Thursday, October 6, 2011

Easy To Buy

Ten years after my first entrepreneurial failure, I had to force myself to learn sales, at which I seemed to have to work harder than everyone else. It was hard in a simple way. Like playing a musical instrument, it took a lot of practice. The sales cycle begins and ends with prospecting. The routine is seeing new people and following up on them. The difference between success and failure is the dogged tracking of everything and constant measuring of minutia. But, the thing that finally got my attention was easy to understand and embrace. To quote the psalmist Jimmy Buffett, “it was so simple like the jitterbug it plumb evaded me.”

Make it easy for the customer to buy.

Exceeding customer expectations, human connection, and relationship building are key components of making it easy. So, how about hardware gadgets and software applications? Does technology make it easier? My answer is a definite “maybe.” Let me make it easy for you to buy this essay on whether or not social media accomplishes my axiom. Remembering that hindsight is 20/20, let’s look at the innovations that founded our present situation.

Consider an analogue Internet connecting people by a web of railroad tracks and postal routes that allows for two-way communication utilizing printed multi-page websites. Welcome to the dawn of the 20th Century.

President Abraham Lincoln signed a law on May 20, 1862 called the Homestead Act of 1862. Applicants who were over 21 and who had not born arms against the United States got a “homestead” or grant of 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River. They had to live on it for five years and improve [farm] it in return for a deed. Eleven states had left the Union at the time and there would be political and regional issues as a result, but aren’t there always when a government gives people anything? The point here is that the Act expanded western settlement which followed the growth of the railroads.

The postal system implemented Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in 1896. Since the country was literally wireless, telephone wireless, two-way communication was by post. RFD also made the mail order business possible. By permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge, it entitled those catalogs a one cent per pound postage rate. That

made the rural distribution of catalogues quite economical while the railroads provided distribution to delivery points.

The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog called itself the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth," claiming that "Our trade reaches around the World." At the apex for mail order merchandise, you have the model website for its time that included testimonials from satisfied customers. The catalogue made every effort to assure the reader that Sears had the lowest prices and best values. The 1903 catalog included the commitment, "Your money back if you are not satisfied."

The point is that it is not just one thing that makes a milestone, but a combination of things that is transformative. The combination of catalogue, RFD, and the rail system made it easy for customers to buy.

Talk about making it easy, here are some more combinations for consideration. The increasing use of the credit card from 1958 is a significant development for consumers and culture. Add that to the introduction of the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) 800 toll-free service in 1967, so that subscribers like Sears could allow their customers to reach them without toll charges, and you have a milestone.

The next milestone occurred when the development of an Internet from 1957 is coupled with the relative affordability of the personal computer in about 1986. Add to that combination the growth privately owned shipping services with incredible logistics like UPS and FedEx and by 1994 the Dotcom bubble is on with the founding of Amazon. The next year brought Craigslist, Yahoo and eBay. That being noted, the milestone is that consumers could look at an online catalogue, call a customer service agent, process and pay for an order and have it delivered the next day.

Just for the record, Sears decided to quit producing its “Wish Book” catalogue in 1993 in favor of making it easy for customers to buy online.

We arrive, finally, at the business use of social media. I will argue that the first social medium is analogue – a bulletin board in a common area that uses paper and thumb tacks. I will further argue that Twitter and Facebook form the electronic generation of the same. How important are they?

According to Demandbase CEO Chris Golec, “Despite its increasing influence, it’s important to keep in mind that no business sale is made without the buyer going to the corporate website first.” In fact research shows that such sites are seven times as effective at generating sales leads as social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. 25% of survey respondents admitted the most sales leads came from their website, followed by 14% who selected email marketing campaigns. Online advertising followed that. Social media accounted for 3% of respondents’ recommendations. What’s on your website?

I am not suggesting that social media should be ignored. Neither am I suggesting that business has to have a Facebook page and a blog because everybody else does, although that is tempting. Instead I will argue that businesses need to think about implementing social media as part of its message mix, if for no other reason than to accomplish three things: engage their customers and exceed expectations, make a stronger human connection, and build better relationships. If those can be done strategically, by which I mean being able to measure the results, perhaps another milestone will occur.

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Article first published as Easy To Buy on Blogcritics.

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