Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


Losing Your Customer to the Dark Side of the Internet

More PrivateThe Internet is no longer a very private place for people to find resources or to shop. It has become a crowded market with millions of advertisements, pop-up websites, and sponsored blog posts. Companies try to track and analyze every click of the mouse. Businesses work hard to stay present on the customer’s screen. They use cookies and other bits of technical code that remember visitors in order to retarget them even when they have left the company’s site. (Source)

As a result, customers are increasingly voicing privacy concerns about the recording of all this information which in some cases has led to identity and personal data theft. Millions of people a day now have taken refuge in a very private place that exists until now in a shadowy corner of the Internet: Tor (The Onion Router). It was originally set up by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory ten years ago to let U.S. agents communicate secretly around the world. (Source) More recently, it has become a popular way for thieves, drug traffickers and terrorists groups to communicate anonymously.

Tor’s hidden services feature allow users to communicate information and publish websites without revealing their location. It is now used by large corporations to keep their competitive analysis and board level decisions private. General consumers have started to use Tor to protect themselves on a public Wi-Fi connection (Source).  Some also use it to combat discrimination when e-commerce sites show a price based on geography or number of visits. 

Consumers want to use Tor to hide their online identify and location, but still interact with all commerce websites. To access the Tor network, users simply need to download its browser, which is free and open sourced for all desktop and mobile platforms. However, most social media and retail sites have blocked Tor users because it prevents them from utilizing cookies and disables Java scripts to track them. For example, using the Tor private search engine, Start Page, most sites do not load or come up very slowly because the Ixquick proxy servicer is used for privacy. However, Amazon does employ Google AdWords on this search page in hopes of getting customers to go directly to their site without a proxy.

With Tor traffic expected to reach almost ten million a day, corporations are now looking at it as an new way to reach prospective consumers (Source). Many are unblocking the Tor browser’s access to their site. Facebook began offering Tor users a method to connect anonymously (Source). (www.facebookcorewwwi.onion ) It seems that Twitter is also starting to let Tor browsers use the social media site without verification (Source). Reddit has donated over $82,000 to help fund Tor (Source). Given growing privacy concerns, the Tor browser may be the future for all consumer web surfing because it allows users to decide if they want to disclose their location and other personal information to be tracked. Some of this can be turned off with other browsers, but most users are not sophisticated enough to be able to do this correctly.

As privacy issues escalate, many online retailers will be forced away from traditional marketing tactics fed by cookie technology or risk losing customers when they go into stealth mode. This trend will reinforce good online marketing techniques:

  1. Ask prospects and customers to opt in to be contacted by your company again. Dont abuse the privilege.
  2. When contacting them, add value, just dont sell them your products. Publish content that they value, not just an online product or services catalog.
  3. Build a trustful relationship over a long period of time so they think of your company when they are ready to buy.
  4. Build social media connections and community with your customers that they want to participate in regularly.

What will your business do when your customer goes into stealth mode on the Internet?


Using Adventure, Even Danger, To Improve The Customer Experience

Adveturer man sitting on a rock with his feet dangling on natural landscape. Adventure travelCustomers of all ages, from older “bucket-listers” to the young and increasingly important Millennial generation of customers, crave adventures and discoveries, whether epic or everyday. The more stimulating and surprising an environment, an experience, a “movie” you can create for your customers to engage with, the more your customers will want to text, Facebook, and talk about your business.

Virgin America: Consciously Creating a Tweetworthy Airline

This is a powerful phenomenon.  Think about how much people love to tell/tweet/FB their friends that they’re flying Virgin America, because the airline is intentionally providing an experience that’s worth talking about.

The details crafted by Virgin America offer a story that people want to retell: purple lighting, wildly catchy dance-based safety videos, abundant TV options, leather seats, great waiting rooms and the “Here on Biz” app that lets you meet other passengers with similar interests. These details make people talk, tweet, post and write about Virgin, because of the distinction and immersion of the experience the airline has created for them.

