Monday, May 31, 2010

Four Tenets for Engaging the Customer

By: Derek Howard

When it comes to making purchases, we as consumers have numerous reasons we buy stuff. These can range from simple and straight-forward to convoluted and complex. For some consumers, it’s a question of brand loyalty, for others it’s almost a game―searching for the best product through dozens of sites or stores. For some of us, it’s as simple as price. Either way, understanding consumer behavior is important to any business and, unsurprisingly, has become a big business itself.

Companies pay top dollar for research to find out why we prefer one widget over another. Though nowhere near exact, some attempts have been made at turning this into a science. Two examples of this are VALS and PRIZM.

VALS (which stands for Values, Attitudes and Lifestyles) is a system that divides people into various psychographic segments. When participants take the VALS questionnaire, their answers determine which of eight segments they fit into, ranging from Innovator to Survivor. Marketers can then use this information to find out what a product’s target market might be.

The PRIZM segmentation system from Nielsen also divides people into different segments, but it then goes on to show which of these groups are located in a specific geographical area. You simply type in a ZIP code and the system will give you a broad view of its demographics (I warn you, this can be addictive). The segments have such names as Upper Crust, Old Glories and Family Thrift. The site will also give you general info about these groups, from lifestyles to media choices.

However, regardless of any fancy algorithms or costly research, sometimes it’s the simple things that offer the best solutions and insights into what makes a customer tick. And a lot of that has to do with a company’s refocusing on consumer behavior’s close cousin, customer service. As consumers, we like to feel wanted. I don’t necessarily have to believe that my purchase is the most important thing to a company, but a little appreciation is, well, appreciated. Many businesses are finding success with this approach.

One such advocate of this is Jay Greene. In a recent article he wrote for Advertising Age, Greene described what he called four marketing axioms businesses can and should use to engage their customers.

First, he said that companies need to connect on a personal level with their customers. This means getting inside their heads―finding out what and how they think/feel about stuff. Once you know how things look from a consumer’s perspective, you can use those insights to position yourself in the best possible manner.

Next, Greene advised companies to really develop and nurture their core values. If you’re honest and up-front about what you stand for, customers will see and remember you for it. He even suggests linking your brand with a cause or social initiative that best exemplifies your values and allowing your customers the opportunity to get involved.

Then comes the reminder to innovate. As he so eloquently put it, “Innovation is the hallmark of a premium brand.” A company’s ability to constantly improve and adapt to changing market landscapes can really set it apart from its competition.

Finally, Greene ends with what he considers the most important axiom, what he calls “Remember the love.” Companies should always keep in mind those little things that make their product be loved by the customer. This can help not only act as kind of a check-up for a brand, but also remind companies what it is that they love about their customers as well.

Understanding the customer can be a very complicated and costly process for a business; not understanding them has an even higher price. But sometimes it’s the most basic and least costly answers that are the most effective.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Three Major Trends Companies Should Know

By: Derek Howard

Let’s face it - people can be fickle. This is especially true when it comes to being consumers. Our attention spans can be short and capricious. We have a tendency to follow the latest and hottest thing on a whim, craving the newest toy or fashion. A lot of the time, these movements disappear just as quickly as they develop; becoming nothing more than overnight sensations: fads. However, every so often the latest “in-thing” evolves beyond the flavor of the week into a full, blown trend that sticks around and becomes a new part of our culture. Being able to spot these trends before or while they’re growing is vital to many companies.

So the question becomes, how do you spot the difference between a fad and a trend? One man that specializes in doing just that is Michael Tchong. Among his many credits, Tchong is the founder of Ubercool, a business that, to quote their website, is an, “Internet marketing service that develops and produces branded entertainment events that immerse premium audiences in innovative online and offline infotainment.” A major part of how Tchong is able to be so successful at this is by understanding trends and how consumers react to them.

At a recent Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) Young Professionals event, I was fortunate enough to hear Tchong speak firsthand about his involvement with the world of trends. Basically, Tchong is a trendwatcher, but it goes a lot deeper than that. He has an incredible knack for looking into the future and gauging what will stick and what will sink- spotting that elusive difference between fad and trend. Why should businesses care? Well, as he puts it, trends have the ability to change consumer values, fads don’t. This is key for companies. If they can get in on the ground-floor of a sweeping, powerful trend, they have the chance to utilize and grow with the trend rather than be eclipsed by it, which can mean big bucks for those with the right insight.

Even greater than the general trend is something that Tchong refers to as the ubertrend. He sees ubertrends as large trends or movements that leave lasting impressions as they move through our society. Often times, they will create patterns or ripples that leave many similar “subtrends” along the way. Regardless of the detail, ubertrends impact consumer lifestyle and behavior. In his presentation titled “I’m Going to Tweet you Up,” Tchong talked about three of the eight ubertrends he regularly tracks: digitalized lifestyle, unwired and time compression.

Tchong describes the digitalized lifestyle as the marriage of man and machine. These days, technology is everywhere, in all places at all times. It is pervasive and the new norm. Tech is the mainstream and touches all parts of our lives, from our food to our computers. Tchong also sees this as the trend of us giving technology a more human face. Though he joked about the possibility of us one day marrying robots, the serious implications exist. It starts with the things like robotic vacuum-cleaners with cute names and continues from there. One example he talked about was how one company that produces customization for laptops now refers to these computers as “My Lappy.” As Tchong said, the laptop has become a digital pet, not a tool. And that customization is important. Another example he gave was the new HP laptops, aesthetically designed by Vivienne Tam; referred to as digital clutches; the laptops focus as much on the fashion as the function.

Unwired represents, as Tchong puts it, the unhooked generation. We, as a culture, don’t want to be tied down in anyway. Unwired equals freedom to us. This has had interesting effects on society, both good and bad. The greater prevalence of citizen journalists is one side-effect. With the technology available to the average person, more and more people are starting to scoop the media on news events around the world. This, coupled with our love and greater reliance on social networks, could effectively change the landscape of the media forever. However, Tchong believes that unwired has created a few problems. One is that it is turning us into control-freaks. A major part of this problem is our obsession with customization- we want everything specific to our tastes and companies are paying attention. From custom-designed laptops to the ability to track packages and pizza each step of the way, we love to feel in control. Tchong sees each possible customization as a chance to engage the customer. As he said, companies need to decide not if, but when and where they want to apply this ubertrend to today’s mobile consumer.

Tchong ended with time compression, what he called the acceleration of life. Today, we don’t/ can’t/ won’t stop moving. We are a culture of multi-taskers seeking instant gratification. And we’re always busy it seems. A very interesting point Tchong made was how the answer to the age, old question, “How are you?” has changed over the years. It started with “good” or “great” and has evolved to “busy.” As he says, “The state of mind has become a state of time.” True and slightly disturbing. As Tchong puts it, it started with the Polaroid camera and microwave oven and blossomed from there. Though the instant meals of the Jetsons aren’t here yet, instant photography is. Tchong presented studies that show everything from our leisure time to our sleep time is shrinking, year after year. Businesses need to realize this ubertrend and act accordingly. Today’s consumer attention span is short and fragmented. With the average person lingering only 56 seconds on a webpage, companies must not only be aware of how fast their sites load but also how much information can be passed along in such a short period of time.

Tchong ended the presentation by talking a little about innovation. Basically, the core idea behind companies recognizing and utilizing these ubertrends is to remain relevant. Companies should adapt to changes in consumer lifestyle. Simply put, he believes companies need to innovate to stay on top. Judging by Tchong’s ability to predict the flux and flow of culture, I’d say that’s solid advice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Five Marketing Principles for Better Customer Service

By: Derek Howard

Customer Service is important to any business. Seems like common sense, and yet everyone seems to have that horror story; from languishing in phone-hold purgatory to dealing with apathetic or even aggressive representatives. I honestly don’t think that any business sets out to intentionally have bad service. Sadly, sometimes it ends up that way.

The real danger is that one bad customer experience can cost a business more than just the offended customer. Studies have shown that while the average person will tell only about three people about a good experience, they will tell 10 about a bad one. Those statistics coupled with today’s word-of-mouth marketing culture along with rampant social media can cause one, minor hiccup in service to potentially cost a company a lot of money.

Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to return
to a more customer-focused method of business. This can be especially crucial in how companies choose to market themselves. Connecting with customers not only can boost initial sales, but it could also create and foster lasting relationships; relationships that could help lead to what Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, refers to as “loyalty beyond reason.” These customers are an asset to any company’s bottom-line.

One big believer and supporter of customer-focused marketing is Aaron Magness, the marketing chief for Zappos. Magness stresses the importance of customer service as an all-encompassing idea, from hiring the right people and creating a positive working environment to making the customer feel appreciated. As he puts it, “It all comes down to the Golden Rule.” In an interview with’s Brandon Gutman, Magness listed his five principles for marketing:

Customer service is the new marketing. The days of dictating your brand to the public are long gone. There is so much access to information; the customer is actually dictating your brand to you.

