Archive for the 'Management Fundamentals' 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.

Four letters from your big customers

Consider the ancient proverb: “Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” This is about four letters with this proverb in mind, sent to small businesses from their corporate customers – two that have been sent and two that will be.

1. Quality

The first letter was born in the 1950s, when the ideas of the godfather of the 20th century quality process, Edwards Deming, reversed “Made in Japan” from a metaphor for cheap into a mark of quality. During the 1980s, after American industrial competitiveness fell behind global competitors, quality processes like ISO and Six Sigma were adopted, returning “Made in America” to a mark of excellence.

By 1990, with their in-house quality act now together, big businesses realized they needed similar commitments from the small business vendors that had increasingly become more like integrated partners. As such, big business needed to know that the support from these partners would at least not diminish the quality expectations of their customers. Consequently, small businesses started receiving letters from those big customers requesting evidence of quality process practices, if not certification, without which there would be no continued, or new contracts.

2. Y2K

The seed for the second letter was planted by computer programmers in the 1960s. When these programmers wrote date codes with six digits, as in 121565, for December 15, 1965, they did so to conserve what was at the time very expensive data storage. However, they didn’t realize they were creating the literally ticking Y2K time bomb.

Around 1995, experts started worrying that when the clock ticked midnight, January 1, 2000, zillions of lines of date-sensitive computer calculations would fail by going back a century – 010100 would revert to January 1, 1900 – instead of rolling forward to 2000. Consequently, the codes in millions of programs had to be fixed. By 1998, small businesses started getting letters from their larger customers requesting evidence of their “Y2K compliance,” without which there would be no new contracts with eight-digit dates.

3. Sustainability

The third letter was born in the middle of the 20th century, when we started realizing that the solution to pollution was not dilution. Since then, environmental stewardship has evolved from not polluting to sustainability. That word – sustainability – essentially means doing more with less, and it includes making waste useful – especially water. It turns out that sustainability is not just the right thing to do. Since it’s been proven that it can also contribute to profitability and a positive corporate image, it’s become a 21st century business best practice.

You may not yet have received a sustainability commitment and practices letter from your corporate customers, but it’s coming. And because of that best practice thing, it will be irrespective of the current state of the geo-political climate change debate. So start thinking about resources usage, including energy, consumables, production waste – especially water. Start documenting your efforts, practices and performance in recycling, reusing, conserving, etc., so when a customer hands you their “Sustainability Letter,” you won’t have that “weak-link in the headlights” look.

4. Cyber-security

Does anyone need a review of the multiple and significant cyber-assaults that have been made on digital assets and records of American business and government in the past few years? Whether from cyber-criminals or cyber-spies, the threat is real, comprehensive, determined, unrelenting and, to date at least, very successful – for the bad guys.

Expect the Trump administration to push for increased cyber-defense measures for the government to an unprecedented degree. Because of the massive level of business that corporate America does with the federal government, a cyber-security partnership will logically be forged, as they collaborate on cyber-practices, expectations, tools, innovations, etc. This will be the most comprehensive commingling of efforts and shared goals by business and government since WWII. So expect your large customers to begin requiring cyber-security practices verification, either by a letter, or in the specifications of an RFP. Your corporate customers are not going to let you be their weak link.

Write this on a rock … Take a lesson from the Quality and Y2K letters. Set yourself up for success by taking action on sustainability and cyber-security. Do it now!

Sustained small business success requires two kinds of passion

Over the years, as I’ve talked with many a budding entrepreneur about to start their business, it continues to amaze me how many haven’t conducted anywhere close to a prudent amount of research or due diligence on their baby. Indeed, they often act as if they must get their business going … right … now … or … they … will … just … POP!
This kind of impatience is dangerous.
Doing my best to talk them down off the ledge, I walk the fine line of tough love, between slowing them down to the speed of reason and smacking their entrepreneurial passion into a wall.
When would-be small business owners get that far away look in their eyes at this impetuous stage, they have plenty of passion for what the business does. They can’t wait to sell suits, manufacture plastic parts, bake bagels, or (your baby here). And passion for what they want to do is not only a good thing, it’s essential.
But without a healthy interest in - if not an attraction for - business fundamentals, passion has only slightly more value than a dream. In truth, if the balance between your baby and operating fundamentals gets out of whack, that’s when your dream becomes your nightmare. Trust me. I’ve had to make payments on one or two of my nightmares, after the thrill was gone.
This will be on the test: Success as a small business owner requires two kinds of passion:
  1. The love of what you want to do - your baby. If you haven’t been a mother, this is akin to how a mother loves her newborn, and it’s the easy kind. Spoiler alert!  It’s too easy.
  2. This kind of small business passion is less adorable, but in no way less important. This is passion for becoming an operating professional. It makes you dedicated to learning and practicing management fundamentals. If done right, you’ll actually acquire a peaceful acceptance of a return-on-investment timeline that pushes the deferred gratification envelope beyond what you ever thought possible, let alone acceptable.
See, I told you it was less adorable. The closest kin to this kind of passion is that which is required for parents to love their teenagers - during those times when you don’t like them very much, but you still love them … anyway.
It’s critical for a starry-eyed startup to distinguish between, and be dedicated to both passions, because passion for what you sell won’t be enough when:
  • Payables exceed receivables
  • You’re making payroll and there isn’t enough cash because you didn’t manage the cash (”Is it Friday already?!”)
  • When customers are the most difficult
  • When an employee becomes part of the problem
  • When your bank loan request must have current financial statements, including a 12-month cash flow projection showing how the bank will be repaid
  • Your operating derailment here
Brace yourself! This list is like a “What’s inside!” teaser on the cover of a very thick catalog of abiding small business operating challenges. Fending them off will require you to deliver on the management fundamentals you became good at because you had that second kind of passion: you became a high-performing, professional business owner, not just someone who dreamed of being one. You were passionate about what you do, and just as passionate about how you do it.
Write this on a rock … Sustained business success - year after year - requires passion for what you do, AND for how you do it.

5 year-end steps to take while you’re closing out this year

Fourteen hundred and forty - the number of minutes in a day.

Since we can make more money, arguably the greatest challenge of any small business owner is balancing the demands of the forces that compete for those minutes.

“What is the best use of my time right now?” is the constant management question on Main Street. And in no other part of the year are we more time-management challenged than in December, when we’re faced with allocating time to two very powerful management imperatives: The tactical focus on closing out the sales year as strongly as possible, while simultaneously taking strategic steps to set the business up for a fast and clean start on January 1.

In his book, Blue Highways, William “Least Heat Moon” Trogden said his Osage Indian grandfather once told him, “Some things don’t have to be remembered, they remember themselves.” It’s a natural law that the year-end sales push doesn’t have to be remembered, it remembers itself. But as we come to the two-minute drill in the last quarter of the marketplace game our business plays all year, committing precious time and energy to preparing for the future requires the discipline to remember it ourselves.

There are many areas to focus on this month to help you start the New Year clean and fast.  Here are five to get you started.

1. Throw stuff away

Even if you’re not a pack rat like me, you’ve accumulated stuff you don’t use anymore.  For example, one of the markers of a 21st century office is the digital graveyard. Unused or broken computers, monitors, etc., may have some value, so call a tech recycler and convert it into cash. If you can’t sell it, give it away or throw it away, because it’s in your way.

2. Empower producers - cut the dead wood

Year-end is also a great time to take stock of employees who’ve demonstrated leadership and engagement. Recognizing the performance of those individuals will motivate them to a fast start in the New Year.

The only thing worse than firing someone is letting an unproductive employee hold your team’s performance hostage for another year. A byproduct of identifying those who perform is it also shines a light on those who don’t. You owe productive people the most effective organization possible, which means you have to let the unproductive pursue their careers elsewhere.

3. Classify customers

Classify customers by gross profit into four groups, from the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Worship the As, cater to the Bs, encourage the Cs and teach the Ds about self-service. When the cost of a customer’s expectations encroaches on your profit margin too much, allow them to join your unproductive employees - elsewhere.

4. Purge inventory

As with customers, take a new look at your products and inventory by identifying the most profitable As to the least profitable Ds. Stock all the As, a few of the Bs and maybe a couple of Cs. But never let a D spend one night under your roof unless it’s paid for. Remember, profitable inventory management means just-in-time, not just-in-case. And write off obsolete and damaged inventory. Take the hit now.

5. A/R reality

Take another hit by writing off uncollectable accounts receivables now, so you can start January with a clean list. A/R write-offs are tax deductions this year, and if you wind up collecting them next year, it’s gravy. The only thing more troubling to a banker than uncollected A/R is a customer who doesn’t have the discipline to deliver a clean balance sheet.

Each New Year deserves to have the maximum opportunity to be successful, so don’t saddle it with obsolescence, waste and bad decisions. By taking these steps - and others from your own list - you’ll prove to yourself, your team you’re your banker that you have the discipline to make the critical decisions for which successful managers are known.

Write this on a rock … Have the discipline to set up your New Year for a clean and fast start.

