Invest in Relationships and Read the Declaration of Independence

July 1st, 2015

In an era of constant connectivity, it is a sad irony that we’re less connected than ever.  We rarely spend meaningful time with key customers, supplier partners, or anyone else.  We’re all “too busy” to spend a day or two with people critical to our business’s success.  That’s a big mistake.  Email and phone calls are great for communication but they’re not the best relationship tools.  There’s something to be said for spending time with people outside of the office environment, whether it’s the golf course, dinner, spa, or whatever activity you (or they) enjoy.  You get to know each other more intimately.  Through that deeper understanding of each other, trust develops.

This will probably shock a lot of you but  it’s OK to have fun in business.  We’ve become so focused on saving money and so afraid to look successful, I think we often forget that.  It’s OK to treat your team and your customers to a nice dinner.  It’s a good thing to say thank you and let you know you value their contributions.  Not enough of that happens in our world today.  A little gratitude goes a long way.   As we enter the second half of the year (time does fly), make it a priority to spend quality time with your customers and suppliers.  If you’re too busy for them, you’re probably spending a lot of time doing unimportant things.

Have a safe and enjoyable July 4th.  Do yourself (and me) a favor and read the Declaration of Independence.  Fifty six people signed the Declaration of Independence.  They are great examples of the power of relationships.

A link to the Declaration of Independence is below.

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

Customer Service Stinks Everywhere and It’s Our Fault

June 23rd, 2015

I’ve complained many times about how bad customer service is everywhere in the US.  It doesn’t matter where you are or what industry you’re in.  In general, customer service is pathetic.  We’ve supposedly moved to a service economy which makes this trend all the more frightening.  I’d rather deal with an app than many supposed customer service professionals.  Several factors have caused the decline in service.  Unfortunately, they all relate to us.

First, “You get what you pay for.”  We all want Wal-Mart prices with Neiman Marcus service.  The math doesn’t work.  A company can’t be the low cost and high service provider; those strategies don’t mix well.  It is acceptable (and encouraged) to drive miles out of your way to save a few pennies on gas.  With the consumers’ mindset focused on saving money, they won’t pay a premium for better service.  That’s a problem.  Second, and closely related, companies do a poor job of training people.  I was recently at a restaurant (a chain) and asked for my entree to be slightly modified.  The waitress said I couldn’t order my entree that way.  I ordered something else.  When the manager came by to ask the perfunctory, “How is everything?”, I told her I wasn’t eating what I wanted.  I explained to her what had happened and she said, “We could have absolutely done that for you.  I apologize.”  The waitress returned and also apologized and said somewhat sarcastically, “I wasn’t told that in my seven minutes of training.”  The “You get what you pay for” goes both ways.  If companies don’t train their employees, their service levels will be poor.  Third, and most importantly, service is poor because we are timid.  We all hear the comment from customers, “I can buy X from your competitor for Y% less.”  We immediately match the price we’re told.  We forget the customer calling us for a reason.  Something we do BETTER than that supposed competitor caused them to use their most valuable asset, their time, to call us.  We capitulate and match.  We then don’t have the financial resources to continue to compete with service so we start going down the path of lowering costs.  That leads to worse, worse training, and ultimately, delivering worse service.  And so the pattern continues.

Start fighting back.  Stop being the problem and start being the solution.  Don’t accept mediocre service.  Train your employees.  Training is an investment, not a cost.  Most importantly, have pride in what you do.  If what you do deserves a premium, get it.  Don’t be afraid.  If what you do doesn’t deserve a premium, find something new to do or start doing what you do in a different way.  (Special thanks to my wife for inspiring this blog!)

Three Business (and Life) Lessons From the NBA Finals

June 17th, 2015

I was hoping this blog would be about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship or, at the very least, the grit and determination they showed making the NBA Finals a seven game series.  Alas, it was not to be, as Golden State won the title last night.  The series does lend itself to business and life lessons.  Here are three:

