When Michael LaRosa took over as CEO of his family’s 64-restaurant pizzeria chain in 2008, he couldn’t just rely on the quality of the pizza, hoagies or calzones to get him through.
The economy was bad, and people weren’t eating out as much as they used to, and that included stops at LaRosa’s Pizzerias, which his father founded in 1954.
“It has been an extremely difficult economic period to lead a business and organization in any industry,” LaRosa says. “What I look at in my role as CEO is that I have to do my very best to keep the morale and the culture of the organization from my leadership as positive as possible and try to encourage everyone to keep doing the right things.”
Due to the economic climate of the last few years, LaRosa has had to stress more than ever the importance of making customer service his highest priority. From driving service into the corporate culture and training new employees to modeling expected behavior and learning from mistakes, LaRosa’s has survived the economic downturn with great customer service from more than 2,800 employees who helped the pizza chain earn revenue of $124.5 million in 2010. Here’s how LaRosa kept customer service his No. 1 priority.
The economy the past few years put a dent in how and where people spent their money. When economic climates change, you have to be able to adjust to those changes and make sure you continue to do what you can to provide the best for your customers.
“People are doing a little bit less of some of the things that are life’s luxuries,” LaRosa says. “You wouldn’t think that buying a pizza falls into the luxury category, but people decide to eat at home a little more often and try to save some money, and at the end of the day, everybody feels it. Even though we are all doing our best to manage costs and waste and making sure that we have efficiencies everywhere, at the same time, we can’t let the economic feeling be prevalent inside our business, because we are in the customer service business.”
When times are tough, you can’t let that trickle into your business. It is crucial that you be as positive as possible and continue to focus on providing the best products and services to your customers.
“You must keep your eye on providing your guests great quality products and great service and you can’t allow a dip in attitude throughout the leadership of the company or your store management teams or your front-line people,” LaRosa says. “You just can’t allow for that because there are already fewer people calling and coming in and the ones who are coming deserve the most fantastic experience ever each time they come in. I think anybody who has been in a leadership position certainly has sensed the importance of doing a much better job just keeping your people positive, keeping your eye on the ball and inspiring them each day to do the best they possibly can with the guests that they’re serving.”
It is also important that your people understand the company goals during trying times. Setting goals and making strides toward achieving them can provide a boost in morale when times are tough.
“If you have important goals clearly stated and understood by everyone and you proactively review those metrics on a frequent basis, you celebrate the things that are worth celebrating and you address the other issues, I think that activity can help lift everyone’s spirits and morale,” LaRosa says. “You have to have the right goals established and be communicating them to everyone and then have frequent reviews so that you can respond positive or negative as you need to.”
Make training a priority
Regardless of what the focus of your company is, it is critical that all of your employees understand it and that they know it from the moment they begin work.
“What you try to accomplish within the first 30 or 45 minutes is to create an expectation that is simple to understand, yet extremely important,” LaRosa says. “For us, we focus on our promise. Our promise each day is that we want to bring a smile to every one of our guests every time we serve them. Our promise is clearly stated and easy to understand, but in that first 30 minutes, you want every new addition to your team to understand that.”
When showing new employees what you expect of them, it is important that you are able to view the situation from their perspective and make them feel comfortable.
“You need to understand the team member’s perspective,” LaRosa says. “I’m hiring people and sometimes it’s their first job. They’re very nervous, and they’re fearful of what they are going to encounter. We work hard to understand the nature of our new hires, and we try to create an environment that’s comfortable for them.”
Making sure that new hires are comfortable will help ensure that they will be able to grasp what you expect them to do in their roles. What you tell them in the beginning of their training is crucial.
“You have to be very understanding of the individual you’re training so you can design a program that not only meets their needs but helps them be successful beginning with the first 30 minutes of their training,” LaRosa says. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of using a little too much corporate language and acronyms and they blow right past the new hire and the new hire isn’t comfortable enough to ask what that means. You have to understand your target and create an environment that makes them comfortable especially when asking questions or asking for clarification. If you’re able to do that, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll provide pretty good training.”
Excel at customer service
In just about every industry, customer service is one of the top priorities within a company. If customer service is something you pride yourself on, it is important that you are constantly providing it in every circumstance.
“Regardless of how pleasing the meal may or may not have been, service can mean more to the guest,” LaRosa says. “They will continue to go back to a place where maybe the food is a little bit inconsistent, but service will bring them back because they feel appreciated. Customer service has to be prevalent everywhere. You can never overuse it. It has to become an integral part of your culture.”
To make something an integral part of a company culture, the behavior has to be displayed by the CEO and everyone else will follow.
“The CEO is expected to lead by example, and then that just trickles throughout the organization and everybody else is expected to behave the same way,” LaRosa says. “If you do that 110 percent of the time, chances are your people are going to be doing it pretty well, too. You also have to make it prevalent. Refer to it and point to it constantly.”
Feedback is another great way to improve upon your services. It provides a firsthand opinion of what you can do better to make your customers and your employees happier.
“You have to make it easy for your customers to give you feedback and you have to respond to it,” LaRosa says. “The same thing goes for your team members. All levels of management need to constantly ask their team members for feedback. Is there anything that we need to do or provide you to help you do your job? Are there any obstacles that I can help remove so you can do a better job providing quality products and quality service? You have to always be out there asking for feedback that can help drive your improvement.”
Getting feedback from customers and employees can often lead to new practices, products or services that can provide a boost to your company.
“It’s always fun to use specific suggestions or recommendations that are made by front-line team members and build that into the company,” LaRosa says. “Those things are huge wins. Those kinds of things have to be free flowing. You have to have a culture that allows everyone to come up with ideas that will help make things better, save time or steps, make something more efficient or help make a customer more satisfied, those contributions are invaluable.”
Contributions from employees or customers will only improve your business if you are open to those suggestions. It is imperative that you hear all feedback and respond one way or the other.
“You have to be open to all comments and suggestions,” LaRosa says. “However, you have to have some sense or some sort of an evaluation process where you can put something into a test mode and determine if this is really going to be something that improves this, that or the other. It’s like a funnel, you want to be open to all ideas and all suggestions, but what actually comes through the funnel are things that maybe a subcommittee or a quality team has reviewed.”
Motivation to perform well and recognition of a job well done is an important part of creating an atmosphere where employees will want to excel.
“Somebody taught me a long time ago that when you catch someone doing a great job you need to make a big deal out of that and let them know that you appreciate that,” LaRosa says. “As much as possible I’ll visit a store and congratulate and thank a team member. That recognition of a job well done is very important and we try to share those stories.”
A job well done must be celebrated from the top down. Otherwise people won’t know that your company cares about good performance.
“Our team members see that as our attitude and that helps draw out the best in people,” LaRosa says. “If it was the opposite of that and no one cares and that’s the attitude, then that will trickle down, as well. As CEO, it’s really important to make sure that your managers are doing the right things and they care and are responsive to their employees.”
Managers must make sure they are providing encouragement in the right manner, because employees will respond positively or negatively based on how they are treated by their supervisors.
“What’s most important is having a culture where the managers care about their team members and their satisfaction so that your team members care about the guests and their satisfaction,” LaRosa says. “It’s a two-way street. Your team members are only going to perform at a level of how they are interacted with by their superiors. You’ve got to have an environment where everybody understands that a happy internal customer is going to provide for that external customer. So the culture and the environment have to be one that you care about your people at all levels.”
To build a culture that cares about people and motivates them at all levels, you must be able to learn from mistakes. If your company can do that, everyone will be better off having learned from those experiences.
“You have to have continuous learning and process improvement that’s driven from that learning,” LaRosa says. “That’s a very important way to motivate people across the organization. Leadership is charged with the responsibility to create that urgency around improvement. Complacency is the enemy. There are always little details that can get better and be improved upon. As a CEO, you have to create that type of environment.”
HOW TO REACH: LaRosa’s Pizzerias, (513) 347-5660 or www.larosas.com
The LaRosa File
Name: Michael LaRosa
Company: LARosa's Pizzerias
Food service experience: Has been in the food service business for more than 35 years working in and around the family business. His father started LaRosa’s in 1954.
Do you hope that your children will continue the family business?
My oldest son is involved in the company, and he is very passionate about the family business. But it’s really up to them. I don’t think it’s something you want to force upon them. It has to be a decision that they want to make for the right reasons.
What would you eat if you went into a LaRosa’s for a meal?
I would have a bowl of minestrone soup, a traditional crust pizza with pepperoni and sausage and a Diet Coke.
What are some traits of a good leader?
I think you have to be a person of integrity. You need to have vision. You need to be a servant leader and go out of your way for others and be as concerned about others and their development as you are yourself. You also have to be passionate about what you do.
If you could have a conversation with a person from the past or present, who would you like to speak with?
I would probably speak to Jesus Christ. I think you could have a pretty interesting conversation with him. I have a strong faith, and he is one of the people I most admire.
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.
How the financial markets affect your staff
It happens eventually to those in a position of authority or rank. Above all the day-to-day managing, strategy and tactics, leaders must bring something additional to work: presence. This presence — the ability to consistently exude confidence, calm and posture — is oftentimes what separates a successful organization from unsuccessful ones. And it is what causes your staff to look toward you, the leader, for more than just work-related discipline and direction. They also look to you for leadership during today’s volatile and confusing financial times.
Aside from the potential liabilities present in advising an employee on financial matters, your credibility with your entire staff is on the line. In any organization, word travels fast. Your response to a seemingly harmless financial question or two can dent your leadership armor permanently, unless you deliver it properly.
First, understand your staff is more nervous than you. The days of pensions and corporate ladder climbing have been replaced by 401(k)s and the need for an ever-updated resume. Technology has not only ruled many jobs obsolete, but it has also created smartphones that notify the entire world of corporate layoffs in an instant. Your employees live in an environment that is constantly changing. To them, the world of finance is not only foreign, but it creates even more uncertainty and stress.
Second, recognize where you can make the greatest impact. If your employee is asking a personal financial question, it isn’t because they have more money than Bill Gates. Rather, the severity of their financial circumstances has passed the point of silence, compelling them to finally speak up. This is not the time for a hot stock or mutual fund you think will pop. Preach prudence. Use your position to aid staff in being honest with themselves and helping them assess their situation and associated risks. Your calm, realistic attitude will do more than any quick tip or heightened knowledge.
Third, know your limits. It may be inappropriate for you to give significant financial advice to an employee, and you may not be good at it. You may be a professional, but are you a professional investment adviser or financial planner? The most effective way to yield your position of authority is by openly admitting weakness. Telling your employees, “I don't know,” may be the ultimate display of leadership. There is a big difference between guidance and advice. Don't be the expert, refer them to one.
As a leader in your company, your words weigh heavy. By being honest and providing calm, assertive direction, you will improve your staff's financial circumstances and strengthen your role as the leader of the organization.
Jonathan Citrin is founder and CEO of CitrinGroup (www.citringroup.com), an investment advisory firm located in Birmingham, Mich. He is an adjunct professor of finance in the School of Business Administration at Wayne State University.
Richard Howe wouldn’t call himself a “turnaround guy,” but based on his track record of turning around struggling companies, some of his peers might.
“I’m not a ‘turnaround guy’ just because I’ve done three turnarounds,” Howe says. “You get kind of branded that way, but I’m not really the turnaround guy. Really, I’m a business grower.”
As president and CEO of Inuvo Inc., Howe has already helped reposition the $50 million company to generate fourth quarter revenues 46 percent higher than the same quarter of 2009, which was also the year he joined Inuvo. Part of his strategy to accomplish this was improving Inuvo’s organizational structure to eliminate inefficiency and better carry out the company’s vision.
“I’ve run about a dozen businesses and three of them were turnarounds, and they all have similar characteristic traits to them,” Howe says. “One specifically, is the company has been excessive in its spending of money, so that needs to be curtailed. The costs need to get under control. Two, the team, the people around you often need to be changed, retooled and improved.”
One of the biggest expenses most companies have is in employee head count.
“I believe in team, so I spend a lot of time making sure we have the right people in the right roles in the company,” Howe says.
“You go through an exercise of evaluating staff. We created a system and the system had variables in it, different characteristic traits for what constitutes a great employee and what constitutes a not-so-great employee, and we rank ordered them. We took a look and said, ‘Going forward, what are the parts of the company that we’re going to focus on? From the collection of resources that we have and scores that we’ve gotten from everybody, who’s best to help us achieve the vision of the company?’”
