Business Failure’s Common Denominator

It seems like every month I’m driving through Louisville and I see a small business (and sometimes large) with its doors closed, lights out and interior looking like a barren warehouse. Some of these businesses once thrived, living on references, write-ups, social shares and word of mouth. Now, nothing. People out of work, banks and creditors likely getting the short end of the stick. And over the years I’ve noticed one common denominator of nearly all of these business failures….they failed to communicate with me.

Now when I say me, I’m not inferring that I could single-highhandedly keep any business afloat (unless it was an Italian Eatery), but I’m referring to the public in general.  It is almost ALWAYS the one thing that these businesses did not do, or did incorrectly. And this does not surprise me. I see it in the industry I serve all the time. People understand their business, but they do not understand the tenets and commandments of marketing. Marketing  is not something big companies do, it’s something that SUCCESSFUL companies do.

Back to my days of college where I studied marketing and I always go back to the basics…the four “P’s” of marketing:

  • Product – What products or services are you going to offer
  • Price – What prices will you charge
  • Place – How are your customers going to acquire your products or services
  • Promotion – How are you going to COMMUNICATE with them

I like to add a fifth “P” PROFIT. How much profit are you going to take home to pay your own bills?  Most business owners answer the first three, and number five. But the forth, they’re not so sure of the best way to communicate, so they try a few things and then get busy, or just do not see the results immediately and drop the promotional part of their plans. I wrote a few years ago about my marketing successes in this this blog post. I have not made a personal sales call in two years. I am simply too busy servicing my current clients. But I do still market using this blog, email and social media. Does it work? How about this. I surpassed my 2011 revenues in April of 2012. And 95% of my revenues on the books are a direct result of either my own marketing or referrals. Done, slam dunk!

Marketing is not mystical or require some type of wizard to make it work. But you have to…well…DO IT! Most could contact a local marketing company, like say…Symbion, who could provide you with advice. Then it’s up to you to make it work, or hire a company to manage it for you…like…say…Symbion. Either way, marketing/promoting is something you must do…now, and forever. It is as much of your business plan as accounting. So don’t cut corners, don’t cheat yourself. Get out there and engage, communicate, don’t sell…everyone is doing that. Share, be the company that’s helping prospects do something better. Then when the time comes, I promise, you will be on their short list of companies that are going to get a shot at their business.

As for the local businesses in your area that you’ve seen closed up. Ask yourself, “how much did I really hear from them?” Because folks, you might think “everyone knows who and where we are.” But I’ll assure you this much, the phrase “outta sight, outta mind” didn’t invent itself.

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unfortunately

Recently I switched banks for all of my business needs.  It was simply due  to convenience and how easy my new bank made it for me to bank with them. Their mobile app made it  easy to say “yes, I want to do business with you!” I can not tell you how hard my current bank made it for me to leave them.

I won’t belabor the details, but suffice it to say, that if I had considered leaving the door open to do business again with my former bank, they slammed the door, nailed it shut and propped an antique 4,000lb dresser up against it. So I started pondering how my customers and potential customers (I forgive you for not calling yet) deal with lost customers. What is your process? Do you have one? You should, or you leave it up to chance and your current “policies” and employees to decide the potential for getting that business back right now, if not in the future.

Your policy should include (but not be limited to):

  • Making it easy to break up. Don’t put road blocks, require signatures (unless legally obligated to do so,) or impose penalties not clearly spelled out when you obtained their business. Also, consider giving up penalties if the customer’s situation warrants it.
  • Make sure there is contact from someone with authority. Your front-line employees should be apologetic and have the authority to try to save the account, every account. But there should be a follow-up from someone that guides strategy to get the story directly from the source. (Recently, I cancelled an order from a vendor due to disrespect from the sales rep and lack of concern for my business or getting the order completed. I felt compelled to write the President of that company to let them know they have an employee initiating his own customer punishment plan, and didn’t even hear back…wow.)
  • Is there a formal gift certificate/coupon/letter that comes from someone “higher up” expressing concern over losing their business and offering a deep discount to “give us another shot…we’re better than this and we know it?”
  • Do you keep track of business you’re losing, who’s losing it, and why? You may find you have employees or policies that need re-working before you move forward.

