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?

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?

What’s holding you back?

I suspect you’ve heard of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

In its simplest form, it states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts made. Further studies on the principle have shown that it often extends to far more than efforts made, and frequently describes the results produced by a team or a group of people.

If you look closer, you’ll find that the root of the 80/20 split of results is often based solely on differences in things members of the group do and do not do. If you review the habits, techniques, tactics and strategies regularly used by the 20% who get 80% of the results vs. the habits, techniques, tactics and strategies regularly used by the 80% who get 20% of the results, you should find some causative differences. I suspect some of them will be obvious, while others will require further study to determine why those behaviors contribute to a major difference in outcomes.

Some have postulated that of the 20% who are most successful, there is a 5% that leaves the remaining 15% behind, despite the success of the 15% group. I think you might find yet another set of behavioral differences between the 5% and the 15%. This doesn’t mean any of these behaviors are bad, though they certainly could be.

That the 80% is behaving differently from the 20% (and especially the 5%) doesn’t mean that they are unsuccessful. In my experience, their level of success tends to be closely related to their mindset and their belief in what they can accomplish.

Choices matter

If you’re part of that 80% and don’t want to be, you have some decisions to make. You have to decide that you won’t remain in the 80%. You have to decide to learn from those who are achieving the things you want to achieve. This may seem obvious, but I can tell you that this is a most difficult choice to make and a decision that many people think they make, but infrequently stick to. It’s too easy to keep doing things the way you’re doing them. It’s easier to not have to explain what you do and why, particularly since most of the people you interact with will seem to need a justification for why you do things differently. You’ll hear it from your staff, your contractors, your vendors, your family, your clients and your prospects.

Clinging to the behavior of a group you don’t want to be in is what keeps you in that group. More often than not, it’s central to what’s holding you back.

In any group of similar people, the behaviors of that group are substantially different. Whether you’re in a room of professional pool players, professional skeet shooters or “self-made” billionaire business people, history has proven that 20% of the people in that room are making the majority of the advances and having the majority of the successes – DESPITE the fact that everyone in the room is a member of that group. Perhaps more telling is that 5% of the people in that room are far ahead of the remaining 15% in that 20% group – even though they’re peers.

Why? Because the 5% is doing something different. That 5% will likely be the first to leave the group behind, because they’re already pulling away.

Markets are groups too

Your market is no different. No matter where you are in your market, I’ll bet you can identify who the leaders are, who’s in the middle and who is near the bottom.

When you see someone in your market do something that works, do you see if it works for you? When you do something that works, does anyone else in your market try it?

When you see something in another market that you appreciate, do you try it – even if you have to put a twist on it to make it work for you? Do others in your market do this?

Can you easily identify things that competitors in your market are doing that are holding them back? If you shine that light back on your own business, are you doing any of them?

If you aren’t a leader in your market, can you identify things that the leaders in your market are doing that you aren’t doing? If so, what’s holding you back from implementing them?

Improvement is a choice. Your place in your market is a point in time, it isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Do you value your clientele?

Business demonstrate what they value through their behavior.

Some businesses value what they do, those they work with and most of all, those they serve. They work hard for every lead. Every client. Every order. Every payment.

They work to improve their craft every day. They learn from the best of their peers, while extracting and fine tuning strategies and tactics observed in other industries.

They “over-communicate”. As a result, their clients have no doubt what’s going on during a sales process, an order, a refund, much less construction, manufacturing, delivery, repairs and ongoing maintenance.

When there’s a problem or miscommunication, they pick up the phone, they email or otherwise communicate all the necessary details, then work as a partner with their clients to create a win-win resolution.

When they market, good businesses do their best to create want, evoke need and make an irresistible offer without being slimy. The ones who value their clients most also talk about the importance of the everyday things they do for their clients that other businesses might also do, but never bother to mention (Example: Northern Quest’s housekeeping and security team commercials).

Let’s talk about that for a moment… These businesses set standards for these seemingly mundane details and train their employees so they can attain them every day. Rather than tell us about the food or entertainment, why do they remind us of tasks performed by staff who are all but invisible to some of their guests?

