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attitude Business culture Creativity Customer relationships Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership quality Small Business Word of mouth marketing

Little things lend quality to a welcome

Last weekend, we took a trip to Oregon to get our youngest son registered for fall classes at Pacific U.

During the lonnnng drive (it’s about 10 hours each way) from Montana past Portland, a few things about processes brought me back to our talk about QuickBooks and my own process improvement from last week.

What kept tweaking my “slight edge” nerve during the trip was that I was reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for the first time. If you haven’t read it, one of the constants of the book is the impact of quality in one’s life, work, thought, psyche and in fact, quality’s impact on almost everything. I found it a fascinating read and something I really hadn’t expected.

The teachings of the book aside, one thing that stood out during the trip was the difference between my admission at a large state college years ago (too many) and today’s at a small, private university.

Shake and Sign

Each student begins their stay at the U via a personal face-to-face with the University president during new student orientation just before their first semester begins. During this time, the new student shakes hands with the president and signs into a book where all prior students have signed in.

This “shake and sign” event fires psychological triggers relating to commitment, group membership, and the beginning of a process that comes with what likely feels like a personal obligation to a new mentor to complete it. When the student graduates, only then do they sign out – by that time, they’re only leaving campus. The relationship to the school is fully vested by that time.

The process of starting school is transformed. For most, it’s a group event with potentially impersonal “herding” of hundreds (or in my case, thousands) of new freshman through all the processes typical of orientation and starting college.

Turning that into something very personal to each student is simply brilliant.

Personal. Individual. Welcoming. Obligation.

It created an experience like those that Walt Disney focused on: one that you had to tell someone else about.

How do you welcome new customers?

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Business culture Customer relationships customer retention Customer service Employees quality Small Business

Cab drivers come in all flavors

Vegas is always an entertaining trip, and in one way or another, it always comes with lessons.

This time: 4 cab drivers, 4 completely different experiences.

First, the guy who picked me up from the airport. Very courteous, asked me how I wanted to get where I was going – and then proceeded to take the long way. While he was a good conversationalist, taking the long way did not impress.

Second, the guy who picked us up to haul us to another hotel. Courteous, long-time Las Vegas resident, helpful, chatty but not too chatty and even took us in the short way to enter the hotel. A good experience, even though it was short.

Third, an amazing experience. Not good, but amazing. A foul-mouthed cabbie who drove like Mario Andretti (in a Jeep?), wound around through back streets past every strip joint in Vegas, and even managed to offer us a coupon for a hooker. Stunning.

Finally, number four.

He came to us after several other cabbies declined to take our group of 4 and our big load of baggage and trade show gear.

He pulled up, hopped out and asked why no one else was taking us. The cab guy from the hotel told him about our gear – rather than turning away, he reached into his trunk, pulled out a bungee cord and proceeded to cram that big pile of stuff into the trunk, bungee it securely and said “Let’s go”.

Four different people, doing the same job and providing four different types of experiences.

Which one do you hire?

And how do you know which type of experience they’re providing to your customers?

How many of cabbie (employee…) number 1 or 2 would it take to run off your customers?

What steps are you taking to figure out which group your staffers belong to?

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attitude Business culture Competition Customer relationships customer retention Customer service Employees Improvement Leadership Marketing Positioning quality Restaurants Retail Sales service Small Business The Slight Edge

5 tips for turning customers into fans

Fenway Park
Creative Commons License photo credit: werkunz1

Today’s guest post is from Laurie Sherman over at Blendco Systems, where she offers 5 tips for turning car wash customers into fans.

The difference?

Customers wave and smile as they walk by, and maybe they stop to chat if they have time.

Fans drag people into your trade show booth. Not just any people, but people who are important to them. People they trust that you will take exceptional care of. People that they just know will become fans just like they are.

Laurie’s post is really about creating fans for any business. It really has little to do with car washes, even though that’s who she is writing to.

What are you doing to create fans?

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Business culture Competition Customer relationships customer retention Entrepreneurs Marketing Productivity Sales Small Business Strategy

Another Dan-ism: Good enough is good enough

One of the first things you notice when you get materials from Dan Kennedy is that they aren’t glossy. They aren’t printed on luxurious paper, with fine bookboards and perfectly sewn bindings.

Usually its a comb binding or a 3-ring notebook, if it’s bound at all. And there might be typos and some hand-drawn diagrams.

