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Creating An EVERGREEN Ecommerce Online Business

"Loyal customers are the beating heart of every great business."

Discover how to make your company EVERGREEN.

What do I mean by evergreen? We'll, most plants die during the seasonal changes if you're are so lucky to have all four season. When I was back in New York City, I couldn't keep anything alive during the winter. But despite deep snow and heavy winds, some stay green all throughout the season and what comes to mind is the tall standing pine trees.

In many ways, it’s the same with any online businesses. Some companies seem to have some magic formula for staying fresh.

What’s the secret to creating an evergreen Ecommerce business?

It's a combination of elements;

  • great content
  • an active customer community and 
  • making sure people know what your company is all about.

Combined with a clear brand story, these actions will help you grow a truly evergreen online business. You're going to want to know...

  • what Ben & Jerry can tell you about creating an evergreen business;
  • that there is no such thing as an average customer; and
  • why you should fire some of your clients.

In Noah's book, Evergreen: Cultivate the Enduring Customer Loyalty That Keeps Your Business Thriving, he outlines that character, community and content are the three Cs that power an evergreen business. The Character is the company's foundation, which grows the Community, who benefits from the firm’s Content.

Character, the first C, refers to the brand’s identity and personality.

This is more than just the company’s story. Here’s what we mean by “story.” Did you know that:

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the now-legendary duo who decided to open a business after taking a correspondence course in the art of ice cream making. They discovered that just about the only college town without an ice cream shop was Burlington, Vermont. With $8,000 in savings and a $4,000 loan, they leased an old gas station in Burlington, purchased equipment, and began coming up with ideas for “unique” flavors. Twenty years later, the company was taking in $237 million in annual revenue.

Seth Goldman started out brewing the tea in his kitchen and storing it in thermoses. After only five weeks spent perfecting the brewing process, he brought samples of and a mock-up label to a meeting with the company that is now Whole Foods Market, hoping that they would place a small order. They asked for 15,000 bottles. Honest Tea is now the top-selling bottled organic tea in the U.S.

You can read more of these amazing stories here... 

I also love how the origin stories of superheroes. Spiderman got bitten by a spider on a field trip. Bruce Banner caught in the blast of gamma radiation, is cursed to transform in times of stress into a green machine of destruction known as The Incredible Hulk.

The next C is Community, and it’s about capturing the human desire to connect with others.

That's why we love going to meet-up groups for your business or interest, why musicians like to collaborate with other bands and why I get myself plugged into Facebook groups who are interested in entrepreneurship and Spartan races. It's estimated that Facebook has over one million groups! It's our human nature to seek out people who share our interests, beliefs, and values. Accordingly, companies should help build or nurture communities which are aligned with their brand.

The last C is for Content, which refers to the company’s products and services.

This is the core return customers get for their money, but it’s also much more. It’s the customer service, marketing, logistics – all the intangibles that keep the company running.

So now that we’ve sketched an overview of the three Cs model, let’s find out how they work.

A company’s motivation, values, and beliefs define its CHARACTER.

When someone lands on your web page, they should be able to tell what you sell or the products you provide within seconds, by looking at your take line and imagery. Be as clear and as simple as possible, because that’ll make it easy for your customers to understand your company, building trust loyalty.

To start building your firm’s character, don’t simply try to describe what you do. Instead, you need to lead your customers through a process of understanding their problem, which could be as simple as "I need a new toothbrush" to giving they success if they were to purchase from you - there's a lot more to this process.

Shoe retailer Zappos does this by producing product videos to run alongside item descriptions. These videos feature real company employees – showing off every detail of the shoes, even those little weird things at the end of the laces.

These videos define Zappos’ character in two ways, showing a company that’s 1) passionate about its products and 2) employs people who care about providing great service, which is what they are known for and their 365-day guarantee.

Another retail store that I love is Costco. I shop there once a week, spend about $100 to $200 each time easily. They have everything that I almost need, both products and service with a great money back guarantee. Let's compare this to Best Buy, which I recently bought a couple of security cameras for my home. After my second return, they made me sign a, "you might not be eligible for returns in the future." They verbally told me and asked me to sign at the terminal. That made me feel pretty horrible.

Company’s character forms the basis for everything a company does. It guides and build relationships with customers.

Build deeper relationships with your customers by fostering COMMUNITY.

My wife and I belong to a marriage group. When we get together, we're connecting at a deeper level. Compare that to going to the gas station, which is about participating in a simple exchange – me want gas, you have gas. The difference is, you and your friends belong to a community.

This is something companies should strive for as well because a community can help a business build its brand through word of mouth.

Let me talk about Spartan, they have a thriving community. People visit to see the Work Out of the Day (WOD), nutrition and sign up for races. People create short videos of their workout, give each other tips and build each other up. This kind of community building has strengthened the Spartan brand, propelling it to new heights.

In addition to promoting the company’s brand, a community also helps firms understand and address customer needs. Harley-Davidson has built up a great community by hosting public events. This gives employees – and the company as a whole – a direct line to their motorbike-loving customers. Harley-Davidson’s focus on community started in the 1980s, a troubled time for the business. But embracing its customers proved to be the way forward: Today, Harley-Davidson is the biggest motorcycle company in the world, with a consolidated revenue of over $6 billion in 2014.

As you can see, building strong communities plays an important role in creating the kinds of deep connections – not just transactions – that keep a company going and keeps me going.

CONTENT encompasses everything the company does, and also the value it provides

A company’s content is the third C – isn’t just about its products, it’s also about the experience. It's the experience and additional ecosystem of the company that provides the content.

Munchery is a meal subscription service where they delievery easy to cook food. In my first box, they gave me an apron, each meal in its own box, containing all the ingrediants, even the salt and pepper and directions in an insulated box. This was a good experience. I have tried a few others, but what I remember was my apron :)

This is a key point: Any product or service can be transformed into great content by changing the experience, and thus adding value.

Here is another example, in 2009 Uber set its sights on transforming the taxi industry. At its most basic, a taxi ride is a simple service that gets someone from point A to point B. Well, Uber does provide that service, but it’s completely changed the experience. Instead of hailing a cab and paying with cash, you can order the car and pay automatically through the Uber app.
This has completely disrupted the taxi industry and changed the transport landscape in cities like New York. This doesn't mean it was easy. And in just six years, Uber has spread to 34 countries and more than 90 cities. Wow.

What simple product or service can you think of that you can change the experience?

Knowing Your Customers = Conversion

Instead of seeing your customers in terms of numbers, get to know who they really are. A lot of companies see their customers as numbers. Best Buy, instead of seeing me as a person, I felt that they saw me as a stat. It's hard to "know" your customer if you're strictly an Ecommerce business and conduct business purely online. You need to pick up the phone and interact with them and use survey's to collect information.

You can collect this information simply by asking questions about gender, age, education level, income, hobbies, spending habits, and so on. Of course, in order to get people to answer your questions, you have to give them incentives.

You can host a lottery each month. The lucky winner receives free lunches for a month.
Get a discount towards your next purchase.
A valuable free consultation.
And to enter, you have to fill out a short survey.

Ultimately, the main goal is to understand who your customers are and how they behave. So instead of boiling customers down into one overly generalized stereotype, get real insights. This is a great lead into Email marketing, but I'll save that for next time on the different strategies of segmenting your email list to speak to them at your level.  

Strategically build loyalty programs that create stronger bonds between customer and company.

Your wallet is probably crammed full of membership cards from various businesses. Most of these are attached to loyalty programs that give rewards for spending. But do these kinds of promotions actually make customers more loyal?

The most effective loyalty programs focus on customers who could potentially become more loyal and less on those who are already devoted.

In most membership programs, customers collect points and there’s no differentiation between different groups. But when there are no progressive incentives or badges to identify your "ranking", which is part of gamification, companies run the risk of losing both top tier customers and those who have the potential to become more loyal.

Because in some cases, collecting points can even make customers feel underappreciated. For example, the Delta Airlines bonus system has been called “sky pesos” because of the low value of the points. Make sure the reward program makes sense for both you and the customer.

On the other hand, Starbucks’ loyalty program is effective. Borderline-regular customers are the company’s main focus, and so these groups receive more special offers than regulars. Hardcore Starbucks users still receive rewards, just not as much.

And in a lot of cases, the top loyalty programs actually require customers to pay a membership fee.

For instance, Amazon’s “Prime” service costs $99 a year and offers members free two-day shipping, full access to Amazon’s Kindle library and other special rebates.

In sum, loyalty is a relationship, which means both the company and the customer have to work toward it. But rethinking your approach to membership programs will allow you to build a stronger relationship with your customers.

Customer service is about supporting loyalty and sorting out unprofitable customers.

Everyone has that one friend that’s never happy, no matter how much time you spend with them. Maybe you feel it’s a relationship that takes way too much energy, but doesn’t give you anything back. Well, customer relationships can often work the same way.

In other words, fire your customers.  For my Ecommerce website, I actually started firing customers myself, those who continually ask for discounts, absorb too much of your time and those who just always want free samples.  And since they will never be profitable, these customers should be fired. Fire carefully.

Amazon does this, literally closing customer accounts if they return an excessive number of items. The retailer notifies the customers via email, telling them that since they seem to have more problems than Amazon can solve, the relationship must come to an end. And a special department within customer service handles any complaints about these decisions.

Telecommunications company Sprint was thinking along the same lines when it closed 1,000 accounts. The cell phone provider noticed that these customers were calling customer service to an extreme degree, always trying (and succeeding) to get reimbursed for fees. Sprint basically said that these people were defrauding the company.

Southwest Airlines is widely recognized as one of the top airlines when it comes to customer satisfaction. They advertise themselves as a low-fare budget airline, and customers get exactly what they expect. And so they’re satisfied!

Tackling expectations from another angle, FedEx identified eight weak spots (such as late deliveries and packages being lost) that would be most frustrating for customers. And after measuring which caused the most problems, the company started reworking its processes.

These are just a few new ways to think about customer service, but the basic assumption still holds: Customer service is about attracting customers who fit the character and community for your evergreen business. And the customers who don’t fit won’t support your business in the long term.

An evergreen business focuses on reducing friction and recovering lost customers.

Waiting 10 seconds for a website to load... you’d probably leave, right? Losing customers is a risk for any business, of course – but you can minimize it.

More specifically, there are two types of attrition that can occur. Business losses related to 1) company screw ups and 2) changes in customer habits.

To the first point, if you make a mistake, you can either fix the process or deliver an apology. And even if the relationship has ended for good, you can always improve the terms.

For example, a publishing CEO noticed that his company was losing subscription customers after a few months. The reason? These customers couldn’t retrieve their passwords. A simple fix to the website code could make the difference.

In other cases, customers simply forget to do business with a company because their habits changed. But companies can avoid that by staying in touch with their customers (email or phone calls).

For instance, when a customer who spent the previous year shopping at your store monthly doesn’t visit for a couple of months, that’s a warning sign. When that happens, trying to recover them is easier and more profitable than acquiring new customers.

For example, you can create reactivation campaign targeted at former customers who haven't purchased in the past x month. This can be done by email, postcards or retargeting ads.

Acquiring new customers isn’t as important as building a relationship with existing ones. Why, because it costs me much more to acquire them through pay per click ads.

Imagine you’re trying to fill up a bucket and you discover it has holes in it. What’s best, plugging the holes or adding more water?

You should think about your business the same way: Your company is the bucket and customers are the water. And placing too much focus on new customer acquisition can actually be detrimental.

Have you ever heard about the Oprah effect? This is Oprah's Favorite Things, products she has featured on her show or in her successful magazine, O, very shortly become America's favorite things after she spotlights them. Sometimes, companies that are mentioned by her suddenly gets slammed with traffic and orders that their system or process cannot handle.

As a result, many people didn’t get their orders and even a severe drop in quality. This cost the owner's profit – and also some existing customers, who weren’t happy about having to wait for their order or if the site is down.

Instead of going for volume, the first step of engaging new customers should be leveraging the company’s character and community. And often, the point of sale is a great opportunity to start building customer relationships that promote long-term profitability, but many companies miss that point.

You shouldn’t: When someone places an online order, follow up with something beyond a generic confirmation. You could include a video explaining your brand or a gift certificate showing off your customer character if you have a complicated product or a welcome sequence describing more of your company and culture.

The point is, once a prospect becomes a customer, companies should change their focus: It’s no longer about trying to sell, it’s about building a bond. Introduce the customer to the community and get them to feel that they’re part of something bigger, more exclusive.

After reading this, you may need to rethink how you’re attracting new customers. Because the new sale isn’t the most important part of a successful business: If you have an evergreen company, those new customers are just new leaves on a blooming tree.

The key message in this book:
Companies should follow the three Cs – character, community and content – to put customers first and build a strong evergreen business with long-term profitability.

Resources you can use:


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