What You’ll Learn

On this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast, Carrie Huckeby discusses the awareness stage of the customer journey. It’s not enough that your company has a great product. Customers need to find your company and have a good impression about the brand. How can the company ensure they are visible and well-received in their communities? Find out now on this episode of “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.”

Show Notes

Andy Johns: This is “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.” A special six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. Journey is a production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And in partnership with our presenting sponsor, Calix, whose mission is to enable broadband service providers of all sizes to simplify, excite and grow. Email us at hello@WordSouth.com to continue this customer experience conversation.

Carrie Huckeby: Awareness. It’s the first stop on the customer journey. The journey begins when the business or individual realizes they have a pain point. Maybe they just moved into your community. They began to do the research looking for a solution. Here’s your opportunity, the introduction, the chance to make a first impression. What will it be like to do business with your company? What impression will you make, and what does the customer experience look like at that stage? A few years ago, Power Digital Marketing reported that 90% of consumers want to be influenced early in the journey. Unfortunately, some companies wait for the decision or the purchase stage, and then they miss out. It’s not only about catching the customer’s attention — remember, it’s 8-12 seconds at the best — but it’s also about creating the right message or having the content, the tools that speak to the target audience and using the channels that the buyer frequents. This is where you show understanding for their pain points and that your company, your employees, have the expertise to solve their challenge. A marketer’s job is never easy, and it’s never done. Because it’s not a one size fits all, or let’s build a great network, a product and service, and they will automatically sign up and buy. In this second episode of our podcast series Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience, I asked my guests, how are you introducing your company to potential customers, and what kind of impression are you making at this very early stage of awareness on the customer journey? I start with Dee Dee Longenecker. She’s the director of business and development over at Eastex Telephone Co-op in Texas. I asked her these very questions, and she said that she believes one way that her company is making an impression is using the power of storytelling.

Dee Dee Longenecker: We focus a lot on what has worked for us forever, what’s tried and true. We have a strong presence in our communities so that people know who we are. We’ve been around since 1950, so we have longevity, and we have a brand that’s widely recognized in our communities. So, we haven’t historically done a ton of promotion and part of my role when I started three years ago was to change that. Because I think a lot of cooperatives and smaller rural companies kind of have struggled with telling their story, you know, promoting themselves, talking about the good work we’re doing. And it’s interesting because I think we’ve all seen through the pandemic that change, and it’s become essential to toot our own horns and let people know that these are essential services we’re providing.

Carrie Huckeby: Derek Barr is the assistant GM over at Hardy Communications in West Virginia. And I asked Derek about his service territory and his customer. I also asked if having 100% fiber network automatically gives his company extra points on the awareness scale.

Derek Barr: A lot of people have weekend homes here, seasonal homes here, and they actually reside most of the time in the Northern Virginia, D.C. area. So that’s as far as the local residents, a lot of elderly folks. So a lot of them are just now coming around to the realization of how important broadband is. So we’ve actually been booming through all this with the attention that COVID put on being at home and working from home, education from home, telemedicine, all of those things. We’ve been very much in demand here through 2020. We use social media, but it’s more for just general interaction and some of the other steps along the process. As far as the awareness stage, we don’t really have to because it is definitely now something that anybody looks for when they are going to an area. They look for broadband availability. It’s not something that is an option anymore or something that’s kind of considered an added plus. It’s an absolute necessity. So people are looking for that. So when they’re looking I mean, I know for a fact that some of the other counties around here don’t have the the movement in the real estate market that Hardy county has. And that’s because they don’t have fiber, and Hardy county does. And so we certainly promote those things, you know, as we hear about them. And I will say just the real estate market alone, having those agents know where that we can offer the broadband speeds that a lot of these Northern Virginia people and DC people need. That’s how we get our word out there.

Carrie Huckeby: I asked Derek if he utilizes one particular department or if his company has a sales team. And he reminded me of something that I’ve always said throughout my career, “everyone is in sales.”

Derek Barr: It’s not just a sales team. And to be honest, we don’t even have a specific sales team. Our customer service group, they work as our sales team. But getting the word out that, hey, it’s also outside plant. It’s also the techs. I mean, everybody is involved in the idea of selling and educating the customers as to what we have available.

Carrie Huckeby: It’s hard to beat word of mouth marketing. BESS Company says that 80% of customers say word of mouth recommendations from people they trust make them much more likely to purchase. 92% say they trust word of mouth more than they do traditional ads. These conversations at the grocery store, the ballpark and at church, I mean, they’re extremely meaningful to the brand. And speaking of Sunday dinner, Kyle Randleman, the VP of marketing and customer operations at Star Communications in South Carolina, told me how word of mouth works for them. Like traditions and family recipes, awareness happens when one generation passes along to the next while they do business with the co-op.

Kyle Randleman: A lot of our customers learn about us from learning from their parents and their grandparents or living in the area. Sometimes, I think a lot of companies overlook the fact that, especially in more rural areas, that the people that come back probably grew up here. Or had ties or parents, and they went to school here, went off, got their education, and they decided to come back. A lot of that happens. And when I was kind of mapping out the awareness portion on our customer journey, I found a lot of that did happen. You know, they would come, go to school and come back. Well, they probably already used our service or heard about us with their parents. So that kind of really led us to try to improve our customer service. We really need to service customers we have now because their children and even their grandchildren may be the ones that I have to serve 20 years from now.

Carrie Huckeby: At WCTEL, Shannon Sears is the director of commercial operations. His cooperative has connected thousands of new consumers to fiber in the last few years, and his company has several projects happening where they plan to connect thousands more. They’ve gone into new CLEC areas where they didn’t have the brand recognition and no one had ever heard of WCTEL. So Shannon explains that awareness did start with word of mouth, but then they were able to support it and enforce it with strategic messaging and visibility.

Shannon Sears: I was talking about our CLEC and kind of how fast that’s growing in a county that’s right next to our traditional area. And we had to build our brand in that area. They really weren’t that much familiar with our service. And what we did — even though we’ve been here for a long time, we never provided service there. So they didn’t really know much about us from a company standpoint. So we really had to focus on, you know, how are people going to find our company in this area? And then we spent a lot of time with them. And I’ll tell you, one of the most successful ways is word of mouth. When you provide great customer service and you can back it up with, you know, with solid service, you will have people talk about it. And I think that’s been a great thing for us. We were one of the first companies in South Carolina to have a full fiber to the home buildout in our traditional area. And now we’ve expanded that fiber into this area. And we really just had to educate the customer — yard signs. We would do anything so the neighborhood would know who we were.

Carrie Huckeby: When Shannon says that they will do whatever it takes to make sure the neighborhood knows WCTEL, he means it. WCTEL has a residential team whose goal is to presale the fiber service before the construction project is finished.

Shannon Sears: Our goal, because we were building out fiber, was to pre-sell it into these neighborhoods. And so we would begin by sending mailers to this neighborhood. We would try to draw interest and collect orders prior to even actually starting construction. And that’s a bit of a challenge in and of itself, especially if they don’t know who you are. But as we moved out into this area more and more people heard about our service. They were almost begging us to come to their area. They were very underserved with their current provider. And so we had a person that would go do door to door sales in these neighborhoods, but we would do things to prepare the neighborhood for them coming. For instance, we would send them a letter with the person’s picture on it, tell them a little bit about who that person is. Because in this day and time, door to door sales is not super popular. But we wanted them to know who we were as a company so we would tell them stuff about us, but we would really prepare and lay the groundwork for the salesperson to come in. And it’s been very successful.

Carrie Huckeby: Shannon and his team found out that it takes multiple channels to reach the level of awareness that they needed in those new fiber build areas. And they needed that level of awareness in order to meet their financial and their business plan objectives. I asked Dee Dee over at Eastex, how do you find your customer, or how do you make it easy for your customer to find you, when you go into a new fiber build area?

Dee Dee Longenecker: When we have a fiber build area, we typically do a couple of things that are different than the norm. We set up oftentimes an information station in that area. So if there’s a particular subdivision or neighborhood, we will set up neighborhood signs outside of the community, and we will set up information stations where we will plant a staff person who’s there to educate folks that they want to come in and learn, you know, the particulars, and they’ll even be able to fill out some of the paperwork that they need. As our project progresses in an area, we’ll also send people door to door. We have staff that we’ll send door to door with fiber information packages that we will leave on people’s doors with door hangers that give them all of the information they need to follow up and actually convert the service to fiber. We want to make sure that we get those efficiencies while we have those contractors there with boots on the ground, that we can turn up as many people as possible.

Carrie Huckeby: The CEO/GM of Minburn Communications is Deb Lucht. Deb says that in addition to word of mouth, her company has found some really creative and proactive ways to get out there in front of potential customers to let them know about the company, its products and its 100% fiber network.

Deb Lucht: A lot of times their first stop is going to be the City Clerk’s office. And so we have welcome packets that are left with the city so that when a customer comes in and does sign up for water and sewer, that they’re able to get our information. We also have contacts with all the realtors that are in town. The realtors are aware of our fiber to the home network. And so they talk about that with customers that are looking to make purchases of homes that are in our service territory. That sometimes is one of the big challenges that someone moving into an area that they’re assuming that there is Internet service there. And in many cases it’s not. But here they’re able to know that up front, that there is a quality fiber optic network. And then I think the involvement that our staff have and that I have also at a community level in nonprofit organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, the economic development groups, we’re pretty active and visually available to the communities so that they see us all the time too.

Carrie Huckeby: Deb and her team found ways to raise the awareness level on the customer journey, but they didn’t stop there. The team went above and beyond to not only be the premier broadband provider, but also to arrange a solution when the local post office closed.

Deb Lucht: A number of years back in our smaller exchange, the post office was going to be closing, and I reached out to the US Postal Service. We now have what’s called a Village Post Office in our Minburn office. We’ve had that probably for about six or seven years now. And when the post office is closed in town, customers can come into our office and purchase stamps and the boxes and those types of things. But again, it’s another touch point that allows the customer to come into our office, and it’s meeting a need there for when the post office was closed. But again, it was to encourage them to have that interaction with us on a totally unrelated topic. But yet it allows us the opportunity to engage in conversation about our services too at that time.

Carrie Huckeby: Minburn Communications discovered a way to not only further serve their community, but to introduce the company to people not yet their customer. Innovative, creative. I love this idea. We’ve talked about awareness mainly from the residential perspective. I switched gears a little bit and asked Kurt Gruendling, the VP of marketing and business development, if he believes the awareness phase is any different for business than it is for a residential consumer. WCVT in Vermont, they offer hosted PBX and other business related services. Kurt explained how they not only raise awareness, but they try to engage with their businesses to make sure that the community understands that WCVT is a leader with heart.

Kyle Randleman: To do business with those customers that do business with us and help promote them. So whether that’s through a case study — there’s obviously a mutual benefit there — to our monthly Internet email newsletters, where we’re buying, whether it’s gift certificates or a ski pass or different products or services from the local businesses in our community that we then raffle off. So every month we’re buying something from these local businesses in our communities and also promoting them. That’s the ancillary benefit to them as well. We try to focus on letting people know about not only the existing businesses, but also new businesses as they pop up. We’ve even been gone so far as of late where we’ve been doing more of them, just obviously, with all the COVID challenges that small businesses, restaurants, other retail type businesses that might not be fully open or open for takeout only. These local businesses are the things that make our rural communities unique. We need them, and we need them to be successful for us to be successful.

Carrie Huckeby: I really admire Waitsfield’s commitment to their businesses, especially when COVID has made it so difficult for many of them to stay in business. I recommend going to their website and checking out the business case studies. They are very well done, and I can see those being very helpful when a consumer is looking for information.

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Carrie Huckeby: Gregg Hunter’s the marketing and PR specialist over at Nemont in Montana. He explained that their market is very diverse, and it requires Gregg to look at multiple avenues to reach all those consumers. They have a cooperative territory, CLEC areas, reservations, competition, no competition, and a transient workforce that can grow or shrink a town overnight. For Nemont, the awareness stage on the customer journey means being strategic. It means speaking to a different audience with a targeted message and using the channel at the right time.

Gregg Hunter: We have such a diverse service area because we have two reservations that we serve. We have the transient type population that we have over in Williston with a lot of traffic coming in and out of there, depending on what’s going on with the oil activity. I mean, the population of that city alone, it’s like it can double overnight, and then turn around and go back to where it was. So that’s completely different than a cooperative area. Cooperative area, we seem to have kind of an older demographic, not as many younger families. Those younger families are specifically in some of the communities that we deal with. So we do a lot of different things. I mean, we have influence marketing that we do influencer marketing, and we use blogs, email marketing, Google ads, testimonials, a lot of different things to reach those people. A lot of stuff with social media to get out there and try to to get that person interested. And then the cooperative area, like I was mentioning, there’s not as much competition there. So it’s a little different to market there than it is in, say, over in Williston, where we have a huge amount of competition.

Gregg Hunter: So we’ve been doing a lot of target marketing in Williston. We have like 52% of our Facebook users over there are women and 33% of those women are between 25-34 years old. So we’re tailoring our market to those people in things that they actually like. And we’re using our marketing to touch those particular people. So that’s kind of how we’re doing it. I mean, we look at the top pages that users are using in relevance. Coffee’s a big thing over there — delis, cafes. There’s three or four coffee places on the top ten list of pages that they search for. So, you know, that’s big over there. So we use that when we do our marketing and try to. You know, like we’re working on a campaign right now that is specifically talking about bumping up a speed where it’s $5 a month, so it’s the price of a cup of coffee. And that’s how we’re basically making that particular thing. For a price of a cup of coffee, you can increase your speed three times.

Carrie Huckeby: Gregg touched on a couple of really important factors when it comes to successful targeted marketing. First, he had the data. He had the data to support his decisions. The demographic information tells him who his audience is. Second, he knows what they like, coffee. Having the data gives him that insight regarding who, what and how to create a better experience. And no customer journey conversation is complete without talking more in depth about digital presence. According to Forbes, 70% of businesses chose to kick their digital presence in social media into high gear during the pandemic. I asked my guest how important they think digital presence is as the first stop of the buyer’s journey.

Kurt Gruendling: That’s a great question. I think, obviously the Web is the first place people are turning these days, right? Even though we are a local company, we have local business offices that they can come down to at any time. I think for all of us, a lot of that initial culinary research has shifted to the Web. So that online presence is certainly critical.

Carrie Huckeby: Potential customers of Star Communications uses multiple websites to research the area and their services. Kyle tells us they use CrowdFiber is an additional touch point and a source for information when customers start looking for broadband service in the area.

Kyle Randleman: If they’re from out of state or out of the local area and are moving in for a job or whatever, people go to Google. You know, we’ve done our studies. They go to Google. They’ll search county websites. They’ll look at Chamber of Commerce websites. They go to the broadband map. So they just go straight to the Internet if they don’t know someone in the area personally that they can reach out to. We use a third party application on our website called CrowdFiber. And, you know, we mapped out our territory using the CrowdFiber app, and it’s actually on our app. We have an app for our company as well, and it’s on there. Customers can pull it up, type in their physical 9-1-1 address, and we’ve gone through and taken the time to tell what features or services or speeds are available at that certain area and even go as far as we went through and took it an extra step and told them the price.

Carrie Huckeby: We’ve heard some creative ways to raise awareness: websites, door to door sales, and targeted messaging. We haven’t talked social media. When Dee Dee Longenecker was hired as the director of business development at Eastex, she found there was an overall fear of having a presence on social media. And she felt strongly that that needed to change.

Dee Dee Longenecker: The fear was that we would really just hear a lot of complaints. And the typical complaints that you hear in the rural areas are about the lack of high broadband speeds or the higher prices of service. And those I think every small company can relate to that. And hearing those complaints, you know, that’s part of our entire purpose of being here, is that we do have an incredibly high cost to serve these very remote rural subscribers. You know, and so it makes a lot of sense that that’s the perception is that their services might cost more. So that was the fear. I think that we would see a lot of complaints and that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to shine enough of a light to kind of offset those negative interactions. But, you know, I agree, social media has been around for quite some time. And I feel like before I even started with Eastex, it was clear to me just because I have a passion for marketing and had gone back to a business school to pursue an MBA in marketing. And so I’m just passionate about it. And I feel strongly that wherever people are going to talk, they’re going to talk. And, you know, all you can hope to do is to be a part of that conversation and help steer that conversation. So in my opinion, if customers are talking about you — everybody in PR and marketing says there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and I’m not sure I completely agree with that. But I would say, you know, if there’s a conversation happening, it is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to address what’s happening, you know, to show that you care about improving the situation for the customer. And I think where you’re not just addressing that to one person individually. In a social media world, that you have the opportunity for so many other sets of eyeballs to see that response and to react to that.

Carrie Huckeby: Globally, there are almost four billion people using social media. That’s billion. Add another estimated billion by 2025, and that’s a lot of engagement and conversation. I’ve known Kyle Randleman a long time, and he’s had a love hate relationship with social media as long as I’ve known him. But it sounds like he’s finally become a fan. Well, fan may be a strong word, but he has found that social media has its place.

Kyle Randleman: You probably know this about me. I despise social media. I always have. I can’t stand it. See that’s the problem. I’m not marketing to 25,000 Kyle Randlemans out there, and it took me a while to try to understand that. So just despite my personal despise of social media and all the noise that it creates, you know, I had to eat crow and accept social media as definitely a part of our brand that we need to push. And so what I did was I went out and hired a social media consultant that’s local and knows our company very well. Her father used to be the general manager of my organization, and so she went off to school, came back, started having a family. She started up this business on her own of assisting local businesses with their social media presence. That fit well into my game plan because, again, I hated it. I didn’t want to do it. But she’s taught me a lot; she really has. You know, we’ve gone out and done the Facebook thing. We’re moving toward Instagram now. She thinks we would do better for our younger generation on Instagram. We have a YouTube page that we do a lot of our videos, and we post up on that and push our YouTube page. We do Twitter. So, yeah, she’s got us involved in a lot of this stuff. And it’s a way to kind of change the way our image is looked after.

Carrie Huckeby: As I bring episode two to a close, I thought it was important to hear from Derek Barr and Deb Lucht about how they use their role as leaders in the industry to raise awareness not only on their local level, but also on the state and federal level. Derek says that Hardy Communications has reaped some rewards and benefits from being located outside of D.C. They’ve been an example used by the FCC in order to set a standard of what rural broadband should look like.

Derek Barr: We’ve actually had the past two chairs of the FCC visit our county and to see what we’ve done with the fiber network. So it was Tom Wheeler back before. An interesting thing about West Virginia. We have one Democratic senator and one Republican senator. So Senator Manchin, Joe Manchin, brought Chairman Wheeler to our area to say, look what’s been accomplished here. And then Senator Shelley Moore Capito brought Chairman Pai, who is just leaving here in a couple of days. You know, his term will end, but he also came to the area. And Chairman Pai, I know throughout the rest of the time that he’s been serving in that position, has actually kept referring back to what he saw in West Virginia and what a difference it can make. Because the reason they brought them here was to say, look at the businesses that have been able to come in and look at the type of difference it makes between one county and a neighboring county that doesn’t have a fiber network. So our awareness is extraordinary. Through their contacts, they’re telling a lot of their people they used to work with, “man, I found a little piece of heaven here. You know, West Virginia, almost heaven.” So, you know, they’re saying that this is a wonderful place, and they’re promoting us. And so that’s just been invaluable to us.

Carrie Huckeby: Deb Lucht serves on multiple boards, but maybe none more important than her appointment to the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa Connectivity Task Force.

Deb Lucht: I think that is an incredibly important role within our organization is one to be the advocate for our customers at the state and the federal level. So I’ve been very actively involved in our state association and served at various levels on different committees and also served as president of our state association. And through the state association, we work with the legislature on different bills that come up that potentially impact how we provide our service to the end user. I was recently appointed by the Governor to serve on a two year task force which was called the Empower Rural Iowa Connectivity Task Force. And that two year term has since ended, and I was reappointed to serve another two years. And that task force has worked hand in hand with our governor to identify the challenges within the state on some of the areas that have not been served with broadband that meet the current 25-3 requirements. And how can we get additional funding to be able to allow providers to build into those areas that are not currently being invested. And so in front of the legislature right now in the state of Iowa, is that $450 million dollar program that the governor is asking to be supported for implementation over the next three years. So being involved at that level also brings additional awareness to our company and who we are and what we represent.

Carrie Huckeby: Consumers are looking for information in the awareness stage, and you’ve heard from my guests how they are using their staff, collateral, storytelling, Web presence, door to door sales, and unique ways like post office functions, to engage, to start a conversation about their company, their products and their services. I hope you’ve heard something that will help you meet the challenge of earning your customer’s attention at that awareness stop. And remember, it’s all about creating the best first impression and delivering an outstanding customer experience. Stay tuned and watch for episode three in our series. We will be talking about the interest and evaluation stage. You’ll hear how my guests are making sure customers do not get stuck at the awareness stop and how they move them along the customer journey. So join me the next time for Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.

Andy Johns: We hope that you have enjoyed this episode of Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience. A six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. A special thanks goes to our guests and to our presenting sponsor, Calix. Visit calix.com to learn how their cloud and software solutions can help you simplify your business, excite your subscribers and grow your value. Journey and StoryConnect are productions of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources.