Pennies add up for the strategically efficient

Part of my unique ability is to help clients think and act in the most strategically efficient way possible. It isn’t necessarily to save pennies everywhere we can, but to save the “best” pennies. In other words, the ones that have the most impact.

I visited a client this past week who makes a good example of strategic efficiency. They are in a highly regulated business, so they take steps to squeeze the most impact out of the pennies they save. Even in innocuous areas like invoicing, there is substantial impact.

For example, when bills are processed and delivered properly, well over 100,000 go out each day. If they are not prepared properly, the cost of delivering them can increase by $1000 per day, possibly more. When you send this many bills a month, there are a number of tactics you can use to save as little as $0.001 to $0.003 per bill.

While that seems like a tiny savings, at scale it adds up to real money.

Saving $30,000 a month, a penny at a time

When they put systems in place to do things in the most strategically efficient manner, they could identify *daily* savings of $1000 per day, every work day. That’s hard money, not touchy feely savings that don’t show up on a bank statement. $1000 per day adds up in a hurry, regardless of the size of the business.

It isn’t just about handling these bills properly. It’s also about handling them on time.

Should these bills go out late, you can imagine that cash flow is negatively affected in a substantial way because clients who don’t get bills on time wont pay them on time. If everything goes well, on certain days of the month, they might be able to “loan” money using short term finance mechanisms.

Process affects transit time

If the bills are late going out by only an hour, they can miss their transit window. If they make their window, it all but guarantees invoice delivery on the next business day. If they miss the window, it will mean bills arrive late and believe it or not, it will mean some customers pay later than normal.

The cascading effect of these tiny shifts can hamper cash flow from that set of customers for the next month. Some days of the month, that may mean they have to manage overall cash flow far more carefully, simply by how things come together that month. Timing matters.

If the processing that gets these bills out the door has problems frequently, it can put pressure on cash flow that affects the entire business.

Yes, but we don’t mail bills

You might be thinking that this “old school” business could gain from efficiencies like emailed bills and other electronic transaction processing. They do, however they are not in a position for force their entire customer base away there. As with some of your clientele (I suspect), there are some who want a paper bill, and others who require a paper trail, even today.

For those invoices, on-time delivery still affects payment patterns and thus, cash flow. Electronic delivery also has requirements to keep it strategically efficient, such as delivery management and bounce processing. If there are no systems in place to monitor delivery and assure that every single bill arrived, those bills will not likely get paid. If they arrived late, they’ll likely be paid late.

“Oh, it’s just email delivery” isn’t simply a minor annoyance when it becomes a cash flow impact factor.

The boring, innocuous back office

Those “boring”, innocuous back office processes may not be as exciting as the innovative, front-line business things you’re doing to close sales and retain clients. Their level of efficiency, quality, and timeliness has a broad impact on the day to day operation of your business.

Whether these processes are based on paper, email, electronic transactions or a combination of all of those things, they (and the company) will benefit from constant improvement and fall back protections. You (and everyone else) will sleep better at night because you know these things are more consistent and more resilient.

Your back room processes fuel what’s going on in research and development, sales and elsewhere. Be sure to make them as strategically efficient as possible.

Eliminating complexity. Except when you shouldn’t.

Business people (myself included) seem to have a habit of making projects more complex than they should be. Introducing complexity to a project often seems like the right direction to take because a simple solution can’t cover all the bases, or doesn’t seem so effective. We convince ourselves that “simple can’t do the job” and that’s all it takes to start running down the road to Complexityville.

Consider an extreme example – the recent events in Nice. Far more complicated plans might have failed due to one aspect or another of the plan not going as expected. Perhaps it didn’t go as expected, despite what happened. Complex attacks are likely foiled on a daily basis and we never hear about them because something went wrong they never made it to “implementation”, or an attack started and the various agencies caught it before anything bad happened. Yet a simple plan like “drive a truck into a big crowd and run over people” unfortunately succeeds, in part because it doesn’t require clockwork-like efficiency and accuracy, nor does it require a complex sequence of events to happen in just the right way. Any wacko who can drive can make that happen.

While it’s an awful, terrible example, it makes the point far better than I wish it had.

Constraints

We don’t always need a highly-complex, 32 (or 320) step project to achieve the outcome we want. In fact, the more complex we make a project, the more opportunities we allow suppliers, life, business, employees, clients, prospects and (of course) ourselves to trip over the tiniest of obstacles – any one of which can prevent a project from being successful. There’s a term for this: “The Theory of Constraints“.

Constraints aren’t just things you weren’t expecting. They’re also parts of the project that don’t necessarily turn out like you expected, or when you expected. The tiniest things have a way of turning momentum at the least opportune time. Large or small, your post project reviews should analyze what you can do to prevent a particular type of step from derailing your projects – including considering whether or not these particular steps should be eliminated altogether. Pilots use checklists – and these are regularly refined as support personnel, mechanics, pilots and others learn of things that reduce or eliminate the possibility that a particular item is going to threaten the safety of a flight. Whatever works for you – use it, but eliminate what you can if it isn’t necessary.

The beauty of complexity

Complexity has its positives. Doesn’t align well with what I said above, does it? It has its moments, despite the negatives in most situations.

The beauty of complexity is that it has negative impacts on your clients as well. I don’t mean that it’s good that they have negative impacts. It’s good that you can fix those things. Complexity wastes their time and their money – and if they’re lucky, nothing else. Have you put any thought into how complexity affects them? What sort of complexity can you help them eliminate from their work processes? More often than not, you’ll learn a great deal by watching their workflows. Figure out how to improve them, or eliminate their complexity. They’ll often be more than happy to discuss them, as long as you don’t come off interested in doing little more than closing a sale. Show that you’re interested in their workflow and improving them and the sale will come.

When is complexity OK?

As with most discussions of this nature, there are exceptions. There are appropriate times to use complexity as a tool. One common use is complexity as a barrier to entry to the business you’re in. If the process of consistently delivering your products and services is highly complex, it’s difficult to mimic. If people have come to expect what you do, then replicating it is also difficult, which makes it more difficult to compete with you.

That’s why systems are critical. Complexity without a system to manage and execute it takes us back to the Theory of Constraints, where every little bump in the road, miscalculation, unexpected result, timing problem or material change introduces a chance to fail. If your systems produce consistent execution, the complexity your systems support make it a steeper climb to compete with you. That’s a positive form of complexity.

Complete the important work

What are you not getting done? Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Does important work often go undone? If so, is that work truly important?

Delegation

Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Is it because of other things that keep you “busy”?

Are you busy because you aren’t delegating enough?

Are you unable to delegate?

Are you unable to delegate because you have no one to delegate to?

Are you unable to delegate because you don’t have time to document the task to be delegated?

Are you unable to delegate because the task requires skills that no one on the team has?

Do you have a system to develop people on your team? Is the system producing people that you can delegate tasks to?

If not, what should be changed so that the system produces team members who can take over the parts of your work that can be delegated?

Is it because you aren’t developing the “former” you in your team so that you can spend more time being the current you?

Systems

Is it because you don’t have an organized manner (system) of keeping track of what needs to be done?

Is it because the system (whether it’s paper, phone or computer-based) doesn’t work?

Is it because the system doesn’t work like you do?

Is it because the system doesn’t remind you of work that is scheduled or that needs to be done?

Is it because you don’t use a system that you have?

If you don’t use a system you have, why don’t you use it?

Focus

Is it because you aren’t giving yourself enough focus time?

What mechanism do you have in place to create focus time for yourself?

Does the mechanism work? If it doesn’t work, why is that?

Do others ignore the things you place in the way to allow you to have focus time?

If others ignore your focus time barriers, what have you done to clarify the situation or “discipline” those who ignore the barriers you build to create focus time? Are others aware of these barriers?

Classification

What is the cost of not getting these things done?

Is the cost, benefit or other financial impact what you use to determine the importance of a particular piece of work?

Does not getting these things done imply that they weren’t important after all?

Is the mechanism you use to identify work as “important” performing effectively?

If you look back at the work you considered important last month, do you still think it was important?

If not, how will you fine tune the system you use to assign importance?

Is there a system you use to classify work as important, not important, etc? One such system identifies work in four quadrants: “important and urgent”, “important and not urgent”, “urgent but not important”, and “not urgent and not important”. This system is often credited to “Seven Habits” author Stephen Covey, but there are also documents dating back to President Eisenhower’s use of the so-called “quadrant of work” system to decide what to do, what to decide upon, what to delegate and what to delete from the todo list.

Costs

Do sales or project goals depend on whatever you aren’t finishing?

Is the important work you’re not getting done tactical or strategic?

If so, is that a consistent situation? If not, have you recently been fighting through a situation that required you to focus on tactical?

Of the work considered important, is the cost of doing the work more than the benefit of doing that work?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, what makes that work important?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, should the work be done at all?

Turning that toward the less important (busy work?) that is consuming time best spent on the important work – if the cost of the busy work exceeds the benefit, should this work be done at all?

Do the important work

Consistently being able to identify the important and completing it while delegating what isn’t important IS the important work. The work you delegate may not be as important for YOU to do, but the fact that it can be delegated is the critical difference.

What’s the important work for you this coming week? What’s in place to make sure you get it done?

If you don’t have your system fine tuned yet… Does your staff?

What’s holding you back?

I suspect you’ve heard of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

In its simplest form, it states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts made. Further studies on the principle have shown that it often extends to far more than efforts made, and frequently describes the results produced by a team or a group of people.

If you look closer, you’ll find that the root of the 80/20 split of results is often based solely on differences in things members of the group do and do not do. If you review the habits, techniques, tactics and strategies regularly used by the 20% who get 80% of the results vs. the habits, techniques, tactics and strategies regularly used by the 80% who get 20% of the results, you should find some causative differences. I suspect some of them will be obvious, while others will require further study to determine why those behaviors contribute to a major difference in outcomes.

Some have postulated that of the 20% who are most successful, there is a 5% that leaves the remaining 15% behind, despite the success of the 15% group. I think you might find yet another set of behavioral differences between the 5% and the 15%. This doesn’t mean any of these behaviors are bad, though they certainly could be.

That the 80% is behaving differently from the 20% (and especially the 5%) doesn’t mean that they are unsuccessful. In my experience, their level of success tends to be closely related to their mindset and their belief in what they can accomplish.

Choices matter

If you’re part of that 80% and don’t want to be, you have some decisions to make. You have to decide that you won’t remain in the 80%. You have to decide to learn from those who are achieving the things you want to achieve. This may seem obvious, but I can tell you that this is a most difficult choice to make and a decision that many people think they make, but infrequently stick to. It’s too easy to keep doing things the way you’re doing them. It’s easier to not have to explain what you do and why, particularly since most of the people you interact with will seem to need a justification for why you do things differently. You’ll hear it from your staff, your contractors, your vendors, your family, your clients and your prospects.

Clinging to the behavior of a group you don’t want to be in is what keeps you in that group. More often than not, it’s central to what’s holding you back.

In any group of similar people, the behaviors of that group are substantially different. Whether you’re in a room of professional pool players, professional skeet shooters or “self-made” billionaire business people, history has proven that 20% of the people in that room are making the majority of the advances and having the majority of the successes – DESPITE the fact that everyone in the room is a member of that group. Perhaps more telling is that 5% of the people in that room are far ahead of the remaining 15% in that 20% group – even though they’re peers.

Why? Because the 5% is doing something different. That 5% will likely be the first to leave the group behind, because they’re already pulling away.

Markets are groups too

Your market is no different. No matter where you are in your market, I’ll bet you can identify who the leaders are, who’s in the middle and who is near the bottom.

When you see someone in your market do something that works, do you see if it works for you? When you do something that works, does anyone else in your market try it?

When you see something in another market that you appreciate, do you try it – even if you have to put a twist on it to make it work for you? Do others in your market do this?

Can you easily identify things that competitors in your market are doing that are holding them back? If you shine that light back on your own business, are you doing any of them?

If you aren’t a leader in your market, can you identify things that the leaders in your market are doing that you aren’t doing? If so, what’s holding you back from implementing them?

Improvement is a choice. Your place in your market is a point in time, it isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Groundhog Day with Ooompa Loompas

Recently, I had a series of “Groundhog Day” experiences with multiple vendors in the same market, in the same market area, while seeking the same product that all of them sell.

Of course, they’re competitors, though some of them may be owned by the same people or corporation. I didn’t look that hard, but I doubt that’s the case.

What I found most interesting about this situation is that they were identical in almost every possible way. If you switched the logo, phone number, business name and address between each of them, you’d find it difficult to figure out which was which. Nothing about any of them appeared to stand out from the others.

Long-time readers might assume that I would find this appalling. They’d be right.

So that there is no doubt about how I feel about this situation, let me make it clear: Being exactly like every other business in your market is a dangerous concoction of idiotic, risky, lazy and so on.

Yes, there are situations that require that some things are pretty much identical from business to business. Regulatory requirements are a good example. Even though regulations might control some behavior in your market, they do not require you to become yet another Oompa Loompa.

You get the idea that I find it not only appalling but not too smart. Let’s talk about why.

Why being a clone is bad

Oompa Loompas are identical. While they presumably do good work, they produce the same results as every other Oompa Loompa. Why would someone choose your Oompa Loompa business over the identical one down the street?

If you’re all the same, what usually tips them in your favor is price.

Yet if everyone is doing things the same way, their overhead is going to be pretty consistent from business to business. With the exception of negotiation skills with vendors and the profit margin you choose when setting prices, what’s left to alter? Not much.

Of course, there will be pressure to price similarly, since there’s no difference between business A and business B. Welcome to the vicious circle.

Why not being a clone is good

When you’re not one of the Oompa Loompas, there’s always pressure to conform. Perhaps unspoken, perhaps not.

Pressure looks and sounds like: Work like us. Have a sign like us. Wear the same type of uniforms we wear. Offer the same delivery we offer. Don’t deliver, because we don’t. Provide the same level of service we provide. Don’t provide what we don’t provide. Advertise like we do. Sell like we do. Price like we do.

In industries where this is really rampant, it sounds like this: Get our industry certification because it says you do everything exactly like we do – and don’t change a thing after the fact because we’ll yank your Clone Stamp of Approval (CSoA).

While the CSoA badge is attractive and shiny while remaining artistically conservative enough that the CSoA committee somehow agreed long enough to sign off on it, you should think about how being a clone makes you feel and how it resonates with the reason you have a business in the first place.

Consider why you risked everything to start your business.

  • Was it because you had a better idea?
  • Was it because you wanted to serve people in a better way?
  • Was it because you thought so differently about the market?
  • Was it because you felt the clientele in that market were under served?
  • Or….Was it so you could march in lock step with all the other clones?

I seriously doubt the last one was anyone’s choice. Most business owners aren’t built that way, so how does this situation happen?

How it happens

Earlier, I mentioned “idiotic, risky, lazy”, describing behavior, not people. These behaviors can be active or passive. My experience and suspicion says there’s a mix of active and passive lazy going on here, perhaps mixed with a touch of fear.

At some point, I hope you decide that it’s riskier to be a clone than it is to stop being one. At that point, all that’s left is to overcome the fear of leaving Cloneville.

Moving out of Cloneville

How do you get out of Cloneville?

Think about what’s important to your clientele. What makes things easier, faster, smoother and more productive for them? Fix one thing at a time. Repeat.

Business rules of the road

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

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

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

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

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

Mommy, where do rules come from?

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

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

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

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

Share your rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FlipFlopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It’s a bad time

Time Bandit
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

Over the weekend, I had a brief conversation about a Wall Street Journal article I had posted to Twitter about the average nationwide earnings of a partner in a U.S. law firm.

I almost didn’t post the link because I had the feeling it would generate a political conversation. Politics was not the point of the post, but given the season…it was bound to go there.

The reason I posted it was to note that someone who typically has started at an entry level position and worked 60-80-100 hour weeks for a decade or more, was doing quite well for themselves and that this wasn’t just Wall Street lawyers.

The number is a nationwide average rather than a “gotta-live-in-a-city-of-5-million to make this kind of money” number. Successful firms with 15-20 lawyers – even those in a town of 50,000 people – will have partners. Maybe even junior partners, even if they aren’t at this “average” pay level.

Oh, the politics

The political end of the conversation was actually a good thing. It turned to us vs. them and executive vs new graduate – specifically that the executive rakes it in while the new graduate struggles to find a lawyer job.

Tell me, if you worked your tail off for a decade after going to college for seven years, would you expect to make what a new grad makes? Would you expect to make what the manager of a successful local restaurant makes? Probably not. When you make partner, you get a percentage of the firm’s profits in part because you are responsible for producing your fair share of them. Responsibility.

Today’s law graduates are probably looking forward to that juicy partner salary, as they should. Unlike the made-for-TV movie where junior graduates on Friday and starts at $200K with a glass-walled office on the following Monday, the “average” new law grad is reportedly in a tough market, according to a June 2012 story in the WSJ.

What prompted me to write about this situation was the assertion that it is a “bad time” to graduate from law school and pass the bar.

In my mind, it’s a great time. Better than next year. Better than the year after that. Frankly, there’s never a bad time to pass the bar, given the gatekeepers that depend on checking that box.

It’s a bad time to be average

I do agree that it is a bad time for some things. It’s certainly a bad time to be an “average” law school graduate. Not because there are 18 quadrillion lawyers and the world doesn’t need another one. Not at all. The world could probably use thousands more great ones. What we don’t need is another average one.

Just like we don’t need another average anything else. Today, “average” means you’re going to struggle.

What else is it a bad time for? It’s a bad time to be average. At ANYTHING. Note: Don’t confuse average with inexperienced.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s also a bad time to start a business. Either the economy is bad or you should just be happy you have a job and wait things out rather than working toward getting a better one or egads, starting a business on the side. Waiting is comfortable. It’s easy.

Yet if you wait, a year from now you won’t be any closer to having that business. Hopefully you’ll still have the job.

The conventional wisdom says “Wait.”

It seems to make sense. “Don’t start something now when the economy is down and the holidays are coming.” Will the economy be better in a year? You have no idea. Oh, but there’s an election coming, so you should wait. Except that there’s another election after that.

Next year, all the people who are starting to look at buying what you would be selling will already have their first vendor. Taking someone away from another vendor is harder than being their first vendor, even if their current vendor isn’t making them happy.

Next year, you’ll have the same job and the same excuses (or corollaries to them) and your biggest regret will be that you didn’t start last year.

It is a bad time for one other thing. It’s a bad time to wait.

Why clients don’t take your advice

One of the groups of software folks I work with has wisely decided not to support Windows Vista.

Vista was released in November 2006 and while old, it’s not quite half the age of the now-prehistoric Windows XP released in October 2001.

Yet plenty of people still use both. So why is it wise not to support Vista?

In this case, the products involved deal with a complex industry in an enterprise environment.

The software simplifies that industry – a pretty common task for vertical market software. They don’t support Windows Vista because there are a number of issues that are not easily resolvable without upgrading Windows itself – networking problems being one of them.

Enterprises and network problems do not mix well.

These things might not be apparent on the day the product is installed, but you know these problems will present themselves at a less than ideal time. At 4 pm Friday, it won’t matter that the OS is the problem when a pallet needs to go out the door and the software somehow prevents that shipment. It will only matter that the shipment can’t go out. Are they going to blame Microsoft or are they going to blame you?

So how do you sell what looks like a “might, maybe, shoulda coulda woulda“?

Step Back

People aren’t going to take perfectly valid advice when that advice appears to serve them no purpose.

Yet we regularly give it in our context rather than showing the customer the benefits in theirs. We don’t do this because we’re selfish (mostly) but because we tend to forget that our reasons, however valid, are often meaningless to the customer.

Really, it’s Sales 101.

This “you need to upgrade your Windows” conversation was going on with a now-cranky customer in a context that was not meaningful to them, so I was asked to help sell the idea.

My comment went something like this:

Vista “isn’t supported” because Vista’s frequently encountered problems will get blamed on us/our apps and we will be powerless to fix them.

He can use Vista but he needs to be aware that it has a number of issues that are systemic in nature. He may encounter problems that cannot be resolved without upgrading to Windows 7.

Is that the position he wants to be in on Friday afternoon with a shipment on the dock? Is that what he wants to defend to his manager after a shipment doesn’t go out on time?

Microsoft charges $199 for the Windows 7 upgrade. Is saving $199 now worth the possibility of having a late shipment at some random time in the future? That’s really what we’re talking about. We’re trying to save him the embarrassment and cost of a possible failure or shipment delay by encouraging him to upgrade now rather than when he is under time pressure.

What did I really say?

I put it in terms that the customer values: personal accountability and business failure.

One reason for suggesting this change is to prevent a failure that will cost the customer money, embarrassment and/or the loss of their customer.

While this failure might initially be blamed on the software vendor, it’ll eventually come to light that the cause was a “small decision” to skip a $199 Windows upgrade.

What if the delayed shipment is a critical time-sensitive pallet going out to the company’s best customer? If you’re Joe the dock guy, you don’t want Monday’s first management conversation to start with “Joe tried to save 199 bucks which ended up delaying a $45000 shipment to OurFaveBiz and now they’re ticked at us.”

Maybe Joe won’t care that he gets blamed, but right now almost everyone with a job wonders if they’ll have that job tomorrow. Making decisions in the best interest of the company is unlikely to make Joe a target.

What did I not say?

I didn’t pass along advice in a context that benefits the software company.

Upgrading everyone off of Vista provides a benefit to the software business by reducing support that is solely a function of using Vista. While that benefits the customer in a trickle-down sort of way, you really can’t sell that to the guy sitting at the warehouse logistics desk. He doesn’t have any reason to care about it.

What he cares about is shipping on time to the right place.

When selling your advice, be aware that your customers’ concerns aren’t much different than Joe’s. Speak to them.

What’s Inside Your Stocking?

Every year, in fact – every month, I have some formal “airplane time” set aside for putting thought into where my business is, where it’s going and what adjustments it needs to zig-zag its way to where it belongs.

Ultimately all of that relates to where it leads you, how it changes your business and hopefully, your life.

Since preparations for an all-out-assault on the in-laws’ place are in their final hours, stocking stuffers came to mind.

Stocking stuffers for your business, that is.

Stuffers at all levels

When I sit down for one of these sessions, the proper mix of present, past and future is always on my mind.

On top of that stocking is the a gift from the past. If you think back, you’ve had failures. Forget ’em. Dwelling over them is a waste of time and it’s wrong kind of self-talk. At the same time, you learned lessons. Never forget those. Leverage them. They’re a gift if you learn from them.

Which of these lessons are possible to repeat? Whatever they are, put systems in place to help you prevent them from ever happening again, just like the systems you have in place to manage and organize the rest of your business.

What have you learned from the systems of your business’ past?

Digging deeper

A little further down in your stocking is a gift from the present – What your business is doing today.

Look hard at your existing revenues and where they come from. What areas can have layers (or ladders) added? Which areas can be transformed into recurring revenue? Of the customers you have, what needs do they have that you aren’t serving? What can you do to build a stronger foundation, infrastructure for your business today that will serve your customers better?

If you have staff, are they creating enough value to make it easy to keep them on the job? If not – it’s your job to fix that. If you haven’t created work for them that generates profit (directly or indirectly), find some even if it requires training them to improve their value to you and to their family.

Stability today is what gives you the ability to think clearly, breathe and create the business you had in mind when you started. These steps are what help you get there. Every day, work on one of them. Pick the one that can impact your business the most and knock it out.

At the very bottom

Dig deep into your stocking. At the very bottom you’ll find a permission slip. That’s your gift from the future.

It’s there to grant you serious time for thought, one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

Choose an afternoon or a morning, whatever works best for you. Rather than spending time in the present, take an hour to look far enough into the future to see the business in its ideal state.

If it was hitting on all cylinders, what would it look like? What kind of customers would line up to do business there? What would you know about their needs and wants? What products and services would your business offer? Think abou every single aspect of that “perfect” business. What makes it resilient? What kind of innovation fuels its growth?

What would your staff’s experience include? Would you even have a staff?

Layers

In this “perfect” state, what would your involvement be? You might be so excited to get to work each day that you can’t sleep past five a.m. Or you might stop by the business once a week if you feel like it. Whatever seems right for you.

With those things in hand, work backwards from that ideal state to today, layer by layer, year by year, month by month. With each step, ask yourself what it would take to make each aspect of this future vision happen.

Work your way back to today. Those layers…they’re the 10,000 foot view of your plan. When you’ve worked your way back to today, you’re ready.

The next step is to work the plan that gets you to that desired state.

First, you’ve got to come up with it. You have half a day. Go.