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December 5, 2020

Sabir x Zubin Mowlavi Part 2

Part 1: Coffee & Commerce Episode 23: Q&A with Sabir Semerkant and Zubin Mowlavi

Retail Vs E-Commerce

One of the first things that we addressed was how a clear divider is often placed between the world of retail and the world of e-commerce.

Companies think in the context of retail vs e-commerce when it should be retail and e-commerce.

It’s not a competition. It’s not about choosing sides.

For a modern brand to survive, it needs to exist in both spaces, rather than focusing on just one of them.

On the one hand, you have retail brands shifting their focus to e-commerce, seeking to venture into online sales and leave the offline world behind. On the other, you have existing e-commerce companies that completely ignore their offline presence.

As Zubin succinctly expressed, “Retail wants to digitize but e-commerce doesn’t want to humanize”.

It’s obvious how e-commerce can benefit a retail company, but you might be wondering how the opposite is true. How can your online business benefit from existing outside of that online space?

The answer is not about opening retail locations or selling your product on market stalls. Sure, pop-up stores can help to boost awareness, sell some products, and get direct customer feedback, but that’s not really the goal here and it’s not something that all businesses can adopt.

The idea is to incorporate some human elements into your e-commerce business.

Take the healthcare industry as an example.

Some doctors offer consultation and prescription services directly through their websites. A patient can book a consultation at a time that suits them, and following a brief video chat, the doctor can learn what the issue is and what medication to prescribe.

Tech companies have also begun implementing video customer support services. At the tap of a button, you can connect to an expert who will guide you through a specific process or problem, whether you’re trying to set up a server or need some tips on buying a new laptop.

It’s about making a connection to the customer and giving them some personal feedback or advice.

It’s not just about video chats, either. You could invite your customers to post recipes that use your product. You could ask them for ideas about new products and services, before giving them a shout out and/or a freebie when you use that idea.

Why You Need To Embrace Change

In the old days, e-commerce businesses were pretty soulless. You clicked a few buttons, browsed a few pictures, and made a purchase.

Your only interaction with an actual human was when the delivery man dropped the parcel at your door.

Technology has changed all of that, and as a result, we have advanced from simple digitized product catalogs to entire virtual experiences.

Technological advancements are behind every rise in e-commerce sales over the last few years, whether it’s because of new platforms like Amazon and eBay or because it’s easier and safer to shop online.

Even the massive growth caused by the recent pandemic was the result of technological advancements.

Imagine where we would be if the pandemic struck just 30 years ago.

We weren’t shopping online in 1990. Even if we wanted to, the technology just wasn’t there.

Fast forward 10 years and while online shopping was more prevalent, there’s no way it could have done the things it has done in 2020.

Even if sites had implemented secure payment methods, video testimonials, social proof, shopping ads, Google Ads, and everything else that attracts customers and encourages them to purchase, we simply wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to cater for them.

For your business to succeed and experience the growth you’re looking for, you need to start embracing new technologies and possibilities. If you can use them to connect with your customers and humanize the e-commerce process, even better!

Build Content Around Your Brand: The Two Pillars

Chef Branden from Sauce City USA was the first guest on this episode of Coffee & Commerce. The enthusiastic entrepreneur spoke about how he turned himself into a PR machine in an effort to get his brand out there, and it worked incredibly well.

In many ways, Branden is the perfect example of how you should promote your brand both online and offline. But before I talk about the reasons his business is flourishing and the ways he excels at self-promotion, let’s address the topic of content creation.

It’s something I discussed with fitness influencer Joe Yoon, but it’s worth repeating.

As a growing brand, it helps to join as many social media sites as you can and to promote unique content through all of them. But if you’re operating a one-person operation or only have a small team behind you, that can feel like a pretty daunting task.

You need videos on YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok; images on Instagram; articles on Medium and LinkedIn; blogs on your website. It’s a lot to take in, and you could be forgiven for looking at the established brands and wondering how the hell they’re doing it.

But it’s actually quite simple, and it’s nowhere near as expensive or time-consuming as you might think.

It all begins with what we call Pillar Content.

Let’s use Branden’s business as an example. He sells homemade hot sauces designed to add some spice and flavor to home cooking, takeout, and even restaurant meals.

In the first instance, he could create a video on The Health Benefits of Hot Sauces, one in which he discusses the individual ingredients, nutrient content, and the endorphin-boosting, anti-inflammatory effects of chili peppers.

The video can highlight 10 different benefits and present them in a stylized way, complete with narration, unique images, animations, and an appearance from Branden himself.

He can then write a 2,000-word article on the same topic.

It’s a similar process to what I have used for all This Week With Sabir episodes. The videos themselves are 60 minutes long and they are followed by the publication of a 5,000+ word article.

The article is not a direct copy of the video; it’s not merely a transcription, but it borrows many of the same ideas and expands upon them.

When he has his pillar content, Branden can post the video to YouTube and the article to his website.

That’s when the real creativity begins.

By chopping up the video, he can create 10 different segments, each highlighting specific benefits. He can then take snapshots and overlay these with quotes from the video, before doing the same with the article, turning that 2,000-word piece into multiple short-form blogs, social media posts, and more.

From one video, he has hundreds of pieces of unique content that cover all different forms of media and are perfect for different social media accounts.

That content can then be scheduled over the course of the month, ensuring that several pieces are published every single day.

If he repeats this process the following month, the content keeps flowing, his following grows, and he gets to tick all of those boxes without feeling like he’s turning himself into a creative automaton.

Of course, if you’re not a writer or a video editor and you have no talent for editing images, you’ll need to hire someone who can do the work for you.

Luckily, by adopting this format, you don’t need a team of writers, designers, and video editors.

A single writer and video editor will suffice, and they only need to be hired for one article/video per month.

All the screenshots, quote gathering, and copy/pasting can be done by an unskilled freelancer working for a fraction of what you pay the writer and designer.

What If You’re Camera Shy Or Time Poor?

Chef Branden is clearly a very approachable, enthusiastic, and extroverted business owner. He describes himself as a hustler, and you only need to watch his TV interviews and his brand content to see that he’s comfortable in front of the camera.

But what do you do if you don’t feel at ease when the camera is recording, how can you position yourself as your brand’s spokesperson when you freeze-up every time that little red light turns on?

I approached the subject with Habib Salo, the CEO of Young Nails Inc. who assumed the role of presenter and content manager for his B2B business.

In the beginning, he admitted to feeling awkward and uncomfortable in front of the camera but said that it got easier the more he did it.

It’s something that Zubin also discussed, noting how the process feels more natural and produces better results with every video that you make.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and that’s true whether you’re playing the guitar or orating a speech in front of millions.

The best TV presenters aren’t born with a natural ability to entertain. It’s something that builds up over time.

They spend their childhood years as the class clown; their teen years as the eager drama student and school entertainer, and their adult years working clubs and amateur gigs.

It’s easy to look at what they do and assume that they have some kind of natural confidence and an inability to get stressed or feel anxious. But that’s not true. They still get nervous before they step in front of a studio audience.

Everyone does—it’s human.

The difference is that they learn ways to adapt, to hide it, to turn those nerves into excitable energy and that energy into something that passes for confidence.

Another great example is the early careers of popular YouTubers.

Take a look at the first videos of popular creators, particularly the old-schoolers who weren’t raised with smartphones in their hands and YouTubers on their screens. They were terrible. They were nervous wrecks. But now they’re confident, funny, and completely at ease.

Familiarity and practice make everything easier in time.

And if you’re so much of an introvert that you have a panic attack when you’re in front of the camera, find someone who is better suited to the role or change your approach entirely.

Can’t find a presenter? Hire an animator and a voice-over artist instead. Can’t budget for their services? Begin with articles, blog posts, images, and other impersonal forms of content.

When your budget is limited and you don’t have much time on your hands, it’s best to start small. Sign up for Facebook or Twitter and focus on those networks first. When your time frees up and you have more money in your budget, you can think about expanding, joining more sites, and hiring more people.

Until then, there’s no need to rush into things. It’s better to devote 100% of your efforts to a single social media platform rather than half-assing several of them.

Lessons About Launching A Food Business

Chef Branden is a big fan of the Coffee & Commerce podcast and has listened to every episode and adopted every piece of advice.

Toward the end of his segment, Zubin began exploring some of the unique ways that a food company can get its products out there.

One of his recommendations was to create sample bottles of the product and start handing them out at restaurants, along with a card that contains information on the brand and allows consumers to connect.

Just as he finished making this recommendation, Branden pulled out his own little sauce bottle and pre-prepared cards, suggesting he was already one step ahead!

One of the biggest problems with selling food/drink products online is that your customers can’t smell, touch, or taste the product.

In a retail store, you can hand out samples to every customer who walks through the door. Online, that option simply isn’t available, which is why you need to implement these creative little techniques.

It’s the biggest obstacle that e-commerce food entrepreneurs face, but there are some solutions.

1. Let Your Customers Live Vicariously

Your customers can’t taste your food, but they can see how others react when they taste it.

Chef Branden discussed an idea he had to hand out samples and record reactions. If he can capture the moment that a taster reacts with delight and surprise, he has the makings of a successful marketing video.

2. Show Social Proof

Social proof is the reviews and testimonials that customers see before purchasing your products. They can take the form of simple written reviews posted on your website or video testimonials created by an Instagram influencer.

It serves as proof that your product has been purchased and enjoyed by someone who has similar tastes, and it’s something that most customers consider before making a purchase.

3. Highlight The Benefits And USPs

Does your product provide any specific health benefits, are there any unique selling points?

For instance, maybe it’s made from organic and sustainable ingredients or packaged using eco-friendly materials. If we stick with the hot sauce theme, it could be that the sauces are made using a specific type of pepper.

Customers know what hot sauces are, they know what certain foods taste like. You don’t always need to tell them how something tastes in general, simply highlight the things that make it unique compared to everything they’ve purchased before.

4. Create Visually Appealing Ads

Fast food restaurants are a perfect example of how you can make your customers desperate to try your food. It’s hard to resist images of crisp fries and juicy burgers, even if the real food doesn’t have quite the same appeal.

Food marketing is big business and there are experts who specialize in making food look good on video and in images.

Read about their techniques, follow their advice, and give your food items the same treatment.

5. Offer A Guarantee

If you’re confident that people will love your product, prove it. Give them a guarantee, telling them they can return the item if they are not satisfied.

It’s a promise that many food and supplement companies make. It sounds a little too generous when you consider how easy it is to exploit these offers, but actual return rates are usually very low.

You’ll gain more in sales than you’ll lose in returns.

How To Manage Customer Service Demands

Noah Intiso was the second guest on the podcast. As the owner of the Big Bat Box, Noah has witnessed immense growth in the space of a few short months. He launched the business as a means of selling his enormous baseball card collection but was soon generating thousands of dollars in revenue every single month.

It’s a situation that many small business owners would love to be in, and it’s one that Noah has done incredibly well to achieve. But one of the issues he has faced is the sudden demand on customer service resources.

The bigger your business becomes the more queries, complaints, refund requests, and other messages you need to deal with.

Generally, the demand on customer support isn’t as great as many aspiring business owners expect.

As an example, a friend of mine recently launched a small business selling products from his garage. He worked full-time and planned to spend 10 hours a week packing products and 10 hours dealing with the customer support side of things.

He predicted that when the business reached $5,000 in revenue, he would need to hire a full-time employee to handle emails.

He recently reached that $5,000 milestone and told me that he spends approximately 1 hour a week dealing with customer support. He doesn’t have a phone number or Live Chat, so everything is done through email, and he gets an average of 5 customer emails a week.

Some of these ask simple questions, others want to know where their orders are. It’s nothing too strenuous.

In fact, he tells me that he spends more time sorting through the spam emails, as countless agencies try to sell him services while wholesalers try to sell him products.

Generally, you won’t get as many requests as you expect and in those early stages, they’re easy to deal with. However, as you grow, not only will those emails increase, but it also becomes more important to add Live Chat and phone support.

Noah is a great example of this. He admits to doing most of the work himself, including all of the packing, and in the early months, even when the revenue was rising, he had it under control. As he moved into 5-figures, however, it became too much for one person.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are a few options to consider:

Third-Party Logistics

Not all companies have warehouses. Some of them contract these services to third-party logistics companies, and if you have the money in your budget, you can do the same.

For small businesses trying to do everything themselves, this option gives them more time to focus on the admin and customer support side of things. The products will be processed professionally and quickly, and as you often pay by the hour, it’s completely scalable.

There are also third-party companies that manage your customer support, but while this can be a good option for large companies requiring multiple phone operators, there are better solutions for small businesses who just need one or two staff members working a few hours a day.

Get A Virtual Assistant

As with the content creation side of things, if you’re struggling to do the work yourself, then you need someone to take over.

A virtual assistant is someone who works remotely and assumes control of basic tasks. You can generally hire a very capable non-US freelancer for less than $8 an hour, before assigning them the tasks that you don’t have time for.

Virtual assistants are particularly useful when it comes to customer support. You can hire them to staff phone lines, operate Live Chat, and reply to emails.

Many small businesses are wary of giving control over to someone who isn’t invested in their business and doesn’t have intimate knowledge of their product.

But they’ll be following scripts that you write and instructions that you create. In that sense, they’re just auto-responders with free will and the ability to make decisions.

The majority of customer support queries can be boiled down to “Where is my Order?”. You may also receive many of the same questions relating to specific products that you sell, including whether or not they are suitable for certain dietary requirements.

If you create a list of the 20 most frequently asked questions, you can provide directions for responding to all of them, ensuring these responses follow a specific format.

If they’re asked a question that isn’t on the list, they can always contact you directly and ask for assistance. In time, they’ll learn how to deal with these queries themselves.

Create An FAQ

If you have a good idea of what your customers will ask, why not add those answers to your website?

If they’re asking about delivery times, include a section relating to shipments and deliveries; if they want to know about your products, write extensive product FAQs.

Some customers will ignore these entirely and go straight to your email or Live Chat. I tend to find that younger customers are more likely to search for their answers on a website, whereas older customers will make a beeline for customer support.

But the point is not to erase those queries altogether, you’re just trying to reduce them and take some of the burdens off your support staff.

The questions that they ask can vary greatly, as well, and some of these aren’t always immediately obvious but they nearly always make a difference.

In Episode 17 of This Week With Sabir, I spoke with optimization expert Gajan Retnasaba about the importance of customer FAQs.

He recalled a time when he was working with a company that created software for web browsers. They had FAQs, social proof, Live Chat—all those boxes were ticked.

But Gajan was still looking for optimization opportunities and so he added a text box to the checkout, encouraging customers to ask questions and talk about their concerns.

A large number of customers used the comment box to query whether the program was compatible with Mac or Windows.

It’s something that seemed obvious to the customers and, as a result, they were frustrated when they didn’t find an answer on the site. But because their software was browser-based and therefore suitable for all platforms, the developers never considered it.

By adding this simple query to the FAQs and addressing it in full, they saw a substantial increase in customer acquisition rates and that led to a massive financial boost for the business.

To the developers, it was like adding a “gluten-free” label to a bottle of water, but it made perfect sense to the customers and that proved to be a very profitable discovery.

So, take heed when your customers ask you questions, encourage them to be open about their concerns, and use all of this data to create an FAQ that turns a curious reader into a happy customer.

Make It Proactive

It’s tempting to avoid adding Live Chat and phone support, assuming that if they can’t use these options, they’ll stick with email or leave you alone.

But while that’s true for some customers, the majority will just go elsewhere if they can’t get the answers they need on your site.

As Zubin says, you need to be proactive, not reactive. Answer the questions that your customers are asking, as well as the ones they’re not.

Encourage them to speak to your support team for recommendations and tips, and not just for order queries.

It all comes back to mimic the retail experience, as noted at the outset of this guide.

In a brick-and-mortar shop, a customer can speak to the shop assistant and get information about the product, price, and elements of the service. Online, there is more of a disconnect, and customers aren’t encouraged to ask those questions.

Can You Compete Against Big Brands?

The final question of the day came from Jamaane, who asked whether we would ever see the collapse of a major brand like Pepsi, and if so, when?

It was a question that introduced several different elements and allowed us to cover the role that a small business plays in a world run by multinational corporations.

Firstly, as noted by Zubin, Amazon is the biggest name in the e-commerce sector, but it’s followed closely by Shopify. When you combine all Shopify sites, the sales far outweigh those recorded by the likes of Target, Wayfair, and Home Depot.

It’s proof, if you needed it, that consumers are happy to purchase from small businesses. In fact, as Jamaane pointed out, social media sites are littered with posts from small businesses promoting their products and customers praising them.

In 2020, we’re all backing the little guy, the outsider, and that gives these brands a chance to make a name for themselves.

If you ever feel a little suffocated by the ever-present threat of big brands, just remember the following:

1. You Have More Freedom

Big brands are tied to tradition and have to do things in a certain way. If they deviate from that tradition, they risk angering their loyal customers and upsetting their stockholders.

Just think about the chaos that resulted from the launch of New Coke, a product for which Coca-Cola had expected big things, only to watch as millions of fans voiced their disgust at the new product.

Would that have happened to a small business with a small following? Probably not.

You have the freedom to change your products and even to take your business in a new direction. No one is expecting anything of you, and you haven’t been around long enough to worry about nostalgia and traditions.

If you want to stop selling hot sauces and move into chocolate and confectionery, go for it. If you want to change some recipes to make your products more cost-effective and sustainable, you can.

The creative heads at companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola would love to have that sort of freedom, but they lost it a long time ago.

2. You Can Be Bought Out

Brands like Pepsi don’t dominate because they have a knack for creating new products and venturing seamlessly into new industries. They reach those heights because they acquire many of their smaller competitors and incorporate their products into their range.

It’s a monopoly, and while it’s pretty scary to imagine yourself facing off against a brand like that, it’s better to see them as a potential savior.

After all, you’re the company that has nothing to lose. You’re not the one spending hundreds of millions on marketing, employing thousands of people, and trying desperately to keep stockholders happy.

You don’t have to worry about a single mistake or oversight leading to the loss of billions in market value.

Yet, at the same time, you could take a large percentage of their business and launch a new product that completely overshadows everything they create.

In other words, they should be the ones scared of you.

If life was a Christmas film, that fear would lead to a tense build-up and some criminal activity on their part, followed by the success of your business and the downfall of theirs.

In reality, when you’re so big that you appear on their radar, that’s when they get their checkbook out and you consider accepting a sizable sum for your business.

It doesn’t matter how much you love that business and how well you think it will do, you’ll always get more money by selling out to a major brand.

It’s a win-win for them. They’re buying a successful business that generates a decent profit, but they’re also gaining more of a stranglehold on the industry and preventing that consumer cash from going elsewhere.

The goal of many entrepreneurs is to get big enough to attract attention from the biggest corporations, and when you see the sort of money being thrown around, it’s easy to see why.

In the last few months we’ve seen Slack, a workplace communication program, sell for over $27 billion in cash and stock, while Kustomer, a CRM platform, sold for over $1 billion.

Tech tends to attract the biggest bucks, especially when companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are concerned, but the food industry can be just as lucrative.

Just ask the owner of Tate Bake Shop, which was acquired by Mondelez for over $500 million in 2018, or Pirate Brands, which Hershey picked up for $420 million in the same year.

Will We See A Big Brand Collapse?

To finish up, let’s address Jamaane’s question regarding whether or not we’ll see the collapse of a major brand like Pepsi.

It has been argued that these brands are too big to fail. But they said the same about the Titanic, and they’ve said the same about countless food empires, fashion brands, and even banks.

It’s rare, but it’s not impossible.

The problem with brands like Pepsi is that they have such a dominant share of the market they can use their resources to sway public opinion.

If you run a cupcake business from your home, there’s not much you do if the world suddenly decides that sugar is evil, cupcakes are poison, and kale is the future.

But if you’re Mega Cupcake Co, you can use your resources to change public opinion and stop the rot while gradually shifting towards a healthier, low-sugar alternative.

Of course, sometimes, all the money in the world isn’t enough to prevent the demise of a company that refuses to innovate.

Consider Blockbuster as an example. It saw the steady death of the video rental industry and it could have used that time to have one final push—revamping its stores, expanding its range. At the same time, it could have made the gradual switch to streaming, working with companies like Netflix instead of shunning them and hoping they would somehow go away.

Blockbuster didn’t quite have the same resources as Pepsi, but the idea is the same: If a business refuses to innovate and move with the times, it’s not safe.

The same is true for small businesses, and it’s something that all business owners and entrepreneurs need to keep in mind.

More Information

As always, I had a lot of fun talking with Zubin and answering questions from hard-working entrepreneurs. I feel like we covered a lot of important topics during this podcast, but there’s so much more to learn.

If you’re a business owner looking to increase your sales in the chaos of the Coronavirus, I recommend taking a look at some of the previous This Week With Sabir episodes.

In Episode 18, for instance, I spoke with Aron Levin about influencer marketing, whereby you hire influencers to promote your products on social media. It’s a tactic that many modern brands have used to go viral and one that every business can benefit from.

Episode 21, on the other hand, was all about launching new products, with tips for established businesses, as well as start-ups.

We’re nearing the end of 2020 now and will be happily waving goodbye to one of the strangest and most memorable years in recent history. But there’s still a lot of big times ahead for the e-commerce industry.

Make sure you stay tuned to This Week With Sabir to learn about these changes and what they mean for your business.

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