Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Entitlement culture also a business problem

We’re familiar with the term ‘entitlement culture’ to describe a generation that’s grown used to having it easy, or to groups of people who are alleged to want handouts over work. But the term also applies to business and there are entire industries as well as individual companies guilty of thinking they’re entitled to exist without making the effort to remain competitive. Who are they?

The worst example right now of an industry with an entitlement problem is the taxi industry. For decades they’ve sheltered from genuine competition under protection by government regulation. In the process, taxi owners saw a taxi license as an easy way to print money. Without the threat of competition, they let the fleet slowly deteriorate. A clean, late model taxi became increasingly uncommon. The norm became a worn out vehicle with a dirty interior and suspect noises coming from gearboxes, diffs, brakes or suspension. The air-con was rarely on, even in summer, to try scrimp on operating costs. Drivers once knew their way around town. Now, you’re lucky to find one with a reasonable level of language competency so that you can describe to them how to get where you want to go. Phone bookings became more and more unreliable and if cabs booked by phone turned up and then took another fare, a call back to the operator was met with annoyance – at their end!

Then along came Uber. In an instant, the travelling public – who really don’t give a rats about the value of taxi licenses or government regulation and who simply want to get from point A to point B with a good level of service and a reasonable price – had an alternative. And they embraced it. A superior offer was now available. The booking technology is vastly superior to the taxi industry. The cars are generally later models, in very good condition, and clean. You often get offered mints, or a small bottled water. Complimentary. The drivers are more pleasant, and it’s even cheaper.

The taxi industry’s response though was not to sharpen up its act and do so quickly. Instead, they mounted a fear campaign directed at the travelling public and furiously lobbied politicians to maintain the very regulatory protections which led them to a sub-standard service in the first place. They have even convinced some witless governments to pursue Uber drivers as minor criminals.

The taxi industry feels it is entitled to exist. It shows no sign of understanding how its service offer is so sub-standard that customers are happily leaving it in droves. It’s an example of an industry with an entitlement culture and it’s not alone. Look at our Telco sector as another example. Sure, Optus and others have been ‘allowed’ to enter the market but Telstra owns the wires and is the dominant player, still. Their pricing and service standards are a cause of widespread complaint to the point it’s an accepted joke that calls to Telstra to fix problems can take hours before anything’s resolved, if at all. But many of us have little choice, which in reality means competition isn’t working. Which means Telstra can continue to behave like a company that’s entitled to a future, irrespective of how it treats its customers.

Industry groups aren’t exempt either. Some of them are institutions with 100 years of history behind them, and in some cases that has led to complacency and to the attitude ‘we’ll always be around because we’ve been around for so long.’ But there are some whose relevance to the industry they serve is fading rapidly. Declining memberships, falling revenues, annual losses that eat quickly into reserves and quite often a new competitor who has seized on a once lucrative part of their business and simply done a better job, are all signs of industry bodies in a state of decline. Quite often, it’s also a state of denial. Their ‘entitlement culture’ will encourage them to think that someone, or something, must ultimately come to their rescue or that ‘these are just difficult times for us historically.’  Yep, that’s probably what Polaroid was telling itself too.

Smaller businesses can have the same problem. Some may have been established in their industry for a very long time. But increasingly, this matters less and less. In professional services, it’s the current crop of professionals and their reputations that matter more than any corporate history. Companies or businesses that fall back on their history as a key selling point are, I think, exhibiting signs of entitlement.

The tourism industry, sadly, is well populated with businesses who show signs of entitlement culture. Is there any other industry which so frequently argues that all it needs are more taxpayer funded dollars to promote their businesses? Other businesses just get on and do their own BD, without asking the taxpayer for help. But in tourism, there are many that seem dependent on government assistance or who look at themselves as somehow more virtuous than the next business, simply because they’re in tourism.

So what are the symptoms of entitlement culture in business?

  • A new competitor is changing the rules and winning a lot of business, fast. Think Uber and the taxi industry. The same applies to innovation within industries – some will win work and thrive because of it while less innovative businesses that are dependent on past reputations may struggle.
  • Deregulation of fee scales or removal of barriers to entry. Some industries and businesses are governed by regulated fee scales or by licensing rules that prevent perfectly capable competitors from competing. This is fertile ground for entitlement to breed.
  • Dependence on regulatory frameworks for economic survival. Think pharmacists. Or the taxi industry. It’s endemic.
  • Technology platforms that remove the power of the trained artisan and which give everyone access to a particular skill. Think graphic designers. Some have survived – because they’re very good and very efficient. But plenty have not.
  • An intermediary service between supplier and buyer, which technology or society is rendering redundant. Think how email has affected Aussie Post. Bill Gates once claimed that the commerce of the internet would ultimately threaten all intermediaries who clip the ticket between producer and customer. He could be right.

No business and no industry is entitled to a prosperous or viable future. Those who have allowed an entitlement culture to take root seem to find it very hard to uproot. The path to prosperity is via innovation and constant effort in maintaining relevance and value with customers. 

For those unwilling to make that effort, the clock is ticking and no amount of regulatory or third party intervention will save them in the long run.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Seven ways to boost your marketing or BD that won’t cost you anything when things are quiet.

When things are quiet you don’t need to spend precious cash on expensive promotional projects designed to make the phone ring again. There are some basic business development and marketing projects you can do which are as close to free as possible. The only thing stopping you… is you. 

A mistake some professional businesses seem to make when thinking about their marketing or business development activity is to equate this with spending money they don’t have. Hence they do nothing. Investing money in a strategic BD or marketing strategy makes sense provided it’s part of a long term strategy, with key outcomes in mind. Activity should never be confused with outcomes.

But by the same token, there are plenty of things you can do yourself without spending money on reactionary short term projects which just spin the wheels and chew up cash. Here are seven suggestions for starters:
  1. Freshen up your database. How long since you took a close look at your database of clients and prospective clients? If you aren’t in the habit of sending out regular material to them, there is a very good chance this could be substantially out of date. People change jobs. Companies merge or close. The business world is changing fast and if your contact list hasn’t been used for more than a year, you may be surprised at how many obvious updates are needed. Think also about how many additions should be there, but aren’t. It costs next to nothing to sit down with a coffee or two and diligently go through your contacts one by one. This can also help prompt you to call people you haven’t spoken to for a while, which is always a good idea. 
  2. Revisit your e-news. Or start one! If you have a regular or semi-regular e-news, coming up with a fresh design and layout costs next to nothing and can bring your attention to out of date designs. If you don’t already have a regular e-news, invest some time in coming up with one. I’ve used the Mailchimp service for some years now. My cost is only US $30 a month but if your lists are less than 1,000 it’s free. You can use their templates and upload databases and it’s all quite professional – and costs next to nothing. A significant number of very large organisations use Mailchimp in Australia so don’t be fooled into thinking that you need some costly bespoke provider service which is hard to understand and even harder to use. 
  3. Write some content. Content is king. And the best content you can create involves your insights into ways you can save your clients time, or money, or stress or complication, or how you can add value, increase returns or identify new opportunities. What you might think is taken for granted within your own business is probably something your clients need you for. Sharing these insights, in a simple jargon-free way, is marketing and BD ‘gold.’
  4. Revisit your website. How long since you even looked at your own site in the way clients do? I visited one recently which clearly hadn’t been upgraded since a burst of activity in 2012. There were a host of ‘news’ pieces from that year (I am guessing when it was launched)… then nothing.  Recent projects hadn’t been updated, probably because the design was unwieldy and not user-friendly. Updating content should be simple. These days it should also be free. I’ve designed basic websites using the Wix templates, which make design easy and updating even easier. Another is called Squarespace. You can do this yourself on a weekend, it really is that easy. If you already own a domain, it can be easily transferred across to anything new you might design. Some web design and PR companies hate this sort of thing because it renders them largely redundant for small-medium sized businesses. 
  5. Survey your clients. Understanding how your clients see you, and what services they value most is important information. It helps shape and inform the way you deal with the market, it tells you what messages will resonate best, and what advantages you may have over competitors, among other things. Plus, it shows you’re interested in what they think. Surveying can be as complicated and costly as you want to make it, but in my experience, the simplest of questions deliver the greatest value: it’s the Occam’s razor principle. A very popular surveying website is Surveymonkey and yes, it’s free, it’s easy to use and gives you useful results. You can do this yourself, provided you follow some basic rules of survey design and language. 
  6. Rewrite your ‘standard’ submissions. We all get lazy with submissions and frequently resort to the ‘copy/paste’ syndrome of assembling proposals, bids or tenders, especially when time is short. But when things are quiet, it’s an ideal time to pull out some recent submissions and rethink them from the ground up. Have a close look at how you write your executive summaries. Are they summaries or just some rambling introductory narrative? How many standard sections of narrative sound dull, or sound like they could have come from any of your competitors? Can you make them much more about how your business relates to your clients? Can they be punchier? Can you replace long sections of narrative with simple illustrations? Refreshing this content costs nothing and relies only on your efforts and abilities. 
  7. Refresh, rewrite and redesign your capability statements. If you’re relying on just one generic capability outline, and if this is more than 12 months old, this should be a priority. Are projects up to date? Are client lists current? Staff profiles up to date? And if you have a number of strategic target industry sectors, have you prepared customised capabilities targeting the hot buttons and identifying your skill sets for these sectors? These sort of documents are easily produced in house these days, with relatively little time or effort. Distributing them as pdfs is a next to no cost initiative which simply requires your time and attention.

This might sound like I’m talking myself out of a job but these basic seven suggestions are often the sort of thing that rely more on the business owner than any consultant can provide. It’s your IP and your insights and your market knowledge that needs to be applied. You just need to find the time to do so, and there’s no better time than when things are quiet to get on top of these simple initiatives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Are you marketing your professional service business or just selling?

The difference between marketing and selling has been the subject of many text books but in reality, when it comes to professional service firms, it’s quite simple. 

A well marketed professional service business is one that is known for what it does best. It is nearly always also synonymous with a number of key professionals (which should hardly come as a surprise, given it is professionals – that is, people - who do the actual servicing). It will typically have some point of difference within its marketplace that sets it apart from competitors and this point of difference will be something the market understands, intuitively. It won’t be a point of difference a business decided on internally because unless the marketplace sees it, they know it’s irrelevant what they think. 

A well marketed professional services business should be ‘top of mind’ as the ‘go to’ people in a number of fields and not one trying to be all things to all people. The well marketed business should have a regular communication platform with its marketplace and will use this to reinforce its strengths, emphasising the talents and insights of its key people as it does. 

A well marketed professional services business will have identified some strategic growth sectors and will have a plan about how to pursue them. These goals will be shared by a cross section of staff, who work collaboratively to help it get there. It won’t be waiting for the phone to ring or complaining about the successes of rivals, but will be methodically working to an end game. 

It will be doing its best to ensure its key people are networking in the right circles and not hiding behind their desks. It will treat every client as one who could leave tomorrow and understand there’s no such thing as a ‘loyal client.’ It probably won’t be too fussed on things like logo designs or the intricacies of corporate design manuals, and will instead focus on valuable content that is of interest to their clients. Messages will be simple, uncomplicated by technical jargon, and if possible well-illustrated. They will treat their prospective clients as busy people who don’t have time for waffle and will get straight to the point.

And even the best marketed business will still have to sell itself. When it comes time to pitch a proposal or justify the fee for a particular opportunity, the selling should be well and truly supported in advance by the marketing. The marketing makes the client want to choose you in the first place. Even if your price is higher than others, the reputational advantage is such that clients may not care. 

However, a poorly marketed business will find the selling so much harder. The ground has not been prepared in advance and this business will find itself without a clear identity, with low personal profiles, with little point of difference, weak networks and quite possibly burdened by dated and clumsy collateral which could belong to any of a number of competitors. It may have key staff chasing any number of potential client meetings through cold calls or referrals and - by spinning its wheels - wonder why it is meeting market resistance, or at best polite disinterest. It will confuse activity with outcomes and perhaps not even realise the weakness of its market position because its people are very busy, and it rarely if ever consults the marketplace to understand how they really see the business fitting into the landscape.

This business will find itself selling its services as just one of many trying to do the same thing. They will have fallen into the commodity trap, where the only place left to go is to compete on price. And price competition is a race to the bottom, which is where many of these types of business end up.

That’s really about it, in my view. No magic formulas, just some basic disciplines, strategy and focus. If your main energies are spent on just selling your service without having done what’s needed in marketing, there’s every chance you’re locked into price based competition. But if your marketing has been disciplined, informed and well executed, it should (in theory at least) have you better positioned to compete on reputation, quality and value. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Could stone age people teach us a thing or two?

Business communication in the age of Twitter is increasingly an art form driven by the need to get your message across as quickly as possible, with minimal complication or distraction. That means fewer words, more carefully crafted. It also means images should do a lot more heavy lifting in your communication mix: something stone age people knew all along. 

We’re all trained to varying degrees at writing. It’s one of the first things we are taught. First the alphabet, then words, then sentences and on it goes. In business, professional writing skills are essential – whether for general communication or preparing proposals or submissions. We’re familiar with our language, so we tend to use a lot of it in describing proposals or ideas or how our business operates and what it can offer.

What we’re generally not taught from an early age is the art of drawing. We start in kindergarten with some rudimentary stick-figures of our family, but few of us ever develop our drawing skills anywhere near the extent we develop our language skills, nor are we encouraged to through our schooling or career. Most adults go through life with the drawing skills of a kindergarten child.

This balance of skills is becoming more and more ill-suited to modern communication practice. In a time-poor, highly competitive environment, we have less time to get our point across or to demonstrate understanding of a topic. Mark Twain once said words to the effect “I went to write you a short letter but didn’t have time, so I wrote you a long one instead.” It’s a trap we all fall into: without a lot of time, we write large volumes or words of a rambling narrative, using arcane trade terms or acronyms known to ourselves but not shared by our audience.

Rarely do we devote a lot of time preparing visual illustrations as part of what we’re trying to communicate. But why not? There are now so many illustrative software packages that – even if the best we can actually draw by hand is a stick figure – there are many other ways to improve the performance of your communication effort:

  • Statistics and figures are always best explained by charts. Add a small explanation and you’ve achieved what 1000 words couldn’t.
  • Flow charts are good for explaining processes – but don’t get too carried away with the confusing array of shapes and their meaning. 
  • Bullet points – numbered or otherwise – are a good way to focus your mind (and that of your reader) on the key salient points you’re trying to make. There’s every chance they’ll look at the bullet points before reading a long narrative. 
  • Past successes are best explained with a picture if possible, accompanied by a caption. If your past success is difficult to imagine visually, think of using an image of the company logo of the business you helped, or some other visual clue.
  • Testimonials are wonderful things, and even better with a photo of the person who’s prepared to support you. 
  • Explore all the options for turning sections of narrative into images, be it in brochures, websites, submissions or proposals. Keep a file of things you’ve seen in business magazines or elsewhere to fire your imagination. 

I’m not suggesting you ditch language altogether, but it’s getting more important to keep the words to a minimum and to use images to support getting your message across quickly. Think of our stone age person. Their description of a cow pretty much said it all. How many words would you need to do the same thing?

(By way of example, I tried to apply these principles to my own website. See what you think).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Some people are instinctively good networkers, others learn how to improve while some are just plain hopeless. 

There’s no substitute for peer to peer networking when it comes to building relationships with potential clients. Remember that companies cannot have relationships – only people can, which makes networking an important aspect of any business development strategy. 

But this doesn’t just mean attending every event that’s going: if you go about it the wrong way, you’re wasting your money and your time.

I’ve run more events than I care to remember and attended even more again. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of very good networkers at work. They seem to be everywhere and always at various functions, industry events, conferences or meetings. Some I know of will even attend two or three events in a single day. And there are even some who will attend two or three events on a single evening – popping in, working the room, then moving onto the next event. God bless them, they have more energy than I do.

What makes a good networker however isn’t simply attending the opening of every envelope. They’re focussed on the new relationships they want to create, and existing relationships they want to strengthen. They’re also excellent listeners, and ask a lot of questions.  They’re helpful if they can be, and genuinely interested in other people and their business.

Most of us however aren’t naturally this way inclined. So here are a few “do’s” and “don’ts” as we enter the hectic pre-Christmas networking season:

  • Don’t just hang out with your mates. It’s the first refuge for the shy person in all of us. Hanging out with colleagues at an industry networking event is little different to being a wallflower at the school dance. This isn’t networking, it’s attending. 
  • Don’t let yourself be monopolised. It can be too easy to get caught with one person or group for an entire event. Try excuse yourself after an appropriate time and move on.
  • Ask questions. Use networking as an opportunity to learn more about other people’s businesses, ask their views on the industry, share some insights of your own.
  • Make connections. You may have never dealt with the company of the person you’re talking to, but you may have worked with someone who has. It’s six degrees of separation and the business community is a small world.
  • Share personal experiences. Being human is what makes us tick. If you’ve got interests in sport or other recreational pursuits, see if someone shares them. It’s a fast ice breaker when you find some common ground outside of business. Anyway, it makes for more interesting conversation.
  • Follow up. Make a mental note or better still, write it down. If you promise to find something, do something or help with something, be sure you do.  Even just drop them a short email by way of follow up saying “good to meet you…” 
  • Don’t sell. Networking is about building and extending relationships. Using networking opportunities as a selling opportunity is just tacky. 
  • Specialise. Don’t spread yourself too thin by attending a wide cross section of industry events, but try focus on the types of events that match networking opportunities that are suited to your business. Better to get yourself reasonably well known in a particular circle than not known across many circles.
  • Don’t overdo it. If you attack a room with the express aim of meeting every person there, you’ll look desperate and tacky and insincere. It’s not a good look.

Finally, don’t expect miracles. I’ve heard people question the value of networking with comments like “oh I went to that function once but got nothing out of it.” If you’re entirely uncomfortable with networking yourself, don’t do it – but have someone else from your business do it for you. And don’t expect to measure the results of each event or gathering as an accountant might – it takes time for networks to build.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Working to a plan? Or just working?

Many businesses are content when they’re reasonably busy but it’s the ones working towards a plan that can be better equipped to ensure they’re always busy. So what’s the difference?

When you’re busy, just getting the work done occupies enough of your time. On top of changing client demands and tight deadlines, you’ve still got the routine admin, finance, HR issues and all the rest to deal with. It’s easy to forget about the things you planned to do at the start of the year, because you’re just too busy ‘doing’ what you have to do. It’s a very familiar story.

But some businesses have found the way to make working towards a plan as much a routine discipline as time sheets or end of month accounts. It’s these businesses who seem to enjoy ongoing success, who seem to penetrate new markets when others are still thinking about it, and whose phones keep ringing when others go ominously quiet.

Most businesses start out the year with good intentions when it comes to strategic planning and growth, but how do you institutionalise this and make it part of a disciplined routine? These are just some suggestions to get you thinking...

Market reach. Has your database of clients and potential clients grown in the year? It should have and you should be able to measure by how much it has. If your ability to reach out to your market via direct contacts through your database hasn’t changed in the year, you’ve probably failed to make updates, additions and deletions a disciplined part of your regular BD investment.

List quality. Likewise, to what extent have you expanded your knowledge of target client businesses and the people within them? If you continue to have just one record for a target company – and worse, if that record is simply ‘The Manager’ – then your list quality isn’t what it could be. In every target company you would like to be doing business with there are always multiple decision makers. Finding out who they are is a first step in B2B marketing.

Frequency of outreach. If you’re working towards a BD and marketing plan, you will know because you’ll have a record of the number of times you’ve reached out to your target audience during the year. Whether it’s been part of a quarterly, bi-monthly or monthly routine doesn’t matter as much as having set a target routine and then stuck to it. You ought also to be able to track how that outreach has performed – particularly with digital media – and have a strong feeling for what material is of most interest based on their digital behaviour.

New target sectors. Businesses working to a plan would have started the year having identified a new or growing market sector and then diligently gone about building a profile of companies operating in that sector, and the decision makers within them. If all you did was come up with a wish list of target growth sectors and haven’t applied some discipline to bringing them closer to your reach, you haven’t been working to a plan.

Refreshed collateral. Every year is an opportunity to revisit everything from brochures to specialist collateral to standardised submission templates. Market trends change. If you’re using the same collateral as five years ago, you’re basically trying to compete selling an iPhone3 in an iPhone6 or Android world. Good luck with that. Working to a plan should mean a systematic rethink and rewrite of all your collateral is a routine task. 

Stronger networks. It’s embarrassing to say “Oh, I know so and so” only to have them ask your name when next you meet. Knowing someone in business through active, well informed networks is a huge advantage in business. You should be able to measure the growth of your personal networks not just by the numbers of people you have on Linkedin, but because you genuinely know there are more people who know you and your business well enough to both know your name but also to call you if an opportunity arises. 

Market insights. With your head down and bum up, you may be pumping out the work. But it’s also likely you may be falling behind the latest trends in your industry, or failing to keep up with market insights into who’s doing what, who are the up and comers, and other important industry insights. Your clients want to work with people ‘in the know’ who are up with the latest industry insights and trends. Working to a plan should also involve making time to keep yourself up to your date.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thinking like a start up

We all fall into habits over time. Some good, some bad. Businesses are no different. One way to shed some of those habits - or at least identify them - is to imagine yourself as a start up.

There are many things that define start-ups. You might remember your own business in its very early days or be part of a start-up now. What defines start-ups is very different to what defines long established businesses because the longer you’ve been around, the more likely it is you’ve acquired a lot more overhead, process, staff, routine and documentation along the way.

You may be bigger, but you may also feel slower. Less nimble. You may feel less innovative, less connected to your customers, less involved in winning and delivering business. Your ability to listen to clients seems less effective and your ability to identify and then pounce on new opportunities is somehow more complicated.

Around you, new businesses pop up, with lower overheads and more agile management. They’re starting to ‘steal’ some of your clients. 

This is a common story, called free enterprise. Just because you’ve been around for 100 years means nothing these days: it didn’t mean much to the likes of Kodak, which went broke in 2012 after more than 100 years.  Likewise for RCA Victor, Pan Am, and many others. While some go broke others muddle on, mere shadows of their former selves.

Avoiding the trap of complacency and mediocrity in business is the subject of MBA Doctorates. But it does occur to me that if we could identify the qualities that helped a business succeed as a start-up, and re-apply them periodically, it might be a way to shed light on how some habits could be re-thought.

Imagine your team indulging in a session of ‘what would we do differently if we had to start over?’ I am betting plenty of hands would shoot up with suggestions, some of which might include:

We’d be taking more risks. Start-ups by nature have less to lose, so the whole venture is a high risk exercise. It’s a different way of thinking. How would that translate into an existing business?

We’d be much more hands on. Start-ups are ‘hands on’ by their owner/principals by necessity. There is no one else to consult, you just dive in and do it yourself. Is this quality worth re-visiting?

We’d be more decisive. Start-ups tend to make decisions quickly. Even rashly. Larger businesses can be much slower in the decision making process. Is lack of speed in decision making a handicap and if so, how do you address that?

We’d do things no-one else would. And you’d probably do them just because no one else would. Being bold, brash and cheeky are qualities that start-ups have that tend to infuriate ‘establishment’ brands.

Our values would be transparent. Start-ups are often closely aligned with the values driven by their founders/principals. This can clearly define their market position. Long established businesses sometimes lose this point of difference as the ‘corporate vanilla’ takes over. Large businesses can also have identifiable values: if yours could use some, how do you achieve that?

We’d be in cheaper space. The fancy office is a lovely thing to have, and if designed well, will add to productivity. But it is an overhead that start-ups do without.  Their market position is defined by the effort and sheer sweat of their owners, not by the business address or foyer fit-out. 

We’d get rid of HR. There are some large businesses I know that have never adopted the ‘HR department’ approach to personnel.  Some can’t live without it. But it does impose process and tends to blur lines of accountability. Are you top heavy with HR and is it a handbrake or an enabler?

We’d all be more involved in chasing and winning business. In start-ups, everyone’s arse is on the line, and it’s everyone’s job to be part of the new business effort. Larger organisations hire people like me to help them do what start-ups do themselves. How can you spread that new business load throughout your business so that more people are shouldering the effort rather than waiting to be fed?

None of this is intended as a catalogue of options but simply as a thought-provoker. It’s the sort of thing you can workshop in your own business if you’re starting to feel sluggish and are watching newcomers outmanoeuvre you for opportunities.

If you think it’s silly, that’s fine. But also think about people like Richard Branson, who seems somehow to have very cleverly maintained some of the values of a start up in what has become a very successful and very large global business with multiple interests from consumer finance to space travel. 

Virgin started as a small record label, with plenty of start-up attitude: attitude it’s kept alive for more than 40 years. Think about it?