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Most everyone in business has been indoctrinated with an emphasis on the bottom line. Ingrained in the psyche of corporate America is the demand, “Show me the money.” If a public company misses analysts’ profit estimates, its stock is summarily trashed, and the investment community sometimes even calls for the CEO’s head.

In business we’re reminded every day that public companies’ chieftains are paid the big bucks for bottom line performance, not perspiration. Their brethren in the private sector are instilled with this same mindset.

There are exceptions. Creating value is not always about generating immediate profitability. Recognize either of these names: Tesla Motors and Twitter, just to name a few? These two companies, as an example, simply don’t make a dime in profits, yet their stocks have performed better than their most well-endowed, bottom-line counterparts.

Why? Because they’re building something for tomorrow. They sacrifice short-term profitability for innovation and market share. They’ve captured investors’ imaginations of what might be, not what is.

 

The value of the trade-off

How should privately held small-, medium- and even large-sized businesses look at the trade-off between profitability and investing heavily on the “if come?” 

The quick answer is that it depends on the industry, the products or services, as well as the depth of the private company’s pockets. Forget about traditional banks as a source of funding for the unprofitable business, unless the owners want to personally guarantee a bank loan. The reality is banks take a dim view of companies that lose money. Banks need certainty, which includes a high degree of strong assurance that the borrower will more than likely pay them back at the prescribed time.

There are a number of alternatives for these budding companies that are pushing the boundaries to make it big, but whose founders were not fortunate enough to have been born with that proverbial silver spoon to feed their passion. These include big and small private equity/venture capital firms, which have the money, mindset and stomach to take chances on the unknown. Some are relatively conservative while others are always ready to double down based on instinct and experience.

Many companies are not of the right size, or don’t have the sizzle or just may not know how to package their story to attract traditional private equity. There are always wealthy angel-type investors, however, who have already made their big money and want to do it again vicariously on someone else’s sweat and tears, or because they just like being in the game. 

 

Take heart; be strong

No matter which type of investor a company chooses to romance, the cornerstone of getting the needed capital is understanding the old cliché that “Money talks and ... Oh well, the other stuff walks.” Companies must be weary of wasting their time on the later. So what’s an entrepreneur to do?

Colors can paint different pictures. Take the smash hit TV series last year titled “Orange is the New Black,” about a gal who finds herself in a women’s prison wearing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit. 

Marketing yourself as the company for which “red is the new black” and attracting necessary capital takes a strong stomach and no fear of rejection. Most importantly, you need a decent idea with a practiced ability to deliver a compelling pitch to sell it, backed by thoughtfully researched assumptions.

Never forget, however, that just like the tagline in the oil filter TV commercial, when you take OPM, aka “other people’s money,” you have to either “pay them now or pay them later” regardless of how you color your story.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

With spring here, we think of new growth that will come as nature revives itself for another growing season. With this in mind, it’s a good time to pause to think about greening and growing your next crop of leaders.

When speaking about my POW experience and the lessons learned there, a common question from the audience is how we chose our leaders in that situation. That’s a great question because the burden of leading in that cauldron was often painful, always unpredictable, and not a position that most people would want.

Fortunately we didn’t have to compete or debate about who would take command; in remote situations like this, it’s clear military policy that the senior person based on rank and date of promotion takes charge.

In normal conditions, the military is constantly training and grooming every person for higher leadership responsibilities. The heavy turnover from reassignment, separations and mandatory retirement makes succession planning a vital part of normal military planning and operations.

But many civilian organizations don’t see a pressing need, and many don’t have a system in place for developing and evaluating leaders. Do you have a vision for developing leaders? Do you see the need? Are you willing to invest time and energy in the process?

 

Have a vision

Developing leaders does take time and money, but it also has great short-term benefits:

  • Having a built-in system for instilling the values and leadership principles that are important to you.
  • Building relationships in classes to enhance functional collaboration and break down silos.
  • Gaining better-trained leaders at every level.
  • Creating higher morale and better retention among top performers.

Long-term benefits are even more strategic because research shows that hiring from within is the way to go especially at higher levels. Developing your own pool of leaders from which to choose managers, directors and executives reduces your risks in a number of ways.

Granted, there are times when you may need to bring in an outsider to stir the pot or tap into a resource you don’t have on board. But when you do, the risks go up.

