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5 As a Business, We Are What We Aspire to Be

The title of this post applies to most things in life I feel and certainly in business. Unless we have goals and aspirations for our business, it’s hard to imagine arriving at a destination of our own control.

Businesses have long espoused the virtues of mission statements, but it’s only when you live these statements through everyday acts that they become real.

My business has always been driven by a few simple ideas, but only recently did I turn them into what I call a “culture statement.” I would say these ideas represent a great deal of what I’ve always stood for, but seeing them in this fashion keeps them even more firmly rooted in my day to day actions.

The idea behind a culture statement is to come up with a set of ideas for what you stand for and then build upon them in ways that make them real in everyday situations. This not only lets team members know a bit about what we stand for it also helps us all make the right decisions when the heat of the moment may creep in and attempt to dictate how we act.

This is how culture is built, communicated and lived through decision-making that happens in real time.

We use this document in training and keep it front and center at all times. It’s our plan to discuss individual attributes during review meetings and I’m happy to share it here publicly.

If you find this document interesting you might also enjoy similar ones from Buffer, Zappos and check out the companies rated by Glassdoor to have the best cultures. After wrestling with this idea for a while a couple things became very clear:

  • A culture statement starts by reflecting who you really are – there’s no point in coming up with stuff that simply sounds good
  • A culture statement should include some aspirational elements – it’s okay to include “this is something we strive for but don’t always achieve “- that’s how we grow
  • A culture statement will evolve as you grow – add new things, take things away, consolidate and learn
  • A culture statement, like so many things in business, will flow only as it’s lived from the top – if the boss doesn’t live it, it won’t mean much
  • A culture statement must be taught, led and enforced – make time to discuss various elements of the culture statement as you teach and review actions inside the business
  • A culture statement is a team game. not an edict – everyone in the organization needs to come to their own terms with what the values mean to them and how they can best live them

35 7 Characteristics of a Real Life Marketing Strategy

In my opinion, developing and executing an effective marketing strategy is the most important job of any marketer and failure to do so is the single greatest threat to creating anything that looks and feels like business building momentum.

While few would argue with the statement above, marketing strategy as a practical tool remains little more than an academic exercise for most businesses.

Inside Threadless HQ in Chicago

I’ve spent a great deal of time wrestling with the idea of developing useful, real life marketing strategies for small businesses and have concluded that there are a handful of characteristics that can be mined, explored and shaped in order to make marketing strategy the foundation of business building.

The key to discovering an effective marketing strategy lies in understanding first that its essence is much more about why a business does something than what or how the business does something.

These elemental characteristics are rooted deeply in human wants and desires and act to create a connection between a company, its products and services, its people and ultimately its customers.

I believe any company can create a marketing strategy that will actually serve as the catalyst to creating a remarkable business by deeply exploring and embracing one, or some combination of several, of the characteristics outlined below.

Single minded purpose

If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospects, magic can happen.

The idea of higher purpose can be a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to do business with a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do.

The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. You can’t fake this characteristic but you can move your higher purpose front and center in your marketing strategy.

Some of the companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer loyalty focus almost entirely on why they do what they do, as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.

The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – Shatto Milk Company’s marketing strategy is one that claims to bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.

Desperately seeking inspiration

People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire.

We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients.

Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.

Steve Jobs is cited more often than any other company leader for his ability to inspire through telling stories about the Apple brand.

An obvious innovation

Every industry engages is some practice that customers just come to live with. And then someone comes along, either from outside of the industry or as method of survival, and shakes it up but suggesting there’s a better way.

Creating what ends up looking like an obvious innovation in an industry and then embracing that change as a marketing strategy is one way that companies create a clear differentiation.

Rackspace, a hosting company located in Austin Texas, created an obvious innovation in the hosting industry by simply making a decision to provide real service. While that shouldn’t seem like an innovation it was in an industry that appeared to abhor actually talking to its customers.

