Thursday, October 21, 2010

Business Tips from the Dragons' Den

A privilege and honour to be nominated for the Mount Pearl Chamber of Commerce's annual Best in Business Innovation Award last night, it was an equal pleasure to listen to Dianne Buckner of Dragons' Den fame share her Top 10 Tips - those characteristics that successful entrepreneurs share - straight from the Den!  I paraphrase as I summarise them here.  The list should be read in reverse for order of priority.

  1. Successful entrepreneurs know how to get to YES.  They seek to understand where their "target" is coming from, what would be important to him/her and how to make a pitch that will get an ultimate yes.

  2. When pitching a solution, successful entrepreneurs remain open and flexible.  By being agreeable they negotiate until a deal emerges that is good for all the parties involved.

  3. Tough times are not necessarily bad times. Most successful people have the ability to deal with circumstances that present themselves at the moment and many success stories such as Home Depot started in times of recession. Tough times can spur great creativity.

  4. Successful people stay abreast of trends.  In this age of fast paced innovation there is no shortage of new trends.  While eco-friendly economics and social media are currently hot trends, Dianne also cited the example of a company who came up with temporary phone numbers - used like a disposable phone number that could be useful for online dating etc.)

  5. Successful entrepreneurs are brief.

  6. A comfort level with their own weaknesses - successful entrepreneurs understand that they cannot be great at everything and they have a plan for dealing with them.  They understand that there is always something to compensate for.

  7. Contrary to popular belief, successful people proceed with caution.  They go out on a limb with caution.

  8. Hard work.  No surprise here and no way of avoiding it.  Successful entrepreneurs work exceptionally hard.

  9. Success also requires not to work too hard. Successful people define success by something broader than money.  Working too hard always takes a toll - health and relationships being first in line.

  10. Persistence.  Successful entrepreneurs learn and get better continuously.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

I have been reading numerous books on Business and Internet Marketing lately, and frankly, it leaves me somewhat confused. 

Let's start with "Profits Aren't Everything.  They're the Only Thing."

Self-proclaimed contrarian small business guru George Cloutier says:
"You must micromanage and then micromanage some more.  With a small business you have to know everything that is going on at all times." 
"It's OK to be a control freak". 
"Fire and hire faster. Don't tolerate mediocrity.
"I want my employees to do what I say, not what they think." 
You are starting to get the picture, right?

On the other end of the scale Josh Bernoff's latest book "Empowered" says the opposite:
"Your company is not and cannot be nimble enough to serve them. With our established processes and departmental boundaries, you move too slowly."
"To succeed with empowered customers, you must empower your employees to solve customer problems."
The ideas don't come from management:  management's new job is to support and empower employees."

Both books were published during the past year.  How can both modern business books punt two opposing points of view and both be right?

On moral grounds the principles of empowering employees and unleashing collective creativity for the greater corporate good sound like a good idea.  

From my small business experience I tend to understand the authoritarian stance.  Even if there are cheques in the cheque book, you cannot write them if there is no money in the bank.

So, like so often the case, is the truth not somewhere in the middle?  Experience has taught me:
  1. Train and mentor employees to deliver great service, BUT stay close to your valued client.  Staff come and go and as business owner, the client remains YOUR customer.

  2. Empower, but do not abdicate. Once a clearly defined task has been delegated, check in to gauge progress. Follow up afterwards to measure success and to give feedback, thanks or rewards. My business associate Cathy is a proponent of checklists. I am a fan of our internal project management system. The secret lies in clear instructions.

  3. A small business has less leeway than a larger organization.  Each employee in a small business sits directly on the profit line and the business can ill afford the luxury of learning from mistakes. Social media and social networks expose our businesses daily, and everyone has a direct line to almost everyone except the most untouchable deity.

    While this connected world offers vast business potential that HAS to be harnessed within a clear policy, agreed use and measurable outcomes,  social media is an emerging technology that requires time to mature. A small business does not have the flexibility of allocating staff to research trial and error in a new media world.  Hire an expert and pay for results.
Although I do not particularly subscribe to the authoritarian language in Cloutier's book, he is very clear in what he believes.  Simply put, if we are not in business to generate profit, our energies are best utilized in a different environment than the world of hard commerce.

On the other hand, although I do not believe that Bernhoff's book was born from the school of hard business knocks, we have to acknowledge that this millennium is giving birth to a generation of Internet-connected employees and customers who are changing the world - one click at a time. Ignoring this emerging force is business suicide.

What do you think?  Share your comments here and let's continue the discussion...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Are Loyal Customers Leaving?

You hired the smartest people.  You offer the best product. Your prices are competitive. Why are your customers leaving?

People Do Business With The Nice Guys
In "Fierce Leadership" author Susan Scott makes the point that when you land yourself in a competitive situation with all the above being true, customers choose the "nice guys".  People want to do business with people that they have a connection with.  People that they can talk to and people who listen.  People who make them feel good about what they buy.  And that is just too bad for the smart guys.

Experience Economy
Joseph Pine ("The Experience Economy") wrote that today's economy is an "experience economy", indicating that customers are seeking more than a good product or good service.  Using the product or service has to be an enjoyable experience which begins with the very first encounter a customer has with your business.

Deepen the Experience with Web 2.0
In a global economy that first experience often starts on the Internet and relationships are deepened through the tools of web 2.0 - social networks, comments, reviews, ratings and sharing.  The customer experience is created not only through your messages but also through what others say about you.  The media relations and advertising departments no longer control your brand.  Your customers and staff do and they are a part of your brand conversations.

Engagement - The Glue In Your Brand
In the latest of the well-known "Did You Know" videos (also known as Shift Happens) Eric Qualmann's version says:  "What happens in Vegas, stays in... Facebook, Bebo, MySpace..."  Keeping loyal customers will require rallying the troops -  and those troops are staff and past clients.  Engagement and meaningful deep conversation create loyalty which becomes the glue in your brand.

Employees who feel engaged and who are a part of meaningful conversation at work, become empowered brand ambassadors. Engaged employees contribute to the customer experience (some airlines get this right - see Southwest Airlines and WestJet or just think about the Fish vendors at Pike's market in Seattle).

Also rally current customers - they are guaranteed to talk about a great experience.  Help them along by providing the forum on your website, your social network page, or your blog.

Where to Start?
It starts with buy-in at the top. As the leader of an organization the buck starts and stops with you - setting the example, creating the tone. Scott tells the story where a top notch consulting firm with the smartest employees and managers who are referred to as "partners" could not sew up a billion dollar contract - only to discover that the competition won the contract because they were the "nice guys".

If customers are walking away, competitors stealing your staff, or getting the job done is like pulling teeth - check the level of engagement with your staff and your customers.