Small business lessons from big business mistakes

Here is a true story from which several business lessons can be learned.

A while back, I needed to reach a friend who worked in the local office of a national company. Searching online, and yes, even the phone book, I found only a toll-free number that connected to an answering system for the entire company. That’s right – this business didn’t publish a number for the local office. And incredibly, the automated system did not offer an option to connect to any local branch or person. I’m not making this up!

Lesson 1: Don’t create barriers to customers. Even if you think you don’t have barriers, look anyway, because you might. Ask employees and customers to help you find them.

Undaunted, I finally acquired the local number (yes, they had one), but the person who answered said my friend, who was in sales, had been laid off. It turns out, this publicly-traded corporation was losing money, so in order for the CEO to impress Wall Street analysts, who influence the stock price, almost 2,000 employees across the company were told to hit the bricks. Never mind how valuable these employees were or if those cuts would hurt the company’s long-term performance; the quickest way to increase profits was to cut payroll.

Lesson 2: Performance goals are important for planning, but customers don’t always buy on your schedule. Don’t let short-term expense pressures cost you sales, and worse, long-term customer relationships.

I learned that my friend had been a top producer, but since he was the last one hired he was the first to go. He’s no longer a payroll drain on his former employer, but one of their competitors quickly snapped up this winner.

Lesson 3: In the 21st century, seniority doesn’t trump performance.

So what if this big business CEO had simply installed a phone system that made sure customers could connect to his local offices? The answer is that my friend and several hundred others may not have been fired. And who knows? By simply eliminating one customer barrier, this company might actually have needed to hire more salespeople to handle all the business that would not have gone elsewhere.

Lesson 4: How you run your business – including people, systems, technology and policies – is not more important than the fast-evolving expectations of prospects and customers.

By the way, that big business that taught us these valuable lessons is no longer in business. Big surprise.

Write this on a rock … Think you don’t have customer barriers? Neither did that big business CEO.

Six questions and answers on being a successful business owner

As many of you know, for almost 19 years I’ve conducted over 1,000 live interviews annually on my radio program, The Small Business Advocate Show. I get to ask four really smart people a lot of questions. But occasionally the tables are turned are turned on me, like when Alignable.com podcaster, Alan Belniak, asked me several questions about small business on his show. I thought you’d be interested in that interchange.

Belniak: What’s the biggest problem small business owners don’t know they have?

Blasingame: Too many business owners don’t realize that their customers’ expectations are changing faster than ever before. If you want to find out what your business should be doing tomorrow or next year, that information is inside the heads of your prospects and customers. Ask them.

Belniak: What advice do you have for small business owners in order to make a successful new hire?

Blasingame: Focus on the 3Ps: Be more patient, professional and proactive. Don’t make a hiring mistake by rushing to fill a slot. Use professional methods and practices to increase your chances of making a successful hire. Be more proactive by grooming employees to step up to a key assignment, so that you’re hiring for the lower position.

Belniak: What advice can you give to those who are seeking funding?

Blasingame: Strategy and forecasting. Create a capitalization strategy that includes multiple capital sources and terms. Don’t use operating cash for long-term capital expenses. Don’t finance something you can lease. Don’t use investors when you should get a bank loan. Use an electronic spreadsheet to create a 12-month cash flow projection so you can forecast beginning and ending cash. This will make you smarter and your banker happier.

Belniak: What is one way that operating a business today is the same as 15 years ago, and one way it’s different?

Blasingame: It’s Old School fundamentals and New School tech. Old School: The fundamentals never change: you still have to buy low, sell high and keep good records; cash is still King; people still want to be treated well. New School is the digital elements, and most is good news: Small businesses have handy cool and affordable tools available, but it’s not good news if you’re not keeping up. You don’t have to win the digital race, but you do have to participate.

Belniak: What are some of the character traits common among successful entrepreneurs?

Blasingame: You have to have a high tolerance for risk. If you don’t, clock in tomorrow. You have to believe in yourself. Many days all other elements of your business will let you down. If you can’t believe in yourself, there will be days when you won’t come back. You have to love working. You’ll never work harder than when you own a business. If you don’t love working, clock in tomorrow.

Belniak: What’s one thing you see small business owners failing to do?

Blasingame: They fail to set aside time at least every week to stop being a manager and assume the role of the CEO. Fire yourself from jobs you no longer have to do and promote yourself to jobs that a growing company needs someone to perform, but that only you can do.

Write this on a rock … Being successful in small business isn’t complicated, but the degree of difficulty is hard to explain.

Admiring two kinds of American heroes

Every four years, you can watch special people participate in a noble cause – the Olympics.
These heroes commit countless hours over many years to achieve a level of excellence that might somehow qualify them to represent their country in the Olympic Games.

Notice no mention of winning, medals or glory. Most Olympians find neither. And yet they train and compete.

Watching an event, we’re at once self-conscious and grateful as the camera’s lens permits us to invade that private moment just prior to competition. Self-conscious because of the intrusion, but grateful to share the moment and benefit vicariously from the Herculean effort and sacrifice.

