Push a button.
While that may be a simplified answer, technology has allowed Solon-based Keithley Instruments to reach out to tiny industry niches in ways it never could before.
Keithley sells highly specialized equipment to engineers and universities around the world. E-mail marketing allows the company to target these individuals with great success.
"For us, e-mail is a way to get a tailored message to our audience," says Alan Gaffney, director of communication and marketing support for Keithley. "We don't spam, and we give customers an opportunity to opt out. We also have to be conscious not to overcommunicate. There is the temptation to send a message every day or every week, but people get bombarded with messages and get fed up and don't read them.
"We have had a lot of success with our program, and we get a good response rate. E-mail marketing responses are a lot better for us than mail."
Keithley can send out 200,000 to 300,000 e-mails a month. Response rates have been as high as 15 percent to 16 percent for some programs, while others have been as low as 2 percent to 3 percent.
That's impressive, considering the marketing industry average is 3 percent to 6 percent for marketing from an in-house list and 1 percent to 3 percent for a rented list.
"The response rates vary based on the program, the timing and the number of individuals we mail to," says Gaffney. "One of the reasons we attribute our high response rates to is that we don't abuse the tool. If we did one every week, our numbers would drop dramatically. People would stop accepting e-mails from us."
Another reason Keithley has had such success with e-mail marketing is that each program is targeted to a specific niche of its customer base, with an incentive that appeals primarily only to those within the niche.
For example, the company might develop an e-mail marketing program promoting instrumentation used to measure low levels of electricity and will offer as an incentive the chance to win a handbook on low-level measurements or one of the products. Only those who work with these tools have a reason to respond to the e-mail.
"We tend to make offers related to the product or offering in the e-mail," says Gaffney. "We will do a free product promotion before we'd do a free PalmPilot, because not everyone needs our product."
In this way, the promotion is kept clear of those who aren't potential buyers of the Keithley product but are just looking for a free handout.
"This does a number of things for us," says Gaffney. "It really pinpoints the level of interest in whatever type of equipment we are promoting. It also focuses our sales efforts, because if people want to win a free one, it means they can actually use one."
Keithley is able to continually fine-tune its message because results are measured as much as possible.
"We do a combination of things," says Gaffney. "The e-mail might link to a specific jump page or certain area of our Web site. The person might have to register so we know who they are. We also track how many have been opened and replied to versus clicking through to the Web site.
"We have a phone number to call. A lot of companies don't put that in, but I think that's a mistake. Sometimes people just like to pick up the phone and talk to someone.
"All of this helps focus our message. It helps us understand what our customers' needs are. Response rates are critical to track so you know how effective you are being."
Keithley doesn't measure the success of a program based on responses, but on how many of those responses are turned into sales.
"We view responses as inquiries," says Gaffney. "We look at how many inquiries are turned into opportunities, how many opportunities are turned into quotes and how many quotes are turned into sales. That's how we view success. If you are just looking at inquiries, that's not a good quality measurement.
"We qualify the leads and track them to sales. It's not just as simple as a response rate, which can get pretty high."
Keithley builds its e-mail list of potential customers from in-house databases that have been built during its 50 years in business. In-house information is supplemented with lists purchased from specialty publications read by the target audience and, in some cases, from professional societies or trade show registrations.
Continual maintenance is vital to keeping the lists accurate.
"The rule of thumb for databases is that you are going to lose 20 percent of your database per year," says Gaffney. "Customers move, the business may change hands or names may move within the same job.
"There is a ramp down in costs once your list is established, but it never goes away." How to reach: Keithley Instruments, (800) 552-1115 or www.keithley.com
Keep it focused
When doing an e-mail marketing program, the temptation is to create an elaborate message.
But Alan Gaffney, director of communications and marketing support for Keithley Instruments, warns, "Keep the message simple. Some long-winded e-mail that's 10 pages long will not be read. Keep your message clear and crisp.
"Don't go beyond a page or two, and use links to your Web site rather than putting everything in your e-mail."
* Avoid dynamic HTML in the e-mail. "If you have 500 names you are mailing to in one company and send them at the same time, the company's network will probably block them as spam," says Gaffney.
* Remember that e-mail is just one tool. "E-mail should be part of an integrated marketing program," says Gaffney. "No tool by itself is a silver bullet. A lot of companies want to move people to their Web site from the e-mail. If you want to use it effectively, then make sure your Web site is consistent.
"Remember, you are trying to get people to do something: Respond to you."
* Establish clear objectives. Understand what you want to achieve.
"Spend more time creating your objectives rather than creating a creative tagline," says Gaffney. "People get wrapped up in coming up with a clever message and forget about what they are trying to do."
Business can still be difficult to come by, stock prices are as volatile as ever and investors are scrutinizing every move business leaders make.
Here's a look at how three local executives plan to navigate through the recession to better days. All three were part of a roundtable discussion at the "Doing Business in Turbulent Markets" seminar sponsored by Calfee, Halter & Griswold and McDonald Investments.
Spread the risk
Invacare is a manufacturer of health care products, but even with an aging population, the company has had to adapt to changing market conditions, according to Gerald Blouch, president and COO of the company.
Changing reimbursement policies in Western Europe and the ever-changing U.S. health care market have made the company examine its risks, and executives there opted for a mutual-fund like strategy.
"We run the company like a portfolio of investments," says Blouch.
Risks are spread among the company's products to minimize the effects of a downturn in any given market.
Invacare has revenues bigger than it's next two competitors combined, but being the leader means spending time in Washington making sure legislators understand the needs of the industry.
This lobbying also gives the company a better idea of how the government will change reimbursement for programs like Medicare so the company executives can plan for any changes.
Think long term
Lamson & Sessions is a plastics manufacturer with heavy ties to the electrical and telecom industries.
Telecommunications companies have taken a big hit during the recession, meaning there is less demand for telecom-related products.
"We've been focusing on our cash flow," says James Abel, executive vice president and CFO of Lamson & Sessions.
The company has restructured some of its debt to lengthen the term to free up cash in the short term. And while the industry as a whole is suffering now, Abel says the company is strongly positioned to be a major player when telecom rebounds.
"For the long-term, it's a great play," says Abel. "For the short-term, bankers are scratching their heads about what we are doing."
Cut costs and search out new opportunities
Oglebay Norton Co. is a producer, processor and distributor of industrial minerals that has had to reinvent itself and cut costs.
Last year, the company closed several offices and merged parts of its business operations together to eliminate redundancies. A heavy reliance on a fading steel industry also forced company executives to re-examine the company's goals.
"We had to ask ourselves what business are we in," says Michael Lundin, president and COO of the company. "We were tied to steel, but now that's less than 15 percent of our business. We are an industrial minerals company, but the distribution is more important than the products."
Telecommunications services are a prime example. Every business has some costs in this area, as the simple telephone is a requirement for anyone. Add special features, Internet access and long distance services, and you suddenly have a lot of money wrapped up in your communication needs.
To save money, consider the following tips from Sean Kearns, general manager for XO Communications in Cleveland.
Bundling or fixed-rate plans
It's easier to plan when you know exactly how much your telecom costs will be each month. Kearns recommends investigating bundles that might include local, long distance and Internet service all at a fixed rate for a certain number of minutes.
"It will save the business money and also eliminate multiple bills and finger pointing between vendors when there is a problem," says Kearns.
Instead of paying for a dedicated private line between multiple locations for your business, consider using an Internet-based virtual private network to keep everyone connected.
"The savings are significant and the security is just as strong as a dedicated line," says Kearns. One company was able to increase its available bandwidth between two locations while cutting its costs in half.
The right carrier
By picking the right carrier, you can take advantage of better rates with longer-term contracts and promotional offers. Make sure the carrier you pick has services that you might not need now, but may need as your business grows.
"To change carriers can be costly," says Kearns.
Each switch entitles installation fees and new contracts to review, as well as time spent researching who has the best offer and the most reliable services. If all of this is done up front the right way, a switch later shouldn't be necessary. Not doing your homework can mean being locked into a contract with a company that either isn't meeting your needs or simply can't meet the demands of your growing business.
As a result, employees miss work and are distracted by legal concerns. To help employees cope with the most common legal needs, many larger employers are offering discount legal services as part of their benefits package.
