Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

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.

Strategic Notepad: Take Ownership

Last week, we talked about the opportunity presented to you when you find yourself helping a client in a stressed, deadline-driven or other pressure-filled situation. You can either create a good memory or a bad one.

We’ve talked about how to make the best of these situations and we’ve talked about the opportunity created and what I experienced with a travel agent. Sometimes people act on your behalf because you have signed a contract with them to do so. For example, I have a client that owns a bed and breakfast and they are “represented” in some fashion by online booking agents, travel review sites (like Trip Advisor) and so on. If a reservation agent treats one of their clients rudely, you can bet it will reflect on the B&B.

Take ownership

Whether you like it or not, anyone who sells for you, advertises for you, reps for you or in any way helps you sell what you do REPRESENTS YOU. Make no mistake, if they do something wrong while working on your behalf, your client will associate you with the situation – and they should. While you can’t always control whether or not these situations occur, you can certainly impact what happens when it manages to roll downhill to you.

Here’s an example of the wrong approach:

When I contacted the car rental company about the situation I was dealing with, this was their response:

Hello Mark, I can understand how this experience would be frustrating for you. Expedia is an independent third party brokerage service that is not affiliated with Enterprise. If given the wrong information such as the address and pickup time, please contact Expedia for further investigation.”

Read that again… “NOT AFFILIATED WITH ENTERPRISE”.

While I have little doubt that this description is accurate from a legal / terms of service perspective, the reality is that I rented a Enterprise car via Expedia. Affiliated or not, anything Expedia does regarding that rental certainly reflects on Enterprise whether they like it or not. Expedia doesn’t own the cars. They’re basically a combination of Google (ie: a search engine) for flights, hotel rooms and cars – and a store that can hook me up with those time and location sensitive assets.

Keep in mind that this was the response vs. something like “Hmm, that’s unfortunate and I apologize that the site sent you to the wrong address. I will reach out to our Expedia vendor rep and make sure the rental location address is corrected.” Most importantly, there was no “Can we get you a car, or have you taken care of that already?” – remember, their business is renting cars, not tweeting. There was STILL a sales opportunity and more importantly, an opportunity to “come to the rescue”. That opportunity was squandered.

While it might seem like I’m busting on the support representative who sent me this message, that’s not the case. Almost certainly, the text of this was approved by management for situations like this. A few minutes later I received the same message intended for someone else. The only difference between the message addressed to me and the second message was that the second one was addressed to “Dan” and mentioned Travelocity rather than Expedia. I politely noted that to the rep so Dan would get his message.

Canned responses are a normal part of customer support. You wouldn’t want reps who handle hundreds of messages per day retyping them, much less authoring them on the fly. The rep did exactly what she was trained to do and in fact, provided the fastest response I received from anyone – but it didn’t help me get a car.

My response to the rep is the real message of this post:

I get that, but do understand that ultimately they represent you and I suspect, do so on millions of bookings per year. Its not solely on them.

If someone sends you thousands of purchases per day, for all intents and purposes, they represent you even if the TOS says otherwise. Take ownership. People are buying your stuff from you, even if someone else takes the money. YOU deliver.

The most serious error of this entire situation was the failure to close the sale and provide a car for me. That’s the business they’re in. NEVER forget what business you’re in, or your clientele might.

The sales prevention department

Have you ever encountered a “sales prevention department”? Let’s discuss how the sales prevention department’s role works and how you can look for ways to get rid of yours if you have one.

The tale of the register tape

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched the adventures of a GoToMeeting administrator. In one case, they were working with a sales person at a competitor to GoTo Meeting. I’ve been a GTM user for a long time, and in the last few months the quality and stability of the service has suffered a bit. I suspect it’s nothing terribly serious but it is a business distraction and it can impact sales if the timing of a stability problem is unfortunate. More on that in a moment.

GTM has a sales prevention department. Here’s how theirs works:

A GTM administrator manages an account with 12 seats of GoToMeeting. The admin’s company wants to add more seats. Can you login and simply add x seats to your license? No. Enter the sales prevention department. You have to call someone, wait for a call back and then deal with the potential of a sales pitch about things you may not want – all to add a few seats. This is a task that would have been completed in two minutes or less on a modern software as a service (SAAS) platform. Instead, it takes as long as a couple of days to complete this simple transaction.

For some services, a consult is necessary before a change of this nature. This isn’t one of them.

In this case, the sales prevention department is introducing unnecessary delays for the client, who only wants to give you more of their money and get more of their people working with your tools. Don’t make this difficult for your clients.

Who else has a sales prevention department?

In the time it took to deal with the process GTM places in front of their users, the GTM admin could have signed up for a competitor’s service and had a day left over…. unless it was with the competitor whose sales team I was dealing with on the GTM admin’s behalf.

The GTM competitor happens to be owned by a fairly large IP phone service that is currently receiving about $2500 a month in service fees from this company. This fact is ignored by the GTM competitor, which puts them at risk of losing not only the GTM-like business, but the IP phone service as well.

This competitor has a free, limited scope service that matches the free limited scope service GTM offers. Premium services (like recording a meeting) are critical to this evaluation, so I asked to have one account turned on for two weeks.

The answer? No, but we could come to your office and do a demo of the premium features.

At this point, the conversation is over. The GTM competitor has made it clear that they really don’t want the business. What they don’t seem to understand is that their handling of this $400 a month sales prospect threatens the $2500 monthly business they already have.

This is the sales prevention department at work.

Do you have one?

You might be wondering if you have a sales prevention department. The best way to learn that is to secret shop the sales line of your business. If you don’t have one, monitor the sales and support emails for a bit. Search them for terms like “upgrade”, “expand”, “merger” and “buyout”. The last two are possible signals that two companies have joined together and they are shopping how to supply your services to “both” companies.

You can also look at your orders for the last few months and randomly choose a few new clients, a few clients who changed the scope/size of their use of your products and services. Call them and ask to speak to whoever made the purchase. Ask them if it was easy to buy from your company. Was any part of this process difficult or frustrating? Do they have any suggestions to make the process easier?

Every time the sales prevention department takes root in your business, it hurts revenue and can cost you clients. People walk away because they don’t want to deal with a company that’s hard to work with. If it’s difficult right off the bat, that’s usually a sign of what’s to come.

Train them to make it easy to buy

Last week, we discussed the importance of training your employees to use systems well beyond the cash register, including those strategic to the company. While a normal cash register transaction is a typical customer interaction for a retail or service business, there are always the random circumstance that isn’t part of the “poke a few buttons, swipe their card or give them their change” process. In those situations, do you make it easy to buy?

What happens if you’re out of stock? This past weekend, my wife and I had an encounter with a young, polite employee of a national U.S. corporation who was dealing with an out of stock issue. The out of stock item could have been a simple logical issue rather than a physical one. Had the employee been properly trained and provided with the right systems, she would have be trained to “make it work” (hat tip to Tim Gunn), take our money and be resourceful. It didn’t turn out that way, but that’s not her fault. It’s management’s responsibility to make sure she has the systems and training to handle situations like this.

When easy to buy is out of stock

I suggest you put some thought (and some action) into training your people to make it work, rather than to say no and refuse a client’s money – where it makes sense. When it isn’t possible to make it work, your team’s training and systems should be ready to take over.

Think about what happens when an item is out of stock.

  • Do you place the item on backorder?
  • Do you have notification systems in place for your team so that they know when the out of stock item is back in stock?
  • Do you have notification systems in place for your clients so they they know the out of stock item has arrived so it can be scheduled for delivery or pickup?
  • Is your staff trained to handle an out of stock situation in a way that preserves the sale, preserves the client relationship or creates a positive memory for the customer?

Assuming you have all of that in place, what happens in the meantime?

The interim

In the meantime? In other words, even if you have out of stock situations handled well and have systems and training in place to deal with them, what specifically happens from the moment the out of stock situation is detected to the moment it is resolved? This can be seconds, minutes or months.

While the purchase was meaningless, so are many day to day purchases by your clients. The transaction may mean little in the big picture / long term, what matters is how it is handled. This situation illustrates how easily and inexpensively you can turn a failed transaction into one that people will share with their friends.

Over New Year’s, I took the family to see Star Wars. It was our first movie of 2016. The theater near us has an annual bucket program that works like this: You spend $20 on one of these buckets, which gets you popcorn today and the ability to refill the bucket for $4 for the rest of the year. In case you haven’t been to a movie lately, a large popcorn and two drinks will easily cost $20 these days, so the $4 refill for each movie is a nice savings.

Yet on January 1st, they were out of 2016 buckets. While this indicates broken inventory control, that isn’t the point. The concession stand employee said “We just ran out.” When asked if there was a way to get a rain check or pay for the bucket and take a disposable container for now, she looked baffled. Had management trained her well, she would have had a clipboard at the register, could have charged us for the annual bucket, taken our name and number (or email, whatever), given us a bag of popcorn and moved on. A 20 cent solution to retain a $20 sale for a recurring client.

Trivial but still important

Trivial, but these things that happen to your clientele every single day. How are you training your team to handle them? What systems are in place to deal with issues like this, even if the solutions are as simple as a clipboard?

Word of mouth comes from handling these things gracefully and without disruption. Prepare your team to make it easy to buy.

Experience management matters

Delivery of a product or service is about far more than the act of your client opening the box or getting the service they paid for. The total experience matters, so you’d better manage it. An example should give my assertion the context it needs to clarify why experience management is so important.

A need to know basis

I recently flew a major airline from Chicago to Kansas City. In the middle of the boarding process, one of the gate agents came out of the jetway, halted all boarding halfway through zone three’s entry to the plane, got on the phone and then disappeared back down the jetway.

About 10 minutes passed without a word from anyone at the airline, including the agent minding the boarding pass scanner. Finally, the agent who halted the boarding process came back out and gave the boarding agent the all clear to resume boarding. All of this happened without a word to passengers. Clearly, we were on a need to know basis and we didn’t need to know.

I tweeted a comment about the situation. After my flight, a subtle dig from the airline’s Twitter account reinforced the culture that leadership has established, and is perhaps indicative of the kind of mindset the recently departed CEO put in place.

Why experience management matters

Did our lack of awareness of the boarding situation affect the final outcome of the flight – a safe on-time arrival? Of course not.

Did our lack of awareness of the situation positively influence our confidence in the provider’s ability to consistently and safely deliver the service we purchased? Not really. Instead, it gave the impression that delivery is all that matters – an assertion that doesn’t hold water.

It isn’t as if the passengers on the flight needed to know why we our boarding was temporarily delayed. The nitty-gritty details may negatively affect your confidence in the business delivering the service – and could roll downhill to your thoughts about the safety of that delivery. Even so, knowing that the delay is not unusual, will be cleared up in 10 or 15 minutes and will not affect an on-time departure is enough information to calm a nervous group of passengers who might be concerned about safety, about making a connection, or the likelihood their flight will actually happen.

Simply stating these three details (situation normal, expected time till resolution and lack of impact on delivery) will do the trick. Taking these few issues off the table improves the experience, communicates that you have your clients’ back and understand the importance of delivering the service as well as the issues that define its importance to your clients.

An opportunity to build

When you can build the client’s confidence in your ability to deliver and improve the credibility you have to trust that you can handle whatever comes your way, use the opportunity humbly.

It reminds me a good bit of the refrigerator sheet story that I use to demonstrate how a real estate agent provides a confidence building framework of “things that frequently happen during a real estate transaction that I routinely handle for you so don’t sweat them“.

The same airline missed an opportunity to show their understanding of the nature of their clients’ use only a week earlier. I was flying out of a small rural airport on a very small regional jet. It was the first flight of the day in this tiny little plane leaving an airport that is not a hub. This means that the first flight of the day is always going to be boarded by clients who need to make a connection in a hub city so they can reach their intended destination.

On a plane that only seats 50, this produces a group of people who are not inclined to give up their seats, unlikely to miss a flight due to a connection and unlikely to have an opportunity to easily book the next flight out without repercussions. The logic that this sort of rural flight would be overbooked by 20% ignores all of these qualities / needs of the passengers involved, yet the 20% overbooking is exactly what happened.

At a hub airport, we may not like overbooking, but it’s easy to understand the justification. The combination of first flight out, rural airport and small plane make it an anti-customer decision that sets the company up for a bad experience for their entire service delivery experience – a situation you don’t want to create.

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

 

Filling cracks with automation and metrics

How many emails did you send last Tuesday? How many phone calls did you make last Thursday? How many things fell through the cracks last week or last month?

The first two are trivia until you start thinking about the time they consume compared to the return they produce.

The last one is the big one: tasks that fall in cracks, meaning you forgot to do something, or have someone else do something – like make a call to close a sale or follow up on a lead.

I’m guessing you have no idea how many things disappeared into cracks last week unless they’ve cost you business since that time. If they didn’t have a cost, does it matter? I think it does, but not for the reason you might think.

Metrics are lonely fellas

Metrics are great, until they aren’t. Their failing? Metrics tell you what happened and in some cases, what is happening, but they don’t tell you what to do next. By themselves, metrics can get lonely.

Automation can cure that by either telling you act on what’s happened (or is happening), or by doing it on your behalf with your advance permission.

You need to get metrics hitched up with automation, but not solely to get your metrics delivered regularly. While that’s certainly a very good idea, there’s more to the marriage of metrics and automation than prompt and consistent delivery.

There’s curing that crack problem.

Preventing cracks is better than fixing them

If you drive a diesel pickup, particularly one that’s chipped, tuned and so forth – you know what I mean. If you’re a tuner, you probably have an Edge or similar device monitoring exhaust temperatures and other engine information.

Those are metrics.

If you have an Edge or similar, you may even have it setup to tune your engine’s “brain” as engine metrics signal a need for something different.

The tuned diesel truck owner uses tools like this to prevent engine rebuilds while getting the best possible performance out of their truck. In a similar fashion, stock traders use automation to sell stocks when they hit stop loss points because they want to prevent portfolio rebuilds while getting the best possible performance from their investments.

Create a crack prevention system

Metric driven automation like that used by the stock trader and the tuned diesel owner can likewise keep our business fine tuned simply by making sure we’re aware of things that need to get done on a daily basis.

Simple but effective methods include making appointments for yourself and keeping reminder-enabled todo lists in your phone. Obvious? Sure, but they can be all but life saving when chaos finds its way into your week.

I use a few simple online tools to keep track of my work, but I’m always on a quest to find a way for them to nag me more intelligently. These tools help me remain responsible by making sure I get the right things done at the right time.

For example, after seven years, my Flathead Beacon editor knows he’s going to get this column from me every week, even if isn’t there on deadline day (five days before press day). When he gets to his desk on Monday (press day), he knows it’ll be there and it won’t require editing, except for rare occasions when my headline is a bit over the top.

Occasionally, 11pm Sunday arrives and the column isn’t finished. I have a reminder on my phone to tell me to get up 90 minutes early on Monday (ouch, right?) so I can get it published on time, allowing him to meet his commitments.

Here’s the crack prevention: Automation helps me meet my commitment, no matter how hectic life gets, no matter where I am. If the automation was fully data-driven, the reminder would only occur on Sundays when my column hasn’t yet been posted. Some situations will demand that level of data-driven automation. You don’t have to cut it as close as 11pm on the night before. Getting up 90 minutes early on Monday is my self-inflicted punishment / motivation not to let that happen.

Together, automation and metrics allow you to become more dependable as your business / volume grows, while still remaining independent. Don’t forget to show your team how to use automation to improve their performance.

18 questions to increase sales

This week, I’ve been working on metrics because I can’t have my fingers in every pie at once – at least not once the number of pies grows beyond my ability to manage them all in my head at the same time. Even if you can do that, it’s very difficult to sense where changes are happening much less where trend directions are changing.

Some of this can be done by gut feel because you’re right in the middle of it, but sometimes gut feel will burn you because you filter what you’re experiencing through existing expectations. Thus the need for metrics – so that you don’t have to spin too many plates at once, assume too many things or make decisions based on too much gut feel.

Metrics are questions, too

Metrics are a form of question.

For example, a common metric for businesses with a web site is “page views”. A page view metric asks the question “How many people saw a specific page this month?”. When all of those page view metrics are combined, it becomes the question “How many people saw our website?”

Website metrics are pretty common and easier to collect than metrics from other media – which are often on you and your team to collect. The work to do that might seem painful, but you can learn a lot from it.

How many people called about the radio special you advertised on KXXX? How many people visited the store and mentioned the radio special you ran on KXXX?

These things are important so that you know whether to invest in marketing that item on KXXX vs. marketing something else on KXXX, vs. marketing anything at all on KXXX.

You would do the same for anything else marketing on any media, otherwise you’ll have nothing other than gut feel to help you make these decisions. Traditional media doesn’t often provide these metrics, because they can’t. Radio, TV and print newspapers can’t do that because they usually aren’t contacted by prospects seeking whatever you advertised. It’s tough to know if you aren’t part of the transaction process.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t track them.

The right questions help increase sales

Coming up with the right question can be a lot harder than not having the answers.  You have to be careful to ask open-ended questions designed to tell you what you don’t know, rather than asking questions designed to confirm your assumptions.

Where is the profit in your business that you haven’t yet found?

For most people, the answer probably lies in your existing customer base. The next question I’d ask you is how many of your customers are buying 100% of what they should be/can be buying from you?

How can your current customers help you find that profit?

The natural follow to the previous question.

To rephrase it, what percent of your customers are giving you all the business they could? Who are those customers? What actions will be necessary to either sell to the ones who aren’t buying everything you make, or determine the ones who won’t buy?

Once you’ve identified the ones who won’t buy, it’d be good to identify why they won’t and correlate that (if possible) with where they came from as a lead. Are the leads who buy some buy not all (or who buy once but not ongoing) leads who came from a certain type of media or a certain type of marketing campaign?

Are the ones whose initial purchase is different than the ones who do keep buying – and buy it all? Can that be solved by pursuing slightly different leads, or by changing marketing or the product / service?

Finally, can / should that gap be fixed? Does it matter if this group of clients aren’t recurring buyers, or that they don’t buy everything you offer?

Are you communicating with customers optimally at all touch points?

Are there touch points you aren’t thinking of?

I was chatting on Facebook with a reader earlier this week who owns a locksmith business. After our conversation, I wondered if there was an opportunity to get involved in home and/or commercial property sales – ie: lock / key / lockset changes that might be warranted when a property changes hands.  It’s an opportunity to get a new client if there are enough buyers who want locks changed at purchase time.

Does your business have secondary transaction opportunities like that?

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 how 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?