Wall-Building Entrepreneurs

I’m shaking my head right now. Call it confusion, a lack of understanding or maybe even bewilderment. I’m really puzzled about something that I’ve been observing with more frequency. I’ve noticed a number of entrepreneurs building walls. Not necessarily in the physical sense but metaphorically. And the walls that are being built are designed to actually keep customers OUT! Huh? Why would any entrepreneur want to build a wall that keeps a customer out? You got it – that’s what has me scratching my head.

Let’s start with a sign I saw on the door of a shop in a resort town in northern California. The sign requested that customers NOT bring their dogs into the store because the store owner had dogs of her own inside that were “nervous” around other dogs. I’m truly not making this up. It’s become fairly common in many communities across the country to see people taking their dogs into stores, restaurants and other places of business. And it’s become a generally accepted practice for such businesses to welcome dogs. Rather than leave her dogs at home, this store owner basically told all customers with dogs to stay out of her store. I wonder how many sales she’s lost by building such an unfriendly wall.

Next, let’s talk about credit cards. I know American Express charges fees on credit card transactions that are much higher than Visa, Mastercard and some of the other cards used by consumers. What puzzles me is the fact that some businesses won’t take the American Express card. Costco is the worst large-scale offender. In 2017 the company dumped American Express in favor of Visa – not Mastercard or any other card. In this case Costco made the move to enhance its profitability and not to benefit the customer. I’ve spoken to a number of entrepreneurs who offer the explanation that the fees are just too high and that’s why they won’t accept AMEX. What they fail to understand is that they are also building a wall to keep customers out when they make decisions like this that ignore customer convenience.

It’s Friday night and my wife and I are dining at a restaurant that we really enjoy. Our mouths have been watering all day in anticipation of the Panko-crusted calamari strips on the appetizer menu. But wait – we are informed that the restaurant is “sold out” of the calamari. On a Friday night! How does this happen? I’ve ranted before about restaurants that run out of a particular menu item and I’m going to do it again. Except this time I’ll expand the idea to encompass other products as well. In this day and age of technology, businesses that don’t effectively manage their inventory are really missing the boat. I realize in non-restaurant settings, it may be impossible to carry an inventory so complete that every SKU is always in stock. But care must be taken not to advertise specials on items that are sold out; and floor displays should be pulled when the items are out of stock. I went into a major national pharmacy every other day for a week looking for a particular item that was missing from the shelf. More walls being built . . . my solution – order it from Amazon.

Everyone will be able to identify with this next “wall” and sometimes it can be so huge that there’s no getting over, under or around it. You walk into a public restroom in a store or restaurant and it’s gross beyond belief. There’s an unidentifiable crusty substance in the corners where the wall meets the floor. The trash bin is overflowing; pipes are corroding; soap dispensers are empty; toilets and/or urinals are disgusting; only one dispenser has paper towels and the list goes on. When we start looking around at the public space outside the restroom we notice that it’s far from sparkling clean. This “wall” has been built so high that we can’t even see the top of it (and we probably wouldn’t want to touch even if we could see it)!

I’m sure you have your own examples of Wall-Building Entrepreneurs. Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call to all entrepreneurs to take a hard look at every aspect of our operations and identify any “walls” we may have erected that keep customers out. Then in the immortal words of Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987 in a speech given at the Berlin Wall, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 113 – A Mt. Everest Mindset

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Reactionary Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is all about innovation and being on the cutting edge. It’s about dreaming, creating and doing things our own way. Sound about right to you? Then what would you say if I told you that another aspect of entrepreneurship is being a reactionary? Actually I’m taking liberties with the term. When I was reaching adulthood in the late sixties and early seventies, a reactionary was usually associated with a person who was protesting the Vietnam War, and might use extreme measures to do so. To be sure, I’m not referring to entrepreneurs as this kind of reactionary. Entrepreneurs are reactionary in the sense that we are often reactive. What we react to can be make or break for our enterprise. Let’s look at two different aspects of being reactive.

Many entrepreneurs react to their competition. This is evident every day as we watch companies raise or lower prices based upon what they see their competitors doing. But there are many other examples of how this is being done. Company A produces a wearable device that measures the steps taken by a consumer. Company B produces a similar device that measures steps, but it also measures sleep patterns. Executives at Company A become concerned that it will lose market share, so they order the  production of an upgraded device that measures, steps, sleep and calories consumed. This is the additional “bells and whistles” approach. This arms race continues unabated – we’ve all seen it over and over.

While it’s important to know what our competition is doing, there’s something even more important to which we must react. Smart entrepreneurs react to their customers. Just because Company B produced a wearable device that measures steps, sleep, calories, plays music, allows the viewing of text messages AND counts the number of black cats that cross our path, it doesn’t mean that their customers actually want such features. Rather than participate in the aforementioned arms race with his/her competition, the smart entrepreneur drills down to understand what customers want and need, and then focuses on producing a product that responds accordingly.

Normally we say that we want to be proactive. We tend to think that being reactive is somehow “behind the curve.” In many areas of entrepreneurship this way of thinking is absolutely correct. We may equate being reactive to being unprepared, slow to respond or being a step or two behind. As entrepreneurs we need to be proactive when it comes to our production methods, marketing and sales ideas, and in all areas of human resources. But, being reactive to our customers is just plain good business.

Let’s break this down further. If we are totally and continuously connected to our customers, we are going to know immediately when they perceive issues with our products and services, giving us the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments. For example, maybe we make a thing-a-ma-jig that is blue. But we learn from some of our customers that they really want it to be red. We react and begin making a red version. This is good. Suppose that our delivery time used to be one week and now is two. Our customers begin telling us that two weeks is too long. So we react and tighten our delivery schedule. This is not good. Why? Because we should know that customers don’t want to wait two weeks for anything – everyone wants everything yesterday. We should have been proactive in this instance and never let the delivery schedule push out to two weeks. Instead, we should have been proactively trying to figure out how to shorten the timeframe from one week to a couple of days.

The entrepreneur who is constantly reacting to his/her competitors is the one who is behind the curve. Always trying to one-up the competition is a dangerous game to play unless it is done in concert with understanding the needs and wants of the customer. And then, the focus actually shifts from the competition to the customer. In the end, this may result in besting the other competitor in the space – but that wasn’t the primary objective.

Being an entrepreneurial reactionary makes sense when we are reacting to what we can do better for our customers. Then we can be proactive in all other aspects of our enterprise.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 110 – Exciting Disappointment.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Not Just Any Old Alarm Clock

Calvin Klein has a women’s fragrance called Obsession Perfume. It’s relatively inexpensive – around 20 bucks or so for a 3.4 ounce spray bottle. This blog is not about the perfume but it is about a particular type of “obsession;” one that is worth far more than 20 bucks.

What dominates our thoughts as entrepreneurs? Is it cash flow? How about the competition? Maybe it’s growth or perhaps it’s market share. Most of these aspects aren’t worth becoming obsessions. In fact, there is very little that rises to the level of importance to be worthy of obsession. Yet, there is one element that is so fundamental to the success of our businesses that it should be front and center as a focal point. You might say it’s the “Obsession on a Pedestal.” Everyone throughout the organization starting with the CEO should be obsessed about . . . the Customer.

Well of course, you say, it’s obvious that the Customer is important. No, I’m talking about something more intense than “important.” Customer Obsession takes many forms. There are certain business establishments – stores, restaurants, gas stations, etc., where I enter the restroom and am amazed at how sparkling clean they are. And they even smell good! That’s Customer Obsession. There are certain business establishments where I am called by name when I walk in the door. That’s Customer Obsession. Or take the case of a regular customer of a resort who developed a fondness for a particular type of clock radio. She looked high and low trying to purchase one but to no avail. She messaged the resort staff to see if they could point her in the right direction but was told that the clock was not commercially available. She was pleasantly surprised on her next visit to find a clock radio waiting for her as a gift upon her arrival. That’s Customer Obsession.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could create a culture where everyone is equally obsessive about the Customer? This utopia would have every member of the team smile and greet a Customer in a friendly manner when in his or her presence. This utopia would be a flurry of random thank-you notes, thank-you calls and other forms of true expressions of gratitude to our Customers. When a mistake occurs involving a Customer, our culture encourages a quick, heartfelt apology and a genuine attempt to make amends.

When I think about Customer Obsession, I want to know exactly what the Customer needs and wants. This requires a deep dive into data and other methods to understand what makes the Customer tick. And I want to go way beyond understanding what the Customer currently needs and wants. I must determine what his/her future needs and wants are going to be. I want my Customers to seek me out and tell me that they aren’t just satisfied. No, I want them to tell me that they are fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams.

I want to know when a Customer quits and why; and then I want to make a supreme effort to save that Customer and regain his or her trust. I want to talk directly to our Customers on a regular basis to understand as much as I can about the experience we have provided them. I realize that the cash flow, the competition, the growth and the market share are all secondary to Customer Obsession. Those aspects of our business will be fine if we have an ever expanding base of Customers for whom we are fanatical about making ecstatically happy. Finally, I want to constantly innovate with an eye on how to better serve the Customer. Running in place is not an option. We can and must always do better for the Customer’s sake.

Many obsessions aren’t necessarily healthy. However, obsessing about our Customers will help ensure that our business is healthy and prosperous for years to come.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 54 – Blind Pigs.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Mystery of the Undercooked Steak

Customers quit all the time. Many entrepreneurs work extremely hard to prevent the big screw-ups that alienate and enrage customers. Yet, even with this effort, there are still customers that leave and don’t come back. What’s up with this?

Consider this scenario. An entrepreneur has opened a new restaurant and works 24/7 to develop a loyal clientele. Over time the restaurant grows and enjoys success – it’s even profitable! But then its trajectory levels off. It’s not growing like it was and some of the regular faces aren’t there anymore. The entrepreneur studies his operation but can’t find anything glaring that is causing this trend. His puzzlement and frustration grows. Why isn’t he winning like he used to?

Had the entrepreneur taken a much closer and more granular look, he might have discovered the root cause of his problem. Had he followed one of his oldest customers – we’ll be original and call him Mr. Smith – he might have observed the following occurrences. On one occasion, Mr. Smith made a reservation in advance, but when he arrived the time was wrong. The hostess apologized profusely, but it did cause minor inconvenience to the customer. In another instance Mr. Smith’s credit card was declined. After an embarrassing moment for Mr. Smith, the server found that the credit card terminal was on the fritz. A few weeks later Mr. Smith was in a hurry to leave for a business appointment and his lunch was delayed due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Another time his steak wasn’t properly prepared. In still another instance, one of the side dishes he ordered was forgotten.

These seemingly small and inconsequential issues continued to occur over a period of months. Mr. Smith did not encounter problems every time he ate at the restaurant. But they happened often enough that he began to feel as though this eatery wasn’t the bright and shiny object that it had once appeared to be. Gradually Mr. Smith came to the restaurant with less frequency. The final straw came on a day when Mr. Smith noticed he had been charged for an appetizer he hadn’t ordered. The bill was corrected, but that was the last time Mr. Smith ever patronized the restaurant.

I call what happened here The Cumulative Effect of Little Things. The entrepreneur who owned the restaurant was prone to look at each minor problem on a stand-alone basis. And when viewed in this manner, it’s a mystery to see how a slightly undercooked steak here or a credit card snafu there could be enough to chase away a customer. He was looking for and trying to prevent, much larger issues. What he failed to understand is that the small stuff contributes to an overall customer experience. If Mr. Smith had visited the restaurant only once, he probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that his meal arrived four minutes before that of his dining companion. But Mr. Smith was a regular customer and his impression of the restaurant was driven by an accumulation of experiences.

We can keep The Cumulative Effect of Little Things from causing our customers to quit. How? There are two ways. First, we must be sticklers for the small details. With the right systems, processes and team member training, we can eliminate the small mistakes that seemingly happen every day and yet are excused as too minor to matter. Second, we must be joined at the hip with our customers. It’s crucial that we know what they are experiencing at all times. Continuing with the restaurant example, when the owner or general manager shows up at my table at some point during the meal; chats briefly with me and asks (genuinely) what can be done to make my dining experience better, then I know I’m dealing with someone who really cares about me as a customer. I generally don’t ever encounter problems in those restaurants.

Customers leave more often than not as a result of The Cumulative Effect of Little Things rather than a major malfunction. Caring about the little details AND the customer will go a long way to creating a loyal following.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Steak

The Really Deep Dive

Way back in the olden days I can envision a prehistoric man trapping a small animal of some variety (probably a mini-dinosaur) and trading it to another prehistoric man for a new spear. And at that precise moment in time, the first entrepreneur and the first customer were born. Now suppose that this first entrepreneur continued to trap small animals and trade them to other “customers” for the basic necessities that they could provide. This economy worked reasonably well until something happened. Another prehistoric man decided to do his own trapping and he too made his “product” available for trade. But a funny thing happened. He was willing to trade it for something of less value than the first entrepreneur. So “customers” flocked to him leaving the first entrepreneur with “unsold” “inventory.” And thus, competition was born.

Ever since the earliest days of commerce, entrepreneurs have developed a rudimentary understanding of their customers. More recently, highly sophisticated techniques and technologies have been created to aid with this customer understanding. Yet still, a vast number of businesses do not truly have the depth of customer knowledge that is necessary to consistently win. How could this possibly be considering the amazing advances that have been made since prehistoric days? The answer is relatively simple. Many entrepreneurs have not chosen to make their customers the absolute primary focus of their business. Much time and effort is spent improving processes, creating systems, increasing productivity, cutting costs, managing revenue and a host of other business practices. There’s no question that all of this is necessary. But from where does it emanate? If it starts with the bottom line instead of with the customer, the road may be rocky.

A customer-centric business starts with the basic question, “How well do I really know my customer?” Most of us think we have a pretty good idea who our customers are and what makes them tick. But I’m willing to bet that we probably have only scratched the surface with respect to the depth of our customer knowledge. Do we know the stratification of age cohorts across our product and service offerings? That’s an easy one. Do we understand the subtle preferences, needs and desires of these different age groups? Have we spent much time fine tuning our products and services to address this information? Oh sure, we perform ongoing customer surveys. But often they are designed to determine whether our customers are satisfied with our products and services. How much survey work do we do to get to know our customers better? We suspect that live customer focus groups might provide some valuable insights, but we believe that this approach is too expensive, something left to big corporations or we have no idea how to go about implementing such focus groups.

I submit that we all need to step back and take a deep breath. Then we need to pull together our team and begin to examine just how we are going about a deep dive into customer understanding. I’m championing this effort in my own companies and believe that it may dramatically transform our product and service offerings. Big Data is a treasure trove in this regard. We’ll be combining extensive demographic studies with customer focus groups, surveys and other initiatives to know for certain that we absolutely understand exactly what our customers need and want. We are looking for more than just what our customers tell us however. Big Data will help us go beyond the obvious and identify the buying habits and other trends with our customers that might not be readily apparent. And then with the customer front-and-center, we’ll make sure that our products and services precisely meet those needs and wants – stated and unstated.

Developing a deep understanding of what our customers really want and need, will help us create more customer-centric organizations. Then we are able to align our products and services with this customer focus that will manifest in high levels of customer satisfaction and greater profitability for our enterprises.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

deep dive

Calamity Jane

What would you do if you were visiting in another city, fell and broke your front teeth? And what if it happened in the evening and on a weekend? Well of course you would try and find a dentist. Unfortunately though, it’s not that easy.

A friend of ours related the story of her friend who encountered this very calamity. She was carrying a platter of meat at dinner time from the common outdoor grill in the condo where she was staying, tripped on a step and did a face plant. In the process she broke her top teeth and actually pushed one of them back at a 45-degree angle. Needless to say, she was in a lot of pain. A dentist lived in the condo building but wasn’t home, so she began calling dental offices in the city. She made contact with approximately 30 practices – presumably it was answering service in each case. Only one dentist called her back.

He was a young man and told her to meet him at his office at 8:30 that evening. When she arrived he opened the office and proceeded to make the necessary dental repairs. She thanked him profusely and his reply was the clincher. “I only hope that if my wife was ever in another city and had this happen, that someone would help her.” I have no idea whether the other 29 dentists even were notified by their answering services so I’m hesitant to make any judgments here. Suffice it to say that she only needed one dentist to respond, and one did.

This dentist clearly displayed an attitude of service. While it may seem like a rather obvious thing, our perception of medical service providers as compassionate and caring isn’t always accurate. Actually, this can be said about most professions and industries. Too often in too many fields, practitioners are focused less on their customers and more on other objectives. Does this person have insurance? Will this person become a repeat customer? I’m busy. Someone else will handle this. I just finished a 12-hour day and I’m too tired. Get the picture?

At what point do we put the needs of the customer ahead of our own? Do we do this only when it is immediately profitable to do so? A lot of businesses apparently have adopted this philosophy. Or, do we believe in serving every customer, client, patient, etc. as we would want to be served? This is a very uncomplicated subject. We either serve or we don’t. It’s totally our choice. But there is a natural law at work here. For when we do good for others, good comes back to us in greater and greater abundance.

As entrepreneurs, the rewards are enormous for putting the needs of others ahead of our own. When service comes first the profits will be bigger than we ever could expect.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Dentist

Disruption

What do World Book Encyclopedias, the Sony Walkman, public pay phones, cassette tapes, flopping disks, Palm Pilots and manual typewriters have in common? OK, I realize it’s an easy question – they are all obsolete products. But the real question is why they became obsolete in the first place. You may be thinking, “Other more advanced products came along and replaced them.” True again. But why didn’t the makers of these products create newer and more advanced versions? And therein lays the dilemma. I’m going to make a sweeping generalization here to prove my point – and the individual situations may have been more complex than I am purporting. The bottom line – there was a failure to embrace change and a desire to embrace the status quo.

For many people change is scary. It’s filled with uncertainty and risk. Think of all the businesses you know about that have adopted the philosophy, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yet, maintaining the status quo is actually falling behind. Why? Because we’re in a highly competitive age where information flows more quickly and more substantively than at any time in history. Someone is always looking for a better way to do everything all the time. What steps should we take to avoid becoming the next World Book?

Step One. Constantly stay in touch with the customer. We need to mine every customer interaction for the data that can be produced. And we need to create customer interactions outside the regular purchasing process through surveys, focus groups, etc. What do our customers like about our product or service? What don’t they like? What do they like and dislike about our competitor’s product or service?

Step Two. From our ongoing customer feedback process we can continuously fine tune our product or service offering with incremental improvements. This enables us to keep from falling behind in the competitive race.

Step Three. In addition to staying in touch with the customer we should also be totally immersed in what is happening within our industry. Trade publications, conferences, blogs and ongoing relationships help keep us on top of trends, opportunities and threats.

Step Four. This one is the biggie. We can make a choice as to whether or not to be a disruptor or be the disrupted. A disruptor is an innovator who turns an industry on its head with a radical idea. Those who choose to stick with what they are already doing are vulnerable to becoming a victim of this marketplace disruption. Some industries rock along for years with little or no disruptive innovation. In others (technology, for example), disruption occurs daily. Even if we don’t create a huge and splashy disruption of some sort, the fact that we continue to try and do so will often be enough to keep us on the cutting edge.

One of the most prominent disruptors of our time is Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. He has a mindset of looking at various industries and seeing an opportunity to innovate. Then he does it. Often it works – sometimes it doesn’t, but few can argue the success he has had with more than 400 companies.

Resting on the laurels of success is a dangerous game. I imagine at one point in time Walkman sales were off the charts and the folks at Sony were feeling pretty good. And then, BOOM, the ride is over. It’s important to keep our foot on the metaphorical gas pedal. Keep marketing no matter what. Build a backlog. Take the utmost advantage of good times. But . . . always remember and practice Steps One through Four. It’s the best vaccination for obsolescence.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

manual typewriter