Monthly Archives: December 2014

Top Posts Of The Year 2014 – #1!

This was the most-read post I wrote in 2014.  It is about one of the favorite topics here on the screed: customer service.  This one was a pleasure to write as was the experience upon which it was based.  It was originally called “Service Done Right,” and that’s something I hope the screed continues to provide for you.  Happy New Year!

I go on an annual golf trip – no shock given that golf is a frequent topic here on the screed. This year’s takes place in a few weeks and part of our group’s tradition (it’s our twentieth trip!) is that each guy brings “free stuff” for every other guy. Of course, it’s never free to the giver, but that’s part of the charm, I guess.

Over the years I’ve made a variety of commemorative T-shirts for the group as my gift and I’ll be doing that again this year (sorry if I ruined the surprise for any of my group that visits here). I designed them and sent the file off with my order to Design-A-Shirt, the company I’ve used several times before. What happened next is customer service at its finest.

First, when they began working on the order, they sent out proof sheets to show me how they had cleaned up what I sent them and to get an approval to proceed.  This is the first step in very smart customer service.  After all, why take the chance on an unhappy customer (bad) or on having to redo an order (worse, and a killer of margins)?  This was NOT a form email.  It came from a person and I responded to a personal mailbox as I approved what they were doing.

To this point, I’d call this above average, smart customer communication.  Here is where it gets extraordinary.  I got this note yesterday:

Hello Keith,

I wanted to follow up on the order you placed with us to provide you with a production photo of your design printed on fabric. Please see the attached photo for reference. We are concerned about the text… as it’s a bit hard to read. To fix that we would either have to move the “ball” up to make the font larger, or use a different, thinner font that would be more legible. Please advise!

Wow.  They printed the approved design on T-shirt fabric and had a human give it the once over.  That same human took the time to write me a personal note and to ask for guidance.  I should remind you that this is for 13 shirts and the total cost was around $150, far from a big order.  Even so, they made me feel as if I was ordering 13 dozen.  Giving equal attention to every customer is part of doing it right.  Not surprisingly, late last night I got an email that the order had shipped and will be here at the end of the week – several days ahead of when it was promised.

Think I’ll be back?  You bet.  More importantly, by using them as an example of perfect customer communication and service – that which goes above and beyond the customer’s expectations – I’m hoping you’ll both learn from them and given them consideration if you need to make a shirt or two.  I know I talk often in this space about how excellent customer service costs less than you think and retaining a customer is always easier than finding a new one.  Hopefully this real word example resonates.  Does it?

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Top Posts Of 2014 – #2

Continuing a review of the most-read posts written this past year, today we have one from way back in January.  This was one of our TunesDay Tuesday posts (should I bring those back?) and deals with the same business idea as yesterday’s post.   Do I detect a pattern in your curiosity?

Tomorrow we’ll have the most-read post of the year and Friday we’ll have your favorite Foodie Friday post of 2014.  This one  was originally called “Long Black Road.” Enjoy!

This TunesDay we’re going to look at an old song that’s actually new.  Recorded back in 2001 it wasn’t in wide release until recently when it was featured in the soundtrack to American Hustle.  The movie is very good; the soundtrack is excellent.  The song is Long Black Road which was recorded on ELO‘s last album (Zoom) and only issued in the Japanese version of the record as a bonus track.  Pretty obscure, but to those of us who’ve long  admired Jeff Lynne it was sort of familiar.  Here it is for your listening pleasure:

What makes this song of interest to us today is the message contained in the lyrics.  What I like about this song is it makes the same point in three different ways.  A directionless musician pursues his dreams in the first verse despite being told to get, in essence, a real job.  “Face reality” as the song puts it.  I’m sure every entrepreneur and every start-up has heard that at some point.

The second verse is the core message for anyone in business:

So I drifted for a while down the road to ruin
I couldn’t find my way, I didn’t know what I was doin’
I saw a lot of people coming back the other way
So I kept on goin’ when I heard them say,

“You gotta get up in the morning, take your heavy load
And you gotta keep goin’ down the long black road.”

How many businesses are caught up doing the same kind of drifting?  How often do we wonder if we’re lost?  In this case, despite the number of people coming back, the singer keeps going, having heard the message to persist.  Quitting is easy – taking the load down the long black road isn’t.   By the third verse, the singer is a success, but gets reminded that money won’t bring happiness.  The journey – overcoming the obstacles, facing “trouble and strife” are every bit as important as the end goal.  Three great business points.

Funny how much one can learn in three verses over three minutes if we’ll just listen…

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Top Posts Of 2014 – #3

As has become my tradition, I review and republish the posts I wrote and you all read the most during the previous year.  The post below touches on a theme we visit fairly often here on the screed – staying focused on the things that will move our businesses forward.  It was the third most read post this past year.   Enjoy!

