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Marketing in 2010: How and why Amazon (and everybody else) plans to be your new best friend

You’re up and running, you have clients returning your calls, customers coming in the door or adding product to their shopping carts on your site, and you look around at the economic landscape and are at least momentarily relieved to be able to say “I am doing OK.”

Where do you go from here?  What more can you learn?  Although your products are ingenious and your marketing efforts stellar, hard as it may be to believe you haven’t already conceived of every Great Idea.  We all need to routinely challenge our thinking so that we continue to leap forward, we need to break out of the borders and assumptions we’ve always held about our company and our industry.  So occasionally this year, Kompani Group is going to talk about things we can learn from the most successful companies in other, completely unrelated industries.  Marketers in online retail have much, much more in common with traditional retailers than the few issues of format that set them apart.  And as for size, your revenues and budgets may have many more (or many fewer) zeros at the end than ours, but the fundamentals are identical:  getting our clearly defined message in front of customers and then delivering satisfaction.

There are brick-and-mortar retailers with broadly acknowledged reputations for superior service – been to Nordstrom or an Apple store lately?  Is there any reason why a retailer serving the online world can’t develop the same kind of reputation?

The question occurred to me this morning because I received another e-mail message from barnesandnoble.com.  “Chris,” it began, “you bought the last book written by so-and-so.  His newest novel will be released next month and we’d be happy to hold a copy for you.”  How cool is that?  (And equally important, how simple for them!) Although we know it’s just data manipulation, it FEELS incredibly personal.  “Somebody” at Barnes and Noble knows and uses my name, remembers what I’ve bought there before, and figures out what my previous purchases can tell them about my tastes and interests.  They’re my friend.

The principle is the same (though not quite as proactively executed) at many of the large, successful sites:  Netflix recommends movies to me based on what I’ve watched and rated before, and the behemoth Amazon suggests both new items that fit my profile and companion products that other customers like me have bought.

Is this difficult?  Absolutely not.  Every one of us has the same data base of customer descriptives and purchase history.  Not very many of us use it to anywhere near its optimal marketing capacity.

Let’s look for a few minutes at a retail success story that has been widely studied:  Starbucks.  In its off-line business, what does Starbucks sell?  And how in the world can they expect us to pay six or eight times as much for a cup of their coffee as we would pay down the street – and be happy about it?  Other coffee retailers have successfully moved coffee from a commodity to a differentiated product; only Starbucks has made coffee an experience.  In fact, Starbucks has made its name synonymous with the coffee experience.  They may have been in the headlines lately as they adapt to changes in the economy and in their marketplace – but isn’t that the point?  In the best of times and in the challenging times, they are the ICON – they define the coffee experience.

Is there any reason why a customer’s interaction with your offer, the process of selecting and buying whatever your product or service is, can’t be an experience?

That was a trick question, I’ll admit, because interacting with you  already is an experience.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  Every customer who buys from you (or chooses not to) is going to have an experience with you whether you like it or not.  The only question is what kind of experience are they going to find.

To explore how we can consistently make each consumer experience with us an excellent one, we’re going to look at some of the things Starbucks has done to become the clear leader in their field – such a dominant figure that there isn’t even a close second.

Before anything else, Starbucks had both a vision and a clear plan, which they’ve executed to perfection. Absolutely everything the company does is designed to give the customer a positive, perhaps uplifting, experience while purchasing a quality product.  Notice that “experience” comes before “product” in the sentence.  Because this is the goal, Starbucks is as much about people as it is about coffee – customers who respond to the experience, employees and managers who live the principles and values of the company.  These values – expressed as five principles and five “ways of being,” are published in The Green Apron Book, which every employee carries in the little front pocket of their apron.

In effect, this is Starbucks’ management marketing its concept to its own employees. None of the simple, common-sense ideas has anything to do with coffee – just as none of them has anything to do with secondary towing or cigars or Caribbean resorts (or whatever your own business may be.)  They have everything to do with how to personalize relationships, how to elevate customer interactions, how to preserve the intimacy of a small company even while working hard to become huge.

Starbucks’ store personnel are trained to remember your name and your favorite beverage (and that’s without a built-in data base.)  They understand the old Dale Carnegie saying that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” This not only says you remember them, it says they matter to you.  Starbucks’ customers, exactly like yours, are not looking for new best friends.  They just want a positive human-feeling connection and they want their needs to matter.

Retail is detail.  Starbucks’ Chairman Howard Schultz is fond of saying that.  The truth is that ALL business is detail, and the most successful businesses are intensely focused on the execution of details at every level.  The Starbucks’ training programs teach employees to zero in on the minute details that matter greatly to their customers; every aspect of the business that touches the coffee must reflect the highest standards possible.  The goal – which is really more a compilation of small things than it is one or two big, dramatic things – is a “felt sense” among their customers, a global emotional reaction to myriad tiny details that lurk below our conscious awareness.  The name “Starbucks” automatically triggers in us a feeling that has been created over time by the specific details of our experiences there. Researchers in brain activity have found that as much as 95% of what influences our conscious choices resides below awareness.  This is true about our interactions with anyone selling anything – some we feel happy about returning to, others we stress out about just at the sound of their name.

We have to work hard at getting the details right every time.  What percentage of unhappy customers do you think take the time to bring their complaints to management?  They just go elsewhere with a single click or with their feet.

Here’s a key thing that produces delight in customers, that keeps them feeling warm and fuzzy about you:  predictability.  Since consistency (in quality as well as in the customer experience) is a rare and valued thing, companies that master delivering it will ultimately thrive.  Even when something goes wrong (which happens), if the customer knows the problem will be addressed quickly, efficiently and with good humor – we win. Sometimes this contributes even more to a positive “felt sense” than if it had all gone perfectly in the first place.

The Experience is not the same as the Brand – and we all need to focus on building both.  Using Kompani Group as the example, here’s the critical difference:  if you are considering how you feel about Kompani Group, you are thinking about our brand.  If you are thinking about how you yourself feel as a result of your involvement with Kompani Group, then you are thinking about the Experience.  The latter begins by identifying emotions we want customers to feel as a result of their experience with us, and then working back to what the organization has to do to make that happen.  When our clients prefer the experience of working with Kompani Group, they will become committed to it. They will return to us with new projects, they will recommend us to their friends and colleagues (although probably not to their competitors.)

Finally, it’s important to note that the high visibility of Starbucks has engendered a fair share of criticism through the years.  Howard Schultz says he thinks that his “ability to act positively on any criticism is (his) most crucial leadership skill.”  Given and received in a wholesome spirit, there is much to be learned from criticism and much growth to be inspired.  But the world is full of people who have told Starbucks that they would fail, and why.  It’s still happening on some business pages today, just as there are those who wonder how you and your industry can effectively respond to a challenging economy or a changing competitive environment.  The key – for Starbucks and for smart business operators in every segment – is to choose to engage with the future, to reject the idea that the sky is falling, to believe (to know instead) that the sky is the limit.

Signed/Chris Barr

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