Filling the Entrepreneur’s Skill Gap

In a past Blog, I have written about making sure that you surround yourself with a team that covers any areas that are not your strong point. As an entrepreneur, you have many skills and the drive to succeed, but rarely do you have it all. Therefore, is crucial to find people to help you with those areas. Many entrepreneurs find this difficult, for different reasons. One reason that is often cited is lack of funds to hire employees.

The reality is that you do not need full time employees to do everything that has to be done, and hiring contractors for critical elements of your business process can work, and often are less expensive than you might think. While it might be a challenge to come up with funds to pay the contractors, it is well worth the effort when you see the outcome.

For example, I am engaging in a sales campaign for another enterprise in which I am involved. We are doing it the old fashioned way, sending out letters with a real ink signature and following up with a telephone call. I do not engage a full time person to do sales for this particular company, at least not yet. How did I find my sales caller? In this case, I used the site Elance and found a person that had the skills that I needed. I then interviewed her by phone (a great test of someone’s phone skills), and finally had her do a few test calls. Based on the results, she has been making sales calls for 9 months now.

Another example would be using a service to make your work look professional. Last year, I conducted a survey in the same industry as the company mentioned above. The results were significant and very interesting, but the resulting white paper looked kind of blah. I then used a graphic artist who took the content and formatted it with typesetting and graphics that brought immediate attention to crucial information and conclusions of the report. I never could have done that on my own.

The lesson taken is that an entrepreneur/small business owner will never have the skills to do it all, so don’t be afraid to hire a contractor to fill in those skill gaps.

Question: do you have any examples of how you used outside help fill in skill gaps. Also, do you have any suggestions on where to find the help you need?

Be Thankful for What We Have

Several days ago, my wife was sworn in as an U.S. citizen in a ceremony in Chicago. Having dealt with the government bureaucracy throughout, we did not have high hopes for the occasion, but were pleasantly surprised by the ceremony that took place. Along with the 140 other new citizens and several hundred friends and families, we sang the national anthem and recited the pledge of allegiance. We watched a video about immigrants and also a music video with the song, “Proud to be an American”. The new citizens recited the oath to their new country.

For me, the highpoint of the ceremony was when the new citizens came forward to receive their certificate of naturalization. Of course, this is the digital age, so there were several new citizens taking selfie-videos of themselves receiving the certificate.

The person that impressed me the most was a gentleman in his 60’s, who really looked the part of an immigrant; neatly dressed but somewhat grizzled, with the rough hands of one who had done manual labor for many years. When he received his certificate, he held it aloft in both hands as high as he could reach to show it to friends and family across the room, and then began jumping up and down in a dance of sheer joy, a wide smile on his face. This was an important moment in this man’s life!

Of course, bureaucracy was on display that day as well. It took longer to check in the 141 prospective citizens than the actual ceremony. The Bulldog noted several quick changes in process that could have cut the time in less than half, but I kept my peace that day.

Afterwards, my wife told me about a comment that one of the bureaucrats made during the checking in lineup. Seeing the long line waiting to check in, she asked how many were there. When she was told that it was 141, she said, “Wow, why so many? Are they giving something away for free? I want some!” My wife had the right thought, but she did not verbalize at the time. I will now, “Ma’am, you’ve already got it, and you don’t even know!”

What the bureaucrat had was the liberty and blessings of being an American citizen. Unfortunately, at least at that moment, she seemed to have forgotten that fact. Many do, including myself from time to time. The freedom to live as I would like, to be an entrepreneur and build a business that supports my family and my community. The freedom to express myself and my ideas. We often take these things for granted, and often it is immigrants who remind about these freedoms.

To quote Churchill, “”Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (From a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).

 

Kafka Revisited (Or How Not to Give Good Customer service)

Over the last couple of months, I have been dealing with a government agency that will remain unnamed. Over the course of my dealings with the agency, I began to feel like Josef K. the main character of Kafka’s novel, The Trial. Josef K. had been arrested, but all during the legal process, nobody ever told him why, or what was going on.

After each call with a Customer Service Representative of the agency, I, like Josef K., have felt more confused and frustrated than before. Based on this experience, I would like to give you some rules on how not to give good customer service.

  • Give incomplete or misleading information. Never give a customer the complete set of information that they need to know, although it is all right to let them believe that they do have that information at the end of the call. If you are a big company, chances are when they call back they will speak to someone else.
  • Berate the customer. Tell the customer that they should have known that information already. Make them feel that they are stupid for not knowing the information in the first place and should not have called (forget that if all the customers did know already, you might not have a job!).
  • Send the customer in circles. Tell the customer that you are not in the correct department to help. Be sure to send them to a department that cannot help them, and will insist that they call your department back.
  • Keep the customer waiting. Put the customer on hold for long periods of time with awful music and the occasional announcement that “Your call is important to us!” Hang up on the customer from time to time.
  • Don’t call back. When the customer asks for your supervisor, tell them that your supervisor is busy, but will call them back in a few minutes if the customer will leave a name and number. Be sure to lose the name and number immediately after you hang up.
  • Play on the customer’s emotions. Always tell the customer that you understand why they may be upset then do everything you can to aggravate them further.

There is an old saying, “Those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  I would like to make a modification of that saying to, “Those that don’t know literature are doomed to repeat it.” For the last few weeks I have asked each customer service representative at this agency if they had ever heard of Franz Kafka. Not a single one did!

Great Customer Service is No Accident

Nothing brings out the bulldog in me more quickly than poor customer service. Recently, the bulldog has had too many occasions to come out! In one case, a company website where I was trying to pay a bill was not working. The site was quite rudimentary for a $6 billion dollar company, with no help function at all. When I called the only number listed on the site, I went through the “pass you on” routine, with lots of hold time during which I was told how important I was to their company.  Finally, I reached the office of the right person to talk to, but she was on vacation. I sincerely hoped that she would make it back from vacation else I might never be able to pay my bill online (or anyone else, for that matter).

In another instance, a well-known delivery company left me a form to sign to have a package delivered on the second attempt. I even called the company to let them know that they could leave the package in the foyer and that I would sign the form. The next day, I found a second form next to the first. When I called this time, the customer service person could not tell me what happened and passed me on to the local terminal.

After a couple of tries, and more messages about how important I was, I reached the terminal manager. The manager explained to me that company regulations did not allow them to leave the package in the foyer of my condo. To put a quick end to the story, about fifteen minutes later when I removed my teeth from his leg (figuratively, of course), he agreed to have the package left as I had requested.

Customer service should be in the DNA of every company, and it does not happen by accident. Based on my experience, both as a customer and as a service provider, here are some guidelines to great customer service:

  1. Every employee of a company is potentially a customer service agent. Even amid the myriad choices in a company’s voice response system many people get through to one employee or another. Therefore, all employees must be trained and ready to handle customer service at a triage level, that is, be able to understand the problem and get the customer to the right place the first time.
  2. There should never be a circumstance where the only person who can solve the problem is not there. When there is a technical problem, multiple experts must be on hand. For a small company, this may mean having experts on call. With today’s technology, reaching a person who can solve a problem should not be a problem.
  3. Customer service representatives must be given reasonable authority to solve a problem. Repeating company policy is not a solution. Nor is saying, “My supervisor is not here right now, he will call you back.”
  4. At the very least, customer service representatives, supervisors and managers must learn how to ask questions and listen, not only to understand the problem, but ascertain what the solution is that the customer wants.

Finally, a suggestion to all companies: please stop using the “your call is important to us” routine!

DuPont Analysis: The Numbers Don’t Lie

Over the years that I have been working with small businesses and entrepreneurs, I have discovered that there is no better way to judge the health of your company than through financial analysis. As the title of this blog states, the numbers don’t lie. A good financial analysis can lead you directly to the source of any problems within your business. Yet, many small business owners and entrepreneurs don’t spend a lot of time on financial analysis, or only do so superficially.

In my experience, one of the best ways to analyze you business’ financials is based on a method developed early in the 20th century, the DuPont Method of ratio analysis. The method was created by F Donaldson Brown, an employee of the DuPont Company, as a way to manage General Motors . The DuPont Method was considered the standard until the 70’s, although I still find it a very useful tool.

The DuPont Method introduces a pyramid of ratios with Return on Equity at the apex (click here to download a file). At each level of the pyramid, the method deconstructs ratios into their constituent parts. For example, Return on Equity is composed of Return on Capital multiplied by Leverage. Return on Capital and Leverage are then decomposed into their constituent parts and so on.

The key highlight on financial ratio analysis is to see how financial operations drive value. Some finance people refer to this model as the value drivers model; others, as the financial levers model. The former see value drivers as the explanation of how an entity makes money and increases its value, hence the term “value driver.” The latter view financial ratio analysis as the method for identifying the triggers of financial results, hence the term “financial levers.”

There are three different types of ratios within a DuPont analysis: profitability ratios, activity ratios and solvency ratios. Profitability ratios analyze whether or not you are making money, and why. The question why is the most important part of that inquiry. Many are the occasions when an entrepreneur or small business owner will say to me, “According to my Profit and Loss statement, I am making money. Why is my bank account empty?” Profitability ratios will help to answer that question.

Activity ratios will help you understand how efficiently your business is operating. For example, if your business turns over its capital 3 times a year, but your competition does so 5 times a year, you could be at a competitive disadvantage. In other words you will find it harder to compete because the competition used its capital more efficiently.

Finally, solvency ratios will tell you whether or not you have the financial wherewithal to stay in business. There are many businesses that are the victim of their own success. A business that has a great product or service that others want to buy may expand so rapidly that they don’t have the capital resources (money) to keep up with the expansion. Solvency ratios will help you understand where you are in terms of capital resources and how fast you can grow.

So, tune in for the next three weeks as we take on the DuPont Method.

i Project Management Accounting, Callahan, Stetz & Brooks, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken New Jersey, 2007
ii Ibid.

It’s Cash That Counts

Next week I will begin a series about a financial anlysis tool known as the Dupont Analysis. To set the foundation, I am repeating this Blog about cashflow, because it introduces the capital blance sheet, which is integral to a Dupont Analysis.

I was working with an entrepreneur in startup mode, and was once again reminded of the difference between profits and cash. Particularly in startups, but also in more mature companies that achieve a breakthrough of some sort, mistaking profits reported on an income and expense statement with cash in the bank could be a crucial error. How do people make this mistake?

They do so by not taking into account the timing of cash flows. Remember, an income and expense sheet is reporting sales and expenses as they are booked for accounting reasons, but the cash flows that accompany the sales often do not happen at the same time.

For example, unless they are in retail, most companies do work on a credit basis (when retail accepts a credit card payment, they deposit slips like cash, so there is no extended term). You may not think about that way, but terms like Net 30 or Net 60 are nothing more than extending credit to your clients. In other words, your company is financing your customers’ purchases. The longer that it takes to be paid by your customer, the larger the debt that you finance.

Every company has a cash cycle, and depending on the business that you are in, there are more or less components to that cash cycle. Let’s take a company that distributes materials to other businesses. Here is a view of their cash cycle:

1. Purchase materials on credit terms (Net 30, 60, etc.) from suppliers
2. Hold in inventory
3.Repackage and sell to customers on credit terms (Net, 30, 60, etc)
4. Paid by customers
5. Pay suppliers

Now, this is a simplified cash cycle, but you get the idea. Obviously, if your customers are slow to pay you and you must pay your suppliers, you could be in for a shortfall of cash. Actually, one of the greatest risks to a startup or small company that is trying to grow is running out of cash while the business is expanding quickly. We should also note that there are other expenses (salaries, benefits, office space or utilities) that must be paid even if your customers are not quick paying you.

