Tag Archives: management

Woebuck

Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.

The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names.  They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.

You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).

This is an excellent summary from Investopedia:

It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.

Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.

Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”

This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Teshuva 2018

It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  This was a post from several years ago.  As I read it over, looking for inspiration for something to write on the subject of change and business based on the holiday, I realized that I had expressed my thinking pretty well in the earlier post.  Those of you who celebrate the holiday are probably not reading this until sundown (I scheduled this yesterday in keeping with the spirit of not working on the day). Whether you do or don’t celebrate, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. For those of you unfamiliar with the holiday, it concludes the 10 day period at the start of the Jewish calendarRosh Hashanah – head of the year – during which all Jews are supposed to reflect upon the past year and examine how they’re going to change their lives going forward. One also seeks forgiveness from those against whom he has transgressed – both those of this earth and higher powers. There is a lot of other imagery connected with the period – inscription in the Book of Life being a big one – but I think there’s something each of us can take as a business lesson in a non-denominational way.

We all get off track.  Sometimes it’s in little ways like eating badly or drinking too much.  Sometimes it’s in big ways like alienating our families or hurting friends who love us.  The concept in Judaism of repentance is called Teshuva which means “return”.  I love the notion of coming back to one’s self as well as to the basic human tenets that are common to all religions and peoples.

We can take a period of reflection and “return” in our business lives as well.  The most obvious way is for us as individuals. Who have we alienated this year?  What client have we taken for granted?  But it a bigger opportunity.  How has the business diverged from the mission?  Why have we stopped getting better and are just marching in place?  What can we be doing to grow our people but are ignoring?

We ask those kinds of questions from time to time, but I guess I’m suggesting that it become a more formal process.  Set aside a period every year for “return” thinking.  A period of repentance?  Maybe, in some cases.  But in all cases a chance to change.  A chance to regret past bad actions and to vow not to repeat them.  Most importantly (this is true in the religious sense as well), to correct the transgression.  To apologize.   To make restitution.  Whatever is right and lets everyone move forward with a clear conscious and a vow to do better.

Sound like a plan?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Happy Faces

According to a piece published by the BBC, scientists have found that goats are drawn to humans with happy facial expressions. There was a study done in which researchers showed goats pairs of photos of the same person, one of them featuring an angry expression, and the other a happy one. The goats overwhelmingly went to the picture of the happy face. They also spent more time examining the happy face photo (we social scientists might call that better engagement!).

Notwithstanding whatever application this has to working with goats, all I can say is DUH! Who among us walks into a bar and heads for the person with a scowl on their face when there are smiling people about? My grandmother would call them farbissinas – sour pusses – and it was about the worst thing she ever called anyone.

Happy people are better businesspeople. Happy people tend to be honest, they tend to be nice, they tend to cooperate, and I think they have more emotional intelligence. All of those things make for better team members. They play well in the sandbox with the other kids, which is one of the most important things I used to look for when hiring.

You can’t be happy if you hold on to grudges. By doing that you’re focusing on the past rather than on today. It’s hard to be happy if you worry about every little thing (sweating the small stuff) when you should be focusing on the things that matter and that you can control. There is nothing wrong with being detail-oriented (in fact, it’s a great trait!) but the details should pertain to those big things. Optimists are generally happy, even in the face of bad things happening. People who attack the problems that arise as challenges and not as…well…problems tend to be happy too.

All of those characteristics make up the kind of folks we should want on our teams. Maybe I’m more of an old goat, but I gravitate to happy people. You?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

The Sense Of Being Valued

I was reading an article about an emerging form of advertising the other day. It’s a form in which people who view ads are paid for having done so. You can read the article about it here but one thing in the article got me thinking and I hope it has the same effect on you.

The CEO of the company that’s doing this – AdWallet – was asked if this was just “slackers” trying to put a few extra bucks in their pockets. What he had to say was this:

They’re not Millennial slackers looking to earn money on the side, he says. Instead, the average AdWallet user is 45 years or older and earns more than $100,000 a year. The main reason they have been using the platform, he says, is not the money, but the sense of being valued (emphasis added).

That’s something that often gets lost in the marketing process, especially when expressing value to our customers takes a backseat to making more money off of them. For example, many companies are using chat-bots for customer service. Nothing infuriates me more than when I have a problem and, after having tried to solve the problem myself, I call customer service only to reach a phone tree. Reaching a bot instead of a human using many companies’ “live chat” help feature is just as bad. The message I get is “we value profits more than we value you.”

It’s almost as bad as when I get a human and they have no insight at all as to who I am. I give them account information or order numbers and they have no record of past transactions or the fact that I might have called in the past with an issue. I had this experience recently with one of the large ticketing companies. I was supposed to get a CD with at ticket purchase and the code they sent didn’t work. I spent 20 minutes reaching a human who promised me to get back to me with an answer. It’s been two months: No CD and no explanation. Message received: “we are so damn big that we don’t have to care.”

I’ve had similar issues with financial service companies (almost an oxymoron there since their “service” is non-existent) and many others, as I’m sure you have. Yes, I sometimes express my frustration via social media and here on the screed. More often than not I do whatever I can do to avoid interacting with this company again, taking my business elsewhere is at all possible.

When I was running an online commerce store I used to remind our customer service types that I didn’t expect them to solve every problem that arose. What I did expect, however, is that every single customer knew that we valued them, were listening. and would do whatever we could to rectify the issue even if it meant we’d sacrifice some margin by expending time and resources to do so. It’s always easier to retain and up-sell an existing customer than to find a new customer. You do that by letting them know how much you value them on a regular basis. What was the last time you did that?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Crying To The Kitchen

This Foodie Friday, I want to write about something that’s been on my mind for the last month. It was about a month ago that I made my initial – but definitely not my last – visit to Skylight Inn. If you’re not familiar with the place, it’s the premiere BBQ joint in North Carolina and certainly one of the best in the country. It specializes in whole hog, eastern North Carolina BBQ, which is chopped meat combined with a vinegar and pepper sauce. It’s simple food but incredibly difficult to do well, and very few anywhere do it as well as this place.

Why has it been on my mind for a month? Because I had an experience which has only happened once before in my life. The food was so unbelievably good that it brought me to tears. I’m not kidding. The last time this happened was in Venice and my poor daughter had to endure me running into the kitchen to hug the chef while weeping praise in my bad Italian. While I didn’t run to the pit this time, I did run back for another plate.

The question I’ve been asking myself since my Skylight visit, besides when I can find the time to go back, is what other consumer experiences have brought about a similar reaction. I couldn’t think of any, which is unfortunate. While I realize that there is something multi-sensory about food (we see it, we smell it, we touch it, we taste it), I think it’s an interesting question for any business to ponder. How can what we offer prompt an overwhelmingly good feeling in our customers? How do we get them to be thinking about their interaction with us a month or more after it takes place? How do we instill that goal into every person and every touchpoint that engages with a customer or potential customer?

We may never send our consumers running to the kitchen weeping with joy but it’s not a bad goal to have, is it?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Married To Making A Decision

I had one of those wonderful Dad moments over the weekend. We walked our youngest daughter down the aisle to meet her true love under the wedding canopy. It’s one of those moments that really don’t hit you until you’re standing there at the back looking down the aisle. In my case, 28 years of this child’s (now woman’s) life came flooding back in a rush. I wonder what the pictures captured as we walked her forward?

Of course, the 48 hours preceding the wedding were a minor nightmare as family, friends, and others hustled to transform a huge empty space into a magical circus that could seat 130 for dinner as well as for the wedding ceremony. Place settings, table and site decorations, room for aerialists and fire-breathers (I’m not kidding), as well as dancing and food all needed to be pulled together. And that’s what leads to today’s screed because the entire process reminded me of one thing.

Nothing happens without someone making a decision. That sounds awfully basic but it almost crippled us as we set the wedding up. First, no one was really in charge and empowered to have the final call. Does the salad plate sit on the table or on the dinner plate? 10-minute discussion. Where should the dessert bar go? 10-minute discussion. Silverware rolled into napkins or placed separately? 10-minute discussion. Meanwhile, a dozen helpers are sitting idle and the clock is ticking.

It’s critical that decisions get made. It’s critical that there be firm deadlines set by which they’ll get made and that someone is empowered to make the decision at that deadline if one hasn’t been reached in some other way. The team needs to have a roadmap, a project plan with milestones. It’s a guide which can limit distractions (and emergency trips to the store!). Don’t go chasing every shiny object that presents itself and keep to the deadlines you set. Appoint a “benevolent monarch” whose word is law when those deadlines come.

As with most productions, there were things that didn’t go as planned and, as with most productions, no one in the audience noticed. The bride was gorgeous, the drinks were cold, and the dance floor crowded. The most important decision did get made: for two people to spend their lives together. We were all just lucky enough to watch that marriage happen. You, however, can’t run your business just on luck. Make some decisions!

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Filed under Helpful Hints

Wanting And Needing

If you hang around the candy aisle of the supermarket long enough, I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll hear some kid yell at their parent that they “need it” with a large bag of candy in their hand. At that moment, I think the kid believes it. Hopefully, the parent explains the difference between “needing” and “wanting”. Hopefully, that’s something you can recognize in your business life too.

A need is something you must have to survive. As humans, water, food, and shelter are about the extent of those needs (I put clothing and warmth under the shelter heading). As a business, the fundamental need is to make a profit. Without that, no business can survive over the long term. In order to make those profits, you need money coming in, which means you also need customers who will pay you for your product or service. As with any need, once we have satisfied it we can move on to the “want.” You want customers who are happy so they stick around. You want customers who are pleasant so you can interact with them without drama. You need to have people working with you who are loyal and knowledgeable so they support your customers. You want them to stick around for the long term at a reasonable cost to the business.

The hard part for me when I began consulting was that I think I probably spent too much effort helping clients get the wants and not enough time focused on the needs. Rookie mistake, one I don’t make now. I’m not surprised when a client and I get into the need/want discussion and there is a bit of a disconnect. With early-stage companies especially, you have to get the needs shored up.

I try to focus on telling clients what they need to hear, which is not necessarily what they want to hear (see what I did there?). I did the same when I was part of a larger organization, sometimes to my detriment, I’ll admit. I did learn that the people who can hear things that are true but sometimes unpleasant are the ones with whom you want to work. They have learned that the bag of candy is a want, but those wants might not be affordable or necessary. They might even be detrimental. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud