Small businesses being killed by ignorance of the Internet and Social Media?

It was interesting to read the article in the Guardian/Observer which highlights how large stores such as Tesco are regretting their past decisions to open ever larger stores now that an increasing number of customers are abandoning them in favour of Internet shopping. I must confess I have little sympathy for these retail giants; I have always seen the building of these huge stores as a greed lead approach to business which often steamrollers across environmental common sense and the wishes of local communities to produced traffic nightmares and an unpleasant and time consuming shopping experience.
However, while these massive companies are using their huge resources to reinvent themselves the small businesses in our high streets are also suffering from the Internet but for different reasons. They are undoubtedly struggling to match the prices that the Internet-only businesses such as Amazon can manage but what is less obvious is that they are often invisible to the enormous number of potential customers who start their shopping via Google and other search engines.
Try making a mental map of the businesses in your local high street then pay a quick visit to your favourite search engine and see how many of those businesses have become invisible. Now repeat the exercise using your favourite Social Media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and FourSquare and see how well they have managed to hide themselves from the huge number of Internet-literate shoppers.
I am currently organising an event which offers businesses free publicity and thereby the opportunity to attract customers. The Internet and Social Media ‘invisibility’ of many businesses makes it harder to contact them, harder to make them aware of what is on offer and consequently harder to push potential customers their way.
There are many initiatives from the government and elsewhere that are trying to stop ‘the death of the high street’. Maybe some simple, and relatively cheap, guidance on the creation of web sites and use of Social Media may help them to once again become visible to their twenty-first century customers.

Learn or churn

First, think of some companies spending huge amounts of money on advertising; those with TV advertisements in slots around programs with large viewing figures is a good place to start. Next, consider your perception of the quality of the customer service offered by these companies.
Many companies are hemorrhaging customers due to poor service and at the same time spending a fortune on trying to get new ones. Now call me old fashioned, but if these companies spent some time and money trying to understand the reasons they are losing customers and then doing something about it they would find themselves with a win, win, win situation. Customers would be happier (and more likely to recommend the company to their friends), the company would lose less customers and they could save a fortune in advertising costs.
I admit I have no data to back this up, but I’m happy to go with my gut feeling and leave you out there to agree with, or correct me.

50% off wine?

What do you think when you see a discounted wine deal in your local supermarket? I suspect most people just buy some then wonder why the ‘£10’ wine they got for a fiver tastes like a £5 bottle of wine.
I used to get drawn in by these offers but came to realise that often (I’m being generous, my cynical nature wants me to say ‘always’) the price was manipulated so that it just fit in with government requirements on offers and in the end was giving you little or nothing.
As someone who hates being tricked by over-dominant businesses I stopped buying wine in supermarkets, unless I recognise the wine and think the price is indeed a bargain (although probably less of a bargain than their offer implies).
I then tried wine companies such as Virgin Wines, Laithwaites and Averys (now all the same company) but still felt the prices and offers did not match the quality of the wine I was getting so the relationship ended. Then followed a period with Majestic Wines, which I still occasionally use if passing through Calais. To be honest I don’t remember why I stopped using Majestic on a regular basis, maybe I’ll pop in again.
Still on the hunt for a company who would supply wine at reasonable prices and whose offers are genuine I stumbled upon Naked Wines who have an unusual business model which, in summary, involves funding small producers around the world so that they can make more and/or better wines which in turn allows Naked Wines to achieve greater value by buying them at better prices. So far this seems to be working well for me but their range can be a little restrictive if you want something particular.
Next supplier please enter stage right! A recommendation in Which? magazine brought The Wine Society to my attention so I recently signed up and must say I am impressed by the choice of wines available. For various (non-sinister) reasons I haven’t bought much from them yet, but I certainly plan to sample their wares.
So, after all this my wine buying pattern is currently:
– regular stock from Naked Wines
– specific wines and ad-hoc stock from The Wine Society
– Majestic in Calais were getting my custom but they may lose this as the Wine Society have an outlet about an hour away that offers their wines with an adjustment for France’s lower tax.
And the supermarkets? I recently bought a few bottles in a Supermarket while visiting some relatives and, surprise, surprise, my taste buds didn’t get that £10 feeling when I drank their ‘£10 reduced to £5’ wine. Like me, I suggest you vote with your feet until supermarkets start playing fair.

Turning customers around, and dumping a few

You may already have seen an item from the Independent that I tweeted (@rgpmarston) earlier today. It is an article about Public Relations but also contains an example of how to improve your relationship with customers by getting things wrong; a favourite topic of mine.
First let’s get things straight, I’m not implying you should deliberately upset your customers in the hope that by some perverse set of circumstances they will like your business more afterwards. Unfortunately, no matter how hard a business tries it will sometimes upset a customer enough that they will contact you to complain. This act of complaining is in itself good as most people will say nothing and take their business elsewhere; at least you now have an opportunity to turn things around and hopefully learn from the error so that you can stop it happening again.
With some careful handling of the situation, including large helpings of tact and empathy, you should be able to convince the customer that this problem is not usual, you understand the issue (and why it is an issue), you have a plan for resolving the problem and (last but not least) you have a plan to ensure it does not happen in the future.
If a customer believes you are taking their complaint seriously and will resolve their problem they are likely to come away happy and, more importantly, will feel confident about using your business again. They will now feel that IF they ever have another problem you will do the right thing to resolve it, and with this mindset they may use you more or even recommend you to their friends.
There is however a flip side to this as some customer complaints are not reasonable and no matter what you do you will not please them. It is an unfortunate fact of life that some people are unreasonable and in these situations you will just have to accept you can’t win and hope they take their business elsewhere next time. Not all business is good business so be prepared to turn the occasional problem customer away. Just make sure your business is behaving in a proper way and is not morally at fault or lacking the processes to improve itself.
Now your homework for tonight! Think of a business that behaves as I have outlined above then think of one that doesn’t. Next, consider your likely buying patterns in respect of these two businesses. Was I right?

It’ good to talk, but better to get personal

I spent an interesting and productive day today in a meeting with management and staff from reviewing their processes, web site and supporting back-end systems. It is always rewarding working with people who are passionate about what they do, have great ideas and are open minded to change that will help them work more efficiently and provide a better service to their customers. Now comes the hard part as we carry out the coding and testing of new software.
With so many forms of communication available to us it is easy to slip into the habit of communicating with customers solely by email or phone. Today has been a good reminder that neither are a substitute for getting together in the same room. Meeting people and the formal and informal conversation that ensues builds stronger working relationships and leads to benefits to both parties that were not on the agenda or likely to have been foreseen.