Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Are You Out Of Context?

Have you ever had a persistent telemarketer ruin your lunch hour by calling repeatedly? They're annoying because they are out of your context of having a relaxing lunch. Let me illustrate with a story:

There is a "Wanted" poster with my dog Max's photo on it at a fancy local country club. It lists his crimes as "theft, trespassing, and general menacing." These "crimes" arose from an incident when he was 9 months old. Let me explain. Max and I were in a state park. He was off leash, and I was helping him run off some of his endless, puppy energy. Agreeably, he came when called, and otherwise ran and jumped and played. Until "the sound."
The golf course was beautiful, wide, and seductive to my muddy puppy. He ran until he was out of sight. I followed what I hoped to be his course, and eventually found my muddy, smelly dog begging designer-clad club members for food on the stately patio. I put him on his leash and went away, followed by a barrage of lively comments from club members.

He heard something, and went charging off. He jumped into a stream, scrambled up the other bank, and, covered in thick mud, started racing across a country club golf course, adjacent to the park and only separated by the stream. As I frantically ran to the bridge, I watched him elegantly lope across the golf course. Two men were on a putting green. One man putted. Max, a puppy who wanted to play, trotted over to the ball, picked it up, and ran off with it. The golfer raised his club, yelling and cursing.

Max was out of context. Within his context, he was outside to play with his human. And play he did. Nonetheless, he was wrong. The objective context was that he was cavorting on private property and interrupting the afternoon for club members.

When sales pros approach prospects, we are often out of context. Our prospects are working within their own contexts, and don't necessarily welcome a change in agenda. The very first part of our agenda should be discovering the context of our prospect in that exact moment. Are they up against a deadline? Networking at a luncheon? Filling an urgent need? Are they even happy to hear from us? Is what we're pitching appropriate for the need the prospect is trying to fill? Unlike the telemarketer above, we don't want to cram ourselves into someone's attention at any cost.

It's vital to the establishment of a good professional relationship that sales professionals place themselves within the context of the prospect and act accordingly. If this isn't a good time, sympathize and schedule one that is. If they are having a brutal day, let them vent (and listen closely) before you introduce your agenda. If they are happy to see you, encourage them to expand on why, and how you can be of service to them right now. Present yourself in the context of their day, their needs, and their goals. When we're out of context, we often gain the reputation of someone who "doesn't listen." Instead, we want to be considered someone who "gets it." Context is key.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ending the War With Millennials

This is the first time in decades (1970’s) that being at the young end of the workforce is a significant detriment to becoming and remaining employed. Some common complaints: Younger employees seem to want rewards just for showing up. No one wants to be “entry level” any more as millennials tend to think they should be valued as a “person” instead of as a worker. Attention span is notably shorter. Every task, system, and request seems to result in a debate. Are the millennials really so bad? No. Rather than fight all these traits, how can we work with them to make the entire organization grow?

The most successful approach to blending the generations I have seen has been to institute a grading/seniority system. A company may have 10 levels in each tier: administrators, manufacturing, logistics, sales, management and executive, for example. Each level comes with an ops manual or thorough job description, a distinct review interval, and a defined pay scale. Unless the ops manual specifies a particular methodology, employees can individualize as long as the goals and benchmarks are consistently met.

The assets to a system like this are it clearly defines expectations based on the job title or level; gender, intangible talent, and seniority are now all under consideration only at review times. Compensation goes hand in hand with responsibility level instead of perceived worth or chronology. Because everyone participates in training when they enter certain levels, it creates a standardized knowledge base instead of perceptions of success or failure. The effect is much like that of school uniforms.

Youth has always been the enemy of tradition, and this generation is challenging traditions all over the place. Is that really so bad? Or is it just a case of growing pains? The road to my office was once a path, then a dirt road, then cobblestone, and then pavement. Things evolve. Due to the explosion of technologies since the 1980s, the millennials literally grew up in a different world from their parents, and they feel like they’re waiting for the Boomers and Gen X to catch up. They see things differently. It’s very helpful to hear them out. When they’re right, your organization improves. When they’re wrong, thank them for their input and move on.
The evolutionary jump created over the last 35 years is unparalleled in history. Millennials are no more different from their elders than the Woodstock generation was from theirs, but they are different, and they should be accepted. Some beliefs and systems they challenge will stand the test of time. But some, like the cobblestone street, need to be put aside.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Don't Grow Too Fast! It's Deadly

You want your business to grow. Are you ready? Can you handle an immediate 10% increase in business, and short-term growth in the 20-25% range? If the answer is "no," you have growth management preparation to do.
Most companies would answer, "Of course! Too much business is not the problem. We need more business!" Unfortunately, as often as not, the company isn't ready. This can be lethal to any business.
Look at your current supply line. Add 10% to the number of unfilled orders for every day for the next month. Can your current staff, equipment, and standard timeline absorb that change without causing any disruption? For the second month going forward, bring the additional orders to 13% above current numbers. How does it look? Do you have enough staff? Is your equipment in shape to handle the additional demand? Where is the breaking point? 20%? 30%? You need to know. You don't want to get there by surprise.
Photo "I Love Lucy" Desilu Productions
Lucy and Ethel have a delicious problem!
Frequently, companies try to handle the growth in business without increasing their staff or capital costs. Big mistake. More output always costs more money, whether in the short term by paying staff overtime and bonuses, or in the long term by replacing frustrated and valuable long term employees.

When an organization grows rapidly, two things tend to suffer - quality, and morale. Infrastructure breaks down under the additional load. Machines overheat. Computers crash. Files are lost. Deadlines are missed. Overtime hours are ordered. Pressure builds. Newer employees don't perform as efficiently or as loyally as long-term employees; it takes time to bring them up to speed and proficiency. Existing employees are suddenly responsible for substantially larger workloads with no increase in their paycheck. New employees frequently interrupt the existing staff looking for help and guidance. Existing employees become tired and discouraged, and quality and morale are in trouble.

Clients notice the late deliveries, quality control issues, and declining customer service. They are frustrated that quality is fading. And like all bad news, it travels fast. Reputation and market share begin to falter. Rebuilding a reputation in an industry or community is a very, very slow process. Many companies don't make it. (Think Target in Canada.)

In a period of growth, it is important to have a growth plan. Do you need to institute a temporary formalized training program to bring new employees up to speed? Is it time to tune-up or overhaul your machinery? Are your computers due to be updated or replaced? Does new machinery mean you need more existing workforce training?

Growth is great. It often comes as a surprise as a competitor pulls out of the market, or a new ad campaign is unusually successful. As soon as you notice the upswing, it's time to build morale and loyalty. Buy the staff lunch a few times a month. Make sure everyone has the best quality, most functional equipment necessary to perform their job. The best performance from your employees comes when they feel important and respected. A couple of overtime hours isn't a reward to most employees. Relate to them as people. You've hired them to do a job, and to do it well. Give them the right physical and psychological tools.