The everyday things that these staffers do may not be what makes you decide to make an initial reservation (or purchase) or choose their resort over another. Even after a visit, you may not remember these details weeks or months later, if you notice them at all. What they might do is make you notice the next time, draw attention to that aspect of your experience with them and/or provoke you to think more about them on your next visit to another facility. These mundane things are often the tipping point between going back to resort A or choosing their down-the-street neighbor, resort B. They’re the kind of things done by businesses who value return clientele.

These business will do any number of things to monitor and improve the things they’ve know will cause their clients to return.

They will systematically call their clients and ask for 20-30 minutes a couple of times a year (at least) to discuss not only how their performance has been, but what the current and upcoming expectations of the client are and what else they could do for that client in the future.

When confronted with a reality check about their service, rather than come back with a confrontational reaction, they ask how they could improve that situation – and others.

These businesses don’t show that they value their clients by thinking that they’re done improving. Instead, they are constantly looking for ways to improve – even if they can’t immediately implement the change.

These businesses don’t focus on the worst of their clientele. In some cases, they fire the worst, in others, they implement programs that raise the worst to a better place. They see it as an investment to help their clientele become better individual clients, whether their clientele consists of consumers, businesses or both.

These businesses invest in education internally and demonstrate the importance of delivering educational value to their market, which not only improves the market, but establishes their position as a leader in that market and builds their credibility.

These businesses don’t have a moral ambiguity about selling. They know that they have an obligation to their business, their employees, their employee families and their communities to make the effort to see that every possible prospect who can benefit from their solutions does so. They understand that this obligation to sell to the best of their ability isn’t just about them, but that it connects to the well-being of their clients’ businesses, their clients’ employees and their families and ultimately, to the communities where those families live. They understand that this obligation does not mean that everyone with a heartbeat is their prospect, so they carefully qualify who does and doesn’t get the opportunity to benefit from their products and solutions.

Do you value your clientele?

Looking to disrupt a market?

2015 is shaping up to be a big year in Montana for Startup Weekend. With the Billings event already under our belt and three more scheduled this year (Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte), lots of people are looking for startup ideas.

One place that gets a lot of interest is “stodgy” established markets that are lucrative but neglected from a modernization and/or innovation perspective.

It’s easy to point out markets whose former leaders felt things were good enough. Those markets now have to compete with Craigslist, Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Apple iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, Expedia, Kickstarter, Zillow and so on.

Ironically, some of these companies have awakened their markets to the point where they are now being disrupted by startups and in some cases, by the original leader in the market.

Things are as they should be in these markets. We earn the privilege to stay in our market every day. When we don’t, we often expose opportunity we’ve ignored, provoking someone to disrupt a market.

Resting on laurels

It’s easy to look at existing markets for disruption candidate because so many existing businesses invite competition simply by virtue of how they treat their clientele.

For example:

  • Do you work with businesses that take you for granted?
  • Treat you poorly?
  • Treat you with disdain?
  • Treat you like they’re doing you a favor?

dWhen a business leaves you feeling like one or more of those, it’s difficult not to consider what it would take to disrupt them out of the picture.

Want to disrupt a market? Disrupt yourself

Look back at that list. Does your business you make your customers feel that way? If they do, one way to fix it is to disrupt yourself. So where do you start?

Four ways that startups disrupt an existing business (or market) are through speed, improved customer service, decoupling and unbundling. Two of these are forgone conclusions that you simply cannot avoid, speed and improved customer service, while the other two are rapidly becoming assumed competitive angles.

Speed – No one’s resistant to the market’s need for more speed at the same or better level of quality. Conventional wisdom says that it can’t be done – “Pick any two: cheap, fast or good“, but conventional wisdom rarely considers what the startup list at the top of the page not only tried, but accomplished.

Improved customer service – To be sure, there are companies out there that do well both in revenue while treating their clientele poorly, but their days are numbered. One by one, they will be picked off – and I’m happy to help their competition do it.

Unbundling – Unbundling involves separating the sale of an item from the delivery of that item. Expedia is an unbundler. They took services offered by travel service providers and unbundled them from the provider who delivers them, made it easy to buy and search for what travelers needed, sold them and collected their cut. Expedia got substantial market share because they made it easy to find and compare flights without having to deal with each provider’ web site and/or phone tree. Unbundling has somewhat limited scope because it only happens at consumption / purchase time, which is why decoupling businesses started popping up.

