16 October 2007

Sharpening The Machete

Two men entered the jungle at different places to cut a path to the other side of the island. Both had machetes to make it easier to walk through the jungle growth and tree limbs, and both were intent on being the first one to reach the other side of the island.

The first man did not make time to stop, so he swung his machete without ceasing all day long and into the night. The second man would stop occasionally for a few minutes before he continued on his journey.

A full moon was already in the night sky when the first man hacked his way out of the jungle. Exhausted and to his surprise, he was greeted by the second man, who was sitting by a fire on the beach and finishing his dinner.

How did this happen? While the first man worked harder, the second man worked smarter by taking time to stop occasionally to sharpen his machete. When he continued his journey, he was able to cover twice as much ground as the first man before he stopped to sharpen his machete again.

Sharpening the machete is a metaphor for keeping your employees' skills sharp, and this can be accomplished through regular training sessions. However, most companies use what can be called “tribal training.” This is a rudimentary training technique used anciently by tribes that lacked a formal written language; and it can still be witnessed in the fluorescent-lit caverns of modern offices where people pass on information from person to person through word of mouth. This is loosely called OJT or “on-the-job training” and it typically does not involve a formal methodology, instructors, or any classroom-style training.

Improving the skills and professionalism of every person in your organization is the responsibility of every manager, and it should be an ongoing process. Training is not a luxury, but a necessity, and the first training should occur as soon as the person is hired-typically through an orientation process.

I recently asked my college students how many had formal orientation training when they were hired, and only two out of 20 raised their hands. Most companies give a symbolic machete to their new hires and tell them to just start hacking away at the jungle in front of them. If one compares the hiring process between an employer and an applicant to a courtship where both are trying to impress each other, then the orientation training would be the honeymoon where the employer and employee get to know each other better. Both have made a commitment to one another; however, the employer decided to save time and money by sadly eliminating the honeymoon period when most people start their job. Is it any wonder, then, that one study estimates about 50 percent of employees “divorce” their employer by changing jobs within the first seven months?

To keep your employees longer, help them “sharpen their machetes” through training. The best type of training is where individuals are actively involved in the learning process. The lecture-based format is okay if you are going to give a data dump, but not for training that requires input or active interaction. Some better methods of training involve asking the group questions because it gets individuals to think and participate. A group discussion around a given topic involves more interaction and keeps everyone engaged.

Demonstration training involves the participants demonstrating a particular skill after being trained. This requires individuals to pay attention because they will need to show what they have learned with their peers watching. It also allows the instructor to gauge what people are learning. Role playing is another effective way to train because it puts people in situations they will experience in real life, but in a safe environment that can be analyzed for improvement. If someone has a negative experience at work with a customer, it can be used to role play various scenarios to determine better responses in the future.

Technology is playing more of a role in training with PowerPoint presentations, teleconferencing, webinars, and other online training programs. It doesn't matter much whether you use low-tech or high-tech training; the important thing is that you have consistent training with all of your staff.

Consistent training will help set and raise standards of performance, and improve your employees' understanding of your organization's objectives. Quality training can save and make your organization money by reducing employee turnover, improving customer service, and increase sales effectiveness. It will also boost confidence in your staff and reduce stress because it provides a clear path for employees to improve their performance. In the business jungle, the company that makes the most headway is the one that takes time to sharpen their machete.

02 October 2007

Lessons from a hike to Tapachau

It was a clear, sunny morning on Labor Day when a group of 20 explorers gathered at Kannat Garden apartments to trek to the top of the 1,154-foot high Mount Tapochau. Never mind that none of us had ever hiked the route before-we were up to the challenge.

Prior to our departure we discussed a plan to stick together as a group to ensure no one was lost and we could all claim the victory of conquering the “mountain”. Our best estimate was that we would finish the hike in two hours and be back in plenty of time for lunch. We checked if everyone had water and most of us did, so with water bottles in hand and one machete to hack through the jungle growth, we started on our grand adventure. The trail was a little wet and muddy from rainfall, and we quickly realized that shorts and tennis shoes weren't the best attire to maneuver through the dense vegetation.

We knew our estimate was way off when two hours passed and Tapochau was not in site. When we emerged from the jungle, we were still less than halfway to the top. One person commented that it would be better if we could not see the goal. That way we could blissfully continue our hike without realizing how far we had to go. With a clear view, we could survey the area and see that moving directly toward the top would have us go through more jungle. Below we saw a dirt road that led into the jungle, and maybe it would lead us to our goal. Fatigued and almost out of water, it was decided by the leader (the person holding the machete) that we should take the easy route and follow the road.

It was nice to stroll along the road without having to duck through tree limbs and climb loose rocks, but our road lead us further on a downward path. When I took a compass reading, it showed that we were moving away from Tapochau, but that didn't concern our happy hikers because the road was easier to walk on. Some younger, more restless hikers decided to run the rest of the way, and from that point our cohesive group split into fragments. When our road intersected with another dirt road we debated whether to go left or right, and we weren't sure where the other hikers went. Our “shortcut” had led us further away from the top, our water was almost gone, and we still had to walk on steep roads to make it to the top.

We had arranged for a few people to bring their vehicles and give us rides home, so when some individuals reached the top they called for rides. What started out as a fun, two-hour hike to Tapochau ended up as an exhausting four-hour ordeal in the sun with all our water supply depleted. Some made it to the top, others were still trudging along the road when vehicles arrived to pick them up, and a few surrendered and sat on the side of the road to wait for the relief party to save them.

Here are some hard-earned lessons from a hike to Tapochau that can loosely be applied to business.

Have a plan before you start a venture and stick with the plan, but be flexible if the need arises. Many entrepreneurs fail to plan, and inadvertently plan to fail. The plan allows everyone to know the business “game plan” and helps keep everyone on the same page.

Make sure you have the needed resources before you start, and adjust your estimates. It will almost always take more time to complete an activity and cost more than you project. Determine the critical resources you must have and make sure you have additional supplies if you run out.

Get assistance or find someone to consult that has been where you want to go. Consult with experts or people who have experience operating a similar business. They will be well worth the money and could save you from making costly decisions that would lead you further away from your goal.

Once you start on your venture, it will be like heading into the jungle where there are many things that can cause you to lose sight of your goals. Make sure to keep your eye on the goal and take frequent compass readings to determine if you are heading in the right direction.

Always look for better ways to do things more efficiently, but beware of the “shortcuts” that can tempt you to cut corners. Many distributors in the U.S. are realizing that the “shortcuts” that Chinese manufacturers use to cut costs are going to cost them a lot of money in the long-term (i.e., lead-based paints on toys).

Just because you're the boss, does not mean you should not get input from others before making major decisions. The one who holds the “machete” is not necessarily the only one with all the answers. Talk to your staff and get them to share their ideas. You might be surprised what they have to say.

Finally, if you get split up, regroup and keep everyone motivated. If you don't, you'll have a fragmented organization where some in the front feel they are working hard to blaze a trail so others can follow, while those left behind just mentally lay on the side of the road and wait for another company to pick them up.

Many businesses in the CNMI are exhausted hacking through all the harsh conditions to stay in business and keep qualified employees. They are experiencing a depletion of basic supplies (reliable electricity and water) and are loosing site of their original destination. Even though everyone as a group is experiencing the same challenges, some will still find a way to make it to the top. We hope you find the determination to take charge of the journey to reach your goals in business and blaze the trail to help others find their way to the top in this jungle of thick adversity.

A.S.K. for Referrals

Ask almost any businessperson and they will tell you the most effective method to get more people to become new customers is through word-of-mouth. Very satisfied customers will gladly recommend a business or professional practice to others. People who are referred will be more inclined to act on that recommendation, and if they are pleased with their choice, the process continues with them referring the business to others.
As important as word-of-mouth is to a business, you would think that business owners would spend as much, or more time and money building their business through referrals as they do through advertising. However, most have no plan or method to encourage referrals, but leave it up to happenstance to get more customers to walk through their door. They have a conceptual understanding that one must have a good product that is valued by the customer, and they would even agree that good customer service skills are important to encourage people to return; however, they spend little time, energy, or effort training their people to A.S.K. for referrals. This acronym stands for Attention, Seek, and Keep.
You must gain the attention of your prospects in order for them to have the intention to buy from your business. An advertisement had a herd of zebras with one of them standing out because it had different-colored stripes. Against the sea of black-and-white zebras, the multi-colored zebra commanded attention and the headline stated: “In the corporate jungle, identity is everything.”
Ask: Have I identified my best buyers who have the need and ability to purchase what I sell? How do I attract their attention and get them to visit my business? What is special or unique that differentiates my business from the competition?
If your company blends into the other herd of zebras, then it will be tough for people to find your business, or have a good reason to tell others, or return in the future. Your organization will basically become a commodity business that offers similar products, similar mediocre service, and competes primarily on price.
Once you have grabbed the attention of new customers and attracted them to your business, the next hurdle is to seek to understand the needs of your customer and how you can best meet those needs. They have made the effort to visit your business and the ball is in your hands. Are you going to fumble it or make a touch down?
Seek first to understand your customers and their needs before trying to sell them something they may not need. Internally, your business should match the message you communicate in your marketing message. A new customer was interested enough to visit because of an ad or the recommendation of a friend, now you must live up to that recommendation and learn what attracted them to your business. The best way to do this is by asking questions.
I visited a new business on island and instead of seeking to understand my needs, they played the game of hide and seek. I walked around looking for a product while employees looked busy or hid out in the back. I purposefully did not ask for help because I wanted to see their reaction if I just wandered around. Not one person acknowledged me, nor asked if I needed help. This company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building this new place and stocking it with inventory, but they obviously did not spend much training their people to seek and serve their customers. By contrast, Starbucks spends more on staff training than they do on advertising. They understand the value of service and what positive word-of-mouth referrals can do for their company. The businesses with the best customer service will have employees who seek you out instead of playing hide and seek with you.
The third phase is critical to grow your business: keep all your best customers. Every business has attrition. You have little control if someone passes away or leaves the island. However, the major reason most people stop visiting a business is because of an attitude of indifference on the part of the management or staff toward the customer. They felt like the business did not care if they continued as a customer, so there is little loyalty. They are easily swayed to go to a business with a lower price, or where there is a special promotion.
In this phase, it is often the little things that make a big difference to your customers. Simple acts of courtesy and respect demonstrate that you value the relationship and make them feel important. It is important to stay in contact with the customer between visits. Send a newsletter, email, letter, or call if you have time. Send a birthday card or special occasion card to them to let them know you care.
If customers do not return, contact them and find out the reason. Provide an incentive to return, or learn from their comments to improve your business. You can have more customers if you simply ASK.