Friday, June 28, 2019

5 Keys To Business Culture That Are Counter-Intuitive

Positive-business-cultureIn the popular press, it’s easy to find articles that will convince you that companies with a good culture, such as Google, do it by lavishing perks and benefits, including some combination of free meals, trips and parties, financial bonuses, gyms, and a dog-friendly environment. These things are clearly good for morale, but its not so clear that they translate into a competitive advantage.

In my own years of experience as a business advisor, improving the company culture is still a major challenge to company leaders, many of whom were raised in a different era, or struggle trying to balance the rising costs of perks and benefits against measurable growth in productivity and profits. They are still looking for key leadership feedback that culture is driving their business.

I was pleased to find some specific guidance in this regard in a new book, “Five Frequencies: Leadership Signals that turn Culture into Competitive Advantage,” by the team of Jeff Grimshaw, Tanya Mann, Lynne Viscio, and Jennifer Landis. These authors present 20+ years of research, including case studies and metrics, showing how culture really makes or breaks your business.

I have found that while many of their lessons may seem obvious, others are not so intuitive. Here are a few that I found insightful, and consistent with my own observations:

  1. Heated debates are a good thing for a healthy culture. I don’t encourage conflict for its own sake. But I’ve learned that heated debate is a good thing, when you are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and able to understand opposing views. It creates ownership and engagement that may be missing with consensus decisions or management edicts.

    To make sure all debates stay healthy, always make sure the discussions are facilitated and limited in scope and time, to prevent wandering off subject and redundancy. Disparagement of a team member’s character is always inappropriate and toxic.

  2. Leaders own culture, supported by HR – not vice versa. Human Resources and other support functions can provide invaluable feedback and support, but if you count on them to move the needle on culture, it won’t work. Leaders must initiate and model culture shifting efforts – it’s not something you can delegate.

    HR leaders are your culture coaches, and responsible for aligning managers and employees with the desired culture. They can foster a sense of ownership for the culture, measure progress, and assess accountability throughout all levels of the company.

  3. What the team feels is more important than what they know. One of your most important culture responsibilities is making your employees feel truly valued on a regular basis despite internal fears and conflicting feedback from their peers. Feelings are known to statistically produce the biggest impact on future performance, as well as morale.

    Knowing things intellectually is easily overridden by emotions, even in the best of times. In addition, most business knowledge, such as the reason for a lost sale, is subject to interpretation. A positive culture of trust is required to neutralize uncertain feelings.

  4. It’s easier to go from bad to good, than from good to great. When things are bad and failure is not an option, leaders really focus on doing the right thing. But when a great culture is a desire rather than a must have, it’s easy to get distracted by other things, such as operational improvements. During these periods culture often is lost.

    The famous author, Jim Collins, in his Good to Great discussions, points out that you as the driver can only go so far, without the right people in all the key seats. Getting those key people, including hiring, training, and coaching takes a long time to accomplish.

  5. Ongoing culture steps require tuning of measurements. All your efforts to improve the culture may be moot if you don’t continually hone your ability to measure results and respond to feedback. Nothing frustrates employees more than continuing to provide the same feedback time after time in engagement surveys while nothing appears to change.

    For example, the questions on your engagement survey will surface the initial set of challenges, but once those are addressed, you need different questions to get to the next level. Measuring and tuning culture is an iterative process, integrating business results.

The overall approach to culture change that I and the authors recommend is to first assess your current culture for a liability, or a competitive disadvantage. Start with addressing specific things that your team needs to more consistently know, feel, and do. I assure you that when you measure and strengthen culture along these lines, better business performance follows.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 06/14/2019 ***



Monday, June 24, 2019

9 Keys To Effective Communication In Today’s Business

Bulletin-Board-List-Business-StickiesWhen was the last time you changed how you communicate to your team and to your customers? The way you deliver your message is key to maximizing its impact, or even reaching the intended audience. Don’t count on people reading your Annual Report for breaking news. Your team needs to hear from you on a regular basis, on a channel they can relate to easily and quickly.

