I love small businesses

Not just because they are great to work with (even though their passion and enthusiasm for their product is infectious), and not just because they are great to shop with (even though their offering is often unique and special), but because they are human.

In a year where interaction has been, and continues to be, limited, there is nothing more important than the personal touch.

What’s not to love?

Being able to speak to a real human, who isn’t confined to a script, and is genuinely interested in helping you with your enquiry, is surely one of life’s simple pleasures. No being passed from pillar to post, no feeling like an inconvenience because you’ve asked a question that no-one has thought to ask before – just good, old-fashioned, customer service.

We’ve all experienced the opposite – the frustration and futility of being funnelled through automated options that don’t fit with the question we want to ask, or being restricted by a drop-down box of irrelevant topics that don’t correspond with the issues we are experiencing.

All too often, this limited approach (adopted by many larger companies as a time-saving measure) simply doesn’t work – sometimes with laughable consequences. Has an automated voice ever told you that the solution to your internet connectivity problem is to visit the provider’s website, or been directed to ‘raise a ticket’ to report a problem, only to find that the problem type is not an option on the form? We’re constantly being categorised and confined to an ever-decreasing set of options, which in many cases don’t reflect customer reality at all.

What a relief, then, that small businesses exist to come to our rescue.

Celebrating the unique and unusual

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to small business – and that’s something to be celebrated.

Just like human beings, every small business is an individual, a one-off, a reflection of the unique passions, experiences and skills of those at the helm. And that is exactly why they are able to offer such a tailored and personal service to their customers.

No matter what their offering, I believe that small businesses are fundamentally about people – the people who own them, the people who run them, and the people who shop with them or support them. Every customer and team member is an individual, and is recognised as such. It is this respect, value and understanding – along with the fact that customers and business owners are often on first-name terms – that builds lasting relationships and creates amazing customer experiences. It is also what makes me loyal to my local small businesses.

Of course, larger businesses can deliver great customer service too, and some do this really well. But, when you stop and think about – how do they do this? They call you by your name, they remember what you have purchased or considered, they make an effort to tailor their service to suit your needs, they try and get to know you. In short, they behave like small businesses.

A few of the brilliant small businesses that I wouldn’t be without

5 reasons to love small businesses

1. People

Actual human beings that you can have a real conversation with, and who don’t hide behind a script or series of ‘no reply’ email addresses.

2. Product

Why would you buy something mass-produced and standardised when you could purchase a perfectly personalised gift or tailored item that has been created to suit your particular needs?

3. Service

A smile is worth a lot, and a friendly face that remembers your usual order and takes the time to understand you as a person means even more.

4. Craftsmanship

Small businesses are often the product of passion and skills, and are an outlet for the homemade and the handcrafted. We might not be in the age of having a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker on every high street, but our small businesses are a celebration of quality and talent.

5. Location

There are incredible businesses right on our doorsteps if we take the time to seek them out. Save yourself a long drive and extortionate parking charges, and look to your local towns and villages.

The shop small challenge

I am incredibly lucky to be able to work closely with a number of brilliant small businesses every day. As a partner and a customer, I see how they pull out all the stops to adapt their business to the ever-changing environment around them, taking their product to their customers when their customers cannot get to them. It’s inspiring stuff.

I also know how tough things are for small businesses, whether on or off our high streets. So, as we approach the shopping mayhem of Black Friday and the festive season, I challenge you to buy one product or service from a small, local business that you would usually buy from a large corporation or retailer. Just try it and see what you think.

I’m convinced that before too long, you’ll be writing your own love letter to small businesses, too.

It’s only when you set up your own business that you realise that most people have no idea what you actually do. At least, that’s my experience.

Somehow, that leap from in-house to freelance unleashes a torrent of confusion. The conversation is no longer about the company you work for, where you’re based or what your boss is like, but the nitty gritty of what exactly you are doing when you spend all those hours slaving away on your laptop. In short, what are people paying you for?

What’s in a name?

When I set up WordPlay Creative, I gave a lot of thought as to what job title I should give myself. I settled on ‘PR, Communications and Marketing Consultant’ because, to me, it set out what I do (use words to communicate and promote), and what I don’t do (design graphics, code websites etc.). It also made sense to former colleagues and others in the industry, and was a lot more illuminating then ‘Director’ or ‘CEO’, even though both of those options would have been perfectly legitimate.

The confusion arose when I started trying to explain my new business to contacts in other professions. When I said I was a copywriter, they thought I was involved with legal trademarks; when I said I was a writer, they asked me when my novel would be out; and when I said I promote businesses, they thought I’d become a cold-calling saleswoman.

In the end, and out of frustration more than anything, I started telling people that ‘I write words’. If they were still interested, I tried to explain the importance of putting the right words in front of the right people. Inadequate though it seems, it was at least an introduction into the ‘what’ of my chosen career, if not the ‘why’ or the ‘who for’. It at least ruled out what I didn’t do, and opened up a means of explaining the dark art of PR, marketing and communications.

Just words?

The irony is, that there is no dark art – it’s just words. I mean no disrespect to the knowledge and skills of my incredibly talented counterparts in the industry when I say that, but at it’s most basic, it is about words.

Let’s not get things out of context. Telling a copywriter that their work is ‘just words’ is like telling an award-winning photographer that it’s ‘just a photo’, or an internationally renowned artist that it’s ‘just paint’. Most people can write a sentence, take a photo or do some finger-painting, but would you pay them to create something for you? Or expect it to deliver results?

Let’s take photography as an example. Most of us can take a half-decent, reasonably in-focus photo using the increasingly-intelligent automatic settings on our phones, but does that make us photographers? You see, a photo is about more than just its subject – one photograph of a sunset could be a perfectly pleasant way of documenting a moment, but another will stop us in our tracks and make us say ‘wow’. The difference between the two will inevitably be what is framed in and what is framed out, and the tools and techniques used to capture the essence and emition of the scene. Photography is not just ‘point and shoot’, it is an art form.

It’s the same with words. Two articles could convey exactly the same information, but get a very different response. One might grab our attention, the other lose it; one might inspire and the other infuriate. A good writer chooses their words carefully, understands what to include and what to leave out, and uses specialist techniques to make sure the words captivate and resonate with their audience, provoking the required emotional response. These devices make the difference between an effective piece of writing and just words on a page. Copywriting may not be a dark art, but it’s certainly a skill.

So, what is it you do, again?

So, what response do I give now, when people ask me what I do?

If they want the short version, I tell people that I help businesses to communicate.

If they want the long version, I tell people that I put the right words in front of the right people to promote and support businesses.

If they want the ‘War and Peace’ version, I tell people that I help businesses to communicate with their current and future customers, and that I put the right words in front of the right people to help those businesses flourish and grow.

I think I get it, now. So, you don’t write words?

Yes, I write words, but I do more than that. Hopefully, in time, people will understand.

Over and out for now.

Emma

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a single word – or lack of one – speaks volumes about a culture.

Words that reflect our world

It stands to reason, that if we need to communicate about the world around us, then we need words that reflect that world. These words – and their meanings – change as the world around us changes.

Until 2020, for instance, ‘furlough’ was a seldom-used, largely military term meaning ‘a period of time that a worker or a soldier is allowed to be absent, especially to return temporarily to their own town or country’*. Now, of course, we all know it as a government-backed scheme that, for a while at least, allowed workers to remain employed, and partially paid, whilst being unable to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Certain words and phrases – such as ‘social distancing’, ‘key worker tan’ and ‘the rule of six’ – simply weren’t part of our vocabulary until our circumstances dictated that they were needed. The use of other terms, like ‘home office’ and ‘Zoom meeting’, have grown with us as more of us work from home and attend meetings remotely.

Words that don’t exist

On the flip side, languages tend not to have words for things that are not an integral part of the culture(s) that they represent. We can perhaps see this most clearly for words that have no direct translation in other languages.

A few years ago, ‘hygge’ (the Danish concept of warmth and cosiness) became a big trend in home interiors and self-care. Whilst as a nation we largely embraced this concept – and created many different (generally incorrect!) pronunciations of the word – there is no direct translation for ‘hygge’ in English.

Whilst it might not always seem like it, the UK enjoys more hours of daylight than Denmark (which can have as little as 7 hours of daylight a day in winter). The Danes use hygge to make their increased hours of darkness something to embrace, enjoy and even celebrate. Whilst we have many of our own traditions, some of which are arguably similar, the UK doesn’t have its own direct version of hygge, so doesn’t need a word to express hygge in our own, dominant language.

Words that time forgot

Language can be revolutionary, but more often than not words sneak into – and exit – our vocabulary almost without us noticing. In 2019, over 650 new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – a startling reflection of just how quickly our language, and the culture that it represents, is changing.

I, for one, hope that we don’t lose some of our most obscure and intriguing words in the process. I love the fact that the OED never removes a word that has been included, but preserves it as if in aspic, even if it is rarely used in contemporary culture.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all started using almost forgotten words and phrases again? Like the cyclical nature of fashion, baby names and the trend for ‘modern vintage’, maybe it’s time to dust off our old language and give it a resurgence. Now, there’s something to think about.

See you on the morrow.

* Cambridge English Dictionary

When does marketing become harassment?

I signed up to a company’s e-newsletter two weeks ago.

The company had a product that I might be interested in buying in the future, and as part of my buying decision, I wanted to see how they would communicate with me.

It all started absolutely fine – I received an email welcoming me to the newsletter, and telling me a bit more about the background of the brand and what they stood for. 

A few days later, I received the inevitable ‘exclusive special offer’ pitch, stating a huge discount on the product I had shown an interest in. All well and good, but I still wasn’t ready to buy, so I made the decision to pass on the special offer even if that meant I might end up paying more at a later date.

Where it went wrong

Sadly, it all went downhill from there. I received an email from them every single day (sometimes twice a day), with content which varied from cajoling (‘go on, you know you want to’), to pleading (‘tell us why you’re not buying’) to downright threatening (‘think of all the bad things that will happen without this product’).

Now, I’ve never known the world to fall apart solely because someone chose not to purchase something, and with my marketing background I like to think that I’m savvy enough to spot a scare-mongering sales tactic when I see one, but I worry for the people who get drawn in by this type of intimidation (yes, I am going to call it out).

What is it that has made that company think that it is acceptable to terrify potential customers into spending their hard-earned cash? Are they themselves desperate and scared, feeling like they have exhausted every other option open to them? Perhaps they just don’t know what they’re doing.

There are plenty of guides out there about how to convert and keep your customers, and quite rightly so, seeing as it’s generally accepted that it can cost twice as much to recruit a new customer as it can to retain an existing one. Funnily enough, there is not so much advice out there about how to lose your customers, so here are my five top tips.

How to lose your customers (in five easy steps)

  1. Contact them too often – remember that perception can override reality, so a customer who already thinks they are getting too much contact from you will see every new email or phone call as reinforcing this, and may perceive that you are contacting them even more frequently than they are.
  2. Treat your customer as a number – no matter how often you use their name in the subject line, if your communication doesn’t acknowledge where they are on their customer journey, you are not treating them as an individual or respecting their requirements.
  3. Use threatening or bullying language – no-one loves a threat apart from a bully. Start threatening to steal their lunch money or predicting doom and gloom, and see how quickly your customers walk.
  4. Be pushy – the more you push, the more resistance you will meet. Be too pushy and you can guarantee you will drive your potential customers to look elsewhere.
  5. Keep nagging them – if at first you don’t succeed, keep driving your customers away! Persistence is not always a positive trait.

The alternative approach

There is definitely a better way – and it starts with mutual respect.

I would never want my clients to commission me out of fear of what might happen if they don’t. I don’t think that’s a risk as I’m really not that scary, but all the same, I shudder at the thought.

I want my customers to value the work that I do and see the benefit to their business – otherwise, neither of us will be happy. And life’s just too short for that.