Getting the Most Out of Your Software

As we all progress further into the wonderful world of technology, more and more of our daily tasks are gravitating towards automation.  Whether it’s cars that can parallel park themselves (and much better than I could hope to, might I add) or garage doors that can be closed from another continent, technology can make our lives easier in seemingly endless ways and, to me, it seems counterintuitive for businesses, big or small, to resist the inevitable shift towards the technology-friendly way of the future.

Several of the software packages I support are geared towards helping companies in the service industry garner additional business opportunities and make existing business practices more efficient.  From my perspective as a software support representative, the companies having the most success are the ones who squeeze all the benefit they can from all of their software.

During my time working with companies in the service industry, I’ve learned that so much of what you get out of your software depends entirely on the effort you put into it and so, I present you with my personal list of things you should be doing to get the maximum bang for your buck. After all, if you’re shelling out good money for software licenses each month, don’t you want it to work as well for you as it possibly can?

  • DO take advantage of available training sessions.  SWRemote, for example, offers an open training session each week, completely free of charge. QuantumCMS offers free user groups, tutorials, and a community forum to all clients, as well. Not only does the training benefit new users, but it can also help users who have previous experience with the software by highlighting new tricks, tools, or shortcuts they may not know about.
  • DO keep an open mind when learning new software.  It’s easy to get frustrated and take an “the old way was better” approach but it’s important to judge if the old way was really the most efficient using facts, not just an emotional, “gut” response, and to understand that the benefits of a new systems can often far outweigh any learning curve that may exist.  On the other hand, staying open-minded will also help you gauge the true usefulness of the new software once you’ve become accustomed to it.
  • DO utilize your support team.  If frustrating issues arise during your use of your new software, you can be assured that the support team would like to hear about them. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. I’ve received comments along the lines of, “I feel bad bothering you with this issue” but that’s exactly what I’m here for – helping users is the sole reason my position exists!
  • DO discuss the use of the product with other users (colleagues or others in your industry).  They’re the ones putting the product to the test in real-world situations so they might be able to offer helpful advice or tips that can help your business thrive.
  • DO make feature requests or offer improvement suggestions on a regular basis.  Making a request is one of the only ways to ensure your software development team knows there’s a feature you’d like to see; for the software that I support, the vast majority of enhancement ideas come directly from our most vocal customers.  If there are changes you’d like to see, speak up!

The obvious goal of most technology is to make things easier. If a specific piece of software isn’t working for you, it’s in your best interests to figure out why but keep in mind that “easier” doesn’t always mean that you won’t have to make an effort to learn or change. Remember this and you’ll be sure to stay ahead of the curve and get more value from the things in your life that are designed to help!

Shankman in Buffalo – Part Two

In yesterday’s post, I covered the first two tenets of Peter Shankman’s recent presentation in Buffalo “The Next Revolution Will Happen in Your Pocket” or “Social media is providing your customers with what they want, when and how they want it. And that is great customer service.” Today, I’ll recap numbers three and four:

3) Be Brief and Learn How to Write Well!

Easily my favorite of Shankman’s points started out with a tidbit about the attention span of the average American today – a shockingly low 2.7 seconds. Coincidentally, the same amount of time it takes to read a headline… or 140 characters. And so, Shankman encouraged us to practice brevity in order to gain our prospects’ attention.

But the real take-away from Shankman’s third point was his belief that bad writing is destroying America. I couldn’t agree more, Peter.

Shankman believes that the art of writing well is all but lost today and that businesses need to make sure that everyone in the organization is committed to improving their writing. Competition abounds and it’s difficult enough to set our companies apart; Shankman espouses the idea that great writing is hugely impactful and helps people see you as knowledgable and trustworthy. I think he’s right on target.

4) Stay “Top of Mind”

Shankman’s last tip was to make sure you’re the first option people think of when they think about what you do.

He told a great story about when Barry Diller joined Paramount Pictures as CEO in the 70s. The studio was the least successful in Hollywood but Diller was committed to turning the tide. According to Shankman, Diller went in to work every morning, pulled out his rolodex, randomly selected a few cards, and called those people just to check in. Provided you were someone of reasonable “standing” in show business, you could expect a phone call from Paramount’s CEO a couple of times a year.

So, when you had a new script you wanted read or a hot young actor you wanted to audition for a role, who would you turn to? Shankman points out that you could either hope and pray that someone at another studio would talk to you or you could simply return Barry’s call. Because Diller frequently reached out to his contacts with no motive other than to say “hi” and no sales agenda in his back pocket, he stayed top-of-mind for many in the industry and helped turn his studio around.

Shankman wants us to reach out to our customers, not just with attempts to make sales and announce new products or services, but simply to stay engaged. And he reminds us to really listen to what our customers are saying when we do check in with them.

You can check out Peter Shankman’s site and blog for more of his unique perspective on social media, marketing and PR, and customer service.

Shankman in Buffalo – His Basic Tenets for Great Customer Service

Last Thursday, the Advertising Club of Buffalo hosted a night with marketing and PR guru Peter Shankman. Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out and The Geek Factory, a boutique marketing strategy firm in NYC, is also an author, keynote speaker, and consultant to both NASA and the Pentagon. Needless to say, he knows his stuff and is pretty well-respected in the marketing world; I certainly feel lucky that I got the chance to hear him speak.

Shankman’s speech was little bit rambling and more than a little bit funny. There were times the laughter in the room was so loud, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. There were also times I wondered “where’s he going with this?” But, at the end of the presentation, I knew exactly what his point was and I felt excited and empowered to bring the takeaways back here to Algonquin and put them into practice.

Shankman’s main point was a simple one: in the face of exploding social media options and instantaneous news outlets the most important thing a company can do to stay in business is provide good customer service. And he provided four basic tenets for making sure you’re staying ahead of the game; I’ll cover the first two today and visit the others tomorrow.

1) Own Your Own Stuff

Shankman argued that branding and owning everything you do – whether good or bad – is vital to the success of your business. He pointed out that, thanks to technology and social media, any good thing you produce, product or idea, can easily be snatched up and redistributed to the masses in mere moments. If it doesn’t have your name all over it, someone else can take credit and your moment of glory, and maybe even your payday, could be lost forever.

The flip side of the “owning it” coin is, of course, that you have to own your mistakes as well. Sure, you might take some heat when you admit you’ve messed up, but Shankman pointed out there’s nothing Americans love more than building up the person we were tearing down yesterday. Heck, a comeback story is always the best kind of story, right?

2) Be Relevant

Shankman rightly reminded us that the direction of a company is controlled, not by its shareholders, management, or employees but by its customers.  If we’re not giving the people want they want, they’ll find another provider and leave us for them. We have to actively ask our customers what they want (and how they want it) and then we have to give it to them. It’s the only way to guarantee continued success.

He also encouraged us to “embrace the concept, not the brand” and to make sure we know where our audience is. Social media changes daily and what we assume is the next big thing might not carry any weight with the people actually buying our products. If I’m tweeting away but my prospects are checking out my competition on Facebook or Pinterest, what good is Twitter doing me?

So, what do you think of Shankman’s first two customer service tenets? How does your company ensure you’re providing a great experience for your customers and prospects?

New Crowdsourced Translation Option

This post originally appeared on my blog on Monday, May 7, 2012.

Ackuna.com logo.Many organizations don’t have the budget to guide them through a full translation / localization project, and some don’t even know where to start. In late 2009 I wrote about low/no-cost options from Google (machine translation) and Facebook (human-powered): Facebook and Google Want to Translate Your Site

A new option has emerged recently, covered in the Mashable piece Free Online Human Translation Service Takes On Babelfish, Google Translate. Unfortunately the writer of that piece doesn’t seem to understand the rigor that has to go into the translation process, so opportunities to provide a deeper analysis are missed in the article.

The service is called Ackuna, a free offering from a translation agency. Mashable’s suggestion that this service takes on the two translation giants on which most web users rely is silly — Google and Babelfish provide real-time machine translation. Ackuna does neither. Ackuna uses people to provide translation and does so at the pace of the volunteer translators.

I have already made a case against machine translation for anything other than casual or immediate needs. I almost always counsel my clients against its use, including the free Google translate widget you can drop into a web site. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s out of the scope of what I am addressing here.

Because Ackuna uses humans for translation, there are a number of questions that anyone looking to use Ackuna should ask. I detailed a set of questions in my 2009 post, but I’ll recap here (excluding the questions regarding Facebook Connect):

  1. Does Ackuna attract users who are fluent in the desired target language?
  2. Are these users willing to help translate your content for free?
  3. Is the translator a subject matter expert?
  4. Is the translator part of your target audience (including geographic and demographic breakdown)?
  5. Are you (or your client) comfortable letting unknown third parties translate your message?
  6. Is time budgeted to identify content for translation?
  7. Is time budgeted to have someone review the translation?

Ackuna’s FAQ page answers some of these questions, but doesn’t really explain how you qualify a translator. Ackuna’s translators are ranked in the site by a combination of user feedback and badges. Think upvotes and downvotes, with points determined by whether or not a translation (or a step) was accepted or not. Badges are awarded based on other translators marking submitted translations as accurate.

When it comes to deciding whether a translation is correct, assuming you don’t speak the target language, Ackuna doesn’t make any guarantees:

Use a translator’s reputation and badges as an indicator of their credibility, and take into account the comments and feedback left on each translation by other users. Use these factors and your best judgment before accepting the translation of your text.

If timing is a concern, remember that translators are providing translations because they want to. The only pay-off for these translators are badges and points. When you have no contract and no way to pressure someone for work, there is no guarantee it will ever be completed. In case you can’t wait and decide to walk away with what’s been translated so far, from the FAQ:

How do I download my completed translation?

[…] You will not be able to view a completed translation until every segment in your project has at least one translation submitted.

Not being able to secure translations can be a bit tricky, too, especially if some of your content is sensitive or personal. Given this clause in the terms & conditions, you may want to think hard about what you post for translation:

[Y]ou give the right to Ackuna and its affiliates to store your input indefinitely and reuse it at any time and for any purpose at our discretion.

Ackuna needs critical mass to produce good translations (or translators whose profiles don’t read like Hipster spam-bots). It needs many translators reviewing each others’ work to produce robust translations in timeframes that matter for businesses. Ackuna needs more users ranking one another’s work, otherwise it may be too hard to know if that Simplified Chinese translation really conveys your message properly — especially when the translators all have a similar rating. Ackuna’s bare-bones interface may not help it attract good Samaritans who just want to translate, since it’s not too easy to see all the projects in one pass (you have to page through them) and the search feature doesn’t work (yet, it claims).

Ackuna itself is not a bad idea. A translation workflow and process is a necessity in any translation project and Ackuna provides some of that. If you already have translators available to you, it might even make an effective no-cost solution to manage the workflow and get others to weigh in on the work.

What Ackuna could do is counsel its users on what makes good translation, maybe even cross-selling its parent company’s services. From there it should group translations into industries or subject matter so that those with experience in them can find content more relevant to their skills. In addition, finding a method to indicate a translator has a specific industry or region expertise and provide a ranking system for same can go a long way to helping a user understand if his or her translation is as good as it could be.

I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Ackuna (though I could be criticizing Mashable’s presentation of Ackuna). Providing a free service for something so rooted in the complexities of human language goes beyond what its technology can do. As I have commented before about free services, you get what you pay for.

Google Penguin, a Focus on Better Content

In late April Google activated new ranking algorithm changes intended to help rid the world of sites and blogs that link excessively, with no regard for quality; engage in keyword stuffing; an/or publish lots of meaningless content in order to get search engine traffic.

Whenever Google rolls out changes to their search/ranking algorithms, a lot of people take notice. And a lot of those people also freak out – I’ve heard stories of small businesses laying off workers in response to the Penguin changes – but I’m pretty happy about them (well, what I know about them so far), and here’s why:

They put the focus on quality content writing.

No more clogging your content with keywords, just for keyword clogging sake. Now SEO is about giving your site visitors relevant information in a clear, concise manner and using keywords when appropriate. Try to cram more in there than necessary and you might even get penalized or removed from the search results, altogether. Focusing on useful, helpful, and educational content that provides real value will keep visitors interested and coming back for more and now, maybe more than ever, it will also keep search engines happy. This is a beautiful thing.

