6 Steps to Beat the Competition: Analysis and Discipline Pay Off

17 01 2017

the-art-of-war-sun-tzu

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Sun Tzu- The Art of War

I am a believer in the Art of War, especially applied to business and marketing. When I talk to groups on business and marketing subjects I use this quote and it has guided me in the way I approach building businesses and helping companies grow. I have listened to numerous investment pitches at TechCoastAngels screenings (a real Shark Tank) and have heard too many times that the entrepreneur believes there is NO competition. There is always competition, i.e. another way to solve a problem or provide a service. Even when a company realizes that there is some semblance of competition, many executives believe they have more attributes, a better business model, and a stronger brand than reality leads them to accept.

Sadly, this problem extends way beyond the startup world. In 2008, Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster said: “Neither Redbox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” While Redbox had its glory days and has now faded, Netflix continues to soar as they are able to take advantage of streaming media and they have evolved their business model. Blockbuster and its ubiquitous blue and yellow stores have faded into oblivion after ceasing operations in 2013. When I was at RCA (when it existed as a standalone company) one of the execs in the tube division beat his plan but unfortunately failed to recognize competition from semiconductors. He was fired. And let’s not forget other companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang, Motorola and Nokia in the tech field. Not only did they fail to understand the competition, their business strategies did not evolve. We are now seeing consumer companies such as Macy’s and Kohl’s which failed to recognize the competitive environment fast enough (can you say Amazon and online shopping) and are now closing many of their stores.

There is hope though, for most companies as they consider their competition, the environment and the competencies they need to put in place to execute a new business strategy. To that end, here are the six steps companies must take to gain and/or retain a competitive edge.

1. The first step to beat the competition is to recognize that there is competition! Competition comes from direct competitors, i.e. those offering the same type of product or service; indirect competitors; and even the do-it-yourselfers. Even if a competitor is small today, should technology or macroeconomic trends change, a small new company can become dominant. That is what happened to Blockbuster. Competition doesn’t have to come from the same players in the industry. Who would have thought Google and Apple, both, would be developing an autonomous car or at one time a smart phone. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, there was a time when dominant companies in the market such as Nokia and Motorola did not consider Apple a threat and frankly, they did not believe companies like LG and Samsung were threats either. Both Nokia and Motorola have lost their luster.

Keep alert and be paranoid. Use user panels talk to “lead users” who are early innovators of new products, set up Google Alerts on companies that are current competitors as well as those which have the right competencies to become competitors. Your product might be better and that message needs to be conveyed to your target audience. You can recognize the competition through the use of user panels, discussions with “lead users’ and even setting up Google Alerts.

2. The second step is to know the competition. A couple of months ago, I was watching a classic war movie called Patton. Patton was reading the works and biography of Rommel, his nemesis, competition and enemy. Rommel in turn was trying to learn through books and other sources, how Patton thinks and how he would fight. It’s classic Sun Tzu! Even without teams of analysts and staff there are a few tips in understanding and knowing your competition.

Executives can become the equivalent of Undercover Boss. When I was the top marketing executive for US Cellular, I personally visited both my stores and those of my competitors. It’s easy to do even in a business to business environment. Other tools that can be used include Customer Advisory Boards, user panels, cross-functional teams that meet regularly to discuss competition and the environment. At ATX Group (now Sirius Connected Car), every other Friday morning I hosted a cross functional group of executives to discuss new technology and competition. Certain execs were tasked with following specific competitors and sharing that information in Microsoft Exchange folders for our sales, marketing and technologists to use. Other tools include Spider diagrams, focus groups and market research including subscribing to the industry analysts that cover your industry. In the tech field those industry analysists include Gartner, Forrester, IDC and Ovum among others. If a public company is a competitor, read their 10-Ks; it’s amazing how much information is available in that document.

