Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The thrill of new tools

new tools! by EricGjerde
new tools!, a photo by EricGjerde on Flickr.
A certain man (who will remain nameless in this post ) is somewhat famous among his friends for his adoration of tools.  He is well-stocked for multiple household chores - painting, woodworking, auto maintenance and repair, and more.  And he likes to work with the very best tools he can afford - or not - to buy.
So what is the thrill of new tools?  Is it simply the joy of acquisition?  Probably not, although there is something to be said for the suburban status of owning the coolest lawn mower on the street.
Perhaps the thrill of new tools comes from the possibilities that accompany them.  Maybe THIS reciprocating saw will be the key to the completion of the long-overdue basement finishing.  Perhaps the shiny food processor just out of the box will transform dinner drudgery into culinary fantasy.  And maybe, just maybe, the newest smart phone will turn a hectic, stress-filled life into a readily managed and orderly walk through the park.
New tools are like anything else in that they can create benefits or waste resources.  If they are mostly about status and the joy of having the newest whatever to show off they are mere stand-ins for a healthy self-image, and they are unnecessary expenses.  If, however, the new tools are selected strategically to integrate with your plans, they can launch you forward into new achievements.
Are you a person who "makes do" with outdated software or dull cutting tools because you don't want to part with the cash to buy new ones?  You may be fiscally prudent - or you may compromising performance.  You may be wasting time and energy, and time and energy waste has a financial impact.  What if that pneumatic nail gun would enable you to hang drywall 40% more quickly?  What would you do with the extra time?
There's an excitement that comes from learning how to make the new tools hum in producing your desired outcome.  If that excitement attracts you to do the things that you need to do to achieve the results you want, perhaps a new tool is the ticket for you.  (A certain person's quest for the "ultimate" vacuum cleaner, however, didn't result in an attraction to cleaning.  It resulted in more vacuums consuming space in the closet, and unrepentant dust bunnies prevailing in the foyer.)
Just be ready for the learning curve that will accompany the integration of the new tools into your work.  You won't be at optimal performance right out of the shrink wrap.  The inevitable learning curve means that it's probably not a good idea to replace all of your tools all at once.  Your customers need you to know what you're doing, and you need to manage your stress level by being intentional about how much you're going to take on at one time.
But hey, it was an exciting day when the first Leatherman entered the house.  And when the spanking new smart phone hit the briefcase.  Let's hear it for cool new tools!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Innovation in delivering products and services

Rural delivery system by Gwoeii
Rural delivery system, a photo by Gwoeii on Flickr.
Are you investing as many resources into the delivery systems for your products and services as you are investing into the products and services themselves?  HOW customers interact with your company might be at least as important as WHAT they get from the transaction. 
In highly competitive settings it can be difficult for customers to differentiate among products.  You, the producer, know the ins and outs, and you may know that your purchasers are often comparing apples and oranges.  But it doesn't matter that you see the differences - they have to see some compelling reason to buy from you.  And your delivery method might be one of them.
Here are some examples:
  • News - first came the town crier, then newspaper, then radio, then TV, then computer, and now smart phone that you can carry with you wherever you go.  You are never far away from news reporting.  Not even if you want to be.
  • Health care - Family doctors years ago visited you at home.  Then came the office, occasionally the phone consultation, web-based appointments - and in some cases the resurgence of the family doctor who visits you at home.
  • Advertising - Once found primarily on exterior signs, sometimes painted on walls of the building, now appearing in print media, on radio and TV, on the web, even on your phone.  You can see advertising on the rear of your child's baseball or soccer uniform, and on the clothing that you choose to purchase.  Mickey, anyone?  How about Louis Vuitton?
  • Medication -What started as boiled bark and leaves has transmogrified into shots, tablets - even paper-thin wafers of a gel that melts on your tongue.  You can rub it onto your skin, or wear it in an adhesive patch so you only have to remember it once a week or so.
  • Detergent - Years ago people had to make their own in the front yard.  It was a hard block.  Now you can choose among powder, liquid, ultra-concentrated liquid, and prepackaged, premeasured packets where the wrapper dissolves during the wash.
Even though the modes for delivering continue to evolve, there are still segments of the customer base that prefer the original.  So sometimes the preferred delivery method becomes the definition of a company's targeted customer base.  The organic soap purists are more likely to mix their own in a vat in their house than they are to purchase pre-portioned detergent.
Your chosen delivery method is only one of the variables you manage when developing and improving your product or service offerings.  We could have an entirely separate discussion on how many you are willing to support, and how to find out what methods your customers are going to want in the future.  The point is that there is almost always room for innovation in how you get your products and services to your customers.  It can become your unique selling proposition.  How might you deliver differently to secure a better competitive position in your market?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Will you still be doing it tomorrow?

Your intentions are sound, your vision is clear, your goal is set.  But how long will you be able to sustain the behaviors, the activities needed to achieve whatever it is you have set out to achieve?  If you expect to see different results, you're probably going to need to change behavior - and not just for now, but for the long haul.

Almost anyone can modify their behavior, even pretty drastically, for a short period of time.  You can do it for an hour, or a day, a week - but why is it so difficult to do it from here forward, all of the time?  You said it - it's a matter of habit.  You have ingrained habits of thought (attitudes) and habits of behavior of which you aren't generally even aware.  They form your lenses and your behavioral boundaries, so if you really want to engage in sustainable change you'll need to interrupt them, get off of "autopilot" and onto "manual" until you ingrain habits that are in better alignment with your goals.

Does this sound easier said than done?  It's simple, but it might be hard.  Check out this video for some ideas on how to make it work for you...

