Wednesday, September 16, 2020

6 Ways To Make Customers Remember You As Exceptional

ecstatic-customersFor decades, efforts to satisfy customers have been built around demographics – capitalizing on race, ethnicity, gender, income, and other attributes. Today, in this age of pervasive social media and two-way communication, the focus needs to get beyond demographics into personalities. Customer personalities define customer experience, and sets what they love, and what they hate.

Even businesses with highly specialized market segments will find it more effective and simpler to focus on who customers are as people, rather than the “what” of their demographic attributes. Customers today expect highly personalized and exceptional experiences to stay loyal and become advocates, rather than just conventionally “satisfied.” Satisfied is far from memorable.

The challenge for every entrepreneur and every business is to understand the pragmatics of identifying and reacting to what their customers love and what they hate. I found some excellent guidance on the specifics in the classic book, “What Customers Crave,” by Nicholas J. Webb. As a popular strategist in the areas of customer experience design and innovation, Webb knows.

He outlines six key steps in your journey from yesterday’s customer service to today’s required delivery of exceptional customer experiences:

  1. Define the whole customer experience versus service. Traditional customer service, focused on fixing bad transactions, is too little, too late. The total customer experience includes identifying with your company culture, the shopping experience, the customer-facing team and social media interaction, as well as resolution of any transaction glitches.
  1. Add the extra mile to make the experience exceptional. There is no one set of exceptional experiences that will work for all customers. That’s where you must know the personalities of your customers, to know what they love and what they hate. Ideally, you need to convince each customer that you have personalized the experience just for them.
  1. Display real customer value feedback versus value claims. Customers react poorly when they hear your value claims for them, and see more value to you (bottled water in your hotel room at a high price as a “convenience” to you). Customer value statements must come from customer feedback to other customers, rather than from your marketing.
  1. Build blended digital and non-digital experiences. Some businesses excel in customer-facing people, but have poor digital interfaces for feedback, shopping, or communication. Others have delivery silos, where one fragmented deficiency can override all other positives. Integrate and blend all elements of your customer experience.
  1. Train customer-facing team to collaborate with customers. Internal training and policies are not adequate to create great customer experiences. Employees must learn to develop relationships with real customers, and engage these customers to understand what each customer expects, and how to get customers to engage other customers.
  1. Assure exceptional commitment within your customer-facing team. Commitment means signing up willingly, showing up mentally, standing up for the customer, and never ever giving up. To get this, you need to find the best people for each role, give them the latitude to do their job, and reward them publicly and privately for achieving results.

Many business leaders still believe that exceptional experiences cost too much, and reduce profit margins and growth. In fact, just the opposite is true today, since more and more customers expect good feedback from others before they consider you, and decline to return if they don’t get a great first experience. The result is that an average business can spiral quickly into the ground.

If you are looking for a lasting competitive advantage, I recommend that you follow the steps outlined here to create experiences that your customers crave. It’s not only good for your business, but it will add meaning and joy to your customers, and will also enhance your personal satisfaction and well-being. That’s a win-win-win opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, September 14, 2020

7 Types Of People Who Get Results With Minimal Motion

results-with-minimal-motionIsn’t it amazing that some people you know always seem to be working hard, but never seem to get anything done? As an entrepreneur, you need to avoid partnering with these people, or hiring them into your startup. The challenge is to find people who get things done, as well as work hard. LinkedIn profiles and resumes still focus too much on responsibilities rather than results.

The best entrepreneurs never confuse motion with results. It’s easy to find people in every organization rushing around from one meeting to the next, often working overtime to generate more work for themselves and other people, but rarely taking the action to close an issue or contract. We all need more people around us who make every motion mean something.

So how do you recognize those few people on your team who are getting things done, or even recognize ahead of time those who have that potential? Such people are different, but are not necessarily the smartest or the most skilled. But they do seem to have some common characteristics and approaches that you can look for:

  1. Possess street smarts, as well as skills and experience. People like this quickly figure out how businesses really work, and how to resolve the challenges in their business. They have a special ability to cut through the confusion, dodge any head-on collisions, and negotiate compromises leading to required actions and resolution.
  1. Able to avoid or navigate the politics of the organization. Understanding politics is not the same as being a politician, or using political clout. People who get things done don’t worry about building their own image, but they are politically astute enough to find alternate routes around the political and power bastions.
  1. Recognize what it takes to get power leverage, but don’t blatantly use it. The key is to be open and listen to recommendations from those who have to be moved, and find a way to create win-win situations, rather than win-lose. They get things done by using their power to get recognition for key players, rather than for themselves.
  1. Maintain a laser focus on narrowing the scope, rather than expanding it. This means effective negotiating to eliminate sidetracks, combat opinions with facts, and finding the glass half-full, not half-empty. It requires being able to accurately assess the position of others, find some common ground, and snapping people back to reality.
  1. Able to negotiate agreements without committing to future paybacks. People who get things done are driven by an insatiable desire to make progress and help others. They are not looking to build a cache of favors or special attention, and are not willing to make deals that compromise the solutions and can come back to haunt them.
  1. See every problem as an opportunity to innovate, rather than a chance to fail. Obstacles are seen as innovative and creative challenges, not barriers. All the reasons something can’t be done are replaced by better ways to get it done, quicker and at less cost. Nothing is immutable, even the culture of the organization or the business.
  1. Able to balance the paradoxes of highly effective leaders. People who know how to get things done can be analytical as well as intuitive, aggressive or patient as required, and confident and humble at the same time. They instinctively know when and how to escalate issues to the right level, without stubbornly entrenching their position.

To get things done more effectively, people need to really think about each element of their work before they make a move. By culture and habit, many of us expect most of our daily work and personal activities to be pre-defined, and we just go through the paces (the way it’s always been done). We need to practice overt thinking about desired outcomes, to make them a reality.

If your desired outcome is to move up in the organization, or just to get more satisfaction from your daily efforts, now is the time focus on the attributes listed above, and emulate the people on your team who get things done. If you are the entrepreneur or executive in the organization, make sure you are the role model in execution and in hiring. That’s the only way to win in the long run.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

A Fearless Leader’s Mindset Will Conquer Any Obstacle

car-in-space-muskThe cost of entry to the entrepreneur lifestyle is at an all-time low, but the challenge of winning and success is at an all-time high. Anyone can build a new web site, or publish a smartphone app for a few thousand dollars, but getting market penetration requires a lot more. Customers have come to expect disruptive change, so yet another social network is not the way to get traction.

As an angel investor, I quickly look behind the idea or solution, to gauge the mindset and the leadership capabilities of the entrepreneur. That’s why the classic book, “The Leader’s Mindset: How to Win In The Age Of Disruption,” resonated strongly with me. It was written by Terence Mauri, who has worked extensively with Sir Richard Branson and the London Business School.

Mauri offers some practical, actionable advice for entrepreneurs who want to develop a leader’s mindset, on how to spread the right message to potential customers, as well as investors. He outlines three shortcuts for simplifying how we think, how we act, and ultimately how we lead, which I have paraphrased and amplified here:

  1. Expand your mindset to think better by a factor of ten. Most entrepreneurs think about how they can improve cost or usability by ten or twenty percent. When was the last time you set a challenge for your team that pushed all of you to deliver more than you thought was humanly possible? People who shape the future, like Steve Jobs, did this.
  1. Push your mindset to tackle the seemingly insurmountable. A bold mindset excels at speed, creativity, and decisive action. Entrepreneurs in this category are real risk takers, such as Elon Musk. He recommends imagining creative solutions to a problem to “cut through the noise and focus on the signal.” Take a hard look at SpaceX or HyperLoop.
  1. Develop a learn-fast mindset to seek the latest and the future. Those who proactively seek knowledge and learn fast build knowledge pools and tap into the wisdom of mentors and industry leaders to raise their game. For them, adapting and stretching their limits is the norm. They learn from their mistakes, and collaborate with well-connected people.

Leadership on ideas is a start, but entrepreneurial leadership requires the ability to deliver on the new reality as well. The best entrepreneurs relish the opportunity to overcome the personal and team obstacles that challenge every team contemplating disruptive change, including the following:

  • Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, procrastination, and doubt. All these fears can cause flight or fight, freeze behaviors, or a hasty retreat from dreams, goals, and plans for disruptive change. Fear keeps your mindset locked in a state of helplessness and will stop you from reaching your goals.
  • Constrained by talent shortages and lack of commitment. A key requirement for every disruptive entrepreneur is to fuel the organization’s growth by attracting and nurturing the best and most committed talent. The best leaders find a team and every individual unique strength to do great work and make a difference beyond chasing profit.
  • Dragged down by excuses, inertia, and negative energy. A top priority of all entrepreneur leaders is to avoid falling victim to “somebody else’s problem (SEP).” Lack of accountability is a mindset that is diametrically opposed to the required leader’s mindset. Don’t let this contamination infect you, your team, or your disruptive venture.

Overall, the leader’s mindset begins with zero compromise on purpose. It demands that you believe in what you are doing from the heart, and that your contribution is essential to the future world you envision. This must be matched with the intellectual courage to change business models multiple times to remain viable, based on real-time feedback from the market.

Becoming an entrepreneur is easy, but winning is still tough. Do you have the leader’s mindset required to compete and win?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

8 Strategies To Satisfy Investors You Are Accountable

TEDxMidAtlantic 2011 - Arun MajumdarMaybe it’s just me, but I sometimes feel that accountability is a rare talent in business today. In big businesses, people are quick to defer with “that’s not my department,” and even startup founders too often blame failures on the economy or the lack of investors. As an investor and advisor to entrepreneurs, I see accountability, or lack of it, as an override to even the best idea.

I believe accountability is a personal decision that we all can make, largely driven by personal confidence and determination, and is certainly one that we can learn. It’s not baked into our DNA, and there are many resources available to direct improvement.

For example, quite a while back I found some great guidance to the how, why, and who of accountability in the “QBQ Workbook,” by John G. Miller and Kristin E. Lindeen. Miller is well-known for his classic bestseller on this subject, “QBQ! The Question Behind The Question.” His advice starts with a request to stop blaming, and start asking, “What can I do to improve this situation?”

Very refreshing. If you are an entrepreneur building a new business, there are many things along these lines that you can and must do to be seen as accountable, including the following:

  1. It’s up to you to be the model of accountability. Don’t expect your team to be accountable, if they often hear you complaining about the workload, competitors, or partners. Accountability is a culture that starts from the top, and is reinforced by your hiring of skilled and positive people, delegating responsibility, and rewarding results.
  1. Clarify and constantly reinforce expectations. Team members can’t be accountable unless they know what is expected of them, and they understand how to deliver. Communication must be ongoing, both written and spoken, followed by some active listening on your part, to understand the gaps. Remove the “I didn’t know” excuse.
  1. Set measurable goals and objectives, with benchmarks. Accountability assessments must be based on objective facts, not opinions, politics, or a desire for power. Setting expectations beyond the realm of possibility, or frequently changing them, does not lead to accountability. Provide the tools for team members to measure their own results.
  1. Align individual responsibilities with relevant business goals. Team accountability must be correlated to responsibility and relevancy. You can’t hold your sales team accountable for manufacturing quality, but they should be responsible for profitability and volume. When expectations are aligned with motivation and interests, everyone wins.
  1. Truly delegate responsibility and decisions. Accountability can’t happen without control. If your management style is to make all the decisions yourself, don’t expect any accountability from your team. If you find yourself buried in work, with no time off, and feeling indispensable, it may be time to ask direct reports to call you out on delegation.
  1. Accountable teams need timely and actionable feedback. Getting to the source of problems should never involve blame. Accountable people need safe havens where challenges and performance can be discussed, individually and as a group. The goal must be continuous improvement and learning, not accusations and penalties.
  1. Provide resources and training to enable accountability. Tools and data are necessary for accountability, but must not be allowed to be the absolute determinant of a response. Provide the tools, but trust the people. Other necessary resources include training, reasonable financial leeway, mentoring, and access to relevant executives.
  1. Accountability requires consequences, both positive and negative. People who demonstrate accountability must be rewarded (awards, acknowledgement, promotion). In the same context, team members who consistently make excuses must be moved out of the organization to minimize the impact on others. No consequences mean no learning.

The best part about a focus on accountability is that it leads to real change, learning, and action, and these are the keys to entrepreneurial survival. When a business stops changing and learning in today’s fast-moving world, it stops growing and thriving. Every business is really a set of people. Are you growing and thriving?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Accelerators Have Resources To KickStart Your Startup

photo: © www.StefanoBorghi.comOne of the reasons that now is the time to be an entrepreneur is the explosion of startup assistance organizations, usually called incubators or accelerators. According to the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA ), there are over 2,200 of these locations worldwide, and new online versions springing up all over the place, like Founders Space in Silicon Valley.

Most of these are non-profits, set up by a university to commercialize new technologies, or a municipality to foster business development for the local economy. A few are still trying to make a profitable business out of nurturing startups, but it’s a challenge to make money when your customer startups don’t have many resources to give.

But there are notable examples of for-profit incubators that are thriving, including YCombinator, led by Paul Graham in Silicon Valley, and TechStars, led by David Cohen and located in several key cities around the country, that have an excellent reputation and track record. I believe their competitive advantage is their top on-site leadership, exclusivity, and connections to investors.

Variations on the incubator theme are sometimes called business accelerators, science parks, or the Small Business Administration's Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in almost every state in the U.S. Accelerators generally accept startups at a slightly later stage, and attempt to compress the timeline to commercialization into a few months, instead of a year or more.

Common resources provided by most of the incubators and accelerators today include the following:

  • Access to shared office facilities for multiple startup teams at a very low cost.
  • Shared business support services, including telephone answering, conference rooms, teleconferencing, administrative support, and a business mailing address.
  • Mentoring and technical assistance from volunteer or paid experts.
  • Direct seed funding, for a share of the equity, and introductions to investors.
  • Peer-to-peer networking with other startups and founders in the same stage.
  • Health, life, and other insurance at group rates.

If you don’t need these common resources, but need specialized technology services, you should look for technology parks and research facilities, often sponsored by leading companies in specific technologies, like Intel Capital and Google Ventures (GV). As well, these companies usually bring real new venture funding opportunities to the startups they sponsor.

To get started, go to the International Business Innovation Association web site, and use the lookup tool provided to see what’s available in your area. This association is definitely one of the world’s leading organization for advancing business incubation and entrepreneurship. Another good online approach is a simple Internet search for articles like the “The top 40 startup accelerators and incubators in North America in 2020

But don’t expect incubators to magically convert your pre-hatched idea into a successful company. The good incubators are highly selective, and expect you to demonstrate your commitment and a hard work ethic to meet expected milestones and show continuous progress. According to some recent feedback, YCombinator takes roughly 3 percent of applicants who apply to each batch cycle. Assuming 60 companies are accepted in a specific batch, that would mean around 2000 companies applied. That’s about the same ratio that angel investors claim.

I believe the real value of an incubator is in the relationships you can build there, with peers as well as domain experts, investors, and potential strategic partners. An incubator won’t help you if the market opportunity is small, the competitors are large, or your solution doesn’t address a real need.

As evidence that it does work, TechCrunch reported a new high of more than 200 companies in YCombinator’s Winter 2019 cohort, and many were scooped up by VCs even before the Demo Days. However, if you are looking to find an incubator like YCombinator for easy money and free services to hatch your startup, it probably won’t work.

Growing up and surviving in the entrepreneur world requires a fine balance between an independent determination to be self-sufficient, and a humble willingness and ability to listen to and learn from the best and the brightest startup mother-hens out there. Are you and your startup ready to make the cut?

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

7 Strategies To Solve Your Business Problems Faster

Office-Conference-ProblemsProblem solving is a full-time task in business. Whether you own the business, or have only a small role in daily operations, making decisions and solving problems is a key part of your job. The most effective people, and the happiest ones, are the ones who accept this reality, and even relish the challenges of overcoming the unknowns, rather than struggling and stressing with each.

If this doesn’t come naturally for you today, I assure you that it can be learned. In my own business career, many years as a business advisor, and mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I have validated the following strategies to practice and guide you. Each of these will help you in achieving success and satisfaction while tackling your toughest business issues:

  1. Stop attacking symptoms – dig first for the root cause. A broken process or a subtle quality issue can generate a flood of customer satisfaction problems, cost overruns, and loss of market share. The right first step for every issue is the old “ask why three times” strategy to get to the root of the problem. Don’t waste time fixing symptoms.

    Jeff Bezos is a huge proponent of root cause analysis, and believes it is what sets Amazon apart. Way back in 2004, he cared enough about an associate's injury to spend time investigating, and used the exercise to isolate a root cause without blaming anyone.

  2. Search for the multiple dimensions of a problem. Don’t oversimplify – most issues have a scope greater than one dimension. For example, your quality problem may well have both design as well as manufacturing elements. Fixing only one of these will only lead to more frustration. A better definition of a problem always leads to a better solution.

    This same principle can also be applied to solving problems that are new opportunities. Elon Musk often talks about identifying all the dimensions of a problem, such as lower cost battery technology, as the key to moving the electric vehicle industry ahead.

  3. Build and evaluate a list of alternative solutions. We are all prone to running with the initial solution that comes to mind, rather than comparing several to produce the best outcome. On tough issues, I recommend the use of brainstorming with colleagues, to expand your efforts, and develop a half-dozen alternatives. Then pick the best one.

    Of course, this all has to start with you having the confidence and conviction that there is at least one solution to every problem, and that you can find it. Without this mindset, and the determination to make a decision, nothing happens, and customers find alternatives.

  4. Build motivation through rewards and incentives. Team members, including yourself, who are not engaged or determined will ignore problems, or will give up too soon. All you will hear are excuses, or you won’t hear about the problem until it’s a crisis. Build that momentum by rewarding every team member for small successes and early surfacing.

