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Jeff Heintz isn’t bragging when he says the legal firm where he is managing partner, Brouse McDowell LPA, made it through the recent recession without missing a beat ? it’s a matter of fact that the firm only had a few scratches.

“We did OK because we stuck to what we did best; I think our reputation served us well,” he says.

Once Heintz realized that the 92-year-old company’s brand was the best weapon in his arsenal to fight the recession, he instilled a way of thinking to bolster that premise for the 120 employees.

“We adopted the philosophy that we are going to control the kinds of things we can control,” he says.

The first premise pertains to the quality of work, an obvious aspect that can be controlled.

“If you work hard, and you have high character, and you behave in a manner that is befitting of things like ‘A Lawyer’s Creed’ and ‘A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals,’ good things are going to happen to you,” Heintz says.

“If you develop skills that enable you to help your client as a technician and develop the feelings that enable you to discern how best to direct your client, whether or not a particular strategy has short-term or long-term benefit, then you can become a trusted adviser,” he says.

“There’s no better feeling in the world than being a trusted adviser, somebody who works hard, develops a business and builds it into something grand, and it is the centerpiece of that person’s life and perhaps that person’s family,” he says.

Place a high premium on community involvement, and feel an obligation to give back to the extent you can by participating and furthering the efforts of nonprofits and volunteering because it is the right thing to do.

“It also gives your people an outlet other than just coming in and putting on their miner’s helmet and cracking away at work. It keeps them fresh, focused and gives them some perspective.”

Dedication to clients can also be controlled.

“We’ve had relationships with clients that go back decades,” he says. “We’ve been through tough times with clients and we’ve been there for them. This time it was tough times for everybody.”

With a relationship that has developed trust and understanding over the years, there are often mutual benefits.

“You and your clients benefit from the strength and depth of your relationships because businesses across the board were facing issues that they never faced before, having to consider choices that they never considered before, and I think it is a considerable comfort to them to know that when they would pick up the phone to call their advisers, it’s a number that they have been calling for 30 or 40 years.”

One of the tools that may serve you in being open with clients is what Heintz calls the “sneaky direct approach.”

“You just sit down with them, and you tell them the truth,” he says. “You let them know even if you can’t lay out for them chapter and verse what will happen, you lay down for them as best you can your belief about what will happen and what steps you are taking to control what can happen. I think people tend to react well to that.”

Another factor to control is the seriousness with which responsibilities are taken.

“Take that commitment of trust very, very seriously,” Heintz says. “One of your first thoughts should be how is this going to benefit your client ? not how much money can you make, not how quickly can you get this job done, not how much personal goodwill can you get from this.”

As a final matter, protect yourself as best as you can against the things you can’t control.

“Ignore a lot of the chatter for things that happen at the federal level ? the preoccupation with the recent Washington gridlock, for example ? as difficult as it is,” Heintz says.

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Availability is king

It’s been said that no matter recession or economic growth, your ability to succeed in business is only limited by your availability to your customers.

Jeff Heintz, managing partner of Brouse McDowell LPA, believes in that. In fact, he has his home phone number on his business card.

“If you make your clients know that you are available to them pretty much 24/7, they appreciate the commitment and are very conscientious how they use it,” he says.

Likewise, cascade that premise of availability throughout your staff, from top to bottom.

“If you are accessible, that’s a talisman of your commitment to your clients,” Heintz says.

“Don’t tell them, ‘You need to get a hold of me between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday because I’m not going to look at my mail over the weekend, and I’m not going to answer my phone.’

“Not everything’s an emergency, and there are people out there that live their lives at general quarters ? and everything’s an emergency ?but there are emergencies out there, particularly as we increasingly get to a global economy where it may be 7 p.m. on Friday night in Akron, Ohio, but 9 a.m. elsewhere on the globe where people are at work when you are at play. But most people use their best judgment, and they have the ability to discern between what’s an emergency and what’s not.”

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Tuesday, 01 November 2011 09:46

Tony Little: Step out to stand out

After a cold winter, a group of kids is lined up alongside the edge of a lake. One kid challenges the next to jump in, but he balks. So does the child next to him, and the one standing on the other side. Each one protests, afraid to jump in what could be icy water.

At last, one boy announces, “I’ll do it!” After taking a deep breath, in he goes. Emerging seconds later with a great big grin on his face, he tells the others, “Hey, it’s not bad at all!” And within moments, the rest of the group dives in after him.

Business is like that, especially business in a poor economy. It can be frightening to stick your neck out, even in the best of times. Yet the current economic environment can actually offer exceptional opportunities for those who are willing to step out, jump in and take on the challenge.

The courage to take on new challenges is one of the most important ingredients to success. Global empires have been built on the concept, and I can honestly say that I owe my own career to it. Furthermore, businesses and individuals are both attracted to a positive attitude. As a leader, if you can project your own energy and passion onto the people who work for you, I promise it will get passed along. It is absolutely contagious, yet something that cannot be faked. If you look at a company like Apple, you’ll see that Steve Jobs’ original vision has permeated into contemporary culture. Of any brand, consumers who purchase Apple products are among the most loyal and passionate.

Without courage and a can-do attitude, potential opportunities can easily be missed, as a leader becomes mired in fear and negativity. Let’s face it, there are always going to be downturns in life and in business. Who are the people and companies best equipped to handle it?  It’s not the ones who feel the storm will never pass, but those who look at it as a chance to do things differently and look at their lives or organizations in new ways.

One day, I was at the office of HoMedics, a company specializing in personal health products. It was in the midst of dealing with the return of 40,000 pillows from a retailer. There was nothing wrong with the product, but the retailer hadn’t struck upon a successful way to sell it. I played with a pillow for a bit and thought, “I can do something with this. I know I can.” I began bubbling with excitement and issued them a challenge: “Let me try selling it on HSN. If I can sell all 40,000 units, I get a percentage of ownership in the pillow.”

Giving up a piece of a product can be tough for any company. But the pillow was underperforming and the management team at HoMedics knew my reputation. My passionate willingness to commit sold them on the idea, and they decided to take a leap of faith along with me. The long and short of it? Both HoMedics and I wound up very happy with our arrangement. I sold out the pillow through my shopping channel appearance, and to date, I’ve succeeded in more than 4 million more.

Not that you should ever proceed recklessly, but it is one thing to be realistic about a given situation and quite another to allow yourself to be paralyzed by it. In any given business situation, you have to do your homework, examine all the facts you’re dealing with, identify all the positives and negatives and then make a decision. If you choose to go for it — whether it’s expanding your production line, buying that piece of property or opening new stores — do so with commitment and enthusiasm.

Yes, it can be frightening staring into the unknown, whether you’re the kid standing at the edge of the water or the businessperson contemplating a move with major financial consequences. But if you step out in faith, armed with a well-thought-out plan, a positive attitude and a focused determination to succeed, you may find that the water’s just perfect.

Tony Little is the president, CEO and founder of Health International Corp. Known as “America’s personal trainer,” he has been a television icon for more than 20 years. After overcoming a near-fatal car accident that nearly took his life, Tony learned how to turn adversity into victory. Known for his wild enthusiasm, Tony is responsible for revolutionizing direct response marketing and television home shopping. Today his company has sold more than $3 billion of product. Contact Tony via his website, www.tonylittle.com or by e-mail at GuestBook@tonylittle.com.

Published in Florida

Thom Stork was walking through The Florida Aquarium one day when he passed by the shark exhibits. As he watched the divers swimming in the tanks, his curiosity led him to begin posing questions to a nearby employee: ‘How many people go in the tank? How often? Has anyone ever been bitten?’ And before long, he asked the kicker: ‘Can we put our guest in there?’

“He looked at me like I was crazy, ran away and came back a few days later,” says Stork, who became president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc. in 2002.  “Then he said, ‘OK. Listen, we can do this.’”

Before heading up Tampa’s not-for profit aquarium, Stork worked as a marketing executive for Busch Entertainment Corp. for nearly three decades. When he retired, he was approached by the aquarium’s chairman with a proposal to bring his marketing expertise to running the organization.

“I said, ‘I’m not a scientist. I’m not a biologist. I’m not an oceanographer. I’m a marketing, business guy,’” Stork says. “And he said, ‘That’s what we need.’”

Since the aquarium implemented its “Dive with the sharks” program, the exhibit has been extremely profitable and remains sold out. It’s these kinds of unique and memorable experiences that connect people to the organization Stork aims to create every day. To accomplish that, he encourages his people to run with their ideas, even when they seem a bit nuts.

“They come to my office,” Stork says. “They grab me in the hallway or they grab me over in the restaurant and say, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ Every time you hear that you go ‘Yeah! Let’s think about that.’”

In addition to offering encouragement, when you ask people to be proactive in trying new things you’ve also got to be able to demonstrate follow through and constructive feedback once they do. Otherwise, people may get discouraged.

“They have got to understand that it failed,” Stork says. “It failed. This did not work, and here is the reason why. Or ask them, ‘Why did it fail?’ Just have that dialogue.

“They know they are not going to be criticized for wacky-ass ideas.”

When a dive master presented his idea for a “Biologist for the day” program to the senior management team, Stork gave him kudos but also asked him to think bigger picture than the proposed $300 annual profit. The employee was able to rework the program, which today brings the organization thousands in revenue.

“I went, ‘Michael, you did an incredible piece of work here, but here is my challenge for you,’” he says. “‘I want you to go back and I want you to figure out how we can make $30,000.’ He was thinking in a not-for-profit mindset.”

Whether it’s creating new education programs or adding unique events and exhibits — the aquarium recently developed a one-of-a-kind penguin attraction — Stork challenges his 159 employees to explore the boundless possibilities for growth while staying committed to the mission of the organization.

“I believe strongly in the adage that there is not an original idea,” he says. “So I constantly look at what other facilities of our type are doing. I read extensively about new products that are out there for zoos and aquariums and theme parks, trying to determine what works in terms of bringing people through the front door. But then I also do put on my mission hat and say is it good for our business, does it further our mission, does it further our culture?

“So today I say, when I do retire, my legacy will be that I was able to take a bunch of scientists, biologists, teachers and environmentalists and turn them into entrepreneurs, to think about how to make the business work.”

How to reach: The Florida Aquarium Inc., (813) 273-4000 or www.flaquarium.org

Capital ideas

Thom Stork, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc., is always asking guests what they want to see at the aquarium, whether it’s dolphins, sea lions or what he and his team affectionately call “big-ass sharks.” Yet now that the organization is in a position to look comfortably into its financial future, prioritizing what people want versus what the business needs has become more important.

“In the analysis of everything, you have to look at the things you need to do to further round out this facility and this business,” Stork says. “So we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 18 months looking at what we need to do.”

This year, Stork spearheaded a $15 million capital campaign to address the needs of the organization’s 700,000 annual visitors and 100,000 school kids who visit for its education programs. The project, which broke ground in September, will incorporate lobby renovations, expand classrooms — there are currently two — and add much-needed event and exhibit space, including a ballroom to seat 500 people.

“The priority is ‘What do we need?’” Stork says. “All of those things have a return on investment. They will produce revenues for the aquarium which will further grow the aquarium.”

Published in Florida

When Phillip Carter was 25 years old, he spotted a dilapidated house that at one time had obviously been a beautiful home, and he decided to see if it was for sale.

When he asked the man at the bank if he could buy it, he challenged Carter to make him an offer. Carter said $8,000, and the man said, “Sold.” Carter immediately knew he had paid too much, and it became evident that he had no idea what he was doing in the process of actually buying it.

Despite that, he got a home improvement loan for $10,000 and fixed the place up, and two months later, he sold it for $58,000 — a $40,000 profit.

That’s when he knew he was on to something.

What started as one house is now a $20 million business called Texas Cash Cow Investments, where he serves as president.

Smart Business spoke to Carter about how he’s grown his business over the years.

What have been the keys to your success over the years?

My grandfather told me a long time ago that customer service is the best product you’ll ever have. I can’t tell you how true that is. There’s going to be competition in the marketplace for everything. But it comes down to treating your customers well. Customer service is a dying breed. We’ve built our whole company off of customer service. It takes a little bit longer to build your business that way, but you have customers for life. We have customers who buy with us over and over.

The market changes all the time. It’s providing customer service and owning all the businesses, quite frankly that’s why I own the investment company, the construction company, the property management company, the warranty company, because I can control my customers’ experience throughout the whole process. If we outsource any part of that, I couldn’t control their experience.

What’s the most important thing you have to do to have good customer service?

Communication is a big part. I talk to my customers often, and I form personal relationships with them and I meet with them and shake their hand. No matter how good the product is, [you have to] form that relationship with the customer, communicating with them and educating them. There’s a huge void of quality information out there in real estate right now.

When communicating, what questions do you ask to understand them better?

One of the first things we do is I have a conversation with them about what their goals are. Are they getting close to retirement? Are they young? We have several different types of products — long-term retirement or sell-it-in-a-couple-years to make a bunch of money. Get to know what their goals are. 

What advice can you give other leaders to understand what their customers’ goals are?

Probably getting to know the customers and asking the questions. That goes back to the customer service, as well. Developing a personal relationship with your customers — that’s your future. You might have the best product right now at the time but there’s always competition and there’s always going to be stuff coming out. People will look at your product and people will try to duplicate it, but having that personal relationship and your customers’ best interest at heart and being honest and open with them, you’re going to retain that customer for a long period of time. They’re not going to go anywhere.

If another product does come out and you don’t have that bond with those customers or know them well, you’ll probably lose that customer. We strive to ensure that we keep in communication with them. It’s not just always about sales. We get to know them personally. Quite frankly, that’s where all of our business comes from is from referrals. We’ve never advertised. We’ve grown this to a $20 million company, and we’ve never advertised. It’s all through word-of-mouth. We’ve gone global, and it’s all through word-of-mouth.

How to reach: Texas Cash Cow Investments, (214) 683-0984 or www.texascashcowinvestments.info

Published in Dallas

After forming a company that designed software for applications such as FedEx Ship, QuickTime for Apple and Palm computing, Doug Engfer found an unlikely application for computer software.

His partnership with Palm led him to his co-founders, Saul Shiffman and Jean Paty, who had been doing diary-based research with clinical patients. Together they formed Invivodata Inc., a $25 million, 150-employee software solutions organization with a focus on patient reported outcomes for biopharmaceutical companies.

“What we’ve been dealing with lately is the outcome of 10 long years of work to not only build a company, but build a market,” says Engfer, president and CEO. “What we’re seeing right now is the positive outcome, the benefit of that longer-term focus.”

The company’s innovation of electronic diaries and ability to build a market and utilize the resources available in it, have allowed the company to grow at 40 percent a year.

Smart Business spoke to Engfer about how to grow your company with a long-term vision.

