Six Lessons to Improve Entrepreneurial Success

From patent award winners, inventors and entrepreneurs to scientists, venture funders and (really bright) students Invention to Venture(I2V), held at the Davis Center on the University of Vermont campus, was filled with inspiring conversations that satisfied the creative, and sometimes quirky, side that lurks in many of us. Having launched a small company and an Innovation Lab during the past year, the Lessons Learned Panel was of particular interest to me. 

Lessons Learned Panelists included three seasoned entrepreneurs and scientist Dr. Richard Fishel, who was first to identify genetic composition of predisposition of hereditary colorectal cancer.  Yes, it was an incredible line up!  Each panelist openly shared challenges and successes they’d navigated throughout their careers and we walked away more enlightened from their wisdom. 

One entrepreneur on the panel, Robert Cooper, current CEO of iQuest Analytics, Inc described his first attempts at entrepreneurship as an adolescent when he and a friend decided to buy FireBall candies in bulk and resell them to friends in varying quantities and prices.  Their initial enterprise was quite successful and he continued to work with startups throughout his professional career.  Below are a few lessons he’s learned through the years which are applicable to almost every start up.  

Lesson #1 – Test the marketplace.

How?  Do your research to find out if people are willing to pay for your product or service.  And is what they’re willing to pay going to support your business model.

Lesson #2 – Gain market clarity to create your best opportunities.

How?  Understanding the needs and goals of your customers is critical.  Then identify how your product or service helps your target market achieve their goals. 

Lesson #3 – There are many ways to waste time!  Find ways to avoid wasting time.

How?  Engage people or vendors who are really good at what they do, and delegate to them the things you prefer not to handle. Accounting, bookkeeping and even staffing are often outsourced by small businesses.  Decide what makes sense for you to keep and what to outsource. By doing this, you’ll procrastinate less and be able to focus more on growing your enterprise.

Lesson #4 – The most important thing to focus on is how you are going to grow the money in your bank account (return on capital).

How?   You’ll achieve this through customer acquisition.  Customer feedback is critical but don’t get stuck seeking perfection.  Although this can vary by product and industry, remember that ‘perfect is the enemy of good enough.’

Lesson #5 – You’ll need twice the money and twice the amount of time to launch your start up

How?  Use the two times rule.  Create a business plan, look at the funds required and then double it.  You’ll probably need it. 

Lesson #6 – Investors are critical to your Start-up.

How?  You should constantly be looking at ‘multiple pipelines’ for funding.  Look to:  core customers, Angel Investors, Venture Capitalist, High Net-worth Investors, federal and state grants, university venture funds, etc.  And you never know how or where you may land your next funding deal.  Cooper’s most intriguing was riding a ski lift to the top of the slope. 

Overall, my day at I2V exceeded my expectations. It was well-organized, well attended, full of networking opportunities and identified resources I had yet to discover.  It opened up my thinking about opportunities for the MCGS Innovation Lab.  And most importantly, I walked away with these six golden lessons that every entrepreneur can learn from.

Do you have lessons you can share with other entrepreneurs?  If so, we’d like to hear from you and invite you to add your comments below.

Posted in Entrepreneur, Innovation, Inventors, Scientist, Start up | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Secrets to Improving your Sales Successes

During his keynote address at the 2010 HSM World Business Forum in NYC, Jim Collins, author of the best sellers including ‘Good to Great’ commented that every overnight night success is typically about 20 years in the making.  Wow, that’s two decades and about the length of time it takes to raise a new generation!  Although there may be a few exceptions, that statistic generally stands true of most successful companies.  And often these successes stem from the persistence, determination and hard work of the sales team.

With sales closing ratios averaging about one sale for every 10 calls, how do sales representatives and small business owners stay motivated? What does it take to be a sales success? I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of successful business owners to get a behind the scenes look at what it takes to be successful in sales.  I walked away having heard stories about their successes, lessons learned and a few golden nuggets on winning sales strategies.

First we talked about the sales life cycle.  It generally looks like this and remains fairly constant:

  • Getting in the Door – cold-calling or referral
  • Understanding your Prospect or Customer – trust building
  • Closing the Sale – keeping the lights on
  • Delivering on what you said you would – building credibility / gaining more referrals

It’s a continuous loop and successes nourish the overall sales cycle.  The good news is the more you deliver on what you’ve agreed, the greater the percentage of referrals you can expect to see.

Sales people are actually selling from the moment they start conversing with a prospect.  There are indicators in each conversation to recognized in order to understand the customer and the best way to approach closing of the sale.  A few of those golden nuggets:

1.) Listen, listen, listen. Let your customer do the talking. Be intentional to keep the conversation focused on the customer and understanding their needs.

2.) Know when to be quiet. Sales are sometimes lost by salespeople saying too much or talking after the customer has agreed to make the purchase. Know when to stop talking.

3.) Keep the conversation focused on the product or services you represent.  Remain objective and neutral on conversation topics known to stoke emotion.

It was interesting to listen to people from different industries and find both commonality and distinctions between closing approaches.   Here are a few I heard: 

  • ‘That’s Perfect’ Approach – Be ready to transform each objection with a ‘That’s perfect’ reason to move forward!
  • Assumptive Approach – This is situationally appropriate but be careful that you don’t appear unappreciative of your customer’s business.
  • Close on the first Visit – When is this a red flag? Evaluate.  Are there credit issues? Is the client difficult to deal with?  Or are they simply urgently in need of your product or service?
  • Referring to the Proposal – In the proposal we talk about starting on next week, how does that timing work for you?
  • Direct Approach – May I have the order?
  • Dale would be Proud Approach – We take Cash, MasterCard or Visa, which do you prefer?

The psychological characteristics surrounding the sale were also noted as significant to increasing the probability of closing the sale.  Here are a few tips to improve the odds of a success.

  • Visualize. As you go into the sales call visualize something that makes you happy or something you’re looking forward to in the future.  It helps you to feel relaxed and optimistic.
  • Smile. (Even if you’re on the phone.)  Your smile will be conveyed to your prospect or customer and will make a difference in how the conversation progresses.
  • Be yourself. Let your authentic style shine.
  • Be confident. You have worked hard to gain your experience and are good at what you do. Do not undersell the value of your experience and services you provide.
  • Trust yourself. Most of us have ‘been there’ so be open to input from other people you trust to help you through the rough places.
  • Be persistent. Just because you’ve gotten a NO, evaluate what you learned from the experience and how you can apply what you learned to your next sales call.

Summary: The responsibilities of the sales representative are often both challenging and rewarding. These tips offer an opportunity to look at your own sales techniques and perhaps even improve your closing ratios.  You’re invited to share your sales tips by commenting to this post.

Posted in Achieve Success, Closing the Sale, Cold calling, Customer Trust, Deliver, Expectations, Jim Collins, Listen, Persistence, Psychology of the Sale, Recommend, Referrals, Start-Ups, Trust, Visualize Success, World Business Forum | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ROI of the Customer Experience: Why Design with the Agent in Mind?

I was recently having a conversation with an insurance agency principle who was trying to increase business written with a particular company.  He was a bit perplexed because although he encouraged agency Customer Service Representatives(CSRs) to quote with this company whose products he preferred to offer to clients, he was getting resistance from CSR’s to include this company in the quoting competition. He decided to do some digging into the reason for their reluctance and his discovery left him a bit surprised.

The Root Cause

He chose to talk with a CSR who he knew was tech savvy, consistently recognized for her high level of productivity and positive attitude. As the two talked he heard the following from her:  “Are you the same boss who told me you want me to be productive?”  “Yes”, he responded, “why do you ask?”  “Because if you want me to be productive”,  she continued, “I can’t include that company in my quoting efforts because it takes me too long to get a quote out of their system.  It’s hard to use and there are too many problems with it.  I don’t have time to call and report system problems.  I have my own work  I need to get done.”

The CSR’s comments helped him to understand why, despite his requests, quoting volume with this company wasn’t increasing.  Her comments sum up a key flaw in many policy quoting and application systems:  they’re cumbersome in design and not easy to use.  As competitors raise the bar on ‘ease of use’ the willingness to go to battle with a clunky or confusing system continues to plummet.   While comments like this may be common among CSR’s, what’s unique here is that this comment reached someone at a management level who knew what steps to take in order to help the voice of his CRSs be heard at the company level.

Ways to Improve Your Technology ROI

In today’s competitive marketplace quoting and administration systems that are easy to use and designed to reflect how CSR’s think have the greatest potential ROI for both the companies delivering them and agencies using them.  Here are a few ways you can integrate the voice of the Agency CSR and the Underwriter into the quoting and policy administration design equation to improve technology ROI and meet the bar on ease of use.

1.)    Find out How your System Stacks up – Conduct a focus group with CSR’s of varying experience level.  Ask them to show you how they complete a quote and to talk aloud as they go through the quoting process.  Observe and document their pain points as well as their wish list of cool features they mention competitor systems have that your system doesn’t.  Prioritize their wish a then create a plan to enhance your quoting and application system to reflect key features mentioned.  Remember there’s value in a plan but you need to prove you’re committed to making these improvements by delivering on them according to your proposed schedule.  Even loyal customers will only wait so long for the improvements.

2.)    Ongoing Feedback Loop – Customer’s appreciate when you ask for their feedback on system designs.  If you’re thinking about making some changes to how to add an Additional Insured or add Comp Only to a policy, draw up some simple screen shots of the proposed design and run it by  a few CSR’s or underwriters.  Not only will you likely garner a few surprising comments as you understand how your customers interact with your system, you’ll likely save your company lots of money by preventing the need for redesign later.  The bonus is the positive impact this approach will likely on your company’s branding because of these efforts.  These real outcomes are often evident in the bottom line with increased quoting activity, which generally leads to new customers and more revenue for the company.

3.)    Technology Advisory Board – If you’re committed to keeping the voice of the customer in your design process for the long run, consider creating a Technology Advisory Board composed of a few CSR’s and Agency principles who can serve as the voice of your larger group of agents.  Set up periodic meetings to get their feedback on proposed technology enhancements and include them in the review of proposed technology redesigns early in the process.

So what are the take-aways?

  • As customer-centered design continues to bring huge gains for companies who get it right, include activities in the project schedule that integrate the customer expectations. It will foster project success rates.
  • These activities need not add time or dollars to the project budget.  As a matter of fact, in case after case, these up front steps to include the voice of the customer in the early stages of the design process have proven to save time and money.
  • Done right the results increase the ROI of your technology design efforts will quickly become evident.  Everyone wins!

About the Author: Jill has led the development and implementation of new products as well as brought hundreds of enhancements to Personal and Commercial Lines Quoting and Administration Systems into production.  She helps companies design systems that delight customers and boost the ROI of their technology investments.  For more information visit http://www.brainlogiconline.com or contact jill@brainlogiconline.com

Posted in 2011, Achieve Success, Commercial Lines, Customer Experience, Customer Trust, Delightful, Design for Optimal Experiences, Expectations, Insurance, Insurance Agents, On Schedule, Personal Lines, Policy Quoting and Administration Systems, Recommend, ROI | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is this Relationship Over?

Often companies realize a software application or web site they’ve developed for their customers’ is not what their customers would have designed for themselves.  In many cases this realization occurs after going to production.  As a result, customers are left to deal with cumbersome software or web site and unable to accomplish the tasks they need to complete.  In today’s competitive marketplace customers have many options. And when the alternative solution is easier to use a loyal customer can quickly become a former customer.

Tangible and intangible impacts of poorly designed systems can be profound for companies.  Trust between the customer and the company may be depleted while tarnishing of the company brand is likely to occur.  This type of damage can progress gradually. Until one day the company notices the cumulative results of what’s been happening, and the costly impacts.

An example of this common scenario happened to me the other night as I attempted to book a flight.  Both the online and over the phone ticket processing systems failed and as a result the ranking of my once preferred airline plummeted.  Currently I’m hovering in the category of former customer. 

Here’s what happened…

My first choice for air travel has been with an airline that I’ve flown since 2001.  Depending on my travel frequency, I’ve earned various levels of preferred status with the airline so I have been fairly loyal to them.  The other night was a different story.  Their online ticketing system timed out one step prior to me completing the single ticket purchase.  As a result I had to restart the flight booking process from square one.  This was a nuisance but having traveled with the airline for years my level of trust was fairly high with them.  Plus, I admit, I may have been a bit distracted by the season opener of ‘The Biggest Loser’.

So I entered in all the info for the second time:  flight choices, mailing address, credit card info and a few preferences.  After closing the window where I’d made my seat selections, a message displayed on the  screen telling me my session was about to expire. It asked if I needed more time to finish.  I was still actively working on the ticket purchase, and wondered why the session going to expire.  I clicked on Yes, I needed more time.  One more review of the ticket info and I was ready to buy it.

When I clicked on the PAY NOW button I expected the screen to display a ticket confirmation page.  But instead, nothing happened.  Having nearly been stung by the ‘don’t click again or else you’ll be purchasing a second ticket’ routine in the past, I was hesitant to click the PAY NOW button again.  I waited for a few minutes and decided it was safe to click PAY NOW, again.  Still no system response and no ticket confirmation page. 

At this point I was feeling a bit annoyed.  I had been working on this for over an hour.  My new friends on ‘The Biggest Loser’ had cumulatively shed 307 pounds, while I still didn’t have a single airline ticket to show for my efforts.  It was time for a different approach.  I decided to phone the airline to book the ticket instead.   

