Ignore the Static

I saw Lone Survivor this weekend.  I’m a sucker for true hero stories and this one didn’t disappoint…in fact I just bought the book because I know it will be much better than the movie.

I wanted to know more about Marcus Lattrell and didn’t have time to read the book this weekend so I looked up YouTube interviews featuring Marcus Luttrell, the author and lone survivor.   While his training and his courage are inspirational, one thing he said has resonated with me.

Whether it’s a SEAL mission, work project, a race, career, job, or commitment, we must remember that commitment requires the willingness to sacrifice and to stay true to the goal.

When we commit we know where we start and what the goal looks like.  Everything in between is simply static.  Static can involve unexpected, terribly difficult twists and turns.  Remain continually focused on achieving the goal and ignore the static.

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Idea for Leveraging Social Media

ray's social media punchMany businesses struggle with ways to effectively harness the significant power of social media.  Active company Facebook and Twitter accounts are essential but we’re finding that the most effective way to increase company exposure (get new customers) is to make it easy for existing customers to inject our offers and promotions into their social media dialogues…and to talk about us!  When they do their friends and followers see the incentives/promotions/discussions and don’t want to miss out.

Until we make it easy for customers to inject us into social media conversations we’re somewhat social media invisible — not a good thing!

Our programs include incentives for customers to become actively involved in promoting company offers.  

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Four Consistent Opportunities: Reflections of My Journey to Buy a Company

I made the decision some time ago to focus my career efforts on buying a company.  I want an equity stake in the company’s success, to set the tone for the culture, and to have a positive impact on team members, customers and the community. 

I have considered over 30 different companies over the past 18 months.   I’ve reviewed most of them from a high level and some to a much greater extent.  I’ve found many business challenges among the companies but four are consistent.  I should say…I consider them challenges because I have a clear focus.  I will build a great culture and the company I buy will grow substantially.  The challenges I see are impediments to substantial growth.  While companies can exist without properly addressing these impediments, they will not grow to be great companies.  Morale, profits and the ability to give back are all at stake.

Top Four Challenges/Opportunities:

1)     Know Your Competitive Advantages or Develop some Quickly

Growth companies position their products and services in ways that clearly demonstrate added value well above that of their competition.  When I ask “What are your competitive advantages when compared to your competition?” I typically hear answers like “our service level”, “our experience” or “our people”.

I’ve found that most owners’ perceived competitive advantages are advantages only in the mind of owners’ and not in the mind of their customers.  Understanding the value of true competitive advantage, finding true competitive advantage is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for exponential growth.  While these advantages must be effectively sold and marketed, without the advantages we find companies that simply roll with the tide.  When market conditions are good they may grow with the market.  These companies are very susceptible to market downturns, however.  I’ve had the opportunity to see the differences in the results and they are stark.

Frog Street Press is a company with true competitive advantage.  They market a suite of curriculum products in the pre kindergarten space.  Seven years ago they were a very small company with a cult following.  Leadership understood why there was such loyalty to the company and has effectively sold their competitive advantages in a very crowded market dominated by very well capitalized, established competitors.  Frog Street now dominates the Texas market and is the way to doing so across the nation because they have true competitive advantage and effectively sell and market it. 

Let’s contrast Frog Street with a specialty outsourced sales organization that made very good margins but that hadn’t reinvented themselves in over thirty years.  Their clients were consistently picked off by competition that understood the value of developing and marketing their competitive advantage.  Not only was the company not growing but revenues were shrinking.  Even worse, nothing was being done to stop the bleeding and to set the company on a course to grow again.  While the owners were ready to retire and to enjoy the good life the believed they had earned, their company was worth far less than they had anticipated and they couldn’t afford to sell it.  Reinventing yourself when you’re ready to retire is very challenging.  I wish the company the very best in their effort to do so.

Never allow your products/services to be considered commodities.  I’ve declined to consider a number of companies because not only did they not have a competitive advantage but also I could not see a path to creating one.  Selling based on “relationships, service and price” simply doesn’t cut it for companies that want to grow substantially.  Find ways to sell value well over and above what the market perceives competitors offer.  

