Customer Service / Online Marketing – One Rock at a Time

How to move mountains – eCommerce & eMarketing strategy for success!

A link to Amazon list o’ great marketing books probably my top 10, updated annually.



Over at The Search Agents’ blog, I discuss the setting of expectations (or lack of) and the steps online retailers should take to mitigate.

Although I don’t promise a new Mercedes, I wouldn’t mind one of my readers sending one over… so if you’d like… read about eTailing mistakes.

I can’t imagine the Royal Wedding didn’t have it’s naysayers, and although I was happy with the blessed event, I was a little miffed that “nothing is left to chance” was the quote of the day on ABC 7 News.

As Search Agents, “nothing is left to chance (or the search engines)” is a mantra you’ll hear a few times a day at The Search Agency.

Anticipating the unknown not only offers opportunity, it saves royalty (or the client) from ever having to worry about the “what if”

My article covering the Royal Wedding possible gaffs and Search Marketing superiority gained little interaction but maybe pissed off a few Royals.

I took some time out to comment on Google’s Panda update at The Search AGent’s blog, in the hope of dispelling some of the “Chicken Little” sentiment around the web.

The takeaways:

Rule #1: Create unique, valuable content. Period.
Rule #2: In case you haven’t in the past… Follow rule #1.

Simple and hopefully calming news to the SEO crowd currently standing underway doorways or wiping their bottoms.

The more things in SEO change… the more they remain the same.

Happy plucking!

Over at The Search Agents’ blog, I comment (rather sarcastically I might add) on Bing’s foray into various verticals in an attempt (and a bad one at that) of differentiating itself from Google’s simplicity (which it does very well by confusing the hell out of the user)

Check it out and please add your comments if you agree or disagree.

They say what’s in a name? For Microsoft’s new search engine decision engine, dubbed ‘Bing’, a lot (read millions of dollars) is riding on the name and the whole premise of spoon-feeding search results to the masses.

Bing promises to interpret your search and deliver exactly what you’re looking for in small, easy-sized bites of information. Bing is from a company that has promised for over 20 years to deliver an operating system that is impervious to viruses and doesn’t freeze up your PC. Hmmm.

The name itself, “Bing” is a marketers dream. Short. Easy to remember. The domain was available (for sale). And it rhymes with lots of things.

In fact ‘Bing’ actually rhymes with ‘thing’. Who’d have thunk?

And who’d have thought the leading online search company would be called ‘Google,’ dominating the market over a company called ‘Yahoo’? I didn’t.

I couldn’t predict a company named Amazon would become the world’s biggest bookstore either. Or that a tweet would be anything more than the sound a bird makes. And though my skills as a modern day Nostradamus may be somewhat limited, there is one thing I know;

Bing is a silly name for a product.

I Google, you Google, everyone Googles, but I can’t imagine anyone admitting that they ‘Bing’ to find something online.

“Dear… I’m just Binging for our vacation information”

“John, did you Bing that camera review?”

It just sounds silly.

The original Bing

And it’s not new or cool. It’s Bing Crosby (who was pretty cool) and Chandler Bing (the not cool one on Friends). It’s not unique. It’s not hip. And it just sounds silly. [Authors note: There is a very sexy model called Anine Bing]

I will be road-testing Bing when the beta launches on June 3rd, and I will be honest about how and how well it divines my every desire. (PG-13 desires, obviously)

I doubt that I will become a Bing believer. Bing booster or even a Billabong (which doesn’t have the word Bing in it, but sounds eerily similar.)

I will be following the adoption of Binging and will tweet my Bing experiences as they happen. Maybe I’ll be found on Bing. You never know.

And that, how they say in Little Italy New York, is “badda boom, badda bing.

[updated] I’d like to thanks Seth Godin who noted that BING actually stands for “But Its Not Google” in his excellent shared viewpoint of Bing’s ultimate failure. 

Hopefully Mick Jagger and what’s left of The ‘Stones will forgive my hijacking of their song to illustrate a point.

Consumers often have expectations that are more than unreasonable.

Companies, retailers and manufacturers often expect a product to succeed beyond it’s marketplace opportunity.

The surest way of always getting what you want, is to set realistic expectations and goals.

Never set them too low. But be realistic in the success you hope to achieve.

In SEO this is particularly important in setting client expectations for success.

Be honest, be realistic and everyone ends up getting what they want.

As Mick sang “And if you try sometime you find, You get what you need

I’m a Wells Fargo customer (as well as having other bank accounts) and I like their online banking because it’s obvious they put a lot of thought into the customer experience.

Usability is key to customer satisfaction, and in the case of online banking, key to customer confidence.

With all the offline ‘crap’ going on in the financial world, it’s nice when a company makes little gestures to reassure.

Wells Fargo adds this little message on login:

Wells Fargo "one moment please" messaging

Is it really necessary? Of course not. A blank screen would suffice from a technology standpoint. But incremental reassurances are good practice and good customer service.

My other bank, who shall remain anonymous, but rhymes with a killer whale at Seaworld, throws the customer right into their account (at least they did last time I checked) – same for my credit card company.


Wells Fargo even sends you to a sign out confirmation page when you’re done. With simple observation, you’re out… if you want back in you’re going to have to login again. And it gives you a link back to the sign on page.

Good usability. Good reassurance. Good bank.

I tend to write a lot about customer service because the web is inherently a faceless communications tool where customer service is often lacking, but can be enhanced through usability, simplicity and truly knowing your visitors.

Offline examples of good / bad service offer great learning opportunities. One such lesson occurred Christmas evening when my family went out for a dinner.

As you can imagine the choice is somewhat limited on Christmas and were expecting a little wait. We ended up at Jerry’s Deli in Encino, a popular and ‘famous’ (in their own words) traditional New York deli experience, with a bit of Encino attitude thrown into the mix.

Surprise (not) it was crowded. Actual surprise, there were about 50 people waiting for tables, the list about 20 party long “30-40 minute wait”

A few real surprises:

  1. Every time the door opened, the ice cold wind blew in, arousing curses and complaints from the Encino crowd (not known for their patience). The hostess was shivering, dressed as she was. Not a great environment for a waiting area as we waited for the hostess to come down with pneumonia!

  2. I walked into the restaurant area to find > 15 tables / booths open. Absolutely empty. When I asked the manager “What’s up?” she said that they didn’t want to “overwhelm” the kitchen. Yep. Much better to underwhelm the waiting customers.

  3. I asked the manager if she could serve some hot chocolate to the crowd of cold, patient and ‘growing rapidly restless’ patrons. “That’s a great idea. We don’t do it. But it’s a great idea.” No. A great idea is one you implement and find out it’s even better than you expect it would be, to actually demonstrate true unexpected customer service! Surprise We care!

It didn’t get much better, as by the time we reached our table (50 mins after we arrived) the service was slow, the food cold (what was available as they were ‘out’ of lots of stuff) and the apologies of the waitress were lame as they provided little in the way of empathy, only excuses.

It doesn’t take much to exceed expectations. Seriously.

A cup of hot chocolate, a bit of holiday cheer, and hot food isn’t too much to ask, is it?

As it turns out, I think Jerry’s has finally lost us as customers, we’ll go to Fromin’s down the road, who at least welcomed us will a smile and excellent service this morning.

Cost of a mug of hot chocolate (bulk – one serving, including dishwasher) = 25c

Lifetime value of my patronage – $40×12 times / year x 10 years = $4,800

Online it doesn’t take much to meet or exceed expectations either. Offering something as a surprise or something unexpected (free upgrade on shipping? smoother checkout?) can often tip the balance, changing an online visit into an online experience.

Don’t think of the sale as a one time event, think of the customer experience as a lifetime relationship, one in which all parties involved profit.

Complimentary hot chocolate when you’re cold and waiting? That’s just one way to start a relationship.

Many businesses are looking at their marketing Return On Investment (ROI) as a key area of focus when considering cost cutting, cost savings and cost justification.

Whether justifying to management or shareholders – I tend to blur the line of accountability between the two – in tough times every line item in a marketing budget tends to get scrutinized for efficiency, economy and priority.

