Posts Tagged ‘business development’

I’m happy to aspire to things, happier still to earn them, but entitlement; no thanks

There once was a schoolboy who wasn’t too sure what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he was quite keen on factories and offices, even if he didn’t understand too much about what went on there. The day came when he had to get a job and, perhaps fittingly for someone who liked buildings, he began to train as a surveyor. A recession curtailed that career, and he found himself working for an insurance giant in the City, but even the prospect of one day stalking the floor at Lloyd’s placing business with the syndicates was not enough of a draw. No, this youth wanted an office and a secretary. He didn’t know why, nor grasp what he would need to do to get or retain such trappings, but that was what he wanted. The City was a bore and he drifted into the retail and wholesale trade where his aspirations were refined through visits to many a private office, sometimes to be rewarded but, more often, to be chastised. As he would stand and take his medicine he took in the subtle benefits of the corner office, of mahogany over laminate, of carpet over lino, of the North West corner over the South East and more. From his early forays into management positions it took almost 10 years before everything came together and he not only realised what he needed to be able to contribute to a business for him to warrant an office of his own, but was able to demonstrate it to the satisfaction of those above him. By then he was with an organisation where such things were carefully prescribed; 11m2, carpet, swivel chair (with arms), desk with two pedestals (lockable), visitor’s chair, 4 drawer filing cabinet (lockable) and 3 hook coat stand. His name would be on a plate affixed to the door and his name and telephone number would appear in bold type in the internal telephone directory. To these things he was entitled. From that first box in the corner of the room to the North West corner office and a secretary (OK, a half share of one) took less than a third of the time it had taken to get to first base, but a dreadful irony cast its shadow on this idyll. For now that our hero had achieved his aspirations and more, he found that he wanted to discard them. In arriving at the position where the buck for delivering results stopped where he sat, one of the key things he had learned about earning that place was that leaders needed to lead by example. At a time when there was a need for austerity and sacrifice all around, why was he sat in splendid isolation in a space that would take 6 workers in comfort? So the corner room on the top floor of the office was swapped, firstly for what had been a store room in the warehouse, and then for a desk in the open plan and then for cadging a desk. All of the trappings that he had aspired to for the first half of his three score years and ten were gone within about 4 years of him having achieved them. Aspiration was one thing, but amongst the myriad things he had learned along the way to that corner office was what it took to earn that position, and being able to do that, to work successfully at that level, was in itself fulfilling; the trappings that came with the job didn’t matter. To aspire to something is one thing. To earn it is another, but to be entitled? No thanks.

why do wives put up with it?

Lately I have been back on the train a lot, and have been reminded of a phenomenon I had largely forgotten. One of those strange ritual behaviours between the female and the male of the species that puzzles, even troubles me. So let me set the scene:

Join me on platform one at Swindon as I await an early Paddington train. As an avid people watcher I have plenty of material to work with in such situations; travel provides a fascinating insight into one’s fellow humans. The platform regulars are instantly recognisable, as is their pecking order.

But, just beyond the tracks, is activity in the north car park that has reminded me of a, to me rather sexist, behaviour that really should have died out in these enlightened times. A car will sweep into the car park, pull up near the station entry and from the driver’s side will emerge Mr Businessman, suited and booted for his day at the office. From the passenger side will emerge, well, for the purpose of this story, let’s call her Mrs Businessman, and she is dressed for doing stuff around the house.

Mr B will take his briefcase from the back and depart for his train, and Mrs B drives the car back to the 4 bed, 2 rec, 3.75 bath or whatever.

Now there are variations on the level of human contact in these vignettes, but most are pretty perfunctory at best, but one stands out: The Volvo estate is brought to a stop with some authority. Mr B emerges, takes his briefcase and strides away without a glance at his companion. She walks round the front of the car, seeming to distance herself from him as much as she can, and departs with a decent touch of wheelspin. It is a shame that she had to pause to adjust the driver’s seat and that the car is front wheel drive. If she had been quicker and had had rear wheel drive she could have sprayed him with gravel such was the violence of her leaving the scene.

What domestic strife had preceded this journey? What was the atmosphere in the car along the way? These are the joys of people watching, speculating on events.

But I digress. The point here is that this ritual, something that I have seen for as long as I can remember, still goes on. OK, it is none of my business how other people live their lives, but this behaviour is so alien to me and seems so insulting to the ladies, although they seem quite happy to accept it.

I would never have dreamt of behaving like this with any of the ladies I have shared my life with since I flew the nest over 40 years ago. I know I’m not unique here as the guy who lives opposite is equally as happy to have his wife drive him as he is to drive her, but he and I do seem to be in a very small minority judging by my observations.

Maybe all of this is covered in the Handbook of Inter-Gender Relationships, I don’t know. Perhaps the ladies concerned are quite happy to have things this way. Maybe it means that they don’t have their driving criticised by some chauvinistic oaf. Possibly one of them might read this and enlighten me.

I hope that they do, because I would love to know. Whilst I’ll never find out what the story behind Mr & Mrs Volvo was, my natural curiosity is aroused and do I like to learn something new every day.

feeling lost? there is always an answer, and you can always ask the way

At the time of writing this I know that I am about six and a half miles up in the air and that it is Thursday 12th May, but otherwise don’t know what time it is or where I am. Well I know that I am in seat 36K on a Boeing 747 registered in the UK as G-VFAB, but I don’t know where the ‘plane is if you see what I mean. Below me is solid cloud and so I have no sight of the ground to help show where I might be.

The last few weeks have been very hectic and fraught. I have had to be here, there and seemingly everywhere at someone else’s beck and call. Pretty much every waking moment has been devoted to doing something that I have had to do to avoid letting someone else down. Not all of it has been a chore, but I have been driven by other people’s needs rather than my own clock. A quiet potter in the garden fiddling with the horticulture when I feel like it is nice and relaxing; having to fit in getting the beans, spuds, tomatoes etc planted now because it has to be done now takes the pleasure away to a large degree.

Today I had to be at the airport in time to check in, and had to be at the gate in time to board, but thereafter I am just sat here for 9 hours, or whatever, whilst a couple of folk up the sharp end take me to another continent and some of their nice colleagues bring me food and drink now and then. All I have to do is to sit here and behave and so I decided that time and space can all be relative until the moment that I have to get off and face the immigration officials.

So last night I turned off the clock display in the toolbar of this laptop and, as I don’t wear a watch these days, I am sat here with no knowledge as to what time it is or where I am.

Well that’s the theory, but in practice I do have some clues. I know that my destination is south west of where I departed from and I know what time the ‘plane was due off the ground. Going the way that I am I am racing the sun across this day and, at this height, can see the sky up here above the cloud below and can see the subtle change in colour. The shadow of the fuselage that was falling across the wing beside me has gone, but I do not have the sun through my window, so we are heading towards that orb.

Knowing the time difference between where I started from and where I am going and I know what time I am due in, so I know where the sun should be in the sky then. Given all of that I would say that we have little more than an hour to go before arrival.

In aviation circles we have an expression “temporarily unsure of position”. It doesn’t mean lost as such, just that you know where you should be, but not exactly where you are.

This is quite often the case in business; we’re not exactly sure of how things are for a whole range of reasons, but there will be information that we can use and clues that we can follow to help make an informed decision on, and you can always make enquiries. You only have to ask for help.

back to the floor – the sequel

I am a big fan of bosses going back to the floor and have written about here a few times, one of which, on my adventures in logistics, was picked up by Truck & Driver magazine. It is an opportunity that quite a few senior managers spurn entirely, and a in poll I conducted a couple of years ago around half of the responses were a resounding No, so why am I so in favour?

One crucial reason is that it allows you to see what life at the front end of your business is all about. Now there are those that will argue that you don’t need to know that, that you have layers of people along the way that can worry about those sorts of things for you, but knowing your business makes such a difference to the way that you operate. Those that truly walk the talk are, in my experience, the ones that have done the job and can still get in the trenches and pull their weight.

Steve Jobs at Apple has a superb story about the difference between a Vice President and a Janitor, the punch line of which is around the Janitor being able to give reasons why things aren’t done, but the VP has no such room for things not being right. I don’t know whether or not he has ever done the janitor’s job, but he understands the issue and, let it not be forgot, he was once on the front line himself.

My own enthusiasm came about gradually. My early efforts to climb the management ladder were with organisations that insisted on management trainees working in every department of the business to get a grasp of what they would eventually control. Later, as I got to run operations of various types there would sometimes be a need to solve a problem when all hands to the pump was the order of the day and so there were always opportunities to get involved.

As I got into more senior roles and began to devise and implement major improvement projects, being able to get in have a go at the job was often a powerful tool in firstly working out the right solution, but also in understanding how to implement the solution to best effect and to get my people behind the change. The other thing that back to the floor delivers is a clear understanding of what is really happening. As my pal Ian Berry puts it, are they walking in the halls what is says on the walls (is your mission statement really reflecting what goes on in the business)?

Often it isn’t, and that disconnect can destroy a business quicker than anything else. So in all of my senior roles I have committed time to working on the front line occasionally; I’ve driven fork lift trucks, vans and lorries, I’ve been out with the security team, spent time on reception, cleaned the toilets and more. All of that has helped overcome problems and make improvements that might well not have happened otherwise.

So it is with great pleasure that I’ve been reading of Lionel Prodgers’ experiences of going back to the front in FM World lately. Lionel is a top man in our industry; he’s done it all and has nothing to prove to anyone, so all credit to him for putting himself about to such good effect. I hope that others who read of his exploits are inspired to have a go themselves.

Pick a job and put a day in the diary; I’ll bet you enjoy it.

don’t fear failure; just live and learn

Somewhere amongst all my various scribbling is a line about my successes having shaped me, but it being my failures that have made me. It is a play on the Einstein quote along the lines people who haven’t made a mistake haven’t tried anything, but I do believe that it is the things that I’ve done wrong, or not well enough, that I’ve truly learned from.

Of course you do also learn from success, but it is sometimes easier to just party and enjoy your moment of triumph. Another of my little mottos back in the days when I had a team was that the team succeeds, but failures are mine. That one was largely about me taking it on the chin when things went wrong, but it was also about letting the team celebrate the wins whilst I got to think about why we had won.

You can’t win them all. That’s not being defeatist, it’s being realistic. If you’re good enough, whether as an individual or as a team, then you can enjoy long runs of success. You can win more that you lose, but sooner or later there will be someone who will beat you. That is healthy, and one of the other lessons that I have learned along the way is that you don’t take defeats personally. Business is business; allowing emotions to get in the way is a waste of energy that you could put to better use on positive things.

Of course I’m still competitive and I don’t like to lose, but I’ve come to accept that there are times when what I have isn’t what is needed on the day to pull off the win. And I don’t take too much notice of luck either. Gary Player once said that the more he practised the luckier he got. You make your own luck most of the time.

Another factor is in being willing to compete. Would you rather be played 3 won 3, or played 30 won 27? Even if you’re played 30 won 3 at least you are trying, and I’ll always applaud a trier over someone who is afraid to go into the arena. You can always develop someone who is willing to try, and they are often more likely to be consistent winners than someone with talent who won’t risk themselves. Just look at the talent that the England football team squandered at the last World Cup where a fear of losing appeared to be greater than the desire to win.

Sport and business are not the same, but there are the parallels; a well motivated and led team will do well in either. And those who are prepared to push themselves hard will do well in either; and what is the point if you’re not going to keep on challenging yourself? I’ll offer another sporting quotation; “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of one’s life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement not in years alone.” That was written nearly 50 years ago by Bruce McLaren following the death of his team mate Timmy Mayer.

Most of us don’t have the risk of death implicit in our business life, although some do, but, as I wrote last week we don’t know how long we have on this planet. We might as well do something worthwhile with the time that we have, and if that means a few mistakes then so what; live and learn.

putting customers first takes more than just calling them customers

At one time there was great trouble throughout the land. The people were not getting their just desserts, but this had gone on for so long that they had ceased to complain and they had become stoic in their acceptance.

It came at first as a whisper, as the first stirring of a breeze breaks the calm when a hurricane is due and, like a hurricane the word was to sweep through the land uprooting the trees of resistance in its path. And the name of this hurricane was Customer First, although it was to have as many names as it had priests, for each was to brand it according to their own ways (and fee scales).

And Lo! The people did become customers; not just those in the shops and retail premises, but no longer they that travelled by train, ship, ‘plane or bus would be called passengers. No longer would those who occupied premises, whether domestic or for their trade, be called tenants. No longer would those in ill health and needing to see the physician be called patients. No longer (yes, yes, all right; we get the picture – ed).

From that day hence they would all be customers and all would be well. Their time of strife would be over and they could rest easy for, when they handed over their hard earned coin, all would be well and they would be treated in the manner to which they should.

And so the priests, gurus, mentors, consultants and trainers did prosper, their pockets full of their client’s gold, and there was great rejoicing throughout the land. Those who proclaimed the way of the Customer grew rich and, in some cases, famous. Those who had sought their help (he’s off again. Enough! – ed).

Ok, let’s cut the pseudo biblical stuff, leave this fantasy world behind and consider ours. Are you getting better service because your train operator calls you a customer? Or anywhere else where you have become “a customer”? I doubt it. Sure there have been improvements in some places, yes, but that is because people have been better trained, not because of a name change. You might argue that the name change brought about a change of thinking, but I would suggest that such influence was limited. When I travel in someone else’s vehicle I am a passenger; when I have treatment at the medic’s I am a patient and so on. I find inappropriate use of customer patronising, how about you?

Maybe I am in a minority on this (that would be good, I might have rights), and I know I am being a bit obtuse here, but the point of this missive is that you have to mean it to make a difference. Just calling something by a different name doesn’t, on its own, make a change. For me it is the equivalent of the old dodgy car dealer’s “change the plates and give it a re-spray”, and is about as salubrious.

My train of thought here came from having been pulled up for referring to the people who were renting premises as tenants. “They’re customers” I was told, but then the attitude towards them would not have been out of place for the inmates of a labour camp. Calling them customers made no difference to the way they were seen or treated, so why bother with the pretence. OK, this is an extreme example, but does calling me a customer improve my rail service? No, but what would make a difference is changing the service I get for my money. That’s the challenge.

bribery and corruption act – one man’s opinion

February 28, 2011 2 comments

I must first stress that what follows is a personal opinion; as they might say, don’t try this at the office. I’m not a lawyer; I have contract law qualifications as part of my professional tickets, and I do have the practical experience of having been in the front line for a long time, allied to a spell where I was involved in investigating fraud, fiddling and other dubious practices. So treat what follows with caution, but hopefully it might get you thinking.

Business in the UK has seen hundreds of new pieces of legislation introduced over the last ten years or more (I shall hold my pen on the politics for once) and most of it has been largely incapable of proper implementation. Personally I am a great fan of precedent over statute; let the courts set the tone. The law may be an ass, but the due process that we have, whilst it might be a lottery sometimes, is generally a decent way to go about conducting our affairs. Having a bunch of idiot politicians, however well meaning, setting out all sorts of daft regulations is a recipe for disaster. The only winners are the lawyers (now what was that bloke at No10’s real job? And what about the one with her hand up his back?).

My feeling is that a lot of this regulation is falling out of the same philosophy that brought us the non competitive business in schools; “we don’t have winners, because that mean we have to have losers”. Hard bloody luck – life is about winners and losers,  just ask the Starling that got taken by a Sparrowhawk outside my window this morning. It’s tough out there, but that’s the way that it should be. I know that I can’t win on every deal and I also know that I’ll probably do better as a buyer than as a seller because on any deal there is only one buyer. It is that competition that ensures value for money and healthy commerce, not having to comply with daft rules.

Of course there are fine lines to walk when doing a deal, and the art of getting a deal done is often about steering a course on the edge at times, but regulation is not the answer, especially when it is as ill thought out as the anti bribery nonsense. What is the point of having an offence of failing to prevent a bribe being offered if there is no offense of failing to prevent acceptance?

What we need is what we already have. There are laws to deal with people who stray, so we should just use them and come down like a ton of bricks on anyone caught misbehaving. That is an adequate deterrent if properly applied. Sure you won’t stop everyone, but regulation won’t either.

One of the things I’ve seen managing security over the years is that the more you put in the harder you have to manage it. The more you have the easier it often becomes to breach it because people get complacent. The same applies to many other systems; people trust them, especially if they have paid a lot of money for them. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes syndrome, and that is all that the bribery act will be if it is allowed to come to fruition. We have a new law, so it’s all fine now.

Utter drivel. It will not change anything other than to allow companies to be fined for, allegedly, not having taken proper precaution. Just another stealth tax? Ah, now it suddenly makes sense.


Partnerships or Competition?

Competition, taking sides, winners and losers or true partners taking things forward for common good? My thoughts on this started off from work I’m doing for a client where we have some EU competition issues, and then I read a tweet from Cathy Hayward where someone had mentioned the reaction of their purchasing team to talk of partnerships.

I’m often labelled as a Purchasing Expert, but it is just one thing that I have experience of. I see myself more as a businessman who has, over the years variously been John the Buyer, John the Salesman and finally John the Operations guy trying to deliver what the Sales people have sold with what the Buying people have bought for me. It ain’t easy, believe me, but I’ve made a decent living along the way and had a lot of fun.

One of the things that can hold a business back is functions not getting on, so let’s look at the three tribes:

Purchasing people tend to thrive on the competitive element of their profession. Keeping the market on its toes and keeping their pencils sharp so that the best deals are struck. Shaking up the mix is what it’s all about.

Operations people prefer an element of stability so that they can build up working relationships with both customers and suppliers and have enough other issues that bring instability to the daily lives without any artificial stimulus.

So where does that leave Sales people? On the one hand they want the stability because they can build relationships, cross sell and have a quiet life enjoying the expense account and the Mondeo but, on the other hand, if there is too much stability, how do they break into new markets and clients? It’s ironic, but they actually need the world that the buyers are trying to create because that instability is a major source of opportunity.

Competition does mean that there will be winners and losers, and there is nothing wrong in that. It is a fact of nature that we can see all around us any day of the week if we bother to look. The plant life that we all pass by daily reminds us of how the struggle for survival works and it is foolish to ignore that competition is a fundamental element of what has made humans what we are. Look at the stupidities of trying to eliminate the competitive element factor from schools as a prime example of where that leads.

Whilst competition is good there is also strength in combining efforts to work towards common good. For me the point about competition is that it has its place, but collaboration does too.

Like so many things, competition is a tool and, like all tools, you need to use it well and in the right circumstances. I could buy the best saw on the market, but if I went down to the lumber yard and bought a dozen different sorts of timber there is a fair chance that I would ruin both my new saw and some of the wood in short order because you need even different saws for different woods.

So blindly applying competition to sourcing needs is as much of a waste (and don’t get me started on e-auctions) as trying to do fret work with a panel saw. The art of good buying is to use the right method for each requirement. If you can do that then the right deals will generally fall into place.

So to get it right requires collaboration between good people, but isn’t that always the way?

how easy is it to buy from you 2 – sell me the deal

Continuing my theme of last week, let’s look at the stages of a typical B2B purchasing exercise.

The common problem that you encounter in these situations is that the company is trying so hard to sell to you that they frequently miss the point completely. They are so busy telling you how wonderful they are that they make it hard for you to buy from them, and the further you get into the process the worse they get.

At the pre-qualification stage you are seeking information, so case studies and some background on the supplier in terms of their customer base is needed, but you are looking for objective evidence of capability and capacity, not subjective advertising puff. All too often what you’re given is more towards the latter than the former.

When it comes down to the tender you have already narrowed down your possible to the ones that you have identified as capable of doing the job, but you can reckon on getting reams of sales pitch, including repeating most of what you’ve already had, to wade through as you try to find the convincing arguments that this is the bid that you should really be accepting. Why they do this is a mystery, but you can almost guarantee that you’re going to get it. The black humour in this is that, along with this blatant waste of paper, there will almost certainly be something there explaining their green credentials. Now and again you get someone who avoids the sales pitch and just sells you the solution to your problem, but this just isn’t that common.

Next up will be conducting supplier visits, and these will include both the supplier’s premises and one or more of their current customers. The purpose of these visits is to validate the supplier’s ability to service my client. I’m looking for demonstrable evidence that they can do what they say they can, that they are already doing it for someone else and how well it is being done. Now the clever supplier will just let you get on and see whatever you want to, warts and all, and will be prepared to have a sensible discussion on the good and the bad. Mostly though you get the sanitised tour, and that overlooks one of the key things that people want to buy into; honesty.

Then we get to the short listed suppliers presenting. You have, say, forty five minutes to convince you that they should be the chosen one; half an hour to present and fifteen minutes of questions maybe? Now thirty minutes is not long, so what should happen is to focus in on how they will do for you what you have asked for in the tender. Start with a quick intro to the problem, the meat of the session on how they will solve that problem, and a quick sum up of the key points. But all too often the first half of the presentation is made up prom the standard sales slide set and then they rush faster and faster through the rest with all of the slides on your requirements vanishing in a blur.

You are being scored at all of these stages. If you want the deal, then focus on what is going to get points on the board and put all of your efforts there.

Make it easy to buy from you: We put you on the list because we are convinced that you could do the job. What we need from there on is convincing why we should engage you and not the others.

how easy is it to buy from you?

January 17, 2011 1 comment

I understand that you need to have a set of processes to enable your company to run, and some of these will be around ordering, pick, pack, despatch and customer enquiries. This is a particular area of my own expertise, but why do you inflict this stuff on the customer?


Buying on line shows up the worst of this for me. Some examples:
• Crude product search engines that give you almost the entire inventory regardless of what you ask for.
• Page links that don’t work.
• Where you view the product, select a quantity to buy, get through a convoluted checkout process and only then get told that it is out of stock.
• Convoluted checkout process.
• Contact Us links that don’t work.
• Drop down lists in the Contact Us section that never seem to cover the query type that I have.
• Comment boxes that only allow too few characters for your query

Some company web sites are great; Amazon for example, but others are dreadful. Amazon relieve me of a lot of my disposable cash because they make it easy for me to spend with them and the overall customer experience is great.

On the other hand there are at least two or three companies a month that fail to extract funds from me because I can’t be bothered to go through all the hassle. Do people at these companies ever consider the customer experience? Do they ever try to buy from themselves? Somehow I doubt it.

And it isn’t just web sites. A lot of face to face experiences are no better. Two big gripes here; firstly the assistant who has to finish talking to their colleague when you’ve obviously arrived, and are waiting, to ask a question, and those places where you can’t enjoy looking without assistant after assistant walking up and asking if you need help.


OK, so all of that is B2C, but what about B2B? Well in many cases that is no better. Web links that don’t work, “Contact Us” buttons that either give you an email address with a promise to get back to you within 2 business days(!) or a phone number to a call centre somewhere that doesn’t even seem sure if the company you’ve called exists, let alone what they do.


Some web sites are so hard to navigate you doubt that you really want to deal with the company; if the web site is so badly organised, what are their other business practices like?  For a start make sure that there is a consistent way of navigating around your site. Next, if you are going to engage with people on the web then you need to put something on there that people can play with and find things out. You also need to have something useful behind the contact details so that when someone does get in touch they get prompt responses. We’re using the web for its immediacy, so keep the ball rolling.


The next area that drives me to distraction is how hard some people make it to pay them. In this day and age a bank transfer is quick and easy, as is using a corporate purchasing card, so why are so many people still asking you to put a cheque on the post?

Generally there is room for improvement, so  come on people. Get some thinking done on how people can trade with you. Things may be tight currently, but there is some money out there to be spent so make it easy for folks to spend it with you.