Ed, Jack & The Right Way to Do Things

My outstanding business and life mentor when I was growing up in Wisconsin was Edward Prohaska.  Ed started his career as a high school science teacher, but realized his self-determination and drive compelled him to become a land development entrepreneur.  Ed started with a shovel and a wheelbarrow and turned it into a wildly successful business. Ed had an iron-clad work ethic, and he showered me with affirmations about hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and making good choices.

One day I was trying to take a shortcut while completing a task on a jobsite.  Ed was driving a piece of earth-moving equipment when he witnessed me trying to cut a corner on my work. He slammed on the breaks, jumped down from the machine, jogged across a field, tore the shovel from my hand, and pointed his index finger to the work in front of me, looked me directly in the eyes and yelled, “There are no shortcuts to good decisions. There is only ONE right way to do things and that is the RIGHT WAY!”

He caught me trying to do something the EASY WAY, rather than the RIGHT WAY.  And, he knew that I knew better.  That intervention and his prophetic words still jump into my head every time I am confronted with a decision, especially those where the easier road is so incredibly tempting. I’m duty-bound to first ask what is the right way and use that as the basis for my decision, even if it requires a longer or more painful process as a result.

The more that you positively reinforce the ‘RIGHT WAY’ behavior, the more it because part of your autonomic system.  You no longer deliberate whether there is a shortcut or negative consequences, but rather you react automatically based on this innate sense of what is the RIGHT WAY. This behavior, whether you call it good judgement or otherwise, becomes knee-jerk.  
To best represent an example of this, watch the following video of Jack Sock playing Leighton Hewitt in a tennis match.  Jack doesn’t stop to think, he merely reacts.  The RIGHT WAY has become part of his character and he thin-sliced his decision to speak up in less than a second.  For Jack, there was no other choice than the RIGHT WAY.


Respecting Your Customer Means Being Authentically Accessible

Whether you’re a mom n’ pop small business or a Fortune 100, the way you treat customers says a lot about the type of business you aspire to be.  In the never-ending pursuit of productivity, we’ve invented phone trees and contact form fields and generic support@email methods for customers to get in contact with us, but are we really being accessible to our customers?  With these impersonal forms of automation who are we really helping, the customer or bottom line?

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7 Reasons Why Chatbots Won't Replace Real Travel Agents Anytime Soon

Technology is constantly evolving to better help travel agents and consumers.  One of the latest areas of research by travel firms exploring new technologies is the chatbot and artificial intelligence (AI) phenomena. Facebook is building chatbots into Messenger and Microsoft is investing in CaaS (Conversation as a Service) platform development including bringing chatbots into Skype.  The question is, how will chatbots affect travel agents and consumers?

The idea, in theory less than practice, is that you can use AI to effectively respond to customers through chatbots, conversational utilities that can carry on a “conversation” with the customer, answer questions - or as is being experimented with in Amazon’s Echo device - to actually order travel services like plane tickets and hotel bookings.  While the advancement of these services are certainly worthwhile to supplement services available to customers (always provide customers whatever way to interact and book that they so choose) by no means are these tools a replacement or augmentation of the authentic travel agent experience.

The top seven reasons why qualified travel advisors should not be afraid of losing their job to a chatbot:

  1. Chatbots can't distinguish between "cheap" and "value"
  2. Chatbots can "listen" to the client, but they do not "understand" the client
  3. Chatbots are not proactive, but rather entirely reactive to input
  4. Chatbots lack the same empathy that is a core differentiator of the agent (e.g. chatbots never traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a cruise ship)
  5. Complex travel has interdependent characteristics requiring tactic and experiential knowledge (e.g. if the client’s flight gets in late, they probably are not going to want to scuba dive at night)
  6. Travel agents can anticipate intentions and expectations without the client expressly stating them
  7. Travel agents take responsibility, whereas chatbots are binary and inculpable

Putting 'People First' in Your Digital Strategy

There's a great Executive Summary from Accenture called "Technology Vision 2016" that addresses the fact that over 20% of the global economy is now digital, and that number is expected to increase to 25% in the next several years.  Yet, despite all the commercial value of digital, it remains as important as ever to preserve the role of real people in the digital economy.  Humans are not going to be replaced with technology, but rather technology should be leveraged and augmented to create better processes, businesses and standards of living.

"Winners in the digital age do much more than tick off a
checklist of technology capabilities. They know their success
hinges on people. The ability to understand changing customer
needs and behaviors is, of course, vital. But the real deciding
factor in the era of intelligence will be a company’s ability
to evolve its corporate culture to not only take advantage of
emerging technologies, but also, critically, embrace the new
business strategies that those technologies drive."