To sum up Rackspace’s marketing strategy – “Fanatical Support isn’t just what we do. It’s really what makes us, well, us. It’s our need to make a difference in the lives our customers—no matter how big or small. Really, it’s our way of life.”

Let us entertain you

People will give their last dollar to be entertained. I believe this has never been truer than it is today. Since so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free these days, the money’s in the package and the experience.

Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make that fact that yours is a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with central to your strategy and people will be drawn to the game.

Step inside the offices of t-shirt maker Threadless and you’ll be greeted by giant stuffed creatures, two Airstream “think pods,” offices decorated by staff to show off departmental personality, and a basketball court in the warehouse. The place is definitely fun.

The role of convenience

This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non-friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes.

Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.

Being easy to do business with is a marketing strategy that can become a culture and mantra that spreads word of mouth and drives customer adoption faster than any promotion or campaign ever could.

Evernote is easy to do business with. Their products sync across all of my various tools and just work, without the need to consult an owner’s manual.

Simplicity is harder than it looks

Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features.

Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features. If this is to be a marketing strategy it must become a way of life that informs every decision.

37 Signals is a great example of a business that has embraced simplicity as a marketing strategy. They make great software that does just a handful of things very, very well. According the CEO Jason Fried they spend more time considering what features to leave out of a release then what to add.

The element of surprise

Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations as a marketing strategy.

Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?

Again I return to Zappos. Zappos has an unstated policy of surprise. If you order shoes on a Monday, the order confirmation will suggest that you allow 3-5 days for shipping, but don’t be surprised if they show up the next morning.

13 The 7 Verbs of Commitment

In the end, what every business seeks is commitment – from our customers, our staff, our partners, and our entire collaboration universe. Commitment erases friction, creates momentum and drives substantial profit.

Commit

tornatore via Flickr

But in a world where most everything our companies offer can be acquired somewhere, perhaps even from our own company, for free, how do you create the kind of company, product or service that drives people over the edge to commit – to pay for something that’s available for free, to evangelize something for no tangible gain, or to pour their heart and soul into building something that yields far more than a paycheck or a promised result?

Those are the questions I’ve begun to explore of late. It’s easy to look around and cite Apple or Zappos as shining examples of the kind of commitment I’m describing, but what about the company of two that’s not quite crossed over the million dollar mark or the start-up or the company that’s toiling away building a remarkable business completely out of the spotlight of the media.

I wanted to know if there’s a formula, system if you like, for building that kind of company – the kind or commitment that you’re seeing towards a service like Evernote or the kind of customer passion I’ve witnessed towards Shatto Farms, a small local milk producer that’s bucking the system of corporate co-op milk production.

As I’ve ventured out into this exploration I’ve become convinced that there is indeed a systematic path to building commitment into the DNA of an organization and it’s an active, intentional and strategic approach that involves the careful blending of a set of characteristics that I’ve started calling the 7 Verbs of Commitment.

The interesting thing about these verbs is that none of them would be readily applied to the kinds of things we think about when it comes to building a product or service. In fact, the companies that embrace these characteristics at their core often do so in spite of what they happen to produce.

Companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer commitment focus almost entirely on why they do what they do as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.

The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – we bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.

I submit that the following 7 characteristics can be found to some degree in most every company, large or small, that enjoys raving fans and zealous employees.

Simplify – Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features. Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features, this is a way of life that must inform every decision. Many business that have instantly built a committed fan base, such as 37Signals, were started to simplify something in the life of the founder.

Hear – It’s often said that a person is a great listener and that we need to listen to markets and customer and while I think this is great advice, particularly in the age of instant social communication, the true skill goes beyond listing to hearing what’s being said in a way that can be applied to overall vision of the business. This actually takes a special filtering device that starts with a question – How can we hear and view everything through the vision of our business?

Surprise – Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations. Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?

