unlocking business growth opportunities

Letting Go: Delegating for Business Growth

May 28th, 2015

Ann started her company from her dining room table fifteen years ago, and gradually grew it into a nationally recognized brand in a specialty market. Like most business owners, she wore many hats in the early years. She wanted to grow the company and knew it was time to stop doing everything herself.  Ann learned how to delegate the hard way – by not getting the results she wanted.

Ann announced to her team that she was only going to focus on the activities that she enjoyed: managing the company’s social media presence and creating new products. She told them to figure out how to deal with “everything else.” Within a few weeks, Ann was inundated with questions from her team on everything from how to deal with distributor relationships and customer fulfillment issues, to partnership opportunities and production adjustments. 

Here’s what Ann learned about delegating for business growth.

Don’t Delegate by Default

Ann defined her own responsibilities without clarifying her team’s responsibilities. Before you delegate, ask yourself what you expect your team to do, as well as what you intend to do.

Let Go of the Right Things

Ann decided to focus only on what she enjoyed doing, but letting go of what she didn’t like doing may not grow her business. It’s a fact of business ownership – doing what you like to do is sometimes different from doing what you need to do. You can explore your own want to/need to activities with these questions:

  • What do I enjoy doing most?
  • What activities do I need to do myself, and why do I need to do them?
  • What activities do I need to be kept informed about, and what information do I need to stay informed?

Delegate to the Right People

Ann didn’t match specific activities with specific team members’ strengths. Assigning additional work to a team won’t compensate for a lack of specific skills or expertise. If you don’t have the right people on your team, delegating for growth requires hiring or outsourcing.

Delegate Authority and Accountability

Because Ann didn’t specify what “everything else” meant, her team brought everything back to her for resolution. Effective delegation requires three elements:

  • Assigning specific activities to specific team members
  • Empowering them to make specific decisions
  • Clarifying what results they are expected to achieve and how to keep you informed

When you’ve built your business from scratch, delegating can feel strange and uncomfortable at first.  You can make it easier by applying Ann’s lessons before you delegate for growth.

The Art of Following Up

May 1st, 2015

How to turn that business card into a business contact

You met a business professional recently at an industry event, professional association meeting or informal gathering. A week or two goes by, and the business card you exchanged is still sitting on your desk. Why haven’t you followed up?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a business owner, salesperson, executive or job seeker: following up is an art that you can master. The first step is to move beyond your excuses. Here are some common ones:

Too much time has passed

You got busy and that business card sat on your desk for a month. Now you think it’s too late. Will the other person even remember you?  The best time to follow up is within a week of your first meeting – but even a month later, it’s not too late to reach out with an email. 

The other person would have contacted me if he/she really wanted to connect

Don’t assume lack of interest because you’re the first to reach out. Making the first move may feel a little unfamiliar at first. Remind yourself that it’s a small price to pay for cultivating a meaningful business relationship. 

I don’t know what to say

You start to write an email to your new contact and your mind goes blank: what to say? You don’t have to be profound; just be sincere. Simply thank the person for an enjoyable conversation and let him or her know you’d like to stay in touch.

Reconnecting after an initial meeting

Reconnecting by email is an easy way to follow up. Think about the conversation you had, and draft a message that incorporates the following elements:

  • Tell the person that you enjoyed meeting at the event
  • Thank the person for your conversation
  • Mention a mutually interesting topic from your conversation
  • Suggest meeting for coffee (or a phone call if distance is a factor) in the near future to continue the conversation
  • Tell the person that you look forward to staying in touch

A sample email might look like this:

Subject Line: Nice Meeting You

Karen,

It was nice to meet you at the IOGA meeting recently. I enjoyed comparing notes about financial software with you, and also appreciated our conversation about major league baseball. It’s always a pleasure to meet a like-minded fan!

I’d enjoy continuing our conversation. Are you available for a cup of coffee over the next few weeks? Please let me know some dates and times that can work. I look forward to reconnecting with you.

The next time you attend a networking event, remember that the goal of exchanging business cards is to turn them into business contacts. And if there’s a business card or two on your desk right now, you have a golden opportunity to practice the art of following up.

Living Your Personal Brand

April 22nd, 2015

Sometimes, setting an example for yourself sets one for others.

I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a business school forum. I typically don’t charge a fee for speaking at student events, but since I would be booking a flight, I asked if travel costs were covered. I was assured that they were, and I purchased a ticket. Then, a week before the event, an administrator apologetically informed me that that there would be no travel reimbursement. Somehow, despite several conversations and email summaries of the arrangements, the students had misunderstood the budget.

On the plus side, this was the first and hopefully only time I have ever encountered this situation. I have to admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Did this business school really expect me to fly 1,500 miles on my own dime to speak for free?

As I moved from indignation to introspection, two questions kept crossing my mind:

  • How can I turn my response into a positive learning moment for everyone involved, including myself?
  • How could I use this situation as an opportunity to live my personal brand?

I’d gotten a good deal on the flight. With a little effort, I could arrange business meetings before and after the event. I could catch up with a longtime friend over dinner that evening. I could also choose to be insulted, turn down the invitation and end my interactions on a polite but unpleasant note. What kind of message would I be sending about my personal brand if I did that?

The next day, I sent a brief email message to the students and the administrator:

The mixed messages were unfortunate and I appreciate your apology. I honor my commitments, and I will honor this one. I look forward to seeing you next week.

During the forum, the administrator apologized again and reimbursed my flight. I had a conversation with another speaker that led to new business for me. Most important, my decision to speak despite the miscommunications allowed me to make a quiet and potentially powerful statement about my personal brand, and perhaps set an example for the future business leaders who attended the forum.

This situation reminded me that, regardless of external circumstances, we always have choices. We can allow our choices to be determined by the decisions and behaviors of others. Or we can make our own, intentional choices, based on what we stand for and what we intrinsically know is the right thing to do. The learning moment for me? It’s easy to find a substitute speaker. But there is no substitute for the integrity of living your personal brand.

Finding Your Champion: A Field Guide for Sales

April 1st, 2015

Elvis. Sasquatch. The ivory-billed woodpecker. In business-to-business sales, finding your champion in a prospect company can sometimes seem like the quest for an elusive creature. The truth is, most champions don’t announce themselves; they need to be identified.

Champions don’t sell for you. They are your guides – your channel through the purchase process from the prospect’s point of view. If your contact provides you with information about the product/service decision-making process, introduces you to the decision maker and helps you navigate the obstacles, you have a champion. A champion has the influence and the ability to help you and their company to complete the purchase.

How do you identify possible champions? Here’s a field guide to observing and listening for them.

End user clues: People who use your product or service in their daily tasks are often the most enthusiastic. While they often lack the influence to be a champion, an enthusiastic end user can help you to identify the touch points a level or two further up in the company. In the case of a software application, for example, an end user might access the application in their daily activities. The end user’s supervisor might generate reports for their boss, who in turn makes business decisions based on the reports. Finding the highest-level user in the chain can often uncover a champion.

Behavior clues: The behaviors of the people who participate in a first meeting, demo or even a conference call can provide clues to their champion potential. Listen for individuals who open discussion and raise questions about relevant business issues, or those who offer points of view that challenge yours in a respectful way. Seating order in a physical meeting can also reveal possible champions: watch who sits near the decision maker or leader. Observe their responses to your comments and how others respond to them.

Motivation clues: Champions support a purchase decision because they have something to gain. A rising star may be eager for advancement and may see bringing in your product or service as contributing to their record of success. A long-term employee may value professional recognition and the respect of colleagues. Champions who want what’s best for the company might be motivated by helping to maintain the company’s competitive edge. Finding the common ground between your product or service and your champion’s motivations is one of the most influential factors in moving toward a purchase decision.

