Let someone help

This past week seems to have been a perfect storm of paths crossing about getting help from coaches, mentors and teachers.

In the past, I have suggested a few times that you should seek out help from those who have been where you are, struggled with some of the same things – and let them help you overcome them. These stories are no different. The key is letting them in.

Three little things

In the elevator at a trade show, a guy tells me he got off the golf course that day – playing in a tournament at a trade show. He said he had a pretty good day on the links – was driving straight and long. Despite that, one of the guys playing with him was out-driving him by over 100 yards on every hole. They were on the same team, so the very long driver (who also happened to be a scratch golfer) suggested that the guy I shared the elevator with could improve his game by tweaking “three little things”.

Despite being a pretty good golfer, elevator guy said “Sure, I’ll give them a try.” Before that day on the course was over, these three little things made an almost-instant improvement in his accuracy, consistency and distance. His improvement before the round was substantial enough to mention it hours later in an elevator.

What three little things are awaiting your arrival at a place where you are ready to listen and learn?

Mister C

Recently in a local paper, the retirement of a long time English teacher was announced. A guy who was lauded for coaching oh so many state speech and debate championship teams, for making high school English the best class of the day, and for being far more than “just a teacher” to many students. When the story of his retirement hit Facebook, a number of students posted multiple paragraphs long thank yous about the impact this teacher had on them – in some cases, despite never having him as a teacher. One of the stories that went unmentioned was about a student who was struggling with a number of things – including some typical teenage angst with authority figures – and went out of his way to challenge the teacher via their work. Rather than handle this with more authority and repression as many of us might, this teacher created an environment that allowed the student to find their way, gain respect for the teacher and eventually recognize that teacher as their mentor – and a role model to guide them along with their parents. Eight to ten years later, the respect is still there. While Mister C is more than a coach to a generation of students, he’s very good at that too.

What would a serious coach with high expectations ask you to do to improve yourself? If you know these things need to be done – why haven’t you done them?

Sometimes you have to ask

People won’t always offer unsolicited advice – at least not the ones who you’d really like to get it from. Many of them are used to being asked for their help, only to see it go unused or ignored. Quite often, their help will come with terms. They might be living highly scheduled lives and will need a commitment from you to meet during the only time they have available. Consider it a gift that someone with this much going on is willing to let you into their sphere.

I’m doing ok, I don’t need a coach

Even if you’re the best in town, you might not be the best in the state. If you’re the best in the state, you might not be the best in your national market. No matter how good you are, there are always coaches, mentors and others to learn from. Most of them have a knack for observing things about your performance, methods and practices that you might not notice, or might not see the importance of. That’s what their insight is for – to help you see the things you can’t see on your own.

The things you pick up from someone who has gone beyond where you are will often be little, but transformative things. Prepare yourself mentally to let someone like this into your life so they can help you become an even better version of you.

Project Management: Is it done yet?

When I was young and a bit green at project management, I somehow managed to have responsibility for a number of big projects. Some came in OK, some never seemed to get rolling properly, some were late, and some seemed to take on a life of their own. A latter group tended to include projects whose scope was a moving target or had many unknowns.

The worst of these have a way of being the unknowns you never see coming, often gestated from a family tree of assumptions and incorrect or changed information.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said that decisions are made while dealing with “known unknowns and unknown unknowns“. Anyone with large project experience knows exactly what he meant. Interestingly, Rumsfeld credits a NASA manager with the terminology.

Project management requires discovery

The software business has a sketchy reputation for delivering projects on time, despite a lot of internally-driven improvement over the last two decades. This reputation is sustained by the memory of failures of very large software projects.

Agile project management and related methodologies have helped a great deal. Many of these methodologies can trace their roots back to Lean manufacturing / management methods taught by Deming in Japan after World War II.

Success with these management strategies depends on early discovery of issues, challenges and changes in the information driving your decisions. This, along with our human tendencies, is why the MVP (minimum viable product) construct works. The earlier the customer sees your work, the earlier you’ll find out if you’re on track.

