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Business culture Customer service Employee Training Leadership Management Setting Expectations Small Business The Slight Edge

The magic triangle of small business

Take a look at any reality show business turnaround and the story is always the same: Quality, customer service, management.

It’s the magic triangle of small business, much less the formulaic basis of most business turnaround reality shows.

What’s a bit stunning is that people actually wait around for the reality show hero and their crew to show up before they take action to clean up the mess they’ve made – and even then, it’s orchestrated by the show. Sure, there’s some money and some not-so-good publicity involved, but most of the time, they’d be ahead financially and publicity-wise if they simply took care of business without waiting for the show people to arrive.

Think about what these people would do if they showed up at your business tomorrow.

They’d taste your food or try your product or service. They’d see how clean the place is. They’d monitor your service. They’d look at your books. They’d ride around with your delivery rigs.

Yes, these are the same things you should be doing in one way or another.

Management

Sometimes other things find their way into the success equation of a good small business, but they’re almost always rooted in the magic triangle. Some of these things are a part of management.

For example:

  • Cleanliness… is management.
  • Hiring…. is management.
  • Knowing your numbers…is management.
  • Knowing who your clientele is, and isn’t…is both management and marketing.
  • Focusing your marketing and client care on exactly the right people…is management.
  • Being focused on the quality of what you produce and sell is management, as is how you deliver it.

Quality

Think about the things you’ve seen in other businesses that made you angry, disappointed or made you wonder “Who’s running this place?” Consider the service you’ve complained about.

Is any of that happening at your business? How do you know? Have you called the last several customers you lost? Are you even aware who they are?

What about the last few new customers? Do you know who they are?

If you don’t know the last few you lost or the last few you got, it’s tough to check in with them and ask how things went. If you can’t do that, you’re probably guessing or assuming how things are going.

Is there a TV truck out front yet?

The phone

Think about the last time you were served well over the phone. Or about the last time you had a terrible phone experience with a business. Remember how you felt? Remember the “I’ll never use this business again” thought process – or something like it.

Now, with that thought cemented in your mind – are you sure that your business isn’t having those same kinds of issues with customer calls? Are you positive?

Have you called your business lately as a customer? Have you talked to anyone who has? If the answer to both questions is no, how do you know that your clients are being properly cared for by phone?

Try calling your accounting department and asking a question about an old invoice. Once the conversation is done, ask them to send you a copy of the invoice.  Do they refuse? Does the copy ever show up? These are the kinds of things that set customers off on a daily basis.

Call your sales and service departments as well. How does that go? Try being a “good customer” as well as a “bad” one. How does the experience change? Are they following your training? Speaking of, are they being trained?

Onboarding

What’s your new customer “onboarding” process like? Is it consistent? Does it set expectations for how things will go after that? Do you train them how to do business with you?

What’s your process like? Think about the process that other businesses have put you through, or used to welcome you into their “family”.

Which do you prefer? Yours, or theirs? If you prefer the ones you’ve experienced elsewhere, is there a reason why you haven’t adopted parts of their process and made them your own?

Pay attention to the magic triangle and everything that it touches. Don’t wait for the TV truck to pull up – it may not arrive soon enough.

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Business culture E-myth Employees Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Management Small Business Software business strategic planning The Slight Edge

Ask great questions

I’m always looking for better questions to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good and great questions do you ask?

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Business Resources Small Business strategic planning Technology The Slight Edge

Save your bacon: Backup your stuff

Today was yet another one of those days that come far too often.

A day when someone tells me their computer crashed and they have no backups. For months.

This isn’t a computer at home that’s used for email, Facebook and maybe an occasional game. This computer is used to manage their customers’ technical data and no one has bothered to back it up. We’re talking several gigabytes of contact information, among other things.

The stumper for me is this: Despite the fact that a sizable portion of this company’s tens of millions in revenue depends on the data this software manages, they haven’t backed it up for months.

Computers can come and go – it’s the data that matters. Except for specialty units like servers and such, many of the computers that do what this one does could be replaced by new, much faster hardware for $300-$400. But none of that matters much if you don’t backup your business data.

Every time I think I should give clients a choice about backing up the data created in systems I create, one of these situations pops up to remind me that no choice is necessary.

