Balancing People and Technology

This holiday season has been an interesting one for shopping. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I’ve been quite surprised by some of the exceptionally pleasant, cheerful and helpful people I’ve connected with in stores. It’s been a shift from many other holiday seasons that were filled with grumpy employees and team members who clearly weren’t happy to be where they were or dealing in the holiday spirit. In the past couple of days I’ve connected with a few more helpful and cheerful team members who helped alleviate some issues and move things forward in different areas for me. I don’t think we should ever remove humans completely from business, I think they play an essential role that can’t be fully replaced by technology. Having people in business also is a good reminder for us that at the other end of every transaction is a human as well.

As a business consultant and coach I always advise my clients to provide as much online information as possible. There’s no way we’re going to go back to the way things were two decades ago and not be dependent on the internet and online world (unless a serious event happens that makes it impossible for us to of course). So if you want to succeed in business, provide your customers a great experience and resolve as many issues or questions as easily as possible, it’s essential to have detailed, up-to-date information easily find-able online. I’m amazed most days when I go online and do different things how easy it is to do or find out without talking with anyone, spending tons of money, or going way out of my way. You’re able to back up a show you’re watching by a few minutes if you missed something. You’re able to do returns and get customer service with just a few clicks at any time, day or night. We’re able to work just about anywhere at any time. All of this makes our lives easier, more productive, and gives us the freedom to do the things that only we can do, when we need to do them. I’m thankful for all that the internet allows us to do as customers and business owners.

However, I’ve also had some serious challenges over the past week that have shined a negative light on some brands too, both when it comes to people and technology/online information. In a couple of cases, there was a shocking lack of information or heads up that would have alleviated many hours of frustration and circling to try to resolve things. It costs a negligible amount to customize an email with the relevant information, to deliver an email on the day it should be delivered, to provide helpful how-to’s on the website that aren’t going to change regardless of a device or location or person, or to provide a number or email or support line that could connect you directly with a business location. These are things that could have helped along some or all of these things and would have avoided frustration for a number of people including myself and the employees I eventually spoke and worked with.

Many companies have come a long way with finding the right balance between real people employees and technology, but we still have a ways to go to make it all work as it could, and there’s no question that you have to have both excellent online and person-based customer service. What has your holiday season so far revealed about your customer service capabilities and issues? There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve got issues or that things are a work in progress, it becomes a problem when you don’t address the issues, or don’t accept that there are any issues in the first place. There’s still quite a bit of shopping and working to be done before the end of the year, so address the biggest issues now and make a list of what needs to be addressed and can wait until January. Don’t let poor online or in-person customer support be the reason you don’t succeed as a business.

Customers Have Questions

Every customer has a question they’re hoping you can help them answer. Sometimes that one question leads to more questions, but all questions start with asking whether or not you’ve got what they’re looking for or if you’re able to help them. One of your goals should be to clearly and succinctly communicate what you offer, both in general and for each specific product/service, because if in the first few seconds of their visit on your site or in conversing with you they don’t think you can help them (or they can’t figure out what you offer), they’re more likely to move on and try someone else.

So the question to you is “what do you offer”? That may be the whole question, but it also may be more specific as “What do you offer in this product?” or “What do you offer in this service?”. The answer to that any of those three questions should be a phrase or a complete sentence, and again, it should be easy to understand in the few seconds potential customers may give you.

Once you’ve established the big picture of your offering, then you have to consider what more specific questions people would have about that product or service. Some of those questions would typically be answered on the individual product/service pages, for example what does something look like, what sizes are available or what’s the cost or what colors are available or what are the measurements of the item or what are the time limits/commitments on the service or what makes this one different from similar ones like it. In too many situations these individual pages are insufficient and leave people with questions.

Beyond that are some questions that companies often answer on FAQ pages. If you have a lot of general questions it’s best to sort and group them by category with section titles.  Additionally, if you are only posting questions about one aspect of what you offer that for some reason you don’t want to post on the actual product/service page, you need to clearly communicate the purpose of your FAQ page at the top of the page so that you don’t confuse people.

Finally, as a last resort you should make it easy for people to ask their questions by providing them at least two means of contact such as an email address and web form, or phone number and social account or any combination of some/all and more. As I said you should answer as many questions and provide as much information as possible for them before they have to contact you, but some people have situation-specific questions that wouldn’t be answered by anything you would likely put on the site, but they’ve seen enough that they think what you’re offering might answer the question of if you’ve got what they’re looking for.

So does your business answer your customer’s questions, or do you just create more questions?

Finding the Words to Say

Today I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block. I’m not talking about the writer’s block where I can’t think about what to write, but rather about the challenge of communicating that topic in a way that doesn’t sound like I typed a bunch of words and called it done, but makes sense and someone could apply to their life or benefit from. You may not experience this when writing, it may be something that you struggle with when you’re dealing with your significant other and trying to navigate a challenging topic or when your boss comes in to talk about a serious topic or issue.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I can use that little delete or backspace key to make changes without anyone knowing what I said. We don’t have that luxury when we’re talking with someone, once it comes out of our mouth we can’t take it back, we can only try to explain what we meant to say (or apologize for what we did say). There’s absolutely a place for honesty and just saying what’s on your heart, but often we need to use a little more thoughtfulness in our communications.

Part of the answer is practice, because the more you do something the better you get at it. Another part of the answer is listening and asking for clarification, because the more you can get from the other person or persons involved, the better contribution you can make when it’s your turn to speak. But I think there’s also value in time and hearing things out and then taking time before you provide an answer or share your feelings or share your suggestions. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not respond in the moment but rather come back around a little while later when tempers cool or you’ve had time to get over your reaction to whatever was said (or sent virtually). Sometimes you need that break to let your thoughts percolate a little before constructing a response.

In this often instant world it can be challenging for us to admit that we need time to think, especially when it doesn’t seem like we have time. But there is definitely a trend towards quality over quantity in many areas of life, so maybe you’ll actually gain some respect, not to mention do better work, if you take a little time and ask a few more questions before opening your mouth or typing away.

Persistence and Patience

I don’t know about you but I get a lot of emails each day. Almost all of them I’ve signed up for in one way or another, and my preferred method of communication is typically email. So at least 15% of the time I’m excited to open some of the emails, another 55% of the time I’m opening some emails hoping they’ll have something good in them, and the last 30% I’m not opening or sorry I opened because it’s a repetitive email that I’ve read 6 times already from them or someone else or it’s another request from a political candidate asking for money. Being in business I know there’s some value to sending repeat emails because some people do skip them or miss them or something along those lines and appreciate the reminder down the road, but that’s a rare case for me.

But it got me thinking about how we raise our children, what we’re teaching to the next generation about responsibilities and listening. I think it first reflects poorly on who we are as people and the fact that we need 6 emails, calls, texts or messages to be reminded of something or to get around to doing something. I’m not suggesting I do things the minute they cross my life or my desk all the time, just sad that too many lives have gotten so busy that many need multiple reminders of things. What about needing to say things 6 times before someone else hears them? I know I see that with kids today that a parent or sibling is doing something or talking to someone and they say that person’s name several times during the conversation or while that person is clearly busy. Besides the obvious of needing to learn to wait for their turn in a conversation, there’s blame on both sides of the line for those who think it’s OK to poke someone physically or verbally 6 or more times to try to get their attention, and on the other side for someone to not ask them to wait a moment after they hear the first request.

The third part of this is about persistence. Yes, it’s good to teach persistence to the next generation, they have to learn to be persistent if they really want to achieve their goals in life and become the best they can be. Few people will tell you that they got their success efforts right on the first try or were accepted with their first request. And thanks to technology today if you’re willing to make the effort there’s a good chance you can succeed on your own doing your own thing too.

Persistence is important to teach the next generation, but almost as important if not more is the lesson of patience. There’s no denying how far hard work can get you, but sometimes, especially when dealing with other people as we frequently do, the best thing you and your kids can do is slow down and wait. It’s not a forever wait, just waiting for a few seconds or maybe even a few days.  What are you teaching your kids and the next generations by your words and actions when you’re around them?

A Question of Value

If you’re in business you have to be making money, right? If you’re not making money (not enough to cover expenses), the old saying goes that you’ve got a hobby, not a business. I was having a conversation the other day with my partner about a program for the computer that has a pricey yearly fee, and he was considering paying that fee, and I told him that I use a different, open source, program that works just fine and I haven’t had any complaints from clients about it, or had any difficulty using it, and didn’t really notice any differences from that program and the open source one I use. It brought us into an extensive conversation about what we would be willing to pay on a yearly basis, why there is a cost to begin with, and whether the cost is reasonable or not.

Most people understand the need to pay for products and services. The business world has even done a fair job of explaining the concept of luxury goods and services and the value of paying extra or more for some products and services. Some businesses are better than others at explaining the value of their offerings, regardless of the price. I speak with businesses each week who struggle with their marketing not (just) because their marketing is weak or insufficient, but because they haven’t established the true value of their offerings. Sometimes a brand itself is enough to establish value, but more often than not it is up to the product or service to establish the value.

For extended return periods, free exchanges, free 2 day shipping, special/unique features, limited editions, a special cause or story or regular (quality) updates, yes, it’s understandably worth paying (a little) more. A company can easily retain faithful customers that are willing to invest a little more in their products or services because they offer things like this.

But the other is true as well. Because they offer a lower price or a small subscription fee, a company can gain customers that would not be willing to subscribe to more expensive subscription programs or would not make the investment in the more expensive product. Maybe it means a company has to be a little more creative about what they offer in the subscription or not offer all the bells and whistles another company might offer, but some customers are just fine with that.

It is possible that the number of people that are willing to pay the higher amounts make up for the customers that are lost because the price is higher, but it’s not something you should assume without doing proper research.

So what did my partner end up doing? As you probably guessed, he went ahead with the free open source computer program too. We both agreed that if the cost was more reasonable and better aligned with the lack of improvements and special features we would both have been willing to invest in it.  But the benefits aren’t worth the cost.

What about your costs and benefits? Is your company clear about the value you offer and why your pricing is what it is?

The Next Chapter in Advertising

Lately I’ve been thinking about advertising. I know, not a big shock considering I work with and write about businesses. One of the reasons it’s been on my mind is because of all the talk about privacy and the sheer number of ads that people typically see on a daily basis (one report indicates about 5,000 per day, but even if we’re only seeing a fraction of that it’s still a ton). I know I get several hundred emails in a day and many of them have a banner ad or some other type of promotion in them, then there are all the ads you see when you watch TV, or are driving down the street or are perusing your favorite shopping website.

If I’m honest I don’t have a problem with ads, and I don’t just say that because I’m in business and advertise. We have so much going on in our lives that ads and promotions are a good way to let people know about something a company is offering they may want or need, without us having to do all the work to find out what’s on sale or what’s new. But I do agree that some companies abuse the privilege of advertising. They spam you or don’t tell you about fees or hide key details that had you known you would have never clicked on the ad. I wish companies would be more responsible about ads, which brings us to the other topic: privacy.

I like my privacy as much as the next person, and like many people I do feel like some companies have more information than they should, and not all companies are as respectful of that data and that trust that people are placing with them. As a result of how some companies act, I’m not surprised by the uproar and the way that the hammer is really coming down on all things privacy and advertising, and I’m more than a little frustrated at these companies for causing so much fear and hesitance to end up on those of us businesses that are very careful and respectful.

So where does this leave businesses? I don’t think it means the end of advertising. It does mean that businesses should be more responsible because of the sheer number of options that people could switch to if they don’t like the practices of a business. It also means that it’s time for a change when it comes to how businesses are advertising. Businesses should clearly communicate with their customers regarding their ethics, and options when it comes to a customer’s privacy.

It also presents an opportunity for a business and customer to have more open conversation about what the customer wants to share with a company, what the customer wants from the company, how the customer wants it from the company, and why the company advertises/includes the advertisements they do. More people would be more open to ads if they knew they would be relevant to them, were at a frequency they were comfortable with. Likewise, people would be more willing to share some information, especially about preferences and interests, as long as the information that is requested is reasonable, and when it’s acted upon the customer and their privacy is respected and protected. And again, more people would be receptive to ads if they were delivered through a preferred means, and there are very few situations where only an email or only a mobile number would suffice, and would not be interchangeable, especially if allowing a customer to choose one or the other would mean someone would be receptive to getting information.

The advertising arena is changing, it’s a question of whether it becomes a customer vs. business thing, or if we’re able to figure out how to work together so that we still grow our businesses but we also respect and support our customers. How are you navigating the changing ad market?

Communicating Who and What’s Important

This weekend there’s a lot of talk about rest and work, how it’s important to recognize the hard work people do day in and day out as well as take a rest from doing that hard work. Work is important because it provides for our needs and often plays a role in fulfilling us on a personal level as well. Of course we can’t ignore how important work is to the existence and progress of our world because without work being done daily or on a regular basis the many infrastructures and components that are essential to our lives would quickly break down or become dangerous or outdated.

Work can be consuming, especially if you’re either completely overwhelmed by or totally in love with what you do. It’s normal to have periods of time where you have to devote more time than usual at work, but that should be abnormal and not something you do on a frequent basis. Work should be balanced with fun and family and personal time in our lives. When we aren’t making an effort to have that balance in our lives we run the risk of damaging those other aspects of our lives. Once a relationship has been damaged or we aren’t really caring for ourselves, it’s hard to get back to healthy and whole again.

Between Labor Day and all the hours each day we invest in it either doing it or thinking about it, I think there’s a pretty clear statement that work is important to us, but do we make the same statement about the people in our lives who are supposed to be equally or more important, including ourselves? Are you making healthy decisions for yourself, making the changes to your schedule to spend time with them when they’re free, creating regular events in your calendar to be with them, and especially communicating with them about how much they mean to you?

Each week we’re given 168 hours. If we sleep 40-50 of those hours and work 40-50 hours each week, we’ve got about 70 hours to devote to the people who are important to us and to caring for ourselves. Surely we can make time for a few phone calls, Skypes, text messages, coffee shop visits, dinner parties or date nights in all of those hours.

There’s no underestimating or understating how valuable, treasured and important those moments with your loved ones are. Have you told your loved ones lately that you loved them? What about showing them?  You’ll never regret making time to care for yourself, or telling others that you love them and are thankful for them being in your life.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Aurde Lorde

The Slippery Slogan Slope

Whether you use audio or text, communication is one of the most important aspects of your business and directly impacts your success. I can’t tell you how many times I personally have clicked away from a page and potential purchase because it just didn’t have the information I needed to establish if it was the right purchase for me. If it’s a serious or big or necessary purchase that can’t be put off I’ll do the research and visit a couple other websites to find the answers I need to decide if I’m going to make the purchase or not. Often it’s a case of lacking information, but all too frequently the information that’s provided is confusing, contradictory or just plain strange.

I read an article recently by Brooke B. Sellas about 3 marketing slogans she’d change (Apartments.Com, Time Warner, Victoria’s Secret) and I agree with her thoughts on some of the issues that the current slogans have. Slogans change all the time, especially when they’re not central to the brand. But even logos and names which are typically more permanent have been known to change as the business grows and develops.  Reading the article by Sellas got me thinking about some other marketing communications that aren’t helpful to the brand either.

One headline that I recently asked “what does that even mean?” about is a credit card offer that reads “Another credit card that’s not just another card.” Another card that’s not another card? Why not lead with a line about specifically why it’s better/different than some other cards like about the best mileage deal they offer, best cashback program they have, lowest fees they have or something else that sets them apart, instead of trying word soup. Another of my favorite confusing lines are the drug commercials that say “if you’re allergic to x drug, don’t take it.” How do you know you’re allergic to it? Do you have to take it first? Why not just say that you’ll be tested to confirm you’re not allergic?

I have no issue with having a headline or slogan to help you stand out, but I think you get the point that it’s a really easy way to screw up your brand and create a disconnect with your clients and customers. If you know that slogan or those first lines are your opportunity to really catch the attention of your potential buyer, why aren’t we more attentive to what they communicate (and what they say about us as a business)? Don’t choose a headline or slogan just because you think you need one, invest instead in doing your very best to communicate specifics to potential customers.

Finishing the Thought

My partner and I have been having a bit of a water issue lately so I’m really keeping on top of the weather and paying attention to when they’re calling for rain. So the other morning I was telling him that I had gone online and checked the weather for the next few days and there was rain predicted on whichever days it was predicted. And he interrupted me at what he thought was the end of my sentence and thought and said something about the likelihood of the rain and then when he was done I finished what I had been trying to tell him.

There was no argument and no issues and certainly wasn’t a big deal, but it got me thinking because I had all the information and data to tell him yet I wasn’t able to finish the thought before he jumped in with his questions and thoughts. This is fine when a couple or a group are trying to brainstorm or in a situation where many voices is a good thing. But in this case it wasn’t a good thing because I was going to address exactly what he brought up before he interrupted me. This is one reason why I like technology like texting, messaging and emails which allow you to get out a full thought. There’s no possible interruptions, you can put out your full thought (hopefully a well thought-out thought) and they then have the opportunity to send back an equally well considered thought, hopefully not one stuck on reaction.

That said, something is often lost when you’re talking virtually and not in person.  Some conversations deserve the respect of being done in person and I know how hard it is to keep your mouth closed when someone is talking about something and you have an idea or a question or think they’re missing something or are wrong about something. It’s one reason why I keep paper and pen next to me at all times at my desk, use a pad when talking with clients, and even suggest to clients to use it as a tool when they’re having (tough) conversations with a team member at work or even with their partner at home. That way the thought or idea gets written down and can be brought up when there’s a true space in conversation and not as an interruption which can escalate the conversation. It also gives you a chance to reflect before just saying something, which means you can hopefully avoid saying something cruel or hurtful.

I love when someone has excitement for life, or a story they want to tell, an idea they want to share, or has great information to share. But it can be easy to get caught up in that excitement and be tripping over each other to get the words out.  That excitement can also cause some serious damage if we’re not careful and don’t take the time to think and truly converse with each other by both speaking and listening.  Will you join me in being a better listener and communicator this week?

What Kind of Content Are You Creating?

Last week I shared a little about my passion for reading, and while I’ve read thousands of books there are only a couple hundred that want to read more than once, and even fewer than that that I would be happy to pick up any and every day or night. The fact is that most of us keep picking up the next book or TV show or blog post or video, we don’t typically do repeats. And we don’t have to because there’s so much new content of all forms being added to the world on a daily basis. I add several forms of content to the world on a daily and weekly basis between social content (60+ pins and posts per week), blog posts (7 or so per week), and newsletters (4 per week). Whether you add more or less to the world each week, you’re probably adding content too.

Recently I read a blog post that raised the question of creating memorable content, which got me thinking about the whole content story and all the pros and cons that go along with it. I support businesses and people creating content and sharing it with the world, I think it’s good to share your voice, opinions and create a community where people can learn from each other, encourage each other, and grow personally. All of the content we’re creating is providing ideas, answers, insights, inspiring us to ask questions, and challenging us to question how we’ve always done things. I do think we need to be careful about passing judgment on the value of someone’s content, what may not be valuable to you would be valuable to someone else.

So what about the question of memorable and viral? Well, I have several people whose content I always look forward to. Their content isn’t necessarily memorable and I don’t think they go viral often or ever, but it’s always good reading/watching, I always get something out of it and I always look forward to their next publication. Back to the point, viral is a great way to get your content and you in front of tons of people for a very short time, the hope would be that you have something to convert them into so that you can continue to build a relationship long after the content is no longer viral. And as far as memorable, I certainly can’t remember everything I’ve watched or seen, and as we add more content to the world in all forms it will be harder for it to be memorable.

So I propose that instead of working towards memorable or viral content, that we instead work towards second reads and watches, and consistently deliver goodness. Why? Because with this shift to second (and beyond) views we’re increasing the chance that people will remember us (and our content), we’ll know that people are clearly finding value in the content (and us) and increase our chances of getting them to read from us (and hopefully buy from us) again. And with the shift from viral to consistent goodness, it’s about building relationships with people who will miss you when you’re gone, who share your products and content, who look forward to seeing what you have to say, and always find value in what you bring to the table.

What kind of content will you create this week?