!) and bet they have plenty of other nifty customer-centric things to deliver. I say, “Let the revolution continue!”

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park bench_2.jpgI once heard a story about William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. He was trying to fill a position on his staff and was struggling to decide between two candidates whose qualifications were pretty much equal. That was, however, until something happened that changed his perception of one of them.

One dreary, rainy night McKinley boarded a crowded streetcar. Also aboard the streetcar was one of the candidates under McKinley’s consideration, but the candidate didn’t know McKinley was there. At one of the stops an elderly woman laboriously made her way onto the car, wrestling with a large basket full of laundry, and obviously cold and tired. The candidate kept his seat and pretended not to notice the woman. McKinley noticed, however! He gave his seat to the woman and gave the job to the other candidate!

We never know who is watching, and we may never know how what we do for others will help us, or how what we don’t do could permanently damage our brand in the eyes of others. As mentioned in our ECHO Marketing workshops and in The Great Game of Networking, EVERYTHING IS BRANDING! Let’s make our brands the kind people tell GOOD stories about!

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WTGBRFDT?

By Dr. Burt Smith April 14th, 2008

calculator_and_ruler.jpgBefore you think you’re reading some slang for a profane phrase used in instant messaging, allow me to explain!

WTGBRFDT stands for “What’s The Good Business Reason For Doing This?” It is a guiding principle that drives every action, every policy, and EVERY decision made by World Savings. This very interesting organization profiled in Less is More (before merging with Wachovia) and offers a very good piece of advice in any economic climate, but especially as we operate in a downturn.

Jennings dedicated a chapter to his concept of Guiding Principles in It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small, It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow. The argument was offered as an alternative to strategic planning in the world of high tech, where a strategy can become outdated before the ink on the paper on which it is printed has dried.   Having a set of guiding principles can effectively serve as “battle cries” that empower employees at every level and at least have a direction to help them as they make any decision. This is far more empowering and far less expensive than a typical strategic plan which may be long on detail but short on action.

Next time you find yourself saying, “We need a strategic plan…” think instead about exactly what you hope to accomplish. If your goal is to have a big, thick document that will likely never be read by you or anyone else, then a fully-developed strategic plan is exactly what you need. If, on the other hand, action is what you’re after, think about developing a set of guiding principles and stories that can become part of your corporate folklore and culture. You may find that the guiding principles lead to a more detailed strategic plan, and that’s OK because in that case, the detail is guided by the purpose of execution. Way too many times, however, strategic plans are written just because somebody says, “We need a strategic plan” and in most cases, the whole perceived need for a strategic plan comes from hearing a competitor or other organization has one. Nobody ever bothers to ask if the plan itself does any good. Battle cries in the form of guiding principles are literally, another story, however, and they’re worth taking a look at!

Yours could even be a unique “code” like WTGBRFDT, which is understood only by those who work inside your organization, but when heard in the marketplace spark interest and can be a neat brand signal or touch point for your brand that helps get your customers evangelizing for you!

Now go have some fun thinking about what guiding principles you want to see on the walls and hear shouted down the hallways of your organization!

Here’s a good one to get you started:

“I will never put my name on anything that does not have in it the best that is in me.” – John Deere.

CD_tax_software_H_R_BlockH&R Block had this hilarious commercial that featured a guy trying to figure his taxes using a software package, but was obviously at a standstill. His beloved wife comes up and asks if he had anyone he could ask for advice, then announces, with an ample amount of sarcasm, “Oh that’s right. You decided not to go with an accountant this year. You went with this ‘Box’…” She then picks up the box and begins talking to it. “What should we do now, Box?” She shakes it a little and then asks again, “Box? Box?” 

I guess I relate because many years ago in my efforts to practice thrifty business management, I attempted to do my own taxes using a well known software program. Like the story in the commercial implies, the real winner in the end was my accountant!

The commercial reinforces H&R Block’s value proposition.  This ad complements and reinforces their “You’ve got people” campaign very well. They are the professionals, and we can hire them and they will be at our disposal! And even if the investment in their services is many times what the software costs, the value in terms of time saved and the security of being in the hands of professionals in the unfortunate event of missing a deadline or facing an audit far outweigh the additional cost. And if that wasn’t enough, H&R Block has their own tax preparation software we can use, too! My bet is that the number of customers who purchase the software and are then converted into “full service” customers is pretty high, so I give H&R Block high marks for that, too.

Many times we find ourselves faced with competition from an eager upstart who offers either a flashy new alternative or offers the customer what appears to be the same deliverable we do, but at a cheaper price or some other perceived differentiation. At first this may look like a huge threat, when in fact, what it is is a great opportunity. I’m betting the poor fellow in the commercials and I aren’t the only disappointed purchasers of software that claimed to “Do our taxes” for us, and it looks like H&R Block is betting on that, too.

Often opportunities appear disguised as threats. We have to have a long-term focus in business because a short-term gain isn’t really much of a gain at all. 

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_3The answer is, “The customer!”

The question is one that comes up frequently in my seminars, which deals with whether one should work toward an entirely web-based model, or try to have some hybrid that involves a physical storefront or touch point along with a web-based delivery system for the business?

As technology becomes more affordable, employees become less dependable, as customer expectations of round-the-clock, on-demand access to your organization escalate, and as budgets shrink across the board, questions about exactly how to best structure our business models abound. And these are worthwhile questions.

What I suggest is to do your best to offer as many touch points and delivery systems as possible. Start by asking your customers to describe their optimal delivery system and then do your best to build it for them, carefully monitoring your return on investment as you evaluate your options. Do your best to offer as many means as possible for your customers to do business with you, then study intensively exactly which ones they use the most and then let that dictate where you make future investments or where you scale back.

You may have noticed an example of this when you call with a question about a bill, like your mortgage or your utility bill. At some point on the automated menu you’ll be politely reminded that the information you’re seeking is available on line, given the web address, and even sold on why going there is faster, better, cheaper, cleaner, and that you’d just be a whole lot better person if you took care of your business on-line. I don’t know about you, but I disregard all those messages and still stay on the line for a representative just because that’s the kind of terrible, burdensome person I am. What should be happening on their end is that they should be studying exactly how many of their customers still want to do business with a representative, how many they are able to convert into on-line users, and also compare that information with whatever demographics they have on their customers. Chances are they’ll find that their younger, hipper, better-looking customers have no issue at all with simply going to the website the next time they have a question, and that old timers like me prefer to do my business in as personal a fashion as I can. If I’m a worthwhile customer and it makes economic sense to work with me, then they need to keep that channel open. If not, they should work to educate me on the benefits of doing business their way, then move me into a more profitable way of interacting with them. Or, if it makes better economic sense for them, they should perhaps suggest that I do business somewhere else. In a nutshell, that’s what you and I should be doing in our businesses, too. Tactfully and sensitively, of course. 

The customer IS the answer, and that’s the first place to look any time you have a question related to your business model. But never forget, the customer is not necessarily always “right,” only the RIGHT customer is always right!

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In BrandSimple, authors Allen P. Adamson and Martin Sorrell  praise the Iridium company for learning from its mistakes.

iridium_phone_just_phoneIridium makes those very dependable, rugged, but hardy aesthetic or even practical-for-the-average-person phones that get service everywhere. They thought their market would be anyone who wanted dependable phone service. Because their service is satellite-based, it can get a signal in places other wireless providers can only dream of. This benefit also appears, at first, to address a chief concern most cell phone customers have, which is that the service they typically get from their cell phones varies from inconsistent to downright unreliable. So providing a product that addressed this chief concern sounded like a winner of an idea.

Turns out, however, not everyone fully appreciated this value. The customers had a lot of “yeah buts.” “Yeah, it’s a great phone, but it’s so bulky,” and “Oh it’s a rugged phone to be sure, but it’s…well… ugly!” or “I appreciate that you can get service anywhere, but to carry that thing around all day…” and so on.

So Iridium went back to the market segmentation drawing board and asked themselves, “Who needs a rugged, dependable, quality phone but isn’t so concerned with how it looks or how bulky it is?” They came up with several profitable answers, including: Fire Fighters and workers stationed on off-shore drilling rigs. Far smaller segments than what they were after originally, and also far more profitable! Owning a big piece of a small pie is one way to make a fortune! And once again, the answer is the customer!

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Googlish Maxiumus!

By Dr. Burt Smith April 2nd, 2008

What parts of the world Wal Mart doesn’t take over, I am now convinced Google will!

Here’s their most recent service feature offering. I believe it is destined to become their latest of many contributions to business history:

http://www.google.com/goog411/

Considering how much I HATE seeing a buck-seventy-five show up on my cell phone bill, falling in LOVE with this new Google service was easy!

Cool with a capital C, baby! They are now doing a 411 service! And it is FREE!!

Dial this number, speak your need, and you will be provided with the phone number and address of the business you are seeking. If you want a MAP or would prefer the info be texted to you, you can tell them that and it shall happen. Incredible!

There are plenty of business lessons we could take from this, like how cool it is they are using their resources to fill a gap, which is the basic formula for marketing in the first place: Look for a customer need and then find a profitable way to fill it! I’m eager to see if and how this will actually be a profit center or if its contribution is more on the brand-building side.

We could gleam the lesson from SWOT analysis that technology is everyone’s competition! That competition can be direct or indirect and that it is often very hard to see it coming! How many cellular service providers do you think considered Google their competition? Though some might argue this is a dangerous line extension, that Google is getting away from its core business and into something it doesn’t understand, it isn’t such an illogical leap to me. “Search” is their core business, after all.

Or, rather than trying to over analyze and look for lessons in this, we could just use this service and smile every time we save money! Hope you find it helpful!