I have to keep my clients’ best interest at heart *even when they don’t*.

It happens.

Know anyone whose dog chewed through a computer’s power cord? I do. Ever had the power fail while you were doing something important? Did it mess up your data? It will.

Ironically, I lost power a few hours after I wrote the outline for this piece.

Ever had a client call and tell you their computer was stolen and their backup media was sitting on top of the computer – and it’s gone too? I have. Don’t make me nag and wag my finger at you. Backup your stuff

Backup your stuff

Take your business data seriously. Yes, it’s one more thing to do, even though you can automate it – just be sure those automated backups really do work. Do it every week, if not every day for stuff that you truly cannot afford to lose. Don’t be that person who calls and says “…..and we haven’t backed up since…”

The second most important thing about backups is that you can restore them. Save a copy of the backup on a different device – not the same drive your data is on. If your backups are on the same hard drive as your data, you’re doing it wrong. If that drive dies, your backup dies with it.

At least once a month, try to restore on your backups to a different computer. If you can’t, you’re no better off than the businesses who don’t backup at all.

That electricity thing…

I’m a little NASA-ish when it comes to backup power systems. I have an APC SmartUPS uninterruptible power supply (UPS) with automatic voltage regulation (AVR) on every computer as well as the TV. Yes, I really do mean every computer.

While I rarely watch the tube, I don’t want to replace it if I don’t have to. The UPS units are why I have servers that still run after 10 years.

Computers like stable electricity. They, like your data, are an asset. Depending on what type of computer you use, you might be able to replace it for a couple of hundred dollars – but you can’t replace the data.

You can’t get the time back that you’ll waste replacing hardware, reinstalling software, reconfiguring your network and finally, re-keying your data – if you have it.

A $200-300 UPS will pay for itself with the first outage. Having even two minutes to close files and shut things down normally before firing off an email saying “losing power” etc is worth every penny vs. having it all shut down in a millisecond with no notice, damaging data as it goes down.

If and when electricity spikes or failures cream your machine or your data, there is rarely anything your computer person can do to make things right. Quite often, it’s time to replace the computer and start over.

Sound like fun? It isn’t. Save your bacon. Backup your data. Test your backups by restoring them to a different machine. Sleep better at night.

Worth saying twice: I have to keep my clients’ best interest at heart *even when they don’t*.

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Competition Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Small Business Software business strategic planning The Slight Edge Uncategorized

You aren’t the business owner you need to be

A while back, I had a conversation with the CEO of a $60 million software company that hit me pretty hard – and the lesson is one that all business owners need to keep in mind.

This CEO was talking about how he feels constant pressure to improve himself so that he can be ready to run the company that will be waiting for him in six months or so. Given their growth rate, he fully expects the business to be 20 to 30 million larger a year from now.

Despite the proven skills he’s demonstrated for years – and used to get his company to where it is today, he still feels intense pressure to be ready to run the company his company will soon become.

What hit me hard is that despite the fact that I regularly invest a fair amount of time and cash to expand my education, I was talking with a guy who also spends a lot of time and money improving his skills and education – and he still doesn’t feel ready.

Are you ready?

Think about that for a minute. Are you preparing yourself so that you’re ready to lead the company your business will be in six, nine or 12 months? Are you learning enough to be ready to manage your own company’s needs?

This isn’t just about software companies and it isn’t limited to companies with double-digit millions in revenue. Every business owner will face this challenge. Every business will push us to improve or it (and we) will pay a dear price for that.

Imagine how your staff, family and others will react if your company is being run by someone who doesn’t have the skills to run it. It’ll be patently obvious – even if you own every single penny of it.

What would happen if you weren’t ready?

It’s particularly serious for companies experiencing serious growth, or for those whose growth suddenly stopped, regardless of the reason.

Our businesses change rapidly. Other people, our own people, the market, clients, competitors and our own growth (or lack of it) all have a way of “moving our cheese“.

Be there to meet the cheese

Years ago, Wayne Gretzky was asked about the difference between a good hockey player and a great one. He replied that “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.

Somehow or another, Gretzky would often be where the puck was going to be, ready to do something others could only observe. Some may never have figured out that Gretzky was like a great chess player who visualized the next umpteen moves in his head and as such, knew where to be on the ice.

Running a business isn’t much different. If you aren’t ready for your business when it arrives at that future spot, it could slide right by – just like opportunities (and the puck).

What areas need attention?

You may have run your small business for years, nurturing it from the time when you did everything with nothing and slowly built it to the stable, if not growing, situation you enjoy (I hope) today.

So what do you change to be ready for the company yours will become next year? What do you learn? What do you need help with?

For large companies like the one discussed earlier, finance is where the learning usually needs to occur. But not everyone is looking to create a business that large.

What if you’re not planning to be that big?

The things I see that hold businesses back, or keep them from being able to take advantage of opportunities zipping by are the ones I frequently talk about here: sales, marketing and operations – and things that cause big, sudden changes in any one of those.

Do you have a sales staff? If so, do they have a process for working leads? How would your process hold up to a 20% increase in leads? How about a 20% decrease?

Is your marketing planned, consistent and strategically thought out or does it happen at random?

Are your operations ready for a 20% change in volume? If your best salesperson got a massive multiple location deal tomorrow, how would that affect your ability to deliver?

These are the things a business owner needs to be ready for.

 

 

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Advertising Business culture Customer relationships customer retention Direct Marketing Getting new customers Internet marketing Lead generation Small Business Software Software business The Slight Edge

Customer relationships – Do yours mature and adapt?

One of the things that separates people from most machines and systems is their ability to adapt their interactions as the relationship matures.

A tough-as-nails 61 year old grandfather who supervises workers on an oil rig in North Dakota’s Bakken adapts his communication to the recipient when training a new guy to stay alive on the rig, and does so again when chatting with his three year old granddaughter about her Hello Kitty outfit via a Skype video call.

He doesn’t coo at a young buck and he doesn’t growl at his granddaughter. He adapts. It’s common sense.

Our systems, processes and communications don’t do enough of this.

Adapt to the relationship state

Why do our companies, software, processes, communications and systems so infrequently adapt to the state of our customer relationships?

An example I’ve used a number of times: You get mail from a company offering you a great deal “for new subscribers only” – despite being a subscriber for decades. It’s annoying, not so much because someone else gets a better price for a short time, but (to me at least) because they don’t appear to care enough about their existing customers to remove them from a lead generation mailing.

It’s a trivial exercise to check a list of recipients for a new marketing piece against a current subscriber / client list. Why don’t “we” do it?

For mailed items, it would reduce postage and printing costs. It would cut down on the annoyance factor in clients who inappropriately get special lead generation offers – regardless of the media used.

Adapting your marketing (for example) to the state of the relationship you have with the recipient is marketing 101. It’s a no-lose investment.

Adapt to the maturity state

Like the grandfather, most of us alter our face-to-face speaking to the state of the relationship and maturity of the other person.

Sometimes we don’t, but that’s usually because we haven’t had the opportunity to determine the maturity of the other person in the conversation.

I’m speaking of the maturity of the customer relationship as well as where the client is with your products and services. There’s far more to this than simply adapting to a client’s intellectual and age-related maturity.

Remember that “tip of the day” feature that was popular in software not so many years ago? The half life of that feature was incredibly small and the value it delivered was tiny when compared to its potential.

Why? Because few software development companies took the feature seriously once it had been coded and tested.

How can I say that? Easy. Did you turn that feature off once you realize the tips were of little value after an hour’s use of that software? Did you turn it off earlier than that because the tips were of no use at all?

My guess is that one or both of those are true. The tips weren’t there for users throughout their lifetime of use with the software. In fact, most of them weren’t very useful beyond the first hour of use. Every time we move the software to a new machine, it’s likely we have to turn it off again. ROI for that feature? Not so high.

The content of these tips was everything (in fact, the only thing) to the user of that software, yet the content in most tip-of-the-day systems appeared to be rushed out as an afterthought.

What does a software’s tip of the day feature have to do with your business? Everything.

Take your time, implement well.

That the tips rarely were of use to new users beyond the first hour or so of use shows a lack of investment in their content.

Imagine if these tips were sensitive to the maturity of the user’s knowledge and use of the software.

Some cars do this. They automatically adjust the seat and mirror locations when Jerome unlocks the car and use different seat/mirror positions when Carmen unlocks it. Adaptation.

What if your systems, products, services, marketing, processes and other client interactions recognized and adapted like this?

Adaptive interaction isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. It can mature over time, as other things do. Take your time, do it right. You tend to get only one chance to break a relationship with a client, but you can strengthen it with every interaction.

Adaptive behavior is all about making your business personal.

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Business culture Competition Employees Entrepreneurs Habits Improvement Leadership Personal development Small Business Strategy The Slight Edge

Habit forming: What do you do every day?

Trails

Habits – at least the good ones – tend to help us get big things done that we might otherwise never accomplish.

One of the things I do every day is read a page from “The Daily Drucker“.

The Daily Drucker is a 366 page book of one-page-per-day excerpts from Peter Drucker’s books on business, management, entrepreneurism and leadership – all 36 or so of them.

First Things First

Why should you do something like this?

What do you do now?

Having a routine, a ritual or habit (call it what you will) seems like a good way to start the day. Not only does it go well with coffee, but more importantly, it acts as a transition action that signals your mind that it’s time to switch to “work mode” from “whatever you’ve been doing that morning” mode.

This may not seem like a big deal, but think about your current morning routine a little. You get the kids off to school and/or care for your pets, livestock, clean snow and ice off the car and maybe you run into someone on the way to work who is just now learning to drive. You know what I mean…

The point is, while all of these things are going on, you’re really not in a prime mental state for being productive. Your staff isn’t either, if they’re going through this every day. It might take 30 minutes for your mind to settle down and get focused after all that – even if your office is at home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that even a brief minute or two to read and process what Drucker has for me that day (along with some java) are enough to reboot and refocus after the morning’s activities – no matter how hectic, stressful, annoying, cold, wet or pleasant they might have been. A distinct mindset shift point became useful at first and later became a regular part of my day.

You don’t have to use the same technique, but if you check into the habits of highly-accomplished people, you will find that most of them have rituals, habits and the like that they perform on a daily basis.

Many go through their ritual/habit process early in the morning before anyone “wants a piece of them”. Ever notice that no one wants an appointment with you, or a phone call with you at 5am? While this may not be the easiest time of day for you – it’s more than likely going to be a time when no one but you will ask something of you – even the kids.

These people are at least as distracted by travel, family, daily life and their business as you and I, so they use these rituals, habits and so on to keep them on track and doing the right things. It was Drucker (among others) who reminded us that “doing things right isn’t nearly as important as doing the right things”.

Helping your staff with this can produce massive leverage. If 5, 10 or 30 people start their day in a better, more focused mindset – would that help your business?

Beyond the morning

Daily habits go well beyond the morning routine. What else are you doing every day?

Think about the most important work you have to get done each week. Certainly, the “real work” you do – building things, delivering product, installing systems or parts and providing service – are the things that generate value for your customers, but (for example) the marketing of that work product is what allows that work to find a home.

Has your marketing and sales effort established an important enough part of your day that *something* from this part of the business is done every single day?

What other parts of your business merit daily, habitual attention? Are they getting it? Are they truly strategic or are they “what you’ve always done”?

Improvement

Be sure that your work habits include personal development. It doesn’t matter if you’re a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, much less an electrical engineer, diesel mechanic or whatever – your business is changing all the time. Keeping up is essential just to stay in the game. Make “getting ahead” a habit as well.

That’s a little bit of the trick to reading Drucker. Not only is it a transition maker, it refines the strategic and management thought process each day.

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Business Resources Competition Entrepreneurs Marketing Positioning Small Business Strategy The Slight Edge Word of mouth marketing

Everyone is someone’s hero

superhero wannabe

What if you could leap tall buildings, throw balls of fire or swing from webbing that shoots out of your wrist?

If you could, lots of people would think you were some sort of superhero. Thing is, a fair number of people probably feel that way already.

Maybe you can’t do any of those things, but I’ll bet you have this thing you do that’s amazing to people who know what you do.

Sadly, many of us take that special skill for granted. It doesn’t seem like something anyone would want because it’s easy for us. Yet for others who lack that skill or finesse at that task, it’s your superpower.

