Use the phone to save hours of travel

Yesterday I could have arranged to travel to three face-to-face interviews for articles I am writing. The travel alone would have taken 3.5 hours. This morning I’ve just finished a 20-minute telephone interview that would have required a further 1.5-hour journey. Now when there are deadlines to meet, I just can’t spare that time.

I agree that face-to-face meetings can be valuable and enjoyable; I always enjoy guided tours of businesses I write about. Sometimes it is necessary to get a really thorough understanding through a visit, but this isn’t always the case. It’s like the TV news reporter standing outside 10 Downing Street on a dark, cold, rainy night relaying the news that nothing has happened back to the studio presenter who is probably more informed on the topic: they add nothing, but expend a lot of energy being there.

I’ve been conducting telephone interviews and doing research by email for many years. When working at British Airways, I used to compile a weekly report based on telexed information from cities around the world. Often it was all I had to go on.

Now I know that some people are wary of talking on the phone, even though nearly everyone working has a mobile these days. I was lucky enough to have excellent telephone training when I worked at British Airways, so I’ve always been comfortable talking to anyone remotely.

Sometimes when I suggest a telephone interview, people sound reticent. I like to give them some advance warning to get their thoughts together. When we come to do the interview, what is important is to make the subject feel comfortable, to ask questions that draw information out of them, to listen to their answers and build on these to ask further questions. Before they know it, they are talking away enthusiastically and telling an interesting story: just what I need for an article.

I can’t understand why some people don’t use the phone more but insist on travelling to meetings. I complete most of my work through remote collaboration. In fact, we never meet 90% of our clients, but still develop long-lasting relationships with them.

I am sure that many businesses and other organisations could improve efficiency and save time through better use of phone, internet and other communications technology, especially when transport costs are soaring.

Is there still a need for face-to-face meetings? Yes, and there always will be, but I think a lot more could be accomplished remotely.

What do you think?

Posted via email from z2zine

Make it easy

With businesses pumping out so much information in press releases, newsletters, blogs and tweets, how much of it is clear?

Clarity is important when readers have so much to read. If they can’t understand something, it needs to be very important for them to take the time to re-read it or contact you for clarification. Most likely they won’t bother and will move on to the next item, possibly from a competitor. If that is easy to read and understand, you’ll have lost out.

When you’re close to your business, you understand the complexities: how everything fits together. It won’t be so clear to someone who doesn’t know your business. Often, people give up if they find something confusing.

Sometimes it isn’t necessary for customers to know about complex issues which are important to the internal processes of your business. If that’s the case, don’t mention them or you’ll add unnecessary complexity.

Where you do have to mention complexity, such as different brands or subsidiaries dealing with different products or services, make sure that these are explained clearly. If not, customers won’t know who to contact about what and they could feel it is easier to go to a competitor.

Why am I writing this? Because I am trying to write about a company which appears to have a similar sister company offering a similar product and I have had to ask them to clarify the set-up. Not everyone would bother to ask.

Are they interested in what you’re interested in?

When you’ve got something you want to tell the rest of the world, it’s easy to rattle on enthusiastically about what you find interesting, usually something of great value to your business. But how do you know if a journalist or editor will find it interesting too?

Even large organisations and public relations agencies sometimes forget to ask this.

A call to a journalist, if they’re accessible, can confirm what, if anything, will interest them in your story, while familiarity with a publication can help you to tailor your press release, article or other news snippet to its specific readership.

If you’re managing your own PR, you can do this yourself. If you pay an agency, make sure that they are tailoring releases to targeted media.

It’s worth doing, as if you’re going to send out press releases, or pay someone else to write and send them out, you’ll get better value for money if your news has a chance of actually being published.

Posted via web from z2zine

Was it 25 years ago I first published marketing material online?

In 1985 British Airways promoted me to the grand position of Sales Information Officer. What did that mean? I don’t think anyone knew. I wasn’t sure myself.

In fact, we were a small department, a colleague and I, who had been recruited to develop the BA Prestel site into an online catalogue. Prestel was the British Telecom videotext system (like Ceefax and Oracle) but more flexible and responsive. 95% of UK travel agents used it to book package tours. BA decided that, as agents already used the system, it should develop its own site to sell scheduled air travel services to agents.

And so we set about developing what grew into a 7,000-screen online brochure with full details of the product illustrated by heavily pixelated diagrams and illustrations. I spent months creating fares tables and editing fare rules for every fare BA sold for travel from the UK to its worldwide destinations. I think the fares section ran to 2,000 pages.

British Airways Prestel: Robert Zarywacz
An article in BA’s TOPICall magazine from way back in 1985.

What seemed amazing at the time was to be able to upload pages from our PC network (an IBM AT PC with a 20MB hard disk linked to two twin-floppy IBM XT PCs) via modem down an ordinary telephone line. It seemed magical that one second the page was on my PC and the next it was accessible for anyone to view on Prestel.

It all seemed so exciting. People could even send us messages, which we printed off on a thermal printer.

But Prestel was not the way forward. Few in the airline saw its potential and both my colleague and I eventually moved to other jobs in BA.

We had been 10 years too early. Later, as the internet developed and web sites appeared, I realised that we had built a massive web site before anyone knew what it was.

I also learned a lot about writing for the small screen, on-screen attention spans and other tips that would stand me in good stead as the world moved online.

It may have been crude compared with today’s technology, but it was exciting for us as we made the rules up as we went along.

Posted via web from z2zine

NDBA Business Action magazine available online

We are pleased to publish Business Action magazine on behalf of the North Devon Business Alliance (NDBA), the voice of North Devon Business.

The North Devon Business Alliance has been established by experienced North Devon business owners and executives to represent the interests of all businesses in the area and, through supporting existing businesses and encouraging start-ups, to develop the full potential of the local economy.

It has been formed by businesses in North Devon to champion business in North Devon and wants the area’s economy to thrive so everyone can enjoy the benefits of living and working in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

The magazine is being formally launched on Friday 28 May 2010 at an NDBA event in Bishop’s Tawton, North Devon where printed copies will be available.

Keeping up with change

Sometimes it’s easy to think that everything is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with every new development. While there certainly is lots of change, when you look closely often the fundamentals have not changed much, if at all.

In terms of communication, that is certainly true. There are so many twitter and social media tools being launched, some of them very useful, that deciding which ones to use can be a challenge. I know I can’t use them all so I decide which ones offer the features I want and are easy to use.

Ultimately, all these tools are there only to help us communicate effectively. Knowing what we want to say and how to say it so that other people understand us remains the primary task. Everything else is secondary. Yes, tools can boost efficiency and effectiveness, but if the signal we send out is garbled, all they will do is amplify confusion.


What’s the story?

What I find exciting about journalism is when I ask someone about their business and they casually drop what seems to them a trivial fact into the conversation which everyone else finds remarkable. Often they don’t realise their own achievements and are surprised at your interest. You ask them more questions to reveal a fascinating story.

It doesn’t always happen that way. So many press releases don’t have a story, which is a waste as someone has spent time writing it or paid a PR person or agency to write it when it is very unlikely be considered for publication.

Most businesses have a story somewhere: the reason they were started, their struggle to develop a unique product, amazing export achievements or performance that bettered all usual expectations. There’s a good chance that personal achievement will play a big part in it too.

So I’m on the lookout for good business stories.

If a picture can paint a thousand words . . .

. . . why are they all questions?


What is that? Where is it? When was it? Why was it there? What was the point? Who did it? Is it still there? Is that an inflatable? What gas was used to inflate it? Who chose the colours? Where did it come from? Will it be there again? Is that a mountain or a hill? Is it inland or on the coast? What are those brown patches on the hill/mountain?

That’s already 15 questions in just 72 words, so just think how many questions you could ask in a thousand words.

So does that mean words are more effective for communicating than pictures?

Of course not: both are useful in different ways. A picture or photograph can grab attention specifically because people want to find out more about a stunning image. For example, the BBC England website news page often has an ‘England’s Big Picture’ feature showing a partial image to tease viewers into opening it up to see if it is what they think it is. Stunning photography or images that tease can be useful in PR and marketing to attract people to read accompanying text.

In the same way, intriguing headlines can grab readers’ attention so that they read an accompanying article or text. News papers and websites make imaginative use of words in this way and, within reason, press releases and articles can do the same, as long as they do not mislead.

So what are more effective: words or pictures?

Neither. When applied with skill, one will not be more effective but will complement the other. If anything, a great photo will be let down by lousy writing, while a well-written article can be buried by poor illustration or layout.

When they work well together, the reader won’t take any notice of the composition of a photograph or style of writing but be totally engrossed in the message they convey.

That’s certainly our aim.

Are you on benefits?

Every now and then a word gets into my bad books.

At the moment, it’s ‘benefits’.

This is a shame, because it’s not such a bad word and originally meant a kind deed or something well done. Then one day people like me got hold of it. Copywriters grabbed it, bundled it together with ‘features’ and tossed both into copy for brochures, press releases and other marketing and PR materials.

The kind, friendly element was drowned by the dressing to ensure the ‘you must buy it because it’ll be so good for you’ message always got through. “Forget features, sell the benefits,” people say.

The more I look at the original meaning, the more I like the word. Perhaps what I don’t like is the approach to marketing that reduces everything to a formula, which when applied automatically tends to fall flat. (Thinks back to weigh up own guilt.)

Another use of the word, to describe state social security payments, hasn’t helped either. With a stronger attachment to the failure of government systems rather than the relief given to genuine claimants, the poor word doesn’t stand a chance.

Now I regret it being in my bad books. I want to like benefits again and restore its benign impact, but this means working harder to find better ways of talking about features and _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ .


Who shot the customer?

It’s that time of year when businesses want to sell . . . by direct mail, by phone, email and online. I’m hearing from businesses I haven’t heard from since the previous January and some I’ve never heard from before.

Some of them are eager to sell, some are very keen and some sound desperate.

So many sales and marketing messages . . . on twitter, in unsolicited emails and phone calls . . . tell me I need to redesign my web site. Why? No one asks how much business our web sites generate? Some even ask if we have a web site – fail for research, chaps.

Now I don’t mind people contacting us if they’re reasonable and prepared to have a reasonable chat, but the caller who wanted to tell me how he could help us develop our business just would not answer my repeated question: “What is the point of your call?” So I ended it politely.

From pressing the top 10 reasons why I need to do one thing to telling me why doing something else will make me so much money, these people don’t realise that beating up your potential customer is not a good start.

We all need to buy products and services and sometimes we need to change suppliers or improve what we’re already doing, but frightening us to death with horror stories doesn’t build a relationship . . . especially when we can see straight through the sales patter: a dead customer can’t pay an invoice.

Please can all sales people and marketers realise that, while usually I don’t mind someone identifying my genuine needs and offering methods to fulfil these, I get angry when forced to buy at gunpoint.

Am I the only one?

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