Social Media and Online Forums, Hidden Gems of Customer Insight

Social media and online forumsThere are little  that essentially go unnoticed… Consumers spend significantly more time online today than they did 10 years ago, and that amount of time is projected to keep rising in the foreseeable future. When online, consumers are spending their time across multiple activities ranging from social media to shopping, and conversing about experiences and issues regarding business and brand interaction. One way they share their experiences is via online reviews, which 3SixtySMB covered in a previous article (Landmark Case with TripAdvisor, Makes Businesses Think Twice About Reviews), but there are more ways in the form of Social Media and other online groups and forums. In this article, we’ll cover the various online communities where consumers share their insights and how businesses can create a way to adopt them as a strategy.

Consumers fill these groups and forums with critical and valuable product & organization insight in almost cult-like fashions… They use these groups to share best practices, tips, tricks, issues, or look for recommendations. However, what we find amazing is that they generally go overlooked by businesses. We’ve even seen some of the larger organizations (typically larger F500) create their own online customer forums, but then essentially ignore them as well. Generally, we find a few different reasons these groups go ignored, but there are mostly two core reasons: lack of understanding or a lack of budget…. Lack of understanding usually stems from management not recognizing the value of these groups, and the lack of budget is focused around the thinking that actively monitoring these groups as more of a cost vs profit center activity. We’ll get into the reasons behind why we find these groups so valuable and how to develop a strategy later in this article, but first, I wanted to focus on the various groups:

Facebook Groups – Facebook has put in a considerable amount of effort into enhancing these groups, and as a result, Facebook groups are becoming more prevalent and influential as of late. Typically, you’ll find these groups founded, ran, and moderated by users themselves… We also find that there could be multiple different user groups focused on similar businesses or industries which can make them difficult to find. Also, due to the nature of these groups, their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation at all. You’ll find that a majority of groups tend to be consumer-focused and can range from local businesses to nationally known brands.

LinkedIn Groups – LinkedIn groups have been around for a while in comparison to Facebook Groups. Typically, they are founded, ran, and moderated by the actual businesses themselves… However, there are several end-user generated LinkedIn Groups as well. Similar to Facebook groups, we find that their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation. We also find that due to the age of these groups, some can be significantly more active than others. These types of groups tend to be business-to-business focused, but you can and will find some consumer brands sprinkled in there as well.

Community forums – An example of this would be something similar to Nextdoor.com where the site is corporately ran, but it is independent of the content on the site with a goal to find revenue via advertising opportunities. All content is typically generated from users themselves and can be extremely active… Businesses that are local and focus on the consumer should spend a great deal of time getting to know these sites. Discussions in these sites typically revolve around individuals asking for recommendations or sharing their experiences with local businesses. Local businesses are seriously missing out if not participating in these groups.

Online forums – When thinking about online forums, naturally most think about online forums or user groups as these are some of the oldest types of forums out there. These types of organizations are usually formed by users themselves, but do have more structure than a Facebook or LinkedIn group. We’ll find that there might even be some type of advisory board with executive officers and can be highly moderated. Content within these groups is typically user generated, and in some cases, these forums have almost more of a cult-like following than any other group. They are typically funded via membership dues or advertising budget, but generally zero content would be vendor generated. These forums can focus on anything from specific products, brands, or industries.

Vendor Sponsored Forums/User Groups – These types of forums are almost 100% founded, ran, and moderated from the vendors themselves and it is mostly the larger companies that run these types of forums. There is a mixed bag of vendor interaction within these groups, as some vendors participate heavily in these groups and even go as far as having user group events. However, we also find some vendors that are almost nonexistent as well. The same can be said about the content… often most is generated via users, but you can find vendor content as well. Content can range from use cases, tips and tricks, and recommendations. However, due to the nature being focused on vendors, we do see a lot more issue related content. Again, because some vendors are better than others, some vendors groups can be extremely valuable where others not so much.

Trade or Industry Organizations – In each industry, you’ll find very specific groups dedicated to help educate their respective industries. Commonly, these groups are founded and ran by the organizations themselves but will allow vendors to participate as well… We find that these groups are geared towards industry knowledge, and as a result, you’ll have a mixed bag of users and vendors participating in them.

Again, we find these types of online/social groups and forums to be extremely valuable for any business, as topics discussed can be instrumental to understand customer usage, issues, or new strategic directions for a business, along with possible new prospects. These groups can truly help organizations strengthen their connections with customers, but also strengthen their products while bringing in new customers. This is why the thinking of these groups as a cost center is completely wrong; if done right, they can become a very valuable profit center for any business. Now that we’ve discussed the types of forums and why we find them so valuable, here are a few tips for developing a strategy of your own:

Dedicate resources – At a minimum, dedicate at least one resource to following and reviewing the various groups and forums… The bigger your company, the more resources should be dedicated. We believe most businesses think of this area as a cost vs a profit center, which is why they do not feel the need to invest into this area. Again, we find this to be a huge mistake as the insights gained from forums can be invaluable from a strategic perspective. Since prospects use groups as a sounding board for references, these forums can generate sales along with reducing support cost.

Generate reports – Topics covered in the various forums and groups are extremely valuable for any organization. It should be made a priority to set up regular reporting around various topics brought up in these groups. These reports should be directed towards executive management, product and customer service managers, along with sales leadership, as each group can benefit from these items… This is also where most companies fail because, frequently, no action items are ever taken based on knowledge gained. It should also be made a priority to select a handful of issues covered in these groups and devise a strategy for resolution weekly or monthly.

Monitor constantly – There is a reason we recommend dedicated sourcesin order to get the most out of these groups, they do require active attention. People routinely gravitate to these types of forums and groups because they know they can get fast answers. Therefore, if you want to show that you are adding value to customers and prospects that participate in these groups, ensure a fast and accurate response.

Keep experts on call – We recommend dedicated staff to actively monitor and participate in these groups, but they do not need to be experts. Experts can be very expensive for this type of activity and can be better valued elsewhere in the organization. With that said, experts should be on call to answer any questions that require knowledge that is beyond the knowledge of the team member maintaining these groups.

Keep on-call executives – The same can be said for executive support. There should always be an executive sponsor on call to address issues as they arise in these groups. Again, coming to a quick and accurate resolution can truly show your customers and prospects that you value them.

Communicate properly – There are a lot of items that fall under proper communication, from timely and accurate responses, to knowing when to pull in experts or executives into discussions. However, this also means this is not an opportunity for the hard sell or to continuously blast your marketing message to the various groups… The reason why these various groups and forums are so highly leveraged is that they are great sources for knowledge without tainted marketing messages from vendors themselves. When users are looking for recommendations, it is okay to recommend specific products or share marketing collateral, but that should be the limit of sales and marketing activity.

Take action – This goes along the lines of proper communication, however, you must ensure that your team does everything humanly possible to address all issues that come up in these various groups. Not only does this directly help a customer, unattended messages stay in these forums and are indexable via Google. So as prospective customers and active customers search their issues on Google, there is a chance they will find these forum posts… Unanswered posts show there could be a problem with your product and/or service. However, if your team properly addresses the issue, it could save needless support calls and reduce support cost.

Prioritize customer requests – This goes in line with taking action. We find that the reason a majority of customer requests go unanswered is because the vendor themselves has other priorities from a product feature and functionality perspective. This means that vendors are too involved in developing solutions to their own specifications, and what the customers actually want gets pushed aside! It’s a theme that comes up a lot in our writings–most businesses brush aside the wants and needs of their customers, as they have a belief they know what is best for their customers. Customer requests and issues, should always have a top priority in your business model.

If executed properly, social media and online forums can become essential mediums for collecting valuable customer and product intelligence, adding to the education when developing changes in products and/or corporate strategies. However, these groups can also become great sources of income, attracting net new customers or helping customers upgrade services as the need arises, all while reducing customer service support cost. Developing a strategy for the various online communities that consumers engage in is a critical area that each and every business should be focusing on as part of their business plans.

 

What is Omni-Channel Marketing And Tips For Developing An Omni-Channel Strategy

Omni-channel-MarketingOmni-Channel Marketing is a new term that has been thrown around increasingly more over the past few years, and it is a strategy that most organizations regardless of industry should develop, as it makes a heck of lot of sense. However, we find that there are still many organizations that are not exactly sure what Omni-Channel Marketing is or how to properly deploy an Omni-Channel strategy. 3SixtySMB believes that not deploying an Omni-Channel strategy is a huge mistake, and it is inadvertently hurting thousands of businesses today and leading to the fall of the many consumer-based retail giants of today. In this article, we’ll cover exactly what Omni-Channel Marketing is and some tips for developing and deploying a strategy of your own.

Setting the stage a bit, back before the internet or smartphones, things were literally simpler times for marketers. TV, radio, print, and in-store advertising were typically the only marketing mediums that needed constant attention from marketers, and the pace and frequency of marketing campaigns were drastically slower. Also, something like a remote worker was never part of the picture, which meant that all the various teams were under the same roof and most likely reported to the same department head. Finally, product designs did not change as much, and in some cases, you’d be lucky to see one design change in a year (sometimes in years). All of these factors allowed for teams that worked closer together and for campaigns that were much more cohesive from a consumer standpoint than what was being produced in today’s market.

This was the case for decades, until the late 90’s when something interesting happened and changed the marketing landscape forever… Technology began to be developed enough were things like the personal computer and the internet became convenient enough to make their way into a majority of homes. Almost overnight, a significant percentage of the population had access to the internet, and in short order, corporations began to follow with development of their own websites. At first, these websites were digital billboards for their businesses and overtime transitioned to the eCommerce hubs they are today. When businesses began to develop these new websites, they needed to bring in new people that would be familiar with the development and technology of websites, bringing the first drastic change to how teams functioned inside of businesses. Essentially, this is where IT began to play a marketing role, but without direct ties to the marketing department. As the developers themselves were technology people, they typically reported to the head of IT, and the same can be said for the backend supporting technology. At first, because there were typically only a few team members supporting a website, it was easy for teams to develop a strategy with the marketing teams, keeping some of the cohesiveness that was once in place, but it wasn’t without its issues… One challenge that typically came up was that marketing would develop new campaigns, but would have to wait for IT to update the website to match the campaigns. With some organizations, this took an extremely long time, leading to marketing campaigns being deployed without a website reflecting these campaigns. This led to a fragmented view from a consumer standpoint, resulting in frustration and lost revenue.

Overtime, departments began to address the issue of this fragmented view, but on June 29, 2007, something happened that would change the way consumers interacted with businesses forever: the launch of the iPhone. Almost overnight, with the launch of the first smartphone, consumers now had ready access to the internet and business websites anywhere and in the palm of their hands. At first, websites were not developed to be viewed on such small screens and were extremely difficult to navigate. Making things worse, most smartphone manufacturers had their own mobile browsers and application frameworks, giving their end-users slightly different views than the others. As a result, businesses needed to quickly pivot to create a new strategy for addressing these consumer devices, various browsers and application frameworks. This in itself created more fragmentation within businesses because it wasn’t one big team that addressed smartphone platforms, but several (typically, one per platform)–all of which reported to IT and not marketing. As a result, end-users would receive different user experiences depending on the platform, and some completely independent from the primary website… This became a nightmare for marketers; they not only had to coordinate with the primary website teams, but now with the various mobile platform teams, all of which did not report to marketing, which was a huge challenge for coordination of campaigns.. Then in 2009, something else happened that would put a whole new strain on marketing: the economic downturn of 2009. Suddenly, budgets and teams were cut almost overnight with an increase of demand for faster and more nimble marketing campaigns on the rise. This is frankly where team cohesiveness and technology of the times were put to the test, and where most failed… Organizations, big and small, began to have major customer experience issues leading to huge lost revenue gaps, and organizations began to crumble. Essentially, businesses were not up to the challenge due to how highly fragmented these organizations had become. As a result, they had difficulty being nimble enough to address the demands of the economy of the time. Many of the major consumer business downfalls happening today are almost directly due to their inability to change with the times, and instead, opting to focus on cost cutting vs innovation (The Fall of Big Box Retail in Calculator-Driven Economy). However, there were some that began to innovate and change with the times…

This is where Omni-Channel Marketing comes into play. Essentially at its basic level, Omni-channel Marketing is giving a consumer the same experience, whether they are sitting on a desktop, smartphone, in-store, or anywhere for that matter. This means that if they see a commercial on TV, the deal reflected in that commercial will be the same across all formats and in-store. Again, the concept of the Omni-Channel Marketing is to give customers a single user experience regardless of their interaction with your brand. This makes interacting with a brand as seamless and user-friendly as possible, removing all barriers and taking advantage of the convenience of today’s technology. Thus, if someone watching a commercial from the convenience of their couch sees something of interest, they can simply pick up their smartphones and place an order within minutes, having it shipped directly to their house within days or having the ability to pick up that item in store the same day. As a contrast, you still have the likes of Sears that haven’t fully adopted any of today’s technology, and the primary way of customer interaction is their in-store experience. Anyone that has been to a Sears over the past few years can attest that Sears hasn’t done the best with keeping up in-store appearances and closing hundreds of locations yearly as a result.

Again, all of this was to set the stage for how most organizations used to be compared to where they are today. When looking into creating an Omni-Channel strategy, the first thing to understand is that it is much easier for a small business to do so than it is for a larger organization such as Sears. The larger and older the organization, the more investments they have made in legacy technology, policies, and teams, along with more internal politics to deal with. These reasons alone make shifting to an Omni-Channel strategy like turning a cruise ship taking on water in a hurricane; it is no surprise that they haven’t, and that they continue to fail as a result. With all of that said, it is important to emphasize that the sooner one starts to develop their Omni-Channel strategy, the better.

As an organization begins to develop an Omni-Channel strategy, here are a few tips to consider:

Centralize your teams – Mentioned earlier, the traditional way has been fragmented teams reporting to both IT and Marketing executive leadership. As an example, websites, mobile applications, and inventory control may be managed by the CIO while Marketing campaigns and advertisements may be managed by the CMO. Instead, we recommend that any function that is related to the Omni-Channel strategy should be managed in one area, and all teams to be reporting up one executive leader.

Take an inventory – In order to change anything, it is extremely important to understand everything that would fall under the Omni-Channel Strategy. It is crucial to understand and map out everything from the website and in-store experiences to everything in between, along with supporting systems… Getting a current state of affairs is important to understand where things stand to properly put a plan in place.

Take the customer journey – Task different teams and executive leaders to take the customer journey… Have them use the website, mobile applications, and make trips to different locations to take note of inconsistencies and pain points.

