And after Small Business Saturday?

Besides being a particularly busy Christmas shopping day, this coming Saturday is “Small Business Saturday”.

Once a year, American Express (organizer of Small Business Saturday) encourages shoppers to shop at a small local business and offers marketing materials to help small businesses take part in the event by encouraging locals to shop their store.

While you might be thankful that Amex makes an effort to place shoppers’ focus on small retailers for that all-important Saturday in November, and for the (hopefully) positive effect it has on your Christmas season sales, Small Business Saturday (and the holiday shopping season in general) is far more important than a one day sales boost.

For many shoppers, it might be the one opportunity you have all year to get their attention and leave an impression on them that helps them remember to shop your store all year long. Bottom line: Amex has gotten the ball rolling for Thanksgiving Saturday. The other 51 Saturdays are on you.

Not simply another sales day

Even without Amex’s help to promote Small Business Saturday, it’s an opportunity to do so many things because you’ll see shoppers you usually don’t see.

Show them why they should shop at your place more often. Make it clear to price shoppers that your prices are competitive, and if they aren’t, make it clear that your prices are justifiably higher because your products/services are of higher value, or that you deliver more, save time, save hassle, etc.

Use this opportunity to engage shoppers in recurring purchase opportunities, but do it in a way that makes sense for your clientele, not simply because I suggested it.

Collect contact information. While some are protective of this info, it’s often because their contact info has been misused or used ineffectively. No one wants to hear more noise, but most people will happily accept valuable info that helps them. Tell people what you will do and do that and nothing else. Let them be selective about the resources you send them rather than giving them only one choice.

You might have lists for monthly promotions, value shoppers, last minute (or low stock / closeout) deals, as well as for special events. Let THEM decide what list they’re on and treat that list with great care.

Make your place a refuge from shopping mayhem

We’ve all seen the news stories and video of the ugliness of box store Black Friday sales. People are fighting traffic, fighting for parking spaces, fighting to be one of the first 62 people to get the Barbie Turbo Fashion Corvette, fighting massive crowds and so on.

Don’t let your store become a part of that. REI decided to close their store on Black Friday. To be sure, some of this is about publicity and this decision was likely made based on their Friday sales figures (think about their clientele), but no matter what really drove the decision, they really are making a point about not taking part in what goes on during Black Friday.

While closing shop probably doesn’t make sense for you, the idea to stand out and take steps to be a refuge from the mayhem is a good one.

Standing out in a crowd

Think about the things that reduce the enjoyment that people get when shopping for gifts for the people they love:

  • Starting at 4am
  • Lines
  • Crowds
  • Parking
  • Dealing with “those people who only seem to drive/park/shop one weekend a year”
  • Shortages of items
  • Hauling around the day’s booty

Everyone’s list might be different. What steps can you take to take the pain, hassle and aggravation out of their day?

While it might be too late to plan and execute a big splash, do nothing wastes everyone else’s efforts and puts off your gains for a year. Even if you start today, a focused effort to do what you *can* do will help.

If you have a preferred client list, this is a great time to bestow a nice benefit for those who have earned the right to be on that list. Offer them valet parking, special shopping hours all to themselves and deferred pickup of items.

Let them order by phone or via your website, even if you aren’t setup to take their money until they arrive for pickup.

Next year, plan your Small Business Saturday

Next year, be sure to plan and promote your Small Business Saturday event well in advance.

Ask your local retailers group and your Chamber of Commerce to get involved in promoting the event both to shoppers and to local retailers, if they aren’t already.

Take advantage of the effort Amex is making, and the resources they provide to make Small Business Saturday your own – and not simply a one day bump in sales.

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?

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.

Does your business reality match theirs?

If you happen to pay attention to any of the business turnaround reality shows on TV (I see them on rare occasions), you’ll know that the pattern is the same for most of them – regardless of the type of business.

Typically, there are some quality and cleanliness problems, a management issue or two (or five),  a lack of performance that’s often attributable to training and consistent systems and processes, and last but not least, a lack of attention to the numbers.

In some rare cases, the businesses seem to be more of a hobby or an escape than an actual business – a situation that never escapes the consulting expert, and always infuriates them.

On the rare occasion when I see these shows, three things always come to mind:

  • How could they have let the situation get this bad?
  • How could they not see these obvious problems, much less fail to address them?
  • How do business owners who read my stuff feel when seeing these shows?

