Category Archives: Management

Are you asking the Outsourcing Power Question?

Biutou Doumbia lives in a tiny village in Mali, in western Africa. She and her family live in poverty, very close to the line between survival and, well, you know.

Oh, one more thing: Biutou is a small business owner. She makes and sells peanut butter.

In Mali, as reported in a Wall Street Journal article, peanut butter is made the same way African women have made other staples for millennia: by grinding the seeds on a rock with a wooden pestle.

You might say Biutou’s operation is vertically integrated: She grows the peanuts, then manufactures, sells and distributes her product.

Over two centuries ago, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith explained how markets are made by the division of labor. And free markets created capitalism, which Ayn Rand called, “the Senegalonly system geared to the life of a rational being.”

Biutou doesn’t know Smith or Rand from a warthog – she’s illiterate. But she is one of Rand’s rational beings. And as such, she recognized the division-of-labor efficiencies offered by a diesel-powered grinder/blender when it became available. Now for 25¢ and a 10-minute wait, the sack of peanuts Biutou carries to the central grinding location turn into better peanut butter than she could make pounding all day with a pestle.

So Biutou now practices outsourcing, a division of labor process which is the employment of contractors to create efficiencies. Outsourcing is a valid business strategy, as is its opposite – you guessed it – insourcing, the process of removing vendor layers, usually to get closer to customers.

These two strategies are as different as chocolate and vanilla; but, like ice cream, choosing one doesn’t mean the other is wrong, just different. When Biutou practiced insourcing she didn’t have a choice. You have many choices; but are you choosing wisely?

One of the things every 21st century small business must do is focus on core competencies: what you do that makes your business valuable to customers.  Everything else, theoretically, can be performed by a specialist in your non-core activity.

Take a look at your own operation to see if – like Biutou – you can find efficiencies and recover time through outsourcing. Ask yourself and your staff Blasingame’s Outsourcing Power Question: Must this task be done in-house? The answer will come from these three questions:

• How much control do we lose, and can we live with it?

• What impact will our decision have on customers?

• How much of not using outsourcing is about ego?

Remember, any decision to employ outsourcing – or not – should be driven by the desire to seek efficiencies and improve customer service.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Outsourcing Power Question: Must this task be done in-house?

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.

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.”

Converting to a new kind of quality in the Age of the Customer

Successful customer service is the process of delivering value to a customer in exchange for payment.

Surely this is the prime directive of any business.

But this process isn’t truly successful unless the relationship can be sustained; and only quality produces sustainability.

Quality service” is a 20th century term businesses use to declare a commitment to diligent customer support. But customers typically associate it with, and businesses too often tolerate it as, promptly addressing a problem. Here’s what quality service might sounds like:

“We’re sorry that part was the wrong size. But we’re committed to quality service, so one of our trucks will be there in an hour with a new part.”

In most cases, quality service impresses the customer. But while prompt attention is admirable, it’s not optimal because it has a negative impact on sustainability in at least two ways:

QualityDefinition1) The customer was inconvenienced by inaccurate service;

2) fixing an avoidable problem is the worst kind of profit-eating inefficiency.

In the 21st century, successful small business customer service requires converting “quality service” to the quality process.

Executing a quality process, put simply, is serving customers right the first time. Accomplishing a quality process ranges from the very basic – accurate order filling, to the more complex plan of integrating into your operation only those vendors that share your quality process commitment.

The optimal goal of your quality process is sustainability through profitable customer relationships. This is accomplished when customers return to find your profitable business is still there, ready to serve them successfully – again.

Cash is king because the impact of negative cash on a business will take your breath away. And profit is queen only because the manifestation of negative profit takes longer than negative cash, which is the reason why quality service is even tolerated as a business practice.

When you’re ready to stop tolerating profit-eating quality service and convert to the profit-making quality process, here’s a good a place to start: Leslie Kossoff’s book Managing for Quality just out now in the new 21st century edition, in hard-copy and e-formats.

Remember, the quality service you’re so proud of may be admirable, but when delivered in response to something that was avoidable, it assaults profitability, threatens sustainability and, therefore, ultimately could put you out of business.

Write this on a rock… Convert quality service into the more profitable – and sustainable – quality process.

Who made a difference in your life?

The following quizzes, and the subsequent paragraph, are attributed to the late Charles Schultz, creator of the comic strip, Peanuts. I’m passing along his thoughts because I think it’s important that we realize what is really important in life.

Quiz 1:
1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
6. Name the last decade’s World Series winners.

Quiz 2:
1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
6. Name half a dozen heroes whose stories have inspired you.

“The applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners. The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones who cared.” – Charles Schultz

This is Jim again. As we go through life, let’s make sure our goals and priorities include caring about and serving other people, not just about other things.

The greatest challenges of small business owners today

Ask any small business owner how business is and even those who honestly report, “It’s great!” will also likely say, “But we can always use more.”

Knowing this about the heroes of Main Street, to find out what’s really going on you have to ask the way we did recently in our online poll: “What’s the greatest challenge for your business right now?” Below are five options we provided, the responses, and my thoughts.

It was surprising to learn that less than 10% reported “Finding qualified people” was their big concern, which was down from past surveys. Some sources estimate there may be 4 million positions going wanting for qualified candidates, so my speculation is that this change has more to do with the economy than talent supply.

And it was interesting that less than 10% of our sample were troubled by Obamacare impacting their HR strategy, also down from past polls. Perhaps the fear factor has diminished since the president delayed the employer mandate to 2015. We’ll see if this response changes next year.

According to Dr. Bill Dunkleberg, Chief Economist for the NFIB, who’s polled small business owners for 40 years, their single greatest concern over this period has been taxes and regulations. But when we offered this option in our poll, only one-fourth of our folks chose it. Since taxes and regulations have actually increased in the past five years, the next response represents what it took to knock these perennial pains off the top.

The big number in our poll came in at 58% for, “We need more sales.” This response has to be juxtaposed over another response we’ve received for the past five years, which is that consistently three-quarters of small businesses feel they’re operating in a stagnant economy. At this stage of a recovery, the economy should be growing at 4%. But when you see this response from the sector that creates over half of U.S. GDP, it’s not difficult to understand why the economy has barely averaged 2% growth per year.

Response to the next option supports the previous one. Only 3% said, “We need a bank loan.” For five years small businesses that survived the Great Recession did so by de-leveraging and learning how to operate more efficiently. Bank loans are the primary source of small business growth capital, but when the economy isn’t growing so goes business loans.

Wall Street, once the leading indicator of the economy is now merely a leading indicator of itself. The new leading economic indicator is Main Street. If you want the economy to grow, create conditions that foster small business growth

If the economy is the chicken, small business is the egg.

Seeking the essence of entrepreneurship

Ever wonder what makes an entrepreneur decide when to take a risk? Examples of entrepreneurial risk-taking range from the calculated to the fool-hardy.

You’ll never hear me minimize doing due diligence on your entrepreneurial dream. Indeed, an entrepreneur’s hunch without some foundation is like a belt without belt loops. Still, there will come a time when an entrepreneur must take action without all the answers.

And in the not knowing, but going forward anyway, we find the quark of entrepreneurship and the paradoxical twin emotions, apprehension and exhilaration.

These emotions presage possibility: Might be good, might not be; might be successful, might be a train wreck. And contemplating either possibility produces the headrush entrepreneurs get the moment they risk what they know for what they might learn.

The best way to manage these emotions is a two-step process. First, believe in your own ability to take the next step. This confidence comes from gaining knowledge and experience, plus the perspectives of others – like a mentor – who have already been where you want to go.

If you’re having difficulty finding this confidence perhaps your subconscious is sending a message that you have more work to do before you take that next step. But if your credentials and preparation are reasonable and you’re still lacking confidence, perhaps it’s time to risk what you know for what you might learn. And that leads us to the second step, which is about faith.

Faith is defined as a belief in something unseen. You must have faith in yourself to handle future plans. You must have faith that your plans will be flexible enough to deal with the unknown. And you must also have faith in one more thing which may surprise you – serendipity.

My friend, Jim Ballard, author of “Mind Like Water,” says serendipity is “a meaningful coincidence.” Jim thinks the more we expect serendipity the more of it we will find. I think business serendipity is good fortune that happens when you show up in the marketplace with your plan, preparation and faith – every day.

Always research the risk you’re taking, believe in yourself and what you’re creating, and have faith that something good will come from your commitment. But when you take the next risk, be prepared for the possibility that what you get for your efforts might not be what you expect, and for the possibility that this is a good thing.

Expect serendipity whenever you risk what you know for what you might learn.

Integrity has no need of rules

While talking with an attorney friend of mine, our topic of discussion was about professional behavior in the marketplace. She reminded me that attorneys have very specific ethical and professional standards that are published, plus a well developed monitoring organization, complete with sanctioning authority.

The story is quite similar for CPA’s, architects, medical doctors, or any securities representative such as stock brokers, financial planners, etc. Much of the behavioral track these professionals run on is pretty well spelled out for them. Not that the members of these groups need to be led or coerced into good professional behavior. It’s just that, when in doubt, they have published guidelines with which to refer.

Small business owners operate in the same marketplace as the so-called professionals. Indeed, they are often our clients and customers. We serve the same businesses and consumers as other professionals, plus we enter into similar relationships, contracts and agreements. And we often find ourselves perched precariously on the same horns-of-a-dilemma as other professionals. But here’s the difference: The Universal Small Business Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics doesn’t exist.

Small business owners, like all humans, ultimately behave according to their own moral compass, sense of fair play and inclination to deal in good faith. When we find ourselves in a quandary over how to respond to a difficult situation with a customer that is in the gray area of a contract, we’re on our own. When we are faced with an ethical issue that would challenge King Solomon, there is no sanctioning body or support group to dial up, or to whom we can email a “scenario.”

There are many ancient codes small business owners can turn to for behavioral guidance in the marketplace, such as the last three of the Ten Commandments. But in terms of a handy guide, I think philosopher and 1957 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Albert Camus, may have given us the best ethical vector when he wrote, “Integrity has no need of rules.”

Wise small business owners know that life is much simpler, and exceedingly more rewarding, when we just do the right thing.

Don’t just manage change – lead it!

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven.”

On its face, this well-known King Solomon wisdom, from the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes, delivers hopeful encouragement. But implicit in this passage is a somewhat hidden, and often troublesome paradox: A time for everything also implies nothing can be forever, and therefore, change is inevitable.

In the abstract, we accept the reality of change, but in practice we regard it like the medicine we know we need, but don’t want to take. And knowing change is inevitable doesn’t make the pill any sweeter.

In the marketplace, it was challenging enough to implement a change when we had the expectation of not having to do it again anytime soon. But in the 21st century, the bitter pill of change has acquired an unfortunate new characteristic: a frighteningly short duration.

Organizations that enjoy consistent success will make change an abiding element in their business model, rather than an intrusion to “the way we’ve always done things.” They’ll create a culture and environment where change can occur whenever necessary, without creating a casualty list.

Rick Maurer, author of “Beyond the Wall of Resistance,” conducted a survey of organizations that have implemented change. He identified four things they did to create a culture compatible with change.

  1. Make a strong case.
    Maurer found that “when change was successful, 95% of the stakeholders saw a compelling need to change.” Change must be accompanied by evidence of its importance. If you can’t make the case, perhaps it’s not the right thing to do — yet.
  2. Establish the vision.
    Maurer’s research indicates 71% of successful changes happened “when people understood the vision of the project.” Stakeholders should see the long-term benefits of change.
  3. Sustain the changes.
    The primary reason for failure, Maurer found, was “inability to sustain the change.” Sustaining change isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon that must endure pressure from many sources and may be the greatest test of leadership.
  4. Anticipate maintenance.
    Successful managers recognize that it’s not in the nature of change to be self-perpetuating.

Change will happen. And if we expect something positive, it probably will be.

Don’t just manage change – lead it.