As I said to a potential consultancy client last week (she asked for honest feedback).
“Your business is like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, incapable of making a move or a decision, unable to move in one direction or another.
“You need to unfreeze, relax, take stock and weigh up the choices. With great speed you need to take the bold decision: left or right, up or down. Speed is of the essence. The consequences of making no decision are there for all to see. Do you want to be one more piece of roadkill for the statistics book?”
I apologised for my bluntness but the world seems to be dividing into the decisive and the indecisive, the bold and the meek. The brave and the stupid.
Yes, it is scary out there but we/I/you need to be clear about what we are doing and take clear decisive action.
First things first. Find out who your raving ambassadors are – the people who think your service is remarkable (and are not buying on price). Ask them what they can do to help you get more business. They will tell you. This is certainly a starting point.
What decisions have you been avoiding making? How will you benefit from putting them off?
Robert Craven shows MDs and owners how to grow their sales and profits and focuses on how to do this in recessionary times. His latest book is the runaway success “Beating the Credit Crunch – survive and thrive in the current recession” www.directorscentre.com.
You can argue that the aim of marketing is to build momentum. You need to raise awareness and establish how people perceive your brand. Traditionally this worked well, but I have news for you -- attempting to set perceptions is becoming an increasingly dangerous strategy. You may recall a marketing campaign that had the sole intention of altering your perception of a brand. A soft drinks manufacturer who specialised in blackcurrant-based drinks had complaints about the sugar content and related tooth decay. This caused it to launch a low sugar version. It even had the cojones to sell it as “Toothkind”. The rebranding promoted health benefits and claimed four times the vitamin C levels of rivals. The inconvenient truth proved the product wasn’t good for your teeth and one drink in the range had negligible vitamin C! This little oversight cost the company significant sums of money. But the real stinker was the “corrective advertisements” it was forced to run on national television. It’s always been dangerous to try to build a false perception. Now the rise of social networking has upped the ante. There has been a seismic shift in our abilities to interact and talk to each other, and to build or rubbish brands that annoy us. We are the mob, and the mob is now all seeing. If you are bluffing, it won’t take long for people to find you out. It’s simple; the quality of your offering builds the perceptions. These will be based on fact and customer experience, not marketing spin. Ignore this at your peril.
In the film ‘Enter The Dragon’ Bruce Lee demonstrated the ‘art of fighting without fighting’ in which he shrewdly avoided a conflict by not allowing it to happen in the first place. The same idea could be relevant for small businesses who rely on customer service.
Customer service has always been important but is now even more so with the changing nature of the online environment. If people are unhappy with service they are receiving it is now easier than ever to make these feelings known online. A quick tweet or facebook group about poor service received can potentially spiral out of control and be very damaging to a small business. For example, a restaurant which has upset one of its customers through poor service might be subject to some bad publicity online in a relatively short space of time. It may be as easy as getting on an iPhone or Blackberry and letting thoughts be known to the whole internet community. Customers are increasingly looking online for information on businesses so having and maintaining a good reputation on the internet is getting more and more crucial.
Recently there was the case of two Dominos kitchen employees who managed to cause a stir with a YouTube video showing them contaminating food. This video was viewed by literally millions of people and lead to the quick dismissal of the employees involved but only after significant damage to the reputation of Dominos. In the last few days Twitter postponed its scheduled maintenance in response to the continuing developments of the Iranian Election. Twitter and other social media tools are being used to by Iranian citizens to communicate with the outside world and are bound to play an important part in the final outcome. This illustrates the power that online tools can have.
In the case of small businesses, it is now essential that they get their customer service and training of staff right to avoid possible online crises. It sounds obvious but I have experienced this myself with a hotel I stayed at in Cardiff. I received a pretty lack-lustre service from them all round and wrote a critical review the next day on a hotel review site which was read by over one hundred people at last count. While a large hotel chain may not see this as so much of an issue; it could be quite a serious problem for a small business.
Obviously having opinions about a business be they positive or negative are fair game and should be shared online but, as businesses know, there will be customers who will never be happy and are intent on creating as much of a fuss as possible. If the customer concerns are legitimate the business should take this as feedback and a chance to improve their service. However, if the comments are misguided or deliberately malicious the business should have an Online Crisis Strategy to cope with these situations.
Often the best way to deal with such issues is avoiding them in the first place but failing that it is essential to have some idea of what you are going to do when the unexpected happens.
Some people think that price is everything. My son currently works in my company, SellerDeck, sitting beside me in the home office. His job is account managing customers who use our ecommerce web hosting. It’s very instructive listening in. We’re not the cheapest offering, although we believe that we offer good value. Since you will start losing orders and customers the second your ecommerce web site goes down, and Google research suggests that marginally slow sites reduce orders by 20%, you would expect quality of service to be the major topic of conversation. Often it is, but for a minority, price is all that matters. In fact, there are relatively few products and services where price should be the sole criterion. These probably include electricity, where the same stuff always comes down the same wire anyway, and petrol, where rival brands across town often sell petrol from the same refinery. But some people always focus on price. The question is; do you even want to speak to customers who only care about price? Wouldn’t these customers be better hassling the competition? They not only pay less, they can also waste a lot of time. Competing on price requires the lowest possible cost base. So most businesses try to compete on overall value. My suggestion is if you aren’t losing a few customers on price, you probably aren’t charging enough. And those customers that you would lose from slightly higher prices, will probably be the very same ones that would be the least profitable and the most trouble.
I’ve been waging savage battles in my garden for some time, but recently I realised I was losing the war.
Despite a sustained campaign – the horticultural equivalent of shock and awe – the weeds just keep coming back for more. Wildly overgrown pear trees have launched a daring counter offensive behind my shed. My borders are barren and my lawn is baldy.
A few days ago, just when I was coming to terms with the painful realisation I’m no Alan Titchmarsh, a leaflet fell through my door, posted by a local landscape gardening firm. It looked professional, included endorsements from satisfied punters and promised “A high-quality service at an affordable price”. Nothing groundbreaking: but effective enough.
It made me think. Sure, even the smallest firms need to harness cutting-edge marketing solutions. Like many people these days, when I need something I usually turn to Google first for help.
But while it’s easy to focus on web and e-marketing, this shouldn’t be at the expense of more traditional alternatives. You must get the basics right – and often this means low-cost or no-cost solutions.
Trevor’s a lovely guy who lives a few doors down from my house. He’s a central heating engineer: the sign on his van told me so. I didn’t know him, but called his mobile and he came around and fixed my radiators last winter. I told my friends how good he was and they too got him in, this time to take care of the far greater job of fitting a new system.
I’m not sure whether Trevor has his own website (let alone Twitters), but I know he recognises the importance of doing a good job at a fair price, while the simple sign on his van probably enables him to get much of his work. I’ve also seen his card in our local newsagent’s window.
My garden? Well, the landscape people gave me a good quote and will soon launch the final decisive battle. Look out weeds – victory is mine.
Some of the most successful businesses and acclaimed entrepreneurs have achieved that recognition because they have gone against the grain. You only have to think of some of the highest profile business brands in the UK – Virgin, EasyJet, Egg, lastminute.com and dozens more – and the common ingredient is that they’ve all looked at what everyone else in the market place is doing and have then done almost exactly the opposite.
Sticking your neck out is not easy in any environment. This is particularly so in a business environment where failure is largely seen as shameful. It's risky to stick your neck out. But if you are clever about the way you do it, doing things differently, sticking your neck out, breaking the mould – call it what you like – is one of the most brilliant business strategies you can adopt.
Think about it. Why do what everybody else is doing, in the same way that everybody else is doing it, thereby becoming just another business in the marketplace providing the same thing to the same pool of people? Isn’t that creating a rod for your own back? Why not take the bold step of turning industry paradigms on their head and get some real attention?
I got thinking about this because two nights ago, I drove into London ahead of the Institute of Directors convention. For various reasons, I needed to stay at or near Heathrow Airport the night before. And the thought of staying at a dire airport hotel overnight filled me with dread. The other viable option was staying at the delightfully modern and comfortable Heathrow Hilton Hotel at Terminal 4, but the cheapest room they had available was more expensive than most reasonable hotels in central London. But then I remembered about a brilliant hotel concept which would absolutely meet my needs and which I was sure would be a very pleasant experience.
Yotel is a brilliant concept based on a combination of the podular hotels found in Japan and business class cabins on British Airways. Take a look at the image below and perhaps even click on the photo to take a quick look at the Yotel website. You’ll very quickly see that Yotel offers a very different service to the highly saturated accommodation market.
I’m pleased to report that I arrived at Yotel on Tuesday night sometime after midnight, swiftly checked into my pod (I should mention that booking was absolutely painless and swift online), and after finding my very comfortable room I was fast asleep in a very comfortable bed in a quiet environment within minutes. At the other end of my sleep I got up, got showered and got dressed was on the road into London for my meetings before most Londoner's alarms had gone off.
Interestingly, this whole experience cost me a third of what it would cost me to stay for exactly the same amount of time in the Hilton Heathrow Hotel, literally just 200 yards from Yotel. With my Yotel experience, there was no concierge, there was no fancy art work in the big foyer and it’s located inside an airport terminal rather than on its own plot of land.
By turning the concept of hotels almost completely on its head, Simon Woodroffe has created a business which he is now going to expand in multiple locations. And if it’s anything like his Yo!Sushi concept (which started with just one sushi restaurant in London and has just opened its 50th restaurant in the global chain), it will be highly successful.
I also stayed there again last night - same deal, same experience, and I'll be back because it met my needs perfectly and it was a delightfully easy, completely comfortably, and "design-ily" cool experience.
So, why not turn your industry on its head?