31 August 2006

Customer non-Service

We seem to be having continuing problems with PayPal. Part of this arises from the way PayPal is configured. US account holders can choose whether or not to pay by credit card, in Europe - as I understand it - PayPal forces its account holders to make their purchase through PayPal.

As security it makes some sense, since PayPal holds records about account holders which it can use to test whether a purchase is likely to be fraudulent. As a commercial policy it obviously makes good business sense, since it tends to increase the free cash float which can be swept into money market accounts. As customer service it is seriously defective. Part of the problem is that people don't remember their PayPal account details and often they have multiple accounts, created over a long period.

I have just taken a few days' holiday and Phil has taken our current problems on the nose. It seems that well over half of the people who wanted to buy from us during the third week of August has had some form of PayPal problem. We are still looking for a good alternative which isn't hideously expensive. The likelihood is that we will continue to offer PayPal as one of the checkout options but that we will have to develop a range of alternatives so that all types of visitor have a good chance of making an automated purchase. The big issue is that these cases are the ones that we know about, and the truth is that they are likely to be the tip of an iceberg. If that assumption is true then PayPal has certainly cost us sales.

As a result I have been doing quite a bit of background reading about PayPal and it seems that we are not alone. PayPal's approach to customer service seems to be antediluvian. There are numbers of sites which complain about PP's customer service experience. The common feature is that PayPal isn't quick to follow up on complaints and tries its best to provide hurdles in its Customer Service process so that the unassertive or those lacking persistence give up.

18 August 2006

When is eCommerce not eCommerce?

No, it isn't the first line of joke. When we build a website that sells we try and cover all the options to reassure people that:
  • we are who we say we are
  • our product is as good as we say
  • our guarantees are real
So the answer to the question 'When is eCommerce not eCommerce' is that a site isn't eCommerce when someone rings our office number and says either:
  • I would like to buy
  • Do you have them in green?
I suppose the first one is forgivable, the person leaving the message doesn't know that we have several sites, so the message I would like to buy, please call me for my card details could mean a whole range of possibilities. Question, why not press the buy now button? Don't you trust your card to the internet? You are still willing to hand over your card details to us over the phone?

The second one is confusing. We don't mention green on the towels site, all the photos are of white towels or white embroidered towels. Having seen the site, why would anyone think that we have them in green? We do, but that's beside the point. We have a champagne site, selling the output of a single grower, do people assume that we sell other kinds of champagne?

The point is that you can't visualise every possible outcome, and the punters aren't asking stupid questions or leaving stupid messages. It could be layout, language or something entirely separate but you have to listen and, if necessary, respond to these messages. They are a very real feedback on how people interpret what you meant when you were putting the site together.

Working with an audience

At one time I worked for a small American market research firm that produced proprietary and multi-client studies in the chemicals industry. As a new boy I had to soak up training to be effective on the job and my manager told me "when you get your first question, cut them off at the knees"!

On reflection, there is a grain of truth there - people in the audience may not have the same grasp of the material as the presenter and the response to the question is an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of expertise. It isn't, however, a recipe for the long term, it is a tactic which is more about winning the battle than winning the war. For presentations where it is important to maintain a long-term relationship with participants then I would always recommend a less aggressive approach, one which invites more of a dialogue with the questioner or other members of the audience. That inclusiveness and making them feel good about what they know is more likely to cement relationships.

These thoughts were prompted by a quick re-acquaintance with "Getting to Yes" over the week-end, authored by Fisher, Ury and Patton from Harvard.

17 August 2006

Can you keep a secret?

A business contact gave me permission to use their private email address today. The permission came with a list of things that I shouldn't do so that the email address doesn't get into the wider community. It wasn't an onerous list and I appreciate that some people like to maintain a degree of distance between them and the outside world. I am destroying the email address today and, with luck, I should have forgotten it by the end of the week.

It isn't that I think I'm untrustworthy, it's just that I don't want the responsibility of maintaining the secrecy of something as picayune as an email address. That means that I will continue to use the normal non-confidential contact routes for this person which means that I won't have instantaneous access - but that shouldn't be a problem, I can't see us developing the kind of correspondence that requires a rapid response.

An update on Debbie Jenkins

I mentioned Debbie Jenkins in a post about Lean Marketing the other day. I also mentioned that I couldn't find her course on her site. Debbie has been in touch to tell me that the course is now available as a toolbox since buyers preferred to get at all the tools at once, rather than waiting for them to be delivered day by day. The toolbox can be accessed at Bookshaker.

I've learned something at last

This week I put up a new AdWords campaign and the initial stats look pretty pleasing - click-throughs are running at about 9% which is better than I would have expected for a brand new campaign, so it will be interesting to see what we can achieve after we have been split testing for a while. It shows though that we have learned something from our other AdWord campaigns. Without that learning, I doubt that we would have achieved this level of clicks.

Like everything else we do, I'm trying to use the AdWord as part of the overall site sell, so the real test is final conversions and those figures will take a little longer to establish.

16 August 2006

What happened to the proof reader?

They are sold in boxes of 100 and make sending your companies mail really quick and simple ...

That chilling misuse of the English language doesn't come from a small, underfunded company, it is from the Royal Mail shop selling bulk stamps and pre-paid envelopes. My immediate reaction was to cut and paste the offending text and send it to the Contact Us page with a suggested correction. I'm still looking for somewhere to send it. My second thought was that they were involved in a segmentation exercise - they actually intended the page to be read only by individuals who own more than one company. That second thought is so improbable that I'll ignore it.

15 August 2006

How not to develop a business

Yesterday Chris and I queued for a coffee while a trainee barrista attempted to make up orders and work the till while her more senior colleagues had their breakfast in a room about 30 feet away from where she was working. The trainee was well meaning, but needed help. It was surprising because we use those offices frequently and it was the first time that we had noticed this kind of problem.

Talking to the building staff a little later in the day we found out that the catering business had lost their contract renewal and have only a few more days to complete the existing term. That's the root of the problem. If people don't care about developing a relationship beyond the existing transaction then it is unlikely that customer service standards will remain at high levels.

14 August 2006

Getting the right tone in White Papers

White Papers can be very important in helping Buyers to clarify their thoughts during their Buying process. But all White Papers are not the same. Some White Papers are so ineffective that they act as a barrier between the Buyer and the product or service being sold.

Most people recognise that White Papers have to be issues-led but they also have to help the Buyer through the Buying process and it is worth remembering that people make their their buying decisions based on emotion. However we might wish to disguise the truth from ourselves, engineers, accountants, managers and lawyers make their decisions based on a combination of emotion and logic.

Often the logic supports the emotions and is used to justify our decisions after they have been made. Logic plays a part, but emotion is a core ingredient. Some people think that emotion has no place in B2B marketing. Those people are likely to tell you that your White Paper should be dry and factual.

A White Paper is not an instruction manual or an employee handbook. It is attempting to be an important element supporting your sales and marketing process. Business-to-business marketing need not be dull and boring. Like any advertisement, the White Paper needs a compelling headline and each paragraph of the content has to be built so that it sucks the reader into reading the next. It should begin a conversation so that it talks about your reader's problem, not some impersonal 3rd party problem.

The White Paper also needs a sensible call to action at the end. That also needs to be carefully drafted. The action is probably to undertake further analysis - some kind of a review. It's very unlikely that they will leap straight out and buy your product or service however well written and engaging the White Paper.

White Papers take time to create but can be very powerful tools, providing that you remember that they will be read by people and not by machines.

13 August 2006

A little background research

My younger son is going to a job interview next week so this week-end he did a little background preparation to make sure that he knew what the job entailed, had thought through his responses to likely questions and so forth. He even thought up a couple of questions to ask them so that he could look as if he had done some thinking about the role and the company before being interviewed. I don't get involved in any of that preparation unless asked - I don't want to look as if I'm interfering.

In parallel though I took a look at their site, listed off the keywords they had placed within meta tags and checked to see what their Google ranking is against those keywords. This is a business in the pharma sector and it is obviously an important service business which is commonly called on to deliver specific types of service during the development and testing of drugs and delivery systems. Their site is well-made and they have spent a bundle on it. Their ranking data is interesting - on some keywords they rank quite high, but on others they don't rank anywhere. On their first page they claim to be the number 1 organisation for a particular service in the pharma industry. That service is one of the keyword phrases I had checked. Guess what, they aren't ranked in the top 1000 sites against that keyword phrase in Google. Now it may be that everyone in the sector "knows" that they are number 1 for that particular service, but how about potential investors, journalists and anyone else outside the sector who might not be part of the privileged clique who is in the "know"?

It isn't as if this is a low volume keyword, either. People search for that term about 4,ooo times per month in North America. That isn't fmcg territory but this is a solid B2B service and 4,000 searches per month mean that those searches aren't listing this business. Why? Don't assume that because your site is well-built that it is delivering exactly what you expect.

I should of course say that there isn't just one keyword involved here - at least 8 of the important keyword phrases which appear in their meta tags and on their site, aren't listed in Google's top 1000 sites.

12 August 2006

Picking up the traces

I mentioned earlier that we had become closely integrated with an organisation promoting Knowledge Management and that each of us was going to a take on a strong role in the business to strengthen its front-end.

One of the first things we have to do is make sure that we understand the positioning of each of the leads in the business to establish whether any of them need following up. That activity, the qualification of open leads is vital for the incoming team because it immediately gives us an insight into the quality of the pipeline.

It won't be the first thing we do because Chris and I are working together on Monday to build a short term plan for the business, but after that it will be one of my key priorities.

Lean marketing

Periodically I mention "Dangerous" Debbie Jenkins. What Debbie has promoted over the last few years is that the kind of behaviour that has driven enormous process improvements in Lean Manufacturing can be used in a marketing environment to reduce costs and improve sales revenues.

As a starting point she suggests that you should classify all your marketing activities in a simple taxonomy:
  • is it mandatory in your segment or country of operation?
  • does it save money or show a positive ROI in terms of increased sales?
  • miscellany bucket
If something falls into the first two buckets then it should be continued. She believes, probably quite rightly, that most marketing activities will fall in the 3rd bucket and she has a series of tools which helps the business assess whether the activities in the 3rd bucket should be continued or killed.

Having culled the contents of the 3rd bucket, many Marketing Managers might be left with time on their hands. Debbie also has a series of powerful tools which you can use to bring on new marketing activities which will align with your sales efforts so that they should help to bring in more business.

It's a powerful series of ideas and while her style might not appeal to everyone, there is plenty of meat there which can be used across a wide range of environments. You can access her site at Debbie Jenkins. She has a book - Gorillas want Bananas - which covers a great many of her ideas and she used to have an online course which could be downloaded although it looks as though it may have been discontinued. You can access some of her tools through the Lean Marketing website.

11 August 2006

Trainer tip for a workshop

I was putting together an agenda for a short workshop and it got me thinking about the kinds of tools that you can use in a workshop environment. Plenty of tools exist and many of them are well understood both by the facilitators and the audience. I'm going to describe a tool that I use occasionally, it's very powerful as well as fun for its participants. The best bit is that it isn't used much - I've never seen it used at all and I've been in plenty of workshops.

The tool is inversion. Sometimes workshop audiences lack creativity in terms of thinking up business development or indeed, process improvement ideas. As a race, Brits are brilliant at thinking up how things could be made worse - what this tool does is capture that type of thinking and then invert the output.

Question: How could the business be less effective than it is?
  • use poorly trained staff
  • deliver poor quality product
  • deliver late
You get the picture from my high level and rudimentary examples. Once the list is reasonably comprehensive and prioritised then you can invert the bullet points -
  • how can we train staff more effectively
  • how can we deliver high quality product
  • how can we ensure we deliver on time
I promise, this can work powerfully and because it is relatively novel, it will engage with the audience.

Feed readers and User agents

At the beginning of July I made a post about my Feedburner stats for the previous month - I think that there were 13 feed readers and user agents during that period and I made the comment that I was surprised by how rich the list was, unlike browsers and operating systems which look almost monocultural by comparison.

Here is the total list of agents that have visited the blog:
  • a Java-based feed reader
  • NewsGator Online
  • Thunderbird
  • Biz360 spider
  • Blogwise-Cache Builder
  • Firefox Live Bookmarks
  • Google Feedfetcher
  • Jakarta Commons Generic Client
  • Linkie Winkie Crawler
  • MJ12bot
  • NetNewsWire
  • SnapBot
  • URI::Fetch
  • msnbot-NewsBlogs
  • wwwster
that's without adding in the subscription feed, 4 kinds of browsers and 11 assorted bots. The Feedburner report is now 31 lines long excluding category headings. This looks like a great opportunity for consolidation.

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10 August 2006

I don't know what I don't know

We have become seriously interested in Knowledge Management (KM). It's pure self-interest of course, one of our clients is involved in the area and we are acting at the front end of the business. I'm doing Sales, Phil is doing Business Development and Chris is going to mentor the Operations Director.

I was surprised by the breadth of the term Knowledge Management. People are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Knowledge Management means exactly what they want it to mean. For some, KM is all about content while for others, KM is less about content and more about the acquisition of 'tacit knowledge' and providing a framework for capturing that tacit knowledge during the day job. Our client falls solidly in the second category. Given the same data, experts and non-experts can come to very different conclusions or work in very different ways. Tacit knowledge is the context that an expert uses in interpreting the facts to come to a conclusion or to drive his/her behaviour.

So August, which is often a quiet time for businesses like ours, looks pretty busy and the autumn looks as though it will be very busy indeed. We will have to monitor our time inputs very carefully of course, because when you are as closely involved with an organisation as we will be here, it can be difficult to be completely dispassionate.

09 August 2006

Business Development ideas

Somebody came to the blog yesterday after doing a search on MSN. It isn't unusual for people to arrive on the blog after a search, but I don't get many visitors from MSN: plenty from Technorati, some from Google and a few from Del.icio.us. Most people arrive on the blog after seeing a post somewhere else.

The search was 'business development ideas'. I replicated the search and I'm on the second page which is OK when you think that I don't do anything special to promote this blog. So, someone is searching for business development ideas, finds my (highly relevant) blog and according to my stats, leaves instantaneously. Hey, what happened? They missed all the good stuff. Well, they missed out all the less good stuff, too, but that's beside the point. Navigation around blogs can be problematic and my Del.icio.us tags may not be everyone's idea of a carefully crafted taxonomy.

Well, as I keep telling clients, you have to make an impact straight away. Even when visitors find such a relevant result as this site. You have to work hard on the copy, continuously honing those compelling headlines and brilliantly seductive content to draw readers in, paragraph by paragraph. I don't think I'm that bad at it - the average read time on the site varies, but at the moment it is well over 3 minutes.

This leads us back to the nature of the search result. In this case, the result was the home page - Technorati or Google searches tend to produce permalink searches to individual posts. That makes the casual visitor's life much easier, since they don't need to waste time wading through all the fluff they don't need.

My conclusion: you can't please all of the people, all of the time. Either that, or yesterday's visitor suffered a catastrophic power failure as soon as they arrived on the site.

08 August 2006

How you spend your sales time

Everyone knows that if you ...

Spend a high proportion of your sales cycle selling time with a decision influencer then you have higher chance of closing business.

... but they are probably wrong!

There are plenty of variables in selling, providing that you have a live pipeline with contacts at different stages of the buying cycle:
  • the number of prospects
  • the number which have been properly qualified
  • the effort required to bring each to a close
  • the prioritisation required to achieve sales targets
Decision influencers are usually middle-level managers. They act as a liaisons to the rest of the organisation. When you aren't around, they act as your advocate. Unless you are very confident about their sales skills then perhaps you should consider whether this will deliver the results you need.

The truth is that you need access to senior managers to talk about the Value Proposition of your offering in detail. Leaving this to your decision influencer - no matter how well meaning they are on your behalf - is likely to result in failure, or at best a slower outcome than you could deliver yourself. You can't expect them to handle your sales effort for you and expect it to transform your results. Without direct access to decision makers, your sales process is in peril.

07 August 2006

Getting the idea across

An entrepreneur has to be a strong advocate for their business idea, although if you have ever seen the programme Dragons' Den then you can only come to the conclusion that some would-be entrepreneurs haven't read the dictionary recently. Many of them seem to believe that success will occur overnight and that their idea is worth an absolute fortune. The reality is often less rosy.

What made me think of that just now is that I caught sight of a blog with a highly appropriate quotation in its banner. It was a misquote, so I went back to the source. It's attributed to Howard Aiken the US computer scientist:

"Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you'll have to ram it down their throats."

Never, ever, underestimate the amount of work involved in bringing a new idea to market.

06 August 2006

Linkie Winkie returns

Golly, it's back. After over 3 weeks without any sighting, the crawler has been in my feed again. It's nice to see it back again. I also saw an interview by Gurtie which said that the experiment was developing in unexpected ways so perhaps they will be inclined to give us more detail when they eventually decide to bring it to a close.

Other crawlers that have followed a me-too strategy of mystery like Miffo don't seem to have generated the coverage and excitement of Linkie Winkie. Looking at the Alexa traffic graph though, it seems that the traffic is still running at lower levels than it achieved at the beginning of July.

I did take a quick look at the inbound links and it is genuinely impressive - remember that this is a site which was put together in the last week of June. Yahoo! shows 737 links, down from its peak towards the end of July but MSN shows 3455 links, pretty well double the level since I started tracking on 13 July.

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I think I'm getting a headache

Towards the end of May, I posted an item about an article in Slate by Michael Idov. Here's another article in Slate which is worth a detour. It is by Seth Stevenson and he describes at some length his reactions to seeing the TV spot for Head On - a 10 second commercial promoting a perfumed stick for topical application on the forehead.

Here's a flavour:

"When I first saw this ad, I was convinced it was a viral prank. Everything about it—the woman serenely rubbing stuff on her forehead; the lack of explanation as to what this stuff is; and, of course, the mind-numbing repetition of that weird catchphrase—just seemed too bizarre to be an actual commercial for an actual product. When I logged on to HeadOn.com, I expected a jokey Web site that would eventually redirect me to a promotion for Burger King or Axe deodorant or something."

Even if you don't find his humour sufficiently beguiling to encourage you to read the original, there is still a reason to follow the link because he sets out quite clearly what Head On is doing in its TV spots which many advertisers deliberately avoid: repetition, kitsch, mystery and ubiquity.

His final analysis:

"Grade: A+. And I haven't even touched on yet another powerful theory: These ads give viewers headaches, thus spurring demand."

Searching, still searching ...

I have posted before about the search terms people use which eventually lead them to the Red Splash site. One of our visitors yesterday came in on this search term:

advanced strategies to increase sales online free

Now it isn't clear to me - I'm a bear of diminishing brain power, as my profile makes clear - why anyone should make advanced strategies to increase sales online available free. The only possible reason might be that describing an advanced strategy is a long way from executing it and that the 'advanced strategy' still needs the paid for services of the publisher in order to ensure painfree and efficient execution.

There is no mystery to online business success. Provide products or services for a price that exceeds the total costs of sale and you have a business model (and that statement is as true for a publisher involved in click arbitrage as it is for a seller of manufactured products). How you convert visitors into Buyers though is proprietary. If every business model was the same then each online business would look the same. Strategies and their detailed execution require significantly more thought than an "advanced strategy" which is downloaded free.

There are plenty of people who set out the secrets of copywriting, but even if you manage to find a series of sources which don't contradict one another you will still be a long way from having effective copy for your site. Writing copy is hard work. The beauty of the internet is that you can test readers' responses to what you have written very quickly, but if they don't like it then you still have to go through the pain of writing some more. Even if they do like it, you can't give up - you have to keep on writing copy to test whether they like the new copy better until you are satisfied that you can't improve the performance of what you have created. All of that costs time and cash - having the free 'advanced strategy' will be little help.

05 August 2006


Chris, Phil and I have decided to prequalify harder in our own sales process. It's something that we recommend that our clients do, of course - it's just that we have been a bit close to the problem to do something tangible about our own behaviours.

What we are talking about is not a radical redesign of what we are doing, but it does involve the placement of hurdles in the way of tyre kickers so that we invest less time in leading them through the early stages of a sales process when there isn't a clear need for our type of service. The idea is that this will allow us to manage our time better. Let's see if it is successful.

03 August 2006

Working with decentralised sales teams

The sales process has to be designed meet your business requirements, not imported and force fitted from what worked for you or another company some time ago. One of the current trends in the SME sector is the adoption of virtual sales teams. This is easy to get wrong, so here are a few tips:
  • A decentralised sales team reduces the direct costs of the sales operation, but it simultaneously creates barriers between members of the team. Allow for the problems that this will create by working extra hard at making a team from the loose-knit decentralised individuals. Encourage sharing of best practice
  • To make a virtual sales team effective, sales management must manage the decentralized team more, not less. An effective process will require increased reporting on cold calls made, appointments set, and proposals submitted. Decentralised teams are about managing by metrics
  • Make sure that decentralised staff use a dedicated business line for all outgoing calls so that it is relatively simple to measure outbound calls from the bills
  • Once you have set up these measures, learn to trust your sales team
For mature, experienced salespeople, decentralised sales offices will enhance their productivity and create a positive work experience which improves their ratios. Unfortunately, immature employees will find the decentralised structure a great opportunity to become distracted and unproductive - this takes care and perhaps mentoring by more senior members of the team

An audience with the accountants

Dennis Howlett has given me an audience - I've had accountants from as far away as Barnsley dropping in to see my comments on the difficulties of reaching them and their brethren via the professional journal.

Guys, if you share enough common interests to read parts of this blog - some of you for a very long time (perhaps you were called away to do something important in the middle?) - why don't you read the journal? Scarily enough, the commentary on AccMan Pro suggested that people's behaviours (not reading the journal) were conditioned by opinions that they had formed some time ago. If I was the editor or - more pertinently - the Advertising Sales Manager, that message would give me a chill. How can you turn those behaviours round? Worse, how can you sell profitable advertising if there is a huge gap between subscriptions and readership?

Trainer tip: in this situation, find clients who don't measure the impact of their advertising campaigns by journal insertion. Now, how do you target companies who don't measure the impact of their ads? Well, I could tell you, since the secret isn't very secret and it doesn't take much more than a look through a range of print ads to very quickly come up with a series of ads which have been designed without a call to action and don't carry an analysis code. They are your targets. Find them Gentlemen, and then you simply have to stratify which of them might be attracted to spend their money in advertising in your journal. It won't be me, and I'm still looking for an effective route into the accounting community ... Has anyone got any tips for me?

02 August 2006

Picking up again after the holiday

Just before I went on holiday, I posted a short note about a couple of accountants of my acquaintance who told me over dinner that they don't read their professional journal. My comment was picked up by the prolific reader and writer Dennis Howlett and the comments on his blog indicate that the problem is much more extensive than just my two acquaintances.

This is evidently not a new problem - accountants don't respect it, so they don't read it and they haven't been reading it for several years. Old habits die hard. That's a problem for any editorial team and it will take more than a few enticing front covers to bring that readership back.

My problem remains reach in the accountancy community so I'm sending copies of the blog comments to Phil and Chris and we'll probably discuss it tomorrow.