• Communicate with your customers, don’t market at them. Customers get bombarded with marketing messages every day (practically every second). Find ways to interact with them. Discussions drive loyalty, not one way messaging.

• Don’t try to be interesting, be interested. I first heard this phrase from our CEO, Tony Hsieh, and thought it was great. It is really spot on. A lot of companies try to launch a really creative campaign, but lack the follow up to the brand promise. Your campaign should highlight what your brand promise is, not try to invent one.

• Try to WOW at every interaction. This goes for working with employees, vendors and customers. Personal relationships and interactions drive everything. You need to capitalize on them. This is obviously something that is very true and important at Zappos. I don’t think I ever put it into words until I worked here, but the importance and implications are great.

• Your culture will dictate your success. This goes back to building your team. Hire great people, treat them like adults and let them do great work. The rest should come naturally on its own.

Basically, customer service should be at the core of any business. Recently, this topic came up while talking with a friend who is a local business owner. His insight was both simple and spot on. He said, “The way I see it, I sell the same product and offer the same service that a dozen other places around here do. If you take away pricing and convenience, the reason people come to my store is me (and my employees).” As a consumer, this rings true to me. The only thing I would add is when a company impresses me, I’m much less likely to care about the first two.

Monday, May 3, 2010

IT Solutions with Microsoft Technology Centers

By: Derek Howard
Recently, I was lucky enough to tour the Microsoft Technology Center in Atlanta with the Technology Association of Georgia’s Young Professionals Society. This was an interesting event for me because though I’m not as much of a “techie” as I would like to be, I’m still fascinated by everything tech; from gadgets to software. My problem is that I love the stuff, but I always end up feeling overwhelmed. It also gave me the opportunity to see what it is that Microsoft does at these centers. Turns out, it’s all about helping other companies that, like me, may be overwhelmed by their technology problems.

These days, information technology (IT) is an important part of most businesses. From company e-mail to flashy software, IT drives the business both inside and out. Great IT can save company money, improve productivity and efficiency, and even help reel in new business. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Sub-par IT can hurt a business in many ways, most of which lead back to big dents in the company wallet.

A big key to success is to make sure that a company’s IT is right for the job. However, this can be tricky and expensive. For most businesses, the prospect of developing and implementing new IT is scary; will it work and if it does, how long will it take and how much will it cost? Custom solutions can be risky. Everything from finding the right starting point to launching it costs a company a lot of time and money, and if it fails, even more.

Microsoft offers a solution to these IT problems with their Microsoft Technology Centers (MTCs for short). Basically, MTCs are places where businesses can go to get help with their IT issues. These centers offer everything from consulting to support for companies looking to solve their problems. According to Microsoft, they are able to do this by working with organizations to help them envision, design and deploy their custom solutions. Companies get access to both Microsoft technologies as well as their expertise. The MTC has three critical components: the people, the process and the place.

The people are the MTC’s dedicated employees. The staff are IT experts, well-versed in Microsoft products. They work directly with a company’s own IT team to develop strategies and solutions that fit the problem and the need. These architects help make sure everything runs smoothly from start to finish.

The process is the plan, from A-Z. It starts with a strategy briefing. Basically this is a road map from problem to solution. Next is an architecture design session (ADC). This involves coming up with the design and providing risk analysis. Finally there is a proof-of-concept workshop (POC). This is where the MTC architects work with a company’s IT staff to prove and test the solution in a working environment; any environment. And if the MTC doesn’t have the environment you need to test in, they will work with their partners to create it.

The place is the MTC itself. The MTC facility provides its clients with everything from fully loaded lab environments to fully stocked beverages in the kitchen. Businesses have access to development and design suites that are both private and secure. Clients can come and go freely 24/7 while working at the MTC. Finally, each MTC has an Envisioning Center that acts as a demonstration facility for customers. This facility showcases IT functionality in custom, real-world environments. The room is divided into different vignettes that represent everything from an office setting to a coffeehouse, with customization a possibility.

There are currently 15 MTCs worldwide with eight here in the U.S. Plans are already underway to expand those numbers both here and overseas. Because of the way they are designed to be similar, each coordinates with the others. The idea is that if you worked at one in say, Atlanta, then you would know what to expect at the one in Tokyo.

So, the question is, are MTCs effective? Well, the website ( has plenty of case studies and testimonials that say “yes.” However, it’s ultimately up to a company to decide. Just as each problem and solution can be unique, so can each individual organization’s experience. Either way, Microsoft Technology Centers provide businesses with a creative option to their IT problems.