Monthly Archives: September 2012

Training: getting the best out of your people without permanent damage

Make sure to keep it genuine

In my post on recruitment (Recruitment is everything, Aug 29) I refer to the importance of getting the right people on board. If your basic building blocks aren’t high quality material, you can train until you are blue in the face but you can’t turn lead into gold (the physics involved cost too much). Having said this, even the best of people need training unless you are running a business which sells something people are born to. Some of these are illegal in most countries but I am sure that even in these more specialized areas training comes into the equation at some point.

Sales and customer satisfaction are, in my mind, directly correlated to the level of training provided by a company. You should train your people for everything: how to answer the phone, what to say to customers, what not to say, how to handle or escalate complaints, how to sell, how to dress, how to negotiate, how to compare your offering with that of your competitors, how to comment on competitors – you get the picture. This ensures that you are projecting your company to the outside world as you have strategically decided to do so. Leave nothing to luck and, God forbid, common sense.  Also training, when done correctly, can be very motivating as demonstrated by today’s image.

Training manifests itself in various forms. Let’s look at three common manifestations:

1. Training: Sit everybody in a room and talk at them about how to assemble a PC. With diagrams.

2. Mentoring: “I’m great at what I do! Come, little Grasshopper, see how I do it”

3. Coaching: “We hired you because we believe you are suitable for the job. Let’s see how we can aim you in the right direction. Oh, and by the way, here are some tools”.

Horrifying as it may seem, I believe you can’t avoid any of these three types. “Let’s discuss the processor speed of the new tablet we launched. How fast do you think it may be?” You sometimes need to sit people down and brief them. But you can make it interesting and fun. With chocolate prizes for the ones that stay awake. It is, of course, necessary to let people watch the experts at work. And it is crucial to develop a coaching program. This is where you support intelligent people (the ones you correctly recruited, remember?) to develop their skills and knowledge so that they can fly solo. My apologies to the control freaks reading this.

Whatever the mix you choose, your people need to receive training, even for the basics. You need to massage them into the company culture. You don’t have to spend huge amounts. If you run a small business you may even run some sessions yourself on a Saturday. You will probably also do most of the coaching. Throw in lunch. This is especially important for sales people (the coaching bit, not the lunch). In these days of crisis I would go as far to say that on a typical coaching ride (you sit back and observe the neophyte at work and then go back to the office and talk about it) it may even be ok to breach coaching etiquette and step in if the rookie is about to blow the 100K deal.

By the way, having trained your people, you can be very specific about what is expected of them.

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Posted by on 26/09/2012 in Managing people


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Know your enemy

Competitors: Make no mistake – they are your enemy

Competitor analysis is a hot MBA topic. We learn lots of nice tools. Then we forget about them. The truth is that most small business owners and managers don’t dedicate half as much time as they should be to monitoring competition. Why? The ever present, ever invalid excuse of being too busy.

There are several reasons to know what your competitors are up to. Lets name three:

  1. You want to gain business from them
  2. They want to gain business from you
  3. You want to gain business from them


The oxymoron here is that in the case of small and medium organizations it is so much easier for the top brass to be close to the market, the customer, the staff.  I asked one manager during a workshop, “Why don’t you devote part of your time to analyzing competition?” He responded, somewhat aggressively, “I spend most of my time in meetings with customers!” Yet another offended attendee asked me if I had any idea what it was like trying to run a sales force. So, think for a moment. If you take away the BS from competitor analysis and put it into context for your business, what it really means is knowing what the other guys are doing. In a perfect world, you have “people to do these things”. In real life, you need to be talking to your customers, talking to your people and keeping an ear permanently to the market. If your competitors are other small medium sized companies, The Journal or Forbes may possibly not be running a feature on them. So it boils down to street savvy. And, by the way, do you really think that a colleague stuck with drawing up a competitor analysis report along with 246 other tasks is actually going to supply intel you can work with?

If you spend all your time in meetings with customers or talking to the sales force, then you have more than enough to go on. You just need to fine tune the receivers a bit. You, your sales people and everybody else in the company should be gathering information on competition. What are they charging? What is their structure? What are they paying? Are they making targets? Do they have targets? You will of course need a repository for this information, somewhere to store it in an organized manner. Find a simple way to consolidate. Then integrate competitor analysis into the sales meetings. This way it is alive. Does your sales rep know which competitor sales rep visits his top customer? The truth is out there. Ask the right questions. Run a dedicated competitor analysis workshop every quarter. Use an easy tool such as SWOT analysis. Caveat: SWOT analysis, unless the facilitator is disciplined (you) tends to yield BS outputs such as (under our strengths) “We have an excellent set up”. “We have a good sales force”. “Our service is fantastic”. And so the BS continues. Stick to numbers and facts. What can you measure? What can you compare, apples with apples. What can you action to enhance your competitive advantage?

