Are you looking for answers in the wrong places?

This is a story about three small business owners who had one thing in common: a wise man named Luther. Oh, by the way, Luther is their janitor.

On Mondays, Luther cleans the offices at National Supply Co., Inc. Sometimes he talks with the founder, Mr. Gilbert.

One Monday afternoon Mr. Gilbert said, “Luther, I don’t know how long I can survive.”

“What’s wrong, Mr. G?” Luther asked.

“It’s those big-box competitors,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I’ve looked under every rock for ways to lower our prices and increase advertising, but I just can’t compete with those guys.”

“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place,” Luther offered.

“What do you mean?” Mr. Gilbert asked.

“Those big competitors will always be with us,” Luther reminded him. “Why don’t you emphasize the value of the human connection and customized service that only a small business like yours can deliver? Those two things alone are worth more than anything the Big Boxes offer.”

On Wednesdays, when Luther cleans the offices at Central Data Corp., he often visits with the owner, Sarah.

“Luther, I always assumed my kids would take over my business, but now it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen,” Sarah lamented one day.

“Why aren’t they interested in the business?” Luther asked.

“I’m stumped, she said. “I’ve shown them the opportunity and how profitable the business can be. What else can I do?”

“Maybe you’re asking them to look in the wrong place,” Luther suggested.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“Sarah, I’ve noticed how much you love what you do,” said Luther, “even when times were tougher and things weren’t so rosy. From what I’ve seen, being an entrepreneur is as much about nourishing the spirit as growing the bank account. Help them think about that.”

On Fridays, Luther cleans the offices at Westco Dynamics, Inc. Mr. West usually talks with Luther for a few minutes, but he seemed pensive today.

“Luther, my family was so poor that we struggled just to survive,” Mr. West said. “When I left home, I vowed to never be that unhappy again.”

“Mr. West, it sounds like you’ve got something stuck in your craw,” Luther observed.

“Aw, it’s nothing,” Mr. West fibbed. “It’s just that, with all my money and stuff, I still can’t stop looking for ways to make sure I’ll never be poor again.”

“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Luther.

“What do you mean?” Mr. West asked.

Then Luther said, “You’ve been motivated by the fear of being poor instead of the joy of creating something from nothing. Try finding happiness in knowing that you provide valuable products and services for your customers, and jobs and income for your employees and their families. Remember, money and stuff only give you options, not happiness.”

Write this on a rock … When you’re looking for answers, make sure you look in the right places.

Four marketplace truths about your customers

Spend time in the marketplace and you’ll have many close encounters of the third kind with the most interesting species in all of nature: the human being. And as we have learned, the nature of humans isn’t much different from other animals: All need to breathe, eat, drink, procreate and survive.

But there is something that clearly sets humans apart from other fauna: sentience. And one of the manifestations of being self-aware is that beyond what humans need, they also want.

Every human who owns an automobile will need to buy new tires. But what they want is to keep the family safe while not spending a Saturday buying tires. So if you’re in the tire business, should you advertise tires, which are commodities that the Big Boxes can sell cheaper than your cost? Or should you develop and market a customer loyalty program that combines peace of mind for your family with pick-up and delivery? How about this tag line:

Let us worry about when you need new tires and get your Saturday back.

Basically the hairless weenies of the family animalia, human beings need shelter, but we want a home. So if you’re a realtor, should you focus on the obligatory list of residential features, or how the physical setting and interior space fit what you’ve learned is your customer’s sense of a home? Try this on:

Mrs. Johnson, countertops can be replaced. What I want to know is how much will you love seeing the sun rising over that ridge as you enjoy your first cup of coffee every morning?

Humans, like thousands of other warm-blooded species, need to eat every day, whether they get to or not. But unlike other animals, only humans want to dine. If you own a fine dining restaurant, do you emphasize the food, or the potential for a lasting memory? Check it out:

Long after you’ve forgotten how wonderful our food is, you’ll still remember that table for two in the corner or the booth next to the fireplace.

Small business success requires understanding these marketplace truths:

1. What customers need are commodities driven by price.

2. The price war is over, and small business lost.

3. What customers want is anywhere from a little bit more to everything.

4. Customers will pay more for what they want – charge them for delivering it.

As a small business success strategy, delivering what customers want or selling commodities they need, is as Mark Twain said, “like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Write this on a rock … Find out what humans want, deliver it, and charge for it.

You say your business plan every day

Do you have a business plan? What? In your head? How’s that working for you?

Don’t know how to get one started? Well consider this conversation that happens many times, every day, between business owners just like you and the people they meet.

Friend: “Hi Joe. Heard you started a business. What’re you doing?”

Owner: “Oh, hi, Sue. Yeah, John and I are selling square widgets to round widget distributors.”

Friend: “What? How’re you going to do that?”

Owner: “We discovered that no one has thought to offer square widgets to these guys. Our research found that round widget companies not only need square widgets sometimes, but they’ll pay a premium for them.”

Friend: “I thought you couldn’t get new square widgets anymore?”

Owner: “Well, we discovered that round widget companies don’t need new square widgets, so we’re buying seconds, cleaning them up, repackaging and delivering them to those customers.”

Friend: “Sounds like you’ve found a niche. How many can you sell in a year?”

Owner: “We’ve identified the need for 15,000 this year, and with the trend in the market, we think we can double that within three years. Gotta go. See ya later.”

Let’s look at what just happened. Without realizing it, Joe essentially said his business plan to Sue. In two minutes Joe identified the business, management team, industry, market opportunity, customer profile, vendor profile, pricing strategy, market research results and, finally, growth plans. All that’s left is to add a few other elements, write the narrative and project the numbers.

Since you’re probably having similar conversations that means you’re saying your business plan, probably without realizing it, every day. But is that a useful form?

There are a bazillion reasons to put your plan on paper, but we only have room for the three most likely:

  • To get a bank loan
  • To attract investors
  • Because it’s an essential management tool

So now that I’ve convinced you how important this management tool is, when you do yours, don’t make these mistakes:

  • Don’t wait until you need a business plan to start one.
  • Don’t wait until you have time.
  • Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

The words of a conversation like the one above are the seeds from which you can grow your business plan. So just start writing what you already know, like Joe said.

A written business plan will help you achieve new levels of management professionalism and success. Here’s a good place to see something less than a bazillion sample plans without any commercials: www.bplans.com.

Write this on a rock … You already say your business plan every day. Now write it down.

Four things salespeople can learn from Sir Laurence Olivier

The great English actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, once admitted after a lifetime on stage and screen that he had always suffered from stage fright.

Think about that. One of the 20th century’s most revered actors, who appeared in over 120 stage roles, 60 movies, more than 15 television productions and countless performances, actually battled the fear of rejection and failure. But when you look at his numbers, it’s obvious that Sir Laurence’s “condition” didn’t cost him success.

So, what about you? What do your “numbers” look like? Your sales numbers, I mean.

Sadly, too often, well-trained and motivated people allow something to prevent them from achieving their numbers. That “something” is to the marketplace what stage fright is to acting: call reluctance, brought on by the fear of rejection and fear of failure.

The good news about call reluctance is that you can overcome it the way Sir Laurence overcame stage fright. Indeed, his success, and the fact that he was willing to talk about his condition, provides us with at least four clues about his professional courage and spirit.

1. He recognized a personal performance challenge.
2. He accepted it as something that must be dealt with.
3. He took steps to minimize negative effects.
4. He refused to let it get in the way of his goals and success.

How can you tell if you or someone in your organization has debilitating call reluctance? You’ll find it in the numbers: insufficient call reports; a missed selling step such as proposal delivery; a poor close ratio; and of course, failure to meet sales budgets.

Those afflicted with call reluctance will often:

  • Call on customers they like instead of new prospects.
  • Spend time on safe activities, like paperwork, instead of face-to-face prospecting.
  • Make excuses when asked about why they aren’t getting in front of customers.
  • If you aren’t making your sales numbers, the problem might be call reluctance. See if you recognize any of the behavior in the list above. If so, consider Sir Laurence’s list again. There’s a good chance that you’ll need help with the first point, recognition, because most of us aren’t good at seeing our own shortcomings. And the third one, taking steps to minimize the challenge, will likely require help from a professional trainer.

    But dealing with two and four, acceptance and refusing to give in, will require calling on inner strengths. You’ll have to ask yourself if you’re allowing fear to control and direct your life. Or are you more like Sir Laurence Olivier – prepared to recognize, deal with and minimize the effects of your challenges? And in the face of these challenges, can you draw on your spirit to accomplish your goals.

    Write this on a rock … Don’t let call reluctance prevent you from having the maximum opportunity to be successful.

    Six “networking thoughts” for success, plus one bonus

    Networking is one of the three most important areas small business owners should focus on in the 21st century. The other two are leveraging technology and developing strategic alliances.

