Archive for the ‘business’ Tag

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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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.

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?

The Art of Product Management

I have held the position of Product Manager at several different companies and I have to say that having the same title did not mean I was doing the same thing at each of those companies.  There is a fine line between Product Management, Product Marketing and sometimes Project Management and at many companies, the titles are sometimes interchageable and the roles are often blurred.

I first became a PM at a fairly small but fast growing company – Telco Systems.  If I remember correctly, we grew from $7 million to $70 million in sales in just 3 years. It was a crazy place for a while.  I was young – just 27 years old and I had a lot to learn.  I was fortunate to learn about what it really meant to be a PM from a great boss (thanks, Art!).  This company had a fairly traditional take on PM and I was able to see how PM is supposed to work.  I have sinced worked for companies that had less traditional roles for their PMs and have experienced the struggle of making things happen when a company does not understand the PM role. 

When you first enter the role of a PM, I think the most striking thing is the amount of resposibility and objectives heaped upon you – without having any direct reports to help you get these things done.  It does not mean that people don’t do work for you.  It means you have to get them to do work for you while they are doing work for their real boss and possibly on other projects.  It means that you have to meet deadlines, hit targets and make things happen around you without the benefit of being able to give other employees their reviews, salary increases and promotions.

Here is where the ‘art’ comes in.  I firmly believe that Product Management is not for everyone.  It is a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary, high stress, multi-tasking job.  The entire product life cycle, from product development through introduction through end of life planning is managed by the PM.  That means you need to work with people from every department within the organization at some point.  You work with customers and get to know what they want and what your competitors have.  You have to define all the pieces of the puzzle, communicate it to the appropriate individuals, get Engineering to comply with their portion, get testing done when needed, get someone to source and cost what you will need, develop marketing plans and actual collateral materials (or get someone to do that for you too), have Quality come up with their requirements for verification or inspection, get manufacturing ready to make it (or determine to outsource it), educate the Sales people so that they can sell it, train customer service so they can support it . . .  Oh yeah, don’t forget to set pricing and make sure that margin targets are going to be met.   Along the way, you will be called upon to make critical decisions when things go wrong, when trade-offs between features and costs or time to market need to be made, to shorten the time to market due to competitive pressures . . .  Aaaahhhh – the stress,  I mean, art of it all!!

So, for anyone out there who is thinking about moving into Product Management – are you ready for a wild and crazy ride?  It is a fantastic job in my opinion – but it takes a strong personality and a tenacious spirit.  It also helps to have some experience in other functional departments.  Having been in Engineering or Software development, Manufacturing or Marketing is a big help for understanding the roles of those individuals and knowing what can and cannot be done within those functions.  Some of the best PMs I know have a good background in one or 2 other disciplines and can understand the tasks involved for the majority of the team.

When all is said and done, I would say that the most important things a PM can do to be successful is to earn the respect of others in the organization by: 1. taking the time to learn about each team member – what they do and what they know; 2. prove early on that you can contribute and not just delegate; 3. get to know your customers well – they are what makes everything else possible; 4. make decisions – ask questions, evaluate information and make the hard decisions and 5. Take responsibility – you are the PM and the buck stops there.  If people respect you, they will do good work for you.  Remember, that is what Product Management is – getting people who don’t report to you to do work directed by you – quite an art!

Treat your people well.

boss_cartoonThere are many different types of bosses out there.  The micro-manager, the worry wart, hands-off guy, ‘never know where she stands’ gal, ‘mad about everything’ man, boss trying to be a friend, boss trying to keep a distance, easy goin’ boss man, the generous one or the cheap one – I could go on and on.  Well, whatever your style of managing people, I implore you to be good to those who work for you.  For those of you who have the power to directly affect your employees in some way, let me offer the following thoughts.

People work harder for people they like and when they feel appreciated.  No rocket science in this statement, but we sometimes loose site of the basic principals that motivate people.  This does not mean you have to become your employees’ best friend.  It means you have to treat people fairly and with respect.  It’s hard to get excited about doing extra work or coming up with new ideas when you don’t feel like you will benefit or be acknowledged.  At some point, people will just stop trying to go the extra mile and just do the basics.  They will fall into the category of the employee that just does what has to get done – no more.  They will be less productive and your business will suffer – all because you did not do right by them. 

For those of you who want a little reminder about defining the boss/employee relationship, here is an overview article that I thought was pretty good: http://www.allbusiness.com/human-resources/workforce-management/11242-1.html  It does not cover the treatment of employees particularly, but it is a good overview to help managers define their roles.

I wrote  a blog post on my business web site (www.lkconsulting.weebly.com) about “Angry Management” and I have since observed more unfriendly behavior from managers and company owners.  Greed seems to come to mind when I think about what I see.  I’m not talking about big corporate greed – with fat paychecks and huge bonus structures.  I’m talking about penny pinching – not sharing the wealth – ‘oh woe is me’  kinds of selfishness.  Hey out there, your employees feed their families, pay their mortgages/rents, need a car, have kids who want to go to college, get sick – just like you.  Only, they may not have the income that you do, and paying those bills is not always easy. 

So, think about the whole picture when you decide to layoff people when sales drop a bit – maybe you can make due a little bit longer and save someone from financial peril.  Pause a bit before deciding whether increased sales should turn into raises for your workers – or a new BMW for you.  Try to find some satisfaction in sharing the wealth – small or large – and I guarantee the payback will be sweet.

Thoughts on Quality Management . . .

 I thought I would share my perspective on “Quality”.  I have helped many companies with their Quality Management activities – from updating procedures through ISO9000 audits and registration.

  I was introduced to the idea of Quality Management way back in my days with Corning.  They put a big push on making TQM (total quality management) a part of their corporate culture in the early 1980s.  When I was with Telco Systems in the mid ’80s, I was tapped to implement a TQM program there and train every employee.  We used Philip Crosby Associates as our model and several of us went to their training programs for managers. I also attended a “train the trainer” program since I was charged to bring that knowledge and philosophy to the entire organization.  I have to admit, I was hooked on the concepts.  “Quality is free”, “Do it right the first time” really seemed like the right path and I became a preacher.

  I have spent a lot of time in and out of Quality organizations since my training.  I have realized several things that seem to be widespread – at least among the companies that I have worked with. 

  The first is that Quality must be driven from the top down.  Without total buy-in from top management, it can never become part of a company culture. This is true no matter how much time and money you spend on it.

  Next is that just saying it is so does not work.  Top management must live it every day through their own decisions and business dealings – not by mandating it to others.

  Finally, I have realized that Quality is just not a powerful place to sit.  I apologize to all the Quality professionals out there, but the truth is that a Quality Manager has very little power within an organization.  Power comes from Marketing in a market driven company and from Engineering in a product/technology driven company.  Unfortunately, my experience has taught me that most businesses see Quality as a necessary function that is best left to the Q manager.

  That being said, the philosophy that I try to bring to every company I work with is that Q is a function to be performed by everyone.  A QM may formalize it and document it, but each employee must live it for it to truly work.  I felt it and saw that philosophy work at Corning. I find it harder to convince smaller companies to take it as seriously as they should – it is harder to do things right sometimes.  I’m still with you Phil Crosby – still trying to convince everyone to simply do the right thing.

The start of LKConsulting!

The life of a “consultant” is quite interesting. It certainly has it’s ups and downs – especially in this economy.  With the current downturn, there are many more “consultants” out there looking for work.  You don’t just get a job by asking around anymore – and it takes a lot more than just being good at what you do.

I know what you are thinking.  “Consultant” is a code word for “Out of work and looking to make some money until the next job comes along”.  I get it – it’s true in many cases – but not for me. 

What I can tell you is that, in my case, consulting came to me.  I walked away from a job in the fall of 1994 (for reasons too complicated to get into here) and immediately received a call from a company that I had worked with as a vendor.  They wanted to know if I was available to do a project for them – put together a study that I had the knowledge base to complete fairly easily.  This was the beginning of the first round of LKConsulting.  I then worked with a few more companies, thanks to contacts that I had made over the years and a reputation for getting things done.

As has happened several times since, a client wanted to hire me as a regular employee instead of a contracted one – putting me back into the more traditional workforce.  After moving around a bit more – thanks to companies merging and re-structuring – I went back to working for myself in 2002.  Since then, I have taken some time off, done a lot of volunteer work and even ran a small antiques business for a while – but I always miss the challenges of helping small businesses.  So now I’m back, working hard for clients, but keeping my independence as a “consultant”.