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Management Pricing Product management

Is it time to raise prices?

I recently received a question from someone who was curious about how to raise prices. They have service customers paying a monthly fee going back almost 20 years. All their customers are on the same price plan – and they’ve had always been at that price. They were concerned that they could not raise prices without losing a bunch of customers – a legitimate concern since they hadn’t changed their pricing in close to 20 years.

There’s a couple things to look at here. First off, if you’ve had customers for 20 years, you’re probably not going to raise prices by such an egregious amount that you’re going to lose a bunch of them.

One possible exception to that – you’re seriously under charging now, losing money and what some might consider an egregious increase is actually what you need to get your margins right. However, this seems extremely unlikely after 20 years unless losing money on this product is a recent development. What I usually find when I see someone’s books is that they’re doing OK, but could be doing a lot better if their pricing made more sense.

While this conversation could have a lot of variables, the raise prices question comes up fairly often. Many times “How do I raise prices for existing clients” ends with “… who have been paying ‘nothing’ forever?”

Customers going back almost 20 years who were all on the same price plan, so the company didn’t know what to do. They were concerned that they could not raise prices, without losing a bunch of customers.

There’s a couple things to look at here. First off, if you’ve had customers for 20 years, you’re probably not going to raise prices by such an egregious amount that you’re going to lose a bunch of them unless you’re seriously under charging now and actually losing money.

If you’re still losing money after 20 years. it’s hard not to wonder what’s wrong with you, or whoever is funding you. I’m guessing that’s unlikely. I didn’t look at this company’s books, but if I had, I suspect that they’re doing okay. And could be doing a lot better if the pricing and their price structure, made more sense.

It’s a bad time to raise prices

The first reaction to get out of the way is that now is a universally bad time to raise prices. It’s COVID time. It’s October. It’s 2020. Winter is coming. My competitors haven’t raised prices recently. Sales are down. We can find many reasons why the time is bad to raise prices. Some of them may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time.

Of course, raising prices for existing customers isn’t the same as raising them for new customers. While you’re focused primarily on pricing, keep in mind that “the price” is but a single component of “pricing”. Pricing includes volume, service delivery, packaging, price tiers, timeliness, value proposition, and other things.

How you sell this new pricing needs to be carefully thought out, particularly if it involves a restructuring of delivery, service structure, etc. Sometimes customers you’ve had for 20 years commonly have different needs and bought for different reasons than those who bought recently. Sometimes not. You should know.

A common thought is “What features can I add to the existing product so that I can raise the price for existing customers?” While that’s useful – do your existing customers want the new features you’re dreaming up to add to the product?

Negative margins? Nope.

The company with the question sells software as a service, but the conversation applies to almost any service that has a recurring service model. Sure, there are some exceptions to the “any service” thing, but there are an awful lot of parallels across industries.

First off… these customers don’t expect you to lose your shirt just so they can do whatever they do with your product / service. If they expect that, they’ll disappear when you make these changes and frankly – that’s a good thing. No one needs customers who buy a product with a negative profit margin. Sure, you might say “Well you know with the whole COVID thing, I can’t afford to get rid of customers.” Tell me, how many customers do you want if you’re losing money on each one? Do most businesses really want even one more customer that costs them more than they charge that customer? In almost every case – no. The exceptions are by design.

If I raise prices, I’ll lose customers

Almost everyone I talk to about these things feels this way when they prepare to raise prices. We know we might lose a few, but sometimes people get this wild idea that they’re going to lose 80% of their customers because of a price increase. Are you really providing that little value to your customers? I doubt it. I suspect you know your customers better than that. In my experience, it simply doesn’t work out that way. You’ll probably lose some but the math will probably work out with you doing less work and making more – even if the increase is small.

So how do prices get like this?

There are many reasons, including an addiction to coupons, not paying attention to margins, missing the impact of step costs as volume increases – among others. The two reasons I see most often are “we can’t do it now” and inattention. When I say inattention, I don’t mean anything specific. It’s as simple as not taking a regularly scheduled look at prices, costs, margins, etc – and then doing something about it when you find something wrong.

Back to the person who asked the question. They indicated that their customers had been paying $29 a month for between 15 and 20 years with zero price increases during that time. I don’t know how many customers they have – I didn’t ask because it doesn’t matter. I assume they are at least marginally profitable at that price level – or were until recently.

Given that customers have been paying $29 a month for 15 to 20 years, they either see $29 as a no-brainer value-wise or they are the type of person who never looks at their bank statements. If you have 1000 of them and 10% leave, you’ve lost $2900 a month. If you raise the price to a mere $32, you regain more than the $2900. But we’re not going to do that.

Stop the bleeding

First off, you have to keep things from getting any worse. Start by determining a fair price with a reasonable margin for new customers. If this is your entry level pricing – figure out what can be removed from it and remove it from that lowest tier. Do it now – before lunch. You should know what can be removed after 20 years.

Your entry price still needs to be a no-brainer, but it shouldn’t include every single thing you do. If you aren’t sure, ask whoever deals with customers all day. Sales, support, service – whoever. Ask them specifically. What portion of our services do our new customers rarely use or not need? Of the things that remain, are there any that create a significant hassle? Pull that one too. Your entry level customers should not have high support costs – and you should work on that next if they do.

Change that price and the explanation of accompanying services right now – before you do anything else. Once you do this, you know that whether you get 10, 100 or 1000 customers in the next month – it won’t be making things worse.

It doesn’t matter how the old price compares to the new one. It simply has to make sense to new customers. Maybe the old price was one percent of what the new price is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that your new customers see value in what you deliver for that price.

The hard work

Before we worry about the old customers and their $29 price, we need to finish setting the new pricing. Get together with your team and see if you can group the customers you’ve gotten in the three years into a few segments. Don’t get complicated here. You can always do this again later – and you might.

Maybe you have customers new to the industry and for them, the entry service level (and price) is ideal for them. What other natural groupings do you have? Your people will know if you don’t. Ask them questions and do not interrupt. Listen. Take notes. Say “tell me more” or “is there anything else” until they’re done. Let them empty their minds on the table. They’re on the front lines. They may not know your costs or margins, but they know your customers.

Discuss what those groups need of the service levels you offer. Don’t make things up. Use data and conversations to drive decisions. Review the decisions with the team to make sure the grouping of services to a particular customer segment makes sense.

Once you’re done with that, look at your numbers, whether they are in some fancy software or on a chalkboard in the shop. Figure out a price that makes sense for each tier. Not a price relative to the 20 year old price, or even a price that tries to “look right” when compared to the entry price. Make the price a good value that preserves your margins.

Update all your prices and service information to reflect all of this work. Ask for feedback as people buy. You’ll want to know why they chose tier A instead of tier B. What’s different about the customers who consistently choose A over B, and vice versa. The value… the economics must make sense – but the mix of services at that level must also make sense. You wouldn’t give a teenager a Tesla X on an icy winter morning. You also wouldn’t send them out without studded snow tires on their 15 year old sedan.

It’s time to raise prices. Finally.

Tell your existing customers the truth about your unsustainable pricing and what you’ve done about it. They’re going to figure it out eventually anyway. Explain your new tiers and tell them what you believe is a good process for identifying where they belong. Don’t get all sales pitchy. Tell them how it is, tell them when the old price disappears and tell them specifically what they need to do and when. Make it as easy as possible – then make it easier. You’re not punishing them for the last 20 years. You’re setting things up so you’ll be around to help them for the next 20.

Some people will not understand. They will leave. Thank them for their time with you and let them go. Don’t argue with them. It’s their decision. A small percentage will be angry. Let them be. You can’t change that about people. It’s their decision. Thank them and move on.

So you raised your prices and the world didn’t end, but you know the problem isn’t completely solved.

With the new pricing, the economics of your business will change. Pay attention. You may have to go through a price exercise like this more often. You may find that assumptions about you customers will change – or maybe they won’t. Either way, you need to stay on top of it.

Don’t do anything that’s not sustainable. It was a lot of work to get out of the mess you were in. Let’s not do it again if we can avoid it.

Explain the economics

Some will wonder why your prices are what they are. It’s their nature. Your costs are usually none of their business. People don’t buy stuff from you because your costs are $x or $y. They buy because they want or need something and the value is acceptable.

If you need to explain your prices – do it as a value proposition. For example “We charge $1200 per month for our service, while allows our customers to save an average of 47 work hours of labor (for example) per week.” Buy or don’t buy becomes simple math at that point.

Sometimes, this is harder than it sounds, but you may as well do it because they are absolutely going to do it – and they may miss something because they don’t know your service or the follow on benefits as well as you do. There are times when all of the benefits are simply not obvious. Make them obvious.

Even if they choose not to buy your stuff, make it easy for them to assess their decision. If you need 90 minutes on the phone and 13 finance questions to close a sale, find a way to make it easier to understand.

This doesn’t mean assume your customers are dumb or lazy. They are busy. They don’t have time to mess around with spreadsheets and deep research and thought about your service. Make it like the buffet. Lay it out in front of them so all they have to do is choose – even if the choice is “not now”.

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Categories
Entrepreneurs Management

Are you keeping up?

Are you keeping up? Gotten a bunch done over the last few months? No? What’s wrong with you? It’s not much of a stretch to think it may have riled up your imposter syndrome or maybe a small bit of regret at your lack of productivity vs. “the hustlers”. Take a look at what some people have done. If you make the mistake of adopting it as your standard of what you should have done during that period, then surely you should’ve done more. Taylor Swift created an entire album over a 16 week period.

