Category Archives: Value added

The promise of speed in service

Imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of a Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest automobile. The rush, the adrenaline pumping into your temples, the tunnel vision and the blurry sides of the road as you travel at 267 mph. Imagine running your business the way you’d run in this beautifully designed car. Is speed desirable in both scenarios? Maybe not.

The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport

Noted former Olympian and motivational speaker Vince Poscente wrote that the rules governing the well-known triangle of time, quality and cost have changed in what he charmingly calls The Age of Speed. He maintains that you can get top quality at the right price, and fast because new speedy technologies make this possible. More on this in a jiffy.

Like New York City’s skyscrapers, speed awe us the higher it goes. When I first visited the Big Apple and saw the Brooklyn Bridge and some of Lower Manhattan’s man-made towers of steel and mirror glass, I was amazed and nothing else seemed to beat the size and grandeur of this spectacle, an ongoing show for the masses.

We all like speed in different settings, from the gearhead with his love for fast vehicles to the bungee jumper to the fighter jet pilot. Speed can be measured in time and distance, and time is our main concern here as business owners. Time to get a loan approved, time to hear back from a prospective customer, time to market our new product, etc.

My goal in this article is not to tell you how to do your job faster or better. In the short space of a few paragraph, I hope to persuade you to stop and think about the priorities in your business that call for additional time to accomplish —and you already know they take additional time.

Back to the age of speed, Mr. Poscente is, like most motivational speakers, half right and obvious. Of course some things can be made with a higher level of quality, faster and cheaper. But services or certain products are not things. These things are supported by craftsmen, people who love their job, people who are making this world a better place thanks to the services they provide.

Take your most recent client: how long did it take you to bring him in to use your services or buy your products? Maybe weeks, months or years, correct? Regardless of the medium of contact or communication, from zippy email campaigns to ubiquitous phone calls, some businesses relationships cannot be rushed into being. Consider the following example.

I recently visited the Best Buy store in Avon looking for a netbook. A helpful employee dressed in traditional Best Buy blue garb greeted me and answered my questions in a clear and professional way; then he proceeded to push a thin folder with Geek Squad material into my hand, prompting me to take it. I said I didn’t need it or want it, but he didn’t listen. What happened next?

I’ve been a Best Buy customer for many years, so I won’t let an improperly trained employee steer me away from the shop. Perhaps he was motivated to do or achieve something fast, like how many Geek Squad folders he could deliver to walk-ins.

You may have recently read about the arrival of the iPhone 5 in a few weeks from now. It’s designed to be speedier and take advantage of 4G LTE networks, much faster than the old 3G or 4G networks of yore. But faster is not necessarily a better trait in a technology, and some technologies provide counterproductive results if they perform faster than desired.

Consider the newest A6 core designed for the iPhone 5. A technical analysis, as reported by Ars Technica[1], revealed that the core blocks were put manually, not by using software, which would be the so-called more intuitive way of speeding things up. Notes iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric, as reported in the Ars Technica site:

“It looks like the ARM core blocks were laid out manually—as in, by hand,” iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric said via e-mail. “A manual layout will usually result in faster processing speeds, but it is much more expensive and time-consuming.”

In physics, there’s a concept called terminal velocity. In layman’s terms, an object moving at a certain speed achieves terminal velocity, which is a constant value of speed, when confronted with the opposing force of say, a fluid or the force of gravity. Let’s look at this from a business point of view. Suppose your secretary types at 75 words per minute. You hired her because she’s a fast typist at the computer, knows how to compose business correspondence and makes very few, if any, typos. There are people out there who can type faster than that, and slower than that, like 40 words per minute, which is the acceptable minimum in most workplaces. Suppose now that you need to send out a very important letter to a client in France, in English, within 30 minutes. You met this prospect at a trade show, shared business cards and struck up a positive and enriching conversation. He wanted to receive some samples, but that time was not the right time. Today you received an email requesting said samples.

As an experienced and effective business owner, you can’t possibly just reply with a short email saying “Confirmed receipt of request for samples. Expect them next week. Your signature.” You are dealing with a new client, a promising prospect overseas, and he wants to see samples of your products! A hastily made email won’t do him justice, wouldn’t you agree? A letter, even if it is emailed as an attachment, is your best shot.

So you write up a draft for your secretary to type up, format in company template with logo, letterhead, the whole bit. You will then have it printed out in laser color, sign it yourself, scan it and send it to your French customer as an enclosure in a return email. The question is, do you want your secretary to hurry up and type it faster than usual?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, goes the saying. Tasks and projects that require attention to detail can seldom fulfill their goal if done faster than it is advisable to do. Big decisions in business require quality time set aside to make them, but only experience, trial and error and focus can help us weed out the inconsequential decisions from the really big ones.

I work with words every day, and I have to choose them carefully for my customers. I can translate some documents very, very fast and produce a highly efficient product. But other documents require more research, more reading, more formatting and more consultations with a client. With an eye set on what my client needs and not what my clock is looking like, I hope to continue to serve my clientele with the same gusto and drive that moved me to write this for you.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Research in translation, Value added

Branding vs. Reputation

Brands are as ubiquitous as human beings. But, does a brand have a code of conduct or values? Can it give you its word? Then, how can you trust a brand? A brand is nothing but a disembodied voice, seductive in delivery, aiming to burn value in your retinas.

One of the most important assets a company has is its brand. That brand is not just the typographical or graphical representation of a company’s identity. When a brand is unknown, it’s just another name, another logo, another pretty image. But once known beyond its initial boundaries, a brand has the potential to become an icon. People recognize the brand and ultimately identify with it.

Some brands have accomplished this by becoming omnipresent. Think Target, Sony, AT&T, Staples, Dell. We have become familiar with them by sheer repetition and repeat interaction with them. We develop a level of trust in those brands to the point that our purchasing decisions become fast and reactive.

However, there’s a movement out there that seems designed to confuse entrepreneurs and customers alike. It’s a the conflation of a personal trait with an umbrella symbol. I am referring to reputation. Having a good reputation is a trait of good character, of moral standing in society. But now branding is being touted as a synonym of, and ultimately a replacement for, reputation. We might want to take a step back and look at what’s going on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Branding is important. It lends identity to a product line. According to marketers, branding is the idea that communicates value to potential customers about your product or service. In our highly competitive marketplace, however, brands point to a company, product or service in a spectrum of reliability with its attendant consequences. If a product is reliable, then you’ll likely buy it or use it again. Hence, a brand is as strong as the virtues of the product or service it represents.

But, can individuals be considered brands themselves? Why? Some celebrities may be considered “brands” in the sense that they are widely known to multiple audiences and that they offer a reliable product —their artistic performance. People like Beyoncé, Pink, Lady GaGa and Madonna can be considered brands because they stand beyond the universe of commodities. Movies, software applications and other objects of consumption can also become brands. For example, a Madonna song is unique; a Beyoncé album is distinct in quality and experience. That’s another concept of modern branding: experience, which I suspect is meant to mimic what we experience in human relationships.

But branding belongs to things, reputation to persons. After all, a product is made by someone, a service is provided by someone. A person is not a thing to be branded because an individual cannot be reduced to just the value his products or services can offer. Doing so exposes the individual to become a commodity, just like any other consumable.

If we go back to the concept of reputation, we may be surprised at the freshness of this old idea. We build relationships with other human beings based on trust and reputation. The old word-of-mouth concept is a good example of relying on a provider’s reputation to do business with them. On the other hand, designating a person as a brand is dehumanizing and reduces the individual to a dollar amount and a material experience.

Consider cell phone brands such as Apple, Samsung, Nokia and Blackberry. Are they good brands? Sure. Right now, however, two of these brands are undergoing radical changes (Nokia and Blackberry). Nokia and RIM, the Blackberry maker, have been losing market share to Android and Apple competitors. Are they still good brands? Sure, but here’s the difference: their brand and reputation are good, but it’s their experience that is undergoing tectonic shifts. Experience is dependent on reputation, not so much as on brand.

Another reason branding as a misnomer for reputation for individuals —especially small businesses or independent professionals— is problematic is this: branding promises to make you ubiquitous and famous. This may be true of performers such as actors, singers, musicians, etc. who succeed in representing the zeitgeist and having their voices heard and enjoyed by millions. But most small businesses will be happy to fetch a slice of their local or regional market. Some of these businesses will want to grow exponentially and organically, but branding alone will not take them there.

For independent contractors and small businesses, the old standard is true: build on word of mouth and a reputation for quality service and excellent product. How you call your business is your own decision, and you will definitely need marketing help to assert yourself as a reputable business with a solid brand, a recognizable name. But let’s not confuse business growth with ego growth.

In an increasingly competitive and sometimes litigious society, going back to the basics —build your reputation by keeping your promises, never go back on your word and keep a code of honor— is not just a nice idea but it makes good business sense. A solid brand may have quantifiable value, but a good reputation is priceless.

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Filed under Branding, Marketing, Reputation, Value added

See spots run

All languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others.

Paraphrasing the (in)famous quote from H.G. Well’s Animal Farm, «All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” I find myself thinking of a soup of random but oddly connected ideas: pigs, languages, words, and spots. Why spots? British painter Damien Hirst’s endless artwork collection of spots, carefully arranged color dots named after pharmaceuticals.

In my list of random ideas, there’s an undercurrent: commodification. According to Merriam-Webster’s, it means turning something that is not supposed to be a tradable object into a commodity. Look around in your house or office. Are there any objects that are uniquely wrought and made? Maybe that purple sweater knitted by grandma? Or perhaps that loaf of homemade bread you made two days ago? Did you make the bread from scratch? Of course. Where did you bake it? In an oven, a bread maker?

My mother used to bake homemade round breads and pastries for sale, fresh out of a brick-and-mortar hemispheric oven. My father built it for her in our backyard when I was a preteen. That oven was very useful to my mother for several months. I only cared for the pastries. Even though my father was no skilled bricklayer, his oven was similar to thousands of other mud ovens. Whatever we do with our hands remains unique, not line-assembled like a plastic toy or an SUV. Working things with our hands has many benefits but, how many people bake their own bread these days?

A mud oven

Take another commodity: books. A Gutenberg-printed bible in 1455 cost “the equivalent of three years’ pay for the average clerk” (from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html). Nowadays, you can get a nicely bound bible for 5 bucks or less. Thanks to industrialization, many handcrafted items became commodities and arrived in our homes. In mine, for example, most items are commodities: books, computers, kitchenware, clothes, pieces of furniture, CDs, DVDs, consumer electronics, foodstuff, rugs, office supplies, lighting fixtures, even the paint on my walls. But it’s not just objects that have been commoditized. Services such as electricity, water, cable Internet and phone service are all commodities.

The benefits of commoditization are evident: affordability, predictability of cost, ease of manufacturing, standardization of manufacturing processes, performance and delivery, ease of use, easy transfer of goods and services across borders, just to name the most important. For us, consumers, affordability and ease of use stand out.

Globalization made commoditization a truly international phenomenon. Almost overnight, there were no borders, tariffs were lowered, products, services and jobs began their fluid transfer among nations and territories. In America, we live an economic paradox: we have an unprecedented access to affordable goods from all corners of the planet, and we want products with better quality at lower prices. The downside is that we lose jobs to other nations in the process —not just China. If the goods we so prize were made in America, we would be paying several times over for them…and we wouldn’t be a happy lot, would we?

Works of art used to be unique. Paintings, sculptures and installations worth tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, cover the walls and floors of many a museum in urban centers across the globe. Why are they so costly? Because they are unique. But then, we have another paradox: the commodified painting that is also expensive, intended for the wallets of the one-percenters.

Damien Hirst’s simultaneous exhibits in all 11 of Larry Gagosian’s galleries around the world consist of more than 300 spot paintings. These art objects come in different sizes and color palettes but share two themes: perfectly round color spots and grid distribution. Not all of these paintings were made by Mr. Hirst, however, but by his assistants. I saw some examples in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New York Observer this week. Granted, the paintings are mesmerizing in all their blahish glory. The most anyone paid for a Hirst spot painting, named 3 -(5-chloro-2-hydroxphenylazo)- 4, 5-dihydroxy-2, 7-naphthalenedisulfonic acid, was £1.8m (from http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Seeing-spots/24530). You can see a reproduction here and judge for yourself if this painting is worth more than 2 million dollars.

Damien Hirst's Valium (online reproduction)

But Damien Hirst is a well known painter, a brand in itself. His paintings draw higher-than-premium prices because of who he is and what he’s done, even though his spot paintings make you yell “My daughter could have painted thaaat!” Some art pieces are more equal than others, and so are other products or services.

Consider your product or service, how much it cost you to produce and deliver to market, and how much you price it. Even if it is a commodity, if your product or service is rare or unique enough, and useful enough, it will command a premium sticker price. Imagine your product to be a premium water bottle. Supermarkets stock those for $1.5o -$3.50 apiece. After a bottle is drunk and tossed into the garbage, what is its price? A few cents for recyclable content.

Consider now your product or service and the messages surrounding them that help to sell them or use them, such as ad copy, marketing collaterals, documentation, handbooks and instructions. How much value do they add to your product or service? Are they recyclable or transferable? In case you sell overseas, do the translations of said accompanying messages add value to your product or service?

Your product may look like millions of other products. Your service may sound like thousands of similar offerings. At a distance, all of them look the same, just like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Will Heinrich, The New York Observer’s resident art columnist, has this to say:

“…the medical-white canvases are decorated with perfectly round, appealingly candy-color spots…The colors, although sticking to a narrow, consistent palette, do not strictly repeat in any one painting, and they’re so precisely applied that the spots look like stickers…Even the white backgrounds stop perfectly short at the edges.”

Hirst’s formula to make his spot paintings unique was the unrepeatability of the color dots, which brings uniqueness to his commoditized art. Likewise, the texts that promote and sell your products and instruct on their use may as well share this distinctive trait of unrepeatability: your company style and tone permeates the texts to create the look and feel your customers have come to expect from your offerings. So should your translated materials. Your message —in English or in foreign languages— does not have to be a commodity just because it is printed on commoditized paper, html or pdf.

A skilled word artisan can make this possible by spotting the inherent and vibrant patterns in your writing, and then casting fresh servings of texts in foreign-language flavors that are pleasing to the eye of the discerning consumer. Whether it is an MSDS, a help file, a tool’s instruction manual or a brochure for your new service, don’t relegate them to your customer’s blind spot. Make them visible. Make them valuable.

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Filed under Advertising, Business of writing, Commodification, Style, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Value added