Advertising Home Listings the Wrong Way

In this past weekend’s National Post, there was a listing for a home which read as follows:

The overall real estate market may be down by about 33%, but that’s not the case in Toronto’s central core, says real estate agent Kevin Loberg.

In 2009, 613 homes sold for more than $1-million. In 2010, 825 sales homes have sold in the same price range. That’s an increase of almost 35%, Mr. Loberg says.

Twenty-four Gardiner Rd. is on a 51×128 foot lot in the central core’s Forest Hill neighbourhood.

Custom-designed by Richard Wengle, the 4,515-square-foot home has an additional 1,640 square feet on the lower level. A stone fireplace in the living room, a combination kitchen and breakfast room and a walkout to a stone patio from the family room and foyer are features of the four-bedroom, six-bathroom home.

The home has hardwood and stone floors, walk-in closets and a sauna.

I haven’t seen the home. I have no idea what it really looks like inside, outside, or how it compares to other homes on the street. I have no idea what other similar homes have been selling for in recent months.

I do know that this home is over-priced.

The listing didn’t have much room to describe the features of the house. As such, one might expect the broker to put as much emphasis into the value of the house as possible. Instead, the broker spent the first two paragraphs talking about the market in general. That’s 40% of the listing.

As a seller, I might be interested to know what other homes in a particular area have been selling for, and whether the prices in one area reflect the market in a larger area. As a buyer, this sounds like the seller knows the asking price is too high, and is trying to justify it.

When the seller has to convince you why the price is high before discussing the product being sold, it’s a warning sign. The seller has a confidence issue – they can’t even talk about the merits of the product until they prepare you for the high price based on factors completely separate from the actual product being sold.

What does this mean to you?

When you pitch a product to a customer, the price should not be relevant to the early parts of the discussion. The discussion should instead focus on the merits of the product or service, the value it contains, and only then should the price be explained. If a complicated explanation for a high price is still warranted, then your prices are simply too high for what you’re selling, or you’re selling to the wrong people.

Wells Fargo and How Not to Make Customers Happy

An associate of mine forwarded me an article regarding a recent ruling against Wells Fargo regarding overdraft fees. The essence of the complaint was as follows:

In 2001, Wells Fargo, the largest U.S. home lender, changed the way it treated daily debit transactions and cash withdrawals so that transactions with the highest dollar amount posted first, rather than in the order they occurred, according to the complaint. The practice, allegedly intended to boost revenue from overdraft fees, led to customers overdrawing accounts by small amounts multiple times a day, according to the complaint.

The reason this ruling was of such interest to my associate was because his own bank does the same thing. His transactions are put into effect by size, which he has been able to demonstrate by watching the order of the posting of the transactions change shortly after they first appear in his account history.

The explanation from Wells Fargo is that this practice was put into place for the benefit of the consumer, in that by having the largest transactions complete first, the likelihood of a significant withdrawal causing overdraft (e.g. mortgage or car payments) is reduced.

Whether or not Wells Fargo’s decision to implement such a transaction policy is actually based on improving customer service (as opposed to finding a way to increase fees to users as was claimed against them) is not the point of this article. What is the point is that by claiming this as the reason for the practice, the bank has implied that their policy is set by people completely detached from the reality of how people use banks, or by people incredibly stupid.

When a person makes a series of transactions, their assumption is that they will be completed in the order they were made. If this causes multiple overdrafts to be incurred, that is the problem of the account owner. If the bank really wanted to help out customers, the only transactions they would process out of order would be to do all deposits prior to doing the withdrawals (thereby reducing the chance of an overdraft fee being incurred).

Second, to truly help customers not incur overdrafts, the Wells Fargo might have looked at the number of overdraft fees incurred as a result of performing the transactions in chronological order, and compare it to the number of fees incurred were the transactions to be processed in the order of magnitude. Only then should a reordering of the transactions occur, if doing so would reduce the number of fees incurred by the customer.

What does this mean to you?

Simple – when trying to make a decision on behalf of a client for their benefit, don’t make assumptions about what the customer would rather have you do, but instead, do what the customer would assume you would do. If you don’t truly understand the impact of deviating from the expected behaviour, then don’t deviate.

When you change from the expected, be sure you understand the ramifications, or you can find yourself, like Wells Fargo, sitting in court defending your practice.

Changing the Attitude of a Demotivated Office

Do the clothes make the man? Perhaps not, but they can certainly change perceptions.

Recent discussions with a variety of office managers led me to the conclusion that perhaps, in a desire to have an open and comfortable environment, the lack of protocol in the offices exacerbated the issues with motivation. Protocol has a variety of components, including accepted arrival and departure times, accepted socializing, and dress code. While these and other aspects of office protocol are important, the one which is the subject of today’s article is dress code.

