If the price is right, people will buy, won't they? Maybe.

Good service costs nothing. Bad service costs you sales.

If the price is right, people will buy, wont they? Maybe. | marketing customer service  | copywriter
I’ve just returned from a holiday in France. Wall-to-wall sunshine, a stunning view of the Pyrenees, baguettes and cheap plonk.

Oh no, that must be a false memory, since I don’t drink any more. But who says you can’t have fun without alcohol? Of course you can. Trust me.

And though the holiday itself was amazing, the journey was the usual low-cost obstacle course. Ryanair, that is. Like millions of others, I fly them because they’re cheap, have an extensive network and did I mention they’re cheap?

But price isn’t everything.

I’d happily pay twice as much just to have a stress-free experience. But with low cost goes low expectations, and they were right on the money. The scramble for seats, the street-market in the sky (Panini? Scratch card? Train tickets? Over-priced sandwich, anyone?) and the confusion over the priority and normal queue at the gate.

To be fair, the flights both ways were on time, so the possibility for frustration was limited. Unlike earlier in the year, when my flight was delayed for four hours. No drinks, snacks, access to the toilets, or announcements. Corralled in a stuffy departure lounge at Gatwick Airport, with rising temperatures and fraying nerves.

Followed by the discovery in online forums that though Ryanair charges a premium to cover EU delayed-departure compensation rights, they refuse payment in over 95% of cases, citing aircraft safety concerns.

How low can you go?

But all is forgiven if the price is right, isn’t it? People hold their nose, avert their eyes, take a deep breath, and lie back and think of wherever – don’t they?

Mostly. And then, one day, they crack.

Which is what happened to Ryanair recently. Their numbers are down, and it looks like it’s because of their offhand treatment of their customers. Shareholders at the AGM in Dublin weren’t happy with the results or the forecasts. And so Ryanair’s cheeky CEO, Michael O’Leary, said they’d start being nicer to customers.

As he’ll no doubt discover, it’s a virtuous circle. Treat your customers well, and they treat you well. Smile, and they smile back. Assume they’re telling the truth and they’ll do the same for you. Look like you care, and they’ll return the sentiment.

So now, they’re changing their tune. And I think I did actually notice it. Gone was the nasty woman at Perpignan airport with the roll of €50 stickers, gleefully punishing people for an excess kilo here and there. Staff seemed a little more human, and less willing to assume that every passenger was a potential troublemaker.

The airline even had a personal message from ‘Da Boss’ on its website, asking how they could improve their service. Could it be that he’d seen the light?

O’Leary was my new best friend. I clicked on the link and poured my heart out. Lying back on the virtual couch, I told Dr Michael everything that was on my mind. All my gripes, my simmering resentments, and my suggestions for a better relationship.

And then I clicked Submit.

Please enter a valid suggestion, it said. Maximum 500 characters. Mine, when I cut and pasted it into Word to check it, weighed in at 2,500 words. So to the 10 kilos, and the 55 x 40 x 20cm, and the 100ml, we need to add the new restriction of 500 words.

You really couldn’t make it up.

Ryanair will get there one day with their customer service (they have no choice, if the shareholders have anything to do with it). They’re on the right track, but they need to adjust their course.

At the end of the day, it’s not all about the numbers. Quality is just as important as quantity. Which is a lesson they’re taking on board, one flight at a time.

Thinking big? Plan bigger.

Big promises equal big disappointments, so think before you commit

Thinking big? Plan bigger. | service marketing  | copywriter

If you’re of a certain age, and you live in the UK, chances are you’ll recognise the line ‘the bank that likes to say…yes’In fact, you can probably still sing along with the jingle, which is right up there with ‘A Finger of Fudge’ and ‘A Mars a day (helps you work, rest and play)’.

Yes, it’s TSB of course.

Trustee Savings Bank, with its distinctive logo showing each initial in a circle. The TV ad dates from the early 1980s (yes, I gasped too) and it demonstrates just how powerful and memorable a tagline and a tune can be.

TSB was taken over by Lloyds, which became Lloyds TSB. And then, when the global banking crisis hit, the part-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, with the government (aka you and me) as stakeholders.

Now, to try and recoup some of the money spent on that stake, they’re hiving off parts of the bank. And out of the ashes rises the TSB phoenix. Over 600 branches are to open across the country.

Millions of customers, I read, would have their accounts moved across automatically. New customers could easily switch from their existing bank to TSB. And opening an account would take less than ten minutes. Yes, ten minutes – I gasped a second time.

Big promises. But could they really deliver? I decided to put the ten-minute challenge to the test.

Quick march

And you know what? It really was ten minutes, give or take a few seconds. The website was basic, but functional. It asked simple questions, didn’t pry too much, and gave me a clear indication of progress. I was waiting for the inevitable problem (I’ve taken similar challenges before) but it never came.

