March 1, 2015

Bits and pieces on the road to success


We are in the age of new media and online information that can be at times, difficult to keep up with. Some of us adapt, others refuse to change. Those who have adapted often make two basic mistakes, so says me, the fellow who receives the emails, Tweets, Instagrams and so on.

First, if you are presenting yourself and your business with new media, then make yourself available to your customer base. There is a Honda dealership close to where I live and they sell a line of snow blowers and rototillers. They have an online presence and I clicked the Contact us button, made an inquiry and two years later, I have never received a response. In fairness, they should post “Please do not press the Contact us button. We will never get back to you.” That would have been more honest had they done so. If you have a Contact us button, then someone must respond to those inquiries.

Second, if you are going to have an online presence or send out online flyers to advertise your products and services, then it is in your best interest to have a proofreader go over your ads before the send button is pressed. What brings this up is a friend from the trade and I were chatting. She had received an email version of a flyer from a local garden centre. She complained to me that the grammar within the ad had been atrocious. “How bad was it?” I asked. All of the basic rules had been violated. The there-their-they’re one, the improper use of double quotes when single quotes were required and so on. The flyer had the appearance of something that had been written and sent out with no attention given to even basic spell check.

I get it. I am perfectly aware of how I exist within the confines of a glass house when it involves writing. Recently, in another magazine, I wrote of how I had attended three social functions, one evening, only to have Justin Trudeau follow me into each one. I wrote, tongue in cheek, that, “he must have been stocking me” and spell check let it through. My writer friends took great delight and mirth in pointing out that ‘stocking’ should have been ‘stalking.’ Yeah, yeah, make a mistake and The Greek Chorus begins to chant.

It is mandatory if you write an online ad or an ad for a newspaper, magazine or flyer, that it be proofed, again and again. When called upon to provide a lecture to students regarding writing, I tell them, “Anyone can write but few can edit.” I have heard many stories of high school and university students, who wanted to write, and they had some talent indeed, but they wanted to submit their writing after one attempt, with no editing. Good luck with that and hopefully Stephen King is not laughing too hard at the concept.

A long-time friend was a producer at CBC Radio One for many years. We discussed the importance of editing and she told me that it was common for her to proofread an email five times before sending. She became my definition of someone who should be emulated. Thoroughness, as she practiced it, will pay huge dividends for most people.

I don’t buy into this concept of, “Well, you know what I meant.” To me, at least, this concept smacks of laziness along with an inability to communicate. When we send out an ad, any ad, we want the ad to sell our product and services. When we want to sell something, it really does help if we are clear, in fact, perfectly clear, as to what it is we are selling and any conditions that the reader needs to know.

On occasion all of us have heard the phrase, ‘imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.’ I had a fellow  greenhouse operator copy my ad for poinsettias — except he added in one line to ensure the ad was indeed his own. He chose to add the phrase, “Hurry down while there are still some good ones left!” Wow! Never should you include that line or anything similar because now you have told people that in a short period of time, you will be selling a second-grade product. You have informed readers that your first-rate poinsettias are finite and that they, the customers, should not bother to come to your greenhouse the following week. What a great way to limit your sales.

If you are quite articulate with words, grammar and spelling, then by all means, write your own flyers and ads. If you are not proficient in those areas, then find a staff member or someone who is. There should be no problem with any owner handing over that task to another. After all, most of us realize that we are not great at every task. We let others look after our books, some of us have staff do our hiring and HR work and yet again, some of us have employees who specialize in greenhouse growing, operating equipment and computers. There is no shame in having others do what they do best and letting us do whatever it is that we do best. The next paragraph is a short story of letting another person use his gifts and skills to accomplish your goals.

I had a very difficult customer to whom no matter what I offered, was never satisfied. I found an easy and quick solution. A high school girl worked for me part time; she could charm a leprechaun off his rock. I took her out to the customer’s home with the delivery plant in hand. The student went into the customer’s home, presented the plant and informed the woman that the plant could not be left unless the customer was totally satisfied. No call backs. No complaints. The student got the woman’s consent. Had I gone in myself, at my wit’s end with this customer, an argument would have erupted and both parties would have been upset. What I could no longer do by myself was easily taken care of by a 16-year-old girl. She said, “That was a piece of cake.” Send me back to school.

Back to why presentation is so important in our ads and communications. People rely upon the information received from us when we send them something or when they visit our web page. If we say we are open certain hours, then we should be open those hours. I have asked business owners why they were closed instead of open as advertised. The answer has been, “I have to get the guy who looks after my web page to update those hours.” What? People who visit your web page are relying upon the information they are reading. Having incorrect information is (need I write this?) not an effective way of building customer confidence.

A few years ago, we were travelling around the interior of British Columbia. We would look up bed-and-breakfasts on my laptop, for the town we were headed to that evening. Picking one out, we would call for a reservation. Many of the places that we telephoned informed us that they were only open during the summer months. Why not put that information across the top of your web page so that people, such as me, would know? I can tell you that web pages have frustrated me many times, from those that supported small businesses to those that were operated by major corporations. I dared to ask the Canadian Tire website a question a year ago, and it has never been answered. Wow, again and again!

All the communication that comes from your business, including ads, flyers, radio spots, television commercials, emails or web pages, must have one thing in common. They must present a clear and consistent image that your company is one that the consumer should be doing business with. If that is not your goal, then you are wasting your time.

Here are a few tips for producing ads or communications for your business.
  • Be clear, never obtuse. Try to reduce the number of conditions. Readers detest the small print. If you have one-gallon potentillas on sale, then have all one-gallon potentillas on sale.
  • Proof everything. Have two sets of eyes check your work. To quote a doctor friend: “I have never lost a patient due to a second opinion.”
  • If you need assistance with correct English, then have a copy of ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White on your desk. Many writers use this small book, written in easily understandable English, which explains word usage. This book will help you to write effectively.
Never mistake an ad for a manifesto. One day, a fellow who had grown up in the trade, decided to launch his new company. He sent out a flyer. It was typed in single-space and filled with useless information. Information that he somehow thought was important, but it didn’t make his case. What he really wanted to say was, ‘Hire me. I have lots of experience and know what I am doing.’ He should have stayed with that sentence.

Simplicity works. Being cute, a punster or showing people how smart you are, rarely gets you to where you want to go. Don’t be afraid of open spaces in your ads. Very few people are going to read all of the words that you can fill up that space with. Lastly, using capital letters does not make your statements more important than the use of lower case. It is a myth that upper case letters capture attention.

Communication, well written and laid out, is important to stay on the road to success. 

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre and landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.