By the way, you can receive notification of new mini-coaching videos by visiting the polandjulie channel on YouTube and clicking "Subscribe".  Summit's purpose is to help to unleash human capacity to create peace and prosperity.  The videos are a new way we're intending to provide support for you in the achievement of your goals.  Have a wonderful and productive week!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Six ways to be a better listener

Good Listener by Jackal of all trades
Good Listener, a photo by Jackal of all trades on Flickr.
How do you engage, really engage, another person?  Some would say that a really good story will capture them, or perhaps some incendiary statement of opinion, or even a compelling tidbit of data.  While these might work in some instances, they are not as reliable as a thorough process of listening.

Think about this:  the person who is talking may sound intelligent, witty, etc., but the person who is listening is the one who leaves the conversation with new information.  And outstanding listening skills (after a few open-ended questions) can help you unearth information that would not otherwise be volunteered by the other party.

Unfortunately, it's all too common that listeners are otherwise engaged when the communication is happening.  They are doing things like:
  • Not paying attention
  • Rehearsing for their turn in the conversation
  • Listening for a point of disagreement (so they can jump in and rumble!)
  • Hearing what they expected rather than what is actually being said
  • Listening for individual facts and missing the real message in the process
I'm sure that YOU don't do these things, but if you did, you would be missing much of the benefit of the interchange.  Moreover, these behaviors can create a chain of undesirable implications:
  • The other person interprets that you are apathetic about their information
  • They get the impression that you don't care about them as a person, or perhaps don't respect them for the authority they hold
  • They think that you must need more explanation, so they keep at it until they think you have heard them (case in point:  a child that chants "Mom!  Mom!  Mom!" until you start to pray for a bubble bath)
  • They think that you're not too bright later when you make a mistake that the communication was intended to prevent
  • You create a perception that you don't need to know or want to know, so they stop telling you things.  Now you're isolated and at risk
How you listen (or don't ) is communication in itself.  Even when you are not speaking your nonverbal communication is speaking volumes about your attitude toward the sender and the information he or she is delivering.  If you want to become more effective as a listener,
  1. Pay attention.  Do so even if they are boring, you are tired, you are distracted, or there is some other obstacle.  Remove distractions like auditory phone or email notifications.  Close the door if it's noisy, or ask to set a special time aside for the conversation if you are mentally involved elsewhere right now.
  2. Resist the urge to rehearse your answer while the other person is talking.  You may miss a key point that would change your response entirely.
  3. Listen for the feeling as well as the content.  You know that the word "fine" can have a meaning that is neutral, upbeat, sarcastic, angry, admiring, etc.  If you are not fully attending you can miss the fact that in this conversation right now the content is not nearly as important as the fact that this person is highly upset and about ready to blow a gasket. 
  4. If you don't understand the purpose of the message, ask questions.  They may be venting about a situation, or might be an auditory processor who talks in order to think.  They might want an answer to their question, or they may not.  (Men - the women in your life don't always want you to solve the problems that they are talking about!)
  5. Check your attitudes at the door.  You have developed habits of thought about this person, and if you dismiss them automatically as a result of your preconceived notions you stand a chance of missing some valuable information.  A knee-jerk mindset of "consider the source" limits your effectiveness.
  6. Provide feedback.  The sender doesn't know whether you have heard and understood the message.  They are telling you this information because they want it to affect your behavior in some way.   If you want them to keep talking, give them body language (a simple head not) or words or sounds that say "keep going."  And if this isn't a good time, tell them so before they become frustrated at their apparent inability to get through to you.
Whether you are the sender or the receiver, you are the one who needs to take responsibility for the communication transaction.  The listener role tends to be underrated in the process of getting things done.  But your effectiveness in listening, truly listening, is a way to show other people that you value them and their contributions.  And that attracts people to you and expands your sphere of influence.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nine reasons why they didn't hear what you said

Hear no Evil by fernchoonet
Hear no Evil, a photo by fernchoonet on Flickr
"It drives me crazy that I have to say things over and over again for them to sink in!"  One of the most frustrating aspects of being a manager, parent, spouse, etc. is feeling sometimes like you're talking into thin air, words dropping on the ground like so many pebbles.  The supposed recipient of your message goes on his or her merry way, apparently unaffected and uninfluenced by your message.  Why does this happen?
  1. They were in the middle of another task or another thought process and so had too much interference in the form of brain noise for your message to penetrate.
  2. They didn't understand what you said.  Your words might have been too big, or your syntax (word arrangement) was too confusing.  Or you might have buried four words of message in the center of four paragraphs of words, making the core message hard to discern.
  3. They weren't sure that you meant what you said.  This can be a product of prior communication, where you changed your mind, or where you made a pronouncement and didn't follow up or follow through to make sure that it really happened.  If you communicated in a highly emotional state, they might have interpreted your words as venting rather than instruction.
  4. They didn't remember that you said it.  People are bombarded with so much information that zip!  In it goes - and right back out again.  The message has become part of the background.  Spaced repetition (5-6 times over 5-6 days) will help them remember more than half. Really.  One time means they lose 25% of it by tomorrow, half by the next day, and by 16 days will have lost 98%.  And it might not be the most beneficial 2% that's left.
  5. They can't take information in that way.  Some (most) people are visual processors, not auditory, so unless you back up your information in other modes (visual, kinesthetic) they are not going to get the message.
  6. They have attitudes about you and whatever you say.  People have habits of thought about other people, and the precedent of your prior interactions with them might leave your recipients less likely to be paying attention to you.  This might speak to your credibility, honesty, likability, authority, or a multitude of other contributors.  This is probably the most difficult to influence in the short run, but you can begin to affect it over a series of transactions.
  7. You have attitudes about them, and the likelihood that they will be affected by your communication.  You may mumble, or catch them while you're on the run, or you might not like them enough to try too hard to get through to them. This is how some people lose the political battle in companies.  They become outsiders, uninformed by the real information, and so they operate in a vaccuum.
  8. You didn't actually say it.  You might have thought it, or you might have said it to another group of people.  It might feel to you like you have said the same thing over and over again, but you never said it to THEM.  If you work in a big company with several different constituencies, the odds of this happening go up.  You need process and structure to make sure that you have established venues for your communication.
  9. They are tired of the one-way communication street.  They have ideas too, you know.  Perhaps you can ask instead of tell, and you'll achieve an awesome result by unlocking their buy-in.  People tend to like their own answers best.
There are a lot of variables associated with whether your message got through or not, but ultimately the test is whether or not they chose to change their behavior as a result of what you said.  Communication and resulting behavior change is a responsibility shared between the recipient of the message and you.  You might not be managing the process effectively, or you might be sending just fine and the issue is on the other end of the transaction.  You can be completely clear about the fact that you don't want me eating peanut butter on my toast in the morning, but I am likely to choose to ignore you.  I like peanut butter more than I like pleasing you in this regard.  (you get the idea.)

Expect that you will have to try again.  But remember before you get too frustrated that your goal is to affect behavior change.  Be specific about exactly what you want, and what the purpose of the communication is.  Verbalize the behavioral ground rules, like "I'm sharing my opinion here, and you can work out how to get it done," versus "Here's what I want done, and I want it done by this Friday at 3 p.m."

There is almost nobody who gets communication right all of the time.  The best communicators, though, are always working on getting better.  And they work on staying self-aware and intentional when they are doing it.  This could be you.  You could be even more awesome than you are right now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

If your friends jumped off a bridge

Boys on a bridge by Roving I
Boys on a bridge, a photo by Roving I on Flickr.
"Would you do it too??"  This was cited yesterday by a coaching client as one of the watch phrases he remembers from his childhood.  Apparently this guy was quite the social animal, and a bit of a risk taker back in the day.  He managed to emerge from his teen years with limbs intact, and no police record.  Perhaps his parent's admonishment about standing firm actually sunk in.  After all, it was the first thing out of his mouth a decade or more later.

How important is it to you that you conform with what everybody else is doing?  Do you take undue risks, or even compromise your values, when you go along with the crowd?

Perhaps it can depend upon the quality of your crowd.  You could choose to follow people like Bill Gates and decide to use your resources to help to create a better world.  Or you could choose to follow Bernie Madoff's example, decide that "everybody is doing it" and in order to stay competitive you throw the rulebook out the window.  Mob behavior often pulls from the basest of motivations - anger, greed, lust, hatred, and assorted other emotions that center on immediate gratification and self-interest.

Leaders are also followers.  In certain parts of their lives leaders stand back while other people take the point, whether it's the other spouse in deciding what vacation destination will be the choice for this year, or a trusted colleague recommending a new strategic initiative. 

But the effective leader is grounded in his or her values, and can discern when it's time to follow or time to carve his or her own path.  Conformity, the act of going along in order to fit in, is part of the social glue that binds people together.  But there are times when your friends are jumping off a bridge, and you have to decide whether you're going to risk life and limb, reputation, or financial security, to do it too.

How recently have you thought about your short list of core values?  These are the non-negotiable principles that you follow when making decisions and going about your daily activities.  Core values are the things that you stand for and behave in alignment with, even when it's not convenient to do so.  If you haven't looked at them recently, beware.  It's possible that you might find yourself balancing on that bridge railing, ready to jump into the water - just because your buddy went first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Your partners in profitability

USC Upstate Johnson College Of Business Partners With Spinx Company To Offer Retail Management Certificate  by USC Upstate
a photo by USC Upstate on Flickr.
As the owner of your business, you are not going it alone.  You may have employees that help to generate revenue and run your daily operations in delivering value for customers.  They are partners in your profitability - what they choose to do day in and day out makes a direct impact on your business success.
There is a category of profitability partner, however, that sometimes becomes lost in the wings as discussions of organizational structure, internal communications, performance management, etc. occupy center stage - your supplier of the goods and services that you use in the course of your operations.  You have one group of these partners "above the line," in the direct costs of the goods you sell, and another group of them in your general and administrative areas.
What are your assumptions about what your company's relationship with suppliers should be like?
  • Is it appropriate that you disclose to them whatever is going on in your business, or is it important to keep such things to yourself, assuming that a slip of the tongue on your part could lead to being manipulated into extra purchases and excess costs?
  • Are you assuming that they will take you for as much as they can, and so should be treated with a healthy proportion of suspicion?
  • Are you operating on the basis that they should be squeezed as hard as you can on pricing, so your costs can be kept in check?
  • Do you spread your business around so that no one or two suppliers has too much control over the success of your business?
Suppliers can be effective partners in the ongoing profitability of your business, not adversaries or unpleasant necessities.  When you have found some that have been consistent on timely delivery, quality, service, etc. - hold onto them, because they can be key players in your future.  When you cultivate a partnership relationship with your suppliers you may be able to:
  • Make special arrangements for deliveries, pricing, and even design.
  • Take priority in their production schedule.
  • Stay up to date on developments in their respective product areas, enabling your company to stay ahead of the competitive curve.
  • Include them in your efforts to reduce cycle times, thereby saving time, cost, errors, and as a result, secure more stable customer relationships.
  • And more.
If you believe in holding your suppliers at arm's length and in the dark about the realities of your company's operations you may miss out on some, if not all, of these benefits.  And if you squeeze too hard on pricing with them you could create a level of unsustainability for them that creates risk for their company - and yours.  What good does it do you to be so "smart" a buyer that you put a key supplier out of business?

If you want to know about the culture of a company, perhaps the best place to look is not at how it treats customers, or even its employees.  It may be that the most telling element of company character is in how it treats its suppliers.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Ultimate Management Tool?

Profit and Loss - 2008 by north slope farm
Profit and Loss - 2008,
a photo by north slope farm on Flickr.
The stereotypical image of the small business owner (OK, perhaps the old school business owner) this time of year is the guy or gal who walks into the accountant's office with a shoe box filled with receipts.  "Here's my info for my tax return," they tell the receptionist.  "Let me know when they're done and I'll come in and pick them up."
This method of accounting shows the owner results on an annual basis, which is not nearly enough or current enough data to help him or her make decisions about the running of the business.  With annual tax reporting as the only financial information on the business (with the exception perhaps of the checking account balance,) an owner could be miles behind a negative trend and miss an opportunity to make changes before the business is in jeopardy.
So there's the case for more frequent financial reporting - monthly  or even weekly data can enable you to notice what is or isn't happening in the business so you can make improvements along the way.  It's not difficult or expensive to set this up, especially if you have basic computing skills (and of course if you're reading this you're on the computer.)  You can use Quicken, Quick Books, or even a simple Excel spreadsheet to keep track of what's coming in and what's going back out.  They may even dramatically provide an additional benefit by reducing the amount of time you need to invest in completing the financial management-related tasks.
Once you have established a basic profit and loss statement (p & l) you can use comparisons to help you notice changes in the business.  Look at this month's numbers against last month's results, and compare them with this same month last year. 
There are so many ways in which you can "slice and dice" the information - if you are collecting it - to help you make decisions about the business.  If you're collecting the data you will be able to determine things like:
  • Who are my top 5 customers, and what percent of my total revenue does each of them represent?
  • Is my customer base growing, staying the same, or shrinking?  (Then you can ask yourself why, and take steps toward creating more and more customer loyalty.)
  • What products or services are generating the most revenue?  (Then you can determine where you want to expand or contract your offerings.)
  • What products or services have the best (or worst) gross profit?  (Gross profit is what's left over after you purchase raw goods and pay to manufacture them into a final saleable product.)  Then you can make decisions about supplier pricing, process improvement needs, etc.
  • How productive are my employees?  Am I spending a disproportionately large amount on payroll and its associated costs?
When you're writing checks on a daily or weekly basis, it's easy to lose the big picture.  Your P & L will help you to see your business.  It might be the ultimate management tool - if you choose to dig in and use it.

If you are feeling a bit uneasy about this part of the business, talk to your accountant.  He or she would be happy to help you get set up - remember that better reporting for your management purposes will probably result in better financial records for your accountant's purposes.  If you want to know more, check out your local bookstore, or take a class on bookkeeping to get the basics.  Without a good understanding of the financials, you're running your business wearing blinders.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How much pain is enough?

thorns by american_kestrel
thorns, a photo by american_kestrel on Flickr.
You passed the patch of thorns, you got a scratch or two, and then it was over.  You incurred a passing pain, and that was it.  Perhaps the scratch was deep enough to create a small bleeding line on your arm or leg, but even so, the injury was not severe enough to keep your notice for very long.
You might avoid the thorn patch on your next way through this area, or maybe you'll forget about it until you're scratched again.  The pain of the first incident wasn't enough to be memorable, and you didn't change your route as a result.  No big deal.
This is, of course, a literal pain situation.  Minor physical injury, short-lived pain, end of story.  But what about the emotional pains that you sustain?  How much pain do you need to feel before you are ready to do things differently at work or in your personal life?
It sure is helpful to know that some pains are fleeting.  The inconvenience of moving, or of converting computer systems is temporary.  Once the desks and chairs are in their new places and supplies are unloaded from their boxes life goes on.  Even if the move causes extra problems and complexity, it's like the scratch from the thorn.  It hurts for now, but it doesn't hurt too much and it will go away soon.
Where things get dicey are situations that create a chronic, longer-lasting pain.  Perhaps you have people in your life who injured you emotionally by disregarding your needs, or by being unkind to you.  Perhaps you feel disappointed in yourself for not achieving a particular goal that was important to you.  This pain might be excruciating, or it might be a constant dull ache.  Would you do anything to make it better, knowing that it might not go away without intervention of some sort?
You are the only person who knows the amount of pain that is tolerable for you.  But if you are in pain, are you assuming that toleration is your only choice?  What if this pain were something that you could shrink, or could even cause to disappear?  What if you could avoid re-injuring yourself by choosing another path, another way of thinking or another way of behaving?
You have responsibility for yourself and your well-being.  Some people sustain a painful existence because the decisions needed to alleviate it are costly or difficult for them to make.  They choose longer-term chronic pain over short-term change pain that might be a bit more intense.  Are you trying to ignore your pain in hopes that it will go away on its own, or are you doing something to fix it?
In your body, pain is a signal that something is wrong and not functioning properly.  If you are out of alignment with your goals and values, your emotional pain is your sign that you are not functioning properly.  It is not a foregone conclusion that life has to be a heavy weight on your shoulders.  That said, there are some people who love their problems, and so don't take action to fix them.  They derive some internal reward from having another person or external forces to blame for the things that aren't going right in their lives.  Is that you?
When you look at the source of your discomfort it can be important to determine whether it is something you can control by choosing a different course of behavior.  If that is the case and you don't change your actions you are de facto choosing the pain.  Your pain might not be completely controllable by you, but may be within your influence with the right person or persons on your team.  If that's the case, track that person down and get started together.  Again, if you do not do what you can do to make things better you are de facto choosing the pain.
Even if the source of the pain is completely outside of your control or influence, you can decide how much proximity you want to maintain to the source.  If you live right beside a giant thorn patch, have to walk through it on your way to work every day, you might not be able to chop them down or convince the property owner to do so, but if they bother you enough you can choose to move.  Go away from it.  That much you can do.
You might not have a clear idea right now of what your life or work situation might look like if the pain-inducing element were no longer in the picture.  That's OK.  If you have had enough and want to move out of your pain you can draw upon resources like a coaching relationship (that's what Summit does) to help you develop the best next steps forward.
You don't have to live with pain.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How your hiring process impacts customer loyalty

Maze by f a b
Maze, a photo by f a b on Flickr.
Nancy just completed a job interview process.  She didn't get the job, after a rigamarole that lasted for three months.  Nancy wasn't officially informed that she wasn't selected for the job, even though she had invested three months, two interviews, one round-trip train ticket, and several days on a business plan that was requested (and then never read).  She found out through the company grapevine, from a current employee who was offered the job for which she interviewed.  Nearly six weeks have gone by since her last interview, and given the pace of the company's process, if she didn't know somebody who worked there she could still be thinking that she might be in the running. 

This situation has had ramifications for the company - this isn't only Nancy's story.  The position has been open for more than three years, meaning that a segment of current and prospective customers has been left unattended while the company has attempted to get its hiring act together.  It makes sense, then, that part of the result for the company is that it hasn't been achieving its sales goals in this area.  The duration of this unfilled slot has led to unserved customers and unmet revenue goals.  This situation has created tangible negative impact on the company.

The point of this is not that Nancy was not selected.  The point is that this corporation's hiring process was convoluted and slow and disrespectful.  As it relates to customer loyalty the hiring process created questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of the rest of the company's processes and its care (or lack thereof) for customers.  Employees are, after all, internal customers whose performance relies on having the resources they need and the work environment conducive to employee loyalty.  (Side note:  Nancy found out as she was researching the company that they were investigated not too long ago for some illegal activities.  Surprising?  Perhaps not.)
What are indicators of quality from the customer's viewpoint?  They are not always directly related to the product.  A quality lapse over there can create questions about potential quality problems over here.  For example:
  • In a restaurant, rest rooms that are dirty and/or in disrepair signal to customers about the quality of the food, and the safety of its storage and preparation.
  • Coffee stains on an airplane tray create questions about the pilots' training.
  • Mistakes on invoices that swing in the company's favor lead customers to wonder whether they have overpaid (or have been outright cheated) on other occasions.
Customers connect the dots.  The manner in which you care for your business property is probably similar to the way that you care for your employees, which is also probably the same way that you treat your customers.  If you are uncommunicative, slow, and presumptuous with your potential hires you are likely not the kind of business where the best ones want to work.  And that's not good for your customers - the people who fund your paycheck.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

One business owner's hat that might be uncomfortable

Wearing Many Hats by Pyogenes Gruffer
Wearing Many Hats, a photo by Pyogenes Gruffer on Flickr.
Social media, networking functions, advertising, even a website and a rockin' logo - they're all designed to help prospective customers find a business and choose to buy products and services from it.  Are you a business owner who is hoping that these things will help you escape the neccessity for - gasp! - selling?

The majority of business owners in an informal poll said they would love their work if they didn't have to sell.  They founded their business on the technical skills they possess, or on their desire to lead people.  Of the many hats they wear, the salesperson hat is the one that feels a bit tight on their head.  They would prefer for people to come on down and find them and they would be happy to respond.  But the thought of picking up the phone and calling somebody up and ask to meet gives many business owners the willies.

What's behind this reluctance?  For many people there are two factors: habits of thought and
lack of process. These two little reasons hold a lot of weight.

Habits of thought
Habits of thought (attitudes) are the way in which you have been conditioned to think about things over time.  They are not facts, but because they are so ingrained in your brain you don't notice them.  Instead you behave in alignment with them unless something comes up with enough misalignment that they pop into the foreground.  Given that nothing happens in a business until somebody sells something, you'd think that selling would be right in there with the big considerations like location and product quality. 

Here are some common habits of thought about sales - and about you - that create fear and lack of activity to generate new customer relationships:
  • "Don't go where you're not wanted."
  • "Don't speak until spoken to."
  • "Don't talk to strangers."
  • "Children are meant to be seen and not heard."
  • "Salespersons will say anything to make a sale."
  • "Salesmen manipulate people into buying what they don't want or need."
This list could go on and on, but the point is this - they are habits, and like other habits were formed by a process of repetition.  You heard them over and over until they became part of your belief system.  If your habits of thought are in conflict with the behavioral requirements of your work role it will be hard to sustain the behaviors you need to do.

The good news about old habits of thought is that they can be diluted with new ones that are better aligned with the behavior in which you need to engage.  You can start an intentional process of self-talk that includes things like:
  • "People need and want what I have to offer, and I help them by making sure that they don't miss out on an opportunity to have it."
  • "I ask questions and then listen carefully to determine customer wants and needs, then I work to fulfill them."
  • "I enjoy meeting new people on the phone."
Lack of Process
How do you go about reaching out to prospective customers?  And once you're in front of them, what do you say and do?  If the answers to these two questions don't come immediately and automatically to mind, you don't have a process.  Certainly you might have several different methods of reaching out, through introductions at networking meetings or direct contact.  But what is consistent, and what is working for you?

Here's an example of an effective process for in-person sales.  It is effective because it is customer-focused, not salesperson or product focused.  You have to add your own process to the front of this to get yourself the opportunity for this sit-down process.