Diaper Changing Stuff (DCS): Five critical questions for startups and veterans

Small business owners have to deal with two universes every day: the Marketplace, and what I call, the Diaper Changing Stuff (DCS).

The Marketplace is the fun place, where you buy and sell stuff. Playing in the backyard of this universe is why you became a business owner in the first place. And the good news is, most entrepreneurs are pretty good at the rules and expectations of this universe before they start their business.

The DCS represents mostly backroom, operating tasks (read: not much fun) that have to be done in order to present the business and its products to the Marketplace – accounting, cash management, banking, capital allocation, payroll, regulations – you get the picture. Just as no one has a baby because they like changing diapers, no one ever went into business because they’re passionate about inventory management or accounts payable. And yet, those tasks are as critical as the fun ones.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, don’t do it until you’ve compared my quick DCS checklist to your abilities. If you’re a business veteran, road test your DCS skills against this list to see where you might need improvement.

1. Cash and accounting

Do you know the difference between cash and accounting? Gain this understanding before you hock the house to start your business, because it’s the most imperative financial dynamic you’ll face every day. In fact, it’s the number one business issue that will wake you up at 2am. Remember, you can’t make payroll with a debit or a credit.

2. Capital allocation

Do you know how to properly allocate operating and non-operating capital? Don’t use operating cash to buy long-term assets, or borrow money to operate on. Create a capital source and allocation strategy before you crank up your corporation.

3. Banking

Do you know how to talk banker? If you need a loan, can you explain what you’re going to accomplish with the money, AND how you’re going to pay the bank back? If you make a loan request without this information, you’ll just burn a banking bridge. Bankers are easily frightened, and no one ever got a loan from a scared banker.

4. A/R Days – A/P Days

Do you understand the relationship between Accounts Receivable Days and Accounts Payable Days? If you extend credit to customers, you have to fund those accounts until they’re received, which is usually later than when you have to pay vendors. If you’re not tracking this relationship, you could literally succeed yourself out of business. And the first indication you’re in jeopardy will be a call from your banker telling you to make a deposit, or a vendor putting you on C.O.D. Sometimes these calls come in at the same time.

5. Quality Process

Do you know the difference between Quality Service (QS) and Quality Process (QP)? QS is always making the customer happy, no matter how many times it takes to get it right. QP means getting it right the first time. QS is an expense you have to pay for over and over. Having a QP is an investment in excellence that stops the bleeding and moves customers from complaining to placing new orders and referring you to their friends.

Bonus question: Can you operate the business you had the entrepreneurial vision to create? Not everyone can. Don’t start your business unless you’re ready to change the diapers on your baby.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Fourth Law of Small Business: “Successful small business owners have the spirit of an entrepreneur and the heart of an operator.”

Can you sell your leadership product?

What is a leader? A mentor once told me a leader is someone who can find others who will follow him (or her).

But as we all know, followers can be high-maintenance folks, requiring constant tending to whatever it is that attracts them; most of the time “it” is something intangible. Napoleon is reputed to have said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Intangible.

Leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So we asked our radio and online audience which of five characteristics is THE most important to being a successful leader. Two of the leadership traits we offered, courage and perseverance, got the lowest ranking, each in single digits.  The highest ranking went to “ability to communicate,” with about 40% choosing this one, followed by “ethical behavior,” chosen by almost one-third of respondents,  and “vision” selected by a little more than one out of four.

At first, I was surprised that courage and perseverance didn’t rank higher, because it’s my belief that both of these are defining traits of a successful leader. But surprise turned to clarity when I realized that our poll had revealed what we all know but don’t always remember: There are two faces of a leader. One is the face leaders see when looking in a mirror, and the other is the one followers see. When seeking the definition of a leader, we have to be clear about which point-of-view is being sought: leadership traits we seek in ourselves or those that attract followers.

The face in the mirror knows courage and perseverance are definitely among the imperatives for leadership success. But to followers, these are merely raw materials used to manufacture the product they demand of leaders - that intangible “bit of colored ribbon” delivered by communicating a vision that is executed based on mutually held values.

Turns out, being a leader is a lot like being a business owner. To be successful in business, it’s not enough to offer quality products you’re proud of - customers drop the gavel on that judgment. Similarly, it’s not enough for leaders just to please the mirror - followers are the customers of your leadership product.

In order to get others to follow you, both faces of leadership must be in evidence. Nurture those traits that success requires of you personally, like courage, perseverance, faith, commitment, etc., while simultaneously delivering what followers expect: ethics, communication, vision and performance.

Write this on a rock … Are you finding followers for your “bit of colored ribbon?”




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