Some might say I’m not the ideal author of a policy on dress code. The average day will see me wearing dress pants and dress shirt, even when working from my home office. I’ll occasionally wear a polo shirt, or khaki pants, but rarely if a meeting with a client is anticipated. With a personal preference for more formal attire, I am certainly biased in that direction. However, I will attempt to justify my preference in such a way that you may gain insight from my opinions.

When showing up to an environment which tolerates apathy toward personal appearance, it is difficult to motivate yourself toward success. When your appearance reinforces the indifference of the office toward appearance, the appearance becomes the reality. After a while, when difficulties are encountered, it becomes increasingly difficult to find motivation.

While perhaps formal attire goes overboard, and certainly if employees are not being exposed to clients it becomes difficult to put an emphasis on dress, it is, nonetheless, a valid point of protocol. People looking at themselves in the office should see pride in their appearance, should exude a professional image.

They should also see work as a place that is not home.

Employees should be comfortable in their work environment, but that does not extend to include total indifference toward appearance. They should be aware, at least, that they are in an environment that has expectations from them, which does require their contributions to the best of their abilities. They should be aware that indifference and apathy are not desired traits, and that efforts are being made to reduce those.

Finally, if the office is suffering from a lack of motivation, changing the dress code can serve as a constant visual reminder that changes are underway, provided, of course, that other changes are being made. The visual reminder can put an emphasis on the new, an emphasis on the future.

Competition in a Commodity Market

A discussion around the office recently dealt with the problem of finding new clients for a business which deals in what has become a commodity over the last few years. With the ease of long-distance communication and availability of low-cost labor overseas, the development of websites has become, to some extent, a commodity. Certain types of websites now have a standard value against which any company vying for such business must measure themselves.

  • Want a blog? We’ll use WordPress with a nice theme, $250 tops.
  • Need a more powerful CMS? How about Drupal for $750, basic installation, $2,500 when you add in full shopping cart functionality with Ubercart.
  • Photo gallery? It’s just a plugin, $50.

While this is not to say there is no value in hiring local, it does force the local prices to conform to international standards, despite the differences in cost of living between the various locations of development shops. A repeated comment from clients is “But I could outsource it to India for a fraction of the price”.

The local shops must therefore learn to compete against companies that will constantly be able to underquote them, without short-changing themselves in the process. Lowering the prices won’t do – the bills here are not being lowered, salaries here are higher.

The local businesses must learn to sell themselves based on what sets them apart. If that’s difficult to define, then they must learn to create value in themselves that can be defined. When you compete against a commodity, you must base your marketing against what makes you better than the standard packages.

  • Clearer communication on account of no language gaps.
  • Conforming to accepted best practices in application development.
  • Additional SEO work both on and off page to increase the visibility of the client’s completed project.
  • Larger basic packages without a proportional increase in price (that is, lower margins on the extras).

Is your target market being turned into a commodity? What can you offer that sets you apart? How will you continue to bring value to your clients that justifies your higher fees?

Pricing in Training and Fitness

Having now seen such a system for training twice in one industry, I decided that perhaps I was not witnessing an anomaly, but rather, yet another example of an industry abusing its power.

Being able to instruct a class in fitness requires training, and there are certifications available for a variety of types of instructors. The pricing of the courses generally reflects the amount of effort required to become proficient at the content. As a result, the basic instruction course can be completed in a matter of weeks for a few hundred dollars, and will allow the student to teach a variety of general courses. Yoga, on the other hand, takes years of training and multiple courses, but once complete, again will allow the student to teach Yoga.

However, there are also a variety of specialty courses which are taught by individual gyms or fitness centers, and here’s where pricing becomes abusive.

An independent fitness center can offer any course it wants, and it can require special training. As an example, boot camps will typically train their instructors in their own system, though they do acknowledge and recognize training recieved at other boot camps. Other systems, though, are truly unique to the facility offering the course, and the training does not really have any comparable application elsewhere.

What is this training worth?

Considering that it only has application at a single facility, the answer would be that it’s worth a minimal amount. If the trainee does not get a job at that facility, the investment is worthless. It would be expected, then, that the training have a negligible fee attached, or a guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the training.

Neither part of that is true. The training in one case would cost over $1,800 over the course of 6 months, with no assurances of employment.

What the managers of these facilities must learn is that while getting certified does not create any assurance of reward, it is expected to have a potential benefit that is proportional to the risk taken on by the trainee to acquire the certification.

What does this mean to you?

When you price a product, you need to balance the cost of the product against the value it creates for the buyer, especially in a service-based product. If there are raw costs, you can factor those in, but at the end of the day, if the price of the product is more than the value it creates, then it will be difficult to find a buyer who is ultimately satisfied.

In general, your pricing should be proportional to the value, but still less. That is, if you create $100 of value, then the price should not be $100, but less than that. In that way, your buyers will leave feeling they got good value, creating satisfied customers who will refer you to others, and return to buy more.

Starbucks Experience and Tim Hortons Taste

There are two general attitudes toward creating an addictive customer, the kind who will come back and buy your product repeatedly. On the one side, we have the creation of an experience, on the other, the creation of a good product. To make this easier to relate to, I’m going to compare two large coffee chains, and their attitudes toward their own product.

