AllWrite Ink Celebrates Six Years – 25 Business Lessons

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Hard to believe it but on February 14, 2011, I celebrated six years of business.  They say that most small businesses fail within the first five years. Kind of like marriages hit that rocky point around seven. Well, as a business owner I have passed that hurdle. I thought I would take a moment and share 25 things I have learned about business:

  1. The business you think you are starting is rarely the business you have six years later
  2. The customer should dictate your business and the customer frequently changes their mind so stay in touch
  3. Be flexible – holy cow, this one is important
  4. There are always new ways of doing things- just look at the change in social media over six years
  5. Business plans are a guideline, not the be all and end all – they should be reviewed and adjusted with economy, technology and customer trends
  6. Continually seek ways to learn – the minute you think you know it all is the first day of the end of your business
  7. Network – this is important – your foundation of people you know and who knows you help in some of the most unexpected and amazing ways
  8. Have a “boardroom” a group of trusted advisors and/or people who serve the role of sounding board – you can’t do it alone
  9. Which leads to delegate – if you are a home based business of one, build your community of experts that you can farm out portions of your business, without this network it will be impossible to grow
  10. Your time is your most valuable asset – treat it as such
  11. You offer value -never doubt that!
  12. Protect your brand -your reputation – don’t treat it lightly because once lost, it is almost impossible to get back
  13. Communication is one of your most important customer traits
  14. Speaking of the customer – build the relationship – remember your customer can be your best marketing tool – treat them as you would a long time friend not just a single moment in time purchase – they just might be your best bet for growing your business
  15. Write – share your knowledge, offer your advice, tell stories but put your expertise in writing; press releases, blog posts, articles, LinkedIn discussion comments, speeches – it is a great marketing tool and will help when you prepare to teach others to do what you do so you can sit on the beach 🙂
  16. Give back – find ways to share your knowledge, help someone else just starting out, give away your knowledge – I bet someone did it for you – it is your turn to help someone else
  17. Your competition can be one of your strongest allies – there is plenty of business to go around – know your competitors – never put them down – see what you can learn from them – follow them on Twitter!
  18. LinkedIn is a business person’s best friend
  19. Say thank you. Sometimes we get in a hurry and we forget to thank those that have been there along the way, including customers, so make sure you take the time to thank those that help you – that includes your kids and the mail carrier and the employee at the copy shop.
  20. You can compete with the big guys if you use the strength of the Internet to share your knowledge and build awareness of your brand
  21. Take time for you – when you do – you’ll have a chance to refresh and be rejuvenated so that you can tackle your business with new vigor
  22. Look at your business from your customer’s perspective – what do they need that you could be providing
  23. Niche your business offerings – if you are trying to be all to everyone – you are failing. Pick a niche and own it
  24. Listen listen listen – to customers, to employees, to vendors, to trends, to the industry, to your significant other
  25. Strive to make a difference in the lives of others – it comes back many times over!

So there you go – just a few things I have learned in the last six years.  Help add to the list – leave a comment with what business has taught you over the years.

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Judge Patricia Cosgrove Understands Her Audience

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This past week I did my civic duty by serving on a jury trial in Judge Cosgrove’s courtroom. I’m not here to talk about the case – but rather want to talk about the culture Judge Cosgrove has developed in her courtroom. As part of the case (a wrongful death suit in which a medical practice – a nurse practitioner was being held up to a standard of care determination) one of the attorneys asked a physician witness if it was possible for two doctors or two nurses to approach a similar case with different plans of actions. The answer – yes.

I thought about business. Isn’t that the case everyday? We all face customers each day and don’t we often meet the needs of the customer or provide the customer with a different experience than that our competitors? In fact, isn’t that what sets us apart? Do you have an opinion? I’m not asking your opinion, I merely want to know if you HAVE an opinion. (Just a little inside joke from me to the defense attorney, Mr. Humphries).

Anyway, the answer is yes – businesses do things differently in similar circumstances than their competitors every day. The same is true in Judge Cosgrove’s courtroom. I had the pleasure and yes, I said pleasure, of being in her courtroom, listening to the trial unfold and getting to know her staff – the bailiff (hey, Paula!) and court reporter (hope your dog is better, Terry) all week long. My fellow jurors (David and Ray, Marty and Cindy, Sam, John our Foreman and Tom and alternate Michael) became great companions. Is this normal? I don’t think so.

Let me just let you know a few ways that Judge Cosgrove sets herself apart (aside from being knowledgeable and fair and attentive and just):

  • She put herself in her jurors shoes – using a comfortable manner and humor, she set us at ease from the beginning (Judge, your facial expressions were priceless!)
  • She understood how hard those wooden chairs could be and often would invite us to stand and stretch
  • She explained what would happen in an easy to understand manner so that there was never a time when we felt the need to ask a dumb question – she anticipated them and answered them in advance
  • She helped us with our fact gathering by being the only courtroom in Summit County that provides note paper with each witness’s photo to help us keep things straight. Interestingly enough, the one witness that was on a video conference and didn’t have a photo – the jurors had all hand drawn a picture because she’d conditioned us to that note paper with a photo – we compared our drawings during deliberation). These note pages with photos may sound simple and silly but when it came time to view and refer to our notes – they were priceless!
  • She remembered personal information from the Voir Dire and would engage us in non-case related conversation during breaks – remembering our names and thanking us on multiple occasions

These may seem like simple, no-brainer things to you, but then why hasn’t every Judge fostered a culture like Judge Cosgrove? I have been in several courtrooms from my corporate working days and let me tell you – Judge Cosgrove had the friendliest most comfortable and engaging courtroom I’d ever experienced. I’m not alone. Every other juror felt the same with several volunteering to come back and hear another case in her courtroom next week. One even said if he could be in her courtroom and if being a jury was a career – he’d gladly give us his job to be a full time juror. High praise.

Judge Patricia Cosgrove is making a difference one case at a time and I was honored to have served my jury duty under her gavel. I have learned a lot about customer service and building customer relationships and understanding your customer from my experience on jury duty last week. And now I need to scramble to make up for all of the business time I lost.

So I have to ask – if you have served on a jury – what was your experience? Did you have a similar experience? Please share.

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Marketing with Honesty to Build Customer Relationships

sherre demao

Sherre DeMao

Last evening I had the opportunity to participate in a radio show – Reader’s Entertainment Radio – hosted by Sheila English.  Sheila interviewed myself and Sherre DeMao – founder of SLD Unlimted Marketing/PR, Inc. 

Sheila led us through a series of questions which uncovered our philosophies of effective marketing and communication with our prospects and customers. At the end of the day – although Sherre and I had never met or talked – we had the same focus:  open honest communication.

The customer must come first.  Sherre hones in on the psycographics of the customer – “getting into the minds of their customers.”

She also talked about a strategy she employs for marketing to customers that doesn’t involve advertising – it is called C.R.I.S.P.

1.      Customer relations

2.     Referral relations

3.     Internet presence

4.     Strategic involvements

5.     Public relations

Each involve communication and connection with customers. To listen to the 30 minute radio show click on this link: Honest Communication Builds Customer Relationships.

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Shining the Spotlight on Hidden Agendas

I’ve said it before, I’m a sucker for those love reality shows; the Bachelor and the Bachelorette have my undivided attention.  Why?

It is fun television. The most dramatic rose ceremony evermay be a little hokie but it is what it sets out to be. 25 people looking for love on national television and one single dude or dudette weighing and measuring their options, whittling down the competition until the last person is standing.

However, recently there have been incidents where the contestants have had hidden agendas.  Loved ones keeping the home fires burning while Rated R or Rozlan seek fame and fortune rather than love.

Here’s what I have to say:  Your hidden agendas aren’t so hidden.  You just aren’t that great of an actor.

The same is true with our customers. If we make recommendations because the margins are better not because it is the right thing for the cusotmer – they will catch on. They will realize that we are SELLING them rather than making recommendations. They will see through our thinly veiled agenda to the truth:

We are in it for ourselves – not to build a relationship with a potential customer for life.

We may think we are being clever, like Justin/Rated R hobbling up the mountain road to see Ali and declare his love, but we see the “cat ate the mouse” grin that means something different.  Your lips say yes, yes, yes but your actions say gimme, gimme, gimme.

This happened just recently.  My mom and I were shopping at a craft store and the employee was helping another customer select a frame for her finished needlework. The customer wasn’t sure which frame was the best and asked my Mom’s opinion. Mom immediately rejected two frame samples the employee had put out.  The customer said “yes, I wasn’t so sure I liked those either.”

The employee’s answer was classic:  “Oh I agree but my boss told me to push those two styles because they are priced well.”

Probably they were discontinued or had a nice profit margin. The employee didn’t realize the impact of her words but the customer and my Mom sure did. 

Do you have a hidden agenda with your customers? Do you press hidden sales agendas on your employees? You may want to rethink that strategy.

A customer who believes we are SELLING will find someone else willing to match the right product to their specific needs.

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Price Isn’t the Primary Loyalty Factor

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I just bought a new chair. It was time. The last time I bought a chair I was pregnant with my first born. That’s him sitting in the new chair. He’s 19.

I went to Levin because they had a 50% off sale and if you purchased on the weekend, it was free delivery. I’ve bought furniture there before – a dining room set, some end tables, and I’ve been happy with the purchase.

So I’m returning because I:

  • Liked my past experiences
  • Felt good about the value
  • Liked the quality of the product

Did you hear me mention price?  Me neither.  I will say that the current offer was what brought me to the store but other furniture places have offers every week.

Chuck helped me.  I told him what I wanted and he showed me some choices.  I was on my way to dinner so I left but went back on the weekend to take advantage of the free shipping.  I asked for Chuck and he remembered me.  I had made up my mind before entering the store so we quickly went to the purchase portion of our relationship.

He and I hadn’t talked price.  No reason to – the price was on the chair.  The full price and the sale price.  I was pleased with the price. So much so that I also planned to buy the ottoman.

He enters the information in the computer and informs me that he’s further reduced the price of the chair by $35 and the ottoman by $30.  $65!  That I didn’t ask for. 

He also reduced the price of the scotch protection plan by more than 25%. 

Why?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled with the unexpected cash that remains in my checking account but why reduce the price if price was never an issue? 

Chuck didn’t know me from Adam.  I was a pretty easy going customer.  I did say that I wanted to remain within a budget but there were lots of chairs to choose from in that price point.  I have to believe he cut his commission or else the margins are unbelievable.

His generous price discounting has served to bring questions to my mind rather than create loyalty. 

  • Just what are the margins?
  • Is the quality poor – have I bought something inferior?
  • Did he lose personal income on my transaction?
  • Was the chair last year’s model and he’s happy to get rid of it?

Why do we believe we have to be the cheapest to win friends and influence people?  I don’t have any answers here – I’m looking for a discussion from you. Has this happened that you go to make a purchase – fully aware of the price – and all of a sudden find out that the price is even less?  How did it make you feel?

Lucky.  Happy.  Sure, me too.  But didn’t it also make you feel a little curious?  Did it build loyalty?

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Getting Past Ego to Reach Customers

peaks and valleysI just finished reading Spencer Johnson, M.D.’s new book Peaks and Valleys.  Just like the One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese, the book is set up in a story format to share the great insights of the author. 

Basically the book is about how we view the peaks and valleys of our life; at work and in our personal life. By dwelling on the negative, blowing fear out of proportion and letting our ego get in the way of reality; valleys loom larger and more daunting than necessary.

In one example in the book the wise one man on the peak tells the story of a once great company:

“When I was younger, I worked for a very large and famous company. We provided a great service at a good price-the best in out industry. Then our costs rose and the economy took a turn for the worse. Our service cost us more to provide and soon fewer people could afford it. Sales fell, but due to our fame, management believed they could simply ride out the bad time. The reality of course, was that we needed to change. But they didn’t see this, because their arrogance had made them complacent. Eventually we lost most of our customers and had to sell the business.”

“So what did you do?” the young man asked.

“I asked myself, what is the truth in this situation? The truth was that we were not making our customers happy.”

I love this example.  The point of the story is so simple.  WE WEREN’T MAKING OUR CUSTOMERS HAPPY. The company became too big for its britches, as my Grandma would say, and because they weren’t willing to set aside ego and look at how they might change to stay a viable solution for their customer, they became extinct.

The book goes on to talk about how to view the valleys of life in a more realistic, sensible way and to appreciate the gifts we have even in our hard times.  And when we are on top of the world to make sure we don’t get too full of ourselves and simply enjoy every moment for the gift that it is.

It is a quick read and has lessons that can be applied to all walks of life.  I’d recommend giving it a read.

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Be Careful of Words that Brand You

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

That may be true, but some words can alter how one person feels about another or how a customer feels about a business.

Take this little romance story:  Once upon a time there was a man and woman of a certain age who shared a deep and abiding friendship over many years.  One weekend the couple got together and spent a lovely time.  In the end the man turned to the woman, sighed and said “This is perfect.”  However, two hours later the man confessed that, perfect though it may be, “he didn’t feel the magic.”

Although the friendship spanned many years, the words branded in the woman’s brain were the disconnect between perfection and a lack of magic.  The man couldn’t help how he felt but the woman couldn’t help that all the words and actions that had gone before were erased by the “lack of magic” branded in her brain. 

Now, this story is one of emotion and you may feel has no baring on business and yet if you believe that a customer/company transaction is without emotion and is limited to dollars and cents – you would be wrong

We spend hours, days and even months perfecting our company tagline in hopes that it becomes branded in the minds of our customer.  Yet, it is the words of those most closely connected with our customers that are actually remembered.  And if there is a disconnect between what we stand for and what the customer experiences – the ultimate branding experience won’t have a happy ending.

Are the words branded in the minds of your customers the ones you desire or are they:

  • What part of “that’s not our policy” don’t you understand
  • The coupon expired yesterday – there’s nothing I can do
  • Frankly, your business isn’t that important to me
  • That’s not my job
  • I don’t care what your story is – we don’t give refunds only store credit
  • We don’t have any more, but maybe one of our other stores does – you’ll just have to go and check
  • I know it was promised today but that’s just not possible
  • That may be how we did it in the past but we don’t do it that way anymore

Relationships with customers are emotional.  They are built on trust and if our words and actions belie that trust, the brand image the customer remembers is one of disappointment, dissatisfaction and even betrayal. 

Do the words your customer hears match your tagline?  What message is branded in the mind of your customers based on their actual experiences?

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Honesty is the Best Policy

Let’s play a little game. I’ll name a profession.  What’s the first word that comes to mind?

 

·        Used car salesman

·        Insurance sales representative

·        Lawyer

·        Financial advisor

·        Financial investor

Did any positive words come to mind? Did the word “honest” immediately pop in your head?  If so – you have found a unique individual to do business with, but chances are “honest” wasn’t the first word that came to mind.

Some professions have earned a less than favorable moniker and we tend to paint all in their field with the broad stroke of negativity based on prior experience or the experience of those we trust.

Shyster, pushy, egotistical, dishonest – were these some of the words that you thought of?  I’m reminded of the original Miracle on 34th street movie.  In this classic Christmas movie, Natalie Woods plays a little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa and yet by the end of the movie she comes to know and love a man, played convincingly by Edmund Gwenn, who insists he’s Santa.

On his first day of work as Santa in Macy’s Department Store, he promises a child that they will receive a gift the mother has been unable to find. As the child moves away the mother sarcastically thanks Santa for setting unachievable expectations in the mind of her son.

Macy’s doesn’t have that toy, she tells him.

Oh, I know, but you can find it this other store.

The mother is speechless.  A department store typically thought of as in it for the profits is sending a customer to shop at the competition? Macy’s putting the customer’s needs in front of their own profitability? 

 

Unheard of.

In the movie, that unselfish, honest gesture works in their favor. The press gets wind and soon everyone is shopping at Macys “the store with the true Christmas spirit.”

Being honest and upfront with your customer is the key to building a long term relationship. Here are a few key areas to keep in mind:

·        Use fair and consistent pricing. Use of a loss leader to bring customers in the door is okay if the item is actually available and for the price you advertise.

·        If you advertise FREE then offer it FREE without strings attached

·        If you can’t make a promised deadline – let the customer know quickly. Own up to the mistake, error or reason for the delay.  The customer will respect your honesty.

