Competition Management Marketing Positioning Small Business Software Strategy

When a competitor gives you an opening, hammer them

Over the weekend, a fellow software developer who makes software for auto repair shops pointed out this quote from his competitor:

<vendor> would like to mention a couple of things about the desktop operating systems. Microsoft is having a lot of issues with the Vista operating system. When putting together a new computer, <vendor> recommends that you buy it with XP Professional and when the bugs have been worked out, then upgrade to Vista. If you do your research on the web you can find out the issues that are causing problems.

My comment to him: You oughta be hammering them.

Rhetorical questions to ask your prospects after pointing out this quote from your competitor:

  • Why do I need you to tell me to waste my valuable time researching problems in Microsoft’s new operating system? I thought YOU were supposed to be the expert, as the leading vendor in this niche. If you’re asking mechanics to do their own operating system research, why don’t we just spent that time researching other shop software instead?
  • As a mechanic, you have to keep up with multiple automakers, model year changes, changes within model years, etc. Do I want a vendor who can’t even keep up with Microsoft releasing an operating system every 3 or 4 years?
  • What other message does that send you about their company, their management, their technical team and their software?
  • What reaction would you get if you decided that you werent going to work on new vehicles “until they worked the bugs out in them”? Is that the kind of response you want to get from a software vendor?

We saw the same sort of thing in the photography software business when Windows XP came out. Competitors were still stuck on Windows 2000. We were developing sofware on Windows XP, testing on Windows XP and demonstrating the software in our trade show booths on Windows XP…during the Windows XP Beta (ie: well before it was released).

We made it clear what we were using and asked prospects to ask to see the product in the other booth running on Windows XP to prove it ran without issues on XP. Of course, we did this knowing full well that they couldn’t produce that result.

For most software vendors, this should be common sense. For the rest, you can consider them low-hanging fruit as you pick them off.

Marketing Positioning Small Business Strategy

What do your small business customers need that they don’t buy from you?

shineshoes.jpgIâ??ll bet you have a product or service that your clients really need to improve their lives or their business, but for some reason, they rarely buy it.

Every business seems to have one, mine included.
Why is that? Have you ever asked them why they don’t buy it?

If you offer a product or service that almost every client should be buying or using, but most arenâ??t, why arenâ??t you selling it harder, or looking into why it isnâ??t selling, or examining the marketing that promotes it? There has to be a reason.

More often than not, itâ??s an educational issue with your client.
They just donâ??t understand why itâ??s so important or valuable to them – and yes, it is your job to provide that education. How does it help them? Who else has it helped? What are the specific benefits that other clients have seen?

In other words, you might just be using the wrong strategy to sell that product.

One thing that I recommend is to GET SPECIFIC. Give them reasons to want to buy it.

IE: â??So and so saved 42% on their maintenance expenses after moving to our diesel maintenance service.â? or â??Mary Jo Wamplerâ??s retail store web site saw 1200 more visitors per month after using our web traffic improvement strategies. â??

If itâ??s a product, are you marketing it properly? Is it packaged properly?

If itâ??s a service, are you explaining its value in terms that client can relate to, as opposed to technical lingo that only industry experts understand?

Does your sales staff have the training they need to explain the benefits of this product or service? Do you have any information, measurements, feedback etc that would indicate why this product or service doesnâ??t sell?

Imagine the impact on your clients if you were able to show them the value in this under-utilized service or product. Just one client.

So letâ??s think about that â??ugly ducklingâ? product or service you offer.

If your best client started to use it..

  • Would it be worth $10000 per month to them in increased sales?
  • Would it cut their fixed costs by 11% per month?
  • Would it make their staff or business processes more efficient, faster, profitable?
  • Would it prevent 3 lost time work accidents per year?
  • Would it improve the quality of the products and services they deliver?

If any of those things are true (or similar), why wouldnâ??t you find a way to illustrate the value to them?

Find out why you arenâ??t doing a good job of getting the message across.

Now look at the big picture: Regardless of what it does, if most of your clients started using it, imagine the impact on your clients as a whole.

  • Millions of dollars in sales.
  • Millions in fixed (and/or variable) cost savings.
  • Hundreds fewer days of lost time due to accidents, lower insurance costs, healthier employees.

No matter what this product or service does, if it is as valuable to your clients as you think…why donâ??t more clients buy it?

Ask a few of them. Find out why you arenâ??t doing a good job of getting the message across.


  • Take a hard, critical look at how you position this product or service, how you market it, how you sell it, how you demonstrate its value.
  • Take this product or serviceâ??s entire marketing and sales process apart piece by piece and put it back together, tossing the parts that confuse, or don’t add to the value message you’re trying to get across.
  • Figure out where it falls down. What distracts from the benefits you describe.
  • Clarify what confuses.

Most of all, if you really believe this product or service is the thing your clients truly needâ?¦ then find a way to demonstrate to them that it will be one of the most profitable decisions theyâ??ll make.

If it’s one of the most profitable decisions they make, guess how it’ll turn out for you…

Competition Entrepreneurs Management Personal development Small Business Strategy Time management

Blocking time improves small business owner productivity

A week or two ago, we talked about some of the ways I stay productive during disaster modes (hot water heater fails, power outages, transmission blows and strands you in No Man’s Land, etc). During that time, we talked about compartmentalization, schedules, systems and making Microsoft Outlook appointments for everything so that “time vampires” can’t creep in and suck up all the productive time in your schedule.

Another of the ways that I eek out as much productivity as I can is through time blocking.

For example, Wednesday is meeting day for me. No matter what else happens, I have a 90-120 minute chunk carved out of the middle of my Wednesday by our noon Rotary Club meetings.

Rather than try to be “too productive” in tasks that require long term focus in the morning before the meeting, I instead schedule meetings to fill that time. These are meetings that I would have to schedule anyway, so why not block them all together and fill up time that might not be as productive as normal, rather than scatter them in the middle of high-productivity time.

I do the same with phone calls. Friday, I have my call in radio show, plus OpenLine, plus Friday’s just have a knack for being interruption filled. One Friday a month is also partly consumed with returning from Billings group coaching, so at least one of them starts off with a bite taken out of it.

So what do I do? I schedule as many calls by appointment as I can on Friday. I’d rather do them all in a bunch than have them littered throughout a block of time that requires concentrated focus on something.

I don’t do them without an appointment because playing phone tag is annoying and extremely unproductive. Plus I can schedule my day around the call times, rather than have someone call while I’m in places where I don’t want to take calls or during times when calls just wouldn’t work.

How do you step it up to get as much productivity as possible?

Employees Management Small Business

Human capital and other juicy business buzzwords

I’m on the road to Billings today for tonight’s GKIC coaching group meeting so I won’t likely have time to post till tomorrow.

As such, I thought I’d share a signature that I saw last Monday in a newsgroup post. Chock full of high-value business buzzwords that make me tremble uncontrollably (or not), it uses 2 of my favorite words, “human capital”. Oh and CAPITALIZED, no less.

You know what human capital is, don’t you? It’s those folks you might otherwise call your employees, associates, staff, etc. Those same people who are the friendly (or not) face of your company as far as your clients are concerned.

By building business solutions based upon Human Capital, Mulligan Services, Inc. is on the forefront of providing the competitive edge needed in today’s marketplace. Our full-service approach, widespread knowledge of the technology marketplace and qualified staff allows us to respond to your distinctive needs and particular requirements swiftly.

Human Capital“? Pffth.

Is that really what you’re looking for? If so, can I see a deposit slip?

Employees Hiring Management Small Business

Applicants will jump through hoops for your small business – if you ask them


Hiring great employees is one of the most important jobs you have as a small business owner.

It took me a few false starts to figure out that the best way to avoid having to deal with 600 resumes was to concentrate on testing applicants during the application process by giving them hurdles to either jump over or trip over. This eliminated a lot of unnecessary interviewing and resulted in some really great hires.

A few months ago, I hired a virtual assistant using those same techniques, though I did apply a twist or two out of the Victor Cheng Elance playbook.

I put a freebie ad in the Flathead Beacon, which was very clear about my expectations. It resulted in 3 responses.

I replied to all 3 people, 2 of them responded.

Both were given simple tasks with specific instructions. Both completed them, telling me that they were truly interested and could be tested at the next level.

One has since found full-time employment and no longer helps me, but the other has worked out quite well.

Since the initial assignment, she has received numerous others of varying complexity and has performed each to my satisfaction, saving me time and money, and eliminating some tedious work for myself and clients that otherwise might not have gotten done.

Is there some work around your office that can be described step by step and farmed out? Don’t you have more important things to do?

Competition Customer service Email marketing Internet marketing Marketing Small Business Technology

Is your small business website a Store or a Brochure?

Your website should act as if it is a combination of an additional business location and a smart, helpful staff member who never sleeps.

A brochure website may be all you think you need, but brochure sites tend to be relatively static, changing only occasionally.

A store site may or may not have the ability to purchase products online, but it will act as a store or a staff member in every other manner.

For example, you might have

  • copies of repair manuals
  • instructions for how to troubleshoot common issues with the items you sell
  • information about and photos of your staff and their training/expertise/experience
  • checklists that help your prospects and customers decide how to purchase the types of items you sell
  • video or photos that help your clients maintain, operate or use your products
  • a calendar of events for your business, optionally with an appointment calendar if your business performs services by appointment
  • industry news, in plain English, that will be interesting to your clients

Why all this stuff? Because it helps your business become more valuable to your clients than your competitionâ??s brochure website will be.

  • When your clientâ??s lawn mower needs a part on Sunday afternoon and your store is closed, your website can help them.
  • When your client is out of town on business, is swamped in meetings all day and remembers when she gets back to her hotel room at 10pm that she needs to cater a party for 12 next weekend, your website can help not only help her plan a menu and book the catering job – but also provide her with a short list of things to consider when arranging the event. Things she might just forget during that hectic out of town business trip.
  • When a prospect wants to shop anytime outside of your business hours and has some “me time” to analyze their purchase options, your website can be the resource of far more decision-making information than the same old manufacturer-issued info that everyone else’s site contains.
  • When a prospect wants to order a custom replacement door for their home or office, your website can help them figure out what measurements and other info will make the buying process easier when they call or visit your showroom.
  • When a client wants to check on the status of a repair order, a custom order, or schedule any sort of service that you offer.

Seems like common sense, but there are still far too many businesses out there with brochure websites that offer nothing in the way of helping their clients buy and use their products and better utilize their services. Is your website a store…or a brochure?

Retail Small Business

Brookstone: A retailer with a gift (card) for smart business moves

I was in Seattle for the weekend for Rotary President-Elect Training (PETS) and came across a CNN article talking about the potential of gift card losses by consumers when the issuer of the gift card goes bankrupt.

An interesting set of quotes are peppered throughout this article, along with a smart retailer as a finale…

Perspective from the accountants:

The Sharper Image announced late last month that it was suspending the acceptance of gift cards, at least temporarily. It urged shoppers to check the company Web site later this month for an update. That is typical of businesses that reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which treats gift cards as a loan to the company, not as cash.


Even if bankrupt retailers want to honor the gift cards, they may not be able to, according to Howard Kleinberg, director of the bankruptcy practice at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein. Either they can’t afford it or their creditors’ committee or the bankruptcy court may not allow it. Gift cards amount to debt, and therefore holders are not necessarily going to get paid, Kleinberg said.

Perspective from the consumer advocate (who I very much agree with):

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, says “you will see a lot of frustration among customers. You basically stole (money) out of the customers’ pocket. They will never forgive you.”

And finally, a really smart retailer reacts properly to the situation: Brookstone.

Sharper Image’s rival, Merrimack, New Hampshire-based Brookstone Inc., is capitalizing on the situation. It announced last week that it would exchange Sharper Image gift cards for 25 percent off any purchase. “We thought it would be a great way of acquiring new customers,” said Brookstone spokesman Robert Padgett. “We are here for the long haul, and thought it would be good to let them know.”

Obvious? Perhaps, but how many businesses truly have the cojones to DO that? Kudos to Brookstone for being entrepreneurial.

UPDATE March 17, 2008: More on the gift card bankruptcy story from the Wall Street Journal.

Leadership Management Media Montana Small Business

Mopping up messes – What’s the best way?

radio.jpgRecently, a local AM radio station had a former employee charged by the Feds with misdirecting funds and buying more supplies than needed so that he could get prizes and cash as rewards for the large purchases.

Not big news. Not unusual news. Left untouched, it would have largely been forgotten about by the locals at least until the trial.

Enter misguided management.

The AM station’s morning guy reads the news and adds his own flavor to it. He has a huge listener base.  After fifty three years on the air, he IS the station to many listeners.

The morning guy gets into a discussion with the  station manager, who tells him “you’re gone if you read that story”. The story, of course, is the story about the Federal charges lodged against the radio station’s former employee.

So the morning guy quits after 53 years on the air, feeling that his journalistic integrity is being threatened.  Naturally, the obtuse manager refuses all calls on the matter, stirring up the other media outlets even more.

Rather than a non-issue that would have gone away shortly after it was read, this manager has now threatened the perception of the integrity of this station’s news and editorial policy, and has substantially raised awareness and interest in the issue (the morning guy’s departure is front page above the fold main headline news in every area paper).

At this point, it’s natural to start to ask questions about the station’s financial controls, editorial policy, management and a number of other issues.  Clearly, the station manager has burned his reputation in the area, and any relationships he may have had with other media people.

All because the morning guy wasn’t allowed to spend 15 seconds reading a story that had already been in the paper and on local TV.

Got a mess at the office? Don’t sweep it under the rug. It’ll come back to bite you when someone trips over that lump in the rug. Take your lumps, maybe even make a little fun of yourself, and move on. Everyone else will too.

Hide from the public and the media and they’ll be provoked to do the natural thing: Want to know what else you’re hiding and dig for it.

coaching Entrepreneurs Management Personal development Small Business

Does practice pay off for a small business owner?

Yesterday, I was speaking with a music teacher about how she teaches high school kids to play faster pieces of music than they are used to playing.

It’s really a simple technique and it revolves around fundamentals.

They start playing the fast piece very slowly, a measure at a time, breaking it down note by note, then playing it repeatedly. As they perfect it at one tempo, they speed up. This process repeats until they nail it at the tempo that will be used during the performance. The more advanced the group is, the more quickly they learn the piece and accelerate the tempo.

Your business isn’t much different. Most small business people start out as technicians of some kind. They know tires, baking, sewing, programming or landscaping. They might have taken years as an employee to develop and perfect their skill or craft and become an expert.

At some point, they get the bug and go out on their own and became an entrepreneur.

But…they might not have been an expert at running a business, or marketing, or management, or finance. It’s difficult to be an expert at 4000 things, but that is sorely tempting to the entrepreneur.

Instead of practicing a short list of business fundamentals, creating the equivalent of the athlete’s muscle memory, you feel obligated to dabble in a little of everything, remaining an expert at nothing except for your technician skills.

Wouldn’t it make sense to practice a short list of fundamental skills and become competent at them rather than try and perfect 4000 different skills?

5 time martial arts (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, among others) world champion Lloyd Irvin comes to mind. He told me last April that he doesn’t bother learning a bunch of new trick moves “guaranteed” to defeat an opponent, but instead practices the fundamental moves of his art until they are instinctive. His reasoning is that when being attacked, or panicked, you will forget the trick moves and fall back to fundamentals. If you are the master of fundamentals as compared to your opponent, then you will likely come out the winner (and in his case, that’s exactly what happened).

So how do you apply that to your business? Practice fundamentals. Training yourself and your staff so the “muscle memory” in your mind is as good as the muscle memory that Tiger Woods develops by hitting 2000 drives a day.

If you run your business by the seat of your pants, and don’t practice and train to perfect the skills needed to perform at your best, who do you think will win when the Tiger Woods of your industry comes along?

Marketing Small Business

Reverse your clients’ risk – I guarantee it.


Why are so many businesses afraid to have a guarantee that isn’t full of weasel clauses?

You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re so full of exceptions that you end up getting a guarantee of almost nothing, or quite often a guarantee that you wouldn’t bother trying to use in a legitimate situation.

Back in my software company days, we started off with a 30 day money back, no explanation needed guarantee.

We might have taken back 3 or 4 returned packages in the first 4-5 years. Before long, it was 60 days, then 70 days (we had a thing with 7’s for a while), then 90 days.

By reversing the risk a client took by buying our product, it made it easier to buy. Each extension was more successful.

A few years later, we got together with an adviser from California. We were considering moving the money back guarantee to 1 full year from 90 days. The adviser thought we were nuts. They were sure that people would use the software for a year and then ask for their money back, costing us a fortune.

Our angle was a little different. We were convinced that anyone who actually used it for a year would be so hooked, they’d never even consider it and would likely forget all about the money back guarantee by that time.  We figured most of the returns would come in the first 60 days, because that was generally the timeframe for returns.

As you suspect from reading this, the year long guarantee was even more effective at neutralizing prospect concerns. It wasn’t really the timeframe, but the gesture. Clients thought that if we were willing to guarantee the product with a no hassle, no weasel clauses money back guarantee for a year, we must be pretty confident about the capabilities it had. Sales exploded, though I can’t credit all of it to the new guarantee.

What’s your guarantee like? Is it full of weasel clauses? How can you make changes to it in order to take away the risk a prospective client might feel when buying from you for the first time?

What would make them so comfortable with choosing you as their vendor that they simply couldn’t make any other choice? Your guarantee is a major piece of that decision making process.