Preparing your business for sale, or not.

As you get a little older, one of the natural things you start to think about is “What am I going to do with this business?” While you might find a buyer (as many do), or you plan to involve your family in some way. Anyone else might have to search for a while. While you’re considering that (family or not) and dealing with the day to day, it’s worthwhile to spend some time preparing your business for sale.

One of the ways to do that is to start thinking about what happens the day after closing. In many cases, your buyer is likely to request some sort of financing, which often comes as a revenue split payable to you. If you have to (or want to) do this, you’ll be a lot more interested in the buyer’s success.

Leaving a road map

Leaving the new owner a road map can’t hurt, no matter how experienced they are.

What roles will have to be filled to take over your business?

  • Daily operations
  • Product management and development
  • Finance
  • Infrastructure management
  • Marketing
  • Sales

You may have others, depending on your business.

What do these things involve?

Daily operations

In brief, run the business day to day, relieving the owner of all tasks. Making sure everyone on the team is communicating and is being communicated with. No mysteries, no surprises. If you had to be replaced tomorrow, what would it REALLY take?

Product management and development

Managing employees, consultants, their projects and the quality of those projects. Planning and executing testing so that quality meets or exceeds both your own and your customers’ expectations. Working out ongoing product plans, deployments and deadlines so these projects can be coordinated with other parts of the business.

Finance

Monitoring AR / renewal rate / renewal speed, keeping the bills paid, updating metrics, etc. Making sure your financial records resemble something a buyer and their people (banker, investors, etc) expect to see.

Infrastructure management

What infrastructure do you currently have to manage and care for?

Marketing

Planning, design, development, and execution of marketing efforts per your marketing calendar. What prospects are you not reaching? Are there prospects who need what you do, but simply aren’t exposed to your company because of (what, exactly)? When you have churn, what is the cause? When someone declines to purchase, what are the reasons? The answers to these questions change over time, so they must be asked on a recurring basis. This includes lost customer re-acquisition.

Sales

Improve, manage and document the sales process. If there isn’t one now, develop one. It’s “easy” to take a company to two times current revenue by doing more of what you’re doing now, the same way you’re doing it now – throw “bodies” at it. However, it’s all but impossible to 10X a company that way.

Investigate expansion into adjacent markets

Are there closely adjacent spaces you aren’t yet addressing? Do the people that work with the people who work with your products and services all day need your help in a way that relates to your existing business?

Identification of partner and cross-marketing opportunities

Investigate partnering and cross-marketing opportunities where you can leverage your reach to help your partner and where your partner can do the same for you.

Standardize and organize company finances

Investors, angels and prospective buyers expect (hope) to find well-organized finances in forms they’re used to seeing. I don’t mean to say that your finances aren’t organized now (are they?), but they may need to be more formalized. What you want is something that wouldn’t raise concerns when an investor and their professional finance team sees them. Being able to provide such numbers to them on relatively short notice sends a message.

Other benefits of preparing your business for sale

Everything here is about ultimately about preparing for exit. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t focused on customers, in fact, it means just the opposite.

Everything you do to prepare a company for sale prepares it to withstand market challenges, slow months or quarters, while also making it more attractive for purchase. In particular, the road map makes it easier for you to “replace yourself” in the event you decide not to sell and instead, decide to become a passive owner.

No matter what direction you go, making the business stronger benefits you and the new owner.

Newspaper ad revenue vs Facebook ad revenue

This graph comparing Facebook ad revenue vs newspaper ad revenue appeared over the Thanksgiving weekend.

As a small business owner, here are a few things to factor into your reaction to this data:

1) Graphs like this can be misleading when there is one media (Facebook) in serious growth mode vs. an entire market. We’re talking about a large market of diverse sized newspaper businesses where many of this group still don’t get the internet, still don’t get direct marketing, don’t have the ability to target subscribers based on income and other demographics (much less psychographics), and still don’t coach their advertisers to place ads that produce results. There are some who do get those things and who are focused on producing results for their clients (versus “How many $ of ads can we sell this week?”), but they seem to be a minority. Be careful not to paint the entire newspaper industry as a monolithic dinosaur that cannot deliver solid leads to you. Some papers fit that description, and some don’t.

