4 Tips Any CEO or C-Level Exec Can Take to the Bank

(originally published by Catalog Success Magazine)

Being a C-level executive these days has to be the ultimate challenge. These execs face a ton of pressure to keep their companies above water during these turbulent times. Truly, I feel for them.  

But, in many cases, my empathy for them goes only so far. Especially when C-levels exemplify what I call “ivory tower thinking.” This kind of isolation is what President Obama tried to compensate for by keeping his BlackBerry — the ability to stay in touch with people other than his high-level handlers and advisers.  

In other words, there are many people within organizations beyond the CEOs’ top advisers that can offer advice and wisdom. Getting out of the tower is critical to the success or failure of any business right now.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer four pointers for any and every CEO and C-level exec:

  1. Want to know what’s going on in your organization? If you don’t already, run, don’t walk, to your call center and spend time listening to order calls, customer service calls and other inquiries. (I’ll devote a series to this in the near future.) I guarantee you’ll be enlightened and find ways to improve your product(s) and service.
  2. Talk to your call-center staff — especially the front-line reps. These people are the true unsung heroes in your companies, and they intimately know what’s right and wrong with your products and service.
  3. Once your eyes have been opened by listening to your customers and reps, force everybody in the company to spend a day in the call center, too. Write it into law that every manager and above must spend one day in the call center every six months — or quarterly, and force your marketing staff to listen monthly. Make it mandatory for new hires.
  4. Embrace social media. Through my own research, I’ve found that most marketers who’ve traditionally sold via catalog are behind their online-only counterparts on social media adoption. Why? Fear. If you think your call center is a great learning experience, try developing social media tools to monitor your reputation by listening to the social media chatter about your company. What you learn may be the ruthless truth about your company, products and service, and how they’re actually viewed by people who speak the truth.

Beware though, you may have to take specific actions based on what you learn. But then again, that’s the point of getting “out there.” Back in the ’80s I was a huge Tom Peters fan; he called this process, “management by wandering around.”

Blogging, it’s a give to get thing

Blogging has been a super powerful tool for me as part of my overall networking strategy. I do plenty of in person networking (as a board member of FDMA). But I much prefer the new fangled way. So here, take these steps. And Shhh, don’t tell anybody about this, ok?

1. Link your blog to your Linkedin (LI) profile page (very easy to do with WordPress)

2. Join as many Linkedin groups as you can (50 is max). Try to join groups that compliment your skills. For instance: I am a direct marketing consultant. I belong to many direct marketing groups. But, graphic designers can also recommend my services, so i belong to a graphic design group. Get the picture?

3. Use the LI “news” feature in groups to add your blog posts as news.

4. Use the discussions to add value to groups you belong to and always add your blog’s url.

5. When I started my blog, I used the Q&A function of (LI) to ask people to check out my blog and tell me what they thing.

6. Also in LI Q&A, answer questions that you have a good feel for (and always add your blog URL.

7. Back to your LI profile page. you have 3 links you can add. I have my blog, my Twitter feed and my Magazine column with links. 8. Regarding blog content, I write and post articles that add value to my intended audience. (people who could use my direct marketing agency/consulting services). Don’t post garbage or fluff.

8A. Make sure your blog has RSS and it is in a prominent position on all pages. People will subscribe your your blog.

9. Tweet your articles when you post them. use the Status feature of LI to update people on your articles.

9A. Send your posts out to your facebook connections. And join facebook groups and push out there too.

10. I also am a member of Plaxo (good for pushing articles to your connections), Biznik (can post articles there too, but without links back to your blog which pisses me off to no end)

11. Lastly, and someone else can address this. Use feeds to get your blog out there like Technorati, Delicious, etc.

Wow, I gave away the farm here. Final thought. Blogging and promoting your blog is a “give-to-get” thing. The more you give away your expertise, the more you get back.

Four Questions to Continually Ask About Your Customers, Products and Brand

You don’t have to operate any stores to always “mind the store.” For us in the catalog/direct/multichannel world, that means finding time in our 24/7, 365-days-a-year world to step back and ask ourselves a few questions. It’s not an easy task to pull back from our everyday happenings, especially in this insane and fear driven economy, but it’s still mission critical to stop and ask:

1. Are we the company our customers want us to be? 

2. Are we the company our competition envies? 

3. Are we looking around every corner to see what’s coming next? 

4. And for that matter, how can we adapt to meet the needs of the next “trend” so we can effectively contribute to our customers’ wants and needs and therefore our own EBITDA?