When you want to break down your sales efforts to find opportunities for improvement you can isolate issues within the steps of the process, enabling you to limit your frustration and focus your improvement efforts.  And if you are having a problem with one step it's helpful to see whether you have successfully executed the prior step.  This sales process is designed around "earning the right" to present solutions.  Presenting solutions before fully discovering wants and needs is old-school product pushing, not customer-focused helping.

If you truly believe in your product or service, the sales hat is one that helps you help other people.  It need not be ill-fitting.  It can be just right.

Summit provides coaching for business owners and executives who aren't getting the results they want in sales, but who are motivated to increase their effectiveness.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How big is your love?

What would you be willing to do for people in crisis?  Would it matter whether you knew them?  Would it matter whether you liked them?  Would it matter that you could be risking your life?  Watch this:

Thank you to Grant Stewart for sharing this video.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Time warp - how do you dress for success?

Dress for success by Missouri Southern
Dress for success,
a photo by Missouri Southern on Flickr.
The woman CEO was insistent.  "When you meet new customers you must be showing leg.  Skirted suits only, with skin-toned nylons."  At this point in business fashion history, shoulder pads were everywhere, as were bow blouses and ties that could help a woman be taken seriously in the workplace.  Heck, if you didn't look too closely at her pulled-back hair you might mistake her for a man.
Not really.   But the "dress for success" mantra was pounded into women (and men) who were tempted to sport something too sexy, too sporty, too trendy, or too casual when they went to work.  The clothing mandates or the more tricky-to-navigate unwritten work appearance standards were based upon several assumptions:
  • Dressy appearance equals trustworthiness, intelligence and success.  Conspicuously expensive accessories (Rolex watches, for example) telegraph power and influence.
  • Women in the workplace can be dangerous.  They can be distracting in their sexuality (men, of course, are victims of their testosterone you know,) and are at risk of being misperceived as provocative.
  • Work is a battlefield dominated by men, so you had better be ready for combat.  Women in the workplace survive and progress in their careers by being witches on wheels (with capital "B" hovering over their heads), so any would-be survivor had better button up if she wants to be taken seriously.
  • A wealth of information can be derived by observing a man's tie.  Its color and pattern telegraphs power, conservatism (or not), and the looseness or tightness around the neck signifies stress or casualness.  The real nonconformists back in the day of the power suit wore bow ties - truly old-school, and not particularly flattering with even a hint of a pudge around the middle.  The corollary to this, of course, is the wealth of info that is communicated by a woman's choice of shoes.
  • You think better when you're dressed up.  Anyone knows that your brain can't engage when you're wearing sweats or yoga pants.  And the language that accompanies such casual dress - shocking!
Sure, it's important to demonstrate to clients and colleagues that you care about yourself enough to brush your teeth and comb your hair.  It's a sign of respect toward them, too.  But the rigid business attire standards of yesteryear can backfire.  The world still has its "company men" and serious businesswomen, but the behemoth corporate environments have been infiltrated by the influence of the technology and creative crowds.  The old assumptions don't necessarily apply.
If you're out in the field in a selling role, your ability to dress the way that your prospects dress is your way to dress for success.  If you go into a manufacturing facility in your best bankerly bib and tucker you're likely to be perceived as slick or pompous - either way a person not to be trusted.  And if you're in a business of creatives, that white shirt and rep tie might telegraph that you have no imagination.  Then of course there are the practical matters of not wearing high heels onto a manufacturing floor for safety reasons, or your wing tip loafers into the barns at a dairy operation.
You might feel like a bit of a chameleon when you have to navigate a diverse set of work  environments, but that may be your best way to dress for success.  NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) says that you relate best to others when you match them in gesture, pace of conversation, appearance, etc.  This isn't to say that you perform an irritating "monkey see-monkey do" routine that is completely intended to manipulate.  Your clothing is a big piece of your nonverbal communication, and from it people interpret what kind of person they think you are.  Attending consciously to your business dress is about helping others relate with you. 

Modular with separates can be an effective way to go, with sportcoat and tie for the guys.  That way the jacket can go, the tie can go, and the collar can be unbuttoned as the situation dictates.  Or a mock neck or polo shirt with a jacket in more casual (or summery) settings.  For women, skirts and pants with jackets can have a similar flexibility of being dressed up or down (and interpreted as more broadly appropriate.)  We won't discuss any pieces "going" here, for obvious reasons.
You have heard before that you should "dress for the job you want."  That's true, and that's a challenge right now, because the same level of job in different companies might have very different appearances.  The differences stem from variations in prevailing cultures in industry, geography, cultural background of the ownership, etc.  Look around, observe carefully, and make your decisions based upon the people that you know have the most influence.  Model your appearance along their lines - tie or no tie, polo shirt, trendy vs. conservative, etc.
If the wardrobe culture isn't comfortable for you, perhaps the culture itself isn't a match for you.  In this case you have two choices if you want to succeed:  either choose to put success first and dress for it, or find an environment that's a better fit for you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Defining Your Slice of the Marketplace Pie

Slice of Apple Pie by jazrulfuad
Slice of Apple Pie, a photo by jazrulfuad on Flickr.
Whether you go out to find your new customers or you expect them to find you, ultimately the question will need to be answered:  "What do you do?"   Or you might hear it framed as "What business are you in?" 

