Archive for July, 2009

Desperately needed: a killer front-end to integrate all online comms channels

Monday, July 13th, 2009

I got into a neat discussion with one of the users I interviewed for the Listrak customer research project a few months ago. Her company does a lot of email marketing, but in addition they have a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. As a result, their communication channels have multiplied, and now they have to manage customer communications over several corporate (and customer) identities.

What’s true with companies is also true with us plain old people. I have messages coming from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blip.fm, Friendfeed, Plaxo, Skype, Meetup, Ning (4 groups) and, oh yes, email (4 accounts). If I want to respond, I by and large need to use whichever app the message came in on. This means a dozen separate communications channels… and no way to integrate my dialogues with one friend over all these channels.

So, a user’s plea. Who can create a unified client that can integrate these channels into one stream, where the same person’s email, Facebook messages, Tweets, etc., are collected together, where I can respond and the app can translate the message into whichever protocol is needed? [Some candidates I can think of: EmailcenterPro, CoTweet, TweetDeck - each of these companies is solving a part of this problem.]

(Just imagine how valuable that would be to a company trying to converse with its customers, such as the Listrak user I talked to?)

“Customer Insight From The Ground Up” webinar now archived

Friday, July 10th, 2009

If you regret missing the webinar I did last week, “Customer Insight From The Ground Up” (and I know you do), you’ll be happy to know it’s been archived. The webinar covers the customer story-gathering and sensemaking approaches discussed frequently on this blog. You can listen to the webinar, as well as download slides & notes, from Listrak’s site here.

Customers are talking: “Why Customers Really Buy”

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Why Customers Really Buy: Uncovering the Emotional Triggers That Drive Sales” by Linda Goodman & Michelle Helin is a worthy addition to the literature on customer research. It describes a method of learning about customers by conducting in-depth interviews aimed at identifying “emotional triggers” that influence how and why customers buy products and select certain suppliers over others.

These emotional triggers bear a resemblance to the “deep metaphors” described in Zaltman & Zaltman’s “Marketing Metaphoria” but the means of getting to them is much more akin to the story-gathering and sensemaking methods we’ve discussed in this blog than in the collage-making at the center of the Zaltmans’ approach.

The authors’ description of the complexity and emotion of the sales process, and how customers can reveal their true feelings within open-ended interviews, are excellent. I’ve done projects like this and my approach has a lot in common with Goodman and Helin’s. They neatly summarize the difficulty with the most-prevalent customer research method–the survey:

Frequently, surveys include a list of choices that are ranked in order of priority or in order of preference. For example, customers may be asked to rank the importance of a number of considerations impacting the shopping experience. The list might include cleanliness, helpful sales staff, good lighting, neatly displayed merchandise, competitive prices, good selection and so forth.

Although the ranking would accurately report how customers rated the choices they were given, there’s still one little problem. Their actual “hot button” might never have been on the list.

There are also many case studies that add richness and depth to the ideas. The volume and variety of case studies is the best part of the book.

I wished Goodman and Helin talked more about the sensemaking process – the method of distilling insight from the interviews. In my experience this is the “secret sauce” of the entire approach and not a straightforward process. It would have been valuable for the authors to describe how they got from the customer interviews to the “emotional triggers” that were central to each of their projects.

Finally, I would have loved for the book to cite external sources that inspired their thinking. It’s possible that they came up with this approach completely alone, but it’s more likely that their ideas stand “on the shoulders of giants“–it would be a significant benefit to their readers if Goodman and Helin could, in a future edition or on their website, include notes and a bibliography.

(Thanks to Tom Gibson for pointing out the book to me.)

Related posts:
The weird, alchemical process of distilling insight from stories
“Marketing Metaphoria”: the deep insights behind the products we buy

The many ways a deal can go sideways

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

A friend of mine, whose company does a lot of work for state governments, just had an invoice short-paid by over $50,000. The money earmarked for his services simply wasn’t there anymore.

Even a contract (and work done as part of that contract) is no guarantee of cash in the door. And when you’re selling, things are even less predictable.

Let’s assume for a moment that you are trying to sell a deal that has a strong value basis, where your solution is a great fit for the need, a budget has been defined, your references are perfectly aligned and you have a good base of support at the client for your solution.

Let’s finally assume that… there is no competitor involved in the deal.

Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, sorry to bum you out, but even in this fantastic example there are still many ways the deal can fail to happen, and you need to be aware of them.

1. The budget disappears. Monies allocated at the beginning of the year can be yanked away in an instant.

2. Priorities shift. Every company has more it wants to do than it has capital or human resource to take on. If your project gets deprioritized, your sure win evaporates.

3. The last signature on the approval doesn’t happen.
While it’s great to call high, it’s not always possible, especially in big organizations. And companies are requiring higher and higher executive signoff on contracts. Meaning your project is hostage to the priorities, even moods, of an executive you may have never met.

4. Merger/restructuring.
This effect is a combination of the above three. I’ve never seen a merger that helped a deal happen in the short run.

You knew all these already. But it’s worth reminding yourself of the many ways a deal can go sideways. Otherwise, in times like these, when all these situations occur with great frequency, the “uncontrollable” losses will demoralize you and prevent you from doing what you need to do to combat them–getting more leads.

[I'm sure I'm missing some important situations in the list above. If you have more to add, please put them in the comments.]

Related post:
Selling today: casting a wide net and “going for the ‘no’”

The story-based review: a better way to evaluate the results of a sales meeting

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Years ago, my company hosted an important prospect in our US offices. The prospect was from Hong Kong, and in the balance was a deal worth US$5 million. Some weeks later, while we were onsite in Hong Kong for the final evaluation, we learned we had so mishandled the US meeting that it was a miracle we were still in the running. (In an even more miraculous occurrence, we actually won the deal, but that’s another story.)

We made two crucial mistakes with the meeting. First, we were ignorant of what was needed to make a meeting with a foreign company successful. Second, and most important, we didn’t seek feedback from the client after the meeting–so weeks passed before we even knew we had offended the prospect.

Here’s a better way to manage this. A couple of days after an important meeting, go back and ask the prospect to share stories about the meeting. Here are some example questions:

“Did anything about the meeting take you by surprise? What happened?”

“What were your expectations for the meeting, and how they differ from the way the meeting actually happened?”

“What story would you tell from the meeting if you wanted to recommend this firm to a friend?” and the opposite, “What story would you tell if you didn’t want your friend to work with this firm?”

Asking these questions soon after a meeting can help ground your team as to their real position in a deal. Many clients are delighted even to be asked for their feedback. if you do this regularly, the collection of stories will reveal patterns that are undermining your efforts in engagement after engagement (as well as point out your distinctive strengths). Asking for stories allows prospects to share richer and more candid feedback than simply asking for opinions. (”How’d the meeting go?” “Fine.”) Stories are more nuanced–and your team can easily find patterns and share lessons.

Related post:
Opening up your company for customer dialogue

The Wages of Fear

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

This crisis is more difficult than anything I’ve faced professionally in my entire life. It makes me realize how fortunate I was for my first 20 work years–how protected and insulated from the business cycle I was.

As I began my work career in 1984 for GTE, I envisioned, like the preceding generation, that I would eventually retire from that company. “You are the future leaders of GTE,” managers told the group of new hires into their management-training program, and I believed it. I even felt that someday I could be CEO of GTE.

Six years later, I left, entranced by the possibility of a startup. I loved the small team size, the direct connection between my performance and the company’s results. We had all-employee meetings standing up in the lab.

Less than two years later, it was apparent that the dream of riches wasn’t to be (a good lesson; I didn’t realize then how rarely startup dreams convert into riches).

Next step was EDS, a gigantic company, though I was in a remote outpost (Boston) which made working for a mammoth corporation much more palatable. The work concerned cellular telephony. (At the time, handsets were called “bricks,” and were nearly as heavy. They cost $1000.) The industry grew so quickly that there was plenty of new business for all comers. I was in marketing now, product management, where I developed my love for launching new products. I made lots of mistakes there, and I learned a ton, eventually developing a specialty helping salespeople structure, price and communicate complex outsourcing deals.

But in 1997 EDS started to retrench in telecom, and I had spent enough time in Boston. I moved to Atlanta, had a brief cup of coffee with Alltel (that’s another story) which I will cherish forever because I met my wife there, and was recruited to join LHS, an IPO wonder story.

LHS was a crazy place, full of conflicts, overcommitted, with everyone checking the stock price on Yahoo five times a day. I loved it. I managed alliances with Airtouch, Logica and others. I helped close some important deals and learned about the give and take required to create and sustain a successful alliance–as well as lots of lessons about what not to do.

Then LHS was sold, and the buyer offered me a lame marketing position. Not for me. My wife and I were looking to move north, closer to relatives, when a job opening came up at a telecom billing provider near Harrisburg, PA. It was a chance to report to a CEO, be a part owner of a company, and get pretty close to the top (as close, I learned, as I wanted to get).

Of course, this was in 2000. The tech bubble had burst, and all the telecom growth projections that had proven conservative in prior years were insanely optimistic now. We struggled to grow (not fun for the VP of Sales & Marketing), but worked hard to keep our most important customers and bring on important new ones.

But like lots of companies you read about now, we were overleveraged. The loans came due, and we couldn’t refinance. We were sold, and there wasn’t a great fit between me and the new owners.

I went out on my own, which was difficult, then as I started to get a foothold, all this shit happened in the summer of 2008, which we’re still living with.

So here we are. I wouldn’t want to go back. I love what I do now. But I do miss how easy it was in the old days. I can’t decide if this is an anomalous situation or whether 1984-2000 was the anomaly. Perhaps they both are.

I started this post to make a point, but I honestly can’t remember it now. I’d rather teach and share than vent or complain. We’ll make it through this era, and someday we’ll look back on this as the greatest life lesson we ever learned. But at the moment I’m ready for the lesson to end.

Please consider sharing your feelings in the comments.

N.B.: Each company I mention in this post has been merged out of independent existence. One, LHS, re-emerged as a standalone company.

(”The Wages of Fear” is a 1953 French movie.)