Doing Business Battle

It’s a common refrain by now and we’re only a little more than half way through the year: I’m so done with this year. It’s been one challenge after another for just about everyone in a year that we had big hopes for. In recent years parts of our world have experienced challenges, but this year it seems like every part of the world is experiencing not only some of the same challenges, but others on top of that as well. It’s been a good year for some businesses and a very difficult one for others. Many of us have had to learn new ways of communicating, running our businesses, working together, and working with our customers and clients. This week has added another challenge in some people’s lives with the hurricane/tropical storm that knocked out power and blocked resources, but thankfully it moved through quickly so cleanup could begin and progress return.

I’m getting to the point where I don’t think I should ever use the words “this week I’m planning to get ahead” any more, but the bigger thing I’ve been considering this week has been about how do we battle all of the challenges thrown at us as business owners? I think it starts with us individually with our own businesses, but we can’t ignore or block out the rest of the world and those who we do business with or are also doing business.

I don’t know that there are any truly new businesses out there, most businesses have competition even if it’s in another state or country, they’re not the only business selling what they’re selling. Most industries have tons of competition, the auto and health industries just to name two, and each business owner has to decide what to do with that competition. I don’t think it’s necessary to niche specifically, but every business should have something they specialize in or are known for, even if it’s just their fantastic customer service that always goes the extra mile. So the first question is what are you bringing to the table as a business owner and business?

Second, we’ll only win the battle if we work together. That means having employees and/or suppliers who you have good relationships with and are willing to go the extra mile with you because of the relationship that you have built, and you know that you can trust them to have your back because of that same relationship. It also means seeing other businesses less as ‘the enemy’ and more as people who are part of your network. These are people who experience many of the same mental and emotional struggles that you do, who are also working to make a decent living for themselves and their team, and also want to provide a good experience to their customers. I do believe that we can pay it forward and we can work and learn together and not only make our individual businesses stronger, but also make customer experiences better and help advance the business world as a whole.

So how do we win the battle? As with many things, it’s something you have to fight on both an individual and team level. We’ll never be able to right the business world if we’re only in it for ourselves, and we’ll never be able to succeed if we don’t put our best foot forward. Take time this month to not only shore up your business and make it the best it can be, but also make an effort to network with other business owners and talk about how you can support each other personally and professionally so we can get out of this year stronger than we were last year.

The Bottom Line and Relationships

This month I read Relationomics by Randy Ross, which as you may have guessed from the title talks about the intersection of relationships and success/failure in business. In fact one of the first things the book talks about is how when organizations prioritize people before profits, there’s a great payout both relationally and economically. Of course many of us know there’s a connection between how people are treated, if people are treated as humans, if people are respected etc. and the success/failure of a company and/or its leader and the reputation it has. It’s not a new issue that some companies aren’t really in it for their employees, they don’t have a great (or even average) culture to support their employees, and the company and employees clearly don’t have an interest in investing in their customers, especially their long term ones. We’ve talked about all of this in various posts in the past, including in last week’s post, but this is one of those topics that isn’t likely to go away in my lifetime or yours, and this book adds some good insights to help further the conversation.

One of the things I really liked about this book were a couple of the ways he defined or approached some terms that we hear and may not always want to work on or have concerns about. The book defined transparency as “the willingness to be known by others.” It also shared that one of the biggest purposes of delegation can be (should be) to help others grow. It also shared that the goal of communication should be to seek understanding, resolve issues and move forward together. It can be intimidating to add transparency to our companies and our work, especially if we’re struggling, but I think most of our issues around transparency have to do with fears and the negative way that transparency is being approached by many companies, or even back to school when we were told to “show our work” at math. But if we’re truly in a healthy organization, it’s good to be known to each other so that we can support each other and bring the best of what we can offer to the table, rather than being forced into a position we hate and really aren’t good at and aren’t making progress at learning.

Directly connected with all of that is the idea the book shared about how you’ve got the choice to own the relationship with each customer. If you think about it like having a dollar bill in your hand, you can choose to do a lot of things with it: you can put it in your pocket or wallet and keep it there, you can rub it around in the dirt, you can use it to buy a snack or beverage, you can invest it, you can shred it, and you can throw it out a window while you’re driving. Two of those most people would point out as being a bad idea, and truly wasting money. The same is true for customer relationships: you can choose how you interact with customers, how you treat customers who have been with you for a long time, and the types of interactions customers have with the business.

