Category Archives: Age Of The Customer

What politicians, small business and mice have in common

maze-2Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Spencer Johnson wrote a legendary book titled, Who Moved My Cheese? It tells a story about four characters who ate only cheese.

Early in the story all four characters went to the same place in their world – a maze – to get cheese. The first two were not picky about their cheese or where they found it – it was just food. In fact, the current place in the maze where they found and ate cheese was literally just that. So when someone moved their cheese, they immediately started looking for the new place where cheese was being put.

For the second two characters in Johnson’s story, cheese represented more than food; they had allowed themselves to become defined by the specific cheese found in that specific place in the maze. To them, this cheese was more than nourishment, it also represented their esteem, success and happiness. You’ve heard of being hidebound. Well you might say these two were cheesebound (my term, not Johnson’s), which really wasn’t a problem until someone moved their cheese.

Twenty-five years ago, in his book (and film), Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, futurist Joel Barker defined a paradigm as a set of rules that: 1) establishes/defines boundaries; and 2) tells you how to be successful within those boundaries. Barker says paradigms, both written and unwritten, can be useful until there’s a shift, which is what happened to the cheesebound characters in Johnson’s story. When someone moved their cheese, instead of looking for new cheese like their maze-mates, they whined and dithered so long in the old place – now devoid of cheese – that they put their survival in jeopardy.

Johnson’s cautionary tale – and the two sides of Barker’s paradigm coin – apply to all parts of life, especially politics and business.

For generations, the Democrat and Republican Parties each showed up at the same corner of their own political maze where they had always found the same cheese. Like the second characters in Johnson’s story, both parties had been nourished and defined by the cheese they found in that specific spot. But when someone moved their cheese, as the electorate is doing now, the cheesebound members whine and struggle to maintain their identity instead of taking action to find new cheese. In his book Johnson said: “Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.”

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are like the first two characters in Johnson’s story. Neither define themselves by the old cheese in the old location. They went looking for and, to the surprise of their party leadership, found new cheese. Johnson says, “Movement in a new direction helps you find the new cheese.”

Small business owners should watch the clinic that the Democrats and Republicans are putting on this year on the wages of being cheesebound. Like the electorate, customers are moving cheese and shifting paradigms all over the marketplace . You cannot afford to become cheesebound.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Law of Business Love: It’s okay to fall in love with what you do, but it’s not okay to fall in love with how you do it.

Four factors that stopped the American Startup

As the financial crisis was being resolved in December 2008 I heard someone say, “Wait ’til the startups get going – they’ll end this recession and crank up the economy again.” Of course, this maxim had caught on previously because when you start a business, you create at least one job.

But as I thought about how that entrepreneurial expectation had been true in past recoveries, I considered the environment we were entering and concluded that this recovery was going to be different. Indeed, in my 2009 predictions I reckoned that there were going to be fewer startups in this recovery cycle than ever before based on two conditions I saw coming. Unfortunately, things got even worse due to two factors I didn’t forecast.

Typically, the founding of most Main Street startups are funded initially with access to the personal credit and home equity of the founders. I saw problems coming for both of these sourcesbecause:

1.   One morning in February 2008 – months before the financial crisis but with storm clouds on the horizon – millions of credit card holders woke up to discover their card issuers had withdrawn any available credit they had the day before.

2.   Then, over the next year, the bursting of the real estate/mortgage bubble – the prime cause of the 2008 financial crisis – resulted in wiping out or significantly reducing the home equity of millions of U.S. households.

The two factors I did not forecast are:

3.  The youngest – and largest – of marketplace participant groups, Gen Y and Gen X, age 20-44, apparently are not as entrepreneurial as their Baby Boomer parents were at that age. According to the Kauffman Foundation, since 2009 startup activity for those two demographics has been declining.

4.  In my half-century career, and my study of the history of the American marketplace, prospective founders of new businesses have never been subjected to the level of anti-business rhetoric and policies from the federal government as they have in the past seven years.

One of the seminal findings of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) is a direct connection between a country’s entrepreneurial vitality and its economic growth. The Great Recession ended in June 2009. But the subsequent U.S. recovery, now well into its sixth year of moribund performance (2% annual average GDP growth), has been stuck in a kind of circular reference: expansion-creating startups aren’t happening because of the four entrepreneurship-repressing factors.

Write this on a rock …Real economic expansion – more than 3% growth – will require a return to favorable entrepreneurial conditions lost since 2008.

Next week my column will reveal counter-intuitive ways the lack of startups since 2008 have been positive.

Replace worry and fear with business performance

In his book, Blue Highways, William “Least Heat Moon” Trogdon said his Osage Indian grandfather, William “Heat” Moon, taught him this about worry: “Some things don’t have to be remembered; they remember themselves.”

Owners are justified in worrying about their small businesses, but sometimes they waste emotional energy worrying about things over which they have little or no control, or aren’t likely to happen.

In the movie, Bowfinger, Eddie Murphy played Kit Ramsey, an action movie star also famous for being a pathological worrier. He leads a frightened and miserable life because he worries about strange things that would never happen.

Ramsey’s greatest worry was being captured, killed and eaten by space aliens. He also worried about being crushed by a gigantic foot, or that his body might burst into flames. Pretty silly, huh?!

Watching Murphy play this unstable character is hilarious. But it’s not funny or silly when you and I worry about things that, like Ramsey’s obsessions, probably will never happen.

·  Instead of aliens, how much do you stress out about your business being killed and eaten by the dreaded Internet competition?

Stop obsessing about online competitors. First, you should be an online competitor yourself. Second, without a fixed base, online-only competitors may have what customers need, but you have something more powerful: You know what customers want.

·  Instead of being stepped on by a giant foot, do you obsess about being squashed by one of the Big Boxes?

In The Age of the Customer, prospects often rule you in or out before they know how much you charge. You can establish a level of relevance with prospects and customers that no Big Box can, as they continue to focus first on being competitive.

·  Instead of bursting into flames, do you wake up in the night obsessing that your business might go up in smoke if customers abandon you?

In The Age of the Customer, you actually should obsess about customer expectations, otherwise they won’t really leave, you’ll just become irrelevant.

Instead of living a frightened and miserable life like Kit Ramsey, put that energy into performing so well that any competitor would be hard-pressed to take customers away. Build relationships with customers to the degree that when something they want pops into their heads, as Trogdon’s grandfather would say, your company remembers itself.

Write this on a rock – Don’t live a frightened and miserable life. Replace worry with action and performance.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

Four kinds of Vitamin C prevent professional scurvy

For centuries, prolonged service at sea resulted in sailors contracting a malady called scurvy.  Those so afflicted bruised easily, had joint pain, gum disease, tooth loss — you get the picture.

By the mid-18th century, researchers discovered that eating citrus fruit, like lemons and limes, would prevent scurvy. We now know the active ingredient in this “remedy” is vitamin C in the ascorbic acid found in these fruits. Ascorbic literally means “no scurvy” in Latin.

One of the maladies often found in business owners is a condition I call professional scurvy. This kind doesn’t cause your teeth to fall out, but symptoms do include high levels of negative energy, low levels of performance and an easily bruised ego resulting in an unfortunately high business failure rate.

The good news is, like the seagoing kind, professional scurvy can be cured with vitamin C — actually four kinds of professional vitamin C.

1.  Vitamin Courage

Challenges ignored turn into ugly problems that can bruise a business. But facing challenges with courage reduces the negative impact and provides a chance to morph them into opportunities.

Courage is being brave AFTER you’ve had time to think about it.  Catch challenges early so you can administer a dose of Vitamin Courage.

2.  Vitamin Confidence

Thomas Edison is alleged to have said failure is successfully identifying what doesn’t work. Pure success tends to build ego, which in high concentration can be professionally dangerous. But success alloyed with failure actually builds confidence, which is essential for long-term performance.

Vitamin Confidence in business is nothing more than faith in your ability to sail around present and future challenges, as well as seize opportunities that come your way.

3.  Vitamin Character

Contracts are the transactional laws of the marketplace. But like the relationship between captain and crew, it’s character that counts, not legal words or signatures on paper.

Those who demonstrate high levels of Vitamin Character —like doing the right thing even if the contract doesn’t require it — have no difficulty finding customers or crew.

4.  Vitamin Credential

This one is critical because courage without skill is the definition of foolhardy; confidence without resources is what Texans call “all hat and no cattle;” and character without knowledge is a well-intentioned commitment that may not be kept.

All the best intentions won’t help you succeed if you don’t acquire Vitamin Credentials — education, skill, experience and resources — that can back up your business plan and commitment to deliver.

Write this on a rock….

Prevent professional scurvy with regular doses Professional Vitamin C.

