“Good” Friends Can Make Good Clients

One day, years ago, I had lunch with two friendly faces. We met at a nice little place in downtown Buffalo. One gentlemen was a business partner of mine at the time (Let’s call him Bob) and the other was a fellow soccer coach, who also happened to be an attorney (Let’s call him Don).  While we caught up on the details of our lives, people kept dropping by our table to say “hello” to my friends. Most of the interactions were very formal and very brief, but it happened often enough that it struck me as odd and definitely left an impression.

When our meal came to an end, Bob and I walked out together and he marveled at how funny it was that I was on a first name basis with one of the most powerful and influential people in the area. I didn’t even know who he was talking about, which made it even more comical for him. It was then Bob explained to me who Don really was. I had no idea that my good friend Don was in fact, “Mr. Smith, high-powered attorney extraordinaire” to most of the free world!

Interestingly, this has happened to me again and again, over the years. The office is on high alert because “Mr. So-and-So” is coming in from large company X.  Mr. S shows up and guess what? He’s actually Jimmy or Sandy or Kev. I usually get greeted with a “Tommy” or “Tommy Boy!” and then there’s five to ten minutes of soccer talk before we even broach the business of why they’ve come to Algonquin.

You see, I’m heavily involved in the soccer community here in Western New York and that involvement has led to some great friendships with some well-connected people.

My point here is not to convince anyone that I’m a big shot or special in any way. Name droppers annoy me to be honest, hence the fictional names above. But, to me, stories like this are great testaments to the fact that it’s so important to think beyond the office… To get out into our communities and become involved. There are thousands of organizations out there in need of quality leaders and volunteers. Finding one that speaks to you can offer the amazing opportunity to both make a difference and make some new friends. And, to be brutally honest, sales guys can always use more friends.

I realize this might come across as calculated, but that’s not my intention at all. I’m not suggesting you join boards or organizations in order to schmooze potential clients. What I am suggesting is that if you put yourself out there, in a way that you’re genuinely motivated to do, you’ll meet like-minded people and like-minded people often make the best clients.

The cornerstone of the corporate culture here at Algonquin Studios is the idea of “Family, Faith, and Work,” recognizing that “Faith” doesn’t have to be Sunday worship. Maybe your faith is about building houses with Habitat for Humanity or teaching kids the value of team sports and exercise with Buffalo Soccer Club. Whatever it is, think about giving it some of your time and best efforts.

I hear it all the time. “I don’t have time to volunteer for an organization outside of my day job.” But the funny thing is, if you make the time, you just might find that you really enjoy it and who knows… Mr. Smith, who sits on the board, might just become your “good friend Don.”

Blogging For Business, Part 2: Choosing the Right Platform

In my previous post, I wrote about whether corporate blogging is right for your business and broke down the benefits and risks. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the available platforms.

Simply put, there are a lot to choose from, but all platforms should provide two basic features:

  1. the ability to post content (usually including photos and videos)
  2. the ability to receive and display comments for each post

Those are the basic cornerstones of blogging. However, many platforms (certainly the best) provide additional features that may prove essential for your blog, including:

  1. the ability to customize the look of the blog or choose from a set of themes
  2. the ability to add extra features through plugins (widgets built by third party developers that can be embedded on your blog)
  3. the ability to allow content to be posted by multiple authors
  4. the ability to audit content written by other authors
  5. the ability to moderate comments

There are a slew of platforms that offer these features and many more, and they do it for free. In fact, because there are so many quality platforms to choose from that at Algonquin Studios we’ve actually decided not to implement blogging features into our content management solution, QuantumCMS, thus far, and simply work with clients to pick the best platform for them and integrate the blog with the main site as needed.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the best options out there.

WordPress

WordPress is a free blogging platform that offers a ton of built-in features, including all of those I mentioned above. I don’t have the statistics for it, but if WordPress isn’t the #1 blogging platform today, it seems to be on its way. Indeed, this blog as well as my personal blog are built on WordPress and it’s generally my preferred choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.

The reason that I like WordPress in particular is because it has a simple yet rich interface and is constantly updated with bug fixes and enhancements by a dedicated team of developers. They also offer two hosting solutions: you can host your blog with WordPress for free or you can download the codebase and host it on your own server if you need extra flexibility or want to integrate with other sites.

Blogger

Blogger is Google’s blogging platform. Right there, you probably already know what to expect. Recently, Google has taken steps to standardize the interfaces of its most common tools including Mail, Drive, and Blogger. That means if you have used any of Google’s other products, then Blogger should feel pretty comfortable to you.

What I like about Blogger is its simplicity and clean interface. It’s a tool designed for the non-technical user so it’s very easy to use. Despite that, Blogger is a fully featured tool, although it does not have quite as many configuration options as WordPress.

Tumblr

Tumblr is a what I would call a “quick and dirty” blogging platform, but what most people call “social blogging.” Tumblr makes it really easy to share the awesome stuff that you find online or in life. Tumblr blogs are often full of photos, videos, and links. In some ways, it’s more like Twitter than it’s like other blogging platforms, although there’s no limit to what you post.

What I like about Tumblr is just how easy it is to share content. However, I’ve found that the interface is not as intuitive or robust as other platforms. It’s also worth noting that Tumbr blogs tend embody a more casual attitude that is perhaps more appropriate for individuals than most corporate businesses, but if you just want to post photos, videos, and other neat stuff, it’s probably the best fit.

Posterous Spaces

This is another popular solution that I’ve not personally used, but is described as somewhere between WordPress and Tumblr. Like Tumblr, Posterous tries to make posting content really simple (even via email), but has more advanced features like WordPress.

Twitter

Okay, Twitter isn’t truly blogging software, but it is considered “micro blogging.” If the idea of writing content gives you pause, you might consider starting with a Twitter feed, where you never have to write more than 140 characters.

Bringing It All Together

If you decide that you’re up for the challenge, don’t just pick a platform and go. Check out some of the available options first. Take a look at example blogs on each platform and the available features. With just a little legwork, you’ll find one that works for you and you’ll be blogging in no time.

Blogging For Business, Part 1: Is Blogging Right For You?

Over the last few years, I’ve been asked many times by clients about blogging. Blogging is nothing new, of course, but starting a corporate blog is a bit different than starting a personal one.

A corporate blog requires planning, writing guidelines, and, often, an approval process. It also requires some degree of skill and dedication. Can you write meaningful content that engages readers? Can you keep to a schedule and post content even when you are busy and have other priorities?

Benefits

If you can keep up a blog, then you may be rewarded for your efforts. The most obvious benefit is increased awareness of your business and traffic to your web site, which could translate into increased sales or revenue.

Without getting too technical, having a blog and posting meaningful content gives you another way to draw users to your web site. In all likelihood, that user will read your content and never return. That’s part of the nature of blogging. However, if that user finds your blog in a web search and finds the content to be helpful, he may then visit your web site and, potentially, engage your services, buy your products, or refer a friend or colleague to your site.

Having a blog may even elevate the search ranking of your main web site. By cross-linking the main site and your blog, you can potentially build clout in search engine ranking algorithms, especially if your blog generates a lot of traffic.

Risks and Pitfalls

Before jumping in, you should also consider potential risks. What if an author writes something that makes the business look bad? What if a post incites negative comments? Negative feedback could turn away potential customers, degrade your credibility, or even drop your search ranking, but that doesn’t mean you should disable the commenting feature. Instead, you’ll have to determine the appropriate solution for your business.

You should also avoid a classic pitfall: the temptation to use your corporate blog as an extension of the sales department. Users typically stumble upon blog posts when looking for information and overselling your services may turn off users from returning or make them question the credibility of the content.

Tips for Success

In most cases, a corporate blog should provide expert information or advice about topics in the respective field, or provide customers an inside look at a business’ work environment or philosophies.

Don’t put that all on one person’s shoulders. Allowing multiple employees to contribute will lessen the load and will fill your blog with a variety of topics and opinions.

Keep a schedule. Your employees are busy and it may be difficult for them to contribute regularly. Set up a schedule that allows them to contribute as possible, based on workload.

Bringing It All Together

Ultimately, as a business owner or marketer you have to weigh the pros and cons to determine whether a corporate blog is right for you.

Keeping up a blog isn’t easy. You need to be dedicated and willing to write content, often. You also have to be prepared to accept the risks. But, done well, a blog can boost your business and your reputation in the field.

The “Doctor Who” Effect

As a sales consultant, I always think it’s great when something I was told during my training process comes up in a real world selling experience. I often only feel as if I’ve truly absorbed the conceptual ideas behind selling when I experience them in a hands-on way. I was recently reminded, during a successful sales call, about the importance of the chemistry between client and prospective vendor and it hammered home the idea that “You’re selling yourself just as much as you’re selling the service you offer.”

Most successful businesses spend a huge amount of time and resources on perfecting things like sales pitches, marketing materials, and product or service offerings. And we expect companies to do this because we all understand that the whole point of any sales and marketing effort is to generate as many leads as possible in order to create as many opportunities as possible to earn business. And in the face of a global marketplace, where there are countless options of web or software development, the sales and marketing team at Algonquin has to work hard to differentiate company and our services from the competition. Finding prospects who are ready and willing to talk to us about our solutions is only the first step. Discovering that we’re a good match process and budget-wise gets us “almost there,” but what does the final “yes” or “no” decision often come down to? Sometimes is simply an intangible quality I’m going to start calling “The Doctor Who Effect.”

Toward the end of the successful sales call mentioned earlier, my co-worker threw out a Doctor Who reference for dramatic effect. And, wouldn’t you know it? We were sitting in a room of Doctor Who aficionados! Now, to be honest, things were going very well prior to the Doctor name drop. We had a good vibe going – some humor, some well-natured sarcasm, and a lot of head nodding. But I truly believe the Doctor Who reference sealed the deal because it helped the prospective client realized that, as people, we’re geared the same way they are. The following week, we returned to give a demo and we discovered they’d already signed our contract, before even seeing the presentation!

Like most sales people, I’ve walked out of a handful of sales calls that were so awkward and uncomfortable, I was sure I was never going to hear from the client again. And I never did. Regardless of our expertise or product offerings, if I don’t “click” with a client, I’m probably not going to get the sale. And, of course, I’ve walked out of sales calls feeling like the prospect and I were long-lost best friends, only to have them go in another direction and, in those cases, I can only assume that while “The Doctor Who Effect” may have been in effect, our solution or price point simply weren’t the right fit for the company.

The “sweet spot” is when you’ve got both the best solution AND the best chemistry going for you. I’ve seen the powerful combination in effect more than once now and I’m convinced it’s key to the majority of successful sales. Now I just have to work on finding more prospects who watch Doctor Who!

A Salute to Persistence

Persistent: tenaciously or obstinately continuing despite problems or difficulties (Encarta Dictionary).

I think persistence could be the single most underrated attribute. Persistence can often make up for deficiencies we have in our characters or skill sets. It’s one of those little things that can go unnoticed, but I bet if you were to analyze most successes under a microscope, you’d probably see persistence in abundance. And I think this would be true of people born with all kinds of natural talent and ability as well as those who have little but manage to “win” nonetheless.

Pick a hat; any hat. Pick an industry; any industry. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a successful teacher, banker, salesman, coach, parent, or spouse – you have to be persistent. If you want well-behaved kids, you can’t enforce the rules just once. You need to persistently uphold the rules and create consequences for when they aren’t obeyed. If you want a healthy marriage that stands the test of time, you and your spouse had better be prepared to work at it – persistently. What if you want to change the culture at your workplace or make some headway for the children participating in your inner-city youth soccer program? You’ve got it… you have to be persistent. Heck, remember the old standby question from high school or college “How’d he get her to go out with him?” More often than not, persistence is probably a factor in the answer.

So, let’s apply my thought process to the sales arena. Obviously, persistence is an important part of making a sale but somewhere along the line, I think persistent sales people have gotten a bad rap. Of course, if you’re persistent in an effort to sell ice to Eskimos, people will probably develop some strong, and not-so-nice, ideas about you as a sales person. But in my mind, that’s less a problem of persistence and more a lack of respect. Most of us don’t feel good about a sale that doesn’t benefit the client just as much as the vendor and, in the case of the pushy sales guy who can’t respect the fact that his prospect doesn’t need his product or service (or has simply said “no” to his sales pitch), I think persistence might be getting thrown under the bus.

As a sales consultant here at Algonquin Studios, I’m always going to be persistent. I’ll be persistent in my attempts to learn about your company; to learn what your pain points are and what you need from your web site or software; to learn what your ideal vendor relationship looks like; and to demonstrate the expertise we’ve developed and can implement for you.

And, I’ll always encourage my sales prospects to be persistent, too – persistent about vetting potential vendors for their experience, capabilities, and a general willingness to share the ins-and-outs of their companies. You should take the time to identify a clear scope of service for your projects and you should share that information with the vendors you’re considering. You should give those vendors time to ask questions about your project and allow their expertise to modify and further develop its final scope. And you should remember that if your persistence is met with reluctance or a lack of disclosure on a vendor’s part, you’ll want to take notice and be careful.

In the end, persistence will help both of us figure out if a relationship between Algonquin Studios and your company is going to be successful. So, I’d like to thank persistence for helping me and my clients get to a good place; the right place.

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…

Consistency
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.

Quality
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.

Loyalty
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.

Fun
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?

Don’t Get Obsessed with the Gizmos

As a part of my initial sale consultant training here at Algonquin Studios, one of the lessons that took the longest to sink in for me had to do with the issue of technology.

Technology, as a whole, can be very intimidating to a lot of us. We’re talking about things that not only perform tasks that seem magical, but it’s also changing faster than Clark Kent in a phone booth. You’re bound to fall behind on the “latest and greatest” advancements and catching up always seems so daunting. But, the truth that took so long for me to grasp is that to help people solve business problems technology is often the least important part of the equation.

I remember the first time I looked at the guts of a toilet. Wait… there’s a rubber ball, a few plastic things, a plug, and some water. Where’s the magic? Where are the computer chips and sensors and wires? There aren’t any and you know what? It doesn’t matter! That toilet still works great, because it does what we need it to do!

What do you need? Why do you need it? How will it help you or your company? What will life be like once the problem is solved?

It doesn’t matter if the client is a marketer, administrator, or IT guru; the questions are still the same and the answers are what’s important. It won’t really matter if the solution is a state of the art, super-duper fancy gizmo or a hamster running around in a wheel; if the solution solves the problem, fits your budget, and is reliable and sustainable then you have a winner – fancy technology or not.

We just finished bringing on a new client that had been badly burned by their previous web vendor. The old vendor was not upfront about their capabilities and offered the client all kinds of high tech “gizmos” that they promised would make their site stand out from the competition. It took a while, but our client eventually figured out that the vendor couldn’t deliver on the goods. Most of the awesome bells and whistles they were promised either didn’t work or didn’t follow best practices, usability standards, or accessibility requirements. When the client came to us, our main goal was listening, so we could really learn what the client’s vision and direction for their web site was; we explained what we would do to address each problem they’d had with their previous vendor, and then we moved forward and got to work on building their new web site. Honestly, talking about the technology we’ll use to complete the site was almost an afterthought. When we’re done, their web site will obviously be functional but, more importantly, it will meet the goals the client outlined and identified as important to them and their business. And they’ll be able to get back to running that business instead of stressing about the site. Our approach when we took the “getting to know you” meeting may not have been about showing off our state-of-the-art technology, but it was the right one.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that Algonquin Studios lacks technically intelligent and savvy people, products, or solutions. On the contrary, we have incredibly smart people working here, doing some amazingly complex things. But when you sit down with us to see if we’re the right fit for your company and your problem, let’s not worry so much about the technology. When you do, you may end up asking us to build you a space shuttle when what you really need is a bike to get you to and from the corner store. Let’s focus on the problem(s) you’re looking to solve instead. Tell us about why you need what you need – we’ll apply the right technology to the problem and get you where you want to be. And I promise, just like the toilet, it’ll be magic!

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.

Updating My Web Site? Yeah, I’ve Been Meaning To Get To That…

I’ve been wondering – how many people out there would remember to check the batteries in their smoke detectors if it weren’t for daylight savings time?

Every six months, I spend a minute or two on a Saturday night trying to remember if I gain  or lose an hour that weekend. Shortly after figuring out if I’m jumping ahead or falling back this time around, I inevitably hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head saying, “Every time you change the clocks, make sure you also remember to change your smoke detector batteries.”  Day-to-day family life is pretty crazy for me these days, so I’m not 100% certain I would remember to change those batteries if my dad hadn’t hammered it into my head for years. And I’m glad I remember, because my family and my house are pretty important to me!

While I’m willing to bet most people would agree with the idea that if you run a business of any kind these days, you need a web site. But the time frame for how often you need to update (or outright change) your web site is probably far less agreed upon than say, how often you need to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Most people might argue you should mix things up every two to three years, but I’ll bet there are some who would say you can go longer.

At the risk of sounding like my mother, technology is hard to keep up with. What’s new and fresh today will be old news in a short period of time. The truth is, if your web site is more than two years old and you are not planning to update it, or the technology it rests on, you’re probably behind the times (and your competition). For example, if your site doesn’t automatically adjust when it’s viewed on a cell phone or tablet, what are you waiting for? Your site won’t develop a mobile-friendly version of itself. How about an even more basic question – are you still sending content changes and updates to your web vendor or “tech guy” instead of using a quality CMS in-house? Well, guess what? You’re essentially hoping the smell of smoke will get you out of bed late at night, because you’ve neglected your smoke detector maintenance.

Regardless of how long you think you can go without paying it some attention, the sales call to see if you are ready to update your web site should be viewed like daylight savings.  It’s a subtle reminder, me calling to say “Hey, Busy Person! Don’t forget about this important part of your business.” When you get the call, even if you aren’t ready to deal with it then and there, ask me to call you back on a specific date in the future (sooner, rather than later) and put that call on your schedule now. It will help you make sure that your site update doesn’t get put off longer than it should.

Hmm. Maybe I should change my phone sales pitch. “Hi, this is Tom from Algonquin Studios. Have you changed the batteries in your smoke alarms and when would you like to begin updating your company’s web site?”