Mitch Joel is the President of Twist Image, a fantastic writer  and a recognized expert in digital marketing and the application and management of what we loosely call social media.

In his book; Six Pixels of Separation the author presents an excellent argument on how the world of marketing, communications, PR – in fact business itself! – has changed in our digital world.

As an introduction to the text, let me quote the publisher;

This is the first book to integrate digital marketing, social media, personal branding, and entrepreneurship in a clear, entertaining, and instructive manner that everyone can understand and apply.

Owners and Managers in the small to medium enterprise, let me say it clearly;

Read This Book!

Some Historical Background will tell you why.

Almost a decade ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger published a seminal text titled; the Cluetrain Manifesto

In that treatise they argued that consumers now demand that business has to open up the kimono, that they must become more transparent, and that business must revert to the public marketplace or commons. And that to move towards this new public marketplace would require moving out from the opaque Orwellian box that business had been living in.

In Six Pixels of Separation, Mitch Joel extends the boundaries of that theme by demonstrating that in our 21st century digital age, monitoring and embracing this Marketplace or Commons is no longer optional – it is mandatory.

It is mandatory because within that commons, people are already talking about you. They are praising, criticizing, disseminating, lambasting and generally sharing information about your business anyway! Those digital communications are happening right now – the question is;

Do you even know what is being said about you?

If you don’t believe it; consider that a decade or so ago it took very persistent reporters and motivated NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) to drop the branding bombshell on Nike’s sweatshop labour practices.

Then compare that with the recent famous (or infamous) United Breaks Guitars video’s or the Domino’s pizza spoilage video. No cloak and dagger travel across the world required. From thought to on-line in no time at all.

Mr. Joel clearly demonstrates that for consumers in our open marketplace, they require trust. They require that there is authentic two way communication between business and consumer. The author clearly demonstrates ways to begin building that.

I do point out one caveat though

Much of the text describes case studies of individuals successfully utilizing these digital tools to drive branding, often to very lofty heights, but that is the caveat; the majority of the examples are individuals, not businesses. I am sure that this is partially because transformational case studies by businesses are probably still a little thin.

But this is a learning curve that we have to go through; namely what are the risks of personal branding within your business, vs. the branding of your business?

This is a question that needs to be thought about because as most small business owners and managers know, the brand recognition and equity you have has to belong to the company – not to you.

Does that brand equity rub off on the business? – or stay with the name?

I don’t have that answer.

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I have a blog post coming up soon regarding a great discussion on twitter about customer loyalty, that discussion spawned several blog posts and discourse by persons much smarter than I am!

Anyway!

Roy Atkinson posted that in the US of A you will be kicking off Customer Service Week on October 5th.

Because of that event I wanted to steal a little bit of content out of that upcoming post as to how loyalty can be easier to maintain through excellent customer service by smaller businesses.

Some Background

I live in a fairly rural, and heavily wooded area. And because of that, I periodically (OK more than periodically)  need the services of a good arborist, (or tree surgeon if you like!)

I had called a few in the past for work with various minimal levels of satisfaction.

But then?

A few years ago, in the dead of winter, what I (affectionally) call our damn kitten decided that it would be interesting to climb 25 feet up one of our trees.

After she spent a good few hours crying up there with no obvious intention to come down, I started calling tree experts again.

It was a weekend, and I left several messages. Only one called me back.

That one came out and rappelled up the tree to grab a very grateful kitten.

Needless to say, I have used that business for all tree work I have needed since then.

So Yes, a Reference!

If you are in Ottawa Ontario area and need tree work, Give E & S Tree Experts a call @ 613-978-4372

Because customer service is customer loyalty.

As a C level executive, General Manager, or Owner of a small to medium business, too often we leave any talk (possibly even thought!) about our investments in technology assets and staff until the time something breaks.

And that is unfortunate!

Cambridge MA based Forrester Research identifies that 80% of businesses identify that their Information Technology (IT) is between “somewhat” and “critical” to business.

Yet still we often live with the mind set of; out of sight,out of mind. (at least until it breaks!)

Question: Have You experienced some of these symptoms?

Consistent and regular failure of your IT infrastructure? Maybe the Internet dies regularly, E-Mail seems to fail more often than it is working, people cannot log in to their workstations or cannot access the servers they need?

Or perhaps this one; You are paying IT staff or suppliers;

And yet…..

You are usually wondering what they do all day?

These are often symptoms of that out of sight,out of mind tendency that we all can have.

Fortunately it is relatively easy to begin changing this mind set without becoming a PhD in Computer Science!

You can change it simply by starting a regular conversation with your Information Technology Management team or supplier on the these two basics of IT service delivery blocking and tackling.

1) Is It Written Down?

If critical information exists only in the brain of one person, that person is a disaster waiting to happen. All IT assets and services must be documented.

That does not mean that you need 500 page manuals on each of your servers! Think of the assembly instructions for some piece of assemble it yourself furniture. As brief as can be while still maintaining all the critical information and relationships among the pieces.

Consider these documents a road map or cheat sheet of how each piece of your IT infrastructure supports and depends on other pieces. This documentation should remain fairly technical, the goal is not to have your grand mother be able to rebuild it (unless she was a computer expert of course!) but it should be explicit and clear enough that any individual with skills in that technology environment can use that documentation as a baseline to either rebuild,or keep moving forward.

As an example; if you are a manufacturing concern, I am quite confident that every time an operator for a particular machining tool leaves, that you are not going back to the machine vendor to re-train a new operator. You have the operating procedures and instructions both for training , and for operator substitution.

Why would you not do the same with your IT infrastructure?

2) Give Me The facts Please!

Our second tool in this basic blocking and tackling is maintaining records and reporting on all issues and requests that have affected your IT service delivery.

At it simplest, in your discussions with your IT Leadership; how many things broke last week? and most importantly, do we know why it broke? And how long did it take us to fix it?

You also want to know how many calls for help and service that your IT staff are dealing with. This should include everything from helping fix that corrupted Marketing presentation, to why that particular person is having trouble printing in landscape mode.

Using my same machine tool example, if that tool is failing regularly, you need to know why. And if regular operator issues are occurring, again, that can begin to point out trends or the requirement for improved training.

The SMB Takeaway

If you only talk to your IT staff or suppliers when things have broken, you will not be successful in monitoring or improving your IT service delivery and IT infrastructure reliability.

Without having to learn techno-speak, just beginning to ask these questions on a regular basis will begin to demonstrate what is happening within your IT organization.

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Photo Credit Leo Reynolds via flickr

Ian’s post is about wasting money on the maintenence and production of your Web Site.

It humorous, fantastic, all too true and located here.

I am not going to rewrite the whole thing, let me tease you with one – read Ian’s original for the rest!

Make your IT/development team build the entire site, with little or no input from the sales, marketing or fulfillment teams. You’ll spend at least twice the initial development cost on post-launch changes, I promise.

The SMB Takeaway

For businesses in the small to medium enterprise space, never forget that your Web Presence is critical, and also don’t forget that the way you will be found on the Web has a 70 plus % chance of starting with http://www.google.com

So take the effort to do it right!

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Can You Reverse Decisions?

September 23, 2009

I have written more than once on this blog that in the SME space, you need to be comfortable that your IT team is thinking in both short term operational planning, but also in longer term strategic planning.

Be warned though!

Technology changes. Business drivers can change. The world around us will always be changing.

So longer term planning will always be a rolling, fluid, and (hopefully) flexible look at the future.

The SMB Takeaway

What seemed like a great decision last year, may not be the best decision this year.

Your IT longer term planning will not be written in stone.

As an example?

Two years ago perhaps you were thinking of purchasing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool.

Perhaps now you are thinking using Salesforce.com for that same tool.

The goal may be the same, but the road to get there will be changing.

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Automatic Update Hell

September 22, 2009

A lot of software that gets installed on your PC does that automatic update thing. (Yes Windows Included) And of course many newer software installations quietly upgrade other things in the background.

I hate that.

Here are two reasons!

1) Spent two hours trying to fix a laptop because a Microsoft freebie tool upgrade updated a part of Windows that now causes a multi-function print device to blow up.

So, we have to hope a newer version of the print driver and software comes out some day

2) My own machine updated to the Java Run time Edition 6 for an installation of another piece of software

Of course – it has blown up a device that only works with the version 5 of the Java Run time Environment.

You ever tried searching a vendor web site for older versions of software???

Ha!

Sorry – Rant is now Off!

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Lets try this little story on for size!

You want to hire a plumber to replace your kitchen sink. So out you go and you get a couple of quotations, here they are;

Vendor number one’s quote states; Replace sink

Vendor number two’s quote states; Replace sink, Re-install existing faucet hardware, modify plumbing to fit new sink

Now which of those above quotations make you feel most comfortable that all contingencies are met?

Which one makes you comfortable that there will not be surprises on the scope of work or billing?

Maybe Number Two??

Unless you have a long history of service and trust with the vendor of quote number one, you can understand that that quotation number two covers the bases in a lot more detail.

Now, How About IT?

For smaller businesses it can be fairly common to use outside contractors and suppliers to perform installation or maintenance of your IT assets. Maybe you don’t have full time IT staff, or perhaps you just have a small IT staff that needs outside help in performing a larger task.

But like the example above, don’t forget that there can be a problem here!

It is a natural, but often invisible problem that exists because your contractor, supplier or VAR (Value Added Reseller) and yourself can be looking at the same event or work, but through different lenses.

Freebies vs. Being Nickled & Dimed

For yourself as a manager in the small business space, you are thinking;  “Well since they are here installing that server anyway, I am sure that they can take a few minutes and do this upgrade to our MS Office applications while they are here….”

But for the Management of that vendor or contractor, they need to have their staff into, and then out of your office in the time frame that they quoted you to install that server, and adding what could be an hour or more of time to upgrade those MS Office installations was not part of their plan.

This type of disconnect can lead to frustration and distrust on both sides.

Your supplier feels that you are trying to drive them out of business supporting you with freebies, while you think that they are being unreasonable and doing a nickle and dime routine because you think that the little thing should only take a couple of minutes.

Get Rid of the Disconnect With Proper Scope

To remove this disconnect when sourcing IT contract work, ensure that your vendor and yourself have an itemized list, or breakdown  of each and every task that are to be performed for any particular contract. This will be the scope of your contract engagement.

This point is also the time to discuss those little extra’s.

You think that a few minutes will upgrade your MS Office applications, and they can respond that with 17 workstations at 10 minutes per workstation (assuming nothing goes wrong!) you are looking at almost another three hours of labor.

The SMB Takeaway

When dealing with IT service providers of any kind, ensure that you have an itemized list of the work that is being contracted for. And ensure that it is broken down to as granular a level as is possible.

It takes a bit more time up front, but it is time well spent.

Because both parties can develop the trust that what was contracted for is reasonable, and mutually beneficial.

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Photo Credit using neighbo.com via flickr