Usually, you get to decide how this discovery occurs: organically as the project work occurs, or in advance, thanks to discussions of expectations, requirements and manufacturing options during the design phase.

Poorly managed projects are often started without sufficient discovery and discussion. Even today, many projects are started and finished with very little advanced thought. No one would build an airliner as it rolls down the runway. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, this is exactly what happens.

The context of the design is critical as well. Work done in a vacuum, even with the best of intentions, often produces incorrect assumptions thanks to the aforementioned unknown unknowns.  The project’s scope is an known unknown and the unknown unknowns are often a simple matter of lack of experience with the environment where the completed project will be used. The gap between expectations and results matters whether you’re building a crescent wrench, a software program or a Mars rover.

When will it be done?

While you may not have an accurate answer to that question, better design will improve your ability to give an estimate that someone can actually trust.

Better design? How?

The most common problem I see is not breaking things down into small enough pieces of work. Granularity is critical to the design and estimation of highly detailed / technical work. The volume of dependencies and unknowns in this type of work compounds the miscalculations and omissions resulting from a lack of detailed analysis, resulting in inaccurate estimates and missed expectations.

An estimate of days, weeks or months without a detailed breakdown of subtasks is symptomatic of the problem. I find that estimates require subtasks no larger than two to four hours to create a design that’s thought out well-enough to meet expectations, discover obstacles in advance, while producing a reasonable estimate.

But it’s not perfect!

Human nature also creeps into the equation: We like completing tasks.

It’s such a part of our us that people tend to focus on less important tasks simply because we can complete them before the end of the work day. We feel accomplished despite leaving big projects untouched.

If you’ve ever written things on a checklist that you’ve already done so that you could check them off, then you know what I mean.

Rather than fight the fixation on small projects that we can “download” and complete in a work period, feed it with subtasks of your big, important projects that conform to the need to complete something the same day.

Life has a way of being incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to delay a project’s completion. Build these project management tactics into your design, estimate and build workflow so that you can get better work done faster – even on big projects.

Why do startups fight city hall?

This past weekend, I had a brief discussion about Uber, France, tech startups and the need to “fight city hall”. It all started after I posted a story about an upcoming Paris taxi strike, which is designed to send a warning message to the French government and French people from a highly entrenched monopoly.

The message is “Don’t support something that threatens our monopoly or we will shut down the city.

The key thought in the article was that French government’s handling of the Uber situation is an illustration of what’s wrong with entrepreneurism in France and that the situation affects all French startups rather than solely impacting Uber.

It seems the laws in France are designed to frustrate entrepreneurs attempting to enter established markets, if not to suppress all new business entries. The article goes on to make note that all of this goes on while France’s leadership talks about how they want to encourage entrepreneurship.

Why care about what happens in Paris?

What in the world does this have to do with small business in the U.S.?

Similar things occur here in the States and in many cases, startups end up feeling forced into a situation where they are left with no choice but to fight city hall – often because the alternative is to be legislated out of business with the help of an entrenched competitor. Sadly, this “competitor” isn’t the least bit interested in competing. They’re happy to use the local and regional governments’ desire to protect the citizenry as a means of raising the bar into entering “their” market.

Most U.S. based entrepreneurs tend to avoid such battles because they are expensive, frustrating and quite often do nothing more than waste a business owner’s time and money.

Yet startups like Uber are often found doing that very thing – taking on governments to eliminate protections that were once created due to a public safety interest but have been perverted into something that seems perfectly designed to preserve and protect entrenched businesses not only from new entrants into the marketplace – but from their clientele as well.

Why startups?

Why are tech startups picking on established markets? And why do so many of them seem to want to fight city hall?

They often do this because that’s where the market is. We talk about the opportunity you create simply by improving service to clients here on a regular basis – and do so because it is one of the easiest ways to transform your business. Service – one of the essential things a business delivers – has gone from a foregone conclusion to a differentiating factor.

Uber is perhaps the most obvious and the easiest example to make note of, but they are far from alone on this one. Part of their attraction to consumers is how easy they make it to use their services when compared to most of their competition. Even now, their obstacle isn’t that cab companies all over the world have increased the quality of their cars, the ease of booking and paying for a ride, etc. No, their biggest obstacle is local / regional governments, many of whom have fought to keep Uber out.

The thing is, it isn’t really about Uber. They’re simply today’s easiest and most visible example to understand. What this is really about is creating more barriers to entry into a market.

Old rules that favor one company or one technology are what start ups deal with every single day. In fact they often focus on those areas because they make the market attractive. Markets with poor service often slowly become that way because of a lack of competition created by artificially created barriers to entry. Often companies in those markets treat their customers so poorly that people do business with them only because have no other choice.

These are markets that have repeatedly sent a message to their clientele that they need to be taught a serious lesson. Most local entrepreneurs can’t afford to fight City Hall. Only those who are highly capitalized have that luxury in most situations – the luxury of out-waiting and perhaps, out-spending city hall, something no small business owner can do.

As any small business owner knows, there are plenty of barriers to entry as it is. Be careful not to ask your representatives to help you create more of them, as the next time, it could be your business that’s targeted the next time. Each one of these barriers that is successfully installed makes it easier to create another one.

Starting a new business is hard enough as it is. Let’s not create more barriers.

Work Linear vs. Parallel

This week I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine for meetings with a software team. The meetings went well and I will be on my way home by the time you read this, however I had some travel issues.

It’s worth noting that all of the issues I encountered were either created or they were problems that are not allowed to solve themselves because the people and systems communicate with each other at a level that forces them to work in a linear fashion.

It prompts questions we should consider for ourselves and our clients.

What do I mean when I say “Work linear vs. parallel”? Some examples from my trip provide a good illustration.

Working linear

When my plane from Missoula left Salt Lake City (SLC), it left late because the de-icing line in SLC was long. I don’t know if they had a de-icing truck out for repairs, or if they simply didn’t allocate enough trucks or drivers, or if something else was going on.

Regardless of the reason, the situation and the possible lack of fallback solutions (ie: backup trucks, drivers on call, etc) created delayed flights for many that day – creating a linear problem.

If the normal pace of takeoffs cannot be maintained, then SLC becomes a bottleneck in the West and flights to surrounding cities start struggling with schedules as a result.

This cascades into many linear problems at once since every city with a late flight potentially has stranded passengers or passengers with missed connections. Old news, but it’s important to consider how quickly this can cascade.

When my plane left Missoula, it did not de-ice. I don’t know what the protocol is for de-icing, but about 15-20 minutes into the flight, we had failed to continue our climb to cruising altitude and started to turn back. The flaps would not retract and this wasted too much fuel. Unfortunately, we were above maximum landing weight, so we circled for 20-30 minutes to burn off enough fuel to land.

The irony is that this circling was burning the same fuel and time we would have burned if we had simply continued to SLC with the flaps down, normally a 54 minute flight.

This quickly ate into the layover I had built in.

When we got to SLC, we were unable to pull into our gate right away. By the time I got to the gate for Paris, the plane door was closed and I could not board.

Five minutes matters

The big thing that hit me during this process was seeing multiple instances of seemingly insignificant two to five minute delays cascading into hours of delays. Any one of them could have been planned out of the airline’s response and it would have allowed enough time for three people on the Missoula flight make the connection to Paris, much less all the other people who were missing connections that afternoon.

The thought to consider is this: How many two to five minute delays are built in to what you do, how you serve, how you deliver, etc? How do these affect the client’s outcome? What costs do they increase when service fails? What costs will the client incur?

What happens when a few of these five minute delays push your delivery of products or services to the next business day?

What systems do you have in place to automatically tend to conditions that can create these delays?

Working parallel

Every business encounters problems. How businesses react to them and what they do to eliminate / prevent situations that are controllable is critical.

How does automated, perhaps parallel problem solving save money? What delays can be addressed without waiting for them to happen? What delays can be reacted to with automation to accelerate a response and solution?

Cost examples from a plane trip:

  1. What’s the circling fuel expense to get below max landing weight vs. the cost to continue to SLC?
  2. What’s the cost of lost seat revenue for the empty seats and hotel stays for interrupted travel?
  3. How much delay is introduced at the gate when you don’t automatically rebook travelers?
  4. On a daily basis, what does a five minute gate wait cost, in missed connections, lost seat revenue and hotels?

Look at your business. Make a list of preventable delays. Knock off one at a time.

On the playing field, little things matter

Saturday was a bit of a football day. I attended my first Griz game, watched my Razorbacks disintegrate in the fourth quarter (yes, again) and stayed up late watching a fascinating, action-filled Utah / Cal game.

It was a day full of watching highly skilled athletes do little things that have a substantial impact on their success – or fail to do them.

On the way to a great night on the field, Utah’s Devontae Booker did a little thing that many running backs don’t do. For example, when he ran up the middle and found himself stuck in a pile, he didn’t simply keep driving as if he thought he could push a pile of 10 guys somewhere – he turned and ran around them.

The Griz failed to do a few little things, one of which was managing their use of the clock near the end of the game. With less than three minutes left, they managed to use 90 seconds to run three plays and punt. Some teams drive the length of the field in 90 seconds. This time, nothing of substance was accomplished.

In each of these three games, little things contributed substantially to each team’s loss or win. All the teams involved are capable of operating at very high competency levels, yet these little things forgotten even once in some cases can nullify everything they’ve accomplished that day.

The same little things that have a transformational effect on the field are exactly the kinds of things that make or break your customer experience on a hour to hour, day to day basis. That’s your playing field.

What are YOUR little things?

If you and your staff aren’t sure or aren’t on the same page about what your little things are, make a list. Once you have a list of your own, have your staff make a list. That’s where most people stop.

To really standout, take that list and prioritize it. Once you’ve done that, share it with a few trusted clients. Ask them to prioritize the list from their perspective. Ask all of your clients on occasion what little things make them come back to you.

Once you’re there, training is essential to keep these skills sharp. Yes, it’s a skill to keep the little things top of mind and perform them well, rather than simply going through the motions.

These little things may not be obvious and your staff may not think they are a big deal until you explain WHY they are and how they bring back clients repeatedly. If you aren’t absolutely sure that your staff ties the return of clients to their job security, be explicit about it. Explain how much a lost customer costs and how many lost customers translate to a job.

Repetition and training matter – but they matter more when you give them context. Not everyone sees the big picture like you do – and some may see it differently or better, so discuss it as a team.

Too busy to deal with little things?

We all react differently to increased workload, pressure and a larger than normal number of customers (internal or otherwise) demanding our help at the same time. What often disappears from your customer experience under these circumstances are these little things. Courtesy is often one of them. We communicate less in order to get the task done and to our client, it feels like an uncaring interaction.

The costly part of these failures is that at a time when your people are stressed with how busy things are, your clients are too. How you deal with them under these circumstances is a big deal. These little things can be easy to forget when you’re in a hurry, under pressure or dealing with a lot of people at once. When your team is fully present, focused and attentive to the client in front of them and their transaction and is focused solely on that (even if the client is on the phone), the experience is memorable. When the mindset is “I must get this done quickly so I can get the next 22 people taken care of“, the customer experience will suffer.

The emphasis on these little things, along with reminders and training are critical to getting your company to the point where these things happen as a natural part of doing business without explicitly thinking about them.

When the smoke clears, will your reputation?

No one in the Pacific Northwest has to be reminded that this is the worst fire season since 2003.

Depending on what you do a bad fire season could be a boon, a bust or a non-issue to your business. Over the last couple of weeks, we had communications and marketing oriented conversations focused on the folks whose businesses are placed at risk by a bad fire season.

