Tag Archives: planning

Hitting Curves

My friend posted a picture of his father on social media the other day. Outside of my own father, he was probably the most influential male in my life as I was growing up in many ways. Aside from wondering why he’s aged and I haven’t as I saw the photo (that’s a joke, kids), it made me recall one thing that he did to teach my friend and me to be better baseball players: hitting curveballs.

My friend’s dad was no ordinary dad when it came to imparting that little piece of baseball knowledge either. He had tried out with the Yankees and the family lore is that had my friend’s mom not told him that she would walk on the marriage, he would have been signed and playing in Yankee Stadium. Obviously, when this guy tells you he’s going to teach you about curveballs, you listen.

For those of you that have never stood in against a pitcher with a lively curve, the pitch starts by heading at your head and breaks down and away from you. That’s what my friend’s father threw at us – pitches that started at our heads and broke in over the plate. Of course, once he felt we were getting complacent about standing in against the curve, he’d toss the odd pitch right at our heads to teach us to look for the rotation of the ball and to duck if it wasn’t going to curve. A fastball at your skull gets you focused very quickly!

Almost every player who makes the majors can hit fastballs. It’s the ones who can hit breaking pitches – sliders and curveballs – who become stars. It’s true in business as well. When things are going along according to plan and not diverging from the track they’re on, things are relatively easy to manage. Even if something appears dangerous (like a fastball heading for your ear) it’s relatively easy to get out of the way if you can see where things are heading.

Learning to hit business curveballs is something that you need to do if you’re going to elevate your game. You need to prepare for them by planning and recognizing that they’re going to show up from time to time. Your team needs to be ready, and you need to think about who can handle curveballs as you’re assembling that team.  People who are regimented and can’t deal with it when events start tracking differently are probably not your priority hires.

Mostly, you need to expect things to go wrong. After bailing out and hitting the dirt a couple of times, I realized that some attempted curveballs don’t break even when the rotation makes it look like they’re trying. It’s better to have to wash your uniform than to repair your skull. Your team needs to recognize that bailing out might be the smartest option when things begin to go awry. Watch out for those curves, learn to hit them out of the park, and your team can’t be beaten. Right?

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Filed under Consulting, Growing up, Thinking Aloud

By Any Standard

I have to admit it – I’m a sucker for the major award shows. Watching the Oscars last night made me think about some of the “awards” many companies give themselves. You can usually find them talking about them as they sell themselves. You know the drill:

    • We have world-class customer service
    • Our employee benefits are the best in our field
    • Our products are cutting-edge

And on and on. Now, having come from the sales world I’m not necessarily averse to a little hyperbole, but there is a line, one which is often crossed because there aren’t any standards. It’s an issue that affects businesses in a lot of ways, some small and some pretty egregious. It’s often the small ways – the little white lies we tell ourselves in planning or product meetings – that lead to the big ways – the hyperbole we broadcast in our marketing and set false expectations among customers, partners, vendors, and others.

Think about the differences between Consumer Reports and Amazon reviews. Consumer Reports has rigorous testing standards. It maintains editorial independence and accepts no advertising in the magazine. It buys the products it reviews and pays retail prices for them. While they’ve been sued over bad reviews they’ve never lost a case. Their reviews are objective and all products in a category are held to the same standards.

Compare that to Amazon or Yelp or Google reviews. The reviewer has no objective standards for the most part. They have no idea if common standards for a product category exist nor how to measure or apply them. The JD Power surveys try to aggregate the consumer point of view in a way that reduces personal bias which is better than pure subjective reviews. After all, who hasn’t felt like broadcasting a bad review of something to the world? Maybe the product was fine but you had a nasty experience with customer service so you trash the product as well on your review.

Many businesses do the same thing in their marketing. They don’t use objective standards and end up setting false expectations. I think many industries would do themselves a favor by objectively assessing how well individual brands meet reasonable performance expectations. I remember we used to take an annual survey of media buyers in the TV industry. On the face of it, we did a good job of assessing ourselves and our competitors objectively. The truth was many of the sales guys knew when the survey was being fielded and would wine and dine the buyers to make sure we got good reviews. Subjective standards don’t work.

How do you market yourself? Do you have enough information about your performance on an objective basis? Can you get some?

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The Easy Way Out For Whom?

It seems as if I’m writing a series of posts inspired by my having decided to purchase a new house. I guess when we shake up our lives a bit we get inspired, or at least we get confronted by how some businesses are a lot better than others in many ways.

Today’s tale is yet another head-shaker. One of the things I found myself needing as I planned out my new digs was a few pieces of furniture. Like many people, I took to the internet to browse online and I found things at both Wayfair and Ikea that were priced well and seemed to be of good quality. The closest Ikea store is three hours from me and Wayfair only operates online, so I did my ordering via the web.

