Improved Customer Service

Improved Customer Service is creating an even better provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase and achieving a high level of customer satisfaction.

As an Entrepreneur, Have You Lost Your Authentic Swing?

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Businessman ThinkingI love the 2000 movie The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Remember it? Directed by Robert Redford, the movie was based on Steven Pressfield’s 1995 book with the same name. The actors include luminaries Jack Lemmon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon. This was Lemmon’s final movie which makes it even more important to many people.

In 1931 (during the depths of the Great Depression), the City of Savannah, GA sponsors an exhibition golf tournament with great golfers Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan and the town’s golf prodigy and hero, Rannulph Junuh.

As he caddies, wise Bagger Vance (played by Will Smith) provides sage advice to help Junuh recapture his “authentic swing.” They talked very little about the fairway, sand traps or greens. They talked about post-traumatic stress, the meaning of life, guilt, regret, a broken heart, giving up, accepting responsibility and hiding. You know…light conversation (lol).

As many golfers of today can tell you, finding one’s authentic swing in golf is not just a matter of repetition. Golf is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. When a golfer’s muscles are tight from being angry at work, his/her slice or hook returns on the golf course. When a golfer’s optimism or confidence is compromised, the short game on the green becomes another nightmare. An executive’s capacity to make great strategic decisions is another version of one’s authentic swing.

Presidents of privately held mid-sized companies often don’t have time to play golf or have another similar outlet that offers feedback on whether the president is still centered. It is impossible to maintain your authentic swing when you aren’t centered. Often the all-important feedback comes in the form of poor business results. The president’s loss of his/her authentic swing is taken out on the business.

Sometimes executives just keep showing up when he/she knows he/she is “just not right with the world”. Continuing to show up is important, but just going through the motions can solidify bad decisions (a hook or a slice). Finding what keeps you centered is worth the effort. An executive coach could be your Bagger Vance.

The Evolution of Customer Service by Family Owned Businesses

The first generation of the family business grew by investing long hours of hard work and detailed attention to customer Family Owned Businessservice. The owners got to know customers through long conversations over dinners. Loyal customers told the first generation owners when something was wrong. They would complain and might even make a suggestion and then wait for the first generation owner to tell them how the problem would be remedied and then offer a discount or tangible evidence that the suggestion and continued loyalty is appreciated. Often the first generation owner would immediately call the second generation employee in to demand that the customer’s problem be fixed immediately.

Ahhh…the good old days. Continued customer purchases were usually yours unless you didn’t fix a problem.

The majority of second generation owners have been fixing problems for most of their lives. They now realize that customers may not always let you know what went wrong and most reluctantly admit that their customers don’t readily suggest solutions or remain loyal customers when the business had fixed a problem.

Now the third generation comes along and views the first generation as having more time to talk and make friends. They also view the second generation as worriers who are too focused on problems.

The strategic growth plans of today’s companies led by third generation owners are fascinating. They typically want to create, leverage new technologies, stay ahead of customers and not wait/react to complaints. They often assume that customers won’t openly share what they want, think, expect or feel. Third generation owners tend to want to make their mark on the world while having more personal time for family and leisure.

Think about how this trend impacts the research needed to guide strategic direction and growth. What do you think? Am I way off base?

How Can Changes in Technology Influence Growth Strategy Decisions?

No matter what industry you are in, advances in technology influence what your growth strategies should be.

Maybe you don’t view your company as directly related to technology. Perhaps you sell things like paper products, over the counter medications, or canned or bottled foods. The reality is, each year’s flu season drives increased sales for Kleenex tissues, Charmin’ toilet paper, Chap Stick lip balm, TheraFlu, Halls cough drops, Vicks Vapo Rub, Canada Dry ginger ale, Joy Mangano’s cotton and bamboo blend blankets, Hallmark get well cards, and Campbells chicken noodle soup. The flu even impacts which items are purchased from the Home Shopping Network.

If your company is involved with these and similar products, you may not be happy to learn about progress being made by Dr. Rider and his team at MIT, but you do need to know about it. An article by Scott Tarone in the September 2013 issue of TECHLIFESCINEWS shares information about DRACO, which is a double stranded RNA activated caspase oligomerizer that has been successful against 15 different viral infections including the H1N1 flu virus!

