Thursday, September 30, 2010

Protect Your Brand Before You Have One

The following post originally appeared in the April edition of Innovate Arkansas

For whatever reason, we love to follow big name brands as they spiral down in their latest public relations tail spin. Whether it’s Southwest Airlines and their recent and very public encounter with director Kevin Smith, or Tiger Wood’s travails, or BP, this year's poster boy for image mismanagement, we tend to be captivated by their problems.

We’re so fixated we overlook those brands that get it right. Most of us have to go back to Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol crisis to find a role model.

Is brand and reputation management relevant to a start up? “Hey, we just started, so we don’t have an establish brand.” Actually, brand management is even more important to a start up than to an established company. Here’s why.

I teach a marketing management class at the local university. According to the textbook, released in 2009, the average dissatisfied customer gripes to 11 others. Now that Facebook and Twitter have gone mainstream, that number is probably 1,100 or more. Plus, smart-phones allow you to complain to the world in real time, while you argue with the ticket agent, while the server defends the well done steak when you most certainly said medium rare, or while the conference key note speaker is slogging through slide 12 of a 55 slide presentation. An established company has a reservoir of brand equity it can draw on. Start ups don’t. One crisis could sink a new firm.

So how does a start up protect its brand when a crisis happens? Here are three imperatives.
1. Be human –Companies are made up of humans but often appear faceless. Remember that brands are emotional connections with customers. Connect with your customers by saying:
• “I’m sorry
• “I was wrong”
• “Please forgive me”

This is risky and especially hard for technology-based firms, but it will start you on the way to repairing the relationship.

2. Be transparent – Now is not the time to hide behind lawyers or techno-speak.
• “Here’s what we found”
• “Here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem”
• “Here’s what we’re doing to keep it from happening again”

Common sense (and your attorneys) will guide you about how much to say, but the point is your customers want to know you’re doing something about the issue.

3. Be quick – Finally, do what you said you were going to do and then tell your customers when you finished it. Quick, pretty-good results trump long drawn out excellent actions every time.

The beauty of managing your start up’s brand is that your cycle time is usually a fraction of that of the larger firm. You’re closer to the problem (heck, you probably caused it) and you can fix it faster.

How you respond to problems speaks volumes about your company and your brand and could turn complainers into advocates.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Smart Customers versus Dumb Policies (the customer will always win)

Why is it that some companies seem to go out of their way to frustrate their customers? A friend of mine related the following story about his experience with a fast-growing regional wireless company, we’ll call them Wireless North (WN for short).

My friend has four phones, unlimited texting, two data plans, and who knows how many other features in his plan. He also has two children in college. One of those children, David (not his real name, lest WN figures this out), lives in another state this semester at his co-op job. My friend got an email from WN saying David has used over half his calling minutes (400) outside the calling area. So, like any good Baby Boomer, Dad calls WN customer service to get more details. He’s told that the calling plan prohibits a customer from having more that 50% of their minutes “roaming.” He’s then told his two options are: 1) stop using the phone until David gets back into the calling area, or 2) find another provider.

Now, is it just me, or does this not make sense? WN wants a long time customer to STOP using the service or go to a competitor? Do they not realize it costs at least 5 times more to get a new customer than to keep an existing one?

Meanwhile, David, in true Millennial fashion, has a solution. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he said. “When I come home this weekend, I’ll call you before I go to bed. Leave the phone call going over night, and by morning I will have more than half my minutes in my calling area.” Problem solved.

So what can we learn?
• First, don’t underestimate the intelligence of your customers. If you come up with a policy, rule, or process that is not in their best interest, they will find a way around it.
• Second, make it easy for existing customers to find solutions when the way they use your product conflicts with a company policy. Don’t suggest they go away….they probably will.
• Third, get rid of company policies that don’t make sense (see #2).

The customer service rep was following the rules. Your customers, however, won’t. Recognize that up front and find ways to make it easy for your customers to deal with you. They are always smarter than you when it comes to spending THEIR money.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Learning from Rejection

As the parent of a high school senior, we are in our own version of March Madness. The end of March is typically the deadline for college acceptance letters… or, rejection letters. The rule of thumb is: big envelope good, small envelope bad. If you’ve even had a teenager anxiously waiting for a big envelope from The Perfect College of His / Her Dreams, you know what we’re going through.

Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal knows. Her article about rejection is dead on. She profiles some of the biggest names in business and entertainment – Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Tom Brokaw to name a few, who were rejected by their first choice. Their look back at the rejection and what it taught them should be required reading for every first semester high school senior (first semester because in the second semester their brains turn to mush and Senioritis is out of control).

Listen to what the Oracle of Omaha says: “The truth is, everything that has happened in my life…that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better.” He went on to say ”You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity.”

In business, you’ve got to face rejection. If you’re in sales, you face it daily. If you’re not facing rejection, you’re not pushing hard enough. As the leader of a small professional services firm, I hate being told “no” by a prospect. But sometimes getting a “no” is better than getting “maybe” or getting silence. “No” gives you direction. It can help you know what’s working and what’s not. And sometimes, a “no” from The Perfect Customer I Have Always Wanted to Get is a good thing.

Early in my practice, I chased after a prospect who I thought would accelerate my fledgling business. He decided not to use me for his big plans. Eight months later the firm he did choose was fighting him over unpaid invoices, unrealistic expectations, and a Titanic case of scope-creep.

In business, as in college, a rejection can be the best thing you could ask for. Good things often come disguised in small envelopes.

Monday, March 15, 2010

This Anchor Won't Weigh You Down

Ok, you’ve come up with The Next Big Thing. It’s a "game changer". “It will revolutionize the way people (fill in the blank).” Cool. Now how do you describe it?

Like most innovators, you struggle with telling people what it does. And forget about how it works. That’s way too complex.

So you stumble around as you talk about it, all the while watching your audience get more and more confused about this product that’s going to change the world.

What you need is an anchor.

People need to have a point of reference for new things. In a recent Fast Company article, Dan Heath uses the example of explaining NetFlix to someone who never heard of it. You could talk about mail order movies that or easy to return in a simple package. Or, you could say, “Think of Blockbuster, but by mail.” Having a frame of reference (Blockbuster) helps us understand in general, then the twist (but by mail) tells us why it’s different and better.

Most of my clients are technology start ups. They’re run by extremely bright, passionate engineers and scientists who understand the mechanics but sometimes struggle with explaining their products.

One company, NanoMech, was recently interviewed by the statewide ABC-TV affiliate. Keep in mind NanoMech is an advanced materials and nanomanufacturing company. Not an easy subject to explain. But they were able to use anchors and focus on the benefits of their products rather than how they worked. The result was an easy to understand description that a general audience could understand, yet one that more sophisticated viewers could appreciate as well. Click here and scroll down to see the segment.

For innovators, describing the value of your product is the key to your success. Anchors can get you there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oh, You're From New Orleans? Do You Know Drew Brees?

Feeling connected to others is a basic human need. And in these tough economic times, we are even more motivated to build or strengthen bonds we have to family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. Witness the remarkable growth of Facebook and LinkedIn.

That connectedness is important in customer relationships as well. A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research describes research where pairs of participants were given brochures for a “personal trainer” and asked for feedback. The resume of one of the trainers in each paring was altered to include their birth date, which just happened to match that of the participant. The participant who saw the altered bio was more inclined to enroll than the participant who viewed the bio without the birth date.

The implication for marketers is that anything we can do to find commonality with a customer or prospect will increase our success. Not an earth-shattering finding; in fact we’ve probably known this intuitively for quite some time. But now we have proof that finding common ground is good for business.

So, the next time your server comes to your table, look at her name tag and don't be surprised if it lists her hometown. It's a way for the restaurant to connect with you. And get you to order the pie for dessert.