Do the Cloud Guys Get It?

English: Cloud Computing Image

English: Cloud Computing Image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read an article this week that cites five reasons why cloud computing isn’t taking off as fast as the companies selling the solution were hoping for. The reasons unfortunately make me feel like the cloud industry folks are out of touch with the real world. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in that high-tech industries are run by innovators. Innovators often don’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see things with the same clarity as they do.

Following are the five reasons cited in the article about why cloud computing is not selling as fast as hoped, with my observations after each point.

The Organization. Organizations often are structured in a way that does not make the kind of shift to cloud easy. For instance, IT shops are often organized into separate groups for compute, network and storage.

Changes that affect people are never easy for companies. Going to the cloud is supposed to save a lot of labor costs for larger companies, but that is not necessarily the case for smaller companies.  But even larger companies are going to take a while to make sure they are not walking off a cliff. Every old-timer like me remembers a few examples of where major technology conversions went poorly, and nobody wants to be the one blamed if a big conversion goes wrong.

Security. Companies are afraid that the cloud is not going to be as safe as keeping all of their data in-house.

Everything I have read says that if done right that the cloud can be very secure. However, the fear is that not every conversion is going to be done right. You can place your bets with me now, but sometime in the next year or two there is going to be a major ugly headline about a company that converted to the cloud poorly which led to a major breach of customer records. The problem is that everybody is human and not every cloud company is going to do every conversion perfectly.

Legacy Applications. Cloud companies want you to get rid of legacy systems and upgrade to applications made for the cloud.

This is where cloud companies just don’t get it. First, almost every company uses a few legacy systems that are not upgradable and for which there is no cloud equivalent. Every industry has some quirky homegrown programs and applications that are important for their core business. When you tell a company to kill every legacy application most of them are going to rightfully be scared this is going to create more problems than it solves.

Second, nobody wants to be automatically upgraded with the latest and greatest software. It’s a company nightmare to come in on a Monday and find out that the cloud provider has upgraded everybody to some new Microsoft version of Office that is full of bugs and that everybody hates and that brings productivity to a halt. Companies keep legacy systems because they work. I recently wrote about the huge number of computers still running on Windows XP. That is how the real world works.

Legacy Processes. In addition to legacy software, companies have many legacy processes that they don’t want to change.

Honestly this is arrogant. Companies buy software to make what they do easier. To think that you need to change all of your processes to match the software is really amazingly out of touch with what most companies are looking for. Where a cloud salesman sees ‘legacy system’ most companies see something that works well and that they took years to get the way they want it.

Regulatory Compliance. Companies are worried that the cloud is going to violate regulatory requirements. This is especially true for industries such as financial, health and the power industries.  

This is obviously a case-by-case issue, but if you are in one of the heavily regulated industries then this has to be a significant concern.

I hope this doesn’t make me sound anti-cloud, because I am not. But I completely understand why many companies are going to take their time considering this kind of huge change. There is no product ever made that should not be taking their customers into consideration. When I see articles like this I feel annoyed, because the gist of the article is, “Why won’t these dumb customers see that what I have is good for them”. That is never a good way to get people to buy what you are selling.

Branding your Company and Products

Just FYI, no blogs last week due to flu bug. Funny how you can’t write when you can’t sit up.

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here occasionally. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

In my last blog, I talked about branding things – things with which your customers interact! “Things” is a little vague, so let’s clarify – your branded assets include things like: your office, trucks, people (uniforms), website.  What about branding your product?  What are the stepping-stones of branding your service that you’ll be delivering to your customers?  This gets complicated really quickly, so how can we simplify it?

Let’s begin with the strategic analysis of the brand.

The first step is a customer analysis.

Here are questions you have to ask yourself:  what are the current trends in the telecommunications industry? What is affecting your business?  We all know some of those major trends; landline disconnections, and streaming TV, for example. But now let’s add motivation questions.  Which customers are motivated to use cell phones in which parts your geographic footprint?  What are the unmet needs of your customers?   Brainstorm these questions with your team and figure out answers relevant to your brand. In the end you’re shooting for stellar customer service, making each customer happy beyond expectations.

The second step: Competitor analysis.

What are your strengths compared to all competitors including these new Internet competitors?  What are your answers to the “cell phone problem”?  What are the strategies to attack the segments we have previously identified? And last but not least, what are your vulnerabilities?  Examining your vulnerabilities is hard, you have to strip away your bias, take a step back and look at the big picture. Be honest with yourself. Analyze yourself like you would your competitors. Which leads nicely into…

The third step: Self-analysis. 

