Author Archive | Jacob Paulsen

Getting Past The Spam Filter And Into The Inbox

Like most of my blog posts, this one is in response to a question I recently received (and have received many times in the past) from a friend.

Email Marketing continues to be a strong and valuable asset in the hands of any marketer. However, email deliverability or the ability to get one's marketing emails into the inbox of the recipient is a paramount and critical factor.

And similar to how all the search engine marketers are constantly trying to figure out the workings of the Google Algorithm; email marketers are trying to figure out the workings of the ESPs (Email Service Providers) & the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and their algorithms.

*Note that in this article I'll refer to ESPs universally to refer to both ISPs and ESPs.

What follows is a round-up of some of the more important factors that impact email deliverability. Each is discussed in short form with a link to a credible and thorough article on the topic.

This could be overwhelming to anyone who is new to the topic. Don't feel like you have to do each of these things perfectly… but starting to manage any of these factors where currently you don't manage them at all, is sure to have a positive impact.

Not in any specific order:

Avoid Spam Complaints

It goes without saying that having your emails marked as SPAM is a really good way to communicate to the ESPs that your emails shouldn't make it to the inbox.

Resource: Definitive Guide About Spam Complaints

  1. Make the unsubscribe link EXTREMELY easy to find. In the welcome email consider putting it at the top in line with the welcome paragraph in addition to having it in the footer.
  2. Don't do shady crap to get more email subscribers who didn't explicitly give you their email address
  3. Always send new subscribers a good welcome email that explains WHAT and HOW OFTEN you will be emailing them. If possible also include detail about where you got their email address so they can be reminded they opted in.

Focus on Quality Not Quantity

It feels warm and fuzzy inside to have a big email list. We want to associate big with better but it isn't so.

The number of quality subscribers matters and has a positive affect.

Equally so the number of bad subscribers (anyone who doesn't want to get your emails) matters and has a negative affect.

Focus an equal amount of energy on removing the bad subscribers (or not adding them to begin with) as you do on getting good subscribers.

Don't Buy Lists And If Possible Force Double Opt-In

There is great risk, both short-term and long term to having people on your email list that didn't ask or agree to be there.

The value proposition here is: Add some bad subscribers that MIGHT buy your product knowing that most of them won't which will make it so that long term even your good subscribers will stop seeing your emails.

RESOURCE: Why Buying Email Lists Is Always a Bad Idea

Is the short term gain worth the long term loss?

Also consider:

  • Purchased email lists often contain spam trap email addresses that signal to the ESP that you bought that list and are sending spam
  • You are not violating the CAN-SPAM Act in the US but you are violating GDPR
  • Email marketing services and providers generally have policies against it and can penalize you or kick you off their system.

Don't Send From Free Domain Email Addresses

Don't make your “from” or “sender” address something with @gmail, @yahoo, @msn, etc.

For one you can't use custom authentication (see next section) but think about it… they know you didn't send it. Meaning, if I use my Gmail email for example and send an email out to a list of 1000 people and 300 of those have Gmail addresses; Gmail is smart enough to figure out that that email wasn't actually sent from Gmail.

It says it was sent from [email protected] to [email protected] but Gmail sees that it isn't in the sent box of [email protected] This looks like phishing and carries enormous SPAM weight.

Use Custom Authentication

Email authentication is basically the process of sending email that is identified as originating from your sending domain. This helps ESPs verify that the email is coming from where it says it is coming from.

Basically is allows your email marketing platform to send verified email on your behalf that actually originating from YOUR domain.

Setting this up requires one of several methods that all require some form of adding or editing DNS records on your domain. Many email marketing platforms have tutorials or guides to walk you through this.

RESOURCE: What is And How to Setup Email Authentication

Avoid Spammy Words and Phrases

ESPs maintain a list of words and phrases that are often associated with SPAM email. The use of these words on occasion isn't likely to have any significant impact on your deliverability but a high concentration of them or frequent use of them will hurt.

Being somewhat familiar with the list will at very least help you know when you should avoid certain words or look for alternative ways to say something.

RESOURCE: Test the Spammyness of your Emails

Don't Use URL Shorteners

Avoid using URLs like bit.ly or tiny.url or other shortener services. ESPs just see that you are trying to redirect people and that isn't generally associated with good senders.

Your email marketing platform should be tracking opens and clicks anyway so you don't need those shorteners for analytics.

Limit the Amount of HTML

Companies that send marketing and promotional email want it to look very professional, so often they use complex coded email templates with a lot of images.

Using simple code only and as little of it as possible is going to positively impact your deliverability over time.

Don't Use A Shared Sending IP Address

A sender IP reputation, as viewed by the ESPs, is associated with the originating IP address from which email is being sent. Most of the popular email marketing platforms by default will have you sharing a sender IP with other users of that platform.

Often you have to pay more for a dedicated IP address but it is worth it. Do you want your sender reputation to be negatively affected because the other users sharing the IP address do spammy stuff?

Warm Up Your Dedicated IP Address

When you do start using a dedicated IP address you need to warm up that IP address. Warming it up is the process of slowing building up it's sending reputation.

Suddenly sending a lot of email from a new IP address is going to throw up a red flag to the ESPs.

RESOURCE: How to Properly Warm Up An IP Address

Send With Consistent Frequency

The ESPs get concerned when you go from sending email once a month to once a day. Being consistent with your sending volume and frequency will help your sender reputation.

Ask Customers to Whitelist You

In the same way that it hurts your sender reputation when recipients mark your email as SPAM, it may help when recipients whitelist you.

Whitelisting basically means they set a filter or do whatever else is necessary depending on the ESP or email client to communicate to the system that they WANT your emails to get to the inbox.

In addition to potentially having a positive impact on your sender reputation it most certainly goes a long way to ensure that specific subscriber sees your emails.

Ask them to whitelist you, maybe as part of a welcome email and consider providing some instructions for how they can go about doing so.

Remove Bounces

A bounced subscriber or email address is one where the email address is not able to receive your emails. This could be because the email address doesn't exist, the inbox is full, or a myriad of other reasons.

If your email marketing platform is worth anything at all it will have a Feedback Loop that communicates the issue back to the system and automatically marks that subscriber as bounced.

You don't want to continue to send email to an email address that can't receive it. This costs you money and hurts your sender reputation.

Purge or Clean Your List Frequently

So what about those subscribers that haven't bounced, but they just don't engage with your content anymore?

In the last 90 or 120 days or more they haven't opened a single email or clicked on a single link.

If you are hanging on to those contacts thinking that eventually, they will “re-activate” and out of the blue start opening your emails again and buying from you that is wishful thinking.

These contacts cost you money and hurt your sender reputation. Use automated processes often available from your email marketing platform to identify and remove those contacts.

You can always move them into a re-engagement campaign that sends them 1-3 emails specifically designed to “wake them up” and get them to engage with you once again. But beyond a few emails to that end, continuing to send them email as part of your normal sending is foolish.

Check Blacklists

Sometimes bad things happen. Maybe you broke one too many rules or someone hacks your account and does naughty things.

For whatever reason if you end up blacklisted it will have obvious negative impact on your deliverability.

Blacklists are generally 3rd party companies that specialize in identifying and registering naughty IP addresses. ESPs then rely on them to help filter out bad email.

On a regular basis, you should check the biggest blacklists and see if you are on them. If you are, appeal the decision and get removed.

RESOURCE: Email Blacklists 101 – What You Need to Know

Be Compliant With The CAN-SPAM Act

The CAN SPAM Act is a law that prohibits behavior consistent with spammers.

In short, it requires that you make it easy how recipients can unsubscribe and honor those requests. In addition, you need to have accurate and congruent subject lines, and to include the company physical address.

RESOURCE: The CAN SPAM Act of 2003 – Email marketing compliance

Include Your Business Name In the Sender Name

You want email recipients to quickly be able to identify the company that sent the email. While you can and should (per the CAN SPAM Act) include your company name in the body of the email somewhere (generally in a footer) including it in the FROM line is a good practice.

Don't Include Attachments

Just please don't do it. Including attachments is a certain way to hit the SPAM box.

Use Good Spelling and Grammar

Check your emails for good spelling and grammar. The ESPs have learned over time that Spammers tend to have bad grammar and they tend to spell words wrong in an attempt to get past firewalls.

Spelling errors and grammar mistakes are not only bad for your credibility and brand but also can have a negative impact on your sender score.

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You Have Emails But You Don’t Have An Email Marketing Strategy

This is for any business owner or marketer who is currently NOT sending regular emails to an email list of subscribers, customers, and potential customers.

This conversation usually happens when I'm talking to a business owner who has been around for a few years but doesn't currently send much or any email.

WHY You Need to Be Sending Email

Not building and cultivating an email list is costing you money. Depending on how amazing your email strategy is, your lack of doing something is probably costing you between 5 cents and a dollar per email address per month.

Now I get it… writing emails is hard and can be expensive! That is what has been holding you back. It doesn't have to be that rough… I promise.

Scraping Together Your Email List

Before we get into the how and what, we need to build your email list. It is time to go to all your various resources and combine all the files, exports, and other assets you have to build out your email list.

Where possible, you want to capture as much data about each email subscriber as possible but specifically where you can be sure to export/capture: First Name, Last Name, Email Address, State, Zip Code.

This information will be handy later when you are making so much money from email you can't handle it and you decide to start segmenting or customizing emails to each recipient ūüôā

Here are a number of potential resources you may consider where you can find email addresses you have collected over the many years you have been in business:

  • Your eCommerce system
  • Your CMS where customer data is stored
  • Any 3rd party system where you have hosted a giveaway in the past
  • If you have ever donated product to someone else's giveaway and they captured emails they may be able to provide them to you
  • Your fulfillment and shipping software or system
  • Your outlook or email contact list and that of your employees
  • If you are in the B2B space you may have a Rolodex or large pile of business cards. There are phone apps that can take pictures of your cards and extract the email addresses.

A Warning Not To Buy Or Steal Emails…

There is often a temptation to buy an email list from a vendor or swap email lists with a partner or vendor. I strongly discourage this. People don't like getting emails from random businesses that they didn't specifically opt-in to receive or with whom they have some sort of relationship or brand awareness.

Further, it could be a violation of terms or at very least trust from that 3rd party to be providing you with those email addresses.

Lastly, if you have personally overseen the gathering process of email addresses that end up on your email list you don't know where they came from and frankly quality is MUCH more important than quantity.

Often purchased email lists contain email addresses specifically built and monitored by email service providers to catch companies that are sending SPAM and junk mail.

Waking Up Your List or Sending the First “WARNING” Email

Now, you have put together your email list and you are wondering what to do next. Well, first thing you need to do is WARN these people you are planning to send them email.

This is tactically wise but also ethically good. If you have email addresses that up until now you have never sent anything and all of the sudden you are going to send them email with any type of frequency don't you think they deserve a heads up and the option to say “no thank you?”

In addition to the warm and fuzzy reasons, there is a tactical benefit as well. It costs money to send email and for every email address on your list that isn't interested in receiving emails you are going to be paying to send it to them.

Further, if they mark your email as SPAM or move it to their junk folder this is going to hurt your sender reputation which in the long term will keep your emails from getting to the contacts who DO want to receive them.

Getting “bad” contacts off your list is just as important as getting “good” contacts onto your list.

So We Start With The Ferris Cold Email Template

I first saw this email several years ago when top blogger, podcast, and author Tim Ferris decided to resurrect his email list and start emailing them after years of ignoring the list.

I have adapted and used this template several times and I encourage you to adapt it for your business:

The easier you make it for people to unsubscribe the better because remember one of the core goals of this email is to get “bad” contacts off your list before you start sending frequent emails.

Also note that Tim provides some value in his email by including some free resources and products that help people engage with his brand and remember who he is and how he can provide them with value moving forward.

How Often Should You Send Email?

Congrats. At this point, you have pulled together your email list and warned them you will be sending more frequent email. Now what?

Commit to a regular sending frequency. How often you send email is not nearly as important as committing to a frequency and communicating what that will be.

Meaning, be consistent. If you commit to sending weekly, plan to send weekly; and however often you commit to sending, manage that expectation moving forward by telling subscribers what to expect.

You can manage that expectation in the Ferris Cold Email template and anywhere on your website where people can opt-in to receive emails. Every new subscriber should get some sort of “welcome” email and in that email manage expectations about how often you send emails.

What Should You Send?

I have found that this is where the rubber hits the roads. Most of the business owners I talk to get stuck on this part.

Listen, if you are already busy and haven't been sending emails for the last however many years then taking on a serious email strategy that requires typing up great emails often is probably unrealistic.

I generally suggest, just to get the ball rolling that you build some sort of newsletter template that is going to be low work to build and execute.

Something with 3-4 sections that you can quickly insert content into and hit send. For example, one of our brands does a weekly newsletter which includes 4 sections.

  1. Section 1 is their latest podcast episode (yeah its a podcast)
  2. A social feature. Basically featuring an instagram follower/customer
  3. Share of the week in which they include an article, video, or similar from some other website or channel that isn't them. (it is ok to share content that isn't yours)
  4. Product of the week. Exactly what it sounds like.
I think this was my first ever marketing email. In that business we decided to write and send a weekly “safety tip” to our contacts to create a lot of value and drive high open rates. Then we put an offer at the bottom of each email.

Once you have a template built out it should be low maintenance to commit to your sending schedule.

But This Newsletter Won't Make You A Ton of Money

Now you have the foundation in place but if you really want to generate cash from your email you need to go beyond this.

You now built your list and got them to expect regular emails from you that contain valuable information. Great job. This is the most difficult part.

Now you need to figure out how to monetize this. Monetization strategies are going to vary dramatically from one business to the next depending on what you sell, who your customers are, and much more.

Obviously sending emails that promote your own product or service include sales, referral or loyalty programs, and new product offerings is a good idea.

In addition you may be able to market 3rd party services or products that are not a conflict with your own products. You might be able to get paid a commission based on the performance or just get paid a direct advertising fee for promoting that 3rd party's product(s).

This article was meant to get you to this point. You can read other articles on my site about email marketing or consult with a marketing coach to keep the ball rolling but I promise that email with be a low cost, high ROI asset of you do it right!

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Getting a High ROI From Your Booth

My first ever booth. 2008 at a 5K race in Utah. Learned some tough lessons.

I've been through a handful of business ventures and through them all I've been to A LOT of trade shows where I've seen A LOT of booths. I've had some opportunities to manage or execute a booth or two of my own and today's blog post is my attempt to point out the obvious lessons that aren't so obvious.

Have A Clear Core Objective

A big mistake I see are booths that suffer from having too much going on. They have sale signs, fish bowls to enter to win something, swag, flyers, and more.

This confuses the target consumer and makes it difficult to stand out. Like almost everything else in business you tend to succeed when you pick one thing and do it really well.

Potential Objectives May Include:

  • Lead Capture. Gather contact information for potential customers
  • Real Conversations. Talk to target consumers and understand their needs
  • Brand Engagement. Get consumers to use or better understand your company / product / service
  • Sell product and generate cash revenue

In addition, having a core objective also helps you understand who your customer is and how to target them in the crowd. Most likely you do NOT want EVERY person at the event to stop by your booth. Just the people in the market for what you are selling.

So identifying your objective leads to identifying your target consumer at the event, which should guide my next few points.

Lead With Value

A booth at an event is no different than any other marketing medium. If you want someone to do business with you or buy your product you need to lead with value.

What experience, product, tool, insight, or conversation can you provide to your target event attendees that will be inherently valuable on its own and relevant to your product or service?

The SilencerCo Booth at SHOT Show 2016. As you walk in it tells a story in timeline form along the walls about the history of gun control and specifically suppressors in America. Very captivating and provides and valuable experience that is RELEVANT to their products.

ONLY AFTER you provide some immediate and inherent value do people tend to be willing to hear your sales pitch.

A common way businesses will try to do this is to hand out a product sample but unfortunately, this doesn't create a now experience. You need something that creates a NOW experience that causes the person to stop at the booth and engage with you.

Benchmade Knife Company has a busy booth each year because they will sharpen, service, and laser engrave your knife on site for FREE.

Your lead must be relevant to your service. In the last few years I've seen booths that setup comfortable chairs and charging stations so people will stop, sit, and charge their phones for a few minutes. This is effective at getting people to stop but they aren't stopping because they have any interest in you or your business and that is a problem.

Now you may be thinking you just have a 10×10 booth with a limited budget and you just can't afford to do something huge. It is ok to start small, but it isn't smart to think people will stop and talk to you at your booth just because you have a fabulous product.

They do not know they need or want you. In order to let them know you need conversation time. You earn that conversation time by providing something valuable.

Don't Have SUCKY SWAG

At the USCCA Expo 2018 we handed out FREE pistol cases valued at about $15 each. People went absolutely insane. You want to be the booth that someone walks up to and says “Hey I see people everywhere with %%THING%% how do I get one?”

If you are handing out candy, pens, koozies, frisbees, balloons, or some other cheap trinket that anyone can buy at a dollar store your SWAG sucks.

Attributes of Awesome SWAG:

  • Visible at the event. When people take it from you and walk around the event everyone else sees it and wants to know where they got it. If your swag fits in a pocket it becomes invisible
  • Relevant to your product/service. People associate you with whatever you give away. Make it relevant to your business
  • It doesn't have to have high retail value as long as it has high perceived value. Free bottled water on a hot day doesn't have high monetary value but it has high perceived value.
Design Pickle booth (don't know where or when). These guys always let you take a picture with their mascot… which is a pickle. They also give away cold crisp pickles. Real ones… that you eat… because apparently a lot of people enjoy a fresh crisp pickle.

I know what you are thinking… you can't afford it right?

On more than one occasion I've been able to partner with a 3rd party company to provide me with some products either at steep discount or free to be able to give away at a booth. A joint-venture on a swag item can be a big win for both parties.

You can also lessen the cost of a swag item by including along with it a coupon or offer that, with even a low percentage of conversion will help you generate some cash to offset the cost.

In the above picture, those pistol cases we handed out were stuffed with about 10 coupons from various companies that paid us to deliver their offer to event attendees. It was a pain to stuff those cases but it offset the cost of buying the swag.

When you still can't figure out a way to justify the expense, think of something you can print that would be valuable. A flyer or card with some sort of inherent value like a tutorial, recipe, tips, or something that you would normally sell.

Start Small!!!

Now, if you are about to have your first experience with a booth I strongly recommend you start with the standard 10×10 booth and do your best to follow the above ideas. No point in investing a lot of money in a big booth and then losing that money due to poor execution due to lack of experience.

A booth for my promotional apparel business JP Tees. Setup at a local 5K race trying to convince people to buy our shirts or hire us to print shirts in bulk. We sold one shirt and I'm still frankly shocked that we did even that well. This was not the right target audience and even if our target customer was in the crowd we didn't do anything well to attract their attention. But we gave away a lot of bottled water which was a good primer to understanding how to attract bigger crowds.

If your first time is anything like my first… 6 times, you will make some critical mistakes and learn some important lessons about your target consumers that will make it easier to do a bigger and better job the next time.

Learn From & Network With Others

Always take the time to walk around the event, even if you have a booth there, and observe the other booths. Look for the crowds and see what is attracting people.

See if you notice a pattern of products or swag items that everyone seems to be carrying or using or wearing.

Your market or industry is unique to you and there is no shame in copying the best ideas of others in your industry.

In addition some of the highest ROI from the event will be in the contacts you make if we work hard to introduce yourself to other vendors.

Maybe you will find some dealers for your product, someone with whom you could co-sponsor an upcoming event, join in an online product giveaway, a potential celebrity endorsement, or someone willing to trade promotional assets like direct mail or email.

When I go to the effort, especially at a very industry specific and targeted event, to go booth to booth and introduce myself to the other vendors there I always leave the event with the confidence that my greatest ROI will be in the contacts that I made.

What other things have you found that make for a great booth experience and ROI? Let me know in the comments below.

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How and Why To Buy Domains That Are Not Available

In 2016 I was attending the Traffic and Conversion Summit event where I heard a presentation from Perry Belcher about some of his best tips to acquiring good domain names.

Since then I've been on a personal journey to acquire quality domain names. I've found some tricks that work for me and some that I learned from Perry that have proven fruitful as well.

First, WHY Go To The Effort?

I imagine it goes without saying that your website's domain name is arguably more important than your company name and where possible they should be one and the same.

In today's climate your domain name will become your brand even if you don't want it to. Despite this I often talk to businesses and friends who tell me they can't name their business X because the domain name isn't available.

When you decide to launch a new business or project don't restrict yourself to domains that are available or you are effectively restricting yourself to crappy business names. All the good ones are probably taken unless you are launching a local business with no plans to expand and can include the city or state name in your domain.

For Sale By Individual Or Broker?

When I identify a domain that I would like to own that isn't available I follow these steps:

  • See if the domain is being used for an active website or if it is just parked.

If the domain is in use then I'm going to spend some time looking through the website to determine some important things.

First, how recently it has been updated and how much traffic it may be getting? Websites that get a lot of traffic or have been updated recently are going to be more expensive or difficult to convince the owner to part with.

Second, is the content on the website relevant to my business? Likely search engines have already crawled the website and if I completely redo the website to a topic that is different that is going to slow down my ability to rank well for target search terms on that website. This is worth considering.

If the domain is parked or otherwise not in use that is likely a good sign as the owner is more likely to be willing to part with it. Often the parked page will have information about the domain being for sale and how to contact the broker and make an offer.

Here is a domain I'm interested in. Going to the site loads this “parked page” that tells me it is for sale. The broker is Uniregistry which I really like but sadly they want $16,000 and to me it isn't worth more than about $1,500. Sometimes it just doesn't work out.

If there is information about contacting a broker to make an offer to buy the domain this is generally a sign that the domain is going to be on the more expensive end of the spectrum.

In my ideal scenario the domain isn't in use and doesn't have any information about it being available for sale.

Use WHOIS Tool to Find the Owner

All domains have a registered owner. There are a number of lookup tools online to help you discover who the owner is. My preferred tool is the GoDaddy WHOIS lookup tool and you can find it here.

Put your target domain in that search box and presto… you may get lucky. You are lucky if you see the name and address of a real human along with an email address and sometimes a phone number.

If that is the case you now have contact info and even if they had a broker listed to contact you can bypass the broker and contact the domain owner directly.

SADLY, you aren't always lucky as domain registrars do allow the domain owner to use privacy registration to replace their personal contact info with the information for the registrar. When this happens you don't have any way to directly contact the domain owner without working through a broker or buying service.

This is the WHOIS results for the domain jacobspaulsen.com. I have domain privacy on all my domains and so you get results that don't show my email, address, or information

If You Can Directly Contact The Owner

Here is a script I use a lot:

SUBJECT LINE: Would you consider selling it?

Some noteworthy things about my script:

  • I think it is very important to include your personal cell number and letting them know they can text you. This communicates you are a real normal single human and that you are serious about buying the domain and that this is very unlikely to be a scam
  • I don't include my full name as my name is fairly easy to Google search and find out who I am, what I do, and to make some assumptions about how much money I may have
  • I do not include an initial offer or bid. Right now my only goal is to solicit a response. Negotiation can take place after they respond
  • I don't say why I want the domain or what I intend to do with it. It isn't any of their business and again I don't want to turn them off before I even have a chance to begin the conversation

In addition to an email I will often try to find the person on Facebook and send them a message there as well. Script might look something like:

If You Have to Use A Domain Broker

Don't despair if you have to use a domain broker. I especially like the team and service at Uniregistry.com and have acquired several domains via a broker. But understand the broker is going to keep a fee and the seller must be fairly serious about monetizing their domain assets or they wouldn't have hired a broker to begin with. You should expect to pay a lot more.

Making Your First Offer

When I'm dealing directly with the seller I generally start really low. For example if I would be willing to pay $1000 I might make my first offer $250.

When dealing with a broker I'm going to leave less room for myself. If willing to pay $10,000 I might offer $5000 in my initial offer.

Should You Use Escrow

There are a number of different Escrow services you can use which effectively will take your payment and hold it in an account giving the seller confidence they can transfer the domain without fear they won't get paid. Once the domain is transfered to your satisfaction you notify the Escrow account to release the funds. Thus you are both protected in the transaction.

I prefer to use escrow.com for this service but understand that escrow services come with fees. I rarely use them and so far I've never been scammed or otherwise dissatisfied with a transaction. Use your best judgement.

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The Dumbest Mistakes When Returning A Product To An Online Vendor

My eCommerce business has now shipped over 100,000 orders since late 2015. We have a return rate of about 2.5% which means we've probably processed about 2500 returns and I personally received and processed every single one of them. For the most part, it is a simple and routine part of my workload but there are some patterns I see from our customers that DRIVE ME NUTS.

The returns from the last several days that I will be processing today

Below are some of those patterns distilled into some suggestions and advice that I wish my customers would read… but alas it would probably be a little rude to include the below in each package that goes out the door.

Um, You Just Returned The Thing You Said You Want

Yeah, this happens all the time. Someone ships something back to us claiming we shipped them the wrong one. Sometimes they want a refund and other times they would like an exchange. I open up the package, read the note, look at the product and say to myself “you just shipped me the thing you said you want.”

Before you ship back a product triple check that it isn't the right thing. Maybe the packaging looks a little different than what you saw online, maybe you are looking at the product wrong and falsely identifying it, or perhaps you just don't actually know how to use/recognize the thing you just bought.

Instead of jumping to conclusions contact customer service and ask clarifying questions. Include pictures of what they shipped you and ask if this is the correct product. Trust me its frustrating for the business and embarrassing¬†and frustrating for you to find out you screwed up. When I call you on the phone and say, “if you wanted an X I can just ship you back the thing you just returned,” you are going to feel foolish.

Uh, You Shipped Your Return To The Wrong Place or Didn't Include The Thing We Need to Refund You

The big key here is ASK for return instructions and then follow those instructions.

For example, a lot of modern online retailers drop ship products from various different locations or manufacturers. The origin address on the package that you receive may NOT be the correct address to send the return. This is a common issue for us. We include a card inside every package that tells the customer to NOT return the package to the address on the label and we still get about 12 returns a month to that address.

Even more frustrating is when people don't include any identifying information in the package. Something shows up and when I open it I just find the product. No order number, customer name or information, or anything else that would be helpful. Sometimes I can find an order that has the same return address but this is more problematic when people take things to a UPS store or small shipping service retailer that will put their own address on the return label instead of the home address of the customer.

At very least if you do nothing else just include a piece of paper with a name, address, email address, and phone number. Then if we can't find your order at least we can call you and ask you for more information.

You Just Super Overpaid To Ship This Back to Me

Ok, this is no skin off my back but it still hurts a little when I see that my customer just overpaid to ship back a product. If the customer is paying for return shipping then that will leave a bigger sting than it needs to and if they are using a prepaid label provided by the company and they use the wrong packaging then the business may have to pay for the difference in postage when it arrives.

The most common issue is the use of flat-rate packaging. USPS flat rate boxes are generally the best deal in postage when you are shipping something that is heavy. The Flat Rate box is the same postage no matter the weight so putting a lightweight, small product in a box and filling it up with newspaper is almost guaranteed to cost you more than you need to pay.

Take a cue from the vendor. However they shipped it to you, that is probably the cheapest way to ship it back to them.

Here Is An Idea; Call Us Before You Call Your Credit Card Company

This is the worst. I get a notification from the merchant company (the guys that help us accept credit cards) notifying us that a customer has just disputed the credit card charge. I contact the customer to ask why they disputed the charge and they respond with, “It wasn't what I wanted” or “I want to return it.”

Disputing credit card charges when you did, in fact, authorize the charge is dishonest and painful for everyone involved. You may have to get a new credit card which is an inconvenience to you. On our end, we are charged a fee for every dispute and we have to put together a packet of evidence to prove we, in fact, did get a payment from YOU and we did in fact ship you a product.

Now if you have gone the rounds with a retailer and they are treating you like crap and not willing to enforce the return/refund policy they claim to have in place then sure, go ahead and call your card company. But if you need customer service, like wanting to return the product for a refund, call/email or otherwise contact the company before you go to the effort of disputing the charge on your card.

With a lot of card companies once you dispute it I cannot refund you even if I want to. It puts the transaction in a category of untouchable and if I can show them that the charge came from you and I shipped the product to your billing address you may never see that money back. Just contact us and tell us what you need.

Well, Did You Read Our Return Policy During Checkout?

I feel like a jerk when we get contacted by someone asking us to do something completely outside of our policy and I have to say no. We generally will go outside of the policy to make customers happy but sometimes we get requests that we cannot honor for one reason or another and if the customer had just read the policy before checking out they would have known about those restrictions.

When you buy something online that costs more than you think about 5 minutes of your time is worth; READ THE RETURN POLICY. I know this is a pain and nobody does it but before you drop $100 don't you think it is worth reading a policy that you can read in under 5 minutes?

Next Time Don't Throw Away The Paperwork & Packaging

A lot of companies have a policy that you can't return something if it shows clear signs of wear and use. One of the best ways to demonstrate that you didn't use it at all or very much is to carefully put it back in the original packaging the best you can. Not only does this at very least suggest minimum use but the company may appreciate that they don't have to spend money on more packaging to be able to repackage and resell the product you've returned.

When something arrives in the mail you don't know what all you may need in order to return it. Keep the packing slip (which has your order number on it) and all the product packaging at least until you are 100% confident you won't be returning it.

Actually, We Would Love For You To Review Us

There is a tendency among customers who have a positive return experience to think they are doing the company a favor by not writing an online review. Afterall we don't want potential customers to see that you didn't like the product enough to keep it right? WRONG.

Customers sometimes do not purchase a product because they are concerned about the potential work involved in returning it if they don't like it. If you have a positive experience in the return and refund of your order then write a positive review. Tell people the product wasn't for you but you were very happy with how easy it was to contact the business and get the return done. This will help customers who have reservations about a potential return to feeling comfortable enough to buy.

Keep The Tracking Number

When you ship that return package KEEP the receipt that has the tracking number on it. You never know what might happen. The package might be lost by the Post Office or you might have accidentally forgotten to include the return paperwork.

That tracking number is the only other proof you have that you returned the product to the vendor. Don't throw it out until the refund posts to your credit card.

Oh, and while not deserving of a full section of this article please also:

  • Do not write your credit card number on the return paperwork
  • Return the correct product to the correct company
  • Type and print the return letter/request if your handwriting sucks
  • If you smoke or someone in your home smokes try spraying the product with Fabreeze before you package it up and hope we'll refund you
  • If you have pets try a lint roller on the product so as to remove all the hair before you send it back for a refund
  • Avoid using packaging that isn't recyclable. When I open returns I have two piles… one for packaging that I can put in our recycle bin and one for packaging that will go in the garbage. If it isn't fragile, don't use a bubble mailer.

Hopefully, you found that advice helpful… and next time we are hanging out together ask me for my best return stories. I got some doozies that you wouldn't believe.

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Taking the Personal Device Solar Challenge

The largest solar parks in the world are in China and India (The 7 largest)

I've been intrigued by solar power recently. I read a biography about Elon Musk and during that book, I heard a statistic that peeled my brain open.

In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year. (Source and more details: Business Insider)

Solar Is Something We Can All Get Behind

There are a lot of politically polarizing issues in our country but solar power is something almost everyone can get behind. Unless your personal wealth or income is directly attached to the success of fossil fuels you probably at least agree that solar energy is a great idea. Today all renewable energy (wind, hydro, solar, etc) accounts for 13 percent of US electricity generation. Of that small sliver, solar accounts for 3% of the 13%, which ultimately means it represents 0.39% of the total. Less than 1%.

Personally, I wasn't ready 30 days ago to move to residential solar. I'm warming up to it quickly but I'm intrigued by Solar for the following reasons:

  1. Economics. If I can save money then I'm game.
  2. Environment. If using solar helps out the planet then I'll feel more warm and fuzzy about doing my part.
  3. Survival and Independence. If solar can help me become better prepared for natural disasters and ultimately help me get off the grid then that sounds like a good idea.
  4. Global dependency. I believe that at least in part, our country's dependence on fossil fuels has played a part in war and death. If I can be a part of that solution I'll feel more warm and fuzzy about doing my part.

The Personal Device Solar Challenge

I decided to create a challenge for myself. I decided to only use solar power to charge and use all my personal electronics. This includes my cell phone, my smartwatch, my headphones, my flashlights, and tablets. I am aware that relatively, charging these devices as often as I do doesn't really have any significant impact on my electric bill or the environment but it is a fun place to start AND it means that I could potentially power all these devices independently if the grid went down. Now obviously if the grid really went down my tablets are worthless without wifi but somewhere in my brain, this sounded like a fun way to test solar in my life.

Success or Fail?

I'm now 12 days in a row without using any power outside of solar to run any personal electronics, keyboard/mouse, or flashlights. During that time I went on one camping trip completely away from electricity. I call that a success. If I can do it I think you can too. I think you need about $180 worth of gear (more on that later) but it can be done. Here are some of the key lessons I learned that you might find helpful if you attempt this challenge.

  • Roughly speaking the strategy here is to charge up portable battery chargers (suggested gear below) with the portable solar panels during the day when the sun is high and you are using your devices. Then at night recharge your devices using the portable chargers that were recharged during the day via solar.
  • As it relates to the upfront costs it is the same with any solar panel decision. It doesn't make sense up front. It would take a very long time to get my money's worth out of the solar panels and batteries etc. Eventually, there will be a financial ROI but you have to justify this investment by the benefits of helping the environment and being better prepared for emergencies and the outdoors.
  • Cloudy days are not cool. I live in one of the sunniest states in the country (Colorado). If you live in Seattle and are reading this I suspect you are going to find this more challenging. That said, sun shining through clouds still does produce energy… just a lot less energy than direct sunlight. I learned to check the forecast for each day and plan accordingly. During my 12 days, I had a period of 3 days in a row that was cloudy and rainy. Not fun but doable.
  • You have to prioritize the energy you capture. Especially for the first 5-6 days, I had to learn the hard way to prioritize. I recharged my camping lantern and then didn't have enough power to fully recharge my cell phone. Oops. Pick your battles and in time you will learn what you can expect and then you can start to charge the secondary stuff as the power is available.
  • The sun moves and leaving the solar panels in one place all day may or may not work well. In my case, I don't have a solid South facing window or yard spot that will work all day. I start the panels in the backyard or in an East facing window in the morning and then move them to the front yard or West facing windows at night. If the weather is really good I'll set them outside for direct sunlight. If the weather isn't stellar or if I'm concerned about them sitting in the front yard where anyone could steal them I'll put the panels in a window that is facing the sun. I work from home so it isn't a big deal for me to move the panels a few times during the day. It is worth mentioning that you get less efficiency from the panels when the sun has to go through glass to hit the panels but still better than nothing.
  • If I didn't work from home I would have to consider alternatives. If you park outdoors at your place of work then putting the panels in the front or rear window of your car (whichever faces more south) is going to be a fairly effective “leave it and forget it” solution. If you park underground or in a place that is shaded then I hope you have an office window that faces south or have a good south facing window at home where you can leave your panels.

The Gear I Am Using / Loving (All links lead to Amazon.com)

PANELS: I have two different solar panels. They both are similar in design, folding into a compact package. The first ones I purchased have an output of 15 watts and have 3 panels. On a long sunny day they generate enough power to recharge a handful of things but quickly I discovered they wouldn't allow me to really complete this challenge. I upgraded to the RAVPower 24W Solar Panel w/ Triple USB Ports. I couldn't be happier. With 24 Watts of output and 3 USB ports these things make a big difference and still fold up into a compact package.

CHARGER: I have a handful of portable power charges I've collected over the years. They vary in quality and capacity. You will definitely need more than one but I quickly learned that having something with MASSIVE capacity and the ability to charge faster and be able to charge multiple devices was CRITICAL. So a few days in I ordered the Anker PowerCore 26800 Charger. It made a huge difference. It is big (I would rather be hit in the head with a real brick than this thing) but it gets the job done big time. It recharges twice as fast because it has 2 input ports. It also has 3 USB output ports, each one pushing out 5V. Just buy it and thank me later. I made the recharging of this my top priority and used my other chargers with my second set of panels or when the Anker was already full.

BATTERY CHARGER: A lot of my small electronics and flashlights run on AA and AAA batteries. There are a ton of chargers out there for rechargeable AA and AAA batteries but very few that can run on USB which is critical if I'm going to make it work directly off the solar panels or off the charger that was charged via the solar panels. This was the most difficult thing to research and find but I'm very satisfied with the Deruicent FLAT TOP Battery Charger. The digital display tells me where I'm at with the batteries and it runs fully on USB. Seems very efficient and comes with two 18650 batteries.

BATTERIES: I tested a few but haven't found anything as awesome as the Tenergy High Drain AA and AAA rechargeable batteries. $26 will get you 12 of each. The AA batteries have a capacity of 2600mAh and the AAA have a capacity of 1000mAh. They charge decently fast on the charger mentioned above and hold the charge much longer than most of the others I tested. They do sell them in other battery sizes as well. Alternatively, you can find AA and AAA batteries these days that have micro USB ports right on the battery. That might be even better.

Some other fun things I've using and enjoying include:
EFORCAR Portable Vacuum – USB recharging portable vacuum with accessories. Works great for the tent, car, and office and given the lack of USB charging vacuums available for sell I'm satisfied with this one.
Solar 11-in-1 Battery Charger – Has its own solar panels. Not nearly as efficient to recharge batteries as combining the RAVPower panels above with the Derucient FLAT TOP charger above, but it is an all in one system for solar recharging of batteries.
Goal Zero Lighthouse 400 Lantern – Camping lantern that is charged via hand crank or USB. Also can charge other USB devices.

Potential ways I'll expand my gear:
Cooluli Mini Electric Cooler and Warmer – USB operated portable cooler or warmer
KUNCAN 5V USB A Male to 12V Car Cigarette Lighter (for powering things designed for cars via USB)
YHOUSE Electric Mosquito Insect Zapper – USB powered bug zapper
USB Plasma ARC Lighter

The Conclusion of the Personal Solar Challenge?

So, you might be thinking… WHY? Why would one embark on something that has essentially no measurable impact on the electric bill or the environment, costs money up front, and is relatively inconvenient? Well, because I wanted to know if I could do it, and because I had to start my personal renewable energy journey somewhere. Buying thousands of dollars of residential panels seemed like a big step I wasn't yet ready for.

Maybe you are like me. You just don't know if you are ready to embrace this whole Solar Power thing. Give the Personal Solar Challenge a shot and let me know in the comments how it went for you!

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Are You The Hero Or The Victim Of Your Story?

We all relate well to superhero stories. Who doesn't love a story of someone swooping in to save everyone from a great calamity and criminal? As it relates to our own life story, I have found there are generally three types of characters; Heroes, Victims, and Bad Guys. Which are you?

Sadly We Are All Three From Time to Time

Below I will clarify how I identify these characters but it is important to note that we have some of all three inside of us. Our objective in life is to try to play the role of hero as often as we can by suppressing the character traits of bad guys and victims.

Who Is The Hero?

Everyone loves the hero. The hero is always available and ready to sacrifice anything for the greater good. Heroes are selfless, strong, prepared, and willing to make sacrifices. Heroes are focused on serving others and dedicate their lives to the success of others.

The hero is the person who works long hours to feed their family. The mom who loses sleep to feed the baby. The school teacher who works nights writing detailed feedback for their students.

It doesn't matter what you do for a living, where you live, or your family situation. Anyone can be a hero in their current story… right now. All it takes is a shift in attitude.

Who Is The Victim?

Traditionally we don't think of victims of the latest Batman movie with a negative connotation and sometimes bad things happen to all people but in your story, your attitude not your circumstances determine if you are the victim or the hero of any given moment.

The victim is the person who is entitled, dependent on others, and focused on what is in it for them. Victims think they deserve something from the world and become frustrated when the heroes around them don't provide things for them.

The victim is the person who spends time complaining instead of working. Victims hesitate to do anything uncomfortable or inconvenient for others.

Who Is The Bad Guy?

The bad guy of the story is the person who is acting purely with the intent to harm others. Bad guys have gone beyond victimhood to a state of proactive destruction. Selfishness has turned into blatant disregard for others.

The bad guy knows their actions are harmful to others but is past the point of caring. Don't be the bad guy.

So How Do I Make Sure I'm Playing The Hero?

Since we all have some of all three characters inside of use we have to first be able to recognize the character we are playing at any given moment. We freely move between these different roles during the course of our daily story.

Next time something hard happens to you stop and ask which role you are going to play.

Parenting Example From My Life

My son's room is a disaster, his dirty dishes are still sitting on the counter and even though he has been asked to do his homework he has just walked out of his room dressed up in a costume and holding the appropriate props. I'm furious. Its the last straw.

If I decide to be the bad guy: I'll punish him without any thought. I won't talk to him, I won't give him a chance to explain, and I'll make sure the punishment REALLY hurts.

If I play the victim: I'll tell him my life is too hard to deal with this crap. I'll explain how I slave away all day long only to have to then deal with disobedient children. I'll pass out a punishment with the sense that this might help him understand how I feel about his actions.

If I play the hero: I'll see this as another teaching moment. I'll take a deep breath to summon my inner superman and I'll ask him to explain why he isn't doing what he was asked. I'll explain WHY it is so important for him to do what he was asked and I'll help him take the attitude of a hero as well.

Business Example From My Life

Someone has just published a video on YouTube saying my company and my product suck. They said our marketing practices are immoral and our company is nothing but a scam full of cheating and horrible humans.

If I decide to be the bad guy: I'll probably report the video to YouTube and then watch his last 5 videos so I can figure out what is really the worse thing about him that I can say. Then I'll publish my own video explaining why he is a moron and knows nothing about anything.

If I play the victim: I'll tell my employees that this horrible mean person is saying bad things about us that aren't true. I'll send him a message that explains how wrong he really is about everything he said and why he should appologize and take down the video.

If I play the hero: I'll watch that video 5 times and ask myself as honestly as possible if he is right in any of his accusations. I'll take immediate steps to improve my marketing process and change what we do to prevent anyone from ever having such a bad experience again. I'll send him a message that explains how grateful I am for the feedback no matter how hard it is to hear. I'll let him know what I've done to make business changes based on that feedback.

What Can You Change?

Take a moment to do some introspection. Think about the last horrible thing or hard thing that happened in your story. Were you the hero in that moment?

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Cheat Time – Get More Done and Enjoy Your Life

As you have heard repeated over the years, time is the most valuable resource any of us have. I've been told many times that I can't get more of it but that is a lie. I may suck at a lot of things but ask anyone who does any work with me and they will tell you I somehow magically get a lot done in a very little amount of time.

TRUTH: There are a lot of ways to get more time

Money can't buy happiness, but time does make happiness, and money can buy time.

With a few simple tips you can cheat time. I do.

Here Are 8 Ways to Make More Time & Happiness

Playback Control

We all consume media right? TV shows you watch, videos online, and for many of us audio-books. I consume all of these things faster than most people because I speed up playback.

For audio-books I use the Audible app where I can increase playback speed as much as needed. I can listen to most books at 2X speed without any trouble. That is half the time to read the book.

When I watch TV shows or online videos I try to do so in Google Chrome and I use this extension to speed up playback: Video Speed Controller

Trust me, the latest episode of Blacklist is just as good in 25 minutes as it is in 40 minutes. For you binge watchers just imagine getting through an entire season of your favorite show in 2/3 the time!

Outsource Everything

Outsourcing tasks costs money… but it makes time. If you can spend more time doing the things that you are best at then your bottom line revenue should increase exponentially. In order to make the time to do things that make you a lot of money; you need to spend a little money to pay others to do everything else.

RESOURCE: Guide to Outsourcing Stuff Worth Less than My Time

Batch Activities

There are things you probably end up doing every day that waste your time. The process of beginning and ending the task are the same regardless of how much volume there is. For example, consider listening to and returning voicemail. If you check 1 voicemail message per day it might take 5 minutes. Instead if once per week you check voicemail you will have 7 total messages but instead of taking 35 minutes it will take less than 30. (Think I'm crazy to only check voicemail once per week? Resource: Making Voicemail a Tool of Productivity [Script])

What else do you do frequently that could be batched into chunks less frequently? Checking email, processing returns (a big one for me), accounting, making phone calls, home DIY projects, errands, and much more.

Stop Reprocessing

What is reprocessing? Essentially wasting time looking at something multiple times before taking action on it. You probably have emails in your inbox right now that you have read 3+ times and still haven't dealt with. If you can create a process by which you don't give anything your time and attention until you are ready to tackle the task and complete it, delegate it, or delete it; then you will save a ton of reprocessing time.

Exploit Shortcuts and Move Faster

I spend a large amount of my day in front of a computer. A lot of that time is spent typing things. On average I bet I am just hitting keys on my keyboard about 90 minutes a day. I type 95 Words Per Minute (WPM) where the average adult types only 40 WPM. That means my 90 minutes of typing each day would take the average human adult 3+ hours. If you are in front of a computer as often as I you could probably save yourself about 5 hours a week if you invested 30 minutes a week into improving your typing speed.

In addition to just typing faster you can save a ton of time by becoming more expert in software you use. Knowing shortcuts and the best tricks to Outlook, Gmail, PowerPoint, or whatever your daily tools are can have a tremendous effect on your time.

Start Saying No

You have probably heard this before. People will ask you for a lot of things. Start saying no to those things that are less important than your family or whatever thing it is you are trying to make time for.

Bio-Hack & Buy Health

Each year you probably lose several days of productivity outright to being sick. In addition, there are probably many more days each year where you get substantially less done than you should because you don't feel as well as you should.

Time is lost when you aren't performing optimally. This is another instance where some better health related decisions can buy you time. Eating better, exercise and all the other things you already know about can dramatically increase your productivity and limit down time. In addition to the amount of time you “buy” right now, you are also literally adding years to your life which is another amazing consideration of making more time.

Resource: Eliminating the Common Cold From Life

Hack Travel Time

For work or for leisure travel is a part of your life. For some of us it is more frequent a part than for others. Travel is a perfect place to make more time in life in a few different ways.

  1. Don't travel in ways that will kill your energy and reduce your health. No point in getting there early if it is going to take me 12 hours to recover from the trip.
  2. Time in the car or time on the plane can be very productive with a little bit of planning. If you are going to be outside of WiFi then plan in advance tasks that can be worked on and completed without WiFi… or without a computer at all. I often batch my phone calls for days when I know I have some car time.
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I Don’t Have the Problem That You Are Trying To Solve

Products solve problems. If you are a business owner, salesman, or entrepreneur of any kind ask yourself what problem does your product solve?

Understanding the problem is the first step to all marketing. Your customer is in their current state. They have a problem. How does your product solve that problem and get the customer to their desired state? Here are additional thoughts on this marketing approach.

Now, as a consumer you also need to approach product purchasing this way. Using the “what problem” paradigm of shopping has some great benefits. When you see an advertisement for a new product ask yourself… what problem do I have that this will solve?

Here are the core advantages to this “Problem Solving” method of shopping:

  1. You actually get to the root of the issue. Sometimes you might be tempted to buy products that address a symptom of your problem but don't actually address the problem at all. A lot of money and time can be saved if you figure out the actual source of your problem and buy to address it.
  2. Often you will discover you don't have the problem. This happens to me all the time. Fellow business owners will tell me about the latest program or service they are using that has made life so much better. I take one look and say to myself… “This solves a problem that I don't have” and then I move on. Hey don't get me wrong the squatty potty ads are hilarious but I don't have an issue with my bowel movements so I'm good to just laugh at the videos on YouTube and move on in life.
  3. You can make more logical priced based decisions. What is it worth to you to solve that problem. When you really understand the problem you are trying to solve you may more easily understand what you would be willing to solve that problem.
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The Answer is Zapier – Solve All Online System Integrations

If you own an online business and you don't have an account with Zapier.com you should fire yourself immediately and hire a web guy who isn't clueless.

What is The Problem We Are Trying to Solve?

Stuff needs to talk to stuff. In order to make your business awesome you have to use a ton of different software solutions…

  • Email Marketing Software
  • CMS Software
  • eCommerce Software
  • Fulfillment Software
  • Google Drive
  • Giveaway Software
  • Social Media
  • Revenue Reporting
  • Affiliate Software
  • Marketplace Sales like eBay, Amazon, etc
  • Helpdesk Software
  • That One Thing That is The Best At Doing That One Thing
  • And On and On….

Companies do exist that claim to have the full suite! Do it all with them and you'll never have to worry about getting all the different systems to play nice together. The issue with those providers is that they suck. Honestly, if they really had the very best and most robust tools in all the categories in which you need tools then they would dominate and we would all flock to their service… BUT how can you be the best at 20 things when there are companies out there dedicated to being the best at just one of those things? You can't.

So, we all end up using a bunch of different services for different things. Sadly these things just don't get along. What if my eCommerce system doesn't have flawless native integration with the Email Marketing system I use? What if my Helpdesk software doesn't work perfectly with my social media profiles?

Zapier is the Answer

Zapier Is the Solution

Zapier is an online middle man. It connects to a large number of other online platforms and allows you to integrate (pass data) between two systems that otherwise don't have native integration.

So if I want to have a spreadsheet of every phone call that I receive at the office I can do that. We use CallRail.com for our phone calls and we use Google Sheets for spreadsheets. So I set up Zapier to connect to CallRail and for every new call that comes in I configure it to populate a specific Google Sheet. Done.

I want to make sure that orders that come into our fulfillment system for a specific product also generate an email to the company that dropships that product? No problem Zapier can manage that.

Use the best systems out there for what you need and then let Zapier do the connecting!

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