Too Foolish To Fail

The big buzz on Wall Street is today’s planned IPO of Facebook. I hope it will reverse the recent downward trend (11 of the 12 last trading days were losers). Several months ago, a partner and I were discussing Mark Zuckerberg in the context of starting a new business. That discussion lead to a two-part post, which in honor of his IPO, I repeat in its entirety today.

My partner and I concluded that Mark’s phenomenal success with Facebook is the direct result of three “rookie” mistakes, none of which we would have made.

Those mistakes were:

  1. He was not the first to arrive at the social networking party. Rather than come up with an original idea, he improved on other people’s ideas. That never works. Either get to the market first or stay home, right?
  2. He waited too long to “cash out.” He should have jumped at the first opportunity to raise some serious “beer money” like a normal college kid. If only he had, he would be a millionaire today!
  3. He failed to exercise basic common sense! Anyone smart enough to get into Harvard should know that a dream of launching a worldwide business to redefine a major facet of society is destined to break your heart. Homer Simpson said it best, “Trying is the first step toward failure!”

Let’s analyze each of his mistakes in more detail. It turns out there is historical precedence to support his seemingly illogical behavior in committing Mistake #1.

For example, historians credit German engineer Karl Benz with inventing the automobile. He patented the first gasoline engine powered vehicle in 1885. That was 11 years before a thirty-year-old “techie” at the Edison Illuminating Company began experimenting with his Ford Quadricycle.

Henry Ford’s primary contribution to the automotive industry was to apply “best practices” manufacturing processes including interchangeable parts and a moving assembly line. By combining cost saving efficiencies with a social philosophy that included paying factory workers $5 per day (double the going wage), he transformed the automobile from an expensive curio for the idle rich to an affordable source of transportation for the masses.

Ford put his vision into words. He said, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

With the benefit of 115 years of hindsight, it is clear his value proposition actually created a market where none previously existed. He sold 15 million Model Ts over its nineteen-year production run.  At one point, half of the cars in the world were “Tin Lizzies.” True to his value statement, he was eventually able to reduce the selling price to $290, a 65% reduction from its introductory price.

O.K., Mark, I’ll concede your first mistake was not a mistake after all. Astute late comers can still profit by improving on an inventor’s ideas and capitalizing on missed opportunities.

What about waiting too long to cash out?

I am frequently surprised at the short-term vision baby boomers adopt in their business planning. I often encounter entrepreneurs who hope to build a successful business and “cash out” in five years or less.

This view is a distraction from your value proposition, the very reason you went into business in the first place. Think about it. Customers are at best indifferent to your retirement plans. Would you pick a new dentist if you knew she planned to sell her practice in two years?

It also introduces a bias that will slant business decisions in favor of maximizing short-term cash flows at the expense of building long-term value. For example, owners will forego investments in customer service and product design if payoffs extend beyond their timeline. This situation is analogous to watching a runner round the bases as you chase a fly ball. There are already plenty of opportunities to falter in business without unnecessary distractions. Do not take your eye off the ball!

It seems counterintuitive that a college student, given the opportunity to finance what would have been a carefree life style, would follow a business plan that extended beyond the next frat party. To his credit, now 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg has resisted the temptation to monetize his 24% stake in Facebook for 7 years. Instead, he has continued to lead the company according to his vision.

It is hard to argue with his success. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs valued the private company at $50 billion. Mark kept his eye on the ball, even when faced with what would have been an irresistible temptation for us mere mortals. Cashing out four or five years ago would have cost him billions.

You were right, Zuck. My partner and I were….we were….well any way, you were right. Gloating is so not cool, Mark!

That brings me to his third mistake. Mark should have listened to the voices in his head that are quick to point out all the reasons why his grand plans would surely fail.

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” Fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It causes some of us to avoid decision making altogether.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters that process with certain preconceived biases. We are often quick to listen to any voice that supports them. It is normal to exhibit a reluctance to move off those biases, even if faced with new facts, circumstances or opportunities. Therefore, the safe decision (i.e., to spend our career as a corporate wage slave rather than launch a new venture) is often the default decision.

Samuel Clemmons once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that will get you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

To his credit, Mark Zuckerberg did not let what he did not know about launching a business get in the way of his success. His vision was inspiring; his execution was courageous.

In the final analysis, my partner and I could take a lesson from him. So can you!

You proved all of your distracters wrong! Good luck in your IPO Mark.

 © 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

I HATE TO SAY I TOLD YOU SO!

This is a sad day for long-time antique Kodak camera collectors like me, not a day to remind readers about the critical importance of cash flow to business survival.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the following timeline, the inventor and one-time “King of Cameras” has been reduced to a shadow of its former greatness. It was victimized by slow strategic decision-making and the dreaded negative cash flow.

Here is a brief summary of their 128-year history.

  • 1884: George Eastman developed film technology to replace photographic plates. He founded Eastman Kodak in 1892. With the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” he introduced photography to the masses with cardboard box cameras that sold for $1, the equivalent of $24 in 2009 dollars.
  • 2009: With its market steadily evaporating since the 1975 invention of digital cameras, Kodak ended a 74-year run when it discontinued production of Kodachrome film. Their SEC filings reported a $210 million loss that year. Ironically, a Kodak engineer invented the digital camera.
  • January 19, 2012: The market for film cameras now virtually extinct, Kodak has witnessed its market value plummet from over $30 billion to $150 million. Today, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having endured an operating cash drain of $750 million over the past twelve months alone. A company spokesperson said they “intend to sell significant assets” during the bankruptcy.

The moral of the story is this: few things in life are absolute. The laws of gravity and physics come to mind. Another absolute is the need for positive cash flow.

Almost everything else is negotiable.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T – PART 2

Last week I introduced the topic of cash flow management, using the graph below. Cash flows generated or use by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three inter-related cycles. They include the expense and revenue cycles, which I discussed last week.

Today I complete the topic with a review of the capital cycle.

The capital cycle:

If you have been in business any length of time, you know that capital is always a scarce and expensive commodity. Therefore, the capital cycle involves allocating or assigning available cash to its highest and best use. The process analyzes competing alternatives, such as opening a new location, expanding your sales force, product research and development, increasing inventories, debt repayment and so on. Unlike cash, the list seems almost inexhaustible.

Therefore, this cycle requires a quantified prioritization that incorporates a variety of factors including expected returns, time horizons, risk assessment and the cost and availability of required capital. Most business people are familiar with some applications of capital allocation. A simple example is whether to buy or lease company vehicles.

Other applications are not as well recognized. For example, assume two identical businesses earned a $100,000 profit. Company A had $1 million invested in the business, while Company B only had $500,000 of capital. Company B’s 20% return is double that of Company A. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as the math implies. While reducing capital increases returns, it also increases the risk of running short of cash and failing due to unexpected events. Every business requires some level of cash to serve as a buffer against this uncertainty.

Another application of the capital cycle is identifying and quantifying the need for outside funding to meet your needs. Obtaining adequate funding under terms and conditions that make economic sense in light of expected benefits is crucial to the process. This includes short-term needs like financing seasonal fluctuations in receivables and inventories, and long-term needs such as procuring equipment and facilities.

The capital cycle also includes securing “start-up” money, probably the greatest challenge and source of frustration most small businesses encounter. New businesses owners frequently make two critical mistakes in their search for start-up capital. The mistakes are:

  • They significantly underestimate the amount of cash needed to carry the business until it turns cash positive. Again, a clear distinction exists between turning an accounting profit and being cash positive. If you sell something for $100 that cost you $85, and the related operating costs are $10, you have made a $5 profit. However, if you need an additional $30 to expand your inventory and prepay next month’s rent, you are $25 short of cash. Lack of cash is a more immediate and serious problem than lack of profit.
  • The second mistake is assuming a business can borrow 100% of its initial capital needs from a bank or similar source. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have encountered entrepreneurs with an attitude of, “I’m supplying the intellectual capital. It’s my great idea. Surely I can find someone willing to put in all the cash!”

Banks are interested in financing established companies who need capital to expand, not start-ups wanting cash to test their ideas.

Conclusion:

Let me end with two simple statements. First, in business, success is a four-letter word. It is spelled C-A-S-H!

Finally, measuring, monitoring and managing all three cycles is vitally important to optimizing your cash flow, and ultimately to your very survival.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

The first response to a cash crisis is usually to tighten up on expenses, cut back on something, or generally to make do with less. That may be necessary, but it is usually only part of the answer.

As shown in the diagram below, cash flows generated (or consumed) by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three related cycles. They are the expense, revenue and capital cycles. I will discuss the first two today, and conclude next Friday with the capital cycle.

A brief description of each follows, along with what I consider the most common problems within each cycle. All three cycles presuppose that you have the ability to measure and monitor its activities and results.

The expense cycle:

Let’s start with the expense cycle, the assumed “bad guy” for most small business cash problems. This cycle is largely what the name implies. It is also the easiest to fix.

The expense cycle involves the cash used to pay vendors, employees and others for the goods and services they supply. It also includes operating expenses such as rent and utilities.

The biggest obstacle to correcting expense cycle issues is one of attitude. Your goal is not to “pinch every penny” and second-guess past spending decisions. Experience teaches that it is too easy to miss the big picture while focusing only on inconsequential items. Reducing paper clip expenses by 80% will not save your company.

The focus of your expense cycle review should be to ensure that costs are planned and justified by their expected benefits. Ask yourself whether they are consistent with your business goals. If the answer is no, the appropriate action is to eliminate the expense. It is that simple!

Furthermore, expenses must be incurred within an environment of adequate internal controls. This control environment includes management tools such as monthly financial statements, a detailed budget and basic procedures such as a purchase order process with competitive bidding. Without these controls, it is simply not possible to manage expenses.

The revenue cycle:

The revenue cycle deals with money coming into your business. If only it were that simple!

Problems within this cycle are the most difficult to identify and analyze, especially if management lacks a solid grasp of the numbers. Consequently, the root cause of many business failures lies within the revenue cycle. They are unpleasant to address, since they ultimately affect customer relations. Two examples follow.

Money coming into a business always starts with a sale to a customer. However, it does not end there. If your business offers credit to customers, making a sale actually drains cash until you collect the receivable. This creates an inherent conflict between the desire to increase sales through generous credit terms and lenient collection procedures, and the need to maximize cash flow. Success in this area requires adequate internal controls including standardized billing and collection procedures, a balanced customer approval process, and sound treasury management.

One unpleasant aspect of squeezing more cash out of the revenue cycle is the prospect of having to raise prices. Perhaps the single most common mistake is under-pricing products and services relative to your cost structure. Correcting this challenge is even more difficult after you have established unrealistic customer pricing expectations, or if you operate in an especially competitive environment. People who do business with you primarily because you offer the lowest prices are unlikely to exhibit much customer loyalty.

We will finish this topic next Friday with a discussion of the capital cycle and a closing comment on cash flows.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

 

CASH IS KING, LONG LIVE THE KING!

 

 

Today’s title is an obvious parody on the old phrase, “The king is dead. Long live the king!” It dates to thirteenth century England. It conveyed the immediate transfer of power between a deceased monarch and the heir to the throne. More relevant to our purposes, it signified the continuity of sovereignty, or the supreme authority.

Future articles will explore where cash comes from, and where it goes, two critically important issues for every small business. For now, I will discuss the more basic question of why cash is cash king in today’s business world.

First, allow me to quote the experts. A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas explained the supreme importance of cash rather succinctly:

“A lack of cash flow is often the biggest failure indicator. A lack of cash flow could cause a business to fall behind on wage payments, rent, and insurance and loan payments. A lack of cash flow also could inhibit the company’s ability to reinvest for future profits such as the ordering of products or supplies and marketing execution. When a company is borrowing to pay off past debts, it is usually a sign of disaster to come.”

They also said, “A significant shortage of cash flow limits the company’s ability to respond to outside threats. This is critical for fledgling businesses since new threats seem to appear every day.”

The only thing you can be certain of in business is that things will never turn out exactly as you planned. Adequate cash allows businesses to survive extended periods when sales, profits and cash flow are running behind plan, whatever the cause. Every business requires some level of cash to serve as a buffer against this uncertainty.

You could say cash provides sleep insurance. Constantly worrying whether a large customer will pay their invoice in time to meet Friday’s payroll, or whether you will have to turn away sales during your busiest season because you cannot stock sufficient inventory to meet demand is too often part of a businessperson’s everyday thought process.

Adequate cash levels are especially vital during the initial start-up period of a business. However, while the risks and challenges change as a business grows and matures, cash is supreme during any stage of a company’s life cycle.

For example, imagine that a 120-year-old company generated $1.2 billion in net losses. My immediate reaction is they certainly won’t be around to celebrate their 125th anniversary. That company is Alcoa. They lost $74 million in 2008 and a staggering $1.1 billion in 2009. Yet, Alcoa is still the world’s third largest producer of aluminum, and still trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

How is surviving such staggering losses possible? It was possible because during the same two years Alcoa generated $2.6 billion of positive cash flow from operations. As the old adage goes, “You can survive almost anything if you just have enough cash.” Businesses close their doors when they run out of cash to pay vendors and employees, period!

Here is an even more dramatic and current example of why cash is king.

AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2011. During the previous 15 quarters, the company accumulated over $4.9 billion in net losses. Yet industry experts seem confident the company will successfully emerge from bankruptcy. Why? AMR has over $4.3 billion in cash on its balance sheet.

Far too often, the immediate response to a cash crisis is to tighten up on expenses, cut something back, to make do with less! That may be an appropriate tactic, especially if you have not scrutinized expenses closely in the past, or do not have a good handle on your cost structure.

However, cutting back is not the only tactic.

Next week I will begin a discussion of how cash flow generated (or used) by any business is the net result of the inter-action and proper management of three related cycles. They are the revenue, expense and capital cycles.

Until then, long live the king!

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

WHAT A CPA KNOWS ABOUT MARKETING: MORE SALES AREN’T ALWAYS THE ANSWER

There is an old joke about a marketing executive who bought a truckload of melons from a farmer for $1 each. He advertised them for sale at $0.85. When his CFO asked how he planned make a profit, he proudly replied, “Volume!”

Does that sound absurd to you? Surely, the story must be a throwback to the days before we had MBAs and complex modeling systems to direct our every move.

May I be honest? I have a degree in accounting, and have done graduate work in finance, not marketing. I have never worked in a purely marketing or sales function. Any marketing professional worth his salt has probably forgotten more on the subject then I will ever know. That explains the often-asked question of why a CPA wrote a book called Highly Visible Marketing, and blogs about marketing related topics.

I do not see myself as writing about marketing; at least not as the average person understands the word. I write about a business approach that is foreign to many marketing professionals. It is largely unheard of among small businesses.

I call it marketing accountability.

I focus clients on improving cash flow by growing the bottom line, not the top line. It is that focus that adds value.

Too many business people think like our melon-selling friend. They assume they can make money on any product or service, if they can just sell enough.

As obvious as it may sound, there must be a reasonable and measurable relationship between marketing costs and the expected cash flow and other benefits.

Without that mindset, there is no perceived need to compare costs and benefits. Little or no effort is spent matching expenses and revenues until someone asks why the cash balance is circling the drain or vendors start calling asking where their payment is.

Do you think I might be exaggerating the importance of accountability?

A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas reported that of businesses in their study that filed for bankruptcy, 58% admitted to doing “little to no record keeping.” I assume a business that keeps no records has no ability to compare costs and benefits, let alone manage them.

I encounter this “I’ll make up the difference on volume” mentality with alarming frequency. One of those encounters was the cathartic event that led me to develop my marketing accountability approach.

I had a growing client who had reached $5 million in sales. Unfortunately, losses were growing even faster. They were in desperate straits, virtually out of cash. They thought the answer was to slash expenses and eliminate staff, while continuing to grow sales. In other words, they followed conventional business thinking.

I discovered they were losing money on their largest customer class, where all marketing efforts were directed. Much to their surprise, I did not suggest eliminating a single position. On the contrary, I recommended hiring a marketing person for the profitable customer base. I then directed  procedural improvements to make it easier for those customers to do business with my client. Finally, I suggested an immediate reduction in unprofitable customers.

Even more alarming is how often clients I assume are financially astute fall into the same trap. I worked with a very large company that started a bonus program on their entire product line. The problem was they lost money on some products, primarily because they were underpriced. The bonus structure did not differentiate between products. When sales of already unprofitable products increased, the added cost of bonuses produced a “double whammy” on the bottom line.

An appropriate tactic would have been to reward the sales force for increasing total sales, while also decreasing sales of unprofitable products.

As both examples illustrate, growing sales and increasing profits are not always synonymous. Admittedly, decreasing sales to improve cash flow and profits sounds counter-intuitive to someone lacking a firm grasp of their cost structure.

That is no excuse.

Knowing how to sell something without understanding the economic impact of those sales is a recipe for disaster. Those responsible for a promotion should also be held accountable for its results, good or bad. The ultimate result companies must focus on is how much cash a promotion puts in the bank. It really is that simple!

Does my marketing accountability approach work?

Here is what the client in the first example said, “While many companies are looking to cut back on employees as their first resort to handle cash shortages, CFO America was quick to point out that the right mix of customers was the crucial area of concern. They also were quite helpful in directing us in some marketing improvements that we could make. We are now in the process of implementing changes that are destined to enhance our financial picture.”

I leave you with that quote.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 2)

Today I conclude the article on product driven versus market driven companies. I began by discussing the cultural differences between the two. Product driven companies concentrate on achieving and maintaining technical superiority. Market driven companies devote resources to brand development and customer communications.

Companies and industries sometimes attempt to adapt their marketing strategy in response to changing competition and other market forces. For example, conditions slowly but dramatically changed for the entire American automotive industry over the next 50 years. Detroit’s response to the 1973 oil embargo was a textbook case of a failed attempt to adapt. Faced with the first ever non-wartime limit on the availability of cheap gasoline, the American consumer suddenly became very conscious of gas mileage.

At the time, Japanese and European companies dominated the market for fuel-efficient sub-compacts. American manufacturers’ knee-jerk response was to jump headfirst into a market they had ignored until recently. They stepped up production of the notoriously undependable Ford Pinto (voted the worst car of all time), the Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin.

Detroit’s failure took a personal toll on an entire generation of consumers. My first car was a red, white and blue Pinto. It was a cornucopia of expensive mechanical problems, unrelenting frustration on a 94-inch wheelbase. I sold it just before a massive recall for an exploding gas tank problem that would eventually cost Ford millions of dollars in legal settlements.

My next car, a Toyota, sparked a love affair with foreign cars that continues today. It was 30 years before I bought another Ford, a pickup truck for my son. It took almost as long for American manufacturers to overcome the image of producing inferior cars. It remains to be seen whether they will ever regain the world market share they once enjoyed.

How have things changed since I bought that damn Pinto?

A national chain of men’s discount stores advertised, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” For a product driven company in 2011, an educated consumer might be more aptly described as their worst nightmare. Service industry executive and strategic planning expert Michael O’Loughlin recently summarized the reason. He said, “Thanks to the Internet, the consumer has come to believe that no concessions are ever necessary. They expect unlimited choices in meeting their needs.”

Potential customers are only a few clicks away from a myriad of rival goods and services. A consumer with a smartphone can compare competitors’ prices on the spot. Any business, even the smallest local operation, ignores those powerful market realities at their own peril. Broadening your product line or services can help fend off competition by better addressing market needs, and improve customer retention in the process.

The men’s store chain recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. One analyst said they had failed to keep up with the increasingly competitive off-priced clothing market.

My final point is that few successful companies employ an entirely one-sided strategy. They operate along a moving spectrum on which there are few absolutes, and no strategy guaranteed to bring success or failure.

Consider Ford one last time. Product limitations notwithstanding, they still managed to sell over 15 million units between 1908 and 1927. At one point, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s. That production record stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed it in 1972.

The correct strategy for your business is the one that is executable within the constraints of your cost structure and marketing budget, and that produces the highest net cash flow given all the relevant factors at work in your market and your competition.

I began this article with an old quote. I end with another. A marketing adage says, “You have to sell from your own wagon.” It refers to a bygone era when merchants plied their trade by pushing handcarts up and down urban streets. The adage may be true. However, today you get to decide how big your wagon is, and what products or services it carries.

Go forth and sell!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Curiosity was Framed, Ignorance Killed the Cat

My first job after public accounting was as Director of Internal Audit for a large regional insurance company. Given free range to determine my own assignments, I immediately launched a review of the claims processing operation. As Willie Sutton would say, “That’s where the money is.”

Back then, mainframe computers housed in cold rooms that took up an entire floor were the order of the day. Reports printed on large “green-bar” paper with perforated edges, bound together between heavy cardboard covers using bendable wires.

On my second day on the job, I was flipping through a report of claim payments. It listed basic information like policy and claim number, payee, amount, dates and so forth. The report probably had 50 to 60 claims per page, and was several hundred pages long.

I spotted something strange. About every 15 or 20 pages, a claim would show a negative payment. Based on my understanding of the system, there was no logical explanation for negative numbers. I started asking questions, lots of questions!

To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain claims to be paid twice. As best I can recall, I found about $125,000 of duplicates. That was not a lot of money to a billion dollar company, even in 1978 dollars. Still, with an annual salary of $22,000, I cost-justified my first five years’ compensation the second day on the job.

My point in recalling this story is not to take you with me on a boring stroll down memory lane. OK, that is part of it, but a very small part.

My point is that other people who had worked with the claim report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative amounts before, yet had failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier. Why?

I offer two words: human nature.

People seem to have a natural tendency to accept most things as they are. Asking questions and challenging the status quo is actually considered rude in many cultures. Sadly, it is career limiting in many corporate environments. Relax and remember what happen to the mythical cat! I heard it was a mid-level manager in a Fortune 500 company somewhere on the east coast.

That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy, apathetic or any other negative adjective. It’s just how things are.

Contrast that to Thomas Edison, who said he rarely picked up an object without wondering how he could make it better. I call that the curiosity factor. Either you have the curiosity factor, or you don’t. It cannot be taught or learned, and is seldom spoken of. Yet in many professions (including internal auditing), it is probably the single best predictor of ultimate success.

Every business desperately needs someone who will leap headfirst into operations or finances with a dedication approaching a Pit bull on a pork chop. If that is not you, go hire someone with the curiosity factor.

You will be amazed at what valuable business opportunities are waiting to be discovered just below the surface.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Resolve To Make a Decision

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” I have never actually observed the behavior of waterfowl suffering from cranial trauma, although I once accidentally hit a duck with a stone skimmed across a frozen pond. But that was long ago and involved an entirely different part of the duck’s anatomy.

I have observed the behavior of managers making (or not making) decisions enough to conclude that the majority of problems in business are not because someone made the wrong decision, but because no one made any decision. Will Rogers summarized the risk of indecision with this, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

To be sure, there are “mission critical” decisions that have the long-term potential to make or break any organization. Nevertheless, unless you are a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, most mistakes are to some extent correctable, at least within limited timeframes.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters the process with preconceived biases and exhibits some degree of “decision inertia” or a reluctance to move off those biases when faced with new facts or circumstances. Business decisions can be reduced to a four-step process as illustrated in the following diagram.

The first step is to analyze the problem and identify solutions. This is largely a fact gathering exercise involving input from multiple sources and considering alternative courses of action.

It is important to differentiate between problem analysis and decision making. Although it may sound redundant, success requires the decision maker to do just that, make a decision. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

While the dreaded “paralysis of analysis” may be seen as the cause, the reality is many people, perhaps including Mr. Lincoln’s general, simply find it safer not to make decisions, even in obvious situations.

As an example, I was once responsible for opening three new offices and hiring several hundred employees, including managers with company cars. The fleet manager came to me in a panic one day. Company policy allowed employees to select their own cars. This meant they would be without cars for several weeks. I calmly asked what the choices were, and immediately ordered 15 identical cars. She asked how I knew they would like the cars. The truth was I neither knew nor cared! Since a decision was needed, I made it. The managers arrived on their first day to find a fleet of new cars waiting on the front row. As expected, no one died.

Investment professionals report there is a tendency to “sell winners too quickly and hold on to losers too long.” The reason we hold on to losers is primarily a subconscious reluctance to admit mistakes. Your focus should be on early detection of challenges and the identification and implementation of appropriate corrective action. American author Arnold H. Glasow put it this way, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Be willing to make changes if indicated by the monitoring process, even at the risk of exposing your mistakes. Tony Robbins put it this way, “Stay committed to your decisions; but stay flexible in your approach.”

Accountability is paramount to a successful decision making process. If you want credit for your accomplishments, be willing to take responsibility for mistakes. Have enough confidence to say, “I was wrong, now let’s fix it.” Remember, your goal is not to avoid all mistakes. Simply doing nothing would accomplish that. Your goal is to minimize the impact of missteps and learn from them.

I end with this comment by Peter Drucker, management consultant and author of 39 books. He said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

P.S. My apologies to PETA for the whole duck by the frozen pond rock skimming long time ago hit in the anatomy thing.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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