Sunday, January 29, 2012
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Article first published as Budget: What Budget? on Blogcritics.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Within the first few minutes of his appearance with David Letterman, Herman Cain told the host and audience two things that disqualify him for public office. First, candidate Cain proclaimed that he is “not a politician.” Second, he stated that the “country should be run like a business.” It does not work that way. If a person is not a politician, they do not qualify for an elected government position – appointed, maybe, but not elected, where being a politician is requisite. As to running government like a business, that is a false analogy. It does not work that way.
“Government is like business” is a text book example of the false analogy. In such an analogy, two objects, A and B, are shown to be similar. Then the argument is that since A has property P, B must also have property P. The analogy fails when the two objects, A and B, are different in a way which affects whether they both have property P. You have heard this populist argument that just as business must be sensitive primarily to its bottom line, so also must government.
The problem is that the objectives of business and government are completely different. Business is all about profit and governments are all about people.
Both business and the government have budgets. Budgets are based upon revenue and expenses. However, business revenue is based upon sales and government revenue is based upon taxes. The revenue mechanisms are entirely different, hence the false analogy. Governments can only increase revenue by passing laws to raise taxes, which may have irksome political implications beyond the grasp of the finest CEO. Businesses can only increase revenue by increasing sales.
In either case, reductions in spending do not increase revenue. Less spending only impacts margin, which is not a government consideration at all. The government does not have a Profit and Loss Statement or a Balance Sheet, where there is such a thing a negative equity. The concept of equity is not governmental.
The whole idea of a federal budget is relatively new anyway. The Constitution does not even mention such a thing. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 created the U.S. General Accounting Office as part of the Legislative Branch. Its purpose is to audit the federal books and prevent fraud. That 20s legislation created the Bureau of Budget in the Executive Branch to coordinate budget submissions by various departments and agencies. By the 40s, the idea of a balanced budget existed but was considered just so much old political rhetoric.
Speaking of the Constitution, the balanced budget amendment, H.J.RES.2, came to the House floor and went to committee last January. Last week Congress failed to pass it, as the Super Committee succeeded to fail.
Budgets that propose to reduce revenue only work when a business plans to downsize itself as a company strategy.
Let’s say that a company makes a 2% margin on a revenue volume of $20M, which is a $400K profit. The company’s downsizing strategy is to make a 10% margin on a revenue volume of $10M, a $1M profit. The $600K difference is sellable to a BOD because it cuts fixed expenses and reduces revenue. The idea of downsizing the federal government and reducing taxes may sound good, it is just that the government has no mechanism to reduce its size.
President Reagan said, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!”
Balanced budgets only exist in business. Prudent business management is all about balancing revenue and costs to achieve profit. That is why successful business managers, as Cain claims he is, think inside the box. That is where the money is. Likewise, successful politicians think inside the box, because that is where the votes are.
At his word, Cain says that he knows all about being a business person but not about being a politician. So, why should anyone vote for him? He is missing the point. Politicians do not just say things they think that voters want to hear. Politicians say things that are calculated to appeal to an electorate constituency. Candidate Herman Cain says things that may sound good to him, but they did not sound good to television show host David Letterman. Sorry, Cain fans, your candidate does not qualify.
Bragging about not being a politician and expecting to become president is like bragging about not being a business person and expecting to become a CEO.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Ten years after my first entrepreneurial failure, I had to force myself to learn sales, at which I seemed to have to work harder than everyone else. It was hard in a simple way. Like playing a musical instrument, it took a lot of practice. The sales cycle begins and ends with prospecting. The routine is seeing new people and following up on them. The difference between success and failure is the dogged tracking of everything and constant measuring of minutia. But, the thing that finally got my attention was easy to understand and embrace. To quote the psalmist Jimmy Buffett, “it was so simple like the jitterbug it plumb evaded me.”
Make it easy for the customer to buy.
Exceeding customer expectations, human connection, and relationship building are key components of making it easy. So, how about hardware gadgets and software applications? Does technology make it easier? My answer is a definite “maybe.” Let me make it easy for you to buy this essay on whether or not social media accomplishes my axiom. Remembering that hindsight is 20/20, let’s look at the innovations that founded our present situation.
Consider an analogue Internet connecting people by a web of railroad tracks and postal routes that allows for two-way communication utilizing printed multi-page websites. Welcome to the dawn of the 20th Century.
President Abraham Lincoln signed a law on May 20, 1862 called the Homestead Act of 1862. Applicants who were over 21 and who had not born arms against the United States got a “homestead” or grant of 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River. They had to live on it for five years and improve [farm] it in return for a deed. Eleven states had left the Union at the time and there would be political and regional issues as a result, but aren’t there always when a government gives people anything? The point here is that the Act expanded western settlement which followed the growth of the railroads.
The postal system implemented Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in 1896. Since the country was literally wireless, telephone wireless, two-way communication was by post. RFD also made the mail order business possible. By permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge, it entitled those catalogs a one cent per pound postage rate. That
made the rural distribution of catalogues quite economical while the railroads provided distribution to delivery points.
The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog called itself the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth," claiming that "Our trade reaches around the World." At the apex for mail order merchandise, you have the model website for its time that included testimonials from satisfied customers. The catalogue made every effort to assure the reader that Sears had the lowest prices and best values. The 1903 catalog included the commitment, "Your money back if you are not satisfied."
The point is that it is not just one thing that makes a milestone, but a combination of things that is transformative. The combination of catalogue, RFD, and the rail system made it easy for customers to buy.
Talk about making it easy, here are some more combinations for consideration. The increasing use of the credit card from 1958 is a significant development for consumers and culture. Add that to the introduction of the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) 800 toll-free service in 1967, so that subscribers like Sears could allow their customers to reach them without toll charges, and you have a milestone.
The next milestone occurred when the development of an Internet from 1957 is coupled with the relative affordability of the personal computer in about 1986. Add to that combination the growth privately owned shipping services with incredible logistics like UPS and FedEx and by 1994 the Dotcom bubble is on with the founding of Amazon. The next year brought Craigslist, Yahoo and eBay. That being noted, the milestone is that consumers could look at an online catalogue, call a customer service agent, process and pay for an order and have it delivered the next day.
Just for the record, Sears decided to quit producing its “Wish Book” catalogue in 1993 in favor of making it easy for customers to buy online.
We arrive, finally, at the business use of social media. I will argue that the first social medium is analogue – a bulletin board in a common area that uses paper and thumb tacks. I will further argue that Twitter and Facebook form the electronic generation of the same. How important are they?
According to Demandbase CEO Chris Golec, “Despite its increasing influence, it’s important to keep in mind that no business sale is made without the buyer going to the corporate website first.” In fact research shows that such sites are seven times as effective at generating sales leads as social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. 25% of survey respondents admitted the most sales leads came from their website, followed by 14% who selected email marketing campaigns. Online advertising followed that. Social media accounted for 3% of respondents’ recommendations. What’s on your website?
I am not suggesting that social media should be ignored. Neither am I suggesting that business has to have a Facebook page and a blog because everybody else does, although that is tempting. Instead I will argue that businesses need to think about implementing social media as part of its message mix, if for no other reason than to accomplish three things: engage their customers and exceed expectations, make a stronger human connection, and build better relationships. If those can be done strategically, by which I mean being able to measure the results, perhaps another milestone will occur.
# # #
# # #
Article first published as Easy To Buy on Blogcritics.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Assume you are the CEO, president, or owner of a company and you have the responsibility and authority to make decisions. Some of them can be delegated but the ultimate responsibility is yours. Your company has an executive management position to fill. In the Human Resource department of your company you have a person working for you with the responsibility for selection and placement of personnel. They have posted the position opening on an on-line job board. In this economy with its extreme unemployment rate, especially in the management ranks, that someone is now buried.
While they have merit and arguable utilitarian value, the number of Job Boards has increased dramatically since Monster appeared. That cute name brand has been copiously copied since 1999. Job boards now have boards. Just like everything else that started on the Internet as a free service, many job boards, such as Ladders, are fee based -- not free. For fees that range from low monthly rates to high single pay prices, the boards sell their customers résumé writing services to rewrite a job seeker’s copy using language that a person might read into language that a computer program reads.
Job seekers know this and many spend money to have job board companies apply their résumé writers with their proprietary HR adapted software to make sure that the processed résumés that your person receives have the highest probability of making the probability cut. The software helps the job board people make résumés and cover letters more acceptable to an automated process. Think of it like homogenization. An odd word choice, perhaps, but forensically it’s true. Both postings and résumés become exercises in cliché as a result.
# # #
Article first published as The Human in Human Resources on Blogcritics.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
As much as I use PowerPoint and Excel to make a point, I still think it is a good idea to know how to use a paper napkin or a white board. There is something almost magical in that kind of performance because it is personal, almost intimate, especially when you are dealing with professional sales people. If you are too cool to draw a picture, there are a lot of people you are going to miss. Lest we forget, for many people it is still an analogue world.
One of my clients was a digitally inclined auto dealer who employed 10 to 14 sales people. Automotive sales forces are of a variable nature because they tend to have a 30% attrition rate. It’s not for everyone. The client faced two major problems in sales. Basically, he hated his sales people and they hated him in return. It was a digital divide. The other problem was pricing. The client discounted vehicles below break-even and posted them on the Internet. Sales did not know about it but their computer savvy customers did.
It didn’t help that the client had been through a Dale Carnegie sales training program. His framed certificate of training made him conclude that that he was a great salesperson. Unfortunately, he sucked air as a sales person. He genuinely lacked people skills. He did not know how to listen to prospects. That made him impatient with them. Nor could he understand how people refused to follow his robotic and raced through presentations. It did not help that the client told his sales people that they didn’t know what they were doing, which he did.
One thing that self-described great sales people like auto dealers have in common is that they are marks. They are called “lay-downs.” They will buy anything. They have no sales resistance. Because they are such great sales people, they overcome their own objections. They are especially vulnerable to the bane of all professional sales people existence called “Susie Sales Girl,” who is the willowy well-heeled blond who sells sales seminars, full-page color newspaper ads, websites, bus advertising that forgets to include the dealership phone number on a 30 vehicle fleet, novelty pens, and enough balloons and helium for the Macy’s Parade. When they sell computer hardware and software, clients can’t write a check quickly enough.
Dealers are not the only people who get sold hardware and software. Many business owners buy into the idea that software by itself can solve everything, or at least that it should. It is the using of the software, along with everything that implies that can be problematic after the sale. The biggest after sale problems are technical support and user training. Support and training are rarely onetime events but tend to be treated as if they were. However, when such a tool as a complex computer application cannot be used, the hardware might as well be a boat anchor. Except for sailors who just bought a new boat, no one wants to admit they bought a boat anchor for their business.
My client had purchased 10 boat anchors as well as a jumbo monitor for the conference room, where he routinely put his sales crew to sleep with PowerPoint presentations and webinars. That created a hate-hate relationship enhanced by technology.
Organization integrity was the management issue in this case. As an owner, the client had assumed to position of General Manager and Sales Manager. He employed a Service Manager, Finance Manager, Parts Manager, an Office Manager, a Personnel Manager and a Facilities Manager. But in those positions they had no one to report to because the owner was so busy in his area of least competence. So those managers were more or less on their own. The organizations’ lines of communication atrophied and business suffered as a result.To correct this situation required me taking on the position as General Manager myself until a new GM could be selected and hired. Next came the tasks of appointing a Sales Manager and establishing a balanced management organization with a routine reporting and communication process. By establishing an organization structure that put a management buffer between department managers and ownership, it became easier to coordinate department functions to take care of the business.
To do that required me putting a white board in my office so that my department managers and I could draw on them. It did not require telling them what I was doing as much as just doing it and getting them used to doing it. Together, we used the analogue tool to hash out what we wanted the digital tool to do for them. With time the managers began to own their Excel spreadsheets and use them in their reporting, as opposed to shoving programs down their proverbial throats. It also helped to supplant the jumbo screen with a jumbo white board and to make sales meetings more interactive. I replaced emitted light with reflected light. No one got sleepy.
Even the owner succumbed to something as simple and analogue as me writing on a cocktail napkin to demonstrate the difference between mark-up and gross margin pricing. I succeeded in showing him that MSRP (Manufacture Suggested Retail Price) was not a markup but a margin above the break-even point. All of the overhead costs involved in selling a vehicle, including the helium and balloons, were absorbed plus adding a gross margin. When I showed him how a mark-up price of a vehicle over invoice left money on the table, I got his attention. When he saw that discounting a price below his break-even cost him money, he picked up the napkin and put it in his pocket. The next day he showed me a pricing spreadsheet he created from the napkin. He still has it.
If there is a moral to this story, it is that how you get your message across is not important. Getting the message across is. The sales people took ownership of their workstations to increase their personal sales and quit resenting sitting in front of a monitor. The dealership quit leaving money on the table by pricing and discounting correctly. People developed new routines for a new General Manager to oversee. Whether or not those folks lived happily ever after I cannot say. What I can say is that software does not solve everything. People do. It is just that sometimes you have to draw a picture with them.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
If you tell someone that you are a college professor, you get asked, “What do you teach?” If you tell someone you are a management consultant, you get asked, “What do you do?” In my consulting practice I organize small companies as the person they call in to get rid of former best friends, spouses or family members from the operation. [Specialty: getting Pops to retire early.] Here are three case examples.
The wife was in tears as her husband told me that their $17M a year international wholesaling company was tearing their marriage apart. She had been working as a registered nurse until a thieving employee, who the couple had regarded as part of the family, was arrested and charged with embezzlement. Now the woman in tears revealed that the arrested party had been the company bookkeeper and that she, the tearful one, had left the nursing profession to take the embezzlers place. The marital problems began about the same time, two years earlier, and the discussion of divorce had begun.
The owner’s son would not look me in the eye as his father explained how everything had been running along just fine in his $8M a year filling station franchises, one at each end of the town. The son had closed his own profitable motor cycle repair business to come into the family company and try to get the operation back into the black from red hole that was swallowing the family alive. The son took me aside later and confessed that he didn't know how much longer they could stay open that the banks were calling every day for loan payments. As to paying for consulting services to help save them, he didn’t know how the invoices could be paid.
The client’s wife and business partner in the $14M a year lumber company asked me if I was in law enforcement, as I walked through the office to step outside for a minute break. When I asked her why she thought that, she noted that I would ask a casual question each time we met and each time the questions seemed unrelated, but she was certain that they were related. Later, when the computer with the company books crashed, she retrieved a computer from home that had a copy of the books. Asked why she had been paying vendors from the client’s personal account, she mentioned the IRS lien on the business that had not been previously revealed.
Incidentally, the three examples I have chosen are all from the pre-recession economy.
I have no objection to family members working for a company so long as the integrity of the business organization is uncompromised. To determine integrity I mean honestly answering some questions that need to be asked. Do working family members have job descriptions? Are they competent in their company position? Are they properly supervised? Do they conform to all company policies and procedures? Is their compensation appropriate?
These are the same questions that should be answered for any company employee, by the way. Look at it like this, Boss’s Spouse is not a job description. Being a business owner is not the same as being a competent business manager. Being a family member does not ensure proper supervision. Non-conformity to policy and procedure is what other employees look for, such as anything that appears to be special treatment. Working in a business without compensation is as bad a plan as being paid more than a non-family member would be paid.
A $100K a year salary for a $30K position looks like theft to employees. Not being paid for a $30K position is a terrible compensation plan and a false economy that is inconsistent with competent management.
The first case required solving the work-family boundary issues that created the marital problems. The second case required reorganizing the company and changing its management. The third case required law enforcement intervention. It is all part of being a family advisor and business savior. That is what consultants are.
Article first published as Family Advisor and Business Savior on Blogcritics.