Be Grateful for Your Relationships

November 19th, 2018

As I ran holiday errands this past weekend, it finally hit me.  This will be my first Thanksgiving without either of my parents.  My father passed away almost nine years ago and I lost my mother last December.  As a kid, and even into adulthood, the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, were always a big deal.  It is certainly going to be different without either of them around.

A certain website plays on our emotions and tells us how many “friends” we have.  To the best of my knowledge, no website has an algorithm that can accurately measure the value of our relationships.  Knowing what your college roommate had for dinner last night is fun but understanding his struggles with his teenage daughter is meaningful.  Aren’t our close relationships all we really have?

The holidays offer an opportunity to reflect on your relationships.  Enjoy time with the important people in your life.  Happy Thanksgiving.

If You Are Going to Charge for Something, You Better Perform

November 13th, 2018

I recently attended a customer conference at a posh resort.  During my stay there, I had to call housekeeping two of the three days to have my room made up.  Upon checkout, I noticed an itemized charge for “Contracted Housekeeping Services.”  In additional to the room rate, I was charged for room cleaning.  Apparently hotels are taking a page out of the airlines’ playbook: itemize every charge.

The fee was nominal, especially in relation to the room rate.  Among my many personality quirks that endear me to my wife is that I despise being “nickeled and dimed” for items or services I purchase.  I cringe when I see itemized bills that break out small charges.  Instead of breaking out charges to increase my price, just raise the price!  I would not have thought twice about the poor housekeeping service had the bill not had a charge listing it separately.  Instead, I ended up with a bad taste in my mouth regarding my experience at the hotel.

As any frequent traveler knows, the airlines have figured out how to charge for services that used to be included with the purchase of a ticket.  Be prepared for hotels to follow the same trend.  Our industry, like a lot of B-to-B industries, does it with surcharges.  Just remember, if you choose to break out charges for everything you do, you better do all those things well or you will have disgruntled customers.

Thankfully, Most Businesses Do Not Operate Like Our Healthcare System

November 6th, 2018

I recently had an online doctor appointment for my son with a “world class” health institution (hint: Cleveland is in its name).  The online appointment was convenient and a real time saver.  It went well.  The doctor prescribed a medication and said she would send the prescription to our pharmacy.  From there, the process broke down.

I never received an email nor a follow up message in the appointment app, which was a little concerning.  I called the pharmacy and the pharmacy said no prescription was received.  After searching, I found an 800 number to call on the app.  I called that number and was told that I called a technical support line.  They gave me another number to call.  48 minutes, 4 transfers, and a lot of frustration later, I finally got to someone who said she could help.  As you can imagine, I was quite frustrated by that time.  I explained the situation yet again.  She responded, “I will message the doctor.  Why don’t you wait a few hours and call the pharmacy to see if she sent in the prescription?”  I said, perhaps not in my calmest voice, “Really?  I should just wait.  You didn’t wait to charge my credit card for the appointment and you’ve already filed the insurance claim.  And now I should wait to see if you performed the service you said you would?  How about you call me after you confirm the prescription is being filled?”  I was told, “That is not my responsibility.”  Needless to say, I did not handle that statement in a very professional way.

Our business is far from perfect.  In the competitive world in which we operate, if we do not demonstrate that we care about our customers, we will no longer have customers.  As a result, we would no longer have a business.  Our quasi-competitive healthcare industry continues to disappoint on service.  Either make healthcare a truly competitive industry or have the government completely takeover.  This hybrid model adds significant costs and creates no incentive for service.

Bad Marketing is Worse than No Marketing

October 30th, 2018

Like everyone else, I am inundated with marketing emails and marketing mail.  The explosion of databases for sale and the close to zero marginal cost of sending one more email have led to inbox overload.  I enjoy the solicitations that include an email below claiming they emailed me before and implying I was too rude to respond to that email. The sender writes a message as if he is doing me a favor and trying to contact me again.  Does lying to a potential customer really work?   I must have missed that in my marketing classes.  I also enjoy the emails that start off, “I know you’re a leader in your organization.  Could you point me in the right direction to…”  I feel like I understand those emails better than the example above because I learned about flattery in marketing classes and in the sales training I have taken.

Last week, I received an email that was either a mail merge gone wrong or a bad cut and paste effort by a marketing person.  My name was wrong in the salutation but it was correct in the body of the email. I guess “Brian” and “Ben” are similar names.  My company name was right too but, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t make t-shirts as the email said we did.  The sad part is this email came from a company we have actually talked with about using their products and services.  That conversation has now ended.

I’ve written in the past: email is a useful marketing tool if used properly.  But you can’t screw it up.  Bad marketing is worse than no marketing.  If you can’t get your marketing message right, don’t send it.

Training is the Answer

October 23rd, 2018

Virtually every manager and business owner complains about the challenges of finding good people.  Statistically, the unemployment rate is at a fifty year low.  Recognizing how challenging it is to find staff, we have ramped up our efforts to train the people that are already on our payroll.

We recently sent two of our press operators to a training program put on by All Printing Resources.  (An unpaid endorsement: Great job!  I highly recommend their programs.  https://www.teamflexo.com/  Hats off to my friend David Nieman and his team.)  I had one requirement for our attendees: they had to present to me about what they learned when they came back.

Now, I think I’m a pretty easy going guy but I can understand how presenting to the “boss” can be intimidating.  Last week, we had the big presentation.  I’m proud to say Waylon and Alex nailed it.  They talked about their training with pride and excitement.  They had some ideas on things we could do differently.  They expressed an interest in learning more.  I could not have asked for a better outcome.

We all want productivity improvements.  Recent studies have shown the drop in US labor productivity gains is correlated (Remember, correlation does not equal causality from previous blogs!) with a reduction in US education results as measured by standardized tests.  (I could go off on that one too but you get the point.)  If you want your productivity to improve, invest in training!

 

Don’t Stocks Just Go Straight Up?

October 16th, 2018

Last week, US equity markets went down, with the S&P 500 down almost 4%.  Since October 2, the S&P has dropped 6%.  Stop the presses!  After what seemingly appeared to be a straight climb higher and higher, a little volatility appeared for the first time since February.  It’s a good time to reflect on a few universal truths:

  1. Stocks are risk assets. They don’t go straight up.
  2. Stocks represent ownership in a business. Over time, businesses that create value should see their value and, hence, their stock prices go up.  However, valuation is based on a number of things, including interest rates.  Interest rates are going up from abnormally low levels.  The stock market is finally starting to recognize interest rates are going up. Anyone who tells you how high rates are going to be is guessing.  Someone will guess right and earn the coveted “genius” label by the financial press.  But, remember, that person is guessing.
  3. The economy has cycles. See above – anyone who tells you he knows when the cycle will change is guessing.  There are signs that the economy is slowing down.  There are also pockets of the economy that are accelerating.
  4. Above all, remember that volatility and change, as scary as they are, create opportunity.

If you are investing for the long term (10 years or more is my definition) and you panic, my advice is to not look at account statements for a while.  Keep investing.  Over time, stock valuations reflect economic growth.  The US and world economies are going to grow over time.  Don’t do anything rash.

Consider the Alternatives

October 9th, 2018

A former boss of mine was fond of saying, “Controversy creates better decisions.”  She was fond of having someone play the “devil’s advocate” role in meetings.  That person was empowered to challenge whomever was championing something.  The key rule for the devil’s advocate was the challenge had to be based on facts or possible outcomes from the decision, not emotions or personal biases.

As my career has progressed, I have come to understand, more and more, how leaders begin to believe in their own infallibility.  I have written about confirmation bias before.  We look for information that supports our decisions.  We do not like to be wrong.  We certainly do not like to be questioned, let alone proven wrong, by someone below us in the hierarchy.

The Kavanaugh saga of the last few weeks illustrates the inability of our media and politicians to consider alternatives.  David Brooks wrote a compelling editorial in the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/opinion/kavanaugh-hearing-partisan-national-disgrace.html

I pulled out my favorite line:

People who don’t have regular contact with people they disagree with become intellectually dishonest quickly.

I would add “civilized” before contact to make this statement even more powerful.

