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Over the fiscal cliff

Posted on November 12, 2012 by Leave a comment

Years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker called what lemmings believe.  It showed hundreds of lemmings charging off a cliff but instead of going down to their death, they were flying up to the sky.  Why else would they be so sure of themselves?

Being a part-time cartoonist (see GigundoIndustries.com), I thought of this cartoon the other day when reading about “the fiscal cliff” and the debate about whether going over it will harm the economy or is sure death…or perhaps, is the only sensible thing to do.  I spoke to my illustrator partner at our cartoon conglomerate and the following cartoon was the result:

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3 social media/research enhancements you’ve never seen before

Posted on October 25, 2012 by 3 Comments

In the mad dash to build Facebook and LinkedIn communities, something has been missing.  Companies have been campaigning for as many Facebook “likes” as possible but now, they’re asking, “How do we know if our message is getting through?” and “Is there any way to tell whether (1) awareness is being raised; (2) brand loyalty is increasing; and, (3) social media is having an effect on sales?”

They’re good questions to ask and now there is a way to answer them.  With a simple link on your social media page, you can gather comments and get key strategic questions answered by your social media network.  With our DirectLink™ software, you can ask them questions about their understanding of your brand, unmet needs and the information they’d really like to have from you.  They can be open-ended questions that allow people to write as much as they want and then you can apply these three new tools:

1. See what they’re writing in real time – as they write it!

Now, you can actually monitor what your community is saying about you and how they’re answering your questions.  Take a look at the example below for one of our clients that is a wine producer.  The question asked is “Please describe the qualities that you find in our wines that differentiate them from other wines at any given price level.” With one click on the button on the upper right that says “Get Verbatims”, everything written in answer to that question immediately appears.

And if you want to see all of the text responses quantified, you simply close the verbatims screen and bar charts appear showing how all of the answers have been categorized.

In other words, we’re quantifying qualitative information – conversational text – and enabling you to see the actual words behind the data.  It’s like listening in to hundreds of conversations about all the questions you want answered about your brand.

2. See the key words they use while they’re using them.

When considering the key needs among your customers to address, it helps to know their top-of-mind thoughts.  Word clouds can provide a quick look at what any customer group is saying about your brand.  With one click on the “Word Cloud” button, you’ll see your word cloud develop before your eyes.

DirectLink™ automatically throws out the meaningless words such as articles, pronouns and other common words that might improperly skew the response.  Still, there will be words you’ll see in the word cloud that get through the screening process but don’t provide insights.  DirectLink™ enables you to quickly toss out those words.  For answers to the same question as above, “Please describe the qualities that you find in our wines that differentiate them from other wines at any given price level.”, we tossed out seven additional words to get the picture above.  It’s as easy as clicking on the words you don’t want and the word cloud quickly reforms.

With this feature, you see the top-of-mind thoughts your customers have and the descriptive words they use.  Every product or service creates its own lexicon of words that both the trade and consumers use.  Now, you can see what those are and use them to talk to your customers.

3. Segment your customers instantly and respond immediately.

A common reaction to seeing what people say about you is to think “if only I could talk directly to these people about their beliefs.  Then, I could convince them.” Now, you can!

To the same question above, we wondered if the media that follows the wine and spirits industry might have different topics on their minds.  So, we quickly selected only the media respondents, clicked on the Word Cloud button and this picture appeared: 

Whereas the top-of-mind words used by the larger audience were “food, fruit, price, friendly, oak, aging”, the media has prominently added “complex” and “smooth”.  If we were to speak about these wines to a journalist then, we might stress both the complexity and smoothness of the wines as being key factors that make them so good with food.  It’s this type of parsing that can enable you to tailor your response to any particular trade or consumer group based on factors that you define.

Now, let’s go a step further because DirectLink™ makes a seamless connection between survey responses and direct marketing.

Among the DirectLink™ features on the control panel, you’ll see that there is another button on the upper right that says “Get Emails”.  Clicking this button immediately downloads an email list of only those people who responded to the question or multiple-questions you selected.  You can send them an email using the words they’ve used in response to your question that is specific to their ideas, perceptions and beliefs.

Who can use these 3 features that come with DirectLink™?

  • Brand marketers trying to understand what people think about their products.
  • Sales managers who want to improve and tailor their sales pitches.
  • CEO’s who want to test a new strategy with their customers.
  • HR managers who want to assess employee morale or improve internal services.
  • Trade association managers who are seeking ways to raise awareness and open doors for their members.
  • Foreign trade development officers who want to better understand what makes their country attractive.
  • Tourism departments that want to know what will motivate consumers to visit.
  • PR and ad agency account executives who want to know what’s on their client’s customers’ minds so they can address them in marketing communications.
  • University and college administrators that want to understand and respond to student or alumni views.
  • Non-profit development directors seeking the keys to increased fund raising.
  • Political campaign managers who need to understand what voters want.

The list goes on and on.  All of the above have used DirectLink™ in the past and now these new features make it even more effective and faster.  We can make your social media programs more effective and improve the ROI of research or direct marketing programs.  If you’d like to know how DirectLink™ can help you and see an online demo, let us know.

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Political Myopia: Piercing through the nonsense and casting your vote

Posted on October 22, 2012 by 2 Comments

It’s “silly season” – so sayeth the politicians.  It’s time to throw every piece of mud at the opposition simply because a lot of people will believe it.  Fox, MSNBC, pundits who claim to know everything but in reality know nothing, and thousands of horrid political ads – it’s all a lot of noise that provides no reliable indicators on which is the best way to vote.

Can we look at some of the realities of the situation and some of the facts?

REALITIES:

  • Romney:
    • We don’t know what Romney would or would not do. Unfortunately, he’s changed positions so many times, it’s hard to figure whether he’s conservative or moderate.  The “etch a sketch” metaphor has been mentioned and fair or not, it was created by his own campaign manager.
    • Yes, he did a great job with the Olympics.  He had support and money from the government that he says isn’t working.  It’s unclear how he did as governor of Massachusetts but one would think that if he did a great job, he’d easily win the state this time.  Polls show he’s 15 points down.  You want to tell me that’s meaningless?  Please explain.
    • The only thing Romney has been consistent about is that he is a social conservative.  He’s supported the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, favors DOMA and won’t take a position on the Lily Ledbetter Act.  If that’s what you want and you’re okay with his other murkiness, you should vote for him.
  • Obama:
    • Four years ago, we were headed toward a full-on depression.  We’re not now.
    • Corporate profits had risen more than with any other president.
    • The stock market has risen 14.7% a year under Obama.
    • Housing values had fallen one-third on average at the end of the Bush administration.  They’re rising again and have recovered much of the loss.

Now that we’re here, who can take us further?

FACTS:

  • The U.S. economy has done better with Democratic presidents than with Republicans.
  • Personal disposable income has grown nearly 6 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown 7 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Corporate profits have grown over 16% more per year under Democratic presidents (they actually declined under Republicans by an average of 4.53%/year).
  • Average annual compound return on the stock market has been 18 times greater under Democratic presidents (If you invested $100k for 40 years of Republican administrations you had $126k at the end, if you invested $100k for 40 years of Democrat administrations you had $3.9M at the end).
  • Republican presidents added 2.5 times more to the national debt than Democratic presidents.
  • The two times the economy steered into the ditch (Great Depression and Great Recession) were during Republican, laissez faire administrations.

Don’t believe me?  Why not read the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”?  The above facts can be found all over the Internet but click here to read this article from Forbes magazine.

Investment managers always point out that there’s no guarantee that past performance is an indicator of the future but given the choice between uncertainty and past negative performance versus a record and past positive performance, logic should say to select the latter.  But when did logic and facts determine a U.S. presidential election?

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2 contrasting days in America

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Leave a comment

It has been several days now that we watched the Vice Presidential debate and have been subjected to a discussion that’s more about whose demeanor and facial expressions have been better than about their policies.

Depending on from which side you see things, President Obama has either brought the economy back to a place where it can now recover or he’s brought us to a Leninist-Marxist precipice.  Governor Romney is either the biggest liar that has ever run for president or he is just the man we need to help America get back to its revolutionary roots.  It’s that extreme and it’s that myopic.  We’re losing sight of the big picture.

Yesterday, I attended the annual shareholders’ conference for The Baron Funds, a group of mutual funds led by Ron Baron who believes that it’s the quality of people who make great companies and that investing in them is a long-term bet on America.  The event is held each year at New York’s magnificent Lincoln Center. 4,000 shareholders attended.

During the morning, you get to listen to presentations from CEO’s of companies the funds have invested in.  Then at lunch, various entertainers perform in one of the many auditoriums at the Center.  Yesterday, the choices were British rock singer Joss Stone, Broadway star Kristin Chenowith, or jazz stylist Harry Connick Jr.  After returning from lunch, the senior analysts from each of the Baron Funds engages in a panel discussion about the past year’s performance and how they pick stocks.  When this ends, there’s a musical performance from a big name headliner.  In the past, it has been people like Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Elton John and others who you’d pay a lot of money to see elsewhere.  Yesterday, the headliner was Celine Dion – more on Celine later.

I don’t know if Ron Baron chose the CEO’s who made their morning presentations to make a point about the country’s economic stewardship.  I want to believe he did.  Here’s a brief encapsulation:

  • David Rubenstein, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group showed a different set of values for private equity firms than we’ve seen during the past year from Governor Romney’s turn at Bain.  From its start in 1987, Carlyle now manages $160 billion in investments with the goal of supporting good companies that create jobs and prosper for their shareholders AND employees.  For all his success, Rubenstein exhibited an amazing self-deprecating sense of humor and stressed the importance of giving back to America.  He has put his money where his mouth is by joining Warren Buffet in giving his fortune away.  What came across more than anything is that good values build great companies.  By the way, he said he has no problem with the regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank, which some politicians want to remove.
  • Steven Spinner, CEO of United Natural Foods was a little more meat and potatoes in his presentation…well actually, more tofu and bulghur… but he expressed a need to be more conscious about our environment and both the chemicals we put into our environment and our bodies.  The company is now the largest distributor in the U.S. and Canada of natural and organic foods and has become a $4.5 billion company with 65,000 sku’s and 23,000 customers.  Healthy foods raise our awareness of our environment and build successful businesses – quite a contrast to the right wing preaching that the government (and in particular, Michelle Obama) is trying to force feed us healthy foods we don’t like.
  • Robert Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts showed how a sizable business ($1 billion +) dependent on nature can prosper when it focuses both on good environmental stewardship and helping people enjoy all the recreational possibilities that enables.  What’s interesting is that they don’t own the land their resorts sit on.  They lease it from the National Forest Service, and have to work with the Service to show they are deserving of both permits and leases – a great example of how government helps improve our lives, supports business and is worth the investment we all make in it.
  • Frank Coyne, CEO of Verisk Analytics is all about Big Data.  This company dominates the insurance risk assessment business.  I have no idea of his political leanings (or most of the others for that matter) but he’s a former Marine who grew up in a lower middle class family from Scranton, PA.  There was not a trace of ego in his presentation.  He is clearly an American success story who rose from the middle – no trickle down there.
  • Kevin Plank, Founder and CEO of Under Armour, a $2 billion company that began in his basement in 1996, told an amazing story of how his experience as a college football player took him on a search to find better performance athletic clothing.  He displayed optimism, competitiveness and personal charm in telling his success story.  There was not a hint of dismay in his approach to the future.
  • Rich Barton, Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Zillow, Inc. was the moderator of the analysts’ presentation so he wasn’t really focused on his or his company’s story.  However, he founded both online travel giant, Expedia, and Zillow, an online real estate search site.  He’s another American success story who displayed extraordinary optimism.

The last presentation of the day came from Ron Baron, CEO of Baron Capital Group.  Baron founded the funds in 1982.  Today his enormous success has made him a billionaire.  I’ve never met the man but in every conference I’ve attended, he always stresses his middle-class roots in New Jersey, his optimism about American business and his belief in America.  He doesn’t hesitate to mix patriotism into business.  As in past years, Broadway star Kelly O’Hara came out to sing America The Beautiful as everyone sang along.  This year, there was an additional treat of Kristin Chenowith singing the national anthem.  She raised the roof and 4,000 hearts with it.  (That girl has pipes!)

Baron gave his outlook on the economy, the stock market and reminded us why a long-term investment philosophy in good people who build great companies pays off .  He praised Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Ben Bernanke for his stewardship of the economy to a smattering of applause.  He showed how the stock market has climbed 60% since the days of doom and gloom four years ago to wild cheers.

Then, came the part that left me stunned.  He noted that we’re soon to have an election between President Barack Obama — maybe 20% of the audience applauded — and Mitt Romney to loud, enthusiastic applause that drowned out anything that had preceded it.  It left me wondering whether anybody had been paying attention all day.  The contrast to private equity investing with the Romney approach from David Rubenstein ‘s Carlyle Group couldn’t have been clearer.  Protection of our food sources and environment have helped businesses succeed, not fail due to over-bearing government regulation.  The economy never fell off the cliff.  Businesses and the stock market prospered and now they’re cheering for an uncertain change that promises to strip away a lot of the government support and regulation that has contributed to both success and fairness?  I don’t get it.

I grew up in a family that was firmly Democratic, although I believe I am more fiscally conservative than my parents.  While I live in New York, I continue to vote in Maine where I still own property.  There, like many Mainers, I’ve settled into a mode of independence, voting for moderate Republicans like Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe, independents like Angus King and Democrats like George Mitchell.  The contrasts to me this year couldn’t be clearer.  While I’ve lost some of my love for President Obama, I think he provides a healthier direction for America.  We have serious problems to fix but I don’t believe those will come from cutting everything except defense and frankly, I have a problem with disingenuousness.  Neither party can claim sainthood in this regard but I saw Romney claim himself as “severely conservative”, heard his campaign manager say they could just take out the “etch a sketch” and remodel him once the Republican nomination was secure and now he’s transformed himself into a moderate.  It reminds me of that famous Lincoln quote:  “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

In the end, just like Ron Baron says and practices, it’s about people and their values.  Not only do good people build great companies but they also build great countries.  I left the conference a little dismayed at the shareholders’ reaction to the election but still optimistic about the long-term.  To that, I can thank Ron Baron for this annual event.

This brings me to Celine Dion.  I’m not a fan and never have been.  She’s too kitschy for me.  Yes, she’s talented and a professional song stylist who’s benefited from great writers but in one song, Kristin Chenowith blew her away.   After all the great rock stars I’ve seen at this event, I was surprised at her appearance.  “Las Vegas East”, Ron Baron called it.  It certainly was.  Her big band, violins, lots of costume changes and a self-aggrandizing video were all on display.  Like so many other successes — only in America.

I thought of staying for a few songs and then leaving but then I thought of my daughter.  She’s a fledgling comedy writer in LA and she loves Celine.  She’s dreamed of going to Las Vegas to see her and has even asked me to foot the bill for the $250 ticket.  You can imagine how far that went.  But as Celine came on, I texted her knowing that she would be excited.  It was only the texting banter between us that kept me there for the duration.

Here it is:

So the afternoon entertainment is Celine.

SHUT UP!

Here she is:


You are breaking my heart.

HOW IS IT THAT YOU GET TO SEE CELINE DION PERFORM AND I NEVER HAVE?

Tell me everything!  WHAT IS SHE WEARING?  How many costome changes?  How many times is she fake crying?  AHHHHH

Is she amazing????  OF COURSE SHE IS!!!!

I guess because I own $30K of Baron Funds.  I wish you were here.  She’s too sappy for me.  I don’t know how long I can last.

OMG omggggggg!!!  Just revel in it.

Oh, here come all the big hits!  ”I’m your lady” oooh la la

OMGgggg!!!!

Imagine her an alien from a special planet where the wind is always billowing her hair and dresses!

A lot of eyebrow action and the motions.  WAIT!  We have violins!  It’s a costume change!

AHHHHHHHH.  WHAT IS THE NEW COSTUME?

This is so unfair.

We’re waiting with bated breath.  Maybe she went out to pee.

Slinky, black and silver.


It’s cabaret time.

She’s magnificent!

I’ll record Titanic if she goes there.

OH SHE WILL AND YOU  BETTER.

She tucks her 3 little ones into bed and there’s video to prove it.

Stop it.

I think I’m going to throw up.

Me too.

It’s “Beauty & The Beast” time.

Oh, I love that one.  This is so unfair, it hurts.

I feel your pain.

It’s another costume change.

What will it be?  There’s James Bond music.

Ughhhhhhhhh

No, she just went to pee.  She’s singing “Goldfinger.”

A medley of 007 songs.  She’s got her fist in the air.  The audience is in a state of rapture.

Now, she’s patting her hip and swaying.  This Québécois lady knows how to have a good time.

She sure does.

This all sounds glorious!

A little piece of heaven.

I’ve run out of responses.

I’m just really jealous.

It’s “All by myself” now.  I know how she feels.  Carla left to go to a meeting.  So sad.

Double fist pounding on her chest.  Serious stuff.

Now, she’s singing “Spinning Wheel”.  Am I back in college?

Costume change!


This is amazing.  Never forget how amazing she is.

Elvis is in the building!

Here we go:  I’m sinking.  There’s an iceberg and the ship is going down.  I’m recording this.


It’s over.  I’m exhausted.

Holy crap!  Me too.

The Baron Funds Annual Conference is one of my favorite days of the year.  I am reminded of why I am in business and what I tell my clients through my consulting business.  I’m entertained in this incredible city and my belief in America is always restored.  This year, it also provided some fun with my daughter.  Is there anything better?

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10 ways to make your customer database work harder

Posted on September 18, 2012 by 2 Comments

It has become a standard part of every organization’s marketing plan to have a database of customer emails.  Millions of companies and institutions are sending out email newsletters, promotions and solicitations everyday, both for consumers and the trade.  You’re probably receiving many of them yourself and if you’re anything like me, you probably delete all but a few as soon as you see them land in your email box.  More often than not, these are emails from companies you know or may even have requested information from.  The others end up in your junk folder.

About 20% of these emails get opened but a much lower number are actually read — click through rates are about 5%.  Another way of saying that is 80% of these emails are never opened and 95% are never read.  When you think of it that way, you have to ask how you can improve?

At Futureshift, we have a different approach on how to make databases work harder and we put them to work for our clients.  Here are 10 tips for improving your database performance:

1.  Have a database strategy.

Think of it this way:  Would you advertise without an objective, creative strategy and message?  Database marketing is no different.  What do you want your database to do for you?  Who do you want to reach?  What do you know about them that tells you what they want to hear from you?  Do they all want to hear the same thing or should you segment them by interest or need and address them accordingly?  Think these things through and write a strategy that keeps your database use focused, disciplined and integrates it with your other marketing programs.  Otherwise, say hello to junk folders.

2.  Think of your database as a community.

If you think about databases as numbers of files and demographic fields, you’re working with an outdated framework.  Imagine that you’re the mayor of a town and each member of your database is a resident.  They live in separate areas that may have demographic and psychographic markers but more importantly, they have different needs.  Some areas may want better schools, some more security or different zoning.  Databases are no different.  They can be grouped by needs and then you can address your database members with just the information that they’re looking for.

3.  Don’t buy.  Build!

You can build your database more quickly by buying names from list brokers.  You also can alienate a lot of potential customers and get labeled as spam.  It’s better to build one by one, if necessary, even if you’re starting at zero.  There are a number of techniques that can raise awareness of your company and you’ll add prospective customers who actually are interested in learning more.  For one of our clients, we began at zero several years ago and now have 8,000 members of their trade and nearly 100,000 loyal consumers signed up.  Click-through and open rates are higher than industry averages and unsubscribes are lower.  The reason is that people want to be there.

4.  One size does not fit all

Perhaps the biggest mistake companies make with the information they send to their database members is that they send the same information to everyone.  That’s a fast way to increasing the number of unsubscribes.  People want information that pertains to their needs.  Email is similar to advertising in that you have only a few seconds to attract the reader’s attention.  It’s a quick trip to the delete key.  A singular approach, whether in e-newsletters, promotions or other announcements will speak to only one group.  Over the years, the amount of competition and market clutter has fragmented both trade and consumer markets.  You can think of it like cable TV.  We now have access to more than 1,000 channels with most focused on a specific area of programming to meet specific viewer needs (history, cooking, discovery, shopping, etc.) When programming doesn’t address needs, people change the channel…or they hit the delete key.

5. If you can only know one thing about your customers, know their frustrations.

A frustration is simply an unmet need.  If you can fulfill unmet needs, you’ll have a customer.  How do you learn what frustrates people about your product?  Ask.  Your first email to a prospective database member should be to ask questions about their frustrations and needs.  There are some easy ways to use either closed- or open-ended questions to do this.  Once you understand unmet needs, you’ll see that people can be moved into needs-based segments.  You’ll also learn that many of the demographic and psychographic markers you used to use are really not an accurate guide to predicting what customers and non-customers want to know.

6. Your job is to listen, not tell.

Most databases are used to broadcast information about companies and products, and the goal of most database acquisition programs is to build quantity rather than quality. The conventional wisdom goes that since conversion percentages run so low, you’ll need larger and larger databases so that very small number of customers will continue to grow.  But at the same time, you’re making yourself vulnerable to a competitor who is better at building database size than you and has more resources to offer incentives.  The old adage that it’s better to talk to people not at them is true with database marketing too.  Ask questions, find out what people need, and what they really want to hear from you.  We often ask “What is it about this product that companies tell you that is of no use to you?” and “What would you like to know that nobody has asked you in the past?”

7. Tell them what you heard.

Whether trade or consumer, the first question people ask is “What do other people like me think?”  B2B customers want to know how their peers are dealing with the same issues they have.  Consumers want to know how others, just like them, solved the same problems or used certain products.  This is why early chat rooms were immediately successful and led to the growth of social media.  After you ask your customers about their needs, report back to them on what you learned.  This says that you listened to them and that you have an understanding of who they are, how they are distinct and what they share with others like them.  It pays off.

8. Involvement = Loyalty

This is the payoff.  Build by asking, then listen, acknowledge and then ask again.  Stop giving a monologue to your customers and build a dialogue with them.  Do this enough and you’ll be able to get them to help you add qualified people to your database through friends and family or associates programs, join advisory boards or participate in regular feedback panels.  Over time, you can turn them into your brand ambassadors and expand your marketing reach.  Isn’t this the real goal of marketing?

Two other commonly misunderstood caveats need to be kept in mind:

9. Facebook likes are not a customer database.

Social media has its uses.  It’s a like a TV channel that goes out to the masses.  It can be great for raising awareness but it does not acquire an audience that you can always reach nor does it help you segment customer needs.  Social media is like shooting a shotgun and hoping you’ll hit your target.  They’re out there but you don’t know where they are nor when they’re paying attention to you.  Database marketing is a completely different marketing tactic and one is not a substitution for the other.

10. Using successive emails to qualify people.

Many companies capture emails from people who visit their websites.  Then they begin a series of successive emails and key future marketing based on which email garners a response.  However, it doesn’t work that way because customers don’t give you that many chances.  Keep in mind the environment in which your email is one of dozens or even hundreds your customers or prospects receive each day.  Your first email has to give them a reason to respond.  Draw them into a dialogue and then you can qualify them along the way.

Follow these ten tips and you’ll improve the performance of your database.  More importantly, you’ll get closer to your customers and create relationships that generate sales and referrals.  While I’m advocating asking a lot of questions of your database members, note that I didn’t mention market research once.   Market research will tell you what people think at a point in time and that information can be a good evaluative mechanism.  But this is about having a conversation and using some digital tools to allow you to engage your customers in very large numbers.  While we have our own proprietary tools for increasing customer involvement and loyalty, we can also help you do it on your own.  The important point is to stop looking at database marketing as a linear process and see it as a relational part of your marketing program.

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CRM Systems are a form of corporate myopia…but they don’t have to be

Posted on July 19, 2012 by 2 Comments

Investment management firms always warn that “past performance does not necessarily predict future results.”  It makes sense.  Just because an investment manager has hit it big in the past doesn’t mean that he or she will know when the next big rise or fall in the market will come.

So why doesn’t that same caveat go with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems?  Companies spend millions of dollars with companies like Oracle, SAP, Salesforce, Microsoft and many others (and what’s a small to medium size company to do when faced with the investment and difficult implementation?).  These systems work off of customer “touchpoints” to make relationships and customer management easier.  A “touchpoint” is any past interaction with a customer whether it is a sale where product purchase and customer demographics are acquired, a complaint, inquiry or field contact (assuming the field rep enters the information properly and accurately).

Have you ever gotten upset that you can’t understand the foreign accented customer center rep when you call to ask a question about your bill?  Some of us don’t care but others find it annoying.  It’s because the company using the CRM system didn’t note that your call should be routed to a U.S. based call center and decided it’s cheaper to have your call go to someone they’re paying only several dollars a day, customer satisfaction be damned.  CRM didn’t help there.

Or do you get annoyed when political campaigns send you two or three fund raising requests a day while never asking about your beliefs?   They use CRM too but the systems don’t gather your opinions and beliefs.  They only note where you live, how you voted last time, whether you gave before and possibly what type of car you drive and magazines you read so they can create a profile they believe is predictive.

How about coming home to find the post office has delivered four L.L.Bean catalogs?  Waste of paper?  Absolutely, but blame their CRM system for the confusion.  Amazon is quite sure that because you bought a book about wine, you’ll absolutely want to purchase a new wine cooler they’re carrying.  You may not have even noticed but their CRM system says you’re a prospect.  Millions of customers, sales, inquiries, complaints equals billions of data points so inaccurate interpretations, solicitations, mail and email deliveries are bound to happen, right?

Not necessarily.  What if something like “forward-looking CRM” were available and affordable?  Imagine if companies or politicians asked you what your needs and frustrations are and once they knew, could use that information to tailor responses to you and provide better products, services and build their overall customer relationships.  Imagine politicians asking what his or her constituents believe – the massive Town Hall that Ross Perot used to rant about – and adjusting their positions to truly be representative of what voters are telling them.  Sound impossible?

It exists

Futureshift’s DirectLink™ system enables you to ask any group what they believe and why, what their needs are and why, and most importantly, what their frustrations are and why.  You can ask in an open-ended way questions that begin with “why”, “what” and “tell us about” and people write like they’ve never been asked these questions before.  Then, CALCAT™ software takes over and helps tag ideas and beliefs so that qualitative information can be shown quantitatively in bars and graphs just like people are used to.

Below is an example of how DirectLink™ can reveal more about customers.  The topic is wine but it could be any product or service.  The question in the chart below (“What one piece of information could a winery give you that you would find valuable when selecting a wine?”) was answered by 3,119 people and you can see the array of responses.

But now, let’s say you want to know more.  How did people write about some of their answers because you might want to refine the way you give them information.  So let’s say you select the response “Flavor/Tasting notes”.  You can click that response and then one button, called “Get Verbatims”, which instantly shows a screen like below.

Now, you can read how all of the respondents talked about “Flavor/Tasting notes” and you can see the descriptive language they use or even create word clouds so the most common terms stand out and then you’ll know what the customer’s lexicon is so you can know just what language to use to talk back to them.

Now, it gets more interesting because you’ll want to talk back to them in a way that is specifically tailored to their needs.  This group has indicated that they want better flavor and tasting notes from wine marketers.  What if you have something to say to them about this?  Is there a way you can reach them immediately?  Easy!  All you do is click the button at the side that says “Get Emails” and an email list of all the people who are looking for better flavor and tasting notes downloads to your computer, or for that matter, to your mobile device if you’re on the road.  Now, you can email them something specific to their needs.  This ease in immediate implementation makes it both practical and effective for small businesses to target market.

It gets better

Typically, with most products, marketers want to get more specific in regards to addressing consumer or customer beliefs.  They might have three, four or five variables they want to combine together and this can take days to obtain multi-variable analysis, let alone find the people behind those beliefs.  Not any more.  Multi-variable analysis and grabbing the people in that specific multi-variable segment is now instantaneous and automatic.

Above, four variables have been selected:  (1) women; (2) age 50 – 59; (3) want Flavor/Tasting notes; and (4) prefer to get recommendations from the sommelier.  Now, you can look at every question you’ve asked for that group or you can quickly download a list of email addresses for this refined segment so you can send them a message tailored to their needs.  The result is a personalized response tailored to your customer’s needs.  This creates more customer awareness, interest and loyalty because you’ve shown you’ve listened and are responsive, which is the point of CRM to begin with.  Perhaps of more note, however, is how easy it is to operate the system yourself without a bevy of expensive consultants descending to your business and drowning you with minutiae.

Making CRM work better

DirectLink™ can act as a “look-forward CRM” system for small to medium sized companies with databases of several hundred thousand.  Groups can be defined by a series of responses to questions and messaging can be tailored to the language they use, beliefs they hold or frustrations they’re holding.  In this way, marketing can address the current and future needs of consumers and customers and be truly predictive at a cost that makes it more approachable than those big CRM systems.  With larger databases, DirectLink™ information can be appended to databases to make those systems “needs-based” and ultimately more effective.

DirectLink™ and its underlying software platform, CALCAT©, are proprietary products owned by Futureshift, Inc.  DirectLink™ is fully functional for both English and Spanish speaking markets.  For more information Forward-Looking CRM, write strategy@futureshiftnow.com

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My new friends

Posted on April 25, 2012 by Leave a comment

I’ve been receiving a lot of emails from people who say they know what I need and want and I never knew that they were so close to me.  The funny thing is none of them have ever asked me about what I need.  Actually, they’ve never asked me anything at all.  Well, that’s not true.  They’ve all asked for money.

Four years ago, I made a political contribution to Barack Obama’s campaign for President.  I expected that they would ask me again.  What I didn’t expect is that they would ask all their friends to ask me too.  I suppose that’s a good thing.  We can all use new friends.

During the past six months, not only have I received many, many emails and letters from President Obama but also from Michelle – that’s sweet, we’ve never met.  Also Joe and Jill Biden have written me, together and separately.  Obviously, I project a lot of charisma to attract all these important, new friends.  They told their friends about me too including Elizabeth Wilson, Patty Murray, Diane Feinstein, Debbie Stabenow, Sherrod Brown, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Charles Rangel and many more whose names I’ve forgotten, although I know none of them have forgotten me because they keep sending me emails and letters.

I know I probably sound overly suspicious but sometimes, I think the same person is doing all the writing.  They all say they know my needs, wants, dreams, aspirations and desires and it seems the same answer for all of them is mo’ money.

Yesterday, my son received a letter from Mitt Romney.  (I’m really upset that he didn’t write me.  After all, we went to the same elementary school in Detroit.)  But I guess he thinks my son likes him.  He must feel that way because he wrote, “you are one of America’s most notable Republicans.”  That’s something I didn’t know.  But never mind my son’s political persuasions, if that is indeed what they are.  I was really interested to read this letter because someone else had to have written it.  I don’t think the same writer who works for all the Democrats is writing letters for Mittens (my affectionate name for him – when you grow up nearby, you do those things).

So, I was really excited to see what gems Mittens was going to offer that might change my mind about the course of politics and all my political friends.  Here are a few tidbits:

  • “I believe in America.” – I feel so much better to know that.  I’m sick and tired of all these people who run for office and say they believe in Turkmenistan.
  • “Bigger government does not equal better government.”  That’s a tough one for me to take because I grew up singing, “The bigger the burger, the better the burger.  The burgers are bigger at Burger King.” And I thought Mittens believed in corporations.  That’s a rude awakening.
  • “I know how jobs are created.” And this is followed by his story of how he got the Olympics in great shape.  I guess we need more games in America.
  • “It could be worse.”  Now, he’s sounding like my grandmother although she usually followed with “You should be so lucky.”
  • Here’s my favorite:  “Washington is suffocating the American Dream.  We must save it.  How do we do that?  By believing in America…our future depends on it.”  Two quick flashbacks come to mind.  The first is Gerald Ford’s WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign where if we all came together and just believed, everything would get better.  He even wore a button that said “WIN” on it.  That helped.  I think I saw that in a movie once about a little girl who lived in Kansas.  She met a wizard who got her to believe but I don’t recall that his name was “Mittens”.  The second is Jimmy Carter’s famous “Malaise” speech.  His message of buck up sonny, stiff upper lip and all that never got off the launching pad.  All we had to do was be confident, he said.  Romney says all we have to do is believe.  I’m sure he can explain the difference.

Okay, so in many ways, the letter is a parody of itself.  Yet, it’s not much different than any other political letter, Republican, Democrat or Tea Party (yes, I got one of those.)  It ends with another request for money and you know what?  I know that money is the answer but it’s not money for anybody’s campaign.  It’s money for poor people, middle class people, education, research, healthcare, etc.  Oh, now I’m sounding like a Democrat.  I suppose I should toe the Republican line since I’m reading their letters and say that the solution is money for the moneyed few.

What’s most striking to me about this particular letter (and I’ll now have to start reading the others more closely) is that there is not one solution or proposal for how to actually make things better.  Not one.  Lots and lots of problems but no ideas, proposals or solutions, only a request for money.  They could at least get creative about it.  How about emailing me the Money song from Cabaret?  That certainly gets the point across with more élan than any of these politicians.

Or if you’re not a fan of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, how about picking one of the top 20 rock songs about money. You can find them at http://power98fm.radio.com/2011/04/25/top-20-songs-about-money-money-money/.  I’ve got to believe that Mittens is an Abba fan.  How about this one:

I mean how can a Republican refuse Abba asking for money.  They’re white, clean-cut, at least in their day, and they’re Swedish…oh, never mind.

I guess there’s no hope.  You’d think that some fund raising genius (and remember that a percentage of what you give goes to them) would come up with the idea of “let’s ask people what they think, what ideas they may have and then, after we’ve listened to them, we’ll ask them for money.”  It’s funny how when you ask people what they think rather than telling them, how they often respond better.  It’s called human nature but why would we expect our politicians to be human?  Come to think of it, doesn’t Mittens often get criticized for being robotic?  I wonder.

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Marketing Mistake #6: False Assumptions

Posted on March 20, 2012 by Leave a comment

This is the sixth in a series on Mistakes Countries Make and How They Can Get It Right

We just began work for a client in our 18th country.  While that’s only 7% of all the countries in the world, they add up to over 30% of the top 50 countries in GDP.  That’s not a bad sample from which to draw some conclusions about foreign businesses that are marketing products in the U.S.  We’ve noticed a number of mistakes and major assumptions that seem to be common among all of the countries that our clients have come from.

One I’ve increasingly noticed is the assumption that Americans are waiting for foreign products with bated breath.

It’s always struck me as unusual that foreign marketers often think that just their presence in this country will create demand.  Yet, I’ve been stymied for an explanation as to why this is the case.  I think I’ve finally hit on it.

For decades, people in foreign countries have looked up at the U.S. as the bastion of top brands, particularly among consumers.  American brands have become a badge for people to show that they travel and have sophisticated and Western tastes.  This says nothing about whether they like the U.S. or about their sentiments on American government policies or even whether, more recently, the glow of American brands is wearing off.  It’s history.

From the time of the Cold War when a pair of Levis could buy you a hotel and meal in Russia to today when Nike shoes can be found on the feet of people in countries around the world, Coca-Cola at their tables and McDonalds around every corner, American brands have had a pretty good track record of coming into a foreign country and quickly generating sales.  True, there have been monumental mistakes like GM trying to sell the Chevy Nova in Latin America, but for the most part, U.S. brands have meant sales.

So, it might stand to reason to someone from outside the U.S. to ask if they buy our brands just because we’re there, won’t we buy their’s just because they’re here?  Foreign marketers often miss two key facts about the U.S. that can cause their sales efforts to fail:

1.  We’re internally focused.

The U.S. is a big country, no secret there (take a look at the maps in an earlier post, “Mistake #5:  Size Matters”) The point is that most Americans don’t think about the rest of the world.  With the exception of only two countries, Canada and Mexico, we don’t have countries next to us, just more Americans.  Many Americans don’t read the newspaper or watch the news on TV and if they do, it is often likely to be local news or something specific to their interest or vocation.  Products from countries like Chile, South Africa, Greece, Vietnam, even those that are successful,  just don’t have top-of-mind awareness here.  (A rude awakening has been coming to many American companies as they find American cachet diminishing, which means more hard work for us to sell abroad.)

A by-product of internal focus is the notion of “American exceptionalism”.  Personally, I find this to be both arrogant and naïve on the part of Americans but it has been aggressively promulgated by one of our political parties, and is associated with blind religious faith that promotes a strong belief that God has chosen America to lead the world.  What many Americans forget is that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” as a musical prayer to God to please bless us and this has been turned around so that many people believe it to imply that God does bless America at the exclusion of others.

The U.S. State Department recently announced that more than one-third of Americans now hold a passport.  Approximately two-thirds of those have traveled abroad.  Whichever number you pick, it means that the vast majority of Americans have never been out of this country.  Many of them operate on old beliefs about life elsewhere and simply don’t know how strong the middle class is and how good life can be in other countries.  Many of the cheerleaders for American exceptionalism condemn “European socialism” in the same sentence without noting that most Europeans pay far less for health care and education and take more vacation time off from work.

2.  We’re less well educated

This is closely related to point number one but consider these facts:

  • The U.S. ranks 33rd in student reading performance; 27th in math; and, 22nd in science. (OECD Education at a Glance, 2009)
  • The ratio of teachers to students in the U.S. is just below average in pre-primary education when compared to other developed countries; also just below average in post-high school education.  We do rank slightly above average at the lower and secondary education levels. (OECD, 2005)
  • We rank 9th in national IQ scores but 21 other countries including Mongolia, Estonia and Poland.  (We can take pride in tying Latvia and just narrowly beating out Belarus, Malta and the Ukraine.) (Lynn/VAnhanen Study)
  • The U.S. ranks 27th in gender equality, a key sign of both education and modernity. (WEF, 2008)
  • In the recent WEF 2011/2012 rankings, the U.S. finds itself 13th in higher education and training, 20th in technological readiness, 10th in business sophistication, and 26th in overall education,
  • We rank 12th in overall human development (UN Development Program, 2008)

I’ll never forget walking into a neighborhood restaurant in the town of An Giang, Vietnam, near the border of Cambodia, truly a different world, and seeing about 15 patrons riveted to the TV over the bar as they watched clips from the PBS Nightly News hour and then debated an interview with Donald Rumsfeld that they just saw.  Can you imagine the reverse in a similar scene in the U.S.?  Not likely.  It’s a generalization but foreigners tend to know more about the world and even about the U.S. than Americans do.

A Norwegian pharmaceutical executive told me a story about looking for a U.S. marketing partner.  While driving along the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey, he asked his prospective partner, “Isn’t this near where Washington made his famous crossing?” to which the chief marketing officer replied, “I don’t know.  I don’t follow that stuff.”  The Norwegian decided that if the man didn’t know the history of his own country that he didn’t want him as a business partner.

So what does this mean for foreign marketers wanting to enter the U.S. and expand their market?

First, don’t assume we know anything about you or your products.  Despite our flaws, we live in the most competitive market in the world and largest developed market.  You’ll need to educate us and that will take some time.

Second, there are so many competing products in the U.S., both domestic and foreign, that the quality of your products often matters less than the relationships you build with us.  We always say, “all things being equal, we’d rather do business with friends.”  Become friends with us.  Develop relationships.  Become a part of our networks and communities and like the first, that doesn’t happen overnight.

Third, find ways to link your values and experiences with ours.  What do you have in common with us?  Do you play baseball or basketball?  Fine, so do we.  Talk about it and you’ll connect more often.  Are you troubled by high taxes, inconsistent investments or supporting the elderly?  These trouble us too.  Show us how we’re alike and we’ll be more accepting of you and your products.

Finally and most important, think strategically, not tactically.  You need a consistent direction here in order to break through the clutter and to be successful, it should be based on the unmet needs of the U.S. market, not your perceptions of who you think you are (if you’re not convinced, start from the beginning of this article again).  A strategy based on market needs will trump tactics every time.  A set of ad hoc tactics that are not integrated or tied to a strategy won’t cut it.

And if you’re confused about market needs, adapting or developing your strategy or what kind of tactics work, all you need to do is ask us.

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‘Tis the season

Posted on December 14, 2011 by 1 Comment

Did you notice what began right after Thanksgiving?  I’m not talking about holiday shopping, although if you haven’t started yet, join the club.  We weren’t even into the week after the holiday when I saw my first set of predictions for 2012.  By now they’re coming out at full throttle.  Predictions for food, wine, technology, social media, fashion, you name it, they’re on their way.

Some people make predictions to show how prescient they can be.  Others do it as a new business ploy, thinking that their business prospects will be swayed by their foresight.  One thing I haven’t seen yet is anyone measuring their success for the predictions they made for 2011.  I don’t think we’ll see much of that since it’s not part of the sport.  But I’m going to change that.  I’m joining the club of predictors and prognosticators and making twelve predictions for 2012, one for each month.  And I predict that they will all come true – 100%.  I’ll come back in a year to check and see if I’m right and then expect a crescendo of congratulations.  So here goes:

  1. People will talk. You can bet on it.  With a national election next year, the economy trying to rebound and the usual celebrities acting out, there will be plenty of chatter on TV, radio, the all-important blogosphere and by the office coffee maker.  If you decide to spend the year in some distant atoll in the Pacific, don’t fret, you won’t miss a thing.  It will all happen again in 2013.
  2. People will be interested in themselves. Face it.  There’s not a lot of altruism in the world.  Even those who say they’re altruistic often aren’t.  Political, business and social motives often spur our eleemosynary sides (always looking for an opportunity to use “eleemosynary” – look it up).  I’m not preaching about this.  I suffer from the same affliction.
  3. We will become more distracted. It’s been said many times.  There’s too much information and too many ways to communicate.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus.  That’s not going to change.  Huffington Post will probably add twenty more sections for us to while away the time.
  4. We will become more desperate. I’m going to take credit for something.  In 2009, I gave a presentation in Chile about business prospects in the U.S. during the recession.  At that time, I said the U.S economy wouldn’t return to some semblance of normal until 2014 at the earliest and most likely, not until 2016.  Why?  As large as our economy is – $14 trillion – it can’t recover quickly when our housing value loss is about one-third and real unemployment (reported + unreported) is probably closer to 16% than the reported 8.6%.  We dug a giant hole for ourselves by conducting two wars and cutting taxes at the same time.  Most Americans wish someone, anyone, would wave their magic wand and make things better.   It doesn’t work that way.  We have the patience of a two-year old.  I hope I’m wrong but I’d bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that we’re not.  If you’re one of those impatient types, plan your desperation calendar now.
  5. The economy may get worse but it could get better. Having just said that we’ve got a long row to hoe, we’re going to see some cycles in the midst of our misery.  Expect the current administration to do whatever it can to pump things up a bit before next year’s election.  And also expect the stock market to get overly pumped up before it gets let down.  Am I being overly dreary?  No, just realistic.  They also say pessimists are often happier people because their expectations are easily exceeded.
  6. All politicians will lie to us except for those who tell the truth. In our current climate, does anyone really think anyone running for election to be truthful?  They’re more likely to meet Steven Colbert’s low standards for “truthiness.”  Yet, there will be a few who will tell the truth.  They’re either the ones not running, retiring or the losers.
  7. Facts will be fungible. Who says you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts?  Nobody’s going to stop writing their own facts just because Tom Friedman says to in one of his brilliant columns.  The most current book next year will be, as it was this year, 1984, published in 1949 by the way.  How prescient was Orwell?
  8. Everything old will be new again. It happens every year, short is back and long is out or is it long is out and short returns?  Whatever.  Gotta keep those factories moving.
  9. What goes around comes around. Not all that different from #8 but the point here is to be nice to the people you meet on the way up.  They’ll look pretty good to you as you head the other way.  Success can be ephemeral, just like fashion.
  10. Blame will be assigned but not to ourselves. Here comes Tom Friedman again telling us to take responsibility for our actions.  When did this guy come along?  Sadly, we are in a world where no one jumps up and says “I take responsibility, now let’s figure this out together.”  It’s too easy to point the finger at politicians, business people, the media and each other.
  11. Difficult decisions will not be made but will be forced upon us. If we had begun making good decisions 30 years ago, we’d all be driving cars that got 50 miles per gallon, that’s when we’re not taking mass transit.  We’d have a fair tax code.  Banks would be our guardians instead of robbers and CEO’s would be making 10 times the average worker, not 300.  All this may happen soon but at an enormous cost and it will be forced down our throats.
  12. At year-end, predictions will be made for 2013. I can guarantee this one.  There will be plenty to say next year at this time.  I’ll check to see if I’m right but I don’t think I’ll make predictions again.  I’ll just reprint this entry.
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My 9/11, Part 2

Posted on November 21, 2011 by Leave a comment

(See prior entry for Part 1)

My travel ordeal from 9/11 was complete and I slept through much of that day.  My plan had been to get out and see Asunción but lack of sleep and hunger took over.  Besides, as I didn’t have my luggage and didn’t know whether it would arrive, one of my priorities was finding a few basic clothing essentials in case I was going to make my presentation the next day in jeans.

After lunch at the hotel, I walked outside where some workers were erecting a large sign for the conference.  They were showing me as the second headliner.  The top dog was Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia.  I suppose he deserved to have his photo over mine

I walked across the street to the local mall to buy a clean shirt and underwear.  (Something about the idea of talking to 700 people in suits while wearing three day old underwear didn’t have the right appeal.)  What can you say about a mall?  They’re pretty much the same all over the world in both developed and developing countries.  That’s both comforting to a wayward traveler and a bit disturbing as we continue to lose our national identities.  Was that Benetton store I just walked by the one in the Rosebank Mall near Johannesburg?  No, remember I’m in Asunción today and it’s the Shopping del Sol mall.  How could I forget?  There’s Burger King in the corner.  Maybe I can get some good Paraguayan food there.

Underwear and socks, no problem.  I picked those up at a completely forgettable store but now I wanted a nice shirt so the conference attendees wouldn’t think I walked to Paraguay.  I walked the corridors of Shopping del Sol mall looking for the right kind of store.  Then I saw the words “Christian Dior”, the store name, “Giorgio Patrino” and most important, “Liquadacion” plastered all over the windows and underneath “40%, 50%, 60%” – my kind of place.

Like most high-end stores around the world, the well-dressed staff looked me over as I entered and saw a downtrodden mess of a man and I could tell they were considering asking me to leave.  But my quick gringo response to the salesman’s query, “solomente buscando” gave me away as someone who might have a wallet stacked with credit cards, so he gave me the run of the store and I soon found the fancy shirt section.  After a few minutes, I found a nice Italian shirt in my size.  I looked for the price and there was none on the shirt, always a bad sign.  So I asked the ever-watchful sales man for the price.  He looked at me, looked down at the shirt, smiled and said 819,000 guarani.  Now that sounds like a fortune in guarani but a quick calculation told me it was about $190, in my world, a fortune to pay for a shirt.

So, I looked at him, looked at the shirt and said, “muy, muy, caro!”  He shrugged.

I pointed to the store windows at all the Liquadación signs and cleverly said, “es imposible que el precio es correcto; es mas barrato in los estados unidos; es mas barrato en Italia”  Although, frankly, I had no idea what the shirt would cost in Italy but clearly, he could see that he was dealing with one tough hombre.  So he took out his calculator and gave me a new price, “645,000 guarani.”

I shook my head and said, “todavia mas caro.”

He went to work again on his calculator, looked back at the store manager who nodded at him and, after a moment, he offered, “385,000 guarani.”

Maybe I could have gotten him down further but he had dropped his price by more than half, so I said okay and the shirt was mine for $90.  He seemed like a beaten man, although the manager was smiling behind him.  I left content but thinking that this exchange could have taken place almost anywhere in the world.

I returned to my hotel to work on my presentation.  As numero 2, I wanted to be good and I had been asked to speak for 90 minutes, something I had done once before but it’s a lot of work to keep the masses entertained for that long.  What preoccupied my mind though was what Karin had said to me during our drive to Asuncion when I asked how they were going to get me out of the country as I was there illegally without a visa.  She said, “there may be a bribe involved.”  I began to wonder what life inside a Paraguayan prison might be like.

Later that day, I met some of the officials of the Paraguayan Trade Fairs organization.  One told me he was a good friend of Paraguay’s Vice President and assured me that I wouldn’t have to pay the maximum fine, which I learned was $6,000.  “I’m sure we can get you out for no more than $1,000.”  Good thing I got that shirt for half off.

The conference and my presentation the next day will be covered in later blog posts.  However, the organization was very professional and my session was well attended.  I had started to think about looking like Steve Jobs up on the stage wearing jeans but Karin showed up the previous night with my suitcase, so I looked pretty much like every other suit in the place, only I had a headset mike and earpiece so the simultaneous translator could tell me to slow down or repeat a sentence.

The following day, I had scheduled a lunch with a cabinet minister in Chile, a meeting that I didn’t want to miss.  I looked to see if I could get to Buenos Aires the night after my presentation so that I wouldn’t miss my morning flight to Santiago but the last flight out of Asunción was too early for me to make it.  The next morning, I was scheduled for a 6:00 am flight to BA and then the short flight over the Andes to Santiago but that meant I would have to leave the hotel at 4:00 am to go through customs and make my flight.

I had dinner that night with the owners of Paraguayan Trade Fairs.  The same gentleman who told me about paying the fine sat next to me but said nothing about my visa.  However, he was genial, interested in my speech from earlier in the day and well-traveled.  He said something to me about the region that I think encapsulates some of the culture of the countries in the southern cone region of South America, “Paraguay looks at Argentina and Brazil; Argentina looks at itself and Chile looks at the world.”  I find all three countries to be a bit provincial but Chile is certainly the least so and the one that has built a strong economy based on global exports.

Years ago, on a Scandinavian trip, I heard an expression about that region which goes, “The Finns design a product; the Swedes build it; and the Danes sell it to the Norwegians.”  These are generalizations but there is a little bit of truth in them that describes their national character.

At 4:00 am the next morning, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed (as much as one can be with four hours sleep) at the hotel when Karin, her husband and 18 month old son pulled up to take me to the airport and get me out of the country without a jail term.  This couple deserved a medal for how they took care of me, although as my local travel agents, they felt some responsibility for not ensuring that I knew about the visa.

Karin asked me how much money I was carrying.  I told her a couple hundred dollars and a little more in euros.  “Forget the euros,” she said.  I was trying to as I acquired them when the euro was about 20% higher.

When we got to the airport, she walked with me right past the security entrance to go through customs.  There was a guard there but he didn’t bother to ask for our tickets or passports but ahead of us was the usual lineup of customs agents sitting in boxes stamping passports and asking probing questions about travelers’ visits.

I waited in line for our turn, not knowing what Karin had in mind.  She pointed toward the end of the row and said, “See the guy in the last booth?”  I nodded  “That’s our man,” she said.  Now, I knew some sort of fix was in but had no idea how it would turn out.  When we got to the head of the line and it was our turn, we walked over to our “hombre elegido”.

Karin asked for my passport, handed it to him and commenced a rapid negotiation in hushed tones.  She seemed irritated at what he was asking for.  I thought about my newly honed negotiation skills buying a shirt two days earlier and was about to offer some suggestions when I heard a stamp come down on my passport like a hammer. She took my arm, walked me to the side and asked, “Could you give me $60?”  I pulled a couple hundred dollars out of my wallet and began counting twenties.  She pushed my hands down so that no one from customs would see.  I gave her the bills and she directed me toward the x-ray machines.  I lingered for a moment wondering if I was to watch her buy my way out but she motioned for me to leave.

Thus ended my trip to Paraguay.  Smuggled in and bribed out, a first and hopefully, a last for me.  The flights to Buenos Aires and then to Santiago were non-eventful except for the incredible views of the Andes.  I made it to my lunch meeting in time.

On the whole, it was a pretty interesting adventure, although one loss was that I never got time to see Asunción.  Perhaps, though, my introduction to the wonderful hospitality of the Paraguayans made up for that.

One final coda to the trip was that from the time I got off my flight in Santiago until I walked into my hotel in the city about 15 miles away took about an hour.  It was the kind of efficiency one sees in places like Zurich and wishes for in London.  The contrast to my trek to get into Paraguay was evident and I thought again about the direction these countries face and the way they are developing themselves.

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