If customers tend to purchase and use your products when they are feeling well, you need to know about DRACO too. You might decide to establish higher market penetration goals.

If you don’t think that something like DRACO is relevant, maybe a better question is whether someone from your team should attend the annual CES event. Their advertisement in the Sept 2013 issue of WIRED magazine accurately describes the event as “It’s a Lab. A Social Phenomenon. A Marketplace and a Look into the Future.” This global stage for innovation will be in Las Vegas, Nevada from January 7-10 in 2014.

What your team members read is also important. If your business is influenced by techno gadgets, maybe someone in your company should be reading Liszewski’s Gizmodo blog.

Think about it. The formulation of growth strategy includes rethinking: your company’s positioning, products/services, customers & market, competition, and business model. We all need to be informed about technological advances before making these big decisions. Who is leading and coordinating the research effort for your organization?

Founders: Seriously Consider Replacing Yourself as President

Should You Still Want Your Very First Customer? Really!

Recently I heard a business owner bragging that his 15 year old company still serves their first client.  That sounds pretty good.  That statement implies that the business has high levels of customer satisfaction, repeat business, and referrals.

For some reason I started to reflect on my early years in business.  Frankly, I wouldn’t want to still have the first client we were able to attract when my first business started out.  If memory serves correctly, we made two cents an hour on that project! When I share that story in speeches for owners of startup companies, they laugh.  But then it is interesting to watch their faces as I ask if they even know how much money they make (or lose) on each account.  At least we knew we only made two cents an hour so we could change what we were doing!

That reflection caused me to have another conversation with that owner of the 15 year old business.  Just out of curiosity I wondered if they had some magic sauce and had generated a solid profit from their first client’s first project and if subsequent requests from that client have worked out well too.

It turned out that, like the majority of owners of startup companies, they hadn’t analyzed how much money they had gained/lost from their first client 15 years ago.  And unbelievably, they still didn’t know.  Until 2008, their overall net profit seemed strong enough so they hadn’t drilled deeper to really look at client-specific or service-specific gross profit. Yikes! Talk about a ticking time bomb!

I heard from this guy again. Keeping the initial client hadn’t resulted in the many referrals he had hoped that it would.  Plus it turns out that the client is rather unappreciative and takes his company for granted. But the worst part (readers may find this very hard to believe) is that the average gross profit generated from this client is – 300%!

That means that for every $1 this particular client pays, the company spends $4 to provide the service and then has to cover all of the operating costs without the benefit of gross profit to cover it and has to make up the difference from higher prices charged to other clients.

Your situation may be less dramatic, but if you are not changing the terms and expectations of long term clients that generate below a minimally acceptable gross profit level, you too could be bragging about retaining clients that no one in their right mind would want.

Corporate Board Members Walk a Fine Line

When you accept a position on a corporate board, you become part of the culture, ethics, priorities, logic, metrics, reputation, and the public perception of the corporation. A few of a corporate board’s primary responsibilities include hiring the CEO and providing clear logic and metrics for performance review and compensation.  Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders. A board has oversight responsibility (stick your nose in) but should not interfere with the actual management (put your fingers in) of the corporation.

Those sentences are clear enough…right?  But walking the fine line can be difficult.

A recurring topic of debate/discussion among experienced directors who serve on corporate boards focuses on “Nose and Fingers.”

Imagine you serve on the board of a major corporation that practically created the entire industry. Your company consistently makes money for its shareholders. Your CEO is the son of the Founder, who has been an industry icon for decades. There are risks associated with your industry so customers are asked to sign documents acknowledging that they understand and accept those risks.

To be more specific, you are one of the directors serving on the board of CARNIVAL. After several months following the incident, one of your ships is still leaning in shallow waters off the Italian coast while another ship in your fleet is being towed into an Alabama port after its main engine and sewerage systems have failed.  As a board member, you are undoubtedly concerned about the negative media coverage and possibility of law suits. But how far would/could/should you go?

It is very easy for someone from the outside looking in to be a “Monday Morning Quarterback.” Some media personalities were quick to demand answers about why passengers were left on the TRIUMPH for so many days following the loss of the main engine.

Give this some considered thought. When there is an incident, should you (as a board member) speak to the press? Should you support your CEO or “throw him under the proverbial bus?” Should you ask questions about the value of passenger safety compared to corporate profit? Should the board request a presentation from the company’s Chief Risk Officer? Should the Crisis Prevention and Management Plan be reviewed?

