Will You Be Ready When it’s Time?

Business is full of opportunities.  Will you be ready when they present themselves?  Will you be ready when it’s time?

The problem is that you never know when they will arise. So, you always have to be preparing.  Here are three ways to prepare your business for when that key opportunity arises.

Build your infrastructure

It’s pretty simple. Your business can’t grow unless it has the infrastructure to support that growth.  That means having the people, processes, and systems in place to properly support current operations as well as accommodating future growth.  It takes money to do this, but it’s an investment in your company’s future.

Make it turnkey

In Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited, he talks about creating a turnkey business.  This entails making sure that all processes and procedures are documented, training programs are in place, and all operations are simplified to the point that even a non-skilled worker could do them.  In short, he espouses the franchise model.

By striving to set your business up like a franchise, in which you could hire anyone and they would know exactly what to do, you are creating a self-sustaining model.  This allows you to plug people in as needed and have them quickly come up-to-speed and be productive.

Stay on top of your numbers

All organizations have to stay on top of their income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow. But every industry has a specific set of key metrics that can quickly show the health of a company.  It may be accounts receivable or no-show rate, or it may be staff utilization.  Whatever your key numbers are, you must stay on top of them every single day.

So, when that wonderful opportunity is staring you in the face, are you going to be ready to take it on?  Is your infrastructure is in place? Do you have a turnkey operation? And, do you know your key numbers inside and out?  If not, get to work on these items today.  If you do, you’ll be ready when it’s time.  You’ll be very well prepared when that amazing opportunity presents itself to your business.


I Want to Talk to the Manager!

Every day, in businesses across the world, customer service staff, receptionists, waiters and waitresses, and countless others in service industries have to hear that painful, anger-ridden phrase:  “I want to talk to the manager.”

What the customer is really saying when they spout out these words is, “You can’t help me. Go get me someone who can solve my problem.”  This not only angers the customer, but it makes the staff member feel powerless.  This is clearly a lose-lose situation.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

I want you to make it your personal mission to eradicate the “I want to talk to the manager” phrase in your business.  This means you are going to have to make the following changes:

  1. Empower your front-line staff to solve customer problems.  You must not only allow them to go above and beyond in helping customers, but praise them for this.
  2. Commit to providing top-notch customer service. Don’t settle for anything less.  This means providing staff the tools, the training, and the vision to be great.
  3. Prepare to deal with the situation.  Even if you take the first two steps, you will still need to prepare your staff and your manager to deal with that ugly statement.   The manager that the customer speaks with, and it might be you, must support their staff to the hilt.  If the customer service person can hear the conversation between the manager and the customer, all the better.  Of course, the manager should acknowledge the customer’s problem as being valid and important, because it is, and do their best to solve it.  But, by supporting their staff through these tense moments, it will engender even more confidence in the staff member for the next time the phrase makes an appearance.

By following these three steps, you are transforming a lose-lose situation into a win-win one.   Your staff will feel better because they have the power to solve problems, your customers will be happier because their problems are getting resolved faster, and you’ll feel better because you’ve done your part in eradicating these uncomfortable “I want to talk to the manager” moments.

So the next time you aren’t getting the answers you need from a service person and request to talk to the manager don’t complain about the service. Instead, tell the manager the three steps they need to take so that they never have deal with the “I want to talk to the manager” situation again. Chances are that you’ll get the resolution you deserve, as well as a heartfelt “thank you” for your advice. If you don’t, just ask to speak with their manager.

Go Ahead and Send the Nasty Gram

How many times have you felt so infuriated with someone that you just wanted to lash out and speak your mind?  We’ve all felt this way at one time or another.  If you haven’t, you better check for a pulse.

We all get angry and frustrated.  Maybe it’s a coworker who can’t see things your way or maybe it’s the e-commerce site that claims they sent your item a month ago and it never arrived.  Whatever it is, our initial reaction is anger.  And, in today’s connected world, we often use email to express that anger.

So, when you feel like this, go ahead and write out the email and send it.

What? Did you think I was going to tell you not to?

Okay, okay, yes, there’s a catch.  When you write out the email and send it, send it to yourself.  Yep, you are going to be the recipient of your very own nasty gram.

When you get it, read it three times and delete it.

Then, write out a professional email that communicates your feelings and what you would like the other party to do to rectify the situation. And, do it in a way that respects the other person.

Remember, you can get what you want and still be respectful.  You can even be nice and get what you want.  What a concept.  And there’s more.  When you do this, you are practicing good human relations.  Maintaining harmonious relationships both with people you do and don’t know makes your life and their lives less stressful.

So the next time you get really annoyed at someone, go ahead and let ‘em have it.  Really give it to them as you write your email.  Then send the nasty gram to yourself, delete it, and write a better email.  You’ll feel better, the recipient will feel better, and you’ll probably be more likely to get what you want.  What a concept.

Timing, Timing, Timing

We’ve all heard that timing is everything. Yep, wow, great. So what’s for dinner?  When people say, “Timing is everything,” it means nothing to us.  It’s like looking up and saying, “Hey, that’s the sky.”

But, if you look back on decisions you’ve made in your business, you’ll see that timing makes a huge difference. At times, it works in your favor, but in other cases, it does not.  For example, in my first business venture I developed a paper-based exercise and food tracking system.  Unfortunately, it went belly up just before the internet started to catch on.  It could have been a ground-breaking web application.  But, the timing was just a little off.  On the other hand, starting Appointment-Plus in 2001 was great timing. Early adopters loved it and provided the feedback necessary to grow it into the industry-leading application that it is today.

In your business, do you give much thought to timing?  If you don’t, you should.  Consider the following:

Promotions.  Many businesses have tried a deal-of-the-day promotion through Groupon, Living Social or one of the myriad other companies offering this service.  If you have provided one of these special offers to prospects, was it during the slow time of the year for you?  Was it during a time in which your staff had vacations planned?  Was it during the same time a competitor was offering a promotion?  The timing of these types of deals is critically important to their effectiveness.

Hiring.  Are you considering hiring someone?  If so, how does it relate to your seasonal cash flow? Will you have the time to properly train the person?   If you are a massage therapy company and you get really busy starting in October, should you hire another massage therapist in October or should you hire them a month before to get them up to speed on your computer system, your policies, and your culture?

Feedback.  Do you always give employees positive feedback immediately upon them doing something well to reinforce that behavior?  Research has proven that the closer you can provide positive feedback to the behavior you would like to reinforce, the more likely the behavior is to be repeated.  So, timing of feedback is very important.

The next time someone says to you that timing is everything, don’t just politely agree and move on to the next topic.  Instead, use it as a way to check in and make sure you really are factoring timing into promotions, hiring, feedback, and other decisions you have to make every single day. You’ll quickly start to realize that timing truly is everything.

Is Your Customer Service Fishy?

Sweetlips wrasse Nick HobgoodSweetlips being cleaned by cleaner wrasse, By Nhobgood (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently saw a show about cleaner fish.  As I watched the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this fishy cleaning service was so much like a real business.  As the cleaner fish would diligently go about their business of eating dead skin and parasites off the larger “host” fish, the parallels to business became more and more obvious.   As I watched, I realized that there are some pretty important customer service lessons to be learned from our scaly friends.

The host fish want to be cleaned.  The host fish know where the cleaning stations are and they will visit them frequently.  They know the benefits of being cleaned.  Like the loyal clients to a talented hair stylist, these host fish happily keep coming back.  But, just like in business, if the cleaner fish don’t clean properly, the host fish get annoyed.  If your clients are not happy with your service – even if you have provided good service to them for a long time – they too will get irritated and, oftentimes, they won’t return.

Cleaner fish go the extra mile.  When a cleaner fish goes to work, it works diligently.  It is laser-focused and serious about its work.  Many times, a host fish will begin to swim away, but the cleaner fish will continue cleaning.  The cleaner fish will eventually drop off, but in a reluctant way, as if to say, “You deserve my best and I haven’t given it my all yet. Don’t go yet. Let me finish up.”  Can you imagine getting a massage and the massage therapist says, “I don’t have a client scheduled after you and you are still tight in your upper back. I know our time is up, but let me take another 10 minutes to work on that area.”  That kind of single-minded service builds single-mindedly devoted customers.

It benefits both parties.  Host fish love the cleaning service because it rids them of parasites, and cleaning fish love the tasty buffet.  If you are a service-provider, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only you are getting the benefit. Sure, you are receiving payment, but the value your customer perceives is worth the fee. I remember when I used to be a personal trainer and I would sheepishly ask my clients for payment at the end of the month. Sometimes the bills were over $1000.  I struggled with asking my clients to pay that much money.  But, over time, I realized that it was worth it to them. The value they received was well worth their investment.

In watching the way the host fish acted while being cleaned, it brought to mind images of an ultra-satisfied customer. When being serviced, the host fish slow down, they open their mouths, and they are careful not to get a fin in the way of one of the cleaners.  Even predatory hosts will let cleaners do their work without even a thought of eating them.  It’s amazing to watch this underwater example of stellar customer service.

So, the next time you are flipping stations and come across a show on cleaner fish, stop and watch.  Imagine that you are the cleaner fish – happily and attentively going the extra mile for your customer.   And, imagine the host fish are your customers – content and loyal.  There’s nothing fishy about that kind of mutually-beneficial relationship.

Man Versus Reading Glasses

It’s as predictable as the day following the night. One day you will attempt to read the label on a bottle of aspirin, or be checking the nutrition label on a candy bar (nice effort, but that’s akin to ordering a Diet Coke with your Big Mac), or, Heaven forbid, be trying to read an article on your iPhone or Android, and the words will be a little blurry.  You’ll blink several times to clear the view to no avail. “Why do these manufacturers keep making these letters smaller and smaller?  Geez,“  you mutter to yourself.

As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I feel I have to defend these helpless manufacturers.  They are not conspiring against you.  The words aren’t getting any smaller.

Visions of disapproving librarians peering over their bifocals dance through your head.  Thoughts of the speaker reaching into his suit pocket to pull out his glasses to read a quote overcome you.  And, images of the reading glasses rack next to the Geritol at the pharmacy begin to haunt you.

Eventually it happens to most everyone. It’s called Presbyopia.  It’s the eye’s diminished ability to focus on nearby objects over time.  It usually rears its ugly head in your 40s.  For many of you, that’s an eternity away. For some, it’s a current reality. And, for many others, they are on to even more fun, age-related adventures.

Usually, when you get Presbyopia, you don’t run out and buy reading glasses.  You squint and fight it.  You don’t want to join this esteemed group. By giving in, it’s an admission that you are getting older.  None of us want to do that.  But, eventually, it gets harder and harder to read.  So, we give in and buy our first pair of reading glasses.   And what happens?  Well, not much.  No one really seems to care, but reading has gotten a whole lot easier, and enjoyable.  You could have avoided a lot of stress and strain had you addressed the problem immediately.

The process one goes through in identifying the onset of Presbyopia, denying it, then finally accepting and acting on it is similar to a process we all go through as business owners and leaders.  We all want bulletproof, financially-stable and culturally-superior companies with perfect business models.  But, in every area of our companies, Presbyopia will eventually sneak up on us. For example:

  • Your business will be negatively impacted by competitors.
  • Your company will eventually have financial challenges.
  • Your staff won’t always get along well with each other.
  • Your strategy or business model won’t always be right.

When these problems arise, and they will, will you ignore and deny them or will you admit that you have a problem and act on it?

Research in Motion had Presbyopia several years ago and denied it.  They squinted and blinked their way through several years of denying that they had a problem.  In a span of two years, the market share for Blackberries went from over 50% to less than 25%, and sales have begun to steeply decline.  They denied the significance of iPhone and Android smartphones.  They denied that their business-centric user base was evolving.  Their share price has dropped 52% this year and they just announced a 2,000-person layoff.  They are scrambling to survive.

No business is perfect. Every business has problems.  The difference is how you deal with the inevitable problems. Will you deny them, squint and hope they go away, or will you meet them head-on and address them right away?  Will you be the person moving the aspirin bottle back and forth and struggling to read the recommended dosage or will you smile, slip on your reading glasses, and easily read the label?

Should You Really Listen to Customers?

It has become somewhat trendy to ignore what customers are asking for and instead give them something innovative that they may not know they need.  Although it may seem obvious that you should solicit feedback from your customers, build what they ask for, and then provide it to them, Apple and others have proven that it’s not the only model that can work.  Indeed, all one needs to do is spend a couple moments browsing through the iPhone App Store and you’ll find all sorts of tools you didn’t know you needed.

Even 37 Signals’ outstanding CEO Jason Fried has stated that his company only acts on those customer requests that are heard most frequently and, in essence, ignores the rest.  That’s sounds so counter-intuitive to the customer-centric mentality espoused by business gurus both today and in the past.

I believe that the right answer is a combination of actively soliciting customer input and acting on that input, while also focusing on giving customers something innovative they may not currently think they need.  The one strategy satisfies the present, while the other looks to the future.

Give them something cool and useful
Did you need an iPad?  I can’t speak for the masses, but I didn’t think I needed one. Now I use it every day.  And, when I travel, I’m seeing more and more iPad users peppered throughout the laptop users in the waiting areas and on airplanes.  Did you think you needed Facebook or Twitter? How about Evernote or Tripit?  Or, how about your mobile phone?  I got along just fine for many years without a mobile phone.    But, now these tools are an important part of my life.  They’ve made me much more productive and I’m not sure how I would function without them. Yet, I didn’t have a need for any of them at one point, and I definitely wasn’t asking for them.

Give them what they want
Contrary to this trend of providing customers what you think they would want, it is still a tried and true business model to ask customers what they want and then give it to them.  As much as we love innovation, there are many businesses that focus almost solely on giving their customer what they ask for, without trying to force feed them the newest whiz-bang technology.  However, the companies you hear about are the ones pushing the creative envelope.  You don’t hear so much about the myriad organizations quietly building great businesses by simply providing customers the features they request.

Finding that balance between serving your customers’ needs now while also looking to the future and providing them something innovative is a good strategic approach.  The reason you have to balance a customer-focus with providing them innovation is because customers are people, and people don’t like change.  They’d rather you make incremental improvements to your existing feature set or to what they are used to using.  But there’s an inherent risk in that approach.  According to Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, customers can inadvertently hold you hostage to old technology. They don’t want sweeping changes.  But, if you don’t continually incorporate new technology and features into your offering, a new entrant or another competitor will.  And, eventually, all those customers that were so adamantly begging you for a better horse will be driving cars.

So, leave the ignoring of customers to Apple.  Sure, they’ve proven that you can become a billion dollar company by creating new, innovative products.  But, they are the exception. For the rest of us, actively listening to customers must still be an important part of running a business.  If you balance that focus on customers with an eye toward innovation, you’ll be well on your way to creating an outstanding business.