Proudly reinforce true competitive advantages throughout the organization so that team members at every level can recite and live up to them. 

2) Implement and Execute a Strategic Sales Plan

Many companies lack a sound sales strategy and even more fail to execute the strategy.  Hiring, properly training, and holding salespeople accountable is a full-time job.  If any one of these is managed poorly the costs and consequences to the company are tremendous.  Why are sales a consistent challenge?  Most companies know how to do what they do well but have no idea how to successfully and consistently sell what they do.  As a result often a handful of clients make up too high a concentration of business, giving those clients too much leverage and positioning the company for disaster when significant clients leave.  This also scares potential buyers and can substantially lower the company’s value. 

A door manufacturer laments that his salaried sales staff makes no outgoing calls, but waits for the phone to ring.  A professional services firm tried hiring salespeople but the salespeople never did what they said they would do.  A medical brace manufacturer’s “sales manager” did not do either.  A residential HVAC company’s president would much rather be working in a hot attic than growing the business. 

Good companies that want to be great must morph into sales organizations that sell at every level.  Compensation plans must encourage and reward the right activity.  The right leader will implement effective hiring, training and accountability measures and will be held accountable himself/herself for results.  There are coaches that can help to set the organization on the path to consistent sales success but there must be a willingness on the part of leadership to doing so.  It’s a long-term commitment.

3) Implement and Execute a Marketing Plan

Marketing is a science.  Knowing how to realize the best return for social media, internet, email, direct marketing and public relations can add tremendously to the success of any company.  While it is challenging to maneuver through the voluminous list of outsourced providers, finding the right marketing partner is essential.  Executing the agreed upon plan and following the plan is an on-going process that continually evolves.   

I’ve been surprised to see the number of companies that tell me how much demand there is for their products/services but that are not effectively communicating their message to the market.  Even worse, many are not attempting to effectively communicate the message.  Until six years ago Frog Street Press wasn’t doing so.  Many owners focus on the marketing costs and, because they haven’t experienced the satisfaction of seeing such an investment pay off, marketing is seen only as risk.

4) Hold Team Members Throughout the Organization Accountable Starting With You

I’m a big believer in hiring the right people and putting the right people in the right positions so that both they and the company are successful.  A wise man once said to trust but verify.  I’ve recognized a consistent lack of verification that team member roles are being performed with excellence.  Accountability is an environment as opposed to an event and should permeate the organization. Leadership must set the pace and demonstrate that everyone at every level is held accountable beginning with ownership. 

One company’s CFO embezzled over $2M because in part because he was not held accountable to produce monthly financial statements.  Another company knew they needed to improve upon their website and marketing their business and a number of people that had been hired had said they had capabilities to help in this area.  Nothing got implemented because those employees were not held accountable to make the appropriate changes.

As leaders we must clearly communicate our expectations, those expectations must be reasonable and we should gain buy in from team members to the extent possible.   In order to execute we must set the example for the culture of accountability.  Excellent companies develop cultures of accountability. 

 

Do the right thing.  Make a difference.

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Business Cards Should Make the Right Statement

We’re consistently looking for ways to demonstrate what makes us different (and better than our competition) in our business lives.  Although we’ve experienced previously unimaginable advances in technology, the business card is still an important part of our lives.  

Our business cards are among the first impressions we made to prospective clients and, through our card design and messaging we make a statement about our company and about us as individuals.  Too many of us present ourselves the way we did decades ago.  Boring, and exactly the wrong initial impression.

Moo.com has changed my perspective on business cards.  Their home page suggests that “Business cards should be a conversation starter – something to be kept and acted on. Don’t let your cards let you down when it’s so easy to make something great!”

Thanks to Pam Stoker for telling me about Moo.com.  It’s a great resource to incorporate existing branding or to use hundreds of ready made designs to get the conversation started.  I’ll never look at business cards the same way.  

