When Old School’s Not Cool

This post was originally printed in The State of the Startup May 5th, 2009

Business owners listen up, the world’s a changin’, and you better change with it or you will be left behind. Now don’t worry, this isn’t one more spiel about how to harness the power of social media to change the image of your company – there are plenty of bloggers out there willing to give you 10 Tools of Social Media. Instead, I’m here to provide a personal appeal into how companies can retro-fit themselves for the 21st century with some good old fashioned employee training.

If your staff is not living in the 21st century, that means your company is not living in the 21st century; if your company is not living in the 21st century, it is effectively dead. This means if you are a car dealer, you should give your employees company email accounts and make sure they use it so they don’t end up taking their customer on a time machine back to 1996 as they hand out an AOL account to a potential customer. I’m talking to you, Ford. Also, it would be a good idea not to let your employees rant about how they don’t like email, “because it always puts previous correspondences at the bottom of each email, which is such a waste of paper.” Still talking to you, Ford.

But let’s give Ford a break. After all, they’re not even asking our government for help, so they must have a plan. For everyone else, a few lessons for you and your employees based on a recent adventure in car buying:

  • Simple: If I wanted to haggle, I’d move to the middle east. In an age when we can buy almost anything we want off the Internet, brick and mortar establishments need to be as efficient, clean, and orderly as the local Starbucks we will go to, to buy from Amazon if you annoy us. Haggling may be a time-honored tradition at car dealerships, but take a note from Honda and stop. In an age when most 20 somethings are used to paying the “Apple tax” for a smoother experience, we’d rather have fewer options and fewer hassles. This of course doesn’t just apply to car dealerships and computers. In St. Louis, we have a frozen yogurt establishment where there’s self-service “fro-yo” and toppings galore and then you pay 40 cents an ounce. Sure you don’t know how much you’re paying up front, but they’ve finally taken the guesswork out of ordering ice cream. Ever been to an ice cream shop and felt cheated out of that last half scoop? Or wished that they put that one more cookie dough piece on top? At Fro-Yo, this is no longer an issue. I urge you to find ways to simplify your business from a customer standpoint, even if it feels counterintuitive. It may just pay off in the end.
  • Smart: Know your online ratings from popular websites and your competitors’ offers. It has always been good practice to be honest and not try to hide embarrassing statistics or competitors who would be better suited to help your customer; however, it is no longer enough to be honest, you have to be prepared. Prepared to counter negative online reviews. Prepared to provide real consumer watch websites which compare your brand with others. Prepared to provide your competitors’ offers and (hopefully) explain why your product/service/package is better. The last thing you want is your customer pulling out an iPhone during your conversation and showing up your knowledge of your own industry.
  • Social: Create meaningful connections and provide professional communication tools. This means all your employees should have a company email address and a business card. Whether you sell cars, electronics, furniture, or yourself, wouldn’t you rather have your customer ask an employee a question the day after they visit your store than the Twittersphere? When employees are paid on commission, you can also encourage them to give out personal email accounts – assuming of course that they are using Gmail and not AOL. If you really want to be with it, let your employees text on the job. There are few feelings more warm and cozy than when an employee offers to shoot you a text once he finds the answer to a question while you are free to go walk around the store or mall. While not every business can afford shiny new iMacs to put front and center, invest in flat-screen monitors if you don’t already have them, and for goodness sake don’t let us see an 80’s printer with the tear-away paper-edges. Remember, unless you’re Coca Cola, your employees are your brand and your customer will judge your product based on how “with it” your employees seem. AOL accounts, printing emails, landlines… research those things that make us cringe and stop using them.

If you stay simple, smart, and social, you can be on your way to transforming your business for the 21st century. These changes may seem trivial, but they make a world of difference to the customer. Some parting words of wisdom: the 20th century took us from an industrial age to a knowledge age. Where employees were valued for being a cog in motion, to being cognitively minded. Successful businesses traded in top-down structure for horizontal structure. Companies learned about our limited social capabilities and built their businesses accordingly. Make sure to hire smart people, nurture their talents, and utilize their skill sets. Whether they are peddling newspapers or making Pizzas, a little brains can go a long way.

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