Archive for the ‘General Business’ Category

What Gymnastics is Teaching Me about Business.

My youngest daughter is a gymnast. I won’t get into the details of the US Junior Olympic program, coach drama or the intensity of this sport – but I could do a long blog on all that! We are now at our 4th gym and I have seen a common thread within the business end of gymnastics. This may not be true everywhere, but I am comfortable saying it anyway – gymnastics coaches don’t make the best business people.

There, I said it and I sincerely apologize to those gym owners who run their business very well. Really, I’m sorry – but I would love to meet you sometime. Perhaps you could open a gym here in Massachusetts.

So, what is my point? Well, the gyms in question here do not understand their relationship with the customer. They sometimes act like they are doing us a favor by charging us enormous amounts of money to ruin our daughters’ joints, make them cry regulary and cause immense stress in our family life. They just don’t seem to get it.

I’m not sure they are that different than other smaller (maybe even not so small) businesses/companies that are out there. While working with a client recently, I helped the owner deal with a customer complaint. I was very apologetic on behalf of the company and we quickly made arrangements to fix the problem and get product to her that met her needs. She sent a glowing email, letting us know how impressed she was with the response and how she looked forward to doing more business with the company. Success, right? The owner’s private note to me was simply – “Drama Queen!”

This was a disappointing assessment of such a positive event. We had just turned a negative into a positive – the best thing we could hope for with a customer service issue. It reminded me of my recent discussion with the owner of my daughter’s current gym. When I tried to express my concern over our favorite coaches leaving and my feeling that the coaches who were left might not be the most effective – the reply was (and I quote here) “Feel free to look around at other gyms”. Man – this was before I even got past my initial comment. I was not even in full gripe mode yet – really! This is an interesting business model: customer complains – screw them.

Well, at least I believe in Darwin and figure that those who don’t have what it takes, will eventually die out. In the mean time, we will probably be looking at gyms when the competition season ends and my client may just get a few more orders from the Drama Queen.

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10 questions small businesses need to answer

As a consultant, I have walked into many small companies on that first day and wondered what the next few weeks would be like. Every company is different and just about every job has had a different set of requirements and objectives. But, when I push aside the differences, I see some common threads. When it comes to small businesses, especially the 25 people or less kind, I have found that we have to sometimes get back to basics in order to move forward.
So, I thought I would share the top 10 things that I would ask any small business to think about and answer.

1. What do you make/do? OK, no snickering out there – this is serious stuff. It is often very hard for small companies to specifically define and clearly state what they do/sell. You should be able to clearly define your products and/or services in a couple of sentences.
2. Who are your competitors? This is not just a list of all the companies who sell the same thing(s) you sell. It is a list of the companies who sell their similar product to the people that you think would buy your product. There is a difference and it’s important to understand it. For instance, if you sell handmade soaps, your competitors are not Proctor and Gamble, Dove, Irish Spring, etc. Your competitors are more likely to be other handmade soaps, boutique soaps, specialty companies selling organic soaps and so on. Figure out who exactly is selling in your target market – which leads me to #3…
3. Who is your customer? Who are you trying to sell to? Who wants or needs your product? Where are they and what are they like? There are not too many small businesses out there who target an entire population – so figure this out. Once you do, it makes it a lot easier to find potential customers – at least you know what they might look like!
4. Why should anyone buy from you? What is your value proposition? You cannot convince someone to buy from you if you cannot define what value you can provide. What is better about you than the other guy? What needs do your customers have that will be addressed with your product? Are you faster, cheaper, nicer, bigger??? Ok – these are a whole bunch of questions – but I’m counting them as one!
5. Do you have the right people working for you? Small businesses can’t afford to have a bunch of ‘C’ players. You need to have the right people, because when there are just a few of you doing everything, you need to trust that things are being done right. Don’t tolerate incompetence – you can’t afford it.
6. Have you communicated with your employees? I always thought that big companies would be bad at the whole communication thing and that small companies would be great at it. Well, based on my experience, small companies do a terrible job at communicating to employees. I’m not sure why, and I’m sure it is not always the case, but it is common. The lack of more formal systems being in place for employee training, not having big department meetings and the fact that communications are generally informal, are all contributing factors. So, make an extra effort to talk to your staff. People need information in order to connect and they need to understand what is happening with the business.
7. How are you funding your growth? Do you know where your next round is going to come from? Can you/should you borrow? Cash is king and you need to know where the money is and what your cash flow looks like. (yes, for some businesses, this should be question #1)
8. How will you market/sell your products? What is your marketing strategy? Besides your web site, what are you doing to sell? Where are you selling? So many options here – you need a plan. Once you have a plan, you need to measure results and adjust as required. Don’t get stagnant here – it’s vital to re-visit your plan and try new things. Stick to the core message and branding though, otherwise you keep starting over instead of enhancing.
9. What price can you/should you charge for your product? Product Management 101 – the art of pricing. Pricing, for many businesses, is not an exact science. No one wants to leave money on the table, yet if we come out too high, business can be lost quickly. Do your homework on this one. Search competitive products, talk to people in the business, look at your costs and put a stake in the ground. Then, listen to your customers and sales people. Adjust accordingly, but don’t always jump when someone says they need a better price. We all say that. Know your market and your value.
10. How can I be better? This is the question that needs to be asked regularly. Never sit back and think everything is great. Things can always be improved and the market will change over time. Never be satisfied with the status quo. Never.
What would you add to this list?

Change is Good – Really!

Watching Washington politics lately has made me think about how hard change is for many people. Whether in politics, business or our social lives, most people push back and avoid change. But, as most will eventually realize, change is necessary and should not be avoided. C’mon – let’s all say it together – “Change is good.” Really – you can do it and it will be good for your business.

Why should a business make changes? You may have a very successful business – why change anything? That could backfire – right? Certainly, not all change is good – but don’t use that as an excuse to avoid changing anything.

So, what should you do for your business? Every business has different needs, but there are some fundamental questions you can answer that may help you to determine an appropriate plan for implementing positive change for your company.

#1 What is not working well?
This may sound obvious and some of you may think this is sort of a ‘duh’ statement – but perhaps we have worked for different companies. I put this out there first because just about every business has something that many people gripe about or know is not effective, but it is ‘ignored’ because it is just ‘the way things are done around here’. Ah yes, the status quo. I hate the status quo.
In order to address question #1, if you don’t already know of something that is commonly seen as a problem – just ask. Gather a few of your key people and put the question out there. Ask them to determine 1 thing that is not working as well as it should be. Believe me, they will be able to come up with something. Then put someone in charge of delving into the issue and proposing a change that will improve things. It could be something related to processes, procedures, updating some software, changing phones systems, training issues, even a problem employee. Once the problem is identified and well defined, brainstorm improvement ideas with the right group of people. Put together people who have knowledge and a stake in the outcome and ask them to come up with a better way. Finally (and this is the hard part) implement the changes. This may sound obvious, but I am always amazed at how many good ideas are never implemented. I come in to a new client and make some suggestions and often hear “we talked about doing that last year” or “so-and-so proposed that at our last staff meeting”. Over and over I see good ideas that never go anywhere. It doesn’t count if nothing changes! Don’t let good ideas go to waste.

#2 Are we preparing for the next generation of customers?
I have worked for several industries that I see as being a bit ‘old school’. These companies market and sell their goods pretty much the same way they did 20 years ago. There may be an updated web site and a newer CRM system, but inside, the mindset is getting old. Management is not comfortable with social media, online advertising, email marketing. They are tracking down leads the way they always have – through trade shows, existing contracts, cold calls and the like.
So, here is a wake up call for you – get over it! Times have changed and methods will have to change too. Your customer base will eventually change over to a generation of individuals who have grown up online and communicate differently than you do. Maybe you think twitter is stupid and Facebook is useless. How do you even start an email campaign and what will it do for your business? I know you will question the point of much of this. At a minimum, find someone in your business who can at least get you started or hire someone to get this set up for you. Start to engage in different ways with your customers – or eventually loose them.

#3 What else can be done to improve my business?
Put together a longer term improvement initiative. Take a look at your company – department by department. Have the purchasing people review how they do things and determine what works well and what can be improved. Maybe you can cut down on extraneous paperwork, streamline your ordering methods, better organize your vendor information, etc. Ask Engineering if they can streamline development processes or do a better job when transferring new product to manufacturing or releasing software. Ask everyone to take a look at what they do and set measureable goals to monitor that improvement. There is always something that can be better.

Finally, make positive change a priority and support the efforts from the top down. Real change cannot happen if management does not demand AND support it. Make sure people have time to spend on these efforts, support the implementation of their ideas and reward changes that have an impact. Teach your staff that change truly is good.

Branding your small company

Image building, branding, messaging – all so important to your business, but one of the most vague marketing concepts in my book. There are so many ways to say something, so many ways to design a logo and a look for your business. What looks great to you may seem odd or out of date to me – or vice versa. How do you know if what you are doing is right?

You can look at a few things and ask a few key questions to make sure you are at least on the right path. So, first and foremost – do no harm! If you do only one thing – make sure your web site, company look, email campaigns, Social Media and anything else you put out there, do not make you look bad in anyone’s eyes. Check that nothing you do could be considered inappropriate, insulting, or just plain sound stupid. Make sure you have good grammar, no typos and nothing that is just plain wrong.

Once you have done this, decide what your message is going to be and what company image you want to build. Everything you do should then revolve around these ideas. Check yourself often by asking if what you are doing fits into this message. For instance, are you trying to be a market leader, a low price solution, high quality/high price, the innovator – what is your value proposition? Then, what is your image (based, at least in part, on your target market)- modern/young, older and established, very corporate, kind of funky, artsy, on the cutting edge? Define your image with 2 or 3 adjectives and use those when evaluating design choices for your materials.

Now that you have determined your value proposition and your positioning, build your image around them. Start with your company name/logo and any tag line you may use. Do they fit the parameters you have just determined? Do they need to be adjusted? Will adding a tag line help? Is this a good time to design or re-design your logo? Choose colors for your logo that will extend into other areas like your website, printed materials, email marketing pieces, social media pages, etc.

Next, look at your web site. Does your home page tell the visitor what your value proposition is? Does it at least answer the question – “What does this company do?” in the first 5-8 seconds? Would you use your company “adjectives” to describe this site? Is it ‘funky’ or ‘corporate’ or ‘young’ looking? Is it visually appealing and does it look like your company? And, most of all, is it correct! Does everything link properly? Enough people will come and go, don’t give them a reason (like poor design) to leave.

This is just the tip of the image building iceberg, but I hope this gives you something to think about.

Random Thoughts on Business Skills

I have been reading a lot of articles and blog posts lately. I’m not sure what I’m trying to learn or if this is worth doing, but I am doing it. We are so inundated with links to information – as we search for things, check our twitter, wander around facebook, stumble upon things, etc. It’s hard to resist clicking and looking and reading and then clicking a reference link … you know how this goes.
It seems to me that I am not reading much new stuff anymore. Maybe info about new technology that makes getting business info easier or is the new rage in Marketing – but whatever happened to good old fashioned business management talk. It may be out there, but it’s buried in a sea of social media thoughts and discussion.
So, I thought I would put together my thoughts. Here is my list of top things that a good business person should know – in no particular order:
1. Understand how to deal with people. Whether inside the company or out, good people skills mean good business.
2. Understand that Quality is a philosophy, not a department. If I need to explain this, you are not on board with this one.
3. Cash flow – understanding that cash is king. You can’t keep a business (especially a small one) afloat if you can’t pay the bills.
4. You cannot do it alone – but you especially can’t do it without good people. The emphasis here is on “good”. Do not tolerate inept or lazy employees – they can ruin everything you work hard to build. Hire good people.
5. Lead by example. You cannot demand that employees, or customers for that matter, do the right thing if you do not make decisions and support people who do the right thing – even when that gets hard.
6. Find your value proposition and build your story around that. Stay focused enough to move forward, but not so stuck in your ways that you can’t make adjustments as things change around you.
7. Communicate, communicate, communicate. People cannot achieve unknown goals or meet vague expectations. Praise good work and discuss how to improve anything that does not meet expectations.
8. Make decisions. Don’t be afraid to make the wrong one and don’t let things happen by default. You loose control when this happens. Gather information that you need, understand whose advice you can trust, weigh the options and decide. This is key to getting things done. If it turns out to be a bad decision, make a decision to try something else.
9. Lead with respect and others will follow.
10. Measure. Find useful ways to measure progress – of the business, of your employees and your own improvement.
Finally, always look to improve. Never sit back and feed off the status quo – this is the kiss of death. Everyone can improve upon something. Make it a mission.

Social Media overload

Uncle! I am crying “Uncle”. How much time can one person spend on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Blogs, …?? It seems that almost all of my spare time lately has been spent on my laptop – poking and proding social networking sites, reading blog posts, skimming articles about social media marketing and tweeting. Well, I’m tired of it – are you? I realized that there are so many words out there, but not that many different things being said. Look at tweets about social media or marketing and you will see many links to many articles saying the same stuff as well as many tweets actually just re-tweeting each other.
So, I’m taking a break. I will probably keep putting out a few tweets – but write things from my own head, not just send along someone else’s thoughts (we’ll see if that can work) – at least for a while. I also can’t break my ties with linkedin, as I am in a job search and that is a key resource for me.
Do you think too much is being written about social media marketing? Is it all starting to sound the same? Does most of it just feel like common sense to you too?

I’m tweeting! – Really!

twitterI held out for a while, I really did. I thought Twitter was something that would come and go – a fad. How can anyone make use of this means of communication? And why would they? 140 characters and thousands of people tweeting about sitting on the porch, having a drink or whatever. How could this be useful at all?

Well, I am a convert! I am not tweeting about the minutia of my life – at least not often. I have figured out that it can be a useful and inexpensive business marketing tool (by inexpensive, I mean free). I have been tweeting for a client for a couple of months. Our followers are slowly increasing and our web site has been tracking that people are clicking in from Twitter – so something seems to be going right.

I have to say that I enjoy coming up with tweets each day. Finding a way to be succinct and get a useful message across or convey some meaningful information, is a challenge. I have chosen the tact of using twitter to build the company’s reputation and show it as a good resource, rather than have every tweet be a sales pitch. Not that I don’t pitch a link to a product page every now and then, but only after many tweets with links to useful and pertinent information.

Take a look at what I have been doing at http://www.twitter.com/wnlsafety. This is a small piece of the marketing plan, but is working quite well – with a great ROI, since the cost is near zero. We have a small following that grows each week and have had dozens of clicks into the web site – and orders placed as well. Pretty good for a skeptic!

This Sunday’s Globe . . . arrgghhh

In this Sunday’s Money & Careers section of the Boston Globe, several things got under my skin a bit. First of all, is the economy so bad that the front page and most of page 2 are devoted to “A buyers’ guide to hybrid autos”? Didn’t that type of thing used to go into the auto section? Then, they actually chose the Ford Fusion Hybrid over the Toyota Prius (ok, I just bought a Prius, but I would feel this way even if I had not). C’mon, it’s unproven, get lower gas mileage and the rear seats don’t even fold down – what??!
Next, I reach the lower right corner of page 2 to read Peter Post – Etiquette at Work. J.P. asks if it is ok to use a Blackberry for social purposes in a class and if it’s ok to leave your Bluetooth headset in your ear while meeting with clients. No, really – this is his question. And, Peter goes on with his answer for 5 long paragraphs. How ’bout – Duh, JP – what are you thinking? Of course it’s not ok.
Finally, I read the question/reply from the “Job Doc” – Patricia Hunt Sinacole. Now, I have to say, I know Pattie – not really well, but she lives just down the street from me, same PTA stuff, I know her sister . . . Best that I can tell, she is great at what she does. But, for this particular question, I just saw things a bit differently. I can’t give you the whole thing here, but it was a question/commentary from someone who is trying to be hired by a ‘think-tank’ that only wants to hire applicants from top-tier schools. He gives his credentials and recounts the rebuff he has received from the HR people. The answer then focuses on all the things he could try to do to convice these guys that he is right for the job – including providing relevant work samples and a 90-day plan outlining what he could accomplish in the first days on the job. There is even a suggestion to write a summary of recent hires and describe why they were not a good match for the role (The question writer mentions that several Ivy League grads have not worked out in this position). Hold on there – how about a little chastizing of the organization? How about encouraging companies who practice this type of bias against non-Ivy schools to come up for air and take a look at a whole slew of really great people with degrees from great schools that may not be covered in ivy? application denied
I have to say, the Globe was disappointing this weekend. There are rarely any jobs listed anymore, but some good information might be worth reading.

Proudest moment

I had a phone interview a few weeks back and the interviewer asked my to tell him about my proudest accomplishment. I know I should be ready for all these types of questions – but I was not well prepared for this one. Greatest strengths, weaknesses, favorite past position, etc. – but what was I most proud of? This was work related – so the whole “I’m most proud of my children . . .” did not work. So, I answered something about saving a big account after big quality problems, blah, blah, blah . . .
Since then, I have really thought about this question.

Chinese symbol for pride

Chinese symbol for pride


I think I have finally come up with an answer for this – and it is not a moment or a single event. I am most proud of the legacy I have left with some companies. I always have my ‘quality’ hat on and I make decisions with that in mind. I always push to do what is right – not what is necessarily easy. The moment that made me realize that others noticed this was when I was leaving a job back in 2002 and having a discussion with the VP of Finance. I told him that I was sorry to be leaving with so many things up in the air relative to the future of this company. He replied that I should leave with my head held high because I was leaving a changed culture. He told me that I had made a difference in how people looked at things there. By pushing back, stopping product from going out the door, training everyone in what it means to do things right and leading by example, I had changed a company culture. It may not be perfect, but this company was no longer known for having poor quality products, and I should be proud. His comments made me feel very proud.
Someone at work the other day said to me that they wished I had come there sooner – as I pushed back on what I felt was a poor personnel judgement call. I incited a little ‘do the right thing’ philosophy in a colleage and he was feeling a bit like a hero that day. I don’t accept the “we have to do it this way” (if I truly feel it is not right), so I always try to present an alternate view to at least re-open discussion. I’m often amazed at how easy it is to have someone change their mind if they made a poor decision. Sometimes you just have to point it out, ask them to reconsider, and they realize it and do the right thing. Of course, sometimes they don’t!
So, I can now answer this question with confidence. My proudest moment is not a single moment at all. It is leaving a legacy – a philosophy that we should all do the right thing and take responsibility to move that attitude forward.
What have you done at work that makes you proud?

Back from vacation.

I have been out of commission for a while, relative to writing. Work has been busy, I have been looking and interviewing for a new job (I can say this out loud because my current client knows I want more hours and he cannot give them to me) and I actually took a 9 day vacation! Yes, my husband and I left our youngest at home and went away to celebrate our anniversary. It was great, by the way.
I always come back from vacation with mixed emotions. I am a bit of a homebody, so I actually get to a point where I am excited about getting home. On the other hand, I love the easy days of vacation and can dread getting back to all the things I missed at the office.
As a contract employee, I always come back with the hope I was sorely missed! There would be nothing worse than to be away and have everything continue without a glitch while you are gone. Fortunately, I came back to a well managed list of issues – I was needed and missed, but the sky had not fallen. This is the best thing I could hope for.
Now, onward with projects and making things happen – to make sure I am missed, at least a little bit, the next time I take a vacation!