Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


February 2018
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Who’s in Charge?

One of the hallmarks of exceptional companies is employees who are trusted and expected to make decisions. It’s one of the keys to exceptional customer service that companies like Disney, Lands’ End, Nordstroms and others not only know, but practice.

The thing that I find most amazing about this secret to success is that these companies don’t keep it a secret. Maybe they should.  If it were treated like a secret then other companies would pay more attention to this when they ‘discovered’ it and rush to practice it. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

I got another lesson in how helpless front line employees can be recently. I placed an order with Amazon and in filling out the shipping directions I included both my street address and P.O. Box number as part of my address since I didn’t know how the item would be shipped. (My local post office doesn’t offer home delivery, just boxes, and they insist on a P.O. Box number according to a nasty letter I received from the USPS a while back. More on that some other time.) I later got an email from the company providing the product stating that they didn’t ship to P.O. Boxes and that my order had been cancelled.

I promptly called their direct ‘customer service’ line and after a brief wait I was actually talking with a real live person. Ned was pleasant to talk to and after giving him my order number he promptly had my order on his computer screen. So far so good. I explained what had happened and he agreed that he could see my street address on my order. Problem solved, right? Ah, not so fast.  You see, Ned wasn’t authorized to do anything about it other than to write up a report to send to someone else in his company to see if something could be done. No explanation of how it was not going to be possible to just ship the item to the street address that I had provided and that he could plainly see. No ability on his part to just delete the portion of the line that referenced the P.O. Box. Just a report that would be sent to someone else and I would hear back ‘sometime’. This for a product I needed right away.

‘Sometime’ arrived in the form of another email that gave me the location of yet another form I could fill out about my order. Pathetic.  So I did what you would expect any good customer to do. I ordered the same product from another company. Problem solved and in less time than I had spent talking with Ned. They lost a sale and all because their customer service rep wasn’t authorized to provide even the simplest of customer service.

Who’s in charge? The customer is and none of us can afford to forget it. Ever!

Attitude: A Community Issue?

Recently helped a community with a business planning session. Nothing unusual with that. Many of us have led or participated in countless sessions like this. What I found different about this session was the results.

Out topic was, “Building a Better Business Community” and we used a modified version of the Storyboarding planning method. Under the header “Obstacles” the group listed 70 items. The group then combined the ones that they felt were so close in meaning as to really be the same and they then voted in response to the question, “Which of these obstacles are most likely to stand in our way as we try to build a better business community.” I have them individually choose their top three and use a weighted voting system (3 points for their first choice, 2 points for second choice, etc.) and we then tallied the results.

The results showed two obstacles that rose head and shoulders above the rest. One was a contentious local issue that they had long faced. No surprise there. The second was “Resistance to Change”. Now attitudinal obstacles regularly show up in planning sessions like these but in my experience they rarely command center stage. I was even more surprised when I compiled the follow-up report and saw that over half of the 70 obstacles brought up during the initial brainstorming session dealt in one way or another with attitude.

I later discussed the results with an area economic development specialist who was familiar with the community. She said that a similar thing had happened as she helped a different community develop their comprehensive plan.

Ok, you’re probably saying, “So what?” Well here’s the deal. In my 20+ years of community development work the focus was almost always on physical things. And we responded. We build industrial parks, added infrastructure, spruced up the downtown facades, identified available buildings and provided job skill training. ‘Attitude’ was thought about but the focus was always on developing actions that resulted in something we could touch. Something we could see. 

And now we have community business leaders saying the lead obstacles they face are things we can’t see or touch but involve more of a sense of ‘feel’. Is this a real shift in priorities or is this an isolated incident? Have we made so much progress in addressing the physical obstacles that we now have time to give attitudinal ones some extra attention? Or have attitudinal issues increased to the point that they have pushed their way to the front and can no longer be ignored?

Whatever the case, dealing with these issues offers a whole new set of challenges. How do you benchmark attitude? How do you measure improvements? How do you incorporate a program for attitudinal change into your economic and community development efforts?

In comparison building an industrial park begins to look easy. And I never thought I’d ever say something like that. Will ‘Improving Attitude’ become the hot new community economic development issue?

Somebody oughtta…

Went to a community meeting recently that was well attended by folks who felt that something should be done about an issue. Great to see the enthusiasm but by the end of the evening it was obvious that something was missing.

