Making over the Makeover

“Makeover: Scoot Richmond – No Free Rides” by Phaedra Hise (Fortune Small Business, November 2009). As you’ve followed this blog you’ve probably come to realize that FSB’s Makeover feature is very often an engaging read. The review of this Richmond, Virginia’s scooter business is worth a go.

For what it’s worth, here are the AU caveats as emailed to Ms. Chelsea Lahmers, Scoot Richmond’s owner.

Hello Chelsea,

I just finished reading/skimming the article in FSB on Scoot Richmond. Kudos to you for stepping forward and looking for new ideas. In my previous life, I too was the owner of a retail business. I certainly understand how difficult it can be to juggle the day to day details and try to be open minded and forward thinking at the same time.

I have some thoughts as based on that article. Unfortunately, I’m running late for a meeting with a client so please accept this “rapid fire” style. I’m not trying to be blunt. I’m not trying to be critic. I’m just once again a bit pressed for time. Please forgive me.

I will preface my input with one presumption – I realize the article is not everything that was discussed, etc. The article is however all I am able to go on. Please accept my thoughts knowing the limitation of my perspective.

— Rather than waste your time going to the police station, contact your bank or whoever does your credit card processing and ask them what they offer in terms of check protection. For example, as I understand it, Heartland Payment Systems offers a (hardware/software) solution that mitigates the risk of bad checks. It might even eliminate it.

— Maybe he was misquoted but Mr. Wilson’s suggestion to “interview each candidate several times…” was (for me) almost comical. Yes, I agree with “prevention” but will you be getting the best candidates, or just the ones willing to jump over your hurdles. Moi? I like the birds of a feather rule. That is, ask your current (or former) employees and then from there ask your customers. Also be attentive of when you shop elsewhere, maybe you can steal someone else’s good employee?

— Speaking of asking your customers, it always amazes me how many of these FSB Makeover articles never recommend speaking with the customer. Maybe that’s stating the obvious but maybe it’s not? When someone buys a new scooter, do they get a follow up phone call? What about a new service cusotmer? Do you have a suggestion box? Maybe “Suggestion of the Month” get a free oil change? This is the Web 2.0 age and whether online or off people have thoughts and they want to share them. Try to live up to that expectation/reality. Yes, I know it’s easier said than done but try we must.

— Speaking of web sites, IMHO, you might want to consider a make over. I would have never guessed you were doing $1.1m by the look of your site. I like the idea but it’s not “tight”. If you’re interested in discussing such a project just let us know. We’d like to submit a proposal.

— The best way for me to describe my reaction to Ms. Angstadt’s recommendation is, “Be careful what you wish for.” If the incentive is to do something quicker then trust me, it will get done quicker. But is that really what you want? More importantly. is that what the customer wants? Will quicker still mean 100% right? That said,  what is the cost of that (say) 5% error? If you’re going to offer incentives then be 250% positive they are (what we call) guest-centric. If they’re not, then expect the worse. Try the Harvard Business Review site web for insights on incentives. The ones recommended seem counter productive.

— Also, I would not recommend looking at your books in that way *too closely*. Do you need to watch the numbers? Of course you do. In the current climate we all do. But being the size that you are then I would favor a more holistic approach. For example, if using an oil change as a loss leader inspires more sales of scooters then is that a bad thing? Much like Mr. Wilson, Ms. Angstadt’s “the store should sell the oil to the repair shop…”, seems a bit out of touch. In theory, the idea is cute but it’s not going to happen – especially if a customer is waiting. Especially if the incenttive is to get it done faster. Such a transaction is just not practical on a day to day basis, is it? Maybe checking inventory and shifting whole cases might make sense but even that probably isn’t worth the time.

— If you going to watch the numbers then do some research and try to benchmark against your industry and/or your peers. If you’re strictly focused on your own numbers you might end up “grabbing the balloon”. That is, squeeze one end and it pops out elsewhere. In other words, drive up margins and profit can in fact drop. Small biz is about cash flow, service and long term repeat relationships. Margins will take care of themselves if you’re making people happy.

Not to worry, I’m almost done…

— I agree, VCU students sound like a great market for customers and possibly part-time employees. But did Ms. Cantrell really say “target them with a flyer”? Don’t get me wrong. I will be the first to say that print is not dead. But is that really the best medium for Gen ______ ? (Sorry, I don’t know the current buzz phrase of the current college generation.)

— Also,  “Buying ads in a newletters…” also sounds not very 2010. I have a couple of clients who spend quite a bit of money on print ads and unless you’re targeting the (age) 50 & up crowd, I strongly suggest you rethink that strategy. In fact, you might have the option to position the scooter as being “green” – and not being in print ads might be a statement in and of itself, eh? Hand out some t-shirts, etc. But unless more than a couple customers recommend a print publication thentry to avoid them. Naturally, as I’m sure you already know, avoid one-off ads at all costs. Lighting flashes very rarely produce cost justifiable results.

— The donate / non-profit idea is great! Never a bad thing!! Supporting them is also probably the one exception to the No One-offs rule.

— Finally, with regards to the guy you sent home late. (1) Unless he was specifically told that late = home with no pay then that was a pretty big no-no. (2) If that was his first time, then it was an even bigger no no. “Punishment” like that might come back to bite you in the butt. Do I think there needs to be expecations? Yes, I agree with you there. But much like incentives, be careful what you wish for. You’re Scoot Richmond, not Ford Motor Company. Think “team”. Not “I’m going to get you”.

Hope I helped. Please let me know if you have any questions, etc.

Good luck,
Mark Simchock
Chief Alchemist
Alchemy United
Princeton, NJ

Alright then, anyone else have any thoughts on this article, Scoot Richmond or even the AU feedback? Please take a moment and share it.

Just change? Or change for the better?

“Work for Change” by Alexander Stein (Fortune Small Business, November 2009). It’s always interesting how the title of  an article sometimes changes from the print version to the web version. In this case, the web version is actually, “Break bad habits, make more money.” Look out Spiderman, here comes SEOman. I digress.

Change and innovation continue to be the buzz words of the moment. Add in the fact that the New Year’s resolution ritual is just around the corner and this article becomes a great way to kickoff your post-Thanksgiving week.

As we so often like to do, let’s bait you with a pull quote teaser:

There’s no simple prescription for change. But here are the first crucial steps:

Recognize that your personal history plays a central role in shaping your behavior.

Revise any prejudice against emotional inquiry. Accept the fact that fear, rigidity and avoidance are corrosive — and that reaching an understanding about yourself can reap rewards.

Admire psychological complexity; don’t let it intimidate you. Decode your mind to harness its natural ingenuity.

Respect the gargantuan force of your emotional life. Emotions can propel you to success. They can also impede and even straitjacket you. No matter what, you can’t ignore your emotions and still hope to prosper in business or in life.

Keep in mind, we’re about to enter the second decade of the 21st century. What 20th century habits and approaches do you hope to leave behind already? What do think it’s going to take to make those changes happen? Who or what — aside from yourself — is stopping you? Where else do find sources of inspiration that work for you?

There is such a thing as too clean

“Retail Democracy (Even bad reviews boost sales)” by Jennifer Alsever (Fortune Small Business Magazine, 28 September 2009). First, please pardon the delay in sharing this with you but FSB is one of those publications that does not post their articles on their web site when they street their print version. Yes, print still has its low tech place (i.e., convenience, no need for a wifi, etc.)

In short, great article! First, it reiterates one of the common AU themes — it’s not about you, it’s about your guests and their expectations. The focus should be on what they are looking for (e.g., authenticity, honesty, information, etc.), not on what you want to supply. They are not going to care if you’re meeting your needs. They will however care very deeply about if you are meeting their needs.

Think about it. When you visit a web site and see only glowing reviews, what does that do for the credibility of what you read? Do you not expect something more realistic? The irony is many people have the same expectation of other sites but when it comes to their own they want to scrub them so clean that they might as well be a faux Hollywood movie set. In short, context matters — there is such a thing as too clean.

Second, for a bit of positive spin, there is also the SEO (search engine optimization) aspect. In this case it basically comes down to the old PR adage, “bad press is good press.” In other words, comments become content; content gets indexed by search engines; the more content you have indexed the more likely a search engine is to connect you with someone doing a search. Granted, not every visit is a good visit. But as long as the click in is not costing you, via a pay per click (PPC) campaign, then it might not be so bad either.

Remember… Context matters — there is such a thing as too clean.

Ask a realtor, staging matters (and other late night thoughts) – Part 2

“Fortune Small Business Small Business Makeover: Cloz – Dress for Success” by Patricia B. Gray (Fortune Small Business, May 2009).  This post is a follow up to a post a couple weeks back. Full disclosure: It is also shameless self-promotion. The news… FSB  decided to print (on their Letters page) an edited version of the AU feedback submitted. YES!

After reading the recent Makeover of Cloz, the Chicago-based school uniform supplier (“Dress for Success,” May), I have a few ideas to share. Instead of launching a second garment business for the slow season, what if Cloz used that time to become a vendor for other manufactures in of outsourcing? The firm might also consider an airline pricing model, with price breaks for early (or even late) ordering. Maybe try offering other types of uniforms or consider exporting to countries in the Southern Hemisphere? I would imagine that once Cloz has gained a parent’s trust, there are other items the company could cross-sell to its base. In addition, the website needs an update. With all due respect, the site does not say to potential customer, “We will take care of you,” and it is hardly search engine friendly. It gives no indication of Cohen’s pedigree in dressing “scions of America’s wealthiest families for almost two decades.”

Mark Simchock
Chief Alchemist
Alchemy United
Princeton, NJ

One additional caveat: The original letter that went to was also submitted to Cloz via their web site. There was no reply, not even an autoreply. Maybe Cloz should also pursue a makeover of their guest services as well?

Btw, this was the second published letter to the edit this week. Feels good, right?

Share your home movies with the world

“Make your own HD movie” by By Suranga Chandratillake (Fortune Small Business, March 2009). While doing some research for a project that might entail some video we came across this round up. FSB might not be a technology bible but this is a good place to start if you’re considering some simple video solutions. At this point, the revolution probably isn’t going to be televised but it will most certainly be on YouTube.

Google 101

“Google Wants You” by Chris Morrison (Fortune Small Businss, May 2009). As overviews of Google’s advertising options go,  this is a pretty good one. There are three majors gaps that deserve to be mentioned:

1) The estimated click fraud rate of Ad Sense / Ad Words ads is anywhere from 15% – 20%. That’s a fairly significant amount of waste and might be more than you’re willing to hand over to an already uber-rich company.

2) If you also want to sell ads yourself on your site, as well as use Ad Sense, then check out Google Ad Manager. Good stuff.And it’s free.

3) There are ways to increase (organic search) traffic without having to pay for keywords. However, what you save in money might cost you in time. That said, a blog (for example) is something that can keep people coming back and helps to develop and support your brand on an ongoing basis. Ad Words are more of a one shot approach.

Ask a realtor, staging matters (and other late night thoughts)

“Fortune Small Business Small Business Makeover: Cloz – Dress for Success” by Patricia B. Gray (Fortune Small Business, May 2009). Below are a few more opportunities that were shared with FBS.

Dear FSB,

With regards to Mr. Michael Cohen and his firm Cloz, I have a few ideas I’d like to share before I shut down my notebook and get some sleep. To that I add, please excuse any typos or other obvious
mistakes – it’s late and I really should be asleep already.

> Instead of a slow-season biz why not use what is essentially excess capacity to:

a) Be a vendor for others in need of outsourcing

b) Use an airlines-esque pricing model and offer price breaks for early (or even late) ordering. Given the economic climate, (slightly) lower prices might retain some customers from defecting. It might also be a good way to attract new customers.

c) What about other school / organization uniforms? For example, cheer leading, or marching band? Both of these might be a good way to get new customers to try Cloz.

d) Would it be feasible to consider exporting to southern hemisphere countries?

e) I agree that a side-biz might be taking a chance but I would also imagine that once Cloz has gained a parent’s trust that there might be other things that could be used to “cross sell” to his base.

> I don’t believe the articles mentions (whether Cloz already does so or not) but instead of expanding into more space maybe the answer is to add shifts to maximize the use of his manufacturing when the season is peaking. Further expansion might only increase the risk and depth of the valleys in between the peaks.

> If the correct web site is Cloz.com then I beg to differ – that site needs a make-over. In addition to the design, a simple right click / view source (code) reveals dated web dev code that is hardly “search engine friendly.” An updating could have a positive impact on his organic search engine placement. There’s no guarantee but the article certainly implies he can’t do much worse in that regards.

> With all due respect that site does not say to a new potential customers, “We are $10m biz and we will take care of you.” Like it or not, people judge a book by its cover.

> The article mentions that “Cohen has dressed the scions of America’s wealthiest families for almost two decades…”. Best I can tell, the site gives no indication of that pedigree, nor of the elite private and boarding schools Cloz serves.

> Once again, FSB’s “web expert” (mistakenly) recommends buying keywords. Ironically, the “Google Wants You” article (by Chris Morrison, page 27 of the same issue) draws a less than absolute conclusion. Keyword might help but not only are there alternatives but it is highly recommended that Mr. Cohen read the attached article that appeared in eWeek (“Searching for more traffic” by Jim Rapoza) a few months back. Btw, please excuse the copy right infringement.

> It should be noted that it is estimated that 15 – 20% of AdWords clicks are bogus. With what authority does Mr. Dalton say, “It’s a cheap, easy fix”? It might be cheap *if* it works, but if it doesn’t Mr. Cohen could lose more to Google than he bargained for. One has to wonder if driving traffic to a site that’s really that “shabby” makes sense. Again, please read the eWeek article – it’s brilliant.

> The article makes no mention of a sales force – independent or otherwise. Regardless, I would suggest Mr. Cohen use Yahoo! alerts or Google alerts and enter “school uniforms” (or some combination of words) to try to get alerts on school districts that are either considering going to school uniforms, or where maybe there’s a news item of a contract expiring.

> With regards to school systems who are considering such a shift to uniforms, I would suggest Mr. Cohen start a blog that collects articles / links on studies that support increased student performance, as well as other benefits from  student being required to wear uniforms. This would give him a tool to supplement his alerts. For example, he gets an alert and then reaches out to that school district with an email that says, “Here are some links that I think you might be interested in…”

> Some testimonials of current clients probably wouldn’t hurt either. Should Cloz market / advertise? Of course it should. Might there be things Cloz can do so new clients come looking for them too? Absolutely there are (and it’s likely they are cheaper and/or more effective than keywords.

> I’m not too certain if this next idea applies but what about the idea of seasonal uniforms? Or something similar to the English Premier League (Soccer) where the teams change “kits” a couple times a year. Naturally, that helps increase concession sales. The idea might not apply here but maybe there’s the inspiration for a better idea for Mr. Cohen hidden in my idea somewhere?

> Finally, scientific school equipment (read: static) and school uniforms are apples and oranges, IMHO. An “expert” from a company who sells school uniforms, or even text books might have been able to offer better insights. Not that Mr. Flinn’s where bad. I am only suggesting the possibility of a more appropriate “expert” for next time.

Alright, that will have to do it for tonight, time to get some sleep. Good night.

Hoist a new flag
Mark

Mark Simchock
Chief Alchemist
Alchemy United

Your vision . Our passion . Success realized

Site+Blog: www.AlchemyUnited.com

Someone somewhere is always looking to make a buck

Got an idea? Looking to grow your biz? Need some money to make it happen? You’re going to want to breeze through these:

“Likes Taking Risks, Profitable Returns” by Dan Fost (NY Times, Wed 1 Oct 2008).

“Easy Money” on Sir Richard Branson’s new Virgin Money (www.VirginMoneyUS.com) by Jessica Harris (FSB – Fortune Small Business, Jan 2008).

Scott Holt asks, “How can I sell better?”

This entry references a Q&A in the July / August 2008 issue of Fortune Small Business (www.FSB.com). Unfortunately, for some reason the article isn’t available online. The gist of the question is, Mr. Holt owns a custom sewing shop (Sewing Solutions in Spring Lake, Mich) and feels he must learn to sell in order to attract new customers. He asked FSB for advice.

We’d all agree that learning to sell is never a bad things. But frankly, most of the recommendations maade by FSB are pretty disappointing. Here are some AU suggestions for Mr. Holt:

1 – Get a web site! After reading the article and having some thoughts we tried to contact Mr Holt directly. He is on LinkedIn but nothing for Sewing Solutions. GoDaddy (www.GoDaddy.com), as well as many others, offers some very reasonable build it yourself packages. There’s really no excuse to be a biz – small or big – and not to have a web site in 2008.

2 – Use an email that uses the site’s URL. Also be sure to have a signature that reminds people who you are, etc.

3 – In the article there was a recommendation to focus on one of the more profitable specialties. Wrong! Focus on the one(s) that are worth focusing on. If the size of the most profitable market is too small then all the profitability in the world probably won’t keep you in the black. The other thing to consider is, which one is growing. As a rule of thumb it’s better to get a small piece of an expanding market then jump into a market that’s on the decline.

4 – As an extension of #3, figure out what the market/customer wants but isn’t being met and see if you can deliver that. Maybe there’s a semi-related niche that might be worth addressing? Yes, it’s helpful to have some focus but before moving forward with a sales pitch it’s best to stop, take a step back and then figure out what the target REALLY should be. Unfortunately, it appears that FBS gave Mr. Holt what he wanted (i.e., advice on how to sell) but they should have at least taken a look at what he needed first.

5 – It wasn’t clear whether Sewing Solution is B2C or B2B. If part of the biz can be B2B then investing time in establishing relationships with various “gatekeepers” (e.g., theater owner, awning installers, etc.) who could refer biz to SS would probably make sense. Winning one gatekeeper could mean many customers. As for B2C, the article is correct,  that’s typically sheer persistence. That said, without a web site it’s going to be hard for people to find Mr. Holt and SS.

6 – Regardless of whether it’s B2C or B2B, investigate the use of a CRM (e.g., www.FreeCRM.com or www.Zoho.com) or establish some sort of personal system to make sure you’re following up, making time to generate new leads, thanking previous customers, other reminders, etc.

7 – Aside from LinkedIn see if there are any other networks, communities, etc. in your area that are worth joining. Most often the step before the sale is networking. People like to deal with people they know (and trust) so get out there and get to know more people. Ideally the right people.

8 – Podcasts. There are tons of great podcasts on selling. Business Week’s Savvy Selling is great. There are many others. If anyone has any other recommendations for good podcast please leave a comment.

9 – Last but not least… for ongoing progression read this blog regularly :)

Well Mr. Holt we hope this helps. Btw, do you fix soccer nets? Nearly every net we’ve ever seen needs some work. Maybe such repairs would be a good way to offer a “loss leader” and get your name out there?