Customer Service / Online Marketing – One Rock at a Time

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

Yes, I tried to be funny with the title. Twitter went down on me but it wasn’t fun. Withdrawal. Lack of communication. And time on my hands.

For those wondering… read about what I did, the day Twitter decided to dump me.

I’m a big believer in usability being key to a website’s success.

A conversation with a co worker gave me the opportunity to mix “business with belief” and create a post for The Search Agents blog.

For those wondering about the obtuse mention of monkeys and headgear, I recommend you read Seth Godin’s excellent book on “making the banana easy to find.”

Mentioned in the post, it really is a quick, easy to read overview on what makes a website work! Enjoy.

While folks at the office were calculating, researching, whiteboarding, slide ruling (I put that in there, not certain they would know what to do with one) and discussing indepth the “Bing effect”, I was Googling away without a care in the world.

My thoughts on why Google will continue to be number one.

20 years and a couple of lifetimes ago, I arrived in Cancun, Mexico with a couple of bags, boyish excitement and a bundle of energy.

I was a GO, Gentile Organizateur a hotel worker in Club Med, part teacher, part drinking buddy, part host, part companion. I had no clue.

I was recruited in New York, an English rebel, just off a summer working in Canada and 2 years before that going ‘walk-a-bout’ in Australia. The Club Med stint was recommended by a coworker in West Australia who said I would “love it.” So here I was.

I was far from the traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ so approached the group of young, tanned and good-looking individuals and announced myself – “Grant, new sailing guy.”

They all started talking, chatting, pumping hands, laughing. There was only one word to describe it. “Family

It was an amazing first day introduction, there was no ‘status dance’, no pretence, no anything but warmth, free speaking, respect and a common bond of employment.

20 years later, I still marvel at the enveloping culture of the Club Med GO team at that time. And the amazing thing is that it wasn’t unique to that venue. In the following 4 1/2 years I spent as a GO, every team, in every Village, in countries around the world had the same feeling, a culture of  like-minded individuals with a common goal – giving the customers (GMs) the vacation of their lifetime.

Are you having this much fun at work?

And this, I’ve found, is the common thread of strong corporate cultures, a clear, understandable and achievable goal that employees can rally around and revel in the shared success.

Forget mission statements and empty positioning that can only make sense to the Chief Marketing Officer, a company’s culture needs to be simple enough to be measured against, whilst easy to communicate both inside and outside the organization.

When I started my own company in 2001, I wanted to provide a “Club Med” style experience to my clients. And this wasn’t about pareos and cocktails, this was more about an attitude of ‘yes’. Leveraging the power of “I can” as opposed to a culture of negativity, I managed to grow from one client, to over 140, including a fortune 500 list of industry leaders. I would never say I was the best at what I did, but my staff and I were enthusiastic, listened and got the job done. Our mantra was ‘size doesn’t matter’ – a dig at ourselves, a small company consulting with some industry giants, and also pushing the fact that any project can be successful with the right resources and execution. It was Club Med experience that taught me that… In the Club we really did do the impossible, and made it look effortless.

Simplicity isn't always effective :-)

I tried exactly this at my last company, a large timeshare organization whose employees were wallowing in years of uncertainty, and management that had lost the desire to communicate honestly. I was VP of Brand Communications and was tasked (amongst other things) with creating an internal culture that would take this company to the next level of service and profitability.  I created a ‘battle cry’ for the employees, “Delivering brilliant moments” that got down to the core of what we should be doing for our guests and played off the corporate branding. Employees loved it, top management thought it too simplistic, over-analyzed it and ended up publishing a 3-sentence mission statement that was launched with much pomp and ceremony, and died on everyone’s lips within a week. It  lacked an important component of any successful corporate culture. Fun.

Fast forward to today, I’m fortunate to work at a progressive online agency that has the flexibility of size, stability of a great client portfolio, and resources of venture capital. We’re creating an environment and culture that empowers individuality whilst building team spirit. It’s unique, it’s in it’s infancy, it’s almost working.

We’re looking at industry leaders like Zappos, folks that have proven service is a differentiator, employee fun a retention tool, and the power of a corporate ‘family’ a tool in moving everyone in the same direction, onward to company success.

Zappos’ innovative employee induction process, cool work environment and willingness to share their secrets, makes them a company worth emulating.

At my current employ there’s still lots of work done to build a Zappos-like culture, we’re not thinking it’s a trivial task but, most importantly, we are having fun building it.

Before I’m accused of being naive in thinking beach bums can correlate to a Wall Street business environment, try substituting the traditional definition of ‘fun’ for something even the Brooks Bros. crowd can appreciate. “Good attitude”.

Try it!  Even the guys in the suits will be amazed how far a little Club Med Culture can move an organization forward.

Took a light hearted look at SEO that once was in a post entitled “Top 10 reasons you know your plumbers’ website is optimized to rank #1 (circa 1999 black hat SEO)” – whew.. bit of a mouthful 🙂

Enjoy SEO as it used to be!

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. 

A drive down Ventura Blvd, a store sign, happy memories, beautiful people and a blog post is born!!

My thoughts on Andy Warhol’s “5 mins of Fame” pontification, and what it means in this connected-via-the-Internet / SEO kind of world.

There was a movement in the Force when Matt Cutts, SEO influencer and Googler said something perhaps he shouldn’t have.

My take on what that means to us average Joes – over at The Search Agents blog

I’m not insensitive. I don’t want people that handle pigs to die. They have enough problems.

I do want to highlight the effect social networks have on news. Hysteria. Paranoia.

*This* pig will fly. Social media gives you wiinnnngs!

Twitter, Facebook and tens of other social networks empower individuals to be newsmakers and story-breakers and armchair journalists.

And it’s truly changed the landscape of news media.

The problem with empowering millions to interpret the news through their own personal periscope is that you get millions of personal viewpoints.

You get news faster. (And you get more of it!) But you also get exaggeration, hyperbole and the occasional litotes to balance it out.

Whereas before I could pick my handful of newspapers, blogs or news sites to get the reporting I appreciate, now I need to filter reams of social opinion to garner a modicum of truth (amongst the panic).

They say news travels fast and bad news travels faster. I say pig flu flies.

Today the dark side of human nature reared it’s head and gave me the virtual finger three times.

Driving on the 405 freeway this morning in unusually dense traffic for 6.50am, three drivers chose to demonstrate ‘driver entitlement’.

It appears they believed they owned the road, all four lanes of it.

My only error, perhaps, was assuming people are inherently good when they’re driving a few tons of metal at 30 mph.

Point of the rant?

Consumers often have the same entitlement mentality in dealing with websites they visit.

They believe that every button, every graphic, every action should be exclusively for them.

And why not?

Online we have the ability to deliver a customized experience, unique to the user, specifically to address their needs.

Not every visitor to your website is entitled to four lanes of the information ‘super highway’ to themselves, but they are entitled to receive a simple and effective method to accomplish what you’d like them to do.

Don’t entertain, facilitate.

How to keep your busness mind on track to deliver (actual) results = sanity!

The Search Agents SEO blog

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

For those of my readers ‘lucky’ enough to live in the Golden State of California, today marks a milestone in sales tax, when the CA state tax rate breaks the 10% ‘double digit’ boundary, to bring California near to the, or at the top of the ‘most taxed in the US’ list.

Part of the state revenue shortfall ‘rescue package’, the tax hike means many businesses in CA face more struggles in getting customers through their doors and spending money.

But all is not lost!

Some assistance is coming from a (relatively) small Federal government tax break affecting online marketing companies in the form of the Freedom of Optimization legislation contained within the Governments’ landmark stimulus package passed earlier this year.

In essence the legislation, introduced by Martin Dunlap, (R) IL, gives small businesses up to $20,000 in tax credit toward website optimization services – a boon for SEO companies everywhere. 

According to the Kentucky Legislature sponsored Bill Watch site “promoting transparency in government“, the laws’ goals are 4-fold:

  • Help US small / medium business (SMB) compete in the global marketplace

  • Reduce load on Internet infrastructure – through better optimized sites

  • Healthcare savings – By giving US citizens more relevant results a Government research group estimated a 4.1% reduction in stress-related psychological issues.

  • Reduce energy consumption (Alliance to Save Energy study) by up to 24% – through less computer usage (less searches necessary to find results)

For SEO companies across the country this means a windfall at a time when many business organizations are cutting back on their marketing spends.

As a Search Engine Optimization proponent working in a medium sized business, I can only hope the tax breaks contained in the Freedom of Optimization legislation trickle down sooner than later. Not only will it mean more, and consistent business over the next 18 months (legislation earmarks 257 million dollars in tax breaks available until December 31st 2010) for our company, it also means that many of my business colleagues will finally have some justification for optimizing their sites “no more excuses!”

What does this mean to Google?

With a rise in spending and website optimization on the SEO side, I can imagine two scenarios.

