The Business of Going Green

For years there’s been a trend on going green, on reusable materials and on being environmentally friendly.   It has been a challenge for some businesses because the old ways of doing things are easy, especially if you’re not concerned about the environmental cost in the long or short term.  Some businesses give it a try or make some effort to do things right, but don’t lead with a green focus.  Other businesses have thrived in providing products and services that not only take into consideration the environment, but are products and services that are well made as well and do the job they’re being purchased to do.  Not only do businesses get brownie points for doing what’s good for the environment, but customers actively seek those businesses out because they are conscious about the impact their life and buying habits are having on the world we all share.

Customers are more willing to buy a “green” product or service that might not be quite as good in quality if they know they’re doing good for the earth. Some companies are also able to persuade customers into believing that a product is effective even if it’s not the greatest, and get away with it by talking about how green it is. But with both of those examples customers are still clearly attracted by how the product is made or service delivered as well as that it’s what they need or want.

Recently I read a headline about how a company is creating shirts out of…wait for it…unused milk.  No, that’s not a typo or misspelling or inaccurate word choice.  I didn’t read the article or choose to find anything about the company after reading the headline because I was quite frankly disgusted (and I’m not including a link here for the same reason).  I’m all for creating products that are smarter about how they use our resources, but the green movement hasn’t fully caught up with quality or demand in at least a couple of aspects.

Don’t get me wrong, this company would get a gold star for being creative, but business is about being more than just creative or saving the earth, it has to make good financial sense as well, and for good financial sense to be achieved it has to be making sales.  I don’t know about you, but I would not want to tell the world how proud I am to be wearing a shirt made from unused milk. I’m also not going to spread the word and tell my friends about this company that sells shirts made from milk.

When your customers aren’t proud of or excited by what you’re making and aren’t willing to share about their purchases with their friends, you quickly lose a great potential source of traffic and recommendations, and word of mouth is one of the reasons that many companies, especially small start-ups are successful today.  This story is a great reminder to make sure that your business is supplying something that there’s a need or demand for in the world. Have you recently confirmed that you’re still offering something people want and need?

Combining the Practical with Passion

This month I read The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau. It wasn’t a business book in the traditional sense, but had some good insights that can guide us both as business owners as well as leaders as we interact with our teams and clients/customers. The book was a look at not only the author’s journey to all countries in the world, but also about the journeys/quests/dreams of other people, and I liked that he talked about both the practical side of things as well as the emotional side of things. Let’s take a look at a few of the lessons in the book.

The idea of belief was discussed throughout the book, first and foremost that the person going through the quest (or the person/people running the business) has to believe in what they’re starting or doing. Second, there will always be people who don’t believe in what you believe in. Finally, everyone needs support. For business owners that’s both people who will buy from them and buy into their mission, and second people who will support them as a person like a family or friends.  Neither a quest nor a business can be done completely alone.

Also throughout the book was discussion on who a mission was for/about, what the point was of going on the journey, and what meaning and fulfillment is being created as a result. All good businesses have to have a purpose of some kind. Maybe it’s to create fun or give people the opportunity to buy things they want that definitely aren’t essentials but are things they want or think are cool or are status items.  It doesn’t have to be a serious or life-based purpose like a doctor or grocery store owner to have a valid purpose or mission.  In fact, your business should have meaning for both you and the people that you sell to and work with.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the book also talked about the importance of embracing the practical. You can’t just waltz into countries, you have to get your passport stamped first and get past customs. The same is true for businesses: you have to have plans and strategies and take action, take time to regularly look into your finances and metrics and data, and most of all have a market that not only wants to buy from you but actually does. As important as the passion and mission are, you have to be able to take a step back from that and focus on the practical details that make the business run if you want to be successful.

Finally, there’s a lesson to be learned from the title of the book, and it’s something that Chris shared about throughout the book, and that’s that some people really find value and life in the pursuit of something. It’s in moving forward, one step, large or small, at a time that we know we’re alive, that we are invigorating to keep moving forward, that we’re able to build new connections and grow current ones. That journey isn’t always a straight line and will change as you and the world change, and the journey should be worth taking. It’s when you’re no longer passionate about that journey or the end destination that you need to revisit things.

What have you been learning lately from your business or trying not to hear or see?

Lessons in Leverage

There’s always been a group of people who look for the shortest or fastest route through, around or to something or someone. I have no problem with letting go of things that are unnecessary or taking out unnecessary steps, but fastest/shortest isn’t always best. For example, for a time there was a large interest in buying likes and other social points to unnaturally inflate business accounts so they would look more popular or active than they were. It’s something that the social networks have cracked down on fortunately but still something a few people are still doing. I understand the desire to present large numbers to people, especially when some celebrities have so many social interactions and connections, but when you have fake likes etc. it completely screws up your metrics and any data you want to analyze and it means you’re not being honest with your customers.

So what can we do as businesses to grow faster or quicker? One option we have is to get really good at leveraging. What does this mean? It means that we build a business smarter, taking advantage of the tools and resources we have access to. Sometimes it means a little extra effort or resources expended, but in the long run you’ll connect better with your team and your customers, and be more successful for longer.

Let’s take a look at some examples. For social media there are many things you can do with a social account, but the question I often raise with clients is how fully they’re taking advantage of all that a social network offers. Are you posting, doing ads, being social and promoting the account through your emails, website etc. or just doing one/some of the above? If you’re not leveraging all that the social account has to offer, it’s likely you’re missing out on some great opportunities for growth.

Another example has to do with your employees, team, and customers. Do you have people of all ages on your team and are you talking with all of them to get different generational perspectives? Are you tapping into the different skill sets and interests that each of them have or trying to force them into your preferred box? What about your customers? Are you getting their feedback on what you’re offering and finding out what they need? These are simple conversations to initiate, and can pay off big in the long term if you’re implementing what you’re learning.

A final example is one that I share about regularly, and that’s holidays. If everyone around you is talking about the upcoming holiday, how can you leverage that holiday positively for your business? Rather than complain about the holiday or how it steals customers from you, turn it into a money making opportunity. Offer relevant seasonal offerings, surprise your customers with seasonal gifts, and be flexible with your team and their schedules so they can be with their families too (a happy team is a productive team). Make the holiday work for your business.

What about you? What are you leveraging in your business to help it grow?

Getting Ready for Holiday Business

With only 11 weeks left in the year, 37 days to Black Friday, 67 days to Hanukkah and 70 days until Christmas, it’s definitively time to get your plan in place for the rest of the year and the holiday shopping season. If you don’t have a plan for what you’re going to offer and how you’re going to market those offerings and your business you’re basically saying that whatever happens happens and you’re going to just accept it. Personally that’s not my preference, but without a plan that’s what you’re saying. In line with a plan regarding your offerings and marketing those offerings should be a plan on how you’re going to capitalize on those sales in the future, such as through a newsletter, blog, podcast and/or social media.

So let’s start with what should be in the plan. In your plan for your offerings should be the offerings you’re going to feature that are classics and favorites, offerings you have available every holiday season, and offerings available for this holiday season alone. Of course you may have other offerings, but they won’t be those you focus on promoting for the next 11 weeks. Make sure that for seasonal offerings you can get/give enough if your offering would go viral or be in high demand, unless you’re intentionally planning to extremely limit what’s available because of the low cost or high product cost.

Once you’ve got the offerings selected, then it’s time to talk about marketing. Hopefully you’ve been actively marketing all year long and aren’t planning to attempt to do all your proactive marketing in the last 11 weeks of the year, but that’s what some businesses do. It’s also a good time to review all your social accounts and your website to make sure they’re not only up to date but also are clearly displaying and celebrating your holiday/seasonal offerings.

Finally, make sure that you’re not after one sale, but building a relationship that could result in sales in the future from your customers or from their friends. Have things like a newsletter, blog, and/or podcast you update at least weekly that people can subscribe to, have social accounts that you consistently post to where they can connect with you, and if you’re a local business consider offering a mailing list that they can get post cards and other materials mailed to them. Now’s also a great time to evaluate your strategies for each of those and make sure that you like what you’re doing and your customers do too.

How are you getting ready for the holidays?

Customers Have Questions

Every customer has a question they’re hoping you can help them answer. Sometimes that one question leads to more questions, but all questions start with asking whether or not you’ve got what they’re looking for or if you’re able to help them. One of your goals should be to clearly and succinctly communicate what you offer, both in general and for each specific product/service, because if in the first few seconds of their visit on your site or in conversing with you they don’t think you can help them (or they can’t figure out what you offer), they’re more likely to move on and try someone else.

So the question to you is “what do you offer”? That may be the whole question, but it also may be more specific as “What do you offer in this product?” or “What do you offer in this service?”. The answer to that any of those three questions should be a phrase or a complete sentence, and again, it should be easy to understand in the few seconds potential customers may give you.

Once you’ve established the big picture of your offering, then you have to consider what more specific questions people would have about that product or service. Some of those questions would typically be answered on the individual product/service pages, for example what does something look like, what sizes are available or what’s the cost or what colors are available or what are the measurements of the item or what are the time limits/commitments on the service or what makes this one different from similar ones like it. In too many situations these individual pages are insufficient and leave people with questions.

Beyond that are some questions that companies often answer on FAQ pages. If you have a lot of general questions it’s best to sort and group them by category with section titles.  Additionally, if you are only posting questions about one aspect of what you offer that for some reason you don’t want to post on the actual product/service page, you need to clearly communicate the purpose of your FAQ page at the top of the page so that you don’t confuse people.

Finally, as a last resort you should make it easy for people to ask their questions by providing them at least two means of contact such as an email address and web form, or phone number and social account or any combination of some/all and more. As I said you should answer as many questions and provide as much information as possible for them before they have to contact you, but some people have situation-specific questions that wouldn’t be answered by anything you would likely put on the site, but they’ve seen enough that they think what you’re offering might answer the question of if you’ve got what they’re looking for.

So does your business answer your customer’s questions, or do you just create more questions?

Setting a Good (Business) Example

School is in full swing, all after school activities are busy with practices, games, performances and other activities, and the weather is taking a definite turn towards autumn tomorrow if the weather people are correct. The idea of school was established many years ago so that kids would get not only a foundational understanding on what it means to be an adult, but also get an introduction to all the topics they may have to know about as an adult and things that may help them decide what they’re going to do with the rest of (or many years of) their life. School was established with the best intentions, a way of socializing the next generation, exposing them to things their parents wouldn’t be able to do alone and giving them a solid starting point to life.  And I believe that the idea of school is a good and necessary one.

But still today there are people who don’t make it through school, who aren’t able to learn based on the current format, who aren’t being prepared for what comes next. Does the current iteration of school need to be replaced? In many ways I say yes because the world has shifted in many ways from what it was when the current school practices were decided upon. In many ways schools aren’t preparing the next generation to go out and live in this world. But thanks to the internet and some more inventive educational organizations, there are ways to fill the gaps until something can be properly discussed and thought out.

The next question of course is what else is falling outdated and therefore failing others? What opportunities do we have that we may or may not be taking advantage of? What are we trying to shout to the world through our social posts, TV shows, movies, and events? What are we telling the world through the marketing, promoting and sponsoring that we do?

The good news is that the business world has a much easier time of making changes than the established school system does, because each individual business has the ability to take a look at what they’re doing and decide it’s not serving them the way they hoped it would, decide what’s outdated and not helping them move forward, decide what types of training and support are best for their teams, and most of all decide whether the story they’re telling to the world is the right one for them or not.

We have 3 months left in 2019, what face is your business showing to the world? What contributions are you making as a business to the world and your ideal customers/clients? Is this the business that you want to enter into 2020 with? Don’t despair because there are only 3 months left in 2019, instead ask questions, accept facts, and make changes so that the business you have going into 2020 is one that’s making a positive impact on the world, contributing to communities, partnering with other like-minded businesses and maybe most importantly, is one that you’re proud to run.

A Coach for the People

This month I read “Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell.” This book is a look at the principles and practices and leadership of Bill Campbell who started by being a sports coach and moved to become one of the greatest business coaches, working with Apple, Google and other big businesses. The book shared about a man who had a really big heart, lots of smarts and great people skills. Everyone who knew him had great things to say about him, and even after his death his practices and teachings live on in the companies he worked with.

The core of the book and what Bill was all about, is people. Bill was all about teamwork, communication, openness, honesty and trust. He recognized that it all comes back to people: that people are what make or break a company, sell a product/service, help a customer, or buy a product/service; that to care about people you have to care about people; and that it’s not always about the problem but about having the right people on the team to get things done.

Much of what was shared through this book emphasized that it’s not just about having people to fill spaces or do a job, but about having healthy teams, healthy relationships, healthy lives and healthy communications. It’s not about perfection or getting it right all the time or not having disagreements or not having weaknesses, but about doing what’s good for the community; creating a culture of safety, clarity, meaning, and impact so teams can thrive; having dependable people on your team; keeping everyone on the same page across departments; and creating victories for today and tomorrow.

When it all comes down to it, what Bill knew and taught throughout his life was that while teams are essential and invaluable, everyone is their own person, responsible for how they live their life, how they give back, how they love, how successful they are, how they communicate, what kind of leader they are and what difference they make in the world. Each person Bill came into contact with was challenged to be their best, give their best and love the best they could.

As we head into the last months of this year, I would challenge you to not (just) focus on getting products and services out the door to as many people as possible, but to be a people person, to genuinely care about the people you connect with and to make each person’s day that you connect with a little better.

A Question of Value

If you’re in business you have to be making money, right? If you’re not making money (not enough to cover expenses), the old saying goes that you’ve got a hobby, not a business. I was having a conversation the other day with my partner about a program for the computer that has a pricey yearly fee, and he was considering paying that fee, and I told him that I use a different, open source, program that works just fine and I haven’t had any complaints from clients about it, or had any difficulty using it, and didn’t really notice any differences from that program and the open source one I use. It brought us into an extensive conversation about what we would be willing to pay on a yearly basis, why there is a cost to begin with, and whether the cost is reasonable or not.

Most people understand the need to pay for products and services. The business world has even done a fair job of explaining the concept of luxury goods and services and the value of paying extra or more for some products and services. Some businesses are better than others at explaining the value of their offerings, regardless of the price. I speak with businesses each week who struggle with their marketing not (just) because their marketing is weak or insufficient, but because they haven’t established the true value of their offerings. Sometimes a brand itself is enough to establish value, but more often than not it is up to the product or service to establish the value.

For extended return periods, free exchanges, free 2 day shipping, special/unique features, limited editions, a special cause or story or regular (quality) updates, yes, it’s understandably worth paying (a little) more. A company can easily retain faithful customers that are willing to invest a little more in their products or services because they offer things like this.

But the other is true as well. Because they offer a lower price or a small subscription fee, a company can gain customers that would not be willing to subscribe to more expensive subscription programs or would not make the investment in the more expensive product. Maybe it means a company has to be a little more creative about what they offer in the subscription or not offer all the bells and whistles another company might offer, but some customers are just fine with that.

It is possible that the number of people that are willing to pay the higher amounts make up for the customers that are lost because the price is higher, but it’s not something you should assume without doing proper research.

So what did my partner end up doing? As you probably guessed, he went ahead with the free open source computer program too. We both agreed that if the cost was more reasonable and better aligned with the lack of improvements and special features we would both have been willing to invest in it.  But the benefits aren’t worth the cost.

What about your costs and benefits? Is your company clear about the value you offer and why your pricing is what it is?

The Next Chapter in Advertising

Lately I’ve been thinking about advertising. I know, not a big shock considering I work with and write about businesses. One of the reasons it’s been on my mind is because of all the talk about privacy and the sheer number of ads that people typically see on a daily basis (one report indicates about 5,000 per day, but even if we’re only seeing a fraction of that it’s still a ton). I know I get several hundred emails in a day and many of them have a banner ad or some other type of promotion in them, then there are all the ads you see when you watch TV, or are driving down the street or are perusing your favorite shopping website.

If I’m honest I don’t have a problem with ads, and I don’t just say that because I’m in business and advertise. We have so much going on in our lives that ads and promotions are a good way to let people know about something a company is offering they may want or need, without us having to do all the work to find out what’s on sale or what’s new. But I do agree that some companies abuse the privilege of advertising. They spam you or don’t tell you about fees or hide key details that had you known you would have never clicked on the ad. I wish companies would be more responsible about ads, which brings us to the other topic: privacy.

I like my privacy as much as the next person, and like many people I do feel like some companies have more information than they should, and not all companies are as respectful of that data and that trust that people are placing with them. As a result of how some companies act, I’m not surprised by the uproar and the way that the hammer is really coming down on all things privacy and advertising, and I’m more than a little frustrated at these companies for causing so much fear and hesitance to end up on those of us businesses that are very careful and respectful.

So where does this leave businesses? I don’t think it means the end of advertising. It does mean that businesses should be more responsible because of the sheer number of options that people could switch to if they don’t like the practices of a business. It also means that it’s time for a change when it comes to how businesses are advertising. Businesses should clearly communicate with their customers regarding their ethics, and options when it comes to a customer’s privacy.

It also presents an opportunity for a business and customer to have more open conversation about what the customer wants to share with a company, what the customer wants from the company, how the customer wants it from the company, and why the company advertises/includes the advertisements they do. More people would be more open to ads if they knew they would be relevant to them, were at a frequency they were comfortable with. Likewise, people would be more willing to share some information, especially about preferences and interests, as long as the information that is requested is reasonable, and when it’s acted upon the customer and their privacy is respected and protected. And again, more people would be receptive to ads if they were delivered through a preferred means, and there are very few situations where only an email or only a mobile number would suffice, and would not be interchangeable, especially if allowing a customer to choose one or the other would mean someone would be receptive to getting information.

The advertising arena is changing, it’s a question of whether it becomes a customer vs. business thing, or if we’re able to figure out how to work together so that we still grow our businesses but we also respect and support our customers. How are you navigating the changing ad market?

When A Business Steps Up

Sometimes smart business means stepping up where others aren’t. It’s getting harder to differentiate yourself, especially with the internet really leveling the playing field, because anyone can create a social account, website, blog or email address and start connecting with others. That said it’s more important than ever to do your best to differentiate yourself, clearly state what that difference is, and provide not just awesome customer service, but have a really great culture that supports your team as well. Today I want to share two examples of how a business or organization communicated or stepped up in a way that others don’t or haven’t.

There’s been a ton of talk recently regarding Hurricane Dorian, and already there has been significant damage report in at least one location impacted by the storm. This past week there was an early statement from an airport in Florida that they were planning to close the airport at a certain time giving consideration to the thousands of workers at the airport and their needs to see to their families and homes. As the unpredictable storm has changed they’ve made changes to their plan, but that initial statement stuck with me because you don’t always hear a company phrase it that way. Typically businesses talk about the danger and leave it at that or maybe comment about it being dangerous to travelers, but rarely do you hear a company talk about the importance of closing so that their team (large or small) can do what they need to do.

The other big news story is the CNN hosted town hall with 10 of the 2020 presidential candidates, and MSNBC will be hosting one later this month too. Thousands of people around the US had petitioned and requested that a climate question be added to the next debate or that a separate debate be held, and all requests were denied or ignored. So CNN and MSNBC took it upon themselves to invite these 10 candidates to share their thoughts on climate and what politically/governmentally needs to be done or how the government can step up.  If they both hadn’t stepped up and done the research to find a loophole in the rules that others had missed or ignored, they miss out on a great opportunity for publicity and public good will.

A good business leader is aware of potential issues that impact not just their ability to have sales but to care for the people who make those sales possible and so successful.  Good business leaders also don’t ignore the requests and feedback of thousands of people, all very publicly stated.  Focus on how you can increase your positive publicity, how you can do better for the people you connect with, and how you can step up when there is a need.