Companies typically want to do what’s right for those they serve. Key priorities should be customers, investors, employees and the communities in which the company is located — but not necessarily always in this order. The dilemma, however, is that many times short-term decisions can prove to be long-term problems that cause more pain than the initial gain.

It’s difficult to make all constituents happy every time. As a result, management must prioritize decisions with a clear understanding that each action has ramifications, which could manifest themselves in the short, intermediate or long term. Seldom does a single decision serve all of the same timelines. There are no easy answers and anyone who has spent even a short amount of time running a business has already learned this fact of life. So what’s a leader to do?

It’s a sure bet that investors want a better return, employees want more money and benefits, and customers want better quality products, higher levels of service and, oh yes, lower prices. This simply all goes with the territory and is a part of the game. The problem can be that, most times, it’s hard to give without taking something away from someone else. Here are a couple of examples.

Take the case of deciding to improve employee compensation packages. Ask the auto companies what happened when they added a multitude of perks over the years, as demanded by the unions? The auto titans thought they didn’t have much choice, lest they run the risk of alienating their gigantic workforces. History has shown us the ramifications of their actions as the majority of these manufacturers came close to going belly up, which would have resulted in huge job losses and an economic tsunami.

Basic math caused the problems. The prices charged for cars could not cover all of the legacy costs that accrued over the years, much like barnacles building up on the bottom of a ship to the point where the ship could sink from the weight. Hindsight is 20/20, and, of course, the auto companies should have been more circumspect about creating benefit packages that could not be sustained. Yes, the employees received an increase to their standard of living for a time anyway, but at the end of the day, a company cannot spend more than it takes in and stay in business for long.

Investors in public companies can present a different set of problems because they can have divergent objectives. There are the buy-and-hold investors, albeit a shrinking breed, who understand that for a company to have long-term success, it must invest in the present to build for the future. The term “immediate gratification” is not in their lexicon; they’re in it for the long haul. Another type of investor might know or care little about a company’s future, other than whether its earnings per share beat Wall Street estimates. These investors buy low and sell high, sometimes flipping the stock in hours or days. And, actually, both types are doing what’s right for them. The issue becomes how to serve the needs and goals of both groups. When a company effectively articulates its strategy, it tends to attract the right type of investors who are buying in for the right reason. This will avoid enticing the wrong investors who turn hostile because they want something that the company won’t deliver.

When interviewing and before hiring employees, it is imperative that candidates know where the company wants to go and how it plans to get there. Many times, this means telling the prospective newbie that the short-term compensation and benefits may not be as good as the competitors’ down the street, but in the longer term, the company anticipates being able to significantly enhance employee packages, with the objective of eventually outmatching the best payers because of the investments in equipment being made today.

The key to satisfying employees (present and prospective), investors, et al, is communicating the types of decisions a company will make over a specific period of time. Communication from the get-go is integral to the rules of engagement and can alleviate huge problems that can otherwise lead to dissatisfaction.

Knowing what is right for your company, based on your stated plan that has been well-communicated, will help ensure that you do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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Published in Akron/Canton
Thursday, 06 September 2012 11:51

Driving global sales for manufacturers

When Andrew Dorn, Industry Leader, Information Intensive Business, Acxiom Corporation, was recently researching the top manufacturers in the United States, one topic kept coming up — the strong growth expectations focused on the world's emerging markets. With the economies of the U.S. and Europe in flux, Dorn felt that, now more than ever, manufacturers need to be attentive to those emerging markets.

"The world is now flat," says Dorn. "Competition comes from everywhere, so manufacturers need to be everywhere."

Because of that, Acxiom has partnered with Smart Business to present a special one-hour webinar: "Driving Global Sales for Manufacturers: Why global growth for manufacturers is more important than ever."

During the webinar — on Wednesday, September 19 at 1:00pm EST — we will discuss why global sales for manufacturers is critical, what factors should be considered in developing or refining the  international strategy, and, finally, present a roadmap that can be employed to optimize chances for success.

Featured panelists will be Zia Daniell Wigder, Vice President and Research Director, Forrester Research; Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, Global Privacy and Public Policy Executive, Acxiom; and Michael Biwer, Managing Director, Acxiom.

"As you enter the global market, it is imperative you understand the privacy laws in each country as they are quite complex and some are very stringent, for example, having criminal penalties for some violations," says Barrett Glasgow.

Other topics to be discussed include:

  • How to determine which countries to enter and what data to gather to understand regional customer requirements
  • Recommended approaches to building country-specific strategies that can help facilitate smooth transitions, lowest possible cost-of-entry, and consistent performance
  • Considerations for navigating the complex web of country-specific data protection and privacy laws companies must adhere to in their efforts to connect with customers and prospects
  • Best practices used by leading companies that have successfully entered new markets

"The U.S. and European economies are still recovering and the balance of growth is constantly shifting," says Dorn. "For example, China and Brazil have been experiencing strong growth. They are encountering a maturity curve, but that doesn't lessen the importance of the issue — manufacturers need to be diversified and have a presence in all major world markets."

The webinar, "Driving Global Sales for Manufacturers: Why global growth for manufacturers is more important than ever" will be held at 1:00 pm EST on Wednesday, September 19.

Click here to register for this free event!

Published in Akron/Canton

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the basics. Technology changes on a daily basis, new competitors arise and the market is constant turmoil. It’s important, however, to slow down and take the pulse of your company. Are the fundamentals in place for a healthy balance sheet? A good place to start is making sure that you have a clear value proposition in place.

“A value proposition is a clear statement of the benefits a customer will receive from purchasing your products or services,” says Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P. “Essentially, it is your brand’s promise. A strong and differentiated value proposition can help your business capture your target market.”

Smart Business spoke with Carter about value propositions, the importance of focusing on current customers and how to keep your business in shape.

Why is it important for a company to have a value proposition?

Having a strong value proposition can sharpen your company’s focus and allow you to hone in on your greatest strengths. I call this principle ‘sticking to your knitting.’ You can’t be all things to everyone. You can be the very best at what you do, however. It’s important to know thyself. Understanding who you are allows you to refine your value proposition so you separate yourself from your competitors rather than trying to keep up with them. You will never succeed if you simply try to keep pace with your competitors. They will always stay one step ahead.

Make sure that your value proposition is concrete. If you get up every morning and try to convince yourself that you have a solid value proposition, then you probably don’t. A lot of companies make their value propositions complex. This is a big mistake. There is a misnomer that a proposition requires complexity in order for it to be valuable. The simple, easy-to-embrace proposition is much more effective. Rehearse the value proposition, understand those elements of your business, and market what you excel at. Your value proposition should serve as your anchor.

What are the benefits of focusing on current customers?

Being successful doesn’t mean going after every available customer; at some point, you won’t be able to service your clientele properly. It’s important to cherish each customer that you do have. The reputation you achieve from making your customers feel truly valued is how you grow your business.

Your current customers are your most important ones because they have laid the foundation for the success of your business. Building a reputation on the back of excellent service creates a solid platform for growth. Don’t grow your client base any further unless you are able to treat your new clients as intimately as the ones you first established.

What are the dangers of taking customers for granted?

Customers need to feel like you’re taking them to a higher level through the use of your products or services. Your job isn’t just to deliver your product and walk away; it’s about making sure that your product has value to them. Ultimately, this strengthens your relationships and allows you to grow your own business.

Customers in today’s environment are looking for leadership. They want you to maximize the benefits of your products and services into their core business. Too often, they are treated as ‘revenue inventory’ rather than ‘loyal assets.’ While it seems simple, you need to demonstrate to your customers that you are willing to fight for them, not against them. Your entire business and support model should be structured to demonstrate that you value your core customers.

It’s crucial that you listen to them and value their feedback. Otherwise, they’ll take their business somewhere else.

How can a business prosper by ‘staying in shape'?

You need to make certain that the investments you plug into your business are the kind that keep you lean and strong. In order to make wise decisions, you must listen to the market as it is changing. The demographics for end users are changing, and they are much different than they were five to 10 years ago. Their requirements have changed considerably. Support is a key element in retaining and growing your business.

Creating effective intimacy programs, backed by a market-driven support model, will keep your costs lower and your customer loyalty higher. If your support model is still equipped from a legacy standpoint, it’s imperative that you update it. Today’s consumers want and expect self-servicing support strategies.

No matter how good your product is, if you have a legacy support system behind it, you’re not serving as a leader. Institute a self-support model that is easy to navigate and provides value. Once such a system is in place, you need to pay attention to the feedback left by the end user. Staying in shape is not a one-time thing. You need to be disciplined and continually improve your processes. If you have that discipline within your business, your clients will see that you are always meeting or exceeding their needs.

How should businesses balance the need for convenience versus security?

In today’s society, people generally prefer convenience over security. There’s a tradeoff, however. The most effective strategy is to use a balanced approach that guards your intellectual property while enabling users access to the information they need.

Implementing the most up-to-date technologies, such as password management protection, protects the end user. Securing your information today is no more important than it was a decade ago, but it is more difficult.

Make sure you are implementing practices and solutions to keep data and identity access secure. It cannot be overstated: Your intellectual property and your competitive advantage are perfect targets for your competitors.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P

Published in Dallas

Last month’s ii2P Insights article described how small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) are facing a “perfect storm” in terms of balancing costs and customer intimacy. This month, according to Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, SMBs that have decided to take action should follow some tried-and-true guidelines.

“By clearly understanding the objectives for your enterprise, you can make certain that your implementation of an end user or customer self-service platform actually becomes the end users’ preferred method of receiving support,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Carter about implementing a self-service platform and the benefits of providing value to end users.

What should be the first step in implementing an effective self-service platform?

If there is a single step that misleads a company worse than any other, it is not getting the setup right at the start. Most of the time, executives deliver the mandate for someone to implement a self-service solution, thinking that they understand the issues. Nothing could be more detrimental than starting out with the wrong calibration.

Companies need to understand the real objectives of self-service. It is not just about trimming costs. It is about creating a true change in human behavior that drives and motivates more intimate end user experience between the customer and the company.

The objective should be to attract and retain solid, powerful end user participation with the value that you are trying to extend. The objective should be about developing a lasting platform for customer intimacy.

What would be the next step?

Once the fundamental objective is established for implementing an effective self-service platform, then it’s time to determine the true opportunity for your customers to help themselves. Another frequent error is thinking that self-service is limited to helping users ‘fix’ their own problems, such as ‘how to’ questions, or ‘fill in something.’ While these are certainly common and often easy to incorporate, that’s not the limit of effective self-service.

Quantifying the true level zero (self-service) opportunity is going to be more expansive than you typically first believe. Credit your smarter customer for that.

What do business owners need to include in their self-service platform?

Customers, especially in this day and time, are looking for self-service interactions that yield more value and independence. It’s becoming more of an environment of, ‘I want to track this,’ or ‘I want to compare these two products,’ or ‘I want to manage the entire buying or fulfillment process on my own.’

Along with the fixes and the finds, it makes great sense to consolidate many of the functional interfaces that your users are using today. A great example is expanding the IT self-service site to also serve as the gateway to other business functions, such as human resources, or information review (relevant news feeds).

Tying your customer-facing self-service site to your fulfillment tracking (such as Fedex or UPS shipping), albeit seemingly insignificant, is huge when it comes to adding value to the self-shopper.

Finally, it’s important to find a way to collect measurements of customer experience with your self-service site transactions. This correlation is going to be the most valuable information you can harvest. It will help drive ongoing improvement to the site.

What are some of the best-suited and easy-to-implement aspects of end user self-service solutions?

Avoid making the site too cluttered, but at the same time, there are some relatively common-sense elements to include. Certainly, have a strong search engine tied into a well-maintained knowledge base of solutions specifically created for self-service. One horrific mistake many companies make is placing a massive technical knowledge base in front of general purpose users and telling them, ‘Have at it!’ I call that, ‘where angels fear to trod,’ and nothing disenchants a user more than that. It is intimidating, and many times users won’t return once they experience that.

Bring any enabling technology to the site, such as self-service password reset technologies, or the ability to create a service ticket, or check the status of an existing one. Users don’t want to have to call someone to do those simple things. Make that available.

Allow  users to submit requests for common services, or even new information. One caution here — someone needs to monitor and respond to those requests. If users ever sense that no one is minding the store, they will quickly lose confidence in the site, and revert back to labor-intensive methods. It’s hard to regain their confidence at this point.

What is the most important thing about implementing self-service?

This is big: Don’t succumb to building a ‘portal to nowhere ’. Standing up the self-service site that is an afterthought or an also-thought will fail. There is a proverbial bone-yard of customer self-service sites that have ended up there.

If you are not going to implement these three elements of a successful self-service platform — effective technology, solid business practices and committed managerial disciplines — save yourself the time and money and wait until you can.

Self-service is an investment to growing customer intimacy and loyalty. Done properly, it will change human behavior and deliver lasting benefits.

Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or scarter@ii2p.com.

Published in Dallas