I have a question for association, membership and marketing execs: How often do you pick up the phone at the front desk or in the call center?

nina simon tweet re working at the front desk

Nina Simon is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and blogs at Museum 2.0. Her “guilty pleasure” is a smart idea. She also told me she spends about ten hours a month in the galleries with visitors. That’s like a free focus group!

Imagine how those visitors feel when she talks with them. The museum is no longer an intimidating institution – although I’m sure her museum has never been considered that during her watch – her friendly face is the face of the museum.

Those of you who work in a small associations, you’re excused from this exercise since you probably answer the main line as much as anyone else in the office. But if you work in an association that has a dedicated call center or member service team, you probably only receive calls that are direct-dialed or forwarded to you. That’s a shame because you’re missing out on a convenient, cheap way to understand what’s on the mind of your members and other stakeholders.

If you don’t have the time, budget, or inclination to spend a day in the life of your member, then spend 30 minutes every few weeks in your call center. The experience will give you an opportunity to listen, ask questions, and even lay the foundation for further conversation with members you probably don’t know.

You will also set a positive example for your staff by spending time getting to know members. Let them see you on the frontline making the effort to learn about member needs and concerns. Your example could convince them to build similar activities into their week, like calling new members to welcome them to the association and learn more about their expectations, needs, and aspirations. Or, calling “old” members to find out what’s on their mind.

This simple 30-minute task is one you can put into your schedule right now. And it’s a small step that can nudge your organization’s culture into a new direction.

phone calls with members

In one corner, a company that made a mess of customer service and then made it worse with social media. A moving company threatened to sue my friend’s wife because she wrote a negative Yelp review about them. The company also purchased positive Yelp reviews, deleted negative Facebook updates, and doesn’t seem to know how to dig itself out except by digging deeper.

“The beautiful part of the Internet is that everyone can now be a publisher. The scary part of the Internet for a company like <name> is that you don’t always know who you’re sending crazy intimidation letters to and how they might respond,” says Phil Buckley, the guy in the other corner. They picked the wrong guy to piss off, Phil happens to be an SEO and Online Reputation Management (ORM) expert. He has a lot of friends, and many of them are also ORM experts. The experts think this makes a great case study – you can’t buy that kind of publicity!

And, Happy Birthday, Phil!

Jeff Cobb at Tagoras is in the midst of updating their Association Learning Management Systems (LMS) report. He and Celisa Steele have been talking to LMS vendors and participating in demonstrations of platforms. He’s identified four association learning technology trends: “I can already see that there are at least four areas in which some very significant progress has been achieved over the past couple of years. I’m labeling these broadly as integration, convergence, mobility, and analytics.” Exciting times for associations with the educational innovations that await!

As our use of new social and digital platforms and technology evolves, irksome issues crop up, well, they’re irksome for some, not all. A sports reporter was “reprimanded” by the University of Washington athletic department for excessive tweeting during a basketball game. Sam Laird at Mashable writes, “As the ability to provide real-time updates becomes more and more common — and as the line between reporter and spectator becomes increasingly blurred — should the rights to live updates be protected to the same degree as TV and radio broadcasts?” Another example of an organization having a tough time giving up control? Or are their rights being infringed? I tend to side with the reporter on this one.

One more Twitter item: can we all just agree that you should never retweet something without first reading it? Good. I’m glad you see it my way, you’re a good citizen.

How different would the world be if everyone had access to high-quality education and a bigger world of ideas? Call me a dreamer, but I think we’d have less crazy extremism, ignorance, and poverty. Maybe the $20 Aakash tablet made by Suneet Tuli’s company, Datawind, is a step in that direction. Christopher Mims at Quartz reports that India’s government wants to distribute Datawind’s tablet to India’s 220 million students. It would be cheaper than buying textbooks. Tuli wants to educate the “ignored billion.” He says, “Our effort in all of this was to use technology to fight poverty. What happens when you try to make it affordable at this level?”

“Calling all publishers, editors, and content creators: If you’re creating content for a business, you are marketing. But you might be missing out on all that you can achieve with your superb content if you are not content marketing.” That’s the rallying cry of The Content Marketing Manifesto by Monica Bussolati, her recently released e-book – a call to action you should heed if you run a business or organization. I’ve only skimmed through the book because I’m planning to read it this weekend, but I can already tell I’m going to be reading along saying “Yes!” out loud, and probably learning a good deal as well, and as usual, from Monica.

Blogs are one of my favorite content marketing tools, but they’re also a great way to think out loud and become part of a larger conversation, according to Seth Godin. “No single thing in the last 15 years professionally has been more important to my life than blogging,” says Tom Peters. He goes on: “And it’s the best damn marketing tool by an order of magnitude that I’ve ever had.” Well then! Maddie Grant found this short video of Godin and Peters talking about blogs. It’s only 1:38 minutes, come on, click!

For those of you who read last week’s post and had doubts about an old band led by two guys in their late 60s: I’m happy to report that The Who exceeded my expectations, and my boyfriend’s, whose expectations were much lower. They did the entire Quadrophenia album, followed it up with five Who classics, and then a quiet version of Tea & Theater with just Roger and Pete on the stage. The highlights of the evening: Roger’s voice and efforts to get every note and scream right; Zak Starkey’s Moon-like melodic bombastic drumming (he is so damn good); video solos by, rest their souls, John in 5:15 and Keith in, what else, Bellboy; the mesmerizing Quadrophenia instrumentals; and being in the same room as Pete. Long live rock.

Happy Friday!

Young Zak Starkey with godfather Keith Moon (credit unknown)

Whoops, it’s already October, how did that happen? Here’s my selection of customer service and marketing smarties who impressed me in September.

Don’t you love spreading the word about a smart business that knows how to take care of its customers? So many businesses seem to forget who pays their salaries. “Word of mouth isn’t dead,” says Alan Belniak at Marketing Profs. No, it isn’t, especially when word of mouth is turbocharged by word of mouse. Alan tells us how Roche Bros., a Massachusetts supermarket chain, exceeded his expectations on a miserable day.

Andy Sernovitz’s blog Damn, I Wish I’d Thought of That, is one of my favorite sources of smart marketing stories, like this one about an Austin running store, RunTex, that understands how to build awareness in their target market while also building goodwill. If you work in sponsorship sales or if you’re a business looking to spend your limited marketing budget wisely, take a look at this story and start brainstorming about how you can do something similar.

When I read this New York Times story I immediately thought, aha, marketing genius. Concierges and waiters at several upscale hotels and restaurants in Manhattan and Hampton wear clothes provided by Lacoste. “As a consumer, you’re sitting there and Lacoste is all around you,” said Charlie Walk, a partner at RJW Collective, a marketing agency based in Manhattan that works with Lacoste. “But it’s not in your face screaming to you that there’s a branded moment here in the middle of your meal — it’s an elegantly disruptive activation.”

How can you translate an idea like this for your world? How can you infiltrate your target customer’s life in a subtle yet noticeable way like that? Where do they hang out? What other products and services do they use? Here’s an idea that’s screaming to be the seed of a good brainstorming session.

Has anyone ever asked you, “do you think most people are good or bad?” I suppose your answer might depend upon your level of happiness, personal behavior and religion. I believe we’re good and stories like this reaffirm that belief for me. Couture Cakes, a small bakery in Newport News, raised $12,000 in two days, all their sales plus customer donations, for the family of an 11-year-old boy who was killed by a falling tree during hurricane Irene. They didn’t know the family; they just felt compelled to do it. Warms my heart.

A Fast Company article about how Whole Foods “primes” you to shop has been making the rounds. It’s a fascinating look at smart, not deceptive, merchandising practices. I can’t help but admire that company, and not just because their cheese section is my paradise on earth. We make decisions throughout life, but especially during the purchasing process, based on emotions and perceptions. What are your customers seeing when they walk into your store or office? Or browse your website? How are you influencing, and, dare I say it, manipulating their perceptions and emotions?

Despite what Peter Shankman says, Morton’s Steakhouse’s delivery of dinner to his airport arrival gate is not the greatest customer service story ever told. It’s an example of great social media monitoring leveraged into a PR coup. Why not go above and beyond with a regular customer who has nearly 111,000 Twitter followers? You’d be a fool to miss that opportunity. The real message to this story is that they listened. Any kind of response would have put them in the winner’s circle, like “Sorry you’re having a bad day, next time you’re in, let me buy you a drink.” Little gestures like that go a long way, although they won’t get you as much hoopla.

And the idiot of the month award goes to….. ConAgra Foods. The absurdity of this bonehead move made me laugh, but, lordy, how pathetic. Where do I even begin with this one? Invite food bloggers to a nice Italian restaurant for a VIP dinner with a celebrity chef and serve them frozen Marie Callendar’s lasagna? Enraging. Bloggers who cook with organic ingredients, not chemicals and dyes? Blech. And film them without permission with hidden cameras? Creepy. Scott Hepburn examines all the ways ConAgra and their agency, Ketchum, screwed up with their blogger outreach.

What’s the old saying? For every three people who praise your business, ten others complain about you? That may be hogwash, but I know from experience that the last thing a business owner wants is someone running their mouth off about a bad customer service experience, especially if we were never given the chance to make it right.

Social media gives us a platform to bitch about the ways we’ve been done wrong, and that negative buzz spreads quickly. The good news is we also use social media to rave about our good experiences. If businesses are smart, they’re listening and will turn a negative into a positive by responding, taking action and learning.

But I’m not here to talk about the bad guys. I’m focusing on businesses (and non-profits) whose customer service or marketing has impressed me lately. I’ll shine a monthly spotlight on a few smarties whose actions, large or small, made me smile.

Small gestures start relationships.

I never expect to get anything for free. If I do, I’m instinctually suspicious. What’s their angle? Sometimes, however, generous gestures are made with good intentions.

Days before vacation, my reading glasses fell apart. With a pile of new books to read, ack, what a disaster! I searched for a local eyeglasses store with hopes they’d fix my glasses for a decent price without trying to hard-sell me into buying a new pair.

If you’ve worn glasses a long time, you might think this experience isn’t so unusual. But I really didn’t expect Oasis Eye Care to repair my glasses for free — in less than five minutes and with a friendly helpful attitude. I would have paid, what do I know? When I’m ready to buy a new pair of glasses, guess where I’m going?

Lesson: Small gestures that don’t cost much and don’t take much effort mean more to your prospects and customers than you realize. We’re grateful and we remember. We also remember when you nickel-and-dime us. And we talk.

The next examples are inspired by a conference I didn’t attend because I was at the beach reading books with my repaired glasses. However, I read enough recap blog posts and tweets to form an impression about these three organizations. Social media is some powerful stuff, huh?

Give back, get buzz, have fun.

DelCor Technology Solutions, a member and exhibitor at the recent American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) conference, found a way to donate money to a charity while creating buzz and attracting attendees to their exhibit booth for a bit of fun.

Their blog and tweets invited attendees to visit their booth and have their photos taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of one of their advertising characters. If the visitor tweeted her photo, she was eligible to win a $500 donation for her favorite charity. I have no idea how successful this was, but I love the spirit (and savvy) behind it, so that’s enough to get them into the Smart Set this month.

Lesson: While the competition tries to create awareness and traffic by doing the same old things (visit our booth for a chance to win an iPad!), offer a different experience, one that makes everyone feel good – good about themselves and good about you. Appeal to our hearts and tickle-bones, our mind will follow.

smart marketing

DelCor's booth at #ASAE11

Listen, learn and improve.

The blogosphere’s reaction to last year’s ASAE conference was mixed. Many people, including myself, were hesitant about attending another unless changes were made to improve the learning experience. After hearing reports about this year’s conference, I’ve moved back into the positive camp.

ASAE obviously listened to complaints about last year’s conference and took them very seriously. Several blog posts, for example, here, here and here, praise ASAE for the improved attendee experience.

Lesson: Never get complacent. Don’t live in a bubble. Keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas. Listen to your gadflies. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you try a few new things? Let your competition sit on their butts, you’ve got new trails to climb. Think how good it will feel once you’re on the summit.

Make a lasting impression.

St. Louis hosted the ASAE Annual Meeting and went all out for the “association for associations.” #ASAE11 was their audition for the executives who choose cities for future conferences and trade shows. They knew it and they didn’t miss a beat. Their well-coordinated efforts to welcome and help attendees were a topic of discussion on Twitter and in session rooms. Even the mayor sent out an alert to city businesses.

st louis marketing

And he kept on tweeting throughout the conference, replying to attendees and retweeting tourist tips.

marketing smart set

The locals tweeted back, making suggestions for restaurants, bars and other places to visit. They helped to sell another one of the city’s charms — helpful friendly residents. I’d be willing to bet that the St. Louis CVB will receive a lot of calls from meeting planners in the near future.

Lesson: Know when to make a big impression for the long-term. Your job is to not only serve that customer tonight but to get him raving about you to his friends and colleagues and get him back in the door for another visit.

That’s the Smart Set for this month. If you’ve been impressed by the marketing or service of a smart company or organization lately, let me know in the comments. They might be candidates for next month’s Smart Set.

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Just one more thing: Someone asked me about the phrase “Color Me Impressed.” It’s the title of a Replacements song from 1983. Were any of you at their 1989 show at the Warner Theater in DC?

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