Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The challenge that all businesses face

I just wrote a post, "The real challenge for Apple & OS X." In it I talk about how it isn't good enough for Apple to be just "better" than the new Windows version, Vista.

In order to just hold their own, Apple must be geometrically better than Windows offerings. This is no different than the scenario faced by many other businesses that do not hold the dominant position in their market. It's even the case for local businesses. If you are the new guy in town, just being "better" is not enough.

The question boils down to how do you show enough real value to a customer in order to convince them to give you a fair shot at their business. In the computer business, it is really hard, because staying where you are is often easier than doing something different. Change can be tough.

When I helped to sell email services, often the key differentiator was just being there when the customer called and being able to jump through whatever hoops needed to solve their problems. Most often that meant having enough well trained people to answers their questions and guide them through the initial sign-up procedures. Surprisingly we had a few people who thought Saturday or Sunday would be good days to switch email providers. That meant some Saturday afternoons doing coverage like I wrote about in "The Saturday afternoon technologist, electronic hair."

The real estate world which I've recently joined has long been accustomed to working Saturday and Sunday afternoon if necessary. If we aren't around to catch the customers when they walk into the door, someone else will be.

Even companies like Apple that are product focused really need to keep their customer facing side as effective as possible. Just having stores where people can meet with dedicated and knowledgeable Apple people has been a huge success for Apple. Still as it is with all large companies, finding the right person or the right answer can be challenging. When I was at Apple, at least once a month some poor lost soul would finally get routed to my desk after a month long decent into phone tree hell while looking for someone at Apple Federal.

The other key to responding to customers is actually listening to them. In the last three years I've had a fair amount of experience with real estate agents. I also been hauled to a large number of houses that the minute I saw them, I knew we were wasting our time and the time of real estate agents. The agents had not listened to me or they would have figured out that I wanted a house with some beach characteristics instead of a two story colonial.

I'm really curious to see how Apple does with the iPhone. Apple is of the belief that you have to tell customers what to buy instead of building products with the help of customers. That's one of the main reasons Apple products seem to be headed more towards a closed ecosystem. If you aren't trying to make your products work with your customers' stuff, my guess is that it won't.

In real estate we have to listen to our customers who often become our clients. Once they become clients, we have to put their interests before ours.

It's a totally different relationship than you find in the computer world. There companies buying products have been known to be stuck with equipment made obsolete by an announcement of new products. Sometimes it happens before the purchased products even make it to someone's desk.

Of course that doesn't make for happy customers.

It turns out that the best way to get another customer is to do a really good job for the one that you already have. Happy customers can be very effective sales people for a company

In Apple's case the customers have gone that one step further and in effect become tremendous evangelists for the company. Should Apple ever lose that army of Mac users, it would be very hard to continue to be successful.

I'm actually glad to be in a world where my success is measured by how successful I am in meeting the customer needs not just today but over time. If more companies measured their employees that way, we would see more companies responsive to customers and fewer ones who just throw their products over the wall with the hopes that someone will purchase them.

Incremental improvement to meet customer suggestions might not be the best way to define new product categories, but it is a great way to build customer loyalty even if you aren't the biggest player in town or the market.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Apple iPhone Day

Today was a big day for Apple, they stripped "Computer" from their company name and firmly entrenched themselves as a consumer products company.

The company that once produced the computer for the rest of us, is now trying to cement its reputation as the place to go for all the coolest gadgets.

As a long time user of Apple's computers, I hope this even greater dedication to consumer gadgets doesn't mean the computer part of Apple is going to be ignored, but based on today's announcements, it seems that just might be the case.

I am not exactly a heavy cell phone user, so spending $499 for one of the iPhones is probably something I'm not going to do. I am sure there will be a rush to buy this newest Apple gadget, but my life is not complex enough that I need all the features that Apple has packed into iPhone. I often can't even find my cell phone. I figure that I'm better off with a Noika that is two years old.

I made a prediction today. I am guessing Apple may have reached its pinnacle today. We will see if I'm right or wrong in six months to a year. I think Apple will do well with the iPhone. I just don't think it will be another iPod. I could be wrong, it won't be the first time when it comes to Apple. The one thing that might change my prediction is if Apple releases OS X for Intel hardware made by other manufacturers. That would be huge, but it's not likely to happen unless the dynamics of Apple's business change.

Based on what I have seen Apple is fully committed to requiring proprietary hardware to join the chosen circle of Apple users. I don't think that is going to change.

I wonder how big that circle of Apple users can get before they get tired of dancing only to Apple's tunes? I hate to drag up this, but seems to me that Steve once promised never to introduce products before they would ship. Actually that the only kind of products he seems to introduce these days.

On another note, if you're a small or medium company interested in email, today I posted an article, "Email Services for Businesses," which explains why I think this should be the year of email service outsourcing.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Blogs and personal product marketing

We absorb so many marketing messages that it can be very hard to make intelligent buying decisions. I doubt that is a surprise to anyone.

What might be a surprise to those who aren't paying attention is the way that bloggers are providing some interesting twists on marketing. There are so many products on the shelves these days that picking the best one can be a huge challenge. Sometimes it doesn't matter. I probably won't be upset by which Tide detergent my wife picks from the six different scents.

I would, however, be very upset if someone that I knew went out and bought a Volvo without listening to the challenges that I have faced. I wrote the post, "High tech car, low tech dealer," back in the fall of 2005. I am still getting comments on it. In fact one came in today. It closed with this comment.
I have completely lost faith in Volvo.
Now a few people complaining about Volvo isn't going to do huge damage to the company. Still in a world where people are becoming more and more connected it isn't going to Volvo any good either.

The thing is that as more and more intelligent buyers start to depend on each other's opinions, it will matter. In fact as marketing gets more questionable, the opinions which gain credence on the web will start to make a difference.

Today I had an article, "What Jobs told me on the iPhone," published in the Guardian Unlimited in London, England. In less than twenty four hours eighteen thousand people had taken the time to click on a link from the article and visit one of two main blogs, "Applepeels" or "View from the Mountain." My Ocracoke Waves blogger site is one where I don't track the traffic, but I am sure some folks wandered by here.

I had numerous notes and comments which lend me to believe that people trust what I say. I take that trust seriously. As someone who has been selling things since he starting knocking on doors in the first grade and selling first aid kits, I have always sold things in which I believed. That includes Angus cattle, Vermeer Balers, Apple's computers, G3 Systems Inc. integration services, and outsourced email from Webmail.us. It hasn't mattered whether I was selling it in a face to face meeting or recommending it in my writing. My integrity has always come first. I am not going to sell or recommend a bad product.

I have also tried to separate my personal dislikes on companies from their products. Some places it is easier to do that than others. Writing about Apple, it's pretty easy to love many of the products while not be very excited about the company. Yet even with Apple, when I have a product that has problems, like the MacBook I recently bought, I'm not very shy about saying something.

I would like to think we are heading into a world of products which receive personal reviews that I can trust. The trouble is that most of the time I cannot find the right information. A good example is my latest purchase of an "AIO" or "all in one printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine" I searched the web for good information. All of it was rather worthless.

I talked to friends, no one had current experience using a Mac with one of the machines. I went to the big box electronic stores and most couldn't even make them work. I ended up gambling on the purchase. Yet when I got it all working, I wrote about it and the articles, "HP AIO Photosmart C6180 and Mac OSX," and "The not so reluctant home system engineer," have been very popular. I am now the expert and get questions about the product almost daily.

I try to answer as many as possible, but the interest I have seen in these posts borders on more than I can handle for free. This interest in finding real answers is very indicative of the lack of trust that many people have in the standard over-hyped marketing that we're seeing today. People are accustomed to buying things where the performance doesn't match up to the marketing materials.

Over time the smart people become cautious and look to other ways to evaluate important purchases.

Companies haven't figured out how to utilize people like me since I don't want anyone to give me a product. If that happened, my review would probably be worth as much as the reviews done by magazines that are trying to protect their advertising revenue. Maybe people like me are a disorganized low budget free Consumer Reports without any consistent standards but with lots of personality.

I'll take a personal recommendation from someone I know over any marketing that I see. It might be interesting if Blogger or Typepad developed a rating system for bloggers like eBay has for buyers and sellers.

Just maybe we would find it a little easier to find out what we need before we give these companies our hard earned money. I encourage everyone to speak honestly about the product you use.

I love where I live, I tell people about my experiences on North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks (SOBX). There are certain restaurants that I really like. I want them to stay in business so I write about them. My favorite place to buy fresh shrimp prompted me to write about how to fix shrimp in the post, "The easy way to perfect shrimp." The shrimp then need the right cocktail sauce so I have to tell people about Kelchner's Cocktail Sauce.

I don't consider it wrong to give a plug for something that I enjoy or which has provided me with good service or great taste. I don't make it any money for my positive comments, and most people like to have recommendations to help them filter through all the marketing hype.

I have started recording some of my recommendations on a new blog, "Coastal NC Daily Record." I hope it ends up being useful for at least a few smart consumers.

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