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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Too Busy For Business Development? It's a Dangerous Attitude!

A recurring theme in many businesses is the sudden realisation that the pipeline of leads and, worse, orders is looking distinctly thin.

It usually presages a flurry of meetings and bad tempered emails to ask why is it that suddenly we seem to be backing off from selling and marketing our wonderful products and services to an eager audience. It's called complacency.

Of course it isn’t sudden.  It has probably been coming on for a while but during the busy times we naturally don’t worry too much about the order book because it always appears to be at an acceptable level. 

Not necessarily so. During my time in business consultancy I have had the experience of several business people calling me to ask if I could help them with a marketing study because all of a sudden they are losing sales.

Typically I recall instances where the business needed a boost because, as usual, they said, “The telephone has stopped ringing”.  The question was, why has it stopped ringing and why had we not done anything about it before now?.

In one case the business had around 850 “live” accounts over a period of three years while during the previous year they had traded with 240.  Again the question to ask is where did the other 600 or so go?

The business manufactured commodity products for shop-fitting and quite honestly they had no particularly outstanding features on which we could build a marketing campaign.

We decided to call the lapsed customers and the results were very interesting.  Taking out the obvious ones which were no longer in business, had only ordered for a one-off project and so on, the vast majority said things like “We hadn’t heard from you and we thought that you weren’t in business any more” or “Another company came in to see us and we ordered from them”.

A commodity is a commodity and if you don’t have anything to make you stand out (other than the usual claim of outstanding quality and service) then make sure that you keep in contact with your customers.  The telephone campaign brought 60 accounts back and we set up a regular contact programme for the future.

I also recall with some embarrassment that when I started in business with a small management consultancy I was fired up from the start and managed to land two significant contracts in the first ten days.  This built up in six months to a very encouraging level.

However contracts come and go and of course they don’t last forever.  As it happened they all seemed to disappear at the same time and I was left with virtually no income for the foreseeable future.

It was a great lesson.  The time to do the research marketing, the check on potential new sales prospects and even new markets is not when everything dries up and your concentration is on succeed or go under.

The time to do it is when you are busy because you know that try as you may nothing lasts for ever and it makes sense to build on success rather than being in panic mode.

The great Professor Steve Peters says that we should concentrate on rational rather than emotional thinking.  When we are in panic mode we are consumed by emotions and frankly can make inappropriate decision because of it.

Far better to be rational and logical so that there is clarity in what we say, plan and do.  Planned growth based on success is far more sustainable so ensure that you make time for business development when you are at your busiest.

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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Customers Who Give You Grief? Like The Dalek, Terminate Them!

Conventional wisdom has it that we must above all else, tend, nurture and cherish our customers because without them we don’t have a business.

All very logical but what happens when our relationship with a customer turns sour?  Do we still try to tend, nurture and cherish them or do we become a little more assertive to bring the relationship back on to an even keel?

One or two examples.   I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had developed a strong link with a large high street retailer who had become perhaps 50% or about £3 million of his turnover.  This made him very vulnerable and the customer knew it.

The consequence was that there was a concerted campaign to make him reduce prices, put punishing procedures in place to make him work to their demands and other even less charming controls on his business.

This all meant that he had to employ four people who were totally dedicated to satisfying the demands, both reasonable and unreasonable, of this retailer and to make things worse, the overall result was that margins almost evaporated.

He brought the issue to a meeting of his Vistage group and he said that he had decided to ditch the customer and reduce the size of the business so that he could retrench and get back into a sensible was of working.

This he did.  He told the customer that he wasn’t prepared to supply him any more to which the startled customer said that he couldn’t do that.

Just try me” he said and within three weeks had terminated supplies.

It took about a further six weeks for the customer to come back and with a newly polished relationship things came back to normal again.

On another occasion a member of the group did much the same thing saying that he was so fed up with dealing with a particular customer he had decided to ditch them and once again it cleared the air so that normal service could resume.

It takes a deal of courage to take this action and a good deal of confidence that nobody else could or would give the same service that they had done.

In the end it is far better to do business with people we like, people who appreciate the service that we give, who don’t take liberties and who don’t use their buying power to make unreasonable demands.

Yet another Vistage member had a business with around 200 customers 190 of which were small wholesalers, the balance being in the main, large retailers.

In this case he decided to bunch all the smaller customers into one group and offer them as a job lot to a very large wholesale customer who accepted with enthusiasm.

The member then concentrated on the few very large businesses and was able to achieve truly remarkable growth as a consequence.  The truth was that the small wholesalers were very demanding, usually placed very small orders, were always complaining and were terrible payers all of which took time and effort to administrate.

The key to all this is to make sure that your customer research is kept up to date, that each customer and sometimes each category is ruthlessly examined on a regular basis and the acid test of gross margin levels is implanted into the day-to-day operation of the business.