Ten minutes later, and I was done. All I had to do was wait, and they’d confirm everything by post.

So I waited. And waited. And no, I’m not going to say that I’m still waiting, because I’m not. They did eventually (almost two weeks later) write to me. And I didn’t really mind the delay – I imagined them frantically processing thousands of new applications, and transitioning those millions of existing customers across.

When the letter did come, with its 80s retro logo, I was pretty excited (yes, I know, it doesn’t take that much). But just think: I’d opened an account in ten minutes. It had gone with out a hitch. They really were the bank that likes to say ‘yes’.

And here was the welcome letter with my account details, to be followed by my debit card and internet banking details.

Or so I thought. But it was not to be. For when I opened the letter, my hopes were dashed.

Dear Mr Walsh,

Thank you for your recent application for a Current account.

Unfortunately due to a technical error on our system we cannot activate the account, and you will therefore need to go into your local TBS branch to open the account.

Please take your identification document with you.

We apologise for the inconvenience caused.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Walsh
Operations Manager

You couldn’t make it up, could you? Right down to the surname, it had a touch of the surreal. (And yes, they did capitalise ‘Current’.) A sort of banking version of the dead parrot sketch. Could it get any worse?

Of course it could.

I went on to the TSB site to check where my local branch was. I tried my postcode and ‘Cambridge’ but it gave me an error message. OK, so maybe there aren’t any branches here yet. But when I tried ‘London’ I got the same result. In other words, no result.

So I gave up.

Numbers game

It appears I’m not alone, though the damage in my case is minimal. At least I have a fully functioning account with another bank, and don’t really need this one.

Some Lloyds customers have been locked out of their accounts for over a week. Many others are seriously unhappy about being moved over to the new, resurrected TSB. The website crashed when it was launched, which probably accounts for the back-end problems they’ve had opening my account.

All in all, a pretty poor showing.

The message is simple: if you’re thinking big, plan bigger. If you’re going to promise, you should make sure you can deliver. Ten minutes should mean just that. And websites should work first time, every time. If you’re launching a bank and moving 4.5m customers, you need to have a robust back-end (and a robust rear end when you come in for a kicking if you don’t deliver).

30 years on, and I can still sing along with the jingle. In fact, it’s the subliminal power of the tagline that made me apply for the account. But decades of naive belief have now been swept away by the cold waters of reality.

And by the bank that likes to say no.

Find out more:

Sizzle or sausage? The recipe for marketing success.

Look beyond the obvious, and you’ll cook up a storm

Sizzle or sausage? The recipe for marketing success. | marketing copywriting  | copywriter

I’ve been de-junking (again).

First to go were the old pullovers with funky designs, that now look so yesterday. Then the jeans I hadn’t worn for ages, the smart work shirts (why did I ever think I’d need them again?) and the mohair overcoat (don’t go there). They all went to the Red Cross.

Then it was the turn of the novels I swore I’d read again, but secretly knew I wouldn’t. They were in every room in the house, to the point where they were beginning to take over. And since I’m now a zealous e-reader convert, physical books are like funky pullovers. So they went to the British Heart Foundation.

Next on my list were the hundreds of leaflets and flyers that I’ve hoarded over the years. Just in case I really want a conservatory, or an attractive bright orange fence, or even a TOWIE-style crazy-paving patio.

Not to mention the service leaflets. Cleaners, tree-fellers, plumbers, sash-window repairers, window cleaners and gardeners. Reflexologists and knife sharpeners, party organisers and personal trainers.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw them all out, so I decided on a simple but effective system.

If they sold benefits, they were in. If they sold features, they were out. If they gave me convincing reasons to use them, they were in. If they simply listed the services they offered… well, you get the picture.

Supersize me

The idea for the features/benefits challenge came to me when the latest leaflet landed on my doormat. It was for something I definitely don’t need – Slimming World (‘you need fattening up’, says the woman at the Italian delicatessen whenever I drop in for some pasta sauce).

So then, how do you sell the benefits of Slimming World? Simple – you don’t focus on the problem (being overweight) or the process (the self-denial, the exercise regime, the hunger pangs) but on the result.

And the result is this:

Sizzle or sausage? The recipe for marketing success. | marketing copywriting  | copywriter

Sara (does she even exist, I wonder?) is ‘the mum I’ve always wanted to be’. But what exactly does that mean?

Well that’s the genius of this particular line: it means whatever people read into it. Perhaps she can keep up with the kids, or compete with the yummy mummies at the school gate, or not embarrass her daughter. Maybe she gets less tired, can do more, smiles a bit more often, feels better and communicates that to her daughter.

Or maybe not.

Each reader will have their own interpretation of Sara’s line. But the important thing here is that they’re not selling the sausage. In fact, I imagine sausages are off the menu for a very long time. Instead, they’re selling the sizzle – the anticipation of what’s to come, the promise of something that has you imagining what it’ll feel like.

In other word, the benefits, not the features.

A game of two halves

I sorted my leaflets and flyers into two piles. And the features pile (A) was much, much larger than the benefits one (B). Most people just listed what they did, and left it at that. And the contrast between A and B was striking:

Cleaner A: Reliable and experienced cleaner available for home or office. References provided.

Cleaner B: Free up your time and enjoy your house. Leave the hard work to us.


Gardener A: All types of trees lopped, topped, pruned and felled. Hedges & shrubs lowered, trimmed and shaped.

Gardener B: We take care of all the garden chores so you can enjoy the view.


Sash-window company A: Sash windows repaired or replaced. Wooden or PVC frames.

Sash-window company B: Add value to your property, reduce your energy bills and improve security.


Now let’s be clear here: it’s not that the benefits people don’t talk about the things they do. Just like the features people, they list them so that prospective customers can see exactly what they’re offering.

But they don’t just leave it at that.

They also tell a story, which almost always comes back to one of the three things that people want to save: money (even if it’s actually spending money to add value), time (which you can never get enough of) or effort (we’re all lazy at heart). Add a dash of aspiration, and a little imagination (this is what you’ll feel like) an you’ve got a recipe for success.

There’s always a place for features, but they play a secondary role. Centre stage should be occupied by the benefits every time. It’s the difference between pile A and pile B.

I know which one I’d rather be in. And so do you.

Forget your cool idea and remember your clients

If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work

Forget your cool idea and remember your clients | marketing ideas  | copywriter

Before you read any further, I should open the kimono a little and let you know something: I suspect I’m a closet techie.

I know, I know, it’s a shameful admission, but there you have it. There’s not much  I can do about it. So, with that out of the way (you have been warned) let’s jump into the world of cool ideas.

Just recently, I met the term responsive web design for the first time. Or RWD if you’re a closet you-know-what. It’s a concept that’s spread like wildfire among the web developer community.

The idea behind it is quite simple. More and more people are surfing the web on mobile devices, so websites need to cater to them. But that mobile device could be a 10-inch Nexus, or a 7-inch iPad Mini, or a 4-inch HTC phone. Or any of the hundreds of other devices out there, with varying screen sizes.

So how do you ensure that the website adapts to them all? You use RWD. That’s where the cool stuff starts. Using a CSS media query, you check the size of the screen in pixels, and modify the website layout accordingly.

You don’t just squash everything into the available space. Instead, you rearrange the menus, graphics, columns, headers and everything else so they’re optimised for the screen real estate. So an iPad Mini user sees a different layout to an HTC Mini viewer.

Simple, but highly effective.

This particular cool idea came from a web developer called Ethan Marcotte. Back in 2010, he wrote an article on A List Apart (a web-developer virtual hangout) and ever since then, the idea has been gaining traction.

He even put together a cool (sorry, that word again) demo that shows you exactly how it works. You don’t even need to have an array of devices to try it: you simply resize your browser and see the site magically rearrange itself.

I was blown away. Until I spoke to an actual web developer.

One man’s meat

I was working on a website copywriting project, and the client suggested I spoke to the developer to make sure we were on the same page.

And on the direction of the website, we were. A less-is-more approach to the home page, branch-offs into more detail, bullet-pointed business benefits, and a tagline that held out a promise of marketing heaven.

Then, I strayed off my turf and on to his, asking him about the ins and outs of the design.

“So tell me,” I said with an air of authority, “are you thinking of using this famous responsive web design I keep hearing about?”

There was a pause. A too-long pause.

And then he let rip, pouring scorn on the ‘latest fad’, a ‘crackpot idea’ that was ‘solving a problem that didn’t exist’. On and on he went, bursting my bubble without even realising it.

And as we went on and on, I suddenly saw that he had a point. And it was this: mobile users don’t want the full desktop experience.

They don’t want all the menus, columns, graphics and so on to magically rearrange themselves to the size of the screen. They don’t have a proper keyboard, so typing is more difficult. And because they’re mobile, people are generally on the move, so they want easy, point-and-press solutions, with big buttons, clear choices and simple navigation.

In other words, he said, what they really want is an app – a cut-down, bare-bones version of the site, that allows them quickly to achieve their goal: book a flight, check a schedule, buy their groceries. Mobile devices need a task-oriented approach. And that means one thing: apps.

Of course he was entirely right. How could I have been so easily led astray?

Right and wrong (and somewhere in between)

In exactly the same way as lots of other people were.

Except that in the case of web design, there’s no right or wrong, better or worse. In some cases, apps are better; in others, responsive websites. The RWD question has the web development community in a spin, as techies decide which camp they’re in and slug it out for supremacy.

The takeaway here is simple: ideas are seductive, and often, we follow them blindly. We get so caught up by the momentum of these ‘cool’ ideas that we don’t realise we’re forgetting what’s really important: our readers, customers and prospects. Because it doesn’t really matter what we think – if it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work.

So what cool ideas have floated your boat recently? Have you felt, as I did, the surge of enthusiasm and the rush of admiration? The helter-skelter ride of seduction? The absolute confidence that you were onto a winner?

A new website, app, marketing campaign, pricing structure, special offer or membership scheme?

If so, take a moment, temper your enthusiasm and take a long, hard look at it. Play devil’s advocate, and force yourself to list the negatives.

You may well find that just like responsive web design, it’s not as attractive as it initially seems.

Find out more:

  • Revolution or evolution? The article by Ethan Marcotte on A List Apart that kicked off the RWD debate. Try out that cool demo by resizing your screen.
  • A balanced view: puts the case for and against responsive web design.

Controlling the message in an always-on world

Loose talk may no longer cost lives – but it could cost your reputation

Controlling the message in an always on world | marketing copywriting communication  | copywriter

We’ve all had that feeling. The sinking feeling that comes from wondering if somebody’s googling us, and what they’re likely to find.

Did we post something embarrassing at 3am on Facebook? Did we remember to tighten up our security? Did we even read the last email that Facebook sent out with its interminable privacy settings? Did we really understand it?

And Twitter? Is there anything embarrassing in the ether that might compromise our career prospects, our chances of closing the deal or winning the contract?

In the last six months alone, I’ve heard a number of horror stories from friends and clients:

  • A woman who called in sick, but continued tweeting all day long about shopping, TV programmes she was watching and what her plans were for the evening.
  • A senior manager who dropped out and did his own thing, wrote several devastating posts on his blog about the corporate world, and even gave an interview to a lifestyle website about how destructive full-time employment was. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, and decided he wanted to rejoin the world of work. It was then that he discovered the term ‘Google CV’ – the one that’s more revealing than your carefully managed version.
  • A corporate tweeter who got involved in a slanging match with a fan of the competition. It became more and more heated, and he ended up saying things that damaged the image of his company – and his job prospects. On reflection, and trawling through the tweets, he realised that the ‘fan’ was in all probability a plant by the competition – a sponsored troll, as it were.

There’s never been as much chatter out there – or as much danger of damaging your image. It’s something that political parties have learned to their cost. If you’ve ever watched the BBC’s The Thick of it, you’ll have laughed at chaos caused by 24-hour news management in the always-on world of the Westminster village.

But it’s not just politicians. Companies too have to make sure they’re coordinated on all fronts. They need to manage the message across every conduit, and often, that’s not easy.

Act in haste

Publishing online has never been simpler. A client of mine that helps organisations manage and monitor website standards quotes a wonderful phrase when it comes to publishing content: ‘empowering the irresponsible’.

It’s not so much a criticism as an observation on how easy it is for somebody – anybody – to put ‘stuff’ out there. That stuff can be off-brand, off-colour and off-message.

And that can be devastating to a company brand – which can easily account for 50% or more of a company’s market capitalisation.

So what do you do – indeed, what can you do – to control the message in an always-on, 24×7, 360-degree world?

Well, you can start with the basics: ensuring that you say the same thing, in the same tone of voice, through all channels.

  • If you’re tweeting, remember that the world is watching. Twitter is great for getting the message out and building a community, but what you say needs to maintain the same standards as everything else you communicate. Somebody once told me they treat every tweet as if it were a press release. That certainly focuses the mind.
  • Make sure all your people are on the same page; and if that page is Facebook, make sure they know about it. Just recently, I spoke to somebody who told me that their support people had no idea they even had a corporate Facebook page, or what they were saying on it.
  • Make your default mode corporate. By that, I don’t mean that you should fall back on the dreaded business-speak. Just remember that corporate Facebooking, tweeting and blogging are not the same as the personal equivalents. It’s the difference between a business dinner at a staid restaurant, and a raucous meal at your local pizzeria. It’s all about context.
  • If you’re tweeting, posting and blogging, make sure to keep an eye out for developing situations. Monitoring things regularly is the best way of heading trouble off at the pass.

And lastly, if in doubt, leave it out.

‘Think twice, post once’, a friend said to me recently. He said it’s saved him from innumerable spats on social media. By taking the time to think of an appropriate, measured response, he’s managed to maintain the moral high ground, and keep his company’s reputation intact.

Managing the message is often more about what you don’t say than what you do. Silence rarely gets you into trouble.

Which is a good note to end on.