Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Marketing Lessons from the General Store

The Fussy Marketer Gets Four Free Reminders of Marketing Fundamentals – along with Her Morning Coffee

Although I work with clients all over the world, I’ve been fortunate in that I can live anywhere. I choose to live north of Boston, in a small town on the edge of the Western White Mountains.

Practical lessons in great marketing often come from the simplest and most unlikely of places – like my local general store. In their own way, the store’s owners understand marketing fundamentals better than many Fortune 500 companies.

Know Your Customer: The store gets a lot of its business from workers at the local saw mill. When the mill’s business started to pick up, it went back to running two full shifts a day. And that means more workers, who are hungry on a rolling schedule. The store added a small deli and meat counter, where people can buy hot and cold take-out items for their breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as meat and other items to take home. The coffee pot never runs out, and the coffee is fresh all day (unlike many general stores, if you have spent much time in Vermont). To help staff the deli, the store hired away a much-loved cook from another general store.

Business is booming. The store paid attention to changing customer demographics – hungry workers coming back into town, who have money and will pay a premium for choice and convenience. And the store responded quickly.

The lesson: Keep current with your customer. Formal research is great, but so is anecdotal information. Talk to your customers. Ask them what’s happening in their lives. The Internet also offers some great, inexpensive ways to take the pulse of prospects and customers. Look at social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, or business rating sites such as OpenTable and TripAdvisor.

Understand Your Competition: Because they own the only place to shop within a five-mile radius – and the last stop before the 15-mile drive to the Vermont border and the interstate – the store's owners could be tempted to think that they have a monopoly. But they know that they have competition and respond accordingly. Customers always have a choice, and they will take it if motivated strongly enough.

For example, the closest competitor is the general store in the next town, which is larger and carries more items. But my local store is now getting many people who drive the 10-mile roundtrip to shop or even to get morning coffee.

How? The rival store has poor customer service. In particular, there is one clerk, a GenXer who apparently sees his job as a personal platform for his stand-up comedy skills. He thinks it’s funny to ask - loudly - a burly 55-year-old logger “Do you really need those potato chips with all that beer?” This store’s obliviousness to its poor customer service handed our local store a big marketing opportunity. Our local store staffs with middle-aged women, who are polite, efficient and respectful. They are often contemporaries of the loggers’ wives, and they know the latest news about the school, the local weather and so on.

Our local store also competes against a supermarket and a big-box store 12 miles away. To get some of that business, it has expanded to carry more items, including meat and some fresh produce. It also carries items such as farm-fresh eggs and hydroponic tomatoes from my neighbors – things you can’t get at the supermarket and big-box store.

The lesson: Give your customers fewer reasons to go elsewhere. Shop your competitors, stay on top of their strategies, and exploit their weaknesses. Small, thoughtful changes can often communicate volumes to customers.

Make it Easy to do Business with You: Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet: nothing keeps my local general store from opening. The owners understand that the store is an important part of its regular customers’ daily lives. I have often seen the owner herself out on her own tractor clearing snow in the parking lot, if no one else is available. She knows that the parking lot is the front door for the store, and that a messily cleared lot will turn people away. Moreover, it will damage the store’s reputation for reliability.

By comparison, I often see web sites that have the equivalent of an un-cleared parking lot: obtuse language or awkward pieces of navigation. This tells me that the marketing people don’t respect their customers’ time. The marketers may have delegated the design to a web site designer who doesn’t understand the marketing goals. Or to a webmaster who lacks an “owner’s” mentality and views the web site as his own personal artistic playground. But that’s no excuse.

The lesson: Stay on top of your customer experience. “Shop” your own store or your web site personally to see what customers are experiencing – and do it frequently. Don’t rely solely on mystery shoppers or your marketing automation software. Get out there yourself once in a while.

Deliver Value Beyond Your Product or Service: Make your business a destination for people, not just a place to buy things. My local general store innately understands this, even though it has no marketing program or budget per se.

The store has a comfortable bench on the front porch, where people can sit as long as they want (as long as they don’t drink or swear). There are picnic tables for use in sunny weather. There is a clean public restroom (don’t laugh – many general stores don’t have public restrooms or have filthy public restrooms). There’s a nook inside the front door where the kids can stay warm in the winter while waiting for the school bus, or where people can congregate to sip their coffees.

There’s a bulletin board where people can post ads, business cards, or services. There’s a Halloween tradition where kids in costume come by and have their pictures taken for a photo gallery. And, if you’re looking for a good deal on firewood or a contractor to work on your house, the parking lot is the best place to inquire.

These are a lot of small things, but they add up to a big message that says: “Spend more time here.” More time translates into more money spent in the store.

The lesson: Look for creative ways to weave your business location into people’s daily lives. Make your business indispensable to your customers. Do things that encourage them to make it a destination site for their own purposes.

These four lessons are basic, but important for large and small businesses alike. Small, inexpensive changes and ideas can often pay big dividends. The most important investment is your thoughtfulness.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When No-Boundaries Marketing is a Bad Thing

The Internet has redefined customer relationships, but not always in a good way.

The Internet has broken down many of the barriers between businesses and their customers.

Because of the Internet, it’s much easier to find, reach, and target the people most likely to buy your product – even if you don’t have a huge marketing budget. Because of the Internet, businesses can think creatively about expanding the boundaries of their businesses – opening them up to make them more accessible to customers.

However, as the technical boundaries between businesses and their customers have changed, so have the behavioral boundaries – and not always in a good way.

Perhaps emboldened with more-direct, conversational access to customers, some businesses seem to have forgotten who they are talking to. The result is marketing behavior that throws up new walls between the business and its customers.

Here are three examples:

The Buddy: The Buddy Marketer talks to prospects and customers as if they were his friends from the office or the bar. He calls you by your first name on the first call or contact. He sprinkles his marketing copy with intrusive, self-absorbed patter. He assumes a level of familiarity and informality that he hasn’t earned. He often only has one name, usually something like “Chad” or “Justin” or “Nicki.” The Buddy appears more concerned with being “cool” than solving your problem and earning your trust. I don’t know about you, but even if the product offer is exceptional, I’m hesitant to buy from this marketer because of his cavalier attitude. I figure, if he’s this bad and un-businesslike before he gets my money, he’ll devolve into a total slob after he gets my money.

The Buddy Marketer isn’t strictly an online phenomenon, nor is he damaging only in business-to-business marketing.

Here’s a real-life business-to-consumer marketing example. A financial advisor at a multi-billion-dollar investment firm – someone covering for my regular advisor – called to apprise me that a corporate bond had matured. “Good thing that p___ of s____ matured, eh?” he chortled. Did he forget that his company sold me the p___ of s____ in the first place? But in his attempt to appear cool and to Buddy me, he irrevocably damaged his company’s reputation. (And yes, I moved my investment account.)

And then there’s today’s universal greeting for restaurant patrons: “How are you guys doing today?” For many consumers, a big part of the experience of dining out is being served and being catered to, by someone who knows how to do it – certainly not a Buddy.

The Autocrat: The Autocrat is presumptive. He tells you what to do, with stern words usually punctuated by today’s most-overused punctuation mark, the exclamation point. “Call me at your earliest convenience!” “Get back to me as soon as you get this email!” His emails, phone calls and direct-response letters smack of self-absorption (me, me, me) and disrespect for my time. Why would I ever give this person any of my business? [Added 3/2/2010] Case in point: I received a voicemail today marked "urgent." It was from my Staples "account manager," who was "just checking in."

And then there’s the top technology publisher whose high-powered and deep-lunged telemarketers sign you up for tomorrow’s webinar before you can get a word in edgewise. I am sure that this technique helps them “stuff” the seminar with prospects for the advertisers, but how effective can this be if many prospects have no interest and don’t show up? I made the mistake of giving them my email address – now they are controlling my time. Not good.

The Goofball: The Goofball tries to amuse and defuse by acting like a child. “Oops!” in the header of an email, or as an explanation for a 404 error on a web-site page, isn’t cute – it’s annoying. It undermines my confidence in your company or your brand. Incompetence and errors in business aren’t laughing matters to most customers. A simple “we’re sorry” is more reassuring.

At the root of all three of these problems is lack of empathy for the customer – and a lack of appreciation for what makes a good customer relationship: honesty, integrity and trust.

Great marketers keep the customer in their minds during every interaction and transaction. They define how they want to treat customers, and weave it into the marketing of their products – from advertising and social media, to how employees behave on the phone or in the store.

Creating detailed buyer personas – or even tacking a photo of your best customer to your computer monitor – can be powerful, evocative reminders.

The Internet makes it easier and more inexpensive than ever to understand the changing marketing boundaries that customers appreciate. Customer satisfaction surveys, informal temperature-taking on social media, or just plain talking to customers are all within your reach. Use them.