David LaBonte came up with the concept of his book, “Shiny Objects Marketing,” several years ago while listening to a speaker drone on about a complex marketing theory.
“I thought, ‘Come on! It’s simpler than that,” says LaBonte, president of AdMatrix, an Orange County-based marketing firm. “Make your brand a shiny object, and you’ll sell truckloads.”
In the book, LaBonte explains how to make any product, service or brand irresistible and how to generate the urge for customers to grab it and not let go.
LaBonte gave Smart Business a peek at his five secrets for attracting customers by making your brand a shiny object.
1. Grab their attention. Catching the eye of your customer is the most obvious of the shiny object facets. But we are not merely concerned about creating a casual distraction. The operative question for this facet is: What will cause your customers to stop dead in their tracks and take notice of what you are selling?
To accomplish this facet, you must present the shiny object in its best light. This requires excellent design, constant attention, appearances where your customers will see it and a clear, concise message.
2. Create a driving curiosity. The second facet is to hold a person’s attention long enough to deliver the rest of the shiny object. The overriding question is: What will make your prospects want to invest their time and efforts to take a closer look?
Some time-proven techniques to accomplish this are to ask a probing question, make an alluring promise, give a brief peek into your product, make a provocative statement, issue a dare or challenge, use humor, display some forbidden fruit, or tap in to a fear factor.
3. Stimulate an irrepressible urge to touch. The third shiny object facet should inspire the customer to take action in order to draw them deeper. The driving question for this facet is: How do you get your prospects to reach out and try your product?
Some ways to make this happen include: making an offer, distributing samples, providing a demo, holding a seminar or giving a free trial.
4. Activate emotion. The fourth shiny object facet is all about getting people to experience your brand, product or service — not just to try it. The driving question is: Which emotions, evoked by interaction with my product, will lead to a sale?
Every purchase, no matter how technical or rational it may seem, has an emotional factor. I have successfully marketed semiconductors, electronic test equipment, property management services, title insurance and a host of other products that might seem to have no bearing on emotions. Yet, these companies were all successful in their marketing efforts because they discovered the right emotional button that connected their prospects’ view of a shiny object to their product.
5. Demand ownership. The fifth shiny object facet is not just to sell your product but also to create such a strong relationship between your product and your customer that the customer literally demands ownership. The driving question here is: What will make your prospects want to grab your product and not let go?
Some time-proven methods to engender this demand for ownership include the following:
- Consistently meet or exceed the promise of your product or service
- Create a sense of immediacy
- Instill comfortable familiarity — make it emotionally difficult to leave your product
- Provide uncommon courtesy
- Sweat the small stuff
David LaBonte is a seasoned marketing professional with more than 30 years of experience. President of AdMatrix, an Orange-based marketing/advertising agency, LaBonte teaches marketing techniques to clients nationally. LaBonte conducts “Shiny Objects Marketing” workshops to help companies implement the concept of his book. Learn more at www.shinyobjectsmarketing.com.
Rob Myers thought the grass looked at least as green on the other side, so he took a leap.
He was on a stable regional banking career path at Wells Fargo & Co. after rising through the ranks to president of the South Orange County market’s retail channel.
“At that point, I realized I needed to try something a little bit different to expand my horizons and learn a different line of business,” Myers says.
With the help of Wells Fargo’s Executive Development Program, Myers went over to business banking, becoming the division manager in Southern California after a year of training.
Some may call it a meandering career path, especially since last August when Myers came back to the retail side as the regional president of Orange County Community Banking. But Myers sees veering off the traditional path — even within the same company — as a growth opportunity. Whether you’re switching business lines, taking a new position or pursuing other development opportunities, career mobility is important for enhancing skills at any level.
“If you’ve only lived that line of business (and) if either the economy dictates a change in that business or if the company dictates a change, then you become very limited in your options,” he says. “But if you expand your horizons … you become more valuable to the company.”
Myers’ development serves as an example to the 1,750 employees he manages in the region, which had $15.7 billion in deposits as of June. He encourages them to individualize their growth goals, even if that means straying from the traditional career path.
“If we are fostering an environment where we’re communicating and celebrating those successes, [like] switching business lines, then I think people realize they have the permission to explore things that will allow them to grow,” Myers says. “They’re not going to be pigeonholed. They’re not going to be stuck. It’s great for the company; it’s great for the team member.”
Plan for development
Myers’ move began with a plan, as all courses of career development should. Working with Wells Fargo since 1994, he realized his passion for small business banking. He actively researched other areas of the company that would allow him to explore that —seeking a position that would align with his passion and enhance his skills instead of just following a predetermined hierarchy.
“You have to be really careful and calculated in when and how you move,” Myers says. “To move for the sake of moving isn’t a benefit. You really have to identify what you’re passionate about and what you have skills for and what you’re doing today that’s transferrable to the job and the line of business you’re looking to go toward.”
Any kind of career development should be part of a long-term strategy around where you want to be and what you want to achieve.
“To go somewhere that isn’t congruent with what you’re doing today or where you want to go doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says.
To instill a growth culture and help employees view development as an ongoing strategy, Wells Fargo provides tools for plotting career paths. Managers help guide direct reports through the planning process.
“Whatever your course is, if you want to be successful in the job you’re in and stay there, we have different programs and classes and trainings,” Myers says. “If you want to progress, we have made it very clear what the options are. We know that the opportunity to learn and grow and develop is something that keeps people here and keeps them engaged and developed and makes them successful at what they do, and we make it very public what the routes are.”
For example, an aspiring business banker who comes in as a personal banker would need to progress through the ranks to become a business specialist. But because each employee has different aspirations, career paths are more about helping employees get to their destination, wherever that may be.
“Not everyone takes the same route,” Myers says. “It really is about what you’re skilled at, what you enjoy doing and where you want to go. … It really is about helping them achieve whatever they want to achieve. If it’s promotion or just getting really great at the job they’re doing, both are important, and there needs to be development plans in place for both those types of people.”
That’s why it’s important to provide options. Wells Fargo employees periodically re-evaluate their career paths with a flowchart-type diagram that maps out some possibilities, whether a teller wants to pursue branch management or wealth management — or take care of horses for the stagecoach.
By helping employees understand the skill sets necessary in various positions, you can equip them for any direction they take. To determine the skills necessary in each position, Wells Fargo analyzed previous employees, comparing and contrasting key characteristics of both the successful and the unsuccessful to qualify the definition of a natural fit.
“Something that will make you successful in one job may not make you successful in another,” Myers says. “The key is identifying what a successful team member looks like where you’re going, what they do every day, what the characteristics are.”
Align passion and skill
Myers underwent a year of hands-on training for his new position to ensure a fit. Now, as a coach, his challenge is making sure employees align with opportunities.
“The first thing as a manager is to understand what opportunities are available,” Myers says. “The ability to work with partners [to] identify the traits of the successful folks that they have is important for a manager. I want to make sure, as I work with my team member, that if I identify those same characteristics, I know that may be an opportunity.”
This requires a balance of understanding the employees you’re coaching and being aware of opportunities.
Don’t limit mentoring sessions to a couple of times a year. Coaching should be an ongoing effort of continuous conversation. In addition to one-on-one meetings, for example, Myers may observe his direct reports coaching their direct reports to see how they function. That candid observation will help you get to know your mentees better, which will make it easier to match them to open opportunities.
“It’s really hard for a coach to watch the scoreboard without watching the plays,” he says. “If we’re truly in the game watching, we’ll have a better idea of what their strengths are and what they do really well and what the areas of opportunity are. And if we understand what our partners’ groups do, then we’ll be able to say, ‘You have these great skills. I think they’ll be transferable here.’”
Matching employees with opportunities is a matter of closing gaps between their current strengths and the required skills. Sometimes, it’s just not realistic, like when employees don’t possess the skills for the management position that they desire. That’s where you need frank conversation, because pushing a square peg into a round hole won’t benefit you or the employee.
“Sometimes, they want to jump into a position that they’ve always aspired to do,” Myers says. “Well, in observing them, their skills aren’t aligned with that. It takes the courage of a manager to say, ‘Look, this isn’t consistent with what you’re (ready for). You may have a passion to do it, but my goal as a leader is to make sure you have passion and skills. When those two are aligned, only then will you be successful.’”
Good coaching means the door of opportunity doesn’t close there, though. Sometimes, it’s as easy as steering them toward another opportunity that does satisfy both passions and skills. But the perfect position isn’t always available, so a good coach helps employees prepare for the next step of growth — even if that just means suggesting a course or assigning a project to develop untapped skills.
“Show them that you may not be ready for what you’re looking for today, but let me find something within the job you’re doing today that could help you get better prepared for that,” Myers says. “How can I fit someone within the framework of what they do every day today that still has a learning opportunity for them, at the same time helps the company?”
What if, through this extensive career planning and soul-searching, an employee decides that his or her calling is in another field? Is it counterproductive to develop employees right out of your company? At a big company like Wells Fargo with 80 lines of business and 9,000 stores, Myers can usually find something with the organization to suit anyone. But that’s not always the case.
“If you have someone that you know isn’t engaged and they’re looking to do something else, you keep the team member at the center of what you do — and if it means losing them to a different industry, then so be it,” Myers says. “I think that’s the best thing for the team member. If you don’t do that, you have a team member that’s not engaged, that’s not working for your customer, that’s not doing what they need to be successful and is not happy.”
Stay employee-centric by continually communicating and celebrating development —even for untraditional paths.
“I’ve seen far too many examples of companies that, when someone promotes outside the line of business, it’s frowned upon,” Myers says. “There’s nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than seeing one of my team members grow to a different job — and if it’s outside of the group that I’m in, that’s fantastic. If we’re doing the right things from a succession-planning perspective, we’ll have someone that can jump into that role.”
Being focused on employees isn’t just about creating a warm, fuzzy feeling internally. It really translates into overall business success.
“This is about our team members growing and learning and succeeding,” Myers says. “If we keep the team member at the center of what we do, we’re going to have successful, well-rounded team members in all of our groups. We’re going to have advocates for the company. We’re going to have lower attrition rates.
“If we have really well-engaged, focused team members who are developing, it’s going to result in satisfied and engaged customers and then our stock price goes up, our shareholders are happy, everything works. But it starts with that engaged and developed team member and if you don’t have that, then whatever success you have is going to be short-lived.”
How to reach: Wells Fargo & Co., (800) 858-4062 or www.wellsfargo.com
Making the Move: Tips for scaling the corporate ladder
Whether you’re switching lines of business or exploring a promotion across the country, executive moves are challenging. Rob Myers, who successfully navigated from retail to business banking and back again at Wells Fargo & Co., shares a couple tips.
Do your research. Myers sought key business banking players at community events and meetings to inquire about the job he was jumping in to.
“I approached them not with, ‘I want your job,’ but, ‘I really want to learn more about what you do and how you do it and what you’re looking for in people,’” he says. “I would find out what they liked, what they didn’t like, what their challenges were, what their opportunities were. I identified who the managers were. I found out about career opportunities — not just the job I wanted but: Are people moving? Are they developing? What’s their retention rate?”
On broader scope, also look at the potential job’s viability in the overall marketplace. Myers evaluated economic drivers in Orange County like employers and jobs. He affirmed that many employees work at small businesses, and that Wells Fargo was investing capital in business banking to better serve the owners.
“I’d like to look five years from now and say, ‘OK, is my line of business going to be operating and growing, or is it a line we could and would contract?’” he says. “You have to do a great deal of research into how the business line fits into the community, where you think the economy’s moving, are there any regulations coming down the pike that could impact the business?”
Learn to learn again. The challenge of moving around once you’re in an executive position is that you go from senior council to being a freshman again.
“I knew my business really well and so my learning curve (shifted),” Myers says. “In jumping into a different business, you really have to learn how to learn again — and you’re learning from people that you may be managing, but they know far more than you do. You have to be humble and modest and appreciate what they can contribute and how they can help you and the fact that you’re dependent on them.”
Wells Fargo’s Executive Development Program exposed Myers to most business banking positions so he learned firsthand what was important to employees and how each function drove success.
“I don’t think everybody knows everything about an organization or a job,” he says. “It would be really arrogant of me to think that I do. In any job, I want to make sure I’m serving the team members that are working for me. I realize that they have a lot to offer me. Everybody has the power to learn different things and they can make an impact on our organization.”
The Myers File
Education: B.A. in social psychology from the University of California at Irvine; MBA from Pepperdine University
What was the first job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
My first job in the world was delivering pizza when I was in high school. I realized then that whatever I did, I wanted to do really well. I wanted to be the best pizza delivery guy we had, and that was my goal — not to beat everybody, but I wanted to go home at night and say, ‘I did the job well,’ because every job out there is important and we need to approach it with that passion of being successful.
If you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why?
I would love to time travel. I’d love to see what the future holds. I’d love to see things that have happened in the past, meet people in the past. I’d love to go back and see Henry Wells and William Fargo and find out what their mindset was in starting the business and tell them what their business has become 150-plus years later. I’d love to meet some of our past leaders, people that are really influential in history. I would love to meet some sports stars; I’d love to witness some previous sporting events.
What was the last book you read?
I started reading a David Baldacci book. I like the mystery, spy and murder books. He’s probably my favorite. Every six months, he comes out with another book; then I know what my vacation reading is.
Whether it’s changing over to new software or logging into Facebook to check the company news, KimstaffHR’s employees are behind every technological move. President Sheila Kepler wouldn’t have it any other way – which is why, for example, before choosing new software, she brings employees into the decision by letting them review the options and voice opinions about what works on the frontline.
Technological innovation and engagement make sense at the Professional Employer Organization, which is focused on helping businesses reduce paperwork, optimize benefits and improve cost efficiency.
Kepler has engaged her staff by communicating through social media, but the commitment goes much deeper than that. Employee involvement isn’t just Facebook interaction; Kepler keeps them involved long-term by creating an environment where they feel free to suggest new technologies.
Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Kepler one of the 2011 Smart Leader honorees. She shared how she engages employees with technology to maintain a leading edge.
Give an example of a business challenge your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.
In 2006, we were struggling with technology and had to decide if we continued with a current application or would look for a new one. We made our decisions as a team and each employee was involved.
They attended the meetings and were given links to review the software selections. Then we had the vendors come in and demonstrate. Everyone was encourage to ask questions –they would be using this software to do their jobs, so we wanted to make sure we knew their wishlists and ideas to do things easier and faster. Then we had a confidential vote at the end.
This made the commitment to change strong and everyone felt they had a vested interest to make sure our decision had the desired results.
In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?
We encourage our employees to use and understand social media and mobile technology. We use mobile applications, iPads, HTC phones, etc. This helps us develop the services and tools for our clients.
We use Facebook like an employee newsletter and encourage our employees to respond to posting. We trained our (employees) on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and encouraged them early on to embrace the changes in how the world communicates.
We use Twitter to put out various information for our clients, such as employment law updates, etc. About two years ago we had a Facebook contest with one of the games. It was engaging, fun and got the whole office excited.
I believe that companies are only as good as the people they employ. Management must lead by example and foster a team environment. We foster an environment to always bring ideas or suggestions on any new technology they might have seen or heard. We often test various software and are moving more of our processes to web-based products.
We hold team meetings to talk about how we use the software and tools that we expect our clients and their employees to use. We often have great ideas on colors, fonts, design, etc.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
Don’t let anyone tell you something can’t be done. Just like Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
How does your organization make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?
As a company, we focus on providing cutting edge technology products and applications to our clients. This helps them achieve their various business goals and engages their employees. The result is that we help small businesses stay in business.
How to reach: KimstaffHR, (949) 862-6560 or www.kimstaffhr.com
The “survival of the fittest” concept really resonated with Anand Gala – and many of his peers – when the recession hit the food service industry, which operates with thin margins to begin with. Providing the best service, suddenly, was more important than ever.
The challenging times required keen leadership from not just the president and CEO, but everyone at Gala Corp. – a privately-owned hospitality and food service company with a portfolio including Applebee’s, Del Taco and Famous Dave’s BBQ.
So the company created Gala University, a leadership development program where management candidates learn skills like innovative problem-solving. Basically, Gala invests to keep employees at the top of their game so they’ll be prepared and empowered to keep the company at the top of its game.
Because of this entrepreneurial leadership, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Gala one of the 2011 Smart Leader honorees. He discussed how he survives tough times by focusing on human capital and giving back to the community.
Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.
The most recent example is the current economic recession that we are still dealing with. From a high point of 2007, we began feeling the hit – and this (food service/restaurant) is in an industry that has very thin margins to begin with. The impact of the recession was that it forced or accelerated changes that were necessary for survival.
The result of these changes – at the speed at which we made them – was that we were able to maintain 90 percent of our EBITDA from 2007 in 2009 and 2010. It forced us to become better operators, managers and leaders. It also prompted us to have a laser focus on our Human Capital – making sure that it was not just the top of the company that provided leadership but that each level, including the restaurant managers, were providing clear leadership and ensuring that we had the best people in place who were committed and passionate about service and hospitality. It was important that we were providing the training and development to keep everyone at the top of their game.
