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For those about to sell, we salute you!

You may not like to sell, particularly if you are a technical person.

It’s even more likely if you’re a technical person who has built a job rather than a business – meaning you might be chief cook and bottle washer as well.

It may be an overused stereotype that technical people don’t like sales and marketing people, but there’s plenty of evidence to back it up.

While there are a number of reasons for these feelings, I find most of them irrational and costly. Yes, costly. I’m sorry to tell you that this irrational phobia is costing you customers and revenue.

Get one, maybe more than one

The obvious solution: Get a salesperson. A good one. You need to find someone to handle that work – particularly if you refuse to do it.

Spend some time teaching them the most important things about the business of your clients/prospects. Show them how your product/service provides value to your clients. Discuss with them what keeps your clients up at night and why – and how your product/service alleviates those concerns.

Use your marketing to identify who has shown interest in what you have to offer. Help them with a win-win setup so you get more new customers and they get paid for bringing your worlds together.

But I shouldn’t have to sell!

You may feel that your product/service is so awesome that people should line up to buy it.

In some way, you might be right. It might be the best product in its market. It might be the best product ever for what it does. But if no one buys it, you won’t be making it for long.

You and Kevin Costner can go build a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield if you like, but Hollywood movies notwithstanding, a throng of people aren’t likely going to show up simply because you built it.

You may not be any good at sales. In general, I guess that’s OK. It might turn out that you bring a lot of value to the business in other ways – meaning that selling may not be the best use of your time.

That doesn’t mean your business shouldn’t take sales seriously.

Owners sell

In recent times, the best known CEO-who-could-sell was Steve Jobs. If nothing else, the contrast between Jobs and his replacement illustrates the serious value that a selling business owner (or CEO) brings to the market.

I don’t mean that you must be as great as Jobs was on stage in front of 5000 people – though that might prove useful.

What I’m saying is that when you run into a prospect somewhere, you’d better be highly capable of telling the story that makes it obvious why someone would want what you sell. If the CEO/owner can’t communicate that to a prospect, a salesperson or the media, something is wrong.

The best CEOs/owners sell. So can you.

It’s a skill, just like welding or programming

Just because you can’t sell today, doesn’t mean you’re stuck. Selling is not a natural born skill. No newborn ever closed a deal, whether breast fed or bottle fed. No one wakes up and decides “Today is the day I become a great salesperson.”

However, sales can be learned, even by technical people who hate doing it. Tip: You usually hate it because you’re doing it wrong.

No matter what, if you have something to sell, a well-prepared sales team (even a team of one) will usually do a better job of selling it to the right people than you and your pile of hastily-made tri-fold brochures could ever do – at least until you put in the effort to learn the craft.

Lifelong

Don’t stop blogging and the other marketing-related things I’ve suggested in the past. While these things produce leads and nurture relationships….they aren’t sales.

Sales produce customers. I’ll bet you’d like to have more lifelong customers.

A sales team can help with that. Understand that I’m not talking about the kind of folks who make the cold read-a-script calls that you still get or the kind of salesperson most people think of when they hear the word “salesperson”.

Those are the salespeople nobody wants to talk to, because they can’t (or don’t) really sell.

Be (or hire) the kind who can and does.

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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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What isn’t Amazon going to change?

During Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) November re:Invent conference, there were a number of interesting talks.

Psst…Don’t run away, not-interested-in-technology folks, this is barely about tech if you look closely.

I got the most out of the sessions centered around the strategic design decisions that Amazon.com (an AWS customer) and other AWS customers were making.

These discussions were all about making a system resilient, scalable and capable of reacting quickly and transparently to changes in the business – while keeping costs as low as possible and tied directly to the business’ actual resource usage.

Naturally, their point was that AWS helps provide this ability to people who build systems.

AWS streamlines server infrastructure the same way LTL trucking streamlines freight shipping.

LTL clients get to use a high quality transportation system without investing a fleet of trucks, warehouses, dispatchers, mechanics and drivers that they may not need two weeks from now. Yet all of those resources and jobs are necessary to get freight from point a to point b. Shippers pay for what they use, meaning less waste, more efficiency, better job security and better asset use.

As I said, this isn’t about tech.

No one ever says

During a discussion on why AWS is always changing, Bezos summed it up simply: “No one ever says ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was more expensive.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was a little less reliable.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish you would improve it at a slower rate.’ ”

Is it any different for you? For the LTL trucking firm?

In a business where inexpensive, high quality delivery whose cost tied to usage is the focus, these changes simply don’t happen without high quality systems managing things.

Systems reduce inertia, eliminate obstacles and streamline processes so people can get the right work done faster at the same (or better) level of quality.

They aren’t about tech.

What’s the next hot thing?

When Bezos was asked about the difference between being an entrepreneur when he started Amazon (1995) and now, he said “the rate of change has increased substantially”.

He noted that people always ask him what the “next big thing” is and lamented “I almost never get asked ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ “.

He likened businesses that address those long-standing needs to flywheels. They take time to spin up, but run smoothly and efficiently once at operating speed.

These days, solutions to these needs can be built anywhere. In a rural Montana community of 4000 people, Zinc Air has developed energy storage technology that makes dependable, scalable, portable power storage a reality.

Power availability in the developing world is a need of substantial scope as it is in places that would otherwise require months or years of infrastructure construction. It’s one more example of a need that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Is there a business there?

Not all that long ago, a substantial reason for chasing venture capital was the cost of server infrastructure. Using cloud computing like AWS, you pay for what you use as your business grows, rather than for massive infrastructure you may never use. A long-standing obstacle that impacted business development has been addressed.

Obstacles like those that LTL trucking, AWS and Zinc Air eliminate are the kind of change that Bezos was talking about when he spoke of businesses addressing long-standing inefficiencies, problems and barriers in things that won’t change over the next 10 years, rather than trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

Consider hunger. The short term solution is usually feeding people who can’t feed themselves. The long term solution is somehow enabling them to alter their economic situation so they no longer need help feeding themselves. Solving it might include some combination of jobs, medical care, child care, irrigation, clean well water, transportation, seed stock and better farming methods.

“The next big thing” might be your streamlined solution to just one small inefficiency in one area that makes hunger so difficult to extinguish. And it might be bigger than Amazon.

If you’re willing to be misunderstood for a long period of time, then you’re ready to start something new.” – Jeff Bezos, commenting on starting Amazon.

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Rather than sweep, eliminate the source of dirt

During the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent conference‘s “fireside chat” with Jeff Bezos, he told a story about during a professional development session where he (like all senior Amazon management) spent two days on the Amazon customer service call center staff.

Stop for just a minute.

If your business is small – you likely spend time on customer service, even if not by choice.

Depending on the size of your business, you’re might be insulated from your customer service people and likely from your customers. While it isn’t something you want to do every day, I assure you the value of doing what Amazon senior management does here is sizable.

Listen to the quality

I’ve sat within earshot of my customer service staff. You learn a lot about your quality. Sometimes you learn things about your quality that runs a chill up your spine – but that’s better than not knowing.

That’s what Bezos learned.

During the session, he handled calls and operated the customer support system while being coached through the process by an experienced Amazon customer service person as each customer called in.

While this had to be hugely educational for him about unmet needs and/or streamlining processes for his customer service team, he learned a unexpected lesson – how things really work when it comes to product quality at Amazon, which gave him an idea to improve quality and do so before the cost of low quality grew.

Listen to Bezos describe the result – how Amazon now handles poor products, poor packaging and enables their staff to communicate quality information (and make decisions) about them – much like Toyota’s assembly line allows anyone to “pull the cord” to stop the line to deal with a defect (2 minutes, 47 seconds from 18:01 to 20:48):

 

Can your sales/service people pull a poorly-made or poorly-packaged product off the sales floor? How long will you sell a lame product or perhaps worse – a good product delivered poorly – to your “valued customers”?

