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Bill Flagg

Usability Testing -Being Our Prospects

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We just finished two days of usability testing of RegOnline’s marketing website (we test the product separately). Our marketing team sat in a room and observed (via video feed) eight event organizers each spend 45 minutes going through our site and talking out-loud about what they are thinking as they go (kind of like Being John Malkovich).

I’m always amazed by what we discover in this process of observing how new people perceive our site… and how different that is from how WE see things as people who are knee-deep in our own product and site. Within the first 3-4 people, the same comments and observations were already repeating. It’s like ringing a big bell in the room to tell us where we were blind because we were to close to see. We observed them wanting the same things:

  1. An easier way to play with REAL sample registrations and reports (vs. screen shots) without opening an account
  2. More information upfront about security and how RegOnline integrates with other systems
  3. How RegOnline makes it easier for them and their registrants and less about how it would increase attendance (which they didn’t believe)
  4. More believable explanation for why it’s free to try RegOnline (like a 30 day trial)

By making these improvements, we aim to make it easy for prospects to choose to do business with us. Which, in my opinion, is THE objective in marketing.

What can you learn by entering your prospects minds and looking through their eyes?

Sales incentives – no more commissions

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A couple years ago I eliminated sales commissions at RegOnline. It was a tough call at the time because most B-to-B businesses I knew had commissioned sales teams. I had some intense debates with my friends running those companies who thought I was crazy. I decided to make the switch for these reasons:

1. It was having a negative impact on the harmonious culture of the company (for reasons similar to what’s described in this Inc. Magazine article).

2. I didn’t believe we were getting a ROI from the incremental commission dollars we were paying out. Our search marketing strategies, website design, depth of product functionality, ease of getting started on their own, and simple pricing were collectively much larger drivers for sales than having commissioned salespeople.

3. We could have a selling advantage over our competitors commissioned sales forces. Our competitors were known for having very aggressive car-salesmen-like people annoying prospects. We became known as the no-pressure, friendly company to do business with (which goes a long way for most people).

4. Our salespeople could be motivated by having a score board in place of a commission check. How many connects a day? How many open accounts a day? How are you doing compared to your teammates? In fact, after doing some research I had found several studies (I’ll look for them and repost when I find them) where there was no difference in performance between a commissioned sales team and a non-commissioned team selling the same product (as long as there was a scoreboard of performance to motivate).

Overall I believe eliminating commissions was a great move because over the past 3 years we’ve attracted more business than we ever dreamed of and at a MUCH lower cost. I don’t believe commissioned sales forces produce the ROI that most people believe they do AND it creates a lot of side effects that aren’t healthy for companies. I believe what motivates better performance is not compensation, but better scoreboards by which we challenge ourselves off of every day.

Are you ready to get rid of your commissions in exchange for more revenue, lower costs, and better work environments?

Sales incentives – go home!

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I’ve been asking people lately if, at their jobs, they could go home after they get done what they usually do in the course of a week. What day would they go home? Most people say mid-day Wednesday. What this says to me is that if we focus on results, we can get a lot more done in a shorter period of time.

In the spirit of this theory, we tried something new with RegOnline’s sales team this month. For the month of March, the sales team can go home when they get to 70 new active accounts each week (we had been averaging about 50 per week). The first week the sales team went home at 2:00 on a Friday. The second week the sales team went home at 3:00. This week we came up short (with 56 new active accounts) and the team went home at 5:00. It’s amazing how focused the team has become on the results… checking the numbers every hour to see how they are pacing, figuring out creative ways to get prospects registration forms up and running quicker, and cheering each other on.

Going home early is a huge incentive. Everyone loves the idea of having won a few extra hours to themselves each week. And it doesn’t cost the company anything extra. In fact the company is getting more active accounts each week than it had before. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Who in your organization would like to go home early each week because they are accomplishing more?

How to negotiate – bracketing your needs

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The second negotiating technique that I’ve learned in the past year is what I call “bracketing”. I learned this from my attorney as well.

In the process of selling RegOnline, there were hundreds of terms that had to be negotiated. For example, how much of the purchase price would be set aside in escrow. The other side says they want 20% when they really will settle for a 15% escrow. Instead of us saying 10% and meeting in the middle. We would say we are willing to do 10-15% in escrow dependent on other terms of the escrow (like length of time of the escrow).

This is a brilliant approach to negotiating for the following reasons:
1. It’s more honest and builds more trust and respect as a result
2. It takes into account that there’s never just one term to be negotiated and gives room to get more beneficial terms on the other components
3. It sets a framework where the other side can feel like they’ve won by bringing you to the top end of your bracket (which almost always happens)

Overall, it makes the negotiations go faster and enables everyone involved to feel better about the end results.

Give it a try. The next time you want to go skiing for a half day, tell your significant other you’re thinking about going skiing for a full to half day depending on how they feel. When they say they’d prefer you keep it to a half day – tell them it’s a done deal if it includes a back rub afterwards. 😉

How to negotiate – showing your teeth

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I’ve learned two highly effective negotiating techniques recently that I thought I’d share. I was on a conference call last week with my attorney and a company that I am investing in. While it’s a great fast-growing company that I’m excited to invest in, AND also good long-time friends of mine who founded and run the company, the structuring of the financing documents were far from what my attorney felt they needed to be.

So on this call, we were all playing nice on the introductions about how great everyone is and how excited we all are to work together. Then my attorney threw out that the entire structure needed to be adjusted prior to us funding the deal. The company pushed back saying the deal may not be able to wait for those changes, there was a fiduciary responsibility, and basically saying it wasn’t a practical request. Then suddenly my attorney JUMPED all over my long-time friend in a very direct and forceful way… effectively showing his teeth. Everyone on the call was stunned by the change in tone, including me, and scrambled to bring peace back to what-was a nice friendly call. We are a week later now, and the changes my attorney suggested are almost done. AND the company feels like it WAS the right thing to do all along.

At first I didn’t understand why my attorney needed to show his teeth on such a friendly call. Then I realized that that was EXACTLY what he needed to do to really MOVE everyone on the call (including me) from the status quo of just tweaking the existing structure into making a much bigger/harder shift towards doing it right.

Sometimes we need to show our teeth to shake people out of the status quo. Dogs do it without reservation to establish pecking order in the pack. Teddy, my sweet gentle 110-lb golden retriever, on rare occasions has looked like the most ferocious animal on the planet by growling and showing his big teeth. He does it only when other dogs don’t know yet to respect that he is alpha. If they try to dominate him, he’ll snap back at them in a scary way and instantly change the other dogs mis-perception of pecking order. Then everyone plays nice again with a new, more clearly established order.

I’ll give you one other example that came up for me personally in the past week. Someone from our parent company had asked for one of my employees to help on a project. I said yes. A week later the employee gave notice for unrelated reasons. I told the person from the parent company that I’m sorry that my employee wouldn’t be able to help anymore as a result of them wrapping up on higher-priority items on our end. They didn’t like that answer and asked two more times if they could get some help before the employee left. I gave them the same “no” answer. They then emailed my employee directly asking for help and cc’d me. I responded back in a very direct and forceful way because they were not hearing my answer. They replied that they were “surprised” by my response. None-the-less, the requests stopped immediately.

My conclusion is that showing your teeth once in a while to shift people’s thinking is a necessary and ok thing to do. We sometimes need to disturb the peace to have better peace in the structures around us.

Where could you show a little more teeth in your negotiations to help shift the status quo?

P.S. – killer comment: thanks to Chelsea for also pointing out that it’s important to not show your teeth for everything. It’s only efficient when you’re nice 99% of the time and pull teeth out only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise people start blowing you off as the jerk who is always upset about something.

Getting businesses to thrive

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In most of my businesses, I’ve entered at stage two. Where there are enough real-life examples of clients needing/wanting/buying/and loving what you have to sell. And there’s a revenue trend that shows clear profitability.

It’s at this stage where I LOVE to roll up my sleeves, leverage those examples, expand the marketing messages and channels, and help the organization thrive. Another entrepreneur recently asked me what’s my secret to being successful at this stage, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. Three factors come to mind:
1. Irresistible messaging – do prospects jump up and say “I WANT THAT!”?
2. Leveraged reach – are you hitting prospects in mass quantities?
3. Easy to buy – is it remarkably easy for prospects to start doing business with you?

Easy to say. The fun part is implementing, which is totally different for each business, and requires a lot of creativity, analysis, trial and error, and putting myself in my prospects shoes. Here’s an example with RegOnline:
1. Irresistible messaging – “Online Registration & Attendee Management has never been Easier” – historically its been a HUGE hassle for meeting planners and there wasn’t an easy technology solution either… until RegOnline.

2. Leveraged reach – #1 on Google for “online registration” and a hundred other search terms meeting planners use when they start searching after they are done pulling their hair out

3. Easy to buy – pricing, features, how it works, and free to try RegOnline – ALL front and center on the website without other distractions, confusing navigation, or BS (i.e. About Us, Partnerships, Our Philosophy, and other marketing techno-babble)

How would you rate your organization in these three areas? How could you improve upon them?

The smartest interview question

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My business partner and I were talking the other day about how many people we’ve interviewed (close to a thousand) and what makes someone appear super smart in an interview. The interview usually goes like this:
Q: Why would you be good at this position?
A: I have great experience, I work hard, I get along with others, blah blah

Q: Why do you want to work here?
A: Seems like a great environment, good people, fun company, blah blah

Q: Why did you leave your last job(s)? (btw, Jack Welch once said that this was the single most telling question – if you really dig-in and get at the REAL answer)
A: I was looking for a new challenge

Q: Do you have any questions?
A: No, I think I got everything from the website and talking to others

This last question “Do you have any questions?” is the double-credit-you-get-an-A-and-get-hired-if-you-nail-this-one question!

Some of my best hires have said “Yes, I’m glad you asked!” and then they proceeded to ask really intelligent questions like:
“What traits make a person super-successful in this position?”
“How do you define “success” in this position?”
“What is your vision for this department over the next couple years?”
“What could I do in this position that would make the biggest impact on the company?”
“If I am super-successful at this position, what would my career path look like?”
“What do people like most about working here?”
“What do people like least about working here?”
Then they dive into offshoot questions from there really trying to get at what will make the company more successful.

In fact, my partner said that as he was interviewing for jobs himself before he started RegOnline, he went into interviews with a list of questions in hand and got offered a job EVERY time.

Next time you are interviewing someone, don’t listen to their answers, listen to their QUESTIONS!

As a side note, I have a theory, that I haven’t been able to prove wrong yet… You are only as smart as your questions and as dumb as your answers. The more I shut up and ask questions, the smarter I get. The more I spout off, the less time there is to learn from what other people have to say. For those who know me, know that I must not be that smart because I still spout off more than I listen… but I’m working on it. 😉

P.S. – killer comment: thanks to James Clark for pointing out that diving deep into a question is HUGELY valuable too… “For me it’s asking one question that leads to many” (see his posted comment)

The Key to Growth

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About 18 months ago we cut the number of fields on our Open Account page in half. It almost doubled the number of free accounts that opened. Hooray for us! Right? Wrong. Turns out that it didn’t increase our revenue growth. We were still growing at the same rate as before. Making it easier for people to get into our system didn’t “sell” more of our system. But why?

About 8 months ago we hired our first full-time Usability Tester to observe how people flowed through our marketing website, opened an account, and started using the system. What we discovered in the process was that RegOnline was hard for the first-time user to figure out how to use. So what would happen is an event organizer would come to RegOnline to find an easier way to register, like the site, found it easy enough to open an account, and then wouldn’t make the leap into creating and going live with their registration form.

We are now on our third iteration of eliminating the not-so-easy-to-get-started bottleneck. Including testing-out having “Connie”, our video spokesperson, orient people who are new to the system.
Which brings me to the point of this post…

Riddle: If you are hiking with a group of people, how fast can the group hike?

Answer: Only as fast as the slowest hiker.

This may seem like an elementary school riddle… but it is much more profound than it looks. In my experience, it touches on the KEY element to making systems and organizations thrive. Every system ALWAYS has a bottleneck that is the equivalent to the slowest hiker in the pack that sets the speed for the rest of the system.

One of the most important roles I play as a leader of an organization (RegOnline), department (marketing), or system (website)… is to:
1. Identify the biggest bottle neck to growth
2. Focus as many resources as possible on getting rid of that bottle neck
3. Repeat the process on the next biggest bottleneck

Eli Goldratt is the godfather of this process called “Theory of Constraints (TOC)“. He wrote three easy-to-read business novels that apply to manufacturing (The Goal), software development (Critical Chain), and marketing (It’s Not Luck). A big hello and thanks goes out to my old friend, Michael Clingan, who helped me learn about and implement Goldratt’s theories in my last company.

What is the single greatest bottleneck for your organization’s growth? How are you shifting resources to eliminate that bottleneck?

Always Be Testing

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The topic of testing has come up three times in different parts of my life in the last 24 hours*. While at lunch today with the founder of PassageWorks (a great organization that enables kids to speak the unspoken), we were talking about what makes some organizations more successful than others. My answer was “testing and iterations”. An organization that tries things in rapid fire, while keeping the “control” fire burning brightly, and spends 20% of their time iterating and testing new ideas… ultimately attracts more people to their products and services.

As you may know, the two things I get crazy about is innovating and testing to see if it worked better. If I could pick one recipe for success, it’s ABT (always be testing)! Look at Apple and Google. They are CONSTANTLY testing and trying new iterations to beat the old models of the world. How quickly can they iterate improvements?! How quickly do they test out ideas before over-engineering them (like most companies do). At RegOnline, each quarter we focus on pushing the envelope in new ways. New site designs, new mailers, new SEO strategies, new product features. It’s all about iterating as quickly as possible to beat our previous bests. Every couple percent of improvement on each iteration creates a compounded growth rate that would make even Warren Buffet’s jaw drop.

In case you were wondering where else “Testing” came up in the past 24 hours… I’ve been having food challenges with Teddy (my 105 lb Golden Retriever), he’s gotten sick of his same old food. So I went to the pet store and they gave me a whole bag full of free samples and told me to go home and give him a taste test, to see which he likes best. So, that’s what I did…

I’m thinking, this is GENIUS! What a perfectly quick and easy way to see which food your dog likes the best. Let his nose do the choosing!… Until of course, he wouldn’t eat ANY of them.

After an hour of waiting for him to come around. I decided my taste test failed and I’d give-in to giving him the raw beef I had in the fridge. I put the beef out in his bowl and went into the other room while he gobbled it up. When I came back, expecting to find my failed food test still sitting there, this is what I found…
So, what are we supposed to divine from this test?! Multi-variant testing can give entirely new results. Soft food, before ANY hard food creates a great appetite in Teddy.

What could you feed your prospects FIRST that will increase their appetite for ALL your products and services? Good topic for another post.

*Btw, my Law of Three says that if a theme occurs in my life three unrelated times within 24 hours then I pay attention and look for deeper meaning (like the black cat in The Matrix).

How to make your homepage irresistible

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People ask me all the time to look at their website and tell them what I think. Here’s my thought process when I do tell them what I think about their site (that you can do yourself)…
1. I am a prospect
2. I am at this site because? (I want an easier way to handle/do something)
3. Did the homepage tell me right away that I am in the right place with the headline? (“Online Event Registration has Never Been Easier”)
4. The three things that I want to know right away are? (for web-based software it’s usually features, pricing, samples/how it works)
5. Did the homepage start to answer these three things (without a whole bunch of other navigational distractions to sort through)?

6. If Q3 & Q5 = “Yes” then I say “WOW, you have a great site”,
If “No” then I replay my thoughts on Q2 & Q4 for them.

7. Does the site make it easy for me to take a next step? Is it easy to convert myself into a client or a more qualified prospect?… I’ll save this one for another post.

It seems so simple, right? It is! But a lot of people/sites haven’t asked themselves these questions yet. Once you start asking yourself these basic questions, the rabbit hole does get more complex. But these are the basics. SO, is your site irresistible… yet?