Resonate – If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospect, magic can happen. This is a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to commit to a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do. The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. It’s kind of hard to fake this one.

Play – In Pine and Gilmore’s great book – The Experience Economy there’s a line that has always stuck with me. “People will give their last dollar to be entertained.” I believe this has never been more true than it is today. If so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free, then the money’s in the package and the experience. Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make yours a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with and people will commit to the game.

Inspire – People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire. We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients. Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.

Easy – This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes. Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.

So, you can expect a great deal more on this subject from me over the coming months as I believe that while every marketing strategy and tactic that we employ can take our businesses one step in right direction, the idea of systematic commitment is indeed the difference maker for those trying to fully realize the incredible journey that building a business is.

14 Customer Service Is Everyone’s Job

UPSThe International Business Series is brought to you by UPS. Discover the new logistics. It levels playing fields and lets you act locally or globally. It’s for the individual entrepreneur, the small business, or the large company. Put the new logistics to work for you.

serviceHere’s something your customers won’t ever tell you but that you had better understand: Your employees probably treat your customers about the same way you treat your employees. Let that soak that in for a minute, and think about the ways your everyday behavior might be affecting your organization’s ability to generate positive buzz.

Organizations that provide the best customer service consider service traits when they hire and treat their employees like prime target customers. It makes sense, of course; happy employees are much more likely to represent the brand in a positive manner. Let’s face it: Companies aren’t capable of making emotional connections; people are. But it takes effort.

In all but the most technical positions, much of what employees do on a day-to-day basis can be taught. It’s much harder, however, to teach someone to be trustworthy, to give, or to serve. Yet, as stated above, these are key traits of organizations that known for great service.

If your organization has more than two or three employees it’s a pretty good bet they will interact with customers and prospects in ways that will affect your brand. So the question is, are you hiring and training to create a service culture?

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29 Are You Delivering Happiness?

Marketing podcast with Tony Hsieh (Click to play or right click and “Save As” to download – Subscribe now via iTunes

Tony HsiehMy guest for today’s episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast is Tony Hsieh, CEO of the billion dollar company Zappos.

Tony describes Zappos as a service company that happens to sell shoes online.

Extreme customer service was not the big master plan. In Hseih’s new book,Delivering Happiness, he chronicles what he terms the mistakes he made along the way in an effort to help other entrepreneurs avoid them. (They failed their way to 1.2 billion in sales)

Hsieh cites his research into positive psychology or the science of happiness as one of the factors of success at Zappos. Changing the culture to being about making employees, vendors and customers happy became the Zappos brand. Building processes to deliver happiness at every touch point is hard to do. You have to build it at the core and let the people deliver who you are. Define the core values and make it something that get amplified everyday. Hire and fire based on the core values.

You can find more about the book and Tony’s Happiness Movement at Delivering Happiness

My question is when will there be a Zappos Airline?

16 Are You an Active Business Blogger?

This offer is closed now! Sorry

I am making 50 advance copies of my new book The Referral Engine available to active business bloggers.

The Referral EngineIf you would like to receive one visit this page to find out more about the book.

Please know that we would like you to meet the following requirements:

1. You maintain an active blog, meaning that it’s updated at least once a week.
2. You agree to blog (and tweet, if on Twitter) an honest review of the book on May 10th, 2010 or during that week. (Blogging about the book before that is okay too, just agree to do it that week as well.)

FYI – I totally stole this idea from Tony Hsieh at Zappos who is offering the same for his book due in June – Delivering Happiness.

9 How Do You Resell Your Employees

People come to work at your place, you hire for fit, teach them the core value and functions of the job, generally get them fired up for a while and then what?

It’s a tough question, but one that is vitally important when it comes to marketing because happy, engaged, sold employees make far better brand advocates than the opposite.

Tony HsiehIn doing some research on referable companies for my new book The Referral Engine, I came across a policy used by the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos. When Zappos makes a hire, no matter the department, they go through a training class that includes spending time answering customer call center inquiries. (That’s the job that the bulk of Zappos employees fill.) At the end of their training period they are made an offer to quit. They are told they will be paid for the training period + $2,000 if they want to quit.

I spoke with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recently and he told me that initially they put this in place to weed out people that weren’t ultimately committed to the Zappos way of serving customers, but what they found was the more valuable attribute was the impact it had on the people that stayed. (By the way, few take them up on the offer.) People that turn down the $2,000, an amount that is over two weeks pay for typical call center job, go home over the weekend and think long and hard about why they want to stay. The net effect is that they resell themselves on making a commitment to the job at Zappos. (If you’re a blogger and want a free review copy of Tony’s book Delivering Happiness, due out in June, apply here.)

I don’t know that I have a host of answers for what or how you should attack this one, I just know it will pay off if you do.

Share your ideas for reselling your employees. How do you do it?

Image credit: charlie llewellin

27 5 Ways to Make Culture a Marketing Strategy

jones soda design strategyAn effective marketing strategy is the most important marketing consideration your small business can employ. Bar none it’s the difference between companies that get by and those that get buy.

Silly pun aside, there are many ways of landing on a marketing strategy, but sometimes the difference maker lies outside of your products and services. While it’s all very logical to try to find your point of differentiation from a product, package, or price feature, some of the greatest marketing strategies reside in tapping the underlying culture of the organization itself.

Culture’s a funny thing in the world of small business. It’s often a representation of the personality, beliefs and values held by the owner of the business. It’s hard to fake and it’s hard to change. But, if you can define it, mold it, and communicate it in ways that support a positive brand experience, you might just be on to a very powerful source of business.

Below are five ways that organizational culture can become a powerful marketing strategy.

1) Green

The green movement is alive and well in the mind of a growing segment of the market. This isn’t just a culture of environmentally sound business practices as much as it is a commitment to something of a higher purpose that represents the beliefs of an organization.

It’s also a good place to look for authenticity. This is not just about setting up a recycling program and promoting it on the web site.

Green business is about nurturing and growing. It involves customer service and employee practices that focus on that. Check out SweetRiot or TerraCycle

2) Yes

Some companies find a way to over deliver and delight their customers at every turn. They define customer service and the “yes we can do that” attitude in every process and business decision.

Their customers voluntarily relate stories of over the top feats of service. Few companies do this better than Zappos

A commitment to a level of service that makes people talk about you is a great marketing strategy.

3) People

There’s a coffee shop in my neighbor that makes pretty average coffee, but I’m drawn to visit them time and time again because the owner of the business and every single person he finds to employ are so darn nice and genuinely friendly that I want to do business with them.

Every time I fly Southwest Airlines, and it’s often, I’m amazed at happy their employees seem to be while they go about their work. Baggage handlers, ticket agents, pilots and flight attendants alike all seem to share the same passion.

4) Design

Great design powers many organizations to marketing greatness. Apple certainly benefits from a long history of simple, but very powerful, design.

Great design is probably the one area a firm can acquire the greatest amount of outside help. A talented branding or design agency can go a long way towards creating design assets that connect with design conscious customers, but in the end, the culture of great design has to live in the walls. A company that benefits from a focus on style pays as much consideration to the pens and trash cans in the office as a logo and web page.

One of my design first favorites is JonesSoda

5) Freaks

As Tom Peters famously said in Liberation Management, “Fire the planners and hire the freaks. In an age of deviation, the only viable response to weirdness is to get weird.”

Whether you call it cultural diversity, tolerance or color, standing out by letting your hair down and being who you really are is a great way to attract others who share your passion for weirdness.

Actively seeking colorful individuals to bring much higher level of out of the box thinking may be just the ticket for a company looking to establish a point of differentiation.

So, could the underlying culture of your place of business become your core marketing strategy? Then let it free!

Image credit: anokarina