Not every big company is dumb. There are actually a decent number of big smart companies that do things we can learn from. But big, well-capitalized companies have a mortal enemy: inertia. It’s very hard to change the direction they’re already headed. It’s very hard to fix the cultural mistakes that have been ingrained in the company since its early days. It’s very hard for most big companies to learn.
So if you’re a small company (maybe even a company of one brave, stalwart soul), here are some ideas about how to outsmart and outmaneuver your big competitors. With the economy generally falling down around our ears, this is a great time to get a lot smarter. As Godin said, Small is the New Big. Use that to your advantage.
Here are 7 big-company mistakes not to make.
1. Printing 10,000 Brochures . . .
. . . and then having to dump 9,950 of them. This happens so often it would be funny–if it wasn’t your money getting flushed down the toilet.
Most small businesses don’t need a brochure at all. Brochures are typically “me-me-me” communications that talk about how great your business is. No one cares. They are inherently unremarkable. Brochures are created and printed to satisfy the ego of the business owner–and that’s a big dumb mistake you can’t afford.
If you want a physical piece to give your customers, assemble it more like a media kit. Have some nice-looking folders printed up, then create short inserts on different points of value for your customer.
Each insert needs to speak to something your customers give a damn about.
- Print up some case studies that show the different kinds of customers you’ve helped.
- Compile lists of great resources for your customers.
- Create a buying guide for the type of product you offer. (Will that buying guide frame the question to suggest that you’re the best solution? Gee, ya think?)
- Create white papers and how-to worksheets that let your customers solve important problems.
- Offer a free educational series by email (like my marketing tool kit or email marketing class), then create an insert that tells customers how and why to subscribe.
Some of these inserts can be glossy, four-color jobs. That’s optional. Most will be simple black-and-white photocopies. They’ll be organized nicely in your folder, and you’ll include a business card and a personal, handwritten (not a computer handwritten font) note.
The contents of this folder must be intrinsically valuable to your customer. If you can’t imagine a customer tacking any individual insert to her bulletin board and referring to it daily, put some more work into it.
Every page of every insert will have your Web, phone and email contact information printed on it.
Your folders might cost as much to print as those brochures do, but now you have an infinitely flexible, configurable piece that allows you to start a meaningful relationship with that individual customer. Remember to take great care not to put anything on your printed folder (street address, phone number, hours, etc.) that has any chance of changing over the next 5 years. Instead, print that stuff on a professional-looking sticker that you attach neatly to the back.
2. Failing to Double-Opt In your Email Subscribers
Big companies figure they’re so special and their brand is so darned valuable that anyone dumb enough to email them is fair game for follow-up junk.
They can afford to throw away all that good will and email deliverablity. You can’t. Any autoresponder or newsletter-style email (as opposed, of course, to email sent by one individual to one individual) needs to be sent on a double opt-in basis. This means that your customer requests your stuff, then confirms that request.
Short-sighted email marketers think this leaves too many customers out, since invariably you lose a few people in that confirmation step. (For your reference, I lose about 2-3%.) Experienced email marketers know that a) if prospects don’t like and trust you enough to confirm an email subscription, they don’t like and trust you enough to buy your stuff, and b) deliverability on double opt-in email is much, much better, so more messages will end up in in-boxes rather than spam filters.
3. Assuming All Customers are White Guys
Executive management and boards of directors of big companies are mostly white guys. Now there’s nothing wrong with white guys, but when all decisions are being made by them, it gets easy to start thinking that all customers are white guys, too.
In many markets, most buying decisions are made by women or influenced by women. And the degree to which big dumb companies (unless they’re selling diapers or diet soda) just leave women out of the communication equation is genuinely shocking. Some big dumb companies do slightly better with the realization that a good chunk of the population is Latino, Asian or African-American, but there’s plenty of room for improvement there, too.
There are millions of customers out there who don’t look like the typical American corporate executive. Talk to those customers in a personal, relevant way. Respect them. And check your assumptions whenever possible.
4. Lawyering Up
Big companies have a lot to lose. They’re appealing targets for law suits of all kinds, from employment to consumer class action to environmental. They live in terror of pissing off their shareholders with bad publicity. They worry, legitimately, what the New York Times might have to say about their behavior.
They therefore play it safe. Now I won’t say this is stupid–it’s just a limitation that they have by virtue of being big. But it’s an expensive limitation.
Most big companies are very nervous about being straightforward with their customers. They don’t admit when they screw up. They don’t engage in the social media conversation. They don’t let customers post unmoderated feedback for everyone to see.
Big companies have armies of gatekeepers–lawyers, PR people, and the like–whose job it is to make sure the company doesn’t say anything remarkable.
When they do talk to the general public, they sound like . . . well, a big dumb company. They put forth mountains of irrelevant junk on spectacularly useless Web sites, and issue stiff, self-serving press releases no self-respecting reporter would spend more than 3.5 seconds reading. The only time they use conversational language is in TV ads–which most people Tivo past.
A big company has to hire “creatives” to talk to customers like human beings. You just need to be yourself. That’s a pretty significant advantage.
5. Forgetting that “We” Includes the Customer
Pepsi, Microsoft and Nike have identities. They go around the world doing stuff that has nothing to do with us. When Microsoft says “we,” their customers don’t necessarily see themselves as included in that.
But when you think about your accountant, your real estate agent, and your hairdresser, you’re a pretty intimate part of that picture. Of course these people have lives that go on without you, but you don’t really think of them that way. As Steve put it, “When [your customer] can’t think of you without thinking of both of you, you have connected yourself to what she really cares about: herself.”
6. Valuing Systems over the Intangibles
Big companies can almost always make and distribute stuff more cheaply than you can. They get the best prices for raw materials. It’s relatively simple for them to outsource to whatever country is cheapest this month. They can essentially own entire distribution and promotion channels. It’s easy to think that the economies of scale will always make them more competitive than you can be.
But scale is the enemy of mystery. It’s the enemy of creativity. Scale needs robust, unchanging processes or it falls to pieces.
A few big companies include ingredients like delight, gratitude and enthusiasm in their processes. Most don’t. Your competitive advantage lies in the intangible, hard-to-quantify stuff that it would be hard to create a process around.
(Smart big companies do create processes around the intangibles. Fortunately for those of us in little companies, there aren’t too many of those.)
7. Making it Hard to Say ‘Thank You’
The Made to Stick boys had a good column about this in Fast Company this month. Big dumb companies (grudgingly) create ways for customers to complain and maybe get those complaints resolved. But they usually don’t have good mechanisms for customers to express delight.
One of the pleasures of any relationship is being able to express your appreciation. Most giant organizations don’t have good venues for their customers to talk about how much they love being customers. Which not only robs employees of the chance to feel loved, it also robs customers of the chance to feel wonderful by passing some of that love along.
Of course, appreciation needs to go both ways. Expressing your appreciation for your best-loved customers is something that takes a complicated system for most big companies to implement. (There’s that process thing again.) You can just send a warm, personal thank-you note. And maybe some cookies.
(If you subscribe to either of my free e-classes, I’m going to send an interesting idea you can use to send a compelling thank you to your customers–one that gets you a nice whoosh of business, as well as making your customers happy. If a whoosh of business + happy customers sounds good, get signed up today so you don’t miss it.)
How about you? Seen a big, dumb company mistake you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.
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