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Horse Business Marketing

Losing Client or members with your policies?

It’s amazing how many stupid rule decisions get made without considering the associated costs of annoying clients. If you’re an equine professional, selling to the small business market or a horse membership organization decision maker do you think about the customers’ reactions with efficiency or protection ideas? Today’s talkative social media environment demands you confirm the message you send with policy that isn’t offending those you purport to serve.

Social media and technology can hurt you

Do you have procedures in place that say you don’t trust your customers? How much confidence they should put in you? Are you so focused on collections that you implement blanket approaches that fail to consider the longevity, character, history and relationship with important business supporters? How will loyal and trusted centers-of-influence react to this? Have you delegated operational activities to an automated system or person who doesn’t recognize the importance of the relationships you’ve built? What is your reaction to an impersonal, procedural message from an organization you’ve helped build? Do you subscribe to rigid rules that don’t consider mitigating circumstances? Are you prepared to lose some of your most valued and valuable followers?

So many are singing the praises of technology and how much time it can save. Time saved doesn’t mean much if you’re losing clients and supporters. Consider this as you embrace another efficient approach or caustic policy to supposedly underscore your business or organizational goals. You may find it does anything but. With huge numbers embracing the internet and its delivery tools, word spreads faster every day. The question is – what words will they be saying about you?

Chasing away referral agents?

Recently, BookConductors, LLC ® hired a new vendor to help support an equine book series. Great experience with the skill and responsiveness of the team, but this was clouded by a policy process that demonstrates they don’t trust their clients. It’s a sad introduction to the company that unnecessarily undermines the experience. Full payment before deliverables, sign-offs on minutia and defensively worded contracts sent an overriding message that cast-in-stone procedures are more important than building client rapport. Will I continue to use them as a service provider – probably. Will I recommend them to others – probably not. Sadly, I would have sung their praises loudly if they didn’t make me feel like a suspected criminal. Short-sighted.

Alienating your best clients?

The farm mortgage holder has recently decided best practices include engaging an India-based telemarketing firm to call all clients the minute the grace period starts for payments, lying with a message that the payment is late in a manner that is insulting and hostile. This may be an effective way to hang on to some of their lousiest clients, but those with the credit scores and equity to walk will be gone from their portfolio if this continues. Dumb.  

Membership organization losses?

This year, Halcyon Acres left a rare breed association we had given a lot to (including time on the BOD). Sadly, it seems organizations created to help bloodlines avoid extinction draw the crazies (a wise member suggested this was because they had been kicked out of all the popular breed registries). In this case, a tiny minority is determined to drive the culture into combative factions with related actions that chase out any contributors with equine knowledge and success. To the manipulators, this game presents delightful wins that allows them to look important and stay entrenched as gurus.  It’s killing the organization and the breed. The members best equipped to help support the breed and the society leave – along with a good number of others who quickly surmise there’s little to be gained from association and potentially a lot to lose. All the money from membership, registration, advertising, donations, outreach, etc. with this desertion is gone, along with any positive words to support the reputation of the organization. Guess where majority effort is put to spur the conflict – the online forums. Silly.

Dig your own grave

I don’t have much sympathy for those companies and organizations that whine when they’ve fostered their own demise. If you’re alienating your best customers, you deserve to fail.

The economy is admittedly tough right now, but I’m not hearing of struggles from those who operate with character, integrity and smarts. Think about how fear or self-centeredness is affecting your message. Have you tallied the costs? If policy is king without a means to assess how this may jade some of your most valuable existing or potential customers, you’re asking for a hurting that’s probably justified.

There are ways to protect yourself without making your clients feel like dirt. Inflexible mandates targeting the lousiest customers don’t usually work well with the best. Instead of systems designed to handle the least important prospects/clients, think about how you can rise above the norm by making your most valued customers and prospects feel like royalty with a personalized approached. Technology and/or systems can save you a lot of time, done right, but when it replaces all personal interface, you lose.

