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.

Worn Down by Your Business? Beat a drum!

I am writing this on Sunday morning of the first vacation I have taken in 2 years. There is so much to do that I don’t know how I can take a vacation right now. I am sure that many if not most entrepreneurs and small business owners often feel this way. Yet, if I allow myself to be completely burned out, my business will suffer. So, here is an idea to help you sustain yourself during busy times. Beat a drum!

Well, maybe not literally, although in my case I do mean so. Several years ago I attended a fund-raiser for a friend’s dance company (Chicago Dance Inc., if you are in or near Chicago, it would be well worth it to catch a performance). I bought tickets for a raffle, and won a free class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Being of Irish descent, I have long been interested in Irish and in particular the bodhran, a Celtic drum. I enjoyed the class and took another. After the second class, I decided to try my hand drumming at an Irish music session in a pub, where I met my current teacher, John Williams.

I now spend a half an hour practicing every day and 3 hours on Sundays playing the bodhran at a pub. The physical exertion of playing the drum has helped to reduce my stress levels and be more relaxed. The camaraderie of the other members of the music “session” and our common love of Irish music has given me an outlet for conversation that has nothing to do with business, so that I am able to focus on something completely different. As well, playing music in a session is just plain fun! How many of us small business owners and entrepreneurs ever do something just for fun?

Now, I don’t think that every entrepreneur in the world needs to play a drum, but taking up a hobby of some sort, even for a few minutes a day, will help you increase your energy and clear your mind so that when you return to your business you will do so with new enthusiasm. My Irish mother in law used to have a saying, “A change is as good as a break!”, meaning that it can be just as restful to do something different as to do nothing at all. I highly recommend it.

If by chance, you would like to hear some great Irish music, stop by Tommy Nevins Pub in Evanston, Illinois any Sunday between 3:00 and 6:00 PM. You might even spy the Bulldog beating on a drum!

Here is a quick update to my Blog last week “Beat a Drum”, last week I participated in a great bodhran seminar with Mairtin de Cogain at Milwaukee Irish Fest. Mairtin is a well known Irish musician who is currently using Kickstarter to finance a DVD project including video, lyrics and music about the County of Cork, Ireland. Check it out!

What is a Consulting Executive’s Time Worth?

Quite often, when I am working with an owner or executive of a small consulting company, I find that the person I am working with is hard put to tell me what they are worth. In some cases, the owner or executive is worth everything, as they are doing everything. But even those who are doing everything cannot answer my question because they don’t know.

The fact is, every hour that an owner/executive works is worth something, but the real question is, is the company capturing the value that the owner/executive is creating with every hour of work? Unfortunately, the answer is often no; here is why.

An owner or executive of a consulting company often has 2 roles; the first as a consultant working with clients and secondly as an owner/executive running a company. The consultant is billing hours to the client for work done, but the executive is not, as the client work they are doing is either selling or pre-sales, and the internal company work is simply not billable.

Yet, all of the work that the owner/executive performs creates value for the company. If the owner cannot find a way to monetize that value, the company is losing out on an important revenue stream. The answer on how to capture that value is overhead; bringing us to a discussion on how overhead is handled in many small companies.

When considering the P & L of small consulting company, look at where the cost of providing consulting services is placed; often under General and Administrative Expenses as part of salaries, even if the consultants are contractors paid on an hourly basis. The cost of providing consulting services more properly belongs at the top of the
P & L, under the Cost of Providing Goods and Services, it reflects the direct cost of providing the consulting services.

Any non-billable time then belongs under General and Administrative Services. The key reason for differentiating here is to be able to understand what part of the consultant’s time belongs in overhead. This applies in particular to the non-billable hours of the owner/executive, as including these hours in overhead is the only way to monetize non-billable hours.

Let’s take this one step further. In many small consulting companies, the owner/executive may not even paid a regular salary, simply paying themselves what the company can afford at the end of each month. However, if the owner/executive is truly worth their billing rate, then every hour that they work should be calculated at a cost that is the same as their billable rate. As a result, when the company’s overhead is calculated and added on to the billable rate of each consultant, the true value of the owner/executive will be captured.

As you can see, the value of an owner/executive of a consulting company is worth a lot, but only if that value is properly captured.

Chief Twitter Officer?

The headline to an article published recently in India Real Time (WSJ.com) read, “Can Chief Twit be far behind?” The reference was to the possibility that the Chief Twitter Officer may already be in existence. The article also mentions officers such as Chief Monster at Monster.com, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google and Chief Belief Officer at Future Group. Your humble blogger, who is known as the Chief Bulldog at the The COO’s Bulldog certainly is in good company.

Then there is the Chief Human Capital Officer at the US Department of Energy. I don’t know; I think I would rather be a person than capital, what do you think? Not to be outdone, another government agency has a Chief FOIA Officer. (Would that be pronounced “foya” or “foeea”?) It turns out that the Chief FOIA Officer works for the FCA, or the Farm Credit Agency, processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that come to the agency. I wonder if the federal government has a Chief Acronyms Officer to make all of these up.

In an article on Greenbiz.com Ellen Weintraub complained that while she had seen plenty of Vice Presidents of Sustainability and Directors of Sustainability, she had yet to see a Chief Officer of Sustainability. Perhaps there is not enough work to keep that person busy, this making them more of a Chief Unsustainability Officer. When I looked up the definition of sustainable, I came across the words “carry on”. The Chief Carry On Officer would either be in charge of company parties or loading people on airplanes these days!

Then there is the Chief Green Officer; is the word green a noun denoting the person’s responsibilities or an adjective describing their color? Or is the Chief Green Officer simply another name for the CFO? It has gotten so bad that Steve Tobak, in his BNET column, The Corner Office, opines that we should no longer say C-Suite, but should rather use the term C-Tent!

Getting back to the Chief Twit; I worked for him a number of years ago, but fortunately did not stay long at that company!

On Being a First-Time Small Business COO

Many small companies grow to the size where the owner can no longer run the business entirely by him or herself. In some cases, the owner never realizes that the business is beyond a single executive/manager and the consequences are dire. In others, the owner is cognizant of the need and recruits an experienced COO, or perhaps promotes from within.

In the latter case we have a newly minted COO (or VP Operations, or some other title) who has been with the business for a while and knows it well but is now asked to take on an executive role for which they might not have a great deal of experience.If you are in the latter category, here are four recommendations to help you succeed.

Know the Owner’s Mind: It is crucial in your new role to understand how the owner thinks about the business and what their expectations are for you. The real challenge to the new COO is to become the crucial link between strategy and execution and in order to do so you must understand both. Frequent well-planned meetings are a must. Some of the meetings should focus on strategic subjects and others on operational detail.

If you have been working at the business in a different capacity, then you should be able to leverage your knowledge, but do not presume to understand the owner’s thinking without serious, ongoing discussions.

Know the Business/Financial Model: Understanding the Business/Financial model comes down to a simple concept: do you know how the company makes money? Actually uncovering the model may not be so simple. First, you must understand what your product or service is and why the client buys. In other words, how does the company create value for the client? Second you must have an intimate knowledge of the business processes that create that value. Finally, you must understand how the business process affects business finance, in particular cash flow.

Even if you have been working at the company for an extended period of time, as a new COO you must gain process knowledge. Review any documentation, if it exists. As is often the case with small business, documentation will not exist, so work quickly to document basic processes as soon as possible. In addition, study the company’s financial statements so that you will understand how the financial model is affected by business process.

Set Up Feedback Loops: Once you know the crucial information that you need to understand operations and finance, set up feedback loops that will continuously provide you with the information that you need. In addition to information from operations and finance, the third feedback loop that you will want to establish early on is one that reports to you on what is happening in the marketplace. You need to know how the current economic environment is affecting the business, as well as what your competition is up to.

Find a Mentor: If you are new to the COO role, particularly in a small business, finding a more experienced person to mentor you will help you establish yourself in your role. Use your business contacts and network to find someone with sufficient experience to guide you as you grow into the role. Even if you don’t currently know a COO, you would be surprised how many of them would be willing to serve as a mentor. Work at finding someone with whom you can communicate well and who is willing to work with you on a regular basis.

If you find yourself in the position of being a new COO in a small business, you have exciting times ahead of you, so step up to your new reality with enthusiasm. Welcome to the world of the COO!

Know Your Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantage is what all businesses are seeking: it allows your business to charge higher prices for your products and services or to get more customers. Everyone is seeking competitive advantage in their market.

Gaining and maintaining competitive advantage requires that your business be focused on the proper things; that is simple, but not always easy. There are really only two areas of business focus in order to establish competitive advantage: first, you must be competitive in your industry and secondly your business must differentiate itself from the competition. Sounds like a contradiction to me! Let’s take a closer look at each.

In order to be competitive in your industry your business must do “industry basics” well. For example, if you are Starbucks, you can have the nicest storefront possible, with great music and a cool ambiance. But, if your coffee is not at the right temperature, or tastes bad, you will not be able to compete in your market. For a coffee shop, temperature and taste are basics and the company must focus on them in the right way.

In what might seem to be contradictory, it is also true that you should not exceed your industry basics in the name of competition. That practice can be costly and self-defeating. Take the example of a distribution company that competes in a market where 5 day delivery of goods is the standard and customers do not expect more. If a company were to spend time and money on next day delivery, they would be wasting money creating differentiation that their customers don’t want. Doing so puts the focus in the wrong place and could actually hurt the business.

In many cases, businesses do not always focus on the right places to understand industry basics. For example, a business’ financial results, in comparison with the industry median for that result is often a good place to see where your business stands in your industry.

