Did it Ping or Did it Pong? The Art of Intelligent Customer Service.

Sorry for the telephone ping pong” said the receptionist.

But ping pong implies that the calls went both ways. This only pinged or it ponged, you did not return my four calls” said a very fed up, frustrated me.

Shocked, the receptionist somewhat huffily replied: “But what do you expect me to do when I don’t get an answer?”

“Manage, my expectations” I rallied, “Manage my expectations”

Exit the scene: one defensive receptionist thinking that customers just ask too much and one customer thinking of taking her not insubstantial business elsewhere.

The Devil, so I am told, is in the detail. Good customer service isn’t just about providing great services and products, but its about dealing with problems in an intelligent way. Even if the problem is an inability to deal with the customer’s request. As my twenty something son would say: “You know this”. So why do so many businesses fail to deliver? It doesn’t take much to get it right. A little intelligence, a little communication , a soupcon of understanding of our clients’ situation. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

There’s a knife-edge between getting it wrong and getting it right, but intelligent customer service requires a sensitive approach to customers and the ability to admit that either you haven’t got all the answers or that the request is just too damn difficult. We all respect that. We don’t respect non-communication and flannel!!!

Are we talking too much?

As Twitter comes under scrutiny for its position and action, or lack thereof, on Twitter ‘hate crimes’ (trolling and nasty, racist or  aggressive Tweets to either celebrities or ordinary people), I am wondering – are we talking too much?

Social media has been heralded as the greatest evolution in communication. We now have instantaneous access to people and their views on anything from revolutionary action in the Arab Spring to whether the latest deodorant is really doing its stuff. And of course, it is great to observe instantaneous thoughts and actions. However, human communication has taken thousands and thousands of years to evolve and generally, we have learnt to be careful about what we say out aloud.

Great communication is natural, but considered. Generally, we don’t tend to tell people that we dislike how they look, what we really think of their partners or whether we like the coffee they drink. We try not to bore them with how our kids are doing at school, the details of the recent flu or the latest shenanigans in the office. (Not if we want to talk to them again, at any rate). So it follows, that companies and organisations should keep communications natural, flowing, relevant and above all, interesting.

I have seen so many businesses and organisations keen to have a social media presence. They start Tweeting or Facebook messaging, without thinking what their core messages should be. Poor performers don’t tend to think about engaging their target audience or about starting conversations with relevant and interesting people in a meaningful way. So many messages are boring, lack charm, are way off brand message and are far too sales orientated.

Understanding how audiences think and how they relate to brands in a modern age is really important, as is a natural chatty style and relevant content. The latter tends to be what people want to hear, which unfortunately, isn’t always the same as what many companies tend to say!

Having witnessed so many poor social media performers, there are certainly a number of masters out there. They are inspirational and manage to capture and retain our attention over a prolonged period of time. So, just before you hit the send button next time you’re chatting to your target audience, think twice, who do you want to talk to and how do you want to converse. Make sure that your social media presence is really a two way thing.

Lessons from a car salesman – The lost art of selling

I’m currently in the market for a new car. I’ve decided what I want and I’m quite far along the decision making process. I don’t want to buy brand new, but I do want to buy from a reputable dealer and I want a car with a few thousand miles on the clock.

Simple you would think. But, I have found that good sales technique is sadly lacking.

Dealership no 1 - is the dealer very close by. I’ve bought two cars from them in the past, but I am put off because they failed to ring me back when I was looking to purchase my last car, thus missing out on a sale. I really wanted to buy a little car from them as the second family car, one which the kids could use, but I think they’d written me off as a time waster. (I’d previously looked for a car for my mother before deciding against the idea). So reluctantly on that occasion, I decided against my first choice and bought a Ford instead. This time though, I did look at them again, but they are not my preferred choice of dealer.

Dealership no 2 – the salesman looked so unimpressed to be talking to riff raff such as us, that we were quite disheartened. Not a single smile of welcome from the whole dealership. We returned a week later to test drive a car, but the sales man kept us waiting for 15 minutes. (I wouldn’t dream of handling my clients like this and I don’t think for one moment that they would put up with it!)

Dealership no 3 – had a lovely young man, only 11 days in the job, as our salesman. He was keen, enthusiastic and charming. He even persuaded us to put down a deposit on a not to be missed opportunity, which, when it materialised, was the old model of the car. A genuine mistake, we think, but we obviously got our money back.  A senior colleague suggested a good deal on a brand new car, but failed to ring us back with any figures…. So, sadly no deal!

Dealership no 4 – was based quite a long way from home. I’d done my internet searching and knew that this dealership had the model of the car I wanted in stock. No sooner had I rang to enquire if the car could be brought to a dealership only 45 minutes from me, (only?) than the young car salesman offered to bring the car directly to my house. The joy! No hassle for me and the salesmen recognised that I obviously was a hot sales lead. I was very impressed with his salesmanship and product knowledge.

Guess which car dealership we’d be most likely to buy from? Compare and contrast this too, with a speedy email written to a lady I know who runs a leasing company. I sent her an email enquiring about the option of leasing and she replied straight away (on a Saturday too). So, the question now is Dealership no 4 or Leasing….   Easy to see how the other dealerships lost out though, wasn’t it?

Now cars don’t come cheap. It’s a highly considered purchase and you would think that in this current economy, that salesmen would be only too keen to try and offer a good sales experience and service, particularly for high value items. Apparently not. Only in the last dealership, did the salesman make any real attempt to go out of his way to sell me a car. It’s a great lesson and reminder to us all, please don’t take your potential customers for granted. Treat them with respect, go out of your way to offer a good service and hopefully, you’re sales figures will continue to grow as will your customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Don’t use that tone of voice with me, son!

tone of voice

I can just hear it, a lippy teenager giving an elder a correct reply, just said in too-smart a tone of voice. However, having the right tone of voice should not just be a distant memory of how we as rebellious youngsters used to get back at teachers, parents or other figures of authority, its very relevant in the business world.

We read so much about content in this age of digital communication, but delivering the content with the right tone of voice is just as important. Of course, this is just as true of traditional forms of promotion such as advertising, PR, brochures and even pack design as it is of social media and web.

That there is more than one way to say things is easily seen if you think about newspapers, a tabloid headline sounds significantly different compared to a broadsheet’s. The former being more familiar and to the point, the latter more formal and hopefully more eloquent!

Certain industries and sectors tend to traditionally verge on formal, conservative tones of voices. Many financial institutions forget that they are dealing with people and we receive stuffy, pompous communications. The same can be said of many public sector messages. New entrants to the market are often successful because their whole strategy is focused on communicating the same messages in a more user friendly way. Think of how dry insurance advertising used to be, compared with the more engaging, wittier approach used in the recent campaigns of Compare the Market, Go Compare and Sheila’s Wheels.

I often see highly erudite people, who are very charming and great company, falter when it comes to social media. Their Tweets and Facebook messages fail to engage, because their tone of voice is too professional, too dry and full of professional jargon; whereas, a chattier, informal tone would have yielded much more success. The key is to engage and inform through the tone of voice you might use if talking naturally to a person from a given segment.

So what are the rules?

  1. Understand your target audience, making sure that you are using the right tone of voice for each segment.
  2. If you are dealing with a complex target audience, you might need to consider several different tones of voice and utilise a segmented approach to communications. Just as we might modulate our tone if talking to children, spouses or colleagues, we might wish to adopt a different approach for the same message if dealing with different countries or sectors. What might be ‘cool’ in Australia, might be ‘too hot’ in China or UAE.
  3. Communications whether formal or informal, should always be clear and coherent.
  4. A good message, delivered through whatever medium, should sound natural and be relevant and be medium appropriate too.
  5. Avoid long stuffy, communiques.
  6. Just because everybody else in an industry sector communicates in a certain way, doesn’t mean that they have got it right!
  7. If possible test your style through research or a trial. What response are you getting.
  8. Finally, the tone of voice should always be brand appropriate too.

Listening – The Secret of Real Engagement

The marketing industry’s buzzword in recent years has been engagement. Forget all the old ways, we are told, engagement is where it’s at. I couldn’t agree more, getting your target audience interested enough to interact with your brand is essential to success. But I think successful marketing goes deeper than this. Before we get to engagement we need to understand not only the dynamics of the marketplace, but the way our customers and prospects think and behave.

It has long been The Marketing Forge’s belief that getting into the mindset of a given customer base is really important. What is important to companies providing goods and services, might not be what motivates customers. It might seem logical that a target audience might be motivated by one key factor such as say, service or reliability. It is tempting to take such logic as a given. However, the target audience might be searching for immediacy, or quality, or sustainability, or expertise or any other number of factors.

Successful marketing communication must identify not only what these factors are but we must be able to priortise key issues from the consumer’s perspective. (This is true whether dealing directly with consumers or if working in a specialist B2B market). Sure, social media is one way to help identify such factors, but real understanding comes from original research, when consumers are given a chance to articulate their decision making criteria and behaviours. For those of you who have never experienced it, there is nothing so enlightening as listening to respondents in a qualitative research setting discussing their purchase behaviour and decision making criteria. Who are the decision makers? Who are the influencers? How do their perspectives differ? How is your brand viewed in relation to competitors? Which brand is associated with the attribute that’s being searched for?

So, before you assume that your marketing is great because your use of social media is prolific, make sure that you understand the psychology of your customer base. Listening is the route to success.thinking

5 Reasons Why You Need A Clear, Corporate Vision

All companies should have a corporate vision, whether a one man band or a large multinational. Sadly, not all companies do, although you can usually tell those that don’t. They tend to be not quite as successful or slick as those companies who have taken time to create and share their vision. Those companies without one might, if they are lucky, be successful in spite of themselves – but only temporarily so. Companies sustaining growth and success, tend to have clarity about business direction. They tend to better understand the dynamics of their marketplace and their position within it.

Lacking in more ways than one, companies without vision are vulnerable. They tend to be slow to react to changes in the market place and in today’s challenging times, who can afford to be like that? If an innovation occurs, a recession lingers or a competitor or new entrant is biting at their heals, then it can be very hard to retain or claw back market position.

Those companies who have not thought clearly about their direction aren’t really fit for purpose. Whereas those with an up to date vision, one which has perhaps organically evolved from the original, tend to be more successful: leaner, fitter and more attuned to the market in which they operate.

Keeping a vision up to date is really important. It’s not really good enough to keep wheeling out an old tired vision that had relevance when the company was first established, many moons ago. The trouble is many may start with one, but somewhere along the line they forget what it was that first ignited the entrepreneurial flame.
Oh, everybody can spout the company mission statement, but it loses relevance as market forces change.

So what are the five key facts that you need to know about vision?

No 1 – Having a corporate vision is empowering and increases the chances of business success. This sets the parameters for the company’s business operations and its growth and development.

No 2 – Vision enables staff to react to commercial opportunities and to innovate where appropriate. It ensures relevance in different market places and gives staff permission to develop and explore.

No 3 - Vision is not a static mission statement, but a statement of intent that, over time, organically adjusts to the way a target audience evolves. The essence of the vision may remain the same and its very definition should not constrict but enable.

No 4 – Great vision tends to lead to a stronger brand definition. Customers tend to have a clearer understanding of the brand, a healthier interaction with it and greater brand loyalty.

No 5 – All business stakeholders should be clear about a company vision. It should not be something dreamed up by senior management and kept within a board room. Ideally, vision should be created by staff, clients and stakeholders. Everybody should get where the company is coming from and indeed, going to!

The time is right to define or revisit your corporate vision. Make sure that it is appropriate for the present and the future and that it has relevance to your company, your target audience and to your staff.


The Davids and Goliaths of Retailing

Recent news from retailers has been dire. Christmas and Sales figures have disappointed and following the demise of brands such as Currys, we have witnessed the death throes of major retailers such as HMV and Jessops, although there are plans to rescue some element of these two once loved brands.

So what’s gone wrong? Yes there is a recession (double-dipped, triple-dipped, infinity-dipped as far as we know); economies around the world are struggling and yes, consumers (and businesses) are thinking twice before purchasing. But why do internet outlets fair better? And why, despite the increasing number of boarded up shops around the country, are independents surviving whilst major brands fail?

I suggest that in the past two decades of increasing retail concentration and global super brands, that somewhere along the line, major retailers have lost the plot!  In their drive for increased market share and reduced costs, many retailers have failed to keep in touch with what their customers want. Often, this ingredient is simple. Consumers want relevant products, good value (at any price point) and more often as not, they want good reliable service. Providing this, it seems, is becoming beyond the reach of many retailers.

I’ve been in Jessops a couple of times over the past years and have had to wait for quite a long time for the admittedly knowledgeable, sales assistants attention. 45 minutes later, I want to purchase the item of my choice and find there is no stock. On other occassions, I’ve ordered in the desired item to find that on collecting said item the shop has given it to someone else. I am not surprised they’ve gone bust, the writing was on the wall.

Similarly, the much loved and once iconic HMV failed to keep in touch with its customers. Failed to extrapolate its product range and develop its customer experience.

On the other hand, small independents have had to survive by being customer focused and tuned in to customer needs. It would seem that the Goliaths still have something to learn from the Davids of the retail world.



The Grown Up Brand – The Real Meaning of Brand Value

The Grown Up Brand – The Real Meaning of Brand Value

In the old days a brand was as big as the vision of its management team. Brands could boldly go where they wanted and marketers could tightly control how a particular brand was seen. In some cases, a brand was distinctly hampered by both a lack of corporate vision and a failure to appreciate the feelings of the marketplace.

However, things have changed in our world. Information is instantaneously available, delivered through the highly effective medium of social media. We can sympathise with the Japanese victims of a Tsunami, get behind those fighting for greater freedoms in The Arab Spring and globally engage in The Olympics like never before.

People have greater empathy with others across the world and our personal vision and experience is sharper than ever before. The Grown Up Brand has to take account of all of these changes. It is no longer isolated and controlled only by a team of managers, but part of the real world, in which we live, tightly connected to the pulse of its target audience and to global changes too. The Grown Up Brand has to take not only responsibility for the here and now, but be mindful of the future and of the brand footprint on the planet.

A client with whom we are working on a new project personified this recently. As we were working on brand creation, he decided that it was only right and proper that this new brand expand its raison d’etre from an online art shop, to encompass the support of young artistic talent worldwide. We didn’t force this value on him, but he felt that as an entrepreneur, it was beholden on him and the brand he was creating to be socially supportive to struggling youngsters. Well done him! Needless to say, it is a pleasure to work with someone who appreciates the power of The Grown Up Brand.

From medical marketing to consumer goods, brands that will survive will need to be globally aware and responsible, even when working in local markets.