2) The volume of Facebook ad revenue vs. U.S. newspaper ad revenue as a whole doesn’t mean you much to you IF your newspaper ads are working. Remember, what works FOR YOU is what matters, not what a pundit says, and not what the average says about an entire market across the whole country. Do what works. Do what you can dominate at. Monitor constantly. Keep in mind that a substantial piece of the drop in newspaper ad spend is due to classifieds going to online markets such as Craigslist.

3) If you aren’t already using Facebook ads, perhaps it is time to reconsider them – no matter how solid the results are from your newspaper campaigns. Wearing blinders is dangerous, so don’t get caught napping because your current newspaper ads are producing well.  Like every lead source you use, you have to watch your newspaper ad production closely to make sure that it’s still hitting your cost per lead requirements. If newspaper lead performance falls off, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the customer value of those leads.

4) The graph is a little old because some of it appears to be based on 2014 newspaper data. The advance of Facebook ad spend has likely increased since that time. An April 2016 eMarketer piece indicated Facebook was on track for $22B in global ad sales for 2016. See #3.

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.

Look beyond today, ourselves, our businesses

Recently, I read an article that provoked the reader to pay more attention to the big picture and look beyond the immediate meaning of day to day events. The premise of the piece was that “little”, seemingly unrelated events have repeatedly lead to regional or global events throughout history – such as the “minor assassination” of an Austrian prince ultimately led to World War I. It struck me that this premise also had business implications.

One of the core discussions in this piece was that we (as a species) often fail to see events coming, and that the path from point A to B seems obvious when historians examine them decades or centuries later.

While historians have the benefit of having the puzzle laid out before them, they claim that we (again, as a species) have been pretty consistent about three things contribute to our inability to detect these situations before (or as) they happen:

  • People tend to look at their present for answers, rather than considering the past or future.
  • People tend to look immediately around them, rather than analyzing how events connect regionally or globally.
  • People tend not to push themselves intellectually. Specifically, we don’t read enough, spend enough time thinking beyond the prior two points, challenge ourselves enough, and often tune out opposing views.

These are not accusations unique to today’s world, but observations noted repeatedly by historians dating back to Plato.

Look beyond the present

Let’s take that template of observations and use it to overlay our careers as owners, managers and employees.

When we look back, will we see some obvious signals that we missed over during our business career to date? For the things that stick out, would you do the same thing knowing what you know today? Do you feel you missed a signal or a piece of information that would have prompted you to do something else? Did you learn a lesson at the time that served you well? Months or years later, did a lesson hit you about those events?

Maybe there’s something to this, maybe not. Regardless of how your track record holds up under re-examination, the premise is worthy of consideration. How do the things that happened in the past impact current challenges? Do the methods being used to deal with these things hold up over time? Would your decision-making process or the execution seem naive, ill-advised, or not observant a year (or five) from now? If so, why?

Should that impact your execution and decision making processes? History says (in so many words) “yes, over all people and all times”, but everyone’s history varies.

Look beyond your immediate reach

Beyond your immediate reach, what is going on in your market? What’s going on in the markets that affect your suppliers (and their suppliers) and your clients (and their clients)? What events going on right now could affect you, your clients, their clients or your suppliers, even though they might be a layer or two removed from their day to day collective concerns?

For example, if you have a small party store, there are a number of things in the international community that affect you and your clients. Currency. International logistics. Regional conflicts. Tariffs. Trade agreements. A strike on the Long Beach docks.

Can you do anything about these events that are out of your reach? Probably not. However, you can use your knowledge of them to take action to protect your business and your clients’ businesses. Like it or not, you’re in their line of work as well, so paying close attention to what impacts them is important, even when it has nothing to do with what you do or sell.

