Tag Archives: Consulting

How Do You Know?

There is an old joke about the greatest inventions of all time. The last one mentioned is the thermos, which can keep soup hot on a cold day and water cold on a hot day. When asked why that makes it the greatest invention of all time, the respondent asks “how does it know?”

You probably face that question all the time in your business. How do you know? More specifically, how can you be sure that you’re in touch with what your customers really want? Maybe you think as Steve Jobs did: customers don’t know what they want until you show them. Here’s the unfortunate truth: you’re not Steve. He may have had a wonderfully intuitive gift for understanding what it was that customers wanted (although there are several examples of him being wrong several times along the way) but you probably don’t.

We can’t spend our time in business finding solutions for problems that don’t exist nor can we build products for which there is no demand. You might not have heard of any companies that do that. The reason is that they’re out of business.

We need to listen to our customers and to the market. We don’t need to spend a lot of money to do so. Analytics are a form of listening and the data doesn’t lie. There are numerous free survey tools available. If you have social media presences (and what business doesn’t?), you are getting feedback on a regular basis, as you are if you have commenting turned on for your blog posts. Maybe you have listings on any number of review sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor. Do you review those for insights into what it is your customers are thinking?

Make stuff people want. Fall in love with your customers and their needs and not with today’s version of what it is you’re offering. Move quickly to get closer to your customers’ ideal product. Ask them about things and listen to the answers. That’s how you know. OK?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

It’s In Your Head

I want to spend a minute on the most basic food thing this Foodie Friday: taste. After all, no matter how well a dish looks or smells, ultimately it’s how it tastes that matters.

You probably know that we perceive 5 basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, savory, and sour. There are receptors on our tongues for each of those flavors and how those flavors interact along with things such as “mouth-feel” and smell create our overall impression of the dish. To a certain extent, the ability to accurately detect these flavors helps us survive. After all, most things that taste bitter aren’t great for you while most things that taste sweet won’t kill you (ok, too much sugar will, but sweet things generally contain energy and that helps us survive).

What you might not realize is that those sensors aren’t really how we taste. It isn’t until the brain gives meaning to what the sensors are perceiving that we taste. As you can see in the video below, it’s possible to rewire the brain so that bitter foods taste sweet or vice versa. Give it a watch – it’s under a minute:

What does this have to do with your business? We forget sometimes that it’s not until customers assign meaning to what we put out there that messages are delivered. People hear things differently from how we intend. For example, Snapchat put out filters that offended certain ethnicities. That certainly wasn’t their intention but their failure to get out of their own heads and into those of others caused a problem and a very public humiliation. We have to be open to looking at everything we put out there through the eyes of others and be willing to rewire the message just as the scientists rewired the brains in the videos.

A small personal experience with which to close. I went to a local moonshine distillery and sampled some of their product. It was a clear liquid and I thought it would taste like other clear spirits. Instead, it tasted much like Scotch, which makes sense since it was distilled from the same grains, despite the color. People routinely think highly of cheap wines placed in bottles from more expensive wines. We need to make sure that the sensors we stimulate with our messages convey the meanings we intend. Perception is reality and our intention needs to be aligned with our customers’ perception.

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Filed under food, Consulting

The Stain On Your Back

I’m going to be a little self-serving today, but it’s based on a comment someone made to me the other day. You’ll probably be able to figure out what the comment was as you read on.

Imagine that on your way to an appointment a drop of something – coffee from someone’s cup, condensation from an air conditioner – spills onto your shirt. You’d see it and deal with it immediately if it was on the front of your shirt. If it spills onto the back, you’d probably not even notice it until some kind-hearted soul mentions it. That, dear readers, is why you need people like me.

When I grew up in the business world, I had a lot of people coaching me. My immediate boss and his boss were always ready to encourage me (and not always in the nicest of tones) and help me to grow. They let me know where the less-visible (to me) stains were. That situation is less common today in a world where there are a million corporations of one as opposed to a large company. Today’s smaller companies have much less institutional memory from which they can draw as well as less personal experience on the part of the founders and employees.

Part of what I do is to coach. I’ve run into some potential clients who tell me that they don’t need coaching, just more hands to do the work. While the latter half of that statement is assuredly true, they also need someone to point out the stains on their backs. Most consultants I know don’t have a political agenda. We’re not after your job nor are we burdened with your past or present. We are charged with helping you and your business to grow. No, you can’t do the latter without doing the former. A business is only as good as the people managing it. My peers and I are there to look at your situation and to help you reach your goals.

I’ve been doing “business” for almost 40 years (yikes!). In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve seen a lot of others do the same. I’ve seen great managers and horrible managers. Part of what clients pay me for is an insurance policy of sorts. My experience ensures them that they won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. They get the benefit of the learning without the pain of the experience. What I and my peers bring is why football teams have coaches up high in the stadium – to get a broader perspective.

Most professional golfers have swing coaches. All sports teams do too. The coaches aren’t caught up in the second to second physical involvement that sport requires. They can see and protect your back. I can do that too, by seeing the parts of you and your business that you can’t or won’t see and by letting you know what’s going on in those blind spots. Call me?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks

Asked And Answered

I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.

Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.

We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.

Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).

As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Consulting

Pushing And Pulling

It’s another Foodie Friday and this week I’ve been thinking about teamwork. If you’ve dined out at any point, and who hasn’t, you’ve been the beneficiary of what should be excellent teamwork. After all, unless you’re dining in a tiny place, the person who takes your order isn’t the one who cooks your food. It’s likely that the person who cooks your food isn’t the one who developed the recipe, and it’s just as likely that there are multiple items on the plate that they were prepared by more than one person. For the end product to be great, every one of those people needs to be operating in sync and on the same page.

The one thing all great restaurants are is consistent. Every plate of the same dish should taste the same, and every time you return, the experience should be exactly the same. That doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because the chef leads the team and gives them the tools they need to perform. The recipes are written down and followed. That includes the recipe for more than the food. It’s how food is plated. It’s the vision of what the business is and how it will operate. It’s a shared sense of mission. It’s not kicking people in the butt and making them do a particular task.

There are very few work environments that are hotter or more stressed than a restaurant kitchen during peak service hours yet the best crews seem to ignore the environment and focus on the mission. Each member of the team understands their role and how it fits into the bigger whole and is committed to performing that role at a high standard.

Everything I’ve written above applies to your business too. OK, maybe not the uncomfortable, hot working conditions, but certainly the need to stop pushing people and to start leading them. If you ask multiple staff members to explain the main goals of your business and get very different answers, you have a problem. If each person can’t explain how their role fits into achieving that mission, you’re on the road to disgruntled employees and to failure. If the standards and recipes – how your business operates and how success and failure are measured – aren’t written down and clear to all, you might as well shut the doors now.

If things go badly, maybe it’s not the fault of the person who screwed up. Maybe they were told to salt the food without any amount stated. Since each palate is different, it’s unlikely two people will salt the dish the same. Maybe you asked for an analysis of some data without explaining what questions you’re trying to answer and how that question ties into the broader goals. Two analysts might answer very different questions, making the analysis terrific or useless. Communication and teamwork; pulling, not pushing. That’s how great kitchens operate. Shouldn’t your business operate that way too?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

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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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Top Posts Of The Year – Foodie Friday Edition

If you read this screed with any regularity, you know that Friday’s topic is always food-related. The post below is the most-read foodie post of 2016. It was published last January and was originally called “Ripe.” It was a rumination on a banana and businesses that forego strategy for speed. As you’ll read, I’m not a fan of racing to the wrong destination, or to no destination at all. Amazing where one banana can take you, isn’t it? A healthy and happy New Year to you all. On to 2017!

It’s Foodie Friday and this week’s post is inspired by my breakfast. My weekday breakfast almost always involves a banana, and this morning’s banana looked yummy until I actually bit in. It was not really ripe enough. The texture was too hard for my taste and the flavors hadn’t really matured. In fact, it was kind of tasteless and quite unsatisfying. The banana would definitely have benefited from another day or two of ripening. 

Despite my day not being off to a great start, a business point popped into my head. Many businesses suffer from the same phenomenon as the banana (although honestly, I am not blaming the banana for being eaten too soon). We don’t let things ripen and we move overly fast. I see this with some clients who forget the original business plan when a new opportunity presents itself, losing sight of what had got the business to this point. That sort of action – moving too fast away from what was a good idea – does nothing but engender short-term thinking.

Failing to let the business ripen also means you’ve not got enough customer feedback. It takes time to scale, and even if you enjoy explosive growth, it takes time for both the business and your customers to figure out what feedback is meaningful based on repeat engagements, etc. You would much rather hear from a customer who has purchased and used your product several times that a one-time experience.

You need to ripen to assess the right size of your staff. You need to ripen to estimate what your real operating costs are and will be. To the extent scale improves product costs, you need to ripen in order to make that assessment. Finally, you need to ripen to ascertain what your real capital needs are. Early cash flow won’t be as promising as it will become down the road (hopefully) but those needs don’t present themselves right away.

I am all for moving quickly, particularly when a company is young.  Haste, however, can make waste when that speed and a failure to let things ripen means a loss of focus.  Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud