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Getting to know your business

In a previous blog of mine, ‘Sometimes it’s better to just say No.” I spoke a little about knowing your competition and knowing your business. I had some great feedback from that post and I wanted to take a moment to discuss something that most business owners do not like to talk about. It’s a topic of asking yourself if you know your business, the business industry and most important your competitors.

Knowing your business is very important, and believe it or not, a lot of business owners really don’t know much about their business. Let alone what’s going on in the industry. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are connected with your business and the industry.

Create a Business Plan: A business plan is one of the most important aspects to any business. Especially a small business. A solid business plan could help with obtaining funding and most important, serve as a road map to keep your business on track with your goals and help you move forward when faced with obstacles. An important part of a business plan is the business strategic plan. A strong strategic plan will define your strategy to meet your goals, and serve as a guide when making some important decisions from hiring additional personal to whether or not to expand to new locations or even acquire additional businesses. Your business plan should also outline your sales and marketing plan. I feel that this is one of the most important aspects of the business plan. After all, without sales there would be no business. Educate yourself in your industry. Make sure your rates are comparable and/or competitive with your competitor rates in your area. I found that one of the best ways to gather this information is to join an association that is based on your industry. If you need some more detailed information on how to create a business plan. I would recommend reading an article by Entrepreneur Magazine that will give you some great tips and outlines in a very detailed manor on how to create a business plan. You can find this article by clicking here.

Stay Plugged In: A great tool for small business owners is networking. Whether its joining a local networking group, chamber or a meetup.com group. Networking is a great way to stay plugged in with other local business owners in your area and a great way to get referrals. Another tool that I highly recommend utilizing for your business is Social Media. Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are great ways to stay connected with your clients and prospects. By posting updates for your business, specials and promotions, blogs about your industry and giveaways, your business will stay on your followers mind.

Stay Motivated: Out of everything I wrote today and all the other business help articles and books out there. If you’re not motivated, non of these will help. I know and have experienced times where nothing seems to go right and I feel defeated. If you want to see your business thrive, then breath life into it. If your business is struggling, then its time for a new business plan. Its time to go through your business financials and see where your losses are. Find the areas that are doing poorly and eliminate them if needed and focus on the areas that are profitable. If you have a sales team, show excitement and passion for your business. Get your team on board with a strong vision and a positive vision. Donald Trump once said, “With out passion you don’t have energy, with out energy you have nothing.”

Just give me a frigging chance!

give me a chanceSo many times in my career I have gotten upset because someone didn’t give me the opportunity to show them what I or my business could do for them.  I would so badly want to flat out say, “Just give me a frigging chance!”

When my business partner and I started our business we were hitting the pavement running.  Our first year we wrote over $1 Million in proposals and were so excited to see what would come of it. We followed up on a regular basis and finally the some of the contracts started rolling in, but there was one big contract that we really wanted. We were told by the decision maker that he didn’t feel comfortable going with a new company. However after pestering him he finally agreed to meet with us. We got our presentation together and went into the meeting with the attitude that we will land this deal. We went through our presentation and at the end I spoke up and said, “Mike, I understand your fear of hiring a young company. It’s scary. There are a lot of fly by nights in this industry, but I think you can see our passion, dedication and education in this industry. I promise you will not regret hiring our business. All I ask if that you give us a chance to show you what we can do.”

We left the meeting unsure of what would happen. On our way back to our office my phone rang and it was Mike, the customer, on the other end of the line congratulating us on winning the contract. Not only did we complete the contract but we received more money in enhancements and extras than what the contract was worth.

I recall when I decided to leave the landscape industry with the goal of starting my career in property management. I put out application after application with no luck.  Then I found a post on Craigslist looking for a building manager. So, I emailed about the position. In the email I pretty much stated that I knew I wasn’t the typical applicant, but if you just give me a chance I can show you what I can do.  And today I work as their Business Development Manager.

Whether you are looking for a new job or trying close that big sale – be confident in yourself and your business and don’t be afraid to ask for the job. After all, Steve Jobs was fired at Apple. Then came back and changed Apple as we know it.

Sometimes it’s better to just say ‘No’

I believe that one of the most important thing a sales person, manager or business owner needs to learn to do is to say “No.” I have made the mistake myself to feel that I can not let a client down, or didn’t want to let potential money go to our competitor, so I said “Yes” to some of my clients requests. Unfortunately, either we didn’t have the man power and equipment to handle the projects, or even worse, we didn’t have the finances to provide our clients requests.

Let’s be honest, to be a small business owner you have to have some ego about yourself and your business. So when you’re put into a spot where you don’t want to look incapable of handling a project or you don’t want your clients to know that you can not financially afford to compete with your competitors, you may feel it’s easier to say “Yes” and try to figure it out. Unfortunately, down the road it usually falls apart and your client is less than likely to trust your recommendations, or to use your services in the future.

Here are a few things that I learned along my years as a small business owner and a sales manager.

Be honest with your clients: I was taught at a young age that when a client asks a question that you do not know the answer to, to be honest and reply, “I am unsure of the answer, however if you give me a few moments I can contact someone who does.” The same goes for when a client asks for a service or project that you know you can’t afford or handle. Be honest with them. In most cases they will appreciate the fact you are honest. In some cases you may lose a deal, but in the long run that deal may have cost you more money to try to complete.

Know your competitors: I spent most of my career in the lawn and landscape industry. In this industry there are a few big players that most business owners look up to. Every year the Lawn & Landscape Magazine would release the Top 100 businesses in the industry and categorize them by the gross income of the business. Every year the Top 5 were usually: The Brickman Group, TrueGreen, Davey Tree, ValleyCrest and Scott’s. Each year some would rise and some would drop. The one thing I found out was that so many business owners were obsessed with the Top 5. They would try to duplicate and be as much like their competitors as possible. It’s one thing to know your competitors, but to mold your business around their success could mean failure for your business. They have the finances available for large projects. So when a client claims that company XYZ is willing to build out their office for free or pennies on the dollar, or company ABC is going to give them a free irrigation system with the landscape package, you need to know what your company can realistically and financially handle. By knowing your competitors, you can usually call your clients’ bluff when they try to score a deal on a project.

My recommendation is to focus on organic growth of your business. Sometimes letting a deal go could be the best choice you could make. Next time you are put in a position where you don’t know if you could realistically handle a project, let the customer know that you will get back with them. Go through all of the pros and cons of the project and run all the numbers on the project. If it doesn’t make your business money then the best thing to do is come back with another option that makes sense for both you and your clients.

 

 

The customer is always right, right?

We’ve all heard it before, “the customer is always right.” However, is this saying true? Is the customer always right? I remember working for a small family business when I was younger that lived by the motto “the customer is always right.” Unfortunately for the business they are now closed. Could it of been because the recession? Or the fact that the very customers that were supposed to keep the business afloat, ended up killing the business?

I remember working for that business one summer when I was in high school. A gentleman came in and bought 2 flats of flowers and a small bag of potting soil. I rang him up and loaded the products in his car for him. He left and returned about 10 minutes later claiming that I shorted his order. He claimed he purchased 5 flats of flowers and a large bag of soil. I asked for his receipt and he claimed I never gave it to him. (What this man claimed I shorted him cost around $30 worth of product.) I contact my boss and told him of the situation. I asked if he wanted me to pull all my receipts and count my till. He then said something to me that I never forgot, “If the customer can flat out lie to your face – give him what he wants. Remember one thing Andrew; the customer is always right.” I never understood why he would say this.

Throughout my career I have always had positions where I interacted with customers daily. It seemed like no matter what business I worked at there were always a customer claiming they deserve something they didn’t purchase. Some businesses gave in and some didn’t. I worked at a lawn care company that specialized in lawn fertilization applications. There was a new client who had only one treatment for his lawn. Not only was his lawn in horrible shape because it was neglected for years, the man never watered his lawn. The customer then went to the business Facebook page and tried to claim that we provide horrible service. He went on claiming that his lawn was covered in weeds, had thin spots and poor color. The reaction the business owner gave was pretty great. The business owner replied to his post so everyone could see. He thanked him for sharing his photo, and reminded him that this was his first application, and it has only been 3 days since the treatment. He went on explaining how lawn care works. (the same info they gave him when he signed up.) He then went on thanking him for his service and guaranteed his satisfaction, if not his application would be free. Needless to say when they came back for his second application they noticed every weed was gone. The technician took a picture and uploaded it to the business Facebook page showing the before and after from just one application.  Needless to say the customer realized he was wrong, and never once posted another thing on the page.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be times when the customer is right. There have been times where I forgot to do something I promised or misquoted a project. I believe that we need to set the motto. “the customer is always right.” on the back burner. I feel sometimes we use it as an excuse on how to properly handle situation, or to fess up on our mistakes. As business leaders we should always strive for 100% customer satisfaction. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon once said “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

The Huffington Post did an article on this very topic and  gave five reasons why ‘the customer is always right’ is wrong:

1 : It Makes Employees Unhappy – If you were told by your boss that you were wrong and the customer is always right. Would you be motivated to give 100% ?

2: It Gives Abrasive Customers an Unfair Advantage – We all have dealt with those customers. They will use this line to get what ever they want.

3: Some Customers Are Bad For Business – Both examples I gave were a great example of such customers.

4: It Results in Worse Customer Service – This can be a direct issue from reason #1

5: Some Customers Are Just Plain Wrong. – This pretty much speak for itself.

 

This is why in my office I don’t live by this motto. If I or one of our employees make a mistake. We admit to it, apologize to the client, fix it and don’t do it again. Our focus is to build a team who can take pride in their work and deliver the best experience for our clients.

 

If you would like to read the Huffington Post article  discusses in this blog. You may by simply clicking here.

 

What the hell is happening in my office?

This past month at my office has been a month of headaches and roadblocks. I caught myself asking, “What the hell?” quite a bit this month, “What the hell was my employee thinking? What the hell happened to these reports? What the hell did my vendor do?” That’s when it hit me, I was loosing control of the office I was supposed to be managing.

We just launched a new billing system a few months ago. Each month I am surprised we are still having issues in accounting, after all this new system was supposed to make our lives easier. This month I have been busy with so many little things that took my time. That before I knew it we were half way through the month. That’s when my boss walked in the office with aging reports asking “What the hell is this?” I should know what the status of our aging reports any time he ask. That’s when I realized; I haven’t even looked at them yet. Our office is a smaller operation, so it is very important for us to be on top of collecting lease payments. However, this month we were behind over $10,000. I could blame this on my assistant, or even the accounts receivable. But the truth was this was happening because of my lack of leadership, and my lack of assigning responsibilities to my employees.

Fortunately, my boss was understanding that I was buried with other projects that were taking my focus away from the important things. Like collections and business development. From here we found that a lot of the projects that were taking my time, were projects that I could afford to hand off to someone else.

Some times as a business owner, or manager we feel it is easier for us to do something rather than making our employees learn how to do it or even how fix it. Before we know it, we are behind on what is important because we are focused on little things like picking up more cups at Costco for our kitchen, rather than closing deals or collecting past due payments.

Author Brandon Sanderson once wrote, “The mark of a great man is one who knows when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones.”  So what about you and your business? Are there projects or job duties that you can hand off that will allow for you to focus on the big picture?

Prepare your employees. Hand off some responsibility. Hold them accountable. These three steps will help you focus on the vital projects of the business. (and maybe make your life a little less stressful)

Growing too fast? Take it easy.

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Most of my followers are probably my friends or family. (yeah I’m that blogger – I know, its sad) But if you just so happened to come across this blog I would like to tell you a little about my past and how I truly believe that growing a business too fast can be just as bad as no growth – if not worse.

I started working in the landscape industry at the age of 16. I worked at a garden center in the town I grew up in selling flowers and seed. From there I had some great opportunities to work for some of Ohio’s most well known and respected lawn and landscape businesses. I worked my way from grunt labor to crew leader, supervisor, operations manager, sales manager and even helped launch a commercial landscape business out of my home town.

I had an opportunity to move to Buffalo, New York to work as a sales manager for a large lawn and landscape business. After taking the position I was informed of the status of the business. It went from roughly a $600,000 business to a multi-million dollar business in about 3 years. The fast growth was created by purchasing of a few smaller businesses in the area.  Things looked great. At first. Then when clients learned of the business being acquired they used it as a get out free card from their agreements. Before we knew it the sales have dropped, economy has tanked and homeowners were hanging on to any money they could. When times are tough most homeowners get rid of unnecessary expenses. Lawn mowing, mulching and fertilizing is something most homeowners could do on their own.

So, our business was in a rut and we had to make some decisions to keep the business alive. We decided to take a look at the business as a business with multiple divisions; Lawn Maintenance, Landscape Maintenance, Lawn Fertilizing, Tree & Shrub Fertilizing, Landscape Design & Install, Hardscape Design & Install and of course Snow Removal. (we were located in Buffalo where it snows over 100 inches a year)  We then took these divisions and looked at all our profits and losses from each of them. We found that a few were very profitable and a few were loosing us money. A lot of money. After finding this out we decided to close the struggling divisions, lay off employees, sell equipment no longer needed and focus on re-branding the business with a heavy marketing for the areas that were profitable.

As of today (2 years later) the business is stronger and more profitable than ever before. (and on a good pace for organic growth) So the question to ask yourself: Are there areas of your business that are outdated and dragging your profits down? Should you consider restructuring your business to keep it afloat?

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what services or products you provide, negative services or products will make any business week.

Slow down. Hold off the ego and focus on the future.