Virtual Assistant Technology to Support Your Business

Enter the New Year with a mission to explore and utilize virtual assistant technology as part of your strategy to create operational efficiencies and competitive advantages for your organization competitive in 2021 and beyond. The negative effects of the COVID economy should lend some urgency to your efforts.

You already know that Intelligent Virtual Assistants can quickly answer common questions posed by website visitors because you’ve most likely used chat bots yourself. You’ve probably also pulled out your phone many times to ask those voice-controlled Intelligent Virtual Assistants named Siri and Alexa questions like where you can get an ice cream cone, or the location of the nearest hardware store. In other words, you’re comfortable with Intelligent Virtual Assistants and you’re ready to brainstorm how to use them in your business.

IVAs have many uses, including pairing with artificial intelligence and blockchain technology to guarantee secure business transactions and contracts, a benefit that has become more valuable in the work from home virtual communication-dependent COVID environment. Along with tech-enabled administrative, operational and customer service functions, IVAs can seamlessly supply an array of other services.

IVA and LeadGen

Use IVA to stimulate both online and in-store sales by suggesting purchases to online shoppers who’ve either previously bought items on your site, or merely visited the site. You get to select the triggers, the contact schedule and the manner of marketing outreach—an ad or a marketing email, for example.

Have you ever visited the website of a grocery chain and a minute later discovered ads for grocery delivery in your online feed? That’s IVA- driven drip marketing at your service. There are other time-saving and money- making possibilities that IVA can deliver. For a not overwhelming sum each month, depending on the service, you can position your company as being at the technological forefront and build confidence in your organization and its operations as a result.

IVA and email marketing

Hunter.io will ferret out those elusive email addresses of decision-makers you’d like to contact and engage with as you lay the groundwork for selling and brand building or opportunities. Just enter the company name and the person you’d like to reach and receive a list of email addresses that contain that domain name. Try the no-pay trial option and receive 50 free email searches or sign on for 500 email searches, verifications and several more useful email marketing campaign services for just $49/month.

IVA and PR/ Marketing

Maybe you want to be a guest on the right podcast? IVA technology will search podcasts that should be a fit for your products or services. IVA will also create your email marketing pitch for the targeted podcast hosts to launch a campaign to get you on a broadcast or two. The email will be sent from your business account and will suggest topics you’d like discuss that would appeal to the podcast listeners and add value to the show.

If you’d like to get on the radar screens of blogger- influencers in your location or industry, or introduce yourself to key print or digital journalists, the same tactic can be applied. Furthermore, IVA technology can be used to help you effectively recycle still relevant content marketing posts from your blog or newsletter into social media posts, whether text or video format.

As Freelancers and all business owners and leaders continue to grapple with the challenges presented by the COVID economy and its impact on activities we once took for granted, incorporating IVA technology into your company will become essential in what will be an increasingly digital world.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: George and Jane Jetson with Rosie, their IVA household help. Animated sitcom The Jetsons (Hanna-Barbera) aired in prime time on ABC from September 1962 – March 1963, then spent many years in syndication.

You Can Scale During a Pandemic

Unlikely as it may seem, it is possible to scale a business during the COVID era or any difficult economic times, including war. Some businesses enjoyed unexpected increases in market share and sales revenue as a direct or indirect consequence of the shutdown and there were no lay-offs. Virtual communications platforms, liquor stores, grocery stores chief and delivery services have prospered.

Ripple effect revenue has accrued to tech specialists who set up and manage virtual conferences. Real estate agents who handle choice suburban and even rural locations are selling more properties, the result of affluent professionals who now work searching for residences that are spacious enough to accommodate his-and-her home offices and children’s schooling and play rooms. Teachers who administer private lessons to small groups of children have created pod learning environments. Elegant picnics are the new pivot for caterers, who provide food, wine, flowers, candles, stylish ground coverings and cushions to create al fresco dining experiences for those who shy away from restaurants.

If sales are increasing at your organization, celebrate the good fortune by maximizing the opportunity. Seize the day, plan your strategy and scale.

Operational efficiencies

When an organization grows, everything gets more complicated. How can the company deliver its products and services to twice as many customers? Building in operational efficiencies is an essential component of preparing a company to scale successfully. Business owners or leaders must ensure that the processes of acquiring or manufacturing company products and providing services are seamless and meet consistency and quality control expectations. E-commerce functions, the shipping method, invoicing or other payment system and customer service protocols must be secure, dependable and user-friendly.

