Shadow Everything

Warning: I’m about to discuss some technology things (yes, again), with good reason: Information Technology (IT) is a leading indicator with parallels in every business niche, including yours.

This isn’t about IT. It’s about everything.

Control

Historically, a company’s staff has had a love / hate relationship with IT. IT’s all powerful control was easy in the mainframe days. No department could afford to get their own, much less the staff to manage it and the space to house it.

Once IT grudgingly accepted the PC, things moved along calmly for a couple of decades. We’ve now circled back to the point where IT has once again become an obstacle in many companies.

Enter Shadow IT.

What is Shadow IT?

Shadow IT is departmental IT resources purchased to achieve a result faster, cheaper and better than the result a department is getting from their company’s centralized IT staff – whether that’s one person or 1000.

Consider who has the budget and who benefits from Shadow IT’s ROI.

Somewhere in the market where tech people are trying to close a sale, there’s a hungry group of owners who would love nothing better than to take over thanks in part to the advantages provided by tools that don’t depend on the status quo and/or lobbyist-funded legislation dating back to Eisenhower.

Seek those who want to change

In many companies, IT’s primary responsibility is to make sure nothing ever changes. Not in all companies, mind you, but certainly in the misguided ones.

The act of not doing anything in a misguided company is mind bogglingly simple. That’s why startups keep going after entrenched niches where a rarefied few are doing something other than clinging to what they always did and how they did it – that is, the companies whose primary R&D budget might be smaller than their political contribution budget.

The startup crowd targets and finds ways to disrupt and displace these businesses. They do so by seeking out those who WANT to change. Those who don’t look to improve are left behind to fend for themselves – which seems to be what they want, until it’s too late.

Let me clarify the “make sure nothing ever changes” comment. It’s OK to take incremental, ever-more-feisty steps to make sure nothing ever changes in production or under peak load. It’s another thing entirely when those actions morph into “Do nothing. Change nothing. Don’t break anything, in fact, don’t touch or move anything. EVER.

Not doing anything beyond acting in the interest of self-preservation is politician work, not IT work. It results in…

Shrinkage

CEB (formerly the “Corporate Executive Board”) reports on global corporate data and trends in that data. A few quotes from a CEB report from last year:

  • IT budgets projected to shrink 75% over the next 5 years.
  • Around 10% of CIOs, particularly in large multinational energy, pharmaceutical and consumer companies, already have a cross-departmental role.
  • Nearly 80% of IT professionals will see multiple changes in their responsibilities, skills needs and objectives, as the IT organization adapts to changing business needs over the next five years.
  • Corporate IT departments will shrink by as much as 75% over the next five years as businesses adapt to the cloud and changing economic conditions.

The result of this: Cloud computing and Shadow IT, which is often based on cloud computing.

Who invests in Shadow?

Shadow IT investors have budgets. They seek serious ROI. These are not people looking for things to remain as they are. They’re dissatisfied with how things are. They know there are tools that can work faster, smarter, cheaper.

Shadow IT requires risk, offers reward, but it doesn’t come without a price. These processes must be robust, well-documented and… work, because IT doesn’t have the desire much less the resources to research or repair Shadow IT assets and processes. Shadow investments demand full responsibility from their investors.

Shadow IT isn’t the real challenge. I think you’ll see IT and its shadows go round and round as each generation of departmental and personal computing reveals itself.

By now, you’re wondering now this Shadow IT problem could possibly involve your small business. Did he trick me into reading this far?

Shadow Everything.

No, because the thing I’m seeing more and more of is “Shadow Everything”.

The ranks of people “dissatisfied with how things are and wanting tools that work faster, smarter, cheaper” isn’t limited to IT.

They’re everywhere and they will invest in Shadow Everything.

What will you invest in? And your clients?

Half of China’s companies do this

Recently, I was reading a story in the New York Times about a Chinese city’s effort to vastly expand their use of industrial robotics. The story’s video hits home 98 seconds in.

The official being interviewed indicates that the city’s goal is to reduce the number of employees by half and finishes his sentence by saying “many companies are working toward this goal“.

Not one company in one town. Not the company responsible for the birth of Chinese industrial robotics, but “many companies”.

Why expand robotics use?

They’re doing this by working toward the creation and deployment of high-quality “human-like” robotics technology.

A senior manager at one of their leading manufacturers of industrial robots says “China’s demand for industrial robots has been on the rise year after year. Compared to America, Japan and Europe, the increase in demand is enormous.

When I dig a little deeper, I find that there are a number of reasons for this drive to expand the robotization of China – and not all of them are expected:

  • They can’t hire enough people fast enough.
  • Their level of output has stagnated because there are only so many places to put all of these people, which drives…
  • They are encouraging people who have abandoned rural areas to move back to their hometowns – in part to take some of their skills with them.
  • To cut manufacturing costs.
  • To increase safety

What’s this got to do with your small business?

Perhaps nothing. However, a few of the items on China’s list are likely to fit business needs where you are, even though the scale of your project might be dwarfed by a large Chinese manufacturing business.

Can’t hire enough people fast enough.

Not a week goes by without hearing this from someone. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by salary levels, but most of it is driven by the availability (or lack of it) of trained people in some skill areas. It’s of particular concern in rural areas where you find specialized businesses putting down roots, or simply growing out of local need to create jobs and enterprise.

One of the key things that challenge the expansion of modern businesses in rural areas is the availability of skilled workers with advanced skill sets. Not everyone needs these, but those who do struggle to fill openings when they’re ready to expand.

Abandoned rural areas

China’s encouraging people to move back to their hometowns, in part because some of their urban centers are overwhelmed. Hopefully some of this is also because of a desire to improve urban worker lifestyles. The abandonment of rural hometowns isn’t limited to China, however. In the U.S., rural communities have been shrinking due to “brain drain” as their graduates move away to college and either don’t ever return, or perhaps don’t return for several decades. If they wait several decades, they don’t necessarily come back to town and start families. Instead, they come back as empty nesters.

To lure graduates with newly-gained modern skills, their hometown needs a place to work where they can use those skills. Kids don’t run off to college and get an engineering degree so they can move back to town and manage a franchise restaurant.

To cut manufacturing costs

As I noted above, the graduates we want to keep at home need a place to leverage their skills and that place needs to be competitive in the global market they serve, otherwise the jobs are tenuous as the employer simply cannot compete in the long term.

To increase safety

Safety has been a topic for discussion here in Montana for a while, due to a less than ideal safety record in recent years. While some of this can be addressed through training and safety equipment, there is another way to cut down on dangerous work.

Yes, robotics

These last four items can be addressed in part – not completely – through robotics. Maybe you aren’t ready today. Maybe you don’t manufacture today. Maybe you already have some automation in place. Maybe you and your staff worry that you will be risking your business and its jobs by involving robotics.

Maybe you’ll be risking your business and its jobs if you don’t involve robotics.

While it’s not applicable to every business, it’s worth a look. A safer, more productive workplace creates jobs that more likely to stick around.

Senate may drop the soap (maker)

About six years ago, there was a big fuss about the CPSIA, a law that was written to sharply reduce lead in clothing, toys and other items made for children under 12. Why lead? Lead poisoning causes developmental and neurological damage in young children, including by breathing dust from peeling lead paint.

I made some noise about the law as originally passed because it would force the makers of handmade childrens’ items out of business – and a lot of those businesses exist here in Montana. It wouldn’t have put them out of business because their products contained lead, but because of the costs of per-batch independent lab testing to prove they were lead-free.

The law passed unanimously. Imagine that happening today.

It passed in response to the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys in 2007-2008. However, there was an uproar from makers of small motorcycles and bikes. Lead appears in tire valve stems and other unlikely contact areas, which left them subject to the law.

The publicity resulted in a number of public forums with elected officials. In a response to my question during the Kalispell MT forum, my U.S. Representative lied to my face that he didn’t vote for the bill (the link shows otherwise). He then took the side of the youth motorcycle manufacturers (rightly so, I think) and said he’d fix the poorly-written law he’d voted for.

The law eventually got fixed, mostly, via an amendment exempting both small volume (often handmade) manufacturers – the ones who couldn’t possibly afford the testing requirements of the original law – and those reselling items they didn’t manufacture. While it didn’t save thousands of small handmade manufacturers from their losses prior to this amendment, it did stop the bleeding.

I say “fixed, mostly” because the law was amended to allow Mattel to perform their own lead testing rather than use independent labs other manufacturers must use by law. The irony? The slew of lead problems that provoked Congress to act involved millions of toys manufactured by Mattel and their subsidiaries.

What’s this got to do with soap?

I share all of that for a couple of reasons.

One, there are parallels in the CPSIA story to a new bill that could affect manufacturers of handmade soaps, lotions and the like, Senate Bill S.1014, the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

Two, there are a large number of handmade manufacturers of soap, lotions, creams, lip balms and scrubs in Montana, including my wife’s business.

Three, when the press microphones are on, there’s a high likelihood of horse biscuits along the lines of “I voted for it before I voted against it” or “My vote was a shot across the bow“, so have your biscuit filter ready.

S1014 is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is full of high-profile personalities, including two Presidential candidates. The needs of your small business or your employer may not mean squat in the context of Presidential candidate image makers advising these people.

Handmade manufacturers on alert

As in the CPSIA situation, an industry group has worked to provide exemptions for small handmade manufacturers. The Handmade Cosmetic Alliance (HCA) has for months tried to educate and reason with the bill’s authors and suggest that they include small manufacturer exemptions like those found in the 2011 Food Modernization Safety Act (FSMA). Despite that, these small handmade soap, lotion and cosmetic manufacturers will be held to the same standards that makers of prescription drugs and medical devices meet.

Most of these 300,000 (!) small manufacturers use food ingredients found in grocery stores, even though customers don’t eat them or use them to treat a medical condition. We’re talking about olive oil, oatmeal, sugar, coconut oil, etc. My wife buys olive oil for her creams off the shelf at Costco.

This law will force them to pay user fees that will result in higher consumer prices, plus it will add more paperwork burden by requiring them to file per-batch (10-50 units) reports. For the more successful homemade product makers, this could result in 100 or more FDA filings per month. Everyone has time to do that, right?

It’s almost tourist season. Many of the products tourists buy and take home are made and sold locally, and thus feed local families in your area. Speak now or …

What your customers don’t know

One of the more dangerous things that can get stuck a writer’s head is the feeling (assumption) that everyone knows or has already read about what you’d like to write about. This usually happens because the writer is so familiar with the material, concept or admonition that they simply assume that everyone knows about it, or has heard it already.

The same thing happens when a business owner considers what to communicate to their prospects and clients.

I’ve heard it all before.

Ever been to an industry conference session where the speaker talked about a fundamental strategy or tactic that you’ve known (and hopefully practiced) for years (or decades)? If so, it might have bothered you that the speaker talked about it as if it was new information. It might also have made you feel as if you’d wasted your time in that session, and that everyone else in the room did too.

Did you think “Everybody knows that“?

Unless the audience was very carefully selected to eliminate all but the “newbies”, it’s a safe bet that the audience breaks down like this:

  • Some of the people in the room are so familiar with that strategy or knowledge that they could be called up to the stage to teach it at a moment’s notice.
  • Some of the people in the room learned that information for the first time.
  • Some of the people in the room had probably heard it before, perhaps decades ago, but forgot about it.
  • Some of the people in the room knew about this fundamental piece of knowledge but have since forgotten to implement it or stopped using it – probably for reasons that would be categorized as “we got busy” or “we forgot about it“.

Everybody knows that” simply isn’t true unless the audience is highly controlled.

Most of the time, there’s a good reason to cover foundational material. Even if the fundamentals of whatever you do haven’t changed, something about how they’re applied probably has changed. Even if they haven’t, a reminder about the things “everyone knows” is usually productive to some of your clientele.

If you first learned whatever you do for a living 10 or 20 years ago, some of the fundamentals have probably changed. There are some fields where this isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean that changes haven’t happened.

Your customers’ knowledge is no different

Your prospects and clients are all on a different place on their lifecycle as a prospect or client with you. This is one of the reasons why you may have read or heard from myself and others that you should segment your message.

When I say “your message”, I mean the things you talk about in your newsletters, emails, website, direct marketing, video, sales pitch and so on.

As an example, someone who has owned two Class A RVs is likely going to be interested in a different conversation than someone in the process of selecting their first bumper pull camper trailer.

Despite that, if you have regular communications of general information to your clients (and surely you do), fundamental topics like changes in waste disposal and easier ways to winterize are always going to be in context – assuming you send the winterizing information in the month or so before your clients’ first freeze.

The key to getting the right info to the right people is to segment the audience (and thus the information), while not forgetting fundamentals that everyone can use a refresher on now and then.

Segmenting fundamentals

So how would you segment the educational marketing messages you provide to clients and prospects? How about new prospects, new clients and old hands?

For prospects, a “How to buy” series of information is a highly useful, low pressure way to identify the differences between yourself and the rest of your market, without naming anyone. “This is what we do and this is why we feel it’s important, be sure and ask these questions” is a powerful way to set the tone for the purchase process.

For new clients, provide a jump start. This will also give them a “this is reality” view of what ownership is like that can defuse a naturally occurring case of buyer’s remorse.

For old hands, discuss the questions that cause you to say “Hang on, let me go ask someone in the back“.

Speaking of fundamentals, that’s what this was all about.

Winning against the chain store

Yesterday, I sat down in a store that’s part of a Montana-based coffee shop chain. I wanted a quick cup and I had about an hour to write before a young man’s Eagle Board that was down the street, so this location was a perfect fit.

I drove past Starbucks to reach this place. I try to visit locally owned places whenever possible, and like many, I’m a creature of habit. This place has spent a lot of time as my writing venue over the years. The visit reminded me of some reasons why the chain store wins your neighborhood.

Habitual habitat

I admit that when it comes to coffee, I’m not most people. Maybe I’m a coffee nerd. Even so, let me shine a light on some reasons why people go to their place instead of your place – and most of them have nothing to do with coffee – unless they’re coffee nerds too.

When I visit a coffee shop, I tend to seek out a place that roasts its own beans every week rather than using what was trucked to them after being roasted and packaged months ago.

I sit at the same table in this particular shop, if possible. It’s out of the sun and elevated so I can sit or stand and work, and it has its own power outlet. From that perch, I can see the entire store and observe customer service and other things that I write about.

What changed?

I hadn’t been in this shop for a while, so the absence made it easier to notice what was different.

The outlet next to “my” table had been fixed. It had been loose for years, so being rid of that looseness was nice.

When I ordered a mug, I got a paper cup. They still have mugs. I rarely take coffee to go. I prefer ceramic. Hey, I warned you.

The coffee was lawsuit hot. In other words – way too hot, even to sip. 10 minutes later, it was drinkable. Do you have any idea how long that wait is for someone who is enjoying the aroma of a new-to-them coffee that they can’t wait to taste? Reminder: I said I wasn’t a normal coffee drinker.

I ordered a pastry. In the old days, I was always asked if I wanted it warmed up (whatever “it” might be). Regardless of my answer, they’d deliver it on a plate with a fork rather than ask me to stand at the counter and wait on it. This time, it was handed to me across the counter, still in cellophane. No wait, but no plate and no “Would you like it warmed up?”

You might think these details are silly, but these are the kinds of details that transform an average experience at a nearby shop into “the only place they’ll go for recreational gathering place coffee”, much less “Simply can’t work at home today coffee”.

I’d guess that the real change since my last visit relates to who trains the staff and how. They were cordial, friendly and all that – but the experience had changed.

What didn’t change?

I was greeted when I entered.

Once it cooled, the coffee (a new one this time) was excellent.

Once I unwrapped it, the pastry was excellent despite not being warmed up.

The wifi worked.

I had a quiet place to write for an hour.

What about Starbucks?

What are you doing to stand out from the “sterile” parts of a national chain? What are you doing to make me drive past the chain store to go to your place – other than being locally owned?

Not all of you own a coffee shop, but most have a national chain or regional player in your market. Seek parallels. Take the stuff they do well (like consistency) and use it to improve your place. Ignore the stuff they do poorly, other than to eliminate it from your place. Stand out by making yours the only place they’ll go – and make sure everyone knows why.

Don’t think that a national chain can’t appear in your market. In less than a year, my favorite little town of 4000 people has gained two national auto parts chain stores.

Stand out before you have no choice. Many of the things you might do are things that the chains aren’t allowed to do.

tl:dr – Training. Metrics. Detail.

The hardest part of helping businesses

There are a lot of rewards that come with helping businesses improve beyond what they expected, or even simply going a step or two beyond an artificial boundary the business owner thought was in front of them. It’s really a fun thing to watch someone latch on to a piece of advice and make 10 or 100 times what they invested in it.

That isn’t the whole story though. In addition to those to take advice and use it, there are some who ask for advice, pay for it, receive it and for whatever reason, never use it. Perhaps they decide that it isn’t for them or they decide not to do anything at all, or they decide they can’t do anything right now. Or they don’t decide to do something, which is also a decision.

There are some in my mentor group who tell me not to worry about those who decide to do nothing (I don’t), and others who suggest that I shouldn’t let it bother me (I do, a little).

Why the difference between worry and bother?

Ultimately I think it comes from the root of why people open businesses – other than independence and control over their income: people get something from helping other people.

The result is that when you do your best to help someone, it feels incomplete until they plug in and use that help to improve their situation.

Sometimes, they just aren’t ready to act, even if they were ready to buy. I know that seems to be a disconnect, but there are plenty of books and courses and such out there with the cello wrap still on them. As I hear it, buying the tool, assistance or advice releases the “I did something” endorphins, so many leave it at that.

If you’re thinking this is some sort of subliminal sales pitch, it isn’t. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder “What does this have to do with me and my business?

We’re getting there.

Where are they?

Hildy Gottlieb frequently talks about meeting people where they are. After all, you can’t meet them where they aren’t, right? Any well-trained salesperson will tell you the same thing – meet someone where they are, talk to that person, rather than talking to the person you want them to be. The same goes for writing.

When you lose a sale or when someone buys a product or service from you and then finds no use for it – despite an obvious need, that’s where the gap between “where your stuff is” and “where your clients are” will become obvious.

So how do you bridge the gap?

Today, you have a product or service (or both) that serves people that are in a certain place in their life, career or state of owning a business.

Think about where someone is when they are at the best possible place and time to buy. Can you identify the qualities, qualifications, situations and conditions in their life, career or business that are ideal when it comes to them making a decision to buy what you sell?

No, I mean where are they NOW?

Ok, so now you have a list of the situations, conditions and qualities that make it a no brainer (or at least ideal) for the right people to buy your stuff. Hopefully that’s where your marketing is focused.

Do you have enough these “ideal people” in your sales funnel / pipeline? Most people will say they don’t. They’s say this for any number of reasons, including that they simply want more leads than they have now because they have business and/or personal goals that require higher sales.

If you don’t have enough of those people, look at that timeline again. Glance to the left of ideal: the “not quite ready” portion of the timeline. What can you do to help people get from that part of the timeline to that optimum place you identified as perfect for your product / service?

Now help them.

The more people that you can help move along that timeline to “optimum” (whatever that means for you and them), the more people you’ll eventually have as “ideal” prospects. When they’re ready, they’ll already know you, since you helped them make the journey to “ideal”.

What can you do to help them make that journey?

The sales that hide from you

How do you know when a lead is no longer interested in buying? How do you know when they are ready to buy? What signals do you detect that signal a buy is imminent or that the prospect has at least decided but isn’t ready to order?

Certainly we know when they’re ready if they provide a purchase order number, or request an invoice, but there should be additional signals as well. You and your sales staff can probably identify these, but are they collected and acted upon systematically?

As with service follow ups we’ve discussed in the last couple of weeks, we often fail to connect with “stale” or inactive leads because, we simply don’t think about it, or we have no system for doing so.

Often, sales follow ups occur only because we’re desperate to close a sale or because our quota period ends soon and we aren’t quite at our quota. While those triggers might be important to you, your sales prospect follow up system should also trigger follow ups based on points in the sales process that are important to your prospects.

Typically, the only way to detect such triggers is monitoring and recording information that provokes a decision to buy (or not) by a prospect. How do you currently do that? What signals can you think of that have historically told you that someone is ready to buy, or that they are ready to take the next step in the process that typically results in a sale?

Why and when to follow up with prospects

What if your sales follow ups were strategic and more purposeful than “quota approaching” or “desperate for cashflow”? If they were, you would have a timeline of follow ups for each lead (or each type of lead) for your products, or for each product, as you have time to fine tune the process.

For example, if you know that prospects typically take 32 days to decide on a purchase in your market, you would follow up in the days just approaching the 32 day timeframe.

If you determine that that there are other signals that indicate decision making and you can detect those in a follow up, why wouldn’t you do that follow up? As with the support and service follow up, the reason is usually the lack of a system.

Nine word emails?

One of the tactics in common use is the nine word email – though this tool can be used in emails, calls or text messages.

The email, call or text message doesn’t have to be exactly nine words, but the key is to keep things very succinct and free of baggage.

A nine word email looks like this:

Carla,

Are you still looking for a fifth wheel camper?

Mark

The point is to engage, and re-kindle a conversation. People are busy. They forget. A nine word email can take care of those tasks.

Following up in the sales department

Your job is to remind them so you can check and see if they’re ready to buy. If they aren’t, but they’re still interested, then you can include (or re-include) them in your sales follow up system in case they aren’t already there.

The task takes fine tuning and care. Your attempts to check in can be perceived as badgering (you’ve been there) or worse. Be sure that your attempts are well-timed, not too frequent and about their needs, not yours.

One frequent mistake I see is follow ups whose topic is the end of the month, end of the quarter or the end of a sales contest or quota period. While those things might be important to you – there’s not a single reason for your client to care about these things. Sure, prospects are sometimes aware that end of month and end of quarter timeframes often yield better deals, but if they’re at that point, you should already have signals that they’re about to buy. Make sure the follow up is about them, not you.

Learning and testing the timing of your sales follow up is critical. What timing is most critical when a follow up results in a sale? What are the next two or three critical points? What additional information do they need to decide to buy, even if they buy from someone else? After the sale, which follow up is most effective at preventing refunds?

How to build a follow up system

Last time, we discussed why it’s important to consistently follow up with your clients. Consistency requires a system to manage the process, track the follow ups and remind you when they need to be done. Without a system, daily challenges can take over your day. Result: follow ups are forgotten.

After I posted, @BeckyMcCray suggested that I show how to build a follow up system, so let’s do that.

Identify your touch points

When you build a house, you determine a list of requirements before starting construction. You need to know how many bedrooms and bathrooms you want and whether there will be a basement and/or a garage. From there, a set of plans will guide the construction process and provide the information needed to create the materials list. A follow up system does the same for your follow ups.

To get started, make a list of all the follow up actions (ie: touch points) that you want your follow up system to manage. A touch point is an opportunity to inform, educate, placate, calm, reinforce, remind, warn, notify or advise.

Identifying touch points should be easy because you know your business. I’ll use one of my favorite examples: the small engine repair shop that sells, rents (perhaps) and services outdoor power equipment, like mowers, chain saws, leaf blowers and garden tillers.

Here’s my list:

  • Repair started
  • Repair delayed, parts ordered
  • Repair resumed, parts received
  • Repair completed
  • Repair delivery schedule needed
  • Repair delivery date/time reminder
  • Order placed
  • Order delayed
  • Order shipped
  • Order received
  • Order delivery schedule needed
  • Order delivery date/time reminder
  • Payment plan schedule – upon creation of plan
  • Payment due reminder – 10 days out, to allow for banking online bill pay processing time
  • Payment due reminder
  • Payment overdue
  • Automated payment reminder (payment will be charged to card soon)
  • Automated payment confirmation (payment charged to card)
  • Automated payment failed
  • Automated payment card expiration warning
  • Automated payment card expired
  • Rental return reminder – at beginning of rental
  • Rental return reminder – return due soon
  • Spring tune up for warm weather equipment (eg: mowers, blowers, tillers)
  • Fall tune up for cold weather equipment (eg: snowblowers, ground thawing gear)
  • Oil change reminder
  • Winter storage service offer
  • Winter storage service pickup scheduling needed (ie: in the late fall/early winter, to pick up your equipment for storage)
  • Winter storage service pickup date/time reminder
  • Winter storage delivery scheduling needed (ie: in the spring, to return your equipment to your home/business)
  • Winter storage delivery date/time reminder

My list is intentionally long to give you ideas, but don’t let it distract or discourage you. Keep your list simple by starting with the most important touch points on your list. Build the system around those, then add more over time.

Let’s build a follow up system

Now that we’ve mapped out the touch points, let’s build a system.

Group the follow ups on your list by what drives their use. For example, do they occur when acquiring a new client, when processing an order, or when selling/delivering a service? The type of activity that drives them will be reflected in the system you setup for that follow up.

For example, a service order for a mower might produce a follow up list that looks like this:

  • Repair pickup schedule needed
  • Repair pickup date/time reminder
  • Repair – Equipment picked up
  • Repair started
  • Repair delayed, parts ordered
  • Repair resumed, parts received
  • Repair completed
  • Repair delivery schedule needed
  • Repair delivery date/time reminder
  • Repair – Equipment delivered
  • Repair – Equipment picked up

Each item would have a place to mark that it was done, that a call (or some other form of contact) was made, who did it and the date/time it was done. Want more info? Add space for notes at each step.

The medium used to work and record these steps doesn’t matter at first. What matters is that you perform the steps and refine your system. As it gets more difficult to manage a low-tech system, you should seek out a technology-based solution. By that time, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out what will work for you and what won’t.

To reiterate why a system is important, look at the list of steps and consider how it makes your business look and your customer feel if a step or two never happens or if it’s delayed by days or weeks because “it fell through a crack”.

A system can all but eliminate the cracks.

Everyone can sell – and they should

This past weekend, the Mrs and I went out looking for a gym. It turned into a lesson in sales and sales prevention.

We had three options: A family-oriented place near our grandkids’ house, a place within walking distance and a place within a few minutes drive, even during our very brief rush hour (which is more like rush-a-few-minutes).

Family friendly

We were greeted at the door, offered a tour to show us the facility and explain how things work, particularly for members who want to involve young kids. When the tour was done, our guide returned us to the front desk crew who greeted us. They answered a few more questions, gave us paperwork and told us what to do next to join.

While it wasn’t clear that the staff had any sales training, it was obvious they had a process in place to help prospective members learn about the facility and the programs they offer. They responded to our unscheduled arrival without difficulty and accepted this work as part of their job.

Drivable

We were greeted nicely as at the family place. The front desk staffer offered to give us a guided tour or said we could look around on our own. We chose to fly solo. When we returned to the front desk, the staffer made sure we understood what made them different from the other clubs in the area, and let us know that there was no signup fee through the end of the month, and did so without making a sales pitch. After getting a few more answers, we moved on.

At this facility, it was unclear if the staffer had been trained sales-wise, but it was obvious they had a process in place to help prospective members learn about the facility and the programs they offer. Likewise, it was clear the front desk staffer accepted this as part of their job. Like the family place, he responded to our unscheduled arrival without difficulty, as if there was a process and some prior training to deal with the needs of prospective members and their questions. It was clear that he accepted this as part of his job. Of all the places we visited, this one left us with the best end-to-end impression.

Walkable

We then stopped at the place that’s a few minutes walk from our home. Proximity is a big deal to us these days. We often walk to dinner, local craft breweries and other activities because these things are fairly close and easily walkable.

We walked into the club and told the young man at the front desk that it was our first time there, mentioned that we were considering joining and asked if we could look around. His response was that there was no membership staff available (midday on Saturday) and said “I’m just the front desk guy.” He seemed a bit uncomfortable with being asked to show us around and/or answer questions. He made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to leave the front desk, so we asked if we could look around on our own and see how well their club fit our needs.

He said “Would you like to buy a day pass?“, so I reiterated that we just wanted to look around for a few minutes and check the place out. He replied that we couldn’t do that. He wasn’t rude, yet he seemed fearful of doing something wrong and appeared to threaten his comfort zone. It made me wonder about his managers and how they treat him.

Nights and weekends matter

The people who work off shifts and weekends are an important part of your sales team. Everyone can sell if they are trained to be helpful. Don’t scare them, prepare them.

The cost of not preparing them

Do the math: Lost sales / year x monthly fee x average-months-of-membership (which each facility should know), then compound that week-in, week-out.

If you lose one $70/month family membership sale per weekend and you retain members for two years, that’s a loss of $87,360. One lost sale per week for 52 weeks, times the lost revenue of $70 for 24 months.

If you retain members for five years, losing one sale per weekend balloons the revenue loss of $218,400. That’s one lost sale / week for 52 weeks, x the lost revenue of $70 / month for 60 months.

Sales training matters – for everyone.

A simple, high value tactic many miss

When people know that you help small businesses and you’ve had a newspaper column since 2007, everyone who has a bad (or even mildly annoying) experience at a business wants to tell you about their latest adventure in commerce.

Sometimes I hear about situations that really aren’t the fault of the business. Other times, the stories I hear make me wonder what the business owner(s), or their staff, is thinking. Of course, there are always two sides to any conflict, including the parts you never hear from either side.

Conflict isn’t number one

While you might think disagreements and conflicts are the number one think I hear about, that isn’t the case. Today’s topic isn’t really about conflict, but it can easily become a source of conflict if the affliction goes untreated.

The affliction? No follow up. Insufficient follow up often feels like no follow up. Prospects call or email and want to order something. Their call or email goes unanswered. They get frustrated. They call someone else in your market. You not only lose the sale, but you probably lose the possibility of ever having that person as a client.

Recently, I heard a story from someone who wanted to buy an item, called several vendors in that market, failed to get any follow up action or contacts by anyone in the market, then called a nationwide retailer with a local presence and didn’t even hear back from them. When they contacted the retailer, the retailer’s staff couldn’t provide any information about when the item would show up, much less if it was on its way. At this point, months have gone by without any progress, despite involving several vendors.

So, on a $500+ purchase, multiple vendors in the same market appear to be unwilling to do the work to close the sale. Normally, this situation would make me a bit suspicious of the would-be purchaser’s mood, but in this case, I know them well enough that this isn’t about the person wanting to buy.

Follow up. That’s all.

While this is a pretty unusual situation, the key for all of this is follow up. Return calls, emails, etc are a necessity to close a sale and keep a client. So why would vendors who routinely sell a $500-3000 item fail to do that? I can’t explain it. What I can do is tell you that this isn’t unusual. Lots of businesses fail to follow up enough, or fail to follow up at all.

Solo entrepreneurs fail to do it. Small companies fail to do it. Medium sized companies fail to do it. Large companies fail to do it. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you it is the number one source of frustration of the people I talk to. I hear it about salespeople, order departments, support and customer service as well as repair and service people.

Communicate. It’s that simple. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign you care about your business, much less about your clientele and their needs. It’s an incredibly easy and inexpensive way to make a client stick around and develop a loyalty to your business that’s incredibly hard to break. Think of it as an almost impregnable fence that your competition can’t get past to gain access to your customers. It’s not expensive or complicated.

Why doesn’t follow up happen?

Follow up doesn’t fail to happen because the business owner or their staff don’t want to take care of their clientele. Most of them do care. Sometimes it isn’t obvious that follow up isn’t happening, or the owners and staff don’t realize that some of the most important follow up is letting their clients know what’s going on even when nothing has changed.

The most common reason that follow up doesn’t happen is that there’s no system to manage it. Without a system to make sure it happens, today’s daily chaos takes over and those follow up tasks are soon forgotten.

When I say “system”, I mean a mechanism that makes sure that you follow up with clients, whether or not the system consists of paper, technology or something else.

The key is that you put together something that you and the staff will actually use because “I need to remember to call Joe” isn’t a system for anything other than disappointing Joe.