Thus, top business leaders now deliver requests to their team via text messages, and even expect updates from top national leaders via Twitter. As a business advisor, I still find owners and entrepreneurs who have never sent a business text message, written a blog, or produced a small video to update their constituents, or highlight a key message.

If you know someone in this category (including yourself), here are some key principles, from my own experience, that you can help me pass along for the benefit all of us:

  1. Every message must be keyed to your expected receiver. The limited channels for delivering a message have exploded in recent years, with social media, the Internet, and smartphones. Your team and customers will judge you by how timely and effectively you deliver the message. For example, I find that millennials rarely read emails or policies.

  2. Use professional wording and tone in all business messages. Even with the new channels, don’t forget that business is not casual for your constituents. Skip any urge to use abbreviations, slang, or emoticons. Make the context clear, and keep the content on point. People still expect separation between business and personal relationships.

  3. Build a communication culture of engagement and participation. The days of command and control are gone, and you can’t depend on your title and the management hierarchy to amplify and relay the message. For example, messages are better delivered these days via informal weekly “town hall” meetings, rather than official CEO updates.

  4. Minimize the use of meetings to communicate. Employees already spend up to 70 percent of their day in meetings, so meetings should be minimized and reserved for two-way decision-making opportunities, rather than delivering a message. With modern tools, you can deliver messages in a much more palatable format, without lost productivity.

  5. Use every message as an opportunity to highlight people. Everyone listens to messages where they expect to see and hear team members get recognized and rewarded. Even if you have bad news to deliver, try to couch it in the context of some positives and extraordinary effort. Always talk to the people, rather than about them.

  6. Remember, your actions speak louder than your words. It’s more important than ever that you be visible and approachable. Your team wants to feel comfortable that your actions are consistent with your message, and you are empathetic to their needs and feelings. Even customers these days expect to see and hear you online and in public.

  7. Pack each message with focused value to the recipients. People lose interest quickly receiving generic or irrelevant messages. Make sure every message you deliver is factual and valuable to your audience, and delivered in a compact and relatable fashion. Don’t try to pack multiple important messages into a single communication.

  8. Always communicate as a person, rather than a business entity. Real engagement depends on your team’s understanding of your commitment to them and what the business goals mean to you. Business names and brands are important from a marketing and consistency standpoint, but insiders, and even customers, want to be part of a family.

  9. Follow-up your message delivery with a question opportunity. By asking people for a personal perspective, or questions, you show inclusiveness and concern for people. In addition, their feedback and questions give you important information for follow-up and future actions. Overall, this is important to maintain engagement and relationships.

New communication tools have made great leaps forward in utility and potential impact, just like products. In addition, modern business leaders have raised the bar on employee and customer expectations. Just as you regularly update your products and processes, you need to enhance your communication style and tools to maximize your leadership. Your success depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 06/11/2019 ***



Friday, June 21, 2019

5 Elements Of Innovation That Are Not Product Related

Elon-Musk-non-product-innovationHaving a breakthrough idea or technology alone does not assure business success. “If we build it, they will come” may have worked as a movie theme for Kevin Costner, but as an investor, I tell entrepreneurs a great solution is not enough. Successful businesses require innovative people, who have built an abundance of innovation capital, to win support and resources for their ideas.

Professional investors are adept at looking for innovation capital, beyond the passionate pitch. Of course, the best evidence is you have done it before, and succeeded more often than you failed. That’s why Elon Musk, and a few others you could name, don’t have any trouble getting investor attention – they have the reputation and networks to successfully commercialize creative ideas.

I saw this message illustrated well in a new book, “Innovation Capital,” by Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr, and Curtis Lefrandt, who all have excellent credentials in the real world of business, as well as the academic world, through their innovation consultancy and access to key business leaders. I like their summary of five key components of innovation capital that we should strive to maximize:

  1. Human capital: forward thinking, problem solving, persuasion. A key skill everyone looks for is your ability to engage in mental time travel to envision opportunities before others do. Then you need creative problem solving to come up with a solution, and the ability to persuade others of the viability and value, and to join you on the journey.

    You can enhance your human capital by constantly updating yourself on new trends, social movements, and new technologies, to get a sense of where things are headed. Commit time to thinking deeply about the future, focus on problem solving by first principles, and practice continuous learning in areas where you desire expertise.

  2. Social capital: influencers, leaders, investor relationships. Successful business innovators excel at networking, through both strong and weak social ties, to get the resources and support they need. They nurture connections to other innovators and entrepreneurs, financial benefactors, organizational leaders, and potential customers.

    Remember that in business, sometimes who you know is more important than what you know. You can always use more social connections, but to be effective, think through your networking objectives first, and categorize the contacts you already have. Use social media channels, as well as conferences, to develop and maintain relationships.

  3. Reputation capital: visible track record for innovation. What counts most here is that you have been a founder, rather than a contributor. You may have founded a new process, or built a reputation for innovation by taking on challenging and visible assignments, or by associating with prestigious individuals and getting their support.

    Reputation doesn’t come without favorable exposure. Many business owners I know are obsessed with countering any negative information, but don’t work on getting positive visibility and endorsements. They don’t highlight their scrappiness - their dogged spirit that allows them to get a lot done with a few resources – a great innovation reputation.

  4. Impression amplifiers: actions to get attention and credibility. Most impression amplifiers fall within one of these seven major categories: broadcasting, signaling, storytelling, materializing, committing, comparing, and creating scarcity. Successful innovators use these effectively for the power to influence the behavior of others.

    To amplify your impressions and win support for your ideas, you need to focus on a fundamental human need and make it personal. Elon Musk does this masterfully when he talks about SpaceX going to Mars to assure the future of mankind, and learn about the origins of life. Then he commits that he intends to be among the first to move to Mars.

  5. Innovation leadership: vision, inspiration, attracting talent. Investors and others look for evidence of the virtuous cycle of innovation leadership – a lofty vision attracts better talent, producing better products and memorable customer experiences, attracting key customers, building a stronger brand, which attracts the best talent. The cycle repeats.

    Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn has always talked about the company vision to connect everyone on the planet and to “create economic opportunity for the global workforce of three billion people.” As you create an innovative product, put an equal effort into a compelling vision.

It’s time for all you entrepreneurs and business professionals to take stock of your own situation and decide if you have the innovation capital to win the support you need from bosses, colleagues, partners, and investors, for your next breakthrough idea or invention. If not, now you know the places to start. We need you, and I’m convinced we all win when you win.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 06/07/2019 ***



Monday, June 17, 2019

5 Reasons Business Leaders Are Short On Relationships

short-on-relationshipsIf you are a business professional or owner today, success is more and more about relationships. People relationships are the key to career growth, more than results, and customer relationships build brands, rather than the other way around. In this era of communication overload with many misleading messages, we have learned to count first on the people we know well, even virtually.

In fact, I believe that for all of us, relationships are our most important asset. Yet I find in my business advisory activities that busy entrepreneurs and professionals, especially the introverts like me, find it hard to spend the necessary time networking and nurturing the relationships they need to get ahead. The result is slow growth, frustration, and exhaustion, rather than success.

I recently saw some real insight on the barriers to building relationships, and how to get around them, in a new book, “Success Is in Your Sphere,” by Zvi Band. He has a proven track record, despite being an introvert himself, of building and managing relationship-oriented businesses and tools, and is now a well-recognized speaker and writer on this subject.

Here is a summary of the barriers we both still see all too often in the business world, with some thoughts on how to overcome them:

  1. Many fear human limits in number of relationships. It’s true, we all have limits on the number of relationships we can manage. According to studies, intimate relationships are limited to about five, but most people can easily handle 50 to 150 or more professional ones, if they work at it. That’s more than enough to put you ahead of your competition.