What’s YOUR story?

Seriously, it’s OK. You don’t know what’s behind their curtain. It’s not the same as yours. You can work on that, but it isn’t the point.

If you read this somewhat often, you may wonder how you’ll get that week’s suggestion done (when pertinent). You might still be working on implementing something from a month ago. How are you going to keep up? Thing is, that isn’t the goal of this for either of us.

Have patience

When these things are discussed, my thought process is “I ran across this and/or I do this and it works. If you’re in a similar situation, it might help.” Perhaps you’ll use the info. Maybe you’ll implement some of these things in the future when you’re ready or when they’re pertinent.

Some of the things we discuss each week can’t be done quickly. No one, least of all me, expects you to do them all. Pick the things that make the most sense for where your business is at that moment (if you have time at that moment). Once you start one, keep at it. Don’t take your eye off the ball when seven more weeks of suggestions float by and you haven’t touched them. They don’t matter until they do.

Start fewer things and finish more. There will always be time to start something else once your current tasks are done. You aren’t the only one dealing with occasional chaos.

Many large businesses have the same problems yours has. Maybe the scale of the problem is different – but relative to them, the problems are the same, more or less.

They aren’t perfect either

Let me give you an example. There’s a software as a service (SaaS) vendor we use. As a SaaS vendor, the presumption might be that it’s a reasonably “modern” business that has its act together.

They didn’t bill us for 13 months. Yes… THIRTEEN MONTHS.

This is a large company compared to most small businesses. Yet simple things like getting an invoice out every month somehow failed them for 13 months (and not for the first time). Statements? Nope. Never. Not once in five years.

We were allowed to catch up with those invoices over several months since the lack of them was their fault. Eventually, everything got back to normal.

Before long, they were bought by a public company. Presumption: well-organized company. I mean, by definition, a public company has to have accounting under control, right?

16 months goes by. Still no statements. Most months, we get an invoice. At first, cashing our invoice check takes months, then things smooth out. Because we’re working on a new contract, they recently figured out that three invoices from last fall had not been paid. In fact, the checks had been stopped because they weren’t cashed after several months. We thought they were lost and eventually forgot about them (see, it happens).

They can’t start the new contract until those invoices are paid. We hadn’t received notice about them & soon they were forgotten. $40K of accounts receivable doesn’t typically get ignored when they go unpaid. Neither you or I would do that, but… it happens. We worked it out so everything’s fine. We really like the vendor & they provide quality service.

Stay focused

I tell that story because we’ve almost all had invoicing / follow up issues. You might’ve thought “we’re such a mess I’m never going to be able to do this right” etc.

Yet, the things you beat yourself up about are the same things a publicly held company sometimes does. It happens.

Maybe next week’s suggestion helps. Read them, think about (if) they can apply to your business – but don’t lose sleep over them.

Do the best you can. Improve consistently. Slow is OK, just keep improving.

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Categories
Entrepreneurs Leadership Management

React, respond or rebuild

What’s on your agenda these days? Whether your business is scraping by or flush with cash, you’re probably spending a little bit of time thinking about the future. Which future would that be? Next month, post-tourist season, post-COVID, or some other future? You might be thinking about how to react to this or that, or how you’ll do business until COVID is over, or something else more specific to your business and how things may have changed since mid-March.

React vs respond

The difference between react and respond has been on my mind a lot lately. The challenges businesses face don’t change all that much, until they do.

Remote work is a great example of this. For decades, “managers” insisted remote work couldn’t be done at their business. Suddenly, in the space of weeks, remote work somehow became possible. To be sure, it’s a challenge when you have a house full of kids, but a lot of people have made their way through that maze to a productive place.

When someone who manages people working (most) desk jobs says “We can’t do remote work”, it’s usually a reflex reaction to a perceived threat – the loss of control (as if they have ‘control’). Control is rarely what anyone thinks it is, if it exists at all. “How will I know if they’re working?” is another decades-old symptom of this.

Getting back on track, when you react, it’s typically a reflex. A reflex action logically gives control to whatever stimulated that reaction. While there can be a measured reaction, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m calling a reaction something you do that’s driven by instinct or reflex. In other words, the fight or flight amygdala is driving based on a perceived fear, even if you aren’t escaping physical danger.

When you respond, it’s something planned, measured, and (hopefully) well considered – again, defined for purposes of this discussion.

The future’s on our minds

The future might be on your mind. Is your business facing challenges that could kill it in the next quarter? The next five years? The next 20 years? Your company’s ability to deal with the speed of change might be involved, or it might be something simple like a technology you depend on that’s likely to be displaced over the next decade.