Build a market. You have to clearly identify all the stakeholders in your entire ecosystem and understand where you can make a difference and how you can make a difference with each of them. For us, it all starts and ends with the patient. Our mission is to amplify the voice of the patient in clinical research.

There are lots of other players out here who contribute and we’ve done a good job over the years of understanding the needs of each of those constituent groups. You have to really understand all the stakeholders and think broadly and orthogonally about that. Who are some of the strong outside influencers that might make a difference within your market and whose toes are you going to be stepping on? You have to understand who is going to be reacting negatively to what you do and figure out ways to be able to co-op those folks and maybe involve them in those solutions in a way that helps you advance your cause.

Keep up with change. In order to understand what’s going on in your market and optimize and maximize your chance to be able to respond to it and help your organization change, you need to listen well to all concerns. You have to listen to your market both positively and negatively.

We regularly poll our customers on their satisfaction with what we do and it’s tracked as a key dashboard metric. We talk to our customers about our products and services and our product road map to help them understand where we’re going and to get their insight. We engage intimately with our key partners. Given that we have a special relationship with many of those partners, we’ll divulge to them where we think we’re going in order to hear how we can better fit in with what they do. We listen very carefully to our competitors and how they’re talking about themselves and how they’re talking about us. We pay attention to where we think they’re going so we can identify potential threats to our continuing progress and at the same time understand when they have good ideas whether those good ideas apply to what we should do.

In this day and age, you cannot survive as an innovative growing company if you have a centralized idea factory. That model just doesn’t work. You’d never know where the good ideas are going to come from. It’s the people who are closest to your customers and closest to your delivery who often have the best ideas and the most innovative and impactful ideas.

Form an innovative culture. The culture has to be one that builds on mutual relationships of trust and accountability. People need to feel that they’re not going to get punished for bringing up an issue. The organization has to be able to distinguish between good mistakes and bad mistakes and see those good mistakes as opportunities to improve and see those bad mistakes as opportunities to solidify improvement and make sure that you avoid them.

Folks need to feel free to innovate in order for that innovation to happen and for an organization to prosper. You have to trust each other to be engaged in what you do, to care about what you do, trust people to listen to your ideas and help you build them and support you in exploring how to deploy those things.

The lines of communication need to be bi-directional and need to be open. It’s something you’ve got to reinforce every day. You’ve got to reinforce by your actions not just your words. Model those behaviors and demonstrate that you’re going to be able to listen well to what people are saying and help them articulate what it is they need in a constructive way so the organization can absorb those ideas and move forward.

HOW TO REACH: Invivodata Inc., (412) 390-3000 or www.invivodata.com

Published in Pittsburgh

When Michael Brunner looks at all the challenges posed by the economy over the past few years, he has always stayed true to one thing: client satisfaction. While the economy has put everyone in a tough situation, Brunner makes sure that his clients are the No. 1 priority. M.J. Brunner Inc., a 220-employee, $200 million full-service advertising agency, understands that in a down economy you have to be stronger to push through or you don’t survive.

“One of the things I learned along the way is something that we absolutely have to and we did do is stay close to our clients,” says Brunner, chairman and CEO. “It is so important to remember that you’re not the only person going through this, they are as well. The last thing you want is to work your way through the down period and then find that once you’re through it, your client feels that you were very little or no value to them during that time.”

It is through the company’s continued effort to deliver success and its focus on a people-first culture that allows the ad agency to work with companies like H.J. Heinz, Huffy Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline.

Here’s how Brunner focuses on the client and consumer relationship and a strong culture to get great results.

Get close to customers

When tough times are eminent, it is critical that you find ways to help your clients improve their business. If you do, those efforts will be rewarded.

“I found it just makes more sense to get even closer, to be more sensitive and more aware of the issues and the challenges that they have,” Brunner says. “If you can find a way to really help them through that period, you’re going to be so much more valuable and particularly at the end of the downturn that relationship has probably been strengthened considerably. That’s one of the things that we’ve done or at least we’ve tried to do. In many cases, we’ve done it by being as creative as we can or inventive or imaginative in looking for answers to questions that they’re facing and problems that they’re having. It can go in lots of different ways, but when they need you most is probably when you need to be most sensitive to that need.”

Creating client satisfaction in a down economy takes more creativity and the ability to get results with fewer resources.

“You have to be very sensitive to their needs and to their problems and then help them solve those problems, which may mean you most likely have to invest more in resources than you normally would,” Brunner says. “That’s hard because in most instances their spending is probably down. I call it basic human nature. If I stay with you through a tough period or if I help you through a tough period, most likely when that tough period is over, you’re going to remember that. You just may have to do more with less in those kinds of times. You may have to find ways to answer problems that are very difficult, because you don’t have the resources that you normally would to do it.”

One of your most important resources is your team and the partnerships they make with clients.

“Our customers and clients are satisfied when we are building and delivering successful programs that drive results for their organization,” he says. “It takes a tremendous amount of communication and work that requires partnering with the client so that you clearly understand whatever their specific issues and needs are. One strategy isn’t going to work for every client. If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Every client is very different and has very different kinds of needs and has different marketing issues. Can there be similarities? Of course, but one size does not fit all. One size fits one and the challenge is finding the right size.”

To figure out the unique qualities of the clients you are working with, you need to have people responsible for those clients.

“The way we do that is we put teams on those businesses and those teams work with those clients over periods of time and the knowledge gets deeper and hopefully our approach gets stronger and better with each passing year,” Brunner says. “One of the first questions you have to ask is, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’ Then you apply the necessary resources.”

Whether times are tough or not, it’s not enough to produce good results for your customers. You have to be looking to produce great results.

“If you’re not doing a good job with your clients you’re not going to keep them,” Brunner says. “That’s really the price of admission. It’s a matter of creating a program or campaign that catapults a client to the top of their category, one that achieves dramatic results, one that fires up the entire internal organization, one that’s built around a big game-changing idea that transforms their business; a radical departure from the norm. Those are the kinds of things that I would say are going above and beyond.”

To offer that kind of result, you have to really get inside your client’s business and they have to be willing to let you in.

“You really have to understand the nuances of what they do, how they do it, how they make a profit and the best way to do that is to saturate yourself in their business,” he says. “The best way to try and understand what the client is all about is to try and live the client’s world. You’re not going to be able to do it forever, but you’re going to try and learn as much and as quickly as you possibly can about what factors ultimately become important to help you grow their business.”

Understand the consumer

A big part of getting close to your customers is to understand who they do business with and who their consumers are.

“It’s important for us to make sure that we’re lockstep with today’s consumer,” he says. “Today’s consumer is equipped very differently than yesterday’s consumer. I say that because that’s due to marketing technologies. One of the things we did was launch a lab called B-Hive lab and essentially it’s an idea incubator and it’s focused on inventing new ways to engage people on the go through emerging technologies. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we’re understanding the technologies that are in the consumer’s hands so that we can take those and make those meaningful to our clients situations. If we’re not out there in front, then why should the client invest in us or expect us to be the agency that handles their brand? Things like that are investments that you make when you look at your existing clients and you say, ‘Those clients are very important to us and we need to be ahead of the curve.’”

Staying ahead of the curve is critical when it comes to keeping pace with consumers. If you don’t, you won’t be effective for your clients.

“You want to know how their consumer thinks, how they behave, how they act, what drives them to a purchase,” Brunner says. “The better you understand what they do is imperative so you can put the kinds of programs together that will be most effective in terms of driving that purchase intent and getting them to be interested in whatever your clients’ products and services are.”

To find out what drives consumers to make certain choices you have to put in the effort.

“Some of it is plain old-fashioned hard work,” he says. “You need to learn the category and then you need to learn where your client is in that category and what the factors are. There’s no short cut to do that other than just spend time digging in. On the consumer side, you have to look at the past research and design different tools that will allow you to get to the way the consumer thinks.”

Create a winning culture

The culture of your company says everything about your business and when client service is your top priority, you have to have employees that enjoy their work.

“If you do not have a motivated and inspired employee base, you will never have clients for a very long time,” Brunner says. “If you don’t have a motivated and inspired employee base, then I don’t know how you can be doing the best job you can for your clients, because they’re cross-purposed then. There is uncertainty. I want them to know where they stand so we can put all of our energy, all of our efforts into the clients we have so we can be mutually successful. We can win and the client can win. That’s what we want at the end of the day.”

To keep a company running well with employees that strive to deliver the best results possible, you have to have a culture that breeds success.

“We have a culture here that’s dubbed people first,” Brunner says. “It’s about letting the people in this organization know that they’re important, that they are critical and that they are the difference in terms of what we do and that we will make all decisions in that direction. We will make decisions that will let them know how important they are and try to constantly find ways that either reward them or incentivize them to perform at the highest levels.”

No matter what your business is your people are the ones that make it successful or not and you have to be able to recognize and reward that fact.

“Ultimately, your own internal resource is what makes the difference at the end of the day,” he says. “Make sure that your top performers are rewarded and that you provide an environment where people not just feel comfortable, but they feel challenged and they know that there is an expectation of growth. They expect the company to grow and you expect them to grow.”

To grow your culture you have to be open and honest with employees about how the company is doing and where it is going.

“Communicating and being honest seems pretty simple but it’s not always done,” he says. “You have to let them know where you stand. It’s important for them to know where the organization is. You serve no greater good by telling them one thing when they’re seeing the company perform in another way. I think one of the most important attributes a CEO can have is to go out and be honest and frank with the entire employee base. I think they deserve that. They’re making decisions on their livelihood by working in your organization. At the very least you should be able to be candid with them and let them know where the organization is.”

Communicating the position of the company allows you to focus more on the task at hand.

“If you’re letting everyone know where you stand, then you can put all your energy and all your effort into trying to accomplish whatever it is that you want as opposed to trying to send mixed signals or not sharing information and making people worry,” he says. “If you’re making people worried then how productive can you be. All those things do not bode well for client service.”

Having a people-oriented culture is more than just letting people know where the company is. It’s letting them know where they are as an employee.

“It’s letting them know how they’re performing,” he says. “It’s having meaningful, honest appraisals and evaluations on an ongoing and regular basis. If you don’t do that then they don’t know where they stand. What you ultimately want to do is give them that opportunity to improve, to be better, to be stronger, and you want to do your best to make sure that happens.”

HOW TO REACH: M.J. Brunner Inc., (412) 995-9500 or www.brunnerworks.com 

Takeaways

-         Remain close to customers to meet their needs

-         Understand your customers’ consumers to better serve them

-         Create a culture that breeds a winning attitude

The Brunner File

Michael Brunner

Chairman and CEO

M.J. Brunner Inc.

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: Bowling Green University, Communications and Education; MBA from the University of Pittsburgh

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

I was a paper boy. Delivering newspapers in many ways was the perfect primer. I quickly learned that better service meant better tips. I also learned how to manage money.

What got you into advertising?

My dad always had an interest in advertising even though he spent his career working in a steel mill. Obviously, it was enough of a spark. I also had two cousins that were in the industry, and I found it fascinating.

What kind of ad was the first one you worked on?

A newspaper ad for Isaly’s

What is your favorite type of advertisement to create?

One that gets noticed

If you could invite any three people to lunch, past or present, whom would you invite and why?

I would invite Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. After a thorough discussion on their approach to life, we would go out for a round of golf. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Published in Pittsburgh

Winston Churchill once said, “I am always willing to learn, however I do not always like to be taught.” I’ve always admired this phrase, but speaking as a salesperson, I feel it can be adapted easily to have more resonance in the field. One might say that we are all eager to buy, but we do not particularly enjoy being sold.

Understanding this fact is important when it comes to understanding our customers and their buying processes. While we may be involved in a “sales cycle,” our prospects are not. They are involved in a buying cycle.

Moreover, since prospects seek to buy, they may resist and perhaps even resent efforts to “sell” them. That’s why sellers must see themselves much more as an assistant purchasing agent rather than a sales agent. I employ the term “servant sellers” at Cincom to convey this role, with the emphasis being on the idea of a servant who seeks to help prospects buy what they value, want and need, rather than as a seller who seeks to sell them only what the seller wants to sell.

We must begin to think in these terms instead of those that are more typically used. Instead of a “sales cycle,” we must begin to think of it as a "buy cycle" or as a colleague of mine at Cincom once helped me to see, we might metaphorically see it as a bicycle.

A bicycle lets you get where you’re going much faster and using much less energy than if you were walking or running. Thinking of customer interactions as “buy cycles” will help a salesperson get to a sale faster than if they were thinking in terms of a “sales cycle” because we are looking at the interaction from their point of view. Instead of selling them, we will help them to buy by being a “servant seller” and identifying the value a product can provide for them.

A bicycle is also a machine that has all of its mechanics completely exposed. Everyone involved in the buy cycle needs to openly communicate with one another. It is helpful to express appreciation and respect, build positive affiliation and association, recognize the autonomy of others and never intrude or impinge upon the other’s desire for each one’s own autonomy. Just like a cycling team competing in events like the Tour de France, there are many different individuals on each “servant selling” team and each has their own job that works toward the goal of a victory. It is a group of different people with different skills and perspectives all interacting to come up with ideas that they might not have individually.

There are many other ideas and analogies that show the similarity between a bicycle and our “buy cycle” if we look more closely.

For example, the wheels on a bicycle are very important—the front wheel provides direction and represents the strategy and vision for the buy cycle. At the same time, the rear wheel is the source of power or fuel that energizes the cycle. The bike becomes much more difficult to ride without either of these wheels. Similarly, strategy and direction have to be present along with energy and action in a corporation if a sale is to be made. 

Each of the closer analogies that can be made can be substantially expanded upon as one digs deeper into the features and functions of a bike. This is why the bicycle is a great tool for us to think about as we work to become better servant sellers in our various buy cycles.

Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems, Inc. Since its founding in 1968, Cincom has matured into one of the largest international, independent software companies in the world. Cincom’s client base spans communications, financial services, education, government, manufacturing, retail, healthcare and insurance. Learn more about Nies at http://tomnies.cincom.com/about/

Published in Cincinnati

Ken Weisbacher, president and owner of KW Flooring is no stranger to adversity and overcoming obstacles in his business. The company owns and operates seven different flooring brands such as Carpetland Carpet One, Big Bob’s Flooring Outlet and Buddy’s Flooring America. The 150-employee, $42 million company finds ways to take advantage of its niche markets in carpet, hardwood, tile and concrete flooring.

“The keys to our success generally have been our ability to market to different niches of floor coverings,” Weisbacher says. “We have many different models that we operate that makes us unique. We don’t just have one company that sells to everybody.”

It’s that attitude and constant industry awareness that has allowed KW Flooring to push past tough times and continue to offer various specialty flooring brands.

Smart Business spoke to Weisbacher about how he overcomes obstacles and creates niche markets.

What have been some of your toughest challenges lately?

The biggest challenge recently has been the decline in demand for flooring both residentially as well as commercially. With 22 locations selling flooring, when things are good, we have 22 locations that do very well. When things are bad and you’ve got 22 locations, it becomes a big challenge. We’ve had to downsize. Because there is not as much demand we’ve had to right-size to the market. We’ve had to figure out avenues that we’re involved in that will be successful going forward and which are best to get away from. Over the last three years those have been the types of decisions that have been most difficult.

Most business owners open up a store or get into a type of business and that becomes like a child to you. You want to see it grow and succeed and prosper so it’s very difficult to pull the plug and say, ‘Get out of this or I get in deeper.’ You have to be willing to close your failures and promote your successes. Too many people waste their assets and their energy on trying to turn around their failures and their time and money would be better spent promoting their successes.

How do you grow your successful businesses?

We created half a dozen different companies that specialize in a particular area of flooring. We focus on that and are able to provide a level of service for people that they’re not likely to find in a store that has a more general outlook.

You have to identify a niche that is ignored by other people or underserved by other people or that is really fast growing. The first step is to identify the niche and then determine what you can do to differentiate yourself from others who are trying to serve that niche. You’ve got to do it better than anybody who’s out there doing it now.

What have been some challenges of growth in your company?

The progress has been three steps forward and one step back. It has not been a continual improvement, but things are getting better and I am optimistic about the future. One challenge has been ignoring the impulse to be too quick to hire back a number of employees. Personally I believe you should hire back more slowly because you’ll be more profitable as business ramps back up.

You have to hold back the impulse to bring more people in as you see business pick up. You have to make sure that the people you have can manage the growth by doing a little bit more business than they’re currently doing now. If people are paid on commission and are money motivated, they will appreciate that and it works out well for both sides.

What are the keys to finding a new area of business?

A new area for us is concrete grinding and polishing. There again we saw a niche that was underserved. A lot of retail space is now polished concrete and finished floor as opposed to carpet or tile. So we decided that rather than try to compete against that we would learn how to do it ourselves and get into that market. It is an opportunity that traditional flooring has lost to polished concrete. As we saw more and more of that, we realized we were missing out on it.

You have to be open-minded and flexible enough to say what I did for the last 20 years may not be what I need to do for the next 20. It’s not easy to do because everybody gets into a comfort zone. We all want to keep doing what we’ve been successful at, but there comes a time when you have to say it’s not the same as it used to be, therefore my actions and activities have to change.

HOW TO REACH: KW Flooring, (513) 771-2345 or www.carpetlandcincinnati.com

Published in Cincinnati

Technology and social media has made it a whole lot easier to gather feedback on new products and services that your company may be looking to launch. But if you don’t take a thoughtful approach in how you analyze that feedback, Irv Shapiro says you could get yourself into a big mess.

“The risk you have is the phenomenon of the vocal minority,” says Shapiro, CEO at Ifbyphone. “You get an individual or a couple potential customers that say, ‘This feature is critical. Without this feature, I would never buy your product.’ Yet in essence, they do not represent the majority of the product space. So you have to be very careful to make sure you reach some critical mass.”

The lesson is that openly soliciting feedback from random sources is often not the best approach to see if you’ve got a winner with the product you want to bring to market. A more strategic approach in which you seek out potential partners who also have a product or service that is valued can be a more effective and lucrative way to go.

“In doing partnering, you’re not making a sales call or trying to sell something,” Shapiro says. “What you’re trying to do is communicate opportunity. That’s very different than making a sale. In communicating opportunity, you must be able to do it while sitting in the seat of your potential partner. It’s not, ‘Why is this good for Ifbyphone?’ Why is this good in this particular case for Zendesk?”

Zendesk is a software provider that helps companies engage with their customers. Ifbyphone is a 50-employee voice-based marketing automation platform. Over a period of six to nine months, the companies worked together to see if they could come up with a plan to drive revenue for both organizations.

One of the keys to forming solid partnerships is looking beyond your own wants and needs.

“You have to make sure you have an aligned sense of urgency and that there is a win on both sides of the equation,” Shapiro says. “When we started these discussions, we didn’t have an integration between Ifbyphone and Zendesk. Partnering is about building a shared strategic direction that may involve some engineering on both company’s parts in order to gain access to a larger market to improve the economics of your company.”

The Ifbyphone/Zendesk partnership puts technologies from both companies together to help provide better service to the clients of the two companies.

“Step No. 1 is classic business development,” Shapiro says. “You have your marketing organization look for potential partners. You reach out to those partners and you begin to discuss the dynamics of what the benefits would be for each company.”

Your role is to make sure everyone understands what you’re looking for and what your goals are as the potential partnership is explored.

“You want your partners to have the same goals,” Shapiro says. “Zendesk is growing as fast or faster than Ifbyphone. So you have two high-growth companies that are mutually aligned. If we went to do a partnership with IBM or Microsoft, it would be much harder to find shared mutual interests.”

In searching for a partner, you have to find someone that is not just looking for a quick shot in the arm. You don’t want someone who is eager to open and close business with you and then move on to something else.

“The opportunity has to be bigger than a particular single-point solution,” Shapiro says. “It has to be an opportunity that is strategic to the company. Make sure that you find value and large opportunity for your partner and talk about your partner’s opportunity and not your’s.”

How to reach: Ifbyphone, (877) 334-8301 or public.ifbyphone.com

Don’t say no

Irv Shapiro tries very hard not to reject the ideas of his employees at Ifbyphone about how to grow the business.

“I believe it’s best to avoid ever saying no,” says Shapiro, CEO at the 50-employee voice-based marketing automation platform. “It’s better to ask lots of questions. There’s a famous book called ‘The HP Way.’ I believe Mr. Hewlett used to call it the Three Hat Rule.

“He would walk through a factory and a guy in the machine shop would come up to him and say, ‘Mr. Hewlett, I’m so glad to see you today, I have a fantastic idea.’ He would describe that idea to Mr. Hewlett, and Mr. Hewlett would say, ‘Interesting, very interesting. Let me think about it and get back to you tomorrow.’

“The second day he would come back and Mr. Hewlett would say, ‘John, did you think about this and this and this and this and this? Why don’t you think about it and I’ll stop by tomorrow.’ On the third day when Mr. Hewlett stopped by, the guy might say, ‘I thought about it and it doesn’t fit. Mr. Hewlett would say, ‘Well, that’s all right. Let me know next time you have an idea. I want to talk about your idea.’ That epitomizes ideal CEO behavior.”

Published in Chicago

Kathy Selker, president and CEO of Northlich LLC, a full-service advertising agency with just under 100 employees, knows that to be successful you have to stay true to your values and what you do best. By sticking to this philosophy, Northlich has become a leader at what it does and has attracted the attention of customers looking to do the same.

“One of the challenges is not to chase every opportunity and just to stay focused on that which we do with excellence,” Selker says. “We’ve held ourselves to that standard, but sometimes it’s tempting to do other things.”

To make your core values a key ingredient in the everyday functionality of your business, you have to abide by them in everything you do.

Smart Business spoke to Selker about how she makes decisions with the company’s core values in mind.

Identify core values. I was given some very wise advice a few years ago, and it’s become wiser over the years. You have to really take the time to identify your core values. I went through that exercise, shared that with the agency and have kept those close to our heart.

You have to do the work to identify your values, and you have to share your values; otherwise you can cheat. You have to do your best to hold yourself accountable to those values. I know people say that all the time, but it was the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

If you use that instead of filters to say, ‘Is this client a match for us? Will we be able to demonstrate our commitment to transparency, courage, greatness, passion or not?’ That’s been very helpful. There have been times where I’ve been in a relationship, and it’s not going well and you have to step back and say, ‘You know what, here’s the core issue here.’ We are committed to doing great work here, excellent work, not compromising, and we’re in a relationship with a client where their objective is different than that and it’s causing us great stress internally.

Determine bad relationships. No. 1, are we the right match for them? Can we do what they need to have done? No. 2, is there a value and chemistry match? We’ve all had difficult relationships and sometimes in a client-serving business you’re going to have challenging relationships, but you have to have a certain amount of chemistry and a certain amount of clarity about what we’re trying to accomplish and if it’s possible to make sure it’s the right match. The economics have to make sense. There are certain kinds of things we choose to not work on, certain products we choose not to work on. It’s just not a match for our folks, and certain industries we try to stay out of because we don’t have the depth in that area. Sometimes you make a decision to pursue something or accept an assignment and then you realize it was a mismatch. It’s an art; it’s not a science.

I’ve had relationships where I’ve taken the deep breath, had the important conversations and made the decision and walked away. I’ve had other relationships where I’ve just kept it going and it didn’t get better, it got worse, and it probably cost more than it helped me. You have to make value-based decisions. You have to be true to yourself and you have to do what’s right in the best interest of your employees and, in our case, our agency’s reputation. If you compromise something that’s core, that’s a mistake. In my head I can think of four mistakes where I failed to decisively make a hard decision. Every single one of them later I knew where I didn’t do what I needed to do when I needed to do it. It’s tough and you’re not always going to get it right, but you have to hold yourself to that standard.

Stay true to your business. The first thing you have to do is take care of your current relationships. Start by taking good care of your people, because they are your ambassadors to your clients and to your community. Take equally excellent care of your current clients and current relationships. That has helped us really weather through this tough, tough economy; keep great clients and great people and it’s also been a door opener to more great clients and great people. That’s a fundamental.

Secondly, really doing the hard work and identifying the intersection between the kind of work you can do with excellence and what the market conditions are interested in hiring. You have to really have a hard conversation with yourself. What are we great at? Not what do we want to be great at. But what are we great at and how do we go connect with that in the marketplace. So you have to both do the thinking work and then you have to also execute.

HOW TO REACH: Northlich, (513) 421-8840 or www.northlich.com

Published in Cincinnati