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Adam Smartschan of Altitude Marketing: “Experience is to know that it’s not about you”

One of the most important things in creating a Wow! Customer Experience is to know that it’s not about you. It’s about your customer. The fact is, no matter how nice, cool or sweet you are, they don’t care about you — because you’re competing with behemoths like Amazon. An example would be to simply think about […]

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One of the most important things in creating a Wow! Customer Experience is to know that it’s not about you. It’s about your customer. The fact is, no matter how nice, cool or sweet you are, they don’t care about you — because you’re competing with behemoths like Amazon. An example would be to simply think about what you do every day and how easy it is to interact with these big companies.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Smartschan, Altitude Marketing’s Chief Strategy Officer.

Adam leads the B2B agency’s strategic marketing and branding efforts. An award-winning writer and editor by trade in a former life, he now specializes in data analytics, search engine optimization, digital advertising strategy, conversion rate optimization and technical integrations. He holds numerous industry certifications and is a frequent speaker on topics around B2B marketing strategy and SEO. Adam graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2007 and grew up just miles down the road from Altitude’s headquarters at 225 Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was a reporter and editor for many years for a number of newspapers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The last gig there was a job with the metro chain, which at the time was circulating about a million copies a day in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. From there, I took my writing talents to Altitude Marketing, where I started 8 years ago as a content producer. My sports writing background really attuned me to analytics, deadlines and, most importantly, being able to build and create things out of whole cloth. When you’re laying out a newspaper, you’re starting with a blank screen, so you have to train yourself to be able to take something that doesn’t exist and make it exist and do it fast. And that is important in the agency world. That experience and the analytics piece led me to a number of jobs in the content department, from which I moved up to Vice President of Innovation and Strategy and then to my current position as Chief Strategy Officer.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I don’t know if I would necessarily call it funny, but I can say the hardest thing about going from a newspaper and magazine background is that world is necessarily cynical, and marketing requires a suspension of cynicism. So, I can tell you I spent many years saying, “Oh that’s just PR,” or “That’s just advertising,” or “That’s not actually real.” But the fact is, you have to flip that and you have to be willing to (but not in any way shape or form lie) put the best spin on whatever it is. As an agency, our clients are the boss, so we need to help them make the most of what they’re doing. We’re blessed in that our clients tend to have really good services and products to market. They tend to actually solve problems, and they tend to be very good people who are in this for the right reasons. Being willing to help and doing what you have to do is absolutely critical.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Gwen Shields, now a business partner and very much a strong leader here, helped me progress in a lot of ways. There is a lot more to helping run and lead a company than just the hard skills like cranking out copy, editing fast and being a thought leader. There’s a ton to it. She runs ops and, in many ways, the “people” part of the business, and she has really helped me progress. When I was a kid, I raced bikes at the Velodrome right outside of Allentown, PA, and Gwen, as well as Andrew Staten, the CEO of Altitude Marketing, both worked there at the time. Gwen was the person who would give me my 15 dollars checks on Saturdays mornings when I came in third place.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

We live in the age of the customer. COVID-19 has only accelerated trends that have existed for the better part of the decade. Think about your day-to -day life. Think about the last time you ordered dog treats or watched something on television. It’s all about the you, the customer. You get annoyed, as a customer, if things aren’t made incredibly easy, incredibly fast and incredibly intuitive for you. Things you would have accepted as normal even a few years ago are completely unacceptable now. Heck, I get vaguely annoyed if I have to take my credit card out of my wallet at the store — I should just be able to tap my phone! That level of ease and that type of experience are what we expect nowadays, and we don’t turn that off when we interact with a brand.

If I interact as a customer with someone in the B2B or B2C capacity and they are asking me to do something that is clearly about them and not about me, it’s just weird. Self-serve is the way of the world now — and the currency of all of this is ease. The easier it is for me to interact, the more likely I am to interact. Fortunately, systems and structures are set up to make that possible for brands, but if they don’t think about the customer first, second and third, they’re going to get left behind — because other brands are thinking and doing it.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

The disconnect happens when a company thinks about itself first and not the customer. It’s not easy to get past, especially in a B2B context and especially as a founder or an inventor or an engineer. When you price a product, a SaaS product for example, you think about all the hours that you and your team put into building it. You think about the compute cycles on the backend and all the things that are important to you as a vendor. When you account for that in your pricing, you end up with something much higher than what the guy down the street is offering. You’re thinking about yourself when you’re doing that. You think about yourself when you design your invoicing system. To change that way of thinking is difficult. It’s hard to flip that perspective of it being about you, the vendor, on its head. The fact of the matter is, pricing and experience and everything else needs to be all about the people on the other side of the screen or the other side of the counter, because their own experience is that everything is about them — the customer.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Well, they better. I’m very fond of saying that the second you’re online and you’re doing eCommerce, you’re directly competing with Amazon. For a company, it’s easy to say “We’re different because we care” or “We have better support”, but you’re competing with the thing that will send me dog biscuits if I yell at Alexa. There’s no Main Street anymore — we’re on a superhighway. If you don’t offer an experience that’s just as good as an Amazon or a Walmart, you’re going to get left behind. If it’s between the Main Street shop that I have to get into my car and drive to get to (and wear a mask to enter) or between yelling at Alexa, I’m probably not going to drive there — I’m probably going to yell at Alexa. Most of your customers will be the exact same way since the ease of the experience and the pricing is very important to them. So, whether you deal with brick and mortar stores or eCommerce, you must be mindful of the fact that your competition isn’t what it used to be. On the plus side, tools and technologies have made it relatively simple to deliver a great experience. Setting up eCommerce is relatively easy, and while it won’t be perfect, you can still have it — even by tomorrow, if you really want. You can allow customers to use Google Pay, Apple Pay and simply tap their phone instead of pulling out their credit card. I work with a nonprofit called the Shelter House Society and we deployed a GoFundMe Charity in a matter of a few days. Folks can create monthly subscriptions, easily deal with credit cards, pick the campaign they want to go to, etc. — just like they would from a big 501(c)(3). The technology is there, the tools are there and the motivation better be there, because the self-serve and the ease of things has only accelerated since March.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I can refer to the work we do as Zapier partners. We’re part of their agency program, so they connect us with folks who need automation in their business. One of the most incredible experiences we had is when we worked with a gourmet Italian grocery chain, the Ivarone Brothers, back in March. Most of their revenue was catering, and that went away as soon as COVID-19 hit. They obviously had to go online — it was the only way they could sell. The issue was that their business focuses on fresh ingredients and things are prepared daily, so the menu varies. Their niche is that they’re all about the browsing experience. The downside for ecommerce when your menu is constantly changing is that you can’t manage inventory properly. What they needed was a custom system, which replicated as closely as possible the experience you get in the brick and mortar store. We were able to set it up so that customers could simply input their personal shopping list on the website and be good to go — and shoppers loved it. Since they saw so much success with this, they continued accepting orders online even though their shops are open now. They were very happy with their setup, and none of it would have been possible without Zapier. We at Altitude are humbly grateful to have helped them save their business amidst this pandemic.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

It sure did — Ivarone Brothers are now selling online long term. Their customers love it, and they were able to weather a storm that could have been existential. They would have had no revenue for weeks, months even — and you can imagine what that would do to a retail store. On our side, it helped us hone our Zapier consulting arc and it showed us what automation and these digital tools can truly do. It doesn’t have to be a massive tens-of-thousands-of-dollars type of project — we can deliver real results, with fundamental change for businesses, at price points that even a chain of boutique groceries can afford. This experience really opened our eyes to a new way of selling. We are used to working with large — and in some cases very large — companies on long-term projects, but this and some of the earlier Zapier projects showed us we can help other businesses, too.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

One of the most important things in creating a Wow! Customer Experience is to know that it’s not about you. It’s about your customer. The fact is, no matter how nice, cool or sweet you are, they don’t care about you — because you’re competing with behemoths like Amazon. An example would be to simply think about what you do every day and how easy it is to interact with these big companies. The second thing to consider is that it doesn’t need to be incredibly expensive or hard to create a Wow! Customer Experience. There are tools and tech targeted at large enterprises and small businesses alike that allow you to automate things and deliver the type of experience that you want. The third thing to keep in mind is that it is not enough to simply be on par with big guys such as Amazon and Walmart because if the playing field is even, people will default to their learned behavior, such as opening Amazon. You have to differentiate yourself by creating a personal touch and unique customer experience with a level of ease like the Ivarone Brothers did. The fourth thing to remember is to embrace change. We have all learned that in the past six months that things are going to be different. Some systems put in place in 2020 will be obsolete by 2021–2022. The experience you deliver today isn’t going to be the same or as good next year because other things are going to come up. Take the tech and tools available to you and make something special of it. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are, of course, agencies that can help, but there are folks in your personal network or Chamber of Commerce that are willing to help. Especially as a small to midsize business, you have a vested interested in the person next door succeeding, and vice versa. If it seems impossible, call someone. Ask someone. There are firms more than willing to produce user experience systems to help you succeed.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Absolutely. Make yourself available online. Certainly, you want Google My Business up and running, and you’ll want to create a relevant social media footprint. I don’t mean hire three people and post constantly — but you should set up post notifications, respond to people who have mentioned you, thank folks who have left positive and kind reviews. Also, reach out to those who may have had a subpar experience to help them work through their problem. Folks do just about everything online these days, so make sure you’re there for them when they want to call you out.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One of the groups I’m involved with is a historical preservation organization located in Emmaus, PA. I would love to see more people involved with these groups, such as the American Battlefield Trust, which does amazing work throughout the country. It’s more obvious these days that things come around and tend to happen twice or more. We are in a similar situation that we were in 100 years ago, so there are a lot of lessons to be learned. We need to keep things alive and keep things around. The pace of change is accelerating, so we need to make sure we keep things anchored.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Connect with me on LinkedIn — I am the only person in the world with my name (I think) so I should be pretty easy to find there. You can find my smallish personal Twitter account at @altitudeadam, but better yet, follow the talented folks over on our corporate Twitter: @teamaltitude. Lastly, you can check out our blog, where we constantly offer advice, help, tips and tricks to those who need or want it.

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