On the phone, the airline reservationist confirmed my online attempts did not result in a booked flight. Ironically, this was good news.  She was also quick to inform me it would cost me an additional $25 if she booked the flight for me.  If, however, I opted to talk to their Tech Support department about my issue, the $25 booking fee would be waived.  Despite feeling like the airlines Quality Assurance Department, I agreed to talk to Tech Support. By this time, I just wanted the flight to be booked and for this experience to be over. 

The Tech Support hold message was composed of two words – Please Wait – and they repeated every 10 seconds. After about 3 minutes on hold the two-word repetition stopped and I thought someone was coming on the line to help me.  Suddenly a loud noise erupted and the phone call was disconnected. Sigh.

Are you tired of reading about this less than optimal experience?  If so you can imagine how I was feeling at this point:  frustrated, to say the least.  But I’m persistent and decided to give it one more try.   I got the airline back on the phone, accelerated the conversation with the reservationist who again sent me to Tech Support.  Within two minutes of – Please Wait(s) – the familiar loud noise sounded and then call disconnection, again. 

At that point I realized I wasn’t going to be purchasing my ticket from my preferred company for this trip. Deep breath.  Calmly I moved on to Plan B.   

Plan B

I’d already started my online search for another airline to purchase my ticket.  I ended up at Delta only knowing they flew to where I needed to land.  This was my first test drive of their online ticketing system, and after the last experience, I didn’t know what to expect. 

At Delta, I easily found the dates and times I wanted to fly.  As soon as I had selected my destination and dates, the screen displayed an option to have a live chat with a reservationist who could answer any questions I had.  After my previous booking experience it was particularly reassuring to know that I had live support at the click of a button, if I needed it. 

I entered necessary information, selected my seats and clicked the button to purchase.  Voila!  In less than ten minutes I booked my travel and I had confirmation my ticket had been purchased. And believe it or not, this ticket cost $48 less than the original ticket I had attempted to purchase with my preferred airline.  Again, ironically, good news.

So Plan B worked. I’m excited to have found an alternative airline that’s easy to do business with.  But let’s take a moment and look at a few elements influencing this customer experience. 

Lesson One:  The Relationship

What’s really standing out for me are the factors that combined to influence the customer relationship.  Until now I had perceived my relationship with my preferred airlines as give and take.  I needed a service, at a fair price and the airline delivered.  After a decade of being their customer, I felt like we had more than just a contract.  I thought they appreciated me as a customer, at least that’s what all of their marketing materials tell me.  But their responses to my situation demonstrated a lack of desired customer engagement with no back-up plan.  This experience shifted the scales from a mutually beneficial relationship to a one-sided relationship and ‘my’ side was positioned to seek an alternative.   

Lesson Two:  Value Decisions

I had enjoyed doing business with my preferred airline and booking my own travel online.  But the fact that customers must pay a premium to make a purchase when the remaining purchase options are less than usable displayed a lack of awareness about their customers’ values. This experience demonstrated once again that the basis of the optimal customer experience rests not only in understanding how your customers think. The customer experience is also a reflection of the level of respect a company has for their customers, including their time and their sense of values.  

Lesson Three:   Is this relationship over?

I’ll share this experience with my preferred airline privately, because they need to know about it and to have the opportunity to improve their systems and processes.  They served me well for 10 years and deserve that respect from a loyal customer. 

Will I use my preferred airline again?  I’m likely to however, I’ll go into the purchase process feeling less confident it will be successful and ready to quickly execute on Plan B.

Note…

There were numerous system and process design factors in play during this scenario impacting my overall buying experience.  They’re ripe for evaluation and their resolution will easily improve the attempted ticket purchase both online and via the telephone.  I’ll discuss those opportunities within the framework of  ‘what Delta did right’ in an upcoming post. 

Share your experiences…

Have you interacted with a company whose website or software is really easy to use? Or maybe one that’s not so easy to use?  If so, feel free to post thoughts and your comments. 

Posted in Customer Experience, Customer Service, Customer Trust, Deliver, Design for Optimal Experiences, Expectations, Recommend | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Seven Tips for Building On line Customer Trust

I was on a hunt to find blue Birkenstock sandals for my daughter. And as the holidays drew closer time to order was running short. Not finding them on the local shopping expedition, I blue suede birkenstock thick strap sandalsrealized my best option was to purchase them on line. After I casually clarified she didn’t want the Vegan ones, I was ready to buy. I knew they’d be expensive so I wanted to shop around to see what kind of prices I could find.

Googling gave me a large volume of Birkenstock shopping choices. At the top of the list was my favorite on line department store where I’m a regular shopper. The trust fund there is pretty large so it was a good place to begin. Plus, being a Virgo, loyalty is a fairly significant factor in the customer experience equation. Although I found the sandals she wanted, they were pricey and no discounts applied. So despite the loyalty and trust, I continued my shopping trip.

Next stop was a Birkenstock specialty shop which was new to me. They had a good selection but I found their web site stressful and choppy to navigate. I’m not sure if it was the Log In tab indicating I’d possibly need to join prior to purchase, the Contact Us tab being ‘misplaced’ in the primary navigation, or wondering why there were flags asking me for a language selection in the left navigation, it just didn’t feel friendly. I stayed for a moment but then moved on to a third store in search of the blue sandals.

Although the landing page of the third Birkenstock on line shop wasn’t particularly tidy, there were elements about the shopping experience that quickly helped me to feel I could trust this web store. Highlighted are a few key elements that accelerated my willingness to trust this on line resource.

First the home page immediately welcomed me, literally with a Welcome message: Welcome to Birkenstock Central. I felt like they really were glad I was visiting their store.
Tip#1 –  Make your visitors feel welcomed.

On the landing page there were two main choices: See All Men’s Shoes or See All Women’s Shoes. That’s all I needed — easy. I clicked on See All Women’s Shoes and quickly located the sandals my daughter wanted. And that style happened to be on sale. Yes!
Tip#2 – Design so important info is easy to find and navigate.

One of my concerns about ordering on line from a company I was unfamiliar was the return policy. What if they didn’t fit her or if by Dec. 25th she no longer wanted blue in her wardrobe? Would they take them back? How much would it cost me to ship them back to the company? However, I felt reassured by the message on the web site exclaiming that exchanges were free, so I continued with my transaction.
Tip#3 – Make your Return Process and Policy findable and clear. (Hint: 100% Guarantee increases customer confidence.)

About to select her shoe size, I realized the sizes were scaled European and I would need an American translation. Conveniently the shoe size equivalent chart was accessed via a very handy link and in one click I knew what size to order. When I selected her size, the system indicated they were in stock. There was an option to have them wrapped for a few extra dollars but why end a holiday tradition of wrapping gifts until midnight on Christmas Eve. At least I’m usually finished before Santa arrives! I clicked on the big maroon Buy Now button and made my purchase.
Tip#4 – Design the system to anticipate customer needs, be obvious and respond as customers expect.

The purchase transaction went smoothly. There were no surprises, and more importantly, no missed info that I needed to go back and fill in. I received a confirmation page thanking me for my order that contained my Order ID. The message told me an email confirmation had been sent to me with the order info, but I still saved the page as a favorite, just in case.
Tip#5 – Provide clear feedback from the system indicating what’s been accomplished.

After I placed the order, the system asked if I would take 5 minutes to provide feedback on the purchase transaction. Very proactive, brief and I completed the survey.
Tip#6 – Clearly communicate to your customers their experiences matter to your company.

My expectation was that I wouldn’t hear from the company again and I’d likely receive a package within a few days in the mail containing the blue sandals. I felt good about my purchase decision but still had some reservations being it was a first time transaction with the company. Remember Virgo, cautious. I’d wait to see if the goods arrived as expected and then do a full evaluation of Birkenstock Central.

Well the day after I placed my order I received an email from the store providing a link to an up to the minute status of my order. Their brief note told me my order was on track and provided transparency to status info anytime and at my fingertips. It helped increase my trust in the company and confidence in product arrival. Now I‘m wowed!
Tip#7 –  Transparency reassures the customer and builds trust in the company. Be an open book.

It’s evident this company talks to its customers, listens to what they have to say and designs the way they think. They’ve discovered what’s important to me, a typical customer, transformed that information into their on line store and designed for an optimal customer experience. Everyday more companies are realizing the ROI of customer centered design. Why? Because if this experience stays on it’s current track, not only will it influence my future purchase decisions at their web store, I’ll be more likely to recommend the company to others because they’ve earned my trust.

Posted in Customer Experience, Customer Trust, Design for Optimal Experiences | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Hello World!

Welcome to the Brain Logic Blog!

Designing a web site, software application or product that’s right for your customers can be daunting. At Brain Logic, we specialize in designing technology, products and processes easy for your customers to use. Our proven customer centric approach delivers solutions that will delight your customers.

The Brain Logic Blog is the place to explore web sites and product designs we like or ones that frustrate us and are in need improvements.  We’ll talk about our experiences and how we would improve web sites, product and process designs.  We might even get to see a few of our recommendations implemented!

You’re invited to share your comments and experiences to help transform frustrating user experiences into those deserving of accolades!  I look forward to hearing from you.

Jill

Posted in 2011, Achieve Success, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Customer Trust, Deliver, Design for Optimal Experiences, Expectations, On Schedule, Progress, Recommend | Leave a comment