Categories
customer retention Customer service Small Business

Unmet needs

A small group I belong to was recently asked by a member of the group to identify some “unmet needs”. The context was “any business” and his question related to a course on self-reliance that he and his wife are participating in. This friend and another in the group are in the fitness and weight loss industry.

My suggestion for him was the lack of effort most gyms make to get (and keep) members engaged and training at their gym. Most gyms scan a barcode membership card or have some sort of sign in process.

Despite this, if you don’t show up on the normal days you’ve showed up in the past, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for two weeks, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for three months, you’ll hear nothing from them. As long as you keep paying the bill, that is. So that was an example of an unmet need for his course.

To be sure, self-motivation is a lot of this, but a short text or email to say “Hey, are you still alive? We haven’t seen you in three months” might be the kick in the tail feathers that they need. Or maybe life has been hectic and they need a little push to get back in the habit. Regardless of the reason, none of this happens in most gyms.

So that prompted more thought on the subject, which is why we’re discussing unmet needs today. There are at least three kinds of unmet needs:

  • Those you know of and haven’t satisfied
  • Those you know of and refuse to address
  • Those you don’t know about

Unmet needs that you know of and don’t satisfy

Using the context of the gym, what does your gym to do set itself apart from the others? Does it miss you when you don’t show up for an unusually long time? If you’re a persistent daily user, does it miss you when you miss a single day?

These kinds of things don’t pertain solely to a gym. Does your oil change place miss you when you stop going there, or when you’re a month later than usual? Do they even notice? What about your dentist? Your dry cleaners? Your beer store?

These things aren’t limited to retail. They’re only limited by how much attention you’re paying to your customers. Are they “suddenly” spending twice as much or half as much as they have for the last five years? There’s a reason. Maybe it affects you, maybe it doesn’t.

Unmet needs hide in places like this.

Unmet needs that you refuse to address

Refusing to address certain needs is OK. Even when the need is there and legitimate, there may be any number of reasons why you’d want to avoid it. Maybe it’s none of your business, even though it’s in context with the products and services you provide to your clientele. Maybe this need is too costly to meet. Meeting it might require invading the privacy or “personal space” of your customers. Perhaps meeting this need might even annoy your customers, despite the fact that they know they need it.

Give yourself the latitude to say no, even if you’d rather say yes (to the income).

The ones you don’t know about

This one always reminds me of the famous Rumsfeld quote about unknown unknowns. In other words, there are things we don’t know that we don’t know about. Have you ever heard of the citric acid cycle? It’s also called the Krebs cycle. I suspect that for most people, it’s an unknown unknown. IE: It’s something we weren’t aware of the existence of, plus we don’t know anything about it now that we’ve been told it exists.

These are the things your customers will tell you if you listen closely. But… don’t wait until they tell you. Ask them. “Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” Notice that I didn’t say “Is there anything we can sell you that you don’t already buy from us?” That’s a different question. It’s about you, mostly.

“Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” is about them and their unmet needs – and probably unspoken ones at that. Ask questions that make it about them.

Photo by Joris_Louwes

Categories
Community Economic Development Retail Small Business

The town with no public parking

Recently I traveled to visit a family member. Their town is practically devoid of parking in the retail and business sections of town. Weirdest thing ever. I haven’t seen anything quite like this in years. Parking was almost non-existent.

Structural retail

In the main retail part of town, you had to use a parking structure six blocks away. It was damp and poorly lit. Given that this is an area where meth has substantially influenced the nature and volume of local crimes, it wasn’t a place I’d want family members walking to and from.  What little front door parking the retail area offered was completely consumed – and as I watched for a while, these cars were there for the long term. Normally, retail spaces have fairly frequent turnover, but not here. I suspect the spots were taken by employees of nearby businesses – whose building owners weren’t required to provide parking for a reasonable percentage of the building’s expected occupancy.

This isn’t unusual. Many times a substantial new building will be built in an area that is already under serious pressure parking-wise – and the building’s owner isn’t expected to allocate space for parking by the building’s occupants. The result is an area under even heavier parking pressure, which is not particularly good for business.

Except in large cities, transit usually isn’t an option. That was the case in this town of about 10,000 people. As a result, travel happens in individual vehicles, which means parking is a critical resource for the success of these retail businesses.

Business parking in a box

In the “office-y”, business section of town, there were a few small (two or three story) office towers and medical facilities. These buildings were clumped together in a downtown (formerly dense retail area) with surprisingly few parking spots – and none on the street. Collectively, these buildings were big enough to house several hundred workers. The result? Some of those employees were parking in adjacent residential areas and were obviously walking across four lane roads that were not pedestrian friendly areas. Down the road about 300 yards, it appeared that “overflow” parking was happening in the corner of an abandoned box store’s parking lot.

I have no idea where customers of these businesses would park. Maybe they circle the lot like a buzzard until a spot opens up. I don’t know about you, but when a business offers nowhere to park, I go somewhere else. They chose the location and the parking situation, or they chose not to move when the situation became difficult parking-wise. If the location and parking options are inconvenient, seriously sub-standard, or just plain terrible, I choose one of their competitors. I’ll bet you do too.

Did I say parking? Sorry about that.

Parking is a critical resource for businesses, particularly those that serve the public, whether they’re retail or “other business”. Certainly, we want to have safe parking for our employees, but for businesses that serve the public, it’s like oxygen.

Whoops.

When I was talking about the town I visited, rather than parking, I was referring to a startling lack of internet access at every location I tested. But now you get the idea about scarcity of a resource – and the problems are similar whether we’re talking about parking or broadband.

35% of the US workforce freelances and a substantial percentage of them telecommute full or part-time. Six percent of working Montanans telecommute. Given the nature of business and the needs of the US work force, these numbers are likely to keep increasing.

While you might think that telecommuters are all geeky software jobs – that isn’t the case. Telecommuters work in finance, law, medicine, pharma, research, insurance, higher education, customer service, government (yes, really), marketing, sales, cybersecurity, and many other fields. In other words, many “office jobs” of the past have become telecommuting jobs.

Broadband is a strategic economic resource

When entrepreneurs leave town, it’s not usually a good thing. Those two issues will make it difficult for a town to be the place where two pizza teams form.

Quality internet access isn’t simply about watching cat videos without buffering. It’s a strategic economic resource for your community. Like Chattanooga (“Gig City”), cities and towns don’t have to wait for big cable ISP vendors, much less Washington or the state capitol to make better access happen.

Categories
Community Leadership Small Business

When A Storm Comes To Town

Wall Street loves “events”. An event in their context might be a CEO saying something incredibly stupid that affects the stock price, gets the CEO fired, or both. A good example is the Lululemon CEO’s yoga pants comment back in 2013.

If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.

Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.

Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.

Dealing with the aftermath

No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.

Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.

Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.

In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.

Which truth is that?

Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.

Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.

Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.

The truth is for everyone else.

Recovery and Communication

When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.

If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.

If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.

What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.

Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.

If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.

A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.

Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.

Categories
Customer relationships Customer service Setting Expectations Small Business

Ask questions while the answers still matter

Back in November 2017, my wife hit a deer at 70 mph on a four-lane road on her way to work in the pre-dawn hours a few days before Thanksgiving. The events that followed provided a number of takeaways for business owners, in addition to pointing out the importance of asking questions while the answers still matter.

tl;dr – If you have an admin with little or no domain knowledge make the initial sale, review what they sold. Call or email to suggest any changes based on your experience, what you know about your customer, or tell them you did so and have no changes to suggest. Speaking of, follow up regularly with customers who have damage claims. Consider what carnage has been introduced into their lives. Don’t make your customers do your job. Even better, have a documented process for your team thats over and above what the national carrier forces upon you. Don’t be an order taker.

Timeline

Monday 11/20 – National claim office person tells me they expect the car to be totaled. They tell me to run out and collect whatever I need from the car because they are going to tow it to a salvage facility. I make 2 trips out to the car, which is 12 miles down the road. 1 of those trips is my fault, forgot the garage door opener and the plates. Took the plates since we may never see it again. Presumably we’ll be able to use them on the replacement car. Tow truck driver also predicted it would be totaled because five air bags were deployed.

Tuesday 11/21 – Based on what the national claim center told me on Monday 11/20, they are supposed to pick up the car from the tow place today. They didn’t.

Wednesday 11/22 (day before Thanksgiving) – Salvage yard’s tow truck goes to pick up the car, a day late. The tow place that originally picked up the car is closed for Thanksgiving.

Thursday 11/23 – Thanksgiving. Didn’t expect anything to happen today.

Friday 11/24 – Nothing happens. Not really surprising. Tow place is probably still closed.

Monday 11/27 – I call the claims office and find out nothing has happened. Person I spoke to seemed kind of short with me. Maybe they think I’m asking too many questions or being too persistent by expecting them to predict / commit to dates when something will happen. I didn’t get fussy (yet) so maybe she was getting abused by someone else before getting me.

Interestingly, when I call, the system knows I have a claim based on my phone # and asks me to press 1 to confirm that’s the claim I’m calling in about. Despite that, when I am connected to an agent, they ask for my name and claim number. Agent tells me that they haven’t got any scheduled date in the system for review of the car. Then they tell me it was never picked up from the tow place (this was supposed to happen on Tuesday).

I get the idea that this process will never complete without me hounding them every single day. I no longer feel like a client whose car was ripped from my hands. I now feel like a transactional sucker who pays someone to abuse me when and if I need their services.

It has been a week since the accident. Zero contact from the agent.

Takeaway – If you make your customers do your job, they are going to be frustrated, or they are going to expect a great deal. Set expectations up front.

Tuesday 11/28 – I will call and see if the car got towed to the salvage yard today. I will ask if an adjuster is now scheduled to visit the yard and assess the status of the vehicle. Call the agent and ask what the process is supposed to look like. Am I expected to nag the adjusters and the claim office every day or twice a day to get this stuff done in a reasonable timeframe?

Called mid-afternoon. Spoke to a very helpful woman named Tonya. “Tow dispatched but we cant tell if it was moved yet.” Adjuster will “automatically” check the car once it is “checked in” at the salvage yard, but that check-in hadnt happened yet. Otherwise, she didn’t have further info on the schedule.

Wednesday 11/29 – Called about noon. Got Donna (I think – was hard to hear at first). She was very friendly and ended up having to call the salvage yard and other people to find out out what was going on. The car is now at the salvage yard and checked-in, so the adjuster is expected to look it over in the next 2-3 days. Tomorrow is possible, but she couldn’t give me a firm date as the adjusters apparently work their own schedule. Doesn’t sound like they are insurance company employees, but I might be reading too much into her comments about their appointment schedule and work load. It’s possible that adjusters work for an adjuster firm that handles estimates / assessments for multiple insurance companies in rural areas. I don’t know the workload of these folks, but that would seem more efficient than every company having their own and trying to keep them all busy. I’m guessing someone who reads this might have more information about that.

Takeaway – When a situation clearly has the potential to frustrate a customer, a little extra effort on the part of your team goes a long way.

Thursday 11/30 – Received a voice mail about 820am saying that the vehicle is repairable (ie: they will not total it). They asked me to call them back. Called and reached Paige, who explained the situation and the benefits (warranties and such) that selecting a body shop that the insurance company “works with” (ie: trusts, has ongoing experience with, saves them money and probably hassle/paperwork). She emailed me a list. I reviewed the list, posted a few names on Facebook to see if any Missoula-based people had suggestions about the list. Chose one of the shops suggested to me. Called insurance company back, told them which body shop to use.

Later in the day, called back, asked Raul to explain the benefit that you get when using a body shop on insurance company’s preferred list (you can choose anyone, including a vendor not on their list). The deal is that repairs and anything else that comes up related to the wreck are guaranteed by the insurance company for as long as you own the car. NOTE: I haven’t seen the actual terms of this guarantee as yet. Given that we keep cars until they “BluesBrother“, this is a potentially valuable benefit, so we chose a shop on their list.

This is what I mean by “BluesBrother”:

Estimate arrived in my email. Called claim line again, turns out this estimate is actually from the insurance adjuster. $6200. Car is scheduled to be towed to the body shop on Friday.

Takeaway – Give your customers a good reason to make the choices you want them to make.

Friday 12/1 Car being moved from salvage yard to Action Auto Body in Missoula.

Monday 12/4 Called body shop, talked to John,  who happened to be the guy finishing up the estimate. Tells me it will take a week to get parts and 2 weeks to do the work. Very nice, detail oriented guy who seemed happy to answer all my questions without sounding the least bit tired or annoyed.

Takeaway – Having technically adept people on the phone who also fully understand how to work with a customer who lost use of a car is a big plus. Being able to do that job and put up with 15 minutes of questions from me without getting frustrated is impressive.