If you haven’t seen one of these shows, here are the things you should be looking for in your business’ reality.

Filth

One of the universal failures of the businesses in these shows is that they’re consistently filthy. Some are worse than others, with some downright unbelievable.

The reason this can get out of control in your business is the gradual creep of muck. You get used to a certain level of clean and it never again seems to be the kind of clean you’d want to see in a place you’d visit.

My wife and I visited a Cajun restaurant in the south earlier this year and found the dining room’s tile floor filthy. It was hard not to wonder if they simply got used to the dirt.

How are you doing on the filth factor?

Management Vacuum

Another consistency of the businesses profiled in these shows is a partial to total lack of management.

Sometimes, the problem is the owner(s) acting as if the business is a hobby (and often creating a massive distraction – much less money suck), while in others, it’s a failure to delegate and then use the time savings to actually manage the business. Managers in these businesses often have owner-instigated conflicts that prevent them from exerting any authority on day to day operations – making them ineffective at best.

Do any of these situations sound familiar? Ask your manager(s) about it. If you sense hesitation…

Systems and Processes

One of the most common problems in these businesses is a lack of order and consistency.  Many of them have no point of sale system or have nothing more than a cash register to balance at the end of the day.

In the episodes where food and drink are part of the business, food and drink costs are always out of control and highly variable from serving to serving and drink to drink.

They not only have inconsistent production (and thus inconsistent quality), but they also tend to have no measurement / tracking / purchasing controls in place. They have no idea how much they’re spending on food and drink or if they are even turning a profit.

Key to the resolution of these problems is creating systems to manage and track materials, sales and purchasing. Yes, I know… this seems like Doctor Obvious speaking, but you would be surprised at the times this has been missing from businesses in these shows (and in my personal observation).

Do you know how much that $8.95 meal costs your business? Don’t serve food or drink? You still have production costs of some kind.

Training

A tightly integrated issue with systems and processes is staff training. Inconsistency in these businesses starts with a lack of systems and processes and ends with inconsistent (or non-existent) training of the staff.

A universal component of the reality-show-fix is a combination of new systems, processes and staff training on those systems and processes.

Systems and processes combined with training breed consistency, which breeds quality.

Watching the numbers

Beyond cost of production numbers, a common issue for these reality show businesses is a disconnect between what the business is doing sales and cost-wise and what the owner(s) / manager(s) think the business is doing.

Do you know what your real numbers are?

What’s the reality at your business?

Pricing custom work well is a strategic advantage

How good is your business at pricing custom work?

If you don’t have a way of pricing custom work that consistently accounts for your costs and labor, how do you know if you’re making any profit on these deals? How would it feel to find that you’re losing money on half your custom work?

Do you have a spreadsheet or software program to help? If not, do you have some other formulaic means of pricing work?

If you read the May 12 New York Times “You’re The Boss” piece by the owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, you’ll learn that these guys are fortunate enough to have a formulaic method to determine the price of a custom item.

That they have this formula puts them ahead of most businesses that do custom work. However, the trouble starts when they discuss what’s going on behind the scenes as there are a number of things going on that conspire to cause problems when reality and the pricing formula meet on the shop floor.

The failure points

Downs mentions that the spreadsheet’s material prices haven’t been updated in over 6 years, that material use and overages are not tracked, that tool use and labor methods have changed and that the info in the spreadsheet is sometimes entered wrong and fails to match the reality of the work actually being done.

As you read about all the possible failure points of this spreadsheet and how they’ve allowed it to become outdated and stale compared to their business reality, you can’t help but wonder how they got to that point.

Here’s the thing… this type of situation is pretty common.

Our tendency to think we’re too busy to address these critical, but tiny (at the time) maintenance issues has a way of giving us permission to postpone giving them attention. We think we’ll take care of them someday since some other thing seems more important right now.

It doesn’t seem to work that way, despite the best of intentions.

What usually happens is that the business lets these little things get out of sync an hour at a time, a day at a time, a week at a time and so on until we find that our internal systems look like they were designed to run some other business (or none at all).

At some point, things will have crept so far out of line that you’ll have no choice (like Downs) but to address them. Not only has the job you face become massive, your strategic advantage of having accurate, formula-driven custom pricing will have become the exact opposite.

Why does it matter?

The trouble with getting your business into this situation is that it severely damages your ability to see trends, know if you have enough (or too much) raw material or labor to deliver upon your work commitments.

If you’re already stuck, you have to consider the cost of continuing with a broken pricing model, assuming you have one.

If you aren’t sure you’re turning a profit on custom work – the showpiece work of your business – this merits immediate attention.

This is your best work. It’s the work that generates the reputation that earns your bread and butter work. It’s the work that you use to get your best, most profitable clients.

And yet you aren’t sure exactly how much profit you make on it?

If a close friend was in that situation, you know how you’d react. You’d go out of your way to make the situation clear to them, helping them if possible.

Why not do the same for yourself?

Should this take six months?

No, it shouldn’t. While Downs says his expert worked on this for six months, I suspect what he really means is that it took six months from start to finish – not that his expert worked on it eight hours a day, five days a week for six months.

The important thing to remember is that this doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.

Start with the highest impact item you can wrap your head around. and implement it. Tweak and add pricing components one at a time to improve accuracy.

This allows you to see results and adjust for accuracy and additional information without allowing any single change to be so complex that you have no way to assess its worth, much less its accuracy.

Get to work!

Choose your market or craft it?

Sometimes you choose your market, and sometimes it chooses you. Today, we get a little of both.

A discussion with some software business owners prompted this piece, but you should stick around even if you aren’t in the software business – because these problems are universal no matter what business you’re in.

During these discussions, there was a lot of talk about cheap clients.

The discussion started with the group lamenting that their clients are constantly falling back on their lack of a budget as the reason they can’t do things.

The comments started like this:

  • “Our clients say they have no money for tech support.”
  • “Our clients say they have no money for newer hardware, so their 10 year old XP machines will have to do.”
  • Our clients don’t have (this and that).
  • Our clients can’t do (this or that).

The conversation continued for a bit, discussing the kinds of things you’d prefer to avoid when seeking clients.

Thing is, many small businesses are in a position where they can’t avoid clients like this, at least not when they’re small and getting starting.

No matter what market you’re in, you have clients and prospects that have these issues – or say they do. For many business owners, it’s pretty frustrating.

Dump ’em?

Normally, I would counsel you to find a way to sort these guys out from the rest. Actually, I’d still suggest that to a fair number of my clients, but not everyone is in a position to fire a bunch of customers.

Even if you are in a position to shed those customers, you need to be selective about how to do it and even then, do so carefully and kindly.

Why selective? Because a sizable handful of those customers will figure it out, get out of bootstrapping mode and become the best clients you’ve ever had. Your job is figuring out which ones are the keepers. We talk about that fairly often.

What we don’t often discuss is what to do if you’re the one who has to keep most (if not all) of these customers – and what to do about it.

By force or by choice

What happens if you decide to (or must) work with them regardless of their situation?  Not everyone can get out of this situation easily.

Perhaps you manage part of (or work in) a business that this kind of client and you have no control over the situation.

If you own the business, perhaps it’s a situation you’ve unintentionally created over the long haul and it’s either hitting you square in the forehead and wallet simultaneously that it’s an expensive situation, or you’ve known about it all along and are now managing to come up for air long enough to take some action to deal with it.

Either way, it needs to be addressed.

Long time readers would probably guess that my plan “A” would be to execute my time-hardened battle plan to help you help them transform from mere customers to good clients. I don’t say “mere customers” lightly. It isn’t a meaningless smear, as there is a serious difference between mere customers and good clients.

Thing is, plan A has two benefits: While it’ll help some of them become the clients you want, it’ll also tell you who the doers are.

Even if they aren’t good at some (many?) of the things you put in front of them, the doers will try almost everything. Keep them around unless they drive you absolutely crazy. I mean visit your house at 11pm on a Sunday night kind-of-crazy.

Why? Because those are the guys who won’t quit trying. You need clients like that and they need you.

What about the rest?

The doers will listen and execute based on what you tell them. Many of them will get it and grow into the kind of client you wanted in the first place.

The rest? Well, those are the ones that you can part with once you’ve done your transformation work on the rest…unless you just can’t let them go.

If you can’t, then ponder what you’re willing to do about it. They consume time, effort and money that might be better leveraged on other projects. Can you help them? Do you have time to help them? Will they listen if you offer help? (Their effort on Plan A teaches that).

Give them a chance, then make a decision.

Business rules of the road

While they vary from person to person, our values are the central driving force in our everyday lives.

These values form the context of daily decision making that drives our behavior. Quite often, these set-in-stone rules are accompanied by a set of guidelines that we adhere to, but occasionally allow ourselves to bend now and then.

When used as the lens through which we interact with clients, vendors, contractors and employees, these set-in-stone rules form operational boundaries that no situation and no person can convince our business to stray from.

While all of this is obvious, what might not be so obvious is how deep the influence of these rules can be.

As such, it’s worth considering where your rules come from and how you use them.

Mommy, where do rules come from?

Most rules are formed from our personally-weighted mix of religious beliefs, experiences, politics and the lessons we learned as a child.

As parents, we tend to model the rules learned from our parents, with a tweak here and there to make them our own.

As former employees who now employ others, we often model our unshakable business rules from two things – what we appreciated and valued as employees, and what devalued us, our clients and the work we performed.

Teachers, mentors, authors and speakers whose messages resonate with us also influence our chosen rules.

Share your rules

In the “old days”, business values were often demonstrated and rarely communicated, at least not explicitly.

Today, corporate values are often over-shared and under-demonstrated, which is ironic when the over-shares are coming from consistently under-demonstrating companies.

Here’s why I think it’s important to communicate your rules despite those bad examples:

If your employees, vendors and clients know what drives your decisions, it makes your sometimes aberrant behavior all that much easier to decipher.

Aberrant? Really? Yes. Watch any entrepreneur long enough and you’re likely to think their elevator doesn’t reach the top floor now and then. Knowing why is hugely important to helping people understand you and your behavior – and that is key to allowing them to see the big picture.

Sharing your rules also has another effect, and this one is what drives lesser organizations to keep them to themselves: attraction and repulsion.

Prospects, clients, vendors and employees are absolutely attracted to and/or repulsed by your stated values – whether your adhere to them or not.

The traditional thought process is “We need as many customers as we can get, so let’s keep our values to ourselves.” There are a few problems with this. One – you don’t need as many as you can get, though you probably need more than you have. Two – The reason you think you need as many as you can get is often because many of the ones you have are the wrong ones.

Communicating and demonstrating these values will push some prospects and clients away. Would you rather this happened after investing time and money in them, or before?

Would you rather find out that your values don’t match the client’s after having a falling out with them, or would you prefer to avoid clients whose values conflict with yours?

Replace “clients” in that sentence with “employees” and “vendors” and re-read it.

The FlipFlopper

It’s worth paying attention to how your rules impact your business, your staff and your clients. Part of that is recognizing that the decision to adopt a never-wavering rule isn’t always permanent.

While that might seem counter-intuitive, the reality is that we mature and we learn – and as a result, our business’ “never wavering” rules may need fine tuning to maintain peak performance, not unlike the needs of a Ferrari or Learjet engine.

Most of us learn from our experiences and our mistakes and tweak our behavior as a result. If that’s punishable by losing a client, then I dont think you need that client.

It’s not uncommon to feel like a cheeseball when experiences and learning opportunities (aka mistakes) leave you with no choice other than to tweak what you formerly (and publicly) called unshakable. Get over it.

Sure, someone might call you a flip-flopper, so you’d better make the change for a solid reason. Either you learn and adapt or you don’t. Choose one or the other and get over the fallout, because you can’t choose both.

Lost clients who disdain learning and adapting will be welcomed by competitors just like them. If they aren’t right for you, that’s OK.

Win on low price, lose on low price

Do you depend on having the best price to win business? If so, are you sure that’s really how you want people to choose your company?

I ask that because if you cut your price 10%, that 10% comes out of your profit margin. Perhaps obvious, but not always something folks pay attention to – particularly when price is used as an end-all, be-all to close a sale.

You can tell that’s going on when you intentionally keep silent when someone names the price of a product or service. Stay silent long enough after they react to your “What’s the price?” question and the “we’ll win on price at all costs” salesperson (particularly the novice) will often get nervous and say something like “Of course, we can go lower…”

Use low price as a component

As Amazon Web Services SVP Andy Jassy is fond of saying, “I’ve never met a customer who asked if they could pay more.”

So how do you balance between being too expensive and being the one with the paper-thin margins?

Don’t get me wrong. Using price as a component of the things you use attract customers is fine. Where you run into trouble is when it’s used as the primary decision point. In those cases, you’re more than likely going to get burned and less likely to attract long-term customers.

One common example is using products and services as loss leaders. It’s OK to leverage price in this way as long as you know your numbers very, very well *and* you know that once you get that customer, there are plenty of opportunities to provide more value to them – value that they’ll be happy to pay for.

Fail to do this and you’re headed for trouble. This isn’t just about milk at the back of the store. You see it frequently with internet-based services. How do they offer “free” to so many people, yet still make a profit?

They know how much it costs to offer that free service.

They know how many of those freebie users will convert to paying customers because they want services, features and benefits not offered to freebie clients.

They know their margin on the paying customers is enough to fund the freebies, plus profit margin, so that more paying customers raise their hand and say “Yes, I need that.”

Bottom line, they know their numbers and they never stop recalculating them, just in case something changes.

Low price isn’t owned by the internet crowd

You can use free or cheap as a lead generation carrot as long as you too know your numbers, and make sure that you’re using that offer with the right prospect.

That’s where most businesses get started down the wrong road – they make the offer to the wrong group of people, ie: people who would never have been their customer in the first place.

If you make your offer to the right people, that’s a different story altogether – and that’s the magic formula no matter what your pricing is like.

The timeshare business has done this for years by giving away a free night or two, dinner, etc – all in order to get you to see and enjoy what their facility offers. They know historically what percentage of people will buy if they take the time and make the effort to attract the right prospects to their offers.

Using low price requires well-crafted offers

Timeshares don’t make their numbers by giving away all those free nights, golf rounds, lift tickets and meals to anyone and everyone. They’re careful to pre-qualify prospects using financial, behavioral, demographic and psychographic measures to make sure they closely match historical buyers.

When you attract people with a low price offer, the goal isn’t simply to make it free or available for a low price, but to provide enough of a taste with as little risk as possible to the prospect so that the right person can make a decision to become your newest client.

If you can do this without killing your margins during the period between the time they taste and the time they get serious about buying the real value you can deliver, then low price can work.

Do you know your numbers that well?

 

 

Who benefits when snow, cold and ice shut down a town?

All over the U.S., winter seems to be having a little fun with us.

While in many places, we’re also having fun with it – a lot of places are pretty well shut down by this year’s winter road conditions. Without the staff and equipment to handle serious (for their area) winter storms, many communities are left to play an economically troubling waiting game until the roads melt.

In Atlanta, the highways were strewn with abandoned cars. In Birmingham, traffic was bumper to bumper at one a.m., despite what looked like not much more than wet streets.

Having little experience with this sort of weather, no snow tires and living in a community whose plow staff and equipment are limited or non-existent for obvious reasons – people were just stuck, both at home and elsewhere.

Who benefits in normally warm climates?

For one, companies who support telecommuting.

The obvious benefit is that those employees or contractors were already home (or close – like at a local coffee shop) rather than some distance away in an office park or commuter traffic.

What isn’t so obvious is the lack of strain on their families because those people are simply… home. Yet they can still work. The technology to access everything that’s needed from home has improved vastly in the last few years and it continues to improve.

Not every business can support full-time telecommuting, but almost every business has “desk jobs”, such as design, technology, administrative, sales, and customer support – all of which are telecommute-friendly.

Consider being flexible enough to suggest that staffers with “desk jobs” work from home on bad weather days or when it’s expected.

It’s a simple idea… have you tried it?

What about trust?

You might say “We can’t trust some people to do a full day’s work at home.”

There are at least two problems with that.

1) If you can’t trust them to do a full day’s work at home, what else can’t you trust them to do? And if you can make a list of such things, why are people you can’t trust working for you in the first place?

2) If they struggle to reach the office and leave early in hopes of arriving safely at home, are they doing a “full day’s work”?

Opportunity with frost on it

One thing people tend to realize when they’re stuck at home is how sensitive their lifestyle is to “being out of (whatever)”.

If you sell “whatever”, I hope you deliver it. If you don’t want to deliver it, that’s OK.

However, if they buy it often enough, be thoughtful enough to recognize how often they buy it – and remind them so they don’t run out. You don’t have to be a nag, just remind a little – and offer to deliver if you wish.

Studded Snows

While these problems don’t impact people in the North too much, “bad” weather opportunities exist in cold climates as well as warm. When it’s nasty outside – regardless of what “nasty weather” means, people tend to stick close to the business until closing time.

Where’s the opportunity in that?

Restaurants properly equipped to travel in these conditions can deliver food. Grocery and other “retail essentials” like pharmacies could do the same.

Pickups and deliveries of products and employees are an option when normal means won’t work and time is critical. How can you help your clients simply get things done?

These things are common sense, but how many times has a restaurant called your office during a blizzard and offered to bring your staff lunch?

Have you gotten an email from a local shop or auto dealer asking if anyone at your business had a car that needed attention? On a day when the roads are not so hot, they could pick up and deliver a vehicle rather than having service people sitting around waiting for service appointment no-shows.

One more thing

These opportunities aren’t always limited to your community.

The obvious way for your business to reach beyond your local community is your website. I know, it’s 2014 and maybe I shouldn’t have to mention it, but there are still a lot (yes, a lot) of businesses out there without websites.

Is there something you do that can be sold beyond your community’s borders?

Photo credit: Kevin W. Burkett

They really aren’t very good at marketing

NotVeryGoodAtMarketing

One of the most common marketing mistakes I see is focusing solely on new clients and doing so in a way that annoys everyone else who has (or had) a relationship with your business.

This quote from Facebook (above) about a New England newspaper’s Groupon deal is but one example.

The process

The process goes something like this:

There’s a discussion in the marketing team and/or with the senior management team (which may simply be you and you) that includes something like this:

We’re not getting enough new customers.

Well, let’s create a deal just for new customers and see if we can get some.

Of course, this means that existing customers can’t take advantage of the deal, and nor can any former customers.

For your existing customers, it’s annoying to know that there is a better deal for what you bought, but it isn’t available to you. To be sure, there might be other parts of the deal (free or discounted this or that to start), but the recurring part of the bill is still more than likely unobtainable for your current customers.

This makes them angry. Ditto for former customers who are thinking of returning.

Meanwhile back at the internet

Most businesses want as many customers as possible. Newspapers fall into that category, but this problem is far from limited to them. I’ve seen it from cable / internet /phone providers and many other businesses that sell products or services via subscription – and even some who don’t.

Innocent enough, but unless you have figured out a way to hide all of your marketing from former or current customers, you’re ignoring human nature. Your ability to “hide” your marketing is an illusion. People talk and they look on the internet. Your marketing is extremely difficult to hide. Even so, that’s very much the wrong problem to solve.

Here’s a secret – get them, keep them happy and keep delivering more value so they buy more. Add upper tier services so you can afford to deliver more value to those who want it.  Coupons come right off the top of your profit – that’s why you don’t want your existing customers to use them.

Meet your customers where they are

Every few years, I would call a local daily newspaper and ask if I could get a Sunday-only subscription.

Every few years, they would tell me that they “can’t do that”. This has happened in more than one place with more than one paper.

Tossing a Sunday paper in my driveway costs them almost nothing. There are almost certainly other subscribers on my road, so the paper delivery driver already goes by my house on Sunday. The incremental cost of that paper and its delivery is pretty close to zero.

Yet – they won’t sell me a Sunday only subscription.

Maybe it’s because…

  • Their billing systems can’t handle it – but I doubt it.
  • The system that bundles papers for the carrier every day can’t handle it – but I doubt it.
  • Their carrier isn’t intelligent or caring enough to make sure that I get a Sunday paper but no other papers – but I doubt it.

I think it’s a management and/or marketing choice that ignores Sales 101.

Sales 101

Sales 101 is “The reason to make a sale is to get a customer, not the other way around.”

This applies to all businesses, not just the ones we’re discussing today.

If this New England paper’s people are in the right frame of mind, they’re thinking “If we can get people to subscribe on Sunday, then they’ll see that our paper is so awesome that they will want a daily subscription – or at least, they will want the digital edition every day and the paper version on Sundays.

I suspect this isn’t what they’re thinking, but instead it’s something like “People only want the Sunday paper, so let’s make them buy it seven days a week to get what they really want.

To be sure – the latter is a legitimate concern about customer mindset, but it can be made irrelevant. Thinking further, why do they want only the Sunday paper? Is it there a way to deliver the desired content daily or at least, more often? Is it about the delivery mechanism? Would a digital subscription that included the Sunday paper in the driveway boost sales?

Are you asking these kinds of questions of YOUR business?