Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 2

Ok, in Part 1 of this post, we covered a good chunk of the lessons my team learned during our trip to China with the Executive MBA program at the University at Buffalo.

But, there’s more to earning solid feedback on your product from prospective customers than just delivering a sound demo. If you think there’s a different culture on the west coast of the US relative to the east coast, try meeting your customers in China! Before we grew comfortable listening, watching, and adapting in our new environment, my team risked coming back with nothing or missing the point, several times.

Get local through your errors. Before we departed, every book and coach told us not to drink the tap water. There’s not enough time to adjust on a short trip. Yet, one morning I slurped some while brushing my teeth, and didn’t realize it for several hours. When you adjust, you’ll probably do it by letting go. Just embrace it.

The Bottled Water Acid Test. Yup, we drank a lot of bottled water, and everywhere we went our hosts offered it to us. They watched as we drank it. Over time I thought this must be a stereotype of westerners. Or did it reveal how much I trusted the host? We were sensitive too, after hearing about refilled and resealed bottles. Rituals come in all forms.

Start early and make it easy. We scored seven meetings for two days. To do this, we started reaching out two months earlier. We avoided loading our hosts with any onerous work, especially reading long text blocks or keeping track. We reminded them of our meetings before we left the US. A couple of days before each meeting, we confirmed. One firm still moved a meeting from 10:30am to 8:00am, giving us just enough time to drop breakfast and run.

Forge a connection. To get those meetings, we tried a few strategies. Personal connections worked best, where someone had a cousin in-country and made introductions for us. Shared history scored too: did one of us go to the same school as a prospect? We got a 15% response rate from a targeted email blast to association members. To increase that rate, we could have adapted the request to be more relevant to each recipient. After meeting, most hosts shared a list of people we should speak to next, both inside their firm and at others. How kind!

Who are you talking to? On some of our tours, our hosts clearly spoke to the perceived leader of our crew first, and then to everyone else. It was striking. We soon tried it, using the business cards we received as strong hints about seniority. Would we have given them a disrespectful impression otherwise?

Help me save face! Once, we met with an operator and a manager and asked them to fill out a five minute survey for us. The manager sighed, rubbed his eyes, and said that he couldn’t complete it because he’d forgotten his reading glasses. Being super helpful, we offered to walk him through it. Much later, we realized our big mistake: perhaps his English wasn’t as good as his protégé’s, and he’d offered us a card to help him save face? We’d taken the card and burned it. Ach!

How close is too close? In a giant unfamiliar city, how much time should you place between meetings? In Beijing and Shanghai, one hour worked just fine for taxi travel. They were clean and quick (and almost always Volkswagen Foxes), and we asked our hotel concierge to write out directions in Chinese and English to give to our taxi driver. We brought the hotel card to get home again. We tried hard to keep our meetings to one hour, too.

Localization Details Matter. Localization is more than just translation. Our prospects remarked that they would consider us if we certified compliance with China’s legal framework. English is acceptable, but adding an interface in the legal form of Chinese would be better since it’s more widely understood than a particular dialect. Showing culturally appropriate use cases in our demo would have helped too. For example, Chinese occupants keep their rooms in the mid 70’s F. Who knew that detail beforehand? Our hosts might have wondered, “Why do these people always want me to freeze?”

Challenge or Business Opportunity? The list goes on. For example, there is wide variation between coastal and inland China, and rural and urban China, even more than in the US. At the time, there were no carriers able to deliver packages everywhere in China, and few fulfillment houses distributing for US firms. Each carrier had regional or urban-only coverage. Experience with computers and English varied inland, too.

Needless to say, the next time we collect on-the-ground feedback in China, we’ll be much better prepared. If you’re planning a project like this, consider doing it in stages, with time re-factor your approach each round. Everyone we met with was so helpful that I’d expect improvement to come quickly for you.

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Directly Engage Your Tech Partner To Avoid “Used Car Sales” Experience

Originally posted by Algonquin Studios CEO, Steven Raines, on January 29, 2012, on his blog.