 

Do the right thing.  Make a difference.

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Discover Your “Why”

Why does your business exist?

If your answer is “To make money”, there is an opportunity to better define your “Why”.

Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why:  How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action” suggests that companies that stand for something special (a calling higher than profitability alone) create a culture that yields intense loyalty from customers and staff staff and enhances the recruiting process.

We understood our “Why” at SourceCorp Professional Services.  Our “What” was providing the best Federal tax saving ideas to companies with revenues up to $100M.  We marketed through the CPA channel because CPAs are the trusted advisor for that target market.  It was very important to do what we did well and we consistently improved upon our service to clients.  Growing profits is a necessity and was a by-product of doing what we did well.

What we did, however was very different from Why we did it.  We existed to “Do the right thing, no matter what.  We existed to make a difference in the lives of our team members, our customers, and in the communities we served.

We all have life challenges and contrary to what we’ve been told, those challenges are impossible to leave at home.  At times we all carry our life challenges with us to work.   We were careful to add the right people to our team.  We then committed to work with team members when life threw curve balls.

This meant visiting our staff and their families in the hospital, accommodating teammates when faced with a prolonged family member’s illness, reading employee of the month nominations at our monthly company lunch, and so much more.  It meant immediately doing the right thing for our clients in the unusual event we made a mistake.  We made it right, every time.  Finally it meant giving back to the communities we served with our time and with our money.

Our “Why” instilled an intense loyalty that continues to this day.  During my time away from SourceCorp I’ve come to know a number of businesses that focus only on what they do and have not defined why they do it.  I’ve not found a fun, vibrant culture where the a meaningful “Why” isn’t understood throughout the organization.

Don’t confuse what you do with why you do it.  If you’ve never considered your “Why”, I highly recommend Sinek’s book.

 

Do the right thing.  Make a difference.

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What Are Your Competitive Advantages?

I highly recommend the book “Creating Competitive Advantage” by Jaynie L. Smith.  We must communicate reasons for our customers to choose us over our competitors.  To be effective, those reasons must be based on the needs and the desires of the market and we must consistently deliver on our commitments.

I’m fascinated with this topic because precious few business leaders can provide a clear answer to their competitive advantages.  Most default to vague, imprecise generalities such as “our level of service” or “good quality”.  My exposure to this book five years ago made a big impact on our company.

Possible areas to consider, per Smith, include:

1)  Carve out a new paradigm for your industry (listen to the market and find unique ways to meet their needs)

2)  Tout your celebrity status (if you have a list of impressive clients that will truly impress the market)

3)  Brag about your employees’ training and experience.  Even if the competition does the same thing, claim it before they do.

4)  Develop proprietary software to enable you to do what you do far more effectively.

5)  Turn disadvantages into competitive advantages.  Ask your employees to name your top competitive disadvantages and appoint teams to solve the problems.

6)  What does your competition do better than you?  If it is really important to the customer, what investment will you have to make to do it better than they can?

7)  Communicate, communicate, communicate your competitive advantages internally and externally continually.

You’ll be one of 500 companies that do so and you’ll grow as a result.

Do the right thing.  Make a difference.

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Build a True Team

Create a culture of trust and openness within the organization by communicating regularly with your team.  Discuss company goals, including financial, departmental, strategic and tactical goals.  The leaders’ willingness to share the good and the not as good will contribute to a culture of trust, of teamwork, and of accountability.   

Celebrate successes together and work together through the more difficult times and challenges.  When the organization fully appreciates that everyone contributes to the company’s success, and that those contributions are genuinely noticed and appreciated, the organization begins to protect itself and begins developing into

 Build the kind of team that genuinely enjoys each other’s company and enjoys working together.   The holiday party should be a culmination of small celebrations throughout the year.   

 My favorite…set a financial goal that is a stretch goal, but that is attainable.  Accrue enough money during the year to take everyone and significant others on a trip to Mexico.  The return on investment is immeasurable. 

Do the right thing.  Make a difference. 

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