Business Unusual: Content Creation & SEO

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Content Marketing & SEO

“The marketers who are going to win are building trust and authority with customers and prospects, and the way you do that is through content.” Justin Dunham, Ercule

Interested in hearing more from Justin?

Check out Part One of this interview!

Jill McKenna:
Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager at Ruby. And I’m delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today from Ercule. Justin, thanks for joining me.

Justin Dunham:
Hey, Jill. Yeah, it’s great to talk to you today. I am, as you said, Justin Dunham. I started Ercule a few years ago, and I work with the team. And we are a content performance and SEO agency. So we focus on taking existing content marketing that people are doing and really making it work all the way up and down the content stack and also optimizing the entirety of our clients’ libraries so that they get the most out of that.

Jill McKenna:
Can you speak a little bit to why content strategy is still important or maybe more important than ever, just a really basic guideline?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, totally. Content strategy is how people are going to distinguish themselves in the new world. A huge percentage of the buyer’s journey, even up until now, I think it’s between 60 and 80%, is offline before your customers talk to you directly, but they’re getting information from the content that you’re putting out there. And that number is only going to increase as more and more of these interactions become partly digital and then completely digital. So an investment in that today is really important.

Justin Dunham:
I’d say another reason for investing in content strategy that’s important is just building trust and authority because all of these new channels are going to get more and more saturated, as they always do. But the marketers who are going to win are building trust and authority with customers and prospects, and the way you do that is through content.

Jill McKenna:
And how have recent events changed long-term planning in this regard, or have they? Do we still want to keep with the same strategies we’ve had before, or is there really new thinking that we want to have in mind for the next two years, three years, four years?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, well, everybody’s re-planning, of course. And I would say that, again, the major shift that we’ve seen is just on the demand gen side, where are we making our investments? And honestly, a lot of that investment is coming away from live events and more toward digital channels. So the only thing I would say about that right now is the companies who, again, are focused and strategic about how they’re engaging with their customers on digital are the ones who are going to be most successful there.

Jill McKenna:
So you’ve spoken a little bit about events, and I know you guys aren’t obviously an event company, but a lot of your customers do do events. Are there ways that you’re guiding them to think about online events now or reposition themselves to have to pivot over to online events?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, the main way that we are engaging with our customers around events is one of the things that we do for all of our customers is it’s not just about SEO and content performance and conversion rate optimization, all the things that you need to be successful with content. It’s also about helping our customers build a pipeline in their company so that all of the expertise that everybody on their team has can be easily converted and taken out into this more accessible format, which is on something like a blog or something like that.

Justin Dunham:
And events are a really important source of this information. So if you’re running certainly a webinar, but more so I’m thinking something like an online conference or something like that, it’s a great opportunity to promote those talks in advance by linking to them and talking about them in content that you’re producing. And it’s a great opportunity, once those events happen, to take all of the content that is produced in those events, the talks, the panels, other things like that. And then after the event, turn that into blog posts, articles, updating existing content that now needs new information, all sorts of stuff. So a major overlooked value prop from events and especially online events is the content creation possibilities that come out of that beyond the event. In fact in some ways, I would say that for a lot of companies, that is the major value of running events is the contribution to evergreen content that they can create.

Jill McKenna:
I think a lot of people don’t think about that when they make events, that hub and spoke model of what can come from… Even anything, an e-guide, event, a webinar, it creates a lot of your SEO keyword terms for you. And strategically deploy them, then you’re all the better for it.

Jill McKenna:
You did bring up something, you touched on something I was curious about. How do you think about small businesses in collaboration with other small businesses or partnerships? Are there ways that you want to guide your customers to think about thoughtful collaborations at this time and moving forward as things continue to shift?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting opportunity that’s available for people. So I think there’s a few different things. The obvious answer that most SEOs will give you is you should guest post on your partners sites and stuff like that. And I’m going to say something vaguely heretical, which is that guest posts can sometimes be effective. But a lot of the times that we’ve done just straight up guest posting or been asked to do that, it doesn’t have the effect that we’d like to see it have. And there are ways to do it and make it work.

Justin Dunham:
But I will say that there are lots of other opportunities for partnership, obvious things are both of these companies, if you’re partnering with another company, have built an audience. And presumably, that audiences has a similar set of concerns. And so something we talk to our clients a lot about is borrowing audiences, because just building audience is one of the hardest things that you can do as a marketer. Just getting people following you on social, in your email list, in your Slack community, whatever it is.

Justin Dunham:
So that’s how we suggest to clients that they think about these partnerships, is can you borrow an audience, and that can manifest a lot of ways. Like I said, it can be things like we’re doing a joint webinar. It can be things like we’re producing a piece of content together, rather than I’m producing a piece of content for you. So something like a guide that’s co-branded can be really great. And there’s lots of other opportunities, as well as you move down to customer success, even as you move down the sales funnel, to bring partners in the right way and to work together and team up.

Justin Dunham:
And especially also given that for most small and medium businesses, there are so many pieces of technology and other stuff that are being used to be effective. It gives you just a ton of partnership opportunities to find those audiences, get the word out there, help each other, and so on.

Jill McKenna:
I want to backtrack a little bit just because I know a lot of small businesses who are just starting out or are struggling to keep so many plates spinning in the air. What’s the best guidance you have for them, if they’re just considering SEO and keywords, and they’re like, I have to make a list of 200 keywords. What are some basic guidance that you can give to them?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, I would say first of all, of course it depends on resources. And what we would much rather see is I can put out one very high quality blog post a month on one topic, and that is a great place to start. And so the other thing that we suggest is, as you think about like, oh, we think we want to get more traffic from organic search, yes. Use the content for that, but also think hard about everything you produce. Where else can I use it? If I produce a white paper or I produce… Let’s say I produce a bunch of blog posts. Can I add those blog posts up in six months into a white paper? Can those blog posts be used for my sales reps to reach out to prospects? Can I produce those blog posts by having somebody who works directly with customers do a recording, and then I edit it later? So efficiency in content creation and focus and really using content creatively are three things I think are super important for getting started with that.

Jill McKenna:
If somebody writes a really thoughtful piece of content intentionally for their blog, what are the worst things that you see happen, once they write that piece and put their little baby out there in the world? What are the mistakes that people often make?

Justin Dunham:
The number one mistake I see people make is just doing it once and then forgetting about it and hoping, hey, I produced one really solid thing, and it was updated three years ago. And the thing is that we think it’s really important to think about your content as a library. And so you always want to keep it updated. You could be a small business, you could have 15 or 20 solid posts that you wrote over the space of two or three years that you used customers to write, or you use sales reps to help write, or you build out of a webinar, do all of that, build 15 to 20 high quality things, put them on your site, but then don’t forget about it. And because you’re already communicating with your customers about how to use the product, what updates there are and all of this, every single CEO or director of marketing we’ve talked to has all of this stuff in their head.

Justin Dunham:
So it’s thinking about the entire library as you produced it, keeping it up to date, not just letting it go away. You don’t have to produce a post every week for three years. You don’t need, if you’re a small business, 200 or 300 blog posts. In fact, I’d rather see, again, 15 to 20 really high quality things that get reused, remixed, promoted really well, and then that’s pretty much it. But it’s very hard.

Justin Dunham:
And oftentimes, things like what should the strategy be? Where should we focus? Where should we make our investments? Folks come to us, even if they haven’t engaged us and say… and we can well, here’s our experience with this or with that, or maybe you want to make this trade off. It’s very difficult. But again, the number one mistake we really see is just doing one or two posts and not being consistent.

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Consumers want two things: convenience and excellent service. And while search engines, smartphones, and click-to-call technology have taken care of the convenience part, finding a business that also delivers a great experience is much trickier.

Fortunately, search engines like Google are getting the hint. Algorithms are beginning to consider the context of a customer’s query and the desire for a trusted, high-quality service—displaying not only the nearest results but ratings for those businesses.

Introducing Google Screened

Google Screened is a program designed to help professional service firms build their reputation online.

Businesses must complete multiple background checks and maintain a high response rate to qualify. Once eligible, the business displays at the top of search results with their rating.

How does it work?

To participate in the program, advertisers must first pass Google’s qualification process to earn their Google Screened badge.

