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Sunday, 19 August 2018

How Well Do You Know Your Competitors? Make Sure You Are Up To Date!

One of the constant messages that I receive from the members of my Vistage CEO peer group and indeed with most other senior business people, is what can we do about the competition?

A neat approach is to say don’t look over your shoulders at your competitors, run your business to make them worry about you.

That is all very well and good but the competition will always be with us and the clever thing is to understand how genuinely important they are to our business and precisely what to do about it, if anything.

In my consulting days I did a great deal of market research, mainly of the desk variety and spent many happy and not always productive hours in the Manchester Central Reference Library.

We were not permitted to use the copier and consequently we had to make copious notes (which were permitted) of any information that seemed appropriate.

Then back to the office to type it all up and try to use it in the research project.  As this usually included vast amounts of statistics the whole exercise was very laborious and very prone to input error.

I don’t have to labour the point that things are vastly different now. Desk market research for whatever reason is a relatively straightforward exercise.

It may be so, but the question is, if it is so simple how often to we do it and use it on a formal basis?

The ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, in his great book, The Art of War, coined the phrase, Know Your Enemy.  I once had a member of my CEO peer group who derided the use of this book saying, and rightly so, that we are not at war, we should not compare business to military strategy and generally speaking, no-one gets killed.

Point taken but the basic concepts are very similar and are well worth some consideration.

First of all, how well do you know your competitors and to what level of detail?  I think it very valuable to build dossiers on known and significant businesses that compete with us and this should be an ongoing exercise.

Sources of information are many and varied starting at Companies House (in the UK) to see how their financial position has changed.  Please note, the trend in their financial performance is far more relevant than the latest results so take a five year look to see which way they are going.

Market size and penetration is also useful knowledge.  Again it helps to plot market penetration for your major competitors compared to your business to see how important they and you are to the market.  Anything under 10% penetration is not so significant but as soon as the level exceeds 25% then note that action must be taken. That is a generalisation with some markets being dominated by a major player and with some completely fragmented.  Question is, do you know?

Product information can easily be garnered from the website with price comparisons and in some cases customer reviews.  Where are the differences between their products and yours?

These are simple exercises and any good marketing department should be able to take them on board but if you do, please be certain that the information is up to date and relevant.  If the dossiers are kept online or in hard copy the exhortation is the same, do it, keep it up to date and use it to your advantage.

This enables you to assess and ensure what measure of differentiation exists between you and the competition and how to exploit it to your advantage.

I well recall a speaker once who suggested that we should guarantee something about the business or the product that we supply anyway.  Using that as a marketing ploy ensures that no competitor can use it themselves.

Competitors are not the enemy but they are out there trying to do better than we do.  The more that we know about them the better we can develop differentiation and that leads to better results.

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Sunday, 12 August 2018

Want to Build Lasting Relationships? You Need to Know, Like and Trust People!

My good friend, Tracey Murphy of HR Savvy (www.behrsavvy.co.uk) is an enthusiastic networker and she has a little axiom that she uses to say that she likes to do business “with people I know, like and trust”.
That works for me.  It seems to encapsulate all that is good and appropriate in defining a relationship in business.
There isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any distinction in that statement between customers, suppliers, stakeholders, staff, community; in fact anyone with whom we are in contact during the normal business day.
It is worth picking it apart slightly to examine the specifics.  As far as customers are concerned the verb “know” is really significant.  Marketing methods have changed dramatically over the past few years and are still changing.  There is less face to face contact and this can be a problem.
The old methods of the blunderbuss approach with vast mailings no longer work as they did and in any case are becoming vastly expensive.  Far better to identify those companies with whom we want to do business and then work on them to build a relationship.
This implies a good deal of desk research which is comparatively simple these days to identify the important people in the target businesses, the size and performance of the business, product range, and so on.  What it means is that we can build a dossier about the company before actually meeting them and that is a great start in knowing them.
A stage further is the face to face meeting to develop that knowledge and to get a view on whether it is a business with whom we really do want to deal.  That is a start on the road to liking them which is, I believe, a vital component. It may seem something less than businesslike but we are human beings as well as business people and we much prefer to deal with people that we actually like.
Suppliers are another case in point.  Why should we not develop relationships with them to encourage them to want to deal with us and to offer great service?  I recall a client (Richard) who was a manufacturer of electronic equipment and who held a suppliers’ conference every couple of years.
At one of these he made the point that he would prefer suppliers to refer to their components by his part number rather than theirs.  One of the suppliers stood up and said that their software system would not be able to do that at which Richard smiled gently and said, not to worry, that there was another supplier in the room who could do what he wanted so supplies would still be available.
That resulted in a very quick amendment to software and Richard had dual supplies which is precisely what he wanted.
A small thought.  There is no better way to develop a close relationship with a good supplier than by paying them on time and even early.  Your Finance Director might not approve but regular supplies from a trusted supplier can be lifeblood.
In the end, good relationships built over a period of time with promises being kept, good quality of the product and great service being given at all times will eventually lead to trust and that will be mutual.
Of course, the same applies right throughout the piece with whomsoever we come into contact.  Trust can only be developed in an atmosphere of visible and proven honesty and probity; a genuine desire to please and to fulfil needs with a consistency of approach which guarantees satisfaction.
It is not easy to reach this nirvana but the result is well worth the effort.  In the end, of course, we are talking about a consistency of values and culture which can only be driven into the business by the leader.
Why not start the process with a suppliers’ conference (and pay them on time)?

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Sunday, 5 August 2018

Stop Talking and DO SOMETHING! It’s All About Taking Action!

A big issue which is constantly in the minds of leaders is that there seems to be a vast amount of talk and discussion, meetings of every sort and interminable correspondences on email with everyone copied but in the end, nothing seems to have been accomplished.
All very frustrating and there needs to be a significant change in culture to make things happen.
When meetings become merely an exchange of reports on everyone’s personal position then some action needs to be taken to sort it out.  The amount of wasted time and hence cost can be monitored and I would guess would shock most people.
Add to that all the other wasted effort and we can see how the concept of LEAN thinking became so popular.
Wise business sages have always advocated approaches like customer focus, stakeholder focus, people first and many other but I want to put forward a new one and that is ACTION FOCUS.
It is self evident that talking and discussing within the top team is essential but I will always remember the instruction from Jim Slater, Chairman of Slater Walker and my business hero when he insisted that the minutes of all meetings at both Board level and below must include a statement of the action required, the person responsible and the date for completion.
Woe betide anyone who was tasked with taking some action and had to report at the next meeting that it hadn’t been done.  All sorts of excuses like, “I didn’t have the time”, or “If you want me to do that then something else will suffer” and so on, were heard and dismissed peremptorily.
The key is that until action is taken and visibly, then all the talking in the world won’t achieve anything.  Just ask delegates to climate change conferences.
Moreover, there is a strong case for making sure that the message has got through particularly at management level and we all know that a nod from the recipient doesn’t necessarily imply agreement or even understanding.
So a good idea when saying that something needs to be done, is to demonstrate rather than just saying what is needed, and then to ensure that the task is repeatable.  The military are very good at this with small arms training as an example.
Finally, don’t just make promises which will are remembered more in the failure to come up with the goods rather than successful fulfilment.  It is incumbent on the leader to engender trust in the team and that can only be successfully accomplished by proving rather than mere promising.  Not easy, but who ever said that the position of leader was easy?
All in all:
Don’t just talk: ACT
Don’t just say: DEMONSTRATE
Don’t just promise: PROVE

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Sunday, 29 July 2018

Finding Life Too Complex? Harness the Power of Simplicity!

In the past few weeks I have had discussions with several members of my Vistage CEO peer group and listened to them bemoaning the complexity of running a business these days.

Information is so readily available that we can call upon it to substantiate any ideas that we might have or, on the other hand, use it to act in exactly the opposite way.

It is very tempting to collect as much information as we possibly can in order to justify a decision that we might make. The problem is that the very act of justification can take far too much time and not be all that productive in the end.

For example, I recall a previous member of the group who was very frustrated by his technical director, a committed engineer, who always seemed to need more information before making a decision. The consequence was that he very seldom made a decision.

We are surrounded by “stuff” that may be relevant but is frequently only peripheral in the decision making process.  Because of this urge to cut down the risk element in any decision, there is the danger that we can overdo the search for justification.

It is worthwhile asking a few questions such as:

  • What  is the likelihood of my being completely wrong?
  • What is the very worst that can happen if I do get this decision wrong?
  • What do I consider the odds to be that the decision will be correct?

The point is that even if we make a decision that goes belly up the possibility of the outcome being terminal for the business is probably negligible.  Certainly it could impact on the financial results or on the people in some way but what is the real level of importance?

My Key Executive group recently heard to our great delight a speaker from the US, Ark Rozental, who expatiated on the need to simplify the way that we design and run websites in order to increase traffic to the site.

It was a singularly enlightening session and because Ark analysed everyone’s site in detail using published Analytics he was able to show precisely how and where changes could be made.

This was substantiated by examples of other businesses who had done just that and had shown dramatic improvements.

The word is, of course, simplify.  In the end business is a simple exercise.  We either possess some knowledge or we make something, we add value and then sell it at a profit.  

That’s it, no more.  Everything other than that is merely devoted to specify details and that is precisely where if we are not careful complexity can take over. This can be to the detriment of the business and very often, the people.

Remember that a leader is NOT (or at least never should be) a doer.  The primary function of any leader is to be able to take time out to think about the business.

Ask yourself, who in the business actually spends time thinking about it?  Other members of the management team are fully engaged in the activities of the business, be it finance, operations, sales, marketing, IT and so on, in none of which should the leader be involved at least in detail.

The pity of it is that many leaders feel almost ashamed just to be thinking about the business which seems visibly to be doing nothing whereas it is probably the most productive effort that can be made for the future of the organisation.

I have recently written about using the One Topic Meeting and that can be the ultimate in simplification.  Have such a meeting, define the purpose of the meeting, what outcome is desired and head for it. Fifteen minutes or so can make sure that the meeting will be productive.

Life can be severely complex.  Harness the power of simplicity and watch positive things start to happen.

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Sunday, 22 July 2018

Is It In the Public Interest or Just to Interest the Public?

The recent implementation of GDPR has brought in its train a rash of strap lines on many corporate emails proclaiming the sender’s commitment to the privacy of the recipient, and rightly so.

The problem is partly due to the apparent need for many individuals to download vast amounts of background on a range of social media sites without a thought as to the potential consequences.

The point is that this information is now, almost by default, in the public domain and we have heard recently about companies specialising in analysis how this information can be harvested and used, hopefully, merely for marketing and promotional purposes.  Or is it?

We need to ask ourselves precisely what and how much information do we want the world at large to know about us and whether we should now take a long and searching look at what is published about us on the web.

Have you, for instance, ever googled your name?  It can be an enlightening experience to see just where we are mentioned and in what context.  This has been an interesting experience for me through the publication of Ivan’s Blog and that has sparked a few discussions here and there.  It also revealed that I seem to have an alter ego who is a noted psychiatrist so do please be careful which of the two of us you contact.

The recent an appalling case of Sir Cliff Richard has revived the debate.  The court found that his privacy had been invaded when the police raided his home without apparently informing him but making sure that the  BBC who hired a helicopter to film the event were told what was happening.

Yes, Sir Cliff was awarded significant damages and the BBC says that they are considering an appeal, paid for presumably from the licence fees that a grateful and interested public generates.

Like many of the media outlets the defence was that the programme was “in the public interest”.  I question this absolutely.  There is a significant distinction between “in the public interest” and “what is likely to interest the public?” and there is a line to be drawn between the two.

There is no doubt that in certain instances the public has a right to know the facts and there have been some excellent cases of investigative journalism that have uncovered misdemeanours that had remained hidden.

However, the slide into using the public interest as a valid reason for door stepping people who have been accused by someone sometimes wrongly, of harrying and bullying innocent people and of printing falsehoods and half truths cannot be countenanced.

Even if there is a tenuous link to the public interest, someone can be found completely innocent and will have to suffer years of loss of reputation and general suffering for nothing.

Yes, it might sell papers but where do morals and ethics come into the picture?  

The explosive growth of media other than the printed press in the last few years has made an extraordinary change to the whole practice of news gathering and fulfilment and not always in an admirable way.  We have all heard about “fake news” and that can now be used as another rationale for publication or otherwise.

The moral as I see it is to take scrupulous care when we  publish personal information. The ways in which this can be harvested and used or abused is well beyond the ability of normal people to understand but sadly there can be consequences for any of us that can be both unpleasant and long lasting.

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Sunday, 15 July 2018

Are Your Salespeople Hunters or Farmers? You Need Both!

My old sales mentor, the famed Phil Copp, Sage of Wythenshawe, was the embodiment of the classic salesman, unwilling to accept defeat and always ready to look at another innovative approach to solving a problem for his customer.

Phil was meticulous in his planning and knew every week precisely where he was going, who he was visiting and why.

I know that the world has changed significantly since those days and the dramatic developments in communication online have led to equally dramatic changes in marketing and sales methodology. 

There is no doubt that email, websites, LinkedIn, Twitter et al are fine and frankly have become essential components of business development today.  However it is still vital, perhaps more than ever, to meet your customers face to face, eyeball to eyeball, and build a relationship that cannot be done electronically.

Indeed, wise online marketers emphasise that every touch we make online should be looked upon as a conversation and designed as such.

Phil Copp would have loved today’s world and would have exploited it mercilessly to his advantage.  He would have been equally certain that he needed to make a specific number of calls at regular intervals to ensure that the personal relationships were kept warm and productive.

The key to his success was that he understood the difference between the sales hunter and the sales farmer, and most unusually, he combined the two because he understood that the world doesn’t stand still and like it or not, customers move on for many reasons.

He knew that, on average, he would make around 30 valid sales calls a week and that meant not just putting his head round the door and saying (metaphorically) “Owt today?”

On that basis he then divided his annual total of calls into 70% existing customers and 30% prospecting.  He would then plan the calling schedule for each week based on those ratios.

All very simple and nothing new, but he stuck to it religiously and consequently grew his part of the business significantly.

It was a combination of great relationships built on trust, and vast experience which led to his unsurpassed expertise and domain knowledge.

The problem in many cases is that often people in sales have been classified as either hunters or farmers and never the twain shall meet except to complain about each other’s activities,

The very title of Business Development implies searching for new outlets  and then presumably handing them over to someone else who will develop the relationship without any thought as to whether this can be done effectively.

Great sales people realise that it is far better to research the market, identify the potential, go to see them and open the door to building a relationship.  It’s not easy but it is the most satisfying part of any sales person’s business life.

Hunter or farmer?  You need to be both!    

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