At Your Service! Really!

I had to meet a friend unexpectedly at the hospital the other day. As you would expect, my mind was racing with all sorts of “what ifs.” I was wondering where to park when I pulled into the main entrance, and several kind people positioned at the door offered to valet my car and escort me to where I needed to go. This level of service reminiscent of a fine hotel, not a hospital, pleasantly surprised me. Genuine helpfulness and sincere caring. (And, thankfully, all turned out well for my friend.)

I had to meet a friend unexpectedly at the hospital the other day. As you would expect, my mind was racing with all sorts of “what ifs.” I was wondering where to park when I pulled into the main entrance, and several kind people positioned at the door offered to valet my car and escort me to where I needed to go. This level of service reminiscent of a fine hotel, not a hospital, pleasantly surprised me. Genuine helpfulness and sincere caring. (And, thankfully, all turned out well for my friend.)

As a brand strategist and a customer of many brands, I am in tune to the many ways companies tout their customer service. If your experiences are akin to mine, actual meaningful and truly excellent service still seems to be a rarity. Customer service gets lots of talk time (the one true brand differentiator!) these days, but is it time to double check and see if your brand is paying more than lip service to this important customer-centric activity?

Do you know if your service level is actually accomplishing what matters most to your customers? Would customers consider it a concierge experience? Take a peek at these examples and see how a few companies pay more than lip service to this important function:

Focus: Target Audience
Bed Bath & Beyond knows that the back-to-school season is almost akin to Christmas-in-August for its brand. With thousands of new freshmen heading to campuses nationwide in need of all things dorm related, Bed Bath & Beyond has truly gone beyond in creating an amazingly useful college-prepping brand experience. The website is chockfull of helpful advice about pertinent things top-of-mind for new college students. Take a peek at the topics covered in their online College Checklist:

  • Storing Your Stuff
  • Making Your Bed Better
  • Climate Control
  • An Inspiring Work Area
  • Resolving Technical Difficulties
  • Keeping Your Room Clean
  • Doing Laundry
  • Surviving a Shared Bathroom

After perusing both a printed checklist, a succinct magalog and an online version, students can enter their colleges in the company’s website and see if there are convenient Bed Bath & Beyond locations near their dorms so they don’t have to haul all this new merchandise from home. This concierge-esque brand takes it even a step further and has prepared lists of what the specific colleges and universities have already provided, what they want students to bring and what is not allowed. There’s even a college registry available, all set for family members who may want to gift the new freshmen upon high school graduation with these dorm life must haves.

And, once those students are settled in and living their particular collegiate lives, Bed Bath & Beyond continues to develop its student relationships with a “Grade My Space” program described as follows:

Grade My Space is a new interactive site where you’ll get an inside look at college living spaces and residence halls. Students connect and share ideas, designs, comments and provide the inside scoop on campus living and more.

How might your brand borrow brilliantly from Bed Bath & Beyond and put this usefulness in action for one of your specific customer segments?

Focus: Product Category
Target’s “guest-centric” brand attitude has always hit the bull’s eye, but the company is building on this experience in one particular category in a more nuanced way across 300 of its stores—Beauty. According to a recent press release:

Participating stores are staffed with a Target Beauty Concierge, a highly-trained, brand agnostic beauty enthusiast who is available to answer guests’ questions in-store. Serving as a trusted expert, the Beauty Concierge provides guests with personalized, detailed and unbiased information about beauty and personal care products offered at Target and acts as a knowledgeable source of advice in what can sometimes be an intimidating department. Beauty Concierges are located in the beauty aisles at Target wearing a distinct black apron. No appointment is necessary.

In addition to Target doing this with beauty, Lands End has done this with swimwear … a troublesome category for many women. Might there be a department or category within your brand that customers would welcome some one-on-one consultation? How might you enhance your service level in a key product category to generate not only more sales, but a more customer-centric experience?

Company-Wide Focus
Nordstrom has long wowed its customers with service that goes the extra mile. Today, its website reminds customers that unlike some other department stores, working with Nordstrom personal stylists is “fast, fun, free and zero pressure!” They’ll even prep your dressing room for you in advance of your visit.

“We’ll be there the whole time to offer new suggestions and honest advice—even if you are only looking to research, not to buy.” My girlfriend utilized this service in helping outfit her son, a new college graduate preparing for an international job opportunity. Not only was the time saved important, but now this stylist has all his measurements and style/color preferences recorded to make future shopping needs a breeze.

Office supply multichanneler, Staples, also is promising a company-wide concierge experience to back up its brand promise of “EASY”! Under its “Need Help?” tab is a listing for Product Concierge. Here’s what Staples says:

Can’t find what you’re looking for? We’re here to help! If you need help tracking down an item, we’ll search for it for you-even if it’s something we don’t currently have on our site. Tell us a bit more about the product and we’ll do our best to find it. There’s no obligation to buy.

Might your brand be able to promote this kind of across-the-board expectation? If not, what might have to change to do so?

Truly serving your customers concierge-style takes a full commitment from each and every brand ambassador within your company. It requires active listening and keen observation. It requires a servant heart and a willingness to sweat the small stuff to provide an excellent and memorable experience that will not only delight your customers once but keep them coming back for more … and raving about your brand to others.

B-to-B Marketers Should Take Another Look at E-commerce

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

A worthy example is Dow Corning, which found itself under huge price pressure as the silicone category grew commoditized. To meet the market demand for lower prices, Dow Corning launched an entirely new brand in 2002, called Xiameter, where customers could buy trailer-loads of certain products at a 10 percent to 15 percent discount through a newly built e-commerce engine. Xiameter sales grew so successfully that in 2009, Dow Corning moved as much as 2500 of its 7000 products to the site. Today, Xiameter represents 40% of Dow Corning’s $6 billion in sales.

Another example is Symantec, which created an online store specifically to serve its small-to-medium business customers in North America. Today, 100 percent of Symantec’s $300 million SMB sales run through this channel, which is operated for them by the SaaS outsourcing supplier Rainmaker Systems. Symantec is enjoying not only lower selling expense, but also admirable revenue growth, with sales up 25 percent and trial-to-conversion rates up 33 percent in the first year.

Why are these online ventures working so well? It’s thanks to new technology combined with changes in buyer behavior. The growth of consumer e-tailing has clearly been a contributing factor. Business buyers are people, too. So, their increasing comfort with e-commerce in their personal lives spills over to their jobs.

But business buyers also expect consumer-like functionality in e-commerce. And a seamless experience. This is where the new technologies come in. Platform suppliers like Rainmaker are building systems specifically designed to support B-to-B buying processes, with consumer-like features and ease of use.

So what are the e-commerce success factors for business marketers as they look to take advantage of these opportunities? Here are some tips:

  • Review your customer segments and product lines for e-commerce potential. Small and medium business customers may be a perfect fit. Same for high-volume, repetitive-sales product categories, like replacement parts or warranty renewals.
  • Examine your sales and marketing process for elements that can be automated with e-commerce technology. Look at quote management, contract pricing, channel partner support, purchase order processing, order approvals, cross sell and upsell, licensing, renewals, reactivation, winback-there are more than you may think.
  • Select software that was built specifically for the complexity of business markets. Companies that buy consumer solutions and try adding B-to-B capabilities will quickly be frustrated.
  • Select software that provides consumer-like e-commerce functionality. Ease of use is the competitive watchword today, according to Forrester’s recent study “Thrive by Adopting Proven B2C Principles.”
  • Make sure you connect your e-commerce with your existing accounting, manufacturing and other systems. Xiameter customers, for example, get their order confirmation, shipping notices and invoices out of Dow Corning’s SAP, which also communicates with the manufacturing plants to get the order produced.
  • Consider using cloud-based suppliers, where you can get up and running in less than a month, and leave the technology to someone else. Rainmaker Systems offers not only dedicated “sales assist” from its call center, they will even deal with their clients on a revenue-share basis.
  • Remember that e-commerce is global by definition. So look for technology that offers multiple languages and currencies, and supports tax and customer compliance.

How are you integrating e-commerce into your sales and marketing?

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Deciphering Big Data Is Key to Understanding Buyer’s Journey

Long before a sale is won or lost, customers and prospects embark on what can be called the “buyer’s journey.” This journey is a complex evolution spanning the entire lifecycle of the customer-vendor relationship, beginning with identification of the underlying business issue or need, and culminating in vendor selection.

Long before a sale is won or lost, customers and prospects embark on what can be called the “buyer’s journey.” This journey is a complex evolution spanning the entire lifecycle of the customer-vendor relationship, beginning with identification of the underlying business issue or need, and culminating in vendor selection.

Along the way, the prospect engages in a wide breadth of activities. Some are internal, such as winning over key stakeholders, building internal consensus and acquiring the necessary budget; while others are externally facing. For example, market research, engaging with colleagues in similar firms to share experiences, and of course contacting salespeople for product demos and pricing negotiation.

I do not claim to have coined the term ‘buyer’s journey.’ For more information on it, you can check out a great article by Christine Crandell that appeared on Forbes.com earlier this month. Among other things, Crandell does a great job explaining how social media can be leveraged to better connect with and understand the buyer’s journey, particularly during times when prospects are not engaged with your sales team. What’s especially interesting about the concept of the buyer’s journey is that prospects are actually unengaged with your firm during the vast majority of this process. Engagement only begins when prospects start their market research and contact a salesperson—usually not before.

Now how does this relate to database marketing? Well, it does in two huge ways. On a strategic basis, any marketer worth his or her own salt knows that effective marketing depends getting your message in front of qualified prospects as inexpensively as possible. In order to do this effectively, identifying how prospects are researching the marketplace is key. Why? Because this is where your prospects are spending much of their time, this is where you need to have your brand appearing front and center. So, from a marketing spend point of view, without a doubt this is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.

Now, of course, this is far easier said than done. It’s going to take a ton of market research, including customer interviews, focus groups, industry insight and general analysis to identify how your customers researched the marketplace prior to making a purchase. Did they attend key industry trade shows or events? Do they belong to specific peer or networking groups? What publications do they subscribe to? Whatever the answers to these questions are … well this is where you need to be.

Another key to deciphering the buyer’s journey is understanding how the prospect is engaging with your firm across all Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). This understanding can only be arrived at through a deep analysis of every touchpoint between you are your customers. The best way to achieve this is to identify and extract customer and prospect data wherever it may reside. There are no shortcuts here. For large organizations, it can be located in an email broadcast tool, CRM, ERP, Marketing Automation Solution or purpose-built Master Data Management (MDM) Hub, among other places.

Now, of course, this means extracting and sifting through tons and tons of data—everything ranging from garden variety campaign analytics to purchasing history, from personal attributes to company insight, from demographic data to psychographic profile. Tracking, archiving and sorting out all this information is big business. In fact, many in the industry are now referring to this reality as ‘Big Data,’ as companies track and store vast troves of information that they need to make sense out of. In addition to the physical IT infrastructure required to capture and store the information, making sense out of it often requires technical expertise. Without wanting to veer off topic, if this sounds interesting then I suggest turning to NPR, where an interesting and in-depth story on Big Data aired on November 29, 2011.

As I was saying, once the data is extracted, you need to make sense out of it. Paramount to this task is the process of creating robust user profiles replete with detailed demographic, psychographic and, of course, (for B2B) firmographic information—in effect, multi-dimensional user profiles—and mapping it back to KPIs that help identify engagement patterns and behavior central to the buyer’s journey.

Once user profiles have been established, this is where the fun parts comes in, as marketers leverage this information to create compelling offers that speak to the various customer segments. The good news is that recent technological innovations have made this job much easier and more effective. Using marketing automation tools, it’s now possible to broadcast varying sophisticated drip marketing campaigns to various segments of your database—segments that can now easily be created using complex rules based on both list attributes and user engagement. What’s more, the marketing message itself—email creative, direct mail piece, landing page, and so on—can now be highly personalized based on profile data, resulting in higher response rates, reduced media costs and, of course, improved customer satisfaction.

I hope this all makes sense. Any comments or feedback are welcome.

Michael Della Penna’s Conversations: 5 Essential Technologies to Ignite and Manage Conversations

This month’s blog is all about the tools necessary to support a successful conversation. Over the last decade, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in building solutions that help brands connect and communicate with their customers and prospects. It’s from that experience that I present the five most essential tools in creating and sustaining a successful conversation with customers and prospects.

In my first blog I talked a lot about how you can overcome the fear of social media and embrace the medium so it can become an integral part of your overall marketing mix. My next post shined the spotlight on understanding your customers in order to build ongoing and successful conversations. My most recent effort demonstrated how B-to-B companies, like B-to-C companies, have much to gain by embracing social media. I highlighted specific examples of several social media programs that are making a measureable impact. All of which leads us to this month’s blog.

This month’s blog is all about the tools necessary to support a successful conversation. Over the last decade, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in building solutions that help brands connect and communicate with their customers and prospects. It’s from that experience that I present the five most essential tools in creating and sustaining a successful conversation with customers and prospects.

1. Email. Perhaps the most obvious one of the bunch. While email’s promise of facilitating one-to-one dialogs never really panned out, the effective use of dynamically-generated email communications based on subscribers’ profiles and/or behaviors help build timely and relevant conversations. While automated or triggered communications have been in practice for some time now, they are, in my opinion, not used often enough and are typically isolated to individual programs within the lifecycle communication strategy.

Therefore, although effective, triggered emails can rarely sustain the dialog over long periods of time and across different stages of the lifecycle. But the impact email has on conversations is hardly over. More recently, the emergence of social tools within email is on the rise. These tools encourage individuals to share content with their social networks, which then enables the conversation to be continued with a larger group across the social internet.

Look for email to remain a force for years to come as brands use targeted emails and Twitter to ignite discussions that are then continued and discussed in-depth on Facebook.

Top providers with both capabilities: ExactTarget, StrongMail (full disclosure: I sit on the board of directors at StongMail) and Yesmail.

2. Inbound reply handling. Who among us hasn’t used email to contact customer service? Who among us has been delighted by the experience? Truth be told, few, if any, of us have been delighted. Lackluster email response times continue to plague many brands, and often contribute to decreased customer satisfaction ratings.

While real-time social tools such as Twitter and CoTweet have emerged as critical tools for handling customer service inquires, sophisticated inbound reply handling for incoming inquiries via email is still essential to building and maintaining great conversations and satisfaction with customers.

Top providers: KANA, eGain.

3. Listening/monitoring tools. I’m a huge fan of listening tools. For many brands, it’s a natural starting point as they continue to search for the content that will best resonate with their customers and prospects. Listening to what consumers are saying about your brand and/or products often yields important insights. It may even provide you the context you need to spark a conversation around a shared passion or related topic that’s of great interest to the community. Listen carefully and use learnings from this listening to build conversations with critical customer segments and prospects.

Top providers: BuzzMetrics, Cymfony and Radian6.

4. Social media platforms.
The emergence of social media networks such as Facebook and microblogging networks such as Twitter opens up a whole new opportunity to connect and communicate with customers and prospects. According to a report from Nielsen, the average Facebook user now spends more than seven hours a month on the social network, which is more than three times the average time spent on Yahoo.

As social networks become more popular, so will the use of social media platforms. Like email, social media platforms enable brands to create, execute and manage real-time interactions and communications with fans and followers. In many respects, the emergence of social media platforms picks up where email left off — enabling communications with both individuals and groups who like your brand.

Top providers: Hootsuite, Objective Marketer, Spredfast and StrongMail.

5. Social communities and networks. Aside from the emergence of leading social networks like Facebook, brands are increasingly recognizing the power and benefit of building their own communities. These collaborative environments help brands capture customer ideas and feedback, allowing them to glean critical information from conversations between customers. Often the wisdom from these conversations results in new products and a culture of innovation. Look to see the continued growth of these proprietary communities as social and software combine to help build critical conversations that drive business success.

Top providers: Communispace, Jive Software.

There you have it: five essential technologies to help every brand create, execute and manage real-time, relevant conversations.

‘Til next time!

Michael Della Penna’s Conversations: How to Spark a Conversation Revolution!

Creating conversations is hard, despite all the knowledge and tools at our disposal today. it should be easier than ever, right? Not quite. As is all too often the case, fear can get in the way. More specifically, fear of the social media unknown.

Creating conversations is hard, despite all the knowledge and tools at our disposal today. It should be easier than ever, right? Not quite. As is all too often the case, fear can get in the way. More specifically, fear of the social media unknown.

For many marketers, that includes the biggest “what if” of all: What if someone talks badly about your brand? The simple fact is consumers are already talking. Therefore, learning how to spark and manage conversations isn’t only essential on today’s social internet, but it might just save your job or, better yet, get you promoted.

To do it right, marketers must abandon their comfort zone of hiding behind their marketing efforts, including crafting and delivering messages, measuring sales, and then hitting the rinse and repeat button. Instead, they must be open, transparent, adventurous and unafraid. So what’s the formula for sparking and facilitating a great conversation? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Focus on relationships, not technologies. Take the time to understand what your customers want and do online, then determine the kind of relationship you want to have with them.

2. Start with a clear and simple goal. Is your goal about improving customer service (like @comcastcares) or sharing a passion for a topic or issue (e.g., sports, fashion or music)? Have a specific goal in mind at the beginning and add to it over time as you learn.

3. Monitor and survey. Use social monitoring tools to understand what kinds of conversations are already taking place. Investigate your customers’ interests. You may find vastly different interests and engagement levels across certain demographics and customer segments — this often gives you some direction on where to start and who to target first.

4. Start small and experiment.
Most of us have limited resources, so start small. Go narrow, but deep. Then take some chances and do something unique to create value. For example, one of my clients hired a photographer to take exclusive photos at sporting events in order to share those photos with its fans and followers. Needless to say, it generated huge interest and continues to spark conversations around the communities’ shared passion for sports.

5. Try focusing on an industry development or event rather than your product or brand. Leverage big events and share your unique perspective. People will likely jump in as you build trust and establish credibility.

6. Feed the conversation with integrated marketing efforts.
Don’t forget to support your community efforts by using existing tools and resources. Socialize traditional channels such as email to grow awareness, interest and engagement.

7. Don’t forget the “social” in social media. Listen and respond quickly; be conversational, authentic and transparent. Recognize and support contributors by sharing their content with others and thanking them.

8. Measure everything.
What kinds of communications are resonating? Measure each effort’s impact against your objective. Look at quantitative and qualitative metrics. For @comcastcares, that might mean looking at how much customer service has improved and how it’s impacted the perceptions of consumers and the media.

9. Be flexible and willing to change direction. Go with the flow. If an approach isn’t resonating, try something new. Let your customers guide the conversation. In fact, the most successful communities are the ones in which the hosting brands eventually get to a place where they post the least. Over time these brands have been able to earn the trust of the community. They simply spark and facilitate the conversation rather than dominate it. Remember, trust = money.

10. Stick to it. Engaging visitors and customers in conversation doesn’t happen overnight. Stick to it. With a little practice and patience — and lots of listening and flexibility — you’ll find your way.

Building successful conversations is really about listening, relinquishing control and being willing to fail. While this is new thinking for many marketers, it can and is being done well among brands that focus on their relationships, not campaigns.

Finally, success also requires practice. This was best said in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”: “Practice isn’t something you do until you’re good. It is something that makes you good.”

‘Til next time.