Decoupling – A decoupler pulls apart the evaluate-select-purchase process that used to be performed at one established business. Decouplers focus on radical improvement of a single part of the process. For example, retailers face competition from decouplers who might mail samples to someone’s home, allowing them to skip a trip to the mall to decide what they want. Once the mall trip is eliminated, another step in the evaluate, select, purchase process might be removed elsewhere. Any point along the evaluate, select, deliver, purchase process is a candidate for decoupling. While the social aspects of that trip to the mall can’t yet be delivered to your mobile device, there are plenty of other ways to address shoppers’ social needs.

Try Startup Weekend Therapy

Stuck on how to disrupt yourself? Take part in a Startup Weekend. I’d be shocked if a weekend in that environment didn’t provide you with ideas and mindset adjustments to bring back to your business.

Want more? Here are a few links to startup idea resources.

http://ideamarket.com/founders.html

http://www.paulgraham.com/ambitious.html

http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

http://www.inc.com/rahul-varshneya/4-places-to-look-for-your-next-startup-idea.html

http://old.ycombinator.com/ideas.html (this list is aging, but they might seed a useful idea)

http://www.ideaswatch.com/

The Pace of Change

If things have seemed a bit frenetic in your business lately, you’re not alone.

Many markets are experiencing a rapid rate of change – and in fact, the rate of change is accelerating. As a result, businesses, governments and even National Football League officials are struggling to keep up.

For example, if you watched the Super Bowl Sunday night, you could see it happen on almost every play. The offense would go into a formation, the defense would react before the play started and the offense would react to that, again, before the play started – with the quarterback changing the play or aspects of the play multiple times in the seconds before the ball is hiked.

Ask Florida State

This sort of pace isn’t unique to the Sunday’s game, it’s a normal part of football these days. If you saw Oregon play Florida State in college football, you saw a similar thing. Rather than using half a minute to stand around and talk about the play, Oregon was averaging a play every 16 seconds – meaning 16 seconds after a tackle was made, they were hiking the ball to start the next play.

For Oregon, this is normal and their conditioning and play calling is designed around it. For most opponents, the pace causes confusion and wears out their defensive players to the point that Oregon often rolls over exhausted defenses in the later stages of the game. The pace of change in the game is not what most opponents’ physical training or play calling training is designed for. As a result, teams often end up reacting on a play by play basis, rather than working their plan. Sometimes, it isn’t pretty, as Florida State found.

This sort of pace isn’t accomplished by simply speeding up the normally slow parts of the game. To execute at this pace requires smarter players, smarter coaches, better technology, as well as training regimens, on-field communication and play calling mechanisms designed to play non-chaotic football that feels chaotic to opponents.

The pace of change in business is no different

Things are no different in business these days and if your market hasn’t experienced it yet, it’s possible that you simply haven’t noticed, or you’ve perceived it as a temporary bump in the road that’s made things feel a bit more chaotic than normal. Be very careful about seeing this as temporary. From what I’m seeing and reading, that bump in the road is a new normal.

The accelerated pace of change has been obvious in the technology space, where there are well-known graphs showing the ever-shrinking time it’s taking for broad market technology adoption to reach a solid level of adoption.

This chart shows the rate of technology adoption accelerating from 1873 to 1991, yet the pace of change during that period is nothing compared to the adoption rate of the last 10 years, where reaching 50 million customers has gone from several decades (telephone, radio) to at most, a few years.

While the adoption time to 50 million users for the iPod (three years) vs. the radio (38 years) may not seem important to your business, the changes hitting your market are accelerating.

Is keeping up…enough?

In the fastest markets, keeping up is incredibly difficult – if not impossible. Yet some are not only keeping up, they’re pushing the changes.

Historically, when the speed of a technology or business function accelerated, it took a while for the level of quality and safety to reach steady state. These days, systems are often built into “the next big thing” (for this quarter) that enable quality and safety to remain stable.

Waiting for things to slow down…isn’t going to happen. If your business is affected by these changes, the methods you use for planning, tracking, finance, execution, supply chain management, manufacturing, hiring, security, business models and many other things have to keep up – and keep keeping up at an accelerating pace.

Keeping up while needing to accelerate your ability to keep up…that’s the trick.

The dangerous thing is thinking that your business isn’t affected by this. Finding a business that isn’t affected by 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, “big data” or cloud computing isn’t easy.

What’s easy is fooling yourself into thinking that it might not affect your business.

Reinvigorate your business on a budget

While I suspect you’ve already done your strategic business planning for 2015, you might still be wondering what else you could do to “turn the knob” on all or part of your business.

It’s a natural thought process at this time of year. In the words of Saturday Night Live… you think your business needs more cowbell.

Here’s a checklist of baby steps you can take that will help you reinvigorate your business without spending a ton of money.

Marketing

The best way to not spend a ton of money on marketing is to track the response you get. You can do this with tools ranging from a yellow pad and a pen, to a spreadsheet, to sophisticated software. The key isn’t the tool you’ve chosen as much as it is that you actually track response and make future marketing decisions based on what those responses tell you.

For example, if you advertise on the radio, on cable TV, in a newspaper, email, web advertising and via direct mail, you need to be able to tell which of those are making the phone ring AND making sales happen. It may not be one of them, it might be all of them or a subset of them.

You need to know which media work for you and which don’t. It doesn’t matter if one works for someone else if it doesn’t work for you.

Likewise, sales copy that works on the radio may not work on one or more of those other media.

You need to know which campaigns work on which media.

Ultimately, you need to know what works so you can stop spending money on what doesn’t.

Accounting

Do whatever it takes to make this as easy as possible. Without a clear view into your numbers, you might be making decisions that are taking your business in the wrong direction.

If this means getting help, find a way – even if you have to use temporary help or an online service. If it means changing the tools you use, do it.

Even though accounting is not particularly sexy or fun, it’s the only scoreboard you have.

Sales

Close the sales prevention department.

The “sales prevention department” includes all of those things that make prospects shrug their shoulders and walk away.

Among other things, it’s the sign that they can’t read, the phone that wasn’t answered, the salesperson who didn’t attend to them, the cashier who barely looked up from the register except to look at their phone, the website they can’t use to do business with you, the process that made buying not worth the trouble, and the inane, repetitious paperwork that wore them out before they could give you their money.

Customer service

If your customers bought something in the last 90 days, have you followed up with them simply to check that their purchase did what they wanted? What if it didn’t? What did they do? Was your staff of any help?

Follow up.

Back office and Infrastructure

What costs your business time and money every day? If you asked each staff member what would help them do their work more effectively and efficiently, what would they say?

Ask them. You might learn something.

Cover your assets

If you can’t find instructions that would help someone restore your data if computers were stolen or burned up, your business is at risk. What are you going to do about it?

Do you care if your business outlives you? If you do, ask yourself this: “What would happen to my business over the next month or so if I died in a terrible accident today?

Communications

Can you reach all of your customers with a message personalized to them?

Can you reach all of your customers without placing an ad on TV, radio and in the newspaper?

In both situations above, can you do so by the end of the day today? How about the end of next week?

Website

I could discuss this topic in great detail and suggest lots of changes, but remember, we’re talking about reinvigorating your business website on the cheap.

Does your site have your phone number on it? Does it have a map on it? Does it have your physical address on it, where appropriate? Little, easy to forget things make all the difference.

 

 

Focused on the holiday, now or the future?

It’s that time of year when business owners are pulled in many directions. The end of the calendar year has a way of doing that.

Some of us are focused on the year we’ve had, some on this month’s performance (which could make or break the year), and some on the future.

While all of those things are important, it’s a good time to remind you of the difference between “working on vs. working in the business” and how important ON vs IN is to getting your business out of what feels like survival mode.

Working IN the business

Almost all of us do this to some extent. What exactly does it mean?

Working IN the business is about taking care of today’s production and quite often, dealing with the crisis of the day – whatever that might be. It’s about making sure clients are happy, products and services are getting delivered – and in some cases, taking part in that creation/delivery.

In short – this is you, the owner/manager, working as an employee of the business. There are times when this is essential and in the smallest of businesses – the solo business owner – it’s how you generate revenue. The thing you need to be cognizant of is making sure working IN time doesn’t become a substantial majority of your work time month-in, month-out, even if you’re the only one there.

If you’re an employee reading this, I hope your employer’s owner and manager(s) spend more time working ON, than IN, but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes, everyone has to knuckle down and get work out the door.

If you’re an employee who thinks they’re doing this – see what you and your peers can do to take even one thing off their plate without being asked. Every little bit helps. If you’re worried about overstepping your bounds, ask.

If nothing else, asking the question should send the message that you have the best interests of the business on your mind.

Working ON the business

Working ON is what allows the business to worry less about what’s happening next month, much less next week or tomorrow.

Why worry less? Because you’re doing enough working ON to be pretty confident that things are booked for that day, week and/or month.

How does a business worry? When you wonder how you’ll make payroll next month, you worry – and it’s reflected in your comments and actions. When employees notice things that tell them money is tight (or really tight), they worry – and it’s reflected in their comments and actions.

These comments and actions reflect on your business. They send a message to your client, your banker, your family (and your staff’s families) and others.

Working ON includes planning and executing, but it’s also very much about communications. Making sure everyone understands what will happen next month and the month after, how those impact the rest of the year’s plans is critical to getting everyone on board.

Are you simply too buried in working IN to work ON this month? If so, take a minute to make an appointment with yourself in your calendar later this month or early next month. Spend that appointment time planning your year so that this time next year, you’re spending more time working ON more so than working IN.

Some examples would be worthwhile, eh?

Since I talk about this fairly often, some examples of “working ON” would be useful.

Spend time on asking yourself these things:

  • What can be systemized?
  • What should never be systemized?
  • What can you do to take the risk of purchase off of your client by providing them with a meaningful, no “but clause” guarantee that they’ll trust?
  • Who are our best clients, how do we keep them, sell more to them, and find more like them?
  • Who are our worst clients and how do we get rid of them? You know who the painful ones are.  Either fix what’s wrong or get rid of them. They can poison your business.
  • How can we avoid having letting the market and your customers beat down what we do into a commodity?
  • What upsells and follow up offers can we make at the time of purchase that make sense based on what the buyer bought. Remember, the hottest buyer in the world is one in front of you. Did you satisfy ALL of their needs and wants?

 

Ask great questions

I’m always looking for better questions to ask.

Good questions educate me about a situation or a mindset someone is in and help me understand where they’re coming from.

Great questions can open the mind of the person you ask the question of. They tend to create discussions that create slight momentum shifts toward changes previously considered “impossible”,  “too costly” or in conflict with existing thoughts, processes and mindsets that are considered sacrosanct.

Asking great questions without belittling or embarrassing the person being asked is an essential skill whether you’re a journalist, salesperson, manager or business owner. Journalists who ask a mix of good and great questions not only get good answers from the podium, but also provoke the listener or viewer to think hard about their position and what formed it.

I suspect you can think of a few questions of that nature related to the social and political issues of the day. What I would encourage is considering what good and great questions you should be asking your staff, your clients and yourself.

Here are some of the useful questions I’ve collected over the years:

  • Why? (often asked repeatedly)
  • Why not?
  • So? (Be careful, this can come off as a bit rude)
  • What if our belief / prediction / estimate is wrong?
  • If we suspend our tightly held opinions for a moment, what else becomes possible?
  • How can I help?
  • What can I eliminate, add, accelerate, decelerate, start or stop that will help?
  • Help me understand.
  • What’s the biggest risk in doing this?
  • What’s the biggest risk in not doing this? This often works better than the prior question because most of us easily identify “Why we can’t / shouldn’t do this” items.
  • If this fails, what is plan B?
  • Why does that matter? This tends to provoke different responses than “Why?” by digging a little deeper into the Why.
  • What does this accomplish?
  • If this works, what’s the next step?
  • If this fails, is that OK?
  • How does this add value to the things we find important?
  • Can you give me a bit more detail on how you got there? Good for digging deeper on an idea or analysis.
  • How will this impact our clients’ ability to deliver what their clients need and want?
  • If this is wildly successful, are we as a company structured to handle that kind of success?
  • Is this designed to handle 10 times the input, output or clients we currently expect if we provide the necessary infrastructure to support that growth?
  • And that’s important because? (often repeated)
  • What challenges must be overcome to pull this off?
  • Can we talk about how we’ll deal with those challenges?
  • How does this impact our key performance indicators? Examples: cost per lead / new client / sale / deployment, support load, lead time, etc.
  • What opportunities does this provide to our partners?
  • Help me understand how this strengthens our core business.
  • Is this in conflict with our values?
  • How does this support our values?
  • How did the pilot program go?
  • What did our clients say about it?
  • What about this is really important to you, your crew and our clients?
  • What data will be used to monitor this project / activity? How will it be measured? Do we know what the decision points are for that data? How were those points determined?
  • Do you have what you need to do this?
  • How can we communicate this effectively to clients and internally?
  • How does this drive our “one number”? Your number might be webinar views / month, the number of after hours service calls, free trials / month, or average days between purchases. A car lot might see a visit to the lot with a spouse as a leading indicator.
  • What are your biggest barriers to success? What’s the plan to deal with them?
  • Who isn’t “on board” with this? Why?
  • If we remove our egos / need to be “right” from this discussion, what changes?
  • What are the weaknesses in this plan? Do you need help with them?
  • Who are your strongest leaders and how are you developing them to handle more responsibility?
  • What are you doing to attract new talent?
  • What expectations does this set?  How will we manage them?
  • What are you doing to identify and develop both new and existing leaders on your staff?

What good and great questions do you ask?

Busy business owners have no time for this

Last time, we spent a good bit of time talking about the need to help your staff perform their best work.

What about the stuff that no one would consider their best work, but is “work that must be done and since no one else is here to do it, I will.

Studies have been performed to determine what CEOs do during their work day – mostly to see what makes the great ones so special, productive and different from the average ones. One thing stands out: the average CEO says they only spend about 25% of their day doing what they feel is meaningful work.

Meaningful work did not include “pushing paper”, reading emails and attending meetings that they felt had no business attending.

Does that sound similar to your typical day as a business owner / manager? I believe business owners have no time for this.

Avoid strategic work

Management may unintentionally avoid strategic work by spending too much of their day doing low-value work – and often make it worse by doing it manually.

It starts by not seeking a better way to deal with tasks that we’ve always done a certain way because that’s the way we learned.

When business owners and managers make meeting arrangements or other appointments for themselves by playing phone or email tag with the other people involved vs. using a tool like Doodle that can resolve the “Sorry, I’m busy then but I can meet two hours later” problem automatically, rather than by repeatedly interrupting each person involved in the appointment.

You may also spend time opening mail, sweeping the shop and performing other low value tasks. No question, these tasks must be performed. However, are you the one who should be doing those things?

I don’t think so.

Business owners have no time

Is it not valuable to sweep the floor? To make sure the windows are clean? To open the mail? To drive to Costco to pickup a truckful of TP? To answer the phone professionally and be helpful to the caller?

Of course these things are valuable, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the one to actually perform those tasks. Your job is to make sure your systems assure that this work happens and your training makes sure it gets done the way you would do it so you have the time to focus on the CEO work that you and only you can do.

Devaluing it by saying the work is below you sends a dangerous message to your staff. It isn’t that this work is below you. In fact, if you think that, you should rethink it. It’s very dangerous to believe this work is below you, because you will eventually communicate that belief to your staff, explicitly or otherwise.

Below you isn’t the point.  The real issue is that in smaller businesses, you’re often the only one who can perform the business’ most valuable work.

Me and only me?

Exactly.

One of the ways that you can identify this work is by breaking down the work you do into two lists:

  • $10 an hour work
  • $100 an hour work

Put the work you do in a typical day / week / month into those two categories.

There’s probably work done at your place that’s between those spots, but we’re talking about the work YOU do.

Now that you have your list – look at all that stuff on the $10 an hour list. My guess is that all of it can be delegated.

Now look at the $100 an hour list. How much on that list can ONLY be done by you and no one else?

Make a new list, call it what you like – say a $25 an hour list. Everything that’s on the $100 an hour list that someone else can do to your satisfaction, even if it takes training, systems, etc – put it on that list.

What’s left on the $100 hour list should be the things that only you can do. Here’s the kicker… there’s probably a $500 or $1000 an hour list of things you should be doing but never get around to. Dangerous to let that work slide.

Review the lists regularly. Business changes and so does your work.

Next Stop?

Have your managers and senior staff take a look at this process and see what they should be working on vs. what they can delegate.