It’s the thing they wish you would do for them.

Why do we take it for granted?

We tend to take our superpower(s) for granted because we enjoy that particular work, it comes easy for us, it’s a natural talent that we appreciate, and/or because we like the benefits it provides, whether those benefits are direct and immediate or not. To us, it’s something that just happens.

When this work has to be done, we simply deal with it in that Mr. Miyagi-esque wax-on, wax-off way that others might see as magical. Even if it doesn’t look like magic to others, it almost certainly is something they want for their life or business.

For example, my most frequently used superpower is the ability to deliver clarity. I usually do this in the face of a substantial amount of uncertainty, noise and BS. I developed a knack for helping people discard all the trash and focus on what matters most or what’s ultimately causal in a situation and help someone move forward – and I do so without making them feel stupid.

The funny thing about this ability is that it took several people telling me that this was my “superpower” for me to really “get” it.

The point of this discussion is that your superpower might also be something you don’t recognize or don’t see as a superpower. Ask a few people you’ve worked with what they value most about what you do for them. You might get some surprising answers about things you aren’t really selling right now. Speaking of selling, don’t be surprised to find that these things are difficult to sell without some serious re-adjustment to your marketing/positioning.

For example: Welcome to Rescue Marketing, would you like to buy a box of Clarity? “Sorry, just looking.”

Watch out for Kryptonite

Remember Superman’s allergy to Kryptonite? The funny thing about superpowers is that they sometimes have the oddest weaknesses or exceptions.

You can’t get too cocky about them or you end up in the clinches of your business’ version of Lex Luthor. For mere mortals like you and I, this can manifest itself through a superpower that you can only use on others. While I can help someone else’s business with clarity with what seems like ease (sometimes it is, sometimes not), applying it to my own projects can be incredibly difficult. I often need an outside view – the same sort of thing I’m used to providing to others. Ironic perhaps, but we have to be very careful not to create a little world where everyone agrees with us, because that world doesn’t buy too much.

Hello trees, where’s the forest?

Outside views are valuable because we tend to be too close to our own projects. We fall madly in love with them, which keeps us from seeing their flaws, or that they make no sense at all.

Think back over your business life for a moment. Have you ever created a product or service that just fell flat in the marketplace, even though you felt it was incredibly useful? We forget to get real about customer development and do the hard work of talking with potential customers, showing them working prototypes, talking with them repeatedly rather than spending two years building our Taj Mahal, only to find that no one thinks they need it. Your superpower must be marketed with care.

What’s your superpower?

What’s yours? Does anyone know about it? Is it at the core of the stuff you do for others? How do you package it?

Some people keep their superpower to themselves. Almost seems a shame not to share it with the world.

I’d like to hear about yours.

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Competition Positioning Small Business The Slight Edge

Standing out is the real work #sponsored

Fifth position

Note: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. See full disclosure at the bottom of this post.
 
How do customers and prospects look at you vs. others in your industry?
 

For example:

  • What are your competitors best known for? Why do customers choose them rather than everyone else in your industry – including you?
  • How does your competition’s “best known” thing compare to what you’re best known for? Why do customers choose you rather than everyone else in your industry?

How are those two “best known” things different?

Is it the products you carry? Or do your products primarily come from the same manufacturers as your competition?

How about the services you offer? Are they the same or similar to what your competitors offer?

Beyond the products and services you sell, how much effort are you putting into distinguishing what you’re best known for? If you want to stand out, these things require serious thought and effort on a regular basis.

How do you stand out?

One thing that businesses use to differentiate themselves is how they manage deployment and delivery. Not just the speed, but little touches related to ramp up, appointment management, packaging, follow-up, etc.

For example, 10 years ago, only the best plumbers would slip little white Tyvek booties over their boots when they entered a client’s house. This sent a then-unique signal to the homeowner that the plumber cares enough to address a common complaint of repair people – that they track in dirt/mud and leave without cleaning it up.

Today, it’s unusual not to see the booties – and that’s a good thing.

Leaders get copied

In the short term, you should expect your smarter competitors to copy the little details you implement – particularly the easy ones. Leaders get copied. Keep paying attention to the little details that your customers appreciate and keep adding new ones. Tip: The details that look like a lot of work will be the things your competitors are least likely to clone.