In the movie “Up”, every so often the dogs interrupt themselves mid-sentence because a squirrel – or even the thought of a squirrel – appears. They stop the conversation or whatever else it is they’re doing to chase that distraction.


(Photo credit: likeaduck)

We don’t call them squirrels in business. They’re more like bright shiny objects or the next new thing. Sure, we call them something else altogether – market opportunities for one. In some cases, they really are. Most of the time, however, they’re just a squirrel that’s dashed across the business plan and provided a major distraction.

Consumers can be fickle.  For example, the typical mobile app is used fewer than 10 times before deletion and over a quarter of people use an app once after downloading.  If you’re working to monetize one of those apps, you have a very limited window in general.  Most businesses aren’t living in that fickle a world unless they choose to be there.  They do that by chasing squirrels.

So how does one distinguish between a legitimate opportunity and a shiny object/squirrel?  As always, it’s a combination of things; some consumer-focused, some business-focused.  With respect to the latter, any new business extension will require resources of some sort, even if it’s the shifting of existing support to the new thing.  Resources are finite in most businesses.  Do you have them?

Ask yourself if customers care.  We can point to any number of examples of being too early for the market.  GO had a mobile operating system and mobile, pen-based computers long before the iPad or iPhone.  NextNewNetworks was doing video long before there was broadband to support streaming.  WebTV was another.  In those and other cases consumers couldn’t understand what was in it for them.  After all, selling is about providing value.  How does the squirrel you’re considering do that?  Does it really provide sustainable growth or just a brief pop in revenues (and maybe not in profits)?

Looking over the horizon is the hardest part of any good business person’s job.  The great ones learn to stay focused on what’s in front of them while taking that peek while ignoring the squirrels.  Can you do that?

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Sous Vide

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It’s a special Foodie Friday for me. I received a holiday gift of an immersion circulator yesterday. It just might be a catalyst of large changes in how I cook. It also got me thinking about the business point which is our focus today.
What one does with an immersion circulator is to cook using the “sous vide” method. You French scholars out there will recognize that the term means “under vacuum.”  You place whatever you’re cooking into a plastic bag, extract the air, and seal it. That can be as fancy as one of those Foodsaver devices or as simple as a zip lock bag.  Either way, what happens next is the magic and where my gift comes in.

The bag (or bags) is placed in a water bath.  The immersion circulator holds the water at a steady temperature which is the desired end temperature of the food.  So, for example, you might want a steak cooked to 140 degrees.  That’s how you set the circulator.  The food never gets warmer than the water it’s in, so the method is pretty foolproof.  It cooks to an even temperature all the way through – no overcooked parts, no raw parts.  Because it’s in a sealed environment no moisture is lost either. When you’re ready to eat, most cooks will take the product out of the bag and, in the case of most proteins, put them briefly in a very hot pan to sear them.  Other than that it’s really “set it and forget it”.  Which is the business point.

Sous vide cooking doesn’t require much attention.  That is dangerous.  Chef Thomas Keller wrote “Eliminate the need to pay attention and you eliminate the craft” in his book on Sous Vide.  I agree, and we need to be mindful of the same thing in business.  Part of what we do is to set up processes that work extremely efficiently without a lot of hands-on from managers.  That’s dangerous.  First, no process is foolproof (in sous vide a bag could rip or, if cooked way too long, the food can become mushy).  Second, as Keller says, the hands-on part is the craft of business.  While data extraction, as an example, might be automated and hands-off, what we do with it is very much the craft.

I’m excited about trying my new toy this weekend.  As in business, I’ll do so mindful that while the process may be “foolproof” the designers might never have met a fool such as me and pay a lot of attention.  Make sense?

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Why Me?

As we’re getting to the end of the year the pace slows down a bit and we get a chance to think a little. Oh sure – I know we all apply as much mental effort as we can to our daily tasks but the pace often dictates that we move quickly and there isn’t a great deal of time available for reflection. There is today so I’m doing so.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the value of delegation. I found out many years ago that as the task list grew so too did the need to involve others in completing it. That required delegation. It’s a lesson that has served me well in my life as a consultant since often my role isn’t to do but to strategize and to recommend courses of action. I delegate (ok, more like beg) the client’s team to do the work much of the time.

Many managers delegate with a statement of what’s required and dismiss the staff member with the task and a deadline. They forget to answer a couple of questions. The first is “why me?”. It’s important for the person to whom you’re assigning the task to know that they weren’t some random choice to complete it. Hopefully you chose them due to specific knowledge they possess or a skill set that makes them the best person for the job. They should know that. It gives them an underpinning of confidence as well as a clue as to how the task is to be done.  You wouldn’t ask the accountant to write a marketing plan nor would you ask the marketing person to do a financial statement.  It’s not just their areas of responsibility that are different.  It’s their mindsets and their skill sets.  Let them know.

The second question you need to answer is about context.  How does what you’re asking fit into the broader business?  What does the desired outcome of the task have to do with what other people are doing and how does it move the business forward?  This helps the person understand that what you’re asking isn’t “busy work” nor is it random.  If you can’t answer those questions, by the way, you might need to rethink either the task or the person to whom you’re assigning it.

It’s easy to get subordinates to do things when you’re the boss.  It’s less easy to get them to do them in a way that helps them grow.  It’s even harder to have them develop themselves and the overall business.  Answering “why me” is a good start.  Make sense?

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The Crack In The Wall

How good is your memory?  Remember way back in 2008 when the biggest social network site was seeing 75.9 million monthly unique visitors in the U.S.?  It was taking in a lot of money too – upwards of $470 million back in the days when digital advertising was still relatively new.  Big user base, solid revenue performance – what could possibly go wrong?

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that things did.  By 2011 MySpace‘s revenues dropped close to $184 million and their user base was down to 34.8 million.  What happened?  At the time, this was Business Week’s take:

It turns out that fast-moving technology, fickle user behavior, and swirling public perception are an extremely volatile mix. Add in the sense of arrogance that comes when hundreds of millions of people around the world are living on your platform, and social networks appear to be a very peculiar business—one in which companies might serially rise, fall, and disappear.

Why do I bring this up?  A report came out the other day from the Magid folks.  It found that the portion of 13- to 17-year-old social-media users in the U.S. on Facebook slipped to 88 percent this year from 94 percent in 2013 and 95 percent in 2012.  This comes on the heels of

New research conducted by the GlobalWebIndex (GWI) shows that while Facebook remains the most popular social network, it now has to face the challenge of keeping users interested. Among its teenage netizens, 54 percent cited that their “log in” habits have dropped due to a lack of interest. Of users who belong to the age range of 16 to 19, 64 percent now use the site less.

Now if you own a house, you’ve probably had the experience of noticing a crack in a wall that might not have been there the day before.  Most of the time it’s just the house doing a little settling.  Sometimes, however, it portends a serious problem.  I’m not sure which this is in Facebook’s case.  I suspect it’s more serious than one might think.  Why?

Another little factoid that came out of the data.  Teens don’t see Facebook as safe.  They have concerns that the service may not be trustworthy. When just 9 percent of those surveyed described the website as “safe” or “trustworthy, they have a problem, one they’re doing almost nothing to address.

I’m sure back in 2009 the MySpace folks didn’t lose much sleep worrying about small usage declines.  I don’t expect the Facebook folks are now even as they’ve stopped talking about teen usage on analyst calls.   A little settling or a massive structural problem?  What do you think?

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Learning From Portmanteaus

Foodie Friday, and today we’ll start with a word that may be new to some of you: portmanteau. A portmanteau is a combination of the most recognizable parts of two words. We have many of them in the food world and use them to label a host of new things – utensils, dishes, even fruits. You probably use them all the time without knowing what they’re called.

Ever ordered a cheeseburger? Portmanteau – cheese and hamburger. Ever used a spork? A spoon and a fork. Cronuts, frappuccinos, Clamato, even Tex-Mex all qualify, as do pluots, tangelos, and turduckens. So stop petting your labradoodle (see what I did there?) and think about what those food creations can show us in the broader business sense.

Many of these things were evolutionary.  Adding cheese to a hamburger or putting some tines on a spoon (or was it enlarging and rounding the center of a fork?) was something I’d call part of a gradual change and more of an adaptation than an invention.  We do that a lot in business and it’s a smart way to address the ongoing needs of your current customer base.  The flip side of that is revolutionary change, something that’s entirely new and probably unexpected – the cronut falls into that category.  When we create revolutionary change we run the risk of alienating all of those who love what we’re doing but it’s probably the best way to attract a customer base that has ignored us thus far.  In my mind, great businesses do both types of change – evolutionary and revolutionary – because stasis isn’t an option and consumers are always looking for new and better.

Some food portmanteaus are just bad marketing.  The P’zone – a pizza calzone – is a freaking calzone and neither revolutionary nor evolutionary.  Tofurky (tofu and turkey)?  Really?  If you’re foregoing meat, why label a product as if it is the very thing the customer is avoiding?  That said, those things represent the notion that we constantly need to innovate.  The most successful companies often do nothing more than execute a new twist on an existing product or service better than their competitors.  It might be revolutionary, it might be evolutionary and it might be called a portmanteau.  I call it good business.  You?

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