If you as a board member, (even though you are very bright and experienced) step in to do the job(s) that executives and managers are supposed to do, why is the company paying those people?  Should the board establish a special committee to review recent crises? Should the board convene the executive compensation and performance review committee to revisit its logic and metrics? Should you resign because your suggestions about passenger comfort and safety have been ignored?

Note: Think beyond the negative media coverage. Consider the distinct possibility that the shareholders, board members, executives, and managers have been and are perfectly happy with how things are handled at CARNIVAL.

 

 

 

When Your Expertise Feels OBVIOUS, the Risk of Condescension Increases

Reflecting on year end strategy sessions, I recall reminding several clients that the base of your competitive advantage comes in the form of capabilities that your customers do not have but do need in order to handle something that is important to your customers.

Because our clients have long been accomplished accountants, electrical wholesalers, architects, programmers, facility managers, association executives etc. several somehow now take their expertise for granted.  So many tasks come easy to them.  The thing is, just because a task seems easy to you doesn’t mean that it is easy for everyone else; and certainly doesn’t mean that it is not important or valuable.

When there isn’t an appreciation of the capabilities of one’s own business, cues are missed during strategy formulation.

Maybe your competitive advantage is your ability to both train and learn from new employees.  Could your competitive advantage be the speed, consistency, accuracy and ease that you deliver?  Or, could your competitive advantage be that your team doesn’t make customers feel stupid?

We probably all know CPA firms that file extensions more than others, don’t explain their logic, or talk down to customers. Having CPAs on staff who can explain Dodd Frank and its implications to customers in a way that doesn’t make customers feel stupid is a stronger competitive position for a CPA firm than having one of the authors of Dodd Frank legislation on staff.  Condescension is not a great choice for competitive advantage.

One way to reduce the risk of condescending attitudes is to help your employees gain appreciation for what your customers know how to do that you and your team don’t know how to do…and vice versa. Mutual appreciation of your customers’ and your capabilities pays off.

 

Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP has earned the right to be called THE GROWTH STRATEGIST®. She has won over 2 dozen national and statewide “entrepreneur of the year” awards for the resilient growth of her international businesses across 4 recessions.  Her midsized BtoB clients get on…and then stay on…the published lists of the fastest growing privately held companies. She owns and operates a suite of companies that help privately held midsized companies achieving accelerated growth with sustained profitability® through opportunity & resource analysis, 4 approaches to strategic planning, executive advisory services, growth financing, and targeted search.  2013 is Ambler’s 9th year hosting a weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer syndicated on line talk show that features interviews with CEOs/Presidents of midsized companies (typically between $20 and 200 Mil/yr.) sharing success tips about the growth strategy-of-the-week. An archive of over 300 interviews is available at www.GrowthStrategistShow.com. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna or at Aldonna@AMBLER.com.   

Speed Up Sales by Replicating Impressive Problem Solving

Look for…watch for … a complex client situation that your team somehow figured out!

The prospect had a ton of excuses but… somehow …one of your rainmakers addressed each and every excuse and objection.

Or a client was indecisive.  One minute the client’s Baby Boomer executives seemed like they were energized and enthusiastic leaders.  The next minute, those same people seemed tired and ready to retire. But …somehow …your account manager found ways to surface clarity and got things moving again.

Or a department head in the client company had become frustrated because younger employees “only want to do what they want to do.  It seems like the Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials aren’t motivated to learn, take responsibility or be promoted.  Folks used to want to become partners/shareholders” but today, the client’s department head feels the weight of the world on his/her shoulders. He/she is under-staffed, underpaid, taken for granted, and is starting to feel resentful and angry.  And yet… somehow… your project manager finds ways to keep things going, ease the pain, and represent your business well.

Whether it is your rainmakers, your account managers, or your project managers or a combination of them… if you can think of situations like this, your company has a competitive advantage in today’s economy.

As soon as your team solves a client problem that your competitors couldn’t, ask your college interns to do some research to find/identify some more organizations with similar situations as were involved in the problem your team just resolved.  We are all so completely naked when it comes to the Internet.  If you are looking for a company with a Baby Boomer Owner with one foot in and the other foot out the door, an intern could quickly find five examples. If you are looking for a company with a knowledge/responsibility/ambition gap between the generations, an intern could easily locate five examples. And, if you are looking for indecisive executives…well…they all have cause to be indecisive these days.

