THE PITFALL OF WHOLESALE NETWORKING TO RETAIL PROSPECTS

Business DiscussionThe verb “network” means to meet or interact with people for the purpose of making contacts and exchanging ideas. Contrary to popular belief, its primary goal is not to generate sales! It is, quite simply, to get to know people, and to have them get to know you. Sales are just one of the benefits that might result from increased exposure.

I am a strong advocate of networking. I was introduced to several significant vendors and business associates at networking meetings. That includes my insurance agent, social media consultants and two business partners. However, while I have provided leads that resulted in other people closing sales, I can think of only one small client engagement I gained through networking.

Why is that?

It is because my ideal client prospect is unlikely to participate in what I refer to as “retail networking” groups. My best prospects have been established in business for years; are generating annual revenue of several million dollars, have fifty or more employees, are adequately funded and have highly specialized strategic needs beyond their ability to address internally.

Furthermore, they have progressed beyond the usual concerns of new ventures, the greatest of which is simply generating sales. They recognize and value the need for more sophisticated services, and are able to pay to meet those needs.

That profile is not a match to the typical retail networking group. A business targeting start-up operations, solopreneurs, small average sales and/or “main street” business and consumer needs is far more likely to generate sales through networking groups. However, a reality of mining for customers in this environment is high turnover and high marketing costs. Statistics show more than 35% of a typical group’s participants will not be in business in a year, and perhaps as high as 90% within five years.

So if wholesale (or large scale) networking to retail groups is not an alternative for marketing your B2B product or service, what is?

There are probably as many correct answers to that question as there are small businesses. I will share several things that have produced business for me in a future blog.

Eight Secrets from a Serial Blogger

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Have you been thinking about blogging, but are concerned whether your writing skills will translate into effective online communications?

Increase your chances of success in getting your message to the right audience by avoiding the mistakes of others. This article offers eight simple suggestions its authors learned in the preverbal “school of hard knocks”.

Here they are:

1. Stick to a schedule. The correct blogging frequency is whatever connects with your audience. For some blogs that might be daily. For others, once a month is sufficient. The optimal blogging frequency is not critical. What is critical is to decide on a schedule, communicate it to your readers and stick to it! Avoid the temptation to over-commit. While most bloggers enjoy writing, it can be grueling.

2. Expand and enhance. Supplement your usual content by periodically sharing relevant quotes, articles and tips from others. You can also try using guest writers, treating your readers to different areas of expertise and points of view. A generous introduction to your guest author may result in them reciprocating on their blog, further expanding your following.

3. Keep posts short. Readers are looking for tidbits of actionable information, not detailed research. Keep posts short, preferably under 600 words. The average American reads less than 300 words per minute. Studies suggest 65% of visitors spend less than 2 minutes on a website. Therefore, an entry longer than 600 words will not be read in its entirety, if at all.

  • A better alternative to lengthy articles is to split them into multiple parts, posting them in consecutive entries. Begin each post with a review of what was discussed in the previous entry, and end with what to expect in your next post and when it will be shared.

4. Promote your blog. Add your blog’s web address to business cards, print media ads, letterheads, email signatures and so on. Adding a Quick Response Code to business cards and other medium is gaining popularity. A QR code allows Smartphone users to find your blog easily.

5. Use social media. Post summaries of blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Exercise care to comply with each platform’s unique character limitations.

  • Since you will always end with a hyperlink to your blog, use a free URL shortener like https://bitly.com/ if pressed for space.
  • Post blog entries on SlideShare or other article marketing sites by uploading a pdf file. The last paragraph should be a brief “About the author” with a hyperlink to your blog.
  • Blog posts can be featured in your monthly newsletter to customers and friends.

6. Support online sharing. Add plug-ins or widgets on your blog to promote article sharing through Facebook, Twitter and other social media vehicles you believe are likely to help capture your target market. Allow readers to bookmark your URL to their list of favorite sites with the click of a button.

7. Encourage feedback. Always thank readers who post comments. Be respectful of opinions and suggestions, even if you disagree with them. While it is perfectly appropriate to delete spam (an inevitable byproduct of successful blogging) or comments with inappropriate language, deleting reader comments simply because you disagree discourages feedback. Periodically end posts by asking readers for comments, suggestions and ideas for future articles.

8. Don’t give up too quickly. Some experts believe it takes about 100 posts before you begin to build a following. Most bloggers become discouraged and give up before reaching that milestone.

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Count on a Guy in a White Hat

whitehatAs an entire generation who grew up watching Gun Smoke, The Lone Ranger and a long list of other television westerns knows, good guys always wore white hats!

One of the greatest Hollywood clichés of all times, it is deeply ingrained within each of us that you could count on a stranger in a white hat! They were sure to be honest, kind, generous, courageous, moral and chivalrous.

That leaves the other guys, the ones in the black hats. Just as good defines evil, they were the anti-hero of every storyline, the exact opposite of guys in white hats. A man in a black hat was surely dishonest, cruel, self-centered, cowardly, immoral and boorish. Good guys and bad guys were always on opposite sides of an issue. Fortunately, good always triumphed in the end.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to pick names for two broad categories of search engine optimization (SEO) practices, a baby boomer somewhere choose white hat and black hat to describe the opposite ends of a long spectrum of internet marketing techniques and philosophies.

The stakes are high in this modern day gunfight. Fair or not, a potential customer who has never heard of your company has no choice but to equate your search engine results and the quality of your content with the prominence of your company among your peers and the value of your products or services!

A study of December 2010 Google searches for B2B and B2C businesses found the top 3 search engine rankings got 60% of all click throughs, with the first position enjoying a click through rate (CTR) of 36.4%. Page one listings got 8 times more clicks than page 2. CTR differences by ranking were even more dramatic for key words with more than 1,000 searches per month.

What then are the distinguishing characteristics of these opposing marketing camps? They hinge on the answer to a single question. Does the marketer play by the largely unwritten and frequently changing rules of the major search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing control over 95% of the market) or not?

Just like the old Code of the West, white hats follow the rules. They focus on engaging and informing readers rather than manipulating search engine algorisms. Their procedures include writing key word rich text (without meaningless repetition), link building and paid advertising using pay per click ad words.

Black hats still refuse to play by any rules. Their techniques include email spam, keyword stuffing, article spinning (posting substantially similar content in multiple locations) and using hidden text to trick search engines.

What are the rewards for playing by the rules of this 21st century Code of the Internet? White hat marketing can be expected to produce slower but longer lasting organic search rankings. Black hat techniques will likely eventually be penalized by search engines, reducing rankings or eliminating the listing from their database.

What color is your hat?

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

“LIKE” IF YOU REMEMBER MYSPACE

MySpaceIs it just me, or has there been an explosion of people posting nostalgic photos on Facebook and asking you to click “Like” if you can remember a black and white picture of some fifties TV icon or a once popular consumer product from your youth? Time has a way of reducing our past to warm, fuzzy memories. Heck, show me a photo of a macho guy enjoying a cigarette on the back of a horse and I might even forget that three of the Marlboro Man actors died of lung cancer!

Digital media has done more than merely provide a medium to share the recollections of our youth. It has greatly diminished the time span during which products and services move from broad acceptance and popularity to distant memories. Allow me to offer two well-known examples.

Gutenberg’s 1440 invention of the printing press revolutionized communication. It made possible the sharing of ideas and information through the mass production of books. It took another 555 years, until 1995, for an upstart company named Amazon to start selling those same books using something that had been introduced just three years earlier. That something was the Internet.

It took another 12 years to popularize eReaders like their famous Kindle. Within four years, Amazon was selling three times as many eBooks as hard covers. Their success obviously does not include a plethora of competitors including the hugely successful Apple iPad. It seems almost certain the paper book will soon be a candidate for Facebook friends to ask you to “Like” if you can remember owning one.

Still, 600 years from invention to impending obsolescence is not a bad run! Now consider a more recent service life span.

MySpace was introduced in August 2003, six months before Facebook. Just two years later, it was the most visited social networking site on the planet. Rupert Murdock was so excited about its prospects that he paid $580 million for it in 2005. In 2006, it reached 100 million accounts, a level that required 1,600 employees to support.

Facebook over took it in April 2008.

In June 2011, Murdoch’s News Corporation sold MySpace for $35 million, a 94% loss on their six-year investment. With uncharacteristic understatement, Murdoch pronounced the purchase a “huge mistake”.

These examples illustrate three critically important points for all 21st century marketers.

  1. Communication trends change faster than businesses can anticipate. Most lack the resources to manage that change.
  2. Faced with a constantly expanding stream of free choices, your target audience no longer uses communications channels popular just a few years ago.
  3. Neither do your successful competitors.

The cost of failure is high. Even the most carefully designed marketing communiqué, be it a press release, an ad campaign, a newsletter, etc., will fail if it is not transmitted in the optimal channel.

The only way to avoid that mistake is to communicate a consistent message and single brand to over-lapping audiences across multiple channels. That is what successful digital media marketing is all about.

© 2013 by CFO America, LLC

Lessons from Cool Hand Luke: Failures in Business Communications (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the potentially dire consequences of using the wrong channels when communicating with customers. Paul Newman’s famous line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” served as my theme.

I outlined nine milestones in communications, from the printing press to the Internet. Today, I conclude with a follow-up on how each of those communications channels has fared over the years.

More recent developments in the nine communication mediums include the following:

1. The days of printed books and newspapers may be numbered. Consider the following:

  • Although Amazon keeps its sales figures close to its corporate vest, reports by Bloomberg and other sources suggest it likely sold over eight million Kindles in 2010. Amazon’s January 27, 2011 press release reported, “Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the Company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books.” Those sales were achieved in spite of stiff competition from the Apple iPad and other eReaders.
  • In an industry financed by advertisers, newspapers now cost more to reach a similar audience than radio, magazines, or websites. The Newspaper Association of America expected ad revenue to drop 9.7% in 2009 after falling 16.5% in 2008.

2. In a press release issued November 12, 2010, the U.S. Postal Service reported a loss of $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2010. They delivered 6.1 billion fewer pieces of mail than the previous year. Labeled advertising mail, 273 million pieces of daily junk mail make up 47% of Postal Service volume, but only 25% of its revenue.

3. Struggling from its failure to win a federal contract to deliver mail, the Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph connected Omaha to Sacramento. During an 18-month existence, it succeeded in reducing the cost of a 1/2 ounce letter by 80%.

4. Home phones are being replaced by cell phones and other mobile devices. Smartphone users can now perform virtually any function available on a computer. They can also scan product bar codes for instant price comparisons and download directions to local competitors. In October 2010, CTIA-The Wireless Association reported in their 50 Wireless Quick Facts that over 89% of handsets operating on wireless networks are capable of browsing the web.

5. With its market steadily evaporating since the 1975 invention of digital cameras, Kodak ended a 74-year run when it discontinued production of Kodachrome film in 2009. SEC filings reported a $210 million loss that year. Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2012. They will no longer manufacture cameras, and will sell its film division. The digital camera was invented by a Kodak engineer.

6. A July 2008 report by Borrell Associates titled Say Goodbye to Yellow Pages estimated the industry would lose 39% of its revenue over the next five years as small businesses focus more on online advertising. It was forecast that 2008 print revenue of $12.7 billion would decrease to $7.8 billion by 2013. In an age of instant information, an increasing number of businesses are obviously questioning the wisdom of spending scarce marketing resources on a medium that will not be distributed until months after incurring the expense. Some estimates suggest that up to 20% of small businesses do not survive to see their Yellow Pages ad in print. Meanwhile, concerns over the environmental impact of discarded books are causing cities to explore advanced recovery fee ordinances that will add millions of dollars to industry costs.

7. The marketing impact of satellite radio remains to be seen. Sirius FM Radio reports almost 22 million subscribers in some highly desirable demographics. Yet, the public company has not traded above $3 a share in over four years.

8. A four-decade oligopoly by ABC, CBS and NBC began to crack by the 1980s. Having once controlled 99% of all broadcasts, their market share dropped to 32% by 2005 according to the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. The Fox Network now produces the highest rated show on TV (American Idol) and the longest running primetime show (The Simpsons). The increased popularity of cable TV, Internet access to programming and digital recording devices threaten to redefine television’s role as the “high end” communications media. Fortunately, the ability to embrace technological changes has allowed television to hold the average American’s attention for 4.7 hours a day (according to a 2008 Nielsen report) over 60 years after its introduction. Finally, NBC’s owner Comcast announced in January 2011 they were dropping the iconic peacock from their corporate logo. This announcement ended a 56-year television tradition that first trumpeted the arrival of color programming to an entire generation of mesmerized children. Curse you, Comcast!

9. Lastly, the traditional model of text dominated static communications on a free World Wide Web navigated via a handful of search engines is being challenged. New paradigms including pay per click advertising, video and yes, social media are quickly redefining it.

As I reflect on this timeline, it occurs to me that few people can anticipate, let alone shape communications in this accelerating stream of consumer driven changes. Names like Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and a handful of other young billionaires come to mind.

The rest of us do well just to keep up with it.

The goal of today’s successful small businesses should be to meet customers in whatever communication channels they choose at that moment and to educate and influence (never dictate) consumer behavior as best they can.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” magic formula for success, no one thing that will permanently solve marketing challenges or slow the pace of change. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow because as Tony Robbins and others have said, “The past does not equal the future!” That much is clear from the timeline. There is simply no substitute for hard work, vision and continuous planning and experimentation.

However, there is also much cause for hope.

Don Bradley and Chris Cowdery’s exhaustive study Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy had this conclusion: “Evidence suggests that failure rates of small businesses in the United States are related to the nature of a capitalistic market in relying on competition where only the strongest survive. The causes for small business failure and ultimately bankruptcy are many. A successful entrepreneur is, no doubt, the consummate businessperson who must be a jack-of-all-trades. It is evident that nearly all entrepreneurs have the opportunity to control their own destiny. Success is obviously not a guarantee, but nor is failure. A well-rounded businessperson who has carefully planned and prepared with a clear vision of who and what the company is will have an excellent opportunity for success.”

I also point out that many of the marketing ideas discussed in this blog would not have been possible just a few short years ago. Many more have been made easier and more cost efficient by recent technological developments and increased Internet-based competition.

I therefore challenge and encourage you to seize the opportunity to control your own destiny, to embrace change, to experiment with new ideas, and to learn from your triumphs and your disappointments in these exciting times. Your business will grow in the process.

I wish you great success in your efforts and I hope you have fun in your journey.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

We Have Meet The Enemy & He Is Us, Dealing with Entrenched Policies & Procedures (Part 2)

On Monday, I introduced the topic of inefficient and outdated policies, processes and procedures using the cartoon character Pogo, and the mid-twentieth inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

After coining a new acronym (RGP3s) and describing some common characteristics, I ended with the obvious question, what is a manger to do about them?

First, be open to the possibility of their existence in your organization. Every company has some areas that need improvement. You cannot assume that something is “best practices” simply because it worked in the past. If a department is unable to keep up with current workloads, there are only two possible reasons. Either they are understaffed, or they are operating at less than peak efficiency. Adding staff adds costs. Improving efficiencies is likely a cheaper and perhaps faster alternative.

All successful organizations eventually reach a size where managers are not expected to be familiar with the application of every policy, process and procedure. Even if they are, RGP3s can be virtually invisible to the familiar (or complacent) eye. That suggests one of two possible approaches.

The first approach is to constantly challenge and encourage employees to identify efficiency improvement opportunities. Maintain an open and direct line of communication through brief but regular interaction. Actively solicit employee input and implement at least one idea every month. Publicly reward accepted suggestions in ways they value. That may mean an employee of the month plaque in the lobby, a front row parking spot or an AMEX gift card.

Unfortunately, relying solely on employees’ willingness to point out flaws has a major limitation, human nature! People seem to have a tendency to accept most things as they are. Furthermore, asking questions and challenging the status quo may be viewed as career limiting in some corporate cultures. That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy or apathetic. It’s just how things are.

The second approach is to bring in a fresh pair of eyes. A while back, I shared a story about an experience in a new job. On my second day, I was reviewing a lengthy payment report when I spotted something unexpected. About every 20 pages or so, there was an entry with a negative amount. Based on my still limited understanding, there was no reason for negative numbers. To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain items to be paid twice.

The point is that other people who worked with the report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative entries before. Yet they failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier.

In closing, let me clarify what constitutes a “fresh pair of eyes”. It may mean a consultant. This outside resource could be an expert in your field, or someone well versed in common business practices and operations. An auditor or independant CPA with other clients in your industry may be a valuable resource, especially if the area of concern is one they review as part of their evaluation of internal controls.

In my example, a fresh pair of eyes merely meant introducing a new employee into the mix.

Either way, the path to improved efficiencies in your business may be as simple as finding someone unburdened by the “But we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

That mindset, Mr. Pogo, is the real enemy.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 2)

Today I conclude the article on product driven versus market driven companies. I began by discussing the cultural differences between the two. Product driven companies concentrate on achieving and maintaining technical superiority. Market driven companies devote resources to brand development and customer communications.

Companies and industries sometimes attempt to adapt their marketing strategy in response to changing competition and other market forces. For example, conditions slowly but dramatically changed for the entire American automotive industry over the next 50 years. Detroit’s response to the 1973 oil embargo was a textbook case of a failed attempt to adapt. Faced with the first ever non-wartime limit on the availability of cheap gasoline, the American consumer suddenly became very conscious of gas mileage.

At the time, Japanese and European companies dominated the market for fuel-efficient sub-compacts. American manufacturers’ knee-jerk response was to jump headfirst into a market they had ignored until recently. They stepped up production of the notoriously undependable Ford Pinto (voted the worst car of all time), the Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin.

Detroit’s failure took a personal toll on an entire generation of consumers. My first car was a red, white and blue Pinto. It was a cornucopia of expensive mechanical problems, unrelenting frustration on a 94-inch wheelbase. I sold it just before a massive recall for an exploding gas tank problem that would eventually cost Ford millions of dollars in legal settlements.

My next car, a Toyota, sparked a love affair with foreign cars that continues today. It was 30 years before I bought another Ford, a pickup truck for my son. It took almost as long for American manufacturers to overcome the image of producing inferior cars. It remains to be seen whether they will ever regain the world market share they once enjoyed.

How have things changed since I bought that damn Pinto?

A national chain of men’s discount stores advertised, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” For a product driven company in 2011, an educated consumer might be more aptly described as their worst nightmare. Service industry executive and strategic planning expert Michael O’Loughlin recently summarized the reason. He said, “Thanks to the Internet, the consumer has come to believe that no concessions are ever necessary. They expect unlimited choices in meeting their needs.”

Potential customers are only a few clicks away from a myriad of rival goods and services. A consumer with a smartphone can compare competitors’ prices on the spot. Any business, even the smallest local operation, ignores those powerful market realities at their own peril. Broadening your product line or services can help fend off competition by better addressing market needs, and improve customer retention in the process.

The men’s store chain recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. One analyst said they had failed to keep up with the increasingly competitive off-priced clothing market.

My final point is that few successful companies employ an entirely one-sided strategy. They operate along a moving spectrum on which there are few absolutes, and no strategy guaranteed to bring success or failure.

Consider Ford one last time. Product limitations notwithstanding, they still managed to sell over 15 million units between 1908 and 1927. At one point, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s. That production record stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed it in 1972.

The correct strategy for your business is the one that is executable within the constraints of your cost structure and marketing budget, and that produces the highest net cash flow given all the relevant factors at work in your market and your competition.

I began this article with an old quote. I end with another. A marketing adage says, “You have to sell from your own wagon.” It refers to a bygone era when merchants plied their trade by pushing handcarts up and down urban streets. The adage may be true. However, today you get to decide how big your wagon is, and what products or services it carries.

Go forth and sell!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 1)

This week, I get to incorporate two of my favorite topics, history and old cars, into a two-part article. My title is one of Henry Ford’s most quoted statements. He actually said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”.

He said it in 1909, ironically at a time when black was not available. The Model T originally came in grey, green, blue and red. He did not implement his all black policy until 1914. However, He could have accurately said customers can have any model they want so long as it is a 2-door. But his quote sounds better, so I’m throwing journalistic accuracy to the wind and going with it!

I use it to introduce my real subject, product driven versus market driven companies. Henry obviously believed in a product driven strategy.

My first goal is simply to understand the difference between the two strategies and the corporate cultures that define them at the most basic level.

If you were involved in Ford’s marketing efforts back then, your job was to convince potential buyers they needed a black Model T, period! Your marketing approach was something like, “Here is what I have to sell, and this is why you need it.”

Contrast that to a market driven strategy that asks, “What do you need, and how can I best meet that need?”

The cultural differences between product and market driven companies run deep. Product driven companies will spend relatively more resources on product development. Their primary goal is to achieve and maintain technical superiority. In extreme examples, they believe their products are so good they simply sell themselves. Engineers will always outrank marketing in the corporate pecking order.

Market driven companies will devote more resources to brand their company and products, and on customer communications. Technical superiority is secondary to understanding customer needs and anticipating market changes. Product development is less mission critical than advertising, since the marketing department rules the roost.

My second point is that if you are going to sell a limited product or service line, you need to be very good at it. Ford was fanatical about producing cheap, dependable cars. He managed to reduce the original $850 sticker price to $290 by the 1920s. At that price, he owned the working family automotive market. He was so confident that the cars’ features and low cost could generate sufficient sales that he did no corporate advertising from 1917 to 1923.

Unfortunately, being first to market with a technically superior product offered at an affordable price is no guarantee of long-term success. As Ford Motor Company subsequently learned, competitors (increasingly on a global basis) have a long history of unseating early market leaders who grow complacent about ever-changing customer needs and wants.

Being a product driven company is certainly easier if you exercise some degree of control in your relevant market, and if consumer tastes are stable and predictable. Perhaps Ford was lulled into a false sense of security by assuming past market conditions, under which they flourished for decades, would continue indefinitely.

Car buyers in the 1920s were unsophisticated by today’s standards. They could not have imaged, let alone demanded the range of choices, options and features currently available. Ford was not the first company to replace dangerous hand cranks with electric starters. Cadillac beat them to market by seven years. However, when the world’s largest car manufacturer finally made the change in 1919, consumers and the rest of the industry fell in line. Ford defined the new standard, not Cadillac.

I will conclude this article on Friday, when I write about how companies sometimes attempt to adapt their strategies to changing market conditions.

Until then, best wishes for a joyous Thanksgiving holiday.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

What do Football and Chicken Wings Have in Common?

Today’s title sounds suspiciously like the opening line of a bad joke. Maybe a little later. Actually, it was inspired by last night’s start of the 2011 – 2012 NFL season. Green Bay defeated the Saints in a 42 to 34 nail biter. Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to start today’s blog with a football reference. Here it is!

Did you ever wonder why GMC is the “official truck” of the National Football League? It is not as if they haul injured players off the field on Sierra Hybrids. If they did, can we assume the trucks would be using Castrol, the “official motor oil” of the NFL?

An even bigger question might be why Wingstop is the “official chicken wing” of the Dallas Cowboys. For that matter, do the Cowboys really need an official chicken wing and if so, do they taste better than unofficial wings? I am guessing the nutritional value is about the same. Wingstop is not wondering about those questions. Executive Vice President Andy Howard reported Sunday sales for the 2010 season were up 15 percent in spite of the Cowboys’ disappointing 6 and 10 record.

Endorsement marketing is common in the insurance industry. For example, Hartford Insurance Company teamed up with the AARP to become the endorsed auto and home insurer to the AARP’s reported 40 million members. The AARP also offers life insurance products through New York Life, and long-term care products through Genworth Financial Group.

I am not suggesting you attempt to negotiate a deal with the NFL or a million-member national organization. Start small, on a state or local level. Identify organizations whose members use your products or services. Associations are usually eager to earn income from sources other than their membership. For the cost of an associate membership, an advertisement in their quarterly newsletter or a booth at their annual convention, you can probably find trade associations and similar groups willing to designate your company as the official supplier for your product or service. That in turn provides access to their membership directory, and perhaps speaking engagements.

  • A rule of thumb in the insurance industry is these marketing costs should not exceed two percent of anticipated revenue.
  • The best place to find organizations is your state capital where many will be headquartered.
  • If you are not prepared to market on a statewide basis, find out if there are local or regional chapters.

Do not overlook educational institutions and fraternal organizations as a source of endorsement sales. I knew a small business that was the preferred supplier of screen-printed and embroidered shirts for 50,000 students at Texas A&M University. How much is that endorsement worth? For the 2010 “Maroon Out” football game against Nebraska, one of many annual events the tradition-loving Aggies commemorate with shirts (I have paid for a closet full of them in recent years), the University’s student body, alumni and supporters reportedly bought over 55,000 shirts. My unofficial source tells me the supplier was paid $3.50 apiece.

Again, start small. You are more likely to land a profitable endorsement from a local high school sports team or a Parent-Teacher Association than from a major university. I also knew a one-shop sporting goods store that sold letter jackets for several large high schools. If you have raised a teenager in recent years, you know how expensive these customized items can be.

Let me end with one last football story.

The Seven Dwarfs were marching through the forest one day when they fell in a deep, dark ravine. Snow White, who was following along, peered over the edge and called out to the dwarfs. From the depths of the dark hole a voice returned, “The Cleveland Browns are Super Bowl contenders.” 

Snow White said to herself, “Thank God! At least Dopey survived!”

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