As a result of our efforts, we (have been) experiencing very strong growth in sales during these past nine months and are seeing better flow through to the bottom line.
In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?
I prefer “entrepreneurial leader,” as we are willing to try many different things, so long as we have thought them through and they make sense. I believe that if you can clearly define the problem and engage the leadership around you, each will come up with different solutions. Many times, a solution that comes from outside your industry or outside of the department that is struggling delivers the best results because you’re getting a fresh perspective. I have found that there are no limitations to how to solve a problem.
We recently created a leadership development program called Gala University, where we teach management candidates to seek alternative ways to think of solutions to problems. The focus on leadership development as a strategic advantage is how we are acting more entrepreneurial in our leadership, as this is not common in our industry.
How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?
I feel a great sense of commitment to this topic. We operate restaurants that are very much a part of our local communities and neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, Applebee’s is known as the “Neighborhood Grill and Bar,” and we try to bring this to life each and every single day. We do this through significant community outreach, whether it is supporting classroom and reading programs for our local schools or helping their various sports and activities groups raise funds for a trip or new uniforms.
We think that there is a great deal that we can do to thank our guests and neighbors – our community – for the patronage that they provide us. I am particularly proud of the most recent events that we did during Veteran’s Day, when we honored all active and retired military with a free meal and collected messages of thanks for those in uniform. With those messages we created a wall collage and now display it proudly for all to see each and every day.
Additionally, while our communities and many others are still struggling, we assisted the Toys for Tots program and became official collections centers for toy drops and helped provide a great holiday for so many children in our local communities.
And last, but not least, we helped raise thousands of dollars in donations – that we matched – for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation during the recent grand opening of our Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant located in Orange.
How to reach: Gala Corp., www.galacorp.com
The family-style Italian restaurant turns an everyday event like a corporate lunch into a celebration, offering traditional dishes from Chicken Parmigiana to spaghetti and half-pound meatballs. For business events, Buca provides a delectable alternative to the common restaurant.
In fact, what sets Buca di Beppo apart from the average Italian diner is that it captures the spirit of Italian culture by serving family-style portions that are meant to be shared with three to six tablemates. Nothing brings a party or group closer than sharing a spread and trying a little of this and a taste of that together.
Because Buca is poised to accommodate any size group or budget – whether it’s a large office party, a casual family affair or anything in between – the restaurant is an easy solution for any of your group dining needs. Buca’s staff will help organize and plan meetings with several group menu options, including several banquet packages for groups of 15 or more. They won’t even charge a fee for the use of one of their unique, themed dining rooms.
Buca di Beppo is so serious about group dining that it recently launched customized web pages for multiple group sales verticals. Group organizers, DMCs and planners can check out the seamless booking experience at http://bucadibeppo.com/banquets/.
But it’s not just the Fettuccine Alfredo or Penne San Remo that keep guests coming back; Buca also brings to the table an energetic atmosphere and friendly staff. The classic tunes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin serenade guests, and they’re surrounded by a quirky décor that includes candid photos of Italian-American icons like Joe DiMaggio.
The combination of atmosphere and menu make Buca a smart alternative for group dining, and the proof is in the history. The first Buca di Beppo opened in the basement of a Minneapolis apartment building in 1993. Today, the chain has grown to more than 89 locations worldwide as it tries to capture the enthusiasm of an authentic Italian gathering by embodying the traditions of food, friendship and hospitality. In the process, Buca – which is owned and operated by Planet Hollywood International Inc. – is becoming a tradition in its own right.
Visit bucadibeppo.com for locations, hours of operation, menus and reservations, or to place an online order for Buca To Go.
This morning, despite the $3.50 per gallon price tag, Jay Holgate fueled his Prius for about $21. That’s great, considering he’ll get about 50 miles to each gallon. And that’s even better, considering he has to multiply those numbers across the seven vehicles in his courier fleet.
“When we first started back in 1999, we were doing what every other courier company was doing, which was putting a lot of miles on cars, using a whole lot of fuel to get things delivered,” Holgate says.
Then, around 2007, several factors forced him to reconsider how he did business. One, of course, was the economy; the real estate dive hit the courier industry hard, and several competitors closed shop. On top of that, Holgate’s son was diagnosed with autism at a time when authorities suspected environmental factors as a cause.
Deciding to make better use of resources for the sake of the city and the people in it, Holgate’s company rebranded as Green Express. It began distancing itself from the traditional courier model of chugging fuel and averaging 20 miles per gallon. Holgate began evaluating every operation through “green” lenses that matched his new fleet of hybrids — which earned Green Express status as the first courier company in the country to go green.
“For us, it really just had to do with doing the right thing,” says Holgate, the managing partner. “In a city with 5 million people, if you have the ability to use cars that use less fuel and put less emissions in the air, you should do it.”
He soon learned otherwise: In the business world, doing the right thing isn’t always good enough. Sure, some customers were drawn to green alone, but the majority still asked prices first.
“Ultimately, in this town, every good decision is based on the bottom line,” he says. “Unless a businessperson can find a financial reason to do it, they’re most likely not going to do it. Our market is still price-driven, so I would never tell anybody to go out there if they’ve got a great green idea and just go do it based on doing the right thing. It doesn’t matter how good the idea is if it doesn’t save people money. It’s got to have a lot more value than that.”
The green appeal may work in good times, but when a recession washes half of your business away and leaves money tight, you need a new approach. Fortunately, a green business can also be an efficient, cost-effective business.
Working with Georgia’s Clean Air Campaign, Holgate closed down Green Express’s central Alpharetta office. Out of the gate, that cut the brick-and-mortar overhead of maintenance, heating and cooling — not to mention the hidden costs that accumulate when employees drive to and dress for the office.
“I’m not using as much dry cleaning now because I’m not going into the office in a dry clean shirt every day; I’m working from home,” Holgate says. “We’re just not using nearly the resources that we once were.”
The company made other cuts, too, like going paperless by e-mailing bills instead of printing, labeling and mailing invoices. Everyone is now mobile, with drivers relying on GPS — which cuts down on the fuel wasted by getting lost or taking longer routes. Holgate is also consolidating deliveries, so instead of having three drivers come from different directions to all travel toward, say, Duluth, they’ll drop their packages in Dunwoody, one employee will deliver them all, and they’ll split the ticket.
“Wherever we were using natural resources, we just said, ‘How can we cut it?’” Holgate says. “We try to use more common sense. We just try to do it as efficient as possible. And with the pressures of the economy, it kind of forces you to be frugal where you can, too.”
By making those adjustments across the board, Green Express has become not just more sustainable but more streamlined. That efficiency even transfers over to price — which is, after all, the most critical customer driver.
“With what we’re doing, our price is the same as the competitors,” Holgate says. “The difference is that we’re not putting a bunch of emissions into the environment. So if the price is the same, why not go green? It’s hard not to join in that argument.”
How to reach: Green Express, (770) 394-3131 or www.greendelivers.com
It’s tough finding your footing in a new industry like solar installation. Randy Bishop constantly reorganizes Verengo Solar Plus to deliver value at a reasonable intersection of price and profit.
The president and CEO found the solution by breaking down silos to get sales support across the organization from 175 employees — 75 of whom joined the team since January 2010.
“It’s incredibly important to make sure that everyone is aligned and no one area is getting out of whack,” says Bishop, who achieved revenue of $15 million in 2009, then hit that mark again only halfway through 2010. “That’s how we’ve been able to grow.”
What’s the key to thriving in a recession?
Having the right business model helps an incredible amount when times are tough. The operational side of things becomes critical in a recession.
We’re very focused on … our sales engine. That is where the cost can get most out of whack most quickly. That’s not to say the back end isn’t as important. If the sales and marketing aren’t right, it’s impossible to make it up on the back end. So our entire organization has a very strong orientation to the sales and marketing function.
Execution is incredibly important in those areas. We’re not believers in spending for just branding or awareness purposes. All of our marketing spend is related to generating leads and quantifying that cost per lead and cost per sale. It requires a lot of collaboration between marketing and sales to make sure that what’s being (promised in marketing) is being delivered from the sales channel and that there’s consistency all along that process.
If there’s any disconnect, then the customers vote with their business and go somewhere else.
How do you get consistency across sales and marketing?
A huge part is making sure that incentives align the organization. Make sure that everyone is pulling for the common goals. It’s very easy to have those be out of whack, so we spend a lot of time making sure that everyone’s aligned in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish.
And then communication: Our head of sales and head of marketing sit next to each other, and they constantly speak to each other. We have very tight feedback loops between the two.
How do you align the rest of the organization to that?
No. 1, we have company values that ensure that that is front and center. We have all-hands meetings quarterly to make sure that we reinforce that message. And we ensure that we are recognizing and celebrating the right behavior and extinguishing or correcting the wrong behavior. We need people that think outside of silos, and when we see silo thinking, we make it very clear they need to find a different (job).
Part of it is hiring the right people [who] understand that if a sale doesn’t go through, then no one has a job.
How do you identify that collaborative spirit during interviews?
It’s just asking people how they’ve demonstrated behaviors in the past that align with what we’re looking for.
(Before we interview) a customer service manager, we’ll come up with a difficult customer service scenario where maybe a customer feels they were promised something by sales, we can’t deliver it … and it’s a time-sensitive issue. How would they proceed with it? You want insight into how they think.
A wrong answer would be to tell the customer that they’re wrong. A wrong answer would be to call up the salesperson and yell at them. A wrong answer might be to promise the customer we’ll do whatever it takes to get it right.
If you create silos and reward that type of thinking, then you poison the environment. You have to figure out: Do you have the right people in the right positions — and not just for their position, but are they working across the organization, as well?
How to reach: Verengo Solar Plus, (877) 403-3479 or www.verengosolar.com
Back in the day, Michael Fisher saw companies spend millions understanding consumer opinions, hoping to position brands for mass appeal. But in today’s interactive social environment, one-way broadcasts won’t cut it.
“Today, I have a whole new way of collecting that feedback,” says Fisher, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the American operations of Alterian Inc., which has 130 employees and accounts for 40 percent of worldwide revenue. “The company doesn’t have to ask the consumer what they think; they’re quite active in telling you. You just have to be in the position to listen.”
Consumers are already discussing their experiences on Twitter and Facebook. Brands just need to be there to engage personally. Alterian, an integrated marketing firm, helps clients do just that.
Do more than listen. Social media monitoring applications allow you to go out and understand what people are saying across many social networks. Organizations can listen. The real challenge is that today’s consumer expects you to be doing more than listening.
Today’s consumer expects the kind of personalization and the kind of precision that they’re used to seeing, that may have manifested as a personalized direct mail component or a very structured and personalized e-mail or a phone call. Consumers are expecting that precision in the social communities.
Organizations should think long and hard about moving beyond listening and develop a way to respond to what it is they’re hearing — but in a way that is very analytical and very disciplined and very open and transparent.
If you want to engage the consumer, it can’t only be about stimulation. You have to take the monologue and turn it into a dialogue. You have to not only speak, but you have to respond and talk back. It’s a send-and-receive world that we live in today, and consumers expect it. When they don’t get it, they transact elsewhere.
Know when to engage. If a consumer says on Twitter that they don’t like this company or they don’t like this product, the onus then falls to that brand to respond appropriately. You should engage.
In some instances, somebody may say, ‘I don’t like Payless Shoes,’ and you may find the people that love Payless Shoes will come on and say, ‘Shut up, because we do.’ So there’s the whole notion of self-correction. Then you don’t need to respond because your fan base will do it.
You’ve got to have the analytical chops to measure this and to allow it to happen and to respond to it when appropriate and to allow for self-correction when appropriate.
Open the dialogue. Look at Vail Resorts. They’re not out telling you, ‘Come spend your money.’ They’re out telling you, ‘Track your improvement,’ or, ‘Measure how much fun you’ve had at one resort over another. Track how well you do against people that are skiing in the areas that you’re skiing. Build competitive communities. Engage with us.’ It’s a pretty powerful message.
Encourage people to give feedback not just on what they’ve bought from me but what other things are they doing with other products.
The consumer responds to not being sold when you just open the dialogue. Don’t promote when the consumer is looking for you to engage. Consumers sometimes will tell you, ‘Sell me this. I’m ready to buy this.’ And then you do, because they’re looking to make that transaction. But in the social world, make sure that you’re taking advantage of engagement as your strategy, not strictly selling. There’s a time and a place for it.
Integrate social strategy. If you listen to the conversation and people are completely agitated with you and you’re British Petroleum, it might not be a good time to try to sell them (gasoline). It might be a great time to tell them [about] the Save the Whales donations that you’re giving.
The data will tell you that. That data can come from all of the channels you choose to interact with consumers in. Don’t only look at what you’re hearing socially, but look at it in terms of people buying at the pump, the transaction volume decreases, people not going into your convenience mart. There’s all kinds of ways for you to see how the consumer feels — beyond social — that should indicate what you should or should not say, what you should or should not be selling (and) when you should or should not be doing it.
How to reach: Alterian Inc., (312) 704-1700 or www.alterian.com.
One of the attention-getters at Ideas Are Us LLC is the Elephant Poo stationery. It’s not a common commodity around Atlanta – which is exactly why Ruksana Hussain saw a niche for eco-friendly Fair Trade gifts and décor handcrafted in India by local women’s groups.
Seeking an entrepreneurial venture after moving to the U.S in 2006, she used the Fair Trade Federation website to connect with groups near her hometown that supported women without education or training. Now, working with Fair Trade certified suppliers and pursuing her own certification, she offers their handicrafts wholesale.
With that social responsibility comes environmental responsibility.
“It was interesting to see that, even at that grassroots level, there was this awareness of having to be green,” Hussain says. “To see that these people are not educated about being green and yet they’re using the resources around them to make the best of what of they have, that was what occurred to me as being very special.”
Likewise, she looks for opportunities to be greener in business – which unfold into other benefits, too.
“You know, for every single thing that you can use, there’s so many other ways that you can make it more effective and make a less negative impact for the planet,” she says. “There’s definitely a lot of untapped potential.”
Easy tips for being green
Ideas Are Us is green in its products, which are made from natural resources like banana fiber and the aforementioned poo. But Hussain is also green in her practices. Here are three simple tips you can borrow from her:
- Stay home. “I’ve tried to stay out of having a brick and mortar store, and I think it removes one big cost and one big (environmental impact). I’m selling retail only through the shows I do and any stores (that) will feature my products. But my website is going to be solely wholesale. If you do have a brick and mortar place, I would strongly suggest getting an energy audit done. If you can prove that you have certain criteria covered, there are tax benefits to that.”
- Stop printing. “Secondly, I would focus on paper usage. You start printing out everything and you start filing, and it’s a lot of paper. And after a year of having that paper, everyone’s just going to shred it, and not everyone goes around recycling. You don’t have to print everything. Just back up things virtually; put it on a hard drive. For promotional (materials), I have a business card and a post card and that’s it. If somebody wants a catalog, I mail them a PDF catalog of my products. There is no printing involved. You can do your transactions online. It even eliminates having to send out checks; you can do payments online. There’s really a lot you can do without having to waste any paper.”
- Don’t dump. “The third is to make sure that all of your electronic equipment is recycled the right way, including printer cartridges and eco-friendly [light] bulbs. Don’t just throw it in the trash. All office equipment needs to go to the right place, so go to a recycling place.”
Going green saves green
As simple as green can be, it has a snowball effect in terms of savings. That’s a desirable competitive edge for any business in this economy – especially small ones like Ideas Are Us.
“Being a small business, you want to keep your costs low so that you’re not adding to your price points in any way,” says Hussain, who works with interns to save labor costs and, at the same time, prepare future entrepreneurs.
Because her business is home-based, she avoids the overhead of maintaining an office – even saving on supplies like paper and ink because she keeps paper usage to a minimum.
“Being eco-friendly also helps to be cost-effective, just because I don’t do any printing except for what is completely necessary,” she says. “Now I don’t have printing costs, so that helps to keep the business cost low.”
If green practices equate to cost savings, then why do eco-friendly products seem so expensive? Think about where you buy them.
“The minute you go into a big mall and buy something made from dried grass, you’re obviously going to pay a price that’s worthy of you having gone into that big mall,” Hussain says. “It really depends on how you market your products. If you keep your product local and you (remain a) small business, you can still afford to give people pretty good price points on your products.
“Once you start involving more people in the chain, then that’s how many people are trying to make a profit out of it. You will have that much more percentage added to the actual product.”
By working directly with the women’s groups, Hussain’s price points only account for two parties. As an added bonus, because she visits India annually, she can see how the women use the money – like building the foundation for a cresch to house children while mothers work.
If instead, she worked through a middleman who provided products to a department store, she’d add rungs to the profit ladder.
“When you buy a bamboo table from a big furniture store, you’re obviously not just paying for the table,” she says. “You’re paying for the store and the employees and the electricity bill, and everything that goes to keeping the bamboo table in there.
“A lot of people go by that, and then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, these things are so expensive. They say it’s eco-friendly but then it costs so much.’ Well, look where you’re going to buy it!”
Smart consumers can save with eco-friendly products, but only when businesses are operationally smart.
“You can make eco-friendly choices and it can definitely be healthy on your purse strings,” she says.
Developing green habits
If green can be both easy and cheap, why isn’t everyone greener? Old habits die hard.
“For a lot of people, it’s still something that they’re not able to completely identify with,” Hussain says. “When you use terms like ‘global warming,’ it’s just a scientific term and they have no relation to it, and therefore, they don’t necessarily see that their actions are going to affect that.”
Even though the green buzzword is everywhere, people need to see examples in action before the urgency sets in. It will take a domino effect, like being surrounded by an eco-minded community, to bring people onto the green bandwagon.
“It’s not their intent that they don’t (act green) – they do try – but it takes a lot of practice,” Hussain says. “I mean, it took me a while before I could take cloth bags to go grocery shopping. It’s the simplest thing you could do, but you forget, take it home and forget to put it back in the car.
“It’s a pretty consumer-heavy society; you just use a lot of stuff and the whole idea of reuse, recycle and reclaim is pretty new to a lot of people. Small businesses are the ones that need to educate people on this. Start small – if you teach the next five people that you can do this, then that’s how many more people will learn from them. It’s just little things, but we tend to forget these things.”
Between being green and cost-conscious in small ways, and helping women make better lives in much bigger ways, Hussain is propelling Ideas Are Us forward.
“When people hear that you’re trying to help someone else lead a better life, you’re trying to help other people earn fair wage and you’re being eco-friendly,” she says, “all of these things help to put yourself apart from other businesses.”
How to reach: Ideas Are Us LLC, (404) 934-6181 or www.ideas-are-us.com
See the company's Ele Poo products in Fast Company.
Though the trading floor is bustling and intense when the markets are open, the scene in Chopper Trading’s break room is quite the opposite when they close. There, in the 3,000-square-foot spaciousness, you’ll find some of Chopper’s 150 employees lifting weights or winding down with some table tennis or poker. After working hours, they usually go out together, maybe taking advantage of the company’s season tickets to cheer on the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs or Sox.
The nature of the business can be stressful enough. CEO Raj Fernando wants to keep the surrounding atmosphere as pleasant as possible to counter that, so it’s crucial that his employees get along.
So when it comes to hiring, he doesn’t approach it like some of his competitors, who may bring in 30 potentials, push them through a training program and come out with three hires and 27 fires on the other end. His hiring process is quite the opposite — lengthy and involved, with the purpose of bringing employees on board who will some day retire from the company.
In 2002, when Fernando founded Chopper, he established one rule for bringing employees on board.
“We don’t care how much money somebody’s going to make us; if they’re going to make all of us miserable, we don’t want them here,” he says.
And that has to go both ways.
“It’s a marriage,” he says. “We want them to want us. We do not want turnover. We try to weed everything out at the interview stage.”
Paint a picture
Chopper’s recruiting team attends job fairs at the top schools in the country. At this first stage of hiring, that team usually includes recruiters, traders, programmers and top executives — even Fernando himself. But he’s careful not to come off as too executive.
“We’re not a bunch of salesmen,” he says. “We’re not coming there in three-piece suits and $200 ties and trying to impress them. We’re ourselves when we go out there.”
That’s key, considering he’s not just looking for a candidate that fits the organization. He wants to make sure Chopper is a fit for the candidate, as well, so a crucial part of the interview process is painting an accurate picture of the firm to make sure he’s attracting the right crowd.
“It’s important that they know what they’re getting into because after a few months of interviewing and they turn down 15 other jobs, we don’t want them to come here and realize this isn’t what they thought they’d be doing,” Fernando says. “We’re very straight with them upfront on letting them know, ‘Hey, here’s the job.’”
Traders like John Sizemore travel to recruit and interview new trading assistants, then take the successful candidates on office tours to show them the environment they’d be working in. For example, the lack of walls between desks is an invitation for him to talk about the team atmosphere and open lines of communication. And the giant break room exemplifies the company culture, so Sizemore explains how employees deal with stress.
“Yes, we’re trying to spend a lot of time with the person so that we can get a good feel for what they’re like,” Sizemore says. “But also, we really want people to have a good idea of what they’re getting into so that there’s no surprise when it comes time to actually start work. We’re trying to hire people to retire here, and that being the case, we want people to really know what company is and what the company’s about and what it’s like to work here.”
Take your time
In trading, as in most industries, there’s not a list of certain traits that would make an employee successful. It’s more of a subjective intersection of technical skills and personality traits.
“There’s no specific background that prepares you for it,” Sizemore says. “There’s no major that we look for. There are no specifics of any kind that you can say, ‘Definitely, this person can make it and this person can’t, based on something that can be found on a resume.’
“Our interview process is really lengthy, and the reason for that is that we’re not able to really say specifically we’re looking for these five things. It’s more about trying to get a feel for whether or not the person across the table from you has that confluence of factors, has that mental makeup.”
Of course, Fernando has some basic technical expectations across the board, like math competency. But because his expertise is in trading, he turns programming candidates over to the chief technology officer or current programmers for technical evaluation.
“The programmers these guys like, I’ll definitely talk to them and give them my two cents on the company itself and a little bit about us and why it’s a fun place to work,” Fernando says. “I’ll tell them how important the programming is for our firm, but I won’t tell them anything technical about it.”
He has more general conversations with candidates, including brainteasers to see how they think on their toes and business-oriented questions to gauge their interest and knowledge.
“One strategy that you can use is to continually ask follow-up questions, particularly if they express an interest or say they follow the market,” Sizemore says. “You can start asking them about their level of understanding in the market and why they think things are happening, and generally you can see how they handle themselves.”
Gauging their interest may be the most important piece of the equation. It separates job hunters from career seekers.
“In the last few years, when the job market wasn’t that good, some of these guys (have been) just looking for a job,” Fernando says. “They might be interviewing investment banking companies; they might be interviewing at consulting companies. We really want guys that know what they’re getting into and really want to do that because this isn’t a small decision — a career. We hope they retire from our company.”
It’s a red flag if candidates don’t have genuine interest in your industry, your company, and the position. Their industry knowledge can indicate how genuine they are, but that doesn’t necessarily equate interest. That’s where observation comes in.
“I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that you can judge a person’s reaction to questions about their interests in something,” Sizemore says. “Generally, when someone has a passion for something and you see them talking about it, you can pick up on that passion without necessarily having to delve deep into their psyche. When someone is talking about something excitedly, you can tell that they have a genuine interest and a passion for it versus someone who’s just trying to put on a good face for an interview.”
A lengthy interview process helps you make that distinction, because the more time you have with candidates, the better you get to know them. Chopper’s recruiters start talking with college students as much as a year and a half before graduation — ample time to cut through interview personas to assess the true personalities beneath.
Plus, when you commit that much time to a new hire, you’re illustrating your investment in their success.
“What we ask of them is a pretty big commitment, but on the flip side of things, we’re trying to show them that we are going to be equally committed to what their career goals are,” Sizemore says. “It’s a two-sided coin.”
Turn employees into interviewers
As candidates move further through Chopper’s interview process, they interact with more employees in more areas — a sort of funnel effect.
“The more people that talk to him, the better it is,” Fernando says. “We try to take care of all the hiring process in the interview process. That’s why we don’t have a lot of turnover.”
Fernando will involve dozens of employees, from ones who used to have that position to ones who are currently in training, all the way to the top of the company. Current employees know better than anyone what it takes for employees to be successful at your company.
“We know what the people who work here are like and what it takes to get along,” Sizemore says. “We know what it takes to be successful as a trader, and we know what it takes to fit in with the company. Even though two different people might see a candidate differently, they both would more than likely be able to agree on whether or not that person is going to fit in with the culture of the company.”
A multitude of perspectives gives you a better understanding of the candidate. It becomes a group effort, where someone may pick up on something others missed.
“Because it is a subjective call, all of us as interviewers have our specific things that we’re looking for that we might place a little more importance on than somebody else does,” Sizemore says. “By getting a wide variety of opinions on someone, we feel like we get to know them pretty well.”
Because Fernando trusts the employee input he receives throughout the interview process, it makes his job easier when the candidate comes back around to him.
“By the time it comes to me, maybe 12 or 20 people have already talked to him,” he says. “And if these guys all liked him, the kid’s got to be pretty impressive. … It’s definitely a team effort in weeding them out.
“It’s not just ability; it’s also: Is it someone they want to work with and be next to 10, 12 hours a day for the next 10, 15 years? These guys hang out after work. You don’t work that much with someone and hang out afterward if you don’t like them. Personalities are very important.”
That’s not to say everyone needs the same personality. That’s another benefit of involving several interviewers — you understand each candidate’s overall demeanor as opposed to specific traits, so you can better identify pleasant personalities.
When decision time comes, get everyone’s opinions and observations on the table. You’re not looking for pure consensus, but ideally, most of the group will think positively of the candidate and no one will see major reasons not to hire.
If there are concerns, determine how serious they are.
“If it is the case that someone in the group sees a major red flag, we’ll talk about it,” Sizemore says. “We’ll say, ‘Look, I said this to this person and this was their response. I didn’t like for these reasons. Do you guys agree or not agree?’
“I’ve been a part of more than one of those conversations, on both sides of the coin, and generally we’re able to come to a decision, saying, ‘OK, yeah, you’re right. I felt that too,’ or, ‘You know, I really didn’t pick up on that, and even if that is true, I’m OK with that. I’m willing to move forward with this person.’ It’s not necessarily pure consensus, but generally we don’t hire people that one of the members of the group has a major red flag on.”
Though the hiring process involves some fun — like going out to dinner or shooting pool — the decision requires diligence.
“We’re not trying to wine and dine people to bring them in,” Fernando says. “As much fun and kidding around as we do, this is a serious process. The new lifeblood is everything to the company.”
Thanks to that attitude, Chopper boasts zero turnover and Fernando says he has never lost a successful trader. By devoting time and effort to the interview process, he’s able to hire future retirees, not just employees.
“It’s not just a job,” Fernando says. “Life’s too short to do things you don’t want to do or be with people you don’t want to be with. We like the people we work with, and it makes all the difference.”
How to reach: Chopper Trading, 312-628-3500 or www.choppertrading.com
Raj Fernando, CEO, Chopper Trading
The Fernando file
When did you come to the states?
When I was 1. The story behind it is my dad was a Fulbright scholar from NYU when my mom was studying at Juilliard. For Fulbright scholars, after your term is done, you leave the country for two years and you come back and you get your citizenship. So my older sister was actually born in New York.
Education: Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., with bachelor’s degrees in economics and history
The story behind the company name: Chopper is my eldest dog, a collie mix. He’s from anti-cruelty along with his little sister. A few of us were sitting at Smith & Wollensky [Steakhouse] having a few bottles of wine, trying to come up with a name. After about a half hour, I brought up, ‘How about Chopper Trading?’ and it stuck.
In the community: Fernando is a governing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He also actively supports the Steppenwolf Theatre, Cedars Sinai Medical Center and the Illinois Holocaust Museum, among other organizations.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
I was Hillary Clinton’s Illini finance chair, and in the course of the campaign, I met a lot of literal billionaires and they all said kind of the same thing: Surround yourself with the best and brightest people you possibly can.
What’s your favorite way to relieve stress?
I like playing guitar and a little bit of drums. Exercise is good but lately I haven’t been doing as much as I should. I like going out with friends and people from work.