You should expect some of these little touches to become your industry’s “best practices.” In other words, your average competitors will do some of them – and that’s OK. When you’re regularly focused on things that make you stand out, you’ll always be ahead of your industry’s “best practices” curve.

Don’t be shy about reminding your clientele that you’re the one who started doing ‘that little thing’ for your clients that everyone else has finally started doing, much less informing them when you add new things.

Why should they choose you?

The classic marketing question is, “Why should someone choose you over all other competitors?”

To help answer that question, you’d better have a story that helps people understand why you do what you do the way you do it. It’s important to set this context because the story helps them learn why they should use you and no one else.

Last week, I was talking to a software guy whose clients got infected by an email virus.

He noted that they’ve changed their policies to scan for viruses in their email. I mentioned that it was surprising that email scanning would be new behavior. His reply: “They’re a small company and this is the first time they’ve been attacked.”

This surprised me, so I asked if this company had ever heard of anyone getting a virus via email before, and if they used anti-virus software prior to this episode. He said “I don’t know, I just sell them a product and I’m not a retailer.”

If that isn’t a positioning problem, I don’t know what is.

Anyone or the only one?

Anyone can “just sell a product” or take an order. If that’s all you do, you can be replaced with an online shopping cart. Even if your product is unique to you, “just selling a product” is poor positioning.

It takes a special business to be the go-to vendor that a client turns to when they need advice. “I don’t want them contacting me about every little thing,” you might say.

Actually, you do.

If you’re the one regularly providing them with valuable info that helps them improve and protect their business, you’ll become their expert. You’ll be the one they turn to when they need advice and when they need help in the form of products and services.

You can take orders and be anyone, or you can be their only one.

DISCLOSURE: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business.

The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently.

Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

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Business culture Creativity Employees Improvement Lean Personal development Small Business startups The Slight Edge

Not on my watch!

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Most everyone I’ve talked to who really cares about their work has that one thing that brings meaning, context and (as my kids used to say) “give-a-care” to the work they do.

You might have heard it described as “Not on my watch”, a reference to pulling watch duty on naval ships.

The best way I’ve heard it described is this:

What do you feel strongly enough about to say “That isn’t going to happen while I’m here.”

Whether you own the place or are working for the weekend, it’s that thing you just won’t rest about if it isn’t done right. It might be that thing you first notice when you visit someone’s home or business.

Are any of your employees working jobs that have little to do with their one thing? If so, they may be doing their assigned work while watching in frustration as the work involving their “one thing” is done at a level of quality or expertise that’s below their expectations.

Sometimes their response will be to take another job – one that leverages their one thing. Sometimes their response will be to take ownership.

Own it

You may see this when someone takes ownership of some part of your company – without being asked. It might be all or part of a process, a product’s quality or craftsmanship, a customer or a customer group. They take ownership by making the quality of that area their responsibility, perhaps going beyond your company’s standards. It’ll often happen without them being asked.

If you have employees, have you asked them (or put them in charge of) their “one thing”? If not, the signals will be there if they’re interested. They’ll make suggestions – often good ones – about how something is done. They may volunteer to help on projects that require expertise in their one thing.

If your company has people who seem less motivated than they should be, ask them if they’re doing their ideal work for you. If they could do any job in the company, is the one they’re doing the one they’d choose? If not, a pilot project can show you if they’re qualified to do that work.

If the pilot works out, you might find yourself with a newly motivated employee who really cares about the work they’re doing. New blood has a way of asking questions about things that’ve been forgotten, fallen in the cracks or weren’t considered previously – all because that new staffer (even if they’re simply new to that job) cares about that part of the business because it’s their “one thing”.

In the shadows

You may have departments within your company doing their own thing because they can’t get that work done any other way – at least not to their satisfaction and/or within the timeframe they need.

At a recent #StartupWeekend, I spoke on this topic with people from several different business sectors ranging from retail to light manufacturing. Each of them knew of a department within their company that had a “Shadow IT” group.

“Shadow IT” is a small departmental group (or a person) building technology solutions for themselves that they couldn’t get from their company’s IT (Information Technology) group.