As a writer in the digital world, I’ve spent years arguing for relevant, engaging content that really deserves to be published. At a former job, which I held from 2002-2008, my role went from that of copywriter, editor, and proofreader to something more akin to assembly line worker –  just another cog in the machine, pushing blog posts, articles and advertising copy down the pipe toward publication without any concern for quality or content. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about the work I was producing; but my bosses and our clients certainly did. More was better, cheap SEO was the way to get traffic, and, eventually, my entire department was eliminated as management shifted to a “quantity over quality” mindset that didn’t see the benefit in an editorial department.

With Google bringing us all back to well-written, truly informative content, vindication is mine! Gosh, I love being right.

What do you think of the Penguin updates? Is your company finding it difficult to adjust to the changes or has your focus always been giving the people what they want (quality!) rather than caving to the SEO gods (optimization at all costs!)?

Check out some related info:

  • Good Design Starts with Good Content – Our report on the balance between design and content details ways to ensure you’re providing site visitors with quality, readable content that’s supported by successful web design.
  • SEO Myths Debunked – We cover our favorite myths and point out how to spot peddlers of misinformation.
  • Does Google take manual action on webspam? – Answers from Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s webspam team.
  • Five Common Mistakes in SEO – With special attention paid to Mistake # 4, which starts around the 4:45 minute mark.
  • Google’s Webmaster Guidelines – Following Google’s design and content, technical, and quality guidelines will help the search engine find, index, and rank your site.

Making a Difference, One New Soccer Player at a Time

Author: Anna-Lesa Calvert, Program Director of Buffalo Soccer Club

“Coach Tex, my mom is going to be so proud of me!”

These are the moments that, as Program Director for a youth development program, I live for. For me, there’s nothing better than a child beaming with pride because his good behavior warranted him the opportunity to play soccer with me for a couple of hours and I’m so excited that I’m about to have similar experiences in the coming year.

In November 2011 the U.S. Soccer Foundation issued a Request for Proposal for organizations throughout the country to apply for their Soccer For Success grant program. While I knew that Buffalo Soccer Club (BSC) would be able to successfully implement a program like Soccer for Success, the grant required large amounts of data collection and measurement and a dollar-for-dollar grant match. So, I also knew that in order to submit a successful grant application and bring all of the opportunities involved in Soccer for Success to the children of Buffalo, we would need to partner with other trusted non-profit organizations in the WNY community.

With that in mind, BSC leadership approached the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County to see if they were willing to collaborate with us on the grant. After seeing the value of the Soccer for Success program, the United Way agreed and we began to move forward in the grant writing process. We determined that BSC would be in charge of running and implementing the program and the United Way would help with the administration and data measurements. But, we were still looking for our dollar-for-dollar match partner.

It was good fortune that we coincidentally learned that the Independent Health Foundation was also planning to apply for the same Soccer For Success grant. BSC and the United Way reached out to the Foundation and our three organizations agreed to work together to make our grant application as strong as possible to benefit the students of the Buffalo Public School system. In late February our organizations learned that our application was one of only 13 in the country, and the only one in New York State, to earn one of these prestigious $300,000.00 Social Innovation Fund sub-grants.

Soccer for Success Grant Partners

Members of the team from the United Way, the Independent Health Foundation, and Algonquin Sports for Kids pose with Otis Barker, Deputy Commissioner of Community Services for the City of Buffalo, and children from PS54 at the press conference announcing the grant award on May 2, 2012.

And so, earlier this week I participated in BSC’s first major press conference at Buffalo PS54, one of the schools we’ll be running the programming from, and met the excited young man who told me how proud his mom was going to be when she learns of his participation in the Soccer for Success program. At the end of the day, this boy and other students like him are the reason Buffalo Soccer Club exists. I know that by providing even one child with such a positive experience through the opportunity to play sports and learn important life skills, we’re making a difference. And the Soccer for Success grant will make it possible for us to provide this same experience to even more children; helping them become strong, productive members of our community.

If you’d like to learn more about Buffalo Soccer Club and our programming feel free to check out the following:

Set to Give the Boot to Childhood Obesity; Buffalo News, May 3, 2012
Buffalo Soccer Club NYSWYSA Club of the Month
; New York State West Youth Soccer Association; February 2012
Laying the Soil
; Buffalo.com, July 12, 2011
BSC Earns National Grant
; Details a previous grant win from the U.S. Soccer Foundation