In the past seventy years, there have been only twenty-two alleged sightings of the possibly extinct ivory- billed woodpecker. If you look for the telltale clues, your next sales champion will be much easier to find.

Here’s to the Role Models

March 16th, 2015

I recently participated in a networking event for students at Johnson County Community College. This event allowed students to practice introducing themselves to business professionals, engage in conversation for a few minutes, and transition politely to another conversation.

In the course of these conversations, I met a student I’ll call Jana, who was studying fashion merchandising. I asked Jana how she became interested in merchandising, and she told me, “It started with a mistake I made at work.”

She works part-time selling women’s apparel in an upscale department store. One day, she sold the outfit on a mannequin. Rather than leave an undressed mannequin on the sales floor, Jana created a new outfit for the mannequin.

The following week, the regional merchandiser summoned Jana for a meeting. “I thought I was in trouble, that I was going to lose my job,” Jana told me. The merchandiser told Jana that the clothing promoted on mannequins was a corporate decision, but that wasn’t the primary reason for meeting. The items worn by Jana’s mannequin had sold well in the previous week, and the merchandiser thought Jana had talent. The merchandiser told Jana about the fashion merchandising program at the college, and encouraged her to apply. She has continued to mentor and encourage Jana, and wants to hire Jana when she completes her degree.

Jana’s story was the most memorable introduction I heard that day – but what impressed me even more than Jana was the forward-thinking merchandiser. This woman not only recognized Jana’s budding abilities, but also had the courage and confidence in her own abilities to take the intentional step to be a role model and mentor. She set a proactive, professional example for Jana, who hopefully will see herself as a role model for other young women as she progresses in her own career.

Whether we think we are or not, we are each a potential role model and mentor for someone in our business, industry or job function. Here’s to the role models, like the merchandiser, who are paying it forward by mentoring others.  

Networking for Meaningful Business Relationships: Three Questions to Avoid

March 3rd, 2015

It happens all the time at networking events: someone asks a question that is awkward to answer.

At one such event, I was standing in a semicircle getting acquainted with three other attendees. After I introduced myself, a person in the semicircle asked me,

“What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?”

Three sets of eyes fixed their gaze on me, waiting for my answer.

Every networking situation has a context, and if you’ve ever engaged in small talk with business people you are meeting for the first time, the questions you ask and answer depend on the context. For example, the kind of exchange you might have with someone you’ll probably never see again while waiting for your flight at an airport terminal is very different from the exchange you might have at a business networking event.

How do you establish a meaningful connection in a business context, often in five minutes or less? First, be aware of three types of questions to avoid.

Personal or Private Questions// “What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?” is a relevant question for a salesperson to ask a prospect, but only after establishing a connection and developing a relationship of trust. The question is out of context in a first, informal meeting with someone you’ve never met before. People like to connect with people who bring out the best in themselves and in others. “How did you get started in the industry?” is a context-appropriate option that fosters a connection.

Yes/No Questions// Networking questions build rapport by building momentum into a conversation. Asking yes/no questions is like trying to play tennis in a padded room – it absorbs all the forward movement your exchange. If you’re asking questions that begin with do/does or is/are, reframe them as what, where or how questions.

Why Questions// In a first meeting, your goal is to find common ground. Why questions can seem judgmental, or imply that there’s a right or wrong answer. Don’t risk putting a new contact on the defensive. Like yes/no questions, why questions can often be reframed as what, where or how questions. For example, “Did you like the speaker? Why?” could be reframed as, “What are your thoughts about the program?”

In addition to being intentional with your questions, be intentional with your answers. When you’re faced with an out-of-context question, answer it with a context-appropriate question. My answer to the question about the two biggest issues I face in my business:

“That’s an interesting question. What I love about my business is helping clients find new revenue streams. I’m curious – what do you enjoy most about your work?”

You have only a few minutes to establish a connection. Make that time meaningful by matching your networking questions to the context.

