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Brice points us to TOMS Shoes.

I like several things about this approach. The simplicity of the offer, first of all. If you buy a pair of these very inexpensive shoes, he gives a pair to a kid in the developing world for free. No fine print.

Second, Tom has turned the shoe into a souvenir. A post-modern shoe, a shoe for people who don’t need shoes, but are happy to wear a statement. This isn’t the first pair of shoes most Americans will buy, it might not even be the tenth. But it will be one that people talk about when they’re wearing it.

Changing the future

That’s what marketers do, after all. We spend time and money to change the role of our products and services sometime in the future (whereas salespeople try to change the now).

Changing tomorrow is really, really difficult. It’s expensive and abrupt and rarely works out for the best. Which is why the worst time to change your marketing is right after 60 Minutes calls on the phone. Tomorrow is so close, it’s probably going to go down the way it’s going to go down, regardless of what you do. Changing the future of tomorrow is tough.

Changing next week’s future is a little easier, next month is easier still. You can lay the groundwork now to change your team and your products and your story so that over time, you’re in a different place than you are now.

Changing next year, though… that’s really hard. It’s hard because a year is so far away, you can count on the world being a very different place by then.

Something to think about if you’re running for President, building a website or selling services to a big corporation.

Death of the farmer’s market

As you may have noticed, farmer’s markets are springing up all over. The combination of organic and local is proving irresistible to many towns and consumers.

The market in my town is now twice as big as it was just last year. New vendors sell muffins, cookies, muffins, cheese, muffins, and yes, frozen risotto cakes in their own disposable plastic tray. Somewhere along the way, the farmer part got left behind.

This brings out tons of people, consumers who would rather buy a sandwich than a zucchini. It’s the normal progression of things–from the edgy early adopter who seeks purity and novelty above all things, all the way through the early majority and then the mass market. As the market grows, it gets, by definition, more average. Until, as Yogi Berra says, "no one goes there, it’s too crowded."

This creates opportunities and challenges. Last one in with a mass market offering can do very well after the market is pioneered by the iconoclasts. And the iconoclasts have to be very careful of depending on the market they created staying just the way it was, but bigger.

Dijon ketchup

Very good ends up being worth a lot more than just good.

And yet some goods and services only seem to offer one level of quality… good. What can you transform into very good?

It’s the best I’ve got…

…but it’ll do.

Sure, it would be great if IDEO could design your next product or the CEO of
Texaco would introduce your sales guy to his purchasing department. It would be great if you had the resources to have a detail force at every retailer, or Russell Simmon’s PR firm or a page that got linked to from Yahoo’s home page.

But they won’t, he won’t and you don’t.

The art of marketing is not finding more money to do more marketing. It’s figuring out how to tell a story that spreads with the resources you’ve got.

Small before big

One of the luxuries of being in a low-cost business or in having access to capital is that you can scale quickly. You can go from one salesperson to a hundred, one store to twenty, no franchises to a thousand.

In our rush to scale, sometimes we forget something essential: if it doesn’t work when you’ve got one, it’s extremely unlikely to work when you have dozens.

If a political candidate can’t sway the audience with one speech, how will doing the speech across the district do anything but waste time?

If a direct mail letter doesn’t work when you mail it to a hundred people, it won’t work any better when you mail it to a thousand.

All a roundabout way of saying that obsessing about that tiny moment when someone decides to buy pays big dividends. Rejiggering or even overhauling a single example of what you do is almost always a better way to spend your time than in trying to double the number of places you do what you do.

The first thing

Before you start firing customers, you better be committed to satisfying the rest of your customers. The giant flaw in Sprint’s logic, as many readers have pointed out, is that plenty (almost half) of their customers don’t like them. Getting rid of a nasty group of 1,000 isn’t going to change that very much.

First job: get serious about customer satisfaction.

The honor system

Just about everything in civilization works on the honor system.

No armed guards at the local grocery store, no pat down as you leave the library. Most people cross the street without fear of crazed hit and run assassins.

Great marketers are able to deliver customer service because they’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. They tend to take your word for it.

Of course there are bad actors. One out of a thousand people will cheat on that test or rip off that store. When LL Bean or Patagonia offers a no-questions-asked money-back guarantee, some jerks decide to buy an outfit, go on a trip and then return it all.

If you spend all your time worrying about these folks, you end up underserving the other 99% of the population. Take the write off. That’s what successful marketers do.

When we move online, though, two things happen. First, word among the black hats spreads fast. One person starts ripping you off and suddenly it’s a hundred.

Worse, the ripoffs and bad actions can scale. Sure, only one in a thousand email users is a spammer. But one spammer, aided by a computer, can send a million or more emails in a day. Suddenly, the people who violate the honor system are able to drown out the good guys.

Just like the real world, though, if you spend all your time preparing for and defending against the black hats, you’ll never accomplish anything. If you assume that every single interaction online is fraudulent until proven otherwise, people will just move on to the competition.

So, online, you’re between a rock and a hard place. The first opportunity is to treat your friends better than ever, because word of mouth online is incredibly powerful. The Net brings significant leverage–you can spread ideas farther and faster.

The temptation is to embrace only the advantages of the web and insist on eternal vigilance against the possiblity of getting ripped off. To act as if everyone online is a criminal. To assume that the moment you are generous or trusting, squadrons of bad actors will exploit your generosity. I don’t think that’s the answer. If you treat people like criminals, the good ones will leave, because people have a choice.

There’s a different path. Awareness of the potential problem helps you keep your eyes open. You can watch the trends, be aware, but still embrace the honor system. Realize that the vast majority of your customers will always want to do the right thing. Look both ways before crossing the street… but still cross.

Treating different customers differently

I’ve gotten a lot of email about: Sprint may cancel your service if you call customer service too often.

Apparently, about 1,000 people got this note. They weren’t delinquent in their bills, but they were calling in and complaining approximately 25 times a month.

If you’re going to be obsessed with delighting customers, it’s a lot more efficient to focus on customers that are able to be delighted. That sounds like a tautology, but it’s actually a guiding principle for successful businesses. Hire nice people and attract satisfiable, gabby customers. Why not?

These 1000 people were actually happy to be unhappy. They were unpleasable, and they weren’t helping either word of mouth or the ability of the call center folks to do good work.

I think the mistake Sprint made was in only giving people one day’s notice. I probably would have given them a month or so… Turns out Sprint even gave them one month’s notice.

What would happen if you fired (nicely) the very few customers that take your best effort but rarely appreciate it or spread the word?

A new seminar: September in NYC

Thanks for all of you who have asked for this. I’m trying a slightly different format, which should be interesting. I’ve found that most people who come to my sessions have read enough of my work to be up and running before they arrive, so I thought we’d just start at the end, with the Q&A.

September 6, in New York, all day Q&A and brainstorming session. I hope you can make it.