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What isn’t Amazon going to change?

During Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) November re:Invent conference, there were a number of interesting talks.

Psst…Don’t run away, not-interested-in-technology folks, this is barely about tech if you look closely.

I got the most out of the sessions centered around the strategic design decisions that Amazon.com (an AWS customer) and other AWS customers were making.

These discussions were all about making a system resilient, scalable and capable of reacting quickly and transparently to changes in the business – while keeping costs as low as possible and tied directly to the business’ actual resource usage.

Naturally, their point was that AWS helps provide this ability to people who build systems.

AWS streamlines server infrastructure the same way LTL trucking streamlines freight shipping.

LTL clients get to use a high quality transportation system without investing a fleet of trucks, warehouses, dispatchers, mechanics and drivers that they may not need two weeks from now. Yet all of those resources and jobs are necessary to get freight from point a to point b. Shippers pay for what they use, meaning less waste, more efficiency, better job security and better asset use.

As I said, this isn’t about tech.

No one ever says

During a discussion on why AWS is always changing, Bezos summed it up simply: “No one ever says ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was more expensive.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was a little less reliable.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish you would improve it at a slower rate.’ ”

Is it any different for you? For the LTL trucking firm?

In a business where inexpensive, high quality delivery whose cost tied to usage is the focus, these changes simply don’t happen without high quality systems managing things.

Systems reduce inertia, eliminate obstacles and streamline processes so people can get the right work done faster at the same (or better) level of quality.

They aren’t about tech.

What’s the next hot thing?

When Bezos was asked about the difference between being an entrepreneur when he started Amazon (1995) and now, he said “the rate of change has increased substantially”.

He noted that people always ask him what the “next big thing” is and lamented “I almost never get asked ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ “.

He likened businesses that address those long-standing needs to flywheels. They take time to spin up, but run smoothly and efficiently once at operating speed.

These days, solutions to these needs can be built anywhere. In a rural Montana community of 4000 people, Zinc Air has developed energy storage technology that makes dependable, scalable, portable power storage a reality.

Power availability in the developing world is a need of substantial scope as it is in places that would otherwise require months or years of infrastructure construction. It’s one more example of a need that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Is there a business there?

Not all that long ago, a substantial reason for chasing venture capital was the cost of server infrastructure. Using cloud computing like AWS, you pay for what you use as your business grows, rather than for massive infrastructure you may never use. A long-standing obstacle that impacted business development has been addressed.

Obstacles like those that LTL trucking, AWS and Zinc Air eliminate are the kind of change that Bezos was talking about when he spoke of businesses addressing long-standing inefficiencies, problems and barriers in things that won’t change over the next 10 years, rather than trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

Consider hunger. The short term solution is usually feeding people who can’t feed themselves. The long term solution is somehow enabling them to alter their economic situation so they no longer need help feeding themselves. Solving it might include some combination of jobs, medical care, child care, irrigation, clean well water, transportation, seed stock and better farming methods.

“The next big thing” might be your streamlined solution to just one small inefficiency in one area that makes hunger so difficult to extinguish. And it might be bigger than Amazon.

If you’re willing to be misunderstood for a long period of time, then you’re ready to start something new.” – Jeff Bezos, commenting on starting Amazon.

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Rather than sweep, eliminate the source of dirt

During the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent conference‘s “fireside chat” with Jeff Bezos, he told a story about during a professional development session where he (like all senior Amazon management) spent two days on the Amazon customer service call center staff.

Stop for just a minute.

If your business is small – you likely spend time on customer service, even if not by choice.

Depending on the size of your business, you’re might be insulated from your customer service people and likely from your customers. While it isn’t something you want to do every day, I assure you the value of doing what Amazon senior management does here is sizable.

Listen to the quality

I’ve sat within earshot of my customer service staff. You learn a lot about your quality. Sometimes you learn things about your quality that runs a chill up your spine – but that’s better than not knowing.

That’s what Bezos learned.

During the session, he handled calls and operated the customer support system while being coached through the process by an experienced Amazon customer service person as each customer called in.

While this had to be hugely educational for him about unmet needs and/or streamlining processes for his customer service team, he learned a unexpected lesson – how things really work when it comes to product quality at Amazon, which gave him an idea to improve quality and do so before the cost of low quality grew.

