Showing posts with label strategy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label strategy. Show all posts

Monday, August 25, 2014

Whose vision is it, anyway?

Peter Drucker said that "The purpose of business is to attract
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and retain customers."  Sure.  If you have no customers you have no revenue, which means you don't have a business.  But beyond that it's all up to you.  As the owner of this venture, it's your vision that determines how you are going to fulfill Peter Drucker's definition - and sustain it.

Even if your business revolves around a single product - to whom do you intend to sell it?  How far afield do you intend to find your market?  From what kind of facility do you intend to produce whatever it is that you produce?  What is the impact you expect to have on your community?  On your industry?

Companies that flounder often do so because the vision has not been clearly defined.  Their daily work becomes transactional and immediate.  They respond to the moment, working IN the business instead of working ON the business.  And conflict abounds because there are no bigger reasons to delay gratification (like excess profit taking), or to make the difficult decisions that will bring long-term benefit.

The next problem that occurs is when the company leadership beyond the founder/CEO is not in sync with the vision.  They can't, of course, be in sync when there isn't one, but here's how the out-of-sync leadership team happens when the CEO already has established a vision:
  • The CEO doesn't share his or her vision clearly enough that the leadership team can understand it, much less implement it.
  • Individuals are hired for their skills without considering their values and attitudes.  This means that they may engage in behavior that compromises the company's future.  Or they may simply be dead weight, dragged along through extra energy expenditure on the part of the CEO.
  • The CEO of an established company chooses not to include senior leadership in the updating of the vision.  This is the CEO's prerogative, but if his or her goal is to have the leadership team implement the vision it's strategically beneficial to include key internal stakeholders in the plan updating process. Obtain their input and thereby their buy-in from the beginning.
  • The CEO neglects to reel in leadership behavior that is out of alignment with the vision.  The CEO should discuss misalignment issues promptly, directly and specifically with the offending party,  If there is not improvement, progress through the standard disciplinary procedures.  The CEO creates a cultural problem if and when he or she does not nip this behavior in the bud.  The problem will not go away.  It will grow.
The individual who chooses to start a business might have no idea how big it will grow.  Countless behemoth businesses started in a garage, or as a box of files under a bed, or with a truck and a toolbox.  The CEO of a growing business might feel tempted to avoid planning or to keep it under his vest because of discomfort with his changing role as the business grows.  The skills needed for running a one-truck HVAC business are quite different from the ones needed to run a company with a fleet of 20 trucks and 35 employees.  And unless the CEO owns a crystal ball (and knows how to use it) the future can be extremely difficult to project.

Who, though, is going to set the course if no destination is defined?  Ultimately the buck stops in the corner office, whether that corner is in a deluxe office suite or a work station in the back of a retail facility.  It's your vision, biz owner.  So let's get busy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Determining what your biz should work on first

In the midst of working in your business every day there's the
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part about working ON the business.  That's the part that often gets short shrift unless a leader and his or her team make a discipline of doing regular planning and updates.  The second challenge beyond lack of longer term focus is that of many opportunities for improvement.  It's tough enough to determine what to do next that the business's default position becomes to do nothing.

Certain of these improvements can be ignored - for a while - for the sake of immediate concerns.  But when they go unattended over a longer period of time they can become the items that can no longer be ignored.  They become the immediate concerns - and when this happens the biz owner has a smaller range of potential actions to take, simply because of the urgency to make something happen.

Is your list long?  Have you been procrastinating because there are improvements to be made, but you don't know which should be placed at the top of the priority list?  Here are three methods you can use to determine which comes first:

  1. Which is costing you the most?  Some of the improvements on your list might not have an immediate, noticeable price tag associated with them.  And some won't - they are quality of life issues.  But with some thought you can make a connection between, say, lack of a website (or an outdated one) and lost revenue opportunities.  There's often some guesstimating involved here, but look at your average sale, and assume you could make X sales per week online, and extrapolate from there.  There might also be some hard dollar costs when you stop and think about them.  Reduce costs, or reduce opportunity costs by taking care of these things pronto.
  2. Which is strategically crucial?  If you are banking on quality customer service to generate and keep business, you had better make sure that your people and processes are well buttoned down.  You can't win the service game by being on par with your competition.  You have to be noticeably and consistently better.  That won't happen without attention from you.  
  3. What does the diagnostic say?  There is a diagnostic called D.I.AL.O.G. that you can use to measure your company's current performance (as perceived by employees) in a number of areas like strategy, customer and market focus, processes, human resources, etc.  You can determine whether people, process or strategy is your best next step.  (Summit can assist you with designing and interpreting D.I.AL.O.G. for your company's needs.)
It might seem easier to choose to accept the status quo for now.  It's usually not convenient - and it might be downright disruptive - to work ON your business.  But taking no action isn't avoiding a decision.  It's a decision in itself.  Wouldn't you rather make changes on your own terms rather than wait until a crisis or steadily eroding conditions force you to do so, and fast?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is startup planning a waste of time?

For all of our SCORE mentor colleagues out there across the country, no worries.  We won't spout heresy here today about the premise that underlies a lot of the function and activities of thousands of volunteer executives, business owners and retirees...

The whole idea behind a strategic plan is that it should serve as a compass, an indicator of true North, such that you can focus and guide your activities effectively. Circumstances and business conditions change, but you can always refer back to your plan to map out your next move. Yesterday a new business owner approached us and expressed frustration that she really didn't have enough information to do a really good plan. The process has felt like a waste of time as a result. She's not the first start-up owner to share this concern with me, so here are some thoughts:

Pros of planning in a start-up
  • Vision and values will help you know how you want to behave from the very first day you're in business.
  • If you identify target markets as part of your plan you'll better be able to target your marketing approach, from logo to advertising channels, to the content in your message. Your business will look very different from Day One, for example, if you're appealing to teens vs. corporate entities.
  • If you need to get financing of any sort your banker or other funding source will view a well-developed plan as an indicator that you know what you're doing, so you'll be more likely to be successful in obtaining funding.  Reality check:  most small businesses don't start with bank financing.  Most of them are bootstrapped with the owner's own money and/or that coming from private sources like family.  But even family wants to be assured that the numbers can work.  You have to live with them whether the business flies or not.
  • Going through the entire process will help you find out what you don't know. This feeling of conscious incompetence won't be comfortable, but can help guide you to find out what you weren't able to answer when creating your plan.
  • Using a planning process as a feasibility test can prevent you from embarking on a venture that simply doesn't make sense.  Sometimes you can't know that this is the case until you really dig into the details of market, competition, financial requirements, products, etc.  Do you really want to place your personal assets at risk on a flyer?  Your spouse or significant other would probably say "No." or "Absolutely not!" or even "What, are you nuts??"
Cons of planning in a start-up
  • The business owner who questions the value of planning does have a point. She does not yet know what her target markets will be. She provides services, so it's not like she'll have a storefront and a bunch of inventory at risk if she hasn't narrowed down her focus. She wants to treat her first 3 months as laboratory time, learning where the most receptive prospects are and through experience determining what her "sweet spot" customer profile looks like.
  • The learning curve in the first 3-6 months is typically quite steep. If the new business stays too grounded in whatever sounded good at the beginning they could (a) miss some great opportunities and/or (b) stick for too long with something that doesn't work simply because it's on the plan. If cash is tight this could be deadly.
Even when a business is past start-up phase the concept of planning can be controversial. Yes, it sounds like the thing to do, but some businesspersons still resist it because they want to remain flexible and open to opportunity. The issue really becomes one of how to allocate resources, and if there's no game plan the business might have to take a pass on the most promising opportunities that arise due to lack of funding, time, etc.

If your business or your industry is changing rapidly whether you're in start-up mode or farther along in your business growth, continue to plan.  Just keep the time frames reasonable given the pace of change.  If eighteen months is the maximum reasonable window, plan for 18 months.  That doesn't erase the need for a larger vision for the context within which the shorter term plans are being made.  You need to know your ultimate desired destination so that any course adjustments you make will ultimately get you closer to it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The plan in the CEO's head

See that pile of bricks over there?  The only difference
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between that pile of bricks that's basically taking up space and a functional shelter is a foundation and mortar.  The foundation provides a stable surface upon which to build, and the mortar holds the bricks together - so they don't fall down and bust someone's head or collapse in the midst of a thunderstorm.

This is what it's like when the plan is in the CEO's head.  Unless he or she is a lone eagle business, where the CEO does it all, another person or persons is going to have to understand what the CEO is trying to build, and in what pattern and/or sequence the bricks are to be put into place.

Each of these bricks is sound in and of itself, as are initiatives that a company might choose to pursue.  But they only exhibit their real strength when they are joined together in an organized fashion with mortar to hold them in place.

Owners' lack of a written plan tends to stem from one or more of a few assumptions:

  1. Writing a plan down locks the company into a particular course of action and takes away its ability to flex with opportunities.
  2. The creative process is always moving and transforming.  Growth is organic more than architectural.
  3. The team only needs to know the parts of the plan that relate to members' individual responsibilities.
  4. Writing a plan down can create competitive disadvantage, if key pieces are leaked outside the company.
  5. Employees who know too much about the big picture cause them to question too much rather than just do their jobs.
  6. Writing a plan takes time - and writing - and the owner doesn't have enough of either resource readily at hand.
  7. It's hard to determine who should be involved in creating the plan. 
Any of these seven assumptions is understandable.  The issue is that it doesn't change the fact that the company uses resources more efficiently and satisfies customers more consistently when organizational structure, people, processes, and rewards are in alignment with the overall strategy.  The plan in the head only seems simpler and easier.  It's actually the more difficult path to achieve the results the CEO wants.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A small biz role model in social media

One of the most frequently asked questions by small businesses we meet during our SCORE volunteer business mentoring sessions is "How can I use social media to market my company?"  No wonder.  If a business owner is willing to invest sweat equity in it, social media presence can be completely free of hard dollar costs.

A York, PA business, JR's Fries, is a Central Market stand that is open only three days per week.  The owner, Ron Jacobs, has been on Facebook with the business for 3 years.  And in that time the business has gone from zero to 18,000 followers.  Now for the litmus test:  when asked over the weekend whether his Facebook activities have had an impact on his sales, Jacobs replied, “Oh heavens yes!”

"Mr. JR's Fries" says that he spends a ton of time working his social media.  Jacobs says he uses two principles in his time curating his Facebook page:
  1. Answer every person commenting on his posts individually, and do so via private message.
  2. Say only positive things online.

It’s the personal answers that consume a lot of Ron Jacobs’ time, but he wouldn’t change anything.  It’s the building of personal relationships that causes market-goers to choose to visit his stand.  He promises that when you come to see him at market you’re guaranteed “three smiles from the Fry Guys.”

One of the small biz follow-up questions about the value of social media is, “What do you post on there?  It seems like it would be hard to come up with content.”  JR's Fries posts:
  •        Photos and descriptions of foods being prepared for today’s market menu.
  •     Specials and customer favorites.
  •     Shout-outs to people who recently visited the stand.
  •    “Sending positive vibes” on off-market days.

At JR’s Fries it’s not only about the fries, barbecue sandwiches, burgers, mac & cheese or Pa. Dutch Pot Pie.  JR’s Fries sells warmth, friendliness, and positive thinking.  It’s hard for any person to get enough of that as they go about their weekly business, so they go to see Ron for a serving.  At JR’s Fries they give it for free, whether you visit them in person at market or online on Facebook.  See for yourself how Ron Jacobs does it at

Monday, July 7, 2014

Thinking beyond your immediate audience

You know the basics of communication theory by now
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(and if you don't just check the archives of this blog for more info).  But often the hairy interpersonal situations that arise inside and outside of work are because the sender of a message isn't thinking beyond the immediate audience.

