Subscription Service Smarts

Last week I shared about some confusing communications I’d received recently, this week I wanted to follow up with a discussion on something that many businesses, especially non-profits, rely on: recurring orders/donations. These are a fantastic way of having a consistent source of funds coming into your business that you can rely on as long as you’re offering what they’re buying or they need what you’re offering. These recurring orders can be simply items that people need on a consistent basis (i.e. paper towels and pasta), or a recurring package each month/week of items to try (i.e. beauty or dog items), or a regular subscription like meal kits or clothing outfits. It can also be a consistent monthly donation that goes into a particular fund or supports a particular individual.

If you want to improve the sign-ups and keep people signed up there are several things you can do, some that apply to some types of subscriptions and some that apply to others. One is to keep a good balance of new and top favorites as part of the subscription. Another is to make sure you’ve sufficiently tested the new items you’re sending out. Another is to send updates by email and/or mail so people know what’s going on with their donations or they could add to their order.

One of the biggest keys to keeping subscription customers is the ease of updating their information and their order(s), including what they’re ordering and any delivery information as well as their payment methods/options. The more challenging it is and the harder you make for them to find where and how to update the information, the more likely they’ll just cancel it all. Even worse, if they really struggle with changes, they may leave a nasty review about it online or suggest to friends/family who ask not to order from that company. Out of the 8 organizations that I had to update my credit card information with 3 were easy (at least one of which took quite a bit of navigating and effort to change the information), 4 required a phone call (something that shouldn’t be necessary if you can donate online), and for one the site refused to update the donation so I canceled the subscription and just made a one time donation (and will try again next month). Clearly there’s a lot of progress yet to be made with these organizations, and that’s just a small slice of all the organizations that you can do a subscription/donation with.

What about you? If you offer a subscription program do you make it easy for your subscribers to update their information and stay up to date about what’s going on and their options?

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Doing Discounts Right

Last week I talked about the topic of discounts, about how we approach it as business owners and reasons for and against offering them. One of the places you frequently think about discounts is the grocery store. Grocery stores are well known for putting out circulars each week letting people know what items are going to be on sale and also what new items they may be carrying now. They’re not only an educational tool, they’re also a great marketing tool. Stores gain and lose customers based on many factors including overall prices, types items for sale, quality of products and physical proximity to someone’s location. The ads are a great way of letting people know many of those factors and even just reminding them that they exist.

However, if you’ve ever “shopped the circular” before you know that it’s not guaranteed that the products in the circular will be available when you get to the store, or that the specific store will have that product at all (even if they’re supposed to). Most people will say that of the circular items they were interested in buying, at least a handful weren’t available (out of stock or not available period) and another few didn’t look as promising in the store as they did in the circular. From the business side of things this is understandable because most sales/discounts are limited in stock. You’ve got x number in stock and that’s what’s available and all you’re going to offer, and when they sell out you’re done with that item/discount. However, this can be very frustrating for customers, even if it’s understandable from a practical and business perspective.

This past week however I had the exact opposite experience. A store was having a big 30 year anniversary sale, and when I pulled into the parking lot it looked like the week of Thanksgiving (I parked further that day then I did for Thanksgiving time shopping in 2017). So imagine my surprise when they had all the items I wanted from not only the special anniversary sale, but also the rest of the circular! And even though it was the evening and late in the circular week, they were more fully stocked than I sometimes see them, and everything was fresh. It’s a great opportunity for businesses who want to do discounts or do them to learn from.

The first lesson is that a happy customer is a good customer. Good customers buy more, buy multiple times and refer you to others. Second, fresh food is always good food. It’s not easy to have the quantities necessary for large sales, but if you can impress someone with the freshness of an item during a sale there’s a good chance they’ll buy that item again when it’s not on sale. Third, stock your products wisely. A physical store has limitations that an online store doesn’t, so there has to be a balance kept between variety of products and amount of stock. Finding that balance and keeping it keeps your customers happy and coming back.  Finally, sales and discounts can be a great way to bring in new customers, but if they don’t have a good experience with you (the products you say are on sale aren’t available etc.), they won’t shop with you in the future.

What lessons have you learned lately from your shopping experiences that could apply to your business?

Discount Dilemma

One of the questions that just about every business owner is asked is “do you offer discounts?” It’s a question that makes us groan sometimes because we work hard to serve our customers and create our products, and the fact is that we have to make money! Yes, most of us have a buffer or cushion between what it actually costs to create a product and what we charge, and there are people who offer similar services for less than we do. Yes, some of us do compete based on price, that’s one of the reasons people buy what we offer instead of a similar product/service. And yes, most of us do create special offers at some point in time, or offer regular discounts for certain people, like veterans for example. Not to mention that there’s a whole “bargaining” industry where asking for a different price than what’s listed is not only acceptable but expected.

That said, I don’t necessarily have anything against offering discounts. I believe it can be a way to recognize your faithful customers and offer them discounts for continued purchases. There’s certainly an opportunity in offering “introductory offers” at lower-than-normal prices, or coupons if you’re in need of an influx in customers. There’s also an opportunity to connect with people through clearance or close-out offers.  But there’s a reason that things are priced as they are, and it’s what people have determined is reasonable based on what results are possible or what’s being offered.

So how do we deal with the discount question? Personally I address it on my website. I make it clear that if there’s a discount to be had it will be announced on social media and/or in my newsletters and that it’s not something I do often. I also clearly state that I offer regular special pricing for pastors for one of my offerings and for veterans on all of my services (and how to prove you qualify). I also offer levels of service so that I can help people whether they can afford $20 or $2000, and some payment plans.

So what if someone doesn’t clearly state they do/don’t offer discounts but you really, truly can’t afford their prices, and you really want to work with or buy from them? As with so many other things in the industry these days, the best thing you can do is contact them and be specific about why you want and deserve a discount or special pricing. Saying things like “I’ve got tons of people I can refer you to” or “I’ll absolutely buy again in the future” aren’t valid reasons in my book. You have to give a good enough reason why you should be given a discount when [almost] everyone else pays full price, preferably a reason that can be backed up or easily verified. If they can’t offer a discount, maybe they’re willing to work out a payment plan, offer reduced hours/access, have something similar they can offer at the price you can afford, or can recommend someone/something that does fit your price range.

What are your thoughts on discounts and how do you handle it when (potential) customers ask you for them?

The Question of Customer Loyalty

As we head into what is the busiest shopping season of the year for many businesses, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about customers and customer loyalty. As a business you have to have customers, otherwise you won’t be in business very long. The next thing to consider is whether most of your customers are repeat customers, or if you offer things that people buy once or extremely rarely. If you offer something, say heart surgery or roofing, you probably will ever work with someone once. But if you offer something like ice cream or hair cuts, and you’re not having repeat customers, something probably has to change. Here’s what one very successful entrepreneur had to say:

“Customers aren’t loyal. And it’s a waste of time trying to convince them to be….Life changes. Priorities change. Competition changes. In reality, almost no one is 100% loyal….Fact: 87% of a brand’s customers don’t stick to just that brand. They’re promiscuous at best. And if they’re offered something better, they’re gone.” Ramit Sethi

Those are some pretty serious percentages. So the question becomes: do we even try to gain customer loyalty? The first answer that comes to mind is that if you don’t give any effort to making your customers come back, few probably will. The second thing to consider is that it’s consistently proven to be cheaper in all ways to keep customers coming back than to gain new customers. The third thing to consider is that even if you have a service or product that’s purchased maybe once in a lifetime you can still gain loyal customers, it’s just not the same type of loyalty. Fourth, if you ask employees who really love your company about their favorite customers, they’ll often tell you that they enjoy connecting with the “regulars.” Fifth, loyal customers are those who share about your great products or services with their friends, and/or leave you nice testimonials you can use to get more customers.

One thing to remember is that everyone is human and everyone goes through changes in their life. So it’s really unrealistic to expect that every customer would stay with your business and your products and/or services for the full duration of their life (or their need for that product/service). But my answer is that we should work on making customers loyal, or at the very least, increasing the amount of times they purchase from us. Whether you use email newsletters, social media, events, physical mailings, a blog, a loyalty card or even just new products or services that are in line with those you already offer, there are tons of ways that you can build loyalty and encourage repeat customers. What are your favorite ways to connect with your customers and build relationships with those who are loyal to you and love you?

In the Business of Helping

This month one of the topics we’ll be talking about is the topic of help. I believe that each and every business should exist to help their customers with something. Maybe that help is something that seems important like fixing a broken leg or maybe that help is something that seems trivial when compared with a broken leg like jewelry to give your young daughter for her birthday. Both of those are helpful, they’re just helpful in different ways and at different times.

I think that keeping the focus of your business on what you do to help people is one of the ways you can ensure your success. If you and your employees are aware of and focused on being as helpful to customers and potential customers as you can be not only will you have happier customers, you’ll also have happier employees and often you’ll have more opportunities for growth and contribution in your community and the world.

With a focus on helping your people you’ll work on designing systems, creating guidelines, marketing products/services, providing customer service, hiring, and even creating products/services that do more than just add to your bottom line. Yes, the bottom line is important, but if you’re keeping employees longer, keeping suppliers longer, and have happier customers, the bottom line will take care of itself.

There are unfortunately tons of ways that businesses are unhelpful, sometimes intentionally but all too often because the businesses and their employees are rushed, overworked, uninformed, overwhelmed, lazy or unhappy. Some things are more simple fixes like website updates and doing different marketing, but others are more challenging like product or employee changes.

But if you look at the well-known successful businesses, more often than not one of the keys to their success is how valuable (helpful) people find them. These businesses have legendary customer service, they have fantastic return policies, they offer products that improve people’s lives, they have happy employees, and they are well-known in their community. No, they’re not perfect businesses, and even if you implement a “help” policy at your business you’ll still have some mistakes and unhappy customers, that’s part of doing business. But, it could bring about the boost, passion and direction that you’ve been missing. How do you help your people?

Empowering Through Sales

It’s September so of course I’m thinking about lots of education topics and about the next generation.  Last week we talked about something that kids are known for: asking questions, but we talked about it with regards to building a better business.  Something that we may talk about in other contexts later this month or next month is the topic of bullying because it’s a serious topic that affects people of all ages, not just kids, but it’s most discussed with regards to kids.  What I want to talk about today is something that relates to bullying, is actually in some ways the opposite: empowerment.

The way I see it businesses are in the business of empowering their customers in one way or another.  Whether they offer a product or service they empower their customers through the solutions they offer to problems in their lives (darkness, coldness/heat, hunger, transportation, infertility, crazy kids, divorce, loneliness, sickness etc.).  The dictionary defines empower as “to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means, to enable or permit.”  By putting whatever you sell in their lives you’re giving them the power to overcome the challenges in their lives, to make living life a little easier or better, and you’re giving them the opportunity to make the right choices for their life.

So the question we ask often is how can we make our customers and employees happier?  Logic, systems, leadership, training, testing, communication, marketing, good people and customer service are all ways that we as business owners can give our customers and employees can make their experience with us better, longer, and more satisfying.  Make sure that what you offer and what you tell people make sense.  Make sure that you’ve got good systems, leadership, training, hiring practices and communication in place to support and guide your employees. Make sure that people can find you, know what you offer and are able to understand what you offer and how to use/apply it.  And make sure that the experience they have with you and what you offer makes them want to come back for more, even if their initial purchase with you isn’t the greatest.

By choosing to go the extra mile with preparing your products and services for customers, giving your employees the tools they need to be successful and support your customers and giving your customers an experience that reinforces the great product or service you’ve sold them, not only are you more likely to be more successful as a business, you’re empowering your clients and customers to solve their problems and enjoy their lives.

How do you empower your customers and/or employees?

Reality of Reviews

This week I’ve been thinking about a topic that is an issue for all business owners at some point in time or another: negative reviews.   Most of us have more than one customer throughout the lifetime of our business, so we have to be aware of how our business is seen by others.  The internet does good and bad things for us as just about every person goes online to check out businesses they may want to work with and products they’re considering before buying or striking up a conversation.  Whether company websites, review and group sites or social media, there are lots of ways that potential customers can find us and find out about us. So what happens when a customer has an interaction with us that for whatever reason doesn’t go the way they want it to?  They find a way to make their dissatisfaction known of course.

So what can we do about negative reviews?  The answer to this is not to eliminate the ability of customers to leave reviews, because unless you’re a bad business the reviews will largely be good and we need the good reviews to encourage potential customers to buy.  The answer is also not to bribe those who write negative reviews to remove them.  And, the answer is not to leave a scathing reply to their negative review because that just adds fuel to the fire.

First I think we need to understand the customer a bit and release some of the pressure from us.  Not all negative reviews are your/your business’s fault.  Sometimes people are having a bad day and find things to complain about, and you just get lucky that they picked you.  Second, some people who should have never purchased from you leave a negative review because they were unhappy with something they never would have been happy with.  And you have no control over the weather so as long as you do all things within your power when you have interaction with weather as part of your business, there’s nothing else you can do.

Second, know that negative reviews can be good because most of them point out an area of your business that you could improve.  But, they’re only helpful if you actually do something about it (and positive reviews after those negative reviews should indicate improvements).  Negative reviews do compile and do stick around so you want to make sure to address things you should address quickly, which means you need to keep an eye on your reviews.

Third, don’t take negative reviews too personally.  Yes, they hurt.  It’s not fun to have our businesses bashed, and sometimes the negative words are actually accurate.  But if you take all negative reviews super personally you’ll never have the attitude or strength to keep your business growing and thriving.

Finally, let’s talk about how you can respond to negative reviews.  First and foremost you should do everything in your power to resolve situations before anything gets posted online.  Some people prefer to just shout their displeasure to the world regardless of all efforts you make to communicate with them beforehand, and you can’t do anything about that.  Second, depending on the situation the right thing may be to reach out to the unhappy customer and try to resolve things.  This doesn’t work in every case and isn’t always recommended.  Third, do your best to get lots of good publicity so that it’s clear that the negative reviews aren’t representative of the majority of your customers.  This means having active social accounts, doing local newspaper interviews, contributing to local events and being an active part of relevant online groups and communities.

What are your thoughts about negative reviews?

Telling the Truth in Business

Do you know what can sink your business really fast? Lies. When you lie about how effective a product or service is or what you’re going to do or who you are, people not only won’t buy from you again but they tell their friends too. And as we know negative news spreads faster than the positive news. I know some people will tell you that too much truth is a bad thing or that some mystique is a good thing. I agree that a little mystery can be a good thing, but what you offer and who you are should not be one of those mysteries.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth:
I understand that you want to keep some secret sauce for your clients. I have no problem with that. Some people find success in sharing their secrets, others have learned what “enough” is that they can share and interest people with what they offer. One of the things I advise some of my clients on is using Facebook. The first thing usually asked or considered is “what do you think of my page?” My answer is usually “I can’t really tell what makes you special” (or tell what you really offer at all), and sometimes also includes “and all your posts are promotional” (which isn’t a good thing). Most people don’t give sufficient information about their business whether we’re talking promotional materials, social media or in client conversations.

Do it right the first time:
If at all possible it’s always desirable to get things right the first time. The reality is that we don’t always get things right the first time and do have to fix things and sometimes start from scratch. But you’ll be more satisfied with doing the job right the first time than you would be if you gave it a half effort. Not giving it your best effort means you’ll also never know if you could have been successful if you gave it a little more effort.

Anything worth doing is worth doing right:
This is another of my favorite sayings. Too often we throw something together quick without really thinking it through or doing the research. Sometimes, as I’ve said in the past, the research is as simple as reading what’s been written and already provided to you. I don’t believe in perfection so that’s not what I’m saying and I think questions are great, so I’m not judging that either. But if you’re really serious about helping people with your product or service you owe it to them (and will save yourself lots of time) if you disclose as much as possible.

Do everyone a favor and check your business for lies, misleading information and invisible information. What do your customers and potential customers think of your business?

 

Storefront Success

Last week I shared an article with my business newsletter subscribers about the current state of Barnes and Nobles. If you’re not familiar with the company they sell books and related materials. They’ve been in business since the 1960’s but as with other book stores have suffered since the advent of eBooks and online shopping. So as I was reading the article it got me thinking about what the reason for physical stores is anyway. Technically all businesses are physical businesses because there’s a person somewhere behind each of them, but what about businesses with physical stores you can go to to shop at? What’s the benefit and should you have one?  Let’s start off with who should have one:

1-you’re selling a hands-on service. This would be something like a cooking class, yoga class, gym membership or something else that works best if people come to you rather than you going to them or providing the service over the internet. Yes, you can sell them online but traditionally they’re known for being off line.

2-you’re selling services only to a local market.  If your goal is to reach the local community having a physical presence where your potential clients will see you during their day-to-day activities is beneficial and can go a long way to encouraging them to shop with you.

It’s important to note that I don’t recommend just having a physical presence/storefront.  Not taking advantage of the internet, even if it’s just for marketing not selling purposes is a big mistake in this day and age.  Everyone should have a website and do some online marketing whether a blog, social media, a newsletter and/or others.  So if we all have an internet presence, what’s the benefit of having a physical one?

Primarily that you sell something that people would prefer to see/touch/experience before buying.  I can’t say I want to buy fruits, vegetables or fish online, many people like to try on clothes before buying them or experience a technology device when considering different options.  But just about anything and everything can be purchased online, especially products, so if a majority of your products can be and are purchased online, i.e. books, clothing, technology, health items etc. will the physical storefront be going the way of the Dodo soon?

One key to having a successful storefront, and the thing that I think could be the defining factor in whether or not storefronts stay alive, is the experience they provide to a customer.  For the majority of non-fresh food businesses if all you’re doing is selling a product there’s no reason to buy from your physical store vs. your online store.  But if your in-store experience makes buying a product exciting, adds value to the purchasing experience or adds something completely different to the company separate from the products like demonstrations, education, celebrity experiences etc., you’re taking full advantage of all that a physical location can offer.

So if you’ve got a physical location, are you doing all you can to maximize it, or would you be more successful closing the doors and just running your business online?

A Mission to Make a (Healthy) Difference

Here in the USA most of us have choices about whether or not we want to be healthy, and many of us choose to not be healthy. We choose to fill our bodies with junk food, our minds with TV and our lives with people who influence us in not so good ways. But many people around the world aren’t as fortunate as those of us who live in the United States are, and while it’s not our fault that they’re not as blessed as we are, we have an opportunity to help them.

You’ve heard it said that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that concept applies here. If you want a healthy world, if you want to truly solve the world’s problems, it begins with teaching the next generation the value of giving back. From the time I was a young child and my parents encouraged us to make donations at church or in the Salvation Army Santa buckets, to volunteer in soup kitchens or for special community events, or to participate in work days where we cleaned up non-profit facilities. We didn’t volunteer because it was politically correct or to look good, we did it because there was a need and we were capable of helping resolve that need.

I’ve gone on mission trips, worked in my community and others, signed petitions, and contributed to walks, charities and causes not because it looks good on my resume or I’m “doing my good deed for the day,” but because I believe that my life is better because I’ve taken the time to care about people who are less fortunate than I am. Yes, my actions have helped the people in need, but truly they’re the people who have blessed me.

So this week I encourage you to make time to make a difference around the world.  Set up a schedule of charity donations throughout the year, help your neighbors in need, contribute to your community and choose to help others not only because you’ll feel good about it, but it will have far-reaching benefits beyond your simple actions and contributions.