Early last summer, Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc.’s revenue started flattening out noticeably. Many of the Dallas-based chain’s 115 stores were recording lower-than-usual sales increases. Others stores were staring at a flat line, and a few stores were even seeing sales dip a bit.
Sharon Anderson Wright, the company’s president and CEO, says the overall slackening of Half Price Books’ sales — caused by the lackluster economy and the ascendancy of electronic media and online sellers like Amazon — was not quite on a scale that she considered alarming. But it was noticeable and problematic, and Wright knew that she and her leadership team would have to deal with it immediately.
“It’s no secret that factors like the economy, electronic media, online sales — all of these things have been killing off a lot of the bookstores,” Wright says. “In the past our company has been pretty recession-proof, but this has been the worst economy we’ve seen in recent history. And when you couple that with the increases in online sales and electronic media, it’s been tough. So we’ve been having to work with that.”
For virtually all of its 40-year existence and through a number of tough economic periods, Half Price Books has experienced consistent, stable growth. The company derives the lion’s share of its revenue from used merchandise — books, magazines, music, video — which it buys and resells. Dealing in used merchandise has always been a recipe for steady success, irrespective of the economy’s up and downs.
“Normally, we sail above everyone in recessions,” Wright says. “We skate over the top of it, because everyone comes to us. We sell a good product at a good value, and we get incredible buys when people need to either make some extra cash or downsize or move. And we sell a lot of stuff when people are trying to reinvent themselves, or when they aren’t going to work every day so they have a little more time to read a book or watch a movie.
“Actually, we still are sailing above everyone, for the most part,” she says. “It’s just at a lower overall level. Our sales are flat, where we had been having 7 to 10 percent increases every year.”
The danger signs started cropping up in June 2011.
“We were doing fine until the beginning of this past fiscal year — a year ago in June,” Wright says. “That’s when we realized that sales were starting to go flat. The stores just weren’t doing as well as they’d always done. We’d always had increases in comparable stores, but now we were seeing that some of them were flat and some of them were down.
“The overall decrease was not drastic,” she says. “We were still making a profit, but it wasn’t as comfortable as it had been in the past. I wouldn’t say we were worried, but it was enough to get our attention. We had been fortunate to roll along and not have to worry about a thing for many years. But now we saw that it was time to look at some stuff and make some changes.”
The change-making started in earnest at Half Price Books’ semiannual management meeting last fall. Wright asked everyone attending — upper management, regional managers, district managers — to come to the meeting armed with ideas to counteract the company’s sales slowdown.
“At our meeting in October, we broke up into groups and put challenges before the groups,” Wright says. “We had asked everyone to come prepared with ideas for ways to improve their stores, their buying, everything. We spent three days hashing it over, and we came away with things that we are going to try, and with different groups that are going to try to fix different areas. We’re using the expertise of the people that are actually doing the job, to pay attention and see what’s broken or what can be improved on.”
Among Half Price Books’ new initiatives is a program to bar code all of the books on its stores’ shelves and computerize its inventory chainwide. This program, which is being rolled out over several years, has been implemented in about 30 HPB stores so far, and Wright says the company plans to install it in about 35 more stores by the end of this year. The bar-coding and computerization of inventory provides a dual benefit: It enables HPB to search for and find items for customers chainwide, and it allows the company to sell its merchandise online, both on its own website and on other booksellers’ sites.
“Once we’re bar-coded, then we can shelf-scan, and we’re listing the books on our own website, HPB Marketplace, as well as sites like Amazon, Half.com and Alibris,” Wright says. “This enables us to sell anywhere we don’t have a brick-and-mortar store. So we’re selling simultaneously off the shelf and online.
“And with 115 stores, we have probably the best variety and buying power of anybody, as far as what we’re able to get and sell,” she says. “So this is a pretty big deal.”
In addition, HPB is using the new online sales conduit to sell its own excess inventory. Previously the company had sold its excess books in bulk to smaller online-only resellers for a pittance. Now, by selling the books itself, HPB is making a better profit on them.
“We’ve always bought way more books than we could sell,” Wright says. “Some of the excess books we donate, but with most of our excess books, our practice has been to sell them in bulk to other book dealers. But we’ve come to realize that that’s ridiculous, because we’re cleaning the product, packaging it, getting it all neat and tidy, and then selling it to them basically for nothing. And then they turn around and list it online and compete against us.
“So we’ve started selling these books online ourselves,” she says. “My opinion is that if these other companies can sell them online, then we ought to be able to sell them online. And in doing this, we’re drying up those sites’ main source for good, cheap inventory. I think that’s going to work in our favor.”
Half Price Books is also starting to become more active in buying and selling educational textbooks.
“We’re focusing a lot more on the textbook market,” Wright says. “Before, we didn’t really think we could complete with [college bookstore operator] Nebraska Book Co. We brought in a gentleman who has a background in buying and selling textbooks, and he’s working with our stores on databases to help us determine what textbooks are being used at the different universities. We’re even going to experiment with a sort of reverse-bookmobile — a ‘buymobile’ that will go to university towns and buy books from students.”
Build a solid foundation
Wright attributes Half Price Books’ long track record of stable growth to the company’s founding principles, which haven’t changed since co-founders Pat Anderson — Wright’s mother — and Ken Gjemre opened HPB’s first store 40 years ago in a converted laundromat in Dallas.