    In fact, you can get far beyond that number if you take advantage of the tools, process, and technology out there today, such as social media, text messaging, email, customer relationship systems (CRM), and discipline yourself to prioritize relationship building.

  2. Most let existing relationships decay over time. That’s a natural human reaction to accepting new relationships, as required by normal daily activities. The challenge is to continually refresh important old ones, and to proactively add key new ones on a regular basis. Busy business professionals often tell me they are too busy to allow networking.

    I recommend setting aside some time each week for networking, including phone calls to key advisors, lunches, emailing follow-up to contacts, and regular attendance at business and industry events, to reconnect to old relationships, as well as build new ones.

  3. Our social and relationship needs change as we age. The general trend shows an increase in relationship network size during adolescence and young adulthood, but a “continuous decrease” afterward. Many business professionals also feel more confident about their own knowledge and abilities over time, so tend to rely on fewer relationships.

    Don’t forget that the world of business and technology is changing rapidly around you, so the ability to change and keep up is becoming more and more the key to your success. Top business executives, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are always proactively seeking new relationships in areas that are relevant to their business interests.

  4. Good relationships are harder to decipher than ever. First of all, the age of the Internet makes every relationship search a global affair, with thousands of candidates. The good news is the wealth of alternatives; the bad news is the time and effort required to select the right relationship, and then keep it going. Sorting it all out is the challenge.

    Fortunately we have Facebook, Skype, and other social media, with video, voice, and easy travel to help you build and maintain connections, anywhere in the world. Smart professionals use these facilities to hone their perspective, and get the help they need.

  5. Short-term thinking overwhelms long-term value. As humans, we are instinctively wired to prefer short-term gains to long-term benefits. Some of your best potential relationships may take years to bear fruit, which poses a challenge when we’re predisposed to urgent issues rather than long-term strategies and future opportunities.

    My advice in business is to adopt a portfolio strategy for relationships, as you would as an investor in stocks or startups, with the understanding that there will be winners and losers over time, as the world changes. Don’t just invest in the passion of the moment.

The message here is that relationships are your key business asset, and not just an ancillary pleasure or burden. Keep them high on your priority list, and work every one with key tools and discipline. When leveraged properly, relationships can be your most effective sustainable competitive advantage in growing your business or your career. Make the investment today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 06/03/2019 ***



Wednesday, June 12, 2019

4 Strategies To Ramp Up The Total Customer Experience

excited-happy-customersMuch has been written recently about the requirement to focus today on the total customer experience, as a competitive edge or even for survival. Traditionally, you just worried about the quality of the sales transaction (price, speed, service), but the “customer experience” now includes ease of pre-sale shopping, post-sale support, with a connected relationship throughout.

The challenge I hear from savvy business owners and entrepreneurs operating on a shoestring is that providing a superior customer experience costs money. They are rightfully looking for some new business models and improvements in operational efficiency to provide them with a win-win connected strategy, where the customer becomes their advocate, while growth and profits soar.

I had some ideas on how to do this, but I was pleased with the insights to a connected strategy that were pulled together in a new book, “Connected Strategy,” by Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch, professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They highlight several key pathways for turning customer transactions into connected relationships:

  1. Recognize and respond quickly to customer desires. In terms of the customer experience, your challenge today is to minimize all friction from the moment a customer desires a product or service, to the moment he receives it. You want that customer to be delighted by the overall experience, rather than remember the many steps and the pain.

    Amazon does this by being the “go-to” place for almost anything, showing you options you like by knowing you and your past purchases, quickly listing comparable items by price and features, allowing you to order with only one keystroke, and delivering the item to your door very quickly, potentially (in the future) even before you ordered it.

    Uber and Lyft make hailing a ride an instant process, which you can see and track with no effort, and pay for without struggling with your credit card or cash. Alexa can order pizza or play your favorite song, just like an assistant, rather than a business transaction.

  2. Delight customers with personally tailored options. This business model recognizes that customers might not know exactly what they want, or they may not know exactly where to go to get what they need. Many, like me, would prefer that someone else do the shopping for them, and present them with the best choices currently available.

    Expedia and Travelocity do this by checking all the ways you can get from one city to another, with current prices, including connections to rental cars and hotels when you get there. Netflix suggests comedies based on your unique previous choices, and Blue Apron will deliver you a meal-kit based on your interest in health, fun, or variety.

  3. Provide useful prompting to prevent future pain. In many cases, customers would be delighted to be coached on upcoming needs, such as time to reorder medication or printer ink, before the crisis, with the option of getting the solution with a single click. This can save them grief, as well as reduce your own marketing and sales costs.

    The latest Apple Watch utilizes this strategy by continually monitoring your heart rhythm, as well as other fitness indicators, with coaching to you on maintaining your health. This obviously helps Apple sell their watch at a premium, as well as assuring loyal customers.

  4. Anticipate and meet customer needs not yet realized. Automatic execution of business transactions in anticipation of a customer need is still not common, but it’s easy to see the potential with the sensors on so many devices now being connected to the Internet (IoT). Soon your refrigerator may order more milk or bread when stock is low.

    Amazon already has a patent to automatically ship you other items of interest, without prompting, based on your prior order and usage patterns (returns are free and simple). The latest wave of medical alert sensors for seniors, like Medical Alert™, will automatically call an ambulance for you after a fall without even pressing a button.

A key point you should take from these insights is that connections and relationships these days don’t necessarily require more people and cost to your business. Current generations of customers are perfectly happy with virtual relationships, and new low-cost learning technology is setting a new bar at predicting customer desires and needs.

Thus, with a connected strategy and smart software, you can indeed improve your customer’s experience, and reduce your costs at the same time. That’s a win-win we can all live with.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/28/2019 ***



Saturday, June 8, 2019

How To Tune Business Strategy For Long-Term Success

business-long-term-successThe biggest challenge these days doesn’t seem to be in starting a new business, but sustaining it against the onslaught of market changes and new competitors that emerge every day. Yet, as an angel investor, I still see too many new business owners who are convinced that their biggest challenge is to get money to start, and once launched with some initial success, they can relax.

In my other role of business advisor, I see examples often of startups that may have taken success for granted too early. A recent high-profile one, Theranos, the blood-testing company, had no trouble getting customers, but promised more than their technology could deliver, Another, Shyp, an early on-demand delivery platform, blamed their demise on premature scaling.

The keys to sustainable success require you to retain that sense of urgency, focus, and vigilance after the launch that you felt during the development and early funding stages. That starts with initially building a solid business strategy, including a strong support system for scalability, long-term leadership, and adaptability. In my view, this strategy must include the following elements:

  1. Define and communicate a purpose and destination. Your constituents can’t plot a journey if they aren’t sure where they are going or why. For a successful launch and scalable growth, they need to establish many checkpoints, with metrics to assess their progress and alignment with the vision. Don’t let that communication fade post-launch.

  2. Build and nurture a team culture of trust and leadership. You and your business won’t be able to sustain a position of leadership without everyone on the customer-facing team being willing and able to emulate your lead. That requires trust and respect from all, as well as constant coaching and development to keep them committed to following you.

  3. Demand continuous innovation to keep up with change. Change is the only constant in a successful business, to keep up with new competitors and new customer demands. Innovation must be applied to your business model, your processes, as well as your product offering. Aim to obsolete your own products with new, before competitors do it.

  4. Make sustainability a key design objective for every step. You may start with prototype products, but you need rock-solid processes for successful growth and agility. Seek out the best practices in the industry, and improve them for your business. Recognize that every successful journey is long and hard, so don’t cut corners now.

  5. Hire the best people and continually upgrade your team. A big mistake often made in the rush to scale is to shortcut the hiring and training processes, to get out there fast, assuming that the team can learn on the job. Look for team players who can collaborate with others, and make sure everyone has the training and tools to do the job.

  6. Seek out strategic partnerships and collaboration. When you finally get that funding for scaling, it may be tempting to do everything yourself, to keep control and do it faster. The problem is that you may not have the experience or connections to jump into new customer segments, manufacturing, and distribution. Capitalize on what already exists.

  7. Focus on existing customer retention and repeat business. For sustainable growth, don’t forget that, according to data from the field, it is five times as expensive to gain a new customer than retain an existing one, and a returning customer purchases 30 percent more items and brings in three to seven times more revenue per transaction.

  8. Build your brand equity and relationships with customers. As a startup, you have no brand recognition, but long-term sustainability requires a powerful brand. These days, brand equity means relationships with more customers, and a more memorable overall experience. Your brand-loyal customer advocates can be your exponential marketing.

  9. Never stop hunting for new opportunities and new markets. Initial success breeds complacency. While a laser focus is necessary to get your startup off the ground, long-term success requires a broad and ever-changing product line, target audience, and geographic focus. Don’t be a “one-trick pony” that fades into oblivion as time passes.

Congratulations are definitely appropriate for a successful new business launch, but it’s not the time to relax or take your eye off the ball. A sustainable business, with long-term success, is a different and never-ending challenge, requiring additional strategies as outlined here. Don’t wait for a business crisis to get started. As many have found out, recoveries are not always possible.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/23/2019 ***



Friday, June 7, 2019

5 Questions To Help Solve The Tough Business Problems

question-markIn my role as a business advisor, one of the attributes I often see in a good leader is the ability and willingness to ask good questions, before moving forward or issuing edicts, potentially in the wrong direction. We all have mental barriers – those unquestioned assumptions, unexplored options, or unchallenged rules of thumb that keep us stuck at a lower level of effectiveness.

Thus, an essential skill for anyone who wants to push the limits of their team and their business is the ability to ask questions that expose and remove those mental obstacles. The challenge is to frame questions that can provoke people into thinking about the problems in a new way, and to ask these questions in a style that doesn’t elicit defensiveness, resistance, or fear.

I saw this challenge outlined well in a new book, “Learning to Lead,” by Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and self-made business leader, who rose from the poor side of the tracks in south Chicago to lead several large businesses, and ultimately serve on the President’s Management Advisory Board for several years. His life proves that leadership is learned, not a birthright.

I like his summary of five kinds of questions that can help you change your leadership effectiveness, and your organization’s view of reality when faced with complex new issues:

  1. Questions that highlight key roadblocks to a solution. Before any assumptions are made on a seemingly impossible challenge, you need to focus the conversation on existing barriers to achieving the desired goal, what methods have already been tried to alleviate the problem, and what specifically happened that caused those efforts to fail.

    For example, I too often see entrepreneurs with great determination failing to get investor funding to start a capital-intensive business, such as building a new automated factory. Others face the roadblock with questions like, “Who has such a facility that might partner with us?” and find a win-win solution through a joint venture to achieve their dream.

  2. Questions that clarify the uncertainty over facts. When there is significant confusion over the nature of the problem, or disagreement as to the cause-and-effect processes that are creating current difficulties, you need to ask questions that probe the reliability and sources for the information. Also, opinions are sometimes over-stated as facts.

    If someone on your team is adamant that lack of a complex technical feature is the biggest competitive threat to your business, you may need to ask for specific data from customers and competitors that supports this conclusion. Engineers love to tackle new technology, and sales people are always looking for one more feature to close business.

  3. Questions that probe the evolution of a complex problem. Asking questions designed to elicit explanatory narratives can illuminate how a particularly difficult challenge came to be, which can be crucial to understanding it’s cultural, social, organizational, and psychological roots. There’s an enlightening story behind every issue.

    I have been involved in trying to fix several perennially problematic internal processes, where understanding the history made it obvious that we needed to get the original creator involved, or needed to start over to structure some code that was never intended to be more than a prototype.

  4. Questions that suggest alternatives can be quite powerful. When your team members’ thinking seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, you need to ask questions that raise alternative possibilities. Perhaps they need to be challenged to investigate how other companies have used different approaches to avoid or resolve similar issues.

    For example, every business these days struggles with keeping customer data secure in their database, when potentially that data might be available from another source, kept in cookies on the customer system, or not really be needed at all to do the job.

  5. Questions that drill down to what business we are in. Sometimes problems make it seem like your business may be fundamentally lost. At this point you need questions designed to raise basic issues, relating to business goals, or who is the target audience. Perhaps the problem can be easily resolved by not trying to solve everyone’s problem.

As a leader, taking a big step back to gain a fresh perspective will shed a powerful light on what you should be doing every day, and asking the right questions is a good way to start the process. Just be sure to wield them carefully so they remain useful tools rather than seeming like aggressive weapons. Today’s workforce, and customers, are looking for leaders, not tyrants.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/22/2019 ***



Wednesday, June 5, 2019

How Modern Companies Have Redefined Customer Support

Australian (AUS) fans in green and gold cheering 2000 Sydney PGToo many business owners still think of “customer support” as an after-sale process to rectify customer problems with completed transactions. The world has changed. With the advent of instant communication and social media, customer service starts at the first hint of interest by you, and never ends for repeat customers. One bad customer experience will kill not only one customer, but many future ones, who hear the message via social media and friends.

For example, the days are gone when simply replacing a purchase or giving your money back was considered premium service. Now, if your web site is not clear and clean, or you don’t have a chat robot for a product question online, you may be abandoned as providing poor customer service, just as certainly as having to wait in a long product exchange line after the holidays.

Now customer support is called the “customer experience,” and everyone is expecting you to actually anticipate their personal needs, and totally delight them with all aspects of the shopping experience, price versus value, as well as help with any follow-on questions or problems. Big companies and small, from Amazon to Zappos, have set the bar high along the following lines:

  1. Business must be available when and where you are. Even small businesses can now easily be global in scope, and available 24x7 online. Customers expect you to provide access via their mobile devices, as well as being responsive to sales and support questions on social media and multiple Internet channels and partners at their whim.

  2. Company amazingly finds you based on your interests. No one likes to be blasted by TV and online ads for products you have no interest in, but we all love to be pleasantly surprised by memorable deals nearby on favorite clothing styles or food tastes. The best companies do their homework first to find the customers who will appreciate their service.

  3. Technology enhances experience, not impedes it. We have all been annoyed by the airline agent who seems to type forever into a slow computer, or repeatedly asks for information already known. Amazon introduced the one-click order button and overnight delivery, which has reset the bar for all other businesses in processing transactions.

  4. Customer sees you as a relationship, not a brand. The days of loyalty to a name brand are over, so every company has the same potential to reach out and build relationships with customers. Customers expect to be in control, remembered, and treated uniquely, every time they need support or come back for additional business.

  5. The marketing metrics covers support as part of experience. If your marketing metrics and budget ignore the fact that you have call center queues thirty minutes long, or no coverage of online reviews or social media, your customer service is not keeping up with competitors. Zappos, for example, counts the number of new customer relationships established, not minutes on the site.

  6. Customer experience starts with user-centric product design. The standard today for new products is that if it requires a user manual, that is considered a failure. Product usage by your target audience should be intuitive, and the elegance of the packaging, such as that provided by Apple, which always reflects the sleek, user-friendly experience of the product inside, is as important as the product itself.

  7. Show empathy and empowerment in handling customers. Every person in your organization needs to be committed and able to make decisions for enhancing customer relationships. Ritz-Carltons, for example, encourage employees, once they're fully trained, to spend up to $2,000 per guest to solve a guest issue or improve a guest's stay.

  8. Make it easy for customers to help themselves and each other. Customers today want to be in control and help themselves. They also like to hear from other customers, and even help others. That means facilitating customer online forums, special events, and contacts, where they can share experiences, and answer questions for each other.

Ultimately, your experience is your brand and it’s no longer possible to separate customer support from the overall customer experience. Both are part of the relationship that you build with your customers, and these can be the key to an amazing advocacy, or the tag of poor customer service. It up to you to meet customers on their own terms, and they will reward you for doing it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/21/2019 ***



Sunday, June 2, 2019

10 Tips To New Venture Leaders To Never Stop Learning

Never-stop-learningYou probably think that the fact that you have started your own business validates your leadership ability. It may confirm that you were a leader yesterday, but do you have what it takes to be a leader tomorrow? In this era of rapid change, you can’t afford to stop learning, or you will find that your competitors, your customers, and your team, may soon be following someone else.

In fact, you may have noticed in a recent study, that the business CEO turnover rate last year was the highest in 10 years, and may go even higher this year. Real business leadership requires continuous improvement, just like your products and processes. Fortunately, contrary to popular opinion, the evidence is that leadership is not a birthright, and can be learned and improved.

Most people agree that leadership is primarily a set of behaviors that capitalize on relationships and a current market and customer understanding in a complex world. It’s not about a title, raw intelligence, or domination. Based on my own experience in large and small businesses, as well as mentoring entrepreneurs, here is my list of behaviors which will keep you ahead of the pack:

  1. Focus on managing relationships more than tasks. Leaders in new companies who have had to do much of the work themselves sometimes find it hard to now find time for the people who are now critical to their future. Building new relationships, inside and outside the company, and nurturing old ones, is a key to long-term leadership.

  2. Be the visible role model for accountability and trust. Team members and other constituents carefully watch what you do, as well as what you say. If you are too busy to be visible, or don’t practice what you preach, their perception of your leadership will diminish. You can’t hold others accountable, if you don’t take the high road yourself.

  3. Spend more time asking questions than dictating answers. Top leaders are always looking to grow by asking probing questions and gathering new insights from a broad range of relationships, rather than advocating their own views. They show empathy to constituents around them, encourage followers to step outside their safe zone.

  4. Practice active listening and full attention to those present. Many busy new venture owners believe they have heard it all before, so they tune out of conversations, or revert to multi-tasking, thus diluting their leadership. Don’t forget that the world is changing around you, so only your focused attention on all new input will keep you in the forefront.

  5. Restrain emotions and ego when you hear critical feedback. Resist the urge to be defensive, and focus on learning the “what” and “why” of every opposing point of view. Avoid the appearance of interrogation in questioning disagreements, and use your emotions carefully in making a point, or reacting to peers or other constituents.

  6. Broaden your communication circle to be more inclusive. Everyone is listening to how leaders take credit or give credit to the team, rather than themselves. Your words are important in garnering the trust and loyalty of your team, your peers, and partners. You need their commitment, feedback, and continued support as the market changes.
  7. Take more time for celebrating the success of others. People will follow you and keep you updated, if they sense your gratitude and appreciation for their efforts. Many new venture owners have trouble disengaging from the escalating demands of their business to celebrate the small successes of the people and customers who depend on them.

  8. Work on being a facilitator rather than a driver. The best leader personality for larger organizations is one of providing help and resources, rather than extracting performance. That means a priority on coaching and mentoring, as well as training and tools, before focusing on results metrics. Let people make their own decisions wherever possible.

  9. Eliminate the use of “off-the-record” comments. The world today is much less accepting of off-the-cuff remarks from business leaders. What you might perceive as a casual remark to friends may cause emotional reactions in others that can damage your leadership and business. Be aware of your environment and new devices around you.

  10. Control your non-verbal cues as well as your words. Such cues include body language, tone, inflexion, and other elements of voice, dress, and association. Practice the positive body language of eye contact, smiling, and confidence, rather than contempt, disgust, or anger. Remember that you will always be judged by the company you keep.

Learning to recognize and practice these behaviors doesn’t require any super-human skills, but does require continuous effort and focus. As your company matures, and the market changes, your leadership expectations and requirements also have to change for your long-term success. Start today by acquiring a mentor, as well as really listening to some trusted voices around you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 05/09/2019 ***