Listen to Bezos describe the result – how Amazon now handles poor products, poor packaging and enables their staff to communicate quality information (and make decisions) about them – much like Toyota’s assembly line allows anyone to “pull the cord” to stop the line to deal with a defect (2 minutes, 47 seconds from 18:01 to 20:48):

 

Can your sales/service people pull a poorly-made or poorly-packaged product off the sales floor? How long will you sell a lame product or perhaps worse – a good product delivered poorly – to your “valued customers”?

How would this impact your buying process and related contracts? How would this impact your product quality and delivery feedback processes? Note Bezos’ use of the un-word “systematize” – not just making more work, but making a new system to make the work and customer experience better.

If you don’t do these things (in your own way, of course), are you willing to deal with the disadvantage this creates between your business and businesses that handle this as Amazon does? What else could you do rather than this to assure the same level of highly-consistent quality of products and packaging?

Remember, this isn’t about replicating what Amazon does. The important thing is to replicate or improve upon the results.

Doing the right work

While discussing a week-long Kaizen (quality) professional development training session, Bezos talks about a Japanese consultant who chastised him for sweeping up some dust on the warehouse floor (1 minute, 54 seconds from 20:49 to 22:43):

 

Eliminating the source of dirt is more important than finding a better janitor or a better broom. Obvious, once you think about it.

Smart businesses regularly do something new and different in their market, producing really good results.

I don’t mean not-so-thoughtful act of cloning a service or a product. I’m talking about the processes and systems that a strong business depends on and eventually turns to as a strategic advantage. Might be a sales or marketing process, might be front or back office.

Once the value is shown, even of a non-obvious system/process, why wouldn’t these things be duplicated by business B when they see business A gaining value from them?

  • Sometimes the new system/process was intentionally designed to be complex so that it would be hard for competitors to duplicate.
  • Sometimes those complexities don’t impact a small local business but a parallel business need for a similar system still exists in that business that should be considered.
  • Sometimes we have this odd tendency to watch someone do something great and stop right there because it’s so easy to assume that we can’t do what others have done.
  • Sometimes the lead isn’t followed because of ingrained beliefs like “Yes, but that’ll never work here.”

What’s your reason? What system would transform your business front office? What would transform the back office? These things don’t have to be massive or expensive. As one of my mentors says, “Little hinges swing big doors.”

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Automation Business Resources Competition Customer relationships Direct Mail Direct Marketing Email marketing Improvement Internet marketing Marketing Positioning Small Business systems Technology Telemarketing

Why they don’t take your calls and don’t read your mail

The enlightened leader
Creative Commons License photo credit: seeveeaar

Do your customers and prospects let your calls go to voice mail?

Do they open your emails? If they were, you’d know (or should).

Think about why *you* let calls go to voice mail and why you ignore certain emails.

While you might be busy and decide to let calls go to voice mail, more often than not, when the caller id appears – you can’t think of a reason to bother taking the call.

Is relevance the reason?

Get relevant

Lets discuss a few examples.

I get my internet from a local cable provider. While they offer telephone and cable service, we don’t use those services. About twice a week, the “(cable vendor) Robocall department” (as the number is named on my phone) calls me to ask what TV, phone and internet service I use.

Every time they call, they ask the same question. They want to know what service I use for internet / TV / phone. Funny thing is, they’re calling to get information they already know. The caller never has any idea that I am already their customer.

It doesn’t have to be that way, even with an outside telemarketing firm. While I’d be unlikely to use one, that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective.

Most modern telemarketing firms are well beyond the stone age “dialing for dollars” mode of the past. They’re capable of taking a list you provide to them and filtering out existing customers from their call list. They are also capable – automatically, if you use a good one – of changing the script used by the caller so that they don’t seem totally uninformed.

If instead of “who do you use?” they asked something like “I see you use our internet, but not our cable…” and started the conversation there – that would at least be in context. Someone experienced enough to run a huge cable firm’s marketing and sales department should know this.

On the other hand, if you’re a small business owner, this makes perfect sense, but you might never have considered its impact.

If you send email or make cold (or even warm) calls, are the conversations pertinent to those customers? If they were, you might get a better response.

Share

I have a 401K plan. The vendor regularly emails me…..to sell me their 401K plan.

These emails are personalized – they know I have multiple accounts with them. Yet they send emails that talk as if they have no clue about our business relationship.

These things make your company (and you) look inept, or at the least, like the left hand has no idea what the right’s doing. It tells me your systems and the people running them are just going through the motions, wasting money that impacts other people’s livelihoods and perhaps driving up your prices.

Doing things this way:

  • Starts the conversation in the wrong direction. You have just seconds to get enough attention to get peoples’ attention. Don’t waste it by talking out of context.
  • Makes you look like you have no idea who I am. Not in the “Do you know who I am?” way, but the “Do you know / care that I’m already your customer?” way.
  • Leaves money on the table. Instead of trying to sell me the thing that clients like me buy after buying the last thing I bought from you, you’re trying to resell the thing I already have.
  • Wastes the opportunity to discuss something customers care about – the thing they already bought. IE: Rather than discussing how to get the most out of my 401K, they’re trying to sell one.

Your marketing systems should know your paying customers and engage them in THEIR context with you – not as total strangers.

Newsy

Recently a 79 year old national magazine announced they will become digital-only as of January 2013. This couldn’t have been a rash decision, given the contracts in place for printing and distribution, much less the internal changes/considerations necessary to make a change like this.

Yet a subscriber tells me she just got a renewal offer in the mail – and it didn’t say a word about the fact that it wouldn’t be in print.

When you communicate with your customers, be in context.  If 10% more people responded positively, what’s that worth?

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How a great system can help your business and your customers

What drives your pricing?

For many businesses, it’s strictly keystone. Cost times 2 or 3 (or some other number) = retail price.

A friend shopping for his college-aged daughter mentioned two tool kit prices to me. One item has red accents and is priced at $24.99. The other has pink accents and is priced at $14.99. The kits are almost identical, differing only in the box cutter tool housing – and tool handle coloring.

There is one other difference. The red item is not sold in stores. The pink one is not sold online. Not sure about the logic there.

What message does this situation send to the consumer? Is it just a mistake? Does it reflect solely on the vendor cost? Is the higher price intended to drive the customer to buy in the brick and mortar store, where the consumer is likely to find something else to buy?

No matter what the reason…it’s interesting.

Why do I mention this?

Because it reflects on the quality of your internal systems. Systems that are designed to help your customer. Systems that are designed to prevent embarrassment of your business and your staff. Systems designed to help you improve profitability. Systems designed to inform and advise.

A good retail system will identify substitute items when the item you want is out of stock. It might also tell you which store has that item, in the case of a multi-store retailer. It might also suggest similar items at a range of prices and colors – but only those in stock. It might even tell you that the Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon won’t be in for another 6 weeks. (props to Jupiter Chevrolet)

What does your system do? Who does it help? Who should it help? How can it be improved?

The items? Right here.

See for yourself at http://www.target.com/p/apollo-39-pc-household-tool-kit/-/A-10230581

 

See this one at http://www.target.com/p/39-pc-genera-l-tool-kit-pink/-/A-14044873

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air travel Business culture Improvement Manufacturing Small Business Software Software business systems Technology The Best Code Wins

Have you perfected the art of flawless first time deployment?


Curiosity’s shadow through the lens’ dust cover. Credit: NASA

Anyone who has built something for public sale has felt both the pain and joy of deployment.

Last night’s Mars Curiosity landing was a deployment that every software team or product developer should be in awe of.

That highly complex, if not seemingly crazy Mars Curiosity landing plan went without a hitch.

The first Curiosity photo returned from Mars showed the rover’s shadow, taken through the dust cover of the lens.

Millions of lines of code. A multi-step time-sensitive deployment where the smallest mistake likely means that we leave a very expensive pile of broken, tangled metal on the surface of Mars.

And yet, it went perfectly.

Thanks to the University of Arizona’s HiRise project, we even have a picture of Curiosity’s chute deployment, despite landing on the side of Mars we couldn’t see from Earth at landing time last night. Simply amazing.

Curiosity hangs below her chute above Mars.
Photo credit: Univ of Arizona HiRise project

Perfect first-time deployment?

Deployment in the field almost always comes with challenges and adjustments.

How can you possibly deploy something perfectly in the field the very first time?

“Simple.” – By not doing it for the very first time in the field.

These things happened perfectly the first time, in part because of redundant systems, but primarily because of testing of all kinds done well before anyone built the device, much less fired it into the sky toward Mars.

NASA does the same kind of testing that we talked about last week re: Intuit’s 10 million lines of code.

Unit testing. Integration testing. System testing. Testing redundant systems. Simulations. Much of it automated so that nothing gets missed and everything possible is tested every single time it or a related component changes.

It’s not “simple”, but it’s what professionals do. Test. Everything. Not just manually, not just once the thing is done and ready to roll out the door. After every build. Automatically. Long before liftoff.

Congrats NASA.

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Business Resources Competition Employees Improvement Leadership Management Productivity Small Business Software business Strategy systems Technology The Best Code Wins The Slight Edge

Stop waiting until you’re big enough.

Say AHHHH :-O
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

This morning a friend pointed out this story about how QuickBooks maker Intuit manages 10 million lines of code.

The punch line is that they manage 10 million lines of code just like you should be managing your code.

Professionally.

Is your business using professional-grade methods and tools? Are you sure?

Intuit manages their massive code base using the same professional-grade methods that almost every software business should be using. Perhaps you’d choose different tools, but the process is the key.

What does Intuit process include?

Intuit uses continuous integration.

So can you.

Intuit’s continuous integration (CI) tool is Jenkins, an open-source product not unlike CruiseControl and CruiseControl.Net and numerous others. I use CruiseControl.Net. Use what fits you until it doesn’t.

But my programmers will never agree to that”, you say. Aside from wondering who runs the place, I suggest you review this discussion on getting developers bought in to continuous integration. You shouldn’t have to work very hard at it, if you’re working with professionals.

Intuit uses source control.

So can you.

Intuit’s source control tool is Perforce, which offers a free version. If you want something simpler or less expensive, there are plenty of options – including some very dependable free source management systems. Examples include Git, Mercurial, Kiln (a hosted version of Mercurial), Vault, Subversion and several others. I use Kiln and Vault.

Intuit manages multiple builds.

So can you.

You can do that with a source control tool in conjunction with your CI tool of choice. You could make this more complex, but really, it’s about builds and source management. And you *can* do that.

Why do you need multiple builds? For one, when your tools change. You have production code deployed. It breaks. You need to fix it, and you sure can’t wait until all of your testing is done on the new tool set. Check out the code with the old tool set, fix it, check it in, build it.

You won’t believe how simple this is, especially if you manage multiple toolset releases with source control. Your hair might even grow back.

Intuit automates code analysis and testing.

So can you.

They use Coverity in conjunction with their own in-house tools, but you can start today with FxCop, NDepend, Simian, Gendarme, nAnt, various CI tools, Test Complete and a host of other CI-enabled code analysis and test tools. You can use VMWare‘s Workstation for Windows or Fusion for Mac (or both, as I do) to manage the OS snapshots and provide the same consistent testbench for each set of tests without manually having to build a test system, run tests, restore and so on.

Avoid the drudgery just like Intuit does, without losing the benefits of greater and more consistent quality.

Stop waiting until you’re “big enough”

If you’re waiting until you’re “big enough”, you’re not only wasting time, but you’re slowing down your ability to get big in the first place. You can’t wait until you have 10 million lines of code to manage to decide to go pro. By that time, you’re either drowning in code and tests and builds or you’re history. Or maybe you’re surviving as a slave to your software.

For every hour that you spend manually building binaries, building installs, testing installs, testing your app and doing other grunt work that your competition uses CI and source control systems to manage, guess what your competition is doing? They’re spending their time coding, marketing, working with customers, planning strategy, sleeping and enjoying their families.

The earlier you incorporate professional methods and professional tools in your software business, the earlier you get out of “dig a hole and fill it up” mode.

One of the reasons you might not be doing as well as you’d like is that you’re still using the methods and tools that a little software business uses.

Go pro. Start today.

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Amazon Automation Business model Business Resources quality Regulation service Setting Expectations Small Business strategic planning systems Technology

How to keep cloud service failures from affecting your business

You look at those prices for Amazon cloud services and think you’re getting a deal.

Fact is, you are. You’re hiring a professional staff to run your systems in a very-high-quality environment and paying little for it.

But are you using these cloud services in a way that protects your business?

Forbes analysis of the Northern Virginia Amazon cloud outage from Friday’s storm doesn’t clarify who does / doesn’t use the NoVa cloud site vs. who had a better redundancy setup.

Netflix and Instagram are likely re-examining their use of cloud services. I doubt they’ll eliminate Amazon as what happened in Northern Virginia can happen anywhere. They’ll likely discuss cost-effective means of increasing redundancy that leave them less sensitive to single location failures.

Questions to consider

Redundancy with transparent switchover to backup systems with no data loss is ideal. Do you need that? Can you afford it?

Ask the right questions when designing your use of cloud services:

  • How much downtime are your customers (internal or external) willing to tolerate?
  • Do you know what an hour of downtime costs internally (lost productivity, inability to serve customers) and externally (refunds, lost customers).
  • Given those costs, how much downtime can we afford?
  • What notification mechanisms do you need to have in place to switch? (or is the switch automatic?)
  • What do I want to happen when a failure occurs?
  • What am I willing to pay for my desired level of redundancy?
  • What will a failure that doesn’t use this level of redundancy cost my business?
  • How do you switch to the redundant system? Is it manual? Transparent?
  • Does your vendor offer redundancy? How does it work?
  • Are your vendor’s redundancy sites geographically dispersed?
  • How does my data get replicated?

This really isn’t about Amazon. It’s necessary to protect your business whether you use Rackspace, Amazon, Microsoft Azure or other cloud services. The key is knowing what you want to happen when a failure occurs and designing it into your processes.

Why not keep it all in-house?

It’s tempting to keep your data in-house. It somehow seems cheaper and there’s the impression that it’s more secure. Evidence indicates locally-hosted data has its own risks.

Locally-hosted systems have a single point of failure. I’ve had clients whose businesses have burned or flooded and others whose servers were stolen. Without a remote location to transition to, you’re down. Can your business handle that? If so, for how long?

Security

Security of internal business data is a concern with cloud vendors. High-quality cloud vendors obtain security certifications like SAS70 (financial industry), HIPAA (health care) and PA-DSS (credit cards), which require regular audits to ensure continued compliance. Companies who keep their data internal are subject to them as well – yet they still suffer data loss.

Local data storage doesn’t allow you to escape expensive HIPAA or PA-DSS compliance if those requirements apply to you. In the financial industry, systems are sometimes subject to examination by the OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) and/or other agencies. But that doesn’t prevent data loss.

Regardless of system/data location, security should be designed into business processes rather than added as an afterthought.

Electrical power and internet

Cloud vendors use industrial-class electricity supplies with diesel backup generators. Their investment in these backup systems vary both in capacity and available time-on-generator, so ask for details. A site’s ability to run on diesel for two weeks isn’t nearly as important as your ability to switch to another facility in two hours…unless they don’t have two hours of generator time.

You can (and should) use an uninterruptible power source (UPS, aka battery backup) with automatic voltage regulation (AVR) to protect your local systems, but you’re still face internet-related downtime if remote staff/clients need to access locally-stored data.

Cloud vendors have multiple very-high-speed internet providers so that they are not subject to pressure from any single vendor and so that a single vendor’s downtime doesn’t bring the entire location down. You can do the same, but most small businesses don’t. If remote connectivity is critical to your business, it’s a smart strategy.

Whether your systems are local, cloud-based or both – plan for what happens when the lights go out. It just might save your business.

 

 

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Automation Business Resources Competition Employees Entrepreneurs goals Habits Improvement Leadership Management Personal development planning Small Business systems The Slight Edge

6 questions that will shake your productivity beliefs

The easy question sometimes ends up playing the role of the hardest one.

The easy question – What system (paper, software, methodology, whatever) do you use to manage ToDos, Goals and Priorities on an annual, monthly, weekly and daily basis?

That question is part of The Rescue Interview because managers, CEOs and company officers usually have a ToDo/Goal system that they use to organize and prioritize the work they do.

Typically, they’re using that system because of a book they read, a seminar they attended or because they were referred to it by someone whose productivity they admired. The last one tends to be the most prevalent source of the system that my clients are using, if they’re using anything. The “where I found the system” really isn’t important, but the referring person is. Pay attention to their habits and it will pay off.

Urgent!

If you have a system, the most important aspect of it is that you use it consistently. It can be a battle reminding / forcing yourself to focus on that system consistently every single day – particularly given life’s ever-present desire to inject other priorities.

If your daily focus doesn’t use your chosen productivity mechanism, you’re probably working as Covey describes – on the urgent but unimportant. You may roll your eyes because you’ve heard that phrase so many times – but does “urgent but unimportant” work still monopolize your daily routine?

Tougher questions

The next five questions are a little tougher:

  • What percentage of last year’s goals did you achieve?
  • What percentage of last month’s goals did you achieve?
  • Did you complete 100% of last week’s goals? If not, what percentage did you complete?
  • Did you complete 100% of the items on yesterday’s ToDo list? If not, what percentage did you complete?
  • Are you happy with those results?

If you’re happy with your answers and using your system on a daily basis, that’s great news – you can skip to the next section.

If you’re doing well but want to get better – Typically this is caused by a lack of daily use of the system that’s clearly working for you. Focus on your system more frequently, fine tune what works and get rid of the parts that don’t. It’s possible you’ll need a system better suited to your desired level of accomplishment / productivity. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know whether you’ve given the system a real chance to help you.

If you’re seriously disappointed with your level of accomplishment (not just “well, I can do better”), the current system may not work for you, but it’s more likely that you aren’t using it often enough (or at all). If you’re using it daily and are still disappointed, it’s probably time for a new system.

If you need a new system, ask the most productive person you know to show you what they use.

But wait, there’s more

Now that we’ve determined whether you have a system for getting more of the right things done, how well it works for you, whether you need to use it more often, or that you need a new system, it’s time to ask the questions you rarely get asked.

What system (paper, software, methodology, nothing) does YOUR STAFF use to manage ToDos, Goals and priorities on an annual, monthly, weekly and daily basis?

After refocusing on your entire business, ask yourself these six questions:

  • What percentage of last year’s goals did your staff achieve?
  • What percentage of last month’s goals did your staff achieve?
  • Did your staff complete 100% of last week’s goals? If not, what percentage were completed?
  • Did your staff complete 100% of the items on yesterday’s ToDo list? If not, what percentage were completed?
  • Are you happy with those numbers?
  • Are they happy with those numbers?

It’s not unusual for highly productive business owners to be shocked with themselves if their staff has no system.

Business owners who have worked hard to select and refine their own personal productivity system sometimes “forget” to pass that training and system on to their staff, much less implement a company-wide system that manages the ToDos / goals / priorities of their entire business. When they hear these questions, it hits home.

How are you and your staff doing?

PS: Julien Smith mentioned Action Method in his blog this morning. I haven’t tried it yet. Maybe it’ll fit your team.

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Automation Business Resources Competition Customer relationships Customer service E-myth Entrepreneurs Management Productivity Small Business strategic planning systems Technology

Starting A New Business: Part 5 – Infrastructure

Infrastructure is one of those things you don’t necessarily think about as a new business owner.

Thing is, strong infrastructure often turns out to be the competitive edge that no one (other than you) notices.

Your clientele notices “stuff”:

  • You’re always on top of things and that you rarely, if ever, have to say “oh, that fell in a crack.”
  • Your staff knows where orders, parts and service people are, when they’ll be show up and what, if anything, is holding them up.
  • Your staff is proactive more often than not.
  • You don’t lose checks, invoices, legal forms and other marginally important paperwork (yes, that was sarcasm).
  • Their priorities never seem to get lost in yours.
  • You rarely (if ever) miss a deadline – particularly one that would embarrass or damage their business.

In other words, they notice when you really have your act together. Not only do they notice, but they remember, tell others and keep coming back.

The price of worry

Infrastructure is what helps you keep from worrying about “stuff” every single day.

Every moment you spend fretting about “stuff”, chasing down minutiae, emailing to ask for status reports is time focused on things that you shouldn’t even have to think about.

When you have infrastructure in place that takes these things off your mind, your mind is free to do more important thinking. More valuable thinking about things (and on a level) that transforms what you do.

Something as simple as an automated website backup process that sends your content to an offsite backup location is one less menial task and one less brain-sucking thing to keep in the back of your mind.

Do-It-Yourself?

Entrepreneurs are often DIY kinds of folks because we want something slightly better than the norm. It’s why we build solutions.

It also means we spend time on things we have no business doing. Either we aren’t any good at it, or we don’t have time to get (much less stay) current in that activity. It might be computers, your network, plumbing, human resources, benefits or event management.

Frequently these things involve some combination of legal, insurance, finance and taxes. Not the kind of “stuff” you want to mess up.

Little things that can destroy a day…or a week

If I lose electricity, I lose water because our well requires a pump. Meanwhile, my computers will be up for another hour or so thanks to uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), giving me time to backup, shutdown my systems cleanly and leave if I need to keep working.

