Customer Success

Want to Avoid Customer Rejection? Here’s How NOT To

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Here’s a lesson on how to create customer rejection in 30 minutes or less.

I heard a story from a friend today.  She bought what she hoped would be a useful and productive accessory for one of her tech devices.  Nothing fancy, just one of those things that makes your device go from “pretty useful” to “part of my everyday work.”

I can safely say she will avoid doing business in the future with the company that made the device.  And I’ll bet she’ll happily tell all her friends (as she told me) about how well they knew the art of customer rejection.  I can’t tell you how many potential customers this company lost today, but I know of two, and based on her influence circle, I’ll bet that’s a few orders of magnitude off.

It turned out this effort by the company to lose customers was pretty simple.  They spent a total of half an hour of work on it.  The customer rejection professional involved (maybe in charge of this particular effort?) was efficient, effective, and, I’d bet, well-rewarded for his or her efforts.

In fact, if your company is looking to lose some customers fast, I’d try to hire this customer rejection expert ASAP.

The whole thing was pretty simple.  When my friend received the product, it was broken and did not work.  She wanted it replaced; I’m pretty sure I would have, as well.  She emailed them. They asked for pictures.  She sent them.  They asked her to call.  She spent half an hour on the phone with the very competent customer-rejection professional who told her the replacement was out of stock and could not be sent.  Going above and beyond their duty, the same customer rejection professional added that no advance order could be placed for the item to ensure it would be sent when it was back in stock.  The apology acting, I’m told, was extraordinary (maybe the customer rejection professional also is an aspiring actor?).

My friend tried to respond to the company’s email, but the email message bounced. In the bounce message, she was directed to a web page to file a complaint, but the web page produced errors that could not be deciphered (Note to web professionals: If you want to contact the company to help resolve this, remember that is at cross-purposes with the responsibilities of the customer-rejection team).

My friend now has a broken product.  The company that sold it to her thinks this is as it should be.

I’d call this an example to follow of how to lose customers in half an hour or less. Customer-rejection professionals: are you listening?

Customer Trust

Are You Really Customer-Centric? Or Is It Just Talk?

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It seems every company wants to show just how customer-centric it is these days.  It’s increasingly common to hear PR machines toss around phrases such as, “We value our customers,” or “We put our customers at the center of our business.”

But it’s easier said than done.  When it comes time to make a decision that pits customer interests against a chosen corporate strategy, do you really make decisions that put your customers first?

A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America, said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.”  If, in the process of evolving your business, you choose to forsake some (or all) of your customers, you not only have no longer put customers at the center of your business but also have given up the business those customers represent.

A recent stark example of the conflict between a chosen corporate strategy and a customer-centric one is the recent decision by Starbucks to close a number of its brands, including San Francisco icon La Boulange.

La Boulange is a chain of bakery cafes in San Francisco that has a reputation for quality food at reasonable prices and has earned the trust and devotion of San Francisco Bay Area locals. This is important to this story, as earning the trust of San Franciscans, as a whole, is not easy, and locals tend to fiercely defend local brands, often at the expense of national brands.

When Starbucks acquired La Boulange in April 2013, there was a local uproar.  Would they keep the beloved cafes open?  Would we be deprived of La Boulange baked goods?  What would happen to the people working at them?

Starbucks is one of those companies that claims to employ a customer-centric business strategy.  Putting customers first means making a promise to those customers, then keeping that promise.  And, of course, not breaking it.  Starbucks made a promise. They kept that promise—until they broke that promise by making a decision that clearly put their chosen corporate strategy ahead of their customers’ wishes.

Make a promise:  At the time of the acquisition, Starbucks stated it would keep the cafes open and even offer La Boulange baked goods in its Starbucks coffee shops.

Keep a promise:  It held to this promise.  It even opened more locations of La Boulange during the two years since the acquisition.

I cannot overemphasize this point:  Starbucks made and kept a promise to the segment of consumers who value and frequent La Boulange.  San Franciscans breathed a collective sigh of baked-good-induced relief.

Break a promise:  Last week, Starbucks announced it would close all La Boulange locations by the end of September 2015.

The justification for the decision was, in Starbucks’ words, “Starbucks has determined La Boulange stores are not sustainable for the company’s long-term growth” and that the decision was made because “Starbucks continually evaluates all components of its business to confirm they are aligned with key priorities and strategies for growth, which includes the continued analysis of the store portfolio.”  Notably, the decision was not made based on profitability, as the company claims the La Boulange brand achieved 16% year-over-year growth, and industry reports show that the newly opened stores far exceeded expectations.

In a company that claims to put its customers first, what is missing from this decision is any consideration of the promise to the customers.

Which brings me to the difficult question Starbucks faced:  Do we follow our chosen corporate strategy or do we make our strategic decisions by putting our customers first?  I wonder how you or I would make the same decision.

Traditional corporate strategy says a company should choose its competencies, market, and customer segment, pursue them to the exclusion of other options, re-evaluate those choices periodically (or continually), and make adjustments.

Customer-centric strategy demands a different approach.  If the customer is truly at the center of your business, then your business must choose its competencies, approach, and services to focus on the needs (known, unknown, or even unanticipated) of the customer. This is true whether your customer is an individual consumer or another business.

Making the choice between a chosen strategy and customer-centricity is not always as stark or obvious as it is in this case.  Companies face decisions every day that pit delivering value to customers against the chosen strategy of the business.  If your company chooses the chosen strategy and moves away from the customer it created, it must either create a new customer or face the fact that it no longer has a business (at least in that segment).

Starbucks’ mission statement is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”  The core Starbucks brand will continue to do that. But the La Boulange brand did that exact same thing for a different customer in a different way (appropriate to that different customer).  Despite Starbucks’ statement that this decision was one that keeps their mission intact, it seems that the other decision (to keep La Boulange open) would have done that as well.

So, while the decision does not directly conflict with the mission statement, it does conflict with any claim of customer-centricity.

All of which presents us with a stark example of how even the best companies make difficult strategic decisions when customer interests collide with a chosen strategy.

Have you faced such a decision?  How have you handled it?


Building a Career after 50: The Chopped-Liver Effect

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I was once heir to a chopped-liver dynasty.  Really.  When you get to the inevitable part of any team development activity where you are asked to go around the room and tell everyone something about you they may not already know, I say that.  And there’s a good story behind it with some excellent career lessons.  I’ll come back to that.

How I Got Here

When I turned 50, I had a good job with a large, fairly stable company.  My career, up to that point, had been a series of similar jobs.  Most were in marketing or related areas, and there was what HR folks call a good progression of responsibilities.  I was not the most successful 50-year-old in the business, but I was happy with my progress to that point.

I also knew on the day I turned 50 that everything was about to change.  I learned a lot along the way, about both my chosen profession and how I am happiest contributing.  I also learned a bit about myself (see this piece I wrote for Psychology Today).  All this led me to the conclusion that I did not want to go where my trajectory was taking me.

This, I soon discovered, is the hardest kind of change to make for oneself.  It required not only stepping out of the traditional roles and work to which I’d become accustomed, but also two of the hardest personal projects I’ve undertaken:  defining what the new trajectory of a career after 50 would look like and redirecting nearly 30 years of career momentum.

Defining a new trajectory sounds pretty simple:  take those things you like to do and figure out how to get people to pay you to do them.  But, most career coaches will tell you what I also learned:  it’s much more than that.  You have to find the way in which you like to contribute, then figure out what kind of work that means you have to do—which might also mean finding or creating work you have never seen—then figuring out how to get people to pay you to do that work.  Plus, as a marketer, I had to explore in greater depth what value I would be bringing to the market and whom my customer would be.

I landed on a goal of building my own business:  consulting, writing, and maybe speaking. That was just the way in which I wanted to contribute.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I talk largely about business relationships, specifically those between a company and its customers.  This is the path I have chosen.  After all those years in marketing—the past decade or so in businesses where customer relationships were the drivers of success—I realized this was not only something about which I cared deeply but also something that was incredibly valuable to many companies and where there was a substantial market needing help.

After four years of trying to make this a success, I have found a few things about building a career after 50:

  • It’s never linear. I have been lucky enough to have some interesting consulting engagements.  Some of those are exactly what I expected.  Others, not so much. The theme of customer relationships did run through everything I’ve done so far but hardly in the way I expected, in many cases.
  • It’s hard. There is such strong interest in this area and so many companies in need, I figured this would be just a matter of finding the right buyer for my services—and I’d be too busy for my own good.  Not exactly. After three years of struggling with the fact that the industry didn’t even have the right buyer (which changed, thankfully), I now find myself doing what every one of you who runs a consulting firm is doing:  selling hard and often and in ways I never expected.
  • It’s discouraging. I’m 54 now and am not the wildly successful, world-famous, notable consultant and author I expected to be.  The reality does not yet match, but the expectation remains.

One way I keep myself going is to remember my own inspiration.

The Chopped-Liver Dynasty

I’ve studied business and marketing extensively and worked in the field for more than 30 years.  Yet I attribute much of what I know, including my instincts, to my grandparents, who started and ran their own successful business.

They were immigrants from Eastern Europe.  They came to the United States with very little.  They worked and saved and got help from family and, eventually, started a luncheonette (today, we’d call it a diner).  My grandmother made chopped liver from her own recipe for sandwiches (in the New York Jewish community of the 1930s to 1950s, this was very popular).  Eventually, people started asking her to send them home with some extra chopped liver for their dinner, and she started selling it.  It became popular enough that my grandparents eventually closed the luncheonette and opened a business making and selling chopped liver.  By the early 1970s it had become the largest selling brand of kosher frozen chopped liver in the United States.

There were lots of lessons I learned as a kid and young adult listening to my grandmother telling me how they got the business started, how they sold the chopped liver, how they created distribution and sales channels, and so much more.

I’ve always admired the story, and by the time I was a teenager, I knew that my goal was —and still it today—to grow up to be just like my grandmother.

Am I There Yet?

A few weeks ago, I was considering how to adjust my own path to make my goal of consulting, writing, and speaking work better for me.  I was starting to think about how I am getting older, how businesses are less and less likely to seek out older people to meet their needs (see this rather discouraging piece from CNN), and how I was starting to feel more and more rushed to reach some as-yet-undefined milestone of success for my own efforts.

Then I thought about my grandparents’ business and what I could learn from it, and I did some math.  I realized my grandmother was in her mid-50s when they launched the chopped-liver business (my grandfather was about 60).  When I was old enough to be aware of their success, it felt to me like they had been successful forever, but it had only been 10 or 15 years.

Here I am in my mid-50s, relaunching my own business effort, a career after 50.  Suddenly, I know it’s not too late.  I know this is a good time to be in my own business.  I know I have just learned one more thing from my grandparents:  it’s not too late to get started.  But you do have to get started.

I’ll keep you posted on where this takes me.  I hope my story will help if you’re feeling a bit washed up and unsure of your next step.  Just go.  And in fewer years than you imagine, you’ll have stories to tell and lessons to pass on, and everyone will just assume you’ve always been successful.  At least I hope it works that way for me, too.

Customer Success

Customer Service Success Is So Simple that It’s Hard

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We all love to complain about customer service.  Most of us have some sort of nightmare story at the ready anytime the conversation turns to the topic of customer service.  And collectively, we have classes of companies we just love to hate:  airlines and cable providers.

I know you can tell any number of stories about how some company (Comcast, anyone?) got it wrong (check out Mr. A**hole Brown has a really good one post).  I’m willing to bet you even have a few choice suggestions on how to get it right.

But your suggestions will likely only fix the issue in your case (or your type of case).  The company that is failing at customer service has a much deeper problem.

The issue is simple:  lack of empathy.  But the solution, which is also so simple—create empathy in your customer service staff for customer service success—is, in fact, very hard to make happen.

Why Is It Hard To Achieve Customer Service Success?

Allow me to start with an idea that will sound familiar from my earlier posts:  When someone buys a product or service from you, they are doing so because they expect that product or service to do a specific job for them.  Sticking with my favorite scapegoat, when someone buys cable television service from Comcast, they are expecting Comcast to deliver entertainment on which they can rely at all hours.

Here’s where it gets complicated (frankly, it’s not really all that complicated for Comcast, but it is for most companies).  The definition of “entertainment” varies widely among the millions of people who are Comcast customers.  Personally, I want my cable company to bring me intelligent, unbiased, detailed news coverage any time of day (largely the responsibility of the news outlets and not even within the control of a cable provider).  Or you might want access to a huge library of foreign films.  Someone else might want endless reruns of TV shows from the 1970s.

Sounds pretty simple for a cable provider, right?  So where do they go so wrong?

Customer service doesn’t happen until something goes wrong.  Service is out.  Channels with my entertainment disappear, or worse, move to a higher tier of premium cost.  Or the CableCARD stops working with the latest update of my DVR.

Then I have to call (chat, e-mail, whatever).  Someone explains the process of why it’s broken.  Then they explain the process the company has set up to fix it.  It’s going to take time.  It’s going to cost me money.  It’s going to require that I sit at home and wait for someone to show up.

There’s a lot of process.  There’s a way to handle the situation.  But there’s no empathy. There’s no one who is capable of understanding why I am actually disappointed and figuring out the best (maybe even the right) way to make sure I get what I need.

Empathy is not a process.  It’s not a set of rules.  It’s not a policy.  It is a human ability. And it requires the one thing the giant customer service organization fears most:  individual freedom to act.

Halfway There

I have a lot of respect for Frank Eliason.  If you don’t know who he is, he is the guy who started @ComcastCares, Comcast’s Twitter based customer service.  It’s generally believed that he singlehandedly taught the corporate world what social customer service means.

Frank recently wrote an article exhorting Comcast to improve its customer service.  He included five suggestions on what they could do to improve.  The last of these was, “Live up to being the Philadelphian that you already are.  We will support you, but you need to support us too.  Treat us in the same manner you would want to be treated.”

I don’t disagree with his first four suggestions.  But they are all process improvement ideas. They don’t do anything at all to get your customer service staff to understand your customers’ problems and help bring solutions that address the actual issues right there and then.

The fifth suggestion (quoted above) gets closer to the mark.  It doesn’t say it the way I would, but it suggests that each and every customer service representative needs to be a decent upstanding human to create successful customer service.  That sounds a bit like empathy to me.

Getting it Right? 

It is nearly impossible to train empathy into an organization.  It’s a uniquely individual skill. People can have empathy, while organizations can’t.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t let your customer service people use the empathy they already have.

Companies such as Nordstrom and Zappos became customer service success standouts for one reason:  every single employee can do (nearly) anything to solve a customer’s problem.  On the margin, this led to stories (unconfirmed) of things such as a customer returning a set of tires to Nordstrom (which has never sold tires), but these stories are a very small group of exceptions to the rule.

The policy of “do whatever it takes to make it right” doesn’t just let the front line employee use their skill and empathy; it challenges them to do so.  Even better, it challenges them to create a story in that customer’s mind about how amazing the customer service provided by that employee was. And it creates a culture that makes employees want to be better at serving customers with empathy because their peers are also doing it.

These companies don’t train an organization to deliver empathy.  They created a culture of customer service success that valued it, paid attention to it in hiring, and challenged their people to do it—and do it better.  This requires trust (often anathema to many large hierarchical corporations) as well as a different approach to dealing with your own people and your customers.

Can You Change?

The obvious question is can a company such as Comcast really change?  Could it ever figure out how to change from a policy- and practice-driven organization to one that lets their people make their own judgments about what is the best practice in every individual situation?

It would be hard.  And it would take time.  Maybe for Comcast, their newly hired chief customer officer will be a start.

What about your organization?  Are you telling your people how to solve your customers’ problems?  Or are you hiring amazing people and letting them figure it out?  If you are the former, can you change?  Do you think your organization can help your people develop empathy?

Customer service success is so simple that it’s hard.

Tell us in the comments how you think your organization might do it.

Decision Making

Elephants and Data: The Missing Link to Making Sales & Marketing 2.0 Work

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This week I had the privilege of attending the Sales and Marketing 2.0 Conference in San Francisco (thank you to the conference team for the invitation!).

While this edition focused on social selling and marketing (as expected), it also focused heavily on what leaders need to manage a social selling or marketing team.

But this is not a summary of the conference. If you would like to see the very useful and interesting learnings from these two days, my friend Matt Heinz has an excellent post you should read.

This is my view of the most important lesson learned this week, and what I think is the missing link to making all of these new ideas in sales and marketing work. First the data.


For the past five years or more, I have been hearing conference presenters, pundits and all sorts of others talk about the new way to market and sell in a social world. While some of it is just hype (isn’t it always?), when you sort through all of the information out there, you reach a few simple conclusions:

  • Technology has and will continue to disrupt how products and services are marketed and sold
  • Social technology has shifted the balance of power to the buyer, so that sellers now have to work not to sell, but to help buyers buy
  • Most corporate organizations and the systems by which they measure their people have not adapted to this new reality at all, meaning we are all essentially doing what we used to do, just with new technology (yep, I wrote that five years ago!)

The focus of the conference for the past two days offers some hope for addressing this last point. Much of the focus was on managing in what they call a “sales and marketing 2.0” or “social” world.

Speakers showed us how they are helping their people do certain things differently – or do entirely different things. They showed how they are figuring out what those things should be. And – since we know what gets measured gets managed – they showed how they are measuring success in the social selling and social marketing process, and how they are rewarding people for that success.

These management practices are all based in what we have come to call big data. For example, you have to merge and interpret data from your company’s traditional systems (e.g. CRM), your other internal data (e.g. email communications, chat and other interactions), customer data, social network data and other public data to gain a deeper understanding of how a Facebook campaign or a sales rep’s blog helped generate revenue and specific deals. And yes, this can be measured. But no, it’s not easy.

We saw examples of how every aspect of management from governance to measurement to evaluation, to hiring to leadership and coaching (yes, coaching) can be improved when driven by the effective use of data.


Here’s what I think was the elephant in the room: In order for individuals to succeed at anything at all in a corporate organization, they have to know what success looks like.

Your sales leadership can be the best at understanding and directing a social selling organization. but does your newly hired rep know what to do when she is on the phone (excuse me, web conference) with a hot prospect? Do they know how to use the social tools at their disposal to make that a more successful call?

Your marketing leadership can put in place all of the social tools and programs, and even hire people to manage the various social channels. But when your demand gen manager executes a new campaign, do they know how and when to incorporate those channels?

Do your people know it when they see it?

What leadership needs is a way to institutionalize the knowledge, learning and assumptions needed to become a social sales and marketing organization. We need not only a way to not just communicate to our people what this is all about, but also a way to make sure that when our people do their work, they know – intuitively – how to do it in this new way.

Do you give your people the knowledge and skills to be able to do their jobs in whatever new way your organization is adopting? Does it work?

Add your story to the comments below. And I’ll see you at the next Sales and Marketing 2.0 Conference.


Keep Your Customers Coming Back: How to Increase Repeat Business and Reduce Churn

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Are you in a business that depends on returning customers?  Or a business that sells a subscription service?  If you are, then you already know intuitively that bringing your customers back — or ensuring they renew — is the lifeline of your business.

Knowing that, are you spending disproportionately on new customer acquisition and leaving renewals to a customer service team that lacks the incentive to maximize return/renewal revenue?

Many of my clients are in the technology industry, which is in the midst of making an industrywide shift from one-time product sales to subscription based services (the trend to so-called cloud computing is leading the way).  In the old model, it was fair to assume that once a customer purchased a product, they would most likely use it and then buy smaller add-ons, such as upgrades or service contracts.  In that model, most of the revenue came from the initial purchase, so most of the marketing and sales effort went into new customer acquisition.

But as the model has shifted, the investment has not kept pace.  My clients see symptoms such as customer service teams that are expected to renew their customers but have little or no incentive to do so or sales reps that have no incentives tied to long-term customer success.  The result?  Churn (customer turnover) rates as high as 33% are common.

So how do you keep one-third of your revenue from walking out the door every year?

The most common response I get when I ask this question is, “Good customer service.”  But what does that mean?  It’s usually measured by anything from product performance, to support center response/resolution rate, or to customer satisfaction survey scores.  This is all good, and these are desirable results.  But they are not (necessarily) what keeps your customers coming back.

To succeed in a repeat customer or subscription renewal business, you need to do two things very differently:

  1. 1. Redefine your business strategy and goals to align with this desired result.
  2. 2. Create metrics that both demonstrate success and allow consistent incentives to be

provided to those teams responsible for that success.

Aligning Your Business Strategy

You have, I presume, a very successful sales and marketing strategy and process for acquiring new customers.  Do you have a parallel sales and marketing process for bringing customers back?  This won’t be the same approach as customer acquisition, but it will take advantage of the existing relationship — and everything you know about your customer and how they value your products.

The information you have from your ongoing customer relationships will determine how to set strategy and process for renewal/return sales and marketing.  To define that strategy, you must answer questions such as

  • What customers are most important to you? Why?
  • How do you determine the value of a customer to you?  Are you considering all the aspects that matter?
  • How important are you to your customers?  Why?
  • What criteria do they use to evaluate your relationship and determine whether they return/renew?
  • How predictable are return customers or renewals?  What predicts them?

If you have sources of data — and you likely do — that hold information about customer behavior, usage patterns, specific activities, interactions with the various parts of your organization, etc., then you have an opportunity to mine that data, test (or defy) conventional wisdom, and learn very specifically what actions (or lack of action) can give you a reliable signal about your customers’ intentions.

Which leads to the second part of building an effective strategy: investing in the right people, systems and processes.

Once you know how to value your customers — what actually signals a return or renewing customer and what signals a departing customer — you can then institutionalize this in processes and systems, and communicate it to your people so concerted, prioritized action can be taken to maximize your ongoing revenue stream.

Creating Metrics and Driving Results

How you measure the success of your renewal/returning customer sales and marketing processes will depend on your specific business and what results you want to achieve. But with the data about how to value your customers and predict behavior, you can start by creating metrics that measure things such as

  • Increases in renewal/return rates year-over-year (or reduction in churn).
  • Increases in value of your customers to you.
  • Increases in value of you to your customers.
  • Success of programs that persuade customers to take the actions that predict renewal/return.
  • Success of programs that convert predicted nonrenewers to predicted renewers even before it comes time to renew.

A variety of other metrics can apply, depending on how your organization is structured and how your customers come back to you.

An important point to keep in mind is that a repeat business or subscription based business model is fundamentally different from a single product sale model.  The differences go much deeper than how you bill.  The investment levels are different, the management of the customer relationship is different, the way you offer and likely distribute your product is different…the list can go on and on.

Those of you in telco (telecommunications) and banking (and similar businesses) will know how to do this intuitively; these businesses depend on repeat customers.

For those of you who are in industries trying to make the shift to a recurring revenue model, don’t underestimate the fundamental changes in strategy and process that are needed. Looking at how you make sure your customers are coming back again and again is a very good start.

In my practice, we have found that understanding the true depth and value of the customer relationship can make the creation of a recurring revenue business much smoother and more successful.

Do you run a recurring revenue business?  Or are you trying to convert to one? Share your thoughts on the challenges and how you address them!


I promised myself I wouldn’t, but…

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This is a bit of a rant. And not a really important one at that. But it seems to me that there are things companies do that impose themselves on their “customers” and, in this case, their “customers'” “customers.”  The culprit in this case is Technorati and, that one thing is:


I feel responsible to those of you who take your valuable time to read my writings to make those writings worthy of your time and discuss issues that have the potential to make a real difference. In this case, all I did was change the URL of this blog (did you notice?). And to convince Technorati that it is still my blog (no, they can’t see the new URL, even though Google can) they require that I publicly post that random string of characters for them to find in my blog feed (not even directly on my blog!).

This means they are forcing me to post this for all of you to read also. So instead of just posting a cryptic post with those random characters, I thought I should at least explain. And no, I don’t have a good mystery novel in me, so while it might be a good start, I’ll leave it to more talented folks to go beyond the first sentence.

This is quite an imposition compared to Google. When they wanted proof of ownership, they asked for a tag in the blog’s header, something easily accomplished and invisible to RSS readers and human readers alike. It’s quite the comparison that Technorati wants me to impose their (rather outdated) technology on you, my readers.

The question I draw from this is along the same lines as my last post about Ford Motor Company: Are you being responsible to your customers if you are imposing on their relationship with their customers (when you can avoid it)?

It seems clear to me why, in the past few years, Technorati has lost trust as an on-line authority and Google has stepped in to fill the gap.

So, Technorati, can you read my code now?


Improvement and Change

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I learned something from my last few posts: The people who read this blog like to respond by e-mail. OK, maybe I’m generalizing based on just a few events (e-mails in response to posts), but I do get e-mail, and I don’t get many comments.

I didn’t intend to experiment to find out how my “market” likes to engage. But what I did was, on a small scale, the kind of experiment in which marketers engage every day: Put something out into a market or segment and see how people respond. Do the same thing (at the same time) to comparable but different versions of the same “thing” (offer, message, whatever) in different but comparable markets or segments and you’ll end up with a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Marketers do this all the time. And, I hope, as a result they improve how they talk to their market.

Marketers (and, I’ve noticed, many companies) are not as good at the kind of experimentation that creates change. It’s really not that different. Experiment with things you have not yet tried. Try a new medium for communication – outbound, inbound or (preferably) two-way. Try a few all at once. See if any work. Maybe try a structure to a program, or create something in your market that’s never been created before. It might not work, but it might, and even if it doesn’t, you’ve learned something about having the conversation with your market that your current structure would never have allowed you to learn.

Using simple methods, like piloting, controlled experiments, and allowing the emergence of what works and what doesn’t, this type of experimentation can be successful in almost every organization. And when you learn what works, and then work to improve it, you create the kind of marketing innovation that puts you ahead of your competition.

Why does this matter? I will refrain from beating the now-tired drum of “the market is changing” (which really means your buyer is changing) – we all know it’s true, and will continue to be. If you’re trying the same things over and over again (even if you are improving them every time), you will become irrelevant.

Why does it matter now? In the past year, I’ve seen several companies start to see their marketing effectiveness eroding, only because they won’t (or don’t know how to) try something new. And I don’t know if I believe the doom-and-gloom economic forecasts, but I do believe that the market will become more challenging in 2008 than it was in 2007.

So the question is: are you going to keep doing what made you successful last year, and let someone else find a new way to beat you? or are you going to experiment with new ideas and find the new way to beat them?


Rethinking the Bus

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Sometimes those of us in the tech business can get fooled into thinking we’re the only business where any real experimentation and innovation can happen. Of course, we’d be wrong, but here’s a great example of how the most seemingly mundane and bureaucratic organization can innovate, and (we hope) improve life for their community (aka customers).

Yesterday, AC Transit (a bus company that serves Contra Costa and Alameda Counties east of San Francisco) announced some significant changes to their schedule. Among these were such unusual routes as a “senior citizen route” which (according to the news report I heard) stops at shopping malls, hospitals and nursing homes.

But the most interesting idea is the “Flex Bus.” This bus picks up riders at one of three locations in the city of Newark, and takes them to any (yes, any) bus stop they want anywhere in the city. According to an AC Transit spokesperson:

If you’re the only one on the bus when you board, the bus will drive off and take you straight to whereever you want to go with no stops.

I’m reasonably sure that this whole idea violates all of the traditional notions of efficiency in public transit. I’m also reasonable sure there was lots of opposition to the plan.

All of that because it’s innovative. It’s an attempt to bring a level of service and convenience to the community (riders, customers) that has never even been conceived in public transit. It gives everyone a whole new experience on the bus.

I don’t know nearly enough about public transit to tell if this might work. But I give AC Transit lots of credit for trying.

We in the tech industry love to experiment with new products, services and technologies to deliver better experiences to our customers. This reminds us that anyone, anywhere and in any business (agency, organization) can be just as innovative and can deliver just as unique a customer experience.

How innovative is your customer experience?