by: Bill Ringle
If you’re reading this article in your office, take a moment to listen closely. The sounds you may hear are managers running around looking for an e-commerce solution. Or maybe it’s a SQL server. Or whatever the buzzword is of the week.
One thing that’s for sure is that the Internet sure generates a lot of new technologies. There’s a lot to keep up with out there. The problem is that in keeping up with the new stuff, a lot of the less glitzy fundamentals get overlooked. Too bad, because it’s the fundamentals that are going to give the greatest ROI, ROT, ROE for 97% of the companies in our industry competing in the global marketplace today.
If you’re still reading and not running on to the next big thing, here is a short list of action items to stimulate net results.
What You Told Your Boss You Were Going to Do, But Haven’t Done Yet
1. Implement a consistent naming structure for your company e-mail addresses.
Joe Bagadonuts recommends that you phone a colleague of his at the office who would really like to know more about the work that your company does. He’ll have to phone you or send you his colleague’s e-mail address once he gets back to the office. Joe might not get that information to you, and you might not be able to follow-up with him in a timely way. However, Pat Franklin, who works for MetLife, also has a colleague you should call. That colleague’s name is Sally Peterson and you can reach her at Sally.Peterson@ge.com, and you can write that down in your Palm organizer as you chat. Or on the back of an envelope. The point is that because there is a structure at General Electric, any employee can construct on the spot the e-mail address of any other employee. The structure can vary – some companies use the first initial and last name (S.Peterson@ge.com), some use underscores instead of dashes to separate parts of the name (Sally_Peterson@ge.com). Some just run the names or initials together (SPeterson@ge.com). What matters is convenience and consistency.
2. Use the company domain name for all company business.
If your company has a web site at www.betterinvestments.com, it hurts your credibility to have an employee’s e-mail on her business card to be addressed to an AOL.com account. You may object and say, it doesn’t matter, it’s better than having no e-mail address at all. You may say that the person was an early adopter and still has 1,000 business cards to use before reprinting. I say that’s 1,000 too many bad impressions to make. Think of it this way: Having a mismatch between a company’s web site and e-mail domain name raises all sorts of distracting questions. “Why haven’t they gotten around to publishing their correct e-mail addresses?” “Are these guys really that far behind?” “Is this person I’m speaking to doing business on the side?” Having misaligned domain names on business cards and letterhead is a communications defect. Treat it as such by recalling the bad items and reissuing correct versions.
3. Use the web site to give customers and partners more choices for contact and communication.
Go to your company web site and pretend to be a customer looking to request clarification on one of your best products. It doesn’t have to be an esoteric request, just something slightly off the beaten track. How easy is it to ask a question or open a dialog on a scale of 1 to 10? You can get a passing grade on this point very easily by simply putting sales, customer service, support, and suggestion phone/fax/fax back numbers on a clearly marked section of your web site. Don’t overlook this 15 minute fix that will satisfy countless customers and increase their loyalty to you.
Remember, your competitor’s web site is just a click away. Don’t carelessly give customers, partners, or prospects reasons to shop elsewhere once they’ve arrived at your site.
What the Boss Has Agreed to Fund, But Progress is in Limbo
4. Assign staff to answer inquiries.
The world wide web has shortened communication cycles. What used to take a week for a typical turn-around time for a letter has shrunk by more sophisticated telephony and the ubiquity of e-mail. If you post an e-mail address on your company web site, that e-mail address had better be forwarded to and addressed to a person or group whose responsibility includes answering e-mail inquiries. Typically, a good percentage of your customer service representatives can, with good training, respond to general information requests (i.e., send out a sample kit or information packet via snail mail), or recognize the out-of-the-ordinary requests and forward them to the appropriate departments. A key factor in justifying this additional time and attention is to use a ticket-tracking system, adapted from help-desks.
5. Use forms to protect against spammers and provide a consistent experience. The tricks for spammers sending unsolicited commercial e-mail grows daily. One trap you’ll want to avoid is having your web site provide customer service addresses to spammers. (After all, you’ve got staff tracking and responding to all inquiries now. Considering the latest plea to lose weight, view porn, or get rich quick is not the best use of your staff’s time!) To duck the Internet spiders that scavenge e-mail addresses of unsuspecting web sites, simply use a form to accept customer input and have it forward to the appropriate e-mail address. Your webmaster can implement this quite easily.
6. Use opt-in listservers and provide real value to customers. To shy away from all bulk e-mail due to the bad wrap that spammers bring to the game is a huge mistake. Set aside the environmental benefits of sending digital messages vs. slices of dead trees smeared with colored inks. Set aside the flexibility you gain from having control of your message until the very last moment. Even set aside the benefit you get from being able create and send these messages without the involvement of as many talented graphic artists, layout designers, printers, and mailing specialists as are needed with traditional methods. Putting those three factors aside, you STILL have customers who want, expect, and need their information about your company’s products and services delivered by e-mail. So long as you invite subscribers to join rather than provide information on how to opt-out on every message, you can be assured of greater success in this area on many levels.
The Stuff that Legends are Made Of
7. Review your strategic plan for Internet opportunities. As you look out 12 to 24 months, consider what new capabilities your employees need in order to achieve the company’s goals and increase its business position in the market. No matter how stubborn or settled a company culture may appear from the inside, every manager and individual contributor knows that pace of the game has been picked up by technological changes outside the company and both you and your biggest competitors are taking a hard look at how to capture and retain customers using the Internet. Every professional in your organization realizes this to some degree. It’s time to review your strategic plan — whether it is for the company, your division, or department — and see how the Internet can support your objectives and provide development opportunities for your people.
8. Involve division heads in cost-savings searches. You can radically multiply budget and labor savings by sharing programs that have worked in one area of the company and sharing them. Not all ideas work exactly the same across functional areas, but you’d be surprised once you lead discussions to this level. A multibillion dollar chemicals company found that its Finance department could apply the same techniques for document collaboration that its Engineering department had pioneered once the finance group overcame the barriers that those technologies and skills were “too technical” for its staff to employ.
9. Provide appropriate awareness and skills training. Scenario 1: Your finance staff needs to learn a new e-mail package, so you send them to a training course. It’s both convenient and cost-effective. When they return, you find out that the examples used in the course were based around airline reservations and the course instructor had no idea how to translate the materials in the workbook to the specific needs of the company’s internal mail servers, never mind how to dial-in while working from home or traveling. Scenario 2: You work with a vendor committed to understanding and supporting your objectives. During the needs assessment, the critical skills needed to be transferred to the staff are identified, described, and verified. Each staff member comes with a unique background, so a variety of learning deliveries are provided: lecture and demonstration, CD-ROM self-study, and intranet web-based instruction. Assessment: If you just look at initial outlay as the single most important criteria, scenario 1 gets the vote. If you look at value delivered to the organization and increased individual capabilities, then scenario 2 is the better choice.
10. Focus on business outcomes rather than be driven by technology. Business results, for the most part, are measurable. A greater percentage of customers are more completely satisfied with requests for information on the company’s products and services. Complaints are reduced and resolved more quickly. Sales increase year over year. Product development cycles shrink by days, weeks, or even months. Internet technology supports these changes everyday in companies just like yours. If you stop chasing the technologies and put the tools you have to work, you’ll find the results go straight to your bottom line.
Bill Ringle is a CEO, former Apple exec, published author, and angel investor. Through Grow Business Now, he offers strategies and tools to elevate growth for executives and entrepreneurs from more than 46 industries. Bill has conducted nearly 200 podcast interviews on My Quest for the Best, where industry and business leaders share their secrets to success.