Tuesday 12/12 While I haven’t heard a word from anyone at the insurance company or the body shop since 12/4, today I received an automated survey email from insurance company. The nine page survey asked me to evaluate the claim handling. The survey clearly isn’t designed to be filled out until the claim is completed, yet it allows only 10 days to complete the survey – which will expire at least a week before the body shop expects to have the car back to me. Obviously, the technology generating the surveys has no visibility into the status of the claim in question.

Takeaway – If you care about survey responses, make sure the surveys are sent at the proper time. Automation handles this kind of stuff in it’s sleep – if it’s automated with the right data. “Ask questions while the answers still matter” also means don’t ask too soon.

Thursday 12/15 Received a mailer from insurance company suggesting that I could refinance the Subaru at a lower rate. Only if they’re offering negative interest.

Takeaway – Wording on your direct mail matters as much as it does in tweet or email. The assumptions you make can make your marketing piece all but invisible.

Friday 12/16 Talked to body shop. As of today, all the parts showed up, so they will start work on Monday the 19th. Parts were supposed to take a week, but my guess is that ground shipping has been impacted by Christmas shipping season. It’s clear we wont’t get the car back in 2017.

Tuesday 12/20 30 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Friday 12/29 Work is underway, had to order another couple of parts for previously unseen damage, and those parts have not arrived yet. Holiday shipping traffic and people on vacation have probably slowed delivery. Body shop estimates the car will be completed sometime the week of the 8th-12th.

Monday 1/8 Checked in with body shop. They asked me to bring in plates so they could drive it. They say the car is pretty much done, looks great. Told me that they were taking the car to Subaru to get it started again and certify sensors and automated driver-assist systems, etc. He cannot start the car, so Subaru apparently has to reset the computer or similar. Once they get it back from Subaru, they will highway test it to make sure all is well, and then we’ll be done with it.

Wednesday 1/10 Checked in with body shop. They reminded me to get plates to them. I have no car since the Mrs is driving mine to work and they are not open outside normal working hours, so I’ll have to drop them off during off-hours.

Saturday 1/13 Dropped the plates by the body shop so they could drive it.

Tuesday 1/16 Spoke with John at the body shop. Subaru has had the car for about 10 days. They were unable to get the car started for days. Apparently, they were unable to convince the computer to allow it to start and no one knew what to do. I’ve seen what happens when this occurs at other dealers – the service manager calls the factory and gets some help. Apparently, they managed to get it running a couple days later because a factory-certified master mechanic happened to be passing through Missoula and helped them figure it out. Makes me wonder if our local dealer has any factory-certified mechanics for 2018 vehicles. John tells me they told him to come pick it up. He did. On the short drive back to his shop, John sees that the dash is lit up like a Christmas tree – every light is on. Clearly, the dealer didn’t finish the job and left the car in a state where it is running, but not ready to return to the customer (ie: me). No idea if driving in this condition would have eventually caused engine damage. Body shop guy turns around, returns the car to them, tells them not to bother giving the car back until it is 100% perfect. I suspect it wasn’t worded that way, but the point was still made.

Takeaway – Notice how the body shop advocated for the customer? Can you imagine the response you’d get if you made a similar demand of your dealer’s service department?

Takeaway – Don’t all dealers have at least one factory-certified master technician? If you have them and you know the other dealers don’t, why isn’t your advertising letting people know this important detail?

Friday 1/19 Spoke with John at the body shop. He tells me that Subaru seems to be making progress. They found a sensor or something that needed to be replaced, so they ordered it for Monday (1/22) delivery.

Saturday 1/20 60 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Tuesday 1/23 Spoke with John at body shop. Dealer still has not returned the car to them. He didn’t know if they received the part on Monday, or what progress had been made. Said Dar has been working with them and that he would know, but he was gone for the day.

Wednesday 1/24 Called body shop to see if they had any news from Subaru. Dealer is still trying to figure out engine issue.

Friday 1/26 Body shop called. Subaru dealer still lost on what’s going on. Thought it was figured out, they gave him the car on Thursday. Once again, on the drive back to the shop, it started throwing engine failure warnings, so he turned around and took it back.

Monday 1/29 Body shop called, said that Subaru finally reproduced the problem so now they seem to have it narrowed down to a computer error or an oil sensor error. Apparently the problem is intermittent. Every programmer you know will tell you this makes the problem harder to find.

Wednesday 1/31 Called body shop. They explained that after they called Subaru late on 1/29 after we last talked and found that Subaru techs determined that the one of the car’s computers was messed up. They figured this out by swapping a new car’s computer into our car and re-testing, as well as swapping ours to a new car. As your programmer friends will tell you, this is debugging 101. Replace / disable the components that are involved, but do so one at a time. Why it took three weeks to arrive at that point, I have no idea. Interestingly, the dealer does not stock computers for the current model year even though the Outback is the highest selling model in the U.S. as of 2016 with a mere 16.0 days to turn (ie: days on lot before it gets sold ). Perhaps computers don’t fail that often. Dealer apparently isn’t allowed to take the computer from a new car, so they had to order one (delivery time: three to four days). Body shop was hopeful (but not super confident) that he would get it back late Thursday or early Friday so he could get it to us before the end of the day on Friday.

Friday 2/2 Body shop called in the morning to say that he got the car back and that it was OK. They need it for a few more hours to finalize cleanup and then we can have it. I was able to pick up the car about 4:30pm. The total repair bill was just short of $16,000. Later that night, I got a detailed email receipt from the body shop, as well as an automated email from the insurance company that an “updated claim estimate” had been received. The body shop gassed it up before returning it.

Takeaway – Filling the tank was not required and not expensive, but it was a nice gesture when returning someone’s car after over two months. What “not required and not expensive” things can you do to impress your clients?

Saturday 2/3 Received an automated email from the insurance company noting that the claim had been paid. On a Saturday. Despite decades of working on automated systems, I’m shocked this didn’t require management approval, particularly given the amount (almost $16K). It appears from Friday night and Saturday driving that the car is back to pre-deer condition. Body shop’s paint/finish job was very well done.

Takeaway – Systems work. While the efficiency provided by inter-company systems produce a time and cost savings benefit to the insurance company, body shop and dealer, these systems are also a benefit to customers.

Verdict of the experience:

Body shop – Great job, both on the work and as an advocate for me when dealing with the local dealer. Slower than expected, but three holidays and the shipping time for multiple parts orders didn’t help. At times, they seemed surprised that I didn’t go ballistic on them or at least take out my frustration with the situation on them during our calls. I never felt the need to do that because they kept me informed, set expectations, and were clearly playing the role of advocate for me when dealing with the dealer. They didn’t make me do their job.

Local dealer – They had the car for over three weeks. I wonder what would have happened if that factory-certified technician from somewhere else hadn’t been in the area twice while our car was being diagnosed. I got the impression that this guy was the savant who twice rescued the dealer’s service department from throwing up their hands and giving up. Imagine if a random customer had been dealing with the dealer instead of a peer in their industry. The body shop guys tell me that they still believe in the dealer’s service department, so that goes a long way. The dealer should appreciate that they were held to the body shop’s standards.

National claims office – Outside of a slow start with the tow (which added a week) and the adjuster (which added another week) and one episode of snark on the phone, they performed as expected.

Local agent – Was a non-factor in the process. Agent missed a substantial opportunity to create a relationship and show how they care for clients.

What’s missing from this timeline?

A personal contact from the agent.

The lady who cuts my hair knows more about our experience with the deer hit and the subsequent repair adventures than my (former) insurance agent. If this seems normal, you have the wrong agent or you are the wrong agent.

In the nine weeks between hitting the deer and getting our car back, our only contact with the agent’s office has been my call to their office where I talked to his admin on the morning of the deer hit. She was pleasant, asked if everyone was ok, took a little bit of info, then transferred me to the national claim office. That part was expected as the priority at the time is to get started on repairing the car once we’re clear that there were no injuries.

A week after getting our car back, it was clear our agent wasn’t going to reach out. I called them to move our coverage to the CFalls agent we previously worked with for almost 15 years (call it a corrected oversight).  The old agent’s admin was pleasant and said she would take care of it, noting that she would contact me if they needed more info. She didn’t ask about my wife or the car, which tells me that their customer contact software doesn’t give them any sort of recent history to help “make conversation” & check in on a customer’s satisfaction level during customer calls.

The next day, the agent called me for what I believe is the first time in three and a half years.

He was calling to tell me that he had released our policies to CFalls & to ask if we were moving because of something they’d done. It was too late to ask. They might be able to fix it for someone else, but for anyone wearing the customer hat, it doesn’t matter. Some might share, but most are going to say whatever gets the guy off the phone – and that’s exactly what I did. I was busy with work at the time and didn’t have time to get into what would probably become an hour-long discussion.  Interestingly, the agent said he asks the same question of customers transferring business to his office – ie: what made you leave the other agent? What about the gap between getting and losing a customer?

It’s critical to ask good questions, but be sure to ask them while the answers still matter.

Fill gaps of inattention

So let’s get back to the real reason I bothered to share all of this with you: To help you understand how you might be leaving gaps of inattention in your relationship with your customers.

After my wife hit a deer at 70 MPH on a pitch dark morning just before 6:00 am, no one called during that nine week period to ask if:

  • … the driver is still doing OK (injuries and issues often show up days/weeks later)
  • … we’ve gotten the car back or to ask if we know why it’s taking so long (we have and I do).
  • … if we’re satisfied with the repairs (we are).
  • … if we want to make any coverage changes (we do).

This is below my expectations.

Some agents might say they “aren’t allowed” to make that sort of contact with customers. Don’t confuse being a real person who cares about their clients with being an order taker.

If your parent company doesn’t allow you to have personal, caring contact with your clients, find another company to represent. If anything, that sort of rule may indicate how that company will treat you someday.

Some insurance agents reading this might be thinking “we’re not told to do that“. Bear in mind that there are many things you should do to keep and care for a client that no one tells you to do.

Don’t be an order taker.

An order taker says “Do you want fries with that?”, yet an order taker can show some humanity and assess the purchaser on their feet and comment/question accordingly when appropriate.

An order taker can be replaced at will. I can switch to another agent for the same company without a second thought. I can switch to another insurance company without much thought, if all I want to do is compare dollars and cents.

On the other hand, if a client is madly in love (maybe that’s a stretch) with the care and attention provided by their insurance agent and their team, you’ll have to pry them away in most cases.

Which agency do you want to own? Which agency do you want to use? The order taker or the caring, attentive team?

Categories
Employees Management Small Business

Why would you want remote employees?

A friend who owns a manufacturing business recently decided to hire a remote software developer – his first remote employee. He asked if I had some advice for managing remote employees as he knows I’ve done so. In fact, I’ve managed remote team members in some way, shape or form since 1998. While the folks I work (and worked) with have been a mix of folks close to home and scattered around the globe, he’s starting with a remote developer here in the U.S.

Why remote employees?

Hiring a remote employee might seem like the craziest idea ever. Even so, remote work has been growing steadily since the late ’90s for several reasons: People have roots. Their families have jobs, friends, schools & communities they love, outdoor recreation your community can’t compete with (and vice versa), etc.

In the ’60s-’80s, when a company transferred or hired an employee who lived somewhere else, they generally paid movers to pack and move that employee’s possessions. In some cases, they would buy the employee’s old house if it didn’t sell within a reasonable amount of time. Serious investment. Remote work during those decades was difficult, but it still happened. Companies like IBM (“I’ve Been Moved”), Kodak, Xerox and others had field sales / service reps all over the country – and not always based out of a local company-owned office.

Today, such transfers are far less common. Companies lower their standards, extend their search effort, hire remote people or find another solution.

If an ideally trained, experienced candidate with domain-specific knowledge for your opening lives somewhere else, and cannot (or doesn’t want to) move to your town, do you:

  • Do without and settle for someone who isn’t ideal.
  • Keep looking and wait until the right (or close enough) local appears.
  • Hire no one and leave the opening unfilled.
  • Hire a local and invest in the proper training.
  • Ask a candidate to move to your town (think about how you might feel about that if the situation were reversed)

Questions to ask new remote employees

Have you worked remotely before?” should have been discussed during the interview. After the hire is not the time to start this conversation. The first time an employee transitions from in-office work to remote work is a substantial shift – more so than you hiring your first remote team member.

What’s your schedule?” and “What times do you regularly need to be away?” aren’t probing personal questions. They let both sides discuss expectations and avoid surprises.

For example, I take kids to the bus stop a little after 8:00 am. I pick them up a little after 3:00 pm and a little before 4:00pm. As you might expect, there’s a few minutes of “cat herding” that takes place before the morning bus stop and after the two afternoon bus stops. While no one depends on me to be in a certain place with immediate availability at any specific moment of the day, it’s important to communicate the team’s schedule on both ends.

Likewise, it’s on me to make sure someone understands my schedule when we’re trying to arrange a meeting time. If I am trying to finish up before the bus stop or am rushed to get to a meeting just after a bus stop time, meeting prep (or the meeting itself) isn’t as productive or focused. That isn’t fair to clients or your remote employer. It’s as important to discuss the times where all hands are expected to be available for scrums, meetings, standups, etc.

Lunch is a good example of scheduling, even though you might not give it much thought. Some people eat lunch at their desk. Some like to get out of the house and meet a friend. Some mix it up a bit, often because working at home by yourself can be lonely. Some people need regular interaction, and text chat (like Skype, HipChat, or Slack) doesn’t feed that need. None of these things are wrong, but when your phone rings and you don’t answer, or you answer and a noisy restaurant is what your employer hears – they’ll wonder. It’s natural. You don’t want to make them wonder. You want them to know what to expect.

It’s OK to say “On Thursdays, I meet a few friends for lunch, so I’m not around from 11:30 to 1, and I start early or finish late those days“, as long as you’ve worked that out with people who need to reach you. This isn’t about someone expecting to know your butt is in your seat every minute of the day. It’s about being considerate of both parties.  It’s about trust.

Tell me about your workspace” – also isn’t a probing personal question. An employer or client has an expectation that you aren’t trying to work in a room full of toddlers, barking dogs, or gaming teenagers. Speaking of, summer plans are important. If you have young school-age kids, how will they be cared for while you’re working? Will they be in a different space than you? If the kids are older, it generally isn’t a problem, while two to seven year olds don’t generally manage their day on their own.

If this isn’t the new employee’s first remote rodeo, it’s a good idea to ask them what worked and what didn’t work in previous remote gigs. Take advantage of their experience and perspective – it will almost certainly add nuance to my comments. This gives you the chance to learn from another owner / manager’s efforts at no charge, and it will help you understand the persona, priorities and needs of your new remote worker.

Communication

Work out a protocol for communication during travel, weekends, evenings and during emergencies. This is really no different for a local employee than it is for a remote one, other than the fact that a manager can’t easily show up at the front door of a remote employee. If you’ve ever done that for business purposes, your communication plans probably need work. Showing up to pay your respects or attend a BBQ isn’t “business purposes”.

An emergency might be that your biggest client is having a meltdown or that there’s an angry boyfriend at the office. Either way, establish a protocol for getting the word out, conveying its severity, & indicating what action (if any) is necessary.

Keep in mind that every family (thus, every team member) may have different needs. Babies, shift work & roommates impact phone/ringer use.

Relationships

Mentoring & the “first friend” – No matter how many years of experience they have, they’re new to you. New people need mentoring. Even if they don’t need it with the work you hired them to do, there are plenty of reasons why their “first friend” at work will prove beneficial.

Do you hire someone to stay in the same position “forever”, or do you want them to grow into a position they aren’t yet ready for? Even if you don’t expect a new hire would be ready to run your shop in five years, they’ll almost never get ready without training, mentorship and interim experience to prepare them for that role.

Qualified people still need mentors. They also need to be mentors. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later – and with intention.

Connection – Remote employees need connection to the nest. Bring them on-site early and often. It’s particularly important to make this happen early on. Everyone at the home office needs connection with those remote employees. They need to be able to trust their word, trust their work and think of them as they do any other member of the team. This isn’t just about the line employee. It’s about the managers as well. When the remote employee becomes a black box in a room in another town that no one can see, the unseen person and their work are easy to devalue. This could happen even if their work happens to be strategic. The reverse is also true. They need the opportunity to understand the value of their peers work as well their colleagues do.

Team meals – For a business with on-site employees, team meals (on campus or not) are a commonly-used way to build team harmony and nurture relationships between team members. This may not be easy particularly effective with remote employees, so be sure to have these meals when remote employees are on site.

Video meetings (IE: conference calls with webcam) – Some people really dislike the addition of video to a call. People are fussy about their hair or generally how they look, don’t want to be seen eating during a call, are sensitive to what’s visible in their work space (like that monstrous Siamese cat laying next to the keyboard), and/or the idea of others seeing them appear to be disinterested because they’re multi-tasking during a meeting.

Ease into this. Start with short, less critical meetings to raise the comfort level. You’ll probably need to set the example for a while so people get comfortable with it. It’ll make everyone more aware of the ambient noise and distractions in their (and others’) workspace. In a face-to-face meeting, most people can manage their facial responses to a speaker’s comments. Experienced conference callers have learned to mute early and often, but may not be practiced at managing expressions when video is introduced.

The lesson: Don’t make a big deal out of the expressions you see on video. Use them as a signal to ask for group feedback. It’s natural for facial expressions to change when we hear something we have questions about, don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand. I prefer the Zoom (all faces on screen) way of doing this, mostly because it seems to train everyone that their expressions change while listening to people talk. Most of us don’t want to embarrass a co-worker, much less ourselves. Use it as an advantage and an opportunity to improve, not as a way to create drama.

Does this differ for workers outside the US?

Usually.

The differences between inside-the-US & outside-the-US team members include (in decreasing order of owner/manager/employee pain & suffering): Culture and values, enterprise experience, time zones, environment, infrastructure, payment & language.

Culture & values – Not everyone thinks like a U.S.-based employee/owner. Start by remembering that and keep remembering it. You’re used to what you’re used to. Others are just as used to their experience and how their work habits were formed.

Remember when asking for help was considered by some to be a sign of weakness? It remains that way among some groups because the pace of change differs among groups, and likewise among cultures. Every country’s culture has its range of work habits, inclination to ask for help, communication styles, etc. If you find yourself frustrated, ask questions that allow new people to unwrap what happened. Cultural learning is difficult to change. Differences in cultural norms should be expected. Both parties need to take steps to help everyone understand one another.

Company cultures and values work the same way. There are things that your company does your way – your culture and values. You should expect employees to take those seriously, regardless of their upbringing, culture, etc. Sometimes this takes training, mentors, etc. Someone who has never experienced a culture like yours will need help (and time) to them learn your culture and values. You may hire someone who is used to being browbeaten over deadlines, or they may have never worked under a deadline. No matter what their experience has been in the past, your experience is probably different. It will take time for your culture and values to become their new normal. Trust takes time and it goes both ways.

Enterprise experience – Enterprise experience is about more than buildings full of servers or time working at large multi-national companies. It’s about having a mindset that goes beyond the current project. It’s about having the ability to look around corners (and knowing that’s important), seeing the big picture, understanding inter-departmental needs, and communicating effectively with others whether they’re C-level execs, your team’s family members, prospects on the trade show floor, or high school kids on a field trip. Enterprise experience can mean more than that, but it starts with mindset, the big picture, and communication.

Time zones – Time zones can be a blessing and a curse. When your team member is seven to ten time zones east of you, you might start your day at 3:00 pm or later in their day. Good, because you have a bunch of work to review. Bad, because you only have an hour or two before the end of their day. Some folks work their normal hours (ie: 8:00am to 5:00pm in their time zone), some work normal hours in yours. You have to figure out what works best for you and for your team member. One thing about having them work your hours is that it may tempt them to take a job in their time zone, then work your job once the other job’s time is done. You need to ask that question. You don’t want your work to be their second job – which could affect your pay scale for them.

Environment -Not everyone lives in a pleasant, treed cul-de-sac in a neighborhood with people they’ve known for a decade, or on five quiet acres on the edge of town. I have had remote team members tell me that their apartment building was hit by gunfire – and they kept working. Culture & experience train you to know when it’s time to take cover, leave, etc.

Infrastructure – People in some countries lose power far more often than U.S. folks are accustomed to. This is not something your remote worker can control, other than by moving to another country. The good news is that a laptop combined with a UPS can easily fuel a full day’s work.

Payment – Five years ago, this was much harder. Paypal, TransferWise, Upwork simplified the process & traditional methods are still available. Some countries are still a bit of a challenge but for the most part, this barrier has all but evaporated.

Language – Most business people I encounter from outside the U.S. speak English fairly well. This has been my experience with both solo consultants and employees of large companies outside the U.S.

One more thing about remote folks. Visit them a couple times a year, if you can. It won’t be cheap. It probably won’t be easy and it will occasionally frustrate – but most of the negatives come from getting there, not from being there. When you visit them, you learn far more about them, their motivations and how they work than you’d ever learn in a video meeting or a phone call.

Links for working with remote employees

A few links that might come in handy:

https://biz30.timedoctor.com/scale-your-remote-team/

https://blog.trello.com/master-remote-team-communications

https://blog.trello.com/tips-for-tackling-remote-work-challenges

https://blog.trello.com/how-to-stop-micromanaging-your-remote-team

https://shift.newco.co/why-i-only-work-remotely-2e5eb07ae28f

https://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2015/09/03/7-habits-of-exceptionally-successful-remote-employees/

http://www.enmast.com/7-tips-empowering-employees-remote-work

https://medium.com/taking-note/the-secret-to-remote-work-its-not-all-about-you-ff8cd862d704?source=linkShare-c89c09aefc29-1516770156

Photo by Kim de Groote 1980

Categories
customer retention Getting new customers Setting Expectations Small Business

What would they do to put you out of business?

When I asked “What would they do to put you out of business?“, you probably wondered who “they” are. “They” might be someone whose expertise in another market tells them yours is ripe for the taking. “They” might be a competitor you already have, or someone new to the market who doesn’t know any better. Remember when you didn’t know any better? You’re still here.

Who they are really doesn’t matter. What they do & why… that’s what matters. How would they price, market, sell, deliver, service, & communicate?

Pricing

You might expect that they’d come in with lower pricing. While it depends a good deal on your market, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them going higher and establishing a market segment above yours, leaving you with what remains.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” – Ben Franklin

Companies with plenty of margin can afford to spend more on marketing, delivery and service. If you were starting over today, would you price the same way, or differently? Why? Why not?

Marketing

Ultimately, marketing is about exchanging cash for a (hopefully predictable  and consistent) number of leads who turn into customers. If your marketing efforts spend $27.50 to get a lead, would you rather your leads turn into customers who spend $2750 or $27500 over their lifetime as your customer?

Thinking back to what you do now, can you make that choice? Can a new entrant to your market? (and if so, again… can you make that choice?)

Looking at it a different way…. If your new competitor can afford to pay two or three or ten times what you can afford for leads, who will likely end up with more leads and more ability to choose select the best leads?

If you were starting over, how would you market differently? Would you choose a different customer to focus on?

Selling

Thinking about how you and your market peers sell now, how would an upstart in your market do it differently… and better? What steps would they add, subtract, or embellish? Would they listen more and talk less? Would they speak of the needs, wants, concerns and worries of their prospects? Would they parrot features and speak in bullet points, while lamenting about the need to meet their quota?

If you were starting over, would you sell differently? How so? If not, why not?

Delivery

Do you deliver and/or deploy for your customers today? What would a noob to your market do? Would they prepare differently? Tool up differently? Deploy differently? Train the customer’s team differently, more, or less? Would they follow up more or differently than they do now after delivery and deployment is complete? What would someone do differently than you if they come from a high attention to details market?

If you were starting over, how would delivery and deployment look?

Service

Almost everyone brags about their service. It’s rarely as good, unique or unusual as they think. People talk about under-commit and over-deliver, but finding it in the wild is rare. Your service rarely feels like you’d want it to feel if you were in that client’s situation.

If you were starting over, how would your client’s service experience look and feel?

Communication

Through every step of sales, marketing, delivery and service, there are opportunities to set expectations and over-communicate. There are opportunities every day to take away the doubt, lack of clarity, wonder about what’s going to happen next. There are opportunities to pick up the phone instead of sending an email, or to drop by instead of picking up the phone.

If you were starting over, how would you communicate?

What would “they” do?

They’d do what you refuse to do. What you’re afraid to do or haven’t thought of. They’ll do what you don’t feel like doing or don’t think is necessary. They’d do what turns customers into clients who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

More than likely, you know what these things are. Knowing isn’t enough. Answers are easy to come by. Execution of it is another thing entirely.

Will you wait until the new kid on the block forces you to mimic their behavior, or will your behavior set the bar so high that no one will dare enter your market? All those things you’d do if you were starting over can be started when you decide to do them.

The choice is yours.

Photo by MDGovpics

Categories
Email marketing Getting new customers Lead generation Small Business

Repercussions for the things we won’t do

If you register a new website address these days, you’ll receive plenty of unsolicited email & cold calls from people dying to create your website. While I appreciate the hustle, these messages & calls are the same for everyone (register two domains if you need proof). Is lazy hustle possible? If so, this is it.

What’s missing is a lack of effort to find the information that could get you the business. These are the things they either don’t know how to do, or won’t do. Standing on a street corner screaming “I’d like to build your website” is nothing but noise and is ineffective at best. Face-to-face, email, LinkedIn, & phone calls all exhibit this problem when lazy seeps in.

Objections. Always objections

Many of these emails come from firms in countries with an economy that allows them to offer aggressive pricing that’s far less than local firms charge. When their email arrives, your initial objection might be “I don’t want to work with firms from (wherever)“. Your objection might be tempered when see the super-cheap price.

Most out-of-town firms have the expertise to do the work at that tempting price but their emails/calls (even the US-based ones) never address the real problem: How many people have outsourced a project as important as a website to a firm from out of town, much less from another country? Few.

Most small business owners haven’t experienced the joy of managing an outsourced project of *any* kind, much less a website project. We’re not talking about buying parts from a vendor a few states away. We’re talking about custom work that takes weeks/months.

Now you’ve gone from “I don’t want to work with someone from (wherever)” to “I’m not sure how to manage a website development project with so-and-so down the street even though she’ll visit my office. How much harder this will be with someone two states away, much less with someone in another country?

Set the right context

Whether you’re in Pune or Columbia Falls, you have the same problem: Getting over the prospect’s natural desire to avoid working with someone from out of town.

Their out-of-town vendor fears are the same ones they’ll have with someone in town, with some extra concerns sprinkled on top.

For in-town folks wondering why I’m discussing how to make it easier for your out-of-town competition, bear in mind that YOU are the out-of-town competition for every vendor who doesn’t live where you do. In some places, you’re the company from out of town despite being only six miles away.

Of all the “Hey, we can do your website” emails I received in the last year, NOT ONE positioned the conversation in a way other than “we do this, we’re cheap, etc”.

Improving your chances

Someone in Pune might send 30,000 emails daily. They can afford to play a numbers game. You might be reaching out to anyone who registers a domain in your five county corner of the state, or those who leased business space in your county. You can’t afford to waste leads.

In addition to changing the context of how you start the conversation, give yourself a second chance. Remember that the moment someone registers a domain, leases business property, or does what makes you aware of their possible need is not necessarily the moment they need you.

Rather than contacting them to suggest that you are alive, available & cheap, try a different approach. Reach out, make it clear you’re aware of their possible need & offer a legitimate resource to help them in the early going.

Follow up 30 days later, but not simply to repeat that you’re cheap & available. You might even have three buttons in your email: “Check back in 30 days, not ready yet”, “Doing it ourselves”, “Already have a vendor”.

Clicks on those buttons provide info so you can respond intelligently. Maybe in 30 days you ask the “not ready” folks “Figured out a timeline yet?”. For those indicating “DIY” or “have a vendor”, you might wait 60-90 days to ask “Is your project going as planned?

I’m OK with repercussions, lazy, etc.

Send out half of the emails exactly as you do now. Send the others with a context change. See which works best.

Do more of what works.

Categories
Entrepreneurs Management Small Business

What does freedom mean to business people?

When you ask business owners why they started their company, you frequently hear these words: Freedom and opportunity.

Opportunity tends to have a narrow definition. Someone sees potential in a market and goes after it. Opportunity may also mean the ability to make more than they could make at a job.

Freedom’s meaning seems to vary a bit more from owner to owner, at least as it relates to “I started my business because I wanted more freedom“. Knowing exactly what it means to you is critical. Those specifics will impact on how your company takes shape, how it’s run and eventually, how it appears to potential buyers.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been in a number of conversations with owners who are planning or considering the sale of their business. Some haven’t made the “I want to sell” decision yet. Those who haven’t decided yet are still  focused on improving their business practices. These changes will make their businesses more attractive to potential buyers if and when that time comes.

Working toward a better freedom

When discussing what needs to be done to sell your company, there’s usually a long list of things that the owner wants to improve before looking for buyers. Since your company will benefit from a subset of these improvements even if you don’t sell the company, be sure to focus on those things first.

Why?

First – Anything that makes the company better also improves it for you between now and the time you do close a deal. If you never close a deal, you still benefit.

Second – Some of the things you’d to prepare will only benefit you in situations where an “investor-class” buyer is involved, such as a private equity group.

Selling your business to “someone in your town” is much different than selling it to investors. The more sophisticated the buyer, the more complicated, annoying, and costly the due diligence process will be. Be sure that the prospect is dead serious before venturing into this process because it won’t be fun, cheap or easy – and it’s possible their intentions won’t be honorable. Doing your homework is essential.

How does this relate to freedom? The improvements you make should improve the freedom your business provides – and these things are almost always the same things that make the business more attractive to buyers.

What does freedom mean to you?

Specifically, what freedom does your business provide – or what freedom do you want it to provide?

Whether you are looking at what happens after you sell your business, or simply what will happen once your business reaches the point of being able to support you – it’s critical that you know exactly where you want it to take you.

Does freedom mean more time? What’s that mean for you?

Working fewer hours than at your last job? Working at home vs. having to commute? Being home every weekend? Not having to travel 25-30 weeks per year? Having the ability to come and go at will? Having a more flexible schedule day to day than at your last 8-5 job?

Businesses that provide time freedom typically have a team doing the day to day work. At first, the owner might be managing the team. Over time, owners need to recruit and/or develop someone to manage their team.

Companies structured like this can be easier to sell because they aren’t as dependent on the owner to run them day to day, much less to create revenue. They also provide smoother continuity if the owner dies or is disabled.

Does freedom mean more money? What’s that mean for you?

Does it mean that your income is more secure? More resilient? More diverse? Less likely to be at the whim of someone else?

What aspects of the business protect that income, your pipeline, etc? How resilient is that income if you have to interrupt your work (as owner) to care for a family member for more than a day or two?

Companies where income freedom is more important than time freedom can be harder to sell if the owner is critical to day to day operations.

Either way, the important thing is knowing what you want & structuring your business to support that over the long term.

Photo by USAG-Humphreys

Categories
Economic Development Small Business startups

Do towns benefit from building 2 pizza teams?