At first this might seem like a question that is only relevant to a startup that hasn't defined yet what slice of the marketplace pie it is going to pursue.  But not so - there are established businesses that have a hard time articulating just what it is that they do.  
Not having a clear definition of what you do makes it harder for prospective customers to choose to do business with you. In addition, your planning and investment in capacity for your business should be revolving around the core of what it is that you do.  For instance, if you're a tree trimmer it might not make sense for you to be spending big bucks on a large piece of floor polishing equipment.  A concise and meaningful definition, however, can help you make decisions that provide greater and greater depth and value - and ultimately profit.
The words that you use to describe your business are your framing statement (or positioning statement.)  It can also be known as your elevator speech - something short enough that you can communicate it in the short time it takes to ride the elevator with someone.
If you are a startup, what are the means by which you can slice the pie?
  • By service or product type - "We stock a comprehensive selection of pet food and supplies."  or "We manufacture lawn tractors for residential use."
  • By customer niche - "We help people with crooked teeth."
Notice that the first statement is internally focused - "what we do".  The second is outwardly focused - on the customer - "Our customers are".  If your goal is to grow your business, what do you need?  Repeat and referring customers.  Given that, which of the framing statements above might be more effective?

It's best that you incorporate customer needs in your thinking, and that you build your framing statement around them.  Then you can take it a step further by defining the benefits or results that you help them achieve.
  • "We help people with crooked teeth to get an effective bite and an attractive smile." or
  • "We provide peace of mind for pet owners who treat their dogs like family."
The specific products and serviced used to fulfill these two framing statements are not defined as part of the statement, and that's by design.  Over the years as technologies change, capabilities are added, etc. the products and services may evolve.  But the focus on the intended customer base keeps the continuity in the business.

You might have a multitude of skills or a wide array of services.  But unless they are organized under an umbrella of some sort it will be hard for prospective customers to know when to contact you.  In addition, and perhaps more importantly, if your services are a hodge-podge of unrelated items serving an array of customers, it might be hard for them to believe that you can adequately execute on your promises.

Here's an example: it's believable if describe that I'm a barber who sells upscale hair products in my salon.  But if I'm a tree trimmer and I also market my interior design skills, unless I'm a Martha Stewart my effectiveness at one or both of these will sound suspect, and I may have a hard time attracting customers for one or both parts of my business.

There are companies that serve a wide swath of customers, and some that provide a broad spectrum of products and services.  But if you look at the successful ones, they have defined their slice of the marketplace pie.  Ollie's Bargain Outlet, for example, advertises "Good Stuff Cheap!"  Their inventory is changeable and unpredictable, and it covers a number of categories, but they serve a specific type of customer - the person looking for a deal. 

If you can't answer the question "What business are you in?" or "What do you do?" it's likely that you're missing opportunity.  If you are having difficulty framing it, ask people who buy from you what they think it is that you do.  Then compare whatever they told you to the general idea you have been holding, and use their input to help you refine your framing statement.

Words can pigeonhole you, or they can expand your opportunities.  Better not to leave this to someone else to define for you.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Uncovering latent (hidden) needs

bedtime by KJKing
bedtime, a photo by KJKing on Flickr.
More often than not, a business owner is thinking about current situations and problems.  He (or she) might not even be aware that certain issues are bouncing around in his brain, because they are in the background – something else is consuming the owner’s conscious attention at the moment.

Your products and services might be just the thing to address the latent issues, those background items that are hovering for your prospective client.  But unless you help the latent needs become acknowledged, or active, needs, the business owner won’t be choosing to take action on them.  Translation:  this process is key in you being able to acquire this business owner as a new client.

There are a few prerequisites for the needs discovery process:

1.       Favorable attention – take time to make a friend.  In order to discover the latent needs, some trust and a perception of your credibility in being able to address the issues at hand is necessary first.  If you don’t have this, save your breath on the probing questions, because you’ll not hear the real deal.

2.       Time and setting – an introductory phone call or networking function is not the appropriate place to ask needs discovery questions.  Set an appointment and find a quiet spot where you and they can be uninterrupted and comfortable.

3.       Direction and pacing – commit to an agenda and a timeframe and stick to it.  This is a busy person who will not be happy about wasting time.  It might even be a deal breaker if you don’t handle this properly.  If you need more time, ask for agreement to continue, and either do it now or set aside a later time slot.  (Hint:  a second, later conversation will give you time to absorb the information so far and to construct good questions for the next meeting.)

Tools for discovering latent needs:

·         Open ended questions – allow the prospect to think out loud without over-steering.  This will help to ensure that the conversation is on the prospective client’s agenda.  “It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction that it’s already going.”

·         Goal oriented questions – what is the desired outcome or result?  These questions establish the context for the questions that follow.

·         Prioritization questions – which of the topics or problems is at the top of the prospective client’s priority list?  (You want to go there first if you want the momentum of the customer’s own motivation to pull you along)

·         Implication questions – what happens if the situation improves and what happens if it doesn’t?  If the customer hasn’t already identified this item as a priority or activated this need, the implication questions will help to create a sense of urgency.  These questions also assist the prospective client in calculating the potential return on investment (ROI) associated with buying from you.

·         Connection of the implications to key business results – impact on customers, impact on finances, impact on ability to manage, impact on ability to grow and innovate.  These are often dotted lines that are not connected (and the full impact revealed) in the foreground of the prospective client’s thinking unless you ask.

·         Obstacle questions – what’s in the way of the desired outcome?  This is where you match your products and services as solutions to overcome the customer’s identified obstacles.

Wait – don’t present solutions yet!

It might be tempting to jump to solution as soon as you hear something that contains even a hair’s connection to your products and services.  Stop going there in your head, and continue listening to your prospective client.

A general test of whether you have “enough” information upon which to base a recommendation is to see whether you have helped the business owner identify implications in each of the key business results buckets (customers, finance, management and growth) for the issue at hand.  If the implications can be quantified in dollars, great – that makes it a more straightforward process to determine the ROI on the potential investment.  It helps you LEAVE THE MEETING AND CONSTRUCT YOUR RECOMMENDATION on the basis of generating a positive ROI.