 

 

Relevance is the Customer’s new prime expectation

When describing what influences the behavior of individuals as they pursue their lives, you would likely include concepts associated with goals, plans, passion, desire, ego, personality, etc. In matters of human interaction as we meet, love, and work together, there is often an abiding struggle between my passion and your ego, for example, or your goals and my plans. Indeed, successful long-term personal relationships are based more on my tolerance of you today and your forbearance of me tomorrow. Give and take.

But in the marketplace, affection and sentiment give way to performance and contracts, because tolerance and forbearance are usually subjective, often inefficient, and sometimes even unproductive. Consequently, a very powerful concept has developed over the millennia that is the nucleus of how marketplace participants minimize conflict and find common ground. In classically efficient marketplace style, I’ve reduced this concept to one word: expectations.

For example, the most important thing for you to know about someone with whom you’re negotiating a contract is that party’s expectations—especially that one, true, uncompromising expectation, beyond which they won’t go. But nowhere has the quest for expectation clarity been more in evidence than between Seller and Customer. Because the quicker a Customer’s expectations about value and values can be determined, the quicker the Seller can find a way to fulfill those expectations and make the sale.

For 10,000 years, during the Age of the Seller, Customer expectations were driven by consumption created by innovation. And all of this was around products and services produced and delivered by Sellers to Customers who essentially became passive recipients of the next innovation. Think of all of the new things Customers have acquired for the first time in the past century: cars, kitchen appliances, radios, televisions, personal computers, and iPods, just to name a few.

But now, in The Age of the Customer, expectations are less about new things and more about new empowerment. Rather than anticipating a brand new product, Customers are more likely to get excited about a new smartphone app that helps them find, review, compare, pay for, and take delivery. And increasingly, Customers are eliminating Sellers at this level of relevance, which is often before they know about competitiveness.

A Seller’s acquisition and retention of Customers is now more about being relevant to their influence and control over the acquisition process, and less about what’s being acquired. Let me say that another way: Customer expectations become less about what you sell and more about how you make a transaction handy, convenient, time-saving, on-demand, pre-appraised, on multiple platforms, in multimedia, etc. This is a big part of the definition of relevance, and it’s the new prime expectation of Customers.

An expectation of relevance is the new coin of the realm. Disregard this Age of the Customer truth at your own peril.

Write this on a rock … The original prime expectation was competitiveness. The new one is relevance.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

Sustain Outrageous Success with the Golden Triplets

Once upon a time, consumers enjoyed what I call The Golden Age of Customer Service. Alas, based on current research, we now appear to be in the Plastic Age of Customer Unservice.

The most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index revealed three sad facts: 1) a steady satisfaction decline in the past year; 2) the lowest level of satisfaction in almost a decade; and 3) the current level is lower than 25 years ago.

So why has such a level of unservice become so sustainable? Because customers are sensitized to what I call the Plastic Triplets: High volume, low price and poor service.

For small businesses, the Plastic Triplets represent both opportunity and danger. But seizing the former while avoiding the latter requires the understanding that rarely do the high volume, low price siblings appear without bringing along their triplet, poor service.

The danger of high volume is it’s almost always associated with a price war. This will be on the test: The price war is over and small business lost. And low prices are great for customers, but not for any business from which quality service is expected.

Nothing that has happened in the past 30 years has changed how humans want to be treated, only

how they expect to be treated. Armed with this understanding, all a small business has to do to prove it isn’t plastic is to reverse the order of the triplets and rename them. Meet the Golden Triplets.

1. Excellent service. This is serving customers in a way that’s not only reliable, but also innovative and, most importantly, relevant. When service is excellent, the first thing you may notice is customers act surprised, because remember, humans still want excellent service, they’re just not used to it.

2. Premium prices. This is the mother’s milk of a small business because it delivers success sustaining higher margins. If you’re delivering value and aren’t charging for it, that probably means you’ve joined a price war, and you know what we’ve said about price wars.

3. Targeted volume. As a small business, you not only don’t want to do business with everyone, you can’t. So you have to target only those customers who want more than just price. They want customization, dependability, technical assistance and one more thing: They want you to save them time because, more people are valuing their time more than their money.

In the Age of the Customer, the key to sustained success is delivering the Golden Triplets with relevance to just those customers who are willing to pay for the special sauce of your small business.

Write this on a rock … Create your own Golden Age of Customer Service – and outrageous success – by staying focused on the Golden Triplets.

Why trust is a best business practice

Are you familiar with the term “dysfunctional family?”

The simple definition is, a family whose members don’t work and play well with each other. Such relationships typically create emotional, mental, sometimes even physical distress, and/or estrangement.

Sadly, we humans also create dysfunctional businesses. Perhaps this definition will sound familiar: A dysfunctional company is one whose teams don’t work and play well with each other. Such relationships typically create emotional, mental, sometimes even physical distress, and a casualty list.

Someone once said, “Friends we choose – family we’re stuck with.”  Since we get to choose where we work and who we hire, why are there dysfunctional businesses?

The answer is actually quite simple, and it’s the common denominator in both businesses and families: human beings. If your family, or company, is dysfunctional, it’s because of the behavior of the humans.

Humans aren’t inherently bad, but we are inherently self-absorbed. And one of the by-products of self-absorption is self-preservation. When self-preservation shields are up, mistrust flourishes, goals go unmet, and failure is likely. When shields are down, productivity, creativity, and organizational well-being are evident. But the latter only happens if the stakeholders believe there is a basis for trust.

If your organization is not accomplishing its goals and making progress, look around to see if there’s more self-preservation going on than teamwork. Where evidence of individual and departmental self-preservation is found, you’ll also find lots of dysfunction, but not much trust.

In his book, “Built On Trust,” my friend, Arky Ciancutti, goes so far as to say that trust is “…one of the most powerful forces on earth.” He further states that the two most powerful trust-building tools are closure and commitment.

Closure is implied when there is a promise to deliver by a stated time. It manifests when performance happens or, in the alternative, a progress report is delivered in advance of the date.

Commitment, Arky says, “is a condition of no conditions.” When the relationship between two parties is built on trust, there are no hidden agendas. And while commitment may not always deliver the end product, it does guarantee a report about the progress.

Even though closure and commitment are skills that often must be learned, you’ll find willing participants in your employees, because human beings desire trust.  If your organizational culture isn’t built on trust, it’s not the employees’ fault. Trust and dysfunction have one key thing in common: they’re gravity fed. They start at the top and roll downhill.

Humans perform better in organizations built on trust.  Knowing this, successful managers demonstrate trust-building behavior and instill it in others as not only the right thing to do, but as a business best practice.

 

Write this on a rock — If organizational dysfunction is a poison, trust is its antidote.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

How to get a bank loan – Part Two

Since most businesses have been deleveraging post-2008 financial crisis, you could be forgiven for getting rusty at how to ask for a loan from bank. But as the economy picks up and you need growth capital, it’ll be handy to brush up on your banking skills.

Last time, I used the customer qualifying process as an analogy for how to work with your banker to get a loan, and offered the first three of six loan request factors: Who makes the decision, what do they need and how do they want it? Now let’s talk about the last three.

What motivates them?

All banks need to make loans, but all banks don’t like the same kinds of loans. Some banks make working capital loans, and some don’t. Most banks make real estate loans, but each one has its own profile of what kind of real estate they like. And all banks like to loan money for things with serial numbers, like vehicles and equipment. In your first meeting, what the banker says about your proposal should indicate their level of interest in your type of loan. But if not, it’s okay to ask.

Banks will fight for loans, but they’ll kill for deposits. Checking account deposits are virtually free money to a bank, a portion of which they use to make loans. They like personal checking accounts, but LOVE business accounts. A bank’s motivation increases with your daily deposits if you place your operating account with them. You should know the value of your deposits to a bank and use that information to negotiate rates and terms.

How motivated are they?

You can tell how motivated a bank is by how helpful the loan officer is.  Her excitement is no foreteller of success, just of motivation.  But if she seems indifferent or unmotivated, that’s probably not a good sign.

A deal that couldn’t get through the front door of Bank A this morning, could be received with a red carpet at Bank B this afternoon. So be prepared to take your proposal to more than one bank. And be sure at least one of the banks you make a loan proposal to is an independent community bank.

What do I have to do?

Bankers love field trips. Give your banker a demonstration of the new equipment the loan is for, or take them to see the real estate you want to buy. Show them how the object of your loan request will help you grow your business, profits and deposits.

The best way to get a business loan is to do your homework, anticipate what your banker needs and get them what they ask for. And if the bank that was loyal to you when you needed them doesn’t have the best deal — but it’s a deal you can live with, “dance with the one that brung ya.”

Write this on a rock …

Understanding how banks make business loans will improve your chances of getting one.

Jim Blasingame is the award-winning host of The Small Business Advocate Show and author of “Three Minutes to Success.” Find Jim online at www.jbsba.com.

 

Replace worry & fear with business performance

In his book, Blue Highways, William “Least Heat Moon” Trogdon said his Osage Indian grandfather, William “Heat” Moon, taught him this about worry: “Some things don’t have to be remembered; they remember themselves.”

Owners are justified in worrying about their small businesses, but sometimes they waste emotional energy worrying about things over which they have little or no control, or aren’t likely to happen.

In the movie, Bowfinger, Eddie Murphy played Kit Ramsey, an action movie star also famous for being a pathological worrier. He leads a frightened and miserable life because he worries about strange things that would never happen.

Ramsey’s greatest worry was being captured, killed and eaten by space aliens. He also worried about being crushed by a gigantic foot, or that his body might burst into flames. Pretty silly, huh?!

Watching Murphy play this unstable character is hilarious. But it’s not funny or silly when you and I worry about things that, like Ramsey’s obsessions, probably will never happen.

·  Instead of aliens, how much do you stress out about your business being killed and eaten by the dreaded Internet competition?

Stop obsessing about online competitors. First, you should be an online competitor yourself. Second, without a fixed base, online-only competitors may have what customers need, but you have something more powerful: You know what customers want.

·  Instead of being stepped on by a giant foot, do you obsess about being squashed by one of the Big Boxes?

In The Age of the Customer, prospects often rule you in or out before they know how much you charge. You can establish a level of relevance with prospects and customers that no Big Box can, as they continue to focus first on being competitive.

·  Instead of bursting into flames, do you wake up in the night obsessing that your business might go up in smoke if customers abandon you?

In The Age of the Customer, you actually should obsess about customer expectations, otherwise they won’t really leave, you’ll just become irrelevant.

Instead of living a frightened and miserable life like Kit Ramsey, put that energy into performing so well that any competitor would be hard-pressed to take customers away. Build relationships with customers to the degree that when something they want pops into their heads, as Trogdon’s grandfather would say, your company remembers itself.

Write this on a rock – 

Don’t live a frightened and miserable life. Replace worry with action and performance.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

The Blasingame Translator for Small Businesses and Banks

Once upon a time, a storm caused two ships to sink in the same area. All on board were lost at sea, save one from each ship, and those poor souls were alive only because they swam to a small island nearby.

As luck would have it, the two men hauled themselves up on the beach at the same time and within sight of each other. But survivor’s elation soon became pensive as they realized that each spoke a language unknown to the other.

Immediately both men had the same unspoken thought, “I don’t know this man or the language he speaks, but if we’re going to survive, we have to find a way to communicate and work together.”

In many ways, this tale actually plays out every day. But instead of on the high seas, our story takes place in the marketplace. And instead of mythical shipwreck survivors, our real life players are small business owners and bankers.

Female banker sat with investor

Like the survivors in the first story, the excitement of the latter-day castaways about their future prospects turns pensive when they both realize that: 1) they need each other in order to be successful; and 2) they don’t speak each other’s language very well, if at all.

With so much common interest and so little mutual understanding, can these two create a successful survival story?  Absolutely, but only if they have The Blasingame Official Translator for Bankers & Small Business Owners. Here are a few examples of how The Blasingame Translator works.

For small businesses to understand banker, they must:

  1.  Identify their banker as a success partner and their business’ best friend.
  2. Stay close to their banker when things are going well, and even closer when things aren’t going so well.
  3. Believe that an uninformed banker is a scared banker, and a scared banker cannot, and will not, behave like a partner.
  4. Pay attention to what motivates and impresses a banker, like attention to detail.
  5. Understand pertinent bank rules and regulations, so you don’t ask for something that can’t be done.
  6. Reward banker loyalty with small business loyalty.

For bankers to speak small business, they must:

  1.  Understand Blasingame’s 1st Law of Small Business: Starting a small business is easy, operating a successful one is not.
  2. Understand Blasingame’s 2nd Law of Small Business: It’s redundant to say, “undercapitalized small business.”
  3. Understand Blasingame’s 3rd Law of Small Business: A small business is not a little big business.
  4. Explain bank rules and regulations, and recommend services and products.
  5. In the credit scoring process, always find a way to give small business owners credit for character, past performance and best efforts.
  6. Reward small business loyalty with banker loyalty.

Write this on a rock … To avoid becoming marketplace castaways, small business owners and bankers must speak each other’s language.

Jim Blasingame is the author of the award-winning book, “The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.”