These days, busy people participate in conference calls on their cell phones while gobbling down fast food to make up for the breakfast they missed while flipping through files and responding to a text message while their GPS screams directions while they argue with a colleague about the focus of their next meeting….and that’s while they are driving a car on the Turnpike!!!! Budgets are tight. They didn’t get a raise or can’t provide the bonuses they wanted to pay their employees. Their vacations are shorter and closer to home. Their youngest child had to switch from the expensive university to take a job near home and finish his degree at the state college at night. The cost of healthcare keeps rising. And to add insult to injury, their favorite competitor didn’t win the reality show they don’t admit to watching every week on television … and even Facebook was hacked! Can you feel the incidence rates of road rage, obesity, drug abuse, and diabetes rising by the minute? Are we having fun yet?
During times like these, it is really easy for service providers to slip into commiserating with clients who want to whine.
“Why not? After all, I am supposed to serve, right?”
“My client needs a safe place to ventilate.”
“There aren’t a lot of new projects coming up any way.”
“The people I’m talking with on the phone don’t have the authority to make big decisions, unfreeze the budget, or try something new.”
“Maybe my client will be more likely to bring a project my way when things lighten up because I am the one who understood how they felt when times were tough.”
“Cut me a break…it’s hard enough to work under these conditions!”
It is very easy to lose a long term client during times like this. All they have to say is “our budget got cut” and “your line item doesn’t exist any more”. Leaders in your company may simply accept that reality and walk away saying something lame like “we’re here for you” or “we’ll keep in touch.” Studies show that those clients don’t tend to come back.
When you and your clients are not super busy taking orders, doing lots of projects, and making money with/for one another, it is a good time to meet with your clients, conduct a customer satisfaction survey, and look for new ways to work together. This is not the time to wait for things to change. That approach leaves your company vulnerable to a more assertive, more energetic competitor to approach your long term clients, analyze their needs, propose new ideas, solve their problems, and help them survive the recession; while your service providers sit on the phones commiserating with the client’s lower level employees.
It pays to break customer research into chunks. You can start with a customer satisfaction survey focused on the past. This step could surface phrases that more effectively capture how your best customers describe the results you achieve. Those phrases could add some power to your marketing and proposals. Customer satisfaction surveys can surface concerns you did not previously know about and could resolve. Reviewing what your team has provided in the past can remind a key customer about your value, your relationship, and the important role you play. Think about how they drive down the Turnpike. You may think you are important and have done a great job, but these days, you are not on their minds. A customer satisfaction survey puts you back in their minds. You can come back to customers you have surveys to show the list of their suggested improvements. This step reinforces that you actually listen to them. Not many people are listening very well these days. You can select a few of the most important suggestions and show your client(s) how you are improving service based on their advice and priorities. That saves you money because you don’t feel compelled to simply throw money at multiple improvements hoping something will work. And if you improve a few key services well enough, you may have a competitive advantage you did not have before. You convey that you want their business and are doing more than just commiserating or waiting for things to change.
Another chunk of customer research could be more future oriented. Could you find out what your client would like to be doing in 5 years? What new products and services were they working on when their budgets got smaller? What competitive advantage would they like to have? What are their biggest problems? Could your team ask the kind of questions your new competitor is probably asking your long term clients right now? What would it cost for you to do a series of meetings, surveys, interviews, phone calls with long term clients?
The summer of 2009 brought record setting rain where I live. I have never seen such large geraniums and marigolds in my gardens. And the summer brought us strategic assessment projects for three new clients. Interestingly, one of the findings surfaced from the INTERVIEWS step was exactly the same for each of three otherwise very different organizations (a healthcare provider, a non profit entity, and a professional service firm). In all three instances, they were not getting the repeat and spin off business they could be getting because they:
One interview surfaced 10 business opportunities for one of these clients. That kind of result MORE than covers the costs associated with a customer satisfaction survey.
Tell me again why you aren’t doing this while people are cranky and worried enough to tell you important information.
The “changed” economy has raised the red flag of CAUTION so high that too many business people aren’t acting on opportunities, generating profits they need and deserve, and enjoying that process.
A need to be perfect and never make a mistake can suck the life out of growth initiatives.
Yes, it pays to analyze customer buying patterns, market trends, resources and capabilities. Yes, it pays to establish a system to keep everyone informed. This builds momentum, prevents many surprises, and reduces worry.
BUT … once you can see a business opportunity, it is more important to have FUN, build enthusiasm, and enjoy the ride!
HOWEVER, if you are not lost in perfectionism, how are your employees feeling? Even if your business has been fairly stable during the economic downturn, your employees could still be worried because gloom and doom media broadcasts have an impact. You might think that worried employees work harder to save their jobs, but worry is actually distracting. It breeds the rumor mill. It leads to resume writing during work hours, and worry stifles the generation of ideas.
Ironically, it takes extra effort to convince worried employees that you know what you are doing, there is real opportunity, these can be exciting times, and it’s OK to enjoy one’s job.
Does your company need a BRING BACK THE JOY project?
You are bright, well-educated, experienced, and you are now the primary leader of your family’s business. If that is your circumstance, congratulations on getting through the often difficult succession process. Hopefully, you are in charge because your parent(s) are happily retired or have moved on to another venture rather than being forced to step back due to illness.
While this opportunity is exciting, it is also a HUGE responsibility. Every President of a privately held business feels the weight of his/her office. Phrases like “lonely at the top” come from somewhere. But if you have a deep respect for what your grandparents and/or parents have done, you feel an even deeper sense of responsibility. The phrase many of the Presidents of my family-owned business clients have used is “a sense of stewardship”…and it has FROZEN many of them. How can you be an effective leader if you don’t want to take a chance, risk failure, or disappoint anyone?
One of the techniques to get UNFROZEN is to build your strategic growth plan one “chunk” at a time. Invite your management team to help you figure out how to incrementally grow and protect the company’s core/legacy products. That helps you breathe. No matter how bright you are, you need all of the oxygen you can get. Then move on to the discussion about how to add more vitality to the innovation process so new products can be provided for your company’s best customers. Next, move on to improving your company’s capacity to identify, analyze, and select new markets for you to provide the legacy AND the new products. You guessed it. The next discussion would be about ways to sell new products to the new customers. This is one of the classic approaches to portfolio management/strategic planning.
The second technique is to identify an optimum size for your business. At what size would your company need to be to become more resilient and be able to hire talented star performer(s) who could lift your company to a whole new level? Would that kind of change require 30% growth? 40%? 100%?
Now combine the two techniques. What percentage of the desired growth should come from existing products sold to existing customers? From new products sold to existing customers? Etc. Get the buy-in of key members of your management team and that FROZEN feeling is behind you.
Aldonna Ambler worked with the Ozone Pure Water Co. over a two-year period. She helped this fast-growing small business organize, define, and set short term and long range goals.
Ms. Ambler talked and worked with administration, office personnel, operations people and sales people. She never “did” a task for an employee but showed everyone the steps needed to achieve his goal.
She was a great asset to administration by helping us to see beyond day-to-day tasks so administration could begin to plan long-range goals. Ms. Ambler helped administration articulate these goals.
Ms. Ambler was instrumental in helping the various departments at Ozone to communicate with each other for the benefit of the company and, therefore, themselves.
Ms. Ambler also spent considerable time in sales and marketing so sales campaigns and marketing strategies were coordinated and cohesive. The sales department learned how to plan sales campaigns. They actually practiced cold-call techniques and read many books recommended by Ms. Ambler.
Most of the employees reacted favorably to the consulting experience and were anxious to make the recommended changes.
I was very satisfied with the work Ms. Ambler did for Ozone. I would highly recommend her for any type of organizational consulting a business might need.
Michal Langweiler, Vice President
Ozone Pure Water Company
This economy has forced some business leaders to re-examine their business models. OK. It’s annoying, but if you need to do it anyway, maybe this would be a good time to change how you look at ratios, measurement…the numbers.
Strategic planning is so much more fun and meaningful if it emphasizes strategy over planning and projections. HOW can you win, be more resilient, and grow the bottom line? And there are numbers (ratios) that convey the HOW and not just the GOAL.
A few of my clients have had some fun with what I call “The Triple-Double Option”. How could the business triple top line revenue while only doubling the number of customers? That isn’t just a fluffy goal or empty promise about like “growing to $100 million”. To make that triple-double goal meaningful, there would be discussion about how to grow existing accounts, provide more value, retain key customers, and/or have more targeted marketing campaigns.
Although your CFOs and Controllers will need to monitor dozens of significant ratios, there will typically be a handful of key numbers that your entire executive team will need to focus on to make the goal a reality and the strategy come alive. Since it’s not enough to just monitor the numbers after the fact, I have found that many executive teams need to learn how to use techniques like dashboards and KPIs and learn how to think like quality assurance professionals who improve process to prevent errors.
Goals (like doubling the number of customers) have “causal” ratios behind them related to things like marketing conversion rates or average purchase value that make the promised result happen. Do you know who on your executive committee “OWNS” each of your “CAUSAL” ratios?