The Open Chair

May 4, 2010

This past week, I spent a few days meeting with one of my clients to kick off a new project.  My client had hired me to help them develop an organized marketing strategy for the next 18 months, and our meeting was focused on helping me understand their organization’s overarching objectives and goals, as well as their target customer markets.

While the purpose of the kick off sessions was to give me the proper background and understanding of the direction and challenges facing the company, I knew that the sessions would also be very beneficial to my client.  Many of the key organization leaders participated in the meeting, along with their marketing and sales leaders.   All of them were there to explain their visions of the future and where they needed the organization to focus and grow.  Unfortunately, but realistically, the opportunity to have this type of strategic conversation does not happen frequently in their organization (this is probably the case for many organizations), because the teams are typically too consumed by “fire fighting” and reacting quickly to customer needs or market developments.  It was my presence as an educated but objective outsider who was asking the “who, what, why, and how” questions to understand the background and needs to inform the marketing strategy that got the various team members sharing their plans and rationale. It was my asking these questions that helped the organization uncover some conflicting views as to who were its target customers and realize that perhaps some of the marketing activities that it had been doing for quite some time were not targeted to any of its core customers.  I know that if I hadn’t been asking these questions as an outsider, my client would not have recognized and resolved these critical issues.  My presence helped bring these issues to light.

After the sessions, I thought that it was interesting that an outside perspective helped uncover some strategic issues needing to be addressed, but I did not really think about how this could become a formalized practice.  However, later in the week, I met with a woman who has years of experience in brand management and advertising. In our conversation, she happened to mention that she had just started implementing the “open chair” policy with her current agency — a practice that she had used extensively with other companies over the years.  She explained that the open chair policy was the practice of leaving an “open chair” in key strategic meetings.  This chair could be filled with an external subject matter expert or individual who is not directly involved with the project or issue at hand, but has some experience or perspective that enables him or her to ask thoughtful questions or add ideas to the discussion.  The role of the open chair individual is to provide a different perspective from the rest of the group to help the group come to an optimal decision or resolution.

As my acquaintance explained all of this to me, I realized that I had served as the open chair participant in my client’s discussion earlier in the week, and I recognized the value that this brought to my client.  It got me to thinking that this type of practice could be a very useful tool for all sorts of organizations facing many different issues.  Sometimes the day to day pressures and work load  force teams to make assumptions about what everyone knows, or thinks, or agrees on, and it takes an outsider with a slightly different perspective to question these assumptions.  It is when these assumptions are questioned that significant break-throughs can be made.

Is the open chair policy something that you could try to implement as you face your next decision or challenge?  Is it something you are already doing?  Let me know if you are using it and how it is working.

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4 blog improvements in 2010

January 5, 2010

With the start of the new year, I’ve decided that it is time to make some changes (hopefully improvements) to the ALL In One Marketing Greenhouse.  Admittedly, 2009 was a year of learning, trial and error.  I intend to make 2010 the year of engagement with value to the Greenhouse readers.

With that in mind, I am introducing the following enhancements to the blog:

  1. Dear Amy.  Have you ever heard of a little column called Dear Abby?  Well, in 2010, we’ll have some posts that feature Dear Amy.  Any marketing or branding questions that you have can be emailed to me at amy@allinonemarketingusa.com, and I’ll analyze, respond, and recommend solutions in a post (free of charge!). These can be questions on any marketing topic such as how to raise awareness for a local charity you are trying to get off the ground or how do you get 30 million people to try your new product on a $10,000 budget.  No marketing question is too big or small.  I’ll do my best to give you my two cents in a post or two.
  2. Book reviews.  As marketing professionals and business leaders, it’s sometimes all we can do to get through our industry journals and Google Alerts each day, let alone stay up to date on some of the latest strategic marketing thinking.  To help you know what’s out there and what you might want to invest time in reading, I’ll do periodic book reviews that will summarize the key points that I take away from these books.  Think of it as Cliff Notes for marketing strategy.
  3. Top articles and blog posts.  As a consultant, it is my job to read the latest brand, product, and retailer news daily.  You probably try to do this too — but like the books — it can be very challenging to keep up.  As a result, I’ll be writing posts every couple of weeks that summarize my ‘must read’ blogs and articles.  I hope that you’ll find this useful.
  4. Shorter posts, but more frequently.  Okay, this isn’t an enhancement, but this is something I will try to work on this year to make the blog more useful and user friendly.

What else?  What would you like to see covered?  What would really add value to you?  Talk to me…I’m listening.


5 Ways to Activate Your Customers

October 28, 2009

It seems that it is a commonly held belief that a highly satisfied customer is one of the strongest marketing assets a business can have.

Despite this accepted assertion, I have recently been in contact with a surprisingly large number of businesses that haven’t given any thought to how they can leverage this asset.  These businesses have been hoping that word of mouth will be an inexpensive, effortless method for growing sales and their customer base.  To a degree, they are right; positive word of mouth will help.  But they could grow so much more if they thought about how to activate their satisfied customers.

What I mean by activating customers is very simple:  motivating customers and giving them tools to enable them to spread a brand’s message easily and authentically.  Customers generally like to share information that they acquire through their experiences with products/services and brands.  By activating this inclination, a business has a greater chance of having customers share their experiences with others and spreading the news or information that the business wants them to pass along.

There are many ways to activate customers.  Some of these are unique to certain industries, business models, or customer segments. However, below are a few ideas that should be applicable to most businesses.  None of these has to be complex or expensive, but these suggestions do require some thought, planning, ongoing management, and measurement to have the greatest impact.  Take a read through these to help spark some ideas on the best ways to activate your customers.

5 Activation ideas

  1. Create a program to formally recognize your best customers. Acknowledge and thank them for being good customers.  Make them feel valued and appreciated with special offers, ‘sneak peaks’ of new offerings, etc.  These customers will feel more loyal, and hopefully so special that they can’t help but tell their friend about their special treatment and great relationship they have with your business.
  2. Give your customers a voice and solicit their ideas and opinions in low or high tech ways. The medium isn’t as important as the act of listening to your customers.  The important aspects of this are that you can ask your customers what they think, give them a chance to respond, and consider their responses in the future to improve your products, services, or overall customer experience.  These things can be accomplished through social media tools, but they can also be accomplished through face to face discussions, phone conversations, focus groups, customer events, and other outlets.  The medium you choose really should be driven by your customers’ preferences.
  3. Keep your customers informed. Whether it is a new product launch or your next tradeshow appearance, ensure your customers are ‘in the know’ so that they can anticipate their next experience with your brand.  By keeping them updated on a regular basis on your news (such as through a newsletter, email, or blog), you can stay top of mind with them and further help them spread your news to other potential customers.
  4. Arm your customers with exclusive ‘marketing materials’. Ideally, this would be something that they can use in their daily lives, but that also happens to tell your brand’s story for you when they use it around others.  These ‘marketing materials’ could be product samples, special catalogs, or any other collateral that customers would find useful and better yet, would be proud to share with their friends because it is so unique or exclusive, and it has made them feel special by receiving it.
  5. Implement a ‘tell a friend’ referral program. For every person a customer refers to you resulting in a strong lead or a sale, give a ‘thank you’ in some form to the referring customer.  There are two things about the referral program that are very important.  First of all, the thank you has to be sincere.  The customer should believe that you really are thankful.  Secondly, the program should motivate the customer to continue to refer people to your brand.  This motivation typically means rewarding the customer in a way that is meaningful and valuable to them.  The hardest part about this is figuring out what that is (and this is where you refer back to #2).

I hope that these ideas encourage you to think about the ways that you are activating your customers currently and inspire you to develop some additional methods you can give to your satisfied customers to leverage.  And if you have some other suggestions of ways to activate your customers, please share them.  They would be much appreciated!


Mystified by social media? Be a customer.

July 2, 2009

I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised at how many business owners, leaders, and managers there are who are really confused, intimidated, or mystified by ‘social media’.  I admit that I certainly was one of those people up until several months ago.  I was so focused on my corporate job responsibilities that I didn’t take the time to observe what was going on around me.  I absorbed marketing trends on an ‘as needed’ basis (as dictated by the immediate needs of the company I worked for).

I think that there are probably a lot of people out there in a similar situation to this.  Now, suddenly, ‘social media’ seems to be everywhere, and there are a lot of people who are really nervous about it.  They aren’t quite sure what it is, they don’t know how to use it for their business, and yet all of these social media experts are saying that they have to act quickly before they get left behind.  No wonder so many managers and business leaders are so uneasy about social media, and aren’t sure what they should do.  I think that all of this buzz and urgency is making social media seem bigger and more intimidating than it really is.

Don’t get me wrong – social media is a big deal, and it is a great thing.  It finally gives brands/businesses the ability to have conversations with their customers.  Business leaders have a better chance of understanding their customers’ needs, issues, and concerns than ever before.  They have the chance to ask customers for help in making product or service decisions.  They can leverage their customers to troubleshoot problems and can really bring their brand to life for their customer in a way not previously possible.

So since social media can be such an extraordinary tool for businesses to leverage, I’d like to provide a bit of advice to those leaders who are still intimidated or confused by it.  My advice is simple:  Before you do anything for your business, remember that you are a customer too.  You buy products and services.  You have hobbies and passions outside from your work.  Why not see how social media is used between you as a customer and the brands, companies, thought leaders, and celebrities that you are interested in?

Watch and listen.  Participate in the conversations that interest you.  Sign up for Twitter and follow people, brands, companies that interest you.  Don’t know who to follow?  Check out Tracking Twitter to find some great companies and people to follow.  Go to Google Blog Search and search for blogs on topics that you want to know more about.  Be a ‘regular person’ – just like your customers are. 

I guarantee that within a few weeks, social media won’t be so intimidating anymore.  You will begin to see opportunities for how you can join in the conversation with your customers, and how certain tools might be really useful for your business.  Sure, implementing a social media program for your business will still take a lot of thought, strategy, planning, and resources to implement effectively — but it will be so much easier to embrace it and understand its value once you can experience it as a customer.