1861 – Reducing Friction for Success with Mark Stern

In this episode of the Thoughtful Entrepreneur, your host Josh Elledge speaks with the Chief Executive Officer of Custom Box Agency, Mark Stern.

Mark Stern and his team at Custom Box Agency have mastered the art of enhancing the customer journey. They believe you can unlock a world of possibilities by genuinely understanding the path you ask your customers to take. From accelerating results to introducing new monetization strategies, the focus is optimizing every step of the experience.

Mark shared an intriguing strategy involving a concept called “collection.” By creating a series of boxes that customers receive over time, you can encourage continued engagement and create a sense of anticipation. This approach is inspired by the success of initiatives like the Spartan Race, where participants are motivated to complete a series of challenges to collect all parts of a medal

Mark mentioned his work with Joey Coleman, author of “Never Lose a Customer Again,” highlighting the importance of clarity in the customer journey. By dissecting a client's offerings, Custom Box Agency ensures a clear and compelling pathway for customers, which has led to significant impacts for their clients, particularly in the print-on-demand space.

Key Points from the Episode:

  • Importance of understanding the customer journey
  • Custom Box Agency's approach to optimizing the customer journey
  • The role of physical experiences in a digital age
  • Three core objectives for businesses: acquisition, delivery, and retention
  • Components of a custom box experience: welcome note, getting started guide, dedicated journey map, and additional tools for success
  • Eliminating friction points in the customer journey
  • Using custom boxes as activation and retention tools

About Mark Stern:

Mark Stern is the entrepreneurial mind behind the Custom Box Agency, a pioneering experience design firm dedicated to transforming the customer journey through innovative direct mail solutions. Celebrated in Forbes as a transformative figure in the Next 1,000 Entrepreneurs, Stern's work is symbolic of a new American Dream. 

Mark's insights into employee retention were highlighted in Joey Coleman's Wall Street Journal Bestseller, Never Lose an Employee Again. Before his entrepreneurial journey, Stern excelled as a strategy consultant at Deloitte Consulting, the globe's premier consulting entity. An alumnus of Duke University, he holds an MBA. 

Beyond his professional achievements, Stern is a fitness enthusiast, a five-time Spartan Trifecta achiever, and a mentor at South-by-Southwest Start-up events. His passions extend to being a lifelong fan of tacos and BBQ. Stern makes his home in Austin, Texas, where he continues to innovate and inspire.

About Custom Box Agency:

Custom Box Agency stands out in marketing and customer engagement by masterfully integrating three key elements: Acquisition, Engagement, and Monetization. Unlike typical swag shops that focus solely on customer acquisition or jump directly to monetization, Custom Box Agency emphasizes the critical role of engagement in driving customer success. Their distinctive approach involves a thorough discovery and planning process, ensuring that each custom box not only delights recipients but also aligns with and advances the client's strategic objectives.

Clients of Custom Box Agency have reported remarkable outcomes, including sales increases of over 200%, by leveraging the strategically designed tools included in each box. This success is attributed to the agency's ability to create an engaging and meaningful customer experience, providing valuable content and solutions that foster growth. By addressing and resolving potential customer issues preemptively, Custom Box Agency strengthens the client-customer relationship, transforming it in a way that poses the exciting possibility of limitless growth.

Tweetable Moments:

02:52 – “The biggest thing that we try to solve for our clients is, do you really understand what it is you're asking your customers to do?”

03:27 – “Swag means stuff without a goal. Our goal here is to give your customers everything they need to be set up for success out of the gate.”

Links Mentioned in this Episode:

Want to learn more? Check out Custom Box Agency website at

Check out Custom Box Agency on LinkedIn at

Check out Mark Stern on LinkedIn at

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Josh (00:00:05) - Hey, thoughtful listener, before we get going. Did you know that my company up my influence? Com has launched more than 200 business podcasts. The host of our shows are amazing leaders and collaborators. Folks I want to connect you with. Maybe you deserve your moment in the spotlight as a guest of one of these amazing shows. Just go to up my influence. Com where you can see more than 50 shows that are actively seeking business leader guests like you to celebrate right now in front of their high caliber audiences. Just click on the podcast tab and up my influence. Com where you'll see shows like Profit, Powerhouse with Glenn Close, sales negotiations and business insights. This isn't just another business podcast, it's a deep dive into the strategies that truly drive success. Hosted by Glenn Poulos, a seasoned sales strategist and business growth expert, each episode is packed with insights from top executives and business leaders. If you're a high level executive looking to share your expertise and story, we want you on profit powerhouse. Your experiences could be the exact insights Glenn's audience of ambitious business leaders are craving.

Josh (00:01:27) - And for our listeners, if you're ready to elevate your business acumen and learn from the best in the industry, Profit Powerhouse with Glenn Poulos is your go to resource. Subscribe now and join a community of professionals who are transforming the business world, ready to be a part of something groundbreaking? Visit up my influence and click on the podcast tab to find profit powerhouse. Whether you're looking to be the next guest or just seeking invaluable business wisdom, this is where your journey begins. Again, just go to up my influence. Com and click on the podcast tab. With us right now. Mark Stern Mark, you are the CEO of Custom Box Agency. Your website is custom box Mark, thank you so much for joining us.

Mark (00:02:21) - Thrilled to be here. Josh, it's good seeing you.

Josh (00:02:23) - Yes. And you know it's so funny. It's just amazing that you and I got connected because one of your clients is a personal friend of mine. I have him scheduled for the podcast in a few weeks, but he sent me a message.

Josh (00:02:37) - You said, I'm going to send you something really cool. It's. And I need your mailing address. I'm like, all right, what is it? And so sure enough, Mark, he sent me one of your custom boxes that was done up for him. So let's talk about what a custom box is.

Mark (00:02:52) - Yeah, yeah. So the biggest thing that we try to solve for, for our clients is do you really understand what it is you're asking your customers to do? And for us, it's all about the customer journey. So when we work with clients, how do we optimize your customer journey? Because the second that you do that, there's just so much magic that can happen. You can really help your clients get unstuck because you know exactly where they're in the process. You can help them get results faster. You can introduce new means to monetize your business. You can gamify it, but it all lives on. Do we truly understand the journey we're putting our customers through? And with the box? It's not a swag box.

Mark (00:03:27) - We joke and say swag means stuff without a goal. Our goal here is to give your customers everything they need to be set up for success out of the gate. So and part of is the dichotomy that we're such in the digital age. Yeah., digital. And when we talk about experience, if experience is seen through the senses, everything digital is only what you see and what you hear when you're scrolling through social media, listening to a podcast, watching a YouTube video, you're just simulating sight and sound. The power of sending something physical is we can give them all the tools they need to blend both digital, what they're going through on the screen, and physical what's right in front of them.

Speaker 3 (00:04:04) - .

Josh (00:04:05) - All right, my brain is going already right now, to our friend that's listening to our conversation, you probably want to go to custom box because, Mark, we're talking about something that it's kind of experiential. It's certainly visual., so we're doing our best to describe this from an audio perspective.

Josh (00:04:23) - But could you just be very explicit in the best way you can describe what a box is, what's in it and what does it look like and where this fits in the customer journey.

Mark (00:04:34) - Yeah. So let's start with where it fits into the customer journey. We say there's three core objectives. And this is true for any business. Is your goal acquisition meaning I'm trying to get new clients customers and acquisition leads you all the way up to the point of sale after they've made the sale. The second one is delivery. So how do I deliver a better onboarding experience and set them up for success? If they're navigating my products or services? It doesn't matter if your software as a service, of course creator, a professional service provider, ecom products, there's always a journey there. Or is it retention? So when we're looking at the three core strategies, what is your overall objective? Is that acquisition delivery or retention? Once we look at that lens and we try and keep it really simple with those three objectives for business, then it becomes what needs to go into a box experience.

Mark (00:05:18) - At the very least, what we like to see. There's a couple of essential pieces. One is a welcome note, pretty basic, but it reinforces the what and the why. We like to have a getting started guide, so think about having a piece that frames your business. It's a really powerful sales collateral, but it also reinforces the journey that they're about to go on. So it's reminding them, hey, here are all the tools and resources you have access to, and here's how to get started with the product or service you just acquired. And then what we like to have is what we call a dedicated journey map as a piece. So think of a one pager that literally takes people from where they are getting started with your products and services to the desired outcome. The thing you sold, how do we have a visual of that? And once you have those table stakes, then everything else in the boxes, well, what else do they need to be set up for success as they're going through that journey with your business? So it's a hybrid between sales collateral that reinforce forces, the buyer decision, as well as setting them up for success by giving them the journey that they need to follow and the tools that they need inside.

Mark (00:06:17) - So if you need a workbook, put the workbook inside the box. The reason I say that is if you're assuming that your customer is going to print out a workbook, then you just put up an obstacle because you're assuming they have a printer. It has ink,, they have paper. It's hooked up to their computer, they printed it out and they're organized. If one thing goes wrong, you stop them in their tracks in a way that they say, Someday I'll get to it. So this is kind of where it's if there's any chance that this is going to be an obstacle to their success, this is where we say, put it in the box.

Josh (00:06:47) - Yeah. You know, in sales I talk about friction. Right. So you want to always make it easier to keep moving in the direction you're hoping rather than, you know, it's it generally because it's generally easier to do nothing for a new person. But if you can make it easier for them to keep moving rather than nothing, and you can eliminate any of.

Josh (00:07:06) - Those friction spots. It's like, you know, for example, like,, you know, and some of these might be hard to avoid, like if you require contracts, you know, and you're going to make each person kind of have to read a 16 page contract and sign their name and blood kind of thing. That's a major friction point, right? Or, you know, you expect them. You know, for us like this is perfect. You know, in terms of like for us, you know, one of our biggest things is like when we start with a client, we want that client to be successful. So the more I can empower them so that success is an inevitability, the better. And I would imagine you have a lot of your clients that work with their customers in that way. So it's like a an activation and a retention tool 100%.

Mark (00:07:50) - And so the thing about it is like, stop thinking about like you join my program, here's a box. What I may do is you join my program and here's box one of four.

Mark (00:07:58) - If you want to get the other boxes, you have to stay engaged and continue to play the game. But I can show you the journey for the next year ahead or to get through this major milestone, depending on what you're doing with your clients. But I may just give you what you need for the first month or two and then say, like, I want you to take an action. If you take this action, it'll trigger the next box or if it's timing, when it gets to month three, we'll trigger the second box of the sequence. But the thing I love about that element we're playing with this concept called collection. If you create an open loop, people want to close open loops like that's a big thing. It's a big part of my story. If you've ever heard of a Spartan Race, I don't know if you are familiar with like a mud run. Like a Spartan. Yeah. What they did so brilliantly and this is it's such a big influence for my businesses when I did my first spark.

Mark (00:08:41) - This is a mud run. If you've ever like you get muddy, you do obstacles. I did A5K, so like a 3 to 5 miler I got my medal, which is what I wanted. But then they gave me a third of a medal and said, you need to go after your trifecta, which meant I needed to do an 8 to 10 miler and a half marathon mud run, which had you told me at the beginning of the year I was going to be doing a half marathon mud run, I would said, you lost your mind. But they set up the constraints in a way that I wanted to collect all the pieces to complete what they call their trifecta. And,, it's incredible to see how just that incentive, there's just so many little strategies like that you can do to incentivize and celebrate people when they hit milestones.

Josh (00:09:21) - I see that you're working with Joey Coleman. My team and I are reading Never Lose a Customer Again. And then, of course, this new book, Never Lose an Employee Again.

Josh (00:09:30) - That's on our reading list as well. Who have you worked with in the past? And maybe just share a few stories of kind of what you put together and how that may have impacted their work.

Mark (00:09:41) - Yeah. I think the biggest impact that we've had on clients is we're forcing clarity on the journey, like getting very clear. It's it's amazing how frequent the clients don't realize what they're asking their customers to do. And what I mean by that is it's easy to sell a desired outcome. You're selling the thing that people want, but when they buy your product or service, do you have that clear pathway that's forcing clarity? And so when we get into your business, one of the things we do is we'll go through any products and services you have and break it down to the minute, because we truly want to understand the composition of it. I hate to get into two specific clients, but we've had clients, so we had a client in the print on demand space that we gamified his,, front end onboarding.

Mark (00:10:20) - , in terms of his he had a 14 day challenge., and what we ended up doing was when we transformed this experience into,, a 14 day rip and reveal a series of envelopes that they opened each over 14 days. We gamified it like you were becoming an undercover detective trying to find the perfect print on demand business solution for you, which then up sold you into his higher ticket product or service. He doubled sales on the front end, and then he doubled his conversions on the back end, which for X, the value of the campaign. We had another one that recently did a big launch, sold about 3500 units of a product at 2KA pop. The one thing that we did when we sent out the boxes that was shipped from the year before was we said, you are welcome to ask for a refund in the first 30 days, all you need to do is send back your box. The simple strategy of just asking to send back the box. What ended up happening is of about 3500 buyers, 19 sent back the box.

Mark (00:11:15) - So when you're talking about too much friction.

Josh (00:11:17) - To send back a box, it's.

Mark (00:11:19) - It's incredible to see. Like if you can tell me my refund rates in the first 30 days is 19 people, not 19%, we're talking like less than a percent. Those are the things that, you know, there's a perceived value that when you blend the physical with digital, it's so much more powerful than just a digital entity.

Josh (00:11:38) - Yeah. Okay. So I'm I'm holding a box right now. This is from, yeah. This is my friend Daniel. Dan, you got the same box, right? So this is the influence interactive book box experience. Okay. So I open it and, you know, and they send, like, a coffee mug and stuff., my brain mark is going to, like. Dang, Daniel, you spent a lot of money to put this together. Can you maybe share just a bit about the economics?

Mark (00:12:05) - Sure. Happy to my happy zone with the hard cost to good.

Mark (00:12:09) - So one of the things that's very unique about our boxes is one of the things I really harp on with a lot of people are like, what are the things we naturally save in our lives? Because when we create these experiences, what I don't want you to do is get it, rip it apart, throw it out. So one of the things I know you save is a book you don't typically read a book and just trash it. After you read it, you typically put a book on a bookshelf. It could sit on that bookshelf for years, if not decades. So most of our boxes are the size of a book. We'll brand the spine. That's really important because I want you to stick it on your bookshelf. I want you to have it as a reference piece that you can come back to. So the economics of it, my happy zone with boxes is for hard cost to goods 15 to $30. That's usually where I like it. A lot of times you see these swag boxes get up to 80 to 120.

Mark (00:12:53) - I'm like, stop with the stuff. Like really focus on what they need. And the cool thing about that is you can do what we call incentivized with joules. A joule is if you hit a certain milestone, I may trigger another thing that we send to you, whether it's a box, whether it's a widget, but it's a way to really celebrate you for taking action. And if I can reinforce that behavior, it's a really powerful thing. And you're.

Josh (00:13:14) - Gamifying it. You're bringing it from the digital to the physical.

Mark (00:13:18) - You got it. Yeah, yeah. That's it. But that there's so much you can do there. I'd rather you spend less because when you look at print collateral, it comes down significantly in cost as opposed to putting a lot of swag in there. But I can introduce the swag as a celebration piece, which then makes it a retention play to keep people engaged in going after the next thing. Like this is the part of gamification. The more I gamify. The cool thing about gamification, that's learning like your business intelligence, the gamified experience that you're playing, a video or board game.

Mark (00:13:45) - The powerful thing about this is you've given people a direction in something to achieve. I can't tell you how many businesses we get into, and they have given no direction or no pathway to achieve, and that was for me in Spartan. They gave me something to achieve the trifecta for people in the Clickfunnels community. It's the two Comma Club award having that element, those are what we call jewels for you to strive for is just a really powerful tactic to get people to truly take action.

Josh (00:14:10) - Yeah. All right, so your website, custom box What is the process like?

Mark (00:14:19) - We break it down into three phases. Phase one is what we call activate., what that's focused on is we'll delve deep into your business and your business strategy. Because we produce so much sales collateral throughout our process, we want to know where you are today and what the big vision is. So we have these ten pillars where you break down your business. The second part of that is a is a workshop. People typically come to Austin, Texas.

Mark (00:14:40) - We can do it virtual. We have clients all over the world., but this is kind of where you can come into the CBA lab, come into our office, get your hands on things, and people just don't know what's possible. That's the fun thing about the workshop, is we're trying to build out the blueprint that aligns to your business. So that's phase one. Phase two is once we've defined what is that campaign going to look like? Phase two is all about bringing it to life. We have a huge design team, so we can take that concept and truly bring it to life. We can design and build anything. Phase three is once it's designed, we'll send it off into production., we'll get it out. Our warehouse will assemble it and get it ready for market. So that's all the end market deliverability. So we truly want to be that end to end solution where we can not only help you strategize, and that's like where we excel. We've seen so many different blueprints and businesses.

Mark (00:15:24) - And then to be able to deliver it so you don't have to figure out, like now that I have this awesome blueprint, how do I do it? We can do it for you. And we have the means to plug into your business and truly help you have this whole physical leg that you may not have had those capabilities before. So that's a lot of how we look at in those three phases.

Speaker 4 (00:15:40) - Yeah.

Josh (00:15:40) - What is the initial step or do let's share it this way to our friend that's listening right now go to custom box And what I would tell you is go look at the work. So you can see examples of exactly what this looks like. And you know you start ideating about what's possible here. Can do just great for virtual events. Certainly coaching boxes., you know, if you have a digital course and everything is just digital, the perceived value of getting something physical, not only in just is it a better experience for the user and probably will improve conversion rate. But, you know, just visually I'm thinking about, you know, how you can market this differently now.

Josh (00:16:21) - It's like we're sending you're getting stuff in the mail, like you're getting physical things in the mail when you engage. It's not just you're not just buying pixels, you know, like you're getting something physical.

Mark (00:16:32) - That's it. And again, if you look at just even the data like email open rates are so low. Oh yeah, direct mail, open rates are like 80 to 90%. If someone gives you a package, you're going to open the package when it arrives at your door. That's a really powerful thing. I think your question was, and if it's as simple as go to our website and sign up for a free discovery call, even if you're just toying with the idea, we can help guide you. We'll tell you if you're ready or not. Because our biggest thing is we're in the business of transformation in many ways of what we do. We want to make sure that you are set up for success. That's something that's really important to us, because we look at our clients as our partners, and we want to be a good strategic partner to you.

Mark (00:17:08) - And part of it is just realizing, are you ready for a journey like this? And so yeah.

Josh (00:17:14) - Love it. Awesome. Custom box agency. Com Mark Stern, you're the CEO. I appreciate this great conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

Speaker 4 (00:17:23) - Of course sir.

Mark (00:17:24) - Thank you. I appreciate the time.

Josh (00:17:31) - Thanks for listening to the Thoughtful Entrepreneur show. If you are a thoughtful business owner or professional who would like to be on this daily program, please visit up my influence. Comment. Guest. If you're a listener, I'd love to shout out your business to our whole audience for free. You can do that by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or join our Listener Facebook group. Just search for the Thoughtful Entrepreneur and Facebook. I'd love, even if you just stop by to say hi, I'd love to meet you. We believe that every person has a message that can positively impact the world. We love our community who listens and shares our program every day. Together, we are empowering one another as thoughtful entrepreneurs.

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