ROI (Return On Investment) is a great metric – and buzzword – for bean counters. For project managers and marketers like myself a much better, and more fitting, interpretation would be Return On Implementation.

This is based on my “un-patented but all mine” success equation:

effort + smarts + implementation + follow-up = success

The term “investment” makes me think of one-off effort, the term “implementation” references a definitive and deliberate process to distinct and measurable goals.

What’s your ROI?

Is good quality bad?

According to the economist on the panel addressing the Senate Committee, quality is a double-edged sword that leads to less cars being bought, primarily because they simply last longer.

Is this a bad thing?

Not for consumers!

On the web, should a website be constantly updated if quality is not an issue?

Should site updates be driven by necessity or by an arbitrary schedule?

Rhetorical questions!

Updates should be relevant, driven by users to some degree, and on a schedule as defined by business need, not decided by throwing runes or looking into crystal balls!

A site does not need to make significant updates unless it increases the quality, defined (by me) as:

(actual value / perceived value) * satisfaction——————————————————————(competition * actual defects)

Value is a factor of “what’s in it for me?”, “what do I need?” and “do you have it for me?”

To have actual value a site needs to provide what visitors need and allow them to easily and painlessly get it! Note: This could be information, a product, a service a connection etc.

Satisfaction, is the ability to deliver at or above user expectations.

Competition is a factor of uniqueness.

Defect is a factor of not delivering to expectations through issues or actions that could be resolved given insight, resources or technology.

Quality is a necessity. Quality attracts customers. Quality is good for business.

Online, website quality is a necessary goal.

Now will someone please get out there and tell the Big 3 Automakers to make better quality cars that people want and let a willing audience come to them! (And let me keep my tax dollars!)

My 8-year old son asked me one of his ‘out of the blue’ questions this week as we drove to his school in Las Vegas.

“Why are there so many gas stations?”

I put on my marketing cap and told him that more places to buy gas, gives us more choice and competition gives us lower prices. (Supply and demand theory coupled with some branding concepts.)

I felt quite proud of my response until he asked “Why is there the same gas station on two opposite sidesof the street then?”

The obvious answer was “easier for people driving in different directions.” And this is in fact the case for both gas stations and Starbucks coffee houses. They sometimes place them close together (on opposite sides of intersections) due to traffic patterns and drivers inherent laziness!

‘Nuff said, but it got me thinking about the same scenario on the Internet.

There’s no apparent ‘closeness’ of websites in cyberspace. Sites, offering similar content, similar tools, or similar products may be located on servers on the other side of the world.

Where their worlds touch are on the search results pages where their relevance (as viewed by the search engines) is seen as similar or close to the search terms used.

Whether a user clicks on one link or another isn’t affected by laziness or traffic patterns, at that point the user is solely interested in finding information that is relevant to them and their needs. Search engines have done a great job of lining up all gas stations along our side of the road and letting us stop and fill up at any one of them. So what do we choose?

Gas stations pitch brand and price. I’ll stop at a Rebel or Arco station that’s cheap, rather than a brand that is more expensive. I am price driven (gas is gas, unless someone can tell me different).

Online the title and ‘snippet’ (at least on Google) may be all the user sees and makes their ‘click decision’ on.

Brand-driven decisions can be the result of including a brand name in your web page title. Cost-driven decisions can be the result of including the words ‘cheap’, ‘low cost’ or ‘economical’. Whatever the motivation may be, you have some control over what appears by creating solid content and by following basic on-page SEO techniques.

Attracting and converting ‘traffic’ depends on providing information of interest, following SEO best-practices, writing for your audience and then being able to make conversion paths easy to find and follow to goals (fill up the tank).

Constructing titles, descriptions and logical URL links makes sense in accurately describing what people should expect when they click.

Gas stations may be just about everywhere in Vegas, but your site only exists in search results pages that fit searchers’ queries. Make sure your provide enough to get the click, then the right octane gas to fill the tank and get those users to stop by again.

The current price of gas may be falling rapidly, but your information, products, tools? Priceless.

From my agency days springs the expression “Garbage in, garbage out” used in video and audio production meaning essentially, the best (audio / video product) quality comes from the best quality source material.

Sure, you could hide the occasional aircraft noise in a perfect 20 minute interview, but you couldn’t get pristine out of an interview at Grand Central Station with system announcements every 3 minutes.

Problems in post production were almost always solvable by exact and precise preparation before a shoot or audio session.

Same goes for web analytics.

Using Google Analytics as an example, having distinct goals and pathways defined to measure success will always give better and more actionable results than poorly planned goal implementation (or not doing it at all!)

Clients without transactional (i.e. purchase) goals on their sites often omit goal setting as they only believe the relevance is to dollars and cents results. Goals can be as simple as ensuring certain content is reviewed, or comment is left, or a click through is obtained (it could be between pages or sites or specific exit points.)

Data is the most valuable aspect of web analytics, setting real and relevant goals is a necessity in any search engine optimization campaign.

Dirty data in = dirty data out = waste (garbage or rubbish) of time.

Take out the garbage and benefit from the clean, fresh (and valuable) data!

Lost my attempt to stay away from politics, as we approach the US elections, when I picked my son up from school this week.

I’m a big L Libertarian who believes the best government is a small government, so I follow elections with the hope that one or another of the candidates will actually deliver small to do big things. I remain hopeful.

Back to School

My son, who’s an apolitical 3rd grader, has been all abuzz with the elections. As it should, his class is learning about how the political process works (the “ideal” scenario!) and as part of their research they sent letters to both candidates for President with their comments in regards to the future of America, American education and American economy. These questions were simplistic in nature and each letter closed with wishing the candidates good luck.

None of these kids are of voting age. Yet. So the value of a response from either candidate couldn’t be perceived as being driven by immediate rewards (i.e. vote for me!).

This week my son came home proudly displaying his Obama button, and directed me to a letter his class had received from Obama himself (I’m not discounting or naive - relaying perception of the letter, personalized and signed by Obama.)

Of course I asked if a letter had been received from John McCain, the answer was ‘no’, so I asked again, “Why do you think that is?” – My 8 year old son replied, “I don’t know, but I think he’s mean for not writing back.”

What cost a letter and stamp?

It’s a documented fact that the Democrats have more campaign fund dollars than the Republicans as of October… BUT, realistically, what kind of time and money does it take to respond to a letter?

From a marketing standpoint, the Democrats have, from the start, taken a commanding position in everything from web to TV, to social media to print. My question is, why for the price of a stamp and 15 minutes of an aides time would they not respond to a letter?

My conclusion is they are focused on the immediate vote, not the long term mindset.

As kids, many of our brand favorites are indelibly etched into our memories and our preferences, for life.

I remember eating my Dads preferred brand of peanut butter far into my 30’s and listening to music preferred by my mum long after her parental influence had waned.

So whilst the Obama campaign is building mindshare and support for the Democrats’ 2020 election, the Republicans are losing potential voters by not making the emotional and physical connection.

What about 2008?

If we take this one step further and focus on the net affect for this election, it’s hard to imagine any downside to a written response to this group of 3rd graders (apart from the time and effort to do it.)

Obama’s letter was clearly posted on the wall. Parents saw. Parents discussed. And parents commented.

If my kid is saying McCain is rude (because he didn’t write back), I hear. It resonates. It’s an incremental brand message.

I hope McCain / Palin and all politicians hear and understand what has happened here.

Constituents have been ignored. A brand has been tarnished (whilst another has soared).

15 mins and a stamp could cost the Republicans an election in 2020

Now apply this same logic and missed opportunity to your business. Especially in tough economic times.

Is there something you can do, to reach out or respond to customers or prospects? Something that takes little more than 15 mins and the cost of a postage stamp (or a cheaper email!), but something that could endear your brand for a future sale?

Market for 2020 and you may just find profits in 2008

Checking my referrer logs I found a Google referral from a somewhat strange (to me) search term.

“paint a vivid word picture disney ads”

The power of Google is that you can be found even if there’s no apparent relevance, at least initially – the listing has since dropped from Google’s #1 SERP (Search Engine Results Page).

[note: “painting a vivid picture” and “Disney” and “ads” were mentioned in two separate posts]

Remember everything you write and post out to the blogosphere has the potential to drive traffic (whether you want that traffic or not) so picking the right words to say is key – a better mousetrap for the mouse you want to catch.

Write well, write unique and write often… choose your words carefully… they count!

I’d like to apologize in advance for the deception in the title. Even though Plymouth, MN comes close (it just won best place to live in America)  there is no ‘perfect’ community either on or offline. But there are certain similarities in almost perfect communities that contribute to their success that we can look at as components to include in our “community building for success 101” projects 🙂

The Cornerstones of Community Building

#1 Empowerment

The community is the people and the people are the community. A community must give citizens the ability to define how the community operates and evolves.

#2 Relevance

The community must attract citizens by providing interest and an environment of relevance to their own needs. A community must be unique for them, yet allow many of the same to feel uniqueness through personalization and adaption.

#3 Discovery

The community must allow people to explore, discover and connect with each other, and themselves, through identification and leveraging of similarities, differences, interests and human nature.

#4 Participation

The community must illicit, encourage and support involvement so that citizens understand that they are the integral part of the community, the “raison d’etre” for the community’s existence, and to realize that without their participation the community potentially withers and dies.

Looking to build the next Facebook or LinkedIn?

Integrating these four components may not guarantee 5 million users overnight (you’ll have to invade a small country for that!), but they will lay a solid foundation for community building and increase your chances of success.

Welcome thoughts and comments!

I was talking to a successful friend of mine today who was inferring that to be successful in business all one has to do is deliver perfection, (or better than anyone else) on time.

I agree to an extent, this is, after all a brand promise – “We deliver great product, within your timeframe” – a great brand promise that if achieved should keep customers happy.

I hear Grasshopper in the back saying “but what about price, isn’t that important too?” – sure, but price (in the ideal world for the businessman) should never be a deciding factor – note, I said in an ideal business world.

Now we come to my slant, and it has nothing to do with price. A good brand promise means nothing without good brand marketing. And good brand marketing is nothing without good brand comparison.

Grasshopper: “What do you mean? And are you saying price doesn’t matter?” – Author {Grasshopper has been known to have a one track mind!}

First, a brand promise is all about positioning, and postioning is all about finding out where you fit in the marketplace, and finding that fit is about identifying & exploiting your strengths or differentiating your competitors weaknesses. And that’s brand comparison. Phew, glad that’s out. And price is one of those comparisons, but not the only, or most important. If it were, what car do you think everyone would be driving? That’s right… Hyundai. (Or one of those little Chinese things that is made the same size as a coffin on purpose – especially on Los Angeles Freeways).

So my contention is, getting back to the premise of this piece, is that “Delivering perfect product, on time” is for naught if that is not communicated effectively or is not different (or different enough) from anything that the competition is doing or delivering. (In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!)

Grasshopper rolls over in confused daze, “So it’s not about price?”

No Grasshopper, and BTW your Geely is double-parked.

As far as marketing, few companies do more and / or do it better than Apple.
I have an iPod. I have 3 iPods, but who’s counting 🙂

When Apple launches products, they do it with flair and showmanship, they produce products that people desire not necessarily need.

So when an Apple Store opened nearby, I walked – actually ran – to it and was not disappointed by the wide open space filled with bright iMac, Mac Book and Mac Pro LCDs. Apple does it all right. Hands on. Spacious. Alluring. Simplicity. Focus on the products. Encouraged interactivity.

So where am I saying they’re not doing it best?

People. No amount of presentation or ‘cool factor’ is going to maximize sales without the personal touch. Customer service is key when getting a question answered correctly could mean the difference between a $100 sales and a $1000 sale. “Joe” who helped me, didn’t know what he was talking about. “Joe” didn’t know how the payment system worked (or their new-fangled handheld money grabbers that “Paul” demonstrated to me – “It’s pretty difficult to login”). “Joe” didn’t live up to the experience the environment demanded.

So how can this example help your marketing and ultimately your sales?