  1.  You can’t do it alone.  In case you missed it, the Cavs played the last 5 games (and overtime of game 1) of the finals without two of their best players, who were hurt.  LeBron James proved he’s the best player in basketball but basketball is still a team game.  He gave everything he had but Golden State had too much depth and too much talent.  LeBron is special because not only is he great, he makes those around him better.  But there’s a limit.  The best player (manager) can only get so much out of a teammate (employee).  Depth matters.  Talent matters.  Surround your superstars with talent and good things will happen.  A great team will beat a great player every time.
  1.  Stick to your plan.  Early in the series, even when the Cavs had a 2 games to 1 lead in the best of 7 series, Golden State’s coach, Steve Kerr, told his team, “They’re going to wear down.  They only play 7 guys; we play 10.  Keep fighting.”  Kerr was right.  It became obvious the Cavs were a step slow in games 5 and 6.  Kerr had a plan and he believed in it.  Certainly he made tactical adjustments over the games but he kept his strategy of using his competitive advantage of depth to win the series.  Figure out what your strategy is and stick with it.  The more I experience in business, the more I am convinced what your plan is doesn’t matter as much as sticking with it and executing it.  Too often, we get caught up in the “flavor of the month” and switch gears.  Changing strategies confuses employees and customers.  Remember Golden State’s success – stick to your plan and make tactical adjustments.
  1.  Home court matters.  I can’t say the Cavs would have won the series if they had home court advantage but I think it would have been closer.  Playing on your turf matters.  How many times have you heard a sales person say, “If I get the customer to visit my (plant, office, building site – fill in whatever you do here), I’ll close the sale”?  Why?  Because home court matters!  We have a little more swagger when someone visits us vs. going to their turf.  We’re proud to show off what we do.  I know it’s not always possible to get a customer to your facility but it is possible to provide them with a “home court”-like experience.  Take pictures.  Shoot videos.  (Have them professionally done please.)  Let your customers know you’re proud of what you do and you’ll defend your home turf!

Like 3 million other Cavaliers fans in Northeast Ohio, I went to bed a little disappointed.   I woke up still a little disappointed but excited about next year. When Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are healthy, this is going to be a fun team to watch.  We have hope (being a Cleveland fan, that’s about all we have). That might be a bonus lesson.  What are you doing to give your team (and customers) hope?

Is a Paradigm Shift Towards Longer Term Thinking Starting?

June 10th, 2015

Over the last couple of years, a lot has been written questioning whether or not having a sole focus on shareholder value actually helps shareholders.  If you want to read a good summary, go here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/stop-spoiling-the-shareholders/309381/.  “Conscious Capitalism” by John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, is a bestseller (and worth reading).  In a nutshell, one of the challenges of having an extreme focus on shareholder value is managers tend to focus on short term results.  This focus prevents them from looking out into the future and making sure the firm is well positioned for that future.  A classic example is Blockbuster.  As RedBox and Netflix started to attack Blockbuster, the management team was earning record bonuses for producing short term profits.  Within a few years, Blockbuster was bankrupt.  Shareholders certainly didn’t do well in the long run.  Needless to say, neither did thousands of employees.

I recently attended a presentation by a major manufacturer.  The manufacturer had decided to outsource its US based customer service in order to cut costs.  There were of course some issues with the outsourcing process that irritated customers.  One customer pointedly asked, “Did cutting those jobs really help society?  Will it really help your firm in the long run?”  I don’t know the specifics of how the company decided to cut jobs; it very well have been necessary to cut costs in order to remain a viable entity.  What I do know is people are more likely to ask about how a company operates.  What I do know is the questions raised in the presentation led to interesting conversations in the hallway after the presentation.  It was very interesting to hear attendees, most of whom hold senior leadership positions in companies big and small, talk about how short sighted businesses have become.  Comments like, “Everyone’s worried about this month or this quarter.  Long term thinking is next quarter,” were very common.  It was interesting to hear  the commentary coming from people who are certainly interested in and paid to create shareholder value.  I think conversations about next year and the next 5 years are becoming more common among management teams.

I’m all for maximizing returns.  As I’ve written in the past, one of the biggest challenges business leaders face is balancing short run and long run strategies.  What might help short term profits might be a disaster for long run viability.  If you continually invest for the long run and don’t produce short term results, either the business will fail or you’ll be out of a job.  One activity I find helpful is keeping a list of quarterly, 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year goals.  I continually update it as our business evolves.  I also keep the historical versions as reference points.  Remember – failing to plan is planning to fail.  Hopefully, you and your company are planning for longer than the next three months.

Follow up on the No No’s Challenge and Finding Business is Work

June 3rd, 2015

I had some fun with the “no no’s challenge” and got some interesting comments from customers, friends, and employees.  It stretched my creativity to answer why I would prevent someone from working part time for full time pay and why bills still need to be paid.  I had to remind a few people – I kept curse words in my vocabulary.  I do have to say it was a success – eliminating the simple word “no” requires more thoughtful answers to questions posed to you.  I encourage you to try it.

So we’re stuck in this slow growth (or negative growth) economy.  What are you doing about it?  Pouting?  I admit – I do every now and then.  It is interesting to see our employees, our customers, and our vendors who take the slow growth economy as a challenge.  Those who actually, gasp, work to find business are doing quite well.  There are opportunities out there.  They require effort and knowledge to find.  If you can prove your product/service creates value beyond the customer’s purchase price, you can sell things/services.  In the label world, this often means process improvements , product performance improvements, or educating the customer about something beyond what they already know.  Explaining what you can do means a longer sales cycle.  Patience is a virtue most of us (especially me) lack but it’s a necessary virtue in today’s environment.  Customers don’t have the time to listen to a pitch that’s the same as everyone else’s.  If all you can sell is what someone else can sell too, you’ve got a problem.  Differentiation is the key to success.

Instead of wasting your time pouting about the environment we’re in that you have no control over or saying no to every idea that crosses your desk, try focusing on the products you have that are differentiated.  Think about other applications for them.  Try something different.  It just might work.

The “No No’s” Challenge

May 27th, 2015

Cynicism seems to dominate our culture today.  Snarky comments and putdowns come at us from every corner.  I fully admit to being drawn in to the environment of cynicism and sarcasm.  It hasn’t helped my productivity and it certainly hasn’t helped my attitude.  I’ve decided to challenge myself today.

I recently read a summary of the book “Yes, And” by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.  ((I just bought it after reading the summary: http://www.amazon.com/Yes-Improvisation-Reverses-Creativity-Collaboration–Lessons/dp/0062248545/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432731392&sr=8-1&keywords=yes+and)  They both work at Second City, the famed Chicago improvisation comedy troupe.  If you’ve never seen a live Second City show, put it on the bucket list.  The book focuses on how techniques improvisation comedians use can benefit the business world.  A major technique of improv comedy is saying “Yes, and…” instead of “No, but…”  Saying yes opens you up to possibilities instead of closing your mind to what you already think. It sounds like a subtle change.  Based on the success Second City alumni have had in all walks of life, I think it’s worth trying.

One recommendation they make is go through a day and don’t use the word “no.”  It’s probably the second most common word in the English language after “I.” (They also recommend having a conversation without using “I.”  I’m not ready for that yet.  Maybe after I read the book.)  I’m going to try eliminate saying “no” today.  I’m mentally preparing for my son to ask me for a BB gun for the 9,835th time!  This will also be a good test to see how many members of the I.D. Images team ready my blog.

Think about all the great products and services that have been developed, even in the last few years.  Did they come about because someone explained why it was impossible?  (Note my language – I’m trying.)  See what happens to your interactions with your colleagues and customers when you refrain from using negative words.  Let me know how it goes.

 

Remember Why We’re Off Monday

May 20th, 2015

 

 

As you kick off the summer season with barbecues, swimming, and auto racing, please take a little time to remember the real reason behind our celebrations: Memorial Day.  The tradition of decorating the graves of soldiers who died in battle started during the Civil War.  This simple act of remembrance continues to this day.

Please take a few minutes to read the poem below.  Be safe this weekend.

 

MEMORIAL DAY

C. W. Johnson

We walked among the crosses
Where our fallen soldiers lay.
And listened to the bugle
As TAPS began to play.
The Chaplain led a prayer
We stood with heads bowed low.
And I thought of fallen comrades
I had known so long ago.
They came from every city
Across this fertile land.
That we might live in freedom.
They lie here ‘neath the sand.
I felt a little guilty
My sacrifice was small.
I only lost a little time
But these men lost their all.
Now the services are over
For this Memorial Day.
To the names upon these crosses
I just want to say,
Thanks for what you’ve given
No one could ask for more.
May you rest with God in Heaven
From now through evermore.

 

 

 

 

With Slow Growth Come Business Challenges

May 13th, 2015

There are a few items I get in the mail that make my heart skip.  Two that come to mind are letters from the IRS and customer bankruptcy notices.  Neither is quite fun to open.  We’ve gotten a few of those lately – the IRS now requires employers to automatically adjust withholdings for employees whom it thinks aren’t withholding enough.  Who says Big Brother isn’t watching?  We’ve had a couple of customer bankruptcies already this year.  Remember, debt is your friend when you grow; it’s a problem when your business is shrinking.