Rather than set a specific head count number of employees to keep or cut, you should simply look at ways to structure the leadership more effectively. Sometimes that can involve small changes in personnel, but in other cases — at Inuvo it was also a matter of consolidating subsidiary businesses — it can mean creating an entirely new organizational structure and changing out entire management teams and boards.
While making personnel decisions is always difficult, reassessing your leadership team is a key part of getting your company back to operating efficiently and profitably on a cash-flow basis. It also demonstrates to existing employees that you’re giving them the leadership they need to achieve growth.
“The whole company was re-energized and re-motivated when they finally realized that we actually did have a senior leadership team at the company that was committed to the success of the company, one,” Howe says. “Two, they felt like they were a part of something that was going to be very successful and grow.”
Howe saw that personnel headcount was the biggest expense base for Inuvo and a key area to improve cost efficiency; yet, before making these decisions it’s important to look at all your areas of business to examine cost saving opportunities.
“Every single expense line in the company we just systematically went down through them and said ‘Why are we spending this money? Why are we spending this money?’ And, is it giving us a return or not?’” Howe says.
Most important, once you have a plan to reduce expenses, you need to enact it quickly.
“When you first do a turnaround, you’ve never done one and you get in there and you tend to over analyze the problems,” Howe says. “It causes you to take too much time to make the kinds of expense cuts you need to make to get the operation under control.”
How to reach: Inuvo Inc., (727) 324-0211 or www.inuvo.com
There will always be unforeseeable challenges and problems that arise to threaten a company’s growth, but according to Rich Howe, the most successful business people are those who undertake such challenges with strong intent and determination.
“It’s one of the single, greatest characteristic traits that I’ve found in successful business people; it’s the sense of urgency,” says Howe, the president and CEO of Inuvo. “It’s waking up and realizing that today is the best day to call someone or do something or get something done. … I’ve just found that those people tend to be able to get the impossible accomplished.”
Even when things aren’t going their way, these people won’t let themselves be steered off course.
“In business, you are going to encounter rough periods,” Howe says. “It’s just going to happen. It seems like some individuals have the ability to get punched in the face and get back up and keep going, and others seem to not be able to deal with those challenges, and they end up failing as a result. The most important characteristic trait of any leader: Can you take a punch and get back up and keep fighting? And if you can, then there’s a good chance that you are going to be successful, because it’s the getting back up part that’s the key.”
Adam Adache needed to make a big change at Adache Real Estate LLC. If it was going to work, he couldn’t give in to the panic that was consuming much of the real estate industry.
“You have no option but to make it work,” says Adache, founder, president and CEO at the 20-employee real estate company. “You have to have that mentality. You run a business and a business is always susceptible to a bad economy and things that might happen along the way. You might have to change your business model. But in your mind, you have to be confident that you’re going to make it work.
“If you have that mentality, you’re not going to sit there and think about the worst-case scenario. You’re going to spend time analyzing and really diving into the heart of the problem and finding out what your true obstacles are. That’s when you’re going to make your decision and make your changes.”
The change Adache had to make was a merger of his firm’s project sales and marketing division with its bulk real estate division. The economic crash was leaving a growing number of distressed properties unsold and Adache needed a way to get them off the market.
By merging these two divisions, he thought the firm would be better able to use its resources to cobble together deals that would get the properties sold that were bringing down the rest of the market.
“We convert an offer that is rejected into a new opportunity and that new opportunity is still a revenue-driving opportunity,” Adache says.
The challenge for Adache was he couldn’t just gather everyone together and tell them, “Everything you’ve been doing is bad and it doesn’t work anymore.”
“When you’re coming in to sit down with your staff and tell them that your current model isn’t working, it has a negative connotation to it,” Adache says. “So you have to quickly know how to spin it into a positive. I talked about the successes we had in the current approach. I talked about how we need to make it more successful, which I think is what every company strives for.”
Be open about the obstacles your business is facing and why what you’ve been doing isn’t working anymore. But make sure you follow that up with a discussion about what needs to be done to get things turned around.
“You have to explain, ‘I’m right there with you,’” Adache says. “They have to buy in to the long-term opportunities of remaining positive. The only way they are going to do that is if you paint the picture why we’re months away or even days away from turning the company around for the positive. You have to paint the picture and then get them involved in painting the picture even better.”
As you move forward in the discussion and gather input, keep in mind that you need to be the one who puts together the plan that hopefully gets you out of your funk.
“Give some ideas and a general direction of where you’re going to sail the ship,” Adache says. “Along the way, you can make some detours based on the input of everyone you have. Be open and simultaneously searching for other options while you’re moving ahead, even if it appears you’re moving in the right direction and things are going good. You need a backup plan and a backup plan for your backup plan.”
Most important, keep an open mind and an open ear.
“If you’re too hard-headed and not open-minded enough and you don’t listen to your people, you could crash and burn on whatever you’re doing,” Adache says.
How to reach: Adache Real Estate LLC, (954) 566-7400 or www.adachere.com
Lay it all out there
Adam Adache is all about projecting a winning attitude and being an optimist when things look bad. But that doesn’t mean he steers away from bad news that his employees at Adache Real Estate LLC need to hear.
“Our company, just like any company, hasn’t been averse to layoffs and the changing market,” says Adache, the firm’s founder, president and CEO. “Fortunately, we’re growing again and we are back on a hiring phase. But we had to make changes. When you have to lay off employees and cut pay, it’s not a positive discussion. In order to get them to buy in to everything, you can’t say, ‘OK, this person is laid off and your salary is cut. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ You have to spell out the short-term goals and long-term goals in a plan and explain how you’re going to overcome it.”
You need to find a way to stoke the passion of your people to help overcome this latest challenge.
“They can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do it because it’s part of my job,’” Adache says. “When you’re in business selling a product or service, it’s our belief you have to do it with passion. You can’t do it with passion unless you buy in.”
With the vast array of telecommunications choices and unproven technologies available to businesses, how can they determine which solutions will work to meet their unique operational needs and be the most cost-effective?
“The variety of options available to large companies only adds to the complexity. There are too many competing carriers and technologies,” says Shane Heise, president of Simplify Inc., a firm that helps large multi-location corporations simplify and optimize their communications lifecycle management. “It makes for a world where companies are forced into being reactionary and devoting too many resources to deal with the chaos. This is the opposite of any best-practices approach; but it’s the norm that the industry creates.”
Smart Business spoke with Heise about how to make the right choices that fit your telecommunications needs.
What telecommunications challenges are companies facing right now?
There is a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace right now when it comes to telecommunications. Much of that is due to consolidation in the industry. Additionally, the traditional way of buying telecommunications (local, long distance and data products) has changed because of different technologies available today, some to which people have never before had access.
Most companies today hear buzzwords like VoIP and SIP, but they don’t have anybody on staff with the expertise to even know if those are the best strategies for them. Are they going to save you money long-term? What is the return on investment? Could going to one of these new technologies increase productivity?
Can you really rely on your carrier for these answers? They aren’t going to give you an honest appraisal of their products compared to those of their competitors. The key is opening your mind and saying, ‘I do have those challenges and I know there are a lot of technologies out there, but I don’t know how to uncover what’s best for me.’
How are companies dealing with these challenges?
The traditional telecommunications provider’s tactic is to lock you up in a long-term contract, or try to consolidate all your spend with them as a single provider. They tell you that the more you spend, the better your price points.
However, that’s not necessarily true. You don’t have to give everything to one carrier to get the best price. You don’t have to sign high-commitment, long-term contracts with a single provider. You can consolidate everything into a handful of companies and still get the best solution at the best price, while still doing what is right for your business instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done.
How can this be done?
Instead of working with an account representative that proposes the same old contract renewal with a few minor changes, consider using a dashboard that identifies trends and assesses your current situation. Then take action to improve technology, reduce cost, etc. You can proactively identify, assess and take action, or reactively work within the constraints of a traditional contract renewal. Which would you rather do? We recommend using a strategic solution process that puts together short- and long-term technical, cost-effective solutions.
How does an executive team ensure that they are optimized?
Great question. You need a collaborative process that leads to a strategic solution. The telcos are not invested in your business. They aren’t meeting as a team and brainstorming new solutions for you. They are proposing options that benefit them but not necessarily you. They may cooperate, but they can’t collaborate. Instead of being in reactionary mode, renegotiating and renewing each contract, companies can ensure optimization by peeling back the layers, assessing all of the telecom spend and bringing an objective voice into the conversation. It’s about collaboration. Ultimately, contract negotiation is part of the process and some renewals may be appropriate. The question is whether you arrive at your strategy based on objective input from a collaborative partner or merely a price quote from a cooperative vendor. The difference is vast. We’re trying to open the eyes of executives to what a collaborative relationship looks like and can mean to the bottom line.
How can you be sure the approach you are taking is truly strategic?
The heart of it is having the right analytics, the right insight into the provider world, and a commitment to an over- arching, specific direction. The dynamics of the industry are continuing to evolve and new technologies are available, but who has time to test all the options? Ultimately, you need to know players in the industry who have both the insight to provide guidance and the accountability to be responsible for the direction they suggest. This goes beyond the average consultant. Companies need a trusted adviser. Most successful executives wouldn’t dare go through life without a trusted wealth manager. Why would they allow the business to go without a trusted adviser for such a critical service as communications? Executives don’t just need a consultant. They need someone whose neck is on the line for any solution they suggest. They need a trusted adviser.
Shane Heise is the president of Simplify Inc. To learn more about Simplify, call 87-SIMPLIFY ext. 236, or visit
When there’s a lot on the line, companies expect executives to be expert negotiators and finesse a delicate compromise with board members or close a vital but tenuous deal with a strategic business partner. But sometimes things go awry even for veteran participants, as evidenced by the infamous botched merger talks between Yahoo! and Microsoft a few years ago, when Microsoft walked away from the deal after the Yahoo! CEO set the price too high.
Negotiators can be afflicted by a winner’s curse, overestimate their abilities, or fall prey to the common misconceptions and mistakes that can derail an entire session. Executives must constantly refresh and refine their negotiation skills to prevail, because when the stakes are this high, the opponents are formidable.
“We live in a society where everything’s negotiable,” says Dr. Asha Rao, professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “So if you don’t play the game well, you’ll lose.”
Smart Business spoke with Rao about the techniques that lead to successful negotiations and the common misconceptions and mistakes that may derail executives.
What are common misconceptions about the negotiation process?
We believe in fairness. In negotiations, professionals sometimes equate this with equality and assume that a good deal offers similar benefits to the participants, but it’s rare that both parties are equal coming into the session, and insisting on equality can shut down the talks without producing an agreement. One party may get a lot more out of it than another, but as long as each side achieves its primary goal, the gains don’t have to be equal.
Another common misconception centers on the notion that he who speaks first loses. If you’re prepared, why not make the opening offer? Doing so gives you the power to anchor the session and set the direction for the talks. And it provides a strategic advantage because it forces the other party to counter your proposal.
How can negotiators avoid typical mistakes?
These frequent errors will work against you, so avoid them at all costs.
- Failing to do your homework. You need to take a position that’s supported by facts, and failing to understand the issues before you enter a session can lead to misplaced confidence. Fastidiously research the issues before you begin, because great negotiators never wing it.
- Failing to identify interests behind positions. It’s easier to reconcile your differences if both parties realize why the other party wants something, and then focus on their common needs and interests. Rallying the participants around a common goal is a great way to break a stalemate and it keeps complex talks on track when the going gets tough. With common interests, negotiations can reopen as in the new successful deal between Yahoo! and Microsoft, where they integrate their businesses and build on common interests to challenge the market leader Google Inc.
- Succumbing to the winner’s curse. You may get what you ask for! Setting your aspirations too low may get you what you ask for but you end up overpaying or leaving money on the table.
What are the fatal flaws that derail experienced negotiators?
Don’t stand on false principle or let your ego get in the way, because negotiations aren’t about validating your self worth or advocating your beliefs. Your purpose is to get a good deal. Another grave error is adopting a take-it-or-leave-it position. Because it’s not an effective use of power, it sets the stage for confrontation, ends the discussions and forces the other party to walk away.
So what are the best practices and most effective techniques?
First, explain the reasons behind your position. Some experts maintain that this isn’t an appropriate technique, but the other party benefits when they understand your logic, and the information you provide may encourage collaborative problem-solving and fuel a compromise. Second, focus on multiple issues, not just one, because it allows the participants to set aside difficult problems, consummate small wins and build on their success. Third, always contemplate multiple scenarios in advance and prepare a series of fall-back positions. Develop your BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement. A BATNA helps you build power, negotiate with confidence and recognize a good deal when you’re in the midst of an intense session.
