Friday, July 31, 2009

"I Hope We're Slow Today": Back to Basics on Customer Relations

This morning, my wife asked me to run an errand to get milk. I was already a little late for the office so wasn't thrilled to be doing this, but the kids need milk as part of a balanced breakfast, so I did it. I went to a nice convenience store near my house, where I normally have great (or at least mediocre) experiences in shopping. On this particular occasion, though, I went to the counter where 'my' cashier doesn't greet me, but instead remains engaged in the discussion with her colleague about the weather, which was cold and rainy. The next thing she says is, "I hope we're slow today." Although not exactly what she said, what I heard was "I hope we don't get many people like this guy in here today."

Maybe it was because I was running late and wasn't in the best of moods, but this really bothered me. Not only did it bother me, it offended me. It really irritates me as a customer not to be greeted and thanked, but I've learned to live with that. But to be told, even in an indirect way, that I was bothering the cashier by giving her company my business, was a little more than I expected. While I'm not prepared to take my last-minute milk purchases elsewhere, it negatively affected my view of the store.

I responded in EXACTLY the way we teach clients that customers will respond if they have a similar experience at the client's store. It pays to spend time with cashiers and everyone else who will represent your operation to the customer. A pleasant smile, a helpful attitude, and a thank you provide a positive impression immediately. We teach a lot of advanced marketing topics, but the basics form the foundation for lasting customer relationships. Don't let your business suffer because of an employee's misstep. Train them, evaluate them, and positively reinforce exemplary behavior. On the flip-side, correct problems immediately. Your customer might not let it slide. You've heard it before; It's much cheaper to retain customers than it is to recruit new ones!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fancy Food Show part 3

Continuing the Fancy Food Show blog mini-series, more observations I made at the show included marketing to food service, production products, as well as non-food/non-human food products.

Vendors at the show did not limit themselves to selling products for retail sales, rather many vendors were marketing products for food service. Don’s Salads (www.donssalads.com) produces salads, gourmet cream cheese spreads, soups, and desserts which are then sold to distributors for restaurant and institutional use. Another restaurant/institutional sales product seen at the show was Fatboy’s Outrageous Cookie Dough (www.outrageouscookiedough.com). Fatboy’s delivers cookie dough in pre-portioned pieces to maximize ease in baking and consistency.

Vendors were also promoting products to help agricultural businesses become more consistent, efficient, and customized. Met Speed Label (www.metspeedlabel.com) has developed label printers that allow companies to work with a designer to create professional looking labels which can then be printed in-house. Roxispice (www.roxispice.com) and Cookal (www.brunowhitefoods.com) showcased products to customize restaurant food and drinks. Roxispice is a drinkware rimming system that allows the bartender to rim glasses in colored spices. Cookal is a carmelization kit used to create a caramelized look for desserts like crème brulee.

One major area of agriculture that consumers frequently overlook is non-food/non-human food products. Envirosax (www.envirosax.com) markets reusable bags made from hemp, bamboo, linen, and organic cotton. Big Bark Bakery (www.bigbarkbakery.com) bakes designer dog and cat treats. Their treats are preservative, sugar, and salt free.

As an ag entrepreneur, do you market to food service providers? Do you use or produce products or services that help customers make a final product (like Roxispice or Cookal)? Have you considered making a non-food or non-human food agricultural product like bags or dog treats?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fancy Food Show part 2

As promised, I am continuing my blog mini-series on the Fancy Food Show. The event was a great experience and could definitely help entrepreneurs. Not only are contacts made during the three-day event between industry members, but producers can generate new food product ideas while retailers can determine what products complement what they already offer.

Another popular trend was portioning/individual servings. Both Party Partners (www.choc-o-lait.com) and Edelman & Paulig (http://www.edelmann-paulig.com/) have developed “hot chocolate on a stick.””Hot chocolate on a stick” consists of a 1-inch cube of chocolate attached to the end of a wooden stick, like a lollipop. To enjoy this treat, the customer merely has to dip the stick into a hot cup of milk and stir for a minute. The chocolate melts and combines with the milk to make hot chocolate. L.T. Blender’s Frozen Concoctions (www.ltblender.com) packages margarita, daiquiri, mojito, and other frozen drinks in portable, pourable bags. L.T. Blender designed its packages to allow customers to have frozen drinks without the blender. To prepare and serve, liquor and water are poured into the bag, shaken together, placed in the freezer for a few hours, and then the frozen drink can be squeezed into a glass and enjoyed. The bags come in different sizes depending on the number of servings needed. The Great San Saba River Pecan Company (http://www.greatpecans.com/) has also developed a quick and easy “semi-homemade” type product. They have designed a pecan pie in-a-jar. To make their own pecan pie, a customer just needs to add eggs and butter to the mix and pour into a pie crust. Another portioned treat seen at the show were Lollibons. Developed by Philip R’s Frozen Desserts (http://www.icecream-desserts.com/), Lollibons are ice cream bonbons served on a stick for a small, convenient snack.

Another trend seen at the Fancy Food Show was an emphasis on “healthy” foods. Loaded Smoothies (http://www.loadedsmoothies.co.za/) are individually packaged and made only with fruit and water, contain zero preservatives, zero stabilizers, zero colorings, and are sugar-free. Another health-conscious fruit product seen at the show was Tropicube. Tropicube (http://www.tropicube.co.za/) is a dried fruit product that is preservative, fat, gluten, and nut free. La Vita Health Foods (http://www.lavitahealthfoods.com/) was also promoting health-conscious products. La Vita sells eight flavors of cookies that are gluten, wheat, sugar, lactose, cholesterol, and trans fat free. The cookies are also prebiotic, vegan, and diabetic friendly.

As an ag entrepreneur, do you currently use any of the above trends (portioning/individual servings and/or health-conscious)? If you do, is this a recent implementation to your product line or have you been doing this for a long time? If you don’t, are you considering these trends?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fancy Food Show part 1

In June, some of the Ag Entrepreneurship team members (including myself)visited New York City for the Fancy Food Show. The Fancy Food Show provided many new marketing avenues for industry members. In today's post (and the next few), I am going to discuss what I saw at the show and how I think my observations could help entrepreneurs change their marketing techniques or at least update some of the strategies they are using currently. Some of these new ideas include different packaging, flavors, sizes/portions, health conscious, non-edible agricultural products, and restaurant/ wholesale distribution.

Packaging and product design are important parts of product delivery. No matter how great a product may be, a customer may overlook it if the packaging and/or design of the product isn’t eye-catching. For example, JF & B Co (http://www.jfnb.co.kr/) produces frozen chocolates and cakes with beautiful gold overlay, bold colors, and interesting shapes including leaves, roses, hearts, moose, and four leaf clovers. JF & B Co also offers decorations made of chocolate with custom designs or logos. Azienda Agricola Fejoia (www.fejoia.it) is a wine maker in Bergamo, Italy who sells their wine in slightly different-than-average bottles. Azienda bottles their wine in tall, thin bottles. Sitting next to an average wine bottle, the Azienda bottles seem sleeker and catch the eye. Another interesting package is that of Sence Nectar (http://www.sencenectar.com/). Sence is a rose nectar beverage bottled in a clear, textured, cone-shaped bottle with a metal lid. The light pink color of the liquid shines nicely through the bottle creating an almost stained glass appearance.

Not only is Sence Nectar bottled in an eye-catching container, but is also a unique flavor. Sence is made from the extract of the Kazanlak Rose found in Bulgaria. It can be used as a mixer with spirits or served separately as an alternative to juices and soft drinks. Also popular at the Fancy Food Show were honeys. Two companies stood out in the honey market. Both Crystal’s Honeys (http://mvabeepunchers.com/honey/crystals_honey.php) and The Bee Cave Honey Company (http://www.beebutter.com/) have infused flavors and textures into their honey. Crystal’s Honeys offers flavors like wild blueberry, orange blossom, cranberry, and western clover as well as textures like chunky honey. The Bee Cave Honey Company specializes in whipped honey. They take raw honey and whip it until it is smooth and creamy and then add flavors like cinnamon, strawberry, and lemon.

As an entrepreneur, what kind of packaging are you using? Do you think it stands out from competitors? Have you tried to integrate new flavors and/or textures into your products?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Penn State Extension and Agricultural Entrepreneurship

There has long been debate about whether entrepreneurship can be taught. I often tell folks that being an entrepreneur is like being an artist. Anyone can draw a portrait of a landscape, say, but some people will be better able to convey colors, shadows, perspective, distance, etc. Likewise, anyone can operate a business or undertake new ventures, but some will be more successful because they have a skill set that enables them to manage and lead better than others can.

Just as you might learn elements of art in a basic course, it is wholly possible to learn elements of entrepreneurship. Management skills such as business planning, marketing, financial management, etc. are all taught in universities around the world. Entrepreneurs put these pieces together to take advantage of opportunities to create new ventures or make existing ones better.

Penn State Extension offers training for agricultural entrepreneurs.
  • "Income Opportunities in Agriculture" is a one-day workshop that provides opportunities to learn from other entrepreneurs about their ventures.
  • "Food for Profit," usually offered in one day, provides important management information for those interested in small-scale food business. Participants learn about business management as well as food safety practices, etc.
  • "Annie's Project" is multi-session course targeted to women farmers. It provides training on managing farm risks in a way that best suits the unique learning styles of women.
  • "Exploring Your Small Farm Dream" is a multi-session course targeted at people who have a few acres and who are thinking about a farm venture.
  • "Your Future in Focus" is a multi-session course designed to walk participants through a business planning process. At the end, participants will have learned about the many facets of farm business management and should also have a draft of a written business plan.

In addition to these curriculum-based educational activities, we also offer many workshops and courses on topics including financial management, farm succession planning, marketing, etc. Our goal is to provide training on the management skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur. As with artists, some will combine those skills more successfully than others. However, without these skills, the business owner is at a competitive disadvantage and is likely to fail in their venture.

As Extension State Program Leader for Entrepreneurship and Value-Added Ag, I am really proud of the depth of programming we have to offer. Even with this, we are working hard to improve our programs to meet the needs more effectively. I'll keep you in the loop as we move forward. If you have any questions about our programs, contact me at jeffhyde@psu.edu.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What are people saying about your business online?

If someone was talking about you (positively or negatively), you would want to know about it, right? If someone was speaking your praises, you would want to thank them. Conversely, if someone was speaking poorly about you, you would want to set the record straight. The same is true for your business. But today, someone can just as easily talk about your business face-to-face as they can post to a blog, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Your business's reputation is just as important in brick-and-mortar as it is online. Customers are not just going to your website to get information about your business. You must also manage your web presence for postings from people outside your organization. The internet is a place where anyone (fan or critic) can express their opinions about anyone and anything. Don't be oblivious (or vulnerable) to rumors, complaints, review sites, blogs, etc.

In a BusinessWeek article, Tom Kurz, co-founder of The Escapist, a video gaming site, explains what his company does to monitor their online reputation. With technology (especially social media) changing frequently, small businesses are feeling overwhelmed by trying to manage their web presence. Kurz warns, "If you don't control the message, somebody else does...For a small company with $1 million in sales, when a rumor flies about their product or service, it could sink their entire business."

Seems pretty scary, doesn't it? There are many free tools to help you manage your online reputation. Google Alerts, Google News, Yahoo Alerts, Technorati.com, BlogPulse.com, BoardTracker.com, Keotag.com, and BuzzLogic.com monitor blogs, forums, social networking sites, and/or news for your business's name (or any other search term). If you find posts about your business, you need to respond to it immediately. Kurz explains, "What we want to know is if people are talking positively about us, so we can link to it. If they're talking negatively, we want to address the issue right away...Oh, we've had to do some major damage control. I can't tell you how many times someone will post something and blame us for something we had nothing to do with. If we get there pretty quickly, we can address a negative comment directly with the person who made the post, or we can go to the site itself and make a post...If you go to the source and explain truthfully where you're coming from, you buy good will from people who were flaming you. There's nothing better than to turn an adversary into an advocate..."

business reputation article

As an entrepreneur, are you managing your business's online reputation? What tools are you using to find online information? If you have found negative posts, what have you done to curtail the negativity?