That brings us to the concept of Working Capital. Working Capital is the amount of cash that your company needs to have available in order to keep the cash cycle going or better put, to keep the company going. Working Capital is usually tracked in a type of spreadsheet known as a Capital Balance Sheet (which is a bit different than a Balance Sheet).

In a regular balance sheet, capital is kept above and debt below. In a capital balance sheet, a certain portion of debt is brought above. Here is the outline of a how to calculate Working Capital in a simple capital balance sheet:

Receivables (what your customers owe you)
+ Inventory
+ Current Assets
– Payables (what you owe your suppliers)
= Working Capital

Working capital represents the cash that a company needs to keep on hand to operate with receivables, inventory and payables. Receivables represent the cash that you have invested in materials and financing your clients. Payables are what your suppliers have invested in your company.

If the company sells $10,000 worth of materials in a month, 50% at Net 30 and 50% at Net 60, it means that they will not collect any cash for at least 30 days (if the customer pays on time!), and some of it not for 60. Even so, after expenses they might show a net profit of $1,500. There’s the rub, the net profit is not cash in the bank! If the company has bills to pay this month (or salaries) they must use the cash flow from previous sales to pay.

A startup company, in particular, will have problems if as they grow they do not have adequate cash in the bank to pay for expenses while waiting for cash to flow from sales. Often, a portion of the original investment capital in a new company is put aside for Working Capital; other means of having working capital at the ready could include a line of credit.

This is precisely what is meant by being adequately capitalized. Working with investors, bankers and others, the company’s executives must ensure that they have the cash in the bank to operate or they will literally be “out of business”!

Customer Service Personified

Last Saturday, my wife and I were on Navy Pier waiting for the fireworks when I ran into my good friend Joseph, who I believe to be the personification of Customer Service. The lessons he teaches by his actions are worth reviewing, so here is a repeat of that Blog from last year.

This past week, I took my wife for lunch at the Union League Club in Chicago. While I was there, I saw my good friend Joseph. Actually, he saw me first, as Joseph is a member of the wait staff at the club. By the time I had my soup from the buffet Joseph had placed my favorite soft drink at a table in the corner that he knew I preferred. As I approached, he caught my eye, flashed his signature smile and held out his hand to greet me, saying as he always does, “It’s good to see you!” My wife shares my opinion that Joseph personifies customer service.

Now, the award winning Union League Club in Chicago has many outstanding employees who give great service all the time so that it is easy to say that the club administration is doing all the right things to encourage their employees. Many of their employees have been on staff for years, indicating that they enjoy working at the club, and it shows! All the same, there is something special about Joseph; you can’t just teach somebody to be the way he is, although others could learn from his example. After thinking it over for a while, I concluded that there are four qualities that Joseph personifies: pride of ownership, personal warmth, attention to detail and enthusiasm.

Pride of ownership: It does not matter in which of the clubs restaurants you see Joseph; he always acts as if he owns the place. I mean this in a good sense, that he wants people to enjoy his restaurant and he will do everything possible to see that you do.

Personal Warmth: I believe that there are few people who can go to one of the club’s restaurants more than a couple of times that don’t know Joseph and consider him a friend. He consciously works at getting to know you and what you like. His efforts include more than just food and drink; in his unobtrusive way, Joseph gets to know about you as a person and remembers what he learns.

Attention to Detail: Joseph is always moving, seeing what is going on and who needs something. He is able to anticipate what you need next almost before you know it. As I mentioned above, my favorite soft drink will appear on the table before I get there with my food. Grab a dessert and he will be there with a fork before you sit down.

Enthusiasm: It is obvious that Joseph loves what he does. His underlying enthusiasm for his work shines through as he surveys the room and does whatever needs to be done. At the same time, Joseph has a great sense of timing, knowing how to take care of something without becoming the focus.

Recently, I took my granddaughters to the club for lunch for the first time. They were in Chicago, and I felt were ready for the experience. I was sorry that Joseph was not there that day, as I had prepared them in advance to watch him as an example of how to approach life with a great attitude and the spirit of great customer service that anyone in business should possess.