Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Guest blogging


In a week or two, I'll be guest blogging at www.smartbusinessblog.biz. Here's a free preview. :)
For most of us, talking is a heck of a lot more fun than listening. And when managers speak with their subordinates, the instinct to inject comments or answer questions before they’ve really been asked can be powerful. What better opportunity to show off your hard-won skills and knowledge?
But too often when you think you’ve been helpful, you’ve actually thrown away the opportunity to develop a great new idea or gather some useful feedback. The most effective, respected managers realize that what they have to say is almost always far less valuable than what their subordinates have to say to them. At best, doing too much of the talking can quash the opportunity to build a trusted bond with a team member. At worst, it can be disastrous.
In my book, Shutting Up!, I discuss numerous situations in which it is imperative for managers to let others do the talking… plus techniques to help you actually do the shutting up. For example:
1-on-1 Talks. Bite your tongue… literally. Sit on your hands. Do anything to stop yourself from talking. Let the other person get it all out. And understand that even when you think they’re done, they’re probably not! Wait for it. Or ask a probing question. Then see what happens. Chances are, the real meat of the matter is a lot different than what you expected.
Assigning Tasks. When you delegate, don’t dive into the what, how, when, and why of the job before asking your workers what they know about it. If your team already understands what’s up, you’ll save everyone time and build mutual respect.
Responding to Questions. Don’t let your workers off easy by feeding them all the answers. Instead, ask them, “What do you think we should do?” and guide them as they figure out the answers themselves. You’ll be amazed how fast your people grow into more effective, self-sufficient workers.
Don’t Hijack Meetings! Ask for everyone else’s thoughts before you inject your own. When you speak first, it’s too easy to push your team into going along with your ideas. But the best idea just may not be yours.
Making Estimates. Instead of telling your team how long they have to get things done, ask them to tell you how long they need. When your people make the estimate, they own it. And they’ll do everything in their power to come through as promised.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Giving powerpoint presentations, or not

Man, if I have to sit through one more presentation where someone is reading the entire presentation right off the slides, I'm just gonna lose it. Whether in a large group setting or just in a meeting with a few folks, this type of thing shows a complete lack of understanding for how to effectively communicate, and how to connect with the audience.

First off, unless you are presenting on a stage (or similar conceptual location), don't use powerpoint or keynote if you can possibly avoid it. You will spend way too much time trying to figure out how to format what you have to say, rather than thinking about WHAT YOU SHOULD BE SAYING. As one who knows, I will tell you that taking some concepts and putting them into a formatted presentation is incredibly tedious. If you're just going to be talking with a few folks, find some other way of presenting the info. Hand out a diagram. Walk up to the whiteboard. Speak off the cuff. Something. Anything. Just avoid wasting time on powerpoint.

Another great benefit of not having a structured presentation is that it gets your audience in an immediate dialog mode, rather than what they will assume is supposed to be an extended monolog on your part. Again, per the title of my book, the more you can personally SHUT UP and let others participate, the more valuable the meeting will be.

Actually, this concept has been gaining great popularity recently, with many companies (including Amazon) banning powerpoints entirely. You can, and should, become one of them.

But, when you are giving a presentation to a significant number of folks, it's almost impossible to do without a real powerpoint or keynote slide deck. You can still pull this off, but PLEASE have mercy on your audience and follow some rules:
  • Use short bullets and not full sentences. If anyone could deliver your talk by simply reading the slides out loud, you have bad slides. And you don't want your audience being completely transfixed on reading your slides and missing anything good you have to say. Keep it way short and simple.
  • People get confused very easily. Don't try to convey more than one basic point with each slide.
  • Rehearse your talk, fully, in a standing position, EXACTLY as you would do it to your audience. No matter how many times you pseduo-rehearse it, you will never get the timing right. Even then, you will probably underestimate it. Talks always take longer when they're for real, and everyone hates it when you go over your allotted time.
  • Pick your jokes carefully. They will never go over quite as well as you think they will. You will go down in a nuclear pile of slag if you tell a joke and get no response.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Apocalypse never

So, unfortunately, a situation with one of your customers has "gone south." They are unhappy over the quality of your products, the speed of delivery, the handling of some support issue, the overall value they're receiving, whatever... Maybe you should have seen it coming sooner (see some earlier blog entries), but you didn't. Or it got out of control quickly.

Now is the time to bear down and get things positive again. In situations that continue to go sour, do whatever you can to salvage them. It costs so much more to attract a new customer than it does to retain one, it makes sense to go the extra mile. When you factor in the pyramid affect of your departing customers notifying all their friends, coworkers, neighbors, and relatives as well, the damage can be immense.

So, you apply some of your best people to the problem. You set up regular communications (since it's likely that your customer is not located near to you). You may even setup some kind of "war room" to track all the issues. You're going to be thinking that you're doing everything within reason to deal with the issue. And, at some point you’re going to ask “What else can we really do here that will help?”

That’s a good question, but don’t limit yourself to things that are "within reason". Sometimes you need to go a little further – to things that don’t seem logical on the surface. I've mentioned before about how TV news channels throw helicopters at news stories that don't really demand them. Yes, here's one car that has rear-ended another car. You know that dozens happen in your city every single day. But, when we here at TV 7 decide to hover a copter over the top, now that's really exciting! Yeah, everyone's fine... no injuries, and the damage isn't even that great. But we've got this copter and we're sure as heck gonna use it to show you what's important (or ratings-generating) to us!

Well, you can do the same. Go hover a copter. Send one of your best guys, or send yourself, out to the customer’s site. Talk to them in person. See their problems. Feel their pain. They will really appreciate it. It may not do any more to really solve the issues, but the increased personalization will buy you credibility and time to get things right.  Past workmates of mine know that I call this, “putting the helicopter on scene.”

And here’s something I’ve experienced repeatedly upon helicoptering. More often than not, while you are visiting, you will see something new – something the customer hadn’t reported, or an additional clue to whatever was making their lives unpleasant. You’ll be able to funnel information back to your team that will help get this customer up and running quicker than you otherwise would have. You’ll also have a chance to let them, in person, tell you everything that’s on their mind. That will further improve your relationship and probably help the product out in the long run, as well.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Getting direct customer feedback

So, we were chatting about keeping customers happy, and proactively collecting information about how they're feeling.

One large company I was at had links on all the web pages for each of the products that said, “click here to submit a comment, suggestion, or complaint regarding this product.” Given that there were literally millions of customers, those links got clicked quite a few times a day. As the head of some of the products there, guess who actually got to read and respond to those clicks? That’s right. The comments weren’t sent to some front-line support or marketing person... they were targeted directly to yours truly. And that turned into a one or two hour a day job in sorting through comments and responding to those that really needed it.

But that was a truly eye-opening experience. Direct customer feedback. No filtering applied by any other company channel. A direct pipeline from the customer to me. I certainly saw my share of complaints, but some of the suggestions that came in were fantastic, and they helped us improve the products even further. And, as I said, the complaints were an opportunity for us to salvage a bad experience.

I remember one situation where I had messaged back and forth a number of times with one Australian customer that had started out very unhappy and was now getting happier. I had given him lots of help, comp’d him a few items, and given him feedback on his suggestions – even committing to him that we would do some of them in the next release.

It is important to note here that nowhere in the “make a comment” links did it indicate that the customer would be corresponding with the Vice President in charge of the product group. In my messages with the customer, I simply signed them with my first name – no title. After a few days, as our exchanges were coming to a close, I actually called him on the phone and we had a conversation that went pretty much like this:
Customer: Thanks so much for all the info. You are cool. And when you get a chance to talk to the man, tell him you deserve a raise!

Me: Haha. I appreciate that. But so you know, I am “the man.”

Customer: Huh?

Me: I’m actually the VP in charge of this stuff. I handle these comments directly to make sure we’re getting all the information.

Customer: That is really cool. I thought you were just some customer support person. That’s cool that your company feels we’re that important.
I was paraphrasing above, but he did say “cool” a lot. We had saved this guy, and gotten some great future product direction to boot. Again, you can bet he told his friends about the experience. We'll cover some additional things you can do to try to salvage a bad situation -- next time.

As a side note, I'll be speaking at the IntergratED Portland education conference next week. I'll be covering some technology future stuff, as well as some management topics from my book. If you're in the Portland area, stop by!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Turn that frown upside down!

So we were talking about dissatisfied customers. It happens. As much as you'd like to only speak with folks who love what you're doing, you'll have to deal with some who are a little less in love with you. But you can use some good technique to get that guy back into the good zone.

First, go out of your way to try to contact the customer to have the initial conversation. Don’t make your customer come looking for you. Especially if you are part of a company with any reasonable size, locating the right person in charge may be dang near impossible for your customers. By the time they get lost in your support voicemail hell, or try to push something up the line through your sales channel, or whatever, they may give up on both you and your company. You know they’ll be happy to tell their friends all about it.

I actually got my first lesson in this back when I was in college and supervising one of our city’s swimming pools. One woman was unfortunate enough to receive a car wash from a poorly aimed lawn sprinkler. Problem was, her car windows were open. I thought I did everything right. I apologized. I sent a crew of lifeguards to her car with towels. And I gave her the names and phone numbers of everyone to call at the city offices the next day (it was a weekend). Later that day, when describing the situation to my manager, he responded with, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to take her information and then we would have the right city folks call her?” Duh. I put the onus on her, when I should have left it in our hands.