    My definition of networking is: actively making professional relationships, developing and maintaining those relationships, and leveraging them for the benefit of all parties. But before you can develop a relationship, you first have to meet the other person and establish a basis for future contact.

    Networking opportunities are everywhere you turn, but especially at Chamber of Commerce events or any venue likely to be attended by business and community leaders.

    Before you enter a networking environment, it’s important to understand that successful networking is an acquired skill, like playing golf. In fact, we could actually take a lesson from those who seek the little white ball.

    Good golfers address each shot with what are called “swing thoughts.” They orient their pre-swing routine - and the actual swing - around these fundamentals, which will help them make a good shot.

    Inspired by the work of my friend, Andrea Nierenberg, author of Nonstop Networking, I’ve created a few networking thoughts, or NT for short. Please, try these at home.

    NT #1. Make eye contact
    One of the worst things that can be said about your human interaction skills is that you don’t look the person you’re talking to in the eye. Andrea says you should be able to remember the color of the person’s eyes that you just met.

    NT #2. More ears - less mouth
    This is an old adage, but it’s an essential NT for most of us. You’ll be more likely to impress someone by your interest in them rather than the other way around.

    NT #3. Smile
    Ladies are usually better at this than men. But the smile must be genuine, and is best accomplished in combination with NT #1.

    NT #4. Firm handshake
    Men are usually better at this than the ladies, but don’t turn it into a wrestling match. And guys, when you’re shaking the hand of a lady, it’s the opposite of dancing: let the lady lead. Ladies, that means offer your hand first and give ‘em a good squeeze.

    NT #5. Elevator speech
    This is your very short and concise response if someone asks what you do. And unless one of you is actually getting off an elevator, be thinking about NT #2, and follow your little speech with a sincere inquiry about them.

    NT #6. Successful networking benefits all parties
    Re-read the definition of networking. Enter any networking opportunity with NT #6 on your mind, instead of “What’s in it for me?” and your networking success will increase exponentially. This is also the Law of Reciprocity, which Ivan Misner, founder of BNI shortened into: Givers gain.

    Write this on a rock … Bonus NT: It’s net-working, not net-playing.

    What politicians, small business and mice have in common

    Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Spencer Johnson wrote a legendary book titled, Who Moved My Cheese? It tells a story about four characters who ate only cheese.

    Early in the story all four characters went to the same place in their world – a maze – to get cheese. The first two were not picky about their cheese or where they found it – it was just food. In fact, the current place in the maze where they found and ate cheese was literally just that. So when someone moved their cheese, they immediately started looking for the new place where cheese was being put.
    For the second two characters in Johnson’s story, cheese represented more than food; they had allowed themselves to become defined by the specific cheese found in that specific place in the maze. To them, this cheese was more than nourishment, it also represented their esteem, success and happiness. You’ve heard of being hidebound. Well you might say these two were cheesebound (my term, not Johnson’s), which really wasn’t a problem until someone moved their cheese.

    Twenty-five years ago, in his book (and film), Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, futurist Joel Barker defined a paradigm as a set of rules that: 1) establishes/defines boundaries; and 2) tells you how to be successful within those boundaries. Barker says paradigms, both written and unwritten, can be useful until there’s a shift, which is what happened to the cheesebound characters in Johnson’s story. When someone moved their cheese, instead of looking for new cheese like their maze-mates, they whined and dithered so long in the old place – now devoid of cheese – that they put their survival in jeopardy.

    Johnson’s cautionary tale – and the two sides of Barker’s paradigm coin – apply to all parts of life, especially politics and business.

    For generations, the Democrat and Republican Parties each showed up at the same corner of their own political maze where they had always found the same cheese. Like the second characters in Johnson’s story, both parties had been nourished and defined by the cheese they found in that specific spot. But when someone moved their cheese, as the electorate is doing now, the cheesebound members whine and struggle to maintain their identity instead of taking action to find new cheese. In his book Johnson says, “Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.”

    Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are like the first two characters in Johnson’s story. Neither define themselves by the old cheese in the old location. They went looking for and, to the surprise of their party leadership, found new cheese. Johnson says, “Movement in a new direction helps you find the new cheese.”

    Small business owners should watch the clinic that the Democrats and Republicans are putting on this year on the wages of being cheesebound. Like the electorate, customers are moving cheese and shifting paradigms all over the marketplace. You cannot afford to become cheesebound.

    Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Law of Business Love: It’s okay to fall in love with what you do, but it’s not okay to fall in love with how you do it.




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