Do You Charge for Estimates?

money1As a service provider, much of my time is spent meeting with potential customers. Whether over the phone or in person I have the opportunity to ask questions about their needs so that I can assess the project and offer an estimate for the cost and benefits of working together.

I don’t charge for this. Do you?

A great majority of the time after our meeting, if the proposal meets their needs and their budget, we proceed. However, sometimes the project doesn’t happen.  I suppose I am out the time and money spent on driving to the meeting, having the meeting and writing the proposal; however, I look at it as an investment in my business. 

Today, while taking my car in for an estimate of repairs, I noticed a sign that read:

One free estimate per car

$5 for each additional estimate

To be honest, I had to keep myself from laughing outloud. $5? Really? I will admit that I have seen companies that charge a fee for the estimate or consultation but then deduct that fee from the entire project should you decide to work together. But five dollars to look at the body of my car for less than five minutes?

Perhaps the dollar amount is small enough that people don’t hesitate, but when you consider that most auto body repair jobs end up costing several hundred dollars – if not more, just what is the company gaining by charging $5.  A better question might be – what are they loosing?

The purpose of an estimate or initial consultation is to uncover the needs but also to share your expertise. There is so much competition that consumers have an overwhelming number of choices. Why place a road block, even a $5 road block between you and the opportunity to have a new customer?

Thoughts?

 

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Blogging to Connect with Customers

PatrickThose that have begun the process of using social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. start by being driven by a desire to get their name out on the web. They understand the value of being visible and being found but still use the tools as one way – push your message out there, vehicles.

The reality is that social media is a powerful, real time, opportunity to connect with customers. To showcase your knowledge and to invite questions, comments or opinions.

In a recent blog post writer Lisa Barone asks the question “should you blog to consumers or contempories?” In other words – who are you writing for? 

One school of thought has the purpose of blogging to be connecting with others in the industry – to be a thought leader to your peers. To be the one others “retweet” or comment about.

Lisa has a different view – one that I tend to agree with wholeheartedly:

For a small business owner, I think your blogging investment is far better spent producing content for your customers, not for your colleagues in the industry.

She goes on to list some very compelling reasons:

  • Your customers are the one performing searches – looking for a person or company  with your expertise.
  • You need to build authority with customers, not colleagues. Afterall – who is the one buying from you?
  • You want to start conversation with customers, not colleagues.  – So true!
  • Your customers are checking for your pulse, no one else. They want to buy from someone they like and trust and what better way to learn more about you, what you know and what you stand for then by reading your blog posts?

Read Lisa’s entire blog post here.

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The Power of a Personal Network

Ben's Mazda

Ben's Mazda

They say life can change in the blink of an eye, but you never really appreciate how true that phrase is until someone blinks.

On July 7, 2011, at 4:30pm, life blinked for my 20 year old son, Ben and the ripple effects of that blink reach beyond comprehension.

He was hit directly in the driver’s side of his car while crossing an intersection by a woman driving 50 mph. He had thought the intersection was safe to cross, a two lane divided highway, because from his view, he only saw a tractor in the slow lane. It wasn’t until he was in the middle of the intersection that he saw the woman in the high speed lane. It was too late for either of them to change their course.

She is fine. Shook up, jarred hard by the air bag deployment but was treated and released.

My son will be fine…eventually.

His internal injuries are such that the best they can hope for now is stablizing him while they focus on his collapsed lung and allow the multiple fractured pelvis to heal. In three months they will see if additional surgeries will help to reconnect the many internal parts that are currently not functioning normally.

It is at times like these when you learn how valuable your network is and the interconnection you have with other networks. As I waited through the night for word from the surgeons, 12 young people literally and figurative surrounded me with their love for my son. The next day 19 of Ben’s friends waited outside ICU patiently for their turn; two by two, to sit by his side and hold his hand.

Ben’s network began a cross over, friends connecting with me on Facebook, liking my comments, emailing me, asking to put my cell phone in their phone. The generation gap bridged, hugs exchanged and the networks of myself and my son are forever connected.

The prayer chains of more churches than you can count around the country began sending up powerful prayers on Ben’s behalf. People began calling, email, texting, Facebooking, Tweeting and visiting with offers to help, food, hugs, cards, flowers, and prayer.

But then the help became more concrete.  Offers to take my teenage daughter for a few days, wheelchairs, shower seats, crutches were offered, legal assistance, counseling – all help from my network that has been carefully built over the years. Customers, peers, friends, neighbors – the offers have been unbelievable.

I am sharing this because in this blog I often talk about the power and value of building customer relationships. When you treat customers, employees, vendors and peers as friends, they not only buy from you and refer you, they line up to offer their assistance when life blinks.

My gratitude is overflowing. My heart is so full with thanks and appreciation and wonder at the generousity of those in my network. For all of you who have reached out or simply saw a status update on Facebook or heard through the grapevine and offered up a quick – “help Ben get better” I am so very grateful.

I hope you never have to know the full extend of your personal network. But do know – without a doubt – that your network is a powerful gift. When you reach out to build relationships, you just never know how they will benefit you or make your life richer.

Thank you to all of you!

One week later - Ben's First Walk

One week later - Ben's First Walk

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Twitter the Customer Connector

twitter logoIf you aren’t using Twitter to connect with your customers – you are missing out on a great, real time venue.

This weekend I discovered an article by Jeff Bullas about how the Fortune 100 companies are using (or not, as is the case) Twitter to be connected with their customers.

It turns out that although I just saw the article yesterday, he actually wrote it two years ago. Since that time, the Fortune 100 companies have improved their use of Twitter, but the issues Jeff uncovers are still true for the majority of companies out there.

The biggest issue?

If a company is using Twitter, it is still as a platform for focusing on their sales or their primary brand message.  People/companies are still missing the obvious use of Twitter and that is as a real time connector to their customers.

At the end of the article, Jeff shares five steps for using Twitter to be connected to customers and 7 Twitter Best Practices:

Weber Shandwick prescribed five essential steps as a starting point for Fortune 100 companies to create true engagement and market interaction on Twitter:

1.Listen to conversations

2.Participate in conversations

3.Update frequently with valuable information

4.Reply to people who talk about issues that are important to your company

5.Retweet relevant conversations

So here are “7  Twitter Best Practices” from the study revealing that in the majority, the Fortune 100 were not implementing

  1. Listen to and monitor conversations
  2. Participate in conversations instead of just listening
  3. Provide frequent updates with valuable information that can demonstrate thought leadership.
  4. Have a large number of followers
  5. Reply to people who talk about issues that are important to them rather than sit on the sidelines
  6. Retweet those conversations which can help promote the brand
  7. Reply or refer to other accounts with @username, and in turn, they are referred to by other accounts.

Ask yourself – are you using Twitter just to push out your blog RSS feed or talk about your latest product? Last week, I talked about how I used Twitter as a “CB radio” while driving to a meeting. (my car was not moving when I used Twitter) I can’t reinforce the value of the real time discussion enough.

In a recent article by Chris Brogan that appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine, he also talked about the value of Twitter as a customer connector and suggests subscribing to the RSS feeds for your key word phrases. Go to http://search.twitter.com to search for conversations in your industry. Look for ways to interject or help out.

Twitter shouldn’t be discounted as a silly waste of time. It is the only social media venue in which you can engage your customers or prospects in real time discussions to help improve their experience and improve your business.

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EnviroScience’s Weevil Understands that Slow and Steady Gets the Job Done

I have been working for EnviroScience as a contract writer, and in the process, I’ve learned quite a lot about Milfoilsand aquatic weed control. Each time I write something about a Milfoil weevil and the weeds they eat, I think two things:

1.  Lake Chautauqua. The lovely, shallow lake that the Chautauqua Institute is situated on is filled to the brim with the nasty, motorboat propeller choking weeds that the little milfoil love to chomp on. I wish someone from Chautauqua Lake would look into the weevils so I don’t have to swim around the lake with those tangling, leg grabbing weeds.  Ick.

2. The pace the weevils work. EnviroScience will tell you that weevils are an eco-friendly solution to chemicals but you have to be patient. It isn’t a solution that happens over night. It takes time for those little Milfoil weevils to eat their way through the weeds.

Not unlike building a relationship with a customer.

Ooooh, did you love that transition?

But it is true.  It takes time to build a relationship. You can’t just send a postcard or make a single phone call and think that the customer will be loyal for life. Even if they buy from you, there isn’t any guarantee they won’t turn around and go to the competition next time.

You have to work at it. Eating one weed at a time.

So what are some of the ways you can slowly work at a customer relationship?

  • I love Jay Conrad Levinson, the father of Guerilla Marketing. In his book Mastering Guerilla Marketing, he talks about the importance of a vibrant database in which you keep personal, unique information about your customers and prospects. Really listen to the hints they leave. Chances are they are helping to plant the seeds for future purchases. Keep track of one new thing every time you talk to a customer.
  • Connect with your customers just cuz. Send a postcard. Send an email. Pick up the phone. “Just thought of you and wondered how you are.” That’s building a relationship – being interested in your customer when their wallet isn’t in their hand.
  • Ask them questions. How can I serve you better? In a perfect world, what could I do differently next time? Have your customers define your process, services and products. Amazingly, if you offer what they ask for – guess what – I bet they’ll buy. I am a speaker and trainer and have several presentations/workshops in the can. When a company calls asking about my speaking options, I suggest they visit my speaker site, but I’m always quick to tell them that I’ll customize the presentation. Each session, although it may start with a foundation I’ve used before, becomes totally unique based on the audience’s participation and the industry.  They love it. I love it.  Win – win.

So like the weevil, do what you do best but know that it takes time to build customer connections. Set your expectations accordingly.

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Let Us Count Our Blessings

red crossAre you watching the news? Of course you are – how could you not? It is at times like this when we witness the devastation through no fault of anyone and the subsequent death, injury and homelessness that we should stop and count our blessings.

We have a chance to make a difference – you can use your cell phone to make a donation to the efforts supporting Japan, you can give blood, donate through your church and even add those involved in this recent natural disaster to your prayers. Every little bit helps.  I wanted to make it easy for my readers to help and so if you click on the Red Cross logo it will take you to their donation page.  This  isn’t an affiliate – I don’t get a kick back or commission – it is just an easy reminder to be thankful for your life and all of the many blessings you have and, if you are so inclined, to give you a simple, quick way to give back.

Soon this post will be buried on the page, but the widget on the right will remain as a simple way to make donations in the future.

Take care!

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37 Tips for Making Customers a Fan of Your Business

fansI recently participated in the question of the week at Dr. Shannon Reece’s site Strategies and Tactics for Women (however, they work for men too). The question – how do you go about making your customers a fan of your business?

Thirty seven people responded with their take on the situation – I am tip number 21.  I suggest you visit 37 Tips to Turn Your Customers Into Fans on Shannon’s site for the complete list, but here are a few that caught my eye.

 

9. Move It Up, Move It Down

This dieting mantra also applies to building customer loyalty. Whatever you are now doing, do one additional thing to please your customers. Find a way to increase their bottom line. For example, promise to hold prices firm for the next year. That’s moving it up for them. The moving down part might be a reduction in, or elimination of, your fees for late payment. Possibilities will vary, but basically, think of one increase and one decrease that will satisfy your customer.  Thanks to Dr. Marlene Caroselli

13. I AM That Into You

Caring about your customers can’t be just words, or a fancy new graphic. Here’s how I let my customers know they are my #1 priority.
* Proactively seek feedback on the product or service they have received
* Always be willing to make it right at no cost to the customer
* Demonstrate your appreciation with special discounts or offers for your loyal customers

Thanks to Nicole Fende of Small Business Finance Forum

19. How Rock Stars Build Their Fan Base

Whether you are a music rock star or a business rock star, it works the same to build a large, loyal fan base. You must find out what it is your customers want, what they are passionate about. When you feed their passions, they’ll come back again and again. Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones may like jazz but he knows what to sing on stage!

Thanks to Dayna Steele of Dayna Steele Creates Rock Stars

32. Remember That A Complaint Is A Gift

When someone gives you a gift, what is the first thing you say? Thank you, of course. When we get a complaint from a customer, the first thing we should do is thank them. Thank them for letting us know that there was a problem. Because if they don’t complain, we may never know that they were not happy. Then they walk, and they take their business and their referrals with them. A complaint is an opportunity for you to resolve a problem or make something better for the customer. When a customer complains, what they’re really saying is, “Something is not right. Please make it better so we can continue our relationship”.

Studies actually show that if a company screws up, and takes ownership immediately and resolves the issue, customers are more loyal to the company than they were before the screw up.

Thanks to Randi Busse of Workforce Development Group, Inc.

The article is chockfull of great tips and ideas but I especially love the ones that are simple, basic and real; the ones that involve building that relationship. One tip talks about making fans through social media and the author, Joshua Stern (tip #17) says that it is a slow build but it is working. We can’t be thinking that our actions will change our business over night. It is a process.

Do you have a significant other?  Think of these tips in terms of starting a personal, romantic relationship. You wouldn’t expect that to develop overnight either. You have to communicate, show them you value their opinion, listen carefully, do something unexpected, understand what they want out of life.

The same thing is true with our customers. Thanks Dr. Reece for compiling these great tips!

Do you have a tip that wasn’t mentioned? Leave it in the comments section. Do you have a story to share of how these tips have worked for your business?  Please share!

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Ideas are Free – New Book from The Name Tag Guy

ideas are freeI just got my copy of Scott Ginsberg’s newest book, Ideas are Free, Execution is Priceless. It is a quick, daily read that offers insights, tips, motivations and a few reality slaps in the face. I love it.  Truth be told, although my Amazon copy just came in the mail, I took advantage of a gift Scott offered a few weeks ago. 

The gift? Send him the receipt showing you’d purchased his book and he would send you a 2nd copy for free to give a friend. His copy came first – signed and included a great laminated name tag calling me “Scott’s Friend.” On the flip side he lists the 10 principles of Hello my Name is.  hello my name is

Ask:  “What could I do in this moment that would be the exact opposite of everybody else?”

Nobody: Notices normal, nobody buys boring and nobody pays for average.

hello my name is philosophyThat’s just two out of the 10!  Great stuff.  Simple but powerful. The book is the same way. I wrote on Scott’s Facebook wall today that the book fell open to June 14th this morning in which he has modernized the classic quote from Edison: “vision without execution is hallucination.”

Scott’s version?  “Talking smack without doing jack is wack.”  Cuts right through the mustard, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t matter what your industry, what your position or what your goals are – this book offers something for everyone. Of course, I have always been a big fan. Check out his site and read his blog – he’s a kid (compared to me), yet dispenses wisdom like an ancient soothsayer.  I believe one of the reasons he can see the simple truth of what needs to be done to be the best company, the most connected, the most approachable, the best helper and the most memorable is that he never worked in the corporate world. He opened his company right out of college. Cool story.  Cool guy.  Cool book.  Check him out.  Scott Ginsberg, the name tag guy.

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Borders Books – An Example of Understanding the Customer Relationship

The economy has taken its toll on all businesses, some more than others. But add to that fact, changing technology and the change in consumer buying habits and you have a more challenging operational situation. Borders Books announced yesterday that it is filing Chapter 11.

On the same day I received a detailed email from the CEO of Borders, Mike Edwards, explaining the situation and outlining how it would impact faithful customers. I’m impressed. Imagine how challenging a decision it was for Mike and his Board of Directors to recognize and admit the need to file Chapter 11. They are thinking about company sales and profits and employees and real estate leases and financial investments tied up in inventory and a whole host of things that probably keep them up at night.

Yet, they understand the value of the customer relationship enough to know that this announcement will cause some concern and questions among their buying public.  So rather than allow people to speculate or rumors to grow, they are up front and spell out the details:

He explains the what:  Filing for Chapter 11

The why:  To allow the company to reorganize and prepare for the future so they can continue to serve consumers needs

The impact:  He provides answers for consumer’s top questions; stores will stay open, book borrowing program continues, the Borders Rewards program is still alive and well and on and on. They put themselves in the customer’s shoes and tried to address the most pressing concerns up front.

The follow-up: They’ve set up a new website Borders Reorganization and customer service phone lines to address customer’s concerns and questions.

I think what makes this even more impressive is that it is rarely handled this way. Meet Up recently made dramatic changes to their website impacting 7 million users. Complains numbered in the thousands and their initial response – which came AFTER thousands of complaints? A terse email that said “We have no plans to make any changes or go back to the old system at this time.” Talk about angering a lot of people. Since then, they have written a blog post addressing the concerns but it came too late to unring the bell of damaged customer relationships.

My hat is off to Mike Edwards et al of Borders and wish them all the best as they restructure for the changing times. I am a faithful customer and will continue to be and I’m thankful for their honest, open and TIMELY communication. We can all take a lesson from their open communication to customers.

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Social Shopping – LinkedIn Connects to Save a Problem

ear2328_smallOn Friday I had the pleasure of presenting my Social Media workshop to the participants of the Stark County Board of Mental Health during their annual conference. The group was lively and engaging and I had a great time.  During my discussion about social shopping and the consumer trend to connect with businesses, one of the participants, Jill, shared this story:

I was dealing with a vendor making a purchase for our department and I was having difficulty getting the product that I ordered. I called their customer service department and was basically told that they didn’t care.  I decided I didn’t want to leave it at that so I went on LinkedIn and researched the company. I found that their CEO was on LinkedIn and I sent him an email explaining the situation and my dissatisfaction. I heard back almost immediately that he was traveling but as soon as he was back in the office he’d look into the situation. A few days later I heard from him and he made it right. 

Jill’s story is a great example of a growing trend in social media; consumers actively seeking a relationship with those they do business with and if companies are not listening or responding – consumers will take their business elsewhere.

How to get started?  Make sure you have a Google Alert set up for your company name – and do the same on Twitter by signing up for an RSS feed at Search.Twitter with your company name and a few key word phrases.

MC Promotions offers 20 ways to listen to what is being said about you in the article Are Your Ears Burning?

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