It all sounds rather dramatic but in the end it is worth the effort.  Poor customers are usually a very small proportion of the total so why bother to keep them?  It could open the door to new opportunities.

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Sunday, 16 October 2016

Invictus – a Bleak Poem? No, It’s a Call to Action!

Some time ago, one of my Vistage Chairman colleagues posted a poem called Invictus on the website.   For some reason it has followed me around and at every touch and turn I seem to hear or read about it, especially the last couple of lines.    It is by William Ernest Henley (1849-1902) a Gloucestershire poet, critic and author and this is it:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade

And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

HRH Prince Harry linked the name of the poem for his championing of the wonderful series of Olympic type games set up especially for disabled veterans of wars around the world and one can see how the last couple of lines resonate.

My Vistage colleague in the USA said that when he showed Invictus to his girl friend she said, “That is a very bleak poem” so he ditched the poem and married the girl.

It is pretty bleak in places but I must say that the last two lines are very powerful.   We live in a world where the perpetual cry is “Someone should do something about it” or “Why doesn’t the Government sort it out?” or worst of all, “I’m entitled”.

Yes, someone should do something about it, whatever that may be, and that someone is the individual him or herself who needs to take on the responsibility.

Until we realise that we are the master of our own fate and the captain of our own soul, then this perpetual harping on wanting other people to sort out our problems will never go away. 

I heard the other day a piece on the radio by Darren Campbell, Gold Medal Olympic sprint relay winner, of his struggles in his youth and his determination to get himself out of the life he was living.  He did this to some effect and it was exactly what Invictus offers.

This is not a political rant for or against the welfare state or even the nanny state but rather a plea for the understanding that unless we take responsibility for our own lives then we will be perpetually in thrall to “someone else”.

Of course and sadly there will always be some who by dint of circumstance are unable to control their lives and it is right that government and the charities step in to heal the breach wherever possible.

This does not absolve those of us who are in a safer place in life to do something to help and at least make some sort of contribution to alleviating suffering of whatever kind.

The grace before and after meals in Freemasonry gives thanks and exhorts us "ever to be mindful of the needs of others less fortunate than ourselves" and, by implication, to do something about it.  A very worthy objective.

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

What Don’t You Know About Your People? Ask Them The Story of Their Life!

A couple of years ago during the summer we (my wife Hilary and I together with Bailey, our Cavalier King Charles spaniel) took a day out in Cheshire finishing up in Chester.  While Hilary went into a well known store to buy something to eat that evening, I stood outside with Bailey and did some people watching.

We were accosted (in the nicest possible way) by a charming African American lady who insisted on showing me pictures of her Cavalier back home in the US and then took several photographs of Bailey.

I wished her well for her trip to England and she said:

Oh, I come here often.  This time I’m here to speak at a conference”.

Intrigued, I asked her what the conference was about and she said:

It’s an Anglican conference – I’m a Bishop” and went smilingly on her way.

I hadn’t even considered her occupation during our chat.  Looking back I suppose that I could have imagined her being a senior administrator in a business or a head teacher, but that wasn’t relevant in the context of our meeting.

The fact is that unless we ask our people or at least give them the opportunity, we frequently don’t know or even think anything about them other than their interaction in the business and their performance.

Too often our people are allowed to come in to work, take off their coats, take off their brains, hang them both up and then do their allotted time until they go home again having put on their coats and their brains.  What a waste of talent.

I have fond in my one- to-one sessions with business people particularly at the first meeting that it can be disarming to say to someone: “So, tell me story of your life” and the result can be remarkable. If the leader then keeps quiet and listens he/she can find just how happy people are to talk about themselves.

I recall an occasion in a previous business that was developing a coated fabric ostensibly to be used for wet suits for divers.  One of the machine operatives asked the technician the purpose for designing the product.

The operative told the technician that it wouldn’t be suitable for use on wet suits and the technician rather patronisingly asked why would he have an opinion of any value.

The operative told him that he was, in his spare time, the secretary of a nationally based sub-aqua club and he was an acknowledged expert in the subject.  To give the company the credit they pulled the operative off the line for a period so that he could give of his expertise and help to develop a suitable fabric.

It is always a matter of giving people the respect that they deserve and of showing genuine interest in them and their lives.  Of course, trust and confidentiality are vital and need to be stressed.

Even more importantly, we can learn so much more about our people, their interests, their hobbies, their families. There is the constant surprise when we find out that someone does something remarkable in their spare time.

And why shouldn’t those hidden talents be brought to bear in the business to the advantage of the company and, more importantly, to the advantage of the member of the team?

Most of them aren’t Bishops, of course, but they are all individuals with feeling, interests and aspirations, and they deserve to be respected as such.

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