Putting Off That Sales Call? Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time

February 2nd, 2015

During World War II, Creighton “Abe” Abrams was the only military strategist that Patton regarded as his peer as a tank commander. Abrams is perhaps best un-known for coining the phrase, “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” Think about that as you look at your list of sales calls you never made.

You can’t and shouldn’t place a call if you’re not clear on why you’re calling. Yes, you want the business, whether it’s a million dollars or a few hundred dollars, but don’t try to eat that elephant in one call.

Greg, a business owner, set ambitious goals for growing his business. A Chamber of Commerce colleague introduced Greg to the CEO of a company that could use his products. Greg and the CEO chatted and exchanged cards, and Greg agreed to follow up. For two weeks, all Greg could think about was how big a sale this could be. The pressure of an all-or-nothing proposition prevented him from making the call.  

Getting out of elephant mode requires getting clear on why you’re calling in the first place. One option is to review your initial contact or conversation for comments that reveal ways that you can help your prospect and open the door to a meeting. Keep summaries of your conversations so that you can mine them for business-relevant infobytes.

In his conversation with Greg, the CEO mentioned that he was looking for inventory management software. Greg had a knowledgeable employee who suggested several applications that could be helpful to the CEO. By providing this information, and then suggesting a mutually convenient time to meet, Greg can take one bite of the elephant. Each clear and helpful bite will bring Greg closer to making the sale.

Placing a sales call seems simple enough. If you’re putting it off, you may be trying to squeeze an elephant into the conversation. Get clear on why you’re making that call, and eat that elephant one bite at a time.

Growing Your Business? January is Get Real Month

January 21st, 2015

It’s claimed as Hot Tea month, Hobby month, and even Divorce month. I think of January as Get Real month. It’s time for reviewing your business behaviors. What’s moving you forward? What’s holding you back? Here are three behaviors that top the list:

I’m Not Wired to Sit at a Desk: Some business owners will do anything to evade think time. They’re great at networking and generating ideas. When it comes to thinking through the implementation, they are equally adept at evasion tactics.

I Put Out Fires: I once worked for a boss who felt most productive when putting out fires. When his company was operating smoothly, he would create a crisis that he could step in and resolve. Constantly dealing with crises prevents you from thinking about your business.

I Have to Do It Myself: These business owners are overwhelmed with daily decisions and tasks that others should be doing. Every business owner must eventually face the operational consequences of growth: you can’t continue to make decisions or execute on every detail of your business.

If you recognize these behaviors in yourself, maybe it’s time to get real.

First, make and keep a recurring weekly appointment with yourself to think about what’s happening in your business and prioritize your activities. Figure out which day and time of day you feel most focused and open to stepping away from the daily details and claim that time as your own. Consider choosing a non-office location for your appointment if interruptions or distractions are an issue. Make certain that you’re not substituting office interruptions for distractions in another location.

During your appointment, keep your business goals, opportunities and issues visible. Reviewing a standard list of questions at each meeting can help you to focus.

Business Changes

What needs to change in my business?

Who or what resources do I have to make this change/who are my best change agents?

Whom do I know who can help with this?

Which of m y current activities need to change?

Opportunities and Issues

What can be done right now to help to resolve this issue/leverage this opportunity?

Who can take this action?

What is the most productive use of my time?

What were the top three things I did last week?

How do these things contribute to my business goals and opportunities?

Priorities and Productivity

What percentage of my time did I spend on those things?

What were the least important things I did in the last week?

How could I have deferred or delegated those things?

Then ask yourself the same questions for the coming week.

The most important appointment you can keep is the one you make with yourself. Get Real in January, and you’ll see results in 2015.

Got Goals? Five Ways to Stay on Track in 2015

January 5th, 2015

Several years ago, I visited a friend in London. On New Year’s Eve, we had dinner at a local bistro, and then did something I had never done: we sipped champagne and set goals for the coming year. Not resolutions, but career and business goals. It’s a tradition I continue to observe.

Setting goals is challenging enough – but the real work is keeping your goals from unravelling as the year unfolds. Here are a few tips for keeping your 2015 goals on track.

  1. Document your Goals

The often-cited “Harvard Goals Study” suggests that people with clear written goals achieve more and earn more than those who don’t. Putting your goals into a form that you can review and revise is key to staying on track. Not a writer? Consider developing a visual infographic or mood board to capture the intent of your goals. You can also use goal-setting software tools, such as the ones listed here.

  1. Set Interim Outcomes

Let’s say your business revenue was $5 million in 2014 and your goal is to increase revenue by 30% in 2015. What might that look like on a monthly or quarterly basis? For example, you might set a monthly revenue goal for the first quarter of 2015 that is less than a 30% increase. Chances are you’ll need the first quarter to put processes in place and manage your learning curve as you work towards your goals.

  1. Review Your Goals Weekly

Whether you’ve written your goals down, developed an infographic or loaded them into software, set a weekly appointment review them, assess the past week’s activities and define actions you can take during the coming week.  

  1. Take Daily Action

What can I do – right here, right now – that supports the goals I’ve set? Asking yourself this simple question on a daily basis is a powerful way to keep yourself on track. For example, re-engaging with a lapsed prospect instead of having lunch with a friend you see regularly might be a better use of your goal-focused time.

  1. Benchmark Opportunities to Your Goals

It’s called Bright Shiny Object Syndrome. You’ve set your goals, and then you get distracted by a new idea, or a shot-in-the-dark possibility. When an idea or opportunity surfaces, test it against your goals with the following questions:

  • Does this idea or opportunity bring me closer to achieving my goals?
  • How do I know this?
  • Is pursuing this idea/opportunity the best use of my time, compared to what I could be doing?
  • How will pursing this idea/opportunity affect current projects or initiatives that support my goals?

An update on New Year’s Eve in London: my friend wanted to launch a business in a warm climate near the ocean, and her goal that year was to relocate to a beachfront community. She now runs a successful real estate company in Florida.

Five Things Your Holiday Gift List Reveals about Your Ideal Customer Profile

December 17th, 2014

Tis the season for appreciating customers. As you review your holiday gift list, maybe you’ve also been commenting to yourself, “That’s a great customer!” or “That one? Not so great.”

When you’re sorting through decisions about gifts, cards or thank you notes, your good customer radar is on high alert. That makes the holiday season an ideal time to refine your ideal customer profile for 2015. The only resources you need are your customer list and these five statements.

  1. Your relationship with this customer generates significant annual revenue or steady ongoing revenue for your business.
  2. Your customer does not request major adjustments or customization to your products or services.
  3. Your customer does not require frequent, specialized customer treatment and/or does not require frequent, significant customer service time.
  4. The interactions you and/or your employees have with this customer are mutually beneficial and cordial, even when these interactions involve an issue.
  5. Your customer has referred other customers to your business, and/or has introduced you to additional contacts in the company.

For each customer, rate your answer to the statements on the following scale: 

A: Customer’s behavior meets consistently matches this description

B:  Customer’s behavior generally matches this description, although sometimes does not

C:  Customer’s overall behavior does not match this description, with an occasional exception

Your mostly A-list customers deserve your highest appreciation, not only during the holidays, but also throughout the year. Finding ways to ensure their loyalty and satisfaction should be at the top of your business to-do list for 2015.

Predominantly B-list customers deserve more research in 2015. Start by quantifying the statements above, and measuring your B-list customer behavior against those numbers. For example, if your typical A customer makes four to six referrals to your business a year, and your B customer makes one or two referrals, make customer satisfaction and asking for referrals your B customer priorities in 2015.

Your C-list customers require soul-searching. Have you been operating from different expectations? Are you tolerating their C-list behavior, or even inadvertently encouraging it? Figure out how to move these customers up to the B list – or move on.     

An ideal customer relationship is a year-round gift that pays mutual benefits long after the popcorn and cookies disappear from the break room. It’s not too early to start building your 2015 A-list now.