 

Horse Sense offers insight on how not to market equine enterprises

Friday’s Opinion

Why do some marketers still feel being an aggressive, hostile and avoided herd member is a good thing? Sadly, the very old-school, two-by-four, forget-about-the-audience culture, sell, sell, sell, in-your-face approach is becoming common on some of the social media sites that used to be immune. How can intimidating your buyers into compliance and/or chiming in only to promote your wares in communities that are designed to support each other build good will? Beats me. I see a good number of equine related endeavors (that curiously don’t seem to have any horsemanship in the mix) being rude to their intended audience by ignoring the group needs and feeling justified demanding respect. Curious. I have a mare here now like that – no one likes her, or follows her, but she does get her feed and water first. She’s lonely, though, and I suspect, very insecure.

Even after twenty years in the marketing industry (yes, there is another revenue stream), I continue to scratch my head about those who take such an approach – and conclude it works. Sure, they may boast fat cat status initially from bullying or self-serving methods, but there’s little happy involved in the mix, particularly when those who aren’t part of their cult start calling them on their actions.

Social media networks – build or destroy

Social media is becoming an increasingly important platform for those who seek to build relationships with potential centers-of-influence, buyers, vendors, collaborators and supporters. It boggles the mind that some (sadly, this seems to be most prevalent among those who label themselves marketing professionals – don’t imagine anyone else would) still feel the used-car-salesman approach (sorry to those who sell used cars – this is probably a bigger slight than you deserve) is a good way to do business. Of course, this also begs the question, how would anyone with integrity ever find this a satisfactory method?

Free speech doesn’t work for the daft

Fortunately, we live in a world where freedom of expression is encouraged in most countries (at least for now). You’d think this liberty would foster an opportunity for all to gather the smarts to recognize stupid approaches which create more bad will than good don’t develop long-term prosperous businesses. Horse herds allow freedom of expression too – and immediate ramifications for poor behavior. Too bad we’re not as adept as a society at banishing and discouraging the bad actor as our equine counterparts.

Unethical horse dealers – you lose

Over twenty-five years ago, I started interfacing with horse dealers supplying lesson and boarder horses for facilities I managed. I was dumbfounded by the short-sightedness of some who knowingly sold an unsuitable horse for the quick buck. Catch me once . . . these charlatans made $500-$1000 on a single sale at the time, but lost a potential exponential revenue stream that could have come from honest transactions. Had one who preyed on the novice riders with the spiel that horses never ridden and inexperienced riders are an ideal match because they grow together. He not only lost any future business at the stable (he was banned from the property), but also lost a potential huge revenue stream associated with the necessary lesson and trail horses required for the business.  I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. Lairs are worse than ignorant and abusive marketers in the equine industry. With the advent of the internet and the bevy seeking out online opinions, word will spread faster of such practices now than they ever did way back when.

Horse herds and horsemen unite

As most of the world seem s to be getting more savvy about filtering out and broadcasting about the hype-masters, charlatans and bad eggs, let’s hope we see a new world where those who operate with character, integrity, honesty and good-will no longer find it necessary to deflects attacks from those who have been dragged through the mud by less ethical operators.

Horse herd dynamics can teach us a lot about communications, marketing and leadership. Usually there are two in the herd that get primary notice. One mare is selfish and wins first dibs, commands attention (avoidance), is left alone and disliked. There’s another who is kind, confident, understanding and fair. That’s the one the herd follows, appreciates and respects. Who would you rather emulate?

Do you have marketing, herd, leadership or business stories that have taught you lessons you’d like to share? Please include your experience in a comment below and get the conversation going.

Find equine businesses in your neighborhood

Tim Van Loan launched http://www.HorseShoeCorner.com in July of 2008. It’s an interesting concept borne from personal challenges. While he’s still working on gaining critical mass to make it a regular destination for buyers, he has created some useful tools for those tired of trying to compare horse services and products.

Horse Sense and Cents for geographical markets

Basically, the site came about due to the frustrations he experienced searching for a suitable boarding facility in central New York State for dressage horses.  After a four hour search that discovered a perfect facility, until he realized it was in California, he saw a need for a better solution and started the research that became http://www.horseshoecorner.com. This site allows the viewer to put in geographic and facility parameters for 13 business types, which include boarding facilities, tack shops, massage therapists, trainers and more. The site also includes horses for sale, classified ads, a US national events calendar, discussion forums, articles and product reviews.

Virtual equine store needs more product

Right now, Tim says “I’ve built the largest equine store in the world, I just have empty shelves.” He’s looking to increase the number of equine businesses listed and is offering free membership to all for a three month period (and isn’t requiring he capture your credit card information to do so).  So, if you’re a horse service provider or sell equine products, this might be a sight worth trying to move your wares. We’ll be putting a link to the Horse Sense and Cents blog up there as soon as design is completed and if we can get a day without gray skies and ice, we’ll probably head out with a camera to capture some of the horses for sale at the farm. I can see a lot of ways we could use the site to promote Halcyon Acres services and plan on doing so in the near future. I’ll report back on the results. Of course, you can’t beat the price, so it’s a matter nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Horse non profits reside free here

Another interesting feature of this initiative is a not-for-profit component. It’s actually a clever business idea and I’ll be curious to see if it proves effective. Realizing critical mass is going to be necessary to attract visitors, Tim’s crafted a program where he offers non profits (interest seems to be coming primarily from the horse rescues) the profits for membership sales they make. The non profit will be able to sell the annual membership for a reduced rate of $30, $10 of which will go to horseshoecorner.com’s administrative costs, with the rest going to the organization. These organizations also get free membership to the site for a year.

What are you selling, or buying?

Right now members on the site come from a variety of states and the focus is not on New York. If you have tack or horses for sale, are an equine business, or work for an industry that supports horse activities, try it and feel free to comment here on what you find. If you want the free three-month membership, you need to contact Tim directly at either info@horseshoecorner.com or (607) 369-2982. And for the feds now mandating full disclosure (and readers who want to know), there are no paybacks involved in this one. I just like what he’s trying to do and hope it works for him and us.

What can horses teach us about Web 2.0?

I imagine if my horses could manage a keyboard and were connected to the Internet, they’d have a lot to say about how dumb some people are when it comes to communications. In the herd, horses learn who to embrace and who to avoid and they follow the one who is courageous, caring, kind and fair in how they treat others.

Horses follow caring leaders

Relationship building is a purported hallmark the Web 2.0 movement and smart small business owners (most who got this long before the internet came to be) are incorporating the tools and technology afforded by this claimed new marketing think to bolster their businesses. The savvy ones are listening the herd of customers and prospects they’ve already lead with understanding and responsive solutions to concerns by selecting what works based on feedback from their trusting and supportive clan. They’re not wasting energy on what doesn’t work given welcome and forthcoming feedback from a respectful fan base. Of course, this has tremendous applications for equine professionals (and their approach to online communications is probably more telling than they would like on how they handle their human and horse students).

Ever feel like some people who are celebrating Web 2.0 as their sandbox and turf come at you with teeth bared and heels flying with their unrelenting “embrace me and my offerings” barrage of messages and never consider what might be comfortable for you? They may get an initial sale, but early buyers tend to lament their decision and warn others of the danger.

Do you sell, or get buy-in?

Usually there’s another mare in the herd who commands respect through fear (or in human terms, selfishness). She gets her pick of the hay pile, is first out of the gate and chases others away from water until she has her fill, but no one will follow her. They avoid her. Some commanding the Web 2.0 moniker as their platform for selling, using it a justified excuse to be in-your-face, fail to recognize their methods results in retreat. Sure, they might get a few early followers, but ultimately, the herd sways the lemmings away from the cliff.

Human or horse – herds tend to behave the same

I learned a lot about horses (and humans) when I fenced in 26 acres last year. Initially, I divided the herds for compatibility, but as time passed, horses were sold, and winter bore down, I culled out the broodmares (a requisite to weaning foals), and combined the rest. An interesting thing happened. I was most concerned about a client’s horse that had shown extreme aggressive behavior with the boys. I was worried about him hurting the babies with his dominant tendencies. He tried, and was immediately lambasted by a three-year-old filly (who’s the leader of the herd now) and banished for his actions. He is not permitted to eat with any of the other horses anymore and must wait until all others are settled with their feed before he gets his.

We do have another mare in the herd. She’s hostile, bossy and avoided. She gives her message in an obnoxious way and gets what she thinks she wants – but isn’t respected, just avoided.

So, how does this apply to social media (and combating some of the economic challenges the small business and horse industry is facing right now)?  If you’re there for others and show you care, they’ll follow you. Those who feel they can bully buyers with manipulative and self-centered approaches may get their way at first, but won’t likely gain a following.

