How are your managerial skills?  Does there seem to be a gap like the Grand Canyon between you and your employees? Let’s see how we can change that.

If you gathered 100 experienced managers together and asked for their advice, it would probably sound like the roar of Niagara Falls until you got them talking in an orderly way.   But there’s one thing for sure – they wouldn’t be saying much about “temporal rhythms,” or “competing values models.”  Instead, this is probably what you’d hear.

“Don’t be afraid of the phrase, ‘I don’t know’.”  If you don’t know the answer to an employee or board member’s question, don’t try to bluff your way through.  If you’re at fault, take the blame.  If you’re wrong, apologize.  If you don’t have the answer at your fingertips then, promise to get back to the person with the answer within a specific timeframe.

“Never gossip.” If someone wants to gossip with you, politely say you’re not interested.  The corporate adage, when someone gossips two careers are hurt – the person talked about, and the person talking.

“No task is beneath you.”  Don’t think that as a manager you’re above anything.  Be the good example and pitch in, especially if the job is one that nobody wants to do.

“Share the credit whenever possible.”  A manager who spreads credit around looks much stronger than those who take all the credit themselves.

“Ask for help.”  If you think you’re in over your head – then you are!  Ask for some help and you’ll find most people enjoy giving a hand.  Besides saving yourself from embarrassment, you’ll make a friend and an ally.

“Keep your financial remuneration from the business to yourself.”  Discussing how much you’re making is a no-win proposition.  Either you’ll be upset because someone is doing better than you, or someone will be upset with you.

“When you don’t like someone, don’t let it show.”  This is especially true if you outrank them.  Never burn bridges or offend others as you move ahead.

“Let it go!” What shouldn’t happen often does.  You weren’t given the project you wanted, you were passed over for the promotion you deserved.  Be gracious and diplomatic…and move on.  Harboring a grudge won’t advance your career.

“When you’re right, don’t gloat.”  The only time you should ever use the phrase, “I told you so” is if someone says to you: “You were right. I really could succeed at that project.”

Another aid to increase your art of management involves asking questions.  If you really want to learn what the scuttle-butt within the troops is, ask questions as you travel throughout your organization.

Here are 10 questions that should get you all you want to know:

•    What made you mad today?
•    What took too long?
•    What caused complaints today?
•    What was misunderstood today?
•    What cost too much?
•    What was wasted?
•    What was too complicated?
•    What was just plain silly?
•    What job involved too many people?
•    What job involved too many actions?

Prepared with the above list as you travel through the ranks, you should get a pretty accurate reading of your business or organization.  It will also get you the feedback from the customers that complained to your employees.  What better way to know how your business is functioning, and where it needs tweaking?

Entrepreneurs are a special breed of business people who strive for the conventional goals and attain them via unconventional means.  That oftentimes means not having a lot of  hard cash to invest in the traditional marketing methods for attaining customers.  There are ways though, to make your business a customer magnet that will bring you “sales”.

One of the first things you must know when starting off are the characteristics of your prospects and customers.  Just as a wagon needs four wheels to move forward, your business needs four wheels too.  They are a marketing plan (whether you have the budget for it or not), a marketing calendar (so you can work the plan as you acquire capital), a competitive advantage (very, very important), and customer research.

The age of the “lone-wolf business owner” is over, gone with the wind and the innocence.  Today there is a world of businesses that would love to help you in return for you helping them.  Enlisting their aid is paramount, paying them cold hard cash is unnecessary.  This is where you can put some of the bartering skills we spoke of last week into practice. You’ll find just how you can help another business owner and he/she can help you after you get going.  I only bring it up here so that you don’t forget to use this resource.

