30 November 2006

The difficult meeting

Yesterday Chris met a 'know-it-all'. Part of his business had fallen away and he wanted to rebuild his revenue line. Our kneejerk reaction is that the internet is having an impact - he 'knows' that it isn't. We think he needs some research to find out why people have stopped calling him. He 'knows' that research is impossible. Whether he wants to work with us (or anyone else, for that matter) is moot. Chris listened to him for almost 2 hours which he described as one of the less happy experiences of his life.

It might be just a coincidence that this client has been sacked by his existing agency.

Why does someone, who claims to know it all, ask for help from an outside agency? My guess would be that he knows that he doesn't have the capacity to do everything that needs doing and so asks for help. Having asked a number of agencies in to talk about the business, why does he talk so much and listen so little? Probably just his personal style. It certainly drove Chris to distraction - he came back and said that "it might be a good thing if we didn't win the work". We don't say that often at this stage of a client relationship.

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Why don't they play nicely together?

Forrester Research published a survey in October called Improving B2B Lead Management. The core of the research is that Marketing and Sales aren't working closely together. I'm afraid that isn't newsworthy. Sales Director congratulates Marketing Director for quality of sales leads ... now that is a headline in the 'man bites dog' category.

The core of the problem is that often the two functions are simply targeted to do different things in different ways and very few organisations look on their Marketing investments as being the first stage of a Sales ROI. Until the whole process becomes significantly more joined up and both functions are measured by metrics which have real relevance for the organisation it is unlikely that the situation will change.

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29 November 2006

eCommerce is alive and well

Yesterday saw the first sale from the swimming pool coating site. We know that a number of people have seen the site and phoned our client to make orders, but this is the first e-order. It shows that it is possible to sell quite expensive sophisticated chemicals from a website.

Now we have to keep polishing what we have until we are happy with the conversion rate.


Responsiveness of a blog post

I'm continuously amazed how quickly a blog post can make it to the top of an organic search engine. On Sunday I made a post and forgot about it. I assume that it appears on specialist blog directories and that it stays somewhere in the ether and can be found if someone strikes lucky with a search term.

About two hours ago someone landed on that post from Queensland, having made a search on MSN live search. I replicated the search and found that in the 2 hours since the search was made, the post had climbed from the 3rd page (where my visitor found it) to number 2 on the first page - where you could find it now. I wish I could get a website to respond as fast on pure content.

I suspect though that this kind of success is short-lived and I have just seen the upside of the parabola - if I go back and make the same search in a couple of days, it will probably be pushed back to page 97.


What makes a blog successful?

I've just taken a look at a report by Northeastern University and Backbone Media - Blogging Success Study. With 3 sections and 5 appendices it certainly delivers the thud factor. They interviewed a group of self selected 'successful' corporate bloggers who had been blogging for more than 12 months.

It's a got some interesting things in it. Not least: "While the selection of participants was, ... subjective ... (without the resources to determine the most successful bloggers on the Web) ... "

How much resource does it take to assess the most successful bloggers on the web? I can't imagine that it would take longer than a short morning to assess the 'success' of their interviewees against each other and a benchmark like Beppe Grillo or Steve Rubel. But perhaps the techniques that I would consider using wouldn't be regarded as sufficiently rigorous.

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28 November 2006

Encourage your sales people to think profitability

If you incentivise your sales team on gross margin then you will encourage them to think about the sales price in an entirely different way. Last minute discounts will have a dramatic impact on their commissions.

Similarly, encourage your team to think creatively after they ask the target what the budget is for a particular project. Instead of trying to fit the purchase within the stated budget, get them to think of price ranges -- selling up, rather than down -- based on your firm's existing price models. If the value is sold correctly, the client may well be willing to invest more than the stated budget.

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27 November 2006

The Power of email

Many of the visitors to Red Splash normally come from some form of Business Development related search. Note the usage of the word normally.

Last week we sent out an email to two of the networks we belong to and asked people to respond if they were interested - the impact on visitors has been dramatic. We have experienced a good-sized spike in visits and searches have been pushed down to less than 5% of referrals over the last 5 days. Many of those visitors have gone on to send us emails expressing interest, coupled in many cases by documents for us to read and links that they would like us to follow.

It sounds as if we need to develop some criteria to sift through the pile of responses. What is interesting about the mailing is that this isn't the first that we have sent to these two networks, but it has been far and away the strongest response we have generated. We are going to have to conduct some form of post mortem on the copy we used, because it clearly struck a chord with the people that read it.

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26 November 2006

Be consistent or try and change their perceptions

A small consultant that I know had a good relationship with a client for several years and the client used him for particular kinds of work. As happens, one day the consultant suggested that his client needed some other kind of work and was surprised that his client didn't ask him to tender for the work.

His client's perceptions of the consultant's skill set were the root of the issue. Once a client has a view about what you are and what you are good at, it can be difficult to get them to change their minds. Sometimes it is worse if the consultant wins the work since the clients can look at the outputs and say "well, I know what you are saying, but you aren't a specialist in this area, so I'm still not sure".

We live in a world where perceptions guide peoples' behaviours. They become our reality, whether we want them to or not. Changing perceptions requires a steady stream of communication backed up by solid evidence and even this is not a guarantee that everyone's perceptions will be changed.

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and how do you find Red Splash?

On the same theme as yesterday, I thought that I would take a look at the organic search positions for Red Splash

2 word term
Yahoo 1
Google 1
MSN 6 (also placing this blog at 7)

2 word term
Yahoo 4
Google 10
MSN 21

2 word term
Yahoo 2
Google 1
MSN 26

2 word term
Yahoo 1
Google 2

Assessment: we need to understand why we aren't doing better in MSN for two of the 2-word terms, but the other results are pretty pleasing.

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25 November 2006

More on organic search position

Another week on and here are the positions for the champagne site in Yahoo, MSN and Google. We are generally steady or improving and we have just moved into the top 1000 in Google for one of the previously unindexed two word search terms.

Here are today's results with the figures for 16 November in round brackets:

3 word search term
Yahoo 4 (4)
MSN 3 (3)
Google 19 (74)

2 word search term
Yahoo - 5 (7)
MSN - 7 (6)
Google - 311 (not indexed)

2 word search term
Yahoo - 1 (1)
MSN - 1 (1)
Google - 1 (1)

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Are you Price Competitive?

The key for any successful product or professional service firm is to create a sales environment where the prospect's perceived value of your offering is higher than the selling price of your product or service and that's true whether you are selling or delivering.

This process of value positioning requires consistency throughout the commercial process include strategy, sales and marketing. Value positioning is an active tactical approach that will help your sales team sell at a higher sales price.

To sell value, never market your firm's product or service as "Price Competitive" or by stating "We have a price advantage." Instead, always use the term "Value Competitive." By focusing on value and reducing the impact of price, you have positioned yourself differently from your competitors

All your marketing and sales messages must reflect this positioning. Never say "price competitive" in your marketing, website or press releases. It is a huge liability for prospects to see your corporate marketing with the "price competitive" term displayed. It tells them immediately that you are willing to match price, so the target will apply pressure for you to prove this statement over and over again - regardless of how competitive your sales price already is.

When cold calling or giving your elevator pitch to a prospect for the first time, communicate your uniqueness based on some element other than price. Customers don't buy your product or service; they buy pain management. What makes you different? What is your value proposition?

If your firm is selling horizontally into several markets, you are putting this strategy at risk, so horizontal sales should be attempted only if you are confident that the commercial messages can be controlled. Target businesses may regard your offer as non-specialist if they see evidence of horizontal sales activity and will expect you to be more price competitive despite what your value positioning may say. The first defence is that you are a specialist - in the management of a specific type of pain which is shared by a number of industry sectors.

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24 November 2006

Cracking the big account

I've just read a post by Jill Konrath. She tells a story about how her daughter approached Pepsico for sponsorship. Towards the end she has a number of learning points about selling to big accounts.

The one that caught my eye was:
"If at first you don't succeed - try, try again! But don't keep trying the same old thing. Think of a new approach, a new slant on the same approach. Keep at it! Penetrating a big company is a campaign - not an event."

That's good advice. Too many people see selling to a big account as an impossible task - all the people that they have ever known there have moved on, their last approach was rejected and so on. What big accounts value is something that helps them achieve their objectives better, quicker, cheaper - that is what their own customers are pushing them to provide.

Don't give up. Sit down with your friends and colleagues and be creative - someone outside The Big Account Inc. can occasionally catch the eye or the ear of an executive because their approach isn't hampered by any internal politicisation or history. But make sure that you think about the campaign just in case your latest creative approach gets rejected.

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23 November 2006

How fast can you sell

Many of our client's buyers won't be rushed. Their decision makers are conservative, working in conservative organisations and they simply won't be hurried into making a decision. The salesperson can help by providing information and analysis to help the internal champion make a case, but trying to force the pace and bring the sale in early is more likely to alienate the champion than delivering a sale.

