Archive for the 'The Age of the Customer' Category

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.

Face-to-Face: Old School fundamental and New School cool

For 172 years, communication technologies have sought relevance in an increasingly noisy universe.

Now, well into the 21st century, there is actual management pain from an embarrassment of riches of communication innovations. And this discomfort is especially keen when staying connecting with customers: Should you call? Email? Text? How about IM?

And when should you use social media platforms? I’ve had customers who want me to connect with them on Twitter. Others send me notes on LinkedIn.

But in an era where there’s an app for everything, there is one connection method we must never be guilty of minimizing. From Morse to Millennials, in-person connection has retained its relevance as Old School fundamental and New School cool.

Indeed, face-to-face is the original social media.

Today, social media euphoria is being tempered by ROI reality. And as useful as each new communication resource proves to be, they are, after all, merely tools to leverage our physical efforts, not eliminate the basic human need for human interaction. Consider this story:

A sales manager (whose gray hair was not premature) noticed the sales performance of one of his rookies was below budget for the third consecutive month. Of course, he questioned the numbers previously but had allowed his better judgment to be swayed by plausible explanations. Now the newbie’s sales was trending, but in the wrong direction.

Upon more pointed probing, the manager discovered the reason for loss of production: too much electronic and not enough in-person connections. The rookie was relying too heavily on virtual communication at the expense of opportunities to get in front of the customer.

It turns out lack of training, demographic reality and not enough “rubber-meets-the-road” experience left the young pup uncomfortable and unprepared to ask for and conduct meetings, like a proposal presentation. He wasn’t benefiting from how the success rate of growing customer relationships can increase when critical steps are conducted in person. Consequently, this manager immediately developed a training program that established standards for how and when to integrate all customer connection tools, including face-to-face.

If your sales performance isn’t trending the right way, perhaps your salespeople need help getting in front of customers, particularly at critical steps. Like the manager above, you may need to establish specific, measurable and non-negotiable standards for when face-to-face meetings should take place.

From telegraph to Twitter there is one connection option whose relevance has borne witness to every one of the others: in-person contact. Let’s remember John Naisbitt’s prophesy from his 1982 book, Megatrends: “The more high tech we have, the more high touch we will want.”

Write this on a rock … As the original social media, face-to-face will always be relevant.

Organizational special sauce: an intangible force

“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

You may know this line as the commercial jingle describing the Big Mac that McDonald’s created to compete with the Hardee’s Husky, which came with essentially the same condiments, including Hardee’s own special sauce.

Over the years, the term “special sauce” has been re-deployed beyond the burger wars, from condiment to handy metaphor. Management and organizational commentators, like me, have co-opted the term to identify a level of organizational performance beyond extra effort. Here’s how I’ve observed organizational special sauce in the marketplace.

Organizational special sauce isn’t a strategy or campaign, nor can it be achieved with a slogan or mission statement. No special sauce was ever the child of an algorithm, big data, or other amalgamation of ones and zeros. To the chagrin of Wall Street quants, organizational special sauce is an incalculable, unprojectable, and intangible force. It’s 100% performance leverage produced by a single active ingredient: human beings loving to work together toward something they all believe in.

This leverage kicks in like a turbo after quantifiable, tangible leverage reaches its RPM red line. Every business would like to have organizational special sauce but few ever do, because the elements that foster it are not easy to achieve, including, but not limited to:

  • Hiring the best people, who are then respected and valued.
  • Excellence as a non-negotiable performance standard assumed by all stakeholders.
  • Leaders demonstrate all the aspects that define the word: courage, integrity, morals, ethics, commitment, decisiveness, humanity.
  • People are not interchangeable parts, as if they were modules.
  • Corporate values flow to the organization’s last mile as a minimum expectation.
  • Delegation includes responsibility AND authority.
  • Corrective action first presumes shortfalls result from best efforts, and the first management step is redemption.

Here’s how organizational special sauce manifests:

  • Peerless products and services.
  • Industry-leading employee retention.
  • Prospective employees line up to join the organization.
  • Employees and partners are proud of and claim the organization’s excellent reputation.
  • Ethical actions and integrity manifest as devotion to the unenforceable.
  • Customers become the organization’s best salespeople.
  • Teams work harder than they ever did, while having more fun than they ever had.
  • And the classic marker: quantum leap performance.

You can’t demand, buy, or acquire the intangible leverage of special sauce, you can only foster an environment that gives rise to it. It’s an engagement sweet spot that produces results beyond expectations and projections – quantum leap performance.

Organizational special sauce is possible, but rare in public corporations, because it doesn’t conform to the analytical expectations of the Wall Street 90-day conference call. Our here on Main Street it’s more prevalent, where small business leaders know special sauce comes from the intangible resolve of their valued and respected employees.

Write this on a rock … Contributing to organizational special sauce is one of the hardest and most beautiful things you’ll ever do at work.

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.




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