I encourage you to consider this deeply and get your leadership/strategy group together today to ask these questions and more to ensure you’re doing all you can to make breaking up easy to do, and a plan to say, “Ok we understand, but we’d like another shot someday, if you feel up to it.”

Don’t be the boyfriend that can’t let go, it’s just not sexy or confident and makes you seem weak and pathetic. In the words of one of the famous Despair Inc. posters I have always remembered, “It’s over man, let her go.”

Good selling.

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Courtship of New Customers: Like Courting Your Spouse?

I often like to compare courting new customers to the courtship many of us undertook many years ago while courting our spouses. And while they are very different kinds of relationships, they are relationships none the less. So let’s take a look at courting new customers, and how you might court your spouse given today’s communication tools in a B2B environment.

Communication: a good place to start, right? I mean, to build any type of relationship there has to be communication…talking, writing, typing, reading, listening, hearing. Without it, what’s the point. And it has to be two-way, right? Who wants to listen all the time?  No one, unless you’re being paid $100 an hour as a therapist.

A personal sales call is like a personal visit to your potential mate.  They’re nice, and it’s the most personal type of “touchpoint,” so it’s the one we favor the most.  But like your potential mate, show up daily, unannounced, and you’re going to lose favor, and fast! But you want that relationship, badly. The question is how do you stay on her/his mind without annoying the living hell out of the person. Well, guess what? In today’s multi-media, social media driven world, there are a plethora of channels to stay on her/his mind without becoming a creeper.

Send an email.  An occasional email letting your prospect know “what’s new” without blathering on about yourself (selling) is a nice touch and lets them know you’re on their mind. You can do the same using Twitter or other social media to either replace or alternate with email.

Supplement that with a post card every once in a while (direct mail) with a thoughtful message about something that interests him/her and where they can find access to this (usually from you, of course). After all, not all emails get through or are opened, so supplement this effort with a cost-effective digital media.

Both of these can contain a link to a video showing you doing something cool and saying “wish you were here, we’d be having a blast!” (YouTube).

Maybe if you’re feeling rather adventurous you place an ad in a publication he/she is likely to read saying “hey, I miss you, let’s get together, it’s been too long!

By now you see where I’m going. As a man, I know that my wife, even after 24 years together, likes to get emails from me in the middle of the day, and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that it will mean as much to her that I mentioned her in this blog post. Courting a prospect is really no different. You must mix your media and measure the touches to be sure you’re staying there in the top of her/his mind so that when the time comes and she/he wants a date, guess who’s most likely to get the shot? That’s right! Those that put in the “extra effort.”

So don’t be a “one trick pony” as I call them, using only email, or direct mail, or personal selling to create all the communication. Much of it is far less expensive than personal selling and will greatly enhance your “top of mind awareness” when you (and your sales force) can not be there.

Good selling!

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Your Brand: Creating Space

Brand Differentiation. It’s what we as business people talk about and try to achieve. However in any given market space there are a hand full of businesses that most consumers, much to our chagrin, see us as homogenous brands with interchangeable logos.  So the question becomes how do we separate our brands and create space between us and the peloton of competition behind us. Let me illustrate with this anecdote.

As a marketing manager I am called upon by sales representative by printing companies wanting to talk to me about their printing capabilities and why I should use their service over the other printers in town.  Over the years, I heard countless sales pitches that sounded as if they shared a script.  Each had a Heidelberg high-speed press that printed 11 million dots per inch, and my customer’s advertising pieces would look life-like.

Finally one day I was having lunch with a pleasant young woman who pulled out her beautiful folder filled with a plethora of sales brochures and samples, all of which could have come from any of the previous printers that I had met.  She then began to layout the reasons I should give her a shot. I stopped her dead in her tracks. I said “let me guess, you have Heidelberg high-speed equipment and can turn my jobs around in 14 minutes, right?” “And they’ll all look so beautiful that I will receive marriage proposals from my customers” I added.  She didn’t know what to say so she said “yes!”

That’s when I told her “look (salesperson’s name) I get this from all of you. You all have similar equipment, some of you can do personalized 1:1 direct mail and all of you promise excellent customer service, but do you even know what I want out of a printer,” and it was as if a light went off… and she began asking questions.  Now, she really didn’t know WHAT to ask me, since all she had ever been shown was how to “pitch,” but that’s for another story, place and time.

So back to the question, how do brands create real differentiation or “space” in the minds of their audience?  Let me let YOU in on a little secret the advertising world has known for a long, long time….YOU SHOW THEM…YOU TELL THEM…YOU PROVE IT TO THEM! Three things you need to keep in mind when it comes to creating an image or “brand”:

  1. Know who you really are as a brand, what your competitive advantage is and who you are targeting. For example, if you carry high-end, expensive products, you better know that the your clients are going to be expecting performance. So ALL of your advertising, promoting, sales, operations, and even your company vans, better back up that image. If your strategy is to be a low-cost supplier, don’t try to brand yourself as the Cadillac of the industry. Buyers are smart and will figure you out, and your brand will be tarnished.
  2. If you are not actively creating this brand using electronic and traditional media, you passively allow your brand to be molded by the actions of your employees and information shared among peers in your market.  Case in point: a) what position does the Rolex brand have in your mind? b) how did it get there? Thank you.
  3. Once you get the opportunity, you better deliver. If your brand expectations are high, every phone call should be greeted with smiles, pleases and thank you’s. Your products better deliver on your promises, as should your service levels. And when there is a problem (and they will occur, this we all know), they better be handled promptly and with the customer in mind, not our bottom-line.
  4. Don’t be afraid to share!  The knowledge base within your organization is an untapped source of gold for setting your company apart from the competition.  Thought Leadership has been a strategy for years, since the explosion of blogs and video libraries like YouTube.  Imagine a company that regularly helped customers think through their problems before they became problems and didn’t even charge them!  Now I’m not suggesting you give away trade secrets or patented processes, but there are a wealth of topics that you could expound upon, create value in the minds of your prospects and when the time comes for your product or service, guess who’s positioned right where you wanted to be?

On a personal level, some people are very good at branding themselves and creating space between themselves and the rest of the pack, just ask someone like Donald Trump.  Like him or not, you know exactly who he is, he backs it up honestly and he even has a trademark logo. Do you know what it is? (think…hair)  But when it comes to business, business leaders often forget it works the same way in their own markets.

Now, a discussion about brand separation, differentiation or space could go on for days, but I have reviewed the key elements, I’ve listed above. Actively telling people who you are helps to create your “brand” or “image” or “position.”  Backing it up with the appropriate level of product and service will reinforce the brand you have proactively built.

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What is “Thought Leadership” and What Does it Mean to My Brand?

I first heard the term “Thought Leadership” about four years ago from my friend and online mentor, Paul Barron.  Paul has been establishing “Thought Leadership” far longer than most of us has been on the web.  Paul was one of the first bloggers on the internet, blog about the food industry.

I remember him telling me “it’s not about selling on the internet, everyone’s doing that.”  His strategy was instead of telling everyone how smart he was and what he could do, he proved it by sharing information that would help the reader do something better, become more efficient and effective. It seemed odd to me at first, that by simply sharing some thoughts or links one could establish such a position in the marketplace.  But it works! Assuming of course that you actually KNOW something about which you speak, or write or shoot on video.

If you look around the web today, there is no shortage of people and their “how-to’s”, “to-do’s” and “whereto’s.”  They’re realized that by sharing knowledge people will take favor with what they have to say.  The goal of course being that when the time comes, you get the opportunity.  I can tell you unequivocally it has worked for me.  Most of my new clients come from call-ins as I’m simply too busy to make outbound sales calls any longer. And I haven’t called and asked for business from anyone for probably two years!  Just two months ago, about an hour after one of my monthly emails went out I got a call from the owner of a dealership in a major market exclaiming “it’s time for me to do this.” And we were off and running!

He had been seeing my marketing materials, the posts I’ve written here, on my website, perhaps through my Twitter account or through industry groups I belong to via LinkedIn. And when the time came for him to take action and begin proactively market his business, I was one that came to mind. But what is a person to share? Doesn’t it go against the grain of sharing our knowledge base with potential competitors?

I would never suggest revealing trade secrets or other proprietary information in mass media. But there are many ways to help your customers and prospects run their businesses better by simply sharing knowledge that you and your competitors already know, but no one is discussing, right? In the industry I serve (material handling) there are tons of things to share like;

  • How to inspect brakes, when should they be replaced?
  • How to perform proper service?
  • The difference between OEM, reman.,and aftermarket parts.
  • What proper safety training looks like.

There are many, many topics you could think of on your own by soliciting the advice of the pros within your business, namely your department managers and ask “what could we share that would provide benefit, without tipping our hat to any proprietary processes or information we possess?” The answers might astound you. Where and how to share, though?

I like blogs just like this! You can organize your entries and categorize them, tag them and tweet them using your Twitter account. Then by linking your blog back to your website your organic search ranking will improve as now you have an inbound link to your website that’s full of valuable and recent content matching the content of your website, or complementing it.

Share your information on LinkedIn by joining some of the groups that your customers and prospect belong to and start conversations of your own within the group.  Answer pertinent questions within these groups, and begin to show those in the group that you are out there on the leading edge of being a “go to” resource to improve their businesses.

Social Media, email campaigns, your website and direct mail are all great vehicles to spread your knowledge around. By working them all together you build a web of constantly changing and growing information to help your customers and prospects. All of which will eventually lead them to one conclusion, when the next need arises, you have to be one of the calls they make.

Oh and as for Paul Barron? Well you can Google him to find that he IS the face of Fast Casual restaurants, just published his book “The Chipotle Effect” and has nearly 75,000 followers on Twitter, of which I am one!

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Back to the Basics

I read a good article a few days ago which explained why you will always need a good website and that chasing the Social Media hounds is something to avoid. While I feel that Social Media is here to stay, there is something to be said for maintaining your course and and not losing sight of the things that brought your business to this point.

Then I reflected on my nearly thirty years in the business world and began reminiscing about the many sales forces and management teams I’d worked on and thought of the many times we were taken “back to the basics.” For many of you reading this, you will remember the sales training days of old when sales training got so esoteric, you wondered if we were in sales training or in medical school training to be a psychologist. I mean remember the diagrams and “quandrant graphics” showing where different types of buyers stood and how we were supposed to analyze them then place each buyer in a neatly defined area only to learn we had mis-diagnosed them and forgot that we were supposed to be dealing with building relationships?

Many of you just chuckled because you remember scratching your head and saying “Who is this guy and what the hell is he talking about, I have a family to feed and I’m supposed to play Dr. Phil?” Yeah, THAT training. The all-day, multi-day snooze-fest, accompanied by a hard-cover three ring binder full of all kinds of useful information that immediately went on our bookshelf in our office to show everyone that we understood the “essence of selling.” As my favorite Sunday Football pre-game show hosts might say “C’mon Man!”

Then one day while working in the printing industry we got yet another announcement we would be attending a two-day workshop put on by the 3M Company (always great stuff from them) entitled “Back to the Basics.”  Yeah, how to shake a hand, look someone in the eye, and lie your ass off.  No, just kidding. But really are your shoes shined? Is your car clean? Do you know what you’re doing today? Is your week planned? Or, are you gun slinging it through your work week? Yeah, THOSE basics.  Refreshing it was and we learned quickly that before you can run off an play psychologist in your sales function, you better have a really firm grasp of the basics of selling, or you might as well hand a machine gun to a monkey(VIDEO).

Fast forward to 2011. You’ve built your website. Maybe you have a plan for it. Or, maybe it’s your corporate catalog. Perhaps someone is feverishly trying to get traction with your company Facebook page, Twitter account, Corporate blog, Linkedin Company Page, YouTube Account, eMail Campaigns and all the many wonderful marketing tools available to us, which by the way grow by leaps an bounds on a regular basis.  Now know this. I am a fan of Social Media and I believe it is a great way to COMMUNICATE with your audience.  Not sell to them, but COMMUNICATE. And I won’t hijack my own post by going down the road of Social Media use explanations (there are at least 375,689 guru’s, experts and swami’s that have already done so on the web).

My point is, as we all venture down these new lovely paths and learn to use new marketing and selling tools, are we making sure our business fundamentals with regards to marketing and selling, are sound? Are we regularly working with, providing tools to, and training to our sales force? Is everyone in our company who has interactions with our customers and prospects well trained to do so? Do our processes serve us, or our customers? How easy is it to do business with us? All these simple things that either put you on the map, or took your competition off of it.  Let me ask you this, have you ever called a company and when an actual human with a pleasant demeanor answers the phone, do you ever find yourself having an internal sigh of relief? Yeah, THOSE little things…

Good selling!

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What You Can Do With Those Call Reports!

Call reports, the bane of every salesperson’s existence.  How do I know this? I have been subjected to them!  Now, before you put up your defenses, cross your arms, and become disgusted with me because you require them, ask yourself this: are these call reports producing R.O.I. to pay for the time used to complete them? In my twenty-seven plus years of management, sales, sales management and marketing management, I frankly have NEVER seen an example of where these time suckers have paid for themselves.

I of course submit this caveat: I do know there are exceptions to EVERY rule.  If you are one of those companies that has instituted a rigorous sales call report program, monitors it for results and measure the R.O.I., then my hat is off to you!  However, it generally goes like this: the sales force generally uses productivity time on Monday morning or Friday afternoon to do their best to recall the week’s events, put them on paper, and turn them in to the Sales Manager.  Then, by July, the Sales Manager usually has seven feet of reports stacked on the desk, thus sending a clear message to the sales force that these are a useless waste of their time. I know one former principal of a large dealership, who in his early years, wrote “sleeping with (the bosses name) wife” during the afternoon on one of his reports.  He waited and waited for the Sales Manager to say something to him, like “nice.”  However, he said nothing, and my friend actually approached him to point it out, exploiting the weakness in their system.

If you hire educated, motivated individuals and provide them proper training and ongoing guidance, there is no need for a daily or weekly call report. You won’t need to babysit them to be sure they’re not playing golf or having sex with your spouse in the afternoon.  Their results will paint a portrait of their efforts.  Now, that said, how does  a Sales Manager ensure they are staying focused?  We all know that salespeople (myself included) have a tendency to be perhaps, just a smidge, A.D.D.  So as a business owner, you want to be sure they are calling on the RIGHT prospects, correct?  In steps the “Top Prospect List.”

This list was introduced to me some twenty years ago by probably the best Sales Manager I have ever worked for, and we still are connected today on LinkedIn.  His name is Eric Leaman, and when he introduced this “Top Prospect List” to me, I was actually thrilled to have it.  It worked like this: I knew that every Friday at 2pm, Eric and I would have a phone call (he worked in N.J. and I was in Kentucky).  At that time, I knew he would have my previous week’s “Top Prospect List” out on his desk and I better have mine as well, and it better be updated (Eric didn’t take excuses). We would review my activities with these accounts during the week, including phone calls, personal sales calls, literature, samples, how I felt about the account, and what our next steps with the account would be.  If I felt it was worth keeping them on the list, then we would retain them.  However, if I felt nothing was going to happen in six months or so, we would agree to remove it and replace it with a new target prospect.  This process kept me focused on a narrow target of activities for the week and ensured to Eric that I was indeed working the types of clients that was congruent with the company’s direction.

This process is integrated into many CRM modules these days, and if used wisely, it can make a big difference in the direction of your sales force.Lets face it, that is really what you are interested in any way, right? However, if you are a small dealership that has not or will not be using a CRM platform with sales management modules and functions, then you can download a copy of the same form I used back in 1992, except now, it’s electronic!  No more pencils and erasers!

You can download a free copy of this Top Prospect List HERE from my website.  You can expand it to be Top 50 or contract it to be a Top 5, depending on the size and scope of the products you sell.  But I can attest that through my years of selling and call reporting, this little gem is the ONLY ONE I found truly useful to help me increase the sales in my territory.  And as Eric always closed his communications to me…

Good Selling!

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