Here at Engage we talk with many customers about maintaining a healthy balance between technology and humans.  There has been a rush to marketing automation, artificial intelligence, and other digital technologies with the object of creating efficiency and cost-savings, but often at the expense of personnel implications?  On the other side of the table is humanization, manual work, and cognitive work.  Big data, automation, and humans can all play vital rolls, but to find that perfect symbiosis requires accepting some very non-digital beliefs in the ongoing qualities people bring to the table,  like creativity, tacit and experiential knowledge, and emotions like compassion and empathy.  People matter.

Some years prior to co-founding Engage I was involved in the self-service and transactional kiosk industry.  If you've done self-checkout at the grocery store, or self-checkin at a hotel, you've used kiosk technology.  For many years people thought (and some worried) that kiosk would replace humans in travel, hospitality, retail and many other places.  I mean, why would we want to pay a human $35,000 per year to do what a machine could do for $8,000 a year, right?  And, kiosks work 24x7 and very rarely call in sick.

Well, it turns out that in some scenarios people love to self-service checkout.  Still, in other situations other people don't.  If you have ten items at the grocery store, you may prefer to help yourself and get out quick.  But if you have a whole cart, it would be great to have a human help you scan your items and maybe (if you're lucky) someone to get your purchases into bags. 

The point is, there are situations where automation exclusively makes sense, and others that are richer with human injected into the process.  You don't need humans to buy a book or new pillow cases at Amazon, right?  But think about all the situations where humans could and do matter: medical advice, high-cost purchases, consultative questions, etc.  People still buy from people they like and trust and I've yet to see a technology with personality and personal selling skills, not to mentions shared HUMAN experiences that helps us relate conversationally.

So, as you embark on the next phase of your digital strategy, I challenge you to put your technology, big data and automation investments on one side of the scale, and your human beings on the other side of the scale, and try to find a healthy balance.  As you look at the products and service you offer the marketplace, consider how you can wrap them with a human layer to drive better value and experiences to your customers.  You won't go wrong with'people first' digital strategy.

Note: you can download the Accenture document here.

Web-based Inside Sales Tech Industry Taking Off in a Big Way

Inside Sales technology was a long neglected area of innovation on the web.  E-commerce companies (think Amazon) have really developed really well-oiled machines for commodity goods, but for organizations who need to talk with their customers in person as a natural progression of the sales process - think 'considered purchase' goods and services - there has been much to be desired.

So much focus and investment has been placed onto sales and marketing automation, but for many types of selling scenarios, human interaction is a critical (even essential) component to the sales process.  Sales and marketing automation fails to introduce a qualified sales person to a web-based customer at the right point in the buying process.  With new technology, like Engage, that is changing.  The likelihood of being greeted online with a smiling face is quickly increasing as an alternative to lead-gen forms.

Introducing the personality and personal selling skills of a qualified inside salesperson to an online buyer can do many positive things, including:

  • Improving time-to-sale
  • Addressing customers unanswered questions or objections that would otherwise drive them away from a purchase
  • Increasing the customer satisfaction level
  • Quickly articulating authenticity and trust to the prospect
  • Maintaining continuity in the relationship that spans customer interactions/engagements

Here is a great snapshot of this Inside Sales tech landscape published with week by Venture Beat: http://venturebeat.com/2015/12/01/317-companies-10b-in-funding-and-110k-employees-inside-sales-startups-exploding/


What are the Best New Ways to Reinvigorate your Brand Website?

The mega food products company Nestlé has been working to humanize its brand.  As reported by the Verge, Nestlé “is trying hard to present a human face to its operations and products.”  Their CMO Michael Christment said that “the dotcom is [a] reflection of us talking to people; this approach is dead. It should be much more inclusive and allow [for] conversations.”

Nestlé is bailing on the conventional brand website format and moving their entire Nescafé site to become a Tumblr blog.  As questionable as this may sound at face value, their goal is to achieve “building stronger relationships with younger consumers.”  Nestle feels that they needed a way to address the requirement to form deeper connection with their target audience through a participatory approach.  Tumblr allows for the sharing of content, images and videos.

This brings about a question that underlies much of the digital strategy for brands today.  That is, how do you better enable your customers to take meaningful action at your website?

The evolution of the brand website has had stages.  First it was purely informational in nature (circa 1992-2003), then it was promotional (circa 2004-2014), and now we have entered the conversational era.  Sure, companies have been able to use community forums on their websites for nearly a decade, but ultimately the adoption of company-provided forums has been low because customers don’t favor brand-provided platforms.

One thing many brands can agree on today is that empowering visitors, prospects and customers at the website of the future will require empowering this community of users (read: Users Not Customers) with the tools of conversation and communications required to hold bi-directions discussions with the brand as well as enable participatory brand advocacy at the website AND omni-channel.

There are new technologies that help brands interact with the user community (crowd) in entirely new ways.  While converting your brand site into a Tumblr blog may be extreme, there are other ways to interact.

Here at Engage was help brands to develop and maintain hyper-personal relationship continuity with users through synchronous communications and menu’s of live and readily available people (whether they are customer facing employees or brand advocates.)  In short, we help brands put a humans on their website. You can see an example here and here of how Engage is used by a travel group to surface people in new ways.

Another solution provider is the advocate marketing software provider Influitive.  Brands are using Infuitive to generate proprietary content from their user community as well as capture feedback from advocates and turn that into valuable marketing collateral that engages and inspires other community users.

There are also tools that help address the user community at the brand website.  For example, AnswerDash is providing software for building an on-demand repository of answers that support virtually all functions of the brand website.  Historically one of the problems is that standard informational websites could lead to visitor abandonment because of limited content.  If the visitor isn’t placated with the right information, answers or interaction tools, they leave.  AnswerDash provides a new level of content depth that can be tapped to inform and educate the user community.

The future of the brand website is personal, it is conversational, and it truly empowers visitors, prospects and customers to have a voice and to connect with the user community and brand in entirely new ways.


Is it Time to Write an Obituary for the Lead Form?

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Last week I was having a phone call with the CEO of a major lead aggregator business in the insurance industry and he described to me how web-based lead forms used to be a huge originating source (like 90%+) of all the leads they generated, captured and resold to their clients and how today’s prospects just were not filling out the forms anymore.  Form abandonment is at an all-time high in his business and he said they’re scrambling to find new methods to collect the lead.  After hanging up the phone, my very next call was with an executive leader of a real estate technology firm who mirrored the sentiments of the insurance exec.  What I’ve been hearing constantly now is: the lead gen form isn’t DOA, but it’s on life support.

So, is it time the lead form is 86’d? 
Well, not so fast.  The lead form is still one of the most practical places to help a visitor, prospect or customer who has developed purchase interest or intent to state their purchasing desire to your organization.  Before pulling the plug on the lead form, we have to acknowledge that there is a dearth of replacement mechanisms.  If you pull out X and X is critical to your business model you better have Y to replace it, right?  Well get back to that Y in a second.

The reality is that buyers and consumers don’t like lead forms, and here’s why:

·        Lead forms are impersonal

·        Lead forms don’t address a buyer’s sense of immediacy or urgency

·        Lead forms ask the buyer for something BEFORE offering something

·        Lead forms don’t generally explicitly state how disclosed information will be used

·        Lead forms assume the buyer is ready and willing to part with their anonymity

·        Lead forms are not evident to WHEN the buyer will get a thoughtful response

·        Lead forms are not evident to HOW the consumer will hear back

·        Lead forms are insulting to a buyer who has endless choice

·        [insert your own reason here based on your personal experiences]

Salespeople don’t necessarily like lead forms either, and here’s why:

·        Lead forms create latency between buyer desire and a sales response, and salespeople know that reaction time is critical to sales success

·        Lead forms DO NOT introduce personality and personal selling skills

·        Lead forms generically qualify a buyer

·        Lead forms give an otherwise interested buyer a reason to abandon

O.k. So what is the Y? 
What can replace the web-based lead form, a data extraction tool used since the dawn of the Internet?  The prospective replacements are few, but let’s take a look at each:

·        Commodity Chat Support: Tools like legacy live chat which are used by the call center to capture the lead and follow up with the buyer through another method such as phone or email.

o   Pro: Relatively quick

o   Con: Impersonal, unauthoritative, buyer may sit in queue, buyer can never find the same chat call center rep again

·        Immediate Direct Engagement: Tools like Engage.co provide instant one-to-one interaction and relationship development between customer facing agent and buyer.

o   Pro: Personalized, trusted, immediate (really fast), relationship continuity

o   Con: Requires change and utilization by the sales force

·        Virtual Agents: These can be pre-scripted and automated Q&A interactions with the buyer that allow natural language to help guide the buyer to an answer in a self-service fashion.

o   Pro: Relatively quick, doesn’t require humans

o   Con: Impersonal, cannot cover 100% of questions, can frustrate/dead-end customer

·        In-Asset Collection: Tools like Docalytics.com can take the existing concept of form collection, and make it feel less threatening by tastefully asking the right lead extraction questions to the buyer at the right time, inside of assets like digital brochures and landing pages.

o   Pro: In-context data extraction is subtle (less pushy)

o   Con: Impersonal, requires thoughtful integration, less than immediate response time

·        Click-to-Email: Enables the buyer to email your organization directly.

o   Pro: Makes the inquiry/outreach quick

o   Con: Impersonal, typically generic (info@company), open-ended, less than immediate response time

·        Click-to-Call: Enables the buyer to connect to your organization via phone.

o   Pro: Relatively quick

o   Con: Typically unknowledgeable reps supporting calls, difficult phone tree system navigation

