Strike While the Buying Iron is Hot

Photo credit: Bing Ramos "bingbing, on Flickr"

My family and I went snow tubing recently. Less than a mile from the ski resort, we stopped in at a quaint little family-run convenience store and deli.

The girls there were so nice. To their credit, they were talking up their lunch specials and contrasting the affordability of their deli-made sandwiches with the captive audience pricing at the ski resort. They even offered us a business card and said we could call ahead to place an order and it would be freshly made and ready to pick up when we arrived.

Photo credit: Carl Lender, on Flickr

That was their big mistake.

We were interested in their lunch offerings. Both because they looked delicious and because we knew, without even getting to the ski resort yet, that it would be better and cheaper than anything we’d find on the mountain.

They had us.

And then they let us go.

With nothing but a business card.

We did not go back there for lunch. Although it was only a mile away, leaving the ski area seemed like such a hassle. In all honesty, I actually would have made the trip but for one big concern: we did not have a menu and no one in our family could decide what they wanted without one.

On our way home we did stop in and buy dinner. While we were there, I offered the owner some free marketing advice. (I wasn’t being pushy. I offered to share my insights and she was grateful to hear them.)

  1. Offer delivery. No one wants to leave the resort to save $10 on lunch, even if it is better and healthier. But most would pay a couple of dollars to have it delivered to them. By combining multiple orders into one trip (only offer delivery at preset times — 11:00, 11:30, 12:00, 12:30, 1:00, 1:30) delivery could prove profitable.
  2. Don’t hand out a business card, give a take-out menu instead. If I can see what my choices are (or in my case, if my three indecisive teenagers can see what their choices are) it becomes much more likely that we’ll place an order.
  3. Better than either of the above, strike while the iron is hot. The ski resort allows skiers and tubers to bring their own food in. (Not everyone realizes this, especially if they haven’t been there before.) So the women should educate them as part of the sales pitch. The resort also has lockers where clothing and, importantly, food can be stored. In fact, the lockers are in the food court area. For anyone who buys lunch in the morning and takes it with them (like we would have) offer to pay for the cost of the locker ($0.50) with the purchase of lunch for four or more people.

Any one of those items would have spurred us to buy lunch. We probably still would have bought dinner there as well. They could have doubled their sales for the cost of… well, essentially nothing.

Bob’s Deli, Muffler Shop and Nail Salon

Photo credit: Adam (army.arch on Flickr)

“Oh you’re a freelancer… Do you have a specialty?”

“No. I didn’t want to limit myself. I pretty much do it all.”

[Alarm bells going off] Ding! Ding! Ding! Red flag. This person is either just starting out or is just a dreamer and isn’t even doing freelance work yet. Bottom line: not successful.

Rewind. Try this again.

“Oh you’re a freelancer… Do you have a specialty?”

“I deal with small local businesses.”

“What kind of businesses? What industries?”

“Any industry. I can handle whatever.”

[Alarm bells going off] Ding! Ding! Ding!

…you get the picture.

To someone having just hung out their shingle and being freshly opened for business, it seems not just counter-intuitive but actually counter-productive to limit yourself. This is especially true when you’re still vying for that first customer, or first few customers.

The irony is that you can establish yourself faster by specializing.

After all, can you really do equally well representing a fruit stand, a clothing boutique, a welder’s supply store and a Fortune 500 conglomerate?

Marketing and sales is the life and death of any business. When you’re dealing with a life and death situation yourself, you look for a specialist. Say you had some terrible disease like liver cancer. Would you keep going to your family doctor who was just a general practitioner or would you seek out a doctor who specialized in treating your specific disease?

By choosing a specialty, you make that your primary business focus. That’s not to say you couldn’t take on other assignments if they came your way. However by specializing, those businesses that fall into your area of specialization are more likely to find you and be willing to hire you than if you were a general practitioner.

“Keeping my options open” is how most newly-minted entrepreneurs like to think of it. “Not the guy to entrust the lifeblood of my business to” is how most seasoned business people will more likely interpret it.

The first move in any creative process is to introduce constraints. (The Art of Looking Sideways, p.270)

There is a sound scientific basis for this, as illustrated by a further quote from Alan Fletcher in The Art of Looking Sideways, “…I could, the client said, do whatever I liked. Bad news. Open-ended problems need boundaries to avoid any unnecessary excursions…”

Think of a home. Have you ever walked on a cleared area that was to become the foundation for a house? Or one where a house once stood? Have you also been inside that house when it was standing on that foundation? Looking at the cleared land, it seems much too small for a proper home. It is the walls and “confining” features that give it space.

Adding impact to this whole idea of specialization as a business building strategy is the fact that even a relatively small city has many thousands of businesses. When you fail to specialize,  you lose focus trying to chase down anyone who will hire you. With a well-chosen niche or sub-niche specialty, you should find no more than a couple hundred potential business customers. This gives you a more definite target on which to focus your efforts. Even landing 10% or 20% of those clients will yield more work than you can realistically handle.

Now that’s a high quality problem to have.

Do you engage in “coopetition”? You should!

The way that many companies keep their customer lists, they have the names and assorted contact information for everyone who’s ever bought from them and gave them such information. That’s about it.

And this is those companies that even bother to keep customer lists at all.

Of course the really good companies keep much more. Why do you suppose large retailers and service companies have loyalty programs? Frequent flyer programs, frequent buyer programs, grocery store discount cards… you name it.

Those programs serve two very important purposes:

  1. By making customers fill out an “application” to sign up for their program, they are getting those customers to give them a great deal of information: full name, address, email, phone number and sometimes more.
  2. Every time a customer uses his card or account number, the company logs what was purchased. (Yes, even your two foot long grocery store receipt with 133 items on it.) In that way, they can build up a very detailed history of exactly what any given customer likes, as opposed the customer seated across the aisle or the guy in the room down the hall.

Savvy companies milk this information for all it’s worth and extend custom-tailored offers to each customer. Naturally, by offering what you’ve already demonstrated you like and will purchase frequently, it greatly increases the odds of making another sale.

Or perhaps they make a special offer on somethingyou don’t normally buy. Most likely something complementary to what you usually buy. Only stay in the hotel on weekdays but never on weekends? By offering to extend your stay for a reduced price, perhaps they can induce you into longer stays that include weekends. Always buy the name brand cookies but the store brand of lots of other items? If they can convince you to give their store-brand cookies a try, they stand to make more profit. (Even though the price is lower, the margins are typically higher.)

But that’s about as far as it goes.

So what’s missing?

A lot, as it turns out.

How many companies distinguish between current and former customers? When customers stop buying from you, there will rarely be an announcement. There’s just a change in buying behavior and you may never know why.

Perhaps that salesman who flew three out of every four weeks is now an executive who hardly travels. Or the family of five who bought groceries every week was lured away by a new store. Or moved to another state.

How do you even define a former customer? How long do they have to go without making a purchase before they make it into that category? Is there hope of rescuing the business relationship before it comes to that?

And what of prospects who gave you their information but then never actually became customers at all? Do you save that information? What do you do with it?

Most companies will try for some time to lure those prospects into becoming customers. (Some keep trying indefinitely.) They may change the offers around a little, dangle a different carrot, so to speak, but that’s really about the extent of it.

Here’s a radically different idea: what about giving those prospects and stale former customers to one of your direct competitors?

Of course I’m not talking about some kind of twisted professionally self-destructive altruism. Instead I’m talking about a trade. You give one of your competitors “x” number of prospects who never converted plus former customers who obviously aren’t coming back and, in return, they give you the same number of their unconverted prospects and former customers.


If these prospects gave you their information, it was most likely because they needed or wanted what you have to offer. They were interested in becoming customers but then something happened. It could be that they changed their mind, or that your price was too high, or they heard or read something about you that they didn’t like, or they had a negative interaction with someone at your company, or decided to buy from a competitor instead.

The reason doesn’t really matter all that much.

What matters is that, unless this was a one-time only need that’s already been satisfied, these prospects have selected themselves as potentially good customers for someone in your industry. Just not for you. (If that were the case, you would already have converted them into customers.)

The same is true of your competitor’s unconverted prospect list; those are potentially great customers for someone but not for them.

So you’re both sitting on lists that have tremendous potential value to some company in your industry. It only makes sense then to exchange lists. They stand to wring some value from yours while you stand to wring some value from theirs.

This combination of cooperation and competition is called “coopetition”.

This is not collusion. You’re still competitors, you’re just engaging in a more enlightened form of cooperative competition.

Of course there is the possibility that many of the prospects you get from your competitor may already be your customers. They run the same risk with your list. That’s just part of the cost of this kind of transaction.

Another major consideration is concern over privacy. One of the things you can most easily do is to not actually exchange lists but each merely send out a solicitation on behalf of the other. If trust is a concern, you could mutually agree on a third party mailer who will process both lists. That way, the information never actually changes hands.

The only way you get your competitor’s prospect information (and vice versa) is if one of those prospects responds to the mailing and you collect it from him directly.


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You need a signature dish

A restaurant without a signature dish simply blends into the crowd and doesn’t stand out. In fact the same might be said of any kind of business, not just restaurants.

Not long ago, my family and I went out to eat at a Thai restaurant. Thai is my daughter’s favorite so we look for it often.

Like most ethnic restaurants, one Thai place is really not all that much different from another. The same is true of Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian and even burger joints.

The place we went was nice and the food was very good. However it wasn’t really distinct from any of the other very good Thai food we’ve had. They simply didn’t have a “signature dish”.

After the meal, my wife and I both ordered coffee. I’m not really much of a coffee drinker but I will drink it sometimes just for taste.

The waitress brought our coffee plus the usual little pitcher of cream and container with an array of sweeteners.

I don’t know what made me think of it but I asked her if she could bring me a bit of coconut milk. My wife, who absolutely loves all things tropical, jumped right on that and asked if she could have coconut milk for her coffee too.

Neither of us had ever tried it before but immediately found that good coffee with sweetened coconut milk is exceptionally good. I suspect that even passable coffee could be made better with sweetened coconut milk.

Ever the marketer, I spoke with the restaurant’s owner. I told her of our experiment using coconut milk in our coffee and how terrific it was. Then I suggested that she make it a regular thing. That could be their signature dish.

Anyone who knows anything about Thai food knows that Thai restaurants probably get coconut milk in 55 gallon drums. So for them to serve coconut milk by default when someone orders coffee or tea is no hardship. In fact, it makes perfect sense.

My daughter raised the specter of people with nut allergies but just about every Thai dish is characterized by one or more of just a handful of ingredients: coconut, cashews, peanuts, and lemon grass. I simply can’t imagine that people with nut allergies eat an awful lot of Thai food. Even so, if the restaurant made this their signature dish, they would proclaim and advertise it. At the very least, some mention would be made right on the menu. If someone did have a nut allergy, they could always request regular milk or cream in place of coconut milk.

The real point is that having that signature dish would make them more memorable and bring in repeat customers. And what else is marketing for if not that?

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Does the format of your emails make a difference?

In my opinion, yes it does. Though not always in the same way that you might expect. Also, the “best” format may be different in various different contexts.

I use several different email systems, each for a different purpose. Yes it’s cumbersome but I’ve found that it’s important to maximizing results. The five main email systems I use are:

  1. Autoresponder – for acknowledging mailing list enrollments and sending out scheduled items such as newsletters
  2. “Pretty” system – for sending nicely formatted outbound messages, both group and individual
  3. Email reader – mostly for reading incoming emails, though I may occasionally send unformatted outbound emails from here as well
  4. Personal email – my business email systems forward copies of all incoming messages to my personal email system, which is where I often first see them
  5. Domain-hosted email – I almost never use this system but it’s part of my website’s hosting account and can’t be deleted. There have been times when I had to resort to this system for various reasons.


An email autoresponder is highly specialized. Regular email accounts and systems simply can’t do the same thing. Few businesses can get away without having an autoresponder account. Yes, they’re that important.

All of the autoresponder services I recommend (AweberConstant Contact, and Mail Chimp) allow you to format your emails to be nice looking. They also offer plain text options. In fact, assuming you format your email messages both ways, your subscribers can choose which format they prefer. The system will take care of sending them the correct version.

Formatted vs Unformatted Outgoing Mail

pretty email formatted graphicsWhen sending one-off messages (and even for your autoresponder messages for that matter), there are two schools of thought. One is that you should format them in plain text because the content is key and you don’t want bad formatting or missing graphics to get in the way of the message you are conveying. In fact, if you are going to send a plain text email you should manually insert line breaks at around 60 characters. Do not rely on automatic text wrapping. It will break the lines in a different place for everyone and may make your messages awkward to read. Better that you control it.

The other school of thought is that sending an attractively formatted email will make a better impression on readers. I subscribe to several newsletters whose authors prefer unformatted content and I do see a certain value in the minimalist style but I use formatted emails myself and can say from experience that it gets results. Provided your recipients actually see the formatting and graphics. Some email systems block graphics by default and only allow them if you are in the recipient’s contact list or if they specifically set their email to allow it. In that case, your carefully formatted email may come out looking rather ugly.

Of course when the graphics and formatting are not blocked or tampered with by your recipients’ email systems (something over which you have no control, by the way), a really well formatted email can be gorgeous. I get lots of comments on mine and they do seem to generate better results for me than typical plain emails.

The example at right is one of my emails. Format stays generally the same though the large photo at the top can be changed from one message to the next. I can also insert an additional small photo of my choosing in the body of the message just above the text.

Tips to avoid getting spam filtered

If your recipients have white-listed you or added you to their contact list, you will almost certainly not be relegated to the dreaded spam folder. All the more reason to ask them to do so.

Even without that, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of having your emails marked as spam. One is to not set a different return address. It’s possible to send email from one address but designate that replies be automatically redirected to a different address. This carries a high probability of getting your messages flagged.

Another big thing has to do with recipients. Avoid sending out email to lists of recipients. The rule should generally be “one person, one message”. That is, each person gets their own personal message and is not part of a larger group. Even if they really are part of a larger group and even if they know it, more sophisticated email systems have ways of personalizing the messages so you are not throwing it in their face with each email you send. Doing this also makes it so that you are not sharing everyone’s email address with everyone else. (A key point for privacy and spam compliance.)

Finally is the subject line. Subject lines are a huge topic about which entire books have been written. In general, spam emails are often identified (either systemically or manually by recipients) by a few tell-tale signs:

  • the word “free” anywhere in the subject line
  • a completely empty subject line
  • use of non-standard characters (anything not found on the keyboard)
  • anything that looks canned or impersonal
  • use of words like “sale”, “special”, “offer”, “expire”, “last chance”, “today only”, etc.

The bottom line

It’s crazy for one business to use so many different email systems just to communicate with clients and prospects. However I have yet to find a single system that does it all. (When and if I do, I will certainly give it a try.) Ultimately, if it means getting better results, I will live with the discomfort of paying for and juggling several different systems.