OWNERSHIP! Not leadership, but ownership. There were many very capable leaders in the audience but what has not surfaced to this point is the group that will agree to passionately ‘own’ the idea. Everyone had opinions and shared them willingly but it was obvious at the end of the evening that everyone was looking to someone else to take the issue and run with it.

I think floating ideas is a great exercise but if there are no passionate champions at the end of the discussion we have to be ready to walk away even if everyone agrees that the idea is a basically good one. Pointing a finger at someone else and saying ‘Somebody ought to…’ is not the solution. In fact, assigning the task of implementing an idea to a group or agency that hasn’t taken ownership is a complete waste of time and money.

So what should we do?
1) Get people who are interested in the idea together for a discussion
2) If there is something worth pursuing, start a basic planning process.
3) If at the end of the basic planning process no one has expressed passionate ownership of the idea, admit it and go on to other business.

Life’s too short and money’s too scarce to spend either on even good projects that don’t have passionate champions and real owners.

The final line should never be, “Somebody oughtta…!”

Welcome to……..

I never cease to be amazed by how easy it is to miss the basics. I was recently reminded of this on my last visit to Wal-Mart. Several years ago when they were new to our state, a Wal-Mart came to a nearby community and everyone had to go check it out. And when folks came from their first visit what do you think they were talking about? The size of the store? The low prices? The tons of merchandise? Nope. Everyone was talking about the greeter and how he welcomed them to the store when they walked in.

Wasn’t it sad that this simple courtesy had become such an unusual occurrence in our lives. Wal-Mart gained a big advantage over many local businesses by starting with the basics.

Well guess what? Wal-Mart is losing that edge. I’d like to say that all the other businesses got the lesson and now extend a friendly greeting to all who visit their stores but no, sadly it seems to be working the other way. Wal-Mart’s greeters are still there but the smile is gone and the greeting is perfunctory at best. I can almost see the replacement ‘Welcome’ sign coming to those sliding doors.

But our desire as customers to be greeted with a smile and an enthusiastic welcome hasn’t gone away. Last I checked it was stronger than ever.

And here’s another place we can use this simple courtesy. A while ago I talked about the importance of economic developers getting out of the office on a regular basis and personally visiting the communities they serve. Well, one of the best things you can be doing on those visits is to stop in to welcome the folks at any new shop or business you encounter. Sure the Chamber may have already had a ribbon cutting or presentation of a ‘first buck’ plaque, but that doesn’t mean you can’t welcome them as well. And bring the mayor or village president along. She may have been at the ribbon cutting but another visit to ‘see how things are going’ will be appreciated by the new business. (And by the mayor as well.)

Powerful, powerful tool. And it doesn’t cost you a dime.

The UNIQUE Factor

Sometimes we forget what makes our communities and businesses special. We get so accustomed to what we have that we either don’t notice it at all or we think that every community or business has the exact same things to offer. When we try to market ourselves we trot out the same brochure, the same webpage and the same trite phrases as everyone else. Oh, the photos and logos differ but that’s often about the extent of it. Then we wonder why our clients fail to see us as special. From their viewpoint we all end up looking pretty much the same.

Had a couple of reminders of that recently. I worked with a community center that is trying to expand its use by community members. We did a quick listing of advantages the center had to offer and I think most people were actually surprised by the length of the list.

I was also able to contribute one or two that others may have considered unique due to my experience as a trainer and speaker. The place has great acoustics and hearing a speaker is easier there than at almost any other venue in the area. That’s something I notice because of my personal background and am even more conscious of as I begin to suffer some of the hearing related issues that go with the aging process. If we hadn’t done the list would their attempts at promotion focus on what can really be quantifiable differences from the client’s perspective or would the group wind up doing the ‘same old, same old?’

Yesterday I took a drive to a nearby community that is on the Mississippi River. I stopped along the river dock and noticed an excursion boat about to take on a load of passengers. I asked if they had room for one more and after paying my fee I was off on a beautiful relaxing 2 hour river trip. Not a big deal but I’m sad to admit that I’ve lived relatively near the Mississippi for over 20 years and this is only the third time I have been on it. One of the greatest rivers in the world and I just take it for granted, rarely thinking of it as an asset to the area. The rest of the passengers were all from much farther away and were amazed to get close looks at five Bald Eagles and a falcon during our voyage. I see them all the time and I’ve forgotten what a thrill it can be.

