Eight Secrets from a Serial Blogger

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Have you been thinking about blogging, but are concerned whether your writing skills will translate into effective online communications?

Increase your chances of success in getting your message to the right audience by avoiding the mistakes of others. This article offers eight simple suggestions its authors learned in the preverbal “school of hard knocks”.

Here they are:

1. Stick to a schedule. The correct blogging frequency is whatever connects with your audience. For some blogs that might be daily. For others, once a month is sufficient. The optimal blogging frequency is not critical. What is critical is to decide on a schedule, communicate it to your readers and stick to it! Avoid the temptation to over-commit. While most bloggers enjoy writing, it can be grueling.

2. Expand and enhance. Supplement your usual content by periodically sharing relevant quotes, articles and tips from others. You can also try using guest writers, treating your readers to different areas of expertise and points of view. A generous introduction to your guest author may result in them reciprocating on their blog, further expanding your following.

3. Keep posts short. Readers are looking for tidbits of actionable information, not detailed research. Keep posts short, preferably under 600 words. The average American reads less than 300 words per minute. Studies suggest 65% of visitors spend less than 2 minutes on a website. Therefore, an entry longer than 600 words will not be read in its entirety, if at all.

  • A better alternative to lengthy articles is to split them into multiple parts, posting them in consecutive entries. Begin each post with a review of what was discussed in the previous entry, and end with what to expect in your next post and when it will be shared.

4. Promote your blog. Add your blog’s web address to business cards, print media ads, letterheads, email signatures and so on. Adding a Quick Response Code to business cards and other medium is gaining popularity. A QR code allows Smartphone users to find your blog easily.

5. Use social media. Post summaries of blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Exercise care to comply with each platform’s unique character limitations.

  • Since you will always end with a hyperlink to your blog, use a free URL shortener like https://bitly.com/ if pressed for space.
  • Post blog entries on SlideShare or other article marketing sites by uploading a pdf file. The last paragraph should be a brief “About the author” with a hyperlink to your blog.
  • Blog posts can be featured in your monthly newsletter to customers and friends.

6. Support online sharing. Add plug-ins or widgets on your blog to promote article sharing through Facebook, Twitter and other social media vehicles you believe are likely to help capture your target market. Allow readers to bookmark your URL to their list of favorite sites with the click of a button.

7. Encourage feedback. Always thank readers who post comments. Be respectful of opinions and suggestions, even if you disagree with them. While it is perfectly appropriate to delete spam (an inevitable byproduct of successful blogging) or comments with inappropriate language, deleting reader comments simply because you disagree discourages feedback. Periodically end posts by asking readers for comments, suggestions and ideas for future articles.

8. Don’t give up too quickly. Some experts believe it takes about 100 posts before you begin to build a following. Most bloggers become discouraged and give up before reaching that milestone.

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Count on a Guy in a White Hat

whitehatAs an entire generation who grew up watching Gun Smoke, The Lone Ranger and a long list of other television westerns knows, good guys always wore white hats!

One of the greatest Hollywood clichés of all times, it is deeply ingrained within each of us that you could count on a stranger in a white hat! They were sure to be honest, kind, generous, courageous, moral and chivalrous.

That leaves the other guys, the ones in the black hats. Just as good defines evil, they were the anti-hero of every storyline, the exact opposite of guys in white hats. A man in a black hat was surely dishonest, cruel, self-centered, cowardly, immoral and boorish. Good guys and bad guys were always on opposite sides of an issue. Fortunately, good always triumphed in the end.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to pick names for two broad categories of search engine optimization (SEO) practices, a baby boomer somewhere choose white hat and black hat to describe the opposite ends of a long spectrum of internet marketing techniques and philosophies.

The stakes are high in this modern day gunfight. Fair or not, a potential customer who has never heard of your company has no choice but to equate your search engine results and the quality of your content with the prominence of your company among your peers and the value of your products or services!

A study of December 2010 Google searches for B2B and B2C businesses found the top 3 search engine rankings got 60% of all click throughs, with the first position enjoying a click through rate (CTR) of 36.4%. Page one listings got 8 times more clicks than page 2. CTR differences by ranking were even more dramatic for key words with more than 1,000 searches per month.

What then are the distinguishing characteristics of these opposing marketing camps? They hinge on the answer to a single question. Does the marketer play by the largely unwritten and frequently changing rules of the major search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing control over 95% of the market) or not?

Just like the old Code of the West, white hats follow the rules. They focus on engaging and informing readers rather than manipulating search engine algorisms. Their procedures include writing key word rich text (without meaningless repetition), link building and paid advertising using pay per click ad words.

Black hats still refuse to play by any rules. Their techniques include email spam, keyword stuffing, article spinning (posting substantially similar content in multiple locations) and using hidden text to trick search engines.

What are the rewards for playing by the rules of this 21st century Code of the Internet? White hat marketing can be expected to produce slower but longer lasting organic search rankings. Black hat techniques will likely eventually be penalized by search engines, reducing rankings or eliminating the listing from their database.

What color is your hat?

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

“LIKE” IF YOU REMEMBER MYSPACE

MySpaceIs it just me, or has there been an explosion of people posting nostalgic photos on Facebook and asking you to click “Like” if you can remember a black and white picture of some fifties TV icon or a once popular consumer product from your youth? Time has a way of reducing our past to warm, fuzzy memories. Heck, show me a photo of a macho guy enjoying a cigarette on the back of a horse and I might even forget that three of the Marlboro Man actors died of lung cancer!

Digital media has done more than merely provide a medium to share the recollections of our youth. It has greatly diminished the time span during which products and services move from broad acceptance and popularity to distant memories. Allow me to offer two well-known examples.

Gutenberg’s 1440 invention of the printing press revolutionized communication. It made possible the sharing of ideas and information through the mass production of books. It took another 555 years, until 1995, for an upstart company named Amazon to start selling those same books using something that had been introduced just three years earlier. That something was the Internet.

It took another 12 years to popularize eReaders like their famous Kindle. Within four years, Amazon was selling three times as many eBooks as hard covers. Their success obviously does not include a plethora of competitors including the hugely successful Apple iPad. It seems almost certain the paper book will soon be a candidate for Facebook friends to ask you to “Like” if you can remember owning one.

Still, 600 years from invention to impending obsolescence is not a bad run! Now consider a more recent service life span.

MySpace was introduced in August 2003, six months before Facebook. Just two years later, it was the most visited social networking site on the planet. Rupert Murdock was so excited about its prospects that he paid $580 million for it in 2005. In 2006, it reached 100 million accounts, a level that required 1,600 employees to support.

Facebook over took it in April 2008.

In June 2011, Murdoch’s News Corporation sold MySpace for $35 million, a 94% loss on their six-year investment. With uncharacteristic understatement, Murdoch pronounced the purchase a “huge mistake”.

These examples illustrate three critically important points for all 21st century marketers.

  1. Communication trends change faster than businesses can anticipate. Most lack the resources to manage that change.
  2. Faced with a constantly expanding stream of free choices, your target audience no longer uses communications channels popular just a few years ago.
  3. Neither do your successful competitors.

The cost of failure is high. Even the most carefully designed marketing communiqué, be it a press release, an ad campaign, a newsletter, etc., will fail if it is not transmitted in the optimal channel.

The only way to avoid that mistake is to communicate a consistent message and single brand to over-lapping audiences across multiple channels. That is what successful digital media marketing is all about.

© 2013 by CFO America, LLC

Increasing User Buy-in of Financial Forecasts

Business HandshakeLet me begin with two assumptions: first, your primary modeling tool is Microsoft Excel; second, you share model projections with others. If both these assumptions are correct, I have two secrets of success for those new to financial forecasting.

The first is that everyone who sees your forecast assumes they know more about what the modeled results should be and better understand the impact of changes than you do. That you spent countless hours constructing the model, studying company and industry trends, back-testing formulas and validating every assumption will be quickly lost in their rush to point out what to them appears to be “obvious errors”.

I frequently develop complex models generating quarterly projections of full financial statements for a three to five year horizon. Models usually involve the consolidation of multiple entities and detailed ratio analysis. A typical model has 35 to 60 variables. Every variable is contained in named cells on an assumptions tab (immediately behind the title tab). All formulas utilize the appropriate variable name rather than a cell reference or hard coding.

For those not familiar with the use of named cells in Excel, go to the File Manager icon on the Formulas tab. Additional guidance is available online. One source is http://bit.ly/18tl7OP.

Typically, a client will zero in on one or two variables, insisting (as an example) that sales growth projected in year 3 is clearly wrong! He or she is so confident of their belief that the model has likely lost significant credibility with them.

Invariably, the impact of the user’s change is not as significant as they suppose. Sticking with the sales example, changing the growth rate has no impact on earlier years. Furthermore, the effect on future income is reduced by resultant increases in the cost of goods sold, inventory carrying costs, variable expenses such as commissions and shipping, borrowing costs and so on. Finally, income taxes further reduce the bottom line impact by another 35% to 40%.

Rational discussion and logic serve no purpose in this situation. You cannot change human nature! Your goal is merely to channel it in a productive direction.

I do this by simply asking what they think the number should be. I then take them to the assumptions tab and change the offending variable to their number. The model then recalculates, eliminating any guesswork on the impact of the proposed “correction”.

Seeing is believing.

The second “secret” complements the first. Without exception, even the most complex models come down to a mere handful of key variables. Since your goal is to redirect rather than change behavior, help users focus on those that drive projected results, rather than getting bogged down in immaterial detail.

You can accomplish this by highlighting which variables have an individually material impact on the cumulative results of your forecast. Begin by deciding what the appropriate base or dependant result is. I find it is most often one of three things depending on the primary use of the model: net income, stockholders equity or the internal rate of return.

I then test every variable in isolation with a 10% unfavorable change. For example, a 20% sales increase is reduced to 18%. I note the impact of each variable on the cumulative base result. I then typically use a materiality threshold of 2% for disclosure. The less attention drawn to non-critical variables the better!

Rarely will a variable have a high correlation to the measured result. A typical scenario might be that a 10% change in each of my 35 to 60 variables produces four to six with an impact greater than 2%, with none exceeding 8%.

This sensitivity analysis is the third tab, immediately behind the variables. By quantifying and clearly presenting the impact of changes in this manner, you are inviting needed input (and therefore user buy-in), without having to debate or justify the majority of variables that will have minimal or no impact on your forecast. Users can then concentrate on achieving a comfort level with a relative handful of model inputs, saving everyone time.

As a closing note, while the focus is on the cumulative impact of variable changes, there are times and circumstances when individual period results are also important, regardless of the dollar impact. For example, loan covenant compliance is a constant requirement. If a change in an otherwise insignificant variable creates an incidence of non-compliance, the change cannot be ignored.

How I handle that situation is the subject of a future article. Here is a hint: conditional formatting!

We Have Meet The Enemy & He Is Us, Dealing with Entrenched Policies & Procedures (Part 2)

On Monday, I introduced the topic of inefficient and outdated policies, processes and procedures using the cartoon character Pogo, and the mid-twentieth inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

After coining a new acronym (RGP3s) and describing some common characteristics, I ended with the obvious question, what is a manger to do about them?

First, be open to the possibility of their existence in your organization. Every company has some areas that need improvement. You cannot assume that something is “best practices” simply because it worked in the past. If a department is unable to keep up with current workloads, there are only two possible reasons. Either they are understaffed, or they are operating at less than peak efficiency. Adding staff adds costs. Improving efficiencies is likely a cheaper and perhaps faster alternative.

All successful organizations eventually reach a size where managers are not expected to be familiar with the application of every policy, process and procedure. Even if they are, RGP3s can be virtually invisible to the familiar (or complacent) eye. That suggests one of two possible approaches.

The first approach is to constantly challenge and encourage employees to identify efficiency improvement opportunities. Maintain an open and direct line of communication through brief but regular interaction. Actively solicit employee input and implement at least one idea every month. Publicly reward accepted suggestions in ways they value. That may mean an employee of the month plaque in the lobby, a front row parking spot or an AMEX gift card.

Unfortunately, relying solely on employees’ willingness to point out flaws has a major limitation, human nature! People seem to have a tendency to accept most things as they are. Furthermore, asking questions and challenging the status quo may be viewed as career limiting in some corporate cultures. That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy or apathetic. It’s just how things are.

The second approach is to bring in a fresh pair of eyes. A while back, I shared a story about an experience in a new job. On my second day, I was reviewing a lengthy payment report when I spotted something unexpected. About every 20 pages or so, there was an entry with a negative amount. Based on my still limited understanding, there was no reason for negative numbers. To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain items to be paid twice.

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

In closing, let me clarify what constitutes a “fresh pair of eyes”. It may mean a consultant. This outside resource could be an expert in your field, or someone well versed in common business practices and operations. An auditor or independant CPA with other clients in your industry may be a valuable resource, especially if the area of concern is one they review as part of their evaluation of internal controls.

In my example, a fresh pair of eyes merely meant introducing a new employee into the mix.

Either way, the path to improved efficiencies in your business may be as simple as finding someone unburdened by the “But we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

That mindset, Mr. Pogo, is the real enemy.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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

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

 

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

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