Unintended spreading
Your message might be just too juicy for someone to keep to themselves.  It might be so inflammatory and upsetting that the receiver has to share it in order to cope with it.  Or the target of your communication might be one of those people with incredibly loose lips - if that's the case you'd better edit from the outset if you don't want to find yourself in dicey interpersonal territory.

When you are thinking carefully about your recipient and what motivates him or her you choose suitable words, a pace and a tone, and maybe even body language if you're face to face.  Your goal is for them to receive the same message that you think you are sending, and at the same amplitude that you are sending it.

Unfortunately, when they repeat what you said several things can go wrong:

  • Your receiver paraphrases inaccurately when repeating your message, thus skewing your meaning.
  • Sharing the information with someone whose feelings will be hurt, even though they were never intended to receive the message.
  • Sharing confidential information with someone who should not ever know, or who should not know right now.
  • The info could reach an audience without the context to interpret the message correctly, and therefore could wind up with any number of unfortunate consequences.
Intentional spreading
Although the organic spreading of information is often thought of as a disadvantage, there are times where the informal network is absolutely your friend. Frame your communication so that it is appropriate - even enticing - for a broader audience and you can influence the perceptions of the larger group.

There is always a danger of being misquoted, so if you are structuring your communication with the grapevine in mind, keep it simple.  Nuance won't travel well - or accurately.  And the message has to be able to be transferred without the necessity of tone of voice or complex body language.  For instance, when you are face to face with someone you can communicate irony, sarcasm, etc. by intentionally mismatching your facial expression or tone of voice with the words in your message.  "I love that tie" could mean that you actually love it or that you think it's the most hideous thing ever worn around a human neck.

Repetition also aids your intent to spread a certain message.  If you repeat the same message to numerous audiences, and say it in the same way on several occasions, the message is more likely to be retained and repeated.  And it will be more likely to be repeated accurately.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Principles for leaders in successful planning process

If your business operates on a calendar year basis, summertime is
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a good time to do long-range and business planning.  Your plan should precede your budgeting process if you want the allocation of resources to align with your goals for the company.  Assuming that you have decided to do (or update) your strategy for your company, here are some points to consider:

  • The best plan starts with your vision for the company long term, and goes all the way through to actionable business goals that are executed at all levels in your organizational structure.
  • Your planning group should include no more than 10-12 participants.  More than that and the sheer processing of the input becomes unwieldy.  In addition, less extroverted or less committed participants can find themselves left in the background.  That's not good for generating solid input or for gaining full buy-in on the plan.
  • Understand your plan's purpose.  You'll do a different sort of plan if it's to justify, for instance, borrowing funds.  It might be an expansion-oriented plan, or even a survival plan.  Know which (if any) parts of your plan will be incorporated into public spaces in your business or even in marketing materials, because that will influence the manner in which you approach and finish it.
  • Consider using a facilitator.  You as the senior leader should be a participant, and leave the process to someone who has no vested interest in the outcome.  Their job is all about keeping the conversation moving and on track, and pulling input from all participants.
  • Pouncing prohibited.  If you, as the top guy or gal in the room, pounce on every question you'll squash the input from the other participants.  If it's de facto going to be your plan and you are the only real decider, don't make a pretense of including others.  But if it's only your plan, understand that you're going to have to do some groundwork to get your team committed to it.
  • Leave titles at the door.  That's hard to do, but if you've asked someone to participate it's because they are an important idea generator or a significant stakeholder.  Don't allow participants to pull the authority card mid-process.
  • Document your business goals.  Plans that are left in the big-picture, conceptual stage tend not to be implemented as fully as those with step-by-step roll out. Write it down and distribute it to the people who are going to help you achieve it.
  • Avoid front-loading.  It's tempting to make your plan a kitchen sink of long-overdue initiatives.  It's hard to resist the temptation to do a blitz during the first six months of the plan.  If you spread your energies around too much with too many early goals you'll run the risk of dropping some balls, or of burning out some of your key implementers.
  • Give thought to your communication of the plan.  How are you going to notify your larger staff about the company's direction.  They are stakeholders in the plan, so a communication and roll out plan should be part of your process.
  • Integrate.  Ultimately if your goal is to be successful it should be integrated into your everyday business processes and practices.  Goals may become part of performance requirements.  Review of plan progress to date may become a key agenda item in management meetings.  The plan isn't "extra," rather it's the guidance for everyday behavior.
  • Follow-up.  You may need to refresh, revise, even change your goals once you're in the midst of plan implementation.  The type of plan determines the frequency with which you need to follow up.  A start up plan may need frequent adjustments as the business learns the realities of operation.  A crisis plan should be looked at monthly so any needed course corrections can be timely.  A growth plan may need only quarterly follow-up.  Either way, planning is a continuous improvement process, not an event.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Selling "fries with that"

Envision this scenario:  your company offers 20 products.
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Some of your customers have been buying from you for years, but only within a fairly narrow slice of your product offering.  Your prospective customers sometimes have a difficult time choosing among your products.  In either case, your goal is to increase the average purchase size from new and existing customers.

Have you tried packaging?  Not in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense.  Certain things go together like burgers and fries and peanut butter and jelly.  What if you were to market them in that way?

Products that help other products work better
If you sell paint and brushes and rollers, you could package them together as a weekend room transformation kit.  Your kit could even include wall primer, painter's tape and disposable drop cloths.  You make a larger sale, and your customer arrives home with everything he or she needs to complete a successful weekend painting project.

Products that achieve a certain goal
Your customers might not know what combination of professional services might help them, for example, build a sales machine culture in their company.  You put together strategic planning, sales management training for the leadership, sales development for the outside sales staff and customer loyalty training for the inside sales/customer service department.  You might also include an evaluation of key processes for fulfilling orders and billing.  You package it as the "build a sales machine culture" and develop a multi-service relationship rather than a one-off project.

