Go Anywhere – Just Go Away

I was informed today that starting in October, I will be back playing hockey once a week. This was not prompted by myself, but by my wife, who suggested that having taken 2 years off from playing, it’s about time I get back on the ice.

No, this isn’t about me having a sedentary lifestyle (though I don’t exercise nearly as much as I should). Nor was it about the fact that I don’t spend much time hanging out with friends anymore.

It was about the fact that I work too much.

That’s not to say I’m a workaholic, but rather that significant portions of my day are occupied with work. If I’m home for the evening, chances are I’ll spend most of it in front of the computer finishing off projects for clients, writing proposals, or doing work-related research. My life revolves around my work, even when I’m not actually working. If I get together with other people, sooner or later the conversation moves to work.

This isn’t particularly good for anyone, and hence the return to the arena. A casual game in which conversations are limited, time relaxing afterward, mostly talking about the game, anything but work. Plus, I get in a good amount of exercise that evening, which gets the week off to a good start.

How about you? Do you find your life is revolving around work too much? What are you doing to take your mind off your growing business?

Parks and Membership

There are several amusement parks within a short distance of my home – a few zoos, a waterpark, Wonderland. The cost of admission for a single day is quite expensive, up to $75 per person per day. The cost of a season’s pass, though, is quite cheap by comparison, costing in the area of 2-5 days admission.

At first, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, with the price of the pass being so low, it’s likely that many people will buy the pass rather than pay each time they visit. The park is therefore losing money on most of the passes being sold.

In truth, however, the revenue of the parks does not come from admission (though it does make a small contribution, of course). It comes from the concessions, the games, the food stands. As such, the parks are more concerned with bringing people into the park than they are with how much they charge to do so.

The same system can be applied to many businesses. Stores will place items on sale for below the cost value, just to get customers in the door. While there will certainly be those customers who only come to buy the sale items, many will purchase other items at the same time, having only entered the store because of the sale items.

As a business owner, it is therefore important to understand that there will be times when the price paid for your product or service are lower than you might like. However, you still continue to sell them at the low price, because it brings in more clients. Even if you are losing money on the initial sale, later sales will ultimately pay for that loss.

As an example, a web development company might take jobs to build small websites at low cost to the consumer. This, in turn, results in the name of the company being displayed around the web, and being referred to others. In the long run, the dollars lost on the job are the cost of advertising, and ultimately will pay off.

How are you using loss-leaders to bring in more business? Do you find it to be effective?

Good Customer Service

I just got off the phone with my cell phone provider having had a very good experience. This is what customer service should be like – reasonable, helping me figure out what I need, and then getting it for me at a reasonable price.

I’ve been with Telus for seven years, and have always had a positive experience. With the onset of no contract plans and removal of system access fees, coupled with the influx of unlimited plans in Toronto, I felt I could do a bit better than what I was currently getting. Every month, I would worry that I was about to go over my minutes, and quite often I would, resulting in me paying over and above my budgeted amount.

When I first got my plan, it was considered to be quite good, and really serviced my needs, with its unlimited incoming feature. I had a land line available to me, so I could cut the number of outgoing calls to a minimum. Now that my new office doesn’t have a phone, though, my cell phone is my line to the outside world during the day.

I called Customer Loyalty and Retention and explained my new situation. I explained I could get everything I need from a slightly lower quality provider for about $35 per month. I asked what he could do.

He looked at my usage, and figured out how many minutes I would really need, then added some for padding. He gave me early evenings to cut the time that I would rely on my minutes. He tossed in voicemail and caller id. He tossed in a new phone (standard with a contract, I know, but with the other provider, I would have had to buy a phone).

In short, he gave me what I needed, at a price I was okay with paying. He worked with me, and so Telus not only retained me as a customer, but gained another as I switched another account over to them because of the good service they provided.

Why does this story merit a mention here? Simply because it’s important to realize how customers feel when they are treated well, and to laud those companies which learn to treat their customers right.

Are you treating your customers well?

All Roads Lead Home

In life, there are many paths to take, and many paths for others to take. The reality is that you cannot know in advance which paths will be taken, and which will be ignored. As a result, you must guess which paths will be most traveled, and put your advertisements there. This is akin to placing ads in newspapers – you don’t know which page will be read by your ideal client, but you try your best to predict this information, and hope that you get it right.

Unfortunately, this is not a terribly effective way of reaching your audience. You reach out to one place at a time, and then see whether or not it worked, and then you try something else.

The alternative is to work outward from the destination, and make the target larger. Similar to practicing shooting, you can aim better, or you can get a bigger target. In the same vein, it is also much easier to get a bigger target.

In your business, how do you make yourself a bigger target? Simple – you make it easier for yourself to be found.

I had a discussion with an SEO programmer who explained the difference between on-site and off-site SEO. Essentially, you want to advertise your website better. What performs the actual searching for your website is a program, so you must make that program think your site is a valuable resource on a given topic. Many people referencing your site will do this, but that’s very time consuming, and can take a fairly long time to work. Making your site friendlier to the search engines, however, can have fairly quick results.

In your business, is it clear what it is your business does? Do you have easy ways for people to contact you? Do you provide answers to the questions people typically ask?

Or are you hunkering down and hiding so that you can get some work done?

Question Behaviour

There are hundreds of sites for asking questions – some focusing on particular areas such as programming or building a business, others which are open to any type of question. In recent weeks, I have spent time browsing through questions and answers, looking at the way in which people phrase their thoughts.

What struck me as interesting is that there are two types of questions, leading to particular types of answers. On the one hand, there are questions posed which are carefully crafted to avoid leading the answers. On the other side are the questions in which the author has a clear opinion, and is leading the answers down a particular path.

A side effect of these two general types of questions is the nature of the question itself – how well does it indicate to the reader what the true question is?

As an example, a question might be posed regarding ettiquette of exchanging business cards (I asked this question a few weeks ago on Linked In) and the answers to this question will be diverse. The question posed a particular situation, and the answers, for the most part, stayed on topic with people not only saying what they might have done, but also explaining why.

On the other side, I asked another question regarding networking styles, both online and offline (also on Linked In). The answers to this question were not what I was expecting – while they all were connected to networking, they didn’t answer my question. I later went and added a clarification to the question, hoping to get the information I was really seeking.

Does this mean I don’t always ask good questions? Perhaps. Except that I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in seeing this situation.

Does this mean that people aren’t good at expressing themselves well when asking questions? Certainly a possibility.

What I think is the true issue has to do with the first statement I made regarding the two types of questions. When we are being truly honest with ourselves and seeking information, we will try as hard as possible to not bias the answer. However, we can often be a little too good at that, resulting in a loss of information that would help clarify the question to the audience.

When asking a question, there is going to be a balancing act happening between the not cluttering the question with irrelevant facts, and providing sufficient information so that the audience understands what is being asked.

So, if you’re looking for something you can teach others, try teaching people how to ask questions. It’s a need that, when satisfied, will help people communicate that much better.

Business Health Checkup

As the month of July comes to a close, I realized that it has been a while since I’ve discussed the importance and use of goals for business owners. Naturally, we are aware of having goals, most people setting some in their personal lives at various points in time. However, it is just as important to create goals for your business, for the following reasons:

  • Goals provide a way to measure progress over time. How else would you know if your business is successful or not, if you aren’t working toward something in particular?
  • Goals assist you in making decisions. Any immediate question can be addressed by first determining which of the various available options would best help your business reach its goals.
  • Goals provide motivation, in that they stay ahead of you, always pushing you to reach just a little further.

By the same token, it is important that any goals you do set follow the SMART system:

  • Specific: Having a goal which is vague might be of some use, but you can’t use it as a benchmark, and it is easy to change it at will.
  • Measurable: If you want to measure progress, goals, and how you approach them, can be a great way to do this, if, of course, the goals are measurable.
  • Attainable: We all want to reach for the stars, but if you choose goals which are not attainable, they are more likely to discourage you than motivate you.
  • Relevant: Goals must be relevant to the environment to which they apply.
  • Timed: Without a time in which the goals are to be achieved, procrastination will rule the day.

What are you doing with your goals? Are you any closer to reaching them now than you were 6 months ago?

New Definition of Social

A week ago was my birthday, and in the days and weeks leading up to it, I starting noticing other birthdays of friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and the number of people who would drop a line on the celebrant’s wall wishing them “Happy Birthday”. It made me think about the new definition of social, and how much I don’t like it.

Don’t get me wrong – Facebook is a fantastic site, and it has certainly brought people together who would otherwise have drifted apart. It has created a massive online community with its own culture.

That doesn’t mean it can’t fail.

There were people who, prior to Facebook, would call to say hello, would remember birthdays and send a card or call to say “Happy Birthday”. Now they use the convenience of Facebook to allow those relationships to drift apart. What has happened is that there is now a common middle ground toward which all relationships have migrated.

Those we were drifting apart from now know every event we care to share online, while those we would keep in close touch with before are now slightly further apart. Everyone is pretty much the same in the online world.

Additionally, we have lost our ability to segregate groups of people. The friends I have from school are not necessarily similar to my coworkers, while neither is really part of my family. In real life we isolate the groups from one another, and only allow them to mix under certain circumstances. On Facebook, we have one massive network, most of which does not really care about the other portions of our network.

What can we do about it?

First, we must decide if this actually bothers us, and if so, what approach we wish to take. I prefer to keep my Facebook page active, but I also try to keep my offline social life unchanged. I still call people, or send them personal emails. I don’t assume that a message left on Facebook will reach someone – if I really need to contact them, a minimum of an email, and ideally a phone call is how I continue to handle it.

How about you? What are you doing to maintain your relationships with people? Or have you allowed Facebook to redefine your social life?

Partial Criticism

I had a conversation with a client today who was discussing a particular problem he was facing in his business. His employees produce, in general, fantastic work at a pretty high level of quality. Their work, as a rule, is exemplary.

Their communication skills, however, leave something to be desired.

The problem he has is convincing them to improve their communication skills, without making them think that he has any issue with the rest of their work. That is, how to critique part of someone’s work without having them extend that critique to other areas of their work.

In some work environments, this is already handled through performance reviews. The review is often structured such that each area of an employee’s responsibilities can be addressed, and some will be praised, others, critiqued. However, the decision to have performance reviews in the first place is difficult, since they are often resented by the subjects of the reviews as being inherently biased.

That being said, perhaps the other approach is to lead off each critique with a compliment. For example, “Your quality of work has been fantastic, and you’ve been great at bringing in new clients. However, your expense reports have not been completed properly, so we have a hard time budgeting. Could you please try to fill them out properly in the future? If you need a copy of the guidelines, I’d be happy to email them to you.

While this might be reminiscent of the opening scene of Office Space, in which Peter is approached by several bosses because he forgot the cover sheet on his TPS report, there is a difference.

First, the reason for the comment should be included in the critique – that is, answer the question as to why this issue is important.

Second, don’t dump extra information on the recipient of the critique, but make sure they’re aware that you would be happy to provide it if asked.

Third, make sure that one and only one person is responsible for making that communication.

If you have any other suggestions, I’d be happy to share them – just let me know!