You might not care about that when it comes to forecasting next quarter’s revenue, but it could definitely impact the valuation of your business for sale in a decade. It’s easy to wave that off today when you’re worried about making your nut this month. Trouble is, these things can’t be planned for or implemented overnight. They require consideration well in advance, particular for the large number of business owners who view the sale of their business as the source of funds for their retirement.

Assumptions vary in quality

The quality of your consideration before a response occurs is everything. A lot of our consideration during this process is based on assumptions. Your assumptions might be good, true, dated, false, dogma-driven, ego-driven, and so on.

Question every single assumption that drives your plan / direction for the future. It’s painful when you find one is no longer true, but it’s better to learn that today than five years from now.

Is something still profitable? Prove it to yourself. Is something not profitable? Prove it. What should you stop doing? Does the data back up these assumptions?

Take everything down to bare metal. Make it prove itself true or false, valuable or not.

Once you arrive at what you think are your truths about the business / market going forward, it’s time to assess your current solutions and decide if they get to come along as you move toward the future.

What about rebuild?

One thing we haven’t discussed is rebuild. Going back to the assumption discussion, what if all your assumptions, experience, and knowledge are signaling a future much different from today? What’s your next step? It might be rebuild.

A rebuild is a form of response, and it’s also a longer term effort requiring even more consideration about what is, what no longer is, what never was, and what your forecast as what will be.

This thought process can be useful when things get tough, really bad, or perhaps a little weird and you’re trying to figure out how to move ahead given your forecast of whatever you think life looks like around the next curve.

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Categories
Entrepreneurs Management

Sick & tired? Might be time for a turning point.

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago where a guy was talking about looking back at the turning points in his life (and no, he wasn’t 22). He also discussed this with some peers, discussing the high and low points in their lives and the turning points they had experienced during those periods. When you have discussions on a single subject with multiple people, patterns tend to appear. One of the things he noticed was that all of the positive or high-impact turning points occurred as he reached a point where he was fed up with an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation.

When we’re dealing with these uncomfortable, unpleasant situations, we often end up taking steps and making efforts that cause us to operate outside of our comfort zone. At the time, it can feel awful. Later, we usually wonder why we thought it was such a big deal. This stuff happens when we get sick and tired of a situation, whatever that situation might be.

The conversation described made me think about the turning points I’ve had – and the situation a lot of business owners are going through right now.

Decisions are turning points

Some of my turning points also came when I was sick and tired of an uncomfortable and/or unpleasant situation, but the most significant came when our family had made a major decision and my work was essential to our ability to make it happen.

In particular, I think back to an older gentleman I met in Jackson Hole in 1995, as we were just starting to figure out the financial and work–related details that moving back to the mountains would mean. He shoved me into the deep end with a simple comment: “Bring your own job because we don’t have enough of them here.” He moved to Jackson in the early ’60s with a station wagon full of kids and $200 in his pocket and had seen a lot in the next 35 years so I took him at his word. That conversation and our goals drove the acquisition of two software companies that set the entrepreneurial angle of my software career in motion.

What situations made you uncomfortable in the past? Perhaps there are parallels to now, perhaps not. Even if you aren’t uncomfortable, does your career or business need a turning point? If you’re not uncomfortable, but perhaps are concerned, what changes could happen over the next six months that would require a turning point?

The time to think about these things and plan for them is before you need to. What could force a turning point in your business or career? How would you re-leverage what you do, what you know – and your network?

It isn’t always about you, however. Others are facing these things even if you aren’t. How can you help, advise, or provide opportunity for someone who has reached a turning point? There are a lot of folks out of work right now. Six months ago, finding good people was difficult. Today, not so much. Do you know business owners who are having a tough time of it? Perhaps a partnership makes sense with the right business.

Pivots are similar

I mention concerns because sometimes we see things coming before they arrive, but they aren’t necessarily significant turning points like a career change or a change of market. Often times, the approach of dips in the economy send familiar signals before they hit arrive, even if the reason for the dip is different than in the past.

Experienced business owners have a pretty good idea what’s coming because they’ve struggled through these and survived in the past – even if it was ugly. Sometimes, we recognize them because we didn’t seem them coming the last time. Each time, we generally get a little better at recognizing them, and see the signs a little earlier. Hopefully, we react a little differently based on what we tried last time, what worked, and what didn’t.

Sometimes the moves are smaller – like restaurants going big on takeout and breweries transforming their parking lots into dispersed seating. With cool fall weather only a few months away, they’re probably already thinking about how they’ll handle that outdoor seating in cool (and then cold) weather. These might not be big turning points, but they will be a bit of a pivot within existing businesses.

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Categories
Business culture Business model Customer relationships Management

Why their survival mindset matters

What’s your state of mind these days? Talk to a handful of business owners about how COVID and other cascading effects are impacting them and you’ll likely not get many identical answers. Seems like everyone’s fishing a different eddy in the economy right now. Some are hauling it in, while others are trying to figure out how to survive another pay cycle – and there are a pile of folks at different places between those two spots.

Are you aware of the state of mind of your prospects these days? Not February’s… today’s. What about your customers? You probably had a good grasp of this back in February, but July (like March through June) is different. Maybe their different isn’t yours, but it’s probably different from whatever normal was for them six months ago.

Do you communicate frequently (or at least regularly) with the customers and prospects in your market? Have you reviewed any of these materials? If you have automated email sequences going out, are they talking to your clients with the mindset of you in the old normal?

Even if you don’t have scheduled emails, what about ads that have to be prepped in advance? For most trade publications, you’re at or getting close to deadline for issues your market will see in four to six weeks, perhaps longer. Are those ads wash, rinse, repeat what you were submitting six months ago? Is that OK? (I don’t know – you should.)

Even if you do nothing in advance, do you have document templates, email templates, pre-printed anything, or similar that go out without a second thought?

If any of these things are in use (scheduled, ad-hoc, template based, etc)… have you reviewed them? Do they make sense this month? Do they make sense for coming months? Is it OK to have the same conversation you were having when you first wrote those things? Again, I’m not judging… I’m suggesting that you consider the state, mindset, and voice of your communications.

Be sure you have an idea what their current concerns are before launching a marketing campaign that ignores today’s reality and your market’s level of certainty. Resonating with their mindset, as usual, is critical to making your communications effective and profitable.

Understand that this isn’t solely about marketing but extends to onboarding, customer service, finance, and ultimately – every interaction you have with your customers and prospects.

What’s the big deal?

One consideration is that many businesses have staffed down. What could be impacted by customers with fewer staff?

Onboarding, if you have any. It will affect training, implementation and related processes. If these don’t progress smoothly, it will be easier than ever to ask for a refund / return.

Finance – What if the normal accounts payable person is gone and someone else is doing double duty? They may be new to everything in that department. They may have no idea what’s necessary to keep their company humming along as it relates to what you supply. The last AP staffer learned that over time. This one may not be there yet. The same goes for your suppliers.

You need to have more patience, communicate more often, simplify anything you can simplify (from their perspective), and make it easier than ever to work with you. Companies with downsized staffs or those doing everything from a survival mindset don’t have the time and energy for complex hassles. Anything you do to make it easy to do business with you will pay dividends.

In fact, every touchpoint with your customers at every stage of their life cycle could use a review. You may find that in some departments of your company every single customer interaction needs to be simpler than ever, easier than ever, and as frictionless as possible.

Even those who aren’t struggling will benefit. Some departments may not need changes. Thing is, you won’t know until you take a look, discuss with your team, and perhaps make that part of your next conversation with customers.

The more you know about how they’re impacted, how they’re adapting, how their “now” looks – the better you’ll be able to serve them and the more likely they’ll be able to keep you around as a vendor.

If your prospects & customers are focused on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or similar needs from a business perspective), then products, processes, services and vendors that feel like luxuries, hassles, or complications will be easy to discard. Take steps to avoid being one of them.

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Categories
customer retention Customer service Getting new customers Management

Eliminate customer service

What would happen if 80% or even 90% of your customer service calls went away?

Wait, what?

Oh, I know. You’re proud of the quality of your customer service. I suspect that if I asked your customers, they’d tell me all sorts of great things about how you took care of them, fixed a problem, have a wonderful service team, wear Tyvek shoe covers into their home, etc.

That’s good. Great service is important – right down to the shoe covers. So important that we’ve discussed it repeatedly. Thing is, there’s something better than great service: Service you never have to give because your customers never needed it.

I’m not talking about providing no service at all. I’m talking about taking steps to ensure that the amount of service you have to provide to resolve problems is tiny. Not just any problems – simply the preventable ones.

Damaged during shipping

Outside of very serious package damage that sometimes happens in transit, imagine if you no longer had to provide customer service related to a shipped item showing up broken. You can’t prevent incidental breakage, right?

Let’s try. Have your team back a box like they usually would. Go upstairs in your shop. Ask your shipping team to watch from outside as you toss that box out the window. Did anything break? Pack it better. Did the box crush? Try a better box. Wash, rinse, repeat. If your team is watching, they’ll have ideas to get it fixed. You won’t have to test anymore – they’ll get it and take over.

Obviously, if you ship heavy items that will always break the box during a fall like that, a different test makes sense. Your service and shipping departments probably know what kind of damage is in that 80-90% of damage claims.

If you can eliminate 80-90% of the “my stuff arrived and it’s broken” customer service, how much labor, time, re-work, COGS, repacking expense, reshipping expense, employee frustration, and customer first impression damage can you save?

Some of that will fall to the bottom line. Increased margin. More profit without making a single additional sale. No one wants that, right?

It’s a simple example, and perhaps one that you’ve explored because there are hard costs and well, it’s pretty obvious. But did you take the idea further?