Think about how you operate with people who are just getting to know you over the seemingly impersonal venue of the internet. Are you putting yourself out there as a leader willing to be on the line to help others gain security and traction, or are you operating with a selfish approach to making your needs heard without regard to how others may feel?

Get real

Horse or human, it’s not rocket science, but does seem to be an elusive insight for some. The buzz around the new Web 2.0 is no different than what successful small business owners have always known about being smart in building relationships and gaining traction with centers-of-influence. Give and you get exponentially. Do nothing but take, or defend your turf, and your gains will be fleeting.  Do you want to be avoided or embraced? It’s your choice, but don’t blame the herd if they choose to dismiss you.

Equine business marketing challenges? Get creative with this link.

This Thursday link pointer/summary includes only a single link (as it will take some time to truly incorporate the opportunities available here) that may seem to have nothing to do with horses. If you sell anything equine to anyone, though, this is great resource for finding excuses to connect with people. It’s a month-by-month breakdown of daily, weekly and monthly designated celebrations (focused primarily on the US) that are on the books. Laugh-out-loud at some of the outlandish entries, but also realize creative marketing opportunities presented to connect with your prospects, clients, centers-of-influence, friends and colleagues that other’s may not consider. Seriously. If you’re using the economy as an excuse for poor revenue, get busy standing out with this great excuse to connect.

http://www.brownielocks.com

Horse blogs worth checking out

http://matureriders.blogspot.com

Paul Sherland does this for pure fun – and it shows. I don’t agree with his benchmark for mature riders  (over forty years old – I resemble that remark, but sure don’t consider myself mature), but he does offer some great input on equipment, mindset, activities and tips for older riders who may have come to recognize they can be vulnerable and are now focused a wee bit on safety vs. bravado.  He’s also put the word out seeking guest contributors, so if you have something valuable to share, take a look at what he’s doing and consider contacting him with your idea for a post.

http://horses.about.com/

Katherine Blocksdorf has created a blog here that offers brief tips and/or pointers to equine ideas or issues. She posts regularly and most of what she talks about will appeal to a very broad audience. This one is worth taking a look at for the things you never thought about factor. It’s not a training blog, but more a listing of ideas and resources you may not have considered as you accommodate your horse (or personal attire).

Horse blogs worth checking out

As noted earlier this month, we’re going to devote Thursdays featuring horse blogs we’ve found interesting, useful or curious for as long as you give us ideas to consider. We’ll provide a brief summary (with some opinion) and pointer to those we highlight. If you have a horse blog you like, or want us to take a look at what you’re doing, we’ll consider featuring your suggestion in the future.

http://iridedressage.blogspot.com
A relatively new blog, this site seems to involve a lot of stream of consciousness content, but also addresses some issues and provides resources for those focused on the dressage discipline. Visitor input is welcome and encouraged and the author seems willing to address concerns with future blog posts.

http://douglasemerson.blogs.com
Doug Emerson is focused on the sense and cents of professional industry endeavors and horse ownership. He provides issues to consider when emotion can get in the way of making smart business decisions and is also starting to add some affiliate recommendations for tools to help those in the horse industry manage their business more effectively. He also offers a free newsletter at http://www.profitablehorseman.com.

http://stalecheerios.com/blog
This gal is a great writer, artful in her presentation and good about supplementing blog content with pictures and video. Frankly, I disagree with much of what she heralds as gospel (she’s a strong believer in applying dog training precepts to horses), but she presents it so well, it’s hard not to get engaged given her enthusiasm and conviction. She admits she’s a college student, but given the maturity of her thoughts, posts and presentation, I suspect she’s a student that took some time off to learn from life. Even if you are not an advocate of training horses with treats and excessive stimuli, it’s worth checking out her blog to learn how to present in a convincing and effective manner.

How frightening is full-disclosure with horse businesses?

Do you try to provide your equine clients/prospects with all the information you have on a horse/program/product/service or do you prefer to operate from a “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” perspective? Granted, with horses, sometimes they will live up to your expectations, so approaching them with a clean slate, so to speak, can transform their behavior remarkably and immediately. Still, it’s usually safest to be forewarned and forearmed as you leg up, make a purchase decision or consider a vendor. The honesty approach usually pays off in the long-term. Even if you get away with a few fibs (or omissions), the vast number of potential referral agents you meet (read your buyers, clients and prospects) will discover your questionable integrity and steer people away from you, undermining your business over time.

The F.T.C. has announced plans to revise rules about endorsements and testimonials in advertising, with changes aimed primarily at bloggers and social media sites. The New York Times ran an article on October 5th concerning this issue (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/business/media/06adco.html). Basically, plans call for required full disclosure of free gifts and payments made that involve any thumbs-up assessment of a product or service, beginning December 1st. The outrage that has ensured on social media sites is mind-boggling.

Big Brother is a natural rallying cry here, and while most of what government tries to stick its nose into starts stinking pretty quickly, this is an area where it seems a shame there’s cause for interference. As a barn owner, trainer, seller, product rep or general equine provider, why wouldn’t you want to reveal how or why you are recommending a particular solution? Would you really knowingly push clients toward a crappy vendor, unsuitable horse, bad product or unreliable service solely for a kickback? Why not disclose from the beginning that you are being compensated for providing your time, expertise and network in the sale, but have done your research and feel they are the best? Sure, it takes time to identify the gems, but becoming known as a conscientious, reliable referral source can provide big dividends in building credibility and enthusiastic referral agents. And, if your mind is made up that the immediate buck outweighs the benefits of operating with honesty and integrity for a reputation that serves you in the long-term – good luck with that strategy in this century.

Those who are screaming about personal liberties and up in arms at the idea of being forced to be honest about how they came to find, review and recommend a product or service (and, yes, mandating this is unfortunate) would seem to have something to hide. People tend to trust you more if you’re upfront from the onset. Why not look at this ruling as an interesting opportunity to get creative and forthright in how you communicate with your horse business prospects and clients and go beyond what is proposed? Tell them up front why someone has found you so important they are willing to send free product, offer commissions or pay you outright for your network and expertise, whether or not this involves any social media activity. Think about it. Wouldn’t it be more impressive to prospects to hear that you are so well respected, companies offer to pay you to send your clients their way than to seem secretive and embarrassed about being compensated for what you bring to the mix? It can be amazing how much trust comes from being open from the onset. You might find such a business approach refreshing – and lucrative.

Horse Blogs that offer some Horse Sense and Cents

Long before we began to formulate how to best focus the Horse Sense and Cents™ blog, we set out to find what others were doing. While, admittedly, tech savvy isn’t our strongpoint, it was incredibly challenging finding blogs that provided useful, consistent, interesting and relevant equine material. We signed up for all kinds of Google alerts, asked groups and listserves about their favorites, talked to professionals, researched the blog database sites and got creative in trying to root out the gems in the rough – or at least find someone who had something useful and thought-provoking to present without a deleterious agenda. We didn’t turn up much initially, but are beginning to discover there are tons of virtually hidden equine blogs out there worth checking out. We’ll continue to feature summaries and pointers on Thursdays in the coming months for as long as we get pointers to those worth highlighting. Have a favorite horse blog? Send us an e-mail or comment on this blog and we’ll consider spotlighting it in a future. Our ultimate aim is to create a network and resource for those seeking useful equine blog material feeds.

Auction reports
Susan McCarron summarizes the results of horse sales (primarily in the Midwest and focusing largely on Quarter Horses) with comment on trends, pricing and pedigree. This is a fun site to look at and a great example of how to use a blog as a tool to compliment your business (she owns McCarron Equine Appraisals). She’s smart in not trying to sell on the blog as she doesn’t need to – she’s found a perfect niche focus area to drive customers to her. Even if you are not interested in horse sales, this blog is worth taking a look at as it serves as a savvy illustration on how to effectively market equine-related services.

Check it out at: http://mccarronequine.wordpress.com/.

Personal Approach
Erica K. Frei has created a blog that is updated regularly with largely stream-of-consciousness writing on various horse training activities and opinions. There are some good articles and great pictures included in her blog posts. This is presented more as a personal blog, although she does run an equine-related program (Awareness In Riding; More Than A Method: A Lifestyle!). This is a decent blog to follow if you are looking for random ideas and illustrations of training techniques she uses on her horses (with commentary on the day’s riding session), opinions on equine industry issues and pointers to contests, events and happenings in her area (presumably Wisconsin, USA). She does include a searchable archive, so if you’re looking for information on a particular topic, it’s easier to use this feature rather than try to find it in her home page post summaries. Also included in this blog is a good deal of useful video to illustrate topics presented.

Take a look at the fun she is having with this at http://www.writingofriding.com.

Do you write an equine blog?  You are welcome to share this information, but please provide appropriate attribution by citing the source with a pointer to http://www.HorseSenseAndCents.com/blog. Thanks.

Horses and customer service – Think about it

I received a letter today that began with the following:

At MVP Health Care, we strive to provide you with the best customer service and the highest quality benefit plans.

Enclosed is a Notice of Discontinuance, effective January 1, 2010 for your group coverage with MVP Health Plan Inc (MVP).

Huh?

I won’t go into the details of how my customer service experience has been with this company, but suffice it to say, their aptitude on this front is clearly guided by the same ilk that had the brilliance to compose and send out this letter to all their members.

While it’s hard for me to believe that it didn’t occur to anyone in the chain of command how stupid this letter sounds in the way it’s presented, there are times when people do dumb things and just don’t get it. I see this a lot, not only with the horses that come in here (they’re pretty adept at tattling on their former handlers), but also with some of the customer service faux pas committed by good intentioned equine professionals. There seems to be a proclivity in most aspects of the horse world to nourish the “failure to communicate” monster.

Clear communication is customer service to horses
Take horse handling, for example. They’re honest and forthright – but their signals need to be seen and heard for them to be understood. That understanding isn’t just about accommodating their demands. Sometimes – make that often – horses are looking for a leader and they get immense relief when they finally find someone steadfast and gutsy enough to stand their ground and earn their respect. Of course this isn’t about domination or brutality – it’s merely developing an ability to read the horse and respond in ways that send a signal back that you are a confident, competent and trustworthy guide. A lot of people don’t get this. They acquiesce to the horse’s threats, or worse, conclude violence will teach a lesson; both ratchet up the stress for their equine project. With customer service, it’s not always possible – or appropriate – to give your horse or client (or student) exactly what they want. If you can understand their needs, though, and try to address them in their language, it goes a long way toward creating a win-win.

Professional – how so?
No matter how good you are as a horseman, if you don’t develop skills that enable you to communicate effectively with your people clients, you’re not going to make a living for long.

Even if your days are spent working with horses and rarely seeing another human being, you still have people you’ll need to answer to at the end of the day (unless you’re independently wealthy).

It’s the little things that get neglected that make a huge difference in customer satisfaction. Be pleasant to your trainer, student, owner, client, benefactor, etc. Send brief snail mail letters giving updates on your progress or achievements. Thank clients for trusting you. Listen to your customers and let them know you hear them (even if you don’t agree with what they are saying). Compliment their horse. Deliver when you say you will for the price quoted. If you need more time, warn the client prior to the due date and explain why. You’ll be amazed at how understanding most will be, particularly if you extend an offer to meet them halfway on the challenging cases. Don’t lie and don’t play anyone for a fool – some think they can get away with this but the truth will out.

Offer something extra for customer loyalty or referrals. It need not cost you a cent – free braiding for a show, an invitation for their friends to come watch you train or an extra lesson for every ten they sign up for are all easy ways to reward customers without digging into your pocket. It’s amazing how making people (and horses) feel they are being heard and appreciated can make all the difference in reaching a happy understanding. This isn’t rocket science, but so many neglect the little things, then throw up their arms in disgust at their difficult clients (or horses). If you’re going to call yourself a professional, you need communication skills to back it up.

Brand yourself
As in any industry, people (and horses, for that matter) are going to ultimately judge your business by how you behave and communicate. Sure, there are always cases of idiots and jerks who become acclaimed, but how good can they feel about themselves even amidst international kudos? Want to bolster you business in an instant? Focus on ways you can be a champion at customer service. Not the dumb, ironic lip service that MVP has so kindly illustrated, but serious attention to seeing things from the mind’s eye of your customer (or your horses) and answering their concerns in a empathetic way. Five minutes first thing in the morning reflecting on this can have huge dividends on your success and profits.

Nanette Levin

P.S. We’ll initiate our blog summary feature next Thursday. Please send in your favorite equine blog picks and we’ll consider them for review and inclusion.