We witnessed a lot of intellectual dishonesty in the last few weeks by both political sides.  Use their mistakes as a lesson.  When you are making decisions, ask someone for an alternative view.  You’ll end up making better decisions.

Increases/Shortages, Existential Risks, and Efficiency: Label Expo Recap

October 2nd, 2018

Since things are abnormally quiet in the political realm and because our industry just wrapped up its largest trade show of the year, I thought it made sense to focus on the trade show this week.

Through various meetings and casual conversations, three main themes emerged:

  1. We’re in the middle of increase #3 in the last 10 months and the stage is being set for increase #4. Raw material pressures have not abated.  Tariffs are not helping.  There are threats of shortages in various chemicals and liner materials.  If you are a direct thermal user, make sure your supplier has a plan B.
  2. Existential risks. Would you like to be a straw manufacturer in the US today?  That analogy was relayed numerous times in comparison to the label industry.  Direct print, linerless labels, and recycling mandates are all threats to our industry.  Pay attention.
  3. One digital press manufacturer told me he has seen up to four of his company’s machines run by one person.  Given the challenges of finding labor, more and more automation will be brought to our industry.  That requires more and more capital.

None of these themes is particularly revolutionary; your humble blogger has written on all of them in the past.  But if you put them together, they make it clear: it’s going to be harder and harder for small companies to compete in the label/packaging world.  Expect the consolidation train to start moving a little faster over the next several months.

 

Are We Witnessing the Death of Customer Service?

September 24th, 2018

My wife went into an upscale store last week.  She was looking for something specific.  She saw three workers in the store.  One was staring intently at his phone.  The other two were in a conversation and too busy to notice her.  No one acknowledged her.  She looked around the store for a few minutes and walked out frustrated, buying nothing.  I’m quite confident she told a few other people her story.

I received a credit card in the mail last week.  I thought I had closed the account long ago.  I called the financial institution to close the account.  I had to enter the credit card number, my birthdate, the last four digits of my social security number, and a few other details before I could talk to a person.  After my fat fingers incorrectly entered the data a few times and the automated system repeatedly said, “I’m sorry.  I do not understand what you are saying,” in response to my expletives, I had to tell the customer service representative all of the information again.  To add insult to injury, the CSR told me the account was closed in 2015.  She could not explain why I got a new card.  I wish I could have that twenty minutes of my life back.

Every business wants to be as efficient as possible.  In the first case, the company probably did not invest in training for their employees, resulting in a lackadaisical attitude.  In the second case, the company probably has two systems that do not talk with each other, resulting in duplicated work and wasted time.

Customers understand mistakes happen.  They do not understand apathy or systems that frustrate them.     As simple as it sounds, a business cannot exist without customers.  It amazes me how often that is forgotten.

Are You Playing Not to Lose or Are You Playing to Win?

September 18th, 2018

Even the casual sports fan knows the Cleveland Browns have struggled for the last 19 years.  (It pains me to write that.)  After losing every game last year, the Browns teased their incredibly loyal, blindly optimistic fan base by tying their archrival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, last week.  On Sunday, they lost to the New Orleans Saints, 21-18, after leading 12-3 entering the 4th quarter.  The Browns’ kicker missed two field goals and two extra points.  NFL kickers normally do not miss four kicks in a game.

In both games, the Browns had a chance to win.  The coaches had good game plans.  For the most part, the players executed well.  At crucial moments, however, things fell apart.  Missed assignments.  Missed tackles.  Crucial penalties.  And, of course, mixed kicks.  I have asked myself why these mistakes happen.  I submit that the Browns’ culture of losing has become the dominant belief by the team.  They know something will go wrong.  They expect something to go wrong.  To borrow a sports cliché, they play not to lose instead of playing to win.

Are you playing not to lose or are you playing to win?  If you are in sales, do you make the extra phone call?  If you’re in manufacturing, do you try something different?  It’s easy to get comfortable with the way things are.  If you get too comfortable, just remember, someone wants what you have.  They’ll work to take it from you.  Work harder.  Remember, whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

Postscript:  Eventually, the Browns win a game and hopefully that will turn them in the right direction.  Of course, most fans thought they couldn’t do worse than a 1 and 15 record two years ago and then they proceeded to go 0 and 16 last year…