“Our company has always been different all the way around,” Wright says. “We were founded by a war hero/peace activist/gray panther and a psychologist, and they started the store as a place where individuals and their values would be respected. It was based on the concepts of treating people fairly, providing a good value for the customer, not throwing things away and being good for the environment. Those are our founding principles, and they still hold true 40 years later. So any decision I make, and any decision the people around me make, is based on those basic founding principles.
“We have 3,000 people, and every day we give them a register full of money and say, basically, ‘Buy anything printed or recorded except yesterday’s newspaper, treat the customer right, pay the right amount, price it at the right amount, and put it out and sell it.’ And that has grown from — you know, originally we had eight-track tapes and 78’s, and now we have MP3 players and video games and consoles. We let our people experiment and try new things. If it somehow relates to something we think our customers would want or be interested in, then we’ll give it a try and see what happens.
“Each person that works here gets to think and be exposed to new information all day, every day. They’re basically entrepreneurs. They’re making it up as they go along, and if they come up with a good idea, then we’ll take it and spread it around.
“It’s built on trust, and we promote from within. So that’s why we’re a little different than a lot of businesses. On the other hand, I think it’s becoming more popular for companies to treat their people like that now. It’s kind of a Montessori approach to business.”
Pay attention to details
A couple other initiatives Half Price Books is undertaking could be said to fall under the category of running a tighter ship: sharpening the look of its stores, and making everyone more accountable for what they do, from managers to sellers.
“When you run a place like this, you have to look at the store closely,” Wright says. “The appearance of your store is hugely important. After our management meeting, I told the managers to go back and look at their stores with a fresh eye. How does it look to the people coming in? Because it can get a little doggy once in a while, a little dusty and dirty. And you can’t tolerate that. So we’re working hard to make our stores more inviting and friendly.
“You have to hold your store managers accountable for store appearance and store performance and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “At the same time, I’m definitely not a dictatorial leader. I’m more of a ‘Why not, let’s try it, let’s see how it goes’ type leader.
“The other thing you absolutely cannot tolerate in your stores is surly employees. In any business, there are always a few people around that might not be pulling their weight. We’ve become less tolerant of people who are unwilling to pitch in and do their part, because the other people really work hard. If they’re not going to enjoy what they do and do their job right, then let them go try to work for somebody else.”
In the end, despite the tough competition and the market-share inroads being made by online-only retailers, Wright says Half Price Books remains committed to the brick-and-mortar store concept.
“If we didn’t have the stores, then we wouldn’t have all of the great people that work for us, and we like providing something for our communities,” Wright says. “We feel that there are always going to be people that like not only a physical book, but they like a physical bookstore. The store is a place for people to come and hang out, and they bring in their books, and we get some incredible inventory from them. If we didn’t have brick and mortar, we’d be like those companies that are trying to buy bulk from us. Eventually you wouldn’t have anything to sell but a bunch of castoff excess inventory.”
Wright says Half Price Books’ new initiatives are working: Store sales are inching back up.
“For a while, we were looking at a situation where ‘flat’ was the new ‘up,’” she says. “Now we’re getting back to where ‘up’ is ‘up.’ It’s a good place to be.” <<
HOW TO REACH: Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc., (800) 883-2114, www.hpb.com
THE WRIGHT FILE
Name: Sharon Anderson Wright
Title: President and CEO
Company: Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc.
Education: Richland College, Dallas — studied art, anthropology, archaeology, photography, history
What were some of your earliest work experiences?
The first real job I had was at a grocery store called Foodland. I started working there when I was 15. Before that I had worked for my dad, filling orders for paint and stuff like that. He was a cuckoo clock salesman. But my first real job was as grocery store checker, and I loved it. My second job was as a trophy engraver and builder. I worked in a trophy shop. I engraved trophies and drill-pressed marble.
What’s a lesson you learned from those early jobs that you carry with you?
The importance of customer service. I always loved working the front counter. At a place like a grocery store, you relate to the person that’s in front of you, you take care of what’s going on right in front of you, and you just do that the best you can. I love talking to people, and in the grocery store we had constant lines, so you’re working directly with the people, and you’re constantly interacting with them and relating to them. I still try to use that approach every day.
Do you have an overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?
The golden rule: Don’t expect or do anything to people that you wouldn’t want for yourself. Treat everybody equally. And listen to people. Respect them and respect what they bring to your company.
How do you define success in your business?
Being able to provide a good place for people to work and to provide something for the community that they need, and being able to be happy and feel good about what you do every day.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Don’t go to bed mad. My mom taught me that.
In the face of a stifling economy, many companies have focused on cutting costs as a means to improve profits. Such measures, however, don’t stand the test of time. Inevitably, quality goes down, as do sales over the long haul.
In the technology realm it is more important than ever for business leaders to invest in new platforms and cater to customers’ needs. According to Steve Carter, president and CEO of ii2P, the market has spoken and they are asking for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) to provide self-service platforms.
“Our clients that truly have self-service platforms are seeing overwhelming results,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with Carter about issues SMB leaders currently face, the importance of investing in self-service models, and the rewards that can be reaped.
What main issues do SMB leaders face as it pertains to surviving in the marketplace?