Look beyond your norms

This one is complicated: read more, challenge yourself more, think more and review things contrary to your opinion. Yet it’s also simple and can be summed up in one word: Grow.

The single most important thing we can do for our business over the long term is to make ourselves better. A better read, better trained, better prepared, better developed business owner is more likely to make better decisions. That business owner sets the example for their team’s growth. When we have a deeper understanding of all sides of the challenges we face, and a deeper knowledge of the issues that affect our businesses and our clients’ businesses, we’re prepared to make better decisions.

Understand anything and everything

On this Armistice Day, I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Vets who influenced my life. Typically, this means lessons learned from my dad and father-in-law, who both served as B-52 mechanics (Presque Isle, Carswell, etc). Seems that the harder the lesson was to understand and learn, the more value it holds.

Watching the election returns come in reminded me of an old joke that a successful landing is any landing you can walk away from. When the context of survivors is “political parties who do things the way they’ve always done them”, it’s too early to tell if anyone survived Tuesday’s landing.

For those who didn’t come here for politics, have no fear, we’ll circle back to a place very much in context with you and your clientele.

I have often noted that anything you do is everything you do, and Tuesday was a world-class illustration.

Hearing what you want to hear

After the Presidential votes are counted, everyone’s a pundit. We know what happened through the view seen from our own window on the world. Some saw it as a shocker. Some as a GOP mandate. Some as a long overdue rejection of the political establishment. You can count me in the third group.

It’s like the “crazy” family member at Thanksgiving dinner. If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you.

Collectively, the RNC couldn’t believe they had to run with Trump until they had no choice. Likewise, the DNC couldn’t believe their “luck” that the RNC was stuck with Trump. I suspect the RNC couldn’t believe their luck when Hillary was nominated.

Neither party realizes they’re the crazy family members at the table.

Each party’s echo chamber remains in pre-election condition. Before long, I expect you will start seeing signs of “not getting it” in each party’s behavior. I’d like to be wrong about that, but it’s difficult to change organizations of this type, particularly when they say what they say so they can hear it again.

Listen to, understand and know your clientele

Neither party seems to understand one of the messages the election sent: “Stop sending us the same old candidates who do whatever the party wonks say while delivering nothing the candidate promised“. That it was delivered to both parties by the same candidate is noteworthy.

This happens after decades of not listening to your clientele (yes, voters are a clientele). It happens after decades of telling your clientele you’re going to deliver, but you never do. Not that they delivered two days late, or two months late but NEVER.

With that, let’s start to tie these events to your business.

Circling back with understanding

Until it happens, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand what it’s like for a factory to close in your town. Most politicians think they understand it because they’ve seen photos and spreadsheets, talked to the former plant manager and toured the factory. You can’t really understand it without living it. Unless you worked there, live in the town, know the people, know their kids, see them them at ball games and grocery stores, it’s difficult to understand. Even then, unless your job is one of the ones that was lost, you don’t really get it.

The business owner has a parallel. They’ve lost customers, or lost or closed a business in the past. They understand that every day, their business is up for re-election.

If I asked your clientele to vote anonymously for your business’ survival, what outcome would you expect? Every stop or visit to your website is a vote of confidence. If they’re tired of your place or want a change, it’s a vote in the other direction.

Like a politician, you have two choices. You can depend on your echo chamber like those political parties, or you can get nose to nose, toes to toes with your clientele and learn what really makes them tick, what makes them worry, what takes away their pain and why they like (or don’t like) you. It’s hard (sometimes exhausting) work much like campaigning.

When you know your clientele better than anyone, it changes anything and everything. Your behavior, service, team, products, marketing and reaction to events that affect your clientele – they all reflect that knowledge.

If you’re a politician… it works roughly the same way, notwithstanding the votes you get simply because you’re a member of a particular party.

Decisions with numbers

Business is Personal” has been a thing for almost 12 years now. While many things have changed in that 12 years, the nature and impact of good and bad decisions remains the same: the difference between success and failure.

“So says Captain Obvious”, you might say. Perhaps, yet your decisions continue to be the single most powerful (or weakest), positive (or worst) impact you can have on your company and your team.

The information and process you use to arrive at those decisions makes all the difference.

Demonizing the numbers

On a number of occasions, I have suggested that you start gathering metrics – even if you start with a single number and a yellow pad. Your data gathering might be more sophisticated than that, but it won’t matter if you aren’t using the data to make decisions.

It’s easy to demonize the numbers. They make it easy to make “impersonal” decisions, right? They tell us that Marta (who has only been here for two years) is producing twice as much as Jenny with fewer quality problems. Yet Jenny has been here for 10 years and must be loyal to the company.

The impersonal numbers say Jenny should be sent packing, or should find another job, or should be moved to another role in the company. Should we ask her if she’s bored, or needs a new challenge or is struggling with (whatever)?

Maybe Marta has more ambition and bigger goals than Jenny, who may only be here for the paycheck and is happy as long as that continues. Or maybe Jenny doesn’t realize her volume and quality are down and would change whatever is necessary to improve her numbers if the data told her about the problems.

Numbers don’t lie and don’t care about circumstances. They’re demonized because they seem to provoke decisions to be made without regard for the people impacted by them.

Data provokes questions. Is the data misinterpreted? Is there more to the story about why Jenny’s volume and quality are down? Is the data incomplete? Is the analysis incomplete? Like any tool, metrics can be used badly.

Ignore some of the numbers at your peril

The data indicating Jenny’s apparent lack of productivity and quality might be affected by the machinery she’s using. Is her equipment operating at full speed?

Do the metrics take into account that she is the subject matter expert in her department? Does whoever evaluates the numbers know that thanks to new hires in the last quarter, much of Jenny’s time is spent training new employees on her equipment?

Do the metrics reflect that her machine was down for 12 hours last week and that while her machine was down, she made service calls to pick up the slack for a sick staff member?

You want to know these things when you make a decision about Jenny’s performance numbers.

Decisions are personal and impersonal?

What data often does is reinforce decisions that you’re afraid or unwilling to make. Sometimes data tells you things you weren’t the least bit aware of, but be sure that these surprises are well-researched. There are often multiple factors affecting a single metric, and some are not always obvious.

When the numbers are ignored, decisions are delayed or not made at all because of a personal bias or a desire to avoid “hurting” someone. Meanwhile, the numbers keep telling you what you need to know to make the decision that’s best for the everyone.

When complete, a metric provides you with the information needed to make decisions based on what’s really happening in your company. Yet almost all decisions are personal to someone. How do we make personal and impersonal decisions at the same time?

We don’t.

Even if the decisions aren’t personal, the impacts usually are. Make sure the data used to make a decision tells the whole story. Make sure that both the directly and indirectly impacted understand the context of the decision. You might feel these things are none of the employees’ business, but that breeds the attitude that they shouldn’t care because, after all, it’s none of their business.

If the decision is best for everyone at the company, show them why. You’re responsible for making the company as productive, profitable, secure, and resilient as possible. Your decisions should reflect that.

This year, customer follow up will be different.

For many businesses, two things happen this time of year. One: You get a bunch of new customers. Two: Many of the new customers you acquired during this time last year “forget” to come back. The customers on the first list cost time and money to acquire. A fair amount of the people who “forget” to come back were never asked to. In other words, the business didnt invest the time / money for new customer follow up.

There is a problem with this concept. Being able to follow up requires having some contact info for your clients. These days, people are all too used to being nagged incessantly, mostly by mail and email. They’re also concerned about privacy and identity theft, which increases their reluctance to provide you with their contact info.

Why they think you’re a spammer

While it keeps the FCC and others “happy” to publish boilerplate privacy and security policies, most people either won’t read them or won’t care that you have them. Until given a reason to think otherwise, they will group your request with all the ones they’ve received before. This means that you will be thrown into the bucket with the companies who used their contact info inappropriately.

Inappropriate doesn’t necessarily mean illegal but the net impact on the business is roughly the same.

While many marketing people and business owners think otherwise, they don’t get to decide what is spam and what isn’t. The recipient does. The legal definition is irrelevant. No matter how good you think the message is, the recipient decides whether your messages are out of context, incessant, annoying or of no use. If your new customer follow up message matches any of those criteria, they will unsubscribe, opt out and might even stop doing business with you.

Even worse, they will group you with all the other spammers and be super hesitant to provide you with information in the future – even if you need it in order to serve them as they wish.

Poorly conceived customer follow up has a hard cost

Spammers are of the mind that they can send millions of emails for free. They have the luxury of not caring if they retain a “customer”. You do not. They have the luxury of not caring about the cost of a lead, much less the lifetime value of a customer. You do not.

When you send a message that feels to your customer like spam and it causes them to unsubscribe, there’s a hard cost associated with that. Think about what it cost to get that person to visit your store or website. We’re talking about labor, materials, time, consultants, employee salaries, service costs, etc. Every lead source has a cost and a ROI. The latter comes from the lifetime of that client relationship with your company.

When your message causes the client to unsubscribe, your lead cost rises and your ROI is likely to drop because the lifetime customer value of that person or business will probably stagnate.

Great, so how does my customer follow up avoid this?

Expectation management.

When they provide contact info these days, people have questions about the use of their contact info:

  • How it will be used.
  • How it will be shared (short answer: DON’T)
  • How it will be secured.

You have to be crystal clear (and succinct) when answering those questions. You have to adhere to what you said. Stepping outside the bounds of what you said you’d do, even once, breaks what little trust was granted when their contact info was shared.

Whether you feel it’s justified or not, people are hyper-sensitive to this. If you want to build a lifetime customer relationship with them, your behavior has to show it.

A suggestion

Everyone likes getting stuff on their birthday. It doesn’t have to be a (heaven forbid) 50% discount. You don’t need their birth date – which they will be protective of due to identity theft. You only need the month. During their birthday month, a simple offer or add-on that is special to them is all you need. Do you have any low cost, high perceived value services that could be given away with purchase during their birthday month? Make sure it’s clear to them that you will use this info to send them something of value during their birthday month – and stick to that.

The alternative is to keep paying more for leads. There are only so many people in your market. Nurture your clientele and show them you’re always thinking about how to help them. Win the long term game.

Critical process testing: Both expensive and cheap.

How do you perform critical process testing? Critical processes are sensitive to any failure, not just the major ones we tend to worry about most. When your products get out into the real world, they encounter a mix of simple, complex and very complex environments. Likewise, they are often used in a mix of simple, complex and highly integrated workflows.

“Any failure” is often an easily overlooked, simple little environmental thing. These little things didn’t cross someone’s mind early enough in the design, creation, production and testing processes. The simplest oversight or miscalculation about the nature of environments can easily derail a complex product.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

A rather disconcerting programming-related comment I’ve heard for decades is “Works on my machine”, otherwise known as “WOMM”. In context, the full comment might be “I tested the program and it works fine on my machine.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anything. As Mike Tyson has said, “Everyone had a plan until I hit them.” Likewise, every program has been “tested” until it has been deployed.

A WOMM comment implies that the program wasn’t tested in an environment more complex than the one used to create it. In other words, testing wasn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as it should have been.

Don’t be so quick to think that your shop is immune to this simply because my example refers to software. A marketing process or sales process is just as likely to suffer from a lack of proper testing. This is the classic “Can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. Those creating your products are often focused too close to the product’s development to truly understand how it is normally and properly used in the field.

Management has a testing responsibility too

Not understanding how your products and services are used in the field is a disadvantage for your creative team. A frequent problem with all testing (not just critical process testing) is that it occurs too close to the environment used to develop the process. I’ve mentioned that I often proofread a written piece by reading it aloud. I do this because the use of a second media reveals obvious problems hidden by familiarity with a piece. Adding environments to your testing process is a similar tactic.

An instrumental part of your testing is making sure that the shifts in environment are properly covered. If your teams aren’t exposed to the reality of the environments where your products and services are used, it’s more difficult to take them seriously – much less know those environments even exist.

Making this happen is management’s responsibility. Allowing your creative team to spend the money and time to experience the real world environment where their products are used is huge. Taking a step beyond that to allow time for testing in real world scenarios and environments will pay huge dividends. These investments pay off in both product quality, and with the vision of your creative team being more in touch with your clients’ reality.

Whose responsibility is multi-environment critical process testing?

Your creative types (programmers, engineers, etc) may feel the duty of testing on a broad range of environments falls entirely to your quality control team. After all, your quality control team is usually tasked with a mix of testing new changes and testing for regressions (ie: new problems created in existing functionality) across many different environments.

That might seem the same job as developing in and for multiple environments, but it isn’t. When complex environments are involved, your programmers, engineers or other creative folks might often think their time is too valuable to spend creating and testing on a number of different environments. They have a point, but that doesn’t mean their development has to occur in the simplest environment possible. Left untreated, product creation will occur on the systems and tools closest and most familiar to the creative team. This leads to WOMM but also to designs that don’t reflect the reality of the environments where your creations are actually used.

The real world is far more complex any single programmer or engineer’s work environment. If you aren’t providing a range of ready to use work environments for them, the natural thing is for them to use the tools that are already available. This isn’t ideal for them or for your clients.

Think about and invest in your creative people and critical testing process: Expose them to reality.

Employee metrics and the fantasy football parallel

My son and his friends talked me into joining their NFL fantasy league this season. A fantasy team owner “drafts” players and those players’ statistics are used to score points each week. You face off against one other team owner in the league. The owner whose players score the most points that week determines who wins. It struck me this week that gathering good employee metrics, monitoring them and taking action on the data is not unlike what you do when managing a fantasy sports team.

The last time I played a fantasy sport, the draft involved Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It was 1986. Getting statistics for every game was laborious. You had to scour the newspaper to get the data you needed and for NBA basketball, it became a daily chore due to the volume of games. In a lot of ways, the difficulty of getting a player’s game statistics for every game for a fantasy sport 30 years ago reminds me of the difficulty of gathering the right employee metrics these days. For some data, you really have to want it.

Employee metrics should include condition

In the NFL and other professional sports, there are well-defined rules and timelines for determining whether or not a player can play, communicating their condition and deciding their availability for the next game. Scrutiny on professional sports players is very high and the data is readily available, so it’s easy to determine if a player is injured, will play this week, has the flu, is dealing with a family member’s illness or death, etc.

In your business, things are not that simple. While you’ll know about an employee family member’s death, you won’t often learn about an employee’s family drama or relative’s illness until it has progressed to a state that impacts the employee’s ability to show up at work. The impact starts well before you find out about the situation.

Sometimes it isn’t sickness. Employment situations change. Kids move back home, or go off to college, or both. Weddings, divorces, financial and legal struggles and other things can put stress on an employee, even if those things aren’t their life changes. When these things happen to an employee’s child, parent or sibling, they can affect work performance, whether they like it or not.

In the NFL, a player has to go through the concussion protocol after “getting their bell rung“. They must be cleared to play football by someone who is not associated with the team. While it’s mostly about caring for the player’s condition and their future health, it also has a big impact on the team. In the old days, a player could brush aside such concerns and play anyway. Sometimes this helped the team, sometimes not.

Your employees have the same types of issues. Who is monitoring their condition? Are the people you have “on the field” in optimal condition for the task? These things are a form of metrics, but they’re difficult to gather / measure. What would help them return to their normal performance level or better?

Typical business metrics say a lot of about day to day performance, but don’t lose sight of more personal “metrics” that can affect employee performance.

Who’s the opponent?

In a NFL fantasy league, who you “play” that week is very much determined on which team they are playing. The quality of the opponent is everything. The best quarterback in the league isn’t likely to have a huge game against the best defense in the league. To score higher, you might shift to a quarterback who’s playing against a poor defense this week.

In your shop or office, the opponent may be a work task, the sales prospect, or that meeting with partners. While you probably don’t think of them as opponents, the same ideas apply. Given the situation, task, and people involved, do you have the best available players on the field? In other words, are the right people involved?

What’s the history with those people, tasks, and situations? Does that impact who you assign to the job? Pro teams practice against an opponent’s “look” the week before they play that opponent. How do you test your team in advance of the real thing?

Metrics are situational, behavioral and yes, hard numbers too.

Do your sales efforts have a smell or an aroma?

Sales is tough work. One of the things that makes it challenging is starting a conversation with someone you don’t know. This can be particularly difficult when they know you are primarily interested in selling them something. As Gitomer says, “People don’t like to be sold, but they love to buy.” Nowhere is that more evident than at a trade show, where people will avoid eye contact with anyone wearing a “sales hat”.

Even so, trade shows offer ideal opportunities to talk to (usually) vetted prospects, assuming you’re at the right show. These face to face opportunities provide an often-unparalleled chance to learn about your prospect. Body language & facial expressions help you determine if the questions you ask and the responses you provide are resonating with your prospect’s needs and wants. These physical cues are not evident during a phone call or email exchange.

Avoid the hat

In order to benefit from these valuable face to face conversations, you have to start them. Getting these conversations started requires you to engage with someone. This requires that the attendee accepts the engagement rather than ignoring you, looking away, staring at their feet or simply saying “Nope”. Trade show exhibitors try all sorts of tactics to provoke an interaction, including attractive women, giveaways (tchotchkes), and refreshments.

Giveaways are most common. Some lame, some extravagant, some in context with their business. There’s an opportunity here for much thought than you typically see. Common rubber footballs, pens, pads of paper, and so on – much of it never makes it home, much less back to the hotel or office. These giveaways are rarely thought through well enough that they are designed to make a connection to the product or service being sold. We’ll come back to that.

I don’t see too many so-called “booth babes” these days, but they do exist, particularly in the automotive industry. In 30+ years of trade show time, I have seen one coherent use of them – when costumed in a way that connected their presence perfectly into context with the product being sold. Interestingly, this involved costuming intended to appear as if it came from the movie “Edward Scissorhands”.

Refreshments are the other area (besides giveaways) where you see a broad latitude of items. Whether it’s numerous forms of candy, airline-esque bags of peanuts/pretzels, to more imaginative setups like serving locally-brewed root beer in boot-shaped shot glasses from a cowboy-themed booth at a trade show in Texas.

And then there are the booths that recognize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – specifically giving away things that are all but irresistible. These are things, per Maslow, that tie back to the lower tiers of the hierarchy, delivering a feeling of safety / comfort and home. These are the booths with freshly cooked bacon (not kidding) or fresh from the oven chocolate chip cookies. The latter is what I’ve seen perform the best.

The aroma of warm chocolate chip cookies is incredibly disarming to most people. Even the folks who don’t want a cookie seem obligated to explain why – which starts the conversation. Stop long enough to have someone hand you a warm cookie and most will pause to take a bite or two, and feel enough obligation to answer a qualifying question or two. Before long, the conversation is started.

Remember the point of your “gimmick”

Lots of money gets spent on these things. Much of it is spent without much thought or planning, at least from my perspective. Never forget the primary reason why you’re exhibiting at a trade show and spending that money: To start the process of making a sale, or at least, to gather leads. A gimmick to get people to stop at your booth is solely to make it easier to start a conversation. Your booth and pre-show marketing ties into all of this and should contribute to the process of creating / provoking these conversations.

Years ago, I had a fishbowl in the booth. The fishbowl contained a number of our competitor’s hardware dongles. Providing the dongle to us was a requirement for new clients to get a cross-product discount by abandoning the competitor’s product for ours. A bowl full of dongles sent a powerful message and it prompts people to stop. It’s a curiosity. It creates a conversation.

What are you doing to create these conversations?