Dan insists that perfect is the enemy of good. It isn’t at all unusual to hear him say “good enough is good enough”, largely because he is all about taking action. He might write a book in a weekend because he is capable of covering the topic in that time, so why spend 3 years writing it?

This is one of the reasons that Dan can produce the volume of info that he produces. The binding might not be worthy of a collector, but the information isn’t any less valuable as a result.

Good enough

Along those lines, a guest post from Wired on the topic of good is good enough.

I know what you’re thinking.

Aren’t you the one who is always talking about differentiating yourself with higher quality, high-touch service, etc?

Yes indeed and continue to I stand by that.

You should remember that I’ve also suggested that you have multiple tiers of products and services to reach more people with that wonderful (whatever) that you do/create.

It isn’t just about quality. Your lower end product might still be high quality – it just won’t be a Bentley. And that’s OK, because not everyone wants/needs that.

As a result, you need to “show them the ladder”: Show them how to do business with you. Here’s the entry level product/service and here’s where you go next.

If you need a visual: Sell them a Chevy. Next time, sell them a Buick. Then an Oldsmobile. Then a Cadillac. Skip a rung or 2 if they wish.

There’s always room for improvement of those products. You’ll likely never create a perfect product the first time out. Well, you might – but it might take you 10 years to perfect it.

By that time, someone will have sold your market a Buick.

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Competition Creativity customer retention Improvement Management Manufacturing Productivity quality Sales Small Business Software Software business Strategy Technology The Slight Edge

Measurement and the fine art of bidding

Toon Studio â?? Disney Studios, Paris
Creative Commons License photo credit: eyeSPIVE

Ever messed up a bid?

Even after 25 years in the IT business (much less other stuff), I find that one of the hardest things to do accurately is bid a sizable time and materials-based project.

If you’re in IT, you know all the reasons.

Stuff changes. Requirements aren’t necessarily what they really are. Features get added, removed, changed and re-added.

It can be troubling if you live by (or try to live by) a schedule.

As long as the communication channels are open, it works out. It works out because over the years, you’re zig zagging across the good bid/ouch line with smaller and smaller zigs and zags each time (mostly).

But I deal in atoms not pixels!

Yeah, that’s another reference to Free. I’ll stop with that eventually.

I wonder how big construction, architecture or engineering firms can afford to do that zig/zag thing.

Pixels are cheap. Atoms are not, especially when you’re talking about a project like a mall, a bridge or 23.3 miles of Interstate highway. Which brings us to yesterday’s measurement discussion.

I was talking to a guy in the construction biz a while ago and asked him about this. Based on all the bidding processes for huge municipal (etc) construction projects, are any of them right? It seems like they all go over budget and over time.

Can you imagine what the expense of being wrong is if you’re the construction, engineering or architecture firm?

Parts is parts

And then I was thinking… buildings, roads and bridges break down into finite tasks just like programs do.

In the programming world – or at least in the academic one – there’s something called function point analysis.

The theory is that you can assess the time/complexity/cost of a project simply by counting the function points it contains. Rumor has it that it works if used properly. Guess how many businesses I’ve encountered using it over the last 25 years.

Doughnut. Zippo. None.

Why? Because it’s hard work. For small clients, it may not be worth the effort. Add to that, it means you have to properly plan and spec the work in pretty good detail. Not a lot of people want to put that effort in before handing a job to a programming staff to complete it.

On the other hand, not even Electronic Data Systems used it when I was there back in the Ross Perot days and we checked, rechecked and re-tested *everything*. Twice. Three times after 5pm.

I beam with joy

Let’s get back to the architects and such.

As I noted, buildings, bridges etc break down into components like beams, walls, pillars, etc. (Now you see why I just had to talk about function points, sorta.)

Like programmers (perhaps more so), these folks deal with complex bids with lots of variables.

They bid a bridge job because they have the best bridge designer in the state. Or condo. Or stadium. Whatever.

3 days before the bids are opened and awarded, she gets hit by a bus. Or gets a 3x salary offer from some Middle East engineering firm. Or disappears to find herself by walking the Great Wall.

Regardless of the reason, she’s gone.

It isn’t unusual, but it sure will throw your design time estimate a wicked curve ball and any technically-oriented business might see this.

What if?

What if your design software had the ability to measure how long it took to design an I-beam that will hold a dynamic load (ie: a load that changes/moves). Or how long it takes to design a retention pond at a factory.

So what, right?

OK…Imagine that your design software has the ability to do that for each staffer, broken down for each possible component of a building, screened-in patio, bridge, truss, lake, or other feature.

Like function points in software, the design software might keep track of all this based on complexity – such as by the number of load points and force vectors, or maybe square footage and materials have an impact.

Maybe experience and type of training comes into play. Maybe you learn that the designer’s college choice impacts these numbers.

Speed, Quality, Complexity

Now, imagine that this software can aggregate all this data by employee, by component.

With a little extra effort, you eventually figure out which designers are the best at designing each type of component.

A combination of speed, quality and work complexity ends up telling you exactly who to allocate to a particular piece of design and most likely that comes along with a very accurate estimate of the time needed to do the job.

If you break down the design of the most complex project you ever had, you know how many I-beams, trusses, concrete walls, pillars and so forth there are, as well as what kind of loads they have.

And now – because you have measurements of what the real work takes – you can make a bid that is far more accurate than the guesses those other folks are making.

Now imagine that you make the software that allows for this kind of measurement.

Your customers are the ones who bid more accurately. They win more bids. They become more successful. Your software becomes their secret weapon. You know what that means.

Imagine soft puffy clouds

Now… consider this discussion in the context of the service you provide, from programming to sports writing to graphic arts to small engine repair to architecture to plumbing or whatever.

You may already do some of this assessment by the seat of your pants / gut feel. Is it accurate? Be honest with yourself, it doesn’t matter what you tell me.

But would it be as accurate as an ongoing set of measurement data that is based on your current staff mix? I doubt it.

Would it help? Let’s see.

  • Imagine how much easier it would be to manage a project if you knew exactly what each component required time-wise.
  • Imagine how much easier it would be to manage a project if you knew exactly how to allocate your people to different details of the project.
  • Imagine what your sales staff would face out in the field when they realize they can confidently bid a job and know it’ll come in on time and on budget and they can whip out performance reports to prove it.
  • Imagine how your testimonials would change and the impact that would have on prospects.
  • Imagine how your customer retention numbers would improve.
  • Imagine what something like this could do for your staff’s morale. Never a late project, ever again. Well, maybe almost never.

Measurement. Might be a good idea, ya think?

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attitude Automation Business culture Business Resources coffee Competition Corporate America Creativity Customer relationships Entrepreneurs Improvement Management Motivation Positioning quality Restaurants Retail Small Business Starbucks Strategy

What local coffee shops can learn from SEC football

Makes no sense, I know. Bear with me, it’ll clear up shortly.

I want you to read this story about ESPN’s new network for Southeast Conference (SEC) football. Don’t wonder why (too much), just trust that there’s an applicable lesson here and go read it.

Wordsmithing

Now it’s time to do a little wordsmithing while re-reading the story.

As you read the Sports Illustrated story, do this for me:

  • when you read “football”, replace it with *whatever you do*
  • when you read “SEC”, replace it with your community’s name
  • when you read “NCAA” or “college football”, replace it with your national market.
  • when you read “Florida”, “LSU” or any other team name, replace it with your business’ name OR if you really want to turn things on their head – with your biggest competitor’s name.

…and continue along those lines so that it becomes a story about your market, your business and your competition.

All done?

Just in case, a sample

Let me give you a sample since I suspect some of you might have thought one read of a seemingly irrelevant story was enough.

To make things a tad more clear, let’s take that coffee shop I occasionally talk about and use it as an example:

“At the core of our agreement is the fact that every SEC-controlled football game mom and pop coffee shop will be have Starbucks coffee available to SEC Starbucks fans throughout the conference territory state, and indeed the country, via an ESPN our distribution platform or through our partners,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s Some Executive, Starbucks’ executive vice president for programming coffee shop acquisition and strategy.

At a time when most coffee shops and cafes are slashing budgets due to the poor economy, programs Starbucks stores suddenly have more resources at their disposal. Defending national champion Florida Starbucks stores is are adding $5.9 million to its athletic marketing budget next year and still had enough left over to kick in $6 million to cover overhead the university’s general fund.

Scary? Only if you’re the Big 12 or PAC-10 and you’re still reading the original article.

Snatch the pebble

If you truly are in the same business, your competitor’s strength is the target. Take it away and use it against them.

In Starbucks’ case, their strengths are their consistency (coffee is roasted in centralized warehouse roasting centers under highly-mechanized, controlled conditions), their retail/wholesale distribution systems and their buying power (ok, and their people, mostly).

Notice I didn’t say jack about insanely great, freshly-brewed coffee that was roasted by the owner just before the shop opened this morning.