First, I want to emphasize that the issues are not limited to small and medium-sized businesses. They face many of the same challenges that larger enterprises face — they need differentiating innovation such as a self-service platform. However, SMB leaders do have more difficulties adapting to the self-service platform. If they don’t embrace this new model and are unable to remain competitive from a cost and convenience standpoint, it will affect their ability to retain their company client base. Every decision that is made within a small business environment has an immediate and dramatic effect. Whereas with a large enterprise, although the results may be the same, the consequences show up in a longer time frame — it is not so immediate.
What should SMB leaders be investing in?
It is paramount to be market driven and keep pace with where your market needs are today. Today’s market — end users, clients, etc. — have changed dramatically. The demographics of the end user today are not in line with current service models. The service models of today, for the most part, don’t embrace self-service. Yet the behavior and desire of the end user is all about self-service. If you embrace innovative solutions and are able to provide a competent gateway to self-service you will reap the benefits.
What innovative solutions do you believe SMB players should take advantage of?
Many technology developments have been tailored to larger enterprise environments. A good example is something as straightforward as password management. About 30 percent to 35 percent of all IT service-related calls, whether it is in an enterprise environment or a small to medium-sized business environment, have to deal with this matter. Password management is becoming more of an issue today because, as security needs grow, the need for well-disciplined password management solutions becomes more pressing. While password management has been geared towards larger enterprises, this is an area ripe for small and medium-sized businesses as well.
How can this be funded?
The secret sauce is creating a formal strategy and approach for bringing innovation to the SMB, not just reacting. Over the past 15 years or so a lot of businesses have been plagued with what I call “drop off the technology and run syndrome.” The technology as a standalone looks good and accomplishes what it’s supposed to do. But unfortunately, that’s where a lot of companies have left it. They’ve made the investment in capital, but haven’t been able to realize the benefits because the solution really wasn’t a business solution, it was more of a technology solution.
In order to improve the existing platform you should first look at the inefficiencies within your end-to-end platform. Examine the platform and change it to make it more efficient and more effective. I have not yet experienced an engagement where there wasn’t significant amount of monies being spent on ineffective end-to-end support solutions. In most cases, the money saved by optimizing the environment is more than enough to support the investment for self-service. There is no magic or big bucket of money sitting out there, but there is a methodology to determining how to begin investing in a self-service platform.
Where should the recovered excess money be spent?
You should invest those dollars in creating a platform that is going to be more market-driven. Then you will be able to take the return on those monies and spend them on growing your business. It is important to invest in growing your business so you can become more competitive in the marketplace.
If this strategy is applied correctly, what are the outcomes to the SMB?
In today’s existing model, business is driven by using the platform less. In other words, providers are hoping that their end users, their B2B clients, etc, are using their existing model less because every time they use it, it costs the service provider. The paradigm shift is when you develop the self-service model; the more they use it, the cheaper it is. We’re talking about a complete re-engineering that will affect not only the behavior of the end user, but the provider as well. When you adopt the model that your end users prefer, you will benefit because, the more they use it, the less it will cost you.
Steve Carter is president and CEO of ii2P. Reach him at (817) 442-9292 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Insights Technology is brought to you by ii2P
In today’s economy, companies should be doing everything they can to prevent or eliminate temptation on behalf of their employees. Many employees are truly struggling financially and putting food on the table is a basic need for all of them. Where will the money come from? Many will look to the most ready source of cash: their employer.
“Knowing what might provoke an employee, even an otherwise lawful, ‘good’ person, to blur the line between legal and illegal activity is the key to fighting fraud effectively,” says Jim Stempak, a principal with Crowe Horwath LLP.
Smart Business spoke to Stempak about how businesses leaders can effectively limit any perceived or real opportunity for employees to commit fraud within their organization.
What drives employees to commit fraud?
Famed criminologist Donald R. Cressey first identified three elements — opportunity (including general knowledge and technical skill), pressure and rationalization — as the ‘fraud triangle’ to explain why people committed fraud. Cressey’s classic fraud triangle helps to explain many, but not all, situations.
Fraud is more likely to occur when someone has an incentive (pressure, like medical bills) to commit fraud, weak controls provide the opportunity for a person to do so, and the person is able to rationalize the fraudulent behavior.
Today’s fraudster is more independent-minded and armed with more information and access to corporate assets than was the perpetrator of Cressey’s era.
More technology, matrix organizations, performance-based pay and a corporate culture that celebrates wealth and fame have led to greater autonomy and authority to effect change across the organization. These differences support the need to expand the fraud triangle to a five-sided fraud pentagon, where an employee’s competence, or power to perform, and arrogance, or lack of conscience, are factored into the conditions generally present when fraud occurs.
How can a business address these driving factors?
With the changes to organizations listed above and employees’ increasing responsibilities in their respective roles, competence and arrogance are at an all-time high. Pressure is being generated both inside and outside the company at an ever-increasing rate. But of the five elements of fraud, the company has the greatest influence and control over opportunity. In fact, the company is almost entirely in control of the opportunity side of the triangle.
Opportunity for fraud to take place is marked on one end by controls — physical, logical, automated, manual, visual, etc. — and on the other end by management review, monitoring and reporting. Somewhere in the middle is separation of duties, reconciliations, internal audits, external audits, and all other means of checking the numbers on a regular, periodic and sometimes on a surprise basis. All of these control measures fall within the purview and responsibility of the company.
What common mistakes do businesses make when attempting to prevent fraud?
So let’s say all of the controls above are in place. The company contributes further to opportunity when the controls are not effectively implemented, executed and monitored. This is where most companies fall woefully short.
Controls that were effective for the way the company operated five years ago often become ‘false’ indicators of control due to system, process, procedural and organizational changes, and diversification of responsibility.
Many companies are doing such a poor job of managing opportunity that they unknowingly cause or contribute to many otherwise good people ‘going bad’ on the job. You need look no further than the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) 2010 Report to the Nation to see that this issue is supported by data from more than 1,800 actual cases of fraud. In the 2010 report, ACFE reported that ‘lack of controls, absence of management review, and override of existing controls were the three most commonly cited factors that allowed fraud schemes to succeed.’
What steps should companies take to limit the ‘opportunity’ for fraud to take place?
Companies should start with an enterprise-wide risk assessment.
Start with a control review. While the company may have wonderful controls in place, it may not be controlling its biggest, most common, or most obvious risks, or those unique to its business and/or industry.
In performing a risk assessment, there is a need for a common language or nomenclature, a process to identify and rate the risks, and the ability to determine mitigation strategies for the company’s chosen level of risk (risk profile). Management will want to invest the time necessary for thorough discussion of the risks and the rating, because this will drive the mitigation effort and investment.
With the risk assessment complete, compare the current controls in place to the risks that require mitigation and see where you stand. Obvious gaps will show up, which will require modification and/or redesign of your control environment, including new and specific control techniques.
Last, for companies of all sizes above 25 employees, implement a process by which employees, vendors and customers can access and report suspicious activity via a tip line. It may sound overly simple, but ACFE reports that occupational frauds are detected by tips more than any other means, including management review, internal audit and review of documentation. The tip line, and the awareness of its existence and use, is the primary way to limit the perception of opportunity in companies big and small.
Jim Stempak is a principal with Crowe Horwath LLP in the Dallas office. Reach him at email@example.com or (214) 777-5203.
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Crowe Horwath LLP
Knock Knock! Who’s there? Iowa. Iowa who? Iowa lot of money for my marketing programs. Okay, so that might not be the funniest joke ever but it serves well for exploring humor as an effective business tool.
As people communicate more individually in areas of presentation and electronic media, many focus on creating a “professional” image, which simply means making it look like what’s expected. Sadly this often results in boring and forgettable websites, PowerPoint and videos. It doesn’t help the presenter connect emotionally nor differentiate from the other “professional” offerings.
Rarely do you hear people coming out of a business presentation saying: “That person was hysterical!” More often presenters attempt connection by tugging emotional heartstrings creating small trauma. In most film festivals, dramas outnumber, comedies by 20 to 1. Why? The great 18th century actor Edmund Kean answered us as he lay dying: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.”
Still, humor is a worthy aspiration, accomplishing tasks seldom achieved by serious approach.
- Humor establishes rapport – Almost all people love to laugh. Non-offensive jokes can easily establish likeability and trust. A joke related to a difficult situation can disarm a prospect or client when delivering “tough medicine.” Relationships are often built on experiences of shared humor. People do business with people they like, and if they smile and laugh every time you are near they associate you with happiness. Combined with knowledge, humor enhances expertise, demonstrating confidence and strength.
- Humor triggers memorability – Many strive to create “AHA! moments” in customer’s minds. This occurs when one is thinking one way and you turn their head to think another. Those are the very mechanics of a joke punch-line. In our example I suggest a Midwestern state and quickly turn it to a statement of finances. The unexpected wordplay registers in the brain as humor, which triggers endorphins that encode for memory. This is why a childhood joke exists in our repertoire decades after introduction.
- Humor creates alignment – A joke is based upon shared experience. Humor works well when there is communal understanding of the issues at hand. By identifying a common problem and creating a punch-line around it, insiders will adopt the punch-line as a trigger representing the issue. So when no one remembers to turn off the lights when leaving, a giant light switch painted on the wall makes people laugh and remember their responsibility without embarrassment.
Exploring humor research can be beneficial to creating memorable marketing, particularly in video. But suffice it to say if you just want people to like and remember you in a consistent and productive manner, simply follow the words of the late, great Donald Oconnor and “Make ‘em laugh! Make ‘em laugh! Make ‘em laugh!”
An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, Kevin Daum is the best selling author of Video Marketing For Dummies. and ROAR! Get Heard in the Sales and Marketing Jungle. Visit him at KevinDaum.com or @awesomeroar
As an executive, your overall well-being consists of your effectiveness combined with your happiness. Effectiveness means that you are able to produce desired results; happiness means that you are in a state of well-being and contentment.
Most executives spend a good amount of their time worrying about effectiveness. They set tough goals and push hard each day to achieve them in the most effective manner. They are results driven, and any thought of happiness comes only after the results are achieved.
This begs the question: Can a busy, hardworking executive be both effective and happy?
I believe the answer is yes. In fact, I am convinced that better results stem from increased happiness. With this in mind, here are some tips to consider that will increase your happiness as an executive:
Start with a happiness exercise
Take out a piece of paper right now and list all the things in life that make you happy. DO NOT censor them. List them as they come to mind. Let it free flow from your mind and heart. List as many people, places, situations, causes, activities, feelings and opportunities as you can possibly dream up.
Now, get in touch with your mind and heart and begin to narrow the list down. In the end, you want to have a list of no more than four things that make you happy.
You now have within your grasp the areas where you should focus your energy, time and resources. The items on the list are at the very core of your personal happiness.
Happiness in all areas of your life is the key that unlocks great measures of effectiveness. Once discovered, your personal happiness will have a direct effect on your business effectiveness.
Take this exercise seriously. Be open, honest and determined. You will be surprised at the results.
Stay happy through ongoing education
Never stop learning.
We must be surrounded with people who know more than we do. They must be a part of what we do with our life and business.
Successful, effective executives know that education does not have an expiration date.
When was the last time you put a teacher or coach into your business goals and plans?
What new thing have you learned lately? Are you willing to stretch your mind to consider more than you already know?
Happiness can be found in a good teacher, trainer or mentor. Look for someone who helps you develop new skill sets and fosters your growth. Allow them to push you to consider new ideas, thoughts and ways of working, acting and leading.
I know this is easier said than done, but consider the fact that stress is the #1 killer of a healthy body and mind. Stress eats away at the foundation of your happiness. It distracts you, wears on you and drags you down.
Meditation, yoga, hiking, exercise and deep breathing exercises help reduce and even eliminate stress. Each of these has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments.
Do not overwhelm yourself with the thought of adding each of these to your life. Pick one that interests you and do it. Make a deliberate choice to incorporate a stress reducing activity into your daily life.
Consider this: The absence of stress brings on the presence of happiness.
Have an attitude of gratitude
Our attitude of gratitude serves to focus our minds on the things we have and the things we want, desire and need to live an even fuller, more meaningful and happier life.
In the end, gratitude is not just an attitude – it is a choice.
When we choose to be grateful and to express that gratefulness, we find our lives being shaped by its power. When that happens, we move our life to greater heights of happiness and effectiveness as an executive.
The basis of this article is that a hardworking, results-driven, empowered executive can find ways to be both effective in his or her work and experience happiness in their life. Although we see it far too often in the workplace, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.
An executive that takes the time to think and dream about the things that truly make them happy, who is willing to stay fresh through ongoing education and who works hard to eliminate stress is an executive who has found the secret to being both happy and effective.
I wish you all the best.
DeLores Pressley, motivational speaker and personal power expert, is one of the most respected and sought-after experts on success, motivation, confidence and personal power. She is an international keynote speaker, author, life coach and the founder of the Born Successful Institute and DeLores Pressley Worldwide. She helps individuals utilize personal power, increase confidence and live a life of significance. Her story has been touted in The Washington Post, Black Enterprise, First for Women, Essence, New York Daily News, Ebony and Marie Claire. She is a frequent media guest and has been interviewed on every major network – ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX – including America’s top rated shows OPRAH and Entertainment Tonight.
She is the author of “Oh Yes You Can,” “Clean Out the Closet of Your Life” and “Believe in the Power of You.” To book her as a speaker or coach, contact her office at 330.649.9809 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.delorespressley.com.
If you’re like most CEOs, your day is spent rushing around from appointment to appointment, both internal and off-site, meeting people, solving problems and plotting strategy. The hours fly by, days blur into weeks, and the years start to blend together into a nonstop race against time.
Take a moment to ask yourself if this lifestyle makes any sense. What race are you hoping to win? What’s the reward when you get to the finish line, assuming you even know where the finish line is?
John Ortberg, author of “The Life You’ve Always Wanted,” says it’s important to ruthlessly eliminate the hurry from our lives. If you are in a hurry, there is little time to care about people. We need to slow down, even to the point of solitude.
While we are running our nonstop race, the people that suffer the most are those around us. Friends, family, colleagues and employees are often ignored as relationships are neglected in favor of the next big deal.
Ortberg suggests forcing yourself to slow down and put yourself in a position to wait. For instance, pick the longest line at the grocery store or take the long way to work. Doing so will help train yourself to slow down and be patient.
You are the person that sets the pace in your company, so if you slow down and make sure things are done right, others will do the same.
Working at a pace that’s too fast typically results in things being overlooked — things like employee recognition. When you don’t recognize and reward your employees, their job satisfaction can decline and they may leave. For every person who leaves, you and your staff have to dedicate more time to finding a capable replacement, resulting in an even faster pace as time is lost to recruiting and training. It can quickly become a vicious cycle.
Enjoy life by slowing your pace and being more productive, both at work and at home. Slowing down doesn’t mean you aren’t getting things done, it means you are doing things right and building relationships with people.
Not every transaction will turn a profit in business, but you can bet that almost every relationship you have with people will pay off in the long run. Isn’t it time you started investing in those relationships by taking the time to slow down and build them?
Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or email@example.com.
The art of buzz: Reasons people talk about products and services and the best ways to seed discussionsWritten by Guy Kawasaki
Emanuel Rosen is the author of the national bestseller “The Anatomy of Buzz” (Doubleday, 2000) and “The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited: Real-life Lessons in Word-of-Mouth Marketing” (Doubleday, 2009). Prior to writing these books, he was vice president of marketing at Niles Software where he was responsible for launching and marketing the company’s flagship product, EndNote. He holds an MBA from the University of San Francisco. In this interview, he brings us up to speed on the techniques for generating buzz that every small business owner must master.
Q: Going back to fundamentals, why do people talk about products and services at all?
A: Buzzing is in our genes. We are programmed to share information with friends about where to find our next meal and about the tiger who’s about to have us as his next meal. We talk to connect, so when my daughter tells her friends about the new sweater she bought, she’s also establishing and maintaining her social ties. We buzz to talk about ourselves. If I tell you about a 10-day dog sledding trip in Alaska, I’m also telling you how adventurous I am.
Q: Which comes first, buzz or ink?
A: Usually it starts with some buzz that is followed by press coverage, which can take the buzz to a whole new level. Grassroots support can actually help you get ink — sometimes buzz is the best press release because it gives journalists this warm and fuzzy feeling that your story is for real and that there’s true excitement for it. Don’t get me wrong, if CNN calls you before your product is out, don’t tell them that you’re waiting for some grassroots buzz to build, but usually it doesn’t happen that way.
Q: Which comes first, buzz or sales?
A: There are some highly anticipated products — Halo 3 comes to mind — that get tons of buzz before a single sale. This is the exception. Since product recommendation usually starts with product experience, you need to have some people out there who use the product and hopefully get excited about it. How do you get these early customers? Part of it comes from word-of-mouth marketing methods, like seeding and sneak previews, but it also comes from traditional sales and marketing techniques. If your product is contagious in some way, then these early users will start buzzing about it.
Q: What are the essential elements of seeding a product?
A: The key point to understand is that although we’re all connected to each other, information about new products rarely spreads like a wild fire. Information tends to get stuck because we live in somewhat isolated social clusters. To accelerate buzz, companies seed their product in many different clusters. The ideal seeding campaign is done on a large scale and lets people have a firsthand experience with the product. You want to reduce the price barrier as much as possible, so the product is given for free or at a reduced price.
Q: How do you seed a website or free service?
A: The good news is that the price barrier doesn’t exist. The bad news is that the thing you’re seeding is less tangible. The basic idea is the same. You identify clusters of people by geography, area of interest, by academic discipline or whatever other classification makes sense in your case. You then approach some people in each cluster trying to engage them with the service. This is a challenge that is shared by other products. The fact that a publisher seeds the market with advance copies of a book doesn’t guarantee that people will read it. But with some follow up and encouragement and some buzz from fellow users, some more people eventually try the product and start buzzing about it too.
Q: What are the characteristics of a contagious product?
A: The best buzz comes not from publicity stunts but rather from the product itself. A product or service that makes you say, ‘Wow!’ when you use it for the first time is the classic contagious product. Other examples: products that evoke strong emotions — “The Blair Witch Project” — or reward you for talking about them — Facebook.
Products that are visible can be contagious as well — think of the first time you saw someone with an iPod. Even abstract ideas can become contagious this way. The idea of living with cancer was translated into the LiveStrong yellow wristband, which started millions of conversations about the topic.
Q: What can stop the spread of buzz?
A: Since I just mentioned LiveStrong, let me tell you about an interesting study. A research team at Stanford sold LiveStrong wristbands to students who lived in one dorm on campus. A week later, they started selling these wristbands in a neighboring dorm that had a reputation as a ‘geek’ dorm with a stronger academic focus.
What happened once the ‘geeks’ started wearing the wristbands? A week later, the research team measured a 32 percent drop in students wearing the bands at the first dorm. So sometimes, when we detect that ‘the wrong people’ are using your product, we stop using it and buzzing about it. This is true especially for products that have to do with our identity.
The most common forces that block buzz are noise, inertia and forgetting. We’re distracted by competing messages, we like to stick to ‘the good old way’ of doing things, and we forget what our friends told us. It is one reason why buzz needs to be accelerated. Even delighted customers might forget about your product and run out of opportunities to talk about it.
Q: What should you do if someone who has never used your product is bad mouthing it?
A: One of the things that surprised me most as I was working on the new edition of my book was that this type of negative buzz is quite common. One study found that 30 percent of negative word-of-mouth was by people who never owned the product. If you can identify the person who’s bad mouthing your brand, you might want to let them try the product. The problem is that you usually don’t know who they are, which brings us to another reason for why word-of-mouth marketing is so important. You have to counterbalance this constant trickle of negative comments with honest, positive recommendations from happy customers.
Q: What should you do if someone who has used your product is bad mouthing it?
A: First, listen to what they are saying. Our natural tendency when we’re attacked is to fight back, but negative comments may come from an actual bad experience. This gives you an opportunity to do two things. Solve that customer’s problem, which will often turn her from a detractor to a promoter. Even more important, it may help you identify a problem in your system, fix it and reduce negative buzz from others.
Q: Who is more likely in these Internet days to talk about your product: someone who’s had a good experience or a bad one?
A: There are two types of bad experience. There’s ‘I didn’t like this hotel too much,’ and there’s ‘The guy at the reception insulted me when I asked for towels and then sent up a dirty one.’ Frustrated customers are very likely to share their experience. However, it turns out that most buzz among consumers is positive. This may seem like a contradiction, but it has some simple explanations. One of them is that most of our experiences as consumers are actually positive.
Q: What is the role of old-fashioned advertising these days?
A: It is fashionable to say that advertising is dead, but I don’t agree. Very few products can live on buzz alone. Advertising can help a lot — at least good advertising can help a lot. First, in creating awareness and building the pool of people who can buzz about the product. Second, a good ad can prompt me to tell my friends about the product. Third, a good, authentic ad that brings in real people can stimulate buzz.