3. The third step is to know yourself. Some of the same tools used to understand the competition can be used to understand your own company. Spider diagrams, side by side market research matrices that can highlight those attributes that are important to your customers and for which you perform well or poorly can help set your company’s strategic imperatives. I am a huge fan of developing a SWOT analysis which covers strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. To do SWOT well companies should seek out key thought leaders in their company, regardless of level and even use newly recruited employees who have a different perspective because of their recent outside experience. Doing mystery shopping even in a business to business company is also relatively easy. At a telecom company in New Jersey, one of my marketing managers set up a false company called The Fred Racciopi Cement Shoe Company of Central New Jersey (obviously we set this up tongue and cheek) and became a customer of each competitor and well as our own company. It’s amazing what we learned and through those learnings we adjusted our training program, branding, positioning and marketing material.

4. The fourth step is to develop and explain the factors that make you different. Customers buy from companies that provide a unique value for their needs. If the value is significant, relevant to the customer, sustainable and credible, the company will have a differentiable advantage. This enables executives to create a “moat” around their company and its products, protecting the company from competitive incursions. The strength of your differentiation is akin to the size of the moat. Even commodities have moats. Think about salt or rice, two very basic commodities. Do you believe that Morton’s salt is better than other salt and worth a 15% price premium? Or how about Mahatma rice vs Kroger-branded rice? What about chicken? What company said: It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken?” (The answer is Purdue Chicken.)

If you can differentiate these commodities, you can differentiate any company and its products. There are several ways upon which to differentiate. Intellectual property (IP) or Patents is an obvious one. Even IP may not be sustainable or even relevant to your target market. Other ways to differentiate are based on what Adrian Slywotsky, author of Profit Zone, calls strategic control points which are defined as some type of unique advantage for a company based on competency or partner relationship. All companies can find at least one. These could include their brand, their business partners, distribution partners, unique processes, innovation, low cost of manufacture, unique customer knowledge, access to certain resources be they commodities or people and similar items. A company has to find those strategic control points that are relevant to their markets and be consistent and credible in delivering on those elements.

5. The fifth step is to develop plans: Developing and executing a plan is critical to success. A written plan should include specific elements. By target market, a goal needs to be defined, a strategy clearly enunciated, and tactics developed with specific milestones, costs, and a person responsible for delivering the tactics. Our opinion is that a plan should have one specific leader who is accountable for the entire result. Individuals who report to this leader need to be designated for each tactic and milestone. C-Level Partners also believes that these plans need not be long winded and in fact the best plans have focus and clarity and might even be codified on one or two pages at maximum. I personally am in favor of one page plans with specific deliverables. I like using a method called RACI (responsible, accountable, consultative and informed) to ensure that the right people in a company are involved in the development and execution of the plan.

6. The sixth and final step is to monitor, measure, modify. Each plan developed in step 6 should have a complementary set of metrics to track the success of the plan. Metrics vary depending on the plan and some of the metrics can include: average revenue per sale, total sales, return on investment, market share, win/loss ratio of business, aided and unaided awareness, average order quantity, SEO, the timeliness of performing the tactic, and other operational, business or product criteria. Each month these metrics should be added to a scorecard – preferably balanced – and reviewed with the operational or executive team. If a metric is not on target, then the executive responsible for the metric has to provide a corrective action plan. If the metric is very critical to the business strategy or to the overall goals of the plan, then a separate deep dive should be performed where the elements of the plan can be discussed in detail.

As an executive it is sometimes hard to see the competitor when you are mired in the day to day operations. You can always look to outsource part of these six steps or recruit internally some of the best and brightest less tenured people in the company. Successful companies couple strategy with competitive analysis to create and maintain an advantage. When I first converted from an engineer to a marketer, I cut my teeth on competitive analysis. It was the perfect start to figure out how to gain an advantage for the new products I was developing for my customers. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help drive the strategic vision of my company at the same time. That integration is, in my opinion, critical to a company’s success.

Once you gain a competitive advantage, you have to stay ahead of the competition. That is a subject for a future blog, yet we at C-Level Partners believe that maintaining a competitive edge means companies have to continue to innovate, with technology, with their people, and through their processes. They must maintain contact with customers and open their ears and even seek out criticism. And they must strive for not only incremental improvements but also stretch for what we call the “art of the possible.”

As a technologist and business executive, I always keep in mind the title from Andy Grove’s book, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” Yet with discipline and a plan as outlined in these six steps we believe that companies will be able to develop a competitive edge and flourish in this hypercompetitive environment.

If you have comments or would like to talk further feel free to contact me at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net or call me on 949 4394503.

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Lessons from THE INTERN

5 10 2015
The Intern

The INTERN

I don’t normally do movie reviews; in fact, I have never done them and this won’t be the traditional movie review.   However, I wanted to write something about a movie I saw Saturday nite called The Intern, with Robert Di Niro cast as a 70 year old retired executive who took up the role of an intern to a young female CEO of an e-commerce start-up.

I enjoyed this movie for several reasons.  First, it takes place in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, NY, not too far from where I grew up.  I resonate with things New York City.  Second, the context of the movie is an e-commerce start-up run by a young 30s woman who founded the company and is the CEO.  I can relate to that because I am an angel investor with TechCoastAngels and I have heard pitches from similarly situated women (and men) and have been a coach and mentor to these types of companies and even worked for a few of these companies.  Third, The Intern is a senior citizen and is recruited to the firm when they thought that hiring senior interns was the right thing to do.  I can relate to that character as a former executive and on the “wrong” side of 50.  Di Niro feels he can have fun in the job and has the passion and energy to help out.   I can relate to that as well.

Other than relating to the movie, the location, and the characters, I found a few take-aways from a business perspective.

  1. Everyone should find their passion. Age is not an issue for sharing passion, having energy, or smarts.  Witness Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, or Sam Walton when he was driving around in his F-150 visiting stores in person across the country, or Arthur Blank, or countless others who have a vision and desire to make a difference.
  2. It is hard to manage two families- a business family and a home family. Startups are like children and need to be nourished. It is tiring and taxing to manage the business and the people at work, and then go home to switch gears and be a husband or wife or parent.
  3. Leaders have to learn to delegate and not take on everything themselves. In the movie, Anne Hathaway, the founder/CEO tried to do everything herself and that caused part of the stress and almost caused her to lose her company and her family. A few months ago, I wrote a blog on two words that can help an entrepreneur (or other businessperson) achieve success.  Those two words are FOCUS and PODFU.  The CEO needs to focus on what is important and then plan, organize, delegate, and follow-up (that’s the PODFU) to ensure things are on target.
  4. Age is a state of mind to a large degree. I have seen young executives who have no vision nor energy nor the passion and drive to succeed. I have seen young executives who don’t fit the culture of a company whereas some of the “middle-people” felt right at home.  And interestingly, I have seen a senior generation fit in to a younger culture because each group was willing to learn and listen.  Why?  It’s what you bring to the table.
  5. Context and experience cannot be taught but can be applied. In The Intern, years of management experience by Di Niro’s character proved helpful.  And so did his affable, approachable and helpful nature.   He even taught the younger generation what it meant to be a gentleman. Remember your handkerchief.  As Di Niro said in the movie, he is everyone’s “uncle” yet his expertise from his prior career coupled with his character helped the young CEO cope with the stresses of her business and family.

I enjoyed The Intern as a good way to spend a couple of hours and highly recommend it. It probably had more meaning to me given the premise of the movie, where it took place, and the start-up environment.  Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 59.   I gave it nine pizza slices out of a possible 10.

Let me know what you think and feel free to write to me at dfriedman@prodigy.net or at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net.





Successful Management in Two Words.

3 04 2015

Rudyard Kipling in his poem, “IF,” (see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/1757720) said:  “If you can keep you head about you while all about you are losing theirs…… then you will be a Man, my son!”

Management

I was talking with one of my mentees today regarding his question of how to stay on top of projects and tasks and making sure he doesn’t get overwhelmed, i.e. keeping his head about himself.  Clearly there is a relationship and an opportunity to quote Kipling.  My mentee is a student who is working with a team to develop a new product/service and is doing this through the Center for Entrepreneurship at Chapman University where I am a lead mentor.    Since I have many more years of experience, I shared some of my learnings and some of the tools I have used and developed.

I was taught in my early career about good management by a disciple of the late Harold Geneen who was the architect of the rise of ITT Corporation as a successful conglomerate. Over time, I developed my own spin and teach this and consult with others who want a simple powerful system to implement.  The basic principle is simply stated in two words:  FOCUS and PODFU.

Focus is pretty simple.  Make sure you know the two or three most important things to do.  Simple to say yet sometimes hard to do.   In fact, as an executive you should be even more myopic and focus on the ONE key thing that needs to get done.  When that is complete move on to the next item.   The reality is that you cannot get overwhelmed by trying to tackle too many tasks at one time.  This also entails discipline and priority setting.

Second, as a young entrepreneur, my mentee is working with other young entrepreneurs and has to learn leadership and management.  Leadership means that he needs to convey his vision and excite the team so they can be engaged and successful. Management means the ability to ensure what needs to get done, gets done and gets done on time.  And this is where PODFU comes in. The acronym is Plan, Organize, Delegate, and Follow-up. It sounds so simple yet is also surprising how many fail at this.

I suggested a few tools that he can use in his regularly scheduled project meetings.  This tool can be repurposed for operational and dashboard reviews as well. The tool is shown in the following Excel spreadsheet with the listed columns.

PODFU Chart

In the example there are four main objectives and supporting tasks to be completed by a variety of people.  In this case my mentee is trying to get a new product/service into the market and this template displays the format and the kinds of activities he and his team might undertake.  (Note:  this is notational only and not representative of his project.)  There is clarity in the metrics to determine if the milestone/task was complete, a time period, a person accountable (if you use the RACI system, the is the “A” in RACI), and a color chart indicating if the task is on target (GREEN), potentially may miss date (YELLOW), or will miss or has missed the due date (RED.)

In each meeting, those tasks due at the meeting date and ones that are due at the next meeting date are discussed. If the task is “green” then there is little reason to discuss it unless there is something that must be brought to the attention of the team.  If the task is yellow, the comments should summarize what will be done to get back on target.  If the task is red, the discussion might go deeper- we call this a deep dive- to see how we can complete the task and if the completion affects other tasks, how might the team get back on schedule.

Of course, there is more to managing and leadership than just a chart.  Yet this template presents a very powerful way to manage using only these two words:   FOCUS and PODFU.  This system can help managers be successful.

If you or your company wants to explore how this tool can be adapted to your unique needs, please contact me at dfriedman@prodigy.net, visit my LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/davidfriedman, or call me at 949 439-4503.





What Can You Do to Make a Difference in 90 Days?

18 01 2015

As an advisor to executives that recently were promoted, I have been asked how to get off to a good start in the new job.  This new job can be within the existing or for an entirely new company.  I am sure many of you faced the same questions as you progressed in your careers and many of you who are currently in job search mode have been asked during interviews by company executives about your short term plan to achieve success.  The plan can also be used as a “restart” plan where either the strategy of the organization has changed, the competitors have changed, or the management and vision has changed.   It gives an executive an opportunity to pause and rethink of the best path forward.  One of my favorite pictorials is the following and this blog will address how not to be confused.

If youi see a fork in the road

I want to share with you some thoughts and a high level template that can be used to develop your plan.   Additionally, I would like to suggest a book by Thomas Neff and James Citrin called “You’re in Charge- Now What?” as a nice complement to this blog.  Neff and Citrin are recruiters with Spencer Stuart and their book focuses on an 8 point plan for the most senior executives.  But their plan can be adapted to executives at any level.

Why a 90 day plan?  In 90 days, the new executive should have enough time to understand the new environment in which he or she operates and begin the process of executing a plan to makes changes.  Most companies have a relatively short term view and public companies report on a quarterly basis.  This plan can dovetail with the reporting systems and be used to tell the market (or customers or partners) that there is change coming.   And within this 90 day period, I believe that an executive can always find one or several different areas that can be improved and that can affect the top or bottom line of a company… or at least move in that right direction.

Let’s focus on a newly appointed executive in a new or expanded role.     While the specifics may change based on the individual executive, the type of company, and where on the growth curve that company lies, the following principles and templates can be used and modified.  The executive needs to detail the major proposed activities to be accomplished in the first 90 days, the major tasks and accompanying rationale;   Information required , tied to each task, and the rough timing and budget to perform the task.

The objectives of a 90 day plan are to:

  • Learn about the strategic initiatives, culture, customers, and suppliers to the company.
  • Build strong relationships with peer group within the company and with customers
  • Build trust among the team (executives, peers, and employees)
  • Set a strategic and tactical plan in motion.
  • Design a plan for future growth and profitability, cost efficiencies, manufacturing excellence, better customer support, better margin growth or other functional attributes.
    • Determine ways to drive the organization to realize its full potential through existing programs– benchmarking and process management, execution
    • Develop ways to grow the future business significantly through new products or expansion of our eco-system of suppliers and partners
  • Communicate the plan and the expectations to the constituents and  execute to the plan

The template to do this is as follows and specific activities, some of which are outlined below- are shown.

Flow of 90 day plan

Discovery:

Discovery is the most critical in my opinion as it sets the stage for the agenda and the tactical plan.   Included in discovery are the following elements:

  • Review general company, industry, competitor, customer, supplier material
  • Establish productive relationship with my boss
  • Face to face meetings with your team, top customers, sales/field VPs, other stakeholders to build trust and “seek to understand”

> Determine biggest challenges and opportunities

> Hot button issues (things that I call landmines which if not immediately acted upon                   can derail your success.)

  • Establish relationship with peer group: lunch, attend their staff meetings
  • Set expectations and convey those expectations to your team and other constituents.

I have always found that a written “discovery” document works wonders to get people on the same page and to ferret out where differences might lie.

Set the Agenda.

To set the agenda, there are two parts: drive to full potential and planning for the future.   The agenda is based on your specific objectives, the company strategy and the ability to start getting some meaningful results.   For a marketing person who is trying to bring their team to realize its full potential the agenda might include quick wins on revenue generation, or the execution of a product introduction plan or even defining a more cogent business or marketing strategy.  For a COO, the plan might include quick wins on operational efficiency, curing issues that customers deem important and where the company has failings.  In either case, part of driving to full potential is an analysis of the team and a plan for improving skills and changing or adding appropriate team members

In some companies, and for some positions, the focus is on growth.  Planning for the future might include things such as redefining growth objectives or planning for new customers or new applications or new eco-system partners or forming new strategic, operating, marketing and sales plans.

Execute the Plan.

The final –part of the plan is to communicate and execute the plan to perfection.   Focus on three or four major objectives at the most.   The key issue for success for the executive is FOCUS- focus on those areas most important and that will have the greatest effect. Once you gain credibility you will have the chance to do more.  Regardless of the specific tasks and the plan to execute, make sure you have a clear battle rhythm i.e. how you will manage your function or the business unit and memorialize that in a clear operational dashboard which can be shared.

Flexibility is key during the transition period and will change based on “discovery,” input from the board, executive bosses, peers, team, customers, and suppliers.  However, it is a roadmap that will put you on a path to success.

Glad to get your take on the plan.





Customer Jujitsu: Leveraging Customer Needs for Strategic Imperatives

28 10 2014

I am a New York Yankees fan and grew up with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and the incomparable Yogi Berra.  Now, many people think that Yogi is known for his Aflac commercials, yet many don’t recognize that he is the holder of the record for a player who won the most World Series (10) and who has the most hits (71).  Yogi is also famous for his statements of the obvious.  The one that strikes a business cord is depicted in the following diagram.  Yogi said, “if you see a fork in the road, take it!!”

If youi see a fork in the road
Another business person very conscious of the competitive environment sees what the competitor offers and chases after solutions to outdo the competition.   After all, if a company can outdo the competition on items such as features, benefits, and technology, wouldn’t that company achieve share gains?   Maybe, although features and benefits and even pricing by themselves will not necessarily win customers or their loyalty.Normally, a business executive sets strategies in one of three directions, or combinations of the three.  These degrees of freedom include: competitor, competencies of the company, and customers.    Unfortunately, many business people, especially those who are driven by sales, “pivot” or change direction so rapidly as if they are taking Yogi’s advice literally.    It is not always advantageous to do so.  A new technology based on what R&D has discovered may be immediately thought of as the way to certain riches.  Remember that the greatest inventions have created some of the largest companies with rewards reaped by the business and executives.

A third, however, thinks about the customer and satisfying his/her needs.  This is a customer intimate or customer focused philosophy and if done right is the essence  of customer Jujitsu.   It may not work all the time for various reasons, yet I believe that there is a higher probability of success in sustaining profitable revenue growth by leveraging the knowledge and preference of the customers.   You engender trust and build relationships and isn’t that the fundamental platform of good business?

Over time, in these newsletters and blogs we will cover various aspects of technology and competition and how we can grow profitable revenue through each of these elements separately or in combination.   It all starts with the customer, however, and we want to share some tools to understand the customers’ needs and drivers which can be leveraged for developing strategic initiatives as well as tactical plans.   We call this attribute, Customer Jujitsu, because you, the business person, can leverage the understanding of the customers to refine and augment your business strategy.  It seems simple but the tools and discipline needed are keys to success.

Here are some of the tools ranging from simple to more complex.

  1. Pulse surveys. Normally for the B2B market, these are simple questions asked of the customer on a regular basis to find out how things are going?   This is different from a sales call and the agenda is strictly to understand how well your company is doing in various areas to help the customer succeed.  It results in building better communications and trust.  If you ask enough customers, you can get a good perspective on how well your company is doing.
  2. Bounce back cards/online surveys/follow-up calls. These are effective in understanding a specific transaction.   Through the data you gather, you can discern trends and issues that might arise.   You might be able to notice a trend but generally this information is not used to set the strategic agenda for the company.  As we say, it is necessary information but not sufficient.
  3. Customer surveys via tools such as Survey Monkey. This is a great, simple on-line tool and very inexpensive (or free) to ask questions to customers on a sampled and regular basis.  There is a wide variety of questions that can be posed and the output can be graphically displayed.  If the surveys are performed, say quarterly, companies can see trends in certain areas.  Those negative trends can be corrected via functional or business strategies and those positive trends can be highlighted in marketing and business material.
  4. Mystery shopping. This can be performed for both business companies but normally performed for consumer oriented companies.   Either a third party or the marketing department performs mystery shopping, acting as a real customer in buying your products.  These mystery shoppers can “shop” your stores (online or brick and mortar), your customer service, and operations departments to find out problem areas vs. your own standards or vs. the competition.
  5. Customer Satisfaction Studies. This is probably the most complicated way to get information from customers and it takes time to set up the right questions as part of a continual program.  Yet the information obtained is very valuable.  If done correctly, the business person can get a feel for items that are IMPORTANT to a customer as well as how well the company has PERFORMED.  Those areas in which the company has performed well and are important to the customer can be leveraged as part of the company’s brand.  Those areas which are important to the customer yet performance has been lacking, form the basis of a strategic initiative for the company.

Having gathered the information is part of the equation as they say.  The information must be shared and discussed – particularly at the executive ranks – to see if there is something missing in your strategy, your development work, your distribution, customer service, training, price plans, logistics and similar items.   The ultimate goals are twofold:  First, and most importantly, to find out the temperature of the customer (i.e. customer satisfaction), and whether the customer will buy your products or services again and whether the customer will refer you to a colleague or business acquaintance (the ultimate question).  Second, if customer satisfaction isn’t where management believes it should be and the company is underperforming in areas important to the customer,  then management’s responsibility is to determine what is required to improve satisfaction – and the most cost-effective means of getting there.  This could include the development of new products, or process improvements and even the potential for partnerships, mergers or acquisitions.