The rush to recommend creates a risk of not addressing the “right” issue in the mind of the prospective customer.  (And by the way, they – not you – determine what the right issue is for you to be addressing at this point in time.)  In addition, given that your prospect has been up all night thinking and/or worrying, if you come in off the street and outside of this business’s context with an instant answer you will risk making the prospect feel stupid or inadequate for not seeing the answer himself.  And that feeling of self-doubt won’t help him choose to move forward with you.  It generally causes him to slow way down or even stop, and it will especially do so if he perceives parent ego state coming from you.

In Summary

Latent needs are the salesperson’s best friend if they are, through an effective process of helpful inquiry, identified (converted to active status).  This is not necessarily the low-hanging fruit, but the door to an ongoing relationship as a trusted advisor.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What keeps business owners up at night...

Insomnia... by Moe M
Insomnia..., a photo by Moe M on Flickr.

The business owner tosses and turns, awake at 2 a.m. for the third night in a row.  A persistent problem cycles through his brain in fragments, because although he’s not asleep he’s not awake enough to think through it completely and develop a course of action.  He’s tired enough from his stress-related sleep deficit that he has difficulty focusing during the day, and he’s grouchy both at work and at home.

This business owner has a latent (underlying unacknowledged) need.  The problem, not its resolution, is in the foreground of his mind.  He might not realize that there is action that he could be taking to shrink or resolve the issue.  It is also possible that he has considered a few potential courses of action, but the choices are distasteful enough to him that he wants to avoid implementing them, hoping that another avenue will appear to him if he lets it churn around in his brain for a while longer.

The first step in resolving the issue is to identify it.  When this guy wakes up for the third time he might be able to write it down and then go back to sleep.  His brain, having committed the topic to paper, will be less likely to continue its 7-minute short term memory loop, “Remember to take care of _________.”  Then he can deal with it while in a more alert mental state.

The owner can recruit thought partners.  These might be experienced and trusted employees, peer business owners, community resources that serve businesses like SCORE, or he might talk the issue through with a relevant sales representative or trusted advisor.  Probably the worst thing the owner can do is to keep this to himself, and for a few reasons:

·         He sees the situation through a certain lens, and is likely to have developed habits of thought around the situation.  These habits may interfere with him seeing the issue and its causes fully, and may cause him to subconsciously and automatically rule solutions in or out of consideration.

·         The negative emotions attached to an unresolved and persistent problem can interfere with effective thought about the issue.

·         The owner may not have the information needed to resolve the problem.  There might be technical expertise that’s needed, or process and structure to help him get the job done.

When the owner transitions from focus on the problem to focus on solving the problem, the latent need becomes an active need.  When the business owner calls a product or service provider and says something like, “I need a new computer system,” he is in active need mode.  He is reaching out with a perceived solution in mind, but the solution he seeks might not be the only or best one to resolve the issue.  It might address only the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem.

Product and service providers benefit business owners most when they can help them uncover latent needs – the problems that are keeping the owners up at night.  They can bring their needs discovery skills to assist the business owner in identifying potential causes, and then in providing the products or services that are appropriate for the situation.  An effective salesperson can earn trusted advisor status with that business owner when he or she is an effective thought partner who places the owner’s interests in the foreground of the conversation. 
If you are a business owner with a problem, talk to somebody.  And if you are a product or service provider, get out there and meet business owners.  The fact that they haven't called you yet might only mean that a) they don't know about you, or b) they are still in latent need mode.  You might be their best remedy for getting a good night's sleep.
Summit helps business owners sleep better at night by helping them identify latent needs in the areas of planning, people development, and process improvement.  Summit provides process and structure through which owners and their teams can solve problems at their root causes.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Overdoing it

Yoga at Wanderlust by aquababe
Yoga at Wanderlust, a photo by aquababe on Flickr.
Ouch.  Another morning - the fourth, actually - since the yoga session where 3/4 of the way through I heard a crunching "pop!" sound in the vicinity of my left glut.  This occurred mid-lunge, and it was probably extra deep because a) although the class was new, the yoga stretches felt familiar and relaxing, and b) it was a group of friends and I was probably wanting to look good by really going for it. 

Yeah, I said it.  I wanted to preserve my aging face in front of my peers, stretched a bit too far and overdid it.  Ouch.  Sports injury time.  And now I have to coddle the darned left leg for a few more days so I don't make it worse. 

It's easy to keep "moderation in all things" in mind when considering chocolate, or wine, or apple pie.  The risks associated with sins of the flesh are reinforced (and perhaps made all that more tantalizing) through cautionary tales.  Sometimes the lesson doesn't get through until the consequences of all of this indulgence become evident through upward-creeping weight or embarassing stories of behavior that stemmed from the most recent over-serving of alcohol.

But exercise is good!  Work is good!  Aren't they prime for overdoing, and isn't it common to receive accolades for doing so?

Maybe.  Unless of course you work such long hours for such a long stretch of time that you have to wear a name tag when you return to your house so your kids and spouse will remember who you are.  And it's not necessarily a good thing when you say to yourself, "I walk vigorously uphill 4 days a week, so I can certainly handle two yoga routines back to back!"  Then you're almost through with the second set of poses and you hear that popping sound and it's consequence time.

In some respects it's nice to know that it can be a beneficial practice to take it easy.  Not "camping out in a rocking chair" easy, but maybe "not injuring yourself" easy.

Just so you know, I will be doing yoga again.  I ordered a dvd so I can do it by myself in my house, where I will be less tempted to succumb to peer pressure and overdo it.  But I will work - more gradually - to build my strength and flexibility.  Anything that can hurt that badly when done incorrectly must be good for me when I do it right.