The Internet has brought the worlds of marketing and technology together and customers expect their advertising agencies to be able to provide full service solutions on the web and social media. These solutions often include integration with internal systems and data that fall outside the core competences of the agency, who aren’t able to support the technology staff to provide these services on-demand and seek external partners to provide software solutions. Unfortunately, many companies feel that having an outside vendor provide technology solutions puts them at a disadvantage in the eyes of clients (and prospects) and try to funnel all communication through the agency and prevent the technology partner from directly interacting with the client.

I have written previously about the fundamental differences between solving technical and creative problems and this kind of collaborative solution demands both. Advertising and marketing firms are oriented to solve creative problems, but account executives often lack the training to perform the critical analysis necessary to define the requirements necessary for software development. When the agency buffers the tech provider from the end client, AEs aren’t able to provide feedback on how (and if) an objective can be accomplished or give “ballpark” pricing on items that come up during brainstorming. This means that every discussion requires the agency to go back to the software provider. I liken this to the “I have to ask my manager…” experience of buying a car. Is there any sales experience more frustrating as a consumer? This breeds distrust between the client and the AE – exactly the experience the agency was trying to avoid by keeping the solution provider away from the client. We have a saying at Algonquin Studios: “You will do what you fear most” and this is a perfect example. The things you fear drive your actions and inevitably it back fires. Like getting caught in a lie, the best way to avoid it is to tell the truth from the start. Face your fears honestly… problems delayed are problems expanded.

Advertising and marketing agencies need to educate their clients that technology providers are like the other traditional vendors (printers and media companies) they outsource to because they offer specialized services better suited to an organization designed around those competencies. Similarly, software vendors need to educate their agency customers about the added value they can bring when they are at the table with the customer.

Finally, if you are an agency that is afraid you will be cut out of business by your technology partner, get a new partner.

Training Disguised…

When I interviewed for my position at Algonquin Studios, I remember asking what my interviewers particularly enjoyed about working here.  The things they both immediately mentioned were “Meet & Eats” and “F.E.A.S.T.”  It was the first time I’d gotten a food-related response to that question and it definitely got me thinking.

After I started here and I got my calendar request for Meet & Eat, my curiousity about what the event would involve continued to grow and I really started looking forward to my first experience.  Sadly, it was canceled for a reason I don’t remember so I waited impatiently for the next one.

Meet & Eats are training sessions, with an Algonquin Studios twist. These aren’t your “normal” training sessions, where you sit in a too-brightly lit conference room and listen to some guy who says he’s an expert drone on for an hour or two in a monotone voice. These are sessions taught in an informal setting, by peers who share their knowledge with their coworkers in an effort to make everyone better at what we do here at Algonquin.

Presenters are notified a day in advance that they’ll be presenting to the group and projects are picked because a Development Manager believes there’s something particulalry interesting or informative to be shared. On the day of a Meet & Eat, the rest of the Development team pulls up a chair or bean bag in the common area of the office as the presenter covers all aspects of their project and discusses how they overcame any hurdles they experienced. The informal nature of the sessions means everyone is able to ask questions at any point and people can jump in if they have something to add. During almost every session, you hear somebody say “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “Wow, that way is so much easier!” No matter what their title or role is at Algonquin, everyone stands to learn something from each Meet & Eat.

Continuing our theme of food as a uniting factor in our corporate culture here at Algonquin, after the presentation is finished we all head over to the kitchen to experience the “Eat” part of the session. “Eat” allows our whole team to get together and continue discussing what was reviewed during “Meet” over a variety of local foods-specialty pizzas, chicken wings, even a taco bar set up by a Mexican restaurant!

When I think about the benefits our Meet & Eats bring to Algonquin Studios and the employees here, I have to think about them as being more than just “educational” in nature. An event like this goes beyond what you see on the surface, it’s also about everything you can’t see-the relationships formed between the people who have to develop a presentation in one short business day, the confidence and experience the presenters gain as the discuss their projects and gather feedback from fellow employees and managers, and the relationships formed between employees munching away during the “Eat” portion of the day.

Does your organization have any informal educational events or session similar to our Meet & Eats? What sort of value do you think sessions like these can bring to the organization as a whole and employees as individuals?

I, personally, can’t wait till next month’s Meet & Eat to see who the lucky presenter will be and what delicious spread we will be indulging in!

Making the Most of a Tradeshow – The Algonquin Way

The Algonquin Studios Tradeshow BoothI’m gearing up for a pretty exciting (and potentially scary) moment in my career; I’m representing Algonquin Studios at the Virginias Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association’s regional Continuing Marketing Education conference on Friday…and I’m going alone.

In my role here at Algonquin, I’ve attended other events but this is the first time I’ll do so without a wingman or, more accurately, without being someone else’s wingman. So, leading up to this conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure I’m representing the company in the best possible way.

We work hard to maintain strong relationships with our clients and everyone here at Algonquin is expected to apply four basic principles-The Four H’s: honor, honesty, humility, and humor-to everything we do. But it occurred to me that applying the Four H’s in a tradeshow or conference setting can be a different ballgame altogether. Let’s take a closer look:

Honoring Your Client – It can be tough to truly learn about a prospect on a tradeshow floor. People are hustling from one break out session to another and there are a ton of distractions in the form of other booths, PA announcements, giveaways, even snacks. And there’s only so much time to devote to any one prospect –they’ve got other vendors they want to talk to and you’ve got other people you want to meet.

So how do you make sure you’re honoring the people you do speak with at a show? I think it’s about making sure you’re doing more listening than talking. Sure, you’re there to get your name out there but if you don’t know what your potential clients need and what their pain points really are, how can you be sure you’ll be able to help them in the long run? Getting to know your prospects, beyond a business card and an email address, is always a good idea.

Being Honest with Your Client – It can be easy to claim your company can do everything for everyone. But, let’s be honest-you’re not going to be the right choice for every show attendees’ needs. You’re there to gather new leads and turning interested parties away might seem counterintuitive to your goals, but knowing when to say “Yes, we can absolutely help you with that!” and when to admit that a different vendor or solution might be a better fit can be vital to managing the expectations of your prospects.

Maybe a booth visitor has heard great things about your company from a colleague and has stopped by to learn more about you but she has a very specific project that’s just not in your bag of tricks. It might be easy to lead her down the primrose path, letting her think you have a product or service that will be a great fit for her needs so you can try to sell her on your actual offerings at a later time, but it’s not the right thing to do.

Honesty about your capabilities might mean you lose a potential project in the short term but it also helps protect your company’s reputation as a trustworthy organization, increasing the likelihood she’ll reach out to you in the future when a project that’s perfect for your company comes along!

Being Humble About Your Work –Remember the visitor who stopped by your booth in the example above? Imagine that this time, after she gets done telling you about all the fantastic things she’s heard about you from others, she presents you with a project you know you’ll be able to hit out of the park.

While it’s tempting to bask in the praise she’s offering, it’s more important to remember that there are probably plenty of companies that can do the work she requires. Heck, they might be able to do it even better than you can. Remembering that you’re replaceable, possibly by the guy standing three booths down from yours, is not only an easy way to avoid taking any potential client or project for granted.

Share Humor in all Situations – Yes, exhibiting at tradeshows can be costly and justifying the cost to executive management often makes attendance feel like super serious business. But, if you don’t let yourself have fun at the show I think you’re missing out on a great opportunity to connect with your potential clients.

I recently attended a conference with two other Algonquin team members and within a few hours of being there, one of us got sick. Our three man team was down a man for the majority of the show and the two of us who stayed healthy had to run the ship (I should mention; it was the first show either of us had ever attended as exhibitors). At first, we panicked but then, as we started telling our booth neighbors what was up, we realized…there was actually something kind of funny about the situation. Here we were, two conference newbies, manning the booth ourselves while our experienced leader was quarantined in his hotel room. So we told a few more people and got a few more laughs. And those people told other people and eventually we had visitors stopping by just to check on us-making sure we were ok, offering advice, looking for updates on our coworker’s condition, and, yes, even asking for more information about what Algonquin Studios was all about.

Sharing the story of our coworker’s ill-timed illness helped us break the ice with other exhibitors and prospective clients. It made us human and it made us memorable.

These are the things I’m going to keep in mind later this week but I’ve got some questions for you…

How does your company or organization attack a tradeshow or conference? Do you go in with hard and fast goals-a number of new prospects to gather contact information from or is your primary focus meeting people, learning about their pain points, and engaging the people you for whom you can really make a difference? Either way, how do you make sure you achieve your goals?