More is better, right?
You can develop identities for grouping products by quantity and/or selection. Some companies call them simply Bronze, Silver, and Gold assortment, gold of course being the biggest unless you go for the gusto and include a Platinum or Diamond level.  For a fitness club you can have a punch card, a classes only card, and an unlimited access card.  In coaching you can have a month by month program or an integrated year of personal and professional development.  In cosmetics you can have a teen skin care package, glamour color cosmetics package, an anti-aging package, etc.  In each of the packages you include your full line of complementary products.

The perspective behind successful packaging
Successful packaging is developed based upon how customers use your products.  You can analyze your order history and prior successful engagements to determine what customers are already tending to buy together.  See what achieved the best results, and rather than recommend piecemeal (which requires multiple decisions to be made) work toward one decision.  It's a larger commitment for the customer, but if it helps to ensure a beneficial outcome (and you can articulate that) they will likely give it serious consideration.  You might have to build in special payment terms on the larger investment, but isn't it worth the extra effort to develop a deeper customer relationship?  You bet it is.

Friday, June 6, 2014

You know you have a good plan when...

The husband and wife entrepreneurial team sat in
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a room with their business coach, ready to update their strategic plan.  The husband is a creative sort, prone to big ideas, sprints of hard labor, charismatic salesmanship and occasional tempers.  The wife keeps the administrative ducks in their rows and paddling on smooth ponds of water.

They slogged through the initial stages of their planning process, thinking about their long term vision (world domination in their product category, in case you wanted to know!).  They looked outside their company for trends, competition and market needs, and looked inside at their strengths and limitations.  And then they laid out about a half-dozen potential areas of focus for their next 30-36 months.

Some planning groups like to zoom right through the process, but there is tremendous value in giving the proposed operational mission some time to sink in.  If the intention behind the plan is to create focus around action, you had better find the operational mission compelling.

Their coach left them with some questions to consider along with their options for their business's focus.  The one that captured the wife's attention was, "Are you building a business, or have you bought yourself a job?"  She wanted to know more about what was meant by that, and her questions evolved into a discussion about the extent to which the business is currently reliant on the two of them working on all cylinders all of the time.

Bingo.  There was their focus, staring them in the eye.

Funny thing was that the question of increasing their capacity had already been brought up by a contact of theirs.  At the time they just weren't ready to consider it.  Perhaps it was partly the creative person's desire to be the one thinking of the ideas rather than accepting other people's ideas.  But no matter.

The two sat forward in their seats, and the ideas started to flow.  What things would have to be put into place to accomplish this?  What would it cost?  How would they make sure to ensure quality of product and outstanding customer service?  How could they make sure that their brand would be protected when new people became involved?  And how could they select those people?

The type of industry in this case is not important.  The fact that it is a husband and wife team is not important.  The key here is that they knew in their gut when they identified an operational mission that was aligned with their long term goals for their business and for their family as well.  The plan started out as an exercise that they felt they should do, and transformed into a tremendous energizer and motivator for them.

Don't even try to get in their way.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Leadership traits that make you stand out

The word leadership is bandied about everywhere, as the
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sometimes elusive something that companies, organizations and communities are looking for.  It's not elusive because it's rare but rather because every individual has his or her own definition of what it means and how it's exhibited in behavior.

Compounding the individual definitions, effective leadership is situational.  A leader who knows how to direct with confidence in times of crisis and turmoil might be perceived as overbearing if he or she does not back off a bit when there is no immediate threat.

In any group setting, if you take time to observe what's going on and who has been selected (formally or informally) for leadership roles, you will be able to identify the traits that are valued.  In your work life, if you have a boss you might be able to see quickly the behaviors that he or she values as leadership qualities.

If you want to stand out in the crowd and become known for your leadership capabilities, you might demonstrate
  • Decisiveness - the ability to choose even when the stakes are high and the evidence is not completely clear.  Decisiveness might be interpreted as a willingness to assume risk.
  • Innovation - searching for and implementing new methods in an effort to improve results.  You may be the first to try things.
  • Results focus - if you exhibit this your attention is on the achievement of successful outcomes.  A byproduct of results focus is that you will look for solutions to obstacles and persist.
  • Responsibility - a leader chooses to carry the load, to commit to the achievement of results.  Effective leaders take responsibility even when they don't have to.
  • Resourcefulness - you take the initiative to find answers in unexpected places and to solve problems by unique or creative means.  
  • Team focus - while you are keeping the organization's goals top of mind you are dedicated to bringing the whole group along.  When you are already in a leadership role, this means that you represent the interests of management.
  • Openness - this is demonstrated by asking for input from your team or other resources and using it if it's applicable and appropriate to the situation.
  • Communication - when you demonstrate this trait you make a habit of disseminating information, and  in an understandable way to the various stakeholders involved in the situation.  You understand that people want to know so they can take individual initiative to help the team to accomplish goals.
  • Trust - a leader goes first by being trustworthy, and then by extending trust to the rest of the group.  When a leader trusts he or she gives individuals the opportunity to come through for the group.  This doesn't mean that the leader is blind to risks - it means that he or she gives team members the benefit of the doubt.  This is often rewarded by team members in the form of loyalty and dedication to the task at hand.
  • Maturity and emotional self-control - a leader can withstand hardship and times of testing or conflict without blowing a gasket and acting out.
You might recognize some of the traits on this list in their application in your workplace or other group setting.  The good news with leadership is that it is developable.  You don't have to be born with it.  Sure, it helps when you have some natural talents in one or more of these areas that you can develop into a signature leadership strength.  But you can choose to become.  It might be helpful to work with the assistance of a developmental coach to move you forward.

Look around you today, and see what leadership traits are being demonstrated around you.  Think about which ones you value the most, and which ones are the most applicable in the situations in which you most commonly find yourself and your organization.  You might see an emerging leader that you can help to develop.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Counteracting bad word of mouth

A lot of businesses like social media because they can spread
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information for free (or nearly free) over a broad span of the population.  They (you) can even target the message to selected groups via social media. But the fear many businesses have about opening the social media Pandora's box is that one complaint, whether valid or not, can grow legs, go viral and spread everywhere.

Social media is only one way for bad info to travel - the grapevine inside your organization, in your local community, and in service and social groups is quite efficient too, thank you.  It doesn't necessarily matter whether the message being whispered down the lane has a shred of truth to it or not.  And even if it does start out with some validity, by the time it's transferred and re-communicated x times over it's likely to be distorted, amplified, or robbed of the only true bits in it.

You're a target if you're successful, if you're an authority figure, or if you have recently gained an edge over the competition in some way.  You're a target if you aren't known very well by other people, because the power of negative conditioning leads them to assume that unknown means dangerous.  And of course you're a target if you have screwed up, especially if it's perceived that your mistake was due to incompetence, you've done the same wrong thing several times, or you had intentions that were suspect.

So how do you stem the flow of bad word of mouth?

  1. Make sure that your house is truly in order.  That's numero uno. Examine the word of mouth for valid complaints, even if you know and mistrust the source.  Don't give the badmouthers ammunition.
  2. Start a flow of your own where you're managing the message.  If there are 15 great things being said online (or in the grapevine) and 1 poison pen letter, the 15 things are going to outweigh the 1.  Caution:  The 15 great things won't work if they are BS.  They need to be real, with data behind them to give them validity.
  3. Add to the formal communication processes to reduce the unknowns that can be hijacked by parties looking to damage your reputation.  Tell people as much as you can so they know what's really going on.  When they are already in the loop they are less likely to be pulled astray by somebody else's story that's driven by a nefarious agenda.
  4. Enlist third party testimonials.  You automatically aren't as credible as your customers and other stakeholders are because you have a vested interest in making yourself look good.  The third party is considered to be impartial and therefore more believable to neutral onlookers.
  5. Use online alerts like Google alerts to make sure you know what's being said about you online.  You can't manage the message if you don't know what's being said about you.  And the longer the time lapse between the insinuation or accusation and the clarification, the more steam can build up behind the false assertion.
  6. Enlist services to handle your public relations and social media if you don't have time to do it yourself, don't know how, or can't afford the time to learn.
There is really no "being above" word of mouth.  It might be petty sometimes, but it's out there.  Your lack of participation does not make it go away.  So your best defense is to be proactive.  Tell people what's going on.  Share the company's achievements and contributions.  Know that there's a difference between saying that sales rose by 50% last year and saying that your company ate your competitors' lunch last year - nya nya nya nya nya.  If you keep the language descriptive and not evaluative you won't be bragging and come off as stuck up.   You can make those Negative Nellies less credible when you're out there too.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Want to grow your professional services biz?

Of course you want to grow!  But one of your challenges in professional services is building capacity while maintaining control over quality. Your clients are not buying a readily mass-produced widget. They're buying a skill set and/or a particular method of delivery that matches their preferences and meets their needs.  If they are your customers now, they are buying YOU.

Google Images:
Some professional services folks run their businesses like musicians, actors or artists - they go from project to project, constantly auditioning and reinventing their client base. Yes, there is the opportunity for repeat business, but in some cases it's more residual - the follow-on jobs aren't necessarily as profitable as the first big gig. So with the valid intention to avoid missing any opportunity (and to avoid the roller coaster of the sales-servicing cycle) the professional can be tempted to go gonzo and take everything that comes along.

Once they overbook themselves, the professional services owner creates business risks.  Do any of these look familiar to you?
  • There's not adequate time for you to do your best quality work, increasing the likelihood of errors or "phoning it in".
  • The cycle time involved in completing the work slows, which may create customer dissatisfaction.
  • There's not time for marketing while you're in it up to your eyeballs, so you've pretty well ensured that you'll have a gap in work and its associated cash flow dip later while you're back in business development mode at the end of this crunch time.
Some professional services practitioners intentionally slow down their sales efforts out of concern that they won't be able to handle all of the projects should they all "hit." So if one or more pipeline opportunities doesn't come through as expected, the professional winds up under-performing in revenue.

There are several potential solutions to this problem, but only the practitioner can decide how far he or she wants to go with them:
  1. Subcontract the work - With respect to the quality control concern, experience or references can help to reduce the risk of hiring someone that won't perform.  When you use contractors to work IN the business you free time for yourself to work ON the business (meaning doing business development) and securing future cash flow.  This does mean that you'll take a smaller share in the profits, but this can be offset by more volume. 
  2. Develop strategic alliances - There might be other professionals nearby who operate in a slightly different service niche, but with whom you share a target market. Each of you can include the other in your marketing, and actually expand the profile of your own company while building capacity for performing services.  This can shorten the business development cycle for each of you, in effect adding sales staff in the market in the form of helpful related companies.
  3. Refine your processes - Oftentimes the variables in performance come from variation in process, or missing pieces of a process that require the person onsite to do his/her own creative thinking about how to handle the project. In the best case scenario you've brought in someone whose style is compatible with yours, but if your need for control is high or their development level is yet unproven, lay more of the project out in detail and follow up.
  4. Join a professional association - Many of these groups abide by standards or codes of conduct that will allow you to identify potential temporary (or not so temporary) servicing partners that will perform within a satisfactory quality range. The association might also sponsor certification processes that will give you additional assurance about the quality and/or training level of the practitioner.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Differentiation is in the details

Yarn Display
Yarn Display by BeccaNelson, on Flickr
A store is a store is a store.  We're talking about the bricks and mortar version here.  They all have merchandise, they all have salespersons helping you to select and pay for their merchandise.  They have displays.  But:
  • One has particularly flattering lighting in the dressing rooms, so prospective customers look as good as possible when they are trying on the merchandise.
  • One has free delivery - anywhere.
  • One has comfy chairs for patient spouses who are suffering through an endless array of choices.
  • One serves coffee - or wine.
  • In one the sales reps call you by name.
  • One gives delightful samples at every visit.
  • In one they throw fish.
  • One does a beautiful - and free - gift wrap job on every purchase.
  • A certain store has every item marked the same low price.
  • Some stores show you how to use their merchandise, to make it easier to make a decision to buy.
  • One store smells particularly good - so good that it attracts you from down the block.
It's in the details that the businesses differentiate themselves.  It's in the multi-sensory impact.  It's in the experience of the looking and the transaction and the follow-up on the transaction.

Stores are simple examples because they are tangible.  You can be a casual observer and notice the differences.  You also can notice the homogenized environments (can you spell "mall?") where it seems like all of the stores blend together and nothing stands out as special.

In business to business sales there are also a multitude details through which you can differentiate yourself, although they might not be so readily apparent.  Are you taking advantage of them, leveraging them, developing them?  Can you say with complete confidence and authenticity that dealing with you and your business is different and noticeably better than working with someone else in your same category?

What are the details that you are managing to make sure that your business is truly memorable in a way that causes customers to come back to you and even refer other customers to you?

  • Are you custom?  If so, how custom are you, and how easy is it for a customer to select their options?
  • Are you convenient?  Is there any way for you to become even more convenient and easy to buy from then you are right now?
  • Do you do a great job of simplifying complex technology for the layperson to use?
  • Do you design in a way that is aesthetically pleasing as well as functional?
  • Do your salespersons all drive Porches and wear Gucci shoes?
The ante is continually increasing for your business to stand out int he marketplace.  In other words, it takes more to be truly special than ever before.  It may be you yourself that is the differentiator for your business if the company relies on your skills, talents, certifications, etc. for its success.  But in that case, what happens to the business if you are for some reason no longer able to be there - or if you simply want to go on an extended vacation?  If the business is truly a business and not just a job that you bought for yourself it has to be able to stand on its feet and differentiate itself even when you are not there, through the processes and the environment and the staff that you develop.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Selling the personality

Chef Tim Jutzi and his wife Sabrena in action
This week Chef Tim's Foods won the Shark Bait business planning competition sponsored by York SCORE.  Chef Tim makes a rockin' sweet balsamic vinaigrette with all natural ingredients, but it's evident that one of the reasons why the judges decided that Chef Tim Jutzi's company won the contest was Chef Tim himself and his engaging sales patter.

"Life is better when you can pronounce what you eat," he told Lauren Boyer, reporter for the Daily Record/Sunday News at the event. "Marinate anything that walks, swam flew or grew ... Every once in a while I'll put it behind my ears on a Friday night."

Vinaigrette behind your ears on a Friday night??  Chef Tim is soft spoken, talking as though he's one on one with you while he assembles the ingredients of a panzella salad (balsamic vinaigrette, basil, croutons, tomatoes and cucumber) in front of an audience.  He never stops, listing the ingredients for onlookers as he tosses the salad "three times in three minutes to make sure the dressing is distributed evenly".

Right now Chef Tim's Foods sells its product online and at craft shows, and builds its retail presence without paying slotting fees by identifying retailers near the shows where Tim and his wife Sabrena are appearing.  His craft show sales are up close and in person, and that's why his personality has been such a big part of the brand.  Tim's laid back confidence in demonstration and talking about his vinaigrette convince new customers to taste his product.  Once they've had one taste, the dressing itself brings them back for more.

You don't have to be in person to allow personality to sell your product.  Geico and Progressive Insurance created personality around fictitious characters that sell their products.  Media responds to personality - it's in person without being in the same room, because you have a visual, an auditory set of information.  You (if you watch TV that much) develop an image of that product in your mind.

Michael Wayland reported on November 3rd that 

“The Dodge Durango got a big boost from this month's fun new commercials featuring Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character from ‘Anchorman,’ said senior analyst Michelle Krebs. “Durango shopping soared on after the ads launched.”
Although you can’t necessarily prove the campaign drove sales, Chrysler is seeing a boost in traffic as well. Since the campaign launched Oct. 5, Chrysler reports Durango website traffic is on average 89 percent higher since the campaign launched; lower funnel activity volume (“shopping” activity such as get a quote, build and price, etc.) is up an average of 118 percent; and has achieved a 13-percent click through rate.  (Read the rest of the post here).

This isn't all about advertising and marketing, either.  Service businesses can soar when there is personality at the center of the service.  Clients seek attorneys who are calm and reassuring with clients, but bulldogs with opponents.  Event planners hire and rehire bands and DJs who can energize a crowd and add life to the party.

This is why it's important to allow your personality to emerge undiluted in your business.  Sure, there are unwritten rules of appropriateness for certain settings.  But if you don't let your real self out there and live in it wholeheartedly you'll look just the same as everybody else.  You can't differentiate yourself when you're working hard to blend in.  (Well if you can, God bless you!)  Some people might not relate to you in your full form, but the ones who do will love you for it.  They will be attracted to you.  Better yet, they will bring their like-minded friends.  And that's what creates sustainable relationships, in business and elsewhere.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What makes your company so special?

10K Competitors - Great Scottish Run 2010
10K Competitors - Great Scottish Run 2010
by distrakzion, on Flickr
What makes your company special?  Is there something that you do better than anybody else?  If not better than anyone else, how about better than most?  What would happen to your sales if you were to expand that?

So much leadership time is invested in problem solving that it becomes easy to focus on what you're not doing right.  There are issues that can be deal-breakers when it comes to your company's sustainability, like not enough revenue to cover expenses, late deliveries or poor quality output.  You can't ignore those without risking peril.

But what about the things that your business is good at doing?  Are you focusing any energy and attention on getting even better?  Could those things become the factors that set you head and shoulders above your competition in the customer's eyes?  Could they help you win the race to top of your market?

Take a look at the list below.  Are any of these already strengths that have the potential to become differentiators for your business - and a clear competitive advantage - with just a bit more attention from you?
  • Elegant, functional product design
  • Extensive customization capability
  • Distribution network
  • Technical advancement
  • Absolutely, positively on time
  • Peerless customer care
  • Engaging marketing
  • Location, location, location
  • Transparent, readily understandable billing
  • Customer communications
  • Warranties on work product
Take a look at what's right in your business and see what you can do to make it bigger and even better.  It can create a competitive advantage for you, and it can make your working hours a lot more fun.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Who moved my markets?

Obsolete Components Album Cover shots
Obsolete Components Album Cover shots by -s*, on Flickjr
One of the most dangerous positions to be in is one of success.  Really.  Because while you're continuing to do what you've been doing to achieve what you have achieved, the markets - and the world - around you are changing.

Depending upon the industry in which you work, the change could be gradual, so slow that it's difficult to notice until it's here in its full-blown manifestation.  In industries that trend more quickly, like children's toys or electronics, an innovation or new competitor can change your world overnight.

The reason for talking about changing markets is not to give you the news that it's happening - that's not news - but to ask you what you're doing about it.  What are you doing right now to create the future for your business?  Are you investing in one or more of these things?

  1. Product R & D
  2. Trade association memberships
  3. Trade magazine subscriptions
  4. Community-based business organizations
  5. Market research 
  6. Customer surveys or focus groups
  7. Staff development in technical AND people skills
  8. Developing a written plan 
Investments in these things help you to stay in touch with changes in your markets and your industry, and they help to prepare you to compete effectively.  Responding to market changes might not be enough to keep you in an advantageous position.  You may need to anticipate the changes based upon what you're seeing now, much like a skeet shooter leads the moving target with his shotgun to anticipate where the target is going to fly. By the time you are ready the market is ready too.  You may be able to give the market what it wants before it even realizes that it wants it.  (Think Steve Jobs here.)

Getting to market first with innovation can mean the difference between being the leader and being a perpetual also-ran.  So get out of your office, get out of your building and take a look around.  The key to tomorrow's success may be right in front of your eyes.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Consult Edward Murphy to prevent problems. Here's why

Blow Me
Blow Me by Sparks68, on Flickr
A recent string of absolutely awful events can either be crushing, or an opportunity to learn.  OK, there are also times when all you can do is laugh in order not to cry.  Everybody has a bad day now and then. Sometimes it can seem like the bad days come one after another, and morph into bad months.  You spend your hours and days fighting fires, and you're tired.

Yes, your state of mind can have an impact on this, but we're not talking about motivational rah rah stuff today.  It's almost the weekend, for heaven's sake!  Have some fun and wallow in your troubles!

If you think that your most recent bad day came from having experienced Murphy's Law ("Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,") test yourself on this bit of trivia - do you know the origin of Murphy's Law? Although there is some question as to whether the law that "Everything that can go wrong, will" has older roots than Murphy, we can thank him for giving it his name. Here's the Murphy's Law story from its website
The following article was excerpted from The Desert Wings, March 3, 1978 
Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will") was born at Edwards Air
Force Base in 1949 at North Base.It was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an
engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, (a project) designed to see how
much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash.One day, after finding
that a transducer was wired wrong, he cursed the technician responsible and
said, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll find it." 
The contractor's project manager kept a list of "laws" and added this one,
which he called Murphy's Law. Actually, what he did was take an old law
that had been around for years in a more basic form and give it a name.
Shortly afterwards, the Air Force doctor (Dr. John Paul Stapp) who rode a
sled on the deceleration track to a stop, pulling 40 Gs, gave a press
conference. He said that their good safety record on the project was due to a
firm belief in Murphy's Law and in the necessity to try and circumvent it.
Aerospace manufacturers picked it up and used it widely in their ads during
the next few months, and soon it was being quoted in many news and magazine
articles. Murphy's Law was born.
The idea of Murphy's law is not only to help you roll your eyes and wallow in misfortune.  Murphy's Law goes so far as to attract trouble. If you have had quite enough trouble already, use the pessimism that Murphy brings to the table to do some crisis prevention, before Murphy catches up with you and your project. The more important it is that you achieve a positive outcome, the more critical it is to anticipate and ensure against contingencies. See? Murphy's Law is your friend!

Murphy's Law has corollaries, and additional laws that make sure that you are able to anticipate, prevent, or at least recover from a variety of the worst possible scenarios. Here are some of the juicy bits:
  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong
    Extreme version: If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the FIRST to go wrong
  • If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which something can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop
    Corollary: It will be impossible to fix the fifth fault without breaking the fix on one or more of the others
  • If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something
And finally, The Murphy Philosophy:
 Smile . . . tomorrow will be worse.

He He He.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Faster launch with an MVP

MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product, and was
Flightcar find savvy way...., Google Images by
one of the tips for small business growth shared by MSNBC's JJ Ramberg, host of the network's show titled "Your Business".  She spoke to small business owners in Philadelphia on June 25th at an event co-sponsored by the SCORE Foundation and Sam's Club.

Why an MVP strategy makes sense
The start-up phase of a company is rife with learning experiences, both painless and painful, and capital is rarely in large supply.  But many small business owners invest weeks, months, even years polishing their product before it is released to start to return cash to the business.  The most perfectionist owners reach capital crisis points because they just can't let go before their offering is exactly right.  The MVP approach compresses the learning and speeds the return of capital to the business by introducing the bare bones and enhancing while the product is live and in the market.

This is not to say that quality isn't important, only that live testing with real customers is the best testing.  The idea behind the MVP is that you test the product with a limited audience, with only the absolutely essential, most basic features.  The approach comes from the software development industry, where "deploy first, code later" enables developers to make continuous improvements by measuring market response to each new product feature.  As the product becomes more built-out, it's released to larger and larger bases of customers.