·        If it looks bad on them – tell them

·        If a customer picks out a product beyond their stated needs – tell them.  Don’t sell them a Jaguar if what they want is less expensive to maintain. Educating your customer and making appropriate recommendations based on their stated needs will be appreciated and will set you apart from those just in it for the profits.  If they still want the Jag – sell it to them!

 

Honesty is always the best policy with customers. You would certainly want someone to be honest with you, right?

 

NOTE: Honesty doesn’t mean cruelty. You can be honest while still being tactful.  Take care in your quest to be honest that you keep in mind the customer’s feelings and reactions.  If they look bad in the spandex simply suggest that the cotton might be more flattering.

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Open, Regular, Honest Communication Key to Customer Relationships

Yesterday President George W. Bush held his final press conference of his presidency. It was his 47th conference in eight years. That’s about one opportunity to communicate his message every OTHER month.

In contrast, the President Elect, Barack Obama has held 16 press meetings since being elected November 4, 2008. That’s about one every four DAYS!

Times are tough. Questions from the audience are challenging. The news isn’t good.

Our natural instinct, when the news is bad, is to avoid confrontation, ignore the situation or hope someone else will take the heat. Whether the audience is the American population or one single customer – the surest way to build a relationship is to communicate early, honestly and on a regular basis.

Even when you don’t have all the answers.

I started with Pearle Vision as a store manager.  We sold and made the glasses.  Some prescriptions were easy to make and some were more challenging.  At the time of the sale we would give a time or date when the glasses would be ready and invited the customer to return for their custom-made glasses.

On occasion, there would be a problem with the glasses – the frame wasn’t available, the lens broke in the edger or the completed product didn’t pass the final inspection; any of these occurrences would cause a delay in the product delivery.

As a new manager, I soon learned that some of the employees failed to notify the customer in the case of the delay.  I don’t know if they hoped the customer would forget about the due date or if they feared a confrontational discussion but for whatever the reason – they failed to communicate to the customer.

I quickly changed that process. 

Building customer relationships requires open and honest communication – ESPECIALLY when the news isn’t good.  Customers are willing to understand and forgive if we keep them in the loop.  So when it comes to communicating with customers:

  • Share the information available
  • If you don’t have the answers – be honest and then let them know how you are going about getting the information
  • If you’ve made a promise (deadline or product) that you discover you can’t keep – call immediately to let the customer know
  • Set realistic expectations.  Customer would rather know the truth than to be told what you think they want to hear.
  • Under promise and over deliver
  • If customers are left to guess – they will think the worst so keep them regularly informed

Regardless of your political viewpoint – hopefully you can respect Obama’s desire to keep us informed rather than in the dark.  Follow his example and keep your customers informed.

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A Tender Moment with the Obama’s

Did you watch Barbara Walter’s interview with the president elect and his wife on Wednesday night?  YouTube has the entire event in small segments and I would recommend you watch if you haven’t.

During the first part of the interview with Michelle, (around minute 3 of the attached video) there is a tender, honest moment between Barack and Michelle.

When we think of national and world leaders we imagine people who are serious, focused and driven to success – or at least I do. We can tell ourselves they put their pants on one leg at a time, but if we try to put ourselves in their shoes to understand the magnitude of their responsibility and their impact on the world, it just becomes impossible.

They are too far above us ordinary folks. It is impossible to imagine having anything in common with them. We have a hard enough time ruling our own roost let alone having an effect on the roosts all around the country.

But in that one moment of honest tenderness between husband and wife on national television we can suddenly envision hanging out with our next president and his wife.

He reaches over to tell her she has lipstick on her tooth and she admonishes him for not listening to her when she’s talking.

What a moment.

I guess the bigger reveal for me was that this very personal moment didn’t land on the editing floor.

So how does this relate to our every day life with customers, vendors, employees and peers? I guess it says to me that we should never be so focused on business that we can’t afford to be a little human. For it is in those little human acts that we become relatable – someone you want to hang with – someone you want to have a relationship with. 

Someone you want to do business with.

I wish all the best for our new first family as they transition into their new lives, facing umpteen challenges; both monumental and everyday.

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