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Taking Charge of Your Destiny

It has been easy these past several years. Letís admit it. Thereís been plenty of business. Sure, thereís lots of competition and customers are more demanding than ever. And, no question about it, we had to work harder. Still, the rewards are real.


How will we fare in the year ahead? Will a change in the calendar make a difference? Or will it be just more of the same? Will the good times continue to roll?


Few experts seem to expect any disruptive economic changes in 2001. Even so, there are disquieting factors: the housing market has slowed in certain regions, consumer electronics sales have slipped, some once flush city treasuries are feeling a pinch, more than a few consumer products stocks are under performing, and several large retailers are consolidating and closing marginal stores. Is all this merely transitional or is it a trend?

Even with all the indicators, the future is an enigma, of course. Whether the economy remains strong or shows signs of weakening, there are steps to take that can help ensure a successful year ahead.

Here are 10 practical guidelines:


  1. Watch out for unnecessary mistakes.  


Thereís an irony of the current economic engine. While there is more business, margins are also getting thinner. Thatís why IBM took its PCs out of retail venues and is selling them online. When business is good there is always the urge to "take it to the next level." While the need for improvement should never stop, there is always a tendency in business to look around for the next mountain to climb. We are always looking for the next challenge. Whatís happening now can be boring. The "new" and "different" turn out to be excuses to rekindle excitement.


How many "bricks" businesses have ventured off into far more attractive "clicks" country only to discover they had made a mistake. Such mistakes can close the doors. To its credit, Wal-Mart pulled back from launching a major e-commerce operation until it had reconsidered its strategy.


  1. Take a close look at your company.


Are we sharp? Or, do we just think we are? When we sit around the conference table and talk about ourselves, we come away convinced that we are the best. It happens every day. One e-commerce retailer, was actually hiring dozens of new staffers the very day Disney pulled the money plug. It is easy to get caught up in our own euphoria. Or to state it another way, it is dangerous when we begin believing our own BS.


What needs improvement? Where are we weak? What steps do we need to take to become more efficient? What are our customers looking for that weíre not providing? What traps should we be avoiding? These are the questions for the coming year.

Greener grass is often an illusion.


  1. Keep mining for new customers.

Good times can mask future problems. When thereís plenty of business, most companies take a vacation from identifying and cultivating future customers. "We have more customers than we can take care of now, why should we be trying to get more?" This is an all-too-common question.


With mergers, consolidations, and continued downsizing, customers disappear. Many a company has been caught off-guard when 25% of sales went away overnight. Unless a company is thinking two to five years ahead when it comes to developing new business, it is far too short sighted. Why? Because it is taking, longer and longer for prospects to make buying decisions. Unless you prospect when you donít need new business, it wonít be there when you do.

Now is the time to set up a new business plan that includes prospect identification and long-term cultivation. Make sure you are providing a stream of new customers two, three, and five years from now.


  1. Focus on what customers are thinking.

 While there are plenty of dangerous words in business today, these should be close to the top of anyoneís list: "We know our customers." While every company wants to think it understands its customers, the assumption can be dangerous. For example, a Vermont-based bank was getting ready to introduce a suite of products for small businesses. A marketing consultant suggested a focus group of business owners and managers might be helpful in shaping the product offering. To everyoneís surprise, the customers were primarily interested in periodic meetings with bank officers to discuss business issues.

Making the effort to understand what customers really want can enhance value.


    5    Look for the missing customer.

Walk into any store selling womenís clothing and the emphasis is on bodies that are young and lithe. In jeanswear, in particular, the manufacturers appeal to the young. But sometime around age 35, most women stop wearing jeans. Why? Ask them and theyíll give you a simple answer: "They donít fit." Jeanswear designer Donald Johannesson of Montreal listened. His French Dressing line is based on fit and comfort, the two qualities that women over 35 say are missing from jeans.


While the young market may be appealing because of the numbers, the 35 plus women are underserved when it comes to jeans. French Dressing found it.

Look for the niches others ignore and those that are misunderstood by others. Itís these markets that can offer opportunity. Just running with the crowd can mean running into trouble.


  1. Cut to the core to grow.

A companyís core products or services can seem boring. Just more of the same. Itís then that they begin to look for greener pastures. This was what Talbotís, the manufacturer of traditional womenís clothing, did several years ago when it veered away from the Talbotís "look." Loyal customers were confused and sales plummeted. It only took one year for Talbotís to return to its core line and sales success.


Because the core business is, in effect, the "brand," the strategy should be to look for new niches rather than just attempting to introduce new products or services. There are often good reasons for introducing a new product, such as Nissanís highly successful Xterra SUV that is aimed at a young (pre-Pathfinder) market. Even so, satisfied Xterra customers may very well be driving Pathfinders a few years down the road.



  1. Build the brand.

Everyone is on the same page when they think of Dell Computers: number one in customer satisfaction and buying direct. The first makes the second possible, of course. No confusion; no misunderstanding. The message is crystal clear. Itís this branding that has fuelled Dellís nearly 20 years of success because the company had identified what the customer wanted. In the case of a personal computer, it was getting the best price (Dell cut out the middleman) and support (something customers werenít getting from retailers). Itís this branding that will undoubtedly help sustain its momentum as it transitions itself in the years ahead.


Palm Pilot established itself as the clear leader in the PDA field. The company spent time and money communicating the message that it was the PDA. Early sales were driven by the techies and then came the crowds. Today, the word "Palm" stands with "Kleenex" as a generic term. Other PDAs look like "knock-offs" compared to Palm. Itís nothing less than brilliant branding.

If customers canít identify quickly and accurately why they should do business with you, thereís trouble ahead.


  8      Keep track of the trends.

There have always been a few who have been ahead of the curve, who have, more accurately, created it. In the last 50 years, Sam Walton and Bill Gates were certainly two of a small handful of true visionaries with the ability to spot trends. Most of us are closer to the opposite end of the spectrum: we look at the world through a rearview mirror. We see trends after they have occurred.


There is no acceptable excuse for allowing yourself to get behind the trend curve today.


  9     Be known for what you know.

If doing business in the second half of the last century was about who you know, today itís about what you know. Tacoma-based Raleigh, Schwarz & Powell, Inc., a large insurance consulting and brokerage firm with clients throughout the Western states recognized the need to differentiate themselves from other insurance brokers. The answer was not to be found in some superficial public relations paint brush. Their longstanding strength was as a knowledge-rich organization. They wanted to be known for what they know, not just for what they sell. With a long history of setting the highest internal standards of risk management excellence, they opened their windows so others could see and appreciate this totally customer-driven process.

Other firms are following the same path. Take Radio Shack, for example. Most of us have long gone to Radio Shack when we couldnít find an electronics part elsewhere. They had what we needed. CEO Leonard Roberts is capitalizing on this concept. It isnít the component or the part thatís important. The companyís tag line indicates the change of emphasis: "You have questions. We have answers." In effect, Radio Shack is saying, "Know us for what we know." Roberts says that the companyís aim is to connect people with technology.

Whether itís Raleigh, Schwarz & Powell or Radio Shack, the vision is clear: if you want to capture customers, focus on what you know, not what you sell.


  10   Foster excitement.

The covers of books are brighter and more intriguing than ever. Thereís a host of publications that aim at creating excitement, including Revolution and Fast Company, in the business field. In advertising, no company does "the excitement thing" better than Sun Microsystems. The companyís ad series make you think you are looking at a full-page depiction of the latest motion picture for 12 year olds.


In the same way, freeagent.comís advertising focuses on employees who want to escape the corporate cubicles. One ad shows a hole in the floor of a cubicle with a shovel beside it. The suggestion is clear: you can escape the prison.


Clearly, the model is still Macintosh. The Imac colors continue as does the design. The Ibookís handle makes computing easier and more fun. All you do is open the clamshell. The new Macintosh Cube computers seem to add the missing dimension of class to computing.


Whatever happens in the year ahead, there will be more, not fewer, challenges. And there will also be more, not fewer, business opportunities. Overcoming the obstacles and taking advantage of the opportunities will demand greater insight, understanding, and decision-making acumen.

The objective of these guidelines is to create a way to take charge of the positive and negative situations that will inevitably occur in 2001.


* * * * * * * * *

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. Mr. Graham is the author of The New Magnet Marketing (Chandler House Press), the revised and updated version of his original book, Magnet Marketing, and 203 Ways To Be Supremely Successful In The New World Of Selling (Macmillan Spectrum).





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