Client Engagement… In The Face of Summer Hours and Vacations

We’re in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer. It’s been so, so hot lately and, here in Buffalo, it hasn’t really rained in what feels like a year. Certainly, just getting to work can feel like an accomplishment on these 90 degree days, but once I am here, one of the real challenges of any marketer’s job begins – keeping engagement rates up in a time of summer hours, long lunches, and 2 week-long vacations.

Based on research conducted by our email vendor, I’m proud to say that Algonquin’s email outreach attempts are usually incredibly successful. We consistently record email open rates of approximately 12% higher than our industry’s average, with click-through rates at an even-higher 15%. Come summer, these numbers drop a bit, not unexpectedly (thanks to those pesky vacations, I’m sure), but we still record rates well above the average for other companies in the consulting and professional services fields.

How? I’m so glad you asked…

Once upon a time, the marketing team here at Algonquin picked a monthly newsletter “publication” date and we’ve stuck to it. While our choice was random – the second Wednesday of every month – I don’t think the results we’ve seen are. By consistently delivering content to our clients and prospects at the same time each month, we’ve set an expectation that we’re now living up to. When our newsletter pops up in their mailboxes, our recipients aren’t surprised… they’ve been expecting it. In fact, I like to think they’ve been looking forward to receiving it and are excited about reading its contents and learning more about what’s happening at Algonquin Studios.

Obviously, we could provide the most consistent schedule of emails known to man, but if they didn’t contain interesting, relevant information those emails would probably never get read. While it’s easy to generate sales copy touting the next great idea or product, offering real substance is more difficult but it’s also what keeps clients listening. Here at Algonquin, we like to feature recently completed projects, as a way to both showcase our work and give clients ideas about how we might be able to help them; we always include information about our non-profit soccer program, so that clients and friends are kept up to date on the exciting work Buffalo Soccer Club staff and volunteers are doing with children in the City of Buffalo; and we offer information on the user groups and webinars we run to help clients get the most out from their technology.

If you’re a regular reader of the Algonquin Studios blog, you’ve probably heard us talk about our relationship-building approach to business. Here at Algonquin, we’re not looking to be a quick fix or one-time vendor for our clients; we want to establish a longterm relationship with the companies that need our services, getting to know their businesses and pain points and providing consulting and web and software development that will make real, positive impacts on the way they do business. Our focus is on these longterm relationships, not flash-in-the-pan interactions and I think our email recipients may be more likely to read our emails because they know and trust us and understand that our communications will provide value, rather than simply being a vehicles to drive sales.

This last one might seem a little silly (how appropriate), but having fun is an important part of the way we do business. Afterall humor is one of the Four H’s we espouse here at Algonquin. So, we try to make sure there’s something fun in our monthly newsletters. For example, every month we run a trivia contest and offer our readers the chance to win a prize (this summer, we’ve been giving away 4 packs of tickets to Buffalo Bisons’ games). It may seem like a little thing, but most of us like to win things and if the trivia contest keeps people coming back from more Algonquin Studios news, I’m ok with that!

So, now that you’ve heard about how we do things here at Algonquin, tell me… How does your company work at engaging clients and keep them coming back for more?


My Print Styles Article in .net Magazine

The Summer 2012 (#231) issue of .net Magazine has my tutorial on making print styles for your site. Not only did I get four pages, the article got a mention on the front cover (small though it is) and my photo in the contributors section.

If you’ve spent much time here or following me on Twitter, then you know I have written plenty about the lack of print styles on modern sites, particularly those claiming to use responsive techniques. I figured it was about time I showed some techniques to make it happen and hopefully demonstrate how dreadfully simple print styles are to do.

While my article is clearly the stand-out piece in the magazine, and totally worth getting just for my work, there is some other stuff in this issue that might interest you:

Creating flexible layouts that will work on any device and any screen size is the next big challenge for CSS. In this month’s issue Peter Gasston takes us on a tour of some well-implemented properties you can use now as well as the exciting proposed properties we could be using in the future.

There’s also a guide to creating or updating your online portfolio from Gary Marshall, an interview with Elliot Jay Stocks and tutorials on HTML5’s Drag and Drop API and building a basic responsive site with CSS. Here are some more highlights:

  • Build smoother JavaScript apps
  • Make your website printable
  • Make your sites load faster
  • The pro’s guide to Adobe Edge
  • Build an ecommerce store
  • Using PHP Data Objects

By the way, in case you want to read up on some of my prior discussions about print styles, here’s a handy list of links for you:

Thank You for Calling…

As the receptionist here at Algonquin Studios, I answer the phone with the phrase “Thank you for calling Algonquin Studios, how may I help you?” With this one simple sentence, I hope to be welcoming and accommodating to our callers. Because I’m often the point first contact for prospective clients and a consistent contact for many of our longstanding clients, my attitude and personality are reflections on the company and I strive to make sure they’re positive.

It’s been said that a first impression is made in the first seven seconds of contact. In those seven seconds, we absorb indicators of a person’s professionalism, courtesy, knowledge, helpfulness, credibility, confidence, and understanding and, in those seven seconds, a prospective client might make some assumptions about Algonquin Studios. I’m often the first face people see when they come to our office and the first voice they hear when they call us so, when I interact with these people, it’s important that I portray an appreciation of their business and an eagerness to help.

Obviously, being happy, energetic, and welcoming when they call or arrive is important but what about going the extra step? Taking things to the next level to ensure a positive experience? Most of the time the “extras” can be simple but they can really go a long way: things like offering people a beverage or personally walking them to their destination (a conference room or someone’s office) are always a nice touch. I’ve taken to keeping the menus and brochures for some of Buffalo’s best restaurants and tourism spots at my desk, so I can share them with our out-of-town visitors and make recommendations about the hidden jewels of our city, helping to ensure they have a pleasant visit, not just to Algonquin Studios, but to Western New York as well.

Going the extra step can be a bit more difficult on the phone but I like to try to gather some information from callers before I direct their calls. Personally, I think one of the most annoying things about calling customer service is when you get transferred and have to keep announcing yourself, and explaining your problem, over and over again. Making note of a person’s name and the reason for their call and passing that info on to the Algonquin team member who’ll be helping them might seem like a little thing, but if it spares the client the aggrevation of restating their issue, I think it’s worth it.

Here at Algonquin, I think my interactions with clients and prospects also help promote one of our guiding principles – Honor. For us, honor is about listening and providing value and, as the first line of contact, I’m in a unique position to do both. It’s easy to think of the receptionist position at any company as a simple role that could be filled by almost anyone but it’s important to remember that your receptionist can be a valuable representative for your business and to treat the position as just that – an ambassador for your clients.

Apple vs. Windows? Actually, it’s Not a Simple Question.

Being knee-deep in the technical world, I get asked “Which do you use, Apple or Windows?” more times than I care to count. If I’m being asked by another technically-savvy person, I usually try to tiptoe around the topic because it seems almost everyone is married to one or the other. If I say I use Windows products, Apple advocates are surely going to point out the User Interface issues and abundant viruses housed on Windows. If I say I use Apple products, Windows (or Linux) advocates will be quick to complain about the lockdown of the development environment and the largely proprietary attitude of Apple. Unfortunately for both cult groups my answer isn’t as simple as saying I use one or the other.

I come from the school of thought that teaches that the tool that’s the best for the task at hand is the tool I want to use. I try not to become married to a company or product just because I like what they stand for or because I like their other products. I believe that, when you’re in technical field, it’s important to stay up to date with all technologies and to expand your skills as time goes on. I see so many legacy coders who refuse to move from Assembly, COBOL, and even C++ to newer languages just because they can do anything they want in those languages, but this refusal to adapt usually leads to a stagnant environment that’s incapable of evolution.

So why do people refuse to update their tools when it comes to technology? I don’t think there’s any one answer to this question; stubbornness, or even pride, can cause people to blindly follow a product they’ve always trusted before. But I’d be willing to bet that the lack of information, or even misinformation, from people who should know better is a leading cause.

For example, I was setting up a new printer for my neighbor the other day and we got into the Apple vs. Windows debate. Unlike most of the technical users I interact with, my neighbor was simply more curious about the advantages and disadvantages of each. After I explained the technical differences between the products and policies, she smiled and told me about a friend of hers who made the switch to Apple about two years ago and has never looked back. Her friend continues to tell her that Apple has the best products out there, and to tout their sales numbers, but fails to provide any solid reasoning as to why Apple is superior. In short, she was grateful that I gave her an objective breakdown of the two companies.

In the end, I’ve just accepted the fact that some people will have a positive experience with a company or product and that experience will be enough to encourage blind loyalty. Some people will choose Apple products and then they’ll stick with Apple products; others will choose Windows and stick with Windows. This system probably won’t ruin anyone and there’s always the benefit of familiarity with the product, but if we want to truly continue to progress and evolve, I think we have to be open to new and different products.

The question shouldn’t be “Apple or Windows”, but rather “What’s the best technology for this task?” After all, if we all refused to evolve we’d still be using AOL for our email and internet and Google would be an unknown name in the computing world!

Accessibility Bookmarklets and Tools

This post originally appeared on my blog.

Testing accessibility on your web projects can be a tricky task if you have no firsthand experience with visual, audible, physical or even cognitive impairment. Having resources in the community is important as is tracking down the same tools in use in that community.

Despite all this it’s nice to have some quick techniques for testing your sites without the need to break from your regular workflow. Conveniently, there are a number of tools already out there. Here is a quick rundown…

WCAG 2.0 parsing error bookmarklet

From Steve Faulkner, this experimental bookmarklet uses string matching to evaluate a page against the WCAG 2.0 success criterion for section 4.1.1 Parsing. It leans on the W3C Nu Markup Validator to do its job.

Get the WCAG 2.0 parsing error bookmarklet from The Paciello Group for yourself and while there, read up on how to use it.

Nu Markup Validation Service Bookmarklets

Excuses for failing to use the W3C Nu Markup Validator fall away when all you have to do to validate a page is click on a bookmarklet. Also from Steve Faulkner, this collection of four bookmarklets allows you to validate the current page (in the current window or a new one) or provide the URL of a page to validate (in a new window or not).

Get the four Nu Markup Validation Service bookmarklets (also from The Paciello Group).

Favelets for Checking Web Accessibility

Jim Thatcher has come up with a series of bookmarklets (or as he calls them, favelets) that allow him to make the human review process easier by highlighting details he might otherwise have to wade through code to see. Bookmarklets include image checkers, heading counters, data table notes, ARIA details, and form features.

Get the full collection of “favelets” for checking web accessibility and be sure to read the detailed instructions on how to use these in conjunction with a manual testing process.

Web Accessibility Toolbar

This particular tool is not a collection of bookmarklets. It is also not built to work for any browser other than Internet Explorer. It does, however, provide far more features than bookmarklets can do on their own. Used in conjunction with a manual test and the bookmarklets listed above it can help our overall accessibility testing process far more than just the bookmarklets alone.

Download the Web Accessibility Toolbar For IE and give it a test run on your sites.

If for some reason you are running Opera 8 or Opera 9, there is a version of the Web Accessibility Toolbar for Opera (but again, only 8 or 9).

Juicy Studio Accessibility Toolbar

This toolbar is a Firefox add-on from Gez Lemon. Like the toolbar above, it provides a bit more control than a bookmarklet will afford. This will show you ARIA live regions, show you ARIA landmarks and roles, provides a table inspector and a color contrast analyzer.

You can get the Juicy Studio Accessibility Toolbar from the Mozilla add-on site.

NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA)

Since I’ve strayed far afield of bookmarklets I thought I would toss this last one into the mix. NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free, open-source screen reader for Windows. While it’s intended for the entire OS, it’s also great for testing web pages. Its support of different accents makes for much fun when it speaks to me as a Scotsman.

Download a copy of NVDA for yourself and make sure to donate when you do — this is how projects like this are able to continue and how you can support the disabled community.

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