 

Avoid a bad hire

Hiring is one of the most difficult challenges leaders face. If you search the Web, you’ll see that the estimates for the cost of a bad hire run from 30 percent of the individual’s salary to three times the annual salary.

In some cases, it could be much more when you consider the energy lost to the executive teams and the opportunity loss of not having the right person on board.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to work with some great organizations. The best ones usually put considerable effort and resources into developing their next generation of leaders at every level from first line supervisor to the executive level.

What about your organization? Do you have a focus on growing your leaders? What programs and processes do you have in place to make this happen?

 

Lee Ellis
president

Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting company.

Lee consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, leadership and human performance development, and succession planning. His latest book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”

www.leadingwithhonor.com

In a world where fast-paced technology dominates everything we do, the amount of personal contact is decreasing, leaving many first impressions at the mercy of an email sent from a smartphone.

But despite our reliance on technology, it’s important that we not lose the basics of our relationship skills. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to dealing with people, because ultimately it’s good business to make a solid first impression.

Here are some things we can do today to make sure each impression is a good one: 

1. Send a handwritten letter instead of an email after meeting someone new or adding a customer. This may feel archaic, but that person will take notice and know that you went the extra mile to make him or her feel important. I’m not talking about a form letter that you stamp a signature onto, but a letter they know you personally wrote and signed. 

2. Be professional in how you dress and how you conduct yourself. It is very acceptable in today’s society to dress down or settle for basic etiquette. But first impressions are everything, and we should make the other person feel important. Treat them as if you were meeting with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Make sure your appearance and actions send the right message. 

3. Add value. Find ways to add products or services to a contract the customer didn’t expect. By doing a little more than expected, you will stand out to the customer and help build a stronger relationship. You can also add value by introducing the CEO to other potential customers or suppliers that can offer additional help.

4. Stand out. Do something that keeps you top of mind, such as sending a small gift, book or article you think is of interest. Continue doing this throughout the relationship. 

Be vigilant about these things, because impressions can last forever. A blown opportunity to impress a potential new customer won’t come again.

 

Fred Koury 
President and CEO 

Smart Business Network Inc. is the publisher of Smart Business Magazine and operates SBN Interactive, a content marketing firm. 

Fred is committed to focusing on relationships, not transactions, in everything he does. 

(800) 988-4726

fkoury@sbnonline.com

www.sbnonline.com

www.sbninteractive.com

In our increasingly digital world, meaningful conversation has become a scarcity. However, for those in leadership, discovering the lost art of conversation has perhaps never been more critical.

To harness the power of conversation to strengthen and grow your organization, practice these 10 principles:

 

1. Converse — even if you think you can’t.

You need not be born as an expert conversationalist. Conversation leadership can be learned and practiced. What’s more, this skill is essential to effective leadership. Practice your conversation skills by beginning conversations with others and seeing them through.

 

2. Converse across hierarchies.

It is critical that you step outside of your zone to talk to people you oversee — as well as those you answer to. These conversations can lead to valuable insights from different perspectives. Cross hierarchies, silos and barriers to talk to others, and then integrate what you learn into your peer conversations.

 

3. Converse for intimacy, not efficiency.

If you’re watching the clock, you’re not conversing. Speed encourages an efficient exchange of information, but unhurried conversation bonds individuals and reveals truths. To engage in meaningful conversation, stop watching the clock.

4. Converse as though you are sitting at your kitchen table.

Many of the important conversations had at home offer lessons that can be applied to a business setting as well. Use what you learn at home — such as how to honor traditions, manage conflict and hear both good and bad news — to make your business conversations meaningful.

 

5. Converse across mediums.

Do not ignore any medium where conversation is happening; instead, embrace it. And beyond that, keep your ears attuned to where the conversation will migrate next.

 

6. Never stop learning.

Converse with others and watch skilled conversationalists in action as a way to continue learning and growing.

 

7. The world is our job.

We are part of the matrix that knits humanity together, and we belong in the debates that shape our world. Engage in the global conversation by conversing with people from around the world and exploring other countries as often as possible.

 

8. The community conversation is ongoing.

Conversation is going on in the communities around you. If you are not participating, you are more than quiet; to the consumer, you are aloof, even uncaring. Engagement is not just an opportunity, it’s a demand. Be sure that you are participating in the community conversation.

9. Time isn’t money; connection is.

Far too often, we assume in business that the bottom line is the driver of all interactions. Everyone wants a great price, it’s true; but everyone needs interaction and connection. Keep your attention focused in the right place: building connections.

 

10. The best offense is a good conversation.

It’s natural when under attack to want to circle the wagons and go into battle mode. But conversation with an outsider — an individual who can keep emotion out of the discussion and give you the perspective you need to make the best choice — may help you see a new way forward. Call on those outsiders for honest conversations about how to best move forward.

 

You don’t need an innate gift of gab to put these principles into action. Practice starting and maintaining the conversation, and observe what important insights come to light. As a leader, conversation is a skill you cannot afford to overlook.

 

Jim McCann is the founder and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com and author of the new book, “Talk is (Not!) Cheap: The Art of Conversation Leadership.” A successful entrepreneur and public speaker, McCann’s passion is helping people deliver smiles. His belief in the universal need for social connections and interaction led to his founding of 1-800-Flowers.com, which he has grown into the world’s leading florist and gift shop, and Celebrations.com, a leading website for expert party planning content and advice. 

There’s a saying that necessity is the mother of all invention.

For most businesses in the last several years, tough economic conditions created a lifetime supply of necessity, resulting in companies large and small seeking creative ways to do more with less.

For most CEOs, that meant taking a long, hard look at every position and every product, weeding through the “nice to have” and “need to have” in both categories. The next step was taking what remained and finding new ways to maximize efficiency.

The silver lining to the economic downturn is that companies looked at things in new ways and became focused on efficiency. Those lessons remain in place today. Existing positions and potential new ones are given greater scrutiny than before, and products are measured and remeasured for profitability.

To continue to not only survive but thrive in this new economy, it’s imperative that these lessons are not forgotten. Companies need to operate at the bare-minimum of staffing levels to avoid unnecessary costs. Employees need to be cross-trained to keep everyone at maximum capacity to eliminate downtime. Products have to be scrutinized to squeeze every penny out of production costs and pricing needs to be studied to increase profitability.

Innovation and efficiency have to be paired to create new products that stand out from the competition. Take Sonos, for example. The company created a wireless sound system that easily plugs into your existing wireless router, providing music in any room with a Sonos device, all controlled from your iPod. Installation is easy — no need for a technician, and because it’s wireless, you no longer have to figure out how to hide all the wires older systems required. Add in a simple interface on a ubiquitous device and you have a winning product.

But Sonos can’t rest, for competitors like Bose are offering similar systems, looking to improve on the idea. If Sonos is innovative and does so in an efficient way, it will most likely continue to succeed.

We all have to continue our search for efficiencies within our organizations. We have to be willing to change processes, systems and people, even when those changes are difficult to make. Failing to do so will only put you at a disadvantage against competitors who did make the changes.

Never stop innovating ways to be more efficient in every aspect of your business. Innovation isn’t just about the next great product; it’s also about how you produce and manage that product and how you manage the people behind it.

A great product with an inflated cost structure behind it won’t do you any good in today’s economy.

 

Fred Koury is the president and CEO of Smart Business. Reach him at fkoury@sbnonline.com

Looking back, 2013 was a very busy year for most of us — what a blur of activity! Some of my closest friends were worried that I wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace of traveling, speaking, book signing, consulting, coaching and even working on a new book. There were challenging moments, but amazingly my energy and spirits remained high. I attribute this not to a special energy drink but to the infusion of generous encouragement and affirmation that I received from so many people throughout the year. Not only did I receive much more than I gave, but I’ve never felt so free to be myself. This giving from others brought me a new level of freedom and made the difference in my year.

As a former Vietnam POW, you can imagine how meaningful freedom is to me and how sensitive I am about the concept. As a leadership consultant and coach, I see that we all have mindsets from our past that are like shackles holding us  back from being our best self—hence the tagline for my consulting company that says “Freeing Leaders To Lead Higher.” 

“Not only did I receive much more than I gave, but I’ve never felt so free to be myself.” 

Now in reflection, I can see how others freed me to climb higher in 2013. With this fresh perspective, I’m making a commitment to pay it forward in 2014. To do that I’ll need a spirit of giving not just at the holidays, but I’ll need to be a giver every day of the year in three specific areas: personhood, performance, and potential. 

 

1. Give Affirmation 

This is about personhood. We all want to count, to be valued, to know that we are important in this life. In our daily interactions with others, we have a choice to be a giver or a taker; it’s much healthier to give than to be needy taker. My goal is to authentically lift others up and not add to the burdens of self-doubt that we all carry. I’m going to be more intentional about affirming their uniqueness, recognizing their talents, and helping them see how special they are.

 

2. Give Encouragement 

This is about performance. Positive feedback reinforces mental and muscle memory, and it also energizes the recipient. That’s the energy that was propelling this old fighter pilot to light the afterburners and soar rather than fizzle in 2013! I want to encourage others, but sometimes my old habits as an Air Force instructor pilot kick in. Grading every maneuver against perfection was required in that job, but it’s not very helpful in leadership (and most relationships, for that matter). I need to raise my awareness and emotional intelligence to quickly and consistently recognize small successes and good execution. 

“Grading every maneuver against perfection was required in that job [as an Air Force Instructor], but it’s not very helpful in leadership (and most relationships, for that matter).”

 

3. Give Others a Vision for Their Future 

This is about potential. From my early years, I had a few people who saw something in me that I didn’t see. In small and large ways, they communicated that vision to me—subtly calling me out to reach my potential. During the difficult years in the POW cells, those messages echoed through my mind and inspired me onward toward the day when I would finally be free again. For years I’ve made it part of my mission to pay back the bank for this great investment that was made in me by so many. This year, I want to take the risk and double down in expressing my faith in others because I personally know how valuable it can be. 

We all have times when we fight the demons of discouragement and doubt, but focusing on ourselves usually makes us needy.  Instead of being takers, let’s commit to become better givers.  It’s a freeing behavior for the giver and the receiver, and it’s mutually beneficial for both parties.  Will you join me in my effort to free others to live and lead higher in 2014? Share your comments and plans for the new year in this forum. 

 

As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting company, Lee Ellis, of Atlanta, Ga., consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, leadership and human performance development, and succession planning. His latest book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” For more information, visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.

 

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Maybe you’ve seen the popular AT&T television commercials promoting the theme, “It’s not complicated,” for high-speed Internet services. In these vignettes, a moderator sits at a child’s table in a playroom with some of the cutest kids on the planet and poses an innocent question, such as, “How high is up?” And then, out of the mouth of babes, come the humorous and insightful morsels of an answer that are smack on target.

Too many times in business and government, “Mountains are made out of molehills.” Ask a simple question and frequently we get an obscure answer that simply raises more questions. The problem is most people either over-think the issue, are too concerned about responding without in-depth analysis, or fear they might appear shallow by speaking the obvious.

 

Clinton's folly

Equally unproductive is that a simple question can too frequently evoke the most bizarre and meaningless answer. At the top of my list is the now infamous question that contains the verb “is” in a sentence that was posed to an otherwise articulate, silver-tongued politician about a touchy subject. His response was, “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This should have made him consider entering a monastery and taking a vow of silence, among other things.

I’ve often found that in brainstorming and kicking around ideas with others the first comment ultimately proves to be the best and most meaningful answer. It’s been said that close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. I would add to this list that a speedy answer also, many times, gets the job done.

Certainly an off-the-top-of-the-head response might not be 100 percent correct, but in most situations 70 percent or so right is much better than the completely unequivocal, unabridged data points that might take a day or two, maybe even longer, to obtain. One does, however, need to weigh the ramifications of not being able to provide complete commentary, but typically zero variance is meaningful only in reading brain X-rays or perhaps calculating coordinates for a drone strike.

As a leader, you must communicate parameters for quick responses and assert a standing caveat that if the responder later determines that more information came to mind or was discovered, he or she must provide that amplification to those involved.

 

Go out on a limb

You must also create an environment that fosters team members to venture further out on the proverbial limb in order to keep a discussion moving forward. Most times when people are reluctant to give it their best shot, it’s your fault because you’ve not communicated the value of, and your appreciation for, the practicality of providing relevant information that serves the purpose at hand. When a particular team member or members consistently hesitate in responding extemporaneously, it’s time for you to reset the ground rules that will give them the comfort they need to become effective contributors and communicators.

Analysis paralysis can become the scourge of any organization, as it breeds indecisiveness, and hampers innovation and quick solutions to the most common problems and opportunities. For good or bad, success today is often measured in hours, days or weeks, instead of months and years, based on speed to market.  In many respects, this is due to living and working in the digital age where immediate gratification is expected.

It’s not complicated, and simpler and faster is usually better. Thanks, Ma Bell, for the entertaining reminder.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

No one likes to move backwards. The goal in business is to get better, beat the competition and grow. But sometimes you have to take a step back in order to enable your organization to move forward.

A pruned tree bears more fruit, even though it might require some painful cuts that aren’t pretty at first. Making cuts in an organization, whether it’s people or products, is never easy.

 

Courage may be needed

But what is it you are trying to hold on to? A product that’s not selling? A division that’s not going anywhere? An employee who isn’t the right fit? Admitting that it’s time to move on from those situations requires courage, because you are sacrificing a lot of time, money and effort that went into them.

Making a move like this can feel like starting over. The economic upheaval in 2008 forced this on many companies and industries, as everyone had to take a hard look at everything they did, why they did it and how much money was being made. The results weren’t always pretty at the time, but now, in many cases, they don’t look so bad.

For example, banks were pummeled, taking heavy losses in real estate and other ventures. Some didn’t survive, but those that did are stronger, have tighter controls and are in most cases, more careful about how they lend money.

Many bankers probably felt like they were starting over and taking a step backwards, but they, like many of us, were able to leverage relationships, knowledge and lessons learned to create an even better product. Overall, they are more solid and nimble than before.

Another example is Union Pacific Corp., which emerged from the recession with greater revenue, but fewer employees, thanks to selective pruning. It remains on a solid growth path.

 

Don't keep waiting

Some difficult situations are salvageable, but don’t wait forever. If you’ve given a product time to sell or a person time to perform and it hasn’t happened, it may be time to move on. Instead of trying to make something out of nothing, selectively prune your organization and focus your efforts on something that might yield better results.

The key in business is to focus on finding enjoyment in the things you do on a daily basis and not becoming obsessed with hitting that home run. Frustration comes when you are trying to get somewhere and aren’t — and refuse to admit it didn’t work. The real home run is being able to enjoy what you are doing every day.

It takes a different mindset to see a little pruning as a positive, but in the end, it will yield more fruit. ●

Fred Koury is the president and CEO of Smart Business. Reach him at fkoury@sbnonline.com

When asked what the key to remaining relevant in business for an extended period of time was, a prominent CEO once quipped to me, “Planned obsolescence.”

His company followed a strict rule: Every 18 months, it would introduce a new product and make an existing one obsolete. This, he explained, drove innovation and filled the product pipeline.

This same “constant reinvention” philosophy permeates many of the world’s best companies. They understand that to stay competitive you must develop corporate cultures imbued with innovation and the will to try new things.

Apple, for example, regularly introduces new versions of its iPhone, iPad and iPod, thereby ensuring that it keeps revenue streams fresh and products in demand. And rarely a day goes by that you don’t get a notification that an app on your smartphone or tablet has an update available.

SBN reinvention

You may have noticed with our January 2014 edition that we are in the midst of our own little reinvention. While we remain true to our core commitment of bringing you the best insight, advice and strategy from regional business leaders, we have introduced several new initiatives.

First, we added more contributing columnists to the publication and our website. Some of these new voices will appear quarterly; others two to three times per year.

In case you missed them, last month we introduced five of these regular contributors: Mal Mixon, chairman of Invacare Corp.; Terry Davis, president and CEO of Our Lady of the Wayside; JJ DiGeronimo, president of Tech Savvy Women; Stewart Kohl, co-CEO of The Riverside Co.; and Cheryl McMillan, Northeast Ohio Vistage chair.

This month, we feature another group, including Umberto Fedeli, president and CEO of The Fedeli Group; Bill Kitson, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland; Todd Goldstein, CEO and managing partner of LaunchHouse; and William Holdipp Jr. of the Consortium of African American Organizations.

And, in future months, you’ll hear from such regional leaders as Case Western Reserve University President Barbara Snyder, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, JumpStart’s Jerry Frantz, Fairmount Minerals’ Chuck Fowler and Hospice of the Western Reserve’s William E. Finn.

Two new features

Second, we’re excited to introduce two new features — Uniquely Cleveland and Building Stronger Communities.

Uniquely Cleveland provides a behind-the-scenes look at something that’s, well, uniquely Cleveland. This month’s article, for example, looks at some of the items housed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In upcoming editions, we’ll peel back the curtain to discuss the business side of Walnut Wednesdays and PlayhouseSquare, and even explore what goes into pulling off the annual Taste of Tremont.

Our new Building Stronger Communities feature spotlights nonprofit organization leaders who are working hand-in-hand with the business community to strengthen the regions where we all live and work.

We’re also adding more “first-person” features, penned by the entrepreneurs who are shaping Northeast Ohio’s business community. The article written by restaurateur Sam McNulty about why he’s investing in Ohio City, which ran in January’s print edition, is just one example.

Finally, we’re launching a new signature event for 2014 — the Corporate College Smart 50. It will recognize the leaders of the 50 “smartest” organizations in Northeast Ohio, so don’t miss your opportunity for nominations.

All of these new initiatives are designed to bring this region’s business community just a little closer together. As always, we welcome your suggestions for story ideas, people to interview, voices to include and topics to cover. After all, this is your publication. ● 

Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026

 

As you set your New Year’s business objectives and goals, the bulk of your attention is probably focused on driving revenue growth, budgeting, cost control and other operational matters. But these are all part of a greater business purpose: To serve your customer.

What better time than at the beginning of a new year to analyze who your customer and target audience really are? If you don’t know, then no matter how extensive your sales and marketing efforts are, they may ultimately prove fruitless.

Are you aware of your traditional customer’s current needs, attitudes and behaviors? Do you know if they’ve changed those behaviors? And if so, how and why?

With our own customers, for example, we hear a lot about aging supply chains, changing workforces and evolving customer bases. People that your team members have been working with for years are retiring. Your client — and your client’s client — has transformed.

Observe the landscape

There is a younger generation of buyers who look at things differently. Those leaving the workforce may not have relied as heavily on the Web. They may not have invested time, energy and resources thinking about search capabilities and their digital presence. But this new group does.

What is it that the new buyer wants? And is the person who used to knock on your door to see you now going to research you online before they’re willing to sit down and talk? Buyer behavior has changed, and you better know your changing customer because they know you.

According to a report from Forrester Research, “Buyers are often more than two-thirds of the way through their problem-solving cycle before they engage with a supplier’s sales department. By the time they interact with salespeople, they demand more detailed information and expertise, which requires marketing and sales to deliver a well-orchestrated buyer experience.”

This means by the time you actually make contact with that potential customer, he or she is already familiar with your organization. Your team better have the same message internally as the one you’re putting out there online. You never know where or how you’re going to be found.

Start this process by conducting an internal analysis of your customers. Learn how the new customers with whom you’ve worked over the past year found you and whether this is different than in the past. Look at your long-standing customers and identify where they met you. Was it at a trade show, through a referral or in the Yellow Pages? It’s likely that your more recent clients found you through completely different means. 

Examine what you’ve found

Next, analyze the results. These will help you see whether you are marketing to where your new clients will find you.

Keep in mind that before you can effectively develop any marketing strategy and implement the tactics, you need to know how your target audience will consume your content and where. Don’t waste money attracting the wrong audience.

As they say in search, it’s not how much traffic you get; it’s whether you’re getting the right traffic. If converting your audience is the goal, then when you’re not reaching the right audience your message gets lost.

One way to ensure the right message for the right audience is by holding a customer roundtable. This not only provides the benefit of networking, it gives you the opportunity to directly ask your clients, “Why did you choose us? How did you find us? And what was the value proposition that ultimately was the decision-maker?”

You may think you know the answers, but getting a group of people together in an open forum could lead you to understanding behaviors and reasons you hadn’t previously recognized.

All of this may sound complicated, but it is really pretty simple stuff: The more you know your customer, and the more you know the best way to communicate with them, the more effective your relationship is going to be.

Dave Fazekas is vice president of digital marketing for Smart Business. Reach him at  dfazekas@sbninteractive.com or (440) 250-7056.

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