There’s a different kind of business impacted by fires, natural disasters and similar events: those who provide things like tanker trucks, field rations and related convenience items, construction supplies (lumber, drywall, tools etc) and so on.

If a scene like this summer means that you will be extra busy for the next year or so, perhaps more, good for you – particularly if you are a trusted member of your community (business and otherwise).

However obvious this may seem, it needs to be said…

A reputation setting recovery

The way you and your staff serve your clients from now until the recovery is over – regardless of what’s being recovered from – will set the tone for your business’ future.

Some will eventually give you a second chance, but for most, this is the one chance your business will get to show its colors. It will seal the reputation of the business, its owner(s), managers and staff.

Captain Obvious, you say? Perhaps, yet we continue to see examples where businesses have behaved so badly that governments feel obligated to put “no gouging” laws into place.

The thing is, pricing is the least of your problems. People understand that pricing gets a little crazy when resources are constrained. Supplies are often harder to get, and they’re often competing for scarce transportation facilities including berth time at port, dock time at warehouses, much less truck drivers or semi-trailers to haul those supplies. Qualified people are in demand, which tends to create overtime hours.

Do your clients want to wait or pay overtime-related costs? Ask them.

Communicating the challenge

When these situations occur and drive up your costs, communicate the situation as frequently, quickly and clearly as possible. Communicate what you’ve done to try and work around the situation. Ask your clients for ideas and connections in their network that could help you serve them a bit better.

You never know when a client might have access to resources or connections that could solve a problem that’s simply “killing” you – and those things may be out of reach without a little insider help. Even worse, if these clients know what’s blocking your progress and they know their resources / connections could help but you keep telling them you have things under control – how could that damage your relationship / reputation?

It’s OK to ask for help.

Resource problems aside, be sure that any abnormal delivery timeframes, costs, staffing challenges or other potentially damaging issues are communicated well. Transparency works. Small businesses use it as a competitive advantage vs. larger, better funded competitors during good times, why not use it during challenging, resource-constrained times for the same reason?

Call volumes are unexpectedly high, but your call is important to us…” – something you’d never say to a client before putting them on hold. Yet you only get this greeting when reputation damage is most likely to happen.

We don’t remember that the cable internet met their 99.9% uptime goal last year, but we remember each of the 43.8 minutes of downtime per month that this uptime goal allows for – and that the downtimes happened at inopportune times.

We remember when we consistently get a transparent answer or explanation.

The mindset that risks it all

The “they have no choice, I will get (and keep) the business no matter how I act” mindset can infect everything from sales and service to receivables and delivery. Once observed in one part of the business, it’s a matter of time until it crawls elsewhere.

I won’t belabor this, because the kind of business owner or manager who would let this behavior happen wouldn’t likely read my work. Despite that, check out the short 30 seconds it takes Vince Lombardi to describe the obligation that team members have to do their best on every play of every game.

Print readers, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKN3rvrWyvg&feature=youtu.be&t=0m50s

 

Why do they want to disrupt your market?

The big word in the startup world is disruption, as in “We will disrupt the what-cha-ma-call-it market.” Thinking about last week’s discussion about buying a new vehicle, let’s talk about what disruption is and why “they” want to disrupt our market.

Some examples of disruption

Paypal disrupted the credit card merchant account market. Old news, but it’s a good example. At the time, it was a substantial effort for a small business to get setup so their clients could pay them with a credit card – particularly if there was a web site or phone sales involved. You could do it, but the fees and the startup obstacles put in place by the banks offering merchant accounts were a time-consuming hassle. The assumption was that you weren’t as “real” as a business selling hard goods out of a retail location. Paypal knew better and treated these businesses with honor rather than suspicion and contempt.

Ultimately, Paypal made it easy to get a merchant account. They made it easy by allowing you to manage it online. Finally, they made it more secure by creating a layer between the client and the small business taking the payment. The client gained because they didn’t have to reveal their card number to the small business. The small business gained because the “layer” that kept the card number out of the hands of the small businesses meant Paypal took on the security requirements and many of the risks of card payment fraud. More secure equals less hassle. Easier and less risk for all involved.

You can find many other examples of disruption in the finance-related sector – all of them based on eliminating the annoyances and artificial barriers established by long-term players in that field.

Other examples include Uber (Is the cab business focused on being a high-quality customer-centric experience?) and SpaceX (Is the defense / aerospace business is designed to provide the best bang for the buck?).

Why do they want to disrupt my market?

Simply put, because doing business with you or your peers (or both) is a pain in the keister. When you make it hard to deal with you, you create opportunities for startups that don’t mind doing things differently.

How do they disrupt my business? Mostly by taking the hassle out of it. Those who disrupt your market talk to your clients and identify the things that drive them crazy about working with you. What keeps you from doing that? Nothing other than you being stuck in “We’ve always done it that way” mode.

The real estate market is a great example of how businesses get disrupted. Zillow produced a website that allowed would-be buyers to identify properties for sale before they were ready to contact a Realtor. Will they still have to work with a Realtor at some point? Probably. Before they “get serious”, are they required to deal with the barriers that most real estate firms put in place? Before Zillow and the like, it was all but a necessity. At that point, you did things their way on their terms. Today, you don’t have to engage a Realtor until you’re ready to take some action.

Could Realtors have opened up MLS to web access before Zillow appeared? Yes, but they didn’t. Could they have made it easier to shop before getting signed up with a Realtor? Yes, but they didn’t. Instead, the MLS was used as a wall around the property-for-sale inventory. Until Zillow and similar vendors provided access to this data (or a subset of it), there was little if any pressure on real estate firms to implement such systems or radically improve their processes to make them more client-friendly.

Eventually, they figured it out and created a new Realtor.com that competes with Zillow and similar sites.

Realtors are not the target

These types of problems are not unique to Realtors. They are common to many businesses.

If you look at these disruptive new businesses, they’re usually focused on eliminating the market’s pet peeves.

Referring back to last week’s car lot experience, consider the business model that Vroom.com has put together. It’s not perfect, but it does a nice job of eliminating the horse biscuits from the buying process. And yet, there’s not a single thing they’re doing that local car dealers can’t do.

Will they notice and adopt the best parts?

And in your market, will you?

Playing sales games

I’ve in the market for a new-to-me rig. I don’t switch rigs very often, so it’s a slow process to make sure I buy it right.

I haven’t done this the normal way in over 20 years. Two of the last three were cars for new drivers, so they were cheap, cash purchases with no time for sales games. The other was through a dealer friend who had my search criteria and a “tell me when you find exactly what I want” deal on the table.

Things are different this time.

Dealer One

After a few weeks of searching lots and Craigslist, it became clear that I needed to widen my search, so yesterday I visited four big three Detroit car dealers.

During my first visit, I drove the lot. No one around on an early Saturday afternoon. Finally, I stopped and walked in the far end of the showroom, walked all the way to the other end while looking briefly at the cars there. Walked out the other end of the showroom without anyone looking up or saying anything. Walked around the lot a bit. Same thing. Got back in my rig, drove around the lot again, passed by a salesperson working with someone, interrupted him to have a very brief conversation, left the lot.

I wasn’t asked for contact info. I managed to walk the entire showroom and part of the lot without anyone asking if I needed help, directions or a smack in the head – much less taking my contact info.

Some people change vehicles every few years. If treated well, they’ll return to the same dealer repeatedly, perhaps for the rest of their life. One visit can result in six figures of sales and service over the next 20-30 years, unless you let them off the lot without engaging them.

Dealer Two and Three

At the next dealer, I drove the lot, stopping at a few places to check details. One salesperson was on the lot with a client, but no one else was in sight. I’ve driven this lot a number of times during business hours at different times of the day and on different days of the week. This was the first time I’d seen another person.

The other lot was much the same. Not a soul in sight in any of the half dozen visits to this lot – which tends to get the most visits because it’s the one closest to my house. Zero interaction with anyone. Ghost town.

Dealer Four

This one wasn’t a brand name lot, but I spotted something that looked like my target rig so I stopped. This time, someone came out of the building to meet and discuss what I was looking for. They didn’t have what I wanted, so they spent the next five minutes repeatedly trying to convince me that I didn’t really need what I’m looking for and to consider what’s sitting on the lot. Despite their inability to accept that I’m looking for what I’m looking for, they did take my name so they could call if they found a candidate vehicle.

Dealer Five

My last visit of the day was to the last remaining Detroit brand name. Drove the lot. A few families are walking the lot, and one has a salesperson with them. This dealer had a few possible matches online, so I stopped and went into the showroom after driving the lot. I walk from one end of the showroom to the other. I reverse and repeat the end-to-end walk. No one attempts to help, sell a car or kick me out.

Finally, I walk into the sales bullpen, after passing under the sign that says “No customers beyond this point“, and ask if anyone can help me. At this point, I’m thinking “this sign should be above the entrance to the lot”. There are three people in this room, yet none have come out to engage me, even after passing their glass-walled enclosure three times.

After entering the forbidden sales zone and asking for help, a guy asks what I want. He tries to sell me something else at twice the price, talks to me as if I’ve never bought a car, then disappears to check on that rig.

10 minutes later, he hasn’t returned. I walk to my car and leave the lot.

I don’t play sales games. We’ll talk more next time.

Take bad competition seriously

I don’t talk much about competitors.

I avoid it for a couple of reasons. First, because you have far more to gain by investing time and effort into improving your own business. Second, worrying about what someone else is doing is usually a waste of time since you have no control over their behavior.

There are a couple of exceptions:

  • When a competitor does something smart.
  • When a competitor repeatedly damages the reputation of your market.

We’re going to spend most of today focused on the worst of these.

When a competitor does something smart

When you do something smart, a competitor will copy what you did – perhaps. Other times, competitors will watch what you did and fail to see value in it, fail to understand it, or decide that it’s not a good fit for their business.

Sometimes, you’re the one watching that happen. You owe it to yourself to pay enough attention so that when a competitor does something smart, you can analyze what your action would be. For example, if you run a high end hotel and the other high end hotel in town adds valet parking,  you’re going to need to think about how to respond.

The key here is not usually the thing being done. It’s seeing the move for what it is. Deciding why it was done and what it accomplishes isn’t always obvious. Consider it carefully.

Competition damaging the market

Usually a competitor who can’t get out of their own way will find a way to go out of business. This allows us to ignore them and let them flame out on their own.

Sometimes we aren’t that lucky. When that happens, what we’ll find is a business (and owner) who damages their own business, but not bad enough to make it fail. You’ll see this in markets with enough demand that even a poorly run business can find a way to make enough to survive.

The problem is that a business run this poorly creates a reputation that can damage every business in the sector. If there’s more than one of them, it’s a matter of time before their combined reputation stains an entire market full of businesses.

Including yours.

Don’t take it.

Are you willing to let your competition destroy the reputation of the market you’re in? Of the business you’ve worked so hard to build?

Think about the effort you invest to market and sell what you’ve worked so hard on. What would it take to accomplish the same thing if your reputation wasn’t what it is right now?

How many times have you heard people discuss putting off a transaction with a vendor because of prior experience with another vendor? You know of markets that already have this problem.

How would you cope with a business or group of businesses that do things to cause the public to think less of the rest of the businesses in your market?

Are you sure they don’t already exist? If not, how do you find them?

Finding bad eggs

Whether these reputation-damaging competition exists or not, you’re likely to find the scoop on the social review networks where your clients report their experiences.

In general, Yelp is the best place to start since their reviews aren’t limited to any single type of business. They do have more restaurants (for example) than many other types of businesses, but their coverage is quite broad.

In some cases, you’ll find more industry focused social review services, such as TripAdvisor. Finally, if your client community includes students, their school / university may have a review service, ombudsman or similar.

You should be reviewing and responding to comments on these services on a regular basis, but in this case, you’re looking for your competition.

If you find consistent patterns of client abuse and reputation damage that span a number of your competitors, you have a decision to make.

What to do

If you can take the guilt-by-association reputation damage, or you don’t think it will affect you, stick to working on your business – but keep an eye on it.

If it’s more than you can take or it gets worse, you have a few choices:

  • Buy them out.
  • Turn up the competitive heat.
  • Decide what you’re willing to do to save your business. Remember, your business and its jobs are at stake.

Are you willing to lose your business because they don’t care about theirs?

Making good metrics into better metrics

The last two weeks I’ve been dancing around the topic of metrics without getting to the point, which is: How are things?

More importantly, how do you know?

Most businesses have some metrics. Some are very data-driven, some are barely so and there are plenty in between those two points. One of the differences between the very data-driven companies and those that are “sort of driven” is the quality of the metrics.

Good data vs. great data

There’s nothing wrong with good data. It’s certainly better than no data. Good data includes facts and figures like sales, costs, profit, inventory, payables and receivables.

Here are some good metrics: We have 1207 trucks on the road. Our drivers make $0.38 per electronically logged mile. It costs us $1.39 per mile for truck, driver, fuel and overhead (taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc).

Key to making good metrics into better metrics: Drill deeper. Hiding inside most good metrics is better, actionable information.

Quality isn’t just about accuracy, it’s also about the depth of the metric and the insight it communicates. What would happen if you drilled deeper into your good metrics? Would you find additional information to take action on?

Let’s drill deeper into the trucking metrics I mentioned above – on one topic: downtime.

Downtime isn’t on the list of metrics. It’s hidden inside overhead. It’s not solely about the maintenance to get the rig back on the road. It has hard costs (repair parts, repair labor) to you and to the driver (lost mileage and thus lost pay), in addition to the possible cost to your reputation. Showing up late or not at all not only risks your relationship with the client, but may also put their client relationships at risk. Embarrassing a good client by showing up late with their clients’ goods and materials can cost you far more than the price of that run.

What if that downtime makes you late for the next pickup? How far can this cascade across your business and the business of your clients?

Drilling down into good metrics

Here are a few downtime related questions to drill down with:

How many minutes of unplanned downtime do your trucks average per 100000 miles? What’s the average cost to get them back on the road, per incident? Per downtime hour? What would the change in revenue and expenses be if you could cut the average time in half?

If all of your rigs are company-owned, which model and model year are accruing the most downtime? For companies who lease rigs from drivers, which model and model year accrue the most downtime?

Is this downtime consistent across all owners or is there an 80/20 breakdown, where 20% of the drivers are accruing 80% of the downtime? Same 80/20 question for company-owned rigs. What costs are within 10% of the rest of the industry? Which ones aren’t?

Can any of these differences in performance be resolved with references to a better repair shop, a different brand of part / fuel / oil, better record keeping, more frequent maintenance or a different maintenance process?

For the ones that are outside industry norms, what can be done to leverage and improve the ones where you are beating the industry? Is there a legitimate reason for your business to be “below industry standards” in some ways?

Getting to better metrics

Having the answers to your business’ drill-down questions helps you improve consistently on a sustainable basis.

There are a couple of keys to drilling down:

Get organized. Before you can find better metrics inside your good data, your good data needs to be organized.

Take it a bite at a time. It’s easy to do one pushup before you get in the shower. Tomorrow, it’ll be easier to do two. Next week, 10 will seem easy. If you try to take on all of this at once, it will be discouraging because of the size of the task and the complexity of it. Keep it simple so it’s easier to delegate later.

Leave the rabbit chasing for another day. There will be plenty of time to address the things you notice while drilling down into one thing. You will almost certainly notice other things that require attention. Resist the urge to jump on them. Instead, make note of them and then finish the task at hand.

Procrastination is not a good metric. Start today. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be for radical industry changes, like big rigs without drivers.