How would this impact your buying process and related contracts? How would this impact your product quality and delivery feedback processes? Note Bezos’ use of the un-word “systematize” – not just making more work, but making a new system to make the work and customer experience better.

If you don’t do these things (in your own way, of course), are you willing to deal with the disadvantage this creates between your business and businesses that handle this as Amazon does? What else could you do rather than this to assure the same level of highly-consistent quality of products and packaging?

Remember, this isn’t about replicating what Amazon does. The important thing is to replicate or improve upon the results.

Doing the right work

While discussing a week-long Kaizen (quality) professional development training session, Bezos talks about a Japanese consultant who chastised him for sweeping up some dust on the warehouse floor (1 minute, 54 seconds from 20:49 to 22:43):

 

Eliminating the source of dirt is more important than finding a better janitor or a better broom. Obvious, once you think about it.

Smart businesses regularly do something new and different in their market, producing really good results.

I don’t mean not-so-thoughtful act of cloning a service or a product. I’m talking about the processes and systems that a strong business depends on and eventually turns to as a strategic advantage. Might be a sales or marketing process, might be front or back office.

Once the value is shown, even of a non-obvious system/process, why wouldn’t these things be duplicated by business B when they see business A gaining value from them?

  • Sometimes the new system/process was intentionally designed to be complex so that it would be hard for competitors to duplicate.
  • Sometimes those complexities don’t impact a small local business but a parallel business need for a similar system still exists in that business that should be considered.
  • Sometimes we have this odd tendency to watch someone do something great and stop right there because it’s so easy to assume that we can’t do what others have done.
  • Sometimes the lead isn’t followed because of ingrained beliefs like “Yes, but that’ll never work here.”

What’s your reason? What system would transform your business front office? What would transform the back office? These things don’t have to be massive or expensive. As one of my mentors says, “Little hinges swing big doors.”

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The kind of salesperson they LOVE to hear from

Dynamic Serenity
Creative Commons License photo credit: papalars

When you talk to your customers about their business, do they ever respond “Wow, I didn’t know that” or “Really?”

Does your sales and marketing process provoke your prospects with questions they have to think about?

Or does it simply say “Look at us! Look at us!”

Far fewer spend their energy and money educating their prospects / clients, much less showing that they did their homework about the prospect’s business.

Smart businesses do this to show their expertise in the clients’ market. They stand out because they care enough to do their homework.

Paying Attention

Years ago when business research usually required searching proprietary online systems, I flew off to a job interview. While preparing for the interview, I looked up this public company’s annual report. I found some troubling things that looked like they were bad but recoverable.

During the interview, I asked about their problems and their recovery strategy. The interviewer was the company’s finance VP. He was looking for a technology director to help turn their business around and was shocked that I knew of the problem, much less that I had marginally intelligent questions about it. More importantly, he was wowed because I had invested the time and effort to learn about their company before showing up for the interview.

Given the ease of information access these days, that sort of knowledge should be assumed of an interview candidate.

Do job candidates show this kind of interest and level of knowledge about your business when they join you for an interview? If they don’t, why would you hire them? If they don’t care enough to learn about your business before they get the job, will they care after they get the job?

Your prospects, much less your clients, might be asking that same question about your staff’s knowledge of their business, market and industry.

Why we “hate” salespeople

Even if you don’t have salespeople, whoever does “the sales job” has to have this homework done to have any credibility with customers and prospects.

Think about why you don’t want to deal with salespeople: “Can I help you?”

Of course, you have no idea if they’re capable of helping you. You usually don’t know if they’re the expert and you probably don’t recall being introduced to their expert the last time you had tough questions. Most salespeople are trained on their employer’s business processes, but not often about the customers who frequent that business, much less their needs. It’s usually not their fault. It’s a management/training choice.

That’s why your natural response to “Can I help you?” has become a reflex: “Just looking.”

It’s natural because we assume they won’t be of use to our evaluation/selection process and as a result, we figure they’re only asking because they’re on commission or are trained to engage every customer with the same robotic greeting (because someone thought it’d increase sales).

Commission or not, know your stuff

I really don’t care if they’re on commission or not if they’re knowledgeable. After all, I entered the business because I needed something. If they have someone who can actually help me by sharing their knowledge and asking smart questions, they’ll earn that commission.

The ones we don’t want to talk to act as order takers, work a self-service cash register can often perform. If the management of “order takers” hasn’t taught them the importance of this info, few of them will become effective salespeople.

If you’ve done your homework, you know things about your clients’ world that they simply don’t know. It isn’t because they’re dumber than you, it’s just that most of them are too embroiled in the day to day of their business to spend time on that stuff. The best ones spend time on it or have someone do it for them, but they’re rare – and they really appreciate expertise.

While they almost certainly know more about the day to day and technical aspects of their business than you do, prospects may not have done detailed research before a purchase, particularly if it isn’t specific to their expertise. They may not know new industry info that might generate interest in other things you offer.

The world needs better salespeople. If you employ them, educate them. If you’re in sales, do your homework.

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The One Percent

In the last five minutes of this clip from a speaker panel at St. Petersburg College called “Cosmic Quandaries”, noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the one percent difference in DNA between chimpanzees and people.

Of particular interest is his discussion tying the scope of that tiny one percent difference to each species’ capabilities.

While the smartest chimp was able to learn to sign a small vocabulary of words, it is something almost any small child can learn. Meanwhile, that small child can go on to create the Hubble Telescope.

Tyson then extends that idea to compare the capabilities of a species that could visit Earth from another planet, much less another galaxy, to the capabilities we have – just as he compared the smartest chimp and a young child.

That same one percent difference in DNA between humans and the visiting species might represent in a massive difference in capability.

If the difference in capabilities is similar to the chimp-human gap, Tyson ponders that their kids’ Stephen Hawking-class quantum mechanics work might be considered as “cute” as our kids’ pasta collages and thus, be displayed on their refrigerator doors.

Tyson calls these thoughts “fascinatingly disturbing”.

Fascinatingly disturbing

Once you’ve soaked up that “fascinatingly disturbing” thought, consider a few questions that are a bit more down-to-earth:

  • What makes up the one percent difference between you and the rest of your market?
  • What makes up the one percent between you and the rest of the followers in your market and the leader of your market?
  • What special products/services do you provide to the customers whose capabilities are one percent better than their competition?

Whether your business is leading your market or not, it’s entirely possible that the differences between the leader and everyone else is as small as that one percent Tyson discusses. And that one percent might appear to be an insurmountable lead.

History shows that, over time, insurmountable leads aren’t. This is particularly true when it comes to businesses that grow/strengthen for decades or create something that seems unachievable by anyone else.

Steve Jobs is revered for his attention to a level of detail that most couldn’t be bothered with, yet he is vilified by some for being unreasonable. Circumstantial evidence backing up the value of being unreasonable appears via several quality-related stumbles in the early years of Apple’s post-Jobs era.

Tolerances matter, even if they aren’t one percent differences.

What are your “acceptable” tolerances?

Acceptable tolerances vary.

You might find a quarter inch difference acceptable when pouring a concrete footing for a parking garage, yet even 10% of that might be considered unacceptably dangerous when making a fuel injection part, an airtight seal for the International Space Station or a precision engineered part for the action of a firearm.

When it comes to the performance of your marketing, accounting, labor, recruiting, training, legal, tools, systems and staff – your tolerances will vary depending on the nature of what’s being measured. Do they vary because variances are OK, or because you just don’t do anything about them?

When I see companies performing at optimal levels – or improving quickly – it’s often because they’ve narrowed their tolerances on a short list of critical things that separate them from their competitors. Struggling companies are often lax about the same things.

What do “acceptable tolerances” mean for your business?

Just one percent

Is it OK to be 36 seconds late for every appointment, conference call or meeting with a customer? What message is sent by disregarding that one percent of an hour?

