Foxtrots And Cha-Chas

When I was a kid in middle school, I had to take ballroom dancing lessons along with many of my friends. Our moms rounded us up off the ball fields, cleaned us up, and deposited us into a room with an instructor and an equal number of members of the opposite sex. Most of what I learned from those lessons has evaporated over the years but one thing stuck: you can’t dance the foxtrot when they’re playing a cha-cha.

Oddly enough, what triggered that memory was a report issued by The New York Times that I think is instructive for any of us in business. In their words:

…to continue succeeding — to continue providing journalism that stands apart and to create an ever-more-appealing destination — we need to change. Indeed, we need to change even more rapidly than we have been changing.

The report goes through a series of potential changes to its reporting structure, staff and production processes with an eye toward increasing their subscriber base. It’s no secret that print revenues are declining and digital ad dollars are increasingly monopolized by Google and Facebook. The report, which you can read here, points toward being more visual and concise (ironically stated in a report that runs almost 9,000 words), using more diverse formats.

The Times published a similar report in 2014. That report laid out a series of goals and a timeframe that led to 2020. This report is a progress report of sorts as well as a refocusing and recommitment. It’s a fascinating bit of introspection and, more importantly, it serves as a great reminder to all of us in business.

We live in a world where the music changes often. If we’re dancing to the old tune, there is a very good chance that we’re out of step and dancing the wrong dance. This is what the Times found as it listened to the new music. They were too stodgy and too wordy. They weren’t integrating the people who produced words and the people who produced videos. They weren’t focused on their subscribers and how those subscribers want to consume content. They found, in brief, that they need to change the dance.

When was the last time you listened to the music to be sure your business is dancing in an appropriate manner? Is your team open to change or have they become oblivious to the music around them? Your customers are your dance partners. Are you in step?

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Dreaming Again

I’ve posted what follows each year for the last few on the days we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. This was written in January of 2009 as we prepared to put President Obama into office. Last year I expressed my disappointment that we hadn’t come further over the last few years, given the election of our first African-American President. Like many, I’m doing my best to remain hopeful for the immediate future, despite some troubling incidents. But we keep dreaming, right?

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week was actually Dr. King‘s birthday but since we’re celebrating it today I thought I’d add my two cents. I’m old enough to remember him and while he didn’t light the fire of the civil rights movement in the US (I’d say Rosa Parks is that hero), he certainly brought the fire to life and tended it well until his assassination (and I remember that as well – how horrible a day it was!).

What inspired me, a young (then) white kid was his notion of bringing a dream to reality. OK, the words and delivery were pretty inspirational too, even when you read them off a page. Yesterday the Inauguration Committee had a concert on the very place where Dr. King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech to celebrate, nearly 46 years later, a big piece of that speech coming to reality. One can’t help but wonder what Dr.King would have felt and said – he certainly should still be alive – he’d just be turning 80.

Robert Kennedy said “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  I think that’s great business advice as well, even if George Bernard Shaw had the notion before Bobby.  Mark Twain wrote that Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

So today, I celebrate Dr. King’s dreaming of a better world and making it happen.  Tomorrow, we can watch it become real.  What are you dreaming of?  Can it be real?  Why not?  Or better – why not!!

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Filed under Growing up, Reality checks

Tastes And Trends

Foodie Friday! This is the time of year when there are all sorts of articles written about the best and worst of the previous year along with some predictions for the upcoming one. Food writers go along with this, of course, and I was reading a piece on some predictions for food trends in 2017. The predictions range from many foods with breakable crusts (think along the lines of creme brulee) to mixed use restaurants (co-working space by day, eatery by night) to more complex vegan food.

I must admit that I’m not really one who pays attention to food trends. For example, a friend taught me a chopped kale salad (finely chopped kale, arugula, toasted pine nuts, some grated parmesan cheese, EVOO and a squeeze of lemon!). It has become a staple on my dinner table. It’s not there because kale was trendy at one point or even because it’s particularly healthy. It’s there because it’s delicious. Which is, of course, the business point.

Do you buy heirloom tomatoes because they’re en vogue? Will you buy bread made from heirloom wheat because you want to impress your friends? The answer to those questions is a firm “no.” You buy those things because they taste better than many alternatives, even if they might cost a little more. No one repeatedly patronizes our businesses because they want to be a style maven per se. Sure, if you’re selling this month’s fashion there is a segment of the population that needs the ego boost of wearing the latest thing. But as with the puffy shirt episode of Seinfeld, style or trends can be fleeting. Customers want reliability and great value as you solve their problems.

As I’m writing this I’m realizing that many of the things I like in this world – foods, musicians, golf courses – tend to be classics that have endured over time. I’m also realizing that many of the businesses I patronize – even if they’re relatively new – have the characteristics that are eternal in business. They put the customer first, they deliver great value, and I can rely on them to always deliver what they promise and more. That’s a trend that’s always in fashion.

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

We The People

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the last few years, you’ve probably seen a petition circulated by someone you know. You might have even clicked on the petition, either out of a shared concern or just to support your friend. But have you ever wondered about the efficacy of doing so? Is there anybody on the other end? And since we’re addressing this here on the screed, what can it tell me about my business?

Many of these petitions are run through an online petitioning system called “We The People.” This was set up in 2011 by The White House. As one article explains it:

The White House promised to use the site to engage with the public and to issue responses to all petitions that reached a given number of signatures within 30 days of creation. The original threshold was set at 5,000 signatures but was increased to 100,000 in later years.

So yes, there is someone on the other end. We know that because a few of the online petitions have actually resulted in legislation that became law. For example, you now can unlock your phone and port it to another carrier. That came about from an online petition. If you saw President Obama on Bill Mahr’s show you were watching the result of an online petition. If you’re a Yogi Berra fan, you can thank an online petition for him being given the Medal Of Freedom. There are several other cases, but the important thing is that yes, someone is listening and, more importantly, someone is following through.

That’s what you can take away for your business. First, there needs to be an easy pathway for consumers (and we’re all consumers of government!) to reach out and express something. Second, someone needs to pay attention to what it is they’re saying. Don’t dismiss ideas out of hand when thousands of consumers voice support for something that’s not on your radar, much less your agenda. Third, act. Even if you’re unable to to do what the petition (or whatever form you choose) is asking, let the people know that their voices have been heard and the reason for your course of action.

“We The People” is the basis of our system of government. It’s not a bad basis for guiding your business either, is it?

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A Law Against Being Dumb

We all hate it when people say negative things about us. Obviously, if you’re a business and this happens, the odds are that the mean things are posted in some very public places, which can be damaging to your business. I’ve written a few times about various tactics a business can use to respond to negative reviews or comments: ignoring them, denying them, addressing them in a positive manner, or suing the person who posted them. This last tactic, which is, in my mind, the least effective and most dangerous, is no longer an option.
One of the last things the outgoing Congress did was to pass H.R. 5111 – The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016. This law, in its own words:

makes a provision of a form contract void from the inception if it: (1) prohibits or restricts an individual who is a party to such a contract from engaging in written, oral, or pictorial reviews, or other similar performance assessments or analyses of, including by electronic means, the goods, services, or conduct of a person that is also a party to the contract; (2) imposes penalties or fees against individuals who engage in such communications; or (3) transfers or requires the individual to transfer intellectual property rights in review or feedback content (with the exception of a nonexclusive license to use the content) in any otherwise lawful communications about such person or the goods or services provided by such person.

In other words, businesses can’t sue someone because they impose a form contract that prohibits the customer from making negative comments and it forbids businesses from slapping fees on customers who do so. We’ve seen this done by several businesses over negative Yelp reviews. Then there is the case of the company that bricked a users software after he posted a negative review (and I’m unclear if the Act actually prohibits this!). As you’re reading this, I’m hoping your response is “why do we need a law to stop businesses from being stupid?”

Good point. That said, some consumers have spent many hours and thousands of dollars defending themselves against voicing their honest opinions which are based in fact (the law doesn’t by the way, negate existing libel or slander laws). But let’s not stray from the important point: how to handle negative reviews.

  1. Apologize. Do so loudly and in the same forum where the consumer voiced their opinion. It doesn’t matter if they’re dead wrong.
  2. Take a deep breath and ask yourself if there are grounds for the complaint. Be honest. Is this a one-off or have others complained about similar issues?
  3. Ask to take the discussion offline into a private forum – email, phone, direct messages, etc.
  4. Make it right – no “buts” and don’t “try.” That doesn’t mean you should accept a ridiculous offer from them (lifetime free meals because they found a hair in their salad) but you should compromise on something that is reasonable and lets the customer know they’ve been taken seriously and not ignored.

We shouldn’t need a law to help businesses from being dumb but until many of us wise up and quit suing our customers for voicing their opinions, this one is on the books. Thoughts?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Huh?

The Missing Ingredient

First Foodie Friday of the year! If you read yesterday’s post you know that I’m on the road in Florida wth my folks, moving them into an independent living community. Part of the appeal of where they’ll be living is that their meals are all served in a lovely central dining room. I’ve now eaten there a few times and while the food was nicely cooked, I felt that it was on the bland side. Something is definitely missing. I thought it might be seasoning but I did have a blackened salmon one night which certainly had spice. It took until last evening to put my finger on it.

Their new home is a community where many of the residents suffer from hypertension. As a result, the chef doesn’t use much salt in his cooking. While there is salt (and pepper) available on the table, I guess I’ve become used to most dishes I’m served (and those I cook myself) having an appropriate, although not excessive, amount of salt to enhance the other flavors that are going on in the dish. That’s what was lacking here, and it’s a good reminder about business as well.

No one orders most dishes with salt in mind (ok, salt crusted fish and a few other things are the exceptions) but they will certainly notice if the salt is absent. There are certain things customers expect from a business which are certainly not their primary reason for patronizing a business but which will dimish the experience if they’re not present. Sometimes we forget the most basic, simple ingredients in our businesses or we dimish their importance. That’s a big mistake. Even if other elements are perfect, the lack of a key, basic ingredient can wipe out all of our good work. We need to pay as much attention to the basics as we do to the spectacular stuff that makes us shine.

I don’t fault the chef here. He is serving a community with some specific medical issues that require an adjustment in basic cooking best practices. You probably aren’t in the same situation. Your community expects you to include the key ingredients. Are you doing so?

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My Parents Are Brave

I’m in Florida this week helping my folks move. They’re moving into an independent living place where they have neither to cook nor clean. There is transportation to shopping and banks for them and activities available hourly. Not bad, right? Right, except I consider them to be very brave for having made the move. Let me explain, and let me also add how I think this can apply to your business.

A moving truck operated by Piedmont Moving Sys...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While my parents are both in decent health, there is no question that they are slowing down and less able to do things as easily as they once did. They recognized it but they were fearful of packing up two homes (one up north, one here) and moving into what my dad calls an old folks home. As a child, he was reared in an orphanage, so moving into an institutional setting stirs up stuff for him. My mom moved her mother into a place like this one and I’m sure that moving in herself stirs up a lot of memories. Nevertheless, they are making the move. I think they’re quite brave.

What does this have to do with your business? We often recognize that circumstances are changing and that the business is unable to perform as it once did. The easy thing is to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. The brave thing is to figure out what the right thing is – what the needed changes are – and to change our circumstances to make a better future. We can’t let our fears or our level of comfort keep us from putting ourselves and our businesses in the best possible circumstances to assure success.

Even though they were scared, they moved. Change is rarely easy but often necessary, in business and in life. What changes are needed in your world?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On