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Leading change

Listen closely to how today’s business and political leaders talk about change. How many of them are talking about preparing their businesses, our cities, our states, and our country (much less the world) for change?

More often than not, their conversations are about slowing down, stopping, or reversing changes – ignoring a future that will arrive whether they like it or not. (No, I’m not referring to the virus.) These leaders might appear to be in charge of leading change (or at least managing our response to it), but most of them aren’t actually doing anything of the sort… not really.

The majority of the conversations are positioned in terms of the good old days, whether that was 10 months, 10 years or half a century ago. A few are talking about a future that will advance at a pace not unlike the pace of the last 20 years. The idea is that we manage an unforeseen next five years with the thinking learned a decade (or three) earlier, expecting the pace of progress (in either direction) of the next five years to match the pace of change of the prior five years.

“There are no situations and no exceptions where a subordinate is ultimately responsible for the performance of a team. It is always the leader’s fault.”

Jocko Willink

Perspective

The problem with trying to manage all this with thinking from the good old days, or with thinking formed while working with the pace of change over the last 20 years, is that these approaches fail to recognize the current reality: That the pace of change is increasing constantly.

While the jaded might think this perspective is intentional, I suspect most of it isn’t. Some of it is a lack of vision. These folks are too tightly coupled to a reality / situation they need or want to defend, even if it’s from another time and place. I’m speaking broadly here: not specifically about any one business, personal situation, financial position / viewpoint, etc. We have to be very, very careful how we choose business and political leaders as we move forward. Look back at how technology and automation changes have caught leaders and groups of leaders (like Congress) completely off guard.

An obvious and somewhat recent example is that they’ve had to react well after the fact to the impact of the internet, robotics, genome technology, etc.

As an example, is the internet a utility? (because that means we can put an existing administrative organization and rules in charge of it) Is it a service? Is it a monopoly? Is it a right? Or do we decide that it’s another kind of telephone call so that we can use all the old phone regulations to manage it? (and thus, protect it or ruin it, depending on your outlook). Look back at rural electrification for clues.

Our leadership choices become more important every day because of the increasing pace of change. The virus has helped a lot of people understand how exponential change works. When exponential change takes hold, 15 quickly becomes 300, and in the space of a couple weeks becomes 30,000 then 100,000 and so on.

What we’re ill prepared for from a leadership perspective is that change itself is changing at an exponential pace.

Important at all levels

It isn’t important solely at the Federal level. It’s important at every level from the Feds all the way down to a seemingly innocuous city / county position on a board. Imagine that a local county board member considering an important decision. Does it matter if their vote on a health topic is based on their evaluation of information collected by qualified, highly-experienced, trusted people in the county, or is it OK if the decision is made based on the Greeks’ four humors?

Let me simplify this a bit. Is it a bad idea to eat week old sushi? Does it depend on the status of a diner’s humors? Whether the topic is sushi aging, inoculations, water rights, or traffic circles – do you want someone whose mindset is mired in the 1700s making those decisions for you?

Dealing with change isn’t easy. As humans, we tend to avoid it by our very nature. As Chris Hogan says “Nobody likes change, but everyone likes improvement.” Even so, leading change – usually in advance – is leadership’s job – whether they like it or not.

It’s not hard to look around and find examples that show how difficult it is for leaders at all levels to keep up with the changes that have occurred over since 1980 (OMG was that really 40 years?). Compare not just the changes between 1940 and 1980 to the changes between 1980 and 2020, but the pace of change in those two periods.

Now consider that we’ve even accomplished many of the things many people expected of us 80 or even 60 years ago. Where are the flying cars?

Influence & management

The easiest place to see this is in emerging industries. Look at software, computers, drones, the internet, medicine, or really – anything we’ve struggled to keep up with in recent decades. Some industries have benefited from the lack of understanding by elected / appointed leaders, even though this may not have served us well over the long term.

Sometimes those industries become massive, wielding significant influence ($ talks) before leaders manage to figure out what they do, how they do it, and what the impacts might be. This can be a good, bad, or neutral thing, and is probably split across all three. The important observation is that we need the kind of leadership capable of dealing with a future that’s coming whether we like it or not.

We’ve all seen an industry that does something incorrectly, builds a low quality product (or a product with a serious flaw) that causes a substantial loss of value, loss of life, etc. It’s rare to hear that leadership has prepared a company in advance for these issues by rethinking how they design, build and deploy products and services *before* they launch, but it does happen.

The normal context of corrective action and/or putting safety corrections in place “What can we do so that never happens again?” It’s as if we’re completely incapable of theorizing, thinking a process through from beginning to end, testing in real world situations, validating results without using situational ethics, etc. While the law of unintended consequences can find a way to make the best of intentions seem inept, we shouldn’t empower it. We’re often more concerned about how to handle it the public relations angle or “optics”.

When it makes sense to consider how we’re going to make sure something never happens again, it tends to be spoken of and executed in the same mindset and terminology that created the problem. Put those two together, and you have a cadre of business and political leaders that are wholly unprepared for the future, and in fact, don’t seem to recognize what’s going on around them. We can do better.

It’s impossible to go back

No matter how wonderful or awful you felt back during the good ole days, regardless of which decade that identifies, the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s (etc) are all but irrelevant to use as a comparison when trying to lead people, companies, and governments today.

It’s impossible to go back. Even if we could, the things about those times that we and leaders have conveniently forgotten about the good ole days could hit us with the force of an angrily swung two by four.

We conveniently forget that change was difficult back then, just as it is today. Maybe you were a kid at the time, or maybe you’re old enough to have been a leader back then. Either way, there’s no doubt that your mind has hidden the hard parts of that decade (not to mention the really hard parts). It’s probably not intentional, but simply how our memory works. Ask your grandparent or parent about your favorite decade. They may remember it differently than you do.

If your leaders want to take your company or your community back to one of those decades because they thought it was easier to lead in that decade, bear in mind that you get ALL of that decade – not simply the parts folks fondly recall.

Do we outlaw the things we blame for today’s difficulties? Are you going to outlaw electrical power? Are you going to outlaw wireless communications? Are you going to outlaw the use of silicon? (ie: to make computer chips) If so, do we also outlaw the use of any sort of technology to improve our lives? What about improvements in clothing, food, medicine, etc? What about radial tires? Plastic? Radar? Jet-Skis? Color TV?

That’s what leaders are talking about when they suggest it’d be best to go back to those times. When your leaders say they’d like to take us back to some chosen decade, what they’re really saying is that they can’t cope with what’s going on today (or that they’re not willing to try) – and that they believe the same about you.

Tomorrow’s change is the job

If they can’t handle today, how will leaders handle what’s going to happen tomorrow? It doesn’t even matter whether the “unhandle-able” thing is positive or negative.

To be sure, it’s not just the negative things. It’s also the positive accomplishments that industry, groups, and individuals create. People lose their minds over the fact that some change is going to impact them. Rather than consider the possibility of the impact of those changes, they simply double down, refuse to accept them, and do everything they can to stop the change from happening, often without pausing to learn anything about the change other than what they were told by a self-proclaimed expert on Facebook.

Leading through tomorrow’s change is leadership’s job.

As an example, we (collectively) worry about the rise of self-driving (autonomous or semi-autonomous) cars, forgetting that cargo ships, airplanes, spacecraft, and other things have “self-driven” for years. Most of the deaths and “accidents” involving these technologies tend to happen when humans turn them off, override them, or use them improperly. To be sure, these situations are not limitedt to that. Technology failures exist, and the introduction of human error, ego, and/or over-confidence don’t help matters.

Consider the number of plane crashes caused by pilot error. The number is fairly small, but the percentage is not so small. Depending on the source of the data, the percentage of crashes determined to be caused in some way by pilot error is 75-80% (Google it), with the remaining 20% or so mostly related to equipment malfunction or weather. The number of actual crashes is small, thanks to a combination of technology refined over many years and flights, combined with a group of highly trained, highly experienced, very disciplined people (flight crews).

As romantic as it might seem, do we really want to go back to the DC-3 or the Ford Tri-Motor?

Change is everywhere

Earlier, I referred to the need for leaders who can handle rapid change all the way from the Federal to local levels. You might have thought that it’s overkill to expect local leadership to need the skills, vision, and insight to cope with these things. Perhaps it seems we don’t need that because we don’t do that sort of work around here.

Thing is, that kind of change is happening almost everywhere.

While there have been all sizes of software companies in Montana for at least 25 years, that’s not the technology I’m referring to. A decade or so ago, a different sort of technology company started popping up around Montana. We had energy storage technology firms, cryogenics firms, and more recently, a nanomedicine company.

Yes, nanomedicine. In other words, researching and creating solutions to medical problems using tools and technology and treatments created at the nanotechnology scale.

Nanotechnology is the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. What’s a nanometer? One billionth of a meter. In other words, cut your yard stick into one billion pieces lengthwise and you’ll be close. A billion can be hard to grasp. If you cut that yard stick into a million pieces, to get a billion, you’d have to slice those million slices one thousand times. We’re talking small.

This is the kind of change that’s happening everywhere. It’s the change that business and political headers must be able to discuss and encourage, not merely tolerate and be aggravated about.

The research and the solutions that nanomedicine yields is performed by people with PhDs, undergrad degrees, and in a few cases, even undergrad students, programmers and clerical folks. As you might expect, there are salespeople and other not-as-technical roles. This work doesn’t happen just in NYC, LA, Silicon Valley, Asia, India, and the Harvard / MIT corridor, but right here in your state.

Not limited to new industries

These changes are not solely the domain of “super high-tech” industries. Look at the advancement of mechanized, semi-automated, and automated timber processing over the last few decades. 30 years ago, those were a figment of someone’s imagination.

Today, it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody is working on an autonomous version of that equipment that will automatically understand what parcel of land it’s on, what species the tree is, how old the tree is, what grade the tree’s wood is most likely to be, etc.

This team of machinery could choose the highest value trees to harvest, present them to another robot who would transport it to another robot which will prepare it for transport, and put it on a truck. Maybe that truck will be autonomous. Another group of robots might do slash cleanup, and still another would return after slash cleanup to replant. All of this is probably old news to someone working on timber harvesting technology.

While that doesn’t kill the timber business, it’ll certainly have a major impact on it. For one, the lumber business will become even more capital intensive. A yard full of autonomous robotic equipment that can do this work won’t be cheap. The development and testing processes alone will be incredibly expensive.

Such equipment would render the timber business far less human intensive, even though the currently available generation of felling and harvesting equipment has already lowered manpower requirements. Just look at the machines that a single operator can run and how much work they can get done in a day. For the specialist walking those acres and working today’s equipment, these changes may feel like a threat. A phrase like “lowered manpower requirements” doesn’t hide the fact that a family’s breadwinner still needs work.

New products, old products

Leadership includes helping that industry, its workers, and affected communities adjust, and prepare to thrive in a new future rather than simply giving up and leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Leaders help create a better future, even if it’s a slightly (or substantially) different one.

Some leaders might think that it’ll take 20 years for that robotic equipment to make these imagined industry changes become reality, so they think they have plenty of time. They might be thinking “I won’t even be in leadership or political office 20 years from now, so why bother even thinking about it?” However, when we look at the rate of change in the capability and price of robotic technology over the last five years, “that’ll probably take 20 years” starts to seem a bit ridiculous.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see intelligent robots whose harvest is planned by a professional forester who reviewed robotically collected timber data from the site. This might involve some sort of mapping expert, even though the foresters I know are mapping experts. Maybe there will be someone to guide those robots similar to how a drone pilot guides a drone flying over the dangerous territory.

Perhaps this robot will be able to sense certain kinds of animal habitat, human habitat, watersheds, legal boundaries, bodies of water, etc. Maybe it will be able to detect data on animal movement (etc) and send it back to the “home office”. It’s possible that combining that data with other piece of data from some other machine or location could prove valuable to the logging company, the landowner, or someone else. Land has many uses and so does the data observed about it.

Where do the jobs go?

Somebody’s going to need to know how to repair those robots. We’re going to need to know how to train a company’s people to operate and maintain them, program them, etc. The vendor who creates them can educate them on all the different species that they would want to sell them to, you know, for customers who would need them. But there’s always localized information about that sort of thing.

“Localized information” could be data that comes from and/or is refined by people – perhaps from the same people who have walked that land for years. It may involve localized robotic programming or data curation of some kind involving a species expert. Robots will need educated timber firmware or something like that. The data will constantly change as weather, moisture, harvest, growth and other data changes.

Where does that leave the truck driver and the folks that are out in the forest doing this work? While some of it is dangerous, high-risk work, it’s also good paying work. Leaders can’t abandon those people, but they also can’t stop the change. Helping employees, communities, and companies adjust to these changes on a reasonable timeline before a crisis occurs is what change-ready leaders must do.

Capital talks

This is not just a leadership challenge. It’s a challenge for education and financial systems. The ability to see where their industry is going, and help students and employees avoid getting themselves pigeonholed in a career that’s disappearing is the responsibility of everyone involved – education, leadership, and the employees themselves.

There are numerous financial implications. You buy a house, a car and perhaps you buy or lease a logging truck. You hire a bunch of folks to get out in the woods and do the work, and then you find a competitor found a way to get their hands on one of these automated timber robots. Their margins might suddenly be much higher than yours. Either they make far more profit, or they undercut your price. You’re stuck because of your overhead.

What do you do? You don’t have a few million to buy robots. One solution is to look back at how these problems were solved in the past.

Cotton gin & timber math

Consider Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Only the most financially successful farmers could afford cotton gins when they were first available. Others had to compete with those who had the mechanical gins. Whitney figured out his prospective customers had a capital problem, so his company rented them to farmers for a piece of their crop. That allowed his company to grow, while getting his machinery into the hands of farmers who would struggle to compete without one. The last thing he needed was a shrinking, consolidating industry.

Likewise, robotics is a capital intensive business. It takes a lot of time and capital to design, prototype, test and manufacture robots. It requires engineers to design, people to test, programmers to program, foresters and others to identify all the necessary species, collect and refine the data, and so on. It requires buying robots that manufacture your robots, and people to install, manage, repair, and monitor that manufacturing process.

Once these machines work, the math is difficult to ignore. (Sound familiar?) If a set of robots can, in a week, do the work 100 men complete in a week, then someone will start doing the math. If they don’t, they’ll soon have to compete with someone who WILL do the math. The math will change quickly as the robots increase their productivity.

“The math” means figuring the full extrapolated cost of those hundred men, their equipment, their fuel / food / medical care, training, pensions, health benefits, managers, supervisors, transportation and so on – then comparing it to the traditional cost of getting that work done. Somewhere in there, there are fixed and variable costs. At some point, the robots will make sense financially, or maybe they won’t. Time will tell. In some industries, they will. We’ve already seen that.

If they do make sense, the robot sellers can take a page from Whitney’s sales manual and say “Look, you don’t have to pay anything up front, simply pay me a percentage of your haul once you get paid.” At that point, the game changes.

On-ramps are critical

If leaders wait until the game has changed, it’s too late.

When some of these employees and contractors find that they aren’t needed anymore, or that the number of companies who do need them are steadily shrinking, it’s starting to be too late. At first, some of the people are needed for fewer shifts. At some point, the work they do might not be needed anymore.

If we’ve not prepared for that, and are unable (or unwilling) to prepare people to be ready for those transitions, we (and they) are going to get a surprise. You may think it doesn’t affect you because of what you do, but these dollars flow freely in the community. It will affect you at some point, even if the effect is caused by career changes for someone who lives 1500 miles away.

It isn’t about being ready for a legal 60 day layoff warning requirement, so you can decide it’s time to find something to train them for. That’s too late. It’s about being ready for the new thing no later than when a substantial industry change starts to gain traction. A 30, 60, or 90 day delay / break in the ability to generate income can destroy the economy of many families, despite the best of intentions by that family to save, etc. We’re at the early stage of that as virus-related layoffs accelerate. Skilled people need to be ready to transition in advance. They can’t be trained overnight. The leading / bleeding edge folks will see the benefits early. They’ll quietly train their own people and implement these changes.

Not only do people need the income because they’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed (etc), but there will be immediate needs to deliver on the commitments of companies that put these pieces of equipment in the field (and those who don’t). You can’t wait 60 or 90 days or longer for somebody to become expert enough to do the new work. Equipment breaks down all the time. It needs to be configured, transported, maintained, and deployed today. Companies at the leading edge of that transition will need trained people to do this work. Leaders need to help create the on-ramps that help them get there.

Change doesn’t care

Change doesn’t care about our feelings, our likes & dislikes, much less the tender underside of our comfort zone.

The pace of change is even less considerate. The key is not to fight it, but to leverage it. The one thing you can’t do is stop it.

Choose leaders who can handle change. Cultivate new leaders to engage with it.

Photo by Robert Gomez on Unsplash

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Employee Training Leadership Management

Mental errors

So, this past weekend my alma mater’s football team visited Tuscaloosa. As with most guests of the University of Alabama football team, they came away with a loss. Despite losing by 41, it could have been worse. Really it could. The score didn’t really bother me – I mean, seriously – we’re talking about an unranked team vs the top ranked team in the country. We knew it was going to be ugly.

Coaching?

Even when you “know” your team is going to be clobbered, there are two things you don’t want to see. In fact, I spoke with a sportscaster friend from college about it shortly before kickoff. I mentioned that I’d like to see four quarters of motivated play, ie: no appearance of quitting or giving up, and four quarters without a bunch of stupid mistakes – ie: mental errors. Fortunately, we didn’t see the team giving up late in the game, despite a 40+ point deficit. Mental errors, however, were a problem.

We don’t generally expect major college athletes to commit mental errors week-in and week-out. If they’re a problem in a game, it happens, and you expect the coaching staff to spend some of the ensuing week’s training time to address them. It speaks to a coaching problem when these things happen repeatedly, particularly in consecutive games.

On two consecutive kickoff returns, two different kickoff returners made back to back junior high school football level errors – stepping out of bounds at the two yard line pursuing a ball they’d deflected, and catching a ball heading out of bounds inside the 10 yard line (rather than simply letting it go and getting it at the 20 yard line). Neither player appeared to be aware of their location on the field. I can’t recall the last time I saw this egregious an error of that type at the major college level, much less on consecutive kickoffs. It may not have affected the outcome this time, but it would against a different opponent. Unfortunately, these were not the only two mental errors – they’re simply the easiest ones to describe.

In a football game, you expect mental errors due to nervousness, fear, a pressure-filled situation, fatigue, and/or a lack of preparation. When you are down by 24 in the early first half, about all that’s left is the lack of preparation option. To me, that speaks directly to coaching. At this point in his tenure, there’s already the drumbeat of replacement – so fixing the preparation is essential. You can’t replace your team with better players (or players who fit better into your system) in the middle of the college season, but you can significantly impact their preparation. If you don’t, a lot of other things will likely go badly.

A tie to business?

Of course, there’s a connection to business. The situation speaks directly to hiring well, on-boarding, continuing education, mentoring, management, and leadership. Those things aren’t enough to eliminate mental mistakes, but they certainly help. The preparation that we didn’t see evidence of in last weekend’s game We all make mental mistakes in business situations.

The strategies that reduce or eliminate mental mistakes during the business day are the same ones as in football. Coaching, training, mentoring, and practice are all a part of preparation. Any one of them will not do the job. For example, you can stand at the front of the room and teach people, but until they get out in the field and do what they were trained to do, it’s extremely unlikely they will perform at a high level. Even when they do, practice and mentorship is essential.

An easy example? Your sales team. Some members of your team may not enjoy practicing sales calls with other staffers, or going over recordings of sales calls with a manager or an experienced, successful salesperson – but both practices have proven useful to developing expert salespeople.

It’s on the leader

While the team members are the ones making the mistakes, the responsibility rests largely with the leader. They set the tone and performance expectations, while deciding how much preparation of their team (or their staff) is enough.

Business leaders are all under some sort of deadline. Coaches can’t put off next Saturday’s game. Both have to field the team they have each day or each week. Both are responsible for making sure their teams are well-prepared. What can you do with your team to make sure they are better prepared for their next effort?

Photo by Mari Carmen Del Valle Cámara on Unsplash

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Employee Training Entrepreneurs Leadership Management

Are you holding on too tight?

Have you ever driven something to the post office because then you’d be absolutely sure it was put in the right box and actually mailed? Seemed rational at the time, right? The biggest turning point in a business owner’s life is when they trust someone enough to let them do something the business owner used to do. Yes, bigger than deciding to start the business itself. It’s one of the most difficult achievements for owners because it’s driven by fear, an emotion as primitive as there is. This fear convinces us that no one else can do the work as well as we can, even when the task is unimportant but necessary.

We have a bias toward the illusion and value of control at least in part because we did everything when there was no one else to do it. We remember the good old days when we built it alone in our basement, kitchen table, garage, etc. We did it all, thumped our chests, and drank from the skulls of our competitors. Our fond memories tell us we were in control of everything. The reality was more likely daily firefighting in an environment where we were alone and nothing was truly in our control.

Control isn’t the secret sauce

We think control is an important and essential element to building and growing a company. We think this because it’s all we know. When we’re the only one doing the work – control of everything is the default behavior model. Over time, “control of everything” stakes its claim as one of the essential ingredients of our success comes to us simply because we were the only employee. That doesn’t mean it’s the ideal.

Delegating work is one of the hardest and most valuable skills a business owner can develop. We usually won’t admit to ourselves that being bad at delegating (or not wanting to delegate) is a product of our desire to preserve our illusion of control.

We convince ourselves to stay small with thoughts like these:

  • I built this thing myself when I discovered others weren’t doing this, or weren’t doing it well.” (until I delegate to the right person with the right details, assuming this was ever true, and of course the task is so critical that I MUST be the only one to do it. Except it usually isn’t that critical, it’s simply work that must be done.)
  • No one knows what we went through.” (and?)
  • No one works like an owner.” (which is understandable – they aren’t owners).
  • It’s faster to do it myself than to teach you how to do it.” (Except for the second through nth times, assuming you taught it properly)
  • Others don’t care like I do.” (even though they might – worst case, they care enough or in their own way. Again, they aren’t owners.)
  • So and so’s work isn’t perfect.” (Neither is yours)
  • I can always do it better than anyone else.” (Are you sure? Is 10% better worth not getting to that truly critical work that is of a nature that you really are the only one who can do it?)
  • No one but me has the twenty seven years of experience that’s necessary to do this work well.” (It isn’t usually necessary, we just think it is. If we use that experience to guide our training & delegation, someone else *can* do it as well.)

Control has limits

How many items can you carry at one time? At some point, you’ll either stop adding items, or you’ll start dropping things. Our minds have a similarly finite ability to control things. That “control” includes managing people, projects, relationships, much less doing the work our role demands of us.

Your leadership role requires your full attention. Would you prefer to lead your company well, or lead it poorly because your mental and physical energy is consumed by less important tasks other people can do?

Holding on too tight stifles growth. We had to hold tight when we were working alone, but it’s a serious liability when you have a team. The best NFL quarterbacks throw or hand the ball to someone else most of the time, despite most of then having great running skills. Your children won’t learn to walk if you never let them out of your arms.

An executive who works with famous bands and professional athletes regularly asks his clients how their work changed once they “went pro”. In both groups, the most prevalent answer was “having the time and mental space to focus solely on our music / on-field performance and the wants / needs of our clientele, without the distraction of little things that used to consume their time.

The fear of letting go of the control that we think helped us succeed when it was just us – is exactly the thing that keeps us small.

Hiring my assistant Lorena is one of the best decisions I ever made.
But, many entrepreneurs don’t know how to go about hiring one. (Myself included! I got lucky with Lorena!)
Many entrepreneurs don’t know where to look. They don’t know what to pay.
They don’t know WHO to trust.
But most of all, they don’t know HOW to trust.
They don’t how to let go of tasks they really need to let go of. They don’t know how to let go of control.
I get that. We entrepreneurs have skin (and blood and hair and sweat) in the game. We can’t take our eye off the ball or things slide into chaos in a hiccup.

A comment from Perry Marshall

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

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Employee Training Employees Management

Do they know they work for an airline?

A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.

We all have baggage

After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.

I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.

Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.

About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.

My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.

My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.

Uncle!

The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.

Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.

I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?

PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Sales

The role of a salesperson

I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.

Opportunity missed

While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.

Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.

Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.

The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.

Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.

These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.

It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.

Categories
Employee Training Recurring Revenue Sales

Where subscribers hide: Pt 1

Watching my wife shop / interact with salespeople is always a refresher course. Gaps in customer service & sales training / tactics always reveal themselves. This is the missing piece of “Secret Shopper” type services – no audio / video. The report is fine, but you don’t get to see and hear what happened – that’s where the gold lies. We’re going to go over an experience we had while shopping in a local retail business that has a subscription model. Yes, a local retail business (a wine store) with subscribers. All too rare, but I see more of them than I used to. Bear in mind that there have been wine subscriptions by mail / via internet for decades. 

My wife is an intermittent repeat shopper at this store. They have a good selection. The sales people know their wines – and at least one of them is a standout in that department. She’s the one who really knows their point of sale / CRM (customer relationship manager) system. Isn’t it interesting that the product expert also happens to be the CRM expert – and she isn’t the owner. She’s “just an employee”, right? 

Working with the expert

A couple of weeks ago, the Mrs. sent me to pick up a white wine to go with some smoked fish sent to us by a friend in Michigan. She didn’t remember the brand name, but she did say that it was the white she thought she’d bought most often. So, being the CRM nerd that I am, I asked the salesperson “My wife wants a white wine but I don’t know the name. Can you tell me which one she’s bought most often?

In some stores, I might get a shrug or a “We don’t collect that info.” In this store, I got exactly what I came for.

Turns out that I was fortunate to be working with the standout salesperson there. She knew their CRM like a pro. She quickly found my wife’s purchase history, identified the most frequently purchased item, grabbed a bottle, and I was out the door in less than five minutes. That’s my kind of shopping.

Not working with the expert

Yesterday, we went back to this store. The expert had moved out of state, apparently for a new opportunity. My wife asked basically the same question I had asked two weeks earlier. Our salesperson, who was in the store when I was there two weeks ago, didn’t know how to find purchase history.

A promo sheet at the checkout counter mentions their monthly subscription program. Two bottles, four bottles, etc. My wife was in the four a month program a year or so ago. She quit because bottles were piling up. Four a month is too many for her.

The selection in the four month program fits her tastes better than the two month program, so backing off to two per month didn’t work. The promo sheet prompted her to ask if she could get the four bottle program every other month. 

The response: “No.”

There are plenty of possible answers to that – and most of them are questions. “No” ends the sales conversation. 

The owner questions

The owner overheard the conversation from the backroom. He steps out asks why the four per month every other month works better than the two per month. The point of curiosity is obvious – it’s the same number of bottles. She explained that high tannin wines make her feel bad, so she likes the four-per-month subscription’s selections. 

The owner says “We can handle that. Let us know when you pick up your monthly selection. We’ll be happy to swap out wines that’ll bother you.” He continues, saying that they can do an every other month plan, but will need to look into the details to make sure she isn’t charged every month.

This flexibility matters because it gets them a subscriber. She liked the previous plan she was on, but it wasn’t clear there were substitution options. Result: She cancelled. There was no follow up to ask why. Knowing why helps you keep more subscribers longer and learn about gaps in your plans.

Obvious reminder: Subscribers are sales you make every month, often with little sales / marketing effort. You have to fulfill well, regardless of tannin, to keep them. More next week. 

Categories
Employee Training Leadership Management strategic planning

What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic

Categories
Employee Training

Are you testing your training?

By the time you read this, we’ll have finally arrived home from an almost six week long work / play trip. What that really means is that I worked as we travelled and she played. Ok, I played a little bit too. The beauty of having a business that isn’t tied to a single physical location is that you can do that work from anywhere. BUT… that isn’t today’s topic. I think I’ve harped on the value of remote work enough, at least for now.

This was a long road trip. We saw long “lost” relatives we hadn’t seen in 20 years, had a little bit of beach time, spent time with family and college friends, as well as knocking off a few things on our “gotta do this” list. One of the constants of a road trip – particularly one that takes consists of a lot of time in the high desert plains and mountains – is thirst quenching. There’s a certain drive through place we visit that has a happy hour twice a day – half off or very cheap drinks (no, not THOSE kind). These places are (almost) everywhere along our trip’s path, so we managed to visit quite a few of them.

At almost every one of these places, we found that we had ordering problems. An unbelievable frequency of them, in fact.

The problem is not the problem

At first, we thought it was my accent. I don’t have one, according to me. Ok, I really don’t have one and I have had enough trouble with this at drive ups that I tend to be that guy who enunciates every word slowly so that even Siri could understand it.

Didn’t help. When you’ve had this issue in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and a few other states whose people talk far differently accent-wise, you start to get the idea that it isn’t you.

The same data and experiences that help you figure out that it isn’t you also help you figure out that it isn’t the person on the other end. That was the good news.

Eventually, we started asking questions. Yes, I know. Who does that?

The real issue?

At first, it really wasn’t clear what was creating this issue at so many locations. While I was still thinking it might somehow be me or engine noise, the problem was consistent in too many places, even with the engine off. Plus we were driving a Subaru, not a diesel pickup.

What was clear was that employees of this franchise system were having massive problems all over the West, Midwest, and as far east as the Florida panhandle.

After talking to a few employees at different locations (after we had trouble ordering at each of them), we found out that they were having terrible struggles with their point of sale ordering system. It wasn’t clear if it was new, poorly designed, unclear, and/or if an awful lot of people hadn’t been getting trained well, or all of those things.

It eventually became clear that the more experienced employees were doing ok with the system (think: Morning visits usually staffed by a manager), while afternoon visits were the source of the struggle. It finally seemed to come down to newer employees who may have recently started for the summer. They would be less familiar with the menu and the point of sale system, as well as the challenges of voice ordering.

In one case, the flustered person trying to take a two drink order finally called over their manager, who cleared up the point of sale issue almost immediately. The manager was very apologetic to us, but I don’t think we deserved an apology. I think the employee who perhaps hadn’t been trained enough or mentored enough was the one who should have received the apology (and some additional training).

The point? Test, train, repeat.

We encountered similar things at other businesses during our trip.

If you implement point of sale, tech support or order management systems in your business – whether you own/run a restaurant or a heavy manufacturing business, find a local fast food joint that has deployed do-it-yourself ordering kiosks.

Every manager (including senior ones) will benefit from watching the general public as they use these systems. Having done that… watch newly trained employees do the same with your systems. Only then will you know if your training is working.

Photo by familymwr

Categories
customer retention Employee Training Leadership Management

Discarding clients & the math of job security

How often are you discarding clients? When fussy, needy, and/or high-maintenance clients complain repeatedly, there’s significant temptation to simply toss them out with the garbage. Some business owners build “filters” into their marketing designed to repel such clients.

When an existing client provokes thoughts of “Life’s too short to deal with this“, who fires them? How is the decision reached? Is the process documented? How is the decision communicated to the client and to your team?

Hammers, nails & curmudgeons

I asked some friends how they describe people they’d fire as clients. Their responses included unreasonable, unrealistic, frustrated, afraid, disgruntled, troublesome, pedantic, rebarbative, cranky pants, curmudgeon, etc.

Are you teaching your team that getting rid of imperfect clients is the only acceptable solution? Owners know there are situations that don’t merit dropping a client. Owners discard clients based on their experience. Does your team have that experience to back up their decisions? Take care that your team doesn’t use this tactic like a hammer while seeing every complaining customer as a nail.

It’s essential to be careful using “You’re fired!” as too-frequent use can damage your reputation. Businesses learn to detect bad apples and few are surprised when these clients get fired. Taken too far, your business can get a reputation for arrogance. People will think you discard clients the first time there’s an objection or even a question. You don’t want your reputation to be “At the first hint of a problem or even a question, they tell people to leave and not come back.” Some prospects will hear that and decide not to show up.

The math of discarding clients

Discarding clients sometimes feels as easy as pulling a splinter. The pain and aggravation fades quickly, making you wonder why you ever tolerated them. Even so, every choice to discard a client impacts your bottom line. While getting rid of high-maintenance “time vampires” will probably improve your bottom line, you have to be careful not to let your team believe that’s the only solution available. That’s where the math kicks in.

If your team gets rid of one customer a month, what does that mean to your bottom line? You likely know the typical customer’s lifetime customer value (LCV). Owners usually know how often the typical customer buys from them. They also typically know how much customers spend on average per transaction. Combined with the rate at which you are adding new customers, you can determine what an improper “firing” costs you and how long it takes to recover from it.

Uninformed profitability math

Employees don’t usually know the financial impact of discarding clients. When you explain the financials of your business to your team, it helps them understand why you think the way you do. Tools like “The Great Game of Business” (start with the book) help employees understand how the business works financially (free resources) vs. how they think it works.

Learning how the business works from a financial perspective encourages employees think more like owners. It can alter “I’m working my tail off for $15 an hour while the owner gets rich.” to something closer to reality. Even if the owner IS getting rich due in part to the risks they took & the investments they made, “uninformed profitability math” isn’t healthy. This “uninformed profitability math” rarely create behaviors that are positive for the business.

Many employees have never had the opportunity to see how their work (and how they work) impacts company financials. Meanwhile, business owners regularly complain how their people don’t think like owners. Part of that thought process is understanding the financial impact of events that occur in the business each day. Knowing that what your work does for the bottom line carries substantial value.

A “We’re having a good (or bad) month” message to employees is rarely accompanied by data explaining why. Understanding what good and bad month means affects the security a team member feels about their job. This impacts their confidence in their ability to provide for their family – and certainly affects job performance and attitude.

What does “we’re having a good/bad month” mean at your business? What message does it send to your team?

Photo by Shinichi Haramizu

Categories
Employee Training Leadership Management

Training: One cure for sales problems

When having a conversation about sales problems, I might remind you about the folly of only taking cash (depending on the type of business). I might also remind you to eliminate the tedious & annoying out of your buying process. There are cases where that’s useful, but mostly – it isn’t. But not today. Today, I’d like to remind you of the value of training your sales team.

You’ve got questions

Heard of Quora.com? Quora is a website where you can ask questions. Many times, you’d never have access to those who answer: world-class subject matter experts. If you asked an airplane question, you might hear from an engineer who helped design it & three commercial pilots who fly it.

Why Quora? Because I found a Quora question pertinent to this discussion: “What can businesses learn from the military?” It reminds me of the not well informed “Why don’t non-profits run like a business?” question, but this is a much better question.

A Marine named Jon Davis who deployed to Iraq & Afghanistan answered: “Training”.  His answer breaks down like this: 1) A detailed process to track progress. 2) Regular job specific training. 3) An annual schedule to ensure standards are met. 4) Find & reward teachers. 5) Ignore the “training them to leave” myth. 6) Discipline.

If those six items are checkboxes – can you check any of them?

I’ve recently met several folks who work in the car business. The one I wrote about last week is the only one I’ve encountered recently who knew the product well. I don’t mean he could wake him in the middle of the night & tell me (blindfolded) how to change a timing belt. I mean he didn’t have to run to the showroom to find out the horsepower for a vehicle whose manufacturer makes cars with only two engine choices across the entire product line. Yes, it happened.

This isn’t a sales team failure. It’s a management failure. Are you preparing your salespeople to succeed? Product knowledge isn’t what sells cars. Rapport is. Guiding me to a “special value” (car that’s been on the lot too long) because it pays more than a mini (minimum commission) doesn’t build rapport.

A question about the value of rapport: What’s worth more to you, getting that “special value” off the lot, or creating a relationship that provokes me to return every x years to buy only from you for the rest of my vehicle buying days, while also encouraging my friends to do so? You decide.

Sometimes product knowledge is critical: “Can you help me find a good red wine?” The salesperson who knows less about your product than most prospects will struggle – & reflect poorly on your business. You need someone who understands the problems your prospects want to solve & how your solutions address them.

Don’t have a sales team? Still affects you.

One of the best parts of the answer Jon gives relates to on-boarding. He describes how the military trains recruits and leads them. He then compares that to the training that most businesses provide: haphazardly, if at all, and with little ongoing mentoring –  which unfortunately matches my observations over time.

You probably hire experienced people so they’ll step in & become effective quickly. Do they do it the way you want it done? Did they learn a completely different way of doing what you do? What if you don’t want them to do it that way? How will they learn your proprietary way of doing things?

Don’t assume an experienced new hire has mastered the systems, machinery, methods, and processes your business uses to succeed. Learn from their experience, but train / mentor them.

No matter what, the last thing you ought to be doing is turning them loose on your customers, prospects, products, and services and simply assuming that everything’s going to work out. Maybe it will. They might survive, or get by, or be good enough. Did you exert all that effort to find just the right person only to toss them to the lions with the expectation that they’d get by?

How much does it cost each time you have to replace a poorly trained salesperson who failed? How much does it cost to keep someone who isn’t as effective as they could be because they had to learn your ways by the seat of their pants?

Photo by formatc1