The TV camera moves in closer. We can actually see the color of their eyes — even imagine their thoughts.

The swimmer: “Twelve years of training and it all comes down to the next few seconds – must remember the fundamentals.”

The gymnast: “Today I will perform my personal best.”

Then the long lens captures the mouth. There’s a lick to fight the cottonmouth that only those who risk failure have tasted. The lips move ever so slightly, as if to offer a short prayer or claim an affirmation.

Every day, you can watch another group of special people participate in a noble cause – small business.
Small business owners are a lot like Olympic athletes. They commit countless hours over many years, pushing mind and body to achieve a level of excellence that might somehow allow them to merely … make a living.

Notice no mention of winning, medals or glory. Most small business owners find neither. And yet they show up, year after year, to work, compete, and contribute.

Like an Olympic race, sometimes the future of a small business’ success rides on how well the owner performs over a very short period of time. If the camera could take you in close, you might see an owner thinking: “All these years of work and risk could come down to how well I deliver this proposal in the next few minutes - must remember the fundamentals.”

The long lens would also capture the lick to lessen the cottonmouth that only those who risk failure have tasted. Then the lips move ever so slightly, as if to offer a prayer or claim an affirmation.

Olympians and small business owners are dedicated to what they love. Both work hard, in search of excellence, take great risks against all odds, and usually at their own expense.

I’ll gladly spend my admiration on that kind of spirit.

Write this on a rock … Because of Olympians and small business owners, the world is a better place.

Three new reasons to expand your market horizons

More than ever, 21st century small businesses have reasons and resources to expand opportunities beyond local markets, including international trade, and specifically exporting. Yet even though 97% of all U.S. exporters are small companies, only a fraction of that sector are exporters.

But there’s good news that should cause the number of small exporters to increase. The convergence of new technology, a global “new economy” culture more inclusive of small businesses, and believe it or not, help from the government, are making it easier for small firms to expand their market reach. But easier doesn’t mean effortless, inexpensive or justified, which are three of the key factors of any export strategy.

Let’s take a look at the possibilities of creating a trade strategy by getting help with those three factors, with emphasis on help from the government.

Effort
For a long time, exporting was the domain of those large firms that could afford to have international professionals on payroll or contract. The education and prospecting process alone was daunting enough to dampen the ardor of even the most determined prospective small exporter, let alone the actual execution of doing business abroad.

But today, it’s hard to imagine something with so much potential being as easy as walking into one of the 100+ U.S. Commercial Service offices (a Department of Commerce division) around the U.S. and asking them to help you begin the education and prospecting process. They have the staff, information and resources to get you started, and will help you along your export strategy journey. And any associated costs are minimal.

Expense
It wasn’t so long ago that someone had to physically travel to foreign markets, establish relationships with agents and customers, and then demonstrate the goods in-country. For most small businesses, those steps were financially prohibitive.

Today, that same Commercial Service office will help you find foreign prospects, coordinate introductions and demonstrations, and bring the parties together in the early stages of a relationship without prohibitive expense. It’s all done by video conference meetings in the Commercial Service office, between you and a prospect they likely helped you find. So by the time you make a significant investment, it will be spent a lot closer to fulfilling a sale. And you’ll consider any associated fees a bargain.

Justification
How do you justify developing an international strategy? Why spend time and resources trying to sell your stuff on the other side of the planet when customers are right next door? Consider these reasons:

  • More than 96% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States.
  • This year millions of Earthlings will have a smartphone for the first time who’ve never before been on the Internet or owned a computer. Don’t wait until some of them find you online to begin your international export preparation.
  • There are many examples of small businesses that minimized a downturn in the U.S. economy because their international strategy took up the slack.

New technology, new attitudes, new resources, and yes, help from the government, are bringing the world closer to your business’s door step. But you have to make the effort to meet the world halfway. Take your first step here: www.export.gov.

Write this on a rock … Education, expense, justification – check, check and check.

Three important people you want to be close to you

Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you.

In 1970, the brother/sister act, The Carpenters, took these lyrics and the rest of the song, “Close To You” to the top of the charts. Velvet-voiced Karen sang lead, with brother Richard contributing lyrics and sweet harmony.

Out here on Main Street, small businesses should hum that tune every day to remind themselves about the three most important stakeholders they want to be close to.

Customers
Every business, large and small, longs to be close to its customers. But getting customers to return the favor is the challenge. Time was, when a business was a critical link to certain products and services for customers. Longing to be close to us, customers – and their loyalty – weren’t so illusive. Today, almost everything needed by customers can be purchased within a few miles of your business from competitors that didn’t exist when the Carpenters topped the charts. Throw in the Internet and e-commerce and what isn’t a commodity today?

The good news for Main Street is that small and nimble increasingly trumps big and strong. With few exceptions, we can’t compete with the big guys on price, selection, or brand intimidation. But we can make customers want to be close to us is by scratching an itch the big boxes can’t always reach: customization.

If you want customers to suddenly appear, find out what keeps them up at night. And don’t expect the answer to be a burning need for your product or service. If you deliver a customized solution, customers will long for your business because you added unique value they can use. And here’s the silver bullet of customer longing: Help your customers help their customers.

The other good news is that customization justifies higher margins than off-the-shelf offerings. If it’s truly focused on the customer’s solution, they’ll pay for it and come back for more.

Vendors
Once-upon-a-time, a vendor was a company from which you purchased inventory, raw materials, and operating supplies. Today, if a vendor isn’t longing to be your partner, you’ve got the wrong vendor.

Of course, we’re at once a customer to vendors and a vendor to customers. Consequently, we have to find vendor-partners as well as be one. In these roles, it’s important to understand a concept that has become part of the romance between 21st century vendors and customers: seamless.

In a world of outsourcing as a management strategy, the goal is not merely to reduce in-house staff. If outsourcing is to work, products and services MUST be delivered so seamlessly to us by our vendors, and by us to our customers, that operating efficiencies actually improve.

Small businesses have a greater opportunity today to accomplish the hand-in-glove level of closeness required for seamless delivery. And we can’t deliver seamlessly to customers unless vendors long to be seamlessly close to us.

Employees
Back when the Carpenters were belting out hits, the employer/employee relationship was based largely on the Dominator Management Model, which is to say, not much closeness. Employees longed for the perceived job security and benefits of a paternalistic employer. But in the 21st century, employees are drawn closer to leaders.

Today, employers must be able to show employees that we long for them. The best way to demonstrate our longing is to close the gap between what the company needs and what employees want. This means finding and keeping employees who become stakeholders.

If you want employees to long for you, you have to suddenly appear as a partner longing to support their professional and personal fulfillment. And no one can do this better than small business.

Write this on a rock … Find and keep customers, vendors, and employees who long to be close to you.

Six steps to grow your business with referrals

Do you have enough customers? Here’s a better question: Do you have enough of the right kind of customers?

Do you agonize and strategize over the marketing plan you’ve designed to position offerings in front of your profile prospect? What’s the right message, platform, frequency, etc.? And do you then pray that the precious cash you’ve commit to marketing crosses over that pivotal line from expense to investment?

Agony and prayer; not a great strategy, right? But if this sounds familiar, you’re in good company. Marketing legend, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) once lamented, “Half of my advertising budget is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” It’s true, marketing metrics have come a long way since Mr. Wanamaker’s time, but that emerging science has been somewhat marginalized by increasing pressure from the digital marketplace. Indeed, getting customers on the proverbial dotted line is still challenging in the 21st century, especially for small businesses.

Beyond marketing, perhaps the primary reason for our customer acquisition challenge can be attributed to a human trait that’s at once primordial and unfortunate: We make things harder than they have to be. There are many examples, but arguably one of the most dramatic is also one of the simplest to fix: failure to ask for referrals.

Business referrals are now, and have always been there for the picking. And they’re as old school fundamental as they are new school relevant. So why don’t more people take advantage of this low-hanging fruit? It’s that can’t-get-out-of-my-own-way thing. Too many salespeople and organizations don’t have a referral strategy and teach referral practices.

Even though getting referrals is fall-off-a-log easy, there are specific practices to follow. Here are six I recommend to help you get started with your strategy.

  1. Spend as much time developing a referral strategy as you do a marketing strategy. When you do, two things will happen very quickly: you’ll gain new customers you weren’t getting from marketing, which will take performance pressure off of your marketing plan.
  2. Identify existing customers who like what you do. Each one is that valuable asset called a center-of-influence (COI).
  3. Explain – in person – that you need their help and how they can help you. For example: “Mr. Smith, thank you for your business over the years. We’d like to have more customers like you. I’m sure you ask your customers for referrals, and would like to ask if I may do the same with you.”
  4. Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (BNI) furnishes the next critical question: “Who do you know who …has your high standards?” “…uses the products we offer?” “…you would like to help do business with good companies like ours?” (Your “Who do you who …” here.)
  5. When you get a referral, thank the COI profusely before, during and after the subsequent contact, especially if you get the business. One thing I always say to my COIs is, “If a referral is a friend (or customer) before I contact them, I promise they will still be after I talk with them.”
  6. For millennia, business referrers have been paying it forward. As Ivan Misner says, “Givers gain.” The best way to have a sustainable referral strategy is to be an active referrer yourself. It’s much easier to ask someone for a referral to whom you’ve just given a referral.

If you’re still not sold on referrals, look around and you’ll see many successful businesses that grow only by referrals – essentially no marketing. There’s one primal reason why referrals can be more productive than marketing: People are hard-wired to want to help other people when they’re asked.

Get out of your own way and make a full commitment to creating and executing a referral strategy.

Write this on a rock … Referrals are low-hanging fruit just waiting for you to harvest.




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