Kumbaya Now! (how we can all professionally and personally survive the economic crisis)

Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this recessionary economy together. 

If you’re still lucky enough to be employed, listen carefully to my message, as simplistic as it may seem: It’s time to put aside the natural rivalry, competitiveness, intraorganizational politics and just plain silliness that is everyday business life if you want to stay employed, and moreover, to keep your business from going under.

It’s time to really look at the way the silos within your company are formed. Take them apart, and relearn how to run your business.  

Yes, I know I’m preaching. Sorry. But you can always stop reading here (but don’t).


I assure you that on this day, in this economy, businesses need to adapt or die! We’re all terribly scared about the future of our careers and how it will affect our families. The more we — and when I say we, I mean employees and business owners — succumb to our fears, the more difficult it is to work together. We second-guess ourselves. We second-guess others, and most importantly, we spend a lot of time playing armchair quarterback to the decisions that are being made.

It’s no wonder companies are going under daily. If you look carefully, you’ll see mismanagement as the big culprit. Greed. Power. Ego. We can’t run businesses this way at this time in history.

It’s officially time for kumbaya! From this point forward, you and your colleagues must work together to fight to keep your company alive.

Beyond newfound camaraderie, two keys to doing this are obviously increasing sales and reducing costs. If you look, I’m sure you can find many places where your company’s inefficient.

As an employee, you already know they’re there, but fear keeps you silent, doesn’t it?

Recently, while consulting for a company, I set up an internal group, more like a renegade operation, and named it “Operation: Unturned Stone.” The goal of this operation was to turn over every stone in the organization in search of opportunities to either reduce costs or increase sales. This required getting people together from each department in the company. And not the heads of that division either, but key managers who aren’t usually empowered to make a difference like this. 

We put them together in a room, told them NO topic was off-limits, even pet projects their CEO might be working on, and told them to build a report on what can be done better.  

The last part of Operation Unturned Stone is critical: C-level management must make the commitment to listen and take action. Also critical is that each member of the presenting group can feel 100 percent comfortable that there will be no consequences for what they recommend. Additionally, upper management at all companies need to address the paranoia level. Peoples’ nerves are frayed as they wait for more bad news or the axe to fall.

The time is now for reassurance, comfort and team building. This can be accomplished relatively quickly. Along with reassurance, get your employees together. Suggest outside-of-the-office events. Create events as well. No, I’m not talking about corporate retreats. How about an ice skating night? A company picnic for no reason? Give out free movie passes; something along those lines.  

In short, it’s your responsibility to do what it takes from any level to ensure that your staff sticks together in these troubling times. Now is not the time for every man/woman for him/herself!

We will get through this difficult time and thrive again.

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.

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 www.linkedin.com/in/jimwgilbert or you can post a comment here or e-mail him at jimdirect@aol.com. You can also follow Jim on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gilbertdirect. Read Jim’s personal blog at https://gilbertdirectmarketing.wordpress.com/.

Perchance to Dream (of New Customers and Untapped Riches)


Jim Gilbert

Jim Gilbert

Last night I had a dream…  I had a vision of many customers.  Not just any customers, but the most coveted buyers of them all…mail order buyers! 


And behold, they bought often and recently, and liked to purchase many products at a time.  They loved these products so much that they would never consider returning them. They liked to purchase in a specific category – they were niche buyers.  A plentiful niche that was easily identifiable, a specific targeted market – the lowest hanging fruit from the tree!

And I remember in my dream that I felt warm and secure knowing that these were soon to be my customers.  It was time to start my dream business and be richer than anyone can imagine.  All I needed was the right products for these perfect customers.

But then something happened.  My dream became a nightmare!  For I had no products to offer my customers. 

In my dream, I wracked my brain trying to find product ideas. I contacted various sources looking for products, but to no avail.  Nothing!  I asked friends and business associates alike, “do you have any products that would fit my market?”  Again nothing!  I couldn’t come up with one single product that this beautiful niche of customers would want.

And I woke up in a cold sweat, thankful that this was just a dream, and in real life this could never happen.

The truth is, we don’t wake up in the morning with ideas for new customer niches.  We don’t wake up saying “I think found a great list of buyers, now what can i offer them?”

But sometimes we do wake up with ideas for new products.  

And sometimes these new product ideas become businesses.  This is the classic entrepreneur beginning: a dream turns into a business because someone thought up a great product idea and had the moxie to take it to market.  Your classic “started around the kitchen table” story!

In the past, I’ve stated that a marketing-based approach to direct marketing, mail order and e-retailing cares less for the specific product, than it does finding the right market (customers!) for those products.  To me, that IS about putting customers first. 

The following is a quote I give to my direct marketing class on the first night of the semester. It’s by Peter Drucker, one of the great management gurus of our time:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.  Companies are not in business to make things, but to make customers.”

My personal version goes something like this (with a direct marketing context):

The goals of every direct marketing organization are to generate new customers at the lowest possible cost per acquisition and take care of these customers to maximize customer lifetime value via repeat purchases.

The goals of every direct marketing organization need to be exclusively focused around the above. 

But that’s not always the case in today’s modern business world.  Many business owners and managers know their customers, but, more specifically, they know what their customers want.  The emphasis is less on understanding customers better, and more on their own intuition of what customers want.  This attitude of “I know my customers and what they want“,  makes too many assumptions.  Assumptions that don’t fit with today’s modern business practices – especially when you consider the wealth of information you can find out about your customers just by talking to them.  With the adoption of social media in the last few years, and the explosion of web 2.o, there is no excuse for not being customer-centric.  Right?

But of course any time you have a company with more than one employee, you have politics, posturing, agenda’s and egos – which means that following the above principals can get muddied by other issues. 

I see product-centric and politically charged organizations every day of the week stepping on their own toes and chasing their own tails!  I’ve also seen some companies with some great products fail for these very same reasons.

Which is why I want to set a different tone for this blog and proffer the thought that the modern entrepreneurial business should be marketing-focused and, by extension, customer-driven.

So to all catalog/multichannel/e-retail/mail order business owners out there, let me ask you this : Are you product driven?  Or customer/marketing focused?  What kind of research do you do to better understand your customers?  How do you develop new products?  Let’s get into this in future postings.  As always, please feel free to fire off a comment by using the form below, and I’ll respond.

I look forward to a lively discussion on this topic.  What a great way to close out 2008 and welcome in 2009!

Congrats, You Too Can Be a Gazillionaire!

Back in the late ’80s I started a publishing company that worked with Realtors to help sell its properties. My goal was to get my publication into prospects’ hands before they bought a home from another real estate firm who wasn’t one of my advertisers. To accomplish this, I came up with a ridiculously high-tech method of reaching potential buyers: I “bulk-dropped” my publication in every supermarket, restaurant and bank that would let me.

And it worked. My company prospered. My clients sold houses. I spent a lot of time teaching my clients how to track their responses on such technological devices as “tick sheets,” where you place a tick mark on the sheet whenever a response came in.

For a time, this was fun. But bulk-drop distribution isn’t the best way to reach prospects. So I racked my 20-something-year-old brain for a better method, but came up empty.

By 1991, I’d had enough. Luckily, one of my former employers was interested in buying the company, so I sold it. “Good riddance,” I said, even though the new owner offered me a standing opportunity to come back to run things.

Come 1993, I had my first proper job in direct marketing and went to New York University for its direct marketing certificate curriculum. A visitor came into my class one night and started talking about this thing called the Internet and its marketing arm, the World Wide Web — with something called a graphical interface. It’s coming, he said, and we entered into this whole speculative, theoretical conversation about direct marketing in the future.

A year later, a girl I was dating showed me the Internet. I asked her, “Where’s the three w’s?” She directed me to Yahoo.com. From what I remember, Yahoo! was a mishmash of totally unrelated links. I was more interested in learning how to instant message people who wanted to do cyber-things that I won’t mention here and laughing with my date over this.

So why the trip down memory lane? Simple! I had every tool necessary to take my publishing company to levels beyond my wildest dreams literally at my fingertips. Some days I look back and think, “If I’d only gotten the concept of the Internet and its vast search capabilities, I could’ve married real estate listings, search and Web sites together.” And become a gazillionaire in the process. In 1993, I could’ve gone back to my former company and made this a reality. If only I’d understood the Internet’s potential!

What’s amazing to me is how the Internet and search have changed everything in such a short time.

I also wonder these days what exactly I’m missing right now, much like I missed in the past. Where’s the next big profit center going to be? The next multimillion dollar idea? Are you thinking? Me too!


Jim Gilbert is president of Gilbert Direct Marketing Inc., a full-service catalog and direct marketing agency. His LinkedIn profile can be viewed at www.linkedin.com/in/jimwgilbert or you can post a comment here or e-mail him at jimdirect@aol.com.

Other ways to reach Jim: Phone:561-302-1719.

Profitable Cataloging on CatalogSuccess.com: http://www.catalogsuccess.com/blogs/jimgilbert.bsp