Don’t listen to us – A primer for direct marketers on how TESTIMONIALS can be YOUR sales force

There’s an old adage that says, “The more you tell, the more you sell.” Let’s put a 21st century twist on this. Providing your prospects and customers with solid testimonials from present customers can be a powerful selling force for your business.

Get Psychological
From a psychological perspective, consumers much prefer to hear what their peers are saying. As we get deeper into the age of social media, peer recommendations are becoming the norm as part of a prospect’s evaluation process. No longer are you able to push out messages and have customers buy on impulse. Today’s consumers are extremely sophisticated. They seek out information from many sources beyond a company’s marketing materials before buying decisions are made.

Therefore, companies who provide their customer stories up front are giving themselves an edge over the competition.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to get testimonials from your customers. Here are four tips to help you get started with the process:

  1. In most cases, all you have to do is ask. Have your customer service reps ask everybody they’re on the phone with when they hear a good story. (Believe me, they hear all sorts of stories. The question is: Do they filter up to you?) Have your reps say something like, “Wow, what a great story! Would it be OK to share that with our other customers?” Simple, right?
  2. Scan your database and pick customers from your top RFM cell. Give them a call, send them a letter (of course thanking them for their patronage) and see what happens.
  3. It’s a little trickier to get video and pictures from your customers. But it may be worth adding some sort of incentive for video or pictures. A contest is always a good draw.
  4. Engage your customers on social media sites. Monitor what people are saying about you on your sites. Contact the ones who say great things. Of course, the ones who say not-so-nice things are customer service OPPORTUNITIES waiting to happen when you resolve their issues.

Where to Feature Your Testimonials?

  • On your blog, front and center.
  • Your homepage and all throughout your website.
  • In your emails and email newsletters.
  • How about in your fulfillment packages? People perceive the package they receive from you as a happy thing — a gift even. Psychologically, the payment is forgotten in most cases, leaving just the Christmas morning joy of opening the package. Stick a piece of collateral in there with some testimonials, and it reinforces the sale even further.
  • On your social media sites. Tweet them out. Post them to Facebook. Better yet, ask and your customers will post to Facebook themselves. Many times you’ll receive kudos on Facebook and Twitter you never expected.
  • And of course, in your catalogs.

Another Year, Another Catalog Conference, Another Dog-and-Pony Show, Another Thank You!

It’s that time of year again, readers. Catalog conference time — or to be more precise, Annual Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants (ACCM) time. This year it’s in New Orleans., and despite that love New Orleans and the music especially, once again I’m not going. 

I had planned to go this year. I even set up some meetings. But then some other meetings took precedence. Truth is, however, I have mixed feelings every year about going.

What I love most about going to the ACCM and other direct marketing events is the camaraderie I feel with industry peers. To me, it’s a chance to reconnect with people I normally don’t get to see throughout the year.

Oddly enough, the people I’ll miss the most are the vendors I’ve worked with over the years. These are the people who’ve allowed me to do my job to the best of my abilities. I truly believe that the job of a direct marketer is just as much externally focused, if not more, as it is internally. 

While I’m internally responsible for my objectives and my team, it’s the vendors I choose that can make or break how the results turn out. These folks have saved me more times than I care to recall. They’ve turned me into a hero by keeping my costs in line, met some ridiculously short deadlines at times, found solutions for me that I thought didn’t exist and even played catalog psychotherapist. 

And they get very little credit for this. This is why I believe in the term “vendor-partners,” and this week, I salute them.

So to all the people in the printing, design, premedia, service bureau, co-op databases, list brokerages, etc., I’d like to use this forum to thank you for your service and your friendship. (You know who you are.)

As you’re standing on your feet all day at the conference, doing the dog-and-pony show, know that when the parties are over and your bones are aching, what you do makes us better at what we do!

On another note, the thing that I dislike about the big conferences in general is the fact that you’re bombarded with information in a super-short period if time. Some people can do “speed learning.” Personally, I can’t. I like my information and my instructions meted out in slower, smaller increments.

So if you’re not at the conference this year (or even if you are), feel free to continue reading my blog. Certainly this Website and Catalog Success magazine are great learning resources for you.

CONsultant, PROsultant, or INsultant Pt. 2, how to choose the best strategic mentor for your direct marketing business.

Many years ago, after I was downsized from my job and I started consulting, my kids gave me a T-shirt that read, “I’m not unemployed … I’m a consultant!

Ain’t that the truth!

With that bit of humor I start part two of my column about finding the right direct marketing consultant for your business. (For part 1, click here.) Many budding consultants get their starts after downsizing. And in this economy, many consultancies are springing up as more and more good marketing people are let go from their jobs.  

I’m not saying that hiring someone who was recently downsized is a bad thing. In fact, I strongly believe that in some cases you can benefit more from a consultant who has recent client-side experience than you can from a seasoned consulting vet. Think about it this way: New-to-consulting practitioners can be more about implementation than older consultants who are more adept at the theoretical side of things.  

The counterpoint to that is seasoned consultants are used to looking at the big picture and, in many cases, have experience with a broad range of companies.

You also should know that many consultants experience feast or famine business cycles — too many or too few clients. And yours truly is no exception. Since I started my consulting practice in 1999, I’ve been hired three times by clients to work on a full-time basis. All but once I’ve managed to keep up some sort of client roster when I’ve worked on the client side. Companies are fickle (especially here in Florida), particularly toward marketing personnel.  

A continual diet of client-side implementation and consulting keeps me from getting out of the loop and gives me an edge.  

So how do you pick the right consultant for your business? It’s a lot like choosing an employee: Do your due diligence as best as you can, and then roll the dice. You can look at the basics, such as who they worked for in the past, but as usual, I deliver you some food for thought beyond the basics.

That said, here are some more tips for you to consider:

1. If a consultant is too agreeable, he or she may be in it only for the money. Find a consultant who disagrees with you a lot. Most of the time, consultants are brought in to fix problems that exist within an organization that can’t be fixed internally. It’s a pair of fresh eyes to look things over. Consultants are like plumbers — the good ones are trained to instantly spot where the “clogs in the pipes are,” and then to fix it efficiently. You wouldn’t tell a plumber how to unclog your pipes, would you? You have to assume that you’re going to hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear and/or disagree with. Otherwise, why would you need a consultant to begin with?
2. Find a consultant who’s willing to walk away if you don’t listen. Here’s a true story: I worked with a catalog company whose general manager refused to understand the way catalog marketing worked. This employee came from retail and insisted on running the company like a brand. He pumped a lot of money into the catalog, doubled the unit cost in the mail and then when his mailings weren’t profitable, tried to repeat the same mistake in his heaviest selling season.

After repeatedly explaining the reasons for what happened, I finally gave up and said the following:

“Mr. X, what’s your favorite sport?”
“Football, why?”
“Because you’re running your business like you’re on a football field, playing with a hockey stick and puck! And if you keep doing it your way, you’re going to be out of business in six months.”

At that point, the client turned red, and steam started to come out of his ears. Within the next few weeks we mutually terminated my consulting contract. The kicker: Less than nine months later the business went belly-up.

3. References are ludicrous. Let’s put something to bed right now. The whole concept of asking for references is about patting yourself on the back. I don’t know of one consultant or, for that matter, ANYONE who knowingly would give a prospect a BAD reference. The only value in getting references is that when something goes wrong, you can at least feel justified that you did your due diligence.

4. If you want references, look them up on LinkedIn. There’s a “search reference” function that can help you find past employers, clients, among others. Also, see if they have a lot of recommendations on their profile pages.

Consultant, Prosultant or Insultant? Part 1

Now more than ever, fear is driving the business process. To break it down, business owners/C-levels/boards of directors, terrified of the current economy, are making decisions based on fear.  

To make matters worse, their employees, both scared of losing their jobs and of looking bad in their superiors’ eyes, are implementing these fear-based decisions.

The truth is, what I just described is pretty much business as usual!

Even before the economy started to tank, most of the people I’d talk with on a daily basis already were floating through their business tasks with elevated levels of terror. Mix in the current economy and the fear rate goes up exponentially.  

Bad decisions executed by terrified employees. Sounds like a disaster in the making, which many could argue is exactly how we wound up in the situation we’re in: watching our economy unravel while our politicians fiddle away (that’s a conversation for another day).

At the risk of sounding self-serving, the need for a good consultant, an objective third party, is needed now more than ever.  

OK, let me say something here that many of you already know. In my four-plus years of writing for Catalog Success, in print and on the Web, as well as eMarketing & Commerce Magazine, not once have I ever written an article even slightly or indirectly pitching my services (or consulting services in general).

That doesn’t mean I’m going to start now. Rather, I’d like to remind you of the benefits of working with one. And mind you, I’m not pitching you for my services. I’m dedicating this week’s column to reminding you of the merits of working with a good consultant in these tough times. That could be any other good consultant, not just me.

That said, here are eight things a consultant can do for you right now with a set of fresh eyes to balance out the fear-based decision making:

  1. Review all of your numbers, from response data to budgets to lifetime value analysis and more.
  2. Review all of your vendor pricing in search of efficiencies.
  3. Look for opportunities in your circulation plan, targeting dead weight.
  4. Review your merchandising plans and prepare square-inch analysis, among other tactics.
  5. Seek out other marketing opportunities you may not be taking advantage of (e.g., social media/Web 2.0, community, on-site reviews).
  6. Find advertising media you’re not using and recommend structure testing, such as package inserts, print ads, supermarket take-ones, billing statements and so forth.
  7. Provide ongoing support to keep you focused and on track.
  8. Review your creative efforts and make recommendations for improvement.

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
The IT director of a former client used to tell me there’s no such thing as a consultant and all of us are actually insultants. Next week, in part two of this series, I’ll discuss some insider tips on the three types of consultants and how to choose the best for your organization.

How To Create Catalog Split Test Scenarios That Matter (part 2)

This week in the final installment of this two-part series on the value of creating mail tests that produce measurable, and telling, results for your catalog, I provide takeaway lessons from last week’s example of how one catalog company tested the profitability of using an upgraded paper stock in its catalog. I’ll also list some tips to help ensure your company is conducting productive mail tests. 

The Moral of the Story
Even scientific tests often succumb to the subjective. Once all of your scientific testing is done, the art of interpreting the data takes over. Returning to last week’s example, as a direct marketer I never would’ve rolled out the higher-grade paper without additional testing. I would’ve wanted to confirm my results by running the same test over again. Even if the test were a runaway success, I would’ve proceeded cautiously. 

In the catalog/multichannel industry, there are infinite varieties of tests that can be configured, measured and, ultimately, interpreted. 

So how do you become successful and improve your company via testing? I believe the following seven principles, that if adhered to, will allow you to hedge your bets.

1. Always test against something. Your current catalog, e-mail, Web site, merchandise, among other things, can be used as your control. 

2. Always create a testing hypothesis. Use this example: If we do X, we expect Y to occur. 

3. Always set up logical tests based on scientific principles.

4. Test only one variable at a time. If you test more than one, you’ll never know which variable made the difference. See below for a list of variables you can test.

5. Always do your math up front. Calculate all expenses in advance of the test and set up a pro forma profit and loss and break-even analysis. 

6. Always do the math on the back end. Before the creative side of testing begins, have the math in front of you. Many times the numbers will drive decisions. 

7. Always test until you’re satisfied. Don’t roll out any changes to your catalog unless you’re certain of the outcome through testing, retesting and further testing. 

Variables You Can Test Today (a checklist to get you started)

List Variables:

* Recency — the most recent names from a new list; if your list is “working”; older segments of the list; average order sizes.

* New lists in your product category.

Creative and Printing Variables:

* Paper, trim size, pages, formats, photography, copy, ink-jet messages, cover versions, dot whacks, inserts.

Offer Variables:

* Gift with purchase, dollar or percentage off, free shipping.

Merchandising Variables:

* New or different products; repositioning older or non best-sellers via creative execution.

The most basic direct and catalog marketing fundamentals (to learn and re-learn)

I recently had a conversation with another catalog consultant about a client proposal we’re jointly working on. The conversation worked its way to a discussion on the basic fundamentals of direct marketing. In essence, what’s the most basic fundamental of direct marketing that we need to present and our clients need to follow?

It came down to this: the 40/40/20 rule.

This rule states that in order to be successful in direct marketing, you must do the following:

  1. Concentrate 40 percent of your efforts on lists. That means list analysis and planning, selection, RFM, and, most importantly for catalogers, circulation.
  2. Concentrate an additional 40 percent on your offer. For catalogers, that means merchandising. That requires expert attention to detail, including but not limited to product selection, pricing, presentation and analysis. By analysis, I’m referring to square-inch analysis, the most powerful tool you can use to manage your catalog merchandising — aka “squinch.” Understanding the wants and needs of your customers is part of this function, as are the offers you make to them to stimulate response.
  3. Tie it all together by spending 20 percent of your efforts on creative execution. Literally, creative execution is only one thing: the bringing together of your list and offer/merchandising efforts in such a way that it speaks “buy now” to your customers.

As a consultant, I almost always see this in reverse.

If I had to quantify what I see in clients as they apply the above core competencies, it would be these three:

  1. 50 percent merchandising, with less emphasis on analysis and more on product development and presentation;
  2. 30 percent on creative. The creative (i.e., the catalog) is the brand’s calling card;
  3. and 20 percent on lists.

In the catalog business, lists and all that circ stuff are just as important (some would even say more) than offer and creative.

It’s easy to see how that could happen. Most catalogers are merchants first. They had a product idea and brought that to market. How they bring it to market is all about building brand image. It’s as simple as that.

I usually get called in when there are some business issues that need addressing. Often I’m told that there’s a problem with their catalogs. To this I say, “The catalog (or direct mail piece) isn’t the problem; you’re trying to solve a marketing problem (translation: circ and merchandising analysis) with a creative (design, look, feel, brand) solution.

At that point, I review the client’s version of the 40/40/20 rule and then the “textbook” version. There’s plenty of evidence for the proper application of the rule in the direct marketing textbooks. Absent this principle, I’ve seen some horribly ugly catalogs that are cash cows, while beautiful catalogs sink like stones.

Jim Gilbert is president of Gilbert Direct Marketing, a full-service catalog and direct marketing agency. His LinkedIn profile can be viewed at or you can post a comment here or e-mail him at You can also follow Jim on Twitter at Read Jim’s personal blog at

Getting the Most Out of Your Catalog Printer

Marketing via catalog can be a daunting task.  Just printing a catalog has it’s own set of core competencies that you’ll need to develop.  Here is some information you’ll need in order to start…

Getting Print Bids From Catalog Printers:

If you look at a catalog printer’s price quote, and you’re not already in the catalog business, you may be awfully confused. I know I was the first time I got a catalog print quote.

The thing is, with a catalog printer you’re not just getting a quote on printing alone. The most efficient catalog printers — and the only ones from which you should get quotes — also do the following:

* Bind the catalog and any other materials, such as an order form, together. Many times I’ve had materials printed in addition to the catalog that were bound or blown in. Most companies don’t bind in order forms anymore. However, other inserts, such as special offers for different market segments, still get bound in. Many times this printed material gets printed elsewhere and shipped to the printer for binding.

* Print the customers’ names, addresses and associated postal barcodes on the outside of the catalog and inside the order form. They also print additional messages and special offers on the outside of the catalog and the order form.

* Sort the catalogs out to take advantage of postal discounts, and then palettize them based on this sortation.

* Truck the catalogs closer to the end reader by delivering them — on the same truck as other catalogs to save money — to the Bulk Mail Centers (BMC) and Sectional Center Facilities (SCF).

All of these processes, plus plate making, shipping bounceback copies to your offices and other miscellaneous charges, get line items on your price quote. 

Which is why I say that it’s a good idea to make friends with your printer. 

Seriously, a good printer rep will be looking to mail your catalog in the most efficient way possible. Work with it to determine the most efficient trim size and number of pages.

Catalog postal rates are determined by the weight of the catalog. Also, since catalog printers have different press efficiencies, ask yours whether plates of eight, 12 or 16 pages work better. Also, ask which trim size fits its presses for the best pricing.

Once you’ve discussed all of the possibilities with your potential printer, have it take the quote and put it in a spreadsheet, projected out by the amount of catalogs you’re planning to mail. I regularly plan out an entire year in advance, but for the purposes of long-range planning, I’ve had printers develop print models for three to five years out.

When getting print quotes from multiple vendors, take the first quote you get and use that as a standardized form. Get each printer to follow the same format.

As always, please feel free to fire off a comment using the form below.  For more info see next weeks article.

Jim Gilbert is president of Gilbert Direct Marketing and a professor of direct marketing at Miami International University of Art and Design. He can be reached at