One person from a large national retailer (not *that* one) is doing their own thing because they felt it was the only way to get the solutions they needed. Rather than wait or do without, they built it themselves.

This isn’t unusual – but it’s a sign of someone’s “one thing”.

That person doing the Shadow IT work might be the person who needs to take on that role (or join that team) in your company . Perhaps they become the official Shadow IT group for projects that don’t yet have an IT budget and haven’t appeared on management’ s radar.

As an employer, do I care?

You should. The under-served “one thing” staffers may not be disgruntled, but they may not be fully engaged. If you’re unaware of people (and their “one thing” assets) within your organization who could serve your business goals in ways you haven’t considered and at a level of quality that you might not have thought possible – what are you missing?

Ask them privately if there’s a project or job in the company that excites them. You never know what you might find. Having little startup-minded groups inside your business isn’t a bad thing.

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Business culture Competition Customer relationships customer retention Improvement Positioning Small Business systems The Slight Edge

How to create good surprises? Baby steps.

Surprise...

Recently, a couple of real estate transactions provoked me to write about surprises.

In that piece, surprises were not a good thing.

Yet sometimes, surprises are exactly what you want to deliver. So how do you decide which surprises are good and which aren’t?

You need to find a difference to choose a good one – but how? Try substituting a different word for “surprise”, such as “delight”.

Now ask yourself, what would delight your customers?

You might think lower prices would delight them – and while they might appreciate that, you need to think harder.

We’re looking for things that your customer would talk about the next day or week – and remember long enough to influence them to come back.

If you aren’t sure – think about the last time you found yourself delighted by something a business did. Think about how that felt. With that experience in mind, you’re ready to start looking for places to tweak your customers’ experience. So where do you find them?

Baby Steps

I think one of the best ways to figure out these little tweaks that transform your customers’ experience is to walk through the process of doing business with you in little, tiny steps: Baby Steps.

Walk through the process with each type of customer. Start with the acquisition of the lead – even if that’s a cold call from them to your business. Continue through the entire purchase and delivery cycle, identifying places where trouble could occur, where little touches would transform the experience and where little failures could sabotage the whole deal.

You should keep client expectations in mind as you follow the baby steps looking for tweaks. Expectations will differ depending on the size, type and culture of the client, as well as between business and consumer clientele.

Expectations differ by client size

When looking for things to change for a business client, consider the size of their business. You’ll want to adjust what you do based on their size because size alters how they operate.

For example, small business clients might handle invoicing, payment and receiving themselves – or a single bookkeeper/accountant may handle it. At a large client, you could easily involve dozens of people, depending on what you’re delivering. The experience – and the baby steps – should differ substantially.

Consider building a unique process for each substantially different size of client to avoid making your tweaks into the wrong kind of surprise.

For example, if your billing process is designed to make things easy for a small business bookkeeper, that process won’t likely go so well when implemented with large corporate accounting and receiving departments. Likewise, the reverse will just as likely be annoying to large clients.

Expectations differ by client culture

Client size isn’t the only factor that can alter what you do to delight them. Client culture is just as important.

For example, if you’re a wedding photographer or planner, you’re likely to handle the wedding of a Manhattan couple differently than you would a couple in the rural South or any other place substantially different in culture from NYC. Keep client mobility in mind. Even in the smallest of towns, you may find yourself working with clients from Paris, NYC or London.

It isn’t just about big cities vs. small towns. Internal culture can differ widely from the suits and ties at IBM to t-shirts and Xbox at Google. As a result, your processes and the tweaks you implement should consider how things work internally at your client, as well as how they don’t.

Expectations differ by service level

If you want to fine tune your customers’ experience and put a fence around them that no one can break through, we’re not done yet.

One set of processes for businesses and another for consumers, if that fits your business, isn’t enough.

One process for each size of client isn’t enough.

One process that fits the culture for each client isn’t enough.

You’ll want different processes for each service level your clients purchase: Good, better, best.

How do I get all of this done?

Finish one process at a time, then move to the next.

You”ll want documented processes with systems to make sure they’re done every right time. High tech isn’t necessary. A wall of clipboards works better than going from memory.

Making it easy on them doesn’t have to be hard on you.