MVP strategy takes guts, and an ability to think quickly and respond to emerging opportunities and problems.  Here's an example shared by Ramberg:

Flightcar was conceived by three teenagers in San Francisco who turned down college offers from Harvard, Princeton and MIT .  They realized that a lot of space at the airport was being consumed by parked cars - the outbound travelers' cars stored in garages and lots during their trips, and the rental cars awaiting inbound travelers.  They got the idea that people could make money by renting their personal cars to other travelers instead of paying money to park them at the airport lot.  And inbound travelers could save money and drive cool rides by renting them.  So Flightcar was born.

They needed cars, renters, and insurance.  They needed a basic website (see it here).  And off they went.
Because Flightcar's resource sharing concept has been so disruptive to the standard systems at the airport, they have fought legal challenges along the way.  They have had to use limo services to drop off and pick up customers to get around the airport's objections to them using the airport lots.  They have had to figure out ways to store the personal items from renters' cars while the vehicles were being used by someone else.  You get the idea.

The MVP concept has allowed Flightcar to learn a lot about how to operate its business in one location.  It's now also in Boston, and who knows where it might go from there?  But it will most likely continue to learn live, to fire before it has aimed entirely on new features and enhancements.  Flightcar is on the move.  Launched only in February, 2013, according to a Christian Science Monitor article on June 19 the company has already attracted more than 1,400 renters and 1,500 reservations.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Are your negotiation skills leaving you with a raw deal?

Christine - We're revisiting this topic for you.  Enjoy!
Negotiations, a photo by Jamshid Malik on Flickr

Willingness, even the expectation, to negotiate can be influenced by culture, and by the type of transaction you're venturing into.  In general, larger ticket purchases or a business relationship that will last over an extended period will be more likely to be negotiated.  Some cultures expect bargaining even on the smallest of purchases, and for the sale of items that have interpreted or estimated value (like antiques, for instance) one person's valuation might not be the eventual price point for the transaction.  The price tag is the starting point.

You don't have to take the deal they are offering without at least testing to see whether there is room for negotiation.  After all, it's their job to look after their own interests, and your job to look after yours.  If you don't look for wiggle room you may be getting a far worse deal than you could have with a bit of bargaining.

Negotiation is "mutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of a transaction or agreement." (  It's a mutual process, meaning that it's different from issuing ultimatums or making pronouncements.  Negotiation is a process of give and take between parties with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable outcome.

If you want to avoid walking away from the table with no deal, or doing so feeling like you have been taking advantage of, consider these pointers from Stanford Graduate School of Business:

Plan Ahead
Think ahead about your goal, your desired outcome for the negotiation.  You need to consider AHEAD OF TIME the point at which you are willing to walk away. Make a list of things that you are willing to budge on, and those components of the deal that are important enough that you will not be willing to surrender.  Remember that you are not the only one at the table.  If you anticipate the other party's concerns you may be able to enter the negotiation with some ideas already in place.  Test your assumptions once you are actually engaged with them. 

Remember that there isn't a "Fixed Pie"
Don't assume that both parties have to lose something in order for the issue to be resolved.  You may be able to satisfy a mutual interest if you are willing to suggest alternatives that have not yet been explored.

Frame the issue to influence the other party
You take a risk if you assume that the other party interprets the issue in the same way as you.  Instead of going with your assumption, take some time at the beginning to frame it as you see it.  Then when you see that the other party has accepted your premise, negotiate from the framework that you have laid out.  (For example, in recent Congressional budget negotiations, all sorts of ideology-related cuts were framed as deficit reduction in an attempt for them to gain acceptance.  This strategy worked to influence some of the public, but wasn't completely successful with the negotiating parties.)

Consider cross-cultural issues
You take a risk of an unsuccessful outcome when you assume that the other party in the negotiation is just like you.  In cross-cultural negotiations there may be greater differences in values and priorities than you are used to handling.  This can be dealt with by doing some research during your planning phase, and then testing your information once you are in process in the negotiation to make sure you haven't simply replaced one incorrect assumption with another.

Remember the parameters for the negotiation
The outer limits of the negotiation are called anchors.  When the other party proposes a solution that you think is completely unreasonable, be careful not to use the solution as the anchor for further negotiation.  Make sure that you and they start negotiating in earnest from two reasonable positions.  Who gets to determine what is reasonable?  Typically the party with the upper hand going into the negotiation.  For example, in the case of a real estate transaction, the seller has the upper hand unless they are in some circumstance like financial distress where they must sell now at whatever price.

Slow Down
Have you ever sold something to someone who took the asking price without any haggling?  Did you feel good about that transaction, or did you come away thinking that you should have asked more?  If you're like most people, you were kicking yourself afterward for asking too little.  If you're on the other end, always offer less, even when you know the price is an incredible deal.  It will help the other person come away from the negotiation feeling good.

Be a good sport
Nobody likes a gloating winner.  Be gracious, even when you know that your negotiation skills have enabled you to garner greater benefit than the other party.

Remember when you are engaged in negotiation that it is likely, perhaps even a given, that you will be encountering this person across the table again in the future.  The relationship points that you add or deduct in this transaction will have an impact on your future success.  Understand that you are laying the groundwork for the next negotiation, and the next, during this one

Friday, June 7, 2013

Marketing helps cancer center treat pediatric patients

Facing cancer is always tough, no matter the age of the patient.  But it's particularly heartbreaking when the patient is a child.  Some treatments cause nausea, hair loss, and other uncomfortable side effects.  And of course many of them are delivered through a needle and an IV.  You know how much kids like needles.

Enter marketing into the A.C. Camargo Cancer Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Ad agency J.Walter Thompson helped the hospital develop a whole new way for pediatric cancer patients to see their treatment - and themselves - by developing "The Superformula".  Watch this:

Customized packaging of chemo treatments and integrated communication tools (cartoons and coloring books) help the treated children see themselves as victors over an enemy.  They become members of The Justice League, and like other superheroes, envision themselves regaining their superpowers via The Superformula.  Even the children's ward was involved in the effort, its decor transformed into a Hall of Justice.

The packaging is completely compliant with the hospital's sterilization and other procedural requirements, and the concept was developed in collaboration with physicians.