In a store that does $3000 a day in retail sales, is it OK to be off by $30 a day? That one percent is almost $11k in a year’s time.

Is it OK for an airline to be one percent off on distance or direction?

Is it OK if one of every 100 employees steals from you and your customers?

Is it OK to lose one percent of your customers each month? Probably depends on the lost customers.

The seriousness of the one percent and your tolerance of it is complex and it’s not just about the measurement or the percentage. It’s about knowing what makes you stand out and become the only obvious choice – and making sure you’re unreasonable about those things.

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How to break a business coma

We talk about a wide array of business topics/suggestions here at Business is Personal.

Occasionally, I get emails asking how to get all of these things done in a state of overwhelm.

It’s an easy problem to have.

You have plenty of ideas and read the things I and others suggest, much less see all those bright shiny objects that appear on your radar.

Each one has the potential to improve or distract, depending on how you leverage them.

If you focus on one, implement or discard it, then move on to the next one, you’ll build an effective system to run your business. Otherwise, the flood of posts, emails, webinars, products and services can distract you into one form of a business coma: Analysis Paralysis.

Other forms

When a business is in a coma, it functions much like a coma patient.

In some mysterious way, internal functions continue to work as if they’re on life support. The business is alive, but it can appear to be doing little more than consuming energy and creating waste. It’s almost impossible to see what’s going on inside much less determine if the business is aware of its surroundings.

Sometimes the coma is an overwhelming amount of inefficient work that prevents building the products/services your business’ future demands.

A dysfunctional business can exist this way for years. The “coma” eventually becomes comfortable, seems normal and that makes it even more difficult to break out of. Excuses for postponing improvement are often layered on like old paint.

Systems can perpetuate coma, but…

Airlines are an easy target here. It’s easy to forget that they deliver millions of people/cargo shipments to their destinations, at a reasonably high on-time percentage and do so safely, all without losing too many bags. They manage this because they have systems in place to help them deliver consistently.

These systems range from sophisticated electronics to a clipboard, checklist and a pen. By design, these systems support a staff that might range from catatonic to remarkable. Most of the seemingly-catatonic are scheduled into that state via long/split shifts and customer-relationship-numbing measures that make sense only when you’re disconnected from the customer by a stack of oft-worshiped spreadsheets.

I strongly encourage the use of systems, but I don’t worship them. They free you from the “mundane but important” so you can focus on personal and important things that can’t be automated – like finding a wayward bag.

Where’s mom’s bag?

Travel experiences feel remarkable when someone takes a moment to do what they would want done for their mother. Maybe not remarkable in Seth Godin terms, but remarkable compared to a typical travel experience.

These “little remarkables” are frequently prevented by situations these businesses create. Eventually, the inability to perform these tasks becomes an insulating layer of undesirable phone-tree-like blubber that few customers can pierce.

On the Friday before Christmas, my mom traveled here on two airlines. Her itineraries were not connected, so her bag stopped in Salt Lake while she flew on to our place. Neither she or the check-in attendants noticed the disconnect and neither did airline systems. The disconnect became obvious at baggage claim.

During our three day baggage chase, which involved tweeting with Delta & American, phone calls to American and SkyWest and four visits to the airport, a young SkyWest baggage guy at our local airport went out on a limb and gave me the baggage office number in Salt Lake. A few hours after my call to SLC, that young man called to say the bag was on its way.

Pavel did what he didn’t have to do, perhaps what policy didn’t allow, but what he would’ve wanted done for his mom. With help from a SkyWest baggage guy in SLC, they performed a small but important task during peak loads that created their little bit of Christmas Eve remarkable.

Breaking the coma

That fourth decimal place on corporate’s P&L spreadsheet…means nothing without customers. The airline’s iPhone app is useless without the staff behind it. The people and the systems have to work together to be useful.

Break the coma this year. One step at a time, focus on building systems that automate the mundane and important so you and your staff can do the important things that ARE personal.

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How does your industry organization help you?

This past weekend, I spoke at a national organization’s regional trade show here in the Rocky Mountain West.

As you might expect, we talked about personalizing their businesses – in their very narrow market context.

What always makes me wonder about these events is why they aren’t standing room only.

Why aren’t people lined up at the door, so to speak, to join the trade organization that represents their industry?

I don’t mean this particular organization – I mean *yours*.

The benefits are there

Some trade orgs are better than others, but all of them offer one thing of significant importance: the ability to get with others who do what you do, live somewhere else, and are willing to discuss their business and yours.

Certainly social media has had an impact on the ability of folks all over the world to share information – but it still doesn’t rival sitting at a table with a group of folks who do what you do.

Why don’t more people take advantage of the benefits of their industry’s trade organization?

  • Is it the value proposition?
  • Is it the time?
  • Is it the money?

Maybe all three. Or maybe you aren’t aware of the association for your business. There might be more than one.

Not all trade organizations are the same. Some do little more than have what amounts to a party for their members. Some develop a solid educational program for their members. And some take these things well beyond that.

What the cream does

I’ve only seen one organization that was truly hitting on all cylinders to strengthen the performance of their members’ businesses. They did more than holding regional and national conferences/trade shows.

They set standards for members in their industry, but not just by putting them on paper after having a few meetings.

Instead, they established real-world “you can use this in your shop” standards relating to manufacturing processes, curing times, mix ratios and workplace safety (critical in their industry). From there, they fine tuned the processes and testing procedures with eight years of effort that resulted in the establishment of an ANSI standard for manufacturing their industry’s product.

But that wasn’t enough. They created a third party certification program for manufacturing quality testing that gave their members the ability to confidently stand up to the brutal testing process their ANSI standard requires.

Not just anyone gets to wear the lab coat. They require that independent labs perform the testing during the certification process. These labs must be certified by a short list of testing/product evaluation industry associations, and no business or partnership relationships are allowed between the labs and the organization that approved them to perform the tests. Beyond that, they must have five significant capabilities necessary to administer the visits, lab tests and field work. The science isn’t enough.

Achieving manufacturer certification also requires that manufacturing facilities have a written quality control program that includes, at minimum, a quality check of incoming raw materials and in-process manufacturing process control as well as finished product quality checks. Random in-plant inspections and testing by the third party certifying lab verifies each these requirements.

A few other industry trade organizations do that sort of thing as do a number of major industries. It’s unusual in this case because the organization’s members are family-owned, local custom manufacturers producing annual sales between $3MM and $25MM. They aren’t 3M or GM.

Do even more

They’ve created an industry-standard education program to advance and certify the skills of the people doing the product manufacturing and installation.

In the last few years, they put together a marketing task force in order to help their membership effectively market what they do, while also marketing their industry nationally. That’s fairly common among trade associations. What isn’t common is that they built a marketing tool kit for their members to use in their own communities – a kit that complements the national materials. The national campaign brands their product for all members and is in sync or products produced by these members.

Again…all this from a trade organization that represents family-owned local manufacturing businesses.

How does your trade organization help you and your fellow members? What *could* they do? Perhaps you should ask. They may do more than you’re aware of and if not, your question might start them down that path.

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attitude Business culture Competition Entrepreneurs Improvement Motivation Setting Expectations Small Business The Slight Edge

Like an athlete, business owners must prepare to go pro

After swimming the last race of an 11 year amateur swimming career, a little reflection…not despair.

The margin of victory for a world-class athlete seems to shrink with each advance in our ability to measure minute differences in performance, whether the race is on a track, in a pool, on open water or down a mountain.

The difference between first and second place is often measured in a few thousandths of a second, with no more than a few hundredths of a second separating the first half-dozen competitors.

For example, the winner of a 100 meter world championship swimming event beat his competitor to the finish by 4.7 millimeters, a tiny 0.0047 percent margin of victory. If your business passed a competitor grossing $100,000 in sales by 0.0047 percent, you’d sell an extra $4.70.