Which brings us to the last point I want to highlight for today, and that’s regarding the choice we have to make about how we lead as the owner of our business. Do we commit to deal with each other personally, do we respectfully interact with each other, do we give frequent feedback to employees/team members that helps them gain direction and perspective and details, do we intentionally invest and engage or intentionally ignore as much as possible, do we ignore reality, do we explore our creative options, do we have humility and willingness to learn and grow, are we committed working together with unified purpose and both shared and individual responsibility? None of this is raised with the goal to shame, but rather to give hope that there are businesses out there who are getting on board and investing in both leadership and people who are interested in working together so that everyone can be successful and feel as though they’re part of something important and special.

What about you? What are you creating through the relationships you have, and how are those relationships impacting your bottom line and the success, happiness, stability and contribution of your people?

Employees for the Future

In July we’re taking a look at some things that have changed and/or become more important throughout the challenges, changes and transformation brought on by the virus and related issues. Last week we talked about being helpful, the second week we talked about how businesses can do a better job of working with customers, the first week we talked about communication, and this week as we wrap up we’re going to talk about employees.

So much has changed in the world over the past few months, from people working from home who have never done so in the past to people who are going to work as they’ve always done, but now it’s a possible health risk to do so. There have also been major changes and disruptions in the supply chain which created many questions employees couldn’t answer for customers, even when they usually could have in the past. It’s been an exercise in patience and in working in the unknown that few have experienced before. So what does it mean going forward?

One of the things I think it taught everyone was that an office wasn’t strictly necessary for doing many jobs. Yes, some companies need their employees to be physically present, but I think it opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that as long as you trust your employees and they desire to work from home, working from home at least part time is something that can be done going forward and it will help with stress and environmental impact and reduce budgets too.

Which brings us to the second point, and that’s the importance of communicating and truly partnering with your employees. Companies may not have known when supplies were coming in, but they certainly could give their employees daily updates about what they did know, what was changing or developing and hear from them about what they’re experiencing with customers and their personal concerns, thoughts and ideas as well. For many companies this was a first because they never really communicated with their team about what was going on in the company, and now they were forced to really partner with their employees and see them as team players. I would say that a good percentage of employees have always been willing to be team players, but companies haven’t been very good about tapping into that or working with them and as a result businesses often have high turnover and employees feel unappreciated, unheard and not cared for.

So what is next? My hope is that more companies will ultimately do a better job of talking with their employees and being better about working with them. Maybe this means working at least some from home, maybe this means education in areas that interest them and exposure to different parts of the company, and maybe this means different hours that work better with their home needs. I definitely think companies can and hopefully will do better about keeping them in the loop about what’s going on, do better about empowering them, do better with listening to them and hearing their concerns, suggestions and feedback based on what they see and experience with customers, and do better at treating them as valuable parts of a team.

What changes has this virus inspired you to make with your team?

Helping Your Customers

In July we’re taking a look at some things that have changed and/or become more important throughout the challenges, changes and transformation brought on by the virus and related issues. Last week we talked about how businesses can do a better job of working with customers, the first week we talked about communication, and this week we’re going to talk about being helpful.

I know, that may sound a little silly, but the reality is that not every business or business owner is truly in business to help others. Yes, as a business you should have an eye and ear to profit, but one of the best ways to guarantee that happening is when you are truly helping your customers. Why? Because if you’re helping them they’ll want to come back and get more help or share about you with others who need the same help. Of course, we’re not talking about just help in the sense of medical help or help fixing something, but about getting assistance answering questions they may have, resolving a problem, or meeting a need or desire. So being helpful may mean selling someone a 1000 piece puzzle, caring for (aka tiring out) their kids for an afternoon, providing a definition to a medical term, or selling someone a box of pasta and a jar of sauce.

You can absolutely have a business, even a successful one, and not make any real effort to care about being helpful. But, you probably won’t have lots of positive reviews, enthusiastic repeat customers, or anyone you could call a superfan or die-hard-enthusiast. These are the average or even the hated companies that people put up with primarily because they don’t have a choice or the penalty is too much to consider switching/moving/changing. Personally, I don’t think that’s the way to run a company, I believe businesses should train their people to be helpful, and always have the focus on their services and products helping customers and potential customers.

Being helpful doesn’t mean sacrificing our bottom line or our ethics, but it does mean being more helpful to your people, even if it means changing what you’re offering or how you’re offering it. There’s been a lot of pivoting we’ve seen over the past few months, and maybe what your people need most is for you to continue in that area. Maybe this means offering new products and services that are in line with the health crisis, maybe that means offering a smaller menu that will make it easier on your chefs and keep costs down, maybe that means letting your people work from home, maybe that means having more virtual or low/no-contact services and products that can be ordered online and picked up, or maybe that just means sending out a newsletter each week with some cheer and helpful insights.

This week I encourage you to consider how helpful you’re currently being to your customers and how you can continue to be just as helpful as they’ve always loved you to be, or become more helpful. I know that the rewards are there for companies and leaders who do take the time and make the effort to be helpful, because they have happier staffs and employees who stay with the company longer, fewer returns and refunds to deal with, customers who return and praise the company, and don’t have to spend as much on marketing and advertising because they’ve got great word of mouth and community advertising. How do you help your customers?

Working with Customers

In July we’re taking a look at some things that have changed and/or become more important throughout the challenges, changes and transformation brought on by the virus and related issues. Last week we talked about communication, and this week we’re going to talk about working with the customer.

I ordered a couple of things recently from a company that according to their website was in stock. A couple days later I got an email from them saying that one product wasn’t in stock so I wouldn’t be charged for it, and they were processing the rest of my order. They really didn’t have a great selection and I had to pay for shipping, so to not get part of the order, I was a little frustrated. But then I got the shipping confirmation email for the other product saying that it had shipped and I noticed that they weren’t charging me for the full shipping price, which made me feel better about my purchase and the company as well (BTW the product I did get is something I’m happy with). I thought that this company did a decent job turning a frustrating experience into a good one.

Of course there are many different ways you can work with a customer, from offering discounts, to offering free shipping, to delaying the fee, to offering spread out monthly payments, to offering multiple shipments when products are available or coming from different locations, to offering a series of auto-ship products at a lower price, to offering free returns, to offering free exchanges, to offering excellent warranties, to offering deals and discounts to long time customers, to offering fewer shipments to be greener. You can do any of the above, all of the above and some of the above: whatever works best for your company and customers, but the important thing is that you do your best to make happy customers, and sometimes that means you have to work with them.

In the purchase experience I shared about, they believed (rightly so) that I wouldn’t be happy paying the full shipping price when half of my order wasn’t going to show up, and they did a nice thing by only charging part of the shipping fee. I have no problem paying for shipping as long as it’s reasonable, but had I known that I wasn’t going to get both items I wouldn’t have made the purchase, and if they hadn’t discounted the shipping I would have been very cautious about buying from them again. So by doing something as simple as reducing the shipping fee, they’ve kept a customer for the future.

What are you doing in your business to work with your customers and keep them happy and coming back?

Communicating and Staying Connected

So much of business in both the for and non-profit worlds has changed over the past few months. It’s done some really good things for business/organization owners and it’s also added lots of challenges and forced them into things they hadn’t done before. We’re not done changing yet and we certainly haven’t seen the end of the virus yet, but to start the month off for the next couple of weeks I thought I’d share a few things that I’ve seen some companies/organizations doing that I’ve really appreciated, and some suggestions for how we continue going forward.

Today we’re starting with one of my favorite topics, and that’s communication and staying connected.  In the past I think many companies, especially the local/event businesses, took advantage of the fact that they didn’t really have to do a ton of work to stay connected with their customers, the customers just show up because the business is near where they live. Maybe they would encourage visits with frequent flyer discount cards or branded merchandise, and maybe they’d have a social presence that they updated occasionally, or send out a newsletter for Black Friday or the annual fundraising time.  But the past few months of customers not being able to do regular activities has been a big strain on many businesses and they’ve been forced into really working to establish the online presence and offerings that don’t require people to be as physically present as before.

Having a regular presence on social media is important and one great way to not only develop a relationship but also share information with customers and potential customers, but so is having your own website and email newsletter. People are frequently on social media, but you don’t have nearly as much control over social media as you do over your own website and email (and optionally print) newsletter. None of this has to be complicated (or overly expensive), but it does have to be consistent and very regular.

Over the past few months I’ve gotten more information and updates from politicians than I ever have, I’ve heard from more frequently authors and other non-profit organizations with all kinds up updates and support and encouragement, and even some businesses have adjusted their marketing strategies to include less promotion and more personal updates and more community support.  All of this connection effort shows your customers and supporters that you’re doing your best to be there for them and build a supportive and positive relationship with them.

Going forward what does all of this mean? It means that businesses really shouldn’t depend on customers just showing up, which means that they have to be more proactive about reaching out and supporting customers in a variety of ways, especially with updated information and ideas/support.  If you don’t yet have a regular social strategy, a regular e-newsletter (and optionally print as well), and an updated-as-necessary website, it’s past time to get on that.  How are you connecting with your customers and supporters? 

In the Business of Gratitude

This month I read Leading with Gratitude by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. Gratitude has emerged as one of the reasons why people say they leave a company, or at the very least the lack thereof is a reason they choose not to stick around. Gratitude is something that we should be practicing on a personal level (i.e. in our relationships and throughout our non-work activities), and it’s also something that is practically cost-free and can have a big impact around the office. It’s something anyone and everyone in the company should do, but especially something that should be started and consistently modeled by the leadership

If all these studies have been done on the power of gratitude, why isn’t it done more at work? Part of the answer has to do with leadership insecurity, fear, presumed effort, and lack of desire to invest in their people. While I understand the idea that bosses/leaders may have that if they’re compassionate and give praise to employees they won’t be seen as the authority figure they are supposed to be, too many leaders have proven that idea to not be valid. In fact, the book said that many leaders find great joy in being part of a gratitude-based team, and find out more about challenges their teams are facing/issues they’re having before they become serious and cause tons of damage.

So what are we talking about when it talks about sharing gratitude at work? While there definitely is a place for general gratitude (“hey, good job today”), the book talked about the best or most empowering gratitude being authentic, specific and timely. Beyond just being appreciated at all, most of us prefer getting specific gratitude and knowing exactly what we did well and getting the recognition that someone knows exactly what we did. But I don’t think we always take the time to think about how much more power a timely gratitude statement has than a list of praises saved up for performance review time.

One interesting point they highlighted about having a gratitude practice at work has to do with how it can be tied to your values and mission. Many companies set out a list of values or mission statement when they start the company, but then don’t follow up on it, and many of the employees can’t even tell you about a company’s values or mission. So not only can you recognize employees/team members in the moment you see them living a company value, you can also make that recognition part of weekly/monthly/quarterly meetings, so that everyone can not only appreciate their fellow employees, but also get some examples and reminders of how they too can live company values and further the company mission.

If you’re not ready to start with outright praise and gratitude, start with something simpler and just (positively) acknowledge what people are doing. It all comes back to recognizing that we’re all human, that we all work better together when people are more empathetic, respectful, and more open so that everyone can work together as a fully functioning and knowledgeable team. Have you thanked or celebrated someone recently?

A Point of Pivot

There’s a word that has trended in recent months and it has given me many mixed feelings. Today I thought we’d look at that word and what it says about our businesses, our leadership and where we go from here. The word? Pivot. The definition of pivot is “a pin, point, or short shaft on the end of which something rests and turns, or upon and about which something rotates or oscillates.” or “any thing or person on which something or someone functions or depends vitally.”

One of the reasons I think the right thing to do when the virus was wreaking havoc was a “pivot” or alternate use or deployment of business resources is because if you think about pivoting with the mental image of what it looks like to pivot around in a circle keeping one foot on the floor, pivoting means that you’re staying true to something or the one thing that’s at the core of your business and leadership at all times, even if there are other changes going on around you, and that’s the care and support of your customers and employees. Pivoting isn’t necessarily something that you’ll continue with in the new future (more on that in the next point), but it’s something that’s likely been at the periphery of your abilities or a temporary significant expansion of your resources, and in moving in that direction for the short term you’re doing your part to care for your customers and employees.

For some businesses a pivot is temporary, for example the liquor businesses who pivoted to make hand sanitizer. They’ll probably never do it again unless they see it as relevant and desired or want to use it as a gift or [fun] talking point. For others the pivot has opened doors that weren’t previously open or considered, and this gives businesses the opportunity to grow in new directions and support their physical and virtual communities in new ways.

That said, it brings us to the points that have challenged me these past few weeks and months. In some cases businesses and non profits have pivoted in recent weeks and months to points that they should have worked on for months if not years prior. One example is all of the retail businesses and faith groups that only had a physical location and hadn’t previously done much or anything when it came to technology. The concern here is that businesses and leaders chose to have an extremely narrow focus, ignoring or discarding what was within range of their core and could support it and their people.

Sometimes leaders choose not to step into those areas of potential growth to cut costs or keep costs low, sometimes they do it because they truly don’t care, sometimes they do it because they’re scared, sometimes they do it because they’re overwhelmed, sometimes they do it because they don’t understand and aren’t willing to take the time to understand, and sometimes they do it because they see that growth potential as a threat to their leadership. Another set of challenges go along with position, and how if you’re not the leader, there’s only so much you can do to get them to expand their vision and consider the pivot, and sometimes the leader can’t get enough support for a vision to expand. But leaders who really care about their business and people should be considering and aware of how their business/non profit can grow, aware of the potential that they could tap into, even if they (along with their team) decide it’s not a necessary step or right for them yet.

So this week I invite you to consider your business and your people. Are you avoiding something? Are you trying to manage too much? Do you need to get new people on your team that you can trust? What can you add or subtract from or separate within your business so that you better support your people and open your business to more [stable and consistent] growth? What if instead of a pivot you worked on an expansion or change?

Time to be a Leader

I don’t know when we’ll get back to “business as normal,” when shopping, going to work, hanging out, traveling and more will be done without more than the usual smart safety precautions (don’t have money hanging out of your pocket, make sure to wear clothes, don’t forget kids and pets in the car, and have snacks in case of emergency), but there’s a big part of me as an active part of society that feels that we have to keep sharing our stories, keep supporting each other, keep the money flowing and keep making progress in our world. As much as great ideas can be created while sitting on the couch, and maybe a website or app or two, we’re not meant to live on couches for our whole lives.

Over the past few months as I’ve said before, we’ve seen some stellar examples of leadership, and we’ve also seen the true colors of some “leaders.” So I’ve postponed the blog post I was going to share today and instead I’m feeling led to share on the topic of leadership and 3 indications of what makes a good leader.

First, a leader is someone who listens. This is something that’s being done a lot right now, that more people than ever are truly listening to the brothers and sisters of all backgrounds that they share the world with. I wish people took time to truly listen to each other more often, because it would avoid a lot of confusion and would help all of us come up with solutions that are actually helpful instead of just what we think other people want. Of course, it has to be true listening, where you are trying to understand and not where you’re smiling and nodding just to pacify someone.

Second, a leader is someone who learns. We can learn from books, from TV shows, from the little children in our lives and that we see while out and about, from animals, from our significant others, from the people we work with and sell to, and from many other sources. Of course, it’s always better to learn true things, for example learning about how the earth is flat isn’t going to be too helpful unless you’re studying it to learn about the people who thought that, but we don’t always know what’s true or not until we’ve done more research. But as the saying goes, a day in which you learned something is a good day. I subscribe to lots of newsletters, read books regularly, listen to what others have to say, and make time to watch more educational programming on TV to try to learn something every day.

Third, a leader is someone who leads. Sometimes this means empowering your team to do work for you (and not micro-managing them while they’re trying to get stuff done), other times this means letting people go or stopping things from continuing, some times this means getting down and dirty with your people and physically getting in front and guiding the way, sometimes it means making extra efforts to communicate and/or encourage, and other times it means taking a stand against injustice or hurt/hate. Leading isn’t always about being in the front, doing all the work or being the loudest voice, but it does mean you step up and forward in whatever ways are necessary.

As we move into whatever the next stage of our lives and world may be, I encourage you to be a true leader in your business, your community and our world. Which leaders do you admire and learn from?

Conversations on Culture and Community

This month I read another older book, The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk. It was written when social media was quite new and he was on the forefront of believing in the possibilities it held for companies. It amazes me that we still have the same arguments many years later about whether it works or not, but we’ve got some companies and campaigns that have been incredibly successful. We won’t be getting into that messy topic today, instead we’ll be looking at a couple of other things that Gary brings up in the book regarding leadership, business, customers, employees and marketing.

A big focus in the book is about people. Gary talks about the importance of treating customers the same whether they’re in person or online, that happy customers are worth a lot more than any other kind, and that customers would rather do business with people they like. As I’ve always said, behind every business is at least one other person. Even when you think you’re in the B2B market, you’re always dealing with people.

But customers aren’t the only people that businesses are connected to, there are employees (and/or partners or affiliates) as well. In the book Gary said “the first thing that makes an employee happy is to be treated as an adult.” It always amazes me how poorly some businesses treat their employees, whether the markets are in good condition or there are challenges like we’re currently experiencing. Employees make or break a company, can cost it untold amounts of revenue and branding, and companies/leaders consistently tie the hands of employees who could help not only fix customer issues, they could help turn them into customers for life. We’re finally getting better at recognizing the importance of and how to care for customers, hopefully employees will be next.

Another core topic in this book is marketing. While much of the conversation is about social media, many of the principles that Gary talks about apply to all types of marketing. One of my favorite lines is “the person who post a negative comment is a customer you can talk to.” No company wants negative reviews, but when they get posted online businesses at least have a chance to make things right, as opposed to the word-of-mouth reviews that used to be the only way people shared about company experiences. Other advice Gary gives about marketing is that in this day and age there is no such thing as a time that you “end” your marketing. You may change what you’re talking about or the topic of a campaign, but the goal is to keep the conversation going.

In line with that, the final thought I want to share is about community. It’s understood that there’s only so low you can go with a price and only so excellent you can make a product or service, so what’s left is the people. Choose to be creative, choose to impress your customers, choose to give customers and employees the chance to talk with leadership, choose to be polite, choose to give customers reasons to care about your brand, choose to care about your customers more than the bottom line, and choose to build a community that supports each other and cares about each other.

What are you building with your business?