Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And More Customer Service

No sooner had I finished my last post than I went to get service for my son's Zune. It stopped working and so I went to submit a repair order. It went smoothly, but for some reason it wouldn't complete the order. This is what I got:

Now I can understand that the process online might have issues. I live a ways out in the country, so sometimes systems don't like my address. However in this case, the thing that struck me was that a phone number is highlighted. It's in a bright color and so I dialed it. I got a tone and immediately realized this was the TDD number, not the customer service number.

It's for hearing impaired, not sight impaired. Highlight the number most of us use, not the one few people use.

Basic Customer Service

We've all had many customer service experience, some good, some bad, but I know that there is almost always room for improvement. While you cannot please everyone, doing the little things can really help improve your reputation, and hopefully, your business.

Recently I was coming back from dropping my kids off at school and I noticed that work was being done at the house across from my mailbox. There was a new garage going up, pole barn style, and the crew had worked fairly quickly and efficiently to get it done. I try to pay attention because contractors are hard to find, especially those that work efficiently and quickly. While I'd like to talk to the homeowner before I use them, I decided to stop and talk to the contractors.

I walked up and asked if they guys doing the work were the ones contracted since often they sub crews. One of the men said it was his father's business, and then asked if he could help. I said that I was looking to have an awning built on our barn and I was hoping to get an estimate.

Now at this point there are a few things that could happen:
1. He could offer to come over and do the estimate (or schedule it with me).
2. He could call someone to do the estimate.

I was kind of expecting one of these, but instead I got a third option. He gave me his father's card and said I should call him. Not a horrible bit of customer service, but it was a little inconvenient for me. I have to track down his father, schedule things, explain my story again, etc.

I can completely understand that perhaps this guy doesn't want to do the estimate, or his father doesn't let him. It was good he had a card and gave one to me, but he could have improved this easily.

My preference would be that he call his father and tell him I need an estimate or even that he ask me if he could have my number or if I'd like a card. Give me the choice and allow me to then choose what makes the most sense. My wife would probably be happy calling someone rather than giving out her number, but for me I would have preferred that someone set it up for me.

They guys were nice and helpful, but for sure I thought this was a place where customer service could be improved. What I would really have preferred is he come over, look at what I need, measure things, and then call his Dad, letting him work up the bid.

I'll call him and schedule something, but I'm definitely not as thrilled with these guys as I was before I stopped by.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


One of the things that I learned in building is how not to track traffic to the site or growth. We used a few counters over the years, gathering basic information, and while that helped, it wasn’t enough. Time and time again we couldn’t answer questions about our audience and develop patterns for how people used our service.

It’s easier on a web site, but it can be done in almost any business. You just need to spend time doing it. Asking questions of customers, finding out how they came to you, why, and then storing that information away.

If you don’t have tracking on your web site, add it through Google Analytics now. I actually just set that up recently for this site as well as my other persona sites. It doesn’t give you a ton of data, but it does give you good information and you’ll learn some valuable things.

We use it on SQLServerCentral now and it has helped me in working with our developers to learn:

  • that we need to be Google friendly. A large percentage of our traffic comes from there.
  • We need to support IE and Firefox, as we get about 40-some percent from each platform and that most people have upgraded to Firefox 3, something I need to do.
  • Most of our people are 1024 or higher in terms of resolution. Good for addressing complaints about not fitting on 800x600.

For JumpstartTV, we’ve added more tracking and actually tried to build a framework that we can add to most everything. We want to try and track each email, each link, each click and now when, and who, clicked it. That helps us to determine a few things.

  • How active people are
  • Is the audience turning over, meaning can we keep people engaged or are our 500 videos a day from the same person or different people.
  • What things work well when we change them. Do people notice them?

There are  many more questions we try to answer, and many we’re not sure to ask, but I’m sure we’ll think of along the way. Tracking as much as we can enables us to go back and potentially ask those questions in the past as well as the present and determine how well we’re building the business.

Most people aren’t that technical and it can be hard to track stuff, but it’s a question you want to ask of all your providers for your web stuff, email, etc. Get the data and you can always figure out what to do with it. Grab an online disk, put up a computer in your office, something and save all this stuff. Don’t worry if it isn’t in a database, that can happen later. Just get it stored somewhere.

If you want my recommendation, invest in a database guy. Not necessarily full time, but someone that knows BI and have them slowly move this data into something like SQL Server. I think that’s a great platform and it includes tons of BI capabilities, something other platforms don’t. As they pull in the data, slowly you can then use Excel or some other platform to begin analyzing it and finding out more about your business and how to grow it.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Run Your Business as a Business

I’ve thought this for a long time: you need to run your business as a business, not an investment. Too often it seems that public companies, and many startups, are run like an investment, someone seeking to maximize a stock price (or a selling price) by making short term decisions. My guess is that Venture Capital firms have driven this for startups and executive pay for public companies.

I was thinking about this as I ran across a post from 37 Signals(Sequoia Captial: Armchair Quarterback), a company that I think does things the right way. The post references a slide show from Sequoia Capital that talks about things changing as the US appears to be heading into recession. I flipped through the slideshow and it made sense to me, but I like that 37 Signals is questioning what they used to advise clients. My guess, since I was a part of a company that was VC-backed in 2000, was that they were told to grow revenue, preferably along a curve and grow the company, so it “appeared” you were doing well. Acceleration, regardless of the potential for a crash (because expenses were too high), was king.

I fundamentally disagree with that strategy, and it’s completely driven by greed and the desire to close out an investment early. Even a 5-10 year time fra

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me, which is what I’ve heard some VCs pushing, it too quick for a business.

My view is that you build for 50 years, conserve cash, make good decisions, and then if you’re running a fundamentally sound enterprise, consider buyout offers (or IPOs, if that’s possible).

VCs can succeed with this strategy, then they won’t be expecting 4 or 5 of their 10 investments to fail. They can have 6 or 7 produce decent enterprises that might be neutral in terms of their investment, 1 or 2 that fail, and then 1 that hits it big.

All that have to do is think single or double, not home run.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Double Posting

I think that it’s a great idea to keep a few blogs going, and separate out your thoughts in different areas into different blogs. Tags and categories work well, but your business  postings shouldn’t necessarily be mixed in with your thoughts on the election, your car, or anything else. Sometimes it’s good to have separate blogs.

For this post, I’m mainly testing LiveWriter, which is an offline client. Not that I need an offline client, but there are times it would be good. However I’d like to sometimes post things to a couple blogs, and this makes it easy, something that I’m trying to get better at: making work easier.

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Success and Motivation

Mark Cuban has an interesting blog I follow and he published a great piece on how to get rich recently. The bottom line, there is not shortcut, and he's right. You need to be a bit lucky, but you have to have money to take advantage of opportunity, and that means conserving cash where possible. We spend money when we need to, but we also question our expenditures and try to ensure that we're making good choices or taking advantage of an opportunity.

He linked back to a republish of how he got going, really a four part series on Success and Motivation. He tends to make it seem like a young man's game, and in many ways it is, but it really is about sacrifice. Are you willing to give up time and other things in your life to drive forward and look for (and create) opportunities for you to grow? I was a long time ago, but I didn't do a good job of focusing on the business side. I spent too much time on the technical side, beefing up those skills and not looking for opportunities.

You also need to have an end goal of working for yourself. You might make it as a corporate guy, but I think the odds of you getting rich are better working for yourself.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Face to Face

I've run two companies now as virtual entities, with my fellow partners and founders physically located in another part of the country. It's different than just having us all work at home, we actually have to get on an airplane or make a long drive to get together.

That presents some challenges and it makes for some interesting opportunities (and savings), but it also means that we drift apart at times. Early on we would get together once a year at a trade show, but it would be a hectic time for us since we also had other duties. At one point we started arriving two days early for the show, but with families coming at times, that didn't help a lot. We often ended up with a half a day together to sit and brainstorm.

We do have regular calls to talk business, but it's not the same as face to face contact, and I forget that at times. A few years ago I started to make a bit of an effort to fly to Florida, where my partners are, to talk business and spend time together. It worked out OK, but we sold the first company soon after that and formed a new one, but we each also moved on to other things.

Recently I made a trip to speak at a small conference and actually went a day early and stayed a day later to spend time with one of my partners. The day before wasn't a lot of business since we often want to catch up a little, but we did talk generally about life, and that helps us to get into a groove.

The last day we had some good conversations, brainstorming, looking over our web site, and talking business for hours, getting some productive things out of the trip. I'd forgotten how valuable that is and realize that I probably need to make time for 2 or 3 of those trips a year to help us grow and stay in touch.

As much information as we can pass electronically and over the phone, it somehow still pales when compared to the productivity we get in a face to face environment. I think you have some diminishing returns, especially when you see someone every day, but you need a little time every once in awhile to keep in touch.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Budgets: Good or Bad?

In a small company things tend to move quicker, decisions are made on the fly, and there is often little overhead to how the company runs. Many people like that, including me, and it seems that this is a no-nonsense, very efficient way to run the business. That might be true, but I think that without some set of formal processes, it's easy for small companies to waste resource and to do the same thing over and over because they don't make things run smoother.

Personally I think a lot of how well the small business (meaning 1-20 people, founder and first employees) runs depends on the founder and leaders. If they're organized and have some experience, they can operate with very, very low overhead and be efficient. If they're not, it's easy to have things spiral out of control as people either make their own decisions, not necessarily in line with the company's goals, or they are paralyzed waiting for the founder to start them moving.

What does this have to do with budgets? I was thinking of this when I read a post by a medium sized business owner. The company had grown to about 130 people and you have to have some level of coordination at that point from various departments because you have 130 people marching somewhat in the same direction, but not with precision. Each department has slightly different agendas, and each group is trying to get funding for their particular idea.

When you're 10 people, everyone can come to the leader and ask for money, justify it, and then
move on. The leader can kind of keep a handle on what's approved and what's not, or at least where the money is going. Once you grow larger, especially when you have 30 or 40 people, it's hard to know who's spending what, or what they're spending it on.

High level budgets, at a project or department level, are good, just to keep organized and help you understand where money is going. We tend to informally budget for certain projects, which just helps each of us have an idea of how much money we'll be spending over the next xx months. We often do need to track later to see if we are spending on track, but this gives us a nice thumbnail of what revenue we need to earn.