That might seem like a meaningless difference until it’s the margin between winning a big contract and losing it.

Like a 4.7 millimeter lead, that “meaningless difference” might be traced back to one little thing:

  • One missed phone call vs. one call answered on the first ring.
  • One bounced email vs. one personal email response.
  • One product out of stock on the shelf but sitting in the inventory closet vs. every shelf stocked and faced.

Even though businesses don’t measure performance in the same way athletes do, the strategies that athletes use to advance their performance and overcome obstacles also make sense for small business owners.

Mental and Physical Preparation

Long before the event occurs, world-class swimmers and runners see themselves touching the wall or crossing the finish line for the win. They play that “movie” repeatedly in their mind as they workout. Similar to the muscle memory that a physical workout or event practice forms, visualization helps athletes strengthen themselves mentally.

Likewise, the visualization and practice of a sales call or trade show presentation are essential mental workouts for the business owner. They’re essential to maintain the focus, composure and discipline needed to perform at their highest-ever levels, particularly when faced with world-class competition.

Mental preparation alone is not enough for the athlete or the business owner. Despite the best mental preparation, the athlete must prepare their physical body for competition. For the business owner, mental preparation does not execute the strategy, make the call or give the presentation for the business – that physical work must also be practiced before competition.

Dealing with Adversity

For the amateur, quitting can be the easiest thing to do when faced with adversity. For a professional, quitting tends to be limited to a physical inability to continue or the risk of a career-ending injury. A professional’s perseverance is rooted in the strength developed through mental preparation and is the difference between being prepared to quit vs. being prepared to continue.

Unfortunately, adversity due to an inability to recover from a known obstacle. Rather than dealing with obstacles as they’re met, high achievers in both sport and business cut their risk by preparing for obstacles in advance.

In addition to the nutrition control, physical workouts and mental training an amateur might use to prepare themselves, the professional is likely to include specialized efforts that enable them to take known obstacles in stride or when possible, avoid them. However, some obstacles cannot be avoided. When a marathon includes a hill climb at mile 22, the professional runner might practice hill climbs after a 22 mile run. By contrast, an amateur runner might practice hill climbs as one of their workouts, if they practice them at all.

Business owners can prepare for obstacles by cross-training their staff, building redundancy into critical systems, testing disaster plans, having alternative inventory providers and keeping their legal, insurance and finance systems up to date. They should ask “What if?”, “What is possible?” and “How do we prepare?” long before adversity arises.

Coaching

Performance evaluation is critical to the steady improvement of any professional athlete or business owner, but most professional athletes don’t stop at self-evaluation. They use a coach.

Even though their coach cannot run as fast, swim as quickly or hit the ball as hard as today’s professional athletes, few professional athletes would dream of competing without a coach. Many athletes credit their coach as an essential factor in their ability to improve, much less remain competitive.

A good coach can observe and analyze many aspects of an athlete’s form, motion and mental preparedness from a perspective the athlete simply cannot assume. A coach’s suggestion for even a tiny change in physical motion or preparation can produce substantial improvements in athletic performance.

A business coach can have the same level of impact. Like the athlete’s coach, they make observations from an external perspective, seeing things the business owner can’t see, or doesn’t see the same way. It isn’t that the business owner is less competent or observant, the coach simply benefits from a different perspective. The coach sees beyond “We’ve always done it this way” and can ignore the internal politics or “baggage” that might blind the business owner to what later seems obvious.

Most professional athletes have a coach, yet few small business owners have one. Why?

Attitude

When world-class athletes fail to win the big event that they’ve trained for years to compete in, their initial reaction might seem to be despair over the loss.

Frequently, the reality is that athletes who “lost” by a few thousandths of a second are focused on the fact that they posted their best-ever performance. The appearance of post-event despair is often about finally being able to relax and enjoy achieving a goal they’ve worked so hard to achieve – posting their best-ever performance at a world-class competition.

For the business owner, it’s not much different than what you feel the end of that big trade show, the first calm moment after a successful new product launch or when leaving the site of a long-awaited presentation that went well.

For athletes and business owners alike, the real victory comes in outdoing your best you.

 

Disclosure:
I am blogging on behalf of Visa’s Go World Olympic Campaign and receive compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s.

This post was sponsored by Visa Small Business. From now through August 31st, visit http://www.inc.com/visa-business-of-the-olympic-games/ to learn about Team Visa Olympic athletes who are also dedicated small business owners. Visit Visa Business’s newly-launched Facebook Page (http://www.facebook.com/visasmallbiz) for more details, and follow @VisaSmallBiz for ways to help make your small business more efficient and successful. Discover more at http://visa.com/business.

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Business Resources Competition Employees Improvement Leadership Management Productivity Small Business Software business Strategy systems Technology The Best Code Wins The Slight Edge

Stop waiting until you’re big enough.

Say AHHHH :-O
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

This morning a friend pointed out this story about how QuickBooks maker Intuit manages 10 million lines of code.

The punch line is that they manage 10 million lines of code just like you should be managing your code.

Professionally.

Is your business using professional-grade methods and tools? Are you sure?

Intuit manages their massive code base using the same professional-grade methods that almost every software business should be using. Perhaps you’d choose different tools, but the process is the key.

What does Intuit process include?

Intuit uses continuous integration.

So can you.

Intuit’s continuous integration (CI) tool is Jenkins, an open-source product not unlike CruiseControl and CruiseControl.Net and numerous others. I use CruiseControl.Net. Use what fits you until it doesn’t.

But my programmers will never agree to that”, you say. Aside from wondering who runs the place, I suggest you review this discussion on getting developers bought in to continuous integration. You shouldn’t have to work very hard at it, if you’re working with professionals.

Intuit uses source control.

So can you.

Intuit’s source control tool is Perforce, which offers a free version. If you want something simpler or less expensive, there are plenty of options – including some very dependable free source management systems. Examples include Git, Mercurial, Kiln (a hosted version of Mercurial), Vault, Subversion and several others. I use Kiln and Vault.

Intuit manages multiple builds.

So can you.

You can do that with a source control tool in conjunction with your CI tool of choice. You could make this more complex, but really, it’s about builds and source management. And you *can* do that.

Why do you need multiple builds? For one, when your tools change. You have production code deployed. It breaks. You need to fix it, and you sure can’t wait until all of your testing is done on the new tool set. Check out the code with the old tool set, fix it, check it in, build it.

You won’t believe how simple this is, especially if you manage multiple toolset releases with source control. Your hair might even grow back.

Intuit automates code analysis and testing.

So can you.

They use Coverity in conjunction with their own in-house tools, but you can start today with FxCop, NDepend, Simian, Gendarme, nAnt, various CI tools, Test Complete and a host of other CI-enabled code analysis and test tools. You can use VMWare‘s Workstation for Windows or Fusion for Mac (or both, as I do) to manage the OS snapshots and provide the same consistent testbench for each set of tests without manually having to build a test system, run tests, restore and so on.

Avoid the drudgery just like Intuit does, without losing the benefits of greater and more consistent quality.

Stop waiting until you’re “big enough”

If you’re waiting until you’re “big enough”, you’re not only wasting time, but you’re slowing down your ability to get big in the first place. You can’t wait until you have 10 million lines of code to manage to decide to go pro. By that time, you’re either drowning in code and tests and builds or you’re history. Or maybe you’re surviving as a slave to your software.

For every hour that you spend manually building binaries, building installs, testing installs, testing your app and doing other grunt work that your competition uses CI and source control systems to manage, guess what your competition is doing? They’re spending their time coding, marketing, working with customers, planning strategy, sleeping and enjoying their families.

The earlier you incorporate professional methods and professional tools in your software business, the earlier you get out of “dig a hole and fill it up” mode.

One of the reasons you might not be doing as well as you’d like is that you’re still using the methods and tools that a little software business uses.

Go pro. Start today.