Fight Meeting Blues

Fight Meeting Blues

It's something that we all have experienced and we all dread: the really long meeting that goes nowhere and gets nothing done. Why do these meetings happen? Who organizes them? How do they sleep at night? If I was to hazard a guess, I would think that these meetings aren't really for productivity, but to impress someone's boss. In any case, if you have the power and ability, please thwart long, useless meetings and replace them with something that will help, rather than hurt.

Two articles brought this important subject to my attention. One was from Harvard Business Publishing, and the other from the SmallBizResource blog. Some suggestion for more effective meetings can be found in both articles. For example, a great way to keep meetings short and on-point is the "stand-up" meeting. For this kind of meeting, you will not need chairs. Have your people literally stand around the conference table for the duration of the meeting. This will ensure that people keep their responses short and help to progress the agenda to a quick finish.

A big tip for short effective meetings is to not have a meeting. That's right, if you can accomplish the work through phone calls, conference calls, emails, or even text messages, don't call a meeting. This is the same principle behind abolishing weekly meetings, progress meetings, and other such get-togethers that only exist because someone thought it would be good for "synergy" -- or what you - if everyone met at a regular time. The reoccurring meeting guarantees two things: time will be wasted because there aren't enough items to cover, and someone will be frantically creating something at the last minute to look productive for the meeting.

Your caveat for meetings should be "less is more." This means shorter time lengths of course, but also smaller groups of attendees. With fewer participants, people will be less likely to snooze or cruise through a meeting. You will be able to notice the more quiet attendees and ask for their input. When everyone works together, you get better results. However, more people talking encourages digressions and other time-wasters. To stay in control, identify a digression and write it down. Promise everyone that it will be the star of another meeting - if they so choose - and move on. Also, don't be afraid to politely cut-off long-winded monologue speakers.

Video conferences aren't as real as, say, shaking someone's hand, but they are very effective when replacing unnecessary meetings. For a good, efficient meeting, get the two or three people that are actually needed into a video conference. They don't have to leave their desks - or wherever they are - and you can conduct your business efficiently. And if you need more insurance that the video conference won't go long, have everyone pull back from their webcams and stand for the entire meeting.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How to Cut Costs No Matter What Your Business

Rising Cost

The worries over inflation are not off the mark. Rising costs (even with gas prices bottoming out; watch out, they're headed back up if OPEC has anything to say about it) are chief among the concerns small businesses face in these uneasy times. So, how are you going to cut back, keep it lean, and make it through?

Invest the time and energy into research before you spend. It's too easy to just head to the local discount store believing they have the best prices on all the supplies you'll need. You need to invest some time to really find out if you're getting best deals on office supplies, health insurance, even compensation packages for your employees. How to do that?

1. Read the fine print on your health insurance coverage. Do they offer health savings accounts or health reimbursement accounts? If you give out raises, can you afford to give out 4 percent raises plus rising health care costs? Do the math now, or be sorry later.

2. Don't get swayed by the first sales person who calls wanting you to stock up on a year's worth of paper (even if it is Jim from Dunder-Mifflin on The Office). Put them off while you call a couple of other suppliers and compare prices. You can't afford not to. It's worth your time.

3. Be aware of the rising costs. If you are assured that the price of your supplies will stay the same for the next year, don't be too quick to jump on that bandwagon. Everything is going up. Prepare your budget for rising prices and be judicious about how quickly you pass that price increase on to your customers.

Keep your eyes and ears open regarding expenditures across the board. Do you keep a close eye on who has access to the company charge accounts? Do you really need to order double or triple every time you stock up on office supplies?

Include your employees in on cost-saving incentives. Make sure employees know to print on both sides of paper (if you print a lot) or consider going to a paperless invoice system. Invest in power strips and turn off equipment each night before leaving the office. Question every purchase and make sure the expense can be defended with a valid reason.

Above all, don't be known as a penny-pincher, but as a wise manager of the company funds. If it has to be spent, don't bemoan it, just suck it up. But if you don't have to spend, now is the time to take another look and/or shop around.

The Only Way to Stay Ahead and Beat the Competition

You'll hear it from me a whole lot more in coming months: Customer service. The first, most important way to keep your company out in front is making sure your customer or client feels as if their needs are your needs.

There is nothing really more to say, but I will anyway.

1. If you aren't thinking about how to make your customer or client's life easier, why are you in business? Call them and find out how you can help them. If they ever call you with a problem, drop everything and deal with it. I mean it. If you aren't sure why this is important, it's time to revisit your business plan and really ask yourself a serious question: why are you in business?

2. A business that does not aim for the highest in customer satisfaction will not survive as a business for very long. Think about it. Good food at the local restaurant doesn't matter; it matters if the food is served with a smile and they refill your drink without asking. (Hint: Your product or service actually improves in quality when people think they are your priority. Try it.)

3. How many people in your company answer customer service calls? Why not let everyone get a chance to handle a few at least once or twice? It changes the perspective when it's you actually having to help a frustrated customer either use your product or become successful because of your company's help. When you slow down long enough to hear what your client and customer is saying, your business will flourish.

4. Do you keep track of complaints and customer service issues? When Apple started shipping their new Macbooks back in 2006, customers immediately responded with sharp criticism of the knife-like edge of the laptop. Typing while resting a wrist against that edge made using the computer agony. Apple responded quickly. Subsequent releases and models of the Macbook boasted softer edges and Apple proved they could listen. Customers will notice if you're not paying attention.

5. Lastly, if customers need help, even if it's because of their own actions, the less work you make them do to get that problem solved will not be overlooked. The next time they are in the market for your product or service, they'll think of you. A human answering the phone, a quick response to a technical issue, a rapid follow-up when something goes really wrong, these are the little things that will make you into a company that lasts through economic downturn.

As a very wise businessman told me once: it's the little things that will kill you. Never mind your product is the best in the market, if you don't have polite customer service people that can actually fix annoying little problems in a rapid manner, well, your business is toast.

How to Motivate Your Sales Team

1. Communicate sales goals as well as reasons why. If your sales team knows you want to increase sales by 20% in the first two quarters of 2009, do they know why exactly? Why not tell them? If the sales team is aware that if they can increase sales by that much, the company will be able to report record profits to the board of directors who have been concerned about the dropping sales numbers. Even something as simple as that may shed light on the situation a bit better and may inspire a salesman to push a bit harder to make a sale.

2. Offer sales strategies as well as specific tactics. If you share strategies, why not advise with more specific tactics when a salesmen heads out for a difficult sale. Sales is hard enough on its own, and right now, pitches are ultra important. So share your knowledge. Offer to listen to a dress rehearsal and offer tips, especially if the sales team is feeling some nerves about the upcoming pitch.

3. Set short-, mid-, and long-term incentives and share these goals with everyone. If one team sets up multiple goals and then offers incentives for reaching those goals, why not share that with other sales teams? Why not make it a sales department-wide incentive? What's to lose? The important thing is for the sales department to feel a part of something bigger than just themselves.

4. Don't focus on activity (meaningless activities won't help productivity), but focus on the results. Make sure everyone knows when someone makes a sale and make sure to reward both the team effort and the individual effort. Make sure everyone on the team, no matter how small his or her part, gets part of the reward.

5. Create a toolkit of sales tools and documents, sales success stories, and one-on-one mentoring and coaching opportunities. Make a workable repository of tools that make your sales team's job easier from the first step. Make it a point to focus on success stories, especially as sales people head out to pitch a difficult or stressful deal.

Sales can flourish in the most difficult of economic situations. It's a matter of harnessing the fear of rejection, failure, and despair and working through those feelings to better ones on the other side. Make sure your sales team knows you support them 100% and you just may be surprised at how a motivated team can rack of up record numbers against all odds.

Are Your Leadership Skills Stuck in the Past?

Old TV

What kind of leader are you? The two extremes are as far apart as east from west. The old-school "top dog" approach was prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s. In this "top dog" scenario, men (and women) worked hard with the promise of becoming "top dog." And yet, many aspiring top dogs were often disappointed as they watched someone else work up through the ranks and proceed to take the credit for their own hard work.

Or the opposite approach, known as "the unleader" (according to Entrepreneur magazine), which peaked in the late 1990s, in which the goal was to make employees as comfortable as possible, so that nothing was achieved until everyone agreed. Of course, this approach didn't really work either, and most companies headed by unleaders quickly went belly up.

So, which leadership style are you most like?

Do you think you are too carefree or too controlling? Are you looking for a happy medium?

The new leader, again according to Entrepreneur magazine, has four telltale characteristics:

1. If you're easygoing and tend to let your employees self-manage, maybe you should get a bit more hands on. Employees do want direction, whether or not everyone agrees with it. However, don't go too far and micro-manage. Give direction and then let your employees act in confidence with that direction.

2. Define work roles. If you tend to be more of a top dog leader, make sure everyone in your organization knows they have a role to play. And perhaps, let someone else take credit when they do their jobs well.

3. Make sure people know you're in control. If you're more of a laidback boss, not afraid of others who can oversee your employees, perhaps you need to assert yourself more. Too many leaders in one company or department can ruin performance and important projects. Make sure you are the person they think of when they think "boss."

4. Never stop educating yourself. Leadership is an ongoing learning experience, as many managers and CEOs will attest. Don't think you've already reached your pinnacle just because things are going well. And when things aren't going well, find good resources and good advice and use it.

If you're a leader who tends toward one extreme or the other, moving more the middle in any of these areas can lend itself to improved employee morale, a better working environment, and hopefully, increased profits.

The A.M. CEO

If you find your best thinking hours are those that run opposite to the typical 8 to 5 daylight schedule, you're not alone. Entrepreneur magazine reported in 2007 that many corporate CEOs shared a common late-night (early morning) work shift.

Often late-night entrepreneurs who work into the wee hours at least once a week often get quick e-mail replies from other CEOs and feel a sense of camaraderie. "There's a special kind of ‘Yup, we're working on this when no one else is around' [feeling]."

So, if you tend to work 9 P.M. to midnight (or later), how do you keep up with the rest of the world during daytime hours? Here are a few tips to consider.

1. Try not to schedule important meetings first thing. You may not be ready to handle intense meeting schedules planned by folks who slept all night in a bed - and not at their desk.

2. Be careful with answering emails and/or the phone before you get some sleep. Sleep-deprived brains respond differently. I find that if I'm hyped up on caffeine, I tend to act too fast, but without sleep, my brain slows to a crawl and I can't make a decision quickly.

3. Take a nap before you try an A.M. work session. Cut back on the heavy foods and stock up on water and healthy snacks, which will keep your body feeling good.

4. Put a limit on it. Don't schedule too much for an A.M. session and if you're too tired, just go to bed. A.M. worker CEOs report that the middle of the night sessions help them keep up with bigger projects that require more focus. So if you find yourself in the flow, keep at it.

5. If you find yourself working an A.M. session at least once a week, try to plan on the same night each week. This may not be possible, but it will help you develop a somewhat schedule. As you include an A.M. shift in your scheduled work, you may find yourself looking forward to the quiet, or you'll shift other work around (if possible) during a typical 8 to 5 day in order to avoid burning that midnight oil.

In an upcoming post, time management gurus discuss techniques (including email management) to save you time and perhaps avoid weekly night-time work sessions.

How To Get Innovative In An Economic Downturn

I don't need to remind companies that consumers are rankled. That’s not my word, that's the word marketing experts have used to describe the selling environment companies are facing during this season of economic bailout. So, what's the advice? How do companies market effectively?

They innovate.

1. Be prepared to answer more questions about what kind of company you are. Customers want to know if you pay your upper management exorbitant amounts (CEOs cashing out just before their left-behind companies are bailed out by taxpayers may be one of those rankling issues, yes?), what you do to help the environment, if you give back to the community, and what kind of guarantee your product or service offers.

2. Get really good at your customer service. If you can't back up what you promise, this consumer environment will not be impressed (don't believe me; how have your sales been in the past two weeks?). Customers are fickle, and right now, they have the power to make or break you. Focus on making your customers happy and make them your number one focus. Many companies are finding out that business life without customers is bleak.

3. Think about how to make your product or service so amazing that people will freaking love it. Check out our previous post on Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands, and get really good at making your product or service irresistible. How? Ask your current customers. Why do they love you? Why do they continue to buy no matter what the economy looks like? A lot of information can be had by asking who already loves you.

4. Look at yourself from your customers' perspective. It's tough to really get their nuanced ways, but you've got to. Don't you sit and think "if only that company knew how that commercial or that packaging looked to the rest of us" at least a couple of times during a busy day? It could be an inept fast food server or a commercial that assaults our intelligence. This is how your marketing and products may look to your customers. While you can't keep everyone happy, it doesn't hurt to take a step back and walk a bit in your key market's shoes.

5. Be honest with yourself. Are you willing to go the extra mile for your customers? If not, your customers will be able to tell. If you really aren't sure about the product and are just trying it, that message will echo out well beyond your reach. You don't have to be gung ho about every product, but if you're not sure you can keep up with the expectations of your customers, you may need to do some soul-searching.

While these ideas may seem simple and kind of no-brainers, even implementation of one may make the difference between a good season and a true economic slowdown.

How Customers Think When the Economy is Weak

Wondering what customers will be thinking as credit slows and the stock market jumps and falls like a crazy jumping bean? There are just three quick questions on your customer's minds.

1. What do I really care about? Does your product or service represent something people really feel strongly about? Does it offer capabilities beyond the competition? Is it something people get excited about? Do they think the design is amazing? Find out who will care about your product or service and market to these people.

2. What really matters? What kind of items are your customers shopping for? What matters to them right now? Are you customers concerned about giving back to the community? Are they concerned about the environment? Are they buying from you because you are an ethical company? Do they appreciate your quality customer service? Do they like your guarantee and warranty?

3. What's really unique? When money's tight, folks want the real thing. They want the computer that works, the piece of clothing that wears well and will last, and they want value for the money.

Marketing maverick Robyn Waters, former vice president of trend, design and product development at Target tells, "And those items will be the ones that everybody will rush in to buy, pay full price for and feel really good about the purchase."

"When we're in tough economic times, there's even more reason for innovation. Think of a brand as a love mark. If someone falls in love with a brand or a product even when times are tough, more than likely they'll build a relationship with it," Waters said.

Analysts predict this holiday shopping season could be one of the worst in recent history. In September, the Wall Street Journal reported on two grim predictions from Deloitte LLP and TNS Retail Forward Inc. These predictions were made before the most recent economic woes (including the bailout and subsequent stock market plunge) and consensus is that the harsh reality of what lies ahead for retailers could prove to be even worse than predictions.

Do companies panic? No. Now is the time for innovation. No matter what this week holds, panic is not the answer. Make a marketing plan (innovate!) and then execute the plan, one step at a time.

As the Stocks Fall, It’s All About the Love

So, what do you do with your marketing right now? If you say, cut back, that's the wrong answer. If you're watching the stock market, worrying about sales and expenses, you need to look at one thing only: your marketing. Time to get creative—it's time to make your customers fall in love with you.

Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts might be a book you need to read right now. Roberts posits that customers need an emotional attachment in order to continue buying your products and services. How do you create that emotional attachment? writes, "In Lovemarks, advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts delves deep into what mysteries lie behind the long-term success and unwavering customer loyalty for a can of Coke or a pair of Levi's, ultimately concluding that Love is the answer, and without some emotional connection to a product, it will dry up like a generic raisin in the sun. Enter Lovemarks, the new marketing buzzword, which will likely be bandied about at board meetings as vigorously as The Tipping Point.

Despite the somewhat egocentric approach to taking us there (he is, after-all, a pretty smart guy), we arrive at Roberts's point beautifully, and see what he sees: ‘That human attention has become our principle currency.' And that, in these times, forming long-term emotionally charged relationships with customers is the only way to make a product weather the long haul."

Roberts' thesis, "That human attention has become our principle currency," is proving itself very true as consumers move large amounts of money from failing banks to credit unions, decide to save or move to another account their expendable income, and cut back on household expenditures overall. Consumers will, however, spend money on products and services they love. Find out how to get your customers to fall for you—hard—and learn what it means to be considered innovative.

Roberts has one more book on the subject—The Lovemarks Effect: Winning In the Consumer Revolution, which highlights practical applications of his thesis. writes, "In this follow-up book, . . . the people speak—consumers, owners, and marketers show the impact of Lovemarks on their lives, their businesses, and their aspirations. How consumers feel about you—their emotional connection to you—is what determines success now. The Lovemarks Effect offers instruction and inspiration about creating emotional connections and winning in a consumer-empowered future."

What are you waiting for? Check them out!

Five Quick Tips On How To Lead in a Crisis

1. Answer the question. Be honest, be insightful, and don't fudge around with talking points and rhetoric. Just answer. Truthfully, honestly, and to the best of your ability.

2. If you don't know everything, find out. Get some advisors that you trust, and study with them. Don't just walk around saying, "Well, I think this, but I'm not sure." Find out and be sure.

3. Don't use fancy words. Employees don't care about corporate policy or return on investment. They want to know if they still have a job. They want to know if you think they're doing a good job or not. They want to know if you care about your company, your employees, and the well-being of everyone who contributes to your business. Just say what you need to say.

4. Be approachable. Don't sit in your office and avoid people. Join your employees in the lunch room, challenge the stressed out sales team to a game of basketball, buy everyone movie popcorn, and above all, smile, shake hands, and look people in the eye when you're talking to them.

5. Keep looking forward. Address the crisis, deal with the issues, but remember it can't last forever. Things will get better. If you stay hopeful, your team stays hopeful. Hope is a very overused word, but at its core is the idea that no matter how bad it gets, everyone is in this together (disagreeing or not) and everyone is willing to work hard and to go above and beyond, as long as the boss points the way and believes that it's doable.

No matter what the crisis, employees and businesses need leaders, especially this year, right now, in the middle of this crisis. Please lead, we need you to.