  1. A decrease in Search Engine Marketing / Adwords spend, as businesses replace paid ads with better and more quality organic traffic

  2. An increase in SEM / Adwords spend, as companies struggle to compete with better optimized organic Search Engine Result Pages (SERP).

I don’t think Google is, or should be worried (in fact, they’re noted as one of the contributors to Representative Dunlaps’ campaign and lobby group.) More relevant results for search consumers is their ultimate goal and value, this legislation will certainly accomplish that.

Though a ‘small g government’ Libertarian, this time, I think Government got it right. Great news for SEO companies & Internet users everywhere!

More information is available at the Governments’ small business website

Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials have been a staple of advertising kudos, parodies and copycats.

Microsoft has attempted to humanize and outgun the Apple commercials by recruiting cute kids in what certain seniors would believe are tough ‘social’ tasks; publishing photos, creating slideshows, building panoramic prints etc.

This is the first advertising campaign where I believe Microsoft finally “gets it”. The ads work (mostly).

There is a slight problem with “Adam”, however, it appears the cute little girls far out “cute” little boys in viewer opinion, but overall the commercials convey the fact that Windows is “simple enough for kids to use”.

The reason this is necessary at all (aren’t all computers supposed to be simple?), is that perception has always been that multimedia tasks involving images, video, photos = Macs are easy, Windows is hard. This commercial from the 80’s(?) actually drives the reality home; kids understand Macs are simpler!

Perception is a powerful brand differentiator. What can you do to dispel or support perception to your brand advantage?

BTW, Macs are still simpler to use 🙂

I subscribe to a number of blog RSS feeds and force myself to at least glance at them before they’re more than 24 hrs old.

Having a commitment to review the ‘latest’ from a variety of sites is equivalent to reading a newspaper cover to cover in the ‘old’ days. This used to be a morning routine of mine.

Understanding we’re often too busy to fit everything we need to do into our days, why do I carve out 25 mins. of my day reading of 15-30 feeds?

The “gem”

At least once a week I find a nugget of knowledge that makes my life easier and (normally) saves me far more time than my reading schedule.

These gems improve my knowledge and by extension my value as an SEO resource.

As miners of yore know, you’ll never find a diamond if you’re not digging for it.

Knowledge gems are the same way. Make sure you’re looking, the gem will find you!

Gmail was down this morning, and the end of world is obviously near.

It’s good to finally have the “Gmasses” realize that Google is like any other company, prone to outages, failures as well as amazing success.

Interesting note on human nature.

People are protesting, tearing their hair out, and (as said in Australia) whinging over a FREE SERVICE.

Yep, you get what you pay for and if a free service doesn’t cut it, you pay for one with a little more fiscal accountability.

Hate to harp on the “you get what you pay for”, but Google can’t be taken to task for giving away something that breaks.

Google is human, after all.

A couple of years ago I built a campaign for the City of West Hollywood to highlight the non stop night life and daytime attractions. The campaign was called “24 hrs isn’t enough

My blogging appears to be suffering from the same issue, with days (and early mornings and early evenings) being filled with work, a couple of hours of a commute, and evenings of ‘other projects’ including my auto body repair site Instant Estimator.

Seems most people (family, colleagues and friends) I know are also juggling available time with an excess of things to fill it with, so it’s no surprise that clients also appear to be suffering from the same issue, especially during these challenging economic times.

With workforce reductions, smaller budgets and increasing pressure to deliver, many clients are faced with more deliverables and less time, resources, money and internal expertise to deliver them.

Resetting client expectations isn’t always practical, especially when there’s internal pressure to deliver more.

Here’s a few thoughts on how individuals can do more with less.

1. Keep a ‘wish list’ – make notes on it as things happen of things you want, need or are asked to do.

2. Keep a ‘to do’ list - Only add to it two or three times a day. Use your wish list and filter everything for “does it really need to get done?” or “this definitely needs to be done” or “this is a whim I can live without being done”

3. Keep a calendar - Mark a date next to your “to do” and ensure that each day has a number of “to dos” to be done.

4. Prioritize – Really all the items above are about priority. Take a look at your calendar and shuffle things around based on need vs want vs desire. Need means it must get done. Want is it should be done at some time. Desire means it’s emotional as opposed to need or want – so if you find some time it may get done…

5. Delegate – Look at your prioritized list and honestly divide to dos amongst your available resources. Honesty is key here, and I tend to use “The Bus Rule

The Bus Rule – If I got run down by a bus today, who would most likely be given this task to complete, who would it fall to without assignment, and who would do the best job at it as I’m laying under the rear tyre?

If there’s no one to delegate to, work to “The Entrepreneur Rule
The Entrepreneur Rule – If this was my business, what would I need to get done to make or save me money today? If this is my business, what would a client need me to deliver to make or save them money today?

6. Hire - I know at least three companies that died because they had too much work. Yep, the worst thing any company can do is work its employees or owners into the ground. Before a company with too much business dies, hire someone to help. Interns are a good source of enthusiastic (good) work ethic – take some time to hire the good ones, ones who are going back to school or have big ideas of what and where they want to be. Be sensible, and if your business model allows, give all employees a small share in the business or commission, or both. having a dog in the fight can make all the difference.

7. Balance – Together with staying sane comes some advice I am the worst at following. Balance your work with “life”. At the end of the day, go home, work out, or paint or walk or play video games something that isn’t work. You’ll actually be amazed at how much more you can get done when you’re not doing it 24/7. Same goes for taking a lunch break or tea / coffee break. Generally, balancing work with “life” is better and more productive.

8. Know when to quit – This isn’t about leaving your job or running away from responsibility. It’s more about knowing your limits, knowing when you’re too tired to be your best, and knowing when someone else can get what needs to be done done. It doesn’t always have to be you at 3am finishing off the presentation (though sometimes it does!) and then being dead tired for the following day’s presentation (yes, the client knows when you feel like crap). Knowing when the impossible is just plain impossible is an important, life saving and sanity enhancing realization. For those that have been in the military (I spent a year in the reserves) – rest can be your greatest ally.

Although the eight points above apply to personal prioritization, organization and getting things done, the exact same criteria can be applied to projects, deliverables and business opportunities.

In my own field, prioritizing Search Engine Optimization tactics, realizing what’s possible and ‘keeping it real’ as far as expectations over time, are key to delivering great results in an organized and manageable way.

Key to success? Time is finite, work smart and smell the roses every now and then. Sanity is priceless!

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.

My cup doth not runneth over… and neither did my bowl the other night at California Pizza Kitchen.

To my regular readers who may think I’ve turned all “culinary” due to some recent posts’  focus on food and cuisine – I offer no apologies, I am guided by experiences in real life, and we all need to eat, don’t we? (Don’t answer if you’re on one of those body-flushing binges of pureed slop and green tea enemas, I don’t want to know. Seriously.)

Any hoo… this happened last week here in beautiful downtown Encino, at the local CPK, a mixture of California cuisine (whatever that is) and Italian pizza house, with a distinct twist of “whatever we can get away with“.

I love their split pea and barley soup. It’s pea-y and has lumps of carrots and barley and is (normally) thick enough to be filling and hot enough to “warm the cockles of your soul” – it’s that good IMHO.

So I order it and it arrives.

As the waiter puts the bowl down on the table, I immediately see something is wrong.

Whereby in “normal” circumstances my “bowl runneth over“, in this particular case, the ‘soup line’ was a clear 1/4 inch below the rim of the bowl.

Being the loud-mouthed Englishman I am, I immediately said to the waiter “Are you guys cutting back on the soup, or what?”

To which… he laughed. He LAUGHED! He freakin’ laughed

As I’m used to misunderstandings and certain blank stares due to my accent, I passed it off as “he-didn’t-understand-I’m-pissed” and asked to talk to the manager.

Manager comes over, and I ask him if they’re offering smaller portions of soup, due to the economy, an unannounced pea shortage, or a smaller ladle...

He said “No, but make sure next time when you come in they fill it to the top.”

Now I must add, I had taken a few spoonfuls, but the ‘soup line’ was still obviously ‘volume challenged’ and this manager appeared to understand my English fine.

I was out for a quiet dinner with my mother-in-law, so didn’t want to make too much of a scene.

Ate my soup. Came home. Called CPK customer service.

The well-trained customer service rep was suitably aghast at my lack of soup fulfillment and promised to look into it and get back to me. I’ll update with any update or resolution.

Lesson of the day.

The best solution to good customer service is often the simplest. Fix the problem. Then and there.

Offering to fill my bowl, or give me another bowl would have saved my ire (though, arguably given me nothing to blog about).

Online, it’s not always easy to fix a problem as it happens. Most interactions are live but without life (human interaction). The next best thing is to offer a toll-free support number, and actually have someone there to answer the calls when they come in. After that, as far as email support, set an expectation and exceed it. i.e. post you respond within 2 business hours and get back to them in 1 OR call them back.

Let my soup experience be a learning experience for better customer experience.

Fix a problem as soon as you can. Don’t leave your customers high, dry and starved for soup!

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.