Remember that no matter how effective you are at capturing your customers’ attention, if the buying experience doesn’t measure up, you won’t make the sale. Making it easier for people to buy, both online and off, means informing, educating, hand holding and effortlessly guiding the customer, money in hand, to the place when you can process that payment. All the glitz in the world is useless if it doesn’t assist in that process. And people can make the difference, customer service and sales are the grease in the commerce wheel. Don’t let your sales grind to a halt by ignoring the most obvious.

An owner of well-known franchise approached me late last week, and is seeking some assistance in creating a local and loyal customer-base.

Woo hoo! Another client, you say? Sure, if I want to bang my head against the wall. Working with most franchise operations is a no win proposition for a marketing guy like myself. No matter what you pitch, beyond bland, there’s often a disconnect between what is needed, and what is allowed by the franchiser. These ‘mother ships’ set standards and procedures (and rightly so, you can’t have a Mickey D’s with soggy fries!) that squeeze out and disallow new and different ideas that may help the franchise market themselves differently.

This kind of top-down marketing is like going into The Gap and being offered one-size-fits-all jeans, they may fit some customers, but very unlikely to fit all. So let’s talk jeans for a sec.

How do you set the specs for one-size-fits-all?

Do you break down demographics so that you know what the fat, thin and tweenies spend?

Conversation at The Gap HQ: The Gap merchandizer, “Mmm, I see average household income for the ‘weight-challenged’ is 25% higher than the ‘slim jims’. Lets make the one-size-fits-all jeans on the large size.”

One size fits all marketing is no less (or more) a fallacy than one-size-fits-all jeans. (With the exception that marketing won’t make you look fatter).

Just as everybody has a different body, every company has different appeal based on different customers’ needs.

Franchisers generally have smart marketing guys who set policy company-wide and wonder why certain customers aren’t buying into the message.

Just as you are more apt to sell smaller jeans in California and bigger jeans in the South (yes, I’m generalizing based on my travels – great fries and beignets in New Orleans) marketing is based on demographics; e.g. geographic, economic, schizophrenic – I added the last one, but it’s often true 🙂

So, getting back to my potential new client, I’m going to review his franchise itself, view his franchise agreement, review the franchiser marketing guidelines and see if there’s enough wiggle room to make some effective change.

And talking about wiggle room, I might go buy a pair of jeans too.

For over 25 years I’ve been involved in project management. I’ve been a bar tender, sailing instructor, camp counselor, advertising sales person, event planner, hitch hiker, store manager, and now online (and offline) marketing / eCommerce consultant. What? I hear some lout at the back asking, “what the heck has any of that got to do with project management?”

Prepare, Grasshopper, to be enlightened.

noun |ˈpräjˌekt; -ikt ˈmanijmənt : Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of the particular project. A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to achieve a particular aim.

Whoa! So project management fits about everything we do, from serving a drink to executing a $200k marketing plan. < lout takes a seat > “Mmm, so how does this site help Joe Schmo and I to get what we want i.e. ‘achieving a particular aim?’”

Great question! Often in client ‘pitch’ meetings, when I’m after a new project a client will ask, “So why should I pick your company over the competition?”. My answer is pretty basic. “Our passionate application of knowledge, common sense; and expertise will ensure you achieve your business goals”.

Sounds like project management being done the right way! So what is the right way?

The approach in getting to my client’s goals is simple. “One Rock at a Time”!

Issues, problems, road blocks, whatever stops a project being executed well, are normally results of bad planning, bad strategy, and bad time management.

It’s like if someone asked you to move a mountain 10 feet to the left, and you then proceeded to spend 300 million bucks and 3 years planning how to jack the mountain up, roll a helluva big trailor under it and hire a fleet of trucks to pull it. Meanwhile, a thoughful chap has employed 100,000 folks to each grab a rock, walk 10 feet, and drop it!

Big projects don’t necessarily need big ideas, they just need vision, and an intelligent application of the right resources.

And so back to project management. It’s what I do, and it’s what I do well. No matter if it’s a Mai Tai, a round the harbor sailboat race or a Search Engine Marketing campaign with (or working for) a major US company, I’ll get the job done, on budget and on schedule.

How? I’m glad you asked… one rock at a time of course 🙂