A pen is just a pen…or is it?

A pen isn’t just a pen. Not when Mark Graham holds it up. He looks at, studies it and holds it up in the air for the audience to see.

“This is exciting!” he says. Tonight, everything Mark talks about is exciting. Pens are not just a product. They are his product. And a pen isn’t just a product — it’s a story — a story about what it takes to produce it and customize it for his customers. If he’s passionate about his products, he’s really excited when he talks about his customers.

At 34 years old Mark, the president of Rightsleeve.com, he has a wisdom beyond his years — and he’s discovered the the real secret to success. It’s this. “Love what you do.”

If you lived through the 90’s where greed was good, or the tech bubble when things were “built to flip” or if you’ve thought about those whose greed and stupidity dragged us into this recession, Mark is a breath of fresh air.

Like people who love what they do, he’s not just playing the game. He’s changing the game.

He’s doing it using technology to advance his strategy. So that’s why he was here tonight, speaking to a group of strategy consultants in CMC Canada’s Strategy special interest group. In addition to my duties as chair of the Toronto chapter, I also chair this group, which I helped found. I love it. It’s where you can meet people who are changing the game.

But back to Mark — and how he’s using technology so well. Because he is using it very well.

There’s a lot of hype about social networking, open source, web 2.0 — the technology industry has never met a buzzword it didn’t over-hype. What’s rare are good examples of how these buzzwords can be used practically to advance your business in new and exciting ways. That’s where Mark comes in.

I met him at a seminar weeks ago. He was there, on a panel with representatives of the big vendors who were spouting the usual blah, blah, blah — buy our products you’ll be the next internet sensation, we love small business, blah, blah, blah. Sorry guys, but my business isn’t going to be energized because I buy your server versus somebody else’s. And it was also a breath of fresh air to hear someone who could say open source without being condescending. It’s hard to take people seriously when everything is a sales pitch for their product.

Mark wasn’t selling us his solution. He simply explained what he’d done, the challenges he’d faced and the results that he’d achieved. No hype. Just a guy who loves what he does.

That sort of thing has real credibility. So when Mark talks, you have to listen. And I did. Along with the rest of the room tonight. In fact, I made notes. Here’s some of the tips that picked up from Mark:

Use technology to foster conversations about important things:

Mark’s open source systems allow him flexibility to dream and adapt — and he’s used that ability to facilitate conversations about things that are important. He has taken a page (literally) from social networking applications like facebook and twitter. He’s uses these to keep people in his company up to date on key activities.

The important words here are key activities. Mark was smart enough to take the essence of social networking, not just adding some features from another application. What makes it work is that they made a conscious choice of what things were most valuable and these are selected and displayed as part of their own in house news feed. By focusing on the information that has the most value — people in his company watch it. Contrast that with what appears on most social networking sites.

There is a law called Sturgeon’s Law and it says that 90% of everything is crap. So if you cut through that and go to what is really valuable, you provide a real service — especially in these days when everybody is overloaded.

Activities, events — new clients, orders and prospects — all of these conveniently packaged, shared and used to make sure everyone knows what is going on and can contribute. I immediately thought of virtual enterprises, like our own company. We have people all over the country, sometimes all over the world. We could use this to keep everyone up to date — even though they aren’t in the office.

Hmmm.

Here’s another great idea that Mark talked about which is close to my heart. Jim Collins, the renowned business writer says there are three things that go into a strategy. You need passion and you need to know what you can do better than anyone else in the world. Mark’s got those covered. But Collins says there’s a third thing — you need to really understand the metrics that drive your business. Sounds easy, but even if they get it (which I doubt) few companies understand it. They publish reams of data or none at all. They don’t give the vital few pieces of information that guide their employees to understand what they have to do on a day by day basis to help fulfill the company’s strategy.

Mark’s company has a great approach to this as well. For example, he has a great little application which shows a sales person what their commission is going to be on each and every sale. So they can see how they are doing constantly. Motivation 101. But Mark’s company goes a step further and guides them with costs so that they can see the profitability of the sale. Sales people know what they can and can’t do. And….there’s more. Operations people are also plugged in with data they need. They can see the orders that are coming in — again in real time. They can sort it by supplier to make sure they can cover multiple orders at one time. Everyone is up to date. The old “sales/operations” feuds are reduced, if not eliminated.

I do a lot of process transformation work using something called Lean. It’s a way to radically improve customer satisfaction, quality and efficiency (yes, you can have all three).

Lean is customer centric. It says that any process that doesn’t generate value to the customer is a waste. It also says that you find ways see all inefficiency and waste. One way to avoid waste is to eliminate mistakes before they happen instead of trying to catch them in the “quality control” steps.

So picture this. Some of Mark’s customers can have their own web-site to order goods. Their standards for orders are place on the each order page — right down to the exact description of the company colours in technical terms. This is important. Companies spend an enormous amount of money on their branding. They want consistency, quality and above all — accuracy. By making all of this visible and having a preset group of items for a company on their own web store, Mark’s company eliminates the potential for error AND increases the efficiency of the process. It’s not rocket science, it’s just damn good process design — enabled by a very friendly, customer focused technology.

But Mark’s approach, like Lean, is not just about efficiency. It’s about a relentless focus on what is of value to the customer. It’s a way to really engage your customer. Once again, Mark is using technology to help. He opens up his site to allow customers to participate. For instance, his customers can comment directly on products they have bought.

That’s where this is about more than technology. It’s about courage. If you only ask questions where you know that you’ll like the answer, you are not really listening. But if you take a chance and ask — people will tell you what they really think. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes its not.

Many companies shy away from real discussions with their customers because they don’t want to face the reality of dealing with issues. How many times have you heard those programmed words, “is there anything else I can do to help you?” when the “customer service” person you are talking to in some far distant land hasn’t helped you at all?

Mark’s people pounce on customer problems and address them. Why not? They are on the customer’s side. If the products tare substandard, they want them fixed or they want them off the list. When you really feel this way, you will have the courage to ask — in public — “what do you think?”

The added bonus is that your customers trust each other more than they will any sales person. Getting that real information adds value to the shopping experience.

This honest is the best way to engage your customers. My favourite saying about customers is from a book called “The Cluetrain Revolution” and it’s as fresh now as it was almost 10 years ago when I read it. It says that “Elvis was right. We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.” In so many companies today, Elvis has truly left the building.

As a strategic consultant, I think one of the best questions that I like to ask is “what do you want people to say about you when you leave the room?” Then I set out to help the client make that happen. Hey, did I say strategy was hard? It’s not — it’s doing it that’s hard.

Conversations in the age of social networking are no longer person to person. They are one to many, thanks to networks like twitter, facebook, Linked In and a host of others. If you can get people to say good things about the company you can get incredible coverage. How do you do that? Easy — well not exactly easy. If you want people to say great things about you or your company, you have to do things that they value. If you have an event, you have to make it a great one so that if someone is on twitter, and followed by thousands of people, their twitter message will say — having a great time @ Rightsleeve.com party. In fact, that has happened.

Doing the small things right. Relentlessly pursuing a dynamite customer experience. Having the creativity and flair to make your message distinct and worth telling. Those are the real tools of using social networks effectively — not just technology. And whether it’s giving out Rightsleeve.com underwear or his hysterical YouTube video with the tag line “friends don’t let friends buy bad promo” — everything is aimed at the customer experience.

To paraphrase my earlier question, the issue is to understand “what do you want people to say about you when they are engaging their social networks?” Then make it possible for them to say that in a way that’s fun and interesting.

Right down to his blog, Mark takes that approach. As a blogger myself, I wish his three rules which he shared were universal:

- write it yourself
– be authentic
– have fun

Notice that “mention your product” is not on the list. Be yourself. Be authentic. Have fun.

And when you do that, even a pen becomes exciting. And it’s rewarding for everyone. And I’ve always maintained that this is good for the bottom line. I won’t tell any tales out of school, but Mark’s company appears to be defying any of the trends that you are seeing in the papers. Sales are up and the company is growing profitably. And that, too, is exciting.

What can I say? Sometimes the good guys win.

I had a great time.

Thanks Mark.

Mark Graham’s company is called Rightsleeve.com and they go in to my “mission statement hall of fame” because you can actually tell what they do from what they say they do. RIGHTSLEEVE.COM uses design, promotional media and technology to deliver outstanding marketing results.

Check them out! I don’t think you’ll regret it.

1 Comment

Filed under Social Media, Social Networking, Strategy, Technology

One response to “A pen is just a pen…or is it?

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | Change the game…

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