Ask yourselves and your customers: what is the current image of the brand?  What is the brand’s heritage?  What does your product provide? What are its strengths?

The last step: Determine your organizational values.  

What are the positive attributes of your leader or leadership team? It might be something as simple as: “we always go the extra mile!” or “We’ll make sure the customer is always satisfied.”

Still not sure what organizational values look like?

Here are the Stealth values to give you an idea!  We exist to help others, we are passionate about what we believe in, we are perpetual students, we love challenge, we like to stretch boundaries and evolve to the next level of everything.  We are driven by relationships because relationships drive communication and good communication drives success.  We work to achieve success.

How Good Should Your Customer Service Be?

This is the hardest question I have asked as a blog title, because there just is no easy answer. Before I try to answer the question at all, let me set some parameters. I am talking about smaller companies and not those that operate large call centers. There are dozens of consultants who specialize in software and metrics for large call centers. But most of my clients do not operate call centers and they have a more intimate relationship with customers. So let’s look at this question in terms of smaller companies.

One glib answer I could offer is that your customer service has to be at least good enough to make your customers happy. And there is certainly some truth in that, but that sounds a bit like consultant speak. So let me dig a little deeper and ask: what ought to be the goals for a smaller customer service group? Here are some of the traits a small customer service group needs to have to produce the best results. I have learned these over the years by having worked with literally hundreds of small customer service groups:

  • Friendliness. One of the advantages that small companies have over large ones is that your employees can get to know your customers and form bonds with many of them. This should be encouraged because when somebody knows the person they are talking to on the phone the whole transaction is more likely to go well. So encourage your customer service reps to get to know your customers.
  • Accuracy. Accuracy means just what it says. It means making sure every order you take is accurate so that the customer gets what they asked for. It means giving customers the right answer when they ask a question. It means perfect directory listings. And to be accurate requires training, but more importantly it requires that your reps are graded for paying attention to details.
  • Prompt Responses. Customers love it when a customer service rep has the information they are looking for right at their fingertips. If they call with a billing question they don’t want to be put on hold for five minutes while your rep tries to find the answer to their question. The way to make this happen is to have a good OSS/BSS system. If you want your reps to do a great job you must have great tools. Companies often get very comfortable with a software system and never consider changing. I visit many clients and see them using outdated systems that make it hard for their employees to do a great job. There is no excuse for that these days. There are a number of quality vendors and you should not be afraid to change if your current software is not doing what you need. I always ask the question – who is more important to you, your customers or your vendor? Do not get wedded to a vendor just because you have used them for many years. If they can’t and won’t keep their software current to fit your needs, look for somebody that will.
  • Knowledge. Your customer service reps ought to be able to answer most questions about your products and prices without having to look up basic facts each time. Make knowledge a priority in how you grade their performance each year. They ought to know how your most common features work and should be able to walk a customer through using them. They ought to know the basic troubleshooting steps needed to fix basic problems when they get a trouble call. If they can take care of a problem without having to refer it to a technician, then you will have saved money and have a happier customer.
  • Empowerment. Your customer service reps should be empowered to fix customer’s problems on the spot. Some companies have policies like always requiring higher approval before giving a credit to a customer. Empower your employees to make decisions and take care of customer problems on the spot. You can always review credits that are given out and if you don’t like the way they were done you have a teaching opportunity to do it better the next time. But don’t be afraid to empower your employees to take care of customers so that the customer can get a problem resolved on one phone call, talking to one person.
  • Not Scripted. I don’t know of a person who doesn’t feel marginalized and unimportant when a customer service rep is clearly reading something to them off of a screen instead of talking to them person-to-person. This is something that many large call centers foster, and sometimes calling customer service feels like talking to a robot. I don’t think this works well for large companies and is one of the reasons that people hate large telco and cable company customer service. So don’t fall into this trap and try to put pre-packaged words into your reps mouths. Make sure they know what they need to know and then just let them talk to customers like a person.
  • The Right Policies. Your reps need to be working with policies that are customer friendly, and this is all up to you. I often find policies that make me shake my head. For example, I have one client who required a money order or cash for a customer to reconnect service for non-pay. Of course, this leads to customers just deciding to not come back. The policies you have in place in dealing with customers need to all have the same underlying premise – they must be customer-friendly and they must make it easy for customers to use you as their vendor.

Branding and How a Customer Views Your Company

Etsy engineers and customer service at work

Etsy engineers and customer service at work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here occasionally. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

I watch a lot of old movies and sometimes I find myself thinking back to the 1940’s and 1950’s. The world was not only pretty straight forward; it was also black and white. Have you ever thought that?  Be honest!  Think of where we are now. How different our marketing world has become in the past few years.

Marketing has become so multi-dimensional!

This marketing evolution is good for everyone.  Good for businesses, good for marketers and very, very good for customers.

So my question is: how is your business looking in this multi-dimensional world? Let’s start by listing a few of the places you are seen and then I will explain the importance of each one:

  1. Your office or headquarters
  2. Online
    1. Website
    2. Social media outlets
  3. Your customer service efforts
  4. Your employees – on and off the job
  5. Public Relations

These are the questions I ask myself as I walk into an office for the first time:

  1. How would this office look to a customer? Is it exciting or cluttered?
  2. How does it match or build on my advertising?  Is it an extension?  It should be. Are we saying we are a high-tech company?  The office should reflect that.
  3. Is the office clean?
  4. Is there adequate parking?
  5. Is it efficient at handling lines?
  6. Are the marketing/promotional materials current?

Does/Is the Website:

  1. Reflect the brand well?
  2. Organized?
  3. Optimized?
  4. User-friendly, with obvious access to information?
  5. Allow a user to find the pricing for the services offered?
  6. Modern? An archaic web presence is a poor reflection on your business.

On Social Media, are you:

  1. Transparent? Are you answering critical posts quickly and resolving the problem publicly? Do people trust the information you’re providing? Are you resolving problems publicly and respectfully?
  2. Using it for customer service? If yes: are you answering customers’ questions and concerns quickly?
  3. Creating a useful environment for the entertainment industry?

Customer Service, do you:

  1. Train and empower customer service representatives?
  2. Offer transparency in customer service?
  3. Be sure the customer service reps have all information about offers and promotions before the customer does?
  4. Remember customer service employees are an extension of your company?

Other (company branded vehicles, employees, community efforts or in the customer’s home):

  1. What happens when an employee is at the grocery store and a question comes up? Do they respond in a positive manner? What do they do when no one is looking?
  2. How do the trucks look? Banged up?  Well branded and identified? The cable companies whom you compete against never seem to get this right. The trucks have stickers on the side or are branded from the last acquisition.  This is an opportunity to look clean, neat and high-tech.
  3. What is the process as employees enter customer’s homes? Do they track mud or wear clean booties over their work boots? Do they leave each area a little bit better than they found it?

For Public Relations, you should:

  1. Find places to speak and then get out on the circuit!  Tell your story.  What is new in your business? Your story is anything from hiring a new person to launching a new platform.
  2. Join business clubs such as: Rotary or Kiwanis and tell your story and meet other business people, figure out if they need your service.
  3. Send the stories of significance to the local paper.  Many papers love the extra content.
  4. Identify key employees to help you in community ambassador roles.

The items discussed above go to branding. Branding helps your company build loyalty and confidence with customers and potential customers. Remember, each time a customer comes in contact with your company it is either a positive contact or a negative one. Therefore, examine each touch point carefully.

Sometimes You Need Sales

Customers

Customers (Photo credit: Vinqui)

Most clients I talk to have a marketing plan of some type. Some of them have a really great one and others just do the same thing year after year. But often when they talk to me about the issues they are having, it turns out that what they really need is a sales plan.

Sales is when you go out, look the customer in the eye, and explain to them why they should buy from you. There certainly can be some marketing aspect of sales, such as having door hangers to let people know you are coming, but there are some times in the life of a company when you don’t need marketing and you need sales.

So when is it appropriate to do direct selling and when should you use marketing? Here are some of the times when direct selling is going to give you better results:

  • When you extend your network into a new neighborhood. This might be new houses built in your existing service area or somewhere you have extended your network. In these circumstances you need to knock on the doors and make your pitch.
  • When you introduce a major new product and you want to get a lot of customers. If you are launching cable TV for the first time or getting into the cellular business, then knocking on every door in your service area is going to get you the most new customers the fastest.
  • When you haven’t talked face-to-face with your customers in a long time. I talk to clients all of the time who have never knocked on a door and talked to a customer in a cold calling situation. A company who doesn’t know what their customers won’t be selling the right thing. So if you have never had a door-knocking campaign or haven’t done one for a long time, then get out and talk to your customers. You will get some up-sales, but you will also get a lot of feedback on what customers would like to buy from you.
  • Any time you sell to a business. You should never use passive marketing campaigns to sell to business customers. It just doesn’t work. Every business thinks they are unique and the way to make them a loyal customers is to learn about their business and their communications needs and to then find them a solution.

So who in your company should sell? If this is something that is going to be needed only periodically, then you and your existing staff should be the salespeople. Nobody knows your company better than the people who work there. Remember that it doesn’t take a slick sales person or polished sales presentation to sell something that people want. It takes knowledge. And when I say you, I am talking directly to the owners and general managers of smaller companies. Get out and go door-to-door. There is no faster way to find out what the public expects from you and to find out what you are doing wrong and doing right.

If you are always expanding your network, or are always selling to business customers, then you need a full-time salesperson. There is a long list of issues to consider when setting up a full-time sales position and I won’t try to cover them in this blog. But there is definitely a right and a wrong way to operate a sales staff.

And finally, here are a few sales tips.

  • Be organized. If you are going to knock on every door in an area, make sure you talk to somebody at every house. This means keeping notes on who was not at home and making multiple visits. It may mean calling to set up appointments with people who are hard to catch at home. Don’t make one sweep through a neighborhood on a weekday afternoon and think that you have done a good job.
  • Take good notes. These will come in valuable later. It’s just as important to make notes about why somebody is not buying your service as it is to note the ones who do. If you are going to sell a lot there are good sales tools on the market that make it easy to organize notes. But if this is an occasional effort, then takes notes in whatever way works best for you but then transcribe them into a spreadsheet or database for future reference.

Are You Spending too Much on Mailings?

English: First 4 digits of a credit card

English: First 4 digits of a credit card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I look at client’s books, one expense that I almost always think is too high is what companies spend on mailings for billing and marketing. Every carrier has tight budgets these days and so it is important to get by with less. Anywhere you can cut back on an unnecessary expense goes straight to the bottom line. There are some fairly easy things that can cut down on the postage, supplies and labor that goes into the mailings you are doing today.

Simplify Billing

Go Paperless. One of the first questions I always ask is if a company has given their customers a chance to go paperless for billing. I know in my personal life that I have been able to go paperless for every monthly bill I get except my electric bill. And even they let me check my balance on-line. I am sure that a number of your customers now pay their bills by electronic checks and don’t return a payment in the envelope you provide for them.

So you need to give your customers the option of going paperless.  Most companies who have done this have been able to cut down on the number of bills that they mail out by 50% – 70%. Some companies have carried this to an extreme and now charge extra for a paper bill as a further incentive for customers to go paperless.

Bank Debits / Credit Cards. You might also want to consider giving your customers the option to pay by bank debit or credit card as a way to get more of them to go paperless. This also improves your cash flow significantly. But it also means you have an extra obligation to keep their banking information very safe.

Typical credit card fees are around 3% of the bill, so take that cost into consideration when looking at this option. The credit card fee is a bargain compared to cost of mailing for a customer with a $50 bill. It’s not much of a bargain for a carrier paying for a DS3.

Portal. I recommended in an earlier blog that you create a portal so that customers can look up their current and past billing and payment history on-line and also can add or drop products. Such a portal makes it easier for customers to pay you electronically and will help you go paperless.

Simplify Your Products. I never miss a chance to say that you should simplify your product offering to make your billing easier. The easier the billing the easier it is to go paperless.

Marketing and Mailing

A lot of carriers still use mailings as their primary tool for marketing. What they fail to recognize is that there is a large percentage of their customers who never read bill stuffers. And so they end up spending a large portion of their marketing budget trying to sell to only a subset of their customers while another subset of customers never even gets their message.

I am surprised by the number of companies that don’t take the time to measure how successful their mailing campaigns are. It’s easy to tie specific mailings to offer codes so that you know where customers got your message.

I am not saying to not conduct mail campaigns, but also to email these to customers when possible. Emailing cuts down on postage and printed materials and means you can do more campaigns for the same money. And you will reach more customers.

Bill Stuffers and Newsletters. Companies often say that they don’t want to go paperless because they want to continue to send bill stuffers and newsletters to their customers. But bill stuffers and other marketing materials can all be sent to a lot of your customers electronically.