What’s the big deal about building an environment that creates the ideal conditions to form a two pizza team? Having startups to talk about at the Chamber lunch is exciting, but this isn’t about improving your cool factor. Improving the finances of your town’s families is important, but there are bigger benefits that affect everyone in town: economic diversification and risk reduction.

What risk?

When 100 families in a town depend on one employer, the current and future health of that town depends on that company, their management, the market they’re in, the market of raw materials they consume (if any), the owners, and so on. One mistake of the wrong kind can put the finances of 100 families at risk – all at once. When 100 (or 1000, or 10000) families in one town depend on one employer, the risk to the finances of that town is higher than the sum of the paychecks involved. All of us can probably cite an example where one of these companies failed, was forced out of business, or was bought out / divested, etc. The reasons don’t matter as we rarely have control over them. Diversifying your local economy is one defensive strategy against such events.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t seek big companies (no matter what “big” means to your town) or grow them locally. We should, but we have to do more than simply seek large employers to the exclusion of all other strategies. Expect that this won’t be what many are used to or expect. Be ready to defend those efforts with progress reports and outcomes, rather than “we know better than you” opinions. You should expect to be questioned about your efforts. The quality of your plans, your transparency, and the frequency and candor of your progress reports will all contribute to getting more people on board.

The economic diversification that comes from the creation of an annual two pizza team will surely be slow, but few lasting things of this nature happen quickly. The political (not necessarily election-related) pressure on economic development teams to bring 100 or 1000 jobs to town at one time is tempting, but in most cases, it isn’t realistic. Enabling and encouraging the entrepreneurs in your town to build new payrolls at a steady pace while other efforts continue is best. You aren’t creating a competition – you’re making your community’s interdependent economy more resilient for everyone.

Job security comes, in part, from economic diversification

Not everyone is going to be interested in taking the leap and creating one of these companies – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, those who don’t take the leap still need work.

Finding a new job is not a fun experience. It’s sometimes easier not to change jobs and employees. Given the difficulty of hiring and being hired, it sometimes seems like neither employers nor candidates want to go through the hiring / interview process one more time. Despite the mix of sometimes unsightly job / employee seeking situations, there are companies out there who want to find good employees, pay them fairly and keep them. Likewise, there are employees who want to find a solid employer and stay with them for a long time.

The companies that start off as two pizza teams and stick around are likely to be able to do these things. That they’re working toward giving up whatever job security they have *and* creating something new leaves the impression that they want something better. You’d think that they will want something better for their staff as well.

Jobs at these kind of companies often go beyond “just a paycheck”. The motivation for these startups is frequently rooted in the founders’ previous financial / job hardship and/or insecurity, so creating that kind of security for employees is a high priority. The job insecure folks in your community have a job, or two, or maybe three. When those jobs are at risk, and/or seasonal, and/or part-time, the stress and related cognitive load on that family affects everyone.

The obvious benefits of adding new (hopefully stable) payrolls to your town’s families are positive, but the benefits go beyond a particular family’s new source of income. Spreading the creation and stability of family economies across different industries and companies creates a resilience more towns could use. Photo by checkyourhead90 Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

Categories
Amazon Community Entrepreneurs Leadership Small Business

Your town can fuel the rise of two pizza teams

Last time, I noted that Amazon received no HQ2 (second Amazon global headquarters location) proposals from communities in a number of rural states. At the time, I noted that the decision to pass on that opportunity was a well-considered choice.

More importantly, I asked the following question:

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Payrolls “of that size” refers to two pizza teams, ie: a team small enough that you can feed it with two pizzas.

I’d like to talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of two pizza team. Every community can gain from the benefits these teams produce.

You’re not too rural for pizza

Rural communities can benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring, without bringing Amazon to town. If your community manages to do what’s necessary to help build only one new 300-400K payroll in town every year or two – the benefits are substantial.

The initial question to address is “What should communities do to create a local culture that encourages the formation of these teams?”

Your town already has an entrepreneurial petri dish, but in most cases, new business creation currently depends on:

1) the bullheaded optimism of entrepreneurs (and sometimes, their access to capital), or

2) Desperate situations demanding that the impacted family do something, anything to create an income.

In both cases, these creations tend to be tied to a short list of highly-motivated (internally or externally) individuals. Some families have always started businesses, so their kids learn to do the same. Others are forced into it. Both groups experience varying levels of success.

We want to create conditions that make your entrepreneurial petri dish a bit warmer and a bit more nutritious, making it easier to grow something in it. A stronger entrepreneurial culture is more likely to hatch a creation that can survive on its own when transplanted into the real world.

While funding is important for some businesses, most two pizza teams start off as knowledge-based businesses that don’t need large capital expenses to get started. Capital needs will likely appear during periods of fast growth.

Fuel for two pizza teams

Two pizza teams need:

  • ideas that serve a hungry market
  • people with the right skills and the spare time to devote to their “side hustle”
  • the confidence to adjust & keep trying when things aren’t going so well

Communities don’t need an inventory of unserved ideas to hand out to wanna-be entrepreneurs. Instead, create conditions that consistently produce ideas. These include Startup Weekends, makerspaces, meetups, & coworking spaces.

Almost any clean, empty warehouse / retail space will do. Dedicated, fancy areas aren’t required. Start with a library or business conference room. Meeting in a clean, safe, empty warehouse or retail space is an inexpensive way to get meeting space while raising awareness of a space looking for its next productive use.

The keys? Create a constructive environment for discussion, formation, & execution of ideas – and get the right mix of people there.

How can community leaders help?

Every community has people with the skills to create a side hustle. What they often lack is experience, confidence, a group to brainstorm with and to ask “Does this make any sense at all?”.

What encourages people to have the confidence to suffer through the rough times? Experience. Mentors. Sounding boards. A community of business owners / side-hustlers who are going through & have gone through that bramble of thorns and roses.

Community leaders can leverage their connections to experienced business owners / managers & local angel groups to get them involved and gain access to meeting space. Like-minded people with the right skills & spare time meet each other at these gatherings. When experienced business owners add their voice, their insight & mentoring builds confidence in those trying to figure it all out.

The confidence part is important. When a small group of people is dedicated to turning an idea into a side hustle & then a payroll, they need the self assurance to weather whatever storms come over the ridge. They need know that it’s OK to pivot (ie: adjust their business and business model to reality) rather than quit.

Every community has a meeting space, experienced business people & folks looking to start a business who need advice & critical mass. Get them together.

Photo by cote