Perhaps the letter that rankles me the most comes from a customer and starts with, “Dear Valued Supplier.”  Any form letter that starts that way is generally followed by requests from the customer to extract value from their supplier.  We’ve gotten more than our fair share of those lately.  They generally fall into 3 categories:

  1. Demand for a price decrease. Everyone is facing demand challenges.  Customers know this as well and ask for concessions.  When crazy prices from your competitors are thrown in your face, make sure the comparison is truly apples to apples.
  2. Request to fix pricing for a period of time. Inflation will come.  No one knows when but it will.  Be careful of fixing prices without having a price escalation clause.
  3. My personal favorite: our new terms. It takes a lot of chutzpah to write that paying in an extended time period and demanding a discount for doing so benefits your supplier.  I haven’t figured out the Excel calculation that shows I am better off when a customer unilaterally adjusts its terms from Net 30 days to 5% discount/50 days or net 75.  If someone can send me the spreadsheet that shows how I am better off agreeing to those terms, I’d appreciate it.

An old business axiom says, “You name the terms and I’ll name the price.”  Given the slow growth today, chances are you have competitors allowing customers to do both – name the terms and the prices.  Until growth improves, customers are going to use the leverage irrational competitors create.  Choose how and where you compete with caution.  Once margin is conceded, it’s hard to get it back.

 

Does Your Business Leverage All of Its Assets?

May 6th, 2015

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the differences, perceived and real, between business to business and business to consumer (B to B and B to C) approaches to sales and marketing.  Most B to B businesses aren’t that good at marketing.  Conversely, any B to C business that can’t get its message to customers usually isn’t around too long.  While it’s starting to change, we in the B to B world tend to move quite slowly when it comes to reaching our customers in unique and innovative ways.

I’m traveling on business and picked up my rental car.  I was surprised to see a key chain that offers a discount at a major retailer during the time of my rental. I’m sure the rental car company is getting some type of fee from the retailer for access to its customers.  It’s really not costing the rental car company much, maybe the labor in putting the key chains on. Yes, there’s some risk of being associated with a specific  retailer but every decision we make carries a risk.  If there’s no risk involved, you didn’t have a decision to make in the first place. I’d say the rental car company is leveraging its assets quite well.

I would submit that for most businesses and especially B to B businesses, their most valuable assets are their customer bases.  Are my printing presses really worth more than my competitors’?  As a result, businesses tend to be very protective of their customer bases.  In general, that mindset has served business well.  But we live in an ever changing world that is more connected every day.  This creates opportunities to do more for your customers.  You might not be able to keep all of the profit pool associated with whatever else you can do for your customers but you certainly should get something.  Economists have proven protectionism is bad for economic growth (politicians don’t get it).  It’s probably bad for business as well.

Low Growth BUT It’s Still Growth

April 29th, 2015

First quarter GDP numbers came out today and it wasn’t pretty.  The US economy grew at 0.2% in Q1 versus a 1% estimate.  These numbers will be revised several times but don’t expect anything great to come from the revisions.  The pundits are out in full force with the doomsayers focusing on how bad the numbers are and the optimists looking for the silver lining.  It is what it is: we’re in a low growth stage in the economy.   Growth has been anemic for a while.  Growth is certainly better than contraction.  Focus on the positive.  Focus on what you can control – your actions.

A little closer to home, Avery Dennison released its Q1 earnings today as well.  Reported sales were up 3% on an organic basis (removing currency from the equation).  While 3% growth isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, compared to the overall economy, it’s not too bad.  I’m sure Avery’s senior management will say that on their investor call and I know their sales team is saying the same thing to the senior management!  Of course, senior management is telling the sales team 3% isn’t good enough.  Call us hypocrites; that’s a prerequisite to be in senior management.

Growth isn’t easy.  A lot of companies (and people) got spoiled and when the economy was growing, they were growing and they took the credit for the growth.  Now that the economy continues to sluggishly meander along, they blame the economy for their slow growth.  Funny – sales people are hypocrites too!  Always remember – growth requires investment.  If your company wants to grow, it better be investing – equipment, people, training, software, etc.  If you want to grow, you better be investing – making extra phone calls, sharpening your skills, researching prospects, etc.  Doing what you’ve always done will keep you right where you are.  Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats. It lifts them all the same amount and those boats have no control over how high they get.  Is that how you want to manage your career?