Replicate your successes to speed up sales results.  Sometimes your competitive advantage doesn’t come in the form of geographic territory, product packaging, or advanced technology…it comes in the form of behavior. Today’s challenges require clear thinking, can do attitudes, and follow through.

If even a few people on your team have those attribute, replicate that…for the benefit of your clients…and your own business.

 

Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP has earned the right to be called THE GROWTH STRATEGIST®. She has won over 2 dozen national and statewide “entrepreneur of the year” awards for the resilient growth of her international businesses across 4 recessions.  Her midsized BtoB clients get on…and then stay on…the published lists of the fastest growing privately held companies. She owns and operates a suite of companies that help privately held midsized companies achieving accelerated growth with sustained profitability® through opportunity & resource analysis, 4 approaches to strategic planning, executive advisory services, growth financing, and targeted search.  2013 is Ambler’s 9th year hosting a weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer syndicated on line talk show that features interviews with CEOs/Presidents of midsized companies (typically between $20 and 200 Mil/yr.) sharing success tips about the growth strategy-of-the-week. An archive of over 300 interviews is available at www.GrowthStrategistShow.com. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna or at Aldonna@AMBLER.com.           

Are You Becoming Blind to Your Own Dashboard?

XYZ, Inc. is a privately held midsized service firm that competes with very large publicly traded corporations for global accounts.  Industry norms for measures like billing multipliers, capacity utilization, gross profit, and customer satisfaction are prominently displayed on XYZ’s dashboard/balanced scorecard. The executives periodically celebrate that XYZ has “hit” the norms in all of these categories for 18 straight months. And they go back to work.

Good for XYZ, Inc.

It is great that the firm is consistent, dependable, and not in trouble related to these metrics.  But doesn’t hitting the “norms” mean that XYZ, Inc. is now an “average” company in their industry?  No one on XYZ, Inc.’s executive team is asking, “I wonder if there is at least one of these metrics in which we can excel! ”

What if their firm figured out how to optimize capacity so much better than their competitors that they could attract fabulous employees, provide even more value for their clients, or generate more money to fund innovations?

What if XYZ, Inc. could push the envelope related to “customer satisfaction” to have clients who are truly raving fans who refer business to XYZ, Inc.?  What if their clients viewed XYZ, Inc. as a true strategic partner they simply cannot live without… regardless of changes in the economy?

I am seeing fewer and fewer companies utilizing stretch goals.  During periods of uncertainty (like now) it is even more crucial to excel at something important … to distinguish your business from competitors…and compel prospective customers to take a chance on investing in your services.            

No one can afford to settle for “average.”

 

Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP has earned the right to be called THE GROWTH STRATEGIST®. She has won over 2 dozen national and statewide “entrepreneur of the year” awards for the resilient growth of her international businesses across 4 recessions.  Her midsized BtoB clients get on…and then stay on…the published lists of the fastest growing privately held companies. She owns and operates a suite of companies that help privately held midsized companies achieving accelerated growth with sustained profitability® through opportunity & resource analysis, 4 approaches to strategic planning, executive advisory services, growth financing, and targeted search.  2013 is Ambler’s 9th year hosting a weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer syndicated on line talk show that features interviews with CEOs/Presidents of midsized companies (typically between $20 and 200 Mil/yr) sharing success tips about the growth strategy-of-the-week. An archive of over 300 interviews is available at www.GrowthStrategistShow.com. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna or at Aldonna@AMBLER.com.     

How My Various Roles Provide Important Perspective

As a growth strategist/executive advisor, I have noticed that:

despite high unemployment, the primary barrier to growth for midsized companies is not sales or financing…it’s difficulty attracting bright employees who are continuous learners.  The executives are quick to say that their companies are ready to train new employees to “do things [their] way.” But job applicants show up late or ask about the number of vacation days during early stage interviews. Our clients ALL have unfilled job vacancies.  Several clients are looking for sales professionals. So…how many high-potential people are settling for their current jobs despite feeling uninspired?

As the host of a syndicated peer to peer talk show, I have noticed that:

most of the Presidents of INC 500 listed companies have a laser focus on customer driven innovation. Yes, they spend time attracting/retaining top talent and financing growth; but those efforts are approached in ways that enable the development and delivery of innovative products/services that customers need and want.

These Presidents also utilize dashboards, balanced scorecards, or other similar tools to keep a watchful eye on important performance ratios. And they expect department heads to hit goals, initiate improvements, and prevent slippage.  It’s not OK for a key ratio to be missed without a corrective action plan.

They stay informed about things like the value of the dollar, but none of the guests from INC 500 companies whine about the economy.   

As a growth strategy speaker at business conferences, I have noticed that:

owners of mid-sized businesses are initially skeptical when I pose the concept of tripling gross revenue while only doubling operating costs.  Uncertainty has sucked many business owners down into incremental thinking and survival mode.  In many ways, those companies no longer have Presidents or CEOs. They have regressed to duplication of effort and micro management.  Too many department heads are no longer expected to optimize productivity and customer satisfaction…the President is.

But it doesn’t take long for Presidents/CEOs to recognize that their job is the big picture, growth strategy, and long term resilient success.  No excuses.  As business leaders, if we can’t even imagine several options that could triple our gross revenue, how on earth could we actually do it?

As a growth financing intermediary, I have noticed that:

business owners are still complaining about the process. Although interest rates, ROI, and board participation demands are more favorable, the due diligence step has become more detailed.  A company that receives growth financing must prove that it has a scalable business model, provides a differentiated product that customers clearly want, and can consistently generate a reasonable profit. 

Too many applicants for private investor financing ask investors to cover their day to day operating expenses instead of solving their profitability issues before approaching investors. And too many applicants are looking for small amounts of money, which just wastes the potential investor’s time.

Too many applicants haven’t taken the time to learn about various financing instruments.  A mid-sized company that could/should finance growth through stronger joint ventures or clearer equity deals with key stakeholders will probably be turned down by a venture capital fund.  I’ve seen business owners look right past licensing, franchising, and corporate sponsorship opportunities.

As an advocate for mid-sized companies, I have noticed that:

the lobbying of many statewide chambers of commerce is focused more and more on large corporations and micro sized businesses… sometimes to the exclusion of mid-sized companies. This is happening, in large part, because owners of mid-sized companies have been letting our memberships in statewide chambers of commerce lapse.

When association dues are compared to the electric bill, this may seem like a frugal thing to do. But the national and statewide chambers of commerce can provide a strong voice for members. The thing is, they can’t help change the policies and regulations that stunt our growth if we aren’t members and let them know our priorities.

The needs of huge publicly traded corporations are often very different from the priorities of privately held innovation driven mid-sized companies.  Plus the largest corporations have their own government relations departments and directly pay professional lobbyists. Being part of an effective statewide chamber of commerce can feel like you have your own government relations department and professional lobbyists on staff. A few hundred dollars of dues to have some say about the issues that encourage or stunt business growth seems a small price to pay.

As a Business Owner/Executive/Employer, I have noticed that:

targeted market research is more important than ever…and needs more frequent updates than ever. Baby Boomer business owners who wanted to continue to work for 5-6 more years will suddenly decide that their succession plans must immediately change because they “have had it” and will retire soon. Leaders of growing businesses that had been fighting industry consolidation are quietly entertaining proposals from “roll up artists.”  Leaders of stagnant companies suddenly awaken to the need to clean house, create new products, go global, or upgrade technology.  Readiness for dramatic change is impossible to read if your market research is too infrequent to catch the changes.

Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP has earned the right to be called The Growth Strategist™. She has won over two dozen national and statewide “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards for the resilient growth of her international businesses across four recessions.  Her mid-sized B-to-B clients get on…and then stay on…the published lists of the fastest growing privately held companies. She owns and operates a suite of companies that help privately held mid-sized companies in Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through opportunity and resource analysis, four approaches to strategic planning, executive advisory services, growth financing and targeted search.  2012 is Ambler’s 8th year hosting a weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer syndicated online talk show that features interviews with CEOs/Presidents of mid-sized companies (typically between $20 and 200 Mil/yr) sharing success tips about the growth strategy-of-the-week. An archive of over 300 interviews is available at www.GrowthStrategistShow.com.

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Aldonna was positive and upbeat to my negative outlook on my business and the economy. I called myself a "reluctant business owner" and she gently replied that most business owners out there were just that, "reluctant."

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