Pay attention to your competition – It is important to understand what the competition is doing… There is no need to recreate the wheel when developing a strategy, and similar to the customer journey, take note of both positive and negative experiences.

Ask for customer input – Find ways of speaking to customers to understand their experiences. Try to understand areas they felt comfortable with and areas where they experienced pain or difficulty, and truly listen to your customer! Too many organizations ask for customer input, but then ignore it because there is a belief that the customer does not know what is best for the organization! Trust us when we say this: your customer is everything… If they say something is a problem, it is a problem!

Start with what will impact the end-customer the most – Too many organizations start their strategies by overhauling backend technologies and systems… The problem with this strategy is that it’s typically extremely expensive, takes the longest to develop, and when finally completed, has no real effect on the end-customer at all. Many of the greats of our generation have gone out of business with this strategy… Instead, find areas that will have the most impact to the end-customer and start from there, working on the bigger backend changes in the background.

Adopt design standardization – As your organization develops their approach, a design standardization should be the highest priority. On the surface, all customer-facing mediums (desktop and mobile websites, mobile applications, and social media profiles) should all have the exact same look and feel. Behind the scenes, supporting technology and programming languages need to be standardized as well…

Standardize technology – This goes in line with design standardization, but aligned more to the backend supporting technology. Again, a key challenge to the larger organizations is no technology standardization. We’ve seen organizations that will have 100s of applications from 100s of vendors, databases from Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and others–all with multiple program languages. Although there are different types of middleware technologies allowing for integration of these different solutions, we recommend against this completely… Instead, standardize on application, database technologies, and programming languages. Part of the reason for such fragmented systems is that, traditionally, each of the different teams had their own purchasing power to acquire whatever technology or software they felt fit for the team’s needs. Having centralized teams should help eliminate this issue, however, we also recommend a change in purchasing power… No team should be allowed to purchase rogue technology or software. Instead, teams should be finding ways to bring on solutions that fit the greater good of the organization. Yes, this may mean that some sacrifices will be made, but the good of a smart purchase will outweigh the negative of sacrifices made.

Hold meetings – Part of bringing these teams together means that meetings and decisions should not be made in vacuums. We recommend weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings meant to bring the individual teams together reviewing changes and progress made against primary goals… This will ensure that all departments know what everyone is working on or towards.

Test, test, and test again – Developing an Omni-Channel strategy is no small undertaking, and there will be significant changes made to people, process, technology, and other enablers across the organization as a whole. Regardless of how much planning and testing is completed before items are rolled out, things will break… Ensure that your team is always testing, retesting, and then testing things over and over. The last thing you want is for your customers to find something broken in the system. Sometimes it only takes one bad customer experience to lose a customer!

Strive for constant improvement – Once a go-forward plan is in place and the various teams begin to make progress, it doesn’t stop there…. There should always be a strategy in place to find out ways of improving the overall customer experience across people, process, technology, or other enablers. We always highly encourage testing… again, this should not be done in a vacuum, the whole team should be aware of innovation items being tested and worked on.

Fail fast – Designing an Omni-Channel strategy is a process and a huge undertaking for any organization… Unfortunately, no matter how much planning and testing is in place, there are going to be things that just do not work! Too many may try to force the issue and continuously try to force a round peg in a square hole… It’s better to recognize where something just isn’t meant to be and declare failure! No one likes to fail, but no one wants to spend untold amounts of money and time on something that will never succeed in the first place.

Analyze everything – Metrics should be put around every aspect of the Omni-Channel Experience, from front end customer facing aspects to backend supporting technology… Every aspect of the system should have Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) attached to them and should be continuously monitored for areas of improvement or trouble. Depending on how big the organization, it might be worth the investment of putting together some type of war room monitoring system were specific teams are responsible for monitoring these KPI’s in real-time.

Again, creating an Omni-Channel Experience within a business is no small task… However, the more effort put into ensuring your customers have a seamless experience from anything such as your website or mobile application, to their in-store experience, the more likely you are to have happier (and returning) customers. Industry giants of all shapes and sizes have been struggling as of late due to their lack of customer experience and competition pressure. Remember, it only takes one bad customer experience to lose a customer to a competitor, and let’s not forget word of mouth as well. In today’s market, customer experience is everything, and if you’re not putting your best foot forward across all of your different customer experience touchpoints, you are risking business.

 

Landmark Case with TripAdvisor, Makes Businesses Think Twice About Reviews

It was announced on Wednesday, September 13th of 2018 that an Italian man would be jailed for nine months for running a business tied to fake TripAdvisor reviews.

Reviews, especially for consumer-based businesses, mean everything… and unfortunately there are too many businesses that are more than willing to circumvent systems to provide fake reviews for products and services. We always highly recommended against using these services, as at the end of the day, it will negatively affect your business. Not only do real customers eventually catch on, but organizations such as TripAdvisor, Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Yelp are all working on solutions to combat such practices. This means that those reviews will eventually fall off, and there could be other ramifications such as fines or banning from platforms completely.

Reviews are increasingly becoming a primary tool for consumers to make daily decisions on what to buy and eat, naturally leading to increased business for businesses with a plethora of positive reviews. Instead of risking long-term gains for short-term with providers offing fake reviews, 3SixtySMB recommends developing a strategy to interact with your customers and work towards getting real, credible customer reviews for the various platforms out there. Strategies can be anything from simply asking customers to post reviews, or offering incentives such as discounts for their honest take on your business.

Real reviews are also an insight into the soul of your business. We find that many disregard reviews with the belief that the customer doesn’t know what they are talking about, or that they as a “business owner” know what is best for the business. However, real reviews are the consumer’s perception of your business (good or bad), and insights like reviews can truly help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the business in the eyes of your customers. Making adjustments to your business model as you learn about them through your reviews will help increase your overall customer experience and lead to increased revenue over time. We wrote a related article about this not too long ago (There’s A Problem, Stop What You Are Doing).

Finally, ensuring that you are monitoring these reviews in real time also gives a clear line of communication directly to your consumers. As an example, if a consumer had an issue with your business and you did not respond, you could lose a customer for life. Furthermore, they will tell their friends, and their review is now visible for the world to see. This means that one bad review left unaddressed can lead to multiple lost customers down the road. If you have a few bad reviews, you are now taking a significant hit to your business. Addressing issues in a professional and courteous manner can not only change the perception of a customer with a bad experience, but it also shows the world that you take your customer experiences seriously. Furthermore, positive reviews are not to be ignored. Take the time to thank someone that posted a positive review for their business, possibly even offer them a discount on their next trip in. Actions like this create loyal customers, and again, show the workers what type of business you run.

Reviews are truly an inside view to the soul of your business, both for your customers and your organization. Treat customers horribly, and everyone will know! Treat customers well, and everyone will know! Which do you think is better for your business? And when it comes to “paid reviews”, steer clear of them; they could be a path to short-term gains, however they will catch up to you in the long run… Finally, there are many platforms out there (TripAdvisor, Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Yelp), so do not make the mistake of only focusing on one. Where your customers are, you should be there as well!

 

Sales Is A Numbers Game, How To Increase Sales Without Increasing Pipeline

Sales Is A Numbers Game, How To Increase Sales Without Increasing PipelineSales is a numbers game, right? In sales, this is something you are constantly told, typically followed by the need to get more opportunities into the pipeline. This roughly translates to the more opportunities that are in the pipeline, the more business that is likely to close. We do not disagree–sales is a numbers game, but there is another way that game can be played, and that is increasing the close ratio. Here’s the thing, we disagree that the numbers game should always be pushing for bigger pipelines, as it eventually leads to employee burnout and puts unnecessary stresses on your account base. Working to increase the overall close ratio actually creates a more efficient sales team and leads to happier sales reps in the long term. It also has an interesting side effect. It gives organizations the ability to grow their teams in order to grow the pipeline, and it lowers the stresses due to employee turnover as a result of burning out. In this article we’ll share some simple tips that can easily increase your sales close ratio.

To create a more effective team, the first action many companies take is to go directly to organized sales training processes such as Sandler, Miller Heiman, Dale Carnegie, and others. Not a bad route to go, however they all have their special focuses along with their own strengths and weaknesses, and in some cases create an almost robotic workforce (which no one wants, Following The “Sales Taught” Process Isn’t Always A Good Thing). We’ve actually learned, over time, that a combination of the different sales methods works best and gives a team the ability to be more agile and think on their own. Also, these types of structured training tend to be one-time events, and we always encourage continuous learning and development, regardless of how senior the rep (or manager).

Sales is a game of numbers, and at times it truly is the small details that matter, as there are several opposing forces working against each and every deal. Anything from competition, budget, busy schedules, and competing priorities can sideline a deal at any moment, and they do (all the time). When it comes to increasing a close ratio, it is important to focus on the details, as it is the details that truly matter and will get those few extra deals to close. With all of the said, here are a few tips for a more effective sales process:

92% of sales is done via the phone, so it is important to have proper phone etiquette as there is nothing that can turn off a prospective customer more than a call that was painful to have.

  • Avoid speakerphone – Unless you are hosting a call with multiple people on the line, do not use the speakerphone. We find a few issues with use of speakerphones. Typically, speakerphones create an echo or can make voices too loud (or too quite), ultimately leading to difficult-to-hear discussions. Also, speaker phones are usually structured where you can either talk or hear, and not both at the same time. This leads to constantly talking over your prospect or missing important cues that they want to ask a question.
  • Do not talk over people – Unless absolutely necessary, do not talk over anyone on a phone call. It is not only considered rude, but you can miss critical information that your prospect might be trying to share. If done enough times, it will ultimately turn off your prospect.
  • Always use the 70/30 rule – This means your prospect should be doing 70% of the talking, and you should be doing 30% (yes, even in demos). If you find that you are doing most of the talking, stop immediately.

Almost all sales are a result of at least one meeting (and in some cases, several). This essentially means that the way you and your team represent yourselves during those meetings will directly impact your ability to close more business:

  • Send a proper meeting invite – One of the most overlooked items of any meeting is the actual invite itself. Think about how people typically view their calendars and you’ll realize the subject line is the only thing they see. Believe it or not, there are still people that will set up meeting invites with a one-word subject line that means nothing to the prospect. Instead, we recommend a subject line that looks like this: 3SixtySMB | Client Name Review and Feedback of Proposal – Friday 9/8 @ 3pm Eastern… This clearly shows the prospect who they are speaking with, why they are speaking to them, and when. Also, if sharing with internal team members, it serves the same purpose. The invite body is just as important, as you want to clearly state the agenda for the meeting along with dial-in or WebEx information and copy any relevant documentation. This all makes it super simple for your prospects to organize themselves as they hop from meeting to meeting.
  • Do your homework – Never go into a meeting blind… Take time before a meeting to review relevant information such as website, social media pages, individual LinkedIn pages, financial reports, presses, notes, and any other applicable information.
  • Join the meeting 3-5 minutes early  – Always dial in early. Not only does it show you have respect for your client’s time, but it also allows you to address any issues with a dial-in or WebEx which always happens to pop up at the most inconvenient times.
  • Do not book back-to-back meetings – Meetings always run over, and you are just asking for trouble when booking back-to-back meetings. Always allow for at least a 15-minute buffer if possible. If a back-to-back meeting is unavoidable, use a different dial-in for the second call. That way if a call goes late, you don’t have people popping in as you are trying to end your call.
  • Use group chat   When possible, use a group chat with your internal team members. It allows for back-end strategization on the fly during discussions, keeping everyone on the same page.
  • Start with a proper agenda – Take care of roll call, introductions, meeting summary, and open questions before getting started.
    • The most important part of the meeting is how you set the stage, ensuring that everyone is on the same page on the reasoning of the meeting. Too many times people skip this part, only to find out 30 minutes into a meeting that the reasoning behind the meeting changed on the client side or they had a piece of critical information missing that changes everything.
    • Also, if it’s a smaller meeting, try building a bit of a rapport before hopping right into things. A little bonding goes a long way!
  • Actively listen – There is a difference between listening and actively listening because there is a big difference between “what people say” and “how they say it”. Sometimes the nuances are in the way something is said, and those small nuances can be the difference between a won or lost deal.
  • Be present/listen – Seriously, too many people forget the simple concept of being present and listening. Some believe they are listening, but they’re too involved in jotting down notes, or thinking of their next question and are really not present. As a result, they miss things… and nothing will annoy a prospect more than someone that isn’t paying attention to what is being said and they end up asking questions that were answered previously in the conversation.
  • Take detailed notes – Part of listening is taking notes, lots of them… Many believe they can simply remember the fine details. However, after a few hours, those details can be forgotten. These are the details that can make the difference between winning and losing a deal. And of course, don’t be afraid to share these notes with co-workers. This goes back to doing your homework; note-taking and sharing are extremely important to ensure everyone has the most relevant information and is on the same page.
  • Never make assumptions – Too many make assumptions, and those assumptions lead to lost deals. These are assumptions such as believing you know what the client wants, the right people are on the call, budget, and decision-making process… the list goes on. Never make assumptions, and always ask questions to understand unanswered details. Your prospect will respect that you are trying to understand their process, and if they are dodging questions, be wary as that is a sign something is not quite right.
  • Clear next steps – This is a big one… Never, ever end a call without clear next steps and a scheduled call! Nothing kills the momentum of an opportunity more than not having a scheduled next step. People are busy, and your sales opportunity, unfortunately, is not their top priority–almost anything can happen once a call ends. Without a scheduled next step, there is no guarantee you’ll get them on the phone again.  
  • Summarize – Do not forget to summarize what was discussed in the meeting and ask for confirmation. We all hear different things at times, and it is critical to make sure everyone is on the same page before leaving.

Proposal and Contracts:

  • Timing is everything – Don’t sit on the paperwork; get it out the door as soon as humanly possible. During the call, if they give you a deadline of Friday, you get it to them by Tuesday morning. Getting the paperwork out the door early shows that you are on top of your game, but it also combats other outside sources such as buyer’s remorse, competition, or just shifting priorities. Many deals have been lost by one day, just because someone changed their minds due to budget cuts, someone quitting, or a change that was made in corporate priorities.
  • Get their information right – Ensure the company name, logo, address, and their name are all written correctly.
  • Proofread – Typos or mistakes happen, however, ensure you do everything possible to send out paperwork that is clear, consistent, and typo free.
  • File name – Do not just use the file name “proposal” or “contract”–believe me, people do it! Instead, similar to the meeting invite, make the file name something that is self-explanatory. As an example: 3SixtySMB-ClientName-ProjectNameProposal-9-8-2018v2…. This example is very coherent, searchable, and gives a clear understanding of the version.
  • Email subject lines – Again, we have seen people send along agreements and proposals with one-word subject lines. Be clear and concise. Example: 3SixtySMB | Client Name – Proposal for review and signature. With a subject line like this, there is no mistake to what this email is for and it also makes it searchable within an inbox. (searchability is important as, in some cases, people get 100’s of emails and files in a week, so you want your information found easily).
  • Email body – Keep it simple, but do not make it a one-liner… Now is not the time to write a novel, but do spend time explaining the content of the attached paperwork in a summarized fashion, always thanking them for their time, and detailing next steps. We also highly suggest asking for a confirmation of receipt… If they confirm, there is no question that they received it, but if they do not confirm, it gives you another non-salesy follow-up item with them.

Follow-ups:

  • Timeliness – Whether you are following up on a simple request or something from a meeting, it is extremely important that items are sent in a timely manner. Again, similar to what we mentioned around paperwork, timeliness of follow-up items shows that you are on top of your business. No one wants to work with someone that takes days to get out simple items in the opportunity phase. If this is how you treat your prospects, how are you going to treat your customers?
  • Be respectful of their time – When you’re selling, you are on the client’s time, period. As much as we would all like to think that clients need “us”, at the end of the day, they don’t! There are countless other ways of solving their problems such as competition or DIY. This is a serious infraction most management make as they push their sales teams. We’ve seen, in some cases, management pushing their reps for daily or hourly updates on contract signature, and as a result, you have a rep reaching out to their prospects almost hourly. Nothing will piss off a client more! Instead, during your meetings with the prospect, work to get a clear understanding of their approval process, as they typically will share timing and other details with you. Again, if they do not, there could be something up!  
  • Do not follow a dead deal – Too many reps get stuck on that one deal that should have closed, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t. Always do your best to get a yes or a no answer. Too much time can be wasted on a deal that will never close… A great trick if you haven’t heard from a prospect in a while is a “Break up email”–8 out of 10 times, you’ll get some type of response.
  • 4 of 5 touches should be non-sales related – Pretty much no one likes to be sold to; they find sales people too pushy and typically tune them out. A way to break the cycle is to ensure you are finding other ways to add value to your prospects. We typically suggest sending something educational on the space, updates on the industry, or a congrats on a recent award. Anything to help make a stronger connection and add value.
  • Social connections – This goes along the lines of the 4 of 5 touches rule: ensure that you are connecting with your prospects on all social channels. It gives you another level to connect with your prospects and can help get more education and brand awareness to them in a non-direct way. We recently published an article on this: What is Social Selling Really, Six Tips to Social Selling.

General Tips:

  • Constantly keep in contact – Always work to keep in contact with your prospects… it goes along the lines of the 4 of 5 touch rule. As at the end of the day, if you are not top of mind and educating your prospects, someone else is! And when they are ready to pull the trigger, guess who they are going to move forward with?
  • Create a follow-up process – Many deals are lost simply because the rep didn’t follow up after sending the paperwork. Ensure you are respecting their time, but ensure you are staying on top of the prospect and process… Also, if a prospect “tables” a project for a few months, don’t forget about it. Keep in constant contact with them (4 of 5 touch rule applies), and in the timeframe they recommended, ask about the project.
  • Respect the prospect – There have been many times, after finishing up a call, where I’ve heard someone disrespecting a prospect… What is even crazier (I’ve personally seen it happen), is when they start disrespecting a prospect while forgetting to mute their line or hang up properly. Regardless of whether they can hear you or not, your emotions come through in your communications. Treat every prospect as if they are an absolute must win!
  • Fire your prospect – Yes, we did just say treat every prospect as if they are an absolute must win. However, there are occasions where a prospect can and will waste your time. You’ve tried almost every angle and you’re still getting nowhere with a prospect, but they continuously demand more of you. Eventually, it is time to cut bait and move on as some people will always waste time and never buy.
  • Lose gracefully – Just because you lost a deal, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost them forever. Amazingly enough, they can and will come back at some point down the road. We recently published on this: Take A Sales Loss Gracefully
  • Multi-task – No, we do not mean sitting on a conference call while sending emails. We mean ensuring you are working multiple opportunities at once, always following up with prospects, and always staying in contact with your prospects. Too many reps get lost in that one big deal, or sending out as many proposals as possible, and as a result, something falls to the side. You truly need to be working all fronts, all the time.
  • Always treat clients like prospects – There are some fantastic closers out there, and they can close anyone, anywhere. But, unfortunately, they absolutely suck at dealing with clients, and as result, the client leaves shortly after the sale. This cannot only result in a loss of revenue, but it can also damage an opportunity to further upsell or get new clients down the road. The average time someone stays in a role these days is just about three years. Impress your client, and when they move to a new role, you could have another new logo on your hands. Also, people talk… If they have a bad experience with you, you bet they are talking about it with others!

There is a true art/science to the sales process. You are never guaranteed to win a deal, but you can always guarantee that you put your best foot forward, ensuring “you” are not the reason they say no. Every little detail matters! As an exercise, take a look at last year’s closed opportunities and total them up–it typically turns out to be a fairly large number. Now imagine if you could have brought in 10 or 20% of those and what it could have done to your number for the year! In some cases, it is the difference of hitting vs missing a number! To increase sales, you don’t always have to increase pipeline, you only have to do a better job with the deals you have already.

 

Digital Document Management for Small Businesses

Digital Document Management for Small BusinessesYou would not believe how many small businesses still have no true way of managing their documents besides folders, file cabinets, or saving files directly to their computers. If you are reading this and that is how you currently manage your documents, we are truly sorry…. Reasons vary, but still, all too often we come across organizations that have file cabinets full of old sales agreements, invoices, and legal documents. Now, there was a time where paper documents were the most efficient means of storage, but those times are long gone. The cost of digital storage has dropped significantly over the years, and technology has caught up to a point where the ease of use makes the user experience straightforward and easy. Typically, when we run across organizations that are stuck in the world of paper document management, we find there is no real fundamental reason to why they have not shifted to digital, and it more or less just hasn’t been top of mind. In this article we’ll cover some basic strategies for document management in small businesses.

In case you need a justification for moving to a digital document management solution, here are a few points of consideration:

  • Increased file redundancy – Unfortunately when dealing with paper documentation or electronic files, they can get lost or damaged; natural disasters can strike out of nowhere and when this happens, these files are gone forever… We also find in today’s market that there are more remote employees than ever before, and with a paper document management solution in play, these remote employees have essentially zero access to critical documentation. Whether it is a need for file protection or access, almost all digital document management solutions have sophisticated disaster protection and recovery solutions in play, along with robust file access solutions as well. This essentially makes it impossible for files to get lost or destroyed while giving remote employees the access to critical documents.
  • Increased security – When it comes to file storage, your security is only as strong as the file cabinets your documents are stored in, and that’s if you even lock them. Most small businesses take employee trust a little too far and at times leave cabinets to some of the most sensitive corporate information unlocked. With fraud and lawsuits at an all-time high, quite honestly, this is just a vulnerability that should not be overlooked. Today’s solution providers have some of the most strict physical and digital security protocols known to man, ensuring that no one has access to your files unless they are allowed to have access.
  • Document editing – If you manage your company reports via Excel, raise your hand. If you have more than one person working on an Excel, Word Document or PowerPoint, raise your other hand… Almost every company has Excels, Word Documents, and PowerPoints being worked on by multiple people at any given time. Inherently, the way those products are designed, only one person can modify a document at any given time… However, most Content Management Solutions today have created solutions that allow for multiple editors to work on the same document at the same time with full visibility to who is doing what.   
  • Version controls – Similarly, when multiple people are working on the same document, whether printed or in digital format, it is almost impossible to know who made what changes and went or if the document is even the latest version. Again, most solution providers have built in version controls within their solutions to know who made changes and when.
  • Process control – A majority of documents created have a process they must follow. As an example, sales agreements must be created, edited, approved, sent for signature and so on… Typically this is a completely manual process. Typically, sales creates the agreement, forwards to their management for review and approval, management sends the contract back to sales, and sales sends the agreement to their contact. These processes and others are extremely manual, time consuming, and prone to errors… Errors such as someone opening an email, but forgetting to process the document. There are some Content Management solutions that have process controls built directly into them allowing for a more automated and error-free process.

The above are just a few reasons why a digital document management system makes sense, and again, the cost of storage and technology offerings now make a solution more cost effective and easier than ever. As an example, companies such as Microsoft, Google, Dropbox, and others give away storage for free, and most free solutions fit the needs of Small Businesses perfectly. There is also the real risk of documents getting lost or damaged, which when these events happen, means those documents are lost forever! Furthermore, with remote workers becoming more predominant in the industry, there is a real need to give them access to critical documentation at anytime and anywhere.

Setting up a digital content management solution is not rocket science, as again, most solution providers have made solutions extremely user friendly. However, when looking into a digital document solution for a small business, there are a few things an organization needs to consider:

  • Existing paper document digitization – Digitizing file cabinets stuffed with documents going back decades, in some cases, is no small task for any organization. With that in mind, the first thing to consider when going digital is which documents will be digitized and how far back those documents should go, as not all documents need to be digitized. Once a decision has been made, you can either look into a company that provides digitization (which can get costly), or look into another option like hiring a few interns or temp employees to take on the task for you.
  • Folder and file name structure – At the surface, file structure doesn’t seem that important. However, folder and file name structure are most likely two of the most important items to consider up front; a lack of consistency across both can lead to a cumbersome folder and file structure, making it impossible to find documents. This means every department should have a clearly defined folder name and subfolder structure. File names need to be straight forward as well… As an example, a sale contract should be named something such as ClientName-Product-agreement-date.pdf. A folder and file structure should be set up in a way that is completely self-explanatory, leaving nothing to question.
  • Document access controls – This simply means who should have access to what folders and files. Free solutions typically do not have access controls built in, however others do… If going this route, there should be a lot of thought around which departments or employees have access to what documents upfront.
  • Process definition – There needs to be a defined process around who has responsibility for what action, and this process should clearly be communicated with the team. As without a clear process, people will assume someone else is responsible for the process of uploading documents and nothing will get done. As an example, when sales gets in a new signed agreement, who is going to be responsible for uploading the agreement? Sales, Finance, Sales Ops?
  • Signatures – Are they still inked or digital? This is not something organizations think of when first looking into content management, however increasingly, digital signatures are becoming a more efficient way of executing agreements and authorizing paperwork. Digital signature solutions are now extremely cost effective, and if you are moving to a digital content solution, this should be a natural solution to implement at the same time.  

Again, setting up a digital content management solution is not rocket science. However, if proper thought is not put into the planning around the structure and access, things can get out of control quickly, and it is hard to fix once in place. It is also important to keep things as simple as possible and resist the urge to over-complicate the folder and file structure; over-complicating can lead to confusion and difficulty of finding documents when needed and reduce the value of efficiency of a digital content management solution. Some organizations, to save cost, may opt not to use a prepackaged solution and go with a DIY central server and mapped drive solution . This is something we highly recommend against. Although the upfront cost may be lower than a paid solution, the long term risk should outweigh the cost. For instance, there are costs to maintaining the server, the VPN for secured connections, and data backup. But, there are also other risks, such as loss of power or natural disasters that wipe out access to these servers.

Going digital should be a top priority for organizations, as the longer you wait to implement the solution, the more risk you are putting your business in….

 

The Fundamental Change In Today’s Buying Process

Buying CommitteeThe way people buy and sell in today’s B2B market segment is significantly different than the way things were done 10+ years ago. Even though it has been that long, both buyers and sellers continue to struggle with the change… If you’ve been part of the process for longer than 10 years, then you remember the times when someone would commit to a signature, and later that day, a signature would show up on the fax machine. Setting the stage, ten years ago, budgets were assigned to business units and there really was no scrutinization on the way those funds were spent. Meaning, if a CIO wanted to authorize a purchase for new software or hardware, they had the authorization to make that purchase as long as it fit within the budget. Department heads also had their own budget that would fit within their own signature authority, typically requiring little to no oversight for their budget spend. This all translated to one-on-one relationships that could seamlessly conduct purchasing transactions in lightning fast timing… Buying and selling was literally easier back then.

Fast forward to today—the process is drastically different and slower… and the larger the business, the more complex and painful the process has become. No longer do business unit or department heads have the ability to sign off on their own budgets; there are now several new processes and approvals that have been put into place in order to execute a purchase. As an example, budget approval has now shifted from the head of a business unit or department, to the office of the CFO. This means that every purchase not only has to be approved by a business unit or department head, but someone within the office of the CFO must also approve that budget spend. However, the changes haven’t stopped there… Remembering back to times of yesteryear, when a business unit or department head wanted to sign a contract for a purchase, they were usually the ones reviewing agreements for possible legal ramifications. Not surprisingly, receiving redline edits was fairly rare, and in some cases, almost nonexistent back then. Again, fast forwarding to today, essentially 100% of all agreements must now be reviewed and approved by someone within the legal team before execution… Finally, executives that were never part of a decision-making process unless it was of significant size, are also now part of the overview review and decision-making process.

Adding to the new challenge of having multiple people as part of the decision-making process, there are two major issues that come into play: knowledge and timing… Typically, most people within the approval process know little to nothing about what is being purchased. Take for an example a purchase for new marketing software by a CMO within an organization. Now, the CMO knows exactly why they are buying this software and the impact to their business unit, but the reviewers with the CFO, legal, and executive oversight committees most likely no nothing about the software or impact to the business. In a way, they really do not care. The financial reviewer is trying to find out how this purchase fits within the overall budgeting plan for the organization, what the overall ROI /& TCO is, and whether they got the best competitive bid for the solution. Legal wants to understand what type of corporate liabilities live within the use of the software and agreement, and executive oversight is working to juggle this decision with the dozens of others that fall on their plate at any given time… and each one of these oversight committees needs their own time within the process review that can typically take “weeks” per reviewer…

Here is what a typical purchase process looks like today:

  • Manager / Director level initiates buy process
    • Timing: within a few days
  • Head of Line of Business, conditionally approves purchase
    • Timing: few days to a week
  • Finance department reviews and approves purchase
    • Timing: a week to two weeks
  • Legal then reviews / redlines agreement and eventually approves
    • Timing: a few weeks
  • Executive sponsors reviews and approves purchase
    • Timing: a few weeks
  • Signatures
    • Timing: few days to weeks

It is easy to see how a process that once took hours, now has translated into weeks or months… Fundamentally, this is still not fully understood on both the buyer and seller side of the process, creating significant frustration in the buying process for both. Furthermore, each of the individual approvers can and will stop a buying process if they feel like there is a need. As an example, we had been working with an HCM organization that was selling a solution to a major grocer and a verbal agreement for $350,000+ had been made by the head of HR within this grocer. As the agreement made its way through the process, it finally made its way to the CFO… The CFO had no true understanding of this HCM Software, its capabilities and impact to the business, and all they truly wanted to understand was whether they received any competitive bids. In short, the answer was no, and the CFO demanded for additional vendors to be brought in on the process. They had no cares on the prior processes, relationships, and why the organization needed this solution and stopped the approval process dead in its tracks.

This new approval process is the number one reason why a majority of contracts never receive final signature and die… How does one combat this new elongated process and get a purchase approved? First, there needs to be acceptance that the process has changed, and one must do their homework prior to submitting a purchase. Again, it is important to remember that each reviewer in the process has their own criteria they are looking to review. With this is in mind, it is essential to understand what the approval process is, who is part of it, and what criteria they will be reviewing to build a business case addressing each approver. A business case is essentially a collection of information that directly addresses specific criteria each department will be reviewing as part of their approval process. For example, a financial reviewer is going to want to understand things like whether there was a competitive bid, if the price is the lowest available, and what the ROI / TCO is. In short, there needs to be a clear business case that addresses questions such as:

  • Why is this solution needed?
  • What departments are affected by the purchase?
  • How much more efficient will these departments be?
  • What other vendors were considered?
  • What are the legal ramifications? (data ownership, insurance, etc)
  • Was is the total TCO / ROI?
  • With regards to ROI, is there an investment payback period?

Continuing with the major grocer example from above, neither the buyer nor seller had created a business case for the purchase, which ended up not giving the CFO the confidence to move forward and causing a stop of purchase… However, there was a clear business case for the solution, but it just had not been properly communicated up the approval chain. In this case, the buyer brought us into the opportunity as an independent nonbiased 3rd party to speak with the CFO… During our discussions, we were able to properly articulate the business case for the solution along with the overall organizational and financial impact to the business (relating directly to the CFO’s concerns)… Because we spoke the language of the CFO and gave a clear-cut understanding of the value in a language they knew, it allowed them to fully approve the purchase without a need for a competitive bid…

Organizations can continue to struggle through these new organizational approval processes, or they can accept these changes. A strong business case is now required in order for a purchase to move more swiftly through the process and to ensure someone in the approval process cannot kill it… Again, this important for both the buy and sell side, as both parties have something to gain by a smoother approval process.

On a side note, it is also important for sales leadership and executives to understand that the days of pushing for a signature are long gone. Still to this day, we see sales leadership pushing customers needlessly hard for approvals and signatures thinking it will move the ball forward, when in fact, they’re only pissing off both the employees and buyers. Instead, sales leadership should be focused more on helping their team understand this new purchasing process and how to build a proper business case ensuring there is a bulletproof plan in place… Doing this will not only show the professionalism of your organizations, but ensure your agreements move faster through the system and become more likely to get approved. For better for worse, there is a new buying process, and the more understanding of the process there is, the more likely you are to get approval.

 

My How Times Have Changed.. Or Have They Really – The Rebirth Of Small Businesses

Small town shippingSomething interesting has been happening over the past 10 years and it is reminiscent of the “good old days”…  The 80s, 90s, and early 2000s saw a shift from family owned small businesses and restaurants to big box retailers, chain restaurants, and malls across America. There was also the likes of Walmart moving into small towns and becoming the center of commerce, putting family owned general stores that stood for decades out of business almost overnight. Then there was Sears, a pioneer in catalog sales, shifting away from their core of catalogs and into malls. Those decades were profit years for these giants of industry as they dominated the consumer market. But then in the mid-2000s, something happened: huge revenue gains turned to single-digit growth, or worse—flat revenue.

Now in the world of small business, slight growth to even flat revenue numbers isn’t a bad thing; typically, that means the bills are still being paid, employees are receiving paychecks, and owners are still getting money in their back pockets. However, these giants of industry are public organizations with shareholders demanding for ever-increasing profits, not single-digit growth or flat revenue projections. So, what did they do? The only thing they really knew how to do at the time: they began to cut cost. At first, these cost cutting tactics were barely even noticeable to your everyday consumer; typically, it meant a few less employees on the store floor, slightly reduced inventory, and maintenance items that were overlooked… But these tactics were not enough and revenues continued to flatten out, and for some, even drop a bit. So the cycle continued. Management continued cost cutting metrics to protect profits. This led to even less employees on the store floor, even less inventory, and maintenance items that continued to take a hit. Overtime, consumers started to notice these changes… Stores that once had just about anything they ever needed ended up not having their sizes anymore, help was becoming a little more difficult to find, checkout lines were growing longer, and stores started to look dated and in disrepair. Sears is almost a classic case detailed in this great article. Sure, if there had been no competition for consumer dollars, these industry giants could have possibly held on to consumers a bit longer, but there was more competition.

Enter ecommerce and Amazon… While big box retail was focused on cutting cost; smaller dot.com businesses were focusing on customer needs. Consumers were beginning to find that instead of dealing with long lines, increasingly clueless employees, and struggling to find exactly what they were looking for, they could now find exactly what they need and have it shipped to their front door in days, all from the comfort of their own homes. We also saw the rebirth of locally owned boutique shops that boasted quality and customized products with great customer service and experiences.

Restaurants were no different. When the major chains moved into new locations, they offered great food, settings, and bargain prices. Just like the boom of retail, consumers flocked to these new eateries. Business was booming and thousands of chain restaurants were popping up in clusters across the country almost overnight. What these chain restaurants didn’t realize at the time, is that this rapid opening of locations was the very thing that was going to kill them… Certain geographic regions typically only have so much disposable revenue that goes into the economy. However, at the time, that did not factor into these organizations’ business plans. Essentially, where competition was making revenue, others would follow suit. Shortly in each geographic hotspot, instead of having one or two major restaurants, there was an explosion of chains fighting for the same consumer dollar. It didn’t take long for this heavy competition to take its toll on these chains, and revenues began to slow or flatten out. Similar to big box retail, these major chains had shareholders to keep happy… As a result, this led to cost cutting metrics similar to what was happening to retail. Establishments had reduced staff, food quality took a hit, and certain locations started to look dated and in disrepair and consumers started to notice… Again, similar to retail, had there been no competition, these chain restaurants might have held on a little longer—but there was. Just as major chains were struggling, locally owned craft restaurants began to pop up. These craft restaurants offered tailored menus to the community, high quality food, and drinks with an atmosphere to match. Slowly but surely, consumers began finding these new craft eateries and abandoning once-popular chains.

Fast-forward to today’s market… Big box retailers and chain restaurants are failing left and right. Sears, JC Penny, Macy’s, Staples and others are closing hundreds of locations monthly, and restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s, Outback, and Bertucci’s are struggling to stay open. The likes of Walmart that once took over small towns shuttering locally owned general stores, are shutting down themselves. Once-flooded malls are closing their doors or struggling to stay open as attendance continues to wane… All of these changes are giving rebirth to the locally owned small businesses across the country. Once-struggling cities and towns are now being built as hubs around these locally owned boutique shops and craft restaurants. Consumers have grown tired of cost cutting metrics that lead to lower quality products and experiences that big box retailers and chain restaurants continue to offer. What we’re beginning to see is almost reminiscent of times before big box retail and chain restaurants took over the country! Now, let’s be real for a minute. The concept is not lost on us that major retailers and big box stores will always be around. Organizations such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy have seen some real turnarounds as of late. However, a focus on cost cutting and the lack of innovation within these industries are going to continue to take a toll in the long run. Only when these once-giants of industry focus on true innovation and focus more on the customer, will they overcome the huge challenge that lies ahead of them.

One last thought: in a way, we can point back to times being similar to the early 1900s. In the early 1900s, Sears launched their Catalog, and at the time, it was a true game-changer for retail.  If you’ve never looked at one, take a look (1918 Catalog) at the similarities to the Amazon of today; they had essentially anything you could imagine and delivered directly to your front door. Sears was extremely innovative for its time! Then in 1993, they closed the doors to the catalog due to rising cost, and they never looked back. Interesting to think that in July of 1994, Amazon was created; they became an online catalog of virtually anything you could want, delivered right to your door. If only all the manpower and knowledge of Sears’s executive team had focused on ways to innovate vs. cut cost, their history could have been written very differently…. While things may change, in a way they still stay the same… The Sears catalog and Amazon are essentially the same business model 100 years apart.

Dine Brands / IHOP Announces Name Change to IHOb

Dine Brands / IHOP recently announced that they will be changing their name to IHOb, and we have two theories for this recent announcement. The first being that this could all be a marketing gimmick that will be followed by a change in their menu or business model which, depending on the change, might be beneficial to the brand. The other could be more serious—where they are actually moving forward with the name change. IHOP, owned by Dine Brands which also owns Applebee’s, has been relatively flat from a revenue perspective over the past years…. Recently, Dine Brands attempted a bold marketing strategy with Millennials, and ended up failing greatly due to their misunderstanding of the age group. The name change could be a very similar attempt by Dine to break from the struggling numbers they have been seeing over the past few years to satisfy investors.

Unfortunately, if Dine moves forward with a permanent name change of IHOP to IHOb, we believe it will be a truly wasted effort on their part. Anyone that has been to either establishment owned by Dine lately has noticed a drop in overall quality of the restaurants—a direct result of focusing more on cost cutting metrics instead of finding ways to truly be innovative to increase revenue.  Regardless of what you call IHOP, at the end of the day, they are still going to have an overall brand perception issue with the general public, and they will continue to see flat or declining numbers in the upcoming years. For their sake, let’s hope it is just a marketing gimmick. Again, this all sums up another educational lesson at someone else’s expense: to not rely on gimmicks, such as name changes, without a true fundamental change to the business model. A name change is just that—a name change—and it doesn’t fix a true underlying issue.

Target Uses Local Retail Stores As Virtual Warehouses

Over the past few years, Target has become increasingly more innovative to compete against other local brick and mortar stores and Amazon alike… As an example, back in December, they announced a new mobile payments system called “Wallet” that allows customers to quickly pay for items via the mobile application, skipping lines and speeding up the checkout process. Yesterday, Target announced Restock, a nationwide next-day delivery service targeted directly at Amazon Prime Pantry—this is pretty interesting, but not innovative in itself (more of a copycat). What is innovative is that they are essentially using their local stores as a warehouse, and choosing to ship items directly from the store vs. a main warehouse… This method should allow for faster and more cost-effective shipping to consumers, along with taking advantage of millions of dollars of inventory sitting on retail store shelves. As consumers are increasingly shifting to online and more convenient shopping, this shift from Target will allow them to continue to maintain and open new local retail settings while not worrying as much about the impact of in-store food traffic that is causing major retailers such as Sears and JC Penney to close doors at an alarming rate.

This also poses an opportunity for small businesses to think about the way they conduct business as well. Many small businesses struggle with keeping warehouses and retail stores open, as they both typically come with high overhead cost. A strategy similar to what Target has launched, shifting ecommerce delivery from your traditional warehouses to retail shops, may be a more cost-effective path for small businesses that are struggling to keep warehouses open and costs down.

There’s A Problem, Stop What You Are Doing!

http://blog.toyota.co.uk/toyota-manufacturing-25-objects-andon-cordThere is a fundamental problem in businesses today that is absolutely crippling organizations of all shapes and sizes. What is that problem, you ask? It is simply the failure to address critical business problems in a timely and strategic fashion. Most either continue on as if the problem isn’t there, or as we call it “whistling past the graveyard”, or make snap decisions without truly understanding the issue at hand. Sure, it is an over-generalized statement, but it is not far off from the truth of what is happening daily in business. Just look at the retail and restaurant industries, for example. Businesses that have been around for decades, once pillars of industry, are crumbling around us daily. But why? They blame Amazon or millennials, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that these organizations are ignoring critical issues at hand and continuing with their own agendas with the belief they know what is best.

Organizations need to learn how to stop turning blind eyes to these fundamental business model problems while resisting the urge to make snap decisions. Instead, when a critical failure is identified, we suggest something that that is drastically different: stopping everything dead in its tracks. Stopping the process is not an entirely new concept as large manufacturers have emergency production line stops at every station. This allows anyone in the production line (not just management) that spots an issue to immediately stop the production line in its tracks. This then allows the manufacturer to properly analyze an issue and take critical actions preventing large amounts of products to be discarded due to defect, or worse, a defective product making its way to customers. It costs time and money to shut down large production lines, but some manufacturers recognize that quality products and happy customers are more important than the minimal amount of money lost to the down time.

In business, we need to have very similar approaches. Instead of ignoring issues or making snap decisions without analyzing the situation, allow anyone to bring up critical issues and “stop” the process if the situation permits. Then take the real needed time to truly understand the issue at hand and create a strategic approach to a solution. As an example, we look back to one organization we worked with that happened to have quarter over quarter growth, until they didn’t. Quarter over quarter success was met with declining numbers that were starting to add up to significant losses.  At this point in time where most organizations would have put increased pressure on the sales and marketing team to increase their numbers, we did the opposite. We stopped business completely for a few days to understand what the real root cause of the problem was, and we worked to identify solutions. It was found that just before the change in growth direction, this organization had made a number of key leadership new-hires that happened to make seemingly small changes within their teams—changes that had drastic downstream effects. The effect was so significant downstream that it was throwing off the rhythm of production and other organization items. Once we identified the issues at hand, it was easier to create a new strategy for success moving forward and leading to a faster increase of revenue and production once again. Stopping the business at that time was a difficult decision to make, and some disagreed with the decision. However, it allowed the organization to spot the issue and pivot quickly with a new strategy. Ultimately they could have struggled along, pushing harder on sales and marketing for more activity; this could have possibly increased sales slightly, but they would have never addressed the real issue and continued to struggle long-term,

When something is going wrong, think of your business like a manufacturing plant that is continuously churning out bad product. The longer it takes to address an issue, the longer your plant will continue to churn out bad product which will lead to disappointed customers and loss of business money. Stopping a business or a process in its tracks to make adjustments is a very difficult decision to make, but thinking of how much bad product a company is producing should help put into perspective on how stopping process is actually beneficial to the business. History has proven that making snap decisions or turning blind eyes to issues almost never works out—just look at what is happening to the retail and restaurant industries.