Are there special techniques that help executives negotiate with a large group or board?
Identify your allies and the opposition. You definitely want to map the power and interests of each member, develop a strategy for approaching key players and focus your efforts appropriately. Plant your ideas and negotiate with individual members before the agenda is submitted to the forum, otherwise a group session can quickly deteriorate into an auction.
Dr. Asha Rao is a professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at (510) 885-4517 or Asha.Rao@csueastbay.edu.
I can recall being on a dais at a national conference, not really engaged in the act of listening to the speaker. In fact, my facial expressions and my body language screamed that I was very disinterested. I did not realize how this was coming across, until one of my loyal staff members in the audience managed to catch my eye, and with one blunt stare and tilt of her head, she mouthed the words, “People are watching you.”
I understood how important it was for a leader to project confidence and interest, even if they are simply in a “listening mode.” This is one of those great soft skills that is often misunderstood and far too many times underutilized. Honestly, how hard would it have been for me to at least look interested and engaged? The lack of focus on my part not only reflected badly on me but was simultaneously a bad reflection on my organization. This lesson taught me that leaders have influence, even if they aren’t uttering a word. As a leader, people are watching you at all times. In fact, people are watching that you may not even know about. This is one reason why the soft skills are so important in leadership.
One of the leaders I really admire is the former chairman of PepsiCo, Roger Enrico. Roger was asked about how an organization could drive accountability and results by improving effectiveness in a few key overlooked areas. Expecting an answer that would be along the lines of productivity, managing to the bottom line, growing net revenue etc., Roger quickly focused on another area. He stated, “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.”
A value-centered leader, I believe, will recognize that the soft stuff really matters. Respect, integrity, teamwork and excellence really do have a place in the everyday functioning of leaders. At my organization, we refer to those as the R.I.T.E. way to work. Let’s explore what those four things really mean.
Respect is having compassion or empathy for others and valuing others’ expertise and perspectives, while also holding oneself to a high level of integrity.
Integrity means that we are personally and professionally responsible to each other, our donors and volunteers and that we are fostering an environment of trust and setting the standard for accountability in our industry.
Teamwork means that through collaboration with internal and external partners, we generate the greatest impact on health and human service needs in our communities.
Then, lastly, excellence refers to striving to excel in all areas of performance, improving our workplace through continuous learning, providing world-class customer service and creating an atmosphere of growth, allowing everyone to reach their full potential.
I view people as our greatest asset. The gesture of speaking to the staff, asking questions and showing interest is more than the nice thing to do. It is a vital business strategy that far too often goes unattended in today’s workplace. I like to walk around our office, and ask people if they know our mission, vision and business goals. It gives me a chance to engage them in conversation, first at the organization level, then at a personal level. It is vitally important that you know your team. Not just the ones at the top, but, all of them. Each is a vital and key link in the success of the organization. Ignoring this will ultimately bring an organization to its knees. Those that see a genuine leader, who really cares about them, will go the extra mile. Call it “soft stuff,” if you wish. I call it vital and necessary for overall success. People are watching, and I hope you are paying attention.
Gary G. Godsey is CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. He has more than 30 years of experience at the CEO level, managing nonprofit organizations around the United States. Godsey is an accomplish speaker and leader in the nonprofit sector.
How much of your day is spent persuading people? Persuading prospects to become clients, employees to step up, customers to buy?
In all aspects of life, nearly every conversation involves some type of persuasion. Politicians, whose careers depend upon their ability to persuade, know that there are three magic words when it comes to convincing people: choice, fairness and accountability. If you know how to use those words, you too can tap their power.
To get a sense of just how potent those words are, consider any political message you’ve been exposed to. There are “pro-choice” campaigns for reproductive rights and “school choice” initiatives for school vouchers. There are countless organizations based on “fairness”: Citizens for a Fair Share, Fair Vote Count, Fair Trash Contract (really!) and many more. There are myriad legislative acts promising “accountability” in everything from leadership to education to presidential pardons.
The typical response to the words “choice,” “fairness” or “accountability” is almost Pavlovian. No matter what the topic, you can say, “I just want to make sure you have choices, and that in the end someone is held accountable so that we ensure the fairest result,” and the whole room will nod in agreement. Obviously, you’ll want to wield these words (and the concepts they stand for) with a bit more finesse than that. Here’s how:
Choice always evokes a positive response — we think of it as free choice, almost synonymous with freedom. For that reason, offering your clients a choice is an excellent way to present a plan. Give them two or three options, making sure you could live with any they choose. It’s fine to state your own preference while emphasizing that ultimately the choice is theirs. When I’m hired as a consultant, I always say, “I work for you, so this is your decision. Here’s my recommendation.” Nine times out of 10, they take my advice.
The same strategy works with employees. Instead of simply passing out work assignments, offer several viable options. Does this mean you should convert every task to a multiple choice question? No, but for important jobs you stand a better chance of enthusiastic buy-in if you ask, “We could do A or we could do B. Which do you think would be most effective?”
People’s definition of what is fair may vary, but everyone instinctively grasps the concept. We all passionately believe that things should be fair. Stating upfront that fairness is one of your top priorities will immediately get your listeners’ attention and make them more receptive to your ideas. You can also use words such as balance to suggest fairness. If you say, “It’s important to me that this is a balanced proposal,” you’re inviting other people to contribute their opinions — an equitable approach. Perhaps most important, talking about fairness builds trust, an essential element of any strong business relationship.
Accountability is a way to ensure fairness. It strikes the same emotional chord, but it’s more tangible. In a business setting, the most effective way to use accountability is to start with yourself: “The plan I’m proposing will have built-in checks and balances, so you can hold me accountable and we’ll all be working together.” Then you can take suggestions from the group about how to construct the checks and balances. The end result: everyone has agreed in public to take responsibility.
Choice, fairness and accountability are concepts you probably incorporate into your workplace without consciously thinking about it — and that’s why saying the words out loud is so powerful. You’re giving voice to basic human values, and by doing so, you’re creating unity.
The most effective leaders not only persuade, they also unite.
Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies” (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. He is the founder, president and CEO of both Jury Impact and M4 Strategies consulting firms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In any endeavor, before anything can be successful, the people involved need to know what it is they are trying to achieve and what efforts and resources are directed toward achieving it.
The company vision is the manifestation of its purpose and its values. From it emanates the strategy by which its goals will be attained, the leadership approach of its executives, the motivation for its members and the inspiration for its customers. A clear, well-thought-out, inspirational and easily communicated vision is the wellspring from which everything else flows.
And yet for the vast majority of companies, their vision is created in isolation by the marketing department and relegated to become mere corporate wallpaper in employee manuals and annual reports.
Even when it is well thought out and inspirational and communicated to employees and customers, all too often the direction of the company and the values demonstrated by its leadership are at odds with the company’s vision that it renders the vision meaningless. For the vision to resonate, company leaders must be seen working toward fulfilling it and genuinely conducting themselves in accordance with the stated ethics of the company.
But before the vision can be bought in to, it has to be developed. Ideally, that should be a managed process throughout which the staff is consulted, instilling a sense of ownership — although that is a luxury that many companies, particularly larger companies, do not have. At the very least, the heads of departments and senior management should set aside enough time together to discuss the strategic vision of their company, to create one if they’re running a new company, or in light of changing markets and products, to assess the relevance of the vision they already have.
Inevitably, many will see this as a waste of their time. They’re good at their job, they know what needs to be achieved, and they resent the implication that any touchy-feely, marketing-gobbledygook corporate retreat is going to make them better at it. But it is often the skeptical ones who stand to benefit the most from the exercise.
To make it work, it therefore needs the wholehearted support from the very top of the company. Ideally, it should be conducted by an experienced third party who can bring a dispassionate objectivity to the process. Money is well spent on hiring a training or consultancy firm for this. Putting all the senior executives in the same place — those who by nature of their positions are likely to be strong characters — and giving them free rein to voice and defend their opinions almost guarantees a relevant and important exchange of ideas. Even people who have worked together at the same company for a long time and who might be expected to have a similar vision will discover that they all have differing views of what the company is all about, where it is going, how it should get there and what it will look like when it does.
Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s hotel management and distressed asset management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry.