Archive for the 'The Age of the Customer' Category

Two reasons quality service can take you down

Successful customer service is the process of delivering value to customers in exchange for payment.

Surely this is the prime directive of any business. But that process isn’t truly successful unless the relationship can be sustained, and only quality produces sustainability.

But what kind of quality?

“Quality service” is a 20th century term that businesses use to declare a commitment to diligent customer support. But customers typically associate it with, and businesses too often tolerate it as promptly addressing a problem. Unfortunately, here’s what quality service often sounds like:

“We’re sorry we delivered the wrong size part. But we’re committed to quality service, so one of our trucks will be there in an hour with the correct part.”

It’s true. Sometimes quality service like that impresses the customer – and businesses even like to brag about delivering it. But while prompt attention is admirable, it’s not optimal because it has a negative impact on sustainability in at least two ways:

  1. The customer was inconvenienced by inaccurate service – you screwed up!
  2. Allowing an avoidable problem to occur is the worst kind of profit-eating inefficiency.

In the 21st century, successful small businesses have converted their problem-fixing “quality service” to the profitable and sustainable “quality process.”

Put simply, executing a quality process is serving customers correctly the first time. Accomplishing a quality process ranges from the very basic, accurate order filling, to the more complex, integrating into your operation only those vendors that share your quality process commitment. It shouldn’t be breaking news that your large business customers have been doing this for a couple of decades, to eliminate weak links in their supply chain.

The optimal goal of your quality process is sustainable customer relationships. That means 1) you did it right the first time; and 2) you made a profit and didn’t squander any of it on mistakes. Such sustainability is in evidence when customers return to find your profitable business still there, ready to serve them again with your quality process.

So why would anyone live with profit-eating quality service instead of managing with a quality process? Because cash is a drama queen and profit isn’t.

Delivering quality service is practiced by crisis managers. The crisis comes when you could lose a sale – possibly even a customer – because an order was filled incorrectly, creating a hit to your cash flow so quickly and dramatically that it takes your breath away: “OMG, get out there right now and fix this!”  Lots of drama for everyone.

Having a quality process is a commitment to profitability, requiring disciplined, long-view professional management. You’ll recognize it by the sound of no drama experienced by you or your customers … crickets.

Professional small business CEOs know that focusing on a quality process – doing it right the first time – takes a commitment to quality hiring, efficiency training, and a focus on what customers want, not just what they need. These practices produce sustained profitability and, in time, will eliminate your noisy cash flow drama.

Remember, the quality service you’ve been so proud of may seem admirable, but when delivered in response to something that was avoidable, it assaults profitability, threatens sustainability and ultimately will put you out of business.

Write this on a rock … Convert quality service into the more profitable – and sustainable – quality process.

Why strategic alliances are a 21st century imperative

In the 1990s, when I began thinking about how to help entrepreneurs prepare for the 21st century, I condensed the areas requiring a heightened level of importance into three critical disciplines:

1. Leveraging technology in every aspect of your business;

2. Professional networking, as opposed to just meeting new people;

3. Building strategic alliances as a growth strategy.

If by now you haven’t become at least somewhat proficient with the tech stuff, you don’t have much time to adapt, adopt and survive. Better get busy.

And thanks to the work of people like the legendary Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (BNI), most of us now subscribe to what I call Misner’s Razor: “It isn’t netplay; it’s network.”

But what about that alliance thing?

Blasingame’s Second Law of Small Business states: It’s redundant to say, “undercapitalized small business.” It’s a natural law that small businesses come to the end of their resources - people, assets, technology, cash and credit - much quicker than do our big business brethren and sistren. So by that definition, we have to do something as primordial as when Og asked Gog to hold the chisel while he carved out his new stone invention that looked a lot like a donut. We have to seek and develop alliances.

Answer these questions:

  • Is your business growth hampered by a lack of people, capital or other assets?
  • Would you like to bid on a request-for-proposal (RFP) that has specifications beyond your company’s ability to perform?
  • Are you reluctant to ask a large customer about their future plans for fear that your organization may not be able to step up to the answer?

If you answer any of these - or variations thereof - in the affirmative, perhaps it’s time to pursue one or more of these three alliance examples, in descending order of formality.

Partnership

A partnership is more formal and typically longer term. Regardless of how it’s structured, in general, all partners have a vested interest in the success of the entire enterprise. Think of two business owners buying a commercial duplex and sharing the space because neither has the cash or credit to swing the deal alone. Most partnerships are best organized with the help of an attorney. But remember, because it’s more formal, probably even legally binding, choose your partners well.

Once, when consulting a mentor about choosing a business partner, he used hyperbole to encourage caution by saying, “A partner is only good for two things: sex and dancing.” But it isn’t hyperbolic to say that alignment of values between the parties is imperative to a successful partnership. This is a natural law: Regardless of how symbiotic the combined contributions may be to the venture, a partnership founded by parties with conflicting values is doomed from the beginning. Choose your partners well.

Subcontractor

By definition, a subcontractor becomes a contractual participant you bring in to help fulfill a larger project for which you are the lead vendor or general contractor. Unlike a partner, a sub expects to get paid for delivery of work or products regardless of how the project turns out.

Subcontractors are a great way to leverage your business without giving up control of the opportunity. But remember that with this step you’ve created a performance chain. And we all know that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A weak subcontractor could undermine your performance, harm your brand, and may even take you down.

Like partners, choose your sub-contractors well.

Strategic alliance

This relationship is typically less formal. Let’s say a web designer, a programmer and a search engine optimization expert plug each other in on projects as peers, instead of as subcontractors. After a project is executed and paid for, the participants go their own way until the next symbiotic scenario. The most successful professionals I know claim, nurture and go to market with many and varied strategic alliance relationships. And most were born from networking.

Going forward, I believe we’re going to see more enthusiasm and growth in the marketplace than in the past few years. That should mean more business, which should present more opportunities for alliances.

Before giving up on a project because you don’t have the in-house resources, look around for ways to create alliances that allow you to take advantage of an opportunity.  Start establishing them now - before you need them.

Write this on a rock … If Og the caveman can create an alliance, you can, too.

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.

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.

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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