June 2008

5 Words And Phrases To Handle With Care On The Web

Kim Krause Berg has just authored a very thoughtful post on the power of the words we use on the web. From Kim’s post:

Since people can’t throw pots at each other online, we try to use words to communicate our feelings and ideas. However, it’s not enough to write sentences and be grammatically correct. We still can be misunderstood even though we used our words.

The fact is, words read very differently on the screen than they do when spoken with the modulation of a human voice. Sarcasm, irony, jokes and strong emotions often translate very poorly in the written medium resulting in misunderstandings between author and reader.

One of my favorite American authors, James Thurber, wrote a piece on this subject some 3/4 of a century ago, reflecting on the overuse of the exclamation point and its inability to truly convey intended emotions. One of his examples I recall best was of the brashness of the statement:

I love you!

Thurber thought this read as too loud and hysterical for such an intimate declaration. His suggested alternative:

I love: you.

He opined that this punctuation better encapsulated the breathless catch in a true lover’s voice as he fervently reveals his deepest emotions.

Thurber was being silly, but he was right.

I am frequently guilty of the overuse of exclamation points in my emails when I am trying to convey enthusiasm and friendliness.

I’d love to find out why your hosting just dumped everything off your server!

Somehow, that doesn’t read right.

Like many of you, I fear that my written words, detached from the benefit of my friendly voice, will lack the tone of sincerity that I want to shine through in my communications with valued people. Whether I am interacting online with colleagues, clients or loved ones, I tend to deliberate over and proofread every thing I write before I hit the button that puts my message, irrevocably, before the eyes of the recipient. I’ve determined that there are certain phrases that, while sometimes acceptable in face-to-face communications, read simply horridly. Here’s my list:

1) Oh, come on, Bill

The impatience conveyed by, “oh, come on,” is almost palpable. It may be meant as the merest of chidings in a disagreement, but it comes off as very rude in print. I always cringe when I am reading discussions in forums or on SM sites where, “oh, come on,” makes an appearance. It conveys that Bill is an idiot and no one can believe how stupid he is for having expressed such-and-such opinion. I don’t care if Bill has just declared the meta keywords tags are the key to high rankings. “Oh, come on,” will only serve to humiliate him and will bring a very anti-social element into a social atmosphere.

2) Obvious
When given as an answer to a question that’s been asked, ‘obvious’ is a loaded word. “That’s obvious, isn’t that obvious, that should be obvious,” are all different ways of making the inquirer feel dumb for having asked a question. Chances are, if the answer was already obvious to him, he wouldn’t have asked. It makes the author sound very full-of-themselves, and one is given a glimpsed image of them standing high above the common folk, filled with their knowledge of what is obvious to them, but all darkness to lesser beings.

3) As I’ve Said
This is one that comes off badly both in the spoken and the written form. When you write, “as I’ve said,” you are implying that the person on the other end of the communication tool is forgetful and forcing you to repeat yourself when, really, you’ve got much better things to do with your time. It always sounds cross. Ditch it.

4) But
‘But’ becomes bad when used as a form a sneaking in a negative statement after making a false positive one. ‘Your theory on Local Search is interesting, Bill, but…” The recipient of such a message is likely to experience a sinking feeling as they brace themselves for being told you think they are wrong. Bill will come away only remembering that you thought he was misguided and foolish. I think people fall into this trap in a well-meant attempt to break things gently. I appreciate that consideration, but I don’t think it convinces anyone anymore. A better alternative in the face of disagreement is to show simple proofs of your differing findings with a lead in along the lines of, “I wanted to show you something I found. What do you think of this?”

5) No
‘No’, unadorned by any modifying explanations, is cold. Even when all that’s being asked for is a simple yes or no answer, just saying ‘no’ can read as confrontational and imperious in certain situations. The Gaelic language has made such efforts to avoid this semblance of brusqueness that Irish speakers have no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Rather, they write, ‘it is’ or ‘it isn’t’ and are often prone to using ‘it could be, it might be, in might not be,’ instead. I’m all for plain speaking and sometimes no means no and nothing more, but in writing, a bare ‘no’ can smack of a peremptory and bullish intent. Use it with care.

Kim’s enjoyable post, referenced above, contains a word of advice that when we write something negative, we should balance it with something positive. So, here are some words and phrases that always look well in print and on the screen:

Please
May I ask a favor?
I appreciate this
You really put effort into this
It’s my pleasure
Thank you

Writing is always a step removed from our native, oral means of communication. Think before you speak is something most of us are taught in the cradle. I believe that think before you send has taken on a new importance in this world of such vast activity being transacted on the web. Sometimes, you can modify or take back words you didn’t mean when you’re looking your neighbor in the eye. It can be a lot more difficult when you’ve committed a blunder in print.

Home Depot Staff Needs Down Home Lesson In Manners

I spend a lot of time on the telephone. I wake up each day with a simple itinerary of about 83 million calls to be made by nightfall. But, I’m happy about that. I like being on the phone. Today, the call I was most looking forward to was one to Mike Belasco of SEO Overflow. We had some nifty things to discuss. Hence, my disappointment when I got a very weird message telling me my long distance service wouldn’t allow me to call Mike’s number in Colorado. This had never happened before, and I was bewildered.

So, I got on the phone with Verizon. Or, at least, I tried to. First, the number I called, located on my phone bill, took me to a Spanish-only service department. I love Spanish, but I was kind of startled. I speak enough Spanish so that I understood what was going on. *If this ever happens to you, remember that ‘V’ in Spanish is pronounced a little bit like the English letter ‘B’. So, if you hear the recorded voice talking about Berizon, never fear, you’re at the right place.

After explaining, in Spanish, that I didn’t feel educated enough to conduct my entire call in Spanish, I was transferred…this time to a fun department that had something to do with large businesses. I have no idea what that was, but it was in English.

Then I was disconnected.

Then I called back and spoke to an incredibly snobby woman who was devoid of pity for my wasted minutes and frustration. I received no validation of my inability to get an answer to a question and not even the merest of apologies for my inconvenience. Upon stating my simple question, “why can’t I phone Mike Belasco in Colorado?” she replied,

“Who in the world is Mike Belasco?”

No, she didn’t really say that. But what she did say was not at all helpful. Apparently, Verizon would have to call me back after their ‘team of investigators’ could look into my problem. Hours have now gone by and neither Verizon, Berizon nor anyone else has called me back. Sorry, Mike. Maybe we can chat tomorrow.

My next phone call was even more fun. I needed to call Home Depot – the West Coast’s biggest Home Improvement Chain – to inquire if they carry a specific color of house paint for a repair I need to do. Rather than burning up 40 minutes worth of gas, I thought I’d just give a ring and get an answer to my simple question.

Well, after sitting through an exciting but long set of automated instructions, I finally got to a person who routed me to the paint department. Only, no one was there. I sat on the phone for 5 minutes before the operator reappeared. She tried the paint department again. Another 5 minutes on hold. Operator again.

Then she disconnected the phone.

So, I called back (deja vu!) and said, “Hello, I believe you disconnected the phone. I’ve been waiting for 10 minutes to speak to someone in the paint department.”

Her reply, spoken in a cold and merciless tone,

“No, I didn’t disconnect you.”

“Okay, well, I’m still waiting to speak to someone in the paint department.”

“Well, there’s no one there, I guess.”

“Okay, so, can I speak to someone who can walk over and check to see if you have the paint I’d like to come in and buy from you?”

“Hhhhhhuuuuuuuhhh (a sighing noise). Hold on.”

This time, I’m on hold for almost 10 minutes before a zippy sounding man answered the phone.

“Is this the paint department?” I quavered.

“No.”

“Well, would you be able to go over to the paint department and locate a product for me, if it’s in stock? I’ve been trying to get assistance for the past 20 minutes now and have had to call twice.”

“Uh.”

“Can you assist me?”

“Sure.”

Anyway, the conversation went on in this idiotic manner until the zippy guy agreed to walk over to the apparent ghost town – the paint department – to see if this paint was in stock.

Another 5 minutes later, he returned with my answer which was, yes, they have that paint.

Again, I received no apology for my inconvenience of a 30 minute wait to get the simplest of questions answered, but the zippy guy did bid me adieu with an unctuous sounding, “have a great day.”

My day would have been a lot ‘greater’ if Home Depot had spent 5 minutes training their staff in basic customer service.

The simple rule of business etiquette is this:

When A Customer Is Frustrated, Offer An Apology, In Words, With Your Mouth, Directed At Their Ear, So That You And Your Company Don’t Come Off As Insensitive, Ill-Bred Dumb-Dumbs

None of the 5 or 6 people with whom I spoke today in the Verizon-Berizon-Home Depot Debacle knew how to say those simple words, “I’m sorry.”

So, I’ve made illustrations and I would suggest that both Verizon and Home Depot share these with their staff if they ever decide to buckle down and hold an honest-to-gosh training session.

Dissatisfied Customer #1
“I’ve been on hold for 20 minutes, and no one seems to be able to answer my question.”

The Nice Guy: Oh, I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, Ma’am. I want to get your question answered as quickly as I can. Please, let me help you. Please just explain your question to me and I will find the right person to answer it promptly for you. I know it’s important.

The Dumb-Dumb: Oh, uh, I’m going to put you on hold.

Dissatisfied Customer #2
“I’ve been waiting for 3 weeks for my product I ordered. It was supposed to come in 5 days. Why haven’t I received it?”

The Nice Guy: What an inconvenience to you. Clearly, we’ve made a mistake somewhere and I need to get this resolved for you. I’m really sorry for your trouble. Please, let me help you.

The Dumb-Dumb: You probably wrote down your address wrong. We never get things wrong like this here.

Dissatisfied Customer #3
“My product is broken. It fell apart when I took it out of the box here. I’m really disappointed.”

The Nice Guy: Gosh, I really apologize for that. I’m sorry for your disappointment and we’re going to get this fixed. Please, let us replace the product or refund your money immediately.

The Dumb-Dumb: Dur…you musta done something to it. Customers are always breaking things.

You Get The Picture
Refusing to acknowledge fault and admit that the customer has been inconvenienced may, in some weird primal way, seem to protect your pride, but in fact, it alienates your customer and earns your business a reputation for bad service.

Perhaps there is an impulse in all of us to profess blamelessness because we fear humiliation over the discovery of our errors. It’s one thing if you’re like that in your personal life (though a dubious virtue) but in the business world, staying in business means building and maintaining a good reputation. If your employees are acting rude, impatient or are hiding behind a wall of inaccessibility, your customers won’t forget it.

The antidote is staff training. If this means teaching staff to overcome their natural impulse to avoid blame, so be it. Teach them to use language to communicate. Silence and ‘uhmm’ are not enough. Teach them to empathize with the potential customer, to view themselves as aides who are employed to make the customer happy and satisfied. Shifting blame or never saying you’re sorry may be great if you’re trying to run away from a problem – not if you’re trying to solve it and make a sale.

Friend or Foe?
I want to add that I’m not talking through my hat on this. I have a small business that delivers digital downloads to customers. Sometimes, there is a technical glitch that causes a delay in the customer receiving their download link automatically. Sometimes the customer doesn’t follow the directions correctly. It doesn’t matter to me how they ended up not getting what they paid for. All I care about is getting their download to them to keep up my end of the bargain.

Just this week, I’ve been dealing with a customer who couldn’t print out her download. Turned out, this really wasn’t any fault of mine or my website – her printer was broken. Now, it’s not my ‘job’ to make up for someone having a broken printer. But it is my job to make customers happy and turn them into evangelists for my product. So, I found a solution that made this lady glad. I emailed a free, additional download of the product to her best friend whose printer isn’t broken so that she could still receive and print her product.

Yes, it was a little bit of a hassle for me. But what did it hurt me to apologize to her for the frustration she was experiencing? It showed her I was her friend, not her foe, and we found a solution to her problem. She’s now my company’s fan and is really excited about what she ordered.

But I’m a small business owner. I am my staff. I handle my customer relations. If I was hiring people to stand in my stead with the customers, you’d better believe we’d start the process off with a quick lesson in Ps and Qs. So many people seem to lack these basic social skills these days and it makes doing business really unpleasant. Staff must be thoroughly, carefully trained in handling a variety of difficult situations with grace and aplomb. Skip this step at your company’s peril.

Manners are important in all business dealings. And, I’d add that they are especially important in local business dealings. How that customer gets treated on the phone is likely to determine whether or not they walk in the door. The happy customer is the key to success.

Under New Management And Under A Black Cloud – Hotels and User Reviews

Google maps image of hotel review

Have you noticed this interesting little change in Google Maps’ top level interface? They are now including user review snippets for many businesses right there at the top. Localhound Tim and I both noticed this change but weren’t sure when exactly it had happened. Leave it to Mr. Blumenthal to provide a citation of it on Google’s LatLong Blog. Apparently this is part of an effort to enrich the Maps’ user experience.

Being a sucker for reviews – good ones are like short stories – I’m liking this change. I feel an urge to click deeper to read the rest of the review, especially if the snippet is strongly worded, either for good or ill. I do set great store by the experiences average folks have when they turn to a local business for goods or services. Even if reviews aren’t a strong ranking factor at this point, their power to instill trust or mistrust in a new customer is considerable.

And this is why I’d advise anyone planning to buy an existing business and take over the management of it to cast a good long glance at the review history of the entity. I feel this is especially crucial in the hospitality industry. It’s not uncommon for hotels, inns, B&Bs, etc. to change ownership while keeping their original names. Doubtless, this tactic is employed for branding purposes – if the hotel has already made a name for itself, the new owners may keep old customers and save marketing dollars by sticking with an already established brand.

But what if the change of ownership or management comes about because the hotel has been a dismal failure? Allow me to draw your attention to a most alarming set of user reviews for an unhappy establishment in Inverness, California – The Holly Tree Inn. Look at some of the review titles:

The Holly Tree Neglect-a-thon and Mold -Growing Laboratory

Past its prime

Very disappointing

Lack of Cleanliness Unforgivable In Paid Lodgings

Here is an excerpt of a review a potential guest will find in researching this lodging:

We stayed in the “Cabin in the Woods.” The place was neglected and MOLDY beyond belief, the “Innkeeper” was cold and grouchy on the phone, which is the only place I ever encountered anyone from the place, though we stayed two miserable days. Crappy towels, crappy soap, crappy coffee, super-crappy atmosphere. HUGE rip-off. The only good part was the old kitty, but he was also quite neglected, smelly and had a hole in his neck, the poor guy. An apt reflection of the general vibe of the place.

Nightmarish, isn’t it? More than one of the reviewers is suggesting that the business close its doors or sell out to an owner who can afford to totally renovate this failing inn.

In the face of reviews like this, if I were a business adviser, I’d be strongly recommending that the new owner rechristen the hotel and do all they could to obliterate any connection with the history of the place. It’s not good press to be associated with a cat with a hole in its neck.

Over the past few years, I’ve researched a number of lodgings which seemed to have undergone a big change either for the better or worse. Once in awhile, a guest kindly leaves a review someplace like TripAdvisor or Yelp saying, “don’t look at the old reviews. This place is under new management and is really great now.” But you can’t count on your clientele to do this, so my recommendation is to take review history seriously if you’re taking over a business – a testament to the continued and growing power of user reviews.

David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors – Don’t Miss!

I was so delighted to take part in David Mihm’s comprehensive survey of 20 Local SEOs. The participants in this tremendous survey on Local Search Ranking Factors are some of my favorite folks in search.

It turns out there is a lot of disagreement amongst local SEO practitioners as you will see when you read the report. I’d like to have a massive phone conference with the 19 other participants to find out more about their responses to some of the questions. I bet I’d learn a ton!

Hats off to our friend David for the wonderful effort he put into making this seminal survey so readable and informative. It is receiving praise from all quarters within hours of its publication! And thanks for letting me add my 2 cents to the growing bank of Local Search knowledge.

Could Local Manufacture Be An Answer?

The cost of gas – UP
The cost of food – UP
The housing market – Holy Toledo!
The environment – Uh-oh!

Americans are looking around at a worrying landscape these days. As the cost of fuel skyrockets, we are looking in our wallets to see how to stretch a dollar around the necessities of life. We’ve got a lot of questions to find answers to.

Last week, I wrote about 3 things your local business can provide that the Internet can’t and today, I’d like to take that one step further by exploring the possibility that what we call ‘Local’ may contain an answer to the problems that are causing family poverty and turning our planet into a trash can.

I’d like to know what you think about about local manufacture.

Local manufacture of goods would provide communities with the following considerable benefits:

1) It provides local jobs and creates local economy
2) It cuts down on transportation fuel required
3) It makes communities more self-reliant in case of emergency

The Answer Could Be In My Shower
Last year, I wrote a piece of copy for The Conscientious Home regarding Toxic Plastic 3 In Your Shampoo. The basic point of it is that if you’re buying shampoo with a 3 or a V on the bottom of the bottle, you’re rubbing carcinogens into your scalp every time you wash your hair. Blech, right?

But the problem goes beyond this. I absolutely hate buying any kind of plastic bottles, but I keep on doing it when I need shampoo because my family does need to be cleanly. My conscience and my hair are at war with each other over this issue. Plastic is bad junk. We need to get away from it whenever we can. So many people are starting to realize this now.

If I had an inventor’s brain, the money and the time to go into a new business, I know what it would be. I would invent a powdered shampoo which would be sold in a recycled fiber packet. The powder could be mixed with water in a glass at home at shower time. I’d make it an organic, natural product that performed the basic task of getting hair clean and I’d set to work marketing it to my neighbors. I’d present at local stores and get them to start stocking my no-plastic hair shampoo. I’d blog, I’d network, I’d get people to see that I’d just created the solution to their plastic problem.

I’d employ local people to manufacture the shampoo in a local factory and I’d get the factory powered by alternative energy. I’d do everything I could to keep fuel emissions low and quality sky high.

And I’d be offering something to my region of the world that no one else is. I’d be ‘it’ for planet friendly shampoo.

Would I get rich? No.

Could I make a living?

If I marketed it my product skillfully enough, I just might be able to, and I’d have the soul-satisfying experience of making money while keeping people and the planet healthy.

When my husband and I travel, I’m always fascinated by the local specialties that communities depend upon. Things I’ve never heard of at home like local specialty food products, home industry clothing items, housewares and gifts.

“You’ve got to try Bob’s BBQ Sauce. You can’t get it anywhere but here,” locals tell you proudly.

Can that prideful attitude be extended to more of what we eat, wear and use? Could people make a living wage manufacturing locally? I’d like to know what you think.

Turning Back Time With An Eye On The Future
America was sitting pretty when we made all our own appliances, cars, food and clothing right here in the USA. The competition of the marketplace and the irresistible lure of cheap foreign labor has done the national workingman a dirty turn. And the end result of our choice to outsource so much of our work to other lands? Well, toxic toothpaste and lead school lunch boxes are 2 of the prizes we’ve won in the contest for business.

What if America turned back the clock and re-opened all those plants and factories that are crumbling to dust in places like Milwaukee, Detroit, Allentown and San Francisco? But what if, this time, we didn’t pump our air full of fossil fuel in order to turn out a box of Super Sugar Crunchy Frizzles? What if we harnessed the energy that is literally sitting all around us in the rays of the sun and the force of the water? What if our country could sustain itself?

And, what if we took this a step further in the direction of this healthier, self-reliant future by becoming more regional in our attitudes toward supply and demand? Okay, maybe you’d have to get a car made in New Jersey, but is there any reason your dinneware, your dish towels, your blue jeans or shampoo couldn’t be made by your neighbors? If you knew giving your dollar to the man next door meant your nephew was sure of a living wage job just around the corner when he grew up, wouldn’t you feel your choices were making good sense?

Or, has our nation become too poor to afford anything but the product of inhumane and cheap labor, shipped to us at the cost of our planet’s health?

We are lucky enough to live in a country where we’ve got an abundance of everything we could possibly need to survive: water, natural energy, land, bright and inventive minds.

Every time I turn to Local Search, I recall that I’m making a choice to depend on the resources of my community. The more they can provide for my basic needs, the more I can depend on them. I see so many opportunities here.

Someone really ought to get working on that shampoo.

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