Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,

You’re Not Normal, So Stop Marketing To Yourself

Doesn’t it just drive you crazy when you’re trying to read a magazine and you keep having to flip to different pages to finish each article. No?

Image by Nina Mathews via flickr

That’s because you read a magazine the way most people do, flipping through to see which articles are interesting to you rather than starting from the beginning and reading straight through to the end the way weirdos like me do it. Magazine publishers design their issues based on normal reading habits. My habits aren’t normal.

I Wrote This Sub-Heading Just For You

Which brings us to another way in which I’m strange, I read blog posts the same way: I start at the beginning and read through to the end. As a writer who produces content for the web, I had to do my research to figure out that this isn’t normal.

It’s not just me. Especially tech-minded people see the world differently than the audiences they sell to, a lesson they had to be reminded of by Justin Jackson. Whatever your personal vision of “normal” is, probably isn’t. When you to need to reach people that aren’t just like you, you have to get outside of your own head.

If I want people to read what I write, I had to figure out how to appeal to the normal reader, rather than doing what comes naturally to me.

Do Your Research

It’s human nature to assume that the way we like to do things is the best and most obvious way to do them. It sure would make marketing easier if that was the way it worked. Instead, figuring out what people respond to is hard work and involves a lot of research, followed with trial and error.

If you start a blog to promote your business, you can’t just sit down and brainstorm a list of all the topics you think would be interesting to write about. If you’re lucky, there will be some overlap between what you want to write about and what your target audience wants to read, but you can’t count on it.

Instead, you need to go where your target audience is and learn what they’re responding to.

The Best Way to Learn About Your Audience.

If you can contact them directly, this is the gold standard!

Surveys, calls to clients, email requests for feedback – if you have enough of a relationship with members of your target audience to get information on what they want to read about without annoying them, then use it. Few things will serve your marketing as well as taking the time to listen to your current customers (or people just like them) about their problems, concerns, and needs.

What Next?

Failing that (or to supplement that), find the other blogs in your space and lurk. Don’t worry. It’s not creepy to lurk on a blog or website the way it is in real life. It’s a valid and fully expected way for you to gather information about what people like.

Research the blogs and publications that are getting the most visits in your industry, as well as the ones that get the most engagement (they’re not always the same):

  • This tip probably goes without saying, but Google some of the key terms related to what you do and see what comes up.
  • Check out what’s listed for your industry on
  • Use FollowerWonk’s search function to find some of the people with the most followers in your industry.

This will get you started. Once you’ve found a few of the top blogs in your industry, it’s easy to follow the trail to more influential sites.

You see, bloggers and websites that get to the top of the food chain pretty much always get there with the help of other bloggers and websites. That means the guys you find that are influential in your industry are probably following, linking to, and otherwise connected with other influential sites in your industry. Once you find your first two or three, they’ll lead you to the rest.

Pay Attention to Metrics

You don’t want to just read these guys. You want to pay careful attention to the things they write that get the most shares and comments. These are the topics your readers care about.

Obviously, you shouldn’t straight up copy the big guys, but use what you learn there as a launching board for collecting ideas for your own blog.

Quick note: this isn’t a step you do once and are done with. Once you’ve collected a list of relevant blogs in your space, make them part of your weekly (or even better, daily) research routine so you can stay up to date on what people are concerned about in your industry. This will not only help you regularly come up with topic ideas, it will also help you stay connected to your industry.

You can use feedly to collect all the blogs you want to follow into one stream. And of course,  follow them all on twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

If what you discover your audience likes seems totally counter-intuitive, all that means is that you’re not normal. If you’d done your marketing based on the way you think, you’d have failed. Now, you can craft your marketing efforts based on what matters:  your audience.

The Secret to Good Marketing…

The end goal of marketing is to help a company make more sales. Each company must determine the best intermediary goals their marketing should accomplish in order to reach that point. But to be successful, marketing must aid in creating a more profitable business.

Nonetheless, marketing serves a different role than sales does.  Sales is about getting a person to cross that final line of making a purchase or signing a contract. Marketing is about getting them to the line to begin with.  If you meet a new guy at a party and he spends a lot of time talking about how awesome he is, you probably won’t walk away from the conversation convinced. If you hear from your good friend Joe how awesome this guy is, or if he impresses everyone at the party with great jokes and stories, he’s a lot more likely to win you over as someone worth knowing.

In the same way, a business offering up a sales pitch about how great they are won’t gain much traction without a reputation to back that up.

Marketing (alongside the equally important customer service) is an important tool in building that reputation. You have to:

a)    Make sure people know your company exists (and what you do), and

b)   Build up enough trust that you’re the first place they’ll turn when they need what you offer.

To do so, you have to focus less on yourself and how great what you have to offer is, and think more about what the customer needs and how you can help.

…It’s About Giving

Content Marketing Means GivingThe secret is that you have to set ego to the side and focus on providing something of value. You should already be doing this for current customers, whose testimonials and positive word of mouth are some of the best marketing tools in your arsenal. To attract new customers and gain their trust, you need to think about what you’re willing to offer them for free that will demonstrate your knowledge and integrity.

In many cases, this means content. Turn the expertise and good ideas you have into blog posts, articles, videos and other forms of informational tools that answer questions your prospective customers are likely to have.

It could also mean a free version of your product with lighter features than the paid version.  If you’re a service provider, this could take the form of a free consultation that gives potential clients a taste of your expertise tailored to their needs.

None of these forms of giving are selfless. They’re designed to help you gain attention for your business and build a reputation around your expertise. Even so, isn’t it nice to embrace a business approach that doubles as doing something good for people?

Know Where to Draw the Line

Ok, so giving plays an important role in good marketing, but you’re still running a business. You have to approach your giving with a strategy in mind.

If you’re providing a free version of your product, decide just how much functionality you’re comfortable giving away before users have to upgrade to the paid version.

If your focus is more on content, most of what you produce should be focused on value for the consumer, but some of it can be about you. MacKenzie Fogelson recommends the 80/20 rule when it comes to social sharing. The same can be reasonably applied to the content you produce.

If 80% of your content is all about helping your target audience, 20% can be about product updates, special deals, and other forms of promotion. If you do enough preliminary work to gain the customer’s trust, those pitches will only be getting to an audience already interested in what you do.  By that point, you’ll be the guy at the party with Joe’s recommendation and the stream of jokes that have already made everybody laugh, and people won’t be as inclined to doubt you’re as awesome as you say you are.

6 Tips for Effective Communication

Businesses, relationships, and most other things in life that involve more than one person are all dependent on effective communication. Any amount of time spent in a foreign country with a different national language than your own will quickly teach you how much more difficult just about every aspect of life is when basic communication becomes a struggle.

Even in a context where everyone speaks the same language, miscommunication is a serious concern. Many businesspeople have dealt with an email that included an embarrassing typo or a badly worded message that caused confusion and inefficiency. Avoid such failures with these basic tips to ensure effective communication.

1. For written communication: always proofread!

Have you ever gotten an email that just didn’t make sense because words seemed to be missing or were egregiously misspelled? It happens, but it’s so easy to avoid. Proofread everything you write before you send it. In addition to catching basic typos and any sentences that don’t make sense, you’re more likely to catch spots in your writing that lack clarity or could use better wording.

2. Method matters

There are varying benefits to using phone, online chat, and e-mail. A phone call allows for conversations in real time, where multiple people can bounce ideas off each other or make a quick decision in order to meet a deadline. Email correspondence has the benefit of keeping an easily searchable record, enabling attachments and link sharing, and letting the respondent review the email and get back to you on their own time. Chat offers some of the benefits of both: it’s in real time, but also makes it easy to keep a record, for example. To determine which communication method is best for your needs, think about what you need to communicate and the type of response you want.

3. Stay Aware of Your Tone

Try reading emails out loud before sending, sometimes the tone in your head isn’t the one the respondent will hear when they read it. You don’t want to come off as angry or scolding when you don’t mean to be. Be careful that the language you choose isn’t loaded and likely to be misconstrued. Be aware of context, an email to your client should probably have a different tone than one sent to your sister.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Arrogance and assumptions are the cause of too many errors. Don’t pretend you know what someone’s saying if you don’t, and don’t assume you do if you’re not sure. Few people are offended or bothered by being asked for clarification, and the type of person who does get bothered by it will almost certainly be more upset with you if the failure to ask leads to an inferior result. More clarity is always better.

5. Know Your Audience

Keep in mind the level of likely knowledge the person you’re communicating with will have. Correspondence with someone who has been working in your industry for years will probably seem prohibitively complex and have too much jargon for someone outside of the industry to grasp. Tailor your writing style accordingly, aim to make all your correspondence as informative and easy for the reader to understand as possible.

6. Read

One of the best tricks to get better at writing and speaking is to read often. You gain a better grasp of language and the most effective ways to use it. The more words and ideas you pick up from skilled writers, the more their techniques will slip into the way you communicate.

Understanding Consumer Behavior: Signaling

The way people make purchasing decisions isn’t always logical. Consumer behavior is determined by a great number of factors. One of the challenges of good marketing figuring out the best methods that appeal to how most people think when they’re shopping.

A recent article in the New York Times takes a look at some of the eccentricities in how people choose their favorite brands. The basic argument of the piece suggests that for most consumers, decisions are made via a mix of reasonable research and emotional impulse.

The writer, Davidson, offers the example of his decision to purchase a more expensive baby formula, largely because the company’s been around longer than many of its competitors. This signals to him that they care about their reputation enough to consistently offer a quality product. This is an assumption based on little evidence, yet one many other consumers are likely to understand.

For certain purchases, especially for items that influence the health of your family and more costly purchases, people want to feel confident that they’re choosing an item of the best quality. Whether or not they know that the product’s the best matters less than how they feel.

For many small businesses, it isn’t too complicated to ensure that your company is well represented in the research phase of consumer shopping. Any business that cares about its reputation knows already to only offer quality products and consistently excellent customer service. It’s the more emotional side of consumer behavior that can present a challenge.

Many of the examples the article cites of successful signaling by brands consist of larger companies demonstrating their success by spending lots of money on advertising. If they’re already successful, the thinking goes, clearly they’re already doing something right and consumers should have confidence in their product.

So how can a small business use this knowledge of consumer behavior on a smaller scale?

  • Include customer testimonials on your website, to give people confidence that you’ve provided quality products and services in the past. If one of your customers is known and respected in the community, all the better.
  • Are you a member in a trade organization? Have you earned any awards or received favorable reviews? Show that on your website. It lets visitors know that your business cares about its reputation and as such will strive to offer quality goods and services.
  • Make sure your website looks professional. If it looks sloppy or poorly designed, people are less likely to trust that it’s a legitimate business. It’s worth it to spend a little money on a good graphic designer.
  • Don’t go too low in your pricing. Some people will always take what looks like the better deal (and little by little learn that this often means having to replace the original purchase soon thereafter), but others will choose to look for the higher quality product rather than the cheapest one.
  • Offer a money-back guarantee or warranty. It’s much easier to feel confident in making a purchase if it doesn’t feel like an obligation.

When in doubt, think of your own shopping tendencies and talk to friends and family about their consumer habits. What turns them off to a potential purchase? What helps them decide to go ahead with it? Consumer behavior is varied, but there are enough trends and tendencies to help businesses make effective marketing decisions.