The five senses are emotional triggers, and therefore it is only natural for businesses to tap unto them to better connect with their target audience. For Geoffrey Stern, he chooses to tread the less chosen path and create memories through sound. He sits down with Ben Baker to share how his company, Voice Express, integrates sound technology in their products to send across messages in a much more meaningful and impactful way. He also underlines the importance of listening when the power of speaking is utilized. Furthermore, Geoffrey explains the secrets of creating engaging content in the digital world, particularly the use of QR codes.
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Geoffrey Stern: How To Create Memories Through Sound Technology
Thank you all for joining me once again for another great show. I have Geoffrey Stern from Voice Express Corp. I’m going to let him tell you his story because it is an amazing one. We had a great conversation. What we’re going to be talking about is how do you emotionally tie yourself to your clients using sound? This conversation could go a million different directions and we’re going to see which way it goes. Geoffrey, welcome to the show. How are you?
I’m fine, Ben. Thank you for having me. This is exciting. I love the concept that you framed this story with in terms of how do emotions are triggered and how are we affected by them. I’m excited to talk about it in terms of the history of my company and what we’ve done in terms of voice.
Why don’t we start there? Why don’t we let you tell a little bit of the history of Geoffrey and Voice Express? Give people a little bit of an understanding of where you came from, where you are, where you’re going, and then let’s get into the meat of things because voice triggers emotion. It’s an important conversation for any business but understanding what you do gives us context for the conversation.
Mine is a typical entrepreneurial story. I was involved in a bunch of different technologies. For whatever reason, I was approached by my brother who said, “What would happen if you sent a bouquet of flowers and you could include a cassette with that bouquet? You go to the store and record it. When the bouquet arrived, they sit, put it into a cassette recorder, and hear the message behind the gift.” I had a technical background and I said, “It won’t be a cassette. It’ll be a chip and you won’t have to walk into the store. You’ll be able to do it over the phone or on the internet.” The concept or the kernel was there and that got me launched. Like any other entrepreneur, you never know which direction you’re going but you’ve got to be in the market.
I started creating keepsakes that had the chip inside of them. I made one that could fit inside of a plush towel or a pillow. The more of our five senses that you can trigger, the more you’re able to communicate the emotion of the moment. Why voice? Why not have a tactile teddy bear that you could hug? Why couldn’t you have a t-shirt on that teddy bear that would have a picture on it? I had to find a company that made T-shirts for teddy bears and I found one in St. Louis, Missouri. The guy who made them says, “Can I show your voice recorder to another customer?” I said, “Sure.” He showed it to a woman named Maxine Clark who founded Build-A-Bear Workshop, and they had three stores at that point.
She loved it. She got on the phone with me and with trepidation in her voice she said, “Will you sell me just the recorder? Do I have to buy the teddy bear from you also?” I said, “Lady, if I ever see another teddy bear in my life, I’ll be a happy guy.” From an entrepreneurial point of view, sometimes you have to flush out an idea. Even if you’re creating the widget, you need to show people what it could look like and feel like. That was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. I’ve shipped 50 million little voice modules that go inside of teddy bears, and getting back to the subject matter, it enables children, parents, young and old to either record a voice, communicate an emotion, or take licensed music and a piece of inanimate flask into a friend, a buddy or a companion.
We constantly are getting stories of people who need to replace the battery because there’s a voice of someone who’s no longer with us, or the soldier in Iraq who recorded a message for their child. On one hand, it’s a technical piece of technology. On the other hand, it can carry the deepest and most profound emotions. That’s where we are. We are always either being approached by people with ideas or coming up with our own ideas that take that kernel and see where you can go with it.
I want to delve into that a little bit deeper because you glossed over it. The emotional tie of putting that voice chip inside a stuffed animal is truly brilliant. What you’re doing is it’s not just an inanimate object, it’s that inanimate object. There are stories of people whose parents have died, and when they were a child, their parents recorded a voice. The people have carried that stuffed animal with them for the rest of their life because it reminds them of their parents. The voice that is there got passed on from generation to generation to be able to have a keepsake of the deceased relative. That can’t be understated. It’s amazing the power that must have. My thought question to you is, how do we get to a point where we’ve sat there and said, “We’ve got the lightning in the bottle. This is something that is going to be able to help people communicate on a completely different level?” Besides that a-ha moment of that story, how do you translate that kernel of an idea to something that everybody wants and must-have?
One of the takeaways from my technology doesn’t relate to my technology. The takeaway is that we have emotional triggers. As you and I can hear a song that we first heard in our dorm room, if we hear it now, we can almost smell the beer on the floor. The five senses that we have are amazing triggers. Any brand, consumer and author need to take advantage of this, whether it’s a color palette or a sound of a door closing in a certain way. Whatever it is, you cannot ignore that. You have to emphasize it. You build on that to create connections and interactions with your intended audience, whether it’s a loved one or a brand user that could become a brand ambassador.
In our case, we take voice and sound. Think of a baby whether it’s their first cry or first word. It’s the most unmediated way of communication between what makes us human, which is language. If you take that and you say to yourselves, “How can I use it to break through all the clutter, barrier and convey not only by the content of my words but by the intonation, emphasis, and voice.” There’s a reason why we say, “Have you found your voice?” It doesn’t always relate to what comes out of your larynx. It’s the personality and spirit. That’s the biggest takeaway from my path, which is I do help brands and individuals communicate in an unmediated primal and direct fashion.The five senses are amazing triggers, and any brand needs to take advantage of that and build on them. Click To Tweet
Every brand needs to do that and every person needs to work at it. COVID, as here we are talking over Zoom, it has a taken that message to heart. Everybody thought that the telephone had been replaced by the emoji, but here we are picking up the phone and talking to people that we need to be in touch with. We talk on a regular basis. It’s not a quick call to transact. It’s a call to touch into and to hear a familiar voice. Companies that have been doing trade shows have to find a way of how they can connect with their consumer. Artists who used to have live concerts have to do the same. Everybody talks about what happens the day after. I hope that one of the silver linings is the day after we remind ourselves when we remember what things kept us going, what things were important to us when we lost so much.
I had a couple of conversations with different people. The conversations revolved around the fact of what we miss is that connection to each other, whether it be conventions, trade shows or going out for dinner. It’s that ability to be in a not asynchronous relationship, but they’ll be able to talk to each other back and forth. It’s not just the fact of communication, it’s understanding each other. It’s being able to understand each other on a deeper level. That’s the beautiful thing about Zoom, telephone and face-to-face conversation is that you get to have a meaningful understanding of what other people are thinking about. It’s not just intonation, cadence or words coming out of the mouth. It’s the feelings behind the ideas. The question is how does that translates to the business world when we want to be able to trigger emotions and to have people not only have reached but recall an engagement? How do we enable that through sound effectively to be able to get people to say, “I need to talk to that brand?”
I’ll be personal about this in terms of how it’s affected me. I always realized that when one of the magical things that Build-A-Bear does and has taught me is when the kid comes into the store. First, they pick the skin which is a plush without any plush inside of it. That’s the pick me or choose me station. The next station is the hear me station, where they take my product. They animate that plush with sound. They then go to the stuff me station, and then they accessorize as they say. Because of the sequence, it means that you start with the message, the voice and the animation. How does that translate into a transaction?
A portion of what is sold at Build-A-Bear is for gifting. Fourth-quarter sales and Valentine’s Day sales are big. When guests come in on Valentine’s Day, the percentage of them picking a voice is higher because people have something to say. The point is I started thinking about gifting and the way that we do gifting in the transactional world that we live in. All of it on the front end is about picking the gift and that can be stressful. Is it too expensive? If you only go out with a girl twice. Is she on a diet? Is the sweater of the right color and size? All of the things that make gift-giving is something that we push off because it becomes stressful.
At the very end, they say, “Is this for a gift?” If it is, you have a little box and you have 120 letters that you can use to express yourself. You hope that the message will be printed on a tastefully done card and not printed on the UPS label where the recipient will miss it. How strange is all of that when every culture believes it’s the thought behind the gift that counts? If it’s the thought behind the gift that counts, why is it always an afterthought? What happens to the transaction? If we follow the Build-A-Bear’s example, we put the animation with voice first. We haven’t changed anything. You might still be writing the same card. You might be speaking the card if you have the voice on the brain as I do.
Whatever you do, what happens to a gifting transaction if you start with the message? You are happy with that message because I will recall a certain situation that we share together and we already are smiling. What happens to the stress of picking out the right gift at that point? Those are the ideas that I’ve been playing with. I venture to say that if every brand and individual look at the way that they transact, what happens when you call a help desk? The first thing that the person says is not, “What product do you have? What is the issue?” It’s “Where are you? What’s the weather like today?” Maybe that call center employee is not judged by how little they keep the customer on the phone and how quickly they solve their problem, but how long they engage them. The ramifications of some of the issues that we’ve been discussing are infinite in terms of the way they can change the way that we transact and engage with each other and with brands.
What comes to mind is Maya Angelou, and I’m going to kill the actual quote but the last part of it is, “We always remember how we make people feel.” As brands, we need to get back to thinking about how we want people to feel when they engage with us. Your customer experience phone call is so apropos because when people call into a customer service line, they have a problem. They’re frustrated, something is not going well, there’s something wrong with the product, or they’re having some issue. If they had a friendly voice that treated them like a human being, and the first thing that they didn’t ask them was, “What’s your account number?” There were those 2 or 3 simple questions to find out who you are. You’re right, “Where are you right now? How are you doing today? Thanks for giving us a call.” Those little things trigger emotions. That is important for businesses to instill in their people that we’re all in emotional involvement. If we’re not, we are all commodities. The question is, how can we use voice effectively? What’s your medium in those to get people to stop being commodities and start being brands worth loving?
We’ve spent twenty minutes talking about voice and its ability to convey information, but there’s a flip side to voice and that is to listen. It’s one thing to speak and another thing to listen. There are two. We talked a lot about Build-A-Bear but another industry that we’ve been in is direct mail, especially for the pharmaceutical industry. I found it difficult to get in contact with doctors. Doctors are busier. They don’t have time to have what they used to call a mini detail and sit with a rep for ten minutes. When we first launched a card that plays audio. They said, “Can you make one that plays five minutes?” I said, “I can make it but who would want to listen to it?”
We launched a card that would go to a doctor. This goes back many years. If it’s let’s say a Pfizer beta-blocker, the doctor would be able to press different buttons and hear about different information that he was interested in, clinical studies, dosage, symptoms, and those things. It wasn’t only talking to them, but it was also giving them the choice. Other people came out with a similar product. We came out with a card that had a video screen inside. Now, you could not only hear but you could also see. What I started thinking about is, “What would happen if you sent a brochure that had a smart speaker built into it, and could not only speak but you could listen?”
There’s nothing more annoying than having a package sales pitch or seeing a PowerPoint where slides 5 through 7 don’t even relate to you, or being pitched on a product that you aren’t even interested in. We looked at those buttons that we used to put on the audio card and say, “What happens if you could be prompted to say what you were interested in?” We’re launching a product called a Voice Express ConnectTM that has a smart speaker built into it. It doesn’t have to pair with Bluetooth that goes onto Wi-Fi. It has a limited amount of information but just enough to whet their interest to want to know more. Getting to your question, the point is you have to figure out ways and it could be through technology such as a smart speaker. It could also be through the correct demographic information knowing what information is given to the individual.If it's the thought behind the gift that counts, why is it always an afterthought? Click To Tweet
We’re told that personalization is not only important, it’s critical now. When you come to a website and you’ve been there before, the annoying part is it knows that I was here. The pleasant part is it knows that I was here. It’s not going to ask me the same questions and it’s going to show me stuff that it knows I’m interested in. It has to be done tastefully in terms of this listening and translating that information to the appropriate part. You need to empower your user so that they feel they’re in-charge, whether it’s by way of permissions or in our case, just asking them what they want to know. The flip side of being able to speak to our loved ones and our brand advocates is also to be able to listen to them, and translate the information that we gained by listening to them into information that’s important to them. Don’t insult them by providing them with stuff that they’re not interested in.
Listening is powerful but it’s choice and empowerment. It’s enabling our clients and acknowledging that our clients are individuals. Every single person that engages with you does so base on their own history, thoughts, values and ideas. No two people are going to think about things exactly the same. We can generalize, however, there has to be customization and realization that there’s going to be anomalies. Anomalies are not one-offs. It is understood that there are going to be anomalies in every situation. We as companies need to sit there and go, “How do we listen to understand what our clients need? What’s important to them and giving them choice?” I love the fact that what you’re doing is enabling your clients and giving the clients a choice of how they create the engagement because communication is a two-way street.
We should be listening 70% and speaking about 30% if we want to be effective as a company. It’s not important what we think our customers want. It’s important for us to understand what they really want. How do we take that information and thought process, and translate it into a way to help companies build that relationship in a digital age? We’re not going back to the fact where we’re going to be able to walk into every single person’s office that we want to, and have those one-on-one conversations anytime soon. How do we enable companies to realize that in a digital world, we can listen, engage and serve our clients more effectively?
We’re doing it. We’re all organically either sinking or swimming in that world that you describe. At least most of the people that I deal with your first question these days is, “How are you doing? How is your business doing?” Those that are being successful or being able to employ all of those digital tools that you described, that enables them to connect more directly. They have to mean it. It’s now a must-have rather than a should-have. You’ve got to do it well. In the past, you had other things or your laurels that you could rely on. When your only means of connection is through a Zoom call, direct mail or whatever it might be, you’ve got to make sure that you hit all the bases and you do it right.
Those best practices that we are polishing up will be used for all of our betterment in the post-COVID era as well, and change the way that many of us transact. This whole order online, pick up in store, curbside, even QR codes, all of these things had been around for a long time. I knew that there were people that hadn’t even heard about them, and now we sit down in a restaurant and we don’t want to touch that menu. There are a whole bunch of things that are thoughtful too. The amount of things that brands do, and we’re talking about the brands that get it. What comes across is forgetting about the emotional content or message, but the thoughtfulness of it. It is something that also has to be emphasized and understood by everybody. It’s those little gestures that we all have maybe because half of our face is covered. In any case, thoughtfulness is something that we all have a lot to benefit from.
I started off in direct mail many years ago. Most companies, when QR codes came to North America, they did them wrong. They put them on the side of a bus, so you’re chasing the bus down the side of the road trying to catch up to the bus so you can click the QR code. They’re up on a sign 30 feet up in the air and your phone can’t reach high enough to be able to get it, or somebody sends a QR code and it goes to a generic page. Let’s talk about how are people using technology wrong. How are they using it incorrectly where they think, “We’ll implement the solution and everything will be great?” Let’s talk about the people who are not getting how to use technology. They’re using it in a way that are making people aggravated?
You’re right that when QR codes were launched, they were an annoyance. They were a brand baking somebody to further inconvenience themselves, take out their Smartphone, click on the QR code, find out that they had to download an app to do that, and so forth. Whereas my menu example was one where within the transaction, somebody sits down and think of a waiter handing you a menu that was used five seconds before by somebody else. It’s part of a process. Let’s talk about in-store and retail. Retail is always going to have its place, even though online sales have taken off during COVID. People always want to see a product. They want to touch a product.
There’s buying and then there’s shopping. Shopping is a human experience. It’s something that we do to enjoy ourselves. We’re thinking about our voice interaction technology at Point Of Sale. They talk about end caps and shelf-talkers. Shelf-talk doesn’t talk until a guy who’s as crazy as I come along and say, “Why should it talk and why should it listen? Why do you have to touch an annoying screen to get the information that you want?” You should be able to interact in a touchless way, but how do you take that from a conversation to a path to purchase. That’s where a QR code comes in.
In some of the studies that we’ve done both formally and anecdotally, to have a QR code at a Point Of Sale, expect somebody to walk up to it, and scan it is getting back into that, “Why should I?” Whereas, if you introduce the QR code as part of a conversation, they call it Conversational Commerce. I come up to the shelf with hair care products or shaving products if you’re a guy, and I’m overwhelmed with choices. I don’t know where to begin and I’m able to interact with a display, whether it’s a voice or maybe I’m just reading it. I get to the point where I want more information. Maybe there’s a QR code at the end of a paragraph that interests me because I have an abrasion, dandruff, split ends or whatever it is.
