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How do companies lose customers?

Posted on July 23, 2015 by 2 Comments

There are many reasons companies lose customers but, in the end, they all come down to a lack of customer engagement or advocacy. When engagement drops to a point where customers begin saying this company makes their lives difficult rather than easy, it’s only a matter of time until they go elsewhere. The difficult part for managers hoping to stop the flow is that customer loss is usually a trickle and rarely a cascade. It can be difficult to detect and harder to understand the problem or how to fix it. This is particularly true for consumer facing B2C businesses.  B2B companies usually have client managers whose job is to stay on top of things, but the same rules apply and results can take place.

It’s true that general inertia can keep dissatisfied customers patronizing companies they dislike for a long time. It can often seem too difficult or time-consuming to change your service supplier. The hurdles presented in front of change require time to find a new supplier and leave your old one. But inertia only forestalls the loss. It never prevents it because neglect feeds upon itself to a point where customers can feel forced to look elsewhere.

Here are a couple of personal examples: one large one preceded our inertiasupplier change and one small that validated it. In this case, the industry is banking and companies, such as banks, that are pressured by both small margins and ample regulation are particularly vulnerable.

For many years, my wife and I banked at HSBC. When we made the decision to go to HSBC, we were somewhat concerned about whether we would get lost in such a large company. It’s the 25th largest bank in the world. But they had a branch only a few blocks away from our home and offices around the world, which could accommodate much of my work, which is outside the U.S.

The bank immediately provided financing for our home in New York and a vacation home in Maine. The branch personnel were always accommodating and all was good for a period of several years. Then, HSBC began to make changes and from an outside view, it seemed they were outsourcing many of their in-house services to cut costs. Service bureaus began to answer phone calls or deal with problems, many of which were not connected to each other. There was no single view of the customer. Decisions moved further away from the branch to be centralized by policy makers who were guided by lawyers. The bank would probably blame government regulation but part of succeeding in business is maintaining excellent customer relations regardless of what is thrown at you from the outside. The old saying, “Don’t make your problems into your customer’s problems” always holds true.

One day about five years ago, the local mortgage officer, always accommodating, called to say that we could refinance our mortgages at lower rates and reduce our monthly payments – a good example of trying to make things easier for the customer. There was some documentation, he said, but that it would be easy because he would shepherd it through. So we filled out the application, paid the documentation fees, authorized appraisals, credit reports and income checks. Then, came the bad news. We had been declined. It made no sense to our local mortgage officer. We had never missed a payment, had near perfect credit scores and growing businesses. Additionally, the bank had all our personal and business accounts, personal and business loans and investments. They owned us.

problemsBut then he said, “Let me see if I can get my managers to overrule the underwriter.” That sounded odd to me and it turned out that the bank had farmed out its underwriting to a third-party firm that specializes in credit analysis, or more correctly, they had computers that specialized in credit analysis. He called his boss and I called his bosses boss, all to no avail. I spoke to the underwriter who told me that we didn’t fit their formulas because we owned small businesses that couldn’t be counted on to continue to grow. I reminded her that the bank already had our loans so it wasn’t as if turning us down was going to do anything. She said, “I wouldn’t have approved you last time either.”

To make a long story short, we finally got the refinanced loans approved but only because we refused to let it die and kept pushing the decision up to the highest levels we could find in New York. It was painful and not only took much of our time to make our case but also that of our local loan officer, so in the end the bank’s cost to make the loan was higher and it also took time away from us to devote to other areas, maybe like making more money to satisfy the underwriter.

(Now, I should add that we’re not financial slouches and I’m not looking for sympathy. Remember, customer alienation is the point and there are millions of small business people just like us all across the country.)

For us, the experience was the coup de grace in our relationship with HSBC. We decided that we would leave them at the first opportune time. Several years later, we did after rearranging some of our finances. The irony was that as soon as we did, HSBC desperately wanted us to stay. But all of the equity that their local branch personnel had built by being so accommodating had melted away and we had crossed the line from engagement to alienation.

That’s the big example that caused them to lose us as customers and while I’m using my own examples, I’ve heard similar stories among many of our friends who also are small business people. (Years earlier when I had that conversation with the underwriter, I asked her if she would have been happier if I was a manager at Chrysler corporation making several hundred thousand dollars a year. “Of course,” she replied. And I then said, “But Chrysler went bankrupt and I might have lost my job.” The conversation simply went downhill from there.)

So, we’re now at a point where we’ve changed banks but still are unwinding things with HSBC. They still have the mortgage on our home in Maine and a checking account from which they are automatically receiving the monthly payment. However, we noticed that they’re continuing to send the monthly bill to our old address, so we called to have them change the address. Simple enough.

They wouldn’t do it unless I wrote them a letter to inform them. “But you’ve verified that I am who I say I am with six questions I answered correctly. Why won’t you take the information over the phone, or online? Why are you forcing me to sit down and write you a letter?”

The reply came from a supervisor as the first customer service person agreed with me and gave up in frustration. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We can only do what HSBC management tells us to do.”

I thought about his wording for a moment. (It pays to have had a mother who was an English teacher.) “Excuse me, you said “HSBC management”. Aren’t you HSBC management?”

consequences2“Technically, no. I’m with a third-party service bureau that has to follow the procedures given to us by HSBC. I agree with you but there is nothing I can do. You have to write a letter,” he said with an air of resignation and defeat.

So, I thanked him and ended the call and thought again about the axiom, “Don’t make your problems into your customer’s problems.” It was validation for our decision to leave and find a new bank.

How bad can things get when you alienate customers? I’m not advocating that any bank’s customers leave. That was the right decision for us. It may not be for others. However, I am advocating that companies use every opportunity to determine whether their customers are engaged or alienated and why, and if so, what can they do about it. In our CRM (customer relationship management) system world, customers have become a series of transactions that we evaluate with formulas and predict with algorithms. I would argue that the transactions are consequences of their relationships with the companies and brands they use. This makes it essential for companies to devote more resources to both monitoring and measuring those relationships, and doing what they can to improve them.

The same is true internally. Employees are the brand personified. Months into our banking change, I called to speak to an executive at our old bank who had been helpful. I got her assistant who was working on the problem and said what we wanted to do could be done, but wasn’t easy. “Why isn’t anything at that bank easy?” I asked.

“Tell me about it, “ she replied.  As the lobsterman, who lives down the road from me in Maine likes to comment, “Nuff said.”

I’d love to hear your comments or stories  about successful customer engagement or, conversely,  alienation.

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Spanish Wine in the Millennial Market

Posted on June 1, 2015 by Leave a comment

Wines from Spain recently interviewed me for their May/June newsletter.  The interview is copied here but can be read in its original form by clicking here.

Wines from Spain: How is the “Spanish wine category” today different from what it was, say, 10 years ago?

Jon Stamell: Over the past 10 years, Spain has become a major player in the U.S. wine market – new DO’s have been created, and both new and older DO’s have launched progressive marketing campaigns. The difference is incredible. If you went into a wine store ten years ago, you may not have seen a Spanish wine section, or it would’ve been very small. Now, there is a Spanish wine section in every store that is at least double what it was back then.

Are there certain Spanish regions or varietals that are experiencing significant growth right now? If so, which regions/ varietals? 

I helped begin the Vibrant Rioja campaign in 2005 and watched them experience incredible growth. The interesting thing about Rioja is that now that it exports over 1 million cases to the U.S., its distribution numbers have dramatically increased. With this incredible growth, I expect the export numbers to grow to 3 million cases in less time than it took to get to 1 million.  I think the new Ribera/Rueda campaign is going to have a similar effect on the regions of Ribera and Rueda.

There may be more diversity (in terms of wine) in Spain than there is in France or Italy, and as Americans continue to discover and learn about Spanish wines, demand will continue to rise.

Which regions or varietals do you think have the most potential for growth, considering the influence of the millennials on the US wine market?

Millennials look for great flavor and easy drinking, which means they need wines that are both balanced and well-structured. They’re also looking for products that are approachable, and that simultaneously set them apart from older generations. And, of course, they want all of this at a reasonable price.

Spanish wines fit that bill.  Most of the reds don’t have the tannic qualities of new Bordeaux wines, so they’re often ready to drink when purchased. They are also more affordable than most wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the other “big” European regions. Similarly, the whites offer incredibly reasonably-priced alternatives to California Chardonnay and Italian Pinot Grigio. White grapes like Viura, Verdejo, Albariño and Godello are bright, fresh, food friendly, and a little more “modern.” Plus, unlike Bordeaux and California, Spain is not deeply associated with millennials’ parents’ generation.

What trends are driving the wine market this year? 

Compare a wine store or restaurant wine list today with one from just a few years ago. As more and more wine regions pop up and/or launch new marketing campaigns, the competition for well-established regions grows steeper. American wine drinkers are able to explore wines beyond the tried and true.

If they like them, they continue to buy them and that is diminishing brand and region loyalty as adventure and experimentation win increasing acceptance and become the dominant trends.  This presents a challenge for importers who want to consolidate their portfolios but still offer sufficient variety so they can both satisfy older wine drinking habits but serve new ones too.  It also is a difficult problem for retailers as they have limited shelf space with different types of consumers walking down the wine aisle.  Their decisions of deciding what is going to sell are not getting easier.  Notice that I did not mention “digital” as a trend. Yes, use of digital marketing is growing but it is a means to an end, a tactic to pursue a strategy. If you don’t have a strategy, the tool is not going to work for you. We see that too often.

Which trends or markets can Wines from Spain tap into in order to further accelerate their progress?

Money is still in the hands of aging boomers but it won’t be long before the oldest ones are senior citizens and their wine consumption declines.  Younger boomers are trying to stay young and, as a result, are increasingly influenced by their kids (Gen X and Millennials) so they’re trying food and wine that may be new to them.  Where I’m headed is that while marketing to boomers may be defensive, it’s a declining game.  Every brand needs to stay young but be authentic at the same time.

That’s a problem confronting California and French wineries, while Spain is already positioned on the younger end of the scale even though it’s steeped in history and tradition.  Spain shouldn’t take young wine drinkers for granted and should stay close to their interests, needs and motivations as they grow older.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Wines from Spain?

Funding, consistency and commitment are the three biggest challenges.  Money for marketing campaigns is always a challenge and that requires acceptance that marketing is an investment, not a cost.  That can be difficult for countries where sales have not been traditionally linked to marketing. It has been proven time and again but there’s still resistance to that idea.  Rioja is an obvious example for Spain but also look at the example of Glen Ellen in the 1990’s and Yellowtail in the 2000’s.  Neither had vineyards or vinification facilities.  They were great brands created by marketing. Connected to investing is being consistent in making a long-term commitment to marketing.  Another proven fact is that when you stop marketing, your sales decline. The market forgets. There are simply too many options.

One of the presenters at the last VinItaly had a slide that read, “No one needs your wine,” and another that read, “If your wine did not exist, the people drinking it today would happily drink something else.”  If I was in the wine business, I’d have those slides up on my wall.

What makes the Spanish wine category so unique, so special compared to other major wine-producing countries like France, Italy, or even the US?

I’ve listed a lot of things already:  diversity, value, authenticity, etc.  But what I haven’t noted and may be the greatest asset is the willingness for self-examination and adopting a new direction.  Last year, I worked with ICEX and the Spanish Trade Commission here in New York to convene an advisory council of, most notably, leaders in distribution, retail, foodservice and education but not of producers. This showed a willingness to listen to the market and the advice from customers, not focusing only on the internal constituency in Spain. We’re currently conducting large consumer and trade market research, and this approach—to listen to the market and then make changes to align Spain with market needs—is going to pay great dividends in coming years.

Jon Stamell has been advising food and wine producers on marketing and strategy issues for nearly 30 years.  He developed the successful Vibrant Rioja marketing campaign strategy and currently is consulting for Wines From Spain and ICEX in developing a new strategy for the American market. 

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The rich get richer and poor get poorer. What, if anything, are we going to do about it?

Posted on September 28, 2014 by Leave a comment

With each passing day, it seems as if the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and while our economy expands, the divide between rich and poor gets wider and wider. Sound like an exaggeration? Perhaps not. Read Neil Irwin’s article in this past weekend’s NY Times, “The Benefits of Economic Expansions Are Increasingly Going to the Richest Americans”. Irwin cites data compiled by Pavlina R. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College to prove this disturbing trend, although none of this should be a surprise.

Two charts in the article tell the story well. The first (below) shows the share of income growth received by the top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent of earners during periods of economic expansion.

InequalityI grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, began my work career in the 1970’s and reached a modicum of business success in the 1980’s and 1990’s. My father was a doctor. We went on family vacations when I was little. I went to good schools and ultimately raised a family and owned my own business. I wanted for nothing. Life was and still is good. As a child and teen growing up in inner city Detroit, it always seemed like the auto factories were humming, the shops were full and growth in prosperity, while not perfect, was being shared.

According to I.R.S. data, I’ve been among the 10% who’ve benefited from expansions for many years. Yet, it doesn’t take much other than a look at the daily papers or a walk around any American city to see that something doesn’t seem quite right. Shoppers seem well-heeled, coiffed and comfortable among my top tier peers. But why, I wonder, when I walk into Home Depot, Walmart or the local supermarket, I rarely see exuberant shoppers from lower and middle classes? You may think it’s the stores I shop in only cater to my types but I travel and like to walk around and check in on the retail scene to get a flavor of the local zeitgeist.

The second chart from the article (below) shows the share of income gains during expansionary periods that went to the top 1 percent versus bottom 99 percent. The trend in wealth gains becomes even more striking.

IncomeGains Before I saw these charts. I always thought things seemed to change for the worse in the 1980’s. That was when the idea of “trickle down economics” came into vogue and was put into practice. The idea was that if we cut taxes for the well-off, the additional amount they gain will “trickle down” to the middle and lower classes. But I always wondered how that could be. After all, I could only buy one car every few years, one boat, one house, etc., nothing like what hundreds, thousands or millions of people making less than me could do if they had the money. So how could the benefits that I and my fellow 10 percenters (alas, I’ve never made it into the top 1%) really make a difference in the prosperity of all. The answer as we can see from the data is that they couldn’t and haven’t.

Political forces on the right are quick to criticize programs that provide targeted job training, assistance to inner city residents and businesses, raising the minimum wage or any program that puts more money toward raising the lower class and taking away from the wealthy. Their answer is always to just lower taxes as the benefits will trick down for all. It’s been nearly 35 years since we’ve been practicing “trickle down” and we haven’t seen it trickle anywhere yet except to the top. In case you’ve forgotten Einstein’s oft quoted definition of insanity, it seems to fit here: “Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

 Our Congress can’t seem to do anything constructive to pass sensible solutions and our President can’t persuade them to because one party thinks it’s its job is to undermine his term. And we go to the polls and re-elect the same clowns who can’t interpret the data, read the charts or come up with any compromise that might try something different to help. In 1811, a smart guy named Joseph de Maistre, wrote “Every country has the government it deserves.” We often think that quote was intended for our “exceptional” America. It was actually directed toward Russia, a country, then and now, of rich oligarchs separated from the lower classes by their profligate wealth. Sound familiar?

 

 

 

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Best Practices in Customer Engagement

Posted on July 21, 2014 by Leave a comment

In my previous blog post, I invited readers to take a survey about customer engagement.  More than 200 people have taken the survey and you still can.  Simply click the link:  http://surveydirectlink.com/survey/?name=engagement.

We’ve received some very thoughtful comments from people defining what customer engagement is, how companies do it wrong and best practices for doing it right.  In a few weeks, we’ll close the survey and then publish a summary so that you can read what people wrote.  If you take the survey, you’ll automatically receive the executive report.  But even if you don’t take it and you watched Karen Trudell’s Abundance of Gratitude interview series, you can receive the report.

If you’d like to register for Karen’s interview series, go to http://www.sweetperfection.org/abundance-of-gratitude

Again, if you’d like to take the customer engagement survey while it’s still open, go to this link:  http://surveydirectlink.com/survey/?name=engagement.

(BTW, if you’re using an older version of MS Explorer, you may have some issues with the survey working properly but if you simply take it on Chrome, Firefox or Safari, you’ll breeze through it.  It’s very short.)

To receive an executive summary of the survey results, just enter your email address here:

Email*

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Share your comments on customer engagement

Posted on June 26, 2014 by Leave a comment

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in business these days.  Everyone is asking whether they are “engaged” with their customers.  But what does “engagement” mean both to people who are in business and to their customers? Do you think you are “engaged” with the companies you buy from?  (e.g. Anybody out there in love with their bank?)  How do they think they are engaging you to build brand loyalty?

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 3.00.36 PMWe’ve posted a short survey online and if you’d like to take it, you can simply click on the image to the left or click this link:  http://surveydirectlink.com/survey/?name=engagement.  There are only five substantive questions and you can write as much or as little as you’d like.  So far, we’ve received more than 100 responses and the subject seems to have touched a hot button with many.  If you like the survey, please send it on to others that you think have something to say about this topic.  When we close the survey, we’ll post a summary of what people have said and the best practices they recommend.  I hope it will become a good tool to use in developing customer engagement, however you define it, and  brand loyalty for your business

P.S.  If you’ve worked with different programs or programmers, you know that MS Explorer often presents some challenges from the other three major browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari).  Explorer uses a different programming protocol and we’ve found that some survey respondents are having no problem with it and others are.  If the survey doesn’t work for you on Explorer, please give it a try on one of the other browsers.

 

 

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The way slogans should be

Posted on May 15, 2014 by 2 Comments

WayLifeThere’s a great article today by Gail Collins in the NY Times (My State’s Prettier Than Yours) in which she tries to understand the promotional slogans of our 50 states.  Give up Gail.  It’s incomprehensible.  State and country slogans have always been a pet peeve of mine because they usually don’t relate to anything distinct or different about the state.  Collins gives plenty of examples.  They’re usually a result of the excesses of bad advertising agencies or over zealous economic development and tourism teams.

There’s a list of state slogans at Wikipedia (List of U.S. state slogans) and 105 country tourism slogans at a blog called Tourist vs. Traveller (105 tourism slogans from around the world) along with a nice little video to show them all with their logos (which a lot of tourism development folks think is a brand, but that’s another topic entirely).  Collins covers the states pretty well so I’ll focus on some of my favorite country slogans.

Did you know Albania is “A new Mediterranean love”?  And all this time, I thought it was a mysterious country that supplies pizza parlor chefs to New York restaurants.  Austria is “Arrive and revive”.  I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means, particularly since I’ll have jet lag for a day or two once I arrive.  Here’s one I like:  Belarus is “Hospitality beyond borders.”  Does that mean I have to leave the country for hospitality?  One of my favorites is Romania because I’ve been there twice:  “Explore the Carpathian garden.”  Now, I never saw the Carpathians on either of my trips (hint:  it’s a mountain range), but I suspect that slogan will mean a lot to the winner of any national geography bee.

You have to read the list yourself.  It’s full of surprises.  (Actually, I think that’s Connecticut’s slogan.)  You can travel from Pure Russia to 100% Pure New Zealand in a few lines.  (Maybe Russia only got to 90% so they didn’t want to tell us how pure they are.)  “Bolivia awaits you”, which is nice to know since I probably won’t make it there for a few years.  The “Dominican Republic has it all” so don’t confuse that with “Honduras, todo esta aqui.”  They have it all too but only in Spanish.  I also like “Paraguay, You have to feel it!”.  I’ve been there too and I suppose they’re talking about their vicious mosquitoes.

Τhe amazing thing about all of these slogans for states and countries (cities have them too; don’t get me started) is that they say absolutely nothing about the country, its culture and what makes it distinct and different.  Years ago, states had mottos or nicknames that said something about them and often appeared on auto license plates.  Alabama was “The Cotton State”, Florida was “The Everglade State”; Georgia – “The Peach State”; Hawaii – “The Aloha State”; Michigan – “Winter Water Wonderland” and so on.  Washington D.C. was “Nation’s Capital”, which tells me a lot and that no other state can say.  Now, it’s become “The American Experience”, which is ironic since it’s never been a place that Sarah Palin went looking for her “real Americans”.  As a child, I always loved the slogans on license plates and could recite a lot of them.  They told me something different about each state and I wanted to visit them all.  Now they all blend into a meaningless hodgepodge that I bet nobody but each state’s tourism employees can recite.  It’s bad for the state or country, self-aggrandizing and simply poor communication.

I used to live in Maine and often drive there for long weekends.  We have a house there and a car with Maine plates that says “Vacationland”.  I like that, although I also like that it’s been called “The Pine Tree State.”  Sure, there are pine trees in other states but drive into Maine and you’ll think there must be more of them there than anyplace else and it does give you a picture.  For many years, they had a slogan on a sign when you enter the state, “The way life should be.”  Yes, it’s another one of those silly slogans but I have to admit that as someone who lived there for 25 years, seeing that sign always made me feel like I was home.  It meant a way of life to me and I hoped for others visiting for the first time.

40937319A few years ago, they added another sign about a 100 feet further down the road that read, “Worth a visit, worth a lifetime”, which signaled to me that they hired a new ad agency that wanted to establish its own brand of creativity.  Then, a year or so ago, they plastered “Open for business” underneath “The way life should be.”  I suppose it’s nice that the state is trying but did anyone check to see that Forbes put Maine last in its best for business rankings?

OpenForBizAt its core, this is all about determining what a state or country’s marketing strategy is because slogans, if they have any purpose at all, should tell us why that place is worth our patronage for business, tourism or simply, aspirations. Anyone who pays attention to strategy knows that it must tell us why the product is both distinct and different from any other, and if that strategy is not true to what’s being delivered, it is totally meaningless.  Slogans, however, have become a tactic conjured up by advertising or public relations agencies without a thought to strategy and that’s why they are incomprehensible and instantly forgettable.

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The challenges of Christmas

Posted on December 20, 2013 by 2 Comments

Everybody knows Christmas can be a challenging time.  Gifts, parties, family, travel, decorations, cards all can present vexing problems to solve every year.  For me, an appropriate card is probably the toughest thing I face.  Every year, my friend George and I develop a cartoon to use as our card and it’s not easy.

You see on the side, we’re cartoonists or I should say a cartoon team.  George draws and I write except when he draws and write or I change his drawings with photoshop and write or he draws and his wife writes or my wife and kids make suggestions.  But however it’s done, we come up with a collaborative effort every year that goes on our website GigundoIndustries.com

No doubt you’ve heard of Gigundo Industries, the largest, non-existent, virtual company in the world.  If not, you better visit the website as soon as possible for there are hundreds of cartoons there for you to peruse and even buy.

In a way, creating cartoons is similar to writing strategy.  You take a complex set of facts and distill them down into something simple that cuts through the clutter.  Only with cartoons, you place that simple statement in an unusual setting such as a psychiatrist’s office, caveman times, a prison, the North Pole or Santa’s workshop.

There was so much news this year that was fodder for our a year-end card.  Off course, most prominent and recent in our minds was the malfunctioning of healthcare.gov and that led to an idea that really didn’t require any drawing at all.

ChristmasGov

But we quickly nixed that idea because who could possibly make jokes about their government failing at something, let alone Santa?  I mean nobody wants the government to fail. Right? Yeah, right.

So then we moved on to the saga and embarrassment of Edward Snowden and the NSA snooping and came up with this:

Snow_Done

But not exactly an uplifting story and we were looking for something more upbeat.  So we moved on to a couple of positive stories.  First, the extraordinary first-ever resignation of a Pope got us wondering if that could ever happen to Santa.

Dual Santas

Then came the idea that the battle for gay marriage might even have reached the North Pole.  (No, this is not for you people at Fox News who think gay marriage may as well allow us to marry a goat.  Who’d marry a goat anyway?)

Bucks

We just weren’t satisfied yet and then read the news that “Selfie” was the word of the year and would enter the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary.  Santa can get in on that too.

Selfie

Finally, we hit upon it, an idea that would really take us into the future but have that bit of mixed message that might cause us to wonder whether things are as they should be.  2013 also became the year of the drone, for both reasons that frighten us and, thanks to Amazon.com, frighten us.  Just think if Santa employed some new technology.

Amazon

That’s our holiday collection for 2013.  They’ll all go up on our site at GigundoIndustries.com soon.  Let me know which you like best.  Now, it’s back to my day job.  Everyone at Futureshift and GigundoIndustries.com wishes you the best of Christmas holidays and a great 2014.

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Strategy? Why do we need that?

Posted on November 21, 2013 by 10 Comments

I went to a wine event today in New York for the Bordeaux wine region.  While there, I asked the representative of one of the wineries, “What’s your strategy for the U.S.?”  She responded, “Strategy?  Why do we need that?”  I gave her some reasons but the conversation didn’t go very far.

When I returned to my office, I got an email from the Pew Research Center titled “Experts rank the top 10 global trends.”  When I clicked on the link, I found a report from the World Economic Forum on the 10 most important global trends based on a poll of 1,592 leaders from academia, business, government and non-profits.  Here’s the list:

  1. Rising societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa
  2. Widening income disparities
  3. Persistent structural unemployment
  4. Intensifying cyber threats
  5. Inaction on climate change
  6. Diminishing confidence in economic policies
  7. A lack of values in leadership
  8. The expanding middle class in Asia
  9. The growing importance of megacities
  10. The rapid spread of misinformation

So what do these trends have to do with something as everyday as buying a bottle of wine?  Plenty.

It’s great that a provider of any product or service believes theirs is the best but neither consumers nor b2b markets think in linear terms.  Every decision is made in relation to another.  If I’m nervous about the state of the world, that will effect how I make decisions, and what and when I buy.  If I’m an importer or distributor and concerned about unemployment and the impact of economic policies, I may want to hedge my bets with tighter inventory control.  As people focus on the macro trends that affect us all, how companies approach the environment, social responsibility and their own governance (ESG) effects our perceptions of their brands.  It goes on and on whether you’re a consumer or corporation (remember, somebody once said, “Corporations are people, my friend.”)

If you don’t have a strategy that helps you wind your way through this maze or a brand with values that reassure consumers and customers, you’re dead in the water and it won’t matter how many fancy events, e-newsletters or facebook followers you have.

5year copy copySomething else was interesting to me at today’s Bordeaux event.  As I went around and asked people about their wines and what makes their winery better than the rest (to which there were a lot of blank stares), nobody asked any questions about me, about my tastes, concerns, or needs.  They may as well have been Enomatic wine dispensers with an information rack underneath.  Most handed me a sheet of paper about their wines in answer to my questions anyway.

There was neither strategy present nor any attempt at customer engagement.  I imagine the woman who asked me why her company needs strategy poured a lot of wine today.  At the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me if at the end of the day, she moaned about some of the trends on the list and how they were making life more complicated.  That’s too bad.  Strategy is the direction that helps us wind our way through and around those trends and we all give our loyalty to those that help us do that.

FutureShift asks a lot of questions and listens carefully so that brands and strategy resonate with customers to increase their engagement and loyalty.  It works.

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Where does good strategy begin?

Posted on November 11, 2013 by 1 Comment

There’s always a rush these days to get plans into action.  Action is what we value, just as we’re always looking for someone who “can hit the ground running”.  But what if they’re running in the wrong direction?  And how do you know in which direction to run?

The answer to that mistakenly comes in businesses doing what they’ve always been doing and whenever possible just running faster.  In the accelerated competitive environment of New York City, we’ve become accustomed to stores, restaurants, professional services and even hospitals suddenly disappearing.  These businesses failed even though they worked harder and ran faster than anyone around them.  Why did they fail?

Most likely, they never asked their customers whether the direction they were going, the products and services they were offering or the benefits they perceived internally met customer needs.  It’s the rare manager or entrepreneur who can intuit what the market is looking for.  Otherwise, there would be a lot more people like Steve Jobs around.  Businesses have to get feedback from their customers and understand how to match their offerings with what customers are seeking.

Not surprisingly, customers often see product plusses and minuses in completely different terms than the companies selling them.  The best advertising campaign in the world won’t convince customers that they should be seeking something different.  We’re just not in that linear world of the 1950s and 60s when we could be told what detergents make our clothing cleaner and then march in lockstep to the store to buy them.

Of course, businesses don’t always listen to their customers because internal beliefs are so strong as to refuse to change their strategy to meet customer needs.  Here are three examples to consider:

  1. Several years ago, we were asked by the Chilean Pisco industry to provide a strategy that would open up the U.S. market for them.  If you don’t know Pisco, it’s an eau de vie, somewhat like a refined grappa, that’s made in Chile and Peru.  Our research found that bartenders believed it made most vodka-based cocktails more interesting and one of our key strategic recommendations (futureshiftpisco.com) was to unleash the creativity of bartenders with a series of tactical programs that would challenge them to develop great Pisco-based cocktails that their customers would love. But Chile is a country where perfection in planning is highly valued and established.  That works when building bridges, tunnels and skyscrapers, of which you’ll see many in Santiago these days but not when variable decisions are involved as with bartenders and their customers.  The Chilean Pisco industry decided to design several “perfect cocktails” that they could then promote in the U.S.  The result?  Peruvian producers who gained a better understanding of the U.S. bartender now dominate the market.  There’s still time for Chile to adapt as Pisco still is not well known in the U.S.   They simply have to acknowledge that their customers have more power than they do.  Easy, right? Ad campaign #1
  2. While we’re on Chile, let’s move to technology.  This time the Chilean technology industry told us they wanted to sell their growing tech industry to U.S. companies.  Chile had already achieved tremendous success in establishing itself as a successful place to locate an offshore tech center.  Now, they wanted to have a presence inside the U.S. to provide SaaS and enterprise integration products. Again, we spoke to prospective customers for these talented Chilean companies and were told that if they could establish partnerships with Chilean companies in Latin America, a piece of their U.S. business would likely follow.  (FutureshiftChileIT.com)In other words, help us in your territory and then we’ll reward you in ours.  U.S. companies wanted to understand the Chilean miracle and how it had become an export powerhouse. But just as with Pisco, the forces that worked internally in Chile were too strong to persuade them to adopt a market-oriented strategy in the U.S.  Six Chilean IT companies came to the U.S. trying to sell their services based on low prices.  But why go to a company thousands of miles just for low prices when that can be found down the road?  Today, there is only a small amount of programming work going to Chilean companies, as talented as they are. Ad campaign #2
  3. Most recently, we conducted a research and strategy project for the Maine lobster industry.  Following 200+ interviews, there were a number of findings in that report that showed how Maine lobster possesses attributes to restaurant and hotel chefs that were not being considered within the industry.  There is ample opportunity for the Maine industry to differentiate its brand from all competitors.  However, lobstering is a traditional industry and change does not come easily.  Like the two Chilean examples, internal beliefs in Maine are strong.  Most lobstermen are focused on their first transaction with a dealer when they bring their catch to the dock.  The needs of restaurant and hotel chefs can be perceived as a distant concept and there is little patience for the time it takes to raise the foodservice market’s demand.  The local dealer and summer tourist who loves to sit at the water’s edge, even though they both pay rock bottom price, is more concrete.  It’s been that way for more than a hundred years so change, despite market feedback, isn’t easy.  There’s cause to remain optimistic but it remains to be seen whether Maine’s lobster industry adapts.

In each of the above cases, the right strategy began with listening to customers.  That helped set a direction for the industry to go.  But at that point, industry members often put up obstacles to change.  After all, it’s far more difficult to do something new than the things you’ve been doing for dozens of years, even though they may not be working.

FutureShift develops brands and rebranding programs by understanding how customer decisions can increase engagement and loyalty.

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Objectives, strategy, tactics and goals: A recipe for confusion

Posted on July 23, 2013 by 9 Comments

Business managers and their consultants often talk about strategy, yet they frequently misunderstand what strategy is, why it’s important, and how objectives, strategy, tactics and goals are related. The confusion seems to exist because our business culture values action.  “I’m looking for someone who hits the ground running,” is a common refrain from CEOs who believe action is what creates results.  But the real question is “what direction are they running?”  Action without direction is meaningless or even harmful to the potential success of a business.

It’s simple enough to say that “objectives are measurable, strategy is direction, and tactics are actions.”  Yet, the question still asked is: “How many strategies should we have?”  Of course, if strategy is direction, how many directions can you go at the same time?  No wonder we’ve become accustomed to business plans underperforming. Marketing departments and their agencies often don’t know what direction they’re going or they create separate strategies for each tactical execution. Consequently, tactical programs may have no clear direction or consistent messaging and the result is that they get lost in the competitive clutter.

Building a business is like crossing the ocean

A clear example of an objective, strategic options, and tactics may help clarify the confusion. Suppose, for example, we decide to sail a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. This isn’t something most of us will ever do but objectives, strategy, tactics, and goals as well as research, even management teams, become crystal clear when setting out to cross the ocean and they’re no different than they are in business.

For fantasy purposes, we can become part of the idle rich and plan to sail our boat from the Chesapeake Bay area to the mouth of the Mediterranean in late June.  Why not?  The Mediterranean is a nice place to spend the summer.  Since we’re in a hurry to get there in time for party season, we’ll set an objective of reaching the Mediterranean in 20 days.  So now, we’ve set an objective and it’s measurable.  We can break it down further to measure our progress along the way.  It’s about 3,800 miles in a straight line across, which means we’ll have to average about 190 miles every 24 hours.  That will require an average speed of 7 nautical knots per hour (a little more than 8 miles per hour).  That may sound slow but we’re dependent on the vagaries of the wind and weather conditions as we sail across.  More importantly, we now have a set of metrics by which we can measure our progress, a key component of objectives.

To take our fantasy voyage further, we’ll need a boat and considering our objective, we might want one that’s about 60 feet long, something like the one in the photo.  This boat is called a Swan 60 and is made by Nautor in Finland.  Nautor makes safe, fast and beautiful boats and we’ll pay a pretty penny for the privilege of owning one.  Fully equipped, we’re looking at around $3.5 million but hey, it’s only money!  The good news is that the Swan 60 has what’s called a hull speed of about 10 knots (approx. 11.5 mph).  Without going into a technical definition, hull speed is the approximate maximum speed a boat can go.  The exception to hull speed is when a boat surfs in high winds on top of the waves.  If we can get our Swan 60 surfing, we can probably sail at speeds well over 15 knots.  So averaging 7 knots across a 3,800 mile span of ocean does not seem out of the question.

Now we have our boat and you can think of it the same way as we might a business.  It has an owner (a wealthy one) who may or may not be “skipper” (no jokes please) or managing director.  We’ll need a navigator, who can be compared to a combination of a Chief Technical Officer and Chief Strategy Officer, and a Tactician, our Chief Operating Officer to keep us going at maximum speed.  Then we’ll need some specialists, people who excel in working in different areas of the boat and handling a 60-foot yacht’s large sails.  Also, we’ll need an experienced sailboat cook who knows how to keep a crew happy while being tossed around in large waves.  We’ll want experience all around as ocean sailing is not for novices.  In all, our team may total 14 people.  Our boat only sleeps seven but we’re sailing non-stop 24/7 so we’ll need enough people to manage the boat while others sleep.

Selecting a strategy

You can see by now that we’re building a small company that has an ambitious objective.  Now, it’s time to select a strategy, a direction we’ll take to reach the Mediterranean on time.  We have some difficult choices to make.  It’s time to do some research.

We’ll study historical weather patterns, learn the prevailing winds, ocean currents, note the islands or hazards we might see along the way and course taken by other boats making the same crossing.  We learn that there are three optional courses across, each with its strengths and weaknesses.  We can devise a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) for each of them.  The map below shows our choices.

  • Course 1:  High-risk; High-reward

This is a strategy that has some clear risks but also enticing opportunities.  It takes us northeast along the U.S. and Canadian coastlines.  As the prevailing summer winds are out of the southwest, we’ll be sailing downwind, which should give us more speed.  We’ll also be assisted by the Gulfstream currents, which run along a path from the Bahamas northeast into the Atlantic at an average rate of 3 knots.  Then, if weather patterns hold, we should have good winds reaching down the European coast to get to our destination.  The risk is that we’ve added about 1,000 miles to our course, which means we need to average 9 knots, which is pretty aggressive.  Another risk, more precisely, a threat, is the possibility of sailing among drifting icebergs, once we’re off the Labrador coast.  Our research has told us that iceberg fields breaking off from the Greenland glaciers are common during the summer months.  That’s not a problem for us during good weather but it’s difficult to see an iceberg at night (memories of the Titanic).  So in the end, we have a potentially fast crossing to meet or exceed our objective but with some significant risks.

  • Course 2:  Shortest Distance

This is a strategy that takes the shortest possible course using the curvature of the earth to shorten our path. It still has the potential risk of icebergs but it is more manageable if this becomes a problem.  We’ll gain less of a push from the Gulfstream and may find ourselves stuck with low or no wind for days in a mid-Atlantic high-pressure system, but it seems to strike a middle ground that still makes our objective within reach.

  • Course 3:  Nice & Easy

This strategy is the most conservative.  It enables us to stop along the way in both Bermuda and the Azores, enabling us to replenish our supplies 700 miles east of the U.S. and about 1,000 miles west of the Mediterranean, with a gap of about 2,000 miles in between.  This course reduces the risk of being exposed to extreme weather along the way and allows us to spend a night or two in safe harbors along the way.  The risk is that high-pressure centers regularly sit in the middle of the ocean in late June and we could have to drift windless or move at low speeds for days.  This may make it difficult to reach our objective on time.  (BTW, this course appears shorter when viewed as flat surface but is longer when going around the diameter of a sphere.)

Our three strategies are not too different from what we may see in business, one that is high-risk, high-reward, one that is safe but potentially slow and one that is a middle ground or compromise between the two.  Which should we choose and what happens if we recognize that we’ve made a mistake?

Suppose we’re aggressive and have tremendous confidence in our abilities to manage the boat and navigate the seas. Past success might even blind us to some of our weaknesses.  When hubris takes over decision-making can be reckless (memories again of the Titanic…or hundreds of failed businesses).  Let’s assume we select the high-risk course that takes us far north but in doing so, we either find the hazards of icebergs to be too many, the seas to be too rough or even the winds to be less than we anticipated.  As a result, we decide to change strategies and move mid-course to another direction.  One look at the “course change” on the map shows the cost of making this correction, which is likely to make our objective much more difficult to reach.  The lesson, of course, is that selecting the wrong strategy and making a change has costs, which can be significant.

Tactics and goals

What about tactics and goals?  How do they factor in and how should we think of them.  During any period of time, we’re going to take specific actions to increase the speed of our boat.  We might put up different sails, larger or smaller, to better take advantage of changing winds. Or, we might want to be on a slightly more advantageous course to gain speed.  These are tactics but are not strategy, as they don’t alter our overall direction in reaching our objective.

Imagine a boat (or a business or someone who hits the ground running) that is all tactics but has no strategy.  It would always take every possible action to increase its speed regardless of the direction it is heading.  It might even go in circles and get nowhere very fast.  Tactics will not reach a productive objective without strategy to provide guidance.

Finally, where do goals fit in?  Goals are long-term milestones that you want to achieve.  (e.g. “I want to be a better sailor/manager/person.”).  Objectives are fixed and have specific requirements, which can be measured.  Objectives have structure; goals do not.  Goals can never be accomplished without objectives but objectives without goals won’t create the long-term change you desire.

Hopefully, that clarifies things.  Following college, I crewed on a large sailboat crossing the Atlantic.  Our owner chose “Course 3: Nice & Easy” and we paid a price for it.  It was slow, slow, slow – 27 days across.  But one of my strongest memories of that trip was listening to our marine radio and hearing reports of sailboats dodging icebergs in high winds only a thousand miles to our north.  It was an example of how the wrong strategy can have its costs, either going too slow or too fast, but it cemented the concepts in my mind forever.

At FutureShift, we provide research-based strategic services, but are often asked to run workshops that help clarify the confusion around objectives, strategy, tactics and goals.

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