"Unlike health care, where employees like to go to their own doctor, for a legal plan, most employees don't have their own lawyer," says Bill Brooks, CEO of Cleveland-based Hyatt Legal Plans. "First and foremost what a prepaid legal plan solves is that question of how to find a lawyer."
Studies show that the average family has one or two legal problems per year, but that lawyers are seldom consulted because they don't know how to find them, concerns about cost or they just don't like lawyers.
Legal plans are meant to tear down these barriers. A legal plan provides access to an approved attorney whose work is guaranteed and is expected to treat you well. The plan provider, giving participants a set annual fee, controls the costs.
"Most people join a legal plan because they have some need to see a lawyer or they anticipate that need," says Brooks. "They might be buying a house, creating a will or be having debt problems."
Group programs harness the power of mass-purchasing power to get costs that are below what a person would pay walking in off the street. A basic comprehensive program can cost as little as $200 per year for the employee -- a price that might not even cover the cost of a will, and there are no limits on usage. The plans are designed to handle the most common legal needs, such as traffic citations, divorce, debt problems or wills, from beginning to end.
"From the employer perspective, their employees are going to have legal problems," says Brooks. "If they have a place to turn to solve them easily, then it's a good thing for the employees. If it's good for the employees, then it's good for the employer. They can focus on work and know they have a lawyer taking care of their debt problems or whatever they need help with."
At that point, work comes to a grinding halt as technology-dependent employees lose access to the data and people they need to do their jobs.
If your company is large enough, then a full-time expert probably would have enough work to keep busy. But for smaller firms, outsourcing for telecom and technology expertise may be the most cost effective route.
"Small businesses are better suited to take advantage of outsourcing to have a pool of people they can draw upon to take care of their problems," says Brad Clark, president of Cleveland-based SpyGlass Technology Advisors. "Why you want to do that is so you only have to pay for the services when you need it so you don't have the salary burden."
Outsourcing allows you to draw on the expertise you need for the problem you have. If you have a problem with your computer network, you can call a computer network person. If you have a software problem, you can call a software expert.
"Finding one good person that does everything is difficult," says Clark. "Outsourcing allows you to draw on the expertise of many people."
The first step is to identify your potential needs and establish relationships with experts in each field of technology you use. Find someone who can repair your phone system – it might simply be the vendor that sold it to you – identify someone who is familiar with your type of computer network and have someone that understands the software you use.
"Once you do that, the challenge is making sure you get the response you need from the vendors," says Clark. "Often vendors will sell you a block of prepaid time. If it's prepaid, make sure there is a guaranteed response time."
By prepaying, you get a break on the hourly rate and you know someone will be at your company within the response time.
"If you just pick up the phone, you would be charged the full hourly rate for that service and there is no guarantee that staff will be available," says Clark.
How to reach: SpyGlass Technology Advisors, (440) 716-3400.
The reliable phone
The best thing about phones is that they are extremely reliable and the need for experts to troubleshoot them is rare.
However, there will be times when you need help. If your system is a common one, there are independent people who understand the systems that aren't tied to the company that sold you the system.
Moving a station, adding another extension or making other minor changes are the most common needs, and it may be worthwhile to shop around.
"Generally people that sell phone systems have some sort of annual support contract," says Brad Clark, president of SpyGlass Technology Advisors. "Once the contract is up, shop around. Some vendors tend to get greedy as the relationship goes on. Their level of support may decline. Analyze your contract and what you are actually getting. It might be better to forgo the support contract and get a prepaid block of time that will get you service just as quickly for less money. Generally something like 10 to 20 hours is sufficient to handle moves, adds and changes to your system."
The competition that everyone always wanted has arrived, but competitors of heavyweight incumbent SBC Ameritech are being disconnected by bankruptcies, thin margins and a slow economy.
"There's a huge push from Ameritech to try to win customers back from competitive exchange providers like CoreComm," says Brad Clark, president of SpyGlass Technology Advisors, a Cleveland-based telecommunications consulting firm. "The interesting thing is, from a local perspective, the choices businesses have are going away. Because of bankruptcies, the choices are dwindling.
"There hasn't been from a strictly local perspective one competitive local exchange provider that has been successful. Some are hanging on, but there hasn't been one that's been able to compete with Ameritech."
Competitors have two options when starting out: Build their own networks hoping they land enough customers to justify the costs or lease from SBC Ameritech. When leasing, the companies end up paying rates that aren't much less than what consumers get.
"It's not a business model that can compete on price," says Clark. "Their only choice is to compete on volume."
Even though they are leasing the lines, the competing companies still have to provide service, trucks, accounting and other business functions, stretching thin margins to the limit.
"Ameritech has spent 80 years and trillions of dollars to build up its network," says Clark. "There are competitors out there that can save you a few dollars per phone line, but in our opinion, go with Ameritech. Despite the attitude and service issues, from a financial standpoint, they're a safer bet."
If your phone company can no longer operate, they are only required to give you a 30-day notice.
"You could be put in a position where you get a disconnect notice and pick up the phone to Ameritech, which at that point, Ameritech will face a flood of calls from people looking to gain service," says Clark. "Ameritech doesn't have to, and realistically won't be able to connect you within 30 days, especially if you want to keep the same phone number. You could be facing an outage from one day to 45 days in some cases. The risk of going with a competitor to save a few dollars isn't worth it.
"The good news is over the last few years the competition has forced Ameritech to get lean on its pricing and spurred promotions to get people to come back."
How to reach: SpyGlass Technology Advisors, (440) 716-3400
The result is a less effective manager, and a product that's probably not performing the way it should.
Here are three keys to effective product management:
Understand what the product manager's role is. "The company needs a real understanding of what the roles and responsibilities are for the product managers and making sure the people in the organization that interface with them understand that as well," says Greg DiCillo, CEO of Life Cycle Strategies Inc., a firm that focuses on training and consulting on product management issues.
Companies often expect their product managers to assume strategic thinking roles, but then inundate them with the day-to-day management issues that should be handled by someone else.
Maintain a product and market balance. "Most companies look at the market from a product perspective rather than a customer perspective," says DiCillo.
Often times companies will build a product and then throw it out on the market to see how it does. The right way to maximize your return is to spend more time understanding your customers' needs, then developing a product that solves their problems.
"A customer who is price conscience should send up a red flag," says DiCillo. "That maybe means you don't understand what they want. You may not be giving them anything of real value."
Not all customer data and feedback has to come from traditional marketing surveys.
Customer service and sales people are in contact with the customers on a regular basis. Talking to them to get a better feel for what customers are asking for will help focus your products.
Make product management a discipline. "Product management isn't a 'day' thing," says DiCillo. "It's a long-term strategy. What are the markets, who are the customers and where are they at? Be more proactive rather than reactive. Where do we want to be one, three or five years from now and how do we get there?
"If you understand what your customer is doing and what problems need solved, you can get a glimmer of what you and your competitors are providing and where the breakdowns are and use that to create an advantage."
You can then develop products to fill those gaps, which help customers solve their problems and provide them with something of value.
"You have to understand their business better to serve them better," says DiCillo.
"I was looking for the better rate, with better equipment and printing and better service," says Singh, owner of three Cafe Tandoor restaurants in Cleveland.
Price is often the driving factor behind the decision for most business owners, but it shouldn't be the only one.
"Credit card processing is a commodity-type of product," says Ann Byington, vice president of Fifth Third Bank. "There are banks and private processors whose prices are all similar. What you need to look at is what's on the service side. Ongoing service is the key to a processor."
Processors take customers' credit card payments and reconcile them with the credit card companies. Interchange rates are set by the credit card companies and are the same for everyone, so processor profit comes from additional fees.
Byington recommends asking the following questions when interviewing potential processors:
* Who owns the process? Many banks contract the service to third parties and may not control all aspects of the process.
* What's included in the rate? "Customers are always looking for a good rate, but sometimes you get a low rate but then get charged for paper and statements," says Byington. "You may end up with a higher rate than someone with a rate that is all-inclusive. Make sure you understand the different ways processors can charge for their services."
* Can my existing equipment be used? If you have the machines already, you should be able to continue using them with some reprogramming. If you don't have machines, find out whether they must be purchased or if they can be leased.
* Who will handle my account? Will you be assigned a local service representative or be referred to a toll-free number?
* Can you provide references? "Any quality company should be able to give them a good sample, typically within their industry," says Byington. "References are always a good way to go to check on a company's service."
Also consider the stability of the company.
"If you are working with XYZ processor, what do you know about them?" says Byington. "How long have they been in business? Are they local?
"The lowest rate doesn't always mean that's the best one for the customer." How to reach: Cafe Tandoor, (216) 371-8500; Fifth Third Bank (800) 972-3030
"Increasing your cash flow depends on what type of business you are in," says Jeffrey Muencz, associate director of SS&G Financial Services and a CPA. "If your business is dependent on billing, such as a hospital or physician's office, the faster you bill it, the better your cash flow will be. If you are billing once a month, maybe you can bill twice a month or even every day, and increase your cash flow.
"If you are lax on billing, you are lax on cash flow."
Other ways to increase cash flow include:
* Know who isn't paying. "If you don't have a good tracking system for your aging accounts receivables by payer source, you are not going to know which source owes you money," says Muencz. "You aren't going to know who to call to ask why you haven't received payment."
* Renegotiate loans.
"This could be difficult, depending on the condition of your company," says Muencz.
* Reduce operating expenses. "This is usually the last resort, because you don't want to cut staff, but a lot of big entities are downsizing or offering early retirement," says Muencz.
* Lease rather than buy. Lease new equipment to avoid large cash expenditures or taking on additional debt.
* Check your inventory. Do you know how much inventory you have and why you have it?
* Challenge your real estate taxes. "These taxes get reassessed every few years," says Muencz. "You can hire an attorney to challenge them, and most work on contingency. I've seen clients who have challenged their taxes achieve significant savings."
* Watch your workers' compensation expenses. Make sure you have a good risk management program and talk with your financial adviser about the possibility of self-insuring.
* Renegotiate your vendor contracts. "If your vendor says prices are going to go up 3 percent this year, go back and fight the increase," says Muencz.
In some cases, cash flow may be out of your control.
"Sometimes the people that are paying the business have cash flow problems and so they aren't getting payment," says Muencz. "Sometimes you cannot control it." How to reach: SS&G Financial Services, (440) 248-8787 or (330) 668-9696
As a graduate of the law school at Michigan, Williams understands the benefits that a diverse student population adds to the college experience.
"Most experts recognize the value of discourse at the university level from different points of view," says Williams. "It certainly is more credible when that discourse comes from individuals who have actually lived that point of view."
Williams is CEO of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization of leaders from the business, education, labor and religious communities who are committed to promoting positive race and ethnic relations and facilitating minority economic inclusion in Northeast Ohio.
Without a diverse work force, Williams says companies in our region could see a hit to their bottom lines. Diversity isn't about social engineering, he says; it has economic implications for everyone.
SBN talked to Williams about why diversity is important for businesses.
What are the advantages of having a diverse work force?
If you are operating in a location like Greater Cleveland that has among its population more than 50 different ethnic groups and a wide range of individuals of different faiths, obviously there will be issues that are different across them.
Unless you are trying to find a way to isolate yourself, it usually makes good sense to have representatives in your company that can relate to a wide range of constituents. If you have a company that operates at the retail level, people vote with their feet and their pocketbooks, depending on how they are treated.
If there are barriers to feeling comfortable within an institution, that can translate to the bottom line.
Is the lack of diversity hurting some companies without them even being aware of it?
I think one of the things we found in a recent survey on diversity was that there are certain job categories where there is a higher level of turnover among minorities.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but part of the reason is the atmosphere in the company that is created without the company being aware of it. Employees are not made to feel very comfortable. What I hear talked about a lot is that sometimes in male-dominated industries, the environment is not as inviting and accepting for females, even if they are one of the top performers.
The same is true of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. If upper management doesn't have a priority that accepting differences is a preferred way of behaving, the environment is not going to be inviting or inclusive.
How difficult is it for a company that hasn't done so in the past to start embracing diversity?
The thing that makes it easiest to start is a clear articulation of the importance of embracing it from the top, both from the CEO and the board. If they make a written commitment that diversity is valued, then that starts to send a message, but that alone isn't enough.
When workers see tangible evidence, such as board representation changing, or if you start to see people hired at the highest levels, that will send a strong single message. When making a commitment to invest in minority vendors and companies are buying significant amounts of goods and services, this demonstrates an active effort to make sure everyone is included. It will send a strong signal.
If you take managers in charge of purchasing or hiring and make them accountable in their performance evaluations for advancing diversity goals, then you will see a move toward embracing it in a meaningful way. You do what you measure.
If you put in legitimate measurement techniques to show how you are advancing, then you could start seeing movement.
Who should be leading a company's diversification effort, the CEO or the HR department?
It has to start with the CEO, and that person has to charge those who make real changes with the mission and hold them accountable for it.
Is it harder to get a diversification program started or to keep it going once it is in place?
It's a lot harder to keep it going. Making the statement about the importance of it and a flurry of hiring or naming someone to the board is important, but what happens is, if it's not an ongoing effort to keep an environment where diversity is valued, the effort will stall.
Institutionalizing it in a way that becomes ingrained into the company is a much more difficult activity and takes a lot more effort by people up and down the line. That's why it's important to develop some clear metrics on what success means and track it on a regular basis.
Is there anything companies do that they may not be aware of that prevents diversification?
Let's use one example of one company's commitment to giving minority vendors a shot at business.
It often doesn't happen because of assumptions, one of which is that minority companies could not be the low bidder because they are smaller and have higher overhead. There is no way they could be able to compete.
So purchasing agents just don't bother trying to seek out the companies to give them a chance. The assumptions may be true in some instances, but not across the board. Reasons like that prevent companies from making an impact.
It is also an assumption that certain members in the work force may not be interested in certain activities, so they do not get invited. I remember being told by one female executive that had several of her (employees) invited by a customer to a golf outing.
The assumption was that she wasn't a golfer -- when she was actually a very good golfer -- or that she would not be comfortable. As a result, this person missed an opportunity to network because of an assumption.
There certainly are also assumptions on the part of minority vendors as well that prevent connections. Minority vendors get the lion's share of business from public sector clients. As a result, the assumption on their part is that they really wouldn't have a chance at contracts that may be bid on in the private sector or those companies would not be willing to work with them. So there is some self-selection on both sides that inhibits diversity.
Do you see more companies with a positive attitude toward diversity than you have in the past?
I think companies are starting to recognize the business imperative behind greater economic inclusion. This is not a social service issue.
We think companies that recognize that they need to be as efficient as possible to reach out to the market need to have effective ambassadors in the ranks to get the best talent without regard to race, ethnicity and gender. They are dealing with customers who are demanding that they be more inclusive.
Companies are recognizing that board demographics and staff demographics need to be representative of the community they operate in. If they are dealing with public contracts, the incentive is there to make sure they are not excluding communities from employment or boards.
How does the issue of diversity affect the advancement of this region?
There is a lot of research that shows that communities that are highly segregated in housing patterns tend to not perform well economically. If you look at the last several years, those communities that are more inclusive tend to outperform the S&P 500.
Communities that encourage inclusiveness attract talent, and with that talent come the industries that follow where the talent is willing to go. This whole idea of embracing the value of inclusiveness in society is something that is very important to this region in order to be as competitive as we can be.
Is sensitivity training needed as part of a diversification effort?
As a beginning step, when a company doesn't fully value all of its assets, because there are subtle ways people can be excluded even when that is not a company's intention. There is value to having that initial training.
What really matters is, how does it translate to tangible benefits that people can see? This can be work force composition, vendors, or even where you give your charitable dollars, which is another indicator of corporate culture. It has to filter down to those levels.
Moving a company toward those expressed goals is very important at the beginning to lead the company to more substantive results.
Is the decline of affirmative action going to make diversification efforts more difficult?
I would point to corporate responses to the University of Michigan case, which I have been following very closely. There have been 40 to 50 major companies that have filed amicus briefs in support of the university's policy.
The rational for this as I've read it is that in order for them to maintain a talented work force, they need to have professional schools like Michigan churning out a diverse range of graduates. The same is true at a number of institutions that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs.
Those experts realize the importance of keeping the pipeline open. This is a crucial watershed case.
We at the Roundtable are not motivated by social engineering efforts. We want to make sure businesses can thrive in diverse markets, and it's imperative to make sure the companies are reflective of the world we live in. How to reach: Greater Cleveland Roundtable, (216) 579-9980.