If you were asked why don’t you live a bit, would you answer “because I’m so busy breathing”? Turn on the receivers and fine tune them. You will be surprised at how much you can learn.

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Posted by on 24/09/2012 in Management tips


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Reality check

…nowhere left to hide

Well, this is a depressing turn of events. One depression seems to be following another and surprisingly enough, there are those among us that have yet to realize the significance of what is happening.

As the crisis unfolds we are bombarded with what do to, what not to do, when to do it to weather the storm.

On the other hand, we hear that it will take another four, maybe five years to get back on track. The question nobody seems to be asking is, “Should we actually be talking about a crisis?” One of the characteristics of a crisis is that it is short lived. It happens, we take emergency measures, it passes, we revert to normalcy. Have you stopped to think just how long five years are? What has changed in your life in the past five years? A couple of failed affairs? A marriage, one or two or even three kids? A couple of promotions or job changes? The death of personal correspondence?   Five years. Stocks are crashing, banks are folding and people are still buying cheap. What makes us think that this is a crisis that will pass? Perhaps we would be better off if we looked at it as the portrait of things to come and adapt rather than take emergency measures. You can board up the windows once a year but if hurricanes are hitting every week you need to start thinking about things differently and adjusting your mindset.


Posted by on 23/09/2012 in Welcome


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Keeping the balance

Balance or burnout?

“If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. This, in my experience, is so true. Bear in mind the caveat: there are two types of busy people. Type a. is the person that is driven, focused and organized. They get things done. An additional task is thrown into the grinder, shuffled, tagged, prioritized and seen through. Type b. is the person that likes to appear busy, mainly because they are not. They will leave everything until an hour before knocking off time and then make sure everybody sees how stressed and busy they are. So, only apply the aforementioned adage for Type a.

One little secret that type a. busy people have, is that they know how to keep the balance. They know where to insert down time and in a somewhat oriental like manner, compartmentalize. Think of tasks etc. as being placed in little mental boxes. They are leak proof. Take each out when the time is right and devote the necessary attention to it. Yes, you can open more than one at a time, but this is known to westerners as multitasking and requires more time in the dojo perfecting the balance between harmony and chaos. The box approach offers the all important and, lately more frequently, elusive FOCUS. Focus is the essence of success no matter what you are trying to do. If you are spending time with your child and are thinking about the P&L, then you are cheating both. If you want to be a black belt at busy, you need to allocate time to things other than work. This is where balance lies. One complements the other or else one will negatively impact the other and as any oriental medicine practitioner will tell you, in the upheaval of balance lie all ills.

Time off is time off. You must realize this. Your co-workers and associates must realize this. Otherwise you are game in a free zone. Define your “open seasons”. People will know that you are there for them 100% of the time you delegate for them, but you are offline 100% for the time you delegate to yourself and your loved ones. Is this absolute? No. I never deal in absolutes… well you get the point. There will always be exceptions but find your yin and yang, ping and pong, zig and zag or whatever other philosophy you subscribe to and allow for regeneration and revitalization. Burned out individuals are not efficient and usually not much fun to be around.

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Posted by on 22/09/2012 in Management tips


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Conflict management: It may not be easy, but it can be simple

Ira furor brevis est – anger is a brief madness. The consequences of decisions made in anger are not

A friend received a letter of resignation the other day which was, in my opinion, the culmination of a series of management mistakes. Tension had been building up for some time as I understand. The result was a verbal showdown in front of colleagues and the resignation of the employee involved. So what does the autopsy show? Let’s make a to don’t list:

1. Don’t lose touch with your people

Even if they work at a remote location, you need to be in personal contact. Remember, we are talking about small and medium sized operations. When you limit your communications to phone calls, emails and, god forbid, scorecards and reports you are missing the essence of what you keep saying is your company’s most important asset: its people. Your people. How can they be your most important asset if you are not willing to take the trouble to drive out and find out up close and personal what’s up (or down) with them. If they are facing personal issues or even tragedies, shouldn’t you be aware? When you communicate personally with people there are so many messages between the lines. “I am unhappy”,” I am pissed off”, “I am about to blow a fuse”, “Why does nobody appreciate the fact that I put in twelve hour days without clocking overtime?” Did you even know this? Probably not if you are only calling them during work hours and only looking at the OT sheet. You visit the premises and as soon as you walk in the door you can tell if everything is running smoothly or not. Is it tidy? Is it clean? Is there a good, bad or ugly atmosphere?

2. Don’t only listen to one side

This is cradle of bias. Get all the facts from both sides and then get some third party input. Then sleep on it. Let them sleep on it. Then decide on what approach you will use. Remember that everybody, with the exception of certain historical figures and the highly professional, assume that they are right, the better person and perfect at their job. This, of course in combination with a healthy dose of self preservation instinct will have an effect on their narrative. Use all your senses, including your instinct when listening to accounts of incidents. Always see things within context. Nothing happens in a void. People favor other people, harbor grudges and have wants and needs. Examine the incident with reference to the frame within which it occurred and look for hidden factors and parameters. An upstanding, trusted co-worker faced with a sky high doctor’s bill for their child might develop long fingers.

3. Don’t let angry dogs lie

Deal with conflict immediately and personally. Things we hope will go away if we ignore them are limited to school yard bullies and pushy sales people. The rest need to be dealt with.

4. Don’t tolerate unprofessional conduct from your managers

The people you trust to manage other people are people. They have people reactions. You need to recruit correctly and then train and coach. Especially newly promoted managers or team leaders. They need to learn one simple rule: Treat your reports as you would like your manager to treat you. Nothing more, nothing less. If a co-worker is indeed out of line and his or her manager handles it badly you will become involved in a “yes, but” type of conversation. The friend I mentioned at the beginning was in a difficult position because although the team leader was right, the issue became not the performance of the employee but the unprofessional conduct of his manager. Lawyers love this kind of thing. “You see their performance was negatively impacted by the manager’s bad handling and personal grudge”…

5. Never lose your temper

Back to the historical figures again. This is impossible. It is possible to control it though. This takes effort for the more hot-headed amongst us. It takes a conscious decision and self discipline. If even I can do it, so can you. If you see yourself ready to explode, interrupt the meeting, ask the other party to come back tomorrow with the facts and sleep on it. Sometimes the implication that you are so angry that you can’t continue the discussion in a civilized manner is enough to make a point. You will regret nine out of ten decisions you make under the guidance of anger. Even if it is the decision to use harsh language. You can not be in control of your company if you can’t control yourself. Having said this, a staged, controlled outburst does have an effect in some cases. It depends on who you are dealing with. If this were not the case “0” on the phone would have “Pearly Gates” printed next to it instead of “Reception”.

6. If you do, do it in private

This is another, less sung, reason to reprimand in private. If it comes to the point that you are out of control, you don’t need an audience. Telling people off in private, removes 90% of ego from the equation. They don’t have to save face or put on an act of saving face, usually manifested as defiance, in front of colleagues once the boss has gone. You can have very extreme conversations behind closed doors and once the steam has dissipated, you can close with, “To everybody outside this room this conversation never happened”. Both parties walk out smiling and the issue is contained rather than costing man-hours in gossip in the form of extended nicotine and caffeine breaks.

7. Don’t think like yourself

If you are going to get to the root cause of problems and find long term solutions, as opposed to fire fighting, you need to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. If you refer to Rule 1, and if you are actually communicating with people, then you should have a sound understanding of what everybody does or is supposed to be doing.

Let’s stop here. Just remember that steps 2 through 7 are usually redundant if you practice Rule 1 until you are perfect at it.


Posted by on 19/09/2012 in Managing people


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How much?

Sell on value, not on price

How many times have you entered a sales call, shook hands, sat opposite the prospect and then got shot in the face with “What’s this going to cost me?” or something along those lines. Talking to a free lancer friend of mine the other day, I realized that the instinctive reaction is actually  to blurt out  number. In some cases I have coached sales reps that not only give a figure but also proceed to apologetically justify it. If this is your instinct, DON’T FOLLOW IT!

Nowadays, managers and business owners, the people you should end up selling to, are busy and possibly harassed by sales reps. They have heard it all before and either know what they should expect to pay, or think they do. Even if you are selling on price and you are confident that you are the cheapest, don’t try to blow them away with your rock bottom price. The buyer’s instinct is to knock you down a few notches.

So, here is one of the rare cases in sales for which there is a golden rule which is also black and white: Never start your pitch with a price. Whatever you say, the response will be something along the lines of, “That’s way too much”, “Your competitor Blahblah Inc. just gave me a much better offer”, “That’s too much for our budget these days” and the list goes on. If you are in sales, then I’m sure you can add another three or four without batting an eyelid. And, by the way, the person opposite you will be right to respond this way. You didn’t take a second to build up the value of what you are selling. Why should they assume it exists?

When confronted with the how-much question, brush it aside. One response could be, “I’m not here to quote a price. I’m here to build a relationship. If we can agree on everything else, I’m sure we will agree on the price”. Something like that. You should then proceed to go through your well rehearsed presentation of the benefits he or she will receive by choosing your offering. Highlight the efficiency it supports, the economy inherent in it’s use and sketch a picture that shows the long term benefits which, of course, by far out-weigh the number at the bottom of the invoice.

Remember, if you don’t build up the value in the prospect’s mind, whatever the price, it will always be too high.


Posted by on 16/09/2012 in Managing sales


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Are you being spoon-fed Feedback?

The building blocks of communication: Two ears, one mouth and a brain

Feedback is a process which takes information on something that has happened and uses this information to influence how this something is done next time around (definition freaks please allow for poetic licence). There are certain assumptions we make regarding feedback. So here is a hint: stop making assumptions. About anything. We assume that the feedback we are receiving is correct and unbiased. We assume that the feedback channel is accurate. When referring to people and not sensors, we assume that they have a clue or give a damn about whatever it is they are feeding you back on.  If we get as far as deciding on actions based on feedback, we assume they will be carried out. That’s a lot of assumptions in one paragraph. You may take it for granted that most of them are wrong in most cases. So what should we do? We should go back to basics. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Do your people know what you want?
  2. Do you know what you want?
  3. Do you know what is expected of you?
  4. Do people that you should be receiving feedback from have the knowledge, ability and channel through which they can provide it?
  5. Do you act on feedback?
  6. Do you follow up on actions taken based on feedback?

As you can see feedback, although often referred to and used freely at various forums, can not survive in the wild. It needs to be brought up in a controlled environment, nurtured to maturity and then tended to frequently.

Start by making sure that your people have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Then spend time following up. It is human in nature, given the absence of evidence to the contrary, to assume that we are doing a good job. If you do not provide feedback to people that are falling behind, don’t expect them to understand why they are being chewed out at year end or salary review.  Set up frequent short meetings with your reports, say once every one or two months. If you have set things up correctly, each person should have specific goals and targets. These should be measurable. They should be related to their specific role. Each person must be able to affect the outcome of these KPIs and part of their reward should be linked to said outcome. Said outcome, of course, must be totally aligned to the company strategy. When this is your basis, then you can:

always start feedback sessions based on numbers.

Choose the correct opening statement:

  1. I feel you are not doing so well.
  2. Your Blah factor is off target by 12%, how do we go about fixing this?

Then you can use all the touchy –feely feedback techniques, but please don’t insult peoples’ intelligence.

You should be fair, objective and specific. You must always do your homework and get your facts straight before appraising somebody. And by the way, don’t call somebody in and yell at them for something that happened three weeks ago. In some cases, feedback needs to be immediate and ad hoc.

Once you get a healthy communication feedback channel set up, you are receiving it as well as supplying it. You then need to take action so that the information gained does not go to waste and actually contributes to improvement. Also not following up discredits the whole process. Once actions have been taken and processes amended, you need to follow up on these amendments. Otherwise your process will degenerate. But that’s another story.

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Posted by on 10/09/2012 in Managing people


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What is your profit costing you?

Sound cost management makes cents

It is an annoying fact that when providers of services and products decide to increase prices they quote an increase in costs. The truth is that the buyer really does not care about this. What we are willing to pay, depends on… what we are willing to pay. How much it cost the other guy to produce or buy it, frankly does not come into the equation.

Simplistically speaking there are two things that affect your profits, namely revenue and cost. As, nowadays, we are not hearing that many growing revenue stories, especially from the smaller player, it should go without saying that these companies would be looking to cut costs. It doesn’t necessarily. Remember back in the early days of the “crisis” (it’s been going on too long to be called that)? Certain companies “rallied” and issued back-to-profit announcements. Because they fired several thousand consumers. The guys that consume what companies sell. With their salaries. Anyway, even though revenues were plummeting profits showed an increase, not due to multiplication or addition, but because of good old subtraction. It is true that in a healthy company costs should be coming down, but in smart ways, related to phrases and words like efficiency, economies of scale, purchasing power and others we read in books and stuff. Having said this, there are definitely cases in which people, regrettably, must go. But have we cut everything else possible before grabbing the axe?

So, what are you doing about your costs? Do you in fact know what they are or do you limit yourself to a few summary lines your accountant gives you? You need to understand, a) what your costs are and, b) which ones are driving your business. Anything that is not contributing must be rethought. Let me give you a somewhat extreme example. I walked into a ridiculously luxurious office suite. My first question to my associate was, “Bloody hell, Paul! Am I paying for all this?”. Especially in times of frugality and free fall, you need to be taking the oriental approach to value adding and non-value adding and drop the western grey “value enabling” crap. You see, Mr. Client, sitting on a 5K chair really inspires me to improve your customer experience.

By the way, if you don’t start with the blatantly obvious, you will suddenly find yourself doing the panic tango and firing people without having time to plan for the aftermath. And we all know that, especially in business, it take even more than two to tango. Rethink your spending based on value. Every cent saved is flowing to the bottom line.


Posted by on 09/09/2012 in Managing numbers


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How do you measure your sales force?

From a physicist’s point of view, a force is any influence that causes an object to undergo a certain change. So, how effective is your sales force in influencing prospects so that they become loyal customers?

Many companies have sale forces. Some companies use them properly. A sales force is a terrible thing to waste.

Do you know your close ratio? Is it all you expected?

In the case of medium or smallish operations, the sales force has probably evolved from an ancestor that doesn’t necessarily resemble or preordain its contemporary descendant. Think of dinosaurs and birds. Who could have known…

So maybe the founder acted as sales rep as well as sales manager and everything else. Perhaps one of the original partners had an inclination towards sales and adopted the role. It is conceivable that some junior person was actually hired to run after sales (and I use the phrase literally). A sale would be made and then somebody had to run after the details. In any case, companies grow and then maybe somebody else is brought on board and before you know it the top sales person has been named sales manager and, if you are lucky, sales meetings happen. This, believe it or not, is not the way to set up and run a sales force.

It doesn’t matter how it started. People running businesses make decisions and often have to make do with whatever or whoever is at hand at the time. If you are successful, i.e. you are making more than you are spending and are experiencing more sales that you were this time last year, you are probably doing something right. Rule no. 1: Don’t take it for granted. There are so many reasons that may be the root cause of your success; you are a business genius, your competitors are useless, the customers you gained, liked you more as a person, the customers you gained were seriously peed off by the other guys, sheer chance… the list goes on. If you can not face your mother and without a hint of a blush tell her that you are the reason for your success, than you are well on the way to achieving your goals. If you are not 100% sure, substitute the ego trip with some good old-fashioned analysis and lots of time face to face with your sales people and customers.

Your sales force should be as big as it needs to be. Not bigger, not smaller. You need to determine the type and size of your sales force. What is the size of the market you are targeting? What sort of share do you realistically expect to gain and by when? Where are your customers located? How do you serve them? How many sales people do you need to create break – even sales?

Everything becomes easier if you spend some quality time learning about structured sales. This is where you stop leaving things to luck and “talent” and start building a sales infrastructure that supports a sales force that knows its targets, gets measured against them and delivers on them.

What you need to look at:

  1. Sales force structure
    1. How many sales people?
    2. Who looks after which customer?
    3. What are my sales channels? Key accounts? Telesales?
    4. What skills do my sales people need?
    5. What type of sales persons do I need?
    6. What type of sales organization do I need?
  2. Sales force infrastructure
    1. How do I support my sales force so that most of its time is spent face to face with customers?
    2. How do I manage the sales pipeline? (do we know what it is?)
    3. What software do I use?
  3. Sales force performance
    1. How do I measure sales force effectiveness and efficiency?
    2. How do I make the sales force passionate about achieving targets on all KPIs?
    3. What are the KPIs?

When sitting down to tackle this crucial subject, always keep in mind what is driving your business. What is that single crucial KPI that threatens to give you an ulcer if it isn’t where it should be and makes you want to kiss people in the office when it is? Then communicate to the sales force what is expected of them and get them to go about achieving it.

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Posted by on 03/09/2012 in Managing sales


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