Smart Hospitality Operators Are Learning This Lesson

The more forward-thinking operators in the hospitality and travel industries have, perhaps not surprisingly, embraced this message more quickly than have other industries. For example, Dove Mountain Resort, a new and relaxed Ritz-Carlton property in the Sonoran desert outside Tucson, where adventures range from those you can engage in while seated to those that challenge all of your muscle groups and mental acuity. 

The adventure starts, in a sense, with the design of the hotel, a conscious effort to bring guests outdoors through large windows and doors that invite them to wander everywhere without interruption from visible and obtrusive barriers.

As the sun starts to set, guests hear a Native American musician playing wooden flute on a nearby hill, playing modal melodies that echo off the surrounding mountains in a way that gives you an auditory impression of the unique landscape in which the hotel is sited.      

In the morning, guests are challenged to pick their adventure: trail riding or Addle Addle lessons (addle addle is an ancient form of projecting arrows that predates the invention of bows) or a hike to learn about the prehistoric petroglyphs in the land trust property through which the resort and its guests have a protected right of way.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like it applies directly to your business, your entrepreneurial pursuits, but I suspect you’re wrong.  This craving for adventure, even for “danger” (more about that in a moment) can be made use of in many, if not most, industries and business niches.

When shopping, for example, many customers (including the majority of younger customers — the millennial generation) prefer what’s known as an “experiential lifestyle environment”_ (a retail environment where shopping is not just a transaction and the pleasure of being in the store isn’t limited to the goods customers take home). And when dining out, more people than ever before are looking for something exotic, adventuresome, memorable or new to explore during their dining experience. Especially among younger food enthusiasts, this has helped transform cuisine searches (“tastespotting”) into an adventure—and food truck-following (a concept sure to evoke fears of stomachache in some of their elders) into its own culture. 

Many customers — primarily younger — even say that they are are willing “to encounter danger in pursuit of excitement,” according to research by Barkley. This may sound irrelevant to you as a businessperson if you don’t sell bungee ropes or the like, but consider the idea of “danger” more broadly than actual risk to life or limb. For a customer, “embracing danger” can mean traveling across the city for artisanal cupcakes, knowing that there’s a high risk of disappointment since the bakery famously sells out each day before 10 a.m., or shopping, as a lark, at a popup store with no history and nothing but word of mouth to recommend it.


Developing Your Marketing Plan

Stock3-25 creating a mktg plan smallMarketing is one of the most critical components of your business’ success. You may have a fantastic product or service, but if customers are not aware it exists, there’s no point in continuing the line of work. In order to make sure your product is exposed to your target customers, you need to develop a robust marketing plan. Once you’ve spent time identifying the four Ps, start adding some elements and details to your strategy. Let’s look at the areas you should focus on when developing your marketing plan.

Validate the Market

How do you know you have a great product that will be of value to your customer? Answering this question is part of the validation process. You want to validate the market or make sure there’s a need for it. Here are a few questions to answer in order to help you do this.

  • How large is the market locally, nationally, and globally
  • How often do people buy your type of product?
  • How many customers are “in market” at any given time?
  • Will your customers buy daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or every five to ten years?

The answers to these questions will: 1) tell you if you have a sustainable product, and 2) help inform your marketing plan and tactics. After you’ve validated the market, start delving deeper into your target market or customer.

Define Your Target Market

In order for your product or service to sell, you need to answer the question: who is your target market? And the answer is never, “anyone.” The best way to be successful is to develop a customer profile with as much detail as possible. Answer the following questions:

  • How much income do your customers make?
  • Where are they located?
  • Are they male or female, or both?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their level of education?
  • What jobs do they hold?
  • Can you see the face of your customer? What do they physically look like?

Remember, the better you know your customer, the better your chances of making the sale. Once you’ve identified who the customer is, it’s time to articulate what makes them buy.

Create Customer Value

So many marketers and business owners are great at explaining what their product is and why it’s great. But very little know how to explain the product in a way that illustrates value to the customer. This is extremely powerful because if you can help the customer achieve a goal, the product sale will follow.

To do this, start by identifying what qualities your customers value most and least about your service. You must build your marketing strategy on customers’ perceptions of your product’s value to them. This approach is called WIIFM, or What’s In It For Me? It’s critical to keep your marketing plan customer-focused. By doing so, you are on the path to setting yourself apart from the competition.

Identify Your Competitors and How to Deal With Them

In today’s economy, it’s rare to find a product or service that has no competition. Your competition is targeting the same people you are, and as such, your message can easily get lost in advertising clutter and spam.

To avoid this, define what makes you special to your customers. Why is your product or service different and better? What is your competitive advantage? What do you offer that the company does not? Why should a customer hire you? Perhaps you offer a longer warranty than your competitor. Or you have proved results that another business does not. If you’re struggling with identifying your competitive advantage, the best thing to do is ask your customers why they bought from you.

Validating the market, identifying the target audience, creating customer value, and identifying your strengths from your competitors are the components that will shape the rest of your marketing plan. Once those steps are completed, it’s time to define the tactics you’ll use and determine your marketing budget.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Are You Really Satisfying Your Customers?

3-24 Customer Satisfaction smallWhile consumers’ expectations of customer service are rising, very few brands are keeping pace, a new study by Accenture reveals. Mobile, social and digital are converging with traditional channels of doing business, and customers are eager to take advantage of this omnichannel world. But only 11 percent think companies are doing a good job of melding digital, mobile, social and traditional channels, Accenture’s latest Global Consumer Pulse Research found.

Instead, customers are still suffering from the same customer service issues they’ve been reporting for the past several years of the survey. For instance, customer satisfaction with companies’ ability to resolve problems quickly has remained flat for the past six years. Dissatisfaction with resolution time is the number-one reason customers switch from one business to another.

Specifically, 86 percent of customers are frustrated by companies that can’t resolve a problem in the first customer service interaction; 85 percent are frustrated by lengthy hold times and 84 percent get annoyed when customer service representatives can’t answer their questions.

Although online customer service channels have been around for quite a while now, customer satisfaction with these channels has also remained relatively flat, suggesting that businesses are holding steady but not improving in these areas. Still, traditional customer service is falling behind: Just 51 percent are satisfied with the customer service they get from traditional call centers, while 57 percent are satisfied with online chat customer service.

Companies’ “coasting” in customer service terms may be why only 28 percent of respondents in the survey say they are “very loyal” toward companies they patronize.

How can your business beat those odds?

  • Integrate all your customer service channels. Customers may expect to start a customer service interaction in chat or email format, then move to a phone conversation without having to provide all of the same information to each representative. It’s important for the experience to be simple and seamless.
  • Educate customer service teams. Your customer service reps need access to the latest knowledge about your products, services and policies so they can quickly respond to questions without having to find a supervisor. Ongoing training programs and updated, online “knowledge bases” can help.
  • Help customers help themselves. Provide as much information as possible to help customers find their own solutions. FAQs, community forums, product guides or even how-to videos can educate customers in using your product or service so that they can resolve their own problems.

There’s more opportunity than ever to provide good customer service to employees in whatever format they want it. Don’t miss out on that chance to differentiate your business.


Mondays with Mike: 10 Crazy and Successful Crowdfunding Campaigns

Rolls of US one hundred dollar billsI’m always intrigued to research the offbeat business concepts that find success in the increasingly popular crowdfunding arena.  It’s an endless supply of inspirational stories, as well as encouragement to find ways to follow your dream.  Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Chatype.  If you have any doubt that people have visceral, emotional relationships with fonts, look up some of the reactions to Comic Sans.  The Chatype campaign raised funds to cover the licensing of the official font of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and now the distinctive lettering can be found on everything from bike lanes to library flyers.
  2. Pizza Brain.  Located in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania, Pizza Brain is the world’s first pizza museum and restaurant. It houses the largest collection of pizza memorabilia – like a pizza cutter shaped like the USS Enterprise.  It’s also serving up award-winning pizza.
  3. Inman Park Squirrel Census.  Yep.  Squirrel counting.  What may seem like a trivial and mundane endeavor not only united an Atlanta, Georgia community, but it also inspired a line of census-themed t-shirts and infographics.
  4. Griz Coat.  Add this garment to the list of things you didn’t know you needed.  According to the campaign, “It’s not a costume.  It’s a lifestyle.”  You can embrace your inner grizzly with the original design, or you can opt for the newer wolf or polar bear designs.
  5. Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.  In response to the shocking (pardon the play on words) lack of a museum dedicated to the brilliance of inventor Nikola Tesla, this Indiegogo campaign raised over $1.3 million!
  6. Bug-a-salt.  Begone, flies and mosquitoes!  This wildly successful Indiegogo campaign funded the production of air-powered guns that blow away bugs using ordinary table salt as ammunition.  The original campaign sold more than 20,000 guns, and a new campaign is underway to build the new and improved Bug-a-salt 2.0.
  7. Rob Ford Crackstarter.  The Website Gawker created an Indiegogo campaign in order to raise the funds necessary to purchase the video of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford smoking crack.  Although Gawker lost contact with the owner of the video, the funds they raised were donated to Canadian charities that work to deal with the problems associated with illegal drug abuse.
  8. Breathometer.  An app that’s both a party game and a safety measure, this campaign enables users to turn their smartphones into a breathalyzer.  You can determine your BAC, record, and track your results.
  9. Yellow Jacket.  Based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this campaign – started by a former member of the US Army – funded the production of an iPhone case that not only protects your phone, but also turns it into a 650,000-volt stun gun.  Intended to be used for personal protection, the Yellow Jacket was built after the campaign raised over $100,000.
  10. Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium.  London’s first cat emporium, Lady Dinah’s provides a home for rescued cats, as well as a way for visitors to enjoy a relaxing cuppa with the resident felines.  The venue provides pet first aid courses, as well as yoga classes, and it is currently taking reservations for tea up to 50 days in advance.

In addition to providing simple entertainment, this list of successful crowdfunding campaigns is a reminder that you can find success in unusual niches, as long as you tell your story in a compelling way.


10 Trends in Customer Expectations

3-20 Customer Expectations smallHere are 10 trending ways that customer service, customer experience and, most of all, customer expectations are changing.

  1. Customers’ definition of what’s fast and what’s not has grown more extreme on an almost daily basis. An escalating expectation of timeliness doesn’t just apply to product and services delivery (where amazon.com has so dramatically set the lead). It applies to the speed of response they expect from you to any issue they have or query they shoot your way. Remember, “we respond to all inquiries within 24 hours” means you’re answering in about 46 days, I figure, if you do the conversion to internet time.  It’s simply not good enough.
  2. Customers, more and more, expect omnichannel integration. I hate to get buzzwordy, so I apologize for this one, but omnichannel at its essence just means that customers expect you to honor the same offers in all channels (web, in-store, phone, mobile), and they expect you to let the customer move between channels without it being a hassle. A credit card given over the phone should be on file when you try to shop in the store. A purchase made in a store across town should be returnable by ups. And so forth.
  3. Customers expect extended hours: 24/7 or as close as you can get. When I interviewed Google not long ago, they quietly mentioned to me that they offer support to their adwords advertisers in 42 languages, including offering English-language support 24/5. That’s pretty good, considering we’re talking about B2B, non mission-critical support. And it puts pressure on those of us who aren’t Google to up our game, or at least our support hours.
  4. Customers expect accuracy. Typos are no longer acceptable in a cut and paste world. Nor are inaccurate claims of what is in stock, or missed delivery dates, considering the technology and process improvements that your competitors have made, and that customers have grown accustomed to. However…
  5. Customers are more willing than ever to assist you (or, I suppose, assist themselves), participating in the service process on a self-service basis, including typing in their own contact info and hard to spell names to avoid the unacceptable typos I refer to in point #4.
  6. Customers expect just about everything to come with a money back guarantee, implied or explicit. You can put in all the fine print you want, but they’re going to expect you to waive it and take the damn dog back, period. Even if pulling it off means, ultimately, sticking it to your own vendors. Amazon of course set the lead here, both in offering the guarantee and in doing the back-office vendor stickage [which I don’t actually encourage] required to pull it off.
  7. Customers don’t want to pay for shipping, or other “hidden fees,” for that matter. Amazon yet again set the lead here.
  8. Customers especially expect you to be monitoring their communications, complaints, and compliments, regardless of channel–and bending over backward to respond both quickly and thoroughly. If a customer says something about, or to, a company via twitter, a web form, or any other channel, they expect the company to notice, to react, to respond.
  9. Customers dislike overly scripted service. This is a prominent aspect of a larger trend: the desire for authenticity.
  10. Customers feel empowered. It’s not just that they know they’re “always right,” they know they always have a voice due to all of the social media options at their disposal, if you forget that they’re “always right.”  The good news is that while they know they have options, just a click or two away, by and large customers hope you realize this too, and that you don’t make them use that twitchy clicking finger. They’d rather stay than switch, but only if you treat them right.  For which, as a start, refer back to points 1 through 9 of this article.

Keeping Your Email Out of the Junk Folder

3-19 email to inbox smallA hot topic on the subject of email marketing is how to keep your company’s emails out of your prospect’s junk folder. It’s one of the most complicated parts of email marketing which cause a high rate of failure. Here are some steps to get your emails to where they should go: the inbox!

1. Send Emails in Batches

It may be easier to send an email to an entire list, but this is not an effective practice. Spam detectors are looking for companies using mass emails. Sending out smaller batches minimizes the risk of email providers (Google, MSN, and Yahoo!) getting spam complaints bundled together at one time. Batch the lists when sending more than 2,000 emails because this is the maximum that should be sent per hour. Many paid email marketing systems will do this automatically.

2. Clean and Update Email Lists

When email providers see a mailing list with a lot of bad accounts (i.e. ones that don’t exist, has been disabled or has a full inbox), they penalize the sender. This increases the likelihood that company emails will go into to the junk folder. Surprisingly, some estimate that US consumers change their email account every six months. This means a lot of updating, but it is a necessary practice to prevent from being labeled a spam provider.

3. Include a Clear Unsubscribe Link

Providing subscribers an opportunity to unsubscribe from a mailing list is not only a best practice, it is a legal requirement. Providing an unsubscribe link means that readers are less likely to jump straight to marking an email as spam. The top criteria for ending up in junk folders is number of spam complaints, so these must be avoided.

4. Become a Contact

Seize every opportunity to encourage those on an email list to add the company as a contact (sometimes called white listing) because those emails will always go to the inbox. Make sure the email comes from a real person not info@yourcompany.com. The best times to encourage this are in the email sign-up confirmation, on the confirmation page, and during customer service transactions. For example, write that “in order to ensure that you continue to receive quality information you requested from us, please add us to your contact list.”

5. Don’t Use Big Images

Sending an email with only images is a bad idea. Spam filters are on the hunt for image-based files because they often contain words that would normally get caught in the spam filters. Since they can’t read the words on an image, they play it safe and assume it’s spam. Make sure all emails contain real text for the filters to read, so they can know the email is safe and pass it on. Including small images an email marketing copy which can be seen on mobile devices is encouraged; it’s the image-only emails that are a problem.

6. Avoid Certain “Spam” Language

Spam reads like spam. Some of the most common words in junk folder emails are Viagra, free, drugs, porn, and guaranteed winner. Additionally, don’t use ALL CAPS, colored fonts, or multiple exclamation marks. Many email marketing solutions check the “spam score” of an email before it is sent.

7. Don’t Buy a List

Sending a promotional email to someone you’ve never had contact with before is illegal according to many digital laws, so buying an email marketing list is not suggested. Buying a list will also increase the chance that people will report the message as spam.

How has your company been successful getting to the inbox?


Nextiva Customer Success Story: HagBros Precision

Nextiva customer Hagbros Precision is a manufacturing solutions provider that designs and produces competitively priced molds at their Round Rock, Texas headquarters just north of Austin. Developed by a group of inventors, entrepreneurs, and metal workers, Hagbros focuses on precision tooling, mold making, and customer focused manufacturing solutions.

We met with Roya Foroughi, Project Manager at Hagbros, to learn more about how their team uses their Nextiva phone system on a day-to-day basis. “One of the things that’s really important is being able to talk to our customers on a regular basis, because one of the things we do is custom-order parts and machinery,” said Roya. “Having a good quality phone system that works around the clock is really important.”

Prior to Nextiva, Roya had to provide customers with multiple phone numbers to reach employees at their two different office locations. With Nextiva’s advanced call forwarding options, she’s now able to transfer phone calls to other team members, creating a much smoother customer experience. “If we have the connection between our two buildings, it makes things seamless,” explained Roya.

Another obstacle that the Hagbros team was able to overcome by switching to Nextiva was the necessity of clear call quality. Roya says, “When our engineers are on the phone with customers talking about parts they’re trying to order, it’s really important that they have clear conversations so they can hear the precise measurements.”

Meet Roya and the Hagbros team:

 


How to Hire an Accountant

Rubber stampTax time is fast approaching, and hopefully you have your financial records in order, but in case you don’t here’s some advice on how to hire an accountant. While there are many aspects of your business that you can handle on your own, accounting is one worth turning over to a professional. Accounting goes far beyond simply sending invoices and tracking expenses; a good accountant can also help you with your taxes, as well as find ways to keep cash flowing.

First: Understand Your Needs

In addition to accountants, there are also bookkeepers and Certified Public Accountants that provide slightly different services from one another. A bookkeeper will set up your accounting software and enter receipts and invoices into the system weekly or monthly. She can also handle payroll data and quarterly taxes, as well as create monthly financial statements like balance sheets and cash flow statements. If your needs are simple and you don’t need help preparing your tax return, a bookkeeper may fit the bill.

An accountant, on the other hand, takes on more of the day-to-day bookkeeping needs of your company. An accountant can do everything that a bookkeeper can, with the addition of being able to prepare business taxes. Accountants are typically trained to interpret and analyze financial data, and you’ll pay more for the privilege.

And finally, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has passed a rigorous state exam. They’re the only ones of the bunch that can certify an audit. They also provide tax planning, and are highly qualified experts. Naturally, they’re the most expensive option.

Narrow Down the Selection

Ideally, the accountant or bookkeeper you end up working with will have experience with both small businesses and your industry. If you are unfamiliar with accounting terms like depreciation, chart of accounts, and cost of goods sold, you’ll want an accountant who will be patient at explaining it all to you. Remember: even if you hand your finances over to a professional, you still need to understand them. A good accounting partner will be communicative about her process, and will be willing to teach you.

You can hire an individual that works for several companies as a consultant, a smaller accounting firm, or a larger practice. I tend to go with one of the first two options, since they’re more affordable and service tends to be more one-on-one with smaller practices and solo practitioners.

Getting a referral from a colleague or contact can help you find someone faster. Check with others in your industry to find out who they use. Take into consideration your needs, your budget, and their offerings, then whittle your list down to your top three choices.

What to Ask

Interview each provider or firm, just like you would if you were hiring a full-time employee. Some of the questions you should ask include:

  • What accounting software do you use?
  • Do you provide software setup?
  • Do you provide monthly bookkeeping?
  • What is your hourly rate?
  • Can you provide three small business references?
  • Do you work onsite at the client location?
  • What industries do you specialize in?
  • Do you also prepare business taxes?

You want to find an accountant who you can trust with your finances, and who will be with you for years to come. Don’t overlook how important the selection process is, and spend enough time on it to find the best fit for your company.




 
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