  5. Hold the right people accountable for delivering results. Ultimately, every problem and every issue needs a decision and a solution, not more study. It’s your job as a business leader to accept and assign responsibility, and then track the process to completion. The most damaging issues are the ones that never seem to get resolved.

  6. Measure results to validate fixes and prevent recurrence. The positive impact of recognizing problems in a business is the clear indication that something more needs to be measured. Make sure that you implement a metric with each solution, to prevent the issue from recurring, and check for side effects and follow-on side effects.

  7. Provide training and tools to upgrade solution skills. As the market and technology changes, you and your team need to learn new skills, and how to use new tools. Even the best business professionals and leaders must concentrate on learning something new each day, through mentors, Internet resources, and studying competitors.

If you are looking for more satisfaction from your work, or seeking to advance your career, then more focus on problem solving, utilizing the strategies outlined here, will definitely pay big dividends. If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, then adopting these strategies is critical to surviving and thriving in the uncharted world of startups. Put the fun back into your work.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/26/2020 ***

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Monday, September 7, 2020

7 Startup Proposals That May Raise Investor Red Flags

worried-investorIf you aren’t willing to take some risk as an entrepreneur, then don’t expect any gain. Yet everyone has limits, and every investor implicitly has similar limits on what makes a startup investable, or one to avoid at all costs. If you need investors, it’s important that you understand their filters, and even if you are funding your own efforts, you need to recognize the red flags.

Of course, every risk level can be mitigated by a good plan that addresses the issue, offers a credible action plan, and will convince you, as well as investors and customers, that what looks like a risk to many is actually a sustainable competitive advantage for your startup.

Nevertheless, we can all benefit by understanding a collective view from investors on the high-risk elements that every new business has faced historically based on the team, as well as in the marketplace. Here is my perspective on the highest risk elements, from my years of working with investors and watching startups come and go:

  1. All the co-founders are first-time entrepreneurs. A strong team has one or more executives who have run a startup before in the current business domain. Even top big-company executives are considered high-risk in a startup environment. The challenges are as different for them as a jewelry store owner now building medical devices.

  1. Your startup is in a high-failure-rate business sector. These historically have included work-at-home, restaurants, telemarketing and social-service providers. On the Internet, I am wary of one more search engine provider, clones of existing social-media sites, and yet another new dating site. You need a big differentiator in these arenas.

  1. Products requiring changes to government regulations. Things such as driver-less cars and new medicines are far more than a technology challenge. They require exhaustive and money-consuming tests and trial periods, followed by bureaucratic approval cycles that can take forever. If you have deep pockets, these ultimately can be very lucrative.

  1. Huge ramp-up time and money required. For new car companies such as DeLorean and Fisker, designing and testing the product is only the beginning. Huge investments are also required to ramp up manufacturing, build a distribution network, and provide the support infrastructure. New drugs usually fall in this category, due to side-effect testing.

  1. Niche or low growth-rate businesses opportunities. Investors are looking for large opportunities (greater than a billion dollars) with double-digit growth rates. Others may indeed make good family businesses, but are usually deemed not worth investment. These are ones you need to bootstrap, crowdfund or pitch to friends and family.

  1. Marginal legality or poor public image. Don’t expect investors to line up for your new online gaming site, adult entertainment or quick sources of cash. Professional investors put great value in their integrity, so they won’t risk it by making investments that some would view as poor taste. These may traditionally have high returns, but are still high risk.

  1. Off-shore or foreign-country based. Every country has their own unique business requirements and customer culture. Thus investors in one country do not assume that they know what works in another country, even if it sounds good locally. If you want U.S. investors, for example, it may be worthwhile to set up an office in New York City or Silicon Valley.

No entrepreneur should consider any of these challenges as hard barriers, but they do need to be aware of higher risk perception, and include their mitigation strategy in their business plan for all to see. I encourage you to be proactive on these issues, rather than saying nothing unless questioned. Responding to a challenge will always make you look defensive, and many people will walk away without asking.

It’s also not smart to switch from a domain you know and love to a perceived lower-risk business that you know less about, or have no passion for, just because it may be more attractive to investors. Passion and commitment can overcome many risks, and these will also drive you to expand your scope of options for funding and implementation, leading to success.

If you are a true entrepreneur, you will find that a reasonable level of risk is necessary to incent you to go beyond the status quo of an existing problem. But in all cases, it pays to keep your eyes wide open, and do your homework on the pitfalls that others before you have faced. Only then can you enjoy the journey, as well as reach the destination.

Marty Zwilling

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