Starbucks Experience

I’m not a regular customer at Starbucks, because I don’t like their coffee. I find it to be overly strong, as if it were roasted too long. As I’m into my coffee (I often roast my own at home), and I drink coffee for its wakening effects, I’m not going to frequent a shop that serves a product I don’t like.

Others, however, will continue going to buy their coffee at Starbucks, despite the fact that they readily admit that the coffee is not great. They return, however, for the experience. At Starbucks, the ordering, serving, and drinking the coffee is about the culture, the environment in which it takes place. The product itself will take a back seat to the experience, and there are certainly people who will pay for that.

Several years ago, before I got married and I was dating frequently, I became familiar with the various shops, and realized that when entering a coffee shop for social reasons, the experience is much more important than the product. (I also learned to order tea instead of coffee.)

Tim Hortons Taste

The other chain that contrasts well with Starbucks is Tim Hortons. Personally, I don’t think their coffee is wonderful, but I have been to several cafes, and what I noticed to be so remarkable about Tim Hortons is the consistency in the taste of coffee. No matter when I’ve gone in, whether it’s the shop near the office, across the border, in the airport – it always tastes exactly the same.

In early June, the National Post ran an article detailing how Tim Hortons produces such a consistent product. A fascinating read, it outlines the process that the company follows to achieve consistency. They are not aiming to be the best coffee, or the best experience. They’re aiming to be the most reliable coffee. When in doubt, drink a cup of Tim Hortons coffee.

What This Means to You

You may or may not be working with coffee. But you do work with either a product or a service. You have two ways to convince customers to come work with you, to buy from you. Either you can provide them with a great experience, or you can provide them with a consistent product. Neither way is more right than the other, but it is important that you determine which route you want to go.

Then you need to figure out how to go out and do it, and to be successful at it.

Self Rebranding

If you have not yet noticed, my site has a new name (“Advice for Small Business Owners”), along with a new slogan (“Helping small business owners solve the issues they face on a daily basis”). Other things are changing as well – I’m starting to display some information about my site on my site. I’m having new business cards designed. I’m thinking about how my newsletter should change, and how I’m going to go about doing that. I’m thinking of changing the look of this site (no, not the content, but perhaps a more cutting edge design).

I’m looking more into finding ways to promote my business, and I’m doing it with a whole new look. In short, I’m rebranding myself.

Why? Because this site represents my journey over the past couple years, but does not represent my future. It represents what me and my business have done, what we want to do, but not where the business is going. It’s time to change that.

This isn’t really about just me and my company though. It’s something every business should go through every once in a while. Similar to goal setting, which I’ve discussed here many times, this is about seeing your future, and showing it to the world.

When was the last time you truly showed your customers where it is you want to go? When have you demonstrated to your clients how your business works, and where they in particular fit into the grand scheme of things? When was the last time you even thought about these questions?

Going through a rebranding exercise can make you do all this and more. When you rebrand, you’re looking for the image, whether visual or otherwise, that best represents your company both in terms of where you are today, as well as in terms of where you would like to be a year or longer from now. You’re trying to represent yourself to an unknown audience, without being there. You’re giving away material, but you aren’t there to explain it.

What does your brand say about you? What do your clients think your brand is? If the answers aren’t the same, you should take a close look at how you present yourself, and why others don’t see your image in the same light that you do.

True Cost of Mistakes

It is human nature to avoid acknowledging mistakes. Some of us are more susceptible to this than others, some of us are more aware of this fact than others. When we err, we try to save face, and often this translates into dragging out a mistake longer than may be necessary, thereby exacerbating the costs associated with the mistake.

Rarely does one face a problem that is truly unique. What is usually unique is the particular grouping of problems faced by a particular individual.

As an example, in website development, there are many approaches to any single problem. It is the rare case that a single requirement can or should only be met by a single potential solution. As a result, 5 businesses trying to solve the same need will likely end up with 5 very different websites. That being said, however, there are certainly some very wrong solutions to those same problems.

It is not uncommon to see a business approaching their problem as though it were truly unique. This is a very rare situation, and the mentality of being unique can lead a business to pursue a faulty line of development, culminating in a solution that is neither effective at solving the problem, nor as cost-effective as a more standard solution.

However, it is not uncommon to see such behavior, of a business insisting they know better, or that their situation is special and the standard solutions do not apply to them. They continue to sink large amounts of time, effort, and money into the sinking ship, without considering the true costs.

It is better to be aware in the middle of a project that you are heading in the wrong direction, then it is to bury your head in the sand. Sometimes, the true cost of admitting a mistake is that you learn from the experience, or you do a better job the next time around.

Are you afraid to own up to mistakes you might have made? What strategies have you adopted to help ensure that you don’t exert more energy, time, or money into a path you’ve come to realize is not the best one for your needs?