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Standing Out in the Field

I’m taking some vacation time this week and I’m actually going to stand waist deep in the Columbia River in Oregon and cast for Trout. (Don’t worry I won’t hurt any I’m strictly a catch and release kind of guy.)  While I am away, I have a great lineup of guest bloggers filling my shoes.  This post is brought to you from Steve Woodruff.

Steve Woodruff serves as a Clarity Therapist to small businesses seeking to grow through more effective brand messaging. Steve also builds trusted business referral networks, which has earned him the moniker of Connection Agent. He blogs regularly at BrandWoodruff.com and ConnectionAgent.com.

Like it or not, you are one of many, many companies or service providers competing for a limited slice of attention in a marketplace overflowing with noise and information.

For consultants and small businesses – actually, for any size business – the cacophony of billboards, radio spots, TV advertisements, and the flood tide of digital noise from the social web makes it increasingly challenging to be noticed, let alone remembered. Your main competition isn’t your competitors. It’s distraction.

Which means that if you simply blend into the background noise, you’ve lost your advantage.

Let’s assume that you actually have some magic. You do have something unique to offer. How do you stand out in the field?

Some will say it takes a hugely expensive campaign; others will gladly take your limited funds to try generate something “viral.” These are not particularly effective or sustainable strategies. One fundamental trait, however, can make any business stand out: Clarity.

By clarity, I mean you’re clear on your offering, clear on your differentiation, clear on your message, and clear on your vision. It is the opposite of throwing 10 bullet points of possible work you might do up against the virtual wall and seeing which one sticks. That’s the quickest route to becoming a faceless commodity.

A Clear Offering

What does clarity look like? Actually, you don’t have to look any further than the Duct Tape blog. Look at these two summary sentences on the site:

Simple, Effective, and Affordable Small Business Marketing

John Jantsch has been called the world’s most practical small business expert for delivering real-world, proven small-business marketing ideas and strategies.

The reader immediately knows whether they are the target audience, and exactly what the Duct Tape promise is. By being that specific, John stands out – while gladly giving up a bunch of other potential business where he couldn’t be outstanding.

A Clear Differentiator

I am fanatically loyal to Amica Insurance. I don’t price shop, and I don’t consider other dance partners. Why? All the geckos and good hands and Flo’s that parade across the TV screen promoting other companies are noisy commodities to me, because Amica has provided stellar and attentive customer service for decades. They completely stand out. And, ever since obtaining the first-generation iPhone, I’ve never considered going back to a non-Apple platform. The user experience is simply too good to give up.

A Clear Message

We try to say too much, not realizing that our potential customers (and referral partners) can only process and retain one or two main things. Few companies have mastered the art of distillation, which is truly central to effective marketing.

Picture yourself bumping into a prospective customer at a trade show, just minutes before the next session starts. After introductions, she says, “I recall seeing your name before, but what is it that you do?” Can you, in one sentence, give her the distilled essence, in such a way that she’ll still remember it after the session – and, be able to tell her friend over lunch about you in 10 words or less? In this regard, clarity is also your key to ongoing referrals.

A Clear Vision

Once you have 20/20 vision about your purpose and direction, suddenly a whole host of decisions that have always plagued you becomes much more simple. Clients you spun your wheels chasing now don’t fit into the clearer vision. Non-core work that you were doing is no longer in the long-term plan. When you can look a client in the eye and confidently say, “THIS is what I do – not that, and that, and that” – everyone is far better off. But for many, even those who have been in business for a while, the most difficult step is saying it to the mirror.

I have terrible uncorrected vision. Glasses are mandatory! The fact is, clear vision is not an option. Whatever other investment I may forego, I will always spend the necessary funds to see clearly – because that is foundational to everything I must do! Amazingly, however, few of your competitors will do so. That’s why clarity can become your strategic advantage. Making youthe one standing out in the field.

Image credit: zakwitnij via Flickr

Twitter Is My Help Desk

Over the course of the last year of so something happened to customer support – a great deal of it moved on to twitter.

It started for me with the occasional “does anyone know what this error message means?” or “what adapter works best for X?” Even just a year ago the only folks on twitter were smart, technology oriented and ahead of the curve on most new technologies.