Starbucks can no longer compete with that, or at least, they’re no longer willing to. Putting roasters in 4000 shops costs huge money (sorry, shareholders!) and takes up valuable retail space in those expensive locations they choose, plus they’d have to hire (or train) someone to do the roasting.

Suddenly, their strength is now their weakness, and you wield the Quality Kryptonite.

Update: Odd how these things travel in groups. What Harvard Business has to say about it, sorta.

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Employees Improvement Management Motivation Personal development Small Business The Slight Edge

7 dumb things we do, 8 tricks to prevent them

Books, books, books, books, books, books, and books.
Creative Commons License photo credit: kennymatic

Today’s guest post comes from of all places – ReadersDigest.com, by way of Hildy Gottlieb.

This post is mostly about human foibles and while I don’t agree with all of the advice at the end of the column, it’s a good article to get you thinking about how you can make small slices of improvement in your life and business.

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customer retention Customer service Improvement Management Positioning Restaurants Retail service Small Business Strategy

Can we depend on your business? 2 minutes can change it all.

In other words, can your community of clients depend on the quality, promptness, on-time-performance and regularity of everything you do for them?

Now is the time to start figuring out how to address that. For many businesses, these next 9-10 days are the slowest you’ll see all year. 

Even if they aren’t, take TWO minutes to talk to those who come in, call or email. 

Tell them you want to make sure that your service to them in 2009 is better than it was in 2008. Ask them for their help and let them know that 2 minutes is all you need.

Ask these things

Ask them if they depend on you.

If they say yes, ask them why.

If they say no, ask them why not – and shouldn’t you wonder why they are still coming back? – Ask.

Ask them what they can no longer depend on you for that they once did, if anything.

Ask them who at your business they can always depend on.

Ask them who at your business they can no longer depend on. 

Ask them if they can still depend on the quality of every single product or service you sell. 

If they say no, ask them which list is shorter – the ones they can depend on, or the ones they can’t depend on?

Once they answer, ask them for the items in the shorter list.

Get to work

With the answers to these questions in hand, it’s time to get to work.

Armed with these answers and a yellow pad, you can come up with strategies to deal with them even if you’re sitting in your easy chair. 

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a panini sandwich, an oil change or a complex legal question related to salmon fishing in international waters. It can be improved. 

You can do it. Start by asking for two minutes of your customers’ time.

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Competition customer retention Marketing quality Small Business The Slight Edge

Teach your clients to be smarter, better educated buyers

We’ve talked about this topic a few times in the past, but today I have an example that you can learn from.

First, take a look at the “Consumer Checklist” at FancyFortuneCookies.com. Don’t be distracted by the aging look of their site. That page is worth major dollars to you if you get the right message from it and use it.

Since they let you customize the message inside the cookie, they have to make them fresh just for you. I know  because I’ve ordered fortune cookies from these guys to use as business cards from time to time.

So not only do my fortune cookie business cards stand out from the yawners that everyone else hands out, but they are tasty as well.

How tasty are those imported fortune cookies from your favorite Asian restaurant? They probably buy them after they are mass-produced, sit on a dock in a container for a week or two, then on a cargo ship for a week or two, then on a dock for another week, then on a train or truck for another few days before they were warehoused and then eventually shipped to the restaurant.

Notice that I just taught you an important difference between good fortune cookies and bad or at least unnoticeable ones? And I didn’t do it while screaming BUY! BUY! BUY!

How can you teach your clients to be better educated, choosier buyers? Even Jif does it with their “Choosy moms choose Jif” line.

Why?…

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Competition Leadership Management Marketing planning Positioning quality Small Business Strategy

Leading your market: Not an opportunity you wait for.

Finding the opportunity to lead your market is something that some businesses wait for years to take advantage of…and then they pounce. Well, at least some do.

Hold on there, Trigger: Did I say “Wait for?”

Leading your market isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you must make happen through explicit, planned actions.

In what ways are you the leader in your market?

  • Do you offer the fastest or best service?
  • Do you offer the most value for the dollar?
  • Does your business have the most knowledgeable staff with the best, most up-to-date training?
  • Do you offer the highest quality products – and regularly discover and begin to offer better ones?
  • Do you offer the best selection of only high-quality products?

How do your clients know these things to be true? How do they learn to care about the difference?

Do you educate your clients so they will learn to appreciate the difference between so-so and outstanding?

Are you executing a well-planned effort to transform your clients into experts and connoisseurs of what you sell?

If not…Why not?