The orders showed up pretty much on time. There was a delay in the Ikea boxes due to the fact that I wasn’t at the new house to receive them. Of course, while Ikea told me the time window in which things would arrive, they never said someone had to be there. A call to customer service and we rescheduled delivery for a few days later. If you’re telling the customer when the boxes will arrive, why not also tell them they need to be around while you have their attention? Wayfair’s deliveries were just placed on the porch without incident.

That, however, is far from the end of the tale. The real fun began after I opened the boxes. I needed to assemble the furniture and of course, the first step is to make sure all the pieces and hardware had arrived safely. They hadn’t. In two cases, one from each company, a key piece of the item was damaged and not just cosmetically. I needed replacement pieces before I could go any further.

This is where the head shaking begins. Ikea’s website says:

If you are not able to visit the store, and only one piece of the unit is damaged, call us within 365 days of the purchase with your receipt information and we will be happy to deliver the missing items within 7-10 days.

Wayfair’s policy is:

Through our online portal you can:

  • Order free replacement parts (e.g. table legs, missing screws)
  • Replace the entire item for free
  • Get in touch with Customer Service

Be sure to complete this process within 30 days of your delivery date.

No problem in either case. I contacted them and told them exactly which parts were damaged, even using the part numbers out of the assembly manuals. Want to guess what I was told? Neither company ships parts. Instead, they would ship me a complete item. I could then take the damaged part from the box and throw away or donate the rest. Huh?
These are not small items. A large bookcase from Ikea and a desk from Wayfair, each of which weighed around 100 lbs in the boxes. How is it possible it costs less to send a complete item than to have some system for having inventory replacement parts? I get that these items come pre-packaged from many manufacturers. I’m also sure these companies can track which parts of which items often show up damaged (that’s what data is for, right?). Why not order a stock of those parts instead of devastating your margins by shipping two complete items and only getting paid for one?
Many of us in business do things because it’s the easy way out. We don’t take the time to question a system that seems to be working even though it’s not optimal. When things have “always been done that way” or when a report shows up regularly and heads right to the recycling bin, we don’t ask ourselves “why” often enough. The system these two companies have doesn’t really work for anyone except the folks in the warehouse and the shipping companies. The margins are bad. The customer has to dispose of a lot of wood and packaging they don’t want or need. But I guess they think it’s working. Are you making the same mistake?

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The Right Stuff

It’s Foodie Friday and this week it’s tool time. As I mentioned in some previous posts, I’m in the process of moving, which means that a lot of stuff is packed up and not readily available for cooking. You never think that you’ll use some kitchen-related item (I won’t be ricing potatoes any time soon, will I? Pack the ricer!) right up until you need it. Then comes the internal debate assessing whether to unpack it (assuming you can find it), try to make do with some similar tool, or cook something else altogether.

One of my absolute mantras is that one needs to have the right tool for a job. You might think that throwing a smoothie into a food processor will work (because you packed the blender), but you’re wrong. Not only does it not yield a respectable smoothie but it makes a horrible mess. Then there is trying to make a roux with a fork instead of a whisk because, well you know where the whisk is, and it’s not in the kitchen.

Another non-food example. I just spent a day and a half trying to wire cat5 plugs around the new house. A buddy of mine had most of the tools to do this save for a punch tool to seat the wires properly. We tried to punch them down using everything from a tiny screwdriver to a pen. None of the connections were solid. An hour back and forth to buy the right tool and suddenly we were flying through the job. The right tool makes all the difference. Was $50 expensive to get it? Not in light of what it would have cost to hire someone to do the job.

You should remember that when you’re running your business. The right tools – and I include the right people in that category – makes all the difference. Spend the extra buck on software that works for you and don’t try to shoehorn your business into some freeware that really isn’t right. Sure, there are a lot of very good free tools out there but most of them begin to charge you as you reach the enterprise level. Make sure they’re worth paying for before you get too embedded in their platform.

Finally, spend more on good people that are right for your company and right for the job. Having a fantastic free design tool is great but you need someone that knows how to use it or the results will look amateurish.

Having the right tool makes an excellent finished product much easier to obtain. Using a shoe to drive a nail rarely works, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

Everyone’s Got A Deal

A very wet Foodie Friday here but that won’t deter me from posting a few thoughts about what I think is a post-value world. What I mean by that is that value seems to be more of a given today that it did a few years ago. I also hope by now you’ve learned the difference between value and cost because your customers certainly have.

In the food business, you see this playing out in spades. Everyone has a deal, whether it’s $1 menu items or $5 foot long subs or free cheeseburgers from using an app to order. I suspect that many of these items are loss leaders. They certainly can’t be maintaining the margins which are already slim in the restaurant business. They’re designed to build traffic and that traffic will buy other, more profitable items.

The problem with this is the restaurant business is one where the supply has outstripped the demand. Chain restaurants are growing faster than the overall population and there aren’t enough hungry folks out there to support them all. Because deals are so prevalent, it actually frees the consumer to decide if they place more value on the price of the meal or if they value higher quality ingredients or better service or just the overall dining experience an establishment offers. More often than not these days, the price is less of a concern. Why? Because everyone’s got a deal!

What does this mean for your business? It means you’ve got to continue to get beyond thinking about cost in terms of how your customer values your product or service. The health of the business depends on more than a lot of customers. Fewer, more profitable customers seem better to me than a lot of slim-margin ones. Ask K-mart, whose profitability peaked in 1992,  if the low-margin, high volume strategy can work over the long term. Someone can always compete on price (Walmart).

The “deal” I try to offer to my potential clients is the highest level of value. That value is defined in THEIR terms, not mine. If all they’re after is a low price, I’m probably not going to be working with them. If what they want is a profitable result that advances them to their goals, well, that’s my deal. What’s yours?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

Hurricane’s Comin’

I went to bed last night after watching my favorite weather forecaster give a rather dire outlook for this week. When I moved to North Carolina I opted for hurricanes over blizzards, I guess, and now it appears that one is headed right for us.

I ran out earlier to pick up a case of water bottles just in case the forecasts are accurate. The local Walmart had nary a bottle anywhere, and the long aisle of empty shelving reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who had this idea four days ahead of when this thing is supposed to pay us a visit. I’ve got lots of ice to hold the food and lots of wine to hold me so I think I’ll be fine.

On the drive home I thought to myself that it was pretty cool how everyone is going about their business and preparing. There weren’t any D batteries at Walmart either and there were lines at the gas stations I passed. People are trying, as we were constantly told in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.” Which leads me to today’s screed.

There is a hurricane headed for your business. It might not be on your radar yet or you may have red flags raised over your beaches, but you can rest assured that at some point a massive, devastating storm will hit you. The thing is that you need to have a disaster place in place and preparations made long before that time arrives. Was Chipotle ready for the massive e. coli outbreak? It almost destroyed them and they still haven’t recovered. What if the power grid fails for whatever reason and all of your refrigerated inventory must be thrown out? What’s the plan to deal with that and are there financial plans in place to recover?

You need a crisis response team and a disaster plan. Your key players from all your relevant business functions – operations, public relations, marketing, quality assurance, legal, etc. – have to have been briefed on the plan long before it’s executed. I’ve written before about how my organization’s web servers failed after 9/11 due to a lack of dust filters that forced the shutdown of the emergency power we were careful to have at our disposal. When the crisis had passed, we rewrote the disaster plan to account for yet another “just in case.”

Hurricanes happen. The question isn’t how to prevent hurricanes but how best to prepare and recover from any damage they cause when they do. I’m ready for this one. Are you?

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Tomatoes, Bugs, and Nannochloropsis

Foodie Friday, and today we’re having a think about the food of the future. I don’t think it’s news to anyone who pays the least bit of attention to the world that humankind’s ability to support itself is in peril. CNN said it well:

We’ve gotten ourselves into some trouble. Our dining habits are a big part of the problem. The average American male consumes 100 grams of protein daily — almost double the necessary amount. This overconsumption isn’t sustainable. The United Nations projects food production will need to increase as much as 70% by 2050 to feed an extra 2.5 billion people. To survive, we need to reinvent the way we farm and eat.

Exactly, except that some of that reinvention, while packed with nutrition, is…well…gross. I know that I’m applying my American diet standards here but how would you describe eating bugs or algae? We have plenty of both, both are sustainable sources of protein, and both reduce the impact we’re having on our planet. Cricket anyone (and I don’t mean the game!)? How about a nice plate of nannochloropsis?

There’s a great business lesson in this. To understand it, let’s look at another food that was once anathema to most Americans: the tomato. That’s right. Until the early 1800’s, the tomato was grown purely for decoration in this country because it was considered poisonous. What happened to change its reputation and make it a mainstay of our diet? There are several theories, including one involving Thomas Jefferson’s promotion of dishes using the tomato. I think it has to do with immigration and the fact that European immigrants used the fruit (you know it’s a fruit, right?) in their cooking. Whatever it was, people overcame their fears and began consuming tomatoes en masse.

If I were marketing bugs and slime (OK, it will probably be protein derived from those things made into other food products), I’d do a few things. First, I wouldn’t deny that there might just be a perception problem. No brand can deny its past. I would aggressively try to control the conversation and the message. That means a lot of marketing, especially through influencers and social channels. I’d research the heck out of consumer attitudes on a continual basis and I’d avoid making emotional responses to misperceptions, focusing on the data. Mostly, I’d do everything I could to get the products sampled and I’d use the testimonials along with the overall message that these products are saving the planet by decreasing the need to rely on other protein forms that are inefficient at least and detrimental at worst to the environment.

When I was a kid, the notion of eating raw fish in this country was nonexistent. I’ll bet many of you did just that this past week. There just might be a bug in your future once some smart marketers get to work. What do you think?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud