Tag Archives: Strategic management

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

Innovating On Top Of Imitating

Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:

In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.

Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.

That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.

As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?

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It Just Works

I’m old enough and digital enough to have used the first IBM PC and VisiCalc. It wasn’t the easiest thing to use but it pretty much was the only thing. DOS led to other operating systems, primarily Windows, that enabled all of us to work more efficiently. Well, that is, unless we were busy figuring out why we couldn’t print or why we were suddenly deluged with pop-up ads via malware.

English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was always the biggest appeal of Apple products to me. They just worked. My primary computer is a MacBook Air and the thought of going back to a Windows environment, no matter how good the reviews are on Windows 10, is dismaying. I’ve had to help friends with their Win10 issues and it certainly doesn’t “just work.” Then again, neither does my MacBook any longer. Sure, it’s nice that the OS upgrades every year (for free!) but I find myself diagnosing problems constantly now (wifi drops, SD cards being ejected at random, and more!).

My next computer will be a Chromebook; specifically a Chromebook with a touchscreen that can serve as a tablet. Chromebooks do just work. They are malware free. Think about how you work now. Most of it is probably via a web browser and in the cloud – my work certainly is for the most part. And they’re inexpensive – I can buy two decent Chromebooks for the price of a new MacBook or a touchscreen Windows machine. But what does this have to do with your business?

The bulk of customers wants that “it just works” experience no matter what you’re selling. They want their problems solved with the least hassle and for the best value. Notice I didn’t say for the lowest price. Just as there are high-end Chromebooks costing more than some Apple computers, so too is there a segment of buyer that want the high-end product and can afford to pay more if they perceive better quality, better service, or maybe a boost to their self-esteem (think luxury cars). But that’s not everyone.

If you want to brag about your computer’s specs then Chromebooks probably aren’t for you. Honestly, they’re not for everyone – you can’t do serious gaming or Photoshop or video editing. If you’re the type that likes to tweak your settings until they’re just right, you probably want to stick with something else. You need to think about your business in this context too. Are you for some very specialized, narrow audiences or are you for the bulk of the consumer base? If the latter, I’d suggest you focus on the “it just works” experience because history shows that’s how the best businesses succeed. You with me?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Consulting, Thinking Aloud

There’s A Little Cafe…

Foodie Friday and we’re heading overseas this morning. To Vienna, specifically, where, as The Boss wrote about San Diego, “there’s a little cafe.” Now I don’t know if they “play guitars all night and all day” but I do know one thing they do. They charge customers who plug in their phones or laptops to recharge them. As the Reuters article on this quoted the owner:

Austria, Vienna, Hundertwasserhaus

Hundertwasserhaus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Tourists – always electricity, electricity, electricity. Sorry but who is going to pay me for it?” said Pokorny, owner of the Terrassencafe in Hundertwasserhaus – located inside a colorful patchwork of apartments designed by artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Customers who charge up during a 15-minute coffee can still do so for free, she said. An hour, however, is beyond the pale.

On the surface, a reasonable business practice, right? Electricity costs money, and if each of the outlets is in use most of the day incurring costs that aren’t built into the charge for the coffee, it seems reasonable to pass those costs on to the customers who incur them, right? Maybe, except for a couple of things.

First, someone figured out that it costs about $.84 (that’s 84 cents) to charge a smartphone for a year. That’s using an overnight charge but one can assume timewise that’s comparable to an outlet being in use for a full day. This cafe is charging customers 1 Euro (which is about $1.06 at the moment) if they plug in for more than 15 minutes. In other words, this is more of a profit center than the owner is letting on.

Put that aside. It not customer friendly. Cafe culture in Europe is about sitting and enjoying, not about grabbing a coffee to go. This owner knows that – she offers free wifi. Is it not part of the same welcoming, customer-centric mindset to offer free electricity as well? If your customers are sitting and enjoying, is it unreasonable for them to plug in and charge up while using the free wifi you offer?

I wrote earlier this week about misleading statements in marketing materials. Offering free wifi and charging for electricity feels as if it’s the same type of insult to your customer. Unless this cafe’s coffee is a cut above anything else nearby (and there is almost always decent coffee nearby in Europe), they’re being extremely short-sighted. If the coffee is that good, raise the price a few pennies to cover the cost of whatever electricity seems to be used. Don’t insult your customers by sending mixed messages or by nickel and diming them.

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Filed under food, Huh?

Unlimited Gall

You might be aware of the battle going on in the wireless provider space which revolves around “unlimited” service. Yes, I meant to put unlimited in quotes because as it turns out there is no such thing. I’ll explain the details in a second but what this represents is mirrored in other businesses too and is a ridiculous bit of anti-customer behavior in which none of us should engage. Let’s see what you think.

First, the phone war. Verizon and T-Mobile are the primary protagonists. Verizon announced it was bringing back unlimited data so you could stream video on your mobile device to your heart’s content. Of course, as one article reminded us, unlimited is actually not:

“Unlimited” data also continues to be a misnomer. If you use more than 22GB of data, Verizon may throttle your connection. You also only get the $80/month price if you sign up for Autopay. If you don’t, it will cost $85/month. While this includes the $20 fee for adding a line, it doesn’t include your phone’s payment plan, so if you want to pay monthly to buy a phone, it will cost more.

T-Mobile responded with changes to their own so-called unlimited data plan. While the plan was unlimited previously, it added on charges for video quality over 480p (that’s not great). It also charged you extra to use your phone as a high-speed (meaning 3G quality) hotspot. It slowed the data down before. In the new plan, those limits are gone but T-Mobile says subscribers who use more than 28GB of data in a given month may see their speeds reduced due to “prioritization” in congested areas. In short, using the word “unlimited” is crap. There are still limits, and if you’re a consumer you have the right to expect that there really aren’t.

The phone companies (and Sprint and AT&T aren’t much better) aren’t the only businesses that do a form of bait and switch. It’s no secret that what you’re quoted as an airfare is also only part of the story since there are fees for bags, boarding passes, seats, and just about anything else depending on your carrier. The airlines say the fees are optional. Yeah, sure. And pay the fee at the airport and there is a fee to pay the fee!

Ever buy tickets to a show online? Convenience (whose convenience?) fees, printing fees, etc. Ever book a hotel room? Resort fees, safe fees, service fees, and more. My bank charges my business account a monthly admin fee even though they make money off the money I have in the bank. My cable operator charges me for sports channels I can’t refuse to take.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that businesses need to be upfront about their true costs to consumers or face a backlash when their dishonesty is discovered. I’d much rather know the true cost of something than to feel as if I’d been ripped off later. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that how we need to treat our customers?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Eating At The Buffet

Our topic this Foodie Friday is buffets. Las Vegas is renowned for the lavish and enormous buffets but they can be found almost anywhere across this great land of ours. There are dedicated buffet restaurants, most hotels offer a buffet option for breakfast and many bbq joints offer something similar so you needn’t choose between the 4 or 5 varieties of meat and the 7 or 8 sides they serve. Grab a plate, pile it high, and it’s on!

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United Stat...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One could make the argument that a traditional dim sum place is a buffet in reverse. Instead of you going to fill your plate from a variety of choices, the variety of choices are wheeled out to you and you choose as they go by. I don’t put salad bars into the buffet category since by definition they have a more limited focus.

My buffet strategy is to skip the “normal” foods (corn, mashed potatoes, cold cuts, etc.) and to focus on the more indigenous specialty items. I don’t want to fill up on food I could get anywhere while missing whatever makes this experience unique. After all, while I have a healthy appetite, I can’t eat everything, right?

That’s business point today. I remind many of my clients that they need to “step away from the buffet.” When you are a growing company and you have a smart, visionary leadership team, there is a tendency to want to try everything on the buffet table. In business, that means chasing down every apparent opportunity in an effort to grow. The reality is that no early- or mid-stage business can afford to do that. Resources are too precious and the time to get to profitability is ticking away. Stepping away from the buffet means having a business plan that’s focused on whatever problem it is that the business is solving for your market segment and sticking to it. Don’t take that to mean that you can’t adjust based on what you’ve discovering on your journey:  you must! But you also can’t keep changing direction as you spot another new hot plate being added to the buffet.

Like a large buffet, business can present an overwhelming number of choices. Our job as managers is to find the best of those choices that align with our business goals. It’s one thing to overeat at breakfast. It’s quite another to run out of resources before reaching sustained profitability. Step away from that buffet!

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Filed under 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