One of the reasons for this behaviour is that many of our clients are selling a service which has a product link. The service element is an important component. Once the sale is made, the service ensures that the client makes full use of the product and develops their usage to the point that it migrates through the organisation. A happy client is a vital part of the account management. Businesses know this and very often need to satisfy themselves about a range of criteria before they will make a decision to buy on this basis. They know that the initial purchase is the start of something bigger and they need to develop the confidence that the product and service will deliver value across their business, not just the group that is currently evaluating it.

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22 November 2006

Using a website to sell Business Services

We don't follow every lead from the site as diligently as the one I mentioned in the last post. Sometimes we get leads from people who haven't thought about their business idea in great detail and want us to make it concrete.

Wherever possible we drop those leads quickly. That's true even where we suspect that we could legitimately do some research for the client and help them to refine their understanding of what would be required to be successful. We would rather focus on the existing clients that we have than take on something new that has only a remote chance of success.

It's another aspect of winning better business - focus on the things where you are confident that you can make a difference and the outcome is likely to be better for both you and your clients. We try to build relationships with the people that we work with, but no-one sensible signs up for a relationship on day 1. Relationships build from deliverables - consistently high delivered quality and a measurable difference to results and you have a chance to build a relationship.

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A victory for AdWords

Chris and I closed a deal this month. It has taken a couple of meetings and a couple of documents, but we are happy with the outcome. The initial lead came from a visit to our site from an AdWord. The client visited our site, read our material and decided that he wanted to meet us.

We have had to come up with some pragmatic ideas to take his business forward, but the initial enquiry is down to a Google search. We work hard to make sure that everything in the process is self-consistent - the website has to support the sell in the AdWord, the contributions in the meetings, emails and letters need to support it, too. When it works, as it did with this client, it's a great feeling.

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21 November 2006

When recruiting staff becomes weather-sensitive

Earlier this month I met a senior manager based on the Isle of White. He told me that if they interview people from the mainland, the interviewees' attitudes to the job can be forecast quite accurately from a knowledge of the severity of the weather on their ferry crossing from Southampton. Fine weather and the interviewees assess the job reasonably rationally, biased by the normal rose-tinted spectacles that interviewees have. Heavy weather and it is difficult to get them to think positively about the job at all.


20 November 2006

All it takes is practice

I recently did a joint visit with one of our clients - I was playing the Sales Director role, he was acting as the Technical Specialist. It was the first time that we had done a joint visit and it worked brilliantly. I can't claim that we had a highly detailed strategy before going into the room, but all our ideas seemed to strike a chord with the senior manager we were meeting. Sometimes, less is more and we were determined not to make the mistake of making a presentation before understanding the manager's issues in more detail.

This was close to my ideal for an initial meeting - exploring a business problem with an enthusiastic, curious manager and a client with real expertise who could add significant value to the manager's business. We have been invited back to meet the rest of his team at the next of their operations meetings with room on the Agenda. The date and the location are already in our diaries. That's an outcome I would have regarded as highly satisfactory in our planning session for the meeting.

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19 November 2006

Anchor text

If you have any degree of control then try to make sure that the anchor text for a link has some commercial value for you in terms of links to your site. What do I mean by that? Anchor text is the phrase which someone clicks in order to follow a link back to your site - so, if you do a search on Google for the keyword phrase 'click here' you will find that Adobe ranks number 1, despite not appearing to use that phrase anywhere on its site. What Adobe does have, are plenty of links from sites around the world which say something similar to: 'if you need to download Adobe Acrobat, click here' where the words 'click here' provide the link to Adobe's site.

I'm pretty confident that Adobe didn't want to be linked for the keyword phrase 'click here' but these links developed outside their control. This is prompted this evening because we have an opportunity to nominate some linking text for one of our sites and it makes sense to use a keyword phrase where we would like to strengthen our ranking. It's easily done, because we know which keyword search is commercially important and it doesn't take a lot of effort to make sure that the links use that 2-word phrase.

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18 November 2006

Planning by milestones

Planning by milestones can run into conflict with value for money for your client if you are charging by the hour. A supplier can ethically charge the time spent with the client in helping them to do something, but that invoicing has to be held up to the project milestone mirror periodically to make sure that the client is getting good value for money from the relationship.

Failure to do that means that you are at risk of not having the contract renewed even if all the time spent with the client was at the client's request and all the invoicing was honest. That means that you can't lose sight of the longer-term objective even if the client does. Your client's attention might not be on the longer term today, but eventually they will look at whether the project has delivered what it was supposed to and ask themselves whether they got good value. That can mean adopting a challenging role with your client and asking them whether they are delivering their side of the project as they initially agreed.

If you focus on project milestones and encourage your client to do the same, there can be little room for error. Both sides agree that the milestones are the elements that are key in delivering the overall project and understand who is responsible for the delivery of each of the milestones. That means that your client is less likely to ask you for support which is at best tangential to the work that you should be doing for him / her and the time you spend on the project is more likely to deliver progress against the milestones.


Welcome back ...

... to Google Analytics. It isn't that these stats tell you something that is directly actionable or even that surprising (returning readers to this blog, read more pages at a sitting than a reader visiting for the first time). It is more that you become used to accessing a variety of tools to assess whether things are running smoothly so that the loss becomes an irritant, even if it isn't a matter of life and death.

That's true for many aspects of our lives. We set our expectations of service and assume that the level of service will be delivered consistently or even improve. That's something we need to bear in mind when we are suppliers not customers or clients. If our clients have expectations then we had better do what we can to make sure that those expectations are matched or exceeded. Failure to do that and we are squarely in the irritant area, and risk losing the confidence of the people who are currently paying us.

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17 November 2006

After the restart

... I've got access to AdWords with Firefox, but still no Google Analytics. I'll check to see if anyone that I know is suffering from the problem.

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Undocumented functionality

Weirdly I've got a problem with Google today. I can't access Analytics from either Firefox or IE, but more annoying - I can't access my AdWords account from Firefox. Since Firefox is my browser of choice, that means a deliberate action to open IE so that I can view my AdWords numbers.

Since the analytics module seems to be down in both browsers, I'll assume that the issue is at Google's end. On the Firefox problem, I wonder if I have somehow got a cookie which is disrupting the AdWords access.

I'll try a restart later today but now I think about it, I had the same problem yesterday evening so a simple shut-down probably won't cure it.

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Are we living in the same place?

Phil sent me a copy of an email that had been sent to him by a consultancy group. I went to their site to find out a little more about them. I don't know if what they say on their site is actually what they believe, but if it is, they see a world which is slightly different from the one I live in.

I'm always reluctant to make generalisations about businesses and this site contained a few, including at least one I disagree with quite strongly. This might just be me feeling choleric this morning, but I don't think so. It also possible that the site misrepresents their beliefs - it is surprising how often a piece of copy has to be withdrawn because, on reflection, it fails to get the right message across.


Welcome to the new Blogger

I have resisted moving onto the new Blogger platform until today. It's been in beta for several months but today I gave into temptation and moved the blog. It is supposed to offer a variety of functions for which I had developed a range of work-arounds but I suppose that it will take me a few days to become familiar with all that.

The first thing I noticed is that the new version actually works properly in a screen where the old version suffered misalignment. That's one of the selling points of the new version - everything is supposed to work properly. I suppose that was true about the old version, too. Like most software development, though, at some stage they stopped developing the old version while they focused their attention on getting the new version to deliver properly.


There's a white paper in here somewhere

A few weeks ago I started to write a white paper, I had a draft which I was quite happy with, but it needed something - a little extra. Yesterday, I looked at the stats and it is now 17 pages and still needs a little extra.

One of the problems of writing on-screen is that you can lose the outline structure, particularly if it is a document that you aren't working on continuously. Today I will be printing out the file and taking a critical look at the shape of what I have got. I'm conscious that it is still missing some important material, but one way out of my dilemma is to create a shorter white paper and put the remaining material into an e-book.

Whatever the decision, the white paper has to go out soon - it has been hanging around for far too long.

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16 November 2006

More organic movement

Three weeks on and here are the positions for the champagne site in Yahoo, MSN and Google. It's generally a steady improvement although we still aren't indexed in Google for one of the two word search terms.

Here are today's results with the figures for 23 October in round brackets:

3 word search term
Yahoo 4 (5)
MSN 3 (4)
Google 74 (160)

2 word search term
Yahoo - 7 (21)
MSN - 6 (10)
Google - not indexed

2 word search term
Yahoo - 1 (1)
MSN - 1 (1)
Google - 1 (1)



The content iceberg

This blog began life just over 8 months ago - since then I have created 314 posts of varying length, begun tagging everything to Del.icio.us and started to publicise the blog through Pingshot (regularly) and iPings (occasionally). The comments are just a point of view - I don't often refer to posts by other bloggers so my posts tend to be gossip about the people I meet and the clients that I work with.

Sometimes those posts generate a life of their own - I mentioned a few days ago that a post that I wrote in early July is still read every day. Others are much more short-lived although they may be read as part of a search about a specific topic.

What it does mean is that I have produced plenty of words - some of which I recycle in a monthly newsletter, but most of which sit around waiting for me to have a more creative thought about how to use them.

I'm not alone, Technorati is currently tracking 60 million blogs and I imagine that quite a few of them are produced by people who are also uncertain about what they going to do with all the content that they have created. Thank heavens that this is all paperless!



Working as a team

Chris and I are seeing a target later today. We have had some initial conversations and things seem to be progressing nicely - we understand that today's meeting is to discuss in detail what it is they want to do from the menu of activities we have offered them and when they would like us to start.

Meetings like this are always better if 2 people attend. Two people ask sharper questions, take better notes and follow-up more diligently than a single person. The drawback to 2 people attending is that there is an opportunity for a sharp client to drive a wedge between slightly different positions so it is important to have the negotiating strategy clear before you go into the room.

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Do the punters like what we have done?

A good proxy for success is the average read time on a site. The swimming pool chemicals site is doing well on this measure, or perhaps the visitors just read very s l o w l y! During the last week, the average read time has been well over 6 minutes.

We have just had the site translated into Spanish and French so that we can populate the French and Spanish domain names that we have bought. We aren't completely happy with the translations yet but I imagine that they will improve over time.

Read time isn't a constant. We did some re-work on the champagne site a few weeks ago and it increased read time by about 5% - not an overwhelming difference. Now though, it's the season for champagne purchases and a different type of visitor is coming onto the site and the read time is up by more than 30%.



15 November 2006

Long letters - people don't read them do they?

The answer is yes they do. Red Splash has a link embedded in a sales letter produced by another business - I provided a testimonial about an excellent suite of products. We aren't anywhere near the beginning of that letter yet it has delivered a significant proportion of our visitors during the last nine hours.

OK, exactly where in the letter is this link? About half-way down the 13th screen on a widescreen laptop. Now that tells me that people aren't just reading that letter, they are following the links to satisfy themselves that the testimonials are from real businesses. Now we tend to say that the headline is important, but the intensity of the copy has to be maintained - if it had fallen off at any stage in the preceding 12 screens, people would have dropped out before clicking on our testimonial.

Are we the first testimonial? Actually no, we are number 6 of about 16. All of which reinforces for me that people are reading that letter carefully.

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Exploring a client problem

We use workshops when we are getting to know a client. Exploratory workshops give us an opportunity to contribute a range of experiences in a reasonably controlled environment while we are still learning about the client's problem.

Workshops aren't infallible. I used to work for someone who hated their lack of predictability. He wouldn't take part in a workshop unless he could drive the outputs towards the conclusions that he had already developed. I'm less worried by that. Our workshops are more about allowing the client to explore an issue or series of issues and may not even come to a clear decision within the workshop format. We come along with a series of tools which provide an analytical context, but we certainly don't have a pre-conceived idea about 'the right answer'.

Apart from anything else, it exposes the client to the way that we work as a team and the way we think, which is more important than seeing us deliver a canned presentation about what we do.

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14 November 2006

High level Project Management

There are two ways to manage a long-running project:
  • n hours on activity 137
  • delivering milestone C3 irrespective of the resource required
There is no question in my mind, in a long running project the milestone approach wins hands down. A milestone is a change of state - something has changed - and the amount of resource required to deliver the change of state is regarded as a subsidiary problem. Over emphasis on individual tasks or activities risks that 100 hours of time is put into an activity without delivering the milestone. Focusing on the milestone makes everyone in the project aware that the milestone is the crucial measure of project success. Make all the milestones and the project is a success.


If I had a £1 ...

... for every client that began their conversation with us by describing how successful that they are and how much they are willing to invest in further success - I'm in no doubt, I would be a rich man.

Very often these conversations are what a good Russian friend of mine would classify as 'bar talk'. The initial conversation is an opportunity for the client to create an impression of themselves and their organisation - it isn't regarded as being factual in the sense of a sworn statement.

That positioning creates a delay in negotiating the final relationship. If you don't understand their situation in detail, it is inevitable that you will propose the wrong solution and an inappropriate sharing of activities. As we all know, a successful project requires very honest communication from an early stage to be successful.

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The client isn't always right, you know

Sometimes a client undertakes the wrong kind of support. They engage you to help them with a particular problem, but once you start working with them, the nature of the relationship has to change because they have misunderstood the problem that they have.

It's important to use the initial phase of a relationship as a diagnostic opportunity to learn about how the client does business, the symptoms they see in their business and the skills of their team. If you don't invest enough in diagnosis during this phase, you run the risk of being surprised on two counts:
  • investing time in the wrong problem
  • being slow to detect the right problem
Switching objective in mid-project is a subtle project management problem and one that requires a significant level of management of expectations. That isn't impossible, but it may require you to develop a communications plan to hit the organisation at a number of different levels within a relatively short period of time if you are to get your message across quickly. The key issue though is that very often the client is part of a larger group so that the cost of doing it wrong heavily outweighs the opportunity cost of doing it right. On a fully costed basis, your revised project may not be as profitable as you might wish, but if it retains a relationship with a major account, that reduction in profitability is an allowable investment in your cost of sale.

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13 November 2006

Business Development is about balance

Depending your type of business, your time investment in Business Development can have a major impact on your ability to deliver to existing clients. That's a problem that product-based businesses don't need to worry about to the same extent.

It's natural in a service-based business to put your best team in front of a prospective client - the same team that should be delivering high value to your existing clients. That can be a touch uneasy for targets / almost clients. If they make the leap of faith and become clients they want to know that they have met their service team. In a larger business, this is done by trying to offer a degree of continuity between the bid team and the service team so that the client doesn't feel that they have suffered a complete switch between the initial discussions relating to their business and the day to day management of their account.

Like much else in life, Business Development is about balance. New business is essential for the life and longevity of the organisation - but so is retention of the clients that are already on the books. The business can't focus on a single area except by ignoring the other.

How much time you get your team to devote to client service and Business Development will vary depending on the specific needs of your business, but it will probably be different from the choices that we have made - if all businesses were the same then all the answers would be the same which would make life a lot less challenging.

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12 November 2006

Change management

Change is difficult. Human systems resist change. Part of it is that sometimes organisations misunderstand the importance of a change. Here are two very different examples of types of change:
  • the implementation of a new ERP or financial system
  • a change in week-end or late night access to a building
A new enterprise system may be strategically important to the business, but for most people it makes little difference to how they do their jobs so most people would not see this as a major personal change. In contrast, access to a building may have real repercussions for the individuals who have got used to working on projects at odd hours so although this may not rank as a strategic decision for the business, it might well class as a significant personal change for the people involved.

Change requires individuals to do something tomorrow that is different from the way they do them today. It requires encouragement, but it also requires a significant focus on communication so that people can understand why the change in behaviour is important. People go through a series of phases in accepting major change and although the primary work was concerned with personal reactions to bereavement, the multi-stage model of apprehension, denial, anger, resentment, depression, cognitive dissonance, compliance, acceptance, and internalization is regarded as valid in understanding how people are likely to respond. That said, it is only a model and individuals can go through the stages at very different speeds - the model simply helps the project manager think through the problem that he or she is likely to face in winning acceptance in the organisation.

There are typically 5 elements for organisational change to be fully cemented:
  • Build awareness in the organisation of the background to the change
  • Create the desire to support and participate
  • Develop individual knowledge of the personal changes required
  • Foster the ability to implement the required changes in behavior
  • Provide encouragement to reinforce and sustain the changes in behaviour

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11 November 2006

When there's a choice, make your client look like a hero

Communications about long-running projects are vital to your success. Your client has plenty to think about. He is trying to manage his underlying business and absorb the stream of information that is coming out of your project. Is it any wonder that they can sometimes seem overloaded, or even unaware of the quality of some of the work that is being done for them?

It does no harm at all to remind clients what a project has achieved. In the heat of the moment they can literally forget where an idea came from or how much a particular process used to cost them - those things are history, part of the past with little bearing on today's problem. The reminder can play a very real part in informing your client just how much value the project has delivered to their business. The thing that will make it memorable though is if you can help your internal client look like a hero to his or her colleagues. Do that and you will make your client's job easier. Their opinion will be respected and even though they will still have to go through the same processes as everyone else to get funding for new work, whenever it comes to weighing judgement and expertise, you will have given them an edge.

The other reason for making a lot of noise about the success of a long-running project is that those type of projects can suffer from a loss of immediacy after a while. Participants have other calls on their time and it can become more difficult to justify time to the long-running project if they have a burning issue which needs immediate resolution. Here, communication about the success of the project has the effect of raising the visibility of the successes achieved, providing everyone with the confidence that their future contributions will pay back, too.

Communication is vital throughout any project, but long-running projects tend to suffer from three basic problems:
  • insufficient content
  • poor timing
  • lack of tailoring to the different audiences
These can all be serious mistakes, but it is better to have poorly tailored communications going out to everyone at the right frequency than it is to have beautifully tailored communications going out too infrequently. Consider the exercise as an important part of your cost of sales.

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I don't have time to plan, it's my busy season

It's Christmas soon - have you ordered your cards yet? Will you be issuing a Christmas catalogue? You don't have much time to produce it and distribute it if you want people to act on it. Will you be putting holly and snowflakes on your website?

Businesses have seasons for the most unlikely of reasons. You need to analyse your business carefully and make sure that you aren't trying to do something that is at odds with the underlying seasonality of your market. While it can be good to stand out from the crowd, it is better to stand out for strong customer service at any time of the year than to be remembered for the Tyrannosaurus Rex animation with the holly wreath in mid-summer. Having said that, I used to go to the states at the end of the 1970s and I remember watching Crazy Eddie's TV ads. I can't remember much about Crazy Eddie except that whatever time of year it was when I turned on the TV, he would be celebrating a season at the other end of the calendar.

The key point about seasonality is that your supply chain must cope. If you are in a service business and your clients take on new projects in September and hope to complete them before Christmas then try to make sure that there are strong incentives for your team to take their holidays at other times of the year. If you are in a product business which has a peaky profile, then the key task is to try and make sure that your order fulfilment capability won't evaporate as volume builds. This is all self-interest - by providing what your customers or clients need, when they want it, you have a better chance of locking in their business for another year and getting them to recommend you to their contacts.

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10 November 2006

Finding the right customer

I have talked before about finding the right customer when you are selling a boutique product. Here's an example of what I mean. Many people drink champagne - or something that pretends to be champagne - at Weddings, Engagements, New Year and assorted parties and celebrations throughout the year. That isn't our market.

We are looking for people who drink champagne regularly - and have developed a good understanding of what characteristics they are looking for in a glass. The trick is to find people like that and give them an opportunity to taste what we have to offer. All being well, we stand up well in their taste tests and we have a delighted customer who keeps on coming back.

As an example, one of our new customers has already said that she will probably be back for more before Christmas. I just need to work out how to find more people like her.

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Life of a post

Some posts are ephemeral. I write, subscribers and random visitors read and then move on. An exception to this is when a new subscriber finds me for the first time and decides to read more of the blog and go back in time, post by post. It isn't unusual for someone to read 30-40 posts in their first few days.

Weirdly, some posts have a life which seems to fit outside both these situations. I wrote a post at the beginning of July. It is by far the most popular post that I have written and it is read every day. I don't know how people find it. I didn't tag it in a novel or extraordinary way, but something in the text obviously brings it to people's attention in a search for something else. It is now so old that it wouldn't be found in the 30-40 posts read by a new subscriber. Even now, after 8 months, I still post an average of once per day. This post is well back - 130 posts or so.

Even more interesting, I can't detect what brings people to it. I use a stats package which shows referring searches, but I'm not detecting people reading the post as visitors. The information that the post is being read comes from FeedBurner, and I'm inclined to believe that it's true since the post has a decent page rank all of its own.

Some things are destined to remain mysteries.



Now where is it buried?

We get to see plenty of sales and marketing materials as part of the work that we do. Much of it fails the basic test - to create a reason to find out more, or to buy - because it is written by someone who has forgotten about the audience.

Recently I got the chance to look at some material intended to sell a product. It isn't a product that I would ever buy, but that doesn't change my approach to assessing the technical construction of the material. It is the standard joke in selling that no-one ever got rich by selling electric drills - rich people sell holes. This copy forgot that joke, if the writer had ever heard it. There was nothing in the material to suggest why anyone should buy the product until almost the last line and even then the point was understated. There is a real emotional reason why people will want to buy this product and it has nothing to do with the power of its motor or its colour.

As a piece of writing, the text needed to be turned on its head. The material in the last two sentences could be made into a compelling headline with a little work, and the rest of the copy could be redrafted to reflect why this was the right product to back up the claim in the headline. My point is that there is plenty of this kind of stuff out in the world. Why is that? It doesn't take the imagination of a best-selling novelist to try and understand why people buy a product or a service.

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07 November 2006

Negotiating a better deal

The art of negotiation is not dead.

Chris wanted to renew some magazine inserts for one of his clients and hoped to get the same deal as last year. Without asking, they sent him an offer by email which meant that they were prepared to offer the inserts at a discount of 62%. So Chris made a whopping saving without saying a word.

There is a lesson in that somewhere.

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06 November 2006

Feed Readers and User Agents

The list just keeps growing. Now it is up to 40 lines excluding category headers. Not just programs I haven't heard of, but a reader that Feedburner hasn't heard of either since there is a 'not identified' in the list.

What I don't know is whether all this variety is driven by new people coming in as subscribers with different readers or whether my existing subscribers have become disenchanted with what they were already using and have decided to experiment with another program. Based on the stats that I'm able to drive out of the site stats package I'll never know.

What drives this variety? In so many other areas of computing life, there are a few stand-out programs that people use all over the world. Sometimes, particular communities exhibit preferences which are slightly different from the norm (38% of the visitors to this blog use Firefox which is well above what you might expect). In readers though, there doesn't seem to be a predictable pattern. Perhaps it's because we haven't really worked out how we want to make best use of RSS and the experimentation with different readers reflects that.


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05 November 2006

Blogger has a fit of picque

I posted a couple of things the other day and when I looked for them today, they had disappeared. I know that I wrote them and they were in the RSS feed so I simply reposted them by cutting and pasting.

Bizarre. Let's hope that this isn't going to be a regular occurence in the future.


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Keep on Testing, Igor! (repost)

Regular readers may be bored by my continuous emphasis on testing, but if you don't know whether the latest piece of finely honed copy is better or worse than the one that went before, then what drives you to change it again other than the calendar and some organic reaction deep in your gut?

I've been testing an AdWord on our champagne site against our base ad. The test has been running for about 5 weeks now which is quite a long time. Why so long? The answer is that the data is confusing and it depends which timebase you look at in deciding which is the better ad.

Over the whole of the month of October, the new ad underperformed the base ad by about 8%. I was a little surprised by that as I thought that the new ad was structurally better and should have performed better. I decided to keep it on.

In the first 4 days of November the new ad has outperformed the base ad by more than 100% and overall it is now a better ad than our base ad, despite underperforming for the whole of October. Is this a blip or a real indication of the relative merits of the 2 ads? I don't know.

If anyone has any suggestions then I would be happy to entertain them.

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Profits - it's all food and drink to him (repost)

I recently met the MD of a niche manufacturing business in the food industry. He specialises in short-run production from lab-scale to production batches. He is pretty busy. He has doubled sales in the last 3 years and has two friendly companies who act as suppliers of last resort so that if he takes on more production than his capacity he can offload the job to someone he trusts. Conversely, if orders drop back then he is still able to run close to capacity by simply cutting the number of jobs which are produced by his friendly associates.

That's a good model for maintaining the profitability and cash generation in a small business, but he has ambitions to grow the business substantially. It is harder to maintain that level of utilisation in a larger business so the initial profitability improvements in a business growing by acquisition will normally have to come from cost savings rather than revenue improvements. At some stage though, there will have to be a structured business development activity to build the utilisation in the enlarged business.

It will be interesting to see how his business develops.


AOL search, take 2

I wrote a post the other day about AOL search and asked whether its search results blurred the boundaries for some of the people that were using it. Edwin Aoki (who I believe works for AOL) commented:
On the recently released AOL Search (and even before, I think), all of the paid ads are listed in a light blue banner labeled "Sponsored Links".

I believe this is similar to how all of the major search engines distinguish paid placement versus organic results. Is there something in particular that you think AOL is doing that's more confusing?
Well Edwin, you be the judge - this pic shows the results of a similar search on AOL done earlier today. Clicking on the pic will let you see a larger version of the image. As you can see, the page is water white throughout and although there is a demarcation between sponsored ads and organic results it is subtle which could cause confusion. The person who made the initial search thought that they were looking at organic results which was what led me to pose the question in the first place.

Has AOL blurred the boundaries here?

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01 November 2006

AOL Search

I was with someone the other day and he showed me the results of a search that he had done on AOL. He pointed to a site listed towards the top of the page and said "that's a good position". It was a paid advertisement and I wonder how many other searchers on AOL are unaware that a number of the search results in the 'Golden Triangle' are pay per click ads and not organic search results.

At one level it may not matter, providing that the advertisers are being honest about their relevance to a particular keyword search, at another it's relevant since searchers should probably be able to spot the difference between a search and an organic result fairly easily. Has AOL blurred the boundaries here?

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