Competition Creativity Customer relationships customer retention goals Ideas Improvement Management planning Small Business

Taken a pulse lately?

Ten months of 2009 are gone. Take the pulse of your business and ask yourself: “Is the business where I wanted to be by now?

Before you think this is all about the finances, it isn’t. It’s all about where you wanted to be. Maybe it’s about finances, but there might be more important indicators. It’s easy to be profitable and still heading in the wrong direction, for example.

If you’re behind, what can do add, change, delete, correct or adjust to get your progress back on track to meet/exceed your business’ goals? Have you actually done what you said you would do? If not, why not?

Not just about Retail

Big retail (and far too much of small retail) looks at these next two months as what gets them into the black. They’ve even named the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” because that’s the shopping day that traditionally moves their business into the black.

While many outside of retail often look at these next two months as throwaways due to the number of holidays, vacations, parties, travel, hunting season and so on – that’d be a mistake.

Likewise, lots of companies put off hiring during these two months (hmm, so NOW till January is the time to pick off the best talent?).

As for the delay, I can find a holiday and related excuses to do that in any month. Why would you do that?

Thank them

In a few weeks, Thanksgiving is coming up in the U.S.

What a great time to take a little time to thank your clientele for their business – just don’t be boring about it and don’t make it a sales call. Whatever you do, do it as a sincere thanks rather than making it ordinary and using it as just another opportunity to pitch everyone.

For Canadian readers who are thinking “Darn, our Thanksgiving was last month”, it’s not too late. Simply acknowledge that you’re a bit tardy so you thought you’d thank them in time for the Americans’ Thanksgiving.


One last thing on this topic – now’s the time to get moving on an assessment of 2009’s successes and failures, and start laying out your 2010 plans and goals. Have your plans and strategies ready for Jan 1 (and start them earlier if it makes sense). Don’t wait until Jan 1 to start this process.

attitude Competition Creativity google Leadership market research Marketing Media planning Small Business Strategy

Are you thinking about 5 years from now? Really?

What about in other markets that affect yours?

Ever want to know at least a little bit of what Google might be thinking?

This 5 minute excerpt is the meaty part of a 45 minute long discussion about the future with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Listen to what Schmidt says about the inevitable intersection of TV, radio, video, internet – ie: of media in general.

Sure, it’s obvious. And it’s just one aspect of what he’s speaking of.

But are you considering it in your marketing? In your product delivery? In what your products and services look like? In who you have on your staff, the skills you’re looking for in new hires and the training you’re offering to existing staff?

You don’t have to be in the tech business for this to have a profound impact on you. Has the iPod has affected businesses other than those who make cassette players? Surely.

What often separates the big dogs from everyone else is that they think ahead, they look ahead and they position themselves to be at cruising speed when that next big thing gets traction and hits cruise control.

Focusing merely on survival is not only a great way to never make it to top speed, but to find yourself on the wrong highway altogether.

attitude Business culture Competition Corporate America Creativity customer retention Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership Positioning Restaurants Retail Small Business Strategy The Slight Edge

Looking up at an ugly linebacker

Competition. It isn’t good or bad, it just is.

You either are or you aren’t competitive. Thankfully, it’s something you might even be able to learn, at least somewhat.

On the other hand, it’s hard to teach the desire to drive the QB into the dirt and then stand over him. You just gotta.

Anyhow, on that theme, today’s guest post comes from a rather unusual place – a sports blog. More specifically, Dan Shanoff’s discussion about ESPN’s next entry into local sports coverage.

Filter all the sportiness out of it after reading it once and think about a similar entity entering your local market.

A big, powerful, deep pocketed player. In your market. In your town.

Whaddaya gonna do now?

Shanoff lays it out nicely for a paper. How about your business?

Are you going to wait till they arrive to take the next step? Not a good idea.

Business culture Competition Creativity Entrepreneurs Improvement Leadership planning Small Business Strategy The Slight Edge

Planning ahead: 700 year old trees

There’s a story told during the early parts of Wood Badge for the 21st Century (a week-long leadership course for Scout leaders) about an old cathedral somewhere in the UK or Europe.

The story goes that the builders of this 700 year old building planned ahead for the maintenance of that building and a prime concern was replacing the beams in their building.

The beams in buildings of this period came from massive trees.

Presumably, the builders of the cathedral were concerned that future builders wouldn’t have the resources to maintain / repair the cathedral so they planted trees on the cathedral’s courtyard with the intent of using them in the future.

Or maybe they figured the cost would be beyond the budget of those doing the work.

Honestly, we don’t really know what drove their thought process, but it speaks well of them that they were thinking about it even during construction, despite it being so many years ago.

Naturally, the story continues with these massive trees on the property that are the only ones suitable for replacing beams in the building.

Similar stories can be found about the Tower of London’s trees, but no one is really sure if the trees were planted for this use or not.

Sharpen the chainsaw?

Now, we all know that you’d probably get strung up on one of those trees 700 years later if you proposed to cut them down to replace a failing beam in one of these structures, but that isn’t the point.

Nor is it the point that these days, engineered wood beams (made from laminated wood, resins and other products) would likely be the material of choice.

I hope it is obvious that the point of this discussion (and the reason it is used in the Wood Badge course) is the plan, the vision and the attention to detail in both.

Imagine if your business’ “What If” thought process didn’t end right after the New Year’s Eve party, but instead went 5, 10 or 25 years in advance?

If you’re thinking about your customers’ needs that far out, isn’t it more likely that your vision will be better than someone whose planning only considers what’s going on now – or maybe what might happen in the next year?


Are you strategic about something 5 years out? Or – like much of Wall Street – are you simply thinking 90-120 days in advance?

If you can see far into the future, obviously you would make better decisions now. Given that, how far forward are you looking?

Even if your vision of what your market will be and what your clients will need 10 years from now is inaccurate, that’s OK.

The process, research and examination of your market, your customers and your own business will yield much better short-term decision making than a short-term view would.

You’ll consider things you might never have considered, or you’ll do so far earlier than you would in an almost-reaction-driven (so-called) strategic mode that can’t even see over the next hill.
Automation Banking Business culture Business Resources Customer service Employees Entrepreneurs Improvement Management Photography planning podcast Productivity Retail service Small Business Software Strategy systems Technology The Slight Edge

Boat anchors are bad business. Sharing is good business.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Robb North

Over the last month or so, I’ve been playing phone tag with someone at the local bank’s office.

I use this national bank primarily because they offer some electronic banking services that local banks don’t bother to offer (such as a real-time, seamless interface with QuickBooks), despite my repeated “encouragement” to do so.

Some have noted that the cost to provide this QuickBooks interface is substantial – yet I get interesting wrinkled brow looks when I remind them that I pay $15 a month to use this nifty QB service because it saves us hours per month. Until the fee got to the point where the time was more valuable, I’d pay it. But I digress…

Anyhow, we’ve been talking with someone there about a refi and a combination of my schedule / travel and her schedule /travel have made it difficult to get into the same room at the same time. Not their fault, just one of those things about a busy summer.

This last time I called, the person I’m working with was out of town for several days. I asked the person on the phone if they could put me on their appointment calendar for the week after they return.

My calendar! Mine, mine, mine!

Astoundingly, the answer was no.

Yes, the folks at this large national bank, the same ones who are advanced enough to have their accounts seamlessly talk to my QuickBooks, do not allow or cannot manage to let their employees see their appointment book or schedule an appointment for someone else.


I have a feeling it might be related to worries that someone might raid someone else’s appointment calendar for plum prospects, but there are ways of showing only open dates. Even so, that shouldn’t be necessary.

If you can’t trust a *bank* employee to access a co-worker’s appointment calendar, tell me why you trust them to work at the bank in the first place – cuz I don’t see it. But that trust thing is a topic for another day.

Unseen Value

Now we get to the point where you see where this affects you and your business: Are there resources (like an appointment calendar) that your staff should be able to share so they can help each other serve your clientele?

Back in the photography software days, it was a huge deal for new users of our product to finally get off that paper calendar at the front desk. It allowed anyone to see which photographers / camera rooms / salespeople / presentation spaces were booked and make an appointment no matter where an employee was when they answered the phone.

Sounds completely obvious, but many businesses simply couldn’t do it because they were still tied to that boat anchor – the paper appointment book.

Big, heavy and “somewhere in the warehouse”

Another market I worked with manufactured expensive custom items that were big and heavy. They stored them in the warehouse once they were finished.

The information about the build status and storage location of these custom-ordered items was kept on a set of clipboards on a line of nails in the manufacturing area.

Sometimes the info on those clipboards was out of date or missing because someone forgot to write the build status or location down. An order might get lost / forgotten until a customer called for it – and then you might find out that it hadn’t been built yet.

Now imagine that you are a receptionist in the front office and you’re all alone over lunch hour or during a big sales meeting. When that big customer calls to ask about their 27 piece, $57000 order, you have to put them on hold (or tell them you’ll call back), run back to the clipboards, flip through the orders manually, find the order and run back to the phone.

If the clipboard is missing because someone has it at a manufacturing station, or it is on the manager’s desk (or car seat), you know nothing.

If the data on the clipboard wasn’t filled out, you get to run back to the warehouse and look on dozens of shelves from floor to ceiling for an item that has a little paper tag on it showing the customer name.

That’s a boat anchor.

The alternative? A system that integrates customer information, orders, build status and delivery information together. When the phone rings, you can look up all of a customer’s orders, find the status of any of them and tell them right then. The items are barcoded as part of the manufacturing process so most status and location info is automatically updated. Depending on your situation, “most” could be “all”.

What’s your boat anchor? What can you share to get rid of it, enabling your staff to be more helpful and more productive?

coaching Competition Management planning Positioning Productivity Sales service Small Business Strategy systems

Half full or half empty? Either way, it’s still half.

Creative Commons License photo credit: boyghost

Today is June 30.

Unless your business model is seasonal (which is common here in Montana), you should be at 50% of your annual goals as of the end of business today.

Whether you are or not, looking back over the last 6 months should provide some insight as you look forward and adjust your plans for the second half of 2009.

Over, Under, Worked, Didn’t

Where are you over and under budget?

In each case, are there *good* reasons for that?

If things are below budget, did you drop the ball, fail to market effectively (or at all), lose a competitive edge, have a drop in productivity or something else?

If you are at or over budget, did you follow your marketing and business plan for the first half of the year? Did productivity rise?

Are systems lightening the load of menial work, allowing you to get more productive, profit-generating work done? If you don’t have systems, perhaps you should. If you systems could do more, look at how they can – and prioritize their implementation.

What worked? Simple response: Do more of that.

What didn’t work? Again, common sense says you should assess how you can fix that thing or eliminate it.

You decide.

When I ask you to examine what is over and under budget, make sure you look at non-budget categories. Things like number of new leads, number of new customers, advertising performance by media/by ad, and so on.

One thing is almost certain. If you do for the next 6 months what you did for the last 6 months, chances are the 2nd half of 2009 will be little different from the first half.

You can decide whether that’s good or not.

Business culture Competition Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement Leadership Management planning Productivity Small Business Strategy

What success looks like

What does it look like to YOU, that is?

To get where you are going most efficiently, with the least amount of distractions and dead end side trips, a detailed plan is essential.

But it isn’t just about the plan. You have to be able to see the destination in your mind. You have to think through the nuances as well as what impact they have on your journey to get there.

For example, if a made-over store is one of your goals, what does it look like? How is it merchandised? How big is it? What sort of facilities does it have? Where is it? Same place as your current location, or different?

Drilling down beyond that, what will it take to make all those things happen? What specific level of revenue? What staff positions are needed to make this happen? What expertise do you need to learn or pick up via new or newly-trained staff members? Are there new product lines, services or directions that your products/services need to address in order to make all of this happen?

Think about it. Get it down on paper or on your computer – whatever you use to plan projects.

Knowing what success looks like in extraordinary detail will help you build and execute a better plan for getting there.

Creativity Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement Leadership Management Motivation podcast Productivity Small Business Strategy systems

The Parrot Says You Can’t Do That

Close parrot
Creative Commons License photo credit: jsgphoto

Obama made reference to it Tuesday during his Inaugural Address, acknowledging that many say he can’t do all the things he’s got on his agenda.

Maybe so, maybe not.

Admittedly, his obstacles are substantial.

Some might assume they are insurmountable, specifically those 500 or so people in the Capitol building.

The thing is, that’s  just the kind of situation that often makes people succeed well beyond their own expectations, much less the expectations of others who have counted them out.

Ask Joe Namath, Roger Staubach or John Elway about being counted out.

On second thought, do that later. I’m not here to talk to you about those 4 guys – I’m here to talk to you about you.

Got obstacles?

Who’s counted YOU out? Neighbors? Friends? Family? That little parrot on your shoulder?

Your obstacles probably shrink in comparison to the ones faced by Presidents, but they still might be daunting for you.

So what? Act in parallel and make em all wrong.

What exactly do I mean by parallel?

Most people act sequentially. They think “I’ll do this project, then this project, then that project.” We’ve been taught that way, at least most of us. Learning anything different is often something you stumble across. A failed project acted on sequentially is like a losing season.

Most really successful people tend to act in parallel. They often have a dozen or more projects going on at once. If one of them sticks to the wall, fine. If not, those other 11 projects will pick up the slack. A failed project is just one of the many things they’re counting on, rather than an entire losing season, it’s more like an incomplete pass.

Sure, you’re wondering how they get it all done. How do they juggle a dozen projects when one is enough to drive you crazy?

I promise you one thing: it sure doesn’t happen by accident.

How do they get parallel without going postal?

  • They have a mentor. Even *billionaires* have mentors, coaches, confidants or mastermind groups. Don’t imagine for a minute that Bill Gates plays bridge with Warren Buffett just for fun, nor that Buffett does because he can’t find anyone else to play cards with him. Look Tiger Woods can spank any golfer on the planet, yet he still has a coach to help him keep improving. Who do you have?
  • They have systems in place to relieve themselves of tedious crap. I’m talking about the same stuff that bogs down your day, interrupts you during productive stretches (you DO have those, don’t you?) and create piles of minimum wage labor on your desk – work that you end up doing yourself.
  • They’ve surrounded themselves with people as smart or smarter than themselves. Their ego isn’t driving the bus. Quite often, they do this to relieve themselves of time-consuming manual labor – often technical skills like copywriting and web design.

Acknowledging the theme of the day, Abe Lincoln is quoted as saying that if he had 8 hours to cut down a tree, he’d first spend 6 hours sharpening his saw. What sharpens your saw?

Jim Rohn says that “You become the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with.” No, that doesn’t mean you should go stand in a circle of supermodels<g>. Seriously…Who have you surrounded yourself with?

Get Parallel. Show the parrot who’s in charge.

Competition E-myth Entrepreneurs Improvement Management planning podcast Small Business

Working ON your business: Make it a habit

You may have noticed that I took a little rest from blogging over the last couple weeks. Some of it was planned, some was due to surprisingly infrequent access to the internet during our trip to Missouri and Tennessee ( one example: a Starbucks with TWO tables, both next to the door in single digit weather, yeah, sure – and that was the only access I found other than a Panera restaurant).

Yep, we drove from Montana to the Midwest and back. Other than the “joy” of 20 below temps in Wyoming during the trip south, the trip was very nice and the roads were clear for the entire trip once we got out of Montana. The same can’t be said for my return home, where I found 2 feet of snow in my driveway and another foot the day after.

By the way, that 20 below thing is rare, but happens once or twice a year to keep the riffraff out:)

Normally when I leave town, I have posts automatically scheduled in WordPress so that my schedule doesn’t interfere with keeping things moving here, but in this case I wanted to use experiences on the trip to seed those posts. I suppose the most noticeable seed from the trip is that in some areas, getting random access to the internet is a pain in the rump roast.  You wouldn’t think so in 2009, but that’s how it was.

Back to taking the time off. We all need it, of course. The only problem with taking time off from anything that you do regularly is that getting back into the game gets more difficult with each day that you’re gone.

People have asked me repeatedly how I manage to blog (almost) every single day. Quite simply, its a habit. Even on the days I don’t write (which are few – even on this last trip), I’m either taking notes about a future article or writing offline.

The secret is that writing is like working a muscle. Left unused, it’ll atrophy. You don’t want your blogging muscles to atrophy, just like you don’t want any other muscles to do that.

Writing, blogging, working out, golfing, reading and many other things are simply habits that must be developed. They aren’t instinctive (which is a good thing). Why good? Because anyone can train themselves to do these things.

Make constant improvement a habit

Most importantly – for your business, at least – the habit of working ON your business is a critical path habit that you need to do daily.

Yes, I said daily.

Even if you only spend 15 minutes a day working on improving your business, you’ll be surprised how it becomes a part of you and your business process. Its something that really must become a part of your business. Being the goto person in your business is fine, just keep in mind that your business looks at you that way too, not just your clients.

You’re one of the few who can help it improve.

air travel Creativity Entrepreneurs goals Leadership Management Personal development planning Productivity Small Business Strategy Time management

Are you getting enough airplane time?

There are few things more valuable to a small business owner or entrepreneur than “airplane time”. In Montana, you can also call it “windshield time”, but I’ll explain that in a minute.

“Airplane time” is time that you have to yourself with no substantial external stimulus such as emails arriving, faxes coming in, phones ringing, people walking into your office, and so on.

Just like time on an airplane.

Even though you have thousands of people milling around in an airport, or a few hundred on a plane, you can block them all out almost as if they don’t exist. Yeah, even that poor mom and her earache-laden kid in 14B who is howling his lungs out.

That airport/airplane kind of focus is sometimes hard to come by when you own and run a business, but you simply must find it, or create it.

Think back: What circumstances were you last involved in when you had an hour or two to just… think, without any interruptions.

Putting your phone on vibrate doesn’t count.

A few years ago when I was incredibly busy and pulled in even more directions than I am now, I noticed that my best thinking happened on airplanes. I’d get off a 3 or 4 hour plane trip with a yellow pad full of notes, itching to implement changes or create this new service or product.

And it scared me.

Why? Because I knew that my business was doomed if I didn’t take steps to create more focused creative time rather than depending on the airlines to provide it. I was only flying about 6-8 times a year and that was simply not enough focused creative time.

For a while, airplane time remained my best thought time even after 9/11. Despite the way that air travel has been dehumanized and turned into a B-movie bus trip, I still find that my time in the air is extraordinarily productive. It’s the sterile, no wifi, no phone, OK-to-zone and ignore-your-neighbor environment.

In 2007 and early 2008, I found myself driving to Billings once a month for some coaching meetings. That 7-8 hours of driving each day of those trips gave me almost 2 solid days of serious thinking time each month.

Part of that comes from not having decent (or any) cell service along much of the drive. While at times that could drive you crazy, it was great for insulating you so you could get creative.

Outside of the tourist season (June/July/August), you can drive that 14-16 hours and stay focused as the only interruptions are dodging deer on the road and the occasional blizzard (which numbs the external stimuli even more). Not to say that no one is on the road, but things are sedate enough that you can really focus on creative thought – and still stay on the road.

These days, I find other ways to insulate myself and get that thinking time in. Once you get used to having it, losing it scares the pants off of you.

How are you getting this time nowadays? Or are you?

If you aren’t, figure out a way to get it. If you don’t get the big chunks of time, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that you aren’t getting smaller bits of thinking time either. Trouble is waiting for you if you aren’t.