Potential clients who search for legal services are shown three (two on mobile) verified listings of qualified providers at the top of the search engine results page.

To contact the verified business, the user calls a call tracking number specific to the Google Local Service ad, which connects the client to the company. 

How does Google rank screened businesses?

This verified directory rewards businesses based on their quality of service and reliability. Firms that demonstrate high responsiveness and receive many positive customer reviews are ranked higher and show more frequently at the top of search results. 

You may be asking, what do you mean by high responsiveness? The goal of the Google Screened program is to encourage more phone calls and, therefore, more business. If those phone calls go unanswered, however, Google is going to notice. Remember, customers love convenience AND excellent service, so ensuring a friendly, professional voice answers every call is key to keeping your Google Screened profile high in search results.

How can I get started?

This year, Google Screened was introduced in four US cities: Atlanta, Houston, Austin, and San Diego for financial planners, immigration lawyers, and estate lawyers. Google has recently announced plans to expand the Google Screened program to professional services nationwide. 

Fortunately, Ruby has partnered with SearchKings to help attorneys prepare for the upcoming rollout. A Google Premier Provider, SearchKings ensures expedited approval through their application process, assists with onboarding, and provides additional metrics so you can stay on top of your call metrics.

To learn more, visit SearchKings.com/ruby/ and mention you are a Ruby customer to access their exclusive offer. Not a Ruby customer? We can help you there! Click the ‘Get Started’ button in the top navigation bar or give us a call at 844-311-7829.

SearchKings Offer to Ruby Customers

  • Expedited approval process
  • Dedicated support
  • Ongoing account optimization to help you get more leads
  • 15% discount on SearchKings services

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How Ruby pivoted during COVID

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The new work reality started for Ruby earlier than others. It was February 28 and the first case of COVID-19 in Oregon was confirmed: an employee at a school where one of her executives sent their children.

“We saw the impact that this was going to have on small business customers and that they were likely to face the same disruptions we were about to face,” said Winkler.

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Business Unusual: Website Content 101

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We all know that simply creating a website isn’t enough to keep traffic coming, and that’s where content creation comes in. In this first or three parts discussion with Justin Dunham from Ercule, we demystify content creation and dispel the belief that creating content needs to be difficult.

Jill McKenna:

Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager at Ruby and I’m delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today from Ercule. Justin, thanks for joining me.

Justin Dunham:

Hey, Jill. Yeah, it’s great to talk to you today. I am, as you said, Justin Dunham. I started here at Ercule a few years ago and I worked with the team. We are a content performance and SEO agency. We focus on taking existing content marketing that people are doing, and really making it work all the way up and down the content stack, and also optimizing the entirety of our clients’ libraries so that they get the most out of them. I’m joined here today by my Sylvia Plath the finger puppet and my Salvidor Dali finger puppet. I’ll try to work them in. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll keep them ready.

Jill McKenna:

I’m just delighted. Puppetry and great artists, two of my favorite things. This is the best interview I’ve done. I think that content and SEO are two things that, as small business owners, you can often feel overwhelmed by. It feels a little bit like a wave that’s going to crush you, like you can never do enough, and you’re never keeping up, and it’s never good enough. I think part of that is kind of the unknowns. I think that you all really de-mystify that and that’s a really important thing to be able to do for small businesses.

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. One of the things, and one of the reasons we started Ercule, was that content marketing and SEO are way harder than they need to be for people who are trying to run a business and trying to educate customers and prospects. The way that we approach this is pretty different. A lot of agencies, when folks bring them on, they’ll come in. They’ll take a few months to do a keyword strategy. They’ll take a couple months to do a technical audit. We’ve seen technical audits that are dozens, hundreds of items. Then a lot of that just gets kind of thrown on the client to sort of deal with, figure out.

Justin Dunham:

We started Ercule partly out of frustration with that status quo. The way we really try to focus is on, first of all, the fundamentals. Just to take something like technical stuff, you can go out there and you can find dozens of guides that have hundreds and hundreds of things that you can do, but what we recommend on the technical side, when we work with clients, is we’ll do a technical audit. It’ll take us a week or two and we’ll find lots and lots of things to optimize, but we really try to focus on things that are related to high quality user experience and just related to, “Does Google know what’s on my site?” That’s number one, I think, on the technical side and that’s the easiest to dispatch with.

Justin Dunham:

There are a bunch of high priority items that we try to work with clients on, things like, “Is this site relatively fast? Is the design good? Is the user experience?” All the fundamentals that you would expect, rather than like super long detailed lists of things, but then in addition to that, we really kind of view that technical piece, which is important, as just kind of getting your out of your own way. You don’t want to have it so that your site’s not indexed. You want to make sure that all the great content you’ve produced can actually show up, but what we very quickly pivot to is the right strategy and the right content.

Justin Dunham:

The way we think about strategy, and for folks out there who are watching this video the way you should think about strategy, is what you want to do is you want to find a set of topics. Depending on the size of your business, it can be as few as 20, it can be as many as 50 or 60. Most companies will only be able to focus on three or four at a time. Pick those topics. Pick the things that are relatively high volume, tons of tools out there you can use to figure out search volume, relatively low competition. Lots of tools that you can go out there to see, sort of, where you can just Google each one of them and seeing who’s ranking, but also critically high relevance to your business.

Justin Dunham:

With Ruby, for example, the things that are relevant to the business are topics around live chat, how that helps being able to talk to human, human connection, all that stuff, right, things that your brand is uniquely positioned to talk about and educate your customers on. We sort of started giving this answer because there’s a tsunami of stuff to think about, but our perspective is the technical stuff. It’s not necessarily simple, but there isn’t a lot of it. There’s just a few things you need to focus on and that’s around user experience. Once you get out of the way, our suggestion is always pick topics that you can talk about uniquely that educate prospects and do things that are valuable for them, that don’t have too much competition, but have some volume.

Justin Dunham:

Then you just want to write about that stuff and you want to write good content. A lot of agencies will come in and say, “Hey, we think you should produce 20 articles about such and such,” and they’re fluff. One of the things we do with clients is we actually deliver an outline every week to explain, “No, no, no. Here are the ways, the things you want to talk about, the things Google and your customers want to hear about,” and you create those longer form things. You can do one a week, is a great way to start, picking one topic and then doing one really solid article a week. That’s kind of it in a nutshell, but there’s a lot of extra stuff that people feel like they need to do. It’s really about focusing on those fundamentals, even for small and medium businesses.

Jill McKenna:

I love everything you just said. Now I have about nine follow-up questions. We spoke earlier a little bit, a couple of weeks back, and had kind of a warm up conversation to get to know each other. This is not one of the things we went over, but I’m really curious about your position or what your thinking is around letting a brand’s values that they’ve identified drive the content that they produce before they start getting into the weeds of, “What’s my competitor doing?” How do you coach or help companies to do that and to really think about how values play into their content?

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. Before I answer that, and I will answer that in a second, I think there’s a related thing, which is that SEO is important. It drives massive numbers of clicks and lots of discovery, especially for small and medium businesses, but when you produce content, don’t think about it as producing it for SEO. Think about it as producing it for your customers. SEO is going to be one channel, but not the only channel that you’re going to use to get your content out there. You’re also going to have your sales representatives know about your content. You’re going to share it on social. You’re going to reach out to folks who may have done business with you before, or you may want to have them do business with you in the future, for your customer success folks. You’re going to join Slack groups and LinkedIn groups that relate to what you’re talking about and share the content there. That’s the first thing I want to say is that people get really focused on SEO and there’s a lot more to the picture that is about, once you produce the content, getting it out there.

Justin Dunham:

With that said, the question about having your values shine through in your content is incredibly important because, if you think about why you’re running the company you’re running, why you created the technology that you created, something to do with how your company wants the world to be is involved with why that technology was created.

Justin Dunham:

Quite a few years ago I used to work at a database startup that did extremely well. One of their main values and the reason they created the product was because their database was a lot easier to work with and made it easier for people to build apps. That was really important. Content there ended up being about that. Because that’s what developers were also looking for, it ranked well on search. It was responded well and developer communities. We were able to send it out email and have people respond to it.

Justin Dunham:

This idea of when you produce content, the content that’s going to perform well, generally the content that’s going to perform well in SEO is going to embody some of the ideas that you have about how the world works. Not to get super philosophical about it, but it’s going to embody some of the ideas about how you want people to change their behavior. When they changed their behavior in the way that your product enables, then they start to use your product. I think having your brand, your identity, your voice super important, as long as the information is there to help them.

Jill McKenna:

What are you seeing that’s good and bad related to what companies are doing right now related to COVID content and what’s happening socially in the country? Which issues related to content are you seeing companies encounter right now during COVID-19?

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. I think there are a few different pieces here. One is that almost every client that we work with is extremely interested in producing stuff about working from home. That can be really good if it relates to what you’re actually doing. If you are a customer who produces robots for factory automation, probably creating an article about best practices for working from home isn’t going to be all that performant for you.

Justin Dunham:

Also, the thing about content in general, and SEO in particular, is that it’s a long play. It’s really strategic. It’s very hard to take advantage of sort of those types of changes if they’re not directly related to your business. However, clients that we’ve had where working from home is connected, their product enables it, or their product will enable it, or their product helps people do that better, can do very, very well having even general things like remote guides and things like that, but also specifically like, “Hey, here’s how you can use our product to solve this particular problem that you now have.”

Justin Dunham:

An obvious one for us at Ercule is a lot of our clients have had to cut way back on live events and other things like that. When we’re building content and sharing it with our clients, sending calls, obviously we’re talking a lot about, “How can we use organic channels and other ways of leveraging your content to make up that gap?” That’s kind of what we’ve seen that’s sort of successful or not successful around what’s currently going on. A lot of these things are going to require changes on an ongoing basis.

Justin Dunham:

One thing we also see is that clients who are thinking about, “Hey, digital is probably permanently going to be a much more important part of our marketing mix.” We’ve always seen them do better and we expect we’ll continue to see better if they’re able to take a strategic approach to this. Something that we’ve seen that’s also not great sometimes is clients who are kind of like, “Hey, we’re going to cut back on stuff that’s not working immediately.” That’s very understandable in sort of the cash issues that we’re and more companies are having, but we urge our clients not to shortchange that longer term importance of having the right content, keeping it updated, focusing on the value that they’re going to deliver to their customers and prospects.

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Self Care for the Business Owner

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If the phrase “self-care” makes you roll your eyes, I get it. 

Many small business owners feel like they don’t have the luxury of making time for themselves. Settling in with a book and a cup of tea? Not this afternoon. Soaking away in a bubble bath? Not any time this week. Taking a day trip with the spouse and kids? Maybe next month… Maybe.

The disconnect goes further than that. The very idea of work-life balance doesn’t match up with reality when you’re working in excess of 60, 80, 100 hours per week building your company, managing your team, and meeting customer demands—and there’s still more to do at the end of the day. 

But here’s the thing: 

You need to practice self-care. 

You need to make time for that bubble bath, that cup of tea, that day with the family. 

When you are your business, you don’t have a choice. 

Taking care of yourself means taking care of your business. It’s a form of maintenance, the same as maintaining your home or your car—only for your mind, body, and soul.

For business owners, occasional acts of self-care that may seem frivolous and selfish are anything but. Those acts are key to…

  • staying happy and focused,
  • remaining productive,
  • making good decisions,
    and 
  • showing up authentically for employees and customers.

In other words, making time for yourself is what keeps you, you. There’s a reason they call it “recreation”—it’s about re-creating yourself. Self-care is how you ensure the person in charge of your company is the same passionate, dedicated, big-hearted person who took on the massive responsibility of running the business in the first place.

That said, recognizing the importance of self-care and practicing it the right way are two entirely different things. We’ve all had the experience of misusing our recreational time, of coming back from a vacation even more exhausted than when we left. It happens because many of us aren’t trained to take care of ourselves or are drawn to behaviors that deplete rather than replenish.

(this could be you)

The first step to good self-care is recognizing what self-care isn’t.

Real self-care doesn’t look like any of the following:

  • Avoidance. Self-care isn’t about procrastination or losing sight of responsibilities. It’s about temporarily prioritizing your responsibility to yourself, so you can return to your other responsibilities with renewed vigor.
  • Over-indulgence. Consuming too much of anything—pizza, cupcakes, cocktails, reality television—can leave you feeling physically ill, as well as emotionally unfulfilled. Shame, guilt, and regret often follow. Don’t use self-care as a reason to punish yourself.
  • Doing only what feels comfortable. It’s important to comfort yourself, but acts of real self-care go deeper. They also energize you, broaden your mind, and open your heart. They may challenge you on multiple levels; think visiting a museum or going on a hike rather than spending a weekend on the couch.
  • A miracle cure. No one activity, product, or substance can magically and instantly revitalize you. You can’t buy self-care in a bottle or an app, and you can’t engage in it only once and expect to feel better. You need to practice it—with regularity and intention.

In fact, self-care isn’t about just taking an occasional bubble bath or quiet afternoon to yourself, but about fitting personal time into your everyday life. The most effective way to practice self-care is to make it a habit. 

Find a few activities that refuel you and make time for them in your schedule, the same way you make time for grocery shopping, budgeting, or answering emails. After all, self-care is as important as any of those things.

What does real self-care look like?

Here are 10 ways to practice self-care as a business owner:

1. Take breaks. Every hour or so, get up, stretch, and walk away from your workstation for a few minutes. Maybe grab a drink and/or snack while you’re at it. Why not take the opportunity right now? Go ahead—we’ll be here when you get back.

2. Delegate. When you’re the person in charge, being a good boss also means being your own good boss. You’re the only one who can look out for yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Be sure you’re giving yourself a manageable amount of work (and time to complete the work) and delegating the rest.

3. Exercise. A healthy amount of physical exertion does wonders for your health and mood. Doctors recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (or 15 minutes of intense exercise) once per day. Walking, jogging, biking, and even household chores are great ways to work it into your schedule.

4. Sleep. Far too many business owners are chronically underslept. As unproductive as it seems (“What do you mean I have to spend eight hours lying down and doing nothing?”), sleeping is as important as eating or breathing. Do it right—try for 7–9 hours a night in a dark, quiet, cool environment.

5. Eat well. Speaking of eating, be mindful of what you put into your body. Opt for less processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Try different foods, as well—variety keeps your diet healthy and interesting. What’s most important is enjoying what you eat. Food is one of the greatest pleasures we have, so make the most of it!

6. Say “yes, and…” This is one of the core principles behind improvisational comedy—and a powerful tool for running your business and living your life. Saying “yes, and…” means accepting a premise and running with it. In the context of your business, it could mean saying “yes” to an employee’s idea and building on it, or perhaps saying “yes” to an unexpected customer request and figuring out how to make it work. Outside of work, it might mean following an artistic impulse by buying paint and a canvas, or letting your kids decide what’s for dinner for a week.

7. Give yourself a daily gift. This one comes directly from our favorite TV investigator, Dale Cooper (portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan) of Twin Peaks:

“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

8. Give back. Caring for others is one of the most effective forms of self-care. So says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab, in a recent interview in The New York Times:

“We assume that self-care looks like a nice bubble bath—or even hedonistic pursuits, selfish pursuits. But the data suggests that the right way to treat ourselves would be to do nice things for other people. We actually get more out of being more open and more social and more other-oriented than spending money on ourselves. It’s a bigger increase to your happiness.”

9. Laugh. Laughter is seriously the best medicine. According to Mayo Clinic, laughing relieves stress, stimulates organ function, relieves pain, and even boosts immune response. If you need a quick pick-me-up, may I recommend this video?

10. Express gratitude. In the constant hustle and grind of running a business, it’s easy to lose sight of all the reasons we have to feel happy. We’re fortunate to be busy, to be in business, to be alive. Practice self-care by thanking the people who make it happen, including yourself.

This is a lot to remember on top of everything else you already have to…remember. Download our Self Care calendar and use it to set reminders in your Outlook or Gmail. Build your days around self care. Or just start by building it in.

Remember: you don’t have to do it all.

Running a business is hard work. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Give yourself the gift of more time, energy, and peace of mind by letting a team of industry professionals take care of customer service for you. Discover how Ruby makes small business easy.

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Oregon 2019 Philanthropy Awards

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We’re thrilled to be noted as an Honoree for the Portland Business Journal’s 2019 Philanthropy Awards recognizing innovation and charity in our region’s corporate realm. Our inclusion on the list of honorees stems from Ruby’s work with nonprofit organizations and monetary contributions made through Ruby Corps — our internal philanthropy program. 

At this year’s virtual event, speakers emphasized the increased need for companies to collaborate in support of their communities and neighbors, as we all face the world’s current challenges together. We’d like to congratulate all of the winners and also call out two examples of philanthropy that really stood out to us.

Congratulations to (w)here Real Estate for taking top prize in the small business category ($10M or less in revenue). The company’s President, Suzann Baricevic Murphy, explained that they were able to donate more than $150,000 in 2019 because every employee embraces the company’s philanthropic vision by donating a portion of all commission earnings to the company’s philanthropy fund. It’s a requirement of employment at (w)here and an inspiration to hear of companies like this one that builds the act of giving back into their DNA. 

In the Innovation category, we’d also like to congratulate the Tillamook County Creamery Association for partnering with the Oregon Coast Futbol Club to ensure that all students in the program (first grade through high school) have an equal opportunity to play soccer by eliminating possible cost barriers. Tillamook covers all costs related to purchasing player uniforms and goal posts, as well as maintaining existing soccer fields and developing new ones. 

As for Ruby’s effort, we currently partner with 18 nonprofits including Make-A-Wish, Oregon Food Bank, and Portland Homeless Family Solutions. In 2019, Rubys donated 764 hours of time and labor to contribute to food drives, street clean-ups, and other events supporting nonprofits and the non-profit community. Beyond volunteer time, in 2019 Ruby Corps donated over $47,000 by way of cash donations, employee match, events, and sponsored partnerships with nonprofits.

Creating community is so important in the world right now and we’re honored to be recognized on a list with some of the region’s community’s most philanthropic organizations.

You can see a full list of this year’s winners and read more about the awards at Portland Business Journal.

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Guide: The rise of website chat.

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How customers interact with businesses has radically changed over the last year.

Websites are now less of a luxury and more of a “front door” to businesses both big and small. With this shift, live chat has grown exponentially. Learn more about the benefits of live chat in our guide!

In this guide you will discover:

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  • The rapid growth of virtual chat
  • How chat can enhance customer service and
  • The ROI of Ruby Chat

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As we move into the beginning of the academic year, colleges are wondering what steps they need to take to adapt to new scholastic and economic environments. Now that students are engaging in distance learning, it’s time for colleges to consider adopting new communication channels to meet both current and prospective students where they are: online.

Enter live chat.

Live chat is growing, and fast. So fast, in fact, that data collected from a survey published this year projected that it will grow up to a whopping 87% in the next 12-18 months. With this industry’s highly significant growth, more people are trying to understand how younger customers are transforming the way we look at customer service.

It comes as no surprise that Millennials and Gen Z are gravitating toward online engagement. When interacting with a brand or business, 65% of 18 – 34-year-olds now begin the process online, and 60% of all consumers in that same age group say that they use live chat for these interactions. There are many reasons for this preference; it’s fast, it’s convenient, and it also taps into a peculiar generational trend: young people tend to prefer texting over talking on the phone.

Considering the data surrounding chat, there’s a lot to be gained for institutions utilizing chat to reach students.

Make Connections Easy

When the goal is to recruit as many students as possible, accessibility is key. You never know when someone will visit your website, and if they are able to connect with you right away via a live chat, that conversation could be the deciding factor between a potential student leaving your site, or filling out an application.

Data shows that young people heavily prefer text-based platforms. A recent survey determined that for Americans under 50, texting is the most frequent form of communication used, and more than 2/3rds of the respondents who identified as Millennial and younger said that they text “a lot.” Since having chat means that your website has its own instant messenger function built right in, this means that the majority of incoming students may be more compelled to engage with your website than they would without that live chat capability.

Gen Z and Millennials are also more inclined to desire self-service than previous generations of consumers. Overall, 84% of Millennial customers report relying on self-service, and FAQ page usage increased from 67% to 81% between 2012 and 2015. College websites are notorious for having vast and daunting catalogs of information. A live chatter can answer general questions right away and direct the student or parent to any part of the website that can answer specific questions. Eliminating excess search time to help a visitor get straight to the information that they need, like financial aid, major curriculums, or student life creates a better experience. Also, since many chat services are available 24/7, this heightened self-service experience is always an option for your visitors no matter when they visit your website.

Warmly Welcome Everyone

A student’s very first interaction with your college will almost always be through your website since 69% of prospective students now rely on college search sites, online reviews, and social media to assist them with their college admissions process. Wouldn’t it be nice if your website had an admissions tour guide to welcome students? That’s what having a live chat specialist is like. Chat offers opportunities for personalized guidance so you can take control of how people experience your website and strengthen your school’s online identity, brand, and ambiance.

Timeliness makes for a welcoming student experience, and no other form of online service is more timely than chat. The average time for a chat response is around 23-46 seconds, which blows away the average professional social media response (10 hours) or email (12 hours). If students are greeted right away on your website, they’re much more likely to stay and start a conversation about attending your school.

Show Your Competence

Students aren’t the only ones visiting your website. Parents are searching for schools as well, and they have their own set of needs that need to be met. 77% of parents say that they’re very involved with their child’s college selection process, which means that for every 10 prospective students who engage with your website, about 8 parents will follow in their wake.
A live chatter can immediately assist an inquisitive parent by connecting them with faculty members and office staff, as well as answer general FAQ’s. They can even take messages to send to school staff after hours, making sure that parents never have to wait to ask a more specific question. Having a live chat specialist who is always ready to connect parents with the information they need will help your college present as competent and prepared.

Stay Engaged

Following up with students is critical, especially when it comes to transitioning them into the next freshman class. While 58% of students tend to use chat during all stages of recruitment, a significant 75% of them have a preference for using chat after accepting an offer. Having communication channels that students will want to use will help combat the “summer melt” phenomenon every admissions department experiences, where students either miss deadlines or don’t even engage with the finalization process that solidifies their spot in the class. Chat can be used to promptly schedule school visits for accepted students and casually remind them about important deadlines as well. Conducting these follow-up conversations over chat also benefits the institution since transcripts of these interactions can be saved and reviewed, allowing future correspondences to be more accurate and personalized for each individual student.

Strengthen Your Community

Chat enhances the experience of prospective students through accessible, caring, efficient, and consistent customer service. Not only can it help you put your website’s best foot forward for your next admissions cycle and make your community grow, but it can also help current students, parents, and even alumni interact with your website easier than ever before, making your school a stronger, more connected community.

Interested in learning more about chat? Download our guide for the full scoop.

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The task of small businesses right now is not simple. How can companies remain true to our values, connect with our customers, and create real connections during ongoing confusion and change? 

We sat down to speak with writer and brand storyteller Amber Pechin of Amplitude Media, about how to lead with earnestness, empathy, and real value, to create a blueprint for the future.

Katie Hurst:
Hello everyone. My name is Katie Hurst. I’m the director of communications for Ruby, and I’m really excited today to welcome everyone. Go ahead and let’s start with Amber.

Amber Pechin:
Hi, I’m Amber Pechin. I am partner and I’m chief storyteller at Amplitude Media. We build brands, websites, and big ideas. We like to tell stories for brands that are highly technical, scientific, or traditionally considered boring and find the part of their business that makes them interesting and tell those stories.

Katie Hurst:
Well, and something that’s unique to you that isn’t to other small business owners that we’re talking to, is this idea of telling a story during this time. I know me as a marketer for Ruby, we’ve had to totally shift the way that we talk and the way that we are addressing our small business customers. So, not only when you’re seeking new business for your company, but also when you’re dealing with these academic businesses, how is that changing the way that you’re dealing with your branding and storytelling and advising them?

Amber Pechin:
Yeah, a lot of it when we’ve been advising them, it’s that kind of the balance between that we’re always trying to push anyway. So we always try to have the conversation where it’s like, you can’t just sell your product. You have to tell the story about your product and how it helps the person on the receiving end of your product. And essentially, how it’s going to change their life. And right now there’s so much change in the air that you really want to talk about how it’s going to provide stability. You want to talk about how your services are going to make life easier, make life more accessible, things like that, but it’s that story of real empathy and concern for the situation that people are in rather than selling.

Amber Pechin:
But there’s the portion of it that has to be so genuine because if you come out like every other brand with, “In these unprecedented times, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, buy a new car from us.” It doesn’t make any sense. Right? And so it’s that whole human aspect of storytelling about your brand that’s really, really important to do. And then when you add on top of corona, you add on top of it the human rights issues that we’re fighting right now, both Black Lives Matter with the LGBTQ plus, like you need to be sensitive of those things. And how does your brand in a real genuine way, show empathy and tell that story about what your brand believes and how your brand is helping?

Amber Pechin:
And so we were talking earlier about the brands who are getting some bad blowback from customers online and leaving bad reviews because they have required them to wear masks in their store. And it’s sad that it’s one of those things that parses people out. So you have the mask-wearing people versus the non-mask wearing people and you as a company have to take a stand if you have a physical location. So how you tell that story about why you’re taking, like, “We are now requiring masks in our store to protect you and to protect our employees.” And you have to tell that story in a way that is not a political issue. It’s a human issue.

Katie Hurst:
It sounds to me, like you said, marketing really comes down to communication. So what marketers can really do to be versatile in times like this as recognize that internal communication in addition to external communication is extremely important. And if you can switch your marketing hat to really focus on connecting with the team and communicating change, essentially change management, that’s going to allow you as a marketer to be more flexible and to be more valuable to your clients because they may not be focused on an external message at the moment.

Amber Pechin:
Yeah. Well, and they really should be focused on an internal message too. That’s important to make sure that your employees are going to service your customers better if they also feel more secure. So it’s that whole communication ball of wax.

Katie Hurst:
So I wanted to go back to something you said about events and conference season. So we had a customer the other day tell us that she is so frustrated because she’s a person that loves being out in the world and she would go to Chamber events and all these… As someone knowing you, you are also a master networker and love being around with people. Do you have tips for how you can build those same connections virtually versus the in-person which so many of us rely on?

Amber Pechin:
I feel like I’ve gotten 10 times the amount of random LinkedIn connection requests in the last couple of months. And it’s one of those things where I think it’s being intentional in why you’re reaching out to who you’re reaching out to, and it’s got to be a one-on-one connection. And if you are just saying, “Okay, well, I’m just going to spam everybody that I can with my LinkedIn connection requests.” It’s the same thing as if you’re going to an in-person conference and you just walk around and say, “Hi, my name is Amber. I work for Amplitude Media. Here’s my card. Hi, my…” And you just go down the line. Right? So, which is not effective, we all know because nobody’s going to remember that. It’s scheduling one-on-one connections, I think, which is good. So reaching out and knowing a little bit about who you’re talking to, why you’re talking to them, what you have to offer them, which is always, make an offer, not an ask kind of a thing.

Amber Pechin:
And so it’s that connection where you can reach out in person. And say, “I’m really interested in getting to know you. I think that there’s potentially some synergy between our companies. I’d love to talk about what you do, why you do it. Do you have time for a 20-minute Zoom coffee conversation?” And it’s not exactly the same. There’s not the same energy as there is in real-life networking event. But I think that there’s potentially more possibility because you’re reaching out, you’re having those conversations. I do know too, that there are a lot of groups that are doing online. They’re doing Zoom networking events as well.

Katie Hurst:
You follow so many different, diverse industries. I’m curious are there any brands you feel like are doing it right or doing it well right now, in terms of communicating change, being aware of change, but also just putting out really amazing stories or really great customer outreach?

Amber Pechin:
Oh, gosh. I’m sure there are.

Katie Hurst:
I know, this question totally out of the blue.

Amber Pechin:
Totally out of the blue. So Salesforce is a weird one to mention, but I do feel like their outreach lately has been really well adapted and really on point to who their customers are. And it’s one of those things that I track and I start to screen capture when I see it. But their messaging has been about easing their client’s concerns. How do you help your clients have peace of mind? And it’s all about how do you serve your end customer through? Which Salesforce is a, I mean, it’s a CRM platform. It’s a lot more than that, but essentially it’s a CRM platform. And so they are B2B customers serving B2B customers and so there is that connection, that same sort of thing. I’ve been paying attention to their messaging, which has been about comforting your customers more than anything else. How do you reassure them during this time? Things like that, but with really on-point messaging.

Amber Pechin:
So, that’s one that I’ve noticed that has done a really good job. I’ve been really impressed with some of the diversity work that’s been out there, where companies who have said actually, they don’t just say they don’t have a statement that just says Black Lives Matter. Instead, they have a statement that says Black Lives Matter. This is what we have done. This is what we’re doing to do it better. And we’re going to keep checking it. And then they do. And I think REI is one of those that have said, we’re taking some time to reflect and internally have a conversation, and this is what we’re doing to improve. And we welcome your feedback. And then they got like a ton of feedback. And then like a week and a half later, they’re like, “Okay, here’s how we’ve incorporated. We heard you. Here’s how we’re incorporating these things. These are the action plans we’re putting into place.”

Amber Pechin:
And so I think like when it comes to these larger social issues, that transparent communication versus the, “We believe Black Lives Matter. And 10% of sales of this one thing is going to go towards this one cause.” Then it’s how do you make internal systemic change within your organization? So, that’s been really interesting to watch. And I think that those are the kinds of messaging and communications that if you’re sincere and genuine in your outreach in what you’re doing can make a big difference for your brand and how people feel about your brand. So your overall brand personality and tone and all of those sorts of things.

Katie Hurst:
So wrapping this all up, coming to the end, I have two questions for you. Which is one, what wins or lessons will you take away from this experience? And then what is one thing you want to say to small businesses out there?

Amber Pechin:
I think the wins or lessons, I think the most important thing is that actual connection with the humans, I think is the biggest thing. How important it is to have good relationships and honest, transparent relationships, because then when hard things happen, it’s the ability to say, “We’re really struggling because of X, Y, and Z.” Or especially right now if you have a small company and one of your employees gets COVID and is out for a month trying to recover, how do you communicate with your clients and your businesses? And having that very honest communication where it’s like, “Listen, we’re struggling. We’re down by half of our employees right now. And so this is what’s going to happen because of that.” So I think those wins are good.

Amber Pechin:
On the lessons too, that the ability to rethink your model at any point in time, I think is, and pivot towards what’s going to work for the current situation, I think is a really important one. Where instead of saying, this isn’t going to work and we’re going to have to shut down. Instead, saying, “Okay, how can we make this work so we can keep going?” And I think we’ve seen a lot of small businesses do that, where they have, if they’re in person they’ve pivoted to online. And that’s something we’ve helped, a couple of businesses do is pivot to online sales, pivot to online marketing. All of their marketing is now through content distribution and inbound, all of those kinds of things. And so that ability to think differently about problems so you can solve them to find a new solution is definitely I think the most powerful thing.

Amber Pechin:
And that’s what I would say to businesses, to small business owners, is that thinking differently about what it is you’re doing is the strong suit of a small business. These ginormous, mammoth companies and corporations out there are pretty stuck and set in what they can do. It’s like turning a big ship, takes a long time, right? But if you’re a small business, your agility and your flexibility is your strongest asset. And so it’s rethinking that and sitting down with your team and rethinking that. So this is what we’re currently doing. How can we change this so we can keep going? And having a team of people that you can rely on to do that with you, I think is really important too.

Katie Hurst:
I have to thank you so much, Amber, for giving us that amazing insight into branding and networking, and really at the end of the day, how valuable human connections are, especially with small businesses that have that opportunity to really connect versus like you said, these larger mammoth companies that can’t be as flexible and may not be able to make those personal connections. So thank you so much.

Amber Pechin:
Thanks for inviting me.

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Kellam Mechanical case study.

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Home services business builds a path to better customer communication.

Discover how one company stays ahead of customer trends when it comes to marketing in our Kellam Mechanical case study!

Inside you’ll find:

  • How Kellam Mechanical set out to meet their customer needs
  • The push to be accessible through additional channels
  • The value of connection and how this translates into customer acquisition

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Opening up a dialogue about student/parent communications isn’t always easy, especially when you’re looking to remedy an existing issue.

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Ruby acquires Pure Chat

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Over its 17 years, Ruby® has remained committed to our mission to deliver real meaningful human connections. Now, more than ever in our on-demand economy, consumers need quick answers and reassurance from businesses. Building trust and delivering a personalized experience is core to not only winning business but securing long-term customers. 

Unfortunately, small business owners are also facing more challenges since the arrival of COVID. Businesses are having to re-imagine how they work all while consumer behavior is changing. Days are getting longer with more evening and weekend demand. Communication channel options are expanding as well as consumers try to find a balance between work and home life.

As technology and consumer habits change, Ruby is working to ensure our customers are able to engage with their clients on any communication channel of choice—which is why we’re pleased to announce Ruby recently acquired Scottsdale-based company Pure Chat. Pure Chat provides live self-chat software as well as an AI-powered chat technology called Artibot.

The acquisition further strengthens Ruby’s position as a 24 x 7, 365-day customer engagement solution for small businesses. Our goal is to enable connections in all parts of the consumer journey—from lead capture and transactions to building trust and providing ongoing support. 

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Between wildfires, hurricanes, police brutality, and civil unrest, the pandemic, the election, and um, Quibi, 2020 has been a lot. A lot of a lot.

Oh, did I mention the economy? You know what—it’s probably better I don’t.

How in the 2020 is a business supposed to function right now? Six months after the world went into lockdown mode, there’s still no clear answer. We’re all kind of just figuring it out as we go along, which is frankly a frustrating, demoralizing, exhausting experience. Personally, I’ve had plenty of days when I’d rather not get out of bed—and plenty of nights I couldn’t sleep. But then I remind myself:

“People are depending on you.”

Here at Ruby, we’re fortunate to have a clear and abiding purpose in the form of our mission, customers, and community. We know what we stand for. We’re dedicated to serving businesses like yours. We love our jobs, as well as the people we work with. In fact, everything we do—from our internal projects to our external conversations with customers, and their customers—is rooted in a commitment to serve people.

Our culture and values have carried us through good times and not-so-good times. We managed to not only survive but grow through the last major global crisis—the Great Recession—by focusing on people. It’s the reason why we’re able to answer the phone in a friendly, professional manner even when the world is literally on fire. No matter what, we’re here to help people.

All of which brings me to the reason why I wanted to write this article in the first place: customer communication. 

Has customer communication ever been this challenging before?

With everything going on right now, it can feel impossible to strike the right tone in your interactions with customers, clients, and prospects. 

  • How do you stay positive without sounding oblivious or insensitive to what the other person may be going through? 
  • How do you demonstrate empathy and vulnerability without crossing boundaries?
  • How can you navigate sensitive, highly-charged topics when society is so politically divided?
  • How do you keep your messaging coherent and you make sure you’re not asking too much of someone?

These are just a few of the customer communication concerns companies are currently contending with. (Apologies for the audacious alliteration.) 

I’ll level with you: it is hard. There’s no script or template for any of this. But there are a few tricks you can use—the same ones we use here at Ruby—to make it easier on yourself, and provide the best possible experience for your customers. 

Here are seven ways to improve customer communication and make sure you’re hitting the right tone right now:

1. Be honest with yourself.

As our CMO Rebecca said in a recent interview, it’s okay to not be okay right now. If you’re finding it hard to remain totally focused, positive, and professional at all times, that’s okay. If you need to take a walk or scream into a pillow before you take another call—or if you need to turn your phone off for the day—that’s okay.

It’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to feel sad or irritable or on edge. The only way to really deal with these feelings is to acknowledge them and allow yourself to have them. Be honest with yourself, take care of your needs, and you’ll be better equipped to show up to conversations confidently and authentically.

2. Be honest with your customers.

Everyone who contacts your business—be they a customer, client, or prospect—wants two fundamental things: responsiveness and transparency. They want you to answer their call (or chat, email, DM, etc.) and be honest with them.

This doesn’t mean telling someone “honestly, I’m really depressed” or “honestly, I’m having a terrible day.” It means being honest about your ability to meet their needs. And it frequently comes down to sharing important rather than unnecessary details. What information does a customer need to know about you and your company at the moment? 

Maybe you’re not working as quickly or efficiently as you used to. Your customer doesn’t need to know why that is, but they do need to know when they can expect to receive a service or product. 

Or maybe you’ve been waking up later than you’d like because you’re having trouble sleeping. You don’t need to talk about your insomnia or apologize for anything, but you do need to let the customer know when they can expect to reach you. If you list your business hours as 8am–5pm, but aren’t getting to sleep until 4am, maybe it’s time to change those hours.

3. Know when to talk and when to listen.

Of course, you don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a person from your customers. Mentioning that you’ve been having trouble sleeping could actually humanize you and help you create a connection with the other person. But remember that it’s ultimately about them. They (probably) don’t want to hear about your melatonin routine or the video about the biggest fungus in the world you were watching to help you fall asleep.

Let your customers own the conversation. Give them the room to set their own boundaries and overshare if they need to. You’re there to help them and offer solutions, but primarily to listen. After all, you can only serve them effectively if you know who they are and what they want.

Keep in mind that listening doesn’t always mean staying silent. It means demonstrating awareness and sensitivity with verbal signals (e.g. “Oh, wow” or “I’m so sorry to hear that”), asking clarifying questions (“How long have you been experiencing this?”), and taking note of cues to move the conversation forward (“So, how can I help you today?”). 

This is what’s known as active listening, and it’s one of the most powerful skills in customer service, especially right now.

To learn more about active listening and other ways to ways to make personal connections with callers and clients, check out our ebook.

4. Keep it respectful.

Mind the tone of your marketing and sales messages. What are you saying, what language are you using, and what mood are you setting? Make sure that on a basic level, your communication respects your customers. Use words and images that match their emotions, reflect their reality, and resonate with their lived experiences.

Some examples of what not to say are obvious. Phrases like “killer sale,” “these deals are on fire,” or “let’s make this video go viral” are not ideal through the lens of 2020. Other concerns—such as how to mention reopening plans (or lack thereof), or how to word a statement about your diversity, equity, and inclusion commitment—take significant care and planning. 

But regardless of whether you’re crafting an email subject line or a statement about a social justice issue, start with respect for your audience. Respect their time, attention, and humanity. You’re asking for their time, and probably their money as well. Make it easy for them to trust you and to care about what you’re offering.

By the way, Square has an excellent guide on this topic, with a bunch of “do this/not that” examples of customer communications. Read “Are Your Current Marketing Communications Striking the Right Tone?”

5. Think beyond the immediate conversation.

You have more influence than you may think over the mindsets of the people who contact your business. And you can start creating positive emotions and sentiment around your company before they even pick up the phone.

Think about the many touchpoints a business might have with customers, clients, or prospects:

  • website
  • search results
  • social media presence
  • marketing and advertising
  • sales interactions 
  • products and/or services
  • product/service delivery
  • customer experience
  • listings on marketplaces and review sites

All of these elements can work together to give people a favorable impression of your business. Thinking back to a few earlier tips, consider how you can use these kinds of channels to demonstrate your humanity, provide useful information, create welcoming spaces, and show respect. 

People who visit a professional-looking website full of valuable content, for example, will develop certain expectations of your business that you can deliver on in phone calls, chats, and other forms of communication. If your product or service is outstanding, they’ll have plenty of reason to express their love for your business, even when they have a problem.

Equally important are the feelings you leave people with. A truly great phone call can set the tone for a lasting relationship with a customer, or turn them from simply a buyer into a passionate advocate for your business.

6. Spend your off-hours wisely.

This tip comes from a recent article in National Geographic about why people are biased toward negative, gloom-and-doom thinking. Psychologists, historians, and public health experts all agree that the stories we tell and take in have a profound effect on how we view the world, and how we communicate that world to others. 

The catch is that stories are just that—stories. And we can control which ones we consume and pay attention to:

“Actively engaging in positive conversations with friends and family members can improve someone’s overall psychological state. By contrast, ‘lurking,’ or scrolling through updates posted by friends or strangers without engaging, tends to have negative psychological effects.

Psychologists say we may never see the present as perfect, but we can learn to control our biases. The first step is to acknowledge how the media we consume shifts our perceptions. It gives our panic-prone primate brains more reasons to feel stressed and more examples of the present to compare with our highly edited version of the past. When we are mindful of our thought patterns, we can take control of them, and give ourselves a reality check[.]”

Read “Why every year—but especially 2020—feels like the worst ever.”

In other words, be smart about your media habits. Think about what you read, watch, and listen to when you’re not at work, as it influences your attitude in communication with customers. 

I’m not suggesting you tune out the news and watch It’s a Wonderful Life on repeat. Rather, take some time to read books, engage in conversations, and appreciate art that challenges your assumptions, sparks curiosity, and deepens your appreciation of the world. An open mind and an open heart are essential for customer service—and life in general, for that matter.

7. Have fun.

At the end of the day, we’ve all got to find joy where we can. Why not in customer communication? 

A healthy amount of fun and humor will make your business stand out, cut through the negativity of our era, and cultivate meaningful connections with the people you serve.

Try it out for yourself. Next time you’re on the phone, crack a joke. You don’t need to be a comedic genius. Even if the only person you’re making laugh is yourself, that’s alright—happiness and enthusiasm are infectious, after all. 

The good kind of infectious, I mean. 

Oh boy, I should probably end the article while we’re ahead.

With Ruby’s live virtual receptionists and chat services, you’ll nail the tone and create meaningful connections with your customers, every time—24/7/365. Try us out for yourself.

Author Bio

Heather is Head of Customer Marketing at Ruby and has been a marketer for over 14 years. Her experience spans business consulting, web design, education technology, and the non-profit sector.

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If you’ve made it this far into 2020 with your business intact, congratulations. There’s maybe never been a harder time in modern history to run a company than right now. 

Between environmental disasters, civil and political unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic fallout of said pandemic, and more, there’s a lot going on at the moment—and few opportunities to disconnect from it all. Not when millions of us are still stuck at home.

How is an organizational leader supposed to manage it all? How do you make sure your employees feel motivated, connected to each other, and aligned with your values in these—ahem—unprecedented times?

To find out, we spoke to one of our very own executives: Rebecca Grimes, Ruby’s Chief Marketing Officer. 

Rebecca is our resident expert in building and leading teams. She’s successfully navigated and grown organizations throughout periods of change and uncertainty, keeping people connected across functional, business, and geographic boundaries. She does it all with a human-first approach, a perspective rooted in small business, and an unwavering commitment to give back and serve the community.

We spoke to Rebecca about being an executive in the COVID era, how she’s keeping Ruby’s team together across distances, what it means to lead with vulnerability, her preferred caffeine delivery method, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

RUBY: How have you kept Ruby’s employees engaged and connected throughout the various crises and disruptions we’ve seen in 2020?

REBECCA: At Ruby, our leadership team believes in leading with vulnerability. We want our message and tone to match where our people are in their lives—what they’re feeling and dealing with right now. That means we need to communicate frequently and authentically. 

Communication is all about active listening. I mean, just a question like “How are you doing today?” has become really loaded. Instead of shying away from it, we actively listen and let the conversation go sideways if it needs to. We then act on what we learn. We want to hear what people are actually thinking and going through, and take whatever opportunity we can to make their lives easier.

For example, during the recent wildfires on the West Coast, we did a pulse check. We asked people if there was anything they needed, any way we could help. One team member remarked that she was immunocompromised and half-jokingly mourned that with the pandemic and smoke, she didn’t know when she would have a chance to leave the house and get coffee again—she had just put her last Nespresso cup in the coffee maker. We figured out a way to get coffee to her house.

Earlier in the year, when people were hoarding things like toilet paper, another one of our employees mentioned he was having trouble finding basic essentials, so we made sure to get him what he needed to reduce his anxiety. These aren’t things I thought I’d be doing a year ago, but that’s life right now. We’ve adapted in order to take care of our people

What does vulnerability mean to you?

In a lot of cases, it means saying “I don’t know.” As a leader, you’re expected to have all the answers. Well, we don’t have all the answers right now.

When the pandemic hit, we had to figure out how to pivot and be there for our employees and the people we serve. We had to discard our assumptions and think carefully about what our team members and customers actually needed. And we were surprised by the solutions people were able to come up with.

It’s so easy to say, ‘here’s what we should do.’ It’s much harder to ask people, ‘What do you think we should do?’

We determined that in terms of what we do for our customers, it isn’t about growing our business—sure, if there’s a need, we have a solution to offer—but more about making sure they have the resources they require. Take home services companies—professionals like plumbers, electricians, and cleaners are super busy right now, because everyone’s stuck at home and everything’s breaking. For us, it was natural to say, “How can we help you, home services companies?”

We wouldn’t be able to figure these kinds of things out if we didn’t work together. When you’re in a leadership position, you surround yourself with smart people, but empowering and trusting those people is ultimately what matters. It’s so easy to say, “here’s what we should do.” It’s much harder to ask people, “What do you think we should do?” But that’s the only way to access innovation and ideas, and to maintain camaraderie.

How do you go about communicating with employees and making sure everyone gets heard?

It’s intentional. You have to be intentional about the way you check in on people. You have to reach out and listen, because you can’t always see when someone is having a hard time.

We do this in several different ways. We have an internal executive AMA [ask me anything] channel, as well as regular Q&A video sessions, which we did daily earlier in the year, when things were more chaotic, but now happen on a weekly schedule. Then there’s live chat, optional team lunches—communication has evolved so much, and you don’t have the luxury of grabbing someone for coffee when you’re miles apart.

We also do formal one-on-ones every week with employees. I do skip levels and speak to my direct reports’ direct reports. It’s non-intrusive. It’s not meant to invalidate anyone’s authority and experience, but to provide access to me and allow people to raise concerns safely. 

You have to reach out and listen, because you can’t always see when someone is having a hard time.

Our executives run these meetings without agendas of our own. If there is an agenda, the other person is driving it. This is a fundamental shift in terms of strategy, but leaders need to make the change, especially right now.

We were doing a lot of this before 2020, but the conversations have become much more fluid this year. It’s often just about letting people vent. This morning, I was talking to someone who’s missing the office and social interaction. We both know it’s not a great idea to return to the office right now, but this person appreciated having the ability to just talk about it. 

So many working professionals are stuck at home right now, dealing with bad news, crises, and unclear boundaries between their work and lives. It seems like a perfect recipe for burnout and disengagement. How are you making sure Ruby’s employees take care of themselves?

We want people to know it’s okay to not be okay right now. It’s okay to be distracted. Work is always going to be there, and there are a lot of things pulling us away from work right now. The goal isn’t to eliminate the distractions, but make it easy for people to come back to work, get centered, and stay focused.

Those of us in positions of leadership can model this. I was in a recent meeting and my five-year-old daughter was logging into school at the same time. I helped her get online—I muted myself but didn’t hide it. I wanted to let people see me and know it was okay, that work isn’t the only important thing. The lines are so blurry. There is no start and end to people’s workdays.

It’s okay to not be okay right now.

Our responsibility is to provide compassion and trust when people are struggling or distracted. If we don’t, we’ll breed a continued divide that’s harmful both personally and professionally. 

At Ruby, we’re fortunate that our executive team has led through transparency and integrity from the very beginning—starting with Jill Nelson when she founded the company nearly two decades ago, and continues today under CEO Kate Winkler’s leadership.

Has it been challenging to keep the lines of communication open when the future is so uncertain?

I think times like right now are when communication is most important. We may not always have good news, but we need to keep listening and talking to our employees. Earlier in the year was especially difficult. People were nervous. They were seeing their friends and family members get laid off. We stayed committed to remaining transparent. Our top priority is always making sure everyone stays employed, and to do that means that we had hard choices to make—and our people needed to know about that.

Communication builds trust. It’s what makes us rally together when we need to. As an organization, we’ve helped people affected by fires, people who have lost their houses. None of that would have happened if people weren’t talking to people. It’s evolved into a fire relief fund, and now a Ruby disaster relief fund. After all, we’ve seen that fires—along with other equally traumatic crises—can strike at any time. 

As executives, we’re always tuned in and listening. You have to be there for your employees. You have to be there for conversations, including the hard conversations like the ones around equity, diversity, and inclusion. How do we listen to our BIPOC community? How can we look out for everyone on our team? There isn’t always a perfect answer. The conversation can raise really hard topics that should be discussed.

A lot of companies say they have an open-door policy, but that door isn’t open in practice. What makes Ruby different?

When we say we have an open-door policy, we really mean it. Every Ruby executive blocks out three hours in the middle of the week for office hours, in which anyone can schedule a 15-min meeting and talk to us about anything. 

This also serves as an opportunity to get to know people, and as a bonus, you might learn about some untapped skills they might have. Maybe someone’s interested in blogging, or doing some graphic design. You don’t know unless you talk to them.

It’s so easy to be human. It costs no money.

I’m fortunate to have like-minded people in leadership roles at Ruby. Our CEO, Kate; our COO, Stephanie; Jace, our CFO; Katherine, our Chief Product and Technology Officer—everyone shares the same commitment to transparency and humanity.

Honestly, I find it baffling that so many companies don’t lead with the same values. It’s so easy to be human. It’s so easy to respect the humanity of employees, customers, and the community. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and it costs no money. Our alignment and commitment to foundational leadership values are some things I do not take for granted.

How can organizations handle social justice issues without alienating employees who see them as “too political” or fundamentally disagree with the protestors?

Conventional wisdom is that you should never discuss politics at work, but this year it’s been impossible not to. There’s so much going on in the United States and around the world, and people feel a lot more open talking about it. But you don’t want to offend or isolate someone on the team, of course.

Frankly, there’s no easy solution. There’s no way to keep politics out of work entirely. Everything is a political issue right now—even masks! We need to talk about it but talk about it carefully, in a way that sparks more conversations rather than causing people to self-isolate. Sure, we’re making mistakes as we go through it, but we need to remain open and willing to listen.

This isn’t about politics, but about humanity.

There’s a lot leadership can do to help their employees navigate these conversations. At Ruby, we have an employee experience team that works with people to draw boundaries for themselves and stay connected to what our company is about; namely, creating and building community.

For us, this is more than a political conversation. We’re aligned to things that are human. We want to be on the right side of equity and racial justice—not to score points, but because we care about people and the communities we serve. 

In June, during the height of the protests, we sent out an email stating that this isn’t about politics, but about humanity, and that we have to stand up for people who don’t have a voice.

This email was met with different opinions from both inside of the company and outside of the company. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with disagreements. It’s not like every decision we’ve made has been met with the approval of 100% of the company.

For me, navigating these issues effectively is about connecting them back to our values. It’s explaining the why of the decisions. When people understand the context, we can agree to disagree rather than engage in hostility. This isn’t just a work lesson, but also a life lesson.

How do you avoid over-communicating or over-promising?

There are ways to share within an organization that give people enough information without veering into irrelevance or uncertainty. We trust in our company framework to make sure everyone knows what they need to know as soon as possible. We have an extended leadership team, then people managers, who deliver information further down the organization, while other messages are controlled and distributed from the very top—CEO videos, for example.

That said, I’m not sure that overcommunication is something to worry about. Is everyone watching every video we sent out? Probably not, but people do respond. I’d rather err on the side of overcommunication rather than trying to decide what information people need/want to hear.

It’s like any relationship. My husband and I tell our kids, “We’re not going to be mad if you tell us the truth.” We’d rather know everything because dishonesty only makes a situation worse.

With a workforce, it’s a little more complicated, but the goal is the same. You have to match people where they’re at and give them multiple communication options. Wherever they’re at, they should feel comfortable sharing what’s on their mind and motivated to do so. It allows us to get to the point where people don’t feel repercussions—then people stay positive when the world is literally on fire.

This is especially important in our line of work. When we’re taking calls from customers, what would normally be a three on the emotion scale is a ten because of the pandemic. We have to be the calming, professional face for these businesses that are also at a 10, worrying about payroll, how to keep up with the long list of things they are juggling and also staying safe while they do it.

What would normally be a three on the emotion scale is a ten because of the pandemic.

It’s up to those of us in leadership to set the tone. People will follow you if you lead with sincerity. Keeping people engaged and motivated means being compassionate, listening, and providing solutions when you can. Any form of help and humanity makes a difference.

For example, we recently created a community for parents on staff. We offer videos for working parents—you can park your kid here for an hour with colored pencils and paper, so you can take calls distraction-free. That only applies to a segment of the employee population with children of a certain age, but it really helps those employees. Sure, maybe that’s technically not our problem to solve, but why not help parents who might be struggling right now?

You mentioned a few other examples of helping and supporting employees in specific, personalized ways—coffee, basic essentials, fire relief, and so on. What’s the value of doing this versus sending everyone a general gift basket or care package full of snacks and herbal teas?

WOWism is one of our core values. We define it as using every opportunity to anticipate people’s needs and delighting them with solutions before they even ask for them. We do it for our customers, so why not for our people?

This is one of the core tenets of effective leadership. You don’t treat customers differently than you treat your people. You don’t ask of others what you wouldn’t do yourself. Why would you ask your team to go above and beyond for your customers and not do the same for them? These values actually predate our current leadership team. They started with Jill back in 2003.

Back to the personalized touches. A generic gift basket is okay—the intention is there, but the execution might be off because leadership isn’t paying attention. I can imagine someone receiving a bunch of tea bags right now and thinking, “Really? Why don’t you take that $30 you’d spend and give it to the ACLU instead?” 

I think about how I would want to be treated. I don’t drink tea. I don’t drink coffee. Anyone who knows me knows my source of caffeine is a can of Diet Pepsi. If you knew me, you’d deliver a case of super cold Diet Pepsi to my house. That’s what would make me happy. 

It’s so easy to find those details if you listen and pay attention. It’s not like people hide who they are. All you need to do is listen, take mental notes, and connect dots. And then, when someone is having a bad day or needs support, taking care of them is as simple as can be.

We’ve talked a lot about taking care of other people. How do you take care of yourself?

[Laughs] My lines are very blurry. I’m in Chicago working for a company based in Portland, Oregon. The hours are long. I often miss dinner with my family. But when I have pockets of time to sneak out and connect with family, I take them. Work is important and so is family. And when I decide I’m shutting down for the night, I shut down for the night.

My balance comes in many ways. It’s fluid and agile—no two days are the same.

Sometimes, I have to make difficult decisions and compromises. My mom sometimes helps out with my kids—in a socially distanced way, of course. If one of my kids asks, “Can we walk to Nana’s?” I might think, ugh, today’s a bad day, but you have to prioritize family. I make it work. You have to prioritize what matters to you to be present at work.

And at work, it’s not just about the work. I’ve been doing walking one-on-ones with team members recently. We connect in a personal way, without the pressure to look at a project.

Prioritizing the important things also means creating boundaries and honoring those boundaries. It’s okay to change a meeting from video to audio if you need to do something around the house or just don’t feel like showing up on camera that day. 

My balance comes in many ways. It’s fluid and agile—no two days are the same.

What are some other fun, non-work-related things you’ve been doing at Ruby?

We do company trivia every three weeks as a team. It started with a template I found online. I ran it once, and Michelle [Ruby’s VP of Partner & Strategic Marketing] was like, “I’ll do it next time.” She’s run it ever since and taken it way beyond what I could have. The trivia is a mix of personal and professional information, and it goes deep. For example, she’ll show photos of cities, and you have to name the city and which Ruby team member was born there. I’m thinking, how would anyone even know that? [Laughs]

In other circumstances, we’d be doing a happy hour, but this is a fantastic alternative. It’s so nice to see people laughing and having a good time. Not everyone shows up, but for those who can, it’s so much fun to come together and talk smack. In fact, I’m proud to say I won the most recent one. I showed up this morning showing off my crown.

I don’t want to say the pandemic has any benefits, but this kind of activity has been a powerful and unexpected boost for our team dynamics. We’re coming together in new, exciting ways. Something like trivia wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t forced to think differently. I can honestly say our team is stronger and more innovative because of what we’ve gone through together.

Interested in talking to Rebecca about employee communications? Or get some tips on marketing? Enter our raffle to win a conversation with a C-Suite Ruby!

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