One of the most important things for you to do to achieve your business goals is to stay in touch with the people on your customer list.  If you don’t have one yet – then start building one, even if you don’t know them personally yet. Do this by mailing announcement postcards to the surrounding neighborhood of your business.  Announce the Grand Opening if yours is a brick and mortar shop, offering a small gift for the 25th or 50th customer on opening day.  If yours is a business without a walk-in shop send the same announcement about the opening of your business and offer tear-off coupon for them to fill out (with their name & address) for the opportunity to win something in a drawing scheduled for 6 days after your mail date.  There is the beginning of your “customer data base” for all future advertising.

You must find your “niche” or “position” as they call it on Madison Avenue.  Your niche is what you stand for, what makes you different, and the first thing you want your prospective customers to think of when they hear your company’s name.  Put it down on paper and make everything that you do from this point on accomplish what you’ve written.

Next to do is a “benefits list”.  What benefits does your customer derive from doing business with you rather than your competitor?  What makes your business or services special?

After those, then you must determine what “quality” you offer.  Quality in this sense is not what you put into your business, rather it is what customers get out of it.  You may use the highest grade tin in the tin whistles that you’re selling, but the customer doesn’t care about that.  What the customer cares about, is if that tin whistle is going to stay in one piece when his 6-year old plays with it for 6 months.  Look at “quality” as setting you apart from the competition – BUT from the customers POV (point of view).

Once these lists are down on paper, look them over and honestly evaluate if your competitors offer the same benefits as you.  If they do, then differentiate yourself and stress a competitive advantage.  Then develop your “elevator” pitch.  If you only had 10 seconds to tell somebody what you did for a living that would make them want to know more – that’s your “elevator” pitch.

Once you’re doing business, keep track of your “A” customers.  All customers are not created equal.  Some buy more, refer more, are easier to deal with, and keep coming back.  Treat your “B” list customers like Royalty, but your “A” list like Family.

Keep track of your success stories, because everything that you’ve done right becomes another weapon in your marketing arsenal.  When you do have the capital to invest in some marketing, it’s always reassuring to new clients to read about the success of others doing business with you.  This will also elevate your credibility with new clients.

Of course it goes without saying that “service” is the secret to every businesses success.  The only definition of “service” that makes sense these days is that it’s anything the customer wants it to be.  It’s not what you’ve always done in the past; it’s what keeps the customer happy and returning.

Guarantees are very important in any type of business, and people expect it.  The longer the guarantee, the more enticing it will be and yet fewer people will ever ask for refunds.

Follow-up is so important, that I can hardly find a way to make it stand out.  Nearly 70% of business that is LOST is due not to poor service or shoddy quality, but because of apathy after the sale.  Once you serve a customer don’t just forget about them, have a way of adding them to your customer data base.  Get their pertinent information – name, address, phone number, what you did for them, etc.  Find a way, be it postcard mail, fliers, whatever – but send them something every 4 weeks.  If they’re not seeing your name regularly, when they need what you offer they won’t remember you. You might sell tires and we know there’s only a certain number of tires you can expect a customer to buy in a year, but when they have unexpected tire damage or the time to replace tires rolls around why will they come back to you?  Is it because they got your postcard last week and it reminded them they needed replacements.  They may have gotten a second car, and since they got your mail it reminded them to get tires from you.  Remember, whatever you’re selling, they can go to your competitor unless you give them a reason to come to you!

Networking is a great tool for you to use.  I mean networking not with your peers, but rather with your prospective clients.  Join the group and ask questions, listen to answers, take notes, and contact who you met.  Gauge your success by the cards you GOT, not gave.  Offer those you contact a free consultation, and don’t give a sales-pitch during that time.  Anyone can resist a sales presentation, but it’s hard to resist a free consultation that will help them solve whatever problem they have.  Many times your service is the answer for their problem but save the sales pitch until the next call.  By the same token, if during the consultation you find you can’t help them but one of your fellow entrepreneurs can – be honest and refer them to him/her.  (This not only shows your prospect that you really are interested in being of service, but it also gives you an unwritten IOU from one of your peers.)

You’d be surprised how many clients will refer a friend or family member to you, just because they felt you were honest enough to tell them you couldn’t help them.

Your customer list is worth its weight in platinum, especially if it’s bulging with information and it’s free to compile and insane not to.  With these tactics, it’s a foregone conclusion that more sales will not only naturally follow, but will be anchored down safe from competition.

A personal crisis doesn’t have to spell disaster for your business if you’re prepared.  Every business occasionally endures a crisis, but what happens when your dilemma isn’t falling profits but personal.

Because we have no idea what type of personal crisis may await us – an ugly divorce, debilitating disease, or ailing parent/child/spouse, we must be prepared. Just as you plan for advertising and promotions, you must plan for life’s surprises.

Paul Krasinski, founder of Lion Strategy Advisors, New York, suggests finding somebody NOW who can take over your responsibility and carry on for at least 20 days.  He/she needs to be someone who can communicate well with staff and command respect, and may or may not be the person you feel closest to in the company.

Once a personal crisis hits, Krasinski recommends “full disclosure” to your employees. This avoids the feeling of being hit by a bomb, and that business will go on as usual.  In case you think this doesn’t work, let me give you a case history.

Dana Weidaw, 28 and president of her own PR firm had only been in business 1 year when she tested “full disclosure” with her employees.  She was diagnosed with an aneurysm which required a surgeon to drill through her skull.  She had just landed her first major client and was publicizing a major hockey arena.  If all didn’t go well with the project, this client could turn out to be her last.

Before missing 7 days of work, Weidaw prepped her full-time employee, another agency she was working with, and her client by sharing the nitty-gritty details of her crisis.  She assured them everything would run according to plans and smoothly in her absence, and found that everybody was willing to work around her crisis.  Weidaw found that, by nature, people are very sympathetic.

A word of caution though, you need to know when to talk.  During and after a crisis – full disclosure is great.  If you’re “contingency” planning though, it might be prudent not to advertise that if your personal life goes in the tanker good old Gary or Suzy will be in charge.  Your employees may needlessly dwell on why they weren’t picked to run the show instead of them.  Above all, you don’t want to cause widespread distress or distract your staff from day-to-day operation.

Just as surely as you plan for financial allocations for your business, always have a crisis plan in place.  This may need adjustments from year to year as staff leaves and are replaced, so when planning for each year’s business needs include your crisis plan.

I bet that got your attention!  It’s something that every business owner knows, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle of our day-to-day doing business.

I’m not going to give you a lot of rhetoric on the subject.  Instead I’m going to simply give you a list of 10 points on each that will jog your business memory.

Let’s start with some savvy ways to reduce the cost of you doing business:

1. Barter

You should be bartering goods or services with other businesses.  Try to trade for something before you buy it.

2. Network

Could you trade leads or  mailing lists with another business similar to your?  This will cut down on your marketing/advertising costs. If you don’t have a leads list, try bartering your goods/services for their leads.

3. Wholesale/Bulk Buying

You can save money buying your business supplies in bulk quantities.  Get a membership at a wholesale warehouse (such as Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.) or buy through a mail order wholesaler.  I buy most of my office supplies/paper through mail order vendors which saves me money, and also delivers them to my door.  No lugging from store to car to office, and saving money too!  What a deal.

4. Free Stuff

Try visiting the thousands of “freebie” sites on the Internet before buying business supplies.  You can find free software, graphics, legal forms, online business services, etc.

5. Borrow/Rent

Have you purchased a piece of business equipment and only needed it for a short period of time?  You could have borrowed the equipment from someone else or rented it from a rental store.

6. Online/Offline Auctions

You can find office furniture, equipment, and even cars and trucks at online and offline auctions.  Pay special attention to those held by law enforcement agencies or IRS that auctions off items seized from offenders.  I’m not saying all the time, but before you pay retail for some big ticket items try bidding on them.

7. Plan Ahead

Make a list of supplies or equipment that you’ll need in the future.  Watch for stores that have big sales, and purchase your items when they go on sale before you need them.

8. Used but Not Abused

If you equipment and supplies don’t need to be new, buy them used. Cars, desks, file cabinets, etc. can be found at yard and garage sales, used stores, on message boards, and free publications.  Some excellent items are sometimes offered when a business decides to relocate or is closing.

9. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate!

This has become a lost art.  You should always try to negotiate a lower price for any business equipment or supplies.  It doesn’t hurt to try. Pretend you’re talking to a used car salesman.

10. Search

You can always be searching for new suppliers for your needs.  Look for suppliers with lower prices and better quality.  When you find one, try pointing the difference out to your current supplier.  You may get a better deal from him and not have to change.  Don’t be satisfied with just a few.  You never know when your favorite supplier may decide to go out of business.

If you’re a native Californian, you might find these things I’ve discussed a little hard to swallow.  Let me tell you, being a native New Yorker, these are things that you learn from doing business there, and at an early age.

Just remember! Every millionaire didn’t acquire their wealth through inheritance; some were shrewd business dealers.

In next Saturday’s column I’ll give you the other half of the equation.  How to anchor down more sales.

Ask yourself are you paddling or floating your canoe down the river of your business life?  If you’re floating then you’re on the defense, if you’re paddling then you’re on the offense – where do you want to be?

In today’s business climate if you’re not on the offensive then you’re being whipped and buffeted from every side by the obstacles you encounter.  If something isn’t working in your advertising and you’re a floater then you just wait until next week, or next month and see if it improves.  But if you’re paddling and guiding your business, then you’re busy working out how to fix what’s not working.

Take for instance that big boulder in the river known as “competitive intelligence”, which refers to the knowledge needed to implement successful competitive strategies.  If you haven’t got a handle on this it can spell disaster to your business.  Let’s look at an example of what I mean.

Suppose you find out that a competitor has dropped the price on a product competing directly with your business’ highest gross margin item.  Before you drop your price to match, ask yourself whether this could affect your ability to compete.  If the answer is “yes”, you should do a bit of sleuthing to answer some key questions like:

  • Is the price cut an unequivocal comparison, or have certain features/services been modified?
  • Is the price drop sufficient to overcome customer inertia to change?
  • Does the competitor have the capacity to handle increased demand without damaging customer satisfaction?
  • Is the price change restricted to one territory or account, or is it across-the-board?

Effective strategy covers product design, branding, services, and a host of other variables that, in total, comprise your competitive edge.  Protecting your edge requires a real-time stream of knowledge about the changing competitive landscape.  The most significant fund of ongoing information, on an ongoing basis is your sales force.

Salespeople have the most direct contact with customers, and have customer feedback on the competition which is both real and perceived.  However, their job is to sell, so it’s important that you make them aware of their importance and involvement in gathering competitive intelligence.

For the successful collecting of information from the sales force, you must prove to them and their sales managers that the process is of value to them. This means you have some homework to do which is gathering information that is already available internally.  Look at and analyze call reports, won-lost reports, and sales records for red flags and trends.  A competitive move in one territory may seem insignificant until added to information from other territories, or as part of a global rollout strategy.

Augment these finding with public data from published sources and industry analysts, and you can offer your sales force tips on competing more successfully.  By initiating the information sharing process, you will encourage reciprocity on the part of sales once they see what’s in it for them.

In addition to the sales force, people from other functions in your firm are often repositories of useful competitor information.  Accounting, procurement, HR, and other functions attend professional meetings with competitor counterparts and may have bits and pieces of the competitive landscape puzzle.  Do they know how important this data is, and have you motivated them to share it?

This is but one little corner of your business life, but unless you’re on the offense – paddling instead of floating – you’ll lose your edge and be left in the dust by your competitors.  Personally, I’d rather be paddling my little heart out instead of being tossed by whatever winds blow my way.