Archive for the 'Future thinking' Category

When trust is a best practice, profit margins increase

Few contemporary prophecies have stood the test of time better than this one by John Naisbitt, from his 1982 watershed book, Megatrends: “The more high-tech, the more high-touch.” I call that, “Naisbitt’s Razor.”

The reason for Naisbitt’s accuracy is simple: High tech, by definition, means digital. But you and I are not the least bit digital; we’re 100% analog. And our analog nature manifests as a desire to connect with - or as Naisbitt says, “touch” - other humans. So the value of touch increases proportionally with the increase in the velocity of our lives.

Digital is fast; analog is not. We may transport ourselves virtually at the speed of digital, but once there, we touch -eye, ear, hand - at the speed of analog. So how do we reconcile the fact that as high-tech consumers who desire and eagerly adopt each new generation of digital, we’re still, and will always be, analog beings? One word: trust.

Nothing is more capable of accelerating with high-tech while simultaneously governing down to high-touch than trust. Naisbitt didn’t directly address the concept of trust in his book. But I interviewed him twice on my radio program and I think he wouldn’t mind if I expanded his razor to: The more high-tech we have, the more imperative trust becomes.

In another of my favorite books, Built On Trust, by co-author and frequent guest on my radio program, Arky Ciancutti, M.D., I found this: “We are a society in search of trust. The less we find it, the more precious it becomes.” For millennia, customers did business with the same businesses because they wanted to deal with the same people. We trusted the people first and the company second. In an era where erosion of the high touch of trust is often lamented by customers and employees, there are still places where it not only exists, but was actually born. Where, in contrast to the rest of the contemporary marketplace, trust is still found in abundance. Those places are almost all on Main Street in the form of small businesses.

With trust now more precious than ever, build the foundation of your small business’s culture on it. And when you can deliver on trust as your North Star, you’ve earned the right to go to market with it. Here’s an example:  Reveal the combined industry tenures of your leadership team (101 years), or the average tenure of your staff (18 years). When prospects see those numbers, they hear T-R-U-S-T.

In one interview on my show, Arky said, “An organization in which people earn one another’s trust, and commands trust from customers, has an advantage.” Since contemplating that, I’ve maintained that being devoted to trust is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business best practice. Let me explain.

As the velocity of the digital marketplace increases, our business has to move faster, and our stakeholders - employees, vendors, etc. - have to keep up. As one of my vendors, if I can trust you to keep up, that’s a relevance value worth more to me than the competitive price of a low-bidder I don’t know. You just converted trust into higher margins.

In the greater marketplace, where devotion to trust is no longer ubiquitous, small businesses have been handed a rare gift. And all they have to do to claim it is create and leverage the relevance advantage Arky means when he says, “The advantage trust gives your organization is there for the taking, waiting to be harvested. It’s not even low-hanging fruit. It’s lying on the ground.”

You may have heard me say that the Price War is over and small business lost. Well, the Trust War is on, and small business is winning.

Write this on a rock … To claim that victory you must operate at the speed of trust.

What you should know about the Internet before we give away ICANN

Allow me to tell you a story of innovation bordering on the miraculous, scientific stewardship driven by professionalism and shared values, and global leadership that qualifies as agape. And the possibility that all three could be headed for an intersection where the best intentions of good people could be in jeopardy.

Approximately 23 years ago you and I were given access to the Internet, an invention that a generation earlier would have been considered science fiction. Most experts define the headwaters of this seminal invention to be the digital protocol work of Bob Kahn and Vint Cert, both researchers for a division of the U. S. government. Subsequent to its commercialization, these two and a few other geniuses created a number of digital innovations that enabled the Internet and established it as an unprecedented resource.

First question: How did the rest of the world get the Internet?

Since it was initially considered part of national defense, all of this mad scientist stuff was funded by the government’s National Science Foundation and its various contractors. As it became evident that the Internet had commercial applications, the U.S. began sharing with the world what we knew and what we had. Nothing was withheld, enabling the Internet to rise in every corner of the world.

Second question: Who operates the Internet?

Think of it like a private toll road system. The U.S. government allowed private investment to create interconnected computer networks into a “backbone” system that, for a “toll,” delivers our digital business around the world using the protocols created by Kahn and Cerf, and later applications like browsers. Similarly, more private investment built out the infrastructure to transfer digital info from the backbone to last-mile users, like you and me, at the speed of light.

Third question: Who’s in charge of Internet governance?

Who runs the Internet is more complicated to explain, but it’s important because of that intersection thing mentioned earlier. In fact, the U.S. government allowed Kahn, Cerf and others to create governing bodies like the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architectural Board, and the World Wide Web Consortium, as organizations overseeing governance, access and standards for the global proliferation of the Internet. The Internet Society, which is the incorporated parent of two of these organizations, has 80,000 stakeholders and 110 chapters in 140 countries. That’s a lot of shared governance with one goal – a free and open Internet, sans politics.

The reason I’m telling you about the origin and governance of the Internet, is because a very important, last piece of U.S. direct influence of an Internet possession is about to be lost. The 18-year contract between the U.S. government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) expires on September 30, 2016. When you create a new website it actually has two addresses: 1) a name, like abcsupply.com, for humans to remember and manage; and 2) a number value, like 207.111.167.145, for the way computers work. If you type either the words or numbers assigned to your website into a browser, the same page will be delivered.

According to NetChoice.org Executive Director, Steve DelBianco, in 2014 the Obama administration instructed ICANN to create, and transfer itself to, a “global, multi-stakeholder community.” On my radio program recently, DelBianco reported that this new body has been created and will take over on October 1. As part of the transitioning team, he says the new ICANN will be not unlike the other bodies mentioned earlier who’ve been governing the Internet for decades. That’s the good news.

Last question: If the Internet had been the property of Russia, China, or even France, would access and control of such a powerful resource have been so freely shared?

I think not. Consequently, in spite of my confidence in DelBianco and his colleagues, I’ve been very outspoken in the past three years against this plan for ICANN. I’m concerned about the loss of the last thread of direct influence by the U.S. government. I’m worried about what will happen if when we reach that intersection in the future, global, multi-stakeholder organizations, who’ve governed so dispassionately – without ideology – for decades, somehow become influenced or overridden by bad actor states, or possibly worse, the United Nations. The UN has a long history of coveting control of the Internet.

The United States is the most benevolent broker on the planet and has never let geopolitics influence Internet access or governance. With so many experts projecting that cyber-attacks pose a more imminent threat to our sovereignty than nuclear weapons, I fear the best intentioned Internet governors and investors may ultimately be no match for someone named Putin, Jinping, Khamenei, Jong-un, or their proxies.

Write this on a rock … Pray the world doesn’t regret America’s divesting of this last vestige of U.S. Internet ownership and control.

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.

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.

Online Poll: How do you feel about the future of America?

The Question: As you contemplate Independence Day, how do you feel about the future of America?

8% - America’s best days are still ahead.
6% - America’s best days are behind us.
83% - America’s in trouble, but we can still turn it around.
3% - Never mind America, the whole world is going to hell!

Jim’s Comments: As you will see in the results of our recent online poll above, more than eight of ten of our respondents have serious concerns about America’s condition and future, with only 8% who’re optimistic about how things are. By comparison, the national average reported by Real Clear Politics — which homogenizes seven large polls — reports two-thirds of Americans think we’re “on the wrong track.” Perhaps the reason our folks rank their concerns a little higher than other polls is because we’re responsible for making payroll every week or two, which, under the current regulatory and economic conditions, is getting more and more difficult.

The last time I saw this level of concern among Americans was almost 40 years ago, during the Carter Administration. In fact, President Jimmy gave the name to the general national feeling that was pervasive during the last half of his one and only term. In a television address, he actually said there seemed to be a kind of “malaise” in the country. He was right.

Jimmy Carter is a good man, but was a poor leader. Granted, he inherited some challenging issues, but he wasn’t a problem solver and didn’t inspire confidence. Does that sound familiar? Replace the name at the beginning of that sentence with Barack Obama and everything to follow fits, with one exception: Obama has had two terms to make a difference. Sadly, if you converted the polling numbers for our national condition under this president’s watch to letters they would spell: malaise.

And my criticism isn’t political — I worship at the throne of results. Two things cause Americans to have a positive outlook: feeling secure and feeling successful. Unfortunately, looking at the facts — and the polls — in front of our eyes, these two areas are not positive.

Here are four simple traits that I would like to see in our next president, and I don’t care which party the possessor of these comes from:

  • Proven leader who hates mediocrity
  • Passionate about America’s greatness
  • Politically incorrect about defending America
  • Believes economy can grow at more than 2%

    What does your list look like? If you’d like to tell me, leave a comment.

  • Defending your business against Big Boxes and Cyber-Boxes

    Besides the traditional, local, competitive landscape small business retailers must navigate every day, they also feel pressure from two other fronts to which they’re typically less adept at responding:

    1. The Big Boxes, anchored around the corner.
    2. Cyber-competitors, untethered in the Internet.

    And pressure from the second one is increasing every day.

    Here are a few ideas on how Main Street businesses can minimize the pressure from these two:

    Big Box competitors
    Let’s begin with these two truths:

    1. Unlike Big Boxes, a small business doesn’t have to conquer the world to be successful.

    2. The price war is over and you lost.

    Your most qualified prospects and reliable customers are also the least likely to spend much time or money with a Big Box. The same feeling that attracts them to the customization and connection of your small business also causes them to be unimpressed by size and underwhelmed by poor service. Those who don’t fit this profile were never real prospects for you anyway; get over it – let them go. Your job is to re-enforce that “connection/customization” emotion by delivering value, not price, and quit trying to be something you’re not – big.

    Online competitors
    Those same customers just mentioned, who love your small business special sauce, still expect you to provide some level of online support. Your brick-and-mortar store doesn’t have to conquer the e-business world to keep customers happy, but you do have to show up online. Here’s what that means:

    1. Two words that reveal why you MUST have a professional presence online: local search. Prospects and customers use local search every day – especially on smart phones – to find companies and consider their offerings. Disregard the imperative of local search optimization at your peril. There are professionals who can help you with this – let them.

    2. Besides a regular website, yours must also be mobile-ready, including a hot phone link and directions. Nothing about your business’s past was mobile, but mobile will define your future.

    3. Prospects and customers increasingly expect businesses they like to connect with them with useful information, service announcements, and special offerings.

    There’s a reason the special offerings were listed last. “Connect” means by any means: email, text, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you aren’t asking prospects and customers for their electronic contact information, which platform they prefer, and then connect with them there, your business will suffer the slow death of irrelevance. And remember, some will still just want face-to-face.

    You can compete against the Big Boxes by merely not trying to be like them. And regarding traditional best practices and the virtual world, remember this: it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

    Write this on a rock … You don’t have to conquer the world; just show up and be yourself.




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