Few people backup enough, for example. If lightning from one of the thunderstorms that visit your coastline almost every day destroys your computer, you get to buy a new computer and waste a day setting it up. If your customer and order data isn’t backed up, you’ll spend even more time re-entering your customer/order data – if you have it on paper somewhere. So much for those orders you needed to ship tomorrow.

I do all my client work in VMs (VM = virtual machine). I backup the VMs I use to a portable external drive. I backup to it regularly and test it often to make sure it works. Regularly does not mean annually – it means weekly, worst case. The work I do for clients is backed up constantly.

This means I can run out the door with nothing but that external drive, go to a local store, buy a computer, download VMWare and be working again without losing a thing, inside an hour – anywhere. Allowing the failure of a $500 desktop computer to kill your business is just foolish.

Your business might not be as portable as mine, and that’s ok. The takeaway, no matter what you do, is “Protect your ability to continue to do business productively”.

The back of your mind is full

The back of your mind is full enough already. Let it focus on serious work that only you can do and let experts take care of the important stuff outside of your expertise. The same goes for your staff. That back of the mind stuff is what infrastructure does so well.

Think long-term and strategically about infrastructure investments – and then invest as soon as you can.

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Habits and Heatmaps

Here’s your sign.

While it is a well-known “redneck” comedian punch line, it’s also something you should be looking for.

Some signs you must seek out, while others have been right in front of you all year long.

Many of those signs are buried in your existing business data.

Habits

Your business data illustrates your customers’ behavior, including buying and service calls. Some companies use it, some don’t.

For example, I realized today that I hadn’t sent out thank yous to a few clients. It’s been a very hectic, deadline-filled November and December and this is something I usually do right after Thanksgiving.

Not this year. And no, it wasn’t on my calendar because it’s just ingrained behavior. Bad Mark. Bad, Bad, Bad.

When I do remember this (and now, when it pops up on my calendar), I use high-end vendors to ship items like fresh or smoked salmon to a short list of folks that I do business with year-in and year-out.

One of the reasons I forgot? I didn’t get a catalog from either of the two vendors that I usually use. Well, sort of. I got a catalog two months ago, but that isn’t prime ordering season for “corporate gifts”.

The problem with this is that these businesses know when I order. If they look at the data from prior orders, they could *predict* when I place an order and what I might buy, much less where I’d send it.

Predictable Male Behavior

If I bought a two pound smoked salmon for the last five years, they know this because the ship to isn’t my name or address (not to mention the “It’s a gift” checkbox on the order form).

Given typical male shopping predictability (“get in, get out, move on”), they could have won the order by simply dropping a card in the mail or sending me an email saying “Hey Mark, we appreciate that you’ve ordered our delicious smoked salmon as a gift for the last five years, would you like us to send Joe another two pounds or would you prefer something different but in the same price range, such as our crab sampler?”

Or something like that. How tough would that be? No cold call. No catalog. Just an email from data that already tells them how I behave.

Do you want to do this for everyone? Probably not, but it would be of use in concept at the very least. Look at your order/sales data. Not just across the board, but for your best customers, however you define that. When do they buy? Might be a good time to place a reminder in front of them.

Look for the heat

Have you ever looked at a heat map?

On a heat map, the “hotter” looking places are either the locations where most people click or they indicate where eye-tracking tools determined that people are looking most of the time when they view a page.

Below, you can see an example website heat map illustrating click locations.

The red places indicate locations where the most people clicked.

The yellow and green areas are slightly less popular click locations and the blue are even less frequently clicked.

In other words, red is hot, yellow is warm, green is cool, blue is cold – just like on a graphical heat display – only this one shows the locations where people click on this web page.

 

Videos also do a nice job of illustrating data on a heat map, like this click location map.

This video shows a heat map eye movement on a video advertisement and the results aren’t what you might assume from seeing the still preview image.

Stir

Like any other measurement device, tools like the heat map help you understand if your site is well-designed for your user community (they are not alike from niche to niche) and can indicate usability issues, copywriting problems (and wins) and design strengths and weaknesses.

Your sales/order data is full of behavioral information.

People tend to be visual learners. What if we stirred these two together?

What would you learn if you looked at your calendar overlaid with a heat map based on your lead, sales, order and service data?