A software development company might look at their software production cost (Cost of Sales); they may not be competing on price, but if their production costs are significantly higher than others in the market, they will have a hard time competing. Proper focus here will keep them competitive in their industry.

Differentiation, on the other hand, is not about industry basics. It is about how your business can do something differently to distinguish itself in the industry. Of course, what you do differently must also be something that your market wants!

Let’s look at distribution again. Supposing that the company that tried to differentiate with quick delivery took some time to talk to their customers that are retail operations. Perhaps they might discover that their customers spend time breaking down the goods they receive from the distribution company into smaller lots for reshipping. The distribution company might be able to save their customers time and effort by packaging their goods in such a way that the customers would have minimal repackaging to do.

At times, it might be possible to turn an industry standard on it’s’ head in order to gain competitive advantage. Prior to Starbucks, most of the coffee industry was centered on fast food coffee chains such as donut shops. Fast was the operating word. Starbucks created a product that included not just upgraded coffee, but an entire experience.

The company wanted people to stay longer, not leave quickly. Starbucks achieved tremendous success with that strategy; only recently have they made moves that have harmed them (but that’s the topic of another Blog).

The name of the game in competitive advantage is to stay focused on the right things for your industry!

Small Business and the Unemployed

For several years I have been presenting seminars at Career Place in Barrington, Illinois, working with numerous unemployed. Many of these people had developed a one-page handout that contained highlights of their qualifications and experience. Often, a list of targeted companies was also on the one-pager.

The problem is that most of the companies targeted on these handouts were Fortune 500 and other large companies. Unfortunately, many of the large companies have not been doing a lot of hiring lately. I counseled these people to look at small businesses, because when you consider companies with $500 million annually in revenue and less, there are several thousand in the greater Chicagoland area. I am sure that this is true in many other metropolitan areas as well.

For the unemployed there are two questions to ask: why seek out small business and how to do so?

Why the unemployed should seek out small business.

Most entrepreneurs that start businesses have great experience…in something other than business. The entrepreneur focuses on doing whatever is necessary to get the business going. In particular they are focused on their customers, how to find them and how to get the customers to buy.

During startup, entrepreneurs are usually less interested in business practices than in their fundamental expertise. And for them, this is the correct attitude to start with. However, if the entrepreneur’s idea gets traction and the business starts to grow, there are a host of business pitfalls that need to be avoided. In the past, I have written articles on the importance of tracking cash flow, in particular incoming cash as a basic and often ignored process. In other cases, entrepreneurs have never done a “break even” analysis that would show them whether or not they are profitable.

Many unemployed have the skills necessary to help these small businesses grow and thrive. On the other hand, often small business owners don’t even know what they need. There have been times when I was discussing different aspects of business with entrepreneurs only to have them discover that I had information and skills they needed; they just didn’t know that they needed them!

In other cases, small businesses are seeking the proper people to help them, but the positions they are trying to fill don’t show up on Monster or in ads. This brings us to the second question.

How to find and reach out to small businesses.

Since many small businesses do not know what help they actually need, or have limited resources to find people, it is up to the unemployed (or employed looking for a change) to find the small business and reach out to them.

There are many resources on the Internet and in libraries that can aid the research. A good example is the Business Affiliations Database from Lexis Nexis, available in many libraries. You are able to search for companies by many different variables. First, to find the kind of company that you would like to work for determine the SIC or NAIC codes (industry classifications) using an online database, easily found in a search for NAIC or SIC. Once you find the classification of the company’s industry, you can use that as part of you search. In addition, you can search by company revenues and geographic area.
Now you have a list of companies to approach, but what to do next? Corporate Affiliations will list, for most companies, the owners and officers.

My suggestion is to write a letter to a person at the company explaining that you are interested in possibly working in their industry and are conducting research. Who should you choose to write to? That will take a bit of creativity, but here is an example: supposing that you are an experienced marketing person, and you notice that the company does not have a marketing director listed. Your best bet is to contact the person that would most likely have a marketing director reporting to them, perhaps the CEO or COO. Then write your letter.

Several days after your letter has been sent, follow up with a phone call requesting a short meeting (15 to 20 minutes) where you could ask questions and conduct your research. If you find a gate-keeper, try to enlist their help; explain the research that you are doing and ask for their help in setting up an appointment. Be sure never to say you are looking for a job.

Once you have an appointment scheduled, be prepared not only to ask good questions, based on industry research that you will do before the appointment, but also be ready to talk about what you do and how it is applied. Often, you will be surprised at the interest the person you are meeting will have in what you do. Even more so, you will frequently be directed to other people to contact, both within the company as well as at other companies.

Small businesses need a variety of experienced business professionals in order to thrive. Use the information in this article to take the initiative and find a niche for yourself in small business.