Sunday, November 19, 2006

Customer Service: What it Says About Your Brand

Now that the zen kitchen is starting to see an increase in clients, the issue of client management has been on my mind a lot. I like to think that I treat my clients well, and while sometimes it's hard to keep in touch with everyone I've worked with on a consistent basis (outside of my monthly newsletter), I'm always looking for ways to improve the experience my clients have with my studio. Today, I had two separate customer service experiences that I felt really exemplified the reasons why customer service is such a vital piece to any brand, and I wanted to take a moment to share them.

This week, I decided to devote my Sunday (since my weekdays of late have been filled with billable work and I'm still getting over the guilt I feel being "non-billable" during normal work hours) to some studio marketing and general life maintenance. On the to-do list: Get the newsletter ready, update some case studies and recipes on the zen kitchen website, get files and prints ready for a call for entries, and top off the fluids in my car.

After a nice breakfast with a friend at the Neighborhood Cafe in Union Square (coconut French toast: yum!), I headed over to the Advance Auto Parts at 196 Somerville Avenue in Somerville to get the fluids. Being very much A Girl, I knew I needed power steering fluid and oil, but I had no idea what kind was best for my car. A man named John was happy to help, gave me honest feedback on the types of products they carry, and pointed me to the product that was best for my car without trying to con me into getting the most expensive thing. When I went out to the parking lot to top off the fluids, I was having trouble figuring out where to put the power steering fluid, and I was able to stop John on his way back into the store from helping a fellow customer put on her new windshield wiper to ask where it went, and he was more than happy to help me.

This is the way that I should feel when I walk into a business; like the people who work there value their jobs, and value their ability to help me meet the needs I came into their business to fill. It's important when I work with someone that they understand that whatever I've come in there to take care of might not be in my area of expertise, and they're willing to help me without insulting my intelligence or making me feel like a burden. Back when I was living in Cranston RI, I had a similar experience at the Advance at 1280 Warwick Avenue in Warwick, which tells me a lot about the Advance Auto Parts brand. They hire good people who care about their job and who care about their customers, and for that reason I'll happily reccomend them to anyone who needs auto parts.

On the other hand, another one of today's errands put me in the unfortunate position of having to visit the FedExKinkos in Harvard Square to make some copies and use the self-service color laser printer. Mind you, I got my professional start at Kinko's in Providence, teaching myself design on their computer stations and jump-starting my design career as head of the computer services department in the East Side branch; however, I have ALWAYS had issues with the stores in Providence, from the way I was treated as an employee to the way I was treated later as a customer. Back in Providence, I don't think I was able to bring a single job there without something disastrous happening (including destroyed originals, lost jobs and all sorts of other nonsense), and the self-service stations were almost always in a sense of disarray with too little staff available to take care of them. As a result, I've never had the best association with the brand; however, I was willing to give it a shot, hoping that things were different here in Massachusetts.

When I arrived at the FedExKinkos location, I went straight up to the second floor to use the self-service area, and was greeted by one of the people who was working there, who told me where I could find the design station and then disappeared for the rest of the time I was there. Upon signing into the Mac rental station, I immediately realized that the station, was running versions of all the Adobe software that were at least three years old (I'm talking Illustrator 10 and InDesign 2, meaning I couldn't open the CS2 .eps files I had brought to print and had to import them into InDesign to get them to print), the custom paper tower in the self-service copy area was incompletely stocked and messy, and the self-service kiosk was out of service, which required me to go downstairs and see an employee in order to get a receipt for the services I purchased. Fortunately, the person I dealt with at the front counter was very helpful, if a bit slower than I'd normally like, but still - it's hard for me to believe the lofty promises that FedExKinkos makes when this is the experience I consistently have with them - messy, understocked and understaffed self-service areas, and computers that don't seem to have been updated since 2003.

Sometimes I worry with larger companies that in the fight for more market share, better "brand recognition" and greater profits, they overlook the cornerstone of any successful brand - building a positive experience with your business with your customers. A great logo and consistent brand communication is only part of the package; if your customers are getting inferior products or service, the greatest logo in the world isn't going to help you. Start by hiring good people, training them well and giving them fair compensation and benefits; add a strong logo and consistent brand presence; stir well and continually re-evaluate. This is how you create an experience for your customers that keep them coming back to you.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Research

One of the beautiful things about this stage in the zen kitchen's development is that I'm starting to see more interesting projects coming in - while there's still a good share of basic web production and ad layout, I'm starting to see more and more projects that I can really sink my teeth into - I've just completed one branding project, and am in the process of two others and a sustainability brochure. On top of that, I'm seeing more clients coming from eco/socially responsible backgrounds, which has been one of my goals since starting the zen kitchen almost a year ago now. Overall, I feel more accomplished and more creative than I have in years.

But a recent experience got me thinking really strongly about the creative process and the steps involved, and reminded me somewhat harshly of one of the biggest challenges that professional designers face: clients who visibly don't understand all the steps that are involved in coming up with great work. They think that you can just throw things together after a couple of hours (sometimes even a few minutes) of thought, and it will somehow magically be brilliant, because they think that's what it means to be good at what you do.

This is the thing: any significant creative venture, whether it's a website, logo, brochure, or new product, requires appropriate time spent doing research - learning about the company or product you're promoting, figuring out who their best customers are and brainstorming the best tactics for reaching them. Skip out on that, and you end up guessing your way through the entire project - sometimes you get lucky and you hit on something really great, but more often your designs end up falling flat, and do nothing for your client. And when that happens, the chance of that client coming back to you is significantly less than if you take the time to research the company and its customers, and use that information to come up with a design that speaks to them.

So often when speaking to clients - and sometimes even when speaking with people who work with creative professionals for a living (much to my dismay) - I find people who mistakenly believe that design is something that only happens on the computer - you talk about the project a little bit, jump right in and start designing away. In my experience, my best designs have NEVER happened that way. More often, I spend the first major chunk of time working on a project (which varies depending on the project's budget, but it's normally between 4 and 8 hours minimum) looking for everything I can find about the company and what it does; looking at competitor's sites and figuring out how the company I'm creating for can distinguish itself; talking to people who fit the target market to find out what they really need from the client's company. Then I start brainstorming - throwing words, ideas and quick doodles into my sketchbook, then filtering through those to find a few ideas that really fit the project's creative brief. Then, and ONLY then, do I head to the computer. Once I've done the appropriate research and sketches, I can turn around most concepts pretty quickly - if I haven't done research, or spent any time in my sketchbook throwing around ideas, it often seems like nothing will come out of me no matter how hard I try. It's incredibly demoralizing - like a permanent state of creative blocks.

Mind you, some jobs don't really require that much research - something where the layout, fonts, images, etc. is already predetermined, for example, really just requires you knowing where to find things and where to put them. Most production work falls into this category. But well-done research is essential to any truly creative project, no matter how small - skip it, and you're doing a disservice to your client, and to yourself.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I'm in a book!

Logo for Branches Fine Gifts designed by the zen kitchen

Okay, well - not really ME, but the logo I did for Branches Fine Gifts was selected among 2000 others to appear in LogoLounge 3, a collection of the best logos submitted to the popular LogoLounge site by a panel of international judges.

Jill Johwa, owner of Branches (which sadly had to close its doors in early 2006 right after I found out this logo was going to be published due to landlord issues) was my client for almost two years. She was a complete joy to work with - she knew where she wanted the business to go and the message she wanted to send, but she always trusted my creative judgement. Through the two years we worked together, I honed my skills in copywriting, branding, and illustration. I was devastated when the store had to close - in addition to the other great products she offered, her store was where I found my favorite perfume, Earth by ZENTS.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Re-Nourish Interview Part Two: Future Plans

This week, partly because the interview was long and partly because things here at the zen kitchen have been too busy for me to breathe (guess this marketing thing works, huh?), the interview with Eric from Re-Nourish continues. In this second half, Eric talks about the future of the site, as well as how he works his sustainable message into the courses he teaches.

4. What do you hope to achieve with the site as it grows?
Personally, I want to develop more in terms of my exploration of the field and apply that to renourish. I designed the site to be fairly "open source" where the information flows freely in and out. I wasn't ever planning to charge people to get this information, but instead hoped that they would spread the word or "seed" conversations with their peers and clients about sustainable design. This was the metaphor I used to develop the "bur" logo. Burs act as seeds attaching themselves to people and animals and are carried elsewhere to start new again. Just imagine what the world would be like if designers only chose 100% PCW paper tomorrow? That's one of the things I'm hoping to accomplish with renourish.5. What's been your favorite thing about seeing the site grow? What has response been like?

My favorite thing so far is the email I receive from readers. Typically they send me links to explore and also simply just tell me how much they like the site. That makes me feel all fuzzy. I'm glad the word is getting out and hopefully changes are soon to follow.

6. What's been the biggest challenge in maintaining the site's integrity and content?

The biggest challenge hasn't been finding the information. In fact it's all over the place (which of course is great). The difficult part is filtering all the information for the site to keep with my standards. Not every link people send me works for the site. Part of filtering all this content then becomes time. I have many interests (however renourish being up at the top) so it's difficult maintaining that balance. I want the site to be chock full of well organized information, but I'm finding the original quick implementation I did in grad school is quickly not adapting well to the amount of available good content. Renourish is growing faster than expected and may need a change soon. I think I may need help! Anyone willing?

7. You mentioned that you're a design professor at the University of Illinois. How have your green principals played into the work you do with students? Do you include sustainability as part of your coursework?

This is a question I have been asking myself every day. How do you get students excited and disturbed enough about the topic without sounding preachy? How do you make sustainably seem full of opportunity and not limiting? As this is my first term teaching at the University of Illinois I am attempting to begin to answer these questions though lectures and assignments. So far I haven't included sustainability as a topic (that is until my next assignment starting Monday October 23!) but instead have been building the students up to it. I've used the idea of "aware". The projects so far have then slowly opening their eyes to the power of their design work through its impact on society. Next I plan on heightening that sense of awareness to their possible environmental impacts. What I find promising is that many students already are interested in the topic and want an assignment related. I've assigned them to read "Cradle to Cradle" as a basis for the next project and hope discussion ensues. These assignments are really building blocks for me to assign more challenging and exciting sustainable design projects in the future. Thanks for asking me to be a part of your blog. Glad we could make time for this interview.