Q: How has technology changed buzz and word-of-mouth marketing?
A: It hasn’t really changed what we talk about. We still talk about ourselves, we brag, we seek advice, we gossip, we connect. The Internet’s biggest effect is that it accelerates buzz. In addition, it doesn’t only let us tell our friends about the products we use, but also lets us show them these products through videos and photos. It has enabled aggregation tools such as Yelp or TripAdvisor. In essence, it gives more people more opportunities to share information with others, which directly translates to more buzz.
Q: How can a company effectively measure the buzz it’s generating?
A: The simplest method is to ask your customers how they heard about you. You can measure the daily mentions you get on blogs and on Twitter. You can supplement this with traditional marketing research to learn what customers who don’t use these services are saying. Whatever method you choose though, you need to measure on an ongoing basis, if you want to detect any effects. Companies such as ChatThreads, The Keller Fay Group and Nielsen Online provide buzz measuring services. WOMMA, the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, offers lots of resources on the subject.
Q: Do you believe that there are key influencers who companies should focus on because of their insight, power and prestige — that is, an ability to lead a market as their wisdom trickles down?
A: The importance of influencers varies by industry. I suspect that they are more important in the pharmaceutical industry than in the yo-yo industry. Regarding the ‘trickle-down’ theory — this is not the way that buzz flows — especially today, buzz flows in all directions. I use the term hubs to describe people who talk more than average, and I make a distinction between social hubs and expert hubs. Both can definitely help a company spread the word, but companies should encourage everyone to talk, not only hubs.
Q: Where do you draw the ethical line on generating buzz and word-of-mouth marketing?
A: One key idea here is disclosure. Word-of-mouth marketing is not about tricking people. It’s about openly inviting them to try the product and talk about it. WOMMA offers a code of ethics that can help. When you’re trying to build buzz, you want to push the envelope and think outside of the box. And when you look for original ideas, you can’t police your thoughts. But after the brainstorming, you have to change your attitude dramatically. This is best done the morning after — over some strong coffee. Think again about your wild new idea. Ask other people what they think. Ask your customers and people in the community if you are crossing the line.
Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the Web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of 10 books including “Enchantment,” “Reality Check” and “The Art of the Start.” He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business, where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through www.guykawasaki.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a classic line from the 1970 movie “Love Story” that has become a part of our popular culture. In the drama, the dying heroine played by Ali MacGraw says to her husband, played by actor Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” as he apologizes for his anger. It is certainly a memorable and tear-jerking line, but is saying, “You’re sorry” all that bad if it can soothe a wound caused by someone speaking or acting out before thinking?
Disagreements and anger are a reality in the workplace and in life in general. Various people react in different ways when under pressure. Some lose their cool completely and say things they instantly regret, while others launch into tormenting the perceived offender with the silent treatment. No matter the technique used to punish, all of these methods quickly become tiresome and, more importantly, adversely affect the workplace.
Too frequently in the work environment, many people just can’t suck it up and utter the two simple words, “I’m sorry,” even when they know they’re dead wrong. It’s not a macho thing either, as women don’t behave much differently when they feel put upon. What’s a boss to do when this stubbornness becomes problematic?
In a word: intervene. When not controlled, these unreasonable, obstinate antics can become time-consuming and disruptive. It could all start with an impetuous negative e-mail or a less-than-mature voice mail left in the heat of battle that cascades into a futile distraction, as otherwise effective and seemingly sensible employees act out as if they’re in a 20- or 30-year time warp, behaving as if they’re back in the third grade rather than adults in the workplace.
The most expeditious method that works with either the protagonist or antagonist in an office drama is to call a spade a spade, so to speak, and get the feuding parties together and cut to the chase, making each person agree to bury the hatchet but preferably not in each other’s skull. If employees’ anger management issues are left to fester, they can easily result in other people in the same work environment taking sides, and in short order, you will find yourself in the midst of a Civil War. The only thing guaranteed when this occurs is that there will be casualties. It is incumbent on the ruling manager to make sure that the company doesn’t wind up as the victim, incurring a loss of productivity and causing everyone around the two factions to feel as if they’re walking on pins and needles.
While many times it would be easier for the boss to ask one of the warring participants to approach the other to work out their differences, this tactic just takes too much time and the outcome can be iffy. It really doesn’t matter who is right or wrong but that the nonsense is stopped dead in its tracks. The best way to accomplish this is to make it more than abundantly clear that anger in the workplace is a nonstarter and could be a career-inhibitor.
Allowing employees to exhibit a lack of civility will cause a domino effect that will lead to no good. Civility does not just apply to peers. Instead, it’s applicable to all who must work together, including superiors, subordinates and even fellow board members. Don’t confuse civility with agreeing or disagreeing with someone. It also doesn’t mean one has to believe that someone is effective in his or her role. Instead, what must be required is that those within an organization, no matter what level, simply take the higher road and respect not necessarily the person but the role and make the assumption that everyone has a part in working toward shared goals, until it is proven otherwise.
Once everybody knows the rules of engagement, many times the negative engagement suddenly ends and it’s back to business as usual. When that doesn’t happen, it’s time for offenders to be forced to go to their respective corners so as not to do each other or the company any more harm.
To promote coexistence when no one wants to take the first step and say, “I’m sorry,” it’s up to the adult in the room — and that would be you, the boss — to step into the fray with your whistle to call a permanent timeout to these types of disruptive shenanigans.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at email@example.com.
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Launching a new venture is probably one of the most thrilling moments for any entrepreneur. It’s a birth that often brings forth a long-standing dream for the founders and is steeped in joy, pride and egotism. However, for many new captains of industry, the dream vanishes like smoke shortly thereafter. In fact, just half of all businesses survive the first five years, and only one-third survive 10 years, according to U.S. Small Business Administration statistics. Thus, it’s worth investigating why projects fail.
In a large majority of cases, the business owners failed to raise sufficient capital to fund the labor, marketing, taxes, insurance, legal expenses, bookkeeping, supplies and costs of goods for the business. Oftentimes, they underestimated expenses and overestimated how quickly revenues would increase. In other cases, they knowingly entered the market with insufficient cash because of limited credit and savings.
Other failures are caused by an implosion from within. Specifically, the founding partners reach a point at which they disagree on how to build the business and then fail to come to a consensus that leaves all parties feeling invested in the project. Or the business develops naturally in a way that calls for the founding partners to take on roles they don't want to assume. In either scenario, the remaining partners must buy out the exiting partners in order to stay in business or fold up shop.
In the worst collapses, the venture was just poorly conceived. The founders developed a business concept based mostly on their own personal experiences or anecdotal evidence. They failed to conduct or acquire scientific research on whether there was sufficient demand for their proposed products or services. They made a cursory study of the competition. Or they made assumptions about what drives potential customers to buy when designing marketing campaigns, rather than collecting data that revealed true trends in buyer motivations.
In these cases, the founders could have mitigated their chances of failure with some thoughtful planning before the shingle was hung. Would-be entrepreneurs should clearly write out their vision with detailed specifications and the cash that will be needed to complete it. They should plan contingencies for overcoming potential obstacles.
They also should identify the strengths and weaknesses in any potential management team and seek out individuals who can fill the holes. For instance, a visionary leader who prefers to focus on the big picture will usually need someone on board who loves the details in order to ensure the project is thoroughly vetted and structured.
Patricia Adams is the CEO of Zeitgeist Expressions and the author of “ABCs of Change: Three Building Blocks to Happy Relationships.” In 2011, she was named one of Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women, one of Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year Award and the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year for Region VI. Her company, Zeitgeist Wellness Group, offers a full-service Employee Assistance Program to businesses in the San Antonio region. For more information, visit www.zwgroup.net.
After a major computer company sold a division to an international rival, the buyout left Susan wondering about her future. Susan found herself on the outside of the corporate world looking in. No longer the young college graduate on the fast track with the company she had worked for since graduating with honors in engineering, Susan watched as the restructuring left her without her high-paying job. Now at age 49, Susan was concerned, and she questioned whether her age had anything to do with her being let go. “They hired my body double from the same university and another kid,” she says. “Two new hires who would work for basically the same pay had replaced me for less per year. Yes, I have the experience, but I understand business decisions.”
The Center for Retirement Research recently studied older workers and employer attitudes toward them. The study illuminates many key points, including the fact that attitudes are changing toward older workers. In the past, some evidence and many personal experiences and stories suggested that employers tend to shy away from older workers. Evidence in the courts indicates that discrimination does still exist, an unfortunate reality of a competitive marketplace. Privately, human resources professionals and other hiring decision makers point to not wanting to hire individuals with ingrained bad habits, the potential for higher health care costs and the “I’ll do it my way” attitudes that some older workers have demonstrated at their companies.
Statistics from a number of companies demonstrate that workers over 50 sometimes have a harder time finding work. The reality is that today’s 50-year-old is not the same as the 50-year-old of yesteryear. The argument can and should be made that older workers today are much different than older workers of the past. For example, Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research suggests that today’s workers are better educated than even those of 10 years ago. They are more physically fit. Physical demands of jobs are lessening as most manufacturing goes overseas. Labor-intensive positions have been and will continue to be lessened by machines and technology advances.
In a recent survey, 400 private-sector employers were asked to evaluate the relative productivity and cost of white-collar and rank-and-file workers age 55 and older, and whether, on balance, older employees were more or less attractive.
Employers worry that their older employees will have a hard time learning new tasks quickly, that their physical health and stamina will be a problem, and there is a significant concern about how much longer the older worker will stay on the job.
It is the cost of the older worker that is most concerning to many employers, not that the older worker is of lesser value. Over 40 percent of employers view older workers as more costly. The bottom line remains: Most employers see older workers as both more productive and more costly.
In most cases the cost and benefits seem to balance out. However, white-collar workers have much better prospects for working later in life than rank-and-file workers.
Flexible work schedules
Older workers might, for instance, have to accept lower pay or part-time work to stay employed. Many employers are hiring older workers on a part-time, temporary or project-assignment basis and not necessarily full-time. This means that not only do they get employees who need less training and are generally more reliable than their younger counterparts, but employers rarely have to pay benefits, unless they are hired 30 hours a week or there is a union issue, and they often pay an hourly rate or a project-basis rate that is far less than what these workers were earning when they worked full-time.
Another new survey suggests that employees are hoping for more interesting work in retirement. A few employers are beginning to get the picture.
There seem to be no easy answers, but it is important that as we develop the future leaders of our work force, we embrace this incredible knowledge transfer opportunity.
Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small start-ups to large international corporations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.