One thing to remember is that today a lot of people are looking at emails on smartphones. Your web page and any advertising materials need to be put on the web in both normal html and also in a phone-friendly format. Otherwise you will have ignored a percentage of your customers. Your bills, newsletters, portal and everything marketing related needs to be able to be seen at a decent size on a smartphone to be effective.

What’s the Right Number of Staff?

NYC: American Intl Building and Manhattan Comp...

NYC: American Intl Building and Manhattan Company Building (Photo credit: wallyg)

Over the years a lot of my carrier clients have asked me what the right number of staff should be for their organization. And of course, to some extent the answer is – it depends. There are differences between carriers that make it hard to compare two companies that might have roughly the same number of end-user customers.However, even with that said there are some general industry metrics that I have used during most of my career as a guideline when I want to examine the level of staffing at a given company. These are metrics that I gleaned from my mentors in the industry, and it is a little surprising to me that these metrics still seem to be a good guideline thirty years after I first heard about them. A typical telecom company is far different today than they were thirty years ago, but they still have the same basic functions that need to be done – administration and back office, technical, install and repair, customer service, and sales and marketing.

The general metrics I have always used as a starting point to look at an individual company is as follows:

Small Carrier               – Under 15,000 customers

Medium Carrier           – 15,000 – 50,000 customers

Mid-size Carrier          – 50,000 – 250,000 customers

Large carrier                – Over 250,000 customers

The metrics for the right number of employees is expressed in terms of the number of employees per customers. Basically, the larger a company gets, the more efficient they ought to be in terms of that metric.

Small Carrier               – 175 customers per employee

Medium Carrier           – 350 customers per employee

Mid-size Carrier          – 500 customers per employee

Large carrier                – No idea

These metrics apply roughly at the midpoint of each range. This means that one would expect a carrier with 7,500 customers to have about 175 customers per employee and one with 32,500 to be at 350. It’s straightforward math to see the metric for any company by knowing the number of end-user customers they serve.

There are factors that can change these metrics for a given company. For example:

  • Side businesses. Many carriers run side businesses in addition to their core business. These might be such things as construction or telephone system sales. As long as these side ventures are paying for themselves, then the employees engaged in these business lines would not be considered as part of the metric.
  • Geographic spread. A carrier that has to cover a large geographical area is going to need more technicians in trucks than a company that is geographically concentrated. A company with widely dispersed exchanges is also probably going to need more inside techs.
  • Outsourcing. One has to look at what functions are outsourced. For example, a company that is providing its own help desk or NOC is going to be different from one who does not. In looking at staffing, though, one has to always question whether the company should be doing functions internally that could be better outsourced.

In my career I have rarely seen a carrier that is understaffed, but it is fairly common to find companies that are overstaffed according to these metrics. If a company looks at these metrics and finds itself to be overstaffed, the question is what to do with that knowledge. What I have found is that workforces tend over time to find ways to justify themselves. When there are too many staff internal processes will be less efficient than at other companies and the employees will have found tasks to keep themselves busy. These inefficiencies can be of many types including things like inefficient paperwork for installation and repair, excess record keeping for time and materials, or excess testing and maintenance being performed.

Another common issue in companies with too many staff is that every job is in a silo, meaning that each employee only performs the tasks for their own job description and do not do tasks outside of their silo. Silos are necessary for large companies but they can be poison to smaller ones. It is very rare for the amount of work needed to match up exactly with the number if silos, and so you end up with staff who don’t have enough work within their silo to fill a full day. In smaller companies a better structure is one where employees wear many hats and are able and willing to kick in around the company where needed. I know that I am visiting a very competitive company if I walk in and find an outside installer manning the phones because somebody called in sick. That is the kind of teamwork that is needed in smaller companies to be efficient.

It often requires an analysis by an outsider to spot these kinds of inefficiencies because over time it’s easy for people at a company to think that the way they do things is the only way. I have worked with many companies over the years who have undertaken to reduce staff to be more efficient and I cannot think of one of them that was not a more profitable and efficient company after the transition. It is never easy to make a decision to reduce staff, but it is sometimes exactly what needs to be done to have a better and more profitable company. But before using these metrics to reduce staff get an outside opinion because these are ideal metrics and there are reasons why you might need a different number of staff than suggested by these metrics.