You need to be on the lookout for customers that are getting into trouble and might need proactive contacting. Ensure that your service and sales folks know that you need to be kept in the loop as early as possible on customers that might be degenerating. Maybe you can get a weekly report on “hot customers”, or maybe you have some sort of CRM system that will allow you to automatically generate notifications or reports of big issues out in the wild. Whatever you do, do something.
 Hi Joe, this is Ed with XYZ Systems. I noticed that you had filed a number of problem reports recently, and I just wanted to talk with you about your business, what you're doing with our products, and any suggestions you might have for what we could change or do better.
Seeing something going wrong, and proactively contacting the customer about it will leave your customer absolutely amazed.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Customers are a terrible thing!

If you have the fortune of being in a startup type of company, you have the luxury of probably not having any customers yet. You might have some strong possibilities that you’re talking to, but nobody has formally paid you money yet (other than your investors!). You also don’t have any type of product on the market. That means no support headaches. Nobody screaming at you to fix anything. Nobody telling you that they have to have some particular thing as soon as freaking possible. You are free to focus your attention on getting together the initial version of whatever product or service you intend to offer.


Fast forward a few months – you’re now officially “in business.” You’ve started selling to those long-sought-after customers and the money is starting to flow. Unfortunately, so are the headaches. Now you’ve got folks out there who are actually relying on your product or service. They paid good money, and they expect everything to be perfect. And they also feel that they have the right to dictate your future direction. Not that that is a bad thing, but it is a distracting thing.

So, now, all that wonderful focus you were able to have at the beginning is getting diluted by the problems and suggestions of your newfound customer base. Hence, “customers are a terrible thing” – they make you focus on and do things that you might rather not. It’s frustrating having to divert so much time to these tasks, especially if you still have a long list of stuff you wish you had done the first time around.

You have two choices here. One, do the best possible job in the first pass at whatever product or service you’re planning to offer so that you’ll be able to avoid most of the requests and complaints. Good luck with that. Of course, you may never get to market, ever, probably resulting in running out of funds before a good revenue flow gets going.

Or, two, appreciate your customers for what they’re doing – telling you exactly what you need to do to provide more value to them. By fixing problems and providing things they specifically request, you are helping them, providing more value for what they’re paying, all while you are increasing your company’s value as well. Everybody wins.

In fact, the key point here is to include some of your likely customers early in the process. Even if you are a well-established company, this applies if you’re beginning work on some new product as well. Get those customers into your shop and pick their brains clean to the nub. But don’t stop there. Bring them in as often as you can (even if via phone or video conference) to see the work in progress and offer fine-tuning to your ideas as you go.

That will prevent you from marching down completely invalid paths, providing overly complex solutions, or adding things that “get in the way” rather than adding true value. Development of your solution will not take longer than it otherwise would. Indeed, by saving all the backtracking, false starts, and duplicated efforts, you will save – significantly – in the long run.

Having 100% of your customers be satisfied 100% of the time is impossible, so accept the fact that you’ll have to speak with a few of the peeved ones occasionally. Do not avoid these interactions – unpleasant as they might sound. On the surface, these situations appear to have all the excitement of a good rope burn. But, handled deftly, you have the opportunity to turn them around and transform a customer from miserable to delighted.

More on that next time.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cost of health insurance... OUCH!

To folks who wonder about what affect the affordable care act will have on small businesses, here’s a specific example. I’m not going to get political about this… I’m just relating facts…

I handle the policy work for Mindnest’s company’s benefits. At the warning of our insurance broker a few months ago, we renewed our plan in December of last year (a few months early) to avoid having to renew this coming March on the 1-year anniversary. Our total premium increased about 15%.

We had renewed through our broker, but we just received the direct information from the insurance company itself, giving us the info for renewing this March (seems that group didn’t get the word we had already renewed through the broker).  Bottom line: our premium would be going up 64%, but the employees would also be subject to this:
  • out of network coinsurance increased
  • doctor visit coinsurance increased
  • specialist coinsurance increased
  • DOUBLING of out of pocket max (from $8000 to $16000)
  • drug costs significantly increased
If we were really renewing now, and if we wanted to maintain the best plan we could, while sticking with about the same premiums we were paying, we’d have to go to a lower plan, but that would hit our employees with this:
  • big increases in coinsurances
  • doubling of coinsurances to see doctors and specialists
  • doubling of deductibles
  • TRIPLING of max out of pockets (each family could spend up to $25000 a year)
  • more than doubling of drug costs
Note that all of these other costs are items that directly hit the employee, not me the employer. So even if we were to hold OUR costs the same, the employee takes a huge hit. The inherent value of the insurance has been decreased.

So, as small employers are asked to double their costs for providing health insurance, they certainly may choose to do that, but how many will simply dump their employees into the exchanges and pay a small fine instead? Or, how many will hold the line (or pull back) on salaries, bonuses, and other benefits to compensate for the extra burden? I guess we shall see.