Friday 28 January 2011

How Many Benchmarks in your Day?

Benchmarking might appear to be a pretty academic concept, yet it’s amazing how much we use it at work and at home.

Are you happy with what you are paid? Having a rough idea of the national average or how much people earn in our line of business makes a difference: so much of a difference that this benchmark affects how happy we are with our work.

What time do you set your alarm for in the morning? Knowing that you will function well on 8 hours sleep affects your attitude and demeanour the following day. A daily benchmark we use without even thinking about it.

How many hours a day do your colleagues work? Having a rough idea also affects how satisfied you are with the number of hours you have to put in to get your work done. Benchmarks are everywhere, even though they don’t have that label.

I was looking up how many telephone calls professional telesales people make a day. 100 calls a day gets bandied about on forums that discuss this sort of thing. 100 calls a day! Wow! That’s a huge number. Well it might seem that way to me, but to some it’s a normal day in the office, and they fit in other work besides.

Benchmarking is important because it gives us an idea of what’s possible, what’s exceptional, and what’s sub-optimal. When managing a business, that’s hugely important.

Being able to measure and benchmark people’s capabilities and achievements enables everyone to reach for their best. And that’s when people are at their happiest – when they are striving for something that’s worthwhile, difficult but achievable.

Benchmarking is also a way to solve problems. Once you can measure the current position, and compare that to some sort of benchmark, you can start to figure how big or small a problem you have. And even where you might look to start solving it.

So keep a look out for where you are, and are not, guided by benchmarks. Some of them might surprise you.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Goals in Theory and Goals in Practice

January is a time for resolutions. I’m not immune to Thinking Big about all the things I will achieve in a New Year. But this year I have a more pressing problem – a goal I set myself almost a year ago. 10 months ago to be precise. Because it seemed like A Good Idea at the Time, I also roped in a couple of friends so that I couldn’t squelch my way out of the commitment.

Only now, 10 months later, can I see the full brilliance of my dreadful plan. Yup, it’s almost half marathon time again!

Last March I set myself the goal of running Reading Half Marathon. Although I ran (including a bit of walking, limping and moaning like mad) the Henley Half Marathon, that was A Long Time Ago. Three months ago in fact; that’s three months of focusing almost entirely on holiday and Christmas Carbohydrate Loading.

So now all my goals in theory have caught up with me, and the true horror of goals in practice is staring me blankly in the face.
  • Two months to lose some weight.
  • Two months to run further than the end of the road.
  • Two months to find some running shoes that don’t give me blisters.
  • Two months to salvage some small amount of self-respect amongst family and friends who listen to me talk as though I actually can run.
So this is where theory meets practice. Having set the goal, persuaded my friends to join me, and paid the entrance fee, the whole lunatic idea has got a momentum that I can only follow, huffing and puffing and wishing I were anywhere else instead.

As an old colleague once said “Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true”. Oh, my!

Monday 17 January 2011

Work with your hands, and all you get is dirty hands

Until very recently, increasing efficiency meant creating a software system to store relevant information about part of your business. Instead of doing the job manually, or on spreadsheets, it went into a database system. Software systems improve productivity and efficiency, whether it is linked to other aspects of a company’s work (ERP) or stand-alone.

It is a hugely successful approach that all businesses have embraced.

The focus on these projects is the data that needs to be stored in the system. If you put the right information in, we thought, you will get the right information out. The only problem is that all the emphasis went on putting information in, and hardly any focus was on understanding the data.

As the big system trends, such as accounting, CRM and ERP, are becoming more mature, we are now turning our attention to what all this information means. And increasingly we are finding that it is not as self-explanatory as we thought.

Firstly, data isn’t neatly together in one place. Rather, it is in a number of different systems that were created at different times for different reasons.

Secondly, traditional system reports are geared towards efficient systems, not business insight.

Thankfully, a new generation of software tools is coming to the rescue. They are focussed entirely on finding meaning from existing data and are priced to be attractive to businesses of all sizes. For example, Microsoft’s SQL Server Integration Service, Analysis Services and Reporting Services are included in all versions of SQL Server from 2005 at no extra cost.

This changes the nature of business competition. As well as having products and services that customers value, which you can produce cost effectively, visionary businesses are looking at their systems to find new insights and meaning within customer information. And they are using those insights to improve the value they provide to customers.

It is a logical next step. We’ve all spent 25 years creating software systems; now it’s time to use that information profitably. As my father is fond of saying, if you work with your hands, all you get is dirty hands. But if you work with your head ....

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Why Customer Intelligence is the No 1 Priority for Marketers

Customer Intelligence is the process of improving strategic marketing decisions by joining together and analysing customer data from a company’s various different software systems.

Despite it’s relatively low profile, it is likely to be the single most important issue facing marketing professionals over the next 10 years. Why? There are three big unstoppable trends:
  1. Customer data volumes are exploding. Disk space is cheap, database systems are powerful and can store many different types of data, and software applications such as accounts, CRM, ERP are holding vast amounts of customer-related data. The result? More customer data than you or your competitors have ever had before.
  2. Increased competition. Globalization has been a trend for over 100 years, but with cheaper travel and better communications it has become more pressing over recent years. The internet reduces barriers to dealing with suppliers in different countries and massively reduces costs. Consolidation in many industries has also been a competitive trend, resulting in larger and better funded competitors. Both trends are continuing in many industries.
  3. Better informed customers. High speed internet connections and low priced PCs have enabled every home and business in developed countries to be connected. When only a few years ago information was difficult to find, now Google produces highly relevant search results instantly. The increase in consumer comparison web sites puts a great deal of power in the hands of consumers. And where once content was generated by the marketing department, now it is generated by millions of bloggers, reviewers, contributors to Wikipedia and social media enthusiasts. There is no shortage of information for customers who want to know.
It’s not difficult to conclude that vendors will have to work harder to attract and retain loyal customers.

Yet customers have not changed. They still want value from their purchases, and they want their custom be valued.

Differentiation and value are still the keys to keeping customers happy. And understanding customers is the key to figuring out what they value.

Customer Intelligence is all about understanding customers; their history, their behaviour and their preferences. The information is already sitting in a million accounting, CRM or ERP systems and will yield a million different insights for the methodical marketer.

So Customer Intelligence will become the number 1 issue facing marketers over the next decade. Data-centric decision making will become vital as businesses of all sizes search for ways to improve products and services. Astonishingly, most companies already own the tools needed to create these marketing insights. All they have to do is to use them.

Monday 10 January 2011

Uncertainty is a powerful marketing tool

Oh, I hate all this uncertainty!” says Rex in Toy Story 3 as the toys try to figure out what will happen to them when Andy goes to college.

Despite many of us professing to feel the same way (about uncertainty, not Andy going to college) we seem to be inexplicably drawn to uncertain situations. Take the meteoric success of eBay as an example.

eBay’s ability to bring together buyers and sellers is awesome, yet their auction system is infuriating. It’s completely addictive, whether buying or selling, and often encourages impulsive bids in an attempt to “win” an item. During the cold snap in December I watched a perfectly ordinary, inexpensive and pre-owned hat sell for over £30 plus postage. An identical new one could have been bought from the high street or an alternative eBay vendor for less than £10 including postage. It was cold, but even so …

Prize draws are another example. Have you ever found yourself dropping a business card into a bowl to win a bottle of Champagne? You know perfectly well that the company is building a mailing list and will fill your inbox with reminders about the excellence of their products and services, but still you can’t resist the chance to win. Have you ever won the Champagne? I haven’t, I think the same one comes out year after year…

What about the stock market? Do you know any shares? Do you follow their rise and fall, eagerly noting the gains, and trying not to get too despondent about the falls? Unit trusts are a much more sensible way to invest, but many cannot resist the idea of making a killing on the attractions of a share no one else has noticed.

How about premium bonds? The government’s own prize draw. You could win a million or, much more likely, you could “win” below market returns year after year. Yet the chance of winning £1m is too much for the 22 million people who hold premium bonds. And don't get me started on the lottery ...

January is traditionally Sale time, and don’t we all just love the sales? People have been known to queue overnight outside the store to get cut-price “bargains”. Interesting ….

It’s hard to conclude that we hate uncertainty. Or at least that we are not prepared to get caught up with it in order to profit in some way. It’s a lot easier to believe that we like uncertainty, despite protestations to the contrary.

Uncertainty has been used for years by marketers to give a sense of excitement or scarcity to otherwise ordinary promotions. When you stop and consider how much uncertainty adds a touch of excitement or fun to your life, it’s not difficult to see how or why this is such a potent idea.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

How to proofread for zero defects

Over the Christmas break I was asked about how to improve attention to detail and proofread work so that it is error-free. It’s an interesting question and one I have given much thought to over the years.

So, on something of a tangential note for the New Year, here are my tips for proofreading and zero defect copy:
  1. Allow time between finishing the work and proofreading. Ideally this would be several days or at least overnight, but even an hour or two will help. Allowing the brain to focus on other things allows you to come back to your work with a more detached view.
  2. Read the document several times to check for different things, eg whether it makes sense, whether it flows nicely, whether it is factually accurate, whether there are any misleading sentences, etc. Proofreading is not the same as reading through your work. We often mix up proofreading with these other activities, trying to do too many things in one reading. Separate them out to improve accuracy.
  3. Use an eye-guide such as a ruler, your finger or the cursor to check each sentence slowly and methodically. Because we are capable of reading quickly, we do. But proofreading requires us to slow down and purposefully read each word. The physical act of moving a ruler or a finger helps.
  4. Change the look of the document. Word processors enable us to very quickly change things such as the margins, font or pagination to get a different view of the text. Make the text larger to see if errors are easier to spot.
  5. Use the spell checker. This is standard in most word processors but some software requires it to be switched on. Never release a document without spell checking it.
  6. Read your work aloud. This has two benefits; firstly you “hear” errors more clearly aloud than when you are reading to yourself. Secondly, it slows down the process, also making errors easier to find.
  7. Always go back and re-check your work after you make a change. Many mistakes slip through because of last-minute changes that alter the sense or structure of a sentence. If you make a change, carefully re-check that section.
  8. Ask someone else to read your work. No book publisher would ever allow a book to be printed without several people carefully checking it. Someone else will more easily spot awkward sentences, sentences that make no sense, spellos, typos and other gremlins. Even better if you know someone who is a stickler for grammar and punctuation.
  9. Concentrate on the proofreading process. Often this “last lap” is done without the attention it deserves. We allow our minds to wander as we work. Proofreading for zero defects is strenuous and requires 100% concentration.
  10. Listen to your inner voice. Often we notice errors even though we don’t do anything about them. Grammatical errors or using the wrong word register with us on a subconscious level; listening to your inner voice at the checking stage often saves a red face later.
  11. Have good references. Using a good dictionary, a good thesaurus and style guide all help in quickly checking the correct word or phrasing.
  12. Create your own checklists. A checklist for things to check, eg grammar, style, readability, clarity, accuracy, completeness, spelling, typos, accuracy of numbers, etc. A checklist for favourite mistakes, eg words you frequently misspell or grammatical errors you make often. Every time a mistake creeps into your work, add it to the checklist so you improve next time.
  13. Create your own style guide. Each industry has its own best practice. Create a style guide that includes common company names, abbreviations used in your industry, etc. Include good examples of other people’s work. Include favourite references such as dictionaries or web sites that are useful. This is another feedback loop that helps improve writing with every piece that is published.
  14. Read your work in different ways. As authors of our work, we start at the beginning and lovingly read through every word. Readers don’t do that. They scan the title, intro and random paragraphs to see if it looks interesting. They miss bits out or skip to the part that is relevant to them. Simulate a reader’s behaviour by reading random sections, or parts you know might be read out of context. Do they make sense? Are they clear and unambiguous? Try reading backwards and focusing on each word rather than the sense.
  15. Proofread from a printout; don’t rely on working from the screen. I know it’s not ecologically sound, but moving away from the computer to a quiet place makes a big difference. You can work slower and more thoughtfully.
  16. Build proofreading time into your schedule. Nothing ruins good work like silly errors that should have been picked up long before they get to the reader. It is tempting to think they don’t matter, but readers subconsciously mistrust error-prone work.
  17. Use a professional service. I have employed a copywriter to check my work for important work and it doesn’t have to be costly. If you have a large or important document, it could be worthwhile.

It’s a long list. And I’ll admit to having made each and every mistake going. Working in the software industry teaches accuracy, even if it doesn’t come easily and is an on-going struggle. But proofreading and producing zero-defect work is a process rather than a talent. Certainly some people have better attention to detail than others, but technology and checklists help.

Does anyone else have any tips or techniques to share? I’m sure there are more and I’d love to hear!