·        Facebook (and other auth/sign-up tools): Tools like Facebook enable website publishers to empower customers with a way to join the site with a single click.  And, customers LOVE clicking things. The Facebook API provides an obvious replacement for lead forms and letting people fill out a form with a click ... your conversion will likely ascend back to where it used to be.

o   Pro: Relatively quick, convenient for visitor/customer

o   Con: Requires integration work

What about a hybrid approach?
Blending a combination of traditional lead forms, as well as these alternatives above may extend the life of your lead form practices without a complete overhaul or removal.  On the page where you want to collect the lead, can you surface 2-3 of these tools?  It’s possible by giving the buyer a choice over the available methods to reach out you’ll catch them through THEIR preferred method vs. trying to force them into YOUR preferred method.

Lead forms are no longer attractive to many types of buyers for a number of reasons.  They also are not appealing to the sales force.  However, there is a short list of alternatives.  Rather than killing off the lead form, or continuing to use the lead form ONLY (at your own peril), consider a blended model that empowers buyers with choice. This may offer the next step in the evolution of lead collection practices.

Great Customer Service Means Being There to Answer Questions

Software Advice conducted a study on customer service with a strong look at the utilization of chat technology.  Unsurprisingly, across all industries the delivery of incredible customer service typically centered on one common theme: if you can pull friction out of the process customers need to go through in order to get their questions answered and problems solved, the better customer satisfaction.

We've known both anecdotally and empirically that customers will do a lot of digging around to help themselves, but no matter how much content you put on your website, sometimes they still have unanswered questions.  While fixed information assets like a searchable knowledge base can help, many customer scenarios are best helped with the expert knowledge of a qualified person within your business.  

Achieving highly effective customer service means building your offering in a way that minimizes roadblocks at all stages of the customer journey, not only when issues pop up. To help your business mature to this level of customer service, however, it isn't simply about understanding the questions customers have at each stage in their customer journey, but actually "being there" to offer answers in real-time.  While this may not be economical for commodity goods like books or shampoo, for the vast amount of commerce, the fact is that some level of human interaction is typically required before you get to hear the ring at the cash register.  So, rather that being reactive to the inevitability of touching your prospects, why not be proactive in converting them to a customer through live engagement?

Well, that's exactly what the study recognized is materializing in the online world.  Chat is quickly moving from a 'nice-to-have' to a 'if-you-can't-answer-my-questions-right-now-I'll-go-to-your-competitor-who-can' scenario.  Indeed, the study found that almost half of respondents preferred using live chat for online-shopping questions.  And 56% of people aged 18-34 prefer live chat to phone (27% of people aged 35 and older prefer chat).  Remember, prefer doesn't mean they are neutral about live engagement; prefer means they actually want and expect to have their questions answered instantly on the Internet.


Source: http://www.softwareadvice.com/crm/industryview/demographics-live-chat-report-2015/  Image used with permission of Software Advice.

The Internet of People

by: Lief Larson
For the last eight years of my life I've been intimately involved in the science of how business personnel interact with web-based customers. Over this time I've become more convinced than ever that the future of business on the web has two distinct directions: 1) purchasing/sales process automation, 2) humanized sales engagements. As we look ahead to the future of online sales, I see an "Internet of People". That is, a tomorrow where real, live people are available in real-time on every commercial website.

Whether you're a large or small company, and no matter what the industry, it's always the people that make the difference. There are certainly buying scenarios where you don't need a human (e.g. I don't need help from a person to buy a book off of Amazon), but for many commercial transactions I'm still unable to interact with web-based humans in a way that is additive to the buying process. This is a major shortcoming of the Web and a huge problem for 80% of commercial businesses who sell their wares with humans. Buyers today start most of their pre-purchase due diligence on the Web, yet organizations are lacking the right type of technology to wrap their people around the digital side of their products and services.

I began with a fundamental concept that even in the digital world and particularly with considered value and/or potentially life-long services, customers buy from people they like and trust [see Covey's The Speed of Trust]. To facilitate trusted, human-to-human commercial transactions on the Internet requires new thinking about technology. We need to capabilities that enable businesses to inject an instant human presence into an otherwise de-humanized, aSocial online business environment. We need technology that is an intuitive extension of the natural, human inclination for meaningful personal interaction in an online business transaction.

Developing an Internet of People means real humans can be associated with product SKUs, digital processes, concierge levels of web-based services, and transitional technology between online engagement and offline interactions (the so-called online-to-offline or O2O opportunity). Deploying this technology will help both buyers (consumers) and business alike. It will deliver authentic, face-to-face engagement and it will have smart memory so that relationships can be as short as a one-time interaction, or lasting many years and making it incredibly easy for the buyer to re-establish the relationship at any point in the future.

To learn more about the underlying concept of the Internet of People, you can download a free pdf white paper.