A funny thing has happened in the last few months. Just about any company that is active in online products and services is now providing tech support with a simple twitter request. These days I turn to twitter first to engage support for most of the tools I use.

enthusem

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Now that twitter has grown to about 20 gazillion users almost any company can and should be offering customer service and support via this mechanism. The expectation is growing for some users that all companies provide a level of support using this platform.

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Adding a Chief Conversation Officer

“Markets are conversations – talk is cheap, silence is fatal” – from the cluetrain manifesto – Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger

The statement above embodies for many the changed landscape of marketing. Bigco started to embrace this over the course of the last few years and now it’s time for Smallco to aggressively do the same.

This year’s next position for many small business should be a conversation officer – someone in charge of the story.

That officer could be employed to create, curate and sometimes manipulate the conversations that must be coming from your company. In the broad sense the duties of this position should include

Content – this one is pretty simple – full fledged blogger, article publisher, white paper creator and education based marketing materials and webinar creator.

Context – this one is a little trickier, but your conversation officer should employ RSS technology to aggregate and filter the content and conversations going on in every online and offline corner and package it to make it more useful for your organization and your prospects.

Connection – your CCO should be in charge of developing ways to include your customers and partners in the building of your business for mutual benefit. Your CCO should be in charge of the conversations your customers are having after they buy, as they decide to buy more and in the process of becoming a referral source.

Community – your conversations must eventually come together as community. You must facilitate conversation among your prospects and customers, introduce partners and find ways to co-create value. Intentionally hosting the conversation your customers are having with each other is a must.

The primary toolset for this new position is indeed social media, but don’t neglect traditional forms of conversation as well. twitter, Facebook, blogging and RSS must supplement phone calls, lunch and handwritten notes to produce the ultimate, full-bodied, authentic, value-based conversation.

Perhaps you can’t yet invest in a full-time employee to carry out this position, add it to the org chart and start developing the position, because it’s no longer an optional function.

I Didn’t Know You Did That

So, honestly now, have you ever heard the words in the title to this post from a long-time customer? We all have, I’m afraid, and shame on us.

When a customer becomes a customer, it’s usually to purchase a specific product or solve a specific problem. When we solve that problem or ship that product the job is done, right? To build true marketing momentum the job has just begun.

I often talk about part of the lead conversion or selling process containing what I call a “new customer kit.” This is simply a set of orientation materials that provides your new customer with all the information they need to successfully work with your organization.

One of the elements of this kit should be an introduction to all the products and services your company has to offer. That’s a good start of course, but you must do much more than that to drive this information home. When a customer is new to your organization they may only have one simple need so your must commit to a long-term process of education as well.

My advice is to create a monthly process of introduction to some aspect of your business and offer this information in several forms. For example, a monthly mailing to your entire customer base, a lunch and learn with your referral sources, a telesession open to the public, an autoresponder series for newsletter subscribers, and post on the company blog.

Keeping all of your products and services featured and top of mind is one of the best ways to do more business with your existing customers and partners. Build this education system and put it on auto-pilot and you may start hearing, I’m glad you offer that!

I don’t say this enough, but the images I use on this blog and in my workshop presentations are from my favorite stock photo site iStockphoto. It rocks, just go check it out.

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Customers Are Your Most Effective Sales Force

Happy, educated, results oriented customers are the greatest sales force you can employ.

You’ve probably experienced that in some manner by way of a referred lead or two. What I would like to suggest is a systematic way to willingly involve your customers as motivated participants in the growth of your business.

Here are the primary steps involved to raise the level of customer participation.

1) Educate – take the time to do two things with every customer. Teach them exactly who makes a great lead for your business and how to correctly introduce your business to a prospect. Give them the tools to do this whenever the occasion arises. 1a) Get passionate about measuring, reviewing and reporting the results you have created on behalf of your customers. Set up routine meeting to go over these.

2) Testimonials and Case Studies – For every happy customer their should be a testimonial of results and perhaps even a full blown written, audio and/or video example in the form of a simple case study. Involve your customers in this process and use their testimony in various formats.

3) Peer-2-Peer Education – This is pretty involved way to get your customers on the sales team, but done correctly, it is very powerful. Invite several happy customers to participate in a panel discussion on some issue in their business or industry and include four or five prospects as well. The discussion should revolve completely around solving issues and discussion challenges with peers – the key is that your products and services can be positioned (without any selling on your part) as the solution by your happy customers. This can even be done in person or via webinar.

4) Create a Customer Community – Once a quarter or once a year invite some or all of your customers to enjoy a great speaker, lunch, drinks or to paint the day care center at the local community center. There is something magical about this type of community building and it always produces loyalty and referrals as a side benefit.

Employing several of the steps above can help build momentum and force your business to get much more customer focused, which is never a bad thing.

So, what have you done to involve your customers?

Your Marketing Organized

One of the most difficult tasks for small business owners, when it comes to marketing, is organization. Until you start to look at marketing as one of the core systems in your business it will always feel like a disjointed and disconnected thing that you know you must do when you can get around to it. And that’s no way to build momentum.

I find that it’s helpful for many people to look at marketing in the traditional org chart fashion. See, here’s the deal, even if it’s just you and Louie, he does this, you do that, you need an org chart for your business. Here’s why. No matter how many actual people you have in your organization, your business has many functions, it’s just that they are being done – or not being done – by just you and Louie.

By creating an organization chart, and acknowledging all the functions, you stand a far greater chance of developing individual systems and strategies to make sure the work in each area is organized and done. Not to mention the fact that you are laying the foundation for growth if and when you have bodies to put in more of the boxes on your chart.

To keep you org chart simple for now I like to start with the top as Marketing, Money and Management or Marketing, Finance and Operations.

For the purpose of this post I’ve created what I think is the ideal Marketing organization in the graphic below. (This is a smartart graphic that new versions of MS Office can create and save as an image – click on the graphic to see full size and feel free to borrow for your organization.)

If you can begin to realize that your company’s marketing system does indeed need to perform all of the functions listed above, you can more easily grasp how to create processes that assure you are accurately moving each and every customer logically along the path to becoming a hyper-satisfied referral machine.

And that’s the way to build marketing momentum!

Are You Easy?

Back in high school being called easy wasn’t exactly a compliment, but when it comes to your business, it’s essential.

Web folks like to talk about frictionless businesses or web sites as those that are very simple for the visitor to navigate and experience. There are many places your business can fall down in this regard and all perform a marketing function, for good or bad.

So, here are some common places to look and make sure you are easy.

    Are you easy:

  • To communicate with – voicemail, email, contact us page, IM, click to call,
  • To understand – narrowly defined market, simple core message of value
  • To listen to – two or three well developed presentations on message
  • To speak to – ability to listen and advise, know when to say no and thank you
  • To network with – think give before get, throw away the score card
  • To trust – consistency and content, be the authentic you, educate – don’t sell
  • To buy from – smooth transaction, delivery, follow-up
  • To work with – engaging experience, results driven
  • To refer – tools that teach how to refer, give partners way to refer – workshops

I’ve found one or more of these to be gaps in the overall experience for most small business marketers and in many cases, some strategic thought mixed with an effective process can be the ticket to enhancing your overall brand and ultimately putting more money in your pocket.

Your customer rewards program

Customer rewards programs, the kind used by the airlines for example, have been around for a long time, but I think the concept is grossly underused by small business owners.

The drive to earn a higher status or exclusive membership is very strong and full of marketing potential when used correctly. (I was in the Atlanta airport during recent layover and I went into the Crown Room and found it overrun with people, there was nowhere to sit and work and frankly the terminal was more appealing, but the purported exclusiveness draws people far beyond rational thinking would suggest it should.)

In an effort to build repeat business every small business owner should consider adding a level of levels of perks that can be earned by certain types of customer behavior. Now, you can let people earn trips and iPods and the like, but I prefer you consider allowing them earn a place at your “Customer Council.”

A Customer Council is a perk that might earn them entry to special workshops, a subscription to premium content, invitations to council only events, links from your web site – all manner of community building amplification around your products and services.

There are a variety of ways to structure membership in your council. Perhaps it’s by invitation only, by purchasing at a certain level or number of times, agreeing to an annual purchase commitment, or providing X amount of referrals.

This is one of those activities that can build strong customer ties and act as a motivator for passive customers to become active. One word of warning – don’t make the mistake of alienating customers that don’t yet qualify and make sure that you over deliver on the expectations felt by your customer council members.