Eliminating service

Eliminating service may not seem obvious – even if you’re service improvement oriented. Many of us focus on optimizing support responses and minimizing support ticket turnaround times, only to completely forget to see what could be eliminated, rather than simply working toward making our responses better and faster.

So, back to the original question. What would it take to eliminate 80 to 90 percent of your service “events” in a few departments? What if you only manage to eliminate 50% or even 20% of these events across a few departments? It adds up fast – it’s all overhead.

What could the staff who currently handles these service calls get done that would help the customer (and your company) even more?

Ever have to go back to a customer site to fix something that didn’t get done right the first time? Ever have to go to a customer site to fix something some other company messed up? How does this impact your customer retention? Referrals?

Getting it right the first time is a competitive advantage. Every visit to a customer’s business or home wastes their time and increases the cost of whatever you do – both to you and them. It increases the likelihood that they’ll call you again, much less refer you to a friend who needs the same sort of work done. This isn’t about their desire to help you. If they refer you, it’s because they want to recommend someone who is going to help their friend have a good experience. Otherwise, no referral will come.

Eliminate friction

Preventable problems are the kind that create friction. Friction that slows down adoption of the product or service you sold them. Friction that increases their frustration with something they just purchased. Friction that creates negative first impressions. Friction that creates second thoughts and buyer remorse. Friction that slows down payments.

These problems may seem out of your control, but they aren’t. They may seem may seem expensive to fix, but their prevention saves money in the long run. What service can you drastically reduce or eliminate and in doing so, create a better client experience?

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Categories
Management

The lure of binary decisions

More people had died in the first month of World War I than in the entire US Civil War (~750K). The Belgian / German / French battles took off like a forest fire, leaving more than a hundred thousand dead each week of that first month.

At the time, John Maynard Keynes said World War I wouldn’t last a year. He’s quoted as saying something along the lines of “As soon as financial liquidity dries up, the combatants will be forced to come to terms.

World War I lasted four years and four months. 20 million people died.

It’s a good illustration about making decisions (or coming to a conclusion) based on normal decision making parameters and processes for normal times. World War I was far from normal.

For that reason, when you hear “This can’t last…the economy”, consider the mindsets, data, & thought processes that yielded such comments.

The limits of binary decisions

We’ve limited ourselves to binary decisions for decades. This party or that party. My ego vs. your ego. This skin color, that skin color. Your school vs. my school. My needs vs. yours. This county vs. that county. This state or region vs. that state or region. Their rage vs ours. Often, the result is that we demand that something (or someone) must lose in order for our thing (or us) to win.

We’ve observed others making decisions this way as we grew up, or as our careers advanced. We learned to make decisions by watching others do so, right or wrong.

What I’m getting to is the idea that there’s “normal” and “whatever this is”, as if there can only be two possibilities. It’s the same thing Keynes appeared to be looking at. None of us are immune to it. Keynes was a pretty smart guy – and still, it appears he fell under the spell of either / or. The businesses that don’t adjust, that don’t consider what’s going on in the minds of their clientele.. what have they missed?

We have to get better at making decisions. While some decisions are either / or, quite a few aren’t. Be careful not to assume that your only choice is this or that.

Are there any other options?

The next time you need to make a decision, consider every other choice you have – even the ones that might seem stupid under “normal” conditions. That includes considering the choice of doing nothing at all. While doing nothing isn’t always a good choice, it’s a possibility. Ruling it out without any consideration avoids the thought processes involved. The ideas you ponder when considering doing nothing can absolutely impact the option you eventually choose.

Your fallback position is that “old normal”. Maybe in your business, the current normal, the new normal(s) and the old normal are more or less the same. For many businesses & customers, they aren’t.

The current normal

Current normal? Yes. While recent events tend to make us think of new normal vs. old normal (there’s that binary choice again), you don’t have to think too hard to realize that for some businesses, there have been a series of “normals” this year. Each week or two has been a bit of a moving target, each one its own normal, depending on what your business does.

That series of normals offer lessons and things to think about, whether you experience them first hand in your business, or externally as a customer or interested observer.

Each “normal” has provided conditions to deal with internally under your roof as well as with suppliers and service vendors you use. It certainly supports the theorem that “One is the worst number in business” that we’ve discussed over the years (ie: one customer / supplier / key employee, etc).

Don’t get comfortable

If future “normals” last longer, we’ll be tempted to assume the newest, longest lasting normal is going to stick. Assuming that could lure you back into either / or binary decision making.

I suggest adopting a flexible, open minded, inquisitive, research, and data-driven decision making process that has you and your people repeatedly on the lookout for tiny movements that signal bigger changes.

Maybe you’ve always done this. If not, there’s no time like the present to start. There may be a new normal at some point, but it isn’t likely to announce itself upon arrival. Use the current state of change to hone your decision making skills. Keep getting better at it.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Leadership Management

On being essential

Is your business “essential”? I don’t mean the Federal distinction. I mean in view of those who you serve, because those are the only ones who matter. No matter how bad the economy or anything else in the future might get, is your business serving essential needs for your clients?

Essential people

The people you’ve hired are a big part of what makes your business essential to your customers. Finding, keeping, and training people who love to take care of your customers is real work. Taking “good care” of them includes training, coherent management, “real wages” and benefits.

A business doesn’t pay “real wages” and benefits because someone else wants them to. They do it because it puts their team at ease, allowing them to focus on the quality, speed, and value of their work. A team that’s not worried about their job has more headspace to attend to their work. It puts a fence around them, making it hard for others to poach them.

Essential customers

Reach out to your very best customers. Call them or write an email that’s very clearly personal and not mail merged. Find out what their concerns are. Do they assume you’re going to be around? Remove any doubt. If you’re having problems, be square with them. You should be asking them if there’s anything causing critical problems right now. Are they things you can help with? Tell them specifically how. If you can’t, can you suggest someone who can? Be the one helping, not the one just trying to make a transaction happen.

You probably know the customers who are most on the edge. What can you manage to do for them? Even a small gesture that buys them a little more breathing room is worthwhile and will certainly be remembered.

Made in your image

When I see a company doing things that make them less essential than they could be, I tend to break down what they do well and what can they do better. In many small businesses, the capabilities and behavior of the businesses mimic the capabilities and behavior of the owner. Most owners are essential to our business – at least until our business matures. Some of this “made in your image” thing is good. Some isn’t. I battled it for years, as many of us do. One of the battles was over bookkeeping.

I’m not a fan of accounting. Accountants are fine. The actual work of accounting and bookkeeping always made me crazy. I know, I know. Seems silly given what I do. It is. Ever have one of those things you know you need to get better at even though you really don’t like it? That was accounting for me.

The thing is, accounting isn’t there solely to keep the tax man happy. The quality of your business decisions will improve substantially as your understanding of your numbers improves. No, I don’t mean the tax code and all of that. I mean the numbers that fall out of day to day operations. They all fall to your books. They’re metrics, but not the normal kind I talk about. Lots of metrics tell a story – and accounting does too. If you don’t listen to the numbers (including the accounting ones), the story won’t go how you want it to.

Mirrors reflect everything

I tell this story to reinforce that my company was a direct reflection of me during my “bleah, accounting” phase and that was not a good thing. It was important to work on (or delegate) the things that I don’t want to be reflected from me. Becoming essential means doing those things for your business.

Unless you’ve worked at it, your business reflects the things you’re good at, as well as those things you need to work on. The mirror reflects everything in front of it. Your business doesn’t have to, but you have to make a conscious decision that this is going to happen.

You have to choose which of your behavior your business reflects and which ones it does better than you. This will, of course, require some delegation or some training, or perhaps both. For me, it was both.

Customers decide

Your customers decide whether or not your business is essential to them. The behavior of your company and the value it provides to your customers is how they decide.

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Categories
Management strategic planning

Grandma’s Rainy Day

Almost every Saturday, my grandmother and grandfather would load up the LTD and my grandmother would head to the farmer’s market. In their area, it was a massive open air building under a roof. Every booth had a waist high table with edges and a hanging scale. We’d spend the day there, selling vegetables, butter and a few other food items.

After we got home, the first thing we’d do after I helped her unload the car is head to her dresser. She’d pull part of the day’s take from the farmer’s market and stuff it into a bank bag she kept in the back of her dresser drawer. The rest would stay in her purse. One day, I finally got curious enough to ask her about it. She called it “her rainy day money” and explained the idea to me. As a farm family, you never know what unexpected weather is going to bring. Even as a young boy, the possible impacts were obvious, even though I had no understanding of how devastating a major storm at the wrong time would be to their cash crop.

Prediction isn’t protection

That’s the problem with storms. Several decades later, our weather detection and prediction capabilities are much better, but it doesn’t matter all that much. Even with days of notice before the arrival of a massive thunderstorm, hurricane or untimely freeze, there’s still not all that much you can do about it unless you can harvest your crop before it arrives.

Sure, grandma can cover a reasonable amount of garden plants with a sheet to prevent freeze damage. You can’t easily cover dozens of acres to protect against a hailstorm or similarly damaging event. If you’re my grandparents and your only income is from that farm, then the rainy day fund could literally be a life-saver. 

Hurricanes and other threats

Hurricane Camille (1969) and Agnes (1972) both hammered their isolated farm with very high rainfall, yet I don’t recall my grandparents ever being in dire straits as a kid. Sure, grandparents don’t always share the extent of their financial situation with young kids, but kids notice things in adult behavior, particularly if it changes. I never saw anything that made me wonder – or they were good at hiding it.

My grandparents’ primary cash crop was tobacco. Extremely heavy rain early or late in the growing season can devastate a crop. Their crops were on sloping land, which I suspect was by design. Hail could destroy a crop. 

Farmers face many challenges, including market fluctuations, global relationships, and “Big Ag”. Grandma’s rainy day fund protected my grandparents personal economy on a scale that was workable for their small farm.

Another term for rainy day fund is business reserves. 

Hindsight is 20/20

Today, a lot of businesses are in a bad spot. Some have closed. I don’t know their situations, but I suspect some portion of them could have benefited from having a rainy day fund, or perhaps a larger one. I’m pretty sure that every business that’s been hit hard would look back and be grateful if their former self made sure they had 60 days of reserves. 

I don’t mean to make light of this or bust on you when you’re down. I’ve been there. I know how it feels. Building business reserves is hard, particularly when starting up or starting over. You’ve got demands at home. You want to take better care of your staff. Growth and other projects want their share. Every single dollar of revenue has multiple demands on it. Old news, but still true.

Work on your rainy day fund

I hope businesses that have taken a hit can restart and get back to business. It’s hard. You think back to all the challenges you faced over the last five years or so – knowing that restarting means you’ll probably have to face some of them again. 

Whether you’re starting over or not, knowing what you know now, consider budgeting a rainy day fund into your monthly business budget. Not “I should do this someday”, but a specific amount or percentage. Decide how much you want to have in reserve for some future rainy day. Carve it out every day, week or month. Maybe you already do this. If so, double down on your business’ ability to take a punch. It’s something you’ll never regret, plus Grandma will be even more proud of you. 

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Categories
Business culture Customer relationships Entrepreneurs Management

Predictions, models, tramps, & thieves

I know, you weren’t expecting a reference to Sonny & Cher.

Technical people (programmers, doctors, scientists and the like) aren’t typically considered to be good communicators to the public at large. Good communicators like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson stand out because they’re adept at explaining very technical subjects in a way that’s understandable to everyone. Sure, they have time to prepare, but that doesn’t guarantee content everyone else can understand.

This is one reason why we’re so frustrated with the inaccuracy of “predictions” about things like weather, fantasy football player performance, stock market behavior, hurricane tracks, asteroid paths, and COVID impacts.

How many science-y people in these roles are saying something like… “This is a model. This is how models work. A model is not a promise. It is a set of results from a bunch of calculations based on the data we have today – and the data we don’t have yet. When the data changes, the results coming from the models will change.

The lack of this kind of communication causes modeling to be devalued by everyone else.

What you don’t know

Data changes rapidly – weekly, daily, hourly. Some of today’s data could be inaccurate. We may not know that until tomorrow’s data arrives, or a sensor fails.

Consider hurricanes. Hurricane models “predict” their path & severity. The output changes as variables are added /changed / deleted, and as varialbe importance changes. As the hurricane gets closer to shore (or as the time to make your third round draft pick nears), models become more accurate because there are fewer variables, & the possible range of still-useful variables shrinks.

What don’t we know?

When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, he was asked about then-recent discoveries about WMDs in Iraq. The questions were legitimate as was his answer, though he was mocked for it at the time.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Donald Rumsfeld (2002), speaking as U.S. Secretary of Defense

Anyone who has worked with business metrics, science, or fantasy football knows that he was right.

Despite this variability & the knowledge that tomorrow could look much different, we often have to make decisions using today’s data.

Predicting people performance

If you’re trying to predict the performance of a NFL player, it’s equally difficult. We know a player has a 44″ vertical, runs a 4.2 second 40 yard dash, and is a three year All-Star (and more), yet we still can’t accurately predict his stats for next game.

We don’t know that his mother is sick, or that a tiny injury is bothering him intermittently. We might not notice tiny performance differences that affect a game’s outcome. Perhaps only the player who covers him will notice.

After the game, the coach might tell the press that they called different plays “because he’s hurting a little bit” as a ploy to distract their next opponent. It’s Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown” to most of us.

You don’t know when you draft a great quarterback that you’ll lose him for the season in week seven because he tripped over his own feet during practice. Likewise, if you don’t know your best salesperson’s mother has terminal cancer, you won’t know that (or how) it affects their work.

Will models help you?

How’s your team? Is anyone challenged by something that impacts them like a nagging injury? How distracted would you be in that situation? What would help you? What needs do your people have that they don’t normally have? How can you help? Can they help each other?

What aspects of your clients’ performance could be predictive? What data is indicative of their performance? What *was* indicative but has changed? What don’t you know? Have you checked in with them? How can you help? Can they help each other?

Can performance modeling help you see performance changes earlier? Can models help you make better decisions earlier?

What don’t you know?