An HR workforce specialist and/or operations/process improvement expert can guide company owner/ leaders to identify additional job functions that will be needed to support the scale, as well as the ideal employee qualifications for those positions and what to include in the job specs.

Upgrade marketing strategies and campaigns

So the company is generating more revenue and that has given you the confidence to scale—great! How about pinpointing who these new customers are and learning how and why they discovered your business? Are certain products or services suddenly more popular and if so, what’s driving the phenomenon? Or did a customer make a referral to someone with a big budget?

A more sophisticated and comprehensive marketing strategy is another key component of a successful scale. Update the company marketing strategy and campaign tactics to attract and welcome more of the new customer demographic. A website refresh or an entirely new site may be in order. The usefulness of content marketing, perhaps in the form of case studies, a monthly blog or newsletter or white papers that are posted to the website and selected social media platforms may become apparent. Include a short survey on the website (and also on certain social media platforms) to pose questions that reveal why customers choose to do business with your company and what might encourage them to continue doing so.

Revisit the company brand story and promotion strategy and incorporate language that builds trust, conveys expertise and encourages a sense of community and shared values with customers. Values are a growing priority and customers are inclined to patronize companies that support what they themselves support. Sponsoring local events may be a good way to communicate company values (and sending press releases that announce company participation to select media outlets may result in beneficial publicity).

Monitor the results of the marketing tactics used to learn what customers, both the new and the loyal friends, respond favorably to. The goal is to constantly fill the sales pipeline with good prospects. Make marketing personal by inviting customers to fill out profiles that provide name, email address, physical address and birthday, so that they can receive notice of new merchandise, special sales, birthday wishes and holiday greetings.

Ensure customer service

In fact as the company scales, owners and leaders should take on the perspective of both a curious prospect and a repeat customer, to gain insight into how to create a satisfyingly memorable customer experience. Good word of mouth is the best advertisement and often results in referrals. Positive reviews on Yelp, Angie’s List, or other online rating sites are effective marketing tools that bring in customers.

Remember that data security is also an important facet of good customer service. If an e-commerce feature is part of product or service distribution, hire a web designer to add an SSL certificate to the website, to obtain encryption that protects credit card and other personal data (and as a bonus benefit, gives the company a boost in search engine rankings). While speaking with the web designer, make sure that the page lay-out is intuitive and easily navigable. Consider adding a chat bot so that visitors can ask (anticipated) questions and receive answers ASAP, which saves time.

Finally, make product returns and exchanges efficient and painless. Have adequate staff to answer phone calls and emails, so that customers will not become frustrated. Use Facebook and/or Twitter to further support customer service and have adequate staff to update information, monitor activity and address and resolve problems and questions.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark. A lift helps workers scale and work at the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.

Keepin Up with Expectations

The question “What do my customers want?” is maybe even more confounding than the 3000 year old Riddle of the Sphinx. Guessing incorrectly in either case brings the same fate—death (of the business, if not the owner). I suppose we can lay it all at the feet of digital innovation, which has raised the bar on customer expectations. Customers now expect the same level of end-to-end prompt, seamless performance and service from the small and mid-size companies that they still (thankfully!) patronize as they receive from well-funded and staffed multinational corporations. The little people must now work smarter, be evermore creative and resourceful and OMG hustle if we want to be viable.

According to a 2018 Salesforce CX Report, where 6,700 B2B and B2C buyers answered survey questions on technology, trust and the customer experience, 80 % of responders feel that the buying experience a company provides is as important as the products and services it provides. The report also found that if customers are dissatisfied, they’re ready to jump ship—75 % agree that it’s easier than ever to take their business elsewhere. So just because your customers are cozying up to you now doesn’t mean that they won’t look over your shoulder to see who else is in the room. https://c1.sfdcstatic.com/content/dam/web/en_us/www/assets/pdf/datasheets/trends-in-integrated-customer-experience-salesforce-research.pdf

The State of the Connected Customer, a 2019 Salesforce survey of 8,000 B2B and B2C buyers, found that customers will switch brands for what they perceive as a better customer experience. The survey concludes that customers expect good-to-great experiences from companies they know or would like to try out. The report also shows that trust and company values are important building blocks of customer relationships. https://www.salesforce.com/content/dam/web/en_us/www/documents/infographics/2019-state-of-the-connected-customer-infographic.pdf

At the same time, customer expectations are continually shifting as a result of their ongoing interactions with the world around them. For business owners and leaders, this means that in order to get a handle on creating the most desirable customer experience it is necessary to reexamine / reevaluate the customer experience at our organizations, this time from the customer’s perspective.

By way of understatement, customer expectations are not always predictable. How a customer judges their experience will not always align with what business owners and leaders have assumed about the experience their company provides. According to a 2017 report compiled by the uber consulting firm Accenture, 73% of B2B buyers want the customer experience to resemble that of a B2C company. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-60/Accenture-Strategy-B2B-Customer-Experience-PoV.pdf#zoom=50

We also know that the personal touch is highly valued. In 2015, The Harvard Business Review reported that companies that successfully master the art of personalization for their customers can reduce customer acquisition costs by as much as 50 %, increase revenue by as much as 15 % and increase the effectiveness of marketing dollars spent by up to 30 %. https://hbr.org/2015/11/how-marketers-can-personalize-at-scale

The fact is that the customer experience is impacted by customer expectations and those expectations play a significant role in how our customers perceive and judge our organization. Customers today expect the companies with which they do business to know their preferences and they want those preferences reflected in every interaction, whether online or face-2-face. 

What business leaders can do

First, recognize and define what the ideal customer experience in your organization looks like and take steps to ensure that the standard is consistently met. Remember to assume the viewpoint of the customer and guard against internal bias. Second, stay abreast of market research that reports on your industry to discover trends and evaluate what your organization can afford to do and what it can’t afford to not do, in response. Third, guarantee that all customer-facing staff understands the value of delivering a first-rate customer experience and empower staff to support the delivery of that first-rate customer experience. Training is often necessary to show organization leaders how to create an empowered culture for employees and teach customer-facing staff how to graciously and effectively meet (reasonable) customer expectations.

Creating a superior customer experience at your organization requires significant planning and flawless execution. Be aware that every facet of your organization has a contribution to make as you respond to your customer’s evolving expectations. As you prepare your organization to study and improve the customer experience provided, consider how customers and prospects might view your company’s website content and functionality, sales distribution methods, payment systems, content marketing, social media, sales distribution, business hours and other factors that directly or indirectly impact the buying and customer experience at your organization.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: © Richard Termine for The New York Times. Samantha Barks (center) in the Broadway musical Pretty Woman (2018).

Defining and Delivering Good Customer Service

Superior customer service is a cornerstone of the customer experience and the customer experience is a foundational element of the sales journey. I see the customer experience as governing everything that leads up to the sale and customer service as governing what happens after the sale. Along with designing a confidence-building customer experience that persuades prospects to become customers once the need for your products or services is established, to remain viable, every business must develop customer service protocols that support customer retention and encourage referrals.

As reported in Forbes Magazine in May 2018, American businesses lose $75 billion annually due to poor customer service and the U.S. Small Business https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2018/05/17/businesses-lose-75-billion-due-to-poor-customer-service/#5777314e16f9 Association reported in 2018 that 68% of customers stopped doing business with a company due to poor customer service. It is worthwhile to review your company’s customer service from time to time. Below are suggestions that might guide a refresh of your company’s approach to customer service:

  1. Answer the phone.  When a prospective customer calls for information, s/he does not want to leave a voicemail message and wait for an answer. The prospect wants to speak with a live person now who can answer questions quickly and correctly, in a friendly and professional manner. Hiring the optimal number of front-line staff is the antidote. Freelancers who work alone and receive a fair amount of incoming calls can hire a telephone answering service to take calls when you cannot.

2. Take the extra step. When the intention is to help a prospective customer, understand that doing the minimum is not enough. For example, when speaking with a prospect who has questions about your products or services, merely directing him/her to the company website to obtain more information does not exemplify good customer service. Instead, ask the customer about the problem that must be solved, inquire as to what s/he would like to achieve and then discuss how your product or service can (or cannot) provide the desired solution.

3. Be helpful. If it is discovered while speaking with a prospect that your product or service cannot provide the necessary solution, do not be afraid to refer the prospect to a competitor or another company that can meet his/her needs. Your generosity will be remembered and may be returned with future business and referrals.

4. Listen. Let the customer talk. Allow the customer to ask questions or describe a problem. You (or front-line staff) ask clarifying questions along the way, to demonstrate that you are listening and evaluating how your products or services might be useful (or not) to the customer. The more front-line staff know about your customers and their needs, the more of an asset they will be to your company and customers. Prospects and customers will appreciate the empathy and product knowledge and that will almost certainly increase customer retention, new business and referrals.

5. Resolve problems quickly. No business owner enjoys receiving complaints, but those complaints reveal product or process breakdowns that you have the opportunity to fix. Customers gain confidence when a business quickly responds to and resolves complaints. Apologize profusely and throw in something extra (an upgrade or gift certificate, based on the price of the item purchased) to demonstrate that you value the customer and regret the inconvenience that you’ve caused. If handled correctly, you will win repeat business and a source of referrals (instead of bad-mouthing on Yelp).

6. Train staff. Make training a key element of front-line staff on-boarding. Conduct a product boot camp for new hires, plus an annual refresh for all staff, to ensure that employees are familiar with your product and service lines (bring in a Freelance colleague with sales training experience to conduct the annual training session). Give front-line staff the tools and information they need to support customers as efficiently as possible. Empower them to make those small customer-pleasing decisions, so they’ll rarely have to say, “I don’t know, but the owner will be back at…”

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Date night at the malt shoppe 1930s USA

Ramp Up Your Customer Service Protocols

Identifying competitive advantages for your business can be a real challenge. You probably have a fine product and service line, but how can you distinguish your company from the pack and rise to the top in the minds of customers? As product features and price are not necessarily the determining factors that they once were.  In response, business leaders and owns have turned to the customer experience to build competitive advantages and brand loyalty that are the bedrock of sustainable long-term success.

Before we go any further, let’s define the term customer experience.  The customer experience is your customers’ perception of how your company treats them. These perceptions affect their behaviors and build memories and feelings to drive their loyalty. In other words: if they like you and continue to like you, they are going to do business with you and recommend your business to the others.  Why should business owners and leaders invest time to map out the customer experience and improve it at every touch point?

  1.  Improves customer retention (by 42%, according to some reports)
  2. Improves customer satisfaction (by 33%)
  3. Enhances cross-selling and up-selling opportunities (by 32%)

A 2013 Deloitte survey showed that 62% of companies now rank the customer experience as a competitive differentiator. They are coming around to understand that what customers really want from your organization is help solving their problem. They want to hear what other customers were able to achieve by using your solution. They want to understand the value and benefits your products promise to deliver, not just the product itself.  The Temkin Group,  a customer experience research and consulting firm, in 2018 found that:

  • 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience
  • 73% of buyers point to customer experience as an important factor in purchasing decisions
  • 65% of buyers find a positive experience with a brand to be more influential than great advertising

 

Excellent customer service means you fix your problems without the customer knowing the problem.  There is no reason for customers ever to see the back of the house problems. Never put that burden on a customer. Customer service also demands a timely response as well as empathy. Customer service also includes mobile, since 52% of customers will not return if they have a negative mobile experience with your organization.

A Harvard Business Review study found that customers are seven times more likely to buy a product when their calls are returned within one hour. In addition to speed and customization, you must handle comments with empathy. “I’m sorry,” is a powerful phrase that can repair a bad experience. Everyone wants to be heard, appreciated and respected. Empathy is free and should be a minimum requirement for any employee that interfaces with a customer.

Customer journey maps include every touchpoint and examine frustration points and areas that create satisfaction. Using internal and external marketing data you can look for gaps between what the customer expects at each step and what the customer experiences. Establish a voice-of-the-customer program, which is a formal process and procedure to solicit feedback and share it across the entire organization to all relevant employees.

From the top down, your organizational culture should encourage all employees to appreciate and respond to customer feedback. Through sharing and by using reputation management software, you can analyze data and can implement actionable goals. Continually look for ways for your organization to improve and continue to become more customer-focused.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: L’here du The. by Albert Lynch (1851 – 1912)