You’re offering people a transparent way of taking the information that they’re getting in a physical world and moving it onto their phone. They might even place a phone call and talk to somebody in the same store to see if there’s something available. That person knows where they’re located because of the particular QR code that they scan. The short answer is if you put a QR code as part of some conversation, it becomes a tool to enlarge that conversation or to move to the next step, it’s appropriate and welcome. Whereas if you flash a QR code, whether on a moving bus or at the bottom of a print ad, “What do I need it for? Why should I?”It's one thing to speak, and it's another thing to listen. Click To Tweet
We need to think about not that something is a good idea, but how is somebody going to use it, and how is it going to benefit people? Technology needs to be something that benefits people, helps people understand, and enables them to solve problems. It can’t be another trick out there to gain attention. It can’t be that clickbait ad on the internet that you see all the time where it says, “Click here for three ways to get such and such silky hair” or whatever. If you pay them $29.95, once you go to the end of their article, they’ll send you three obvious things that you knew anyway. If we look at the world and we sit there and say, “Let’s use technology. Let’s figure out how people use technology.” That requires asking people. My question is, when you’re developing a technology piece for a client, how do you start the process to make sure that whatever you’re going to design is going to be something that’s going to be useful and valued?
I was talking with a team about once you get a client who’s interested in creating one of these audio cards with the smart speaker installed, what’s the dialogue? If you’re creating print ads or television ads, everybody pretty much knows you need a television producer. I can enlarge the question, not only to my card but to a smart speaker skill. The technology is there now, what do you put on it? The direction that we started going into is this all FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions. That’s something that is there because, at the end of the day, brands know what customers are troubled by. If they don’t, they should and they should keep track of them.
That Frequently Asked Questions should not be written in stone but it should be dynamic. The Frequently Asked Question point is, “What questions are being asked and what answers do we need to be giving?” It’s the same as if you and I are discussing what we’re going to talk about on the show. We’re going to start thinking about questions that are meaningful to us. If a brand starts from that point of view, I say to the client, “What are the three pieces of information that you want to convey to your customers? What are the three things that your customers want to know from you?” If we can address both of those, maybe with the emphasis on the customer, then we can create whatever the communication piece that we’re working on and whatever media is going to deliver that content.
If you start from the point of view of, “What are your customers interested in? What is the first thing that someone asks?” That’s the thing that bothers you and me, when you get a new product and the most obvious question is not answered. It drives you crazy because you know you’re not the first person who’s going through this experience. What got lost in between the cracks? It’s saying, “What is on someone’s mind? What’s the first thing that they do when they open up that package, get that software, and unpack that printer?” If you can address those questions, then you’ve hit upon many of the topics that we’ve discussed, starting from conveying data, going all the way to a gesture. You’re showing that what the customer needs and requires means something to you. That’s the most important message that we as individuals and a brand can give.
I’m going to ask you one question that I ask everybody else. When you leave a meeting, you get your car, and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you and your company when you’re not in the room?
It’s something that at least my generation and your generation has told to our kids. Find something that you’re passionate about. Sometimes when my kids are looking for a job, I say, “Maybe you can lay off the passion a little bit and find something that pays the bills.” What I do know is when I get involved in something, I get very passionate about it. Maybe a little bit over the top but I referenced that a crazy guy like me is thinking, “How can we put a voice into that?” What I’d like to think is when I leave the room and driving away, people are saying, “What was that about?” I left behind at least a little bit of an insight into coming off my passion and my focus on voice and what voice can do. I left some passion behind in the room. Hopefully, that passion changed the way people look and think about those mundane, trivial things that they do on a regular basis every day.
Geoffrey, your passion is infectious. Thank you for being such an amazing guest. I loved our conversation and thanks for sharing it with my readers.
Ben, thank you for the platform. I look forward to following you with your other guests as well because you’re doing a great service. What’s your story and what can be better than that?
That’s what the goal is. Thanks a lot.
All the best.
About Geoffrey Stern
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