Smart Tips for better customer feedback

My latest post, 6 Smart Tips for Better Customer feedback, is now on the Inc.com website!

Three of the tips are:

1. Keep customer support in-house and staffed by smart people.

2. Initiate customer conversations yourself.

3. Test constantly.

To read more about them, check out the article.

 

Loyalty for Shopping Sites

At Shop It To Me, we interview people all of the time about their shopping habits, and with the exception of maybe Amazon, there currently really is no one major player among pure shopping search sites.

When someone wants to search for an item or shop for an item, they either shop a number of individual retailers or go to google and do a search.    Yes, shopping aggregator sites like Nextag, Shopzilla and Shopping.com get millions of users coming to their site, but for the most part their traffic is derived from some variant of Google search results.   Google “black trousers” and I promise you’ll see at least one of theses sites in your search results.  They’re awesome at figuring out how to be the top result.   But the relationship is really between the user, Google and the end retailer.   If Google one day swaps one of these aggregators for another the user doesn’t care, let alone notice.

And while ‘Loyalty’ and “Cash Rebate” sites have people coming directly, the customer’s loyalty is to the rebate — not the actual site.  That customer may come now,  but they’ll also be the first to leave when a retailer or another competitor has a better rebate or discount.

Shopping queries account for a substantial percentage of all searches, and while we have solutions for “searches for people” (LinkedIn/Facebook), Travel (Kayak),  Restaurants (Yelp) and general information (Google) we have no great solution for products.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to build a shopping experience (site, mobile, email) with real loyalty.  A site that people will actually access directly as opposed to via the search engine and will give customers real value.

To do this, I believe we need to rethink how shopping sites work altogether.  The site that gains people’s long term loyalty will be the one that optimizes the relationship as opposed to just optimizing the transaction.  It will be the place you go because it gets you;  it knows what you want, what you like, what you crave.  It will be the place that looks out for your best interest.  Going anywhere else would be a waste of your time and money.

At Shop It To Me, we’re building a next generation platform that I believe can one day realize that vision.  We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way and I’m really excited about the progress we have made so far!

And if you want to help us make this a reality, join us!

First Impressions

At Shop It To Me, we are constantly experimenting.  It’s one of our core values.  In fact, as of this morning, we have 24 different A/B experiments running on different parts of our site.    Each week we probably add anywhere from 1-5 new experiments to our testing pool (and take out 1-5 old ones).  We experiment not only with small features but big ones too.  At any given time have 1-2 completely new products that we are testing with a subset of our users.

But unlike a lot of companies who announce any new feature or product, we don’t announce even our biggest products when we first put them into the wild.   Even though we have press asking for new things and we could get a great “usage spike”  we actually tell our PR team not to talk about them until the time is right.

The problem is, until you have nailed the product, a press “spike” is just a spike.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of the “stealth company” technique — companies that promote that they are doing something amazing but won’t tell you what they are doing.  I think these companies actually set such high expectations it is really hard for the user to beat them.

But I am a fan of not announcing a new product until we are pretty sure it is a hit.  Why?  I am a big believer in the disproportionate power of first impressions.  Humans are hard-wired as a species to take a tiny bit of data and extrapolate big decisions/impressions from it.    It’s leftover from when our ancestors had to quickly decide if a creature is predator or prey, and it is still in almost all of our decision making.

We make significant long-term, big decisions based on only on a first impression all the time.  Have a terrible first date and there’s a pretty high chance you will give up before going on a second one (even though even your “soul mate” and you are likely going to have bad days together).  Try out a new restaurant and have a bad service experience and you likely won’t ever return — even if they later get great service reviews.   And in business, start off a presentation poorly and much of your audience likely stopped listening  (and will rate it poorly) even if remaining 80% is amazing.

Remember that before spending loads of money announcing your next product. If someone tries your product and just likes it (or thinks it is mediocre), you have likely given them the permanent impression that your product is just OK.  They won’t return.  On the other hand, get a user to have an “I LOVE THIS!” first impression, they often will still have positive impression years later.  We’ve seen this time and again —  our best users are the ones who found something they wanted to buy in their first emails.

So before we turn on the PR machine for a new release and send it to all of our users, we make sure that almost anyone who sees the product is going to have a great first impression — such a good impression that they want to keep using it (and hopefully tell their friends).   How?  We spend months usability testing the heck out of it —  constantly tweaking it with user-testers and thousands of random users and friends and family-members and even random people we recruit off the street (yes we’ve done that).  And we learn from them and make the changes that gets their reactions from “Meh” to “Like” to “Love” (a subject of a future post).

So while we may lose some “brand-awareness” and short term traffic from multiple product releases, we more than make up for it by having a product that for most people feels “pretty awesome” right from the start.

 

Blue Oceans

In my previous post I talked about how having a focus is super important to a product’s success.  The question comes, what to focus on?

Here’s one angle.

I have been a big fan of Kim & Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy since I first read it in 2008.  If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to get it.  The basic premise is well known.  Instead of competing on the same attributes for the same customers as everyone else (i.e. red ocean), go after the customer who is not served and focus on the attributes most important to them.     For example, take Southwest, who carved out a great business for themselves by competing not with other airlines, but for the customers who normally take buses and trains.  And there are dozens of other examples of companies who got their first foothold going after markets that did not really exist beforehand (Honda and racing motorcycles, AirBNB and the home-owner willing to rent on a nightly basis, Salesforce and small sales teams without IT resources).

When I started working on Shop It To Me in 2004, buying apparel online impulsively was a blue-ocean.  Online shopping at the time was optimized for planned purchases — electronics, books and DVDs. Comparison shopping sites ruled the day and few people (women included) thought of it as a place to buy clothing and certainly not impulsively.  I believe a 2004 survey showed that 75% of women would never buy clothing online because of fit issues.  Sites like Gilt Groupe did not exist; apparel retailers were still looking at the Internet as an experiment, and designer brands often did not even have a website let alone a store.   Investors looked at our service — a free personal shopper that would get people to buy items they didn’t plan on buying that day — as a novelty.  Who would buy clothing on impulse without being able to try it on?  47 of the 50 investors I pitched turned me down — mostly because they did not think impulse apparel purchases was a big enough market.

Today the impulse shopping space is a complete red-ocean. Hundreds of companies are trying to be in the “discovery” or “sample sale” space.   The fact Shop It To Me launched and built out our site before these sites existed gave us a huge advantage.  We were different and were able to build out our brand identity before the space got crowded.  It allowed us to grow our user base and leverage that base to make our future products even better.   Had we started now, we likely might not have separated from the noise.

When you think about the market you are in, instead of blindly going after the same customers everyone else is going after with the same features and attributes,  step back and think — who is NOT using the product?  Who is underserved?  Who do all of the competitors overlook because they are just not profitable enough?   What do those people value the most and what product would best suit them?    If you see an opportunity, sacrifice the “good users” and go headstrong into this new market instead.   Focus on just the attributes that will help those people and get them to pay up.  Keep building and take that market away.    The entrenched players won’t be able to compete and you may end up the leader of a new market bigger than the one that currently exists.

Focus: What is your product going to be awesome at?

One of the most important things to do when you are building a product of any size is to focus.   Pick the few things you are going to be amazing at and the many things you will not be.  It’s hard, but it’s the only way to succeed.

Try to be great at everything and you’ll end up with a mediocre product.  Focus on one thing to be great at and you have a chance to dominate your competition.  Why?  You can align your entire company (sales, marketing, product, dev) on just one goal and therefore do it so well nobody can compete.

Take Google Search.  Since their launch their focus has always been one thing:  Get you an answer to your question as fast as possible.  Their home page doesn’t have ads or news or anything but one big search field.  Most of the features they add have traditionally been about making that better.  Or take Walgreens. They don’t have the best selection or the lowest prices.  But they succeed because they are the most convenient with stores on pretty much every corner.  They’ll pay up to be on every street corner so that at the moment you need something you first come to them.

When we are thinking of building out a new product, I generally ask three questions: Where do we want to Win? Where are we just going to Play (and be just good enough)? And where are we purposely going to Lose (and let someone else win)?  A great product will have all three.

At Shop It To Me, we want to win on personalization — understanding you, the consumer, like nobody else  and then showing you the most personally relevant items on sale.  And almost everything we do reflects that.  We launched first in a category (clothing) where personalization is super-important.  We require all of our users to tell us all of their individual preferences before they can sign up.  We have invested in sophisticated technology to figure out which sizes a retailer has available each morning and which are sold out so that your email only has items in your size.

When it comes to personalization — we purposely do the hard stuff.  Our system knows which items you have seen before so you don’t get duplicates and even tries to guess items and sales you might like based on not only your behavior but the preferences of others like you. We send millions of emails every day and each one is different —  individually personalized for its recipient.  It’s the reason why my mom, my wife and my teenage cousin can each feel like the Shop It To Me emails they receive are “just for them”.

To keep this focus, we are willing to give up on winning other things: We don’t have a celebrity promoting us; our site is pleasing but there are many that are prettier; we don’t include fashion advice or content in our emails;  our item pictures are good but definitely not the best.

And for many things that are critical to most shopping sites,  we are willing to lose completely:  we don’t play SEM arbitrage and our SEO is terrible.  Why?  None of these matter for a personalized product.  In fact, they hurt it.  Instead of optimizing for a transaction, we want to build a long-standing relationship with our users — and that requires a different type of interaction and focus.

In fact, I believe it is our unending focus on a personalized shopping experience that lets us succeed and thrive in a crowded marketplace.    While some companies have made personalization a feature (and are trying to shortcut it by guessing based on what you clicked or optionally asking you) — we have made it our core which means when it comes to building a product “just for you”, we can beat them every time.

So my question for you product managers out there:  What do you want to be awesome at?

How we celebrate the little things

Running a startup is definitely an emotional roller-coaster ride.  You are going to have really good days (like when you are featured on The Today Show) and a bunch of down days as well.

Your product development will always be much slower than you want;  you’ll put your heart into product changes you think are great but the customer balks at (or even worse, doesn’t notice).   You’ll put in an experiment “destined to win” until it meets the real world where it promptly loses by a large margin.  And as you go through the meandering customer development process of  learning what exactly the customer wants, it will feel like your  company is going nowhere.   Add that all up and if you are only waiting for the end goal it will feel  like it will never come.

So how do you stay optimistic and keep moving forward?

At Shop It To Me, instead of only celebrating the final goal, we make an effort to celebrate the little things.   We release new functionality weekly, and with every weekly release comes a mini-celebration (“Beer-Thirty”) — reveling in what was accomplished that week, the hard work that was put in, and the fact the product is (almost always) better than the week before.  We celebrate that we put the experiments in and found out the results even if they weren’t the results we actually wanted.

And we’ve been experimenting with another way of celebrating too — the “mini-milestone”.   Each product team comes up with a set of small milestones that are achievable in about a month’s time.  The milestones are not guaranteed to happen, but likely if everyone works hard (   examples include a set of features or experiments included or a metric goal that shows we are making some progress.) Each time we achieve a milestone. the team is given a small allotment ($250 or $500) to spend on the company and celebrate that milestone — they get to pick how.    The celebrations are usually not that big —  examples include a fancy brunch for the company or a Nespresso machine  — but so far the result has been super positive.  The team gets recognized for the work they have done, the entire company sees that progress is being made towards reaching our bigger goals, and after each celebration the teams are more motivated than ever to be hosting the next one.

I’m Back, Baby!

I’m Back, Baby!

Hi again!

As you probably can infer from the title, I am going to start blogging regularly again, my wife and I now are proud parents of a cute baby girl, and I am a fan of double entendres/puns.

The last year has been crazy, becoming a first-time parent and setting up a whole bunch of new initiatives at Shop It To Me,  some of which are now in our system, some we hope to launch soon, and some which will never see the light of day.   It has been a crazy-fun ride  and I hope to relay as many insights as I can in a nifty once-a-week format.

I’ll be writing about these experiences — starting and running Shop It To Me, a successful eCommerce company in the Internet-hot SOMA region of San Francisco, so expect posts on commerce, startups, product management, user-psychology, and being a dad.

Stay tuned!

How we get rid of Resume Spam

At Shop It To Me, we recently posted some new job openings on our website (for a Ruby Engineer, an Office Manager and some interns).

Unfortunately, when we post the jobs on job boards or public networks, we usually get a few great candidates and hundreds of people who send us what I call “Resume SPAM”.  These are usually people who are either not qualified for the job, and/or not interested in us in particular — they’re interested in a job.  They make a generic version of their resume and cover letter and blast it to every job opening. We actually have had a few who have accidentally sent us a cover letter saying “My dream job is to work for…”, but forgot to change a competitor’s name with ours…

If you are currently helping out with hiring, you probably have seen the same thing — a couple interesting candidates who take the time to show interest in your company, and a whole bunch who are basically looking for any job and basically sending out resume SPAM to every job.

Here’s how we handle it:

Rather than having a team of people weed out the SPAM, we post a puzzle or question on every application, and ask the candidate to solve it and put their answer. The question has three qualifications:  it can be done in about 15-20 minutes, it is relevant to the job, and ideally it is fun to do for the right candidate.   The answer not only tells us whether or not they are qualified, but also whether they care enough about working for us (or like the puzzle enough) to apply.   We can quickly select out the good candidates from the quality of their answers.  Anyone who does not answer the question or does not answer adequately is removed from consideration.

To give you a few examples,  our Office Manager must be able to be a self-starter and figure out complex issues,  so the question on the application is:

Please research and tell us:  What are the minimum employee benefits for a 15 person company located in the city of San Francisco? How does that change for a 25 person company? And, for a bonus, how is that different from a 125 person company?

On our Ruby Software Engineer job posting, we make them both solve the  Ruby puzzle below and an assignment (which is too long to list here). A good Ruby developer should be able to do both in under 15 minutes.

you=%W(SMART RUBY RAILS DEV LOOKIN FOR FUN TEAM COOL PROJECTS MILLIONS OF AVID FANS CHANGE THE WORLD );
answer = you.sort!.inject(you[12] + " "){|a,b| a+(b<"FREE"|| "REDUCE" < b || b.length < 3 ? "": b.gsub("AI", "ACE").gsub("ON","CAFFEINE").gsub(/E.T./,"UFO")[4-a.length..4-a.length])}
puts answer

If you are applying for a job (particularly with Shop It To Me), here is how to get noticed.

1) Write a custom cover letter to us that talks about things unique to our company.  We always read the cover letter and can tell if it is generic. Do some research on us and see if this is the right place for you to work.

2) Spend time to solve the puzzles in the application if they exists.  It shows you care and will be somewhat similar to the challenges you will have on the job.  If you don’t like the puzzles, don’t apply.

3) If possible, network your way into the company via a friend you know here or a friend of a friend.  Referrals are always the best ways to get into a new company. (You still need to do the puzzles though!)

4) And if you are applying for a job at Shop It To Me and are reading this, good for you!  Tell us  “I am excited about Friday waffle and fresh juice breakfasts”  somewhere in your cover letter.  That way we’ll at least know you are doing some research on us…

 

The Beginning….

We’re live!

After about a month of waiting, iamcharliegraham.com is now live. As some of you have requested, here are my rants and raves about entrepreneurship, Product Management, Shop It To Me, and eCommerce. Enjoy and please join in the conversation!

–Charlie