Several years ago we had a client in from Germany. We were in the middle of the standard tour of industrial parks, buildings and communities when I asked if there was anything else we could show them. They immediately asked about the Mississippi River and whether it would be possible to see it. The river was only a half mile from where we were standing and there was a road that led out on a peninsula extending to near the center of the river and offered a stunning view. Our resulting trip out there ruined my schedule but provided our client with the most memorable part of his visit.

To them it was unique. A once in a lifetime experience. To me it was commonplace and I had never even thought to mention it. Duh! I made the mistake of not remembering to look at things from my client’s perspective.

Are you identifying the real unique factors that your business or area has to offer and more importantly, are you taking advantage of them? Or are you trying to sell the same stuff as everyone else? Guess which approach will make you unique in your client’s eyes?

Communication – Up Close & Personal

It’s real easy to think of communication only in terms of email, newsletters and phone calls but none of these are as effective as face-to-face meetings and especially one-on-one meetings. Sure, no one has the time to meet personally with every client or customer on a daily basis but never getting togehter with them is a huge mistake. In fact, it can be the biggest mistake you will ever make.

This is especially true in the field of economic development. Every ED professional should make it a practice to spend at least one afternoon or morning each week out in the field visiting a community or business. Call up the mayor or village president and take her on a tour of the community so she can show you all the things that are happening in town. And make it casual. An advance call to set up lunch or a tour is all you need. You don’t need a specific agenda and for heaven’s sake, don’t let it turn into a ‘meeting’. Everyone has enough of those already. You want to use this time to get to know your contacts better and to let them know that you really care about them and their business or community.

If the only time they see you is when it comes time for an annual donation or renewal of dues they’re not going to be too impressed no matter how much activity your organization may be having.

Yes, this takes time. But it’s the best time you will ever spend and you’ll learn more during those visits than you ever will at your desk. (Besides the inbox will still be there when you get back and half of that stuff probably doesn’t really matter anyway.)

Communication – The Serial E-mailer?

Last time I talked briefly about how often to communicate. Now let’s look at who we need to communicate with. My suggested answer is, “More people than you think but not everyone.” But wait, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to communicate with everyone? Hey, send out a broadcast e-mail to everyone in the agency or company and we’ve covered out butt. No one can claim they didn’t know.

Seems logical at first blush but let’s take a closer look. We’ve all been the victim of serial e-mailers. Our first reaction after reading their first e-mails and determining they are not essential to our success today is to immediately discount any future e-mails we receive from them. They’ve lost credibility and even if they say something that could be critical to us in the future we’re not likely to even read it. Or if they are presenting in person, we nod our heads but completely tune out the message. After all, they’ve never said anything of value before. Odds are this report won’t be any different. Right?

So what can we do to keep people informed but not suffer the fate of the serial e-mailer? Step one was mentioned in my last post…..determine who needs to know and then divide that audience into sub-groups and determine how often each group to receive communication. One size does NOT fit all.

Second, really review you message for substance and clarity. Stick to the facts and ideas that are essential and don’t dump the whole load. In today’s world it is easy to provide a link from your concise summary to the complete text for those who want that level of detail. 

And that means that, third, you need to write and re-write your message. And with each re-write it should become shorter, not longer. Too many people do a general word dump and expect the audience to sort it out. Folks, we live in a world that just doesn’t have time for that. If you don’t put the time in upfront to craft a precise message, and that means customizing it for each audience, then your attempts at communication will be wasted.

Communication – How Often

Been a long time since my last post. It’s easy to get out of the habit of regular writing and all of a sudden it’s months later. Not the way to use this communications format. And that brings me to today’s topic. How often should communication happen to be effective?

Tough question and the answer can easily be, “It depends.” It depends on the situation and more importantly the type of relationship you are trying to build with those who are the recipients of your communication. If it’s a good friend and they haven’t heard from you in six months they might begin to question the value of the friendship. If it’s an old college or high school acquaintence then every five years at the class reunion might be enough.

But in business and in organizations the answer is also complicated by the type and importance of the message being communicated and that has to be measured from the recipient’s perspective. If the communication is perceived to be of little immediate value then once can be too much. We’ve all been the victim of reckless copying of messages intended for a specific audience. The sender thinks, heck I’ll send this note out to everyone in the building so I can keep everyone ‘in the loop’. Well intentioned perhaps, but probably 90% of those getting that e-mail consider it just a short step above spam.

On the other hand, we’ve all experienced a situation where we’ve felt blindsided when an action is taken or an announcement is made. “How the heck did this all come about?” Obviously a case of too little communication and badly timed at that.

So what do we do? The best thing to do is to set down and develop a communication plan that answers some basic questions.

  • Who are we communicating with? (Individuals and groups)
  • How often should we communicate?
  • What’s the best method of communication. (What? Isn’t everything done by email?)
  • Should this vary by group or individual? (The answer here is usually, ‘yes.’)
  • Who’s going to do all of this?
  • How are we going to get feedback on the communication effectiveness?
  • And finally…What are we going to communicate.

I put the most obvious one last and a good arguement can be made that this should be first but I put it at the end because in most cases that’s all we think about and skip the rest. Bad move.

Not just another meeting – Part 2

Been a while since Part 1 so I thought I’d better get back to this topic. Here’s another idea that worked well for us while I was with Grant County Economic Development. We held monthly meetings and our attendance over 12 years was fantastic. Most of the credit goes to the communities and individuals who were committed to the program. But we also worked hard to make the meetings worth attending.

One of the best additions we made was the “Once Around.” At the end of each meeting we would give one spokesperson from each community the chance to give us a short update on what what had happened in their community since the last meeting. Just the highlights, skip the details. The spokesperson was required to stand during the report and most came prepared with at least one or two items to share.

Usually it wasn’t earthshattering stuff but it was important to them and that’s all that mattered. And we almost always got something from each community as community pride kept people from saying, “Nothing new since last month.”

That month’s host community wasn’t part of the “Once Around” as they had already given a more indepth report earlier in the meeting. That was one of the perks of hosting and everyone took good advantage of it.

This made active participants out of all meeting attendees and served as a monthly reminder that each community was an important participant in our economic development efforts. Over the years the “Once Around” became the most anticipated part of the evening. By making it personal we avoided becoming, “Just another meeting.”

Don’t let the *$%)@!#s get you down!

I’ve always been in awe of how powerful negative people can be. Take 5 people who want to do something and mix in one who believes it can’t be done and well, you can guess the outcome. Is it any wonder that most of the world’s creative geniuses do most of their work in solitude?

So what do we do when dealing with negative people? Here are some thoughts.

IGNORE THEM – Nice idea but it rarely works. I used to think I could build faster than they could destroy but I was wrong. Negative people can destroy a month’s worth of planning and work with a single phrase or even a single glance. Some of them disguise their efforts by saying they are supporting the groups efforts but they ‘just want them to know the facts.’ How helpful. They then proceed to point out the obstacles but never offer any solutions. Ignoring them is like ignoring cancer. It’s rare that either one ever goes away on their own.

CONFRONT THEM – Here’s the real first step. Now don’t do this in public. Take them aside for a talk. Every person deserves a fair hearing, even negative people. In many cases you will learn that they don’t perceive themselves as negative and they are being sincere when they say that. Often pointing out how they are impacting others will be a revelation to them and in a few cases that will be all that is needed. They will make efforts to change. Confronting people about their attitudes is awkward, difficult and uncomfortable but it is absolutely essential for the growth of your group or business. No, scratch the word ‘growth’ and replace it with ‘survival.’ Yeah, it’s THAT important.

WORK WITH THEM – After letting negative people know that their attitudes are not acceptable we need to be prepared to work with them to encourage and assist change. This is really hard for most of us because deep down, we really don’t like these people and they probably aren’t too fond of us either. Keep reminding yourself that noone wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to have a miserable day.” Remember too that they didn’t get like this overnight and they won’t change overnight either.

GET RID OF THEM – This really needs to be an option of last resort but it does need to be an option and they need to know it. Unacceptable behavior is unacceptable. Period. People who revel in their negative attitudes need to be invited to inflict themselves on your competitors. Besides if you don’t let them go guess who will leave? You got it. All of the people who want to build something positive. And when they’re gone what you have left aint’ gonna be pretty.

GET RID OF YOU – Yep, sometimes you have to admit that you can’t make a difference. If that negative person is the owner of the company or a senior staff person your chances of impacting them in your lifetime might be pretty slim. There comes a time when it’s best to say ‘Sayonara’ and find a better situation. Life’s too short to waste it on losing situations.

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH WINNERS – No matter what your situation it is important that you surround yourself with as many positive people as you can find. Call them your attitudinal braintrust or whatever. Find people who brighten your day, who inspire you, who give you hope, who just make you feel better about life and yourself….and spend as much time with them as possible.

In the meantime keep up the good fight and don’t let the *$%)@!#s get you down!