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Does talk of hiring diversity make you cringe?

food for thought
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

Does talk of hiring diversity make you cringe, or does it mean something positive?

“Diversity” often takes on highly-charged meanings due to personal experiences, historical events and/or substantial media attention.

Fact is, diversity means many things, each of which can strengthen a company – just as the introduction of a foreign substance like reinforcing iron bars (rebar) strengthens a concrete structure, allowing it to bear heavier loads.

How diversity opens new markets

A few years back, my software’s user base was expanding to the north and south. When it reached Canada, we hit a wall because we didn’t support their European-style tax systems.

When we became the only software to support the then three different Canadian national and provincial sales tax structures, it opened a large new market to us. As our Canadian market grew, we were reminded that the province of Quebec requires that business documents presented to the public (our customers’ customers) are available in both French and English. The law doesn’t require that your entire software program be bilingual, however.

Until my software could produce receipts, invoices and other customer-facing paperwork in both French and English, it would be risky for a customer in Quebec to use our software. They’d be taking the chance that someone would ask for a French-language invoice, be refused and then be reported to the agency that monitors such things.

Why risk that? Why take the chance of silently telling their French-speaking customers that they’re “less important” than English-speaking customers?

Internationalization is a big, often costly investment for software companies. We decided to add additional language support, but we did so strategically (rather than globally) by adding the ability for customers to replace the text portions of invoices, receipts and other customer-facing paperwork with the appropriate French word. We didn’t do the translation – we made it easy for our customers to do it so that their paperwork would say exactly what they wanted.

The result? We were the only product for our market that could legally be used in Quebec Рa point that our salespeople were quick to point out when a Qu̩b̩cois prospect compared our software with another.

Our investment paid off again when our customers in primarily English-speaking countries found new non-English speaking customers who were ready to buy. It showed they cared enough to produce paperwork in their customers’ language – whatever it was. Our software made them look good – which made us look good.

Product internationalization, in any form, is one kind of diversity.

You could take the opposite view and limit your market – the opposite of what most business owners want. These changes were made without adding additional language speakers to our staff, so they were relatively inexpensive to implement.

What can you do to expand into other markets and geographical areas?

Diversity solves hiring problems

Diversity in hiring often refers solely to gender and skin color. I think it should take on a far broader meaning that includes remote and/or part-time employees.

Business owners often comment about the difficulty of finding great quality, highly-motivated employees, i.e., “A players”.

Businesses either can’t or won’t take advantage of telecommuting. For those who won’t, fear of telecommuting reflects on management’s attitude, rather than  on the best of breed employee they “couldn’t” hire.

Having staff members in multiple states and time zones isn’t the easiest situation to manage – particularly if your business systems are weak. Yet the payoff of having the best available people doing your work is worth it, even if they’re two time zones away.

What about experienced professionals who choose to work part-time? Would you choose a high-achieving “A player” from 9:30am to 2:45pm three days a week, over someone who perhaps isn’t as skilled or motivated, but is happy to fill a chair from 8am to 5pm?

Think about all the experienced professionals with young kids that they drop off and pick up from school each day. They fit that midday time frame. I have no doubt that there are people in this situation who have exactly the expertise you need.

Another overlooked angle is the diverse range of industry background / culture illustrated by the graphic at the top of the page. People from different cultures or industries can offer additional perspective that, when combined with your existing expertise, might transform your business’ response to your market’s challenges.

Note about today’s post: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

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Doing work they’d be proud of

William M. Paxton 1920s
Creative Commons License photo credit: deflam

As I was up early to write (as I start most every morning), the reading that primes my writing time started with a piece by @Umairh Haque, who writes for the Harvard Business Journal.

It referred to a question Steve Jobs asked John Sculley (at the time, President of Pepsico) when trying to recruit him to join Apple as CEO.

The question: “Do you want to make sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to help change the world?”

Before you think this is a blue sky kumbaya sort of thing, it’s clear as day that Jobs intended to make money and that he wasn’t worried that Sculley just wanted to sell the world a Pepsi. One of the things Steve was asking Sculley was if he was doing work whose expected outcome was worth his time and his skill set.

He thought someone with Sculley’s skills had more in him than sugar water. Years later, we all know Sculley’s attempt to Pepsi-fy Apple failed. Perhaps the best thing Sculley did was fire Jobs – because of what it enabled him to do NeXT (and Pixar).

It hit me while reading this article that most people who aren’t customers or prospects don’t truly know what I do – not even the ones closest to me. When that really hit home was when I thought “Would my granddaughters be proud to talk about the work I’ve thrown myself at?”

Maslow’s pyramid

Chip Conley talks about this in his book that tells how he applies Maslow’s teachings in his management of boutique hotel company Joie De Vivre and how those practices saved his company after 9/11.

He tells a story about a woman who has cleaned toilets and made beds for guests for over 20 years. I suspect people walk past her and think “Poor woman, she’s stuck in this dead end job cleaning hotel toilets forever.” Many probably feel sorry for her.

When Conley spoke with her, he found that she loves her job and feels very differently about it than you might suspect. 20 years later, she misses her home country and her family, yet America has given her opportunities despite spending her work time picking up travelers’ hotel rooms and cleaning their toilets. To her, cleaning a hotel room means making someone comfortable when they are away from their home and missing their family. Making their room a little more homey and comfortable is what makes her proud of her work.

Think about that for a moment. Have you ever checked into a motel/hotel and found things broken or dirty? Doesn’t feel much like home. In fact, it increases your frustration with traveling, being away from home and so on. She understands that. She knows that the work she does has great value to the next person who stays in the rooms she is responsible for and she is proud of it.

Grunt work

Many businesses have job duties like this. Just because it is “grunt work” doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Their work and personality at 2:00 am is the face of your business to many customers.

If you’ve checked in late at night in a low-priced, chain motel, you probably encountered the night manager at the desk. Night managers are typically in charge of dealing with the day’s books. They aren’t often hired for their engaging front desk attitudes.

Yet when the weary traveler appears at the front desk, the sometimes hair-mussed, sleepy night manager who is working their second shift of the day (on their second job) is the face of that company.

In the morning at checkout time, the perky awake person who is all smiles is a substantially different persona. They’re the face the company intentionally portrays, but many guests never even encounter them because of automated checkout.

It’s the biggest difference you see first-impression-wise as you travel up the “food chain” of the hotel/restaurant business.

When the folks on the night shift are as professional and proud of their work as those on day shift, then you’re on the right track. It isn’t all them – a lot of it is a result of your management.

How do you make them feel about their work?

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How to keep cloud service failures from affecting your business

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to consider

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

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

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

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

Why not keep it all in-house?

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

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

Security

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

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

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

Electrical power and internet

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Are they sleeping well?

Do you know what’s going on in the minds of your customers?

We’ve been talking about invisible signals a lot lately, but sometimes the signals are far from invisible.

Back in the day, my software company called every customer once a month. We didn’t do it because it was fun. We did it because we felt it was critical that we knew what was on their mind and what their concerns were that month. A tiny side benefit of this frequent contact was that they didn’t expect every contact from us to be a sales call.

During these brief calls, we engaged in meaningful conversation to find out how things were going. Any concerns? Suggestions? Any upcoming issues that we need to be aware of? How’s business? Is your wedding season booking going well? (or whatever)

If you don’t know what’s on your customers’ minds, you’d better find out.

PS: Paying an ESL speaker to call them is the wrong solution, by the way. Whoever calls the client needs to be a native speaker in the client’s language – no matter what it is. This is not the place to save a buck.

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Juggling Tony

Self With 5 Balls
Creative Commons License photo credit: schani

In a recent Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz once again admonishes us about multitasking and offers some tips offering multitasking relief in the context of meetings, response expectations and taking breaks.

Why is multitasking “suddenly” the hip thing to rail against?

I suspect it’s a reflection of a number of things – including the economy, the need to get more dont to survive (much less to thrive) and most of all, because the bully pulpit is a reflection of the most valuable (and often most costly) lessons we’ve learned.

The obvious negatives to juggling are still there: Quality, exhaustion (ask any new mom) and stress, for example.

Show me

The major pain point isn’t what you might think: Everything takes longer.

It should seem obvious, but it might not hit home until you see this illustration.

Imagine you have 3 tasks (A, B and C) that each take 8 hours to complete.

  • If you multi-task each one for an hour at a time, it looks like this: ABCABCABCABCABCABCABCABC
  • If you juggle each task for two hours at a time, it looks like this: AABBCCAABBCCAABBCCAABBCC
  • If you focus on each task for four hours at a time, it looks like this: AAAABBBBCCCCAAAABBBBCCCC
  • If you focus on each task until completed, it looks like this: AAAAAAAABBBBBBBBCCCCCCCC

Using the first method, task A is done after twenty-two hours of work.

Using the second method, task A is done after twenty hours of work.

Using the third method, task A is done after sixteen hours of work.

Using the fourth method, task A is done after eight hours of work.

Eight vs twenty-two.

The real problem

What’s most disturbing about this is that we ENCOURAGE multi-tasking as employers and co-workers.

We step into someone’s office with “Got a minute?” question when that question could be resolved with 5 minutes searching Google or just looking around the office a little. Even if we get the answer in 30 seconds from that person, we’ve interrupted their work and their focus. In some cases, it might have taken them as long as 20 minutes to get as deep as necessary into their work (common for highly technical work).

We let email, phones (of any kind), instant messenger and text messages divert our attention with zero notice. Got an email? The lizard brain that Seth Godin refers to is at the base of your skull screaming “STOP EVERYTHING, I MUST ANSWER IT NOW!”

The unresponsive one?

I was called to task for this not all that long ago under the guise that I was being “unresponsive”. My take on it was that I was not being unresponsive, I was simply focusing on work scheduled months earlier by a paying customer who likely wouldn’t have been excited to find me being pulled away from focusing on their work every few minutes by a phone call or email, much less a tweet.

It’s not unlike when you’re reading the paper and a four year old is asking you 20 questions. Your reading and your attention to the four year old will not only suffer, but you will probably resent the interruptions and feel bad about it later.

Is that the mindset you want to have with the four year old? Probably not. Keeping that in mind – it’s also not the state of mind you want to be in (“Darn that phone….CAN I HELP YOU????”) when answering the phone or an email from an inquiring customer or prospect.

The unresponsive (or just slow, you make the call) one is really the one who is a slave to their email, phone, chat, text messages and so on and can’t stay focused for more than a few minutes.

The Naysayers

At this point, the eternally busy doing little of substance and those who work on big projects are rolling their eyes and pondering whether they should change the channel.

The truly productive ones already know what I’m about to say. This isn’t about seeing how many things you can shuffle between at once. It’s ultimately about breaking things down into reasonable-sized piles of work and focusing on the pieces rather than the entire project.

It’s OK when entertainer Penn Jillette juggles, but it’s not something to do with your work.

 

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Avoiding the hurt

Not long ago, we talked about reviewing the recent performance of your business and making adjustments based on what you find.

We ended that conversation like this…

Beyond the bumps, thereâ??s something missing here. Reacting after the fact.

Assessment and adjustment after the bleeding starts. Evaluating whatâ??s going on because the calendar says so.

Does that make sense in an ultra-competitive world? I think there has to be a better way.

One reason for this is human nature. If you feel you don’t have to stop and take the time to assess / measure what’s going on as often as I say or as often as the calendar says, you’re going to do it less often than you should.

Eventually, you can expect that to hurt.

By the dashboard light

This isn’t about killing pain or temporarily avoiding that hurt. I’d prefer to *prevent* the pain if possible. Wouldn’t you?

To set the context for one approach to preventing the pain, think about your car.

You don’t pull off of the highway to check your car’s speed, water and oil temperature. Your car’s dashboard provides information about its current condition while you’re moving, eliminating the need to pull over, stop, get out, change clothes, look under the hood and get your hands dirty. Not to mention how hard it is to judge your speed that way.

If your car requires immediate attention, something on your dashboard lights up so that you can’t help but notice it and (hopefully) attend to it.

Seems to me that you would benefit if your business could do that. Rather than waiting for you to sit down, crunch numbers and summarize things so you can make a decision – the equivalent of pulling off the highway and looking under the hood – why not setup your business to self-report just like your car?

Trends and Emergencies

In business situations requiring immediate attention, you want to know right then – much like the dashboard “idiot light” but smarter.

Rather than waiting to arrive at those “immediate attention” situations, it would be even better if your business notified you when conditions existed that could lead to a situation like that, giving you the time to take action or make a decision before things get ugly.

Sure, sometimes “immediate attention” situations happen instantly with no warning, but that really isn’t typical.

More often than not, there are leading indicators to the impending crisis. As your business operates, it creates feedback information about itself, about events that occur (such as customer interactions, so-many-days-since-they-paid) and so on. Yes, this is obvious. Each of those pieces of information trends in some direction, even if that direction is “same as last month”.

If they start trending toward that “Check engine” light, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest you’d want to know that well before the light comes on.

More than a handful

Keeping track of 100 of these by hand is almost impossible, or at least way more work than most people want to do or see ROI in. As a result, we might keep track of a small handful by hand. If we could monitor them in an automated fashion, we could monitor quite a few handfuls without extra effort. That would allow us to spend more time improving our business (much less doing business) and let our automated monitors tell us what we might otherwise not notice.

For example, when a trend direction starts to change over a predetermined period of time (or amount, or in too many areas at once), you want to know about it sooner rather than later. In your car, you want to find out about your coolant getting too warm *before* it overheats and strands you in the middle of nowhere at the worst possible time.

Dirty Hands

While an automated dashboard is great for keeping you out from under the hood on a daily basis, it’s still sometimes necessary to get your hands dirty. Don’t let your automated systems tempt you into avoiding this effort.

These systems allow you to keep substantially better track of more things on a day to day basis without spending all day “checking, checking, checking”. They educate you about problems far earlier than normal and let you focus on the real work – the stuff that creates revenue and profit.

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What’s your plywood?

“When youâ??re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, youâ??re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. Youâ??ll know itâ??s there, so youâ??re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

What’s your plywood?

PS: Thanks for raising the bar, Steve. Be well.

 

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Business culture Competition Customer relationships Feedback Improvement Leadership quality service Small Business

Feedback and the Great Client

Feedback-wise…

  • A great client is one who asks tough questions incessantly, almost always in a polite manner.
  • A good client is one who asks tough questions regularly, sometimes politely.
  • A bad customer is one who asks poor questions, regardless of how they ask them.

Tough questions are your friend. Theyâ??re like competitors because they make you better. Or at least, they should.

As for those that aren’t yet great? Your job is to help them achieve it.

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Taking Care

One of the lessons my dad impressed on me when I was old enough to begin to “get it” (or so I thought) was “Be a good listener.”

Naturally, the meaning of that phrase changed for me over the years.

  • As a teenager, it had a rather obvious meaning, “Pay attention and you might learn something.”
  • As a college student, the meaning changed a bit, but the fundamentals were the same.
  • As a newly married guy and later as a dad, I fine-tuned it a bit for the roles I found myself in.

Ultimately, it was about listening before speaking or acting. A handy business lesson if there ever was one.

At work, it became far more complex as it became about listening…really listening to customers (including other people’s customers) about the detective work necessary to create and retain customer loyalty, and sometimes, about figuring out what wasn’t being said while the words still flowed.

Sometimes the most important words from a customer are the ones they fail to say.

Despite the complexity that lesson has taken on at times, the core message is still the important one – a message of listening to learn, one of the most valuable lessons my father taught me.

What level of care do you deliver?

My current context for the most personal level of service was set by Hospice of Cumberland County (Tenn.), but the who and what isn’t really the context I’m trying to get at. The level itself is what I want you to arrive at, regardless of what you do.

Consider the level of care that you’d give to a sick family member. It’s likely to always exceed that given during the course of business, but it’s a standard of care that you can consider when designing different levels of service in your business.

A level of care we’re speaking of is very personal. It isn’t suited for just any business and perhaps not for just any customer, but that isn’t my decision to make about your business. Fact is, it might be perfect for a subset of your customers…or perhaps all of them.

As personal as the end of life care you’d provide for a family member? Isn’t that a bit much? Sure it is.

I suggest that because it brings a level of personal touch to what you deliver that you might not ever have considered. While you still might not deliver something that’s of the same class as end of life care for a family member, it might just provoke a thought that transforms your high end business. That which transforms your high end business quite often transforms the rest of it as well.

What level of care have you failed to offer to your clients? Beyond levels of care, what care itself are you failing to deliver to your clientele?

Doing it right

The other lesson I remember most is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” The unspoken second part of that is “That doesn’t mean that you should do less.”

You might wonder if there is a conflict there, but I don’t believe so. Doing the job the best you can, each time, doesn’t mean perfect. It just means best for you given the skills you possess at that time *and* with a commitment to continuous improvement.

Not starting a project (or a piece of work) because the outcome can’t be perfect is far worse than finishing it with your best, yet imperfect effort. What have you not started because you felt you couldn’t deliver perfect?

Oh and the third part…focus. Doing things right requires focus on those things. Doing 100 things poorly serves no one well, least of all you. What efforts are you making to get and stay focused? To deflect, destroy or defer distractions?

The undercurrent

Over the last seven weeks, I had many opportunities to learn while caring for my dad. Whether from him, my mom or their friends, the lessons were almost always about taking care.

Are you truly taking care of your clientele? Is there a level of care that you’ve neglected, ignored or simply failed to design?

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Raise The Bar!

Monkeys on a Banana
Creative Commons License photo credit: Furryscaly

During some recent travel to deal with some family stuff, I’ve had a chance to see how business is going elsewhere in the U.S.

One thing caught my eye over the weekend and I think it merits some discussion.

It illustrates how much room there is for a coherent, attentive business in the marketplace…even in today’s economy.

Billboards

If I look, did it work? Nevermind, that was a few weeks ago…

Seriously, I saw a billboard that stated a HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) company’s unique sales position (USP) and / or differentiating factor.

It was “We’ll be on time.”

If they aren’t on time, the service is free.

They didn’t advertise the quality of their service or the highly trained nature of their service people.

They simply said “Unlike everyone else, we’ll be on time and if we aren’t, our work will be free.”

One of the biggest time-wasters foisted upon consumers these days is the “We’ll be there between 8 and 5 or noon and 5” etc. People are unwilling to commit an entire day to deal with your inability to manage your work schedule, but they have no choice in many cases.

This HVAC company has a much smaller window of “we’ll be there”, but they’ve decided to accept responsibility when they mismanage their time.

I think it’s an effective sales tool that speaks directly to consumers’ pet peeves, but it begs the question “How much lower can businesses lower the bar?”

Are you lowering the bar or raising it? Which benefits you and frustrates your competition? Which makes it easier for consumers to choose you?

What are you doing that your competition is unable or unwilling to do? Are you leading your market or simply showing up?

Raise the bar.